Big Ten Friday mailblog

May, 9, 2014
May 9
4:00
PM ET
Is it a bit drafty in here? Wishing you a great weekend.

Twitter? Yes, please.

Let's check that inbox ...

Shane from Maine writes: I usually ask Wolverines-related questions, but something else caught my attention. What are your thoughts on Iowa's schedule? It looks REALLY soft. Do you think the Hawkeyes have a chance to go undefeated in a season that has their toughest games at home against Wisconsin and Nebraska?

Adam Rittenberg: Iowa's schedule looks extremely beneficial, Shane, but I don't see the Hawkeyes running the table. They're a good team that could build on last season's success, but the Hawkeyes almost always find themselves in close games because their talent isn't head and shoulders above the competition. Easy schedule or hard schedule, you need to be a truly elite team with elite talent to run the table in a major conference (see: 2013 Florida State Seminoles). Iowa will end up on the short end of some close game, but I predict a good season (9-10 wins).


Jeff from Baltimore writes: This week, we saw what I would call (Jim) Delany's most out-of-the-box, hell, out-of-the world, decision in giving the 2017 BBall tourney to D.C. Now, living in Baltimore, I like the idea of cutting out of work early and driving to the Verizon Center, but it won't have the same feeling as if it would and should in either Indy or Chi-town. Do you see him repeating this thinking for the football championship?

Adam Rittenberg: Jeff, I wrote about this back in January. There's no desire to move the football championship game outside of the Midwest. The Big Ten loves Indianapolis and everything it brings, and it could consider sites like Chicago, Minneapolis and Detroit in future years. The difference with football is the event includes only two teams and two fan bases, not all 14. It's less likely to draw general Big Ten fans than the basketball tournament, a multi-day event featuring more games and teams. Big Ten deputy commissioner Brad Traviolia said of the hoops tournament: "Regardless of where you place it, you're going to have a team or two that basically will be a home team, whether it's Indiana and Purdue in Indianapolis or whether it's Maryland in D.C. or Rutgers and Penn State in New York." Geography matters more for the football title game.


Grant from San Francisco writes: As a lifelong Spartans fan, I am becoming increasingly weary of all the unbridled optimism surrounding the program this coming season. I have experienced this before and know just how fast the wheels can come off. You guys spent some time with the team, so maybe you can provide some insight. With a huge matchup in Week 2 against Oregon, what exactly is [Mark] Dantonio doing now that the team is starting at the top with everything to lose, rather than starting unranked with nothing to lose? Quotes keep coming out about "we are hungry"... "we are tired of talking about last year"... but how exactly are they preventing complacency?

Adam Rittenberg: Grant, I understand your concern about MSU's history when starting on top, but it's also important to acknowledge the culture change under Mark Dantonio. This team has won 11 or more games in three of the past four seasons. MSU had a disappointing 2012 season but was a few plays away from winning eight or nine games. Also, the quarterback situation with Connor Cook is much more stable than it was in 2012. Brian Bennett visited the Spartans this spring and came away thinking they're locked in and not getting complacent. The continuity in the coaching staff really helps, and most MSU players suffered through the 2012 season and haven't forgotten it. You don't really know how a team responds until the games begin, but Dantonio isn't the type to let anyone take their foot off of the gas. His recent track record confirms this.


Rolf from Seattle writes: I have to question your Ohio State draft pick of Devin Gardner. First off he went to that school up north, so that would never happen. Second, he is going to be gone next year anyway and doesn't leave Ohio State with any more time left than Braxton. Third, with three backups behind Braxton, another year in the system should get at least two of them ready to carry the torch. Fourth, Devin went to TSUN!!!!! Anyway, the blog is still awesome.

Adam Rittenberg: Thanks, Rolf, and yes, I realize sending a Michigan player to Ohio State doesn't sit well with all (Justin Boren worked out OK, though). The Buckeyes clearly need a quarterback to replace Braxton Miller, and I'm not confident enough in any of the current backups to step in, especially with a revamped offensive line. Brian had the Buckeyes adding Tre Roberson, who has more eligibility left than Gardner and also fits in a spread offense. But I think Gardner, in the right system like Ohio State's, has more upside. Despite Michigan's offensive line troubles, Gardner still finished second in the league in passing and had some huge games. Ohio State needs a one-year fill-in here, and Gardner is the best option.


Greg from Boulder writes: As a suddenly greedy Penn State fan, should I have any concern that Penn State is having trouble closing the deal on top talent in the secondary in the way-too-early 2015 class?

Adam Rittenberg: Concern? About Penn State's 2015 class? No, don't be concerned. What James Franklin and his staff have done in the past four months is rather remarkable, especially with the program still under NCAA sanctions. They already have Jarvis Miller in the fold and will add other defensive backs before signing day, which is a very long way away. Also remember that Penn State likely will only lose two players -- safeties Adrian Amos and Ryan Keiser -- from this year's secondary rotation.


Several coaches close to Jim Tressel whom I spoke to for this story in November held out hope that he would one day return to the sideline.

They also knew his interest in education -- teaching, mentoring and administration -- wasn't just something to fill his days until the next coaching opportunity came along. Tressel was mentioned as a candidate to join Jim Caldwell's staff with the Detroit Lions in January, but he stayed at Akron as the school's vice president for student success and soon applied for the president positions at both Akron and Youngstown State, where he coached from 1986 to 2000 and won four Division I-AA national championships.

Akron selected another candidate on Thursday, but Youngstown State's trustees on Friday voted to offer the position to Tressel. He had been one of three finalists at both schools.

"Mr. Tressel has the personality and leadership skills, in addition to widespread community support, to dramatically raise YSU’s profile and prominence across Ohio and the nation," Youngstown State board of trustees chairman Sudershan Garg said in a statement.

Tressel's appointment won't be finalized until contract terms are reached.

Earlier this month at a public forum in Youngstown, Tressel told a questioner that his coaching days are over.

He left the door open a little more when we spoke in November, but his interest in education came across as sincere, including how he taught a coaching staff with Jim Dennison and how he interacted with students around campus.

"We're mediocre in the world in education," Tressel told me. "We're not at the top of the heap. I don't like being mediocre. I want every kid to get that job they're looking for. It drives you every day to figure out how we can get 26,000 to 27,000 kids to succeed. That's as tough of a game as there is."

Tressel's coaching friends wanted him back in the game, not just because of the success he had but because of the way things ended at Ohio State. But his own pull to the sideline didn't seem as strong.

He wasn't overtly bitter about Ohio State, and while he still spends much of the fall around football, he seemed to get his competitive fill from being a top administrator at Akron.

"Jim is a lot more comfortable in a shirt and tie than most coaches," Akron coach Terry Bowden said. "I don't think there are many coaches in the country that are as comfortable in the administrative side of colleges as Jim Tressel. So I wouldn't be surprised if that's where he finishes his career."

It appears that will be the case. Tressel knows Youngstown and immediately enhances the school's profile as president. The job is largely about fundraising, an area where he will undoubtedly excel.

Tressel has trouble spots in his past, including some during his coaching tenure at Youngstown State. People remember Ray Isaac and Maurice Clarett and the Tat-5 scandal. Tressel is still under a show-cause penalty from the NCAA. These issues will be brought up as he begins his new role.

But college presidents aren't saints. Neither are coaches, despite the image Tressel often portrayed. Tressel has his flaws, but I found it interesting that two of his former players he talks to the most -- Clarett and Terrelle Pryor -- are the ones who most damaged his reputation. You can't say he doesn't care about helping people.

Bottom line: You look at what college presidents do and where the job will be, and Tressel looks like a good fit. He reportedly wanted the Youngstown job more than the Akron one, and he remains extremely popular in the Youngstown community.

He has turned a page on his career. So should we.

Big Ten lunch links

May, 9, 2014
May 9
12:00
PM ET
Fourteen Big Ten programs combined to produce four first-round NFL draft picks. Louisville, Northern Illinois and Buffalo together had five. Eleven of 32 came from the SEC. Discuss.
  • A big night at the NFL draft for Michigan's Taylor Lewan, who landed with the Titans at No. 11 to lead off a better opening day for the league.
  • Ohio State's defensive duo, Ryan Shazier at No. 15 to the Steelers and Bradley Roby at No. 31, went to the Broncos.
  • And Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard found a home with the Bengals at No. 24.
  • Michigan’s other offensive tackle, Michael Schofield, has used a family struggle as his motivation to prepare for this draft.
  • Former Indiana receiver Cody Latimer went to New York to hear his name called at the draft. He’s still waiting.
  • Also waiting, defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hagemen of Minnesota, which hasn’t had a player drafted since Eric Decker in 2010. And the wait is almost over, too, for Wisconsin’s Chris Borland.
  • Tracking the Maryland prospects for the second through seventh rounds.
  • Meanwhile, Purdue’s 15-year streak of landing at least one player in the draft is in jeopardy.
  • Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel lands the presidency at Youngstown State after he was bypassedat the University of Akron.
  • What to do this offseason? Shane Morris can play catch ... with himself.
  • Michigan State appears interested in the younger brother of tight end Dylan Chmura.
  • James Franklin and the Penn State coaches continue their 17-stop caravan in Pittsburgh. Can the grayshirting of recruits help PSU overcome its scholarship limitations.
  • Former Rutgers quarterback Tom Savage earns the endorsement of ex-coach Greg Schiano.
  • Former Nebraska quarterback Joe Ganz will remain on staff in 2014 as a graduate assistant. An appeal is deniedfor the summer jail sentence in Colorado for offensive tackle Alex Lewis is denied.
  • Minnesota loses a backup defensive lineman to North Dakota.
  • Kirk Ferentz marches to the beat of his own drum in recruiting, but even he occasionally extends a scholarship offer to a high school freshman.
The first round of the 2014 NFL draft is in the books, and as expected, the Big Ten fared much better than it did a year ago.

Four Big Ten players had their names called Thursday night at New York's Radio City Music Hall, although some waited a little longer than expected. The league had three more first-round picks than 2013 but went without a top-10 pick for the sixth consecutive year. Former Michigan tackle Jake Long, the No. 1 overall pick in 2008, is the last Big Ten player in the Top 10.

[+] Enlarge Taylor Lewan
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesTaylor Lewan was first off the board for the Big Ten, going to the Tennessee Titans.
Two Big Ten players who made the trip to Manhattan, Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and Indiana wide receiver Cody Latimer, still don't know their draft fate.

Let's recap the Big Ten first-round picks:
Our friends at NFL Nation reacted to the selections of Lewan, Shazier, Dennard and Roby.

It's no surprise that Lewan went first among Big Ten prospects, although some analysts had pegged him -- and possibly Dennard -- for the top 10. Two SEC offensive tackles, Auburn's Greg Robinson and Texas A&M's Jake Matthews, went ahead of Lewan, who likely still would have been a first-round pick if he had come out after his junior season in 2012. It will be interesting to see how he factors in with the Titans, who already have starting tackles in Michael Roos and Michael Oher.

Dennard fell further than most expected, as two cornerbacks -- Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert and Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller -- went ahead of him. He ended up in a pretty good spot, though, as he joins a very good secondary that includes another former Big Ten cornerback, Leon Hall. He'll also play for a defensive-minded coach in Marvin Lewis and first-year coordinator Paul Guenther.

Shazier's stock soared in the weeks leading up to the draft, and he enters a Pittsburgh organization known for swarming defense. The Steelers have taken linebackers in the first round in each of the past two years (Jarvis Jones in 2013). It doesn't hurt that longtime Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is an Ohio State guy.

Like Dennard, Roby waited a little longer than expected but ends up with a very good team in Denver. Broncos general manager John Elway said Roby was the highest-ranked player on the team's draft board "by a long shot" when their pick rolled around.

It's a bit surprising Hageman didn't make the first round, although teams had concerns about his consistency. Latimer's stock surged in the pre-draft period, but five wide receivers went ahead of him Thursday night. Both likely won't be waiting long Friday.

Is the Big Ten's weakened reputation hurting its top draft prospects? You have to wonder when a guy like Dennard, who did everything he could for a nationally elite defense, falls as far as he did.

Finally, here are some notes on the Big Ten picks from ESPN Stats & Information:

  • Lewan is the highest drafted Big Ten player since former Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt in 2011 (also No. 11). He's the first Michigan player taken in the first round since defensive end Brandon Graham in 2010.
  • Shazier is the third Ohio State player drafted by the Steelers in first round since 2006: Cameron Heyward (2011) and Santonio Holmes (2006) are the others.
  • Dennard is the first Michigan State player taken in the first round since wide receiver Charles Rogers in 2003. He's the first Spartans defender in the first round since linebacker Julian Peterson in 2000.
  • Roby has high standards to uphold, as four of the last seven Ohio State defensive backs drafted in the first round went on to make the Pro Bowl (Donte Whitner, Nate Clements, Antoine Winfield and Shawn Springs).

The draft resumes today and finishes Saturday. We'll have a full Big Ten draft recap on Monday.
The 2014 NFL draft is just hours away, and unlike last year, the first night should be a lot better for the Big Ten.

As Michigan's Taylor Lewan and most likely several other Big Ten players walk across the stage tonight, I thought it would be interesting to recall their recruiting stock coming out of high school. Were they pegged for greatness back then, or largely overlooked?

Let's begin the look-back with the five Big Ten players in New York City today, as well as Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, who will most likely be drafted in the first half of the first round. Note: several players were evaluated at different positions as high school recruits.

Michigan LT Taylor Lewan

Class: 2009
ESPN 150: Yes (No. 148 overall)
Position rank: No. 12 offensive tackle
ESPN scouting report: "Displays good feet and can mirror a rusher. Will hop at times and open quickly, but displays the tools to be a college left tackle. Lewan has some parts of his game to keep developing and needs to add bulk, but this is a good offensive tackle prospect."

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsDarqueze Dennard went from unheralded recruit to college football's best cornerback.
Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard

Class: 2010
ESPN 150: No
Position rank: No. 166 wide receiver
ESPN scouting report: "Dennard is a feisty competitor who plays bigger between the white lines. May get recruited to play on either side of the ball, can really close on the football with good burst and speed when employed at defensive back. Good under-the-radar prospect."

Ohio State CB Bradley Roby

Class: 2010
ESPN 150: No
Position rank: No. 42 athlete
ESPN scouting report: "May get a look at corner as he flashes the great speed, body length and ball skills sought-after as a perimeter defender. Overall, this is a guy who may be falling under the radar nationally and with some positional polish should develop into a very good wideout or corner at the major college level."

Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman

Class: 2009
ESPN 150: No
Position rank: No. 12 tight end
ESPN scouting report: "This kid can be a productive weapon as a receiver. He also has upside as a blocker. A bit raw in his technique he will be physical and can create push in the run game. Gets into a defender and drives his legs. Displays good tenaciousness. Needs to be more consistent in his hand placement."

Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier

Class: 2011
ESPN 150: Yes (No. 81 overall)
Position rank: No. 4 outside linebacker
ESPN scouting report: "His backside pursuit is relentless. Has a very quick inside gap move which is very difficult to block; this creates havoc in the backfield with many TFLs. His real strength is as an outside pass rusher; displays the quickness to beat tackles off the edge; can squeeze the pocket with excellent balance forcing the QB out of the pocket."

Indiana WR Cody Latimer

Class: 2011
ESPN 150: No
Position rank: No. 178 wide receiver
ESPN scouting report: "Latimer is a big, physical wide receiver that is smooth and fluid, but for the most part straight-lined and more of a possession guy in the short to intermediate ranges of the field. His size/strength combination could develop him into a formidable red-zone target as an outside receiver. He does not have explosive speed."

Now let's look at several other Big Ten players who could be selected early in the draft.

Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde

Class: 2009
ESPN 150: No
Position rank: No. 31 running back
ESPN scouting report: "He is a power back with good straight-line speed and some quickness, but tends to try and dance laterally at times instead of blowing it up hard inside utilizing his good North-South speed and running strength. Long-strider who rarely gets caught from behind, but he does lack good top-end speed and is more of a one-gear back."

Nebraska CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste

Class: 2010
ESPN 150: No
Position rank: Not rated as a wide receiver
ESPN scouting report: Not available

Penn State WR Allen Robinson

Class: 2011
ESPN 150: No
Position rank: No. 201 wide receiver
ESPN scouting report: "We see a big, strong possession receiver capable of leveraging his body to make the contested catch. Robinson appears to be a borderline BCS prospect with the potential for success as a go-to guy when tough yardage is needed."

Wisconsin LB Chris Borland

Class: 2009
ESPN 150: No
Position rank: No. 134 athlete
ESPN scouting report: "Borland is an good athlete but impresses you more as a total football player on film. He has good size with his compact, thickly-built frame. A very durable prospect. Could get recruited on either side of the ball at the next level and will bring a lot of toughness and versatility to a college roster."

Penn State DT DaQuan Jones

Class: 2010
ESPN 150: No
Position rank: No. 43 offensive guard
ESPN scouting report: "Jones plays on both sides of the ball -- at DT and OT. He has the size for both positions at the major level of competition. Flashes upper body explosion and good hand shiver; able to defeat the one-on-one block but lacks agility in space; displays sure tackling ability. We feel he is a better prospect at offensive guard."

Rutgers WR Brandon Coleman

Class: 2010
ESPN 150: No
Position rank: No. 120 wide receiver
ESPN scouting report: "He is tall, thickly built and has a wide catching radius. This is a prospect that possesses good overall top-end speed, but lacks quick-twitch explosion. Climbs the ladder and is a rumbling, physically-imposing target in the passing game."

Some quick thoughts: To say the Big Ten's top draft contingent is underrated would be an understatement. Only Lewan and Shazier ranked in the ESPN 150 in their respective classes, and neither was in the top 80. Dennard's story from fringe FBS recruit to potential top-10 pick is extraordinary, and players like Jean-Baptiste, Latimer, Robinson, Borland and Coleman were far from top prospects in high school. It's interesting to see how many of these players were projected at other positions. The scouting reports swung and missed in several cases (Robinson as a borderline BCS prospect?) and hit on other prospects (Borland's versatility, Shazier's pursuit).
SportsNation

Which Big Ten school produces the most NFL draft picks?

  •  
    18%
  •  
    14%
  •  
    45%
  •  
    10%
  •  
    13%

Discuss (Total votes: 6,960)

Ready or not -- and seriously, you should be ready by now -- the 2014 NFL draft is almost here. The Big Ten is poised to have a much stronger overall draft showing than it did a year ago.

But which Big Ten team will produce the most picks during the seven rounds? That's the subject of today's poll question.

Illinois led Big Ten teams with only four draft picks in 2013, followed by four teams with three selections. I'd be surprised if this year's Big Ten leader has only four players selected, but we'll see.

The candidates ...

Iowa: The Hawkeyes lack top-line prospects, but they typically do well in the NFL draft. Iowa produced six picks in the 2010, 2011 and 2012 drafts -- only one, cornerback Micah Hyde, last year -- and has generated 52 picks during the Kirk Ferentz era. Linebackers James Morris and Christian Kirksey, and tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz lead Iowa's draft contingent.

Michigan State: Cornerback Darqueze Dennard might be the first Big Ten player off the board, but he won't be the only Spartan. Several other Michigan State defenders, including linebacker Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, are likely draft picks.

Ohio State: The Buckeyes have had at least three players drafted in every draft since 1999, and they could produce a large haul this year. Linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby are potential first-rounders, and bruising running back Carlos Hyde -- plus several offensive linemen -- should follow.

Penn State: Since being shut out of the 2005 draft, Penn State has had multiple selections in each subsequent draft and three or more selections six times. Wide receiver Allen Robinson and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones are likely second-day picks, and others, like guard John Urschel, should hear their names called as well.

Wisconsin: The Badgers have had multiple players selected in each of the past six drafts and at least four players picked 10 times since 2000. Although Wisconsin's streak of first-round picks likely will end at three tonight, linebacker Chris Borland and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis lead a group that could add up by the end of the week.

It's time to vote.

Big Ten lunchtime links

May, 8, 2014
May 8
12:55
PM ET
Good things come to those who wait ...
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Almost as soon as it arrived, spring camp at Ohio State wrapped up. Time isn't likely to fly by quite as quickly in the offseason with the summer months sure to drag by until the 2014 campaign finally opens in August. The Buckeyes have plenty of work to do to get ready for their debut against Navy on Aug. 30, and to help pass the time, we're looking at some of the most pressing positional questions they'll have to answer to make another run at a championship.

[+] EnlargeChad Lindsay
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesFormer Alabama center Chad Lindsay could anchor the Buckeyes' offensive in 2014.
Is Chad Lindsay the final piece of the puzzle?

Only two linemen left spring practice with Urban Meyer's seal of approval as starters. There were two more waiting in the on-deck circle after working throughout camp with the first-team offense.

But Ohio State never seemed to give anybody much of an edge as a two-man battle was waged between Billy Price and Jacoby Boren at center, with neither doing enough to pull away and establish himself as a worthy heir to Corey Linsley in the heart of the line. And by the time practice resumes in August, a third guy will be jockeying for position in the middle -- and based on his résumé and decision to transfer with one year of eligibility left, he could easily be the one who ultimately wins it.

Technically Chad Lindsay will have a chance to get to work with the Buckeyes when he enrolls in June and dives into the offseason conditioning program, though there won't be any pads on or coaches around to evaluate his ability to replace one of the most respected, valued contributors in the program over the last two seasons. Lindsay's starting experience at Alabama was rather limited with just four games to his credit, but that's more than either Boren or Price bring to the table and neither have spent as much time on the practice field or in the weight room with national title-winning teams as the newest addition to the Ohio State roster.

The Buckeyes will still likely be patient and see exactly what they have to work with at center, and both Price and Boren have shown enough promise in the past to believe they could carve out roles down the line even if a first-team gig doesn't come their way this fall. But at some point Ohio State will need to settle on the best five guys and start building chemistry up front as it rebuilds the unit almost entirely. And the sooner the better.

Meyer already knows the group will include Taylor Decker at left tackle and Pat Elflein at guard. Based on the open practices during spring, Antonio Underwood is capable of filling the other void on the inside and Darryl Baldwin can man the right edge.

But the top priority when training camp rolls around will be making sure the Buckeyes have the ball in capable hands at the start of every play. And that position will quite literally be the center of attention.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

May, 7, 2014
May 7
5:00
PM ET
By the time you read this, I'll be somewhere over the Atlantic. (Where are the best Big Ten bars in Italy?). But before my Euro trip, I had time to answer your postcards ... er, emails:

Rob from New York writes: Brian, a lot of the Big Ten rivalry games aren't really rivalries anymore (or maybe ever). Not sure anyone is really getting up for the Illibuck, Governor's Victory Bell or the Old Brass Spittoon, not to mention lesser games like the Land Grant or Little Brown Jug. In your opinion, which games (A) deserve to be recognized rivalry games, (B) deserve to be trophy games, and (C) which ones should be retired and/or have their trophies burned to the ground? (Hint: the unanimous ugliest of them all.) My vote goes to Wisconsin/Michigan State becoming a rivalry AND trophy game, with a brass penalty flag as the trophy, since the series is littered with controversial calls and Michigan State fans whining about them (yeah, I'm biased). A non-trophy rivalry game could be Indiana and Michigan State, since it's not really a rivalry anymore. And a rivalry game that needs to die is Minnesota and Penn State (honestly, would anyone notice?).

Brian Bennett: Rob, Adam and I did a full assessment of the state of the Big Ten rivalries last year as the conference was working on realigning the division. You can find that post here. There's a difference between rivalries and trophy games. You can hand out a trophy for any game, but rivalries reveal themselves. For example, Wisconsin and Michigan State had grown into a rivalry without a trophy, while hardly anybody thinks the Old Brass Spittoon game is an actual rivalry. Alas, the Badgers and Spartans will be in different divisions now, didn't play last year and won't meet in 2014 or '15, so it's going to be hard to keep that going as a rivalry. I like the trophies, because many of them are goofy and fun and have some interesting history. But it will be worth tracking how the new division alignment and expansion affect actual rivalries.




 

Ben from Omaha writes: OK, I'm going to do my best to not be a homer here, but I'm a little shocked Nebraska isn't a favorite over Wisconsin in the West Division. Nebraska returns almost all of its D and as long as Tommy Armstrong just plays consistently and doesn't turn it over, our offense will be great again. Wisconsin, on the other hand, loses a ton of its D and O, and its only returning contributors are Joel Stave and Melvin Gordon. I get that Nebraska can be tough to trust, but I'd still take them based off returning players. Am I being a homer here or am I on to something?

Brian Bennett: First, Ben, I'd have to ask where you're getting the idea that there's a favorite in the West. I think the division is pretty wide open, and it's only early May. Colleagues Mark Schlabach and Brian Fremeau do have Wisconsin ranked higher than Nebraska right now, but I don't believe there's any real consensus. I am higher on the Huskers than the Badgers, because I think Gary Andersen's team has too many question marks. But the schedule is a real factor here. Wisconsin and Iowa have much easier roads to Indianapolis than does Nebraska, which has to go to Michigan State as one of its crossovers and plays the Badgers and Hawkeyes on the road. I think sometimes we overrate schedules in the preseason, though.




 

MonsterHunter via Twitter writes: Did the Big Ten do any due diligence about Rutgers before handing them their Golden Ticket? Strictly amateur hour in N.J.

Brian Bennett: Rutgers can't seem to get out of its own way when it comes to bad PR. moves, the latest being the flap over the Eric LeGrand speech. I don't think the LeGrand incident is that big of a deal in its own right, but it adds to the string of poor decisions and tin-eared communication skills of the administration. The school has a lot of different political factions tugging it in many directions, so it can often be hard to get everybody on the same page. But for the sake of the Scarlet Knights and the Big Ten, Rutgers really needs to get its house in order and stop creating controversy. Playing good football would make a lot of this stuff go away.




 

Alex from York, Neb., writes: Hi, Brian. My question is why do I get the feeling from the media that the Nebraska QB battle has already been won? It's only spring. I know Tommy Armstrong is the incumbent starter but that's no reason to end a position battle. Tommy is going to look better in practices because he's been around longer, but in the spring game, the closest to a real game situation we've seen so far, Johnny Stanton and ever Ryker Fyfe looked much better than TAJR. I'm not saying he won't win the battle, but why do people seem to think the battle is over already?

Brian Bennett: Armstrong has such an experience edge that I think he would have had to do something to lose the job this offseason. And by all accounts, he played well and took on a bigger leadership role this spring. I don't put much stock in spring game performances. Armstrong can't rest on his laurels, and if he doesn't play well early this season, he has a chance to get passed by. But I'd be really surprised if he weren't the starter in September.




 

Kevin from Fairfax writes: Seriously, someone has Michigan ranked in the top 25? Michigan is going to be lucky to break .500 this year. As for Sparty, they were one of the two best teams in the country last year, while the defense might take a half step back, the offense should help. Right now there are five Big Ten teams that deserve to be ranked: Michigan State, Ohio State, a Penn State team that was far closer to an 11-win team than most admit, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

Brian Bennett: I don't quite get ranking Michigan either, though the Wolverines clearly have some talent if they can figure things out. But based on what we saw last year and given some of the issues on the offensive line, this is a team that will have to show me something before I consider it as a Top 25-caliber club. I disagree with you about Penn State. While the Nittany Lions definitely have some upper-echelon players and a pretty good schedule, there are depth questions and an offensive line that might be even more problematic than the one in Ann Arbor. With a new staff in place, this is another show-me team (and I'd like you to show me how a team that lost by double digits to Indiana and Minnesota and by 49 points to Ohio State was almost an 11-win team). The five teams I think should be ranked are, in order, Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin.

That's it for me and the mailbag for a bit as it's vacation time. Arrivederci!

Big Ten's lunch links

May, 7, 2014
May 7
12:00
PM ET
Spring, is that you at last? Feel free to stick around a while.
video

Watch highlights from NFL draft prospect Jack Mewhort.
Everybody is a draftnik this week, and we're putting our own Big Ten spin on things. Rather than looking at the players leaving the league -- don't worry, we'll do that, too -- we're speculating on how a draft within the conference would play out.

To recap: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (incoming recruits are not). The teams will pick in reverse order of regular-season finish last year. Picks are based on factors like position need, remaining eligibility, scheme, previous players lost in the draft.

Check out the first half of the first round here. It gets a bit messy with teams swiping each other's top players, but that makes it fun.

Now, for the final seven picks ...

Pick No. 8: Penn State

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook's Rose Bowl-winning resume makes him a popular choice in the second half of the first round of the Big Ten draft.
Adam Rittenberg says the Lions select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook

The offensive line is Penn State's shakiest position group, but Christian Hackenberg (selected No. 5 by Rutgers) leaves a massive hole at quarterback. Cook, a pro-style signal-caller with a big arm and more experience than Hackenberg, makes a lot of sense as he fits the system and comes off top performances in the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl.

Brian Bennett says the Lions select ... Ohio State OT Taylor Decker

Penn State does need help on the offensive line, but it can afford to be patient. Decker was playing as well as any Ohio State offensive lineman late last season, when he was only a redshirt freshman. He can come to State College and offer help now and for the next three years, seeing the Lions through probation.

Pick No. 9: Minnesota

Rittenberg says the Gophers select ... Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Minnesota loses some star power on defense, but I expect coordinator Tracy Claeys to produce a solid unit. The bigger issue is boosting a pass offense that ranked 115th nationally last season. Diggs comes off an injury-shortened season, but he's an explosive playmaker with 88 career receptions and two years of eligibility left. He would complement promising young wideouts like Drew Wolitarsky.

Bennett says the Gophers select ... Nebraska WR Kenny Bell

The Gophers might just be a downfield receiving threat away from being actual division contenders. Bell is a senior but offers two things Jerry Kill wants: leadership and toughness as a blocker. Bell would also deliver some explosiveness while guiding Minnesota's young wideouts along.

Pick No. 10: Iowa

Rittenberg says the Hawkeyes select ... Indiana LT Jason Spriggs

Brandon Scherff (selected No. 1 by Purdue) is a major loss for Iowa, which now needs a replacement to anchor its offensive line. Spriggs might not be as big a name as Scherff, but he has quietly started the first 24 games of his college career and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors the past two seasons. He also has two years of eligibility left.

Bennett says the Hawkeyes select ... Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

True, Iowa has about 37 tailbacks right now. But the pure speed and playmaking ability of Gordon is tough to pass up here, especially for an offense seeking more home-run plays. Plus, he originally committed to the Hawkeyes, so this is a way for them to finally get Gordon in black and gold.

Pick No. 11: Nebraska

Rittenberg says the Huskers select ... Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Running back Ameer Abdullah (selected No. 6 by Maryland) is a significant loss, but the Huskers have good depth behind him. They need a replacement for All-Big Ten end Randy Gregory (selected No. 4 by Indiana), and Bosa, who ended his freshman season in beast mode, is an easy choice. He should keep the expectations high for the Huskers' defensive front seven. And he has at least two seasons left.

[+] EnlargeDevin Funches
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsDevin Funchess would give Nebraska an athletic, versatile playmaker in the passing game.
Bennett says the Huskers select ... Michigan WR/TE Devin Funchess

Nebraska doesn't seem to have a lot of gaping holes but could use a playmaker in the passing game after losing Bell (selected No. 9 by Minnesota). Funchess would make a nice safety valve for Tommy Armstrong and is a destroyer of red zone defenses. Tim Beck lobbies hard for this pick and would get two years to deploy Funchess in a variety of ways.

Pick No. 12: Wisconsin

Rittenberg says the Badgers select ... Ohio State DL Michael Bennett

Like Nebraska, Wisconsin has lost an elite running back (Melvin Gordon, selected No. 7 by Michigan), and like the Huskers, the Badgers have enough to get by without him. Wisconsin has an even bigger need to upgrade its defensive front seven after losing six starters to graduation. Bennett, a junior who could play either line spot and had seven sacks last season, is a really good fit for Wisconsin.

Bennett says the Badgers select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook

The passing game remains a sore spot for Wisconsin, and no clear starter under center emerged this spring. Cook knows how to run a pro-style offense and would have two years left in Madison.

Pick No. 13: Ohio State

Rittenberg says the Buckeyes select ... Michigan QB Devin Gardner

Well, this should be interesting. Ohio State needs a quarterback after losing Braxton Miller to Northwestern (pick No. 3), and there aren't too many proven options out there. The Buckeyes likely can get by with a one-year player to allow younger guys to develop. Gardner is a good fit in a true spread offense, and he showed at times last year that he can put up huge numbers.

Bennett says the Buckeyes select ... Indiana QB Tre Roberson

I had Rutgers snagging Miller earlier in the first round. Roberson might be the closest facsimile to Miller in the league right now, a guy with good wheels who can also sling it around the field. He has plenty of game experience and two years of eligibility left.

Pick No. 14: Michigan State

Rittenberg says the Spartans select ... Iowa QB Jake Rudock

OK, the quarterback swapping is getting a little silly, but Michigan State needs one after losing Cook (selected No. 8 by Penn State), and Rudock brings experience to the Spartans backfield. Rudock comes from a pro-style system at Iowa and should take another step this season. Plus, he has two years of eligibility left.

Bennett says the Spartans select ... Ohio State S Vonn Bell

You can't convince me that Mark Dantonio wouldn't go defense first in a draft like this. And I think the prospect of a stud defensive back would prove too hard for him to resist. Bell showed real promise in his brief exposure last year with the Buckeyes and has three years left to help fortify the No-Fly Zone.
Last week, Brian Bennett explained why he believes Ohio State's defensive line is the Big Ten's top position group coming out of spring practice. The Buckeyes return an excellent mix of depth and talent as players like Michael Bennett, Noah Spence, Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington all are back.

Not surprisingly, Bennett's post generated some spirited responses from fan bases who believe different position groups merit top billing. Well, here's your chance to show what you think.

Today's poll question is simple: What is the Big Ten's top position group coming out of spring ball?

SportsNation

What is the Big Ten's strongest position group coming out of the spring?

  •  
    22%
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    38%
  •  
    26%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,299)

The candidates ...

Michigan State's defensive line: Defensive end Shilique Calhoun became a superstar in 2013, leading the Big Ten in forced fumbles and recording 7.5 sacks. Underrated senior Marcus Rush returns opposite Calhoun, and there's good depth with Lawrence Thomas and Demetrius Cooper, who stood out in the spring game. There are more questions inside but Joel Heath looked promising this spring.

Nebraska's running backs: All-America candidate Ameer Abdullah leads an impressive group after rushing for 1,690 yards and nine touchdowns during a spectacular junior season. The Huskers boast experience with Imani Cross, who has 17 career touchdowns, along with talented younger players like Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor.

Ohio State's defensive line: The Buckeyes return three of the Big Ten's top six sack masters from 2013 in Spence, Bosa and Bennett. They have speed on the edge and athleticism inside, and they can plug in some space eaters like Tommy Schutt and Chris Carter.

Wisconsin's running backs: A year after producing the top single-season rushing tandem in FBS history -- Melvin Gordon and James White -- Wisconsin has another talented pair in Gordon and Corey Clement. Gordon, a Heisman Trophy candidate entering his redshirt junior season, rushed for 1,609 yards and averaged 7.8 yards per carry last fall. Clement looked great in limited work, and recruit Taiwan Deal enters the mix this fall.

Big Ten's lunch links

May, 6, 2014
May 6
12:00
PM ET
Hodor.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Almost as soon as it arrived, spring camp at Ohio State wrapped up. Time isn't likely to fly by quite as quickly in the offseason with the summer months sure to drag by until the 2014 campaign finally opens in August. The Buckeyes have plenty of work to do to get ready for their debut against Navy on Aug. 30, and to help pass the time, we're looking at some of the most pressing positional questions they'll have to answer to make another run at a championship.

Can multiple Buckeyes get involved in the passing game?

Ohio State finally lived up to its seemingly annual pledge to get the tight end position involved in the passing game. The next step is getting more than one of them rolling as a target to really expand the arsenal of an offense that can clearly create mismatches with size, strength and reliability in its impressive collection of athletes.

[+] EnlargeJeff Heuerman
Zach Bolinger/Icon SMITE Jeff Heuerman emerged as a weapon for the Buckeyes last season, and he could be even better this fall.
Jeff Heuerman finished third on the team in receptions last season, breaking out with 26 grabs for 466 yards and four touchdowns in a campaign that still might have only scratched the surface of his ability. And while Nick Vannett was a factor in different ways and chipped in eight receptions himself, the second option at tight end also seemed slightly underused at times considering how closely his skills match up with Heuerman's and the faith the coaching staff has in him as well.

Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman have both made it well known how much they value a versatile chess piece at tight end, a player who can line up all over the field and wreak havoc on defenses by creating mismatches in both the passing and rushing games. And the threat of Heuerman and Vannett as receivers combined with their above average blocking has surely helped tip the scales for the dynamic ground game over the past two seasons.

But as the spread offense continues evolving under Meyer, there's no doubt he'd like to see more passes flying at his tight ends, particularly after getting a couple glimpses at the explosiveness Heuerman can provide down the field with outings like his 116-yard performance against Purdue and with a 57-yard touchdown catch against Clemson.

And while Vannett is unlikely to evenly match the production of Heuerman, unleashing the two at the same time can create all kinds of problems for a defense that must account for a pair of players who stand taller than 6-foot-5 and can stretch the field with their legs while at the same time providing Ohio State the flexibility to shift to a power formation depending on the personnel lining up against them. That may require getting Vannett a few more touches than the 17 he's had over the past two years to keep a defense honest, and Heuerman could no doubt use a couple more also.

The Buckeyes might even throw redshirt freshman Marcus Baugh into that mix, giving them three big guys with speed to make them even harder to defend at tight end. But they laid the foundation by establishing one of those Buckeyes as a legitimate, consistent threat a year ago -- and if they can do the same with a second, an already dangerous offense will hit an even higher level.

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