I joined Matt Barrie on the ESPNU College Football podcast earlier today to discuss my recent spring football trips to Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin. We discussed the ongoing quarterback competitions, how James Franklin is building relationships at Penn State and which team can be this year's Michigan State.

Listen to the full podcast here.

Big Ten's lunch links

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

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
5:45
PM ET
Coming at you from America's dairyland. Don't forget to join our Twitter minions.

Inbox time ...

Jimmy H. from Six Feet Under a Driveway in Grosse Point writes: We can probably all agree that the current system does exploit the players. Well, what if say, 2 percent of football revenues went to the players? You could even pay the money out in limited checks while in school, or perhaps after graduation. Alternatively, would it radically change the game if say, seniors only, could do promotions and product sponsorship? Imagine if each conference started to allocate 5 percent of conference football revenue to their players, paid out either as stipends during college or over a period following graduation. I think the BIG would once again start dominating the recruiting battles.

Adam Rittenberg: Jimmy, some interesting ideas here. I like that your proposals would affect players across the board, not necessarily just stars. There's no doubt that more of the record revenue being generated can go toward the athletes. Whether it's a stipend for travel/standard expenses, a trust to ensure further education for those who leave school early, or a fund to cover long-term medical injuries sustained while playing, there are ways to improve the college player experience. Some of these already have been proposed by the Big Ten and other conferences, but nothing substantial has come to fruition. The NCAA has let these issues drag for years and now could pay a substantial price, and not just in dollars.


Matt from Michigan writes: MSU has more hype than it deserves. Yes, they won the Rose Bowl, and that is great for a conference that needed a team to do it, but you are forgetting how little one random year means in actually being a consistent program. MSU was 7-6 the previous year. Are you forgetting they had four HOME losses that year? Pat Narduzzi is a fantastic assistant with a great scheme. But that scheme was helped by having talent AND experience at some key positions last year. Something that MSU does not have much of coming back. Looking at just last season, MSU deserves all the recognition it has gotten, but as for the future, please slow down the hype train for the inconsistent Spartan program.

Adam Rittenberg: A couple things, Matt. Go find me a projection that has Michigan State in the College Football Playoff. There aren't many, if any, out there. You cite the 7-6 season MSU had in 2012. That's fair, and the Spartans must show they can build on a season like last one with another strong performance. But to label Michigan State inconsistent is inaccurate. MSU has recorded 11 or more wins in three of the past four seasons. It has produced a top-five defense in each of the last three seasons, despite some personnel moving in and out. Will the 2014 Spartan Dawgs be as dominant as their predecessor? Probably not, but the offense certainly could be better than the 2013 version. I'm going to take a wild guess and say you're a Michigan fan. If we were talking about Michigan, because of its superior overall history, it would be mentioned as a playoff candidate. Michigan State isn't getting the same treatment.


Mark from Champaign, Ill., writes: Is Julie Hermann too outspoken? She doesn't seem to have any boundaries and will talk about anything to any audience. Looks to be a thorn in Jim Delany's side right away.

Adam Rittenberg: I don't know if she has boundaries, Mark, but she's showing her inexperience in the role. Major-conference athletic directors must deal with scrutiny, especially those operating in major markets. She certainly has had more than her share for a first-year AD, but the spotlight is always on, and people are looking for poise, not noise about the media. As an AD, you have to focus on the bigger picture and stay above this stuff. It will be important for Hermann to do so going forward with the Big Ten transition.


Scott from Pleasanton, Calif., writes: After reading some articles about James Franklin's long hours and boundless energy, I wanted to get your take on the following -- does it matter that much? I mean, the coaches aren't on the field making plays, so it seems to me there may be diminishing returns with respect to the total number of hours spent in the office. Would he be just as effective if he worked a little less and got some more sleep?

Adam Rittenberg: He could be, Scott, but coaches always talk about being who they are, and Franklin knows no other way to do the job. The long-hours thing gets overplayed, but I think his energetic approach -- and that of his staff -- is effective in making connections with a group of players who have been through a lot with the coaching changes and sanctions. They want to see the coaches invested in them and in the program. They're getting that with Franklin.


Joel from Minneapolis writes: The Big 12 Blog recently gave its take on whether spring games were still necessary or have become irrelevant. I'd be interested to know your (and Bennett's) takes are on these events. Obviously they're a nice bridge that fills such a long offseason, but some schools can barely attract enough fans to fill even a fraction of their stadiums, and as many coaches in the B12 blog pointed out, have become so guarded as to showcasing how far their team has come along. Perhaps its time for the marketing departments at each school to rebrand these events into a more quasi-athletic affair, showcasing other aspects the athletic department. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Joel, schools take different approaches and some try to pair the spring football games with another athletic event (Ohio State typically schedules a lacrosse game beforehand). The bigger issues I see are existing injuries or the fear of more injuries. Some teams are so beaten up along the lines that it's impossible to field two true teams. Can't blame them for that. Other coaches are concerned about starters being hurt. I can tell you Wisconsin will have a true spring game, despite its injuries, as only a handful of players (RB Melvin Gordon among them) will be held out as a precaution. Spring games are fun events for the die-hards, but they often don't matter nearly as much as the 14 preceding practices. I'm fine with having the events continue, but I don't expect much from them.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Go ahead, underestimate Allen Robinson. He doesn’t care; he’s used to it.

Robinson was a consensus two-star prospect in high school. He caught three passes as a college freshman. And, before his sophomore season, the media focused on players such as Alex Kenney and Shawney Kersey as possible stars.

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerDespite a highly productive college career, Allen Robinson understands that NFL scouts have their doubts about his speed.
Everyone, outside of Robinson’s close friends and family, overlooked the skinny kid wearing No. 8. No one foresaw two back-to-back B1G receiver of the year awards or Biletnikoff watch lists. And now, exactly a month before the draft, some analysts have taken to saying he’s not one of the elite wideouts in this draft -- that the junior is maybe a third-round talent.

Robinson hears all the chatter; it just doesn’t bother him. He has been here before.

“My whole life has been sitting around waiting,” he said after Penn State’s Tuesday pro day. “So whatever round I go in, it is what it is. But at the same time, when I get to my team, I’m going to grind and earn my spot.”

The Michigan native, who caught high school passes from four-star recruit Rob Bolden, knows some have criticized his breakaway speed, or lack thereof. (NFL.com’s profile of him lists that as his main weakness.) The concern is he’s too slow to be a productive NFL wideout, that he’s a solid college wideout whose NFL stock dropped considerably since running a 4.6-second 40.

That’s not news to Robinson, but he has made a career out of proving doubters wrong. He centered a lot of his training around improving that 40-yard dash in time for Tuesday’s pro day. And, according to Robinson, scouts approached him afterward and told him he clocked a sub-4.5.

He also finished with a 42-inch vertical, a three-cone time of 6.53 seconds and a broad jump of 10 feet, 11 inches. All of those numbers were improvements from the NFL combine numbers.

“I’ve seen a lot of improvement in myself,” Robinson said. “I feel like I made the best decision I could’ve made [declaring early], and I’m comfortable with that.”

Robinson doesn’t know where he’ll go in the draft. Maybe he’ll surprise the analysts and be picked in the second round, or maybe even the first. But, wherever he goes, he said he wouldn’t be disappointed. And wherever he goes, no one is counting him out this time around.

“Everyone’s dream is to go in the first round, but I can’t control that,” he said. “So wherever I end up going, God has blessed me with being picked by a team. All I can do is stay prepared and ready and, once my name is called, show those guys what I can do and earn my spot on the field.”

Not stressing out: Defensive tackle DaQuan Jones might be the first Penn State player taken in next month’s NFL draft, but he’s trying not to think about that.

“You really don’t know until the draft so, right now, I’m not really stressing about it,” said Jones, who has been projected to go as early as the second round. “All I can do now is take care of my body.”

Jones weighed in at 324 pounds, a six-pound gain since the start of last season, and stood at 6-foot-3. He said teams have approached him as both a 3-4 and 4-3 defensive tackle, and he’s fine with either.

“Everyone’s going to multiple defenses,” he said, “so you’re going to play either/or no matter where you go.”

High risk … high reward?: Tight end-turned-offensive tackle Garry Gilliam was present for pro day, and it’s a good thing he was. A lot of NFL scouts didn’t even know he declared.

“They actually said they didn’t know I was coming out,” said Gilliam, who had one year of eligibility remaining and declared late. “So it was huge to come out here.”

Gilliam probably could have benefited from another season at Penn State. He played only one season as an offensive tackle after bulking up last offseason. But, at 23 years old and with two degrees already, Gilliam felt it was time to move on.

He came in Tuesday at 6-6, 306 pounds and ran a sub-5-second 40. But his upper body strength has teams worried, as he did between 19 and 20 reps on the bench press.

“I think they know I’m a raw player and they need to develop me,” he said, “but I think they’ll take a shot to do it.”

Disrespected: Middle linebacker Glenn Carson didn’t receive an invitation to last month’s NFL combine. And he doesn’t plan to forget that snub anytime soon.

“I definitely came in today with a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I felt as if I should’ve gotten a combine invite, and that’s why I had to go out there and impress people today.

“I felt like I was a little underappreciated, but all you have to do is put your head down and work. And that’s what I did for these past three months.”

Carson could wind up as a priority free agent, but he’s not expected to be drafted. Still, he felt as if he improved his stock on Tuesday and said several scouts complimented his performance and how he played “smooth.”

“It would be awesome to get drafted,” Carson said.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
12:00
PM ET
I've been to Storrs. I don't know how UConn keeps doing it.
The NCAA men's tournament is all over, but we've still got the title match in our all-time Big Ten coaches' tournament.

Like that other madness, we had some lower seeds advancing all the way to the championship, though the upsets weren't huge. In our second semifinal matchup, No. 4 seed Penn State's Joe Paterno edged No. 1 seed Ohio State's Woody Hayes by a 53-47 count in your voting, with more than 21,000 votes cast.

So Paterno advanced to face No. 3 seed Nebraska's Tom Osborne. An all-time Big Ten coaches tournament final with no Woody or Bo? It is surprisingly so, though the two finalists are no slouches either.

We'll open the tournament final on Thursday. For now, here are some of your comments on this matchup:
Brian from Smyrna: I voted for Joe Paterno over Woody Hayes. There's no arguing that Hayes has a better Big Ten résumé than JoePa. But Paterno has a better career than any other Division 1 coach ever. No one won more games than he did and even his 2 championships are short changing him (he went undefeated 4 other times without being awarded a championship). He won during all kinds of eras of the game. No one will ever top the greatest coach of all time.

Sean J. from Philadelphia: Yes, many coaches have won a plethora of games, fund-raised for their universities, and built the brand of their schools. However, none have had the same impact that Joe Paterno had both on and off the field. Not many fans can attribute their coach for the success of the team and their own personal success. Whether it's the national recognition your degree gets, the time spent in the library with his name on it, or the visit he made to your tent in Paternoville the night before a big game, Joe Pa impacted many of our lives. Despite accusations from the scandal, generations of alumni know they owe Joe a debt gratitude for the education they received at Penn State. That is why he deserves to win this tournament.

David S. from Virginia Beach: Quite simply, Joe Paterno coached and won 409 games regardless of the dumbest part of the NCAA sanctions Penn State had... NO ONE BETTER

Brian B. from Atlanta: I voted for Joe Paterno for two reasons: 1. Joe Pa was the greatest coach of all time. 2. I hate Ohio State and would vote for anything opposite them. Obviously a no-brainer.

Dave from Columbus: Great matchup here. Two towering figures of the B1G. Okay, so JoePa wasn't part of the B1G until the last 20 years of his career, but still. Both coaches' legacies were ended in disgusting tarnish. My favorite team being tOSU, Woody gets my vote. But it's deeper than that. Woody's been immortalized throughout campus, the B1G and beyond. I just don't see JoePa's legacy ever recovering from what happened there. I have a feeling a lot of folks are voting for JoePa out of their disdain for Woody.

James from Nashville: Many people are overlooking the fact that Paterno had the benefit and being independent and setting up a lot of cupcakes. Hayes was the better coach, and would have won more titles if not for facing off against Bo for a decade, and playing Rose Bowls against several exceptional USC teams. Even so, he still won more titles, more conference titles, and indeed a higher percentage of Big Ten games that Paterno. Anyone who votes Paterno is clearly someone who does not know much about the history of the Big Ten.

Larry P. from Mansfield, Ohio: Woody Hayes won 13 Big Ten titles and 5 national championships. Joe Paterno won 2 Big Ten titles and 2 national championships. Not a tough call.

Tom from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio: The Big Ten term 3 yards and a cloud of dust came because of Woody. Yes, when you think of Penn State, you think of Joe Pa. When you think of Ohio State, you think of Woody. The difference is when you think of the Big Ten, you also think of Woody. My vote goes to Woody Hayes.
Saquon Barkley tossed off his backpack, when a stack of more than 50 letters -- several blue envelopes on top, bigger white ones below -- caught his eye on the kitchen table.

"What's this?" he asked his mother.

"The mailman hates you," she said with a laugh. "They're all from Penn State."

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
MCT via Getty Images James Franklin and Penn State were busy on national signing day and they're working to build on the recruiting successes.
Barkley, a three-star tailback in the 2015 class, committed to the Nittany Lions nearly two months ago -- and the letters arrived at Barkley's home just last week. He still hasn't gotten around to opening them all.

That thick stack of envelopes, with two rubber bands holding them together, stands as just one of the testaments to the extra work that James Franklin and his staff have put in. They've inundated commits with handwritten letters, wooed recruits with heaps of attention -- and, most important, have somehow persuaded 11 prospects in the 2015 class to pledge to the Blue and White. It's one of the biggest surprises in the recruiting world.

"Coach Franklin, he's a great guy. If he wants you and needs you on this team, he's going to get you," said Barkley, who flipped from what he labeled his dream school in Rutgers. "I'm telling you the truth. He just has face time for no reason, just to see how I'm doing or my family's doing. Even now, when I'm already committed."

This early recruiting success is unprecedented for the Nittany Lions. Since 2006, when ESPN began tracking recruiting, Penn State never boasted more than five commits before April 10 -- and never, even during a full recruiting cycle, garnered more than six ESPN 300 commits. They're already up to six such players, and with 10 months remaining.

It's not as if Franklin is focusing upon longtime Penn State fans, whose parents drive around with "409" bumper stickers. He's changing the minds of out-of-state high schoolers with confidence -- "I'm not letting you go anywhere else" -- and with an energy usually reserved for motivational speakers who have a predilection toward espresso. Two of Penn State's most recent commits would've offered blank looks or a confused stare if you told them two months ago they'd be changing their Twitter backgrounds to a Nittany Lions logo.

"I would've just said, 'No,' " offensive guard Steven Gonzalez said with a laugh. "I would've said that I most likely would've been a Buckeye."

Added linebacker Josh Barajas, a heavy Notre Dame lean: "I would've told you that you were crazy."

Barajas gave Penn State a chance when he started receiving more handwritten letters from the university than anywhere else. He then arrived to a practice that featured Franklin performing the worm and playfully spraying water in the kicker's face before a field goal. And when Barajas sat down to a lunch of cheesesteak and fries, a time normally reserved for just recruits, Franklin pulled alongside a chair and ate with his family.

Barajas didn't expect that. It was a small gesture -- but it was one no other coach had done. Bill O'Brien, whose office prominently displayed a photo of him alongside Tom Brady, often called recruits into his office to chat. He won top prospects over with his track record but induced sweaty palms and stammers. Here, Franklin's personality is putting recruits at ease -- and then winning them over.

"Sometimes you're kind of uneasy sitting around a guy that important," Barajas said, "but I was just talking to him like he was my friend. We talked about a lot of stuff, too, not just football."

Franklin landed on the Happy Valley tarmac on a wet January morning and, following his introductory news conference, joked with reporters that he needed to leave so he could get to work. He landed a 2014 commit later that night. Two weeks ago, he offered reporters a six-minute chat before leaving abruptly and saying, "As much as I love you, I love [recruits] more." He reeled in two more 2015 commits that weekend.

He's now sleeping on a mattress in his office -- seriously. And he treated signing day like Christmas, complete with several pipers piping. Several commits weren't even quite sure how to explain Franklin's success, but Franklin has an idea.

"For us, it's not work," he told ESPN.com. "It's calling around to all your buddies, it's bringing recruits up and having fun with them, showing them how much fun we have at practice. When we write letters and direct-message and do those things, it's not dry, standard material. It's us showing these kids and these parents and these high school coaches who we are as men and who we are as coaches, and having fun with it."

Franklin made a splash on Day 1 when he repeated -- twice -- that his staff planned to dominate the state and region at recruiting. So far, he has. And, so far, even some of his own commits can't quite believe it.

"I'm definitely surprised," Barajas said. "I didn't think they were going to blow up like this.

"But, then again, I don't see them stopping anytime either."
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So you want more prime-time games in the Big Ten? How does Penn State vs. Michigan in the Big House sound?

The Wolverines, of course, have hosted two night games in Michigan Stadium. Those games, against Notre Dame in 2011 and 2013, turned into events and created an electric atmosphere.

No. 3 under the lights will be a conference game against Penn State on Oct. 11. The Notre Dame rivalry is great and all, but this will be two titanic Big Ten programs squaring off in an East Division showdown. It's a worthy addition to the short history of night games at the Big House.

"The night game atmosphere created by our fans has been electric and we expect that same type of energy for our first-ever conference night game against Penn State,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said in a statement. “Our players really enjoy playing in prime time at Michigan Stadium.”

The Notre Dame-Michigan night games were enhanced by exciting shootouts on the field. We can hope for the same this year between the Nittany Lions and Wolverines, who played a 43-40, four-overtime thriller in Beaver Stadium last year. Because Ohio State-Michigan will likely never be in prime time and Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon doesn't want to play Michigan State at night, this is about the best in-conference matchup you could wish for under the lights at the Big House.

Expect more league prime-time games to be announced soon. This one already has us salivating.
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The Big House is turning on the lights again, and this time it's for a Big Ten showdown.

Michigan and Penn State announced on Monday that their Oct. 11 game in Ann Arbor will kick off at 7 p.m. ET and be televised by ESPN or ESPN2.

This will be the third prime-time game in the history of Michigan Stadium, with the first two coming against Notre Dame in 2011 and 2013. The Wolverines won both contests.

"The night game atmosphere created by our fans has been electric and we expect that same type of energy for our first-ever conference night game against Penn State," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said in a statement released by the school. "Our players really enjoy playing in prime time at Michigan Stadium."


(Read full post)


Big Ten's lunch links

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
12:00
PM ET
Big Ten is desperate for a title. Which one of you is willing to make the sacrifice?

Links time ...

Why future is bright for Penn State

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
11:32
AM ET

Bear Bryant is most famous for his days as Alabama's head coach, but he may have done his best coaching when he was in charge of the Texas A&M program from 1954 to 1957.

The Aggies were placed on probation after going 1-9 in Bryant's inaugural season at College Station, but his intense recruiting, legendary tough practice sessions at Junction and hyperaggressive approach to overcoming adversity led to an incredible turnaround. Over the next three seasons, Texas A&M went 24-5-2 while winning its first Southwest Conference title since 1941 and first road victory over archrival Texas since 1922.

It is certainly way too early to label what James Franklin is doing at Penn State as a Bryant/Texas A&M-caliber success, but it is hard to ignore some of the similarities to how Franklin is going about turning this program around. His early successes bode well for the Nittany Lions to continue their upward recovery trek and return to conference and national prominence sooner rather than later.

Recruiting/leadership

To get an idea of just how dynamic Franklin can be on the recruiting trail, consider that Penn State recently landed a top-25 recruiting class only a couple of years after the program went through a potential existential crisis.

ESPN Big Ten recruiting reporter Tom VanHaaren had some interesting comments when asked if Franklin will be able to keep up this level of recruiting performance.

"It's looking very likely that Franklin will be a huge force on the recruiting trail within the Big Ten and nationally," VanHaaren said. "Franklin already has 11 commitments in the 2015 class, six of which are ESPN Junior 300 prospects. The new coach said he wanted to dominate the state and the region, and he is already showing that wasn't lip service. All six of the ESPN Junior 300 commitments are from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia.

"This staff isn't afraid to go to battle for top prospects and has already beaten out Ohio State and Michigan within the conference for a few recruits, including offensive lineman Steven Gonzalez (Union City, N.J./Union City) and linebacker Josh Barajas (Merrillville, Ind./Andrean)."

Offense

One of the most important tools a coach can have in turning a program around is a topflight quarterback, and Franklin has that in Christian Hackenberg.

Hackenberg, whom ESPN Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg called "a once-in-a-generation type quarterback", won the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award last season in part by closing out strong. He finished third in the conference in Adjusted Total QBR (a metric that adjusts Total QBR by strength of schedule) from November through the end of the season (72.3). He saved his best for last when he posted one of the conference's best individual performances of the season in leading Penn State to a 31-24 road victory over a Wisconsin squad that was favored by 24 points.

A repeat of last season will be made more difficult due in part to the departure of leading wide receiver Allen Robinson, who made an early declaration for the NFL draft.

As meaningful as a loss of that caliber can be, the Nittany Lions do have a number of ways to potentially overcome it.


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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Last Thursday morning, a barefoot James Franklin exited his office and walked -- Franklin's walk is most people's jog -- through the Penn State football lobby.

Asked about his footwear situation, Franklin explained he had a speaking engagement and needed to change. Moments later, he returned to the lobby and opened a side door filled with shirts and suits.

"That's what happens," Franklin said after selecting his outfit, "when you live in the office."

A lot of football coaches say they live in their offices. It fits the round-the-clock, pedal-down, never-stop-working-'cause-the-other-guy-won't culture of their chosen profession. But at some point, they actually go home, if only for a few hours.

Franklin is actually living in his office at Penn State. He hasn't left for weeks. He recently drove around town simply to get away from the building.

His nights end on couches or on a faulty air mattress. Makes it tougher to do those back handsprings out of bed that Franklin famously begins his days with.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
MCT via Getty ImagesEven while sleeping in the office, James Franklin has not lacked for energy in his first few months on the job at Penn State.
"Every night when you leave, you see him pushing couches together," Penn State defensive line coach Sean Spencer said. "You're like, 'You're not staying here again, are you?' And he just shuts his door.

"If he wasn't in here, he'd be in at 5 in the morning and probably leave at 10 or 11 at night anyway. So I guess for the six hours he's going to take a nap, he'll just stay."

There's a somewhat reasonable explanation for Franklin's living situation: His family remains in Nashville, Tenn., and they've yet to secure a new home here. On the other hand, Franklin could easily spring for a hotel room. After signing a contract with Penn State that will pay him $4.25 million annually, he could buy out the entire hotel.

This is more his style. Franklin's corner office is more luxurious than the spare room he lived in while working at Kutztown University, where he earned a $1,200 salary and made ends meet by filling soda machines and tending bar on Sundays. But his approach to coaching -- total immersion, relentless energy -- is the same.

At Franklin's introduction Jan. 11, he delighted Penn State fans with talk of dominating the state in recruiting and unifying the community. He didn't win the news conference. He crushed it.

But his performance left some people wondering two things:

1. Is this guy for real?

2. Is he always like this?

According to Franklin's new players, the answer to both is a resounding yes. Franklin doesn't downshift and neither does his staff. They're propelling Penn State through another potentially treacherous transition -- Franklin is the Lions' fourth coach since November 2011 -- and they aren't slowing down.

"I've never lacked for energy, I've never lacked for enthusiasm," Franklin said. "I'm a realist and see the challenges and issues, but we're going to find ways to overcome 'em."

Penn State faces many challenges in Franklin's first season. The program is only halfway through the four-year period of severe NCAA sanctions.

The scholarship penalties were reduced last year, but the Lions are thin in several spots: offensive line, wide receiver and linebacker. The Lions return an excellent centerpiece in quarterback Christian Hackenberg and other potential All-Big Ten players, but they have to keep them all healthy. Franklin said of the offense: "We're probably going to spend our first two years here solving problems, hiding deficiencies, rather than attacking the defense."

One thing that will never be deficient: Franklin's drive. Penn State players he recruited at past stops see the same full-throttle approach from the coach.

"He's that person all the time," safety Adrian Amos said. "That's very important. It builds a little bit of trust. You know what you're getting."

Added offensive tackle Donovan Smith: "Being a big recruit, coaches would tell you things just because. Coach Franklin always kept it real. Genuine since day one."

Franklin and his assistants, eight of whom he brought to PSU from Vanderbilt, needed to create trust with a team that has endured more recent adversity than any in the country. Although Hackenberg said he's never been on a team so close, players needed to open themselves up to new coaches and schemes.

"Any time there's transition, the players are anxious," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. "Sometimes the relationships get tested because you're challenging and pushing them. But [Franklin] always says we can demand a lot as long as we show them how much we care."

During the recruiting rush after Franklin's hiring, Shoop sent late-night text messages to his players, introducing himself and commenting on their play. If he rides a player during practice, he'll send an encouraging text afterward (We're critiquing the performance, not the performer).

Spencer and special teams coordinator Charles Huff use symbolism such as wild dogs and nektonic sea predators to inspire their players. As the team practiced the two-minute drill Wednesday, Franklin called a timeout, clapped his hands in front of kicker Sam Ficken's face and screamed, "I'm icing your ass!" Not only did Ficken make the ensuing field goal, but he drilled a 55-yarder to prevent a team run. Players mobbed Ficken and Franklin.

"I always talk [to players] about matching my intensity," Spencer said. "And as coaches, we have to match the intensity of the head coach, which is hard to do. Ever walk behind that guy? I've never seen anything like it. It's a full-on sprint."

Shoop calls the staff's spirit "our secret sauce," but enthusiasm and hard work don't guarantee wins in the fall.

The Lions have only two healthy offensive linemen (Smith and Angelo Mangiro) who lettered last year. Their leading returning wide receiver, Geno Lewis, had 18 catches in 2013. They lose their only All-Big Ten defender, tackle DaQuan Jones, from a unit that, by Penn State's standards, really struggled. They enter a division featuring Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan.

PSU needs versatile players, walk-on contributions and good fortune on the injury front.

But after the most turbulent period in team history, the Lions also need consistency. Franklin and his staff intend to provide it.

"The coaches the players see the first week are the same guys they're going to see when they show up here for the 20-year reunion," Franklin said. "It's going to be the same energy and the same personality."
Enjoy the Final Four. And for you Michigan fans out there, enjoy the spring game at the Big House.

Don't forget: Twitter!

To the inbox ...

Kenny from Cincy writes: I was comparing on-the-field accomplishments of the past two Ohio State QBs and I feel like Terrelle Pryor has had a better career (you know, despite crippling the program the next year but I feel like most in Buckeye land have forgiven him). Pryor: 3 Big Ten championships, a Rose Bowl win, and a Sugar Bowl win over a SEC team in three years (I know the games were vacated, but it did happen). Braxton Miller: 0-2 in bowls and 0 Big Ten championships, but two Silver Footballs and 24 wins in a row are nice. My question is, due to the expectations that QBs like Troy Smith and Pryor elevated, do you think Miller has to win a Big Ten championship or more this year or will the Braxton Miller years be seen as a failure in Buckeyes fans' eyes?

Adam Rittenberg: Kenny, this is a really interesting debate regarding each quarterback's legacy. There's no doubt Miller has accomplished more individually than Pryor. He could be the first Big Ten player to win three offensive player of the year awards. He likely would have won a Big Ten championship in 2012 if Ohio State had been eligible for postseason play, but when you look at macro team accomplishments -- league titles and BCS bowl wins -- Pryor definitely gets the edge. He likely was an ill-timed blitz away from having a third BCS bowl win in the 2009 Fiesta Bowl against Texas. One big difference is Pryor played on teams with much better defenses. Miller had several reasons to return for his senior season, and winning a Big Ten title certainly is one of them.


Joe from Phoenix writes: I don't understand everyone's love for a nine-game conference schedule. I do not believe rematches in college football are a good thing, as it makes the first game irrelevant. With a nine-game schedule, you almost guarantee a rematch in the championship game. Why not schedule one more "quality" nonconference game? That way all Big Ten schools have an opportunity to have one more win on their record, and look better for the bowl committees.

Adam Rittenberg: Joe, I hear you and it definitely increases the likelihood of a rematch in the Big Ten championship, but I also see the league's viewpoint. It wants a greater schedule rotation to enhance your product week after week. It wants players to face every league team at least once in a four-year period. I also think it's tricky to demand another quality nonleague game in place of the ninth Big Ten contest. Some schools would step up, but you need teams from other power conferences to play ball, too, which is no guarantee. I also think some schools would schedule cupcakes. Bowl committees rarely care about strength of schedule.


Joe from South Bend, Ind., writes: Adam, what was maybe one thing you found impressive with your visit to Happy Valley and was your one big takeaway?

Adam Rittenberg: Joe, I'm very impressed with James Franklin's staff. They're very sharp guys who know how to keep the energy level high and relate well to a group of new players. Everyone knows that Franklin operates in fifth gear, but his assistants do, too, and there's tremendous cohesion with the staff. It would have been much harder if the staff lacked familiarity as it tried to get to know the players. My big takeaway: Penn State's defense is much further along than the offense, and the Lions likely will need to win low-scoring games this fall. Coordinator Bob Shoop has a good plan and inherits some good pieces. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is a once-in-a-generation type quarterback, but he'll face more pressure this year because of the issues with the offensive line.


Kevin from Las Vegas writes: Is history the only thing that qualifies a team for elite status? Wisconsin is seen as a sleeper in the B1G, and two years ago they were "elite." Michigan and Ohio State would never be considered "sleepers," even after down years. Is this simply because of historic achievements (lots of national championships when Teddy Roosevelt was president), branding (our helmets have wings!), or lazy writers (not you guys, of course)? Do teams like Wisconsin, Michigan State or Iowa ever really have a shot of being elite because their legacy doesn't include deep history?

Adam Rittenberg: Kevin, it's a good point to raise, especially because I think Michigan State is being overlooked heading into 2014 just because it hasn't been a traditional power. You hear a lot about Ohio State making a run for the College Football Playoff, but Michigan State dominated the Big Ten last year (nine wins by 10 or more points), won the Rose Bowl and brings back quarterback Connor Cook and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, among others. Wisconsin has gained national respect in the past 20-plus years, but the Badgers also recently lost three consecutive Rose Bowls, which hurt their cause. Iowa has had its moments but lacks the consistency of Wisconsin. Michigan State, meanwhile, really has it rolling under Mark Dantonio. At some point, the Spartans need to be viewed as elite for what's happening now, not in the past.


Charlie from Chicago writes: What recruits in the conference are due to have breakout seasons in their freshman year?

Adam Rittenberg: There are potentially quite a few this year, Charlie. Early enrollees have an advantage, so keep an eye on players such as Ohio State LB Raekwon McMillan, Michigan WR Freddy Canteen, Ohio State WR Johnnie Dixon and Penn State WR De'Andre Thompkins. Other potential impact recruits arriving in the summer include Michigan CB Jabrill Peppers (the Big Ten's top-rated recruit in the 2014 class), Illinois DE Jihad Ward (junior college transfer), Minnesota RB Jeff Jones and Michigan State DT Malik McDowell, whom Mark Dantonio gushed about Wednesday after he finally signed.
Who is the greatest Big Ten coach of all time?

Our all-time Big Ten coaches tournament is attempting to answer that question, and we're down to our final four candidates. Our first semifinal opened yesterday with No. 3 seed Nebraska's Tom Osborne taking on No. 2 seed Michigan's Bo Schembechler.

Now it's time to take a look at our other Final Four showdown ...

No. 4 Penn State's Joe Paterno vs. No. 1 Ohio State's Woody Hayes

Tournament résumés:
  • SportsNation

    Which coach wins this semifinal matchup?

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      52%
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      48%

    Discuss (Total votes: 22,118)

    Paterno: For nearly half a century, JoePa was Penn State football. He won a record 409 games, plus two national championships (1982, 1986) and had four other undefeated seasons. He won all four major bowl games -- the Rose, Orange, Fiesta and Sugar -- and was the AFCA national Coach of the Year five times. Yes, his career ended in scandal and a huge chunk of his wins were vacated by the NCAA. You have to decide for yourself how much that affects his legacy.
  • Hayes: He's the No. 1 seed in the tournament for a reason. Hayes won 205 games, the most of any coach while a member of the Big Ten, and a record 152 league games. He also captured 13 Big Ten championships, tying him for the most all time, and five national titles (1954, 1957, 1961, 1968 and 1970). He was irascible, unyielding and one of a kind, and some of those qualities led to his downfall. But he is virtually synonymous with Ohio State and the Big Ten.

Which coach moves on to the title game? Voting will be open through the weekend, and make sure to drop us a note saying why you voted the way you did. The best responses will run in our results posts.

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