- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Happy Derby weekend. Brian Bennett has already started his. Me? I might get a jump on Cinco de Mayo on Dos de Mayo.
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Chris from Bellport, N.Y., writes: Adam, I saw a projection for Michigan this year of 8-4, which seems reasonable at this point based on the unanswered questions remaining for the team. My question is everyone looks at the three tough road games as three potential losses. I think if they can win one of Ohio or MSU they could go 2-1 in those, but what about the fact that they don't have Wisconsin, Iowa, or Nebraska on the schedule this year? Is that cause for a little more optimism, not having the potential top three in the west on the schedule?
Adam Rittenberg: It could be, Chris, but Michigan shouldn't look past anyone on its schedule. I know Michigan owns Minnesota, but the Gophers should give the Wolverines a better game Sept. 27 when they visit Ann Arbor. Michigan needed miracle plays to beat Northwestern the past two seasons. Indiana gave the Wolverines' defense all sorts of problems last season at the Big House. Don't get me wrong: Michigan's season likely hinges on those three road games. But just because Michigan beats Michigan State or Ohio State doesn't mean it's guaranteed to sweep the other nine contests. Fifteen years ago? Sure. But those days are over.
Jack from Champaign, Ill., writes: In your last mailbag, you answered a question about [Tim] Beckman's latest recruit and talked how he needs to end his bowl drought with Illinois. However, what if this ends up being a surprisingly stellar recruiting year in which the Illini go 5-7? Obviously I know we're not talking about a top-10 recruiting class, but in general a very strong one, above the ones in recent years. Would that be enough to buy Beckman an extra year, or is that all that matters for him at this point?
Adam Rittenberg: This scenario would put athletic director Mike Thomas in a tough spot. Some Illini fans have wanted Tim Beckman gone from the middle of his first season. Attendance has been poor and enthusiasm remains tepid. It's really not that hard to make bowl games in this environment, and three consecutive seasons without a bowl would make it tough for Beckman to return. Remember that Ron Zook's teams still made bowls -- and won them -- in his final two years. Recruiting definitely plays a part and Thomas wants to see his hire work out, but there could be too much external pressure for a change.
Tom from Fort Worth, Texas, writes: Hypothetical question or pipe dream, but nonetheless I will ask: Say Rutgers comes into the Big Ten and surprises a few teams and wins more than expected this coming season. Does the perception of the Big Ten go down or does Rutgers gain more respect?
Adam Rittenberg: Tom, not to dodge your question, but it really depends on what happens around the league. Conference perception really depends on what's happening at the top, not the middle, where Rutgers would presumably be if it surprises some teams. Are the Big Ten's elite teams beating top teams from other leagues in nonconference play or in bowls? Is a Big Ten team reaching the playoff or winning the national title? Those are more important factors. So if Rutgers prevents Michigan State or Ohio State from reaching the playoff, some will say it points to a weak Big Ten. But if the Big Ten performs well in nonleague games and bowls, and if Rutgers happens to finish 8-4 with a nice win or two, it enhances the perception of both the conference and Rutgers.
PurdueMan from Chicago writes: Adam, Mitch Sherman's Purdue spring wrap article states that Purdue will win a Big Ten game. I'm not so sure. The team I saw at the spring game was essentially the same team I saw the second half of the season with the exception that the defense did tackle better, but they were playing the Purdue offense, so ... Did you see Purdue's spring game and enough other teams to make a good comparison to how far my Boilers are still behind? I saw a little MSU, not that I expect Purdue to be as good as them, and was reminded at what football can look like.
Adam Rittenberg: Chin up, PurdueMan. The Boilers will be better in 2014. I watched a practice this spring and take more from those workouts than spring games, which are often misleading and overblown by fans. Don't get me wrong; there are concerns, from depth along the offensive line to linebacker to certain spots in the secondary. Purdue was a mess last season, and it's hard to fix all those problems in one offseason. But I see more cohesion on offense and multiple options at running back (Raheem Mostert, Akeem Hunt) and wide receiver. The defensive line could be a strength, as tackle Ra'Zahn Howard has a chance to be one of the league's surprise players. I also get the sense Purdue had no team chemistry last season. Things have changed. As quarterback Austin Appleby told me, "The guys that aren't all about it are getting suffocated by us. Those guys eliminate themselves."
rtXC from Denison, Texas, writes: After the SEC's "groundbreaking" announcement to stay at eight conference games and have each of its teams play one team from the Power 5, would you like to see the other conferences band together and make a stand? Other than certain SEC-ACC rivalries and current contracts for future games, how about the four conferences band together and abstain from scheduling SEC teams in the future?
Adam Rittenberg: It would be interesting to see this, rtXC, after the current contracts expire. Several playoffs would be competed by then, so we would have a better idea if the SEC's model helped, hurt or didn't impact itself or other leagues. It comes down to how united these other leagues would be in their opposition to the SEC's model. The Pac-12 coaches seem pretty ticked, but I don't know if other leagues would care enough to band together in this way. Maybe if one of their champions is shut out of the playoff in favor of a SEC division runner-up, things would change.
6dMitch Sherman and Dan Murphy