Ohio State Buckeyes: Braxton Miller
Coaches are talking about the importance of taking it one game at a time while chasing a conference title. Players have busted out their finest suits and are raving about how difficult the offseason conditioning program was at their schools. And the media grabbed some free food between interviews.
There is one more day to go before the circus leaves Chicago, but before we get to that, the Big Ten blog is handing out some awards to put a bow on the opening day.
Best-dressed player: Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond. The honors could just as easily have gone to teammates Shilique Calhoun or Connor Cook, the former for his bow tie and the latter for his accessorizing with his enormous championship ring. But Drummond stole the show as the sharpest of the Spartans, who clearly looked the part of returning conference champs.
I think the Best Dressed award has been locked up today. Kurtis Drummond, folks. pic.twitter.com/XAnHXjJWKP— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Most fun-loving players: The bright spotlight and huge crowd around him might have kept Ohio State coach Urban Meyer a bit guarded, but his players certainly welcomed the attention and weren't afraid of being playful with the media. Tight end Jeff Heuerman loosened things up by locking quarterback Braxton Miller in a headlock, and after that, both decided to moonlight as media members by sneaking over to ask Meyer a few questions toward the end of a session -- a rare glimpse at the personalities off the field of two of the league's best talents on it.
Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman and Braxton Miller decided to join the media today and interview Urban Meyer. pic.twitter.com/scWhYDZRNs— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Biggest missed opportunity: The Wisconsin-LSU matchup to open the season is appealing enough at a neutral site. But the Badgers and Tigers could have taken the intrigue to another level by hosting those games at two of the loudest, most hostile stadiums in the country -- if only Gary Andersen had been around a couple of years earlier. The Badgers' coach said he "would have said yes" to a home-and-home series at Camp Randall and in Death Valley, a tantalizing what-might-have-been if the Tigers might have been as willing as Andersen.
Most appropriate Twitter handle: Nebraska’s Kenny Bell (@AFRO_THUNDER80). The 6-foot-1 receiver was probably the easiest player to pick out of a crowd, as his puffy afro towered over opposing players. Bell’s play didn’t earn him an award last season -- he was honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team -- but we just couldn’t go one more day without recognizing that 'fro.
Best-dressed coach: Penn State’s James Franklin. Every day, the head coach spends 22 minutes to shave his head in every direction and trim that goatee ... so it seems slightly surprising that he is probably the coach who spends the most time on his head, considering he’s bald. But, hey, it takes time to pull that look off -- and he was also looking dapper with that Penn State lapel, blue tie and matching pocket square. Franklin often jokes that he doesn’t need to sleep, so maybe he uses some of that extra time to pick out the right clothes.
James Franklin and our Josh Moyer are sharing head shaving techniques. Seriously. pic.twitter.com/S7iVnnNvo9— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) July 28, 2014
Quote of the day: Penn State linebacker Mike Hull has learned under three head coaches -- Joe Paterno, Bill O'Brien and Franklin -- during his career, and their personalities really couldn’t have been any different. Hull laughed while providing their takes on social media as an example.
“Yeah, I’ve seen the whole evolution,” he said. “Joe didn’t know what Facebook was, O’Brien called Facebook ‘Spacebook’ and, now, Coach Franklin probably has every social media there is to have. It’s crazy.”
Most Big Ten quote: “How are you going to approach the Rose Bowl?” -- Michigan coach Brady Hoke, lamenting some aspects of the College Football Playoff in years, like this season, when the Granddaddy of Them All is to serve as a national semifinal game. Hoke suggested that some of the pageantry associated with the game -- for instance, the Beef Bowl team competition at Lawry’s, a prime rib restaurant in Beverly Hills -- will be eliminated because of the high stakes and need for a regular game-week regimen. Of the traditional Rose Bowl, Hoke added: “It’s the greatest experience in America for kids.”
Most Iowa quote (maybe ever): “Sometimes, old school is a good school.” -- Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz on his program’s resistance to some of the offensive innovation that has swept college football.
Best quote about a player not in attendance: “I don’t like standing too close to him because it seems like the wind is always blowing through his hair. When he smiles, this little thing comes off his tooth like in the toothpaste commercial.” -- Penn State coach James Franklin on sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
- Additional filings are due today in the Northwestern labor dispute.
- Braxton Miller is not yet 100 percent, but Urban Meyer says he's close.
- Wisconsin's Chris Borland is ready to prove NFL naysayers wrong.
- An All-American wrestler at Maryland will try his hand at playing defensive line for the Terrapins this fall.
- Illinois is paying out some big money to future opponents.
- Iowa fans shouldn't fret over recruiting losses, Pat Harty writes. The Hawkeyes top the Big Ten Network's ranking of the league's offensive lines.
- A late addition to the Gophers' 2014 recruiting class won't be coming to Minnesota after all. Jerry Kill made this list of underrated coaches.
- Rutgers athletic director Julie Hermann is trying to win over Tim Pernetti loyalists.
- Ranking the five most important Penn State players for 2014.
- Former Michigan running back Thomas Rawls has transferred to Central Michigan.
- What Rutgers can expect in its new home. Ten reasons for the Scarlet Knights to be excited.
- Who will be Maryland's rival in the Big Ten?
- Braxton Miller has been working hard this summer -- even on Friday nights.
- Can Kenny Bell still get loose deep for Nebraska?
- Top Minnesota recruit Jeff Jones is still academically ineligible, putting his status for this season in doubt.
- Michigan's 2015 class is filling up fast. The Wolverines' defense needs to go from good to great.
- Who would be on Iowa's quarterback Mt. Rushmore?
- A closer look at Penn State's linebacker corps.
- Former Wisconsin players are in favor of boosting scholarships.
- A Florida linebacker committed to Purdue.
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.
Steele had Bennett and Calhoun on his first team, Gregory and Bosa on his second team and Davis on his third team. Like Athlon, he lists Gordon as a first-team running back and Abdullah on the second team. It's interesting to see Calhoun getting a bit more love than Gregory, even though Gregory led the Big Ten in sacks and is projected as a higher draft pick.
Not sure about you, but I can't wait for Calhoun and Gregory to share the field Oct. 4 at Spartan Stadium, or for longtime friends Gordon and Abdullah to match up on Nov. 15 at Camp Randall Stadium. Both matchups should be fun to watch all season.
It's not unusual for defensive line and running back to headline the Big Ten. Both positions historically are strong in the league, especially defensive line. A potential concern is that only one quarterback -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller -- and zero wide receivers make any of Athlon's teams. Steele has two Big Ten wideouts, Maryland's Stefon Diggs and Michigan's Devin Funchess (has played tight end but listed as a receiver), on his third team. Still, it's clear these are two positions where the Big Ten continues to need upgrades.
Other Athlon preseason All-America selections include: Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff (second team), Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman (third team), Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond (third team), Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston (third team), Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan (fourth team), Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes (fourth team) and Northwestern punt returner Venric Mark (fourth team).
The Big Ten is tied with the Pac-12 for third among overall Athlon All-America selections with 18, trailing both the ACC (27) and SEC (26).
As we mentioned over and over again at the top of those posts, indispensable doesn't necessarily translate into "best." It means the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/shrunk by Rick Moranis, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.
- Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: The Buckeyes got to see what life without Miller would look like this spring while he was recovering from shoulder surgery. They hope that was merely a drill. The senior is the two-time, defending Big Ten offensive player of the year, and backups Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett have no real experience. Without Miller, Ohio State could easily fall from national championship contender to Big Ten also-ran.
- Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State: Hackenberg threw for nearly 3,000 yards as a true freshman and will again be the focal point of the Nittany Lions' offense this season. There's also a severe lack of experience behind him, with Penn State likely needing to turn to true freshman Michael O'Connor or a walk-on should something unfortunate happen to its young star.
- Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska: The Cornhuskers' defense simply wouldn't be the same without Gregory, who led the Big Ten in sacks (10.5) and tied for second in tackles for loss (17.5) last season. With the other defensive end position a little bit of a question mark and young players being counted on at tackle, Gregory's tremendous pass-rushing skills are a necessity for Nebraska to contend for the West Division title and beyond.
- Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State: After finally finding some stability at quarterback, the last thing the Spartans want to do is go through another carousel at the position. Tyler O'Connor and redshirt freshman Damion Terry could provide decent replacement options. But Cook's poise and confidence helped take Michigan State to another level last season -- a Rose Bowl-winning level.
- Brandon Scherff, LT, Iowa: The Hawkeyes know how to develop offensive linemen, so they'd probably find someone to fill Scherff's shoes. But how well? The senior enters the season as the best lineman in the Big Ten and is integral to everything Iowa wants to do on offense. Losing the likely 2015 first-round NFL draft pick for any significant stretch this season would likely reverberate throughout Kirk Ferentz's team this fall.
Which of these players is the most indispensable to his team's fortunes in 2014? Vote now in our poll.
Of course, he’s not the only Big Ten player to ever enter his senior year with big expectations. In the past 20 years, six other conference players earned Heisman votes before their final seasons and were preseason candidates a season later. (Thirteen non-seniors in all earned votes, but seven left early for the NFL draft. Another, Northwestern's Damien Anderson, played in just eight games the season after and isn't listed below.)
Although it’s still anyone’s guess exactly how Miller will fare this season, here’s a look at players who found themselves in similar positions and how they performed in the season after receiving Heisman votes:
Heisman votes as a junior: 22 first-place votes; finished fourth overall. Led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards (6.3 yards per carry) and also finished with an NCAA-best 33 rushing TDs.
How he fared the next year: Without quarterback Russell Wilson, some experts predicted Ball would struggle to equal the numbers from his junior campaign. Sure enough, with a rotating quarterback carousel, that’s exactly what happened. The Badgers threw just 289 times that season and Ball finished with a career-high 356 carries. Ball’s importance and talent were still undeniable but, as defenses zeroed in against him, he watched his yards-per-carry average fall by more than a yard.
How the team fared: Wisconsin leaned on Ball heavily -- just take a look at this box score against Utah State -- and fared well when it counted. The Badgers won the Big Ten championship, embarrassing Nebraska in a 70-31 blowout, and earned a spot in the Rose Bowl. They finished 8-6.
Heisman votes as a sophomore: Six first-place votes; finished sixth overall. Went 182-of-291 passing (62.5 percent) for 2,570 yards, 18 TDs and 11 INTs; rushed for 1,702 yards (6.6 ypc) and 14 TDs.
How he fared the next year: Speculation swirled on whether Robinson would transfer before the season because the firing of Rich Rodriguez meant he had to deal a new coaching staff and some offensive changes. But Robinson stayed and performed well – even if his numbers decreased across the board. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was able to take some pressure off Robinson, and the change in statistics wasn’t dramatic. After all, Robinson still rushed for more than 1,000 yards and passed for more than 2,000. It wasn’t as impressive as 2010, but Robinson was still named team MVP and earned a spot on the All-Big Ten second team.
How the team fared: Michigan fans were just fine with Robinson’s drop-off because the team soared in Brady Hoke’s first season. Robinson guided the Wolverines to an 11-2 finish -- their best record in five years -- and helped Michigan win the Sugar Bowl.
Heisman votes as a junior: Five first-place votes; finished fifth overall. Finished second in the B1G with 1,562 yards (4.9 ypc) and had 14 rushing TDs
How he fared the next year: Hart became a team captain and turned in an even stronger performance. If it wasn’t for an ankle injury that sidelined him for three full games, Hart likely would’ve been in the Heisman race again. Through nine Michigan games, he led all BCS runners with 154 yards a game – and he was still a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and a consensus pick as first-team All-Big Ten. Overall, his importance was pretty difficult to ignore. After opening the season with two losses, Hart helped to shift the tone by guaranteeing a win against Notre Dame – Michigan won 38-0 –and then winning eight straight. He finished the year with 5.1 ypc and matched his 14-touchdown total despite carrying the ball 53 fewer times.
How the team fared: The Wolverines put an early end to their national title hopes by losing to Appalachian State in the opener. Michigan failed to repeat its Rose Bowl berth but rebounded after a slow start to go 9-4 and win the Capital One Bowl.
Heisman votes as a junior: Three first-place votes; finished fourth overall. Led the conference in every major passing category: passing yards (3,909), passing TDs (25), pass attempts (554) and pass completions (337) and threw 12 interceptions.
How he fared the next year: Brees’ consistency was pretty darn impressive, as all of his numbers were nearly identical even though Purdue didn't have much of a running game. He again led the Big Ten in those same statistical categories and improved his standing in the Heisman race -- he finished third as a senior with 69 first-place votes. Plus, he won the Maxwell Award and was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Brees’ success is pretty well documented, but something fans might have forgotten: He rushed for 521 yards and 5.5 yards per carry as a senior. Brees really could do it all.
How the team fared: The Boilermakers shared the Big Ten title and improved their victory total from the year before, from 7-5 to 8-4. They earned a berth in the Rose Bowl.
Heisman votes as a sophomore: 87 first-place votes; finished fourth overall. Led the NCAA with 387 rushing attempts and had 1,785 yards (4.6 ypc) and 17 TDs; caught 27 passes for 168 yards and one score.
How he fared the next year: Autry fared a bit better in 1996, as Northwestern’s passing attack improved and defenses could no longer key on him. In 1995, he literally accounted for half of the offense’s total yards (1,953 of 3,916). In 1996, he carried the ball 107 fewer times – his 280 attempts were still the fourth-highest in the conference -- but he matched his 17 rushing TDs from the previous season and increased his average by more than a half-yard, up to 5.2 yards per carry. He dropped a bit in the Heisman voting, but that was mostly because his rushing yards dropped with a smaller workload. Autry still dominated.
How the team fared: Northwestern shared the Big Ten title and improved its record to 9-3 – but lost in the Citrus Bowl. Autry’s Wildcats shocked the B1G that October when they overcame a 16-0 deficit against Michigan by rallying in the fourth quarter.
These are drives in the fourth quarter or overtime that put the winning team ahead for good.
Only 10 other returning FBS signal-callers have directed more than one such drive. Navy's Keenan Reynolds, who faces Miller and Ohio State on Aug. 30 in the season opener, is second nationally with five.
Today's poll question asks: Other than Ohio State's Miller, which Big Ten quarterback will be best in leading game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime this season?
The candidates ...
C.J. Brown, Maryland: Brown is one of the more experienced returning quarterbacks in the league. He will have two of the league's best receivers, Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, at his disposal as both return from leg injuries. Maryland has depth at both receiver and running back, which helps when trying to orchestrate late-game drives. Plus, Brown boasts good mobility with 1,162 career rush yards and 17 touchdowns.
Connor Cook, Michigan State: The Spartans stifling defense allowed Cook to play from ahead most of last season, but he made plenty of big throws at key moments. Cook enjoys the spotlight -- he earned MVP honors at both the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl -- and returns most of his receiving corps, led by senior Tony Lippett. He doesn't shy away from big moments and boasts better-than average mobility in the pocket.
Christian Hackenberg, Penn State: Hackenberg showed against Michigan last season that he can deliver in pressure situations. Arguably no Big Ten quarterback has more natural passing ability, and Hackenberg should be even better with age. He needs help at receiver after Allen Robinson's departure, and Penn State's offensive line must hold up with likely only one returning starter (left tackle Donovan Smith).
Jake Rudock, Iowa: Like Hackenberg, Rudock showed what he could do in a big moment last year against Northwestern, firing the winning touchdown pass in overtime. He should benefit from a full offseason as the starter, and most likely a deeper and more explosive receiving corps. Rudock is smart, steady and not easy rattled. One potential drawback is Iowa likely will play gunslinger C.J. Beathard in certain situations.
Nate Sudfeld, Indiana: Before Wednesday, there was a dilemma about whether Sudfeld or Tre Roberson would lead potential game-winning drives for the Hoosiers. But Roberson's somewhat surprising transfer clears the way for Sudfeld to take full command of the offense. Sudfeld has a big arm and operates in an offense that can score point in a hurry. Wide receiver/tight end is a bit of question mark for IU after the departures of Cody Latimer, Kofi Hughes and Ted Bolser.
Let's begin ...
Virgel from Valdosta, Ga., writes: Adam, do you think that if this season ends the Tim Beckman era at Illinois, they would go after a high-profile coach on the bench right now, like a Mack Brown? Your thoughts?
Adam Rittenberg: Interesting thought, Virgel, as it's hard to know where athletic director Mike Thomas would turn. He has a track record of hiring MAC coaches -- Butch Jones, Brian Kelly, Beckman -- but I'd be shocked if he went that route again. Brown will be 62 in August, has a ton of money and likely a lengthy TV career ahead, so I'm not sure how much he would want to coach again. And if he did, for how long?
Illinois doesn't want to keep changing coaches. But thinking outside the box could be a good approach. Or Thomas could hire a guy like Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who is ready to lead a major-conference program.
Adam Rittenberg: Man, I love that Canadian spelling. This would be a fascinating scenario, Kyle. A lot depends on what happens in other conferences and how the Big Ten performs in marquee nonleague games. But I don't think Iowa makes the playoff with a loss in the league championship game, primarily because of the seemingly soft regular-season schedule.
In this scenario, Ohio State would have a road win against a preseason top-10 team in Michigan State. The Buckeyes also play Virginia Tech in nonleague play. Will the Michigan home win help or hurt Ohio State? How much credit will Iowa get for beating Wisconsin and Nebraska at home? All these questions factor into the playoff decision. Ultimately, I doubt the Big Ten gets two teams into the initial playoff. Fairly or unfairly, the league will pay for its recent shortcomings. But Ohio State has a better chance as a one-loss team than Iowa.
Adam Rittenberg: Interesting idea, Dave, as this proposal appears to create more historical balance than the current East-West alignment. But if you look at the Big Ten's recent expansion, the idea is to live in a second region along the East Coast. It's not a northern expansion but an eastern one. Another factor to consider is geography. Nebraska would be a major outlier in the South division -- nearly an eight-hour drive from its closest division competitor (Illinois) and a loooong way from Ohio State, Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers. Would Husker fans care? Maybe, maybe not. They would get annual games with both Penn State and Ohio State.
I like how your proposal satisfies the Iowa-Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry triangle/dilemma, but it also would require at least one extra protected crossover, Ohio State-Michigan, which would reduce the overall schedule rotation for two of the league's marquee programs. I definitely see value in the North-South model, but East-West is here, at least for now.
Adam Rittenberg: Good question, David, and there's not a great answer yet as this trend remains somewhat new. The number of early enrollees really spiked in the 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes. Not surprisingly, there is some evidence that early enrollees are contributing faster in their careers than those who arrive in the summer. We've seen examples in the Big Ten such as Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton, who earned a starting job as a true freshman. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller enrolled early and has started since the middle of his freshman season.
Then again, a 2009 ranking of top early enrollee groups showed more misses (Tate Forcier, Kevin Newsome, Will Campbell) than hits (Gerald Hodges) in the Big Ten. Penn State had seven early enrollees in 2010 but only one, running back Silas Redd, became a star for the Lions.
Of the Big Ten's last seven Freshman of the Year recipients, just two -- Ohio State's Miller and Illinois' Arrelious Benn -- were early enrollees. So it's hard to draw clear conclusions.
Adam Rittenberg: There are some very valid points in Bacon's story, especially about rising ticket prices. As Ohio State AD Gene Smith recently told me, "The reality is a lot of our ticket pricing, some of us are at the top of the pyramid." And it seems like the branding push, especially in the Big Ten, is turning off some fans. Has the sport sold its soul in some ways? No doubt. Is branding too much of a priority in the Big Ten, which makes a lot of money but doesn't really win anything? There's a case to be made. ADs are devoting a lot of energy to improving the gameday experience, but two solutions are pretty simple: scheduling better opponents and charging less for tickets.
ESPN's Mel Kiper has produced lists of top prospects at quarterback, defensive end, running back and defensive tackle. If Kiper's projections prove true, it will be a very good draft for the Big Ten, which hasn't had a top-10 pick since 2008, when Michigan tackle Jake Long went No. 1 overall.
Check out each of Kiper's lists on ESPN Insider for more detailed analysis, but here's where the Big Ten players stack up.
- Ohio State's Braxton Miller is the No. 3 senior (behind Baylor's Bryce Petty and Oregon State's Sean Mannion)
- Michigan State's Connor Cook is the No. 4 junior
- Nebraska's Randy Gregory is the No. 1 junior
- Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun is the No. 3 junior
- Michigan's Frank Clark and Purdue's Ryan Russell are among the three seniors tied for the No. 5 spot
- Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah is the No. 1 senior
- Michigan State's Jeremy Langford is the No. 3 senior
- Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon is the No. 2 junior (behind Georgia's Todd Gurley)
What do you think about the Big Ten projections?
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.
The college football guru packs a tremendous amount of information and research into his preseason magazines. And Steele has released his choices for the 2014 All-Big Ten team, which you can find here.
Steele sees newcomers Maryland and Rutgers bringing some talent into the league quickly, as he has two Terrapins (wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long) and two Scarlet Knights (guard Kaleb Johnson and linebacker Steve Longa) on the first team. ... A mild surprise on the first team is Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones, who will attempt to take over the middle spot from Max Bullough this year. ... The first-team defensive line is absolutely loaded, with Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, and Ohio State's Michael Bennett and Joey Bosa. Iowa's Carl Davis and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran were relegated to second-team status. ... Speaking of the second team, Steele puts Northwestern wide receiver Kyle Prater there, apparently expecting big things at long last from the former USC transfer. ... Steele also has Ohio State's Dontre Wilson and Devin Smith breaking out as second-team All-Big Ten receivers. ... Penn State fans might be a bit miffed to see Christian Hackenberg as only the third-team quarterback. Michigan State's Connor Cook is Steele's choice for second-team QB, with Braxton Miller obviously No. 1. ... Michigan State leads the way with five players on Steele's first-team offense and defense. Ohio State has four, while Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan each have three.
Steele also has released his preseason All-America team, which includes some familiar Big Ten names. Here's a quick rundown:
Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
Ohio State DT Michael Bennett
Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun
Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah
Iowa OT Brandon Scherff
Nebraska DE Randy Gregory
Ohio State DE Joey Bosa
Iowa PR Kevonte Martin-Manley
Ohio State QB Braxton Miller
Maryland WR Stefon Diggs
Michigan WR Devin Funchess
Iowa DT Carl Davis
Michigan LB Jake Ryan
Michigan State CB Trae Waynes
Michigan State S Kurtis Drummond
Illinois PR V'Angelo Bentley
Indiana LS Matt Dooley
Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford
Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman
Wisconsin OT Rob Havenstein
Northwestern RB/KR Venric Mark
By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/ran away with the circus, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.
We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. The Ohio State Buckeyes are up next in the rundown.
Braxton Miller, QB, senior
This might be the most obvious choice in the league. It's not just that Miller owns more accolades than any Big Ten standout, winning the league's offensive player of the year award in each of the past two seasons. Or that he boasts 8,346 career offensive yards with 84 touchdowns. Ohio State's new-look offensive line and the departure of battering-ram running back Carlos Hyde puts even more of an emphasis on the quarterback position. While reserves Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett are still developing, spring practice showed that neither is ready to take over and provide the threat Miller does every time he touches the football. There's no Kenny G on the roster. If Ohio State had last year's offensive line, Hyde back in the fold and a few more certainties at receiver, Miller's presence might not be quite as critical. But if he's not out there when the season rolls around, Ohio State immediately falls from the ranks of playoff contenders.
Doran Grant, CB, junior
I considered putting offensive tackle Taylor Decker or one of the returning linebackers, but Ohio State's secondary is the group undoubtedly in the spotlight when the season kicks off. The departures of cornerback Bradley Roby and safety C.J. Barnett leave Grant as the only full-time starter back from the 2013 team. Grant is Ohio State's only returning defender to start in all 14 games last season, and he recorded 58 tackles, three interceptions, 10 pass breakups, a forced fumble and a blocked kick. He moves into Roby's role on the boundary and will cover the top opposing wideouts this season. New co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash identified Grant and safety Tyvis Powell as two obvious leaders coming out of the spring. Although Ohio State has several young, talented defensive backs, Grant's presence looms large as the secondary tries to rebound this year.
Quarterbacks who throw for 3,000 yards in the Big Ten aren't quite as rare as, say, a snow leopard, but they don't come around all that frequently, either. After all, this is a league associated with three yards and a cloud of dust, not 3,000 yards and a chem trail.
But the passing game continues to take on more and more importance throughout college football, and the conference is not immune despite producing just one 3,000-yard passer in each of the past two seasons (Penn State's Matt McGloin in 2012, Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase in 2013). Who might reach that prestigious mark in 2014? Let's take our best guesses, in order of most likely:
- Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (2,955 passing yards in 2013): Hackenberg very nearly got to the 3k level as a true freshman, which is all the more remarkable considering the Nittany Lions didn't have the benefit of a bowl game. He probably won't get a 13th game again this season barring an NCAA surprise but should continue to improve as a sophomore and is the most gifted young quarterback in the Big Ten. The big question mark is whether his young receiving corps and a thin offensive line can help him out.
- Devin Gardner, Michigan (2,960): For all the faults people found in Gardner's game in 2013, he still almost reached 3,000 yards and would have certainly done so had he been healthy for the bowl game. He won't have favorite target Jeremy Gallon around and just about everybody else on offense is young. But he has shown he can put up big numbers when he's healthy and protecting the ball.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Charlie NeibergallDespite some struggles, Michigan's Devin Gardner almost hit the 3,000-yard passing mark in 2013.
- Connor Cook, Michigan State (2,755): Cook never had a 300-yard passing day before the Big Ten championship game; then he turned in two straight in winning MVP honors in Indianapolis and again in the Rose Bowl. A 14-game schedule helped get him close to 3,000 yards, but don't forget that he didn't begin the season as the starter or gain the coaches' confidence until late September. He'll have a lot more on his plate this season, and the junior could gobble up some major yardage.
- C.J. Brown, Maryland (2,242): Brown arguably has the best two wide receivers in the Big Ten if -- and this is a big, blaring, neon if -- Stefon Diggs and Deon Long stay healthy. Avoiding injury is also a big key for Brown, who missed a pair of games last season. But the senior could be poised for a massive season if everything breaks right.
- Wes Lunt, Illinois (1,108 yards for Oklahoma State): Lunt has yet to throw a pass for the Fighting Illini and hasn't played a down in two years. Yet he showed his immense potential as a true freshman for the Cowboys in 2012, and Bill Cubit's offense provides tremendous opportunities for quarterbacks to put up numbers (see Scheelhaase last season). Lunt still has to officially win the job, and the team must find playmakers at receiver. But who in the world thought Scheelhaase would lead the Big Ten in passing in 2013 this time last year?
- Nate Sudfeld (2,523) or Tre Roberson (1,128), Indiana: If we believed either of these guys would hold the job full-time all season, a 3,000-yard season would be a no-brainer. The Hoosiers have juggled quarterbacks the past two years, with their signal-callers combining to go over 3,000 yards both seasons behind a prolific passing attack. Alas, you never quite know who will take the snaps or when Kevin Wilson will decide to make a change. Sudfeld is a better bet as a 3,000-yard passer since Roberson brings more of a running element to the table, but either could post sky-high stats if given the reins every Saturday.
- Trevor Siemian, Northwestern (2,149): Siemian surpassed 2,000 yards last season despite splitting time at quarterback with Kain Colter. Now that the job is his alone, the Wildcats should become much more of a passing team to suit his skills. That could equal a big-time bump in Siemian's numbers.
- Gary Nova, Rutgers (2,159): The first thing Nova has to do is stop throwing the ball to the other team, as he did 14 times in just 10 games last season. And he has to, you know, secure the job in the Scarlet Knights' quarterback derby. But he threw for nearly 2,700 yards in 2012, and now gets renowned quarterback guru Ralph Friedgen to guide him. So it's possible he could finally put it all together.
- Braxton Miller, Ohio State (2,094): Miller would need to improve his numbers by almost 1,000 yards, and that's after a 14-game season by the Buckeyes. But he did miss basically three full games last season, and Ohio State wants to become a more dangerous downfield passing team. The senior missed spring practice with a shoulder injury but has worked hard on his mechanics. Don't put anything past the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year.
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.