Penn State Nittany Lions: Urban Meyer

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
5:00
PM ET
It's Wednesday. There's nothing good on TV (except for this). It's mailbag business time.

Ed from State of Rutgers writes: How would you rank B1G head coaches on the hot seat in 2014? Which assistants are in the best position for a head coaching job after this season?

Brian Bennett: Thanks for the question, Ed, and welcome to Big Ten country. We didn't see a single head coach get fired in the Big Ten last season, which was good news. But the way these things go, odds are the league won't make it two years in a row without any pink slips.

Let's answer your question by looking at this in tiers. Tier 1 includes the coaches who absolutely won't get fired this season unless there's some sort of unforeseen major scandal: Ohio State's Urban Meyer, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Penn State's James Franklin, Minnesota's Jerry Kill, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz.

[+] EnlargeKyle Flood
AP Photo/John RaouxKyle Flood could face a difficult first season in the Big Ten, but it might not be enough to cost him his job.
Tier 2 would be the guys who are most likely safe but who could feel some rising temperatures if the season goes awry. That would include: Indiana's Kevin Wilson, who seems to have the Hoosiers on an uptick but who needs to get the team to a bowl soon; Purdue's Darrell Hazell, who almost certainly won't get canned after just two years but can't afford another season as awful as last season's 1-11 debacle; and Michigan's Brady Hoke, who isn't on the hot seat now but who would definitely feel the wrath of fans and boosters if the Wolverines have another 7-5 type year and lose to Ohio State.

Tier 3 covers the coaches actually feeling some heat under their chairs. Let's evaluate them individually:

  • Tim Beckman, Illinois: This should come as no surprise. The Illini showed improvement last season, but Beckman is still just 6-18 and has seen fan support fall off a cliff. Anything less than a bowl game in 2014 could make things really dicey.
  • Bo Pelini, Nebraska: This is a well-documented situation, and many people were surprised Pelini wasn't fired at the end of last season, though athletics director Shawn Eichorst remains hard to read. The good news is that Pelini could have a very good team in Lincoln this year, and he sure doesn't appear to be sweating things this spring.
  • Kyle Flood, Rutgers: He went 9-4 his first season as head coach but just 6-7 with a dismal finish last season. He also has a new boss in town, and the Scarlet Knights will face a very difficult schedule in Year 1 in the Big Ten. He's only making $900,000, so a change wouldn't be too financially painful. The question is whether embattled new athletic director Julie Hermann has enough juice right now to make that call.
  • Randy Edsall, Maryland: This is the toughest call of the tier, as Edsall might have bought himself some time with last season's winning record and has had to deal with injuries to many star players. Yet he's still just 13-24 after three seasons, and life in the Big Ten might not be easy for the Terps. A losing record in 2014 would make things very uncomfortable in College Park.

George K. from Pittsburgh: Brian, I'm disappointed in what you wrote about Joe Paterno winning [the Big Ten coaches' tournament]. There was way too much conjecture in what you said. Please think about it. Then issue a factual restatement, please.

Scott R. from Chadron, Neb., writes: Pretty sure there was voter fraud on that Osborne/Paterno matchup. Am I the only one who noticed there were as many international votes as domestic? And that those international votes were 87% for Paterno? Every other poll on ESPN.com is about 75% domestic, 25% foreign. This one was 50/50, and the international vote was OVERWHELMINGLY for Paterno. Seems a little suspicious.

Brian Bennett: File this one under "You Can't Please Everybody, Vol. 734." For the past two weeks, my mailbag was full of comments like Scott's, claiming some sort of voter fraud as Paterno got a huge international vote against both Tom Osborne and Woody Hayes. I have neither the technical expertise nor the time to figure out whether there was some sort of computer tomfoolery going on. But you'd have to be really naive not to raise an eyebrow at the fact that more than half the votes (17,000-plus) in the title matchup came from outside the United States and that those votes were wildly in favor of Paterno. Maybe there's a simple explanation why so many non-U.S. residents care about Big Ten football -- Italians for JoePa, perhaps?

The bottom line is that we placed no rules on this tournament, other than the most votes wins. If someone was ingenious enough to rig it, more power to them. Paterno certainly had the résumé and accomplishments that were deserving on their own. I had no personal stake in the outcome, and I found it to be a fun exercise to go along with March Madness. I hope everyone enjoyed it.


Andrew from Columbus, Ohio, writes: While it is still possible that Ohio State-Michigan State could be a night game, what prevented it from being in the first batch of announced games? Since it would feature the two most compelling teams in the league from last year, it seems to me that it would be the marquee matchup the B1G has been looking to highlight.

Brian Bennett: Andrew, I can't say I understand all the intricacies here at play, either, except that there are apparently some other details to iron out. That game still seems like a natural choice for a prime-time selection. It's still only mid-April. Stay tuned ...


Mike K. from Penn State writes: With Penn State losing Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder at the WR position, along with some great O-linemen to the draft, do you think the team can still succeed in the Big Ten solely based on defense?

Brian Bennett: I have great respect for what Bob Shoop and his staff accomplished at Vanderbilt and expect him to do a great job as the Nittany Lions' defensive coordinator. From what I saw last year, however, I don't think there's enough top-shelf talent on that defense for Penn State to pull a Michigan State and simply dominate everyone on defense. At least not at a championship level. I don't worry as much about the receiving group, because I think with Geno Lewis, some of the talented freshmen and those tight ends, they can piece together people for Christian Hackenberg to target. My biggest concern is the offensive line, which is thin and has some troubling injuries. It's nearly impossible to win at a high level in the Big Ten without a decent offensive line.


Tommy from Savannah, Ga., writes: March Madness is one of the greatest times of the year, most people live for it. Why wouldn't the NCAA FBS decision makers want something like that with those ratings over the course of a few weeks? Definitely not 68 teams, but eight or 16 teams with a selection show, bracket challenge, Cinderellas, and endless coverage and hype. They already do it for FCS.

Brian Bennett: You'll find no bigger NCAA tournament fan than me, Tommy, and my wife is really happy it's over so she can see me again. Still, it's hard to compare the sports. Football simply is a much more physical game, and so adding more games to the schedule becomes problematic, along with the logistical problems caused by Christmas break and the semester changes. I do believe we will eventually have an eight-team tournament, with the five power conference champions getting an automatic berth along with the top champion of the other leagues plus two wild cards. That's a perfect setup. But it took us decades just to get to a four-team playoff, and that semifinal day on Jan. 1 (most years) will instantly become one of the best days on the sports calendar.

Besides, I could argue college football already has March Madness all fall long, and the ratings reflect that. Before the Final Four began, the NCAA tournament averaged a reported 9.8 million viewers, which was a big increase. By contrast, the Big Ten championship game drew 11.6 million viewers, while the Auburn-Alabama game attracted 13.8 million. The men's basketball final (aired on network TV) between UConn and Kentucky got 21.2 million viewers, compared to 25.6 million for the BCS title game (aired on ESPN) between Florida State and Auburn. We could see record ratings for the inaugural rounds of the College Football Playoff.
The most exciting day of the Big Ten offseason is here. OK, not really, but it's definitely in the top five.

The first portion of the Big Ten's prime-time schedule is out as ABC/ESPN made its six selections for games to be played under the lights. The Big Ten Network will announce its prime-time picks next week. Additional kickoff times could be announced later this spring or early in the summer.

Here's the ABC/ESPN schedule:

Sept. 6

Virginia Tech at Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

Sept. 20

Miami at Nebraska, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Oct. 4

Nebraska at Michigan State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Oct. 11

Penn State at Michigan, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN or ESPN2*

Oct. 25

Ohio State at Penn State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

Nov. 1

Illinois at Ohio State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN or ESPN2

*-previously announced

A few notes, quotes and observations:

November night games

Contrary to popular belief, the Big Ten never had a strict policy against playing prime-time games after Nov. 1, but most of its schools preferred to keep those games in the first two months of the season. League members have shown an increased willingness to schedule more prime-time games, and after discussing November night contests for several years, we finally have one.

[+] EnlargeOhio Stadium
David Dermer/Getty ImagesOhio Stadium will host its first November night game in 2014.
Although the November matchup -- Illinois at Ohio State -- lacks a wow factor, this is still a positive step for the league. Also, this is not the final list for November prime-time games, as others will be announced in the future.

"There is a real recognition with our coaches, our athletic directors and our fans that prime-time football is very important," Mark Rudner, the Big Ten's senior associate commissioner for television administration, told ESPN.com. "It's important to the conference, it's important to recruiting, it puts you on a big stage.

"It's a big event whenever you have prime-time football."

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and coach Urban Meyer both have vocalized their desire for more night games. The Buckeyes get three of them on ABC/ESPN (two home, one road), and possibly more to come. It's the Urban Effect.

Huskers, Lions back in prime

No two Big Ten fan bases value night football at their home venues more than Penn State and Nebraska. The Nittany Lions and Huskers both host prime-time games on ABC/ESPN in 2014 (Nebraska didn't have an ABC/ESPN prime-time game in 2013) and make multiple appearances.

The Nebraska-Miami game should be a fun one, especially given the history between the two programs in bowl games (their last five meetings took place in major bowl games). Nebraska's visit to Michigan State is one of few must-see division crossover contests, so it makes sense in prime time.

Beaver Stadium will be rocking for the Ohio State game as former longtime Penn State assistant coach Larry Johnson makes his return to Happy Valley wearing scarlet and gray. Although Penn State remains ineligible for postseason play, the Lions' value is reflected here with East Division matchups against both Michigan and Ohio State. The Lions' consecutive winning seasons despite the bowl ban, plus the arrival of coach James Franklin, enhance the program's appeal for top TV slots.

No limits on prime-time appearances

Big Ten teams typically have had no more than three prime-time appearances per season, but like the November night games issue, this was more of a preference than a policy. As schools like Ohio State become increasingly more open to night football, the number of prime-time appearances will increase, and will occasionally exceed three.

Wisconsin played four prime-time games (two home, two road) in the 2011 season.

"That three [limit] was really self-imposed," Rudner said. "You could waive it if you wanted to. I don't know if that will be as hard and fast as it was before. They see the value in these big events, these big games."

Additional games/announcements

Some Big Ten prime-time games were previously announced, such as Michigan's Sept. 6 trip to Notre Dame and Purdue's Sept. 13 neutral-site game against Notre Dame. A game time has not been set for Wisconsin's season-opener against LSU on Aug. 30 in Houston, but the game will kick off in prime time and be televised by an ESPN network.

One thing to remember when predicting or analyzing night-game choices: other games being played in the same window. Prime-time kickoffs offer certain benefits, but teams don't like being overshadowed in the late window.
Head coaches from the Big Ten East Division, along with a player from each team, addressed the media this afternoon on teleconferences. The West Division players and coaches spoke Wednesday.

Here's a closer look at the East:

INDIANA
  • Defense has been a lingering Indiana concern for years, but coach Kevin Wilson believes he's starting to see a change, thanks to new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr. The scheme hasn't changed radically, but the Hoosiers return 10 starters there -- and Wilson's seen a promising spring so far with an added focus on competition and communication: "They've for sure held their own on a daily basis -- and, in some ways, probably even better -- against the offense."
  • Wilson believes teams need to invest scholarships into the kicking game, but he thinks it's also too risky to offer recruits straight out of high school. If you look at the NCAA's top 25 kickers, Wilson estimated at least 15 started out as walk-ons. So he's hoping to find some walk-ons who are willing to work for a scholarship, rather than be granted one right away.
  • At 5-foot-7, Shane Wynn is the Hoosiers' leading returning receiver, and he's transitioning to playing the outside. It's been a little different for Wynn, who said he's had to watch more film as a result. He's reading the corners now, instead of the safeties, as just one example.
MARYLAND
  • Maryland coach Randy Edsall is confident in his offense and believes the Terrapins have enough options so that opponents can't focus on just one person. If defenses lock on to wideout Stefon Diggs, then quarterback C.J. Brown can take off running or receiver Deon Long can pick up some slack. "The No. 1 thing I do like," Edsall said, "is we can spread the field."
  • Maryland's staff has already started looking at film of Big Ten teams, so they know what to expect when the conference season begins. Edsall said he wants to at least get a feel for their personnel and what kind of schemes he'll face. He's also confident the Terps will be ready: "We fully expect to be able to compete when we get into the Big Ten this year."
  • Brown said one of the main reasons he committed to Maryland was the coach who recruited him at the time, former Terps assistant and current Penn State coach James Franklin. He's looking forward to squaring off against Franklin this season, and Edsall said there's no question he would like to develop a rivalry with the Nittany Lions.
MICHIGAN
  • The quarterback derby will continue, and Brady Hoke included all three of his options in the discussion heading into the offseason. The Wolverines coach did acknowledge, though, that Devin Gardner “probably would be” the starter if there was a game on the schedule this weekend. There isn’t, so Shane Morris and Wilton Speight will continue to be in the conversation.
  • The first opponent on the schedule will always stir emotions for Michigan fans, but Hoke didn’t attach any revenge or sentimentality to his reasons for wanting to take on Appalachian State in the opener this fall. “We needed a game,” Hoke said. “I thought it would be a good game.” Defensive end Frank Clark was certainly aware of the history between the programs, even though he was still years away from joining Michigan and getting a shot at making up for the upset loss in 2007 -- which he called “shocking” and “shows how hard those guys play.”
MICHIGAN STATE
  • Michigan State is coming off a Rose Bowl victory, but coach Mark Dantonio and quarterback Connor Cook would prefer not to think about that any longer. Dantonio said they've talked a lot these last four months about not growing complacent, and Cook only echoed his coach. "A lot of people keep bringing up the Rose Bowl," Cook said. "But we're past that. We're focusing on the now."
  • The offensive line has made some big strides since January, at least according to Cook. He felt like he had no time in the pocket last spring and said the pass rush was getting to him every time. This spring? He doesn't feel rushed in the pocket, and he thinks that's pretty indicative of how far this line has come.
  • Jeremy Langford earned a lot of praise from Cook, who said the running back has become a much bigger part of the passing attack. "He's improved a lot with catching the ball," Cook said, complimenting Langford's versatility. "He's done so many different things for us."
OHIO STATE
  • There is still work to be done in addressing the most glaring weakness on the team last season, but Urban Meyer called Ohio State’s pass defense “drastically improved” and will be watching closely for more signs of progress in Saturday’s spring game. The Buckeyes will play a traditional game, but the emphasis will be on throwing the football and assessing the skill players on both offense and defense -- giving Meyer a chance to evaluate backup quarterback Cardale Jones in a live setting in addition to checking out the secondary.
  • Arguably the strongest part of last season's team is undergoing a transition without four senior starters, and the offensive line is somewhat of a concern for Meyer heading into the offseason. With guard Pat Elflein the only other player to have earned a first-team slot to play alongside junior Taylor Decker at this point, that competition is likely to spill over into preseason camp in August. Both tackle Darryl Baldwin and guard Antonio Underwood were praised for their work by defensive tackle Michael Bennett, and Billy Price and Jacoby Boren are dueling at center.
PENN STATE
  • Franklin said he knew exactly what he was getting into at Penn State, in terms of the current depth and sanctions. He and former coach Bill O'Brien worked together at Maryland, and he said the two had a lot of honest conversations about the current state of the Nittany Lions. The two have continued to talk since.
  • Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia are both making transitions from defensive tackle to offensive guard, and Franklin said he has been pleased with their performances so far: "They're doing a good job for us -- and they have to. We're thin at that position."
  • Franklin said he feels especially comfortable with the talent at running back and defensive line. Middle linebacker Mike Hull was more specific about naming the players who impressed him, pointing to backup linebacker Gary Wooten and cornerback Da'Quan Davis. Hull said Wooten is always around the football and that Davis, who missed part of the spring with a hamstring injury, has come up with several interceptions.
RUTGERS
  • Another open competition at the most critical position on the field -- quarterback -- is still playing out at Rutgers, and coach Kyle Flood isn’t ready to declare a winner in what would seem to be a wide-open battle. Flood indicated that Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano are all “really vying for that first-team job.”
  • The change in conference affiliation has been welcomed with open arms by the Scarlet Knights, who can “feel the energy” as theypractice for their first season in the Big Ten. Defensive tackle Darius Hamilton said the team was already buzzing with excitement about the opportunity, and Flood called joining the league a “positive in every way.” The move also presents the opportunity for a rivalry to develop with new divisional neighbor Penn State, with both Flood and Hamilton citing the proximity between the schools as a bonus.

Big Ten's lunch links

March, 25, 2014
Mar 25
12:00
PM ET
Five months and three days 'til the start of college football.

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 19, 2014
Mar 19
12:00
PM ET
Thoughts and prayers continue to go out to Isaac Griffith and his family.

Big Ten's lunch links

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
12:00
PM ET
I'll make a deal with you, Warren Buffett. You cut me a check for $10 million right now, and I'll spare you the embarrassment of acing your little challenge.
Our ultimate Big Ten road trip has made it to the final week of October. Time to get serious.

For those just joining in, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the 2014 season. We aren't tied down by a travel budget or nagging editors. If we want to attend a game -- depending on matchup, location, culinary offerings or any other factors -- we can go.

Here are the possibilities for Week 9:

Oct. 25

Maryland at Wisconsin
Michigan at Michigan State
Minnesota at Illinois
Ohio State at Penn State
Rutgers at Nebraska

Open date: Indiana, Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Ohio State at Penn State

Toughest choice so far. I really enjoy the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry, and the 2014 game features several great storylines, including two of the nation's top assistants, MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi and Michigan offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, matching wits. But I'm heading to Happy Valley for two reasons: Ohio State and the atmosphere.

The Buckeyes' schedule has offered few must-see opportunities, but going more than two months without seeing a top Big Ten title -- and potential College Football Playoff -- contender doesn't make much sense. Quarterback Braxton Miller could be in the Heisman Trophy mix, and Ohio State's defense is trying to course-correct. Speaking of the Buckeyes defense, new line coach Larry Johnson makes his return to Penn State, where he spent the past 18 seasons as an assistant. Penn State fans love Johnson, but it will be tough for them to see him wearing Ohio State colors.

And then there's the atmosphere. Beaver Stadium at night is one of the best settings in college football. Although the prime-time schedule hasn't been set, I'll go out on a small limb and plan to see Ohio State and Penn State under the lights during a whiteout. Haven't been to one of those since 2009, so count me in. Lions fans have two weeks to gear up for this one, and campus will be buzzing. The matchup features two talented quarterbacks in Miller and Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, and two of the league's most intriguing coaches in Urban Meyer and James Franklin, both of whom came to the Big Ten from the SEC.

I'll keep an eye on what happens in East Lansing, but I'm off to State College and not looking back.

Brian Bennett's pick: Michigan at Michigan State

This choice really comes down to East Lansing or State College, and if I end up at either place on Oct. 25, you won't find me complaining one bit. Both atmospheres should be silly good.

But while Ohio State-Penn State is sort of a rivalry, the Paul Bunyan game is a true old-fashioned hate fest, and that's why I want to be there. Michigan State has dominated this series of late and forced the Wolverines to adapt to its physical style. Michigan fans can't be too happy about going back to Spartan Stadium for a second straight season, but such is the quirk of the new schedules with the 14-team alignment.

Michigan hasn't scored more than 21 points in this game since 2007 and has managed just 32 points total in the past three years combined. So Devin Gardner & Co. have their work cut out for them against Narduzzi's defense. Nussmeier is trying to install a more physical, north-south running game this offseason, and never would that come in more handy than here. Don't forget this is still a division game, and there's no team Spartans fans love to beat than the maize and blue. It should be another intense installment of this rivalry, and I can't wait to see it.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
Week 5: Brian at Cincinnati-Ohio State; Adam at Minnesota-Michigan
Week 6: Adam at Nebraska-Michigan State; Brian at Nebraska-Michigan State
Week 7: Brian at Penn State-Michigan; Adam at Northwestern-Minnesota
Week 8: Adam at Iowa-Maryland, Brian at Nebraska-Northwestern

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
12:00
PM ET
So Nick Saban is saying you shouldn't smoke while playing football?

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 lunchtime links

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
12:00
PM ET
Cold, cold, go away.
Here's a team-by-team look at what to watch in the new Big Ten East this spring.

Indiana

Spring start: March 8

Spring game: TBA

What to watch
  • Getting defensive: The Hoosiers have had no trouble scoring since Kevin Wilson took over the program, but opponents have made it look even easier. New defensive coordinator Brian Knorr might have his hands full turning around the Big Ten’s worst unit, but Indiana could be dangerous if he can.
  • Quarterback derby: The offense operated just fine with Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld taking turns leading the attack, so Wilson might not even need to settle on just one quarterback. Typically it does help to have a pecking order behind center, though, and the Hoosiers will be watching these guys closely to see if one can gain some separation.
  • Next in line: There is a ready-made candidate to take over as the team’s most productive receiver, but Shane Wynn is going to need some help. For all his speed and elusiveness, Wynn is still undersized and doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional receiver, which will make it necessary for somebody like Nick Stoner to step up to help replace Cody Latimer.
Maryland

Spring start: March 1

Spring game: April 11

What to watch
  • Get healthy: The Terrapins have one of the most talented groups of wide receivers in the country when they’re completely healthy, but that was an issue last season with both Stefon Diggs and Deon Long suffering broken legs -- just for starters. Neither of those game-breakers is expected to be on the field this spring, but their respective rehabs are critical moving forward.
  • Give and take: An emphasis on protecting the football on offense and creating more turnovers defensively is nothing new in spring practice, but Randy Edsall might just double down on that message this year. The Terrapins finished last in the ACC in turnover margin last season and were ranked No. 102 in the nation with seven more giveaways than takeaways, which isn’t a recipe for success in any league.
  • Coaching chemistry: The deck wasn’t completely reshuffled, but the Terrapins will have three new assistants in charge and could use a seamless transition as they prepare to move to a new league. Keenan McCardell (wide receivers), Chad Wilt (defensive line) and Greg Studrawa (offensive line) will help deliver Edsall’s message moving forward, and it’s as crucial for a coaching staff to jell and find common ground as it is for players on the field.
Michigan

Spring start: Feb. 25

Spring game: April 5

What to watch
  • Go pro: If it was the coordinator keeping Brady Hoke from putting the offense he wanted on the field, that won’t be an issue anymore with Al Borges out of the picture. Snapping up Doug Nussmeier from Alabama should put the Wolverines on the path for a more traditional pro-style attack, and establishing that playbook starts on the practice field in spring.
  • Quarterback quandary: The competition to lead the new-look offense is open between Devin Gardner and Shane Morris, and how that battle shakes out will obviously have a lasting impact and shape the season for the Wolverines. Gardner has the edge in experience and turned in a gritty, wildly productive outing against Ohio State while injured to end the season, but he certainly has lacked consistency. Morris filled in during the postseason with mixed results, but one of those guys will need to emerge.
  • On the line: The Wolverines were in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten in sacks, and only Purdue was worse in the league at protecting the quarterback. Both sides of the line have plenty of room to develop, and those daily battles against each other this spring will need to sharpen both the pass-rushers and the blockers if Michigan is going to be able to win games up front.
Michigan State

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch
  • Something cooking: The finishing flourish in the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl showed how far Connor Cook had come from the start of the season to the end, but there’s still more room to grow. His numbers are slightly skewed thanks to the way Michigan State handled the job early in the season, but overall he averaged fewer than 200 yards per game passing. With such a great defense, that was enough -- but boosting that total would be better for the Spartans.
  • Reload defensively: The seemingly impenetrable defense might have been more than sum of its parts, but the individual pieces Michigan State had on hand weren’t too shabby, either. With Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen all gone, the Spartans will need to identify some replacements for the stars of that elite unit from a year ago.
  • Plug some holes: Both starting offensive guards have to be replaced, and given the perhaps overlooked significance of the work the line did for the Spartans last season, that shouldn’t be dismissed as a meaningful item on the checklist. Cook has to be protected in the pocket, for starters, but with the way the Spartans traditionally pound the football on the ground, they’ll need some road-pavers to step up during spring practice to keep the offense on the upswing.
Ohio State

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch
  • Backs to the wall: There weren’t many deficiencies to be found on a team that again went through the regular season unbeaten, but Ohio State’s glaring weakness caught up with it late in the year. The Buckeyes looked helpless at times against the pass, and new co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Chris Ash was brought in to make sure that unit is dramatically improved.
  • Hold the line: The Buckeyes held on to Braxton Miller for another year, but they lost four seniors who had protected the quarterback for the past couple of seasons. That might be a worthwhile trade, but finding replacements up front will be imperative for a team that has leaned heavily on that veteran presence in the trenches since Urban Meyer took over the program. Taylor Decker is the lone holdover in the starting lineup, and he’ll need to assert himself as the leader of the unit.
  • Air it out: Miller had some shaky performances throwing the ball down the stretch, but taking the passing game to a higher level is not solely his responsibility. The Buckeyes also need improved play and more reliable options at wide receiver, and they’ve recruited to address that issue over the past couple of years. Michael Thomas, who redshirted during his second year on campus, might be leading the charge for a new batch of playmakers on the perimeter.
Penn State

Spring start: March 17

Spring game: April 12

What to watch
  • Starting fresh: There are new playbooks to learn again for the Nittany Lions, and spring practice will be the first chance for James Franklin to start shaping his team in his image. That process doesn’t just include memorizing schemes and assignments for the players, since every coach has a different way of structuring practices and meetings. The sooner the Nittany Lions adjust the better off they’ll be in the fall.
  • Next step: As debut seasons go, it’s hard to find much fault in the work Christian Hackenberg did after being tossed into the fire as a true freshman. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards with 20 touchdowns, completing 59 percent and setting the bar pretty high for himself down the road. As part of his encore, Franklin would probably like to see the young quarterback cut down on his 10 interceptions as a sophomore.
  • Tighten up the defense: There were pass defenses with more holes than Penn State’s a year ago, but that will be little consolation for a program that has traditionally been so stout on that side of the ball. Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas can get the job done at cornerback, but the Nittany Lions need to get stronger at safety -- and also need to fill notable spots in front of them with linebacker Glenn Carson and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones now gone.
Rutgers

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch
  • Toughen up: The Scarlet Knights have seen hard-hitting competition and proven they aren’t afraid of a challenge, but the Big East and American conferences don’t provide nearly the weekly physical test that playing in the Big Ten does. There’s no reason to think Kyle Flood won’t have his team ready for the transition and a new league, but developing both strong bodies and minds starts in spring practice.
  • Settle on a quarterback: There’s a veteran signal-caller on hand with 28 career starts to his credit, but Flood made it no secret as far back as January that he would hold an open competition during camp to lead the offense. Gary Nova has the edge in experience, but he also has more interceptions in his career than games started. That could open the door for one of three younger guys to step in, though Mike Bimonte, Blake Rankin and Chris Laviano have combined to take a grand total of zero snaps.
  • Star turn: There’s nothing wrong with spreading the wealth, and the Scarlet Knights certainly did that in the passing game last season. Having five targets with at least 28 receptions can keep a defense off-balance, which is a good thing. But ending the season with none of those guys topping 573 yards might not be quite as encouraging, and establishing a consistent, go-to, big-play threat in the spring could prove useful for a team that finished No. 62 in the nation in passing yardage.
Spring football kicks off earlier than normal in the Big Ten, as Michigan takes the field Tuesday, Northwestern follows Wednesday and eight other squads begin their sessions by March 8.

The accelerated schedules seem appropriate in a league filled with players, coaches and teams itching for fresh starts.

New assistants get their first chance to repair struggling units, whether it's Doug Nussmeier with Michigan's offense, Brian Knorr with Indiana's defense or Chris Ash and Larry Johnson with a once-feared Ohio State defense. Quarterback competitions begin or resume at nine places, as new faces such as Illinois' Wes Lunt, Nebraska's Johnny Stanton and Minnesota's Chris Streveler enter the mix, while veterans like Wisconsin's Joel Stave and Michigan's Devin Gardner try to retain their starting jobs.

Happy Valley continues to buzz about new Penn State coach James Franklin, who seems to galvanize everyone whom he encounters. But Franklin barely has been around his new players and finally begins the real work with a team facing very real challenges.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes his team can start a rebound from a disappointing, injury-riddled 2013 season.
Spring also allows teams such as Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue and Indiana to look forward after disappointing seasons. Michigan State, meanwhile, continues to bask in the Rose Bowl glow but looks toward its next goal -- a national championship -- as spring ball kicks off March 25.

"It's big-picture stuff, building relationships with the players and everyone associated with the program," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The other thing is laying a really good foundation with the philosophies and schemes of how we're going to do things. That's going to happen naturally over time, but I'm not the most patient person. I wish it would have happened yesterday."

Franklin doesn't water down his goals for Penn State, especially in recruiting, but he's also realistic about the challenges of a reduced roster. The Nittany Lions return strong pieces such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive back Adrian Amos, but the two-deep has some holes that Franklin and his assistants must address, while installing new schemes.

"It's one thing when you get put in this situation in the first place with limited scholarships," Franklin said, "but the longer you're in it, the more effect it has. We've got some depth issues, there's no doubt about it, across the board. We're going to have to get creative."

Northwestern also is focused on depth after being hit hard by key injuries in 2013. Pat Fitzgerald blames himself and his staff for failing to get enough second-stringers ready, which proved costly in close Big Ten losses.

After their first bowl-less winter in six years, the Wildcats responded well in the weight room, as more than 50 players recorded personal bests. Although 11 players will miss spring practice, including standout running back/returner Venric Mark, the depth should be better in areas like the secondary.

"We're really emphasizing taking ownership of the finish," Fitzgerald said. "Finishing your technique, finishing the call, finishing the route. There's a lot of disappointment in the way the program didn't take the next step forward."

Michigan coach Brady Hoke restructured the roles of his defensive assistants for 2014, but the Wolverines' offense will be in the spotlight this spring after a wildly inconsistent season. Gardner, who continues to recover from a foot injury and likely won't be 100 percent until midway through the spring, will compete with Shane Morris, Russell Bellomy and midyear enrollee Wilton Speight.

But other positions, such as offensive line, figure to be just as important as Michigan tries to achieve Hoke and Nussmeier's vision.

"We had good intentions as far as what we wanted our identity to be, but obviously I don't think it came out the way we'd like it to," Hoke said. "The quarterback position is as important as any, and we have a guy [Gardner] who is very talented and had some really good games and games where we had to protect him better, have a better run game and take pressure off of him, and I don't think we did."

While Michigan turns the page on offense, Ohio State focuses on a defense that allowed 115 points in its last three games and finished 110th nationally in pass yards allowed (268 YPG). The Buckeyes lost top defenders Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, but they also added two accomplished assistants.

Johnson, who churned out NFL linemen during 18 years at Penn State, chose Ohio State instead of remaining in State College. Ash leaves a sole coordinator role at Arkansas for a co-coordinator role at Ohio State, where he'll work with the embattled Luke Fickell and others to mend the defense through a simplified scheme.

"Back in the day when Ohio State played great defense, you knew what you were going to get," Ash said. "They played with swagger, played with confidence, played with toughness. We have to get back to that. The simplicity of the things we're going to do will lead to faster players, more plays made and a more aggressive defense.

"I wasn't here [in 2013], but I can tell you what Coach Meyer has told me, what Luke Fickell has told me and what I watch on film. I can see there's some hesitation, there's some uncertainty. Why that is, I don't know. But it's my job to get it fixed."

Purdue has plenty to fix after a 1-11 season, and players not surprisingly are wearing T-shirts with the word "FORWARD" on the backs. Maryland and Rutgers move forward to a new conference after an offseason that saw several staff changes, including new coordinators at Rutgers (Ralph Friedgen, Joe Rossi).

There's a fresh start of sorts at Wisconsin, as a large and decorated senior class departs. Coach Gary Andersen's markings will be more obvious with his second team, which begins practice March 7.

Wisconsin is just one of many places where the top quarterback job is at stake. Lunt, who sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, competes with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey at Illinois.

"Competition's competition, no matter where it's at," said Lunt, who has added about 15 pounds since his arrival and checks in at 225. "It's different because it’s different people, different coaches, but I'm excited for it."

He's not alone in the Big Ten. Spring ball can't start soon enough.

B1G's top impact true freshmen

February, 13, 2014
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The Big Ten's 2014 recruiting classes are signed and sealed -- for the most part, at least. The next question many of you ask is which incoming freshmen or junior-college players will make the biggest immediate impact for the 2014 season.

It's always a bit tricky projecting which recruits will make a big splash right away, as some will fall in line behind veteran players while others might be forced into big roles because of depth issues. Talent certainly plays a role on who sees the field the earliest, and so does need.

Here are five players (in alphabetical order) who I expect to see early and often in 2014. Note: Malik McDowell would have made the list, but the possibility (albeit slim) that he signs with Florida State prevents it.

Chris Godwin, WR, Penn State: The Lions have a dynamic quarterback in Christian Hackenberg, but wide receiver suddenly is a major need after Allen Robinson, the two-time Big Ten wide receiver of the year, entered the NFL draft. Robinson recorded 97 receptions last season, and no other Lions player had more than 28. The good news is Penn State loaded up at receiver in the 2014 class, and Godwin should be in the mix for major playing time right away. The 6-foot-2, 203-pound Godwin has a physical style that should help him transition to the college game.

[+] EnlargeJeff Jones
Tom Hauck/ESPNESPN 300 running back Jeff Jones has the potential to be an immediate contributor at Minnesota.
Jeff Jones, RB, Minnesota: The Gophers return a 1,200-yard rusher in David Cobb, so the need for Jones might not be overly pressing. But Jones' surge both during his senior season and afterward, when he claimed MVP honors at the Under Armour All-America Game, boost his chances of making a splash right away. Minnesota established itself as a run-first team in 2013, and the uncertainty at the quarterback position could push the Gophers even more toward the ground game this fall. The 6-foot, 198-pound Jones is the most decorated recruit of the Jerry Kill era and provides a spark to an offense that needs more dynamic components.

Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State: Here's a case of a supremely talented player -- ESPN RecruitingNation rates McMillan as the nation's top linebacker and No. 13 overall player -- who plays a position of extreme need. Ohio State has had depth issues at linebacker throughout Urban Meyer's tenure and loses All-American Ryan Shazier, who led the team in tackles (143), tackles for loss (22.5) and forced fumbles (4) last season. The departure of Mike Mitchell, a top linebacker recruit in the 2013 class, underscores the need for capable 'backers. The 6-2, 249-pound McMillan looks the part and should be able to help right away as a between-the-tackles run defender.

Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan: Brady Hoke has brought in other decorated recruits at Michigan, but Peppers has that can't-miss, no-doubt quality about him. Michigan will get this guy on the field right away, if not as a full-time starter in the secondary then on special teams, where he could be an explosive returner. The 6-1, 205-pound Peppers also could moonlight on offense after rushing for 43 touchdowns during his prep career. The nation's No. 2 overall recruit, according to ESPN RecruitingNation, Peppers brings the skills and playmaking ability to boost a defense took a step backward against the pass in 2013.

Jihad Ward, DT, Illinois: There's no secret why Illinois brought in five junior-college players in the 2014 class, as the upcoming season is pivotal for coach Tim Beckman. Repairing the nation's 110th-ranked defense is the top priority, and Ward should be able to help up front. The 6-6, 285-pound Ward is a big body in the middle who recorded 10 sacks in his junior college career. There are ample opportunities along the line after Illinois struggled so much against the run (116th nationally), and the Illini need Ward and the other jucos to be as good as advertised.

We'll have five more potential instant-impact players later today.

Big Ten lunch links

February, 6, 2014
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Filling all the needs in another great class of links.
  • Malik McDowell's commitment was perhaps the highlight of the class for Michigan State, but the wait for a signature added even more drama to his recruitment.
  • All of Michigan's signees were committed before new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier was hired last month, but he appears to be having an impact already on next year's class.
  • James Franklin emphasized the importance of the Penn State family as the program celebrated its new class with its "Signature Event."
  • The Class of 2014 might turn out to be Urban Meyer's finest with Ohio State, but he wasn't thrilled it didn't go down as the best in the country this year.
  • Upgrading the speed on the roster was the top priority for Wisconsin, and it appears Gary Andersen accomplished that goal.
  • Nebraska signed players from 13 different states, suggesting again that the program is recruiting nationally perhaps more than it ever has before.
  • Purdue was looking for natural leaders to fill out its class, and Darrell Hazell signed 18 players who were captains of their high school teams.
  • Pat Fitzgerald might not have landed every recruit in his backyard, but he felt Northwestern "dominated Chicagoland again" in the last cycle.
  • Jerry Kill puts plenty of stock in the importance of the third recruiting class in building a program, and he picked up some valuable pieces this year for Minnesota.
  • Illinois inked five players out of junior colleges, and Tim Beckman acknowledged it was because those players know there is plenty of opportunity to play quickly.

Big Ten Thursday chat wrap

January, 30, 2014
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Today's Big Ten chat got a little testy at times, but we all made it through. Thanks again for your questions and participation. If you missed out, check out the full transcript.

To the highlights:

SK from NJ: Rutgers fan here, wondering what we should expect from Philip Nelson?

Adam Ritenberg: He's a guy who came to Minnesota with a lot of attention, showed some decent mobility at times this season but wasn't accurate enough. He didn't have a great receiving corps by any means, but his accuracy numbers down the stretch were a bit troubling. I'm interested to see how he develops under new Rutgers OC Ralph Friedgen.

Marty from The Tundra: Hey Adam! I was just curious what your takes are on which school has the overall coaching advantage? Dantonio and staff at MSU? Urban Meyer's staff at OSU or even Franklin's at Penn State or something else?

Adam Rittenberg: Meyer is still the only Big Ten coach who has won a national title (two, in fact), so I give him the nod over Dantonio, who has certainly made up ground. Ohio State's overall staff gets an edge against MSU's, although the Spartans have the best assistant of the bunch in Pat Narduzzi. Franklin and his staff are excellent recruiters, but they need to show they can win against the best Big Ten teams before I put them in the Meyer/Dantonio category. Vanderbilt made historic strides under Franklin but beat up on the bottom of the SEC.

[+] EnlargePat Narduzzi
AP Photo/Al GoldisMichigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is too good and he will get his chance to be a head coach before long.
Glenn from FL: Are you surprised Narduzzi is still coaching at MSU? It seems a lot of guys can't wait to get a head coaching job. Is he not being offered or is he turning offers down? Or does he prefer being a coordinator? It is much easier than being the head coach.

Adam Rittenberg: He had an opportunity at Connecticut that wasn't very good, in my opinion, and chose to remain at MSU. He interviewed for the Louisville job, but Petrino always was the target there. He had a good shot at Cincinnati last year before Tuberville suddenly became available. So it's a matter of time, in my view. Pat is brutally honest and maybe not as polished as some head coaches, but he has matured in recent years and seems ready to lead a program. I'd be surprised if he's still coordinating MSU's defense in two years.

Armond from Toledo: Why is everyone excited about OSU's 2 defensive coaching staff hires? It seems like people are excited like we just hired the Seahawks' DC. Michigan's OC hire was something to be excited about. These two guys have me skeptical.

Adam Rittenberg: Expand on that thought, Armond. Why does Nussmeier excite you more than Johnson and Ash? Because he came from Alabama? A lot of coordinators could have success with Alabama's personnel. Larry Johnson has been an exceptional defensive line coach for more than a decade. Chris Ash is a rising star who specializes in defensive back play, where Ohio State struggled so much a year ago. Nussmeier is a good hire, too, but I don't understand your concern about Johnson and Ash.

Jim from Chicago: If the B1G ten doesn't end up with an undefeated team, chances they have a representative in the play off next year?

Adam Rittenberg: Jim, we addressed this a bit earlier. It all depends on what happens elsewhere, but I don't see too many 1-loss Big Ten teams making the playoff. Michigan State certainly could. Perhaps Ohio State or Wisconsin another team that racks up some impressive wins despite one setback. It would need to be a close loss, ideally early in the season, for a Big Ten team to overcome and still reach the playoff.

Thanks again for the questions. Let's do it again soon.

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Penn State 2015 Class Debuts At No. 3
Craig Haubert discusses recent additions to the Nittany Lions' 2015 class and first-year coach James Franklin's success on the recruiting trail.Tags: Adam McLean, Ryan Bates, Penn State Nittany Lions, James Franklin
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