Big Ten Friday mailbag

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
5:00
PM ET
No longer do you need a Friday mailbag to help survive the football-free weekend. Still, we are here to help you digest the results of Thursday in the Big Ten and prepare for Saturday.

Mitch Sherman: It's complicated, Andrew. In theory, the Spartans should be rewarded for scheduling the Sept. 6 trip to Oregon, win or lose a tight game. But how would the College Football Playoff committee view a defeat? It depends, of course, on Oregon's body of work and the other contenders late in the season for the four coveted spots. A year ago, MSU would have made it in with an early season road loss to Notre Dame, which finished the regular season with eight wins. Michigan State's schedule is not exactly filled with heavyweights after next week. Its top competition (Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State) comes to East Lansing, presenting the Spartans with the best chance to wow the committee with impressive wins. And if a 10-win team emerged from the West to face the Spartans in Indianapolis, that would obviously help. I'm inclined to say, yes, Michigan State would have a good shot to make it at 12-1.

Mitch Sherman: I'm glad you asked, Collin, and thanks for being such a big fan. If anyone missed it, I wrote this week that Nebraska and Michigan marketed tickets with unusually aggressive tactics this offseason to combat soft sales, in particular from students. And on Wednesday, I tweeted that the Huskers had achieved their 334th straight sellout, extending an NCAA record, for the Saturday opener against Florida Atlantic. (I know, what a terrible thing to publicize.) If your feelings were hurt that we drew attention to ticket sales at Nebraska or Michigan, in spite of the packed houses expected this weekend at both schools, I say this: It's Nebraska and Michigan. We are talking about two schools that are known as much for their history of selling tickets as producing titles. When they are still working at it days before the opening game -- as rivals Ohio State and Penn State watch demand escalate -- it's interesting.

Mitch Sherman: A great start for coach Kyle Flood's team as a member of the Big Ten, beating Washington State 41-38 in non-neutral Seattle. Rutgers accomplished more offensively, even against a suspect defense, than I thought possible. Quarterback Gary Nova's performance, especially in the second half, tells me that he is ready for a bounce-back season under new coordinator Ralph Friedgen. And the Scarlet Knights' defense will have better days; Wazzu is going to put up yardage on most teams. I saw a motivated team in Rutgers that has a chance now to carry big momentum into October. The Penn State game in two weeks, already sold out in Piscataway, is huge for Rutgers. It has a chance to beat the Nittany Lions, but I'm not ready to change my prediction about the second half of this season. That is going to be a little rough. Just look at the schedule. But please, Rutgers, continue to prove us wrong.

Mitch Sherman: The Big Ten East is strong, with two contenders for the College Football Playoff, and a pair of giants in Michigan and Penn State that aren't quite at the top of their games. Indiana remains a borderline bowl team, and I'm not ready to anoint Rutgers or Maryland in their first seasons of league play. Historically, few divisions can compare. Today, the SEC West and the Pac-12 North are better, and the ACC Atlantic might be, too.

Mitch Sherman: I wasn't overly impressed with the Gophers. Their performance against Eastern Illinois was more dominant than the 42-20 score indicated as the FCS Panthers, who went 12-2 last season, scored two touchdowns in the final 30 seconds. But Minnesota looked out of sync at times, and I still wonder if it has enough high-end talent to contend for an upper-division spot in the West. That said, yes, David, be concerned about Iowa's Nov. 8 visit to TCF Bank Stadium. The Hawkeyes can beat every team on their schedule -- and also lose to about six, including Minnesota..

Big Ten morning links

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
8:00
AM ET
R.U. serious?

In case you missed it -- and you might have since the game ended around 1:30 a.m. -- Rutgers outlasted Washington State, 41-38, to win its first-ever game as a member of the Big Ten. It was a quality win for the conference and an even bigger one for the underdog Scarlet Knights.

Senior quarterback Gary Nova, who appeared to be wiping tears from his eyes on the sideline, addressed the TV cameras after the final whistle. When asked what this game meant to the program, he simply said: “I don’t know. It’s just a great win.”

He’ll have all of Friday to reflect on what it means. But, on the surface, it’s pretty clear: That win just earned Rutgers some much needed respect. And it showed that maybe the “pushover” tag was a bit premature.

Granted, the Cougars are just a mediocre Pac-12 team. Their scoring defense last season was among the worst in the nation, while their pass offense was among the best. Rutgers scored 41 points Thursday night but allowed 532 passing yards. So the game didn’t stray from the script all that much. Except, of course, where it counted -- the winning team.

No, this doesn’t mean the Knights will automatically hang tough against Ohio State or Michigan State. But it does show the Knights were underestimated. By how much? Ask us again after the Penn State game. But none of us five Big Ten bloggers picked Rutgers to win this game. And none of us picked RU to win more than four games on the season.

Kyle Flood's squad was impressive, especially on offense. The line absolutely dominated, and Paul James showed a nice blend of speed and power to the tune of 173 rushing yards and three TDs. Nova tossed a 78-yard TD on the first play, struggled the rest of the first half but then rebounded by going 11-of-17 for 174 yards in just the second half. Wideout Leonte Carroo could even be a popular waiver wire addition when it comes to our fantasy league.

The Knights received a lukewarm reception when they accepted an invitation to the conference. But they proved a lot of analysts and experts wrong with their performance against Washington State. Let’s see if they can keep doing that; there’s no better way to earn respect.

Welcome to the Big Ten, Rutgers.

Postgame wraps
East Division
  • MSU linebacker Taiwan Jones never showed a "clear indication" he was ready to play middle linebacker this camp, but he also never really had a down day either.
West Division
Extra point
  • Six Big Ten players made the cut on Mel Kiper's "Big Board," a list of the top 25 NFL prospects, with Nebraska DE Randy Gregory the top B1G player at No. 4 overall.

Big Ten bowl projections: Preseason

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
5:00
PM ET
You saw our predictions on the conference standings. And our picks for Big Ten defensive player of the year, offensive player of the year, freshman of the year and coach of the year.

But perhaps the most important prediction -- and the one that could cause some more debate -- involves the bowl games. Instead of giving our individual picks for this, we combined our thoughts and butted heads to form a consensus.

We predicted that 10 of the Big Ten's 14 teams will make bowls this season, which isn't too shabby for the conference considering Penn State is still facing a postseason ban. So only Illinois, Purdue and Rutgers were left out in the cold.

Without further ado, here are our Big Ten bowl picks:

College Football Playoff semifinal: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton: Ohio State
Capital One: Iowa
Outback: Nebraska
National University Holiday Bowl: Wisconsin
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Michigan
San Francisco: Northwestern
New Era Pinstripe: Maryland
Quick Lane: Minnesota
Heart of Dallas: Indiana

B1G fantasy draft: team breakdowns

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
2:30
PM ET
We gave you a round-by-round look and analysis of our Big Ten fantasy draft, so we thought we would also offer an overview on each of our teams.

What were our strategies? And how do we think we fared? Check it all out below, and let us know who you think has the best lineup:

Adam Rittenberg (Trombone Shorties): I wanted a top-shelf running back and got one in Ameer Abdullah. He will produce yards, but I'd really like to see his touchdowns total increase. Both of my wide receivers are tight end types (Jesse James is still classified as one, Devin Funchess isn't) who create matchup problems for defenses and should have big seasons. You need at least one dual-threat quarterback because of the scoring system, and I like Tommy Armstrong's potential in his second year as the starter. Connor Cook doesn’t bring much as a runner, but if he builds on how he ended last season, he will put up plenty of points, too. Paul James is a dynamic player when healthy and should get plenty of carries as Rutgers' featured back. I wanted a defense I could keep for several weeks, and Minnesota's unit, which should once again be pretty stingy, should have little trouble shutting down Eastern Illinois and Middle Tennessee.

Can you hear that? It’s the sweet music of another Trombone Shorties championship, coming your way this fall.

Brian Bennett (Legendary Leaders): Quarterbacks can dominate this particular scoring system, so I was happy to grab Devin Gardner with the fourth overall pick. He put up more total fantasy points than any player in the Big Ten last season, by a pretty wide margin (if only he could play Indiana every week). Speaking of the Hoosiers, I was excited to see Tevin Coleman still around for my next pick, as he should be a fantasy stud this season. Not getting Wes Lunt was a bummer (and, guys, I should have dibs on him come waiver wire time, right?) but Maryland's C.J. Brown should be a fine option, racking up points every time he throws to Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. If Ezekiel Elliott becomes Ohio State's featured back as expected, that could be a gold mine. My receiver spots are a little shakier, but I think that was the one position to punt since there weren't great options after the top couple of guys. It wasn't worth spending an early-round pick on a position that is really hit or miss in this fantasy system. Iowa's defense should be strong all year long with that schedule. I'm feeling good about my team, though injuries and the double-bye weeks can always wreak havoc.

Mitch Sherman (Sherman Tanks): Yards matter, but touchdowns mean more. My first pick, Jeremy Langford, reached the end zone nearly as often as Melvin Gordon and Abdullah combined last season. With Michigan State’s improved offense and less reliance this fall on the defense, Langford’s opportunities figure only to increase. I’m banking heavily on the Penn State offense, with quarterback Christian Hackenberg after a 20-touchdown freshman season and running back Zach Zwinak, who is good in the red zone. Throw in the PSU kickers, too, for good measure, though I will have to make some roster adjustments in October as the Nittany Lions get two bye weeks. Deon Long, despite facing some criticism from Maryland coach Randy Edsall early in preseason camp, is ready for a big senior season as he returns from a broken leg. I’m expecting similar production from Iowa’s Kevonte Martin-Manley, who has shown his game-breaking skills in the return game. Trevor Siemian, with the job to himself at Northwestern, can accumulate numbers in the passing game. And the Nebraska defense is solid as the strength of Bo Pelini’s team.

Josh Moyer (Coal Crackers): I would have preferred to draft last so I could’ve picked up a blue-chip running back and a top quarterback. But you have to adapt, right? Gordon was an easy decision as the No. 1 overall pick. Since my initial strategy was basically busted right off the bat, I took an advantage as soon as I saw one -- when only one wideout was taken in the first nine spots. I drafted Shane Wynn and Stefon Diggs back-to-back, so I now have the best corps of receivers in our league. By far. I’d also argue I have the best defense and kickers by twice choosing Michigan State. Mark Weisman isn’t a bad RB2, either. What does that leave? Well, admittedly, that leaves my weakest spot: Quarterback. I took Jake Rudock late in the draft and Mitch Leidner as my last pick. I wasn’t getting good value, so I kept holding off. Hopefully those two can produce some running TDs for me, and if one of them can break out, then Adam can start waving good-bye to that championship trophy.

Austin Ward (Massive Attack): Indiana might not be anybody’s favorite to win the Big Ten this fall. But to compete in a Big Ten fantasy league, there had better be at least one player from that team on your roster, so there was no need to wait when the third pick came around. Though grabbing Nate Sudfeld there might seem a bit premature, with each team playing two quarterbacks, grabbing the guy most likely to lead the conference in passing while guiding such an explosive attack felt like the smartest play. Complementing him with J.T. Barrett in the later rounds was a bonus, because Braxton Miller's replacement at Ohio State is also going to be at the controls in a high-octane spread system with plenty of skill players around him. That should allow him to rack up decent passing numbers which he will supplement with his rushing ability. Leading with those two quarterbacks, this team should be poised to consistently put up big numbers.

B1G fantasy draft: round-by-round analysis

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
2:00
PM ET
Big Ten football kicks off in just a few hours. So you know what that means – the start of tailgates, packed stadiums and unforgettable upsets. And, of course, the start of another season of our Big Ten fantasy league.

The Trombone Shorties (Adam Rittenberg) and the team formerly known as The One Who Knocks (Brian Bennett) won’t have it easy anymore. The Big Ten fantasy league is no longer just a head-to-head battle. Now, in Year 4 of the league, there are five of us – and the competition and trash talk are intense. (If you want to play college fantasy football, too, you can do so through ESPN’s College Football Challenge.)

We held a live eight-round draft earlier this week, and below you’ll find our draft results – along with a brief analysis by Josh Moyer on each round:

 

Round 1: The No. 2 overall pick is the trickiest in this draft. Melvin Gordon is the easy No. 1 – but where do you go from there? On one hand, running back is deep, but the top four at the position could be gone when the pick comes around again. Rittenberg opted to play it safe by picking Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah, widely regarded as the second-best offensive player in the B1G. But he might come to regret the pick if Abdullah can’t find the end zone more often. Abdullah averaged 19.8 fantasy points a game last season, which was behind Tevin Coleman (20.79 points) and just slightly ahead of Jeremy Langford (19.42 points), who really took off in Game 6. … Quarterbacks and wideouts were at a premium, so Ward and Bennett focused on quarterback in the first round. There are no point deductions for turnovers, so the Devin Gardner pick was a smart one.

[+] EnlargeGordon
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesWisconsin's Melvin Gordon was an easy pick as the No. 1 player in the Big Ten blog's fantasy draft.
Round 2: Let the run on wide receivers begin. If teams didn’t spend one of their first two picks on the position, then it was basically impossible to get an elite player. Rittenberg struck first with Devin Funchess, stealing my pick. I “settled” on Indiana’s Shane Wynn. … Everyone knew Bennett’s pick before he made it, but it was another great one with Coleman. Bennett probably had the best first two rounds out of any of us. … Ward’s pick of Josh Ferguson in the second round was mildly surprising since we don’t get a point per reception, but the running back picture was more muddled after the first four went off the board.

Round 3: I started off the third round with Stefon Diggs – giving me the top overall receiver combo with Wynn-Diggs – but definitely guaranteeing I’ll be in a hole later when it comes to quarterback. Rittenberg didn’t want the same to happen so he opted to take his first quarterback in Connor Cook. … This is when the draft started getting interesting. Sherman took Maryland’s Deon Long as the fourth overall receiver. It could certainly pay off in the end, but it certainly wasn’t a “safe” pick with Diggs as Maryland's top target and with proven commodities such as Ohio State’s Devin Smith still on the board. … Poor Bennett got the short end of the stick when he tried to draft Illinois’ Wes Lunt – but he wasn’t in ESPN’s draft database for some reason. So we decided as a group to exclude him; Bennett took Maryland’s C.J. Brown instead. A fantasy downgrade for sure.

Round 4: Maybe someone should’ve sent Sherman a memo on Penn State’s offensive line because he took Zach Zwinak over some other prime options. But Sherman’s banking on the goal-line value of Zwinak, who scored 12 TDs last season. Zwinak could be like fantasy football’s 2004 version of Jerome Bettis. … With few receivers left, Smith was a solid pick by Ward and definitely his best value of the draft so far.

Round 5: I took my first quarterback in Iowa’s Jake Rudock, as I’m banking on some extra value thanks to his penchant for running close to the goal line. (He had five rush TDs last season.) But, in retrospect, that might not have been the best move. Ward got another good value pick in Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett – and, while Rudock is the safer pick, Barrett certainly has the higher ceiling. Part of me is regretting my choice already. … Bennett’s great draft continued by grabbing the best remaining receiver in Kenny Bell. If he can meet his 2012 touchdown production (8), this could be the best-value receiver pick of the draft. … Rittenberg also made a good move with Rutgers’ running back Paul James, who has a few early games against bad defenses. If he falters when the schedule gets harder, there’s always the waiver wire.

Round 6: Flag on the play, Sherman! The Sherman Tanks initially tried to draft Ohio State’s Dontre Wilson, a hybrid back, as a receiver – but ESPN’s database listed him only as a running back. So Sherman had to pick again and chose Iowa’s Kevonte-Martin Manley. … Ward was not happy with the remaining receiver selection at all. It showed in his pick; Penn State’s Geno Lewis could be third in receiving on Penn State by the time the season ends. … Rittenberg made an interesting move by picking Minnesota’s defense first, over Michigan State’s defense. His reasoning was solid, though. MSU plays Oregon in Week 2 and then has a bye. So he didn’t want to work the waiver wire that early. Me? I took the Spartans’ D with the next pick, and I’ll ride it out.

Rounds 7-8: It was mostly all kickers and defenses in the final two rounds. Rittenberg took Penn State tight end Jesse James to fill his last receiver spot in the sixth round, and it was a good pick for being the 10th receiver/tight end taken. James is 6-foot-7 and could be a nice red-zone target for Christian Hackenberg this season. … The only other non-defense/kicker came from me. I needed a quarterback, so this year’s Mr. Irrelevant is Minnesota’s Mitch Leidner. Quarterback is definitely my weakness. But I don’t care if Leidner throws 40 percent -- as long he scores a rushing TD every game.
video

National recruiting reporter Jeremy Crabtree joins ESPN's Antonietta Collins to discuss how high-profile early-season college football games affect recruiting efforts of teams involved.
Focus only on the position of choice and the conference looks the same as it ever did.

While quarterbacks across the nation are putting up crazy numbers like pinball machines and spread offenses are letting wide receivers run wild and rack up yardage, that tradition-loving, old-school Big Ten appears downright antiquated with its continued emphasis on running backs carrying the load.

But look closer.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cobb
AP Photo/Andy Clayton-KingMinnesota's David Cobb says every team in the Big Ten needs a good running back to win league games.
Sure, the league remains plenty happy to hand the football off and wait for the dirt to start flying. But the days of expecting 3 yards a pop are long gone, replaced with an expectation now that a featured rusher better be close to doubling that. And instead of a cloud of dust, there had better be a trail of it if a Big Ten tailback is going to keep his job for long.

The evolution of offenses may not have done much to change the face of the most productive players in the conference. But when there are so many game-breakers in Big Ten backfields, there's really not much incentive to shift the focus away from them in the first place.

"This a running back-heavy league, and you need a good running back, an every-down back to get through the Big Ten," Minnesota senior David Cobb said. "And in this league, there's a good running back on every team."

The conference has never really been in short supply of rushers, but the ground game looks particularly fertile this season with so many talented tailbacks returning as the focal point on offense.

The conversation about the league's best typically revolves around Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, the top two returners in the league and the odds-on favorites to claim offensive player of the year honors while leading teams aiming for the conference title. They're also close friends who admit to some good-natured trash talk that comes from paying attention to the league's yardage leader board, but both know it might not be safe to just measure themselves against each other this fall.

Michigan State's Jeremy Langford somehow largely flew under the radar last season despite piling up more than 1,400 yards and leading the Big Ten in rushing touchdowns with 18.

Cobb will be getting no shortage of carries in Minnesota's power rushing attack, and indications out of training camp suggest he's even better than he was while gaining 1,202 yards as a junior.

Despite playing in a spread system, Indiana's Tevin Coleman offered a reminder of the importance of balancing out a passing attack with a productive rusher, with his explosiveness in averaging more than 7 yards per carry driving the point home. Josh Ferguson does the same for Illinois, complementing his 5.5 yards per carry with 50 receptions for 535 yards and 4 touchdowns as a target in the passing game. Iowa's Mark Weisman came up just short of the 1,000-yard milestone last year, but he's playing behind perhaps the best set of blockers in the conference this fall and should be poised to capitalize on those huge holes opened by left tackle Brandon Scherff and his buddies.

Even at schools with unsettled depth charts at the top there's little reason to panic. Carlos Hyde is gone at Ohio State, but it has a stable loaded with both veterans like Rod Smith and youngsters like presumptive starter Ezekiel Elliott poised to take over. Michigan struggled to move the football on the ground a year ago, but Derrick Green looks ready to live up to his billing as one of the top recruits in the 2013 class as he moves into a likely starting role.

And if all that depth makes winning the rushing crown a bit tougher this fall for Gordon or Abdullah, they certainly aren't worried about a little competition. In the Big Ten, that's long been a source of pride.

"Definitely, you can look at every team," Abdullah said. "You just go down the line, and the running back position in this league is really deep. It's going to be good competition for this year statistically. I feel like it gets overshadowed a little bit. You throw in T.J. Yeldon [at Alabama], [Georgia's Todd] Gurley, guys who play for those SEC teams or maybe the Pac-12 guys and we get overshadowed a little bit. But all we can do is show up to work every Saturday and prove our case."

Abdullah and Gordon are expected to build the strongest of them, and they may emerge as the Big Ten's best hopes for a Heisman Trophy now that Braxton Miller is out of the picture with a season-ending shoulder surgery.

But even if the Ohio State senior had been around this season, the quarterback might have had a hard time stealing some attention during what's shaping up as a callback to the league's tradition with one more Year of the Running Back.

"The Big Ten, we're known for running the ball, and when you can take pressure off the quarterback by giving the rock to the running back, that's a good feeling," Gordon said. "And we've got a lot of good running backs in the Big Ten -- it's not just me and Ameer.

"I think there are some other guys that need some praise as well. There are some good backs we have in this conference, and they'll be heard sooner or later."

There's still plenty of opportunities to make a little noise as a tailback in the Big Ten. And the league has a long list of guys ready to make some racket.

Big Ten Week 1 predictions

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
9:00
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Week 1 is finally here. While there aren't many marquee matchups in the opening weekend, there are a few that have our writers talking.

Game of the Week: Wisconsin vs. LSU

Our writers all picked LSU to beat Wisconsin, but some had a harder time with the pick than others.

Brian Bennett: Wisconsin has a real chance here at the upset. Week 1 is definitely the time to catch LSU this season, as the Tigers will be breaking in a slew of new players and have some major question marks at quarterback. Of course, you could say those same things about the Badgers, who will be counting on basically a brand-new defensive front seven, several unproven receivers and a new starting QB in Tanner McEvoy. Wisconsin's running game is the great equalizer, especially if that ground attack shortens the game and springs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement for big plays. Asking either side to play mistake-free is a bit much for an opener involving so many fresh faces. In the end, LSU has more explosiveness to overcome its errors and exploit Wisconsin's, so the Tigers win by a touchdown.

Austin Ward: Openers can be sloppy enough on their own, let alone debuts with uncertainty at quarterback and the expectation that two guys will be needed to fill that critical role. Both teams have some questions under center, but it seems much more dangerous to be unsettled and unproven when taking on a loaded defense such as LSU's. Wisconsin has running backs Gordon and Clement lining up behind a veteran offensive line to provide a rushing attack to lean on, but if it becomes a one-dimensional offense against the Tigers, aggressive defensive coordinator John Chavis will turn his athletic, physical unit loose and there will be no escape in Houston.

Majority opinion: Penn State over UCF
This was the only game our writers disagreed on. Austin Ward, Mitch Sherman and Adam Rittenberg liked the Nittany Lions, while Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer took the Knights.

Josh Moyer: The Nittany Lions have too many question marks -– and too much that still needs to improve -– to be favored right now. What’s Penn State’s main weakness? The offensive line. So what’s one thing it's going to count on to offset that? The passing game. Well, Central Florida’s secondary has a chance to be elite. And overall, UCF might boast the best defense in the AAC. On the other side of the ball, the Knights may be without quarterback Blake Bortles this season, but they still have a loaded receiving corps with J.J. Worton, Rannell Hall and Breshad Perriman. Penn State's secondary, especially the corner spot opposite Jordan Lucas, could struggle against this kind of offense. PSU hangs tough but falls in the end 28-20.

Adam Rittenberg: The oddities surrounding this game favor Penn State, which is tougher to prepare for with a new coaching staff. UCF's veteran defensive line and George O'Leary's play-calling prowess worry me, but I see PSU exploiting some matchup advantages (Jesse James vs. anybody) with a superior quarterback and hitting on some big plays. Expect improvement on Penn State's defense, which limits a UCF offense missing Bortles and Storm Johnson.

It's unanimous
Our writers agreed on the following:

Minnesota over Eastern Illinois
Washington State over Rutgers
Michigan State over Jacksonville State
Indiana over Indiana State
Iowa over Northern Iowa
Michigan over Appalachian State
Purdue over Western Michigan
Ohio State over Navy
Illinois over Youngstown State
Maryland over James Madison
Northwestern over Cal
Nebraska over FAU
LSU over Wisconsin

Mitch Sherman: Not much else of great intrigue on the opening-week schedule, but Ohio State-Navy is worth a look, with the attention swirling around the debut of Buckeyes freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Midshipmen are no pushover, but the Buckeyes own enough of an edge in athleticism to take care of business. Because of its strange offseason, Northwestern is interesting, even against Cal, which was dismal last season. And for entertainment value, Rutgers’ Big Ten debut Thursday night against Washington State may rank high. The Scarlet Knights need to limit the Cougars' possessions and get off the field on third down -- or watch Wazzu quarterback Connor Halliday light them up with 65 to 70 pass attempts.

Big Ten morning links

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
8:00
AM ET
Making it through an entire offseason is tough, and the Big Ten must know the toll it takes on fans when it throws them a bone and lets them open up their presents a couple days early.

That generosity is greatly appreciated, and tearing into a pair of games tonight with Minnesota and Rutgers both opening the season two days before the weekend is a gift worth treasuring.

But what about during the season? Once football is finally back and the season is in full swing, suddenly making it through just one week without any action starts to feel like an interminable wait. Would it be so bad to mix in a few Thursday nights once league play starts?

“Our program, a lot of the notoriety we’ve achieved over the last decade has been on Thursday night,” Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood said. “We’ve had some really special evenings on Thursday nights here in Piscataway, and we’ve played some great games on the road.

“You know, I try not to get involved in decisions that really are going to be the same for everybody. I think for our program here at Rutgers, Thursday night has been a really good night. But going into the future here in the Big Ten, we’re looking forward to it and playing games on Saturday afternoons. I think there’s a lot of plusses to that as well.”

The broadcast exposure on an evening with less competition can be an invaluable plus, though, and Rutgers might know that better than anybody else given their experiences before moving into the Big Ten this season. Now even in a league with a much higher profile, the program might find that kind of spotlight much harder to come by on Saturday afternoons.

The Scarlet Knights aren’t alone in that regard. Indiana might not be a huge national draw on Saturdays, but its high-scoring offense could draw a few more viewers for a Thursday night matchup with say, Maryland, which may enjoy the chance to showcase its program in front of a broader audience dying to watch a game.

There are hurdles to be sure, starting with the Big Ten’s fondness for tradition and the resistance it would surely meet from powerhouse programs like Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State who have established brands and large stadiums that don’t need unique kickoff times to help draw a crowd. But aside from exceptions early in the year like tonight for the Big Ten, in some ways it seems like the league has simply conceded a potentially marquee marketing opportunity among the power conferences to the Pac-12 (Arizona at Oregon, UCLA at Arizona State), Big 12 (Texas Tech at Oklahoma State) and ACC (Florida State at Louisville).

Maybe the Big Ten simply doesn’t need it. Truthfully, as a league it probably doesn’t since it obviously isn’t hurting financially, there haven’t been any complaints about the television ratings and it’s already adjusted for a busier Saturday schedule that now includes two extra teams by allowing for more flexibility with night kickoffs.

But for individual programs, there’s almost certainly a benefit to scheduling on an off night every once in a while. Sometimes waiting a whole week is just too much time without football, and by Thursday night, fans are ready to watch just about anybody put on the pads.

Odds are, there are a few teams in the league that would be willing to sign up for that spot.

Pre-game prep
  • The battle for field position will be critical for Rutgers when it opens tonight against Washington State. Quarterback Gary Nova will have more responsibilities at the line of scrimmage under offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen.
  • Mitch Leidner wants to "win for the state of Minnesota," and the quarterback's first shot at it this season comes tonight against Eastern Illinois. The Gophers are trying to find ways to fill up the student section again.
East Division
  • After four long years in reserve, linebacker Mylan Hicks finally finds himself in position to contribute for Michigan State and sits atop the depth chart, bracketed with Darien Harris.
  • USC transfer Ty Isaac had his medical hardship waiver denied, but that decision will be appealed by Michigan, which is still trying to get him on the field this fall.
  • Penn State was greeted with a little Irish weather on the practice field, but James Franklin had no complaints.
  • Maryland has depth at nose tackle, and it will play both Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo against James Madison.
  • The Ohio State depth chart has "or" all over it, but Steve Miller will definitely be starting in place of the suspended Noah Spence on Saturday.
  • What kind of numbers is Shane Wynn capable of posting this season as he becomes the focal point of the Indiana offense?
West Division
  • Derek Landisch returned to practice for Wisconsin on Wednesday, and the senior linebacker expects to be ready for the clash with LSU this weekend.
  • Iowa has a loaded stable of tailbacks at its disposal, but that still doesn't mean Kirk Ferentz is comfortable with his running game.
  • Junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell is helping to ease some of the minds that were worried when Nebraska lost nickelback Charles Jackson for the season during training camp.
  • Should Northwestern be worried about Cal's offense? These numbers suggest the Wildcats should be fine.
  • As the opener ahead of a season that could make or break Tim Beckman's career with Illinois draws near, the coach is exuding confidence his team can "take the next stride."
  • Purdue is offering free tickets to students for the opener.
Extra point
  • Can't wait to get to Byrd Stadium and try this bad boy. Who's hungry?
The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting news from across the country. Today's offerings: UCLA quarterback commitment Josh Rosen is off to a strong start in Week 1, showcasing why he will be a valuable recruiting tool for the Bruins this season. Plus, most of the Pac-12 attention has been on UCLA, USC and Oregon, but don't forget about the quality classes at UofA and ASU, and we continue our tour of the top recruiting happenings on social media.

B1G players in Week 1 spotlight

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
3:45
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Just a little more than 24 hours now before the first Big Ten team kicks off the season. We've waited so long for football to return that we'll even eagerly gobble up games against FCS opponents this weekend.

There's so much to look forward to, including the return of stars like Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun and Penn State's Christian Hackenberg. Then again, we already know what those guys can do. I'm really curious to watch some players perform either for the first time or in new roles. Here are nine players I'll really be paying close attention to in Week 1:

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke, Jabrill Peppers
AP Photo/Tony DingFreshman Jabrill Peppers has the potential to be a difference-maker from the get-go for Brady Hoke and the Wolverines.
Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan: Few recruits have ever come in with more hype than Peppers, especially on the defensive side. It's time to separate the hype from reality and see how good he actually is, both in defending the pass and on special teams. Wolverines coaches have mostly tried to diffuse expectations, but this week defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said of Peppers: "He’s so far, in everything we’ve done in practice and all that, everything we thought he’d be.”

Tanner McEvoy, QB, Wisconsin: We saw McEvoy make a switch to safety last year and end up doing very well then, so we know he's athletic with good instincts for the game. But we've never seen him at quarterback at this level. Will the 6-foot-6 signal-caller's quickness and mobility bring a new dimension to the Badgers' offense? And can he handle LSU's defense? Will we see some option? Can't wait to find out.

J.T. Barrett, QB, and Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State: Barrett will naturally be in a white-hot spotlight as he makes his first career start in place of the injured Braxton Miller. But don't forget the Buckeyes also have to replace the ultra-productive Carlos Hyde, and Elliott gets first crack at it. He broke his wrist during fall practice but is expected to be ready against Navy.

Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland: Diggs is not a new player by any means, but he's new to the Big Ten. And he hasn't seen the field since the middle of last year, when he broke his leg. By reputation and talent, he could be the league's best receiver.

Paul James, RB, Rutgers: Another new-to-you guy here, James led the nation in rushing after a month last season before getting hurt. He's back and could see a heavy workload Thursday night against Washington State.

Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State: The subject of one of the oddest recruiting sagas you'll ever see, McDowell could prove to be well worth the headache. He won't start Friday against Jacksonville State but figures to see a lot of playing time. "Malik's had a very good camp for a freshman," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday. "He's firm inside, he doesn't get knocked off the ball ... and uses his hands really well. I think he'll be an outstanding player for us."

Wes Lunt, QB, Illinois: Can Lunt be the savior not only for Illini football but also for coach Tim Beckman's job security? That's a lot to put on a player, particularly one who hasn't seen much meaningful action since the middle of 2012. But he has the talent to be a perfect fit in Illinois' spread offense. "Just being around Wes, he's calm and collected," Beckman said. "He's been there and had an opportunity to play as a freshman at Oklahoma State. You can see an air of confidence in him."
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The challenge was always clear, and Urban Meyer offered one final reminder of its importance to his offensive line on the practice field. But it still remains a bit of a mystery who exactly will be on that unit and embracing the opportunity to protect the precious cargo in the backfield just three days shy of Ohio State’s opener.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Decker
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteTaylor Decker is the only full-time starting offensive lineman returning this season for Ohio State.
It appears at least two position battles remain unsettled on the offensive line for the Buckeyes based on the depth chart Meyer released on Wednesday afternoon. Picking starters from a talented pool of options at left guard and center might not have been quite as big of a deal two weeks ago with Braxton Miller around to help make up for a few mistakes or a lack of chemistry up front thanks to his innate ability to escape from pressure. But the Buckeyes don’t have the senior quarterback around to get them out of jams anymore, and with J.T. Barrett making his first start, it seems less than ideal not to have five established blockers in front of him on Saturday against Navy, even if Meyer himself isn’t concerned.

“[Competition] is great,” Meyer said on Monday. “If you have bad players, then it’s a problem. If you have really good players and they’re just battling, battling, battling, that’s kind of normal at this time of year.”

Those battles started in March, and now they’re on the brink of spilling over into September with neither Billy Price nor Joel Hale pulling ahead at left guard or Jacoby Boren or Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay solidifying themselves as the anchor in the middle.

The Buckeyes only have one full-time starter returning on the line in the first place, and even with Taylor Decker back at tackle, he’ll be playing in a different spot after lining up on the right side last year. But there continues to be no panic from within the Ohio State camp heading into the opener despite trotting out so many new faces who will be entrusted with keeping a redshirt freshman quarterback protected as well as opening holes for a new starting running back.

“I’m not at all concerned with it because I’ve seen how everybody who has been in there has performed through practice,” Decker said. “When coach knows, he’ll know and he’ll put forth who is going to be the starters. I have no concern at all, because I know whoever is going to be in there is going to get it done.

“There’s one thing, we’re going to have to develop some cohesiveness once we know who is where. But there’s just been high energy [in practice] because there are guys competing for spots. High energy, up tempo, everybody is going hard. That’s going to help prepare us well for games.”

The first of them is finally here, but it’s still hard to tell exactly who is going to be where in front of Barrett. But no matter who winds up on the field for the Buckeyes, there’s no uncertainty about the top responsibility for staying there.

“Braxton made a lot of bad plays right with his athleticism,” Meyer said. “J.T. certainly has the ability to do that as well, maybe not as dynamic as Braxton, but everybody just has to go a little bit harder, be that much more sound and step up and protect our guy.

“They’ve stepped up very well. It’s a very good group of players, very good group of people.”

The issue for Ohio State continues to be figuring out the best way to arrange them.

Predictions: Coach of the year

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
11:15
AM ET
video

The Big Ten reporters give their preseason picks for 2014 league coach of the year.

Predictions: Defensive player of the year

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
11:00
AM ET
video

The Big Ten reporting crew gives its picks for league defensive player of the year honors in 2014.

Predictions: Freshman of the year

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
10:45
AM ET
video

The Big Ten reporting crew gives its predictions for the league freshman of the year.

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OSU Pulls Away From Navy
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