Ohio State Buckeyes: Christian Hackenberg

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
5:00
PM ET
It's Wednesday. There's nothing good on TV (except for this). It's mailbag business time.

Ed from State of Rutgers writes: How would you rank B1G head coaches on the hot seat in 2014? Which assistants are in the best position for a head coaching job after this season?

Brian Bennett: Thanks for the question, Ed, and welcome to Big Ten country. We didn't see a single head coach get fired in the Big Ten last season, which was good news. But the way these things go, odds are the league won't make it two years in a row without any pink slips.

Let's answer your question by looking at this in tiers. Tier 1 includes the coaches who absolutely won't get fired this season unless there's some sort of unforeseen major scandal: Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Penn State's James Franklin, Minnesota's Jerry Kill, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz.

[+] EnlargeKyle Flood
AP Photo/John RaouxKyle Flood could face a difficult first season in the Big Ten, but it might not be enough to cost him his job.
Tier 2 would be the guys who are most likely safe but who could feel some rising temperatures if the season goes awry. That would include: Indiana's Kevin Wilson, who seems to have the Hoosiers on an uptick but who needs to get the team to a bowl soon; Purdue's Darrell Hazell, who almost certainly won't get canned after just two years but can't afford another season as awful as last season's 1-11 debacle; and Michigan's Brady Hoke, who isn't on the hot seat now but who would definitely feel the wrath of fans and boosters if the Wolverines have another 7-5 type year and lose to Ohio State.

Tier 3 covers the coaches actually feeling some heat under their chairs. Let's evaluate them individually:

  • Tim Beckman, Illinois: This should come as no surprise. The Illini showed improvement last season, but Beckman is still just 6-18 and has seen fan support fall off a cliff. Anything less than a bowl game in 2014 could make things really dicey.
  • Bo Pelini, Nebraska: This is a well-documented situation, and many people were surprised Pelini wasn't fired at the end of last season, though athletics director Shawn Eichorst remains hard to read. The good news is that Pelini could have a very good team in Lincoln this year, and he sure doesn't appear to be sweating things this spring.
  • Kyle Flood, Rutgers: He went 9-4 his first season as head coach but just 6-7 with a dismal finish last season. He also has a new boss in town, and the Scarlet Knights will face a very difficult schedule in Year 1 in the Big Ten. He's only making $900,000, so a change wouldn't be too financially painful. The question is whether embattled new athletic director Julie Hermann has enough juice right now to make that call.
  • Randy Edsall, Maryland: This is the toughest call of the tier, as Edsall might have bought himself some time with last season's winning record and has had to deal with injuries to many star players. Yet he's still just 13-24 after three seasons, and life in the Big Ten might not be easy for the Terps. A losing record in 2014 would make things very uncomfortable in College Park.

George K. from Pittsburgh: Brian, I'm disappointed in what you wrote about Joe Paterno winning [the Big Ten coaches' tournament]. There was way too much conjecture in what you said. Please think about it. Then issue a factual restatement, please.

Scott R. from Chadron, Neb., writes: Pretty sure there was voter fraud on that Osborne/Paterno matchup. Am I the only one who noticed there were as many international votes as domestic? And that those international votes were 87% for Paterno? Every other poll on ESPN.com is about 75% domestic, 25% foreign. This one was 50/50, and the international vote was OVERWHELMINGLY for Paterno. Seems a little suspicious.

Brian Bennett: File this one under "You Can't Please Everybody, Vol. 734." For the past two weeks, my mailbag was full of comments like Scott's, claiming some sort of voter fraud as Paterno got a huge international vote against both Tom Osborne and Woody Hayes. I have neither the technical expertise nor the time to figure out whether there was some sort of computer tomfoolery going on. But you'd have to be really naive not to raise an eyebrow at the fact that more than half the votes (17,000-plus) in the title matchup came from outside the United States and that those votes were wildly in favor of Paterno. Maybe there's a simple explanation why so many non-U.S. residents care about Big Ten football -- Italians for JoePa, perhaps?

The bottom line is that we placed no rules on this tournament, other than the most votes wins. If someone was ingenious enough to rig it, more power to them. Paterno certainly had the résumé and accomplishments that were deserving on their own. I had no personal stake in the outcome, and I found it to be a fun exercise to go along with March Madness. I hope everyone enjoyed it.


Andrew from Columbus, Ohio, writes: While it is still possible that Ohio State-Michigan State could be a night game, what prevented it from being in the first batch of announced games? Since it would feature the two most compelling teams in the league from last year, it seems to me that it would be the marquee matchup the B1G has been looking to highlight.

Brian Bennett: Andrew, I can't say I understand all the intricacies here at play, either, except that there are apparently some other details to iron out. That game still seems like a natural choice for a prime-time selection. It's still only mid-April. Stay tuned ...


Mike K. from Penn State writes: With Penn State losing Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder at the WR position, along with some great O-linemen to the draft, do you think the team can still succeed in the Big Ten solely based on defense?

Brian Bennett: I have great respect for what Bob Shoop and his staff accomplished at Vanderbilt and expect him to do a great job as the Nittany Lions' defensive coordinator. From what I saw last year, however, I don't think there's enough top-shelf talent on that defense for Penn State to pull a Michigan State and simply dominate everyone on defense. At least not at a championship level. I don't worry as much about the receiving group, because I think with Geno Lewis, some of the talented freshmen and those tight ends, they can piece together people for Christian Hackenberg to target. My biggest concern is the offensive line, which is thin and has some troubling injuries. It's nearly impossible to win at a high level in the Big Ten without a decent offensive line.


Tommy from Savannah, Ga., writes: March Madness is one of the greatest times of the year, most people live for it. Why wouldn't the NCAA FBS decision makers want something like that with those ratings over the course of a few weeks? Definitely not 68 teams, but eight or 16 teams with a selection show, bracket challenge, Cinderellas, and endless coverage and hype. They already do it for FCS.

Brian Bennett: You'll find no bigger NCAA tournament fan than me, Tommy, and my wife is really happy it's over so she can see me again. Still, it's hard to compare the sports. Football simply is a much more physical game, and so adding more games to the schedule becomes problematic, along with the logistical problems caused by Christmas break and the semester changes. I do believe we will eventually have an eight-team tournament, with the five power conference champions getting an automatic berth along with the top champion of the other leagues plus two wild cards. That's a perfect setup. But it took us decades just to get to a four-team playoff, and that semifinal day on Jan. 1 (most years) will instantly become one of the best days on the sports calendar.

Besides, I could argue college football already has March Madness all fall long, and the ratings reflect that. Before the Final Four began, the NCAA tournament averaged a reported 9.8 million viewers, which was a big increase. By contrast, the Big Ten championship game drew 11.6 million viewers, while the Auburn-Alabama game attracted 13.8 million. The men's basketball final (aired on network TV) between UConn and Kentucky got 21.2 million viewers, compared to 25.6 million for the BCS title game (aired on ESPN) between Florida State and Auburn. We could see record ratings for the inaugural rounds of the College Football Playoff.
Enjoy the Final Four. And for you Michigan fans out there, enjoy the spring game at the Big House.

Don't forget: Twitter!

To the inbox ...

Kenny from Cincy writes: I was comparing on-the-field accomplishments of the past two Ohio State QBs and I feel like Terrelle Pryor has had a better career (you know, despite crippling the program the next year but I feel like most in Buckeye land have forgiven him). Pryor: 3 Big Ten championships, a Rose Bowl win, and a Sugar Bowl win over a SEC team in three years (I know the games were vacated, but it did happen). Braxton Miller: 0-2 in bowls and 0 Big Ten championships, but two Silver Footballs and 24 wins in a row are nice. My question is, due to the expectations that QBs like Troy Smith and Pryor elevated, do you think Miller has to win a Big Ten championship or more this year or will the Braxton Miller years be seen as a failure in Buckeyes fans' eyes?

Adam Rittenberg: Kenny, this is a really interesting debate regarding each quarterback's legacy. There's no doubt Miller has accomplished more individually than Pryor. He could be the first Big Ten player to win three offensive player of the year awards. He likely would have won a Big Ten championship in 2012 if Ohio State had been eligible for postseason play, but when you look at macro team accomplishments -- league titles and BCS bowl wins -- Pryor definitely gets the edge. He likely was an ill-timed blitz away from having a third BCS bowl win in the 2009 Fiesta Bowl against Texas. One big difference is Pryor played on teams with much better defenses. Miller had several reasons to return for his senior season, and winning a Big Ten title certainly is one of them.


Joe from Phoenix writes: I don't understand everyone's love for a nine-game conference schedule. I do not believe rematches in college football are a good thing, as it makes the first game irrelevant. With a nine-game schedule, you almost guarantee a rematch in the championship game. Why not schedule one more "quality" nonconference game? That way all Big Ten schools have an opportunity to have one more win on their record, and look better for the bowl committees.

Adam Rittenberg: Joe, I hear you and it definitely increases the likelihood of a rematch in the Big Ten championship, but I also see the league's viewpoint. It wants a greater schedule rotation to enhance your product week after week. It wants players to face every league team at least once in a four-year period. I also think it's tricky to demand another quality nonleague game in place of the ninth Big Ten contest. Some schools would step up, but you need teams from other power conferences to play ball, too, which is no guarantee. I also think some schools would schedule cupcakes. Bowl committees rarely care about strength of schedule.


Joe from South Bend, Ind., writes: Adam, what was maybe one thing you found impressive with your visit to Happy Valley and was your one big takeaway?

Adam Rittenberg: Joe, I'm very impressed with James Franklin's staff. They're very sharp guys who know how to keep the energy level high and relate well to a group of new players. Everyone knows that Franklin operates in fifth gear, but his assistants do, too, and there's tremendous cohesion with the staff. It would have been much harder if the staff lacked familiarity as it tried to get to know the players. My big takeaway: Penn State's defense is much further along than the offense, and the Lions likely will need to win low-scoring games this fall. Coordinator Bob Shoop has a good plan and inherits some good pieces. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is a once-in-a-generation type quarterback, but he'll face more pressure this year because of the issues with the offensive line.


Kevin from Las Vegas writes: Is history the only thing that qualifies a team for elite status? Wisconsin is seen as a sleeper in the B1G, and two years ago they were "elite." Michigan and Ohio State would never be considered "sleepers," even after down years. Is this simply because of historic achievements (lots of national championships when Teddy Roosevelt was president), branding (our helmets have wings!), or lazy writers (not you guys, of course)? Do teams like Wisconsin, Michigan State or Iowa ever really have a shot of being elite because their legacy doesn't include deep history?

Adam Rittenberg: Kevin, it's a good point to raise, especially because I think Michigan State is being overlooked heading into 2014 just because it hasn't been a traditional power. You hear a lot about Ohio State making a run for the College Football Playoff, but Michigan State dominated the Big Ten last year (nine wins by 10 or more points), won the Rose Bowl and brings back quarterback Connor Cook and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, among others. Wisconsin has gained national respect in the past 20-plus years, but the Badgers also recently lost three consecutive Rose Bowls, which hurt their cause. Iowa has had its moments but lacks the consistency of Wisconsin. Michigan State, meanwhile, really has it rolling under Mark Dantonio. At some point, the Spartans need to be viewed as elite for what's happening now, not in the past.


Charlie from Chicago writes: What recruits in the conference are due to have breakout seasons in their freshman year?

Adam Rittenberg: There are potentially quite a few this year, Charlie. Early enrollees have an advantage, so keep an eye on players such as Ohio State LB Raekwon McMillan, Michigan WR Freddy Canteen, Ohio State WR Johnnie Dixon and Penn State WR De'Andre Thompkins. Other potential impact recruits arriving in the summer include Michigan CB Jabrill Peppers (the Big Ten's top-rated recruit in the 2014 class), Illinois DE Jihad Ward (junior college transfer), Minnesota RB Jeff Jones and Michigan State DT Malik McDowell, whom Mark Dantonio gushed about Wednesday after he finally signed.
The best offenses can threaten defenses at the quarterback, running back and wide receiver positions. Brian Bennett on Tuesday examined the triple-threat combinations from the Big Ten's new West Division.

Now let's turn our attention to the East Division and rank the triple-threat combinations. The division is strong at quarterback but lacking elite wide receivers.

1. Indiana

QB Nate Sudfeld, RB Tevin Coleman, WR Shane Wynn

The Hoosiers featured the league's No. 2 offense in 2013 and top this list even though top receiver Cody Latimer bolted for the NFL draft. They have two options at quarterback, but Sudfeld, who had nearly 1,400 more passing yards than teammate Tre Roberson, gets the nod here. Coleman brings explosiveness to the backfield after rushing for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns in only nine games. Wynn finished near the top of the league in receiving touchdowns (11) and had 46 receptions for 633 yards.

2. Ohio State

QB Braxton Miller, RB Ezekiel Elliott, WR Devin Smith

You would think a team with the back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year at quarterback would be rated higher, but the Buckeyes lose a huge piece at running back in Carlos Hyde, as well as top receiver Corey Brown. Elliott, who had 262 rushing yards last season, is competing for the starting position this spring. Smith has been Miller's big-play target throughout his career and had eight touchdown catches and averaged 15 yards per reception last fall. Tight end Jeff Heuerman provides another weapon in the pass game.

3. Michigan State

QB Connor Cook, RB Jeremy Langford, WR Tony Lippett

The skinny: A year ago, Michigan State's offense looked like a mess. Cook began the season as the backup but emerged to lead the Spartans to nine Big Ten wins, all by double digits, and a Rose Bowl championship. Langford answered Michigan State's running back questions with 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. There's no true No. 1 receiver on the roster, and while Macgarrett Kings (513 receiving yards in 2013) could claim the role, Lippett gets the nod after leading the team in receptions (44) and finishing second in receiving yards (613) last year.
4. Penn State

QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Zach Zwinak, TE Jesse James

The Lions have the Big Ten's top pocket passer in Hackenberg, the league's freshman of the year in 2013. But Hackenberg loses his favorite target in Allen Robinson, and wide receiver is a major question entering the fall. The tight end position looks much stronger with James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman. Penn State also has options at running back, but Zwinak has led the team in rushing in each of the past two years, finishing with 989 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall.

5. Maryland

QB C.J. Brown, RB Brandon Ross, WR Stefon Diggs

Don't be surprised if Maryland finishes higher on the postseason triple-threats list as long as their top players stay healthy, which is hardly a guarantee after the past two seasons. Brown is a veteran dual-threat player who had 2,242 passing yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Ross leads a potentially deep group of running backs after leading the team with 776 rushing yards. Although Levern Jacobs led Maryland in receiving last year and returns, Diggs is the team's top threat after averaging 17.3 yards per catch before a season-ending injury in October.

6. Michigan

QB Devin Gardner, RB Derrick Green, TE/WR Devin Funchess

Gardner is capable of putting up some big numbers, as he showed last year, but he loses top target Jeremy Gallon. The run game is a major question mark for new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, although hopes are high for Green, a heralded recruit who had 270 rushing yards as a freshman. At 6-5 and 230 pounds, Funchess is a tight end who plays like a wide receiver. He finished second on the team in receptions (49), receiving yards (748) and touchdowns (6).

7. Rutgers

QB Gary Nova, RB Paul James, TE Tyler Kroft

New coordinator Ralph Friedgen tries to spark an offense that finished 77th nationally in scoring and 95th in yards last season. Nova is competing this spring to retain the starting job, which he has held since the middle of the 2011 season. James averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season and can be very effective when healthy. Rutgers is scrambling at bit at the wide receiver position but returns a solid option at tight end in Kroft, who led the team in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last fall.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

March, 19, 2014
Mar 19
5:00
PM ET
Take your nose out of the brackets for a second and dive into this latest Big Ten mailbag.

Joe F. from Wrightsville, Pa., writes: Top three Big Ten games for 2014? Bottom three? How soon will PSU play into Big Ten title talk?

Brian Bennett: We'll probably do a list at some point of our best and worst games of 2014, but after going through the ultimate road trip exercise, this is a topic fresh in my mind. My top three games for 2014:

1. Ohio State at Michigan State, Week 11: This one's fairly obvious. It's the rematch of last year's Big Ten title game, and both teams should be ranked in the top 10 to start the season as the clear league favorites.

2. Michigan State at Oregon, Week 2: This is the most exciting Big Ten nonconference game in years, in my opinion. Sure, we had Michigan-Alabama a couple seasons ago, but most people didn't think the Wolverines were ready to compete with the Tide (and they were right). These two teams are not only legitimate national title contenders, but the extreme contrast in styles -- the Ducks' quick-strike offense against the Spartans' ferocious D -- is incredibly compelling.

3. Nebraska at Wisconsin, Week 12: The third choice could fluctuate between now and the start of the season. Wisconsin-LSU is really interesting, Michigan-Ohio State is always must-see and Iowa's last two games of the season could be huge if the Hawkeyes come through early on. That's just to name a few. But for now, I'll take what looks like the key showdown for the West Division title.

As for the three worst, I'm always going to pick terrible nonconference games for those. And my three snooze-fests right now would be Western Michigan (1-11 last year) at Purdue in Week 1, along with Week 2 weaklings Howard at Rutgers and Western Illinois (4-8 in '13) at Wisconsin.

Lastly -- and very sneaky of you to get three questions in, Joe -- I've been pretty consistent in saying 2016 is my pick for Penn State to contend for the Big Ten title. It's potentially Christian Hackenberg's senior season, and all of the sanctions will be gone. It wouldn't shock me if James Franklin moved that timeline up to 2015, however.


Taylor from North Platte, Neb., writes: Brian, love the blog! Question I ask people in "The Good Life" a lot is, would you rather see Nebraska play Wisconsin at the end of the year instead of Iowa? Many agree, the Iowa rivalry is forced (I personally cheer for Iowa over ISU in the Cy-Hawk Game) for Nebraskans, and many people have a bad taste in their mouth when talking about Wisconsin, just because the whippings they have given the Huskers two out of three times Nebraska has played them. Just wanted your thoughts on that.

Brian Bennett: The Nebraska-Iowa rivalry is forced, to a large degree. But I think the fact that the Hawkeyes won last year in Lincoln should help the Heroes Game grow, and it's possible the two teams could be playing for a division title on the final weekend in 2014. I believe the Nebraska-Wisconsin rivalry will grow now that the two teams are in the same division, but there really has only been one good game between them so far (the Huskers' home win in 2012). And I prefer having Wisconsin and Minnesota continue college football's oldest rivalry on the final weekend.


Tim from Raleigh, N.C., writes: I just read your article about the running game at Wisconsin with Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement. In the article, you mention that there isn't depth besides those two. I agree that there isn't any "proven" depth, but that hasn't stopped Wisconsin recently. Just like every other year, Wisconsin starts the season with two good running backs and questionable depth. But the No. 3 RB always proves that the depth is there. White, Gordon and Clement all proved to be great players while only being third on the depth chart. I wouldn't be surprised to see Taiwan Deal or maybe Vonte Jackson (I know he has moved to safety, but want to see him at RB) provide the depth for the Badgers.

Brian Bennett: Tim, the depth situation is really more the concern of Gary Andersen this spring, which is why he's holding Gordon and Clement out of contact. There's a very good chance that Deal becomes that No. 3 back in the mold of Gordon in 2012 or Clement in 2013, but remember that he's not on campus yet. The only other scholarship tailbacks right now are senior Jeff Lewis and redshirt freshman Austin Ramesh. Andersen doesn't want to risk Gordon and Clement getting hurt this spring, and there's really no reason to have them get tackled right now.


Joelfr from South Brunswick, N.J., writes: Do you think that Rutgers will stick with experienced but inconsistent QB Gary Nova this coming season as Big Ten action starts, or will they go with one of their young QBs who have never started a game?

Brian Bennett: We'll start to get some answers when the Scarlet Knights open practice Monday, but I'd say every option is on the table right now, especially with new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen. Youngsters Mike Bimonte, Blake Rankin and Chris Laviano have a lot to prove, as none of them has taken a college snap. But Nova has thrown 39 interceptions in parts of three seasons, which helped lead to his benching last season. He has a huge experience edge, but it might be time to start over in Piscataway. The good news is that if anyone can fix Nova, it's probably Friedgen. If not, then one of the young guys will get a shot.


Andrew from Fremont, Ind., writes: Brian, as a Purdue fan, the 2013-14 athletic season was horrible, bottom of the league in both major sports. I believe things are going to be better in 2014-15. To find a ray of hope, I decided to look back at the Big Ten's worst since the turn of the century. The records obviously point to the Hoosiers being the worst (surprise!). IU has only had one season where they have finished at .500 since 2000, and in only six of those years has it won more than one conference game. Aside from Illinois, no one in the Big Ten has even been close to being that bad. Despite surprise trips to the Rose and Sugar Bowls, Illinois has done their best to match IU's level of awfulness with three zero-win Big Ten seasons during that time. As bad as Purdue was this season, history seems to favor that a crummy IU team or the Fighting Illini are destined to reclaim the basement. Which Big Ten team gets your honor in the preseason as the Big Ten's worst?

Brian Bennett: Andrew, I feel your pain. What a rough go of it this has been for Boilers fans. I actually wrote back in November about the worst Big Ten teams in recent years, and the 2013 Purdue squad ranked among the worst of the worst. And that was before the Boilermakers lost to Illinois and Indiana (by 20 points) to finish out a 1-11 campaign. Purdue lost by an average of 23.1 points per game last year and ranked at or very close to the bottom nationally in virtually every major statistical category. While I believe Darrell Hazell will eventually turn things around and that the schedule should help the Boilers improve a little this season, there's no doubt that they begin the year as the worst team in the league again, especially as Illinois and Indiana look capable of competing for a bowl bid.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
5:00
PM ET
Your second serving of my mailbag for the week has arrived ...

@JeffHurdaCow via Twitter writes: Do you think that the Big Ten will get a team into the playoff, and who is more likely?

[+] EnlargeAli Highsmith
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelOhio State was the last Big Ten team to play for the national championship, after the 2007 season.
Brian Bennett: That's really the key question for 2014, isn't it? It's bad enough that the Big Ten hasn't played for a national title since the 2007 season; from now on, getting to the final four will determine just how relevant any major league is. Football Outsiders recently looked at the top 10 contenders for the playoff and included just one Big Ten team: Ohio State, which they ranked eighth with a 34 percent chance of finishing 11-1 or better. You absolutely have to throw Michigan State in there, as the Spartans broke into the elite ranks last year and has a spotlight nonconference opportunity at Oregon. If Wisconsin can manage to beat LSU in the opener, the Badgers have a very nice schedule the rest of the way. Those would be my top three contenders.

But I think it's going to be tough. The SEC is all but guaranteed at least one spot in the field, and Florida State is a good bet to get back as well. A Big Ten team is likely going to have to finish undefeated or with just one loss against a strong schedule to get into the four-team mix. Not making the playoff in a year when the Rose Bowl is a semifinal would be a bitter pill for the league to swallow.


Matt from Ypsilanti, Mich., writes: I think this could be the year that starts the rise of the Big Ten and the fall of the SEC (short term). My reason is this: For the first time in a long time, I think it looks like QB play will be much improved. It could be a position of strength for the Big Ten in 2014 due to many experienced QBs returning and a lot of young talent as well. Many of the top teams in the SEC do not have their starters back, and although they will still have talented signal callers, they will likely see a drop in production for SEC QBs. Do you agree the Big Ten will have an advantage over the SEC -- and maybe all other conferences -- at QB next year?

Brian Bennett: I like your optimism. The SEC lost an astonishing amount of talent at quarterback with guys like Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray and Connor Shaw leaving. But while the Big Ten brings some good experience back at quarterback, including Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Michigan's Devin Gardner, the overall level of play at quarterback in the league has been lacking for a couple of years, in my opinion. It's great seeing talented young quarterbacks at places like Purdue, Indiana and Nebraska, but they all need to take steps forward. I think the Pac-12 has far and away the best group of returning QBs in 2014.


Andrew from Allentown, Pa., writes: What are your thoughts on the new coaching staff at Penn State? I am pretty high on the staff, but I worry a bit about the offensive coordinator and QB coaches. It looks to me like the defensive staff is pretty elite after what they did at Vandy, but the offense struggled, ranking in the 90s in total offense most of the time. Was this a lack of talent at Vandy or a product of their system?

Brian Bennett: I like Penn State's staff a lot. Not only are they energetic and big-time recruiters, they proved a lot by winning nine games in back-to-back seasons at Vanderbilt, which many people thought was impossible. That's really all I need to know. Yes, the Commodores were a more defensive-oriented team under James Franklin, but they also played against some stout SEC defenses. And I don't think he ever had a player nearly as talented as Hackenberg. I'm really interested to see what the Nittany Lions offense looks like under Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan. There are some concerns at offensive line and wide receiver, but I have confidence in this staff to figure things out.


@HawkFlies via Twitter writes: Is Iowa a dominant offensive line in 2014 with Scherff returning as well as OL coach Brian Ferentz?

Brian Bennett: I certainly think you could make a case for the Hawkeyes' line being the best in the league in 2014. Brandon Scherff is the only returning lineman in the league who made first-team or second-team All-Big Ten, and he's the early leading candidate to win the Rimington-Pace offensive lineman of the year award. Iowa does have to replace tackle Brett Van Sloten and guard Conor Boffeli, but has plenty of in-house candidates and a great history of success with the position group. I'd like to see the Hawkeyes get a better push up front with those big guys in 2014: Iowa finished just sixth in team rushing in the Big Ten last year, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. But with Ohio State rebuilding its line, the title of best O-line in the league is up for grabs this year (though Wisconsin will also have a lot to say about that).


Chris from Chicago writes: To what degree should injuries during the spring be a concern? I know in Spring 2013 that Northwestern's O-line was banged up, and then they struggled in the fall. Should I be similarly concerned now that the Northwestern D-line is banged up in Spring 2014? What do teams (not just Northwestern) do to overcome spring injuries, and not have them have a carry-over effect into the fall?

Brian Bennett: You always want position groups, like both lines, to get lots of reps together in the spring and build chemistry, especially if there are several new starters there. But as long as the injuries aren't serious or lingering, I don't think it's always a huge deal. Players still work out a lot together in the summer and then again through two-a-days and preseason practices, so there is plenty of time to jell. There have been lots of examples of players missing all or large parts of spring ball and having a strong season. The absolute worst thing that can come out of spring practice is a long-term injury, so having some players miss that extra contact isn't always a bad thing.


Alex K. from Decatur, Neb., writes: What do you think the direction if the Big Ten should be after the additions of Maryland and Rutgers? Should Notre Dame be a top target still, or maybe more East Coast? No change?

Brian Bennett: Ah, expansion questions. How I missed thee. Or something. Anyway, perhaps I'm being naive, but I think the expansion merry-go-round has stopped for a while, thanks to the grant-of-rights deals. I believe we'll see some stability for at least the next few years, and there aren't any schools that would fit the Big Ten profile who appear able to or interested in moving. Of course, it only takes one big domino to change everything. The league seems pretty intent on opening new markets and finding areas of population growth, so if there were going to be another expansion push, I would think the conference would try to look to the East and South. But let's hope we don't have to worry about that again for a while.
Earlier this week, we wrapped up our countdown of the top 10 individual performances of 2013 by Big Ten players.

It was a difficult list to compile through all the worthy candidates, and some of you disagreed with the order and the selections. Well, now it's your turn to vote on it.

SportsNation

What was the best individual performance of 2013 in the Big Ten?

  •  
    20%
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    31%
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    13%
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    10%
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    26%

Discuss (Total votes: 9,778)

Which 2013 performance was the best? Here are our top five contenders:
  • Jeremy Gallon vs. Indiana: The Michigan receiver set a Big Ten record and compiled the second-highest single-game receiving yard total ever in an FBS game by catching 14 passes for 369 yards and two touchdowns.
  • Connor Cook vs. Ohio State: The Michigan State quarterback earned Big Ten title game MVP honors after passing for what was then a career-best 304 yards and three touchdowns.
  • Carlos Hyde vs. Illinois: The Ohio State running back went wild against the Illini, piling up 246 rushing yards and five total touchdowns.
  • Devin Gardner vs. Ohio State: Despite playing much of the second half on a broken foot, the Michigan quarterback completed 32 of 45 passes for 451 yards and scored five total touchdowns in a narrow loss to the Buckeyes.
  • Christian Hackenberg vs. Wisconsin: The Penn State freshman had his best game of the season in the finale, completing 21 of 30 passes for 339 yards and throwing four touchdowns in an upset win on the road.

These were all great performances, but only one can be the best. Vote now in our poll.
Here's a team-by-team look at what to watch in the new Big Ten East this spring.

Indiana

Spring start: March 8

Spring game: TBA

What to watch
  • Getting defensive: The Hoosiers have had no trouble scoring since Kevin Wilson took over the program, but opponents have made it look even easier. New defensive coordinator Brian Knorr might have his hands full turning around the Big Ten’s worst unit, but Indiana could be dangerous if he can.
  • Quarterback derby: The offense operated just fine with Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld taking turns leading the attack, so Wilson might not even need to settle on just one quarterback. Typically it does help to have a pecking order behind center, though, and the Hoosiers will be watching these guys closely to see if one can gain some separation.
  • Next in line: There is a ready-made candidate to take over as the team’s most productive receiver, but Shane Wynn is going to need some help. For all his speed and elusiveness, Wynn is still undersized and doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional receiver, which will make it necessary for somebody like Nick Stoner to step up to help replace Cody Latimer.
Maryland

Spring start: March 1

Spring game: April 11

What to watch
  • Get healthy: The Terrapins have one of the most talented groups of wide receivers in the country when they’re completely healthy, but that was an issue last season with both Stefon Diggs and Deon Long suffering broken legs -- just for starters. Neither of those game-breakers is expected to be on the field this spring, but their respective rehabs are critical moving forward.
  • Give and take: An emphasis on protecting the football on offense and creating more turnovers defensively is nothing new in spring practice, but Randy Edsall might just double down on that message this year. The Terrapins finished last in the ACC in turnover margin last season and were ranked No. 102 in the nation with seven more giveaways than takeaways, which isn’t a recipe for success in any league.
  • Coaching chemistry: The deck wasn’t completely reshuffled, but the Terrapins will have three new assistants in charge and could use a seamless transition as they prepare to move to a new league. Keenan McCardell (wide receivers), Chad Wilt (defensive line) and Greg Studrawa (offensive line) will help deliver Edsall’s message moving forward, and it’s as crucial for a coaching staff to jell and find common ground as it is for players on the field.
Michigan

Spring start: Feb. 25

Spring game: April 5

What to watch
  • Go pro: If it was the coordinator keeping Brady Hoke from putting the offense he wanted on the field, that won’t be an issue anymore with Al Borges out of the picture. Snapping up Doug Nussmeier from Alabama should put the Wolverines on the path for a more traditional pro-style attack, and establishing that playbook starts on the practice field in spring.
  • Quarterback quandary: The competition to lead the new-look offense is open between Devin Gardner and Shane Morris, and how that battle shakes out will obviously have a lasting impact and shape the season for the Wolverines. Gardner has the edge in experience and turned in a gritty, wildly productive outing against Ohio State while injured to end the season, but he certainly has lacked consistency. Morris filled in during the postseason with mixed results, but one of those guys will need to emerge.
  • On the line: The Wolverines were in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten in sacks, and only Purdue was worse in the league at protecting the quarterback. Both sides of the line have plenty of room to develop, and those daily battles against each other this spring will need to sharpen both the pass-rushers and the blockers if Michigan is going to be able to win games up front.
Michigan State

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch
  • Something cooking: The finishing flourish in the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl showed how far Connor Cook had come from the start of the season to the end, but there’s still more room to grow. His numbers are slightly skewed thanks to the way Michigan State handled the job early in the season, but overall he averaged fewer than 200 yards per game passing. With such a great defense, that was enough -- but boosting that total would be better for the Spartans.
  • Reload defensively: The seemingly impenetrable defense might have been more than sum of its parts, but the individual pieces Michigan State had on hand weren’t too shabby, either. With Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen all gone, the Spartans will need to identify some replacements for the stars of that elite unit from a year ago.
  • Plug some holes: Both starting offensive guards have to be replaced, and given the perhaps overlooked significance of the work the line did for the Spartans last season, that shouldn’t be dismissed as a meaningful item on the checklist. Cook has to be protected in the pocket, for starters, but with the way the Spartans traditionally pound the football on the ground, they’ll need some road-pavers to step up during spring practice to keep the offense on the upswing.
Ohio State

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch
  • Backs to the wall: There weren’t many deficiencies to be found on a team that again went through the regular season unbeaten, but Ohio State’s glaring weakness caught up with it late in the year. The Buckeyes looked helpless at times against the pass, and new co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Chris Ash was brought in to make sure that unit is dramatically improved.
  • Hold the line: The Buckeyes held on to Braxton Miller for another year, but they lost four seniors who had protected the quarterback for the past couple of seasons. That might be a worthwhile trade, but finding replacements up front will be imperative for a team that has leaned heavily on that veteran presence in the trenches since Urban Meyer took over the program. Taylor Decker is the lone holdover in the starting lineup, and he’ll need to assert himself as the leader of the unit.
  • Air it out: Miller had some shaky performances throwing the ball down the stretch, but taking the passing game to a higher level is not solely his responsibility. The Buckeyes also need improved play and more reliable options at wide receiver, and they’ve recruited to address that issue over the past couple of years. Michael Thomas, who redshirted during his second year on campus, might be leading the charge for a new batch of playmakers on the perimeter.
Penn State

Spring start: March 17

Spring game: April 12

What to watch
  • Starting fresh: There are new playbooks to learn again for the Nittany Lions, and spring practice will be the first chance for James Franklin to start shaping his team in his image. That process doesn’t just include memorizing schemes and assignments for the players, since every coach has a different way of structuring practices and meetings. The sooner the Nittany Lions adjust the better off they’ll be in the fall.
  • Next step: As debut seasons go, it’s hard to find much fault in the work Christian Hackenberg did after being tossed into the fire as a true freshman. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards with 20 touchdowns, completing 59 percent and setting the bar pretty high for himself down the road. As part of his encore, Franklin would probably like to see the young quarterback cut down on his 10 interceptions as a sophomore.
  • Tighten up the defense: There were pass defenses with more holes than Penn State’s a year ago, but that will be little consolation for a program that has traditionally been so stout on that side of the ball. Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas can get the job done at cornerback, but the Nittany Lions need to get stronger at safety -- and also need to fill notable spots in front of them with linebacker Glenn Carson and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones now gone.
Rutgers

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch
  • Toughen up: The Scarlet Knights have seen hard-hitting competition and proven they aren’t afraid of a challenge, but the Big East and American conferences don’t provide nearly the weekly physical test that playing in the Big Ten does. There’s no reason to think Kyle Flood won’t have his team ready for the transition and a new league, but developing both strong bodies and minds starts in spring practice.
  • Settle on a quarterback: There’s a veteran signal-caller on hand with 28 career starts to his credit, but Flood made it no secret as far back as January that he would hold an open competition during camp to lead the offense. Gary Nova has the edge in experience, but he also has more interceptions in his career than games started. That could open the door for one of three younger guys to step in, though Mike Bimonte, Blake Rankin and Chris Laviano have combined to take a grand total of zero snaps.
  • Star turn: There’s nothing wrong with spreading the wealth, and the Scarlet Knights certainly did that in the passing game last season. Having five targets with at least 28 receptions can keep a defense off-balance, which is a good thing. But ending the season with none of those guys topping 573 yards might not be quite as encouraging, and establishing a consistent, go-to, big-play threat in the spring could prove useful for a team that finished No. 62 in the nation in passing yardage.
Spring football kicks off earlier than normal in the Big Ten, as Michigan takes the field Tuesday, Northwestern follows Wednesday and eight other squads begin their sessions by March 8.

The accelerated schedules seem appropriate in a league filled with players, coaches and teams itching for fresh starts.

New assistants get their first chance to repair struggling units, whether it's Doug Nussmeier with Michigan's offense, Brian Knorr with Indiana's defense or Chris Ash and Larry Johnson with a once-feared Ohio State defense. Quarterback competitions begin or resume at nine places, as new faces such as Illinois' Wes Lunt, Nebraska's Johnny Stanton and Minnesota's Chris Streveler enter the mix, while veterans like Wisconsin's Joel Stave and Michigan's Devin Gardner try to retain their starting jobs.

Happy Valley continues to buzz about new Penn State coach James Franklin, who seems to galvanize everyone whom he encounters. But Franklin barely has been around his new players and finally begins the real work with a team facing very real challenges.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes his team can start a rebound from a disappointing, injury-riddled 2013 season.
Spring also allows teams such as Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue and Indiana to look forward after disappointing seasons. Michigan State, meanwhile, continues to bask in the Rose Bowl glow but looks toward its next goal -- a national championship -- as spring ball kicks off March 25.

"It's big-picture stuff, building relationships with the players and everyone associated with the program," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The other thing is laying a really good foundation with the philosophies and schemes of how we're going to do things. That's going to happen naturally over time, but I'm not the most patient person. I wish it would have happened yesterday."

Franklin doesn't water down his goals for Penn State, especially in recruiting, but he's also realistic about the challenges of a reduced roster. The Nittany Lions return strong pieces such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive back Adrian Amos, but the two-deep has some holes that Franklin and his assistants must address, while installing new schemes.

"It's one thing when you get put in this situation in the first place with limited scholarships," Franklin said, "but the longer you're in it, the more effect it has. We've got some depth issues, there's no doubt about it, across the board. We're going to have to get creative."

Northwestern also is focused on depth after being hit hard by key injuries in 2013. Pat Fitzgerald blames himself and his staff for failing to get enough second-stringers ready, which proved costly in close Big Ten losses.

After their first bowl-less winter in six years, the Wildcats responded well in the weight room, as more than 50 players recorded personal bests. Although 11 players will miss spring practice, including standout running back/returner Venric Mark, the depth should be better in areas like the secondary.

"We're really emphasizing taking ownership of the finish," Fitzgerald said. "Finishing your technique, finishing the call, finishing the route. There's a lot of disappointment in the way the program didn't take the next step forward."

Michigan coach Brady Hoke restructured the roles of his defensive assistants for 2014, but the Wolverines' offense will be in the spotlight this spring after a wildly inconsistent season. Gardner, who continues to recover from a foot injury and likely won't be 100 percent until midway through the spring, will compete with Shane Morris, Russell Bellomy and midyear enrollee Wilton Speight.

But other positions, such as offensive line, figure to be just as important as Michigan tries to achieve Hoke and Nussmeier's vision.

"We had good intentions as far as what we wanted our identity to be, but obviously I don't think it came out the way we'd like it to," Hoke said. "The quarterback position is as important as any, and we have a guy [Gardner] who is very talented and had some really good games and games where we had to protect him better, have a better run game and take pressure off of him, and I don't think we did."

While Michigan turns the page on offense, Ohio State focuses on a defense that allowed 115 points in its last three games and finished 110th nationally in pass yards allowed (268 YPG). The Buckeyes lost top defenders Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, but they also added two accomplished assistants.

Johnson, who churned out NFL linemen during 18 years at Penn State, chose Ohio State instead of remaining in State College. Ash leaves a sole coordinator role at Arkansas for a co-coordinator role at Ohio State, where he'll work with the embattled Luke Fickell and others to mend the defense through a simplified scheme.

"Back in the day when Ohio State played great defense, you knew what you were going to get," Ash said. "They played with swagger, played with confidence, played with toughness. We have to get back to that. The simplicity of the things we're going to do will lead to faster players, more plays made and a more aggressive defense.

"I wasn't here [in 2013], but I can tell you what Coach Meyer has told me, what Luke Fickell has told me and what I watch on film. I can see there's some hesitation, there's some uncertainty. Why that is, I don't know. But it's my job to get it fixed."

Purdue has plenty to fix after a 1-11 season, and players not surprisingly are wearing T-shirts with the word "FORWARD" on the backs. Maryland and Rutgers move forward to a new conference after an offseason that saw several staff changes, including new coordinators at Rutgers (Ralph Friedgen, Joe Rossi).

There's a fresh start of sorts at Wisconsin, as a large and decorated senior class departs. Coach Gary Andersen's markings will be more obvious with his second team, which begins practice March 7.

Wisconsin is just one of many places where the top quarterback job is at stake. Lunt, who sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, competes with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey at Illinois.

"Competition's competition, no matter where it's at," said Lunt, who has added about 15 pounds since his arrival and checks in at 225. "It's different because it’s different people, different coaches, but I'm excited for it."

He's not alone in the Big Ten. Spring ball can't start soon enough.

B1G's top impact true freshmen

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
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The Big Ten's 2014 recruiting classes are signed and sealed -- for the most part, at least. The next question many of you ask is which incoming freshmen or junior-college players will make the biggest immediate impact for the 2014 season.

It's always a bit tricky projecting which recruits will make a big splash right away, as some will fall in line behind veteran players while others might be forced into big roles because of depth issues. Talent certainly plays a role on who sees the field the earliest, and so does need.

Here are five players (in alphabetical order) who I expect to see early and often in 2014. Note: Malik McDowell would have made the list, but the possibility (albeit slim) that he signs with Florida State prevents it.

Chris Godwin, WR, Penn State: The Lions have a dynamic quarterback in Christian Hackenberg, but wide receiver suddenly is a major need after Allen Robinson, the two-time Big Ten wide receiver of the year, entered the NFL draft. Robinson recorded 97 receptions last season, and no other Lions player had more than 28. The good news is Penn State loaded up at receiver in the 2014 class, and Godwin should be in the mix for major playing time right away. The 6-foot-2, 203-pound Godwin has a physical style that should help him transition to the college game.

[+] EnlargeJeff Jones
Tom Hauck/ESPNESPN 300 running back Jeff Jones has the potential to be an immediate contributor at Minnesota.
Jeff Jones, RB, Minnesota: The Gophers return a 1,200-yard rusher in David Cobb, so the need for Jones might not be overly pressing. But Jones' surge both during his senior season and afterward, when he claimed MVP honors at the Under Armour All-America Game, boost his chances of making a splash right away. Minnesota established itself as a run-first team in 2013, and the uncertainty at the quarterback position could push the Gophers even more toward the ground game this fall. The 6-foot, 198-pound Jones is the most decorated recruit of the Jerry Kill era and provides a spark to an offense that needs more dynamic components.

Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State: Here's a case of a supremely talented player -- ESPN RecruitingNation rates McMillan as the nation's top linebacker and No. 13 overall player -- who plays a position of extreme need. Ohio State has had depth issues at linebacker throughout Urban Meyer's tenure and loses All-American Ryan Shazier, who led the team in tackles (143), tackles for loss (22.5) and forced fumbles (4) last season. The departure of Mike Mitchell, a top linebacker recruit in the 2013 class, underscores the need for capable 'backers. The 6-2, 249-pound McMillan looks the part and should be able to help right away as a between-the-tackles run defender.

Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan: Brady Hoke has brought in other decorated recruits at Michigan, but Peppers has that can't-miss, no-doubt quality about him. Michigan will get this guy on the field right away, if not as a full-time starter in the secondary then on special teams, where he could be an explosive returner. The 6-1, 205-pound Peppers also could moonlight on offense after rushing for 43 touchdowns during his prep career. The nation's No. 2 overall recruit, according to ESPN RecruitingNation, Peppers brings the skills and playmaking ability to boost a defense took a step backward against the pass in 2013.

Jihad Ward, DT, Illinois: There's no secret why Illinois brought in five junior-college players in the 2014 class, as the upcoming season is pivotal for coach Tim Beckman. Repairing the nation's 110th-ranked defense is the top priority, and Ward should be able to help up front. The 6-6, 285-pound Ward is a big body in the middle who recorded 10 sacks in his junior college career. There are ample opportunities along the line after Illinois struggled so much against the run (116th nationally), and the Illini need Ward and the other jucos to be as good as advertised.

We'll have five more potential instant-impact players later today.
Darqueze DennardMike Carter/USA TODAY SportsDarqueze Dennard fell just short of the top spot in the 2013 Big Ten final player countdown, but the Michigan State cornerback was one of six Spartans that made the cut, the most of any school.

Our postseason Top 25 player countdown concluded earlier today with a familiar name -- Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller -- at the top. What did you think of the rundown? Let us know here and here.

Let's dive into the rankings ...

BY TEAM

Michigan State: 6
Ohio State: 5
Wisconsin: 4
Nebraska: 2
Michigan: 2
Iowa: 2
Indiana: 1
Illinois: 1
Penn State: 1
Minnesota: 1

Northwestern and Purdue weren't represented on the list, although several players -- Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and kicker Jeff Budzien, along with Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen -- were considered.

BY POSITION

Linebacker: 5
Running back: 5
Wide receiver: 4
Quarterback: 3
Offensive tackle: 3
Defensive end: 2
Cornerback: 2
Defensive tackle: 1

The Big Ten remains a linebacker- and running back-driven league, just like we thought it would be entering the season. Wide receiver saw an improvement in 2013 as four players made the list, up from just one (Penn State's Allen Robinson) following the 2012 season. Cornerback is another spot that improved around the league. Although just two made the list, others such as Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Purdue's Allen and Michigan's Blake Countess wouldn't have been bad choices.

Center traditionally has been a strong position in the Big Ten but none made the cut this year (Ohio State's Corey Linsley came close). Safety continues to be a bit of a problem around the league. There are some good safeties but few great ones. That could change in 2014 as players such as Kurtis Drummond and Ibraheim Campbell return.

BY CLASS (eligibility)

Senior: 13
Junior: 8
Sophomore: 4

Of the nine juniors, five are returning for the 2014 season. Draft-eligible sophomores such as Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon also are returning.

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg was the only freshman (true or redshirt) seriously considered for the list.

RANKINGS HISTORY

Ten players also appeared in the 2012 postseason rankings. Here they are:

No. 1: Braxton Miller (No. 1 in 2012 rankings)
No. 2: Darqueze Dennard (No. 19 in 2012 rankings)
No. 3: Carlos Hyde (No. 21 in 2012 rankings)
No. 4: Ameer Abdullah (No. 20 in 2012 rankings)
No. 5: Ryan Shazier (No. 10 in 2012 rankings)
No. 6: Chris Borland (No. 13 in 2012 rankings)
No. 7: Allen Robinson (No. 11 in 2012 rankings)
No. 9: Taylor Lewan (No. 7 in 2012 rankings)
No. 14: Max Bullough (No. 15 in 2012 rankings)
No. 16: Bradley Roby (No. 16 in 2012 rankings)

Dennard, Hyde and Abdullah were the biggest risers from 2012, while Calhoun, who finished No. 8 after being unranked after his freshman year, made the biggest overall jump.

When it comes to the preseason Top 25, 14 players who made the list also appear in the postseason rankings. Dennard (preseason No. 10), Abdullah (preseason No. 13), Gordon (preseason No. 22) and Wisconsin running back James White preseason No. 23) are among the biggest risers, while Lewan (preseason No. 2), Bullough (preseason No. 7) and Roby (preseason No. 9) slipped a bit. Hyde would have made the preseason rankings, but we weren't sure of his status because of the night club incident.

FIVE THAT JUST MISSED THE CUT

[+] EnlargeIllinois' Jonathan Brown
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsJonathan Brown (45) was one of the top linebackers in the conference and just barely missed making the Top 25.
Illinois LB Jonathan Brown: Brown definitely was No. 26 on our list and certainly could have made the Top 25 rundown. The second-team All-Big Ten selection finished second in the league in tackles (119) and fourth in tackles per loss average (1.25 per game).

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: He had some typical freshman moments but finished the season extremely well and showed tremendous potential. Hackenberg earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors and passed for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Iowa LB Anthony Hitchens: Hitchens had an excellent senior season as part of the Big Ten's top linebacker corps. He finished sixth in the league in tackles per game and seventh in tackles for loss. He recorded two forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovered.

Penn State DT DaQuan Jones: Jones earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches and was a bright spot for a defense that struggled for much of the season. He had 56 tackles, including a team-high 11 tackles for loss, and three sacks.

Ohio State DE Noah Spence: Spence began to display his tremendous potential for a young Buckeyes defensive line, finishing second in the league in sacks (8) and sixth in tackles for loss (14.5). He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media and second-team honors from the coaches.

Big Ten lunch links

January, 30, 2014
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Anybody up for a little fish fry?
  • Former Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons is apparently not facing charges for the incident that seems to have led to his expulsion from the school.
  • The Wolverines have seen some of their recruiting momentum slip away. Could Michigan State capitalize on that given its strong finish on the field last season?
  • Ohio State has found itself a new president, and he was a popular guy with at least one coach during his stint at UC-Irvine.
  • The Buckeyes are keeping their current athletic director around for a while, and Doug Lesmerises takes a look at the contract extension signed by Gene Smith.
  • Former Minnesota quarterback Phillip Nelson has picked his next school, and he'll be staying in the Big Ten as he heads to Rutgers.
  • Should likely defensive coordinator Joe Rossi be judged for the performance of the Scarlet Knights in the bowl game against Notre Dame?
  • Iowa has fired an athletic department employee over missing funds from ticket sales on the Hawkeye Express.
  • Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst has been on the job for a year, and he's crammed plenty into that relatively short timeframe.
  • Penn State's new passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach knows better players can make for better coaches, and Ricky Rahne is set to work with another talented signal caller in Christian Hackenberg.
  • A Madison-based company landed Russell Wilson for his first solo Super Bowl commercial, and it struck gold when the former Wisconsin quarterback actually led Seattle to the NFL championship game.
The last two seasons have shown that two-quarterback systems can work in the Big Ten.

Northwestern recorded 10 wins in 2012 while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Indiana led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in total offense last fall while alternating between Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa, Connor Cook
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAfter taking over the quarterback job in Week 5, Connor Cook led the Spartans to 10 consecutive wins.
Given the recent success, my next statement might surprise you: Every Big Ten team would be best served picking one quarterback and sticking with him in 2014. That includes Indiana and Northwestern.

Quarterback rotations can be successful in the short term, but they are rarely sustainable or desirable. We saw this at Northwestern last fall, as the Wildcats never established a consistent offensive rhythm and operated with a reduced playbook, in part because of injuries but also because the unit lacked a clear identity. Northwestern finished 10th in the league in scoring.

Minnesota alternated between quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner during several games, including the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Although the Gophers had a nice surge during Big Ten play and recorded eight wins, they also finished 11th in the league in scoring and last in passing.

Nebraska had some success using two quarterbacks (Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III) last season but did so out of necessity following Taylor Martinez's injury. The Huskers also struggled to pass the ball, finishing 11th in the league.

The strongest argument for picking a quarterback and sticking with him comes from the Big Ten's best team in 2013. Michigan State's offense was a train wreck in non-league play as the Spartans used three quarterbacks. After a Week 4 loss to Notre Dame, the coaches decided Connor Cook would be their guy. You all know what happened next, but what struck me was Cook's mindset at the time.

"We went through spring ball competition and fall camp competition, it was the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life just trying to be the quarterback," Cook said last month before the Rose Bowl. "After I got the starting job and started a couple of games, the stress went away and it turned to focus, me being focused and knowing they're not going to use other quarterbacks in the game and not stress too much that go if I make a bad play I'm going to be pulled.

"That's when the stress went out the window."

Players like Northwestern's Siemian and Indiana's Roberson and Sudfeld are more accustomed to sharing time than Cook was, but each of them, like any quarterback, would rather be the clear-cut starter.

Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase is another good example of a player who benefited from an unambiguous role. He struggled from the middle of the 2011 season through all of 2012, raising the possibility of a rotation last season. Instead, Scheelhaase started every game and led the Big Ten in passing (3,272 yards).

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAfter playing well in place of Taylor Martinez, sophomore signal-caller Tommy Armstrong Jr. is the favorite to start for the Cornhuskers in 2014.
I'm all for competition at quarterback, and the Big Ten will feature plenty of it this spring and summer. Only five quarterbacks -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Michigan State's Cook, Iowa's Jake Rudock and Michigan's Devin Gardner -- can feel pretty secure about their starting roles. Gardner has been mentioned as a possible rotation candidate with Shane Morris -- some Michigan fans wouldn't mind seeing Gardner line up at wide receiver, a position of need -- but I'd be surprised if Morris leapfrogs the senior.

I'm also OK with teams employing change-up quarterbacks for a package of plays, be it the Wildcat or something else. Michigan State could be a candidate for this in 2014 with dynamic redshirt freshman Damion Terry possibly spelling Cook from time to time.

The first few games also provide a platform to use multiple quarterbacks in settings that can't be replicated on the practice field. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel often did this with his younger quarterbacks, giving them a first-half series or two. It makes sense. But by Week 4, roles must be identified.

The offseason is full of Big Ten quarterback questions:

  • Will Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt take the reins at Illinois?
  • How will Gardner and Hackenberg fare with new offensive coordinators?
  • After Nelson's transfer, who emerges at Minnesota among Leidner, Chris Streveler and possibly a young quarterback such as Dimonic McKinzy?
  • Nebraska's Armstrong went 6-1 as a freshman starter, but can he hold off Johnny Stanton?
  • Can Gary Nova retain his job at Rutgers?
  • Will Danny Etling keep the top job at Purdue, or will Austin Appleby and possibly early enrollee David Blough enter the mix?
  • How does Siemian bounce back at Northwestern, and do the Wildcats look at Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver?
  • Will either Roberson or Sudfeld finally separate himself at IU?

Ultimately, these questions must be answered. The teams that avoid prolonged rotations should be better off for it.

Big Ten lunch links

January, 24, 2014
Jan 24
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It's been great getting to know you, Polar Vortex. But it's probably time to hit the road.
  • Chris Ash was finally confirmed as Ohio State's co-defensive coordinator, but there's still some uncertainty about who will be calling the plays this season.
  • Michigan State is preparing for a huge recruiting weekend, and a staffer offers some insight on the approach it takes with its targets.
  • Former Michigan offensive lineman Michael Schofield is impressing scouts and analysts at the Senior Bowl practices.
  • Nebraska product Stanley Jean-Baptiste is also making the most of his opportunity in Mobile, Ala., and the cornerback might not be "under the radar" any longer.
  • Jerry Kill appears to be heading for a pay raise at Minnesota.
  • Christian Hackenberg will be the eighth starting quarterback James Franklin has worked with in his career, and the Penn State rising sophomore already compares favorably with the rest of the bunch.
  • Jeff George Jr. knows his way around the Illinois campus thanks to his dad, but he's going up for another close look as he takes an official visit this weekend.
  • Wisconsin's offense kept on moving just like usual last season, leading with its powerful rushing attack.
  • Paralyzed Rutgers legend Eric LeGrand is now a college graduate.
  • The Big Ten had a few more "winners" as Senior Bowl workouts wound down, including Ohio State's Jack Mewhort and Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis and Chris Borland.

A record number of underclassmen elected to take the NFL plunge this year, but the Big Ten barely made a splash. Only four Big Ten juniors are entering the draft, continuing a recent downturn after just six left early a year ago. Several stars certainly could have entered the draft, so this is good news for fans who enjoy seeing the league's top players stay for a fourth year. But it also underscores a lack of top talent, especially when compared to the SEC and Pac-12.

Despite a small contingent of early entries, Big Ten teams have some significant holes to fill. As spring ball approaches, here's a look at who's gone and who might replace them.

Leaving: Indiana WR Cody Latimer

[+] EnlargeShane Wynn
AJ Mast/Icon SMIShane Wynn averaged 13.8 ypc this season and scored 11 TDs. His stock and those numbers should soar higher as he takes on a bigger role next season.
The replacement: Shane Wynn

Wynn and Latimer obviously have different body frames, but both produce at a high level, particularly when it comes to touchdowns. Latimer led Indiana by wide margins in both receptions (72, next highest: 47) and receiving yards (1,096, next highest total: 739), but Wynn had more touchdowns with 11 (Latimer at nine). The departures of Latimer, Kofi Hughes and tight end Ted Bolser make Wynn the team's only returning receiver with more than 15 receptions in 2013.

Indiana certainly could use a bigger receiver to play on the outside where Latimer roamed, and perhaps Nick Stoner or incoming recruit Dominique Booth fills that role. But the Hoosiers undoubtedly will rely more on Wynn, a 5-foot-7 dynamo who averaged 13.8 yards per reception last season. Of the Big Ten's early entries, Latimer is the most surprising, given the strength in the draft at wide receiver, but Indiana has had little trouble developing strong pass-catchers.

Leaving: Penn State WR Allen Robinson

The replacement: Geno Lewis

Latimer's departure raised a few eyebrows, but Robinson's had been expected for some time, especially after coach Bill O'Brien left Penn State for the NFL's Houston Texans. Robinson earned the Big Ten's Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year award in both 2012 and 2013 after recording back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons to lead the league each year. The Penn State standout had 97 catches for 1,432 yards last season, topping the Big Ten charts in both categories despite not playing in the postseason.

Lewis likely will move into the No. 1 spot, in part because Penn State doesn't much experience at receiver. In addition to Robinson, the Lions lose No. 2 wideout Brandon Felder. Although Penn State returns a wealth of talent at tight end, Lewis is the leading returning wide receiver with 18 catches for 234 yards and three touchdowns in 2013. Lewis showed potential during his redshirt freshman season, especially with a 91-yard performance in the finale at Wisconsin. After struggling midway through the fall, Lewis' strong finish sets him up well to be quarterback Christian Hackenberg's top option in 2014.

Leaving: Ohio State CB Bradley Roby

The replacement: Doran Grant. Grant played opposite Roby throughout last season and recorded 58 tackles, 3 interceptions, 10 pass breakups, a forced fumble and a blocked kick. He endured some ups and downs in a secondary that struggled for much of the season, especially after losing safety Christian Bryant to injury, but the experience should prove valuable going forward. Not surprisingly, Grant was challenged more than Roby, but as these numbers show, he held his own despite some mistakes here and there.

Roby's early departure is the least surprising of the group, as he announced before the season that it would be his last at Ohio State. His presence will be missed, especially on special teams, but Grant could develop into a top corner. Ohio State certainly has bigger problems to address in the back four as it welcomes in new coordinator/secondary coach Chris Ash from Arkansas.

Leaving: Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier

The replacement: Trey Johnson. Ohio State returns starters at the other two linebacker spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, and it's possible Perry could slide over into the role where Shazier excelled. But Johnson served as Shazier's backup in 2013 and boasts the athleticism to step in and perform. Johnson played sparingly last fall, recording 11 tackles in six games, but his role undoubtedly will expand with Shazier moving onto the NFL.

There should be plenty of competition at linebacker, a spot where depth has been a concern for head coach Urban Meyer. Like Johnson, Mike Mitchell came to Ohio State as an extremely decorated recruit and should push for playing time this spring after a redshirt season. Camren Williams and converted safety Devan Bogard also are possibilities, although Bogard will be coming off of a second ACL tear.
The silly season isn't quite over, as several Big Ten coaching vacancies (including at incoming member Rutgers) have yet to be filled. But several teams recently made important coordinator hires to bolster units for the 2014 season.

We saw in 2013 how much a good coordinator can impact a unit, as Illinois' offense surged under the direction of Bill Cubit, improving from 119th nationally to 46th. Other coordinator hires haven't worked out so well.

Today's poll question asks: Which Big Ten coordinator hire will be the most important going forward?

Here are the options ...

SportsNation

Who has been the most important coordinator hire in the Big Ten this offseason?

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    32%
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    17%
  •  
    6%
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    45%

Discuss (Total votes: 8,385)

Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash: The team has yet to officially announce Ash's hiring, but he is headed to Columbus after spending four seasons on Bret Bielema's staffs at both Wisconsin and Arkansas. Ash will be a co-coordinator at Ohio State and coach defensive backs, but he'll likely be the primary defensive play-caller, a role he held at both Arkansas and Wisconsin. Ohio State's defense struggled at times in 2013, particularly against the pass, an area Ash will be tasked with shoring up.

Penn State offensive coordinator John Donovan: Donovan also hasn't been officially announced, but as his Twitter page confirms, he went with head coach James Franklin from Vanderbilt to Penn State. He spent the past three seasons as Vanderbilt's offensive coordinator and running backs coach. Donovan takes over a unit that performed well under previous coach Bill O'Brien and boasts reigning Big Ten freshman of the year Christian Hackenberg at quarterback. The Lions lose top wide receiver Allen Robinson but bring back several talented tight ends and running backs. Donovan and his staff must continue to develop Hackenberg and keep the unit on the right track.

Indiana defensive coordinator Brian Knorr: No coach on this list has a bigger challenge than Knorr, who must bolster a defense that has struggled for the better part of two decades. The former Ohio head coach and Wake Forest defensive coordinator inherits a unit that returns 10 starters but finished 114th nationally or worse in the four major categories (total defense, scoring defense, rush defense and pass defense). Indiana doesn't need its defense to become nationally elite overnight, but some improvement is needed to get the Hoosiers back to bowl games.

Michigan offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier: After two seasons as Alabama's offensive coordinator, Nussmeier takes over a Michigan offense that went through a wildly inconsistent 2013 season, setting records for both production and futility. The Wolverines struggled up front and couldn't generate an inside run game, so the ground game will be a priority for Nussmeier. He also must design a system to best feature dual-threat quarterback Devin Gardner, who put up monster numbers in several games last season but also struggled with turnovers early and accuracy late.

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