Penn State Nittany Lions: Northwestern Wildcats

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State is a double-digit favorite over Northwestern but, hey, at least Saturday’s noon game at Beaver Stadium should be more entertaining than last Saturday's UMass slaughter.

Here are a few things to keep an eye on:

[+] EnlargeBelton
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsPenn State will try to keep its running game going against Northwestern.
1. Can Penn State’s success with the run-game continue? Northwestern hasn’t had a lot of team success since … well … last September. But it does have a deceptively good run defense. The Wildcats have allowed just 3.08 yards per rush this season, and their worst performance came when they allowed four yards a rush against Northern Illinois. Not too bad, considering the Huskies ran the ball 55 times.

Sure, Penn State had success last week – but its opponent was UMass. That kind of production needs to be taken with a grain of salt, especially considering the Minutemen allow nearly 50 percent more yards per rush than Northwestern (4.57 yards compared to 3.08 yards). If Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak or Akeel Lynch can run against Northwestern, this offense really has become more balanced. But it seems premature to say the run game has already taken off. This game should act as a good measuring stick.

2. Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian and his ankle. Siemian doesn’t have a severe injury, but there has still been a ripple impact from the setback he suffered against Northern Illinois. His arm strength has been noticeably lacking, and head coach Pat Fitzgerald said this week that’s because he couldn’t push off that ankle. Siemian had enough problems before an injury complicated things, but last week against Western Illinois, he was just 15-of-25 for 117 yards. That’s not terrible, but against a team nicknamed the Leathernecks, he should’ve done much better. The Wildcats should struggle running the ball, so they’re going to have to rely on Siemian. If he can’t get the job done, the Northwestern offense is in real trouble.

3. Can Christian Hackenberg maintain his record pace? The sophomore quarterback is averaging 315.2 passing yards per game. At that rate, including a bowl game, he’s on pace for 4,098 yards. No Big Ten quarterback has ever crossed the 4,000-yard barrier; former Purdue quarterback Curtis Painter came the closest in 2006 with 3,985 yards. Hackenberg has a chance to break that Big Ten record this year, but he needs to rack up yards against teams like Northwestern to have a shot. The Wildcats have the No. 91 passing defense in the nation.

4. Anthony Zettel vs. Northwestern OL. Zettel didn't record any tackle stats last week, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t contribute. His penetration on one play allowed Brandon Bell to record a big sack, and he could be in for a good day statistically on Saturday. Northwestern’s line hasn’t fared very well against its two FBS opponents.

Here’s what the Wildcats have allowed in those two games: 11 tackles for loss, seven sacks and four forced fumbles. And Northern Illinois and Cal aren’t exactly known for their defense; neither is ranked within the top 45 in total defense. Zettel’s speed could prove especially problematic Saturday, especially considering Siemian’s ankle.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
5:00
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Big Ten football kicks off in 26 hours. Let's get you ready with a mailbag:

Josh Moyer: Hmmm ... it's a bit tricky this week since only three of 14 games don't feature huge double-digit favorites (Rutgers-Washington State, UCF-Penn State, Wisconsin-LSU). Out of those three, though, I like Wisconsin the most as an upset pick. LSU has a new quarterback and running back and its run defense shows a few cracks. The Tigers ranked 94th in the nation last season in stopping ball carriers behind the line and were No. 35 in run defense. And you know what happens when Melvin Gordon finds room on the outside (hint: touchdown). Wisconsin has fared well against better run defenses, so they should be able to keep the ball moving Saturday. We'll see if that's enough.

Josh Moyer: After a sub-par freshman campaign, it sure looks as if Derrick Green is on pace to be Michigan's feature back. Brady Hoke named him the starter, although he added that De'Veon Smith will be "1A." But if you look at how Doug Nussmeier and Brady Hoke have approached running backs since 2010, the top guy has always received at least twice as many carries as the backup. (One exception: Alabama's Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon split carries in 2012 but combined for 66.5 percent of team carries.) Green had 27 percent body fat last year and naturally looked sluggish; he's at 9 percent right now. He'll be better. As for Jabrill Peppers, count me among the believers. Devin Gardner said recently that Peppers and Devin Funchess are the best athletes on the team. That's big praise. So sure, Peppers has generated a lot of hype -- but I think he'll live up to it.

Josh Moyer: In our season predictions this morning, I was the only Big Ten reporter to pick Minnesota to win fewer than six games. Everyone else said six or seven. I'll admit I waffled slightly between choosing five and six wins, but the Minnesota passing game -- or lack thereof -- really concerns me. The Gophers ranked No. 105 in the nation last season in total offense and, without a playmaker like Ra'Shede Hageman on defense, I'm not yet sold on the defense being as good as last year. In some ways, last season's 8-5 record was a best-case scenario -- especially with surprising wins against Penn State and Nebraska, and close wins against Norhtwestern and Indiana. When I look at this season's schedule, I see seven losses: at TCU, at Michigan, Northwestern, Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska, and at Wisconsin. Northwestern was the toss-up for me but, as it stands, I see the Wildcats winning a close one.

Josh Moyer: It's the biggest question mark on the team, and I think it's going to be the determining factor in whether Penn State finds success. I picked the Nittany Lions to win seven games and, honestly, I think that's even slightly optimistic with this line. (Two players who were defensive tackles in February are now starting inside as offensive guards, and absent is basically any quality depth.) This offense has for which to be excited: Christian Hackenberg, two terrific running backs, my pick for B1G tight end of the year and a plethora of talented young wideouts. The only thing that's missing is a solid O-line -- and all the talent in the world doesn't mean anything if Hackenberg and Co. can't find time. If last season's O-line returned, I might even pick Penn State to win 10 games. The potential is there, but the offensive line is going to act as the cap. 

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
5:00
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We're taking more of your mailbag questions from Twitter these days, and we now have individual Twitter handles in addition to the ESPN Big Ten account. Make sure to follow each of us for all your league news. Here is mine.

Now to the good stuff, which is your questions and my fair-to-middling answers:

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Brian Bennett: I haven't thought of it quite like that, but I get your point. Iowa has a definite shot with its advantageous schedule. With the Hawkeyes' toughest two games coming in the final two weeks at home against Wisconsin and Nebraska, they have a chance to be favored in every game. Meanwhile, Ohio State faces many more challenges, including nonconference games against Virginia Tech, Cincinnati and Navy, along with that East Division showdown on the road at Michigan State.

Yet, if I had to pick one team to go undefeated of those two, I'd take the Buckeyes. Iowa's conservative style means that more games are likely to be close -- five of last season's 13 contests were decided by a touchdown or less, while Ohio State had three such games in 14 tries. Looked at another way, the Buckeyes outgained opponents by 137.6 per game in conference play last season, while the Hawkeyes outgained their league foes by 52.5 yards per game. Though past performance shouldn't be our sole guide for looking forward, Ohio State has gone 12-0 in the regular season the past two seasons.

I like Iowa a lot this year and am leaning toward picking Kirk Ferentz's team to win the West Division. But I'd be surprised if it didn't stub its toe a time or two along the way, whereas another Ohio State undefeated season wouldn't be shocking.


Hussein from Ann Arbor writes: I was reading your DB position preview and couldn't help but notice that Michigan was absent. I understand why they might not be number 1 in the conference, but they are returning tons of talent and I would be surprised if they weren't in the top 3 this upcoming year. Blake Countess is a stud and should compete for All Big-Ten First Team (if not All-American), while Raymon Taylor is very solid at the opposite corner position. At least one safety spot should be locked up with Jarrod Wilson with the other seemingly up for grabs(?). And that's without even mentioning Jabrill Peppers ...

Brian Bennett: I strongly considered Michigan for one of the top two spots, Hussein, and as you can probably tell, those posts are intended to rank every single team. I like the Wolverines' returning experience, and Countess should be one of the top cover guys in the league. Peppers can take the group to the next level if he is the real deal, but I'm a little bit cautious about projecting so much on an incoming true freshman who didn't go through spring ball. I have little doubt Peppers will make an impact this season, but how much? Ultimately, I thought Michigan gave up too many big plays in the passing game last season and wasn't physical enough in the back end. If Peppers helps change that, this crew has a chance to be the best in the Big Ten.


Brian from Raleigh, North Carolina, writes: Hey, Brian, about the Fitz-calls-Nebraska-boring "controversy"... maybe I've got my purple-tinted glasses on, but where's the beef? How are there even Nebraska fans angry about this? I grew up in the middle of nowhere in rural Michigan, and we made fun of how empty and boring it was all the time. Fitz made a bad joke that almost every American has made at some point in their lives. Is this really such a stinging, controversial comment? Or has cliche coachspeak become so dominant that a coach acting like an actual human being for 10 seconds is news?

Brian Bennett: I'm glad you put "controversy" in quotes, because this isn't really a big deal. Pat Fitzgerald's comments about Cal coach Sonny Dykes, I thought, were more intriguing. I can see why Nebraska people wouldn't like it, though. For example, f I call my home state "boring" or insult it in some other way, that's OK; if you as a non-Kentuckian do the same, well, them's fightin' words! Still, Fitzgerald was simply yukking it up with some Northwestern boosters after a summertime golf event, so let's not make it into a culture war. If anything, it adds a little spice to a very dull period, and the Big Ten can be far too dry and polite at times.


Ed from Michigan writes: Hey, Brian. It seem like everyone who follows college football has heard of stories of cheating and then the Big 12 Commissioner says the same. My question: Where is the investigative reporting to uncover this cheating?

Brian Bennett: There is no question about two things, Ed. One, the overwhelming majority of NCAA infractions cases began with a media report, as journalists have been doing the hard legwork for NCAA investigators for years. And two, fewer newspapers and other media outlets are devoting time and resources to investigative journalism these days. Some places still are, for sure. The North Carolina academic scandal is a perfect example of an issue that would have quickly vanished (or never even bubbled up) without the great work of some dogged reporters. What's also true is that uncovering those stories is painstakingly difficult, as it's often nearly impossible to find tangible evidence of cheating and not just accusations. For all the outstanding reporting that went into the Cam Newton affair, for instance, that smoking-gun shred of a paper trail never surfaced.

The bigger issue here, to me, is not from the media side but rather how cheating will be policed in the future. Particularly if -- or, more accurately, when -- the Power 5 schools gain autonomy and write many of their own rules, who will be there to enforce them? Certainly not the understaffed NCAA enforcement division, which will have ceded much of its power anyway. It likely will be up to the schools and conferences themselves. There is a good chance, as Bob Bowlsby said, that cheating will continue to pay off. There will just be fewer rules to break.

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Brian Bennett: The Hoosiers were close last year. Had they beaten Navy -- or had they given themselves a more manageable nonconference schedule, something athletic director Fred Glass regrets in hindsight -- they would have made their first bowl since 2007. Unfortunately, the schedule is tough again this season, with road trips to Bowling Green (the preseason MAC favorite) and Missouri, a crossover road game at Iowa and the rugged East Division. The good news is that Kevin Wilson had built a standout offense, and the defense has some small reasons for optimism, so IU should at least be within range of bowl eligibility.

As for Tevin Coleman, he's probably one of the most underrated players in the league. He's an outstanding athlete whose length and speed reminds me of Melvin Gordon. In fact, he scored as many rushing touchdowns (12) as Gordon did in four fewer games last season and averaged 7.3 yards per rush. With Indiana potentially relying on the run game a bit more this season, Coleman could put up monster stats.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
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Oppressive heat returns to the Midwest. Must be almost time for the start of football practice.

B1G awards watch list roundup

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
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College football preseason awards watch lists are, at best, little more than a summertime curiosity these days and, at worst, an easy punchline.

For one, there are far too many awards -- only country music likes to give itself as many trophies as this sport. There are often way too many players on these lists -- the Rimington Trophy list, for example, includes 64 players, or basically half the starting centers in the FBS, and 10 from the Big Ten alone. And, of course, eventual winners of these awards sometimes come out of nowhere, making the preseason lists even more meaningless.

We relegated almost all the watch list releases to tweets, but if you're interested, we thought we'd compile all the Big Ten players who were nominated in one place. If nothing else, you can come back to this page in December and perhaps have a good chuckle. Here you go:

Maxwell Award (Player of the Year)
Walter Camp (Player of the Year)
  • Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE Michigan State
  • Stefon Diggs,WR, Maryland
  • Devin Funchess, WR, Michigan
  • Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
Bednarik Award (Defensive Player of the Year)
Bronko Nagurski Trophy (Defensive Player)
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
  • Frank Clark, DE, Michigan
  • Blake Countess, DB, Michigan
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Kurtis Drummond, S, Michigan State
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State
Outland Trophy (Interior lineman)
Davey O’Brien Award (Quarterback):
  • Connor Cook, Michigan State
  • Devin Gardner, Michigan
  • Christian Hackenberg, Penn State
  • Braxton Miller, Ohio State
  • Joel Stave, Wisconsin
Doak Walker Award (Running back)
Butkus Award (Linebacker)
Rotary Lombardi Award (Lineman/Linebacker)
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Austin Blythe, C, Iowa
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Ron Havenstein, T, Wisconsin
  • Kaleb Johnson, G, Rutgers
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Brandon Scherff, T, Iowa
Biletnikoff Award (Wide receiver)
Jim Thorpe Award (Defensive back)
  • Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
  • Blake Countess, Michigan
  • Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
  • Jordan Lucas, Penn State
  • Trae Waynes, Michigan State
Mackey Award (Tight end)
Rimington Trophy (Center) Lou Groza Award (Kicker)
Ray Guy Award (Punter)

Finally, watch this list of my preseason awards watch list, uh, awards:

Most nominated: Thanks to his inclusion on multiple defensive award lists as well as one player of the year recognition, Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory leads the way with four nods.

Biggest "snubs:" We use the word "snub" very, very lightly here. Still, it was a mild surprise not to see Venric Mark on the Doak Walker list (he was, after all, nominated for the Maxwell) or for Maryland defensive lineman Andre Monroe to not show up anywhere. Apparently, Monroe's 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss last year weren't good enough to get him on the same list as dozens of other less productive players.

Weirdest list: The Butkus Award folks, bless them, either know something we don't or really swung and missed this year. Neither Maryland's Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil nor Ohio State's Curtis Grant were on anybody's radar for a major award, and you could make a very strong argument that neither is even the best linebacker on his own team (the Terps' Matt Robinson and the Buckeyes' Joshua Perry would have made more sense here). And then there's the omission of Rutgers' Steve Longa, who had 123 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. Just plain odd all around.

Just happy to be nominated: Northwestern's Chi Chi Ariguzo and Michigan's Devin Funchess are both outstanding players who should be in strong contention for all-conference and quite possibly All-America honors this season. But they have about as good a chance of winning a national player of the year award (which almost always goes to quarterbacks or running backs, anyway) as I do. Funchess was nominated for both the Maxwell and Walter Camp award, which means he has a great public relations man. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's Joel Stave isn't even guaranteed to start at quarterback this season for the Badgers, yet he found himself on the Davey O'Brien watch list. As usual, it doesn't hurt to cover all the bases when compiling a preseason watch list.

Big Ten's lunch links

July, 3, 2014
Jul 3
12:00
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Pre-fireworks links:
It's the dog days of summer, so we're desperate to see some football. Of course, not all football games are created equally.

As we've done in the past around here, we're ranking the 2014 Big Ten nonconference games from worst to first. We're taking into account quality of opponent, interest level and expected competitiveness of the game while breaking these down. We'll do this in four batches of 14 games, which equals the total number of 56 nonconference matchups for the league this year. (Math!)

This first installment, as you'd expect, involves a whole lot of FCS and MAC action. We warn you: It won't be pretty. But at least it will be football.

No. 56: Rutgers vs. Howard, Sept. 6: The FCS Bison did go 6-6 last year, but come on. Playing HBCUs should never be on the Big Ten agenda, as this debacle proved a year ago.

No. 55: Indiana vs. Indiana State, Aug. 30: The Hoosiers hung 73 points last year on the home-state Sycamores, who went on to finish 1-11. Bet the over.

No. 54: Wisconsin vs. Western Illinois, Sept. 6: Giving yourself a little breather the week after playing LSU is understandable. The Badgers usually bludgeon overmatched teams at Camp Randall, and this should be no different.

No. 53: Purdue vs. Southern Illinois, Sept. 20: Should be a guaranteed win for the Boilers. Emphasis on should.

No. 52: Northwestern vs. Western Illinois, Sept. 20: If you're itching for more Leathernecks action after the Wisconsin game, you're in luck. And you're weird.

No. 51: Illinois vs. Youngstown State, Aug. 30: Maybe if Jim Tressel came back to coach the Penguins one last time ...

No. 50: Purdue vs. Western Michigan, Aug. 30: Yes, a matchup involving an FBS opponent beats out several FCS games. WMU went 1-11 last year, FYI.

No. 49: Maryland vs. James Madison, Aug. 30: Never forget this, Terps fans.

No. 48: Penn State vs. UMass, Sept. 20: The Minutemen are an FBS team. Not that you could really tell.

No. 47: Michigan State vs. Eastern Michigan, Sept. 20: EMU is an FBS team. Not that you could really tell.

No. 46: Nebraska vs. McNeese State, Sept. 6: Hey, the Cowboys did win 10 games last year and blew out South Florida. So that's something.

No. 45: Michigan State vs Jacksonville State, Aug. 29: The Gamecocks made the FCS quarterfinals last year and are ranked in the top 10 of some FCS polls. In case the Spartans are looking ahead to that Week 2 trip to Eugene.

No. 44: Illinois vs. Texas State, Sept. 20: The Bobcats are coming off a 6-6 season in the Sun Belt. Tim Beckman desperately needs to go 6-6.

No. 43: Illinois vs. Western Kentucky, Sept. 6: A great way to get halfway to 6-6 is by scheduling Texas State, Youngstown State and WKU.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 2, 2014
Jul 2
12:00
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Lots to digest here.

The Opening presented by Nike Football will take place July 7-10 at Nike World Headquarters in Oregon, with 162 of the nation's top high school football prospects set to compete. With four days of dynamic training, coaching and competition among the best of the best, The Opening is the perfect chance for recruits in the Class of 2015 to make big jumps and shine on the national stage.

Here are five prospects with the most to gain at the prestigious event:

Big Ten lunch links

June, 26, 2014
Jun 26
12:00
PM ET
USMNT, let's do this.
It goes against the offensive lineman's credo to crave attention. Despite his size, he would rather go undetected, often a strong indicator that he's doing his job well.

Indiana's offensive linemen are no exception. They don't seek out the spotlight. But it's time to recognize what they've been doing the past few years, because few seem to notice.

[+] EnlargeIndiana Hoosies' offensive line
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsIndiana's offensive line has quietly become one of the premier units in the Big Ten.
Let's be as clear as possible: Indiana's offensive line is the most underrated unit in the Big Ten.

You might disagree, but I doubt you've actually paid attention to Indiana's line. Maybe because it's Indiana. Maybe it's because the Hoosiers run an up-tempo spread offense rather than a traditional, road-grading one that typically shines a brighter light on the five men up front. Whatever the reason, the Hoosiers line rarely gets much love.

But it's a huge reason why Indiana has had the Big Ten's No. 2 offense in each of the past two seasons. Despite two true freshman starters in 2012, Indiana led the Big Ten in fewest sacks allowed: one for every 31.8 pass attempts. Last season, the line overcame several major injuries -- IU started nine linemen and used seven different lineups -- and prevented sacks in six games. The offense averaged more than 300 pass yards and more than 200 rush yards for the first time in team history.

"When I came in with Coach [Kevin] Wilson, both of us having an offensive line background, we wanted to build a unit that has great flexibility, the ability to run the ball," Hoosiers offensive line coach Greg Frey told ESPN.com "Our goal, as it is with any offensive line, is to control the game. We’re going to pick up that third-and-1. If you need more time to throw, we're going to give you more time."

Strong offensive lines are normally stocked with veterans, but Indiana has excelled with youth. Five Hoosiers linemen have earned freshman All-Big Ten honors since 2011, including two in each of the past two seasons. Tackle Jason Spriggs and guard Dan Feeney both earned freshman All-America honors in 2012, when they set team freshman records by starting all 12 games.

Indiana lost Feeney to a foot injury days before the 2013 season and lost two other starters, Peyton Eckert and David Kaminski, to season-ending injuries in October. But others stepped up, players such as Collin Rahrig, a former walk-on who started 10 games at center, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Ralston Evans, who suffered a major knee injury before the 2011 season and appeared in only one game in 2012, started all 12 games at right tackle last season.

"When we were at Michigan, coaches came up and said, 'Who the hell is this right tackle you’ve got?'" Frey said. "I said, 'Don't tell me. Tell him he did a good job.' These guys work hard. There’s a good culture there."

Indiana returns 130 career offensive line starts, most in the Big Ten and third most in the FBS behind Appalachian State and UTSA. Frey, who previously coached lines at Michigan, West Virginia and South Florida, thinks this could be his deepest group.

It's a close group, too, one that spends a lot of time together off of the field. If a Bloomington restaurant offers a food special, the Hoosiers' linemen are quick to find it.

Frey doesn't change his expectations for the line in 2014. They've always been high.

"The ability to be a leader or a presence on the team, that part of it changes," he said. "There’s some credentials there, a little bit of background, some personal expectations.

"We have more voices there who are respected."

But will the group gain respect? It will take more than yards and points.

"They realize the more you’re winning in college football, the more people know about you," Frey said. "Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things, but you'd like to see the fruits of their labor be recognized. Everybody likes to be recognized a little bit.

"Hopefully as we go on, that will naturally happen."

Indiana's offensive line tops my list of the Big Ten's most underrated position groups. Here are four others ...

Minnesota's secondary: Jay Sawvel does an excellent job with Minnesota's back four. Fourth-round draft pick Brock Vereen will be tough to replace, but safety Cedric Thompson had a good spring and Eric Murray could become an elite cornerback this season. Derrick Wells adds a playmaking presence at corner and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who opened last season as a starting cornerback, returns from injury.

Penn State's running backs: Quarterback Christian Hackenberg grabs the headlines and justifiably so, but he'll need help in the backfield from a talented group of ball-carriers. How many people know Zach Zwinak has nearly 2,000 career rush yards? Bill Belton had an excellent spring and could be the offense's top playmaker, and junior Akeel Lynch has a nice speed-power mix.

Northwestern's receivers/tight ends: I've stumped for this group and while it hasn't quite blossomed, a two-quarterback system and a shift from a pass-heavy attack didn't help. Northwestern should be much more pass-heavy with Trevor Siemian as its sole signal caller. Christian Jones and Tony Jones are proven veterans, Rutgers transfer Myles Shuler fills a void in the slot and Kyle Prater is finally healthy. Tight end Dan Vitale is poised for a breakout season.

Maryland's linebackers: The Terps return three of four starters who combined for 233 tackles last season. Cole Farrand is a strong leader, and Matt Robinson provides a spark on the outside. Maryland will miss the disruptive Marcus Whitfield but returns five of its top six linebackers from 2013. If the group stays healthy -- a big if given Maryland's recent misfortune -- it could be very good.

Big Ten Wednesday mailblog

June, 25, 2014
Jun 25
5:00
PM ET
Tackling the second of three mailblogs this week. Have questions? Send them here or tweet me here.

What's on your mind?

@mikemagnus via Twitter: Would there be as much pushback adding Maryland and Rutgers if they were added at the same time as Nebraska rather than separately?

Adam Rittenberg: Really interesting question, Mike. As Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany often says, not every expansion addition can be Nebraska or Penn State. There is filler out there (hello, Utah, Colorado and TCU) and schools brought in more for their locations than their athletic tradition. I think if this happened in 2010, the reaction could have been different. Nebraska would be celebrated and Rutgers and Maryland would be seen as a way to get closer to the superconference model.

Some of the criticism would remain, and some would wonder why the Big Ten didn't add other Big 12 schools. Remember, the eastern movement wasn't a B1G objective at the time, and the ACC hadn't added Syracuse and Pittsburgh. But overall, I don't think the backlash would be as strong because Nebraska would be a nice distraction.


Brian from Raleigh, North Carolina, writes: Hey Adam, one thing really stood out about the B1G Presidents & Chancellors' letter: they endorsed most of Kain Colter and CAPA's stated goals. As you say, none of the ideas are new, but is it safe to call this a (provisional) vindication for Colter? And what should we make of the fact that they didn't endorse a formal seat at the decision-making table for athletes?

Rittenberg: Brian, it's definitely a victory of sorts for Colter and CAPA. They would like to see more specifics and protections in the medical plans schools will offer athletes (current and former), but it's significant that the medical coverage piece is part of the signed letter. CAPA has been smart in not advocating first for a pay-for-play model, as few can argue with a push for greater medical coverage for athletes. Good point about the omission of an athlete seat at the decision-making table, although Delany and other league leaders have voiced their support for one.


Isaiah from the South Carolina cornfields writes: Adam, I believe that the best approach for scheduling nonconference opponents is a balanced one. Games against only FBS teams is a great start, but let's be honest, Eastern Michigan is probably a worse team than North Dakota State. Really, what is important is the quality of the opponent. Teams that finish within 25 places from where your team does should be the norm; this could include playoff FCS teams as well. One opponent should be a marquee team as well. Some opponents will dud out, sure, but it's better than beating up on Sun Belt and MAC teams.

Rittenberg: Isaiah, glad to hear from some cornfields outside Big Ten country. I like your plan for teams to play more comparable opponents as much as possible, but there are some potential problems. Since scheduling is done so far in advance, an opponent that looks comparable at the time the series is scheduled might have declined by the time the games are played. Ohio State found this with its recent Cal series, as Cal went from a Top 25 program between 2004-08 to a very bad one the last two seasons. I could live with FCS playoff teams, as many are better than the bottom of the FBS and they would help Big Ten teams meet their home-game demands.


@lukebilotta via Twitter: Who is the player nobody is talking about but is poised for a breakout season?

Rittenberg: Luke, since you're an Indiana fan, I know you talk about Tevin Coleman quite a bit, but he's not a known name around the Big Ten. That should change this season if Coleman stays healthy. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon might be the top big-play back in the country, but Coleman isn't far behind. He averaged 7.3 yards per rush and 141.7 all-purpose yards in nine games last year. Perhaps that qualifies as a breakout season, but Coleman should be an even bigger part of IU's offense as a junior, and he runs behind arguably the Big Ten's best offensive line, another group no one talks about (check the blog on Thursday for more).

On defense, keep an eye on two linemen: Penn State's C.J. Olaniyan and Northwestern's Ifeadi Odenigbo. Olaniyan quietly had 11 tackles for loss and five sacks last season, and he should be even better this year. Odenigbo is a speed rusher who, in limited work, had 5.5 sacks last season. When he figures it out, he'll be a force off of the edge.


Mark from Snyderville writes: I think having a solid slate of semi-cupcakes is respectable but lacking. The MUCH tougher noncon slate in my opinion is one that can make or break your season and league perception in one game. For instance, Wisky plays LSU. That is HUGE for the B1G. Win and the perception of Wisky and the B1G changes overnight. Maybe the perception changes just for the rest of the season, but it gives you a big boost for the upcoming playoffs. Kansas State plays Auburn at home on a Thursday night. You think that game means more to the conference than, say, Texas vs. BYU? Of course it does. Give me one big, huge, giant, winner-takes-all game over 3-4 mediocre scraps any day.

Rittenberg: I tend to agree, Mark. Ohio State took this approach for years and had blockbuster, conference-perception-shaping games against teams like USC and Texas. While I would like to see one other quality opponent on the schedule, the strength of a schedule with Oregon or LSU on it trumps one with good or average teams and no cupcakes. Also, I've noticed teams that step out and truly play a marquee opponent often avoid criticism for the rest of their nonleague schedule.

Big Ten's lunch links

June, 25, 2014
Jun 25
12:00
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It's OK, these links don't bite.

Nearly all of the Big Ten’s top freshmen have reported to their respective schools, but ESPN.com caught up with a few players days before to pick their brains on an array of topics.

You can read the first installment here. To recap, the participants included Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson, ranked No. 157 in the 2014 class; Penn State WR Chris Godwin, one of the top 25 receivers in the class; Michigan LB Jared Wangler, one of 11 linebackers invited to the UA Game; Iowa WR Jay Scheel, one of two four-star players in the Hawkeyes’ class; and Maryland LB Jesse Aniebonam, the second-best prospect in the state behind OL Damian Prince.

Here’s what the freshmen had to say:

Outside of your team, what B1G freshmen are you most looking forward to watching and/or playing against?

Thorson: Hmmm. Trying to think. So there’s obviously Raekwon McMillan at Ohio State. I know we don’t play them this season, but I heard he’s a great player, so it’ll be fun going against him in future years. And it’s just guys like Zack Darlington; he’s at Nebraska at quarterback and I’ve gotten to know him over the past the few months, so it’ll be cool to go against him. And, at Michigan State, Madre London and I played at the Semper Fi [All-American] Bowl together, and he’s a great athlete.

[+] EnlargeChris Godwin
Miller Safrit/ESPNChris Godwin said his goal is not only to start this year but to be the Big Ten freshman of the year.
Godwin: I’m looking forward to seeing Freddy Canteen. I know him pretty well and, with his footwork, I think he’ll have a really good year at Michigan.

Wangler: I want to watch Byron Bullough for Michigan State. We played in this Michigan all-star game [‘Border Classic’ on June 14], and we got along pretty good. So I’m excited to see how he does. I know he’s got a good history -- his father and brother were successful for Michigan State -- so I feel like Byron is going to be successful, too.

Aniebonam: Big Ten-wise, that one guy -- Peppers, Jabrill Peppers -- he’s a solid athlete. I want to see how he does. He was in the Under Armour Game; we watched it right before our game [U.S. Army All-American Bowl] and he did pretty well. So, let’s see how he does at Michigan.

Why did you decide to commit to your school, and what do you think separates it from others in the conference?

Thorson: I always knew I wanted to play in the Big Ten. My family is from Ohio and Illinois, so I always just wanted to be around them so they could see me play – so that’s kind of how I narrowed it down. And then visiting different schools like Penn State, Illinois, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa – after looking at all those schools, I decided Northwestern was the best fit for me. I jelled with the guys on the team, and the coaching staff is just awesome. I thought that was the best fit for me both academically and athletically.

Godwin: I chose Penn State because I felt really comfortable on campus and with the team. It was also the right fit for me academically and socially, and I think the tradition and fan base really separate it from other teams in the conference.

Wangler: Michigan has always been my dream school to go to, and there aren’t many universities out there that offer such a great degree and a great football experience. Plus, I feel really comfortable with Coach [Brady] Hoke and Coach [Greg] Mattison. It’s a great fit. It’s close to home, my dad played there. ... It’s almost too good to be true.

Scheel: Well, personally, it’s just been a dream to play there. So, really, any other school that decided it was going to offer me was nice, but it was always my dream to go to Iowa. I’ve only heard good things about them. Playing for Iowa is really an honor. And what makes them different is they’re not known for getting big recruits -- I know that -- but they take two- and three-star recruits and turn them into NFL players.

Aniebonam: Maryland just really stood out to me. Not just because it’s my hometown team and all my friends and family will be around me, but every time I went to the campus I was just pulled in and attracted to it more and more. If you asked me in the beginning of my junior season if I wanted to go to Maryland, I would’ve said, ‘Heck no.’ But it just grew on me; it just felt right. … [What separates Maryland] is they’re well-known -- but still underdogs. I think it’s a team that is going to be really watched because people want to know what happens here.

What are your expectations for this season -- and your career?

Thorson: The coaches always say to prepare each week as if you’re going to start the game, so I’m going to do that every week. I just want to get better at leading the team and knowing the playbook and everything. The Lord has a plan for me and, whether that’s starting this year or next year, whatever happens happens. I’m just really looking forward to getting on campus and playing with these guys.

Godwin: I would consider them goals more than expectations because I haven’t done anything yet. But, this season, my goal is to earn a starting spot by UCF then continually improve as a player and a teammate and, hopefully, be Big Ten freshman of the year. As a team, a goal of mine is to go undefeated, but who doesn’t want that, right?

Wangler: I expect to win. I think this next season we have a lot of people coming back and, after having kind of a mediocre season last year, I think we’re going to come out with a lot of hunger and the team is going to do a lot better. I think that’s going to set the pace for the four years after that. I feel like I’m going to have a successful career at Michigan.

Scheel: Personally, going in, I just want to get to know the playbook better and get to know the offense as soon as I can. I pretty much think I’m going to redshirt because starting right away might be difficult. If it does work, that’d be great. But I’m just trying to do my best. With my career, I’m trying to make a big impact on Iowa football, and I just want to have fun and get on the field.

Aniebonam: I just want to make a name for myself early. I want to get myself out there and really, really put my stamp on the school and into the minds of the coaches as early as I can. … Hopefully, that’ll come quick, but nothing is ever promised. You have to work.
The Big Ten’s top freshmen will soon run on to their teams’ practice fields for the first time with the hope of making names for themselves. Nearly all of them have reported, so what is their mindset? And what do they think about their respective teams?

Before they reported, ESPN.com caught up with a handful of the conference’s elite freshmen – all were ranked within the ESPN 300 or earned an invite to the Under Armour Game – and asked them several questions to get a better idea of where they stand.

The participants were Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson, the No. 7 quarterback in the 2014 class; Penn State WR Chris Godwin, the top player in his state; Michigan LB Jared Wangler, one of 90 players selected to the UA Game; Iowa WR Jay Scheel, the headliner of the Hawkeyes’ class; and Maryland LB Jesse Aniebonam, the No. 98 player in the ESPN 300.

Part 2 with those same players will run on Tuesday. Here’s what they had to say in this first installment:

What game are you most looking forward to this season?

[+] EnlargeClayton Thorson
Tom Hauck for Student SportsNorthwestern signee Clayton Thorson is looking forward to the Wildcats' game at Notre Dame.
Thorson: Obviously, every game is important, so you can’t overlook any team. But I’d say the game I’m looking forward to is Notre Dame. That’ll just be a cool environment to play in. You see everything about how great their program and history are, so it’ll be fun to be inside the stadium and play on the field. It’ll be a cool experience.

Godwin: Honestly, right now, I’m looking forward to the UCF game because it’ll be my first game, and I don’t really want to look too far into the future. I just want to take everything one day at a time.

Wangler: To me, Michigan State kind of stands out the most. It’s an in-state rivalry, and last year we didn’t do well against them – and I feel like, this year, we have a lot to prove against them. I feel like Ohio State is the token answer, and I feel like that’s a big game. But, Michigan State, that’s an in-state game and they’ve been beating us the last few years. That’s not acceptable.

Scheel: I’m really just looking forward to the first game and heading out of Kinnick. I’m really looking forward to just experiencing it for the first time, because a lot of players have told me how special it was for them. So that’s something I’m really looking forward to, with the fan base and everything.

Aniebonam: That would be between Penn State and Ohio State, our conference home opener. Back in the day, I dreamed about playing against Penn State -- maybe even, back in the day, playing for them. But I’m looking forward to playing against them. I followed them, as well as Maryland, and it just seems like it would be a really exciting event, a game full of energy. We’re playing them up there, and I think it’s going to be a really close game. And Ohio State, that’s our first home game in the Big Ten. And that’ll really set the tone. So, those two are going to be really exciting.

Who’s one under-the-radar freshman -- outside of the ESPN 300 -- in your team’s class that we should be watching?

Thorson: I’d definitely say Justin Jackson, no question. He was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois two years in a row, rushed for like 6,000 or 7,000 yards in his career, and he’s a great guy. Obviously, the recruiting sites put up their view on what a guy is, and a lot said he wasn’t top-tier -- but he is. He’s the real deal. I think that’s one guy that will surprise people.

Godwin: If I had to pick one, it would be Troy Apke. I feel like he’s a guy that people aren’t really talking about but could really help us out a lot as a group of wide receivers.

Wangler: Freddy Canteen. I think he’ll be an immediate impact guy. I know he enrolled early, and he’s already turning heads. So Freddy Canteen. Everyone should keep an eye on him.

Scheel: The one guy I played against was Parker Hesse. He played both ways, at quarterback and linebacker, and they were a really good team. His legs are big, and he’s so fast and big that it was hard to bring him down. I think he’s going to be good for Iowa.

Aniebonam: I would say Will Ulmer. He was (Washington, D.C.) Saint John’s quarterback this year, and I believe he’s one of those underrated players that once people give him a chance – once he steps in – that he’ll show he’s an amazing athlete and an amazing player. I had the privilege of playing against him -- we butted heads for all four years -- and it was great to find out we were going to Maryland with each other. He’s going to surprise people.

If you could change one rule with the recruiting process, what would it be?

Thorson: The recruiting process comes so fast now, and guys don’t have a chance to grow into themselves. So I think one thing I would change is that the recruiting process would start a little later -- I would say coaches wouldn’t be allowed to contact guys until you’re going into your junior year of high school. I think that’s when you could make calls and stuff and talk to these coaches because guys are getting scholarships and letters when they’re in eighth grade. That’s crazy.

Godwin: Probably making official visits sooner, so that players don’t have to squeeze all of their visits in during the season.

Wangler: I think there should be an earlier signing day -- like maybe they should have two signing days. Just because it gets everything set in stone quicker because I know, when it gets closer to signing day, a lot of schools are pressuring kids and putting a lot of stress on them, and it’s kind of unfair to the kid. I feel if they really want to go somewhere, they should be able to.

Scheel: My recruiting process went pretty smoothly, so I don’t know if I would change anything about it. I guess, maybe being able to sign earlier -- just because you’re committed doesn’t mean that you’re really locked in to there. You need to sign. So if you want to sign right away, I think you should be able to do that.

Aniebonam: If I could change a rule -- I’m pretty sure you’re only allowed to take five officials -- I would change that. I know it’s probably a money thing because those cost money for the schools, but I don’t know where that rule came from. If you could take more visits than that, you’d get a better feel for more schools. I honestly don’t think anyone would need to take more than 10. But a lot of guys, those four- and five-stars, have a lot of options and they may be interested in a lot of schools. So, if they can get a few more solid official visits, that could make the difference.

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