Penn State Nittany Lions: big ten mailbag
Josh Moyer: Hmmm ... it's a bit tricky this week since only three of 14 games don't feature huge double-digit favorites (Rutgers-Washington State, UCF-Penn State, Wisconsin-LSU). Out of those three, though, I like Wisconsin the most as an upset pick. LSU has a new quarterback and running back and its run defense shows a few cracks. The Tigers ranked 94th in the nation last season in stopping ball carriers behind the line and were No. 35 in run defense. And you know what happens when Melvin Gordon finds room on the outside (hint: touchdown). Wisconsin has fared well against better run defenses, so they should be able to keep the ball moving Saturday. We'll see if that's enough.
@ESPNJoshMoyer upset alert week 1 in the big ten?— Matt Finnigan (@Finnarious) August 26, 2014
Josh Moyer: After a sub-par freshman campaign, it sure looks as if Derrick Green is on pace to be Michigan's feature back. Brady Hoke named him the starter, although he added that De'Veon Smith will be "1A." But if you look at how Doug Nussmeier and Brady Hoke have approached running backs since 2010, the top guy has always received at least twice as many carries as the backup. (One exception: Alabama's Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon split carries in 2012 but combined for 66.5 percent of team carries.) Green had 27 percent body fat last year and naturally looked sluggish; he's at 9 percent right now. He'll be better. As for Jabrill Peppers, count me among the believers. Devin Gardner said recently that Peppers and Devin Funchess are the best athletes on the team. That's big praise. So sure, Peppers has generated a lot of hype -- but I think he'll live up to it.
Josh Moyer: In our season predictions this morning, I was the only Big Ten reporter to pick Minnesota to win fewer than six games. Everyone else said six or seven. I'll admit I waffled slightly between choosing five and six wins, but the Minnesota passing game -- or lack thereof -- really concerns me. The Gophers ranked No. 105 in the nation last season in total offense and, without a playmaker like Ra'Shede Hageman on defense, I'm not yet sold on the defense being as good as last year. In some ways, last season's 8-5 record was a best-case scenario -- especially with surprising wins against Penn State and Nebraska, and close wins against Norhtwestern and Indiana. When I look at this season's schedule, I see seven losses: at TCU, at Michigan, Northwestern, Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska, and at Wisconsin. Northwestern was the toss-up for me but, as it stands, I see the Wildcats winning a close one.
@ESPNJoshMoyer why so down on the Gophers? 5-7 (2-6) seems low. Not saying they are winning 9+, but no bowl? Really?— Darren Michael (@HaloKitty343) August 27, 2014
Josh Moyer: It's the biggest question mark on the team, and I think it's going to be the determining factor in whether Penn State finds success. I picked the Nittany Lions to win seven games and, honestly, I think that's even slightly optimistic with this line. (Two players who were defensive tackles in February are now starting inside as offensive guards, and absent is basically any quality depth.) This offense has for which to be excited: Christian Hackenberg, two terrific running backs, my pick for B1G tight end of the year and a plethora of talented young wideouts. The only thing that's missing is a solid O-line -- and all the talent in the world doesn't mean anything if Hackenberg and Co. can't find time. If last season's O-line returned, I might even pick Penn State to win 10 games. The potential is there, but the offensive line is going to act as the cap.
@ESPNJoshMoyer How big of a concern is the Penn State O-line?— Sean Banks (@seanbanks3) August 27, 2014
Now to the good stuff, which is your questions and my fair-to-middling answers:
@BennettESPN It's an odd question but who do you think has a better chance of going undefeated this year, OSU or Iowa?— Samuel Robinson (@samtrobinson) July 24, 2014
Brian Bennett: I haven't thought of it quite like that, but I get your point. Iowa has a definite shot with its advantageous schedule. With the Hawkeyes' toughest two games coming in the final two weeks at home against Wisconsin and Nebraska, they have a chance to be favored in every game. Meanwhile, Ohio State faces many more challenges, including nonconference games against Virginia Tech, Cincinnati and Navy, along with that East Division showdown on the road at Michigan State.
Yet, if I had to pick one team to go undefeated of those two, I'd take the Buckeyes. Iowa's conservative style means that more games are likely to be close -- five of last season's 13 contests were decided by a touchdown or less, while Ohio State had three such games in 14 tries. Looked at another way, the Buckeyes outgained opponents by 137.6 per game in conference play last season, while the Hawkeyes outgained their league foes by 52.5 yards per game. Though past performance shouldn't be our sole guide for looking forward, Ohio State has gone 12-0 in the regular season the past two seasons.
I like Iowa a lot this year and am leaning toward picking Kirk Ferentz's team to win the West Division. But I'd be surprised if it didn't stub its toe a time or two along the way, whereas another Ohio State undefeated season wouldn't be shocking.
Hussein from Ann Arbor writes: I was reading your DB position preview and couldn't help but notice that Michigan was absent. I understand why they might not be number 1 in the conference, but they are returning tons of talent and I would be surprised if they weren't in the top 3 this upcoming year. Blake Countess is a stud and should compete for All Big-Ten First Team (if not All-American), while Raymon Taylor is very solid at the opposite corner position. At least one safety spot should be locked up with Jarrod Wilson with the other seemingly up for grabs(?). And that's without even mentioning Jabrill Peppers ...
Brian Bennett: I strongly considered Michigan for one of the top two spots, Hussein, and as you can probably tell, those posts are intended to rank every single team. I like the Wolverines' returning experience, and Countess should be one of the top cover guys in the league. Peppers can take the group to the next level if he is the real deal, but I'm a little bit cautious about projecting so much on an incoming true freshman who didn't go through spring ball. I have little doubt Peppers will make an impact this season, but how much? Ultimately, I thought Michigan gave up too many big plays in the passing game last season and wasn't physical enough in the back end. If Peppers helps change that, this crew has a chance to be the best in the Big Ten.
Brian from Raleigh, North Carolina, writes: Hey, Brian, about the Fitz-calls-Nebraska-boring "controversy"... maybe I've got my purple-tinted glasses on, but where's the beef? How are there even Nebraska fans angry about this? I grew up in the middle of nowhere in rural Michigan, and we made fun of how empty and boring it was all the time. Fitz made a bad joke that almost every American has made at some point in their lives. Is this really such a stinging, controversial comment? Or has cliche coachspeak become so dominant that a coach acting like an actual human being for 10 seconds is news?
Brian Bennett: I'm glad you put "controversy" in quotes, because this isn't really a big deal. Pat Fitzgerald's comments about Cal coach Sonny Dykes, I thought, were more intriguing. I can see why Nebraska people wouldn't like it, though. For example, f I call my home state "boring" or insult it in some other way, that's OK; if you as a non-Kentuckian do the same, well, them's fightin' words! Still, Fitzgerald was simply yukking it up with some Northwestern boosters after a summertime golf event, so let's not make it into a culture war. If anything, it adds a little spice to a very dull period, and the Big Ten can be far too dry and polite at times.
Ed from Michigan writes: Hey, Brian. It seem like everyone who follows college football has heard of stories of cheating and then the Big 12 Commissioner says the same. My question: Where is the investigative reporting to uncover this cheating?
Brian Bennett: There is no question about two things, Ed. One, the overwhelming majority of NCAA infractions cases began with a media report, as journalists have been doing the hard legwork for NCAA investigators for years. And two, fewer newspapers and other media outlets are devoting time and resources to investigative journalism these days. Some places still are, for sure. The North Carolina academic scandal is a perfect example of an issue that would have quickly vanished (or never even bubbled up) without the great work of some dogged reporters. What's also true is that uncovering those stories is painstakingly difficult, as it's often nearly impossible to find tangible evidence of cheating and not just accusations. For all the outstanding reporting that went into the Cam Newton affair, for instance, that smoking-gun shred of a paper trail never surfaced.
The bigger issue here, to me, is not from the media side but rather how cheating will be policed in the future. Particularly if -- or, more accurately, when -- the Power 5 schools gain autonomy and write many of their own rules, who will be there to enforce them? Certainly not the understaffed NCAA enforcement division, which will have ceded much of its power anyway. It likely will be up to the schools and conferences themselves. There is a good chance, as Bob Bowlsby said, that cheating will continue to pay off. There will just be fewer rules to break.
Brian Bennett: The Hoosiers were close last year. Had they beaten Navy -- or had they given themselves a more manageable nonconference schedule, something athletic director Fred Glass regrets in hindsight -- they would have made their first bowl since 2007. Unfortunately, the schedule is tough again this season, with road trips to Bowling Green (the preseason MAC favorite) and Missouri, a crossover road game at Iowa and the rugged East Division. The good news is that Kevin Wilson had built a standout offense, and the defense has some small reasons for optimism, so IU should at least be within range of bowl eligibility.
As for Tevin Coleman, he's probably one of the most underrated players in the league. He's an outstanding athlete whose length and speed reminds me of Melvin Gordon. In fact, he scored as many rushing touchdowns (12) as Gordon did in four fewer games last season and averaged 7.3 yards per rush. With Indiana potentially relying on the run game a bit more this season, Coleman could put up monster stats.
@JeffHurdaCow via Twitter writes: After thinking about all of the big games in Badgers history, is the LSU game the biggest? Program-changing game?
Brian Bennett: There's no doubt that the opener against LSU looms large for Wisconsin. Win that and the Badgers would gain immediate respect and -- with their very manageable schedule -- could put themselves in position to make the College Football Playoff. But biggest ever? I don't think so. For starters, it's just an opener, and we're not even sure how good LSU -- which finished No. 14 in the major polls last season -- will even be. I don't see how that's bigger than, say, Wisconsin's first Rose Bowl victory over UCLA under Barry Alvarez on New Year's Day 1994. Or even beating then-No. 1 Ohio State at home in 2010. To say nothing of the 1940s and '50s.
Brian Bennett: Fun question, and hopefully we'll be looking at trap games for every team later on this summer. For Penn State, I would say it's Week 2 against Akron. Sure, it's at home and the Zips haven't been very good in recent years. But the game also comes on the heels of the opener in Ireland against UCF, and if you've ever flown back home from overseas, you know it takes your body a couple of days to readjust. Akron went 5-7 last season, nearly beat Michigan and returns a lot of experience for Terry Bowden. So the Nittany Lions had better avoid any Irish hangover.
Brian Bennett: Well, what I actually wrote in Monday's mailbag was that Joey Bosa and Noah Spence are "two of the top returning defensive ends in the league." That's indisputable. But you're right in that Rush often gets overlooked for Michigan State. He doesn't often put up huge numbers, as he set a career high last season with five sacks, to go along with 7.5 tackles for loss. But he gives Pat Narduzzi exactly what he's looking for from that position in the Spartans' defensive scheme. Rush has been an excellent player for a long time. Bosa and Spence form, in my opinion, the best pure pass-rushing defensive end duo in the Big Ten this year. But Michigan State might have the best two overall ends. Either way, just another reason to get excited for that Nov. 8 game in East Lansing.
Brian Bennett: Didn't really see a question in there, but I know Rutgers fans are as pumped up to join the Big Ten as any fan base has ever been about entering a new league. Glad to hear Scarlet Knights fans are going to support everyone else in the conference. It remains to be seen if the rest of the league will feel as much connection toward Rutgers in the early going.
Brian Bennett: Johnny Football agrees with you, Greg. I have to say that I've never understood the whole autograph thing or why people -- especially adults -- would want a college kid's autograph. But I digress. One way around all these thorny issues about more money for athletes and the value of their image and likeness -- currently front and center in the O'Bannon trial -- is to let players get paid for endorsements, autographs and other marketing ideas during their college days. In other words, much like Olympic athletes do. You would, of course, have the issue of some schools' boosters throwing around all kinds of money for endorsements or giving a wad of cash to a backup lineman for his signature. But at least things would be more in the open and players could capitalize on their own achievements, rather than watch their school sell their jerseys in the bookstore for $200. All ideas are worth exploring at this point, and this one has some serious merit.
Brutus from The Ninth Circle writes: Brian, what are you looking forward to the most this coming season? Seeing a team coached by James Franklin? Seeing Maryland and Rutgers play their first games in the B1G? Seeing more night games at Michigan? Personally, I can't wait to see Maryland's games in the B1G. The eastward expansion should play havoc on my Saturday TV scheduling, but bring it on!
Brian Bennett: From a big-picture perspective, what I'm most excited about is the new playoff system, and in particular the semifinals on New Year's Day. That could be one of the best days in college football history. From, um, a B1G-picture perspective, I'm really interested in how Maryland and Rutgers fit into the league, how Franklin's Penn State debut will go and how the new division alignment shakes out. But I'm probably most excited about an upgraded nonconference schedule that includes games like Michigan State-Oregon, Wisconsin-LSU and Ohio State-Virginia Tech. There's nothing like high-profile out-of-league games early on to get a read on just how strong the Big Ten might be in 2014.
Brian Bennett: Grant, I wrote about this a lot in a piece last month following a visit to East Lansing. Dantonio started warning about complacency in the first team meeting back home after the Rose Bowl, and he pushed the start of spring practice back to late March so he could have the players go through grueling, early-morning winter conditioning longer. That's one way to deflate big heads. I also thought it was an encouraging sign that Michigan State players like Connor Cook told me they were sick of talking about the Rose Bowl and 2013 this offseason and that they wanted to create their own legacy. Add in the fight for playing time at several defensive positions and along the offensive line and other spots, and there is reason to believe this team won't rest on its '13 accomplishments. You never really know. But that Week 2 showdown against the Ducks on the road should be enough to get these Spartans focused on the here and now, or else they're going to learn that lesson the hard way.
Brian Bennett: Meyer does collect top talent from Ohio -- he signed nine players from the Buckeye State in the 2014 class, for example -- but he doesn't just rely on homegrown players. Ohio State wants to compete for national titles, and the way to do that is to get the best players, no matter where they're from. Fact is, Big Ten country doesn't produce as many elite athletes as it once did, and many of those guys are in the South, in Texas and California. Any Big Ten program with legitimate national title aspirations has to recruit outside its region, as well as protecting its own backyard.
Brian Bennett: I firmly believe that one of the absolute best things about college football is the supreme importance of the regular season. Every week, in essence, becomes a playoff. Having a four-team playoff at the end will dilute that slightly but not enough, in my opinion, to hurt the sport. So I'm against any idea that would make games in any part of the season lose their significance.
Michigan State's problem last year was not so much its loss at Notre Dame but the fact that it really didn't play another marquee game until the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State. That's why upgraded schedules for the league are so important. A loss (or possibly even two, in some years) will be much easier to forgive if a team has played a grueling schedule and collected impressive wins throughout. I do hope the selection committee pays particular attention to schedule strength and does not get caught up on picking teams who might have simply coasted to a 12- or 11-win season. The in-season polls that the committee will release seem problematic to me, but everything they have said so far indicates they will judge teams on the quality of their résumés.
Brian Bennett: Thanks, Luke. It was a dream trip, and I highly recommend it. As for Nebraska, I've thought for a while that guys like Bell and Turner could do even more with a consistent passing game. Taylor Martinez was actually pretty solid in 2012, throwing for 2,871 yards and 23 touchdowns, though his 62 percent completion rate wasn't spectacular. It's no coincidence that Bell had by far his best season in 2012. There was too much turnover and inexperience under center last year for Nebraska once Martinez got injured. Tommy Armstrong simply has to improve on his 51.9 percent completion rate from a year ago, and he's got the playmakers to make big things happen.
Rob from New York writes: Brian, a lot of the Big Ten rivalry games aren't really rivalries anymore (or maybe ever). Not sure anyone is really getting up for the Illibuck, Governor's Victory Bell or the Old Brass Spittoon, not to mention lesser games like the Land Grant or Little Brown Jug. In your opinion, which games (A) deserve to be recognized rivalry games, (B) deserve to be trophy games, and (C) which ones should be retired and/or have their trophies burned to the ground? (Hint: the unanimous ugliest of them all.) My vote goes to Wisconsin/Michigan State becoming a rivalry AND trophy game, with a brass penalty flag as the trophy, since the series is littered with controversial calls and Michigan State fans whining about them (yeah, I'm biased). A non-trophy rivalry game could be Indiana and Michigan State, since it's not really a rivalry anymore. And a rivalry game that needs to die is Minnesota and Penn State (honestly, would anyone notice?).
Brian Bennett: Rob, Adam and I did a full assessment of the state of the Big Ten rivalries last year as the conference was working on realigning the division. You can find that post here. There's a difference between rivalries and trophy games. You can hand out a trophy for any game, but rivalries reveal themselves. For example, Wisconsin and Michigan State had grown into a rivalry without a trophy, while hardly anybody thinks the Old Brass Spittoon game is an actual rivalry. Alas, the Badgers and Spartans will be in different divisions now, didn't play last year and won't meet in 2014 or '15, so it's going to be hard to keep that going as a rivalry. I like the trophies, because many of them are goofy and fun and have some interesting history. But it will be worth tracking how the new division alignment and expansion affect actual rivalries.
Brian Bennett: First, Ben, I'd have to ask where you're getting the idea that there's a favorite in the West. I think the division is pretty wide open, and it's only early May. Colleagues Mark Schlabach and Brian Fremeau do have Wisconsin ranked higher than Nebraska right now, but I don't believe there's any real consensus. I am higher on the Huskers than the Badgers, because I think Gary Andersen's team has too many question marks. But the schedule is a real factor here. Wisconsin and Iowa have much easier roads to Indianapolis than does Nebraska, which has to go to Michigan State as one of its crossovers and plays the Badgers and Hawkeyes on the road. I think sometimes we overrate schedules in the preseason, though.
Brian Bennett: Rutgers can't seem to get out of its own way when it comes to bad PR. moves, the latest being the flap over the Eric LeGrand speech. I don't think the LeGrand incident is that big of a deal in its own right, but it adds to the string of poor decisions and tin-eared communication skills of the administration. The school has a lot of different political factions tugging it in many directions, so it can often be hard to get everybody on the same page. But for the sake of the Scarlet Knights and the Big Ten, Rutgers really needs to get its house in order and stop creating controversy. Playing good football would make a lot of this stuff go away.
Brian Bennett: Armstrong has such an experience edge that I think he would have had to do something to lose the job this offseason. And by all accounts, he played well and took on a bigger leadership role this spring. I don't put much stock in spring game performances. Armstrong can't rest on his laurels, and if he doesn't play well early this season, he has a chance to get passed by. But I'd be really surprised if he weren't the starter in September.
Brian Bennett: I don't quite get ranking Michigan either, though the Wolverines clearly have some talent if they can figure things out. But based on what we saw last year and given some of the issues on the offensive line, this is a team that will have to show me something before I consider it as a Top 25-caliber club. I disagree with you about Penn State. While the Nittany Lions definitely have some upper-echelon players and a pretty good schedule, there are depth questions and an offensive line that might be even more problematic than the one in Ann Arbor. With a new staff in place, this is another show-me team (and I'd like you to show me how a team that lost by double digits to Indiana and Minnesota and by 49 points to Ohio State was almost an 11-win team). The five teams I think should be ranked are, in order, Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin.
That's it for me and the mailbag for a bit as it's vacation time. Arrivederci!
Dan from Washington, D.C., writes: Brian, I'm sure you'll be getting thousands of comments on this point, so I'll add my two cents. You say, "You'd have to suffer from amnesia not to remember how close Bo Pelini came to losing his job at Nebraska last season." However, I don't believe you're [Nebraska athletic director] Shawn Eichorst (perhaps a FauxEichorst Twitter handle is in the works). No one outside of Eichorst and perhaps Harvey Perlman and Pelini knows "how close" Pelini came to losing his job. For weeks you, the Omaha World-Herald, and the Lincoln Journal Star lamented how tight-lipped Eichost was being about the whole situation. Then, lo and behold, he received a contract extension -- hardly something you give to someone you may not want around in a year or two. Now don't get me wrong -- if Pelini goes 5-7, he's toast -- but until he tanks, his job is safe.
Brian Bennett: Dan, you make a fair point that Eichorst's silence on the issue for so long means we don't know exactly how close Pelini came to being fired last year. But silence can also speak volumes, and not saying anything for weeks after the infamous audio tape leaked and while Nebraska lost some games said a lot as well. The pressure obviously got to Pelini in the regular-season finale against Iowa. Your timeline on the extension is a little off as well. Pelini said he signed received and signed the one-year extension in March. It would have been news had he not gotten it, since it covers him for the next five years. But don't think for a second that a one-year extension of his deal will have any bearing on whether Eichorst decides to make a change this fall -- Nebraska can easily afford to buy out of that extra year.
I think Pelini should be fine if he wins his usual nine or 10 games and avoids some of the embarrassing blowout losses we've seen. The Huskers also have a great chance to win the West Division. But anything less than that could prompt a coaching switch, which is why Pelini remains on the proverbial hot seat.
Brian Bennett: The thing Beckman has going for him is that athletic director Mike Thomas hired him and probably wants to give the first major coaching hire of his tenure every shot to succeed. The Illini did show improvement last season, at least on offense, and Beckman has done a great job with off-the-field stuff such as academics. But Zook did take the program to back-to-back bowl games, so it's a little odd to hear he should be responsible for a 2-10 season. The biggest thing going against Beckman right now, I'd say, is the fan apathy. There were way too many empty seats in Memorial Stadium last season, and that gets an AD's attention more than anything. That's why it might be bowl or bust this year for Beckman.
Brian Bennett: I've been a consistent proponent for toughest scheduling. Heck, I'm the guy who favors 10 Big Ten games and one marquee opponent every season. But for Indiana, I understand this move by athletic director Fred Glass. When you've been to one just bowl game since 1993, the first priority has to be finding any way possible to get back to the postseason. I thought the Hoosiers scheduled too aggressively last year, when they played Navy, Missouri and a good Bowling Green team. If IU, which finished 5-7 despite losses to Navy and Missouri, had played a dumbed-down nonconference schedule a la Minnesota's 2013 slate (or even Ohio State's), then the team likely would have gone bowling for the first time under Kevin Wilson. Think about the difference a bowl game would have made for the program, giving Wilson 15 extra practices and allowing for a little more offseason buzz.
The weird thing here is the idea that South Florida is too tough of an opponent. But especially when the Big Ten goes to nine league games in 2016 and Indiana is competing in the stacked East Division, a more manageable nonconference schedule makes sense. Delany wants teams to challenge themselves and build up strength-of-schedule ratings for the playoff selection committee. Let's be honest here: The playoff is not exactly on the Hoosiers' radar.
Brian Bennett: It would be an enormous coup for the Gophers and Jerry Kill to keep Cornell in their backyard, Sam. Too many top-level prospects (Michael Floyd and Seantrel Henderson as the most prominent examples) have left over the years. Kill and his staff have been working hard to build a relationship with Cornell, but they're going to be competing with not only the best programs in the Big Ten for his services but also many of the best in the country. The facilities and traditions at some of those places will be hard to top. It's crucial that Minnesota has a good year this season to show Cornell that staying home has its perks.
Brian Bennett: Rodney, feel free to get excited. Franklin has done nothing but create optimism so far with his energy and his early recruiting returns. Really good things are on the horizon for Penn State, I believe. But while I believe the Nittany Lions could be surprise contenders in the East Division because of their advantageous schedule -- Illinois and Northwestern as crossover opponents, Ohio State and Michigan State coming to Beaver Stadium -- I still worry about the depth on the roster because of sanctions, the lack of high-level defensive playmakers and that troublesome offensive line. Those are all real issues, and remember that Bill O'Brien did a fantastic job of getting this team to 7-5 the past two seasons. I think Penn State could match or slightly exceed that this season, but that the true brighter days are still in the future.
Ed from State of Rutgers writes: How would you rank B1G head coaches on the hot seat in 2014? Which assistants are in the best position for a head coaching job after this season?
Brian Bennett: Thanks for the question, Ed, and welcome to Big Ten country. We didn't see a single head coach get fired in the Big Ten last season, which was good news. But the way these things go, odds are the league won't make it two years in a row without any pink slips.
Let's answer your question by looking at this in tiers. Tier 1 includes the coaches who absolutely won't get fired this season unless there's some sort of unforeseen major scandal: Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Penn State's James Franklin, Minnesota's Jerry Kill, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz.
Tier 3 covers the coaches actually feeling some heat under their chairs. Let's evaluate them individually:
- Tim Beckman, Illinois: This should come as no surprise. The Illini showed improvement last season, but Beckman is still just 6-18 and has seen fan support fall off a cliff. Anything less than a bowl game in 2014 could make things really dicey.
- Bo Pelini, Nebraska: This is a well-documented situation, and many people were surprised Pelini wasn't fired at the end of last season, though athletics director Shawn Eichorst remains hard to read. The good news is that Pelini could have a very good team in Lincoln this year, and he sure doesn't appear to be sweating things this spring.
- Kyle Flood, Rutgers: He went 9-4 his first season as head coach but just 6-7 with a dismal finish last season. He also has a new boss in town, and the Scarlet Knights will face a very difficult schedule in Year 1 in the Big Ten. He's only making $900,000, so a change wouldn't be too financially painful. The question is whether embattled new athletic director Julie Hermann has enough juice right now to make that call.
- Randy Edsall, Maryland: This is the toughest call of the tier, as Edsall might have bought himself some time with last season's winning record and has had to deal with injuries to many star players. Yet he's still just 13-24 after three seasons, and life in the Big Ten might not be easy for the Terps. A losing record in 2014 would make things very uncomfortable in College Park.
Scott R. from Chadron, Neb., writes: Pretty sure there was voter fraud on that Osborne/Paterno matchup. Am I the only one who noticed there were as many international votes as domestic? And that those international votes were 87% for Paterno? Every other poll on ESPN.com is about 75% domestic, 25% foreign. This one was 50/50, and the international vote was OVERWHELMINGLY for Paterno. Seems a little suspicious.
Brian Bennett: File this one under "You Can't Please Everybody, Vol. 734." For the past two weeks, my mailbag was full of comments like Scott's, claiming some sort of voter fraud as Paterno got a huge international vote against both Tom Osborne and Woody Hayes. I have neither the technical expertise nor the time to figure out whether there was some sort of computer tomfoolery going on. But you'd have to be really naive not to raise an eyebrow at the fact that more than half the votes (17,000-plus) in the title matchup came from outside the United States and that those votes were wildly in favor of Paterno. Maybe there's a simple explanation why so many non-U.S. residents care about Big Ten football -- Italians for JoePa, perhaps?
The bottom line is that we placed no rules on this tournament, other than the most votes wins. If someone was ingenious enough to rig it, more power to them. Paterno certainly had the résumé and accomplishments that were deserving on their own. I had no personal stake in the outcome, and I found it to be a fun exercise to go along with March Madness. I hope everyone enjoyed it.
Brian Bennett: Andrew, I can't say I understand all the intricacies here at play, either, except that there are apparently some other details to iron out. That game still seems like a natural choice for a prime-time selection. It's still only mid-April. Stay tuned ...
Brian Bennett: I have great respect for what Bob Shoop and his staff accomplished at Vanderbilt and expect him to do a great job as the Nittany Lions' defensive coordinator. From what I saw last year, however, I don't think there's enough top-shelf talent on that defense for Penn State to pull a Michigan State and simply dominate everyone on defense. At least not at a championship level. I don't worry as much about the receiving group, because I think with Geno Lewis, some of the talented freshmen and those tight ends, they can piece together people for Christian Hackenberg to target. My biggest concern is the offensive line, which is thin and has some troubling injuries. It's nearly impossible to win at a high level in the Big Ten without a decent offensive line.
Brian Bennett: You'll find no bigger NCAA tournament fan than me, Tommy, and my wife is really happy it's over so she can see me again. Still, it's hard to compare the sports. Football simply is a much more physical game, and so adding more games to the schedule becomes problematic, along with the logistical problems caused by Christmas break and the semester changes. I do believe we will eventually have an eight-team tournament, with the five power conference champions getting an automatic berth along with the top champion of the other leagues plus two wild cards. That's a perfect setup. But it took us decades just to get to a four-team playoff, and that semifinal day on Jan. 1 (most years) will instantly become one of the best days on the sports calendar.
Besides, I could argue college football already has March Madness all fall long, and the ratings reflect that. Before the Final Four began, the NCAA tournament averaged a reported 9.8 million viewers, which was a big increase. By contrast, the Big Ten championship game drew 11.6 million viewers, while the Auburn-Alabama game attracted 13.8 million. The men's basketball final (aired on network TV) between UConn and Kentucky got 21.2 million viewers, compared to 25.6 million for the BCS title game (aired on ESPN) between Florida State and Auburn. We could see record ratings for the inaugural rounds of the College Football Playoff.
D.J. from Minneapolis writes: What happens to the union story if the Northwestern players vote no?
Brian Bennett: A great question, and based on media comments from several players -- most notably quarterback Trevor Siemian -- it sure seems like the Wildcats players are against the union and will vote no on April 25. But there might be a stronger undercurrent of support from players who are not as vocal in public. Given that the leader of the movement, Kain Colter, has already graduated and won't be eligible to vote, you wonder who on the team will take the baton and push for the union. All it takes, remember, is a simple majority.
So does a no vote mean this is the end of the story? I don't think it's that basic. Northwestern players would be able to try to unionize again next year. The regional National Labor Relations Board ruling has also set a precedent, at least for football players at private schools, and those who believe in the cause, such as CAPA president Ramogi Huma, would likely try to persuade players at other programs to follow Northwestern's lead. The school will continue to try to fight the original ruling, as well.
If the Wildcats' players vote no next week, we might not see any tangible results from the union movement for a while. If nothing else, however, it was another shot across the bow at the NCAA and another huge warning to the leaders of college sports that they had better make some changes before a judge or a legislature does it for them.
Brian Bennett: I shouldn't have written "never" to the idea of an Ohio State-Michigan night game, because so many things have changed in college football that anything is possible. I never thought we'd actually see a playoff, for instance. But both schools have said they're not in favor of moving "The Game" away from the afternoon and under the lights. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon doesn't even want to play Michigan State at night and so I doubt he will budge on the idea of playing Ohio State in prime time. And I don't think this game needs any more attention, as evidenced by all the signs and reminders of the rivalry that I saw while visiting both Michigan and Ohio State earlier this month. So I wouldn't expect it to happen anytime soon, though never say never.
Brian Bennett: I've come to the conclusion that spring games just aren't as big a deal at some places as they are others. And that's OK. I don't have much of a tolerance for spring games and don't like watching them, because you learn less from those than you would from watching just about any other practice. Sure, it's a fun day for fans to see their teams and sit in the stadium and maybe get some autographs, and all that is great. But I also have no problem with people who feel like they have better things to do than watch football that often isn't really representative of the finished product, with many star players usually being held out.
I don't know if spring game attendance factors much into recruiting. It certainly can't hurt to sell that to recruits as evidence of intense interest and appreciation of your program. But Michigan hasn't gotten many big spring game crowds over the years and that doesn't seem to affect the Wolverines' recruiting very much. I doubt many prospects are basing their decisions on anything that occurs at a spring game, and if they are, that is misguided on their part.
Brian Bennett: I thought Michigan State clearly benefited during Rich Rodriguez's tenure in Ann Arbor, as the Wolverines' downturn and different approach to recruiting helped the Spartans begin to establish themselves. Certainly, the success of Michigan State and Ohio State hasn't done anything to help Michigan, and butting heads against both those programs now in the East won't be easy.
Still, in my view, the biggest thing holding back Michigan is not any external force but Michigan itself. The two coaching changes, and especially veering between very contrasting styles, caused some problems that current Wolverines coaches will tell you are still being felt today. More than anything, though, Michigan simply hasn't capitalized on its own enormous resources and fulfilled its potential. As noted a minute ago, recruiting has been strong under Brady Hoke, at least if you believe the scouting services. The Maize and Blue have never had much trouble attracting talent. Development of that skill has been an issue, though many of those players are still young.
Perhaps we overrate Michigan's history and tradition, since the program claims only one national title since 1948. But with the school's money, stadium size, fan support and access to players, the Wolverines have no one to blame but themselves for not winning a Big Ten title in what is fast approaching a decade's time.
@RevDJEsq via Twitter writes: You're made dictator of the B1G with power to implement three changes. What are they?
Brian Bennett: Lobster for everyone! All bowl games in Maui! Wait ... I only get to make three changes? What kind of weak dictator am I?
Anyway, to take your question a bit more seriously, I would have to look at changes that could realistically be made by a Big Ten über-commissioner. So I wouldn't have the power to make changes to NCAA rules unless I decided to break away from the NCAA entirely. (Thinking ... nah, let's not do that).
So in that spirit, I'd make the following three changes:
- 1. No more 11 a.m. CT kickoffs and more night games: I get that TV dictates a lot of start times and the Big Ten likes having the early college football time slot as a showcase. But for schools in the Central Time Zone, those 11 a.m. starts are just way too early. It's hard to have any energy in the stadium when people have to wake up at dawn just to try and squeeze in some tailgating. So I'd make sure no game ever started before noon local time and I would work to get more games in primetime, including those in November.
- 2. A 10-1-1 schedule: Let's go to 10 conference games. Yeah, you heard me. We've got 14 teams, and there's nothing better than league play, so why not have more of it? That would create balanced home-and-road schedules and lead to a truer Big Ten champ. Sure, it could hurt the conference when it comes to winning national titles, but it's not like the league has been piling those up anyway. The rest of the schedule would have to include one game against a team from the other four power leagues, plus one against any other FBS team. You want a bowl bid or a playoff berth? Fine. Earn it.
- 3. Rotate the Big Ten title game: Indianapolis is a wonderful host for the Big Ten championship game. But there are a lot of other great cities in the Midwest that could do a great job. So let's have it in Chicago. Detroit. Minneapolis. Cleveland. Move it around and let other towns throw a big ol' Big Ten celebration. And have it in some cold weather every once in a while.
You might not agree with these decisions, but I'm the dictator here, so too bad. Now, bring me some more of your finest meats and cheeses!
Brian Bennett: Yeah, Ryan, Baylor was about the worst thing to happen to Nebraska since Steve Pedersen, eh? Anyway, I really like Nebraska's group of running backs. Heck, if the Cornhuskers had only Abdullah, I'd still really like them because he is one of the best and toughest players in the country. I thought Cross would have a little bit bigger impact last season, but he still scored 10 touchdowns and is a very effective weapon in short yardage. Newby is very promising, and I'm interested to see what Taylor can add.
Nebraska almost always has great backs, so this is no surprise. I'd rank the Huskers slightly below Wisconsin, simply because the duo of Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement could be devastating. Penn State has some excellent depth and options, and Ohio State has talent that's unproven. But Nebraska is up there near the very top.
Brian Bennett: Bellomy is still there, Jake, although some might have forgotten about him after he missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL he incurred in spring practice. He did play in five games in 2012 and famously took over for Denard Robinson in the loss at Nebraska. I just don't think it's realistic to believe he can overtake Devin Gardner or Shane Morris for the starting role, and Wilton Speight is the flavor of the month as the newcomer. But Bellomy can add some depth to the position if nothing else.
Brian Bennett: I agree with you that Pitt is Penn State's true rival, even though those teams haven't played since 2000. I'm so happy to see that series resume in 2016 and hope it becomes an annual occurrence. Ohio State has been a quasi-rival with the Nittany Lions, and Maryland and Rutgers at least bring some neighborly feuding to the table. But there's not a ton of juice there yet. Rivalries are great because they just add so much more intensity to the games -- see the recent Michigan-Michigan State installments or any edition of Ohio State-Michigan. Penn State already has a great home environment and fervent following, but it would be fun to see more true rivalry games for that program.
Brian Bennett: Well, that's interesting, because most people ask if the move was a good one for the Big Ten, not the other way around. You cannot discount the money angle here, because both Rutgers and Maryland were in dire financial straits, and the Big Ten provided a lifeboat. Rutgers also had to get out of the crumbling shack of a home that was the American Athletic Conference. I fear for the Scarlet Knights men's basketball program after watching how bad it was in the AAC, but the football program at least has a solid footing. Rutgers, however, could be in for some culture shock with the week-to-week grind of the Big Ten.
Maryland doesn't gain a whole lot competitively from the move to the Big Ten East out of the ACC. But the Terrapins were already in the same ACC division as Florida State and Clemson and would have faced occasional games with Notre Dame. So it's not like the Big Ten is going to be all that much more difficult. If things don't go well, those schools' administrators can comfort themselves with their new giant bags of cash.
Joe F. from Wrightsville, Pa., writes: Top three Big Ten games for 2014? Bottom three? How soon will PSU play into Big Ten title talk?
Brian Bennett: We'll probably do a list at some point of our best and worst games of 2014, but after going through the ultimate road trip exercise, this is a topic fresh in my mind. My top three games for 2014:
1. Ohio State at Michigan State, Week 11: This one's fairly obvious. It's the rematch of last year's Big Ten title game, and both teams should be ranked in the top 10 to start the season as the clear league favorites.
2. Michigan State at Oregon, Week 2: This is the most exciting Big Ten nonconference game in years, in my opinion. Sure, we had Michigan-Alabama a couple seasons ago, but most people didn't think the Wolverines were ready to compete with the Tide (and they were right). These two teams are not only legitimate national title contenders, but the extreme contrast in styles -- the Ducks' quick-strike offense against the Spartans' ferocious D -- is incredibly compelling.
3. Nebraska at Wisconsin, Week 12: The third choice could fluctuate between now and the start of the season. Wisconsin-LSU is really interesting, Michigan-Ohio State is always must-see and Iowa's last two games of the season could be huge if the Hawkeyes come through early on. That's just to name a few. But for now, I'll take what looks like the key showdown for the West Division title.
As for the three worst, I'm always going to pick terrible nonconference games for those. And my three snooze-fests right now would be Western Michigan (1-11 last year) at Purdue in Week 1, along with Week 2 weaklings Howard at Rutgers and Western Illinois (4-8 in '13) at Wisconsin.
Lastly -- and very sneaky of you to get three questions in, Joe -- I've been pretty consistent in saying 2016 is my pick for Penn State to contend for the Big Ten title. It's potentially Christian Hackenberg's senior season, and all of the sanctions will be gone. It wouldn't shock me if James Franklin moved that timeline up to 2015, however.
Brian Bennett: The Nebraska-Iowa rivalry is forced, to a large degree. But I think the fact that the Hawkeyes won last year in Lincoln should help the Heroes Game grow, and it's possible the two teams could be playing for a division title on the final weekend in 2014. I believe the Nebraska-Wisconsin rivalry will grow now that the two teams are in the same division, but there really has only been one good game between them so far (the Huskers' home win in 2012). And I prefer having Wisconsin and Minnesota continue college football's oldest rivalry on the final weekend.
Brian Bennett: Tim, the depth situation is really more the concern of Gary Andersen this spring, which is why he's holding Gordon and Clement out of contact. There's a very good chance that Deal becomes that No. 3 back in the mold of Gordon in 2012 or Clement in 2013, but remember that he's not on campus yet. The only other scholarship tailbacks right now are senior Jeff Lewis and redshirt freshman Austin Ramesh. Andersen doesn't want to risk Gordon and Clement getting hurt this spring, and there's really no reason to have them get tackled right now.
Brian Bennett: We'll start to get some answers when the Scarlet Knights open practice Monday, but I'd say every option is on the table right now, especially with new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen. Youngsters Mike Bimonte, Blake Rankin and Chris Laviano have a lot to prove, as none of them has taken a college snap. But Nova has thrown 39 interceptions in parts of three seasons, which helped lead to his benching last season. He has a huge experience edge, but it might be time to start over in Piscataway. The good news is that if anyone can fix Nova, it's probably Friedgen. If not, then one of the young guys will get a shot.
Brian Bennett: Andrew, I feel your pain. What a rough go of it this has been for Boilers fans. I actually wrote back in November about the worst Big Ten teams in recent years, and the 2013 Purdue squad ranked among the worst of the worst. And that was before the Boilermakers lost to Illinois and Indiana (by 20 points) to finish out a 1-11 campaign. Purdue lost by an average of 23.1 points per game last year and ranked at or very close to the bottom nationally in virtually every major statistical category. While I believe Darrell Hazell will eventually turn things around and that the schedule should help the Boilers improve a little this season, there's no doubt that they begin the year as the worst team in the league again, especially as Illinois and Indiana look capable of competing for a bowl bid.
@JeffHurdaCow via Twitter writes: Do you think that the Big Ten will get a team into the playoff, and who is more likely?
But I think it's going to be tough. The SEC is all but guaranteed at least one spot in the field, and Florida State is a good bet to get back as well. A Big Ten team is likely going to have to finish undefeated or with just one loss against a strong schedule to get into the four-team mix. Not making the playoff in a year when the Rose Bowl is a semifinal would be a bitter pill for the league to swallow.
Brian Bennett: I like your optimism. The SEC lost an astonishing amount of talent at quarterback with guys like Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray and Connor Shaw leaving. But while the Big Ten brings some good experience back at quarterback, including Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Michigan's Devin Gardner, the overall level of play at quarterback in the league has been lacking for a couple of years, in my opinion. It's great seeing talented young quarterbacks at places like Purdue, Indiana and Nebraska, but they all need to take steps forward. I think the Pac-12 has far and away the best group of returning QBs in 2014.
Brian Bennett: I like Penn State's staff a lot. Not only are they energetic and big-time recruiters, they proved a lot by winning nine games in back-to-back seasons at Vanderbilt, which many people thought was impossible. That's really all I need to know. Yes, the Commodores were a more defensive-oriented team under James Franklin, but they also played against some stout SEC defenses. And I don't think he ever had a player nearly as talented as Hackenberg. I'm really interested to see what the Nittany Lions offense looks like under Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan. There are some concerns at offensive line and wide receiver, but I have confidence in this staff to figure things out.
Brian Bennett: I certainly think you could make a case for the Hawkeyes' line being the best in the league in 2014. Brandon Scherff is the only returning lineman in the league who made first-team or second-team All-Big Ten, and he's the early leading candidate to win the Rimington-Pace offensive lineman of the year award. Iowa does have to replace tackle Brett Van Sloten and guard Conor Boffeli, but has plenty of in-house candidates and a great history of success with the position group. I'd like to see the Hawkeyes get a better push up front with those big guys in 2014: Iowa finished just sixth in team rushing in the Big Ten last year, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. But with Ohio State rebuilding its line, the title of best O-line in the league is up for grabs this year (though Wisconsin will also have a lot to say about that).
Brian Bennett: You always want position groups, like both lines, to get lots of reps together in the spring and build chemistry, especially if there are several new starters there. But as long as the injuries aren't serious or lingering, I don't think it's always a huge deal. Players still work out a lot together in the summer and then again through two-a-days and preseason practices, so there is plenty of time to jell. There have been lots of examples of players missing all or large parts of spring ball and having a strong season. The absolute worst thing that can come out of spring practice is a long-term injury, so having some players miss that extra contact isn't always a bad thing.
Brian Bennett: Ah, expansion questions. How I missed thee. Or something. Anyway, perhaps I'm being naive, but I think the expansion merry-go-round has stopped for a while, thanks to the grant-of-rights deals. I believe we'll see some stability for at least the next few years, and there aren't any schools that would fit the Big Ten profile who appear able to or interested in moving. Of course, it only takes one big domino to change everything. The league seems pretty intent on opening new markets and finding areas of population growth, so if there were going to be another expansion push, I would think the conference would try to look to the East and South. But let's hope we don't have to worry about that again for a while.
Kyle from Madison, Wis., writes: With spring games on the horizon, we once again see the difference between the BIG and the SEC; where BIG spring games are a moderately attended sideshow that might be fun for a family, SEC games routinely sell out. Is there any way to increase interest among BIG fan bases for these games, and is there any benefit (besides, in the case of Wisconsin, raising extra money for a cause) to doing so?
Brian Bennett: I wouldn't classify Ohio State's spring game as "moderately attended;" the Buckeyes led the nation in spring-game attendance in 2012 with more than 81,000 and set a record with more than 95,000 at the 2009 event. (That figure dipped to 37,000 last year, but Ohio State moved its spring game to Cincinnati in 2013 because of renovations at the 'Shoe). Nebraska got more than 60,000 people to come out to its spring game last year, which became memorable because of Jack Hoffman's inspiring touchdown run. Penn State had more than 60,000 two years ago, and I would expect a big crowd at Beaver Stadium next month to see the beginning of the James Franklin era.
Still, Kyle is right that the average spring game attendance in the Big Ten is typically less than that of the SEC. Just check out this list from last spring. But one of the main factors on attendance at those events is weather, and of course, April weather in the Midwest can be a whole lot more unpredictable (and sometimes downright unfriendly) than it is in the South. Unlike with real games in the fall, most fans and alums don't plan for weeks on making it to a game; they look at the weather and see if it's worth it to sit outdoors and watch a practice. Spring games are a great way for fans to get a glimpse of their team during the long offseason, especially those with kids, but they're not usually all that exciting, either. And with every team's spring game available on the Big Ten Network or elsewhere, I can't blame anyone for finding something better to do on an April weekend.
Brian Bennett: It's neither, Andy. The $100,000 pay raise Pelini got was worked into his contract in 2011 and was nothing more than a scheduled formality. The more interesting question is whether he'll get a one-year extension to keep his current deal at five years. It hasn't happened yet, but it still could. Ultimately, though, we all know that 2014 is what's most important for Pelini's future. If Nebraska has a mediocre or subpar year, athletic director Shawn Eichorst might be inclined to make a change. If Pelini can finally deliver a conference title or at least maintain the nine- and 10-win plateau without as much off-the-field drama as last year, he'll likely be safe.
Brian Bennett: It was by no means a vintage year for the Silver Bullets, though most of the bad Ohio State defensive performances came in the final weeks of the season. Depth became a major issue, especially in the Orange Bowl, and I was a bit surprised some younger players such as Vonn Bell didn't see more reps earlier in the year. (Though, to be fair, the Buckeyes were 12-0 and ranked No. 2 going into the Big Ten title game). Meyer has said over and over again that Ohio State's defense has not been up to standards, especially at linebacker. He has not really criticized his coaches or defensive coordinator Luke Fickell much at all publicly, and I'm not sure what purpose that would serve. The offseason hiring of Chris Ash from Arkansas to be co-defensive coordinator spoke volumes, however, and I'd expect him to have a big role in the defense this year.
Brian Bennett: I would argue that it can work and that it did work, for the most part, last season, as the Hoosiers fielded the Big Ten's top passing offense despite juggling Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson at quarterback. Sudfeld started off the season hot but faded a little down the stretch as Roberson took on a bigger role. Sudfeld throws it a little better than Roberson, but Roberson has better wheels. Conventional wisdom suggests that you need to pick just one guy, but Northwestern had success with a two-quarterback system in 2012 and used the same plan last season. Would coach Kevin Wilson like to see one guy totally separate and command the offense this spring as the clear No. 1? Probably. But part him probably also likes the idea of having two guys push each other constantly and knowing he has an option should one struggle on gameday.
Brian Bennett: While there were rumors of the ACC courting Penn State and it's no secret the Nittany Lions felt isolated, I don't think the NCAA penalties had any impact whatsoever on the league's decision to expand East. This was all about opening up new markets, both for TV eyeballs, new fans and recruiting purposes. That's why the Big Ten chose schools located in the highly populated New York/New Jersey and Washington D.C./Baltimore/Virginia, even if the specific programs offered nothing extra special in terms of football. North Carolina and Duke would have given the league better "brands" (though not all that much in football), but they wouldn't have created as much potential areas for growth. It's also odd to me to suggest that league officials would regret the expansion decision when Rutgers and Maryland haven't even officially joined the conference yet.
On to the latest 'bag ...
Barry from Sheboygan, Wis., writes: Purdue fans had a renewed hope when Darrell Hazell was hired (I still believe in him). We took it on the chin when Purdue went 1-11 with mostly blowout losses (strangely enough except for Notre Dame and a very good MSU team). Then signing day comes and Purdue signs the lowest-rated recruits in the B1G (including Maryland and Rutgers). I haven't given up on Hazell or Purdue. I know they are rebuilding and it is not reasonable to expect too much next season. What would be considered the best, worst and most likely record next season? If you feel up to it, what would be the highlights? I would rather Purdue be competitive in all games and win four games then win five and be blown out of most of the rest.
Brian Bennett: The transition from Danny Hope to Hazell was rougher than most people expected. But Hazell is trying to play a much different style on offense, with bigger, more physical players, and the talent on the defensive side -- especially at linebacker -- has been lacking for a while. Couple that with a very difficult 2013 schedule, and the recipe for disaster was complete. I don't worry about recruiting rankings; it's much more important for Hazell to get his type of player into the program. His success in landing talented quarterbacks is encouraging, but there are a lot of other holes to patch. With Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Southern Illinois on the nonconference schedule, Purdue has a chance to triple its 2013 win total before even getting to Big Ten play. The conference schedule is mostly unforgiving, but I think the goal has to be getting at least one league win. A 4-8 record seems likely to me, with five wins probably the ceiling and a two-win season the floor.
Brian Bennett: I'll have a better idea once we get more familiar with the Scarlet Knights' personnel and hopefully see them in spring practice. Though I covered Rutgers a few years ago in the Big East blog, I didn't follow the team that closely the past couple of seasons because there simply wasn't time. I do know this: The Scarlet Knights' schedule, which has been weak at times in the past, is a bear in 2014. Nonconference games on the road against Washington State and Navy will be tough, while the inaugural Big Ten slate includes crossovers against Wisconsin and Nebraska in addition to the rugged East Division slate. Rutgers could have a rough go of things in 2014, especially if the quarterback situation does not improve significantly. If the team can get to six wins this season, that would be a nice accomplishment, in my opinion.
Brian Bennett: It's a good question, and one that can be asked from both sides. I believe there will be a curiosity factor at first, and you never have to worry about Nebraska fans showing up for a road game. Big Ten West Division schools such as Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern have more brand-name appeal than many of the programs Rutgers would have played in the American Athletic Conference, though it will take Maryland fans more time to get used to being out of the ACC. A bigger question I have is how much interest teams such as Nebraska and Iowa -- or even many teams in the East, frankly -- will have in Maryland and Rutgers coming to their turf. The only real way to generate and maintain interest is for those teams to be competitive and score some key victories.
Brian Bennett: When you consider the NCAA sanctions and the coaching change, it really is quite amazing what the Nittany Lions achieved on the recruiting trail. I think that speaks to a few things. One is the enduring appeal of Penn State because of its tradition, huge fan base and emotional resonance with players and families. Another factor is that the Lions remain in a strong area for recruiting, even if it's not as talent-rich as it was 20 years ago. And lastly is the job that both Bill O'Brien and James Franklin did. O'Brien set the tone early in his tenure by luring top prospects such as Christian Hackenberg and Adam Breneman. Franklin, with his recruiting prowess, could take it to the next level.
Brian Bennett: That's pretty steep, Jack. When I was in college, football tickets only cost $5. (Of course, I went to Kentucky in the early- to mid-1990s. I should have been paid to go to games.) I'm sure students don't mind shelling out a little cash to see Ohio State come to the Big House, but to do the same for Central Michigan and Akron is not quite as appealing. Every program looks to maximize its revenues, but to charge high prices to students doesn't seem right. Then again, it's also a supply-and-demand issue.
David from Nashville writes: All Players United! Well except walk-ons, that is. I'm sorry, but Kain Colter is losing me. Personally, I completely understand wanting medical coverage for football injuries sustained while representing the university. But excluding walk-ons from having a ”'voice at the table,” as Colter calls it? Do they not sustain injuries, get concussions or have medical bills? And they don't even get the free education from a very prestigious, and expensive, school like Northwestern! Or perhaps, just like the NCAA, Kain Colter just wants “his,” and including your walk-on teammates will hurt his legal argument to get “his.”
Brian Bennett: Clearly, there are more questions than answers right now about the Northwestern labor union movement. Can students at a university really be classified as "employees?" How would such a union arrangement work with Title IX? How long would medical benefits last, and who would decide whether a former player's injury was football-related?
The issue of walk-ons is another one, although a minor point, in my opinion. Only those who are receiving scholarships can really argue that they are being compensated like an employee, and any walk-on who plays enough to merit post-career benefits would likely be put on scholarship at some point. It's also not fair to say Colter is looking to "get his" when he has already completed his eligibility and likely would not see any personal gain from leading this movement. On the contrary, he's risking a lot by agreeing to become the public face of this movement.
I question whether a labor union is the right way for the players to go, and it certainly was odd to see college football players standing alongside steelworkers' union members at Tuesday's news conference. But I also think it's way past time for players to organize in some way and make sure their rights and concerns are being considered. College football is a multibillion-dollar industry that's only going to get richer with the new playoff system, and everybody from head coaches to assistants to athletic directors are getting rich off the sport. Everybody except the players, who put their bodies at risk for our enjoyment, that is.
Yes, the players receive scholarships, and at a place like Northwestern, the value of that can exceed $250,000 over the course of a player's career. But the players in this movement aren't asking for cash. They're asking for things such as medical treatment beyond their playing days, better concussion prevention and care and a trust fund that can allow players to continue their schooling following their careers. (Many of their demands, by the way, are not that different from Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany's own collegiate reform plan). Mostly, they are asking for a larger voice and a seat at the table in a system that too often treats them like disposable indentured servants. That seems a highly reasonable request to me.
Brian Bennett: I'm not sure Hyde blossomed as much as he was healthier in 2013 and got plenty of opportunities after his early-season suspension. He did run for 995 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2012 despite some injury problems, after all. I think a better example of someone who went from very good player to all-out beast in 2013 is Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah. Belton could be a guy who takes a similar path, though he has some competition for carries with Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch around. Indiana's Tevin Coleman is another running back who could take it to the next level after running for 958 yards in his first season starting. Maybe Iowa's Jordan Canzeri, if he can get more reps (and stay healthy).
On defense, I'd say Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes could follow Darqueze Dennard's path into superstardom. And Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa could go bonkers on the league.
Dane from Akron, Penn., writes: Really, Brian? PSU/Michigan, 4-OT game at No. 6? This game had it all. A freshman QB drives 60-plus yards in like 40 seconds (two unbelievable catches on that drive), a clutch kicker missing three field goals... I repeat, 4 OTs!
Brian Bennett: The game had it all except quality of play, as I explained in my post. Just because a game goes long does not mean that it was well-played. You mentioned the missed field goals. The two teams each failed to score in two of the overtimes and there was only one touchdown in all four of the extra periods, which led to a lot of national writers poking fun at the Big Ten on Twitter during the game. There were also seven combined turnovers. It was exciting, no doubt, and a great win for Penn State after a tremendous regulation comeback. But it was also very sloppy.
John R. from Dubuque, Iowa, writes: Brian, am I the only Illini fan that's thrilled to see a new QB take the reins in Illinois? Sure the numbers were great, but the predictable interception always happened! I can't wait for Wes Lunt to play. The way the defense talked about his skills when he ran the scout team's offense is enough make any humbled Illini fan excited of something. Thoughts?
Brian Bennett: You're definitely not alone, John. There's a big buzz about Lunt taking over and running Bill Cubit's spread offense. At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, he looks more like a classic quarterback than Nathan Scheelhaase did, and Lunt was a blue-chip stud coming out of high school. I'd caution you not to view him as the savior yet; remember that Lunt struggled a bit as a freshman at Oklahoma State, a program that usually makes quarterbacks look great. There are also questions at receiver for Illinois, and don't discount what Scheelhaase did last year in passing for more than 3,000 yards. Still, the talent is definitely there, and I'm also excited to see what Lunt can do in that offense.
Brutus from The Ninth Circle writes: I don't know about other people, but I've long held the opinion that Penn State underachieves. By this I mean that they are a national power in terms of fan base, facilities, revenue and name brand appeal. Just not a national power on the field. I felt this was certainly true for the last 10-15 years under Paterno. Under O'Brien, you had the sense that the game and team were being upgraded, but he himself didn't have a catchy personality. And I didn't even think it was important until I'm seeing Franklin and his recruiting. It's way too early to tell if that translates to success on the field. But it appears that the foundation is (hopefully) being laid for better results in the future. What I see is someone putting energy into the whole program. It certainly would seem like the program might actually start taking advantage of its assets and capability. Thoughts?
Brian Bennett: I think you can make some parallels between Penn State and Florida State. Both programs were probably held back a little because their legendary coaches stayed on too long. Remember when Joe Paterno was doing his recruiting via Skype from his office? Now you have the almost manic energy of James Franklin, who along with his aggressive assistants will likely kill it on the recruiting trail. Of course, the toll of the NCAA sanctions can't be overstated, and Franklin has to prove that A) he's a championship-caliber head coach; and B) that he's willing to stick around Penn State for a long time. But you're right in that the marriage of Penn State's resources and Franklin's particular skills should prove very fruitful for the Nittany Lions.
Michael B. from East Lansing, Mich., writes: The East Division next season seems to be Michigan State's to lose. I understand that Ohio State will be in the picture, but can we really place Michigan in that race with their lackluster performances over the past few years? Seems to me that Penn State would be the next best in the division going into the season.
Brian Bennett: Michigan State and Ohio State appear to be the clear co-favorites for the East next season. While I expect Michigan to improve on its 2013 showing, the Wolverines still have a lot more question marks in my view than the Spartans or Buckeyes, and they have to play both those teams on the road in '14. Penn State is an intriguing contender because it gets both Ohio State and Michigan State at home, where the Nittany Lions played much better than on the road last year. But I think the Buckeyes and Spartans still have the commanding edge in talent and depth, and we should see one of those two in Indianapolis in December.
Darren from Spring Hill, Fla., writes: I'd appreciate your thoughts on Indiana's coordinator situation. I've also thought the pecking order in the BCS era is 1. SEC, 2. (3-way tie depending on year) Pac-12/Big 12/Big Ten; 3. ACC 4. Varies. So why would a coordinator leave IU for the same position at UNC (Littrell) ... is the ACC and, say, the Mountain West more appealing than a low-tier Big Ten school? Thanks.
Brian Bennett: While it's somewhat unusual to see a Big Ten coordinator leave for the same job at what is at best a mid-tier program in the ACC, we have to remember Indiana is not exactly a football power. The Hoosiers have been to one bowl game since 1993 and often play in front of a bunch of empty seats, and the program has not historically provided much of a springboard for coaches' careers. So if Seth Littrell wanted to move on after two very successful years, that becomes more understandable.
We also don't yet know the money situation here. Early reports said Littrell would also be named assistant head coach at North Carolina, which suggests a pay raise. Indiana has made a much bigger commitment to football in recent years but still isn't among the top-paying Big Ten schools when it comes to coaches' salaries. Perhaps the most interesting aspect here is that Littrell -- a former Oklahoma player with deep Sooners ties -- is leaving former Oklahoma coordinator Kevin Wilson's staff to join that of former Oklahoma State play-caller Larry Fedora.
Lachlan from Winterpeg writes: Hey BB, with the hiring of the new assistants at PSU, I see two that stand out to me. The defensive coordinator and the receivers coach. The defense last year had many ups and downs (mostly downs) and bringing in a guy that fielded a top-25 defense last year in the SEC brings in hope. On the other end, a receivers coach that has produced a couple of All-American receivers takes on the task of taking the remaining WR group for PSU that was lackluster last year, and trying to turn them into a threat in the passing game seems challenging. Which of these two do you expect to have a better handle on things being as both have issues to work with, depth with the defense and a group of unproven receivers on the other?
Receivers coach Josh Gattis has a tougher assignment. No player outside of Allen Robinson really produced a whole lot at wideout for the Nittany Lions last year, and Brandon Felder is gone, too. Geno Lewis has solid potential but still needs polishing. Gattis will likely have to quickly coach up some incoming freshmen such as De'Andre Thompkins and Chris Godwin. The receiver group will have to make a lot of progress this offseason to give Christian Hackenberg some help. Remember, too, that head coach James Franklin has coached receivers in the past, and Penn State has also reportedly hired former Temple receivers coach Terry Smith for an unspecified role. So that position should get a lot of attention.
John from Minneapolis writes: Hey, Brian. In Monday's chat you answered a question about Philip Nelson and stated, " Nelson himself didn't light it up as a passer, but he might not want to run it as much as Minnesota seems to want from its QB. If that's the case, I have no problem with him transferring somewhere else." I understand what you're saying, but whatever happened to sticking with a commitment? It smells like weak character to me. That same attitude is why the divorce rate is 50 percent. That's it, thanks.
Brian Bennett: The problem is that commitment and loyalty too often is a one-way street in college sports. A player such as Nelson is supposed to fulfill his four years to the school, yet coaches can leave at any time and his scholarship is up for renewal every season? And Nelson will have to sit out a year unless he transfers to a lower level. The reality is that college sports is a business, and players have to look out for themselves. If Nelson believes his future will be better served by playing in a different system, more power to him.
Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: The Gophers certainly are not in the top half of the B1G as far as budget, but they bought not only a quality head coach but a whole staff that will not be easily influenced by a few extra bucks. You have any thoughts about whether Jerry Kill and his staff deserve raises?
Brian Bennett: Kill made a reported $1.2 million last year, which is hardly chump change but still ranked as the lowest in the Big Ten. Minnesota officials said they would work on bumping up Kill's pay this offseason, and Kill would like raises for his assistants, too. After an eight-win season, that staff is definitely in line for some salary increases. The price of keeping a high-quality head coach in the Big Ten is escalating rapidly. The good news for the Gophers is I don't think Kill is looking to leave anytime soon.
Dave from Millstone, N.J., writes: So, Brian. We're BaAAaack. ... When is the date when you'll start covering Rutgers in the blog? We missed you since you bolted the Big East for the B1G -- now we're following you, haunting you, filling your dreams. We're coming; you can't stop it now. Oh, sure, you can change assignments and head to the ACC, where Andrea abandoned us to last year. But we will find you, no matter what. Now write one of you famous opinions on how RU will never be great. Go ahead, make my day! Seriously, looking forward to getting picked on by the big boys of the B1G for a few seasons before we take over. So when's the warm welcome start on the blog?
Brian Bennett: You made me laugh, Dave, so good job. I'm looking forward to reuniting with Rutgers and visiting Piscataway again. Maybe I should start increasing my workouts now in anticipation of hitting a grease truck. We typically incorporate new schools right after signing day. So look for coverage of the Scarlet Knights -- and Maryland -- in the Big Ten blog in just a couple more weeks.