Big Ten 2015 recruiting in review 

February, 11, 2015
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The 2015 recruiting class is in the rear-view mirror, but there are still some important topics to discuss with the class. Here is a look at how the conference panned out and what could lie ahead for some of the prospects.

Big Ten morning links

February, 11, 2015
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There is no curse, nothing wrong with the job, and no apparent concern from Kyle Flood either.

If anything, the Rutgers coach is chalking up a seemingly annual tradition of replacing his offensive coordinator as a positive, pointing to the quality of jobs his assistants have landed.

Whether that's focusing on the silver lining or truly genuine, only Flood actually knows. But either way, after Ralph Friedgen stepped down into an advisory role on Tuesday to become the fifth consecutive one-and-done offensive coordinator for the Scarlet Knights, Flood could use some consistency at some point.

"You describe it as a problem, but I think some of the guys we've had here as coordinators have left for some pretty good reasons," Flood said during his announcement teleconference. "When you hire talented people, there's always a chance that they're going to have the opportunity to go somewhere and get promoted."

That didn't happen this time with Friedgen, who wasn't looking for another job as much as a chance to "smell the roses" without the demands that come with full-time coaching in the Big Ten. He never figured to be a long-term answer for the Scarlet Knights, but it's still something of a surprise that he wound up adding his name to the list of one-and-done coordinators.

The next man up, former wide receivers coach Ben McDaniels, could potentially provide some stability moving forward and allow for the Scarlet Knights to find some comfort and rhythm. Of course, his young age (34) and famous name (he's the brother of New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels) could make him a hot commodity on the coaching market if he has success with the Scarlet Knights this season.

Perhaps there's nothing wrong with the turnover as long as Flood can keep hiring a steady stream of assistants capable of making a mark with the Scarlet Knights before moving on elsewhere. From the outside, there certainly didn't appear to be any negatives to having Friedgen around for a season, though it's fair to wonder if his apparent limitations as a recruiter might have made this move mutually beneficial heading into the future.

Regardless, the picture Flood painted about his program and a revolving door to the offensive coordinator's offense was nothing but positive. But if McDaniels can snap the streak while continuing to build the Scarlet Knights' offense, that wouldn't be a bad thing.

"Ralph and I had decided that we were going to sit down after signing day and just really take stock of the situation and have a conversation about what would be the best thing to do going forward," Flood said. "As we had that conversation, my thoughts turned to who would be who I thought would be the best person to lead our offense into the future.

"It did not take me too long to decide that that would be Ben."

After all, the hiring process is nothing new for Rutgers and Flood. If nothing else, he's getting mostly everything he needs from his coordinators aside from longevity.

East Division
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  • Mike Riley has an idea that could revitalize the walk-on program at Nebraska.
  • Some tongue-in-cheek questions about the "Oskee Empire" tweet from Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit.
  • A closer look at the running backs Purdue signed in its latest recruiting class.
  • Already itching for updates about the 2016 recruiting class? Here's an early look at what Wisconsin will be looking for over the next 11 months.
  • First impressions of the new Iowa defensive linemen.
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Quarterback Kyler Murray grabbed all of the headlines at Allen (Texas) High School over the past few seasons, but it’s actually junior offensive tackle Greg Little who is a higher-ranked prospect.


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[+] EnlargeRoquan Smith
ESPNRoquan Smith committed to UCLA on television before finding out defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich was headed to the Atlanta Falcons.

Sometime in the coming days -- or weeks or maybe even months -- the top remaining unsigned college football prospect in the country will decide where he's going to play and attend school this coming fall.

Macon County (Georgia) High School linebacker Roquan Smith thought he was going to attend UCLA. At least that's what he announced on ESPNU on national signing day a week ago, choosing the Bruins over Georgia, Michigan and Texas A&M.

But shortly after picking UCLA, Smith learned that Bruins defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich was considering an offer to become an assistant with the Atlanta Falcons. Upon learning the news, Smith decided not to sign his national letter of intent with UCLA and reopened his recruiting. The Bruins announced on Sunday that Ulbrich, who was Smith's primary recruiter, was indeed leaving to join the Falcons.

"We didn't know anything about it," said Macon County High coach Larry Harold. "There are no hard feelings toward UCLA and Coach Ulbrich. The whole system is imperfect, and something needs to be in place to help the kids reconsider if something happens."


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Back in January -- before the Ohio State Buckeyes completed their improbable run through the College Football Playoff to win the national title -- wide receivers coach Zach Smith tweeted an image from a Buckeyes visit to a children's hospital. Within, it showed quarterback Cardale Jones flat-out dominating one of the kids in "NCAA Football":

This naturally went viral, and many credited Jones with a 91-35 win.

Well, Jones took to Twitter on Tuesday to clarify. And by clarify, we don't mean apologize for or justify blowing out a kid whose skill level clearly didn't match his.

You're a cold man, Mr. Jones. Then again, we already knew that.

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Big Ten football coaches gathered Sunday and Monday at league headquarters for meetings that commissioner Jim Delany repeatedly described as "upbeat."

"There's no doubt we have momentum right now," Penn State coach James Franklin told ESPN.com. "You want to keep the momentum going. That’s what a lot of these discussions were formed around: What can we do to keep this thing going and have success?"

[+] EnlargeElliott/Meyers
AP Photo/Eric GayUrban Meyer and Ohio State made the most of their trip through the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Ohio State's national championship following the inaugural College Football Playoff contributed most to the good vibes. Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer chaired the Big Ten coaches' group this year and moderated the meetings. He provided feedback on the playoff experience.

The gist: Ohio State had a blast, and the playoff is just fine staying at four teams.

"Urban's point was we all should realize there should be no more football games," Delany told ESPN.com. "The experience itself was spectacular. He was very positive about Dallas, about New Orleans, but 15 games is enough."

Even before the playoff began there was talk of expanding the field beyond four teams, especially after Big 12 candidates Baylor and TCU both fell short of selection despite being ranked ahead of Ohio State for most of the season. Ohio State's national championship justified the final rankings, but the push to increase the playoff isn't going away anytime soon.

Big Ten coaches made student-athlete welfare a priority in all of the topics they discussed this week, including the length of the season.

"We have a really good thing going right now, but it's part of our society that we always want more," Franklin said. "There’s this tremendous appetite for college football. You’ve got Ohio State who just went through it and the amount of stress and the wear and tear that season put on those guys. To think about you could possibly play another game after that, it’s a lot.

"From the Big Ten perspective, that’s what the discussion was: 'Look, this is enough. It was a great season. It went probably better than anybody expected it to go, but let’s not have this typical American mentality where more is better in everything.'"

Delany stressed to the coaches that while the stakes are high and seemingly getting higher around college football, the game's place in an educational context and its positive elements must be emphasized whenever possible.

"The most important thing is the word college and that this is seen as a balanced experience between education and athletics," Delany said. "The balance has to be there. They can articulate about what the game does for young people. ... These aren’t professional players. They’re not full-grown adults. There’s a general recognition of what we need to do is focus on the college part of athletics to restate it."

Best Active Coach In Sports?

February, 10, 2015
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Antonio Pierce, Tim Legler and Seth Greenberg make their cases for the best active coach in sports.
The Big Ten had mixed results during the BCS era, making more appearances (29) than any other league but finishing with only one national title and a 14-15 overall record. The New Year's Six era, while still in its infancy, has been promising for the Big Ten, which sent two teams to the big bowls and came out 2-0.

It's never too early to project for the 2015 season, and colleague Brad Edwards has done exactly that with his forecast. InsiderEdwards pegs Ohio State for the playoff semifinal against USC in the Orange Bowl, and Michigan in the Rose Bowl against Oregon. He's clearly buying the Jim Harbaugh effect in Year 1.

I've been tasked to examine the Big Ten's New Year's Six contenders and what must go right to reach the Orange, Fiesta, Rose, Sugar, Cotton or Peach Bowls this season. Few would have pegged TCU and Arizona to make NY6 games last season, so anything can happen.

But these are my selections for the Big Ten's realistic candidates, from most likely to least likely. While Edwards is bullish on Michigan and its potential for immediate success under Harbaugh, the Wolverines don't make my list.

Here it is ...

OHIO STATE

2014 record: 14-1 (National champions, Big Ten champions)

Key returnees: QBs Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller; RB Ezekiel Elliott, DE Joey Bosa, LB Darron Lee, S Tyvis Powell, CB Eli Apple

Path to New Year's Six: Just show up? It's never that simple, no matter how strong a team appears on paper. The Buckeyes will be favored in every game and must show they can handle last year's success without letting up. They must manage a unique quarterback situation that, despite all the talent, could turn sour if the right decisions aren't made. Ohio State needs continued progress from young linebackers like Lee and Raekwon McMillan as it builds depth in the defensive midsection. It also must fill holes at defensive tackle and cornerback after losing Michael Bennett and Doran Grant. There's no shortage of playmakers on offense but Ohio State needs a top deep threat to emerge after losing Devin Smith.

MICHIGAN STATE

2014 record: 11-2 (Cotton Bowl champions)

Key returnees: QB Connor Cook, LT Jack Conklin, C Jack Allen, DE Shilique Calhoun, LB Ed Davis, S R.J. Williamson

Path to New Year's Six: The Spartans leaned more on their offense in 2014 and might have to again after losing key defensive pieces at all three levels. They need a huge season from Cook, a national awards candidate who could leave as the program's most-decorated quarterback. Michigan State looks for a running back and a top receiver to emerge after losing the underrated Jeremy Langford and Tony Lippett. The Spartans must maintain their typical defensive excellence against the run, on third down and in pressuring the quarterback. No Big Ten team faces a tougher schedule than MSU, which hosts Oregon and must travel to Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan.

WISCONSIN

2014 record: 11-3 (Outback Bowl champions)

Key returnees: RB Corey Clement, QB Joel Stave, C Dan Voltz, LB Vince Biegel, S Michael Caputo, CB Darius Hillary

Path to New Year's Six: The Badgers have a tough opening draw with Alabama, but a loss wouldn't take them out of New Year's Six contention. They're still the team to beat in the Big Ten West Division. New coach Paul Chryst must stabilize quarterback play with Joel Stave and inject some life into a passing game that ranked 116th nationally in 2014. Chryst wisely retained defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who will continue to upgrade the unit's speed and find a filler for nose tackle Warren Herring. Unflappable at home, Wisconsin often looks like a different team away from Madison, where it faces Alabama, Nebraska and Minnesota.

MINNESOTA

2014 record: 8-5

Key returnees: QB Mitch Leidner, WR KJ Maye, CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun, CB Eric Murray, S Damarius Travis

Path to New Year's Six: Like Wisconsin, Minnesota opens with a huge challenge against national title contender TCU. And like Wisconsin, Minnesota won't be out of NY6 contention with a loss but likely would have to win the West Division. The Gophers once again will rely on their defense, which could boast the Big Ten's most complete secondary, led by Boddy-Calhoun. Minnesota loses bell-cow running back David Cobb but should field a good ground attack. The key is sparking a pass game lacking playmakers after Maxx Williams' departure. Minnesota visits Ohio State and Iowa but gets division challengers Nebraska and Wisconsin at TCF Bank Stadium.

NEBRASKA

2014 record: 9-4

Key returnees: QB Tommy Armstrong Jr., WR Jordan Westerkamp, WR/PR De'Mornay Pierson-El, DT Maliek Collins, DE Greg McMullen, S Nate Gerry

Path to New Year's Six: Nebraska needs a strong start like it had last season and a stronger finish to the regular season. The Huskers' non-league slate isn't a pushover with both BYU and Miami on it, but they aren't facing Oregon, Alabama or TCU, either. First-year coach Mike Riley must develop quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., maintain the team's nice run at wide receiver and fill the massive void left by Ameer Abdullah. Nebraska also loses its most feared defender in Randy Gregory, and will rely on new playmakers to emerge around Nate Gerry.

PENN STATE

2014 record: 7-6

Key returnees: QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Akeel Lynch, WR DaeSean Hamilton, WR Geno Lewis, DT Anthony Zettel, CB/S Jordan Lucas

Path to New Year's Six: The Lions might not seem like a realistic candidate to some, but their schedule and potential for improvement on offense gives them an outside chance. They don't play a Power 5 opponent in non-league play and have five of their first six games at Beaver Stadium. A 6-0 start certainly is possible. Penn State obviously needs significant improvement from an offensive line that will be deeper at most spots. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is still a special talent and has weapons around him. The defense might not be quite as dominant but should hold up well under Bob Shoop's direction. Trips to Ohio State and Michigan State will be tough, but if Penn State gains a split, it could enter NY6 contention.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The relative lack of depth and the loss of a pair of starters doesn’t necessarily make the Ohio State defensive line a weakness.

After all, no position group with a foundation that starts with arguably the nation’s most feared pass-rusher and a defensive tackle who could have been an early-round draft pick had he left school early is going to be considered a pushover.

But on such a loaded roster with numerous positions overflowing with talent, it’s certainly fair to focus on the defensive line as the area with the most room for improvement heading into spring practice next month. And if comparisons of strength don’t really apply for Ohio State at this point, if nothing else the defensive line certainly looks like the unit with the most opportunity for new faces to contribute as the program starts gearing up to defend its national title.

[+] EnlargeJashon Cornell
Miller Safrit/ESPNJashon Cornell could make a push for playing time with Ohio State losing two starters on its defensive line.
“The defensive line is always going to be a priority here at Ohio State,” co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. “Really, any successful program, if you’re going to be any good you have to have a plethora of offensive and defensive linemen. We were losing some guys, we’re going to lose some guys next year, and we needed to make sure that we replaced them in this year’s class.

“Getting not only quality but quantity was really important for us on the defensive line.”

The Buckeyes landed both last week on signing day, loading up in the trenches as part of a class that ranked No. 6 overall thanks in large part to the influx of linemen who could quickly become part of the rotation.

The loss of seniors Michael Bennett and Steve Miller up front makes the defensive line the only position group that must replace more than one starter, which is both part of the reason Ohio State is already establishing itself as a preseason No. 1 and why the position will likely spend the next few months facing scrutiny as maybe the only uncertainty for a team stocked with established contributors.

And while contributing right away in the trenches can be a tall order for true freshmen, the Buckeyes weren’t exactly targeting long-term projects when they put together a class of five linemen, including a pair of ESPN 300 selections. And with touted defensive end Jashon Cornell already on campus, the timetable for him in particular to contribute might be moved up even more as he potentially fills a void left not only by Miller, but in some ways former standout Noah Spence, as well.

“The players we recruit here at Ohio State, we recruit them for a reason,” Ash said. “They’re really good players, and if you’re a really good player, hopefully you’re going to have a chance to play early, regardless of the position. It’s probably a little bit harder at the defensive line position just because of the physical size and strength that those guys have.

“Those are really more developmental guys unless they’re really an elite player like a Joey Bosa coming out of high school.”

The Buckeyes still have that guy on the roster, and as long as Bosa is around it’s a relatively safe bet that there will be a fierce pass rush. With Adolphus Washington continuing to emerge as a force next to him on the interior, Ohio State doesn’t exactly have much reason to panic about the unit next fall thanks to those stout building blocks.

But even on the way to the title, the Buckeyes didn’t appear as deep as they would have liked up front and seemed unable at times to rotate snaps and keep the first-stringers as fresh as they planned. And if they’re going to do it this year, odds are they’re going to need some fresh faces to be involved -- before the pressure really mounts at this time next year with Washington out of eligibility and Bosa most likely heading to the NFL.

“We’re recruiting at a high level,” Ash said. “We are recruiting players that come in and help the program early. Can they all do that? I don’t know.

“We’ll find out when they get on campus.”

Once they arrive, the newcomers will find plenty of opportunity. Just don’t mistake that for being a weakness.
National signing day came and went, prompting Mark Schlabach to update his 2015 Way-Too-Early Top 25. Schlabach originally had TCU No. 1 in January, but bumped Ohio State to the top spot post-signing day while dropping the Horned Frogs to No. 2.

Below, Big Ten reporter Austin Ward and Big 12 reporter Jake Trotter debate which of the two should be No. 1 going into 2015.

Take 1: Austin Ward -- Ohio State

Slotting the defending champs at the top of the poll might not qualify as going out on a limb, but Ohio State really leaves no other choice.

This was the season that Urban Meyer was building for after taking over the Buckeyes, and the fact that they arrived ahead of schedule without losing any draft-eligible players early only strengthens their case as the team to beat in 2015.

There are three trophy-winning quarterbacks on the roster, and Ezekiel Elliott emerged as a Heisman Trophy favorite after his run through the College Football Playoff. He’ll have four returning starters blocking for him on the offensive line. Regardless of which quarterback the Buckeyes wind up starting, that signal-caller will have the deepest collection of targets at his disposal since Meyer arrived.

On defense, Ohio State showed that it was close to rebuilding its "Silver Bullets" legacy in the Oregon win thanks to an aggressive pass rush, playmaking linebackers and an athletic secondary. The Buckeyes will lose at least one critical player at every level on defense, but there is now plenty of talent in reserve ready to complement star pass-rusher Joey Bosa, do-it-all linebacker Darron Lee, and an elite safety tandem in Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell.

The coaching staff has undergone a bit of transition, but Meyer is still at the top of the organization and showing no signs of slowing down. And after already winning one championship with the Buckeyes, there’s no reason to doubt that he and a loaded roster can do it all over again next season.

Take 2: Jake Trotter -- TCU

Let me preface this by noting this isn't a Take Two about who the best team was in 2014. Even though TCU was certainly worthy of playoff inclusion, the Buckeyes proved they were the nation's top team by defeating Alabama and dominating Oregon in the national title.

That case is slammed shut.

Instead, is a debate rather about who No. 1 should be heading into 2015.

There's really nothing I can knock about the Buckeyes, so I won't. Meyer is one of the best coaches in college football history. Elliott and Bosa are superstars, and Ohio State's three marquee quarterbacks are so prolific Texas would donate Bevo to science research just to have any one of them behind center next season in Austin.

But TCU is no joke, either.

Lest anyone forget, the Horned Frogs lost just one game in 2014, by a mere field goal on the road to one of the top teams in the country in Baylor. After finishing the regular season 11-1, TCU flashed its mettle in the postseason, filleting the so-called Land Sharks of Ole Miss with a 42-3 rout in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

If you thought TCU's offense was scary last season -- it was the nation's second highest-scoring -- it figures to be a total nightmare for opposing defenses in 2015.

TCU returns 10 offensive starters, headlined by Trevone Boykin, who is the one quarterback in college football not in Columbus, Ohio, who could start for Ohio State. Boykin thrived last season while learning the spread offense on the fly. He should be even more comfortable and more decisive next season with a year in the scheme now behind him. It doesn't hurt that he has his entire complement of weapons returning, as well as the bulk of his offensive line.

The Horned Frogs do have some key pieces to replace defensively, including longtime coordinator Dick Bumpas, who is retiring. But when has a Gary Patterson-led team not played excellent defense? The answer to that is, well, never.

Sure, the Buckeyes are defending champs. But that will generate immense pressure. They also will be dealing with a quarterback controversy for the ages, which could easily disrupt the locker room.

On the other hand, TCU should enter 2015 with an edge as a team loaded with talent, but still craving respect.

Early New Year's Six predictions

February, 10, 2015
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If you'd been asked at this time last year to predict the participants in the inaugural New Year's Six bowl games, like me, you probably wouldn't have included TCU, Georgia Tech, Mississippi State and Arizona (all unranked in the preseason). Having a Cinderella or two is common, but having four climb that high is unusual.

Another surprise was that the four playoff teams were all preseason front-runners. Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State were all picked to win their respective conferences, and all were ranked in the AP preseason top five. But as I wrote last August, the top four at the end of the regular season usually features a couple of risers from outside the preseason top 10. In other words, if you're going to attempt to pick the next group of New Year's Six teams -- as I'm about to do here -- using last season's blueprint is probably not a good idea. Therefore, I'm utilizing four other reference points as predictors -- quarterback play, recruiting, returning starters and schedule.

Quarterback play

It's no secret that football -- at all levels -- has become more quarterback-driven in recent years. Look no further than the Heisman Trophy, which has been won by a quarterback 13 times in the past 15 seasons. Great quarterback play is almost a prerequisite for being a playoff contender. There are still instances in which a team can manage to be top-10 caliber with average efficiency and production from the QB, but those have become outliers in today's game.

"Defense wins championships" is a saying that has been true for most of the sport's history, but we seem to have reached a point where even the best defenses can't stop a good offense; they can only hope to slow it down.

Because 12 teams will reach the New Year's Six bowls, and 10 or 11 of them figure to come from the selection committee's final top 12, to the right is a look back at the committee's dandy dozen at the end of the regular season and how those teams stacked up statistically in two key areas: Total QBR and opponents' Total QBR.

What this shows is that high-level QB play correlated much more with being a New Year's Six team than did the ability to defend the other team's quarterback well. Nine of those 12 teams were in the nation's top 20 for Total QBR at the end of the regular season, but only four of them ranked in the top 20 for QBR defense (also known as opponents' Total QBR).

This is also true for Boise State, which won the Fiesta Bowl and was the only New Year's Six team not on this list. The Broncos entered the bowl season ranked 18th in Total QBR and 37th in opponents' Total QBR.

So I have my eye on teams that should produce quality quarterback play in 2015. But that's not the only predictor of success.

Recruiting

Oregon is the poster child for why recruiting rankings don't mean everything. Despite not having a signing class ranked any higher than 14th from 2007 to 2014, according to ESPN RecruitingNation, the Ducks have reached the national championship game twice with players from those classes.

But for every Oregon, I can give you three teams like Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State that have had great success on the recruiting trail and seen it translate to on-field results. Having great talent doesn't guarantee championships, but it sure makes them more attainable.

From 2011 to 2014, the best average recruiting class rankings in the nation belonged to the Crimson Tide, Seminoles and Buckeyes. It's no coincidence that they were all part of the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Composite recruiting rankings from 2012 to 2015 therefore will be another big part of my analysis. But as important as talent may be, having experienced talent is an even bigger deal.

Returning starters

(Returning starter numbers come from Phil Steele)

I've already mentioned the importance of quarterback play, but having solid players around the quarterback is also worth a lot in college football. Exhibit A: Eight of the past 12 teams to reach the national championship game had a first-year starter at QB, and five of those teams won the title.

In other words, a team doesn't need experience at quarterback to get quality production from that position. Having him surrounded by talented players who know what they're doing can help a new QB through some growing pains.

And while having a lot of starters back on either side of the ball is certainly an asset, I place the most importance on the number that return in the trenches, especially on the offensive line.

Schedule

We often overreact to perception of a schedule prior to a season, because the truth is that some teams on that schedule won't be as good as we thought, and others will be better. Much also depends on when and where you play teams. We think we know a lot, but we don't know nearly as much about the difficulty of a schedule now as we will by mid-October.

That said, having too many games against good teams (or at least teams we expect to be good) is a major hurdle for potential contenders, especially when most of those are on the road, as we saw with Auburn and Kansas State last season.

I'm more likely to downgrade teams with schedules that seem too difficult than I am to elevate teams with schedules that look easy. As I've heard ESPN "College GameDay" host Rece Davis say for about 15 years: "If you're not good enough, a loss will find you." Not to mention, the selection committee's job is to identify the best teams, and that's not necessarily the ones with the fewest losses.

So after much deliberation -- way more than I should've given to a prediction this far ahead of the season -- here's how I combined the four factors, with a little intuition.


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Big Ten morning links

February, 10, 2015
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Happy National Umbrella Day. Big Ten spring practice begins in just weeks, if you can believe it, as Michigan is scheduled to take the practice field for the first time under Jim Harbaugh on Feb. 24.

1. Is this the end of the relationship between Ralph Friedgen and Rutgers?

Both the Star-Ledger and the Asbury Park Press reported Monday night that Friedgen would not return for a second season as the Scarlet Knights' offensive coordinator. Friedgen, 67, had hinted that he might step down after the season, and it looks like he'll be headed toward retirement.

Both newspapers mentioned wide receivers coach Ben McDaniels as the likely in-house replacement for Friedgen. McDaniels is the younger brother of New England Patriots offensive coordinator (and former Denver Broncos head coach) Josh McDaniels.

We'd be sad to see Friedgen go, especially after he did some very good work with quarterback Gary Nova last season. He would also be the fifth straight Rutgers offensive coordinator to last just one season.

2. Illinois announced on Monday that its next three scheduled home games against Northwestern (in 2015, '17 and '19) would be held at Soldier Field. The Illini do not in any way have this in mind, but I wonder if this could be a trial run for a possible Big Ten championship game in Chicago.

The league has a contract with Indianapolis that runs through 2021, and Indy has been a great and deserving host. Still, a lot of people would like to see the event staged in Chicago at some point. Two main concerns are usually voiced about the Windy City's chances of landing the game: the weather and the condition of Soldier Field's infamous turf.

Well, the Illini's three games at the stadium will all be held on Thanksgiving weekend, or typically, one week before the Big Ten championship game. If those games go off without a hitch -- if the field can hold up and the weather is manageable -- perhaps that would be enough to give Chicago another look.

3. The Mike Weber saga appears to have reached its conclusion.

The running back wavered between Michigan and Ohio State before signing with the Buckeyes, only to see Ohio State running backs coach Stan Drayton leave for an NFL job right after signing day. Weber criticized the move on Twitter, and his high school coach blasted Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes. That led to some back and forth on Twitter between Harbaugh and Buckeyes staffers, and there was at least some thought that Weber might ask out of his letter-of-intent, fueled even more by a photo on his Instagram account Monday of him working out in a Michigan T-shirt.

But Weber took to Twitter again Monday night and seemed tired of the drama, as well as fully committed to Ohio State and new position coach Tony Alford.

As always, though, Joey Bosa won Twitter. After the Instagram photo came out, Bosa tweeted that Weber "should be more worried about that baby weight."

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The 2014 season is well into the rearview mirror, and now signing day has come and gone. That means spring practice is right around the corner, and it will be here in just a little more than a couple of weeks for some Big Ten teams.

In the coming days, we'll highlight some position battles to watch for each team this spring. But it's clear right now that one thing has changed since the spring of 2014: the onslaught of true quarterback competitions has lessened.

[+] EnlargeCardale Jones
AP Photo/Bill HaberCardale Jones won't have to look over his shoulder in the spring, but the fall could be a different story.
Last year, we counted no fewer than nine teams that had at least reasonable quarterback battles raging in the spring. This year, that number has been cut basically in half. Now, it's important to note that the grandaddy of all quarterback competitions -- Ohio State's forthcoming grand prix among Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones -- isn't really a spring battle at all. That's because Miller and Barrett should be either out or severely limited by injuries this spring, giving Jones most of the No. 1 reps. We'll have to wait until the summertime for that one to really heat up.

In fact, you can write the name of the starting quarterback in permanent ink on several programs' depth charts for 2015. Connor Cook's return for his senior season at Michigan State is enormous for the Spartans. Christian Hackenberg is still the man at Penn State (and hopefully, for his safety, operating behind a better offensive line). Nate Sudfeld returns for Indiana, and Aaron Bailey's transfer guarantees that Wes Lunt will run the show at Illinois, not that there was much doubt to begin with.

A new coaching staff at Nebraska could mean that Tommy Armstrong Jr. has to prove himself all over again. But with nearly two years of starting experience, no proven challengers behind him and coming off a strong bowl showing, Armstrong would really have to do something wrong to lose the job in the spring. At Wisconsin, Joel Stave has been shaky during various points of his career and now has a new coaching staff. Yet it's difficult to imagine Paul Chryst turning back to Tanner McEvoy or going with someone with zero experience such as Austin Kafentzis or D.J. Gillins when the Badgers open the year against Alabama.

Minnesota is wedded to Mitch Leidner. Caleb Rowe is the heavy favorite to start for Maryland and that will change only if he's not fully recovered from a torn ACL he suffered in October.

By our count, that leaves five true quarterback battles this spring. Here they are, listed in descending order of intrigue:

Michigan: Fixing the quarterback situation is new coach Jim Harbaugh's highest priority, and there will be a number of viable candidates to choose from. Shane Morris is the only one with experience, but redshirt freshman Wilton Speight and early enrollee Alex Malzone will certainly push him hard. Zach Gentry, a four-star recruit that Michigan flipped from Texas, will arrive this summer to add even more competition.

Iowa: Kirk Ferentz has promised to open up things up this spring between incumbent starter Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard. Beathard put up better numbers in the Hawkeyes' bowl game and seemed to give the offense a spark at times during the season. But Rudock has the experience factor and a high level of trust from the coaches.

Rutgers: Who replaces Gary Nova? Chris Laviano served as Nova's backup all season and played in a few games, so he's got a leg up. But LSU transfer Hayden Rettig brings a promising set of skills, including a strong arm, and Giovanni Rescigno will try to make his presence felt this spring.

Northwestern: The Wildcats got a look at the future when Zack Oliver started for an injured Trevor Siemien in the season-ending loss to Illinois. Sophomore Matt Alviti is a mobile quarterback who was heralded as Northwestern's quarterback of the future when he arrived on campus. And redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson, a four-star recruit last year, will enter the mix.

Purdue: Austin Appleby replaced Danny Etling and started the final seven games. But Purdue coach Darrell Hazell told the Lafayette Journal-Courier after the season that "We've still got to figure out where we're going with that situation." When you've won four games in two years, as the Boilers have, no job should be seen as safe. Redshirt freshman David Blough could sneak up and claim this job as well.

Quarterback battles won't dominate the talk during spring practice the way they did a year ago. But they will still be fun and intriguing to watch. At least while we wait for the Ohio State situation to work itself out.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The sales pitch about developing players for the next level has long been a staple of the Urban Meyer playbook. It appears to work just as well on coaches.

On both fronts, the Ohio State coach has plenty of evidence that supports his claims he can develop anybody on the football field to get them ready for the next step. And if that wasn't already clear with the players on the turf and in pads, his recent run of molding the guys on the sideline and in caps is making the Buckeyes every bit as appealing for aspiring assistants as Meyer keeps his machine humming along.

[+] EnlargeTony Alford
Jeanine Leech/Icon SportswireTony Alford made the leap from Notre Dame to Ohio State with his long-term future in mind.
Now three seasons into his tenure with the program, Meyer has sent two coordinators off to run their own programs and groomed two assistants for jobs in the NFL, and his track record and rapidly expanding coaching tree seemingly helped make up the mind of yet another highly regarded position coach and recruiter over the weekend. And with Tony Alford already working at a prestigious program like Notre Dame, the fact he would leave that post to take over the running backs for Meyer speaks volumes about just how much momentum the Buckeyes have in virtually every aspect coming off their national title.

“This isn’t a move for today, this is a move where I’ve tried to calculate five years out,” Alford told Irish Illustrated. “There’s forward thinking here, where it could potentially propel me to.”

Maybe Alford still could have reached that level with the Irish, and there were certainly other factors at play with his decision, starting with his familiarity with Meyer dating back to his playing days at Colorado State.

But it's not hard to see the trend emerging with Meyer's staff at Ohio State -- which is following a pattern he established at Florida and to some extent Utah before that -- of making sure his coaches develop professionally for their next jobs, just like turning college players into NFL draft picks.

Tom Herman parlayed his three years under Meyer into the top job at Houston, following in the footsteps of former co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers, who took over at James Madison last year. After two seasons with Meyer , Mike Vrabel made the jump from a position coach at his alma mater to the Houston Texans. Last week, Drayton made a similar move, working down to the wire to recruit running back Mike Weber and then taking a job with the Chicago Bears.

Alford may have some fences to mend with Weber given the unfortunate timing of Drayton's departure, but thanks to his role as the recruiting coordinator for the Irish, a previous relationship with the touted tailback should work in his favor as he settles into his new job. And given how quickly Ohio State was able to hire Alford, the opportunity to work with Weber and a preseason Heisman contender like Ezekiel Elliott probably was every bit as enticing as working under Meyer.

But regardless of his motivations, Alford's willingness to join the Buckeyes is yet another indication of just how hot their brand is at the moment, and not just with recruits. Meyer has been increasingly fond of highlighting the difference between theory and testimony, and the number of assistants that can vouch for the latter with his approach to grooming coaches continues to grow.

"When you recruit these players you’re telling them it’s not a four-year decision, it’s a 40-year decision," Alford told Irish Illustrated. "But what you’re really talking about is the concept in life that you have to get out of your comfort zone to grow.

"This is a leap of faith, one I feel I need to make for my professional development."

Typically that first leap to Meyer leads to another down the road to a higher level, and coaches appear to have noticed that just as much as players.
The ceaseless debate over conference strength waged here and in other forums ultimately centers on one question: How many teams in League X are capable of winning a national championship in Season Y?

The Big Ten entered the 2014 season with what many believed were two capable candidates: Michigan State and Ohio State. Although Wisconsin and Nebraska also appeared in the preseason Top 25 polls, the Badgers and Huskers were fringe contenders to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff.

It turned out both Michigan State and Ohio State were worthy of contender status. Ohio State won the national title; Michigan State won the Cotton Bowl and recorded its second consecutive top-5 finish.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer and Ezekiel Elliott
Darren Carroll for ESPNBig seasons by Ohio State and Michigan State brought respect to the Big Ten, but the conference needs more than two teams capable of winning the national championship.
No single accomplishment helps conference perception like a national title. After all the mud slung the Big Ten's way for the better part of a decade, Ohio State showed that the laughed-at league was, in fact, capable of having the last laugh. There is a residual from ending the season with the shiny trophy, and the Big Ten is enjoying one right now.

But how long does it last?

Some will say the good vibes ended today as colleague Mark Schlabach produced his latest way-too-early Top 25 for the 2015 season. Ohio State leads off at No. 1, and Michigan State appears at No. 7. Only one other Big Ten team makes the rundown: Wisconsin at No. 17.

Schlabach's Top 25 includes four SEC teams in the top-14 and eight overall. The Pac-12 has three teams in the top nine and five in the top 20. Even the ACC has more Top 25 teams (four) than the Big Ten.

Longtime Big Ten blog readers know how much I love to needle Schlabach for his regional, uh, preferences. The memory of him shivering outside Spartan Stadium on a balmy 42-degree October day a few years back warms my heart. Thin Southern blood, y'all.

But I have no problem with his rankings. The Big Ten remains a top-heavy league looking to build sustained depth. Schlabach's list isn't dramatically different from where the preseason polls had the Big Ten in August.

Ohio State should be No. 1 after its dominant Playoff performance and with possibly an even better team coming back. Michigan State's march into the national elite, along with the return of quarterback Connor Cook, merits a place in the top-8. Wisconsin's run of very good, not quite great, has withstood one shocking coaching change. It can withstand another, especially with a coach (Paul Chryst) who knows the landscape and can fix the program's primary hindrance (the passing game).

After those three teams, though, I can't make a strong case for more Big Ten Top 25 representation.

Minnesota is on the borderline. The defense once again should be solid, possibly more than solid. But the passing game remains a huge unknown, especially with tight end Maxx Williams gone. The Gophers have taken significant steps under Jerry Kill, but of their 16 wins the past two seasons, only five came against teams that finished with winning records. They also have yet to win a bowl game under Kill. There is more to prove.

This is the point where Nebraska fans have to catch their breath after screaming, "What about us?!" There are things to like about the Huskers' roster, as well as Mike Riley's ability to develop quarterbacks and wide receivers. But Nebraska lost its best offensive player (Ameer Abdullah) and best defender (Randy Gregory). Add in a coaching change and this isn't a Top 25 team -- yet.

Neither is Penn State, although if the Lions can figure out how to keep quarterback Christian Hackenberg upright, they could soon enter the national rankings.

So what does this mean for the Big Ten? The league is no longer the scourge of college football. Ohio State and Michigan State are considered elite programs by anyone who matters. But league-wide respect likely remains in short supply.

It goes back to the central question: How many Big Ten teams are capable of winning it all in a given season?

Ohio State should be capable every year under Urban Meyer. Michigan State should be in most years under Mark Dantonio. Wisconsin could rise to that level, but hasn't quite gotten there in recent years. Penn State and Nebraska? History is on their side and both programs are recruiting well, but both must clear some hurdles. Kirk Ferentz's Iowa teams have shown elite-level capability at times, but the program needs to regain momentum.

Few doubt Michigan's capability as a championship contender. The history and resources are there, and Michigan seemingly has the the coach in Jim Harbaugh to facilitate a rise. But the Wolverines haven't been a national player since the 2006 season. Opposing coaches are conflicted about how much talent is in the program right now. Is Michigan fast-track-able? We'll soon find out.

TCU showed last season that a team nowhere near the Playoff radar in August can be in the mix for a spot in early December. Does the Big Ten have such a team in 2015?

Winning a national title was huge for this league, but the macro challenge hasn't changed. The Big Ten needs more Playoff-worthy depth so the league isn't pinning its hopes on one or two teams every year. The SEC pulled off its historic run with four different championship teams, and several others with win-it-all capability.

An Ohio State title defense in 2015 will resonate much more for the Buckeyes than the Big Ten. Ohio State fans might disagree, but the Big Ten's path to national respect isn't simply the I-270 "Outerbelt" that circles Columbus.

The route must include other cities in other states and ultimately lead back to Glendale, Arizona, where college football's next national champion will be crowned.

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