- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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You're used to seeing my mailbag run on Thursdays, but we're going to try and mix it up this season and go a day earlier. As always, send your questions here or via Twitter. Next week: actual football to talk about. Today, the last of our preview-type questions.
Ryan from Parts Unknown writes: Which teams, according to their schedules, do you believe will get off to the hottest start in the Big Ten?
Brian Bennett: Well, if you read my piece from Monday, you'll see that I don't think there are many marquee out-of-league games. So the possibility is there for a lot of teams to get off to nice starts in September. When you factor in the early Big Ten games, here is how I would rank the teams with the best chance for a really good start:
1. Nebraska: If the Huskers can beat UCLA in Week 3 at home, they really ought to be 7-0 heading into November. Their October Big Ten slate is Illinois at home, followed by Purdue and Minnesota on the road.
2. Michigan State: Even if you factor in a loss at Notre Dame on Sept. 21, the Spartans have a great chance of being 7-1 heading into their Nov. 2 showdown vs. Michigan. The toughest road challenge besides the Irish is an Oct. 5 game at Iowa.
3. Penn State: Three of the four nonconference games carry at least medium degrees of difficulty, but the Nittany Lions don't play a true road game until Oct. 5 at Indiana, to whom they've never lost.
Andy from Lincoln writes: Which B1G team, has the biggest chance of blowing their season early?
Brian Bennett: Andy, did you and Ryan coordinate questions? Well, this is the flip side of the coin. Here are my top three teams whose seasons could get wrecked early by the schedule:
1. Purdue: A 1-7 start is a grim, but real, possibility, with Cincinnati, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Northern Illinois, Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State all on the docket in the first eight games.
2.Wisconsin: The Badgers schedule is not terribly taxing overall, but the first six games could make or break it. They travel to Arizona State in Week 3, play at Ohio State in Week 5 and face a dangerous Northwestern team on Oct. 12. A couple early setbacks could put Wisconsin out of division contention before mid-October.
3. Indiana: Hopes are high for a bowl game this year for the Hoosiers, and they have eight home dates. But if IU stumbles early on in a stretch that includes potentially tricky games against Navy, Bowling Green and Missouri, they could already be behind the eight ball as they start Big Ten play vs. Penn State and then play on the road at Michigan State and Michigan. Still a young team in several areas, Indiana might not be able to recover from some early punches in the nose.
Ted W. from Chicago writes: Hey, if you're going to talk about weakness in Big Ten nonconference schedules, you gotta mention that Vandy canceled two games this year against Big Ten opponents.
Brian Bennett: Ted, if you're going to use Vanderbilt -- a team that is not ranked in the top 30 of either major poll and is likely no better than the seventh- or eighth-best team in the SEC -- as an example of a team that would increase the difficulty of Big Ten schedules, then you're making my point for me.
Steve from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Hypothetically speaking, how likely is it that a 12- or 13-0 Ohio State team gets more credit from the pollsters because they went 12-0 last year? Will that be the way pollsters will/should/could look at Ohio State toward the end of the season as a a 24-0 or 25-0 team as opposed to merely a 12- or 13-0 team?
Brian Bennett: That's a good point, Steve. Though pollsters are supposed to only consider the current season's results, they are human and can't help but be informed by past knowledge. A potential two-season run of being unbeaten would enhance Ohio State's image and bolster the Buckeyes' claim despite their weak nonconference schedule. And don't underestimate the Urban Meyer factor. Because of his track record, voters will not look at Ohio State as some puffed-up paper tiger, and who wouldn't want to see him face an SEC team for the title? Regardless, an undefeated Ohio State is getting into the BCS title game no questions asked unless we have a rare, weird year of more than two undefeated power conference champs.
David from Clarkston, Mich., writes: While I agree with most of your top 25 players list, I think there is one glaring omission. I noticed you didn't include Jake Ryan. While I suspect this was because of his injury, all the news out of Wolverine camp has him being ready for the start of the Big Ten season. With that probability shouldn't he make the list?
Brian Bennett: David, Ryan would have been a top-10 player had he been healthy to start the year. While the news on his rehab is encouraging and we hope to see him return as soon as possible, there certainly is no guarantee that he will be back by early October or that he will come back 100 percent. We've seen quick ACL recoveries before, but that's not the norm. We decided to be cautious with our ranking and did not include Ryan since we have no idea how much he'll contribute this season.
Dustin from Minneapolis writes: I keep reading predictions for Wisconsin's season using a new coach as a negative. I see it as an upgrade, especially given most core things will be the same. major change is the 3-4, which seems to fit the personnel better. Transitions can over headaches, but thus far it has appeared seamless. If anything it has seemed to recharge the troops. Either way our troubles are OL depth, WR step-ups and secondary. Homer maybe, but I really feel people are sleeping on the talent we have coming back and overstating some issues.
Brian Bennett: I don't view the transition as being much of a negative, although the Badgers players have now had a bunch of different coaches in the past couple of years. I'm more concerned with the areas you mentioned, particularly the receiving corps and the secondary. And while Wisconsin has plenty of talent, let's not forget this team lost six games a year ago. I still predicted a 9-3 record for Gary Andersen's first season, which I would view as a success.
Eric from Los Angeles writes: Hey Brian, love the blog. My question is, why is Michigan getting the benefit of the doubt on all of their holes (where they have had to replace almost their entire offensive and defensive line, their secondary leader, and their best linebacker at least for the first few months of the season) when teams like Northwestern and Michigan State don't? I understand you said teams 2-7 are close ... but on a neutral field, I would take Northwestern, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State all over the Wolverines.
Brian Bennett: It's a fair question. Michigan does have some holes. But I like the talent and the coaching track record. While the Wolverines must replace three offensive line starters, the new guys were in most cases big-time recruits, and having Taylor Lewan as an anchor is an awfully nice start. I simply trust Greg Mattison and Brady Hoke at this point to put together a very good defense, and I love the potential of Devin Gardner in that offense. Michigan, in my view, has far fewer holes to fill than Nebraska, which is replacing almost all of its defense, or Michigan State, which still has major concerns at quarterback, running back, receiver, tight end and offensive line. Maybe we're overrating Michigan a tad, but I did pick Nebraska to win the Legends Division.
Kurt from Arlington Heights, Ill., writes: Hawkeye fan here: After reading the blog the last few weeks, it looks like the press expects Iowa to win 5-6 games. Since we know Iowa plays their best when "nobody believes in us," how surprised are you going to be when Iowa is playing in the conference championship undefeated?
Brian Bennett: Kirk Ferentz has definitely surprised us before, but few people believed in Iowa as a serious contender last year, and they lived down to those expectations. Look, if everything goes right, the Hawkeyes could easily get back to a bowl game and knock some people off in the Legends race. I just don't think there's enough overall talent on hand for Iowa to become a serious division contender. But I've been wrong before. Predictions won't be worth much starting this weekend.
Josh from Not a football stadium writes: Brian, as we are all obsessed with all things Big Ten - can you have your ESPN people create us an official Big Ten fantasy football system? I reckon you and Adam need to stop keeping this wonderful game all to yourselves.
Brian Bennett: Josh, it already exists. Go to ESPN.com's College Football Challenge, start a league and limit your player pool to Big Ten players only. Voila. Then all you need is a few friends to get it going. As someone who's a fantasy nerd in baseball and basketball but refuses to play in an NFL league, I have my issues with fantasy football. But when you could do it using college teams and your favorite conference, what's not to love?