Autonomy, as it's being called, could bring a seismic shift in the landscape in college sports. Many Big Ten coaches are hoping it leads to changes in recruiting, as colleague Mitch Sherman details in this piece. It might or might not. But many league coaches told ESPN.com that a more streamlined governing process is what is ultimately needed.
"This gives you a lot better chance of getting things done," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "[What we have now] would be like if Microsoft had to operate under the same restrictions as the mom-and-pop store down the street. It's ridiculous, and it doesn't work."
Pelini has proposed eliminating signing day, and says he's heard from many coaches who agree with him. He said it should be easy to just get everyone in the same room and decide on what is right. But that is not how it works.
"You have all these committees made up of people with different agendas that meet like twice a year," Pelini said. "It was broken before it ever got started."
Under the new legislation, an 80-member panel would be set up to vote on issues, with a 60-percent majority and three of the Power 5 leagues needing to agree to make changes on autonomous issues. Power leagues would also have a bigger weight in the vote on general matters.
"It's tough for an organization as large as ours to keep up with everything," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "My hopes are that maybe we can streamline some policies, re-evaulate some things and come up with a little more efficient way of operating."
Maryland coach Randy Edsall, who has proposed his own radical changes to recruiting, wants more than just a bigger say in voting. He says that for college football to really make necessary improvements, it needs true, dedicated leadership for the sport. Athletic directors and conference commissioners are pulled in too many directions, Edsall said.
"We don’t have anybody working on college football 365 days a year, seven days a week," he said. "We need a structure where people are sitting down going, 'Here’s our game, how do we make it the best?' Those people have to be working on that every day. Because if not, we get what we’ve got."
Several Big Ten coaches said they would favor a college football czar or commissioner to look out for the best interests of the game. Or at least a small group of people who would do that.
"If not [a czar], then there should be an assistant commissioner in each conference where all they do is work on football, period," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "However you want to structure it, when they wake up, all they do is work on football and when they go to bed, they dream about it.
"Right now, when we want something changed, we have to wait for a vote nine months from now because that’s when the cycle says it should happen. These people should have a much better pulse on the reality of what day-to-day life is like in college football."
Ferentz said the makeup of the College Football Playoff selection committee, which includes former coaches, athletic directors and others, could be a usable model for a leadership group.
Having a commissioner or a leadership committee would set college football apart from other sports, which is why the NCAA probably wouldn't go for the idea. But as Fitzgerald noted, "we’re not talking about this autonomy because of any other sport. We're talking about it because of football."
And autonomy gives the coaches hope that maybe things are about to change for the better.
"We've got to try to get rid of the aircraft carrier and get to a speedboat," Fitzgerald said. "Get to where we can get some real things solved, quit looking at one variable at a time and look at the big picture. Through this, hopefully we can find some solutions to make our sport the best we possibly can."
Five questions. Open answer. And no cheating. Ready? OK, who is the best linebacker in college football history? How about defensive tackle? Defensive end? Cornerback? Safety?
Time’s up. (I told you it was short.) Take a look at your list, and chances are the Big Ten boasts the most selections. Realistically, it’s the only conference that can stake a claim at each position. No other conference can say the same -- especially without repeating teams.
Don't believe me? Let’s take a look through the answer key of the NCAA's best ever, and in honor of The Season -- which looked at the greatest individual season from a player at every FBS school -- we will take a look at the top season by a player at each position:
- Linebacker: Dick Butkus, Illinois, 1964: Did you really rate another linebacker over Butkus? Because that will cost you a few points. Butkus has become the standard by which to judge all other linebacking greats, and it’s not even close. He finished third in the Heisman voting in 1964, but the AFCA still named him the player of the year. He was one of the most-feared tacklers in the game and carried that reputation over to the NFL. There were other great college 'backers -- Alabama’s Derrick Thomas, Texas’ Tommy Nobis, Penn’s Chuck Bednarik -- but none greater than the man who said his time at Illinois was “eat, sleep and drink football.”
- Defensive tackle: Bronko Nagurski, Minnesota, 1929: If you went with someone else -- Nebraska’s Rich Glover? Oklahoma’s Lee Roy Selmon? Penn State’s Mike Reid? -- there is obviously a chance the team is in the Big Ten now. Regardless, there are definitely a lot of good defensive tackles to pick here. But can you really pick against the guy whose trophy now goes to the best defensive player in the NCAA? Is there really anyone tougher? One unsubstantiated legend explains how Minnesota’s head coach stopped near a field to ask a man for directions, when the man -- Nagurski -- lifted up his iron plow with one hand to point. Then there was Nagurski's reaction when he leveled several players and smashed into a brick wall: "That last guy hit me awful hard." Nagurski is a college legend; he led the nation in rushing in 1929 as a fullback. But the lore of his toughness on defense still carries on.
- Defensive end: Bubba Smith, Michigan State, 1966: You know you’re good when the popular fan chant is, "Kill, Bubba, Kill!" Smith belongs in the top two here, for sure, but you couldn’t be at all blamed for choosing Pitt’s Hugh Green. Smith’s numbers weren’t nearly as impressive as Green’s 53 career sacks, but it is possible nobody affected the flow of a game more than Smith. Teams constantly double- or triple-teamed him, or simply avoided his side altogether when it came to calling run plays. That kind of respect meant the Spartans allowed just 51.4 rushing yards a game when Smith was a senior. He helped them finish undefeated (9-0-1) that season and win part of the national title. He was taken No. 1 overall in the NFL draft a few months later.
- Cornerback: Charles Woodson, Michigan, 1997: You want to go with Florida State’s Deion Sanders just to be contrary, don’t you? Well, that is not a bad pick. But it’s also hard to go against the only defensive player to win the Heisman -- especially considering he cruised past runner-up Peyton Manning in the vote. He gets definite bonus points for that. Woodson had eight interceptions that season and even grabbed one from Washington State’s Ryan Leaf in the Rose Bowl. Michigan went 12-0 and split the national title with Nebraska that season. There was no more versatile athlete in college football in 1997, and there wasn’t a more dangerous defensive back, either.
- Safety: Jack Tatum, Ohio State, 1970: Move over, Ronnie Lott. Not only does Tatum belong in the conversation as one of college football’s greatest defensive backs, but he also should get some extra credit for his hard hits and "Assassin" nickname. He finished seventh in the 1970 Heisman voting, and his reputation for vicious hits once caused a writer to liken his bearing down on receivers to "the way a tractor-trailer might bear down on a squirrel on a rural highway." He was named the national defensive player of the year in 1970, and Jim Tressel, when he was the coach, even later termed the Buckeyes' hit of the week the "Jack Tatum Hit of the Week." His College Football Hall of Fame bio also reads "best remembered as one of the hardest hitters in all of football history." You can’t get much more official than that.
The Big Ten hasn’t dominated every decade with the top defensive players. But it does have a richer history and deeper tradition on its side, one that started more than a century ago when Michigan’s Adolph Schulz dropped back from the defensive line and gave birth to the idea of a "roving center," or linebacker. It has continued with countless Hall of Fame nominations, a conference-high four No. 1 overall defensive NFL draft picks and some of the best defensive names to ever play the game.
This isn’t just one man’s opinion. More than half of the starting defense on Sports Illustrated’s All-Century Team -- six of 11 players -- consisted of Big Ten athletes and no, that’s not including Nebraska's Glover. The Walter Camp Foundation’s All-Century Team also featured a Big Ten player at every defensive position. Even ABC’s list of the "25 Greatest Players in College Football" had more defensive players from the Big Ten than any other conference.
When it comes to quantity, maybe other conferences have the Big Ten beat on defense. But when it comes to quality and history? The Big Ten is still tops.
- Michigan is so loaded with talent at cornerback, even Blake Countess is expecting to fight for his job during camp this month.
- Defensive end and stand-up comedian Shilique Calhoun tells his version of the story that led to coordinator Pat Narduzzi sticking around at Michigan State.
- Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman might have actually needed to give his body some time off, but he would have preferred not to earn it through foot surgery.
- When it gets late in the year or late in a game, Zach Zwinak has proven capable of being the closer in the Penn State backfield.
- Tired of all the questions and doubts, Wisconsin's receivers are now focused on just doing the work to replace Jared Abbrederis.
- Publicly challenged by his coach a year ago, Nebraska defensive tackle Vincent Valentine has brought a different attitude to practice this season.
- A batch of newcomers at Illinois are making a positive impression during split-squad workouts so far in camp and could find themselves playing critical roles.
- Jake Rudock is the unquestioned starter at Iowa, but C.J. Beathard might give the Hawkeyes the option of using two quarterbacks at times this season.
- Maryland linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil was able to do a Floyd Mayweather impression at practice on Tuesday, a big deal for a player coming off a pectoral injury.
- Rutgers appears to be moving closer to officially naming its starting quarterback as it heads into a two-a-day session on the heels of some intense practices.
Practice has started up, and we're getting closer to kickoff. So let's try to pass some time together with some mailbag questions:
@ESPNJoshMoyer is it a bad idea for Big Ten teams to play tough non-conference games? If they lose, aren't their National Title hopes gone?— Patrick Meade (@Peart_Meade) August 5, 2014
@ESPNJoshMoyer: That's the beauty of the new college football playoff, Patrick: A single loss no longer means an almost-inevitable exit from the national title picture. As a matter of fact, strength of schedule should be more important than ever before. Don't believe me? Here's what selection committee member Tim Jernstedt had to say: "Strength of schedule will become such an important factor that if you want to be under consideration, you need to have a more meaningful schedule than perhaps you have had in previous years."
That being said, scheduling tough opponents is still a bit high-risk, high-reward -- but it makes more sense now than it ever did during the BCS era. If Oregon slips past Michigan State or LSU edges Wisconsin, neither team is out of the playoff picture. And on another positive note, by winning those kinds of games, a B1G team could make its case for a second playoff spot if it comes up short in the conference title race and the champ is more deserving. We'll have to see how it plays out this first season, to be sure. But the bottom line is this: It's better to schedule tough games now than it was before. And if you don't believe me or Jernstedt, then here's Oliver Luck reinforcing the importance of strength of schedule.
@ESPNJoshMoyer: The West is a close call with Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin. But If I had to choose today, I'd pick the Huskers to win their division. Granted, I don't think they're any better than Ohio State or Michigan State, but I do think they'll find a spot in the Big Ten title game. So I think their odds are better than most. Chalk up the presence of Ameer Abdullah as Reason No. 1.
Don't get me wrong. Just like with Iowa and Wisconsin, there's plenty to be concerned about. The offensive line returns just one starter, but at least big things are expected out of transfer Alex Lewis. The defense also has quite a few question marks, such as line depth and the secondary, but it also boasts -- in my opinion -- the best defensive player in the conference. (Do I really need to point out it's Randy Gregory?) Almost anything could happen with the top three teams in that division -- and the crown will almost certainly be won in those final three weeks. But Bo Pelini finally has some good linebackers to work with, wideout Kenny Bell returns and quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. can only get better. How will Iowa fare with a new linebacker rotation, and can Wisconsin's Joel Stave reclaim the starting job and thrive without Jared Abbrederis? Those questions worry me a bit more than the Huskers'. So it's sure to be a tight race, but I think Nebraska has a solid shot of at least making the Big Ten title game.
@espnjoshmoyer Some kind of update on the o-line please. Who's out there, what kind of push are they getting etc. please— Charles J. Malu (@charlesmalu5) August 4, 2014
@ESPNJoshMoyer: Well, since you asked nicely, Charles, I've got to answer this. Yes, I was at Penn State's practice Monday -- at least the part that was open -- and was able to see a few things first-hand. But I'm afraid I can't tell you exactly how much or how little the offensive line will struggle this season, at least based on a handful of drills.
What I can tell you is there's some obvious reason for concern -- but also that OL coach Herb Hand has been in this situation before. Left tackle Donovan Smith was wearing a powder-blue jersey (perhaps, Penn State's answer to the red jersey?) and didn't participate in some drills. Obviously, that's not good news since he's the only returning starter. Also, Wendy Laurent and projected starting RT Andrew Nelson were in the powder blues -- but still did more than Smith. Brendan Mahon can move inside or outside, and DTs-turned-OGs Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia are competing for starting jobs.
But it's not entirely bad news. Hand is undoubtedly a talented coach, and he said he faced a similar situation at Tulsa. In his first year there, Tulsa's line returned just one regular starter and Hand moved a defensive tackle over to offense. Curious how the offense fared that season? "We led the country in offense that year," Hand said. The offensive line certainly appears to be the weak link at Penn State, so it should be key in determining the Nittany Lions' success this season. Hand has this unit confident, but it'll be sink-or-swim once the conference season begins. It's worth keeping a close eye on this line until then.
He understood it, of course. Christian Hackenberg was the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year. A potential future No. 1 overall draft pick. A former five-star prospect. But, with his hands on his hips, Olaniyan paused for a moment, smiled and then – half-jokingly – made a statement that underscored the importance of Penn State's sophomore signal-caller.
“He’s got the hopes and dreams of everybody in his hands,” Olaniyan said.
Olaniyan wasn’t stone-faced or wholly serious during his assessment. But the ironic thing is he wasn't wrong. Penn State’s ceiling is only as high as Hackenberg’s ability. And Happy Valley is only happy so long as Hackenberg is launching touchdown passes.
The 19-year-old has taken a lot upon his shoulders in a short period of time. He was hailed as the program’s savior when he still roamed the halls of his military academy, when he kicked up dirt on the baseball diamond and waded into local streams for fly fishing. Now, fans’ hopes are pinned and piled on his young shoulders. ESPN ranked him as the 46th-best college player in the country; another site ranked him even higher.
Hackenberg isn’t deaf to the fan murmurs regarding his importance. But, on Monday, he reclined on a bench, relaxed and looked more like a man catching a tan than one whose every move will be judged and analyzed. Put simply, he knows the stakes – but, he insisted, feels no pressure.
“I mean, I really don’t feel it at all,” he said with a shrug. “I think the people that I look to the most are my teammates, my coaching staff and my family. So as long as I’m not letting those people down and they have confidence in me, then I have confidence in what we can do and what I can do.
“Again, I’m just another piece to a bigger puzzle. I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help this team win.”
There’s a different look about Hackenberg this preseason. He enrolled last summer and spent about four weeks with Bill O’Brien before making his first career start in the opener. He didn’t look lost, but he didn’t look wholly comfortable either. As a rookie, he was forced to listen instead of lead. Now that he knows the offense, that the game has slowed and his on-field I.Q. has increased, he’s prepared for the latter.
“The kid is unbelievable,” strength coach Dwight Galt said. “The kid’s been here 13 months – not only 13 months – and the way he acts, the way he carries himself, the way everybody respects him, you’d think he’s a fourth-year guy.”
Teammates notice that confidence and the way he’s able to deflect that pressure. Instead of them directing him, he’s the one offering up tips and advice. Cornerback Jordan Lucas watches the way Hackenberg “walks, the way he talks, the way he calls plays” and how that swagger has become routine. It’s what Penn State expects now.
That’s why Lucas said nothing Hackenberg does is unbelievable anymore. Nothing is “crazy.” It’s just one of those things.
“There’s just certain times you play perfect coverage and he just fits the ball in there just because he can,” Lucas said. “And a lot of quarterbacks can’t do what he does. It’s not crazy; he just wows me. I just can’t wait to see what he does this season.”
Most Penn State fans can’t wait either, since neither they nor the media have really been able to gauge Hackenberg's progress. James Franklin ushered reporters out of practice Monday before Hackenberg attempted a pass over 10 yards. And he didn’t air it out during the spring game either. So, until the opener, it’s only the players and coaches who can really speak to how far he’s come.
Luckily, they're not shy about praising the sophomore.
“From the time he got here until now, he’s a completely different quarterback,” tight end Jesse James said. “He’s always had a great arm, and he just keeps learning more and more about how defenses change. He just keeps getting better; it’s like his arm gets stronger every day.”
Added tight end Kyle Carter: “He’s a lot more confident. Last year in training camp, he was the new guy and all that. Now you can tell he’s a lot more confident in his game and where he stands with the team.”
Not that Hackenberg really pays mind to the compliments, or all the attention. He’s one of the most recognizable faces around campus – even after tailback and unofficial team barber Bill Belton cut his shaggy blond locks – but he’s trying to take it all in stride. There was the time, during the spring game autograph session, when an elderly woman tried to cross the ropes and plant her lips on the teenager. (PSU officials intervened just in time.) And then there are the countless times when, ball cap or not, students will stop him for a few words or a pat on the back.
But beneath his white visor Monday, Hackenberg smiled and said he felt no pressure. Maybe it was a foreign concept to him since his commitment in spite of 2012 sanctions led to an explosion of media coverage. Maybe, just like the passing ability Lucas alluded to, the “crazy” has simply become routine.
“But does anything make Christian Hackenberg nervous?” one reporter asked.
“I don’t like public speaking,” he said. “I don’t like getting up and talking in front of classes, you know? It’s weird. Like my CAS 100 [Effective Speech] class, getting up and talking. I don’t really like that.”
“But you’re fine with this, talking to the media, and playing in front of 107,000 people?”
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Hackenberg said, nodding. “I can’t diagnose that for you. It’s just one of those things.”
“One of the things I’ve always struggled with,” Franklin said, “is how do I answer your questions and give you the information that you need with also not talking directly to [Central Florida coach] George O’Leary? Because he’s watching right now.”
Franklin then stopped, turned his head toward the cameras and waved: “Hi, George!”
Here are some of those newsworthy highlights:
Focus not yet on season opener: Franklin spoke to the team Sunday night and told them that would be the last time they discuss Central Florida for at least two weeks. For now, it’s all Penn State.
“Our focus right now is on Penn State and becoming the best Penn State we can possibly be,” he said.
Faster team: Franklin didn’t feel comfortable talking about specific true freshmen since he hasn’t yet really had a chance to see them practice. But he did compliment the overall team speed -- and how the freshmen have really added to that.
“We’ve had five guys this spring on our team that ran a sub-4.5,” he said. “I think we got more than that right now with the guys that have developed on our team but, with just the incoming freshman class, we ended up having 11 guys that ran a sub-4.5. So that’s exciting.”
Early enrollee De'Andre Thompkins (receiver) ran the fastest 40-yard dash -- somewhere in the 4.4s -- in the spring. But Franklin believed that true freshman cornerback Grant Haley surpassed him this summer.
Tight end U? Allen Robinson caught 97 balls last season, and he’s on the Jacksonville Jaguars now. So, obviously, that lost production has to come from somewhere -- and Franklin believes a lot of that will come from the tight ends.
He said the freshman receivers are still a bit of a wild card because they are still adjusting to the college game. But those tight ends? It’s a different story.
"That’s where we have the most veteran players. That’s where we have the most experience and depth," he said. "I’m excited about those young [receivers], but that’s what it is right now. It’s excitement -- based on what they did in high school ..."
Three-headed running attack: Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak saw plenty of carries the past two seasons, but Franklin said it wouldn’t just be those two carrying the ball this season.
Expect some time from speedster Akeel Lynch, too.
“If you look across the country, you really need three running backs for a whole season to keep those guys healthy and fresh, and rotate them so you have a chance to dictate the terms of the game and force your will on your opponent in the fourth quarter,” Franklin said. “And to also do those things late in the season.”
Priorities: The Xs and the Os of football are obviously important -- but Franklin believes they might not be as important as one other key element, at least early in camp. He said camp will start out aggressive, and then he’ll play practice by ear.
"I think this staff moreso than most staffs I’ve been on, we spend a lot of time focused on chemistry and morale," he said. "I think chemistry and morale are as important, if not more important, than the Xs and the Os and the toughness. But those things are important as well."
We decided to check in with Bovada sportsbook manager Kevin Bradley about those new odds and about B1G betting in general. Here's what he had to say:
What were some of the bigger jumps, or key changes, in the updated list of the Big Ten odds?
The only team that sort of dropped a little bit was Northwestern. We had them at 75-to-1 at one point; now they're at 40-to-1. They've actually taken a little bit of money. They're a long shot, but there are people that like betting on those big long shots. You never know what's going to happen.
How much does the B1G take in compared to conferences like the SEC?
KB: I'd say it's pretty significant, but the SEC still remains our biggest conference by far -- even when it comes to betting on the national championship, or even if you look at game lines from week to week or win totals that we have up. It always seems like the SEC still kind of reigns over everybody else.
In your updated odds, Purdue is listed at 300-to-1 while newcomer Rutgers -- which has a pretty difficult schedule -- is 200-to-1. That's a big difference. Where do you come up with odds like those?
KB: A lot of times when we're doing these odds, we're ranking the teams just like anyone else who ranks college football teams. And we're sort of looking at what the chances are for each team to win the conference. And if we're going to have an odds-on favorite like Ohio State at minus money, the need is to balance out the odds to make them fairer to people. So, in order to do that, we'll have some teams with super high odds like Purdue. If you look at all of conferences, we'll have some teams as high as 500-to-1 to win a particular conference. It's basically looking at their schedule, looking down the road, looking at their win total, looking at some of their projected lines, that means -- realistically -- they have no chance.
In the Big Ten there are very few bets, very little money, on the huge long shots. People in the conference are sticking with the favorites -- Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, a little bit of Nebraska. But there's not too much money on the big long shots.
One team missing from your odds is Penn State, which is currently banned from the postseason. There is some talk the ban could be lifted next month, so was there any discussion about leaving the Lions in and factoring in those odds? And where would Penn State be here if it was eligible for the postseason?
KB: They'd probably be in the middle of the pack. But in those types of situations -- and obviously the NCAA, whether it's basketball or football, causes a lot of problems a lot of times with suspensions and weird rulings and that sort of stuff. Like [Jameis] Winston, when we were doing Heisman odds when he had all those charges against him, we had put him up and down because we didn't know if people would vote for him. And the [Johnny] Manziel suspension, who knew if they were only going to suspend him for half of a game? You can imagine our struggles keeping up with all that stuff because it's so shady in my opinion because you never know what they're going to do.
So we're always monitoring it but, if Penn State's eligible, we'll add them in. And a good example was I was talking to one of my guys who's keeping an eye on baseball futures, and I told them to close them down until the trade deadline was over -- because every time there was a rumor about anyone, the odds fluctuated so much. It's just safer to keep them down. So, the same thing happens in college football.
Speaking of Penn State, head coach James Franklin doesn't discuss or divulge injuries at all. How hard does that make your job, and how will that affect the lines and everything this season?
KB: It's a complete pain in the ass, especially in college sports because there's so many teams to keep up with. So, when people are hiding injuries or you don't know the status of players, we post lines a lot later and we have to be careful with our win totals and our future odds, our conference odds, because of those things. It's sort of like the NFL; a good comparison is Bill Belichick and the Patriots. We go through injury reports daily because the NFL is so big that we're super on top of that. And every guy on his team is questionable every week, and I hate it. Every week when I look at it, I scream.
So, yeah, that definitely makes our job harder. And you can just imagine once November rolls around when every sport is in full swing, keeping up with all these reports and rumors. No doubt we're on top of that as much as we can be. But there are times where we'll miss it for a couple minutes when some guys will pick off some lines or future odds -- and those things get me even more mad. But that's the name of the game.
And in the Big Ten, perhaps more so than in any other league, history matters.
My ESPN.com colleagues and I recently embarked on the virtually impossible task of identifying the greatest individual season for each FBS program. The project, appropriately called The Season, debuted today. Be sure and check it out all week.
The selection process involved several factors -- time period, statistical milestones, clutch plays/games and position, to name just a few -- and a heavy dose of subjectivity. But I would add "conference" to the list. Picking a defining season for a Big Ten team is different than one for a Pac-12 or ACC team.
The greatest individual Big Ten seasons, like leather or fine wine, seem to improve with age. In fact, I'd argue that age is a requirement in selecting signature seasons for Big Ten teams.
None of the Big Ten's signature seasons occurred in the past decade. Former Purdue quarterback Drew Brees and former Northwestern running back Damien Anderson provide the most recent selections, both in 2000.
The full list:
Illinois: Red Grange, 1924
Indiana: Anthony Thompson, 1989
Iowa: Nile Kinnick, 1939
Maryland: Randy White, 1974
Michigan: Charles Woodson, 1997
Michigan State: Lorenzo White, 1985
Minnesota: Bronko Nagurski, 1929
Nebraska: Mike Rozier, 1983
Northwestern: Damien Anderson, 2000
Ohio State: Archie Griffin, 1974
Penn State: Lydell Mitchell, 1971
Purdue: Drew Brees, 2000
Rutgers: Paul Robeson, 1917
Wisconsin: Ron Dayne, 1999
The selections from other conferences show a different picture. Five of the SEC's signature seasons occurred between 2007 and '13. The Pac-12 had five selections between 2002 and '12, the Big 12 had four between 2003 and '11, and the ACC had five between 2001 and '09.
Is it just a coincidence that the Big Ten's signature seasons occurred so long ago? Perhaps it's because the league overall has struggled in the past decade and failed to win a national title since 2002. Although we evaluated individual performances, certain players gained credibility for helping their teams win championships.
Nebraska has a limited Big Ten history (three seasons), while Rutgers and Maryland have no history in the league. But I'd argue that Nebraska's storied tradition puts it in the same category as several Big Ten programs when you're trying to identify superlatives. There's just more to consider with programs like Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.
Does a Big Ten season need some age on it to truly represent a program? There is so much history in the league, and to minimize or gloss over the distant past in an exercise like this is wrong.
The longevity factor doesn't seem to be as strong in other leagues. The Big 12 includes only one signature season before 1963 (TCU's Davey O'Brien in 1938). The SEC includes no signature seasons before LSU's Billy Cannon in 1959, and the Pac-12 features none before Oregon State's Terry Baker in 1962.
The Big Ten, meanwhile, has four signature seasons that took place before 1940. Even most of the runner-up seasons in the Big Ten illustrate the historical differences: Only five occurred in the past decade, and two stem from newcomer Rutgers (Ray Rice in 2007, Kenny Britt in 2008).
I'd like to think a great season is a great season, whether it occurred last year or eight decades ago. I feel the same way about Baseball Hall of Fame votes. If a player merits the Hall on the first vote, he should get in. If he doesn't deserve it, why should he get in on the 10th ballot?
The fear here is that we're short-changing certain seasons because they occurred not long ago. Brian Bennett and I have written extensively about how Montee Ball's 2011 season at Wisconsin might not truly be appreciated for many years. Ball led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards, added 306 receiving yards and scored 39 touchdowns, which tied Barry Sanders' single-season NCAA record. Although he had 111 fewer rushing yards than Dayne in 1999, the season we selected, he also had 30 fewer carries and scored 19 more touchdowns.
But Dayne won the Heisman Trophy in 1999, while Ball finished fourth in the voting in 2011.
Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh finished fourth in the Heisman voting in 2009, despite putting together what many consider the most dominant season for a defensive player in recent college football history. Suh's ridiculous statistics -- 24 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, 10 pass breakups, 26 quarterback hurries -- don't fully illustrate how he controlled games.
And yet we went with 1983 Heisman Trophy winner Rozier instead. Nothing against Rozier's season, but would Suh have earned the top spot if his big year occurred in, say, 1969 or 1979? Will we view Suh's 2009 differently in 2024, when more time has passed?
It's hard to argue with our pick for Iowa: Heisman Trophy winner Kinnick in 1939. But quarterback Brad Banks had an unforgettable season in 2002 (AP Player of the Year, second in Heisman voting) and Shonn Greene was the nation's most dominant running back in 2008.
Even our Rutgers pick went way back, nearly a century, to Robeson, a fine player in his time. But Rutgers' renaissance under Greg Schiano (the Scarlet Knights' coach from 2001 to 2011) is much fresher in our minds, and performances from Rice (2,012 rush yards, 25 touchdowns in 2007) and Britt (87 receptions for 1,371 receiving yards in 2008) made it possible.
The Big Ten returns plenty of star power in 2014, and players like Melvin Gordon, Braxton Miller, Ameer Abdullah, Randy Gregory and Shilique Calhoun could produce special seasons this fall.
But to be recognized for signature seasons, the ones that represent historic programs in a historic conference, they will likely have to wait a while.
- Steve Spurrier takes a shot at the Big Ten by saying East Carolina is "probably tougher than playing one of those bottom-tier Big Ten teams."
- CBS' Jon Solomon asks when the Big Ten will escape the "SEC shadow of football success."
- Northwestern's coaches played off Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with their own video.
- C.J. Brown is the face of Maryland football, and he has earned the respect of his teammates by overcoming adversity and injuries.
- Mark Dantonio shares his impressions of Saturday's first fall practice at Michigan State. An injury to DT Damon Knox could shake up the look of the defensive line.
- Iowa's Kirk Ferentz may be an old-school coach, but he's still got a few new tricks up his sleeve.
- Ohio State is "hungry" after back-to-back seasons of disappointment. Urban Meyer believes his offense is preparing Braxton Miller for the NFL.
- Michigan cornerback Blake Countess is back to 100 percent after offseason surgery and has high expectations for this season.
- What to expect from James Franklin's first Penn State preseason camp.
- Five key areas for Indiana to have success.
- Nebraska starts practice Monday evening, but players already feel they can break through in the conference this season. A look at the players the Huskers can't afford to lose in 2014.
- Michigan believed it had a future star during training camp last August, but then wide receiver Amara Darboh was lost to injury. The Wolverines are counting on him to get back to the level he was at a year ago.
- A detailed look at reasons Penn State can rise to contention in the East Division.
- Not surprisingly, Oregon and a "statement game" aren't far from the minds of Michigan State as it reports for practice.
- Drug charges were dismissed as former Ohio State defensive lineman Tracy Sprinkle pleaded no contest to an amended charge of attempted failure to comply with a police order. His status with the Buckeyes hasn't been reevaluated by Urban Meyer.
- Steered by sports, Nebraska safety Corey Cooper stays on the right path to success.
- Purdue defensive coordinator Greg Hudson is motivated heading into camp and "sick and tired of being 1-11."
- Converted linebacker Alec James provides a perfect example of what Wisconsin is trying to build on the defensive line.
- Gary Nova isn't officially the starting quarterback at Rutgers yet, but he's likely to be the pick and his relationship with offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen could be crucial if the program is going to surprise in the Big Ten.
- Iowa was left out of the preseason top 25 by the coaches. Might that be a good thing for the Hawkeyes?
- There's little doubt Minnesota can run the football. Will the passing attack move up from last in the Big Ten this fall?
Check out all the interviews: Part I and Part II.
Part I includes: Purdue's Darrell Hazell (1:42 mark), Penn State's James Franklin (11:59 mark), Rutgers' Kyle Flood (19:59 mark), Minnesota's Jerry Kill (31:30 mark), Michigan State's Mark Dantonio (42:49 mark), Wisconsin's Gary Andersen (52:18 mark) and Illinois' Tim Beckman (1:03:09 mark).
Part II includes: Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald (2:46 mark), Maryland's Randy Edsall (13:22 mark), Michigan's Brady Hoke (24:19 mark), Indiana's Kevin Wilson (36:31 mark), Ohio State's Urban Meyer (49:22 mark), Nebraska's Bo Pelini (1:03:07 mark) and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz (1:15:05 mark).
Some really good stuff here, and a great way to get caught up on all the Big Ten teams before the season kicks off in about four weeks.
Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.
Today’s question: Even with the postseason ban, how much noise can James Franklin make in his first season at Penn State?
I had been around Franklin enough to know that he would attack his day at ESPN with the vigor of a recruiting in-home visit.
I hadn’t seen him all day Wednesday until he burst into our room around lunchtime, immediately clamoring to find a place to charge his iPhone. He talked with another reporter and me for about 10 seconds, introduced himself to two researchers who were quietly sitting in the corner, and then he vanished.
I needed a breath just watching him fly around our area. I asked Penn State SID Jeff Nelson if he had ever lost Franklin for minutes (or hours) at a time. Nelson’s job requirements must now include stamina training.
The stories of Franklin’s energy are not overstated. And that’s noteworthy as he takes over at Penn State, a place that’s still wading through NCAA sanctions fallout. (Penn State is halfway through a four-year postseason ban.)
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This week, we're counting down the Top 25 players in the Big Ten. Our reporting crew voted to select the list based on past performance and future potential.
The countdown started on Monday with the first five players, then climbed up to No. 16 on Tuesday before we reached No. 11 Wednesday. Next up is Nos. 6 through 10.
10. Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State Spartans: It took the Spartans a few weeks last season to settle on a starter, but there are certainly no doubts anymore. All Cook did was toss 23 touchdowns to seven interceptions while leading MSU to a conference title and a Rose Bowl victory. The question mark on the Spartans was always the offense, but Cook helped replace that with an exclamation mark and has gained a reputation as one of the Big Ten’s best as a result.
9. Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State Buckeyes: Say hello to a big reason the Buckeyes boasted one of the top 10 run defenses in the country last season. The 288-pound lineman is the anchor and leader of this line, and he should be in for another solid season. He had 11.5 stops in the backfield last season and had his hand in five fumbles (three forced, two recovered). His burst should give opposing interior linemen a lot of problems in 2014.
8. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State: He’s only a sophomore, but he’s already in the preseason conversation as the B1G’s defensive player of the year. He started 10 games last season, played like at a veteran at points and improved as the season wore on. Bosa ended 2013 by recording a tackle for loss in his last six games. It’s scary to think where he might be in another two years.
7. Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State Nittany Lions: NFL Draft: Will Hackenberg go No. 1 in 2016? That was a headline from The Sporting News back in February and for good reason -- Hackenberg appears to be the Nittany Lions’ best pocket passer since Kerry Collins, who was taken in the first round of the 1995 NFL draft. He can make all the throws, upset 25-point favorite Wisconsin last season and should be even better this season. The only question is whether his patchwork offensive line and inexperienced receivers will be able to keep up.
6. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State: He’s the best defensive player on the best defense in the Big Ten, and maybe one of the top defenses in the country. He makes plays at key moments -- his three defensive TDs last season tied a school record that was set 67 years ago -- and his efforts were rewarded by being named Big Ten defensive lineman of the year. He’s an All-American talent and one of the best the B1G has to offer.
Big Ten Recruiting Report Card
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 Youngstown State Illinois 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 3:30 PM ET James Madison Maryland 3:30 PM ET Florida Atlantic 22 Nebraska 3:30 PM ET California Northwestern 9:00 PM ET 14 Wisconsin 13 LSU