Big Ten: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Big Ten media days are right around the corner. Earlier today, we took a closer look at the players coming to Chicago from the East Division. Now it's time to do the same for the West.

ILLINOIS

Simon Cvijanovic, Sr., OT: He's a two-year starter on the Illini offensive line, spending last season at left tackle for one of the more explosive offenses in the league. He and his younger brother, Peter, a freshman, will be playing for a new position coach, as Tom Brattan was officially hired last week.

Jon Davis, Sr., TE: A versatile player who can line up at tight end or out wide, Davis is one of the Illini's few returning receiving threats after catching 25 balls for 208 yards last season.

Austin Teitsma, Sr., DL: A returning starter at defensive tackle, Teitsma will be a leader on the defense this season. The Illini hope he can help improve a rush defense that was worst in the league last year.

IOWA

Carl Davis, Sr., DT: A second-team All-Big Ten selection last year, Davis is one of the top defensive tackles in the league. He has been projected by some as a possible first-round NFL draft pick next year.

Brandon Scherff, Sr., OL: Scherff is almost guaranteed to be a first-round pick and should challenge for All-America honors as the Hawkeyes' left tackle. Also, he can do this, which is insane.

Mark Weisman, Sr., RB: A former walk-on who was one of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten in 2012, Weisman finished 25 yards shy of 1,000 yards rushing last season. His role might change a little in a crowded backfield this fall.

MINNESOTA

David Cobb, Sr., RB: Cobb had the 12th-highest rushing total in Gophers history last season with 1,202 yards. But he'll face some competition, as Minnesota is loaded at running back.

Mitch Leidner, So., QB: Philip Nelson's offseason departure paved the way for Leidner to take over the Gophers' quarterback job. He's a dangerous runner who needs to become a more accurate passer for Minnesota's offense to take the next step.

Cedric Thompson, Sr., S: A two-year starter at safety, Thompson led the team with 79 tackles a year ago. He also has an intriguing back story.

NEBRASKA

Ameer Abdullah, Sr., RB: One of the star attractions of media day, Abdullah led the Big Ten in rushing last year with 1,690 yards. He's the heart and soul of the Nebraska offense.

Kenny Bell, Sr., WR: Us media types were very excited to see Bell -- a tremendous personality -- included on the list of player attendees. Expect some excellent quotes from Mr. Afro Thunder. He also happens to be an outstanding receiver known almost as much for his ferocious blocking as his speed and ball skills.

Corey Cooper, Sr., S: Cooper led the Huskers with 91 tackles last season and has 17 starts under his belt. He should be one of the leaders for the Blackshirts.

NORTHWESTERN

Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., S: Campbell has been an anchor for the Wildcats' secondary since he was a freshman All-American. Last year, he had 73 tackles and four interceptions.

Collin Ellis, Sr., LB: In his first year as a starter in 2013, Ellis had 78 tackles and three interceptions, returning two of them for scores in the opener at Cal. He shifted to middle linebacker in the offseason.

Trevor Siemian, Sr., QB: The quarterback job is all his now after he split time with Kain Colter the past two seasons. Siemian has a big arm, as evidenced by his 414-yard, four-touchdown performance in last year's finale against Illinois.

PURDUE

Raheem Mostert, Sr., RB: He can claim the title of fastest man in the Big Ten after his success in track this offseason. A dynamic kick returner, Mostert will try to make a big impact on offense this year with a full-time switch to running back.

Sean Robinson, Sr., LB: Converted last summer from backup quarterback to defense, Robinson quickly became a starter and key contributor. His experience and unselfishness makes him a leader for the Boilers.

Ryan Russell, Sr., DE: A veteran of 35 starts, Russell might be Purdue's most athletically gifted defensive player. He had 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in 2013.


WISCONSIN

Melvin Gordon, Jr., RB: Another media day main attraction, Gordon is one of the most explosive players in the country. He ran for 1,609 yards while averaging 7.8 yards per carry as a sophomore.

Rob Havenstein, Sr., RT: There won't be many bigger players in Chicago than Havenstein, who checks in at 6-foot-8 and 327 pounds. He has started the past 27 games at right tackle and made second-team All-Big Ten a year ago.

Warren Herring, Sr., DL: Herring will be a key player for the Badgers' defensive line, which lost all three starters from last season. He's also got some pretty sweet moves.
Our preview of each position group in the Big Ten reaches its final stop on the defensive side: the secondary.

The two best secondary players from last season both were drafted in the first round this spring: Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Ohio State's Bradley Roby. New stars are sure to emerge this season. Let's take a look at where things stand:

Best of the best: Michigan State

The Spartans finished No. 3 in the FBS in pass defense last season, though the "No Fly Zone" lost two key members in Thorpe Award winner Dennard and safety Isaiah Lewis. Still, Kurtis Drummond might well be the best safety in the Big Ten, and Trae Waynes is ready for his star turn at cornerback. Darian Hicks will hold down the other corner spot, with a spirited competition for time at the other safety slot. With the combined brain power of Mark Dantonio, Pat Narduzzi and Harlon Barnett, we expect Michigan State to keep the title of the league's top secondary.

Next up: Penn State

There's lots of strong returning experience here, with corners Jordan Lucas -- a leading All-Big Ten candidate -- and Trevor Williams, plus safety Adrian Amos, who appears on the cusp of stardom. Ryan Keiser started five games at safety last year, too. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop's background is in coaching the secondary, so we're excited to see what he can do with this group.

Sleeper: Minnesota

Safety Brock Vereen is on the Chicago Bears now, but underrated corner Eric Murray is back along with veteran safety Cedric Thompson. Derrick Wells, who has bounced between safety and corner, should stick at the other cornerback spot, and Briean Boddy-Calhoun returns from injury. The Gophers believe they are as deep as they've been in the secondary under Jerry Kill, and that could lead to good results this fall.

Problem for a contender: Ohio State

It's hard to label this as anything but a problem right now, given how the Buckeyes struggled down the stretch in pass coverage last year before losing Roby a year early to the draft. Yet there is still a lot of reason for optimism. New secondary coach/co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash is remaking the unit into what should be a more athletic bunch. Doran Grant anchors the group at corner, while Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell should add speed and length at safety. If young players come through here, Ohio State's defensive backfield could make a huge leap forward. Until we see that happen, though, it remains a concern.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
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Oppressive heat returns to the Midwest. Must be almost time for the start of football practice.
The offseason can be a time of rest and relaxation. Or maybe it’s a perfect time for some team building. Or working a camp. Or raising some money for charity. Or just having fun.

We’re taking a look at how teams have been spending their offseason. Earlier we took a look at the teams in the East Division. Now, here’s what the West Division teams have been up to this summer.

Illinois Fightin Illini raise money with "Lift for Life." Iowa Hawkeyes do the work for a children's hospital. Minnesota Golden Gophers reveal how Mitch Leidner jumps so high. Nebraska Cornhuskers Bo knows tweeting amusement parks on 4th of July. Northwestern Wildcats team build with Navy SEAL-like workout. Purdue Boilermakers Jesse Schmidt's summer internship. Wisconsin Badgers cool down at pool party.  

Big Ten Monday mailbag

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
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The season of media days is in full swing, with the SEC in the books, the ACC wrapping on Monday, the Big 12 underway, and the Pac-12 set to start on Wednesday. The Big Ten, of course, is scheduled for next week in Chicago. It's never too early to answer questions, though. Keep them coming here and to me. I'll be back soon for more.


Mitch Sherman: I like what I've seen so far from James Franklin, but he's yet to coach a game in Happy Valley. It's all about attitude and recruiting, and that's great. Still, the hardships of probation are difficult to shake. And even with the reduction in sanctions, Penn State still faces a climb to return to the top tier of the Big Ten, let alone the national elite. The presence of Christian Hackenberg during this era of transition helps mightily, but I think the Nittany Lions face some difficult times before the resurgence can start.

As for Michigan, yeah, sure, the depth is better. With Brady Hoke in his fourth season, that's expected. Hoke has largely recruited well. The problems involve player development and a lack of offensive innovation since Denard Robinson stopped improvising. The Wolverines remain way too green on the offensive line, and questions at quarterback have not been answered. Other than three tough road trips, the schedule sets up well. But yes, if this year looks like the second half of last season, the coach has reason to worry.

 





Mitch Sherman: I don't, but any time after that, I could see it. Ultimately, as we all know, money drives the playoff, like everything in big-time college athletics. And the more money the new postseason generates, the louder the calls will grow to expand the thing and create more opportunities to sell tickets and merchandise.

Five years is about the right amount of time to test the four-team format. To change it before 2019 would not give this system the time it needs. We learned long before the BCS era that every season brings a new set of potential controversies. In some seasons, like 2013, a two-team playoff provided a better solution than would a four-team system. More often, the four-team approach would have been more effective in crowing a champ.

The momentum for an eight-team playoff will grow with the every season that provides controversy in the selection of four teams. Expect the calls for a revision to get loud in at least two of the first five seasons. After that, the system is ripe for expansion.

 





Mitch Sherman: Well, Tommy Armstrong Jr. is a sophomore, so at worst, you need only fear three years of inconsistent play, but I understand the concern. You're suffering from a condition that resulted from watching Nebraska over the past four years. Its quarterback play under Taylor Martinez was anything but consistent, and Armstrong, as an eight-game starter, extended the trend, throwing eight interceptions and nine touchdowns on 52-percent passing.

I think you'll be pleased, though, with Armstrong's improvement this fall. My takeaway from the spring is that he's set to play much more consistently. Armstrong possesses all the intangibles for which the Huskers search at quarterback. The same could not always be said about his predecessor.

As for Johnny Stanton, he has to beat out Ryker Fyfe before the redshirt freshman can think about taking over the top spot. At this stage of their development, it would take a meltdown by Armstrong for Bo Pelini and Tim Beck to make a change. But things can change quickly in September, especially once the Huskers hit that stretch of five consecutive night games.

B1G awards watch list roundup

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
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College football preseason awards watch lists are, at best, little more than a summertime curiosity these days and, at worst, an easy punchline.

For one, there are far too many awards -- only country music likes to give itself as many trophies as this sport. There are often way too many players on these lists -- the Rimington Trophy list, for example, includes 64 players, or basically half the starting centers in the FBS, and 10 from the Big Ten alone. And, of course, eventual winners of these awards sometimes come out of nowhere, making the preseason lists even more meaningless.

We relegated almost all the watch list releases to tweets, but if you're interested, we thought we'd compile all the Big Ten players who were nominated in one place. If nothing else, you can come back to this page in December and perhaps have a good chuckle. Here you go:

Maxwell Award (Player of the Year)
Walter Camp (Player of the Year)
  • Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE Michigan State
  • Stefon Diggs,WR, Maryland
  • Devin Funchess, WR, Michigan
  • Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
Bednarik Award (Defensive Player of the Year)
Bronko Nagurski Trophy (Defensive Player)
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
  • Frank Clark, DE, Michigan
  • Blake Countess, DB, Michigan
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Kurtis Drummond, S, Michigan State
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State
Outland Trophy (Interior lineman)
Davey O’Brien Award (Quarterback):
  • Connor Cook, Michigan State
  • Devin Gardner, Michigan
  • Christian Hackenberg, Penn State
  • Braxton Miller, Ohio State
  • Joel Stave, Wisconsin
Doak Walker Award (Running back)
Butkus Award (Linebacker)
Rotary Lombardi Award (Lineman/Linebacker)
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Austin Blythe, C, Iowa
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Ron Havenstein, T, Wisconsin
  • Kaleb Johnson, G, Rutgers
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Brandon Scherff, T, Iowa
Biletnikoff Award (Wide receiver)
Jim Thorpe Award (Defensive back)
  • Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
  • Blake Countess, Michigan
  • Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
  • Jordan Lucas, Penn State
  • Trae Waynes, Michigan State
Mackey Award (Tight end)
Rimington Trophy (Center) Lou Groza Award (Kicker)
Ray Guy Award (Punter)

Finally, watch this list of my preseason awards watch list, uh, awards:

Most nominated: Thanks to his inclusion on multiple defensive award lists as well as one player of the year recognition, Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory leads the way with four nods.

Biggest "snubs:" We use the word "snub" very, very lightly here. Still, it was a mild surprise not to see Venric Mark on the Doak Walker list (he was, after all, nominated for the Maxwell) or for Maryland defensive lineman Andre Monroe to not show up anywhere. Apparently, Monroe's 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss last year weren't good enough to get him on the same list as dozens of other less productive players.

Weirdest list: The Butkus Award folks, bless them, either know something we don't or really swung and missed this year. Neither Maryland's Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil nor Ohio State's Curtis Grant were on anybody's radar for a major award, and you could make a very strong argument that neither is even the best linebacker on his own team (the Terps' Matt Robinson and the Buckeyes' Joshua Perry would have made more sense here). And then there's the omission of Rutgers' Steve Longa, who had 123 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. Just plain odd all around.

Just happy to be nominated: Northwestern's Chi Chi Ariguzo and Michigan's Devin Funchess are both outstanding players who should be in strong contention for all-conference and quite possibly All-America honors this season. But they have about as good a chance of winning a national player of the year award (which almost always goes to quarterbacks or running backs, anyway) as I do. Funchess was nominated for both the Maxwell and Walter Camp award, which means he has a great public relations man. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's Joel Stave isn't even guaranteed to start at quarterback this season for the Badgers, yet he found himself on the Davey O'Brien watch list. As usual, it doesn't hurt to cover all the bases when compiling a preseason watch list.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
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Saw Jack White perform "Seven Nation Army" live this weekend. Felt like I was back in a Big Ten football stadium. Soon enough.

Big Ten Friday mailbag

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
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The weather feels like fall already in Columbus. The only thing missing is a football game, but at least we have some Twitter questions to bring us one day closer to the season. Be sure to follow me here to get a jump on the next mailbag.

Austin Ward: There is no reason to think Rutgers won't eventually be able to compete in the Big Ten if it is able to use the league's resources to its advantage, but it certainly seems like it's going to be a difficult transition in the short term. For starters, joining the East Division did the Scarlet Knights no favors, and on top of that they drew both Nebraska and Wisconsin from the West to give them about as rude of an introduction to the league as possible. Considering their struggles in a weaker conference a year ago, a sub-.500 finish thanks to their bowl-game loss to Notre Dame and some lingering questions about how explosive the offense can be, I think even climbing into contention for a postseason appearance might be a stretch for the Scarlet Knights this fall.

Ward: Typically, sizing up the quarterbacks is a pretty handy way to forecast the favorites, but the West is something of an exception this offseason. Nebraska has some uncertainty even with Tommy Armstrong Jr. returning, and Wisconsin doesn't exactly have Russell Wilson under center this fall either, yet the running games those two programs boast are strong enough that they have generally been accepted as the top candidates to advance to the Big Ten title game on that side of the league. Wes Lunt's physical tools and the dynamic offense he will lead if he can finally, officially win the starting job make him an intriguing pick as the best of the bunch, and it seems a safe bet that he will put up impressive individual numbers. But don't count out Jake Rudock as somebody capable of giving Iowa steady production and turning that team into a threat in the West, provided he can cut down on the turnovers and the coaching staff actually does open up the attack a bit more this season.

Ward: The recruiting work Urban Meyer has done on the defensive side of the ball is starting to show up on the roster, and the Ohio State Buckeyes are going to need some of their younger, highly touted players to have a big impact if they are going to make a serious run at the playoff this season. Joey Bosa, as mentioned, might be one of the most destructive defensive linemen in the country this fall, and he is obviously going to be critical in generating a pass rush that could take some pressure off the revamped secondary. But it is a new full-time starter in the back end that might actually have the greatest influence in restoring Ohio State's proud defensive tradition, and Vonn Bell already raised the sky-high expectations when he snagged that one-handed interception in the Discover Orange Bowl. His spring was cut short by injury, but Bell is a young guy the Buckeyes desperately need to deliver..

The move toward stronger nonconference schedules by the Big Ten and other leagues is already yielding benefits for fans. As teams gear up to impress the College Football Playoff selection committee, several high-profile intersectional future matchups have emerged, the latest of them including Michigan-Oklahoma in 2025-26 and USC-Alabama in 2016.

That's good news for the sport, as more behemoth programs will crash into one another instead of playing chicken. But will it result in anything more than wreckage for the so-called lower-tier Big Ten programs?

The league has strongly encouraged all of its teams to take on at least one Power Five conference opponent per year and to avoid FCS teams, all while beginning a nine-game conference schedule in 2016. For teams like Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue -- for whom just getting to six wins and a bowl game has been considered a success in recent years -- that only serves to make life tougher.

"I think you need to grow as a football program," said Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas, whose team has won just one Big Ten game the past two seasons. "You look across the country, and many of us are in different places competitively. And many of us are in different places even in the Big Ten."

It's a tightrope that some Big Ten programs now have to walk. They want to abide by the league policies and create interesting, even challenging, schedules. Lacking the supersize stadiums and fan bases of the conference heavyweights, they need home games to hit their budget.

They don't also need a schedule that puts them in a more difficult position to win. Yet trying to attract fans with a bunch of cream-puffs is becoming harder to pull off, too.

"Everybody for the longest time was trying to schedule just to be bowl eligible," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said. "I think that waters the schedule down, and it hurts attendance. At the end of the day, our kids get more excited about playing games against teams that may have recruited them -- or didn’t recruit them. And our fans are more excited."

For years, Burke didn't have to worry about scheduling a marquee nonconference opponent, because he could count on Notre Dame being on the slate every season. Now that the Irish have formed an alliance with the ACC, they're cutting down their games against the Big Ten and will take a five-year break from the Boilermakers after this season. Burke responded by adding series against Virginia Tech (2015 and 2023) and Missouri (2017-18) and said he has another one in the works.

"I think it's the right thing to do," he said. "It's hard to get the players up for games they're supposed to win."

Northwestern has been one of the few programs willing to face two Power Five teams in the same year and will do so again this season against Cal and Notre Dame. Even with a nine-game Big Ten schedule looming, Wildcats athletic director Jim Phillips said "I'd be disappointed" if the program didn't continue to play two such games per season. Northwestern tries to line up schools with similar academic missions, and thus it has series with Stanford and Duke on tap in future years.

While it may seem like a long shot that Northwestern could make the four-team playoff field, Phillips said he still keeps that goal in mind while crafting future schedules. After all, the Wildcats did win 10 games just two years ago and played in the Rose Bowl in 1996.

"That’s the goal every year: to challenge yourself and compete for championships," he said. "If we didn't do that, it would be a disservice to our student-athletes and everybody else associated with Northwestern -- our fans, our coaches, and our students.

"It certainly takes a special year for the stars to align. But why wouldn’t you challenge yourself and use that as part of your criteria for developing your schedule? If you go undefeated in your league, you have a chance."

There's no darker playoff dark horse than Indiana, which has been to just one bowl game (in 2007) since 1993. Athletic director Fred Glass blames himself for overtaxing the Hoosiers with last year's schedule, which included losses to Missouri and Navy as the team finished 5-7. As a result, he has modified future schedules for a less-resistant path; for example, IU's big nonconference opponent in 2015 and 2016 is Wake Forest.

Still, Glass said Indiana will continue to face one Power Five team per year and challenge itself.

"We’re a building program, but we're a program with high ambitions and high aspirations," he said. "We're looking to play in Indianapolis and Pasadena. That's where we want to go with this program, and we make no bones about that. I think, with playing in the East Division of the Big Ten and a Power Five nonconference opponent, the strength of schedule will take care of itself."

The mid- to lower-tier Big Ten schools also make an attractive potential target for teams from other leagues. Think about it. If you're an SEC or ACC school looking to fulfill your one Power Five opponent mandate, do you want that to be Wisconsin or Purdue?

While most teams schedule spots for the next few years are filled, Northwestern's Phillips said "there's been more dialogue than I can ever remember with other [Power Five] schools" about future matchups. Illinois' Thomas said his phone has been ringing more about scheduling, and that he's even heard from a few SEC teams.

But the Illini, who wrap up a home-and-home series with Washington this season, will dumb things down a bit in the future. They are scheduled to play no current Power Five programs in 2017 or '18, and the next such series on the books is Virginia in 2021-22.

"For us, right now, I think it is is important to schedule appropriately, because in our conference we are playing a lot of those teams that really are in a different place," Thomas said. "For now, the next step is having a steady diet of bowl games and being competitive in our league. If that happens, these other things will follow."

It's not necessarily in the best interest of every Big Ten program to take on a challenging schedule every year. Still, each school realizes it has a role to play for the overall good of the league. If, say, a one-loss Big Ten champion is seeking inclusion into the playoff, its argument would be bolstered if its league brethren have secured impressive out-of-conference wins.

"We have an obligation to ourselves and to our colleagues in conference to have a strong schedule, because our schedule impacts those who hopefully are going to be vying for championships," Glass said. "That's what we ultimately want to do, and we want to make sure we're carrying our weight."

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
5:00
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As you've probably noticed, we've switched the days up a bit with the mailbag as we've gone daily here in the last stretch of the offseason. Keep sending us your questions, especially on Twitter.

Patrick from Davenport, Iowa, writes: In an imaginary world, let's say every major conference produces one undefeated team (ex: Ohio State, Alabama, Stanford, Florida State, Baylor) Who doesn't make the Playoff?

Brian Bennett: Chaos in Year 1! Bill Hancock might have a nervous breakdown, and the selection committee members might have to go into hiding. First, let's acknowledge that the odds of all five power conference champions going undefeated is exceptionally low. We had only one such league champ last year (Florida State), and upgraded nonconference scheduling will make it even tougher in the future.

But it is possible that the stars could align for Patrick's scenario. And that's where strength of schedule and perceived conference power will come into effect. With the teams you mentioned, I would say it's highly likely that Baylor would be left out, since the Bears' nonconference schedule includes the murderers' row of SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo. There's just no way the committee could reward that kind of scheduling unless the Big 12 proved historically good.

The more plausible controversy for the Playoff, of course, is a logjam of one-loss conference teams. Which is why the Big Ten needs to make sure it is winning key nonconference games and improving its overall perception.


Steve from Boston writes: Brian, I can think of some great home-and-home B1G matchups that have happened (Michigan-Oregon, though the Big House episode was not so pretty), Ohio State-Texas, and several that are scheduled. But it seems like an awful lot of these scheduled several years into the future seem to be cancelled. Alabama and Michigan State cancelled their home-and-home, and others both in the B1G and elsewhere [have fallen through]. Not to mention we were told about the B1G/Pac-12 partnership that never happened. You bring up the fact that you never know who will be good 5-10 years into the future, further making it hard to get excited about these agreements until they actually happen. Let's hope they all do.

Brian Bennett: Some good points here, Steve. While it's fun to look at, say, Michigan vs. Oklahoma in 2025-26, there's no guarantee that it will ever happen. We could all be slaving away for our alien ant overlords by then. With series like those set so far in the future, there's a great chance that schools will have new athletic directors and -- almost certainly -- new head coaches by then. And the people (or cyborgs) in those chairs may have different priorities on scheduling, may be looking to rebuild, etc.

Many power conference school with serious Playoff aspirations are trying to upgrade their schedules and play more power-five teams. But if some of those series get cancelled at the last minute -- like, say, Vanderbilt pulling out against Ohio State -- then teams could find themselves really scrambling to arrange suitable opponents and would risk missing the Playoff because of it. That's why I think you'll see schools try to make these contracts more iron-clad moving forward.


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Brian Bennett: It was interesting to say the least when Ash left Arkansas -- where he was the sole defensive coordinator -- to become co-defensive coordinator for Ohio State without any sort of pay raise. When I asked him about it this spring, Ash said part of the reason for the move was that he wanted to be a head coach someday, and he wanted to learn from as many different coaches as possible. Working for Urban Meyer is always a smart résumé-builder, as he has planted a pretty impressive coaching tree.

I like what Ash did at Wisconsin, and I think his more aggressive scheme will benefit the Buckeyes this season. And even though Ohio State lost Bradley Roby, I expect the secondary to be much better this year. That's because I think the young talent at safety will be a big upgrade over what the Buckeyes used at that position after Christian Bryant's injury last season. There could be some growing pains early, but I'm impressed by the athleticism available. If Ohio State makes a leap in its pass defense, Ash could find himself on the fast track toward being a head coach.


Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: Indiana vs Minnesota. Head coaches came on board at the same time, so it seems like it's a good time to evaluate the programs. ESPN's computers have predicted the Hoosiers to be 7-5 (4-4 in the conference) this year and the Gophers to be 5-7 (3-5 in the conference). Prior to this year, the Gophers (under Jerry Kill) in the conference are 8-16 with two bowl losses, Hoosiers (under Kevin Wilson) are 5-19 and no bowl appearances. 1) Based on ESPN's computer analysis, it seems that the Gophers were lucky last year. 2) If Wilson doesn't get to a bowl game this year, how would you (acting AD) decide whether he deserves to come back or not?

Brian Bennett: I watched Minnesota last year and didn't think the Gophers were "lucky." That was a physical team that played strong defense and ran the ball well. There was nothing fluky about their wins over Nebraska and Penn State, and both Wisconsin and Michigan State struggled to score much against Minnesota late in the year (albeit in arctic conditions for both games). I can see why computer models might like Indiana a little more, given that the Hoosiers can throw up crazy offensive statistics, and the Gophers have a difficult schedule. But Indiana doesn't have an easy time either this year with trips to Missouri and Bowling Green before heading into the rugged East Division.

As far as Wilson goes, at most places missing a bowl for four years would be cause for dismissal. But remember that the Hoosiers have only been to one bowl game since 1993, so the standard is a little different. He has recruited well and built up the talent level, and IU is still a pretty young team because of all the true freshmen Wilson has thrown out there. Athletic director Fred Glass will want to see continued improvement and competitiveness, especially on the defensive side of the ball. But as long as the Hoosiers are showing that progress, I think Wilson will be safe for a fifth year, even with another postseason absence this year.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
12:00
PM ET
Better Big Ten Bane: Braxton Miller or Shilique Calhoun?
The countdown to Big Ten media days, July 28-29 in Chicago, is certainly under way. We're excited, you're excited, the players and coaches are excited. To get you ready, we're running through three questions facing each Big Ten team and the potential answers we could hear at the Hilton Chicago.

Minnesota is up next. The Gophers improved their win total from six to eight in 2013 and bring back some good pieces on both sides of the ball. Coach Jerry Kill will be in Chicago along with quarterback Mitch Leidner, running back David Cobb and safety Cedric Thompson.

1. How can the passing game improve?

Minnesota has returned to its power-run roots under Kill, finishing second in the Big Ten in rushing attempts (586) and fourth in rushing yards (2,538) last season. The Gophers bring back a good group of backs, led by 1,200-yard rusher Cobb, as well as four starting offensive linemen from 2013. But there needs to be more balance in the passing game after Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally last fall. It's Leidner's show at quarterback, but he must improve his accuracy and his production. The Gophers are expecting jumps from young wideouts Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones, as well as continued development from tight end Maxx Williams, who led the team with 417 receiving yards in 2013.

2. What are realistic expectations for the defense?

After producing no NFL draft picks in 2011, 2012 or 2013, Minnesota's defense had two players drafted in the first four rounds in May -- defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and safety Brock Vereen. Both were unique players -- Hageman with his size, Vereen with his versatility -- who leave big shoes to fill. But coordinator Tracy Claeys thinks the unit can be better with improved overall depth. So, who provides the star power? Defensive end Theiren Cockran, who quietly led the Big Ten in forced fumbles (four) and finished third in sacks (7.5), will anchor the line. Claeys pegs Damien Wilson to lead from the linebacker spot, and the secondary has good depth at cornerback. Thompson had a great spring at safety. If Minnesota plans to match or exceed last year's success, the defense must keep progressing.

3. How is Kill's health, and what will his role be this fall?

It's not the topic Kill and his players want to focus on in Chicago, but it remains relevant until Kill gets through an entire season without any major health scares. He has worked extremely hard with his doctors to get his epilepsy under control, and he said this spring that he plans to coach from the sideline, where he spent the second half of the Texas Bowl before working mostly from the press box in 2013. We know Kill's coaching staff, led by Claeys, is more than capable of filling in if he has to step away. But Minnesota obviously doesn't want any distractions as it aims to challenge for the West Division despite a challenging schedule.
The moment you all have waited for has finally arrived. Nothing creates quite the angst and anticipation among Big Ten blog readers like the announcement of kickoff times and TV plans for the first few weeks of the upcoming season.

The announcement comes your way a little later than normal, but it's here! Stop everything you're doing immediately!

As a reminder, these are only games taking place in Big Ten stadiums. Kick times and TV plans for road games already have been announced by the leagues controlling those contests. Also, Big Ten-controlled prime-time games also have been announced and won't appear in this list.

OK, here's the list of new announcements ...

Aug. 30

Appalachian State at Michigan, noon ET, ESPN2
Indiana State at Indiana, noon ET, ESPN News
Youngstown State at Illinois, noon ET, BTN
Northern Iowa at Iowa, noon ET, BTN
Western Michigan at Purdue, noon ET, ESPNU
Florida Atlantic at Nebraska, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN
California at Northwestern, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC regional (ESPN2 in outer markets)
James Madison at Maryland, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN

Sept. 6

Akron at Penn State, noon ET, ABC regional (ESPN or ESPN2 in outer markets)
Western Kentucky at Illinois, noon ET, BTN
Central Michigan at Purdue, noon ET, ESPN News
McNeese State at Nebraska, noon ET, ESPNU
Western Illinois at Wisconsin, noon ET, BTN
Howard at Rutgers, noon ET, BTN
Ball State at Iowa, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Middle Tennessee at Minnesota, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN
Northern Illinois at Northwestern, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN

Sept. 13

West Virginia at Maryland, noon ET, BTN, Noon EDT
Kent State at Ohio State, noon ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2
Miami (Ohio) at Michigan, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN
Iowa State at Iowa, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Few of you like the noon ET (11 a.m. CT) kickoffs but they're a reality in the Big Ten. We're seeing more variety in kickoff times with BTN and other broadcast platforms.

Northwestern once again gets later time slots after playing its first six games in the late afternoon or evening in 2013. Minnesota also gets afternoon or evening kickoffs for at least its first three games (Eastern Illinois and TCU are the others). Maryland and Rutgers both make their BTN debuts against FCS opponents.

The small group of games on Sept. 13 is due to five non-league Big Ten road games and three teams -- Michigan State, Northwestern and Wisconsin -- having open weeks.

There you have it. Mark those calendars.

Big Ten Tuesday mailbag

July, 15, 2014
Jul 15
5:00
PM ET
Howdy. My journey to the World Cup is over, and it is time to really get rolling on the Big Ten blog. This is my first time with the mailbag, so thanks for taking it easy on me. I'm expecting more heat the next time around and questions are accepted any time on Twitter, so follow me right here.

Austin Ward: That would certainly provide an interesting test case for how the selection committee views the Big Ten, and in some ways a playoff appearance likely would not come down to what Iowa itself had accomplished. The Hawkeyes really don't have true high-profile games outside of the league to make a big statement, which could be a problem in this scenario as the strength of schedule starts to play a more significant factor. That doesn't mean wins over Iowa State or on the road against Pittsburgh should be overlooked, but Iowa might be counting more on Wisconsin or Nebraska to have been impressive throughout the year before that closing two-game stretch at the end of the regular season to help give the Hawkeyes a bit more credit for what doesn't appear like that grueling of a schedule. Chances are, this season a one-loss Iowa team with a loss to Maryland would probably be on the outside of the top-four spots.

Austin Ward: For projecting just one upcoming season, historical performance in terms of wins and losses probably has limited usefulness. That should come as no surprise considering all the numerous factors that go into making a team successful during a given season, from the composition of the roster, to injuries, lucky or unlucky bounces and everything else that make the game so unpredictable and fun to watch year after year. But in a broader sense, a program's all-time record I think does have value in understanding which teams are most likely to be annual contenders or at least primed to bounce back if some rough patches have come along. Teams like Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten, for example, have won a lot of games because they have huge fan bases that bring in money, traditionally have had recruiting areas that sustain them and invest their resources in ensuring a product that wins over time. That doesn't mean in each individual season they are guaranteed to win at a championship level, but long term I would think there is more evidence to suggest the chances of it happening are pretty high.

Austin Ward: See, I told you guys that you were taking it easy on me for the debut mailbag. The conference takes over the national spotlight on July 28-29 in Chicago, and the whole Big Ten blog crew will be in attendance for wall-to-wall coverage. In fact, we are all so excited that we have already started previewing the hot topics and burning questions for every team in the league. It feels like it's been forever since there was live football to cover, and though doing a bunch of interviews isn't quite the same as being in a stadium, at least the game will be a topic of conversation again. The countdown is on..

Running back typically is among the Big Ten's strongest position groups, and it should be once again in 2014. The league returns two preseason Heisman Trophy candidates in Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, as well as several others who could break through to the national or regional stage. Eight of the Big Ten's top 10 rushers in 2013 return for the 2014 campaign, and Northwestern's Venric Mark, who had 1,371 rush yards in 2012, is back from injury.

This should be a very fun group to watch, so let's take a closer look around the league.

Best of the best: Wisconsin

The Gordon-Abdullah debate is a great one and will continue throughout the season, but few can deny Gordon's unique explosiveness with the ball in his hands. Gordon has averaged 8.1 yards per carry during his career and had just 81 fewer rushing yards than Abdullah last fall despite 75 fewer carries. If he maintains his big-play pace, he could challenge for 2,000 rush yards if he gets enough chances. The only reason he wouldn't is Corey Clement, who had 547 rush yards, seven touchdowns and a Gordon-like average of 8.2 yards per attempt as a freshman last fall. A year after Gordon and James White set an NCAA record for rush yards by teammates (3,053), Wisconsin once again boasts one of the nation's best tandems.

Next up: Nebraska

The Huskers could unseat Wisconsin for the top spot by the end of the season, especially if Abdullah builds on his tremendous consistency in 2013, when he eclipsed 100 rush yards in 11 of 13 contests. He leads all active FBS players with 17 career 100-yard rushing performances. Burly junior Imani Cross is a formidable red zone threat with 17 touchdowns in his first two seasons. There's good depth here as Terrell Newby averaged 5.5 yards per carry as a freshman and Adam Taylor will compete for carries after redshirting last fall.

Sleeper: Minnesota

A steadfast commitment to the run, combined with a strong group of returning backs, puts Minnesota in position for a productive year on the ground. David Cobb might have been the nation's most anonymous 1,200-yard rusher in 2013, but he proved himself in Big Ten play with five 100-yard rushing performances. There's veteran depth behind him with Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr., and fan favorite Berkley Edwards enters the mix after missing last season with an injury. The Gophers could add another big piece if heralded recruit Jeff Jones qualifies for his scholarship.

Problem for a contender: Ohio State

Again, problem isn't the right word here, but the truth is all the other Big Ten title contenders -- Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa -- return their top ball carriers from 2013. Ohio State loses bulldozing back Carlos Hyde, who led the Big Ten in rushing average (138.3) and rush yards during league games (1,249). The Buckeyes obviously benefit from Braxton Miller's running ability at quarterback but must develop backs who can help him. Ezekiel Elliott is in line to start and brings some exciting skills to the field, but Ohio State needs other options to develop like Bri'onte Dunn, dynamic freshman Curtis Samuel and Warren Ball.

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