Penn State Nittany Lions: big ten mailbag

Big Ten Monday mailbag

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
5:00
PM ET
Sorry for the lack of a mailbag last Wednesday, but I was busy catching up with folks at Ohio State. Never fear: the Monday mailbag is back.

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.


Kelly from Wilmington, N.C., writes: Brian, I know you said in your article that you don't think "The Game" would ever be a prime-time game, but do you think Michigan will gauge this year's game vs. Penn State to consider using Penn State and Ohio State every other year for a night game? They went from "never" to yes with Notre Dame and are now using Penn State. Yes, they get a great spot every year on ABC, but could you imagine if they moved to it a night game? Is it possible that they have realized that at least one night game a year is great in so many ways, not just for Michigan, but the Big Ten as a whole?

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.


Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J., writes: Can any conclusions be drawn about the benefit of spring games based on some of the attendance numbers you guys have mentioned in your recaps? I'm not going to pull a Braxton Miller and brag about PSU's "domination" of spring game attendance in the B1G, but ... some schools can really use the spring game as a springboard for recruiting, while other schools ... under 10,000 at Maryland, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and more might only be hurting their own image? Weather wasn't much of a factor this weekend, so what is the reasoning for the rather paltry attendance numbers, or is the annual spring game at other schools not nearly the weekend long "festival" that the Blue-White game is in State College every year?

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.


Dalton from Cincinnati writes: I've had some different debates with some of my friends on why Michigan hasn't been able to rebound and compete for a Big Ten championship since 2006. To clear things up, do you think it is because Michigan State is no longer "the little brother" in this rivalry, or because Ohio State has won all but two meetings against them since 2001? Or is it the fact MSU hasn't had as much coaching turnover, has had better coaching and better development of their recruits and has had more winning seasons? I think MSU becoming more constant under Mark Dantonio has led to this occurring than anything else. What is your take on this?

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.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
5:00
PM ET
Time for another round of your emails ...

@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!




Ryan from Lincoln, Neb., writes: Husker fans are just now starting to wake up to spring football now that basketball season has ended. With Ameer Abdullah, Imani Cross and Terrell Newby all returning for the Huskers this fall, plus an exciting new weapon in redshirt freshman Adam Taylor, would you say Nebraska has one of the most dynamic, if not most talented, stable of running backs in the conference? How do you think it currently stacks up against other programs such as Wisconsin, Michigan, or Ohio State?

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.




Jake from MTL writes: Hey, Brian, with all the talk of the Michigan QB competition, why hasn't anyone mentioned Russell Bellomy? Has he dropped put of the competition and I just never got the news?

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.




Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J., writes: Brian, a lot has been made recently, with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland to the B1G, that this provides a natural rivalry for Penn State. There has also been a lot of mention about these not being real "rivalries" because Penn State has owned both of those football programs based on past records. I for one am OK with PSU NOT having a true "rival." I understand that some schools have built up rivalries over the decades, but I do NOT understand why the media has seemingly forced fans to think that their schools NEED to have a rival. You can't force these things, or just say because school X and school Y are in close proximity they have to be rivals. I believe MOST PSU fans would prefer to have Pitt scheduled every year, to continue that former "rivalry", as many PSU fans were taught from a young age, "if you can't go to college, you can always go to Pitt."

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.




Cam from Lansing, Mich., writes: Other than for obvious money reasons related to TV, etc., does the move to the Big Ten make sense for Maryland and Rutgers? I think no from a competitive standpoint. Everyone knows football is the big money-making sport in college athletics, and with Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State in the same division as Maryland and Rutgers, in your mind how much of a shot do they have at being competitive?

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.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

March, 19, 2014
Mar 19
5:00
PM ET
Take your nose out of the brackets for a second and dive into this latest Big Ten mailbag.

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.


Taylor from North Platte, Neb., writes: Brian, love the blog! Question I ask people in "The Good Life" a lot is, would you rather see Nebraska play Wisconsin at the end of the year instead of Iowa? Many agree, the Iowa rivalry is forced (I personally cheer for Iowa over ISU in the Cy-Hawk Game) for Nebraskans, and many people have a bad taste in their mouth when talking about Wisconsin, just because the whippings they have given the Huskers two out of three times Nebraska has played them. Just wanted your thoughts on that.

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.


Tim from Raleigh, N.C., writes: I just read your article about the running game at Wisconsin with Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement. In the article, you mention that there isn't depth besides those two. I agree that there isn't any "proven" depth, but that hasn't stopped Wisconsin recently. Just like every other year, Wisconsin starts the season with two good running backs and questionable depth. But the No. 3 RB always proves that the depth is there. White, Gordon and Clement all proved to be great players while only being third on the depth chart. I wouldn't be surprised to see Taiwan Deal or maybe Vonte Jackson (I know he has moved to safety, but want to see him at RB) provide the depth for the Badgers.

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.


Joelfr from South Brunswick, N.J., writes: Do you think that Rutgers will stick with experienced but inconsistent QB Gary Nova this coming season as Big Ten action starts, or will they go with one of their young QBs who have never started a game?

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.


Andrew from Fremont, Ind., writes: Brian, as a Purdue fan, the 2013-14 athletic season was horrible, bottom of the league in both major sports. I believe things are going to be better in 2014-15. To find a ray of hope, I decided to look back at the Big Ten's worst since the turn of the century. The records obviously point to the Hoosiers being the worst (surprise!). IU has only had one season where they have finished at .500 since 2000, and in only six of those years has it won more than one conference game. Aside from Illinois, no one in the Big Ten has even been close to being that bad. Despite surprise trips to the Rose and Sugar Bowls, Illinois has done their best to match IU's level of awfulness with three zero-win Big Ten seasons during that time. As bad as Purdue was this season, history seems to favor that a crummy IU team or the Fighting Illini are destined to reclaim the basement. Which Big Ten team gets your honor in the preseason as the Big Ten's worst?

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.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
5:00
PM ET
Your second serving of my mailbag for the week has arrived ...

@JeffHurdaCow via Twitter writes: Do you think that the Big Ten will get a team into the playoff, and who is more likely?

[+] EnlargeAli Highsmith
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelOhio State was the last Big Ten team to play for the national championship, after the 2007 season.
Brian Bennett: That's really the key question for 2014, isn't it? It's bad enough that the Big Ten hasn't played for a national title since the 2007 season; from now on, getting to the final four will determine just how relevant any major league is. Football Outsiders recently looked at the top 10 contenders for the playoff and included just one Big Ten team: Ohio State, which they ranked eighth with a 34 percent chance of finishing 11-1 or better. You absolutely have to throw Michigan State in there, as the Spartans broke into the elite ranks last year and has a spotlight nonconference opportunity at Oregon. If Wisconsin can manage to beat LSU in the opener, the Badgers have a very nice schedule the rest of the way. Those would be my top three contenders.

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.


Matt from Ypsilanti, Mich., writes: I think this could be the year that starts the rise of the Big Ten and the fall of the SEC (short term). My reason is this: For the first time in a long time, I think it looks like QB play will be much improved. It could be a position of strength for the Big Ten in 2014 due to many experienced QBs returning and a lot of young talent as well. Many of the top teams in the SEC do not have their starters back, and although they will still have talented signal callers, they will likely see a drop in production for SEC QBs. Do you agree the Big Ten will have an advantage over the SEC -- and maybe all other conferences -- at QB next year?

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.


Andrew from Allentown, Pa., writes: What are your thoughts on the new coaching staff at Penn State? I am pretty high on the staff, but I worry a bit about the offensive coordinator and QB coaches. It looks to me like the defensive staff is pretty elite after what they did at Vandy, but the offense struggled, ranking in the 90s in total offense most of the time. Was this a lack of talent at Vandy or a product of their system?

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.


@HawkFlies via Twitter writes: Is Iowa a dominant offensive line in 2014 with Scherff returning as well as OL coach Brian Ferentz?

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).


Chris from Chicago writes: To what degree should injuries during the spring be a concern? I know in Spring 2013 that Northwestern's O-line was banged up, and then they struggled in the fall. Should I be similarly concerned now that the Northwestern D-line is banged up in Spring 2014? What do teams (not just Northwestern) do to overcome spring injuries, and not have them have a carry-over effect into the fall?

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.


Alex K. from Decatur, Neb., writes: What do you think the direction if the Big Ten should be after the additions of Maryland and Rutgers? Should Notre Dame be a top target still, or maybe more East Coast? No change?

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.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

March, 3, 2014
Mar 3
5:00
PM ET
Let's beat a case of the Mondays and another depressing winter storm with this edition of the mailbag. Remember to keep your questions coming, as Adam and I are both doing two mailbags per week now. Or you can always tweet us your questions.

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.


Andy from Beavercreek, Ohio, writes: Does Bo Pelini's raise signal a commitment to the coach, or is it a "Hey, recruits, don't run screaming when we lose a few games" raise?

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.


Jared from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Can you think of another year where Ohio State's defense would have accounted for 30 percent of the best offensive performances of the season? I've heard the excuse that the talent was down from the norm, but you can't tell me the Buckeyes had less talented athletes than many teams that outpreformed them on D. Are you surprised there hasn't been more talk about accountability of the coaches, especially with a guy like Urban Meyer at the helm?

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.


Luke B. via Twitter writes: Do you think Indiana's two-QB system can work, or would it be in IU's best interest to pick one and stand by him?

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.


LP from NYC writes: Brian: Nobody really talks about this but it feels to me that one the reasons the B1G made the decision to expand East was to protect one of their power brands, who at the time was just given the worst penalty in the history of college sports. Now that my Nittany Lions have shocked the world, including Jim Delany, do you think the B1G brass regrets this decision even a little bit? I mean, can you imagine if they went after Carolina and Duke instead of Rutgers and Maryland?

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.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
5:00
PM ET
There was no mailbag on Monday because of Presidents Day, but I still plan on doing one that day in the future. So keep your questions coming.

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 Insider 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.


Jim H. from Albany, NY, writes: I am so pumped for July 1, when Rutgers finally enters the B1G. Thanks for adding them to the blog now, rather than wait until then. I've been reading the blog for the past year, and am looking forward to articles about RU here. One question: How well/poorly do you expect Rutgers to fare in the B1G East this coming season?

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 from New York writes: Having gone to Maryland for my undergrad studies and Rutgers for graduate school, I am very excited about having both join the Big Ten. What kind of interest will the games against the Western teams, like Nebraska and Iowa, generate?

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.


Eli from New York writes: How Penn State was able to get the third best class in the B1G Insider is beyond me. Discuss.

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.


Jack from Ann Arbor writes: Interesting article on the declining student attendance. I wanted to comment from the perspective of a current student at Michigan. I believe the overlying issue is the rise in ticket prices every year. This year our ticket package was over $330 with taxes and fees, which doesn't even include a T-shirt anymore! To me it feels like the university cares more about making money than they do about the students who actually attend the school and they need to make tickets more affordable to students. How is the university going to expect us to pay for season tix as future alumni if we can't even afford tix as a student?

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.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
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Coming at you from the United Mailbaggers Local 40205 …

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.


[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsNebraska's Ameer Abdullah is a good role model for running backs looking to improve next season.
Zach from Southgate, Mich., writes: Brian, who will be 2014's Carlos Hyde in the B1G? By that, I mean a player who showed flashes of talent early in his career but blossoms into an all-conference type of performer his final season. Guys like Ohio State CB Doran Grant, PSU RB Bill Belton, and Northwestern LB Chi Chi Ariguzo come to my mind as possibilities.

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.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
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Winter stinks. Warm me up with some of your emails:

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?

[+] EnlargeBob Shoop
Sean Meyers/Icon SMINew Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop takes over a defense that loses just three starters and he should have plenty of talent to work with this season.
Brian Bennett: Just in terms of talent and experience to work with, new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop should have an easier go of things right away. Shoop -- whose brother, John, is Purdue's offensive coordinator, giving us a Big Ten Shoop-Shoop -- led a Vanderbilt defense that really was the backbone of that team during its nine-win seasons each of the past two years. While Penn State's defense had its struggles in 2013, the unit loses only three starters (DaQuan Jones, Glenn Carson and Malcolm Willis). Shoop will need to develop leaders on that side of the ball and improve the secondary, but there is talent in place.

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.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
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Mail time ...

Ed S. from Belleville, Ill., writes: Please ask James Franklin how he can justify going after kids he recruited for Vanderbilt and whether he is going out of his way to try to wreck the Vanderbilt football program. What happened to his "fierce loyalty" to the Commodores and what does he now think of recruits who renege on their commitments to other schools?

Brian Bennett: Ed, those are fair questions. Some coaches say they won't recruit players who committed to their previous school when they switch jobs. There are a couple of things to keep in mind here. One, the better players in Vanderbilt's class almost certainly committed to the Commodores because of Franklin, so it makes sense that they'd be interested in following him to another school. Given Penn State's scholarship limitations, he may feel an even bigger need to flip some of those Vandy recruits. And this is who Franklin is, a guy who's going to be aggressive in everything he does, especially so in recruiting. He's going to push the envelope and ruffle some feathers.


Glenn K. from Leesburg, Fla., writes: Brian, regarding your article about BIG ticket sales for bowl games, don't you think attendance might also have been affected by the economy and the weather? If you want to enjoy the whole enchilada with your team before the actual game, including airfare, hotel, parties, tours, etc., you're looking at thousands of dollars (I know from experience), plus thousands more if you're taking your whole family. I wouldn't think that the weather in the Midwest and East helped much, either, as far as traveling goes.

Brian Bennett: The economy absolutely plays a factor, Glenn, and I mentioned the costs in my post. Airfare and hotel rates have gone up, and I was astounded at how expensive hotels in south Florida were over New Year's. These are not cheap trips, for the most part, especially because the majority of Big Ten bowl sites are located more than a comfortable driving distance away from campuses. I doubt very much that weather played a role in keeping people away, since you really need to book these kinds of trips a couple of weeks in advance to have any success finding good deals. If anything, the weather fosters more travel as Midwesterners love any excuse to escape the winter. But there's little question that bowl trips are becoming more difficult for the average fan, and it will be interesting to see how fans travel if their team can make it to a Big Ten championship game, national semifinal and national title game all in about a month's time under the new playoff system.


Kevin from Saline, Mich., writes: What is it that has made this 2013 MSU football team so much more successful than the 2011 Spartans? Every skill position on that 2011 team was terrific, the defense was still elite, and the chemistry and leadership with Kirk Cousins at the helm was extremely good as well. Is it just finding the inches, as Mark Dantonio always says? I was convinced that 2011 team was destined to be the team to break our Rose Bowl drought. I couldn't be happier with this season and this team, but when I compare them side-by-side with the 2011 version, that 2011 version seems more talented to me.

Brian Bennett: Kevin, you're right that the 2011 Michigan State team was awfully good and probably still a bit underrated in hindsight. The offense was much more experienced in 2011 with Cousins and B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin at receiver. The defense was very good, though not quite as elite as the 2013 team. The 2011 team turned in a couple of clunkers, however, including an 18-point loss at Notre Dame and a 24-3 defeat at Nebraska in which the Spartans looked completely flat a week after beating Wisconsin on the Hail Mary.

Still, that team was extremely close to making the Rose Bowl, losing a back-and-forth Big Ten championship game to Russell Wilson's Wisconsin team that turned on a late running-into-the-punter penalty. And those Spartans went on to beat Georgia in the Outback Bowl. This year's team might have benefited from an easier schedule leading up to the Big Ten title game -- the 2011 squad, for example, played three teams ranked in the top 15 in the regular season, while the 2013 squad faced none. But this year's Spartans turned it on when it really mattered and "found the inches," as Dantonio said. That last step from being a very good team to a championship one is sometimes the steepest.


David K. from New Haven, Ind., writes: Brian, any chance that IU might actually spend what it takes to get a proven defensive coordinator? I think Kevin Wilson has the program going in the right direction, but unless they get somebody in there who knows what he is doing and has been with a winning program, I fear he is doomed to fail because of the awful defense. You get what you pay for, and if they go that way, then the Hoosiers and Wilson are doomed.

Brian Bennett: David, every Big Ten team has money. It's good to see teams like Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan making major commitments to coaching salaries this winter, because that is what it's going to take to win at the big-boy table. Indiana doesn't have quite the deep pockets as some other schools, mainly because of the Hoosiers' attendance problems. Wilson's highest-paid assistant is offensive coordinator Seth Littrell, who is making $356,500 -- and earning it, based on IU's offensive numbers in 2013. I doubt you would see Indiana go much higher than that on the defensive side. Just how many superstar coordinators would be interested in coming to a program that has struggled on defense for so long and now has an offense-first mentality? That remains a major question. There's nothing wrong with finding an up-and-comer to run the defense. Indiana's challenge will be to keep top assistants such as Littrell when they become hot commodities.


Samuel from Iowa City, Iowa, writes: Hey, Brian. Some big coaching moves in the East got me wondering about Iowa. Kirk Ferentz is one of the best-paid head coaches. But what about the assistants? Did I read correctly last week that Iowa is once again one of the most valuable football programs in the country? Does Iowa have the resources the make some big assistant coaching moves like OSU is doing?

Brian Bennett: Iowa does have strong resources. Not quite Ohio State or Michigan level, but certainly in the upper half of the Big Ten. Much of those resources are going to pay Ferentz close to $4 million per year. Neither defensive coordinator Phil Parker nor offensive coordinator Greg Davis are among the top 10 in salary among assistants in the Big Ten. That has been the pattern under Ferentz, who promoted Parker from within and hired Davis after he had been out of football for a year. Perhaps whenever Ferentz retires, the pay scale between the Iowa head coach and his assistants will tilt a little.


Andrew from San Ramon, Calif., writes: Hi, Brian. I've done some research, and the Huskers have an OK schedule coming up this year. Notable teams like Fresno State and Miami lose a lot of key players to the draft. Seven home games and five away games. With the win of the Gator Bowl on their shoulders and new recruits coming in, what do you think the Huskers' chances are at going possibly 10-2 or 11-1? (Losses might be @ Wisconsin and/or Michigan State.)

Brian Bennett: It's entirely too soon to start predicting team records for 2014. I do like Nebraska right now as the early favorite to win the West Division, but I think the conference schedule is a little harder than you make it out to be. The Huskers not only have to travel to Michigan State and Wisconsin but also to Northwestern -- which has played Nebraska extremely tough and should bounce back from an abysmal 2013 -- and Iowa, which just won in Lincoln to close out the recently completed regular season. Compare that to new division rival Wisconsin, which does not play Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State from the East and whose hardest conference road games are Iowa and Northwestern.

I like the potential for Nebraska's young defense in 2014, and if quarterback Tommy Armstrong makes a significant jump in the offseason, the offense could be really good, too. But Bo Pelini's team is going to have to get some work done on the road in league play to get back to the Big Ten championship game.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

December, 4, 2013
12/04/13
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How many of you will be milling around downtown Indianapolis this weekend? Maybe we'll see you there. For now, let's correspond via email:

Alex from Denver, N.C., writes: Please tell me how the two OSU players can avoid being suspended for an entire game, while Will Gholston in 2011 is suspended for what he did in the Michigan game. Watching the OSU player exit the stadium was ridiculous and the OSU community should be ashamed of that behavior. The Big Ten should be ashamed of condoning that behavior. If you don't discipline it, then you allow it.

Brian Bennett: The argument from the Big Ten is that Marcus Hall and Dontre Wilson were ejected from the Michigan game, and that satisfied the requirement of revoked playing time. William Gholston was not ejected from the game against Michigan in 2011 but was suspended by the league for the following game. There is some logic to that argument, especially as it applies to Wilson. As for Hall, I believe some additional punishment was warranted for his double-bird salute as he walked off the field (Urban Meyer said he has handed out internal discipline to Wilson and Hall and another player). And there were other players involved in the scrum who could have faced suspensions.

My big problem with the ruling is that the fight was an ugly scene in the league's most high-profile game, and it looks as if the Big Ten is protecting its two marquee teams and its championship game. Handing down even a smaller suspension like one quarter would have carried some symbolic weight. Instead, the completely meaningless "public reprimand" comes off looking extremely weak and does nothing to curb incidents like that in the future.

Victor from Columbus, OH, writes: Is it just me or does this Ohio State team have that underdog destiny feeling about them? This team reminds me a lot of the 2002 national championship team. OSU isn't dominating opponents, many people nationally aren't giving them a shot, but most importantly, this team refuses to lose! Even with a decisive win (if OSU wins) this coming Saturday, I believe OSU would still be a relatively large underdog in the BCS championship game. Last time that happened OSU won the national championship and shocked the country. Do you feel the destiny or is it just us OSU fans being over optimistic?

Brian Bennett: Ohio State as underdog? That's something you don't hear much. It's hard to say a team coached by Meyer coming off an undefeated season is in any way an underdog; remember that the Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 in some preseason polls. The 2002 team was coming off a 7-5 campaign and was not ranked in the Top 10 to start the year, and those Buckeyes had a lot of close, low-scoring games.

Ohio State does, however, figure to be an underdog in a potential BCS matchup with Florida State. But it won't be anything like that scenario against Miami and its roster full of future pros in the Buckeyes' last national championship game win. Things have broken right for Meyer's team this year in that other contenders like Alabama, Oregon, Baylor and Stanford have all lost. And it goes without saying that Florida State has a possible major issue on its hands. So in that sense, perhaps the Buckeyes are a team of destiny.

Justin A. from Columbus, Ohio, writes: First of all I'd like to say that as a Michigan fan living in Columbus, Ohio life can be rough. Attending The Game this past Saturday, felt like a dream that was ended by a rude awakening. It was a heartbreaking loss and I am proud of my team yet I am sure I will hear plenty of smack talk at work on Monday. As for my question, what does more for the Big Ten's perception: Michigan State beating Ohio State in the B1G CG and MSU playing Stanford in the Rose Bowl and OSU getting matched up with Missouri or Alabama and then both B1G teams beat those teams in their bowl games, or OSU winning the national championship against a Florida State team and hearing about how the SEC didn't have a chance to defend its title streak? I think both scenarios would greatly boost the Big Ten's image, yet I can't decide which scenario would boost it more.

Brian Bennett: I feel for you Justin, and for Michigan fans everywhere. I can imagine it's not too fun to see your two biggest rivals play for the Big Ten championship on Saturday. As for your question, I'll go with the national championship. Sure, there would be some griping from the SEC that Ohio State lucked its way to a title, and even more so nationally if Jameis Winston weren't available for Florida State. Still, when people talk about SEC dominance, do they bring up BCS bowl wins? No, they brag about national titles. That's the ultimate prize, and it's been 12 years since a Big Ten team held the crystal football. People would forget in time the circumstances around the championship, but -- as they say -- flags fly forever. A national title from the Big Ten would also give the league a nice boost heading into the playoff era.

Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J., writes: I understand the annual awards are individual based, but how can a Michigan offensive lineman POSSIBLY win a conference award? Again, I understand this is an individual award, and Taylor Lewan won the award last year, but let's look at some of the stats that directly relate to the offensive line. Team Sacks allowed -- 3rd worst in B1G. Rushing yards per game -- 2nd worst. So the offensive line couldn't pass protect very well (even with a very mobile QB) and couldn't open up running lanes (again includes yards Gardner earned when protection broke down). What exactly did Lewan do to earn this award?

Brian Bennett: Michigan would tell you that Lewan graded out higher this year than he did a season ago when he was a first-team All-American and the Big Ten offensive lineman of the year for the first time. They'll also say that he didn't give up a sack this year. I feel for Lewan, and offensive line is one area where every single player has to be in sync or the whole thing breaks down. The Wolverines' well-documented blocking woes weren't Lewan's fault. Still, I think some of that lack of team success has to be factored in, and I saw Lewan lose his composure in the Michigan State game. My pick for offensive lineman of the year in 2013 would have been Ohio State's Jack Mewhort.

Brutus from The Ninth Circle writes: Hey, Brian, not sure how to read the Penn State win against Wisconsin this past weekend. Do you think BO'B squad exceeded their potential, or did they finally just live up to it? I'm thinking it's the latter, in that the talent was there all season but just hadn't been working together at the same time. Seems like they may have a a brighter future than some predicted.

Brian Bennett: Keeping in mind the obvious depth and talent issues that Bill O'Brien faced, there were definitely times that Penn State underachieved this season. The Nittany Lions lost by 20 to Indiana, probably should have lost to Illinois at home and got smoked by 49 points at Ohio State. The defense was a major problem, as was inconsistency on offense. Don't forget that the Lions played with a true freshman quarterback. I saw Penn State as team with some very good players that was capable of putting together strong performances at time. It just happened that its best performance came at the end.

Kevin from Evanston writes: With Northwestern being a Top-5 APR school can't they go bowling at 5-7? If they were to go to the Little Caesars Bowl in Detroit, plenty of fans would travel.

Brian Bennett: There is a way that Northwestern could get into a bowl. I wrote about this last year when the NCAA approved a new bowl waiver. Basically, if there aren't enough 6-6 teams to fill all the postseason slots, the bowls can pick other teams in this order:
  • Teams that finish 6-6 with wins against two FCS opponents;
  • Teams that finish 6-7 by losing in their conference title game;
  • Teams that finish 6-7 but normally play 13 games (so, basically, Hawaii);
  • FCS teams in transition to the FBS that are at least 6-6
  • FBS teams that finish 5-7, but finish in the Top 5 of the NCAA's academic progress rate

Northwestern ranked No. 1 in the APR so would be eligible under that fifth clause. But it's not going to happen this year. There are 35 bowl games, and more than 70 teams are already at least 6-6 with more possibilities to come this weekend. So the Wildcats will be staying home.

Jim from Albuquerque, N.M., writes: I think Bo Pelini is right. You take all the media hype about whether or not he is on the hot seat, and it's not right. I am glad he stood his ground. The media is not into "equal harassment." As for the refs, they made a bad call on a block NU's wide receiver made on a PSU defender. I would have been angry as a head coach too. That was a reasonable block; and the receiver's head was in front of the defender. The media is ruthless and should be censured for damage they can inflict on a football program's image. And there should be legal implications.

Brian Bennett: Sure, Jim. It's the media's fault that Nebraska gave up 70 points in the Big Ten championship game last year and had a whole bunch of fans ready to make a change. It's the media's fault that Pelini has lost four games every year. It's the media's fault that Pelini hasn't delivered a conference championship or a BCS bowl. It's the media's fault that Nebraska continually shoots itself in the foot with turnovers and has the same volatile personality as its head coach. It's the media's fault that Pelini nearly hit an official with his hat and then cursed in his postgame press conference that was broadcast live, just the latest in a long line of examples of Pelini failing to control his anger.

Yep, all of that is on reporters, because certainly no one else had ever talked about or considered that Pelini might get fired. To borrow another man's words, If you want to arrest me, go ahead and arrest me.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
5:00
PM ET
What you gobblin' about, turkeys?

Daniel from Enemy Territory, Ohio, writes: Brian, what can Michigan do (short of a miracle or swapping teams with say, Alabama) to pull off the major upset against OSU this week?

Brian Bennett: Well, the Wolverines should be praying the rosary and searching for a Zoltar Speaks machine. That's still their best bet in a game in which they are -- and should be -- heavy underdogs.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJake Ryan must play well if the Wolverines are going to hang around with the Buckeyes.
The good news, if there is any, is that Michigan is at home, and the team really has nothing to lose. So if the game is close in the second half, the pressure will be all on Ohio State. The Wolverines will have to find a way to create turnovers and then do something with them -- remember, they were plus-three in turnovers last week at Iowa to no avail. They've got to short-circuit that Ohio State offense somehow. Maybe Jake Ryan has the game of his life. And on offense, Michigan should throw something at the Buckeyes that they haven't seen on film all season. Forget the running game, which hasn't worked all season and won't work this week. Line up with four- and five-wide, run the hurry up and try to get something going in the passing game, which is still probably the best way to exploit the Ohio State D. If Al Borges is going down, why not in a blaze of glory?

But in all likelihood, it will be a blaze of gory for the Maize and Blue.

John from Au Gres, Mich., writes: Are you on board with the idea that MSU can pass Wiscy with a more impressive victory of Minny this weekend? Be prepared, I have a feeling the Spartans play for style points, which is out of character. However, we are still stuck with the BCS, and perception matters. Coach D has already said he thinks the Spartans are playing for a BCS bid this weekend.

Brian Bennett: I assume you mean in our power rankings and on my own personal ballot, since Michigan State is already ahead of Wisconsin where it actually matters. And sure, I'm on board. I'll be in East Lansing on Saturday and am greatly looking forward to seeing the Spartans in person. I already think this is a fantastic team that can play with any team in the country. My only reservation about the Spartans, and it's a slight one, is that the schedule has been highly favorable.

But I just saw Wisconsin play Minnesota last week so should have a great comparison this week. I've said all along that this is basically a flip-a-coin, 2A and 2B situation. I'm totally willing to switch the teams based on what we see this weekend.

Bob Noble from Grand Ledge, Mich., writes: What am I missing? You continue to have Ryan Shazier and Chris Borland rated 1 and 2, respectively as Big Ten defensive POY, while Darqueze Dennard is at No. 3. Which one of the three is a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Award as the NATIONAL Defensive POY? Oh yeah, that would be Dennard of MSU. So how is DD lower on the list of Big Ten POY when the two players listed above him aren't even being considered for NATIONAL POY?

Brian Bennett: First of all, nobody loves Dennard as a player more than me. If he doesn't win the Thorpe Award or make first-team All-America, I'll scream. He is absolutely tremendous and deserving of any honor you want to give him.

Secondly, let's not put a whole lot of stock in whom one award names as its finalists. There are approximately 1.2 million college football postseason awards, and as we've seen over and over again, the voting for those can often turn out inexplicable and wacky.

Finally, while all three are great players, I have Shazier and Borland rated a little higher because I think a linebacker makes a little more overall impact on a defense than a cornerback. And while Dennard has other stars around him such as Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Shilique Calhoun, Borland and Shazier are the unquestioned focal points of their defense.

Paul W. from Dodge City writes: Do you think if Nebraska was 10-1 or 11-0 right Ameer Abdullah would be in the Heisman hunt? I know that he has a lower touchdown total than other running backs but a good game Friday and he could surpass Mark Ingram's rushing total from his Heisman season.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
AP Photo/Nati HarnikAmeer Abdullah has topped 100 rushing yards in 10 of Nebraska's 11 games. The Huskers' only loss came when he didn't reach the century mark.
Brian Bennett: I think you're on to something. Nebraska in a lot of ways has really been out of the national spotlight since the UCLA loss. A lot of people around the country probably don't realize exactly what Abdullah has done, or how he has done it through a spate of injuries around him. Abdullah also hasn't had nearly as many carries as the three Doak Walker finalists have gotten this year. He'll have to settle for likely winning the Big Ten running back of the year award, and, possibly, offensive player of the year.

Ethan from Abbottstown, Pa., writes: The PSU special teams has been awful this year, and it is one of the major impacts of the sanctions. Do you attribute this special teams downfall to the fact the former only special teams specialists are now being used to fill out the offense and defense? Or the fact that PSU must now recruit only must-need positions and not players who could find a home on kickoff and kick return?

Brian Bennett: Special teams have been a problem, really, in both seasons so far for Bill O'Brien. But they have been particularly glaring of late. The sanctions certainly have played a role; it's hard not to notice that Anthony Fera, who transferred from Penn State after the NCAA free pass, is a Lou Groza Award finalist. O'Brien is also forced to play some walk-ons in key spots in the kicking game.

But I don't think you can blame all the problems on scholarship reductions. Coaching still has to enter the equation, and there have been some obvious breakdowns in coverage and returns. And Penn State's special teams weren't very good last year when the scholarship numbers were much higher. So while I continue to believe the sanctions will have an impact on special teams in the near future, I also think the Nittany Lions can do a better job than they have of working around those depth issues in the kicking game.

John from Lima, Ohio, writes: As a Buckeye fan it has been very frustrating to hear all year how bad their schedule is and that being the sole reason they should be held out of the title game, never mind how good they actually are. Especially when you see a team like Clemson sneaking back up the rankings when they have zero wins against currently ranked FBS teams, all their FBS wins are against teams with at least four losses, and they played not one, but TWO FCS teams this season. So while OSU's schedule might not be murderer's row this year, why does the media single them out when other teams have the same issues?

Brian Bennett: Let's not kid ourselves: the negative perception of the Big Ten is weighing down Ohio State. And the Buckeyes are also paying a price for losing by double digits in two BCS title games in the previous decade, which is ridiculous. I also believe not playing in a bowl game last year hurt Ohio State. Clemson got a significant perception bump last year by beating LSU in a bowl game, allowing the Tigers to start out high in the polls. Then they began the year by beating a Georgia team that was ranked in the top 5. That has been enough to keep Clemson ranked high, even though Georgia has since fallen apart because injuries. Ohio State has nothing out of conference to hang its hat on from the past two years.

Pat from Iowa writes: Who would you consider the biggest surprise team this year for good or for worse? Northwestern's down spiral, Minnesota's amazing year, or perhaps a great Iowa rebound year? Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: The biggest positive surprise has been Minnesota. No one thought the Gophers would be 8-3 at this point, especially after Jerry Kill took his leave of absence in the middle of the season. That's been an unbelievable story. Northwestern has to be the biggest negative surprise. This was a Top 20 team earlier in the year that most people thought could contend in the Legends Division. If the Wildcats don't beat Illinois, they'll end up 0-8 in the Big Ten. Unreal. No. 2 on both my lists would be Iowa on the positive side and Michigan on the negative.

Martyn from Cuenca, Ecuador, writes: I read the Big Ten blog religiously. Moved from Madison to Ecuador this year. Miss the atmosphere at Camp Randall & the Kohl Center. On your recent blog about Big Ten linebackers you mentioned Borland's 14 forced fumbles tying the B1G record. I believe it is the FBS record? I will prepare myself to apply to be a guest predictor next year. I catch a few broadcasts on my computer. Keeps my Badger jones in check. A little early, but Happy Holidays.

Brian Bennett: Vaya con Dios, Martyn. Do they have cheese curds in Ecuador? There was a little confusion in regards to Borland's record. He came into the year needing one to tie the FBS record. But Buffalo's Khalil Mack had three forced fumbles in his last game to set the new FBS career mark of 16. Borland is now tied for second and tied for the Big Ten career mark with Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan.

One last note: Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

November, 20, 2013
11/20/13
5:00
PM ET
Excited for my first trip to Minneapolis this weekend. Gophers fans, where should I go on Friday and Saturday? Hit me up with some suggestions.

I suggest you read this mailbag first:

Doug from San Diego, Calif., writes: Can you please explain the math/stats behind Baylor being so close to tOSU in the BCS? Both teams have beaten one currently ranked team, both teams played lame non-conference schedules (with tOSU arguably playing a slightly more respectable one), and both teams are statistically ballpark (except for tOSU's passing stats). Is it the polling that is keeping tOSU close or is it math/stats in the computer stuff? And on the same hand, why is FSU so far ahead of tOSU? FSU's wins against Maryland & Miami do not seem impressive right now, and with those teams current rankings FSU have beaten only one currently ranked team (albeit a Top 10 team).

Brian Bennett: Doug, asking a journalist to do math is always risky business. But I think I can pull it off here. The polls are not to blame for Ohio State's miniscule .0013 lead over Baylor in the latest BCS standings. The Buckeyes are No. 3 in both the USA Today coaches' and Harris polls, while the Bears are No. 4. It's the computers where Baylor makes up some ground, as it is tied for No. 3 in the computer average, with a high of No. 3 and a low of No. 5. Ohio State is fifth in the computers, behind both Baylor and Auburn, with a high of No. 3 and a low of No. 7.

Baylor's computer numbers should rise with a win over Oklahoma State this week, but Ohio State will get a boost if Wisconsin and Michigan State keep winning. As for Florida State, the Seminoles have a healthy lead over the Buckeyes in the polls and are No. 1 in the computer rankings. They haven't been criticized enough for playing a weak schedule, but that win over Clemson still carries weight. At the end of the season, Ohio State could have two better wins -- Wisconsin and Michigan State, should the latter occur -- than Florida State. But the 'Noles' utter dominance all season long gives them the edge.

Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J., writes: Bennett-o! This is very much a biased comment but I'd still like your rebuttal. How can you guys possibly leave Allen Robinson off of your B1G Offensive Player of the Year list? I understand his TD total is low and he isn't playing on a championship contending team BUT...here is where he deserves consideration. He is by far the best WR in the B1G the past two years. This year in particular he is catching passes from a true freshman QB, on a team that has not proven to have many other consistent receivers (so the focus of defenses is on him). He is CLUTCH!!! ... I'm not saying he is deserving over Miller, Hyde or Abdullah to win the award but he needs to be in the conversation.

Brian Bennett: Robinson has very much been in the conversation all year long, as he has consistently ranked in the top five of my weekly awards race tracker for offensive player of the year. He is a tremendous player and the best of a really good class of receivers in the Big Ten this year. It's just really hard for wide receivers to win these types of individual awards because they're so dependent on their quarterback. While Christian Hackenberg has been outstanding for a freshman, I'd love to see what Robinson's numbers would be this year if he were playing with an experienced quarterback (say, the new starter for the Oakland Raiders, for example).

The lack of touchdowns also hurts Robinson's case, as does Penn State's also-ran status. A big finish in the last two games could move him up in the race, but he'll likely have to settle for his second straight Richter-Howard receiver of the year trophy. Not a bad consolation prize.

David C. from Davis, Calif., writes: Again it seems that Michigan State will be penalized for making it to the B1G Championship game when considering possible at-large BCS bids. Isn't it unfair to consider wins and losses when one team plays more games, and if you compare only the regular season schedules, one team has a better record? Granted, this is not nearly as unfair as 2011, when Michigan State beat UM and made it to the Championship game, and UM got a BCS bid solely on their fan base. But still, comparing an 11-2 team to a 10-2 team that didn't make the Championship game, when it would be comparing an 11-1 team to a 10-2 team otherwise, doesn't seem analytically honest.

Brian Bennett: Let's leave the word "fair" out of the discussion, because it is mostly a foreign concept in the bowl system. Michigan State's first concern is finishing in the Top 14 of the BCS to be eligible for an at-large bid. Remember that the Spartans did not do so in 2011 and therefore could not have been selected for a bid over Michigan. Michigan State is No. 13 right now and should move up a bit in the next two weeks if it wins out, but a loss to Ohio State would knock the team back down and make things close.

Here's the other problem for the Spartans in that scenario: if Wisconsin beats Minnesota this week, Michigan State would not have a single win over a ranked team. Now, I happen to think Mark Dantonio's club is really, really good, but the résumé would be viewed as lacking by some folks. Wisconsin is six spots behind the Spartans in the BCS standings but could jump ahead by winning out and finishing with a seven-game win streak. The body of work for Wisconsin and Michigan State at that point would be pretty similar, with both losing to Ohio State, beating Minnesota and losing their one high-profile nonconference game (thanks to help by officials in both).

Of course, the Spartans can make this all moot by simply winning the rest of their games and not leaving it in the hands of voters, computers and bowl committees to decide.

Nat Parduzzi from East Lansing, Mich., writes: Hey Brian, I'd like to get your take on something: Max Bullough is the unquestionable leader of the nation's top defense at MSU. He's a coach on the field -- you'll see him make adjustments to DL gap assignments and even audible out of blitzes like a QB when he sees something he doesn't like -- I've only seen it constantly done successfully on Alabama's national title teams. While MSU's D has no shortage of praise, Bullough seems to be left out in the cold when it comes to individual accolades -- he's not even a semi-finalist for the Butkus award. What gives? Is it a lack of mind-blowing stats? Stats are for losers. Don't the pundits realize that my... I mean Pat Narduzzi's defense probably doesn't have as high of stats because they're on the field so little?

Brian Bennett: Nat -- I see what you did there -- you make some really fine points. But I'll let you in on a little secret: most of the people voting for these awards (and full disclosure: I am a voter for several of them, but not the Butkus) simply don't have time to watch every team in the country closely. They may see some highlights or catch a game here and there. But for the most part, they follow one particular team or conference or region. In other words, they don't get to see the nuances of a certain player like Bullough and what he means. That's why stats take on a bigger role, and Bullough -- who's averaging 6.1 tackles per game and has just one sack this season -- isn't going to leap off the page.

Excuse me for using a baseball analogy here, but as someone who watched well over 100 St. Louis Cardinals games this year, this situation reminds me a bit about the case for Yadier Molina as MVP. People who watched that team closely saw all the amazing things he did for the pitching staff and defense. But those things can't be found in a box score, which is why he didn't win. Same thing, I think, goes for Bullough.

Victor from Norfolk, Va., writes: Brian, with Ohio State having its Senior Day this Saturday against Indiana, I personally believe that Kenny Guiton should get the start. He is a captain on the team and this is his last time playing in the 'Shoe as a player. I know it probably won't happen but I think it would be a great thing to do for a player who has played exceptionally well when called on and is a great leader on this team.

Brian Bennett: Victor, I like the thought because of what Guiton has done for the Buckeyes. But any time you're in the hunt for national and conference titles, I don't think you mess with things at quarterback. Remember that Indiana only lost by three points to Ohio State last year and kept things close well into the second half two years ago in Columbus. I don't think Urban Meyer wants to risk anything, especially after his defense gave up a lot of points to a spread team last week, and Braxton Miller is still his best option. But Guiton should get a nice ovation when he is honored on the field before the game, and if things go the way they should, he should get some playing time in the second half.

Scott from Barron, Wis., writes: I see that a lot of Gopher fans think they have a chance against Wisconsin. They are delusional. I have watched all of Minnesota's games. The Gophers are overrated. They beat Northwestern without Mark and Colter, Nebraska WITH Martinez (subtraction by addition), an impotent Penn State, and got a gift from IU. Also, they do not match-up well with Wisconsin. Their strength is running the ball, Wisconsin's strength on defense. Their weakness on defense is stopping the run. .... The Badgers will roll The Goophers, and I will be in the stands cheering when they do.

Brian Bennett: I don't necessarily disagree with any of that, Scott. Wisconsin is a heavy favorite, and it should be. But you have to admit that there's something special going on with this Minnesota team. The Gophers have some mojo and are playing with a lot of confidence right now. They also have shown an ability to run the ball and control the clock, two things that will be crucial this Saturday. A much worse Gophers team went to Camp Randall last year and trailed by just 11 points heading into the fourth quarter.

Minnesota also has had an extra week to prepare because of its bye last week and will be at home. I'm not saying the Gophers will win. But it wouldn't shock me if they did.

Mark from Az writes: Seems to me like the real bowl battle in the Big Ten is for the 4th place spot. OSU, MSU, and Wisconsin should all win out. OSU could win the title game and Wiscy is getting closer to an at large berth, which may happen. Or MSU wins the title game and OSU would be mostly certain to get an at large berth. Leaving MSU or Wisconsin for the Capital One bowl. But then who goes to the Outback?

Brian Bennett: There's still a lot to be decided, obviously. Everything hinges on whether the Big Ten can get a second BCS berth this season. Right now, I'm still leaning toward no on that question. If not, you can comfortably slot Michigan State and Wisconsin into the Capital One and Outback bowls in some order.

But if there are two BCS bids, then things open up a bit. The Outback just had Michigan last year, so I think it would be doubtful that the Wolverines end up there again -- especially since Michigan likely will be no better than 8-4. A potential 9-3 Nebraska team would be attractive to the Outback folks. The Huskers have been to Florida in back-to-back years, though, and may prefer Arizona, though it's hard to say no to the Florida recruiting possibilities.

Iowa and Minnesota are potential Outback teams as well. If the Hawkeyes were to win out to finish 8-4, they could leap Nebraska and Michigan -- both of whom they would have beaten -- and have some momentum that bowls like. Minnesota has the great story with Jerry Kill but also has to battle its poor traveling reputation. And the Gophers have two tough games remaining with Wisconsin and Michigan State.

So I'd give the edge to either Iowa or Nebraska for that spot if the Big Ten gets two in the BCS. But that remains a big if.

Anthony from Worcester, Mass., writes: As a Michigan fan, I think I would prefer to play in the Gator Bowl rather than the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The Gator Bowl is in recruit-rich Florida, is on January 1st, and is against the SEC. We'd also be playing the #6 SEC team, so we might be favored. I'd rather play an SEC team on NYD than a Big 12 team in late December. Am I wrong?

Brian Bennett: You're not wrong. The Gator Bowl is still a higher-profile game, and it would likely mean an easier and cheaper trip for most Michigan fans. But have you been to Jacksonville in January? On that front, I'd prefer Arizona.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

October, 30, 2013
10/30/13
5:00
PM ET
Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: You used the term "signature win" for the the Gophers. How do we know if that win over Nebraska was a signature win? We don't know if it was until the program changes levels. If the Gophers lose their remaining games this year, will it be a signature win? If they finish in the top 25 this year but don't make a bowl game next year, was it really a signature win? It comes down to 'what is a "signature win"' (sort of like what is an MVP).

Brian Bennett: Don't overthink this one, Craig. Beating Nebraska -- for the first time since 1960, no less -- is absolutely a signature win for this coaching staff at Minnesota. Here's what Jerry Kill said this summer:

"We play three or four rival games. We need to get one of those, maybe do it with a [last-minute] field goal. Everywhere I've been, we've had kind of a signature game where it flipped and we really got going for the program. ... That's where we're at in Minnesota right now. We need to find one of those."

Remember that the Gophers' Big Ten wins in the Kill era before last week were against a mediocre Iowa team, Purdue and Illinois (twice). Whether Nebraska turns out to be a great team this year is besides the point, because the Huskers are a marquee name. And Minnesota didn't even need to win on a late field goal, as it beat Nebraska by double-digits.


Husker from Wayzata writes: Saw your response about Bo Pelini in the Take Two. Agree with most of it, but worst/most deflating loss of his tenure is still 2009 at home to Iowa State. Personally, I'd classify the performance against MN as the very predictable overlooking an opponent and not taking a game seriously coming off of a longer layoff. Think 2008 Colorado/2009 Texas Tech/2010 Texas/2012 Northwestern.

Brian Bennett: The Iowa State loss was truly a bad one and the first one I thought of over the weekend. But that Nebraska team also finished with 10 wins and nearly beat Texas in the Big 12 title game (Iowa State went on to finish 7-6 and, ironically, beat Minnesota in a bowl). In other words, the 2009 loss was a key setback but not a crippling one for a very good Huskers team. The Minnesota loss feels like it could be a turning point in Pelini's tenure, unless Nebraska can come up with a strong November showing. We shall see.

Alex from Harrisburg, Pa., writes: How concerned should we be with PSU's defense moving forward? And I mean not just for this season but the duration of Bill O'Brien's tenure. I was concerned when Bill was hired that this was clearly an offensive hiring and was not too excited about Ted Roof, but at least last season's defense performed admirably. While I'm not against having a more exciting and competent offense, I feel that Penn State had always had a basis on defense (which is why we're known as Linebacker U). Looking at this season and even with the recruiting focus it is clear that there is a focus on the offensive side of the football. What are your thoughts?

Brian Bennett: It's an interesting question, and one you always have to wonder about when an offensive-minded guy is the head coach. I also believe the scholarship situation is a real problem here. I think it's easier to build an offense without tremendous depth, since one or two stars at key positions can make a big difference, than it is on defense, especially in today's offense-first world. (Ask Kevin Wilson at Indiana how that's going). It's pretty obvious to me that Penn State is light on speed and difference-makers on defense and really misses the outstanding group of seniors it had on that side of the ball last year.

With all that said, it's still shocking to see the Nittany Lions give up 147 points in three games, even if it came against three of the best offensive teams in the Big Ten. I'm not terribly worried about the long-term defensive prognosis under O'Brien, because he's a smart enough coach to figure that out once he gets to play with a full deck. But in the short term while the sanctions are still being felt, defense could remain an issue.

Mark from Arizona writes: Where has Mark Weisman been in the 2nd halves lately? Against Ohio State, he dominated the rushing game. Because of that, Iowa dominated the clock. Because of that, the Buckeyes offense couldnt get in sync. Then the 2nd half comes and Weisman disappears and Iowa starts throwing the ball. They fixed what was working in the first half and lost the 2nd half. If they kept pounding away like they did, I think Iowa would have won the game. Then comes Northwestern. Same thing. Iowa ran Weisman in the first, dominated in all phases, and then did the disappearing act with him and nearly lost. This is poor coaching.

Brian Bennett: I don't think it's poor coaching as much as it is game situations and adjustments by the other teams.

Let's look at the Ohio State game. Iowa had only two possessions in the third quarter. On its first one, Weisman opened the drive with a 12-yard run and then had a four-yard carry. But two plays later, the Buckeyes stuffed Damon Bullock on first down. When it's second-and-nine, that's a passing down. Unfortunately for the Hawkeyes, they threw two straight incompletions and had to punt.

The following drive began with a holding penalty, and then Jake Rudock threw an 85-yard touchdown pass to Jake Duzey. I think you'd agree that was a good play call. Weisman did not get a carry in the fourth quarter, but Iowa trailed by a touchdown on the road and probably felt it needed to make something happen in the passing game.

In the Northwestern game, the Hawkeyes' best drive of the game came on its first possession, similar to the week before. Weisman ran for 32 yards on that drive, and Iowa scored a touchdown. But Northwestern shut the running game down after that; Iowa would not reach the end zone again until overtime; in fact, after rushing for 68 yards on the opening drive, the Hawkeyes would finish with just 136 rushing yards.

I would like to see Iowa stick with Weisman a little longer, because he tends to wear down opponents late in games. But it's hard to run when opponents are loading the box or if you're trailing in a game that doesn't feature many possessions.

John from Northern Michigan writes: Compare and contrast the last games played by Wisconsin and Sparty, the entire games. Oh, just happens to be common opponent. Too bad that isn't a protected rivalry.

Brian Bennett: Michigan State beat Illinois 42-3, one week after Wisconsin won in Champaign by a 56-32 margin. I'm not sure how instructive the comparative scoring is here. The Spartans led only 7-3 late in the first half before completely taking over, while the Badgers were up 42-17 at one point and probably could have scored 70 if they really wanted. They also didn't have their best defensive player, Chris Borland, for most of the game. What those two outcomes told me was that Illinois is simply overmatched against the best teams in the conference. Wisconsin's a little stronger offensively, while Michigan State is better defensively. I have both those teams ranked No.s 2 and 3 in the Big Ten right now. I would love to see them play this year, but barring a completely unexpected Ohio State meltdown, it's not going to happen.

Tommy from Savannah, Ga., writes: Brian, I can't help but wonder what the impact would have been if Vanderbilt wouldn't have pulled out of this year's game with Ohio State. Let's imagine Ohio State beats the Commodores by two touchdowns. Would this have had any effect on their perceived strength of schedule?

Brian Bennett: My answer: not much. Vanderbilt is 4-4 overall and 1-4 in the SEC, with its best victory coming over an injury-ravaged Georgia. Beating the Commodores would have helped Ohio State's strength of schedule a little, but it wouldn't have added much to the Buckeyes' case. They would still be behind Alabama, Oregon and Florida State in the pecking order. I'm not sure there are many teams out there Ohio State could have scheduled on short notice that would have changed that.

T.J. from Ashland, Wis., writes: Hey Brian, just wanted to let you know that I enjoy your Blog and have always enjoyed your wit, more this year than any other year I can remember...because...NO ONE ELSE IS TALKING ABOUT THE B1G!!! I've caught three different college football shows on ESPN, and not once was any B1G team mentioned. Outside of the BTN, do you remember a year like this, where it's obvious that there is zero interest in the B1G? Concerns? How long could this continue?

Brian Bennett: Well, it's not terribly different than last year, and at least this season the Big Ten has a legitimate national title contender since Ohio State is eligible for postseason. But the Buckeyes' status is pretty static, and nobody else is making any noise in the BCS picture right now, which means that the league is fairly irrelevant on the national scene. Same goes in many ways for the Big 12, which has Baylor but not a whole lot else. It also means there aren't many games that create a buzz across the country. For example, the Michigan-Michigan State game this weekend has all the makings of a classic. But when it's No. 21 vs. No. 22, it just doesn't get people talking as much.

This is a problem, and it's why we have written and said on numerous occasions that the Big Ten needs to develop depth at the top of the league beyond Ohio State. When an SEC team has a bad season, the conference usually has several others who can pick up the slack. The Big Ten needs somebody else, whether it's Michigan State, Michigan or Wisconsin, to go on a run and give the league another prominent team besides the Buckeyes.

Vincent R. from Columbus, Ohio, writes: After watching Braxton Miller against Penn State, I saw something in him that I saw in a player most Ohio State fans will remember: Troy Smith. As Braxton was squirming his way out of potential sack after potential sack, I began to see the drive in Braxton that I hadn't seen out of an Ohio State offensive player since the last Heisman Trophy winner. To top that off, after making these great dodges in the pocket, he had the presence in mind, just like Smith, to look down field and see the open man. Bearing this in mind, that Braxton looks as good now as Smith did his senior year, could Braxton Miller win the Heisman next year?

Brian Bennett: It would be interesting to see where Miller would be in this season's Heisman race had he not gotten hurt early. He'd probably be behind Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston, but maybe not too far behind. Miller has been terrific in Big Ten play, and he has his completion rate up to over 70 percent. Assuming he returns for his senior year, which at this point looks like the right call, he'll be a leading Heisman contender in 2014. The reason to exercise caution on that, however, is the fact that the Buckeyes will lose four senior starting offensive linemen. There's also a better-than-decent chance that Miller could have a new offensive coordinator, since Tom Herman should be a hot name in the offseason for head coaching gigs.

Jim K. from New Cumberland, Pa., writes: Brian, seriously you think that PSU is going to put up 48 points on Ohio State,. NO way! I agree Ohio State's defense is not as good as usual but they won't give up that at the 'Shoe.

Brian Bennett: I have run some readers' terrible Friday predictions the following week in the mailbag this year. So it's only fair for me to include an email about my own awful score call in the Penn State-Ohio State game. At least I got the winning team right, which is all that matters in my contest with Adam for a St. Elmo's dinner.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

October, 23, 2013
10/23/13
5:00
PM ET
November can't get here soon enough, so we don't have to keep getting questions about why one team is ranked and another isn't or who's ranked above whom. Pretty soon, they'll all play each other and it won't matter. But until then, let's go …

Tom from El Paso, Texas, writes: I understand the view that Wisconsin is underrated, and that Michigan shouldn't be ranked (they are on the verge of a huge win or a huge loss each weekend), but what gives about ranking Michigan State at No. 22 in your rankings? Let's be honest, if Michigan shouldn't be ranked, neither should Sparty ... looking beyond MSU's style points (or lack of), State has six wins against the bottom half of the Big Ten and three against lousy nonconference opponents. They also have a loss is to a "meh" Notre Dame team. At this point in the season Michigan may even have a better "résumé" due to a win over the "meh" Irish, and a 5-2 Golpher team. I agree with the pollsters here, what has MSU done to be considered a top 25 team?

Hunter from East Lansing writes Brian, can you please try to explain to me how Michigan once again has made its way back into the top 25, and even landed at 22 in the first BCS poll? Their only quality win is against Notre Dame, and really how good are the Irish this year? With narrow wins against Akron and Uconn, who may be two of the worst teams in the FBS this year (2-12 combined record), a loss to an ailing Penn State team, and a defensive meltdown against Indiana, one would assume that Michigan isn't a team who have proven themselves worthy of a number next to their name. Please enlighten me on why the voters continue to think Michigan is one of the top 25 teams in the land! GO GREEN!


Brian Bennett: You see what I mean?

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesIs Nebraska better than Michigan or Michigan State? We can argue all we want know, but it will be settled on the field soon enough.
Look, if anyone claims they truly know where Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska ought to be ranked not only in the Top 25 but in relation to each other right now, they're lying. All three teams have major flaws, and all have gaping holes in their résumés. Michigan looked terrible in barely beating Akron and UConn, and it lost to Penn State. Michigan State lost to Notre Dame and has offensive issues. Nebraska got blown out at home by UCLA and has defensive issues.

So who's the best out of these three teams? It's really impossible to say. I have Michigan State ranked highest on my ballot right now because I know the Spartans have an elite defense. I know what I'm getting out of that team every week, and if the offense can play even decently -- which looked like a real possibility before last week's backslide versus Purdue -- then I'm favoring Michigan State against Michigan and Nebraska in a head-to-head matchup. I have Nebraska second of the three on my ballot because I love the offensive potential of the Huskers and am cautiously optimistic that the defense has improved. But Nebraska doesn't have any wins that are as good as Michigan State's road victory at Iowa. As for Michigan, I'm still puzzled as to what exactly that team is, though the Wolverines can be explosive offensively when things are going right.

When it comes to these three teams, rankings at this point are all just opinion. But Michigan plays at Michigan State on Nov. 2, Nebraska goes to Michigan on Nov. 9 and Michigan State plays at Nebraska on Nov. 16. This will be settled on the field soon enough.


Matt from Callaway, Minn., writes: Looking back on the weekend, and how topsy turvy it turned out, do you think my Huskers probably had the best week in the league just by having a bye?

Bennett: I think Minnesota had a pretty good week, getting a Big Ten win and moving one victory closer to bowl eligibility by beating Northwestern. Nebraska did benefit in the polls and I ranked the Huskers after I said I wasn't going to do so in large part based on there being no one else to rank. I also think Michigan State's result against Purdue and Michigan's defensive problems signal that Nebraska can definitely win the Legends Division. Would have been nice if UCLA had beaten Stanford, though.


Mac from Ohio writes: People are constantly criticizing Ohio State's schedule and since the Big Ten is weak, they should have scheduled stronger nonconference opponents. I feel like people do not bother to check what the circumstances were 2-3 years ago when the schedules were made. In 2010, the final BCS rankings, the Big Ten had 3 teams in the top 10 and 4 in the top 25. In 2011, the final BCS standings had 5 Big Ten teams in the top 25. When their schedule was made, they probably did not have to worry about facing multiple top 15 or 20 teams each year. So would you blame Ohio State for being the odd man out in the National Championship picture or would you blame the rest of the Big Ten?

Bennett: No doubt, the perceived weakness of the Big Ten is hurting Ohio State. The Buckeyes' current best win is over Wisconsin, which is not even in the Top 25 of the BCS standings. But when you get down to comparing national title contenders, nonconference schedules are always going to factor in. Just look at Auburn in 2004, which went undefeated as the SEC champion but still didn't play for the title because it scheduled The Citadel, Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana Tech. Ohio State's schedule isn't that egregious, and the Buckeyes couldn't have known Cal would so drastically fall off when it made the schedule. Vanderbilt also backed out of a scheduled game, though I don't think beating the Commodores would have done much for the Buckeyes' case.

All that has been discussed to death. But Ohio State could be an interesting case study going forward. There's been a lot of talk about strength-of-schedule being very important for the four-team playoff, which is great. But if the playoff were in place now and these Buckeyes finish undefeated, they'd almost surely get into the field. So should the model be to schedule tough nonconference teams, or to follow this Ohio State's path and try to go undefeated? The Big Ten has chosen the former path, but this season may prove that the latter strategy works.


SSG Grant from Germany writes: I am a Huge Wisconsin fan, but for the 1st time in my life I actually am cheering for Ohio State. I am so Sick of the SEC. But what is better for the B1G perception wise. I would think having Ohio State to the Rose Bowl and crush the 2nd-tier team like a Stanford or an at-large team. That would put my Badgers unfortunately out of a BCS but an easier matchup at the Capital One bowl, and would have a trickle down of matchups, Giving the B1G a lot of marquee out of conference wins! As opposed to say OSU losing the National Championship, My Badgers getting a bad Matchup and losing the Rose, Nebraska losing the Capital One, etc. What do you think?

Bennett: I think you make an interesting point, though I don't view Stanford as a "second-tier" team and am not sure Ohio State -- or anyone -- could crush them. Still, after watching Ohio State closely, I have my doubts as to whether the Buckeyes are truly as good as Alabama, Oregon and even Florida State. Even Urban Meyer admits this team has some flaws, and it has yet to dominate Big Ten competition. If Ohio State were to go to the BCS title game and get beaten soundly, I'm not sure that would do anybody any good.

It's also a fact that the Big Ten has played "up" in many of its bowl matchups, especially when it has two BCS teams. If the league could get optimal matchups where its best teams are on equal footing, that could result in a better record and bigger wins. Of course, I still think you base your reputation ultimately on national titles, and it's been too long since the Big Ten even played in one. But barring that, your scenario might deliver the second-best option.


JD from Washington, DC, writes: Brian, I'm dismayed by the "parity based scheduling." Not only do I not get to see my Huskers in Maryland for years, but I worry it might lead to a recruiting disparity. As Pat Forde, recently pointed out, Nebraska has a dramatic recruiting disparity based on its geography. Do you think parity based scheduling puts us at an even greater disparity because it limits our exposure to the east coast markets (Rutgers and Maryland), where as Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State get access every year?

Bennett: My concern is not so much with the parity-based scheduling as it is with the geographic setup. Teams in the East Division are by design always going to have more exposure in the new East Coast recruiting areas. I think it's very important for the Big Ten to remain aware of this and try to get the West teams out there as much as possible. I wonder if that will end up becoming a disadvantage for teams in the West. At the same time, I wonder how much Nebraska truly plans on recruiting those areas, which are very far away from Lincoln and haven't historically been any kind of pipeline for the program. The Huskers have reached into Ohio more under Bo Pelini, and they have to recruit nationally because of their location, but for the most part the current staff has focused on a 500-mile radius. I'm just not sure realistically how many kids from the D.C. or New Jersey areas would be going to Nebraska anyway. But the school needs to also benefit from the Eastern exposure, because the Huskers didn't sign on to join the Big Ten with the thought that they'd be playing in the same league as Rutgers and Maryland.


Lone Wolf McCaw from Syberia, USSR, writes: I wrote to you once about the idea of having a point system instead of a selection committee, which you scoffed at. I still think that would be the better choice, but I do think the committee favors the B1G, by a lot. Now, if you break down the committee there are more people with ties to the SEC than any other conference. But who in the committee has better résumés than the two men representing the B1G? Think about it, let’s say they were selecting the teams this year. And Dr. Tom Osborne thinks Ohio State should be part of the four teams, and let's say Condoleezza Rice (let’s use her, since her name struck the most controversy) thinks it should be Baylor. Now, I know Rice did all these things, but is she or anyone else in that room going to argue football with Dr. Osborne? A man that was part of five national titles, with 255 wins as a head coach, played both college football and in the NFL? Not even Archie can do that. And then the second strongest resume is Barry Alvarez (a Husker I might add). Add that both men did their share of recruiting, they know how to sell ideas. The idea of arguing football with any of them is the equivalent of arguing how to throw a 12-to-6 curveball with Adam Wainwright (see what I did there? now you have to use my email.) Not saying they will be biased to the B1G, but I am sure both would know that the B1G is actually a great conference with great teams that don't get their just due.

Bennett: Darn it, he reeled me in with that Wainwright reference! Resistance is futile.

Anyway, I see what you're getting at, and as Jim Delany recently put it, people always stop and listen whenever Osborne speaks. He's that respected. Alvarez has the same amount of respect and is never shy about voicing his opinion. There's no doubt that both are perfect additions to the committee, and they will represent not only the Big Ten, but all of college football, in the best possible manner. Will they be able to lobby a bit on behalf of the Big Ten? I'm sure that will happen, but I also hope the committee does not devolve into regional cliques all supporting their own conferences. I think Osborne and Alvarez have too much integrity to vote for a team simply because it's in their own league (Osborne would have to recuse himself from the room if Nebraska came up, while Alvarez would have to do so for both Nebraska and Wisconsin). But it sure wouldn't hurt to have two such highly-admired men argue the merits of Big Ten football, should they feel inclined to do so.


Andrew B. from Laingsburg, Mich., writes: You asked last week if the Spartans lost to Ohio State in the championship game but still got picked for the Rose, would it feel ... earned?? Back in 1999, MSU beat Michigan head-to-head and the two finished tied in the standings, but Michigan got the BCS at-large spot. When the B1G allowed OSU to postpone their discipline and accept the 2011 Sugar Bowl invitation, 11-1 MSU got shafted again. Then in the 2011 season, MSU won the Legends but UM (whom MSU had again beaten) backed into another at-large BCS invitation. So yes, it already feels like the Spartans have earned a Rose Bowl plus at least one additional BCS bowl.

Bennett: Fair enough. I honestly didn't know the answer when I asked the question but you make great points. As always, we should remember that most of the time, when it comes to bowl games, deserve's got nothing to do with it.


Adam from Lincoln, Neb., writes: I can't understand why you would include one deranged fan's letter in your mailbag just to cut it down in front of the entire readership, especially when question real estate is at a premium. You get crazy letters each week I'm sure. Seems like irresponsible journalism to lay out one letter from a fan you know doesn't represent the fanbase as a whole. I've been a loyal reader for years now and I lost a lot of respect for you and the Big Ten blog today.

Bennett: Adam, didn't you read the whole mailbag? I included letters from three deranged fans. Give me a little credit here.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

October, 16, 2013
10/16/13
5:00
PM ET
It's mail time. I'll warn you in advance, it's going to get weird at the end.

Jason from Columbus writes: Brian, Iowa is the only FBS team in the country that has not allowed a rushing touchdown in the country this season. Ohio State is 12th in the country with 17 rushing touchdowns in only 6 games. Who comes out on top this weekend, Iowa's rush defense or Carlos Hyde, Dontre Wilson, Jordan Hall, and the rest of the Buckeyes who can run through a defense?

Brian Bennett: Good question. Urban Meyer is so impressed with Iowa's front seven that he mentioned them in the same sentence as Alabama this week. Not sure I'd go that far, but the improvement of the Hawkeyes' defense up front has been one of the pleasant surprises this season. However, as you mentioned, Ohio State has a great running game. And that all starts with what has been the best offensive line in the Big Ten for the past two years. The Buckeyes' blockers are big, physical and smart, and they pave the way for the speed of Hall, Wilson and Braxton Miller as well as the power of Hyde. That's going to be tough for any defense to stop, including one playing as well against the run as Iowa.

The bigger concern I'd have if I were Kirk Ferentz and Phil Parker is Miller taking shots down the field. Ohio State is not a consistently good passing team but does connect at times on the deep ball, and the Hawkeyes are more vulnerable on the back end.

David K. from Oxnard, Calif., writes: First off, I'm biased: I've been a Badger football fan since November 1962, when I attended the UW-Minnesota game, which the Badgers won with a great comeback, led by Ron Vanderkelen and Pat Richter. And I attended the UW, off and on, from 1966 to 1974. Biases admitted, why the heck isn't Melvin Gordon even being mentioned in the discussions regarding the 2013 Heisman Trophy? He's the 3rd-leading rusher in the BCS division with a 9.7 YPC average. Every time he touches the football, everybody holds their breath. I mean, c'mon, guys, what does he have to do? Leap tall buildings in a single bound?

Brian Bennett: I love watching Gordon, and we named him our midseason offensive player of the year as well as an ESPN.com first half All-American. So he's on the radar for the Heisman, but there are a few things really working against him. One is that Wisconsin has two losses. For better or worse, the Heisman usually goes to players on national title contenders, although Robert Griffin III and Tim Tebow both won it on teams with multiple losses. Another problem is that in the Badgers' signature game, at Ohio State in primetime, Gordon has his lowest output of the season and got injured to boot. Wisconsin simply doesn't have any marquee games left on the schedule, so he won't get the opportunity to make up for it. Gordon would have to put up insane numbers to get back in the conversation. He is, of course, capable of doing just that.

Alex H. from Bloomington, Ill., writes: Watching that Michigan-PSU game was a bummer, I will not lie. Can we not act like the sky is falling for a moment? The defense played opportunistic despite that last-minute 4th quarter drive, and even on those throws coverage wasn't bad. I was impressed with Gardner's 2nd half. The biggest concern is Lewan out, the run game stalling. This loss doesn't hinder there Big Ten championship goals as they still play Neb, NU, MSU in November. I'd still put them near the top of the Legends, am I being too optimistic in thinking Indy?

Brian Bennett: Michigan certainly can still win the Legends Division. But the Wolverines are going to have to fix some major problems first. You mentioned the running game, and it is abysmal. It's going to be hard to win those big games in November if Michigan cannot effectively run the ball. The turnovers by Gardner are of course another massive problem. The defense, meanwhile, has been decent but not overpowering, though Jake Ryan's return should help. As I've written and asked, what exactly is the strength of this Michigan team? I can't seem to find one. And so it's hard to envision a team like putting together a long winning streak, especially once the schedule toughens up in November.

John K. from Austin, Texas, writes: You and Adam noted that Brady Hoke "played for the safe field goal instead of going for the touchdown in overtime" as if that is a bad thing. Now, I can understand if he was just going for the tie, but each time it was for the win. He has a good kick (or at least at that point no reason not to believe that). With a good kicker and 42 yards for the win... I'm taking that every day of the week!

Brian Bennett: To be clear, I'm not saying Hoke should have been going for it on fourth down when all he needed was a field goal to win. I have a major problem with the playcalling on first and second down, when Michigan gained two total yards after Sam Ficken missed a field goal in the first overtime. I know Brendan Gibbons has been a very good kicker, but a 40-yard field goal on the road in overtime is by no means a sure bet for most college kickers. And then you run the risk of having it blocked, which is exactly what happened.

It's only fair to also point out that Michigan did throw a pass in the third overtime after Allen Robinson's fumble, and it gained nine yards. But then on third and one, I hated the call to have Fitzgerald Toussaint run it when Michigan's running game had been terrible all game.

We saw the same thing late in the fourth quarter, when Michigan had the ball at Penn State's 28-yard line with 3:10 left, leading by seven. The next three plays were Toussaint runs, which ended up losing two yards, plus a delay of game penalty, to take the Wolverines out of field-goal range.

I understand playing it safe with the lead on the road, but Toussaint had 27 rushes for 27 yards in last week's game. Why would you go to that well 27 times when it clearly isn't working, especially when the game is on the line? You might as well just kneel. And how many times over the years have we seen teams stop being aggressive and then lose?

Sam from East Lansing writes: First time, long time. Brian, as we progress through the season and my Spartan offense has appeared to return to average (very, very average), I have a scenario question for you. If a Legend' team plays an undefeated Ohio State team in the B1G Championship and loses, possibly putting the Buckeyes in the National Championship, does that mean the loser of B1G Championship game is put in the Rose Bowl automatically or would the bowl committee go back and look at win-loss records, including the B1G Championship lose? Should Legends contender teams who miss Ohio State on the schedule (ie. Michigan State, Nebraska) be rooting for Ohio State to go undefeated? Thoughts of Michigan 2012 Sugar Bowl mishap are dancing in my head. Please calm them.

Brian Bennett: Not sure you'll like my answer, Sam. If Ohio State goes to the BCS title game, then the Rose Bowl is free to choose any team that qualifies in the BCS standings as its replacement pick. That means the Rose could go outside the Big Ten for its choice, but with this being the 100th edition of the game and the last one before the playoff could disrupt things, I think the Rose Bowl will make every attempt to stage a classic Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup.

The problem is that, historically, losers of conference championship games don't get selected for at-large spots. Bowls prefer teams who are riding winning streaks rather than ones coming off a loss. And Michigan State's issue could be a lack of signature wins. A team like Wisconsin, should it go 10-2, or a Legends runner-up like Nebraska or Michigan could leapfrog the Big Ten runner-up in such a scenario.

As an aside, I know Michigan State is dying to get back to the Rose Bowl. If the Spartans lost to Ohio State in the championship game but still got picked for the Rose, would it feel ... earned? Or does just getting to the Rose Bowl any way possible enough?

Glenn from Florida writes: Brian, aside from your's, Adam's, and all of ESPN's love for OSU, how can you justify the PSU-Michigan game as not the best and biggest game?

Brian Bennett: I guess you're talking about our choice of Ohio State-Northwestern as the top game of the first half. You know, just because games go to multiple overtimes does not mean they're great. Michigan-Penn State was very sloppy, and some of the continued failures in overtime was ugly to watch. Northwestern-Ohio State was a far better game aesthetically, in my opinion.

Barry M. from Sheboygan, Wis., writes: I'm guessing we will not see any Purdue players on [your fantasy teams] this season. You could make it interesting and add a rule that you must take a player from each team for at least one week during the season.

Brian Bennett: It's nothing personal, Barry, it's just that I want to beat Adam much more than I want to have every school represented on my fantasy team. This isn't the baseball all-star game. Purdue does not have a player in the top 10 in rushing or passing and is starting a true freshman quarterback. There's just not much to choose from. But I'll make you this promise, Barry. If I have either wrapped up the championship or am out of it in the final week, I will pick up a Boilermaker for my team. Even if it's just the kickers.

Bart from Waverly, Neb., writes: I see how you and Adam both voted Wisconsin in the 17-18 spot. My question is, how do you justify ranking them that high when they have two losses? Granted, one was to OSU, but the other was to a (currently) unranked ASU. I am just curious as the Huskers have had their defensive troubles, but our single loss was to a top-10 team in UCLA, and only Adam was generous enough to include Big Red in his rankings.

Brian Bennett: I've heard from a few Huskers fans who are miffed that I didn't rank Nebraska, and many of them try to use the loss to UCLA as some sort of justification. Sorry, but you don't get credit just for playing a highly-ranked team, especially if you lose to said team by 20 points at home while looking terrible in the second half. Nebraska just hasn't beaten anyone with a pulse. I won't rank the Huskers until they do, and if that happens, they'll climb up my ballot quickly.

It's a much different story for Wisconsin, whose two losses were on the road to very good teams, and one of those defeats was a direct result of some of the worst officiating incompetency I've ever seen. The Badgers played Ohio State, clearly the best team in the league, to within a touchdown on the road and smashed what was a Top 20 Northwestern team. There's no doubt in my mind that Wisconsin deserves a Top 20 ranking.

Tim P. from Port Washington, Wis., writes: It is maddening to me to keep hearing about Michigan's "winged" helmets. The markings on a wolverine are the alleged "wings" on its head and stripes down the rest of its body. The Michigan helmet is thus simply a representation of the markings on the wolverine animal. Of course, the Michigan athletic department gets away with calling these helmets "winged" because few, if any, Michiganders have ever actually seen a wolverine. Wolverines are not indigenous to Michigan as their habitat is prmarily alpine tundra and mountain forests; environments which are found only in North America in Canada and the Western U.S. It is estimated there are only 250 to 300 wolverines still living and they are found in Western Montana, Idaho and Eastern Washington and Oregon. So I don't know who started this myth that the Michigan helmets are "winged" but I am sick and tired of hearing about it.

Brian Bennett: OK, then. It appears we've reached the bizarre part of the mailbag. Proceed with caution...

SSG Smith, Justin from Ft Campbell Ky writes: Hey Brian, I am not by any means the most knowledgeable NCAA Football fan out there. I say this to humble my self before I ask this question. Were you bullied by a Nebraska fan as a child (or young adult)? ... How do you give so many teams the advantage over Nebraska. Your Biased is unprofessional and your over all hate for the Huskers is blinding. Why do you blog for the Big Ten without being biased?

Brian Bennett: Ho, boy. Yep, I hate Nebraska so much that I picked the Huskers to win the Legends Division in the preseason. And I picked them to win the Big Ten title game last year. What a hater! Justin also included in his email the records of the teams Nebraska has beaten this year, as if that somehow helped his case. But he did admit right up front that he wasn't knowledgeable, so I can forgive.

John F. from Mansfield, Ohio, writes: IF you represent the BIG, you should parlay this into BIG votes, I constantly watch "How You VOTED" and ALL I see is YOUR votes for the SEC not the BIG ... YOU cannot say you are BIG representatives, and continue to give other conferences your votes....... this makes you 2-faced and opinionated as well, that's great for people who choose to pencil whip a conference for being the best in the nation... It is press writers who have a vote that are destroying the BIG .......... NOT THE PLAYERS

Brian Bennett: I only included about half of John's email, which if there were any justice would have been cobbled together by random letters from magazines. I guess the ESPN.com power rankings ballots that Adam and I submit each week are what's holding the Big Ten back. Sure, makes sense. Also, covering a league as a reporter and "representing" a conference are two very different things. Until the Big Ten starts signing my checks, I'll report, write and vote with my conscience, thanks.

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