Big Ten mailbag

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
5:00
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We're on the back side of the wait for Week 9 in the Big Ten. Let's get to the latest batch of questions. As always, thanks for the submissions.
Mitch Sherman: Every game is a big one for the Badgers at this point. Since the promising first 30 minutes of the year against LSU, something has seemed constantly amiss with Wisconsin. It is far from out of the running in the wide-open West Division, but with the loss at Northwestern, the Badgers are climbing uphill again. It's reminiscent, somewhat, of the 2012 path, when Wisconsin scuffled through the first half of the season, then dropped three of its final four before backing into the conference title game and clobbering Nebraska. The quarterback situation is just strange. Gary Andersen said this week it's not a competition but that Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy will both play. I don't entirely get that, though I recognize, considering Stave's unusual season, that it's likely been one of the most difficult situations a coaching staff could face with two healthy quarterbacks.
Sherman: Let me direct you to the weekly Playoff Eliminator, which puts into context the contenders that remain for the main event in January. Context is the all-important factor here. Without it, no one can say if a Big Ten team has a shot to make the playoff. At this point, even the league's top-ranked teams, when the committee's first poll is unveiled next week, will need help in order to reach the top four. But with highly ranked SEC teams falling each week in conference play and so many big games left before the playoff is set, it makes sense to believe that any Big Ten team would stand a reasonable chance to fit into the playoff picture at 12-1.
Sherman: Well, that's going to depend on the next coach. Since we're dealing in hypotheticals, let's say the Wolverines hit a home run -- no a grand slam -- in finding their next guy. If a proven NFL coach takes the job or a big-name guy from college who understands the recruiting game, I think Michigan can be competitive immediately. It could be a real contender nationally in the second year, simply because the talent is there. Hoke has recruited well; he and his staff have just struggled to develop talent in Ann Arbor and, to some degree, attract the right mix of recruits. The right coach could fix all of that in a short time.
Sherman: The short answer is no. The long answer? Not against Michigan State if the U-M played the Spartans every week between now and the end of the season. You saw what happened last year when Michigan State made even Ohio State fans feel sorry for Gardner. (OK, probably not.) The Spartans will be up for this game like they were to face Nebraska on Oct. 4, looking to pound another nail into the coffin of Michigan's season. Gardner, of course, is plenty talented. He's the right choice to run Michigan's offense, considering the roster of quarterbacks, but probably not this offense. Hoke suggested before the Penn State game that Gardner might play to his strength and run the football more. He carried 10 times for 18 yards in the 18-13 U-M win. With a week off to prepare for the Spartans, maybe the offense has undergone a transformation, though it's doubtful a philosophical change could dig Michigan out of this hole.
video

Trevor Matich and Todd McShay look at which conference will be on the outside looking in when trying to put teams into the College Football Playoff.

UA jersey tour: Josh Sweat

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
3:49
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ESPN 300 defensive end Josh Sweat received his Under Armour All-America jersey on Wednesday. The No. 5 ranked prospect received the honor in front of his classmates, teammates and family and spoke about his accomplishments on and off the field.

A short video played on a projector before the ceremony, giving everyone in attendance a better look at who Sweat really is as a person.

Sweat took some time to answer a few questions to help expand on who he is, where he has been and what makes him tick.

What one player are you looking forward to competing against?: Yeah, probably the biggest person I was looking for was Martez Ivey. Great guy, I played against him at a camp and I believe that's the person I would have been going against anyway. That would be a good matchup.

If you could start a team with any other player in your class who would it be?: Give me the best corners, defensive backs and linebackers. Everybody who can cover the best so I can get to the quarterback. That's a defensive end's best friend is the secondary.

What was your earliest football memory?: Probably knocking off Oscar Smith middle school in the city championship. The middle school I went to never won a game two years before and then I came out there and we won everything in every other sport for this one year. We beat them in the city championship and now I'm at Oscar Smith high school. So I played against a lot of the guys that are my teammates now. That’s a good thing to brag about. When they bring it up, I had to brag.

Which football player did you idolize or want to be like when you were a kid?: Honestly, no one. Other than my two older brothers. I watch it more now that I'm heavy into football.

If you could take on any pro player in their sport who would it be?: I would like to race Usain Bolt. I would challenge LeBron James to try to dunk on me. I would challenge him to try to. I would also swim against Michael Phelps.

Why do you wear your number?: I wear No. 9. The person that previously wore it was a real good guy, a tight end and linebacker. But, my favorite number is 2. I always wanted to wear that number.

What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?: I used to video game heavily. I mostly played "Call of Duty." I play a little bit now, but not as much as I used to. I used to sit in the house and play before I was heavy on football.
video

Adam Rittenberg breaks down Saturday night's Big Ten matchup when surging Ohio State heads east to Happy Valley to face a dangerous Penn State team in an electric atmosphere.

Ohio State Film Room

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
12:38
PM ET


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Tom Luginbill and Mike Bellotti break down the Ohio State offense.

Drawing Conclusions: Week 8

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
12:36
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A look at the aftermath in the wake of all of the week 8 college football action.

ESPN 300 Near-Misses

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
12:30
PM ET


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National recruiting director Tom Luginbill breaks down several recruits who narrowly missed the ESPN 300 in the latest 2015 player rankings update.
The College Football Playoff selection committee will release its first weekly Top 25 national rankings next week.

It still eludes me why the committee needs to rank 25 teams when it is only picking the top 12 for the playoff spots and contract bowls. Nonetheless, the rankings will create much hoopla, hype and debate. And I can't wait.

We should learn a lot about what the committee values in that first Top 25. Here are a five questions the selection committee will answer next week as it relates to the Big Ten (assuming no major upsets in the league during Week 9, of course):

1. What's the consensus on Ohio State?

To me, this is the most intriguing question. Based simply on who's playing well right now -- be it statistical metrics or the eye test -- the Buckeyes are nearing playoff status. According to ESPN's Football Power Index, Ohio State is tied for No. 5 right now with Mississippi State.

And yet Urban Meyer's team is ranked No. 12 in the USA Today coaches' poll, No. 13 in the Associated Press poll and No. 16 in the FWAA Grantland Rice Super 16. The reason is simple: The Buckeyes lost by two touchdowns at home in Week 2 against Virginia Tech.

It remains to be seen whether the committee will value full body of work over recency of performance, or whether it will give Ohio State something of a free pass because that loss to the Hokies came so early in the season before quarterback J.T. Barrett started to blossom. If the Buckeyes are ranked in the top 10, you'll know that their string of domination the past month is impressing the committee. If not, there might not be much else Ohio State can do to climb into the top four.

[+] EnlargeMacgarrett Kings
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsCan Macgarrett Kings and Michigan State eventually leap into the College Football Playoff?
2. How high can Michigan State climb?

Here's another vital question for the league. The Spartans can't erase that 19-point loss at Oregon in Week 2. But how much credit will the committee give to Michigan State for challenging itself by scheduling that game, and do the selectors believe that game was more competitive (remember, the Spartans led by nine points in the third quarter) than the final score indicated?

The voters in the coaches' poll like Mark Dantonio's team, ranking it No. 5 this week (two spots ahead of Oregon, which requires some serious pretzel logic). The Spartans are eighth in both the AP poll and Super 16, which seems like a more reasonable position. They just need to be in a spot where they can move up when teams ahead of them inevitably lose. The question is where the committee values them now, especially in relation to current conference leaders in the Big 12 and Pac-12, which could likely be the Big Ten champ's main competition, along with a second SEC team.

3. Where's Nebraska?

The Cornhuskers look like the only other potential playoff team out of the Big Ten, and even that would necessitate a lot of things breaking just right. Nebraska's most impressive nonconference win came against unranked Miami, and it lost on the road to Michigan State, using a huge fourth-quarter rally to keep the final score respectable.

The best hope for Bo Pelini's team is to win out and beat either Michigan State or Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. The Huskers are on the outer edge of striking distance right now, checking in at No. 16 in all three major polls. Will the committee see them the same way?

4. Are any other Big Ten teams ranked?

I'm not sure how teams in the bottom 10 spots of the initial poll are supposed to react, because it signifies nothing in the grand scheme of things. However, the rankings could give us an indication of how the committee views the Big Ten as a whole. For example, is Minnesota, which should be 7-1 after this weekend, a Top 25 team? Is there another one lurking, such as Wisconsin or Maryland? If the committee has more than just the Spartans, Buckeyes and Huskers in the rankings, that indicates its perception of the Big Ten's overall strength. And that could come into play when trying to decide if the Big Ten champ deserves a spot in the four-team playoff field.

5. How in love with the SEC is the committee?

The nightmare scenario for fans outside of Dixie is three teams from the SEC gobbling up playoff spots. Four of the top five spots in the AP poll belong to the SEC West alone, and Georgia is also in the Top 10. The committee has said that winning a conference championship is supposed to matter, and obviously only one of those SEC teams can achieve that. But if the first rankings next week mirror the AP poll in its abundant adoration for all things SEC, then that increases the chances of two or more teams from the league eventually earning playoff bids. And that would be bad news for the Big Ten.

The Buckeyes' dynamic offense

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
12:00
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Ohio State Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer is obsessed with being multiple. "If I hear about a [recruit] with a multiple skill set," he told me recently, "I get on a plane."

When you study the Buckeyes' offense this season, it's easy to see why. Meyer and Buckeyes offensive coordinator Tom Herman are doing a great job of utilizing their versatile offensive personnel in order to create mismatches, and it's fueling the success of a team that has rebounded very well since a bad Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech. In a joint article with Mel Kiper earlier this week, I wrote that the Buckeyes have a high ceiling and still have a shot at making the College Football Playoff if they win out and a few things break the right way for them.

Let's take a look at the philosophy behind Ohio State's offensive approach, and the talented skill-position players that are making it work (it's one of the better groups in the country). Many of them are underclassmen but will be on the radar of NFL scouts before too long.

The philosophy

The Buckeyes don't always go up-tempo, but they're almost always in the no-huddle and they'll purposely go several plays in a row -- sometimes a full series -- without substituting personnel.

There are two reasons for this:

1. The offensive line loves when it can lean on a tired defensive line that hasn't been able to rotate in substitutes.

2. It allows OSU to exploit personnel mismatches.

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ESPN 300 outside linebacker Jerome Baker has flipped his commitment from Florida to Ohio State. Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer wants fast players all over the field, and Baker has rare speed and explosiveness for the linebacker position.


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Big Ten morning links

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
8:00
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Trophy games and rivalries will be a regular occurrence from now until the end of the Big Ten season. This week features one of the nastiest in-state showdowns, but the build-up to this year’s version has been comparatively tame.

1. Michigan and Michigan State have never been shy about their mutual distaste for one another. This year’s pregame volley of words has been far more civil than in the past decade. Maybe it’s because Michigan State no longer has to ferociously refute the “little brother” tag. Maybe it’s because Michigan limps into Saturday’s game with a 3-4 record and doesn’t have much of a trash-talking leg on which to stand. The sentiment behind closed doors is probably a little more hostile. The boring “it’s a big game because it’s the next game” lines are probably the proper do-your-talking-with-your-pads rhetoric. Nonetheless, it makes rivalry week a little too PR-scrubbed and professional for my liking.

2. Is J.T. Barrett at the top of your Big Ten quarterbacks list yet? If not, he should be. The Buckeyes rookie has the best quarterback rating in the nation since the third week of the season. He has Ohio State’s spread offense running as smoothly as former two-time conference MVP Braxton Miller ever did. If Barrett continues to roll and leads Ohio State to a league title, Urban Meyer is going to have a difficult decision to make between two healthy preseason Heisman contenders next August.

3. Death, taxes and Minnesota games being decided by halftime. Those used to be the safe bets during Jerry Kill’s first three-plus seasons with the Gophers. On Saturday, Kill’s team won for the first time when trailing at half. They have still never lost when leading after two quarters. Coming from behind against Purdue was a significant step forward for Kill’s rebuilt program, which is built to play with a lead. Long completions on play-action passes beat the Boilermakers and added to the Gophers’ case as a legitimate West Division contender.

East Division
  • Amid all the niceties dished out Tuesday, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook reminded reporters that Saturday’s game will be “a bloodbath.”
  • Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has tapped into the recruiting power of Ohio’s prodigal son, LeBron James.
  • Maryland hopes its relationship with Under Armour will make the Terps the Oregon of the East.
  • Rutgers athletic director Julie Hermann, a Nebraska native, gives the Scarlet Knights an emphatic vote of approval as they prepare for the Cornhuskers.
  • Penn State’s defense likes the pressure that comes from low-scoring games.
  • Devin Gardner has dealt with some unnecessary abuse on and off the field in his time as Michigan’s starting quarterback.
  • Zander Diamont – teen model, son of a man once voted as the No. 1 sexiest soap opera star and the unexpected freshman starter at Indiana – says he had a normal upbringing in southern California.
West Division

 

The Buckeyes' band of brothers

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
12:00
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A powerful unit rolls into a meeting room all together on time, even if it's 6:30 in the morning. This football band of brothers known as the Ohio State running backs knows which member may have needed to sleep at the practice facility to make it that early during a bye week, or which guy was most likely to have skipped brushing his teeth.

They also know they better respond when their position coach, Stan Drayton, coffee in one hand and clicker for game tape in the other, greets them with a sharp, loud, "Good morning."

Sit in a Buckeyes running backs meeting and it becomes painfully obvious that the most important thing for this unit comprised of everything from a true freshman to a senior is that it had better be ready for anything Drayton might throw at it. It's only an hour, but this film session doubles as yet another competition for a group that thrives on it.

"Clarity of purpose," Drayton barks as the lights dim and position drills from the day before are cued up on the whiteboard in the front of the room.

"Opportunities don't come along a lot, do they?"

Individually, those opportunities to make an impact might not pop up that frequently, and that message is subtly hammered home over an intense 60 minutes of review and preparation.

But collectively? There is no shortage of chances for the running backs to make an impression and have an impact. And for this group of Buckeyes, an hour in their room before the sun comes up is only the start of a full day of them to ensure that no other unit operates at their capacity.

'You have a responsibility here, all of you, to help your brother'

For all the damage the talent assembled in front of Drayton can do with the football in their hands, hardly any time is spent breaking down that part of the game in the early hours of this Thursday morning.


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Best of Big Ten Week 9 conference call

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
3:00
PM ET
Questions were asked. Coaches had answers. Here are a few of the highlights from this week's Big Ten conference call ...

By the way, if you’re not following us on Twitter, what are you waiting for? Follow along at @ESPNRittenberg, @BennettESPN, @ESPNJoshMoyer, @DanMurphyESPN, @MitchSherman and @AWardESPN.

Playoff Field: Week 9

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
12:27
PM ET


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Cary Chow, Heather Dinich, and Adam Rittenberg take a look at where things stand after week 8 of the college football season, and what the playoff selection committee will have to do when sorting out all of the one-loss teams.

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College Football Live Extra: Left Out
Trevor Matich and Todd McShay look at which conference will be on the outside looking in when trying to put teams into the College Football Playoff.
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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 10/25