Ohio State Buckeyes: Michigan State Spartans

B1G media days: Best of Day 1

July, 28, 2014
Jul 28
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CHICAGO -- The season has unofficially started in the Big Ten.

Coaches are talking about the importance of taking it one game at a time while chasing a conference title. Players have busted out their finest suits and are raving about how difficult the offseason conditioning program was at their schools. And the media grabbed some free food between interviews.

There is one more day to go before the circus leaves Chicago, but before we get to that, the Big Ten blog is handing out some awards to put a bow on the opening day.

Best-dressed player: Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond. The honors could just as easily have gone to teammates Shilique Calhoun or Connor Cook, the former for his bow tie and the latter for his accessorizing with his enormous championship ring. But Drummond stole the show as the sharpest of the Spartans, who clearly looked the part of returning conference champs.

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Most fun-loving players: The bright spotlight and huge crowd around him might have kept Ohio State coach Urban Meyer a bit guarded, but his players certainly welcomed the attention and weren't afraid of being playful with the media. Tight end Jeff Heuerman loosened things up by locking quarterback Braxton Miller in a headlock, and after that, both decided to moonlight as media members by sneaking over to ask Meyer a few questions toward the end of a session -- a rare glimpse at the personalities off the field of two of the league's best talents on it.

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Biggest missed opportunity: The Wisconsin-LSU matchup to open the season is appealing enough at a neutral site. But the Badgers and Tigers could have taken the intrigue to another level by hosting those games at two of the loudest, most hostile stadiums in the country -- if only Gary Andersen had been around a couple of years earlier. The Badgers' coach said he "would have said yes" to a home-and-home series at Camp Randall and in Death Valley, a tantalizing what-might-have-been if the Tigers might have been as willing as Andersen.

Most appropriate Twitter handle: Nebraska’s Kenny Bell (@AFRO_THUNDER80). The 6-foot-1 receiver was probably the easiest player to pick out of a crowd, as his puffy afro towered over opposing players. Bell’s play didn’t earn him an award last season -- he was honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team -- but we just couldn’t go one more day without recognizing that 'fro.

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Best-dressed coach: Penn State’s James Franklin. Every day, the head coach spends 22 minutes to shave his head in every direction and trim that goatee ... so it seems slightly surprising that he is probably the coach who spends the most time on his head, considering he’s bald. But, hey, it takes time to pull that look off -- and he was also looking dapper with that Penn State lapel, blue tie and matching pocket square. Franklin often jokes that he doesn’t need to sleep, so maybe he uses some of that extra time to pick out the right clothes.

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Quote of the day: Penn State linebacker Mike Hull has learned under three head coaches -- Joe Paterno, Bill O'Brien and Franklin -- during his career, and their personalities really couldn’t have been any different. Hull laughed while providing their takes on social media as an example.

“Yeah, I’ve seen the whole evolution,” he said. “Joe didn’t know what Facebook was, O’Brien called Facebook ‘Spacebook’ and, now, Coach Franklin probably has every social media there is to have. It’s crazy.”

Most Big Ten quote: “How are you going to approach the Rose Bowl?” -- Michigan coach Brady Hoke, lamenting some aspects of the College Football Playoff in years, like this season, when the Granddaddy of Them All is to serve as a national semifinal game. Hoke suggested that some of the pageantry associated with the game -- for instance, the Beef Bowl team competition at Lawry’s, a prime rib restaurant in Beverly Hills -- will be eliminated because of the high stakes and need for a regular game-week regimen. Of the traditional Rose Bowl, Hoke added: “It’s the greatest experience in America for kids.”

Most Iowa quote (maybe ever): “Sometimes, old school is a good school.” -- Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz on his program’s resistance to some of the offensive innovation that has swept college football.

Best quote about a player not in attendance: “I don’t like standing too close to him because it seems like the wind is always blowing through his hair. When he smiles, this little thing comes off his tooth like in the toothpaste commercial.” -- Penn State coach James Franklin on sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 25, 2014
Jul 25
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The Big Ten season unofficially begins Monday with media days. So enjoy the weekend, and then let's get after it.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
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Oppressive heat returns to the Midwest. Must be almost time for the start of football practice.
The offseason can be a time of rest and relaxation. Or maybe it’s a perfect time for some team building. Or working a camp. Or raising some money for charity. Or just having fun.

We’re taking a look at how teams have been spending their offseasons. We start with the teams in the East Division, with the West Division teams coming a little later.

Indiana Hoosiers tackle a hamburger eating contest White T-shirt dinner in Maryland Youth campers too much for Michigan State Spartans players Michigan Wolverines coach Brady Hoke serves up breakfast Ohio State Buckeyes go paint-balling Penn State Nittany Lions set a "Lift for Life" record Rutgers' Scarlet Knight beefing up  

B1G awards watch list roundup

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
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College football preseason awards watch lists are, at best, little more than a summertime curiosity these days and, at worst, an easy punchline.

For one, there are far too many awards -- only country music likes to give itself as many trophies as this sport. There are often way too many players on these lists -- the Rimington Trophy list, for example, includes 64 players, or basically half the starting centers in the FBS, and 10 from the Big Ten alone. And, of course, eventual winners of these awards sometimes come out of nowhere, making the preseason lists even more meaningless.

We relegated almost all the watch list releases to tweets, but if you're interested, we thought we'd compile all the Big Ten players who were nominated in one place. If nothing else, you can come back to this page in December and perhaps have a good chuckle. Here you go:

Maxwell Award (Player of the Year)
Walter Camp (Player of the Year)
  • Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE Michigan State
  • Stefon Diggs,WR, Maryland
  • Devin Funchess, WR, Michigan
  • Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
Bednarik Award (Defensive Player of the Year)
Bronko Nagurski Trophy (Defensive Player)
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
  • Frank Clark, DE, Michigan
  • Blake Countess, DB, Michigan
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Kurtis Drummond, S, Michigan State
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State
Outland Trophy (Interior lineman)
Davey O’Brien Award (Quarterback):
  • Connor Cook, Michigan State
  • Devin Gardner, Michigan
  • Christian Hackenberg, Penn State
  • Braxton Miller, Ohio State
  • Joel Stave, Wisconsin
Doak Walker Award (Running back)
Butkus Award (Linebacker)
Rotary Lombardi Award (Lineman/Linebacker)
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Austin Blythe, C, Iowa
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Ron Havenstein, T, Wisconsin
  • Kaleb Johnson, G, Rutgers
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Brandon Scherff, T, Iowa
Biletnikoff Award (Wide receiver)
Jim Thorpe Award (Defensive back)
  • Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
  • Blake Countess, Michigan
  • Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
  • Jordan Lucas, Penn State
  • Trae Waynes, Michigan State
Mackey Award (Tight end)
Rimington Trophy (Center) Lou Groza Award (Kicker)
Ray Guy Award (Punter)

Finally, watch this list of my preseason awards watch list, uh, awards:

Most nominated: Thanks to his inclusion on multiple defensive award lists as well as one player of the year recognition, Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory leads the way with four nods.

Biggest "snubs:" We use the word "snub" very, very lightly here. Still, it was a mild surprise not to see Venric Mark on the Doak Walker list (he was, after all, nominated for the Maxwell) or for Maryland defensive lineman Andre Monroe to not show up anywhere. Apparently, Monroe's 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss last year weren't good enough to get him on the same list as dozens of other less productive players.

Weirdest list: The Butkus Award folks, bless them, either know something we don't or really swung and missed this year. Neither Maryland's Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil nor Ohio State's Curtis Grant were on anybody's radar for a major award, and you could make a very strong argument that neither is even the best linebacker on his own team (the Terps' Matt Robinson and the Buckeyes' Joshua Perry would have made more sense here). And then there's the omission of Rutgers' Steve Longa, who had 123 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. Just plain odd all around.

Just happy to be nominated: Northwestern's Chi Chi Ariguzo and Michigan's Devin Funchess are both outstanding players who should be in strong contention for all-conference and quite possibly All-America honors this season. But they have about as good a chance of winning a national player of the year award (which almost always goes to quarterbacks or running backs, anyway) as I do. Funchess was nominated for both the Maxwell and Walter Camp award, which means he has a great public relations man. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's Joel Stave isn't even guaranteed to start at quarterback this season for the Badgers, yet he found himself on the Davey O'Brien watch list. As usual, it doesn't hurt to cover all the bases when compiling a preseason watch list.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
12:00
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Saw Jack White perform "Seven Nation Army" live this weekend. Felt like I was back in a Big Ten football stadium. Soon enough.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

July, 2, 2014
Jul 2
5:00
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You know it, you love it, you can't live without it. It's Wednesday mailbag time.

@GeoffreyMarshal via Twitter writes: What do Wednesday's commitments say, if anything, about B1G recruiting? Is B1G recruiting too top-heavy?

Brian Bennett: Ohio State's additions of a pair of top 20 players in linebacker Justin Hilliard and defensive end Jashon Cornell is huge news for the Buckeyes, but not all that surprising. Urban Meyer and his staff have killed it on the recruiting front since they arrived in Columbus. We also know that James Franklin is going bonkers at Penn State, with ESPN's No. 4 nationally ranked class right now. And don't forget about Brady Hoke. While Michigan hasn't wrapped up as many commitments this summer as it has in years past, the Wolverines are still sitting on a top 25 class with room to improve.

But did we learn anything? Those three schools have long been at the forefront of recruiting in the Big Ten. If anything, the aggressive tactics of Meyer and Franklin might pull the rest of the league forward, because they risk getting left behind if not.

Then again, look at the last three Big Ten champions: Michigan State and Wisconsin (twice -- one impacted, of course, by Ohio State's probation). Neither of those programs usually finds itself among the elite in the recruiting rankings but instead both do a great job of scouting and developing talent. So just collecting star prospects guarantees nothing, though it is a nice place to start.

 




 

@hicksoldier via Twitter writes: What in your opinion is the reason that MSU keeps missing out on top recruits, especially on defense? And what can they change?

Brian Bennett: It's a stretch to say the Spartans keep missing out. Remember Malik McDowell, a top defensive tackle recruit Michigan State landed earlier this year after much drama? But I see your point. Michigan State made Cornell's final top five, but he ended up choosing Columbus. One would think, given Mark Dantonio's success in developing players -- especially on defense -- coupled with the team's rise toward the national elite would help the Spartans land a few more studs. But a school like Ohio State is always going to have some advantages in recruiting. The good news is Dantonio's staff does a tremendous job figuring out which players will fit the team's system and then polishing them into stars. And if Michigan State can continue to win big on the field and churn out pros, higher-caliber recruits should look toward East Lansing.

 




 

Glenn from Siesta Key, Fla., writes: Brian, why is it that during this offseason you constantly are mentioning the PSU OL as a weakness and question mark, while it seems OSU is pretty much in the same boat? Yet, all you talk about is how OSU will win its division and could be a playoff contender. Won't Braxton Miller have the same challenge as Christian Hackenberg if his OL doesn't show up?

Brian Bennett: For starters, I haven't said Ohio State will win the East Division. I'm not ready to predict that yet. You make a decent point, as both the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions likely will be replacing four starters on the offensive line. I have written that the offensive line is a question mark for Ohio State. But the two teams also are coming from different starting points. Ohio State's offensive line was the best in the league the past two years, and the recruiting at that position has been solid. Ed Warriner is one of the best position coaches in the nation.

Penn State's offensive line wasn't as dominant last year as the Buckeyes', and depth is a concern given the scholarship limitations. But I do really like Herb Hand and think he very well could have a Warriner-like impact for the Nittany Lions. We'll see. If Ohio State's line doesn't come together quickly, the Buckeyes could have problems early on against Virginia Tech.

 




 

Chris from Princeton, N.J., writes: I know you guys don't see Rutgers as a bowl team this year but let's say they do manage to get six wins. Where do you see those potential wins coming from?

Brian Bennett: It's not out of the realm of possibility that Rutgers makes a bowl, but the Scarlet Knights will have to win all of their toss-up games for it to become likely, given the schedule. They figure to be heavy underdogs against Michigan and Wisconsin at home and versus Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan State on the road. Going across the country for the opener against Washington State in Seattle looks very difficult as well.

That leaves very little margin for error. You can pencil in wins over Howard and Tulane at home. Beating Navy in Annapolis, while not an easy task, is doable and probably crucial. Conference games against Indiana at home and Maryland on the road could go either way. The Big Ten opener against Penn State should be played in front of a raucous atmosphere, and the Lions were often vulnerable on the road last season. So Rutgers is basically going to have to sweep all of its 50-50 games or pull off a big upset anywhere. Good luck with all that.

 




 

Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: Brian, do you recall the days of Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney? Could the mix of guys the Gophers have produce two 1,000-yard rushers?

Brian Bennett: I sure do, Craig. Those two guys were loads of fun to watch. I'm not sure which is harder to believe, in retrospect, about the 2004 Gophers: that they finished only 7-5 with that pair in the backfield, or that they beat Alabama in a bowl game. But going back to your question, Minnesota has an awful lot of talent at running back this season. David Cobb somewhat quietly ran for 1,202 yards last season, 12th most in school history. Donnell Kirkwood came close to 1,000 yards in 2012, and Rodrick Williams Jr. is a 247-pound beast who's almost impossible to bring down on first contact. Add in redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards, who might be more talented than all of the, and quarterback Mitch Leidner, who's got great wheels as well. And that's not even considering top 2014 recruit Jeff Jones, who might not be academically eligible.

Can two Gophers get to 1,000 yards? Minnesota almost certainly will be a rush-first team again this year. The hope is that the passing game improves enough so the offense isn't rush-first, rush-second and rush-third as well. I'm not sure there will be enough carries for two players to get to 1,000 yards, and the offense has to stay on the field longer to provide more opportunities. There may not be a Maroney or a Barber in this group, but it still should be fun to watch.

Back in early May, we heard from some concerned Buckeyes fans who were wringing their hands over Ohio State's slow start in the latest recruiting cycle. Back then, their team had only two commitments.

My reaction was simply to chuckle, because I don't see any reason to worry about the job Urban Meyer and his staff do on the recruiting trail. And just two months later, look at the Buckeyes now.

Ohio State landed two monster commitments this morning when defenders Jashon Cornell and Justin Hilliard gave their verbal pledges within minutes of each other. Both are five-star players, according to ESPN Recruiting, with Hilliard ranking as the No. 1 outside linebacker and No. 13 overall prospect in the ESPN 300 and Cornell checking in as the No. 5 defensive end and No. 16 overall prospect. Craig Haubert has a breakdown of how much impact the pair of five-star prospects can make on the Buckeyes' defense.

Cornell, who hails from St. Paul, Minn., eliminated Minnesota from his final list earlier this year. Michigan State and Iowa were also among his finalists. Hilliard, who's from Cincinnati, also considered Michigan and Iowa in his final five.

That gives the Buckeyes 12 total commitments and four in the ESPN 300. Our latest 2015 class rankings now have Meyer's team at No. 6 nationally, up 17 spots from their previous showing. The only other Big Ten schools in the top 25 are Penn State (No. 4 nationally with 17 total commitments) and Michigan (No. 23, eight commits).

The scary thing for the rest of the league is that Meyer and his staff have been known as great closers in the final weeks leading up to signing day, beating out marquee programs for top undecided prospects late. They're already built a great foundation in July. Hilliard said at his press conference that he and Cornell would try and recruit other elite players to join them in Columbus, including four-star Kentucky running back Damien Harris. He took note of today's news.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 2, 2014
Jul 2
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Lots to digest here.

Big Ten's lunch links

June, 30, 2014
Jun 30
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Today marks the birthdays of Mike Tyson and Lizzy Caplan, the anniversary of the merging of East And West Germany's economies and, of course, Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day. Oh, and I got married two years ago today. Probably should have mentioned that first.

To the links:
Earlier this week Sports on Earth took a look at the college football players facing the most pressure entering the 2014 season. The Big Ten occupied three places on the list: Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova; Ohio State cornerbacks Doran Grant and Armani Reeves; and Michigan offensive linemen Kyle Bosch, Jack Miller and Kyle Kalis.

For today's poll, I'll make it a bit simpler for you and simply list five individual Big Ten players facing pressure entering the season. It could be because of struggles last season, competition at their position or key personnel losses around them. Not surprisingly, the list is quarterback-heavy, but there are some other spots represented.

SportsNation

Which Big Ten player is facing the most pressure this season?

  •  
    7%
  •  
    67%
  •  
    6%
  •  
    7%
  •  
    13%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,987)

The candidates, please ...
  • Taylor Decker, OT, Ohio State: Last year, Decker was the young buck on the Big Ten's best offensive line. He's now the only returning starter for a group that will be in the spotlight as it must protect Ohio State's primary asset: senior quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes also have new blood in the backfield after losing bulldozer Carlos Hyde. Decker has a lot of responsibility to lead the line and maintain the standard set during the past two seasons.
  • Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan: The Wolverine linemen listed in the Sports on Earth piece undoubtedly are under the gun after a poor 2013 season, but so is Gardner. He was the most polarizing player in the Big Ten in terms of performance -- exceptional against Notre Dame, Ohio State and Indiana; shaky to woeful against Akron, Connecticut, Michigan State and Iowa (to be fair, the offensive line gave him little to no help). Now Gardner finds himself needing to wriggle free from Shane Morris, absorb a new offense and get Michigan back on track in his final season in Ann Arbor.
  • Taiwan Jones, LB, Michigan State: The Spartans survived without Max Bullough in the Rose Bowl, but they'll undoubtedly miss the player who defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi often called the "computer" of the unit. Bullough's system knowledge and ability to get his teammates on the same page helped MSU's defense rise to nationally elite levels. That responsibility now falls on Jones, who told Brian Bennett this spring, "Everybody's depending on you. You're that guy."
  • Gary Nova, QB, Rutgers: Nova is the rare three-year starter who finds himself needing to prove himself to fans entering his senior season. He started 10 games last season, but was benched down the stretch and saw his passing yards, touchdowns total and completion percentage dip from 2012. Nova competed with Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano this spring but emerged from the session as the frontrunner to retain his job. Still, he faces pressure to step up and claim support from a fan base that has debated his merits seemingly for a decade.
  • Joel Stave, QB, Wisconsin: Stave hasn't been on the field for Wisconsin as long as Nova has for Rutgers, but there's a similar dynamic going on. Some Wisconsin fans have Stave fatigue after the quarterback struggled for stretches last season. He loses top target Jared Abbrederis and must overcome a throwing shoulder injury that limited him in the spring. Dual-threat junior Tanner McEvoy is pushing for the starting job, and with so many questions at receiver, the coaches might want more mobility at quarterback.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 27, 2014
Jun 27
12:00
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So, the USA outlasts Spain, Italy and England? Losing never felt so good.
Big Ten reporters Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

Earlier this month, we took a look at potential double-digit sack artists in the Big Ten in 2014. Then we had you vote on who would lead the league in that category.

Nebraska's Randy Gregory was the only player to reach 10 sacks in the Big Ten last year -- or for the last two seasons, for that matter. Yet several talented defensive ends and pass rushers can be found around the league. So today's Take Two topic is this: Who will lead the Big Ten in sacks in 2014?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

Gregory is an obvious answer here. You could also easily pick defending Big Ten defensive lineman of the year Shilique Calhoun from Michigan State, Maryland's Andre Monroe or Minnesota's Theiren Cockran. All would be excellent choices.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa, Connor Cook
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsOhio State's Joey Bosa has the talent and the drive to be the Big Ten's best pass-rusher as a sophomore.
But I'm going with the guy who might have the highest ceiling of all. That's Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa. He had 7.5 sacks as a true freshman, which is a pretty remarkable achievement. Bosa was good all year, but he really impressed me in the Orange Bowl loss to Clemson when he basically played on one leg because of an ankle injury. He is a freakish athlete with a nonstop motor and a desire to be the best. Those qualities virtually assure we're looking at a future superstar.

I believe the Buckeyes will have one of the best defensive lines in the country this year, especially when Noah Spence returns from his suspension after two games. That will prevent offensive lines from keying on Bosa too much, while I think Gregory could be seeing a lot more attention. I predict JBBigBear, as Bosa calls himself on Twitter, takes it to the next level as a sophomore and leads the Big Ten with 11.5 sacks.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

Really good call on Bosa. I strongly considered selecting him myself, especially because of Ohio State's depth along the defensive line. But I think the sacks will be distributed a little more evenly for the Buckeyes, as Spence, Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington all can get into the backfield. Calhoun also could top the Big Ten sacks chart, especially with underrated veteran Marcus Rush and promising redshirt freshman Demetrius Cooper to distract offensive linemen. Minnesota's Cockran will be overlooked in this conversation, but he's bulking up and absolutely could build on his big sophomore season.

[+] Enlargenebraska
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsRandy Gregory made an instant impact with Nebraska in 2013.
Ultimately, I'm going with the best player, the guy with the highest ceiling: Nebraska's Gregory. Sure, he's the only truly scary player on the Huskers defense and undoubtedly will see more double-teams that he did in his first FBS season. But I think back to Wisconsin's J.J. Watt and how I thought he would be marginalized in 2010 after the departure of O'Brien Schofield (12 sacks in 2009). Watt simply went out and dominated, racking up seven sacks and 21 tackles for loss, earning All-America honors and becoming a first-round draft pick.

Gregory is the best pure pass rusher in the league. (Bosa is close, and Calhoun affects the game in other ways.) Gregory should be even better in his second season as a Husker. Sure, more teams will know about him and gear their protections toward him. Won't matter. Gregory will top the Big Ten sacks chart again before becoming a top-10, possibly a top-5, draft pick.

Big Ten lunch links

June, 26, 2014
Jun 26
12:00
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USMNT, let's do this.
This is not a ranking of the Big Ten's nonconference schedules. Repeat: This is NOT a ranking.

But certain national rankings like this are out, and it got me thinking how tough it will be to accurately evaluate the Big Ten's nonleague slates for 2014. It comes down to this: What should get more weight, a schedule with no cupcakes but no headliner or one with a truly marquee opponent and the rest snoozers?

My friend Bruce Feldman rates the nonleague schedules based on a system that awards points for the quality of nonleague opponents. Two Big Ten teams make his national top 10, and both fall under the limited cupcakes/no headliner label. Ohio State and Northwestern are tied for seventh with a total of three points. The Buckeyes face Virginia Tech (home), Cincinnati (home), Navy (neutral) and Kent State (home) this season, while Northwestern takes on Notre Dame (road), Northern Illinois (home), Cal (home) and Western Illinois (home).

Both schedules are certainly respectable, but is either a true challenge? A lot depends on whether Virginia Tech restores its place among the ACC's elite and Notre Dame surges following the return of quarterback Everett Golson. Cincinnati and Navy should be solid foes, and Northern Illinois has won 12, 12 and 11 games the past three seasons. But the Huskies are beginning life without star quarterback Jordan Lynch, as well as safety Jimmie Ward, a first-round draft pick. Cal won't go 1-11 again, but the Bears have a lot of problems and must play Northwestern on the road.

Clemson, tied with both Ohio State and Northwestern for seventh place, faces both Georgia and South Carolina in nonleague play. That seems like a much tougher schedule, even though the Tigers face Georgia State and South Carolina State in their other two contests.

There's no team on Ohio State's or Northwestern's nonleague slate that rivals Oregon, which Michigan State visits in Week 2. The LSU team that Wisconsin opens the season against in Houston also is projected higher than anyone either Ohio State or Northwestern faces. Those two games -- Michigan State-Oregon and Wisconsin-LSU -- have more bearing on Big Ten perception and potential playoff positioning than any others.

The problem is Michigan State's remaining nonleague schedule: Jacksonville State, Eastern Michigan and Wyoming. I just threw up in my mouth.

Wisconsin's remaining slate isn't much better: Western Illinois, Bowling Green and South Florida. I like Bowling Green's trajectory and its new coach, Dino Babers. It could be a tricky game, but Wisconsin will be heavily favored in all three contests.

So which type of slate is tougher: one with a single significant challenge or one with only one true breather? Better yet, which would you like to see in the future as nonconference scheduling gets even trickier?

Send me your thoughts.

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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12