Big Ten: Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Big Ten Friday mailbag

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
5:00
PM ET
No longer do you need a Friday mailbag to help survive the football-free weekend. Still, we are here to help you digest the results of Thursday in the Big Ten and prepare for Saturday.

Mitch Sherman: It's complicated, Andrew. In theory, the Spartans should be rewarded for scheduling the Sept. 6 trip to Oregon, win or lose a tight game. But how would the College Football Playoff committee view a defeat? It depends, of course, on Oregon's body of work and the other contenders late in the season for the four coveted spots. A year ago, MSU would have made it in with an early season road loss to Notre Dame, which finished the regular season with eight wins. Michigan State's schedule is not exactly filled with heavyweights after next week. Its top competition (Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State) comes to East Lansing, presenting the Spartans with the best chance to wow the committee with impressive wins. And if a 10-win team emerged from the West to face the Spartans in Indianapolis, that would obviously help. I'm inclined to say, yes, Michigan State would have a good shot to make it at 12-1.

Mitch Sherman: I'm glad you asked, Collin, and thanks for being such a big fan. If anyone missed it, I wrote this week that Nebraska and Michigan marketed tickets with unusually aggressive tactics this offseason to combat soft sales, in particular from students. And on Wednesday, I tweeted that the Huskers had achieved their 334th straight sellout, extending an NCAA record, for the Saturday opener against Florida Atlantic. (I know, what a terrible thing to publicize.) If your feelings were hurt that we drew attention to ticket sales at Nebraska or Michigan, in spite of the packed houses expected this weekend at both schools, I say this: It's Nebraska and Michigan. We are talking about two schools that are known as much for their history of selling tickets as producing titles. When they are still working at it days before the opening game -- as rivals Ohio State and Penn State watch demand escalate -- it's interesting.

Mitch Sherman: A great start for coach Kyle Flood's team as a member of the Big Ten, beating Washington State 41-38 in non-neutral Seattle. Rutgers accomplished more offensively, even against a suspect defense, than I thought possible. Quarterback Gary Nova's performance, especially in the second half, tells me that he is ready for a bounce-back season under new coordinator Ralph Friedgen. And the Scarlet Knights' defense will have better days; Wazzu is going to put up yardage on most teams. I saw a motivated team in Rutgers that has a chance now to carry big momentum into October. The Penn State game in two weeks, already sold out in Piscataway, is huge for Rutgers. It has a chance to beat the Nittany Lions, but I'm not ready to change my prediction about the second half of this season. That is going to be a little rough. Just look at the schedule. But please, Rutgers, continue to prove us wrong.

Mitch Sherman: The Big Ten East is strong, with two contenders for the College Football Playoff, and a pair of giants in Michigan and Penn State that aren't quite at the top of their games. Indiana remains a borderline bowl team, and I'm not ready to anoint Rutgers or Maryland in their first seasons of league play. Historically, few divisions can compare. Today, the SEC West and the Pac-12 North are better, and the ACC Atlantic might be, too.

Mitch Sherman: I wasn't overly impressed with the Gophers. Their performance against Eastern Illinois was more dominant than the 42-20 score indicated as the FCS Panthers, who went 12-2 last season, scored two touchdowns in the final 30 seconds. But Minnesota looked out of sync at times, and I still wonder if it has enough high-end talent to contend for an upper-division spot in the West. That said, yes, David, be concerned about Iowa's Nov. 8 visit to TCF Bank Stadium. The Hawkeyes can beat every team on their schedule -- and also lose to about six, including Minnesota..

Big Ten morning links

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
8:00
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R.U. serious?

In case you missed it -- and you might have since the game ended around 1:30 a.m. -- Rutgers outlasted Washington State, 41-38, to win its first-ever game as a member of the Big Ten. It was a quality win for the conference and an even bigger one for the underdog Scarlet Knights.

Senior quarterback Gary Nova, who appeared to be wiping tears from his eyes on the sideline, addressed the TV cameras after the final whistle. When asked what this game meant to the program, he simply said: “I don’t know. It’s just a great win.”

He’ll have all of Friday to reflect on what it means. But, on the surface, it’s pretty clear: That win just earned Rutgers some much needed respect. And it showed that maybe the “pushover” tag was a bit premature.

Granted, the Cougars are just a mediocre Pac-12 team. Their scoring defense last season was among the worst in the nation, while their pass offense was among the best. Rutgers scored 41 points Thursday night but allowed 532 passing yards. So the game didn’t stray from the script all that much. Except, of course, where it counted -- the winning team.

No, this doesn’t mean the Knights will automatically hang tough against Ohio State or Michigan State. But it does show the Knights were underestimated. By how much? Ask us again after the Penn State game. But none of us five Big Ten bloggers picked Rutgers to win this game. And none of us picked RU to win more than four games on the season.

Kyle Flood's squad was impressive, especially on offense. The line absolutely dominated, and Paul James showed a nice blend of speed and power to the tune of 173 rushing yards and three TDs. Nova tossed a 78-yard TD on the first play, struggled the rest of the first half but then rebounded by going 11-of-17 for 174 yards in just the second half. Wideout Leonte Carroo could even be a popular waiver wire addition when it comes to our fantasy league.

The Knights received a lukewarm reception when they accepted an invitation to the conference. But they proved a lot of analysts and experts wrong with their performance against Washington State. Let’s see if they can keep doing that; there’s no better way to earn respect.

Welcome to the Big Ten, Rutgers.

Postgame wraps
East Division
  • MSU linebacker Taiwan Jones never showed a "clear indication" he was ready to play middle linebacker this camp, but he also never really had a down day either.
West Division
Extra point
  • Six Big Ten players made the cut on Mel Kiper's "Big Board," a list of the top 25 NFL prospects, with Nebraska DE Randy Gregory the top B1G player at No. 4 overall.

Rutgers 41, Washington State 38

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
2:38
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video
Quarterback Connor Halliday's 532 yards passing and five touchdowns was not enough as the Washington State Cougars lose 41-38 to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.


Big Ten Week 1 predictions

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
9:00
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Week 1 is finally here. While there aren't many marquee matchups in the opening weekend, there are a few that have our writers talking.

Game of the Week: Wisconsin vs. LSU

Our writers all picked LSU to beat Wisconsin, but some had a harder time with the pick than others.

Brian Bennett: Wisconsin has a real chance here at the upset. Week 1 is definitely the time to catch LSU this season, as the Tigers will be breaking in a slew of new players and have some major question marks at quarterback. Of course, you could say those same things about the Badgers, who will be counting on basically a brand-new defensive front seven, several unproven receivers and a new starting QB in Tanner McEvoy. Wisconsin's running game is the great equalizer, especially if that ground attack shortens the game and springs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement for big plays. Asking either side to play mistake-free is a bit much for an opener involving so many fresh faces. In the end, LSU has more explosiveness to overcome its errors and exploit Wisconsin's, so the Tigers win by a touchdown.

Austin Ward: Openers can be sloppy enough on their own, let alone debuts with uncertainty at quarterback and the expectation that two guys will be needed to fill that critical role. Both teams have some questions under center, but it seems much more dangerous to be unsettled and unproven when taking on a loaded defense such as LSU's. Wisconsin has running backs Gordon and Clement lining up behind a veteran offensive line to provide a rushing attack to lean on, but if it becomes a one-dimensional offense against the Tigers, aggressive defensive coordinator John Chavis will turn his athletic, physical unit loose and there will be no escape in Houston.

Majority opinion: Penn State over UCF
This was the only game our writers disagreed on. Austin Ward, Mitch Sherman and Adam Rittenberg liked the Nittany Lions, while Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer took the Knights.

Josh Moyer: The Nittany Lions have too many question marks -– and too much that still needs to improve -– to be favored right now. What’s Penn State’s main weakness? The offensive line. So what’s one thing it's going to count on to offset that? The passing game. Well, Central Florida’s secondary has a chance to be elite. And overall, UCF might boast the best defense in the AAC. On the other side of the ball, the Knights may be without quarterback Blake Bortles this season, but they still have a loaded receiving corps with J.J. Worton, Rannell Hall and Breshad Perriman. Penn State's secondary, especially the corner spot opposite Jordan Lucas, could struggle against this kind of offense. PSU hangs tough but falls in the end 28-20.

Adam Rittenberg: The oddities surrounding this game favor Penn State, which is tougher to prepare for with a new coaching staff. UCF's veteran defensive line and George O'Leary's play-calling prowess worry me, but I see PSU exploiting some matchup advantages (Jesse James vs. anybody) with a superior quarterback and hitting on some big plays. Expect improvement on Penn State's defense, which limits a UCF offense missing Bortles and Storm Johnson.

It's unanimous
Our writers agreed on the following:

Minnesota over Eastern Illinois
Washington State over Rutgers
Michigan State over Jacksonville State
Indiana over Indiana State
Iowa over Northern Iowa
Michigan over Appalachian State
Purdue over Western Michigan
Ohio State over Navy
Illinois over Youngstown State
Maryland over James Madison
Northwestern over Cal
Nebraska over FAU
LSU over Wisconsin

Mitch Sherman: Not much else of great intrigue on the opening-week schedule, but Ohio State-Navy is worth a look, with the attention swirling around the debut of Buckeyes freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Midshipmen are no pushover, but the Buckeyes own enough of an edge in athleticism to take care of business. Because of its strange offseason, Northwestern is interesting, even against Cal, which was dismal last season. And for entertainment value, Rutgers’ Big Ten debut Thursday night against Washington State may rank high. The Scarlet Knights need to limit the Cougars' possessions and get off the field on third down -- or watch Wazzu quarterback Connor Halliday light them up with 65 to 70 pass attempts.

Big Ten morning links

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
8:00
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Making it through an entire offseason is tough, and the Big Ten must know the toll it takes on fans when it throws them a bone and lets them open up their presents a couple days early.

That generosity is greatly appreciated, and tearing into a pair of games tonight with Minnesota and Rutgers both opening the season two days before the weekend is a gift worth treasuring.

But what about during the season? Once football is finally back and the season is in full swing, suddenly making it through just one week without any action starts to feel like an interminable wait. Would it be so bad to mix in a few Thursday nights once league play starts?

“Our program, a lot of the notoriety we’ve achieved over the last decade has been on Thursday night,” Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood said. “We’ve had some really special evenings on Thursday nights here in Piscataway, and we’ve played some great games on the road.

“You know, I try not to get involved in decisions that really are going to be the same for everybody. I think for our program here at Rutgers, Thursday night has been a really good night. But going into the future here in the Big Ten, we’re looking forward to it and playing games on Saturday afternoons. I think there’s a lot of plusses to that as well.”

The broadcast exposure on an evening with less competition can be an invaluable plus, though, and Rutgers might know that better than anybody else given their experiences before moving into the Big Ten this season. Now even in a league with a much higher profile, the program might find that kind of spotlight much harder to come by on Saturday afternoons.

The Scarlet Knights aren’t alone in that regard. Indiana might not be a huge national draw on Saturdays, but its high-scoring offense could draw a few more viewers for a Thursday night matchup with say, Maryland, which may enjoy the chance to showcase its program in front of a broader audience dying to watch a game.

There are hurdles to be sure, starting with the Big Ten’s fondness for tradition and the resistance it would surely meet from powerhouse programs like Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State who have established brands and large stadiums that don’t need unique kickoff times to help draw a crowd. But aside from exceptions early in the year like tonight for the Big Ten, in some ways it seems like the league has simply conceded a potentially marquee marketing opportunity among the power conferences to the Pac-12 (Arizona at Oregon, UCLA at Arizona State), Big 12 (Texas Tech at Oklahoma State) and ACC (Florida State at Louisville).

Maybe the Big Ten simply doesn’t need it. Truthfully, as a league it probably doesn’t since it obviously isn’t hurting financially, there haven’t been any complaints about the television ratings and it’s already adjusted for a busier Saturday schedule that now includes two extra teams by allowing for more flexibility with night kickoffs.

But for individual programs, there’s almost certainly a benefit to scheduling on an off night every once in a while. Sometimes waiting a whole week is just too much time without football, and by Thursday night, fans are ready to watch just about anybody put on the pads.

Odds are, there are a few teams in the league that would be willing to sign up for that spot.

Pre-game prep
  • The battle for field position will be critical for Rutgers when it opens tonight against Washington State. Quarterback Gary Nova will have more responsibilities at the line of scrimmage under offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen.
  • Mitch Leidner wants to "win for the state of Minnesota," and the quarterback's first shot at it this season comes tonight against Eastern Illinois. The Gophers are trying to find ways to fill up the student section again.
East Division
  • After four long years in reserve, linebacker Mylan Hicks finally finds himself in position to contribute for Michigan State and sits atop the depth chart, bracketed with Darien Harris.
  • USC transfer Ty Isaac had his medical hardship waiver denied, but that decision will be appealed by Michigan, which is still trying to get him on the field this fall.
  • Penn State was greeted with a little Irish weather on the practice field, but James Franklin had no complaints.
  • Maryland has depth at nose tackle, and it will play both Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo against James Madison.
  • The Ohio State depth chart has "or" all over it, but Steve Miller will definitely be starting in place of the suspended Noah Spence on Saturday.
  • What kind of numbers is Shane Wynn capable of posting this season as he becomes the focal point of the Indiana offense?
West Division
  • Derek Landisch returned to practice for Wisconsin on Wednesday, and the senior linebacker expects to be ready for the clash with LSU this weekend.
  • Iowa has a loaded stable of tailbacks at its disposal, but that still doesn't mean Kirk Ferentz is comfortable with his running game.
  • Junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell is helping to ease some of the minds that were worried when Nebraska lost nickelback Charles Jackson for the season during training camp.
  • Should Northwestern be worried about Cal's offense? These numbers suggest the Wildcats should be fine.
  • As the opener ahead of a season that could make or break Tim Beckman's career with Illinois draws near, the coach is exuding confidence his team can "take the next stride."
  • Purdue is offering free tickets to students for the opener.
Extra point
  • Can't wait to get to Byrd Stadium and try this bad boy. Who's hungry?

B1G players in Week 1 spotlight

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
3:45
PM ET
Just a little more than 24 hours now before the first Big Ten team kicks off the season. We've waited so long for football to return that we'll even eagerly gobble up games against FCS opponents this weekend.

There's so much to look forward to, including the return of stars like Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun and Penn State's Christian Hackenberg. Then again, we already know what those guys can do. I'm really curious to watch some players perform either for the first time or in new roles. Here are nine players I'll really be paying close attention to in Week 1:

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke, Jabrill Peppers
AP Photo/Tony DingFreshman Jabrill Peppers has the potential to be a difference-maker from the get-go for Brady Hoke and the Wolverines.
Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan: Few recruits have ever come in with more hype than Peppers, especially on the defensive side. It's time to separate the hype from reality and see how good he actually is, both in defending the pass and on special teams. Wolverines coaches have mostly tried to diffuse expectations, but this week defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said of Peppers: "He’s so far, in everything we’ve done in practice and all that, everything we thought he’d be.”

Tanner McEvoy, QB, Wisconsin: We saw McEvoy make a switch to safety last year and end up doing very well then, so we know he's athletic with good instincts for the game. But we've never seen him at quarterback at this level. Will the 6-foot-6 signal-caller's quickness and mobility bring a new dimension to the Badgers' offense? And can he handle LSU's defense? Will we see some option? Can't wait to find out.

J.T. Barrett, QB, and Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State: Barrett will naturally be in a white-hot spotlight as he makes his first career start in place of the injured Braxton Miller. But don't forget the Buckeyes also have to replace the ultra-productive Carlos Hyde, and Elliott gets first crack at it. He broke his wrist during fall practice but is expected to be ready against Navy.

Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland: Diggs is not a new player by any means, but he's new to the Big Ten. And he hasn't seen the field since the middle of last year, when he broke his leg. By reputation and talent, he could be the league's best receiver.

Paul James, RB, Rutgers: Another new-to-you guy here, James led the nation in rushing after a month last season before getting hurt. He's back and could see a heavy workload Thursday night against Washington State.

Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State: The subject of one of the oddest recruiting sagas you'll ever see, McDowell could prove to be well worth the headache. He won't start Friday against Jacksonville State but figures to see a lot of playing time. "Malik's had a very good camp for a freshman," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday. "He's firm inside, he doesn't get knocked off the ball ... and uses his hands really well. I think he'll be an outstanding player for us."

Wes Lunt, QB, Illinois: Can Lunt be the savior not only for Illini football but also for coach Tim Beckman's job security? That's a lot to put on a player, particularly one who hasn't seen much meaningful action since the middle of 2012. But he has the talent to be a perfect fit in Illinois' spread offense. "Just being around Wes, he's calm and collected," Beckman said. "He's been there and had an opportunity to play as a freshman at Oklahoma State. You can see an air of confidence in him."

B1G predictions: records and standings

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
10:00
AM ET
With the start of the season just days away, our Big Ten reporters predict the record of each Big Ten team and offer up a quick explanation of their picks.

Brian Bennett
The toughest part of predicting the order of finish is figuring out the jumble atop the West. I think Nebraska has the most talent but the hardest schedule, while Wisconsin and Iowa are pretty equal. In the end, I see the Badgers as a team that will continue to improve throughout the course of the year and will benefit from its backloaded schedule. I think Gary Andersen's team beats Nebraska at home and Iowa on the road, making up for a pair of early conference losses and winning the division tiebreaker over the Hawkeyes to set up a rematch of the inaugural Big Ten championship game versus Michigan State.



 




 

Josh Moyer
With Braxton Miller's season-ending injury, the East basically explains itself. The Spartans are the new favorite … or, depending on your point of view, remain the easy favorite. A new defensive coordinator in Indiana gives me hope that the Hoosiers' offense marching downfield won't just be a futile exercise, and Rutgers? Well, maybe next year, kid. The West is much, much trickier -- and the three top teams all have their own question marks. What kind of passing offense and front seven will Wisconsin have? Can Iowa overcome three departed linebackers? How's Nebraska's secondary? I have more faith in Tommy Armstrong than Tanner McEvoy, and I'm picking Randy Gregory for the B1G defensive player of the year. So, while it's a toss-up, I'm still comfortable sticking with Nebraska.



 




 

Adam Rittenberg
It's never easy making the won-loss records match up and I'm sure I'll be wrong about a lot of this. I see the parity in the West Division playing out as Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin will beat up on one another. It's not easy to run the table in league play two years in a row, but Ohio State did it in 2012 and 2013 and Michigan State will repeat in 2013 and 2014. I see Indiana squeaking into a bowl game and Illinois falling just shy. Ohio State starts off strong but stumbles twice in league play, while new league members Maryland and Rutgers both go through some growing pains in their Big Ten debuts.



 




 

Mitch Sherman
Injuries happen. But when they happen in August, injuries jumble predicted standings. Since we first ranked the Big Ten teams early this month, much has changed. The loss of Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller pushed Michigan State, for me, past the Buckeyes. And in the West Division, Nebraska's key defensive losses -- linebacker Michael Rose and nickel cornerback Charles Jackson are out for the year with injuries -- knocked the Huskers down a notch to third. The best candidate for team most likely to drive its fans crazy? How about Iowa. I've got the Hawkeyes with three Big Ten losses -- at Maryland, at Minnesota and to Northwestern -- with November wins over Wisconsin and the Nebraska. Look for Notre Dame to go 3-0 against the Big Ten. And curious about the lone wins for Rutgers and Purdue? I'm taking the Scarlet Knights over Penn State and the Boilermakers to beat Northwestern.



 




 

Austin Ward
With just two horses to pick from and one now dealing with a significant injury at the game's most important position, handicapping the East was a relatively straightforward proposition. Good luck with the West, though, since that battle has the potential to go down to the final weekend with multiple teams fighting for a berth in the title game. With each potential candidate having some minor flaws to pick on, trying to figure out which might be most easily overcome is the biggest chore heading into the opener, but Wisconsin's dynamic combination of tailbacks should allow it to weather any growing pains at quarterback once the conference season begins. It won't, however, be enough to get past the Spartans for the league crown as Mark Dantonio's program is set to go back to back once it gets past a wounded Ohio State on Nov. 8 for the East title.

Big Ten morning links

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
8:00
AM ET
A tip of the cap to the Big Ten for staying ahead of the curve. For sticking its collective conference neck out there.

Yes, that Big Ten, often criticized for its conservative nature -- the league slow to stage night games late in the season or play on Thursday nights, the same Big Ten that’s reluctant to pit foes early in the fall when mismatches abound and the fans crave meaningful football.

That Big Ten is leading the way this year in playing neutral-site games. Starting with Rutgers-Washington State on Thursday in Seattle -- if that doesn’t scream Big Ten, nothing does -- league schools will play in five of eight neutral-site games nationally early this season.

On Saturday, you’ve got Penn State-Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland, Ohio State-Navy in Baltimore and Wisconsin-LSU in Houston. Notre Dame and Purdue play in Indianapolis on Sept. 13.

The Big Ten has officially embraced a college football trend popularized by the Southeastern Conference. Dare we say, the Big Ten is doing it better than any other league this year?

And even if not, Big Ten teams are trying hard to reach new audiences and tap fertile recruiting grounds. It counts for something.

Forget, for a moment, the financial ramifications. Yes, the neutral-site games can be profitable. Some offer payouts in excess of $5 million, which can equal the revenue lost from a home game, considering that the neutral-site pairings don’t require a road game in return.

But it’s about more than money.

Indirectly, everything about scheduling involves money. By playing games outside of their comfort zones, though, Big Ten programs illustrate that they want to grow their brands. They show that they’re not content with bundles of TV-generated cash and underachieving reputations.

“The kids should walk out of there with a big-time experience,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said of the Badgers’ showdown on Saturday night.

His program receives $2 million for the game.

Kickoff is set for 9 p.m. ET on ESPN, competing for viewers with Florida State-Oklahoma State at 8 p.m. ET on ABC from Arlington, Texas.

These are big-time draws, especially a week before the NFL regular season hogs attention.

Next year, the Badgers face Alabama in the Cowboys Classic. In two years, LSU visits Lambeau Field in Green Bay for the Wisconsin rematch.

Here’s to more neutral-site games in the Big Ten region. Illinois and Northwestern have tested pro stadiums in Chicago and figure to go back, but how about Nebraska or Michigan, Iowa or Michigan State at other venues easily accessible to their fans?

Keep thinking big, Big Ten.

One day before kickoff, let’s go around the league…

East Division
West Division
Bonus links
  • Who said Penn State would go back to nameless jerseys? Not James Franklin. In fact, he's not saying anything.
  • Johnny Manziel weighs in on Miller, J.T. Barrett the Ohio State quarterback situation.
  • A little fun with Kevin Wilson after practice at Indiana.

Big Ten morning links

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
8:00
AM ET
When you're watching Big Ten football on opening weekend, be sure to read between the lines.

Don't ignore new quarterbacks like Wes Lunt and Tanner McEvoy, or newcomer defenders like Jabrill Peppers and Jihad Ward, but the real gauge for some teams will take place in the trenches. There are several revamped lines in the Big Ten that will be under the microscope in Week 1.

Let's take a look:

Wisconsin defensive line versus LSU (in Houston): The Badgers will start three new players up front -- ends Chikwe Obasih and Konrad Zagzebski, and tackle Warren Herring -- against talented Tigers running backs Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and Leonard Fournette, the decorated incoming freshman. Herring and Zabzekbski have five combined career starts, while Obasih, a redshirt freshman, makes his debut on a huge stage.

"I really feel that in the pass rush aspect and in the containing the quarterback aspect, we are a little bit more athletic and we have a little bit more speed," defensive coordinator Dave Aranda told me last week.

Penn State offensive line versus UCF (in Dublin, Ireland): Only one healthy starter (tackle Donovan Smith) returns for PSU's line, which has heard all about its depth issues throughout the offseason. The group will be tested right away by a UCF defense that returns nine starters, including the entire line. You can bet Knights coach George O'Leary will put Penn State's line under duress from the onset.

Ohio State offensive line versus Navy (in Baltimore): Like Penn State, Ohio State brings back just one line starter (tackle Taylor Decker) from last year, and the unit's task became a lot tougher after the season-ending loss of quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes' new-look front must protect freshman signal caller J.T. Barrett and create some running room against a smaller Navy defensive line.

Northwestern defensive line versus Cal: Both Wildcat lines have question marks entering the season, but the defensive front enters the spotlight after dealing with injuries throughout the offseason. Veteran defensive tackle Sean McEvilly (foot) is out for the season, and tackles Greg Kuhar and C.J. Robbins will get an opportunity to assert themselves against a Cal offense that racked up 549 yards against Northwestern in last year's game.

Purdue offensive line versus Western Michigan: The Boilers simply weren't strong enough up front in 2013 and couldn't move the ball for much of the season. They should be better on the interior with center Robert Kugler leading the way. This is a great chance for Purdue to start strong against a Western Michigan defense that ranked 118th nationally against the run in 2013.

Michigan offensive line versus Appalachian State: This isn't the Appalachian State team that shocked Michigan in 2007, but the Wolverines need to gain cohesion and confidence up front and with their run game. After a lot of line shuffling in camp, Michigan tries to get backs Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith going in the opener before a Week 2 trip to Notre Dame.

To the links ...

West Division
East Division
And, finally ...

Big Ten mailbag

August, 25, 2014
Aug 25
5:00
PM ET
Welcome to our first game week mailbag of the 2014 season. Man, that feels good to type. Keep the questions flowing, and don't forget to follow me on Twitter at @BennettESPN

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Brian Bennett: The strength on defense throughout the league right now is on the defensive line and at end in particular with Shilique Calhoun, Randy Gregory, Joey Bosa, Noah Spence, Andre Monroe, etc... The Big Ten definitely took a big hit at linebacker, with guys like Ryan Shazier, Chris Borland, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen, and Iowa's senior trio all moving on after last season. I'm looking forward to seeing who steps up at that position and expect some new stars to emerge at places like Michigan State (Ed Davis, maybe Riley Bullough), Ohio State (Joshua Perry, Darron Lee, Raekwon McMillan), Iowa (Reggie Spearman, Travis Perry) and Wisconsin (Vince Biegel).

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Brian Bennett: I don't think it has too do much with the questions at receiver. Head coach Gary Andersen has made no secret of his preference for mobile quarterbacks, something we talked about before he ever coached a game at Wisconsin. I believe Andersen really wanted Tanner McEvoy to win the job because he has a far superior ability to make plays with his feet than incumbent starter Joel Stave. I just wonder if giving McEvoy his first FBS exposure as a quarterback against LSU is the best move, but there is also a good chance Andersen will play both guys on Saturday, anyway.

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Brian Bennett: Michigan would likely have to climb over 7-to-10 teams to get into either major Top 25, so the Wolverines would need to win in impressive blowout fashion and benefit from some upsets. But this question is a good way to remind us all that we shouldn't really worry, or even pay much attention to, the polls. They mean nothing now, other than a possible subconscious influence on the College Football Playoff committee members. All that matters is what the selection committee thinks, and their first set of weekly rankings won't come out until late October. I still think the idea of a weekly Top 25 from a committee primarily charged with picking the four best teams is silly and unnecessary. But if you're going to fret over any set of rankings, make it those.


Sam from Colorado Springs, Colorado, writes: What has to happen for Illinois to be the darkhorse team in the West Division? Do you see any possible way it could happen?

Brian Bennett: It's probably a stretch to think Illinois can actually contend for a division title, even in the wide open, wild wild West. But stranger things have happened, and I do think the Illini can make a bowl game this season if things break right. Of course, it's all about that defense and whether coordinator Tim Banks can get the group to stop the run. The addition of some junior college players like Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu should help, and that side of the ball is more mature now. I expect the offense to remain very good, especially with strong-armed Wes Lunt at quarterback. This is a team that scored 32 points on Wisconsin and 35 against Ohio State last season, so even a return to mediocrity on defense could make Illinois a tough out.


KyleS from Columbia, South Carolina, writes: I'm surprised you picked Rutgers only winning 4 games for this upcoming season. I know you were a blogger that followed Rutgers when they played in the Big East. Luckily for me when Rutgers wins 6+ games, I will be able to send you another email to say... I told you so.

Brian Bennett: Now is the time for confidence and optimism. I'm not sure how having covered Rutgers previously is supposed to influence my prediction for this season, but if the Scarlet Knights do somehow manage to win six or more games against that schedule, by all means write me back and crow about it. Just know that I now have your e-mail address, too.


Rich from Omaha, Nebraska, writes: Brian: Nebraska will be 2014's Auburn. Their O-line is much better than people realize. They have the best backfield in the Big Ten, especially now, unfortunately. Their defensive line and linebackers will be the best rated units by the end of the season statistically. And they won't turn it over 5 times when the beat an overrated Michigan State in East Lansing. No one outside of Nebraska sees it coming. Last year, I thought they might win 9. This year, they can win them all. Save this post and you'll realize in November, this is was not some homer drinking the Kool-Aid.

Brian Bennett: Yes, people are feeling great about their teams. I'm looking forward to all the caterwauling from all 14 fan bases Saturday afternoon after their team's first failed third down. It's almost here. Enjoy all the ups and downs.

Big Ten morning links

August, 25, 2014
Aug 25
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Game week is here. Let that sink in. Revel in it.

With the season about to begin, let's take at a few teams outside the top expected Big Ten contenders (Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska) who could get off to fast starts in 2014:

1. Michigan: Does Michigan have issues? Yes. Have the Wolverines underachieved for a while now? Check. But if things break right, the Wolverines could wind up building some early momentum, the way they did in opening 6-0 in the Sugar Bowl season of 2011.

The Notre Dame game on the road in Week 2 is challenging, but the Fighting Irish have some serious problems of their own right now. Michigan plays four of its first five games at home and then opens conference play at league newbie Rutgers. A 6-0 record when Penn State comes calling under the lights on Oct. 11 is certainly possible.

2. Penn State: Assuming the Icelandic volcano doesn't wreck the opener, the Nittany Lions will be in for a tussle against UCF in Ireland on Saturday. But if they get past that one, the path opens up a bit with games against Akron, at Rutgers, UMass and Northwestern. A 5-0 Penn State vs. a 6-0 Michigan? Dare to dream.

3. Minnesota: The Gophers have that key game at TCU in Week 3, but the rest of the nonconference schedule reads like this: Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee and San Jose State at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota opens Big Ten play at Michigan but then has Northwestern, Purdue and at Illinois. A second straight hot start might be in the cards for the Gophers, who went 4-0 and then 8-2 last season.

4. Purdue: OK, we're talking relativity here. With this week's opener against Western Michigan, a team that like the Boilermakers only won one game last season, Purdue could snap its 12-game losing streak against FBS opponents. Central Michigan and Southern Illinois give Darrell Hazell's team a chance to triple its 2013 win total before the end of September.

"It's huge," Hazell told me last month about the importance of getting off to a good start. "Because you can always ask one question: which comes first, the confidence or the success? Right now, our guys are walking around with some confidence, but I think it's really important for us to have some early success."

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Big Ten morning links

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
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After an eight-win season that included the historic four-game winning streak in Big Ten play and a victory over Nebraska, Minnesota had a right to feel pretty good about itself in the offseason. Instead, Gophers head coach Jerry Kill had this message for the team after its loss to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl: "You guys should be starving right now."

"We got after 'em pretty good after we got back from the bowl game," Kill told ESPN.com. "I think it was a wake-up call."

One of the players who answered that call the loudest was senior safety Cedric Thompson, who felt those same hunger pains Kill talked about. What stuck out to him about 2013 wasn't the 8-2 start but the 0-3 finish. Minnesota was actually in the Legends Division title chase before losing back-to-back games to Wisconsin and at Michigan State.

"It was so sickening to see how close we were last year," Thompson said. "I'm tired of people saying the Gophers are this close or that close."

Thompson told Kill right after the bowl that he wanted to be a captain this year, and that he was going to "make sure nobody slacks off."

"I feel like we didn't hold each other accountable last year during the summer, spring and even in practice during the season," Thompson said. "We worked hard, but when somebody did something wrong, we didn’t hold them to the standard we wanted."

Thompson took that responsibility on himself this offseason. He was never afraid to chew out a teammate if he saw something he didn't like. Kill, in turn, says Thompson is "the best leader on the defensive side that we've had since we've been here."

That internal leadership -- with quarterback Mitch Leidner playing a key role on the offensive side -- is one of the reasons the Gophers' staff is so excited about its 2014 prospects.

"That's what happened for us at Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois," Kill said, referring to his staff's previous successful tenures. "When the players start holding themselves accountable, that's when you’ve got a chance."

We'll see how much that makes a difference for Minnesota very soon. The Gophers will be the first Big Ten team to take the field this season when they host Eastern Illinois -- and FCS quarterfinalist last year -- on Thursday night at 7 ET.

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Preseason All-Big Ten team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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There is no official preseason all-conference team in the Big Ten (or official predicted order of finish, etc.). But we here at ESPN.com have got you covered with our preseason all-league picks on offense, defense and special teams.

And here they are:

Offense

QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: Braxton Miller's injury opened up this spot on the first team. Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Indiana's Nate Sudfeld were potential choices here too, but Cook's Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl MVP finish earn him the nod.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Well, sure. He could lead the nation in rushing, unless ...

RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: ... Abdullah, his good friend, beats him to it. In a league blessed with great running backs, these two stand out the most.

WR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland: There is a lot of uncertainty in the Big Ten at receiver heading into 2014. This much is certain: If Diggs can stay healthy, he'll be one of the nation's best.

WR: Shane Wynn, Indiana: Wynn scored more touchdowns than any other Big Ten receiver the past season, and now he steps into a more featured role.

TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan: Funchess might play wide receiver almost exclusively, in which case this should be viewed as a third wide receiver spot on the team. The matchup nightmare looks poised for a big season.

OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He might just be the best left tackle in college football in 2014. He's definitely got NFL scouts drooling.

OT: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: An enormous road grader at right tackle. Trying to shed him and catch Melvin Gordon is just not fair.

OG: Kaleb Johnson, Rutgers: He thought about leaving for the NFL after the past season but instead gave the Scarlet Knights a boost by returning. He has started 37 straight games.

OG: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: He could be the next rising star in Wisconsin's offensive lineman factory.

C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: A second-team All-Big Ten pick the past season, the former high school wrestling champion has no let up in his game.

Defense

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: He’s the returning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year and could become the conference’s defensive player of the year in 2014, unless ...

DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska: ... Gregory edges him out for the honor. The pass-rush specialist outpaced Calhoun in sacks (10.5) the past season, and Bo Pelini said Gregory has “only scratched the surface of what he’s going to be down the line.”

DT: Michael Bennett, Ohio State: He anchors the best defensive line in the conference and was named to the All-Big Ten’s second team last season.

DT: Carl Davis, Iowa: He still thinks Scherff would get the best of him if they squared off, but Athlon thought highly enough of Davis to make him a fourth-team preseason All-American.

LB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern: The quiet Ariguzo likes to let his play do the talking, and it chatted up a storm this past season -- to the tune of 106 tackles and four interceptions.

LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: He was a coin-flip from transferring to Pittsburgh during the sanctions, but now he’s the leader of this revamped defense.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan shocked onlookers last season by taking less than seven months to go from ACL surgery to playing in a Big Ten game. Hopes are higher now for the healthy redshirt senior, as he has registered a stop in the backfield in 25 of his past 30 games.

CB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: He’s taking over at Darqueze Dennard's boundary cornerback position, but he’s up for the challenge. He’s already on the watch lists for the Bednarik and Thorpe awards.

CB: Blake Countess, Michigan: He tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions (6) the past season -- despite battling lower abdominal pain most of the year.

S: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: The blue-collar DB started 21 straight games and was a Sports Illustrated All-American the past season.

S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: A smart and instinctive player, Campbell has been remarkably consistent for the Wildcats. He’s a three-time all-academic B1G player and has eight career interceptions.

Special teams

K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State: As a freshman in 2013, he made 15 of his 16 field-goal attempts.

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State: An ESPN.com All-American in 2013, Sadler combines with Geiger to give the Spartans the best 1-2 kicking tandem in the league.

KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska: He led the Big Ten in return yardage the past season (averaging 26.5 yards per kick) and took one 99 yards for a touchdown at Penn State.

PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa: He averaged 15.7 yards per return in 2013 and scored on two punt returns in the same game.

Selections by school:

Michigan State: 7
Iowa: 3
Michigan: 3
Nebraska: 3
Wisconsin: 3
Northwestern: 2
Indiana: 1
Maryland: 1
Ohio State: 1
Penn State: 1
Rutgers: 1
Illinois: 0
Minnesota: 0
Purdue: 0
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» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights:

2013 record: 6-7 (3-5 American Athletic Conference)

Key losses: WR Brandon Coleman, QB Chas Dodd, WR Quron Pratt, DT Isaac Holmes, DE Marcus Thompson, S Jeremy Deering, DE/LB Jamal Merrell

Key returnees: RB Paul James, DT Darius Hamilton, LB Steve Longa, QB Gary Nova, WR Leonte Carroo, TE Tyler Kroft

Instant impact newcomer: Offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen was out of football for three years before Rutgers came calling. The former longtime head coach at Maryland is known as a quarterback guru, and the Scarlet Knights are counting on him to help fix the passing game and improve senior quarterback Nova's decision-making.

Projected starters

[+] EnlargePaul James
AP Photo/Mel EvansRunning back Paul James will be counted on as one of Rutgers' top returnees.
Offense: QB: Gary Nova, Sr., 6-2, 220; RB: Paul James, Jr., 6-0, 205; FB: Michael Burton, Sr., 6-0, 230; WR: Leonte Carroo, Jr., 6-1, 205; WR: Andre Patton, Soph., 6-4, 200; TE: Tyler Kroft, Jr., 6-6, 240; LT: Keith Lumpkin, Jr., 6-8, 310; LG: Kaleb Johnson, Sr., 6-4, 300; C: Betim Bujari, Sr., 6-4, 295; RG: Chris Muller, Soph., 6-6, 300; RT: Taj Alexander, Sr., 6-4, 290

Defense: DE: David Milewski, Sr., 6-4, 245; DT: Darius Hamilton, Jr., 6-4, 255; DT: Kenneth Kirksey, Sr., 6-1, 275; DE: Djwany Mera, Jr., 6-4, 260; LB: Steve Longa, Soph., 6-1, 225; LB: Kevin Snyder, Sr., 6-3, 235; LB: Quentin Gause, Jr., 6-1, 220; CB: Nadir Barnwell, Soph., 5-11, 185; FS: Johnathan Aiken, Sr., 5-11, 190; SS: Lorenzo Waters, Sr., 6-0, 195; CB: Anthony Cioffi, Soph., 6-0, 185

Special teams: K: Kyle Federico, Jr.; P Joseph Roth, Jr.

Biggest question mark: How ready is Rutgers for the Big Ten after never winning an outright conference title in the Big East or American Athletic conferences? The Scarlet Knights have a difficult schedule, with crossover opponents Nebraska and Wisconsin, rugged East Division competition and nonconference games at Washington State and at Navy. They have been a strong defensive team in recent years, particularly against the run. But will the philosophy of smaller but quick defensive linemen work against the brute force of many Big Ten squads?

Most important game: Penn State, Sept. 13. It's the first Big Ten game ever for the Scarlet Knights, arriving in Week 3 at home in what should be a special atmosphere in Piscataway. Rutgers hopes to make the Nittany Lions game a true rivalry and, more importantly, cool James Franklin's jets on the recruiting front. Winning this one -- or at the very least staying competitive -- could set the tone for the entire year and maybe the next few seasons.

Upset special: Sept. 27 vs. Tulane. This home game follows a tough two-game stretch against Penn State and on the road at Navy, a team that often discombobulates opponents with its option attack and cut blocking. The Tulane game also precedes a stretch that sees Rutgers face Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin. The Scarlet Knights could already have nagging aches and pains by the time the Green Wave arrive in town.

Key stat: Rutgers' pass defense in 2013 was the worst in school history, as the Scarlet Knights gave up 4,056 passing yards and 31 touchdowns. That's not good news with an opener against Mike Leach's Washington State looming and quarterbacks such as Christian Hackenberg, Connor Cook, Nate Sudfeld and Braxton Miller on the schedule.

What they're wearing: The Scarlet Knights haven't unveiled any new looks yet but have announced that they intend to wear all-black uniforms for the Oct. 4 game against Michigan at home.

Team's top Twitter follows: The team's official account (@RFootball) is chock-full of excellent updates. The Star-Ledger's indefatigable stable of writers (@NJ_RutgersFB) is constantly churning out Scarlet Knights stories. Coach Kyle Flood (@KyleFloodRU) offers occasional insights into the program as well.

They said it: "I would describe us as a tough, physical football team. Going to a new league opens up new opportunities for us. We've played a lot of different teams from a lot of different conferences, a lot of different caliber of teams. We'll be prepared for when the season starts." -- senior fullback Michael Burton

ESPN Stats & Information projection: 4.81 wins

Wiseguys over/under: Four wins

Big Ten blog projection: Four wins. Sorry, Scarlet Knights fans, but we think your first year in the Big Ten is going to be a rough one. Rutgers has been an annual bowl team in the past decade but not much better than a fringe one. And with that daunting schedule, it's hard to envision many paths back to the postseason. Flood's team should be significant underdogs against Washington State, Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State, Nebraska and Wisconsin. Maryland, Indiana and Navy won't be easy games either. Maybe Rutgers surprises everybody in Year 1, but the odds are heavily against it.

Big Ten morning links

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
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Tis the season to name starting quarterbacks, not to lose them.

News of Braxton Miller's season-ending injury at Ohio State is dominating the headlines. But the Buckeyes won't be the last Big Ten team this year to go in search of an alternate plan at QB. Last year, 10 of the current 14 teams in the league used at least two starters at the position.

Here's a ranking of Big Ten teams most equipped to handle an injury to their top quarterback:
  1. Wisconsin: Junior Joel Stave and senior Tanner McEvoy remain locked in a race for the job, and both are likely to play. Stave, who has started 19 games, remains the favorite, though McEvoy, a safety last year, adds a running threat for the Badgers.
  2. Maryland: Junior Caleb Rowe, the backup to sixth-year senior C.J. Brown, has a strong arm and four games of starting experience from last October. Rowe improved during that month and regularly gets time in practice with the first-team offense.
  3. Iowa: Sophomore C.J. Beathard played meaningful snaps alongside Jake Rudock a year ago. Beathard will get opportunities again. And if the Hawkeyes need him full time, it's far from a disaster.
  4. Illinois: Transfer Wes Lunt appears in control of the race, with the Illini set to name a starter on Wednesday. Senior Reilly O'Toole has shown a capable arm, and sophomore Aaron Bailey has good size and running ability.
  5. Michigan: Devin Gardner missed the bowl game last year, giving the Wolverines a glimpse of Shane Morris. That experience in a 31-14 loss to Kansas State aided Morris in getting prepared for his sophomore season.
  6. Purdue: Returning starter Danny Etling won a legitimate competition this week over fellow sophomore Austin Appleby, who expects to keep pushing. If the Boilermakers need to use their depth, another to watch is touted freshman David Blough, on track now to redshirt.
  7. Ohio State: It's time to find out. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett is known for his steady hand, accuracy and decent athleticism. Sophomore Cardale Jones, next in line, is a big body who could be used more than Barrett as a running threat.
  8. Michigan State: Sophomore Tyler O'Connor and redshirt freshman Damion Terry have conducted a spirited battle this month, with O'Connor remaining ahead in the race to back up Connor Cook. If a replacement is needed, both options would likely receive consideration.
  9. Nebraska: Behind Tommy Armstrong Jr., who started seven games as a replacement a year ago, the Huskers have no experience. Sophomore walk-on Ryker Fyfe owns the edge over redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton, a former elite recruit.
  10. Penn State: Newcomers Michael O'Connor and Trace McSorley have adjusted well to life behind Christian Hackenberg. O'Connor is bigger and practiced with the Nittany Lions in the spring, so he's probably the first option if a backup is needed.
  11. Northwestern: Unlike a year ago, Trevor Siemian is the clear starter. Behind him, junior Zack Oliver and redshirt freshman Matt Alviti have waged a competition. Alviti brings a dual-theat similar in the mold of ex-Wildcat Kain Colter.
  12. Minnesota: Redshirt freshman Chris Streveler has emerged as the top backup to Mitch Leidner. The Gophers tinkered with Streveler at receiver last year before the transfer of Philip Nelson, so athleticism is a plus. But Streveler's inexperience is a concern.
  13. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights need Gary Nova and his vast experience in this transition to the Big Ten. Backups Mike Bimonte, a junior, and freshman Chris Laviano possess good size, but neither QB has played a down in college.
  14. Indiana: The Hoosiers have no experience behind incumbent Nate Sudfeld. Walk-on sophomore Nate Boudreau has taken most of the snaps at No. 2, though true freshmen Zander Diamont or Danny Cameron might be given a closer look if Sudfeld misses time.
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