Michigan Wolverines: Braxton Miller
Coaches are talking about the importance of taking it one game at a time while chasing a conference title. Players have busted out their finest suits and are raving about how difficult the offseason conditioning program was at their schools. And the media grabbed some free food between interviews.
There is one more day to go before the circus leaves Chicago, but before we get to that, the Big Ten blog is handing out some awards to put a bow on the opening day.
Best-dressed player: Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond. The honors could just as easily have gone to teammates Shilique Calhoun or Connor Cook, the former for his bow tie and the latter for his accessorizing with his enormous championship ring. But Drummond stole the show as the sharpest of the Spartans, who clearly looked the part of returning conference champs.
I think the Best Dressed award has been locked up today. Kurtis Drummond, folks. pic.twitter.com/XAnHXjJWKP— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Most fun-loving players: The bright spotlight and huge crowd around him might have kept Ohio State coach Urban Meyer a bit guarded, but his players certainly welcomed the attention and weren't afraid of being playful with the media. Tight end Jeff Heuerman loosened things up by locking quarterback Braxton Miller in a headlock, and after that, both decided to moonlight as media members by sneaking over to ask Meyer a few questions toward the end of a session -- a rare glimpse at the personalities off the field of two of the league's best talents on it.
Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman and Braxton Miller decided to join the media today and interview Urban Meyer. pic.twitter.com/scWhYDZRNs— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Biggest missed opportunity: The Wisconsin-LSU matchup to open the season is appealing enough at a neutral site. But the Badgers and Tigers could have taken the intrigue to another level by hosting those games at two of the loudest, most hostile stadiums in the country -- if only Gary Andersen had been around a couple of years earlier. The Badgers' coach said he "would have said yes" to a home-and-home series at Camp Randall and in Death Valley, a tantalizing what-might-have-been if the Tigers might have been as willing as Andersen.
Most appropriate Twitter handle: Nebraska’s Kenny Bell (@AFRO_THUNDER80). The 6-foot-1 receiver was probably the easiest player to pick out of a crowd, as his puffy afro towered over opposing players. Bell’s play didn’t earn him an award last season -- he was honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team -- but we just couldn’t go one more day without recognizing that 'fro.
Best-dressed coach: Penn State’s James Franklin. Every day, the head coach spends 22 minutes to shave his head in every direction and trim that goatee ... so it seems slightly surprising that he is probably the coach who spends the most time on his head, considering he’s bald. But, hey, it takes time to pull that look off -- and he was also looking dapper with that Penn State lapel, blue tie and matching pocket square. Franklin often jokes that he doesn’t need to sleep, so maybe he uses some of that extra time to pick out the right clothes.
James Franklin and our Josh Moyer are sharing head shaving techniques. Seriously. pic.twitter.com/S7iVnnNvo9— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) July 28, 2014
Quote of the day: Penn State linebacker Mike Hull has learned under three head coaches -- Joe Paterno, Bill O'Brien and Franklin -- during his career, and their personalities really couldn’t have been any different. Hull laughed while providing their takes on social media as an example.
“Yeah, I’ve seen the whole evolution,” he said. “Joe didn’t know what Facebook was, O’Brien called Facebook ‘Spacebook’ and, now, Coach Franklin probably has every social media there is to have. It’s crazy.”
Most Big Ten quote: “How are you going to approach the Rose Bowl?” -- Michigan coach Brady Hoke, lamenting some aspects of the College Football Playoff in years, like this season, when the Granddaddy of Them All is to serve as a national semifinal game. Hoke suggested that some of the pageantry associated with the game -- for instance, the Beef Bowl team competition at Lawry’s, a prime rib restaurant in Beverly Hills -- will be eliminated because of the high stakes and need for a regular game-week regimen. Of the traditional Rose Bowl, Hoke added: “It’s the greatest experience in America for kids.”
Most Iowa quote (maybe ever): “Sometimes, old school is a good school.” -- Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz on his program’s resistance to some of the offensive innovation that has swept college football.
Best quote about a player not in attendance: “I don’t like standing too close to him because it seems like the wind is always blowing through his hair. When he smiles, this little thing comes off his tooth like in the toothpaste commercial.” -- Penn State coach James Franklin on sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
- Additional filings are due today in the Northwestern labor dispute.
- Braxton Miller is not yet 100 percent, but Urban Meyer says he's close.
- Wisconsin's Chris Borland is ready to prove NFL naysayers wrong.
- An All-American wrestler at Maryland will try his hand at playing defensive line for the Terrapins this fall.
- Illinois is paying out some big money to future opponents.
- Iowa fans shouldn't fret over recruiting losses, Pat Harty writes. The Hawkeyes top the Big Ten Network's ranking of the league's offensive lines.
- A late addition to the Gophers' 2014 recruiting class won't be coming to Minnesota after all. Jerry Kill made this list of underrated coaches.
- Rutgers athletic director Julie Hermann is trying to win over Tim Pernetti loyalists.
- Ranking the five most important Penn State players for 2014.
- Former Michigan running back Thomas Rawls has transferred to Central Michigan.
- What Rutgers can expect in its new home. Ten reasons for the Scarlet Knights to be excited.
- Who will be Maryland's rival in the Big Ten?
- Braxton Miller has been working hard this summer -- even on Friday nights.
- Can Kenny Bell still get loose deep for Nebraska?
- Top Minnesota recruit Jeff Jones is still academically ineligible, putting his status for this season in doubt.
- Michigan's 2015 class is filling up fast. The Wolverines' defense needs to go from good to great.
- Who would be on Iowa's quarterback Mt. Rushmore?
- A closer look at Penn State's linebacker corps.
- Former Wisconsin players are in favor of boosting scholarships.
- A Florida linebacker committed to Purdue.
Steele had Bennett and Calhoun on his first team, Gregory and Bosa on his second team and Davis on his third team. Like Athlon, he lists Gordon as a first-team running back and Abdullah on the second team. It's interesting to see Calhoun getting a bit more love than Gregory, even though Gregory led the Big Ten in sacks and is projected as a higher draft pick.
Not sure about you, but I can't wait for Calhoun and Gregory to share the field Oct. 4 at Spartan Stadium, or for longtime friends Gordon and Abdullah to match up on Nov. 15 at Camp Randall Stadium. Both matchups should be fun to watch all season.
It's not unusual for defensive line and running back to headline the Big Ten. Both positions historically are strong in the league, especially defensive line. A potential concern is that only one quarterback -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller -- and zero wide receivers make any of Athlon's teams. Steele has two Big Ten wideouts, Maryland's Stefon Diggs and Michigan's Devin Funchess (has played tight end but listed as a receiver), on his third team. Still, it's clear these are two positions where the Big Ten continues to need upgrades.
Other Athlon preseason All-America selections include: Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff (second team), Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman (third team), Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond (third team), Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston (third team), Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan (fourth team), Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes (fourth team) and Northwestern punt returner Venric Mark (fourth team).
The Big Ten is tied with the Pac-12 for third among overall Athlon All-America selections with 18, trailing both the ACC (27) and SEC (26).
Of course, he’s not the only Big Ten player to ever enter his senior year with big expectations. In the past 20 years, six other conference players earned Heisman votes before their final seasons and were preseason candidates a season later. (Thirteen non-seniors in all earned votes, but seven left early for the NFL draft. Another, Northwestern's Damien Anderson, played in just eight games the season after and isn't listed below.)
Although it’s still anyone’s guess exactly how Miller will fare this season, here’s a look at players who found themselves in similar positions and how they performed in the season after receiving Heisman votes:
Heisman votes as a junior: 22 first-place votes; finished fourth overall. Led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards (6.3 yards per carry) and also finished with an NCAA-best 33 rushing TDs.
How he fared the next year: Without quarterback Russell Wilson, some experts predicted Ball would struggle to equal the numbers from his junior campaign. Sure enough, with a rotating quarterback carousel, that’s exactly what happened. The Badgers threw just 289 times that season and Ball finished with a career-high 356 carries. Ball’s importance and talent were still undeniable but, as defenses zeroed in against him, he watched his yards-per-carry average fall by more than a yard.
How the team fared: Wisconsin leaned on Ball heavily -- just take a look at this box score against Utah State -- and fared well when it counted. The Badgers won the Big Ten championship, embarrassing Nebraska in a 70-31 blowout, and earned a spot in the Rose Bowl. They finished 8-6.
Heisman votes as a sophomore: Six first-place votes; finished sixth overall. Went 182-of-291 passing (62.5 percent) for 2,570 yards, 18 TDs and 11 INTs; rushed for 1,702 yards (6.6 ypc) and 14 TDs.
How he fared the next year: Speculation swirled on whether Robinson would transfer before the season because the firing of Rich Rodriguez meant he had to deal a new coaching staff and some offensive changes. But Robinson stayed and performed well – even if his numbers decreased across the board. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was able to take some pressure off Robinson, and the change in statistics wasn’t dramatic. After all, Robinson still rushed for more than 1,000 yards and passed for more than 2,000. It wasn’t as impressive as 2010, but Robinson was still named team MVP and earned a spot on the All-Big Ten second team.
How the team fared: Michigan fans were just fine with Robinson’s drop-off because the team soared in Brady Hoke’s first season. Robinson guided the Wolverines to an 11-2 finish -- their best record in five years -- and helped Michigan win the Sugar Bowl.
Heisman votes as a junior: Five first-place votes; finished fifth overall. Finished second in the B1G with 1,562 yards (4.9 ypc) and had 14 rushing TDs
How he fared the next year: Hart became a team captain and turned in an even stronger performance. If it wasn’t for an ankle injury that sidelined him for three full games, Hart likely would’ve been in the Heisman race again. Through nine Michigan games, he led all BCS runners with 154 yards a game – and he was still a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and a consensus pick as first-team All-Big Ten. Overall, his importance was pretty difficult to ignore. After opening the season with two losses, Hart helped to shift the tone by guaranteeing a win against Notre Dame – Michigan won 38-0 –and then winning eight straight. He finished the year with 5.1 ypc and matched his 14-touchdown total despite carrying the ball 53 fewer times.
How the team fared: The Wolverines put an early end to their national title hopes by losing to Appalachian State in the opener. Michigan failed to repeat its Rose Bowl berth but rebounded after a slow start to go 9-4 and win the Capital One Bowl.
Heisman votes as a junior: Three first-place votes; finished fourth overall. Led the conference in every major passing category: passing yards (3,909), passing TDs (25), pass attempts (554) and pass completions (337) and threw 12 interceptions.
How he fared the next year: Brees’ consistency was pretty darn impressive, as all of his numbers were nearly identical even though Purdue didn't have much of a running game. He again led the Big Ten in those same statistical categories and improved his standing in the Heisman race -- he finished third as a senior with 69 first-place votes. Plus, he won the Maxwell Award and was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Brees’ success is pretty well documented, but something fans might have forgotten: He rushed for 521 yards and 5.5 yards per carry as a senior. Brees really could do it all.
How the team fared: The Boilermakers shared the Big Ten title and improved their victory total from the year before, from 7-5 to 8-4. They earned a berth in the Rose Bowl.
Heisman votes as a sophomore: 87 first-place votes; finished fourth overall. Led the NCAA with 387 rushing attempts and had 1,785 yards (4.6 ypc) and 17 TDs; caught 27 passes for 168 yards and one score.
How he fared the next year: Autry fared a bit better in 1996, as Northwestern’s passing attack improved and defenses could no longer key on him. In 1995, he literally accounted for half of the offense’s total yards (1,953 of 3,916). In 1996, he carried the ball 107 fewer times – his 280 attempts were still the fourth-highest in the conference -- but he matched his 17 rushing TDs from the previous season and increased his average by more than a half-yard, up to 5.2 yards per carry. He dropped a bit in the Heisman voting, but that was mostly because his rushing yards dropped with a smaller workload. Autry still dominated.
How the team fared: Northwestern shared the Big Ten title and improved its record to 9-3 – but lost in the Citrus Bowl. Autry’s Wildcats shocked the B1G that October when they overcame a 16-0 deficit against Michigan by rallying in the fourth quarter.
Let's begin ...
Virgel from Valdosta, Ga., writes: Adam, do you think that if this season ends the Tim Beckman era at Illinois, they would go after a high-profile coach on the bench right now, like a Mack Brown? Your thoughts?
Adam Rittenberg: Interesting thought, Virgel, as it's hard to know where athletic director Mike Thomas would turn. He has a track record of hiring MAC coaches -- Butch Jones, Brian Kelly, Beckman -- but I'd be shocked if he went that route again. Brown will be 62 in August, has a ton of money and likely a lengthy TV career ahead, so I'm not sure how much he would want to coach again. And if he did, for how long?
Illinois doesn't want to keep changing coaches. But thinking outside the box could be a good approach. Or Thomas could hire a guy like Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who is ready to lead a major-conference program.
Adam Rittenberg: Man, I love that Canadian spelling. This would be a fascinating scenario, Kyle. A lot depends on what happens in other conferences and how the Big Ten performs in marquee nonleague games. But I don't think Iowa makes the playoff with a loss in the league championship game, primarily because of the seemingly soft regular-season schedule.
In this scenario, Ohio State would have a road win against a preseason top-10 team in Michigan State. The Buckeyes also play Virginia Tech in nonleague play. Will the Michigan home win help or hurt Ohio State? How much credit will Iowa get for beating Wisconsin and Nebraska at home? All these questions factor into the playoff decision. Ultimately, I doubt the Big Ten gets two teams into the initial playoff. Fairly or unfairly, the league will pay for its recent shortcomings. But Ohio State has a better chance as a one-loss team than Iowa.
Adam Rittenberg: Interesting idea, Dave, as this proposal appears to create more historical balance than the current East-West alignment. But if you look at the Big Ten's recent expansion, the idea is to live in a second region along the East Coast. It's not a northern expansion but an eastern one. Another factor to consider is geography. Nebraska would be a major outlier in the South division -- nearly an eight-hour drive from its closest division competitor (Illinois) and a loooong way from Ohio State, Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers. Would Husker fans care? Maybe, maybe not. They would get annual games with both Penn State and Ohio State.
I like how your proposal satisfies the Iowa-Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry triangle/dilemma, but it also would require at least one extra protected crossover, Ohio State-Michigan, which would reduce the overall schedule rotation for two of the league's marquee programs. I definitely see value in the North-South model, but East-West is here, at least for now.
Adam Rittenberg: Good question, David, and there's not a great answer yet as this trend remains somewhat new. The number of early enrollees really spiked in the 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes. Not surprisingly, there is some evidence that early enrollees are contributing faster in their careers than those who arrive in the summer. We've seen examples in the Big Ten such as Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton, who earned a starting job as a true freshman. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller enrolled early and has started since the middle of his freshman season.
Then again, a 2009 ranking of top early enrollee groups showed more misses (Tate Forcier, Kevin Newsome, Will Campbell) than hits (Gerald Hodges) in the Big Ten. Penn State had seven early enrollees in 2010 but only one, running back Silas Redd, became a star for the Lions.
Of the Big Ten's last seven Freshman of the Year recipients, just two -- Ohio State's Miller and Illinois' Arrelious Benn -- were early enrollees. So it's hard to draw clear conclusions.
Adam Rittenberg: There are some very valid points in Bacon's story, especially about rising ticket prices. As Ohio State AD Gene Smith recently told me, "The reality is a lot of our ticket pricing, some of us are at the top of the pyramid." And it seems like the branding push, especially in the Big Ten, is turning off some fans. Has the sport sold its soul in some ways? No doubt. Is branding too much of a priority in the Big Ten, which makes a lot of money but doesn't really win anything? There's a case to be made. ADs are devoting a lot of energy to improving the gameday experience, but two solutions are pretty simple: scheduling better opponents and charging less for tickets.
ESPN's Mel Kiper has produced lists of top prospects at quarterback, defensive end, running back and defensive tackle. If Kiper's projections prove true, it will be a very good draft for the Big Ten, which hasn't had a top-10 pick since 2008, when Michigan tackle Jake Long went No. 1 overall.
Check out each of Kiper's lists on ESPN Insider for more detailed analysis, but here's where the Big Ten players stack up.
- Ohio State's Braxton Miller is the No. 3 senior (behind Baylor's Bryce Petty and Oregon State's Sean Mannion)
- Michigan State's Connor Cook is the No. 4 junior
- Nebraska's Randy Gregory is the No. 1 junior
- Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun is the No. 3 junior
- Michigan's Frank Clark and Purdue's Ryan Russell are among the three seniors tied for the No. 5 spot
- Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah is the No. 1 senior
- Michigan State's Jeremy Langford is the No. 3 senior
- Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon is the No. 2 junior (behind Georgia's Todd Gurley)
What do you think about the Big Ten projections?
The college football guru packs a tremendous amount of information and research into his preseason magazines. And Steele has released his choices for the 2014 All-Big Ten team, which you can find here.
Steele sees newcomers Maryland and Rutgers bringing some talent into the league quickly, as he has two Terrapins (wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long) and two Scarlet Knights (guard Kaleb Johnson and linebacker Steve Longa) on the first team. ... A mild surprise on the first team is Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones, who will attempt to take over the middle spot from Max Bullough this year. ... The first-team defensive line is absolutely loaded, with Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, and Ohio State's Michael Bennett and Joey Bosa. Iowa's Carl Davis and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran were relegated to second-team status. ... Speaking of the second team, Steele puts Northwestern wide receiver Kyle Prater there, apparently expecting big things at long last from the former USC transfer. ... Steele also has Ohio State's Dontre Wilson and Devin Smith breaking out as second-team All-Big Ten receivers. ... Penn State fans might be a bit miffed to see Christian Hackenberg as only the third-team quarterback. Michigan State's Connor Cook is Steele's choice for second-team QB, with Braxton Miller obviously No. 1. ... Michigan State leads the way with five players on Steele's first-team offense and defense. Ohio State has four, while Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan each have three.
Steele also has released his preseason All-America team, which includes some familiar Big Ten names. Here's a quick rundown:
Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
Ohio State DT Michael Bennett
Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun
Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah
Iowa OT Brandon Scherff
Nebraska DE Randy Gregory
Ohio State DE Joey Bosa
Iowa PR Kevonte Martin-Manley
Ohio State QB Braxton Miller
Maryland WR Stefon Diggs
Michigan WR Devin Funchess
Iowa DT Carl Davis
Michigan LB Jake Ryan
Michigan State CB Trae Waynes
Michigan State S Kurtis Drummond
Illinois PR V'Angelo Bentley
Indiana LS Matt Dooley
Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford
Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman
Wisconsin OT Rob Havenstein
Northwestern RB/KR Venric Mark
Quarterbacks who throw for 3,000 yards in the Big Ten aren't quite as rare as, say, a snow leopard, but they don't come around all that frequently, either. After all, this is a league associated with three yards and a cloud of dust, not 3,000 yards and a chem trail.
But the passing game continues to take on more and more importance throughout college football, and the conference is not immune despite producing just one 3,000-yard passer in each of the past two seasons (Penn State's Matt McGloin in 2012, Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase in 2013). Who might reach that prestigious mark in 2014? Let's take our best guesses, in order of most likely:
- Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (2,955 passing yards in 2013): Hackenberg very nearly got to the 3k level as a true freshman, which is all the more remarkable considering the Nittany Lions didn't have the benefit of a bowl game. He probably won't get a 13th game again this season barring an NCAA surprise but should continue to improve as a sophomore and is the most gifted young quarterback in the Big Ten. The big question mark is whether his young receiving corps and a thin offensive line can help him out.
- Devin Gardner, Michigan (2,960): For all the faults people found in Gardner's game in 2013, he still almost reached 3,000 yards and would have certainly done so had he been healthy for the bowl game. He won't have favorite target Jeremy Gallon around and just about everybody else on offense is young. But he has shown he can put up big numbers when he's healthy and protecting the ball.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Charlie NeibergallDespite some struggles, Michigan's Devin Gardner almost hit the 3,000-yard passing mark in 2013.
- Connor Cook, Michigan State (2,755): Cook never had a 300-yard passing day before the Big Ten championship game; then he turned in two straight in winning MVP honors in Indianapolis and again in the Rose Bowl. A 14-game schedule helped get him close to 3,000 yards, but don't forget that he didn't begin the season as the starter or gain the coaches' confidence until late September. He'll have a lot more on his plate this season, and the junior could gobble up some major yardage.
- C.J. Brown, Maryland (2,242): Brown arguably has the best two wide receivers in the Big Ten if -- and this is a big, blaring, neon if -- Stefon Diggs and Deon Long stay healthy. Avoiding injury is also a big key for Brown, who missed a pair of games last season. But the senior could be poised for a massive season if everything breaks right.
- Wes Lunt, Illinois (1,108 yards for Oklahoma State): Lunt has yet to throw a pass for the Fighting Illini and hasn't played a down in two years. Yet he showed his immense potential as a true freshman for the Cowboys in 2012, and Bill Cubit's offense provides tremendous opportunities for quarterbacks to put up numbers (see Scheelhaase last season). Lunt still has to officially win the job, and the team must find playmakers at receiver. But who in the world thought Scheelhaase would lead the Big Ten in passing in 2013 this time last year?
- Nate Sudfeld (2,523) or Tre Roberson (1,128), Indiana: If we believed either of these guys would hold the job full-time all season, a 3,000-yard season would be a no-brainer. The Hoosiers have juggled quarterbacks the past two years, with their signal-callers combining to go over 3,000 yards both seasons behind a prolific passing attack. Alas, you never quite know who will take the snaps or when Kevin Wilson will decide to make a change. Sudfeld is a better bet as a 3,000-yard passer since Roberson brings more of a running element to the table, but either could post sky-high stats if given the reins every Saturday.
- Trevor Siemian, Northwestern (2,149): Siemian surpassed 2,000 yards last season despite splitting time at quarterback with Kain Colter. Now that the job is his alone, the Wildcats should become much more of a passing team to suit his skills. That could equal a big-time bump in Siemian's numbers.
- Gary Nova, Rutgers (2,159): The first thing Nova has to do is stop throwing the ball to the other team, as he did 14 times in just 10 games last season. And he has to, you know, secure the job in the Scarlet Knights' quarterback derby. But he threw for nearly 2,700 yards in 2012, and now gets renowned quarterback guru Ralph Friedgen to guide him. So it's possible he could finally put it all together.
- Braxton Miller, Ohio State (2,094): Miller would need to improve his numbers by almost 1,000 yards, and that's after a 14-game season by the Buckeyes. But he did miss basically three full games last season, and Ohio State wants to become a more dangerous downfield passing team. The senior missed spring practice with a shoulder injury but has worked hard on his mechanics. Don't put anything past the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year.
Brian L. via Twitter writes: Do you think MSU would be where they are today, including Mark Dantonio, if Mouse Trap and Little Giants had failed three years ago?
Brian Bennett: It's an interesting question. For sure, the 2010 season represented a breakthrough for Dantonio and the Spartans as they won 11 games and captured a share of their first Big Ten title in 20 years. While both those trick plays -- Mouse Trap vs. Northwestern and Little Giants against Notre Dame -- proved crucial to the outcome, it's possible Michigan State could have won without them, but we'll never know for sure. The key question, I guess, is if the Spartans had lost both those games, would they have continued on their upward climb? The Little Giants play in particular and that 11-win season really began to put the program back on the national radar, showed a different side of Dantonio to the public and probably contributed toward the team's momentum. So it's all part of the stew, so to speak. But I also think Dantonio and his staff had been building toward great things with their recruiting and coaching stability, so it might have happened regardless.
Brian Bennett: He was definitely considered. But the fact is that Countess is now at nickelback, which is an important position (and, of course, a terrible band) but not necessarily the most important on the field. If Jabrill Peppers is the real deal, Michigan will be fine at corner. Maybe we're expecting too much of Peppers early on, but that's why Countess wasn't listed among the two most indispensable.
Brian Bennett: I assume by top two you mean winning the West Division. And Iowa has a great chance to do just that. Not only do they miss Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan from the East, they get Wisconsin and Nebraska at home the final two weeks. You simply can't ask for a better schedule, and Kirk Ferentz's team has enough experience and talent that it could be favored in every single game this season.
Brian Bennett: Unlike Iowa, the schedule does Indiana few favors in 2014. Consecutive nonconference road games against Bowling Green -- a potential favorite in the MAC -- and reigning SEC East Division champ Missouri will not be easy, and the Hoosiers also have road games at Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan. Still, this program has been improving under Kevin Wilson the past few years and wasn't far off from making a bowl game last season. Getting to the postseason should be the ultimate goal this year, and I think seven wins is probably the ceiling if the defense can become even moderately respectable.
Brian Bennett: That's really the key question for Ohio State's season. The losses in the secondary, except for Bradley Roby, don't sting that much since the pass defense was atrocious at the end of last season, anyway. There is talent to work with back there, and I think the new approach by Chris Ash should help the Buckeyes be more aggressive and better use their speed in pass coverage. I still have some questions about the linebackers. The defensive line should be one of the best in the country, provided that it weathers the storm from the loss of Noah Spence for two games and Jamal Marcus, who is transferring.
The offensive line will need to find the right mix, but Ed Warriner is one of the best in the business of figuring that stuff out. Ohio State might not have the best offensive line in the Big Ten in 2014, but I expect it to remain very good with perhaps some early growing pains. The Buckeyes are loaded with speed at the offensive skill positions, but remember they lost their top rusher (Carlos Hyde) and top receiver (Corey Brown) and that there aren't many proven players in that wideout corps.
Urban Meyer's team is young but ridiculously talented in a lot of key spots, which is why I think Ohio State is the most intriguing team in the Big Ten this season. Playing Navy, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati in three of the first four games is no cakewalk and will be a much bigger challenge than the Buckeyes experienced the past two seasons in the nonconference slate. The best news for Meyer's team is that Braxton Miller is back, and he can erase a lot of mistakes early on while all the parts come together.
Brian Bennett: To each his own, Joe. But I've been to Tampa more than a dozen times in my life, and other than the great weather and proximity to the beaches, I've found it to be a very dull city without much of a central hub. Minneapolis has much more to do downtown (and you can even walk indoors when it's cold). Fans would complain about the weather in the Twin Cities, but I think they would find plenty of fun activities if Minneapolis were to host the College Football Playoff title game.
It proved to be the end of Gardner's season, as a foot injury sidelined him for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and the first part of spring practice in March. Miller went on to suffer his first two losses under coach Urban Meyer. He injured his throwing shoulder in the Orange Bowl and underwent surgery in Feb. 21, limiting his throwing in spring practice.
The final chapter for both players arrives this fall. Before that lies a pivotal summer.
Miller's first priority is to return to full strength. But some of his most important work in the coming months will be in the film room.
"In the digital age we live in, video is so easy to come by, so he can study whoever he wants," Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman told ESPN.com. "Preferably, let's study us first and figure out the ins and outs of our offense. And then when you have extra time or want to take a break from that, let's study some defenses that we'll face this season. And beyond that, the next in the pecking order is why don't you study some other offenses, study some other quarterbacks."
Two quarterbacks Herman wants Miller to study likely will compete with him for national honors in 2014: Florida State's Jameis Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and national champion, and Oregon's Marcus Mariota, who might be the best pro quarterback prospect in the college ranks this season.
"What are those guys doing really well?" Herman said. "Is there anything you can glean from watching them on the field that might help your game?"
Herman had a similar plan for Miller last summer, encouraging him to watch Clemson's Tajh Boyd -- "That kid was a really good player," Herman said.
But Hoke still discusses Michigan's quarterback situation by mentioning two names -- Gardner and sophomore Shane Morris. Many question whether Michigan's quarterback competition is real or imagined. Gardner has 16 starts at quarterback, while Morris has just one (the bowl game).
But unlike Miller, Gardner has to confirm himself as the top option when preseason camp begins in August.
"He has an advantage," Hoke told ESPN.com. "I wouldn't make that mistake. Because of the experience, playing a lot of snaps, being in a lot of big games. But at the same time, Shane, how he handled himself in the bowl game, how he was composed and how he approached the game, is encouraging."
Hoke wants both quarterbacks to not only retain what they learned in the spring but grow as leaders this summer.
"The message is we can't accept the players how they are right now," Hoke said.
The same applies to Miller, as good as he has been at times the past two seasons. His approach to rehab and film study will determine whether he -- and potentially Ohio State -- takes the next step in 2014.
"He's on fire right now, doing a great job with it from what I understand," Herman said. "The things that he is now able to talk to me about on the phone when I'm out on the road recruiting or when I see him in the building, you can tell he's poured himself into it, which is good."
Link time ...
- Jim Tressel signs on as the new president of Youngstown State. Some continue to criticize Tressel's selection.
- Nebraska's Taylor Martinez must develop into a wild card-type player.
- Penn State's 2015 recruiting surge shows no sign of slowing down. James Franklin's late mother was the primary influence in his life.
- Michigan's first QB recruit under new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is in the fold. The Wolverines' secondary needs to bounce back in 2014 and adds top prospect Jabrill Peppers.
- Ohio State has leapfrogged Iowa as the Big Ten team with the most NFL draft picks this decade. A closer look at what should be Iowa's strongest position group.
- Two Michigan State captains get tryouts with NFL teams.
- Brandon Coleman's inconsistency hurt the Rutgers wide receiver in the draft.
- The Heisman odds are out, and Ohio State QB Braxton Miller leads the Big Ten candidates. Miller's former backup, Kenny Guiton, gets a shot with the Buffalo Bills.
- USA Today previews Purdue in 2014.
- A look at which current Illinois players have the best chance at the NFL.
- A good roundup of coverage about Wisconsin's five draft picks.
Like every year, we'll recap the Big Ten's draft performance, but we're admittedly more focused on the players still in the conference. That's why we're bringing back our version of a mock draft, where we select current Big Ten players to help current Big Ten teams. We did this last year and it was a lot of fun.
Here's how it works: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (incoming recruits are not). The teams will pick in reverse order of regular season finish last year, just like the NFL. Big Ten newcomers Rutgers and Maryland will pick based on their 2013 records in other leagues, so they will select fifth and sixth, respectively.
We're also making picks based on several factors. It's not simply about selecting the best overall player. What does a team need based on its personnel and schemes? Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller might not be the best fit for a non-spread offense. Also, eligibility matters as some teams might want to build for the future and make a real push in 2015 or 2016 rather than this fall.
Things get a bit messy as once a player gets drafted, it creates a hole on his former team. But that's all part of the draft debate.
Our first seven first-round picks are below. We'll finish up the first round a little later.
Pick No. 1: Purdue
Adam Rittenberg says the Boilers select ... Iowa LT Brandon Scherff
Brian Bennett says the Boilers select ... Ohio State DE Joey Bosa
Let's face it: Purdue is in a major rebuilding effort and won't be contending any time soon. So eligibility matters here. Bosa is a true sophomore who could offer the Boilermakers three more years of high-end production and the big-time pass rush the Boilermakers haven't had in a while. I say a defensive end goes first in both the NFL (Jadeveon Clowney) and imaginary Big Ten drafts.
Pick No. 2: Illinois
Rittenberg says the Illini select ... Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun
I thought about Braxton Miller as Illinois needs a quarterback, but I have enough faith in coordinator Bill Cubit to find the answers. Illinois' defense was the big problem in 2013, especially the line. Calhoun, a junior, provides a significant playmaking presence after recording 7.5 sacks, a league-high four forced fumbles and 14 tackles for loss last fall.
Bennett says the Illini select ... Calhoun
As bad as the Illini were against the run last year, they could probably use a defensive tackle even more. But since I don't see a lot of surefire, dominant run-stuffers in the league right now, Calhoun is a solid pick here for a defense-hungry team. Tim Beckman is in win-now mode, so eligibility isn't as big of a factor here.
Pick No. 3: Northwestern
Rittenberg says the Wildcats select ... Ohio State QB Braxton Miller
I thought about going offensive line here, as Northwestern really struggled up front in 2013. But Miller is simply too good a fit for a spread offense that needs a major jolt after finishing 10th in the Big Ten in scoring (26.2 ppg). The return of running back Venric Mark plays a role here, too, as the Miller-Mark speed combination would be extremely tough to stop.
Bennett says the Wildcats select ... Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg
Sure, Miller is probably a better fit for Northwestern's preferred offensive style than Hackenberg, but I just can't see Hackenberg -- who has three years of eligibility left after an outstanding freshman season -- falling lower than third in this draft. Mick McCall would be more than happy to build his offense around this young stud.
Pick No. 4: Indiana
Rittenberg says the Hoosiers select ... Nebraska DE Randy Gregory
Gregory nearly began his college career in the Hoosier State at Purdue before heading to a junior college and then to Nebraska, where he dazzled in his first season, recording 19 tackles for loss, a league-high 10.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hurries. It's no secret Indiana needs stars on defense, especially up front.
Bennett says the Hoosiers select ... Gregory
Pick No. 5: Rutgers
Rittenberg says the Scarlet Knights select ... Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg
I considered going defensive line here as Rutgers needs to bulk up there, but a difference-maker at quarterback takes precedence. Hackenberg looks like a future NFL player and has three seasons of eligibility remaining, which would be huge for a Rutgers program transitioning to the Big Ten.
Bennett says the Scarlet Knights select ... Ohio State QB Braxton Miller
Though Miller only has one year of eligibility left, snagging him at No. 5 for a team with major quarterback issues is a coup for the Scarlet Knights. Kyle Flood might need to reach a bowl game to feel safe about his job in 2015, so why not roll with the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year?
Pick No. 6: Maryland
Rittenberg says the Terrapins select ... Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah
Yes, I know Maryland returns a lot of options at running back, but none brings Abdullah's consistency, production and leadership. He'll stay on the field for a unit ravaged by injury and bring the toughness for a program transitioning to a physical league.
Bennett says the Terrapins select ... Michigan State CB Trae Waynes
The Terps are pretty solid on offense, assuming everyone comes back healthy. Will Likely had an impressive spring at one cornerback spot, but the other starting job is up for grabs. Waynes could instantly solidify that secondary and the junior could potentially lock down one side of the field for two years for Randy Edsall.
Pick No. 7: Michigan
Rittenberg says the Wolverines select ... Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
Offensive line would be my preference here but there isn't a guaranteed difference-maker available. Fortunately, Gordon doesn't need much room to do some special things with the ball in his hands. He gives Michigan's shaky run game a true big-play threat, and the combination of Gordon and Derrick Green could turn out very well.
Bennett says the Wolverines select ... Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff
Brady Hoke would run to the podium to turn in this pick if Scherff was still on the board. He only has one year of eligibility left, but the Hawkeyes' left tackle could add much-needed stability and leadership to a Wolverines offensive line with all kinds of question marks.
If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.
1. "I like my team."
2. "I'm glad we don't have a game tomorrow."
There are reasons to believe the Big Ten will be better this fall, but the work is far from over on most campuses. This isn't a league of finished products, and the coming months take on added importance before the 2014 season kicks off in late August.
"I don't think we're that far behind; it's just painfully obvious that we're not there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "This next phase will be the most important phase of this team's life. It's always important, but with a lot of things we've gone though, we've got to come together."
Northwestern went through a lot in the spring, mostly away from the field, as the campaign for a player union gained national media attention, especially after players were declared employees of the school in March. The team held a historic vote Friday, after Fitzgerald had expressed his opposition to unionizing. Some players expressed concern that the vote could split the team.
It will be months before we know if the union plan goes through, but the Wildcats continue preparing for a pivotal season. They found their quarterback this spring in senior Trevor Siemian and an offensive identity based around the passing game. But questions along both lines remain.
The spring also produced quarterback answers at Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner). Michigan's Devin Gardner had a rough spring game but still seems likely to retain his job. Another senior signal-caller, Rutgers' Gary Nova, is a good bet to remain atop the depth chart. Although Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong lacks Nova's or Gardner's experience, he exited spring just as he entered it: as the Huskers' top quarterback.
Indiana's platoon system of Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson frustrates some, but not coach Kevin Wilson, who has given every indication that he'll continue to use both for another season.
Other quarterback races have been reduced but not resolved. Illinois will pick between Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer who impressed for much of the spring, and veteran backup Reilly O'Toole. Coach Tim Beckman wants a resolution before two-a-day practices in August.
Purdue's Danny Etling, who started the final seven games of his freshman season, appeared to have a slight lead coming out of the spring, but coach Darrell Hazell isn't ready to declare a starter. So Austin Appleby and David Blough remain alive.
Wisconsin reduced its candidate pool from four to two as Joel Stave, who boasts 19 career starts but also a nagging throwing shoulder injury, will compete with dual-threat Tanner McEvoy in camp.
"It will be a fight," coach Gary Andersen said.
Quarterback is just one spot where Wisconsin has questions. The Badgers went through much of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. They've also revamped their defensive front seven, which returns only one starter from 2013.
"We only have about six defensive calls," safety Tyvis Powell said after the spring game. "We had too many last year."
Offensive line remains Michigan's focal point coming out of the spring. A sloppy spring game didn't ease fears about the Wolverines' front five, although coach Brady Hoke saw positive signs in earlier practices. A critical summer awaits new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, tasked with resurrecting Michigan's run game.
At Penn State, new coach James Franklin continues to energize both players and fans. But he's also realistic about the depth challenge his team faces, particularly along the offensive line.
"When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues that you're going to have to overcome," Franklin said. "We don't."
Like Rutgers, Maryland began its Big Ten transition this spring and welcomed running back Wes Brown and wideout Marcus Leak after absences from the team. If the Terrapins finally stay healthy, they could be worth watching in a loaded East Division.
Sitting atop the division is defending Big Ten champ Michigan State. The Spartans had a relatively stress-free spring, but they must fill key spots on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where players like Taiwan Jones and Darian Hicks step in.
The returning pieces for teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin fuel optimism around the league. But in spring, optimism is always tempered by what lies ahead.
"We're improving," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday, "but we're hardly ready to play."
They won't have to for 132 days.
Until then, stay classy, Big Ten fans.
D.J. from Minneapolis writes: What happens to the union story if the Northwestern players vote no?
Brian Bennett: A great question, and based on media comments from several players -- most notably quarterback Trevor Siemian -- it sure seems like the Wildcats players are against the union and will vote no on April 25. But there might be a stronger undercurrent of support from players who are not as vocal in public. Given that the leader of the movement, Kain Colter, has already graduated and won't be eligible to vote, you wonder who on the team will take the baton and push for the union. All it takes, remember, is a simple majority.
So does a no vote mean this is the end of the story? I don't think it's that basic. Northwestern players would be able to try to unionize again next year. The regional National Labor Relations Board ruling has also set a precedent, at least for football players at private schools, and those who believe in the cause, such as CAPA president Ramogi Huma, would likely try to persuade players at other programs to follow Northwestern's lead. The school will continue to try to fight the original ruling, as well.
If the Wildcats' players vote no next week, we might not see any tangible results from the union movement for a while. If nothing else, however, it was another shot across the bow at the NCAA and another huge warning to the leaders of college sports that they had better make some changes before a judge or a legislature does it for them.
Brian Bennett: I shouldn't have written "never" to the idea of an Ohio State-Michigan night game, because so many things have changed in college football that anything is possible. I never thought we'd actually see a playoff, for instance. But both schools have said they're not in favor of moving "The Game" away from the afternoon and under the lights. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon doesn't even want to play Michigan State at night and so I doubt he will budge on the idea of playing Ohio State in prime time. And I don't think this game needs any more attention, as evidenced by all the signs and reminders of the rivalry that I saw while visiting both Michigan and Ohio State earlier this month. So I wouldn't expect it to happen anytime soon, though never say never.
Brian Bennett: I've come to the conclusion that spring games just aren't as big a deal at some places as they are others. And that's OK. I don't have much of a tolerance for spring games and don't like watching them, because you learn less from those than you would from watching just about any other practice. Sure, it's a fun day for fans to see their teams and sit in the stadium and maybe get some autographs, and all that is great. But I also have no problem with people who feel like they have better things to do than watch football that often isn't really representative of the finished product, with many star players usually being held out.
I don't know if spring game attendance factors much into recruiting. It certainly can't hurt to sell that to recruits as evidence of intense interest and appreciation of your program. But Michigan hasn't gotten many big spring game crowds over the years and that doesn't seem to affect the Wolverines' recruiting very much. I doubt many prospects are basing their decisions on anything that occurs at a spring game, and if they are, that is misguided on their part.
Brian Bennett: I thought Michigan State clearly benefited during Rich Rodriguez's tenure in Ann Arbor, as the Wolverines' downturn and different approach to recruiting helped the Spartans begin to establish themselves. Certainly, the success of Michigan State and Ohio State hasn't done anything to help Michigan, and butting heads against both those programs now in the East won't be easy.
Still, in my view, the biggest thing holding back Michigan is not any external force but Michigan itself. The two coaching changes, and especially veering between very contrasting styles, caused some problems that current Wolverines coaches will tell you are still being felt today. More than anything, though, Michigan simply hasn't capitalized on its own enormous resources and fulfilled its potential. As noted a minute ago, recruiting has been strong under Brady Hoke, at least if you believe the scouting services. The Maize and Blue have never had much trouble attracting talent. Development of that skill has been an issue, though many of those players are still young.
Perhaps we overrate Michigan's history and tradition, since the program claims only one national title since 1948. But with the school's money, stadium size, fan support and access to players, the Wolverines have no one to blame but themselves for not winning a Big Ten title in what is fast approaching a decade's time.