Ohio State Buckeyes: Connor Cook
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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Looks like I made a few friends down South after this post.
To the inbox ...
Jonathan from San Antonio writes: While I get the irony of oversigning and then standing on "integrity" to complain about Franklin, do you get the irony of your article? You seem to defend Franklin's strategy based on the fact that others do it and that it's within the rules. Yet, you (Big Ten proponents and fans) complain about oversigning, when it too is a "others are doing it," and "it's within the rules" equally applies to that practice. So if you want the SEC to stop complaining about this particular issue (and join in), then the Big Ten needs to stop complaining about oversigning (and join in).
Adam Rittenberg: Jonathan, you can't possibly be equating oversigning to guest-coaching at another program's camp? Only one of those tactics hurts players. Only one involves dishonesty. My post had a heavy dose of sarcasm, but just to be clear, I don't like oversigning. I have no problem with guest-coaching at camps. Who does it harm? It's a brilliant move by James Franklin, and other coaches either have or will follow. The SEC should get rid of its rule and guest-coach as well. No issue there. These are two extremely different tactics, and only oversigning does real damage, in my view.
Adam Rittenberg: It's kind of funny, Tracie, because every third email I receive states how ESPN promotes the SEC whenever possible. I don't have a vendetta against the SEC. It's a great league with great coaches. It's also a league that doesn't get called out enough for things like this. People might think I'm a Big Ten homer for writing that post. Those who read me know that's far from the truth. The Big Ten is justifiably criticized for its missteps. The SEC seems to get a pass because it wins national championships. It's not a jealousy issue. The Big Ten is way behind the SEC when it comes to recruiting and winning. That's why Franklin's guest-coaching plan makes complete sense. The funny part is that the SEC, a league very good at football but also very good at bending recruiting rules to its advantage, has a problem with it. Woo Pig Sooie!
Adam Rittenberg: I like your confidence, but I need to see more from Elliott to include him on the list of likely 1,000-yard rushers. I can't include every player who eclipsed 250 yards last year. The list becomes pointless. Elliott is a talented back, but 162 of his 262 rushing yards last year came against Florida A&M. He had more than two carries in only one Big Ten game, against last-place Purdue. I also think Ohio State will mix and match backs. So while Elliott could reach 1,000 yards, he needs to prove himself this season.
Adam Rittenberg: It would be an attractive job, Kevin, but it won't happen for several reasons. The biggest one is simple logic. If Michigan is to consider Nussmeier for the top job, Nussmeier would have to perform well as offensive coordinator this season. And if the offense performs better, the team seemingly will, too. Michigan's defense should be as good and likely better than it was in 2013. The team's big issues are on offense. If those are rectified, the win total goes up and Hoke stays. Athletic director Dave Brandon does not want to fire Hoke, whom he hired. Plus, I'd be surprised if Michigan would replace Hoke with a first-time head coach.
Adam Rittenberg: Interesting observation, Anthony, although I wouldn't say the 2011 Wisconsin team, which beat Ohio State in 2010 but repeated as Big Ten champion the following year, grossly underperformed. This seems more coincidental than anything else. Michigan State could take a step back if certain linebackers and defensive backs struggle, or if some of Connor Cook's near interceptions turn into actual interceptions. But I like how the Spartans, who have been very good at home under Mark Dantonio, get Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska on their home field.
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.
Follow the Twitter brick road.
Mail call ...
Rajiv from Tallahassee, Fla., writes: Do you think that there are any programs in the B1G that would automatically get or deserve a spot in the playoff if they ran the table in any given year? Secondly, suppose a team like Northwestern or Minnesota ran the table and then beat a 12-0 Michigan State team in the BIG Championship. Should one of those teams get an automatic bid? Don't think that situation would happen, but certainly an undefeated Ohio State would garner more recognition than Northwestern.
Adam Rittenberg: Rajiv, it's my belief that any major-conference team that runs the table and wins a league title game to go 13-0 would make the field of four. Why else would you expand the field from two to four? Most Big Ten teams are playing at least one marquee non-league opponent, so even if their league schedule is a little soft like Iowa's or Wisconsin's this year, a perfect mark would be enough to get them in, regardless of their reputation. It would be incredibly disappointing if the committee functions like poll voters and gives preferences to historically strong teams. There would have to be odd circumstances -- two or more undefeated teams from major conferences -- for a 13-0 Big Ten team to be left out.
Adam Rittenberg: Jason, I think your first point about Penn State making strides and moving past some of the more severe sanctions is a motivator for the school's position. There's no full relief from the sanctions, since Penn State has had two bowl-eligible teams stay home and continues to operate with reduced scholarships. But the school clearly feels that cooperation with the NCAA is the best route. Penn State also has aligned itself with the Freeh Report, which the Paterno family claims isn't credible. Ultimately, PSU seems too far down the road in lockstep with the NCAA to dramatically change its position.
Adam Rittenberg: Paul, quarterback play in the Big Ten has been down for some time. The league hasn't had a quarterback selected in the first round of the NFL draft since Penn State's Kerry Collins in 1995. That's stunning. Although quarterbacks such as Drew Brees (Purdue), Tom Brady (Michigan) and Russell Wilson (Wisconsin) have gone on to win Super Bowls, the league isn't mass-producing elite signal-callers. Something needs to shift, and it could be the quality of quarterback coaches in the Big Ten. Besides Indiana's Kevin Wilson, are there any true QB gurus in the B1G?
Your second question is a bit tricky because there are some major-conference teams elsewhere with dire QB situations. But Braxton Miller, Connor Cook and Christian Hackenberg could start for any FBS squad.
Adam Rittenberg: Moss, it just doesn't seem to add up. A league should be able to build its brand, generate revenue for its schools and win championships on the field. What do you mean by not paying attention? What do you want the Big Ten to do for its underperforming teams? That's the hard part. Commissioner Jim Delany gets criticized a lot, but he has significantly increased the resources for Big Ten programs, which can pay coaches more and invest in their facilities. Ultimately, the Big Ten can move its campuses to the south and west, where more of the elite players are. But I don't agree the league is neglecting its programs by trying to expand its brand.
Adam Rittenberg: That fear is real, Robert, as Ohio State's quarterback situation beyond 2014 seems cloudy. Miller's injury this spring allowed Jones and Barrett both to get some significant work in practice. While both struggled in the spring game, Jones enters the summer as Miller's primary backup. Ohio State would be wise to get at least one, if not both, into games this season, even in mop-up time. Collier seems like more of a project, and all three men need some time to develop. I don't think it's realistic to expect Ohio State's next quarterback to match Miller's big-play ability.
Brutus from The Ninth Circle writes: Brian, what are you looking forward to the most this coming season? Seeing a team coached by James Franklin? Seeing Maryland and Rutgers play their first games in the B1G? Seeing more night games at Michigan? Personally, I can't wait to see Maryland's games in the B1G. The eastward expansion should play havoc on my Saturday TV scheduling, but bring it on!
Brian Bennett: From a big-picture perspective, what I'm most excited about is the new playoff system, and in particular the semifinals on New Year's Day. That could be one of the best days in college football history. From, um, a B1G-picture perspective, I'm really interested in how Maryland and Rutgers fit into the league, how Franklin's Penn State debut will go and how the new division alignment shakes out. But I'm probably most excited about an upgraded nonconference schedule that includes games like Michigan State-Oregon, Wisconsin-LSU and Ohio State-Virginia Tech. There's nothing like high-profile out-of-league games early on to get a read on just how strong the Big Ten might be in 2014.
Brian Bennett: Grant, I wrote about this a lot in a piece last month following a visit to East Lansing. Dantonio started warning about complacency in the first team meeting back home after the Rose Bowl, and he pushed the start of spring practice back to late March so he could have the players go through grueling, early-morning winter conditioning longer. That's one way to deflate big heads. I also thought it was an encouraging sign that Michigan State players like Connor Cook told me they were sick of talking about the Rose Bowl and 2013 this offseason and that they wanted to create their own legacy. Add in the fight for playing time at several defensive positions and along the offensive line and other spots, and there is reason to believe this team won't rest on its '13 accomplishments. You never really know. But that Week 2 showdown against the Ducks on the road should be enough to get these Spartans focused on the here and now, or else they're going to learn that lesson the hard way.
Brian Bennett: Meyer does collect top talent from Ohio -- he signed nine players from the Buckeye State in the 2014 class, for example -- but he doesn't just rely on homegrown players. Ohio State wants to compete for national titles, and the way to do that is to get the best players, no matter where they're from. Fact is, Big Ten country doesn't produce as many elite athletes as it once did, and many of those guys are in the South, in Texas and California. Any Big Ten program with legitimate national title aspirations has to recruit outside its region, as well as protecting its own backyard.
Brian Bennett: I firmly believe that one of the absolute best things about college football is the supreme importance of the regular season. Every week, in essence, becomes a playoff. Having a four-team playoff at the end will dilute that slightly but not enough, in my opinion, to hurt the sport. So I'm against any idea that would make games in any part of the season lose their significance.
Michigan State's problem last year was not so much its loss at Notre Dame but the fact that it really didn't play another marquee game until the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State. That's why upgraded schedules for the league are so important. A loss (or possibly even two, in some years) will be much easier to forgive if a team has played a grueling schedule and collected impressive wins throughout. I do hope the selection committee pays particular attention to schedule strength and does not get caught up on picking teams who might have simply coasted to a 12- or 11-win season. The in-season polls that the committee will release seem problematic to me, but everything they have said so far indicates they will judge teams on the quality of their résumés.
Brian Bennett: Thanks, Luke. It was a dream trip, and I highly recommend it. As for Nebraska, I've thought for a while that guys like Bell and Turner could do even more with a consistent passing game. Taylor Martinez was actually pretty solid in 2012, throwing for 2,871 yards and 23 touchdowns, though his 62 percent completion rate wasn't spectacular. It's no coincidence that Bell had by far his best season in 2012. There was too much turnover and inexperience under center last year for Nebraska once Martinez got injured. Tommy Armstrong simply has to improve on his 51.9 percent completion rate from a year ago, and he's got the playmakers to make big things happen.
Twitter? Yes, please.
Let's check that inbox ...
Shane from Maine writes: I usually ask Wolverines-related questions, but something else caught my attention. What are your thoughts on Iowa's schedule? It looks REALLY soft. Do you think the Hawkeyes have a chance to go undefeated in a season that has their toughest games at home against Wisconsin and Nebraska?
Adam Rittenberg: Iowa's schedule looks extremely beneficial, Shane, but I don't see the Hawkeyes running the table. They're a good team that could build on last season's success, but the Hawkeyes almost always find themselves in close games because their talent isn't head and shoulders above the competition. Easy schedule or hard schedule, you need to be a truly elite team with elite talent to run the table in a major conference (see: 2013 Florida State Seminoles). Iowa will end up on the short end of some close game, but I predict a good season (9-10 wins).
Adam Rittenberg: Jeff, I wrote about this back in January. There's no desire to move the football championship game outside of the Midwest. The Big Ten loves Indianapolis and everything it brings, and it could consider sites like Chicago, Minneapolis and Detroit in future years. The difference with football is the event includes only two teams and two fan bases, not all 14. It's less likely to draw general Big Ten fans than the basketball tournament, a multi-day event featuring more games and teams. Big Ten deputy commissioner Brad Traviolia said of the hoops tournament: "Regardless of where you place it, you're going to have a team or two that basically will be a home team, whether it's Indiana and Purdue in Indianapolis or whether it's Maryland in D.C. or Rutgers and Penn State in New York." Geography matters more for the football title game.
Adam Rittenberg: Grant, I understand your concern about MSU's history when starting on top, but it's also important to acknowledge the culture change under Mark Dantonio. This team has won 11 or more games in three of the past four seasons. MSU had a disappointing 2012 season but was a few plays away from winning eight or nine games. Also, the quarterback situation with Connor Cook is much more stable than it was in 2012. Brian Bennett visited the Spartans this spring and came away thinking they're locked in and not getting complacent. The continuity in the coaching staff really helps, and most MSU players suffered through the 2012 season and haven't forgotten it. You don't really know how a team responds until the games begin, but Dantonio isn't the type to let anyone take their foot off of the gas. His recent track record confirms this.
Adam Rittenberg: Thanks, Rolf, and yes, I realize sending a Michigan player to Ohio State doesn't sit well with all (Justin Boren worked out OK, though). The Buckeyes clearly need a quarterback to replace Braxton Miller, and I'm not confident enough in any of the current backups to step in, especially with a revamped offensive line. Brian had the Buckeyes adding Tre Roberson, who has more eligibility left than Gardner and also fits in a spread offense. But I think Gardner, in the right system like Ohio State's, has more upside. Despite Michigan's offensive line troubles, Gardner still finished second in the league in passing and had some huge games. Ohio State needs a one-year fill-in here, and Gardner is the best option.
Adam Rittenberg: Concern? About Penn State's 2015 class? No, don't be concerned. What James Franklin and his staff have done in the past four months is rather remarkable, especially with the program still under NCAA sanctions. They already have Jarvis Miller in the fold and will add other defensive backs before signing day, which is a very long way away. Also remember that Penn State likely will only lose two players -- safeties Adrian Amos and Ryan Keiser -- from this year's secondary rotation.
To recap: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (incoming recruits are not). The teams will pick in reverse order of regular-season finish last year. Picks are based on factors like position need, remaining eligibility, scheme, previous players lost in the draft.
Check out the first half of the first round here. It gets a bit messy with teams swiping each other's top players, but that makes it fun.
Now, for the final seven picks ...
Pick No. 8: Penn State
The offensive line is Penn State's shakiest position group, but Christian Hackenberg (selected No. 5 by Rutgers) leaves a massive hole at quarterback. Cook, a pro-style signal-caller with a big arm and more experience than Hackenberg, makes a lot of sense as he fits the system and comes off top performances in the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl.
Brian Bennett says the Lions select ... Ohio State OT Taylor Decker
Penn State does need help on the offensive line, but it can afford to be patient. Decker was playing as well as any Ohio State offensive lineman late last season, when he was only a redshirt freshman. He can come to State College and offer help now and for the next three years, seeing the Lions through probation.
Pick No. 9: Minnesota
Rittenberg says the Gophers select ... Maryland WR Stefon Diggs
Minnesota loses some star power on defense, but I expect coordinator Tracy Claeys to produce a solid unit. The bigger issue is boosting a pass offense that ranked 115th nationally last season. Diggs comes off an injury-shortened season, but he's an explosive playmaker with 88 career receptions and two years of eligibility left. He would complement promising young wideouts like Drew Wolitarsky.
Bennett says the Gophers select ... Nebraska WR Kenny Bell
The Gophers might just be a downfield receiving threat away from being actual division contenders. Bell is a senior but offers two things Jerry Kill wants: leadership and toughness as a blocker. Bell would also deliver some explosiveness while guiding Minnesota's young wideouts along.
Pick No. 10: Iowa
Rittenberg says the Hawkeyes select ... Indiana LT Jason Spriggs
Brandon Scherff (selected No. 1 by Purdue) is a major loss for Iowa, which now needs a replacement to anchor its offensive line. Spriggs might not be as big a name as Scherff, but he has quietly started the first 24 games of his college career and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors the past two seasons. He also has two years of eligibility left.
Bennett says the Hawkeyes select ... Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
True, Iowa has about 37 tailbacks right now. But the pure speed and playmaking ability of Gordon is tough to pass up here, especially for an offense seeking more home-run plays. Plus, he originally committed to the Hawkeyes, so this is a way for them to finally get Gordon in black and gold.
Pick No. 11: Nebraska
Rittenberg says the Huskers select ... Ohio State DE Joey Bosa
Running back Ameer Abdullah (selected No. 6 by Maryland) is a significant loss, but the Huskers have good depth behind him. They need a replacement for All-Big Ten end Randy Gregory (selected No. 4 by Indiana), and Bosa, who ended his freshman season in beast mode, is an easy choice. He should keep the expectations high for the Huskers' defensive front seven. And he has at least two seasons left.
Nebraska doesn't seem to have a lot of gaping holes but could use a playmaker in the passing game after losing Bell (selected No. 9 by Minnesota). Funchess would make a nice safety valve for Tommy Armstrong and is a destroyer of red zone defenses. Tim Beck lobbies hard for this pick and would get two years to deploy Funchess in a variety of ways.
Pick No. 12: Wisconsin
Rittenberg says the Badgers select ... Ohio State DL Michael Bennett
Like Nebraska, Wisconsin has lost an elite running back (Melvin Gordon, selected No. 7 by Michigan), and like the Huskers, the Badgers have enough to get by without him. Wisconsin has an even bigger need to upgrade its defensive front seven after losing six starters to graduation. Bennett, a junior who could play either line spot and had seven sacks last season, is a really good fit for Wisconsin.
Bennett says the Badgers select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook
The passing game remains a sore spot for Wisconsin, and no clear starter under center emerged this spring. Cook knows how to run a pro-style offense and would have two years left in Madison.
Pick No. 13: Ohio State
Rittenberg says the Buckeyes select ... Michigan QB Devin Gardner
Well, this should be interesting. Ohio State needs a quarterback after losing Braxton Miller to Northwestern (pick No. 3), and there aren't too many proven options out there. The Buckeyes likely can get by with a one-year player to allow younger guys to develop. Gardner is a good fit in a true spread offense, and he showed at times last year that he can put up huge numbers.
Bennett says the Buckeyes select ... Indiana QB Tre Roberson
I had Rutgers snagging Miller earlier in the first round. Roberson might be the closest facsimile to Miller in the league right now, a guy with good wheels who can also sling it around the field. He has plenty of game experience and two years of eligibility left.
Pick No. 14: Michigan State
Rittenberg says the Spartans select ... Iowa QB Jake Rudock
OK, the quarterback swapping is getting a little silly, but Michigan State needs one after losing Cook (selected No. 8 by Penn State), and Rudock brings experience to the Spartans backfield. Rudock comes from a pro-style system at Iowa and should take another step this season. Plus, he has two years of eligibility left.
Bennett says the Spartans select ... Ohio State S Vonn Bell
You can't convince me that Mark Dantonio wouldn't go defense first in a draft like this. And I think the prospect of a stud defensive back would prove too hard for him to resist. Bell showed real promise in his brief exposure last year with the Buckeyes and has three years left to help fortify the No-Fly Zone.
- A Nebraska running back pledge won MVP honors at a big recruiting camp. A pair of Colorado defensive backs got the Huskers' 2015 class going.
- A highly-regarded in-state offensive lineman committed to Wisconsin. OK, J.J. Watt, you officially made me jealous.
- Ryan Shazier and/or Bradley Roby could end Ohio State's first-round NFL drought.
- Denicos Allen says intangibles are the key for Taiwan Jones. Spartans quarterback Connor Cook expects his team to field a potent offense this fall.
- A look back at Minnesota's spring practice.
- Reviewing the state of Michigan's tight ends.
- Tim Beckman is ready for the wins to start coming for Illinois.
- Iowa's trio of senior linebackers from 2013 are preparing for their NFL futures.
- James Franklin is eager to get to Ireland, where his parents got married. Penn State's staff will work as guest coaches at Georgia State.
- Rutgers held a ceremony in New York to celebrate joining the Big Ten.
- A preview of Purdue's fortunes in 2014.
- Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon and Michigan State’s Mark Hollis weigh in against the unionization of college athletes in advance of the Northwestern vote.
- Big plans and expectations for Michigan State defensive end Demetrius Cooper. Quarterback Connor Cook goes No. 1 in the MSU draft, conducted by players, for the upcoming spring game. And walk-on receiver Matt Macksood has made an impact this spring.
- The MihWolverines might need their defense to carry a big load.
- Penn State has no official position on the return of a Joe Paterno statue to State College. But the school should take a stance on the former coach’s legacy, writes our Josh Moyer.
- Kyle Flood plans to spend more time than in the past involved in the details during Rutgers’ spring game on Saturday. Meanwhile, running back Paul James continues to fight through injuries.
- The Washington Post offers a favorable grade for Maryland football coaching salaries in comparison to the rest of its new league.
- Big raises for Minnesota coordinators Tracy Claeys and Matt Limegrover.
- Jake Rudock strengthens his hold on the starting quarterback job at Iowa.
- Urban Meyer is not an advocate for spring football at Ohio high schools, but he’d like to young players receive an opportunity to spend more time with their coaches in the offseason.
- The band 1984 Draft, its name inspired by a Nebraska fan, help keeps alive the memory of a historic period for the Huskers.
- Connor Cook now has the freedom to audible at the line of scrimmage for Michigan State, another sign of confidence in the quarterback heading into his second season as the starter.
- If the problem for Michigan last season was a lack of chemistry, Brady Hoke has a feeling that won't be a problem this fall he leaves spring.
- Penn State showed off a Wildcat package in its spring game, but James Franklin won't reveal how much he'll use it -- or whether it's got a unique nickname.
- Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz isn't usually one for hyperbole, so he means it when he calls Brandon Scherff the best player at his position in the country.
- The Ohio State defense is leaving spring practice with a much better feeling than it did when it left the field after the Discover Orange Bowl.
- After a long, difficult road, Rutgers offensive lineman Bryan Leoni is pushing for a starting role and a happy ending for his journey.
- The Purdue offense has undergone a transformation this spring, and the roster has also added some talent to run the system.
- The union seeking to represent Northwestern football players offered its response to the school's appeal, calling the university's case a "castle built on sand."
- No matter how big the league gets, the Big Ten is keeping its name.
- The rebrand of Illinois athletics appears to be a hit, writes Loren Tate.
Here's a closer look at the East:
- Defense has been a lingering Indiana concern for years, but coach Kevin Wilson believes he's starting to see a change, thanks to new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr. The scheme hasn't changed radically, but the Hoosiers return 10 starters there -- and Wilson's seen a promising spring so far with an added focus on competition and communication: "They've for sure held their own on a daily basis -- and, in some ways, probably even better -- against the offense."
- Wilson believes teams need to invest scholarships into the kicking game, but he thinks it's also too risky to offer recruits straight out of high school. If you look at the NCAA's top 25 kickers, Wilson estimated at least 15 started out as walk-ons. So he's hoping to find some walk-ons who are willing to work for a scholarship, rather than be granted one right away.
- At 5-foot-7, Shane Wynn is the Hoosiers' leading returning receiver, and he's transitioning to playing the outside. It's been a little different for Wynn, who said he's had to watch more film as a result. He's reading the corners now, instead of the safeties, as just one example.
- Maryland coach Randy Edsall is confident in his offense and believes the Terrapins have enough options so that opponents can't focus on just one person. If defenses lock on to wideout Stefon Diggs, then quarterback C.J. Brown can take off running or receiver Deon Long can pick up some slack. "The No. 1 thing I do like," Edsall said, "is we can spread the field."
- Maryland's staff has already started looking at film of Big Ten teams, so they know what to expect when the conference season begins. Edsall said he wants to at least get a feel for their personnel and what kind of schemes he'll face. He's also confident the Terps will be ready: "We fully expect to be able to compete when we get into the Big Ten this year."
- Brown said one of the main reasons he committed to Maryland was the coach who recruited him at the time, former Terps assistant and current Penn State coach James Franklin. He's looking forward to squaring off against Franklin this season, and Edsall said there's no question he would like to develop a rivalry with the Nittany Lions.
- The quarterback derby will continue, and Brady Hoke included all three of his options in the discussion heading into the offseason. The Wolverines coach did acknowledge, though, that Devin Gardner “probably would be” the starter if there was a game on the schedule this weekend. There isn’t, so Shane Morris and Wilton Speight will continue to be in the conversation.
- The first opponent on the schedule will always stir emotions for Michigan fans, but Hoke didn’t attach any revenge or sentimentality to his reasons for wanting to take on Appalachian State in the opener this fall. “We needed a game,” Hoke said. “I thought it would be a good game.” Defensive end Frank Clark was certainly aware of the history between the programs, even though he was still years away from joining Michigan and getting a shot at making up for the upset loss in 2007 -- which he called “shocking” and “shows how hard those guys play.”
- Michigan State is coming off a Rose Bowl victory, but coach Mark Dantonio and quarterback Connor Cook would prefer not to think about that any longer. Dantonio said they've talked a lot these last four months about not growing complacent, and Cook only echoed his coach. "A lot of people keep bringing up the Rose Bowl," Cook said. "But we're past that. We're focusing on the now."
- The offensive line has made some big strides since January, at least according to Cook. He felt like he had no time in the pocket last spring and said the pass rush was getting to him every time. This spring? He doesn't feel rushed in the pocket, and he thinks that's pretty indicative of how far this line has come.
- Jeremy Langford earned a lot of praise from Cook, who said the running back has become a much bigger part of the passing attack. "He's improved a lot with catching the ball," Cook said, complimenting Langford's versatility. "He's done so many different things for us."
- There is still work to be done in addressing the most glaring weakness on the team last season, but Urban Meyer called Ohio State’s pass defense “drastically improved” and will be watching closely for more signs of progress in Saturday’s spring game. The Buckeyes will play a traditional game, but the emphasis will be on throwing the football and assessing the skill players on both offense and defense -- giving Meyer a chance to evaluate backup quarterback Cardale Jones in a live setting in addition to checking out the secondary.
- Arguably the strongest part of last season's team is undergoing a transition without four senior starters, and the offensive line is somewhat of a concern for Meyer heading into the offseason. With guard Pat Elflein the only other player to have earned a first-team slot to play alongside junior Taylor Decker at this point, that competition is likely to spill over into preseason camp in August. Both tackle Darryl Baldwin and guard Antonio Underwood were praised for their work by defensive tackle Michael Bennett, and Billy Price and Jacoby Boren are dueling at center.
- Franklin said he knew exactly what he was getting into at Penn State, in terms of the current depth and sanctions. He and former coach Bill O'Brien worked together at Maryland, and he said the two had a lot of honest conversations about the current state of the Nittany Lions. The two have continued to talk since.
- Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia are both making transitions from defensive tackle to offensive guard, and Franklin said he has been pleased with their performances so far: "They're doing a good job for us -- and they have to. We're thin at that position."
- Franklin said he feels especially comfortable with the talent at running back and defensive line. Middle linebacker Mike Hull was more specific about naming the players who impressed him, pointing to backup linebacker Gary Wooten and cornerback Da'Quan Davis. Hull said Wooten is always around the football and that Davis, who missed part of the spring with a hamstring injury, has come up with several interceptions.
- Another open competition at the most critical position on the field -- quarterback -- is still playing out at Rutgers, and coach Kyle Flood isn’t ready to declare a winner in what would seem to be a wide-open battle. Flood indicated that Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano are all “really vying for that first-team job.”
- The change in conference affiliation has been welcomed with open arms by the Scarlet Knights, who can “feel the energy” as theypractice for their first season in the Big Ten. Defensive tackle Darius Hamilton said the team was already buzzing with excitement about the opportunity, and Flood called joining the league a “positive in every way.” The move also presents the opportunity for a rivalry to develop with new divisional neighbor Penn State, with both Flood and Hamilton citing the proximity between the schools as a bonus.
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