We usually come up with our own questions to consider, but Tuesday's Take Two topic arrives courtesy of a really interesting reader submission:
Andrew from Chicago writes: This may be a "Take Two" topic, but I was wondering which position looks stronger in the Big Ten for the upcoming season -- running back or defensive end?
The question for me, in tackling this discussion, is this: Are we basing the answer on accomplishments or potential? No doubt, the Big Ten's group of defensive ends is full of promise and future pros. But in comparison to the track record and depth of the running backs in the league, the ends fall short.
Thirteen of the top 15 rushers return from a year ago, headlined by Ameer Abdullah at Nebraska and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon -- the top two coming back nationally in yardage gained as both topped 1,600 yards last season. Abdullah can cement his place in Husker history as the school's first back to exceed 1,000 yards in three seasons; Gordon, meanwhile, aims to lead the nation in per-carry average for a third straight year.
But the running backs win this argument not on the laurels of their top two. The supporting cast seals the deal. Michigan State's Jeremy Langford gained more yards than all but four returning backs nationally. Tevin Coleman at Indiana averaged better than 100 yards per game, and he barely registers as an all-conference candidate. The list goes on, with Minnesota's David Cobb, who surpassed 1,200 yards a year ago, Penn State's duo of Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton, who combined for nearly 1,800 yards, Iowa's Mark Weisman and Jordan Canzeri, the multi-talented Josh Ferguson at Illinois and the speedy duo of Raheem Mostert and Akeem Hunt at Purdue.
There's also Venric Mark, Northwestern's 1,300-yard rusher from 2012 who returns in September after a two-game suspension. And we've not mentioned the league newcomers. In Paul James and Brandon Ross, Rutgers and Maryland return accomplished backs.
Ohio State and Michigan, interestingly, face some of the Big Ten's biggest questions at running back. Of course, though, they have talent, led by Ezekiel Elliott for the Buckeyes and the Wolverines' De'Veon Smith.
Compared to other leagues' lineups, the Big Ten features an embarrassment of riches at running back, a real rarity in this conference.
The running backs in this league are very impressive indeed. Yet, with very few exceptions, the Big Ten is always stacked at tailback. Meanwhile, I think we could be looking at potentially -- a key word, that -- a historic crop of defensive ends in this league.
Nebraska's Randy Gregory is already being projected as a possible top 10 NFL draft pick next year. He led the league in sacks in his first year in FBS, and he's a physically superior athlete who looks like guys who play on Sundays. Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun already has a Big Ten defensive lineman of the year trophy on his mantle, and he still has plenty of room to grow (while his teammate, Marcus Rush, is about to complete one of the most underappreciated four-year careers around). Ohio State has a tremendous tandem in Joey Bosa, who was so good as a true freshman that the sky seems the limit for him, and Noah Spence, a quick-twitch, pass-rushing force. Minnesota's Theiren Cockran is getting better and better, while Maryland's Andre Monroe could easily finish with double-digit sacks. Michigan's Frank Clark is solid, while we're still waiting for Penn State's Deion Barnes to return to his freshman form. Northwestern has a promising young pass rusher in Ifeadi Odenigbo.
NFL stock doesn't mean everything, but I see at least four potential first-round picks out of this bunch, while I doubt more than one Big Ten running back goes that high. The league running backs are a great bunch, no doubt. But I think the defensive ends have a chance to be even greater.
With 196 commits within the conference, here is a look at what current 2015 commits are filling the biggest needs for each team in the Big Ten.
"Coach [Brady] Hoke brought me here to be the offensive coordinator and coach the quarterbacks," Nussmeier said.
(Well, if this guy needs a stand-in, we know where to find him.)
Yes, that's literally the job description. But there's more to it. The word savior isn't in Nussmeier's contract, but many Michigan fans hope he saves a unit that veered off track too often last season. It's up to Nussmeier to have Michigan's offense operating with the consistency and toughness that Hoke envisioned when he returned to Ann Arbor in January 2011.
Like any head coach, Hoke will have to answer for Michigan's performance this season. Rutgers' Kyle Flood and Indiana's Kevin Wilson find themselves in the same boat. The three coaches are facing varied degrees of scrutiny after seasons that fell short of expectations.
All three also made key coordinator hires this winter. It's the year of the running back in the Big Ten with the likes of Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah on the field, but it also could be the year of the savior coordinator.
Ralph Friedgen doesn't like the savior label, although many Rutgers fans hope The Fridge will work his magic with quarterback Gary Nova and a Scarlet Knights offense that struggled to move the ball and gave it away far too often last season.
From The Star-Ledger:
"Trust me, that is not me," Friedgen said. "I only can coach what I've got. They've got to play. My job is to put them in a position to make plays, but they've got to make them. Remember, I'm the guy that got fired."
True, he was fired at Maryland despite a rebound 2010 season. But he also has overseen successful offenses and quarterbacks throughout his career at both the college and NFL levels. As columnist Steve Politi writes, "It's hard to look at Friedgen's résumé and not come to this conclusion: He is the most accomplished football coach to ever walk into [Rutgers'] Hale Center."
If Nova and the Rutgers offense rebounds, the team could hold its own despite a potentially brutal schedule. And the heat surrounding Flood could subside a bit.
Offense is undoubtedly the overarching question at Michigan, too. The defense figures to be good and potentially better than good, but the progress Hoke needs in Year 4 won't come if Michigan can't block anyone. The Wolverines can't have games like last year's clunkers against both Michigan State (minus-48 rush yards) and Nebraska (minus-21 rush yards).
Although Hoke's job isn't in jeopardy -- athletic director Dave Brandon recently told me the hot-seat talk is "crap" and "baloney" -- the Michigan faithful want to see an offense that looks like the one they remember, and the one Hoke promised when he took the job. That's where Nussmeier comes in.
His track record might not be as extensive as Friedgen's, but the 43-year-old succeeded as a coordinator at Fresno State, Washington and, most recently, Alabama. While Friedgen becomes the highest-paid assistant in Rutgers history ($500,000), Nussmeier signed a three-year contract with Michigan worth at least $2.57 million.
"We want to be a physical and explosive offense," Nussmeier said. "It's a mind-set. It's not about the plays."
Like Friedgen, Nussmeier downplayed his role, saying he doesn't feel any extra pressure. But he added that he knows about expectations, and Michigan fans still set the bar high despite the team's drought since its last Big Ten title.
Indiana's expectations might not be as high as Michigan's, but the Hoosiers expect a bowl appearance in Wilson's fourth season. To get there, they need Brian Knorr to do what so many others could not: make the defense respectable. That's why Wilson brought in Knorr from Wake Forest after dismissing Doug Mallory, a decision that didn't sit well with Mallory's father, former Indiana coach Bill Mallory. It likely will be the most significant move of Wilson's IU tenure, the one that will show whether he's the right guy or another offensive-minded coach who couldn't fix the other side of the ball.
IU's defense doesn't need to become Michigan State's this fall. Minimal to moderate gains should be enough, given the offense's expected productivity, to get the Hoosiers over the bowl eligibility hump. IU needs to make that extra stop it couldn't against Navy and Minnesota last year, which could have been the difference in bowl or no bowl. But the unit has been very bad for a very long time, and while recruiting has improved and there's more experience, Knorr is fighting history.
The early returns are good with Knorr and his 3-4 scheme, as the defense has claimed the coveted crimson jerseys at most of the first few practices.
"We want to see who is going to be our dynamic playmaker," Knorr said following Saturday's scrimmage. "Who can we count on when things are tough?"
Wilson is counting on Knorr for immediate results, just like Hoke is counting on Nussmeier and Flood is counting on Friedgen. Saviors or not, the three coordinators will play large roles in whether their teams -- and possibly their bosses -- sink or swim in 2014.
Taking a spin around the Big Ten ...
- A look at how tight end Adam Breneman's injury impacts Penn State this season.
- Nebraska will be without reserve running back Adam Taylor (ankle).
- Ohio State LB Kyle Berger suffers another ACL tear.
- The grind begins this week for Michigan State. The wait for DeAnthony Arnett to make an impact with MSU could be over soon. Arnett came out of the spring feeling great about his progress, telling me, "It's given me a chance to, I don't know, re-state myself. I feel more comfortable knowing everything, knowing all the positions, about where to go on the field. Now it's making plays."
- Notes following Maryland's first scrimmage, including the impressive play of running back Brandon Ross.
- This Ohio State practice video is brilliant.
- The latest practice report from Rutgers, which produced no answers about the backup quarterback spot.
- Michigan's offensive line still has a lot of moving parts. The BTN crew weighed in on Michigan's practice on Monday.
- Previewing Indiana.
- Austin Appleby is closing the gap on Danny Etling and keeping Purdue's QB race very much alive.
- Kevin Trahan explains how a dull town in southern Wisconsin is the perfect place for Northwestern to focus on football.
- Illinois' offensive line is coming together these days.
- Marc Morehouse puts Iowa's running back group under the microscope.
- New Illinois defensive lineman Jihad Ward honors his mom every time he puts on No. 17.
- Wisconsin ends practice with a chipping contest, and coach Gary Andersen hits the mark.
- Minnesota RB Berkley Edwards talks about the advice he has received from his big brother, Braylon.
- Veteran Maryland QB C.J. Brown leads the Terrapins into the Big Ten.
- The best of Robin Williams. RIP.
Let's do this ...
Adam Rittenberg: Matt, we know this much: the Pitt game will be easier from a logistical standpoint than the Arizona trip was in 2010. It's a shorter flight, a friendlier kickoff time (it hasn't been set yet, but the Iowa-Arizona game started at 9:41 p.m. Iowa time) and, most likely, better weather (it was 97 degrees at kickoff in Tucson that night). Iowa didn't look ready to play against Arizona and paid a price. I also think the 2010 Wildcats are better than the 2014 Panthers, although Pitt cannot be overlooked. Panthers coach Paul Chryst, the former Wisconsin offensive coordinator, knows Iowa well and will have his team ready to go.
@ESPNRittenberg Adam, could you see Iowa's game at Pitt this year similar to the 2010 Arizona game? Also any chance gameday a comes to IC?— Matt Mackowiak (@mtmackowiak) August 11, 2014
This is a game Iowa cannot overlook. Pitt has an explosive young wide receiver in Tyler Boyd and other weapons. The Panthers should be 3-0 when Iowa comes to the Steel City. This could be a sneaky good matchup, but it's not nearly as scary as the Arizona game, which had letdown written all over it.
As for "GameDay," I have no idea and have zero input on where they go. But potential late-season showdowns against both Wisconsin and Nebraska, Iowa has a chance to host.
Tim from Raleigh writes: From my count, the B1G plays 15 non conference games against the power 5 conferences, 5 of which are against teams ranked in the preseason top 25 with a few others close (TCU, Mizzou, Miami, Va Tech). How many of these games do we need to win to get the respect of the rest of the NCAA?
Adam Rittenberg: It's a good question, Tim, as the Big Ten has more riding on nonleague performance than most major conferences. Two games really jump out as perception shapers: Wisconsin-LSU in Houston and Michigan State at Oregon. Lose both of these, especially by wide margins, and it might not matter what happens in the other games. The Big Ten is supposed to pick up wins against Miami (Nebraska) and Virginia Tech (Ohio State), so I'm not sure how much credit the league would get. The recent wins against Notre Dame haven't done much to boost the Big Ten's rep.
The league could use some surprising results, like Rutgers or Illinois beating Washington State and Washington on the road, or Indiana knocking off defending SEC champ Missouri in Columbia, Missouri. TCU would be a nice road win for Minnesota and Penn State should get some credit for beating Fiesta Bowl champion UCF in Ireland. You also want to see Michigan take care of Utah, Iowa to beat Pitt on the road, and Northwestern and Maryland to hold serve against Cal and West Virginia, respectively.
But the two nonconference opponents that really pop for the Big Ten are LSU and Oregon. The league needs one of those games.
Adam Rittenberg: Jared, making a third consecutive bowl game (and winning one) is a good start. But I think you're onto something here with setting the minimum bar at one signature win. It's important for Minnesota to get over the hump against Michigan, which has won six straight against the Gophers despite a down period in its history. But it's even more important for the Gophers to finish the 2014 season on a stronger note than they did last fall, when they dropped their final three games (and scored a total of 27 points).
@ESPNRittenberg, what does Minnesota need to do to keep up the optimism around the program? Is beating UW, UM or Iowa a must this year?— Jared Frank (@JarRFrank) August 11, 2014
I look at Minnesota's closing stretch -- Iowa (Nov. 8), Ohio State (Nov. 15), at Nebraska (Nov. 22), at Wisconsin (Nov. 29) as a defining period for Jerry Kill's program. Can these Gophers rise up and beat the big boys, especially those in the West Division? Or is Minnesota still not quite there and belongs in the second tier? You can't go 0-4 to finish the regular season and claim progress, so at least one win in that stretch is critical. Two would show things are definitely headed in the right direction.
Adam Rittenberg: It's crazy that we're talking about this before Franklin coaches his first game at Penn State, but it's a relevant question. Franklin's name came up in several NFL coach searches after the 2013 season. All but one season of his coaching career has taken place in the college ranks -- he coached the Green Bay Packers' wide receivers in 2005 -- and his personality seems to fit better at the college level, where he can shine as a recruiter. But the NFL can be tough to resist, not only from a financial standpoint but a competitive one.
@ESPNRittenberg How long can Penn State fans expect Franklin to stay as the head coach?— A-A-ron (@josh_euphonium) August 11, 2014
It's all about timing, and Franklin needs to boost Penn State's program before he can look at the NFL. I see him staying for at least three years, and it wouldn't surprise me if he's there longer. He's an ambitious guy but seems like a good fit in State College.
Head coach James Franklin has a policy not to disclose injuries and has refused to comment or confirm past ones. So Franklin’s announcement Monday afternoon definitely came as a surprise and might speak to its severity.
The injury isn’t the first to Breneman, who was ranked as the 67th best overall player in the 2013 class. He missed his entire senior season of high school with a torn ACL but still enrolled in January 2013 and dismissed any talk of redshirting. He recovered quickly enough to play in 11 games last season and finished with 15 catches for 186 yards and three touchdowns.
Depth is a concern for Penn State, but tight end is just about the only position where that concern doesn’t apply. Jesse James, a junior, returns as the top tight end and the Lions’ leading receiver. Kyle Carter, who caught 18 passes last season, also returns and was a candidate for Big Ten tight end of the year two seasons ago.
Penn State also has Brent Wilkerson, who missed last season with an injury, and true freshman Mike Gesicki on the roster at tight end.
Breneman would’ve added another wrinkle into the passing attack and likely would’ve seen an increased role while splitting time with Carter. The injury hardly means it’s time for this offense to panic, but the question now centers on where Breneman will fit in with this team once he recovers.
With a little more than a week of preseason practice in the books at most Big Ten campuses, it's too early to say which teams are having the best August so far. But we can definitely point to the team that had the toughest opening week-plus in the league: Nebraska.
In a three-day period, the Cornhuskers lost three potential starters on defense. First, projected starting nickel back Charles Jackson went down with a season-ending knee injury. The nickel position has grown in stature with the rise of spread offenses, and Ciante Evans showed how important it can be in Nebraska's system the past couple of years.
A day after Jackson's injury, coach Bo Pelini announced that safety LeRoy Alexander, who was battling for a starting job, would be suspended for the season. Then on Friday night, linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey informed the world via Instagram -- and later confirmed by Pelini -- that he would miss the season with a torn ACL.
Much of the optimism around Nebraska this season stemmed from what fans saw as potentially the best defense under Pelini during the Huskers' run in the Big Ten. The offense has a lot of potential, especially if quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. can step forward. But defensive breakdowns have haunted Big Red in some of their biggest Big Ten games.
Rose-Ivey, who appeared to be really improving, is probably the easiest to replace, as defensive coordinator John Papuchis has a deep well of linebackers to call upon. Josh Banderas likely takes over his spot.
It's a little murkier in the secondary, where junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell now likely takes on an even larger role, and Nathan Gerry -- who played linebacker as a freshman in 2013 -- must make the adjustment to safety.
The Lincoln Journal Star's Steven M. Sipple remains optimistic about the Nebraska defense despite the injuries.
"There's been predictable overreaction," Sipple writes. "But to say the three losses have decimated Nebraska's defense would be a significant overstatement. I spoke with Pelini late Saturday afternoon. As one might expect, he retained confidence. He said there was no reason to start holding anything back schematically. All systems go, he said.
"The Huskers still look excellent in the front seven and possess better-than-decent overall talent and depth in the secondary, but a handful of newcomers will have to step up quickly."
These injuries shouldn't make or break the Huskers' season. Pelini has built depth on that side of the ball. But that depth has taken a shot to its broad side, and Nebraska needs good health the rest of training camp or else some of that early optimism could start to fade.
Depth chart stuff
- This has the makings of a potentially incredible story: Tom Hruby, a 32-year-old active Navy SEAL, is trying to walk on to Northwestern's team as a defensive end, Seth Gruen writes.
"I don’t feel like where I’m at today is some outstanding or amazing thing," Hruby told the Chicago Sun-Times. "It’s just more of a challenging route ... the way I kind of think about finding and accepting and trying to take on these challenges that most people would probably say are impossible, one, or very unlikely or just plain dumb."
- Indiana defensive end David Kenney has taken a leave of absence.
- Brady Hoke says De'Veon Smith is leading Michigan's running back race, while Derrick Green is third behind Smith and Drake Johnson.
- Illinois is starting to winnow its options at receiver.
- Nebraska is figuring things out on the offensive line, especially on the right side.
- Freshmen linebackers Gelen Robinson and Ja'Whaun Bentley are making an early splash at Purdue. Head coach Darrell Hazell told me in Bristol last month that the 250-pound Bentley was winning about nine out of every 10 gassers among the linebackers. They should both play a lot, if not start, right away.
- Some discouraging news for Wisconsin's Vonte Jackson, whose attempt to return from three previous torn ACLs was dealt a setback.
- Maryland star receiver Stefon Diggs, coming off a broken leg, says he is ahead of where he should be right now.
- Ohio State starting running back Ezekiel Elliott had surgery on his left wrist, but he is expected to play in the opener.
- Minnesota's offense unfortunately looked a lot like it did at the end of last season in Saturday's scrimmage, settling for three field goals but no touchdowns. Give some of the credit to the Gophers' defense, and big-play cornerback Derrick Wells.
- The offense had a big day in Michigan State's first scrimmage.
- Quarterbacks Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy both played well in Wisconsin's Sunday scrimmage, and Gary Andersen said both could play in the opener.
- Will Brian Ferentz follow his dad's footsteps and become a head coach? His presence on the Iowa staff has been energizing, and with his NFL experience to boot, the younger Ferentz should be able to write his own ticket soon.
- How the Hawkeyes' Carl Davis -- who was once deemed too big to play football -- put it all together.
- Very entertaining piece here on Nebraska video coordinator Mike Nobler, the resident court jester on Pelini's staff
- Illinois wants to have bowl plans this season.
Don't forget that I'm hanging out in a new space on Twitter, and you can follow me here.
Now, I'm 'bout to 'bag it up:
Chasmo from Greenwich Village writes: I know you were anti-union last spring when Northwestern's players were about to vote but after writing your story about how the Big Ten football coaches want autonomy for their sport and a commissioner who will pay attention to just football all year long, can you still support coaches like Pat Fitzgerald when they make argument that Big Ten players are really students and not employees? And did you notice that, aside from agreeing to pay the players a small stipend, there wasn't a lot in your story about the need to make the lives of players better, but instead the need to make the "product" better?
Brian Bennett: I've long been an advocate of more benefits and more power for players. I just didn't think a union was necessarily the right way to go about it, or that Northwestern was exactly a great test case for abuse. What I like about autonomy is that it should clear the way quickly for Power 5 schools to offer full cost-of-attendance stipends, medical benefits and four-year scholarship guarantee. Indiana recently came out with its athlete bill of rights that, among other things, will let any former player who left in good standing resume their education for free. These aren't small benefits, especially when you consider the skyrocketing costs of higher education and health care. Current players will also have 15 seats on the 80-member voting panel for the Power 5 leagues under autonomy. At least they will have a say now.
I also love the idea by West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck that players can be compensated for their image and likenesses. Why not? Olympic athletes can get paid for endorsements, and that didn't ruin the Olympics. It would only really apply to the star athletes, as the third-string offensive guard probably isn't getting paid to do a commercial. But if he's getting free tuition, a stipend and medical care, he's still doing pretty well.
Autonomy isn't a cure-all, for sure, and it would be nice if these things had occurred without all the threats of lawsuits and unions forcing the sport's hand. But at least there is undeniable progress, at long last.
@BennettESPN could you match up the bottom 5 sec teams and the bottom 5 big ten teams from a year ago just to see what Spurrier thinks?— Heff Jurda (@JeffHurdaCow) August 8, 2014
Brian Bennett: In case you missed it, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier recently said that playing East Carolina "is a lot tougher game than maybe picking up one of those bottom Big Ten teams." The Pirates are a good team, so no arguments there. But why did Spurrier pick on the Big Ten when he had plenty of examples in his own conference?
Kentucky and Arkansas both went 0-8 in the league last year. I can speak with some authority on the Wildcats and don't think they would have beaten any Big Ten team except for Purdue. Arkansas lost to Rutgers (for the second straight year). Tennessee and Florida were no great shakes, either; the Gators lost at home to Georgia Southern, and the Vols -- well, our new editor is a Tennessee fan, so I'd better shut up now.
That's the most bothersome thing, to me, about the wild, over-the-top love that is showered on the SEC. The teams at the top of that league have been great, no doubt, and much better than the cream of the crop in the Big Ten in recent years. But the teams at the bottom of the SEC somehow get credit for just breathing the same air, when they're no better than any other mediocre-to-bad FBS clubs. Bob Stoops was right.
Joshua from Minnesota writes: Who has a better chance of playing spoiler among the top favorites for the West Division title between Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin this fall: Minnesota or Northwestern?
Brian Bennett: I love this question so much that I want to take it on a moonlit walk. I view the West Division much like a horse race. (I am from Kentucky, after all.) Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin are the three favorites with the best pedigrees. Northwestern and Minnesota are the live long shots. Illinois and Purdue are just hoping to hit the board (and may need a pileup to do so).
Let's not forget that the Gophers were 8-2 at one point last year with wins over Penn State and Nebraska. Wisconsin and Michigan State had to slog their way to victories over Minnesota in the final two weeks. This is going to be a physical team with a strong defense, and if the passing game improves to where it's an actual threat, Jerry Kill's team will be a factor.
Meanwhile, Northwestern won 10 games just two years ago and, despite every bad break in the world last year, was just a few bounces away from winning eight or even nine games (the "one play away" game is a treacherous path to tread, but the Wildcats were ludicrously unlucky in 2013). Last season's collapse obscures the fact that the trend line is going up in Evanston, and Fitzgerald has recruited good athletes the past few years who could start to help that defense.
So, yeah, both are spoilers in the West. Who has a better chance of emerging as a true contender? I'd say Northwestern. While the Wildcats' schedule is not easy, Minnesota ends the season like this: Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska and at Wisconsin. That's brutal, and when you throw in a crossover game at the Big House, the Gophers have a massive hill to climb.
Charlie from Dakota Dunes, S.D., writes: Ohio State has finished the regular season undefeated that past two seasons. The Buckeyes have a realistic chance to do it again this season making it three in a row. Has any other team done that in the last 30 or 40 years? Maybe Boise State or Nebraska in the 90s? What are the chances they do start the season 12-0 again?
Brian Bennett: Nebraska went undefeated in the regular season from 1993-95, with its only loss during that time coming to Florida State in the Orange Bowl in the 1993 season. Which was followed by two straight national championships. Boise State came close, going undefeated in the regular season in 2006, 2008 and 2009. So, yes, it's extremely difficult and rare. Ohio State has a chance to do it again this year, if its young talent develops as hoped. The Buckeyes' toughest road tests will be at Michigan State and Penn State. It's hard to envision them losing any games at The 'Shoe.
The big question, of course, is whether Ohio State can win a Big Ten title and a major bowl game this year. Without those accomplishments, the three straight regular seasons will be more of a footnote than anything else.
@BennettESPN I know it's too early, but if you had to do a 2015 B1G preseason ranking, what would it look like?— Timmer Shay (@TimShay17) August 8, 2014
Brian Bennett: Man, can we see at least one 2014 game first? I'm continually amazed how sports fans are constantly obsessed with what's next instead of what's right in front of them. But I'd better hurry up and answer this question so I can get back to studying St. Louis Cardinals prospect scouting reports.
A million things can change over the next 12 months, but one of the big questions to me will be who plays quarterback at Ohio State. The Buckeyes could be the favorite again given all their young talent, but is either Cardale Jones or J.T. Barrett a championship quarterback? That's a major issue. Assuming Connor Cook comes back for his senior year, Michigan State should be in great shape. Wisconsin will have another advantageous league schedule and should bring a lot of pieces back. And that's about as clear as my crystal ball gets right now.
- More power is now in the hands of the five power conferences -- but what does that mean for the Big Ten and college football? BTN's Tom Dienhart chimes in on what's next, Pioneer Press' Marcus Fuller believes it could be costly for Minnesota, and Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein believes it's all a change for the better.
- A list of five Big Ten freshmen to watch from Fox Sports.
- Iowa could be going with a two-quarterback attack this fall with Jake Ruddock and C.J. Beathard.
- Competition is intense on Ohio State's offensive line, as only two starting spots are solidified. A look at the Buckeyes checking in for preseason camp.
- Michigan's running backs are in much better shape than last season, although Brady Hoke said he's still uncertain whether sophomore transfer Ty Isaac will be eligible to play.
- Quarterback Gary Nova is taking the starting spot at Rutgers in stride. The Scarlet Knights are upset about the end of the college football video game series.
- Defensive line depth worries Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen.
- Wideout R.J. Shelton is hoping to parlay his offseason success at Michigan State into a starting spot.
- Jordan Westerkamp is becoming more comfortable and confident with his role on Nebraska. Alonzo Moore is from a small town with "a big heart" -- so small, he had never before heard of the Cornhuskers -- and now he's turning his focus on playing time.
- Randy Edsall is "not happy" with the play of Maryland wideout Deon Long, and Long knows he needs to perform better. Former Ohio State and Maryland president Brit Kirwan sees Maryland's move to the Big Ten as a step forward.
- Penn State RT Andrew Nelson discusses the offensive line and his transition in this Q&A.
Way back in 2002, at a time before freshmen won Heisman Trophies, I based my yearly team-experience rankings on returning senior starters and actually penalized teams for having freshman starters. Then, Tim Tebow won the Heisman in 2007 and started a trend of underclassmen playing more prominent roles. By 2009, I had to tweak my formula to factor in returning letter winners, percentage of yards and tackles returning and career offensive line starts returning.
While experience doesn't necessarily trump talent, teams from the Power Five conferences that have ranked in the top 10 of my experience rankings since 2009 have seen their records, on average, improve or stay the same over the previous season 76 percent of the time. On the opposite end of the spectrum, teams that have ranked in the bottom 10 of my experience rankings have seen their records, on average, get weaker or stay the same 78 percent of the time.
It is worth noting that the average experience ranking for teams playing in the national championship game since 2009 is just 49th, with last season's national champ Florida State Seminoles coming in at 78th. That makes sense when you consider that most championship contenders lose several starting underclassmen to the NFL draft each year but make up for the losses by bringing in elite recruits.
With that in mind, here are my 2014 experience rankings for the Big Ten:
1. Indiana Hoosiers (national rank: No. 3)
The Hoosiers top my Big Ten experience rankings for the second year in a row, with 17 returning starters. It should be noted that since my magazine went to press, quarterback Tre Roberson (1,551 total yards last season) transferred to Illinois State, and their percent of offensive yards returning went from 67 percent (No. 61 in the country) to 56 (No. 84).
IU still welcomes back leading passer Nate Sudfeld and leading rusher Tevin Coleman, and the offensive line has 130 career starts (third-most in the country). The defense returns 13 of its top 14 tacklers. Due to their experience, I give the Hoosiers a solid shot at landing just their second bowl game since 1993.
To read the rest of the rankings, click here.
Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.
Today’s question: Who will be the Heisman front-runners entering 2015?
I’ll make a selection from these three categories: (1) returning players with experience, (2) players on campus with no experience (2014 freshmen) and (3) Class of 2015 recruits.
Returning players with experience: Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg
Hackenberg certainly had his moments as a freshman, but he was still 75th in QBR (58.9 completion percentage, 20-10 TDs-to-INTs). There’s room to grow, and first-year coach James Franklin is decidedly enthused to inherit a high-end prospect he once recruited.
“As good as I thought he would be, he’s better,” Franklin told me recently.
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As a final farewell to the BCS era, I used my opponent-adjusted FEI ratings to identify the five best individual team seasons in each of the Power Five conferences. The ratings reward dominant victories combined with strong competition, which are key elements that we expect the College Football Playoff committee to take into account, as well.
(Note: Due to the lack of available play-by-play and drive data, FEI ratings have been calculated only since 2003. For the 1998 to 2002 seasons, we produced an alternate set of ratings based on opponent-adjusted final scores. The alternate ratings have a 0.95 correlation with FEI).
Here are the five best Big Ten teams from the BCS era:
1. 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes (14-0)
The Buckeyes played in three national championship games in the BCS era, but this appearance makes our top five. Ohio State didn't steamroll every opponent on the schedule, and in fact had a number of close calls down the stretch -- six of their last seven games were decided by a touchdown or less. The national championship game against Miami was won in double overtime. But the Ohio State defense was extraordinary.
After surrendering 21 points to Texas Tech in their opener, the Buckeyes didn't allow another opponent to score more than 19 points in regulation the rest of the season, and six opponents failed to reach double digits. According to end-of-year FEI ratings, Ohio State faced three top-15 opponents in the regular season -- Washington State, Penn State and Michigan -- and those teams scored a total of only 23 points.
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HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Lawyers for the NCAA, the governor and others asked a judge to give them a month to work on a possible settlement of a lawsuit over the penalties Penn State is paying for mishandling the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal.
The sides filed a joint motion Wednesday in Harrisburg federal court that said another month would give them a "meaningful opportunity" to resolve the lawsuit.
"The parties agree that this postponement may help secure the just and efficient resolution of this proceeding," they wrote.
The NCAA sued Gov. Tom Corbett, state treasurer Rob McCord and two other state officials over a 2013 law that requires a $60 million penalty being paid by Penn State to stay within Pennsylvania. Penn State said Thursday that so far it has set aside the first two payments, a total of $24 million.
McCord spokesman Gary Tuma declined to say whether there was a specific reason to think a settlement could occur. The NCAA, the auditor general's office and Corbett's general counsel's office all declined comment.
A consent decree between the NCAA and Penn State included the $60 million fine, a figure designed to match an average year's football revenue at the university. The money, paid over five years, is earmarked for programs to prevent child sexual abuse and to help its victims.
A month after Corbett signed the law requiring the money remain in Pennsylvania, the NCAA challenged it in federal court, saying it violated the U.S. Constitution.
If a judge grants the request, it would postpone pending proceedings that would outline how the lawsuit will go forward -- the filing of a case management plan and an Aug. 14 case management conference.
Sandusky, retired as Penn State's longtime defensive coordinator, was convicted in 2012 of 45 counts of child sexual abuse and is serving a lengthy state prison sentence.
For anyone new to this preseason blog staple or in need of a reminder, please know these are not to be viewed as predictions. Do not take them seriously. The scenarios illustrate the potential highs and lows in a season. Still not sure? Catch up on the first few installments before diving into the Nittany Lions.
The motivational tactics and outpouring of emotion were already having an impact, but giving Franklin another carrot to dangle in front of his team took the Nittany Lions to an even higher level. An amped-up roster that already had used the chip on its shoulder to knock off UCF in the opener in Ireland finally had the dark cloud of a bowl ban removed from over its head after the release of the second Mitchell report prompted the punishments on the program to be scaled back again, and now it officially had something more to play for this season. After downplaying the influence the repeal of the postseason sanctions might have on the Nittany Lions during training camp, the way they cruised through September, capping it with four touchdowns from Christian Hackenberg in an impressive Big Ten victory over Northwestern, certainly suggested they were a more focused team now that championships were on the table.
The conversation started drifting toward a possible division title and appearance in the conference championship game after Hackenberg again showed poise beyond that of a normal sophomore with a flawless performance on the road against Michigan. The second-year quarterback hooked up twice with Geno Lewis for scores in a 31-17 win as Penn State improved to 6-0, setting the stage for a huge clash at home the following week at home against Ohio State with first place in the division on the line.
The perfect start ultimately came to an end and the inside position in the East slipped away with Braxton Miller turning in another vintage performance against the Nittany Lions down the stretch, with the Buckeyes eventually coming from behind and wearing down a team that at last showed some signs that the scholarship reductions were a factor that would keep them out of the title race for at least one more season.
That issue wouldn't be a problem for the next four weeks, though, as Penn State bounced right back with another winning streak that would last until the final week of the regular season -- another gritty outing against a top-15 opponent at home, but another loss as Michigan State's defense bottled up Hackenberg to keep the Nittany Lions at 10-2 heading into the postseason.
But thanks to the good news in September, the Nittany Lions punched a ticket to the Outback Bowl, capped the resurgent year with one final win with Bill Belton diving into the end zone in the closing seconds in a thriller that set the stage for an even bigger 2015.
Penn State hadn't built its hopes up, and it was a good thing it didn't. The second Mitchell report looked like a lock to open the doors to the postseason again for the Nittany Lions, but oddly the NCAA didn't lift a finger despite scaling back the sanctions after a similar release in 2013.
After downplaying the impact playing in a bowl game might have on the team this season, the Nittany Lions certainly looked like a distracted, disappointed team as it fumbled its way through the first half of the schedule. They had chalked up the opening loss to UCF to the travel overseas, and the Nittany Lions responded to that defeat by sandwiching nonconference wins around an uglier-than-expected victory to open Big Ten play at Rutgers. But Northwestern and Michigan both capitalized against an unfocused Penn State squad over the next two games, and even the seemingly tireless Franklin was starting to look a little worried after Ohio State came into Beaver Stadium and blasted his reeling squad thanks to a couple of turnovers by Hackenberg.
He bounced back the next week with three touchdowns to beat Maryland and ease some of the concerns about his growing pains, but the sophomore slump for the quarterback resumed in another shocking loss at Indiana, the second in a row for the storied program after having its perfect record against the Hoosiers snapped in 2013.
With some ESPN 300 recruits starting to panic and test Franklin's marketing skills, Penn State throttled Temple and Illinois to ensure it would have met the minimum bowl requirements had it been eligible in 2014. But the emotional year ended on a low note with Michigan State unleashing its vaunted defense on Hackenberg & Co., sending the Nittany Lions into the offseason with a .500 record and plenty of hard-earned lessons learned on the way back to contention in the Big Ten.
Bovada released an updated version of its Heisman odds earlier this week, and five Big Ten players now find themselves on the list. The conference currently has more odds-on candidates than the ACC (3) and Big 12 (2), but trails the SEC (8) and Pac-12 (8).
Before, only Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon made the cut. Now there are three new faces. Here are the odds:
Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State -- 15/2 (Was 4/1 before)
Melvin Gordon RB, Wisconsin -- 16/1 (Was 16/1 before)
Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska -- 33/1
Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State -- 40/1
Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State – 50/1
Bovada lists Miller with the third-highest odds in the country to win the Heisman, behind Florida State's Jameis Winston and Oregon's Marcus Mariota. Gordon is also getting a lot of respect, as only one running back -- Georgia's Todd Gurley -- is ranked ahead of him.
As for the two new quarterbacks, Hackenberg and Cook are among 17 other signal-callers to make the cut.
College Football Minute
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
7:00 PM ET Eastern Illinois Minnesota 10:00 PM ET Rutgers Washington State
8:30 AM ET Penn State UCF 12:00 PM ET Indiana State Indiana 12:00 PM ET Northern Iowa Iowa 12:00 PM ET Appalachian State Michigan 12:00 PM ET 5 Ohio State Navy 12:00 PM ET Western Michigan Purdue 12:05 PM ET Youngstown State Illinois 3:30 PM ET Florida Atlantic 22 Nebraska 3:30 PM ET California Northwestern 3:30 PM ET James Madison Maryland 9:00 PM ET 14 Wisconsin 13 LSU