Big Ten: Rutgers Scarlet Knights

CHICAGO -- Rutgers fans probably aren't too happy about their team's conference schedule, and you couldn't blame the players, either, if they were a little irked about receiving the 20th-most difficult slate in the nation.

But the Scarlet Knights aren't just welcoming the challenge of facing Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin. They swear they prefer it.

"I wouldn't want it any other way," fullback Michael Burton said Monday afternoon. "I want to play the best of the best, and this conference offers that. That's why it's a blessing."

Of course, that's easy to say at Big Ten media days. What player is going to publicly say he wants the easy path to a bowl game? But defensive lineman Darius Hamilton took it one step further and reinforced the sincerity of the statement.

He was offered a hypothetical: What if RU would finish 5-7 with the hard schedule but would finish 7-5 with the easy schedule? Wouldn't he then prefer the easy path? The 265-pound lineman just shook his head.

"I'll pick the hard anytime," he said. "When your back's against the wall and you're pushed to the limits, that's when you find out what kind of men you have on your team. I'd rather take a hard loss than an easy win any day of the week."

A bowl berth would go a long way toward helping Rutgers gain respect in the Big Ten. But that obviously won't come easily in 2014. Rutgers plays three elite teams on the road -- the Buckeyes, Spartans and Cornhuskers -- and the second-strongest schedule in the B1G is ranked six spots behind the Scarlet Knights' slate.

But that's all just fine with head coach Kyle Flood.

"I think it's great," he said. "[Our players] are competitors. They want to go against the best. And if people are saying this is the best, then good."

Big Ten Friday mailbag

July, 25, 2014
Jul 25
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Welcome to another weekend, which means just four more remain until the return of college football. Thanks for all of your questions. Keep them coming and enjoy the latest mailbag:
Mitch Sherman: Derrick Green has battled weight problems previously. He entered camp last season at 240 pounds as the No. 5-rated back in the 2013 recruiting class and rushed for just 270 yards as a true freshman, averaging 3.3 yards per attempt. After the spring, he was reportedly down to 220, definitely a better figure.

It’ll be interesting to see how he looks when practice opens in Ann Arbor on Aug. 4. If Green shows up in great shape, he’s likely the man to beat in the battle for the bulk of the carries. Primary competition comes from fellow sophomore De'Veon Smith.

No doubt, Green is talented and dangerous when his body is right. But some of this remains out of his control. No back could have thrived behind Michigan’s porous offensive line last season. The Wolverines rushed for 125.7 yards per game, the third lowest average in school history. In back-to-back games against Michigan State and Nebraska, the line contributed to 14 sacks of U-M quarterbacks.

If the line doesn’t improve in 2014, Green could open the season in the best shape of his life, and it would matter little.
Mitch Sherman: Well, here it is. In theory, the idea to determine conferences based solely on football and its finances appears intriguing. In practice, it would be a logistical nightmare and destroy many of the sport’s natural alliances.

Still, don’t dismiss such a scenario as complete fantasy. The coming changes in college athletics could be landscape-altering, from the ramifications of the upcoming vote on major-conference autonomy to the court decision in the antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA and its inevitable appeals.

It’s hard to imagine that the conferences will cease to exist as we know them. But then again, 10 years ago, who could have imagined the look of the game as we know it today?


Mike in Ashburn, Virginia, writes: If Rutgers beats Penn State, what would that mean for the future of RU football?

Mitch Sherman: Fans of the Scarlet Knights have long circled Sept. 13, when the traditional rivals meet in Piscataway, New Jersey. The game was scheduled in 2009 -- when former PSU assistant Greg Schiano coached Rutgers -- as a nonconference matchup, the first in the series since 1995.

Of course, when Rutgers announced plans to join the Big Ten, it was converted to a league game. Penn State and Rutgers last played in 1995, and the Nittany Lions have won 22 of 24 games in the series. So one victory by the Scarlet Knights over a Penn State program still feeling the impact of NCAA sanctions won’t reverse the fortunes of the programs. PSU will still carry momentum in recruiting and possess an edge in areas, even New Jersey, that produce recruiting prospects for both schools.

A win by Rutgers, though, would serve notice that it’s here to play with the big boys in the Big Ten and won’t be pushed aside easily by powers of the league’s East Division -- on the field and in recruiting its fertile home state.
The Big Ten, for whatever reason, does not issue an official preseason predicted order of finish like just about every other league. Luckily, we've got Doug Lesmerises of Cleveland.com to pick up the slack.

Lesmerises once again has organized an unofficial poll of league beat writers, and the panel of 29 media members have tabbed Ohio State and Wisconsin to win their respective divisions.

Nineteen of the 29 voters picked Ohio State to win the Big Ten title, with nine votes going to Michigan State and one to Nebraska. The West Division breakdown was scattered, as Wisconsin led with 14 votes, but Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern all received support.

The complete breakdown:

East Division

  1. Ohio State, 195 points (23 first-place votes)
  2. Michigan State, 180 points (10)
  3. Michigan, 136 points
  4. Penn State, 105.5 points
  5. Maryland, 84 points
  6. Indiana, 78.5 points
  7. Rutgers, 33 points
West Division
  1. Wisconsin, 183.5 points (15 first-place votes)
  2. Iowa, 173 points (11)
  3. Nebraska, 157.5 points (5)
  4. Northwestern, 112 points (1)
  5. Minnesota, 96.5 points
  6. Illinois, 58 points
  7. Purdue, 31.5 points

(Note that there are more than 29 first-place votes in the divisions because of ties)

Some thoughts:

As has been the case in many preseason publications, Ohio State is a pretty heavy favorite despite Michigan State's success last year. It's interesting, given all the youth on the Buckeyes. Definitely motivational material here for the Spartans. ... Wisconsin has also gotten a lot of hype this offseason in spite of heavy personnel losses and questions in the passing game. Voters obviously like the schedules for both the Badgers and Iowa over Nebraska, which has to play in both Madison and Iowa City. ... Some voters likes a dark horse, picking Northwestern to win the West. The Wildcats do pose an outside threat. ... Not a lot is expected of newcomers Maryland and Rutgers, though the voters like the Terps a good bit more as the Scarlet Knights are picked to finish dead last in the East. ... If you don't like these results, take heart: Not a single writer picked Michigan State to win the Big Ten championship in this same poll a year ago.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 25, 2014
Jul 25
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The Big Ten season unofficially begins Monday with media days. So enjoy the weekend, and then let's get after it.
Our crew of Big Ten reporters will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They'll have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

Big Ten media days kick off on Monday at the Hilton Chicago. All the other Power 5 conferences will have wrapped up their own media events by then, and each league does things a little bit differently. So today's Take Two topic is: Should the Big Ten change the format of its media days?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

One thing that can be said about Big Ten media days is fans have much more access to it than they do in other leagues. The centerpiece of the two days is Tuesday's Kickoff Luncheon, during which fans can listen to a few minutes from every coach, hear a keynote speech from a current player and get autographs from former players. It's a 40-plus-year tradition, and at $110 a plate, a nice moneymaker for the league (because the Big Ten, you know, is pretty cash poor these days).

[+] EnlargeJim Delany
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsJim Delany will speak to the media in Chicago, but not until the end of Big Ten media days.
In part because of that luncheon, and because the conference likes having everybody together, the actual media portion of the event is fairly short. Basically, each coach gets about 15 minutes of podium time on Monday, along with breakout sessions involving them and their players, and then there is a two-hour window on Tuesday morning where everyone is seated at ballroom tables. Compare that to the SEC's mega-media extravaganza that now lasts four days, with a few teams represented each day.

The SEC's format is far too long in my view, but that league certainly monopolizes coverage on those days, and individual teams get more of a spotlight. Now at 14 teams, I'd like to see the Big Ten devote more time to its event. More time to spend with Ohio State, Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State, etc. More time to get to know some of the personalities. More time with players and programs who aren't in the spotlight. Not that the Big Ten needs more fans, necessarily, but more media coverage equals more exposure and more attention, which could help everybody in the long run.

My preference is for the conference to add an extra day and split the teams up, either by division or by interest level. You could have them all together on the middle day for the luncheon. This is probably all just inside baseball and I'm not sure how much fans really care. But as the Big Ten keeps getting bigger, its media days should probably follow suit.

Take 2: Mitch Sherman

I'm actually stunned you're taking the time to read this, because who cares, really, what the media thinks about the format of a preseason event to promote the conference? We're likely going to cover this thing regardless of how the Big Ten structures it, so our opinion on the setup is probably the least of anyone's concern. That said, I'll offer my two cents.

I agree with Brian that it ought to be longer. Monday's schedule includes 14 coaches and 42 players crammed into five hours. By mid-afternoon, my head might be spinning so fast that I can't differentiate between Pat Fitzgerald and Urban Meyer. OK, it's not that bad, but you get the picture. This thing is nearly over before it starts. And I'd like to see commissioner Jim Delany open the event with his comments, rather than speak during the final 30 minutes on Monday. By late afternoon, some of our brains are fried to the point that it's difficult to formulate intelligent questions. (Who am I kidding? There's no specific time for that.)

If you're still reading, I've got another suggestion: Every team should bring a quarterback. This year, seven are planned to attend, which is actually pretty good in comparison to some other leagues. QB is the premier position in college football; there's no denying it. I understand not every job is completely settled, so Illinois gets a pass here, though Wes Lunt could have brought the Illini some attention in Chicago. But if you're going to have an event for the media -- is it really for the media, or is that just the name? -- bring the players to whom the media wants to speak. That means, yes, we'd like to see Christian Hackenberg, Jake Rudock, Tommy Armstrong Jr., and even Gary Nova.

I will now dismount my soapbox. Congratulations, or perhaps condolences, if you made it to the end.
Big Ten Media Days is nearly upon us. Just survive the weekend, and you'll get a full dose of coaches and players on Monday and Tuesday. As our time to preview the event winds to an end, here's a fearless forecast of what to expect from the Hilton Chicago:
  • Jim Delany will make news. The Big Ten commissioner almost certainly will not follow the lead of his Big 12 counterpart, Bob Bowlsby, who this week slammed the enforcement arm of the NCAA, saying it pays to cheat in college athletics. But Delany will address tough questions about the game in an up-front manner. He'll discuss the potential ramifications of the upcoming vote by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors to grant autonomy to the five major conferences and the upcoming verdict in the Ed O'Bannon antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA. Both events could alter the landscape of college football, which makes the opinion of Delany -- one of the game's top power brokers -- of high interest.
  • An awkward moment or two for the Northwestern players. It's no coincidence that the Wildcats chose to send a trio of seniors to this event. Safety Ibraheim Campbell, linebacker Collin Ellis and quarterback Trevor Siemian are smart guys. They'll be well equipped to answer questions about an offseason like no other at their school, highlighted by a late-April vote of players on whether to form the nation's first union for college athletes. Still, facing a large media throng, the players will get peppered with questions about the situation and the possibility that its fallout may linger as a distraction at their school for some time.
  • Randy Edsall will end his war of words with the ACC. Highly doubtful that the Maryland coach chooses to fire back at Clemson's Dabo Swinney, who defended the ACC after Edsall said he was pleased to make the jump to coach in a “football conference.” Edsall, speaking at lunch event in Baltimore on July 14, said he was “not in a basketball conference anymore.” In response, Swinney, at ACC Media Days, referenced the Tigers win over Ohio State to end last season in the Orange Bowl. “Aren't they in that conference?” Swinney said. There's not much more to say here, especially for a coach who went 13-24 in three seasons in the ACC. Oh, and who said the Big Ten's not a basketball league?
  • Connor Cook will charm the media. Michigan State's junior quarterback is known as a blue-collar guy, in step with Spartan style, who did just enough last season not to spoil the 13-1 MSU season capped with wins over Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl. But Cook is more than that. And the writers and broadcasters in Chicago may be in for a surprise to meet this quarterback now brimming with confidence as a result of his strong finish to 2013 and a productive offseason. I met Cook recently during the Elite 11 finals, at which he counseled the nation's top prep quarterbacks, and came away impressed with his poise and confidence.
  • Brandon Scherff will get asked to lift something heavy. And politely decline. What else can you expect in the wake of this recent video? Scherff possesses freakish strength. He would likely win a strongest-man competition among all Big Ten players. Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis compared Scherff's dominance to former Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, whom Davis encountered while coaching at Texas in 2009. A likely first-round NFL draft pick next spring, Scherff provides a great luxury for the Hawkeyes at left tackle. And if anyone needs help with a suitcase in Chicago, he's your man.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
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Guess who's coming to the Big Ten kickoff luncheon on Tuesday in Chicago? Former players.
You may have heard, Big Ten media days is right around the corner. The event runs Monday and Tuesday at the Hilton Chicago, with all 14 league coaches and 42 players set to attend.

Here are 10 storylines to watch next week:
  • Jim Delany on the state of college football. Don’t expect the Big Ten boss to drop any bombs in line with the comments made by Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby this week in Dallas. But Delany speaks his mind, and he feels strongly about the need for fixes in college athletics. With the NCAA Division I Board of Directors’ vote on power-conference autonomy set for next month and the verdict due soon in the Ed O'Bannon antitrust lawsuit -- Delany was a key NCAA witness -- the commish will no doubt make news with his comments.
  • Rutgers and Maryland, you’re up. Let’s see what these Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Maryland Terrapins look like as their long wait to play Big Ten football is nearly over. It’s been nearly two years since these schools made plans to join the league. And they enter the Big Ten in different places than what may have been expected back in 2012. Maryland is trending up and Rutgers down, but things can change in a hurry. For now, it’ll be nice to hear from the Terps’ sixth-year senior QB C.J. Brown and dynamic receiver Stefon Diggs. Rutgers defensive tackle Darius Hamilton looks like one of the league’s best.
  • The Big Ten goes back on the big stage in September. Who remembers Week 3 last season? It was the Saturday that the UCLA Bruins, Arizona State Sun Devils and Washington Huskies beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Wisconsin Badgers and Illinois Fighting Illini, respectively. And for good measure, Central Florida won at the Penn State Nittany Lions. The poor Big Ten showing drew a collective eye roll from fans and media nationally and stomped out any early-season momentum for the league. Well, it’s a new year, and Michigan State’s Sept. 6 visit to Oregon might rank as the No. 1 intersectional matchup nationally. Wisconsin-LSU in Houston on Aug. 30 is almost as intriguing. Other important games for the league include Ohio State-Virginia Tech, Nebraska-Miami and the last scheduled installment of Michigan-Notre Dame.
  • Ameer Abdullah shares his message. Nebraska’s senior I-back will speak from the heart, for sure, on Tuesday at the league’s annual kickoff luncheon. Abdullah has a great story to share as the youngest of nine siblings raised as a devout Muslim in Alabama. Under-recruited out of high school, he chose Nebraska as the least heralded of three backs in his signing class. This year, he’s got the chance to become the first three-time 1,000-yard rusher at Nebraska, a program filled with tradition at his spot in the backfield.
  • Braxton Miller, the best player without any titles to show for it. Miller is 22-2 in his past 24 starts. Sure, the losses came to end last season in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State and the Orange Bowl to Clemson, but his record speaks for itself. He’s the two-time reigning offensive player of the year in the Big Ten, and with another season like the past two, he’ll race past the statistical marks of nearly every player to precede him in Columbus. But what is Miller’s legacy without a championship? He’d rather face that question in December.
  • James Franklin talks and people listen. The first-year Penn State coach ranks atop the list of must-see speakers in Chicago. Since taking the Penn State job on Jan. 11, Franklin has wowed crowds with his energy, and he’s revitalized the Nittany Lions’ profile as a recruiting power in spite of lingering NCAA sanctions. As the lone new head coach in the league -- not counting Kyle Flood and Randy Edsall -- Franklin offers a breath of fresh air. And because of his SEC background, observers outside of the conference will take note of his comments.
  • The dawn of the playoff era. Ready or not, the Big Ten is set to enter the first year of the College Football Playoff. A year ago, Michigan State likely would have earned a spot in the semifinal round. But can the Big Ten produce another team worthy of football’s final four? The Spartans remain a contender, though that trip to Oregon in Week 2 looms large. Ohio State is another team to watch and probably the most popular pick from the Big Ten to make it to a New Year’s Day semifinal in Pasadena or New Orleans. It'll be a topic at media days.
  • Michigan, now is the time to look like Michigan. The honeymoon is over for coach Brady Hoke, entering his fourth year as he tries to avoid a third consecutive season of declining win totals. The Wolverines slipped to 7-6 a year ago amid major offensive woes after a 5-0 start. Hoke’s offensive line still looks ill prepared to stop the Big Ten's top defensive fronts. The schedule is again somewhat backloaded, with Michigan State and Ohio State among the final five games, so Hoke’s hot-shot recruits may get a few more weeks to mature.
  • Jerry Kill’s health. Minnesota’s fourth-year coach, as much as he’d like to avoid the topic, will face more questions in Chicago about the epileptic seizures that forced him to coach from the press box for much of last season. The Gophers rallied behind their ailing coach. It was a feel-good story, though one that no one in the Twin Cities or elsewhere would like to relive. Kill has made excellent progress in the past several months. The coach and his players are anxious to put this issue to rest.
  • The quarterbacks. Don’t look now, but the Big Ten is turning into a league of quarterbacks. If nothing else, it appears better, for the time being, than the SEC in this category. Seven of the league’s signal-callers are scheduled to appear in Chicago, including Miller, MSU’s Connor Cook, Michigan’s Devin Gardner and Northwestern's Trevor Siemian. It would be nice, of course, to hear from Penn State sophomore Christian Hackenberg at this event and other rising field generals like Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Iowa's Jake Rudock. But hey, we’ll take what we can get.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
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Nebraska is soliciting applications from students who want to work as a DJ at football practice. Interesting concept. I wonder if this is a gimmick or a sign of things to come. Perhaps students may soon run the scoreboard or move the chains at practice. Just as long as they're not calling plays, we're all safe. On second thought ...

Here's the mailbag for Wednesday. Send more questions here for later this week.



Mitch Sherman: Iowa fans value stability. They've got it in Kirk Ferentz, entering his 16th season. He trails only Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer for longevity among major-conference coaches. Of course, with stability can come complacency. And the Hawkeyes got a dose of it two years ago. Last fall, though, produced positive vibes in Iowa City, with the promise of an even better season to follow.

Ferentz earned just less than $4 million last year, a figure that places him among the nation's elite. Iowa is 27-24 since its 2009 Orange Bowl season, so yes, fans ought to demand more bang for the buck. Thing is, from my view just to the west, I didn't sense more than moderate unrest even after the 2012 debacle.

Iowa fans understand the economics in play here. They like Ferentz as the face of the program. And expectations in Iowa City may never match those in place at Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska. All told, the Hawkeyes know what they have in their coach and generally like it. In this case, stability pays.




 



Mitch Sherman: The answer is multi-faceted. First, consider that Wisconsin is just one year removed from three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances. With a tip of the cap to Michigan State, the Badgers maximize talent more efficiently than any Big Ten team.

So look at this group, with a suspect front seven on defense, the underwhelming Joel Stave at quarterback and a questionable group of receivers. You may see a mediocre club. Others see a team set up to make a run at the College Football Playoff. That's the Wisconsin way.

There's also Melvin Gordon, who led the nation in per-carry rushing average in each of the past two seasons. He's back to run behind a stout offensive line. Finally, check out the schedule. Yeah, LSU awaits in the opener, but there's no better time to get the young Tigers. The Badgers face Nebraska at Camp Randall and play Rutgers and Maryland from the East Division.




 



Mitch Sherman: Only two coaches qualify as realistic possibilities, Brady Hoke and Bo Pelini. Either could land himself in trouble with a poor season, though isn't that always the case at Michigan and Nebraska?

In his fourth season, Hoke needs to rebound from a difficult six-game finish to last season. It began with a 24-3 drubbing at Michigan State and ended with a 31-14 loss to Kansas State. In between, the Wolverines lost at home to Nebraska and Iowa. Though all the pieces don't appear in place, it's time for Michigan to reverse the trajectory on display the past three years.

For Pelini, the story is different. His record, 58-24 in six years, stands up nationally. But the lack of a conference championship -- it's been since 1999 -- is a burden that has long troubled Nebraska fans. The Hail Mary escape against Northwestern last year may have saved the Huskers and their coach from a disastrous finishing stretch. Good fortune won't always be on their side.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
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Proof there is a God.
Big Ten media days are less than a week away. Can you feel the excitement? You know enough about the coaches in attendance, but it's time to take a closer look at the players coming to Chicago.

Here's the full list, but we'll begin with the East Division, followed by the West later on.

INDIANA

David Cooper, LB, senior: A two-year starter at linebacker -- one at middle, one on the weak side -- Cooper led the Hoosiers with 85 tackles last season and added a fumble recovery. If the defense finally turns the corner, he'll likely play a significant role.

Nate Sudfeld, QB, junior: Tre Roberson's transfer makes Sudfeld the clear-cut starter entering the season. The junior from California started eight games last season and passed for 2,523 yards with 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Shane Wynn, WR, senior: Like Sudfeld, Wynn moves into a more featured role as Indiana loses standout Cody Latimer and others. Wynn has 114 receptions for 17 touchdowns in the past two seasons.

MARYLAND

C.J. Brown, QB, senior: The sixth-year player enters his second full year as the starter after becoming the first Maryland player to eclipse 2,000 pass yards and 500 rush yards in a season. His father, Clark, played quarterback at Michigan State.

Stefon Diggs, WR, junior: Diggs might be the Big Ten's best and most explosive wide receiver as he returns from a broken leg that shortened his 2013 season. The one-time Ohio State recruiting target finished eighth nationally with 172.4 all-purpose yards per game in 2012.

Jeremiah Johnson, CB, senior: He led Maryland in pass breakups (8) and had five tackles for loss while starting every game in 2012. Johnson missed most of last season with a fractured toe.

MICHIGAN

Frank Clark, DE, senior: The Wolverines' most experienced defensive linemen needs to take his game to an elite level in his final season. Clark enters his second full year as a starter after recording 12 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 2013.

Devin Gardner, QB, senior: He has had a truly unique career, which began as a wide receiver and will culminate as the starting quarterback for the second straight year, provided he holds off Shane Morris in camp. Gardner, fully healed from a foot injury, had 2,960 pass yards and 483 rush yards as a junior.

Jake Ryan, LB, senior: Ryan made an incredible recovery from an ACL tear to start five games last season, but he's hoping to regain the form he displayed in 2012, when he led Michigan in tackles (88), solo stops (56), tackles for loss (16), sacks (4.5) and forced fumbles (4). If healthy, he could contend for Big Ten defensive player of the year honors.

MICHIGAN STATE

Shilique Calhoun, DE, junior: He comes off of a breakout season in 2013, when he earned second-team All-America honors and was named the Big Ten's defensive lineman of the year. Calhoun tied for second nationally with four fumble recoveries (two for touchdowns) and finished with 14 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.

Connor Cook, QB, junior: No player represented Michigan State's championship run more than Cook, who blossomed in Big Ten play after being named the permanent starter. He finished with 2,755 pass yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions, and won MVP honors at both the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl.

Kurtis Drummond, S, senior: Although Drummond has made 21 consecutive starts at safety, he takes on a bigger role for the "No Fly Zone" secondary after the losses of Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis. The veteran earned All-Big Ten honors.

OHIO STATE

Michael Bennett, DT, senior: Ohio State's defensive line might be the league's best position group and Bennett, a preseason All-American, is a big reason why. After recording seven sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles in 2013, Bennett is pegged as a possible first-round draft pick and will be in the mix for national awards.

Jeff Heuerman, TE, senior: The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Heuerman provides a big target in the passing game and should claim a bigger role in the offense this season after recording 26 receptions and four touchdowns in 2013.

Braxton Miller, QB, senior: He's the biggest name at Big Ten media days -- the league's reining offensive player of the year in both 2012 and 2013. Miller already has won more Big Ten awards (seven) than any player in league history, but he still lacks a Big Ten championship.

PENN STATE

Bill Belton, RB, senior: Belton has shared carries at running back the past two seasons but appears ready for a bigger role after a solid first spring under the new coaching staff. Although fellow backs Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch also return, Belton's playmaking ability stands out, as he averaged 94.2 all-purpose yards per game in 2013.

Sam Ficken, PK, senior: The most interesting kicker in the Big Ten is the only specialist on this year's list in invitees. Ficken has been through it all at Penn State, from a disastrous day at Virginia in 2012 to a record-setting streak of 15 made field goals to some inconsistency late last season. Special teams coordinator Charles Huff expects a big finish from him.

Mike Hull, LB, senior: He's the quarterback of a defense that should improve under first-year coordinator Bob Shoop. Hull is one of the league's more experienced linebackers and could blossom after finishing second on the squad with 78 tackles in 2013.

RUTGERS

Michael Burton, FB, senior: A fullback at media days is quite Big Ten of Rutgers, and the hardworking Burton embodies the position he plays. The former walk-on has emerged as a major team leader after starting games in each of the past three seasons.

Darius Hamilton, DL, junior: The 260-pound Hamilton plays both line spots and holds his own despite being somewhat undersized. He finished the 2013 season on a good note, recording four sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss in the final four contests.

Lorenzo Waters, S, senior: Waters enters his third season as a starter and will lead a secondary looking for better results from 2013. He has 130 tackles, four forced fumbles and two interceptions in the past two seasons.
It's less than a week now until Big Ten media days arrive at the Hilton Chicago, where 14 smiling coaches will appear, and the smell of football will permeate the air. Can you feel the excitement?

To prepare you for the festivities, we're answering three questions facing each team. It's time to look at the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. A popular pick to finish last in the East Division, Rutgers will be represented in their first visit to this event by coach Kyle Flood, senior fullback Michael Burton, junior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton and senior safety Lorenzo Waters.

1. What can Rutgers expect from Gary Nova?

Nova is the veteran quarterback who was benched late last season in favor of Chas Dodd. The move didn't work out especially well for Flood and former offensive coordinator Ron Prince, who parlayed his single season at Rutgers into a position with the Detroit Lions. The Scarlet Knights and their quarterback should fare better with new coordinator Ralph Friedgen, the former Maryland coach lured by Flood and the Big Ten move back into coaching after a three-year absence. Nova, who has started 28 games, is a proven winner. Rutgers returns the bulk of its ground game. He can provide a steady hand through this time of transition and perhaps help Flood's club exceed the low expectations.

2. Who made this schedule, anyway?

After a Thursday night opener on Aug. 28 at Washington State and an otherwise unimpressive non-conference slate, the Scarlet Knights' path gets downright treacherous. Rutgers plays the Penn State Littany Lions and the Michigan Wolverines at home to open the Big Ten, then faces trips to the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Nebraska Cornhuskers, followed by a return home to meet the Wisconsin Badgers. Mix in a finishing stretch against the Indiana Hoosiers and trips to the Michigan State Spartans and fellow newcomer Maryland Terrapins, and you're looking at a recipe for trouble. It's not easy to be the new kid, preparing for an unknown foe every week. Just ask Nebraska in 2011, which faced an equally daunting list of opponents and was twice blown out on the road. Most likely, Rutgers is in for a rude introduction to the Big Ten, maligned often as a league but still a sizable step up from the AAC.

3. What's the most realistic reason for optimism?

No doubt, it's the defense. New 35-year-old coordinator Joe Rossi, elevated from special teams coordinator, inherits a salty bunch, led up front by Hamilton, who figures to improve on his 4 1/2-sack sophomore season. Sophomore Steve Longa, strangely omitted from the Butkus Award watch list, is a tackling machine, and Kevin Snyder is solid in the middle. Waters leads a group of defensive backs that struggled last year, allowing more passing yards than any team in school history. It contributed to the ouster of coordinator Dave Cohen, but the group figures to improve this fall with more stability throughout. The Nittany Lions and quarterback Christian Hackenberg offer a nice test in Week 3.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 22, 2014
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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 offseasons. We start with the teams in the East Division, with the West Division teams coming a little later.

Indiana Hoosiers tackle a hamburger eating contest White T-shirt dinner in Maryland Youth campers too much for Michigan State Spartans players Michigan Wolverines coach Brady Hoke serves up breakfast Ohio State Buckeyes go paint-balling Penn State Nittany Lions set a "Lift for Life" record Rutgers' Scarlet Knight beefing up  

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.

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