Michigan Wolverines: Tim Beckman

Big Ten lunch links

July, 25, 2014
Jul 25
12:00
PM ET
The Big Ten season unofficially begins Monday with media days. So enjoy the weekend, and then let's get after it.

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

June, 10, 2014
Jun 10
5:00
PM ET
Questions, answers and Twitter. What could possibly be better on a Tuesday in June?

Let's begin ...

Virgel from Valdosta, Ga., writes: Adam, do you think that if this season ends the Tim Beckman era at Illinois, they would go after a high-profile coach on the bench right now, like a Mack Brown? Your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting thought, Virgel, as it's hard to know where athletic director Mike Thomas would turn. He has a track record of hiring MAC coaches -- Butch Jones, Brian Kelly, Beckman -- but I'd be shocked if he went that route again. Brown will be 62 in August, has a ton of money and likely a lengthy TV career ahead, so I'm not sure how much he would want to coach again. And if he did, for how long?

Illinois doesn't want to keep changing coaches. But thinking outside the box could be a good approach. Or Thomas could hire a guy like Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who is ready to lead a major-conference program.




Kyle from Hamilton, Ontario, writes: We all have heard how "weak" Iowa's schedule is. It has even been rumoured that they could be favoured in every game. Given the fact they don't play Ohio State, a scenario exists that they both could go undefeated. That could have happened in 2002 if Iowa didn't blow the lead against Iowa State that year. My question is this: If both Ohio State and Iowa go undefeated do both teams make the playoffs?

Adam Rittenberg: Man, I love that Canadian spelling. This would be a fascinating scenario, Kyle. A lot depends on what happens in other conferences and how the Big Ten performs in marquee nonleague games. But I don't think Iowa makes the playoff with a loss in the league championship game, primarily because of the seemingly soft regular-season schedule.

In this scenario, Ohio State would have a road win against a preseason top-10 team in Michigan State. The Buckeyes also play Virginia Tech in nonleague play. Will the Michigan home win help or hurt Ohio State? How much credit will Iowa get for beating Wisconsin and Nebraska at home? All these questions factor into the playoff decision. Ultimately, I doubt the Big Ten gets two teams into the initial playoff. Fairly or unfairly, the league will pay for its recent shortcomings. But Ohio State has a better chance as a one-loss team than Iowa.




Dave from Marietta, Ohio, writes: The Big Ten should've gone to North-South divisions instead of East-West. I'm not sure about the exact locations of the schools, but a North-South alignment could look something like this ... North -- Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Purdue, Iowa. South -- Maryland, Rutgers, Penn State, Ohio State, Indiana, Illinois, Nebraska.

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting idea, Dave, as this proposal appears to create more historical balance than the current East-West alignment. But if you look at the Big Ten's recent expansion, the idea is to live in a second region along the East Coast. It's not a northern expansion but an eastern one. Another factor to consider is geography. Nebraska would be a major outlier in the South division -- nearly an eight-hour drive from its closest division competitor (Illinois) and a loooong way from Ohio State, Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers. Would Husker fans care? Maybe, maybe not. They would get annual games with both Penn State and Ohio State.

I like how your proposal satisfies the Iowa-Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry triangle/dilemma, but it also would require at least one extra protected crossover, Ohio State-Michigan, which would reduce the overall schedule rotation for two of the league's marquee programs. I definitely see value in the North-South model, but East-West is here, at least for now.




[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Paul VernonOhio State's Braxton Miller is one of just two early enrollees to be Big Ten Freshman of the Year in the last seven years.
Dave from Columbus, Ohio, writes: I wondered if you've seen any data comparing early enrollees and players who enroll in the fall. Do early enrollees start sooner, play in more games, have better drafts or have better graduation rates than players who enroll in the summer/fall? My thought is if the player works hard enough to graduate high school early, maybe there's a bit of a better work ethic.

Adam Rittenberg: Good question, David, and there's not a great answer yet as this trend remains somewhat new. The number of early enrollees really spiked in the 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes. Not surprisingly, there is some evidence that early enrollees are contributing faster in their careers than those who arrive in the summer. We've seen examples in the Big Ten such as Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton, who earned a starting job as a true freshman. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller enrolled early and has started since the middle of his freshman season.

Then again, a 2009 ranking of top early enrollee groups Insider showed more misses (Tate Forcier, Kevin Newsome, Will Campbell) than hits (Gerald Hodges) in the Big Ten. Penn State had seven early enrollees in 2010 but only one, running back Silas Redd, became a star for the Lions.

Of the Big Ten's last seven Freshman of the Year recipients, just two -- Ohio State's Miller and Illinois' Arrelious Benn -- were early enrollees. So it's hard to draw clear conclusions.




Peter from Boston writes: Would be interested to hear your thoughts on a recent article by John U. Bacon about attendance issues at Michigan (Ivan Maisel referenced it in his latest 3-Point Stance). Personally, I think you could insert any major program in the country (including my alma mater Penn State) and write roughly the same article. ADs constantly point the finger at high-definition TV and other tech as the reason for slipping attendance, and it's definitely a factor, but Bacon makes some very good points about the in-game experience and costs of attending a game at a major university. What do you think?

Adam Rittenberg: There are some very valid points in Bacon's story, especially about rising ticket prices. As Ohio State AD Gene Smith recently told me, "The reality is a lot of our ticket pricing, some of us are at the top of the pyramid." And it seems like the branding push, especially in the Big Ten, is turning off some fans. Has the sport sold its soul in some ways? No doubt. Is branding too much of a priority in the Big Ten, which makes a lot of money but doesn't really win anything? There's a case to be made. ADs are devoting a lot of energy to improving the gameday experience, but two solutions are pretty simple: scheduling better opponents and charging less for tickets.

Big Ten's lunch links

June, 3, 2014
Jun 3
12:00
PM ET
Can I kick it?
So there's this little event called the NFL draft that begins Thursday night in New York. First you've heard of it? Don't fret. There has been virtually no buildup.

Like every year, we'll recap the Big Ten's draft performance, but we're admittedly more focused on the players still in the conference. That's why we're bringing back our version of a mock draft, where we select current Big Ten players to help current Big Ten teams. We did this last year and it was a lot of fun.

Here's how it works: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (incoming recruits are not). The teams will pick in reverse order of regular season finish last year, just like the NFL. Big Ten newcomers Rutgers and Maryland will pick based on their 2013 records in other leagues, so they will select fifth and sixth, respectively.

We're also making picks based on several factors. It's not simply about selecting the best overall player. What does a team need based on its personnel and schemes? Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller might not be the best fit for a non-spread offense. Also, eligibility matters as some teams might want to build for the future and make a real push in 2015 or 2016 rather than this fall.

Things get a bit messy as once a player gets drafted, it creates a hole on his former team. But that's all part of the draft debate.

Our first seven first-round picks are below. We'll finish up the first round a little later.

Pick No. 1: Purdue

Adam Rittenberg says the Boilers select ... Iowa LT Brandon Scherff

[+] EnlargeBrandon Scherff
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsBrandon Scherff is one of the Big Ten's best linemen and would be a great fit for a lot of teams.
Purdue's priority is line play, and while both fronts need help, I like the potential more on defense. The offensive line must improve significantly for Purdue to have any chance this fall, and it's why the Boilers need Scherff, a first-team All-Big Ten selection who could have been a first round draft pick if he had declared. Even though Scherff is a senior, he makes Purdue better immediately.

Brian Bennett says the Boilers select ... Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Let's face it: Purdue is in a major rebuilding effort and won't be contending any time soon. So eligibility matters here. Bosa is a true sophomore who could offer the Boilermakers three more years of high-end production and the big-time pass rush the Boilermakers haven't had in a while. I say a defensive end goes first in both the NFL (Jadeveon Clowney) and imaginary Big Ten drafts.

Pick No. 2: Illinois

Rittenberg says the Illini select ... Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

I thought about Braxton Miller as Illinois needs a quarterback, but I have enough faith in coordinator Bill Cubit to find the answers. Illinois' defense was the big problem in 2013, especially the line. Calhoun, a junior, provides a significant playmaking presence after recording 7.5 sacks, a league-high four forced fumbles and 14 tackles for loss last fall.

Bennett says the Illini select ... Calhoun

As bad as the Illini were against the run last year, they could probably use a defensive tackle even more. But since I don't see a lot of surefire, dominant run-stuffers in the league right now, Calhoun is a solid pick here for a defense-hungry team. Tim Beckman is in win-now mode, so eligibility isn't as big of a factor here.

Pick No. 3: Northwestern

Rittenberg says the Wildcats select ... Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

I thought about going offensive line here, as Northwestern really struggled up front in 2013. But Miller is simply too good a fit for a spread offense that needs a major jolt after finishing 10th in the Big Ten in scoring (26.2 ppg). The return of running back Venric Mark plays a role here, too, as the Miller-Mark speed combination would be extremely tough to stop.

Bennett says the Wildcats select ... Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg

Sure, Miller is probably a better fit for Northwestern's preferred offensive style than Hackenberg, but I just can't see Hackenberg -- who has three years of eligibility left after an outstanding freshman season -- falling lower than third in this draft. Mick McCall would be more than happy to build his offense around this young stud.

Pick No. 4: Indiana

Rittenberg says the Hoosiers select ... Nebraska DE Randy Gregory

Gregory nearly began his college career in the Hoosier State at Purdue before heading to a junior college and then to Nebraska, where he dazzled in his first season, recording 19 tackles for loss, a league-high 10.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hurries. It's no secret Indiana needs stars on defense, especially up front.

Bennett says the Hoosiers select ... Gregory

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesChristian Hackenberg doesn't fit the offensive style of all the Big Ten teams, but his future might be the brightest of all the league's QBs.
As much as Kevin Wilson loves offense and quarterbacks, I could see him being tempted by Miller (or even somehow trading up to get Hackenberg). But he knows as well as anyone that Indiana is desperate for playmakers on defense. Gregory would fit in extremely well in the Hoosiers' new 3-4 and might be enough to get them over the hump and into a bowl game immediately.

Pick No. 5: Rutgers

Rittenberg says the Scarlet Knights select ... Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg

I considered going defensive line here as Rutgers needs to bulk up there, but a difference-maker at quarterback takes precedence. Hackenberg looks like a future NFL player and has three seasons of eligibility remaining, which would be huge for a Rutgers program transitioning to the Big Ten.

Bennett says the Scarlet Knights select ... Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

Though Miller only has one year of eligibility left, snagging him at No. 5 for a team with major quarterback issues is a coup for the Scarlet Knights. Kyle Flood might need to reach a bowl game to feel safe about his job in 2015, so why not roll with the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year?

Pick No. 6: Maryland

Rittenberg says the Terrapins select ... Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Yes, I know Maryland returns a lot of options at running back, but none brings Abdullah's consistency, production and leadership. He'll stay on the field for a unit ravaged by injury and bring the toughness for a program transitioning to a physical league.

Bennett says the Terrapins select ... Michigan State CB Trae Waynes

The Terps are pretty solid on offense, assuming everyone comes back healthy. Will Likely had an impressive spring at one cornerback spot, but the other starting job is up for grabs. Waynes could instantly solidify that secondary and the junior could potentially lock down one side of the field for two years for Randy Edsall.

Pick No. 7: Michigan

Rittenberg says the Wolverines select ... Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

Offensive line would be my preference here but there isn't a guaranteed difference-maker available. Fortunately, Gordon doesn't need much room to do some special things with the ball in his hands. He gives Michigan's shaky run game a true big-play threat, and the combination of Gordon and Derrick Green could turn out very well.

Bennett says the Wolverines select ... Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff

Brady Hoke would run to the podium to turn in this pick if Scherff was still on the board. He only has one year of eligibility left, but the Hawkeyes' left tackle could add much-needed stability and leadership to a Wolverines offensive line with all kinds of question marks.

Big Ten's lunch links

May, 5, 2014
May 5
12:00
PM ET
Fantastic Derby weekend here. If you've never been, you're doing life wrong.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

May, 2, 2014
May 2
4:30
PM ET
Happy Derby weekend. Brian Bennett has already started his. Me? I might get a jump on Cinco de Mayo on Dos de Mayo.

Some people like to follow us on Twitter.

Inbox revealed in 3 ... 2 ... 1 ...

Chris from Bellport, N.Y., writes: Adam, I saw a projection for Michigan this year of 8-4, which seems reasonable at this point based on the unanswered questions remaining for the team. My question is everyone looks at the three tough road games as three potential losses. I think if they can win one of Ohio or MSU they could go 2-1 in those, but what about the fact that they don't have Wisconsin, Iowa, or Nebraska on the schedule this year? Is that cause for a little more optimism, not having the potential top three in the west on the schedule?

Adam Rittenberg: It could be, Chris, but Michigan shouldn't look past anyone on its schedule. I know Michigan owns Minnesota, but the Gophers should give the Wolverines a better game Sept. 27 when they visit Ann Arbor. Michigan needed miracle plays to beat Northwestern the past two seasons. Indiana gave the Wolverines' defense all sorts of problems last season at the Big House. Don't get me wrong: Michigan's season likely hinges on those three road games. But just because Michigan beats Michigan State or Ohio State doesn't mean it's guaranteed to sweep the other nine contests. Fifteen years ago? Sure. But those days are over.


Jack from Champaign, Ill., writes: In your last mailbag, you answered a question about [Tim] Beckman's latest recruit and talked how he needs to end his bowl drought with Illinois. However, what if this ends up being a surprisingly stellar recruiting year in which the Illini go 5-7? Obviously I know we're not talking about a top-10 recruiting class, but in general a very strong one, above the ones in recent years. Would that be enough to buy Beckman an extra year, or is that all that matters for him at this point?

Adam Rittenberg: This scenario would put athletic director Mike Thomas in a tough spot. Some Illini fans have wanted Tim Beckman gone from the middle of his first season. Attendance has been poor and enthusiasm remains tepid. It's really not that hard to make bowl games in this environment, and three consecutive seasons without a bowl would make it tough for Beckman to return. Remember that Ron Zook's teams still made bowls -- and won them -- in his final two years. Recruiting definitely plays a part and Thomas wants to see his hire work out, but there could be too much external pressure for a change.


Tom from Fort Worth, Texas, writes: Hypothetical question or pipe dream, but nonetheless I will ask: Say Rutgers comes into the Big Ten and surprises a few teams and wins more than expected this coming season. Does the perception of the Big Ten go down or does Rutgers gain more respect?

Adam Rittenberg: Tom, not to dodge your question, but it really depends on what happens around the league. Conference perception really depends on what's happening at the top, not the middle, where Rutgers would presumably be if it surprises some teams. Are the Big Ten's elite teams beating top teams from other leagues in nonconference play or in bowls? Is a Big Ten team reaching the playoff or winning the national title? Those are more important factors. So if Rutgers prevents Michigan State or Ohio State from reaching the playoff, some will say it points to a weak Big Ten. But if the Big Ten performs well in nonleague games and bowls, and if Rutgers happens to finish 8-4 with a nice win or two, it enhances the perception of both the conference and Rutgers.


PurdueMan from Chicago writes: Adam, Mitch Sherman's Purdue spring wrap article states that Purdue will win a Big Ten game. I'm not so sure. The team I saw at the spring game was essentially the same team I saw the second half of the season with the exception that the defense did tackle better, but they were playing the Purdue offense, so ... Did you see Purdue's spring game and enough other teams to make a good comparison to how far my Boilers are still behind? I saw a little MSU, not that I expect Purdue to be as good as them, and was reminded at what football can look like.

Adam Rittenberg: Chin up, PurdueMan. The Boilers will be better in 2014. I watched a practice this spring and take more from those workouts than spring games, which are often misleading and overblown by fans. Don't get me wrong; there are concerns, from depth along the offensive line to linebacker to certain spots in the secondary. Purdue was a mess last season, and it's hard to fix all those problems in one offseason. But I see more cohesion on offense and multiple options at running back (Raheem Mostert, Akeem Hunt) and wide receiver. The defensive line could be a strength, as tackle Ra'Zahn Howard has a chance to be one of the league's surprise players. I also get the sense Purdue had no team chemistry last season. Things have changed. As quarterback Austin Appleby told me, "The guys that aren't all about it are getting suffocated by us. Those guys eliminate themselves."


rtXC from Denison, Texas, writes: After the SEC's "groundbreaking" announcement to stay at eight conference games and have each of its teams play one team from the Power 5, would you like to see the other conferences band together and make a stand? Other than certain SEC-ACC rivalries and current contracts for future games, how about the four conferences band together and abstain from scheduling SEC teams in the future?

Adam Rittenberg: It would be interesting to see this, rtXC, after the current contracts expire. Several playoffs would be competed by then, so we would have a better idea if the SEC's model helped, hurt or didn't impact itself or other leagues. It comes down to how united these other leagues would be in their opposition to the SEC's model. The Pac-12 coaches seem pretty ticked, but I don't know if other leagues would care enough to band together in this way. Maybe if one of their champions is shut out of the playoff in favor of a SEC division runner-up, things would change.
The Big Ten is rich and getting richer in the coming years. So how is the investment translating with football programs?

Not surprisingly, recruiting expenses are on the rise throughout the league. The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette's Scott Dochterman recently outlined Big Ten recruiting costs for the last three fiscal years, which shows that the league's 11 publics schools spent $6.47 million in recruiting in FY 2013, up from $4.1 million in FY 2011. Northwestern, a private institution, does not have to publicly report its expenses.

What stands out about these numbers?
  • Nebraska has spent more on recruiting than any Big Ten team in the past two seasons: $818,509 in 2013 and $752,681 in 2012. Bo Pelini's program is trying to boost its presence in Big Ten territory, maintain a presence in Texas and California, and scoop up prospects from the fertile Southeast. That costs money, and Nebraska's geography doesn't help.
  • Illinois is second in recruiting expenses for the second consecutive year, devoting $791,972 in FY 2013. I'll say this for Illinois: It invests enough in football. The program shelled out for former coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning. Tim Beckman shouldn't complain about his recruiting budget. But the investment needs to start showing returns very soon.
  • If asked which Big Ten school spends the least on recruiting, few folks likely would select Wisconsin. Like Nebraska, Wisconsin faces geographical challenges in recruiting and, under former coach Bret Bielema, ramped up its efforts in Florida for players such as James White and Aaron Henry. But these numbers show Wisconsin spent by far the least on recruiting in FY 2013 ($256,967) and, unlike other Big Ten programs, hasn't had dramatic increases the past two years. Assistant salaries were an issue for Bielema, who lost quite a few top aides in his final two seasons. I wonder how the recruiting budget impacted his decision to leave for Arkansas, and how the investment could change for coach Gary Andersen.
  • Penn State has had the biggest increases in recruiting investment, going from $258,800 in FY 2011 -- the second-lowest total in the league -- to $443,022 in FY 2012 and then to $736,739 in FY 2013, the third-highest total in the league. The program spent much more under Bill O'Brien than it did during the end of the Joe Paterno era, and the investment should continue to increase under James Franklin, one of the more aggressive recruiters in the country.
  • Although Ohio State spent about $200,000 more on recruiting in FY 2013 than FY 2012, the Buckeyes are in the bottom half of the league in expenses. Geography is a big reason, as they don't have to travel nearly as far as other league programs to scout some of the top players in the Big Ten region.
  • It's interesting that Michigan's recruiting costs actually went down from FY 2011 to FY 2012 before going up to $664,492 in FY 2013. The Wolverines signed top-10 recruiting classes in 2012 and 2013.

A lot of interesting numbers here. Recruiting costs will continue to rise around the FBS, and it will be interesting to see which Big Ten teams invest more in non-coaching, recruiting-specific staff. Programs in other leagues -- cough, SEC, cough -- have been on hiring sprees, causing a lot of national discussion about limiting staff size.


If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.

1. "I like my team."

2. "I'm glad we don't have a game tomorrow."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesPat Fitzgerald's Wildcats had to deal with a lot off the field this spring.
College coaches have recited those phrases in spring ball for decades. The 14 men leading Big Ten programs are no exceptions. But the standard spring sentiments apply to the league more this year than most.

There are reasons to believe the Big Ten will be better this fall, but the work is far from over on most campuses. This isn't a league of finished products, and the coming months take on added importance before the 2014 season kicks off in late August.

"I don't think we're that far behind; it's just painfully obvious that we're not there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "This next phase will be the most important phase of this team's life. It's always important, but with a lot of things we've gone though, we've got to come together."

Northwestern went through a lot in the spring, mostly away from the field, as the campaign for a player union gained national media attention, especially after players were declared employees of the school in March. The team held a historic vote Friday, after Fitzgerald had expressed his opposition to unionizing. Some players expressed concern that the vote could split the team.

It will be months before we know if the union plan goes through, but the Wildcats continue preparing for a pivotal season. They found their quarterback this spring in senior Trevor Siemian and an offensive identity based around the passing game. But questions along both lines remain.

The spring also produced quarterback answers at Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner). Michigan's Devin Gardner had a rough spring game but still seems likely to retain his job. Another senior signal-caller, Rutgers' Gary Nova, is a good bet to remain atop the depth chart. Although Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong lacks Nova's or Gardner's experience, he exited spring just as he entered it: as the Huskers' top quarterback.

Indiana's platoon system of Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson frustrates some, but not coach Kevin Wilson, who has given every indication that he'll continue to use both for another season.

Other quarterback races have been reduced but not resolved. Illinois will pick between Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer who impressed for much of the spring, and veteran backup Reilly O'Toole. Coach Tim Beckman wants a resolution before two-a-day practices in August.

Purdue's Danny Etling, who started the final seven games of his freshman season, appeared to have a slight lead coming out of the spring, but coach Darrell Hazell isn't ready to declare a starter. So Austin Appleby and David Blough remain alive.

Wisconsin reduced its candidate pool from four to two as Joel Stave, who boasts 19 career starts but also a nagging throwing shoulder injury, will compete with dual-threat Tanner McEvoy in camp.

"It will be a fight," coach Gary Andersen said.

Quarterback is just one spot where Wisconsin has questions. The Badgers went through much of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. They've also revamped their defensive front seven, which returns only one starter from 2013.

[+] EnlargeRaekwon McMillan
Miller Safrit/ESPNEarly enrollee Raekwon McMillan could make an immediate impact for Ohio State's defense this fall.
Ohio State didn't have star quarterback Braxton Miller for spring ball because of shoulder surgery, but the Buckeyes focused on bolstering a defense that struggled last fall. Freshman Raekwon McMillan, an early enrollee, is pushing for the starting middle linebacker spot, and competition will continue at the cornerback spot opposite Doran Grant. Chris Ash, the Buckeyes' new co-defensive coordinator, worked to simplify the scheme this spring.

"We only have about six defensive calls," safety Tyvis Powell said after the spring game. "We had too many last year."

Offensive line remains Michigan's focal point coming out of the spring. A sloppy spring game didn't ease fears about the Wolverines' front five, although coach Brady Hoke saw positive signs in earlier practices. A critical summer awaits new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, tasked with resurrecting Michigan's run game.

At Penn State, new coach James Franklin continues to energize both players and fans. But he's also realistic about the depth challenge his team faces, particularly along the offensive line.

"When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues that you're going to have to overcome," Franklin said. "We don't."

Like Rutgers, Maryland began its Big Ten transition this spring and welcomed running back Wes Brown and wideout Marcus Leak after absences from the team. If the Terrapins finally stay healthy, they could be worth watching in a loaded East Division.

Sitting atop the division is defending Big Ten champ Michigan State. The Spartans had a relatively stress-free spring, but they must fill key spots on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where players like Taiwan Jones and Darian Hicks step in.

The returning pieces for teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin fuel optimism around the league. But in spring, optimism is always tempered by what lies ahead.

"We're improving," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday, "but we're hardly ready to play."

They won't have to for 132 days.

Until then, stay classy, Big Ten fans.
Last week, in response to a mailbag question from reader and Rutgers fan Ed, I came up with a hot-seat ranking for all the coaches in the Big Ten.

That list sparked a bit of discussion in some places, notably Nebraska. How accurate were my rankings, and what were some of the factors that went into them? I thought I'd bring Adam Rittenberg into the debate for a little bit of fact vs. fiction.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsKirk Ferentz, who began at Iowa in 1999, appears to be secure heading into 2014.
Brian Bennett: Adam, I listed seven coaches as being completely safe, barring some unforeseen 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. While Ferentz hasn't won at an elite level of late, his contract keeps him basically unfireable. Fact or fiction on my Tier 1 of coaches?

Adam Rittenberg: Fact. It would truly take something disastrous, Brian, for one of these coaches to lose his job. Ferentz helped himself last season as another losing campaign would have placed more pressure on Iowa's administration to part ways with their highly paid coach. Unless the Hawkeyes take a significant step backward in 2014, which is tough to do given an extremely favorable schedule, Ferentz is on very secure footing. Minnesota awarded Kill a contract extension and a raise in February, and with facilities upgrades on the way, no change is imminent. The rest are as safe as you can get in this line of work.

BB: My second tier included three coaches who should be fine but could be sweating things out if they have a rough season: Indiana's Kevin Wilson, Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Michigan's Brady Hoke. Some might say Hoke is actually on a hot seat, but I think his first-year success, recruiting and support from athletic director Dave Brandon means he is at least a year away from feeling any substantial pressure. Fact or fiction on these guys?

AR: I would say fact on both Wilson and Hazell and possibly fiction on Hoke. Wilson has to make a bowl game fairly soon after IU squandered a great opportunity last season (eight home games). But Indiana athletic director Fred Glass, upon hiring Wilson in 2010, stressed the need for continuity at a program that hadn't had much since Bill Mallory. A 1-win or 2-win season could change things, but I can't see IU making another change, especially with recruiting on the rise and the offense surging. Hazell is a second-year coach, so unless Purdue lays another 1-11 egg, he's fine.

As for Hoke, his first-year success seems a long time ago. Michigan's recruiting has looked better in February than October, although some players still need time to develop. It comes down to this: if Michigan wins nine or more games, he's fine. If Michigan wins eight or fewer games, it gets interesting. Are the Wolverines losing close games to good teams or getting blown out? How do they perform against their three top rivals -- Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame -- on the road? Are the offensive problems being fixed? You're right that Brandon doesn't want to fire his guy. But if Michigan gets blown out in its three rivalry games and still can't run the ball consistently, Brandon might not have a choice. Remember, Hoke has set the bar -- Big Ten title or bust -- and he's not reaching it.

BB: OK, now we're down to the four guys I put on the hot seat. Let's take them individually, starting with perhaps the most controversial one. You'd have to suffer from amnesia not to remember how close Bo Pelini came to losing his job at Nebraska last season. But is it fact or fiction that he's on a hot seat?

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesBo Pelini is 58-24 as coach of Nebraska.
AR: Fact. I'm not sure where the pro-Pelini push is coming from. Does a bowl win and some Twitter fun with @FauxPelini really change anything? Nebraska has been a bigger national story during its spring game the past two seasons than when the games actually count. While it's nice to this side of Pelini, the only thing that matters is winning more games and getting Nebraska that elusive conference championship.

BB: I debated whether to include Randy Edsall from Maryland, who showed progress last season and has dealt with many tough injuries. But moving to the new league and not overwhelming fans for three seasons convinced me he needs to deliver a bowl game this year, or at least be very competitive. Fact or fiction?

AR: Fact. Athletic director Kevin Anderson has been supportive of Edsall, but Maryland needs to see continued progress this season, despite the transition. The injury situation has to turn around eventually, so we should get a better gauge of a team that, on paper, should be better. But the schedule isn't easy. It also doesn't help to have Franklin, once Maryland's coach-in-waiting, in the same division.

BB: The other Big Ten newbie also has a coach on the hot seat, according to my list. Kyle Flood is only in his third season and did win nine games his first season. But he was on shaky ground last winter and replaced both coordinators, which is a sign of a coach trying to hang on. Fact or fiction on Flood's seat being warm?

AR: Fact. A coaching shuffle like the one Rutgers had almost always precedes a make-or-break type season for the head guy. Although athletic director Julie Hermann must consider the upgrade in competition and a brutal initial Big Ten schedule (East Division plus crossovers against both Nebraska and Wisconsin), a bowl-less season could spell the end for Flood. Rutgers has reached the postseason in eight of the past nine years.

BB: And, finally, Tim Beckman. He has won just one conference game at Illinois. I'd be surprised if anyone disagreed with his placement on this list, but what say you in regard to fact or fiction?

AR: Fact. Although AD Mike Thomas hired Beckman, he'll face even more pressure to make a change if Illinois misses a bowl for a third consecutive season. The Illini showed improvement last fall, but they'll have to take another step for Beckman to secure Year 4.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
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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.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
12:00
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RIP, Princess Lacey.

Big Ten's lunch links

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
12:00
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Spent the weekend hoopin' it up in Milwaukee. Good times. Back to the football grind, and the links.

Big Ten lunch links

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
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How 'bout Nebrasketball? Impressed with what's happening in Lincoln.
Believe it or not, spring football in the Big Ten is just around the corner. Several teams moved up their spring practice dates, and three of them -- Maryland, Michigan and Northwestern -- will take the field next week.

Spring ball is all about development, and some position groups need to make significant strides before the summer.

Here are five ...

Illinois' defensive line: Coach Tim Beckman kept his defensive staff in place for what should be a make-or-break season in Champaign. Coordinator Bill Cubit's presence should stabilize the offense despite the loss of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, so the season likely hinges on whether the defense improves. There are some nice returning pieces at linebacker, but the line needs a boost after Illinois finished last in the Big Ten and 116th nationally against the run. Lineman Paul James, who originally signed with Illinois in 2013 but delayed his enrollment until January, is among those who will take the field this spring. There's plenty of competition throughout the line, and while help arrives this summer with Jihad Ward and others, Illinois needs some linemen to emerge right away.

Michigan's offensive line: Despite a first-round draft pick at left tackle (Taylor Lewan), Michigan's front five struggled mightily during the 2013 season, as young players didn't blossom quickly enough and the team couldn't consistently run the ball between the tackles. Coordinator Al Borges took the fall, but line coach Darrell Funk and his group will be under the microscope when the Wolverines begin spring practice Feb. 25. Michigan started nine different linemen in 2013 and used five lineup combinations. As tackles Lewan and Michael Schofield both depart, every position is up for grabs this spring. It will also be interesting to see how new coordinator Doug Nussmeier makes an impact on the line.

[+] EnlargeNebraska vs Minnesota
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMitch Leidner is the only quarterback with college game experience on the Minnesota roster.
Minnesota's quarterbacks: At least nine Big Ten teams will have true quarterback competitions this spring, but arguably none has as much mystery as Minnesota. Philip Nelson's transfer following the season creates a wide-open race between Mitch Leidner, Chris Streveler, Conor Rhoda and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy, a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback who enrolled mid-year and will participate in spring practice. Leidner is the only quarterback with college game experience, appearing in 10 games last fall and recording 1,026 yards (619 passing, 403 rushing). Perhaps Leidner separates himself, but no matter what, Minnesota wants a clearer picture coming out of the spring.

Ohio State's linebackers: Coach Urban Meyer has made it very clear that Ohio State's linebacker play has fallen short of program standards. Meyer singled out the linebacker position in the 2014 recruiting class, saying on national signing day, "Far too many mistakes have been made in either lack of development or whatever, and it's just not where we need to be." Ohio State loses by far its best linebacker in Ryan Shazier, so there's pressure on returnees such as Curtis Grant, Joshua Perry and Camren Williams, as well as newcomers such as five-star prospect Raekwon McMillan, a mid-year enrollee who will be on the field this spring. Meyer said there are no redshirt plans for McMillan or the other three linebackers in the 2014 class.

Wisconsin's wide receivers: The Badgers' quarterback competition likely will garner more attention, but whoever emerges under center will need more options in the passing game. Jared Abbrederis has been Wisconsin's wide receiving corps for the past two season, and he'll be playing in the NFL this fall. You can only get by so much with pass-catching tight ends and running backs, so receivers coach Chris Beatty and his group need a strong spring session. Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe and Alex Erickson lead the returnees, but Wisconsin needs young players such as speedster Robert Wheelwright to emerge. Help is on the way this summer as several promising recruits arrive, but Wisconsin can't pin its hopes exclusively on incoming freshmen.

B1G's top impact true freshmen

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
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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.

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