Nebraska Cornhuskers: Brady Hoke

Big Ten's lunch links

June, 30, 2014
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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, 27, 2014
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So, the USA outlasts Spain, Italy and England? Losing never felt so good.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 20, 2014
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If we hit that bull's-eye, the rest of the dominoes will fall like a house of cards. Checkmate.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 17, 2014
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You're next, Portugal.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 11, 2014
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If you tried to clap, you'd miss your hands.
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.
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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 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.

Big Ten's lunch links

May, 6, 2014
May 6
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Hodor.
So there's this little event called the NFL draft that begins Thursday night in New York. First you've heard of it? Don't fret. There has been virtually no buildup.

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

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

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

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

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

Pick No. 1: Purdue

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

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

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

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

Pick No. 2: Illinois

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

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

Bennett says the Illini select ... Calhoun

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

Pick No. 3: Northwestern

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

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

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

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

Pick No. 4: Indiana

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

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

Bennett says the Hoosiers select ... Gregory

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

Pick No. 5: Rutgers

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

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

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

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

Pick No. 6: Maryland

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

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

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

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

Pick No. 7: Michigan

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

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

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

Brady Hoke would run to the podium to turn in this pick if Scherff was still on the board. He only has one year of eligibility left, but the Hawkeyes' left tackle could add much-needed stability and leadership to a Wolverines offensive line with all kinds of question marks.
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If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.

1. "I like my team."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They won't have to for 132 days.

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

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

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsKirk Ferentz, who began at Iowa in 1999, appears to be secure heading into 2014.
Brian Bennett: Adam, I listed seven coaches as being completely safe, barring some unforeseen scandal: Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Penn State's James Franklin, Minnesota's Jerry Kill, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. While Ferentz hasn't won at an elite level of late, his contract keeps him basically unfireable. Fact or fiction on my Tier 1 of coaches?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Ten lunch links

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

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Big Ten lunch links

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

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