Ohio State Buckeyes: Greg Mattison

Spring practice in the Big Ten has sadly come to an end, and we're both back home after some trips around the conference. Wednesday, we shared out thoughts on the Big Ten's West Division, and now it's time to turn our focus to the beast known as the East.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Ten's lunch links

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
12:00
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I'll make a deal with you, Warren Buffett. You cut me a check for $10 million right now, and I'll spare you the embarrassment of acing your little challenge.

Big Ten lunch links

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
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How 'bout Nebrasketball? Impressed with what's happening in Lincoln.

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
12:00
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So Nick Saban is saying you shouldn't smoke while playing football?

Big Ten lunchtime links

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
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Cold, cold, go away.
As the coach hiring season nears an end, we're examining the Big Ten coaching landscape and some recent trends. Today we take a look at the rising salaries for assistants and whether a $1 million coordinator is on the horizon in the league.

In the days leading up to the Discover Orange Bowl earlier this month, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris received nearly as much attention as the head coaches in the game.

That was because of Morris' ties to Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and the high-powered Tigers offense he engineered. Plus, Morris was already being paid like a head coach.

In part because of Meyer's reported interest in hiring Morris in December 2011, Morris is the nation's highest-paid assistant coach at $1.3 million annually. But he's not alone in the $1 million coordinator club. LSU's John Chavis and Alabama's Kirby Smart also made more than seven figures as assistants in 2013, and Louisville recently lured defensive coordinator Todd Grantham away from Georgia with a five-year contract worth $1 million annually.

[+] EnlargeKyle Flood
Frank Victores/USA TODAY SportsAt incoming Big Ten program Rutgers, head coach Kyle Flood barely makes more than at least one Big Ten coordinator.
The Big Ten has yet to take the plunge and cross the $1 million mark for an assistant coach. But there's little doubt that the pay for top coordinators is on the rise, and so is the league's investment in them.

"I think it’s imminent," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "I don’t know when, but I think it’s imminent. Whether that's two years from now or four years from now, it’s highly possible you'll see that in our league."

Some are not that far away now. Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is the Big Ten's highest-paid assistant at $851,000 per year. The Wolverines recently hired Doug Nussmeier away from Alabama as their offensive coordinator, and while his salary hasn't been disclosed yet, athletic director Dave Brandon has said it won't exceed Mattison's. Nussmeier was making $681,500 at Alabama.

Those numbers are compiled through open records requests and public information. But Brandon told ESPN.com that because contracts often include things like performance and longevity bonuses and deferred payments, "under certain scenarios, we've got coordinators now who could make over $1 million [in 2014]."

The $1 million mark is an arbitrary one in many ways. Brandon does not see an issue with surpassing it.

"Coordinator positions are very important, and when you look at what they are being paid in the pro ranks and in other conferences, the market has taken those positions up," he said. "If you're going to make a big investment in your head coach, you’ve got to back that investment up with the people around him to really bring it all together."

The arms race in college sports used to center on facilities. But now that just about every campus has upgraded every building imaginable and the construction crews are running out of projects, pay for assistant coaches seems to be the new frontier.

Consider that in 2010, the highest-paid Big Ten assistant coach was Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, at just more than $475,000. The increased commitment can really be seen at Ohio State, where in 2008, the Buckeyes did not pay a single Jim Tressel assistant more than $275,000. Now, Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell makes $610,000 and offensive coordinator Tom Herman earns $555,000. The Buckeyes just hired Chris Ash away from Arkansas as their co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach at a salary of $520,000, and they're paying new defensive line coach Larry Johnson $400,000.

"It’s crazy," Smith said. "Stakes are higher. The revenue’s gotten bigger. So you see those assistant coaches who are extremely talented being compensated consistent with their skills. It’s blown up. And I’m not so sure it’s going to slow down.

"It’s just market-driven. It's really not unlike any other industry. Any industry or large corporation is going to pay whatever the market is for their top CFO or top COO or whatever the top positions are that they're trying to fill on their executive team. A head football coach is a CEO. And his executive team is his assistants."

That's fine for rich programs such as Ohio State and Michigan. Or Nebraska, which paid offensive coordinator Tim Beck $700,000 last year. But can every Big Ten school afford to reward its assistants like captains of industry? Consider that Clemson's Morris made more in base pay in 2013 than two Big Ten head coaches (Minnesota's Jerry Kill and Indiana's Kevin Wilson). Incoming Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood makes only $9,000 more per year than Mattison.

"It’s challenging, especially for a program like Indiana, where we have a smaller stadium, we don’t fill it," Indiana athletic director Fred Glass told ESPN.com. "So it’s tough to compete."

"I guess one of the questions is, where does it level off?," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner told ESPN.com. "It depends on the revenue structure. If the revenue goes up and the investment causes a return that’s worthwhile, maybe things do continue to escalate, and particularly at schools that are able to financially support their programs so that it’s not a burden on the general funds."

Then again, few investments can have a more direct impact on the actual football product than paying top dollar for a truly elite coordinator. Michigan State surely doesn't regret the $558,000 it paid to defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi last year; one could argue he would be underpaid even at $1 million.

It won't be long until a Big Ten assistant gets there.

"We’re going to see it," Smith said. "Especially at places like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State -- the big stadiums, so to speak. It’s going to end up being here at some point. "

A look at the B1G assistant salaries

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
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USA Today has released its annual database of assistant coach salaries throughout college football so let's see how the Big Ten aides stack up. Ten of the 12 Big Ten schools report coaches' salaries (Northwestern and Penn State do not).

Once again, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison leads Big Ten assistants in pay at $851,400, which ranks fourth nationally behind million-dollar coordinators Chad Morris of Clemson, Kirby Smart of Alabama and John Chavis of LSU.

Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges is the only other Big Ten assistant in the top 10 nationally in total pay ($709,300). Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck ($700,000) is next, followed by Ohio State defensive coordinators Luke Fickell ($610,000) and Everett Withers ($585,000), Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi ($558,908) and Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman ($555,000).

On the whole, the Big Ten has fewer assistants making top-20 salaries than the SEC. There's also a decent drop-off in salary after Herman, as no others make more than $500,000 (Wisconsin coordinators Dave Aranda and Andy Ludwig both make $480,000).

Here are the highest-paid assistants for the 10 Big Ten squads reporting salary:

Michigan: Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison ($851,400)
Nebraska: Offensive coordinator Tim Beck ($700,000)
Ohio State: Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell ($610,000)
Michigan State: Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi ($558,908)
Wisconsin: Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig ($480,000)
Purdue: Offensive coordinator John Shoop ($400,000)
Illinois: Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and defensive coordinator Tim Banks ($400,000)
Indiana: Offensive coordinator Seth Littrell ($356,500)
Minnesota: Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys ($346,800)
Iowa: Defensive coordinator Phil Parker ($325,500)

Claeys clearly is the best value in the league, as he served as Minnesota's acting head coach during Jerry Kill's health-related absence and remained as the main sideline coach even after Kill returned to duty. Iowa's Parker, along with OC Greg Davis ($325,000) also earned their keep and then some as the Hawkeyes flipped their record from 4-8 to 8-4.

Some Michigan fans will scoff at Borges' salary after the Wolverines offense struggled for much of Big Ten play. Fickell, Shoop and Banks also directed units that had forgettable seasons.

One thing to keep in mind when some of these assistants are mentioned for head-coaching jobs is the pay cuts they'd likely take to lead teams in smaller conferences.

In terms of total staff pay, Ohio State leads the Big Ten and ranks sixth nationally at $3,474,504, trailing LSU, Alabama, Clemson, Texas and Auburn. Michigan comes in next at $3,072,000, which ranks 14th nationally.

Bret Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas in part because he had lost so many assistants in his final two years in Madison. Bielema's staff at Arkansas ranks 10th nationally in total staff pay ($3,233,000), while Gary Andersen's staff at Wisconsin ranks 28th ($2,495,000)

Here are the Big Ten teams sorted by total staff pay:

Ohio State: $3,474,504
Michigan: $3,072,000
Nebraska: $2,648,500
Wisconsin: $2,495,000
Michigan State: $2,410,483
Iowa: $2,367,500
Minnesota: $2,152,350
Indiana: $2,074,780
Illinois: $2,066,400
Purdue: $2,010,000

We can have an endless about debate whether college football coaches make too much money in general, but these numbers remain problematic for the Big Ten in my view. Only two teams are truly paying top dollar for their staffs, and some groups are undervalued.

Michigan State's staff obviously jumps out after the Spartans just won the Big Ten championship. MSU co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner ($280,800) and Jim Bollman ($262,000) are among the lowest-paid coordinators in the league, as several position coaches make more than them. Athletic director Mark Hollis said last week that raises are coming for head coach Mark Dantonio and his assistants.

Minnesota's staff also deserves a nice bump after handling such a tough situation this season. I also wonder whether Iowa's coordinators get a raise, especially considering what head coach Kirk Ferentz makes.

Purdue's Marcus Freeman and Jafar Williams are the Big Ten's lowest-paid assistants at $120,000. Only one SEC assistant, Kentucky's Derrick Ansley, makes less than $140,000.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
1:30
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Hope you're stuffed from Thanksgiving. Be sure to follow us on Twitter for the final Saturday of the regular season.

To the inbox ...

Pat from Iowa writes: Who would you consider the biggest surprise team this year for good or for worse? Northwestern's down spiral, Minnesota's amazing year, or perhaps a great Iowa rebound year? Thoughts?

[+] EnlargeKain Colter
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesSince the loss to Ohio State it has been all downhill for Northwestern.
Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern's downturn definitely is the biggest surprise, especially considering where the Wildcats were on Oct. 5 (4-0, leading Ohio State in the fourth quarter, College GameDay on campus). I attended that game and also last week's home finale, where the stands were mostly empty and the team had been decimated by injuries and poor play. Northwestern returned its core from a 10-win team and won't make a bowl -- big surprise. Minnesota, while deserving a lot of credit, likely will win only two more regular-season games than it did last year. And Iowa couldn't have been much worse after the 2012 season, although the Hawkeyes have been a nice story.


Mike from Colorado Springs, Colo., writes: I appreciate your dissatisfaction with Ameer Abdullah not being a finalist for the Doak Walker Award. I think he is way underrated because of the season Nebraska is having. With all the injuries on offense, he has been the one guy they can count on. If you look at the stats he also has much fewer carries than Andre Williams and Ka'Deem Carey and they are Heisman candidates. Not to discredit what Williams has done because it is really special, but if Abdullah gets the carries he does I think the stats are pretty similar. Is Abdullah a Heisman candidate if Nebraska is more in the national picture? These other guys are and Arizona and Boston College are lower on the totem pole than Nebraska. What is hindering him from the national spotlight?

Adam Rittenberg: I thought Nebraska's relatively early exit from the national spotlight (the UCLA game) hurt Abdullah's national exposure a bit, but Arizona and Boston College aren't exactly challenging for league championships, either. So it's a bit puzzling. Abdullah's lack of touchdowns might play a role, and several of his signature plays -- like the fourth-down conversion against Northwestern before the Hail Mary -- haven't resulted in touchdowns. He has been the model of consistency and should be getting more attention, but it hasn't happened. Disappointing for sure.


Kyle from Dover, Del., writes: Adam, yes or no, does Jabrill Peppers stay committed to Michigan despite the absolutely terrible season we have had?Also, do you think Shane Morris will be ready to lead the Wolverines entering the 2014 season? God bless, go blue, happy holidays.

Adam Rittenberg: Same to you, Kyle. I fully expect Peppers to Go Blue come national signing day. Coach Brady Hoke isn't going anywhere, and neither is defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. Hoke's future never was in doubt at Michigan, but Peppers obviously got concerned about the coach keeping his job in 2014. Those concerns should go away. Peppers really seems all in for Michigan, and while recruits can always change their minds at the last minute, I wouldn't worry. As for Morris, I still think Devin Gardner is the Michigan quarterback in 2014. Gardner isn't the problem with that unit.


[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesMark Dantonio has made his feelings known about where his team belongs in the postseason.
JB from Scottsdale, Ariz., writes: Hey Adam,I know it sucks to be a MSU fan because of their bad luck getting into a BCS bowl, but all of this campaigning by Coach D is a joke. We can talk about this all we want, but the reality is if they lose the Big Ten championship game they can say hello to Orlando and the Capital One Bowl. Wisconsin should only have one loss on the season, and will be riding a seven-game winning streak. Also, the perception of a larger fan base means more money, they would go to the Orange Bowl. Most experts have Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl, and I can't see that changing. Even if MSU loses against OSU, but stays in the Top 14, Wisconsin would still be higher.

Adam Rittenberg: JB, you might be right, and Wisconsin might get an at-large berth ahead of Michigan State. But I think if the Spartans lose to Ohio State and stay in the top 14, they'll likely go ahead of Wisconsin. Maybe it's just a hunch, but Wisconsin has been to three consecutive Rose Bowls, while Michigan State hasn't been to BCS bowl during the BCS era and last went to a BCS-level bowl during the 1987 season (Rose). If the Spartans play Ohio State to the wire and lose, athletic director Mark Hollis and campaigning coach Mark Dantonio would have some good selling points. Your last point is really irrelevant as we constantly see teams ranked lower in the final BCS standings receive at-large berths. So if Michigan State remains in the top 14 -- remember, that was the issue in 2011, which no one mentions -- I think the Spartans could get an at-large spot ahead of Wisconsin.


Zach from Dallas writes: Adam, I'm going to ask you an impossible question to answer. If you had to pick one current Big Ten Player to build a defense around, who would it be? Ryan Shazier and Chris Borland are fantastic linebackers who put up big numbers. Darqueze Dennard is probably the best DB in the nation and cuts off half the field. Max Bullough is an extension of the coach on the field and can control a game by himself.

Adam Rittenberg: Zach, it is an extremely difficult question with no absolute right or wrong answer. There are so many great options in this league. But I've gone record before that Borland would be my starting point for putting together a defense. He's not only one of the smartest players I've ever covered, but he's the consummate playmaker, always around the ball and causing problems for the opponent. He has universal respect from opposing coaches and Gary Andersen, despite being with him for only one year, is calling him the best he has ever coached. So you can't go wrong here, but give me Borland.


Charles from Knoxville, Tenn., writes: Adam, if Auburn manages to do the unthinkable and beat Alabama this weekend, that should be enough to solidify OSU into a national title game slot. My question is do you think the B1G front office would put pressure on MSU to allow OSU a pass in the title game, to ensure OSU's shot at a national title?

Adam Rittenberg: Charles, while the Big Ten would love to see Ohio State reach the BCS title game, the thought it would tell another of its teams to tank in the championship game is absurd. Not only would it be highly unethical and unfair to Michigan State, but the Big Ten wouldn't want its showcase event -- the title game -- tarnished in any way. Plus, why would Michigan State listen? The Spartans are well aware of what happens to title game losers in the BCS picture, as they often miss the big bowls entirely. I also wouldn't be so certain Ohio State is safe if Auburn beats Alabama, as there would be significant pressure to have an SEC team in the title game.


Enrique from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: Adam, please fix your Big Ten picks overall records! There are 48 non-conference games and 48 conference games to pick during the regular season (96 total). Right now you are both 74-14 for a total of 88 picks. With six games left to pick that would put you at only 94. You guys got off track a few weeks ago. You'll want to double check, but I think you're both at 76-14. And if you'd like a question for your mailbag: The disparity between the Leaders is greater than that of the Legends this year. With the alignment shift next year, which division do you think will have greater disparity between the best and worst?

Adam Rittenberg: Enrique, thanks to you and others for pointing out the error in our picks records. They've both been updated to 76-14. Math never was my strong suit, and I clearly didn't give Brian or I enough credit here. The general feeling is that the Big Ten East will be much stronger than the West, and that could happen if programs like Michigan State continue to surge. Wisconsin looks like the premier program in the West. It will be interesting to see if Nebraska, Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota can rise up to match the Badgers in the coming years. But if Michigan and Penn State make some progress this offseason, it's easy to envision the East being stronger, perhaps much stronger.

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 30, 2013
10/30/13
12:00
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The head of state has called for me by name. But I don't have time for him. It's going to be a glorious day. I feel my luck could change.

Big Ten lunchtime links

September, 18, 2013
9/18/13
12:00
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I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords.

Big Ten lunchtime links

September, 11, 2013
9/11/13
12:00
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Never forget.
Lessons learned from Week 2 in the Big Ten:

1. Ohio State has company at the top: The widely-accepted thought going into the season was that the Big Ten would be Ohio State and everybody else. Well, after two weeks, it's fair to say the Buckeyes have company from the team they dare not name: Michigan. The Wolverines have looked mighty impressive in their first two games, especially in Saturday's 41-30 win over Notre Dame.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDevin Gardner wore No. 98 to honor Michigan great Tom Harmon, then played great against Notre Dame.
Devin Gardner has made Michigan's offense truly balanced, and he is as dynamic a playmaker as Ohio State's Braxton Miller. Greg Mattison's defense gave up some yards and points to Notre Dame but is always going to be solid, more so if Jake Ryan returns this year.

Ohio State was also very good in a 42-7 win over San Diego State, especially considering Miller got hurt early on and was replaced more than adequately by Kenny Guiton. The Buckeyes have yet to play good competition or reach their peak with their full lineup available. Their ceiling might remain higher than the Wolverines', but Ohio State still has to go to the Big House, where Brady Hoke has never lost as a head coach. Having both of these teams reach superpower status this year ultimately will be good for the league. It's early, but it looks like we're on our way toward that, though those two teams are not the only ones to consider in the conference race. Speaking of which ...

2. Northwestern is a legitimate contender: Ohio State and Michigan are the Big Ten's top two teams, but Northwestern isn't far behind. Pat Fitzgerald's team needed some offense from its defense to survive a tough opener at Cal last week. The offense needed no such help Saturday as top quarterback Kain Colter returned to the field and, along with quarterback Trevor Siemian, wide receiver Tony Jones and others, shredded Syracuse's defense to the tune of 48 points and 581 total yards. Colter and Siemian combined to go 30-of-37 passing for 375 yards with four touchdowns, no interceptions and 91 rush yards.

Northwestern hasn't even been at full strength yet -- star running back/return man Venric Mark continues to nurse an injury -- and still looks like a superior team to the 2012 version, which won 10 games. Although the defense remains vulnerable to the big play, it also generates takeaways, continuing a theme from last season. The tough part of the non-league slate is over, as Northwestern has only Western Michigan and Maine left before two weeks to prepare for an Oct. 5 showdown with Ohio State, which should be the most-anticipated game of Fitzgerald's tenure. Northwestern's league schedule isn't easy, but it should be in the thick of the Legends Division race when November rolls around.

3. Song remains the same for Michigan State, Indiana: What good is it being outstanding on one side of the ball if the other side can't hold its own weight? Michigan State and Indiana have changed a lot of names in an effort to shore up their crummy offense and defense, respectively, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Spartans' quarterback picture is becoming an absurd theater; Mark Dantonio gave Connor Cook his first career start and Tyler O'Connor his first collegiate action but had to go back to incumbent starter Andrew Maxwell to start the second half against USF after both struggled. The three quarterbacks combined to go just 12-of-24 for 94 yards and did nothing to clear up the picture, while the offense managed only one score against a Bulls team that gave up 53 to McNeese State a week earlier. Thank goodness for the MSU defense, but it can't carry everything on its back all season again.

It's the opposite story at Indiana, which supposedly practiced all offseason to prepare for the Navy option but then looked as if it had never seen such a thing before in a dispiriting 41-35 loss. The Hoosiers have added some talented freshmen to the defensive mix, but they couldn't prevent the Midshipmen from rolling up 444 rushing yards. Indiana can still throw it and score with anybody and has put up 108 points in two games, but Kevin Wilson's team isn't going bowling unless the defense becomes competent. If only the Spartans and Hoosiers could combine into an all-star team, we'd really have something.

4. Mystery lingers around Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota: We're still waiting to learn something about the Badgers, Huskers and Gophers, who are a combined 6-0 but have yet to face a true test (sorry, Wyoming).

Wisconsin has posted back-to-back shutouts to open a season for the first time since 1958, and the run game looks as strong as ever with James White, Melvin Gordon and even Corey Clement, each of whom has rushed for more than 100 yards in the first two games. But few teams have faced weaker competition (Massachusetts, Tennessee Tech).

Nebraska's defense performed much better in Week 2, as cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans both had pick-sixes. But the Huskers' performance came against a Southern Miss team that now has lost 14 straight.

Minnesota continues to find creative ways to score, adding touchdowns on both defense and special teams in an easy win at New Mexico State. Then again, who have the Gophers faced? Fortunately, we'll find out a lot more next week as Wisconsin travels to Arizona State and Nebraska hosts UCLA. The wait will be a little longer for Minnesota, which hosts high-powered San Jose State in Week 4.

5. Illini are cellar-dwellers no more: Illinois has held pretty steady at or near the bottom of our Big Ten power rankings for about a year. But while the Illini are still far from league contenders, they no longer can be viewed as the conference's worst team after Saturday's stunning 45-17 win over Cincinnati improved their record to 2-0. The Bill Cubit-directed offense looks legit, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is playing as well as he has in his career.

The Big Ten's No. 12 team now has to be Purdue, which lost to that same Cincinnati squad, 42-7, in the opener and needed a pair of late defensive stops to hold off Indiana State 20-14. Yes, the same Indiana State team that Indiana destroyed 73-35 in the Hoosiers' opener. The Boilermakers once again were plagued by communication issues and an ineffective offense that got outgained by nine yards by an FCS opponent. Darrell Hazell's team figures to be a heavy underdog in its next six games, beginning with Notre Dame this weekend.

Iowa also still has a lot to prove after struggling to put away Missouri State at home until the fourth quarter. At least the Hawkeyes finally snapped their seven-game losing streak, though beating an FBS team would be nice.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
4:15
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You're used to seeing my mailbag run on Thursdays, but we're going to try and mix it up this season and go a day earlier. As always, send your questions here or via Twitter. Next week: actual football to talk about. Today, the last of our preview-type questions.




Ryan from Parts Unknown writes: Which teams, according to their schedules, do you believe will get off to the hottest start in the Big Ten?

Brian Bennett: Well, if you read my piece from Monday, you'll see that I don't think there are many marquee out-of-league games. So the possibility is there for a lot of teams to get off to nice starts in September. When you factor in the early Big Ten games, here is how I would rank the teams with the best chance for a really good start:
1. Nebraska: If the Huskers can beat UCLA in Week 3 at home, they really ought to be 7-0 heading into November. Their October Big Ten slate is Illinois at home, followed by Purdue and Minnesota on the road.

2. Michigan State: Even if you factor in a loss at Notre Dame on Sept. 21, the Spartans have a great chance of being 7-1 heading into their Nov. 2 showdown vs. Michigan. The toughest road challenge besides the Irish is an Oct. 5 game at Iowa.

3. Penn State: Three of the four nonconference games carry at least medium degrees of difficulty, but the Nittany Lions don't play a true road game until Oct. 5 at Indiana, to whom they've never lost.



Andy from Lincoln writes: Which B1G team, has the biggest chance of blowing their season early?

Brian Bennett: Andy, did you and Ryan coordinate questions? Well, this is the flip side of the coin. Here are my top three teams whose seasons could get wrecked early by the schedule:
1. Purdue: A 1-7 start is a grim, but real, possibility, with Cincinnati, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Northern Illinois, Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State all on the docket in the first eight games.

2.Wisconsin: The Badgers schedule is not terribly taxing overall, but the first six games could make or break it. They travel to Arizona State in Week 3, play at Ohio State in Week 5 and face a dangerous Northwestern team on Oct. 12. A couple early setbacks could put Wisconsin out of division contention before mid-October.

3. Indiana: Hopes are high for a bowl game this year for the Hoosiers, and they have eight home dates. But if IU stumbles early on in a stretch that includes potentially tricky games against Navy, Bowling Green and Missouri, they could already be behind the eight ball as they start Big Ten play vs. Penn State and then play on the road at Michigan State and Michigan. Still a young team in several areas, Indiana might not be able to recover from some early punches in the nose.



Ted W. from Chicago writes: Hey, if you're going to talk about weakness in Big Ten nonconference schedules, you gotta mention that Vandy canceled two games this year against Big Ten opponents.

Brian Bennett: Ted, if you're going to use Vanderbilt -- a team that is not ranked in the top 30 of either major poll and is likely no better than the seventh- or eighth-best team in the SEC -- as an example of a team that would increase the difficulty of Big Ten schedules, then you're making my point for me.




Steve from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Hypothetically speaking, how likely is it that a 12- or 13-0 Ohio State team gets more credit from the pollsters because they went 12-0 last year? Will that be the way pollsters will/should/could look at Ohio State toward the end of the season as a a 24-0 or 25-0 team as opposed to merely a 12- or 13-0 team?

Brian Bennett: That's a good point, Steve. Though pollsters are supposed to only consider the current season's results, they are human and can't help but be informed by past knowledge. A potential two-season run of being unbeaten would enhance Ohio State's image and bolster the Buckeyes' claim despite their weak nonconference schedule. And don't underestimate the Urban Meyer factor. Because of his track record, voters will not look at Ohio State as some puffed-up paper tiger, and who wouldn't want to see him face an SEC team for the title? Regardless, an undefeated Ohio State is getting into the BCS title game no questions asked unless we have a rare, weird year of more than two undefeated power conference champs.




David from Clarkston, Mich., writes: While I agree with most of your top 25 players list, I think there is one glaring omission. I noticed you didn't include Jake Ryan. While I suspect this was because of his injury, all the news out of Wolverine camp has him being ready for the start of the Big Ten season. With that probability shouldn't he make the list?

Brian Bennett: David, Ryan would have been a top-10 player had he been healthy to start the year. While the news on his rehab is encouraging and we hope to see him return as soon as possible, there certainly is no guarantee that he will be back by early October or that he will come back 100 percent. We've seen quick ACL recoveries before, but that's not the norm. We decided to be cautious with our ranking and did not include Ryan since we have no idea how much he'll contribute this season.




Dustin from Minneapolis writes: I keep reading predictions for Wisconsin's season using a new coach as a negative. I see it as an upgrade, especially given most core things will be the same. major change is the 3-4, which seems to fit the personnel better. Transitions can over headaches, but thus far it has appeared seamless. If anything it has seemed to recharge the troops. Either way our troubles are OL depth, WR step-ups and secondary. Homer maybe, but I really feel people are sleeping on the talent we have coming back and overstating some issues.

Brian Bennett: I don't view the transition as being much of a negative, although the Badgers players have now had a bunch of different coaches in the past couple of years. I'm more concerned with the areas you mentioned, particularly the receiving corps and the secondary. And while Wisconsin has plenty of talent, let's not forget this team lost six games a year ago. I still predicted a 9-3 record for Gary Andersen's first season, which I would view as a success.




Eric from Los Angeles writes: Hey Brian, love the blog. My question is, why is Michigan getting the benefit of the doubt on all of their holes (where they have had to replace almost their entire offensive and defensive line, their secondary leader, and their best linebacker at least for the first few months of the season) when teams like Northwestern and Michigan State don't? I understand you said teams 2-7 are close ... but on a neutral field, I would take Northwestern, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State all over the Wolverines.

Brian Bennett: It's a fair question. Michigan does have some holes. But I like the talent and the coaching track record. While the Wolverines must replace three offensive line starters, the new guys were in most cases big-time recruits, and having Taylor Lewan as an anchor is an awfully nice start. I simply trust Greg Mattison and Brady Hoke at this point to put together a very good defense, and I love the potential of Devin Gardner in that offense. Michigan, in my view, has far fewer holes to fill than Nebraska, which is replacing almost all of its defense, or Michigan State, which still has major concerns at quarterback, running back, receiver, tight end and offensive line. Maybe we're overrating Michigan a tad, but I did pick Nebraska to win the Legends Division.




Kurt from Arlington Heights, Ill., writes: Hawkeye fan here: After reading the blog the last few weeks, it looks like the press expects Iowa to win 5-6 games. Since we know Iowa plays their best when "nobody believes in us," how surprised are you going to be when Iowa is playing in the conference championship undefeated?

Brian Bennett: Kirk Ferentz has definitely surprised us before, but few people believed in Iowa as a serious contender last year, and they lived down to those expectations. Look, if everything goes right, the Hawkeyes could easily get back to a bowl game and knock some people off in the Legends race. I just don't think there's enough overall talent on hand for Iowa to become a serious division contender. But I've been wrong before. Predictions won't be worth much starting this weekend.




Josh from Not a football stadium writes: Brian, as we are all obsessed with all things Big Ten - can you have your ESPN people create us an official Big Ten fantasy football system? I reckon you and Adam need to stop keeping this wonderful game all to yourselves.

Brian Bennett: Josh, it already exists. Go to ESPN.com's College Football Challenge, start a league and limit your player pool to Big Ten players only. Voila. Then all you need is a few friends to get it going. As someone who's a fantasy nerd in baseball and basketball but refuses to play in an NFL league, I have my issues with fantasy football. But when you could do it using college teams and your favorite conference, what's not to love?

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
12:00
PM ET
Happy football eve!
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Outside linebacker Jamal Davis II (Canton, Ohio/McKinley) has a favorite.

Well, sort of.

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Davis is a big fan of Michigan -- he grew up emulating a certain Heisman Trophy winner -- so the Wolverines are his favorite along with Ohio State.

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The latest from Gustin at The Opening
ESPN 300 athlete Porter Gustin (Salem, Utah/Salem Hills) took time out to talk recruiting and more with WeAreSC's Garry Paskwietz on Tuesday at The Opening.
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