Nebraska Cornhuskers: Jerry Kill

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.
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.

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
12:00
PM ET
Winter is coming ... but not soon enough.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
5:00
PM ET
Back from Michigan. And back to the mailbag.

Caleb from MSU writes: With Malik McDowell finally in the fold, we now have a better look at the pieces available to the MSU defensive line. That being said, what are the chances McDowell starts and or contributes in a major way this year? With [Marcus] Rush and [Shilique] Calhoun on the ends, there could be some favorable matchups on the inside. Or do you think he needs time to mature to the college game?

Brian Bennett: Caleb, it's really tough to predict how much a young guy will contribute before he ever makes it to campus. But McDowell was a big-time recruit, or else we wouldn't have been nearly so interested in him. Mark Dantonio usually likes to redshirt guys on the lines, but he said Wednesday that McDowell would likely play this fall because, "I just think he’s too big and strong and fast.” The Spartans are excited about Joel Heath's potential on the inside, but after losing Tyler Hoover and Micajah Reynolds off last season's team, there should be some opportunities for McDowell to at least contribute.


Kyle G. from Prior Lake, Minn., writes: Curious as to what your thoughts are on the Gophers defense for this upcoming season. A lot of guys returning. Could they [rank] in the top half of the Big Ten?

Brian Bennett: Minnesota didn't lose a lot of players off last season's defense, but they must replace their best defensive lineman (Ra'Shede Hageman), two starting linebackers (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) and a very good defensive back (Brock Vereen). So those are concerns. But I think Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys have shown they can put together a strong defense, and they still have some good players to work with such as defensive end Theiren Cockran and corner Eric Murray. If someone such as Scott Ekpe steps up to help replace Hageman in the middle and some young linebackers move forward, this has a chance to be an upper-level Big Ten defense.


Jon L. via Twitter writes: Read some stuff at NU specific sites but interested in a broader opinion... What will Kain Colter's legacy be in the BIG and at NU?

Brian Bennett: Good question, but the answer is tied to the eventual outcome of the unionization case. Maybe the full NLRB or the Supreme Court eventually rules against the union movement, or Northwestern's players elect not to unionize. Then this could become an interesting footnote. Or maybe Colter winds up as college sports' version of Curt Flood, an excellent player in his own right who's now known more for his role in bringing about free agency in baseball. Colter's legacy as a player is solid, as he helped lead Northwestern to 10 wins in 2012 and guided the Wildcats to their first bowl victory in 64 years. But whether he's eventually viewed as a pioneer who helped improve athletes' causes or someone who brought down college sports as we know them can't possibly be known yet.


Timmer S. via Twitter writes: Would an annual B1G-ACC football tourney ever be possible? Would be an awesome Week 2 event. Probably tough to schedule.

Brian Bennett: It would be a blast, and there are already some natural tie-ins with Penn State-Pitt, the Rutgers and Maryland connections and Notre Dame. But as we saw with the short-lived Big Ten/Pac-12 alliance idea, it's just extremely difficult to schedule these types of things in football because teams have vastly different priorities, rivalries, etc. The ACC has talked about having such an alliance with the SEC, where there are already a lot of established interconference clashes. So I don't think we'll ever see a Big Ten/ACC football challenge materialize.


Chris Grandview, Mo., writes: Brian, I am wondering why more and more people want Penn State over Iowa to play Nebraska on Black Friday? I mean, there is history for both Iowa and Penn State playing Nebraska, but why now does everyone think Penn State will be a better matchup now? Look at last year; no one picked Iowa, like I did, to beat Nebraska and Iowa completely dominated Nebraska. Are fans of the Big Ten afraid Iowa can't handle their own now, or that Penn State is some better program always, compared to Iowa? Thanks for your time, sir!

Brian Bennett: Fans from both Penn State and Nebraska have enjoyed that series, and there is some interesting history there, as you noted. So I understand that. But I've also said repeatedly that the Heroes Game series between Iowa and Nebraska just needs time to grow. The geography makes that a natural potential rivalry, and it will also be a West Division game. The Hawkeyes' victory in Lincoln was the first step in making that more of an actual rivalry. These things need some time to develop, and I think eventually Iowa-Nebraska can become a much more interesting end-of-season affair.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

March, 17, 2014
Mar 17
4:00
PM ET
Let's round out this Monday with another edition of the ol' mailbag. Remember to keep those emails coming or to hit us up on Twitter.

Michael from Remsen, Iowa, writes: Do you think that NEBRASKA's young but very talented linebackers will take that step up this year and be the best linebacking group in the Big Ten? Also, who do you think wins the starting left tackle spot?

Brian Bennett: Michael, the potential is certainly there. Not all of the linebackers are young; the coaches have loved senior Zaire Anderson's talent and potential for some time, but he's just got to stay healthy and in the lineup. Michael Rose looks like a rising star, Josh Banderas has turned some heads in spring practice so far, and David Santos gained a lot of experience last year. Throw in newcomers like Marcus Newby and Courtney Love, and this is a deep group with loads of athleticism. Best in the Big Ten? I'm not so sure about that, but the league did lose an abundance of star linebackers to the NFL draft. I still need to see the Huskers' defense deliver consistently, but the future looks really bright in that front seven.

As for left tackle, Alex Lewis has been getting reps with the No. 1 unit so far this spring. Lewis transferred in after playing two years at Colorado and withstood some legal troubles. The reshuffling of Nebraska's offensive line remains a big story to watch this offseason.


Ol' Red from Sandusky, Ohio, writes: In your "Ultimate B1G 2014 road trip: Week 9" pick of the Michigan-Michigan State game, you pointed out that Michigan has only scored 32 combined points the last three seasons. Just another tidbit I'd like to throw your way... Although Michigan has won four, the Spartans have held U of M to less points than the preceding year for 9 straight games (45, 34, 31, 28, 21, 20, 17, 14, 12, 6). If that trend continues, it will be awfully tough for the Spartans to lose giving up less than 6 points. This really shows the improvement in Mark Dantonio's defense year-to-year. I expect the Wolverines to score only three this upcoming season and be shut out in 2015.

Brian Bennett: A Rose Bowl victory followed by a Big Ten tournament title and seemingly every expert picking them to win the NCAA tournament understandably has Spartans fans feeling a bit chesty. Michigan State's defense has locked things down against Michigan the past few years. You need some bulletin board material, Doug Nussmeier?


Jase from Nebraska writes: I imagine most networks are doing something very similar to your fantasy trip planning, but on a much larger scale. My worry is at all the *meh* weeks we're racking up will mean few televised game and less exposure.

Brian Bennett: The return of the dreaded double-bye does make for some less-than-stellar weeks on the 2014 schedule. But the nonconference opponents this year are much better than they were in 2013, and there are still some excellent heavyweight matchups sprinkled throughout the conference season. Ohio State-Michigan State, Nebraska-Wisconsin, Penn State-Michigan, Michigan State-Michigan, Ohio State-Penn State are just a few of those. The biggest question from the broadcast side is how many games will be picked up for primetime, especially in November? But the Big Ten isn't exactly hurting for exposure.


Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: I see that in the West Division poll, Minnesota is rated a distant fourth, barely over Northwestern. I guess most consider Minnesota's performance in 2013 to be a one-time occurrence. I think the team may have a difficult time improving on last year's win-loss totals though the team may be better than last year's.

Brian Bennett: No doubt there are still some doubters on Minnesota (and polls like that tend to favor the biggest fan bases). The Gophers had a great run in the 2013 season but have yet to really break through as serious division contenders. It's going to be tough to do that without some major improvement in the passing game, something the team is emphasizing this spring for sure. Minnesota has a tougher schedule this year with a road game at TCU, crossover games against Ohio State and Michigan and intra-division road trips to Wisconsin and Nebraska. Still, a solid core returns from last year's team, and the arrow is pointing up in Minneapolis. I'm guessing Jerry Kill doesn't mind being the underdog right now.


Scott from Marinette, Wis., writes: Why is no one talking about Vince Biegel this year for Wisconsin on defense? I truly believe he will make a big difference for the Badgers on the front seven this year. He is an absolute animal and will create havoc for opposing offenses this coming year.

Brian Bennett: Biegel ... animal ... Jack Russell ... nope, I'm going to stay strong. Biegel made an impact as a redshirt freshman at outside linebacker in the 3-4 and will step into a much bigger role this season. He needs to because the Badgers lost so much talent and experience in that front seven, including linebackers Chris Borland, Ethan Armstrong and Brendan Kelly. At 6-foot-4 and 233 pounds, Biegel has great size and a good chance to make some plays from that pass-rushing position. He's still a young guy, but he'll have to be an anchor for this rebuilt defense.
We've been saying a lot that the new Big Ten West Division looks like a wide open race. Is there a favorite in the bunch?

We want to hear from you which team should be looked at as the 2014 frontrunner in the league's wild, wild West. Since our polls only accommodate five possible answers, we're leaving out Illinois and Purdue for now. I think everyone can live with that.

SportsNation

Who should be the 2014 Big Ten West Division favorite?

  •  
    18%
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    5%
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    39%
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    3%
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    35%

Discuss (Total votes: 10,549)

The other five contenders, in alphabetical order:
  • Iowa: The Hawkeyes won eight games a year ago and bring back the core of their offense, plus several key players on D. The schedule, however, might be Iowa's biggest strength in 2014. Kirk Ferentz's team doesn't play Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State or Michigan and gets Wisconsin and Nebraska at home.
  • Minnesota: A long shot? Maybe. But the Gophers won eight games in '13 and did so with a pretty young team. They lost some valuable defensive stars in Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen, but almost everybody else is back and the passing game can only get better. Jerry Kill's team does have a tough schedule, however, drawing Ohio State and Michigan as crossovers and facing road games at Nebraska and Wisconsin.
  • Nebraska: The Huskers are a lock for nine wins under Bo Pelini every year and have a promising young defensive front seven on which to build. If Tommy Armstrong or another young quarterback takes a step forward, the offense should be pretty good. Nebraska does have to play on the road against Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State, however.
  • Northwestern: The Wildcats disappointed last year but are just two seasons removed from a 10-win campaign, and several of last year's losses were ridiculously close calls. Even a smidgen of better luck and health could help Pat Fitzgerald's club rebound in a big way, and they miss Ohio State and Michigan State from the East.
  • Wisconsin: You've got to love the schedule after the opener vs. LSU in Houston. The Badgers get Maryland and Rutgers as their cross-division opponents, and their toughest road games on paper are Iowa and Northwestern. Still Gary Andersen's team must replace a lot of valuable seniors and fix an ailing passing game.

It wouldn't be a shock to see any of these five teams win the division. But which one is most likely to play in Indianapolis? Vote now in our poll.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
4:30
PM ET
One final check of the mail before the weekend. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter.

To the inbox ...

Aaron from Minneapolis writes: Gophers fans, by and large, are nothing short of in love with Jerry Kill right now, and understandably so. And yet, a significant raise, contract extension, and renewed university commitment to football facilities seems to have raised the bar for Kill and his staff, and I doubt everyone will remain happy if Minnesota just floats around .500 for the next five years. So, as a less biased observer, what do you think should be the new expectation for the Gophers over the next 3-5 years under Kill?

Adam Rittenberg: Good question, Aaron. I always go back to the Glen Mason situation. Minnesota decided that seasons with six to eight wins weren't good enough and parted ways. The program paid the price in the following years until Kill stabilized things. There needs to be a certain level of realism at Minnesota, as the Golden Gophers aren't going to win 10 games every year. But Minnesota also should expect breakthrough seasons every now and then, especially in the seemingly weaker West Division.

Getting to the Big Ten championship game is a reasonable expectation for Kill in the next 4-5 years. At some point, Minnesota must end its Big Ten title drought. But the general expectation should be bowl games every year and winning at least seven games in most years. Fans should always expect big things, but you run into trouble when you think you're something that you're not.


Erik from Charleston, S.C., writes: I don't think the B1G should be too keen on weekday football games anytime soon (save for Labor Day and Thanksgiving). Living in the South, I witnessed billboards eight months in advance for Clemson trying to sell tickets for a Thursday night game. Even here on the coast, which is 200 miles away, they were looking to sell tickets, and Clemson was pretty good last year! About the only place I see this happening is Northwestern, which has the advantage of being near Chicago and it would help if they had Illinois coming to town. Maryland could possibly, too, if their team gets better and people show up from the Washington, D.C., area. Other than that, fan bases tend to concentrate within a few hours of the campus.

Adam Rittenberg: Erik, you're not the only person who has brought up the challenge of mobilizing fan bases for weekday games. I agree it's an important factor for certain programs, especially those not located in or near cities like Penn State. But most of the programs that could benefit most from these games -- Northwestern, Minnesota, Maryland, Rutgers -- are located in metropolitan areas. Indiana has some transportation issues and so does Purdue, but they have to weigh those against the exposure they'd receive from being in the weekday TV windows.

Ohio State doesn't need the midweek exposure, but I still think Ohio Stadium would be packed for a Thursday night game, in part because of its metro location. Clemson doesn't need midweek games, either, largely because of its location. Attendance is an increasing concern in college football. We've written extensively about that. But a lot of Big Ten teams are irrelevant on Saturdays because of other games going on.


Aaron from Syracuse, Kan., writes: Adam, I think Uppercut from Omaha was on a right track, even though Nebraska vs. Kansas wouldn't be the non-con that would get the masses going. Nebraska vs. Missouri, on the other hand, would. Lots of history in that game, including a traveling trophy, it would pit a B1G team against an SEC team, and could be played on a neutral field (Kansas City comes to mind). It should almost be a requirement that a B1G team play a non-con rival every year!

Adam Rittenberg: Here's the problem with that approach, Aaron. When the Big Ten moves to nine league games, beginning in 2016, most teams will play only one major-conference, non-league opponent per year. These series are home-and-homes or would happen at neutral sites. The problem is lack of variety. If Nebraska plays Missouri every year, it never can branch out to play Oregon (as it will in 2016-17) or Oklahoma, a team with which the Huskers have a stronger historical rivalry. I'd rather see variety, especially as Nebraska positions itself for the College Football Playoff. Facing Missouri every now and then is great. An annual series? No, thanks.


Kevin from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: You listed in your B1G spring position breakdown: LB article that six talented MSU linebackers are fighting for three linebacker positions (not including true freshmen). You proceed to state that depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring. Depth? Seriously? Experience maybe, but depth?

Adam Rittenberg: Kevin, it depends on how you define depth. To me, experience and depth often go together, unless you have immensely talented players who can't get on the field because the guys in front of them are consistently better. That might be the case at Michigan State, but the bottom line is the Spartans lose two linebackers -- Max Bullough and Denicos Allen -- who combined for 80 career starts. They also lose a top reserve in Kyler Elsworth. The cupboard is hardly empty as I love Ed Davis' potential, and Darien Harris could be the answer at one starting spot. I should have mentioned Riley Bullough as well, as he moves back to linebacker. But in terms of experienced depth, MSU is lacking because Bullough and Allen were so good for so long.


Eric from Florham Park, N.J., writes: Hi, Adam. Regarding Purdue, the best WR they have and wasn't mentioned is B.J. Knauf. He had gotten hurt and was suspended a game or two, but this guy is their best playmaker at WR by far. Just curious why he wasn't mentioned at all.

Adam Rittenberg: Eric, you can't mention every player in these posts, although I noticed Knauf last year and agree he could help Purdue's offense this fall. He had only 14 receptions in eight games, but showed promise as a rusher and a return man. I don't know if I'd call him Purdue's best playmaker at this point, as DeAngelo Yancey was much more productive. But Knauf has a great opportunity to work his way into the rotation this year.

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

March, 4, 2014
Mar 4
5:00
PM ET
Yes, we know the offseason is long. We also know you have questions, so send 'em here.

Don't forget: Twitter!

To the inbox ...

Nick from Marion, Ohio, writes: Not to get too into conference expansion questions again, but isn't the "Tech problem" argument much less significant now than it was when the article you linked was published in 2010? We've already seen Texas A&M break that perceived-to-be-sacred bond among Texas schools; what's to say you wouldn't see a Kansas or Oklahoma program leave their state partner for millions more a year? Besides, one of the reasons to bring Maryland and Rutgers aboard was remove Penn State from their proverbial island in the east. ... How long until we are saying the same thing about Nebraska in the west?

Adam Rittenberg: You're right about Texas A&M breaking away, but I don't get the sense Oklahoma would separate easily from Oklahoma State, a school that wouldn't interest the Big Ten on a number of levels. Moreover, those schools aren't located in big-time markets that other conferences are coveting. Penn State isn't an equal comparison because another league -- the ACC -- had made expansion moves in the Mid-Atlantic region (Pittsburgh, Syracuse). It increased the urgency for the Big Ten to keep Penn State and a presence in television markets -- i.e. New York City and Washington, D.C. -- that are much more valuable to the Big Ten than Oklahoma City or Kansas City (Texas is a different story).


Tom Osborne's Uppercut from Omaha writes: Adam, other B1G teams have annual non-con rivalries (Iowa vs. ISU, PSU vs. Pitt going forward), so clearly it can be done. I know the Nebraska-Kansas matchup wasn't exactly a real rivalry, but it was one of the longest-running matchups in college football history until the Huskers moved to the B1G. Kansas might not be strong, but they're better than some of the non-con cupcakes that make the schedule. Why not bring it back as a regular matchup if not annually?

Adam Rittenberg: Uppercut, I'd take it up with AD Shawn Eichorst, but I don't know how many people share your view about the Nebraska-Kansas series. More schools are scheduling for the playoff, and Kansas typically won't boost Nebraska's schedule strength as much as other former Big Eight/12 rivals such as Oklahoma, which Nebraska plays in 2021 and 2022. Games with Miami (2014-15) and Oregon (2016-17) tend to move the needle more nationally. I get why Iowa-Iowa State has to remain even though it would be more fun if Iowa played bigger-name opponents. I don't think the same needs to apply with Nebraska-Kansas.


Jerome from Toronto writes: Although I like these position breakdowns, I would like them more if you would rank the teams by overall position. Which team looks to have the strongest DL going into spring camp? Which team has the weakest and most work to do? I'd find that to be more interesting to read them in a ranked form rather than an alphabetical listing.

Adam Rittenberg: Jerome, I might go back and rank the groups coming out of the spring when we have more information. But at the risk of upsetting my bosses, our rankings are really arbitrary, especially now, when there are so many unknowns. And after Nos. 4-5, it usually is a tossup where groups fall. Right now, I'd rank Ohio State's defensive line at No. 1, followed by Michigan State, Iowa and Nebraska. After that point, it's pretty wide open.


John from Carlisle, Pa., writes: As a Maryland alum and season ticket-holder, I'm really excited to see our first year of B1G home games! I'm obviously hoping that we have a good season. What do you think will be the biggest adjustments in play that our team will have to deal with to have a good season?

Adam Rittenberg: John, looking back at Nebraska's transition, I'd say there's an adjustment to the size of the lines -- and in some cases, the ball-carriers -- in the Big Ten. You have to match up from a size/strength standpoint, while mixing in some speed. Looking at Maryland's lines, it seems like the Terrapins have some decent size. The other factor is depth, as injuries tend to pile up during Big Ten play. Maryland had more than its share of injuries the past two seasons, so that's a concern going forward. If Maryland can keep its top guys healthy and show consistent rushing ability, it should hold its own in the tough Big Ten East Division.


Jesse from Minneapolis writes: With many football coaches receiving raises this offseason, I have to wonder: will this dilute the value and emphasis that AD Teague is trying to place on trying to build a stronger, better program here at Minnesota? I'd like to think that with Coach Kill's revised contract and raise, he's at least making close to the average market rate for a FBS coach, if not better or at it. But with MSU raising its profile through a nice raise for Coach Dantonio and even Bo Pelini raking in an extra dime, I fear this potentially sets the Gophers up as still trying to catch up to other higher-quality programs, especially since we're trying to improve our athletics facilities. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: The facilities component is critical, Jesse, and Minnesota recognizes the need to upgrade its Sunday-Friday facilities after already improving its stadium. Kill understands that and seems to have bought into the long-term vision for Minnesota. Will Minnesota always be playing catch-up to a degree with coach salaries? Probably. But it's about having the right guy and the right vision. If Kill leads Minnesota to a Rose Bowl like Dantonio did at MSU, another raise will be in order. But the program also will be in a different position from a revenue/donations standpoint. Minnesota did what it had to do. Now the focus should be on facilities.
The month of March arrived in Lincoln, Neb., with sub-zero temps, snow showers and no word from Nebraska on a contract extension for Bo Pelini.

The forecast calls for a warm-up. Nebraska weather, though, is always hard to figure; same goes for the football program of late.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsWill Bo Pelini's contract become an issue at Nebraska?
Since New Year’s Day, the Huskers have been on a nice run. Starting with a win over Georgia, Pelini has scored well with recruits and fans alike. The sixth-year coach has shown a sense of humor and an open-minded attitude toward social media and the press. He plans to let reporters watch practices this spring, quite a departure from the Bo status quo.

But March is the time in any new year to set aside talk and look for progress in the actions of those who matter most.

Pelini, as scheduled in the contract he signed in 2011, received a $100,000 bump in salary on Saturday to $3.075 million, among the top-20 coaches nationally.

He did not -- at least not yet -- get an extension similar to the one-year deals awarded by former athletic director Tom Osborne after the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

An extension may still be in the works. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst was set to complete a review of Pelini’s performance in February.

But for now, the coach is operating on a four-year contract. In and of itself, that’s no big deal. The conditions under which he works are far from averse.

Earlier this offseason, Eichorst awarded raises to just two of Nebraska’s eight assistant coaches. Again, in a vacuum, it’s not much of a headline.

Like Pelini, they’re paid well, each earning at least $200,000 annually, and let’s face it, the Huskers aren’t exactly a well-oiled machine.

Eichorst goes out of his way to say next to nothing in public about Pelini. The second-year AD issued a statement of support after the regular season as speculation ran wild about the coach’s job status. Since then, all has remained quiet from Eichorst’s office.

That’s his way. It works for him.

Put everything together, and perhaps it means little. Still, an undercurrent of sentiment exists that Eichorst does not back Pelini with the full support required for this football program to best work in harmony and achieve the goals that its administration and coaches, no doubt, share.

Pelini, for his part, is saying all the right things. He told the Omaha World-Herald last week that Eichorst has been “very supportive.”

“His style is to give people room,” Pelini told World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel. “He doesn’t want to micromanage.

“Everybody’s got to do it their own way. You can’t judge that. You have to respect it. There’s no one way to do it. There’s no one way to manage. Shawn didn’t come in here trying to be Coach Osborne, just like I didn’t come in here trying to be [Frank] Solich or Pete Carroll.”

Eichorst’s actions speak louder than Pelini’s words.

Sure, Bo can coach and recruit just fine with four years on his contract. But if full support exists from the administration, why not keep him at five?

Really, if he’s not extended, it’s more about power than money. No matter the circumstances, the cost of business is high in the Big Ten, where coaching salaries are outpaced only by the Southeastern Conference.

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio recently signed an extension that keeps him under contract for six years. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill was extended through the 2018 season. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz is signed through 2020.

Spring football starts on Saturday at Nebraska. Big news, as always, around here.

Old habits die hard, I know, but let’s try, for once, not to read too much into the little dramas.

Otherwise, football is no different than the weather in Nebraska: Cold one day, hot the next, with no idea from where the next storm is coming.

Big Ten lunchtime links

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
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Cold, cold, go away.
The division formerly known as the Legends has a new name (West), three new teams (Illinois, Purdue and Wisconsin) and the same wide-open feel as its predecessor.

Last summer, before Michigan State ran away with the Legends title in dominant fashion, the division seemed there for the taking. Michigan was a popular pick, so was Nebraska, and Northwestern entered the season in the national rankings. Seasoned Big Ten observers knew better than to count out Michigan State. The Legends was pegged as a four-team race. As it turned out, the two teams generating the least buzz, Iowa and Minnesota, both ended up winning eight games.

The West has a similar look entering the 2014 season. There's no clear-cut favorite, and every team has some potentially fatal flaws.

Wisconsin: Loses 25 seniors and has issues at quarterback, wide receiver and potentially the defensive front seven.

Nebraska: Still a lot of youth at key spots and often plays sloppy; difficult to trust.

Iowa: Offense struggles to score; loses all three starters at linebacker, team's best position group in 2013.

Minnesota: Major quarterback issues, offense often struggles to score and several key defenders depart, including tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and do-it-all defensive back Brock Vereen.

Northwestern: Has lost its crunch-time mojo after a disastrous 2013 season, lingering questions about quarterback Trevor Siemian.

Illinois: Big Ten's worst rush defense still has major concerns, and four-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is gone.

Purdue: Do we need to recap last season? Didn't think so.

So there you have it. Is there a 2013 Michigan State in this bunch? Perhaps, but if so, it might qualify as an even bigger surprise than what the Spartans did this past fall.

If parity rules the West, the division title could come down to schedules. Not surprisingly, ESPN Insider's KC Joyner lists Iowa's schedule as a major reason why the Hawkeyes could win the division. Iowa doesn't play any of the big four in the East Division -- Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State -- and faces both Wisconsin and Nebraska at home. The Hawkeyes' Big Ten road schedule -- Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota and Illinois -- is extremely favorable.

[+] EnlargeJake Rudock
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltJake Rudock and Iowa could benefit from a less taxing schedule than their Big Ten West counterparts.
Here are the league schedules for the West teams:

ILLINOIS

Home: Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State
Road: Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northwestern
No plays: Maryland, Michigan State, Michigan, Rutgers, Indiana

IOWA

Home: Indiana, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Nebraska
Road: Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota, Illinois
No plays: Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers

MINNESOTA

Home: Northwestern, Purdue, Iowa, Ohio State
Road: Michigan, Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin
No plays: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Penn State, Rutgers

NEBRASKA

Home: Illinois, Rutgers, Purdue, Minnesota
Road: Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Iowa
No plays: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State

NORTHWESTERN

Home: Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan, Illinois
Road: Penn State, Minnesota, Iowa, Purdue
No plays: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Ohio State, Rutgers

PURDUE

Home: Iowa, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Northwestern
Road: Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Indiana
No plays: Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers

WISCONSIN

Home: Illinois, Maryland, Nebraska, Minnesota
Road: Northwestern, Rutgers, Purdue, Iowa
No plays: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State

Iowa and Wisconsin definitely have the edge with schedules. Neither plays any of the big boys in the East, something that thankfully will change with the introduction of a nine-game league schedule in 2016. The Hawkeyes' schedule is slightly more favorable because they get the Badgers at home.

Minnesota improved in Year 3 under Jerry Kill, but it could have a tough time making additional strides this fall. The Gophers have a challenging road schedule and only one potential gimme at home (Purdue). Northwestern also has a tough slate on its home field and misses three of the potentially weaker East teams, although the Wildcats also don't face either Michigan State or Ohio State.

Purdue is another team with some solid home opponents. The road schedule isn't overly taxing for Darrell Hazell's crew.

Nebraska and Illinois both have potentially favorable home schedules, especially Nebraska, but both squads will be tested plenty on the road.

Time will tell if the West actually becomes a logjam of comparable teams. If so, Iowa and Wisconsin should benefit, and there could be plenty at stake when the teams meet Nov. 22 in Iowa City.

Like a trip to Indianapolis.

Big Ten lunch links

February, 6, 2014
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Filling all the needs in another great class of links.
  • Malik McDowell's commitment was perhaps the highlight of the class for Michigan State, but the wait for a signature added even more drama to his recruitment.
  • All of Michigan's signees were committed before new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier was hired last month, but he appears to be having an impact already on next year's class.
  • James Franklin emphasized the importance of the Penn State family as the program celebrated its new class with its "Signature Event."
  • The Class of 2014 might turn out to be Urban Meyer's finest with Ohio State, but he wasn't thrilled it didn't go down as the best in the country this year.
  • Upgrading the speed on the roster was the top priority for Wisconsin, and it appears Gary Andersen accomplished that goal.
  • Nebraska signed players from 13 different states, suggesting again that the program is recruiting nationally perhaps more than it ever has before.
  • Purdue was looking for natural leaders to fill out its class, and Darrell Hazell signed 18 players who were captains of their high school teams.
  • Pat Fitzgerald might not have landed every recruit in his backyard, but he felt Northwestern "dominated Chicagoland again" in the last cycle.
  • Jerry Kill puts plenty of stock in the importance of the third recruiting class in building a program, and he picked up some valuable pieces this year for Minnesota.
  • Illinois inked five players out of junior colleges, and Tim Beckman acknowledged it was because those players know there is plenty of opportunity to play quickly.

Big Ten's lunch links

February, 5, 2014
Feb 5
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Signed, sealed, delivered, I'm yours.

Big Ten lunchtime links

January, 31, 2014
Jan 31
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National Signing Day is just five days away, so this is now in my head. Don't judge me.
As the coach hiring season nears an end, we're examining the Big Ten coaching landscape and some recent trends. Today we take a look at the rising salaries for assistants and whether a $1 million coordinator is on the horizon in the league.

In the days leading up to the Discover Orange Bowl earlier this month, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris received nearly as much attention as the head coaches in the game.

That was because of Morris' ties to Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and the high-powered Tigers offense he engineered. Plus, Morris was already being paid like a head coach.

In part because of Meyer's reported interest in hiring Morris in December 2011, Morris is the nation's highest-paid assistant coach at $1.3 million annually. But he's not alone in the $1 million coordinator club. LSU's John Chavis and Alabama's Kirby Smart also made more than seven figures as assistants in 2013, and Louisville recently lured defensive coordinator Todd Grantham away from Georgia with a five-year contract worth $1 million annually.

[+] EnlargeKyle Flood
Frank Victores/USA TODAY SportsAt incoming Big Ten program Rutgers, head coach Kyle Flood barely makes more than at least one Big Ten coordinator.
The Big Ten has yet to take the plunge and cross the $1 million mark for an assistant coach. But there's little doubt that the pay for top coordinators is on the rise, and so is the league's investment in them.

"I think it’s imminent," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "I don’t know when, but I think it’s imminent. Whether that's two years from now or four years from now, it’s highly possible you'll see that in our league."

Some are not that far away now. Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is the Big Ten's highest-paid assistant at $851,000 per year. The Wolverines recently hired Doug Nussmeier away from Alabama as their offensive coordinator, and while his salary hasn't been disclosed yet, athletic director Dave Brandon has said it won't exceed Mattison's. Nussmeier was making $681,500 at Alabama.

Those numbers are compiled through open records requests and public information. But Brandon told ESPN.com that because contracts often include things like performance and longevity bonuses and deferred payments, "under certain scenarios, we've got coordinators now who could make over $1 million [in 2014]."

The $1 million mark is an arbitrary one in many ways. Brandon does not see an issue with surpassing it.

"Coordinator positions are very important, and when you look at what they are being paid in the pro ranks and in other conferences, the market has taken those positions up," he said. "If you're going to make a big investment in your head coach, you’ve got to back that investment up with the people around him to really bring it all together."

The arms race in college sports used to center on facilities. But now that just about every campus has upgraded every building imaginable and the construction crews are running out of projects, pay for assistant coaches seems to be the new frontier.

Consider that in 2010, the highest-paid Big Ten assistant coach was Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, at just more than $475,000. The increased commitment can really be seen at Ohio State, where in 2008, the Buckeyes did not pay a single Jim Tressel assistant more than $275,000. Now, Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell makes $610,000 and offensive coordinator Tom Herman earns $555,000. The Buckeyes just hired Chris Ash away from Arkansas as their co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach at a salary of $520,000, and they're paying new defensive line coach Larry Johnson $400,000.

"It’s crazy," Smith said. "Stakes are higher. The revenue’s gotten bigger. So you see those assistant coaches who are extremely talented being compensated consistent with their skills. It’s blown up. And I’m not so sure it’s going to slow down.

"It’s just market-driven. It's really not unlike any other industry. Any industry or large corporation is going to pay whatever the market is for their top CFO or top COO or whatever the top positions are that they're trying to fill on their executive team. A head football coach is a CEO. And his executive team is his assistants."

That's fine for rich programs such as Ohio State and Michigan. Or Nebraska, which paid offensive coordinator Tim Beck $700,000 last year. But can every Big Ten school afford to reward its assistants like captains of industry? Consider that Clemson's Morris made more in base pay in 2013 than two Big Ten head coaches (Minnesota's Jerry Kill and Indiana's Kevin Wilson). Incoming Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood makes only $9,000 more per year than Mattison.

"It’s challenging, especially for a program like Indiana, where we have a smaller stadium, we don’t fill it," Indiana athletic director Fred Glass told ESPN.com. "So it’s tough to compete."

"I guess one of the questions is, where does it level off?," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner told ESPN.com. "It depends on the revenue structure. If the revenue goes up and the investment causes a return that’s worthwhile, maybe things do continue to escalate, and particularly at schools that are able to financially support their programs so that it’s not a burden on the general funds."

Then again, few investments can have a more direct impact on the actual football product than paying top dollar for a truly elite coordinator. Michigan State surely doesn't regret the $558,000 it paid to defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi last year; one could argue he would be underpaid even at $1 million.

It won't be long until a Big Ten assistant gets there.

"We’re going to see it," Smith said. "Especially at places like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State -- the big stadiums, so to speak. It’s going to end up being here at some point. "

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