Michigan Wolverines: Take Two

Big Ten reporters Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally 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 one is right.

A couple of weeks ago, we took a look at potential 1,000-yard receivers in the Big Ten in 2014. Then we had you vote on who would most likely get to that plateau this season.

Eight players who finished in the top 10 in receiving yards in the Big Ten have moved in, including the top five pass-catchers. New stars need to emerge at the position. So today's Take Two topic is this: Who will lead the Big Ten in receiving yards in 2014?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg
[+] EnlargeDevin Funchess
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesDevin Funchess is the clear-cut top option for Michigan and poised to have a big year.
I look for a guy who not only has talent but will be his team's clear-cut No. 1 option in the passing game this season. It came down to Michigan's Devin Funchess, Indiana's Shane Wynn and Nebraska's Kenny Bell. Ultimately, I'm going with Funchess, whose numbers spiked last year (49 receptions, 748 yards, six touchdowns) despite the presence of All-Big Ten wideout Jeremy Gallon. Funchess might be listed as a tight end but he plays much more like a receiver, and without Gallon gone, he enters the season as Michigan's top passing target.

Receiver tandems like Maryland's Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, Michigan State's Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings Jr., and Northwestern's Joneses (Christian and Tony) likely will prevent one player from going nuts, numbers-wise. I feel similarly about Penn State's collection of tight ends -- all should all be more involved in the pass game but none will lead the league in receiving. Wynn could be that guy but I think Indiana finds other receivers to complement him. Bell is Nebraska's No. 1 wideout but the Huskers rarely throw it enough to have a player approach the league lead in receiving yards. Funchess is a big-time playmaker and a bona fide NFL prospect. I expect an even bigger year out of him.

Take 2: Brian Bennett
[+] EnlargeStefon Diggs
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsIf Maryland WR Stefon Diggs stays healthy, he'll have a huge season.
Funchess is one of the more unconventional players around and it would be fun to see him have a huge year. But I'm going to go with a player Big Ten fans probably don't know a whole lot about but should: Maryland's Diggs. He averaged 17.3 yards per catch last season after averaging 15.7 as a true freshman, and in four of the Terrapins' first six games in 2013, he had at least 96 yards receiving.

Diggs was rated the No. 13 overall recruit in the Class of 2012 and has 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash. His only problem has been injuries. Diggs suffered a season-ending broken leg in Maryland's seventh game last season, and an ankle injury slowed him as a freshman. But those issues seem more like random problems than any indication he's an injury-prone player, and when healthy Diggs is one of the most explosive playmakers in the country. He's also got a senior quarterback in C.J. Brown and another big-time weapon in Long to keep opposing defenses from keying on him.

Project last season's stats over a full 13-game season, and Diggs would have had over 1,000 yards receiving. Again, as a true sophomore. I predict he'll stay on the field this year and have a true breakout season while leading the Big Ten in receiving yards.
Big Ten reporters Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally 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 one is right.

A couple of weeks ago, we took a look at potential 3,000-yard passers in the Big Ten in 2014. Then we had you vote on who would most likely get to that plateau this season.

The league's leading passer from last season was Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase. He's now pursuing a career in the ministry. No other 3,000-yard passers return, although Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Michigan's Devin Gardner got very close. So today's Take Two topic is this: Who will lead the Big Ten in passing yards in 2014?

[+] EnlargeNate Sudfeld
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerIndiana's Nate Sudfeld will have the reins to the Hoosiers' offense to his self next season.
Take 1: Brian Bennett

Hackenberg is the easy answer. But I do worry about his offensive line and the lack of experience at receiver. Gardner also had some monster games last season, but Michigan has many of the same issues as Penn State, and new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier wants to run the ball more.

That's why I'm going with Indiana's Nate Sudfeld. That might sound like a mild surprise, but after last week's announcement that Tre Roberson would transfer, I think Sudfeld is in line for a huge season. Consider that he and Roberson combined to throw for 3,651 yards last season while splitting time. Sudfeld alone passed for over 2,500 yards in just eight starts.

The junior has an NFL-caliber arm and will finally have the offense all to himself, with no other experienced quarterbacks on the roster. The Hoosiers do need to develop some receiving targets after losing Cody Latimer, Kofi Hughes and Ted Bolser to the NFL. Still, coach Kevin Wilson loves to throw the ball, and Sudfeld won't have to look over his shoulder in 2014. I think he'll go more than 3,000 yards and lead the Big Ten in passing yards.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State's Connor Cook has most of his offensive weapons returning in 2014.
Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

I'm also tempted to go with Hackenberg, but the questions at line and at receiver, coupled with a new offensive staff, steer me elsewhere. But instead of choosing Sudfeld or Gardner, I'm going with the quarterback who ended his season playing better than any other in the Big Ten (and perhaps the country). Where's the love for Michigan State's Connor Cook?

He's the guy who won MVP honors at both the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl after recording the first two 300-yard passing performances of his career. Although the first performance came against a porous Ohio State secondary, Cook also put up 332 pass yards against Stanford. He finished fourth in the Big Ten in passing yards (2,755), but he only became the clear-cut starter in league play.

Michigan State returns all but one of its core receivers, as well as tight end Josiah Price, an emerging target for Cook late in the season. Coach Mark Dantonio wants to run the ball and has Jeremy Langford back in the fold, but Cook has proven what he can do with the ball in his hands and should get more chances this year. Hackenberg is the best pure passer in the league and Sudfeld might play in the most pass-friendly offense -- although Tevin Coleman's presence could change that -- but I'm going with the hot hand in Cook.
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.
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.

As the Big Ten positions itself for a new television contract that should shatter revenue records, the subject of playing more weekday games has surfaced. There's even been some buzz about the possibility of more Friday night games, although commissioner Jim Delany doesn't expect them for a while. Still, the only major conference that has resisted many regular-season weekday days could head in that direction in the not-so distant future. Today's Take Two topic is: Should the Big Ten schedule more weekday games?

[+] EnlargeRutgers
Jim O'Connor/USA TODAY SportsHaving schools such as Rutgers play Thursday or Friday night conference games wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for the Big Ten.
Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

I've been consistent on this issue since the Big Ten blog launched. More weekday games? Yes, please. I appreciate college football Saturdays as much as the next person, but the Big Ten has been missing out on certain exposure opportunities by clumping all of its games on one day, particularly in the noon ET/11 a.m. CT window. We've seen some Thursday night and Friday night games in Week 1, and Nebraska and Iowa are playing the day after Thanksgiving, but the Big Ten has largely steered clear of weekday games. The rationale: We're the Big Ten. We don't need no stinking weekday games.

That's true to an extent. Programs such as Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State receive exposure no matter when they play. Programs such as Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin also aren't starved for a separate TV window that can get more eyeballs on their product. But there's another group of Big Ten programs that could benefit greatly from these games, perhaps not in attendance but certainly in exposure. Too many games are overlooked in that Saturday morass, especially when the bigger-name teams are playing. Wouldn't matchups such as Purdue-Illinois, Minnesota-Northwestern or Maryland-Indiana get more attention on Thursday night than Saturday afternoon? I have mixed feelings about Fridays because those are big high school game nights in the Midwest, but a Friday game every once in a while isn't a bad deal.

The Big Ten has made some encouraging scheduling moves in recent months. More Saturday prime-time games are on the way, most likely in the 2014 season. More weekday games would be another good move for certain programs. Big Ten teams don't need to go overboard, but they should be open to the pluses that can come from these events.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

Saturdays are sacred. Let's just get that out of the way at the beginning. The Big Ten is right to preserve the tradition of fall afternoon kickoffs as much as possible. That's what college football is all about.

There are certain programs in the league that should never consider hosting a game on any day but Saturday, apart from opening week and Thanksgiving weekend. As part of our Flip Week series last season, I attended a Thursday night game at Clemson. Because that campus is in a small town and the stadium demands ample parking, Clemson canceled all classes on Thursday afternoon to get ready for the game. Can you imagine many Big Ten schools doing that? And there were a few thousand empty seats for that game against Georgia Tech, a rarity for the Tigers at home. Programs with large stadiums in college towns such as Penn State, Michigan and Iowa would struggle to get all the logistics in place for a weeknight, midseason game.

But it's also hard to argue against the point that college football is dictated by TV, and Thursday night games have provided great exposure. Louisville practically built itself into a power by playing any day of the week, and the ACC has benefited from Thursday games. With the Big Ten expanding to 14 teams, it's hard to squeeze all those games into a Saturday viewing period and not have some get lost in the shuffle. Programs such as Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue could really benefit from a Thursday or Friday night spotlight, even if it's just on the Big Ten Network. Rutgers is used to playing on weeknights, and Maryland is no stranger to it from its ACC days.

So why not the occasional Thursday or Friday night game? Friday games would hurt high school football, but as a once-a-year thing, they would hardly be a death knell. Keep the games on Saturdays as often as possible. But a limited dose of weeknight games can be very helpful in the right spots. More TV slots could mean more money when the league negotiates its new broadcast rights package. And these days, TV and money drive everything in college football.
National Signing Day is just hours away. It will be a formality for some Big Ten teams, who simply must wait for written proof of the pledges they've known about for weeks or months. But there's always a bit of drama in the league, whether it's an uncommitted prospect announcing his choice publicly for the first time, a recruit flipping from one team to another at the last minute, or a player sticking with his initial choice despite increased attention.

Today's Take Two topic is: What will be the biggest announcement/decision in the Big Ten on signing day 2014?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

There are several options here, but the Malik McDowell situation, which I wrote about earlier on Tuesday, will get my attention on Wednesday morning. Here you have a hulking defensive lineman from Southfield, Mich., the top uncommitted prospect in the Midwest according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, choosing among four schools, three of them rival programs in the Big Ten (Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State). Michigan State appeared to have the edge for McDowell, but his mother doesn't want him to go there, telling the Detroit Free Press that she had a "bad experience" in East Lansing. She didn't specify what it was.

McDowell's parents are both concerned about the social life and potential distractions their son could face at MSU, and McDowell's father wants him to leave the state entirely to play his college ball. Parents usually want their kids to be close, but here you have parents who would be fine if their son went more than 800 miles away to play for defending national champion Florida State. Interesting.

Malik himself has said only positive things about the programs, particularly Michigan State, where he likes the coaching staff and the atmosphere both on the team and on the campus. Are we headed for another Alex Collins situation? Probably not, but it will be interesting to see how much pull McDowell's parents have on where he ends up. It would be a blow for the Big Ten to lose such a decorated player to Florida State, and McDowell would be a nice addition for Michigan State, Ohio State or Michigan.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

McDowell's decision might draw better ratings than the Super Bowl in Michigan and Ohio. And Jamarco Jones' call between Ohio State and Michigan State, should it come down to Wednesday, also could provide high drama.

But let's face it: Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan are still going to have plenty of talent regardless of a late commitment or two. That's why I think the biggest decision could involve Jeff Jones and Minnesota.

Jones, who plays at Minneapolis Washburn and is ranked the No. 12 running back and No. 137 overall in the ESPN 300, committed to the Gophers over a year ago. He has had many other suitors, including Florida and Michigan. It was a great sign for Minnesota that Jones decided against visiting Gainesville or Ann Arbor, though that doesn't rule out him flipping on signing day.

Jerry Kill and his staff need to keep as many blue-chip prospects home as possible, something that has eluded the program in the recent past. While Minnesota is in good shape at running back with 1,000-yard back David Cobb returning in '14, keeping Jones on board is important for keeping the momentum the team gained in last year's eight-win season. Losing Jones would be tough to swallow for the Gophers.

Take Two: B1G coaches seek strong finish

October, 29, 2013
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally 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.

November is just around the corner as the Big Ten season begins the stretch run. It's a critical time of year for players and coaches. We're focusing today on the men prowling the sideline. Today's Take Two topic is: Which Big Ten coach most needs a strong November to close out the regular season?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

There are several possibilities here, from a coach seeking another perfect season (Urban Meyer), to coaches on the hot seat (Bo Pelini, Tim Beckman), to a coach desperately seeking a turnaround after a horrendous October (Pat Fitzgerald). My answer might surprise you, but I'm going with Michigan's Brady Hoke. The 21st-ranked Wolverines enter November at 6-1, but they've had some struggles since an impressive Week 2 win against Notre Dame. They come off a four-overtime loss to Penn State, in which they largely beat themselves. Their November schedule begins with in-state rival Michigan State and also features division games against Nebraska (home), Northwestern (road) and Iowa (road), before The Game against Ohio State.

There are some big-picture questions to be answered about Michigan in November. What is the state of the program right now? Where are the Wolverines headed under Hoke? The recruiting success is undeniable, but it doesn't matter much if it doesn't translate to championships. The great thing about Hoke is he has made the expectations so clear for the Wolverines: Big Ten title or failure. By Hoke's own standards, he has failed for two seasons and the program has failed for nearly a decade. The Sugar Bowl championship in Year 1 was nice, and so was the streak-ending win against Ohio State, but Michigan benefited in both cases from extremely favorable circumstances. This is the month for the Wolverines to truly show they're taking the next step. They'll have a very hard time winning the division without beating Michigan State on Saturday. They could be challenged by Nebraska, Northwestern and Iowa before facing arguably the best Ohio State team they've seen since the 2006 season.

Hoke isn't coaching for his job, a national championship or a dramatic turnaround from a long losing streak. But he needs to show in November that Michigan is taking steps toward a championships on the field, not just on the recruiting trail.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

Hoke and his players definitely don’t want to talk about another “failure” in December. But I think November is even more important for Bo Pelini.

Remember Pelini’s “win out” mantra after last year’s Ohio State loss? It’s time to bring that back for the Huskers. If they manage to sweep the rest of their games, they’ll win the Legends Division and get back to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship tilt. But that’s looking increasingly unlikely, especially after Nebraska was pushed around by Minnesota last week in as dispiriting a loss as Pelini has had during his tenure. It sure didn’t help him that, as colleague Mitch Sherman noted, several high-profile boosters made the trip to Minneapolis to see that performance.

The Cornhuskers still have to go to Michigan and face Michigan State at home, and Iowa looks like it could make the Heroes Game a little feistier this year. Nebraska is no guarantee to even beat Northwestern this week, though the Wildcats are an even bigger mess right now. Two losses in the month would leave the team at 8-4 and qualify as Pelini’s worst season in Lincoln -- not good timing, with a new athletic director in charge and after the release of that alarming audio tape in September. I’m not saying the school would or even should fire Pelini after a three- or four-loss season. But the option surely would be considered, and calls for someone else -- Scott Frost? -- to take over the program would grow louder.

Pelini can quiet all that noise by winning out in November. Anything less than that could create a very interesting December in Big Red land.


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