Ohio State Buckeyes: Northwestern Wildcats

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
5:00
PM ET
We're taking more of your mailbag questions from Twitter these days, and we now have individual Twitter handles in addition to the ESPN Big Ten account. Make sure to follow each of us for all your league news. Here is mine.

Now to the good stuff, which is your questions and my fair-to-middling answers:

.

Brian Bennett: I haven't thought of it quite like that, but I get your point. Iowa has a definite shot with its advantageous schedule. With the Hawkeyes' toughest two games coming in the final two weeks at home against Wisconsin and Nebraska, they have a chance to be favored in every game. Meanwhile, Ohio State faces many more challenges, including nonconference games against Virginia Tech, Cincinnati and Navy, along with that East Division showdown on the road at Michigan State.

Yet, if I had to pick one team to go undefeated of those two, I'd take the Buckeyes. Iowa's conservative style means that more games are likely to be close -- five of last season's 13 contests were decided by a touchdown or less, while Ohio State had three such games in 14 tries. Looked at another way, the Buckeyes outgained opponents by 137.6 per game in conference play last season, while the Hawkeyes outgained their league foes by 52.5 yards per game. Though past performance shouldn't be our sole guide for looking forward, Ohio State has gone 12-0 in the regular season the past two seasons.

I like Iowa a lot this year and am leaning toward picking Kirk Ferentz's team to win the West Division. But I'd be surprised if it didn't stub its toe a time or two along the way, whereas another Ohio State undefeated season wouldn't be shocking.


Hussein from Ann Arbor writes: I was reading your DB position preview and couldn't help but notice that Michigan was absent. I understand why they might not be number 1 in the conference, but they are returning tons of talent and I would be surprised if they weren't in the top 3 this upcoming year. Blake Countess is a stud and should compete for All Big-Ten First Team (if not All-American), while Raymon Taylor is very solid at the opposite corner position. At least one safety spot should be locked up with Jarrod Wilson with the other seemingly up for grabs(?). And that's without even mentioning Jabrill Peppers ...

Brian Bennett: I strongly considered Michigan for one of the top two spots, Hussein, and as you can probably tell, those posts are intended to rank every single team. I like the Wolverines' returning experience, and Countess should be one of the top cover guys in the league. Peppers can take the group to the next level if he is the real deal, but I'm a little bit cautious about projecting so much on an incoming true freshman who didn't go through spring ball. I have little doubt Peppers will make an impact this season, but how much? Ultimately, I thought Michigan gave up too many big plays in the passing game last season and wasn't physical enough in the back end. If Peppers helps change that, this crew has a chance to be the best in the Big Ten.


Brian from Raleigh, North Carolina, writes: Hey, Brian, about the Fitz-calls-Nebraska-boring "controversy"... maybe I've got my purple-tinted glasses on, but where's the beef? How are there even Nebraska fans angry about this? I grew up in the middle of nowhere in rural Michigan, and we made fun of how empty and boring it was all the time. Fitz made a bad joke that almost every American has made at some point in their lives. Is this really such a stinging, controversial comment? Or has cliche coachspeak become so dominant that a coach acting like an actual human being for 10 seconds is news?

Brian Bennett: I'm glad you put "controversy" in quotes, because this isn't really a big deal. Pat Fitzgerald's comments about Cal coach Sonny Dykes, I thought, were more intriguing. I can see why Nebraska people wouldn't like it, though. For example, f I call my home state "boring" or insult it in some other way, that's OK; if you as a non-Kentuckian do the same, well, them's fightin' words! Still, Fitzgerald was simply yukking it up with some Northwestern boosters after a summertime golf event, so let's not make it into a culture war. If anything, it adds a little spice to a very dull period, and the Big Ten can be far too dry and polite at times.


Ed from Michigan writes: Hey, Brian. It seem like everyone who follows college football has heard of stories of cheating and then the Big 12 Commissioner says the same. My question: Where is the investigative reporting to uncover this cheating?

Brian Bennett: There is no question about two things, Ed. One, the overwhelming majority of NCAA infractions cases began with a media report, as journalists have been doing the hard legwork for NCAA investigators for years. And two, fewer newspapers and other media outlets are devoting time and resources to investigative journalism these days. Some places still are, for sure. The North Carolina academic scandal is a perfect example of an issue that would have quickly vanished (or never even bubbled up) without the great work of some dogged reporters. What's also true is that uncovering those stories is painstakingly difficult, as it's often nearly impossible to find tangible evidence of cheating and not just accusations. For all the outstanding reporting that went into the Cam Newton affair, for instance, that smoking-gun shred of a paper trail never surfaced.

The bigger issue here, to me, is not from the media side but rather how cheating will be policed in the future. Particularly if -- or, more accurately, when -- the Power 5 schools gain autonomy and write many of their own rules, who will be there to enforce them? Certainly not the understaffed NCAA enforcement division, which will have ceded much of its power anyway. It likely will be up to the schools and conferences themselves. There is a good chance, as Bob Bowlsby said, that cheating will continue to pay off. There will just be fewer rules to break.

.

Brian Bennett: The Hoosiers were close last year. Had they beaten Navy -- or had they given themselves a more manageable nonconference schedule, something athletic director Fred Glass regrets in hindsight -- they would have made their first bowl since 2007. Unfortunately, the schedule is tough again this season, with road trips to Bowling Green (the preseason MAC favorite) and Missouri, a crossover road game at Iowa and the rugged East Division. The good news is that Kevin Wilson had built a standout offense, and the defense has some small reasons for optimism, so IU should at least be within range of bowl eligibility.

As for Tevin Coleman, he's probably one of the most underrated players in the league. He's an outstanding athlete whose length and speed reminds me of Melvin Gordon. In fact, he scored as many rushing touchdowns (12) as Gordon did in four fewer games last season and averaged 7.3 yards per rush. With Indiana potentially relying on the run game a bit more this season, Coleman could put up monster stats.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
12:00
PM ET
Oppressive heat returns to the Midwest. Must be almost time for the start of football practice.

B1G awards watch list roundup

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
3:00
PM ET
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's lunch links

July, 3, 2014
Jul 3
12:00
PM ET
Pre-fireworks links:

Big Ten lunch links

July, 2, 2014
Jul 2
12:00
PM ET
Lots to digest here.

The Opening presented by Nike Football will take place July 7-10 at Nike World Headquarters in Oregon, with 162 of the nation's top high school football prospects set to compete. With four days of dynamic training, coaching and competition among the best of the best, The Opening is the perfect chance for recruits in the Class of 2015 to make big jumps and shine on the national stage.

Here are five prospects with the most to gain at the prestigious event:

Big Ten lunch links

June, 26, 2014
Jun 26
12:00
PM ET
USMNT, let's do this.

Big Ten Wednesday mailblog

June, 25, 2014
Jun 25
5:00
PM ET
Tackling the second of three mailblogs this week. Have questions? Send them here or tweet me here.

What's on your mind?

@mikemagnus via Twitter: Would there be as much pushback adding Maryland and Rutgers if they were added at the same time as Nebraska rather than separately?

Adam Rittenberg: Really interesting question, Mike. As Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany often says, not every expansion addition can be Nebraska or Penn State. There is filler out there (hello, Utah, Colorado and TCU) and schools brought in more for their locations than their athletic tradition. I think if this happened in 2010, the reaction could have been different. Nebraska would be celebrated and Rutgers and Maryland would be seen as a way to get closer to the superconference model.

Some of the criticism would remain, and some would wonder why the Big Ten didn't add other Big 12 schools. Remember, the eastern movement wasn't a B1G objective at the time, and the ACC hadn't added Syracuse and Pittsburgh. But overall, I don't think the backlash would be as strong because Nebraska would be a nice distraction.


Brian from Raleigh, North Carolina, writes: Hey Adam, one thing really stood out about the B1G Presidents & Chancellors' letter: they endorsed most of Kain Colter and CAPA's stated goals. As you say, none of the ideas are new, but is it safe to call this a (provisional) vindication for Colter? And what should we make of the fact that they didn't endorse a formal seat at the decision-making table for athletes?

Rittenberg: Brian, it's definitely a victory of sorts for Colter and CAPA. They would like to see more specifics and protections in the medical plans schools will offer athletes (current and former), but it's significant that the medical coverage piece is part of the signed letter. CAPA has been smart in not advocating first for a pay-for-play model, as few can argue with a push for greater medical coverage for athletes. Good point about the omission of an athlete seat at the decision-making table, although Delany and other league leaders have voiced their support for one.


Isaiah from the South Carolina cornfields writes: Adam, I believe that the best approach for scheduling nonconference opponents is a balanced one. Games against only FBS teams is a great start, but let's be honest, Eastern Michigan is probably a worse team than North Dakota State. Really, what is important is the quality of the opponent. Teams that finish within 25 places from where your team does should be the norm; this could include playoff FCS teams as well. One opponent should be a marquee team as well. Some opponents will dud out, sure, but it's better than beating up on Sun Belt and MAC teams.

Rittenberg: Isaiah, glad to hear from some cornfields outside Big Ten country. I like your plan for teams to play more comparable opponents as much as possible, but there are some potential problems. Since scheduling is done so far in advance, an opponent that looks comparable at the time the series is scheduled might have declined by the time the games are played. Ohio State found this with its recent Cal series, as Cal went from a Top 25 program between 2004-08 to a very bad one the last two seasons. I could live with FCS playoff teams, as many are better than the bottom of the FBS and they would help Big Ten teams meet their home-game demands.


@lukebilotta via Twitter: Who is the player nobody is talking about but is poised for a breakout season?

Rittenberg: Luke, since you're an Indiana fan, I know you talk about Tevin Coleman quite a bit, but he's not a known name around the Big Ten. That should change this season if Coleman stays healthy. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon might be the top big-play back in the country, but Coleman isn't far behind. He averaged 7.3 yards per rush and 141.7 all-purpose yards in nine games last year. Perhaps that qualifies as a breakout season, but Coleman should be an even bigger part of IU's offense as a junior, and he runs behind arguably the Big Ten's best offensive line, another group no one talks about (check the blog on Thursday for more).

On defense, keep an eye on two linemen: Penn State's C.J. Olaniyan and Northwestern's Ifeadi Odenigbo. Olaniyan quietly had 11 tackles for loss and five sacks last season, and he should be even better this year. Odenigbo is a speed rusher who, in limited work, had 5.5 sacks last season. When he figures it out, he'll be a force off of the edge.


Mark from Snyderville writes: I think having a solid slate of semi-cupcakes is respectable but lacking. The MUCH tougher noncon slate in my opinion is one that can make or break your season and league perception in one game. For instance, Wisky plays LSU. That is HUGE for the B1G. Win and the perception of Wisky and the B1G changes overnight. Maybe the perception changes just for the rest of the season, but it gives you a big boost for the upcoming playoffs. Kansas State plays Auburn at home on a Thursday night. You think that game means more to the conference than, say, Texas vs. BYU? Of course it does. Give me one big, huge, giant, winner-takes-all game over 3-4 mediocre scraps any day.

Rittenberg: I tend to agree, Mark. Ohio State took this approach for years and had blockbuster, conference-perception-shaping games against teams like USC and Texas. While I would like to see one other quality opponent on the schedule, the strength of a schedule with Oregon or LSU on it trumps one with good or average teams and no cupcakes. Also, I've noticed teams that step out and truly play a marquee opponent often avoid criticism for the rest of their nonleague schedule.

Big Ten's lunch links

June, 25, 2014
Jun 25
12:00
PM ET

It's OK, these links don't bite.

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.
If the preseason All-America teams are any indication, the Big Ten will have a very good year in the offensive backfield -- both carrying the ball out of it and penetrating it.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon has averaged a gaudy 8.1 yards per rushing attempt during his career.
Running back and defensive line appear to be the league's two strongest position groups -- possibly by a wide margin -- entering the 2014 season. Athlon on Monday came out with its preseason All-America teams, following up Phil Steele, who released his last week. Three Big Ten players made Athlon's first team: Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett and Michigan State punter Mike Sadler. Four other defensive linemen -- Nebraska's Randy Gregory (second team), Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun (second team), Ohio State's Joey Bosa (fourth team) and Iowa's Carl Davis (fourth team) -- made one of the remaining three teams, and two other running backs -- Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (second team) and Michigan State's Jeremy Langford (fourth team) -- also appear.

Steele had Bennett and Calhoun on his first team, Gregory and Bosa on his second team and Davis on his third team. Like Athlon, he lists Gordon as a first-team running back and Abdullah on the second team. It's interesting to see Calhoun getting a bit more love than Gregory, even though Gregory led the Big Ten in sacks and is projected as a higher draft pick.

Not sure about you, but I can't wait for Calhoun and Gregory to share the field Oct. 4 at Spartan Stadium, or for longtime friends Gordon and Abdullah to match up on Nov. 15 at Camp Randall Stadium. Both matchups should be fun to watch all season.

It's not unusual for defensive line and running back to headline the Big Ten. Both positions historically are strong in the league, especially defensive line. A potential concern is that only one quarterback -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller -- and zero wide receivers make any of Athlon's teams. Steele has two Big Ten wideouts, Maryland's Stefon Diggs and Michigan's Devin Funchess (has played tight end but listed as a receiver), on his third team. Still, it's clear these are two positions where the Big Ten continues to need upgrades.

Other Athlon preseason All-America selections include: Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff (second team), Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman (third team), Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond (third team), Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston (third team), Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan (fourth team), Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes (fourth team) and Northwestern punt returner Venric Mark (fourth team).

The Big Ten is tied with the Pac-12 for third among overall Athlon All-America selections with 18, trailing both the ACC (27) and SEC (26).

Big Ten's lunch links

June, 23, 2014
Jun 23
12:00
PM ET
Back from vacation. Nice to link up again.

Big Ten Friday mailbag

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
4:30
PM ET
I'm taking your questions for a third time this week, filling in the Friday time slot for the vacationing Rittenberg. I'll be gone myself next week, so this will be the last time I talk to you for a bit.

What do you got?

Doc from Scottsdale, Arizona, writes: What is your best case scenario for the Big Ten brand next season in regards to the Playoff? Assuming just one team gets into the Playoff, does it matter which school is there "representing" for the BIG or should just having a presence in the game be considered a victory for the league?

Brian Bennett: Best-case scenario, naturally, is winning a national title. Nothing enhances your brand quite like that. But the second part of your question is the important one, Doc. I think it's vital for the Big Ten to get a team into the Playoff this season. Conferences that don't take part in the four-team event will basically be irrelevant. I don't even think it matters if a Big Ten representative wins its semifinal as long as it is competitive (nightmare scenario: a blowout loss to the No. 2 SEC team in a semi.) Makes no difference which team from the league gets there, but the conference needs to make sure its champion is involved most years.


JR from Winchester, Virginia, writes: What signs or trends from the first few nonconference games will you be looking for that will telegraph what kind of year Nebraska will have? (Turnovers? Ability to pass the ball? Defensive line play?) Thanks.

Brian Bennett: You picked three good ones there, JR. Nebraska should have little to no trouble with its first two opponents, Florida Atlantic and McNeese State. Fresno State on the road in Week 3 could prove a bit dicier, but the Huskers should still win that game if they are a legitimate Big Ten contender. I want to see dominance, especially in the trenches and on that defensive line, in those first three games. I want to see Tommy Armstrong take care of the ball and show that he can make plays down the field. And mostly, I want to see Nebraska avoid some of the extreme mood swings and fluctuations we've witnessed in the past.

A great nonconference performance doesn't guarantee anything, because an injury or other adversity can strike any time. But it would be nice for the Huskers to avoid drama early on.


@TimShay17 via Twitter writes: The Badgers' passing game is their biggest question mark this season. Which is more of a concern: QB race or the unknowns at WR?

Brian Bennett: Good question, and I say it's the wide receivers. Joel Stave, at the very least, is a known quantity. The team won nine games with him as its starter last season, and an extra year of experience can only help him. If Tanner McEvoy beats out Stave, then it's because McEvoy is playing well in practice and offering an improvement. The receivers are still a giant question mark. It's anyone's guess who will lead this team in receiving this year after Wisconsin relied so heavily on Jared Abbrederis the past two seasons.


PurpleCatResurgence from Northbrook, Illinois, writes: Look I get it, Northwestern was sub-.500 last year, and the team still has some holes to fill, but the Cats are getting NO love in the national publications. This is almost the same team that if they get what, 5-6 plays go their way, they are a 9- or maybe even a 10-win team. They have a tough schedule this season, no doubt, but how many wins do you see this team achieving? In your view, what has to break right for this team to play in Indy this fall? Love the blog- Go Cats!

Brian Bennett: It is funny how quickly things can change. Northwestern was 4-0 and rising toward the top 15 heading into October last season. Then came the loss to Ohio State, the first of seven straight defeats, and now the Wildcats are basically off the national radar. Still, this is a team that won 10 games in 2012 and had been to five straight bowl games. As you said, Northwestern dealt with some serious bad luck in 2013, not only late in games but also with a ridiculous rash of injuries.

So Pat Fitzgerald's team could easily be one of the most improved in the Big Ten in 2014. Venric Mark is healthy again, and the offense has a solid identity behind Trevor Siemian. Plenty of talent returns on defense. The schedule is not easy, as the Wildcats drew Michigan and Penn State from the East Division and play at Notre Dame in November. On the other hand, the West does not appear to have any truly dominant teams. I definitely see the 'Cats getting back to a bowl. For them to truly contend for a division title, the offense needs to rediscover its explosiveness, and Fitzgerald will have to figure out how to get over the hump in some of those close games.


@mort_c15 via Twitter asks: Urban Meyer has said repeatedly that this year's freshmen will play will for OSU and few will redshirt. How many will, in your opinion, RS?

Brian Bennett: Meyer told me this spring, as he said often, that he made a mistake by not playing more true freshmen last season. He plans to avoid that in 2014. At the same time, he's not going to play freshmen just to play them. Barring injuries, it's safe to say that Raekwon McMillan, Johnnie Dixon, Curtis Samuel and Jalyn Holmes will play. Erick Smith could get a look at safety. Guys like Marshon Lattimore and Malik Hooker could force their way onto the field on special teams, at the very least. The more likely redshirt candidates are offensive linemen, like Kyle Trout and Brady Taylor, and quarterback Stephen Collier. Expect to see a lot of true freshmen on the field for the Buckeyes, but if a whole bunch of them are in key roles, that's probably not the best sign.


Dave from Columbus, Ohio, writes: There seems to be more time travelers here predicting how their favorite team (who has never shown the ability to win out) is going to just absolutely BEAT everyone, go undefeated and win the national championship. Yet you restrain yourself from laughing at them. Is it ever hard to do so?

Brian Bennett: I may have to hold back a chuckle or two. But that's the beauty of the preseason in college football (or any sport, really). Everybody's undefeated, and optimism abounds. Why punish that? The actual season will do that on its own.
This is the time of year when recruiting starts to heat up, especially as prospects show off their stuff at various camps. With commitments pouring in, it's time to take another look at the recruiting scorecard for the 2015 class in the Big Ten.

Penn State continues to lead the way, as coach James Franklin has already piled up 16 commitments for 2015. The Nittany Lions' seven ESPN 300 recruits are tied for fourth most in the country. The numbers are starting to add up for other Big Ten squads as well. The usual caveat here applies -- signing day is not until February, and a whole lot of things can change between now and then -- but here's a closer look at how recruiting stands in the league in mid-June.

PENN STATE
2015 verbal commitments: 16
ESPN 300 prospects: 8
Highest-rated recruit (according to ESPN.com): QB-DT Brandon Wimbush
Spotlight: When offensive tackle Sterling Jenkins committed to Franklin over the phone, Franklin was at a Penn State caravan in Hershey. Franklin held his cell phone out to the crowd and got a "We Are ..." chant started. It was only the start of the good news, as Wimbush committed the same day.

WISCONSIN
2015 verbal commitments: 13
ESPN 300 prospects: 0
Highest-rated recruit: Quarterback Austin Kafentzis
Spotlight: Gary Anderson's staff has been on a roll, picking up nine commitments in the past six weeks, including seven in the past 11 days. Sam Madden was the latest of three offensive tackles to give his pledge, and at 6-foot-7 and 340 pounds, he's bringing a whole lot of beef to Madison.

NORTHWESTERN
2015 verbal commitments: 12
ESPN 300 prospects: 0
Highest-rated recruit: Athlete David Dowell
Spotlight: The Wildcats' latest commitment came this month when New Jersey offensive lineman Andrew Otterman told Pat Fitzgerald yes. He was an under-the-radar recruit who was being pursued by Ivy League schools, and he plans on being a pre-med major.

RUTGERS
2015 verbal commitments: 11
ESPN 300 prospects: 0
Highest-rated recruit: TE-H Nakia Griffin
Spotlight: Kyle Flood has added three commitments in the past week. The highest-rated one was 6-6, 280-pound Blake Camper of Virginia, who will likely play offensive tackle for the Scarlet Knights.

NEBRASKA
2015 verbal commitments: 10
ESPN 300 prospects: 1
Highest-rated recruit: Cornerback Eric Lee
Spotlight: The Huskers have held steady, with their last commitment coming on May 15. That was from Atlanta safety Aaron Williams. He wasn't really getting recruited by SEC schools, but new secondary coach Charlton Warren, who's from Atlanta, obviously saw something he liked.

IOWA
2015 verbal commitments: 9
ESPN 300 prospects: 0
Highest-rated recruit: Athlete Drew Cook
Spotlight: The Hawkeyes grabbed their first eight commitments early, then added offensive lineman Brett Waechter last week. He sounds like the typical Kirk Ferentz project: a player from a small school in Iowa (Hartley) whom the recruiting services don't know much about. At around 6-5 and 265 pounds, he's got a nice baseline for that Hawkeyes development program to use.

MARYLAND
2015 verbal commitments: 9
ESPN 300 prospects: 0
Highest-rated recruit: Cornerback Kareem Ali, Jr.
Spotlight: After being quiet on the trail for months, the Terrapins picked up eight commitments in the past 25 days. That includes Ali, who chose Maryland over offers from Penn State, Michigan State, Florida, Rutgers and others.

MICHIGAN
2015 verbal commitments: 7
ESPN 300 prospects: 4
Highest-rated recruit: Cornerback Garrett Taylor
Spotlight: Offensive tackle Grant Newsome gave the Wolverines a boost last week, picking Brady Hoke's team over Penn State. The 6-7, 290-pounder also reportedly had offers from Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Notre Dame and loads of others. Given Michigan's recent struggles on the O-line, this came as particularly good news.

OHIO STATE
2015 verbal commitments: 7
ESPN 300 prospects: 2
Highest-rated recruit: Athlete Eric Glover-Williams
Spotlight: Buckeyes fans who were getting nervous about the slow start to recruiting were reassured when five players committed between May 27 and June 10. One of those is a long snapper -- Liam McCullough from Columbus. Long snappers don't often get scholarship offers, but McCullough had them from Michigan State and Wisconsin and is rated No. 2 nationally at his position. If he plays and you never hear his name again, the scholarship was well worth it.

ILLINOIS
2015 verbal commitments: 6
ESPN 300 prospects: 1
Highest-rated recruit: Offensive tackle Gabe Megginson
Spotlight: The Illini saw something in Washington D.C. running back Reggie Corbin, whose only other major offer was from Washington State. Since Tim Beckman missed out on USC transfer Ty Isaac, Corbin could get some early playing time in the backfield.

MICHIGAN STATE
2015 verbal commitments: 5
ESPN 300 prospects: 2
Highest-rated recruit: Offensive tackle Kyonta Stallworth
Spotlight: Quarterback Jayru Campbell, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor after being charged with assaulting a school security officer, decommitted from the Spartans, which was likely a two-way street. Michigan State had already found another quarterback in this class in Brian Lewerke from Phoenix. Running back Khari Willis committed over the weekend.

PURDUE
2015 verbal commitments: 5
ESPN 300 prospects: 0
Highest-rated recruit: Quarterback Elijah Sindelar
Spotlight: Darrell Hazell picked up four commitments in the past week, including three-star running back Robert Ennis from Millville, N.J. Purdue joined Ohio State in offering a scholarship to a long snapper, Ben Makowski, which inspired this post.

INDIANA
2015 verbal commitments: 4
ESPN 300 prospects: 0
Highest-rated recruit: Wide receiver Leon Thornton
Spotlight: The Hoosiers have added two recruits this month, including sought-after quarterback Tommy Stevens. With Tre Roberson transferring, Kevin Wilson needs to add a quarterback in this class.

MINNESOTA
2015 verbal commitments: 3
ESPN 300 prospects: 0
Highest-rated recruit: Safety Jacob Huff
Spotlight: All three of Minnesota's commits have come since May 30, and none have been rated yet by ESPN.com. Two of the three are twins, as defensive back Jacob Huff and linebacker Julian Huff each gave their pledge on June 5. Twin Cities, indeed.
You can look at a lot of different factors when trying to predict the forthcoming season. Most people start with last year's results, weigh in the number of returning starters, consider schedule strength and voila.

One potential predictor of success is experience along the offensive line. If there's any position where a coach wants veterans going into a season, it's got to be the hogs up front. A young, unproven offensive line can sometimes spell disaster -- just think of Michigan in 2013.

With that in mind, we're taking a look at the number of returning starts along the offensive line in the Big Ten this season. Preseason magazine guru Phil Steele has compiled a chart of career starts for every offensive line in the FBS in 2014. Here's how the league stacks up both nationally and against one another:

[+] EnlargeNebraska vs Minnesota
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota's Mitch Leidner will have the benefit of being behind one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country.
3. Indiana: 130 career starts
4. Minnesota: 129
19. Northwestern: 100
22. Rutgers: 99
23. Illinois: 96
46. Wisconsin: 74
66. Iowa: 62
T-68. Maryland: 61
T-68: Michigan State: 61
107. Michigan: 37
116. Nebraska: 32
117. Purdue: 31
126. Ohio State: 21
127. Penn State: 20

Indiana has more returning starts on the O-line than any other Power Five conference team (Appalachian State and UTSA are Nos. 1-2 in the FBS). The Hoosiers' line has been one of the more underrated units in the Big Ten of late and should be a real strength this season. ... Similarly, Minnesota is very experienced up front, which has to make Jerry Kill very happy. Expect more of that power running game in Minneapolis this year. ... Only one FBS team (Tennessee, with just six career starts) brings back less experience than Ohio State or Penn State. The Buckeyes, of course, lost four starters off a line that was dominant the past two seasons, while the Nittany Lions will return only Donovan Smith if Miles Dieffenbach is indeed out for the year. There are big question marks in the offensive trenches in both Columbus and State College.

So just how accurate is this measurement? Steele did the same thing last year, and the top Big Ten teams were Minnesota (No. 8 nationally), Michigan State (No. 9) and Ohio State (No. 30). The Gophers had one of their best seasons in a long time, while the Spartans and Buckeyes met in the Big Ten title game. Northwestern ranked last in the Big Ten, and the Wildcats went on to have a very disappointing season despite high expectations. Then again, Iowa (No. 94), Penn State and Wisconsin (tied for 90th) were all able to overcome experience issues.

Experience is one thing. Talent is another. Ideally, you'd like to have both, of course. Just keep in mind who's got veterans on the offensive line when coming up with your preseason picks.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Drive Through: Rankings Reaction
Brad Edwards and Antonietta Collins react to the College Football Playoff rankings that were released on Tuesday night.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video

BIG TEN SCOREBOARD