Nebraska Cornhuskers: Bo Pelini

What to watch: Nebraska-Fresno State

September, 12, 2014
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What to watch in Week 3 for Nebraska as it hits the road for the first time, playing Fresno State on Saturday at 10:30 p.m. ET:
  • The start: It’s an overused talking point to suggest the beginning of a game rates as important; of course, it does. But in this instance, the first half of the first quarter figures to provide more insight than usual, considering the psyche of both teams. Fresno State is something of a wounded animal after consecutive blowout losses on the road against USC and Utah. The Bulldogs are not accustomed to such failure and have won 13 straight games at home, the second-longest active streak among FBS teams. But prolific quarterback Derek Carr is gone, replaced by Brandon Connette and Brian Burrell. Fresno ranks 107th nationally in total offense and 109th in scoring. The home field might make a huge difference. We should know early. Meanwhile, what is the Nebraska mindset after winning in the final minute against McNeese State? The Huskers could respond with excellent focus -- a common trait of Bo Pelini teams in road games -- or with a shaky level of confidence, potentially worsened by any mistake early against the Bulldogs. Pay attention to the first two drives for both teams.
  • The health: Hit hard in preseason practice by injuries, the Huskers haven’t fared much better in the opening two games. First, junior Randy Gregory, an All-America candidate at defensive end, went down with a knee injury during the opening series against Florida Atlantic that required minor surgery. Then senior wide receiver and captain Kenny Bell suffered a groin injury early in the win against McNeese State. To complicate the situation at receiver, Nebraska lost Jamal Turner for the reason with a torn Achilles tendon and has yet to gain the services Sam Burtch and Brandon Reilly, who are not traveling to California. Gregory and Bell are expected back. They are two of Nebraska’s best athletes. Their presence transforms the look of this team. If healthy, Gregory and Bell figure to inject life into the Huskers' pass rush and passing game -- both of which went dormant in the second half under adverse conditions last week.
  • Offensive distribution: Nebraska operated with such efficiency in Week 1, accumulating a Big Ten modern day-record 784 yards, that it was sure to experience some decline last week. Still, the difference was stunning. Chief among the reasons for the Huskers’ failure to generate offense after halftime against McNeese State was the inexplicable absence of Ameer Abdullah. The senior I-back went missing for most of the final 30 minutes until his remarkable 58-yard touchdown catch that provided the game-winning points with 20 seconds to play. In the aftermath, Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck harped on the need to more involve Abdullah, who rushed for 232 yards in the opener and just 54 in Week 2. The Huskers are ripe for a game plan that overcompensates, and you can bet Fresno will be ready for Abdullah. Nebraska has plenty of weapons on offense, especially if Bell is good to go. Receivers Jordan Westerkamp and Alonzo Moore, tight end Cethan Carter and running backs Imani Cross and Terrell Newby need to be involved. Abdullah is good, but he is not built to be a one-man show, despite his late heroics last week.

Bo Pelini looks back, looks ahead

September, 8, 2014
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Bo Pelini said Saturday's narrow win against McNeese State got the Nebraska Cornhuskers' attention. "We were lucky to walk out with a win. ... Hopefully we'll become a better football team because of it."

And that's not all he had to say.

Huskers lose back Adam Taylor to injury

August, 11, 2014
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Another day and another setback at preseason camp for Nebraska.

Coach Bo Pelini said on Monday that sophomore I-back Adam Taylor is out indefinitely with a broken ankle suffered on Saturday.

A depth chart at the open of practice this month likely would have listed Taylor at No. 4 behind senior All-Big Ten back Ameer Abdullah, junior Imani Cross and sophomore Terrell Newby. But even casual observers of the Huskers knew Taylor was far from your average fourth-stringer.

He shined in the spring after a redshirt year. Taylor, at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, gained 2,754 yards and scored 45 touchdowns as a senior for 5A state champion Katy (Texas) High School in 2012.

If healthy, Taylor would have been in line for playing time this fall, even in a crowded backfield.

“I feel bad for Adam,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. “He has had a great spring and was really playing well this fall. My heart goes out for him. He has worked extremely hard, but on the same token, it’s a very loaded position for us.”

Taylor's injury capped a brutal opening week of practice in Lincoln as Nebraska lost three potential defensive starters for the entire season. Junior nickel back Charles Jackson went down first. Pelini then announced the suspension of sophomore safety LeRoy Alexander, and sophomore middle linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey sustained a knee injury.
The loss of junior defensive back Charles Jackson in the opening week of practice at Nebraska represents a major setback for the Huskers.

[+] EnlargeCharles Jackson
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCharles Jackson was expected to boost Nebraska's secondary before his season-ending knee injury.
Coach Bo Pelini announced Thursday night that Jackson would require season-ending surgery to repair a knee injury. After a breakout spring, Jackson started camp well Monday with several head-turning plays from the nickel position.

His progress ended abruptly.

One of Nebraska's top athletes, Jackson factored heavily on special teams in 2012 and 2013 but failed to earn significant time in the secondary as he struggled with defensive concepts. He turned a corner in March and April.

The nickel spot in Pelini's scheme has long served as a key spot to earn mismatches and create big plays. Ciante Evans performed well in the spot last year.

Jackson, because of his athleticism, promised to add an important spark to a secondary faced with the loss of cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste and safety Andrew Green in addition to Evans.

The Huskers must now incorporate another newcomer. Junior-college transfer Byerson Cockrell, who played nickel and cornerback in the spring after joining the Huskers in January, is the favorite to fill Jackson's role.

"I love Byerson Cockrell," Pelini said Thursday. "He is a really good player. He is a very smart and very intelligent player."

Cockrell likely must focus full time on nickel, leaving the cornerback spot opposite returning starter Josh Mitchell to junior Jonathan Rose, redshirt freshman Boaz Joseph or junior Daniel Davie. None have notable experience.

True freshman Joshua Kalu will also get a look this month at nickel, Pelini said.

Kalu starred at Houston's Alief Taylor High School, a Texas 5A power. Regardless, the thought of a starting nickel with no experience at the FBS level may lead to a restless month for first-year secondary coach Charlton Warren.

For Jackson, the excruciating wait continues. He hasn't played a full game since his senior year of high school at Spring (Texas) Klein Collins in 2010.

This was supposed to the year. It came to a cruel end in the first week of practice. And the most inexperienced area of the Nebraska defense just grew a little more green.

Key stretch: Nebraska

July, 1, 2014
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The days are getting shorter, which means the college football season is getting closer. With that in mind, we're taking a look at the pivotal three- or four-game stretch in the slate for each Big Ten squad.

Next up is Nebraska, a team aiming for a return to the Big Ten championship game in a season that carries a lot of weight for coach Bo Pelini.

Key stretch: at Wisconsin on Nov. 15, Minnesota on Nov. 22, at Iowa on Nov. 28

Breakdown: There are some reveal games earlier in the season, most notably an Oct. 4 trip to Michigan State, which sets the standard in the Big Ten right now. But if Nebraska wants to win the division, it must take care of its top challengers in the West. The Huskers need a strong finish, as they did in 2012, when they won their final six regular-season games to punch their ticket to Indianapolis. It begins at Camp Randall Stadium, where Nebraska was pummeled in its Big Ten debut in 2011 by Russell Wilson and Wisconsin. Wilson thankfully won't be calling signals for the Badgers this time, but Nebraska needs to be composed and consistent in one of the Big Ten's toughest road venues.

The middle game looks like the easiest as it occurs in Lincoln, but Minnesota outclassed Nebraska in last year's contest and might have a better team this fall. Minnesota's power run game presents a good challenge for Randy Gregory and Nebraska's front seven. Nebraska also will be looking to avenge an ugly 2013 loss when it visits Iowa on Black Friday. Iowa is a bona fide division title contender with strong lines, depth at running back and potentially more offensive weapons than it had last season. The Hawkeyes' favorable schedule should have them in the West Division title mix, and they host Wisconsin six days before Nebraska comes to Kinnick Stadium.

Nebraska likely will need at least two wins in this stretch, and possibly a sweep, to ensure tiebreaker advantages and claim a place in the league title game.

Prediction: There are a lot of factors involved in a late-season stretch, namely a team's health and, in Nebraska's case, its mental state after some earlier tests against Michigan State and possibly Miami, Northwestern and Fresno State. But the Huskers have enough firepower to be in the division mix and, if they're healthy, especially up front, they'll make some noise. They should avenge last year's loss at Minnesota, and I have them splitting the road games, not a bad result given the two hostile environments in which they'll play. So 2-1 here for Pelini's crew.

Big Ten's lunch links

June, 30, 2014
Jun 30
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Today marks the birthdays of Mike Tyson and Lizzy Caplan, the anniversary of the merging of East And West Germany's economies and, of course, Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day. Oh, and I got married two years ago today. Probably should have mentioned that first.

To the links:

Big Ten lunch links

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
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If we hit that bull's-eye, the rest of the dominoes will fall like a house of cards. Checkmate.
Unlike the ACC or SEC, the Big Ten hasn't taken an official position on an early signing period. Many Big Ten coaches see the benefits, but there has been no united front.

Here's a bit of advice: The Big Ten coaches should band together about an urgent recruiting item, but not the early signing period.

The Big Ten must campaign for official visits to be moved up. No other league is affected more by population shifts that have created dense pockets of top recruits located far from its footprint. The Big Ten is expanding its recruiting reach, especially to the Southeast, but its proximity to many talent bases remains a significant obstacle.

If the Big Ten can't get prospects to its campuses before decisions are made, it will continue to fall behind in the recruiting race.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikEarlier official visits would be a boon to Bo Pelini and Nebraska, as the Cornhuskers have to recruit nationally because of a limited local talent base.
"The first thing we have to do is get kids on campus earlier," Michigan coach Brady Hoke told ESPN.com. "I'm sure our friends in the Pac-12 and the SEC would rather not that be the case. They'd rather have kids come in to Ann Arbor if it's winter.

"But I think it would help the guys from distance and the guys from those climates to come on campus to see what it is like."

NCAA rules state that prospects can't begin taking their five official visits -- paid for by the schools -- until the start of their senior year in high school. But many recruits make their college choices much earlier.

The accelerated recruiting cycle has minimized the significance of official visits. Many prospects commit after taking unofficial visits, for which they pay their own way. But the distance between Big Ten schools and the highest concentrations of elite prospects makes it challenging for recruits and their families to fund long, expensive trips.

"Since the trend is for early commitments, it makes sense that it favors schools located in population bases that produce a lot of players," said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, a former coach at Indiana, LSU and Vanderbilt. "So how do you combat that? How does a kid from Atlanta get to Lincoln, Nebraska, in the summer on their own expense?"

DiNardo views Nebraska as the FBS school most impacted by accelerated recruiting cycle. Nebraska always has recruited nationally because of its small local population base, but former coach Tom Osborne -- "a tireless recruiter," DiNardo said -- capitalized on the fact that recruits made their choices after an official visit to Lincoln.

Huskers coach Bo Pelini acknowledges earlier official visits "would help us."

"When you take official visits away from the equation, it really hurts a place like Nebraska," DiNardo said. "So early signing day has to be partnered up with official visits in a prospect's junior year.

"If just the date moves up without official visits, it sets the Big Ten even further behind."

DiNardo notes that a program such as Ohio State is less affected by the official visits timetable because it has a large local talent base that can easily reach its campus. But other Big Ten programs must cast a wider recruiting net.

It's especially true for programs in the western part of the league: Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"It gives some of the schools that aren't surrounded by a lot of schools or a lot of places, it gives us a chance," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "But I don't know if that's going to happen or not. People in Texas aren't going to vote for that because they never have to leave Texas."

Most Big Ten coaches interviewed by ESPN.com favor earlier official visits but want clear guidelines. One question is timing.

Several coaches mention late May or early June as the ideal time because many recruits already are touring schools unofficially and most staffs are conducting on-campus camps.

"With the way people are traveling around right now, it might be good to afford a prospect to take a couple of visits in June," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Also, I think it'd be great to afford at least a parent the opportunity to join that prospect and make it part of the official trip."

Coaches say the parental component is critical.

"Sometimes kids just don't have the means to be able to get here, and they definitely don't have the means to have their parents come," Pelini said. "Hopefully, they'll change that. It's too big of a decision for a 17-year-old or 18-year-old kid to make without his parents or somebody being there."

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesMark Dantonio wants an early official-visit period, but would prefer for it to be in a limited window instead of spanning the entire spring and summer.
Both Pelini and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio want a limit on the number of official visitors schools could have in the spring. FBS teams can provide up to 56 official visits, but Dantonio rarely uses more than half of the allotment.

"It's not just carte blanche," Dantonio said. "I would make it a two-week window and cap those numbers."

Allowing 10-20 early official visits could work. Dantonio and Pelini also think prospects should be allowed to take multiple official visits to the same school.

Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen favors an earlier signing date in December, but he needs more clarity on official visits -- when they would take place, and for how long.

"I have to look at quality of life for my coaches," Andersen said. "Are we willing to take 4-5 weeks away in the summer? I don’t want to do that."

Added Purdue coach Darrell Hazell: "You lose your life. The month of July, you need a little bit of decompression time."

The first two weeks in June makes the most sense. Create a dead period in July so coaches can take time off.

It also doesn't mean official visits in September and October will stop. Andersen can talk about Wisconsin's "Jump Around" and show videos, but, he said, "there’s nothing like being there."

Big Ten teams still will have the chance to showcase their stadiums, facilities and campuses during football season. But they can't afford to wait that long for far-flung prospects to arrive, especially when they can afford to bring them in sooner.

"It would help everybody," Hoke said. "The other conferences aren’t just staying in their region, either."

That's true, but the Big Ten has the most to gain, and pushing for change won't be easy.

"If that thing ever goes to a vote, everybody is going to say is that the Big Ten is just complaining," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "They'll keep rallying their troops because they want to keep those kids at home."

The Big Ten coaches must rally, too. Otherwise, the recruiting gap will widen.

Momentum seems to be building for creating an early signing period in college football. The Conference Commissioners Association will discuss the idea as part of its agenda at a meeting later this month.

As with many things in life, the devil is in the details. The ACC recommended an early signing date of Aug. 1. The SEC at its meetings last month came out against changing the recruiting calendar, but would like to use the Monday after Thanksgiving if an early signing period does happen.

The Big Ten has not endorsed a specific stance on an early signing date as a conference. Based on interviews given to ESPN.com and other media outlets, most league coaches are in favor of it. Again, though, preferences on the when and the how differ.

Several coaches support the junior college signing period of mid-December as the right time to allow high school prospects who don't want to wait until February to sign their national letters of intent.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsIowa's Kirk Ferentz is among the Big Ten coaches who favor an early signing period after the regular season.
"To me, that would be the perfect time," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said last summer. "I still don't understand the resistance. All it is is an opportunity to sign. They don't have to sign. I don't think anyone is going to lose a scholarship. It just gives everyone a chance to lay their cards on the table and say, 'I'm 100 percent sure now' or, 'Still not quite there.' That would be great for both parties, I think."

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio are among others who back an early signing period in December.

"It sure would clear up recruiting for a lot of us," Andersen told ESPN.com. "In my opinion, if a kid's committed, let's have him go to the school where he wants to go, and we'll move on in recruiting and get the guys we want. I think it's the most logical answer."

A possible downside of having the early signing period in December would be that it puts more pressure on coaches to concentrate on recruiting late in the season, when championships could be on the line, or during bowl preparation. In-season recruiting pressures would grow even higher with the SEC's post-Thanksgiving recommendation.

Most who favor an early signing period say their schools and coaching staffs are spending too much valuable time, money and energy trying to re-recruit players who might have signed earlier. That's why some coaches, such as Indiana's Kevin Wilson, support a signing date before or right at the beginning of the season.

"I had guys who were committed in the summer who in the last weekend [before the February signing date] changed their minds," Wilson told ESPN.com. "It would be nice if there was an early signing period on the first of September. I don't know if we've got to move the calendar up, but we waste a lot of time and a lot of money babysitting kids who have made their decisions."

Michigan is one school that could have benefited in recent seasons from an early signing period. The Wolverines have sewn up the majority of their classes under Brady Hoke in the summer before the prospects' senior year of high school. Hoke's staff could have locked up those commitments and focused on filling out the final few spots or moving on to the following year's class.

Hoke would like to see an early signing date, but with a caveat.

"If there's an early signing period, there probably needs to be an early visitation period for those kids," he told ESPN.com. "Maybe the first two weeks in June to get on your campus."

That's a big deal for Big Ten coaches, who would love to see prospects be able to take official visits before the start of their senior year. An early signing date without an earlier visit calendar could put the league at a disadvantage against schools in more talent-rich areas. (We'll look more closely at this issue on Thursday in the blog.)

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesNebraska's Bo Pelini says allowing earlier official visits must be a part of any move toward an early signing period.
Nebraska's Bo Pelini has said he would not support an earlier signing date without those earlier visits (and even then, he said he would need more time to study the issue). Schools such as Nebraska and Minnesota, which are farther away from talent-rich hubs, simply wouldn't see many benefits to an early signing day if the rest of the recruiting calendar remained the same. Players in blue chip-heavy areas -- such as the South, Texas and California -- would be more apt to take unofficial visits at schools closer to home and then could get pressured into signing before they ever made a trip up north.

Ohio State under Urban Meyer has thrived during the final weeks of recruiting before the February signing day, as his staff has built a reputation of being great "closers." So it's no surprise that Meyer was one of three SEC coaches to vote against a proposal to support an early signing date in 2008, when he was still at Florida. Meyer said at the time that "recruiting should be done in December, January and February. I think [an early date] speeds up 17- and 18-year-olds to make a decision that affects the rest of their lives."

Maryland's Randy Edsall has proposed that schools shouldn't even send out any type of scholarship offer until Sept. 1 of a high school prospect's senior year in high school, and then those offers would come from the university's admissions office, not the coaches. That would slow things way down and make sure prospects have achieved the necessary test scores and admission standards. Yet Edsall also said this spring that if recruiting continues at its current accelerated pace, that "there definitely has to be an early signing period."

There are other issues with the early signing date, including what protection the players would have if the coach left for another job after they signed. Plus plans change in recruiting all the time.

"I see the pluses and the minuses with it," Dantonio told ESPN.com. "If you have a committed guy and he signs with you, he truly is committed. That’s a positive. I also think if you take one quarterback and he thinks he’s the only one, and all of a sudden you take two, how does that all play out?

"I do think it keeps people from poaching off you, whether it be us poaching off somebody or somebody else [poaching]. It makes people hold to their word. If they don't want to sign then, they’re still open, and you know they’re open. But I would make it a mid-December type deal. I’m not in favor of August; I'm not in favor of September. I'm in favor of, ‘They've had a chance to at least visit and be on campus a couple places, so they have a feel.’”

College football does appear headed for an early signing date soon, if only the details can get ironed out.

"We get into these discussions, and everybody kind of has their own agenda of what's in the best interests for their school," Penn State coach James Franklin told ESPN.com. "But for a lot of different reasons, an early signing period makes sense for everybody."
The acceptance of Damore'ea Stringfellow at Nebraska presents more evidence that coach Bo Pelini and the Huskers are willing to take new risks in their attempt to construct a championship-caliber program.

[+] EnlargeDamore'ea Stringfellow, Michael Davis
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesNebraska will keep a close watch on wide receiver Damore'ea Stringfellow, who transferred from Washington this weekend.
Stringfellow, a 6-foot-3, 229-pound receiver, said on Saturday that he’s transferring from Washington to Nebraska. In 2013, Stringfellow was ranked the nation’s No. 51 prospect in the ESPN 300 and the fourth-best recruit in California out of Rancho Verde High School in Moreno Valley.

Rancho Verde is a prep program familiar to the Huskers for producing former linebacker Eric Martin and ex-wideout Quincy Enunwa, who caught a school-record 12 touchdowns last fall.

The circumstances of Stringfellow’s transfer also look a bit familiar in Lincoln.

He pleaded guilty in April to three misdemeanors related to a post-Super Bowl altercation with two Seahawks fans in Seattle on Feb. 2. Stringfellow and Washington quarterback Cyler Miles were suspended by UW coach Chris Petersen. Miles was later reinstated.

Stringfellow was ordered to pay a fine, serve on a work crew and attend anger-management counseling.

A year ago at this time, Nebraska coaches contemplated the transfer of offensive lineman Alex Lewis. Lewis, days after settling his move from Colorado to Nebraska, was arrested for his role in a fight in Boulder, Colorado, that left an Air Force cadet unconscious.

Lewis pleaded guilty to third-degree assault. Nebraska allowed his transfer but denied Lewis access to the team last fall. He joined the program as a walk-on in January and performed well in spring practice, earning the inside track to start at left tackle after he serves a 45-day jail sentence in Colorado this summer.

Will Stringfellow, recruited by the likes of USC, Ohio State and Michigan out of high school, face similar parameters in Lincoln?

Has Pelini compromised the standards of Nebraska football, which has prided itself under the seventh-year coach for running a clean program as others nationally appear to run amok?

The answer to both questions, likely, is no.

Stringfellow’s situation differs from the case of Lewis in that the receiver faced his punishment from the court before Nebraska pursued him as a transfer.

Expect the Huskers to keep him under watch but close to the team and a part of practices this fall as he sits out to satisfy transfer rules. In 2015, Nebraska must replace prolific receiver Kenny Bell. Stringfellow gives the Huskers a legitimate option to step in and compete against the best in the Big Ten.

Stringfellow caught eight passes for 147 yards and a touchdown on Nov. 15 in Washington’s 41-31 loss to UCLA.

The Huskers see his potential. He possesses the talent in a receiver rarely recruited at Nebraska. Stringfellow visited Lincoln as a high school senior, along with USC and Washington.

Upon news of his decision this weekend, several Nebraska coaches rejoiced on Twitter, offering thinly veiled references to the big-bodied wideout. Nebraska already knew plenty about Stringfellow and researched him additionally in recent weeks.

As for Pelini, his standards remain in place.

The Huskers value character as much as two years ago -- before Lewis and Stringfellow, before defensive end Avery Moss was banned from campus for a year in relation to a 2012 public-indecency charge, before linebacker Josh Banderas entered a diversion program last month for his role in the theft of seven bicycles from a campus rack. The charge was later dismissed.

Since the Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011, recruiting competition has intensified. Ask anyone who encountered James Franklin’s Penn State staff on the trail this spring.

Urban Meyer, of course, has raised the stakes.

Nebraska must continue to take risks to improve its standing in the conference hierarchy. Or even to keep pace.

A fine line exists, but the Huskers can navigate it -- with informed decisions like the Stringfellow case -- and maintain the integrity Pelini and Nebraskans so value in their program.
The playoff era is here in college football, so feel free to do somersaults and backflips (no lawsuits if you get hurt). We're previewing the playoff and its top contenders today, and if you'd like to chat with Mark Schlabach, Brett McMurphy and Brad Edwards, go here right now. The blog isn't going anywhere.

ESPN.com's contenders preview features 16 potential playoff teams picked by our mock selection committee, including three Big Ten squads: Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Most would agree Michigan State, the defending Big Ten and Rose Bowl champion, and Ohio State, which has the league's most accomplished coach (Urban Meyer) and typically the most talent, belong in the conversation.

Wisconsin? I'm not so sure. The Badgers are going through a roster redux and have major questions on both sides of the ball. Their schedule is favorable, especially in Big Ten play, but in my view, Wisconsin is on the very fringes of the playoff conversation right now.

Disagree with me? Here's your chance to show it.

Today's poll question asks: Which team is the Big Ten's third playoff contender? Wisconsin is on the list, as are three other schools.

SportsNation

Besides Michigan State and Ohio State, which team should be the Big Ten's third playoff contender in 2014?

  •  
    19%
  •  
    17%
  •  
    31%
  •  
    19%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 12,505)

The candidates ...

Iowa: For the first time since the summer of 2010, Iowa is in the national discussion. A rebound season in 2013 is one reason. A roster that returns plenty of linemen, running backs and quarterbacks is another. But the most convincing argument for the Hawkeyes as playoff contenders is what lies ahead. Their schedule doesn't include Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State or Michigan, and Iowa will play host to both Wisconsin and Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium.

Michigan: Why include a Michigan team that hasn't even made the Big Ten championship game and took a significant step back last season? At some point, the talent has to rise, and this could be the year. Coach Brady Hoke hopes new coordinator Doug Nussmeier creates more consistency on offense, and Michigan returns most of its core pieces on defense. It will be an uphill climb as the Wolverines face Notre Dame, MSU and Ohio State all on the road, where they've struggled under Hoke.

Nebraska: Bo Pelini's players always have been open about discussing the national title, even though the Huskers last played for one in January 2002 and last won a conference title in 1999. It will take a Big Ten championship -- and perhaps a 14-0 record -- for Nebraska to make the playoff, but there's optimism in Lincoln as superstars such as running back Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Randy Gregory return. Like Michigan, Nebraska will need to be tough on the road as it visits East Lansing, Madison and Iowa City.

Wisconsin: The Badgers have been close to nationally elite status in recent years but seem to struggle to take that next step. Star running back Melvin Gordon made it clear that he bypassed the NFL draft for a chance to take the Badgers over the threshold. Wisconsin will need a revamped defensive front seven to hold up and a threat to emerge at quarterback, whether it's incumbent starter Joel Stave or dual-threat Tanner McEvoy, who took most of the reps in the spring. If Wisconsin beats LSU in the season opener, a playoff run is possible as the Badgers don't play Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State in the East Division.

Don't think any of these teams are true playoff candidates? That's why we included a fifth option.

Time to vote.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- In 6 years at Nebraska, Bo Pelini has run a tight ship.

He holds his football players to a high standard. They perform well academically. The Huskers represent their program admirably in the community, creating more headlines for their acts of goodwill and outreach than for encounters with law enforcement.

[+] EnlargeJosh Banderas
John S. Peterson/Icon SMIJosh Banderas made a mistake, but is it one worth being outcast of the Nebraska program?
Most in this state can agree that Nebraska football, of late, has stayed largely above the fray that too often engulfs programs rife with distraction.

Nebraska football is a source of pride that extends beyond Memorial Stadium to the streets of Lincoln and Omaha and the rural communities that send their high school stars to play for Pelini and his coaches, with a scholarship or not.

The culture creates tremendous expectations and, as we’ve seen this week, an occasional lack of tolerance for mistakes -- more so off the field than on it.

Josh Banderas, the 19-year-old linebacker who started four games as a true freshman and the lone Nebraskan in the Huskers’ 2013 recruiting class, was stopped by Lincoln Police on Monday and charged Tuesday with felony theft for stealing seven bicycles from a rack on campus.

Banderas and Nebraska distance runner Lucas Keifer, a former high school classmate who drove the getaway truck, face preliminary court dates next month.

A reduction in charges -- even entry into a diversion program -- appears possible.

None of that erases the stupidity of their alleged actions. According to police, Banderas and Keifer, in broad daylight, used bolt cutters to remove the bikes. They were apprehended minutes after the crime occurred.

Since the news broke Tuesday, it’s been a hot topic around town. Generally, disbelief has trumped outrage.

Banderas told police, according to an affidavit, that he and Keifer planned to sell the bikes. Banderas told an officer that they took the bikes after noticing signs posted on the racks that the university would soon confiscate the property as abandoned.

He knew better. More than most in the football program, Banderas should understand the significance of his actions. He grew up in the shadow of Nebraska football; Banderas’ father, Tom, lettered as a tight end at the school from 1985 to 1987.

The Huskers, seeking a return to the football elite, have been riding an offseason hot streak in part because to Pelini’s public personality makeover.

Observers wondered if this incident might derail that momentum.

By my gauge, the temperature in the state is astonishing on the Banderas situation. While Pelini and the Nebraska administration have stayed quiet, fans and media are speaking out, many in in knee-jerk fashion. Some are ready for the Huskers to cut ties with Banderas for a full season, if not for good.

In January, defensive end Avery Moss was banned from campus for one year, stemming from a 2012 public-indecency charge. Offensive tackle Alex Lewis is set to serve a 45-day jail sentence this summer for a 2013 assault committed before he enrolled at Nebraska.

Lewis was not allowed to work out with the team last fall after his transfer from Colorado but has faced no additional discipline since joining the program in January.

Banderas’ actions, which pale in comparison, have more significantly raised the ire of Nebraskans. This is a slippery slope. Let’s remember that he is 19 and a productive citizen by all previous accounts.

Pelini has time to make a decision, time to monitor Banderas’ reaction, time to determine appropriate discipline.

The image of Nebraska football is important, perhaps more so now than ever. But Banderas, still with a promising future, ought not to be sacrificed for it.

Big Ten lunch links

May, 14, 2014
May 14
12:00
PM ET
Busy time for a Wednesday in May. Keep up here with Adam Rittenberg's reports from the spring meeting of Big Ten athletic directors.
  • From Rosemont, Ill., the Big Ten sticks to its commitment to play nine conference games, starting in 2016. League athletic directors generally still oppose alcohol sales at football stadiums.
  • Strong comments from Northwestern AD Jim Phillips on the unionization issue.
  • Nebraska AD Shawn Eichorst finally offers a few words on coach Bo Pelini.
  • Minnesota AD Norwood Teague is not a fan of the “we hate Iowa" chant, especially when it’s sanctioned by the UM athletic department.
  • The league sets remaining kickoff times for homecoming next fall.
  • Rutgers dismisses quarterback Philip Nelson in the wake of a felony assault charge for the recent Minnesota transfer, leaving the Scarlet Knights’ QB situation for 2015 in limbo. And the view from Minnesota.
  • Nebraska linebacker Josh Banderas is charged with felony theft. A few early mock drafts for 2015 place Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory in a lofty spot.
  • Ohio State coaches are out looking for quarterbacks in Georgia and California.
  • More recruiting talk from James Franklin, who says the changing face of the Big Ten will not affect Penn State’s ability to recruit regionally and nationally.
  • Michigan State signs up to face Arizona State in a home-and-home series, starting in 2018.
  • QB Andrew Maxwell is among the latest former Spartans to get an NFL look. Same story for ex-Wisconsin QB Danny O’Brien.
  • A former Iowa safety led police in his hometown on a chase and got tased.
ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Big Ten athletic directors began their annual spring meetings Tuesday and discussed the proposed NCAA governance changes, scheduling, athlete welfare and other items.

Here are some notes from Day 1:

[+] EnlargeBig Ten Logo
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesThe Big Ten athletic directors will wrap up their annual spring meetings on Wednesday.
ATHLETIC SCHOLARSHIPS

Although increasing athletic scholarships to federal cost of attendance figures isn't a new topic in the Big Ten -- the league first proposed it three years ago -- it generated plenty of discussion Tuesday as change is finally on the horizon. There are details that must be worked out concerning Title IX and how overall athletic budgets will be affected.

Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said a full cost-of-attendance plan for all Illini athletes would cost approximately $1 million per year. But the numbers vary by institution.

"You're going to have to have a standard formula all schools are going to have to adhere to," Thomas said, "knowing that the numbers might still look different."

Added Nebraska AD Shawn Eichorst: "Over time, each institution is sharing how financial aid works on their campus and how they see a possible opportunity to put more resources in the system to cover the gap."

The ADs also discussed how to improve travel for players, whether it's getting them home or getting their families to events.

"Is it two trips? Is it three? Is it just going home a certain time of the year? Or is it bowls? Or families visiting?" Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. "Those details are yet to be worked out I think, and how does that factor into the full cost of attendance?"

FOOTBALL SCHEDULING

Despite a move to nine league games in 2016, non-league scheduling remains a challenge for the ADs, especially with the Big Ten prohibiting contests with FCS opponents. Thomas admits the inventory of opponents is smaller, which can increase costs of bringing in opponents that don't require return games. He added that a nine-game league schedule makes it harder to play neutral-site games because of the demand for seven home games every year.

"It's hard for us to move off campus and take a game away from our stadium, that's my biggest issue," Minnesota AD Norwood Teague said. "That was built for a purpose, and $150 million of that stadium was paid for by taxpayer dollars. You've got to serve the people."

[+] EnlargeDave Joyner, James Franklin, Rodney Erickson
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesPenn State athletic director Dave Joyner (left) praised new football coach James Franklin (center) on Tuesday.
Joyner said there has been some talk about Big Ten teams scheduling other league opponents in non-league games, something former Michigan athletic director Bill Martin brought up years ago. "That's a unique concept we could talk about more," Joyner said. "That's a possibility."

Despite the SEC and ACC announcing recently that they would keep an eight-game league schedule, the Big Ten has no plans to ditch its move to nine.

ODDS AND ENDS

  • Joyner said new Penn State coach James Franklin has been "everything I thought he was an more, in a positive way," during his first four months on the job. "He's high energy, he's high ethics, he's high competitiveness," Joyner said.
  • Eichorst said he has had nothing to do with the improving public image of coach Bo Pelini, who has boosted his popularity since his blowups both during and after last season's loss to Iowa. "Bo's the same guy that I met when I arrived on campus," Eichorst said. "I see those sort of qualities from him on a day-to-day basis. What's out there in the community and the perception and all that other sort of stuff is certainly hard to control. He's a good ball coach, a good person. He's serious about his craft and very disciplined in his approach and we're lucky to have him at Nebraska."
  • Teague said the upcoming College Football Playoff generated little to no discussion Tuesday. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez, a member of the selection committee, likely will address the group before the meetings end Wednesday.

More to come Wednesday as the meetings finish. Delany will address the media around 3 p.m. ET.
With spring practice officially behind us, we're taking a look at each Big Ten team and identifying a player who announced himself as a potential key performer this fall.

These are guys who haven't played big roles yet but showed enough during the 15 spring practices -- not just some fluky, spring-game performance against backups -- to factor heavily into their team's plans.

Next up, a key position on the back end of Nebraska’s fast-maturing defense:

[+] EnlargeCharles Jackson
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCharles Jackson looks poised to excel at nickel back, a key to making the Huskers' defense dominant.
Spring breakout player: DB Charles Jackson

Connect the dots here. Nebraska’s top defensive units under Bo Pelini -- in 2003, his lone year as coordinator, and 2009 in his second year as head coach -- stopped the passing game as well or better than any team nationally.

The linchpin, arguably, to a dominant Pelini secondary is a standout at nickel back. The nickel, highlighted when the Huskers require a fifth defensive back against many of today’s pass-happy offensive foes, demands versatility and intelligence.

Ciante Evans performed admirably as the nickel a year ago.

This spring, Jackson, a junior who has long been a promising figure for Nebraska, emerged as the projected starter. A 2011 signee out of Spring, Texas, who sat out that first fall to clear eligibility hurdles, Jackson has tantalized the Huskers with flashes of athleticism on special teams for the past two seasons.

But when opportunities arose for playing time, he failed to prove his readiness at cornerback and safety.

That’s all changing now.

“You want to talk about guys that are light years ahead of where they were a year ago?” Pelini said early in the spring. “He obviously put some time in prior to spring practice. I think things are starting to slow down for him and make sense for him, which is a good thing, because he’s a really talented kid.”

Jackson, 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, got serious about film study after last season, when he played in all 13 games but finished the season with just seven tackles -- six of which came on special teams.

“I feel like if you really want it -- want to succeed -- then it shouldn’t be too hard,” Jackson told reporters last month. “I really want it, so I just go in and watch film and get it done. Every single day. It’s just a way of life.”

His strong spring allowed the Huskers to move newcomer Byerson Cockrell from nickel to cornerback; Cockrell is challenging Jonathan Rose for a starting spot opposite Josh Mitchell. With Corey Cooper back at safety alongside LeRoy Alexander or converted linebacker Nathan Gerry, the secondary -- thanks in part to Jackson -- suddenly looks like a strength for the Huskers in 2014 under first-year assistant Charlton Warren.

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