Games that will test playoff hopes

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
4:28
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Got your four teams picked for the inaugural College Football Playoff?

Beware before you turn in your final list, because teams always come out of nowhere. For instance, Auburn, Michigan State and Missouri all finished in the top five of the final polls last season -- and weren't even ranked to start the season.

Conversely, the team starting the season ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press preseason poll hasn't finished higher than No. 7 the past four years.

None of us has a crystal ball, but we do have a road map of sorts -- the games that will shape who gets in and who gets left out this season when the selection committee unveils the first football version of the Final Four.

Here are 10 games to mark on your calendar:

LSU vs. Wisconsin, in Houston, Aug. 30

Right out of the gate, we get a game between two teams just outside the top 10 in the preseason polls who are talented enough to state their case come selection time for the College Football Playoff. And check out Wisconsin's schedule. If Melvin Gordon and the Badgers can get past the Tigers in the opener, the only other nationally ranked team (in the preseason) they face is Nebraska at home on Nov. 15. They avoid both Ohio State and Michigan State in the regular season.

Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6


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Big Ten morning links

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
8:00
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Actual college football returns next week. Huzzah.

And players are likely celebrating as well, because training camps are winding to a close. Depth charts are also shaping up as well as teams move nearer toward preparing for Week 1. But some key jostling for jobs remains. Let's take inventory of a few of the more interesting position battles left in the Big Ten:
  • Wisconsin quarterback: By most accounts, incumbent starter Joel Stave has looked like the better option over Tanner McEvoy so far this month. At this point, I'd be surprised if Gary Andersen started McEvoy over the far more experienced Stave in the opener against LSU, though McEvoy could see some time in special packages. The Badgers have practiced some option, and that just doesn't seem like Stave's cup of tea, now does it? Where some battles stand for the Badgers.
  • Illinois quarterback: Tim Beckman has said he could name a starter on Wednesday. Most everyone expects it to be Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt. A big question, in my mind, is how the Illini can best use Aaron Bailey's talents.
  • Michigan State linebacker: Replacing Max Bullough and Denicos Allen isn't cut and dry, but it's not because of a lack of options. Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke are coming on strong and pushing Taiwan Jones and Darien Harris for playing time. Mark Dantonio described the situation on Saturday as "sort of a linebacker group by committee right now."
  • Iowa cornerback: It's a three-man scrum between Maurice Fleming, Sean Draper and Greg Mabin to see who starts opposite Desmond King. Mabin might have been set back by a minor injury. But Kirk Ferentz said the position is "up for grabs right now." Ferentz still has a lot of questions to answer.
  • Ohio State left guard: Darryl Baldwin seized the right tackle job, but there's far less clarity at left guard, a position that Urban Meyer has said concerns him. Doug Lesmerises breaks down the fight for playing time there and elsewhere on the Buckeyes.

Another major position battle should be cleared up on Monday, when Purdue is expected to name its starting quarterback. But that's one where Danny Etling has been a big front-runner all along.

On to the links:

Weekend scrimmages

1. Jabrill Peppers is going to play a lot, the offensive line still needs work and other observations from Nick Baumgardner on Michigan's open scrimmage before an estimated 25,000 fans.

2. Rutgers' Saturday scrimmage, dominated by the offense, provided answers to some key questions.

3. Wide receiver Deon Long was one of the stars of Maryland's open scrimmage.

4. Defense won the day at Michigan State's scrimmage.

5. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson sees improved depth on his team after the Hoosiers' latest scrimmage.

6. The running game was the main attraction in Purdue's scrimmage.

7. Northwestern held an open scrimmage, but hardly anyone of note participated.

West Division
East Division

This one’s for you, Auburn fan who thinks the national runner-up should be higher than sixth in the Associated Press preseason poll, released Sunday afternoon. And it’s for you, Ohio State fan, to defend the chronically criticized Big Ten, the only Power Five league without a team in the top four of either the AP or USA Today coaches' preseason poll.

Don’t worry, Baylor fan, we didn’t forget you. If you want to climb to the top of beautiful new McLane Stadium and scream about why your Bears should be higher than No. 10 in both polls, go right ahead. Maybe you can hear the same outcries from fans of No. 19 Arizona State, No. 20 Kansas State or No. 24 Missouri, the defending SEC East champ excluded from the coaches' poll while barely squeaking into the AP.

Speaking of the SEC, no other conference had more teams (eight) in the preseason AP poll. So what’s the complaint? There could have been more. Meanwhile, the league that ended the SEC’s run of national titles, the ACC, placed just three teams -- No. 1 Florida State, No. 16 Clemson and No. 23 North Carolina -- in the AP rankings. Duke fans, grumble away.

Preseason polls serve a therapeutic purpose. They allow us to vent, to argue, to compare, to exclaim, to protest and, most important, to fill time before the games begin later this month. They are part of the American sports fan experience, and you should enjoy them.

Yet for the first time, the polls will have little to no bearing on shaping college football’s national championship race. And that’s a great thing too.

If Tom Osborne, Condoleezza Rice and Jeff Long were relentlessly refreshing Twitter at 2 p.m. ET Sunday, the time the AP poll was released, we have a problem. If Oliver Luck, Tyrone Willingham and Archie Manning furiously began calculating the Top 25 breakdown by conference, this might not work out. If Mike Tranghese, Barry Alvarez and Pat Haden immediately noticed how similar the AP and coaches' preseason polls are -- teams ranked 7 to 17 are identical, and only two teams, Missouri and Texas, made just one of the polls -- the playoff selection process could go very wrong.

The 13 members of the College Football Playoff selection committee shouldn’t care about these rankings. They shouldn’t spend one nanosecond analyzing them. They shouldn’t read this or any other media report about what the polls suggest about this team or that conference. Here’s hoping they spent Sunday fishing, golfing or anything other than poll watching.

This is about you, not them. So go ahead and wonder if a Wisconsin team with a largely revamped roster is rated way too high -- No. 14 in both polls -- and why Iowa, which loses far less than the Badgers off a vastly improved team, failed to make either preseason poll. Ask which set of voters correctly has the order of “O” teams -- Oregon, Oklahoma and Ohio State. Argue whether teams with new quarterbacks (Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Clemson, Texas A&M) are too high or too low.

Notre Dame’s inclusion at No. 17 will set off fireworks, but remember the AP votes took place before Friday’s announcement that four starters, including star cornerback KeiVarae Russell, have been held out pending an academic investigation into potential misconduct.

There’s little debate at the top, as defending champion Florida State, led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, received 57 of the 60 first-place votes in the AP poll. Alabama, which will have a new quarterback but returns arguably the nation’s most talented roster, is solidly in second position. It’s very close for No. 3 between Oregon, which could have the nation’s best player (Marcus Mariota), and Oklahoma, which stunned Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl and eyes the next step.

Although the SEC has three teams among the top nine and five in the top 13, the Pac-12 enters the season projected as the nation’s No. 2 conference. The quarterback-stacked league has three teams in the top 11 and five in the top 19.

Few would be shocked if the inaugural playoff reveals a field similar to the top of the preseason rankings. We could see four teams from four conferences, as both polls show, or multiple teams from a league like the SEC or Pac-12. Perhaps a team outside the preseason top 10 rises up, like Georgia, Arizona State or Nebraska. While zero teams from Group of Five conferences appear in the AP poll, don’t write off UCF, the reigning Fiesta Bowl champion.

Talking season might be over, but debate season is in full swing, at least until the real season begins. So tell the world what you think of the polls. Just don’t expect the committee members to listen.

Florida State No. 1 in preseason poll

August, 17, 2014
Aug 17
2:11
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video

Jameis Winston and defending national champion Florida State are No. 1 in The Associated Press preseason college football poll.

The Seminoles will start the season No. 1 for the sixth time -- the first since 1999 when they became the first team to hold the top spot for the entire season.

Florida State received 57 of 60 first-place votes Sunday from the media panel. No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Oregon and No. 4 Oklahoma each received one first-place vote. Ohio State is No. 5 and Auburn is No. 6.

Winston, the Heisman Trophy winner last season as a redshirt freshman, led Florida State to a 34-31 victory against Auburn in the last BCS national championship game.

This season the Bowl Championship Series is being replaced by the College Football Playoff. A selection committee will pick the top four teams in the country for two national semifinals.

The rest of the top 10 is UCLA


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Fired Ohio State director won't return

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16
11:07
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video

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State trustees have decided against reinstating the university's marching band director, who was fired after an investigation showed he knew about, but failed to stop, a sexualized band culture.

Board chairman Jeffrey Wadsworth wrote Friday to Jonathan Waters' attorney, saying the board "stands firmly'' behind the findings of a university investigation and president Michael Drake's decision to oust him.

Waters, who had led the band since 2012, had written to the board asking for a chance to return to his job, citing what he called flaws in the university probe and his positive performance review weeks before he was terminated. His elaborate halftime shows drawn on iPads revolutionized the field and prompted millions of fan views on YouTube.

He wanted the board to take up the matter at its next meeting this month. Wadsworth's letter to attorney David Axelrod said the board won't review the case.

"We consider the matter closed and we are moving forward as a university,'' the letter said.

Axelrod said Saturday that he's very disappointed by the board's response.

"It's just human decency that they should let someone who has done so much for the university to at least get a chance to be heard,'' he said.

Axelrod said Waters is still focused on getting his job back and litigation challenging a "deeply flawed'' investigation is a possible option. Ohio State spokesman Gary Lewis said Saturday that the university stands behind the investigation and has taken steps to move forward.


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Big Ten Friday mailbag

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
5:00
PM ET
Very soon, college football will occupy your weekends. Until then, here's an extra-large mailbag to help you make it through. Continue to submit questions for our team of reporters.

Mitch Sherman: Joe took issue with my analysis of Minnesota, which included some humor, in our Best case/Worst Case series. We traded a few messages on Twitter. I invited him to submit a question for the mailbag, and he did, with a well-constructed email on the Gophers. Now we're buddies, though he's not convinced me that a best-case scenario for Jerry Kill's team equates to more than nine wins. Joe notes that Minnesota, from its eight-win team a year ago, trades Michigan State, Penn State and Indiana for Ohio State, Illinois and Purdue. I see that as a wash -- 2-1 for 2-1. And though Minnesota may not be more than a slight underdog during a four-game, midseason stretch against Northwestern, Purdue, at Illinois and Iowa, I don't see it as a team with enough talent to run the table against that group. As Joe tells me, the Gophers feature veteran lines and a strong defense overall. Best case, QB Mitch Leidner and the receivers make a big jump to support a solid running game. That's a 10-win team, he says. I'm not so sure. I think the cards fell about as perfectly as possible last year. Minnesota won a pair of games by a field goal in 2013, and each of its losses by came by double digits. TCU is an upgrade in the nonconference. The Gophers have to go to Michigan again and also get Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road. Nine wins sounds pretty optimistic. But thanks, Joe, for the conversation.

Mitch Sherman: It's not good. The Wildcats, as expected, are staying optimistic about the loss of arguably their two most potent offensive weapons. Yes, Northwestern can handle this from a personnel standpoint, with capable players set to fill the shoes of Venric Mark and Christian Jones. But this is another blow to the psyche of Pat Fitzgerald's club one year after a season of disappointment followed by a distracting offseason. What happens when more adversity strikes? It threatens to send the Cats more easily into a downward spin. In the end, I think the recent developments could contribute to a season with one or two fewer victories.

Mitch Sherman: In the Big Ten East? Perhaps, though I find it premature to write off Michigan. Despite James Franklin's hot start, the Wolverines will keep up with Penn State and Michigan State in recruiting. And moderate improvement on the field would allow Brady Hoke to beat Ohio State for a fair share of the prospects over which the rival programs go head to head. Penn State needs time to prove that Franklin's early results in recruiting will elevate the program to an elite level. If you're asking about the Big Ten as a whole, the Buckeyes and Spartans stand atop the heap today, but Wisconsin and Nebraska from the West possess the infrastructure to compete long term with any program in the league. Read more from ESPN's Recruiting Nation.

Mitch Sherman: Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst granted a rare interview this week, and while he said nothing of great significance, simple statements from Bo Pelini's boss are enough to make news. I'm not sure stability is the goal of Husker football; if so, things have changed more than I realized. And Nebraska's relevance is debatable. Sure, the Huskers are relevant in Nebraska, as always, and regionally. But on a national level, I don't notice much discussion about the program, unless it involves the coach's cat. Still, it's good for Nebraska when Eichorst offers an occasional comment, if just for the sake of appearance, even if he remains guarded in his opinions.

Mitch Sherman: I sense irritation from Nate and fans of many Big Ten programs over the hype that surrounds Jabrill Peppers, Michigan's freshman defensive back. Hey, Peppers is good, and he's starting to prove it in practice. But no one in an important position at Michigan is set to award him with anything until he does it consistently on Saturdays. Peppers will get his shot first at nickelback in Greg Mattison's system, though the Wolverines are likely to try the talented rookie in many roles. 

Ohio State Buckeyes season preview

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
10:30
AM ET
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Ohio State Buckeyes:

2013 overall record: 12-2 (8-0 Big Ten)

Key losses: Carlos Hyde, RB; Ryan Shazier, LB; Bradley Roby, CB; Jack Mewhort, OT; Corey Linsley, C; Andrew Norwell, OG; Corey Brown, WR

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesBraxton Miller will be lined up behind a less experienced offensive line this season.
Key returnees: Braxton Miller, QB; Devin Smith, WR; Jeff Heuerman, TE; Noah Spence, DE; Joey Bosa, DE; Michael Bennett, DT; Curtis Grant, LB; Doran Grant, CB

Instant impact newcomer: There’s no linebacker among the projected starters with the pedigree to fit with the Ohio State greats. But lurking just behind that top group, the potential of true freshman Raekwon McMillan is immense. Rated as the No. 1 linebacker prospect last year out of Hinesville, Georgia, the 6-foot-2, 240-pound rookie has lived up to his billing so far in Columbus.

Projected starters

Offense: QB: Braxton Miller, Sr., 6-2, 215; RB: Ezekiel Elliott, So., 6-0, 225; H-B: Dontre Wilson, So., 5-10, 185; WR: Devin Smith, Sr., 6-1, 197; WR: Corey Smith, Jr., 6-1, 180; TE: Jeff Heuerman, Sr., 6-5, 255; RT: Darryl Baldwin, Sr. 6-6, 307; RG: Pat Elflein, So., 6-3, 300; C: Chad Lindsay, Sr., 6-2, 302; LG: Antonio Underwood, Jr., 6-3, 303; LT: Taylor Decker, Jr., 6-7, 315

Defense: DE: Joey Bosa, So., 6-5, 285; DT: Adolphus Washington, Jr., 6-4, 288; DT: Michael Bennett, Sr., 6-2, 288; DE: Noah Spence, Jr., 6-3, 252; WLB: Joshua Perry, Jr., 6-4, 250; MLB: Curtis Grant, Sr., 6-3, 240; SLB: 6-3, 240; Darron Lee, So., 6-2, 230; CB: Doran Grant, Sr., 5-11, 193; SS: Vonn Bell; FS: Tyvis Powell; CB: Gareon Conley, Fr., 6-0, 190

Specialists: K: Sean Nuernberger, Jr., 6-1, 237; P: Cameron Johnston, So., 6-0, 195

Biggest question mark: The Buckeyes return only Decker as a starter from an offensive line that dominated last season, running over every opponent -- even Michigan State -- to the tune of 273 yards. OSU's 6.8-yard rushing average led the nation, but its line remains a work in progress. Can this group protect Miller, the Buckeyes' No. 1 asset, and open holes for Elliott and his sidekicks the way Ohio State did for Hyde in 2013?

Most important game: Any one that the Buckeyes lose, seeing how it would likely knock them from the inside track for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Going game by game, the Buckeyes figure to be big favorites every time out until a Week 11 trip to Michigan State. By the arrival of this rematch of the 2013 Big Ten title game -- won 34-24 by MSU -- the Spartans should have sharpened their teeth nicely on defense.

Upset special: The Sept. 6 visit from Virginia Tech looks mildly worrisome. The Buckeyes might need more time to develop consistent play up front on offense and in the secondary, and Hokies coach Frank Beamer will pull out all the stops. The Hokies have won 19 of their past 21 road openers but remain unsettled at quarterback. The Buckeyes, on defense, must use their considerable edge at the line of scrimmage.

Key stat: Ohio State's red zone efficiency (touchdowns/red zone attempts) last season, 84.1 percent, led the nation by a sizable margin. How did the Buckeyes do it? With a punishing ground game and a versatile quarterback. The quarterback returns, and the talent is there at tailback to again post a solid number.

What they're wearing: No announced plans yet for an alternate uniform in 2014, but the Buckeyes are 6-0 when wearing nontraditional gear. It beat Michigan last season in all white jerseys and pants.

Team’s top Twitter follows: Start with the all-important, but not so exciting, coach, Urban Meyer, coordinators Luke Fickell and Tom Herman, the official account of OSU athletics and AD Gene Smith. Miller, Devin Smith and Bosa provide a sampling from inside the locker room. Brutus Buckeye is worth the follow, as is director of player personnel and self-described OSU #swaggernaut Mark Pantoni. Then there's this guy, who used to play quarterback at Ohio State. And, of course, do not miss the entertainment offered by Fake Urban Meyer and the coach's real wife, Shelley Meyer.

They said it: "We have to assess how we want to gain yardage now. If we wanted to gain yardage last year, a lot of times, [it] was just five guys and a tight end blocking and handing it off to the big boy Carlos and let him go."
-- offensive line coach Ed Warinner on the rebuilt OSU running game.

Stats & Info projection: 10.46 wins

Wiseguys over/under: 10 wins

Big Ten blog projection: 11 wins. The schedule sets up so well that it’s difficult to envision anything other than an 8-0 start. Even Penn State, while never an easy foe on the road, simply does not match up well with Ohio State (see 63-14 final in 2013). After Michigan State, the three-game finish isn’t all that rough, though, surely, Michigan will stage resistance at the Horseshoe (see 42-41 final in 2013). Nonetheless, we like the Buckeyes to beat every foe but the Spartans, and it’s just too soon to call the game of the year in the Big Ten. So we'll say the likelihood that OSU slips at Michigan State or elsewhere slightly exceeds the chances that it will run the table.

Big Ten morning links

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
8:00
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We’re now a week removed from “The Season” and the best performances from the best players in college football history, but I have to get something off my chest, Big Ten nation.

We talked about Illinois’ Red Grange and Minnesota’s Bronko Nagurski. We even mentioned modern players like Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne and Purdue’s Drew Brees. But there’s one guy I feel we skipped over, one player who has never really gotten the due he deserves.

Michigan running back Willie Heston (1901-1904).

Maybe you’ve heard of him; maybe not. BTN’s Dave Revsine wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal earlier this week and mentioned player compensation and past precedents like “Willie Heston Cigars.” Adam Rittenberg recently alluded to the same anecdote, as well. But Heston is not exactly a household name.

Sure, you’ve heard plenty about other old-time legends, like Yale’s Walter Camp and Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne. But what about Heston? Why should you care? Well, Camp named him to four of his All-American teams (two on his first team). And Heston was so good, give a listen as to what Rockne had to say about him:
“Willie Heston gets my vote as the greatest back of all-time. Since those days many wonderful backs have flashed on the gridiron, including Red Grange and my own Four Horsemen of 1924, and my choice is still Heston.”

That’s right – one of college football’s coaching legends just said Heston was better than Grange. That’s high praise. But look at the numbers. In Grange’s career, which spanned from 1923 to 1925, he finished with 2,071 rushing yards, 5.3 yards a carry and 34 total touchdowns. Heston? 2,339 rushing yards, 8.4 yards a carry and 72 touchdowns.

Still not impressed? Well, did I mention most of Heston's rushing stats only came from 17 – let me emphasize that again, 17 – of Heston’s career games, since the NCAA couldn’t confirm numbers from them all? Some estimate Heston actually rushed for 5,000 yards in his career; others go as high as 7,000 yards.

Heston’s on-field exploits read like a comic book hero's. He could reportedly outrun gold medalist Archie Hahn in short races, he helped Michigan win four national titles and outscore opponents – this isn’t a typo – during his career by 2,326 to 40. He went 43-0-1 in four years and was just as tough on defense.

I’ll stop listing details before you start accusing me of hyperbole. But I’m sure by now you’re wondering why on earth you don’t know the Wolverines’ Superman. Well, when Heston played, we were still nearly 20 years away from the official start to the NFL. Heston tried his hand at coaching following his U-M career, then went into law and real estate.

In many ways, his football career – at least the most important part of it – lasted just four seasons. That counts for something when it comes to seeping into the national consciousness. If that's incorrect, Penn State linebacker Dennis Onkotz – who played incredible college ball but sparingly in the NFL due to an injury --would still be mentioned in the same breath as Jack Ham.

My point is simply this: There are a lot of great players in the Big Ten, and there are a lot of unsung heroes. None tower above Heston. And he deserves to be remembered.

Who do you think is an unsung hero? List him in the comments. But let’s move on to more current football now …

East Division
  • Maryland coach Randy Edsall voiced disappointment with his receiving corps last week. Now? It's a different story in Week 2 of practice.
  • Indiana coach Kevin Wilson says this has been the Hoosiers' best summer and believes his team could be poised to break out.
West Division
  • Northwestern is remaining mum on the surprise transfer of Venric Mark but, the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein writes, "it seems apparent Mark would have faced more discipline beyond the two-game suspension ..."
And finally ...

Jonathan Waters: Decision rushed

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
8:28
PM ET

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The fired director of Ohio State's marching band requested his job back on Thursday, citing what he called flaws in a university investigation and a positive performance review weeks before he was terminated.

Jonathan Waters, in a letter to university trustees from his law firm, asked the board to act on the matter at its upcoming August meeting.

Waters was fired July 24 after a two-month investigation concluded he knew about but failed to stop a "sexualized culture" of rituals that included students marching in their underwear, playing groping games on buses and bestowing sometimes sexually explicit nicknames on members based on suggestive stunts mimicking orgasms, sex toys or body parts.

In an Aug. 4 statement by Board Chairman Jeffrey Wadsworth, the trustees said they "unequivocally support" President Michael Drake's decision to fire Waters. Football great Archie Griffin, as leader of the university's alumni association, also backed Drake.

Drake said during a packed speech in downtown Columbus on Wednesday that he stood by the firing and saw little chance Waters would be reinstated.

Those remarks came as the university was releasing a Waters personnel file that included praise for his "courageous" efforts to tackle band traditions, but the traditions being referenced weren't named.

In 2012, Waters took over what's called The Best Damn Band in the Land, writing complex halftime shows that drew millions of views on YouTube.

Waters' attorney, David Axelrod, portrayed the firing in Thursday's letter as a "rush to judgment." The correspondence was accompanied by another round of letters to the university from investigation witnesses and other band members who question the university's findings.


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Well, that didn't take long.

A day after the Ohio State Buckeyes announced they had canceled their 2017-2018 series with the North Carolina Tar Heels, they have already found two replacements: the Oregon State Beavers and the UNLV Rebels. OSU will play the Rebels on Sept. 23, 2017, and will open the 2018 season on Sept. 1 against the Beavers.

The news shouldn't come as much of a disappointment to Buckeyes fans, if at all. UNC and OSU last met in 1975, so the dropped series wasn't a huge loss. Sure, it would've been interesting to see North Carolina's quarterback, Ohio native Mitch Trubisky, potentially play his hometown team. But, with this switch, the Buckeyes get another home game.

Seems like a win-win. UNC might have provided for a better matchup than UNLV, but there's not a huge competitive difference between the Tar Heels and Beavers. Both teams finished 7-6 last season and won a bowl, while finishing the regular season at 8-4 the season before that.

It's not a big change for the Buckeyes or their fans. But the program exchanges one game for another that should be just as good, and it gets another home game. Things could definitely be worse.

In other scheduling news, Ohio State also announced Thursday that the Boston College home-and-home series has been moved back three years -- from 2020 and 2021 to 2023 and 2024.

Big Ten morning links

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
8:00
AM ET
The hyperbole hits a high point in February on signing day.

For the early enrollees, some over-the-top praise and projections of early impacts might keep going through April. Around July and media days, the optimism from coaches about their talented, athletic, mature-for-their-age freshmen usually gets a second wind.

But then reality hits when training camp arrives, and with just two weeks until the season starts, by now it's pretty easy to tell if the hype was legitimate and time to start picking out a handful of newcomers truly capable of making a splash right away this fall.

At Ohio State, the indicators were there on the opening day of camp when linebacker Raekwon McMillan and versatile offensive weapon Curtis Samuel were thrown in with the veterans instead of the rookies during split-squad workouts. A stronger suggestion arrived when they were the first two players to have their black stripes removed to be considered bonafide Buckeyes.



At Michigan State, the confirmation comes straight from the head man. When the midway point of camp arrives and Mark Dantonio is still willing to include players such as defensive tackle Malik McDowell and linebacker Chris Frey in his two-deep, it's safe to assume those two will be on the field.

The same is true elsewhere around the league, with Minnesota praising its new talent at wide receiver or Maryland tinkering with five-star lineman Damian Prince's position presumably to ease his transition to the lineup at guard. Sometimes it's not quite as obvious, with Michigan coach Brady Hoke trying to temper expectations about defensive back Jabrill Peppers -- although the occasional first-team reps that he's received according to coordinator Greg Mattison might have spilled the secret.

Sure, there's still time for the hype machine to dial back up. There are some overmatched opponents to play during the first month of the season, and more than just the surefire impact freshmen will get to see the field and raise expectations for what they are capable of providing.

But by now, coaches have typically seen enough to get a reasonably good idea of who can help their team right away. And if there are names which haven't been mentioned much lately, it's probably safe to hold off on getting to know them until next season.

East Division
  • Ohio State's planned home-and-home with North Carolina in 2017-18 has been cancelled. No money exchanged hands. Could this be an opening for a neutral-site game Urban Meyer suggested at media days might be in the works?
  • What is James Franklin Time? A look at the new work week for Penn State.
  • The linebacker unit remains unsettled for Michigan State. Details from Mike Griffith after an open practice for the Spartans.
  • A look at the captains for Rutgers this season.
  • Even Maryland's defense had to concede that the offense has been looking good in camp.
  • Indiana safeties coach Noah Joseph is still looking for more consistency from his unit.
  • Ross Douglas is on the move for Michigan again, this time moving to wide receiver.
West Division
  • There is speed to burn in the Minnesota secondary, where a former state-champion sprinter is adding depth in the defensive backfield.
  • Purdue is shaking things up at practice and keeping players on their toes.
  • Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst called the football program "stable" under Bo Pelini and talks about his priorities for the coach.
  • Wisconsin is looking to fill critical leadership roles on defense, and Gary Andersen still feels like the Badgers have something to prove.
  • Iowa safety John Lowdermilk finds himself as one of the most experienced players on the team, now charged with bringing along some younger guys and helping turn them into contributors.
  • An interesting look at potential attendance problems for Northwestern and two possible solutions in the future.
  • Illinois is keeping things light at camp, and cooling coach Tim Beckman down in the process.
And finally ...
  • Check out what Ralph Friedgen had been up to before diving back into coaching. Maybe he made the wrong choice.
The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting news across the country. Today’s offerings: A look at how landing Trenton Thompson could help Georgia land even more highly coveted players and who might be next to join the Dawgs' commitment list. Plus, Alabama has the top-ranked class by far, but there's something that could loosen the Tide's grip on No. 1, and our daily tour of the top recruiting happenings on social media.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
5:00
PM ET
Coming back at you for another hump-day mailbag. Don't forget that you can tweet your questions (and follow all my brilliant thoughts) on Twitter @BennettESPN.

Let's begin:

.

Brian Bennett: I think it would be possible, yes. If Oregon went on to win the Pac-12, then the Big Ten would have a powerful argument for inclusion in the Playoff over the Pac-12 given that its champion beat their champion on the road. Yet it's a little hard to see Ohio State being good enough to win in East Lansing but still losing two other Big Ten games. That could also hurt the Big Ten's overall strength-of-schedule case unless the West Division champ had a great season.

A similar scenario could unfold for Wisconsin. Let's say the Badgers beat LSU in the opener but lose a game in the Big Ten before winning the league title. That should still be enough to get Wisconsin in, assuming LSU has a strong season. The selection committee is going to be looking closely at nonconference games to judge schedule and conference strength, so the Oregon and LSU games are important for everyone in the Big Ten.


Corey from East of Huskerland writes: With the autonomy ruling, and barring the former "Mid Majors" don't overrule the change, how do you think it will impact B1G recruiting deficiencies? For example, since I bleed Husker red, it's widely noted that recruiting kids to Lincoln has it's issues, being so far away from fertile recruiting grounds. Can this change allow teams, like my Huskers, to lessen that gap, lets say, with more abilities to help parents come to the games and so forth? Not only for Nebraska, but for the B1G as a whole.

Brian Bennett: That's a good question, and the answer remains to be seen. One of the items power conference leaders have talked about is covering travel expenses for families to travel to postseason games. But I haven't heard much, if any, talk about paying for families to travel to regular-season contests. That could change, though. A major issue for Nebraska, and many Big Ten teams, is allowing earlier official visits for prospects. Yet as Mitch Sherman noted in this morning's links, other leagues don't necessarily see that in their best interests.

There might be autonomy, but the new system still requires the following level of agreement to pass legislation: A) a 60 percent of the 80-member voting panel and three of the five power conferences, or B) a simple majority and four of the five power conferences. Can the Big Ten convince enough other schools and at least two other conferences to make those recruiting changes? Will there be some horse-trading going on, as some conferences barter to pass their pet projects? It will be fascinating to see how this all shakes out.

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Brian Bennett: I don't think it's writing off as much as playing wait and see with the Wolverines. No one is going to pick Michigan to finish ahead of Ohio State and Michigan State in the East Division, not after the Maize and Blue have gone 15-11 the past two seasons. There are still major concerns about the offensive line, and the running game -- outside of the quarterbacks -- has been abysmal of late. Still, as you mentioned, there is plenty of talent on hand, and I expect offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to make a difference. Enough of a difference to be a true Big Ten title contender? I need to see that before I can believe it.


Brian W. from Athens, Ohio, writes: Dontre Wilson was used as a decoy much of last year. with the exit of Philly Brown what do you see as his roll this year?

Brian Bennett: Urban Meyer has said that Dontre Wilson wasn't strong enough last season to block or run between the tackles. "He was a hybrid guy that really wasn't great at anything," Meyer said. So Wilson didn't touch the ball much and was basically a non-factor down the stretch last season for the Buckeyes. And that's OK, because he was a true freshman, after all. Wilson has reportedly put on more than 20 pounds since the end of last season. I think you could see him excel now in that Percy Harvin-type, hybrid-back role where he can do a little bit of everything. Philly Brown is not a great comparison because he developed into a true No. 1 receiver, which Wilson probably never will be. But Wilson could be a very dangerous player if his strength and understanding of the game have now caught up to his elite speed.
Do you think Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon will match or eclipse last season's rushing total of 1,609 yards? Is Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller capable of another 36-touchdown season?

Have a good feeling about the Big Ten's rushing or passing leader? Well, you will want to grab your wallet and read on.

Bovada has set over-unders on several key Big Ten statistical milestones for the 2014 season.

Let's check 'em out:
  • Miller's total passing yards: 2,095.5 (last season: 2,094 yards)
  • Miller's total rushing yards: 850.5 (last season: 1,068)
  • Miller's total rushing and passing touchdowns: 32.5 (last season: 36)
  • Gordon's total rushing yards: 1,554.5 (last season: 1,609)
  • Gordon's total rushing touchdowns: 14.5 (last season: 12)
  • Stefon Diggs' total receiving yards: 950.5 (last season: 587*)
  • Diggs total receiving touchdowns: 6.5 (last season: 3*)

*Diggs appeared in only seven games last season because of injury

Bovada also sets odds on the Big Ten's top statistical races:

Rushing yards

Gordon: 1/1
Jeremy Langford, Michigan State: 3/1
David Cobb, Minnesota: 13/4
Tevin Coleman, Indiana: 7/2
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: 4/1

Rushing touchdowns

Langford: 2/1
Gordon: 9/4
Coleman: 5/2
Abdullah: 11/4
Cobb: 15/4

Receiving yards

Shane Wynn, Indiana: 2/1
Devin Funchess, Michigan: 9/4
Diggs: 5/2
Devin Smith, Ohio State: 3/1
Kenny Bell, Nebraska: 13/4

Receiving touchdowns

Funchess: 7/4
Smith: 9/4
Wynn: 11/4
Diggs: 13/4
Bell: 7/2

It's interesting that Bovada's over-under rushing total for Gordon is lower than his 2013 total -- despite the departure of James White -- though he's still the best bet to lead the Big Ten in rushing. The oddsmakers also see a rushing yards drop-off for Miller, who has eclipsed 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons.

Abdullah could be a good bet for rushing leader (not touchdowns leader, as Imani Cross takes some away from him), and the receiving yards race looks totally wide open.

Schedule analysis: Ohio State

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
1:00
PM ET
We're barely two weeks from the start of the 2014 season. As the countdown continues, we're putting each Big Ten team's schedule under the microscope.

Up next: the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Nonconference schedule (with 2013 records)

Aug. 30: Navy (9-4)
Sept. 6: Virginia Tech (8-5)
Sept. 13: Kent State (4-8)
Sept. 27: Cincinnati (9-4)

East Division games

Oct. 4: at Maryland
Oct. 18: Rutgers
Oct. 25: at Penn State
Nov. 8: at Michigan State
Nov. 22: Indiana
Nov. 29: Michigan

Crossover games

Nov. 1: Illinois
Nov. 15: at Minnesota

No-plays

Iowa
Nebraska
Northwestern
Purdue
Wisconsin

Gut-check game: Michigan State handed Urban Meyer his first loss as Buckeyes coach and spoiled Ohio State's quest for a Big Ten championship and a shot at the national title last season. The Buckeyes-Spartans showdown under the lights Nov. 8 is the Big Ten's premier game entering the 2014 season. Ohio State was fortunate to escape East Lansing with a one-point win in 2012. These are two physical, talented teams with strong quarterbacks and excellent defensive linemen. If Ohio State wants to reclaim its place atop the Big Ten, it must get through the Spartans.

Trap game: Win or lose, the Michigan State game will take a lot out of the Buckeyes both mentally and physically. Ohio State then has to travel to Minnesota the following week. It will probably be about 16 degrees at TCF Bank Stadium before the wind chill, and Minnesota uses a power-oriented offense that, if effective, can limit possessions and shorten the game. The Gophers are only getting better under Jerry Kill and will be searching for a true signature win. Ohio State can't look past this one.

Snoozer: Ohio State's overall nonconference slate is much better than last year's, but the Kent State contest doesn't do too much for me. The return of Golden Flashes coach Paul Haynes, a former Ohio State assistant, is a nice storyline, and Kent State had some decent performances in 2013, but the Buckeyes should have little trouble in this one.

Nonconference challenge: The schedule lacks a true marquee name, but Navy, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati all pose different challenges. I'll go with Virginia Tech, as the Hokies are almost always strong on defense and special teams, which could allow them to hang around with Ohio State. There are questions on offense, but running back Trey Edmunds should bolster a rush attack that really struggled in 2013. It's a big year for coach Frank Beamer, and Virginia Tech will be anxious to show it can still compete with the nation's elite.

Analysis: This is an upgrade from 2013, even though Ohio State could be favored in every game and faces only one preseason playoff contender in Michigan State. The crossover games in the Big Ten largely stink this season, and Ohio State misses the top West Division title contenders. The Buckeyes face what should be an improved Michigan team at home, and while a trip to Penn State could be tricky, Ohio State is deeper than the Nittany Lions on both sides of the ball. The big question is whether Ohio State must run the table to qualify for a playoff spot, or if it could afford a loss along the way. Despite a 24-0 mark in regular-season Big Ten play under Meyer, Ohio State has had several close calls. Michigan State should be the Buckeyes' toughest test, but there aren't as many easy wins as there were a year ago.

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