Penn State Nittany Lions: Noah Spence

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

June, 18, 2014
Jun 18
5:00
PM ET
Welcome to the hump day edition of the Big Ten mailbag. I'll have another one on Friday in Adam's usual time slot since he's on vacation, but I need questions. So send them here or hit us up on Twitter.

@JeffHurdaCow via Twitter writes: After thinking about all of the big games in Badgers history, is the LSU game the biggest? Program-changing game?

Brian Bennett: There's no doubt that the opener against LSU looms large for Wisconsin. Win that and the Badgers would gain immediate respect and -- with their very manageable schedule -- could put themselves in position to make the College Football Playoff. But biggest ever? I don't think so. For starters, it's just an opener, and we're not even sure how good LSU -- which finished No. 14 in the major polls last season -- will even be. I don't see how that's bigger than, say, Wisconsin's first Rose Bowl victory over UCLA under Barry Alvarez on New Year's Day 1994. Or even beating then-No. 1 Ohio State at home in 2010. To say nothing of the 1940s and '50s.




@joe_lloyd11 via Twitter writes: What would you consider Penn State's biggest trap game to be in 2014?

Brian Bennett: Fun question, and hopefully we'll be looking at trap games for every team later on this summer. For Penn State, I would say it's Week 2 against Akron. Sure, it's at home and the Zips haven't been very good in recent years. But the game also comes on the heels of the opener in Ireland against UCF, and if you've ever flown back home from overseas, you know it takes your body a couple of days to readjust. Akron went 5-7 last season, nearly beat Michigan and returns a lot of experience for Terry Bowden. So the Nittany Lions had better avoid any Irish hangover.




RC Marsh from Medina, Ohio, writes: OSU, best defensive ends in the Big Ten? Have you forgotten about four-year starter Marcus Rush and maybe the best DE in the nation, 2013 Big Ten D-Line player of the year Shilique Calhoun? MSU may have back up DEs better than most starting DEs in in the Big Ten this year. OSU and UM continue to get an exceptional amount of space in the Blog, but both lost to MSU last year and will likely again this year. Like Alabama, MSU substitutes 30 plus players during their games, even big games. That gives them an advantage against teams that don't, aka OSU & UM.Your comments?

Brian Bennett: Well, what I actually wrote in Monday's mailbag was that Joey Bosa and Noah Spence are "two of the top returning defensive ends in the league." That's indisputable. But you're right in that Rush often gets overlooked for Michigan State. He doesn't often put up huge numbers, as he set a career high last season with five sacks, to go along with 7.5 tackles for loss. But he gives Pat Narduzzi exactly what he's looking for from that position in the Spartans' defensive scheme. Rush has been an excellent player for a long time. Bosa and Spence form, in my opinion, the best pure pass-rushing defensive end duo in the Big Ten this year. But Michigan State might have the best two overall ends. Either way, just another reason to get excited for that Nov. 8 game in East Lansing.




Greg M. from Bel Air, Md., writes: Two weeks, Brian ... that's right two weeks and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights will officially join the B1G. B1G fans may not be high on it, but Rutgers fans are all excited and looking foward to it. Rutgers athletics will do the B1G right. I am here to say RU's fans will root hard for RU vs. other B1G schools when we play them but be sure, RU fans we will also be first in line to root for every B1G team against the other conferences. After all on July 1, the Scarlet Knights are B1G. GO RU.

Brian Bennett: Didn't really see a question in there, but I know Rutgers fans are as pumped up to join the Big Ten as any fan base has ever been about entering a new league. Glad to hear Scarlet Knights fans are going to support everyone else in the conference. It remains to be seen if the rest of the league will feel as much connection toward Rutgers in the early going.




Greg from Springfield writes: Brian, with all this talk of paying players, why haven't we heard more about them being allowed to sign autographs for pay? Let ALL college athletes do this. This will remove the problem of having schools pay scholarship players in non-revenue sports. Let them make money -- with some restrictions on when and where they sign, of course. This way the best players -- the ones that make the schools the most money -- will likely get the most for their autographs, which seems fair. What say you?

Brian Bennett: Johnny Football agrees with you, Greg. I have to say that I've never understood the whole autograph thing or why people -- especially adults -- would want a college kid's autograph. But I digress. One way around all these thorny issues about more money for athletes and the value of their image and likeness -- currently front and center in the O'Bannon trial -- is to let players get paid for endorsements, autographs and other marketing ideas during their college days. In other words, much like Olympic athletes do. You would, of course, have the issue of some schools' boosters throwing around all kinds of money for endorsements or giving a wad of cash to a backup lineman for his signature. But at least things would be more in the open and players could capitalize on their own achievements, rather than watch their school sell their jerseys in the bookstore for $200. All ideas are worth exploring at this point, and this one has some serious merit.
Last week, we took a look at some notable offensive milestones -- 3,000 yards passing, 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving -- and which players in the Big Ten were most likely to reach them. Now, let's turn to the defensive side of the ball and examine which players might get to another impressive plateau: 10 sacks.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsOhio State's Joey Bosa is poised to become one of the Big Ten's fiercest pass rushers.
In light of those quadruple-digit offensive numbers, 10 might seem like a modest goal for sacks. But only one Big Ten player made it there last season -- Nebraska's Randy Gregory, whom we correctly pegged as a possibility last summer -- and none did in 2012. Only 20 players in the FBS finished in double digits in sacks last season. So it's not easy.

But there are a handful of players in the league who have the ability and opportunity to register 10 or more sacks in 2014. They are:

  • Randy Gregory, Nebraska (10.5 sacks in 2013): The physically imposing Huskers defensive end could cause even more damage now that he has a full season of FBS competition under his belt. There's a reason some are projecting him as top-10 NFL draft pick next spring.
  • Joey Bosa, Ohio State (7.5): Bosa burst onto the scene as a true freshman, finishing with 7.5 sacks. His freakish combination of strength and speed could help him achieve true superstar status as a sophomore. Also watch out for Buckeyes teammate Noah Spence, who had eight sacks a year ago but will miss the first two games of the year because of a suspension. It will be extremely difficult for opponents to double-team the two defensive ends once Spence comes back.
  • Andre Monroe, Maryland (9.5): We have to rank the Terps senior this high because he very nearly recorded 10 sacks last season in the ACC. The self-proclaimed fireball aims to burn Big Ten offensive lines this fall.
  • Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State (7.5): The Big Ten's defensive lineman of the year became known for his early season scoring prowess and was a fearsome pass rusher. But despite having a great year over 14 games, he still finished well shy of 10 sacks. Shows you how hard it is to get there.
  • Theiren Cockran, Minnesota (7.5): Somewhat quietly, Cockran was one of the leading sack artists in the league a year ago. He's long and quick off the edge. He won't have Ra'Shede Hageman inside to take away attention, but Cockran has shown that he can do damage by himself.
  • C.J. Olaniyan, Penn State (5): It's hard to block the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Nittany Lions senior, who led the team in quarterback takedowns a year ago. Of course, we also have to mention Deion Barnes, who had six sacks in 2012 en route to Big Ten freshman of the year honors but slipped to just two in a disappointing 2013. Can Barnes bounce back?
  • Frank Clark, Michigan (4.5): Clark didn't quite have the monster breakout year some predicted for him in 2013, but he was very solid with 12 tackles for loss. He's got enough skill and experience to improve those numbers for a Wolverines defense that aims to pressure opposing passers a lot more this year. Perhaps a healthy Jake Ryan, who had 4.5 sacks in 2012 but none in an injury-shortened season last fall, also could make some noise in this category.

 
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive lines.

Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.

Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.

Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.

Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.

Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.

Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.

Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.

Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.

Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.

Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.

Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.

Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.

Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.

Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
Tags:

Nebraska Cornhuskers, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Wisconsin Badgers, Big Ten Conference, Illinois Fighting Illini, Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, Indiana Hoosiers, Maryland Terrapins, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Northwestern Wildcats, Purdue Boilermakers, DaQuan Jones, Deion Barnes, Anthony Zettel, Noah Spence, C.J. Olaniyan, Dominic Alvis, Louis Trinca-Pasat, Larry Johnson, Ryan Isaac, Ryan Russell, Darius Latham, Tyler Scott, Evan Panfil, Malik McDowell, Antoine White, Bruce Gaston Jr., Adolphus Washington, Randy Gregory, Ra'Shede Hageman, Tommy Schutt, Tim Kynard, Shilique Calhoun, Mark Scarpinato, Aaron Curry, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Michael Rouse III, Carl Davis, Vincent Valentine, Sean McEvilly, Marcus Rush, Dave Aranda, Nick Mangieri, Theiren Cockran, Avery Moss, Beau Allen, Greg McMullen, Teko Powell, Lawrence Thomas, Tarow Barney, Tyler Hoover, Jihad Ward, David Kenney, Ralphael Green, Langston Newton, B1G spring positions 14, Paul James, Alex Keith, Andre Monroe, Arthur Goldberg, Austin Teitsma, Cameron Botticelli, Chance Carter, Chikwe Obasih, Chris Carter, Damon Knox, Darian Cooper, Darius Kilgo, David Milewski, Dawuane Smoot, Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson, Djwany Mera, Greg Latta, Harold Legania, Houston Bates, Isaac Holmes, Jake Keefer, Jalani Phillips, Jamal Marcus, James Adeyanju, James Kittredge, Jamil Merrell, Julian Pinnix-Odrick, Keith Bowers, Kemoko Turay, Konrad Zagzebski, Maliek Collins, Marcus Thompson, Max Chapman, Micajah Reynolds, Michael Amaefula, Nate Meier, Quinton Jefferson, Roman Braglio, Ryan Phillis, Ryan Watson, Scott Ekpe, Sebastian Joseph, Warren Herring

Darqueze DennardMike Carter/USA TODAY SportsDarqueze Dennard fell just short of the top spot in the 2013 Big Ten final player countdown, but the Michigan State cornerback was one of six Spartans that made the cut, the most of any school.

Our postseason Top 25 player countdown concluded earlier today with a familiar name -- Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller -- at the top. What did you think of the rundown? Let us know here and here.

Let's dive into the rankings ...

BY TEAM

Michigan State: 6
Ohio State: 5
Wisconsin: 4
Nebraska: 2
Michigan: 2
Iowa: 2
Indiana: 1
Illinois: 1
Penn State: 1
Minnesota: 1

Northwestern and Purdue weren't represented on the list, although several players -- Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and kicker Jeff Budzien, along with Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen -- were considered.

BY POSITION

Linebacker: 5
Running back: 5
Wide receiver: 4
Quarterback: 3
Offensive tackle: 3
Defensive end: 2
Cornerback: 2
Defensive tackle: 1

The Big Ten remains a linebacker- and running back-driven league, just like we thought it would be entering the season. Wide receiver saw an improvement in 2013 as four players made the list, up from just one (Penn State's Allen Robinson) following the 2012 season. Cornerback is another spot that improved around the league. Although just two made the list, others such as Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Purdue's Allen and Michigan's Blake Countess wouldn't have been bad choices.

Center traditionally has been a strong position in the Big Ten but none made the cut this year (Ohio State's Corey Linsley came close). Safety continues to be a bit of a problem around the league. There are some good safeties but few great ones. That could change in 2014 as players such as Kurtis Drummond and Ibraheim Campbell return.

BY CLASS (eligibility)

Senior: 13
Junior: 8
Sophomore: 4

Of the nine juniors, five are returning for the 2014 season. Draft-eligible sophomores such as Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon also are returning.

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg was the only freshman (true or redshirt) seriously considered for the list.

RANKINGS HISTORY

Ten players also appeared in the 2012 postseason rankings. Here they are:

No. 1: Braxton Miller (No. 1 in 2012 rankings)
No. 2: Darqueze Dennard (No. 19 in 2012 rankings)
No. 3: Carlos Hyde (No. 21 in 2012 rankings)
No. 4: Ameer Abdullah (No. 20 in 2012 rankings)
No. 5: Ryan Shazier (No. 10 in 2012 rankings)
No. 6: Chris Borland (No. 13 in 2012 rankings)
No. 7: Allen Robinson (No. 11 in 2012 rankings)
No. 9: Taylor Lewan (No. 7 in 2012 rankings)
No. 14: Max Bullough (No. 15 in 2012 rankings)
No. 16: Bradley Roby (No. 16 in 2012 rankings)

Dennard, Hyde and Abdullah were the biggest risers from 2012, while Calhoun, who finished No. 8 after being unranked after his freshman year, made the biggest overall jump.

When it comes to the preseason Top 25, 14 players who made the list also appear in the postseason rankings. Dennard (preseason No. 10), Abdullah (preseason No. 13), Gordon (preseason No. 22) and Wisconsin running back James White preseason No. 23) are among the biggest risers, while Lewan (preseason No. 2), Bullough (preseason No. 7) and Roby (preseason No. 9) slipped a bit. Hyde would have made the preseason rankings, but we weren't sure of his status because of the night club incident.

FIVE THAT JUST MISSED THE CUT

[+] EnlargeIllinois' Jonathan Brown
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsJonathan Brown (45) was one of the top linebackers in the conference and just barely missed making the Top 25.
Illinois LB Jonathan Brown: Brown definitely was No. 26 on our list and certainly could have made the Top 25 rundown. The second-team All-Big Ten selection finished second in the league in tackles (119) and fourth in tackles per loss average (1.25 per game).

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: He had some typical freshman moments but finished the season extremely well and showed tremendous potential. Hackenberg earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors and passed for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Iowa LB Anthony Hitchens: Hitchens had an excellent senior season as part of the Big Ten's top linebacker corps. He finished sixth in the league in tackles per game and seventh in tackles for loss. He recorded two forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovered.

Penn State DT DaQuan Jones: Jones earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches and was a bright spot for a defense that struggled for much of the season. He had 56 tackles, including a team-high 11 tackles for loss, and three sacks.

Ohio State DE Noah Spence: Spence began to display his tremendous potential for a young Buckeyes defensive line, finishing second in the league in sacks (8) and sixth in tackles for loss (14.5). He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media and second-team honors from the coaches.
While Penn State searched for a coach in December 2011, Urban Meyer convinced several Penn State recruits to switch their pledges to Ohio State. Top defensive line prospects like Noah Spence and Tommy Schutt were among those who went from Blue and White to Scarlet and Gray.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesThe rivalry between Ohio State and Penn State could heat up if former PSU defensive line coach Larry Johnson joins Urban Meyer's staff.
Penn State hired a new coach on Saturday in James Franklin, but Meyer once again has used Penn State's situation to bolster Ohio State's defensive line.

Hours after longtime Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson announced he wouldn't remain in Happy Valley despite Franklin offering him an assistant position, Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel and ESPN's Joe Schad reported that Johnson was nearing an agreement to join Meyer's staff at Ohio State. The Buckeyes must replace Mike Vrabel, who has taken a post with the Houston Texans under, yep, former Penn State coach Bill O'Brien.

The coaching business is a small world, isn't it?

Ohio State hasn't confirmed the move, but the addition of Johnson would add to the next phase of the PSU-OSU rivalry. Like Meyer, Franklin comes to the Big Ten from the SEC and brings a similar type of aggressive recruiting approach. When Franklin talked Saturday about dominating the state of Pennsylvania and the region in recruiting, folks in Columbus took notice.

Now Ohio State is poised to replace an exceptional recruiter in Vrabel with another exceptional recruiter in Johnson, who brought top talent to Penn State throughout his 18 years as an assistant there. Johnson coached high school ball in Maryland and has strong connections to the area, which becomes even more important to the Big Ten with the University of Maryland officially joining the league on July 1.

The recruiting competition between Johnson and Franklin, once Maryland's coach-in-waiting, for top recruits in and near the Beltway will be fierce. Recruits from other areas like Thomas Holley, an ESPN 300 defensive lineman who committed to Penn State in October, could now be in play for Ohio State.

Johnson could have remained in Happy Valley and has been nothing but positive toward Franklin despite being passed over for the job for the second time in two years. As he told ESPN.com's Josh Moyer on Monday night, "Getting promoted isn't the issue to me. At the end of the day, it's giving Coach Franklin the chance to move forward."

It's also time for Johnson to tackle a new challenge. Ohio State could be shaking up the defensive play-calling duties after the unit's struggles in 2013, and Johnson would be a good candidate to assist Luke Fickell or take over. He turned down a chance to become Illinois' defensive coordinator after the 2008 season, and also said no to an opportunity at Maryland after the 2011 campaign. Joining Ohio State would make less sense if it's strictly a lateral move as a line coach, but if Johnson can move up both in pay and in responsibilities, he's making the right decision. Franklin is expected to bring defensive coordinator Bob Shoop from Vanderbilt to Penn State.

Penn State certainly will miss Johnson, who had plenty of support from current and former players to become the next Lions coach. Ohio State, meanwhile, needed another strong recruiter after losing both Vrabel and Everett Withers from its defensive staff. It certainly would get one in Johnson.

The Ohio State-Penn State rivalry has been ratcheted up a notch, both on the field and especially on the recruiting trail.

Big Ten lunchtime links

January, 8, 2014
Jan 8
12:00
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Only 35 days until pitchers and catchers report.
Now that the 2013 college football season is officially in the books (thank you, Florida State, for ending our SEC nightmare), it's natural to take an early look toward 2014.

Much will change between now and August. Heck, much will change between now and spring practice. But for right now, the 2014 Big Ten season is shaping up as one that possibly lacks a clear-cut, slam-dunk favorite in either of the new East or West divisions.

In colleague Mark Schlabach's way-too-early Top 25 for next season, Michigan State tops all league teams by checking in at No. 6. Makes plenty of sense, as the Spartans went 13-1, won the Rose Bowl over Stanford and return the vast majority of their offense, along with a solid core on that outstanding defense.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Clemons
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesBrandon Clemons and the Spartans are a likely favorite in the Big Ten East in 2014.
But Michigan State does lose several defensive stars, including Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis. The Spartans also will have to play in the same division, the East, as Ohio State. The Buckeyes check in at No. 9 in Schlabach's rankings, and colleague Travis Haney goes so far as to predict that Urban Meyer's team will make the College Football Playoff next year.

"I have held all along that the Buckeyes, close as they were in 2013, were built for '14," Haney writes. "The talented 2013 freshman class that Urban Meyer brought in [ranked third in the nation according to ESPN's RecruitingNation] had bright spots, such as Joey Bosa at defensive end, but it'll really start to have an impact next season. The defense could quickly go from liability to strength, with young players such as Bosa, safety Vonn Bell and end Noah Spence becoming bigger pieces."

I think there's a lot of truth to that about the defense, which started six freshmen or sophomores against Clemson in the Orange Bowl loss. But Ohio State also loses Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby from a defense that struggled down the stretch, and the offense must replace 80 percent of the offensive line, leading rusher Carlos Hyde and leading receiver Philly Brown. Plus, the Buckeyes have to play at Michigan State.

Those two will headline the new East, and it's up to teams like Michigan and Penn State to get better and make that more than a two-team race. The West Division looks even more wide open.

Schlabach ranks Wisconsin No. 15, which comes as a bit of a surprise considering all of the valuable seniors the Badgers lose on defense, plus receiver Jared Abbrederis. The Badgers also have to open the season against LSU, though the schedule is much more favorable after that with no Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State on the docket.

Iowa checks in at No. 21 in Schlabach's rankings and has to be considered a West contender after going 8-4 in the regular season. The Hawkeyes' offense could make strides in 2014 with most of the key pieces returning, but replacing those three senior starting linebackers won't be easy.

Schlabach does not rank Nebraska, which surprises me. The Huskers finished 9-4, which apparently is an annual federal requirement under Bo Pelini, and bring back just about everybody on defense, plus Ameer Abdullah, Tommy Armstrong Jr., Kenny Bell and several other key players on offense. If forced to choose right now, I'd make Nebraska the West favorite, even though the Huskers have to go to Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State in the fall.

Northwestern figures to bounce back from an incredibly unlucky 2013, and Minnesota won eight games with a lot of young players in major roles this year. Neither can be counted out in the division.

The East looks stronger at the top in 2014 than the West, at least for now. But unlike the 2013 season, when Ohio State was the clear favorite after going 12-0 the previous year, there's no slam-dunk, clear-cut favorite in either division.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
4:00
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Eventful week in the Big Ten so far, and bowl season wraps up tonight in South Florida.

Time to check the mail ...

Dave from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Adam -It was great to see Coach Dantonio finish out the season with a Rose Bowl win. His team's effort reminded me a lot of OSU's defense the year they won the NC game. I also like seeing him getting a huge raise. But what does it say, 1) to Texas, and 2) to MSU, their fan base, and the players that Dantonio turned down overtures there? Granted, I'm sure he isn't the only coach being contacted, but the fact that he'd just plain turn down interest in the role has to say something significant.

Adam Rittenberg: The most significant development is that Michigan State will pay Dantonio like the top-tier coach that he is. Not enough Big Ten programs are willing to invest the ridiculous sums of money they earn every year into winning football championships. I know money isn't everything, but it shows the commitment to head coaches and top assistants like Pat Narduzzi, who also should get a big raise after another superb season. Dantonio's loyalty to MSU has never really been in doubt. He told me years ago the only job he'd leave for is Ohio State -- when Jim Tressel was still there. But I didn't know if MSU would make the necessary financial commitment, and it appears as though it will.

Joe from South Bend, Ind., writes: Adam,Maybe I am biased. But I can't help but feel that the notion of "JoeBots" caused O'Brien to leave, a bit disingenuous. Why aren't the fans allowed to be upset when, Ron Vanderlinden, the recruiter and developer of All-American, All-Pro and Pro Bowl linebackers - Bowman, Lee, Poz, Connor, etc - was fired? Also, wouldn't Alabama fans, despite the amazing record of Saban, react harshly if Saban tried to change Alabama's historic uniforms? This narrative seems so forced to me. Most Penn State fans are more than supportive of O'Brien. Even the great coaches can be the subject of legitimate criticisms.

Adam Rittenberg: Joe, the Joe Paterno supporters weren't the reason O'Brien took the Texans job. He came to Penn State as a coach likely to jump to the NFL and jumped after two years. I'm not surprised and most Penn State fans shouldn't be, either. Fans absolutely have the right to question decisions like dismissing Vanderlinden, which left several Big Ten coaches puzzled. Being upset about the uniforms thing is a little less understandable, as O'Brien made changes with good intentions in mind. I agree that the large majority of PSU fans supported O'Brien, but he also was in a stressful situation after the way things ended with Paterno. But his exit had much more to do with the allure of the NFL.

Steve M. from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Hey Adam, which loss on Ohio State's D is more crippling...Bradley Roby or Noah Spence?

Adam Rittenberg: It's sort of a chicken-and-egg question because if Spence pressures Clemson's Tajh Boyd, he has less time to attack a Roby-less secondary. Then again, Roby is capable of matching up against Clemson's talented wide receivers. You can replace good pass rushers, and I wouldn't say Spence is an elite one just yet. It's very hard to replace standout corners like Roby.

Matt from Plymouth, Minn.: Hey Adam,With Jeff Jones getting even more exposure from winning the MVP honors at the Under Armour All-America Game, is there any way he will actually end up signing a letter of intent with the Gophers, especially given that he's already softened his commitment? It would be huge for the program if they could convince him to stay in his home state.

Adam Rittenberg: It's going to be tough, Matt, as the higher-profile programs are swarming now. Michigan offered today, and Jones will take an official visit to Florida later this month. Minnesota can sell staying local and helping the Gophers reach new heights, but I wouldn't be surprised if Jones signed elsewhere. He would be a great get for Minnesota, which loses too many of its elite prep prospects (James Onwualu, Seantrel Henderson, Michael Floyd) to other programs.

Lance from Greensboro, N.C., writes: When people question how tough the B1G bowl lineup is, you should point out that we were the only one of the 5 power conferences to play nothing but power conference teams in bowls. A few MWC, AAC, C-USA, or MAC matchups would definitely help the record!Also, I hope you plan to make some mention in the blog about Gordon/White breaking the record for rushing yards by teammates in a season, and also the first ever pair of 1,400 yard rushers on the same team. Quite an achievement! That said, I wouldn't be shocked if Gordon/Clement do just as well next year.

Adam Rittenberg: Lance, I've argued for years that the Big Ten's bowl lineup is way too difficult given the league's current state and the locations of games. I don't think you need to face a bunch of teams from non-power conferences, but a little more ACC wouldn't hurt. The new lineup is much better overall. I admire commissioner Jim Delany's desire to play the best, but perception is based more on wins, not who you play. Thanks for bringing up James White and Melvin Gordon, who had excellent seasons and worked well together. I agree that the Gordon-Corey Clement combination next year will be very good.

Will from Walcott, Iowa, writes: Big Hawkeye fan. Disappointed in the outcome in the Outback Bowl, a game we could have won. However, the thing that bothered me the most in this game was the flagrant fake injuries the LSU players were displaying late in the game. I counted at least 3 times an LSU player was on the ground in "agony" only to to be back in one play later jumping and hopping around like nothing happened. I think Les Miles should be reprimanded for allowing this un-sportsman like conduct to go on. I see this happening more and more in college football. Is there anything that can be done to stop it?

Adam Rittenberg: There's not much that can be done, as it's hard to conclusively prove that the injuries, however benign they might be, are conclusively fake. I know Iowa fans aren't laughing, but isn't it a bit funny that we're talking about a defense faking injuries to slow down the Hawkeyes' offense? I couldn't believe it when they made the defensive substitution ruling. Against an Iowa offense? Somewhere, Chip Kelly was chuckling. But the fake injuries are an unfortunate part of the game today. It's on officials' radar, but I'm not sure how they'll go about stopping it. I agree that Iowa could have won that game.

Nick from Sparta writes: Adam, Alright, since it hasn't been discussed enough the last few years. Any chance, that with the recent, and now reasonably prolonged Spartan success, that the divisions will be realigned? Looking at the last few years, the divisions seem incredibly unbalanced, with HUGE schedule favoritism to Wisc and Neb. Any chance?

Adam Rittenberg: No chance, Nick. The Big Ten based the original alignment on long-term results and the most recent one on geography. The East certainly looks loaded, but only if Michigan improves substantially and Penn State gets back on track. That looks like a two-team race -- Michigan State and Ohio State -- in 2014.

Few surprises for PSU on B1G teams

December, 2, 2013
12/02/13
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- As expected, Allen Robinson was once again the big Penn State winner when it came to the Big Ten's All-Conference Selection Show on Monday night.

He was the Big Ten's lone semifinalist for the national Biletnikoff Award so it wasn't much of a surprise when he was named a unanimous All-Big Ten first-team selection and earned the conference's Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year Award for the second straight season. He finished his junior campaign with a PSU-record 97 catches and 1,432 yards.

There weren't many surprises for Penn State, and there was just one pick that could've been perceived as a snub. Here's a closer look at how it all played out for Penn State (all players are first-team selections unless otherwise noted):

COACHES' TEAM

WR Robinson
OG John Urschel
DT DaQuan Jones

Honorable mention: DB Adrian Amos, LB Glenn Carson, QB Christian Hackenberg, C Ty Howle, CB Jordan Lucas, DE C.J. Olaniyan, LT Donovan Smith

MEDIA'S TEAM

WR Robinson
OG Urschel
DT Jones (second-team)

Honorable mention: LB Carson, K Sam Ficken, QB Hackenberg, C Howle, TE Jesse James, CB Lucas, DE Olaniyan, LT Smith

Really, the only perceived snub could be on Jones making the second-team on the media's list. Ohio State DL Noah Spence earned the spot over him, but it was a pretty tight race. Jones had more overall tackles (33 solo, 56 total) than Spence (20 solo, 46 total) and helped stop the run and clog up the middle.

Spence rushed the passer and finished with 13.5 tackles-for-loss, eight sacks and four quarterback hurries. Jones had 11.5 tackles-for-loss, three sacks and no hurries. Spence also had his hand in more turnovers.

Outside of that, there didn't appear to be anyone who was really left off the list. If anything, the list of honorable mentions might've raised a few eyebrows for opposite reasons.

Amos played relatively well at corner, but most of his season was spent playing not-so-well at safety. He earned a nod from coaches but not from the media. It's clear this season was a step down from 2012.

The biggest surprise came from the media's list, however, with the inclusion of Ficken. That pick would've made sense had this season ended around Week 6, but he struggled in the second half. He finished the season by making 15-of-23 (65 percent) field goals and by missing an extra point. In the last five games, he made just half of his kicks -- and he was just 1-of-5 on field goals longer than 30 yards during that stretch.

The Big Ten will continue with the major awards being named Tuesday night. But there shouldn't be too many surprises there, either. Expect Penn State to pick up its second straight freshman-of-the-year honor.

Big Ten picks rewind: Week 1

September, 3, 2013
9/03/13
3:00
PM ET
Every Monday or Tuesday, I'll take a look back at our Big Ten predictions and poke fun at Brian, our guest picker and myself. Unfortunately, Brian is the big winner after Week 1, going a perfect 12-0 in picks to lead me by a game.

To review, the Week 1 predictions made by the reporters and guest picker Ryan Stitt of Litchfield, Ill.

WEEK 1/SEASON RECORD

Brian Bennett: 12-0 (1.000)

Adam Rittenberg: 11-1 (.917)

It's rewind time …

Indiana State at Indiana
  • Bennett's pick: Indiana 38, Indiana State 14
  • Rittenberg's pick: Indiana 42, Indiana State 20
  • Actual score: Indiana 73, Indiana State 35
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both underestimated the prowess of Indiana's offense, which set a stadium record for points scored. Bennett correctly pegged Tre Roberson to start at quarterback for the Hoosiers and Nate Sudfeld to take over and play plenty. My prediction of three combined rush touchdowns for Tevin Coleman and Stephen Houston fell one score short.
UNLV at Minnesota

  • Bennett's pick: Minnesota 31, UNLV 16
  • Rittenberg's pick: Minnesota 27, UNLV 14
  • Actual score: Minnesota 51, UNLV 23
  • 20-20 hindsight: Again, we didn't expect such a scoring explosion from the Big Ten team. I correctly predicted Minnesota would record several takeaways (it had two). Bennett's pick to click, Gophers running back Donnell Kirkwood, had his night cut short by an ankle injury.
Western Michigan at Michigan State

  • Bennett's pick: Michigan State 28, Western Michigan 6
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan State 31, Western Michigan 10
  • Actual score: Michigan State 26, Western Michigan 13
  • 20-20 hindsight: Both of us correctly pegged the Spartan Dawgs defense for a big night, although their pick-six came from a safety (Kurtis Drummond), not a cornerback, as I predicted. Bennett had the better forecast on the offense, writing that the quarterback competition wouldn't be settled in Week 1.
Buffalo at Ohio State

  • Bennett's pick: Ohio State 42, Buffalo 14
  • Rittenberg's pick: Ohio State 49, Buffalo 13
  • Actual score: Ohio State 40, Buffalo 20
  • 20-20 hindsight: Bennett came closer on the score prediction, but we both had the wrong Buckeyes going for long touchdowns as running back Jordan Hall and wide receiver Devin Smith did their thing. Defensive end Noah Spence had a sack, but neither Adolphus Washington nor Ryan Shazier recorded one, as I had predicted.
Massachusetts at Wisconsin

  • Bennett's pick: Wisconsin 38, UMass 7
  • Rittenberg's pick: Wisconsin 48, UMass 10
  • Actual score: Wisconsin 45, UMass 0
  • 20-20 hindsight: This was one of our easier and better predictions of Week 1. Bennett's combined yards prediction of 275 for James White and Melvin Gordon came extremely close -- they had 287 -- and I correctly pegged Badgers quarterback Joel Stave to twice find Jared Abbrederis for touchdowns.
Southern Illinois at Illinois

  • Bennett's pick: Illinois 31, Southern Illinois 13
  • Rittenberg's pick: Illinois 27, Southern Illinois 17
  • Actual score: Illinois 42, Southern Illinois 34
  • 20-20 hindsight: Sense a theme? We both undervalued the offenses of several second-division Big Ten squads in Week 1. Brian came close with his predictions of 35 pass attempts (Illinois had 37) and three Nathan Scheelhaase touchdown passes (he had two).
Purdue at Cincinnati

  • Bennett's pick: Cincinnati 28, Purdue 27
  • Rittenberg's pick: Cincinnati 27, Purdue 24
  • Actual score: Cincinnati 42, Purdue 7
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both expected much more from Purdue in coach Darrell Hazell's debut. Cincinnati quarterback Munchie Legaux made big plays early, not late, as Brian predicted. I had Purdue quarterback Rob Henry committing a key fourth-quarter turnover, but he threw picks in the first and third quarters in a poor performance.
Central Michigan at Michigan

  • Bennett's pick: Michigan 35, Central Michigan 17
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan 38, Central Michigan 14
  • Actual score: Michigan 59, Central Michigan 9
  • 20-20 hindsight: We had similar score predictions and both turned out to be way off, at least when it comes to Michigan's offensive output. Michigan receiver Jeremy Gallon had one touchdown catch, not two as I had predicted. Wolverines running back Fitzgerald Toussaint had 57 rush yards, falling short of Brian's prediction (95).
Penn State vs. Syracuse


  • Bennett's pick: Penn State 27, Syracuse 23
  • Rittenberg's pick: Penn State 24, Syracuse 21
  • Actual score: Penn State 23, Syracuse 17
  • 20-20 hindsight: One of our better score predictions, as we both expected a fairly low scoring close game and got one. Penn State had zero rushing touchdowns, not the two I had predicted.
Northern Illinois at Iowa

  • Bennett's pick: Northern Illinois 23, Iowa 21
  • Rittenberg's pick: Iowa 24, Northern Illinois 23
  • Actual score: Northern Illinois 30, Iowa 27
  • 20-20 hindsight: Our lone disagreement of Week 1 went Bennett's way, even though I was in good shape for most of the second half. Iowa running back Mark Weisman (100 rush yards) came 50 yards and two touchdowns shy of my prediction. NIU got a big lift late in the fourth quarter from a Jordan Lynch touchdown pass, not a Lynch scoring run, which was Bennett's forecast.
Wyoming at Nebraska

  • Bennett's pick: Nebraska 49, Wyoming 21
  • Rittenberg's pick: Nebraska 52, Wyoming 17
  • Actual score: Nebraska 37, Wyoming 34
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both expected a stress-free night for the Huskers and a much better performance from the young Nebraska defense. Neither happened. I correctly pegged Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez to find Quincy Enunwa for two touchdown passes. Brian's prediction of five combined touchdowns for Martinez and Ameer Abdullah came up short as Imani Cross had Nebraska's two rushing touchdowns.
Northwestern at California

  • Bennett's pick: Northwestern 30, Cal 24
  • Rittenberg's pick: Northwestern 33, Cal 24
  • Actual score: Northwestern 44, Cal 30
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both came up short with our score predictions, although Bennett's forecast of Northwestern recording two timely interceptions proved spot on as linebacker Collin Ellis had a pair of pick-sixes in the second half. Injuries prevented the big night I predicted for Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark.

And now for our guest picker …

Indiana 21, Indiana State 13
UNLV 21, Minnesota 17
Michigan State 28, Western Michigan 17
Ohio State 45, Buffalo 13
Wisconsin 38, UMass 14
Southern Illinois 20, Illinois 17
Cincinnati 27, Purdue 21
Michigan 28, Central Michigan 17
Penn State 28, Syracuse 23
Iowa 24, Northern Illinois 13
Nebraska 27, Wyoming 16
Northwestern 24, California 21

Record: 9-3

Assessment: Not too shabby, Ryan, although you've clearly lived in Big Ten country too long with some of those low score predictions. You came close with Michigan State-Western Michigan but, like the two of us, underestimated the offensive prowess of teams like Michigan, Northwestern, Indiana, Minnesota and Illinois. That UNLV pick doesn't look too good, but not a terrible first effort.

Who's next?

Most to prove in the Big Ten

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
10:00
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Every season, each Big Ten player, coach and team sets out to prove something. Maybe it's to prove last season was just a hiccup or that this season is the start of something special.

Whatever it is, some naturally have more to prove than others. So here's a look at 10 players, units and coaches in the Big Ten who have the most to prove:

[+] EnlargeAndrew Maxwell
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesAndrew Maxwell could be on a short leash in East Lansing, so he has plenty to prove.
1. Michigan State QB Andrew Maxwell. Despite starting every game last season, Maxwell was just named the 2013 starter on Tuesday. So it's not exactly a stretch to think he's on a short leash. Connor Cook will get some playing time Friday, Tyler O'Connor is "in the mix" and true freshman Damion Terry wowed the staff in a recent scrimmage. If Maxwell doesn't quickly prove he's the right man for the job, he'll be watching the right man from the bench.

2. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz/offensive coordinator Greg Davis. Are Ferentz's best years behind him? And was last year's passing offense the start of a trend for Davis? The Hawkeyes finished last season at 4-8, their worst record since 2000, and finished with the nation's No. 114 offense. There are plenty of questions surrounding both of these coaches right now, and quieting them would certainly go a long way in proving Iowa's winning tradition isn't gone for good.

3. Penn State special teams. The Nittany Lions ranked near the bottom statistically in nearly every special teams category in the Big Ten last year. They were tied for ninth in field goal percentage, 11th in punting average, last in kick return average and ninth in punt return average. Sam Ficken rebounded in the second half of the season after missing four field goals against Virginia, but he was sporadic again in the Blue-White Game. Alex Butterworth's hang time also needs to improve.

4. Purdue coach Darrell Hazell. He guided Kent State to an impressive 11-3 record last season, became the Mid-American Conference coach of the year and nearly earned a berth in the Rose Bowl. But that was the MAC and this is the Big Ten. There's a big difference, and he wants to show fans of the gold and black that kind of success can carry over.

5. Michigan QB Devin Gardner. He has big shoes to fill when it comes to replacing Denard Robinson, but expectations are already soaring for the player who has started just four career games at quarterback. Some sporting books have increased Gardner's odds at the Heisman to 25-to-1, which means increased confidence, and Michigan is expected to compete with Ohio State for the conference title this season. That's a lot of pressure and, by default, means Gardner has a lot to prove.

6. Wisconsin front seven. New coach Gary Andersen is hoping the new 3-4 defense can create some headaches for opposing offenses, and the front seven here are trying to show they're quick studies. Wisconsin will have to rely on these seven to win, and their adjustment to the new scheme will have a direct impact on the number of marks in the "W" column.

7. Ohio State defensive line. Having four new starters tends to mean there are question marks, and this young group will have to answer them. Noah Spence came in as the nation's No. 4 recruit back in 2012, and reports all seem to conclude he's living up to the hype. Depth here isn't great and neither is experience, but talent and health are the main things that matter.

8. Nebraska defense. There's no problem on the offensive side of the ball with players such as Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah, but defense is what's preventing this team from being great. The Huskers' run defense ranked 90th in the nation last season -- allowing 653 yards, 498 yards, 640 yards and 589 yards in their four losses -- and they could be even worse this year. Three new linebackers will take the field, and Nebraska lost two of its top pass-rushers. A lot to prove? You bet.

9. Michigan RB Fitzgerald Toussaint. There's no way around it. You have to use the term "disappointment" when referring to Toussaint's 2012 season. Coming off a breakout 1,000-yard campaign in 2011, he struggled last season, averaging just four yards a carry and running inconsistently before breaking his leg against Iowa. He wants to show that 2012 was an aberration.

10. Badgers' receivers outside of Jared Abbrederis. If you're having difficulty naming a Wisconsin receiver other than Abbrederis, don't feel bad. Abbrederis caught 49 balls last season -- more than all of the other Wisconsin wideouts combined (48). Jordan Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Kenzel Doe will need to step up to make sure secondaries don't just focus on the fifth-year senior.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 19, 2013
8/19/13
1:14
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We are here to do a job, not channel Scrooge McDuck.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

August, 12, 2013
8/12/13
5:00
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Can we hop in the DeLorean and travel ahead to Aug. 29? No? OK, then, let's just answer some emails.

Justin from Baltimore writes: Hi, Brian. Which of the following outcomes would be most beneficial in boosting the BIG's national rep? 1. Win all nine of the top nonconference games (ND at Michigan, UCLA at Nebraska, MSU at ND, Wisconsin at ASU, OSU at Cal, PSU vs. Syracuse, BYU at Wisconsin, NW at Cal, and Iowa at ISU ... I think it would actually be in the BIG's interest for ND to beat Purdue in game No. 10 as to not totally devalue the other victories against the Irish). 2. Win the Rose Bowl. 3. Place a team in the BCS championship game and lose in a close, competitive game that really could have gone either way?

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Sam RicheOhio State and Braxton Miller have their eyes on the big prize this season.
Brian Bennett: I think we can quickly rule out No. 1. The Big Ten just doesn't have many high-profile nonconference games. If Notre Dame loses to both Michigan schools, that probably means the Irish won't have a great season, and beating teams like Cal, UCLA and Arizona State simply doesn't carry that much weight. A Rose Bowl win would be great, but we don't know who the opponent would be. Is it a highly-ranked Pac-12 champion? Even then, I think the No. 3 item in your scenario is the most important. Winning championships is obvious the most beneficial accomplishment for a league's perception. The second-best way to do that might be playing for a championship and coming really close. Especially if a Big Ten team were to take an SEC champ to the wire, that could go a long way toward improving perception.

Nick from Bay Area, Calif., writes: Suppose the following situation plays out: In the Legends Division, Nebraska finishes 11-1 with its only loss at Michigan. Michigan loses a close one to the Buckeyes and drops another on the road (take your pick, @PSU, @NW, @MSU) to finish 10-2. In the Leaders, Ohio State finishes 12-0 and Wisconsin loses close ones at OSU and Arizona State to finish 10-2. Ohio State destroys Nebraska in the B1G CG. If the Buckeyes go to the NCG, is there a shot that the Badgers could end up in the Rose Bowl again?

Brian Bennett: I see it's a hypothetical day. Yep, we all need some real football around here to talk about. Anyway, it's an interesting question. Of course, there are scenarios where the Rose Bowl could take a non-Big Ten team if it lost the league champion to the BCS title game, but I doubt the game would want to do that in the final season before the playoff and certainly not in its 100th edition. Let's assume all three Big Ten teams you mentioned finished in the top 14 of the BCS standings but not in the top four. The Rose would be free to take its pick of those teams. I actually think Nebraska or Michigan would be more likely to go to Pasadena, both because they'd have stronger nonconference wins in your scenarios (Notre Dame for the Wolverines, UCLA for the Huskers) than Wisconsin, and because the Rose Bowl might have a bit of Badgers fatigue (and vice versa).

Glenn from Leesburg, Fla., writes: Brian, why all the hype over OSU? Realistically, what more do they have than teams like UM, PSU, Wisconsin, and Nebraska? They have Braxton Miller, but except for PSU, there's some pretty good QBs starting for the other three schools. OSU appears to have a good secondary, so does PSU. OSU lacks depth at LB and DL. They have a good OL, so does PSU and UM. OSU has Urban Meyer, PSU has last season's Coach of the Year, UM has Brady Hoke. OSU has a questionable backfield to support Miller, especially the first few games. OSU had a great recruiting year, so did UM which was ranked ahead of the Bucks in that category. Last fall's undefeated season for OSU has nothing to do with this year's upcoming season. So, why all the hype? You and Adam make it sound like we might as well skip the BIG season and send OSU right to the BCS championship game. Biased much?

Brian Bennett: Well, let me tackle the "biased much" question first, since it is so ridiculous. Our job here involves giving informed opinions and predictions at times, and we have both said Ohio State is the league favorite. This is not an absurd opinion, since the Buckeyes are ranked No. 2 in the preseason coaches' poll and have been picked to win the Big Ten by just about every major publication, writer, etc. Last year, we both picked Michigan State to win the Big Ten. Did that make us biased toward the Spartans? Come on, Glenn.

Anyway, as a guy from Florida, you should know part of the answer here: Urban Meyer. Yes, he's not the only great coach in the league. But he is the only one with national title rings. And in his first season in the conference, he went 12-0. The Buckeyes have had an abundance of talent most years, and they're loaded again in 2013. The offensive line is excellent, Miller finished fifth in the Heisman voting last year, and the skill players are improving, especially with the rave reviews freshman Dontre Wilson has garnered thus far. There are questions on defense, but there are also All-America type players on that side like Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, plus stars-in-the-making like Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence. I've said I think it will be hard for the Buckeyes to go undefeated again, and let's not forget that they had several close calls last season. But if you're going to predict a 2013 Big Ten champ, Ohio State is the obvious pick right now.

Brian M. from Oregon, Ohio, writes: Brian, I must take exception to your response to Brian from Atlanta. You can't look at it as 25 games in a row. You have to look at it one game at a time. The Buckeyes aren't playing 25 straight games. They're playing one opponent, and then preparing for the next. When you look at it on a game-by-game basis, you're hard pressed to think that Ohio State won't finish undefeated. Further, what happened last season is already in the past. It has no bearing on this season. From here, it's 14 games to go, not 25 (or 26 as it were). Additionally, Brian from Atlanta mentioned some of the close games Ohio State had last year. This seems to be a common misapprehension amongst Buckeye doubters. The Buckeye team that beat that school up north in November, was far better than the one that took the field against Miami (OH) (IO) in September. Certainly other teams have improved as well, but consider the giant leap forward Urban Meyer-coached teams traditionally take in Year 2 of his system. Other teams will have improved, but Ohio State has improved more, and they are better to begin with. Once again, it seems far more likely that Ohio State will finish undefeated than not.

Brian Bennett: While it's true that this season's Ohio State team is different, and it won't have to win 25 games in a row this season, my point was that it's really, really hard to go undefeated in any given year, much less do it two years in a row. You make a good point about Meyer's second-year track record, but also recall that he had only one undefeated season under his belt before last year, and that was at Utah. You also make it sound like Ohio State didn't have close games late in the season, but the Buckeyes won an overtime game in the penultimate game at Wisconsin, as well as that miracle comeback against Purdue on Oct. 20. And remember that they only beat Michigan by five points, at home. Yes, Meyer's team should be favored in at least 11 games this season, but we are saying that based mostly on what those opponents did last year, not the teams that they will become this season. I won't be surprised if the Buckeyes run the table, but I'd give better odds that they slip up somewhere.

Josh from Madison, Wisc., writes: Who ultimately starts for the Badgers this season, Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy?

Brian Bennett: You're giving short shrift to Curt Phillips, who might not have the arm strength of Stave or the athleticism (post injuries) of McEvoy but has a combination of both and serious veteran moxie. It's nearly impossible right now to tell whom Gary Andersen and Andy Ludwig will choose as their starter. McEvoy is at a disadvantage because he didn't arrive on campus until the summer, and his experience at playing quarterback on any level is limited. I'd probably put my money on Stave, just because he has the best chance to help the offense stretch the field with his downfield passing ability, and he played well last season before getting hurt. But I also think McEvoy will play at some point this fall, and I still wouldn't count out Phillips being the last man standing.

Early look at the Ohio State Buckeyes 

July, 26, 2013
7/26/13
11:00
AM ET
Braxton MillerPatrick Smith/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller ran for 134 yards and accounted for three touchdowns vs. Penn State last season.
Every weekday over the next two weeks, NittanyNation will take a closer look at a different game this season and how the matchup stacks up for PSU. Up today: Ohio State.

This is the most difficult game on Penn State's schedule -- and for good reason.

Is it preseason All-America team season already? You bet it is.

Phil Steele has issued his 2013 preseason All-America teams, and a total of 15 players from the Big Ten made the four squads.

Let's take a look:

First team
Second team
Third team
Fourth team

Some notes and thoughts:
  • Lewan is an obvious choice for the first team, while Steele clearly sees the potential in Shazier and Roby after breakout seasons for the 12-0 Buckeyes in 2012. I don't see much separating Bullough from Shazier and Dennard from Roby, and wouldn't be surprised to see either Spartans defender moving up a team on the postseason All-America list.
  • Ohio State's Miller is listed behind only Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and ahead of Alabama's A.J. McCarron and Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater. It's clear Miller will enter the season very much on the Heisman radar. Nebraska's Taylor Martinez didn't make the top four signal callers, but can't be too far behind.
  • Wisconsin's Pedersen is a solid player, but Penn State's Kyle Carter has the higher ceiling among Big Ten tight ends, in my view. Carter had 453 receiving yards in just nine games in 2012. He'll be a big help for Penn State's new starting quarterback, and could work his way onto the postseason All-America list.
  • It's not a huge snub, but Northwestern's Mark should be better than a fourth-team all-purpose player. He earned first-team All-America honors in 2012, and also was a second-team All-Big Ten selection as a running back. Mark could have worked his way onto the list as a running back. Instead, Steele went with former Penn State star Silas Redd as a fourth-teamer despite a so-so first season at USC. Mark's teammate Jeff Budzien also was snubbed from the kickers list after a near-perfect junior season.
  • Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan didn't make the preseason list despite an excellent 2012 season. Ryan suffered a torn ACL this spring, but is expected back before the end of October. It'll be interesting to see if other Wolverines players besides Lewan put themselves in contention for postseason All-America honors.
  • It's nice to see Steele recognize Wisconsin's Abbrederis, who might still be the Big Ten's top receiver. Like Pedersen, Abbrederis' numbers suffered in 2012 as Wisconsin sputtered on offense, and especially in the passing game. Abbrederis is an excellent route runner, a big-play threat, and a good return man.
  • I'm interested to see which Big Ten linemen work their way onto Steele's postseason All-America teams. Keep an eye on guys like Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, Penn State defensive end Deion Barnes, Wisconsin offensive lineman Ryan Groy, Northwestern defensive end Tyler Scott, Penn State guard John Urschel, and Ohio State's dynamic young pairing of defensive linemen Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington.

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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Monday, 12/22
Saturday, 12/20
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12