Ohio State Buckeyes: Tim Beckman

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.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
12:00
PM ET
RIP, Princess Lacey.

Big Ten's lunch links

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
12:00
PM ET
Spent the weekend hoopin' it up in Milwaukee. Good times. Back to the football grind, and the links.

Big Ten lunch links

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
12:00
PM ET
How 'bout Nebrasketball? Impressed with what's happening in Lincoln.
Believe it or not, spring football in the Big Ten is just around the corner. Several teams moved up their spring practice dates, and three of them -- Maryland, Michigan and Northwestern -- will take the field next week.

Spring ball is all about development, and some position groups need to make significant strides before the summer.

Here are five ...

Illinois' defensive line: Coach Tim Beckman kept his defensive staff in place for what should be a make-or-break season in Champaign. Coordinator Bill Cubit's presence should stabilize the offense despite the loss of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, so the season likely hinges on whether the defense improves. There are some nice returning pieces at linebacker, but the line needs a boost after Illinois finished last in the Big Ten and 116th nationally against the run. Lineman Paul James, who originally signed with Illinois in 2013 but delayed his enrollment until January, is among those who will take the field this spring. There's plenty of competition throughout the line, and while help arrives this summer with Jihad Ward and others, Illinois needs some linemen to emerge right away.

Michigan's offensive line: Despite a first-round draft pick at left tackle (Taylor Lewan), Michigan's front five struggled mightily during the 2013 season, as young players didn't blossom quickly enough and the team couldn't consistently run the ball between the tackles. Coordinator Al Borges took the fall, but line coach Darrell Funk and his group will be under the microscope when the Wolverines begin spring practice Feb. 25. Michigan started nine different linemen in 2013 and used five lineup combinations. As tackles Lewan and Michael Schofield both depart, every position is up for grabs this spring. It will also be interesting to see how new coordinator Doug Nussmeier makes an impact on the line.

[+] EnlargeNebraska vs Minnesota
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMitch Leidner is the only quarterback with college game experience on the Minnesota roster.
Minnesota's quarterbacks: At least nine Big Ten teams will have true quarterback competitions this spring, but arguably none has as much mystery as Minnesota. Philip Nelson's transfer following the season creates a wide-open race between Mitch Leidner, Chris Streveler, Conor Rhoda and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy, a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback who enrolled mid-year and will participate in spring practice. Leidner is the only quarterback with college game experience, appearing in 10 games last fall and recording 1,026 yards (619 passing, 403 rushing). Perhaps Leidner separates himself, but no matter what, Minnesota wants a clearer picture coming out of the spring.

Ohio State's linebackers: Coach Urban Meyer has made it very clear that Ohio State's linebacker play has fallen short of program standards. Meyer singled out the linebacker position in the 2014 recruiting class, saying on national signing day, "Far too many mistakes have been made in either lack of development or whatever, and it's just not where we need to be." Ohio State loses by far its best linebacker in Ryan Shazier, so there's pressure on returnees such as Curtis Grant, Joshua Perry and Camren Williams, as well as newcomers such as five-star prospect Raekwon McMillan, a mid-year enrollee who will be on the field this spring. Meyer said there are no redshirt plans for McMillan or the other three linebackers in the 2014 class.

Wisconsin's wide receivers: The Badgers' quarterback competition likely will garner more attention, but whoever emerges under center will need more options in the passing game. Jared Abbrederis has been Wisconsin's wide receiving corps for the past two season, and he'll be playing in the NFL this fall. You can only get by so much with pass-catching tight ends and running backs, so receivers coach Chris Beatty and his group need a strong spring session. Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe and Alex Erickson lead the returnees, but Wisconsin needs young players such as speedster Robert Wheelwright to emerge. Help is on the way this summer as several promising recruits arrive, but Wisconsin can't pin its hopes exclusively on incoming freshmen.

B1G's top impact true freshmen

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
11:00
AM ET
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.

Big Ten lunchtime links

February, 7, 2014
Feb 7
12:00
PM ET
Americans should have the right to bear yogurt anywhere ...

Big Ten lunch links

February, 6, 2014
Feb 6
12:00
PM ET
Filling all the needs in another great class of links.
  • Malik McDowell's commitment was perhaps the highlight of the class for Michigan State, but the wait for a signature added even more drama to his recruitment.
  • All of Michigan's signees were committed before new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier was hired last month, but he appears to be having an impact already on next year's class.
  • James Franklin emphasized the importance of the Penn State family as the program celebrated its new class with its "Signature Event."
  • The Class of 2014 might turn out to be Urban Meyer's finest with Ohio State, but he wasn't thrilled it didn't go down as the best in the country this year.
  • Upgrading the speed on the roster was the top priority for Wisconsin, and it appears Gary Andersen accomplished that goal.
  • Nebraska signed players from 13 different states, suggesting again that the program is recruiting nationally perhaps more than it ever has before.
  • Purdue was looking for natural leaders to fill out its class, and Darrell Hazell signed 18 players who were captains of their high school teams.
  • Pat Fitzgerald might not have landed every recruit in his backyard, but he felt Northwestern "dominated Chicagoland again" in the last cycle.
  • Jerry Kill puts plenty of stock in the importance of the third recruiting class in building a program, and he picked up some valuable pieces this year for Minnesota.
  • Illinois inked five players out of junior colleges, and Tim Beckman acknowledged it was because those players know there is plenty of opportunity to play quickly.

Big Ten's lunch links

February, 3, 2014
Feb 3
12:00
PM ET
The lunch links: Snapping the ball over your head since 2008.

Big Ten Thursday chat wrap

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
4:00
PM ET
As we suffer through winter and the offseason together, we also bond over Big Ten football. Thanks to those who joined me earlier today for the weekly Big Ten chat. We discussed the East-West balance in the Big Ten, recruits flipping, new coaching hires and more.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsAs James Franklin can attest to, flipping recruits is part of the business.
Did you miss out? Not to worry. Here's a full chat transcript, along with some highlights:

Bernard from Columbus: Larry Johnson an upgrade over [Mike] Vrabel in both recruiting and coaching?

Adam Rittenberg: Hmmm, good question. In coaching, I'd say yes, mainly because Johnson has way more experience than Vrabel and a track record of producing elite defensive linemen. As a recruiter, I'd also give Johnson a slight edge because of his long-term success, but Vrabel had quickly developed himself into an outstanding recruiter.

Rob from Morristown, N.J.: What is your honest take on [James] Franklin flipping recruits from Vandy to PSU? I hear a lot of other teams' fans talking about how we were up in arms when other programs were poaching our players once the sanctions were handed down ... as much as many of us were upset that recruits like Noah Spence and Armani Reeves flipped to Ohio State ... there is no comparison, we were upset that other schools were trying to flip our CURRENTLY enrolled players ... just wanted to get that out there...

Adam Rittenberg: Rob, we both know that no fan base likes it when coaches flip their recruits, but fans also should know by now that it happens all the time and will continue to happen unless there's an early signing period. James Franklin was honest about it when asked: Players do pick coaches, not schools, and will follow coaches if they leave. Is it unfortunate? To a degree. But it's the nature of the business, and Penn State has experienced both sides of it in recent years. I agree that the attempts to flip current players -- looking at you, Tim Beckman -- annoyed PSU fans more than losing recruits to Urban [Meyer].

TB from Champaign, Ill.: What are the odds of me keeping my job with the Illini after 2014 and finishing off my "Fighting Force 2015" recruiting class?

Adam Rittenberg: It could happen, TB, but you need to make a bowl game this season. Few coaches with three bowl-less seasons are going to survive, especially those who have never won over the fan base/boosters. So how do you get to six wins? It's certainly possible with a schedule that includes three likely non-league wins (Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State), and a crossover schedule that doesn't include Michigan State or Michigan. The road schedule is once again brutal (Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northwestern), so your team must play well on its home field.

Rick from Georgia: Adam, with a new OC at Michigan, do you think they may go in the direction of using a two-QB system similar to Northwestern? It would be nice to see [Devin] Gardner line up at wide receiver while also getting snaps at QB.

Adam Rittenberg: Rick, while you can't rule this out because Michigan loses both [Jeremy] Gallon and [Drew] Dileo, the team would like to keep Gardner at quarterback, if at all possible. The Wolverines have some talent at tight end with [Devin] Funchess (essentially a WR) and Jake Butt, but they must develop some other options at receiver this spring. Shane Morris' progress at QB also will be key. Can he really push Gardner, or will a healthy Gardner separate himself in spring ball? Should be really interesting.

Steve from NJ: Adam, really miss chatting with everyone since the turn to Facebook, but oh well. As for the B1G East this year, I have no trouble giving OSU credit for what they did, although you have to admit, many of [its] games could have gone either way. MSU looks very strong. UM hasn't shown much of late. And PSU, even with the sanctions, is still hanging on. My point is, the winner of the East could be any of those four based on how the ball bounces. In the West, I really only see Wisc and Neb, with NW and Iowa having an outside shot.

Adam Rittenberg: Steve, I guess I wonder why you think Wisconsin and Nebraska are far and away the favorites in the West? Wisconsin loses an enormous senior class and has QB questions. Nebraska lost to Iowa and Minnesota and was a Hail Mary tip from losing to Northwestern. Will the Huskers suddenly eliminate their sloppiness and become dominant in 2014? Maybe, maybe not. I think the West is pretty even with the top 4-5 teams, while the East likely will be a 2- or 3-team race, as I don't think Penn State has enough to keep up.

Thanks again for your questions and participation. Let's do it again soon.

Final Big Ten Power Rankings

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
1:00
PM ET
Before we close the book on the 2013 season, here's the final version of the Big Ten power rankings. Bowl performances were factored in, as well as how teams finished the season, although there aren't too many changes from the previous version of the power rankings.

Let's get started ...

1. Michigan State (13-1, previously: 1): The Spartans rallied to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO to record their team-record 13th victory. Thanks to stifling defense and improved quarterback play, Michigan State had its best season since the mid-1960s. The Spartans return QB Connor Cook and most of the skill players on offense, but must replace a lot of production on defense.

2. Ohio State (12-2, previously: 2): After winning 24 consecutive games to open the Urban Meyer era, Ohio State dropped consecutive games on big stages. The Buckeyes' defense couldn't slow down Clemson's pass game in the Discover Orange Bowl, and turnovers doomed Ohio State in the second half. Meyer's defensive staff will have a different look with new assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson.

3. Wisconsin (9-4, previously: 3): Like Ohio State, Wisconsin ended its season with a thud and a sloppy bowl performance against South Carolina. The Badgers received big performances from running backs Melvin Gordon and James White but couldn't stop South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw or hang on to the football.

4. Nebraska (9-4, previously: 6): All roads lead to 9-4 for Bo Pelini's team, but the Huskers are much happier to be there after an upset victory over Georgia in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. An improved defense did a nice job of keeping the Bulldogs out of the end zone, and seniors such as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa stepped up in their final college game.

5. Iowa (8-5, previously: 4): A stout Hawkeyes defense kept the team in the Outback Bowl, but the offense never truly got going and lost starting quarterback Jake Rudock to injury. Iowa had its chances for a quality bowl win, but has to settle for a strong regular-season improvement and raised expectations entering the 2014 season.

6. Penn State (7-5, previously: 7): An impressive victory at Wisconsin marked the final game of the Bill O'Brien era. New coach James Franklin has brought a lot of enthusiasm to Happy Valley and should sparkle on the recruiting trail. His management of talented quarterback Christian Hackenberg and an undermanned defense will loom large this fall.

7. Minnesota (8-5, previously: 5): The Gophers had by far the most favorable bowl matchup but didn't reach the end zone for more than three quarters against Syracuse. Although a special-teams play ultimately doomed Minnesota, the Gophers' inability to establish a better passing game was a key element in a very disappointing loss. Minnesota should expect more in 2014.

8. Michigan (7-6, previously: 8): You knew it would be tough for Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl when quarterback Devin Gardner hobbled off of the plane on crutches. But the Wolverines never gave themselves a chance in the game, caving defensively against Kansas State's Jake Waters and Tyler Lockett. A blowout loss ended Michigan's highly disappointing season and marked the end for offensive coordinator Al Borges. Can coach Brady Hoke get things turned around in 2014?

9. Northwestern (5-7, previously: 9): Northwestern is awaiting confirmation that running back Venric Mark can return for a fifth season, and should get it in the next few weeks. Mark will help an offense that never truly got on track last fall and might need to be more of a pass-first unit if Trevor Siemian remains the starting quarterback. The defense returns nine starters.

10. Indiana (5-7, previously: 10): It took a little longer than expected, but coach Kevin Wilson fired defensive coordinator Doug Mallory last week as Indiana again will try to upgrade a perennially porous unit. The Hoosiers will be more experienced throughout the roster this fall, but the defense must change the script under new leadership as they enter the brutal East Division.

11. Illinois (4-8, previously: 11): While Wilson made a change at defensive coordinator, coach Tim Beckman is sticking with Tim Banks and the rest of his staff for a pivotal 2014 season. Like Indiana, Illinois will be more experienced on defense but must replace Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback. A favorable schedule gives Illinois a chance to make a bowl game.

12. Purdue (1-11, previously: 12): No Big Ten team is more excited to start working this offseason than the Boilers, who are rebuilding through the quarterback spot with Danny Etling and early enrollee David Blough, who officially arrived this week. Purdue must improve along both lines and replace veteran defenders such as cornerback Ricardo Allen and tackle Bruce Gaston Jr.

Big Ten's best of 2013

January, 14, 2014
Jan 14
10:00
AM ET
We're starting to wrap up the 2013 Big Ten season, which included the rise of Michigan State to elite status, more accolades for Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, Iowa's mini-renaissance, Northwestern's backslide, Jerry Kill's health-related absence and Minnesota's impressive response, up-and-down seasons from Michigan and Nebraska and much more. The league's national title drought reached its 11th year, but Michigan State brought home a Rose Bowl championship to the frosty Midwest.

To put a bow on the season, here are some Big Ten superlatives:

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio and Connor Cook
Harry How/Getty ImagesMark Dantonio made seemingly all of the right moves in 2013, including sticking with Connor Cook at QB.
Best coach: Mark Dantonio, Michigan State. Dantonio helped the Spartans find the inches that separated them in 2012, when they lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points. He made the right calls on offense after a shaky start, and the Spartans ended up winning their final nine games, including their first outright Big Ten title and first Rose Bowl championship in 26 years.

Best player, offense: Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller. No player dominates the scouting report for opposing defenses like the Buckeyes signal-caller, who complemented premier rushing skills with a more accurate arm, despite some late struggles. He won Big Ten MVP honors and league offensive player of the year honors for the second consecutive season, had 3,162 yards of offense and 36 touchdowns (24 pass, 12 rush). Miller led Ohio State to a second straight undefeated regular season and will be back as a senior in 2014.

Best player, defense: Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. The nation's No. 1 defense had several standouts, but Dennard tops the list after leading the "No Fly Zone" secondary and earning the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. A first-team All-American, Dennard recorded four interceptions and 10 pass deflections, and repeatedly shut down opposing wide receivers. He was a finalist for the Nagurski Trophy.

Best moment: Many wondered how Michigan State would fare in the Rose Bowl without star middle linebacker and co-captain Max Bullough, suspended a week before the game. Turns out the Spartans were just fine as Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris filled in well. Fittingly, MSU sealed its victory on a fourth-down stop of Stanford, where Elsworth leaped over the pile to stuff Ryan Hewitt. The play epitomized a team that overcame every obstacle and a defense that slammed the door on the opposition all year long. Elsworth was named Rose Bowl defensive player of the game.

Best rivalry game: Ohio State at Michigan. We haven't been able to say this very often about The Game in recent years, but the Wolverines and Buckeyes provided plenty of drama on Nov. 30 at the Big House. Neither defense had answers for the opposing offense and the teams combined for 83 points, 74 first downs and 1,129 total yards. Michigan went for the win with 32 seconds left, but its 2-point conversion attempt failed and Ohio State survived.

Best play: Nebraska's season hung in the balance Nov. 2 as the Huskers, coming off of a road loss to Minnesota, trailed Northwestern 24-21 with four seconds left at the Wildcats' 49-yard line. Huskers quarterback Ron Kellogg III, the team's third-stringer entering the season, evaded the rush and launched a Hail Mary to the end zone, which freshman wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp caught following a deflection for the winning touchdown. It saved Nebraska's season and possibly coach Bo Pelini's job.

Best coaching decision: Connor Cook didn't do much in a loss to Notre Dame to separate himself from the other Spartans quarterbacks. But after going to Andrew Maxwell for the final drive against the Irish, Dantonio and the staff decided to stick with Cook for the Big Ten season. It gave Cook the confidence he needed to lead MSU's offense to a Big Ten title.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
AP Photo/Lon HorwedelMichigan WR Jeremy Gallon had a game for the ages against Indiana.
Best individual performance: Michigan wide receiver Jeremy Gallon against Indiana. Sure, the Hoosiers' defense has been abysmal forever, but you just don't see too many wide receivers rack up 369 receiving yards, much less in a league game. Gallon set a Big Ten record for receiving yards and recorded the second-highest total for a receiver in FBS history. He had 14 receptions, two for touchdowns. Quarterback Devin Gardner had a team-record 503 passing yards. Ohio State's Miller had big performances against both Penn State and Iowa, Christian Hackenberg lit up Wisconsin's defense, and Cook recorded his first two career 300-yard passing performances in the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl.

Best freshman: Penn State's Hackenberg. New Lions coach James Franklin inherits a future superstar under center, as Hackenberg backed up his recruiting hype in his first season. Hackenberg finished third in the Big Ten in passing (246.2 YPG) and threw 20 touchdown passes against 10 interceptions. He completed the season by connecting on 70 percent of his passes for 339 yards and four touchdowns against Wisconsin.

Best newcomer: Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory. The junior-college transfer excited Nebraska fans when he came to Lincoln and left them even happier after his first season. Gregory led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks and tied for second in tackles for loss with 17. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and triggered Nebraska's improvement on defense down the stretch.

Best new coaching hire: Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. The Illini improved their win total from two to four this season, but things would have been worse if not for Cubit, who helped Illinois improve from 119th in 2012 to 46th this year. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was the Big Ten's only 3,000-yard passer. Cubit might have saved head coach Tim Beckman's job for another year, as the Illini now look for a similar jump on defense.

Big Ten Christmas Eve mailbag

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
4:00
PM ET
Since Christmas is tomorrow, the normal Big Ten Wednesday mailbag comes at you a day early. Consider this your letters to Santa blog:

Matt from Tucson, Ariz., writes: I'll send my question to you since you chose Nebraska as your most improved bowl team. I'm curious why (as a whole) Nebraska is perceived as a bad team that didn't meet expectations? I was watching ESPN's bowl preview show and was disappointed that Mike Belotti called Nebraska "a bad team" while Georgia was declared a team that persevered through injuries. Didn't Nebraska persevere through enough O-Line, WR, and QB injuries to make it to an 8-4 record? The O-line was so beat up that Vincent Valentine was needed on the FG team by the end of the season. Why is there no love for the Huskers?

Brian Bennett: "Bad" is a very subjective word, Matt, and not one I'd use to describe this Nebraska team. It's true that the Cornhuskers did get a whole lot of crummy luck when it came to injuries, including losing senior quarterback Taylor Martinez and much of the offensive line. Nebraska did a great job of persevering and pulling out victories in tough games against Northwestern, Penn State and Michigan, the latter two of which came on the road. If there's a difference between Nebraska and Georgia, it's that the Bulldogs have marquee victories over South Carolina and LSU and came within a miracle play of beating Auburn on the road. The Huskers didn't accomplish anything close to that and suffered three blowout losses at home -- to UCLA, Michigan State and Iowa.

Tim from Raleigh, N.C., writes: Will the Capital One Bowl be the last game Joel Stave starts for Wisconsin? I want Bart Houston (#BartHouston2014 which I try to get trending on Twitter) to start next year. I've been excited about this kid since he committed. I thought Gary Andersen might not be as thrilled since he is a pocket passer, but I looked at Houston's stats and he had 338 rushing yards and 19 rushing TDs in his senior HS season. He's supposed to have the better arm and can probably run better than Stave. I respect Stave a lot being an in-state walk on, but I don't think he's the answer for the next 2 years. I'm also scared Houston could then transfer. I don't want us to be in a Nebraska type situation where get stuck with a QB that you started as a freshman. Also, Houston has to start, HE'S NAMED AFTER BART STARR!!

Brian Bennett: Well, he's got a good name and some nice high school stats. There's an airtight case that he should start. Ahem.

There's nothing quite like the love for backup quarterbacks among fans. A player is almost never as popular as he is before he plays a significant down. Hey, Bart Houston might wind up as a great player. We have no idea. I'll tell you who does, though: Andersen, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and the rest of the Badgers staff. They've seen Houston practice every day since they've come to Madison. If they thought Houston was better than Stave, he would have played more by now.

Maybe Houston progresses in the offseason and overtakes Stave, who simply missed too many throws in 2013. Or maybe Tanner McEvoy makes a move at quarterback, though his future may well lie on defense after he played well at safety. It's no secret that Andersen likes mobile quarterbacks. Right now, though, Stave still has a huge experience edge. It will be up to someone else to outplay him in practice.

[+] EnlargePat Narduzzi
AP Photo/Al GoldisCould Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi get a head coaching job soon?
Matt from SoCal writes: Do you see Pat Narduzzi as a real option to be the head coach at Texas?

Brian Bennett: I don't, Matt. It's not that I think Narduzzi couldn't do a good job at Texas. It's just that I don't believe the Longhorns will hire a coordinator. They've got more money than Scrooge McDuck and are going to shoot for the moon with this job. Narduzzi might, however, benefit from a possible coaching carousel resulting from the Texas hire.

Kevin from Rock Island, Ill., writes: Illinois has really been going after the Juco players. What are your thoughts on the strategy and some of the signees so far? It has worked for Groce and the basketball program, but when there are so many holes, it seems like a short term fix to a bigger problem.

Brian Bennett: No doubt there are some issues with signing a lot of junior college guys. Not all pan out, and you risk getting in the cycle of needing more and more to fill gaps. But Tim Beckman really needs more depth and experience on the roster, and I think he sees this mostly as a short-term fix. The guys Illinois signed last year weren't exactly superstars, but players like Zane Petty and Martize Barr contributed, and Eric Finney might have done more than that had he stayed healthy. I can't pretend to know how good these incoming 2014 jucos will be, but I do like that the Stone-Davis brothers both fill needs at receiver and defensive backs and have three years left to play.

Connor M. from Lima, Ohio, writes: Love the work you guys do for the Big Ten! Looking ahead to next year, let's say Braxton and Shazier both play well in the Orange Bowl, raise their stock and turn pro. How much will the offense and defense be affected and who do you see replacing those two in their respective positions, most specifically, the QB spot?

Brian Bennett: Thanks, Connor. I think Ryan Shazier is the more likely of the two to go pro, and Ohio State could more easily absorb that loss, even though it would be a huge one. The defensive line should continue to improve, and there's a ton of young talent at linebacker and in the secondary on the way. Losing Braxton Miller, however, would change the whole outlook for the 2014 Buckeyes, especially since most of the offensive line and Carlos Hyde also are seniors. The only experience at all on the roster at quarterback is Cardale Jones, and he's a freshman who has thrown four passes. Freshman J.T. Barrett and incoming recruit Stephen Collier would battle Jones for the starting job, but Ohio State would basically be starting from scratch. In a much more difficult division.

BUCKIHATER from Future Home of the BigTen, NYC, writes: If you look back starting from the modern era of college football (1960's- present), the school who loves to put the word 'THE' in front of its name only has two claimed national titles -- you can even argue they should only have one if it wasn't for a really bad call, while the other happened before Woodstock. If you compare the 'THE' to other traditional football powerhouses like 'Bama, Miami, even Nebraska who all have 5 or more since the 60's, its not even close. Why does 'THE' get so much love on being the savior for the Big Ten? I was shocked to see the lack of championships over the last 50 years and Michigan State just did what every team in the Big Ten wanted to do for 2 years: Beat the bullies from Columbus.

Brian Bennett: So I take it you're not an Ohio State fan, then? Listen, if you want to start talking about national championships won by the Big Ten since the 1960s, this is not going to turn out well for anyone. Since 1970, we've got Michigan's split national title in 1997, Ohio State's in 2002 and ... hey, look, at that squirrel over there! The Buckeyes have been the only Big Ten team to even play for a national championship in the BCS era as a league member, and they've done it three times. So if you want to hate on Ohio State, that's fine. But that makes the rest of the conference look even worse by comparison.

Doug from KC, MO, writes: I have a Hawkeye question stemming from some recent conversations I've had with Nebraska fans. They always talk about whether to get another coach or not because they want to be contending for National Titles like the old (90's) days. I tell them for most teams in the country, and especially the BIG, this is pretty unrealistic. CFB is at a point where a lot of the odds/rules/recruiting are stacked against northern teams and outside of programs with lots of tradition (Mich, OSU and even ND) it is going to be very tough for you to have a regular NCG contender. I hope for a BCS game or Rose Bowl for Iowa every 4-5 years but it is just too much of a stretch for me to think Iowa (and other mid-tier BIG teams) will make a NCG appearance. Do you think some BIG teams have expectations that are too high or am I on the Debbie Downer side of the argument?

Brian Bennett: Doug, can you talk to BUCKIHATER for me? Anyway, I'm not sure enough Big Ten programs are ambitious enough. The Rose Bowl is great, but too many league teams talk like the Big Ten title is the ultimate goal, and I believe that becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. How many times did you hear Urban Meyer talk about how much the Buckeyes just wanted to get to the Rose Bowl?

Anyway, as I just wrote a moment ago, the Big Ten hasn't exactly been reeling in the national titles. Here's the good news for the league, and for a team like Iowa: the forthcoming Playoff opens things up. Have a great year, win the Big Ten, and there's a chance you'll be in the four-team playoff. From there, who knows? Getting to that playoff, not the Rose Bowl, has to be the goal for every serious league team from 2014 on.

Chris from Northern Michigan writes: Happy holidays, Brian, and merry bowl season. I would like to get your thoughts on the MSU QB situation. Obviously it looks like Connor Cook has the job wrapped up for the next two years, barring injury or a huge year next year leading to NFL early entry. Would you expect Damion Terry or Tyler O'Connor to transfer? MSU just lost a QB recruit, and while it would be understandable that either current QB would want to play, a Cook injury could be catastrophic if either transfers.

Brian Bennett: Catastrophic? Well, you'd still have Cook and at least one backup. Not a whole lot of teams had to play three quarterbacks major minutes this season, outside of Nebraska. Cook will be hard to unseat after going 9-0 in the Big Ten and winning a title. I do think there will be some sort of role for Terry, because he's just too talented not to get on the field. Wouldn't surprise me one bit if O'Connor moved on.

And to your first point, Chris, Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
4:00
PM ET
Sadly, there's no Big Ten football this weekend for the first time since August. I'll be counting the minutes until bowl season.

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter.

To the inbox ...

Matthew from Minneapolis writes: Hey Adam, I can't help but feeling you've been dodging my question about "national brand teams" in Michigan/Penn State. What qualitative or quantitative data do you have to substantiate these claims? You recently wrote "...what they're used to seeing, and that's Michigan/Penn State [being good]..." really? When was the last time either of these teams were even remotely decent?

Adam Rittenberg: Matthew, I'm not sure how old you are. If you're under 30, the Michigan and PSU brands might not resonate for you as much as Wisconsin's, MSU's and Iowa's. But it's different for those who remember Michigan's national title in 1997 and five Big Ten championships between 1997-2004, not to mention the program's long-term history. The same holds true for those who remember Penn State's national titles in the 1980s or the great teams in 1994, 2005 and 2008.

You want data that validates Michigan and Penn State as big brands? Look at the money they bring in. They're always included in Forbes' list of most valuable college football teams. They have huge stadiums, massive alumni/fan bases and plenty of NFL alumni. I'm not arguing that Michigan and, to a lesser extent because of the circumstances, Penn State are underachieving. I'm actually underscoring that in Michigan's case. But they're still national brands because of what they've done over time.


Ron from Minneapolis writes: Hi, Adam. I think the Gophers got the shaft this year for their bowl game. Gophers fans don't travel well because they end up in bad bowl games. I would bet anything that had they been selected to the Gator Bowl, the fan base would be very good. What I worry about is, even if they would go 9-3 or 10-2 next year, they will still get passed over to a good bowl because of fan travel? It's hard to recruit and become a contender when people don't even watch a lower bowl game like this. As fans, how do we get the word out to the bowl committees so this doesn't keep happening?

Adam Rittenberg: Ron, the good news for you and your fellow Gophers fans is that the Big Ten, beginning in 2014, will take over the bowl selection process rather than put it solely in the hands of bowl officials. Bowls and teams will be assigned to tiers, and the league will work to avoid repeat destinations or repeat opponents for teams. "We're going to really want to have different teams in different bowls," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said in announcing the new bowl lineup in June. "... You'll see a real focus on getting diversity and freshness."

All that said, it's important for Minnesota fans to show up at this year's Texas Bowl, support a good team and begin to change the perception about how well they travel. Quite frankly, you're overestimating the gap between the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl and the Texas Bowl. The Gator Bowl has some more tradition, but I'd argue the Texas Bowl is in better location with a better time slot, away from the New Year's Day gridlock. Bowl committees don't care about head-to-head results or fans whining about being passed over. You probably won't have this problem in the future, but you still should go and support your team if possible.


Todd from Peoria, Ill., writes: How did Ohio State end up playing Clemson and Alabama playing Oklahoma? Given how close both came to the title game, wouldn't that be a better match-up than either got this year? It would prove how the (true) best SEC team this year compares to the best available B1G team and whether OSU had any business thinking of playing for the crystal football. Also, what do you think of the apparent decision by Tim Beckman to keep DC Tim Banks despite two years of dismal defense by my beloved Illini?

Adam Rittenberg: Todd, it has more to do with the current relationships between BCS bowls and certain leagues. The ACC's tie to the Discover Orange Bowl led the bowl to replace Florida State with Clemson. The same held true with the SEC and the Allstate Sugar Bowl, which replaced Auburn with Alabama. Ohio State-Alabama would have been great, though I was hoping the Sugar would pick Oregon to face Bama, a matchup we've wanted for years. But because of the game's upcoming Big 12 tie-in (Champions Bowl), it went with Oklahoma, and Alabama-Oklahoma looks like a mismatch.

As for Illinois, I'm a little surprised Beckman will keep his entire defensive staff intact. He's entering a make-or-break season, and he wants to sink or swim with the coaches he hired. He probably doesn't want another year of significant staff turnover. But the defense must get a lot better.


Tony from Austin, Texas, writes: Hey Adam, what are the chances of Taylor Martinez playing in the NFL? Is it likely he has a future as an NFL quarterback or is he best changing positions (see Denard Robinson)?

Adam Rittenberg: Tony, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini told me before the season that he thinks Martinez can play quarterback in the NFL. Pelini knows the NFL, but I'd be surprised if Martinez is taking snaps in the pros next year. His mechanics are improved from his sophomore year but remain far from textbook, which is the standard in the NFL. I don't see enough arm strength, either. Martinez certainly has skills that translate to the next level, namely his speed, so I see him moving to another position.


Todd from Louisville writes: Adam, your comments in two different posts appear to be almost directly opposed to me. Should Iowa fans demand and expect more than an 8-4 record or be realistic/objective about being ambitious and excited for the future? Do you intend to appear combative with these fans no matter what position they espouse?

Adam Rittenberg: Todd, I think my Iowa comment was misinterpreted, and that's my fault. Iowa fans obviously should be excited about their team's four-win improvement this season. My comment was that in general, an 8-4 record seems to please more fan bases in the Big Ten then it would in the SEC. I don't think enough Big Ten fan bases demand excellence from their programs. That's not a shot at Iowa fans, who were understandably disappointed in 2012. But now the bar must be raised for 2014. Iowa has a real chance to win the West division, and anything less should be considered a disappointment. Kirk Ferentz makes big money and should be held to a higher standard than 8-4. That's more than fair.

There are many reasons why the Big Ten has slipped a bit nationally in football. But I wonder if enough teams in this league take a championship-or-bust approach to seasons, and whether that's contributing to the mediocrity.


Sam from Detroit writes: Adam, if things go how they usually go with Nick Saban and he decides to leave for Texas, do you think Mark Dantonio would be a candidate for the Alabama job? He has to be one of the more desirable coaches out there right now, and Alabama is obviously one of the better jobs. I seem to remember Dantonio being in the middle of the pack as far as compensation for B1G coaches and while I'm sure he'll get a bump this year, it won't be an SEC-esque bump. Do you think he'd leave for a job like Alabama?

Adam Rittenberg: I don't think so, but Michigan State needs to step up and provide Dantonio and his assistants substantial raises. Dantonio knows he's in a great situation at MSU. He has a great boss in Mark Hollis, and his family is happy there. His only tie to the SEC is the fact he played at South Carolina. Dantonio definitely has some leverage if other schools begin courting him, but I'd be a bit surprised if he leaves. He's not a guy completely driven by money, and he knows he can compete for the College Football Playoff at MSU.

Big Ten lunchtime links

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
12:00
PM ET
Two weeks until Christmas. Guess I'd better start shopping.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

New ESPN 300 Top 10 Revealed
National recruiting analysts Tom Luginbill and Craig Haubert count down the top 10 recruits in the latest ESPN 300 player rankings update. The complete ESPN 300 will be released April 16.Tags: Tim Settle, CeCe Jefferson, Torrance Gibson, Mitch Hyatt, Terry Beckner Jr., Byron Cowart, Josh Sweat, Kevin Toliver II, Martez Ivey, Trevon Thompson, ESPN 300, RecruitingNation, high school football recruiting, Tom Luginbill, Craig Haubert
VIDEO PLAYLIST video