Big Ten lunch links

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

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

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

Big Ten Monday mailbag

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
5:00
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The season of media days is in full swing, with the SEC in the books, the ACC wrapping on Monday, the Big 12 underway, and the Pac-12 set to start on Wednesday. The Big Ten, of course, is scheduled for next week in Chicago. It's never too early to answer questions, though. Keep them coming here and to me. I'll be back soon for more.


Mitch Sherman: I like what I've seen so far from James Franklin, but he's yet to coach a game in Happy Valley. It's all about attitude and recruiting, and that's great. Still, the hardships of probation are difficult to shake. And even with the reduction in sanctions, Penn State still faces a climb to return to the top tier of the Big Ten, let alone the national elite. The presence of Christian Hackenberg during this era of transition helps mightily, but I think the Nittany Lions face some difficult times before the resurgence can start.

As for Michigan, yeah, sure, the depth is better. With Brady Hoke in his fourth season, that's expected. Hoke has largely recruited well. The problems involve player development and a lack of offensive innovation since Denard Robinson stopped improvising. The Wolverines remain way too green on the offensive line, and questions at quarterback have not been answered. Other than three tough road trips, the schedule sets up well. But yes, if this year looks like the second half of last season, the coach has reason to worry.

 





Mitch Sherman: I don't, but any time after that, I could see it. Ultimately, as we all know, money drives the playoff, like everything in big-time college athletics. And the more money the new postseason generates, the louder the calls will grow to expand the thing and create more opportunities to sell tickets and merchandise.

Five years is about the right amount of time to test the four-team format. To change it before 2019 would not give this system the time it needs. We learned long before the BCS era that every season brings a new set of potential controversies. In some seasons, like 2013, a two-team playoff provided a better solution than would a four-team system. More often, the four-team approach would have been more effective in crowing a champ.

The momentum for an eight-team playoff will grow with the every season that provides controversy in the selection of four teams. Expect the calls for a revision to get loud in at least two of the first five seasons. After that, the system is ripe for expansion.

 





Mitch Sherman: Well, Tommy Armstrong Jr. is a sophomore, so at worst, you need only fear three years of inconsistent play, but I understand the concern. You're suffering from a condition that resulted from watching Nebraska over the past four years. Its quarterback play under Taylor Martinez was anything but consistent, and Armstrong, as an eight-game starter, extended the trend, throwing eight interceptions and nine touchdowns on 52-percent passing.

I think you'll be pleased, though, with Armstrong's improvement this fall. My takeaway from the spring is that he's set to play much more consistently. Armstrong possesses all the intangibles for which the Huskers search at quarterback. The same could not always be said about his predecessor.

As for Johnny Stanton, he has to beat out Ryker Fyfe before the redshirt freshman can think about taking over the top spot. At this stage of their development, it would take a meltdown by Armstrong for Bo Pelini and Tim Beck to make a change. But things can change quickly in September, especially once the Huskers hit that stretch of five consecutive night games.

B1G awards watch list roundup

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
3:00
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College football preseason awards watch lists are, at best, little more than a summertime curiosity these days and, at worst, an easy punchline.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Ten lunch links

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

Preseason position review: LB

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
9:00
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Linebacker was arguably the deepest and most talented position in the Big Ten last year. This season, the position takes on a new look, as stars like Wisconsin's Chris Borland, Ohio State's Ryan Shazier, Michigan State's Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and Iowa's trio of James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens have all moved on.

Who's in the best and worst shape at the linebacker spot? Let's take a look as we continue our preseason position series:

Best of the best: Michigan State
Say what? The team that lost Bullough and Allen is still ranked first here? No, we haven't completely lost our minds. We just believe in the talent on hand -- and especially defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi's ability to mold it into something special. Taiwan Jones probably would have started for most other college teams the past couple of years and looks poised to break out as Bullough's replacement in the middle. Darien Harris played well while helping fill in for Bullough during the Rose Bowl and will have an outside spot locked down. Ed Davis is a great athlete who was a third-down specialist last year; he can make up for Allen's absence as a blitzer. Backups like Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke will push the starters. This is not a sure thing, as the group has some questions to answer. But it's a safe bet that the Spartans' linebackers will come through.

Next up: Michigan
The Wolverines return all three starters to a crew that should be their best position group on defense. Jake Ryan might well be the best linebacker in the Big Ten, especially if he returns to his playmaking ways after dealing with his ACL tear recovery last fall. He moves to the middle this year, pushing James Ross III to the strong side. Ross is a little undersized for that spot but could overcome it with athleticism and instincts. Desmond Morgan has been rock solid the past couple of years. We'd like to see a few more big plays out of this group, but Ryan should be able to provide that. Nebraska and Penn State are also contenders for having the best linebacker position this season.

Sleeper: Ohio State
Outside of Shazier, the Buckeyes struggled to find standout players at linebacker the past couple of years. So his jump to the NFL stings. Still, the coaching staff is optimistic about the direction of this group. Joshua Perry started coming on late last year, including a strong Orange Bowl performance, and could step in Shazier's shoes as the leader here. Darron Lee is an excellent athlete who made waves this spring. Can senior Curtis Grant finally live up to his potential? If not, true freshman Raekwon McMillan could step into his place in the middle. The talent level here is getting back to vintage Silver Bullets days.

Problem for a contender: Iowa
Not a big problem, per se, as the Hawkeyes like what they have in former top backups Quinton Alston and Travis Perry, along with talented true sophomore Reggie Spearman. Still, any time you lose the experience and production that Iowa did -- the trio of Kirksey, Morris and Hitchens combined for 985 career tackles and 105 starts -- the transition to a new era may not always be smooth. The good news is the Hawkeyes' defensive line remains strong, allowing the linebackers more freedom to simply make plays. Don't expect this to be much of a problem for long, if at all.

Big Ten Friday mailbag

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
5:00
PM ET
The weather feels like fall already in Columbus. The only thing missing is a football game, but at least we have some Twitter questions to bring us one day closer to the season. Be sure to follow me here to get a jump on the next mailbag.

Austin Ward: There is no reason to think Rutgers won't eventually be able to compete in the Big Ten if it is able to use the league's resources to its advantage, but it certainly seems like it's going to be a difficult transition in the short term. For starters, joining the East Division did the Scarlet Knights no favors, and on top of that they drew both Nebraska and Wisconsin from the West to give them about as rude of an introduction to the league as possible. Considering their struggles in a weaker conference a year ago, a sub-.500 finish thanks to their bowl-game loss to Notre Dame and some lingering questions about how explosive the offense can be, I think even climbing into contention for a postseason appearance might be a stretch for the Scarlet Knights this fall.

Ward: Typically, sizing up the quarterbacks is a pretty handy way to forecast the favorites, but the West is something of an exception this offseason. Nebraska has some uncertainty even with Tommy Armstrong Jr. returning, and Wisconsin doesn't exactly have Russell Wilson under center this fall either, yet the running games those two programs boast are strong enough that they have generally been accepted as the top candidates to advance to the Big Ten title game on that side of the league. Wes Lunt's physical tools and the dynamic offense he will lead if he can finally, officially win the starting job make him an intriguing pick as the best of the bunch, and it seems a safe bet that he will put up impressive individual numbers. But don't count out Jake Rudock as somebody capable of giving Iowa steady production and turning that team into a threat in the West, provided he can cut down on the turnovers and the coaching staff actually does open up the attack a bit more this season.

Ward: The recruiting work Urban Meyer has done on the defensive side of the ball is starting to show up on the roster, and the Ohio State Buckeyes are going to need some of their younger, highly touted players to have a big impact if they are going to make a serious run at the playoff this season. Joey Bosa, as mentioned, might be one of the most destructive defensive linemen in the country this fall, and he is obviously going to be critical in generating a pass rush that could take some pressure off the revamped secondary. But it is a new full-time starter in the back end that might actually have the greatest influence in restoring Ohio State's proud defensive tradition, and Vonn Bell already raised the sky-high expectations when he snagged that one-handed interception in the Discover Orange Bowl. His spring was cut short by injury, but Bell is a young guy the Buckeyes desperately need to deliver..

Big Ten lunch links

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
12:00
PM ET
If anybody needs me this weekend, you can find me here. First, let's rock out to these links:

B1G media day preview: Ohio State

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
11:00
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Big Ten media days arrive in just less than two weeks, on July 28. But we can hardly wait for the event and the season to arrive, so we’ll get you ready in the coming days by identifying three pressing questions that each league squad will face at media days, along with their possible answers.

Next stop: Ohio State, which will bring quarterback Braxton Miller, defensive tackle Michael Bennett and tight end Jeff Heuerman along with coach Urban Meyer to talk about the chances of breaking through for a conference crown.

1. Are the Buckeyes a playoff contender?

As long as Meyer is around and recruiting at his typically high level, his team is likely to be on the short list of candidates for a playoff appearance during the preseason. In two seasons with the program, he's already posted an undefeated record and was one win away last fall from having Ohio State play for the national title. But there are some question marks about his third team in Columbus, and Meyer doesn't usually pull many punches when evaluating his roster. Will the Buckeyes be able to successfully replace four starters on the offensive line? Is there a tailback capable of filling the void left behind by the graduation of Carlos Hyde? What was the deal with the defensive woes at the end of last season? Those answers from Meyer could reveal plenty about the title chances for the Buckeyes.

2. What is Miller's legacy?

The two-time defending player of the year in the league rarely talks about his own accomplishments or his place in school history, so chances are he might get worn out by the line of questions that will come his way in Chicago. His legacy is going to be a topic of conversation whether Miller wants it to be or not, and going into his senior season, it remains a complicated issue. His skills and athleticism aren't up for debate, and those individual awards he's earned were definitely deserved. But thanks to one season ending prematurely because of a bowl ban and Ohio State coming up short in the conference title game last season, Miller has yet to lead his team to any truly meaningful hardware. Miller is already aware of that hole on his résumé, but he's going to receive plenty of reminders of it anyway as one of the main attractions of the media circus.

3. What about that defense?

Meyer's expertise is the other side of the ball, but he's taken on a much more active role in fixing the defense after the problems that popped up last season contributed so mightily to Ohio State coming up short against Michigan State and Clemson in the Orange Bowl. The Buckeyes hired two new coaches as part of the rebuilding job, and there will be no shortage of questions about what co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash and defensive line coach Larry Johnson can do to fix the issues that plagued the unit a year ago. Bennett is one of the more respected veterans on the roster and a critical anchor for what could be one of the best defensive lines in the nation. And as the lone defender on the trip to Chicago, he'll be facing just as many questions about restoring the proud tradition of the Silver Bullets as Meyer.

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
5:00
PM ET
As you've probably noticed, we've switched the days up a bit with the mailbag as we've gone daily here in the last stretch of the offseason. Keep sending us your questions, especially on Twitter.

Patrick from Davenport, Iowa, writes: In an imaginary world, let's say every major conference produces one undefeated team (ex: Ohio State, Alabama, Stanford, Florida State, Baylor) Who doesn't make the Playoff?

Brian Bennett: Chaos in Year 1! Bill Hancock might have a nervous breakdown, and the selection committee members might have to go into hiding. First, let's acknowledge that the odds of all five power conference champions going undefeated is exceptionally low. We had only one such league champ last year (Florida State), and upgraded nonconference scheduling will make it even tougher in the future.

But it is possible that the stars could align for Patrick's scenario. And that's where strength of schedule and perceived conference power will come into effect. With the teams you mentioned, I would say it's highly likely that Baylor would be left out, since the Bears' nonconference schedule includes the murderers' row of SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo. There's just no way the committee could reward that kind of scheduling unless the Big 12 proved historically good.

The more plausible controversy for the Playoff, of course, is a logjam of one-loss conference teams. Which is why the Big Ten needs to make sure it is winning key nonconference games and improving its overall perception.


Steve from Boston writes: Brian, I can think of some great home-and-home B1G matchups that have happened (Michigan-Oregon, though the Big House episode was not so pretty), Ohio State-Texas, and several that are scheduled. But it seems like an awful lot of these scheduled several years into the future seem to be cancelled. Alabama and Michigan State cancelled their home-and-home, and others both in the B1G and elsewhere [have fallen through]. Not to mention we were told about the B1G/Pac-12 partnership that never happened. You bring up the fact that you never know who will be good 5-10 years into the future, further making it hard to get excited about these agreements until they actually happen. Let's hope they all do.

Brian Bennett: Some good points here, Steve. While it's fun to look at, say, Michigan vs. Oklahoma in 2025-26, there's no guarantee that it will ever happen. We could all be slaving away for our alien ant overlords by then. With series like those set so far in the future, there's a great chance that schools will have new athletic directors and -- almost certainly -- new head coaches by then. And the people (or cyborgs) in those chairs may have different priorities on scheduling, may be looking to rebuild, etc.

Many power conference school with serious Playoff aspirations are trying to upgrade their schedules and play more power-five teams. But if some of those series get cancelled at the last minute -- like, say, Vanderbilt pulling out against Ohio State -- then teams could find themselves really scrambling to arrange suitable opponents and would risk missing the Playoff because of it. That's why I think you'll see schools try to make these contracts more iron-clad moving forward.


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Brian Bennett: It was interesting to say the least when Ash left Arkansas -- where he was the sole defensive coordinator -- to become co-defensive coordinator for Ohio State without any sort of pay raise. When I asked him about it this spring, Ash said part of the reason for the move was that he wanted to be a head coach someday, and he wanted to learn from as many different coaches as possible. Working for Urban Meyer is always a smart résumé-builder, as he has planted a pretty impressive coaching tree.

I like what Ash did at Wisconsin, and I think his more aggressive scheme will benefit the Buckeyes this season. And even though Ohio State lost Bradley Roby, I expect the secondary to be much better this year. That's because I think the young talent at safety will be a big upgrade over what the Buckeyes used at that position after Christian Bryant's injury last season. There could be some growing pains early, but I'm impressed by the athleticism available. If Ohio State makes a leap in its pass defense, Ash could find himself on the fast track toward being a head coach.


Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: Indiana vs Minnesota. Head coaches came on board at the same time, so it seems like it's a good time to evaluate the programs. ESPN's computers have predicted the Hoosiers to be 7-5 (4-4 in the conference) this year and the Gophers to be 5-7 (3-5 in the conference). Prior to this year, the Gophers (under Jerry Kill) in the conference are 8-16 with two bowl losses, Hoosiers (under Kevin Wilson) are 5-19 and no bowl appearances. 1) Based on ESPN's computer analysis, it seems that the Gophers were lucky last year. 2) If Wilson doesn't get to a bowl game this year, how would you (acting AD) decide whether he deserves to come back or not?

Brian Bennett: I watched Minnesota last year and didn't think the Gophers were "lucky." That was a physical team that played strong defense and ran the ball well. There was nothing fluky about their wins over Nebraska and Penn State, and both Wisconsin and Michigan State struggled to score much against Minnesota late in the year (albeit in arctic conditions for both games). I can see why computer models might like Indiana a little more, given that the Hoosiers can throw up crazy offensive statistics, and the Gophers have a difficult schedule. But Indiana doesn't have an easy time either this year with trips to Missouri and Bowling Green before heading into the rugged East Division.

As far as Wilson goes, at most places missing a bowl for four years would be cause for dismissal. But remember that the Hoosiers have only been to one bowl game since 1993, so the standard is a little different. He has recruited well and built up the talent level, and IU is still a pretty young team because of all the true freshmen Wilson has thrown out there. Athletic director Fred Glass will want to see continued improvement and competitiveness, especially on the defensive side of the ball. But as long as the Hoosiers are showing that progress, I think Wilson will be safe for a fifth year, even with another postseason absence this year.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
12:00
PM ET
Better Big Ten Bane: Braxton Miller or Shilique Calhoun?
The moment you all have waited for has finally arrived. Nothing creates quite the angst and anticipation among Big Ten blog readers like the announcement of kickoff times and TV plans for the first few weeks of the upcoming season.

The announcement comes your way a little later than normal, but it's here! Stop everything you're doing immediately!

As a reminder, these are only games taking place in Big Ten stadiums. Kick times and TV plans for road games already have been announced by the leagues controlling those contests. Also, Big Ten-controlled prime-time games also have been announced and won't appear in this list.

OK, here's the list of new announcements ...

Aug. 30

Appalachian State at Michigan, noon ET, ESPN2
Indiana State at Indiana, noon ET, ESPN News
Youngstown State at Illinois, noon ET, BTN
Northern Iowa at Iowa, noon ET, BTN
Western Michigan at Purdue, noon ET, ESPNU
Florida Atlantic at Nebraska, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN
California at Northwestern, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC regional (ESPN2 in outer markets)
James Madison at Maryland, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN

Sept. 6

Akron at Penn State, noon ET, ABC regional (ESPN or ESPN2 in outer markets)
Western Kentucky at Illinois, noon ET, BTN
Central Michigan at Purdue, noon ET, ESPN News
McNeese State at Nebraska, noon ET, ESPNU
Western Illinois at Wisconsin, noon ET, BTN
Howard at Rutgers, noon ET, BTN
Ball State at Iowa, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Middle Tennessee at Minnesota, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN
Northern Illinois at Northwestern, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN

Sept. 13

West Virginia at Maryland, noon ET, BTN, Noon EDT
Kent State at Ohio State, noon ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2
Miami (Ohio) at Michigan, 3:30 p.m. ET, BTN
Iowa State at Iowa, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Few of you like the noon ET (11 a.m. CT) kickoffs but they're a reality in the Big Ten. We're seeing more variety in kickoff times with BTN and other broadcast platforms.

Northwestern once again gets later time slots after playing its first six games in the late afternoon or evening in 2013. Minnesota also gets afternoon or evening kickoffs for at least its first three games (Eastern Illinois and TCU are the others). Maryland and Rutgers both make their BTN debuts against FCS opponents.

The small group of games on Sept. 13 is due to five non-league Big Ten road games and three teams -- Michigan State, Northwestern and Wisconsin -- having open weeks.

There you have it. Mark those calendars.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 16, 2014
Jul 16
12:00
PM ET
Every pitch is grooved for the links.
  • Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash weighs in on the progress of the defense and his relationship with Luke Fickell.
  • There was already plenty of attention on Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones before he was named to a preseason watch list.
  • James Franklin provided some insight on a pair of injuries Penn State is dealing with during the offseason, updating the progress for Miles Diffenbach and Ben Kline.
  • Maryland is trying to use LeBron James' decision to go home to its advantage in recruiting.
  • The jump to the Big Ten has produced a bump in ticket prices for Rutgers and Maryland.
  • Another hot ticket: Nebraska's visit to Fresno State is generating excitement for both fan bases.
  • Loren Tate writes that academic standards at Illinois are part of the reason the program is falling behind competitively.
  • An in-depth look at Northwestern asks if the program is really trending upward.

Preseason position preview: DL

July, 16, 2014
Jul 16
10:30
AM ET
You want to win in the Big Ten? Then you'd better have a strong defensive line.

Being stout up front and strong enough to stop the run has long been a staple of success in this league. This year, several stars return at defensive end, including Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Noah Spence, Maryland's Andre Monroe and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran. Things are a little more undecided at defensive tackle, though Iowa's Carl Davis and Ohio State's Michael Bennett could be early round NFL draft picks.

Let's continue our position preview series with the guys holding down the fort in the defensive trenches:

Best of the best: Ohio State

I've already pegged this as the best overall position group in the Big Ten, so naturally the Buckeyes take the top spot here. The star power is immense with Bosa and Spence on the end and Bennett and Adolphus Washington inside. There are some question marks about depth, especially early on as Spence is suspended for the first two games of the season. Jamal Marcus transferred, and Tracy Sprinkle -- who at best would have provided some rotation help -- has been kicked off the team pending the resolution of his legal problems. The good news is that some incoming recruits could help right away, and when Ohio State's starting four is all together, it will be tough to stop.

Next up: Michigan State

Few teams can match the pair of defensive ends that the Spartans can line up. Calhoun is the Big Ten's reigning defensive lineman of the year, and he was a first-year starter last year who should continue to improve. On the other side, Marcus Rush has started 40 of the past 41 games and done everything asked of him. He's one of the most underrated players in the league. Michigan State has to replace both starting defensive tackles from last season, but there are several players ready to contribute, including Joel Heath and Damon Knox. Highly rated recruit Malik McDowell could work his way into the mix as well. And there are other stars waiting in the wings, like Demetrius Cooper.

Sleeper: Michigan

The Wolverines were decent but nothing special on the defensive line last season. But they have some interesting pieces to work with this year. Start with a pair of seniors on the edges in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer. Elsewhere on the line are a several talented young players who have seen a lot of snaps early in their careers, such as Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry and Matt Godin. Many of these players were highly rated recruits, and if they can live up to their potential and bring the level of play back up near Brady Hoke's first year as head coach, this is a group that can make some noise.

Problem for a contender: Wisconsin

Like several other positions for the Badgers, this one was hit hard by graduation, as stalwarts like Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer, Pat Muldoon and Tyler Dippel have all moved on. There is still some promise here, as Warren Herring gives the team a big body inside and redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih provides reason for excitement. Fifth-year senior Konrad Zagzebski will need to make his presence known. The group could have a little more speed than in years past, but no team lost more experience on the defensive front than Wisconsin.

Big Ten Tuesday mailbag

July, 15, 2014
Jul 15
5:00
PM ET
Howdy. My journey to the World Cup is over, and it is time to really get rolling on the Big Ten blog. This is my first time with the mailbag, so thanks for taking it easy on me. I'm expecting more heat the next time around and questions are accepted any time on Twitter, so follow me right here.

Austin Ward: That would certainly provide an interesting test case for how the selection committee views the Big Ten, and in some ways a playoff appearance likely would not come down to what Iowa itself had accomplished. The Hawkeyes really don't have true high-profile games outside of the league to make a big statement, which could be a problem in this scenario as the strength of schedule starts to play a more significant factor. That doesn't mean wins over Iowa State or on the road against Pittsburgh should be overlooked, but Iowa might be counting more on Wisconsin or Nebraska to have been impressive throughout the year before that closing two-game stretch at the end of the regular season to help give the Hawkeyes a bit more credit for what doesn't appear like that grueling of a schedule. Chances are, this season a one-loss Iowa team with a loss to Maryland would probably be on the outside of the top-four spots.

Austin Ward: For projecting just one upcoming season, historical performance in terms of wins and losses probably has limited usefulness. That should come as no surprise considering all the numerous factors that go into making a team successful during a given season, from the composition of the roster, to injuries, lucky or unlucky bounces and everything else that make the game so unpredictable and fun to watch year after year. But in a broader sense, a program's all-time record I think does have value in understanding which teams are most likely to be annual contenders or at least primed to bounce back if some rough patches have come along. Teams like Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten, for example, have won a lot of games because they have huge fan bases that bring in money, traditionally have had recruiting areas that sustain them and invest their resources in ensuring a product that wins over time. That doesn't mean in each individual season they are guaranteed to win at a championship level, but long term I would think there is more evidence to suggest the chances of it happening are pretty high.

Austin Ward: See, I told you guys that you were taking it easy on me for the debut mailbag. The conference takes over the national spotlight on July 28-29 in Chicago, and the whole Big Ten blog crew will be in attendance for wall-to-wall coverage. In fact, we are all so excited that we have already started previewing the hot topics and burning questions for every team in the league. It feels like it's been forever since there was live football to cover, and though doing a bunch of interviews isn't quite the same as being in a stadium, at least the game will be a topic of conversation again. The countdown is on..

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College Football Player Rankings: 41-60
Chris Spielman and Brian Griese discuss the players ranked 41-60 in ESPN.com's top 100 college football players.
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