Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
5:00
PM ET
Nebraska is soliciting applications from students who want to work as a DJ at football practice. Interesting concept. I wonder if this is a gimmick or a sign of things to come. Perhaps students may soon run the scoreboard or move the chains at practice. Just as long as they're not calling plays, we're all safe. On second thought ...

Here's the mailbag for Wednesday. Send more questions here for later this week.



Mitch Sherman: Iowa fans value stability. They've got it in Kirk Ferentz, entering his 16th season. He trails only Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer for longevity among major-conference coaches. Of course, with stability can come complacency. And the Hawkeyes got a dose of it two years ago. Last fall, though, produced positive vibes in Iowa City, with the promise of an even better season to follow.

Ferentz earned just less than $4 million last year, a figure that places him among the nation's elite. Iowa is 27-24 since its 2009 Orange Bowl season, so yes, fans ought to demand more bang for the buck. Thing is, from my view just to the west, I didn't sense more than moderate unrest even after the 2012 debacle.

Iowa fans understand the economics in play here. They like Ferentz as the face of the program. And expectations in Iowa City may never match those in place at Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska. All told, the Hawkeyes know what they have in their coach and generally like it. In this case, stability pays.




 



Mitch Sherman: The answer is multi-faceted. First, consider that Wisconsin is just one year removed from three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances. With a tip of the cap to Michigan State, the Badgers maximize talent more efficiently than any Big Ten team.

So look at this group, with a suspect front seven on defense, the underwhelming Joel Stave at quarterback and a questionable group of receivers. You may see a mediocre club. Others see a team set up to make a run at the College Football Playoff. That's the Wisconsin way.

There's also Melvin Gordon, who led the nation in per-carry rushing average in each of the past two seasons. He's back to run behind a stout offensive line. Finally, check out the schedule. Yeah, LSU awaits in the opener, but there's no better time to get the young Tigers. The Badgers face Nebraska at Camp Randall and play Rutgers and Maryland from the East Division.




 



Mitch Sherman: Only two coaches qualify as realistic possibilities, Brady Hoke and Bo Pelini. Either could land himself in trouble with a poor season, though isn't that always the case at Michigan and Nebraska?

In his fourth season, Hoke needs to rebound from a difficult six-game finish to last season. It began with a 24-3 drubbing at Michigan State and ended with a 31-14 loss to Kansas State. In between, the Wolverines lost at home to Nebraska and Iowa. Though all the pieces don't appear in place, it's time for Michigan to reverse the trajectory on display the past three years.

For Pelini, the story is different. His record, 58-24 in six years, stands up nationally. But the lack of a conference championship -- it's been since 1999 -- is a burden that has long troubled Nebraska fans. The Hail Mary escape against Northwestern last year may have saved the Huskers and their coach from a disastrous finishing stretch. Good fortune won't always be on their side.

Schedule analysis: Nebraska

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
3:15
PM ET
Good news: the college football season begins five weeks from today. (Abilene Christian at Georgia State. Who's excited?) We can't wait, which is why we're peeking ahead and breaking down every Big Ten team's 2014 schedule in this new series.

Up first: the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Nonconference opponents (with 2013 records)

Aug. 30: Florida Atlantic (6-6)
Sept. 6: McNeese State (10-3)
Sept. 13: at Fresno State (11-2)
Sept. 20: Miami (Fla). (9-4)

West Division games

Sept. 27: Illinois
Oct. 18: at Northwestern
Nov. 1: Purdue
Nov. 15: at Wisconsin
Nov. 22: Minnesota
Nov. 28: at Iowa

Crossover games

Oct. 4: at Michigan State
Oct. 25: Rutgers

No plays

Indiana
Maryland
Michigan
Ohio State
Penn State

Gut-check game: at Wisconsin. Sure, the Michigan State game on the road is a big gut-check game, too, but the Spartans are in the other division. Nebraska could have a hard time getting to Indianapolis if it doesn't get past Wisconsin. And, of course, Big Red lost 48-17 the last time it went to Madison (and 70-31 the most recent time it played the Badgers away from home). Camp Randall can be an intimidating place for visitors to play, but Bo Pelini's team has to be ready to step up and stop the run.

Trap game: Fresno State. Coming a week before the more heavily-hyped showdown versus those Hurricanes, this one has all the makings of a trap. The Bulldogs have fielded a solid program for years, won 11 games last year and have been picked to win their division in the Mountain West. Plus, the game is on the road with a night kickoff before Fresno fans who will be foaming at the mouth. No overlooking allowed here.

Snoozer: McNeese State won 10 games last year and pummeled South Florida, so the Cowboys are not your typical FCS pushover. Still, the talent and size difference should be immense, and we'll be impatiently tapping our toes waiting for the next two nonconference games.

Non-con challenge: Miami. The Hurricanes are nowhere near as talented as they were the last time these teams met, when Miami trotted out scores of future pros in the 2001 Rose Bowl. Nebraska has had more cumulative success since then, though neither have reached the heights to which they aspire. Regardless, the 'Canes are always going to be loaded with speed and athletes, and running back Duke Johnson will present problems for any defense. The Huskers need to win this game at home to build their national credibility.

Analysis: Nebraska might end up as the best team in the West, but to win the division will require overcoming some schedule hurdles. Playing Michigan State in East Lansing is as tough a draw from the East as it gets, and neither Wisconsin nor Iowa face similar challenges in their crossover slate. Moreover, the Huskers have to play at both Wisconsin and Iowa in November, so Pelini's crew will have to become road warriors. Throw in at least two strong nonconference games, and this is a schedule that should give us an accurate read at just where this program is at the moment.
Big Ten media days are right around the corner. Earlier today, we took a closer look at the players coming to Chicago from the East Division. Now it's time to do the same for the West.

ILLINOIS

Simon Cvijanovic, Sr., OT: He's a two-year starter on the Illini offensive line, spending last season at left tackle for one of the more explosive offenses in the league. He and his younger brother, Peter, a freshman, will be playing for a new position coach, as Tom Brattan was officially hired last week.

Jon Davis, Sr., TE: A versatile player who can line up at tight end or out wide, Davis is one of the Illini's few returning receiving threats after catching 25 balls for 208 yards last season.

Austin Teitsma, Sr., DL: A returning starter at defensive tackle, Teitsma will be a leader on the defense this season. The Illini hope he can help improve a rush defense that was worst in the league last year.

IOWA

Carl Davis, Sr., DT: A second-team All-Big Ten selection last year, Davis is one of the top defensive tackles in the league. He has been projected by some as a possible first-round NFL draft pick next year.

Brandon Scherff, Sr., OL: Scherff is almost guaranteed to be a first-round pick and should challenge for All-America honors as the Hawkeyes' left tackle. Also, he can do this, which is insane.

Mark Weisman, Sr., RB: A former walk-on who was one of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten in 2012, Weisman finished 25 yards shy of 1,000 yards rushing last season. His role might change a little in a crowded backfield this fall.

MINNESOTA

David Cobb, Sr., RB: Cobb had the 12th-highest rushing total in Gophers history last season with 1,202 yards. But he'll face some competition, as Minnesota is loaded at running back.

Mitch Leidner, So., QB: Philip Nelson's offseason departure paved the way for Leidner to take over the Gophers' quarterback job. He's a dangerous runner who needs to become a more accurate passer for Minnesota's offense to take the next step.

Cedric Thompson, Sr., S: A two-year starter at safety, Thompson led the team with 79 tackles a year ago. He also has an intriguing back story.

NEBRASKA

Ameer Abdullah, Sr., RB: One of the star attractions of media day, Abdullah led the Big Ten in rushing last year with 1,690 yards. He's the heart and soul of the Nebraska offense.

Kenny Bell, Sr., WR: Us media types were very excited to see Bell -- a tremendous personality -- included on the list of player attendees. Expect some excellent quotes from Mr. Afro Thunder. He also happens to be an outstanding receiver known almost as much for his ferocious blocking as his speed and ball skills.

Corey Cooper, Sr., S: Cooper led the Huskers with 91 tackles last season and has 17 starts under his belt. He should be one of the leaders for the Blackshirts.

NORTHWESTERN

Ibraheim Campbell, Sr., S: Campbell has been an anchor for the Wildcats' secondary since he was a freshman All-American. Last year, he had 73 tackles and four interceptions.

Collin Ellis, Sr., LB: In his first year as a starter in 2013, Ellis had 78 tackles and three interceptions, returning two of them for scores in the opener at Cal. He shifted to middle linebacker in the offseason.

Trevor Siemian, Sr., QB: The quarterback job is all his now after he split time with Kain Colter the past two seasons. Siemian has a big arm, as evidenced by his 414-yard, four-touchdown performance in last year's finale against Illinois.

PURDUE

Raheem Mostert, Sr., RB: He can claim the title of fastest man in the Big Ten after his success in track this offseason. A dynamic kick returner, Mostert will try to make a big impact on offense this year with a full-time switch to running back.

Sean Robinson, Sr., LB: Converted last summer from backup quarterback to defense, Robinson quickly became a starter and key contributor. His experience and unselfishness makes him a leader for the Boilers.

Ryan Russell, Sr., DE: A veteran of 35 starts, Russell might be Purdue's most athletically gifted defensive player. He had 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in 2013.


WISCONSIN

Melvin Gordon, Jr., RB: Another media day main attraction, Gordon is one of the most explosive players in the country. He ran for 1,609 yards while averaging 7.8 yards per carry as a sophomore.

Rob Havenstein, Sr., RT: There won't be many bigger players in Chicago than Havenstein, who checks in at 6-foot-8 and 327 pounds. He has started the past 27 games at right tackle and made second-team All-Big Ten a year ago.

Warren Herring, Sr., DL: Herring will be a key player for the Badgers' defensive line, which lost all three starters from last season. He's also got some pretty sweet moves.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
12:00
PM ET
Proof there is a God.
Big Ten media days are less than a week away. Can you feel the excitement? You know enough about the coaches in attendance, but it's time to take a closer look at the players coming to Chicago.

Here's the full list, but we'll begin with the East Division, followed by the West later on.

INDIANA

David Cooper, LB, senior: A two-year starter at linebacker -- one at middle, one on the weak side -- Cooper led the Hoosiers with 85 tackles last season and added a fumble recovery. If the defense finally turns the corner, he'll likely play a significant role.

Nate Sudfeld, QB, junior: Tre Roberson's transfer makes Sudfeld the clear-cut starter entering the season. The junior from California started eight games last season and passed for 2,523 yards with 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Shane Wynn, WR, senior: Like Sudfeld, Wynn moves into a more featured role as Indiana loses standout Cody Latimer and others. Wynn has 114 receptions for 17 touchdowns in the past two seasons.

MARYLAND

C.J. Brown, QB, senior: The sixth-year player enters his second full year as the starter after becoming the first Maryland player to eclipse 2,000 pass yards and 500 rush yards in a season. His father, Clark, played quarterback at Michigan State.

Stefon Diggs, WR, junior: Diggs might be the Big Ten's best and most explosive wide receiver as he returns from a broken leg that shortened his 2013 season. The one-time Ohio State recruiting target finished eighth nationally with 172.4 all-purpose yards per game in 2012.

Jeremiah Johnson, CB, senior: He led Maryland in pass breakups (8) and had five tackles for loss while starting every game in 2012. Johnson missed most of last season with a fractured toe.

MICHIGAN

Frank Clark, DE, senior: The Wolverines' most experienced defensive linemen needs to take his game to an elite level in his final season. Clark enters his second full year as a starter after recording 12 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 2013.

Devin Gardner, QB, senior: He has had a truly unique career, which began as a wide receiver and will culminate as the starting quarterback for the second straight year, provided he holds off Shane Morris in camp. Gardner, fully healed from a foot injury, had 2,960 pass yards and 483 rush yards as a junior.

Jake Ryan, LB, senior: Ryan made an incredible recovery from an ACL tear to start five games last season, but he's hoping to regain the form he displayed in 2012, when he led Michigan in tackles (88), solo stops (56), tackles for loss (16), sacks (4.5) and forced fumbles (4). If healthy, he could contend for Big Ten defensive player of the year honors.

MICHIGAN STATE

Shilique Calhoun, DE, junior: He comes off of a breakout season in 2013, when he earned second-team All-America honors and was named the Big Ten's defensive lineman of the year. Calhoun tied for second nationally with four fumble recoveries (two for touchdowns) and finished with 14 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.

Connor Cook, QB, junior: No player represented Michigan State's championship run more than Cook, who blossomed in Big Ten play after being named the permanent starter. He finished with 2,755 pass yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions, and won MVP honors at both the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl.

Kurtis Drummond, S, senior: Although Drummond has made 21 consecutive starts at safety, he takes on a bigger role for the "No Fly Zone" secondary after the losses of Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis. The veteran earned All-Big Ten honors.

OHIO STATE

Michael Bennett, DT, senior: Ohio State's defensive line might be the league's best position group and Bennett, a preseason All-American, is a big reason why. After recording seven sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles in 2013, Bennett is pegged as a possible first-round draft pick and will be in the mix for national awards.

Jeff Heuerman, TE, senior: The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Heuerman provides a big target in the passing game and should claim a bigger role in the offense this season after recording 26 receptions and four touchdowns in 2013.

Braxton Miller, QB, senior: He's the biggest name at Big Ten media days -- the league's reining offensive player of the year in both 2012 and 2013. Miller already has won more Big Ten awards (seven) than any player in league history, but he still lacks a Big Ten championship.

PENN STATE

Bill Belton, RB, senior: Belton has shared carries at running back the past two seasons but appears ready for a bigger role after a solid first spring under the new coaching staff. Although fellow backs Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch also return, Belton's playmaking ability stands out, as he averaged 94.2 all-purpose yards per game in 2013.

Sam Ficken, PK, senior: The most interesting kicker in the Big Ten is the only specialist on this year's list in invitees. Ficken has been through it all at Penn State, from a disastrous day at Virginia in 2012 to a record-setting streak of 15 made field goals to some inconsistency late last season. Special teams coordinator Charles Huff expects a big finish from him.

Mike Hull, LB, senior: He's the quarterback of a defense that should improve under first-year coordinator Bob Shoop. Hull is one of the league's more experienced linebackers and could blossom after finishing second on the squad with 78 tackles in 2013.

RUTGERS

Michael Burton, FB, senior: A fullback at media days is quite Big Ten of Rutgers, and the hardworking Burton embodies the position he plays. The former walk-on has emerged as a major team leader after starting games in each of the past three seasons.

Darius Hamilton, DL, junior: The 260-pound Hamilton plays both line spots and holds his own despite being somewhat undersized. He finished the 2013 season on a good note, recording four sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss in the final four contests.

Lorenzo Waters, S, senior: Waters enters his third season as a starter and will lead a secondary looking for better results from 2013. He has 130 tackles, four forced fumbles and two interceptions in the past two seasons.
Our preview of each position group in the Big Ten reaches its final stop on the defensive side: the secondary.

The two best secondary players from last season both were drafted in the first round this spring: Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Ohio State's Bradley Roby. New stars are sure to emerge this season. Let's take a look at where things stand:

Best of the best: Michigan State

The Spartans finished No. 3 in the FBS in pass defense last season, though the "No Fly Zone" lost two key members in Thorpe Award winner Dennard and safety Isaiah Lewis. Still, Kurtis Drummond might well be the best safety in the Big Ten, and Trae Waynes is ready for his star turn at cornerback. Darian Hicks will hold down the other corner spot, with a spirited competition for time at the other safety slot. With the combined brain power of Mark Dantonio, Pat Narduzzi and Harlon Barnett, we expect Michigan State to keep the title of the league's top secondary.

Next up: Penn State

There's lots of strong returning experience here, with corners Jordan Lucas -- a leading All-Big Ten candidate -- and Trevor Williams, plus safety Adrian Amos, who appears on the cusp of stardom. Ryan Keiser started five games at safety last year, too. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop's background is in coaching the secondary, so we're excited to see what he can do with this group.

Sleeper: Minnesota

Safety Brock Vereen is on the Chicago Bears now, but underrated corner Eric Murray is back along with veteran safety Cedric Thompson. Derrick Wells, who has bounced between safety and corner, should stick at the other cornerback spot, and Briean Boddy-Calhoun returns from injury. The Gophers believe they are as deep as they've been in the secondary under Jerry Kill, and that could lead to good results this fall.

Problem for a contender: Ohio State

It's hard to label this as anything but a problem right now, given how the Buckeyes struggled down the stretch in pass coverage last year before losing Roby a year early to the draft. Yet there is still a lot of reason for optimism. New secondary coach/co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash is remaking the unit into what should be a more athletic bunch. Doran Grant anchors the group at corner, while Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell should add speed and length at safety. If young players come through here, Ohio State's defensive backfield could make a huge leap forward. Until we see that happen, though, it remains a concern.

Michigan gives 'recruit' first-rate day

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
6:46
PM ET
video
Growing up in a family of Michigan football fans in Grain Valley, Missouri, Stephen Loszewski had a wish that he would someday play football for the Wolverines.

His leukemia diagnosis in the spring of 2011, during Stephen's freshman year of high school, did more than put his wish on hold -- it changed his reality overnight.

Leukemia took away high school football and the normal social life of a teenager and replaced it with chemotherapy, nausea and the social isolation of hospital rooms (though his friends and teammates stayed close). He has been in remission since his sophomore year, but even though he was able to stay in the game he loves by helping his father coach youth football, a return to the playing field was ruled out.

So when it came time for Stephen, now 18, to choose his wish, he sought the chance to be treated like the Michigan football recruit he could never otherwise be.

"Instead of just asking, 'Hey, could I get some really good tickets to a Michigan game,' I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity that I had," Stephen said. "I figured maybe I could get them to pretend to recruit me somehow."

What Michigan gave him was more than he had asked for. Way more.

For the full story from Greg Sukiennik, click here.

Big Ten Tuesday mailbag

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
5:00
PM ET
Welcome back to another edition of the mailbag. As you've probably noticed, we're taking more of your questions from Twitter these days. And Adam and I now have our own separate Twitter handles: Here's mine and his. The ESPN Big Ten account is also still active, and you can always use our mailbag links on the right-hand side of this page as well.

Got all that? Good. Let's get to your questions:

 

Brian Bennett: I say it's Northwestern. There's simply no way Pat Fitzgerald's team can have the same amount of bad luck as last year, which included four losses by a touchdown or less (five if you count the Ohio State game, which became a 10-point margin on a meaningless turnover for a score at the end), a pair of overtime defeats, the Hail Mary by Nebraska, Michigan's miracle field goal and all those injuries.

It reminds me of how Michigan State was an obvious bounce-back candidate last summer after the Spartans suffered so many close losses in 2012. Northwestern was outgained by nearly 24 yards per game, so the 5-7 record wasn't incredibly fluky outside of those crazy finishes. But with better health, a consistent approach in the passing game under quarterback Trevor Siemian and Venric Mark back to full health, I expect to see the Wildcats back in a bowl game this year and possibly even posing a dark horse threat in the West Division.


Alex from New Orleans writes: Brian, I know there's been a lot of talk about Michigan's struggles from last year, and how they might continue to struggle again this year. Rightfully so. But rather than talk about the team's floor and how far it will sink, as so many people want to do, what do you think Michigan's ceiling is as a team this year? Let's just say everything comes together from the O-Line to the Pass Rush. They've got two very good coordinators, and a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. A lot of young talent, yes, but talent nonetheless. Jabrill Peppers, though a freshman, may not be of this world. I know this team won't go undefeated, but at the same time, I don't think there's one game on the team's schedule that it can't win. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: As mediocre as Michigan was in many ways last year, the only games the Wolverines were truly blown out of came at Michigan State and in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl vs. Kansas State -- the latter of which they played without quarterback Devin Gardner (and also without, it appeared at times, a whole lot of interest in being there). Of course, the counter argument to that would be that Michigan was at least a little fortunate and often more so in wins over Notre Dame, Akron, UConn and Northwestern. The 42-13 victory over Minnesota may have been the biggest aberration in a season in which just about every week went down to the wire.

But we can't simply assume that will happen again. Sure, the Wolverines have major questions on the offensive line, in the running game and at receiver, and their defense needs more playmakers to emerge. Yet there's no lack of talent here, and Gardner led all returning Big Ten players in total offense last year. Let's say Doug Nussmeier brings much-needed continuity and consistency to the offense and restores the running game. And the young talent on the defensive line plus the addition of Peppers on the back end raises the level of play on that side of the ball. I still believe Michigan would be a notch below Ohio State and Michigan State, especially with those games happening on the road. But it's not inconceivable that, if everything broke just right, the Wolverines could enjoy a season similar to Brady Hoke's first campaign in 2011, when they won the Sugar Bowl. That, I think, is the ceiling.


Todd from Peoria, Ill., writes: Should the Illini erect a Dick Butkus statue on the opposite side of Memorial Stadium from the iconic Red Grange statue? Inquiring minds want to know!

Brian Bennett: Yes, absolutely. Butkus is one of the most iconic players in Big Ten history, to say nothing of his status in Illini lore. What is the possible argument against it? I am sometimes leery of building statues of people too quickly, as scandals and such can make that look really embarrassing. But I think the 71-year-old Butkus is a pretty safe call, and wouldn't you want him to attend the ceremony rather than wait until he's gone? I think it would be cool for Illinois fans to figure out where to meet at Memorial Stadium by referring to the Grange side and the Butkus side.


David L. from Chicago writes: Last week, Patrick from Davenport, Iowa, asked who wouldn't make the Playoff in an imaginary world where every major conference produced one undefeated team, using Ohio State, Alabama, Stanford, Florida State and Baylor as examples. Great question, but I want to add a wrinkle to it: What if Ohio State, Stanford, Florida State and Baylor go undefeated and Alabama has one loss. Who are the four playoff teams then? (remember the media loves the SEC).

Brian Bennett: I believe that it's going to be incredibly difficult, if not outright impossible, for the committee to leave out an undefeated champion of a Power 5 conference. Of course, the SEC-philes would mount a full-on propaganda campaign centered around the strength of their conference. I would imagine they would focus their rage on Baylor, who as mentioned last week has an abysmal nonconference schedule. Alabama opens with West Virginia, so how the Mountaineers fared in the Big 12 and specifically against the Bears would be a huge talking point.

Shutting out Baylor in that scenario would send the loudest message possible from the committee about the need to schedule up, and that would in the long run be great for the sport. In the end, as long as the Big 12 had some other highly-ranked teams, I think the Tide would get left out. And we might just have a new issue on our hands.


Chris from Castle Rock, Colo., writes: Why do you suppose Iowa running backs (namely Mark Weisman) were left off the Doak Walker Award watch list? Is this a way of tricking the AIRBHG for another season?

Brian Bennett: Shhh ... come on, Chris, don't wake him! As I wrote Monday, watch lists are pretty pointless and often miss the mark. So I wouldn't worry about it too much. But I also think that Iowa's deep stable of running backs, which also includes Jordan Canzieri, Damon Bullock and others in addition to Weisman, lessens the probability of any one back winning major awards. Unless Chris has roused the beast by daring to say his name.
I admit to jealousy at times when we hear coaches from other conferences talking at their respective media days. If only the Big Ten had personalities like Steve Spurrier, Les Miles and Mike Leach who weren't afraid to say whatever crossed their minds.

Unfortunately, the best zingers and one-liners from Big Ten coaches usually come in the summer when they are speaking to their alumni and other highly supportive crowds. The latest example comes from Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.

Addressing a crowd of fans gathered after a golf outing, Fitzgerald got some pretty good lines in at the expense of Nebraska and Cal coach Sonny Dykes, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Fitzgerald said he wanted to make sure Wildcats fans dominated the stands when Nebraska -- which always brings a big crowd and turned Ryan Field into a sea of red two years ago -- comes to town on Oct. 18 for homecoming.

"It’s a pretty boring state, so they’re really excited to see Chicago,” Fitzgerald said. “I talked to the state senator about putting state troopers out on I-80 [to block them].”

No one keeps Huskers fans from traveling, and Fitzgerald was obviously just joking around. There appeared to be a bit more animosity for Dykes, who accused the Wildcats of faking injuries to slow Cal's hurry-up offense in last year's 44-30 win by Northwestern in Berkeley. The Bears play in Evanston for the Aug. 30 opener.

“The way it went last year,” Fitzgerald said, “I look forward to shaking that coach’s hand after we beat 'em.”

Thanks for providing a nice subplot to that game, Pat. We can only hope that you and other Big Ten coaches saved some of your best material for media days next week.
The SEC and ACC have already held their media days, the Big 12 is wrapping up, and the Pac-12 is on deck. Don't worry, the Big Ten gets its day(s) in the sun next week.

To get you more than ready, we've been looking at three questions each team will likely face at the Hilton Chicago. We wrap up our series now with the Wisconsin Badgers, who will have running back Melvin Gordon, offensive tackle Rob Havenstein and defensive lineman Warren Herring to the festivities along with coach Gary Andersen.

1. How will the passing game come together?

The spring featured an intriguing competition at quarterback between last year's starting safety, Tanner McEvoy, and incumbent starter Joel Stave, who was recovering from a shoulder injury. McEvoy, who has never thrown a pass in an FBS game, could win the job with a strong fall camp. An even bigger question might be who will catch the throws from either guy, as Jared Abbrederis' graduation leaves a major void at wide receiver. The Badgers have few proven options there, and the recent departures of a pair of incoming freshmen wideouts didn't help. We know Wisconsin will be able to run the ball well once again. But can the passing game make enough strides for this team to be a serious Big Ten contender?

2. Who steps forward in the defensive front seven?

Dave Aranda's defense must replace all three starting defensive linemen from 2013 and three of its four starting linebackers. The lone returning starter from the front seven is Derek Landisch, who had 33 tackles last season. So, yeah, this is a formidable retooling project, with veteran stalwarts such as Chris Borland, Beau Allen and Brendan Kelly no longer around. There is still a lot for Aranda to build around in guys such as Herring, who has played a lot of snaps, and linebackers Vince Biegel and Marcus Trotter. But how quickly the defense can mesh together and play as well as an often underrated group from last season remains a question.

3. How big is the LSU game?


The first two questions above need to be answered quickly, because Wisconsin opens the season against LSU in Houston. It's one of the biggest regular-season games in years for the Badgers, who will quickly put themselves in the spotlight if they can beat the Tigers. The rest of their schedule is such that a 9-0 start before hosting Nebraska on Nov. 15 suddenly becomes a real possibility with an opening win, and the College Football Playoff would be an attainable goal. The challenge, however, is steep. It will be interesting to hear how much Andersen and his players have been thinking about and preparing for this game all spring and summer long. Having LSU on the schedule should certainly have added a little more urgency to offseason workouts.
It's less than a week now until Big Ten media days arrive at the Hilton Chicago, where 14 smiling coaches will appear, and the smell of football will permeate the air. Can you feel the excitement?

To prepare you for the festivities, we're answering three questions facing each team. It's time to look at the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. A popular pick to finish last in the East Division, Rutgers will be represented in their first visit to this event by coach Kyle Flood, senior fullback Michael Burton, junior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton and senior safety Lorenzo Waters.

1. What can Rutgers expect from Gary Nova?

Nova is the veteran quarterback who was benched late last season in favor of Chas Dodd. The move didn't work out especially well for Flood and former offensive coordinator Ron Prince, who parlayed his single season at Rutgers into a position with the Detroit Lions. The Scarlet Knights and their quarterback should fare better with new coordinator Ralph Friedgen, the former Maryland coach lured by Flood and the Big Ten move back into coaching after a three-year absence. Nova, who has started 28 games, is a proven winner. Rutgers returns the bulk of its ground game. He can provide a steady hand through this time of transition and perhaps help Flood's club exceed the low expectations.

2. Who made this schedule, anyway?

After a Thursday night opener on Aug. 28 at Washington State and an otherwise unimpressive non-conference slate, the Scarlet Knights' path gets downright treacherous. Rutgers plays the Penn State Littany Lions and the Michigan Wolverines at home to open the Big Ten, then faces trips to the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Nebraska Cornhuskers, followed by a return home to meet the Wisconsin Badgers. Mix in a finishing stretch against the Indiana Hoosiers and trips to the Michigan State Spartans and fellow newcomer Maryland Terrapins, and you're looking at a recipe for trouble. It's not easy to be the new kid, preparing for an unknown foe every week. Just ask Nebraska in 2011, which faced an equally daunting list of opponents and was twice blown out on the road. Most likely, Rutgers is in for a rude introduction to the Big Ten, maligned often as a league but still a sizable step up from the AAC.

3. What's the most realistic reason for optimism?

No doubt, it's the defense. New 35-year-old coordinator Joe Rossi, elevated from special teams coordinator, inherits a salty bunch, led up front by Hamilton, who figures to improve on his 4 1/2-sack sophomore season. Sophomore Steve Longa, strangely omitted from the Butkus Award watch list, is a tackling machine, and Kevin Snyder is solid in the middle. Waters leads a group of defensive backs that struggled last year, allowing more passing yards than any team in school history. It contributed to the ouster of coordinator Dave Cohen, but the group figures to improve this fall with more stability throughout. The Nittany Lions and quarterback Christian Hackenberg offer a nice test in Week 3.

Big Ten lunch links

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
12:00
PM ET
Oppressive heat returns to the Midwest. Must be almost time for the start of football practice.
The offseason can be a time of rest and relaxation. Or maybe it’s a perfect time for some team building. Or working a camp. Or raising some money for charity. Or just having fun.

We’re taking a look at how teams have been spending their offseason. Earlier we took a look at the teams in the East Division. Now, here’s what the West Division teams have been up to this summer.

Illinois Fightin Illini raise money with "Lift for Life." Iowa Hawkeyes do the work for a children's hospital. Minnesota Golden Gophers reveal how Mitch Leidner jumps so high. Nebraska Cornhuskers Bo knows tweeting amusement parks on 4th of July. Northwestern Wildcats team build with Navy SEAL-like workout. Purdue Boilermakers Jesse Schmidt's summer internship. Wisconsin Badgers cool down at pool party.  
The offseason can be a time of rest and relaxation. Or maybe it’s a perfect time for some team building. Or working a camp. Or raising some money for charity. Or just having fun.

We’re taking a look at how teams have been spending their offseasons. We start with the teams in the East Division, with the West Division teams coming a little later.

Indiana Hoosiers tackle a hamburger eating contest White T-shirt dinner in Maryland Youth campers too much for Michigan State Spartans players Michigan Wolverines coach Brady Hoke serves up breakfast Ohio State Buckeyes go paint-balling Penn State Nittany Lions set a "Lift for Life" record Rutgers' Scarlet Knight beefing up  

Big Ten Monday mailbag

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
5:00
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The season of media days is in full swing, with the SEC in the books, the ACC wrapping on Monday, the Big 12 underway, and the Pac-12 set to start on Wednesday. The Big Ten, of course, is scheduled for next week in Chicago. It's never too early to answer questions, though. Keep them coming here and to me. I'll be back soon for more.


Mitch Sherman: I like what I've seen so far from James Franklin, but he's yet to coach a game in Happy Valley. It's all about attitude and recruiting, and that's great. Still, the hardships of probation are difficult to shake. And even with the reduction in sanctions, Penn State still faces a climb to return to the top tier of the Big Ten, let alone the national elite. The presence of Christian Hackenberg during this era of transition helps mightily, but I think the Nittany Lions face some difficult times before the resurgence can start.

As for Michigan, yeah, sure, the depth is better. With Brady Hoke in his fourth season, that's expected. Hoke has largely recruited well. The problems involve player development and a lack of offensive innovation since Denard Robinson stopped improvising. The Wolverines remain way too green on the offensive line, and questions at quarterback have not been answered. Other than three tough road trips, the schedule sets up well. But yes, if this year looks like the second half of last season, the coach has reason to worry.

 





Mitch Sherman: I don't, but any time after that, I could see it. Ultimately, as we all know, money drives the playoff, like everything in big-time college athletics. And the more money the new postseason generates, the louder the calls will grow to expand the thing and create more opportunities to sell tickets and merchandise.

Five years is about the right amount of time to test the four-team format. To change it before 2019 would not give this system the time it needs. We learned long before the BCS era that every season brings a new set of potential controversies. In some seasons, like 2013, a two-team playoff provided a better solution than would a four-team system. More often, the four-team approach would have been more effective in crowing a champ.

The momentum for an eight-team playoff will grow with the every season that provides controversy in the selection of four teams. Expect the calls for a revision to get loud in at least two of the first five seasons. After that, the system is ripe for expansion.

 





Mitch Sherman: Well, Tommy Armstrong Jr. is a sophomore, so at worst, you need only fear three years of inconsistent play, but I understand the concern. You're suffering from a condition that resulted from watching Nebraska over the past four years. Its quarterback play under Taylor Martinez was anything but consistent, and Armstrong, as an eight-game starter, extended the trend, throwing eight interceptions and nine touchdowns on 52-percent passing.

I think you'll be pleased, though, with Armstrong's improvement this fall. My takeaway from the spring is that he's set to play much more consistently. Armstrong possesses all the intangibles for which the Huskers search at quarterback. The same could not always be said about his predecessor.

As for Johnny Stanton, he has to beat out Ryker Fyfe before the redshirt freshman can think about taking over the top spot. At this stage of their development, it would take a meltdown by Armstrong for Bo Pelini and Tim Beck to make a change. But things can change quickly in September, especially once the Huskers hit that stretch of five consecutive night games.

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