Michigan Wolverines: Brady Hoke

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 Monday mailbag

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
5:00
PM ET
I've got less than a week left in my 30s. No time for pithy intros. Hit me:

Chris from Augusta, Maine, writes: Michigan fans are clamoring for success. It seems like the main thing holding them back are the lines. The '13 O-line haul was one of the better recruiting position groups I can remember across the country with guys like Kyle Kalis, Kyle Bosch, Patrick Kugler, LTT (Logan Tuley-Tillman), David Dawson, etc. And, quality guys on the D-line like Ondre Pipkins, Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Bryan Mone, Lawrence Marshall, Henry Poggi, etc. are there. So, it seems like the solutions to the problem are all in place; they are just young and/or developing. When will these two position groups develop enough to make Michigan become a 10-win type team again and actually return to being a regular conference contender?

Brian Bennett: Some good points, Chris. Our microwave society doesn't allow for a lot of patience anymore, but developing players in the trenches almost always takes time. Brady Hoke and his staff inherited a program that didn't have much depth at all on the offensive line. Michigan was playing a three-man front on defense, so a transition was expected. On the flip side, you could argue that Hoke is now entering Year 4, and his highly ranked recruiting classes have yet to yield many superstars. It's not impossible for young players to contribute early on the lines -- look at what Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and especially Joey Bosa did as true freshmen on Ohio State's defensive front the past two seasons.

But there's also a reason why coaches like Mark Dantonio often redshirt as many guys on the lines as possible. Michigan has some intriguing talent on the D-line -- Charlton, in particular, looked like a beast this spring -- while the O-line is still stacked with redshirt freshmen and sophomores. If those players can develop, the Wolverines could turn both areas into a strength in a year or two, assuming fans can wait that long.


Nick from East Lansing, Mich., writes: To preface this, I recently graduated from MSU, had season tickets and loved the football program, so this isn't coming from jealousy. It seems the tone from you, Adam, and Spartans fans in general that people believe the offense will carry the Spartans this year. I just don't see their offense being that good. Looking back at the championship game and the Rose Bowl, MSU was very lucky that their offense didn't cost them those games. Cook made quite a few poor decisions that hit defenders in the hand. If they had held on to those balls, MSU's season does not end the way it did. It seems that because MSU won those games, people are willing to forget how close the offense was to losing those games. The MSU offense will be better than at the start of last year, but I believe it is more likely to be in the bottom half of the B1G than the top.

Brian Bennett: Nick, it sounds like you are scarred emotionally from 2012. Look, no one is saying Michigan State will suddenly become a run 'n' gun team that wins a bunch of shootouts. Even if it had that kind of offensive skill, Dantonio doesn't want to play that way. But the fact is the offense returns almost all of its production from last season, when it averaged close to 30 points per game in Big Ten play. There's every reason to believe that side of the ball can hold its own or even carry the team at times if a more inexperienced defense needs a few games to jell.

Connor Cook admitted to me that he got lucky last year that some of his passes weren't picked off, but he was also a first-year starter who should make better decisions this year because of his experience. The tight ends should become more of a weapon for the team and provide some safety valves. If the offensive line can come together, this can be a very good offense, perhaps even as good as the one from 2011 that averaged 31 points per game and finished third in the Big Ten in scoring en route to a Legends Division title.

And lastly, I find your characterization of last season's final two games to be off base. The Spartans scored 34 points in the Big Ten championship game vs. Ohio State and then put up 24 against an outstanding Stanford defense, one that was No. 4 in the FBS against the run coming into the game. Michigan State scored more points against Stanford than Oregon or UCLA did. That's more than just "lucky."


Patrick D. via Twitter writes: Who sees more snaps at QB for #IUFB in 2014? Tre Roberson or Nate Sudfeld?

Brian Bennett: This might be the toughest mailbag question of the year. No joke. Indiana's quarterback situation is one of the most confounding ones I've ever seen, and even coach Kevin Wilson can't figure out who should start or play more. It's clear at this point that both Sudfeld and Roberson will play again in 2014, and the Hoosiers might just ride the hot hand. Wilson told me that Sudfeld may look a little better at times in practice, but Roberson can't truly shine in a practice setting because his elusiveness doesn't factor in when coaches call plays dead once a defender gets near a quarterback. If forced to guess, I'll pick Sudfeld for the most snaps, since he just looks like a future NFL quarterback and he played a lot more than Roberson last season. But this is what you'd call a constantly evolving situation, and the good news for Indiana is it somehow works.


Nick H. via Twitter writes: Thoughts on the Minnesota quarterback situation? Does Mitch Leidner stay the starter through the full year or does Chris Streveler dethrone him?

Brian Bennett: I'm more bullish on Leidner than most, including Rittenberg. I see a big, strong guy who can really run and should improve as a passer, and Leidner's improved leadership skills this offseason should serve him well. Yet there's no question that Minnesota's passing game needs to take a giant leap forward, and the disappointing performance in the Gophers' spring game did nothing to change that opinion. Jerry Kill has proved that he's not afraid to play more than one quarterback, and by running so much, Leidner will be more at risk for injury. So while I expect him to remain the starter, it wouldn't surprise me to see someone else under center at key times in 2014.


Tom from North Jersey writes: We all know Rutgers has gaps to fill to catch up to most of the Big Ten teams on the field, but based on your time with the Big East blog, what improvements do they need to make to catch up?

Brian Bennett: My last season covering the Big East was 2010, and I haven't followed Rutgers in great detail in the interim simply because there's little time to pay attention to teams outside the Big Ten. But from what I've seen and what I remember about the Scarlet Knights, I think the first major upgrade has to come at quarterback. Rutgers has consistently been able to field pretty good defenses but only occasionally has been dangerous on offense, and shaky quarterback play has been a big reason why. There's an open competition for that job this spring, though Gary Nova has a huge experience edge. The hiring of Ralph Friedgen as offensive coordinator is a reason for optimism, and if anybody can fix Nova, it's Friedgen. Rutgers will also need more depth and talent on both lines in order to compete on a weekly basis in the Big Ten.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
12:00
PM ET
Monday couldn't come soon enough for Chicago sports fans after a weekend of bad.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
4:30
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Wishing you a great spring weekend (right, Mother Nature?). Join the Twitter train.

Sup?

Kevin from Pittsburgh writes: This might sound like a weird question but do you think Penn State's recruiting success this offseason will have any impact on the NCAA potentially lifting the bowl ban? There was some optimism it could be lifted for this season, if not next. But with James Franklin seemingly overcoming the other intended punishments, would the NCAA be worried about a perception of letting PSU off the hook? Stop me if I'm overthinking here but this certainly wouldn't be the first time the NCAA has made a decision based on it's own perception.

Adam Rittenberg: No, it certainly would not, Kevin. Trying to get inside the mind of the NCAA is a dangerous and often futile endeavor. My hope is any decision made about the sanctions would have nothing to do with how Franklin is recruiting. Penn State is being assessed for how it conducts itself as a program from a compliance and integrity standpoint, and the success in games or in recruiting really shouldn't matter with potentially reduced penalties. Also, the 2015 recruiting class won't impact the 2014 team, which has some depth problems stemming from the NCAA sanctions.


Jim from Albany, N.Y., writes: As a season-ticket holder who doesn't mind the 200+ mile trip for every home game, I'm wondering what Rutgers (and/or Maryland too) do to be accepted by the average B1G fan? Reading everything from "meh" to "I'm never going to attend a Rutgers/Maryland game in my team's stadium" is tough when the average Rutgers fan is thrilled about being able to take a step up. I've not read this in any of the other realignment moves in any of the conferences (except perhaps WVU in the Big 12 or Mizzou in the SEC), but not so vitriolic as the B1G boards. Comments?

Adam Rittenberg: Jim, there are a few factors involved here. Many Big Ten fans didn't want the league to expand again. Those who did wanted additions with stronger athletic traditions than Rutgers. Although Scarlet Knights football had a breakthrough under Greg Schiano, Rutgers doesn't match the historic accomplishments of Nebraska and Penn State, the Big Ten's most recent expansion additions. There's just not an obvious reason to get excited. Also, the demographic argument the Big Ten used with adding Rutgers and Maryland, while making sense on several levels, doesn't resonate with the average fan. There are also geographic and cultural differences between the traditional Big Ten footprint and the East Coast. Penn State deals with a similar divide.


B1G fan from the Midwest writes: I know I'm about to ask something blasphemous to some longtime B1G fans, but is there a name change in the conference's future? Myself included, most members of the B1G are proud of tradition and are reluctant to change. I can understand sweeping it under the rug at 11 teams or maybe even 12, but when it's at 14 shouldn't it be considered? Maybe something non number related like the SEC and ACC have.

Adam Rittenberg: It's not happening, B1G fan. Commissioner Jim Delany actually was open to a change when the Big Ten added Penn State in 1989, but the league presidents and other power players wanted the name to remain. Same thing happened when the league added Nebraska. There's too much meaning and history in that name, and while it's quite mathematically inaccurate, most Big Ten folks can live with it.

Delany and Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon addressed the league name this week at an event in Detroit. Brandon said, "If you look at the Big Ten Conference, you've got brand equity that's been built over decades and decades. The Big Ten means something." So there you have it.


John from Kansas City, Mo., writes: The B1G has 6 members (Iowa, Nebraska, Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Purdue) located in what are considered "talent poor" states. That is half of the conference (MD and Rutgers excluded) that has to actively recruit outside of their backyard. Not to mention they all border states that have more than one FBS school. The SEC on the other hand, has 10 schools in the top 15 "talent rich" states, so it seems the recruiting soil is a bit more fertile in the South. Meyer and Franklin are obviously great recruiters but they are also located squarely in the middle of two very saturated regions and are pulling huge numbers from their immediate footprint(s). Location and population are just as big of factors in recruiting as to which coach is running the show. It seems unfair to assume the B1G coaches aren't working hard enough.

Adam Rittenberg: Some good points here, John. The population deck is undoubtedly stacked in the SEC's favor, no matter which set of recruiting rankings you trust. And you're right that Ohio State and Penn State can recruit locally and regionally more than programs like Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska. I wonder if there's an extra gear that both Meyer and Franklin --as well as their assistants -- reach on the recruiting trail. I know a lot of Big Ten coaches that label their programs "developmental" and take pride in that distinction. I wonder if that approach limits how much they can push for the upper-tier recruits.


Bruce from Los Angeles writes: Simple question: If Michigan fails to win 8 games next year, Brady Hoke is fired? Yes or No?

Adam Rittenberg: A simple question, Bruce, but a not-so simple answer. If Michigan endures a wave of injuries, loses several close games in the final minute and beats one of its rivals on the road -- Michigan State, Ohio State or Notre Dame -- I think Hoke stays. Dave Brandon is firmly in Hoke's corner and doesn't want to make a change. But if Michigan remains relatively healthy, endures the same problems it did in 2013 and gets blown out in rivalry games, the pressure on Brandon could be too great and Hoke would need to go.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Time will tell whether Doug Nussmeier can fix Michigan's offense and finally install the kind of pro-style, power running game that Brady Hoke has talked about for the past four years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
12:00
PM ET
Make up your mind, Mother Nature.
  • Connor Cook now has the freedom to audible at the line of scrimmage for Michigan State, another sign of confidence in the quarterback heading into his second season as the starter.
  • If the problem for Michigan last season was a lack of chemistry, Brady Hoke has a feeling that won't be a problem this fall he leaves spring.
  • Penn State showed off a Wildcat package in its spring game, but James Franklin won't reveal how much he'll use it -- or whether it's got a unique nickname.
  • Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz isn't usually one for hyperbole, so he means it when he calls Brandon Scherff the best player at his position in the country.
  • The Ohio State defense is leaving spring practice with a much better feeling than it did when it left the field after the Discover Orange Bowl.
  • After a long, difficult road, Rutgers offensive lineman Bryan Leoni is pushing for a starting role and a happy ending for his journey.
  • The Purdue offense has undergone a transformation this spring, and the roster has also added some talent to run the system.
  • The union seeking to represent Northwestern football players offered its response to the school's appeal, calling the university's case a "castle built on sand."
  • No matter how big the league gets, the Big Ten is keeping its name.
  • The rebrand of Illinois athletics appears to be a hit, writes Loren Tate.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

Besides, I could argue college football already has March Madness all fall long, and the ratings reflect that. Before the Final Four began, the NCAA tournament averaged a reported 9.8 million viewers, which was a big increase. By contrast, the Big Ten championship game drew 11.6 million viewers, while the Auburn-Alabama game attracted 13.8 million. The men's basketball final (aired on network TV) between UConn and Kentucky got 21.2 million viewers, compared to 25.6 million for the BCS title game (aired on ESPN) between Florida State and Auburn. We could see record ratings for the inaugural rounds of the College Football Playoff.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
12:00
PM ET
Is this heaven? Nope, still Iowa. But happy to be back.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
5:00
PM ET
Sorry for the lack of a mailbag last Wednesday, but I was busy catching up with folks at Ohio State. Never fear: the Monday mailbag is back.

D.J. from Minneapolis writes: What happens to the union story if the Northwestern players vote no?

Brian Bennett: A great question, and based on media comments from several players -- most notably quarterback Trevor Siemian -- it sure seems like the Wildcats players are against the union and will vote no on April 25. But there might be a stronger undercurrent of support from players who are not as vocal in public. Given that the leader of the movement, Kain Colter, has already graduated and won't be eligible to vote, you wonder who on the team will take the baton and push for the union. All it takes, remember, is a simple majority.

So does a no vote mean this is the end of the story? I don't think it's that basic. Northwestern players would be able to try to unionize again next year. The regional National Labor Relations Board ruling has also set a precedent, at least for football players at private schools, and those who believe in the cause, such as CAPA president Ramogi Huma, would likely try to persuade players at other programs to follow Northwestern's lead. The school will continue to try to fight the original ruling, as well.

If the Wildcats' players vote no next week, we might not see any tangible results from the union movement for a while. If nothing else, however, it was another shot across the bow at the NCAA and another huge warning to the leaders of college sports that they had better make some changes before a judge or a legislature does it for them.


Kelly from Wilmington, N.C., writes: Brian, I know you said in your article that you don't think "The Game" would ever be a prime-time game, but do you think Michigan will gauge this year's game vs. Penn State to consider using Penn State and Ohio State every other year for a night game? They went from "never" to yes with Notre Dame and are now using Penn State. Yes, they get a great spot every year on ABC, but could you imagine if they moved to it a night game? Is it possible that they have realized that at least one night game a year is great in so many ways, not just for Michigan, but the Big Ten as a whole?

Brian Bennett: I shouldn't have written "never" to the idea of an Ohio State-Michigan night game, because so many things have changed in college football that anything is possible. I never thought we'd actually see a playoff, for instance. But both schools have said they're not in favor of moving "The Game" away from the afternoon and under the lights. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon doesn't even want to play Michigan State at night and so I doubt he will budge on the idea of playing Ohio State in prime time. And I don't think this game needs any more attention, as evidenced by all the signs and reminders of the rivalry that I saw while visiting both Michigan and Ohio State earlier this month. So I wouldn't expect it to happen anytime soon, though never say never.


Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J., writes: Can any conclusions be drawn about the benefit of spring games based on some of the attendance numbers you guys have mentioned in your recaps? I'm not going to pull a Braxton Miller and brag about PSU's "domination" of spring game attendance in the B1G, but ... some schools can really use the spring game as a springboard for recruiting, while other schools ... under 10,000 at Maryland, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and more might only be hurting their own image? Weather wasn't much of a factor this weekend, so what is the reasoning for the rather paltry attendance numbers, or is the annual spring game at other schools not nearly the weekend long "festival" that the Blue-White game is in State College every year?

Brian Bennett: I've come to the conclusion that spring games just aren't as big a deal at some places as they are others. And that's OK. I don't have much of a tolerance for spring games and don't like watching them, because you learn less from those than you would from watching just about any other practice. Sure, it's a fun day for fans to see their teams and sit in the stadium and maybe get some autographs, and all that is great. But I also have no problem with people who feel like they have better things to do than watch football that often isn't really representative of the finished product, with many star players usually being held out.

I don't know if spring game attendance factors much into recruiting. It certainly can't hurt to sell that to recruits as evidence of intense interest and appreciation of your program. But Michigan hasn't gotten many big spring game crowds over the years and that doesn't seem to affect the Wolverines' recruiting very much. I doubt many prospects are basing their decisions on anything that occurs at a spring game, and if they are, that is misguided on their part.


Dalton from Cincinnati writes: I've had some different debates with some of my friends on why Michigan hasn't been able to rebound and compete for a Big Ten championship since 2006. To clear things up, do you think it is because Michigan State is no longer "the little brother" in this rivalry, or because Ohio State has won all but two meetings against them since 2001? Or is it the fact MSU hasn't had as much coaching turnover, has had better coaching and better development of their recruits and has had more winning seasons? I think MSU becoming more constant under Mark Dantonio has led to this occurring than anything else. What is your take on this?

Brian Bennett: I thought Michigan State clearly benefited during Rich Rodriguez's tenure in Ann Arbor, as the Wolverines' downturn and different approach to recruiting helped the Spartans begin to establish themselves. Certainly, the success of Michigan State and Ohio State hasn't done anything to help Michigan, and butting heads against both those programs now in the East won't be easy.

Still, in my view, the biggest thing holding back Michigan is not any external force but Michigan itself. The two coaching changes, and especially veering between very contrasting styles, caused some problems that current Wolverines coaches will tell you are still being felt today. More than anything, though, Michigan simply hasn't capitalized on its own enormous resources and fulfilled its potential. As noted a minute ago, recruiting has been strong under Brady Hoke, at least if you believe the scouting services. The Maize and Blue have never had much trouble attracting talent. Development of that skill has been an issue, though many of those players are still young.

Perhaps we overrate Michigan's history and tradition, since the program claims only one national title since 1948. But with the school's money, stadium size, fan support and access to players, the Wolverines have no one to blame but themselves for not winning a Big Ten title in what is fast approaching a decade's time.

Big Ten lunch links

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

Here's a closer look at the East:

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

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
12:00
PM ET
RIP, Princess Lacey.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- When asked why Michigan's offensive performances went through such wild fluctuations last season, quarterback Devin Gardner didn't go looking for excuses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nussmeier sees similarities to Locker in Gardner's game.

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

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

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

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


video
So you want more prime-time games in the Big Ten? How does Penn State vs. Michigan in the Big House sound?

The Wolverines, of course, have hosted two night games in Michigan Stadium. Those games, against Notre Dame in 2011 and 2013, turned into events and created an electric atmosphere.

No. 3 under the lights will be a conference game against Penn State on Oct. 11. The Notre Dame rivalry is great and all, but this will be two titanic Big Ten programs squaring off in an East Division showdown. It's a worthy addition to the short history of night games at the Big House.

"The night game atmosphere created by our fans has been electric and we expect that same type of energy for our first-ever conference night game against Penn State,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said in a statement. “Our players really enjoy playing in prime time at Michigan Stadium.”

The Notre Dame-Michigan night games were enhanced by exciting shootouts on the field. We can hope for the same this year between the Nittany Lions and Wolverines, who played a 43-40, four-overtime thriller in Beaver Stadium last year. Because Ohio State-Michigan will likely never be in prime time and Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon doesn't want to play Michigan State at night, this is about the best in-conference matchup you could wish for under the lights at the Big House.

Expect more league prime-time games to be announced soon. This one already has us salivating.

Spring game recap: Michigan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"There's no question," Hoke said, "we need a lot of improvement."

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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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