Ohio State Buckeyes: Chris Ash

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

May, 28, 2014
May 28
5:00
PM ET
Only one mailbag from me this week because of the holiday. Let's make it a good one (instead of the usual, wholly adequate ones):


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.


Ron from Michigan writes: Brian, I would say Michigan's most indispensable defensive player has to be cornerback Blake Countess. He's great in coverage and had a lot of interceptions last season which contributed to helping the offense as well. Did you at least put him in the mix for consideration?

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.


Clint C. via Twitter writes: Can the Hawkeyes finally get over the hump and finish in the top two this year in the Big Ten?

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.


Luke B. via Twitter writes: What is IU's realistic ceiling for 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.


Connor M. via Twitter writes: After losing 4/5 of their O-line and 3/4 of their DBs, can the Buckeyes' skill position players and defensive front seven hold it down until those groups come along?

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.


Joe H. Florida writes: Brian, I have been to both Minneanoplace and the Big Guava (Tampa). You need to get out more if you think Tampa can't compare to the Twin Cities.

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.

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

May, 27, 2014
May 27
5:00
PM ET
You ask, I attempt to answer. I ask, you follow us on Twitter. Deal? Good.

To the inbox ...

Lance from Greensboro, N.C., writes: Your answer to Rajiv highlights the problems with the so-called "playoff". If all five power conference champions ran the table, one of them would HAVE to be left out.

Adam Rittenberg: That's true, Lance, but it's also extremely unlikely. Let's look at how many power-conference teams (or Notre Dame) ended the regular season (including league title games) with perfect records during the past 10 seasons. For these purposes, I'm including any team that will be in a power conference in the 2014 season.

Here's the list:

2013: Florida State
2012: Notre Dame
2011: LSU
2010: Auburn, Oregon
2009: Alabama, Texas (Boise State and Cincinnati were not in power conferences in 2014)
2008: Utah (Boise State also undefeated)
2007: None
2006: Ohio State (Boise State also undefeated)
2005: USC, Texas
2004: USC, Oklahoma, Auburn (Boise State also undefeated)

As you can see, the chances of five undefeated teams from power conferences in the same season -- much less three -- is highly unlikely. The playoff will be more about which one-loss teams are most deserving. If you run the table in a Group of Five conference, you should be in.


John from Kansas City, Missouri, writes: It seems that Iowa is at that point in [Kirk] Ferentz's "cycle" where they have the unusual combination of experience and talent. They also have a very favorable schedule, leaving the traditional powers from the east off the slate. Let's say this Iowa team clicks and has a 10-, 11- or 12-win regular season and makes it to the B1G championship. Does Iowa get the praise and credit of being back at the top of the conference or does the success get written off as a product of the weak schedule?

Adam Rittenberg: John, it's probably not what you want to hear, but I think you would hear a lot about Iowa's schedule. It would depend a lot on what Nebraska and Wisconsin do in their games before visiting Kinnick Stadium in late November. We know at least one of them will have a loss as they meet Nov. 15 in Madison, but it would help Iowa if one or both are ranked in the top 10 when they come to Iowa City. Otherwise, Iowa likely will gain national credibility only by beating a team like Michigan State or Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game. It could feel a lot like 2009, when Iowa kept winning but didn't receive much love outside the Big Ten footprint.


Louie Louie from Evanston, Ill., writes: Why do people think Northwestern is going to be bad next year? Do people really think that last year was a return to the mean rather than a fluke year? I think Trevor Siemian is underrated - I think he's still one of the best pure passers in the Big Ten; the running back corps is underrated with Venric Mark, Treyvon Green and Stephen Buckley, among others. The wide receiver corps is among the best in the B1G and the secondary has a host of experience. Of course, the big problems are the offensive line and the interior defensive line, but it's not like the teams on its schedule are particularly great. I'm predicting at least a seven-win season, more likely eight wins.

Adam Rittenberg: Louie, part of the low expectations can be traced to a 5-7 season combined with the unionization issue, which many believe could splinter the team. But part of the expectations also can be traced to folks not doing their homework. Northwestern had everything go wrong last season and still was two plays away from being 7-5. The roster doesn't turn over significantly, and the defense could be the best in Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. If the lines hold up, this team should win at least six games and possibly eight or nine.

I disagree with you about the schedule: While Northwestern misses Michigan State and Ohio State, its nonleague schedule features Notre Dame, Cal and Northern Illinois, and its home schedule (Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan) isn't particularly easy. But if Northwestern remains relatively healthy, it should be in most games and win more than it did during a disastrous 2013 season.


Scott from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Which plays a bigger role in the success of the Buckeyes this season? 1) O-line; 2) defensive back seven?

Adam Rittenberg: Scott, normally when an offensive line loses four starters, the group automatically becomes the biggest question mark on the team and, in turn, will shape success or failure. But I have enough faith in Ohio State offensive line coach Ed Warinner, one of the best in the country, to get his revamped group ready for the season. The Buckeyes will move the ball and score points.

The back seven on defense is the bigger issue because teams repeatedly attacked them late in the 2013 season. I really like the Chris Ash hire to boost the secondary, and the talent is there for a rebound. But I wonder about the depth. The defensive line should be dominant at times, but teams will find holes if Ohio State doesn't improve on the back end. The development of the linebackers and secondary will have more bearing on Ohio State's success.


Austin from Camp Hill writes: Which B1G draft pick do you foresee making the biggest impact in his first year at the next level?

Adam Rittenberg: I really like linebacker Ryan Shazier with Pittsburgh. He had a very productive junior season at Ohio State but can get so much better with his skill set. He should thrive in the Steelers' defense, which has had success with other Big Ten standouts. I also think Darqueze Dennard fits in really well at Cincinnati, which got a steal by drafting him at No. 24. There are some concerns about whether he'll be an elite corner and master zone coverage, but his aggressiveness and coachability should translate really well with the Bengals. You want a sleeper pick? I really like safety Brock Vereen with the Chicago Bears.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Almost as soon as it arrived, spring camp at Ohio State wrapped up. Time isn't likely to fly by quite as quickly in the offseason with the summer months sure to drag by until the 2014 campaign finally opens in August. The Buckeyes have plenty of work to do to get ready for their debut against Navy on Aug. 30, and to help pass the time, we're looking at some of the most pressing positional questions they'll have to answer to make another run at a championship.

Was the spring injury a setback for Vonn Bell?

[+] EnlargeVonn Bell
Zach Bolinger/Icon SMIVonn Bell, who is a likely starter in the Ohio State secondary in 2014, missed spring practice with a knee injury.
Bell finally had the big stage and an opportunity that was even bigger to show why he was such a coveted recruit. The Ohio State safety certainly made the most of it with an eye-popping, one-handed interception in the Discover Orange Bowl that only raised the expectations moving into his sophomore season.

There was another chance to impress waiting for him in spring practice, with a new coach in the secondary ready to watch him and a fresh, aggressive scheme that seems perfectly suited to capitalize on his athleticism. But this time the result wasn't the same, as a fluke injury on the opening day of workouts ended his camp shortly after it started.

Bell is expected to be a full participant in the offseason program after undergoing minor knee surgery, but there's no question he would have benefited from the live reps he missed during March and April. After spending so much of his first year of the program in a reserve role, Bell would have had no shortage of snaps to work on his technique, absorb the system and make sure that co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash headed into the summer as sold on Bell's ability as the rest of the staff was during a heated recruiting battle for his services.

Ash, of course, has seen the film from the Orange Bowl and is obviously aware of the physical tools Bell can bring to the lineup alongside Tyvis Powell in the reworked secondary. And while Ash didn't express any concerns about the absence during practice, with fellow rising sophomore Cam Burrows helping fill the void during spring, it seems safe to assume that everybody would have benefited from having Bell healthy during the spring and pointing toward the fall.

"From a physical standpoint, yeah, it’s too bad that he’s not out there," Ash said. "But does it hurt us? No, it’s next man in. Cam Burrows has stepped in, taking advantage of the opportunity, and done a great job. Vonn will be healthy soon and we’re going to have a great competition for those safety positions.

"Would Vonn benefit from the opportunities? Absolutely. Is he going to hurt himself because of it? Not necessarily."

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

Who will line up opposite Doran Grant?

[+] EnlargeDoran Grant
Jason Mowry/Icon SMIDoran Grant is set as a starter at one cornerback spot, but the other starting CB spot is still open.
Bradley Roby, a first-round NFL draft pick is gone, yet there hardly seemed to be any hand-wringing about filling that hole at cornerback. But with Grant sliding seamlessly into Bradley Roby's spot in the secondary after a season that occasionally featured him outperforming his higher-profile teammate, that still leaves a vacancy for new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash to fill as he installs his system to slow down the pass.

The Buckeyes didn't show much concern about plugging that spot during spring practice, either, though they left camp without a resolution as to which candidate is best suited for a starting job and an integral role in repairing what was a leaky pass defense a year ago.

One candidate is rising junior Armani Reeves, who has proven himself as a serviceable option at a minimum and showed flashes of being more than that with 26 tackles, eight passes defended, an interception and a forced fumble last season. And right there beside him is a redshirt freshman whose name was seemingly always on the lips of Urban Meyer in March and April, as Gareon Conley is pushing hard for first-team reps.

Since Meyer arrived, the Buckeyes have had perhaps more success than any team in the nation in targeting and recruiting cornerbacks, with Conley leading an influx of talent that also includes another touted redshirt freshman in Eli Apple and incoming recruits Marshon Lattimore and Damon Webb to supply even more depth in the back end. With Grant as the only cornerback on the roster with his spot solidified on the depth chart, there will be no shortage of competition when August rolls around, and the business of shoring up that pass defense becomes even more serious ahead of the opener against Navy on Aug. 30.

Leaving spring, Reeves and Conley seemed to be waging a two-man battle for a starting job, though both of them figure to be heavily involved in the nickel and dime packages regardless of how that fight to start shakes out in training camp. But the Buckeyes will eventually need to settle on one guy to partner with Grant, and for now, they're still waiting to come up with an answer.
Spring practice in the Big Ten has sadly come to an end, and we're both back home after some trips around the conference. Wednesday, we shared out thoughts on the Big Ten's West Division, and now it's time to turn our focus to the beast known as the East.

Brian dropped in on Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana, and Adam stopped by Penn State.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's begin with your trip to the Mitten State. You made your first stop in Ann Arbor, where Michigan was wrapping up its first spring with new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Michigan's top priority is the offense and fixing the line. What did you gather about the unit, and how are the changes on the defense -- player positions and coaching roles -- working out?

[+] EnlargeDoug Nussmeier
AP Photo/Tony DingNew OC Doug Nussmeier's top priority is fixing Michigan's offensive line.
Brian Bennett: Things definitely seem a lot smoother on defense. Jake Ryan adopted quickly to playing middle linebacker, and James Ross III is talented enough to play anywhere. Mark Smith picked a good time to take over the defensive line, as he'll have a pair of senior ends in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer and some nice young talent to work with in Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry, etc. Throw Jabrill Peppers into the mix in the back end this summer, and this has a chance to be a very solid defense.

It's just a matter of whether the offense can keep up. The Wolverines are very young on that side of the ball, and the line is full of redshirt freshmen and sophomores right now. Mason Cole enrolled in January and was starting at left tackle in spring ball, which said a lot about the state of the position. Michigan's season likely depends on whether that O-line can come together and raise its collective level of play. There are some good-looking athletes at receiver and running back, but not many of them are proven. Many big questions remain in Ann Arbor.

AR: There are fewer questions at Michigan State. How did the defending Big Ten/Rose Bowl champs seem to be handling their success? And how are they replacing defensive standouts such as cornerback Darqueze Dennard?

BB: Several players told me they were sick of talking about the Rose Bowl, which is a good sign. I saw a team that could definitely repeat as Big Ten champions. The offense brings back most of its major pieces and will add new weapons suchas tight end Jamal Lyles and quarterback/athlete Damion Terry. The early-season scoring droughts of years past should not happen again this fall.

No doubt Pat Narduzzi's crew lost a lot -- four All-Big Ten defenders, plus both starting defensive tackles. Michigan State has a big experience gap to make up, especially at linebacker. But this is a program that just seems to reload on defense now and has recruited so well to its system. Guys like defensive tackle Joel Heath, defensive end Demetrius Cooper and safety Jalyn Powell all came on strong this spring. Three of the corners vying to replace Dennard had interceptions in the spring game. I have supreme confidence that Narduzzi will have this defense dominating again in 2014.

AR: Ohio State's defense has many more question marks after a rough 2013 campaign. The line should be terrific but how did the back seven look during your trip to Columbus? And how are new assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson fitting into the mix? What else stood out about the Buckeyes?

BB: In my eyes, this is one of the most intriguing teams anywhere. The Buckeyes are almost frightfully young on offense outside of Braxton Miller and are breaking in lots of new players at linebacker and in the secondary. Yet they also have some impressive looking athletes and more overall explosiveness than the previous two seasons under Urban Meyer. Ash is installing a quarters coverage look, but maybe even more important is the fact that the safeties can really run and cover now. The revamped offensive line is a big question mark, as is the inexperience at receiver and the linebacker spot. But when you see young guys like linebacker Raekwon McMillan and tailback Curtis Samuel running around, you realize there aren't a lot of Big Ten teams that look like the Buckeyes.

Adam, you made it up to State College to check in on Penn State and new coach James Franklin. What's the vibe like up there?

AR: Electric. The charismatic staff has quickly formed bonds with the players, some of whom knew Franklin from the recruiting process. The defense should be better under Bob Shoop's leadership, as long as the starters stay healthy. There's decent depth up front and safety Adrian Amos and cornerback Jordan Lucas anchor the secondary. Linebacker Mike Hull is embracing his role as the unit's leader. Christian Hackenberg can really spin the ball -- very impressive. But can PSU protect him? No Big Ten team, including Ohio State, has bigger issues along the offensive line. Running back Bill Belton looked great, and I like the depth at tight end. Franklin is realistic about the depth issues and knows his team can't afford many more injuries.

You also visited Indiana this spring. How did the Hoosiers look, especially on defense with new coordinator Brian Knorr?

BB: You know the drill. Indiana could make some real noise if it could actually, you know, stop anybody. Knorr has them playing a 3-4, and hey have some major beef inside with the defensive tackles in 325-pounders Darius Latham and Ralph Green III. Ten starters are back and some promising recruits are on the way, so there's more depth on defense than before. But it's still a major construction project, and the offense might lose a little of its big-play ability as it tries to replace three of its top four receivers from a season ago.

OK, lightning-round finish. I still see Michigan State and Ohio State as the heavy favorites here, with Penn State a dark horse if its O-line issues can be solved. What about you?

AR: MSU is the team to beat because of the quarterback and the track record on defense. Ohio State definitely is in that mix, too. Michigan remains young at spots but could contend with a serviceable run game. Offensive line is a huge issue in this division. Sleeper-wise, I wouldn't count out Penn State, Indiana or Maryland, which could be dynamic on offense if it finally stays healthy.


If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.

1. "I like my team."

2. "I'm glad we don't have a game tomorrow."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesPat Fitzgerald's Wildcats had to deal with a lot off the field this spring.
College coaches have recited those phrases in spring ball for decades. The 14 men leading Big Ten programs are no exceptions. But the standard spring sentiments apply to the league more this year than most.

There are reasons to believe the Big Ten will be better this fall, but the work is far from over on most campuses. This isn't a league of finished products, and the coming months take on added importance before the 2014 season kicks off in late August.

"I don't think we're that far behind; it's just painfully obvious that we're not there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "This next phase will be the most important phase of this team's life. It's always important, but with a lot of things we've gone though, we've got to come together."

Northwestern went through a lot in the spring, mostly away from the field, as the campaign for a player union gained national media attention, especially after players were declared employees of the school in March. The team held a historic vote Friday, after Fitzgerald had expressed his opposition to unionizing. Some players expressed concern that the vote could split the team.

It will be months before we know if the union plan goes through, but the Wildcats continue preparing for a pivotal season. They found their quarterback this spring in senior Trevor Siemian and an offensive identity based around the passing game. But questions along both lines remain.

The spring also produced quarterback answers at Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner). Michigan's Devin Gardner had a rough spring game but still seems likely to retain his job. Another senior signal-caller, Rutgers' Gary Nova, is a good bet to remain atop the depth chart. Although Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong lacks Nova's or Gardner's experience, he exited spring just as he entered it: as the Huskers' top quarterback.

Indiana's platoon system of Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson frustrates some, but not coach Kevin Wilson, who has given every indication that he'll continue to use both for another season.

Other quarterback races have been reduced but not resolved. Illinois will pick between Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer who impressed for much of the spring, and veteran backup Reilly O'Toole. Coach Tim Beckman wants a resolution before two-a-day practices in August.

Purdue's Danny Etling, who started the final seven games of his freshman season, appeared to have a slight lead coming out of the spring, but coach Darrell Hazell isn't ready to declare a starter. So Austin Appleby and David Blough remain alive.

Wisconsin reduced its candidate pool from four to two as Joel Stave, who boasts 19 career starts but also a nagging throwing shoulder injury, will compete with dual-threat Tanner McEvoy in camp.

"It will be a fight," coach Gary Andersen said.

Quarterback is just one spot where Wisconsin has questions. The Badgers went through much of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. They've also revamped their defensive front seven, which returns only one starter from 2013.

[+] EnlargeRaekwon McMillan
Miller Safrit/ESPNEarly enrollee Raekwon McMillan could make an immediate impact for Ohio State's defense this fall.
Ohio State didn't have star quarterback Braxton Miller for spring ball because of shoulder surgery, but the Buckeyes focused on bolstering a defense that struggled last fall. Freshman Raekwon McMillan, an early enrollee, is pushing for the starting middle linebacker spot, and competition will continue at the cornerback spot opposite Doran Grant. Chris Ash, the Buckeyes' new co-defensive coordinator, worked to simplify the scheme this spring.

"We only have about six defensive calls," safety Tyvis Powell said after the spring game. "We had too many last year."

Offensive line remains Michigan's focal point coming out of the spring. A sloppy spring game didn't ease fears about the Wolverines' front five, although coach Brady Hoke saw positive signs in earlier practices. A critical summer awaits new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, tasked with resurrecting Michigan's run game.

At Penn State, new coach James Franklin continues to energize both players and fans. But he's also realistic about the depth challenge his team faces, particularly along the offensive line.

"When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues that you're going to have to overcome," Franklin said. "We don't."

Like Rutgers, Maryland began its Big Ten transition this spring and welcomed running back Wes Brown and wideout Marcus Leak after absences from the team. If the Terrapins finally stay healthy, they could be worth watching in a loaded East Division.

Sitting atop the division is defending Big Ten champ Michigan State. The Spartans had a relatively stress-free spring, but they must fill key spots on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where players like Taiwan Jones and Darian Hicks step in.

The returning pieces for teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin fuel optimism around the league. But in spring, optimism is always tempered by what lies ahead.

"We're improving," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday, "but we're hardly ready to play."

They won't have to for 132 days.

Until then, stay classy, Big Ten fans.


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer is always trying to find new ways to motivate his players.

Last spring, he had a banner put up in the Ohio State field house reading “The Chase …” in reference to the Buckeyes’ championship pursuits. Meyer said he thought about changing the display for the 2014 offseason. In the end, though, he stuck with the same one.

“We didn’t accomplish it,” Meyer told ESPN.com. “We chased it but didn’t catch it. So the chase is still on.”

Ohio State, of course, nearly made it to its desired finish line. After going 12-0 for the second straight season under Meyer, the Buckeyes just needed to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game to clinch a date with Florida State for the BCS national title. Instead, they fell 34-24 to the Spartans and closed the year on a two-game losing streak with a 40-35 setback against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteUrban Meyer says Ohio State is still trying to finish "The Chase."
So the chase continues, albeit with a much different-looking team in the 2014 starting gate. Gone is four-fifths of the offensive line that formed the backbone of the Big Ten’s top-scoring offense the past two seasons. Also gone are reigning Big Ten running back of the year Carlos Hyde and top receiver Corey “Philly” Brown, as well as the two biggest stars on defense -- linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby -- who opted to enter the NFL draft.

Experience is lacking in many key areas, but Meyer is ready to let some talented youngsters loose, including true freshmen. In retrospect, he wishes he had done so last year, when defensive end Joey Bosa and receiver Dontre Wilson were the only first-year players to make a big impact until safety Vonn Bell started in the Orange Bowl.

“We redshirted too many last year, and that was our fault,” he said. “There was a misunderstanding, and we just didn’t do a good job, especially on defense. When they show up on campus, we need to get them ready to play.”

This spring, early enrollees Raekwon McMillan (linebacker), Curtis Samuel (tailback) and Johnnie Dixon (receiver) were all heavily involved and have secured roles in the fall. Redshirt freshman are also at or near the top of the depth chart at strongside linebacker (Darron Lee and Chris Worley) and cornerback (Gareon Conley and Eli Apple), while true sophomores like safety Cam Burrows and tailback Ezekiel Elliott could force their way into the starting lineup.

“When you talk about inexperience, that’s a good thing right now,” said Chris Ash, who was hired from Arkansas as co-defensive coordinator to help fix Ohio State’s pass defense. “There aren’t a lot of habits that we have to change to fit what we’re trying to do. We don’t have older guys that are comfortable with where they’re at in their careers.”

An already young offense became even greener this spring because of injuries to three senior leaders: tight end Jeff Heuerman, receiver Evan Spencer and quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes will no doubt look a lot different when Miller returns from shoulder surgery. During the 15 spring practices, the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year often stood behind the offense and wore a camera on his head so coaches could go over what he was seeing on the field.

“We're exhausting every avenue and even inventing different avenues to make sure he's engaged and getting mental reps,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “We're doing the best we can with a bad situation. He has embraced it and is working his tail off, making sure he’s getting the most out of it.”

Herman says the Buckeyes should be more explosive on the perimeter this season, with guys like Wilson, Dixon, junior college transfer Corey Smith, sophomore Michael Thomas and freshman Jalin Marshall at receiver and a stable of athletic tailbacks. The safeties are longer and quicker than they have been in the past, and the defensive line -- which could be one of the nation’s best -- will have four starters who all used to be defensive ends.

The objective is clear: more speed. To that end, Meyer has hammered a new mantra in the players' heads: “4 to 6, A to B.” That means play hard for four to six seconds and get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. It's hard to interview an Ohio State player these days without hearing the phrase.

“That’s all he’s been preaching this spring.” defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “He said he’s not really worried about technique and all that stuff. It’s just about playing hard, because if you play hard, effort makes up for mistakes.”

Washington said the defense was greatly simplified this spring, with only about four or five different calls to learn. Aggressiveness trumped scheme.

“The culture of Ohio State is to go hard, not trick you,” Meyer said. “I just felt like there was too much stuff last year, instead of just going hard.”

By moving faster and playing harder, the Buckeyes hope to overcome their youth and track down what they've been hunting. They have been tantalizingly close.

“We’re still on a chase,” Washington said. “We’ve just got to finish it.”

Spring game preview: Ohio State

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
9:00
AM ET
Ohio State has an action-packed afternoon planned for its spring showcase, including an undercard that features a lacrosse game in the Horseshoe and halftime entertainment that includes Ohio State players racing students. Here’s more of what to expect from the annual LiFE Sports Spring Game:

When: Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET

Where: Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio

[+] EnlargeCardale Jones
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesBackup QB Cardale Jones development will be a big storyline to watch in Ohio State's spring game.
Admission: General admission tickets are $5 (originally priced $12 in advance; fans who already purchased tickets can get a refund for the difference from the place they bought the tickets beginning Monday, or donate the difference to the LiFE Sports program and Boys and Girls Club). Children under six years old and Ohio State students get in free.

TV: Big Ten Network (live coverage)

Weather forecast: Conditions should be just about perfect after a spring spent largely indoors for the Buckeyes. The high temperature is projected to be 72 degrees and the forecast calls for a zero percent chance of rain, setting the table for what should be a gorgeous afternoon at the Shoe.

What to watch for: The Buckeyes try to balance the teams as much as possible to present a competitive game for fans and a chance to evaluate the roster for coaches, and that should provide a few notable measuring sticks at critical positions heading into the offseason.

It’s no secret that pass defense was awful for Ohio State down the stretch as it dropped its final two games last season, and while Chris Ash has only had 14 practices as the new co-defensive coordinator in charge of the secondary, early reviews have been positive. But how will the defensive backs match up against a proven deep threat such as Devin Smith or a speed-burner such as Dontre Wilson on the perimeter?

For that matter, how will the passing attack look without Braxton Miller at the helm for the Buckeyes as he continues to recuperate from offseason shoulder surgery? The importance of replacing backup quarterback Kenny Guiton shouldn’t be overlooked for Ohio State, considering the number of times he was needed off the bench during his career, and Cardale Jones will be under the microscope in the spring showcase to see how far he’s come with his accuracy and as a decision-maker.

There is some uncertainty about the starting offensive line as the Buckeyes try to replace four starters up front, and there’s a heated battle going on between a handful of candidates trying to fill the void at running back left by Carlos Hyde. But the main focus for the Buckeyes will be on the skill players on the perimeter -- on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

Meyer, no doubt, will be paying close attention to whatever happens when the ball is in the air.


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer hired Chris Ash away from Arkansas primarily to fix Ohio State's problems in its pass defense.

What Ash found is that the biggest area of need might have been from the shoulder pads up rather than any scheme or philosophy.

"You talk about Ohio State and the history, and there have been some really good defenses and some really good defensive backs," the Buckeyes' first-year co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach told ESPN.com. "You knew what you were going to get when you lined up against Ohio State -- you were going to get hit in the mouth.

[+] EnlargeChris Ash
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsChris Ash says instilling a new attitude in the secondary is as important as any scheme he is bringing to Ohio State.
"From my observations, some of that confidence and swagger has been lost in the last couple of years. And that mental psyche is probably as big as anything for us to regain."

It's understandable why the secondary might have felt shell-shocked by the way last season ended. The last three games of the season saw Ohio State surrender 451 passing yards to Michigan in a one-point win, allow Michigan State's Connor Cook to register his first career 300-yard passing day in a Big Ten championship game loss and serve up five passing touchdowns to Clemson in the Orange Bowl defeat. That led to withering criticism from fans and media about the pass defense.

"It’s been everywhere about how bad our back end was," senior cornerback Doran Grant said.

Ash said he hasn't looked much at the past and doesn't really care about it. But he does want the defensive backfield to play with an attitude and confidence, a task that's not made easier by the loss of three starters from last season.

One way Ash has tried to instill those traits is by showing his players clips from the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks' secondary. Seattle's hard-hitting, long cornerbacks and safeties set a tone for its entire defense.

"We made lot of cutups of them and said, 'Guys, this is how the best in the business play the game of football,’'' Ash said. "Are we going to be that? No, but we can be in our own way, and this is the way we need to play."

Ash wants his players showing energy and excitement on the field. So whenever a defensive back gives a great effort or celebrate a big play in practice this spring, you'll hear Ohio State coaches say, "Locker it." That's jargon for saving the video clip, which Ash will later show to his players in meetings.

Ohio State needed more change than just the mental side of the game, of course. Ash will help give the Buckeyes a more consistent and aggressive approach in its pass coverage, utilizing the Cover 4, or quarters, scheme. That will also feature some man-to-man, press coverage at times. It's kind of a combination of what Ash ran at Wisconsin, mixed in with some principals that Michigan State has had so much success with.

"We're taking the same approach that we take to stopping the run and putting it in the back end," Meyer said. "The feeling around here was as long as we stop the run and give up some passing yards, that’s OK. That’s not the case anymore. There are too many good throwing teams out there."

Grant is by far the most experienced player in the secondary and looks to take over the role of No. 1 cornerback after Bradley Roby's departure to the NFL. Working opposite him are junior Armani Reeves and redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple. The latter two were both big-time recruits, and Ash said Apple is probably the defense's most improved player over the latter half of spring ball.

Sophomore Vonn Bell, who made his first career start at safety in the Orange Bowl, tore his MCL early in spring practice. In his absence, the 6-foot-3 Tyvis Powell and the 6-foot Cam Burrows are taking first-team reps at safety. Both are former cornerbacks and are what Ash calls "the model of what we want to recruit here" at safety because of their speed and size.

They've got a long way to go to match the Seahawks, but the Buckeyes have very promising, if somewhat raw, athletes to work with. They hope that leads to a much better and more confident secondary this season.

"It’s not about the size or anything like that," Grant said. "It’s about going hard and being coachable. [The Seahawks are] a high standard, but Ohio State, we’re also a high standard."
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The cushions are gone in the Ohio State secondary.

For the spring, that figuratively applies to a group of defensive backs being challenged and pushed to the limit on a daily basis, removing their personal comfort zone in order to to improve on the disaster that was last season’s pass coverage.

By the fall, it will literally mean the spaces that used to be open to opposing wide receivers at the line of scrimmage will no longer exist, replaced instead by a relentless barrage of nonstop press coverage.

The goal both now and later is for the Buckeyes to make an opponent uncomfortable when the ball is in the air, and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs is more than willing to do his part to take out the buffer and dial up the pressure to make sure that happens.

“We’re playing a style of defense that is very appealing to me as a corners coach,” Coombs said. “Every single snap of spring football we have lined up in press coverage, and that’s the way we’re going to learn it. Then we’ll find out how we stack up when the fall comes around.”

[+] EnlargeArmani Reeves
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsArmani Reeves and the Buckeyes will be in press coverage more often in 2014.
The Buckeyes came up woefully short on the measuring stick last fall, and its beleaguered pass coverage was arguably at the top of the list of reasons they fell short of their goal of playing for the national championship as the secondary unraveled down the stretch.

Ohio State survived a shootout against rival Michigan despite allowing 451 passing yards, but even its high-powered offense wasn’t able to keep trading punches against Michigan State and Clemson as those teams combined for 682 yards and eight touchdowns through the air in those two losses. Collectively the Buckeyes allowed 250 yards or more eight times as they sank to No. 110 in the nation in pass defense, and coach Urban Meyer has made it well known that he believed the defense was too conservative.

That message has clearly been delivered to returning assistants such as Coombs, and a fresh voice in co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash has echoed it as he helps install a much more aggressive system that will bring the cornerbacks up to the line of scrimmage to force the issue in man-to-man coverage.

“It takes practice to play that way,” Coombs said. “Football is made up of a myriad of different schemes. There are lots of different things, and it’s not like you can just say, ‘Hey, go put those guys up on the line of scrimmage and go play.’ It’s the scheme; it’s how everything fits together.

“I’m not blaming that on anybody, but that was not what we were doing. We did it at times, but it wasn’t our base concept -- it was an adjustment. Now it is our base alignment, and we will adjust off of that. So, in order to do that, you’ve got to do it.”

That alone doesn’t guarantee improvement, and the Buckeyes are certainly aware that it will take more than tweaking the playbook to get results.

For starters, three veterans from the secondary must be replaced, including cornerback Bradley Roby, after he elected to skip his final season of eligibility and enter the NFL draft. The Buckeyes do still have senior Doran Grant around to fill that void at the boundary position in the secondary, and he has all the tools to become a shutdown defender, the role Roby filled during the last couple seasons.

The new scheme also presents some personnel challenges, as the demanding nature of press coverage will force the Buckeyes to rotate cornerbacks more frequently to keep them fresh. That will make it imperative to bring along an inexperienced, but talented, group of players, including former elite recruits such as Gareon Conley and Eli Apple to supplement Grant and projected starter Armani Reeves without much drop-off in production or effort.

But there is still time left in spring practice to work on that, plus an entire offseason this summer and training camp in August until the Buckeyes feel comfortable dealing with the pressure.

Then it will be their turn to put it on somebody else.

“I actually like it,” Grant said. “Our whole team is liking it. We’re buying into it and we appreciate this defense. We’re going to work our butts off to get [it right].”

After all, the Buckeyes know they can’t get it fixed sitting on cushions, either.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The changes to Ohio State's defensive scheme will have to wait.

For now, Chris Ash is only focused on how the Buckeyes go about their business, regardless of the schemes the new co-defensive coordinator might install to fix a unit in need of repairs.

More man coverage and a new package of aggressive blitzes were part of the promises that accompanied Urban Meyer’s hiring of Ash in the offseason. But at least through the first half of spring camp, there has been no deep dive into the playbook. At this point, Ash has largely stayed on the first few pages, keeping the approach as simple as possible in the first phase of the rebuilding job, focusing on effort above everything else.

“It doesn’t matter what we do schematically,” Ash said. “We’re going to have a philosophy; we’re going to have a system, an identity for what we’re doing. But really, it’s about how hard we play and how consistent we are doing it.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesTyvis Powell and Ohio State are focusing on effort in the defensive backfield so far in spring practice.
“What I’m happy about so far is the effort that guys are giving. The guys have bought into what I’m coaching, what I’m teaching and they’re coming out here and practicing extremely hard. That’s all I care about right now. With the changes from the past, I couldn’t tell you because I don’t know what it was like before.”

Ash might not have any baseline with which to compare Ohio State’s practices this spring compared to the last couple of seasons, but the returning players certainly do. And the differences have not gone unnoticed at the midway point of spring practice.

The coaching staff has kept a running tally of loafs in practice, pointing out when players are coasting or failing to meet the oft-repeated standard of giving “4 to 6 seconds” of relentless effort from “Point A to Point B.” The Buckeyes are picking up every loose ball and trying to duplicate “scoop-and-score” scenarios. Every interception is supposed to be returned at least 10 yards at full speed, though safety Tyvis Powell has taken it upon himself to double that when the football comes his way, trying to build his case as a potential leader for the revamped secondary.

That type of gesture and work ethic won’t go unnoticed by Ash, mostly because it’s exactly what he’s looking for before adding wrinkles to a pass defense that finished last season ranked No. 110 in the nation.

“There’s really not much [that’s difficult to learn] because it’s all that simple right now,” Powell said. “They’re not overloading us with plays or different schemes right now; everything is really kind of basic. They’re not trying to put in too many plays. They’re just making sure that we master what they’re already giving us.

“Basically the biggest difference right now is just flying around. ... Practice was kind of relaxed, but it’s getting back to high energy now. They demand effort out of us right now, so that’s the best thing about it.”

In some respects, that’s about the only demand the Buckeyes are making on defense.

They’re allowed to give up big plays if mistakes happen, as long as those gains don't come as a result of lackadaisical effort. If an assignment is missed, that can be excused if a player does everything possible to make up for it by chasing down the football. Even if the fundamentals aren’t perfect, there’s still plenty of time to address that later as well.

“We have some talented players here, and if they can be consistently in the right spots and executing and going with maximum effort, we’re going to do pretty well,” Ash said. “The first thing I want to make sure they’re doing is coming out here and living the culture of Ohio State football that coach Meyer has -- that’s going 4-to-6, A-to-B and playing with extreme effort. As long as we can do that, we’ll fix anything else that we have wrong.”

Those changes are coming, too. For now, Ash’s top priority is as simple to understand as the scheme.

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 21, 2014
Mar 21
12:00
PM ET
I haven't had to tear up my bracket just yet, so I got that going for me, which is nice.
The Big Ten is rooted in historic rivalries, but some of these series have been lopsided in recent years. We're taking a closer look at these games and whether things will change or remain the same in 2014.

So far, you and I think the status quo will remain in series like Wisconsin-Minnesota, Michigan-Michigan State and Minnesota-Michigan. The final rivalry under the microscope has no trophy at stake because it doesn't need one. It goes by a simple title: The Game. Ohio State and Michigan. Enough said.

Lately, it has been all Buckeyes.

Let's dive in ...

Series: First meeting in 1897. Michigan leads 58-45-6. Since 1951, Ohio State leads 33-27-2.

Last meeting: Ohio State prevailed 42-41 on Nov. 30, 2013, at Michigan Stadium after snuffing out Michigan's potential game-winning two-point conversion attempt.

The streak: Ohio State has won consecutive matchups, and Michigan has only one win in the series since 2003. The Buckeyes' 2010 victory was vacated because of NCAA violations.

SportsNation

Will Michigan beat Ohio State this season?

  •  
    25%
  •  
    75%

Discuss (Total votes: 6,209)

Next meeting: Nov. 29 at Ohio Stadium

The skinny: Ohio State dominated Michigan during coach Jim Tressel's tenure, but the gap seems to be narrowing a bit since Brady Hoke took over the Wolverines' program. Hoke beat Ohio State in his first season, and his Wolverines nearly pulled an upset last year against a Buckeyes team that had won its first 23 games under Urban Meyer. Michigan's inconsistent offense found a rhythm against Ohio State, and Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner and wide receiver Jeremy Gallon matched blow for blow with the dynamic Buckeye backfield of Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde.

This year's game could come down to whether the Michigan offense or the Ohio State defense fixes its issues from 2013. Both units have new coaches, as coordinator Doug Nussmeier comes to Michigan, while Chris Ash and Larry Johnson take on key roles in Columbus. Ohio State and Michigan are in the same division for the first time, and The Game should have implications on who goes to Indianapolis. Michigan hasn't won at Ohio Stadium since 2000, a game that sealed John Cooper's fate as Buckeyes coach. Both teams return their quarterbacks and bring in decorated defensive recruits such as Jabrill Peppers (Michigan) and Raekwon McMillan (Ohio State).

The (very early) prediction: Hoke prepares Michigan well for The Game, and the Wolverines should be a bit steadier on offense. But I don't see Miller losing his final home game as a Buckeye, especially with postseason implications likely on the line. Miller rallies Ohio State late for a three-point win.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Ohio State way has been almost all Luke Fickell has ever known, and for years, there wasn’t much reason to branch out and try another approach.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer, Luke Fickell
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsLuke Fickell's 2013 Ohio State defense didn't live up to the standards Urban Meyer wants in Columbus.
As a former player, the current defensive coordinator played a role in maintaining the proud tradition of the program, so he understood the demands of representing the Buckeyes. For more than a decade, he’s passed on the gospel of the Silver Bullets on to the coaching staff, surrounded by familiar faces who knew the system just as well as he did and had been a part of many wins together.

And when the results are positive, there might be little incentive to figure out what made Wisconsin so effective in bottling up passing attacks under Chris Ash or how Penn State was churning out NFL prospects on the defensive line under Larry Johnson. But when things go wrong, that comfort with the way things have always been done can become dangerous complacency for somebody unwilling to change. That said, Fickell is embracing some fresh approaches if they can help get Ohio State's defense back to an elite level.

“It’s been a great transition, to be honest with you,” Fickell said earlier this month after the second practice of spring camp working with the new-look staff. “I know we haven’t had the real stressers and the reality of a season, but I tell you, we’ve battled through a lot of things in the last month or so and it’s been a great growing experience for me. I’ve always had a little bit of a comfort level here with the people that I’ve known ... and that’s one of those things that Coach [Urban] Meyer likes to challenge you to do is get out of your comfort zone.

“Having some new guys has made me do that and has made me broaden the things that we do. It’s been a great growing experience.”

The Buckeyes certainly left themselves plenty of room to grow defensively after completely falling apart down the stretch last season on that side of the ball. The Buckeyes came up short in the Big Ten title game, fell out of contention for the national title and coughed up a lead in the Orange Bowl, which were all products of the late-season struggle.

Meyer didn’t fire any assistants after his team finished the season ranked 110th in the nation in passing defense and allowed 115 points over the final three games, but he was afforded the chance to shake up his staff after safeties coach Everett Withers left to take over as the head coach at James Madison and Mike Vrabel surprisingly left his alma mater for a position with the Houston Texans.

“I have a lot of confidence in the coaches that were here,” Meyer said. “Obviously we didn’t perform up to the standard. We won a lot of games, but there were some holes.

“Holes are very easy to blame players or blame coaches, so just overall, we need to freshen up our defense.”

Meyer has admitted that fresh voices were probably needed as part of that rebuilding job, and the offseason departures allowed him to bring in a couple of them in Ash and Johnson. The current plan still has Fickell retaining play-calling duties for the Buckeyes, but Ash in particular is expected to play a prominent role in reshaping the pass coverage -- and updating what it means to play Ohio State defense.

“The idea of sometimes bending but don’t break is not exactly the mentality that obviously Coach Meyer likes,” Fickell said. “Those are some of those things that, as we get into our third year of it, we figure out each other, and hopefully, we do a lot better job of it.

“You know, the most important thing to understand is we ask our guys to be 1 of 11. We ask them to play together, that’s why this is the greatest team sport known to man, and it’s not any different for coaches. It doesn’t matter the titles or anything like that. ... We’ll be on the same page.”

That might mean reading a slightly different textbook than the one Fickell has had for years at Ohio State, but he’s clearly open to new ideas.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

March, 14, 2014
Mar 14
4:30
PM ET
Last mail call before the weekend. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter. Join the 100K strong.

Let's get started ...

Bob from Cary, N.C., writes: How do we measure the competitive strength of East vs. West over time? My hunch is that over the next five to 10 years Maryland/Rutgers will flourish and Iowa/Minnesota/Illinois will flounder. The West teams will be less visible in the media of NYC/DC and recruiting areas of Ohio/Pennsylvania. This very scenario was a factor in Nebraska's decision to leave the B12. Can the B1G avoid the obvious disparity between East and West over time?

Adam Rittenberg: Bob, ultimately you measure the divisions by which teams are winning league titles and which division has more strength at the top. The East Division appears to have an edge, but I don't know if Rutgers or Maryland will flourish simply because of its location. Both programs must invest a lot more into football to keep pace with programs that have more tradition and more resources. Big Ten revenues undoubtedly will help both newcomers, but it's not easy to compete with Ohio State, Michigan and others.

It's important for West Division teams to maintain a presence in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and to recruit well in the new areas. Remember that Illinois had a huge recruiting presence in Washington, D.C., when Mike Locksley was on staff. The Illini didn't need Maryland in the league or the Big Ten TV presence in the market to have success. Do West Division teams have some geographic challenges? Sure. But the right coaches and the right recruiting approaches -- combined with winning -- should keep the divisions balanced enough.


Kenny from Cincinnati writes: Vonn Bell is injured for the spring but as a safety, how important are those practices? I feel like by now they know his abilities. I think watching film and terminology work might actually be more beneficial for a young upstart with a new coach. But then again maybe I am looking for a positive in a suspect secondary.

Adam Rittenberg: Bell is still just a sophomore, Kenny, so he could have benefited from the practices, especially with a new safeties coach -- and co-defensive coordinator -- in Chris Ash. But Ohio State saw what Bell could do in a starting role in the Orange Bowl, where he had an interception and seven tackles. Bell could have locked up a starting safety spot with a strong spring, but he'll still have time to impress Ash in the summer. Ash told me last month that safety Tyvis Powell, along with cornerback Doran Grant, had really stood out in the offseason. I'd be surprised if Powell doesn't start at one safety spot. Bell must earn the other.


Rob from New York writes: I find that one of the underdiscussed factors in the Big Ten's recent, drastic decline has been the improvement of the MAC and, as it's related, the Big Ten's inability to pull in those athletes. There's really no reason why Khalil Mack should be playing for Buffalo instead of any of the Big Ten schools. Jordan Lynch should be playing for Illinois or Northwestern, but he went to NIU. Same story with Eric Fisher, why wasn't he at Michigan or Michigan State? I'd say part of this has to do with the fact that recruiting networks aren't the same in the North as they are in the South, but it's hard not to blame the Big Ten coaches as well.

Adam Rittenberg: Rob, I agree there are some excellent MAC players who could have helped Big Ten teams. Mack, Lynch and Fisher certainly are three of them. But is the MAC really an improved league? I say no. The MAC has declined since the early part of the 2000s, when you had Marshall, Miami (Ohio), Bowling Green and Toledo surging, and Northern Illinois was starting to break through. Sure, the MAC records some upset wins every season, but Northern Illinois was outclassed in the Orange Bowl and no other league squad has reached a BCS bowl. Maybe Bowling Green will change things, but this league isn't the TCU-BYU-Utah Mountain West. I agree that the MAC has some great players overlooked by bigger schools in recruiting. But that always has been true, just as it is in the Sun Belt, Conference USA, etc. As a league, the MAC, much like the Big Ten, leaves something to be desired.


Anthony from Arlington, Va., writes: Great choice on the week 8 trip to College Park for the Iowa/Maryland game. I'm not sure if you're aware, but the Iowa alumni base in the DMV is huge. So huge, in fact, that I anticipate one-third of Byrd Stadium will be Hawkeye fans. I'll even make a bet. If it's less then drinks are on me postgame. If I'm right, you get to shake your rump to the victory polka!

Adam Rittenberg: Anthony, there are several Big Ten fan bases with a sizable presence in the area. Indiana and Penn State are two others. These existing Big Ten pockets contributed to the league's decision to pursue Maryland. OK, you really want to see me dance the polka? I'll tell you what. If my editors actually send me to Iowa-Maryland, you've got a deal. Just make sure there are no cameras around.


Jon from Chicago writes: Any word on if MSU and Oregon will have new uniforms from Nike for their game this fall? It'd be a great idea, right, especially since this will be one of the biggest games of the year.

Adam Rittenberg: Jon, nothing has been finalized yet, but I would fully expect Nike to make a splash for the game. Oregon has a vast array of uniform combinations, and Michigan State has unveiled a few new versions in recent seasons. Maybe instead of the green vs. green pairing, we'll get something like this from the Ducks and something equally wacky/non-traditional from MSU. As long as the recruits like it, right?

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Meyer Depressed At Florida
Adam Rittenberg discusses Urban Meyer's comments about being depressed while coaching at Florida in 2009.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video