Nebraska Cornhuskers: Bo Pelini

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.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Spring football is done. It’s time to work on the little things, which, for Nebraska, equate to the big things.

Coach Bo Pelini left the Huskers with a message after Nebraska completed 15 practices over the past five weeks.

“The challenge I laid out to this football team is to move forward,” Pelini said. “If we don’t keep thinking about football, if we don’t attack it and we don’t keep continuing to work at it, to spend some time away from the facility, put themselves in position to keep learning and build, if we forget about football until August and just worry about the conditioning part of it, it won’t happen for this football team.”

Pelini’s words are as clear as a slap in the face. It’s not good enough to remain in good shape during the offseason.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikBo Pelini is looking for team leaders to be serious about offseason workouts.
College players once went above and beyond by staying committed to a training regimen in the summer. Today, that’s only half the quest, especially at Nebraska, where mental aspects of the game have appeared, in recent years, to largely prevent a breakthrough back into the nation’s elite.

The Huskers struggled again last season in some areas of special teams. Turnovers were costly, too, as Nebraska finished minus-10 in its four losses. It was minus-11 for the season, 117th out of 126 nationally and one of two teams -- Cincinnati was the other -- to place among the bottom 57 while winning more than eight games.

“Everything’s out there,” Pelini said, “as far as I’m concerned, for this football team to achieve, but it won’t happen by chance. It won’t happen if we’re half in. We’ve got to have a group of guys who are absolutely all in to get done what we want to get done. I think they understand that.”

Pelini delivered his message with notable eloquence. The seventh-year coach, no doubt, has devoted considerable thought to this subject.

He’s looking for leaders within the team to repeat his words in May, June and July.

“I’m not worried about that at all,” senior receiver Kenny Bell said. “We did it this entire winter. The hard work doesn’t stop.”

Offensively, Bell and classmate I-back Ameer Abdullah at I-back, alongside senior linemen Jake Cotton and Mark Pelini, have formed a strong voice. They’re joined by sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. in keeping Pelini’s message on the minds of the Huskers.

Armstrong, in particular, said he wants to continue to drill the importance of ball security through the offseason.

“I take all responsibility for it,” he said.

Armstrong said he believes the turnover problems were responsible for every Nebraska loss last year – a debatable assertion that, nonetheless, marks a step in the quarterback’s development as a leader.

“We can win all of our games if we take care of the football,” Armstrong said.

Teammates share similar confidence in the ability of Armstrong to lead.

“When you see it day in and day out, a guy putting your team in right positions, you have confidence,” junior I-back Imani Cross said. “That’s something we have in Tommy.”

Defensively, leadership remains more uncertain. Senior defensive backs Josh Mitchell and Corey Cooper are entrenched. Among the front seven, the Huskers look to junior Randy Gregory and veteran linebackers David Santos, Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach.

The defenders hear the same message.

“I think everyone has to come together,” Anderson said, “and be committed to the team being able to make strides every day.”

It’s no easy task, Pelini said. Even this spring, he said, the Nebraska coaches saw various levels of commitment.

“There are some guys taking advantage of their opportunity and some who haven’t,” Pelini said.

“There are some guys who probably haven’t put the necessary time in. Bottom line, when that happens and I put on the film day after day and I see repeat errors, you send a message to us as coaches that it’s not important enough to you – either that or you don’t show the ability to be able to execute our football.”

The majority of the Huskers moved forward this spring, he said. The coach walked away from spring practice with a good feeling about his team and an understanding of areas in which Nebraska must improve.

There’s a plan in place, he said.

“Now it’s going to be time to go into the next phase and move this football team forward,” Pelini said. “This has just begun.”
video
LINCOLN, Neb. -- An hour after the spring game ended on Saturday, Jeff Jamrog still looked tired as he stood in the lobby of the Nebraska practice facility, down one story and across an enclosed bridge from the football nerve center.

Jamrog clutched a bundle of papers, held tight in his right arm three hours prior as the assistant athletic director for football operations walked alongside cat-cradling Nebraska coach Bo Pelini to lead the team out of its locker room for the most unusual Tunnel Walk ever.

[+] EnlargeNebraska Cornhuskers
AP Photo/The Journal-Star/Francis GardlerIt's been an entertaining spring for Bo Pelini, his cat and his team.
I visited briefly with Jamrog about the entertaining antics of the afternoon, which included a goal-post throwing contest between Pelini and flamboyant wideout Kenny Bell and a marriage proposal by recently departed offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles to former Nebraska soccer player Emma Stevens amidst a punt, pass and kick competition between ex-football players.

“If you’ve got any more ideas...,” said Jamrog, a former Division II head coach, Nebraska assistant and ex-Husker walk-on- turned-academic-All-American.

Just call him the Idea Man. The actual mastermind of this cat-themed offseason remains a secret between Pelini, his players and staff. It began with a Twitter bang by Pelini during the BCS title game and picked up steam on the recruiting trail.

When asked where the ideas were born to pull the mask off the old, frowning coach to reveal this fun and open side, they all say it just happened naturally.

It’s something that’s always been there,” Bell said.

Perhaps. You can bet, though, just about anything outside the box of this normally buttoned-up program passed the desk of Jamrog, who promoted Twitter handles of I-back Ameer Abdullah and linebacker Josh Banderas while explaining practice drills during breaks in the Saturday scrimmage.

The script was likely detailed in that bundle of papers.

Pelini said he nixed an idea to wear a sweater, a la his popular alter-ego. I’d like to know what else didn’t make the cut.

Regardless, keep it up, within reason. Even if the cat humor has run its course, continue to find ways to engage this fan base. Memorial Stadium on Saturday held a crowd of 61,772, most of whom paid $10 plus parking to watch a circus-like scrimmage.

Nebraska fans are hungry to see the human side of their coach and players. They’re more hungry, of course, for the next championship, but the past 3 ˝ months -- on the heels of a difficult finish to the 2013 regular season -- have provided a nice diversion.

We’ve seen Pelini reunite a U.S. Army sergeant with his wife and support basketball coach Tim Miles, who was ejected in Nebraska’s return to the NCAA tournament last month.

This spring, Pelini opened practices to the media. He said he’ll likely keep it up in August. He answered all questions in a thoughtful manner. He joked on Saturday about his dogs’ reaction to the cat stunt. He teased Bell, who schooled the coach in the goal-post throwing contest, over the receiver’s poor form.

Clearly, Pelini and the people close to him have made an effort turned the page from last season, stained by the coach’s post-Thanksgiving outbursts on the field and in the press conference after Iowa beat Nebraska on senior day.

“I’m not doing anything really different,” Pelini said in response to a question on Saturday about the lighter mood around his team.

If it feels different, fine, he said, but that’s not his intention.

“We’re trying to make sure we handle our business and enjoy the game,” Bell said. “You’ve gotta remember, football’s fun.

“You can forget that with all the crap you’ve got to deal with sometimes.”

But will all of the fun and goodwill matter to the football-watching public next fall, when the spotlight shines so much more brightly? Will we even remember this new-look Bo if the Huskers play poorly at home against Miami or fail to win the Big Ten West?

The answer to both: Probably not.

Still, Pelini sets the tone for the Huskers, inside the locker room and out. If he’s more comfortable living under the microscope, his players might be, too. That could help on the field in the fall.

It’s an idea.

If you’ve got any others, Jamrog is ready to listen.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- The Red-White game began in truly unique fashion on Saturday as Nebraska coach Bo Pelini exited the locker room for the Cornhuskers’ traditional Tunnel Walk cuddling a cat.

In continuing a series of humorous moments related to his Twitter alter-ego, Pelini held the feline aloft seconds before the Huskers took the field for a scrimmage won by the offense, 55-46, over the defense before a crowd of 61,772 at Memorial Stadium.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
AP Photo/Nati HarnikTommy Armstrong Jr. still has work to do to solidify his hold on the starting quarterback role at Nebraska.
None of that means much to the Huskers in 2014. Here’s a look at what does matter from Saturday:

As suspected, this stable of I-backs might rate as Nebraska’s best in many years. With Ameer Abdullah, the nation’s top returning rusher, on the sideline, Imani Cross, Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor put on quite a show. Cross, in particular, showed great skill on his six carries, netting 100 yards and two touchdowns. The junior produced scoring runs of 20 and 39 yards in the first half against the No. 1 defense. Cross flashed a few moves and, of course, the power that helped him rush for 447 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Newby gained 51 yards and caught a pass out of the backfield. The redshirt freshman Taylor rushed for 41 yards. He actually looked more impressive in other spring workouts. Each of the top four offer skills to help this offense.

The quarterback situation remains unsettled. Tommy Armstrong Jr. used this spring to solidify a once-tenuous hold on the No. 1 position, but he’s still not a lock to start on Aug. 30, when Florida Atlantic visits Lincoln. Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe displayed improvement through the 15 practices of March and April. Stanton, in particular, looks much more comfortable and in command of the offense in comparison to a month ago. If Armstrong slips, either backup is capable of snatching the job. Stanton threw for a team-high 135 yards and two scores on Saturday; Fyfe threw for 89. Neither QB was intercepted, and safety Nathan Gerry picked off Armstrong on the first drive of the day. Look past the numbers, though: Armstrong faced better competition. This position is about leadership. Because of his experience and overall poise, Armstrong has an edge. But watch the race for No. 2, and know the gap could be further sliced.

No obvious hole exists within the Nebraska defense. The Huskers looked strong at linebacker to start the spring. The results of Saturday did nothing to dispel that belief as Zaire Anderson, Michael Rose and Josh Banderas -- a potential starting trio -- produced nice moments. Optimism comes from the growth of the secondary and the line. At safety, Gerry played well before suffering a shoulder stinger. LeRoy Alexander finished a solid spring at a position set to grow stronger with the return of Corey Cooper. Charles Jackson developed into a good option at the nickel spot. Up front, even without Randy Gregory on Saturday, the linemen held their own. Greg McMullen showed impressive pursuit of Armstrong on a sack. Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins also appeared to play well.

Bo Pelini blows up Twitter with cat entrance

April, 12, 2014
Apr 12
4:15
PM ET
video
Parody accounts on Twitter are hit or miss. Some are funny. Some are not.

The account Fake Bo Pelini (@FauxPelini) is funny -- and a huge hit, based on its 85,000 followers.

You know who agrees? Apparently none other than Bo Pelini. As he and his Nebraska team entered the Memorial Stadium tunnel for Saturday afternoon's spring game, the head coach was carrying a cat.
Why is this funny? Check out the profile pic for @FauxPelini, who minutes later was willing to concede that the real Pelini had won the Internet on Saturday.

Oh, and it gets better. Check out the video of the whole scene, as the real Pelini lifts up the cat in front of thousands of roaring Huskers fans, as if she was Simba being lifted up to the masses in "The Lion King."

Cue up the "Circle of Life," folks. We've officially come full circle in the Twitter parody of Nebraska coach Bo Pelini.

Spring game preview: Nebraska

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
1:00
PM ET
A big crowd, as usual, is expected on Saturday as Nebraska wraps spring practice amid the annual festivities on campus that accompany the Red-White Game. Here’s a preview:

When: Saturday, 3 p.m. ET

Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb.

Admission: Reserved seats are $10. As of Wednesday, nearly 48,000 tickets had been sold. Youth in eighth grade or below receive free admission for participating in the Drug Free Pledge at halftime; a complimentary ticket is required. Free youth tickets are available only at the stadium ticket office.

TV: Big Ten Network (Saturday at 8 p.m. ET)

Weather forecast: Warm and possibly wet. A mix of clouds and sun is forecast, with a high of 82 degrees and wind from the south at 16 mph. The chance of rain is 60 percent during the day, with the potential for severe thunderstorms.

[+] EnlargePelini
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsBo Pelini will watch from the sidelines as his Cornhuskers close the spring with Red-White Game on Saturday.
What to watch for: First, know that the format is atypical. Coach Bo Pelini plans to roll out a scoring system that awards points to the offense and defense for good plays. There will be no Red and White teams, as in the past. The top offense will match against the No. 1 defense, No. 2 against No. 2 and so on. Leave the social scene outside the stadium a few minutes early, so you can get a grasp on the format before kickoff. An explanation will likely be displayed on the HuskerVision screens.

Nebraska opted for this change in order to protect its players from injury. With a roster of two teams, the Huskers would have been spread thin for the coaches' comfort level.

That said, you’ll see plenty of the top Huskers, minus returning All-Big Ten honorees Ameer Abdullah at I-back and defensive end Randy Gregory. They’ve done enough this spring.

Behind Abdullah, Nebraska features an exciting group of backs. Keep an eye on the expanded pass-catching role of Terrell Newby and the tantalizing combination of size and speed offered by redshirt freshman Adam Taylor.

Of course, the quarterbacks will draw many eyes. Watch how Tommy Armstrong Jr. commands the attention of teammates and shows a noticeable improvement over his redshirt freshman season in surveying the field. The performance on Saturday of Johnny Stanton and Ryker Fyfe will serve as the last opportunity for nearly four months to impress coaches in their bid for the job of No. 2 QB.

Defensively, Josh Mitchell provides a vocal presence from his cornerback position. Alongside Mitchell, safeties LeRoy Alexander and Nathan Gerry have enjoyed breakout springs to help solidify the secondary. Corners Jonathan Rose and Byerson Cockrell are locked in a battle, and Charles Jackson has appeared to finally come of age in taking control of nickel spot.

Up front, Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins have taken hold of the top spots in the interior and may give Nebraska its most talented pair of tackles in five years. Collins also shifts to the outside, where the Huskers are thin and have begun to look to linebacker Marcus Newby as an intriguing option to rush the passer.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska coach Bo Pelini shared some insight on Wednesday into the adjusted format of the Huskers’ Red-White game, set for Saturday at Memorial Stadium, but fans and media apparently won’t get a rundown of the scoring system until shortly before kickoff.

The Cornhuskers will scrimmage, but instead of breaking into two teams, they’ll pit the No. 1 offense against the top defense, the No. 2 offense and the No. 2 defense, and so forth. The offensive and defensive units will be awarded points for good plays.

“I’ve never done this format before,” the seventh-year Nebraska coach said, “but I think it makes a lot of sense, obviously, for where we are as a football team right now.

“It’s the only way we’re going to be able to function and really be able to protect certain guys that we want to protect. Trying to field two teams wouldn’t happen right now. We don’t want to put kids in position to get hurt.”

A breakdown of the scoring system will be posted on scoreboards in the stadium and perhaps distributed to fans on a flyer, Pelini said.

Nearly 50,000 tickets have been sold. Kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m. CT.

Pelini said the Huskers would run approximately 100 plays in the scrimmage, which will be telecast by the Big Ten Network on tape delay. Don’t expect to see anything too innovative.

“We’re not going to put that on display for everybody to see,” he said, “so it’ll be a little more basic than what we’ve done (in practice), really, on both sides of the football.”

I-back Ameer Abdullah, the nation's top returning rusher, and defensive end Randy Gregory, another first-team All-Big Ten pick in 2013, likely won’t see much action.

The Huskers won’t hit quarterbacks in the pocket. If they run free, they can be tackled. Cut blocking by offensive linemen is also out.

Pelini said he was pleased with the Huskers’ work on Wednesday in their final practice of the spring before the celebrated finale on Saturday.

“I thought the last two days were really good practices for us,” he said. “I thought it went back and forth a lot. I thought the competition was good.

“We went into this spring planning to lay a foundation for the fall. I think we’ve done that. I think we’ve identified a lot of guys. I think we’ve identified areas that we need to grow. I think we’ve identified areas where I feel like we’re pretty strong. We learned a lot. We, as the coaches, learned a lot about our football team.”

Also from Wednesday:
  • Defensive tackle Aaron Curry, who suffered a neck sprain on Monday in practice, will not participate on Saturday. Linebacker Marcus Newby hurt his back on Wednesday, though Pelini said he expected Newby to return for the final workout of the spring.
  • Nebraska gained notice nationally a year ago in the Red-White game by involving 7-year-old brain-cancer patient Jack Hoffman in the festivities. Dressed in full uniform, Jack scored on a 69-yard run in the second half. In July, he won an ESPY award for best moment. Asked if the Huskers had any unorthodox plans for Saturday, Pelini offered a tease. “We have a couple things that we’re going to throw out there and have a little fun,” he said. “But we don’t want to lose sight of why we’re there -- to get better as a football team and execute. At the same time, we want to make sure it’s fun for the fans.”
  • Two years ago, the spring game at Nebraska was canceled because of severe weather. The Saturday forecast calls for a high temperature near 80 degrees and a chance of thunderstorms. If problems surface, Pelini joked that he would just place a call to Tom Osborne, the legendary former Nebraska coach and athletic director. “He can part the skies,” Pelini said, “and we should be good to go.”
The head coaches from the new Big Ten West Division, along with a player from each team, addressed reporters today on a teleconference. The East Division coaches and players will follow Thursday.

To the notebook:

WISCONSIN
  • Coach Gary Andersen has some concern about QB Joel Stave's lingering shoulder injury. Stave, who hurt the AC joint of his throwing shoulder in the Capital One Bowl, has been shut down for the rest of the spring and will undergo an MRI. "The challenge is to truly identify the situation and start the rehab process," Andersen said.
  • Wisconsin's blockbuster opener against LSU in Houston has motivated players during the offseason. The Badgers typically open seasons with FCS or lower-level FBS opponents, so this is different. "It would give me an edge if I were a player," Andersen said.
  • RB Melvin Gordon said he turned down the NFL draft to try to lead Wisconsin into the inaugural College Football Playoff. Andersen on Gordon's return: "Huge is not a big-enough word."
NORTHWESTERN
  • The two-quarterback system is dead, at least for the 2014 season, as senior Trevor Siemian has established himself as the clear starter this spring. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said, "This is Trevor Siemian's football team." Siemian added that while sharing time with Kain Colter had its benefits, he's excited for his moment. "It's been a long time coming," he said.
  • WR Miles Shuler, who transferred from Rutgers last September, will be an impact player for the Wildcats, Fitzgerald said. Shuler spent last season in several roles, including mimicking Braxton Miller and other mobile quarterbacks on Northwestern's scout team. "You just have to get the ball in his hands," Siemian said.
  • Injuries along the defensive line will prevent Northwestern from having a true spring game Saturday. Fitzgerald said the Wildcats will hold more two-a-day practices this summer to make up for the lost scrimmage time. Northwestern didn't have any two-a-days last year.
NEBRASKA
  • RB Ameer Abdullah has spent the spring trying to become a more complete back. It includes improving his pass-blocking by facing players like DE Randy Gregory and LB Zaire Anderson. Abdullah said Gregory is "the best that we're going to see in the conference, and luckily he's on our team."
  • Coach Bo Pelini described his epic Twitter interaction with alter ego Faux Pelini during the BCS national title game as "having a bit of fun." He didn't think it would go viral, although he's aware of Faux's strong following. Pelini doesn't follow Faux but his wife provides him updates "all the time."
  • Abdullah thinks WR Kenny Bell will have a breakout season after not getting the ball thrown his way as much in 2013. Bell's post routes and linear speed impress Abdullah.
  • The Huskers' spring game on Saturday will feature the offense against the defense and a modified points system.
PURDUE
  • RB Raheem Mostert and DT Ra'Zahn Howard both have stood out this spring. Mostert, who won two gold medals at the Big Ten indoor track championships earlier this year, has made a strong push for a starting spot. Howard is showing greater stamina and explosiveness after losing weight during the offseason, coach Darrell Hazell said. Veteran DE Ryan Russell also has emerged late in the spring.
  • Purdue's current lack of depth at tight end doesn't worry Hazell. Dolapo Macarthy (shoulder) will be fine by preseason camp, and Gabe Holmes should return after missing the spring because of academic issues.
  • The Boilers have dramatically reduced their turnovers and mental errors in practice this spring. "Last year, we couldn't even line up correctly," QB Danny Etling said.
ILLINOIS
  • Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, filling in for coach Tim Beckman, said new wide receivers Geronimo Allison (junior college transfer) and Mike Dudek (a freshman early enrollee) both have exceeded expectations so far this spring.
  • Cubit sees separation at times in the quarterback competition but is in "no rush" to name a starter, noting that some players take longer to develop than others. Although Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt has looked the part so far in the spring, it seems as though Cubit will let this play out a little longer.
MINNESOTA
  • Like Siemian at Northwestern, Gophers QB Mitch Leidner has taken ownership of the team this spring and appears to be the obvious starter. Coach Jerry Kill said Leidner "became a coach" during winter workouts. "Everybody sees me as the leader of this team," Leidner said.
  • Leidner admits he was fairly shocked when QB Philip Nelson decided to transfer to Rutgers after the season. Nelson and Leidner shared snaps last season, and Leidner said he came to Minnesota to compete with Nelson.
  • The running back competition already is heating up, as redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards has turned in a strong spring alongside David Cobb and others. Edwards, the younger brother of former Michigan star WR Braylon Edwards, redshirted last season because of an ankle injury. Kill sounds as if he can't get enough ball-carrying options, as recruits Jeff Jones and Rodney Smith arrive this summer.
IOWA
  • Coach Kirk Ferentz said QB Jake Rudock is "perfectly healthy" after being bothered by knee injuries late in the season. The quarterback situation has a different feel this spring as both Rudock and C.J. Beathard gained experience in 2013. "It's a situation where both guys have to be at their best," Ferentz said.
  • Brandon Scherff had only played quarterback and tight end in high school when he committed to play for Iowa. He since has blossomed into an offensive tackle whom Ferentz said could have been a first-round draft pick had he decided to skip his senior season with the Hawkeyes. "My goal is to be one of the best offensive linemen in the nation," Scherff said.
Colleague Travis Haney recently compiled a list of sleeper teams to make the initial College Football Playoff, selecting one from each major league. Wisconsin got the nod as the Big Ten's sleeper, as Haney noted Wisconsin's consistency on both sides of the ball in coach Gary Andersen's first season at the helm.

Andersen and his staff are no longer newcomers in Madison, but the roster dramatically resets in Year 2, especially on defense. Wisconsin has a big opportunity in its season opener against LSU in Houston, and its Big Ten schedule doesn't feature Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State.

Could Melvin Gordon and the Badgers make a run for the Playoff? If they get by LSU, it's certainly possible.

Is Wisconsin the Big Ten's only sleeper team?

Michigan State and Ohio State clearly are the league's frontrunners and legitimate candidates to make the playoff. The sleeper label doesn't apply to the Spartans or Buckeyes.

Which teams belong in the category? Here are three other possibilities:

Nebraska: Some would argue that the Huskers still must get past the four-loss barrier before worrying about a playoff push. Bo Pelini's crew has to avoid its annual meltdown or two, but there are reasons for optimism on defense, and the offense boasts a tremendous weapon in senior running back Ameer Abdullah. Nebraska's road schedule (Fresno State, Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa) could torpedo any real chance.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes improved their win total by four games last season and return most of their core in every spot except linebacker, where all three starters depart. Iowa might not be an elite team, but it could have an elite record because of an extremely favorable schedule. The Hawkeyes' toughest Big Ten road game is Minnesota. They don't play any of the East Division powers this year, and they get both Wisconsin and Nebraska at home.

Michigan: Some will say Michigan is being included simply because of its name, and maybe they're right. The Wolverines have shown little in the past two years to suggest a surge to elite status is on the way. But the recruiting success can't be overlooked, and if Michigan can just run the ball better and protect the pocket, it will dramatically change the outlook for the team. Like Nebraska, the Wolverines' road schedule could take them out of the discussion as they visit Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State.

Bottom line: Beyond MSU and OSU, I'd be surprised if the Big Ten has a Playoff contender. But because of the schedules, Wisconsin and Iowa shouldn't be overlooked.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Let’s face it, the Nebraska defense played at an average level in 2013.

Early in the season, the Huskers were below average. Remember the 38 consecutive points scored by UCLA and the 465 yards surrendered to South Dakota State? Later, Nebraska rated better than the norm, winning away from home against Michigan, Penn State and Georgia largely on the back of the Blackshirts.

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesRandy Gregory expects the Nebraska defense to reach new heights this fall.
But in 12 of 15 key defensive categories, Nebraska ranked no higher than third in the Big Ten and no lower than ninth.

So yes, as a whole, the group was average.

All-league defensive end Randy Gregory and his teammates want a new label for 2014.

Dominant or suffocating -- either is fine. How about being the strength of coach Bo Pelini’s seventh team?

“Definitely,” Gregory said. “Let’s be physical. We can dominate. If we play our game, we can play with anybody.”

The defensive performance and growth this spring appear to substantiate Gregory’s claim. This Nebraska defense looks stronger, deeper and more physical than any of the past few seasons.

Pelini’s defenses at Nebraska in 2009 and as coordinator in 2003 stand out as the best of the post-championship era in Lincoln. Both units ranked among the top two nationally in scoring and passing yardage allowed. They both featured a play-making All-American among the front seven. And both units surrendered fewer than 300 yards per game. They were the only Nebraska defenses of the past 12 seasons to reach the threshold that was commonly crossed in the 1990s, when the Huskers contended for five national titles, winning three.

“I think we can be a top-10 defense,” linebacker Zaire Anderson said. “If we keep working and making progress, we can be a great defense.”

Why such optimism? Well, first of all, it’s spring; positive energy abounds in April. But such talk did not flow from Nebraska camp a year ago as the Huskers attempted to replace several key pieces.

“They learned a lot last year,” linebacker Trevor Roach said.

Through the growing pains emerged a mix of experience and athleticism from front to back. Much like its dynamic mixture at I-back on the offensive side, the Huskers did not necessarily concoct the diversity of this defensive lineup.

It just kind of happened, with Gregory, an All-America candidate in his second season at Nebraska, anchoring a front four that has turned the heads of many observers this spring. At linebacker, seniors Anderson and Roach and junior David Santos have grown into the elders, but youth still rules.

In the secondary, where the Huskers need it most, cornerback Josh Mitchell is the vocal leader of the entire defense. And perhaps more than anywhere else on the field, the maturity of young safeties LeRoy Alexander and Nathan Gerry -- in the absence of injured veteran Corey Cooper -- has rated as a key surprise.

At all three levels, positive storylines have emerged this spring.

The evidence of defensive chemistry was on display Wednesday in Nebraska’s 10th practice of the spring.

Late in the workout in a sequence between the top offense and the Blackshirts, defensive tackle Vincent Valentine, Anderson and Gregory pressured quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. on three consecutive plays, the last of which resulted in a Gerry interception that had the whole defense abuzz.

“As much as I’ve seen, I know we’ve got a lot of upside right now,” said cornerback Jonathan Rose, who is competing with newcomer Byerson Cockrell for a top job opposite Mitchell. “We’ve got a lot to prove. It’s like a whole 'nother defense coming out this year.”

Gregory said he liked what he saw, too, on Wednesday, but the junior warned that a few practices in the spring can mark only the beginning.

Even early in the season last fall, the defense possessed plenty of talent, he said. It just wasn't making plays.

“We have a clear mind coming into this year,” Gregory said. “Tackling for us was a problem last year, but I don’t think we were a bad tackling team. It’s just all mental.

“It all starts, really, in the film room.”

Gregory notices more teammates studying film. They’re “taking it upon themselves to put in the work,” he said.

The Huskers could use a highly rated defense to help ease pressure on the offense, which will work with a reconstructed line and an inexperienced group at quarterback. Behind third-year sophomore Armstrong, who started eight games as a substitute for the injured Taylor Martinez in 2013, no quarterback has handled a collegiate snap.

"We have faith in our offense, certainly,” Roach said, “because we have a ton of weapons. But we have to focus on us. We have to worry about what we’re doing. I get the vibe that we have the potential to do great things.”
LINCOLN, Neb. – Spring is for competition. Preparation can largely wait until August. Now is the time to wage battles on the practice field.

Nebraska is 60 percent finished with spring practice. Just five workouts remain until the April 12 Red-White game, for which more than 41,000 tickets have been sold.

At some positions, this time has served only to more deeply entrench top players. I-back Ameer Abdullah, receiver Kenny Bell, cornerback Josh Mitchell, defensive end Randy Gregory and left guard Jake Cotton need not worry about losing their starting jobs.

[+] EnlargeSam Burtch
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesSam Burtch, who Bo Pelini says is headed for a scholarship, continues to impress after three touchdown catches in 2013.
Others, such as left tackle Alex Lewis, nickelback Charles Jackson and safety LeRoy Alexander, have made strong moves to win positions.

Here’s a look at the three battles that have only intensified as the spring progressed:

  • Cornerback opposite Mitchell. With the departure of Stanley Jean-Baptiste, junior Jonathan Rose appeared poised to win a starting spot this spring. Rose had the advantage of two years in the program after transferring in 2012 from Auburn. A former elite recruit out of Alabama, he worked primarily with the top defense early in spring. But as Jackson emerged at nickel, the Huskers felt comfortable shifting newcomer Byerson Cockrell to cornerback. Now, Rose, at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, and the 6-foot, 185-pound Cockrell, who played safety last year in junior college, look nearly interchangeable at corner. “I like everything about Byerson Cockrell,” coach Bo Pelini said on Monday. “I think he’s physical. I think he’s really picked things up well. He’s fast. He competes. He can change direction. He plays with an attitude. He’s going to help us.”
  • Middle linebacker. Sophomore Michael Rose began the spring with a sizable edge over the competition to remain as the Huskers’ No. 1 option in the heart of the defense. Rose, who recorded a Nebraska freshman-record 66 tackles last year, figures hold his starting job, but he has competition. Classmate Josh Banderas took snaps ahead of Rose with the first-team defense on Monday, Pelini said. He said the Huskers want to continue to “tweak” the spot and ensure versatility. More than likely, they also want to push Rose, who made 40 tackles in the Huskers’ final four regular-season games, including 17 against Iowa. Banderas, who played well at time as a freshman last fall, had worked primarily at Buck linebacker this spring. The shifts Monday, as Nebraska returned from a 10-day break, no doubt, reminded all among a young group of linebackers that the competition remains fierce.
  • Wide receiver. Aside from Bell, who is on track to leave Nebraska after next season with an armful of career records, competition continues at slot receiver between sure-handed sophomore Jordan Westerkamp and senior big-play threat Jamal Turner. The other starting spot, though, looks just as intriguing as juniors Taariq Allen and Sam Burtch compete for snaps. It has been a breakout spring for Allen, who was slowed by injury and caught just three passes last year. But the development of Burtch, who walked on out of Murdock, Neb., is just as notable. He caught 12 passes last fall, including three touchdowns, and keeps getting better, Pelini said. “The guy understands how to play football. He’s big. He’s physical. He’s fast. There’s a lot of different things he does to help our football team. On top of that, he’s a great character kid and a big-time leader.” Burtch has developed into a favorite option of Armstrong in practice. Asked if Burtch has been placed on scholarship, Pelini said, “If he’s not, he will be soon.” Congrats in advance, Sam.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska returned to spring practice on Monday after a 10-day break with a workout that pleased coach Bo Pelini.

“I thought the tempo was pretty good,” Pelini said after the ninth of 15 spring practices that culminate April 12 with the Red-White game at Memorial Stadium. “I thought the recall was pretty good. Like I told our guys, we’ve got to pick it up and finish up the spring the right way.”

[+] EnlargeAlex Lewis
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIAlex Lewis transferred to Nebraska from Colorado.
Pelini spoke publicly for the first time about the recent sentencing of junior offensive lineman Alex Lewis to 45 days in jail and two years of probation. Lewis, who transferred to Nebraska from Colorado last year, was convicted of misdemeanor assault for his role in a fight that involved an Air Force cadet last May in Boulder, Colo.

Lewis plans to serve the sentence after the spring semester ends in May. He was not allowed to join the team at Nebraska until January, conditions set by the school’s administration, Pelini said.

“He obviously made a mistake,” the coach said. “He’s paid dearly for that and he continues pay for that mistake.”

Lewis has “exceeded all expectations” since his arrival in Lincoln, according to Pelini.

“He’s done well academically,” Pelini said. “He’s done what he’s had to do away from football. And since he joined us in January, he’s done everything we asked of him. That’s all a kid can do.”

The terms of the sentence surprised Pelini after Lewis reached a plea deal in December that eliminated two felony charges.

“From the kid’s standpoint,” Pelini said, “you make the best of it and deal with the hand you’re dealt. I know he’ll handle it the right way.”

Lewis has taken hold of the top spot at left tackle in spring practice. Even before work began on the field, he earned the respect of his new teammates.

Tommy Armstrong Jr. said he was impressed in January as Lewis joined the quarterback in film sessions.

“He was ready to work,” Armstrong said. “I tried to put my hand on his shoulder and say, ‘Hey, I’m here for you. You going to block for me next year or in the future. I’m going to have your back. You’re going to have my back.’”

Other news and notes from Nebraska practice on Monday:
  • Top safety Corey Cooper remained out with a foot injury. Reserve safety Drake Martinez also missed practice on Monday with an illness, and defensive end Joe Keels sat out.

  • Junior center Ryne Reeves practiced on Monday after he was hospitalized on March 19 following his injury in a drill. Reeves suffered from pain in his neck. “He checked out OK and felt good,” Pelini said. “I think the week off obviously helped him.”

  • Nebraska’s four-man combination at I-back continues to draw notice. The addition of redshirt freshman Adam Taylor to a group that already features the nation’s top returning rusher, Ameer Abdullah, in addition to Imani Cross and Terrell Newby, has caught the attention of many. “We have a stable of running backs that I feel great about,” Pelini said. “We’re going to have to use some of our ingenuity.” Offensive coordinator Tim Beck continues to consider options with multiback sets. “A lot of guys who can do a lot of different things to help us,” Pelini said. “It’s a good problem to have.” Count Abdullah among those happy with the depth. Taylor and Newby are “way ahead of where I was coming in,” Abdullah said. “I didn’t really consider myself a running back coming in. I was so raw. The game slows down so much as you get older.”


LINCOLN, Neb. -- Inconsistency on offense and problems with turnovers and in special teams masked the progress late last season of Nebraska’s young defensive linemen.

In particular, tackles Vincent Valentine, Maliek Collins, Kevin Maurice and Aaron Curry matured in 2013 as the air turned cool in November.

[+] EnlargeVincent Valentine
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesCornhuskers defensive tackle Vincent Valentine is working this spring to become a big-play defender.
Check out these numbers: The Huskers allowed 4.54 yards per rush through eight games; in the final five games, it dropped to 2.63, fifth nationally over that time. In the first eight games, opponents produced 55 rushes of 10 yards or more against Nebraska, though just 11 in the last five games. Through eight games, 25.8 percent of rushing plays against the Huskers went for first downs; it was 15.5 percent in the final five.

Improvement among the interior linemen has continued this spring. The Huskers are off this week for spring break. Practice resumes on Monday, building to the April 12 Red-White game at Memorial Stadium.

“You’re just talking about a group across the board, end to end, who are way ahead of where they were, obviously, during the season last year,” coach Bo Pelini said. “I think they’re a lot more comfortable.”

The emergence, in particular, of Valentine, a 6-foot-3, 320-pound sophomore, and the 6-2, 300-pound Collins is evident in spring workouts.

And the presence of Maurice, who, like Collins, played last fall as a true freshman, plus juniors Curry and Kevin Williams eases concern about depth on the defensive line in 2014.

Yes, the Huskers are thin on the edge, with All-America candidate Randy Gregory in charge, but they ought to be stout in the middle.

Valentine progressed perhaps the most of any interior lineman last fall as a redshirt freshman out of Edwardsville, Ill. He collected eight tackles in the final two games of the regular season against Penn State and Iowa.

The strong finish boosted Valentine’s confidence, he said. This spring, he said, he’s working to develop into a big-play defender.

“There were a couple times I showed it out there on the field last year,” Valentine said.

He enjoys a healthy competition with the other linemen. Last week, they discussed in a meeting who would lead the Huskers in sacks next season. It seems Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten recognition last season for collecting 10 ˝ sacks, should rank as a runaway favorite.

But Valentine won’t concede anything. Defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski encourages the competition, Valentine said.

“He wants us to have the mentality that we’re going to go out there and get the sack,” Valentine said.

Kaczenski, entering his third season at Nebraska after a five-year stint at Iowa, uses the success of former pupils to motivate the young Huskers.

According to Collins, Kaczenski constantly references his 2010 Iowa group in film study and in conversation. Adrian Clayborn earned All-America honors that season. Christian Ballard and Karl Klug also figured prominently in the Hawkeyes’ success up front.

“It’s just how they practiced and how they played,” Collins said.

Collins received praise from Pelini this spring. During the opening eight practice sessions, Nebraska shifted him along the line from tackle to end. The moves were made out of necessity as teammates missed practice time. Don’t expect Collins to play extensively at end in the fall, though if it’s required, Pelini said he wouldn’t hesitate.

“Maliek has great quickness and agility, change of direction for a big guy,” Pelini said. “And he’s got the power to go with it. He’s got all the tools.”

In some ways, Pelini said, Collins reminds him of a young Glenn Dorsey, whom the seventh-year Nebraska coached tutored at LSU. Dorsey, the 2007 Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year, also won the Outland Trophy, Lombardi Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, under Pelini.

“That’s high praise,” Pelini said, “but I think he’s got that kind of upside if he continues on his progress.”

Collins said he appreciates the compliment and that he’s aware of the gravity of Pelini’s words. Dorsey, a first-round NFL draft pick of the Chiefs in 2008, played in Kansas City for five seasons as Collins watched closely.

“That’s a dominant force, man,” Collins said. “It makes me want to keep working, to want to keep being coachable.”

Motivation runs high among the Nebraska defensive linemen, set to make an impact in 2014 that grabs attention regardless of happenings elsewhere on the field.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska has yet to release an update on junior offensive lineman Ryne Reeves, who experienced pain in his neck and was removed from the practice field by stretcher on Wednesday.

Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini described the actions to immobilize Reeves, who did not lose any feeling or ability to move, as precautionary.

“Let’s hope it turns out to be that,” Pelini said, “very precautionary.”

Reeves, bidding to start at center next season, received the most extensive playing time of his career late last season because of multiple injuries on the offensive line.

The Huskers worked out in full pads. They will scrimmage at Memorial Stadium on Thursday, reaching the halfway point of spring practice before a break until March 31.

Pelini said he wants his players to treat the Thursday workout like another practice and “not get freaked out because it’s a scrimmage situation.”

“It’s taking what they’ve been coached and apply it,” he said. “It’s about executing what we’re asking you to do.”

At nearly the midpoint of spring drills, Pelini said he’s pleased with the team’s focus.

“I think our guys are a lot more to the point where they know what to do,” the coach said. “Now, we’ve got to get into the details. I’m seeing progress on both sides. I’m seeing guys who are competing.”

Also from Wednesday at Nebraska practice:
  • Iowa State offensive coordinator Mark Mangino attended the afternoon workout. Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis and offensive coordinator Tim Beck coached on Mangino’s former staff at Kansas. Pelini also knows Mangino well.

    “He wanted to come over and see what we were doing,” Pelini said, “how we do some things. It gave us a chance to pick his brain a little bit. He’s a heck of a football coach and a good man.”

    Before going to work for Paul Rhoads at Iowa State, Mangino coached as an assistant for two years at FCS-level Youngstown State in Pelini’s Ohio hometown.

  • A key to spring progress in the Nebraska secondary involves the emergence of a strong candidate to replace Ciante Evans at the nickel position. The Huskers hoped it could be Charles Jackson, who has struggled to practice well enough earn playing time at safety and cornerback the past two seasons. So far, Jackson looks the part. So what’s he done differently?

    “Not taking a day off and just paying attention,” Jackson said. “Watching film, watching angles people take every single day. Once you get in that mentality to watch film and get out there and translate it all into the game, it becomes a lot more natural.”

  • The shift of sophomore Nathan Gerry from linebacker to safety is more than a spring experiment.

    “I feel really good about our linebacker spot,” Pelini said, “and I love the way he’s playing at safety right now.”

    Gerry has worked with the No. 1 defense alongside LeRoy Alexander in the absence of returning starter Corey Cooper, who remains out with a foot injury.

There are just a few weeks left in our ultimate Big Ten road trip. Hopefully, like Indiana Jones, we've chosen wisely to this point.

For those just joining us, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the 2014 season. This almost assuredly isn't our actual schedule because of travel budgets or editors' decisions. But we can pretend with this fantasy itinerary.

Week 12, what you got?

Nov. 15

Indiana at Rutgers
Iowa at Illinois
Michigan State at Maryland
Nebraska at Wisconsin
Ohio State at Minnesota

Open week: Michigan, Northwestern, Penn State, Purdue

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Nebraska at Wisconsin

No Big Ten road trip is complete without a trip to Mad City and Camp Randall Stadium. This is by far Wisconsin's biggest home game, and Badgers fans will be geared up for a contest that could decide the West Division champion. I'm hoping for a more competitive contest than the last Huskers-Badgers game at Camp Randall, when Russell Wilson and Montee Ball obliterated Big Red 48-17 in Nebraska's Big Ten debut in 2011. These teams played a much more exciting game in 2012 in Lincoln, as Nebraska rallied from a 17-point third-quarter deficit to win 30-27.

This year's matchup should be a good one, and there are plenty of intriguing subplots. It features the Big Ten's top two running backs in Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, two good friends who spurned the NFL draft for another year in college. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini has higher hopes for his defense, which returns a star in Randy Gregory and some promising pieces elsewhere. Wisconsin, meanwhile, has to fill quite a few gaps on defense after losing Chris Borland, Beau Allen and others. Both teams also have some uncertainty at quarterback right now.

The West Division looks wide open, and while Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota could be in the mix, many peg Wisconsin and Nebraska as the frontrunners entering the fall. This is another easy call. I'll book my table at Quivey's Grove right now.

Brian Bennett's pick: Nebraska at Wisconsin

Two weeks in a row in the same town as Rittenberg? That's trouble. I was searching for an alternative and thought about checking out Big Ten newbie Maryland, but that would be my third Michigan State game in four weeks. While I'd like to see Indiana at some point, the Rutgers game doesn't interest me, and I broke the Scarlet Knights seal two weeks earlier. I'm pretty sure I'm going to see Iowa (spoiler alert!) at least once in the last two weeks, and I've hit Ohio State a couple of times.

So Nebraska-Wisconsin it is, and there's nothing wrong with that. There's a better-than-average chance this decides the West Division, and I'm pretty sure the Huskers won't give up 70 points again, as they did in the last meeting in the 2012 Big Ten championship game. I hear the siren call of State Street Brats.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
Week 5: Brian at Cincinnati-Ohio State; Adam at Minnesota-Michigan
Week 6: Adam at Nebraska-Michigan State; Brian at Nebraska-Michigan State
Week 7: Brian at Penn State-Michigan; Adam at Northwestern-Minnesota
Week 8: Adam at Iowa-Maryland; Brian at Nebraska-Northwestern
Week 9: Brian at Michigan-Michigan State; Adam at Ohio State-Penn State
Week 10: Adam at Northwestern-Iowa; Brian at Wisconsin-Rutgers
Week 11: Brian and Adam at Ohio State-Michigan State

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Nebraska Debuts New Mascot At Spring Game
Bo Pelini responded to a fake Twitter account by holding a cat prior to the kickoff of Nebraska's spring game.Tags: Bo Pelini, Nebraska, Spring Game
VIDEO PLAYLIST video