Michigan Wolverines: Christian Hackenberg

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
5:00
PM ET
It's Wednesday. There's nothing good on TV (except for this). It's mailbag business time.

Ed from State of Rutgers writes: How would you rank B1G head coaches on the hot seat in 2014? Which assistants are in the best position for a head coaching job after this season?

Brian Bennett: Thanks for the question, Ed, and welcome to Big Ten country. We didn't see a single head coach get fired in the Big Ten last season, which was good news. But the way these things go, odds are the league won't make it two years in a row without any pink slips.

Let's answer your question by looking at this in tiers. Tier 1 includes the coaches who absolutely won't get fired this season unless there's some sort of unforeseen major scandal: Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Penn State's James Franklin, Minnesota's Jerry Kill, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz.

[+] EnlargeKyle Flood
AP Photo/John RaouxKyle Flood could face a difficult first season in the Big Ten, but it might not be enough to cost him his job.
Tier 2 would be the guys who are most likely safe but who could feel some rising temperatures if the season goes awry. That would include: Indiana's Kevin Wilson, who seems to have the Hoosiers on an uptick but who needs to get the team to a bowl soon; Purdue's Darrell Hazell, who almost certainly won't get canned after just two years but can't afford another season as awful as last season's 1-11 debacle; and Michigan's Brady Hoke, who isn't on the hot seat now but who would definitely feel the wrath of fans and boosters if the Wolverines have another 7-5 type year and lose to Ohio State.

Tier 3 covers the coaches actually feeling some heat under their chairs. Let's evaluate them individually:

  • Tim Beckman, Illinois: This should come as no surprise. The Illini showed improvement last season, but Beckman is still just 6-18 and has seen fan support fall off a cliff. Anything less than a bowl game in 2014 could make things really dicey.
  • Bo Pelini, Nebraska: This is a well-documented situation, and many people were surprised Pelini wasn't fired at the end of last season, though athletics director Shawn Eichorst remains hard to read. The good news is that Pelini could have a very good team in Lincoln this year, and he sure doesn't appear to be sweating things this spring.
  • Kyle Flood, Rutgers: He went 9-4 his first season as head coach but just 6-7 with a dismal finish last season. He also has a new boss in town, and the Scarlet Knights will face a very difficult schedule in Year 1 in the Big Ten. He's only making $900,000, so a change wouldn't be too financially painful. The question is whether embattled new athletic director Julie Hermann has enough juice right now to make that call.
  • Randy Edsall, Maryland: This is the toughest call of the tier, as Edsall might have bought himself some time with last season's winning record and has had to deal with injuries to many star players. Yet he's still just 13-24 after three seasons, and life in the Big Ten might not be easy for the Terps. A losing record in 2014 would make things very uncomfortable in College Park.

George K. from Pittsburgh: Brian, I'm disappointed in what you wrote about Joe Paterno winning [the Big Ten coaches' tournament]. There was way too much conjecture in what you said. Please think about it. Then issue a factual restatement, please.

Scott R. from Chadron, Neb., writes: Pretty sure there was voter fraud on that Osborne/Paterno matchup. Am I the only one who noticed there were as many international votes as domestic? And that those international votes were 87% for Paterno? Every other poll on ESPN.com is about 75% domestic, 25% foreign. This one was 50/50, and the international vote was OVERWHELMINGLY for Paterno. Seems a little suspicious.

Brian Bennett: File this one under "You Can't Please Everybody, Vol. 734." For the past two weeks, my mailbag was full of comments like Scott's, claiming some sort of voter fraud as Paterno got a huge international vote against both Tom Osborne and Woody Hayes. I have neither the technical expertise nor the time to figure out whether there was some sort of computer tomfoolery going on. But you'd have to be really naive not to raise an eyebrow at the fact that more than half the votes (17,000-plus) in the title matchup came from outside the United States and that those votes were wildly in favor of Paterno. Maybe there's a simple explanation why so many non-U.S. residents care about Big Ten football -- Italians for JoePa, perhaps?

The bottom line is that we placed no rules on this tournament, other than the most votes wins. If someone was ingenious enough to rig it, more power to them. Paterno certainly had the résumé and accomplishments that were deserving on their own. I had no personal stake in the outcome, and I found it to be a fun exercise to go along with March Madness. I hope everyone enjoyed it.


Andrew from Columbus, Ohio, writes: While it is still possible that Ohio State-Michigan State could be a night game, what prevented it from being in the first batch of announced games? Since it would feature the two most compelling teams in the league from last year, it seems to me that it would be the marquee matchup the B1G has been looking to highlight.

Brian Bennett: Andrew, I can't say I understand all the intricacies here at play, either, except that there are apparently some other details to iron out. That game still seems like a natural choice for a prime-time selection. It's still only mid-April. Stay tuned ...


Mike K. from Penn State writes: With Penn State losing Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder at the WR position, along with some great O-linemen to the draft, do you think the team can still succeed in the Big Ten solely based on defense?

Brian Bennett: I have great respect for what Bob Shoop and his staff accomplished at Vanderbilt and expect him to do a great job as the Nittany Lions' defensive coordinator. From what I saw last year, however, I don't think there's enough top-shelf talent on that defense for Penn State to pull a Michigan State and simply dominate everyone on defense. At least not at a championship level. I don't worry as much about the receiving group, because I think with Geno Lewis, some of the talented freshmen and those tight ends, they can piece together people for Christian Hackenberg to target. My biggest concern is the offensive line, which is thin and has some troubling injuries. It's nearly impossible to win at a high level in the Big Ten without a decent offensive line.


Tommy from Savannah, Ga., writes: March Madness is one of the greatest times of the year, most people live for it. Why wouldn't the NCAA FBS decision makers want something like that with those ratings over the course of a few weeks? Definitely not 68 teams, but eight or 16 teams with a selection show, bracket challenge, Cinderellas, and endless coverage and hype. They already do it for FCS.

Brian Bennett: You'll find no bigger NCAA tournament fan than me, Tommy, and my wife is really happy it's over so she can see me again. Still, it's hard to compare the sports. Football simply is a much more physical game, and so adding more games to the schedule becomes problematic, along with the logistical problems caused by Christmas break and the semester changes. I do believe we will eventually have an eight-team tournament, with the five power conference champions getting an automatic berth along with the top champion of the other leagues plus two wild cards. That's a perfect setup. But it took us decades just to get to a four-team playoff, and that semifinal day on Jan. 1 (most years) will instantly become one of the best days on the sports calendar.

Besides, I could argue college football already has March Madness all fall long, and the ratings reflect that. Before the Final Four began, the NCAA tournament averaged a reported 9.8 million viewers, which was a big increase. By contrast, the Big Ten championship game drew 11.6 million viewers, while the Auburn-Alabama game attracted 13.8 million. The men's basketball final (aired on network TV) between UConn and Kentucky got 21.2 million viewers, compared to 25.6 million for the BCS title game (aired on ESPN) between Florida State and Auburn. We could see record ratings for the inaugural rounds of the College Football Playoff.
The best offenses can threaten defenses at the quarterback, running back and wide receiver positions. Brian Bennett on Tuesday examined the triple-threat combinations from the Big Ten's new West Division.

Now let's turn our attention to the East Division and rank the triple-threat combinations. The division is strong at quarterback but lacking elite wide receivers.

1. Indiana

QB Nate Sudfeld, RB Tevin Coleman, WR Shane Wynn

The Hoosiers featured the league's No. 2 offense in 2013 and top this list even though top receiver Cody Latimer bolted for the NFL draft. They have two options at quarterback, but Sudfeld, who had nearly 1,400 more passing yards than teammate Tre Roberson, gets the nod here. Coleman brings explosiveness to the backfield after rushing for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns in only nine games. Wynn finished near the top of the league in receiving touchdowns (11) and had 46 receptions for 633 yards.

2. Ohio State

QB Braxton Miller, RB Ezekiel Elliott, WR Devin Smith

You would think a team with the back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year at quarterback would be rated higher, but the Buckeyes lose a huge piece at running back in Carlos Hyde, as well as top receiver Corey Brown. Elliott, who had 262 rushing yards last season, is competing for the starting position this spring. Smith has been Miller's big-play target throughout his career and had eight touchdown catches and averaged 15 yards per reception last fall. Tight end Jeff Heuerman provides another weapon in the pass game.

3. Michigan State

QB Connor Cook, RB Jeremy Langford, WR Tony Lippett

The skinny: A year ago, Michigan State's offense looked like a mess. Cook began the season as the backup but emerged to lead the Spartans to nine Big Ten wins, all by double digits, and a Rose Bowl championship. Langford answered Michigan State's running back questions with 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. There's no true No. 1 receiver on the roster, and while Macgarrett Kings (513 receiving yards in 2013) could claim the role, Lippett gets the nod after leading the team in receptions (44) and finishing second in receiving yards (613) last year.
4. Penn State

QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Zach Zwinak, TE Jesse James

The Lions have the Big Ten's top pocket passer in Hackenberg, the league's freshman of the year in 2013. But Hackenberg loses his favorite target in Allen Robinson, and wide receiver is a major question entering the fall. The tight end position looks much stronger with James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman. Penn State also has options at running back, but Zwinak has led the team in rushing in each of the past two years, finishing with 989 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall.

5. Maryland

QB C.J. Brown, RB Brandon Ross, WR Stefon Diggs

Don't be surprised if Maryland finishes higher on the postseason triple-threats list as long as their top players stay healthy, which is hardly a guarantee after the past two seasons. Brown is a veteran dual-threat player who had 2,242 passing yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Ross leads a potentially deep group of running backs after leading the team with 776 rushing yards. Although Levern Jacobs led Maryland in receiving last year and returns, Diggs is the team's top threat after averaging 17.3 yards per catch before a season-ending injury in October.

6. Michigan

QB Devin Gardner, RB Derrick Green, TE/WR Devin Funchess

Gardner is capable of putting up some big numbers, as he showed last year, but he loses top target Jeremy Gallon. The run game is a major question mark for new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, although hopes are high for Green, a heralded recruit who had 270 rushing yards as a freshman. At 6-5 and 230 pounds, Funchess is a tight end who plays like a wide receiver. He finished second on the team in receptions (49), receiving yards (748) and touchdowns (6).

7. Rutgers

QB Gary Nova, RB Paul James, TE Tyler Kroft

New coordinator Ralph Friedgen tries to spark an offense that finished 77th nationally in scoring and 95th in yards last season. Nova is competing this spring to retain the starting job, which he has held since the middle of the 2011 season. James averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season and can be very effective when healthy. Rutgers is scrambling at bit at the wide receiver position but returns a solid option at tight end in Kroft, who led the team in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last fall.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
5:00
PM ET
Your second serving of my mailbag for the week has arrived ...

@JeffHurdaCow via Twitter writes: Do you think that the Big Ten will get a team into the playoff, and who is more likely?

[+] EnlargeAli Highsmith
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelOhio State was the last Big Ten team to play for the national championship, after the 2007 season.
Brian Bennett: That's really the key question for 2014, isn't it? It's bad enough that the Big Ten hasn't played for a national title since the 2007 season; from now on, getting to the final four will determine just how relevant any major league is. Football Outsiders recently looked at the top 10 contenders for the playoff and included just one Big Ten team: Ohio State, which they ranked eighth with a 34 percent chance of finishing 11-1 or better. You absolutely have to throw Michigan State in there, as the Spartans broke into the elite ranks last year and has a spotlight nonconference opportunity at Oregon. If Wisconsin can manage to beat LSU in the opener, the Badgers have a very nice schedule the rest of the way. Those would be my top three contenders.

But I think it's going to be tough. The SEC is all but guaranteed at least one spot in the field, and Florida State is a good bet to get back as well. A Big Ten team is likely going to have to finish undefeated or with just one loss against a strong schedule to get into the four-team mix. Not making the playoff in a year when the Rose Bowl is a semifinal would be a bitter pill for the league to swallow.


Matt from Ypsilanti, Mich., writes: I think this could be the year that starts the rise of the Big Ten and the fall of the SEC (short term). My reason is this: For the first time in a long time, I think it looks like QB play will be much improved. It could be a position of strength for the Big Ten in 2014 due to many experienced QBs returning and a lot of young talent as well. Many of the top teams in the SEC do not have their starters back, and although they will still have talented signal callers, they will likely see a drop in production for SEC QBs. Do you agree the Big Ten will have an advantage over the SEC -- and maybe all other conferences -- at QB next year?

Brian Bennett: I like your optimism. The SEC lost an astonishing amount of talent at quarterback with guys like Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray and Connor Shaw leaving. But while the Big Ten brings some good experience back at quarterback, including Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Michigan's Devin Gardner, the overall level of play at quarterback in the league has been lacking for a couple of years, in my opinion. It's great seeing talented young quarterbacks at places like Purdue, Indiana and Nebraska, but they all need to take steps forward. I think the Pac-12 has far and away the best group of returning QBs in 2014.


Andrew from Allentown, Pa., writes: What are your thoughts on the new coaching staff at Penn State? I am pretty high on the staff, but I worry a bit about the offensive coordinator and QB coaches. It looks to me like the defensive staff is pretty elite after what they did at Vandy, but the offense struggled, ranking in the 90s in total offense most of the time. Was this a lack of talent at Vandy or a product of their system?

Brian Bennett: I like Penn State's staff a lot. Not only are they energetic and big-time recruiters, they proved a lot by winning nine games in back-to-back seasons at Vanderbilt, which many people thought was impossible. That's really all I need to know. Yes, the Commodores were a more defensive-oriented team under James Franklin, but they also played against some stout SEC defenses. And I don't think he ever had a player nearly as talented as Hackenberg. I'm really interested to see what the Nittany Lions offense looks like under Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan. There are some concerns at offensive line and wide receiver, but I have confidence in this staff to figure things out.


@HawkFlies via Twitter writes: Is Iowa a dominant offensive line in 2014 with Scherff returning as well as OL coach Brian Ferentz?

Brian Bennett: I certainly think you could make a case for the Hawkeyes' line being the best in the league in 2014. Brandon Scherff is the only returning lineman in the league who made first-team or second-team All-Big Ten, and he's the early leading candidate to win the Rimington-Pace offensive lineman of the year award. Iowa does have to replace tackle Brett Van Sloten and guard Conor Boffeli, but has plenty of in-house candidates and a great history of success with the position group. I'd like to see the Hawkeyes get a better push up front with those big guys in 2014: Iowa finished just sixth in team rushing in the Big Ten last year, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. But with Ohio State rebuilding its line, the title of best O-line in the league is up for grabs this year (though Wisconsin will also have a lot to say about that).


Chris from Chicago writes: To what degree should injuries during the spring be a concern? I know in Spring 2013 that Northwestern's O-line was banged up, and then they struggled in the fall. Should I be similarly concerned now that the Northwestern D-line is banged up in Spring 2014? What do teams (not just Northwestern) do to overcome spring injuries, and not have them have a carry-over effect into the fall?

Brian Bennett: You always want position groups, like both lines, to get lots of reps together in the spring and build chemistry, especially if there are several new starters there. But as long as the injuries aren't serious or lingering, I don't think it's always a huge deal. Players still work out a lot together in the summer and then again through two-a-days and preseason practices, so there is plenty of time to jell. There have been lots of examples of players missing all or large parts of spring ball and having a strong season. The absolute worst thing that can come out of spring practice is a long-term injury, so having some players miss that extra contact isn't always a bad thing.


Alex K. from Decatur, Neb., writes: What do you think the direction if the Big Ten should be after the additions of Maryland and Rutgers? Should Notre Dame be a top target still, or maybe more East Coast? No change?

Brian Bennett: Ah, expansion questions. How I missed thee. Or something. Anyway, perhaps I'm being naive, but I think the expansion merry-go-round has stopped for a while, thanks to the grant-of-rights deals. I believe we'll see some stability for at least the next few years, and there aren't any schools that would fit the Big Ten profile who appear able to or interested in moving. Of course, it only takes one big domino to change everything. The league seems pretty intent on opening new markets and finding areas of population growth, so if there were going to be another expansion push, I would think the conference would try to look to the East and South. But let's hope we don't have to worry about that again for a while.
We're just about at the halfway point of our 2014 ultimate Big Ten road trip, and this is when all those nights in a hotel room and bad eating habits start to take their toll. But we press on -- at least in our minds.

For those just joining in, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the 2014 season. We aren't tied down by a travel budget or nagging editors. If we want to attend a game -- depending on matchup, location, culinary offerings or any other factors -- we can go.

Let's check out the options for Week 7:

Oct. 11

Illinois at Wisconsin
Indiana at Iowa
Michigan State at Purdue
Northwestern at Minnesota
Penn State at Michigan

Open date: Maryland, Nebraska, Ohio State, Rutgers

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Northwestern at Minnesota

It has been nearly five years since I last witnessed a game at TCF Bank Stadium, one of the nation's more picturesque college football venues. Sure, Penn State and Michigan are bigger names, but I've already seen Michigan twice and Penn State once. I'll be getting my fill of the Gophers after covering them in two of three weeks, but Northwestern is an intriguing team and I'm all about the destination here as Minneapolis offers a lot to do and see.

The game should be a competitive one, if not a good one. Five of the teams' last seven meetings -- and 13 of the past 20 -- have been decided by eight points or fewer. Northwestern has won three straight in Minneapolis, and Minnesota upset the Wildcats last year in Evanston to kick off a nice surge in league play. Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian had a very rough day against the Gophers last October and looks for a stronger performance on the road. The Wildcats likely will attack a Minnesota secondary led by cornerback Eric Murray. Minnesota will pound away with the run game, using a talented group of backs and a big, athletic quarterback in Mitch Leidner.

The West Division is wide open, and while both these teams play tougher schedules than both Wisconsin and Iowa -- Minnesota's slate is especially challenging -- they could be in the title mix with certain improvements (Minnesota's passing game, Northwestern's offensive production). Week 7 isn't a great platter of games, but the trip to Minneapolis sounds very appetizing.

Brian Bennett's pick: Penn State at Michigan

Not exactly the most tantalizing set of games, although if Minnesota and Northwestern get off to hot starts, or teams such as Illinois and Indiana are better than expected, it could be more interesting. Still, it's tough not to choose the Nittany Lions-Wolverines matchup out of this group.

We both agree that Michigan State and Ohio State are the clear-cut East Division favorites in 2014, but Michigan and Penn State should be factors. The winner here will have a major upper hand (remember, Penn State technically can win the division, and it's possible the program could be ruled eligible for the 2014 postseason). I saw the Lions in Week 1 of this ultimate trip, but this would be my first time getting an up-close look at the Wolverines.

Give me a game 75 percent as wild as last year's four-overtime thriller in State College, and I'll be very happy I made this pick. With Christian Hackenberg and Devin Gardner involved, the potential for fireworks is ample. I always look forward to a trip to Ann Arbor and the Big House, and a game like this on tap would make things even more exciting.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
Week 5: Brian at Cincinnati-Ohio State; Adam at Minnesota-Michigan
Week 6: Adam at Nebraska-Michigan State; Brian at Nebraska-Michigan State
Earlier this week, we wrapped up our countdown of the top 10 individual performances of 2013 by Big Ten players.

It was a difficult list to compile through all the worthy candidates, and some of you disagreed with the order and the selections. Well, now it's your turn to vote on it.

Which 2013 performance was the best? Here are our top five contenders:
  • Jeremy Gallon vs. Indiana: The Michigan receiver set a Big Ten record and compiled the second-highest single-game receiving yard total ever in an FBS game by catching 14 passes for 369 yards and two touchdowns.
  • Connor Cook vs. Ohio State: The Michigan State quarterback earned Big Ten title game MVP honors after passing for what was then a career-best 304 yards and three touchdowns.
  • Carlos Hyde vs. Illinois: The Ohio State running back went wild against the Illini, piling up 246 rushing yards and five total touchdowns.
  • Devin Gardner vs. Ohio State: Despite playing much of the second half on a broken foot, the Michigan quarterback completed 32 of 45 passes for 451 yards and scored five total touchdowns in a narrow loss to the Buckeyes.
  • Christian Hackenberg vs. Wisconsin: The Penn State freshman had his best game of the season in the finale, completing 21 of 30 passes for 339 yards and throwing four touchdowns in an upset win on the road.

These were all great performances, but only one can be the best. Vote now in our poll.
Here's a team-by-team look at what to watch in the new Big Ten East this spring.

Indiana

Spring start: March 8

Spring game: TBA

What to watch
  • Getting defensive: The Hoosiers have had no trouble scoring since Kevin Wilson took over the program, but opponents have made it look even easier. New defensive coordinator Brian Knorr might have his hands full turning around the Big Ten’s worst unit, but Indiana could be dangerous if he can.
  • Quarterback derby: The offense operated just fine with Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld taking turns leading the attack, so Wilson might not even need to settle on just one quarterback. Typically it does help to have a pecking order behind center, though, and the Hoosiers will be watching these guys closely to see if one can gain some separation.
  • Next in line: There is a ready-made candidate to take over as the team’s most productive receiver, but Shane Wynn is going to need some help. For all his speed and elusiveness, Wynn is still undersized and doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional receiver, which will make it necessary for somebody like Nick Stoner to step up to help replace Cody Latimer.
Maryland

Spring start: March 1

Spring game: April 11

What to watch
  • Get healthy: The Terrapins have one of the most talented groups of wide receivers in the country when they’re completely healthy, but that was an issue last season with both Stefon Diggs and Deon Long suffering broken legs -- just for starters. Neither of those game-breakers is expected to be on the field this spring, but their respective rehabs are critical moving forward.
  • Give and take: An emphasis on protecting the football on offense and creating more turnovers defensively is nothing new in spring practice, but Randy Edsall might just double down on that message this year. The Terrapins finished last in the ACC in turnover margin last season and were ranked No. 102 in the nation with seven more giveaways than takeaways, which isn’t a recipe for success in any league.
  • Coaching chemistry: The deck wasn’t completely reshuffled, but the Terrapins will have three new assistants in charge and could use a seamless transition as they prepare to move to a new league. Keenan McCardell (wide receivers), Chad Wilt (defensive line) and Greg Studrawa (offensive line) will help deliver Edsall’s message moving forward, and it’s as crucial for a coaching staff to jell and find common ground as it is for players on the field.
Michigan

Spring start: Feb. 25

Spring game: April 5

What to watch
  • Go pro: If it was the coordinator keeping Brady Hoke from putting the offense he wanted on the field, that won’t be an issue anymore with Al Borges out of the picture. Snapping up Doug Nussmeier from Alabama should put the Wolverines on the path for a more traditional pro-style attack, and establishing that playbook starts on the practice field in spring.
  • Quarterback quandary: The competition to lead the new-look offense is open between Devin Gardner and Shane Morris, and how that battle shakes out will obviously have a lasting impact and shape the season for the Wolverines. Gardner has the edge in experience and turned in a gritty, wildly productive outing against Ohio State while injured to end the season, but he certainly has lacked consistency. Morris filled in during the postseason with mixed results, but one of those guys will need to emerge.
  • On the line: The Wolverines were in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten in sacks, and only Purdue was worse in the league at protecting the quarterback. Both sides of the line have plenty of room to develop, and those daily battles against each other this spring will need to sharpen both the pass-rushers and the blockers if Michigan is going to be able to win games up front.
Michigan State

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch
  • Something cooking: The finishing flourish in the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl showed how far Connor Cook had come from the start of the season to the end, but there’s still more room to grow. His numbers are slightly skewed thanks to the way Michigan State handled the job early in the season, but overall he averaged fewer than 200 yards per game passing. With such a great defense, that was enough -- but boosting that total would be better for the Spartans.
  • Reload defensively: The seemingly impenetrable defense might have been more than sum of its parts, but the individual pieces Michigan State had on hand weren’t too shabby, either. With Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen all gone, the Spartans will need to identify some replacements for the stars of that elite unit from a year ago.
  • Plug some holes: Both starting offensive guards have to be replaced, and given the perhaps overlooked significance of the work the line did for the Spartans last season, that shouldn’t be dismissed as a meaningful item on the checklist. Cook has to be protected in the pocket, for starters, but with the way the Spartans traditionally pound the football on the ground, they’ll need some road-pavers to step up during spring practice to keep the offense on the upswing.
Ohio State

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch
  • Backs to the wall: There weren’t many deficiencies to be found on a team that again went through the regular season unbeaten, but Ohio State’s glaring weakness caught up with it late in the year. The Buckeyes looked helpless at times against the pass, and new co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Chris Ash was brought in to make sure that unit is dramatically improved.
  • Hold the line: The Buckeyes held on to Braxton Miller for another year, but they lost four seniors who had protected the quarterback for the past couple of seasons. That might be a worthwhile trade, but finding replacements up front will be imperative for a team that has leaned heavily on that veteran presence in the trenches since Urban Meyer took over the program. Taylor Decker is the lone holdover in the starting lineup, and he’ll need to assert himself as the leader of the unit.
  • Air it out: Miller had some shaky performances throwing the ball down the stretch, but taking the passing game to a higher level is not solely his responsibility. The Buckeyes also need improved play and more reliable options at wide receiver, and they’ve recruited to address that issue over the past couple of years. Michael Thomas, who redshirted during his second year on campus, might be leading the charge for a new batch of playmakers on the perimeter.
Penn State

Spring start: March 17

Spring game: April 12

What to watch
  • Starting fresh: There are new playbooks to learn again for the Nittany Lions, and spring practice will be the first chance for James Franklin to start shaping his team in his image. That process doesn’t just include memorizing schemes and assignments for the players, since every coach has a different way of structuring practices and meetings. The sooner the Nittany Lions adjust the better off they’ll be in the fall.
  • Next step: As debut seasons go, it’s hard to find much fault in the work Christian Hackenberg did after being tossed into the fire as a true freshman. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards with 20 touchdowns, completing 59 percent and setting the bar pretty high for himself down the road. As part of his encore, Franklin would probably like to see the young quarterback cut down on his 10 interceptions as a sophomore.
  • Tighten up the defense: There were pass defenses with more holes than Penn State’s a year ago, but that will be little consolation for a program that has traditionally been so stout on that side of the ball. Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas can get the job done at cornerback, but the Nittany Lions need to get stronger at safety -- and also need to fill notable spots in front of them with linebacker Glenn Carson and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones now gone.
Rutgers

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch
  • Toughen up: The Scarlet Knights have seen hard-hitting competition and proven they aren’t afraid of a challenge, but the Big East and American conferences don’t provide nearly the weekly physical test that playing in the Big Ten does. There’s no reason to think Kyle Flood won’t have his team ready for the transition and a new league, but developing both strong bodies and minds starts in spring practice.
  • Settle on a quarterback: There’s a veteran signal-caller on hand with 28 career starts to his credit, but Flood made it no secret as far back as January that he would hold an open competition during camp to lead the offense. Gary Nova has the edge in experience, but he also has more interceptions in his career than games started. That could open the door for one of three younger guys to step in, though Mike Bimonte, Blake Rankin and Chris Laviano have combined to take a grand total of zero snaps.
  • Star turn: There’s nothing wrong with spreading the wealth, and the Scarlet Knights certainly did that in the passing game last season. Having five targets with at least 28 receptions can keep a defense off-balance, which is a good thing. But ending the season with none of those guys topping 573 yards might not be quite as encouraging, and establishing a consistent, go-to, big-play threat in the spring could prove useful for a team that finished No. 62 in the nation in passing yardage.
Spring football kicks off earlier than normal in the Big Ten, as Michigan takes the field Tuesday, Northwestern follows Wednesday and eight other squads begin their sessions by March 8.

The accelerated schedules seem appropriate in a league filled with players, coaches and teams itching for fresh starts.

New assistants get their first chance to repair struggling units, whether it's Doug Nussmeier with Michigan's offense, Brian Knorr with Indiana's defense or Chris Ash and Larry Johnson with a once-feared Ohio State defense. Quarterback competitions begin or resume at nine places, as new faces such as Illinois' Wes Lunt, Nebraska's Johnny Stanton and Minnesota's Chris Streveler enter the mix, while veterans like Wisconsin's Joel Stave and Michigan's Devin Gardner try to retain their starting jobs.

Happy Valley continues to buzz about new Penn State coach James Franklin, who seems to galvanize everyone whom he encounters. But Franklin barely has been around his new players and finally begins the real work with a team facing very real challenges.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes his team can start a rebound from a disappointing, injury-riddled 2013 season.
Spring also allows teams such as Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue and Indiana to look forward after disappointing seasons. Michigan State, meanwhile, continues to bask in the Rose Bowl glow but looks toward its next goal -- a national championship -- as spring ball kicks off March 25.

"It's big-picture stuff, building relationships with the players and everyone associated with the program," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The other thing is laying a really good foundation with the philosophies and schemes of how we're going to do things. That's going to happen naturally over time, but I'm not the most patient person. I wish it would have happened yesterday."

Franklin doesn't water down his goals for Penn State, especially in recruiting, but he's also realistic about the challenges of a reduced roster. The Nittany Lions return strong pieces such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive back Adrian Amos, but the two-deep has some holes that Franklin and his assistants must address, while installing new schemes.

"It's one thing when you get put in this situation in the first place with limited scholarships," Franklin said, "but the longer you're in it, the more effect it has. We've got some depth issues, there's no doubt about it, across the board. We're going to have to get creative."

Northwestern also is focused on depth after being hit hard by key injuries in 2013. Pat Fitzgerald blames himself and his staff for failing to get enough second-stringers ready, which proved costly in close Big Ten losses.

After their first bowl-less winter in six years, the Wildcats responded well in the weight room, as more than 50 players recorded personal bests. Although 11 players will miss spring practice, including standout running back/returner Venric Mark, the depth should be better in areas like the secondary.

"We're really emphasizing taking ownership of the finish," Fitzgerald said. "Finishing your technique, finishing the call, finishing the route. There's a lot of disappointment in the way the program didn't take the next step forward."

Michigan coach Brady Hoke restructured the roles of his defensive assistants for 2014, but the Wolverines' offense will be in the spotlight this spring after a wildly inconsistent season. Gardner, who continues to recover from a foot injury and likely won't be 100 percent until midway through the spring, will compete with Shane Morris, Russell Bellomy and midyear enrollee Wilton Speight.

But other positions, such as offensive line, figure to be just as important as Michigan tries to achieve Hoke and Nussmeier's vision.

"We had good intentions as far as what we wanted our identity to be, but obviously I don't think it came out the way we'd like it to," Hoke said. "The quarterback position is as important as any, and we have a guy [Gardner] who is very talented and had some really good games and games where we had to protect him better, have a better run game and take pressure off of him, and I don't think we did."

While Michigan turns the page on offense, Ohio State focuses on a defense that allowed 115 points in its last three games and finished 110th nationally in pass yards allowed (268 YPG). The Buckeyes lost top defenders Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, but they also added two accomplished assistants.

Johnson, who churned out NFL linemen during 18 years at Penn State, chose Ohio State instead of remaining in State College. Ash leaves a sole coordinator role at Arkansas for a co-coordinator role at Ohio State, where he'll work with the embattled Luke Fickell and others to mend the defense through a simplified scheme.

"Back in the day when Ohio State played great defense, you knew what you were going to get," Ash said. "They played with swagger, played with confidence, played with toughness. We have to get back to that. The simplicity of the things we're going to do will lead to faster players, more plays made and a more aggressive defense.

"I wasn't here [in 2013], but I can tell you what Coach Meyer has told me, what Luke Fickell has told me and what I watch on film. I can see there's some hesitation, there's some uncertainty. Why that is, I don't know. But it's my job to get it fixed."

Purdue has plenty to fix after a 1-11 season, and players not surprisingly are wearing T-shirts with the word "FORWARD" on the backs. Maryland and Rutgers move forward to a new conference after an offseason that saw several staff changes, including new coordinators at Rutgers (Ralph Friedgen, Joe Rossi).

There's a fresh start of sorts at Wisconsin, as a large and decorated senior class departs. Coach Gary Andersen's markings will be more obvious with his second team, which begins practice March 7.

Wisconsin is just one of many places where the top quarterback job is at stake. Lunt, who sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, competes with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey at Illinois.

"Competition's competition, no matter where it's at," said Lunt, who has added about 15 pounds since his arrival and checks in at 225. "It's different because it’s different people, different coaches, but I'm excited for it."

He's not alone in the Big Ten. Spring ball can't start soon enough.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

February, 19, 2014
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There was no mailbag on Monday because of Presidents Day, but I still plan on doing one that day in the future. So keep your questions coming.

On to the latest 'bag ...

Barry from Sheboygan, Wis., writes: Purdue fans had a renewed hope when Darrell Hazell was hired (I still believe in him). We took it on the chin when Purdue went 1-11 with mostly blowout losses (strangely enough except for Notre Dame and a very good MSU team). Then signing day comes and Purdue signs the lowest-rated recruits Insider in the B1G (including Maryland and Rutgers). I haven't given up on Hazell or Purdue. I know they are rebuilding and it is not reasonable to expect too much next season. What would be considered the best, worst and most likely record next season? If you feel up to it, what would be the highlights? I would rather Purdue be competitive in all games and win four games then win five and be blown out of most of the rest.

Brian Bennett: The transition from Danny Hope to Hazell was rougher than most people expected. But Hazell is trying to play a much different style on offense, with bigger, more physical players, and the talent on the defensive side -- especially at linebacker -- has been lacking for a while. Couple that with a very difficult 2013 schedule, and the recipe for disaster was complete. I don't worry about recruiting rankings; it's much more important for Hazell to get his type of player into the program. His success in landing talented quarterbacks is encouraging, but there are a lot of other holes to patch. With Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Southern Illinois on the nonconference schedule, Purdue has a chance to triple its 2013 win total before even getting to Big Ten play. The conference schedule is mostly unforgiving, but I think the goal has to be getting at least one league win. A 4-8 record seems likely to me, with five wins probably the ceiling and a two-win season the floor.


Jim H. from Albany, NY, writes: I am so pumped for July 1, when Rutgers finally enters the B1G. Thanks for adding them to the blog now, rather than wait until then. I've been reading the blog for the past year, and am looking forward to articles about RU here. One question: How well/poorly do you expect Rutgers to fare in the B1G East this coming season?

Brian Bennett: I'll have a better idea once we get more familiar with the Scarlet Knights' personnel and hopefully see them in spring practice. Though I covered Rutgers a few years ago in the Big East blog, I didn't follow the team that closely the past couple of seasons because there simply wasn't time. I do know this: The Scarlet Knights' schedule, which has been weak at times in the past, is a bear in 2014. Nonconference games on the road against Washington State and Navy will be tough, while the inaugural Big Ten slate includes crossovers against Wisconsin and Nebraska in addition to the rugged East Division slate. Rutgers could have a rough go of things in 2014, especially if the quarterback situation does not improve significantly. If the team can get to six wins this season, that would be a nice accomplishment, in my opinion.


Brian from New York writes: Having gone to Maryland for my undergrad studies and Rutgers for graduate school, I am very excited about having both join the Big Ten. What kind of interest will the games against the Western teams, like Nebraska and Iowa, generate?

Brian Bennett: It's a good question, and one that can be asked from both sides. I believe there will be a curiosity factor at first, and you never have to worry about Nebraska fans showing up for a road game. Big Ten West Division schools such as Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern have more brand-name appeal than many of the programs Rutgers would have played in the American Athletic Conference, though it will take Maryland fans more time to get used to being out of the ACC. A bigger question I have is how much interest teams such as Nebraska and Iowa -- or even many teams in the East, frankly -- will have in Maryland and Rutgers coming to their turf. The only real way to generate and maintain interest is for those teams to be competitive and score some key victories.


Eli from New York writes: How Penn State was able to get the third best class in the B1G Insider is beyond me. Discuss.

Brian Bennett: When you consider the NCAA sanctions and the coaching change, it really is quite amazing what the Nittany Lions achieved on the recruiting trail. I think that speaks to a few things. One is the enduring appeal of Penn State because of its tradition, huge fan base and emotional resonance with players and families. Another factor is that the Lions remain in a strong area for recruiting, even if it's not as talent-rich as it was 20 years ago. And lastly is the job that both Bill O'Brien and James Franklin did. O'Brien set the tone early in his tenure by luring top prospects such as Christian Hackenberg and Adam Breneman. Franklin, with his recruiting prowess, could take it to the next level.


Jack from Ann Arbor writes: Interesting article on the declining student attendance. I wanted to comment from the perspective of a current student at Michigan. I believe the overlying issue is the rise in ticket prices every year. This year our ticket package was over $330 with taxes and fees, which doesn't even include a T-shirt anymore! To me it feels like the university cares more about making money than they do about the students who actually attend the school and they need to make tickets more affordable to students. How is the university going to expect us to pay for season tix as future alumni if we can't even afford tix as a student?

Brian Bennett: That's pretty steep, Jack. When I was in college, football tickets only cost $5. (Of course, I went to Kentucky in the early- to mid-1990s. I should have been paid to go to games.) I'm sure students don't mind shelling out a little cash to see Ohio State come to the Big House, but to do the same for Central Michigan and Akron is not quite as appealing. Every program looks to maximize its revenues, but to charge high prices to students doesn't seem right. Then again, it's also a supply-and-demand issue.

B1G's top impact true freshmen

February, 13, 2014
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The Big Ten's 2014 recruiting classes are signed and sealed -- for the most part, at least. The next question many of you ask is which incoming freshmen or junior-college players will make the biggest immediate impact for the 2014 season.

It's always a bit tricky projecting which recruits will make a big splash right away, as some will fall in line behind veteran players while others might be forced into big roles because of depth issues. Talent certainly plays a role on who sees the field the earliest, and so does need.

Here are five players (in alphabetical order) who I expect to see early and often in 2014. Note: Malik McDowell would have made the list, but the possibility (albeit slim) that he signs with Florida State prevents it.

Chris Godwin, WR, Penn State: The Lions have a dynamic quarterback in Christian Hackenberg, but wide receiver suddenly is a major need after Allen Robinson, the two-time Big Ten wide receiver of the year, entered the NFL draft. Robinson recorded 97 receptions last season, and no other Lions player had more than 28. The good news is Penn State loaded up at receiver in the 2014 class, and Godwin should be in the mix for major playing time right away. The 6-foot-2, 203-pound Godwin has a physical style that should help him transition to the college game.

[+] EnlargeJeff Jones
Tom Hauck/ESPNESPN 300 running back Jeff Jones has the potential to be an immediate contributor at Minnesota.
Jeff Jones, RB, Minnesota: The Gophers return a 1,200-yard rusher in David Cobb, so the need for Jones might not be overly pressing. But Jones' surge both during his senior season and afterward, when he claimed MVP honors at the Under Armour All-America Game, boost his chances of making a splash right away. Minnesota established itself as a run-first team in 2013, and the uncertainty at the quarterback position could push the Gophers even more toward the ground game this fall. The 6-foot, 198-pound Jones is the most decorated recruit of the Jerry Kill era and provides a spark to an offense that needs more dynamic components.

Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State: Here's a case of a supremely talented player -- ESPN RecruitingNation rates McMillan as the nation's top linebacker and No. 13 overall player -- who plays a position of extreme need. Ohio State has had depth issues at linebacker throughout Urban Meyer's tenure and loses All-American Ryan Shazier, who led the team in tackles (143), tackles for loss (22.5) and forced fumbles (4) last season. The departure of Mike Mitchell, a top linebacker recruit in the 2013 class, underscores the need for capable 'backers. The 6-2, 249-pound McMillan looks the part and should be able to help right away as a between-the-tackles run defender.

Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan: Brady Hoke has brought in other decorated recruits at Michigan, but Peppers has that can't-miss, no-doubt quality about him. Michigan will get this guy on the field right away, if not as a full-time starter in the secondary then on special teams, where he could be an explosive returner. The 6-1, 205-pound Peppers also could moonlight on offense after rushing for 43 touchdowns during his prep career. The nation's No. 2 overall recruit, according to ESPN RecruitingNation, Peppers brings the skills and playmaking ability to boost a defense took a step backward against the pass in 2013.

Jihad Ward, DT, Illinois: There's no secret why Illinois brought in five junior-college players in the 2014 class, as the upcoming season is pivotal for coach Tim Beckman. Repairing the nation's 110th-ranked defense is the top priority, and Ward should be able to help up front. The 6-6, 285-pound Ward is a big body in the middle who recorded 10 sacks in his junior college career. There are ample opportunities along the line after Illinois struggled so much against the run (116th nationally), and the Illini need Ward and the other jucos to be as good as advertised.

We'll have five more potential instant-impact players later today.
Darqueze DennardMike Carter/USA TODAY SportsDarqueze Dennard fell just short of the top spot in the 2013 Big Ten final player countdown, but the Michigan State cornerback was one of six Spartans that made the cut, the most of any school.

Our postseason Top 25 player countdown concluded earlier today with a familiar name -- Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller -- at the top. What did you think of the rundown? Let us know here and here.

Let's dive into the rankings ...

BY TEAM

Michigan State: 6
Ohio State: 5
Wisconsin: 4
Nebraska: 2
Michigan: 2
Iowa: 2
Indiana: 1
Illinois: 1
Penn State: 1
Minnesota: 1

Northwestern and Purdue weren't represented on the list, although several players -- Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and kicker Jeff Budzien, along with Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen -- were considered.

BY POSITION

Linebacker: 5
Running back: 5
Wide receiver: 4
Quarterback: 3
Offensive tackle: 3
Defensive end: 2
Cornerback: 2
Defensive tackle: 1

The Big Ten remains a linebacker- and running back-driven league, just like we thought it would be entering the season. Wide receiver saw an improvement in 2013 as four players made the list, up from just one (Penn State's Allen Robinson) following the 2012 season. Cornerback is another spot that improved around the league. Although just two made the list, others such as Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Purdue's Allen and Michigan's Blake Countess wouldn't have been bad choices.

Center traditionally has been a strong position in the Big Ten but none made the cut this year (Ohio State's Corey Linsley came close). Safety continues to be a bit of a problem around the league. There are some good safeties but few great ones. That could change in 2014 as players such as Kurtis Drummond and Ibraheim Campbell return.

BY CLASS (eligibility)

Senior: 13
Junior: 8
Sophomore: 4

Of the nine juniors, five are returning for the 2014 season. Draft-eligible sophomores such as Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon also are returning.

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg was the only freshman (true or redshirt) seriously considered for the list.

RANKINGS HISTORY

Ten players also appeared in the 2012 postseason rankings. Here they are:

No. 1: Braxton Miller (No. 1 in 2012 rankings)
No. 2: Darqueze Dennard (No. 19 in 2012 rankings)
No. 3: Carlos Hyde (No. 21 in 2012 rankings)
No. 4: Ameer Abdullah (No. 20 in 2012 rankings)
No. 5: Ryan Shazier (No. 10 in 2012 rankings)
No. 6: Chris Borland (No. 13 in 2012 rankings)
No. 7: Allen Robinson (No. 11 in 2012 rankings)
No. 9: Taylor Lewan (No. 7 in 2012 rankings)
No. 14: Max Bullough (No. 15 in 2012 rankings)
No. 16: Bradley Roby (No. 16 in 2012 rankings)

Dennard, Hyde and Abdullah were the biggest risers from 2012, while Calhoun, who finished No. 8 after being unranked after his freshman year, made the biggest overall jump.

When it comes to the preseason Top 25, 14 players who made the list also appear in the postseason rankings. Dennard (preseason No. 10), Abdullah (preseason No. 13), Gordon (preseason No. 22) and Wisconsin running back James White preseason No. 23) are among the biggest risers, while Lewan (preseason No. 2), Bullough (preseason No. 7) and Roby (preseason No. 9) slipped a bit. Hyde would have made the preseason rankings, but we weren't sure of his status because of the night club incident.

FIVE THAT JUST MISSED THE CUT

[+] EnlargeIllinois' Jonathan Brown
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsJonathan Brown (45) was one of the top linebackers in the conference and just barely missed making the Top 25.
Illinois LB Jonathan Brown: Brown definitely was No. 26 on our list and certainly could have made the Top 25 rundown. The second-team All-Big Ten selection finished second in the league in tackles (119) and fourth in tackles per loss average (1.25 per game).

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: He had some typical freshman moments but finished the season extremely well and showed tremendous potential. Hackenberg earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors and passed for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Iowa LB Anthony Hitchens: Hitchens had an excellent senior season as part of the Big Ten's top linebacker corps. He finished sixth in the league in tackles per game and seventh in tackles for loss. He recorded two forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovered.

Penn State DT DaQuan Jones: Jones earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches and was a bright spot for a defense that struggled for much of the season. He had 56 tackles, including a team-high 11 tackles for loss, and three sacks.

Ohio State DE Noah Spence: Spence began to display his tremendous potential for a young Buckeyes defensive line, finishing second in the league in sacks (8) and sixth in tackles for loss (14.5). He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media and second-team honors from the coaches.

Big Ten lunch links

January, 30, 2014
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Anybody up for a little fish fry?
  • Former Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons is apparently not facing charges for the incident that seems to have led to his expulsion from the school.
  • The Wolverines have seen some of their recruiting momentum slip away. Could Michigan State capitalize on that given its strong finish on the field last season?
  • Ohio State has found itself a new president, and he was a popular guy with at least one coach during his stint at UC-Irvine.
  • The Buckeyes are keeping their current athletic director around for a while, and Doug Lesmerises takes a look at the contract extension signed by Gene Smith.
  • Former Minnesota quarterback Phillip Nelson has picked his next school, and he'll be staying in the Big Ten as he heads to Rutgers.
  • Should likely defensive coordinator Joe Rossi be judged for the performance of the Scarlet Knights in the bowl game against Notre Dame?
  • Iowa has fired an athletic department employee over missing funds from ticket sales on the Hawkeye Express.
  • Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst has been on the job for a year, and he's crammed plenty into that relatively short timeframe.
  • Penn State's new passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach knows better players can make for better coaches, and Ricky Rahne is set to work with another talented signal caller in Christian Hackenberg.
  • A Madison-based company landed Russell Wilson for his first solo Super Bowl commercial, and it struck gold when the former Wisconsin quarterback actually led Seattle to the NFL championship game.

Best B1G games of 2013: No. 6

January, 28, 2014
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We're continuing our countdown of the Top 10 games from the Big Ten in 2013. Remember that we're taking into account the stakes in the game, the excitement level, the quality of the performances and the atmosphere.

Quality might not have been the keystone of this next game, but it had everything else as one of the wildest contests of the year ...

No. 6: Penn State 43, Michigan 40, 4 OT, Oct. 12

[+] EnlargePenn State
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPenn State staged a late rally to tie the game then later celebrated a 4-OT win over Michigan.
How it went down: A week after an embarrassing 20-point loss at Indiana, Penn State came out of the gates strong at Beaver Stadium against the Wolverines, running out to a 21-10 halftime lead.

The momentum swung Michigan's way in the second half, beginning with a Frank Clark fumble return for a touchdown just 10 seconds into the third quarter. A pair of Devin Gardner touchdown passes put the Maize and Blue ahead 34-24 early in the fourth quarter, and the Wolverines had a first down on the Penn State 28-yard line with 3:10 left while nursing a seven-point lead. Some questionably conservative play-calling and a five-yard delay of game penalty then prompted Brady Hoke to have his team punt from the Nittany Lions' 35, leaving just 50 seconds on the clock.

Christian Hackenberg needed just five plays to lead his offense down the field, tying the score on his own 1-yard rush with 23 seconds left. Penn State scored so fast that Michigan had a chance to win the game in regulation, but Brendan Gibbons missed a 52-yard field goal. Then the real craziness began.

It was a sloppy game that got sloppier in overtime, as neither team even managed to score in the first or third overtime. Penn State's defense held Michigan out of the end zone for all four extra periods, and Bill Belton's 2-yard touchdown run finally ended things. Belton had converted a fourth-and-1 three plays earlier.

The two teams combined to go 7-of-34 on third downs and committed seven turnovers. So, yeah, not so much quality. But Nittany Lions fans were still giddy with the outcome.

Player of the game: Hackenberg wasn't perfect by any means, but he threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns and ran for that score after a supremely clutch game-tying drive. We might look back on that as the start of his legend.

Stat of the game: How even was this game? Michigan had 389 yards of offense, while Penn State had 390.

They said it: "Nothing should amaze you," then-Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said. "There's going to be twists and turns. These are tough kids. They love Penn State. They love playing for each other. The locker room is such a great scene right now because these kids really believe in each other."

More best games

No. 10: Ohio State 31, Wisconsin 24
No. 9: Michigan 41, Notre Dame 30
No. 8: Arizona State 32, Wisconsin 30
No. 7: Ohio State 40, Northwestern 30
The Michigan defense has to make some strides in 2014 if it wants to live up to the expectations of a Michigan defense.

And the Wolverines won't get a break because there are plenty of offensive weapons on the schedule next season.

Here’s a look ahead to the biggest challenges Michigan will face.

[+] EnlargeBen Gedeon
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsMichigan will once again have its hands full with Ohio State dual-threat QB Braxton Miller in 2014.
1. QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State. No surprises here. The Ohio State quarterback gets his chance to take on the Michigan defense in The Horseshoe. And with his production on the field the past two seasons, he should be even better next season. Miller is the best dual-threat quarterback the Wolverines will face in 2014. He averaged 175 yards passing yards and 89 yards rushing per game. His TD percentage (TD/pass attempts) was second only to Jameis Winston in 2013.

2. QB Connor Cook, Michigan State. Cook was another signal-caller who made significant improvement, specifically down the stretch in the Big Ten Championship game and in the Rose Bowl. He’s secured his starting role and isn’t in the midst of a three- or four-quarterback controversy, which should also aid his growth as a leader and player. Like Miller, he has the luxury of playing Michigan in his home stadium. Cook led the conference with the lowest interception percentage (INT/pass attempts) at 1.6, and with an offseason to develop with his receivers and the MSU run game, he -- like Miller -- should be much better in 2014 than he was in 2013.

3. QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State. Hackenberg has a new head coach and a new offensive coordinator, but the freshman showed such potential this past season that he should be a considerable offensive threat this fall. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year should be in good hands, considering what new coach James Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan did at Vanderbilt. Hackenberg finished in the middle of the pack in many Big Ten quarterback stats this season, but that could change in 2014.

4. RB Jeremy Langford, Michigan State. Like Cook, Langford was a guy stuck in the middle of a position controversy early in the 2013 season. Now, with the position solidified, he should be able to have a strong offseason and come in as the guy. His growth will only help Cook’s, and vice versa, so these two should create a pretty tough threat for defenses.

5. Penn State tight ends. The Nittany Lions certainly lost a lot at receiver when Allen Robinson declared for the NFL draft. With his 119 yards per game gone, Hackenberg will look to spread it out a bit more. He’ll look more for the talented tight ends on the roster. With Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman, Hackenberg has plenty of offensive threats. And with the way the Wolverines struggled in pass coverage, talented tight ends who can block and catch aren’t what they want to see from an offense. And certainly not several from one team with those capabilities.

Honorable mention:

  • RB Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State: The rising sophomore has some big shoes to fill, but his size and athleticism indicate he’s more than ready to do it. Michigan struggled against the run in 2013, and he’s a guy who could exploit those issues up front, especially if Miller takes the attention from the defense.
  • QB Nate Sudfeld and RB Tevin Coleman, Indiana: Coleman was the No. 5 rusher in the Big Ten in 2013, and while he rushed for just 78 yards and one touchdown against the Wolverines, this could be one of those tandems that could catch Michigan off guard in the fall (much as it did last fall).
  • QB Everett Golson, Notre Dame: Golson has returned, and Brian Kelly is back calling the plays. This should create a comfort level between the two, but how effective Golson will be depends on if Notre Dame can get some receiving weapons to step up.
  • OT Taylor Decker, Ohio State: The only returning starter on the Buckeyes' offensive line will be a handful for the Wolverines' front four, especially if Michigan's pass rush looks anything like it did in 2013.

Certainly there are players in the B1G West such as Iowa QB Jake Rudock and OT Brandon Scherff and Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon who could pose huge threats, but the Wolverines wouldn’t see them until a potential Big Ten championship game, so they weren’t included on this list.
The last two seasons have shown that two-quarterback systems can work in the Big Ten.

Northwestern recorded 10 wins in 2012 while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Indiana led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in total offense last fall while alternating between Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa, Connor Cook
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAfter taking over the quarterback job in Week 5, Connor Cook led the Spartans to 10 consecutive wins.
Given the recent success, my next statement might surprise you: Every Big Ten team would be best served picking one quarterback and sticking with him in 2014. That includes Indiana and Northwestern.

Quarterback rotations can be successful in the short term, but they are rarely sustainable or desirable. We saw this at Northwestern last fall, as the Wildcats never established a consistent offensive rhythm and operated with a reduced playbook, in part because of injuries but also because the unit lacked a clear identity. Northwestern finished 10th in the league in scoring.

Minnesota alternated between quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner during several games, including the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Although the Gophers had a nice surge during Big Ten play and recorded eight wins, they also finished 11th in the league in scoring and last in passing.

Nebraska had some success using two quarterbacks (Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III) last season but did so out of necessity following Taylor Martinez's injury. The Huskers also struggled to pass the ball, finishing 11th in the league.

The strongest argument for picking a quarterback and sticking with him comes from the Big Ten's best team in 2013. Michigan State's offense was a train wreck in non-league play as the Spartans used three quarterbacks. After a Week 4 loss to Notre Dame, the coaches decided Connor Cook would be their guy. You all know what happened next, but what struck me was Cook's mindset at the time.

"We went through spring ball competition and fall camp competition, it was the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life just trying to be the quarterback," Cook said last month before the Rose Bowl. "After I got the starting job and started a couple of games, the stress went away and it turned to focus, me being focused and knowing they're not going to use other quarterbacks in the game and not stress too much that go if I make a bad play I'm going to be pulled.

"That's when the stress went out the window."

Players like Northwestern's Siemian and Indiana's Roberson and Sudfeld are more accustomed to sharing time than Cook was, but each of them, like any quarterback, would rather be the clear-cut starter.

Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase is another good example of a player who benefited from an unambiguous role. He struggled from the middle of the 2011 season through all of 2012, raising the possibility of a rotation last season. Instead, Scheelhaase started every game and led the Big Ten in passing (3,272 yards).

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAfter playing well in place of Taylor Martinez, sophomore signal-caller Tommy Armstrong Jr. is the favorite to start for the Cornhuskers in 2014.
I'm all for competition at quarterback, and the Big Ten will feature plenty of it this spring and summer. Only five quarterbacks -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Michigan State's Cook, Iowa's Jake Rudock and Michigan's Devin Gardner -- can feel pretty secure about their starting roles. Gardner has been mentioned as a possible rotation candidate with Shane Morris -- some Michigan fans wouldn't mind seeing Gardner line up at wide receiver, a position of need -- but I'd be surprised if Morris leapfrogs the senior.

I'm also OK with teams employing change-up quarterbacks for a package of plays, be it the Wildcat or something else. Michigan State could be a candidate for this in 2014 with dynamic redshirt freshman Damion Terry possibly spelling Cook from time to time.

The first few games also provide a platform to use multiple quarterbacks in settings that can't be replicated on the practice field. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel often did this with his younger quarterbacks, giving them a first-half series or two. It makes sense. But by Week 4, roles must be identified.

The offseason is full of Big Ten quarterback questions:

  • Will Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt take the reins at Illinois?
  • How will Gardner and Hackenberg fare with new offensive coordinators?
  • After Nelson's transfer, who emerges at Minnesota among Leidner, Chris Streveler and possibly a young quarterback such as Dimonic McKinzy?
  • Nebraska's Armstrong went 6-1 as a freshman starter, but can he hold off Johnny Stanton?
  • Can Gary Nova retain his job at Rutgers?
  • Will Danny Etling keep the top job at Purdue, or will Austin Appleby and possibly early enrollee David Blough enter the mix?
  • How does Siemian bounce back at Northwestern, and do the Wildcats look at Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver?
  • Will either Roberson or Sudfeld finally separate himself at IU?

Ultimately, these questions must be answered. The teams that avoid prolonged rotations should be better off for it.

Big Ten lunch links

January, 24, 2014
Jan 24
12:00
PM ET
It's been great getting to know you, Polar Vortex. But it's probably time to hit the road.
  • Chris Ash was finally confirmed as Ohio State's co-defensive coordinator, but there's still some uncertainty about who will be calling the plays this season.
  • Michigan State is preparing for a huge recruiting weekend, and a staffer offers some insight on the approach it takes with its targets.
  • Former Michigan offensive lineman Michael Schofield is impressing scouts and analysts at the Senior Bowl practices.
  • Nebraska product Stanley Jean-Baptiste is also making the most of his opportunity in Mobile, Ala., and the cornerback might not be "under the radar" any longer.
  • Jerry Kill appears to be heading for a pay raise at Minnesota.
  • Christian Hackenberg will be the eighth starting quarterback James Franklin has worked with in his career, and the Penn State rising sophomore already compares favorably with the rest of the bunch.
  • Jeff George Jr. knows his way around the Illinois campus thanks to his dad, but he's going up for another close look as he takes an official visit this weekend.
  • Wisconsin's offense kept on moving just like usual last season, leading with its powerful rushing attack.
  • Paralyzed Rutgers legend Eric LeGrand is now a college graduate.
  • The Big Ten had a few more "winners" as Senior Bowl workouts wound down, including Ohio State's Jack Mewhort and Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis and Chris Borland.

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Michigan Outlook: 2014
Brian Bennett discusses the outlook for the Michigan Wolverines' football program in 2014.Tags: Michigan Wolverines, Braxton MIller, Brian Bennett, Devin Gardner
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