Ohio State Buckeyes: Indiana Hoosiers

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.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
12:00
PM ET
Heading to Hawkeye Country later today. Any recommendations?
Head coaches from the Big Ten East Division, along with a player from each team, addressed the media this afternoon on teleconferences. The West Division players and coaches spoke Wednesday.

Here's a closer look at the East:

INDIANA
  • Defense has been a lingering Indiana concern for years, but coach Kevin Wilson believes he's starting to see a change, thanks to new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr. The scheme hasn't changed radically, but the Hoosiers return 10 starters there -- and Wilson's seen a promising spring so far with an added focus on competition and communication: "They've for sure held their own on a daily basis -- and, in some ways, probably even better -- against the offense."
  • Wilson believes teams need to invest scholarships into the kicking game, but he thinks it's also too risky to offer recruits straight out of high school. If you look at the NCAA's top 25 kickers, Wilson estimated at least 15 started out as walk-ons. So he's hoping to find some walk-ons who are willing to work for a scholarship, rather than be granted one right away.
  • At 5-foot-7, Shane Wynn is the Hoosiers' leading returning receiver, and he's transitioning to playing the outside. It's been a little different for Wynn, who said he's had to watch more film as a result. He's reading the corners now, instead of the safeties, as just one example.
MARYLAND
  • Maryland coach Randy Edsall is confident in his offense and believes the Terrapins have enough options so that opponents can't focus on just one person. If defenses lock on to wideout Stefon Diggs, then quarterback C.J. Brown can take off running or receiver Deon Long can pick up some slack. "The No. 1 thing I do like," Edsall said, "is we can spread the field."
  • Maryland's staff has already started looking at film of Big Ten teams, so they know what to expect when the conference season begins. Edsall said he wants to at least get a feel for their personnel and what kind of schemes he'll face. He's also confident the Terps will be ready: "We fully expect to be able to compete when we get into the Big Ten this year."
  • Brown said one of the main reasons he committed to Maryland was the coach who recruited him at the time, former Terps assistant and current Penn State coach James Franklin. He's looking forward to squaring off against Franklin this season, and Edsall said there's no question he would like to develop a rivalry with the Nittany Lions.
MICHIGAN
  • The quarterback derby will continue, and Brady Hoke included all three of his options in the discussion heading into the offseason. The Wolverines coach did acknowledge, though, that Devin Gardner “probably would be” the starter if there was a game on the schedule this weekend. There isn’t, so Shane Morris and Wilton Speight will continue to be in the conversation.
  • The first opponent on the schedule will always stir emotions for Michigan fans, but Hoke didn’t attach any revenge or sentimentality to his reasons for wanting to take on Appalachian State in the opener this fall. “We needed a game,” Hoke said. “I thought it would be a good game.” Defensive end Frank Clark was certainly aware of the history between the programs, even though he was still years away from joining Michigan and getting a shot at making up for the upset loss in 2007 -- which he called “shocking” and “shows how hard those guys play.”
MICHIGAN STATE
  • Michigan State is coming off a Rose Bowl victory, but coach Mark Dantonio and quarterback Connor Cook would prefer not to think about that any longer. Dantonio said they've talked a lot these last four months about not growing complacent, and Cook only echoed his coach. "A lot of people keep bringing up the Rose Bowl," Cook said. "But we're past that. We're focusing on the now."
  • The offensive line has made some big strides since January, at least according to Cook. He felt like he had no time in the pocket last spring and said the pass rush was getting to him every time. This spring? He doesn't feel rushed in the pocket, and he thinks that's pretty indicative of how far this line has come.
  • Jeremy Langford earned a lot of praise from Cook, who said the running back has become a much bigger part of the passing attack. "He's improved a lot with catching the ball," Cook said, complimenting Langford's versatility. "He's done so many different things for us."
OHIO STATE
  • There is still work to be done in addressing the most glaring weakness on the team last season, but Urban Meyer called Ohio State’s pass defense “drastically improved” and will be watching closely for more signs of progress in Saturday’s spring game. The Buckeyes will play a traditional game, but the emphasis will be on throwing the football and assessing the skill players on both offense and defense -- giving Meyer a chance to evaluate backup quarterback Cardale Jones in a live setting in addition to checking out the secondary.
  • Arguably the strongest part of last season's team is undergoing a transition without four senior starters, and the offensive line is somewhat of a concern for Meyer heading into the offseason. With guard Pat Elflein the only other player to have earned a first-team slot to play alongside junior Taylor Decker at this point, that competition is likely to spill over into preseason camp in August. Both tackle Darryl Baldwin and guard Antonio Underwood were praised for their work by defensive tackle Michael Bennett, and Billy Price and Jacoby Boren are dueling at center.
PENN STATE
  • Franklin said he knew exactly what he was getting into at Penn State, in terms of the current depth and sanctions. He and former coach Bill O'Brien worked together at Maryland, and he said the two had a lot of honest conversations about the current state of the Nittany Lions. The two have continued to talk since.
  • Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia are both making transitions from defensive tackle to offensive guard, and Franklin said he has been pleased with their performances so far: "They're doing a good job for us -- and they have to. We're thin at that position."
  • Franklin said he feels especially comfortable with the talent at running back and defensive line. Middle linebacker Mike Hull was more specific about naming the players who impressed him, pointing to backup linebacker Gary Wooten and cornerback Da'Quan Davis. Hull said Wooten is always around the football and that Davis, who missed part of the spring with a hamstring injury, has come up with several interceptions.
RUTGERS
  • Another open competition at the most critical position on the field -- quarterback -- is still playing out at Rutgers, and coach Kyle Flood isn’t ready to declare a winner in what would seem to be a wide-open battle. Flood indicated that Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano are all “really vying for that first-team job.”
  • The change in conference affiliation has been welcomed with open arms by the Scarlet Knights, who can “feel the energy” as theypractice for their first season in the Big Ten. Defensive tackle Darius Hamilton said the team was already buzzing with excitement about the opportunity, and Flood called joining the league a “positive in every way.” The move also presents the opportunity for a rivalry to develop with new divisional neighbor Penn State, with both Flood and Hamilton citing the proximity between the schools as a bonus.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
12:00
PM ET
Big Ten is desperate for a title. Which one of you is willing to make the sacrifice?

Links time ...

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
12:00
PM ET
Warren Buffett called. My bracket was so bad, he says I owe him $1 billion. D'oh!

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
12:00
PM ET
Hope your bracket is faring better than mine ...
The best offenses can threaten defenses at the quarterback, running back and wide receiver positions. Brian Bennett on Tuesday examined the triple-threat combinations from the Big Ten's new West Division.

Now let's turn our attention to the East Division and rank the triple-threat combinations. The division is strong at quarterback but lacking elite wide receivers.

1. Indiana

QB Nate Sudfeld, RB Tevin Coleman, WR Shane Wynn

The Hoosiers featured the league's No. 2 offense in 2013 and top this list even though top receiver Cody Latimer bolted for the NFL draft. They have two options at quarterback, but Sudfeld, who had nearly 1,400 more passing yards than teammate Tre Roberson, gets the nod here. Coleman brings explosiveness to the backfield after rushing for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns in only nine games. Wynn finished near the top of the league in receiving touchdowns (11) and had 46 receptions for 633 yards.

2. Ohio State

QB Braxton Miller, RB Ezekiel Elliott, WR Devin Smith

You would think a team with the back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year at quarterback would be rated higher, but the Buckeyes lose a huge piece at running back in Carlos Hyde, as well as top receiver Corey Brown. Elliott, who had 262 rushing yards last season, is competing for the starting position this spring. Smith has been Miller's big-play target throughout his career and had eight touchdown catches and averaged 15 yards per reception last fall. Tight end Jeff Heuerman provides another weapon in the pass game.

3. Michigan State

QB Connor Cook, RB Jeremy Langford, WR Tony Lippett

The skinny: A year ago, Michigan State's offense looked like a mess. Cook began the season as the backup but emerged to lead the Spartans to nine Big Ten wins, all by double digits, and a Rose Bowl championship. Langford answered Michigan State's running back questions with 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. There's no true No. 1 receiver on the roster, and while Macgarrett Kings (513 receiving yards in 2013) could claim the role, Lippett gets the nod after leading the team in receptions (44) and finishing second in receiving yards (613) last year.
4. Penn State

QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Zach Zwinak, TE Jesse James

The Lions have the Big Ten's top pocket passer in Hackenberg, the league's freshman of the year in 2013. But Hackenberg loses his favorite target in Allen Robinson, and wide receiver is a major question entering the fall. The tight end position looks much stronger with James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman. Penn State also has options at running back, but Zwinak has led the team in rushing in each of the past two years, finishing with 989 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall.

5. Maryland

QB C.J. Brown, RB Brandon Ross, WR Stefon Diggs

Don't be surprised if Maryland finishes higher on the postseason triple-threats list as long as their top players stay healthy, which is hardly a guarantee after the past two seasons. Brown is a veteran dual-threat player who had 2,242 passing yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Ross leads a potentially deep group of running backs after leading the team with 776 rushing yards. Although Levern Jacobs led Maryland in receiving last year and returns, Diggs is the team's top threat after averaging 17.3 yards per catch before a season-ending injury in October.

6. Michigan

QB Devin Gardner, RB Derrick Green, TE/WR Devin Funchess

Gardner is capable of putting up some big numbers, as he showed last year, but he loses top target Jeremy Gallon. The run game is a major question mark for new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, although hopes are high for Green, a heralded recruit who had 270 rushing yards as a freshman. At 6-5 and 230 pounds, Funchess is a tight end who plays like a wide receiver. He finished second on the team in receptions (49), receiving yards (748) and touchdowns (6).

7. Rutgers

QB Gary Nova, RB Paul James, TE Tyler Kroft

New coordinator Ralph Friedgen tries to spark an offense that finished 77th nationally in scoring and 95th in yards last season. Nova is competing this spring to retain the starting job, which he has held since the middle of the 2011 season. James averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season and can be very effective when healthy. Rutgers is scrambling at bit at the wide receiver position but returns a solid option at tight end in Kroft, who led the team in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last fall.

Big Ten's lunch links

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
12:00
PM ET
Eyes closed, head first, can't lose.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

March, 19, 2014
Mar 19
5:00
PM ET
Take your nose out of the brackets for a second and dive into this latest Big Ten mailbag.

Joe F. from Wrightsville, Pa., writes: Top three Big Ten games for 2014? Bottom three? How soon will PSU play into Big Ten title talk?

Brian Bennett: We'll probably do a list at some point of our best and worst games of 2014, but after going through the ultimate road trip exercise, this is a topic fresh in my mind. My top three games for 2014:

1. Ohio State at Michigan State, Week 11: This one's fairly obvious. It's the rematch of last year's Big Ten title game, and both teams should be ranked in the top 10 to start the season as the clear league favorites.

2. Michigan State at Oregon, Week 2: This is the most exciting Big Ten nonconference game in years, in my opinion. Sure, we had Michigan-Alabama a couple seasons ago, but most people didn't think the Wolverines were ready to compete with the Tide (and they were right). These two teams are not only legitimate national title contenders, but the extreme contrast in styles -- the Ducks' quick-strike offense against the Spartans' ferocious D -- is incredibly compelling.

3. Nebraska at Wisconsin, Week 12: The third choice could fluctuate between now and the start of the season. Wisconsin-LSU is really interesting, Michigan-Ohio State is always must-see and Iowa's last two games of the season could be huge if the Hawkeyes come through early on. That's just to name a few. But for now, I'll take what looks like the key showdown for the West Division title.

As for the three worst, I'm always going to pick terrible nonconference games for those. And my three snooze-fests right now would be Western Michigan (1-11 last year) at Purdue in Week 1, along with Week 2 weaklings Howard at Rutgers and Western Illinois (4-8 in '13) at Wisconsin.

Lastly -- and very sneaky of you to get three questions in, Joe -- I've been pretty consistent in saying 2016 is my pick for Penn State to contend for the Big Ten title. It's potentially Christian Hackenberg's senior season, and all of the sanctions will be gone. It wouldn't shock me if James Franklin moved that timeline up to 2015, however.


Taylor from North Platte, Neb., writes: Brian, love the blog! Question I ask people in "The Good Life" a lot is, would you rather see Nebraska play Wisconsin at the end of the year instead of Iowa? Many agree, the Iowa rivalry is forced (I personally cheer for Iowa over ISU in the Cy-Hawk Game) for Nebraskans, and many people have a bad taste in their mouth when talking about Wisconsin, just because the whippings they have given the Huskers two out of three times Nebraska has played them. Just wanted your thoughts on that.

Brian Bennett: The Nebraska-Iowa rivalry is forced, to a large degree. But I think the fact that the Hawkeyes won last year in Lincoln should help the Heroes Game grow, and it's possible the two teams could be playing for a division title on the final weekend in 2014. I believe the Nebraska-Wisconsin rivalry will grow now that the two teams are in the same division, but there really has only been one good game between them so far (the Huskers' home win in 2012). And I prefer having Wisconsin and Minnesota continue college football's oldest rivalry on the final weekend.


Tim from Raleigh, N.C., writes: I just read your article about the running game at Wisconsin with Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement. In the article, you mention that there isn't depth besides those two. I agree that there isn't any "proven" depth, but that hasn't stopped Wisconsin recently. Just like every other year, Wisconsin starts the season with two good running backs and questionable depth. But the No. 3 RB always proves that the depth is there. White, Gordon and Clement all proved to be great players while only being third on the depth chart. I wouldn't be surprised to see Taiwan Deal or maybe Vonte Jackson (I know he has moved to safety, but want to see him at RB) provide the depth for the Badgers.

Brian Bennett: Tim, the depth situation is really more the concern of Gary Andersen this spring, which is why he's holding Gordon and Clement out of contact. There's a very good chance that Deal becomes that No. 3 back in the mold of Gordon in 2012 or Clement in 2013, but remember that he's not on campus yet. The only other scholarship tailbacks right now are senior Jeff Lewis and redshirt freshman Austin Ramesh. Andersen doesn't want to risk Gordon and Clement getting hurt this spring, and there's really no reason to have them get tackled right now.


Joelfr from South Brunswick, N.J., writes: Do you think that Rutgers will stick with experienced but inconsistent QB Gary Nova this coming season as Big Ten action starts, or will they go with one of their young QBs who have never started a game?

Brian Bennett: We'll start to get some answers when the Scarlet Knights open practice Monday, but I'd say every option is on the table right now, especially with new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen. Youngsters Mike Bimonte, Blake Rankin and Chris Laviano have a lot to prove, as none of them has taken a college snap. But Nova has thrown 39 interceptions in parts of three seasons, which helped lead to his benching last season. He has a huge experience edge, but it might be time to start over in Piscataway. The good news is that if anyone can fix Nova, it's probably Friedgen. If not, then one of the young guys will get a shot.


Andrew from Fremont, Ind., writes: Brian, as a Purdue fan, the 2013-14 athletic season was horrible, bottom of the league in both major sports. I believe things are going to be better in 2014-15. To find a ray of hope, I decided to look back at the Big Ten's worst since the turn of the century. The records obviously point to the Hoosiers being the worst (surprise!). IU has only had one season where they have finished at .500 since 2000, and in only six of those years has it won more than one conference game. Aside from Illinois, no one in the Big Ten has even been close to being that bad. Despite surprise trips to the Rose and Sugar Bowls, Illinois has done their best to match IU's level of awfulness with three zero-win Big Ten seasons during that time. As bad as Purdue was this season, history seems to favor that a crummy IU team or the Fighting Illini are destined to reclaim the basement. Which Big Ten team gets your honor in the preseason as the Big Ten's worst?

Brian Bennett: Andrew, I feel your pain. What a rough go of it this has been for Boilers fans. I actually wrote back in November about the worst Big Ten teams in recent years, and the 2013 Purdue squad ranked among the worst of the worst. And that was before the Boilermakers lost to Illinois and Indiana (by 20 points) to finish out a 1-11 campaign. Purdue lost by an average of 23.1 points per game last year and ranked at or very close to the bottom nationally in virtually every major statistical category. While I believe Darrell Hazell will eventually turn things around and that the schedule should help the Boilers improve a little this season, there's no doubt that they begin the year as the worst team in the league again, especially as Illinois and Indiana look capable of competing for a bowl bid.

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 19, 2014
Mar 19
12:00
PM ET
Thoughts and prayers continue to go out to Isaac Griffith and his family.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
5:00
PM ET
Your second serving of my mailbag for the week has arrived ...

@JeffHurdaCow via Twitter writes: Do you think that the Big Ten will get a team into the playoff, and who is more likely?

[+] EnlargeAli Highsmith
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelOhio State was the last Big Ten team to play for the national championship, after the 2007 season.
Brian Bennett: That's really the key question for 2014, isn't it? It's bad enough that the Big Ten hasn't played for a national title since the 2007 season; from now on, getting to the final four will determine just how relevant any major league is. Football Outsiders recently looked at the top 10 contenders for the playoff and included just one Big Ten team: Ohio State, which they ranked eighth with a 34 percent chance of finishing 11-1 or better. You absolutely have to throw Michigan State in there, as the Spartans broke into the elite ranks last year and has a spotlight nonconference opportunity at Oregon. If Wisconsin can manage to beat LSU in the opener, the Badgers have a very nice schedule the rest of the way. Those would be my top three contenders.

But I think it's going to be tough. The SEC is all but guaranteed at least one spot in the field, and Florida State is a good bet to get back as well. A Big Ten team is likely going to have to finish undefeated or with just one loss against a strong schedule to get into the four-team mix. Not making the playoff in a year when the Rose Bowl is a semifinal would be a bitter pill for the league to swallow.


Matt from Ypsilanti, Mich., writes: I think this could be the year that starts the rise of the Big Ten and the fall of the SEC (short term). My reason is this: For the first time in a long time, I think it looks like QB play will be much improved. It could be a position of strength for the Big Ten in 2014 due to many experienced QBs returning and a lot of young talent as well. Many of the top teams in the SEC do not have their starters back, and although they will still have talented signal callers, they will likely see a drop in production for SEC QBs. Do you agree the Big Ten will have an advantage over the SEC -- and maybe all other conferences -- at QB next year?

Brian Bennett: I like your optimism. The SEC lost an astonishing amount of talent at quarterback with guys like Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray and Connor Shaw leaving. But while the Big Ten brings some good experience back at quarterback, including Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Michigan's Devin Gardner, the overall level of play at quarterback in the league has been lacking for a couple of years, in my opinion. It's great seeing talented young quarterbacks at places like Purdue, Indiana and Nebraska, but they all need to take steps forward. I think the Pac-12 has far and away the best group of returning QBs in 2014.


Andrew from Allentown, Pa., writes: What are your thoughts on the new coaching staff at Penn State? I am pretty high on the staff, but I worry a bit about the offensive coordinator and QB coaches. It looks to me like the defensive staff is pretty elite after what they did at Vandy, but the offense struggled, ranking in the 90s in total offense most of the time. Was this a lack of talent at Vandy or a product of their system?

Brian Bennett: I like Penn State's staff a lot. Not only are they energetic and big-time recruiters, they proved a lot by winning nine games in back-to-back seasons at Vanderbilt, which many people thought was impossible. That's really all I need to know. Yes, the Commodores were a more defensive-oriented team under James Franklin, but they also played against some stout SEC defenses. And I don't think he ever had a player nearly as talented as Hackenberg. I'm really interested to see what the Nittany Lions offense looks like under Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan. There are some concerns at offensive line and wide receiver, but I have confidence in this staff to figure things out.


@HawkFlies via Twitter writes: Is Iowa a dominant offensive line in 2014 with Scherff returning as well as OL coach Brian Ferentz?

Brian Bennett: I certainly think you could make a case for the Hawkeyes' line being the best in the league in 2014. Brandon Scherff is the only returning lineman in the league who made first-team or second-team All-Big Ten, and he's the early leading candidate to win the Rimington-Pace offensive lineman of the year award. Iowa does have to replace tackle Brett Van Sloten and guard Conor Boffeli, but has plenty of in-house candidates and a great history of success with the position group. I'd like to see the Hawkeyes get a better push up front with those big guys in 2014: Iowa finished just sixth in team rushing in the Big Ten last year, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. But with Ohio State rebuilding its line, the title of best O-line in the league is up for grabs this year (though Wisconsin will also have a lot to say about that).


Chris from Chicago writes: To what degree should injuries during the spring be a concern? I know in Spring 2013 that Northwestern's O-line was banged up, and then they struggled in the fall. Should I be similarly concerned now that the Northwestern D-line is banged up in Spring 2014? What do teams (not just Northwestern) do to overcome spring injuries, and not have them have a carry-over effect into the fall?

Brian Bennett: You always want position groups, like both lines, to get lots of reps together in the spring and build chemistry, especially if there are several new starters there. But as long as the injuries aren't serious or lingering, I don't think it's always a huge deal. Players still work out a lot together in the summer and then again through two-a-days and preseason practices, so there is plenty of time to jell. There have been lots of examples of players missing all or large parts of spring ball and having a strong season. The absolute worst thing that can come out of spring practice is a long-term injury, so having some players miss that extra contact isn't always a bad thing.


Alex K. from Decatur, Neb., writes: What do you think the direction if the Big Ten should be after the additions of Maryland and Rutgers? Should Notre Dame be a top target still, or maybe more East Coast? No change?

Brian Bennett: Ah, expansion questions. How I missed thee. Or something. Anyway, perhaps I'm being naive, but I think the expansion merry-go-round has stopped for a while, thanks to the grant-of-rights deals. I believe we'll see some stability for at least the next few years, and there aren't any schools that would fit the Big Ten profile who appear able to or interested in moving. Of course, it only takes one big domino to change everything. The league seems pretty intent on opening new markets and finding areas of population growth, so if there were going to be another expansion push, I would think the conference would try to look to the East and South. But let's hope we don't have to worry about that again for a while.

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
12:00
PM ET
Happy Patriot League tournament final day.
Earlier today, you read about all the Big Ten coaching changes from the 2013 season. Now it's time for you to select the most damaging assistant coach departure in the league. As mentioned in the post, most of the exiting coaches did so on their own accord. For the purposes of this poll, I've listed only coaches who voluntarily left their posts.

Here are the candidates (in alphabetical order):

SportsNation

Which Big Ten assistant coach is the biggest loss for his former team?

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    16%
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    49%
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    11%
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    4%
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    20%

Discuss (Total votes: 6,910)

Thomas Hammock, running backs, Wisconsin: Hammock spent only three seasons with the Badgers but made a significant impact on the team's signature position group. In Hammock's first season on staff, Montee Ball led the nation in rushing and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. Ball won the Doak Walker Award the following year, and last fall Melvin Gordon and James White set the NCAA record for rushing yards by a pair of teammates (3,053). Hammock, a master at maintaining a competitive environment, oversaw 40 100-yard rushing performances in three years, the most for any team in that span. He also served as Wisconsin's recruiting coordinator. Like his predecessor, John Settle, Hammock leaves Wisconsin for the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens.

Larry Johnson, defensive line, Penn State: Johnson spent the past 18 seasons at Penn State, taking over the entire defensive line in 2000. But after twice being passed over for the Lions' head-coaching position, he left for the same post at rival Ohio State. He built a reputation as an elite defensive line coach and a top regional recruiter, particularly in the Washington, D.C., area, where he spent 20 years as a high school coach. Johnson mentored seven first-team All-Americans at Penn State, including Tamba Hali, Michael Haynes, Courtney Brown and Devon Still. Six of his players won Big Ten defensive-player of-the-year or Big Ten defensive-lineman-of-the-year honors.

Terry Joseph, Nebraska, secondary: Like the other coaches on this list, Joseph excelled on the recruiting trail, helping to increase Nebraska's presence in the South and Southeast. In 2012, Joseph's first season on staff, Nebraska led the nation in opponent pass completion percentage (47.1 percent), ranked fourth in pass defense (168.2 yards allowed per game) and ninth in pass efficiency defense (105.32). He developed players such as cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans, and safety Daimion Stafford, all of whom earned all-Big Ten honors. Nebraska intercepted 27 passes in Joseph's two seasons on staff. He leaves for a the same post at Texas A&M.

Seth Littrell, offensive coordinator/tight ends/fullbacks, Indiana: Littrell oversaw a Hoosiers offense that finished ninth nationally in total yards, 16th in scoring and 17th in passing. Although head coach Kevin Wilson gets much of the credit for the offense's prowess, Indiana improved significantly in Littrell's two seasons. In 2012, the Hoosiers scored 9.4 more points and racked up 111.8 pass yards per game more than they had the previous year. Indiana in 2012 set team records for passing yardage (3,734), total offense (5,304), completions (331), attempts (540) and total plays (939), and shattered the total offense and touchdowns marks last fall. Tight end Ted Bolser blossomed under his watch. He leaves for a similar post on North Carolina's staff.

Mike Vrabel, defensive line, Ohio State: The former Buckeye star made a seamless transition from playing in the NFL to coaching in college. After working with Ohio State's linebackers during a challenging 2011 campaign, Vrabel transitioned to the defensive line, where he mentored standouts John Simon and Johnathan Hankins in 2012. Simon won Big Ten defensive-player-of-the-year honors that fall. Vrabel in 2013 inherited a group with no returning starters but helped develop players such as Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett and Noah Spence, who combined for 22.5 sacks. Vrabel made his biggest impact in recruiting, earning ESPN.com Big Ten recruiter-of-the-year honors in 2012. He returns to the NFL as Houston Texans linebackers coach.

It's voting time. You're up.

Big Ten lunch links

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
12:00
PM ET
How 'bout Nebrasketball? Impressed with what's happening in Lincoln.

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In a conversation with ESPN's Antonietta Collins, national recruiting reporter Gerry Hamilton breaks down the recruiting momentum building at Auburn and offers predictions for where the top 10 recruits will commit.Tags: Trenton Thompson, Kerryon Johnson, Jeffery Holland, Martez Ivey, Torrance Gibson, Cece Jefferson, ESPN 300, RecruitingNation, high school football recruiting, Gerry Hamilton
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