Ohio State Buckeyes: big ten mailbag
Now to the good stuff, which is your questions and my fair-to-middling answers:
@BennettESPN It's an odd question but who do you think has a better chance of going undefeated this year, OSU or Iowa?— Samuel Robinson (@samtrobinson) July 24, 2014
Brian Bennett: I haven't thought of it quite like that, but I get your point. Iowa has a definite shot with its advantageous schedule. With the Hawkeyes' toughest two games coming in the final two weeks at home against Wisconsin and Nebraska, they have a chance to be favored in every game. Meanwhile, Ohio State faces many more challenges, including nonconference games against Virginia Tech, Cincinnati and Navy, along with that East Division showdown on the road at Michigan State.
Yet, if I had to pick one team to go undefeated of those two, I'd take the Buckeyes. Iowa's conservative style means that more games are likely to be close -- five of last season's 13 contests were decided by a touchdown or less, while Ohio State had three such games in 14 tries. Looked at another way, the Buckeyes outgained opponents by 137.6 per game in conference play last season, while the Hawkeyes outgained their league foes by 52.5 yards per game. Though past performance shouldn't be our sole guide for looking forward, Ohio State has gone 12-0 in the regular season the past two seasons.
I like Iowa a lot this year and am leaning toward picking Kirk Ferentz's team to win the West Division. But I'd be surprised if it didn't stub its toe a time or two along the way, whereas another Ohio State undefeated season wouldn't be shocking.
Hussein from Ann Arbor writes: I was reading your DB position preview and couldn't help but notice that Michigan was absent. I understand why they might not be number 1 in the conference, but they are returning tons of talent and I would be surprised if they weren't in the top 3 this upcoming year. Blake Countess is a stud and should compete for All Big-Ten First Team (if not All-American), while Raymon Taylor is very solid at the opposite corner position. At least one safety spot should be locked up with Jarrod Wilson with the other seemingly up for grabs(?). And that's without even mentioning Jabrill Peppers ...
Brian Bennett: I strongly considered Michigan for one of the top two spots, Hussein, and as you can probably tell, those posts are intended to rank every single team. I like the Wolverines' returning experience, and Countess should be one of the top cover guys in the league. Peppers can take the group to the next level if he is the real deal, but I'm a little bit cautious about projecting so much on an incoming true freshman who didn't go through spring ball. I have little doubt Peppers will make an impact this season, but how much? Ultimately, I thought Michigan gave up too many big plays in the passing game last season and wasn't physical enough in the back end. If Peppers helps change that, this crew has a chance to be the best in the Big Ten.
Brian from Raleigh, North Carolina, writes: Hey, Brian, about the Fitz-calls-Nebraska-boring "controversy"... maybe I've got my purple-tinted glasses on, but where's the beef? How are there even Nebraska fans angry about this? I grew up in the middle of nowhere in rural Michigan, and we made fun of how empty and boring it was all the time. Fitz made a bad joke that almost every American has made at some point in their lives. Is this really such a stinging, controversial comment? Or has cliche coachspeak become so dominant that a coach acting like an actual human being for 10 seconds is news?
Brian Bennett: I'm glad you put "controversy" in quotes, because this isn't really a big deal. Pat Fitzgerald's comments about Cal coach Sonny Dykes, I thought, were more intriguing. I can see why Nebraska people wouldn't like it, though. For example, f I call my home state "boring" or insult it in some other way, that's OK; if you as a non-Kentuckian do the same, well, them's fightin' words! Still, Fitzgerald was simply yukking it up with some Northwestern boosters after a summertime golf event, so let's not make it into a culture war. If anything, it adds a little spice to a very dull period, and the Big Ten can be far too dry and polite at times.
Ed from Michigan writes: Hey, Brian. It seem like everyone who follows college football has heard of stories of cheating and then the Big 12 Commissioner says the same. My question: Where is the investigative reporting to uncover this cheating?
Brian Bennett: There is no question about two things, Ed. One, the overwhelming majority of NCAA infractions cases began with a media report, as journalists have been doing the hard legwork for NCAA investigators for years. And two, fewer newspapers and other media outlets are devoting time and resources to investigative journalism these days. Some places still are, for sure. The North Carolina academic scandal is a perfect example of an issue that would have quickly vanished (or never even bubbled up) without the great work of some dogged reporters. What's also true is that uncovering those stories is painstakingly difficult, as it's often nearly impossible to find tangible evidence of cheating and not just accusations. For all the outstanding reporting that went into the Cam Newton affair, for instance, that smoking-gun shred of a paper trail never surfaced.
The bigger issue here, to me, is not from the media side but rather how cheating will be policed in the future. Particularly if -- or, more accurately, when -- the Power 5 schools gain autonomy and write many of their own rules, who will be there to enforce them? Certainly not the understaffed NCAA enforcement division, which will have ceded much of its power anyway. It likely will be up to the schools and conferences themselves. There is a good chance, as Bob Bowlsby said, that cheating will continue to pay off. There will just be fewer rules to break.
Brian Bennett: The Hoosiers were close last year. Had they beaten Navy -- or had they given themselves a more manageable nonconference schedule, something athletic director Fred Glass regrets in hindsight -- they would have made their first bowl since 2007. Unfortunately, the schedule is tough again this season, with road trips to Bowling Green (the preseason MAC favorite) and Missouri, a crossover road game at Iowa and the rugged East Division. The good news is that Kevin Wilson had built a standout offense, and the defense has some small reasons for optimism, so IU should at least be within range of bowl eligibility.
As for Tevin Coleman, he's probably one of the most underrated players in the league. He's an outstanding athlete whose length and speed reminds me of Melvin Gordon. In fact, he scored as many rushing touchdowns (12) as Gordon did in four fewer games last season and averaged 7.3 yards per rush. With Indiana potentially relying on the run game a bit more this season, Coleman could put up monster stats.
@GeoffreyMarshal via Twitter writes: What do Wednesday's commitments say, if anything, about B1G recruiting? Is B1G recruiting too top-heavy?
Brian Bennett: Ohio State's additions of a pair of top 20 players in linebacker Justin Hilliard and defensive end Jashon Cornell is huge news for the Buckeyes, but not all that surprising. Urban Meyer and his staff have killed it on the recruiting front since they arrived in Columbus. We also know that James Franklin is going bonkers at Penn State, with ESPN's No. 4 nationally ranked class right now. And don't forget about Brady Hoke. While Michigan hasn't wrapped up as many commitments this summer as it has in years past, the Wolverines are still sitting on a top 25 class with room to improve.
But did we learn anything? Those three schools have long been at the forefront of recruiting in the Big Ten. If anything, the aggressive tactics of Meyer and Franklin might pull the rest of the league forward, because they risk getting left behind if not.
Then again, look at the last three Big Ten champions: Michigan State and Wisconsin (twice -- one impacted, of course, by Ohio State's probation). Neither of those programs usually finds itself among the elite in the recruiting rankings but instead both do a great job of scouting and developing talent. So just collecting star prospects guarantees nothing, though it is a nice place to start.
@hicksoldier via Twitter writes: What in your opinion is the reason that MSU keeps missing out on top recruits, especially on defense? And what can they change?
Brian Bennett: It's a stretch to say the Spartans keep missing out. Remember Malik McDowell, a top defensive tackle recruit Michigan State landed earlier this year after much drama? But I see your point. Michigan State made Cornell's final top five, but he ended up choosing Columbus. One would think, given Mark Dantonio's success in developing players -- especially on defense -- coupled with the team's rise toward the national elite would help the Spartans land a few more studs. But a school like Ohio State is always going to have some advantages in recruiting. The good news is Dantonio's staff does a tremendous job figuring out which players will fit the team's system and then polishing them into stars. And if Michigan State can continue to win big on the field and churn out pros, higher-caliber recruits should look toward East Lansing.
Glenn from Siesta Key, Fla., writes: Brian, why is it that during this offseason you constantly are mentioning the PSU OL as a weakness and question mark, while it seems OSU is pretty much in the same boat? Yet, all you talk about is how OSU will win its division and could be a playoff contender. Won't Braxton Miller have the same challenge as Christian Hackenberg if his OL doesn't show up?
Brian Bennett: For starters, I haven't said Ohio State will win the East Division. I'm not ready to predict that yet. You make a decent point, as both the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions likely will be replacing four starters on the offensive line. I have written that the offensive line is a question mark for Ohio State. But the two teams also are coming from different starting points. Ohio State's offensive line was the best in the league the past two years, and the recruiting at that position has been solid. Ed Warriner is one of the best position coaches in the nation.
Penn State's offensive line wasn't as dominant last year as the Buckeyes', and depth is a concern given the scholarship limitations. But I do really like Herb Hand and think he very well could have a Warriner-like impact for the Nittany Lions. We'll see. If Ohio State's line doesn't come together quickly, the Buckeyes could have problems early on against Virginia Tech.
Chris from Princeton, N.J., writes: I know you guys don't see Rutgers as a bowl team this year but let's say they do manage to get six wins. Where do you see those potential wins coming from?
Brian Bennett: It's not out of the realm of possibility that Rutgers makes a bowl, but the Scarlet Knights will have to win all of their toss-up games for it to become likely, given the schedule. They figure to be heavy underdogs against Michigan and Wisconsin at home and versus Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan State on the road. Going across the country for the opener against Washington State in Seattle looks very difficult as well.
That leaves very little margin for error. You can pencil in wins over Howard and Tulane at home. Beating Navy in Annapolis, while not an easy task, is doable and probably crucial. Conference games against Indiana at home and Maryland on the road could go either way. The Big Ten opener against Penn State should be played in front of a raucous atmosphere, and the Lions were often vulnerable on the road last season. So Rutgers is basically going to have to sweep all of its 50-50 games or pull off a big upset anywhere. Good luck with all that.
Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: Brian, do you recall the days of Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney? Could the mix of guys the Gophers have produce two 1,000-yard rushers?
Brian Bennett: I sure do, Craig. Those two guys were loads of fun to watch. I'm not sure which is harder to believe, in retrospect, about the 2004 Gophers: that they finished only 7-5 with that pair in the backfield, or that they beat Alabama in a bowl game. But going back to your question, Minnesota has an awful lot of talent at running back this season. David Cobb somewhat quietly ran for 1,202 yards last season, 12th most in school history. Donnell Kirkwood came close to 1,000 yards in 2012, and Rodrick Williams Jr. is a 247-pound beast who's almost impossible to bring down on first contact. Add in redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards, who might be more talented than all of the, and quarterback Mitch Leidner, who's got great wheels as well. And that's not even considering top 2014 recruit Jeff Jones, who might not be academically eligible.
Can two Gophers get to 1,000 yards? Minnesota almost certainly will be a rush-first team again this year. The hope is that the passing game improves enough so the offense isn't rush-first, rush-second and rush-third as well. I'm not sure there will be enough carries for two players to get to 1,000 yards, and the offense has to stay on the field longer to provide more opportunities. There may not be a Maroney or a Barber in this group, but it still should be fun to watch.
Dave from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Regarding the article on colleges looking to improve the in-game experience to improve declining ticket sales, why is there not more talk about lowering the prices to reasonable levels? I'm a Buckeyes fan. I make a decent living, but with a wife and three kids at home, $85 for a non-prime home game ($170 if I want to go with someone) is just too high for me to go to a game more than once every five or six years. I understand some schools can charge that -- tOSU being one of them -- and still sell out. But frankly, I don't care about wi-fi and local eateries at my games; I care about being able to afford the game in the first place. Otherwise, I'll buy a thick steak, craft beer and enjoy the game at home and still save $50-plus on the experience.
Brian Bennett: Some really good points here, Dave. Us media types are guilty sometimes of not understanding how much it costs for a fan -- or especially a family -- to attend a game once you include parking, concessions, etc. (After all, we get free passes and choice parking spots, most of the time). It can definitely take a toll on the checkbook, and I can't blame someone for wanting to save money and watch the game on their super-size, high-def TV at home.
On the other hand, this is a simple supply-and-demand situation. Teams not just in college football but throughout all of sports increase ticket prices because they know they have fan bases willing to pay those prices in order to see the games they love. Yet there is likely a tipping point at which more fans would rather stay home than go through the hassle of seeing a game in person, and teams have to make sure the stadium experience is still valuable. Things like improved wi-fi can help that, especially for students and younger fans. Making the gameday experience and atmosphere better for fans is a worthy goal. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for lowered ticket prices, however.
Brian Bennett: I see where you're coming from, Scott, but from my experiences and interactions with fans, you seem to be in the minority. While I know many fans are troubled by some of the directions college sports have headed, they are also still very loyal to their own schools and teams. I don't hear many fans complaining about recruiting rules or other things when their teams are doing well. Winning still seems to be the No. 1 way to draw people into the stadium..
Brian Bennett: The College Football Worst-Case Scenario Handbook, brought to you by David. All kidding aside, I suppose that is a possibility. While Houston's NRG Stadium (so hard to keep up with all these stadium name changes) has a retractable roof that can allow teams to play through inclement weather, neither school would want to put fans and players in harm's way if there were a serious storm that weekend. Just two years ago, we saw games on that same weekend be rescheduled because of Hurricane Isaac.
I haven't heard of any advance plan to reschedule the Wisconsin-LSU game. Usually, teams try to line up a future bye week or play a week after the regular season ends. The Badgers and Tigers have different bye weeks in 2014 (Sept. 13 and Oct. 18 for Wisconsin; Nov. 1 and Nov. 22 for LSU), so that won't work. A postponement to the end of the season could be complicated by conference title games and the Playoff selection date. Another option may be to play the game on Sunday, Labor Day or the following Tuesday, depending on the weather. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.
Brian Bennett: It's true that Miller's legacy will be affected by what he and his team accomplish this season. He's had a fantastic career, but all he has to show for it in terms of team success so far are two division titles and no postseason wins (with probation playing an obvious factor in 2012). Still, Miller is the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year and could end up breaking all kinds of Ohio State records. I doubt many people would blame him if the Buckeyes finished short of their goals this year. It's much more likely that Ohio State's success or failure will ride on its defense, or possibly even its revamped offensive line, than on Miller in 2014.
Brian Bennett: DJ, you're right that the schedule does Minnesota no favors, something Jerry Kill has mentioned a few times this offseason. It's not going to be easy. Yet the Gophers showed last year that they could be competitive against everyone and even beat a few teams they traditionally have struggled against, like Nebraska. I think the early game at TCU is huge. It's very important for Minnesota to get off to a good start and bank as many nonconference wins as possible before that rugged league slate kicks in. The Gophers also must play well at home, so those games against Northwestern and Iowa in particular loom large. If Kill's team could beat TCU and even go only 2-4 in that league stretch you mentioned, they'd still be set up well for a return to postseason. I don't like the Ohio State matchup for them, and the road games against Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin will be difficult. But it's Year 4 for Kill and his staff, and his team ought to be ready to handle these types of challenges now.
Brian Bennett: I don't necessarily think it's a disappointment if Iowa has a loss or two heading into the final two games. Let's say the Hawkeyes drop a nonconference game, like at Pitt or vs. Iowa State. They could still potentially be undefeated in the Big Ten and have a West Division title at stake in the final two weeks. Even a conference loss wouldn't be devastating, as Iowa would likely control its own destiny in the division. Getting to the Big Ten championship game, regardless of record, would be a huge step for the program. With the schedule and the amount of experience Kirk Ferentz's team has coming back, I'd say anything less than a repeat of last year's eight wins would feel disappointing, and even another 8-4 regular season would have many fans grumbling.
@JeffHurdaCow via Twitter writes: After thinking about all of the big games in Badgers history, is the LSU game the biggest? Program-changing game?
Brian Bennett: There's no doubt that the opener against LSU looms large for Wisconsin. Win that and the Badgers would gain immediate respect and -- with their very manageable schedule -- could put themselves in position to make the College Football Playoff. But biggest ever? I don't think so. For starters, it's just an opener, and we're not even sure how good LSU -- which finished No. 14 in the major polls last season -- will even be. I don't see how that's bigger than, say, Wisconsin's first Rose Bowl victory over UCLA under Barry Alvarez on New Year's Day 1994. Or even beating then-No. 1 Ohio State at home in 2010. To say nothing of the 1940s and '50s.
Brian Bennett: Fun question, and hopefully we'll be looking at trap games for every team later on this summer. For Penn State, I would say it's Week 2 against Akron. Sure, it's at home and the Zips haven't been very good in recent years. But the game also comes on the heels of the opener in Ireland against UCF, and if you've ever flown back home from overseas, you know it takes your body a couple of days to readjust. Akron went 5-7 last season, nearly beat Michigan and returns a lot of experience for Terry Bowden. So the Nittany Lions had better avoid any Irish hangover.
Brian Bennett: Well, what I actually wrote in Monday's mailbag was that Joey Bosa and Noah Spence are "two of the top returning defensive ends in the league." That's indisputable. But you're right in that Rush often gets overlooked for Michigan State. He doesn't often put up huge numbers, as he set a career high last season with five sacks, to go along with 7.5 tackles for loss. But he gives Pat Narduzzi exactly what he's looking for from that position in the Spartans' defensive scheme. Rush has been an excellent player for a long time. Bosa and Spence form, in my opinion, the best pure pass-rushing defensive end duo in the Big Ten this year. But Michigan State might have the best two overall ends. Either way, just another reason to get excited for that Nov. 8 game in East Lansing.
Brian Bennett: Didn't really see a question in there, but I know Rutgers fans are as pumped up to join the Big Ten as any fan base has ever been about entering a new league. Glad to hear Scarlet Knights fans are going to support everyone else in the conference. It remains to be seen if the rest of the league will feel as much connection toward Rutgers in the early going.
Brian Bennett: Johnny Football agrees with you, Greg. I have to say that I've never understood the whole autograph thing or why people -- especially adults -- would want a college kid's autograph. But I digress. One way around all these thorny issues about more money for athletes and the value of their image and likeness -- currently front and center in the O'Bannon trial -- is to let players get paid for endorsements, autographs and other marketing ideas during their college days. In other words, much like Olympic athletes do. You would, of course, have the issue of some schools' boosters throwing around all kinds of money for endorsements or giving a wad of cash to a backup lineman for his signature. But at least things would be more in the open and players could capitalize on their own achievements, rather than watch their school sell their jerseys in the bookstore for $200. All ideas are worth exploring at this point, and this one has some serious merit.
To your queries ...
Aaron from Washington, Iowa, writes: I feel like Ty Issac signing at Michigan hasn't gotten as much attention as it should have. I feel like Michigan's RBs could have a huge year if the pieces fall into place. Your thoughts?
Brian Bennett: Isaac, who transferred from USC, is potentially a big boost for the Wolverines. But it remains to be seen whether Isaac will receive a waiver from the NCAA to become immediately eligible. He's from Shorewood, Illinois, which isn't exactly next door to Ann Arbor. The NCAA, though, has been pretty lenient on waiver cases of late, so we'll see. We should also have learned by now to exercise caution with hyped transfers. Remember all the hoopla about Kyle Prater transferring from USC to Northwestern, or DeAnthony Arnett going to Michigan State from Tennessee? Neither has had much of an impact yet in the Big Ten, though there's still time.
There is absolutely no doubt that Michigan has to improve its rushing attack after averaging just 3.3 yards per carry last season. Derrick Green should be better as a sophomore, especially with a more streamlined body. De'Veon Smith is pushing him. New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is emphasizing the north-south running game, and the Wolverines simply can't win at a high level without it. The question, of course, is whether the offensive line can coalesce and create enough holes for the back to plow through. If not, it won't matter who is carrying the ball.
My question is: I know you guys (and most college football analysts) think Ohio State's D-line is the best unit in the Big Ten. But how do you think they measure up nationally? I think Clemson's line is head and shoulders better, considering that this Tigers front blew up Ohio State's allegedly great offensive line for five sacks and 10 (10!!) tackles for loss in the Orange Bowl. Is Ohio State's D-line even in the nation's top 20?
Brian Bennett: It's always going to be tough to compare college football teams directly against one another statistically across conferences because they all play such different schedules. Also remember that no team plays elite competition every week; statistical measures like yards per carry allowed are always going to be boosted by games against weak nonconference opponents, league bottom-feeders, heavy passing teams, etc. It would be surprising if a team like Michigan State didn't give up more rushing yards than its season average against a team like Stanford, which had one of the nation's better ground games last year and features a powerful attack that is unlike most FBS teams.
It also works in reverse. You mentioned, for example, Wisconsin's game against South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. The Badgers rushed for 293 yards and for 6.8 yards per carry in that game, numbers that were way above the Gamecocks' season defensive averages. Does that mean that South Carolina's defense was overrated? What about the impact on Big Ten defenses that had to face Wisconsin?
There's very little question about the talent on Ohio State's defensive line. You've got two of the top returning defensive ends in the league in Joey Bosa and Noah Spence (when he returns from suspension). Defensive tackle Michael Bennett is being projected as a first-round NFL draft pick. Adolphus Washington is also extremely skilled, and there is promising depth behind the starters. The Buckeyes could have three or four first-round picks on that unit this fall. That's why everyone is so high on that defensive line, though, of course, the group still needs to prove it on the field against the best of the best.
Brian Bennett: Love your optimism, Jerry. A couple of things -- for one, it's the summer time, and things are pretty slow everywhere. There hasn't been a lot of news out of College Park in a while. Maryland doesn't officially even join the Big Ten (along with Rutgers) until July 1, at which time we hope to have some more coverage of the Terps. Maryland fans have also been very quiet -- we haven't heard much from you guys on Twitter on in the mailbags. I think Randy Edsall has an interesting team on his hands and one that can make some noise if it can stay healthy. It's a pretty simple equation around here: The more you win and have an impact on the league, the more we're going to talk about you.
Brian Bennett: We're well aware of Indiana's offensive prowess, Xavier, and we mention those guys a lot around here. We're doing some statistical projections in the next few days, and the Hoosiers will be well represented. If you're talking about national respect, it's all about winning games. When a team has been out of the postseason since 2007, like IU, it becomes pretty irrelevant nationally. Its games don't receive spotlight broadcast times, and individual accomplishments get overlooked. Indiana needs to pull off a couple of Big Ten upsets for its players to get noticed nationally. Sudfeld and Coleman need to deliver in games against Ohio State, Michigan State and other top contenders.
Brian Bennett: Fun idea, Cameron. The Ivy League has steered clear of playing FBS teams in recent years. But this is one FBS-FCS matchup I could support, if only for the historical celebrations and ceremonies that could come with it.
Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J., writes: Brian, this whole scheduling FCS teams issue REALLY makes me upset as a fan and a season ticket holder. I think it's really quite ridiculous that the Power 5 conferences want to play by their own set of rules, but also schedule games against teams that are already at a competitive disadvantage. Why is it that no one in the media is questioning the logic behind, as you said in your most recent article "with power teams needing seven home games to make budget", how does this make sense when schools are bringing in tens of millions of dollars more in media contracts now than they were 10 years ago? It seems the Power 5 conferences want to play by their own rules and act autonomously, but yet refuse to work together on scheduling partnerships to ease the process for nonconference scheduling. I'm also sick of the excuse that the B1G needs to consider scheduling FCS schools to maximize potential to get into the new "Playoff." I think the selection committee should ignore any game played against an FCS school when identifying the best teams for the playoff.
Brian Bennett: Some very good points, Rob, and you and I appear to be in total agreement that these FCS games should be eliminated. I didn't even mention ticket prices in my post, but the rising costs of attending games is yet another reason why these games are abhorrent. And I also agree that the seven home games argument is a bit odd given the massive amount of money flowing into Power 5 conference teams. It has been projected that the Big Ten could distribute $45 million to each of its member schools after the league's new TV contract is negotiated. Surely some of this can help make up for a lack of a seventh home game in some seasons, no? Or do schools need to continue to raise coaches' salaries and build even more spectacular facilities with that cash?
I also love your last point about the selection committee ignoring wins over FCS opponents. So if, say, an ACC team is 11-1 but has a win over an FCS team, it should be considered 10-1. That might make a big difference when comparing it to an 11-1 team from another conference that has 11 wins over actual FBS teams. I think that would change some schools' willingness to schedule FCS opponents very quickly.
Brian Bennett: Dave, while I agree with you on an eight-team playoff, which in my view would be the perfect setup, we need to be happy that we at long last have some sort of a playoff system. And it will eventually expand, I believe. I also don't think the FCS mandate will have much impact on the Playoff in terms of wins or losses. Let's face it: Any team that loses to an FCS or lower-level FBS team is not going to make the four-team Playoff field anyway. What not scheduling FCS opponents does for the Big Ten is raise its overall strength-of-schedule component, which could be key for selection purposes.
Brian Bennett: I don't believe I ever said that schools like Indiana should schedule FCS schools. However, I do believe a team like the Hoosiers should dumb down its schedule if it needs to get over the hump and into a bowl game. Last year, Indiana played Navy, Missouri and Bowling Green in the nonconference schedule, which seemed to me a bit too ambitious for a program looking for its second bowl appearance since 1993 and first in six years. There are plenty of easier games against lower-level FBS schools to be had, even if it means a home-and-home series to reduce costs.
Brian Bennett: Great question, Josh, and it's something that needs to happen, not just for Michigan but to strengthen the entire Big Ten. Michigan has every possible resource you would need, including the nation's largest stadium and huge revenue streams. Brady Hoke's staff has recruited highly ranked classes. So there's really nothing that should be keeping this program down. Either Hoke will get it there in the next couple of years, or someone else will get a chance to try.
Brian Bennett: Shameful? Really? I have "actually looked" at the Buckeyes' line and have seen them in practice. That line includes left tackle Taylor Decker, who started last year and who Urban Meyer said was playing as well as any Ohio State lineman at the end of 2013. It includes Chad Lindsay, who transferred from Alabama after starting several games there at center. It also includes Pat Elflein, who filled in for Marcus Hall very well last year. Fourth-year junior Antonio Underwood and fifth-year senior Darryl Baldwin ran with the first team most of the spring. There are a lot of younger players behind them pushing for time.
Meyer wasn't satisfied with his line play this spring, but to say the group lacks talent is disingenuous. Remember there were many questions about the line before 2012, and Ed Warriner quickly shaped that group into one of the country's strongest units. Warriner is one of the best in the business, and while this year's O-line likely won't be as good as the 2013 version, he'll get it figured out.
Mitchell C. from Parts Unknown writes: How confident should Ohio State be coming into the third year with Urban Meyer and five new starters on defense and six new starters on offense? And will new RB Ezekiel Elliott be like Carlos Hyde and live up to the (production) he left behind?
Brian Bennett: Those are good questions, and they are why I find the 2014 Buckeyes to be one of the most fascinating teams in the Big Ten and the nation. A lot of people assume that Ohio State won't drop off at all from the first two seasons under Meyer, but the team is dealing with a lot of turnover and counting on numerous young players to step forward. Yet there is serious reason for optimism. For one, those young players are incredibly talented and athletic, which can help make up for a lot of mistakes. The coaching staff is also a proven commodity. For example, while the offensive line replaces four starters, position coach Ed Warriner faced similar questions two years ago and quickly turned that unit into the best offensive line in the Big Ten for two years running. Elliott might not match Hyde's numbers, both because Hyde put up huge stats and because Ohio State is likely to spread the ball out a bit more than it did in 2013. But he's another prime example of the immense potential on hand.
With all that talent and coaching, the Buckeyes should feel optimistic about 2014. Unless Braxton Miller gets hurt. Then all bets are off.
Stave played poorly in the upset loss to Penn State to end the year and against South Carolina, causing Gary Andersen to say the team needed better play from its quarterback position. There's a reason the Badgers opened up the quarterback competition this spring despite having a veteran starter. And Stave's shoulder injury is worrisome.
Maybe Stave gets healthy and builds upon his experience. Or maybe McEvoy steps in and plays well. But you're talking about one guy who has yet to put it all together and another who has never done it at this level. That's why there are legitimate reasons for concern at the quarterback spot in Madison, before we even get to the pressing issue of who is going to catch the ball for Wisconsin. That's a big reason why I'm a little surprised by all the rosy preseason projections for the Badgers.
Brian Bennett: DJ, I think you might be conflating two different issues here. As I mentioned in my early signing day piece, schools that are farther away from major talent bases (i.e., Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, etc.) wouldn't see as much benefit with an early signing period without the corresponding move of allowing for earlier official visits. (Adam did a great job of exploring that issue in this post). Right now, prospects can't take official visits (i.e., have their trips paid for by the school) until the start of their senior year in high school. It's difficult and expensive for many prospects, especially ones who live in the South and in other far-flung locales, to visit northern schools like Minnesota on their own dime. They can often take unofficial trips to schools closer to their hometown with far less hassle, however.
That's why, if there's an early signing period -- especially one in the summer before a prospect's senior year as the ACC has proposed -- kids could be inking their national letters of intent before ever getting on a plane to Minneapolis. The Gophers would stand to gain if prospects could receive a paid trip to their campus in the spring and summer, when it's a great time to be in the Twin Cities. Those earlier visits, then, loom as even more important for a school like Minnesota than an early signing period would be.
Brian Bennett: Spencer, I am very intrigued by Farmer and think he can end up being a cult hero to Nebraska fans. We didn't have time or space in that post to mention every promising freshman in the league, though, and it's much tougher for a first-year player out of high school to make a big impact on the offensive line than it is for just about any other position, save perhaps defensive tackle. Farmer could be an exception. We shall see.
Brian Bennett: Some good points here, Joel, and I agree that five wins is kind of the fulcrum for Beckman in 2014. If that happens, I think a lot will depend on how that 5-7 season went down. Were the Illini highly competitive in their Big Ten games, especially against the best the league has to offer? Did young players show obvious development and improvement? Were fans responding in a positive way? You're right that Beckman could have his best and most experienced roster in 2015, and Thomas might be able to bank on that. However, three years without a bowl and a potential devastating hit to attendance and season-ticket sales might be too much to overcome.
Brian Bennett: Oh, Pat, how dare you tempt the curse! You might have just woken that evil spirit from its peaceful slumber in that great cornfield in the sky. We apologize in advance to Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri, Damon Bullock, et al. Pay no heed to Pat's question, AIRBHG. We kneel and offer you this bushel of corn as a humble token of our appreciation for your recent mercy.
Brian L. via Twitter writes: Do you think MSU would be where they are today, including Mark Dantonio, if Mouse Trap and Little Giants had failed three years ago?
Brian Bennett: It's an interesting question. For sure, the 2010 season represented a breakthrough for Dantonio and the Spartans as they won 11 games and captured a share of their first Big Ten title in 20 years. While both those trick plays -- Mouse Trap vs. Northwestern and Little Giants against Notre Dame -- proved crucial to the outcome, it's possible Michigan State could have won without them, but we'll never know for sure. The key question, I guess, is if the Spartans had lost both those games, would they have continued on their upward climb? The Little Giants play in particular and that 11-win season really began to put the program back on the national radar, showed a different side of Dantonio to the public and probably contributed toward the team's momentum. So it's all part of the stew, so to speak. But I also think Dantonio and his staff had been building toward great things with their recruiting and coaching stability, so it might have happened regardless.
Brian Bennett: He was definitely considered. But the fact is that Countess is now at nickelback, which is an important position (and, of course, a terrible band) but not necessarily the most important on the field. If Jabrill Peppers is the real deal, Michigan will be fine at corner. Maybe we're expecting too much of Peppers early on, but that's why Countess wasn't listed among the two most indispensable.
Brian Bennett: I assume by top two you mean winning the West Division. And Iowa has a great chance to do just that. Not only do they miss Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan from the East, they get Wisconsin and Nebraska at home the final two weeks. You simply can't ask for a better schedule, and Kirk Ferentz's team has enough experience and talent that it could be favored in every single game this season.
Brian Bennett: Unlike Iowa, the schedule does Indiana few favors in 2014. Consecutive nonconference road games against Bowling Green -- a potential favorite in the MAC -- and reigning SEC East Division champ Missouri will not be easy, and the Hoosiers also have road games at Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan. Still, this program has been improving under Kevin Wilson the past few years and wasn't far off from making a bowl game last season. Getting to the postseason should be the ultimate goal this year, and I think seven wins is probably the ceiling if the defense can become even moderately respectable.
Brian Bennett: That's really the key question for Ohio State's season. The losses in the secondary, except for Bradley Roby, don't sting that much since the pass defense was atrocious at the end of last season, anyway. There is talent to work with back there, and I think the new approach by Chris Ash should help the Buckeyes be more aggressive and better use their speed in pass coverage. I still have some questions about the linebackers. The defensive line should be one of the best in the country, provided that it weathers the storm from the loss of Noah Spence for two games and Jamal Marcus, who is transferring.
The offensive line will need to find the right mix, but Ed Warriner is one of the best in the business of figuring that stuff out. Ohio State might not have the best offensive line in the Big Ten in 2014, but I expect it to remain very good with perhaps some early growing pains. The Buckeyes are loaded with speed at the offensive skill positions, but remember they lost their top rusher (Carlos Hyde) and top receiver (Corey Brown) and that there aren't many proven players in that wideout corps.
Urban Meyer's team is young but ridiculously talented in a lot of key spots, which is why I think Ohio State is the most intriguing team in the Big Ten this season. Playing Navy, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati in three of the first four games is no cakewalk and will be a much bigger challenge than the Buckeyes experienced the past two seasons in the nonconference slate. The best news for Meyer's team is that Braxton Miller is back, and he can erase a lot of mistakes early on while all the parts come together.
Brian Bennett: To each his own, Joe. But I've been to Tampa more than a dozen times in my life, and other than the great weather and proximity to the beaches, I've found it to be a very dull city without much of a central hub. Minneapolis has much more to do downtown (and you can even walk indoors when it's cold). Fans would complain about the weather in the Twin Cities, but I think they would find plenty of fun activities if Minneapolis were to host the College Football Playoff title game.
Kenny from Cincy writes: Hey, Brian, it would be great to see every B1G teams' strength of schedule for this year (ranked from toughest to easiest). Thanks. Go Reds this weekend!
Brian Bennett: You mean the four-games-under-.500 Reds? They'd better start going sometime.
As far as strength-of-schedule ratings go, it's hard to calculate that in the preseason. The NCAA's way of determining that is simply to base it off opponents' records. If we did that, using 2013 records, the Big Ten strength-of-schedule ratings would look like this:
5. Ohio State
9. Michigan State
11. Penn State
Again, though, these are based on opponents' records from last season and don't really account for how good the teams might actually be in 2014. Still, you'd get little argument that Rutgers has an extremely difficult schedule, while Iowa and Wisconsin drew favorable slates. At least until we see the teams play this fall.
Chris V. from Grandview, Mo., writes: I saw ESPN just released the contenders for the college playoff this year. I also know you have the poll on Big Ten blog. My question to you, is who do you and Adam think will be the contenders from the Big Ten and nationally for the College Football Playoff this coming year? Do you guys seriously think a Big Ten team can make it all the way to title game and win it?
Brian Bennett: I'll stick mostly to the Big Ten side of things, though I suspect I'll end up ranking Florida State, Alabama and Oregon in the top three when it's time to do so. The most important thing for the Big Ten is just getting in the four-team field. Once you're in, of course, you've got a shot to win it. Getting there won't be easy, given the perception of the league vs. the SEC and even the Pac-12 and Big 12 and with Florida State giving the ACC a huge credibility boost last season.
Michigan State and Ohio State still look like the safest bets, and they both have marquee out-of-conference games (Spartans vs. Oregon, Buckeyes vs. Virginia Tech) that could help their cause. The big question is whether someone out of the Big Ten West, like Iowa, Nebraska or Wisconsin, can force its way into the conversation. The Hawkeyes and Huskers might need to run the table, while Wisconsin's weak schedule probably means the Badgers have to either beat LSU or play the Tigers extremely close in the opener.
I'm skeptical that any Big Ten team is truly national-title caliber in 2014. But it sure would be nice to see the league at least get into the field and have a chance.
Pat from Iowa writes: Let's say the Big Ten champion next year has two losses going into bowl season. Do you think they would still be selected into the new playoff system?
Brian Bennett: I'd say it's almost impossible, barring some wild chaos in the rest of the country. The perception of the Big Ten is too low right now, and probably only an SEC team, or one that plays an extremely difficult schedule, would even get serious contention for inclusion with two losses. Stanford last year would have had a compelling and fascinating argument as an 11-2 Pac-12 champion, but its nonconference schedule could have been an issue.
Aaron from Dubuque, Iowa, writes: Jake Rudock, better or worse next year? He returns an outstanding line lead by Brandon Scherff and three other returning starters. There is a running back corps that is deep (fingers crossed, there's no AIRBHG this season) led by Mark Weisman and Jordan Canzeri. Receivers are plentiful and talented ([Kevonte] Martin-Manely, [Tevaun] Smith, [Jacob] Hillyer, [Damond] Powell, [Derrick] Willies (more high hopes), [Ray] Hamilton, and [Jake] Duzey). But then there is Rudock's numbers, 18-to-13 TD to INT, 59% completion. With your professional opinion, how do you think Rudock will fair and where Iowa will go with their favorable schedule?
Brian Bennett: Rudock's numbers were fairly mediocre last season. But remember that he was in his first year as a starter, and the Hawkeyes didn't have a lot of deep threats for most of the season. I thought he made pretty good decisions in many games, and an extra year of experience can only help his cause. There is legitimate optimism about the receiving corps for the first time in a few years, as Iowa looks to have more speed and playmaking ability on the outside. I don't know that Rudock will ever be a 3,000-yard, 30-touchdown kind of quarterback in that system. But I see every reason to believe Rudock will continue to improve. If not, C.J. Beathard is waiting in the wings.
Greg M. from Bel Air, MD., writes: Big RU fan here ... so let me start with the saying "You live and die by the sword." I guess the B1G got what it wanted which was the NYC papers to notice Rutgers...unfortunately probably not the way they wanted...according to many of the B1G blogger sites. Rutgers is already the most hated University in the B1G (surpassing Ohio St/Penn St) and we haven't even played a game yet, but if we can become competitive on the field, pull the big upsets every now and then, ruin someone’s big payday, make the minor bowls, perhaps we can be the Alabama of the SEC, the USC of the Pac-12, the Miami Hurricanes of the ACC, the Notre Dame ... teams the fans love to hate because we can be both dangerous on the field and in the papers.
Brian Bennett: Um, OK. Let's back up on the Alabama/USC/Notre Dame comparisons. Rutgers simply needs to field a competitive team on the field and stop embarrassing itself off it. The Scarlet Knights have the resources to at least become a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten club that should be in the mix for bowl games. The fear from other Big Ten fans is that the program will dilute the overall product and cause nothing but negative headlines. Rutgers shouldn't aim to be hated but simply for now to be competent enough to blend in.
Brutus from The Ninth Circle writes: Brian, what are you looking forward to the most this coming season? Seeing a team coached by James Franklin? Seeing Maryland and Rutgers play their first games in the B1G? Seeing more night games at Michigan? Personally, I can't wait to see Maryland's games in the B1G. The eastward expansion should play havoc on my Saturday TV scheduling, but bring it on!
Brian Bennett: From a big-picture perspective, what I'm most excited about is the new playoff system, and in particular the semifinals on New Year's Day. That could be one of the best days in college football history. From, um, a B1G-picture perspective, I'm really interested in how Maryland and Rutgers fit into the league, how Franklin's Penn State debut will go and how the new division alignment shakes out. But I'm probably most excited about an upgraded nonconference schedule that includes games like Michigan State-Oregon, Wisconsin-LSU and Ohio State-Virginia Tech. There's nothing like high-profile out-of-league games early on to get a read on just how strong the Big Ten might be in 2014.
Brian Bennett: Grant, I wrote about this a lot in a piece last month following a visit to East Lansing. Dantonio started warning about complacency in the first team meeting back home after the Rose Bowl, and he pushed the start of spring practice back to late March so he could have the players go through grueling, early-morning winter conditioning longer. That's one way to deflate big heads. I also thought it was an encouraging sign that Michigan State players like Connor Cook told me they were sick of talking about the Rose Bowl and 2013 this offseason and that they wanted to create their own legacy. Add in the fight for playing time at several defensive positions and along the offensive line and other spots, and there is reason to believe this team won't rest on its '13 accomplishments. You never really know. But that Week 2 showdown against the Ducks on the road should be enough to get these Spartans focused on the here and now, or else they're going to learn that lesson the hard way.
Brian Bennett: Meyer does collect top talent from Ohio -- he signed nine players from the Buckeye State in the 2014 class, for example -- but he doesn't just rely on homegrown players. Ohio State wants to compete for national titles, and the way to do that is to get the best players, no matter where they're from. Fact is, Big Ten country doesn't produce as many elite athletes as it once did, and many of those guys are in the South, in Texas and California. Any Big Ten program with legitimate national title aspirations has to recruit outside its region, as well as protecting its own backyard.
Brian Bennett: I firmly believe that one of the absolute best things about college football is the supreme importance of the regular season. Every week, in essence, becomes a playoff. Having a four-team playoff at the end will dilute that slightly but not enough, in my opinion, to hurt the sport. So I'm against any idea that would make games in any part of the season lose their significance.
Michigan State's problem last year was not so much its loss at Notre Dame but the fact that it really didn't play another marquee game until the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State. That's why upgraded schedules for the league are so important. A loss (or possibly even two, in some years) will be much easier to forgive if a team has played a grueling schedule and collected impressive wins throughout. I do hope the selection committee pays particular attention to schedule strength and does not get caught up on picking teams who might have simply coasted to a 12- or 11-win season. The in-season polls that the committee will release seem problematic to me, but everything they have said so far indicates they will judge teams on the quality of their résumés.
Brian Bennett: Thanks, Luke. It was a dream trip, and I highly recommend it. As for Nebraska, I've thought for a while that guys like Bell and Turner could do even more with a consistent passing game. Taylor Martinez was actually pretty solid in 2012, throwing for 2,871 yards and 23 touchdowns, though his 62 percent completion rate wasn't spectacular. It's no coincidence that Bell had by far his best season in 2012. There was too much turnover and inexperience under center last year for Nebraska once Martinez got injured. Tommy Armstrong simply has to improve on his 51.9 percent completion rate from a year ago, and he's got the playmakers to make big things happen.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
For now, I like the way you work it. I got to 'bag it up:
Brian Bennett: It's a good question, Charlie, and one I imagine we'll revisit more closely this summer. The guys who arrived in January and went through a full spring practice have a leg up, so players such as Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan, Michigan wide receiver Freddy Canteen and Penn State receiver De'Andre Thompkins leap immediately to mind. I'm excited to hear about the players who get to campus this summer, such as Michigan State defensive tackle and recruiting drama champion Malik McDowell, Minnesota running back Jeff Jones and Maryland offensive tackle Damian Prince. There are a lot of candidates, but for now my money remains on incoming Michigan cornerback Jabrill Peppers.
Bennett: Will, the Badgers have the same 2015 crossover opponents as they do this season: Rutgers and Maryland. It does seem like Wisconsin caught a major break or that Jim Delany owed Barry Alvarez a favor with those schedules. In reality, though, we don't know how competitive Rutgers and Maryland will be, and you could argue that Indiana -- which has been to recent bowl games far, far less frequently than the two newest members -- would make for an easier crossover. Wisconsin has a great opportunity to make some noise the next two seasons, particularly with its openers against LSU (in 2014) and Alabama (2015). And then things go the opposite way in 2016, as the Badgers open Big Ten play at Michigan, at Michigan State and vs. Ohio State in three consecutive weeks.
Bennett: Some fair points, there, Brian (great name, by the way). I think most of the B1G West/Big 12 North comparisons come in regard to the relative strength between the other division in the conference -- the Big 12 South was so clearly deeper and more competitive overall than the North over the course of that era, and some fear the same thing will be the case with the Big Ten East because of Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State. But there is no dominant team in the West right now, like Nebraska was for a long stretch during its Big 12 days. In fact, the West has a chance to be really balanced, especially if Iowa plays up to its capabilities, Northwestern bounces back, Minnesota continues its upward trend, etc. If you offered the Big Ten the scenario of having one legitimate playoff contender in the West every year but that the division would be weaker than the other side, I think the conference would be more than happy to take that.
Brian Bennett: Football Study Hall is always an interesting read, and I love the application of advanced stats. But here's one case where I don't think the numbers add up. I don't believe Ohio State had the best defensive line in the Big Ten last season, but there's no way it was No. 96 in the FBS. The Buckeyes were really good against the run and had strong pass rushers. They had their lapses and could stand to get better. But don't forget that key players on that line included a true freshman (Joey Bosa) and two true sophomores (Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington). They're only going to get better, and the depth and skill level on this line is extremely promising for 2014.
Brian Bennett: Mike, we usually do position group rankings for the whole league close to the start of the season. The one position group that I think is the most interesting to rank right now is offensive line. Ohio State held the top spot there in the past two seasons, in my opinion, but the Buckeyes lost four senior starters from last year's group. Several potential contenders have major question marks right now at offensive line, including Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan. Wisconsin usually just reloads there, but still has to replace some good players. Michigan State lost three starters and is searching for the kind of depth it had in 2013. Nebraska is replacing a ton of experience. Could Iowa, led by Brandon Scherff, take the title of best offensive line? What about Minnesota's underrated group? It will be really interesting to see how such an important position group in this league shakes out this summer and fall.
What's on your mind?
rtXC from Denison, Texas, writes: Hey, Brian, love the blog! After the SEC's "groundbreaking" announcement to stay at eight conference games and have each of its teams play one team from the Power 5, would you like to see the other conferences band together and make a stand? Other than certain SEC-ACC rivalries and current contracts for future games, how about the four conferences band together and abstain from scheduling SEC teams in the future? That'd surely solve things, eh?
"No, not really. I don't know about my colleagues in the league, but I think when you look at different conferences, they have to do what they have to do based on their makeup, based on their geography and their fan base. Whether they go nine or eight games, that's really based on who they are. I really don't have a preference and would not want to even try and direct how those conferences should go. They're living in it, they're working in it, they know their travel issues and all that stuff, so for someone outside to project, I just don't think that's right."
Smith did add that the SEC's decision "will ultimately depend on what they're doing in the nonconference. Because their in-conference strength of schedule, the majority of the time, is going to be pretty good. But when you leave four games to the nonconference part of your schedule, you've got to make sure you're able to get who you need to get in order to make that overall schedule strength good."
Translation: SEC teams had better not shy away from playing strong teams in the nonconference, and they'd better hope the teams they schedule years in advance are actually good when the games arrive (see Ohio State's conundrum with the Cal series). Ultimately, the best way to get some uniformity in conference games is not some sort of boycott. It's having the playoff selection committee send a strong message about strength of schedule in its choices for the four-team event.
Eric from Iowa writes: Give the so called "Big 5" conferences more power, eh? More power to create their own rules on things like stipends, medical coverage, family travel benefits, recruiting, etc? ... I'm not going to pretend those conferences aren't already the big money makers of college football, but giving them the autonomy to make these rules for themselves vs. a poor old little MAC school who already struggles to keep up ... proof that the Central Michigans are in place to provide home games for Michigan and MSU, and that's pretty much it.
Bennett: Well, how is that really any different? The Central Michigans of the world are in no way, shape or form on the same playing field right now as the Michigans and Michigan States anyway. The money gap is huge and will continue growing. I think there's an honest desire from the power conferences to give back more to the players (in part, sure, because they're afraid a court or legislature will force them to do so if they don't act first), and if all that's holding them back are mid- and low-major schools that can't afford it, then there need to be different rules in place.
Tony from Auburn Hills, Mich., writes: When Darrell Hazell was announced as head coach for Purdue, everyone assumed he would be bringing that TresselBall that he carried to Kent State, even though Purdue has been a spread team since Joe Tiller brought it to the league. Then the season happened and, well, none of us is really sure what identity the offense was supposed to have. But in the Q&A from last week's lunch links, Hazell said he thinks they'll be a spread team this season. So was this really his plan from the beginning, or is this a change out of pure necessity due to poor recruiting and awful play from the O-line?
Bennett: Hazell has always preached physicality and a strong running game as his base philosophy, so hearing him talk about the spread was surprising -- though as Ohio State showed the past two seasons, the two aren't always mutually exclusive. You're right, Tony, in that Purdue had zero identity last season (or maybe I should say it's identity was a zero) on offense or defense, and the coaching staff might have misread the talents of the players. With an offensive line that's not close to being dominant and speedsters such as Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, the spread might be a better use of the Boilers' current talent, much of which was recruited for a spread system, after all. The smartest coaches adapt their system to the players they have, not the other way around.
John C. from Princeton Jct., N.J., writes: Been a lifelong RU football fan. Have the Knights winning three games this year. May steal one or two more. The athletic department is a mess. And it seems every week it gets worse. Coach Kyle Flood (nice man) plays not to lose. Watch the games, and you will see it. This lack of "killer instinct" has to overflow to the players. I can give multiple examples. What do you think?
Bennett: I don't know about a lack of a killer instinct, but Flood and predecessor Greg Schiano certainly seemed to play a conservative style -- especially on offense. Perhaps that will change with Ralph Friedgen calling the plays, but we shall see. It's not like that type of style would be out of step in the Big Ten, after all. There's no doubt that the Scarlet Knights' inaugural Big Ten schedule is very difficult, and out-of-league games at Washington State and at Navy are no gimmes by any stretch. I think Rutgers will win more than three games, but 5-7 might be a reasonable accomplishment against that slate.
Bran Stark from Winterfell writes: Penny-for-your-thought type of question, Brian ... Iowa clearly has the "easiest" conference schedule of the three preseason favorites of the B1G's West. Next, Wiscy gets Big Red at home and finally my Huskers have to travel to Iowa City, Madison, and East Lansing, coming in at the hardest of the three favorites. If memory serves me correctly, Bo Pelini hasn't lost to any B1G teams twice in a row, and only the terrible Longhorns have notched that feat against him. How much, if at all, do you think the fact that the last time Nebraska played all three of those home teams it ended with losses will have on the team? Mind you, some of those losses came in grand fashion.
Bennett: Thanks for taking time out of your busy warging schedule to write in, Bran. ("Game of Thrones" nerd alert). That's an interesting stat on Pelini, but I'm not sure that history has any bearing on the future. Teams just change too much from year to year for the past season to be a huge factor. And remember the Huskers needed some major comebacks in games against Northwestern, Ohio State and Michigan State to avoid back-to-back losses. The schedule, though, is definitely worth noting. Nebraska clearly got the toughest draw of the three teams you mentioned. Based on returning talent alone, I would make the Huskers the West Division favorite by a nostril. The schedule could end up keeping them out of Indianapolis. Truly worthy championship teams can overcome it, though.
Ed from State of Rutgers writes: How would you rank B1G head coaches on the hot seat in 2014? Which assistants are in the best position for a head coaching job after this season?
Brian Bennett: Thanks for the question, Ed, and welcome to Big Ten country. We didn't see a single head coach get fired in the Big Ten last season, which was good news. But the way these things go, odds are the league won't make it two years in a row without any pink slips.
Let's answer your question by looking at this in tiers. Tier 1 includes the coaches who absolutely won't get fired this season unless there's some sort of unforeseen major scandal: Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Penn State's James Franklin, Minnesota's Jerry Kill, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz.
Tier 3 covers the coaches actually feeling some heat under their chairs. Let's evaluate them individually:
- Tim Beckman, Illinois: This should come as no surprise. The Illini showed improvement last season, but Beckman is still just 6-18 and has seen fan support fall off a cliff. Anything less than a bowl game in 2014 could make things really dicey.
- Bo Pelini, Nebraska: This is a well-documented situation, and many people were surprised Pelini wasn't fired at the end of last season, though athletics director Shawn Eichorst remains hard to read. The good news is that Pelini could have a very good team in Lincoln this year, and he sure doesn't appear to be sweating things this spring.
- Kyle Flood, Rutgers: He went 9-4 his first season as head coach but just 6-7 with a dismal finish last season. He also has a new boss in town, and the Scarlet Knights will face a very difficult schedule in Year 1 in the Big Ten. He's only making $900,000, so a change wouldn't be too financially painful. The question is whether embattled new athletic director Julie Hermann has enough juice right now to make that call.
- Randy Edsall, Maryland: This is the toughest call of the tier, as Edsall might have bought himself some time with last season's winning record and has had to deal with injuries to many star players. Yet he's still just 13-24 after three seasons, and life in the Big Ten might not be easy for the Terps. A losing record in 2014 would make things very uncomfortable in College Park.
Scott R. from Chadron, Neb., writes: Pretty sure there was voter fraud on that Osborne/Paterno matchup. Am I the only one who noticed there were as many international votes as domestic? And that those international votes were 87% for Paterno? Every other poll on ESPN.com is about 75% domestic, 25% foreign. This one was 50/50, and the international vote was OVERWHELMINGLY for Paterno. Seems a little suspicious.
Brian Bennett: File this one under "You Can't Please Everybody, Vol. 734." For the past two weeks, my mailbag was full of comments like Scott's, claiming some sort of voter fraud as Paterno got a huge international vote against both Tom Osborne and Woody Hayes. I have neither the technical expertise nor the time to figure out whether there was some sort of computer tomfoolery going on. But you'd have to be really naive not to raise an eyebrow at the fact that more than half the votes (17,000-plus) in the title matchup came from outside the United States and that those votes were wildly in favor of Paterno. Maybe there's a simple explanation why so many non-U.S. residents care about Big Ten football -- Italians for JoePa, perhaps?
The bottom line is that we placed no rules on this tournament, other than the most votes wins. If someone was ingenious enough to rig it, more power to them. Paterno certainly had the résumé and accomplishments that were deserving on their own. I had no personal stake in the outcome, and I found it to be a fun exercise to go along with March Madness. I hope everyone enjoyed it.
Brian Bennett: Andrew, I can't say I understand all the intricacies here at play, either, except that there are apparently some other details to iron out. That game still seems like a natural choice for a prime-time selection. It's still only mid-April. Stay tuned ...
Brian Bennett: I have great respect for what Bob Shoop and his staff accomplished at Vanderbilt and expect him to do a great job as the Nittany Lions' defensive coordinator. From what I saw last year, however, I don't think there's enough top-shelf talent on that defense for Penn State to pull a Michigan State and simply dominate everyone on defense. At least not at a championship level. I don't worry as much about the receiving group, because I think with Geno Lewis, some of the talented freshmen and those tight ends, they can piece together people for Christian Hackenberg to target. My biggest concern is the offensive line, which is thin and has some troubling injuries. It's nearly impossible to win at a high level in the Big Ten without a decent offensive line.
Brian Bennett: You'll find no bigger NCAA tournament fan than me, Tommy, and my wife is really happy it's over so she can see me again. Still, it's hard to compare the sports. Football simply is a much more physical game, and so adding more games to the schedule becomes problematic, along with the logistical problems caused by Christmas break and the semester changes. I do believe we will eventually have an eight-team tournament, with the five power conference champions getting an automatic berth along with the top champion of the other leagues plus two wild cards. That's a perfect setup. But it took us decades just to get to a four-team playoff, and that semifinal day on Jan. 1 (most years) will instantly become one of the best days on the sports calendar.
Besides, I could argue college football already has March Madness all fall long, and the ratings reflect that. Before the Final Four began, the NCAA tournament averaged a reported 9.8 million viewers, which was a big increase. By contrast, the Big Ten championship game drew 11.6 million viewers, while the Auburn-Alabama game attracted 13.8 million. The men's basketball final (aired on network TV) between UConn and Kentucky got 21.2 million viewers, compared to 25.6 million for the BCS title game (aired on ESPN) between Florida State and Auburn. We could see record ratings for the inaugural rounds of the College Football Playoff.
D.J. from Minneapolis writes: What happens to the union story if the Northwestern players vote no?
Brian Bennett: A great question, and based on media comments from several players -- most notably quarterback Trevor Siemian -- it sure seems like the Wildcats players are against the union and will vote no on April 25. But there might be a stronger undercurrent of support from players who are not as vocal in public. Given that the leader of the movement, Kain Colter, has already graduated and won't be eligible to vote, you wonder who on the team will take the baton and push for the union. All it takes, remember, is a simple majority.
So does a no vote mean this is the end of the story? I don't think it's that basic. Northwestern players would be able to try to unionize again next year. The regional National Labor Relations Board ruling has also set a precedent, at least for football players at private schools, and those who believe in the cause, such as CAPA president Ramogi Huma, would likely try to persuade players at other programs to follow Northwestern's lead. The school will continue to try to fight the original ruling, as well.
If the Wildcats' players vote no next week, we might not see any tangible results from the union movement for a while. If nothing else, however, it was another shot across the bow at the NCAA and another huge warning to the leaders of college sports that they had better make some changes before a judge or a legislature does it for them.
Brian Bennett: I shouldn't have written "never" to the idea of an Ohio State-Michigan night game, because so many things have changed in college football that anything is possible. I never thought we'd actually see a playoff, for instance. But both schools have said they're not in favor of moving "The Game" away from the afternoon and under the lights. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon doesn't even want to play Michigan State at night and so I doubt he will budge on the idea of playing Ohio State in prime time. And I don't think this game needs any more attention, as evidenced by all the signs and reminders of the rivalry that I saw while visiting both Michigan and Ohio State earlier this month. So I wouldn't expect it to happen anytime soon, though never say never.
Brian Bennett: I've come to the conclusion that spring games just aren't as big a deal at some places as they are others. And that's OK. I don't have much of a tolerance for spring games and don't like watching them, because you learn less from those than you would from watching just about any other practice. Sure, it's a fun day for fans to see their teams and sit in the stadium and maybe get some autographs, and all that is great. But I also have no problem with people who feel like they have better things to do than watch football that often isn't really representative of the finished product, with many star players usually being held out.
I don't know if spring game attendance factors much into recruiting. It certainly can't hurt to sell that to recruits as evidence of intense interest and appreciation of your program. But Michigan hasn't gotten many big spring game crowds over the years and that doesn't seem to affect the Wolverines' recruiting very much. I doubt many prospects are basing their decisions on anything that occurs at a spring game, and if they are, that is misguided on their part.
Brian Bennett: I thought Michigan State clearly benefited during Rich Rodriguez's tenure in Ann Arbor, as the Wolverines' downturn and different approach to recruiting helped the Spartans begin to establish themselves. Certainly, the success of Michigan State and Ohio State hasn't done anything to help Michigan, and butting heads against both those programs now in the East won't be easy.
Still, in my view, the biggest thing holding back Michigan is not any external force but Michigan itself. The two coaching changes, and especially veering between very contrasting styles, caused some problems that current Wolverines coaches will tell you are still being felt today. More than anything, though, Michigan simply hasn't capitalized on its own enormous resources and fulfilled its potential. As noted a minute ago, recruiting has been strong under Brady Hoke, at least if you believe the scouting services. The Maize and Blue have never had much trouble attracting talent. Development of that skill has been an issue, though many of those players are still young.
Perhaps we overrate Michigan's history and tradition, since the program claims only one national title since 1948. But with the school's money, stadium size, fan support and access to players, the Wolverines have no one to blame but themselves for not winning a Big Ten title in what is fast approaching a decade's time.