Michigan Wolverines: Urban Meyer

The most exciting day of the Big Ten offseason is here. OK, not really, but it's definitely in the top five.

The first portion of the Big Ten's prime-time schedule is out as ABC/ESPN made its six selections for games to be played under the lights. The Big Ten Network will announce its prime-time picks next week. Additional kickoff times could be announced later this spring or early in the summer.

Here's the ABC/ESPN schedule:

Sept. 6

Virginia Tech at Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

Sept. 20

Miami at Nebraska, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Oct. 4

Nebraska at Michigan State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Oct. 11

Penn State at Michigan, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN or ESPN2*

Oct. 25

Ohio State at Penn State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Nov. 1

Illinois at Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

*-previously announced

A few notes, quotes and observations:

November night games

Contrary to popular belief, the Big Ten never had a strict policy against playing prime-time games after Nov. 1, but most of its schools preferred to keep those games in the first two months of the season. League members have shown an increased willingness to schedule more prime-time games, and after discussing November night contests for several years, we finally have one.

[+] EnlargeOhio Stadium
David Dermer/Getty ImagesOhio Stadium will host its first November night game in 2014.
Although the November matchup -- Illinois at Ohio State -- lacks a wow factor, this is still a positive step for the league. Also, this is not the final list for November prime-time games, as others will be announced in the future.

"There is a real recognition with our coaches, our athletic directors and our fans that prime-time football is very important," Mark Rudner, the Big Ten's senior associate commissioner for television administration, told ESPN.com. "It's important to the conference, it's important to recruiting, it puts you on a big stage.

"It's a big event whenever you have prime-time football."

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and coach Urban Meyer both have vocalized their desire for more night games. The Buckeyes get three of them on ABC/ESPN (two home, one road), and possibly more to come. It's the Urban Effect.

Huskers, Lions back in prime

No two Big Ten fan bases value night football at their home venues more than Penn State and Nebraska. The Nittany Lions and Huskers both host prime-time games on ABC/ESPN in 2014 (Nebraska didn't have an ABC/ESPN prime-time game in 2013) and make multiple appearances.

The Nebraska-Miami game should be a fun one, especially given the history between the two programs in bowl games (their last five meetings took place in major bowl games). Nebraska's visit to Michigan State is one of few must-see division crossover contests, so it makes sense in prime time.

Beaver Stadium will be rocking for the Ohio State game as former longtime Penn State assistant coach Larry Johnson makes his return to Happy Valley wearing scarlet and gray. Although Penn State remains ineligible for postseason play, the Lions' value is reflected here with East Division matchups against both Michigan and Ohio State. The Lions' consecutive winning seasons despite the bowl ban, plus the arrival of coach James Franklin, enhance the program's appeal for top TV slots.

No limits on prime-time appearances

Big Ten teams typically have had no more than three prime-time appearances per season, but like the November night games issue, this was more of a preference than a policy. As schools like Ohio State become increasingly more open to night football, the number of prime-time appearances will increase, and will occasionally exceed three.

Wisconsin played four prime-time games (two home, two road) in the 2011 season.

"That three [limit] was really self-imposed," Rudner said. "You could waive it if you wanted to. I don't know if that will be as hard and fast as it was before. They see the value in these big events, these big games."

Additional games/announcements

Some Big Ten prime-time games were previously announced, such as Michigan's Sept. 6 trip to Notre Dame and Purdue's Sept. 13 neutral-site game against Notre Dame. A game time has not been set for Wisconsin's season-opener against LSU on Aug. 30 in Houston, but the game will kick off in prime time and be televised by an ESPN network.

One thing to remember when predicting or analyzing night-game choices: other games being played in the same window. Prime-time kickoffs offer certain benefits, but teams don't like being overshadowed in the late window.
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's lunch links

March, 25, 2014
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Five months and three days 'til the start of college football.

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 19, 2014
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Thoughts and prayers continue to go out to Isaac Griffith and his family.
The Big Ten is rooted in historic rivalries, but some of these series have been lopsided in recent years. We're taking a closer look at these games and whether things will change or remain the same in 2014.

So far, you and I think the status quo will remain in series like Wisconsin-Minnesota, Michigan-Michigan State and Minnesota-Michigan. The final rivalry under the microscope has no trophy at stake because it doesn't need one. It goes by a simple title: The Game. Ohio State and Michigan. Enough said.

Lately, it has been all Buckeyes.

Let's dive in ...

Series: First meeting in 1897. Michigan leads 58-45-6. Since 1951, Ohio State leads 33-27-2.

Last meeting: Ohio State prevailed 42-41 on Nov. 30, 2013, at Michigan Stadium after snuffing out Michigan's potential game-winning two-point conversion attempt.

The streak: Ohio State has won consecutive matchups, and Michigan has only one win in the series since 2003. The Buckeyes' 2010 victory was vacated because of NCAA violations.

Next meeting: Nov. 29 at Ohio Stadium

The skinny: Ohio State dominated Michigan during coach Jim Tressel's tenure, but the gap seems to be narrowing a bit since Brady Hoke took over the Wolverines' program. Hoke beat Ohio State in his first season, and his Wolverines nearly pulled an upset last year against a Buckeyes team that had won its first 23 games under Urban Meyer. Michigan's inconsistent offense found a rhythm against Ohio State, and Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner and wide receiver Jeremy Gallon matched blow for blow with the dynamic Buckeye backfield of Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde.

This year's game could come down to whether the Michigan offense or the Ohio State defense fixes its issues from 2013. Both units have new coaches, as coordinator Doug Nussmeier comes to Michigan, while Chris Ash and Larry Johnson take on key roles in Columbus. Ohio State and Michigan are in the same division for the first time, and The Game should have implications on who goes to Indianapolis. Michigan hasn't won at Ohio Stadium since 2000, a game that sealed John Cooper's fate as Buckeyes coach. Both teams return their quarterbacks and bring in decorated defensive recruits such as Jabrill Peppers (Michigan) and Raekwon McMillan (Ohio State).

The (very early) prediction: Hoke prepares Michigan well for The Game, and the Wolverines should be a bit steadier on offense. But I don't see Miller losing his final home game as a Buckeye, especially with postseason implications likely on the line. Miller rallies Ohio State late for a three-point win.

Big Ten's lunch links

March, 18, 2014
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I'll make a deal with you, Warren Buffett. You cut me a check for $10 million right now, and I'll spare you the embarrassment of acing your little challenge.
Our ultimate Big Ten road trip has made it to the final week of October. Time to get serious.

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

Here are the possibilities for Week 9:

Oct. 25

Maryland at Wisconsin
Michigan at Michigan State
Minnesota at Illinois
Ohio State at Penn State
Rutgers at Nebraska

Open date: Indiana, Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Ohio State at Penn State

Toughest choice so far. I really enjoy the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry, and the 2014 game features several great storylines, including two of the nation's top assistants, MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi and Michigan offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, matching wits. But I'm heading to Happy Valley for two reasons: Ohio State and the atmosphere.

The Buckeyes' schedule has offered few must-see opportunities, but going more than two months without seeing a top Big Ten title -- and potential College Football Playoff -- contender doesn't make much sense. Quarterback Braxton Miller could be in the Heisman Trophy mix, and Ohio State's defense is trying to course-correct. Speaking of the Buckeyes defense, new line coach Larry Johnson makes his return to Penn State, where he spent the past 18 seasons as an assistant. Penn State fans love Johnson, but it will be tough for them to see him wearing Ohio State colors.

And then there's the atmosphere. Beaver Stadium at night is one of the best settings in college football. Although the prime-time schedule hasn't been set, I'll go out on a small limb and plan to see Ohio State and Penn State under the lights during a whiteout. Haven't been to one of those since 2009, so count me in. Lions fans have two weeks to gear up for this one, and campus will be buzzing. The matchup features two talented quarterbacks in Miller and Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, and two of the league's most intriguing coaches in Urban Meyer and James Franklin, both of whom came to the Big Ten from the SEC.

I'll keep an eye on what happens in East Lansing, but I'm off to State College and not looking back.

Brian Bennett's pick: Michigan at Michigan State

This choice really comes down to East Lansing or State College, and if I end up at either place on Oct. 25, you won't find me complaining one bit. Both atmospheres should be silly good.

But while Ohio State-Penn State is sort of a rivalry, the Paul Bunyan game is a true old-fashioned hate fest, and that's why I want to be there. Michigan State has dominated this series of late and forced the Wolverines to adapt to its physical style. Michigan fans can't be too happy about going back to Spartan Stadium for a second straight season, but such is the quirk of the new schedules with the 14-team alignment.

Michigan hasn't scored more than 21 points in this game since 2007 and has managed just 32 points total in the past three years combined. So Devin Gardner & Co. have their work cut out for them against Narduzzi's defense. Nussmeier is trying to install a more physical, north-south running game this offseason, and never would that come in more handy than here. Don't forget this is still a division game, and there's no team Spartans fans love to beat than the maize and blue. It should be another intense installment of this rivalry, and I can't wait to see it.

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
After four weeks of scouring the nation -- and, in Brian's case, the world -- for top games, our ultimate Big Ten road trip has reached the start of league play, at least for most teams. We'll likely be spending more time in our cars the next few months, but we don't mind.

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

Here are the Week 5 offerings around the league, as all 14 teams are in action:

Sept. 27

Maryland at Indiana
Minnesota at Michigan
Wyoming at Michigan State
Cincinnati at Ohio State
Northwestern at Penn State
Tulane at Rutgers
Illinois at Nebraska
Iowa at Purdue
South Florida at Wisconsin

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Minnesota at Michigan

For a week where every team is in action, Week 5 is a bit underwhelming. Of the five league games, I'm choosing between Minnesota-Michigan and Northwestern-Penn State, but the Jug game gets my vote. Sure, this series hasn't been very competitive, as Michigan has won six straight against Minnesota and 22 of the past 23 meetings. Michigan has been particularly dominant at the Big House. After Minnesota pulled off an upset in 2005, Michigan has claimed the past three meetings in Ann Arbor by a combined score of 134-23.

So why head to Michigan? Minnesota is an improving program under Jerry Kill that made significant strides after last season's loss at Michigan, winning four of its final six league contests. The next step for the Gophers is to perform better in rivalry games like this one. I'm interested to see if Mitch Leidner is a different quarterback, if he's getting more help from his receivers and if incoming freshman Jeff Jones is contributing at running back alongside David Cobb. Speaking of young running backs, will this be a breakout year for Michigan's Derrick Green? The sophomore will need help from a besieged offensive line that must develop during the spring and summer.

Both defenses are going through a bit of a makeover. Michigan has much of the same personnel but shuffled its linebacker responsibilities, as senior Jake Ryan moves to the middle. Minnesota has been a very solid defense under Tracy Claeys but must replace its biggest piece up front (Ra'Shede Hageman) and in the secondary (Brock Vereen). Perhaps this turns into another easy win for Michigan, which needs a good start to Big Ten play, but I'm interested to see if Minnesota will keep moving in the right direction under Kill. Plus, I haven't seen the Gophers in person since the 2009 season.

Brian Bennett's pick: Cincinnati at Ohio State

It seems odd in a week with several Big Ten games to pick a nonconference matchup. But after logging a whole lot of mileage in the first four weeks, I'm happy to stay a bit closer to home. And this is also a good time to get a look at the Buckeyes, whom I've passed over so far despite a couple of interesting early tilts (Navy in Baltimore in Week 1, Virginia Tech in Week 2).

Also, I'm a sucker for these kinds of in-state games. Cincinnati has always lived in Ohio State's shadow, and Urban Meyer's alma mater would love nothing more than to pull off its first win over the Buckeyes since 1897. The Bearcats' program has been very solid for several years now, and it returns most of the production from a nine-win season in 2013. The offseason focus will be at quarterback, where Notre Dame transfer and one-time Indiana commit Gunner Kiel could start. (And choosing this game gives me an excuse to mention Munchie Legaux, who is battling back from a gruesome leg injury.)

But mostly, this game is about taking the temperature of the Buckeyes, who will be challenged much more in the nonconference schedule this fall than they were in the past two seasons combined. We should learn a lot from the Virginia Tech game, and I'm curious to see how the defense bounces back from a rough finish to '13 without stars Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby. How will the revamped offensive line perform, and can anyone match Carlos Hyde's impact in the running game? Plus, if I get a chance to watch Braxton Miller play, I'm usually going to take it. Ohio State could be hovering in or near the top five if it is undefeated going into this game, and that demands an in-person visit.

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

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 5, 2014
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So Nick Saban is saying you shouldn't smoke while playing football?

Big Ten lunchtime links

February, 27, 2014
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Cold, cold, go away.
Here's a team-by-team look at what to watch in the new Big Ten East this spring.

Indiana

Spring start: March 8

Spring game: TBA

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

Spring start: March 1

Spring game: April 11

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

Spring start: Feb. 25

Spring game: April 5

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

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

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

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

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

Spring start: March 17

Spring game: April 12

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

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colleague Mark Schlabach has come out with a new edition of his Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2014, taking into account what happened on signing day. And some Big Ten teams are on the rise.

Defending champ Florida State is No. 1, followed by Alabama and Oregon. And then, leading the way for the Big Ten, is Michigan State at No. 4. The Spartans checked in at No. 5 in Schlabach's previous Top 25, which he issued last month.
"MSU coach Mark Dantonio continued to build his team through the trenches by also signing juco offensive tackle David Hedelin, No. 4 center Brian Allen and No. 32 defensive tackle Enoch Smith Jr. No. 30 athlete Montae Nicholson and No. 1 fullback Gerald Owens were the top skill players who signed with the Spartans. MSU ranked well behind Big Ten rival Ohio State in recruiting, but Dantonio was able to compile a 42-12 record the previous four seasons with recruiting classes that weren't as highly regarded as this one."

Ohio State climbed six spots from Schlabach's previous ranking and now rank at No. 7 after landing the Big Ten's most lauded class.
"Urban Meyer wanted to transform Ohio State's football team with SEC-like speed, and he dipped into Florida, Georgia and Texas in his most recent recruiting class to try to do it. Meyer concentrated on improving OSU's defense and building depth on its offensive line while landing another top-10 recruiting class."

Wisconsin holds steady at No. 14, while Iowa moves up two spots to No. 19. Michigan is now No. 21, up three spots from last month's ranking.

My two cents: Michigan State and Ohio State are both deserving of top-10 rankings. I'm not as high on Wisconsin as Schlabach, simply because the Badgers have to replace so many valuable seniors from last season's team and have some major questions in their passing game. It's nice to see Iowa get some recognition after a strong 2013, and like Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes should benefit from the schedule in the first year of the East-West alignment.

I don't quite agree with the enthusiasm for Michigan, which in my mind does not deserve a Top 25 ranking after the way it played in 2013. The potential is certainly there for the Wolverines, but I think that program has a lot to prove first. I would rank Nebraska in the Top 25, given the returning talent on defense and at the skill positions on offense.

But there's still a long, long way to go before August. What do you think of this latest Top 25?

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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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