Game of the Week: Wisconsin vs. LSU
Our writers all picked LSU to beat Wisconsin, but some had a harder time with the pick than others.
Brian Bennett: Wisconsin has a real chance here at the upset. Week 1 is definitely the time to catch LSU this season, as the Tigers will be breaking in a slew of new players and have some major question marks at quarterback. Of course, you could say those same things about the Badgers, who will be counting on basically a brand-new defensive front seven, several unproven receivers and a new starting QB in Tanner McEvoy. Wisconsin's running game is the great equalizer, especially if that ground attack shortens the game and springs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement for big plays. Asking either side to play mistake-free is a bit much for an opener involving so many fresh faces. In the end, LSU has more explosiveness to overcome its errors and exploit Wisconsin's, so the Tigers win by a touchdown.
Austin Ward: Openers can be sloppy enough on their own, let alone debuts with uncertainty at quarterback and the expectation that two guys will be needed to fill that critical role. Both teams have some questions under center, but it seems much more dangerous to be unsettled and unproven when taking on a loaded defense such as LSU's. Wisconsin has running backs Gordon and Clement lining up behind a veteran offensive line to provide a rushing attack to lean on, but if it becomes a one-dimensional offense against the Tigers, aggressive defensive coordinator John Chavis will turn his athletic, physical unit loose and there will be no escape in Houston.
Majority opinion: Penn State over UCF
This was the only game our writers disagreed on. Austin Ward, Mitch Sherman and Adam Rittenberg liked the Nittany Lions, while Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer took the Knights.
Josh Moyer: The Nittany Lions have too many question marks -– and too much that still needs to improve -– to be favored right now. What’s Penn State’s main weakness? The offensive line. So what’s one thing it's going to count on to offset that? The passing game. Well, Central Florida’s secondary has a chance to be elite. And overall, UCF might boast the best defense in the AAC. On the other side of the ball, the Knights may be without quarterback Blake Bortles this season, but they still have a loaded receiving corps with J.J. Worton, Rannell Hall and Breshad Perriman. Penn State's secondary, especially the corner spot opposite Jordan Lucas, could struggle against this kind of offense. PSU hangs tough but falls in the end 28-20.
Adam Rittenberg: The oddities surrounding this game favor Penn State, which is tougher to prepare for with a new coaching staff. UCF's veteran defensive line and George O'Leary's play-calling prowess worry me, but I see PSU exploiting some matchup advantages (Jesse James vs. anybody) with a superior quarterback and hitting on some big plays. Expect improvement on Penn State's defense, which limits a UCF offense missing Bortles and Storm Johnson.
Our writers agreed on the following:
Minnesota over Eastern Illinois
Washington State over Rutgers
Michigan State over Jacksonville State
Indiana over Indiana State
Iowa over Northern Iowa
Michigan over Appalachian State
Purdue over Western Michigan
Ohio State over Navy
Illinois over Youngstown State
Maryland over James Madison
Northwestern over Cal
Nebraska over FAU
LSU over Wisconsin
Mitch Sherman: Not much else of great intrigue on the opening-week schedule, but Ohio State-Navy is worth a look, with the attention swirling around the debut of Buckeyes freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Midshipmen are no pushover, but the Buckeyes own enough of an edge in athleticism to take care of business. Because of its strange offseason, Northwestern is interesting, even against Cal, which was dismal last season. And for entertainment value, Rutgers’ Big Ten debut Thursday night against Washington State may rank high. The Scarlet Knights need to limit the Cougars' possessions and get off the field on third down -- or watch Wazzu quarterback Connor Halliday light them up with 65 to 70 pass attempts.
That generosity is greatly appreciated, and tearing into a pair of games tonight with Minnesota and Rutgers both opening the season two days before the weekend is a gift worth treasuring.
But what about during the season? Once football is finally back and the season is in full swing, suddenly making it through just one week without any action starts to feel like an interminable wait. Would it be so bad to mix in a few Thursday nights once league play starts?
“Our program, a lot of the notoriety we’ve achieved over the last decade has been on Thursday night,” Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood said. “We’ve had some really special evenings on Thursday nights here in Piscataway, and we’ve played some great games on the road.
“You know, I try not to get involved in decisions that really are going to be the same for everybody. I think for our program here at Rutgers, Thursday night has been a really good night. But going into the future here in the Big Ten, we’re looking forward to it and playing games on Saturday afternoons. I think there’s a lot of plusses to that as well.”
The broadcast exposure on an evening with less competition can be an invaluable plus, though, and Rutgers might know that better than anybody else given their experiences before moving into the Big Ten this season. Now even in a league with a much higher profile, the program might find that kind of spotlight much harder to come by on Saturday afternoons.
The Scarlet Knights aren’t alone in that regard. Indiana might not be a huge national draw on Saturdays, but its high-scoring offense could draw a few more viewers for a Thursday night matchup with say, Maryland, which may enjoy the chance to showcase its program in front of a broader audience dying to watch a game.
There are hurdles to be sure, starting with the Big Ten’s fondness for tradition and the resistance it would surely meet from powerhouse programs like Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State who have established brands and large stadiums that don’t need unique kickoff times to help draw a crowd. But aside from exceptions early in the year like tonight for the Big Ten, in some ways it seems like the league has simply conceded a potentially marquee marketing opportunity among the power conferences to the Pac-12 (Arizona at Oregon, UCLA at Arizona State), Big 12 (Texas Tech at Oklahoma State) and ACC (Florida State at Louisville).
Maybe the Big Ten simply doesn’t need it. Truthfully, as a league it probably doesn’t since it obviously isn’t hurting financially, there haven’t been any complaints about the television ratings and it’s already adjusted for a busier Saturday schedule that now includes two extra teams by allowing for more flexibility with night kickoffs.
But for individual programs, there’s almost certainly a benefit to scheduling on an off night every once in a while. Sometimes waiting a whole week is just too much time without football, and by Thursday night, fans are ready to watch just about anybody put on the pads.
Odds are, there are a few teams in the league that would be willing to sign up for that spot.
- The battle for field position will be critical for Rutgers when it opens tonight against Washington State. Quarterback Gary Nova will have more responsibilities at the line of scrimmage under offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen.
- Mitch Leidner wants to "win for the state of Minnesota," and the quarterback's first shot at it this season comes tonight against Eastern Illinois. The Gophers are trying to find ways to fill up the student section again.
- After four long years in reserve, linebacker Mylan Hicks finally finds himself in position to contribute for Michigan State and sits atop the depth chart, bracketed with Darien Harris.
- USC transfer Ty Isaac had his medical hardship waiver denied, but that decision will be appealed by Michigan, which is still trying to get him on the field this fall.
- Penn State was greeted with a little Irish weather on the practice field, but James Franklin had no complaints.
- Maryland has depth at nose tackle, and it will play both Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo against James Madison.
- The Ohio State depth chart has "or" all over it, but Steve Miller will definitely be starting in place of the suspended Noah Spence on Saturday.
- What kind of numbers is Shane Wynn capable of posting this season as he becomes the focal point of the Indiana offense?
- Derek Landisch returned to practice for Wisconsin on Wednesday, and the senior linebacker expects to be ready for the clash with LSU this weekend.
- Iowa has a loaded stable of tailbacks at its disposal, but that still doesn't mean Kirk Ferentz is comfortable with his running game.
- Junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell is helping to ease some of the minds that were worried when Nebraska lost nickelback Charles Jackson for the season during training camp.
- Should Northwestern be worried about Cal's offense? These numbers suggest the Wildcats should be fine.
- As the opener ahead of a season that could make or break Tim Beckman's career with Illinois draws near, the coach is exuding confidence his team can "take the next stride."
- Purdue is offering free tickets to students for the opener.
- Can't wait to get to Byrd Stadium and try this bad boy. Who's hungry?
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.
@ESPNJoshMoyer upset alert week 1 in the big ten?— Matt Finnigan (@Finnarious) August 26, 2014
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.
@ESPNJoshMoyer why so down on the Gophers? 5-7 (2-6) seems low. Not saying they are winning 9+, but no bowl? Really?— Darren Michael (@HaloKitty343) August 27, 2014
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.
@ESPNJoshMoyer How big of a concern is the Penn State O-line?— Sean Banks (@seanbanks3) August 27, 2014
Those are both questions that Penn State Nittany Lions' support staff has had to ask itself the past few months in preparation of the season opener against UCF in Dublin, Ireland. (Hell hath no fury like an ungroomed Franklin …) But you can't be blamed if you've gone this past week without wondering about those concerns. After all, besides Penn State's support staff, who really wants to worry about all that anyway?
"The one good thing about the trip," offensive coordinator John Donovan said earlier this week, "is that I have nothing to do with it logistically."
The support staff has attempted to address every little travel loophole and overseas scenario. Even without volcanoes in the picture, it truly is a crazy process. So we checked in with Michael Hazel, director of football operations, and equipment manager Jay Takach for an inside look on some of the odder stuff they're dealing with, along with some of the more interesting notes and numbers:
- Dude, where's my paper? During most away games, Penn State could just use the printer, fax machine and color copier on site. But … there's no color copier near the team hotel. So, no problem, the Nittany Lions will just lug their own more than 3,000 miles away. And then it can just use the hotel's paper, right? Nope, that'd be way too easy. The staff discovered that paper sizes over there aren't necessarily uniform to the U.S. -- so they also have to take two boxes of paper for coach notes and such. Different paper; who knew?
- Heavy lifting. Penn State is taking 20,000 pounds worth of equipment and supplies to Ireland. There are more than 9,000 items, more than 500 lines' worth of inventory on Excel, and it all barely fits into a 53-foot tractor trailer. Also, did I mention Penn State is required to list every single item it packs? The Nittany Lions are bringing some small rolls of athletic tape and a couple pencils -- and they have to list and account for them all, or the items won't make the flight as cargo.
- A well-groomed goatee is a happy goatee. OK, OK – so the goatee isn't at the top of the "travel priorities" list. Probably. But one thing that is: making sure everyone (especially the head coach) has a power adapter and surge protector for their electronics … such as goatee trimmers. Each player and coach room will be situated with one. Lest you think the goatee is mentioned purely in jest, it was suggested to Franklin last month he let his hair/goatee grow out for a few days. Immediately afterward, it looked as if he just bit into a lemon. Said Hazel: "I'm not responsible for shaving his head, but I want to make sure he's got the power he needs."
- You can't take what on the plane? Lithium batteries for cameras and training devices, Gatorade and air horns. For varying reasons, they're just not cleared for travel to Ireland. Outside of creating another headache – and probably increasing the amount of Advil listed on the travel carnet – these items luckily weren't too difficult to procure overseas. Penn State has a liaison in Dublin who purchased air horns along with some other items, and Gatorade was already shipped over to the Emerald Isle. "We got a guy," Takach said.
- Interesting solutions to interesting problems. Something is bound to fall through the cracks and, on Wednesday, Takach said an issue or two still remained. For one, the team has been practicing in 75-80 degree weather recently -- but it could be around 50 degrees in Ireland. So the Lions might need some long-sleeve shirts, but that clothing wasn't included on the travel carnet. If it's not on the list, it's not allowed on the plane. Tackach's workaround? "I've got to pack some of that as personal," he said. "I'm going to have like three or four bags where I'm like, 'Oh, no, this is all my clothing.'"
Ireland Travel Watch '14: pic.twitter.com/eejuR6rIGt— Josh Moyer (@ESPNJoshMoyer) August 26, 2014
"The farther from the ball you are, the better chance you have to get on the field early," Franklin said Tuesday. "That's where it really comes down to skill, speed and quickness."
Franklin is one of several Big Ten coaches who are banking on that adage being true right now. Because as Week 1 rapidly approaches, many league teams are hoping that some true freshmen and other very inexperienced players can make a major impact on their offenses.
That's a byproduct of the Big Ten losing its top seven and nine of its top 10 receivers from 2013. The youth movement is on at that position, and it's happening in earnest at some places.
Penn State is replacing record-breaking receiver Allen Robinson, who left for the NFL after his junior year. Franklin said true freshmen Saeed Blacknall and Chris Godwin will play this weekend against UCF in Ireland.
"They've done well," Franklin said. "We need those guys to have roles for us, and hopefully that grows as the season goes on. Both of them are big, physical guys, they're mature and they've handled it extremely well. And with our lack of depth at that position, we needed that."
The Nittany Lions are also hoping for contributions down the road from first-year players Daesean Hamilton and De'Andre Thompkins.
Few teams are as green at wideout as Illinois, which will break in several new receivers this weekend against Youngstown State. They include true freshmen Mike Dudek and Malik Turner and junior-college transfers Geronimo Allison and Tyrin Stone-Davis.
"I'm really happy with the guys we have now," head coach Tim Beckman said. "The game experience isn't there for them yet, but I'm really happy with the athleticism, and I'm happy with the way they have learned the game and the offensive system."
Beckman said Martize Barr, who was a junior-college transfer last season, and junior Justin Hardee have done "an outstanding job teaching [the newcomers] how to practice and play. Now, we'll see how that works on Saturday."
Wisconsin's receivers could get the biggest baptism by fire, as they take on LSU on Saturday. True freshman George Rushing will be in the mix, and head coach Gary Andersen said he "has picked up the scheme and consistently made big plays." Freshmen Krenwick Sanders and Natrell Jamerson are vying for playing time as well.
"We're going to be receiver-by-committee," Andersen said. "We're not going to be receiver-by-Jared-Abbrederis."
Hopes are high for the talent on the perimeter at Ohio State. Still, three guys who are expected to play a lot -- Jalin Marshall, Corey Smith and Michael Thomas -- have yet to see a down in the FBS. True freshman Freddy Canteen will play early and often for Michigan. Redshirt freshman Derrick Willies turned heads this spring at Iowa.
Indiana has one proven commodity in senior Shane Wynn. True freshmen Dominique Booth, J-Shun Harris and Simmie Cobbs have all worked their way into the rotation for Kevin Wilson, who's always been willing to play newbies. Ricky Jones, who barely played as a redshirt freshman last year, and former walk-on Damon Graham should also be in the Hoosiers' two deep vs. Indiana State.
"Oh, there's going to be some [mistakes]," Wilson said. "You're always concerned about it."
The time to find out if all these young receivers in the league are ready is almost here.
A quick sample and a few highlights can be found right here, and as always, there's much more coverage to follow as we hit the homestretch before the season kicks off.
Brady Hoke on starting freshman LT Mason Cole: "The one thing with Mason is that you don't notice him -- so he's not making those mistakes."— ESPN Big Ten (@ESPN_BigTen) August 26, 2014
Kyle Flood on playing WSU in Seattle: "I don't know that I could consider a West Coast trip a neutral-site game."— ESPN Big Ten (@ESPN_BigTen) August 26, 2014
Urban Meyer: "All those positives" Buckeyes saw in J.T. Barrett during his recruitment are "coming out now."— ESPN Big Ten (@ESPN_BigTen) August 26, 2014
James Franklin's first-ever word on a regular-season Big Ten teleconference: "Awesome."— ESPN Big Ten (@ESPN_BigTen) August 26, 2014
Kill on Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner: "We're going to run the football, but to get those key wins, you've gotta be able to throw it."— ESPN Big Ten (@ESPN_BigTen) August 26, 2014
Wiscy HC Gary Andersen: "We're going to be receiver-by-committee. We're not going to be receiver-by-Jared-Abbrederis."— ESPN Big Ten (@ESPN_BigTen) August 26, 2014
Brian Bennett: Minnesota wins back a long-lost trophy
The Gophers have won the Little Brown Jug game against Michigan only once (2005) since 1986 and have lost 10 straight Paul Bunyan's Axe games to Wisconsin. Jerry Kill's team reverses one of those trends this season, even though both games are on the road. Watch out for the Sept. 27 game at the Big House in particular.
This is predicated on equal parts opportunity and ability. Michigan's Devin Funchess appears to be sticking outside, so that means the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year Award will be heading elsewhere this season. Tyler Kroft (Rutgers) has tougher defenses to deal with this season, Maxx Williams (Minnesota) has a quarterback more geared toward the run and Jeff Heuerman (Ohio State) is dealing with a rookie signal-caller. But James? Well, he has one of the Big Ten's best in Christian Hackenberg, who just so happens to be looking to replace the 97 catches from Allen Robinson, who was last year's Big Ten receiver of the year before heading to the NFL. James stands 6-foot-7, runs in the 4.6s and has been lauded for his hands. Put simply, he's a freak.
Adam Rittenberg: Tevin Coleman leads the Big Ten in rushing
Coleman isn’t part of the national discussion like fellow Big Ten backs Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah, but people will know his name come November. The Indiana junior is explosive like Gordon, averaging 7.3 yards per carry last season and tying for the national lead with eight rushes of 40 yards or more, while playing in only nine games. If Coleman can stay healthy, he will put up monster numbers playing behind of the nation’s most underrated lines. He might not win Big Ten offensive player of the year honors, but he’ll be the first IU player to lead the league in rushing since Vaughn Dunbar in 1991.
Mitch Sherman: Indiana is going to make it back to a bowl game
It’s been too rare an occasion in Bloomington for football season to extend into December. The Hoosiers’ 2007 visit to the Insight Bowl marks the program’s lone postseason appearance in the past two decades. Kevin Wilson’s club possesses plenty of firepower -- led by the dynamic trio of Coleman, Nate Sudfeld and Shane Wynn -- and just enough defense to forge a .500 record. It’s no simple task to find six wins on this schedule, but Indiana will sweep the Big Ten’s new duo and beat Purdue on Nov. 29 to secure that elusive bowl bid.
Austin Ward: Half the league will have a 3,000-yard quarterback
The Big Ten might be better known for its running backs, and it certainly has had some well-documented issues recently at the game’s most important position. Even a year ago only one passer in the conference topped 3,000 yards, and Nathan Scheelhaase isn't even in the Big Ten anymore. But passing games leaguewide are poised to make a big jump, starting with Scheelhaase’s replacement at Illinois, Wes Lunt, and including Penn State’s Hackenberg, Michigan’s Devin Gardner, Indiana’s Sudfeld and Michigan State’s Connor Cook. If Iowa’s Jake Rudock continues his improvement and J.T. Barrett keeps the Ohio State attack rolling in place of Braxton Miller, at least half the Big Ten could have passers hitting that yardage milestone.
Don't ignore new quarterbacks like Wes Lunt and Tanner McEvoy, or newcomer defenders like Jabrill Peppers and Jihad Ward, but the real gauge for some teams will take place in the trenches. There are several revamped lines in the Big Ten that will be under the microscope in Week 1.
Let's take a look:
Wisconsin defensive line versus LSU (in Houston): The Badgers will start three new players up front -- ends Chikwe Obasih and Konrad Zagzebski, and tackle Warren Herring -- against talented Tigers running backs Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and Leonard Fournette, the decorated incoming freshman. Herring and Zabzekbski have five combined career starts, while Obasih, a redshirt freshman, makes his debut on a huge stage.
"I really feel that in the pass rush aspect and in the containing the quarterback aspect, we are a little bit more athletic and we have a little bit more speed," defensive coordinator Dave Aranda told me last week.
Penn State offensive line versus UCF (in Dublin, Ireland): Only one healthy starter (tackle Donovan Smith) returns for PSU's line, which has heard all about its depth issues throughout the offseason. The group will be tested right away by a UCF defense that returns nine starters, including the entire line. You can bet Knights coach George O'Leary will put Penn State's line under duress from the onset.
Ohio State offensive line versus Navy (in Baltimore): Like Penn State, Ohio State brings back just one line starter (tackle Taylor Decker) from last year, and the unit's task became a lot tougher after the season-ending loss of quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes' new-look front must protect freshman signal caller J.T. Barrett and create some running room against a smaller Navy defensive line.
Northwestern defensive line versus Cal: Both Wildcat lines have question marks entering the season, but the defensive front enters the spotlight after dealing with injuries throughout the offseason. Veteran defensive tackle Sean McEvilly (foot) is out for the season, and tackles Greg Kuhar and C.J. Robbins will get an opportunity to assert themselves against a Cal offense that racked up 549 yards against Northwestern in last year's game.
Purdue offensive line versus Western Michigan: The Boilers simply weren't strong enough up front in 2013 and couldn't move the ball for much of the season. They should be better on the interior with center Robert Kugler leading the way. This is a great chance for Purdue to start strong against a Western Michigan defense that ranked 118th nationally against the run in 2013.
Michigan offensive line versus Appalachian State: This isn't the Appalachian State team that shocked Michigan in 2007, but the Wolverines need to gain cohesion and confidence up front and with their run game. After a lot of line shuffling in camp, Michigan tries to get backs Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith going in the opener before a Week 2 trip to Notre Dame.
To the links ...
- Some bad news for Iowa's defensive line, as tackle Darian Cooper posts that he had season-ending surgery.
- Prove-it time has arrived for Nebraska's supposedly improved defense.
- It's Mitch Leidner's show at Minnesota, and that's a very good thing, Chip Scoggins writes.
- Melvin Gordon spills the beans about Wisconsin's not-so secret starting quarterback. Coach Gary Andersen expects both signal callers to play this fall. A former Badgers recruit is sentenced to a year in jail for sexual assault.
- Illinois could use its two backup quarterbacks as wide receivers.
- After two pick-sixes last year against Cal, Northwestern linebacker Collin Ellis aims for an encore against the Bears.
- The Gold & Black staff weighs in on a simple but important question: Will Purdue be better?
- Michigan isn't electing captains until after the season. The Wolverines and Nebraska are on Jeremy Fowler's list of sneaky playoff contenders.
- Ohio State still has at least four starting spots up for grabs this week.
- Notes and nuggets from Penn State's coordinators before the team departs for Ireland.
- Indiana has implemented an NFL-style tackling system to help its defenders.
- Spartan Stadium gets a facelift.
- A closer look at Maryland's Week 1 depth chart.
- Dan Duggan lists 10 under-the-radar Rutgers players to watch this season.
BARNARD, Vt. -- Former FBI director Louis Freeh was seriously injured in a single-car crash in Vermont, authorities said.
State police said Freeh was taken by helicopter to a New Hampshire hospital following the crash Monday in Barnard, a small town about 120 miles northwest of Boston.
The hospital says it can't acknowledge that Freeh is a patient there.
Freeh apparently drove his SUV off the road shortly after noon and struck a mailbox and a row of shrubs before coming to a stop on the side of a tree, state police said. He was wearing his seatbelt.
Police said Tuesday a preliminary investigation indicated that drugs and alcohol were not factors in the crash. The investigation is continuing. No one else was hurt.
"The thoughts and prayers of the entire FBI remain with former Director Freeh and his family tonight," FBI Director James Comey said in a statement Monday.
Freeh, 64, was a federal judge in New York before serving as FBI director from 1993 to 2001. He previously served six years as a special agent. He founded his consulting firm, Freeh Group International Solutions LLC, in 2007.
In 2011, Penn State hired Freeh to examine the handling of child sex abuse complaints involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and to recommend changes aimed at preventing abuse.
Following an eight-month, $6.5 million investigation, Freeh issued a blistering report contending that legendary head football coach Joe Paterno and other top Penn State officials concealed what they knew about Sandusky's sexual abuse of children for more than a decade ago to avoid bad publicity.
Sandusky was convicted in June 2012 on 45 criminal counts.
Freeh also has handled other high profile matters, including a bribery case involving the presidential election within FIFA, soccer's international governing body, and a review of the financial settlement program for Gulf Coast residents affected by the BP oil spill.
With the season about to begin, let's take at a few teams outside the top expected Big Ten contenders (Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska) who could get off to fast starts in 2014:
1. Michigan: Does Michigan have issues? Yes. Have the Wolverines underachieved for a while now? Check. But if things break right, the Wolverines could wind up building some early momentum, the way they did in opening 6-0 in the Sugar Bowl season of 2011.
The Notre Dame game on the road in Week 2 is challenging, but the Fighting Irish have some serious problems of their own right now. Michigan plays four of its first five games at home and then opens conference play at league newbie Rutgers. A 6-0 record when Penn State comes calling under the lights on Oct. 11 is certainly possible.
2. Penn State: Assuming the Icelandic volcano doesn't wreck the opener, the Nittany Lions will be in for a tussle against UCF in Ireland on Saturday. But if they get past that one, the path opens up a bit with games against Akron, at Rutgers, UMass and Northwestern. A 5-0 Penn State vs. a 6-0 Michigan? Dare to dream.
3. Minnesota: The Gophers have that key game at TCU in Week 3, but the rest of the nonconference schedule reads like this: Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee and San Jose State at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota opens Big Ten play at Michigan but then has Northwestern, Purdue and at Illinois. A second straight hot start might be in the cards for the Gophers, who went 4-0 and then 8-2 last season.
4. Purdue: OK, we're talking relativity here. With this week's opener against Western Michigan, a team that like the Boilermakers only won one game last season, Purdue could snap its 12-game losing streak against FBS opponents. Central Michigan and Southern Illinois give Darrell Hazell's team a chance to triple its 2013 win total before the end of September.
"It's huge," Hazell told me last month about the importance of getting off to a good start. "Because you can always ask one question: which comes first, the confidence or the success? Right now, our guys are walking around with some confidence, but I think it's really important for us to have some early success."
- Expectations have tumbled for Ohio State since Braxton Miller's injury.
- An unproven set of receivers is ready to step up for Rutgers.
- Indiana enters a crossroads season.
- Lawrence Thomas, a former can't-miss recruit, is still looking for his breakthrough at Michigan State. Ten predictions for the Spartans in 2014.
- Devin Gardner has matured and looks ready to lead Michigan this fall. Season predictions for the Wolverines.
- Some key questions for Penn State as the season approaches.
- A pair of Maryland regulars face assault charges.
- Ameer Abdullah is beyond ready for his final go-round with Nebraska. The 2014 season could be different for the Cornhuskers, but Tom Shatel says he'll believe it when he sees it.
- Wisconsin receiver Reggie Love has come on strong after an honest talk with head coach Gary Andersen this offseason. Year 2 of the Andersen era should look a lot different than last season, Tom Oates writes.
- Trevor Siemian has stepped forward as Northwestern's leader.
- Can the Iowa passing game make significant progress?
- A look back at Minnesota's upset of Nebraska last year and how it can help the Gophers going forward.
- Tim Beckman's seat is undeniably warm entering the 2014 season.
- Purdue looks for a fresh start.
They weren't predictions but instead a broad (sometimes comically so) look at the potential highs and lows for each club. Now that we've examined each individual team, let's take a look at the best and worst scenarios for the Big Ten as a whole in 2014.
It's like 2006 all over again.
The Big Ten makes immense strides as a conference and asserts itself once again as a major power in college football. The season gets off to a promising start when Wisconsin beats LSU in Houston in Week 1, establishing the Badgers as a national title contender and dinging the SEC along the way.
Nebraska easily handles Miami at home, and Indiana notches an upset on the road at defending SEC East champion Missouri. Meanwhile, new members Rutgers and Maryland sweep their nonconference games, leading to Big Ten fever on the East Coast. Penn State learns in September that its bowl ban has been lifted, and James Franklin leads the Nittany Lions to their first postseason game since the 2011 season.
"GameDay" has no choice but to set up shop for two marquee Midwestern matchups: No. 1 Michigan State hosting No. 3 Ohio State on Nov. 8 and 11-0 Wisconsin at 11-0 Iowa on Nov. 22.
Both Michigan State and Ohio State -- the latter of which suffers little dropoff without Braxton Miller -- make the Playoff field and win their semifinal games to set up a rematch for the national title. The Big Ten also does very well in its other bowl games, as Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan and Minnesota all defeat Power 5 conference opponents. Maryland and Rutgers both reach bowls, too, proving naysayers wrong about their ability to compete in their new league. New York City goes gaga for the Scarlet Knights, as Kyle Flood guest hosts for a week on Jimmy Fallon's show. President Obama leads a wave of new Terps fans in Washington.
The SEC fails to place a team in the Playoff, and Nick Saban, Gus Malzahn and Kevin Sumlin all leave for NFL jobs after the season. Using the new NCAA autonomy measures, the Big Ten is able to force major recruiting changes that favor its schools.
Global warming and drought in the South and on the West Coast lead to millions moving to the Midwest, as steel mills and auto plants crank back up. The Big Ten plays in two regions and owns the attention of America. Notre Dame asks to join the conference. Jim Delany says thanks, but no thanks.
People are already predicting doom and gloom for the Big Ten after Miller's injury. They are not wrong.
With so many teams struggling in nonconference play, the Big Ten is basically irrelevant nationally before October. Maryland and Rutgers have rough first years in the league; the Scarlet Knights go 2-9, while Maryland finishes 4-8. Worse, no one on the East Coast cares, as they are swept up by the surprising ACC success of Pitt and Syracuse and a resurgent Notre Dame.
Penn State stays on probation, and depth issues make it a long first season for Franklin. The West Division beats up on each other, and as November rolls around, none of the teams on that side is ranked. The showdown between Michigan State and Ohio State fizzles as they bring a combined five losses into the game and play to a lackluster 10-7 final score.
Nebraska, Michigan, Illinois, Purdue and Rutgers are all embroiled in heated debates about their head coaches' future. Northwestern is split apart by the union movement after it's revealed that the final vote was an even 50-50 split. The league's highest-rated team in the selection committee's final poll is No. 14.
Three SEC teams make it to the inaugural playoff, with two of them squaring off in the Rose Bowl. The Big Ten finishes 0-10 in its bowls, the best of which was the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
Autonomy serves to allow only leagues like the SEC and ACC to conspire and change even more rules in their favor, like oversigning. They push through a ban on all official visits when it's not snowing north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Mike Slive is named commissioner of college football.
Another polar vortex grips the upper Midwest, and freezing temperatures continue well into June.
Meyer hasn't spent his entire career in the Big Ten, but the Ohio State coach has a pretty good handle on the quarterback landscape in college football. Informed last month that a Big Ten quarterback hadn't been selected in the first round of the NFL draft since Penn State's Kerry Collins in 1995, Meyer's jaw dropped.
"You're kidding me? Wow," he said. "That shouldn't be. Man, there hasn’t been a first-rounder? [Terrelle] Pryor probably would have been. Well, Tom Brady should have been. I never ...
"You've got me shocked."
Even a few questions later, Meyer couldn't get past the flabbergasting factoid.
"Wow," he said. "Twenty years?"
Several factors have contributed to the Big Ten's downturn, but quarterback play belongs high on the list. The league hasn't had an All-American quarterback since 2006, when Ohio State's Troy Smith won the Heisman Trophy. Only one Big Ten quarterback has been selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft since 2008. That player, Wisconsin's Russell Wilson, started his career in the ACC.
"It's been awhile since the Big Ten had a top-drawer guy," former Purdue coach Joe Tiller said. "An elite-type quarterback certainly would help the conference."
To be clear, a first-round designation isn't the best way or the only way to measure a conference at one position.
"So Drew Brees sucks just because he was 5-11 and three quarters and he goes Pick 32?" Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "You would never want Tom Brady, ever. He's horrible! You’ve got to take Akili Smith or somebody."
Brees slipped to the first pick of the second round in 2001 because of his height. Brady is among the best to ever play the position, and Wilson just helped the Seahawks win the Super Bowl. At least five NFL teams will start Big Ten quarterbacks this season.
But the volume isn't there.
"Drew should have been a first-round guy, but let's say he was," Tiller said. "Hell, him and Kerry Collins, for cryin' out loud? That's a long time [without more]."
The Big Ten doesn't have as much trouble churning out elite linemen and running backs. Does the league's ground-and-pound image turn off top quarterbacks? Does the weather? Coaches say no.
"The weather is a positive," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "When the NFL scouts are going to grade these people, they want to know how they're going to play in all these different conditions."
Although many Big Ten programs use offenses that fit the league's stereotypes, those who emphasize quarterback-friendly systems can find the pieces. When Mike White came to Illinois in 1980, he brought with him two junior-college quarterbacks from California, Dave Wilson and Tony Eason. That fall, Wilson set an NCAA record with 621 yards against Ohio State. He was a first-round pick in the NFL supplemental draft in 1981. Two years later, Eason was the No. 15 overall pick, 12 spots ahead of a guy named Marino.
"I had the confidence when I hit the Big Ten that it wasn't a passing conference and I probably had an edge," said White, who coached at Illinois from 1980-87. "We proved that you could throw the ball in the Big Ten. Our kids loved it."
So did the fans. On Illinois' first play of the season, Wilson launched the ball downfield ... nowhere near his intended receiver.
"I think we got a standing ovation," White said.
Quarterback-friendly programs such as Illinois, Iowa and Purdue produced stars during that time. The Big Ten had six first-round quarterbacks between 1982-90. In 1997, Tiller arrived at Purdue and introduced a pass-driven spread offense. Brees began shattering league records.
But those were the exceptions, not the rule. Big Ten teams have often used run-driven offenses with game-managers under center.
"More and more guys just went back to the system that they had confidence in," White said. "I don't think they came in with a passion for the forward pass and how you can make it work, so consequently, it just became Big Ten football again."
Kevin Wilson notes some Big Ten teams haven't built around the quarterback spot and that, more than weather or league reputation, might hurt the strength of the position. But things appear to be improving.
Wilson runs a fast-paced, pass-heavy spread offense at Indiana. Michigan, which has great tradition at quarterback, is back to using a pro-style offense. Michigan State has a nice run of quarterbacks with Brian Hoyer, Kirk Cousins and now Connor Cook. Penn State returns Christian Hackenberg, the Big Ten's freshman of the year in 2013.
"I don't think people can be fairly critical of the quarterbacks in the Big Ten," said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo. "It's a pretty good group this year. Hackenberg could be the first guy taken, whenever he decides to go.
"He's a rare talent."
A few more rare talents at quarterback -- along with the right coaches and systems -- could give the Big Ten the boost it needs.
"We got after 'em pretty good after we got back from the bowl game," Kill told ESPN.com. "I think it was a wake-up call."
One of the players who answered that call the loudest was senior safety Cedric Thompson, who felt those same hunger pains Kill talked about. What stuck out to him about 2013 wasn't the 8-2 start but the 0-3 finish. Minnesota was actually in the Legends Division title chase before losing back-to-back games to Wisconsin and at Michigan State.
"It was so sickening to see how close we were last year," Thompson said. "I'm tired of people saying the Gophers are this close or that close."
Thompson told Kill right after the bowl that he wanted to be a captain this year, and that he was going to "make sure nobody slacks off."
"I feel like we didn't hold each other accountable last year during the summer, spring and even in practice during the season," Thompson said. "We worked hard, but when somebody did something wrong, we didn’t hold them to the standard we wanted."
Thompson took that responsibility on himself this offseason. He was never afraid to chew out a teammate if he saw something he didn't like. Kill, in turn, says Thompson is "the best leader on the defensive side that we've had since we've been here."
That internal leadership -- with quarterback Mitch Leidner playing a key role on the offensive side -- is one of the reasons the Gophers' staff is so excited about its 2014 prospects.
"That's what happened for us at Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois," Kill said, referring to his staff's previous successful tenures. "When the players start holding themselves accountable, that's when you’ve got a chance."
We'll see how much that makes a difference for Minnesota very soon. The Gophers will be the first Big Ten team to take the field this season when they host Eastern Illinois -- and FCS quarterfinalist last year -- on Thursday night at 7 ET.
- An Indiana wide receiver was suspended after he got involved in an early-morning scuffle.
- Maryland kicker Brad Craddock is taking his game up a notch.
- Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner is doing more pre-snap reads now and, surprisingly, says he never read a "mike" (or middle linebacker) before Doug Nussmeier showed up.
- Michigan State has sympathy for Braxton Miller. The Spartans named their captains -- Kurtis Drummond, Travis Jackson and Shilique Calhoun -- as well as a pair of defensive starters.
- Ohio State believes it can still win the Big Ten championship without Miller.
- James Franklin was a hit at his first Penn State radio show.
- Rutgers got a commitment from Paul James' younger brother.
- The combo of Wes Lunt and Bill Cubit makes for an intriguing team at Illinois.
- Dallas Clark sizes up the latest crop of Iowa tight ends.
- Minnesota's left tackle and top returning wide receiver are ailing right now.
- A final camp stock report on Nebraska.
- Northwestern says it has better team unity, but will that lead to more wins?
- A Purdue season preview.
- Vonte Jackson's career is over, Wisconsin will go with a freshman kicker and more Badgers notes.
That’s what I asked the 65 coaches from the Power Five conferences and Notre Dame to do. Describe their team in one word.
Some coaches were one-word wonders, but a few insisted they needed two words. That’s fine because the descriptions shed some insight into how coaches view their team and/or what they want the public perception of their team to be.
In all, the 65 coaches used 44 different descriptions.
Well, here’s to taking it one “word” at a time. My word: Enjoy.
Illinois’ Tim Beckman: Family
Indiana’s Kevin Wilson: Cusp
Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz: Developmental
Maryland’s Randy Edsall: Hungry
Michigan’s Brady Hoke: Together
Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio: Committed
Minnesota’s Jerry Kill: Hungry
Nebraska’s Bo Pelini: Exciting
Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald: Focused
Ohio State’s Urban Meyer: Fast
Penn State’s James Franklin: Perseverance
Purdue’s Darrell Hazell: Hungry
Rutgers’ Kyle Flood: Hungry
Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen: Youthful