Michigan Wolverines: Big Ten

The most exciting day of the Big Ten offseason is here. OK, not really, but it's definitely in the top five.

The first portion of the Big Ten's prime-time schedule is out as ABC/ESPN made its six selections for games to be played under the lights. The Big Ten Network will announce its prime-time picks next week. Additional kickoff times could be announced later this spring or early in the summer.

Here's the ABC/ESPN schedule:

Sept. 6

Virginia Tech at Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

Sept. 20

Miami at Nebraska, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Oct. 4

Nebraska at Michigan State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Oct. 11

Penn State at Michigan, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN or ESPN2*

Oct. 25

Ohio State at Penn State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Nov. 1

Illinois at Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

*-previously announced

A few notes, quotes and observations:

November night games

Contrary to popular belief, the Big Ten never had a strict policy against playing prime-time games after Nov. 1, but most of its schools preferred to keep those games in the first two months of the season. League members have shown an increased willingness to schedule more prime-time games, and after discussing November night contests for several years, we finally have one.

[+] EnlargeOhio Stadium
David Dermer/Getty ImagesOhio Stadium will host its first November night game in 2014.
Although the November matchup -- Illinois at Ohio State -- lacks a wow factor, this is still a positive step for the league. Also, this is not the final list for November prime-time games, as others will be announced in the future.

"There is a real recognition with our coaches, our athletic directors and our fans that prime-time football is very important," Mark Rudner, the Big Ten's senior associate commissioner for television administration, told ESPN.com. "It's important to the conference, it's important to recruiting, it puts you on a big stage.

"It's a big event whenever you have prime-time football."

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and coach Urban Meyer both have vocalized their desire for more night games. The Buckeyes get three of them on ABC/ESPN (two home, one road), and possibly more to come. It's the Urban Effect.

Huskers, Lions back in prime

No two Big Ten fan bases value night football at their home venues more than Penn State and Nebraska. The Nittany Lions and Huskers both host prime-time games on ABC/ESPN in 2014 (Nebraska didn't have an ABC/ESPN prime-time game in 2013) and make multiple appearances.

The Nebraska-Miami game should be a fun one, especially given the history between the two programs in bowl games (their last five meetings took place in major bowl games). Nebraska's visit to Michigan State is one of few must-see division crossover contests, so it makes sense in prime time.

Beaver Stadium will be rocking for the Ohio State game as former longtime Penn State assistant coach Larry Johnson makes his return to Happy Valley wearing scarlet and gray. Although Penn State remains ineligible for postseason play, the Lions' value is reflected here with East Division matchups against both Michigan and Ohio State. The Lions' consecutive winning seasons despite the bowl ban, plus the arrival of coach James Franklin, enhance the program's appeal for top TV slots.

No limits on prime-time appearances

Big Ten teams typically have had no more than three prime-time appearances per season, but like the November night games issue, this was more of a preference than a policy. As schools like Ohio State become increasingly more open to night football, the number of prime-time appearances will increase, and will occasionally exceed three.

Wisconsin played four prime-time games (two home, two road) in the 2011 season.

"That three [limit] was really self-imposed," Rudner said. "You could waive it if you wanted to. I don't know if that will be as hard and fast as it was before. They see the value in these big events, these big games."

Additional games/announcements

Some Big Ten prime-time games were previously announced, such as Michigan's Sept. 6 trip to Notre Dame and Purdue's Sept. 13 neutral-site game against Notre Dame. A game time has not been set for Wisconsin's season-opener against LSU on Aug. 30 in Houston, but the game will kick off in prime time and be televised by an ESPN network.

One thing to remember when predicting or analyzing night-game choices: other games being played in the same window. Prime-time kickoffs offer certain benefits, but teams don't like being overshadowed in the late window.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
12:00
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How long is too long to wait for free pizza?
  • Michigan's new offensive coordinator might be "insane" according to Devin Gardner, but Doug Nussmeier's might be just what the program needs.
  • Michigan State backup quarterback Tyler O'Connor has no plans to transfer, even with Connor Cook ahead of him on the depth chart.
  • Penn State moved a pair of defensive tackles to the offensive line, a sign of confidence in the players already on hand in the defensive trenches.
  • The Ohio State offensive line has a bunch of new faces, but the guy leading the unit remains the same. Ed Warinner's presence continues to give the Buckeyes confidence they can reload up front.
  • After a year away from football, Maryland receiver Marcus Leak has returned humbled, more mature and looking to make an impact.
  • Brandon Scherff has always been known for his ability to look ahead, and that trait is a big part of the reason the star left tackle elected to stay at Iowa for another season.
  • The tackles at Purdue are under intense scrutiny this spring, but the program has been pleasantly surprised with the play of sophomore J.J. Prince so far.
  • Vincent Valentine had his body right ahead of spring practice, but the Nebraska defensive tackle realized quickly he needed to make some technical improvements to have a big sophomore season.
  • Tanner McEvoy has played well elsewhere, but the Wisconsin junior made clear he'd prefer to stick around at quarterback.
  • The latest twist in the drama unfolding at Northwestern: Trevor Siemian opposes forming a union, and the quarterback indicated "a lot" of teammates feel the same way.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
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RIP, Princess Lacey.

Spring game recap: Michigan

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
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Spring (practice) has officially sprung for Michigan, which became the first Big Ten team to hold its spring game on Saturday at the Big House.

An estimated crowd of 15,000 took in the festivities, which included a non-scoring scrimmage. You can find coverage of the game here, here and here. And here's a brief recap:

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Devin Gardner threw two interceptions and completed just two passes in the Wolverines' spring game.
Star of the game: Cornerback Jourdan Lewis had two interceptions on the day, though he was also whistled for two pass interference penalties.

How it went down: It was just a spring game, and as most teams are wont to do, the Wolverines kept things very vanilla for their first public practice session of the year.

Still, fans had hoped to see some inklings of progress, especially from the new offense led by coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who was hired away from Alabama in the winter. Players had talked about making more big plays in practice in Nussmeier's scheme.

There wasn't much evidence of that on Saturday. On the very first snap of the scrimmage, Devin Gardner was intercepted by Lewis in his own territory. Gardner -- still not 100 percent on his healing foot -- would finish just 2-for-10 for 53 yards, though he's in no danger of losing the job. Backup Shane Morris went 5-for-11 for 73 yards, and his final throw was also picked off by Lewis, who started at corner and made a nice impression in that competition. (He'll need to keep doing that this summer, since Jabrill Peppers is on the way).

"I definitely think we're going to be tighter on offenses this year," Lewis said afterward. "We are playing more man-to-man and we'll be closer to those guys to break it up or intercept it."

The one big play was a 44-yard strike from Gardner to Freddy Canteen, the early enrollee who has been the talk of the spring in Ann Arbor. He looks like the real deal and will likely earn a starting job at receiver.

The running game produced mixed results. De'Veon Smith got the most reps with the first unit, running nine times for 21 yards. Derrick Green added 16 yards on six carries, while Justice Hayes had six attempts for 33 yards. The offensive line, which included early enrollee Mason Cole as the first-team left tackle, struggled to open up holes and get a push up front. The defense registered five sacks, including one each from defensive linemen Frank Clark, Brennen Beyer and Willie Henry.

"Inconsistent" is how coach Brady Hoke described the offensive performance.

"I think there were a couple good runs in there that they did a pretty good job with," he said. "We needed to be a little more consistent in the protection game. Through the course of the 15 practices, I think there has been some real improvements made."

Hoke has maintained all along that a team depending on many freshmen and sophomores will need some time to come together. On Saturday, they showed that in several key areas.

"There's no question," Hoke said, "we need a lot of improvement."

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
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Winter is coming ... but not soon enough.

Video: Michigan's Devin Funchess

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
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video Michigan's Devin Funchess talks about the Wolverines' receivers and his role in the team's new offense.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
12:00
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It’s April Fool’s Day. Resist the urge.

Enjoy some spring football:
  • A feel-good story as a group of players from Rutgers continue to use their spring breaks to help rebuild infrastructure in Haiti. A grim outlook for Rutgers in the Big Ten, courtesy of a former long-time New Jersey legislator.

  • Penn State’s initial recruiting success under James Franklin is gaining notice nationally and on the local scene.

  • Ohio State looks forward to a deeper rotation on the defensive line, which means fewer snaps for Michael Bennett. As for the Buckeyes' offensive line, depth is still a concern.

  • The pursuit of defensive tackle Malik McDowell, once a Michigan State pledge, remains unsettled despite the passing of a deadline. The Spartans look for 5:30 a.m. workouts to build mental toughness.

  • Meanwhile, Michigan is also in search this spring of that elusive element of toughness, writes Jeremy Fowler. Michigan offensive lineman Ben Braden developed his athletic skills as a hockey player.

  • An op-ed from the New York Times on justice being served as Northwestern players bid to unionize. The leader of the newly-formed association is looking forward. But hold off on drawing major conclusions over all the recent union talk.

  • Minnesota linebacker Cody Poock reportedly has suffered a torn knee ligament.

  • Nebraska coach Bo Pelini says offensive tackle Alex Lewis has exceeded expectations and requirements in his transition to Lincoln after a troublesome time last year as he prepared to depart Colorado. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. must be pushed, writes Steve Sipple.




The spring game is a preview for the season and with so many early enrollees this year, it is going to give fans and the media a pretty good look at what next season could hold for the Wolverines. So leading up to the scrimmage, we’re going to look a few stats that really matter for next season for Michigan if the Wolverines want to make the Big Ten championship game.

Stat: Michigan defense against the run

2013 review: The Wolverines struggled against the run last season. Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison were in charge of the defensive line, but Michigan never reached any level of consistency with a four-man rush, and pressuring the quarterback was no easy task last season.

The Wolverines allowed 140.2 rushing yards per game last season and 3.8 yards per rush, which put Michigan in the top 40 nationally in both of those categories. But it’s hard to compare the Wolverines’ total allowed rushing yards on a national scale, considering the difference in spread vs. pro-style teams and the effect that has on passing and rushing yardage.

However, comparing Michigan to other Big Ten teams provides a better look at where the Wolverines fell and where they could improve. Michigan finished fifth in the conference in rushing yards allowed per game, behind Michigan State (86.3), Wisconsin (102.5), Ohio State (109.4) and Iowa (128.3).

[+] EnlargeGreg Mattison
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIMichigan's run defense under Greg Mattison ranked in the middle of the pack of the Big Ten in 2013.
Though the Wolverines did allow big rushing yards last season, they didn’t allow big rushing scores. Opponents only scored 14 rushing touchdowns on 478 rushes. That means that opposing teams only scored on 3.1 percent of its rush attempts, putting the Wolverines in the top 20 nationally in that statistic.

While the Wolverines kept rushers out of the end zone, they didn’t stop them from picking up yardage, however. Michigan struggled stopping the run in critical situations. On third downs when opponents chose to rush the ball, they converted 47.8 percent of the time. The national average was 49.3, but the Wolverines finished seventh in the Big Ten in that statistic.

And it only got worse when it came to fourth-down rushing conversions, as opponents moved the chains on 71.4 percent of their attempts. That ranked 11th in the Big Ten, only ahead of Ohio State (81.8 percent), and it put Michigan about 10 percent below the national average of 60.8 percent.

Opponents were able to convert on that percentage of third and fourth downs because the Wolverines allowed opposing offenses to pick up too many yards on first and second down. Michigan didn’t pressure opposing quarterbacks enough and get into the backfield nearly enough to wreak havoc. The Wolverines kept 109 rushes from getting past the line of scrimmage, but that was only 22.8 percent of the total rushes.

And once opponents did cross the line of scrimmage, they had relatively good success picking up solid gains. Of the 478 times opponents ran the ball against Michigan, they gained at least five yards on 171 attempts and at least 10 yards on 64 attempts. That means that, on average, at least one in three runs against Michigan got past the defensive line as well as some second-level defenders.

2014 preview: The defensive coaches have shuffled around and Hoke hopes that the combination of Mark Smith on the defensive line and Mattison coordinating the linebackers will allow Michigan to make strides next season.

But, what exactly would those strides be from a statistical standpoint? Here’s a look at the rushing stats allowed by teams that played in BCS bowl games last season and how they compare to Michigan in those same categories. Again, with some of these statistics you face the same issue of schedule and scheme, and that yielding 150 rushing yards to Auburn is a very different statistic than yielding 150 rushing yards to Purdue. But by looking at BCS bowl teams, it does give a general idea of numbers to aim for.

Yards per rush:
Michigan defense: 3.8
BCS bowl team average: 3.6

Touchdowns per rush:
Michigan defense: 3.1 percent
BCS bowl team average: 3.1

Third-down conversion percentage:
Michigan defense: 47.8 percent
BCS bowl team average: 45.1

Fourth-down conversion percentage:
Michigan defense: 71.4 percent
BCS bowl team average: 51.5

Percentage of rushes stopped before the line of scrimmage:
Michigan defense: 22.8 percent
BCS bowl team average: 27.7

Percentage of rushes going for five-plus yards:
Michigan defense: 35.8 percent
BCS bowl team average: 34.4

What these numbers show is that if the Wolverines rushing defense can step up in certain areas, they’ll be pretty similar to that of rushing defenses that played in the biggest games of the 2013-14 season. Obviously there are other parts of the game that need more growth, and the run defense is only a part of the defense as a whole.

Another thing to note about those numbers: Those defensive stats were being put up by teams that typically had much stronger offenses. When an offense is putting up 100 more yards and 14 more points per game and giving up the same amount of yardage as the Wolverines, there’s going to still be a big difference, even if some of the numbers are similar.

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
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Hope your bracket is faring better than mine ...
Who is the greatest Big Ten coach of all time? There's one way to find out: by pitting the best of the best in our own version of March Madness.

Our Big Ten coaches tournament bracket is down to the final eight competitors, with a Final Four bid on the line. Our top four overall seeds received first-round byes but now find themselves in some heated battles.

The third of our four second-round games features the first upset from the first round and one of most-recognizable figures in Big Ten history ...

No. 2 Michigan's Bo Schembechler vs. No. 10 Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez


Tournament résumés:
    SportsNation

    Which coach wins this second-round matchup?

    •  
      61%
    •  
      39%

    Discuss (Total votes: 7,322)

  • Alvarez: He revived the Badgers program during his 16 years as head coach in Madison, compiling 118 wins and three Rose Bowl championships. In fact, Alvarez is the only league coach to win back-to-back Rose Bowls. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010, and he always brought a certain swagger to the field that can still be felt in the program, which he oversees as athletic director.
  • Schembechler: "Those who stay will be champions" was a motto Schembechler used early in his tenure, and he proved that to be true -- at least as far as Big Ten titles. His 13 league championships are tied for the most ever, and his 143 Big Ten victories are the second-most all time. Schembechler has the highest conference winning percentage (.850) of any coach who competed in the Big Ten for at least 10 years. The one thing missing? No national title.

Which coach advances? Voting is open through the weekend, and drop us a note as to why you voted the way you did. The best responses will run in our results posts.

Big Ten's lunch links

March, 27, 2014
Mar 27
12:00
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Warning: Brackets are once again prone to be being busted.
  • Ohio State is auditioning students to see if anybody on campus can beat a speedster like Dontre Wilson in a race.
  • Michigan reshuffled its defensive coaching staff to get its line more hands-on attention, but that doesn't mean Brady Hoke will be staying away completely.
  • Taiwan Jones has the first crack at filling the vacant role at middle linebacker for Michigan State this spring, and the senior is embracing the move.
  • James Franklin is dialing up the intensity of workouts for Penn State, including reps in the Oklahoma Drill for just about everybody on the roster.
  • Rutgers is flip-flopping roles for two returning linebackers, trying to squeeze more production from the unit after a disastrous defensive season a year ago.
  • Wisconsin is looking to expand its recruiting footprint in the areas opened up by Big Ten expansion, and new recruiting coordinator Chris Beatty will lead the charge.
  • Randy Edsall is concerned about the kind of impact recruiting is having on kids these days, and he has a detailed plan to help take some pressure off and fix what he views as a broken system.
  • Replacing three senior linebackers is at the top of the priority list for Kirk Ferentz as spring practice gets rolling at Iowa.
  • A pair of notable injuries have opened up opportunities at wide receiver for Purdue, and Dan Monteroso is trying to make the most of his chance in the slot.
  • Ground will be broken this year on a sparkling new indoor practice facility at Minnesota, which is expected to come with a price tag of $70 million.
The spring game is a preview for the season and with so many early enrollees this year, it really is going to give fans and the media a pretty good look at what next season could hold for the Wolverines. So leading up to the scrimmage, we’re going to look a few stats that really matter for next season for Michigan if the Wolverines want to make the Big Ten championship game.

Stat: Michigan’s rushing percentages

2013 review: Looking at statistics gives a general idea for whether a team excelled or struggled, but to really piece in how much that team struggled in a certain facet of the game, sometimes it helps to look at percentages. For Michigan’s run game, that’ll be key in reviewing last season and looking forward to 2014.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMichigan running backs such as Derrick Green often found themselves stopped in their tracks before passing the line of scrimmage.
There are three percentages in the run game that are particularly important to look at when deciding how effective it was. The following is a look at those percentages for Michigan and comparing them to other leaders.

Percentage of runs that were 0/negative yards:
Michigan: 34.9
Big Ten leader (Ohio State): 15.0
National leader (Navy): 12.4

Percentage of runs that were 5-plus yards:
Michigan: 33.8
Big Ten leader/National leader (Ohio State): 54.6

Percentage of first downs per rush attempt:
Michigan: 21.6
Big Ten leader/National leader (Ohio State): 35.2

Obviously, negative plays were a huge issue for the Wolverines last season, and Brady Hoke and Doug Nussmeier both know that must improve in 2014. The negative plays in the run game were a particular disaster for Michigan as it led the nation in both percentage of rushing plays for zero or negative gain as well as the total number of those runs (174).

The team that accounted for the second-most unproductive runs was Utah State (163), but it ran the ball about 100 more times than Michigan, so it only accounted for an unproductive run about 20 percent of the time as opposed to Michigan, which saw one out of every three runs go nowhere.

Considering how many of the Wolverines’ runs went nowhere or backwards, it’s kind of surprising how many did eventually break out for gains of five-plus yards. It’s still a percentage that needs major improvement considering the Wolverines didn’t crack the top-100 nationally, finishing 109th, but it's surprising that they gained five-plus yards at the same clip that they were held for zero or negative yards.

In the best-case scenario, the percentage of runs that account for five or more yards needs to be much greater than the percentage of runs that account for zero yards or negative yardage -- a good rushing team can't be stopped that quickly that frequently. When looking at programs that finished in the top five in percentage of team rushes gaining five or more yards, it’s not surprising how much more prevalent productive rushes were in comparison to unproductive ones. Each of those teams broke out for five-plus yard runs at least 2.5 times more often than they accounted for rushes of that gained no positive yardage (Ohio State: 3.6, Texas A&M: 2.6, Oregon: 2.7, Northern Illinois: 3.5, Wisconsin: 2.5).

It’s also important to look at how often a team gained a first down when rushing. Just 10 teams in the country accounted for a first down more than 30 percent of the time they rushed the ball. Michigan was not one of them, only accounting for a first down 21.6 percent of the time it rushed the ball.

It didn’t take a whole lot of statistics to know that the run game was unproductive last season. But it certainly does help to dive more in to see exactly where and exactly how it was unproductive, then use those stats to see where the Wolverines need to make their most significant gains in 2014.

2014 preview: This is a part of Michigan’s game that must improve if the Wolverines want to have a successful season. Michigan could improve by 10 percent in each category, and that still might not be enough for the Wolverines to end up as Big Ten Champions.

However, if the Wolverines had been conference champs this season, that means they would’ve been headed to a BCS bowl game, so we can look at the statistical averages of the 10 teams that did play in BCS bowl games see where the Wolverines would need to hit in order to put themselves in that company.

As far the rushes of zero or negative yards, where the Wolverines struggled the most, BCS teams had an average of 19.8 percent of rushes going for zero or negative gain. That means the Wolverines would almost need to cut their percentage in half to reach that level, and would’ve required the Wolverines to have gained yards on 75 more runs than they did in 2013.

The Wolverines weren’t quite as far off in five-plus yard runs. With 33.8 percent of Michigan’s runs gaining at least five yards, it's less than 10 percent behind the average of last season's BCS teams. Those 10 teams, on average, gained at least five yards on 43.5 percent of their rushes.

And when it comes to first downs per rush, the average of the 10 BCS-bowl teams was 28.5 percent, with the lowest being 23.8 (Stanford). That average would require Michigan to boost its percentage by just 6.9 percent.

So while those might be high goals, but they’re goals that Michigan must strive for if it wants to find itself competing in the national spotlight any time soon.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
5:00
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Time for another round of your emails ...

@RevDJEsq via Twitter writes: You're made dictator of the B1G with power to implement three changes. What are they?

Brian Bennett: Lobster for everyone! All bowl games in Maui! Wait ... I only get to make three changes? What kind of weak dictator am I?

Anyway, to take your question a bit more seriously, I would have to look at changes that could realistically be made by a Big Ten über-commissioner. So I wouldn't have the power to make changes to NCAA rules unless I decided to break away from the NCAA entirely. (Thinking ... nah, let's not do that).

So in that spirit, I'd make the following three changes:
  • 1. No more 11 a.m. CT kickoffs and more night games: I get that TV dictates a lot of start times and the Big Ten likes having the early college football time slot as a showcase. But for schools in the Central Time Zone, those 11 a.m. starts are just way too early. It's hard to have any energy in the stadium when people have to wake up at dawn just to try and squeeze in some tailgating. So I'd make sure no game ever started before noon local time and I would work to get more games in primetime, including those in November.
  • 2. A 10-1-1 schedule: Let's go to 10 conference games. Yeah, you heard me. We've got 14 teams, and there's nothing better than league play, so why not have more of it? That would create balanced home-and-road schedules and lead to a truer Big Ten champ. Sure, it could hurt the conference when it comes to winning national titles, but it's not like the league has been piling those up anyway. The rest of the schedule would have to include one game against a team from the other four power leagues, plus one against any other FBS team. You want a bowl bid or a playoff berth? Fine. Earn it.
  • 3. Rotate the Big Ten title game: Indianapolis is a wonderful host for the Big Ten championship game. But there are a lot of other great cities in the Midwest that could do a great job. So let's have it in Chicago. Detroit. Minneapolis. Cleveland. Move it around and let other towns throw a big ol' Big Ten celebration. And have it in some cold weather every once in a while.

You might not agree with these decisions, but I'm the dictator here, so too bad. Now, bring me some more of your finest meats and cheeses!




Ryan from Lincoln, Neb., writes: Husker fans are just now starting to wake up to spring football now that basketball season has ended. With Ameer Abdullah, Imani Cross and Terrell Newby all returning for the Huskers this fall, plus an exciting new weapon in redshirt freshman Adam Taylor, would you say Nebraska has one of the most dynamic, if not most talented, stable of running backs in the conference? How do you think it currently stacks up against other programs such as Wisconsin, Michigan, or Ohio State?

Brian Bennett: Yeah, Ryan, Baylor was about the worst thing to happen to Nebraska since Steve Pedersen, eh? Anyway, I really like Nebraska's group of running backs. Heck, if the Cornhuskers had only Abdullah, I'd still really like them because he is one of the best and toughest players in the country. I thought Cross would have a little bit bigger impact last season, but he still scored 10 touchdowns and is a very effective weapon in short yardage. Newby is very promising, and I'm interested to see what Taylor can add.

Nebraska almost always has great backs, so this is no surprise. I'd rank the Huskers slightly below Wisconsin, simply because the duo of Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement could be devastating. Penn State has some excellent depth and options, and Ohio State has talent that's unproven. But Nebraska is up there near the very top.




Jake from MTL writes: Hey, Brian, with all the talk of the Michigan QB competition, why hasn't anyone mentioned Russell Bellomy? Has he dropped put of the competition and I just never got the news?

Brian Bennett: Bellomy is still there, Jake, although some might have forgotten about him after he missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL he incurred in spring practice. He did play in five games in 2012 and famously took over for Denard Robinson in the loss at Nebraska. I just don't think it's realistic to believe he can overtake Devin Gardner or Shane Morris for the starting role, and Wilton Speight is the flavor of the month as the newcomer. But Bellomy can add some depth to the position if nothing else.




Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J., writes: Brian, a lot has been made recently, with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland to the B1G, that this provides a natural rivalry for Penn State. There has also been a lot of mention about these not being real "rivalries" because Penn State has owned both of those football programs based on past records. I for one am OK with PSU NOT having a true "rival." I understand that some schools have built up rivalries over the decades, but I do NOT understand why the media has seemingly forced fans to think that their schools NEED to have a rival. You can't force these things, or just say because school X and school Y are in close proximity they have to be rivals. I believe MOST PSU fans would prefer to have Pitt scheduled every year, to continue that former "rivalry", as many PSU fans were taught from a young age, "if you can't go to college, you can always go to Pitt."

Brian Bennett: I agree with you that Pitt is Penn State's true rival, even though those teams haven't played since 2000. I'm so happy to see that series resume in 2016 and hope it becomes an annual occurrence. Ohio State has been a quasi-rival with the Nittany Lions, and Maryland and Rutgers at least bring some neighborly feuding to the table. But there's not a ton of juice there yet. Rivalries are great because they just add so much more intensity to the games -- see the recent Michigan-Michigan State installments or any edition of Ohio State-Michigan. Penn State already has a great home environment and fervent following, but it would be fun to see more true rivalry games for that program.




Cam from Lansing, Mich., writes: Other than for obvious money reasons related to TV, etc., does the move to the Big Ten make sense for Maryland and Rutgers? I think no from a competitive standpoint. Everyone knows football is the big money-making sport in college athletics, and with Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State in the same division as Maryland and Rutgers, in your mind how much of a shot do they have at being competitive?

Brian Bennett: Well, that's interesting, because most people ask if the move was a good one for the Big Ten, not the other way around. You cannot discount the money angle here, because both Rutgers and Maryland were in dire financial straits, and the Big Ten provided a lifeboat. Rutgers also had to get out of the crumbling shack of a home that was the American Athletic Conference. I fear for the Scarlet Knights men's basketball program after watching how bad it was in the AAC, but the football program at least has a solid footing. Rutgers, however, could be in for some culture shock with the week-to-week grind of the Big Ten.

Maryland doesn't gain a whole lot competitively from the move to the Big Ten East out of the ACC. But the Terrapins were already in the same ACC division as Florida State and Clemson and would have faced occasional games with Notre Dame. So it's not like the Big Ten is going to be all that much more difficult. If things don't go well, those schools' administrators can comfort themselves with their new giant bags of cash.
The spring game is a preview for the season and with so many early enrollees this year, it really is going to give fans and the media a pretty good look at what next year could hold for the Wolverines. So leading up to the scrimmage, we’re going to look a few stats that really matter for next season for Michigan if the Wolverines want to make the Big Ten Championship game.

Stat: Net yards per kickoff returns and punt returns.

2013 review: We’ll stick with the theme of special teams as we move along in our statistical look at what must improve for Michigan in 2014. On Monday, we dove into kickoff returns and on Tuesday we looked at punt returns. Now, we flip the script and look at Michigan’s punting and kicking game as well as how they do against return teams.

  • Punting
[+] EnlargeWill Hagerup
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesWill Hagerup will return to a crowded battle for Michigan's punting duties.
In 2013 Michigan averaged 40.8 yards per punt (67th nationally) on 62 punts. Like punt returns, this is a reflection of more than just special teams considering the offense stalled out enough to have to punt 62 times. However, the bright part was that the Wolverines allowed just 6.4 yards per punt return (40th nationally).

On average, this put Michigan opponents starting field position just over 69 yards from the goal line after the Wolverines punted. The ideal would be for every punt to either end up 99 yards from the goal line (or a touchback or fair catch would do, too). However, that was far from the case for the Wolverines in 2013 as opponents returned nearly half of Michigan’s punts (45.2 percent). There were only seven teams nationally that had higher percentages of their punts returned.

The Wolverines only recorded two touchbacks and 13 fair catches all season and 57 percent of the punts that were returned went at least five yards. None of those numbers put the Michigan special teams in the upper echelon of college football teams.

  • Kicking

Michigan averaged 59.2 yards per kickoff but registered a touchback on nearly half its kicks (48.1 percent). That percentage put the Wolverines at 25th best in the country. However, when the Wolverines did have to take down a returner, they struggled.

On average, opponents lined up 71.7 yards from the goal line following their return of a Michigan kick. Only 11 times all season (on 77 kicks) did opponents start inside their 25-yard line. Ohio State led the nation in that category, with their special teams pinning opponents inside their 25-yard line 49 times (on 108 kickoffs).

That means Michigan gave up 23.3 yards per return and on more than one-fifth of returns, the Wolverines gave up returns of 30-plus yards. That percentage of high returns (20.6 percent) puts Michigan in the bottom 25 of FBS teams in that regard.

2014 preview: Will Hagerup will be back for the 2014 season and is expected to battle Matt Wile and Kenny Allen for the starting spot at punter. Wile punted 61 times last season for the Wolverines while Allen punted just once. Wile also kicked off all 76 times for the Wolverines during the 2013 season so assuming he has continued to progress and no one else has come on too strong, he should be the starter.

Wile’s average of 40.6 yards per punt as a junior in 2013 wasn’t quite as impressive as Hagerup’s the previous season (45 yards per punt), but with Hagerup’s struggles in remaining eligible, this is certainly a position that the Wolverines would like to have some depth.

If each of those players can make improvements from last season (or in Hagerup’s case, the 2012-13 season) Michigan will be on the right track. But the place the Wolverines need make the biggest strides is in stopping opponents’ returners. Whether it’s more time in the weight room, better focus in film study or improving each individual's technique, the Wolverines need to show progress in this facet of the game in order to help their defense and give them the best chance to get off the field quickly.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
5:00
PM ET
Hope you all have caught your breath after a thrilling weekend of basketball action. Three Big Ten teams are still dancing, and my home state is about to go up in flames.

But enough about hoops. It's always football time around here, and this is a time when I answer your burning Big Ten questions.

3-2-1, shoot:

Adam from Houston, Texas, writes: Hey, Brian, two questions: 1) What are the "must-do's" for Braxton Miller to hoist the Heisman Trophy this year? I think in some fashion, watching tape on the former OSU Heisman winner Troy Smith can help. Smith was a much better passer than Miller, but was a threat running when he had to. I think he also has to show up mentally for big games. It was obvious even through the TV against Northwestern and Michigan State (read: away from home) he was rattled. Does growth as a "field general" increase his chances at all, or will it only come down to performance? 2) What is your preseason Heisman list?

Brian Bennett: Heisman talk in late March. I love it!

This is going to sound overly simplistic, but more than anything, Miller needs numbers and wins to get into serious Heisman contention. In the past two seasons, he has thrown for just more than 2,000 yards, with a 1,000-yard rushing season in each. He had 28 total touchdowns in 2012, 36 last season. Those are good, but not eye-popping, stats. Consider that last year's winner, Jameis Winston, threw for more than 4,000 yards and had 44 total touchdowns. Given the way offenses are heading, big-numbers guys such as Winston and Johnny Manziel are going to stand out.

To do that, Miller needs to continue to make strides as a passer, and his receiving corps -- especially with favorite target Philly Brown gone -- needs to step up and help him out. He also needs to stay healthy and upright behind a rebuilt offensive line.

And, of course, spotlight victories are tremendously important. Winston played for the national champs. Manziel beat Alabama. Miller was in the discussion the past two years because Ohio State won 24 consecutive games. For the first time this year, he'll have some tough early tests against Virginia Tech, Navy and Cincinnati. Big performances and wins in those games could give Miller a head of steam.

Finally, my preseason list would naturally include Winston -- even though it's virtually impossible to win the Heisman twice -- along with Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Baylor's Bryce Petty, UCLA's Brett Hundley and Miller. Winston and Manziel came out of virtually nowhere to win, however, so next year's Heisman could go to somebody we're not even discussing right now.


Rich from Des Moines writes: Brian, I'm sure whenever you do a post like the coaches tournament, you get crushed by people for leaving out their favorite coach/player/whatever. That's not my intention. Rather, I just want to ask why a few coaches that seem obvious for inclusion to me were not only left out of the bracket but not even mentioned in the closing paragraph as notable but not quite worthy of making the cut: 1. Biggie Munn, MSU: I understand he only coached one season in the Big Ten. But Tom Osborne coached zero seasons in the Big Ten; 2. Lloyd Carr, Michigan: While I am a committed UM hater, not mentioning him seems like a pretty big omission; 3. John Cooper: I know he is ridiculed in many quarters. I ridicule him for failing to understand the importance of the Michigan game, calling it just another game. But the guy won a lot.

Brian Bennett: Thanks for the (very-long-and-since-edited question), Rich. Going through this exercise proved one thing: there is a tremendous and rich history of outstanding coaches in the Big Ten. I know going in that we couldn't make everyone happy. We like to keep these types of fields short so they don't overwhelm the blog, but I probably could have expanded it to a 64-team field. As it was, we went to a 12-team tournament instead of the eight-entry bracket we used for the players' and championship teams' tournamaent.

To address your specific questions, longevity made a difference in our choices. So while Munn did great things at Michigan State, he only coached there for seven seasons, including one in the Big Ten. We also wanted to diversify our field as much as possible, so while Carr also accomplished a whole lot, Bo Schembechler and Fielding Yost seemed like better choices for Michigan. Cooper has some outstanding seasons, particularly 1993, 1996 and 1998, but he's not exactly beloved by Ohio State fans and we already had Woody Hayes and Jim Tressel. You can't please everybody. Just look at some of the controversial seeding in the men's basketball tournament.


Franklin from Norman, Okla., writes: What's with all the negative Michigan reporting these days? It seems like you guys are getting a kick out of it. It is quite clear that Adam does not like Michigan but I thought you were different. You guys are acting like Michigan is about to get hit with Penn State sanctions. Also, while you guys are all high on Michigan State and Ohio State (rightfully so), the upcoming season Michigan has will shock both of you. You are underestimating the impact coach [Doug] Nussmeier will have and the reorganizing that Brady Hoke did.

Brian Bennett: What you call "negative reporting," Franklin, I just call reporting. When a player as well known as Taylor Lewan gets charged with assault for an incident after the Ohio State game, that's news. When a starting offensive lineman gets suspended for the spring and the opener, that's news. No matter how much you love the Maize and Blue, I can't imagine you feel good about how the Brendan Gibbons saga has unfolded. I promise you that Adam and I derive no pleasure from reporting about off-the-field incidents and in fact would much, much rather just stick to writing about games and more pleasant stories. But stuff happens, and there's no way to deny that it hasn't been a great few months for the Wolverines this offseason. The best way to get past all that is to win, and the team certainly has the talent to do so, though many questions remain at several positions. I'm heading up to Ann Arbor this weekend and am eager to see how things are going this spring.


Jeff from between Omaha and Lincoln writes: Some of the coaches would like to be able to make scholarship offers earlier to help eliminate the flipping toward the end. This makes perfect sense to me. Teams need to make plans and have backup plans in place. However, doesn't this also work in reverse? A three-star athlete might want to go to a top-level program, but can't receive that offer because a commitment from a four- or five-star kid who said he wanted to go to that school. Isn't there a degree of discrimination happening here? If an athlete makes a commitment, he should be held to it. If he's not ready, the school can move on. The only exception should be if a coaching change is made. I'd like to see a few athlete-based lawsuits pop up against the rule-makers and see what happens.

Brian Bennett: Discrimination isn't really the word, but there are some complicating factors with coaches being allowed to offer earlier and an early signing period. Some players simply develop later while guys who are stars as juniors stagnate, especially once they get a big-time offer. Head coaches, assistants and roster plans change all the time. If big changes are made to the recruiting calender, I'd like to see some protections and restrictions in place. Limit the number of kids who could sign early to, say, no more than half the class. Allow anyone who signed early to get out of his letter if the head coach leaves afterward. These are some of the issues that need to be debated, in my opinion.


Drew from Detroit writes: Two quick questions... which B1G schools would you say have the best and worst football/basketball combo? Also, what's the difference between a "mailbag" and a "mailblog?"

Brian Bennett: Michigan State gets the nod from me for best combo, especially after just winning the Rose Bowl and for all its basketball success under Tom Izzo. But Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin are not far behind at all. As for the worst combo, right now it has to be Purdue, which finished last in the Big Ten in both sports. Historically, it's probably Northwestern, which is dragged down by a basketball program that still has never made the tournament.

As for the 'bag/'blog thing, I've always called it a mailbag, while Adam prefers mailblog, for whatever reason. That's not a piece of wordplay I particularly enjoy, but I've been known to make many groan-inducing puns. So to each his own.

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