Michigan Wolverines: Devin Gardner

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Time will tell whether Doug Nussmeier can fix Michigan's offense and finally install the kind of pro-style, power running game that Brady Hoke has talked about for the past four years.

One thing, however, appears certain: Whether Nussmeier succeeds or fails won't be because of a lack of energy.

[+] EnlargeDoug Nussmeier
AP Photo/Tony DingDoug Nussmeier added some energy to Michigan's spring practices.
The Wolverines' offense probably needed a shot of adrenaline after last season's highly inconsistent performance and lackluster showing in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl loss to Kansas State. Their first-year coordinator was there to provide that jolt during the team's 15 spring practices, as his voice often was the loudest one vibrating off the Al Glick Field House walls.

"He jumps around and screams all the time," receiver Devin Funchess told ESPN.com. "I love the energy he brings to practice. We really have to match him."

Quarterback Devin Gardner called Nussmeier "an insane, crazy man" on the practice field. Offensive lineman Kyle Kalis said, "he's spunky." Nussmeier doesn't dispute those descriptions.

"We’ll exude our passion for the game," he said. "They spend so much time and energy preparing that we want to create an environment with high energy and positivity, and I think they’ve embraced that. I get excited when I get the opportunity to go out there with them on the field."

Laid-back types won't last long working under Alabama's Nick Saban, as Nussmeier did the past two seasons. His style is a little bit different than his Michigan predecessor, Al Borges. While Borges was a beloved figure around the team, he was a bit more professorial in his approach.

"He [Nussmeier] has brought in a different way of being a good football coach," Hoke said. "His passion and energy for what he does is obvious out there."

Hoke said it was very difficult to let Borges go because of their personal relationship, but he had followed Nussmeier's career for a while. He played with Nussmeier's agent while at Ball State and nearly hired Nussmeier when he took over his alma mater as head coach.

Nussmeier has simplified things in Michigan's running game, with the goal of becoming a much more north-south ground attack. The Wolverines averaged just 3.3 yards per carry last season -- second to last in the Big Ten -- and Fitz Toussaint's 648 rushing yards led the team. Nussmeier has has a 1,000-yard rusher in each of his last six seasons as coordinator, at Alabama, Washington and Fresno State.

"We want to play physical and be a balanced team," he said. "And that all starts with what you’re doing up front in the trenches and on the line of scrimmage."

That's also where Nussmeier's biggest challenge lies, as Michigan's offensive line struggled in the interior in 2013 and is relying on a lot of freshmen and sophomores in 2014. The Wolverines' season could well depend on whether those guys develop quickly this summer.

The good news is that Nussmeier isn't just all caffeine. Gardner says that while he's frantic on the field, Nussmeier is soft-spoken and direct in meeting rooms, calling him "one of the best teachers I've ever been around, including school."

Hoke concurs. Earlier this week, he praised his new assistant for his skill at teaching details and "his ability to command a room and get the attention of an offense."

There's little question that Nussmeier has the Wolverines' attention. Now it's a matter of making the necessary repairs.

"I think that’s exactly what we need," Kalis said, "A guy that's not going to accept anything but perfect."

Big Ten lunch links

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
12:00
PM ET
Have a great weekend, everybody, and enjoy all the spring games. Looks like some nice weather out there.
Head coaches from the Big Ten East Division, along with a player from each team, addressed the media this afternoon on teleconferences. The West Division players and coaches spoke Wednesday.

Here's a closer look at the East:

INDIANA
  • Defense has been a lingering Indiana concern for years, but coach Kevin Wilson believes he's starting to see a change, thanks to new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr. The scheme hasn't changed radically, but the Hoosiers return 10 starters there -- and Wilson's seen a promising spring so far with an added focus on competition and communication: "They've for sure held their own on a daily basis -- and, in some ways, probably even better -- against the offense."
  • Wilson believes teams need to invest scholarships into the kicking game, but he thinks it's also too risky to offer recruits straight out of high school. If you look at the NCAA's top 25 kickers, Wilson estimated at least 15 started out as walk-ons. So he's hoping to find some walk-ons who are willing to work for a scholarship, rather than be granted one right away.
  • At 5-foot-7, Shane Wynn is the Hoosiers' leading returning receiver, and he's transitioning to playing the outside. It's been a little different for Wynn, who said he's had to watch more film as a result. He's reading the corners now, instead of the safeties, as just one example.
MARYLAND
  • Maryland coach Randy Edsall is confident in his offense and believes the Terrapins have enough options so that opponents can't focus on just one person. If defenses lock on to wideout Stefon Diggs, then quarterback C.J. Brown can take off running or receiver Deon Long can pick up some slack. "The No. 1 thing I do like," Edsall said, "is we can spread the field."
  • Maryland's staff has already started looking at film of Big Ten teams, so they know what to expect when the conference season begins. Edsall said he wants to at least get a feel for their personnel and what kind of schemes he'll face. He's also confident the Terps will be ready: "We fully expect to be able to compete when we get into the Big Ten this year."
  • Brown said one of the main reasons he committed to Maryland was the coach who recruited him at the time, former Terps assistant and current Penn State coach James Franklin. He's looking forward to squaring off against Franklin this season, and Edsall said there's no question he would like to develop a rivalry with the Nittany Lions.
MICHIGAN
  • The quarterback derby will continue, and Brady Hoke included all three of his options in the discussion heading into the offseason. The Wolverines coach did acknowledge, though, that Devin Gardner “probably would be” the starter if there was a game on the schedule this weekend. There isn’t, so Shane Morris and Wilton Speight will continue to be in the conversation.
  • The first opponent on the schedule will always stir emotions for Michigan fans, but Hoke didn’t attach any revenge or sentimentality to his reasons for wanting to take on Appalachian State in the opener this fall. “We needed a game,” Hoke said. “I thought it would be a good game.” Defensive end Frank Clark was certainly aware of the history between the programs, even though he was still years away from joining Michigan and getting a shot at making up for the upset loss in 2007 -- which he called “shocking” and “shows how hard those guys play.”
MICHIGAN STATE
  • Michigan State is coming off a Rose Bowl victory, but coach Mark Dantonio and quarterback Connor Cook would prefer not to think about that any longer. Dantonio said they've talked a lot these last four months about not growing complacent, and Cook only echoed his coach. "A lot of people keep bringing up the Rose Bowl," Cook said. "But we're past that. We're focusing on the now."
  • The offensive line has made some big strides since January, at least according to Cook. He felt like he had no time in the pocket last spring and said the pass rush was getting to him every time. This spring? He doesn't feel rushed in the pocket, and he thinks that's pretty indicative of how far this line has come.
  • Jeremy Langford earned a lot of praise from Cook, who said the running back has become a much bigger part of the passing attack. "He's improved a lot with catching the ball," Cook said, complimenting Langford's versatility. "He's done so many different things for us."
OHIO STATE
  • There is still work to be done in addressing the most glaring weakness on the team last season, but Urban Meyer called Ohio State’s pass defense “drastically improved” and will be watching closely for more signs of progress in Saturday’s spring game. The Buckeyes will play a traditional game, but the emphasis will be on throwing the football and assessing the skill players on both offense and defense -- giving Meyer a chance to evaluate backup quarterback Cardale Jones in a live setting in addition to checking out the secondary.
  • Arguably the strongest part of last season's team is undergoing a transition without four senior starters, and the offensive line is somewhat of a concern for Meyer heading into the offseason. With guard Pat Elflein the only other player to have earned a first-team slot to play alongside junior Taylor Decker at this point, that competition is likely to spill over into preseason camp in August. Both tackle Darryl Baldwin and guard Antonio Underwood were praised for their work by defensive tackle Michael Bennett, and Billy Price and Jacoby Boren are dueling at center.
PENN STATE
  • Franklin said he knew exactly what he was getting into at Penn State, in terms of the current depth and sanctions. He and former coach Bill O'Brien worked together at Maryland, and he said the two had a lot of honest conversations about the current state of the Nittany Lions. The two have continued to talk since.
  • Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia are both making transitions from defensive tackle to offensive guard, and Franklin said he has been pleased with their performances so far: "They're doing a good job for us -- and they have to. We're thin at that position."
  • Franklin said he feels especially comfortable with the talent at running back and defensive line. Middle linebacker Mike Hull was more specific about naming the players who impressed him, pointing to backup linebacker Gary Wooten and cornerback Da'Quan Davis. Hull said Wooten is always around the football and that Davis, who missed part of the spring with a hamstring injury, has come up with several interceptions.
RUTGERS
  • Another open competition at the most critical position on the field -- quarterback -- is still playing out at Rutgers, and coach Kyle Flood isn’t ready to declare a winner in what would seem to be a wide-open battle. Flood indicated that Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano are all “really vying for that first-team job.”
  • The change in conference affiliation has been welcomed with open arms by the Scarlet Knights, who can “feel the energy” as theypractice for their first season in the Big Ten. Defensive tackle Darius Hamilton said the team was already buzzing with excitement about the opportunity, and Flood called joining the league a “positive in every way.” The move also presents the opportunity for a rivalry to develop with new divisional neighbor Penn State, with both Flood and Hamilton citing the proximity between the schools as a bonus.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
12:00
PM ET
How long is too long to wait for free pizza?
  • Michigan's new offensive coordinator might be "insane" according to Devin Gardner, but Doug Nussmeier's might be just what the program needs.
  • Michigan State backup quarterback Tyler O'Connor has no plans to transfer, even with Connor Cook ahead of him on the depth chart.
  • Penn State moved a pair of defensive tackles to the offensive line, a sign of confidence in the players already on hand in the defensive trenches.
  • The Ohio State offensive line has a bunch of new faces, but the guy leading the unit remains the same. Ed Warinner's presence continues to give the Buckeyes confidence they can reload up front.
  • After a year away from football, Maryland receiver Marcus Leak has returned humbled, more mature and looking to make an impact.
  • Brandon Scherff has always been known for his ability to look ahead, and that trait is a big part of the reason the star left tackle elected to stay at Iowa for another season.
  • The tackles at Purdue are under intense scrutiny this spring, but the program has been pleasantly surprised with the play of sophomore J.J. Prince so far.
  • Vincent Valentine had his body right ahead of spring practice, but the Nebraska defensive tackle realized quickly he needed to make some technical improvements to have a big sophomore season.
  • Tanner McEvoy has played well elsewhere, but the Wisconsin junior made clear he'd prefer to stick around at quarterback.
  • The latest twist in the drama unfolding at Northwestern: Trevor Siemian opposes forming a union, and the quarterback indicated "a lot" of teammates feel the same way.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- When asked why Michigan's offensive performances went through such wild fluctuations last season, quarterback Devin Gardner didn't go looking for excuses.

"My play wasn’t as consistent as it needs to be," he told ESPN.com. "I feel like that’s where it starts. If I'm not consistent, then I don’t feel like the rest of the team can be."

Gardner is likely being too hard on himself. Sure, his season saw plenty of ups and downs. He had the two biggest passing days ever by a Wolverine against Indiana (503 yards) and Ohio State (451) and turned in some other huge statistical Saturdays. He also struggled with turnovers at times and was ineffective in ghastly offensive outputs against Connecticut, Michigan State and Iowa.

[+] EnlargeQuarterback Devin Gardner #98 of the Michigan Wolverines
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan QB Devin Gardner played with a broken foot against Ohio State, but said it was something he had to do for his teammates.
Still, Gardner finished second in the Big Ten in total offense, and he and receiver Jeremy Gallon were the two most reliable weapons Michigan had last season. A spotty offensive line and poor running game served as much bigger culprits in the week-to-week unpredictability of the offense.

Yet Gardner understands that the responsibility for a team's performance almost always lies at the foot of the quarterback, fairly or not. The Wolverines lack many accomplished veterans, particularly on offense. Gardner wants to be the guy who lifts them out of mediocrity.

"If we don’t have a leader who's going to fight till the end, it's kind of hard for the guys that are following," he said. "I feel like that last game I played in, they really looked to me as a leader, as that warrior who will be there no matter what."

That last game, of course, came against Ohio State on Nov. 30. Gardner accounted for five total touchdowns and nearly led Michigan to the upset before his two-point conversion pass attempt was intercepted in the 42-41 loss. It was later revealed that Gardner had played most of the second half on a broken left foot.

Gardner said he wasn't sure that the foot was broken at the time but that he knew something was really wrong. There was no time to tape it or add any extra padding. So he just played through it.

"It was very painful," he said. "I wasn’t the only one hurting, so I just felt like I had to finish for my teammates.

"It's 'The Game' for a reason, and so you've got to give it everything you've got. So even if I had to hop on one leg , which sometimes I was, that's just how it had to happen. I told my teammates, 'All right, I'm not going to be able to move a little bit here, so help me out.'"

His teammates had already seen Gardner suffer bodily punishment for the cause, especially during a pounding at Michigan State. But this was something even more impressive.

"It's definitely not like we didn’t respect him before," offensive lineman Kyle Kalis said. "But when you see that, it's like, damn, this guy can really play through pain."

"Him going out there and being a warrior didn't surprise me," head coach Brady Hoke said. "But I think it was a learning experience for him also. He learned he can push through things. He willed himself to keep pushing."

Gardner surprised the Michigan coaches and even the medical staff by getting through all of spring practice. Heading into the final week of drills, he estimated that his foot was about 80 percent healthy. He didn't fare well in Saturday's spring game, going just 2-for-10 with an interception, but there's little doubt that he's the starting quarterback despite some spring talk of a competition.

New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is promising to install a more physical point of attack and a better north-south running game. Gardner, who carried the ball 165 times last year, is hoping that will help keep the wear and tear down during the season.

He needs to continue improving his decision making, and he has watched film of past Nussmeier quarterbacks Jake Locker and Keith Price from Washington and AJ McCarron from Alabama.

"Those guys get the ball out of their hands and are really efficient," Gardner said. "[Nussmeier] is so big on being efficient and on things he calls winning plays, which are checking down to the back or throwing the ball away when it's not there."

Nussmeier sees similarities to Locker in Gardner's game.

"He's obviously an exceptional athlete," Nussmeier said. "He's continuing to learn how to do some of things he'll be asked to do in this system. He has an extremely high ceiling and exceptional touch. His accuracy is really good when he gets his feet and eyes in the right place. He's working to find that consistency, and lot of that is understanding the progressions."

Nussmeier praises Gardner for "really making a commitment to elevating his level of play" this offseason. After a brief consideration about turning pro, which wasn't much of an option with his injury, Gardner said he returned for his fifth year because "I've got a lot of unfinished business." That includes, he said, gaining revenge on rivals Ohio State and Michigan State as well as ending Michigan's Big Ten title drought.

It's going to take more than just the quarterback to get all of that done. But Gardner says it all starts with him.

"You have to have the attitude that you're not going to get beat," he said. "You're not going to give up."


Spring game recap: Michigan

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
10:15
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Spring (practice) has officially sprung for Michigan, which became the first Big Ten team to hold its spring game on Saturday at the Big House.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"There's no question," Hoke said, "we need a lot of improvement."
The first Big Ten spring game of 2014 arrives on Saturday at the Big House. Here's a quick preview of what to expect from Michigan's spring fling.

When: Saturday, 2 p.m. ET

Where: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Admission: Free, though fans are encouraged to make donations to Mott Children's Hospital. Michigan Stadium gates open at 11 a.m., with an alumni flag football game scheduled to begin at noon. The men's lacrosse team will play Fairfield at 5 p.m.

TV: Big Ten Network (live)

Weather forecast: Partly sunny, with a high near 47. Winds 13 to 17 mph, with gusts as high as 28 mph.

What to watch for: Coach Brady Hoke said the Wolverines will hold about a 45- to 50-minute scrimmage after "a lot of individual grind work." Hoke said his team, which has only 12 seniors, still needs to work on its fundamentals in its 15th and final practice.

One position full of youth that will have a lot of eyeballs on it Saturday is the offensive line. It's a group full of freshmen and sophomores, but Hoke said he has seen improvement there. An encouraging performance by that unit in the spring game, even with as little as that means, could scale back some of the intense scrutiny and criticism.

Receiver is another spot with a lot of new faces, as Devin Funchess is the only proven returning player. True freshman Freddy Canteen has turned a lot of heads this spring in the slot, and fans will get their first look at him in a Michigan uniform. Fans will be curious to see the offense in general under new coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Hoke said about 80 to 85 percent of Nussmeier's offense has been installed this spring, and he said there were a lot of explosive plays in last weekend's scrimmage. The offense should include much more north-south running, and a slimmed-down Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith should lead the way.

On defense, the public gets its first view of the new linebacker arrangement, with Jake Ryan moving into the middle and James Ross III at the strongside spot. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has talked about a more aggressive approach that will feature more blitzing, but don't expect to see much more than the usual vanilla spring schemes.

Devin Gardner seems to have answered any questions about whether he'd retain the starting quarterback job by going through the spring on a foot that isn't 100 percent healed from the Ohio State game. Shane Morris and Wilton Speight should get plenty of reps on Saturday as well.
video
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- On Friday, Michigan plans to unveil a new museum area inside Schembechler Hall. The centerpiece display is a glass case reaching from floor to ceiling that contains 910 footballs, or one for every Wolverines victory.

There is room in the case for at least a couple hundred more balls. It’s also safe to presume that the all-time winningest program in college football history expects to add more than seven of those per year.

But that’s how many Team 134 contributed in 2013 in a disappointing 7-6 campaign that ended with a thud in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
AP Photo/Tony DingThe 2013 season was a frustrating one for all involved in the Michigan program, as Brady Hoke and the Wolverines stumbled to a 7-6 record.
“That wasn’t a Michigan record,” senior linebacker Jake Ryan said.

It seemed almost quaint two years ago when Brady Hoke labeled the 2011 season -- one that included 11 wins and a Sugar Bowl title -- as “a failure” because the team didn’t capture a Big Ten championship. Since then, Hoke has flirted with actual failure, going just 15-11 in his second and third seasons as head coach.

As a result, Hoke made the first major staff shakeup of his tenure this offseason. He fired offensive coordinator Al Borges -- a move he called difficult because of their personal friendship -- and hired Doug Nussmeier from Alabama. He also switched around several defensive roles and took himself out of the defensive line coaching mix. Those moves signaled what had become obvious: Change was necessary to get Michigan back to being Michigan.

“Our first message to the players this offseason was to learn from going 7-6 on every front you can,” Hoke said. “That’s from how you prepared to how you came in the building every day.

“It’s the same thing with us as coaches. We talked a lot about us doing a better job with the fundamentals of playing the game and holding everybody to those expectations. And I think you always have to check yourself before you go anywhere else with it.”

Hoke hopes Nussmeier can help establish the true pro-style, physical offense that Borges could never quite take from vision to reality. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will coach the linebackers this season while Roy Manning and Curt Mallory will both work with the secondary, an idea Hoke said he got from talking to NFL coaches. Mattison wants to bring more pressure on defense this season, something the Wolverines didn’t do well in 2013. But with experience now in the front seven and incoming star recruit Jabrill Peppers potentially adding a lockdown cornerback, Michigan expects to go on the attack.

“In 2011, I think we had a much more aggressive style of defense,” Hoke said. “We probably got away from that a little bit.”

Perhaps the changes can finally answer last season's unsolved mystery: Who exactly are these Wolverines?

They were a wildly inconsistent crew that could set offensive records one week and fail to find the end zone the next. They nearly upset Ohio State in a thriller and lost four Big Ten games by just 11 points. But they also nearly lost to Akron, UConn and Northwestern and surrendered more than 40 points three times.

“Last year, we lacked an identity,” senior defensive end Frank Clark said. “This year, the main talk around here has been to develop an identity, as a defense especially. You look at every other top team across the country, and everybody either has a tough running game or a crazy pass game or a crazy defense. We want to go into a game and have our opponent say ‘Oh, man, it’s going to be a long day.’”

One of the main differences between his first team and the past two, Hoke said, was that the 2011 Sugar Bowl squad had “some fourth- and fifth-year guys who really understood what Michigan meant.” Leadership is a concern for this year’s team, which has only 12 seniors, though guys such as Ryan, Clark and quarterback Devin Gardner provide a great starting point. Hoke has taken his seniors to California for Navy SEALs training in the past and says he has some new ideas in store for this summer which he’s not yet ready to reveal.

The players and coaches are also trying to develop more of a competitive edge this spring.

“There’s definitely a different focus,” linebacker James Ross III said. “A lot of guys getting on each other, but it’s positive. Last year, I don’t think we had that as much. We’re holding each other accountable now, and I think we let a lot of things slide last year.”

Michigan’s success or failure in 2014 will ultimately depend on how quickly its young players, many of whom were decorated recruits, can develop. It says something about the state of the program that two guys who just enrolled in January -- receiver Freddy Canteen and offensive lineman Mason Cole -- have been among the standouts of the spring. The Maize and Blue are extremely green on offense, particularly up front on a line that has been a sore spot for the past two seasons. With tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield graduated, that group is now mostly comprised of freshmen and sophomores.

Hoke said the youth on the O-line is a remaining byproduct of the transition from Rich Rodriguez. You might recall that Rodriguez was fired in 2010 after going 7-6 in his third year. Athletic director Dave Brandon remains in Hoke’s corner, and Hoke says the only pressure he feels is the internal pressure to do right by all of his players.

Still, the message should be loud and clear when Hoke walks into Schembechler Hall every day. They don’t dedicate museum displays to teams that go 7-6.

“The atmosphere around this building now is that we’ve got to win,” defensive lineman Taco Charlton said. “That’s period, point blank, whatever we’ve got to do.”

Big Ten Friday mailblog

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
4:30
PM ET
Happy hoopin' (and spring footballin').

Twitter!

Inbox!

Marty from Orland Park, Ill., writes: My question is regarding the news that Northwestern players won their petition to unionize. I have read that this ruling would only have an impact on private colleges and universities if it is upheld. Does it also only relate to football players and not any other sport? Also, does it only apply to scholarship athletes, not walk-on athletes?

Adam Rittenberg: Marty, the specific ruling impacts only Northwestern players but could be used for groups from other private institutions. It applies only to Northwestern scholarship football players, as NLRB regional office director Peter Sung Ohr ruled that walk-ons constitute a separate category and wouldn't be part of a union. But if other Northwestern scholarship athletes sought to unionize, they could use this case in their favor.


M.A. Reed from Hamilton, Ohio, writes: Really? Miller and one returning starter ranked No. 3, behind a O-line that graduated---everyone? The Ohio"'lean" is more than obvious, but this is ridiculous. Michigan seven? With 9 starters back who are NOT 18 anymore. I could ID several other points, but it should be obvious. Still not buying in? Really?

Adam Rittenberg: Why should I buy in, M.A.? What has Michigan shown to make me believe it will have a top offense? It could happen. I like Devin Gardner more than most, Derrick Green is in his second year, and the offensive line should -- should, not will -- be improved. But Ohio State is simply a safer bet right now, even with a new-look offensive line. Urban Meyer is one of the best offensive coaches in the country and it's hard not to give Ohio State's staff an edge, especially with Ed Warinner coaching the line. Braxton Miller is a proven playmaker. Devin Smith and Jeff Heuerman provide some threats in the passing game. Michigan has big question marks at receiver aside from Devin Funchess. We see units improve all the time, and Michigan could make big strides this fall. But on paper, Ohio State is better.


Kenny from Cincy writes: Adam, I have been sensing good vibes out of Penn State with James Franklin and a weak schedule next year. It's nice to see it turning around, but can we be real about it? They aren't going to beat Michigan State and had a 60-spot put on that "tough" defense last year by the Buckeyes. They are also going to inevitably lose a game they shouldn't have, as they have done the past several years, and we are looking at a middle-of-the-pack, three- or four-loss season. And that's best-case scenario. Lots of false hope and unrealistic expectations. Rinse and repeat for next season. Am I wrong?

Adam Rittenberg: Kenny, I wouldn't write off the 2014 season before it starts, even though Penn State faces some obstacles. If the Lions can keep their starting 22 relatively healthy, they'll have a chance to do some damage. But it's important to be realistic about all the changes that the players have gone through, as well as the depth challenges that remain in key spots such as the offensive line. Penn State will be an underdog in several games, but it gets both MSU and OSU at home. You can do a lot with a good quarterback and a good coaching staff, and Penn State appears to have both.


Mike from Lincoln, Neb., writes: I have a question regarding two recent events in the B1G that tie together. Do you think the Illinois State Legislature foresaw the ruling in the Northwestern case and are trying to make a case to replace Northwestern? I remember reading that the former Northwestern president saying they might have to drop football if the players won the case. Could this be the way for the Illinois State legislature to replace the B1G's closest Chicago team with someone like Northern Illinois?

Adam Rittenberg: Mike, while I can see why you would make that connection, that's not the intent. The two state senators want to upgrade another state school to provide a second landing spot for strong Illinois high school students who don't get into the University of Illinois. They want a model like Michigan, Indiana and Iowa, which have two options with strong academics and big-time sports. What the senators and many others don't fully grasp is how difficult it would be to place another team in the Big Ten. The league has to want to expand, and most of its presidents and chancellors would have to approve a school like Northern Illinois. It's highly unlikely. Northwestern is a founding member of the league, and I don't anticipate the school's Big Ten status changing.


Bob from Houston writes: While I suspect my Boilermakers will struggle mightily again this year, I have to ask if you see a difference in player/team attitude and mental toughness this spring as opposed to last year.

Adam Rittenberg: I definitely do, Bob. Purdue had to start from scratch last season and spent so much time on simple things, such as how to line up. The teaching process, which I wrote about earlier today, is much more evolved and interactive this spring. There has been improvement in areas such as the offensive line, and more leaders are emerging. Will it translate to a winning season? The nonleague schedule is much easier, but the West Division looks solid and Purdue has crossovers against Michigan State (home) and Indiana (road). But progress is being made in West Lafayette.



SJL from State of Rutgers writes: You are right in labeling Tyler Kroft a "solid option at tight end". I expect big things from him this year. However, in your "Triple Threat Combinations" post you list Nova-James-Kroft as Rutgers' triple threat combination. I'm surprised you overlooked Leonte Carroo. I have to assume the only reason he isn't listed is the uncertainty at quarterback. I guess he won't be much of a threat if the QB play is as poor as it was last year.

Adam Rittenberg: Glad you brought up Carroo, who I could have and probably should have included on the list. If he stays healthy, he'll do some damage for Rutgers this fall. He averaged 17.1 yards per catch and had more than twice as many touchdown catches (nine) as any other Scarlet Knight. I'm interested to see how new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen uses Carroo this fall.
The spring game is a preview for the season and with so many early enrollees this year, it really is going to give fans and the media a pretty good look at what next year could hold for the Wolverines. So, leading up to the scrimmage, we’re going to look a few stats that really matter for next season for Michigan if the Wolverines want to make the Big Ten championship game.

Stat: Michigan’s passing percentages

2013 review: Devin Gardner had an up-and-down season for the Wolverines. In the final stretch, he finally displayed the consistency and grit that the coaches had lauded him for, and was a big-time player for the Wolverines.

The stats certainly say that. Though most of the Wolverines’ passing statistics were below average, there are a few categories in which Michigan had a very good showing -- some very clutch categories. On third-down passing conversions, completions gaining a first down or touchdown and percentage of passing completions gaining 10-plus yards, the Wolverines were impressive.

Third-down passing conversions:

  • Michigan: 36.1 percent
  • National average: 34.7 percent
  • Big Ten leader: Indiana, 40.3 percent
  • National leader: Louisville, 52.2 percent
Completions gaining a first down or touchdown:

  • Michigan: 65.4 percent
  • National average: 56.5 percent
  • Big Ten leader: Minnesota, 69.3 percent
  • National leader: LSU, 73.7 percent
Percentage of 10-plus yard completions:

  • Michigan: 53.6
  • National average: 47.1
  • Big Ten leader: Minnesota, 63.5
  • National leader: Georgia Tech, 67.4
[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarAfter Devin Gardner shook off some interception issues early in the season, Michigan's offense showed improvement statistically.
Of those three statistics, the third-down passing conversions number could use some improvement most at Michigan, but in a passing game that struggled last season, the fact that it finished above the national average and not too far from some of its rivals (Ohio State: 36.4, Michigan State: 38.1) is impressive.

Keep in mind that those latter two statistics skew toward teams that run more of a downfield passing game, as many teams run a variation of the spread with passes designed for a short gain. The latter two stats are impressive, though. The Wolverines' percentage of completions gaining a first down or touchdown was 12th-best in the nation last season and their percentage of completions that went for 10-plus yards was No. 21 in the nation.

However, many other passing stats fell far below the national average.

When it came to completion percentage (60 percent) and touchdowns per passing attempt (5.3 percent), Michigan was only in the top 60. When it came to completions per game (18.2) and touchdown-to-interception ratio, Michigan was only in the top 80.

If Michigan wants to find itself in a favorable postseason game in 2014, the Wolverines will need to improve their consistency in the passing game. Because if Michigan can convert well in clutch, high-pressure situations such as third and fourth down, then it should also be able to do it on first and second down.

2014 preview: With Michigan in the middle of its spring ball and a QB “battle,” it’s hard to say what exactly will happen down the road. If Gardner can stay healthy, it seems as though the job is his to lose, but crazier things have happened. So instead of discussing the possibility of what could, would or should happen, let’s look at what we do know.

Essentially, what are the statistics for successful teams that have good quarterbacks? If Michigan wants to be at an elite level, what exactly is that level from a statistics standpoint? What should the Wolverines be shooting for in 2014?

Here’s a breakdown of what Michigan could aim for in 2014 based on what the top teams did this past season.

Completion percentage:

  • Michigan: 60 percent
  • BCS bowl teams average: 63.3 percent (low of 60.7 percent, Auburn)
Touchdowns to interceptions ratio:

  • Michigan: 1.62
  • BCS bowl teams average: 3.3 (low of 2.1, Stanford)
Interceptions per attempt:

  • Michigan: 3.3 percent
  • BCS bowl teams average: 2.4 percent (high of 3.2, Stanford)
First downs per passing attempt:

  • Michigan: 37.7 percent
  • BCS bowl teams average: 35.9 percent (low of 27.7 percent, Oklahoma)

Michigan wasn’t too far away for some of these numbers -- it was close to the completion percentage and was better than the BCS bowl team average for first downs per passing attempt.

When it comes to completion percentage, the big difference between Michigan and Auburn is the run game. The Tigers didn’t need to complete as high of a percentage of their passes when they were putting up a nation-best 328.3 rushing yards per game. It’s all a balancing act and with how much the Michigan run game struggled last season, the Wolverines needed to be closer to that BCS average if they wanted to find success.

But the most glaring differential between Michigan and the teams that played in BCS bowl games were the statistics that involved interceptions. If Gardner hadn’t been so prone to interceptions early in the season, these numbers would be dramatically improved. But a lot of things would’ve been different if the Wolverines had played their whole season the way they did their final few games.

However, the interception statistics were also pretty close to Stanford’s, which is interesting. But, in the same vein as the Auburn comparison, Stanford had other parts of its game that made up for its deficits, while Michigan did not. Stanford averaged 207.4 rushing yards per game (as opposed to Michigan’s 125.7). And when a team has a defense like Stanford -- the Cardinals allowed just 31 touchdowns all season -- it gives the offense a bit of a cushion to underachieve at times.

These statistics just reinforce the fact that taking care of the ball needs to be an even bigger focus for the Wolverines in 2014. If they can limit their mistakes offensively and produce a stronger running game, they can put themselves in a good spot in the conference.

Other stats that matter in 2014:

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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




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

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




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

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




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

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

Maryland doesn't gain a whole lot competitively from the move to the Big Ten East out of the ACC. But the Terrapins were already in the same ACC division as Florida State and Clemson and would have faced occasional games with Notre Dame. So it's not like the Big Ten is going to be all that much more difficult. If things don't go well, those schools' administrators can comfort themselves with their new giant bags of cash.
The 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.

There’s quite a bit we’ve already learned about Michigan through this 2014 spring season, and the April 5 scrimmage will reveal even more. However, this spring really only matters because it’s a launching point for what happens next season, and it’s important to keep that in mind with everything that’s talked about this spring. So, to look forward to the fall, here are five predictions for Michigan football in 2014.

No. 1: Michigan will win handily at Notre Dame.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMichigan quarterback Devin Gardner should find some areas to attack in his last shot at Notre Dame.
Why: It will be Sept. 6, just the second week of the season, but Michigan will be looking to make a statement … and where better than in the final scheduled matchup between these old rivals? A victory over Appalachian State in the opener would ease the minds of many Michigan fans, but a solid and convincing win in South Bend, Ind., is what the Wolverines will need early in the season to help people start getting over the disappointments of 2013.

That kind of emotion would be huge for a team that will have a lot of veterans (who have experienced a lot of ups and downs) in 2014. Quarterback Devin Gardner will be leading the way and, as he showed last season, you can expect him to put up a good performance in a rivalry game. For the most part, with the exception of the Michigan State game in 2013, he has exceeded expectations in rivalry games.

Stats to know: This could be all about the matchups. This early in the season, the offenses should be further along than the defenses, and when you look at the areas in which Michigan is replacing players and the areas in which Notre Dame is replacing players, that’s a very good thing for the Wolverines.

To start, Notre Dame's weaknesses are aligned pretty closely with Michigan’s strengths. The Fighting Irish are thin on the defensive line and at linebacker. With the Wolverines returning running backs Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith, the young duo should be able to find holes in a struggling Notre Dame defense and Gardner, who passed for 294 yards and rushed for 82 yards in 2013, can be expected to be even better prepared for the matchup this season. And considering he won’t be running at Stephon Tuitt, this could be a 100-yard rushing game for Gardner.

The Fighting Irish allowed 168 rushing yards per game and 4.2 yards per rush last season. Between Green, Smith and Gardner returning and the Fighting Irish losing talent on the first two levels of their defense, Michigan should be able to account for more than 200 rushing yards and at least 4.5 yards per rush.

Another weakness in Notre Dame -- and it’s a weakness in experience, not talent -- is at wide receiver. The Michigan secondary certainly isn’t a brick wall of any sorts, but against young talent early in the season, the scale will tip toward a Blake Countess-led secondary.

Then, looking at the Fighting Irish’s strengths, they also happen to line up well with Michigan strengths. Notre Dame should be good at quarterback with Everett Golson, and look for sophomore running backs Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant to break out, but unlike Michigan’s young running backs and talented quarterback, Notre Dame’s group will have to run against one of the stoutest linebacker groups in the conference, as well as Frank Clark on the defensive line.

The Wolverines allowed 140.2 rushing yards per game as well as 3.8 yards per rush, but with much of the front seven returning and the shift in defensive coaching, those numbers are expected to improve.

One place to watch will be the secondary, where Notre Dame returns talent. Michigan lost its top receiver in Jeremy Gallon, and though Devin Funchess should be able to create some mismatches against Irish linebackers or smaller defensive backs, he won’t be able to do it alone. However, if Smith, Gardner and Green can open up the passing lanes by stuffing the ball down Notre Dame’s throat, some good things could happen and Notre Dame secondary’s advantage might not be quite as obvious.

Other fall predictions:
This is the end, our friends. The last stop on our ultimate Big Ten road trip for 2014.

For those just joining us, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the forthcoming season. This almost assuredly isn't our actual schedule because of travel budgets or editors' decisions. But we can and did pretend with this fantasy itinerary, and it was a lot of fun.

Let's close it out with the Week 14 options:


Nov. 28-29

Illinois at Northwestern
Nebraska at Iowa
Michigan at Ohio State
Michigan State at Penn State
Minnesota at Wisconsin
Purdue at Indiana
Rutgers at Maryland

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Michigan at Ohio State

This wasn't a slam-dunk choice as there are potentially good options in Iowa City, Madison and State College. But after attending last year's 42-41 thriller in Ann Arbor, I'm not passing up another edition of The Game. The rivalry has become much more interesting since Brady Hoke came to Michigan. He beat Ohio State in his first year and nearly pulled off a significant upset in last year's contest, where defense was most certainly optional. It's a big year for Hoke, whose wins total has declined from 11 to eight to seven, and while he's not on the hot seat now, he could be on Nov. 29. A Michigan win at Ohio Stadium for the first time since 2000 would be a major boost for the Wolverines and their coach.

Braxton Miller will try to prevent it in his final home game for the Buckeyes. Miller has been productive in his first three games against Michigan, especially on the ground with 301 rush yards and four touchdowns. The quarterback could be closing in on an unprecedented third Big Ten offensive player of the year award, and possibly the Heisman Trophy, but OSU will need a stronger defensive performance, especially in the secondary, after allowing Devin Gardner to go nuts last season. Gardner will be aiming for a signature win.

The Ohio State-Michigan matchup in the Big Ten title game never came to fruition, but the teams could be competing for a spot in Indy, and maybe more in 2014. No better place for me to end this road trip than The Shoe.

Brian Bennett's pick: Nebraska at Iowa

I strongly considered The Game, which is always a great choice. But since we'll both be in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game, that would mean five straight weeks in the same city as Rittenberg. I'm afraid we'd start bickering like an old married couple.

So instead, I'll spend a second straight weekend in Iowa City, this time on Black Friday. Maybe I'll just stay there for the full seven days, crash on Kirk Ferentz's couch. The Heroes Game hasn't really reached liftoff as a must-watch rivalry yet, but the Hawkeyes' upset win in Lincoln last year added some ignition fluid to the series. Perhaps the West Division title will be on the line here, which would really start to make this rivalry combustible.

Iowa's 2014 season could well be made or broken by its final two games as it hosts Wisconsin and these Huskers at Kinnick. Nebraska limped into last year's meeting while dealing with an assortment of injuries and couldn't deal with the Hawkeyes' senior linebacker trio of James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. This time around, the Huskers could have a dominant defense if its young linebackers like Michael Rose, David Santos and Josh Banderas continue to develop over the course of the season. It will also be Ameer Abdullah's final regular season game, and I'd expect him to leave everything on the field, which he always does.

My ultimate road trip began in Ireland, and it ends with me spending Thanksgiving in Iowa. Sounds just about perfect.

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
Week 7: Brian at Penn State-Michigan; Adam at Northwestern-Minnesota
Week 8: Adam at Iowa-Maryland; Brian at Nebraska-Northwestern
Week 9: Brian at Michigan-Michigan State; Adam at Ohio State-Penn State
Week 10: Adam at Northwestern-Iowa; Brian at Wisconsin-Rutgers
Week 11: Brian and Adam at Ohio State-Michigan State
Week 12: Adam and Brian at Nebraska-Wisconsin
Week 13: Brian and Adam at Wisconsin-Iowa

 
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett occasionally will give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Quarterback competitions are taking place around the Big Ten this spring, and Michigan insists its starting job is open despite the return of senior Devin Gardner, who led the offense throughout the 2013 regular season. Gardner said Tuesday that he's not only competing with Shane Morris, last year's backup, but also with freshman Wilton Speight, a mid-year enrollee.

Today's Take Two topic: Is Michigan's quarterback competition real or just a way to push Gardner?

[+] EnlargeShane Morris
AP Photo/Charles KrupaBrady Hoke is opening up the quarterback competition at Michigan, but Devin Gardner still appears to be the best option.
Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

I don't buy this as a true competition. Coaches never want players to get too comfortable, especially after a rocky season like the one Michigan's offense had in 2013. The Wolverines bring in a new offensive coordinator in Doug Nussmeier, who deserves to evaluate all the players based on what they're doing now, not entirely on what they've done in the past. Despite all of this, I would be very surprised if Gardner isn't the one leading Michigan's offense on Aug. 30 against Appalachian State. Does Brady Hoke really want to enter a potential make-or-break season with Morris, who only has one career start, or Speight, who has zero college experience? Gardner undoubtedly had his troubles last season and, like many of his teammates, fell short of expectations. But let's not forget the huge numbers he put up against Notre Dame, Indiana, Ohio State and Penn State.

Michigan's troubles on offense had more to do with the line and the lack of a consistent power run game than with Gardner. I don't know many quarterbacks who would have had a chance in games like Michigan State or Nebraska with the way the line was performing. Does Gardner need to improve his decision-making? Without a doubt. Is he Michigan's best option at quarterback this fall, despite some potential scheme changes under Nussmeier? Yes. Gardner isn't quite 100 percent this spring because of a foot injury sustained in the Ohio State game. When he gets back to full strength, it should become fairly clear to Nussmeier and others that No. 98 is Michigan's best option.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

It's a real competition in the sense that all jobs should be a competition in the spring. Add in the fact that the Wolverines have a new coordinator with a fresh set of eyes and a different playbook, and everyone should be on their toes.

But does Hoke strike you as the kind of guy who's willing to toss veterans aside and start a true freshman quarterback? Certainly not. While it's undoubtedly good news that Speight is impressing, he seems like a perfect candidate to redshirt because Michigan has so much experience in Gardner and a guy in Morris who at least got his feet wet as a starter in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

Perhaps a scenario unfolds in which Morris plays so well this offseason that Hoke and Nussmeier ask Gardner to move out to receiver, a position that needs some reinforcement. But I doubt it, as I still believe Gardner is a special player. No Michigan quarterback had ever thrown for 400 yards in a game before last season, when Gardner did it twice. He also broke the school record for total offense in a game against Indiana. He has to cut down his turnovers -- which is why colleague Travis Haney rates Gardner No. 2 on his list of "prove-it" players for 2014 Insider -- but I thought he already started to do that toward the end of 2013. Bottom line: Garder has a rare sort of playmaking ability, and while Morris and Speight might be the future, Gardner should remain the starter right now.

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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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