Penn State Nittany Lions: Penn State Nittany Lions

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
5:00
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A big Monday looms with spring football wraps and spring game recaps. So I won't have a mailbag that day. But here's a full one for today:

Dan from Washington, D.C., writes: Brian, I'm sure you'll be getting thousands of comments on this point, so I'll add my two cents. You say, "You'd have to suffer from amnesia not to remember how close Bo Pelini came to losing his job at Nebraska last season." However, I don't believe you're [Nebraska athletic director] Shawn Eichorst (perhaps a FauxEichorst Twitter handle is in the works). No one outside of Eichorst and perhaps Harvey Perlman and Pelini knows "how close" Pelini came to losing his job. For weeks you, the Omaha World-Herald, and the Lincoln Journal Star lamented how tight-lipped Eichost was being about the whole situation. Then, lo and behold, he received a contract extension -- hardly something you give to someone you may not want around in a year or two. Now don't get me wrong -- if Pelini goes 5-7, he's toast -- but until he tanks, his job is safe.

Brian Bennett: Dan, you make a fair point that Eichorst's silence on the issue for so long means we don't know exactly how close Pelini came to being fired last year. But silence can also speak volumes, and not saying anything for weeks after the infamous audio tape leaked and while Nebraska lost some games said a lot as well. The pressure obviously got to Pelini in the regular-season finale against Iowa. Your timeline on the extension is a little off as well. Pelini said he signed received and signed the one-year extension in March. It would have been news had he not gotten it, since it covers him for the next five years. But don't think for a second that a one-year extension of his deal will have any bearing on whether Eichorst decides to make a change this fall -- Nebraska can easily afford to buy out of that extra year.

I think Pelini should be fine if he wins his usual nine or 10 games and avoids some of the embarrassing blowout losses we've seen. The Huskers also have a great chance to win the West Division. But anything less than that could prompt a coaching switch, which is why Pelini remains on the proverbial hot seat.


Aaron from Pittsburgh writes: Good ol' Tim Beckman is the B1G coach on the hottest hot seat, according to you guys. I fully understand this -- one conference win in two years, blah, blah, blah. But I honestly have some form of empathy for the man. He inherited a Ron Zook team so devoid of depth and talent that I think Year 1 should not be credited against Beckman's resume. Illinois isn't a powerhouse in the first place, so as long as Beckman's Illini don't regress in 2014, I think he might get one more year. What do you think?

Brian Bennett: The thing Beckman has going for him is that athletic director Mike Thomas hired him and probably wants to give the first major coaching hire of his tenure every shot to succeed. The Illini did show improvement last season, at least on offense, and Beckman has done a great job with off-the-field stuff such as academics. But Zook did take the program to back-to-back bowl games, so it's a little odd to hear he should be responsible for a 2-10 season. The biggest thing going against Beckman right now, I'd say, is the fan apathy. There were way too many empty seats in Memorial Stadium last season, and that gets an AD's attention more than anything. That's why it might be bowl or bust this year for Beckman.


Jason L. from Kansas City, Mo., writes: What's your take on Indiana replacing 2 games with South Florida with 2 games with Florida International? Doesn't this go against what B1G commissioner Jim Delany has stated that he wants (B1G teams scheduling tougher opponents)?

Brian Bennett: I've been a consistent proponent for toughest scheduling. Heck, I'm the guy who favors 10 Big Ten games and one marquee opponent every season. But for Indiana, I understand this move by athletic director Fred Glass. When you've been to one just bowl game since 1993, the first priority has to be finding any way possible to get back to the postseason. I thought the Hoosiers scheduled too aggressively last year, when they played Navy, Missouri and a good Bowling Green team. If IU, which finished 5-7 despite losses to Navy and Missouri, had played a dumbed-down nonconference schedule a la Minnesota's 2013 slate (or even Ohio State's), then the team likely would have gone bowling for the first time under Kevin Wilson. Think about the difference a bowl game would have made for the program, giving Wilson 15 extra practices and allowing for a little more offseason buzz.

The weird thing here is the idea that South Florida is too tough of an opponent. But especially when the Big Ten goes to nine league games in 2016 and Indiana is competing in the stacked East Division, a more manageable nonconference schedule makes sense. Delany wants teams to challenge themselves and build up strength-of-schedule ratings for the playoff selection committee. Let's be honest here: The playoff is not exactly on the Hoosiers' radar.


Sam C. from Fargo, N.D., writes: Hey, BB, I was just thinking about the Gophers and recruiting and how one of the best in the nation is right here in our home state in Jashon Cornell. Is it a dream for me to think we have any shot of landing him? Getting Jeff Jones was nice, but even in the last couple of weeks no one thought we would get him, saying that he was gonna go to the SEC. Just wondering what your thoughts are. Thanks!

Brian Bennett: It would be an enormous coup for the Gophers and Jerry Kill to keep Cornell in their backyard, Sam. Too many top-level prospects (Michael Floyd and Seantrel Henderson as the most prominent examples) have left over the years. Kill and his staff have been working hard to build a relationship with Cornell, but they're going to be competing with not only the best programs in the Big Ten for his services but also many of the best in the country. The facilities and traditions at some of those places will be hard to top. It's crucial that Minnesota has a good year this season to show Cornell that staying home has its perks.


Rodney from Grantville, Pa., writes: I'm obviously excited about PSU hiring James Franklin, but is it clouding my judgment? He did a fantastic job at Vandy, and his first 100 days at PSU have been great, so why are so many saying we can't do well his first year? I personally see 9-3 being doable and 10-2 not out of the question. 7-5 at the worst. The coaches are touting a more aggressive defense and better special teams, which was probably our biggest issues last year. The offensive line is obviously our Achilles' heel, but there are ways to work around that and the offense only needs to score more than the defense allows. ... So what am I missing?

Brian Bennett: Rodney, feel free to get excited. Franklin has done nothing but create optimism so far with his energy and his early recruiting returns. Really good things are on the horizon for Penn State, I believe. But while I believe the Nittany Lions could be surprise contenders in the East Division because of their advantageous schedule -- Illinois and Northwestern as crossover opponents, Ohio State and Michigan State coming to Beaver Stadium -- I still worry about the depth on the roster because of sanctions, the lack of high-level defensive playmakers and that troublesome offensive line. Those are all real issues, and remember that Bill O'Brien did a fantastic job of getting this team to 7-5 the past two seasons. I think Penn State could match or slightly exceed that this season, but that the true brighter days are still in the future.
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State officials ordered Joe Paterno's statue to be taken down nearly two years ago, but fans here haven't forgotten. They never will.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
Ned Dishman/Getty ImagesPenn State fans won't easily forget Joe Paterno's legacy at the school, despite how his career ended.
So while controversy might swirl in other parts of the country with the news today that two alumni are seeking to install a $300,000 statue downtown, the overwhelming sentiment around here is, "About time."

You can argue about whether such a statue is appropriate, or what type of role Paterno played in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, but common ground in that argument is about as elusive as a national title. So let's just deal with the facts here.

Fans here aren't going to forget about Paterno in another two years, 20 years or 200 years. It's about as difficult to separate Paterno from Penn State as it is to separate Penn State from Pennsylvania. Ignoring Paterno’s legacy doesn't freeze the controversy; it just builds up.

There's a growing divide between fans and university officials on this -- and no matter what your feelings are on the issue, the university owes fans an explanation. The new statue has stirred up old questions and renewed others: Will Penn State ever honor Paterno? When? Why or why not? Transparency isn't a negative in this case; the university would do well to fill in fans on its intentions.

Officials ordered the original statue to be torn down, and they've never so much as disclosed the current location. Then-president Rodney Erickson's statement read, "I now believe that, contrary to its original intention, Coach Paterno's statue has become a source of division and an obstacle to healing our university and beyond."

The ironic part is that the university's silence on the issue has also become a source of division. In the weeks and months following the statue's removal, it was easier to understand that silence. Fans may not have agreed with the decision, but they understood it. The nation was watching, and many -- rightly or wrongly -- looked at Paterno as more of a criminal than a legend. Like with anything, that extremism eventually gave way to more of a middle ground.

I reached out to a Penn State spokesman in an effort to shed some light on what the university's plans are regarding Paterno. What's the concern with putting Paterno's statue back up? Would there be national outrage? How does the university view him? Those questions remain unanswered because, unsurprisingly, the message was not immediately returned.

If officials are truly concerned about "divisions" and "obstacles," then they should open a dialogue instead of ignoring questions that most of the fan base have asked at one time or another. Maybe the university just wants to focus on a program that has real enthusiasm behind it, one that's somehow thrived under the sanctions. But staying quiet doesn't seem to be working.

Silence might bury a lot of things, but for better or worse, it's not going to bury Paterno's legacy. So no matter where you stand on the issue, one aspect should be evident: Penn State owes its fans and alumni an explanation.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
12:00
PM ET
I want to share something with you: The three little sentences that will get you through life. Number 1: "Cover for me." Number 2: "Oh, good idea, Boss!" Number 3: "It was like that when I got here."
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The past few years have brought historic changes at Penn State, from the men occupying the head coach's office to the names occupying the backs of the Nittany Lions' jerseys.

Yet until recently, Penn State's defensive line meeting room resisted renovation. It was one of few elements of the program that, in 2013, looked much like it did in 2005. Larry Johnson coached the group, as he had every season since 2000 (and, in some form, since 1996). And while the Lions' defense struggled for much of last season, the line still produced a first-team All-Big Ten performer, tackle DaQuan Jones, just as it did the previous five years.

[+] EnlargeSean Spencer
MCT via Getty ImagesNew defensive line coach Sean Spencer wants his guys attacking like 'wild dogs.'
But even the PSU defensive line couldn't evade the winds of change forever. After being passed over for Penn State's head-coaching job for the second time, Johnson in January declined a chance to remain with James Franklin's staff. Days later, he latched on at rival Ohio State.

Lions defensive linemen now take direction from a man known as Coach Chaos. You'll be able to hear Sean Spencer's voice from Row 80 of Beaver Stadium -- on game days. Spencer wants his Lions to be wild dogs, explaining, "The wild dog is the most efficient animal in the jungle in terms of hunting in a pack."

The 43-year-old dynamo with the "spastic" personality differs from that of his reserved, buttoned-down Penn State predecessor. But when it comes to standards, Spencer and Johnson are aligned.

"Traditionally, the D-line here has always been one of the elite in the country," Spencer told ESPN.com. "I know no other way but to have them rise to the expectations that I set forth and that they set forth for themselves. There's no excuse.

"I don't care who I've got out there. I expect to be dominant."

Spencer's message resonates with a group that, unlike others on a reduced roster, doesn't face dire depth challenges. The Lions return both starters at end -- Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan -- and veteran reserve Brad Bars, who missed all of last season with a ruptured Achilles' tendon.

Sophomore Austin Johnson moves into the lead tackle position and Anthony Zettel, a converted defensive end, has been a good fit at the 3-technique tackle spot.

"The D-line is probably our strength," Franklin said. "We have the most depth at that position. We've got about four deep at defensive end and probably two-and-a-half deep at D-tackle."

If the depth holds up, it will help Penn State use a larger rotation that Johnson typically used. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said the Vanderbilt linemen he and Spencer coached last fall didn't average more than 40 snaps a game.

The coaches want to use five or six defensive ends, as Bars, junior Carl Nassib and redshirt freshman Garrett Sickels also are in the mix. A healthy rotation suits Spencer's wild dogs philosophy.

At Vanderbilt, he commissioned a painting of a Commodores football player blended with a dog, which he displayed in his office at Penn State this spring. He also took a giant dog bone to the field.

"Part of their survival is when they chase their prey down, for three to five miles they take turns biting at him," Spencer said. "One goes to the front, and when he gets tired, the next one comes. It's a really unique strategy in terms of the way they attack things. We rotate a lot of guys, so we just take turns nipping at quarterbacks and making plays in the backfield."

Vanderbilt recorded 28 sacks last season, which tied for fourth in the SEC. Spencer estimates 24 came solely from line pressure. He expects the same production at Penn State.

Defensive tackle has been Penn State's strongest position in recent seasons with players such as Jones, Devon Still, Jordan Hill and Jared Odrick. Although Zettel and Johnson aren't known outside Happy Valley, the coaches think that soon will change.

"Zettel has been been very, very disruptive this spring," Shoop said. "Austin Johnson falls in line of the beast D-tackles Penn State's had in the past. He's over 300 pounds, moves well, he's tough to move at the point of attack, got a big butt and legs."

Olaniyan led Penn State with five sacks last season, his first as a starter. Penn State looks for more from Barnes, the former Big Ten Freshman of the Year whose sacks and tackles for loss totals dropped by more than 50 percent from 2012 to 2013.

"What we're looking at is, how can we get him back to that?" Spencer said.

Spencer is pleased with Barnes' football knowledge and said all the linemen are asking "200- and 300-level questions" in meetings. Life without Johnson undoubtedly caused an adjustment -- "It's always tough to see somebody you call a family member leave," Olaniyan said -- but players quickly connected with Spencer, who lists relationship-building among his strengths.

"I grew up without a dad," said Spencer, whose father played for Michigan State in the 1960s. "Unfortunately, we don't have a relationship right now, and he's still alive. It's one of the things I'm least proud of, but at the same time, it made me who I am today. It made me have the ability to reach out to kids that probably are similar to me. I'm a little younger than Larry so they're not going to look at me as a dad, so to speak. They look at me as a big brother or an uncle.

"I think we've got some similarities in the way we care about our players, but I'm probably a little bit wilder than he is."

A little wilder and a little louder, but just as demanding.

"They both have the same philosophy as far as they want you to do everything perfect," Olaniyan said. "It's easy to embrace the new coaches when they have the same goal. We take pride as the Penn State D-line.

"Each game, we want everybody to see us as one of the best defensive lines out there. We want to be great."

At Penn State, some things never change.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
12:00
PM ET
Just make me an offer, Culver's.
Last week at this time, you learned the six prime-time games to appear on ABC/ESPN this fall. Now the Big Ten Network is up to bat.

BTN has selected six games to appear in prime time this fall. They are ...

Sept. 13

Penn State at Rutgers, 8 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeKyle Flood
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesNew to the league, Kyle Flood and Rutgers will be featured prominently in the Big Ten's prime time schedule.
Sept. 27

Cincinnati at Ohio State, 6 p.m. ET
Illinois at Nebraska, 9 p.m. ET

Oct. 4

Michigan at Rutgers, 7 p.m. ET

Oct. 18

Nebraska at Northwestern, 7:30 p.m. ET

Nov. 15

Michigan State at Maryland, 8 p.m. ET

*Kickoff time set at a later date

For those who missed them, here are the ABC/ESPN prime-time selections:

Sept. 6

Virginia Tech at Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

Sept. 20

Miami at Nebraska, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Oct. 4

Nebraska at Michigan State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Oct. 11

Penn State at Michigan, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN or ESPN2

Oct. 25

Ohio State at Penn State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Nov. 1

Illinois at Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

[+] EnlargeJordan Westerkamp
AP Photo/Nati HarnikOne of the league's new and entertaining rivalries, Northwester and Nebraska will meet under the lights this season.
Here's the breakdown of Big Ten prime-time games by team:

Ohio State: 4 (three home, one road)
Nebraska: 4 (two home, two road)
Penn State: 3 (two road, one home)
Michigan State: 2 (one home, one road)
Rutgers: 2 (two home)
Michigan: 2 (one home, one road)
Illinois: 2 (two road)
Northwestern: 1 (home)
Maryland: 1 (home)

Additional Big Ten-controlled prime-time games could be announced in the coming weeks.

More notes:

  • The MSU-Maryland game means the Big Ten will have at least two prime-time games after Nov. 1. The league previously avoided such games based on the preference of its members, not a conference-wide policy, as you've probably been led to believe. Additional November prime-time games could be announced, so stay tuned. Also remember that the Big Ten controls only games played at its stadiums, so if your team plays a road or neutral-site nonconference game, hang tight if it hasn't been announced.
  • Indiana, Iowa, Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin don't appear on the Big Ten's prime-time schedule. Iowa fans undoubtedly will be disappointed with no Big Ten prime-time games for the second consecutive season, as the Hawkeyes are a legitimate contender in the West Division. The problem likely is a schedule with the two most appealing games -- Wisconsin and Nebraska -- at the very end, when weather is a bigger factor. The Black Friday game against Nebraska has consistently been a noon ET ABC national broadcast, a spot not worth relinquishing. Still, I wouldn't want to be athletic director Gary Barta today. Wisconsin faces a similar issue as its top home games -- Nebraska and Minnesota -- come at the end of the season. Although it would have been great to see Nebraska-Wisconsin under the lights again, the Nov. 15 date likely prevented it. Indiana had three home prime-time games last year and has been a frequent night-game participant in recent years. Purdue gets the Notre Dame game, but its chances for an additional prime-time contest were hurt by last year's 1-11 clunker.
  • Not surprisingly, both new Big Ten members receive prime-time home games this fall. Rutgers will play its first two Big Ten home contests -- against Penn State and Michigan -- under the lights, while Maryland hosts the defending Big Ten champs in mid-November. "As new members, they're thrilled," Mark Rudner, the Big Ten's senior associate commissioner for television administration, told ESPN.com.
  • Remember, this list and the ESPN/ABC list contain only games controlled by the Big Ten (i.e. in Big Ten stadiums) Additional night games involving Big Ten teams include Wisconsin-LSU in Houston (Aug. 30, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN), Michigan at Notre Dame (Sept. 6, 7:30 p.m. ET, NBC), Purdue-Notre Dame in Indianapolis (Sept. 13, 7:30 p.m. ET, NBC) and Nebraska at Fresno State (Sept. 13, 10:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network). The kickoff time for Rutgers' opener Aug. 28 against Washington State hasn't been set, but it will be a night game.
  • While Iowa and Wisconsin fans likely won't be pleased with the list, Ohio State and Nebraska supporters are celebrating. Urban Meyer's desire for more prime-time games is clearly paying off with three home contests and four total to date. Nebraska will play nearly half of its regular-season games at night after playing just one such contest last year. After day games against Florida Atlantic and McNeese State to open the year, the Huskers play five consecutive night games between Sept. 13 and Oct. 18 (they have an open week Oct. 11). I really like the Nebraska-Northwestern game at night. It has been one of the more entertaining games since the Huskers joined the league, as all three matchups have been decided by three points or fewer.
  • This year's prime-time schedule contains only one date, Oct. 4, where both BTN and ABC/ESPN are airing games at the same time. That night, Nebraska visits Michigan State on ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 and Michigan visits Rutgers on BTN. There were two such dates last year (Sept. 7 and Sept. 14).
  • Rudner said of the prime-time slate, "The process this year was about as smooth as we've had in the last seven years. Once you get to the point of recognizing the value and importance of prime time, then it becomes fairly easy to get approvals [from schools]."

OK, that's a lot to digest. Thoughts on the prime-time schedule? Send 'em here.
Last week, in response to a mailbag question from reader and Rutgers fan Ed, I came up with a hot-seat ranking for all the coaches in the Big Ten.

That list sparked a bit of discussion in some places, notably Nebraska. How accurate were my rankings, and what were some of the factors that went into them? I thought I'd bring Adam Rittenberg into the debate for a little bit of fact vs. fiction.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsKirk Ferentz, who began at Iowa in 1999, appears to be secure heading into 2014.
Brian Bennett: Adam, I listed seven coaches as being completely safe, barring some unforeseen 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. While Ferentz hasn't won at an elite level of late, his contract keeps him basically unfireable. Fact or fiction on my Tier 1 of coaches?

Adam Rittenberg: Fact. It would truly take something disastrous, Brian, for one of these coaches to lose his job. Ferentz helped himself last season as another losing campaign would have placed more pressure on Iowa's administration to part ways with their highly paid coach. Unless the Hawkeyes take a significant step backward in 2014, which is tough to do given an extremely favorable schedule, Ferentz is on very secure footing. Minnesota awarded Kill a contract extension and a raise in February, and with facilities upgrades on the way, no change is imminent. The rest are as safe as you can get in this line of work.

BB: My second tier included three coaches who should be fine but could be sweating things out if they have a rough season: Indiana's Kevin Wilson, Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Michigan's Brady Hoke. Some might say Hoke is actually on a hot seat, but I think his first-year success, recruiting and support from athletic director Dave Brandon means he is at least a year away from feeling any substantial pressure. Fact or fiction on these guys?

AR: I would say fact on both Wilson and Hazell and possibly fiction on Hoke. Wilson has to make a bowl game fairly soon after IU squandered a great opportunity last season (eight home games). But Indiana athletic director Fred Glass, upon hiring Wilson in 2010, stressed the need for continuity at a program that hadn't had much since Bill Mallory. A 1-win or 2-win season could change things, but I can't see IU making another change, especially with recruiting on the rise and the offense surging. Hazell is a second-year coach, so unless Purdue lays another 1-11 egg, he's fine.

As for Hoke, his first-year success seems a long time ago. Michigan's recruiting has looked better in February than October, although some players still need time to develop. It comes down to this: if Michigan wins nine or more games, he's fine. If Michigan wins eight or fewer games, it gets interesting. Are the Wolverines losing close games to good teams or getting blown out? How do they perform against their three top rivals -- Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame -- on the road? Are the offensive problems being fixed? You're right that Brandon doesn't want to fire his guy. But if Michigan gets blown out in its three rivalry games and still can't run the ball consistently, Brandon might not have a choice. Remember, Hoke has set the bar -- Big Ten title or bust -- and he's not reaching it.

BB: OK, now we're down to the four guys I put on the hot seat. Let's take them individually, starting with perhaps the most controversial one. You'd have to suffer from amnesia not to remember how close Bo Pelini came to losing his job at Nebraska last season. But is it fact or fiction that he's on a hot seat?

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesBo Pelini is 58-24 as coach of Nebraska.
AR: Fact. I'm not sure where the pro-Pelini push is coming from. Does a bowl win and some Twitter fun with @FauxPelini really change anything? Nebraska has been a bigger national story during its spring game the past two seasons than when the games actually count. While it's nice to this side of Pelini, the only thing that matters is winning more games and getting Nebraska that elusive conference championship.

BB: I debated whether to include Randy Edsall from Maryland, who showed progress last season and has dealt with many tough injuries. But moving to the new league and not overwhelming fans for three seasons convinced me he needs to deliver a bowl game this year, or at least be very competitive. Fact or fiction?

AR: Fact. Athletic director Kevin Anderson has been supportive of Edsall, but Maryland needs to see continued progress this season, despite the transition. The injury situation has to turn around eventually, so we should get a better gauge of a team that, on paper, should be better. But the schedule isn't easy. It also doesn't help to have Franklin, once Maryland's coach-in-waiting, in the same division.

BB: The other Big Ten newbie also has a coach on the hot seat, according to my list. Kyle Flood is only in his third season and did win nine games his first season. But he was on shaky ground last winter and replaced both coordinators, which is a sign of a coach trying to hang on. Fact or fiction on Flood's seat being warm?

AR: Fact. A coaching shuffle like the one Rutgers had almost always precedes a make-or-break type season for the head guy. Although athletic director Julie Hermann must consider the upgrade in competition and a brutal initial Big Ten schedule (East Division plus crossovers against both Nebraska and Wisconsin), a bowl-less season could spell the end for Flood. Rutgers has reached the postseason in eight of the past nine years.

BB: And, finally, Tim Beckman. He has won just one conference game at Illinois. I'd be surprised if anyone disagreed with his placement on this list, but what say you in regard to fact or fiction?

AR: Fact. Although AD Mike Thomas hired Beckman, he'll face even more pressure to make a change if Illinois misses a bowl for a third consecutive season. The Illini showed improvement last fall, but they'll have to take another step for Beckman to secure Year 4.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
12:00
PM ET
Monday couldn't come soon enough for Chicago sports fans after a weekend of bad.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
4:30
PM ET
Wishing you a great spring weekend (right, Mother Nature?). Join the Twitter train.

Sup?

Kevin from Pittsburgh writes: This might sound like a weird question but do you think Penn State's recruiting success this offseason will have any impact on the NCAA potentially lifting the bowl ban? There was some optimism it could be lifted for this season, if not next. But with James Franklin seemingly overcoming the other intended punishments, would the NCAA be worried about a perception of letting PSU off the hook? Stop me if I'm overthinking here but this certainly wouldn't be the first time the NCAA has made a decision based on it's own perception.

Adam Rittenberg: No, it certainly would not, Kevin. Trying to get inside the mind of the NCAA is a dangerous and often futile endeavor. My hope is any decision made about the sanctions would have nothing to do with how Franklin is recruiting. Penn State is being assessed for how it conducts itself as a program from a compliance and integrity standpoint, and the success in games or in recruiting really shouldn't matter with potentially reduced penalties. Also, the 2015 recruiting class won't impact the 2014 team, which has some depth problems stemming from the NCAA sanctions.


Jim from Albany, N.Y., writes: As a season-ticket holder who doesn't mind the 200+ mile trip for every home game, I'm wondering what Rutgers (and/or Maryland too) do to be accepted by the average B1G fan? Reading everything from "meh" to "I'm never going to attend a Rutgers/Maryland game in my team's stadium" is tough when the average Rutgers fan is thrilled about being able to take a step up. I've not read this in any of the other realignment moves in any of the conferences (except perhaps WVU in the Big 12 or Mizzou in the SEC), but not so vitriolic as the B1G boards. Comments?

Adam Rittenberg: Jim, there are a few factors involved here. Many Big Ten fans didn't want the league to expand again. Those who did wanted additions with stronger athletic traditions than Rutgers. Although Scarlet Knights football had a breakthrough under Greg Schiano, Rutgers doesn't match the historic accomplishments of Nebraska and Penn State, the Big Ten's most recent expansion additions. There's just not an obvious reason to get excited. Also, the demographic argument the Big Ten used with adding Rutgers and Maryland, while making sense on several levels, doesn't resonate with the average fan. There are also geographic and cultural differences between the traditional Big Ten footprint and the East Coast. Penn State deals with a similar divide.


B1G fan from the Midwest writes: I know I'm about to ask something blasphemous to some longtime B1G fans, but is there a name change in the conference's future? Myself included, most members of the B1G are proud of tradition and are reluctant to change. I can understand sweeping it under the rug at 11 teams or maybe even 12, but when it's at 14 shouldn't it be considered? Maybe something non number related like the SEC and ACC have.

Adam Rittenberg: It's not happening, B1G fan. Commissioner Jim Delany actually was open to a change when the Big Ten added Penn State in 1989, but the league presidents and other power players wanted the name to remain. Same thing happened when the league added Nebraska. There's too much meaning and history in that name, and while it's quite mathematically inaccurate, most Big Ten folks can live with it.

Delany and Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon addressed the league name this week at an event in Detroit. Brandon said, "If you look at the Big Ten Conference, you've got brand equity that's been built over decades and decades. The Big Ten means something." So there you have it.


John from Kansas City, Mo., writes: The B1G has 6 members (Iowa, Nebraska, Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Purdue) located in what are considered "talent poor" states. That is half of the conference (MD and Rutgers excluded) that has to actively recruit outside of their backyard. Not to mention they all border states that have more than one FBS school. The SEC on the other hand, has 10 schools in the top 15 "talent rich" states, so it seems the recruiting soil is a bit more fertile in the South. Meyer and Franklin are obviously great recruiters but they are also located squarely in the middle of two very saturated regions and are pulling huge numbers from their immediate footprint(s). Location and population are just as big of factors in recruiting as to which coach is running the show. It seems unfair to assume the B1G coaches aren't working hard enough.

Adam Rittenberg: Some good points here, John. The population deck is undoubtedly stacked in the SEC's favor, no matter which set of recruiting rankings you trust. And you're right that Ohio State and Penn State can recruit locally and regionally more than programs like Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska. I wonder if there's an extra gear that both Meyer and Franklin --as well as their assistants -- reach on the recruiting trail. I know a lot of Big Ten coaches that label their programs "developmental" and take pride in that distinction. I wonder if that approach limits how much they can push for the upper-tier recruits.


Bruce from Los Angeles writes: Simple question: If Michigan fails to win 8 games next year, Brady Hoke is fired? Yes or No?

Adam Rittenberg: A simple question, Bruce, but a not-so simple answer. If Michigan endures a wave of injuries, loses several close games in the final minute and beats one of its rivals on the road -- Michigan State, Ohio State or Notre Dame -- I think Hoke stays. Dave Brandon is firmly in Hoke's corner and doesn't want to make a change. But if Michigan remains relatively healthy, endures the same problems it did in 2013 and gets blown out in rivalry games, the pressure on Brandon could be too great and Hoke would need to go.

Getting to know Jashon Cornell 

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
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video Throughout this recruiting cycle, RecruitingNation will profile a number of ESPN 300 prospects in the 2015 class, including an inside look at the prospect, his recruitment, a scouting report and what college program could benefit when he ultimately makes his decision.

When you attend a school as prestigious as Cretin-Derham Hall, as No. 16-ranked recruit Jashon Cornell does, you are bound to have connections. The Minnesota school has produced its share of college and NFL players over the years, including associate dean of students Marcus Freeman, who played for Notre Dame.


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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State has produced a first-team All-Big Ten defender in eight of the past nine seasons, but no Nittany Lions defensive back has made the list since 2008 (safety Anthony Scirrotto). The drought could end this year.

If safety Adrian Amos plays to his potential, it will end.

"I don't know if I've ever coached a player with Adrian's skill set before," Lions defensive coordinator Bob Shoop told ESPN.com. "He’s so big, so strong, so fast. He can contend for first-team All-Big Ten and be a guy who receives national recognition if he pushes himself to the next level."

[+] EnlargeAdrian Amos
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsAdrian Amos' size, speed and versatility make him a key cog in Penn State's secondary.
Shoop has yet to coach Amos in a game, but sees the potential on tape and on the practice field and is setting the bar high for the senior. Amos has the size -- nearly 6-foot-1 and 212 pounds. He has the speed, clocking a 4.43 in the 40-yard dash as a sophomore (unlike 99.9 percent of the population, he actually gets faster as he gains weight). He has the playmaking ability, with four interceptions and 12 pass breakups.

He also has versatility, although where he plays has sparked debate among Penn State fans.

"He's got a lot of things we're all looking for in recruiting, and what people are looking for at the next level in terms of drafting: height, weight, speed," PSU head coach James Franklin said. "He processes information fast as well. There are some guys that will test fast but they don't think fast on the field, so it slows them down.

"He does all those things extremely well."

Whether Amos' unique skills translate at safety remains to be seen. He played predominantly cornerback in high school in Baltimore and had success there early in his Penn State career, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors in 2012.

He moved to safety last year to mixed results, as Penn State slipped to 59th nationally in points allowed and 73rd against the pass. Amos moved back to cornerback late in the season and performed well in an overtime win against Illinois, deflecting a pass that led to the clinching interception.

"Amos, his natural position, is corner," then-coach Bill O'Brien said at the time. "I think he's a good corner."

But he's a strong safety again with the new coaches. Shoop's rationale: it's the position a team's best defensive back should play.

"He's a natural safety," linebacker Mike Hull said of Amos.

Amos' take: "I'd say I’m a cornerback but I play well at safety. I can be very, very good at safety. The movements and everything are more natural and they come easily to me."

So which is it: safety or cornerback? Franklin acknowledges that Amos' versatility creates a debate. Amos and Jordan Lucas form an effective tandem at cornerback. Then again, having one standout at both secondary spots could be Penn State's best route. And the Lions coaches seek versatility, perhaps more than any other trait, on a roster where depth remains in short supply.

The truth is Amos can play well at both spots. But the comfort level he displayed during spring practice didn't come from his position.

"If I'm comfortable in the defense, I'm comfortable at any position," Amos said. "This defense allows me to play fast, so I enjoy playing safety in this defense. It allows me to be aggressive. It allows me to be around the ball a lot more, just making more plays.

"When you're a safety and you understand the defense, you play faster."

Amos calls the new defense a "fresh start," and has spent more time studying himself and his teammates on film. Shoop also shows him tape of his former Vanderbilt defenses and how certain unique players similar to Amos moved from safety to corner to nickel to dime.

This spring, they watched Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Mark Barron, the former Alabama star, shift from covering the slot receiver to being the dime linebacker to working at strong safety and then free safety.

"He's a unique weapon for a defense," Shoop said of Amos. "To use a basketball analogy, you try to get him his touches."

Amos was too banged up to run the 40-yard dash for the new coaches before spring practice, but his goal is to break 4.4 at the next testing session. He believes he can play both secondary positions in the NFL, where bigger cornerbacks are trending and sturdy, physical safeties are still in demand.

But first thing's first. "We want to be the best secondary in the Big Ten," he said.

Elite secondaries have elite players, and Penn State could have one in Amos this fall.

"He has so much athleticism and skill," Hull said. "I haven't seen that out of very many players in the Big Ten. He has the whole package. He just needs to put it all together this year."
The Big Ten's 11-season national championship drought, coinciding with the SEC's ascent to the top of college football, has placed the spotlight on recruiting in both leagues.

[+] EnlargeMeyer
espnWHas Urban Meyer's SEC roots helped him on the Big Ten recruiting trail?
SEC fans point to crystal footballs, surging population and dominance in the national recruiting rankings. Big Ten fans counter with criticisms of SEC oversigning, low academic standards and shady recruiting tactics.

And then we have Urban Meyer and James Franklin.

The two coaches serve as links between the leagues, as both came to the Big Ten from SEC programs. Both coaches also have brought different recruiting approaches to the Big Ten that many label as "SEC-style." Both coaches also have been very successful on the trail early in their Big Ten tenures.

Fans can quarrel all offseason about the recruiting differences between the leagues. But what do top recruits think?

Colleague Tom VanHaaren decided to find out, interviewing several prospects about the Big Ten and the SEC. It's a fascinating Insider piece that you should definitely check out.

I won't give too much away, but the comments by top defensive end recruit Jashon Cornell are particularly interesting. He attributes Franklin's and Meyer's recruiting success directly to their SEC roots.
"The Big Ten needs to recruit harder. They need to really go after the recruits they really need," Cornell said. "They have to hassle you a little bit, on you every single day. That makes recruits think the coaches really want me and I could go there because the coaches want me so bad. That's what the SEC does."
Cornell is from Big Ten country (St. Paul, Minn.) and has multiple scholarship offers from both Big Ten and SEC programs.

There's no doubt Big Ten coaching staffs devote time to recruiting. But are they working hard enough? Are they making the right sales pitch to bring in top players? Do head coaches have the right type of assistants to get it done on the trail?

Check out VanHaaren's piece and send me your thoughts.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
12:00
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Make up your mind, Mother Nature.
  • Connor Cook now has the freedom to audible at the line of scrimmage for Michigan State, another sign of confidence in the quarterback heading into his second season as the starter.
  • If the problem for Michigan last season was a lack of chemistry, Brady Hoke has a feeling that won't be a problem this fall he leaves spring.
  • Penn State showed off a Wildcat package in its spring game, but James Franklin won't reveal how much he'll use it -- or whether it's got a unique nickname.
  • Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz isn't usually one for hyperbole, so he means it when he calls Brandon Scherff the best player at his position in the country.
  • The Ohio State defense is leaving spring practice with a much better feeling than it did when it left the field after the Discover Orange Bowl.
  • After a long, difficult road, Rutgers offensive lineman Bryan Leoni is pushing for a starting role and a happy ending for his journey.
  • The Purdue offense has undergone a transformation this spring, and the roster has also added some talent to run the system.
  • The union seeking to represent Northwestern football players offered its response to the school's appeal, calling the university's case a "castle built on sand."
  • No matter how big the league gets, the Big Ten is keeping its name.
  • The rebrand of Illinois athletics appears to be a hit, writes Loren Tate.
videoUrban Meyer has come away with the Big Ten’s top-ranked recruiting class every year since he was hired at Ohio State. His aggressive style and history of winning have helped put the Buckeyes in a category of their own when it comes to recruiting.

A big part of that, according to a few top-ranked recruits, is because Meyer brought an SEC mentality to the Big Ten. Being relentless, aggressive and surrounding himself with similar coaches has helped bring top talent to Columbus year after year.


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Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
5:00
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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.

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