Penn State Nittany Lions: Christian Hackenberg
Penn State’s quarterback had just transformed Saturday night from a potentially historic one for Rutgers -- what could have been its first win in its first-ever Big Ten game -- into a footnote of his own, by leading his fourth career game-winning drive in a 13-10 win. His teammates couldn’t hide their relief or delight, either: Defensive end Deion Barnes turned to the crowd and waved good-bye, wideout DaeSean Hamilton flung his gloves into the front row, and linebacker Brandon Bell leaped around with a grin.
"I just felt they didn’t respect us," Bell, a New Jersey native, said matter-of-factly.
Added PSU tailback Bill Belton, also from New Jersey: "They asked for a big-time game, and they got one."
This was Rutgers’ chance at respect, for showing up that team from Pennsylvania and proving wrong the opposing fans who sneered at their (lack of) tradition. The importance of this game can’t be minimized; Rutgers wideout Leonte Carroo told the Asbury Park Press a win could "change New Jersey and Rutgers football forever."
Instead, the contest sold out in record time, but question marks are now swirling around whether quarterback Gary Nova should remain the starter after throwing five interceptions. Instead, the crowd set the school’s attendance record, but lingering Rutgers fans were forced to hear "We Are … Penn State!" chants after the final whistle. Instead of putting Rutgers atop the Big Ten East and halfway to bowl-eligibility, it’s more of the same for a team that boasts the hardest schedule in the conference.
"This hurts. It should hurt," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. "But I will not allow them to be defined by their losses."
Bass from the loudspeakers thumped so hard you couldn’t feel your own heartbeat, and the pageantry surrounding High Point Solutions Stadium served as the tinsel to what could have been an unprecedented Rutgers victory. One large, stenciled sign read, "Enemies of the State" and listed all the New Jersey natives on Penn State’s roster. (Bell said word of the sign made its way around the locker room before the game.) And Penn State coach James Franklin added that Rutgers fans greeted the Nittany Lions’ buses by waving their middle fingers.
There were plenty of similar ingredients here for a future rivalry -- disrespect, a close game, proximity -- but both teams walked off the field with completely different mindsets. Flood referred to this loss as "devastating," and Franklin summed everything up by saying he felt "really, really proud."
This could have been a dream start for Rutgers but, instead, it’s a dream one for Penn State. Several thousand PSU fans spilled into the street last Monday, some crowd-surfing on mattresses, after the NCAA announced this team was once again postseason-eligible. Now it’s nearly on the cusp of a bowl berth.
The Nittany Lions are playing for more than just dignity now, and Hackenberg and these Lions now stand -- improbably -- atop the Big Ten East. They are the only undefeated team in their division and just one of two undefeated teams left in the conference (Nebraska). If it wasn’t for that final touchdown against Rutgers, all that could have been flipped upside down. And Hackenberg and these Lions knew it.
Hackenberg seemed to exorcise all that emotion and those "what-ifs" with that one, long yell on the field. Once he reached the postgame media room, his demeanor had already reverted back to its normal, calm self. He spoke as if the game had ended days before; he didn't even so much as grin while recounting his game-winning drive that came about 30 minutes prior.
You ever take time to enjoy these wins, Christian? It seems like you always just talk about how you guys have a long way to go.
"It’s just one of those things, man. We do," he said, stone-faced. "Looking at that film after a win feels a lot better than looking back on that film after a loss. ...
"This is huge because a win’s a win’s a win. We’re 3-0 right now, and we’re confident. We haven’t played our best ball yet."
1. The new, aggressive defense is a winner: This wasn’t a terrible Akron offense, and the defense came up big time and time again. First quarter? Held the Zips to a (missed) field-goal attempt after Akron reached the 7-yard line. Second quarter? Made the Zips punt after they reached the PSU 34. Third quarter? Well, you get the idea. Whether it was a huge stop on fourth-down (Brandon Bell) or a touchdown-saving tackle (Ryan Keiser), this defense was the epitome of bend-don’t-break. And it barely bent at all in the second half. At this point, it seems safe to say: This Bob Shoop defense is a big upgrade over John Butler’s.
2. Christian Hackenberg is forcing the ball, in part, because the running game is non-existent: There is a lot of pressure on Hackenberg in this offense. If he struggles, the entire offense struggles because the offensive line simply can’t open up holes for the backs. Through three quarters Saturday, Penn State averaged just 2.3 yards per carry. Hackenberg has to get smarter on some of his throws -- several were truly head-scratchers -- but, if he can’t get the job done, it seems like no one else on this offense can. This is Penn State’s top concern going forward. Hackenberg has to play smarter, but this offensive line also has to jell quicker.
3. The Wildcat isn’t going anywhere: This is what coach James Franklin said after the game: "I know people seem to hate the Wildcat. I love it." The WildZach didn’t make an appearance this week -- thankfully -- but Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch both saw some time in the formation. It especially makes sense for Belton since he played quarterback in high school. He is versatile and can really open up the playbook when taking the direct snap. PSU needs this running game to work somehow, and it found quite a bit of success with the Wildcat on Saturday. Expect to see more of it going forward.
4. DaeSean Hamilton-Geno Lewis might be the top receiving tandem in the B1G: There, I said it. It’s difficult to find a team with two other solid options. Maybe Nebraska’s Kenny Bell and Jordan Westerkamp? Or Maryland’s Stefon Diggs and Deon Long? But PSU certainly belongs in the conversation. Lewis has the ability to catch the deep ball, and Hamilton has a knack for turning those short passes into longer gains. Both guys complement each other well, and it’s a unique development compared to last season’s "Just throw the ball to A-Rob" offense. Fearless prediction: Lewis makes at least two "SportsCenter top 10" plays this season. He might not have the team’s best hands, but he’s one heck of an athlete.
5. Special teams have definitely improved: Sam Ficken was a perfect 4-of-4 last week, and punter Chris Gulla broke a freshman record Saturday with an average of 48.8 yards per punt. Gulla was incredibly consistent; he punted five times and kicked three within the 20. There weren’t many complaints about the kick coverage teams, either, and Von Walker had a nice return. So you can definitely see the extra practice hours paying off here. Then again, after last season's awful special teams, there was really no place to go but up.
Josh Moyer: Hmmm ... it's a bit tricky this week since only three of 14 games don't feature huge double-digit favorites (Rutgers-Washington State, UCF-Penn State, Wisconsin-LSU). Out of those three, though, I like Wisconsin the most as an upset pick. LSU has a new quarterback and running back and its run defense shows a few cracks. The Tigers ranked 94th in the nation last season in stopping ball carriers behind the line and were No. 35 in run defense. And you know what happens when Melvin Gordon finds room on the outside (hint: touchdown). Wisconsin has fared well against better run defenses, so they should be able to keep the ball moving Saturday. We'll see if that's enough.
@ESPNJoshMoyer upset alert week 1 in the big ten?— Matt Finnigan (@Finnarious) August 26, 2014
Josh Moyer: After a sub-par freshman campaign, it sure looks as if Derrick Green is on pace to be Michigan's feature back. Brady Hoke named him the starter, although he added that De'Veon Smith will be "1A." But if you look at how Doug Nussmeier and Brady Hoke have approached running backs since 2010, the top guy has always received at least twice as many carries as the backup. (One exception: Alabama's Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon split carries in 2012 but combined for 66.5 percent of team carries.) Green had 27 percent body fat last year and naturally looked sluggish; he's at 9 percent right now. He'll be better. As for Jabrill Peppers, count me among the believers. Devin Gardner said recently that Peppers and Devin Funchess are the best athletes on the team. That's big praise. So sure, Peppers has generated a lot of hype -- but I think he'll live up to it.
Josh Moyer: In our season predictions this morning, I was the only Big Ten reporter to pick Minnesota to win fewer than six games. Everyone else said six or seven. I'll admit I waffled slightly between choosing five and six wins, but the Minnesota passing game -- or lack thereof -- really concerns me. The Gophers ranked No. 105 in the nation last season in total offense and, without a playmaker like Ra'Shede Hageman on defense, I'm not yet sold on the defense being as good as last year. In some ways, last season's 8-5 record was a best-case scenario -- especially with surprising wins against Penn State and Nebraska, and close wins against Norhtwestern and Indiana. When I look at this season's schedule, I see seven losses: at TCU, at Michigan, Northwestern, Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska, and at Wisconsin. Northwestern was the toss-up for me but, as it stands, I see the Wildcats winning a close one.
@ESPNJoshMoyer why so down on the Gophers? 5-7 (2-6) seems low. Not saying they are winning 9+, but no bowl? Really?— Darren Michael (@HaloKitty343) August 27, 2014
Josh Moyer: It's the biggest question mark on the team, and I think it's going to be the determining factor in whether Penn State finds success. I picked the Nittany Lions to win seven games and, honestly, I think that's even slightly optimistic with this line. (Two players who were defensive tackles in February are now starting inside as offensive guards, and absent is basically any quality depth.) This offense has for which to be excited: Christian Hackenberg, two terrific running backs, my pick for B1G tight end of the year and a plethora of talented young wideouts. The only thing that's missing is a solid O-line -- and all the talent in the world doesn't mean anything if Hackenberg and Co. can't find time. If last season's O-line returned, I might even pick Penn State to win 10 games. The potential is there, but the offensive line is going to act as the cap.
@ESPNJoshMoyer How big of a concern is the Penn State O-line?— Sean Banks (@seanbanks3) August 27, 2014
Coaches are talking about the importance of taking it one game at a time while chasing a conference title. Players have busted out their finest suits and are raving about how difficult the offseason conditioning program was at their schools. And the media grabbed some free food between interviews.
There is one more day to go before the circus leaves Chicago, but before we get to that, the Big Ten blog is handing out some awards to put a bow on the opening day.
Best-dressed player: Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond. The honors could just as easily have gone to teammates Shilique Calhoun or Connor Cook, the former for his bow tie and the latter for his accessorizing with his enormous championship ring. But Drummond stole the show as the sharpest of the Spartans, who clearly looked the part of returning conference champs.
I think the Best Dressed award has been locked up today. Kurtis Drummond, folks. pic.twitter.com/XAnHXjJWKP— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Most fun-loving players: The bright spotlight and huge crowd around him might have kept Ohio State coach Urban Meyer a bit guarded, but his players certainly welcomed the attention and weren't afraid of being playful with the media. Tight end Jeff Heuerman loosened things up by locking quarterback Braxton Miller in a headlock, and after that, both decided to moonlight as media members by sneaking over to ask Meyer a few questions toward the end of a session -- a rare glimpse at the personalities off the field of two of the league's best talents on it.
Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman and Braxton Miller decided to join the media today and interview Urban Meyer. pic.twitter.com/scWhYDZRNs— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Biggest missed opportunity: The Wisconsin-LSU matchup to open the season is appealing enough at a neutral site. But the Badgers and Tigers could have taken the intrigue to another level by hosting those games at two of the loudest, most hostile stadiums in the country -- if only Gary Andersen had been around a couple of years earlier. The Badgers' coach said he "would have said yes" to a home-and-home series at Camp Randall and in Death Valley, a tantalizing what-might-have-been if the Tigers might have been as willing as Andersen.
Most appropriate Twitter handle: Nebraska’s Kenny Bell (@AFRO_THUNDER80). The 6-foot-1 receiver was probably the easiest player to pick out of a crowd, as his puffy afro towered over opposing players. Bell’s play didn’t earn him an award last season -- he was honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team -- but we just couldn’t go one more day without recognizing that 'fro.
Best-dressed coach: Penn State’s James Franklin. Every day, the head coach spends 22 minutes to shave his head in every direction and trim that goatee ... so it seems slightly surprising that he is probably the coach who spends the most time on his head, considering he’s bald. But, hey, it takes time to pull that look off -- and he was also looking dapper with that Penn State lapel, blue tie and matching pocket square. Franklin often jokes that he doesn’t need to sleep, so maybe he uses some of that extra time to pick out the right clothes.
James Franklin and our Josh Moyer are sharing head shaving techniques. Seriously. pic.twitter.com/S7iVnnNvo9— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) July 28, 2014
Quote of the day: Penn State linebacker Mike Hull has learned under three head coaches -- Joe Paterno, Bill O'Brien and Franklin -- during his career, and their personalities really couldn’t have been any different. Hull laughed while providing their takes on social media as an example.
“Yeah, I’ve seen the whole evolution,” he said. “Joe didn’t know what Facebook was, O’Brien called Facebook ‘Spacebook’ and, now, Coach Franklin probably has every social media there is to have. It’s crazy.”
Most Big Ten quote: “How are you going to approach the Rose Bowl?” -- Michigan coach Brady Hoke, lamenting some aspects of the College Football Playoff in years, like this season, when the Granddaddy of Them All is to serve as a national semifinal game. Hoke suggested that some of the pageantry associated with the game -- for instance, the Beef Bowl team competition at Lawry’s, a prime rib restaurant in Beverly Hills -- will be eliminated because of the high stakes and need for a regular game-week regimen. Of the traditional Rose Bowl, Hoke added: “It’s the greatest experience in America for kids.”
Most Iowa quote (maybe ever): “Sometimes, old school is a good school.” -- Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz on his program’s resistance to some of the offensive innovation that has swept college football.
Best quote about a player not in attendance: “I don’t like standing too close to him because it seems like the wind is always blowing through his hair. When he smiles, this little thing comes off his tooth like in the toothpaste commercial.” -- Penn State coach James Franklin on sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
- Jeff Jones is not likely to play for Minnesota this season, even if he qualifies academically.
- Some highly rated prospects will be on Ohio State's campus tonight.
- A Q&A with Christian Hackenberg. Can Deion Barnes return to his freshman form for Penn State?
- It's now or never for Frank Clark on Michigan's defensive line. So Jabrill Peppers has apparently been working hard.
- Purdue defensive coordinator Greg Hudson is looking for better performance on first downs.
- Michigan State will be looking in-state to fill out many of its remaining recruiting needs. Lawrence Thomas will be a player to watch in Spartans camp.
- Why Maryland is favored for more early Big Ten success than Rutgers (there is a great expert quote in this story).
- Things could be looking up for Tim Beckman in 2015 -- if he survives 2014.
- Huskers legend Tom Osborne discussed a variety of topics in this interview.
- Iowa receiver Tevaun Smith looks to build on last season.
- Some possible breakout players in the Big Ten this season.
Up Friday are the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Breakdown: Will Penn State once again shock the Big Ten? Or will this season be mediocre, or below average, for James Franklin and the Nittany Lions? Chances are that will be determined by this four-game stretch. Penn State opens with a relatively soft four games -- Central Florida, Akron, Rutgers, UMass -- and should come away with no more than one loss. But after that stretch is when it gets tricky. Penn State continues the conference season with a Northwestern team that’s better than last season’s record indicates -- far from a guaranteed win -- before it heads to the Big House and then, after a bye week, squares off against an Ohio State team that embarrassed it 63-14 a year ago. Oh, and then comes a potentially great Maryland offense. There’s no room to breathe in this early conference schedule, and it will be immediately sink or swim for Franklin’s crew. If they can pull out three wins here, they’ll likely finish near the top of the East Division. But if they falter? If they drop three games here? An overall winning record won’t be easy to come by.
Prediction: Does anyone really give Penn State a shot against the Buckeyes? Sure, anything can happen, but a win here is just not very likely. Chalk up a loss there. As for Michigan and Maryland, the Lions should at least be able to claim one there. Neither pass defense is particularly dangerous and, as long as the offensive line gives Christian Hackenberg some time, he should be able to engineer a victory. Northwestern is a trap game, and the Wildcats have a penchant for close ones, but Penn State gets the slight advantage. So, overall, Penn State likely comes out of this stretch with two wins. Not great -- but not terrible, either.
A couple of weeks ago, we took a look at potential 3,000-yard passers in the Big Ten in 2014. Then we had you vote on who would most likely get to that plateau this season.
The league's leading passer from last season was Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase. He's now pursuing a career in the ministry. No other 3,000-yard passers return, although Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Michigan's Devin Gardner got very close. So today's Take Two topic is this: Who will lead the Big Ten in passing yards in 2014?
Hackenberg is the easy answer. But I do worry about his offensive line and the lack of experience at receiver. Gardner also had some monster games last season, but Michigan has many of the same issues as Penn State, and new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier wants to run the ball more.
That's why I'm going with Indiana's Nate Sudfeld. That might sound like a mild surprise, but after last week's announcement that Tre Roberson would transfer, I think Sudfeld is in line for a huge season. Consider that he and Roberson combined to throw for 3,651 yards last season while splitting time. Sudfeld alone passed for over 2,500 yards in just eight starts.
The junior has an NFL-caliber arm and will finally have the offense all to himself, with no other experienced quarterbacks on the roster. The Hoosiers do need to develop some receiving targets after losing Cody Latimer, Kofi Hughes and Ted Bolser to the NFL. Still, coach Kevin Wilson loves to throw the ball, and Sudfeld won't have to look over his shoulder in 2014. I think he'll go more than 3,000 yards and lead the Big Ten in passing yards.
I'm also tempted to go with Hackenberg, but the questions at line and at receiver, coupled with a new offensive staff, steer me elsewhere. But instead of choosing Sudfeld or Gardner, I'm going with the quarterback who ended his season playing better than any other in the Big Ten (and perhaps the country). Where's the love for Michigan State's Connor Cook?
He's the guy who won MVP honors at both the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl after recording the first two 300-yard passing performances of his career. Although the first performance came against a porous Ohio State secondary, Cook also put up 332 pass yards against Stanford. He finished fourth in the Big Ten in passing yards (2,755), but he only became the clear-cut starter in league play.
Michigan State returns all but one of its core receivers, as well as tight end Josiah Price, an emerging target for Cook late in the season. Coach Mark Dantonio wants to run the ball and has Jeremy Langford back in the fold, but Cook has proven what he can do with the ball in his hands and should get more chances this year. Hackenberg is the best pure passer in the league and Sudfeld might play in the most pass-friendly offense -- although Tevin Coleman's presence could change that -- but I'm going with the hot hand in Cook.
As we mentioned over and over again at the top of those posts, indispensable doesn't necessarily translate into "best." It means the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/shrunk by Rick Moranis, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.
- Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: The Buckeyes got to see what life without Miller would look like this spring while he was recovering from shoulder surgery. They hope that was merely a drill. The senior is the two-time, defending Big Ten offensive player of the year, and backups Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett have no real experience. Without Miller, Ohio State could easily fall from national championship contender to Big Ten also-ran.
- Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State: Hackenberg threw for nearly 3,000 yards as a true freshman and will again be the focal point of the Nittany Lions' offense this season. There's also a severe lack of experience behind him, with Penn State likely needing to turn to true freshman Michael O'Connor or a walk-on should something unfortunate happen to its young star.
- Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska: The Cornhuskers' defense simply wouldn't be the same without Gregory, who led the Big Ten in sacks (10.5) and tied for second in tackles for loss (17.5) last season. With the other defensive end position a little bit of a question mark and young players being counted on at tackle, Gregory's tremendous pass-rushing skills are a necessity for Nebraska to contend for the West Division title and beyond.
- Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State: After finally finding some stability at quarterback, the last thing the Spartans want to do is go through another carousel at the position. Tyler O'Connor and redshirt freshman Damion Terry could provide decent replacement options. But Cook's poise and confidence helped take Michigan State to another level last season -- a Rose Bowl-winning level.
- Brandon Scherff, LT, Iowa: The Hawkeyes know how to develop offensive linemen, so they'd probably find someone to fill Scherff's shoes. But how well? The senior enters the season as the best lineman in the Big Ten and is integral to everything Iowa wants to do on offense. Losing the likely 2015 first-round NFL draft pick for any significant stretch this season would likely reverberate throughout Kirk Ferentz's team this fall.
Which of these players is the most indispensable to his team's fortunes in 2014? Vote now in our poll.
Follow us on Twitter and send us questions there.
Michael from New York writes: Regarding the Penn State/Georgia State camp; If the SEC relaxes their rules on this issue, do you foresee a series of tit-for-tat battles ensuing? For example, UG retaliates by scheduling something with East Stroudsburg U. in Pennsylvania. And to play this situation out, would small schools in Pennsylvania resist overtures such as the one above for fear of antagonizing big brother PSU?
Adam Rittenberg: I absolutely think the SEC coaches would start guest-coaching in other regions, and they should. Setting up something with James Franklin's alma mater would be a pretty bold move, but why should those small schools shy away from having these big-time coaches at their camps? Georgia State and Stetson welcomed Franklin and his staff, and I'd expect Northern schools to do the same if SEC coaches expressed interest.
Adam Rittenberg: Love the optimism, John! I print what I get and I don't hear nearly enough from Illinois fans. Illinois' defense should be better than last year, but the team undoubtedly will rely on the offense, which made major strides and retains some good pieces, namely a line featuring four returning starters.
I saw Lunt practice in Chicago and he has a big arm that should allow Illinois to stretch the field. How does Illinois get to 8-4? It starts by winning at home, as the schedule at Memorial Stadium is pretty manageable. Illinois' road slate -- Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern -- is very tough.
Adam Rittenberg: Brian, it's hard to know for sure, but I think Michigan State would have been the fourth team in the playoff, behind Florida State, Auburn and Alabama. The Pac-12 had a stronger national perception than the Big Ten, and Stanford had a very good team, but the Cardinal lost to a mediocre Utah team and a USC squad that lingered on the fringes of the Top 25. The Big Ten might have been down, but Michigan State won all nine of its league contests by double digits. Its only loss came at Notre Dame in a game with some controversial calls. Bottom line: the Spartans deserved to make the playoff ahead of a two-loss Pac-12 champion.
Adam Rittenberg: Hackenberg is a good choice, although I worry about Penn State's protection issues with so little proven depth on the offensive line. I disagree with you about Iowa. The Hawkeyes' track record shows a ton of close games and quite a few come-from-behind wins late in those contests. The opportunities will be there for Jake Rudock to be the hero.
Adam Rittenberg: As ESPN2 play-by-play man Mark Jones said of Scott Starks' fumble return, "What a turnaround! A cataclysmic turn of events!" Unfortunately for Purdue, those words proved true as the program hasn't found that level of success again. There have been very good players in the program -- Ryan Kerrigan, Kawann Short, Anthony Spencer -- but the team has struggled to turn a corner and compete for league titles. Purdue is a tough job, and the fan apathy has made it tougher. What Joe Tiller did there is still pretty remarkable.
How can Purdue regain its footing? It starts with recruiting and finding certain pipelines, like the one Tiller had to Texas, and Darrell Hazell and his staff are working hard to do that. Purdue has a great quarterback tradition that must be maximized. The recent QB recruiting has been very strong. Another step is line play, especially on the offensive side. Purdue needs to get stronger, more athletic linemen to be able to do more with the offense.
These are drives in the fourth quarter or overtime that put the winning team ahead for good.
Only 10 other returning FBS signal-callers have directed more than one such drive. Navy's Keenan Reynolds, who faces Miller and Ohio State on Aug. 30 in the season opener, is second nationally with five.
Today's poll question asks: Other than Ohio State's Miller, which Big Ten quarterback will be best in leading game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime this season?
The candidates ...
C.J. Brown, Maryland: Brown is one of the more experienced returning quarterbacks in the league. He will have two of the league's best receivers, Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, at his disposal as both return from leg injuries. Maryland has depth at both receiver and running back, which helps when trying to orchestrate late-game drives. Plus, Brown boasts good mobility with 1,162 career rush yards and 17 touchdowns.
Connor Cook, Michigan State: The Spartans stifling defense allowed Cook to play from ahead most of last season, but he made plenty of big throws at key moments. Cook enjoys the spotlight -- he earned MVP honors at both the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl -- and returns most of his receiving corps, led by senior Tony Lippett. He doesn't shy away from big moments and boasts better-than average mobility in the pocket.
Christian Hackenberg, Penn State: Hackenberg showed against Michigan last season that he can deliver in pressure situations. Arguably no Big Ten quarterback has more natural passing ability, and Hackenberg should be even better with age. He needs help at receiver after Allen Robinson's departure, and Penn State's offensive line must hold up with likely only one returning starter (left tackle Donovan Smith).
Jake Rudock, Iowa: Like Hackenberg, Rudock showed what he could do in a big moment last year against Northwestern, firing the winning touchdown pass in overtime. He should benefit from a full offseason as the starter, and most likely a deeper and more explosive receiving corps. Rudock is smart, steady and not easy rattled. One potential drawback is Iowa likely will play gunslinger C.J. Beathard in certain situations.
Nate Sudfeld, Indiana: Before Wednesday, there was a dilemma about whether Sudfeld or Tre Roberson would lead potential game-winning drives for the Hoosiers. But Roberson's somewhat surprising transfer clears the way for Sudfeld to take full command of the offense. Sudfeld has a big arm and operates in an offense that can score point in a hurry. Wide receiver/tight end is a bit of question mark for IU after the departures of Cody Latimer, Kofi Hughes and Ted Bolser.
By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/encounter a White Walker, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.
We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. We're getting close to the finish line with the series, and one of our final stops hits up the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Well, yeah. If there's any young player more valuable to Penn State's long-term success than Hackenberg, we'd like to meet him. After throwing for nearly 3,000 yards as a true freshman, Hackenberg backed up all his recruiting hype and probably makes James Franklin smile every time he thinks about his quarterback. What makes Hackenberg even more indispensable is the lack of experience behind him. Should something happen to the young star, the Nittany Lions would likely turn to true freshman Michael O'Connor or walk-ons Austin Whipple and D.J. Crook. So keeping Hackenberg healthy is a major priority for Penn State in 2014.
Donovan Smith, OT, Jr.
Hey, remember when we said protecting Hackenberg was a major priority? Well, to say Penn State's offensive line is in flux would be an understatement. With Miles Dieffenbach reportedly out with a knee injury, Smith is the only returning starter on the line. And he just so happens to be the left tackle and guardian of Hackenberg's blind side. Smith provides one of the few anchors Franklin can count on up front right now, and if he were to become unavailable, the scramble really would be on. Redshirt freshman Brendan Mahon could be the guy who steps in for Smith if the need arose. It's safe to say Penn State doesn't want to find out what that would look like.
- Terrelle Pryor hopes Ohio State one day welcomes him back to its community. Recruit Tyler Green is fired up about his pledge to Ohio State.
- Taylor Martinez's brother seeks a fresh start away from Nebraska. The Huskers' 2015 recruits are building chemistry.
- Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover says of QB Mitch Leidner: "This is going to be his team or bust."
- Former Penn State quarterbacks love what they see from Christian Hackenberg. James Franklin doesn't understand the criticism about guest coaching in the South.
- Michigan's seniors won't take a leadership trip this summer as Brady Hoke guards against entitlement. Wolverines CB Blake Countess is recovering from core muscle surgery.
- Wisconsin's drought of Texas recruits is over as two high school teammates commit.
- The Big Ten won't be the only league with 11 a.m. local time kickoffs.
- Former MSU player and coach Hank Bullough is on the comeback trail.
- Ready or not, here comes Rutgers to the Big Ten.
- Northwestern's 2015 recruiting class is up to 12 after an offensive lineman commits. One-time decorated recruit Malin Jones leaves the Wildcats' program.
- More information on the incident that led to Iowa safety Nico Law's citation arrest.
- Indiana QB recruit Tommy Stevens looks like a good fit for the Hoosiers' up-tempo offense.
- Purdue gets an early start on its south end zone project with bleacher removal.
The college football guru packs a tremendous amount of information and research into his preseason magazines. And Steele has released his choices for the 2014 All-Big Ten team, which you can find here.
Steele sees newcomers Maryland and Rutgers bringing some talent into the league quickly, as he has two Terrapins (wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long) and two Scarlet Knights (guard Kaleb Johnson and linebacker Steve Longa) on the first team. ... A mild surprise on the first team is Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones, who will attempt to take over the middle spot from Max Bullough this year. ... The first-team defensive line is absolutely loaded, with Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, and Ohio State's Michael Bennett and Joey Bosa. Iowa's Carl Davis and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran were relegated to second-team status. ... Speaking of the second team, Steele puts Northwestern wide receiver Kyle Prater there, apparently expecting big things at long last from the former USC transfer. ... Steele also has Ohio State's Dontre Wilson and Devin Smith breaking out as second-team All-Big Ten receivers. ... Penn State fans might be a bit miffed to see Christian Hackenberg as only the third-team quarterback. Michigan State's Connor Cook is Steele's choice for second-team QB, with Braxton Miller obviously No. 1. ... Michigan State leads the way with five players on Steele's first-team offense and defense. Ohio State has four, while Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan each have three.
Steele also has released his preseason All-America team, which includes some familiar Big Ten names. Here's a quick rundown:
Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
Ohio State DT Michael Bennett
Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun
Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah
Iowa OT Brandon Scherff
Nebraska DE Randy Gregory
Ohio State DE Joey Bosa
Iowa PR Kevonte Martin-Manley
Ohio State QB Braxton Miller
Maryland WR Stefon Diggs
Michigan WR Devin Funchess
Iowa DT Carl Davis
Michigan LB Jake Ryan
Michigan State CB Trae Waynes
Michigan State S Kurtis Drummond
Illinois PR V'Angelo Bentley
Indiana LS Matt Dooley
Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford
Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman
Wisconsin OT Rob Havenstein
Northwestern RB/KR Venric Mark
Inbox time ...
Kyle from Dayton, Ohio, writes: If you could arrange the B1G divisions and crossover games, what would your B1G look like?
Adam Rittenberg: Kyle, my opinion has changed since this post, and I actually liked the original division setup, based on competitive balance, despite the geographical challenges. I wouldn't put Ohio State, Michigan, MSU and PSU in the same division. I'd likely move MSU to the West and Purdue to the East to create more balance. I would have just one permanent crossover game -- Michigan-Michigan State -- as I don't like these games in general because they reduce overall schedule rotation and defeat the purpose of a league. I would like to see the historically better teams in each division play one another more often than not, but I would not create any more permanent crossovers as Purdue and Indiana would be in the same division.
Adam Rittenberg: The NCAA seemingly has been more lenient in granting hardship waivers. Transfers such as Michigan State's DeAnthony Arnett and Northwestern's Kyle Prater received them and avoided sitting out a year. One difference is that both Arnett and Prater selected schools very close to their homes, while Michigan is about 250 miles from Isaac's home in Shorewood, Ill. So we'll see how it goes. Coach Brady Hoke told me Michigan likely will sign 15 or 16 players in the 2015 class, but I don't think Isaac changes the scholarship breakdown, especially after Damien Harris decommitted in January.
Russ from New Orleans writes: Adam, I'm looking over Athlon's predictions for the B1G next year, and I really have to question their decisions to put Penn State at 10-2. I have zero doubt that Hackenberg is the real deal, and they've got a decent stable of running backs, but who does Hackenberg have to throw to now that [Allen] Robinson is gone? Moreover, their O-Line is decimated and an injury or two away from utter disaster. Not to mention that it seems like the defense doesn't have anyone that truly wows you. But what are your thoughts? I'm sure James Franklin is a good coach, but 10-2? I think somewhere between 7-8 wins is far more reasonable.
Adam Rittenberg: I agree completely, Russ. While it's possible Penn State reaches 10-2 with a mostly favorable schedule, almost everything would need to go right, especially on the health front. Penn State can't afford many or any injuries on the offensive line or at linebacker, and if Christian Hackenberg misses any extended time, the Lions are in major trouble. Penn State enters the season as an underdog in at least two games: Ohio State and Michigan State, which are both at home but will be tough. The Lions also face Michigan on the road at night -- hardly an obvious win -- plus a good UCF team in Ireland. Penn State can't look past opponents like Northwestern (home) and Rutgers (road). I don't see 10-2 with the potential problems. An 8-win season seems more reasonable.
Adam Rittenberg: Some good points here, Brian. The Soldier Field playing surface is a major drawback and must be addressed before the Big Ten considers moving its title game there. I don't think the outdoor factor is as big as some make it seem. Sure, an early December game could be cold, but it also could be a lot like the final few Saturdays of the regular season. Big Ten teams have played in those conditions forever.
Indy is a great site and makes it easy on the fans that go, but it's not a major event there like it would be in Chicago. The Big Ten basketball tournament draws way better there and it truly is the nerve center for Big Ten fans. I live here and meet Big Ten fans pretty much everywhere I go. I'm not saying the event should be in Chicago every year, but once every four years would be fun. Attendance wouldn't be a concern and it would be more of a major event than it has been in Indy.
Wallace from Cincinnati writes: I completely agree that official visits should be moved up to help the teams in the North. What my question is do you think it could get passed if only B1G teams are the ones pushing for it? What if the B1G schools get with other Northern school from other conferences -- say, Boston College, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, Kansas State -- and try and get the backing from multiple schools? Would that be enough to get rules changed?
Adam Rittenberg: It's not a bad idea, Wallace. Several Big Ten coaches we talked to expressed concern about the challenge of pushing for such a big change to the recruiting calendar. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said, "If that thing ever goes to a vote, everybody is going to say is that the Big Ten is just complaining. They'll keep rallying their troops." Well, if the Big Ten has more troops to rally -- teams from other conferences experiencing similar recruiting disadvantages because of their locations -- it has a better chance of fostering change. But the first step in my view is for the Big Ten coaches to take a united position on earlier official visits. Other leagues have done so and the Big Ten should follow.
A lot of good responses to what you would do to improve college football.
To the inbox ...
Jeff from Chicago writes: What would I like to see in college football: A Big Ten-SEC Challenge every season, the first weekend of October. Just like the B1G-ACC Challenge in basketball, you make the pairings by perceived quality, play half the games in each conference's stadiums. Alabama-Ohio State. Texas A&M-Michigan. Michigan State-Auburn. Florida-Penn State. Wisconsin-Georgia. All on the same day. Would that be compelling TV or what? (And yes, I know it's not going to happen!)
Adam Rittenberg: It would be extremely compelling TV and, unfortunately, it will never happen. Although SEC teams will have more nonleague games to schedule than their Big Ten counterparts, I could never see that league getting on board with a scheduling agreement like this one. There are other nonleague rivalries (Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech) that would take priority, and I just can't see too many SEC teams leaving the comforts of the South to play Big Ten opponents on the road. Maybe the playoff and its purported emphasis on schedule strength changes things.
Adam Rittenberg: Interesting proposal, Bill. It could provide a more comprehensive gauge on which teams truly deserve to be part of the playoff. I actually like having nonleague games sprinkled in later in the season as some teams improve gradually. Some early season nonleague contests are really misleading. If logistics didn't matter, maybe this plan could work. I wish there was more flexibility to do short-notice scheduling in college football, but when you have big stadiums and big money on the line, it's difficult, if not impossible.
Adam Rittenberg: Rob, I certainly considered the possibility of a Penn State tight end breaking out this season, although 1,000 yards is a very lofty mark. Ultimately, Breneman would really have to separate himself to have a chance to catch so many passes from his buddy Christian Hackenberg. Breneman was hurt when I watched PSU practice this spring, and James looked like the best receiving option on the field. He's a beast at 6-foot-7 and 257 pounds -- a matchup nightmare. So while Breneman could become a superstar, I don't know how Penn State ignores James. And then there's Carter, who has 54 receptions in his first two seasons. I expect all the tight ends to play and likely limit one from producing way more than the others.
1. Ban oversigning. Eat it, Team SEC.
2. Create an early signing period.
3. Quit tinkering with rules just for the sake of tinkering. Touchback placement comes to mind. "Safety" has become the catch-all justification for every bit of tomfoolery the rules committee wants to try.
4. Expand playoff to 8 teams.
5. No polls until after Week 4.
6. USC, Texas, Nebraska, PSU, Miami, etc. return to normal and help beat some humility back into the University of SEC. A thousand years of darkness for Michigan. Reversion to pre-1993 historical means for Wisconsin and Minnesota.
7. Honestly wouldn't mind Boston College in the B1G, albeit for selfish hockey reasons.
Adam Rittenberg: Wow, a lot of thoughts here, Joe. I'll tackle a few of them. I agree on the early signing period, but as I'll write later this week, moving up official visits to a prospect's junior year is even more important, especially for Big Ten schools. I can't agree more with pushing back any sort of poll or getting rid of them entirely. They have way too much significance in shaping the way teams and leagues are viewed. Looking at your list for No. 6, it's amazing how college football's power structure has shifted. You likely won't see any of those teams mentioned as likely playoff contenders this season. Times have changed.
Adam Rittenberg: Bold statement, Isaac. I like Arneson, too, and he could have a much bigger role in the offense this season. I don't know if Wisconsin will pass the ball enough for any player to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards, but the uncertainty at wide receiver creates opportunity for players like Arneson, who has only 10 career receptions, four for touchdowns. I'd be surprised if he has more yards than Michigan's Devin Funchess (still technically a tight end), Rutgers' Tyler Kroft, Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman and possibly several others, but his numbers will go up.
Drive Through: What's Wrong With The Big Ten?
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
12:00 PM ET Iowa Pittsburgh 12:00 PM ET Eastern Michigan 11 Michigan State 12:00 PM ET Western Illinois Northwestern 12:00 PM ET Southern Illinois Purdue 12:00 PM ET Bowling Green 19 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET Maryland Syracuse 3:30 PM ET Utah Michigan 3:30 PM ET Rutgers Navy 4:00 PM ET Massachusetts Penn State 4:00 PM ET San Jose State Minnesota 4:00 PM ET Texas State Illinois 4:00 PM ET Indiana 18 Missouri 8:00 PM ET Miami (FL) 24 Nebraska