Big Ten: Nebraska Cornhuskers
In case you missed it -- and you might have since the game ended around 1:30 a.m. -- Rutgers outlasted Washington State, 41-38, to win its first-ever game as a member of the Big Ten. It was a quality win for the conference and an even bigger one for the underdog Scarlet Knights.
Senior quarterback Gary Nova, who appeared to be wiping tears from his eyes on the sideline, addressed the TV cameras after the final whistle. When asked what this game meant to the program, he simply said: “I don’t know. It’s just a great win.”
He’ll have all of Friday to reflect on what it means. But, on the surface, it’s pretty clear: That win just earned Rutgers some much needed respect. And it showed that maybe the “pushover” tag was a bit premature.
Granted, the Cougars are just a mediocre Pac-12 team. Their scoring defense last season was among the worst in the nation, while their pass offense was among the best. Rutgers scored 41 points Thursday night but allowed 532 passing yards. So the game didn’t stray from the script all that much. Except, of course, where it counted -- the winning team.
No, this doesn’t mean the Knights will automatically hang tough against Ohio State or Michigan State. But it does show the Knights were underestimated. By how much? Ask us again after the Penn State game. But none of us five Big Ten bloggers picked Rutgers to win this game. And none of us picked RU to win more than four games on the season.
Kyle Flood's squad was impressive, especially on offense. The line absolutely dominated, and Paul James showed a nice blend of speed and power to the tune of 173 rushing yards and three TDs. Nova tossed a 78-yard TD on the first play, struggled the rest of the first half but then rebounded by going 11-of-17 for 174 yards in just the second half. Wideout Leonte Carroo could even be a popular waiver wire addition when it comes to our fantasy league.
The Knights received a lukewarm reception when they accepted an invitation to the conference. But they proved a lot of analysts and experts wrong with their performance against Washington State. Let’s see if they can keep doing that; there’s no better way to earn respect.
Welcome to the Big Ten, Rutgers.
- After beating Eastern Illinois, Mitch Leidner looks as if he can be a good quarterback for Minnesota -- but what kind of quarterback? Head coach Jerry Kill believes facility upgrades are critical to the Gophers' next step.
- Running back Paul James delivers in Rutgers' win. An overview of the RU-WSU game and what it means for the Scarlet Knights.
- The Buckeyes revamped their pass-defense this offseason, but obviously the focus will be a little different against run-happy Navy.
- Devin Gardner is "100 times better" as a leader this season, according to Michigan's Brady Hoke.
- Seven things to watch this season with Indiana. A roundtable complete with Hoosiers' previews and predictions.
- MSU linebacker Taiwan Jones never showed a "clear indication" he was ready to play middle linebacker this camp, but he also never really had a down day either.
- Breaking down and examining Penn State's possible redshirt candidates.
- A roundtable on Maryland's season, from predicting team MVPs to what game each blogger is most excited about.
- Illinois players and coaches say there's a renewed sense of hope around campus this season. Tim Beckman is hoping a more experienced roster means more success.
- Wisconsin still refuses to disclose its plans at quarterback Saturday, but offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig praised both Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy. A video on Ludwig addressing the quarterback situation.
- Everyone already knows about Ameer Abdullah, but what kind of role will the other Nebraska running backs play?
- Cameron Dickerson is a name to remember for Northwestern, as the wideout went from role player to key cog in one short offseason.
- Quarterback Jake Rudock is expected to have more input on this Iowa offense, so communication is especially important.
- Six Big Ten players made the cut on Mel Kiper's "Big Board," a list of the top 25 NFL prospects, with Nebraska DE Randy Gregory the top B1G player at No. 4 overall.
But perhaps the most important prediction -- and the one that could cause some more debate -- involves the bowl games. Instead of giving our individual picks for this, we combined our thoughts and butted heads to form a consensus.
We predicted that 10 of the Big Ten's 14 teams will make bowls this season, which isn't too shabby for the conference considering Penn State is still facing a postseason ban. So only Illinois, Purdue and Rutgers were left out in the cold.
Without further ado, here are our Big Ten bowl picks:
College Football Playoff semifinal: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton: Ohio State
Capital One: Iowa
National University Holiday Bowl: Wisconsin
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Michigan
San Francisco: Northwestern
New Era Pinstripe: Maryland
Quick Lane: Minnesota
Heart of Dallas: Indiana
What were our strategies? And how do we think we fared? Check it all out below, and let us know who you think has the best lineup:
Adam Rittenberg (Trombone Shorties): I wanted a top-shelf running back and got one in Ameer Abdullah. He will produce yards, but I'd really like to see his touchdowns total increase. Both of my wide receivers are tight end types (Jesse James is still classified as one, Devin Funchess isn't) who create matchup problems for defenses and should have big seasons. You need at least one dual-threat quarterback because of the scoring system, and I like Tommy Armstrong's potential in his second year as the starter. Connor Cook doesn’t bring much as a runner, but if he builds on how he ended last season, he will put up plenty of points, too. Paul James is a dynamic player when healthy and should get plenty of carries as Rutgers' featured back. I wanted a defense I could keep for several weeks, and Minnesota's unit, which should once again be pretty stingy, should have little trouble shutting down Eastern Illinois and Middle Tennessee.
Can you hear that? It’s the sweet music of another Trombone Shorties championship, coming your way this fall.
Brian Bennett (Legendary Leaders): Quarterbacks can dominate this particular scoring system, so I was happy to grab Devin Gardner with the fourth overall pick. He put up more total fantasy points than any player in the Big Ten last season, by a pretty wide margin (if only he could play Indiana every week). Speaking of the Hoosiers, I was excited to see Tevin Coleman still around for my next pick, as he should be a fantasy stud this season. Not getting Wes Lunt was a bummer (and, guys, I should have dibs on him come waiver wire time, right?) but Maryland's C.J. Brown should be a fine option, racking up points every time he throws to Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. If Ezekiel Elliott becomes Ohio State's featured back as expected, that could be a gold mine. My receiver spots are a little shakier, but I think that was the one position to punt since there weren't great options after the top couple of guys. It wasn't worth spending an early-round pick on a position that is really hit or miss in this fantasy system. Iowa's defense should be strong all year long with that schedule. I'm feeling good about my team, though injuries and the double-bye weeks can always wreak havoc.
Mitch Sherman (Sherman Tanks): Yards matter, but touchdowns mean more. My first pick, Jeremy Langford, reached the end zone nearly as often as Melvin Gordon and Abdullah combined last season. With Michigan State’s improved offense and less reliance this fall on the defense, Langford’s opportunities figure only to increase. I’m banking heavily on the Penn State offense, with quarterback Christian Hackenberg after a 20-touchdown freshman season and running back Zach Zwinak, who is good in the red zone. Throw in the PSU kickers, too, for good measure, though I will have to make some roster adjustments in October as the Nittany Lions get two bye weeks. Deon Long, despite facing some criticism from Maryland coach Randy Edsall early in preseason camp, is ready for a big senior season as he returns from a broken leg. I’m expecting similar production from Iowa’s Kevonte Martin-Manley, who has shown his game-breaking skills in the return game. Trevor Siemian, with the job to himself at Northwestern, can accumulate numbers in the passing game. And the Nebraska defense is solid as the strength of Bo Pelini’s team.
Josh Moyer (Coal Crackers): I would have preferred to draft last so I could’ve picked up a blue-chip running back and a top quarterback. But you have to adapt, right? Gordon was an easy decision as the No. 1 overall pick. Since my initial strategy was basically busted right off the bat, I took an advantage as soon as I saw one -- when only one wideout was taken in the first nine spots. I drafted Shane Wynn and Stefon Diggs back-to-back, so I now have the best corps of receivers in our league. By far. I’d also argue I have the best defense and kickers by twice choosing Michigan State. Mark Weisman isn’t a bad RB2, either. What does that leave? Well, admittedly, that leaves my weakest spot: Quarterback. I took Jake Rudock late in the draft and Mitch Leidner as my last pick. I wasn’t getting good value, so I kept holding off. Hopefully those two can produce some running TDs for me, and if one of them can break out, then Adam can start waving good-bye to that championship trophy.
Austin Ward (Massive Attack): Indiana might not be anybody’s favorite to win the Big Ten this fall. But to compete in a Big Ten fantasy league, there had better be at least one player from that team on your roster, so there was no need to wait when the third pick came around. Though grabbing Nate Sudfeld there might seem a bit premature, with each team playing two quarterbacks, grabbing the guy most likely to lead the conference in passing while guiding such an explosive attack felt like the smartest play. Complementing him with J.T. Barrett in the later rounds was a bonus, because Braxton Miller's replacement at Ohio State is also going to be at the controls in a high-octane spread system with plenty of skill players around him. That should allow him to rack up decent passing numbers which he will supplement with his rushing ability. Leading with those two quarterbacks, this team should be poised to consistently put up big numbers.
The Trombone Shorties (Adam Rittenberg) and the team formerly known as The One Who Knocks (Brian Bennett) won’t have it easy anymore. The Big Ten fantasy league is no longer just a head-to-head battle. Now, in Year 4 of the league, there are five of us – and the competition and trash talk are intense. (If you want to play college fantasy football, too, you can do so through ESPN’s College Football Challenge.)
We held a live eight-round draft earlier this week, and below you’ll find our draft results – along with a brief analysis by Josh Moyer on each round:
Round 1: The No. 2 overall pick is the trickiest in this draft. Melvin Gordon is the easy No. 1 – but where do you go from there? On one hand, running back is deep, but the top four at the position could be gone when the pick comes around again. Rittenberg opted to play it safe by picking Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah, widely regarded as the second-best offensive player in the B1G. But he might come to regret the pick if Abdullah can’t find the end zone more often. Abdullah averaged 19.8 fantasy points a game last season, which was behind Tevin Coleman (20.79 points) and just slightly ahead of Jeremy Langford (19.42 points), who really took off in Game 6. … Quarterbacks and wideouts were at a premium, so Ward and Bennett focused on quarterback in the first round. There are no point deductions for turnovers, so the Devin Gardner pick was a smart one.
Round 3: I started off the third round with Stefon Diggs – giving me the top overall receiver combo with Wynn-Diggs – but definitely guaranteeing I’ll be in a hole later when it comes to quarterback. Rittenberg didn’t want the same to happen so he opted to take his first quarterback in Connor Cook. … This is when the draft started getting interesting. Sherman took Maryland’s Deon Long as the fourth overall receiver. It could certainly pay off in the end, but it certainly wasn’t a “safe” pick with Diggs as Maryland's top target and with proven commodities such as Ohio State’s Devin Smith still on the board. … Poor Bennett got the short end of the stick when he tried to draft Illinois’ Wes Lunt – but he wasn’t in ESPN’s draft database for some reason. So we decided as a group to exclude him; Bennett took Maryland’s C.J. Brown instead. A fantasy downgrade for sure.
Round 4: Maybe someone should’ve sent Sherman a memo on Penn State’s offensive line because he took Zach Zwinak over some other prime options. But Sherman’s banking on the goal-line value of Zwinak, who scored 12 TDs last season. Zwinak could be like fantasy football’s 2004 version of Jerome Bettis. … With few receivers left, Smith was a solid pick by Ward and definitely his best value of the draft so far.
Round 5: I took my first quarterback in Iowa’s Jake Rudock, as I’m banking on some extra value thanks to his penchant for running close to the goal line. (He had five rush TDs last season.) But, in retrospect, that might not have been the best move. Ward got another good value pick in Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett – and, while Rudock is the safer pick, Barrett certainly has the higher ceiling. Part of me is regretting my choice already. … Bennett’s great draft continued by grabbing the best remaining receiver in Kenny Bell. If he can meet his 2012 touchdown production (8), this could be the best-value receiver pick of the draft. … Rittenberg also made a good move with Rutgers’ running back Paul James, who has a few early games against bad defenses. If he falters when the schedule gets harder, there’s always the waiver wire.
Round 6: Flag on the play, Sherman! The Sherman Tanks initially tried to draft Ohio State’s Dontre Wilson, a hybrid back, as a receiver – but ESPN’s database listed him only as a running back. So Sherman had to pick again and chose Iowa’s Kevonte-Martin Manley. … Ward was not happy with the remaining receiver selection at all. It showed in his pick; Penn State’s Geno Lewis could be third in receiving on Penn State by the time the season ends. … Rittenberg made an interesting move by picking Minnesota’s defense first, over Michigan State’s defense. His reasoning was solid, though. MSU plays Oregon in Week 2 and then has a bye. So he didn’t want to work the waiver wire that early. Me? I took the Spartans’ D with the next pick, and I’ll ride it out.
Rounds 7-8: It was mostly all kickers and defenses in the final two rounds. Rittenberg took Penn State tight end Jesse James to fill his last receiver spot in the sixth round, and it was a good pick for being the 10th receiver/tight end taken. James is 6-foot-7 and could be a nice red-zone target for Christian Hackenberg this season. … The only other non-defense/kicker came from me. I needed a quarterback, so this year’s Mr. Irrelevant is Minnesota’s Mitch Leidner. Quarterback is definitely my weakness. But I don’t care if Leidner throws 40 percent -- as long he scores a rushing TD every game.
While quarterbacks across the nation are putting up crazy numbers like pinball machines and spread offenses are letting wide receivers run wild and rack up yardage, that tradition-loving, old-school Big Ten appears downright antiquated with its continued emphasis on running backs carrying the load.
But look closer.
The evolution of offenses may not have done much to change the face of the most productive players in the conference. But when there are so many game-breakers in Big Ten backfields, there's really not much incentive to shift the focus away from them in the first place.
"This a running back-heavy league, and you need a good running back, an every-down back to get through the Big Ten," Minnesota senior David Cobb said. "And in this league, there's a good running back on every team."
The conference has never really been in short supply of rushers, but the ground game looks particularly fertile this season with so many talented tailbacks returning as the focal point on offense.
The conversation about the league's best typically revolves around Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, the top two returners in the league and the odds-on favorites to claim offensive player of the year honors while leading teams aiming for the conference title. They're also close friends who admit to some good-natured trash talk that comes from paying attention to the league's yardage leader board, but both know it might not be safe to just measure themselves against each other this fall.
Michigan State's Jeremy Langford somehow largely flew under the radar last season despite piling up more than 1,400 yards and leading the Big Ten in rushing touchdowns with 18.
Cobb will be getting no shortage of carries in Minnesota's power rushing attack, and indications out of training camp suggest he's even better than he was while gaining 1,202 yards as a junior.
Despite playing in a spread system, Indiana's Tevin Coleman offered a reminder of the importance of balancing out a passing attack with a productive rusher, with his explosiveness in averaging more than 7 yards per carry driving the point home. Josh Ferguson does the same for Illinois, complementing his 5.5 yards per carry with 50 receptions for 535 yards and 4 touchdowns as a target in the passing game. Iowa's Mark Weisman came up just short of the 1,000-yard milestone last year, but he's playing behind perhaps the best set of blockers in the conference this fall and should be poised to capitalize on those huge holes opened by left tackle Brandon Scherff and his buddies.
Even at schools with unsettled depth charts at the top there's little reason to panic. Carlos Hyde is gone at Ohio State, but it has a stable loaded with both veterans like Rod Smith and youngsters like presumptive starter Ezekiel Elliott poised to take over. Michigan struggled to move the football on the ground a year ago, but Derrick Green looks ready to live up to his billing as one of the top recruits in the 2013 class as he moves into a likely starting role.
And if all that depth makes winning the rushing crown a bit tougher this fall for Gordon or Abdullah, they certainly aren't worried about a little competition. In the Big Ten, that's long been a source of pride.
"Definitely, you can look at every team," Abdullah said. "You just go down the line, and the running back position in this league is really deep. It's going to be good competition for this year statistically. I feel like it gets overshadowed a little bit. You throw in T.J. Yeldon [at Alabama], [Georgia's Todd] Gurley, guys who play for those SEC teams or maybe the Pac-12 guys and we get overshadowed a little bit. But all we can do is show up to work every Saturday and prove our case."
Abdullah and Gordon are expected to build the strongest of them, and they may emerge as the Big Ten's best hopes for a Heisman Trophy now that Braxton Miller is out of the picture with a season-ending shoulder surgery.
But even if the Ohio State senior had been around this season, the quarterback might have had a hard time stealing some attention during what's shaping up as a callback to the league's tradition with one more Year of the Running Back.
"The Big Ten, we're known for running the ball, and when you can take pressure off the quarterback by giving the rock to the running back, that's a good feeling," Gordon said. "And we've got a lot of good running backs in the Big Ten -- it's not just me and Ameer.
"I think there are some other guys that need some praise as well. There are some good backs we have in this conference, and they'll be heard sooner or later."
There's still plenty of opportunities to make a little noise as a tailback in the Big Ten. And the league has a long list of guys ready to make some racket.
Game of the Week: Wisconsin vs. LSU
Our writers all picked LSU to beat Wisconsin, but some had a harder time with the pick than others.
Brian Bennett: Wisconsin has a real chance here at the upset. Week 1 is definitely the time to catch LSU this season, as the Tigers will be breaking in a slew of new players and have some major question marks at quarterback. Of course, you could say those same things about the Badgers, who will be counting on basically a brand-new defensive front seven, several unproven receivers and a new starting QB in Tanner McEvoy. Wisconsin's running game is the great equalizer, especially if that ground attack shortens the game and springs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement for big plays. Asking either side to play mistake-free is a bit much for an opener involving so many fresh faces. In the end, LSU has more explosiveness to overcome its errors and exploit Wisconsin's, so the Tigers win by a touchdown.
Austin Ward: Openers can be sloppy enough on their own, let alone debuts with uncertainty at quarterback and the expectation that two guys will be needed to fill that critical role. Both teams have some questions under center, but it seems much more dangerous to be unsettled and unproven when taking on a loaded defense such as LSU's. Wisconsin has running backs Gordon and Clement lining up behind a veteran offensive line to provide a rushing attack to lean on, but if it becomes a one-dimensional offense against the Tigers, aggressive defensive coordinator John Chavis will turn his athletic, physical unit loose and there will be no escape in Houston.
Majority opinion: Penn State over UCF
This was the only game our writers disagreed on. Austin Ward, Mitch Sherman and Adam Rittenberg liked the Nittany Lions, while Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer took the Knights.
Josh Moyer: The Nittany Lions have too many question marks -– and too much that still needs to improve -– to be favored right now. What’s Penn State’s main weakness? The offensive line. So what’s one thing it's going to count on to offset that? The passing game. Well, Central Florida’s secondary has a chance to be elite. And overall, UCF might boast the best defense in the AAC. On the other side of the ball, the Knights may be without quarterback Blake Bortles this season, but they still have a loaded receiving corps with J.J. Worton, Rannell Hall and Breshad Perriman. Penn State's secondary, especially the corner spot opposite Jordan Lucas, could struggle against this kind of offense. PSU hangs tough but falls in the end 28-20.
Adam Rittenberg: The oddities surrounding this game favor Penn State, which is tougher to prepare for with a new coaching staff. UCF's veteran defensive line and George O'Leary's play-calling prowess worry me, but I see PSU exploiting some matchup advantages (Jesse James vs. anybody) with a superior quarterback and hitting on some big plays. Expect improvement on Penn State's defense, which limits a UCF offense missing Bortles and Storm Johnson.
Our writers agreed on the following:
Minnesota over Eastern Illinois
Washington State over Rutgers
Michigan State over Jacksonville State
Indiana over Indiana State
Iowa over Northern Iowa
Michigan over Appalachian State
Purdue over Western Michigan
Ohio State over Navy
Illinois over Youngstown State
Maryland over James Madison
Northwestern over Cal
Nebraska over FAU
LSU over Wisconsin
Mitch Sherman: Not much else of great intrigue on the opening-week schedule, but Ohio State-Navy is worth a look, with the attention swirling around the debut of Buckeyes freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Midshipmen are no pushover, but the Buckeyes own enough of an edge in athleticism to take care of business. Because of its strange offseason, Northwestern is interesting, even against Cal, which was dismal last season. And for entertainment value, Rutgers’ Big Ten debut Thursday night against Washington State may rank high. The Scarlet Knights need to limit the Cougars' possessions and get off the field on third down -- or watch Wazzu quarterback Connor Halliday light them up with 65 to 70 pass attempts.
That generosity is greatly appreciated, and tearing into a pair of games tonight with Minnesota and Rutgers both opening the season two days before the weekend is a gift worth treasuring.
But what about during the season? Once football is finally back and the season is in full swing, suddenly making it through just one week without any action starts to feel like an interminable wait. Would it be so bad to mix in a few Thursday nights once league play starts?
“Our program, a lot of the notoriety we’ve achieved over the last decade has been on Thursday night,” Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood said. “We’ve had some really special evenings on Thursday nights here in Piscataway, and we’ve played some great games on the road.
“You know, I try not to get involved in decisions that really are going to be the same for everybody. I think for our program here at Rutgers, Thursday night has been a really good night. But going into the future here in the Big Ten, we’re looking forward to it and playing games on Saturday afternoons. I think there’s a lot of plusses to that as well.”
The broadcast exposure on an evening with less competition can be an invaluable plus, though, and Rutgers might know that better than anybody else given their experiences before moving into the Big Ten this season. Now even in a league with a much higher profile, the program might find that kind of spotlight much harder to come by on Saturday afternoons.
The Scarlet Knights aren’t alone in that regard. Indiana might not be a huge national draw on Saturdays, but its high-scoring offense could draw a few more viewers for a Thursday night matchup with say, Maryland, which may enjoy the chance to showcase its program in front of a broader audience dying to watch a game.
There are hurdles to be sure, starting with the Big Ten’s fondness for tradition and the resistance it would surely meet from powerhouse programs like Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State who have established brands and large stadiums that don’t need unique kickoff times to help draw a crowd. But aside from exceptions early in the year like tonight for the Big Ten, in some ways it seems like the league has simply conceded a potentially marquee marketing opportunity among the power conferences to the Pac-12 (Arizona at Oregon, UCLA at Arizona State), Big 12 (Texas Tech at Oklahoma State) and ACC (Florida State at Louisville).
Maybe the Big Ten simply doesn’t need it. Truthfully, as a league it probably doesn’t since it obviously isn’t hurting financially, there haven’t been any complaints about the television ratings and it’s already adjusted for a busier Saturday schedule that now includes two extra teams by allowing for more flexibility with night kickoffs.
But for individual programs, there’s almost certainly a benefit to scheduling on an off night every once in a while. Sometimes waiting a whole week is just too much time without football, and by Thursday night, fans are ready to watch just about anybody put on the pads.
Odds are, there are a few teams in the league that would be willing to sign up for that spot.
- The battle for field position will be critical for Rutgers when it opens tonight against Washington State. Quarterback Gary Nova will have more responsibilities at the line of scrimmage under offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen.
- Mitch Leidner wants to "win for the state of Minnesota," and the quarterback's first shot at it this season comes tonight against Eastern Illinois. The Gophers are trying to find ways to fill up the student section again.
- After four long years in reserve, linebacker Mylan Hicks finally finds himself in position to contribute for Michigan State and sits atop the depth chart, bracketed with Darien Harris.
- USC transfer Ty Isaac had his medical hardship waiver denied, but that decision will be appealed by Michigan, which is still trying to get him on the field this fall.
- Penn State was greeted with a little Irish weather on the practice field, but James Franklin had no complaints.
- Maryland has depth at nose tackle, and it will play both Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo against James Madison.
- The Ohio State depth chart has "or" all over it, but Steve Miller will definitely be starting in place of the suspended Noah Spence on Saturday.
- What kind of numbers is Shane Wynn capable of posting this season as he becomes the focal point of the Indiana offense?
- Derek Landisch returned to practice for Wisconsin on Wednesday, and the senior linebacker expects to be ready for the clash with LSU this weekend.
- Iowa has a loaded stable of tailbacks at its disposal, but that still doesn't mean Kirk Ferentz is comfortable with his running game.
- Junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell is helping to ease some of the minds that were worried when Nebraska lost nickelback Charles Jackson for the season during training camp.
- Should Northwestern be worried about Cal's offense? These numbers suggest the Wildcats should be fine.
- As the opener ahead of a season that could make or break Tim Beckman's career with Illinois draws near, the coach is exuding confidence his team can "take the next stride."
- Purdue is offering free tickets to students for the opener.
- Can't wait to get to Byrd Stadium and try this bad boy. Who's hungry?
The toughest part of predicting the order of finish is figuring out the jumble atop the West. I think Nebraska has the most talent but the hardest schedule, while Wisconsin and Iowa are pretty equal. In the end, I see the Badgers as a team that will continue to improve throughout the course of the year and will benefit from its backloaded schedule. I think Gary Andersen's team beats Nebraska at home and Iowa on the road, making up for a pair of early conference losses and winning the division tiebreaker over the Hawkeyes to set up a rematch of the inaugural Big Ten championship game versus Michigan State.
With Braxton Miller's season-ending injury, the East basically explains itself. The Spartans are the new favorite … or, depending on your point of view, remain the easy favorite. A new defensive coordinator in Indiana gives me hope that the Hoosiers' offense marching downfield won't just be a futile exercise, and Rutgers? Well, maybe next year, kid. The West is much, much trickier -- and the three top teams all have their own question marks. What kind of passing offense and front seven will Wisconsin have? Can Iowa overcome three departed linebackers? How's Nebraska's secondary? I have more faith in Tommy Armstrong than Tanner McEvoy, and I'm picking Randy Gregory for the B1G defensive player of the year. So, while it's a toss-up, I'm still comfortable sticking with Nebraska.
It's never easy making the won-loss records match up and I'm sure I'll be wrong about a lot of this. I see the parity in the West Division playing out as Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin will beat up on one another. It's not easy to run the table in league play two years in a row, but Ohio State did it in 2012 and 2013 and Michigan State will repeat in 2013 and 2014. I see Indiana squeaking into a bowl game and Illinois falling just shy. Ohio State starts off strong but stumbles twice in league play, while new league members Maryland and Rutgers both go through some growing pains in their Big Ten debuts.
Injuries happen. But when they happen in August, injuries jumble predicted standings. Since we first ranked the Big Ten teams early this month, much has changed. The loss of Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller pushed Michigan State, for me, past the Buckeyes. And in the West Division, Nebraska's key defensive losses -- linebacker Michael Rose and nickel cornerback Charles Jackson are out for the year with injuries -- knocked the Huskers down a notch to third. The best candidate for team most likely to drive its fans crazy? How about Iowa. I've got the Hawkeyes with three Big Ten losses -- at Maryland, at Minnesota and to Northwestern -- with November wins over Wisconsin and the Nebraska. Look for Notre Dame to go 3-0 against the Big Ten. And curious about the lone wins for Rutgers and Purdue? I'm taking the Scarlet Knights over Penn State and the Boilermakers to beat Northwestern.
With just two horses to pick from and one now dealing with a significant injury at the game's most important position, handicapping the East was a relatively straightforward proposition. Good luck with the West, though, since that battle has the potential to go down to the final weekend with multiple teams fighting for a berth in the title game. With each potential candidate having some minor flaws to pick on, trying to figure out which might be most easily overcome is the biggest chore heading into the opener, but Wisconsin's dynamic combination of tailbacks should allow it to weather any growing pains at quarterback once the conference season begins. It won't, however, be enough to get past the Spartans for the league crown as Mark Dantonio's program is set to go back to back once it gets past a wounded Ohio State on Nov. 8 for the East title.
Yes, that Big Ten, often criticized for its conservative nature -- the league slow to stage night games late in the season or play on Thursday nights, the same Big Ten that’s reluctant to pit foes early in the fall when mismatches abound and the fans crave meaningful football.
That Big Ten is leading the way this year in playing neutral-site games. Starting with Rutgers-Washington State on Thursday in Seattle -- if that doesn’t scream Big Ten, nothing does -- league schools will play in five of eight neutral-site games nationally early this season.
On Saturday, you’ve got Penn State-Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland, Ohio State-Navy in Baltimore and Wisconsin-LSU in Houston. Notre Dame and Purdue play in Indianapolis on Sept. 13.
The Big Ten has officially embraced a college football trend popularized by the Southeastern Conference. Dare we say, the Big Ten is doing it better than any other league this year?
And even if not, Big Ten teams are trying hard to reach new audiences and tap fertile recruiting grounds. It counts for something.
Forget, for a moment, the financial ramifications. Yes, the neutral-site games can be profitable. Some offer payouts in excess of $5 million, which can equal the revenue lost from a home game, considering that the neutral-site pairings don’t require a road game in return.
But it’s about more than money.
Indirectly, everything about scheduling involves money. By playing games outside of their comfort zones, though, Big Ten programs illustrate that they want to grow their brands. They show that they’re not content with bundles of TV-generated cash and underachieving reputations.
“The kids should walk out of there with a big-time experience,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said of the Badgers’ showdown on Saturday night.
His program receives $2 million for the game.
Kickoff is set for 9 p.m. ET on ESPN, competing for viewers with Florida State-Oklahoma State at 8 p.m. ET on ABC from Arlington, Texas.
These are big-time draws, especially a week before the NFL regular season hogs attention.
Next year, the Badgers face Alabama in the Cowboys Classic. In two years, LSU visits Lambeau Field in Green Bay for the Wisconsin rematch.
Here’s to more neutral-site games in the Big Ten region. Illinois and Northwestern have tested pro stadiums in Chicago and figure to go back, but how about Nebraska or Michigan, Iowa or Michigan State at other venues easily accessible to their fans?
Keep thinking big, Big Ten.
One day before kickoff, let’s go around the league…
- Linebacker Jake Ryan, a Michigan captain in 2013, supports the decision of coach Brady Hoke to postpone an announcement this year until the end of the season. Derrick Green is the Wolverines’ top running back.
- Keep an eye on Rutgers tight end Tyler Croft. Washington State will be watching him.
- Michigan State’s first opponent, Jacksonville State, might provide a preview for the Spartans’ second foe.
- Braxton Miller had surgery. And it went well.
- Maryland features depth at running back.
- Expectations soar for Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld.
- Keys for Penn State in Ireland.
- How to measure progress at Purdue this fall.
- The long offseason is almost over for Northwestern.
- One night last season changed everything for David Cobb.
- Iowa running back Damon Bullock, bypassed last year, has worked his way back in line for carries.
- A key for Illinois? Develop a few dominant defensive linemen.
- Nebraska expects a big year from punter Sam Foltz.
- Wisconsin’s Derek Watt, younger brother of J.J., is set to help the Badgers at multiple spots.
You were made for this, they told him. We wouldn't want anyone else back there.
As Armstrong, now a 20-year-old sophomore, prepares to start on Saturday at home against Florida Atlantic, the roles have reversed after an offseason of transformation for the quarterback.
"He talks more," senior I-back Ameer Abdullah said. "He talks a lot now. He actually talks too much."
Armstrong went 7-1 as a starter last season. Still, his inexperience showed. Backup Ron Kellogg III saved Armstrong with a Hail Mary to beat Northwestern and replaced him early in Nebraska's win at Penn State. Armstrong struggled to find consistency, completing 51.9 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions.
But he created a foundation. Over the past eight months, Armstrong has continued to build upon a solid finish to his rookie year -- a Gator Bowl victory over Georgia -- by developing into a trusted leader of the Nebraska offense, according to coaches and teammates.
"Being the leader on the team," Armstrong said, "you have to be able to talk to your teammates just like they expect you to."
So when Armstrong strays from the correct path, he said, he expects Abdullah or senior left guard Jake Cotton or receiver Kenny Bell to set him straight. And when one of them needs help, Armstrong won't hesitate to speak up.
"At the end of the day, we are all family," he said, "and we are all teammates. If one person is down and out, everybody is going to be the same way. You just have go out there and do your job."
Armstrong's plan for 2014 success involved eliminating the domino effect of mistakes. As a freshman, he said, an error often led to others.
His top area of improvement this month in preseason camp? Moving the chains, he said. He's more likely to find the open man on a short route when he would have misfired downfield last year.
Teammates have noticed.
"I'm really proud of the kid," Cotton said. "He's come a long way."
Abdullah, a senior and the nation's top returning rusher, chides Armstrong jokingly for his more vocal presence. Really, Abdullah likes the quarterback's maturity. Abdullah said the offseason work has paid off nicely.
"He understand the plays much better, so he throws to where his windows," Abdullah said. "He's much quicker. He understands where people are going to be, which coverages to play away from, and he's hitting lanes much quicker, which is really critical as a quarterback in this offense."
All the talk means little before Saturday, said Armstrong, who has dropped about 10 pounds from last season to a playing weight of 215 and feels stronger.
"I am expected to do what I have been doing all spring and fall," he said. "And that is to put these guys in the right position to win some football games."
Don't ignore new quarterbacks like Wes Lunt and Tanner McEvoy, or newcomer defenders like Jabrill Peppers and Jihad Ward, but the real gauge for some teams will take place in the trenches. There are several revamped lines in the Big Ten that will be under the microscope in Week 1.
Let's take a look:
Wisconsin defensive line versus LSU (in Houston): The Badgers will start three new players up front -- ends Chikwe Obasih and Konrad Zagzebski, and tackle Warren Herring -- against talented Tigers running backs Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and Leonard Fournette, the decorated incoming freshman. Herring and Zabzekbski have five combined career starts, while Obasih, a redshirt freshman, makes his debut on a huge stage.
"I really feel that in the pass rush aspect and in the containing the quarterback aspect, we are a little bit more athletic and we have a little bit more speed," defensive coordinator Dave Aranda told me last week.
Penn State offensive line versus UCF (in Dublin, Ireland): Only one healthy starter (tackle Donovan Smith) returns for PSU's line, which has heard all about its depth issues throughout the offseason. The group will be tested right away by a UCF defense that returns nine starters, including the entire line. You can bet Knights coach George O'Leary will put Penn State's line under duress from the onset.
Ohio State offensive line versus Navy (in Baltimore): Like Penn State, Ohio State brings back just one line starter (tackle Taylor Decker) from last year, and the unit's task became a lot tougher after the season-ending loss of quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes' new-look front must protect freshman signal caller J.T. Barrett and create some running room against a smaller Navy defensive line.
Northwestern defensive line versus Cal: Both Wildcat lines have question marks entering the season, but the defensive front enters the spotlight after dealing with injuries throughout the offseason. Veteran defensive tackle Sean McEvilly (foot) is out for the season, and tackles Greg Kuhar and C.J. Robbins will get an opportunity to assert themselves against a Cal offense that racked up 549 yards against Northwestern in last year's game.
Purdue offensive line versus Western Michigan: The Boilers simply weren't strong enough up front in 2013 and couldn't move the ball for much of the season. They should be better on the interior with center Robert Kugler leading the way. This is a great chance for Purdue to start strong against a Western Michigan defense that ranked 118th nationally against the run in 2013.
Michigan offensive line versus Appalachian State: This isn't the Appalachian State team that shocked Michigan in 2007, but the Wolverines need to gain cohesion and confidence up front and with their run game. After a lot of line shuffling in camp, Michigan tries to get backs Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith going in the opener before a Week 2 trip to Notre Dame.
To the links ...
- Some bad news for Iowa's defensive line, as tackle Darian Cooper posts that he had season-ending surgery.
- Prove-it time has arrived for Nebraska's supposedly improved defense.
- It's Mitch Leidner's show at Minnesota, and that's a very good thing, Chip Scoggins writes.
- Melvin Gordon spills the beans about Wisconsin's not-so secret starting quarterback. Coach Gary Andersen expects both signal callers to play this fall. A former Badgers recruit is sentenced to a year in jail for sexual assault.
- Illinois could use its two backup quarterbacks as wide receivers.
- After two pick-sixes last year against Cal, Northwestern linebacker Collin Ellis aims for an encore against the Bears.
- The Gold & Black staff weighs in on a simple but important question: Will Purdue be better?
- Michigan isn't electing captains until after the season. The Wolverines and Nebraska are on Jeremy Fowler's list of sneaky playoff contenders.
- Ohio State still has at least four starting spots up for grabs this week.
- Notes and nuggets from Penn State's coordinators before the team departs for Ireland.
- Indiana has implemented an NFL-style tackling system to help its defenders.
- Spartan Stadium gets a facelift.
- A closer look at Maryland's Week 1 depth chart.
- Dan Duggan lists 10 under-the-radar Rutgers players to watch this season.
That's what Cleveland.com's Doug Lesmerises basically said after Braxton Miller's injury. He annually conducts the only thing close to a preseason Big Ten poll by asking beat writers around the league to pick their order of finish for the season.
When that poll came out in July, Ohio State was the overwhelming favorite over defending champion Michigan State, earning 19 of a possible 29 votes. But Lesmerises asked the writers to vote again after learning Miller was lost for the season. And what a difference that news made.
In the new poll, released earlier today, 22 of 25 voters (four from the original poll didn't respond to his request) now pick Michigan State as the Big Ten champion. Ohio State received just one vote, while Nebraska and Michigan tallied one each as well.
It's no big surprise, as the Buckeyes' odds to win the league and the national title have plummeted in sports books since the Miller news broke. But now we have something close to an official poll telling us that the Spartans are now your 2014 Big Ten favorite. As some would argue they should have been all along.
With the season about to begin, let's take at a few teams outside the top expected Big Ten contenders (Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska) who could get off to fast starts in 2014:
1. Michigan: Does Michigan have issues? Yes. Have the Wolverines underachieved for a while now? Check. But if things break right, the Wolverines could wind up building some early momentum, the way they did in opening 6-0 in the Sugar Bowl season of 2011.
The Notre Dame game on the road in Week 2 is challenging, but the Fighting Irish have some serious problems of their own right now. Michigan plays four of its first five games at home and then opens conference play at league newbie Rutgers. A 6-0 record when Penn State comes calling under the lights on Oct. 11 is certainly possible.
2. Penn State: Assuming the Icelandic volcano doesn't wreck the opener, the Nittany Lions will be in for a tussle against UCF in Ireland on Saturday. But if they get past that one, the path opens up a bit with games against Akron, at Rutgers, UMass and Northwestern. A 5-0 Penn State vs. a 6-0 Michigan? Dare to dream.
3. Minnesota: The Gophers have that key game at TCU in Week 3, but the rest of the nonconference schedule reads like this: Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee and San Jose State at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota opens Big Ten play at Michigan but then has Northwestern, Purdue and at Illinois. A second straight hot start might be in the cards for the Gophers, who went 4-0 and then 8-2 last season.
4. Purdue: OK, we're talking relativity here. With this week's opener against Western Michigan, a team that like the Boilermakers only won one game last season, Purdue could snap its 12-game losing streak against FBS opponents. Central Michigan and Southern Illinois give Darrell Hazell's team a chance to triple its 2013 win total before the end of September.
"It's huge," Hazell told me last month about the importance of getting off to a good start. "Because you can always ask one question: which comes first, the confidence or the success? Right now, our guys are walking around with some confidence, but I think it's really important for us to have some early success."
- Expectations have tumbled for Ohio State since Braxton Miller's injury.
- An unproven set of receivers is ready to step up for Rutgers.
- Indiana enters a crossroads season.
- Lawrence Thomas, a former can't-miss recruit, is still looking for his breakthrough at Michigan State. Ten predictions for the Spartans in 2014.
- Devin Gardner has matured and looks ready to lead Michigan this fall. Season predictions for the Wolverines.
- Some key questions for Penn State as the season approaches.
- A pair of Maryland regulars face assault charges.
- Ameer Abdullah is beyond ready for his final go-round with Nebraska. The 2014 season could be different for the Cornhuskers, but Tom Shatel says he'll believe it when he sees it.
- Wisconsin receiver Reggie Love has come on strong after an honest talk with head coach Gary Andersen this offseason. Year 2 of the Andersen era should look a lot different than last season, Tom Oates writes.
- Trevor Siemian has stepped forward as Northwestern's leader.
- Can the Iowa passing game make significant progress?
- A look back at Minnesota's upset of Nebraska last year and how it can help the Gophers going forward.
- Tim Beckman's seat is undeniably warm entering the 2014 season.
- Purdue looks for a fresh start.
Be sure to follow my new Twitter handle (@ESPNRittenberg).
Let's begin ...
I'm your bagman today. Season's less than a week away. Horses like hay, OK? Be sure to follow my new Twitter handle (@ESPNRittenberg). Let's begin ...
Adam Rittenberg: Great question, Michael. The immediate response is to say Michigan State beating Oregon on the road. Oregon is a popular pick to make the playoff. It has a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback in Marcus Mariota and plays in one of the loudest, craziest, most hostile environments -- at least for the road team -- in college football. A MSU win would be huge both for the Spartans and the Big Ten. But you can't discount the Wisconsin-LSU game for this simple reason: It's against the SEC. The Big Ten's reputation issues stem in large part because of the SEC's success and the Big Ten's inability to beat the SEC in big games. The two leagues are richer and more popular (by far) than the others. So a win against the SEC, in essentially a road game in Houston, would be big for Wisconsin and the Big Ten. I'll ultimately go with Michigan State beating Oregon, but not by much. Both games are huge for the league.
@ESPNRittenberg With the reputation of the Big Ten being what it is, which non-con game is the most critical for the conference to win?— Michael Blum (@MichaelBlum3) August 22, 2014
Adam Rittenberg: To be clear, Justin is referring to Nebraska, not Northwestern. I think the rankings aren't based mainly on a perceived talent differential. Wisconsin and Nebraska have similar talent, and you can make a case the 2014 Huskers will be the more talented team as Wisconsin says goodbye to an exceptional senior class. But Wisconsin has had a slightly better track record than Nebraska in the past 15 years. The Badgers have won league championships and always seem to be in the title mix. Nebraska has been close under Bo Pelini, but can't get past the four-loss thing. The big difference between the teams, regardless of preseason ranking, is the schedule. Nebraska plays a division crossover at Michigan State. Wisconsin misses Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. The Badgers also host Nebraska, which also must visit Iowa and a Northwestern team it has struggled to beat the last two years.
@ESPNRittenberg I see a lot of preseason rankings having Wisconsin ahead of NU do u think it has more to do with NU's past season or talent?— Justin (@SsGSmittyJ) August 22, 2014
Adam Rittenberg: There's virtually no chance he'll be back, Jeff. Melvin Gordon returned this year with the understanding that it would be his last as a Badger. He knows it and the coaches know it. Perhaps a major injury would cause him to return, but even then -- and perhaps because of an injury -- he likely would want to begin his pro career, given the short shelf-life for running backs in the NFL. Gordon wants to lead Wisconsin to the next level and hopes to do it this season. He'll obviously be disappointed if the Badgers don't win the Big Ten and/or make the playoff. But he also has to think about his future, which should begin in the NFL in 2015.
@ESPNRittenberg if UW has a good year, maybe 10-2, but Gordon doesn't win the heisman, any chance he comes back? Bama would be on '15 sched— Heff Jurda (@JeffHurdaCow) August 22, 2014
"We got after 'em pretty good after we got back from the bowl game," Kill told ESPN.com. "I think it was a wake-up call."
One of the players who answered that call the loudest was senior safety Cedric Thompson, who felt those same hunger pains Kill talked about. What stuck out to him about 2013 wasn't the 8-2 start but the 0-3 finish. Minnesota was actually in the Legends Division title chase before losing back-to-back games to Wisconsin and at Michigan State.
"It was so sickening to see how close we were last year," Thompson said. "I'm tired of people saying the Gophers are this close or that close."
Thompson told Kill right after the bowl that he wanted to be a captain this year, and that he was going to "make sure nobody slacks off."
"I feel like we didn't hold each other accountable last year during the summer, spring and even in practice during the season," Thompson said. "We worked hard, but when somebody did something wrong, we didn’t hold them to the standard we wanted."
Thompson took that responsibility on himself this offseason. He was never afraid to chew out a teammate if he saw something he didn't like. Kill, in turn, says Thompson is "the best leader on the defensive side that we've had since we've been here."
That internal leadership -- with quarterback Mitch Leidner playing a key role on the offensive side -- is one of the reasons the Gophers' staff is so excited about its 2014 prospects.
"That's what happened for us at Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois," Kill said, referring to his staff's previous successful tenures. "When the players start holding themselves accountable, that's when you’ve got a chance."
We'll see how much that makes a difference for Minnesota very soon. The Gophers will be the first Big Ten team to take the field this season when they host Eastern Illinois -- and FCS quarterfinalist last year -- on Thursday night at 7 ET.
- An Indiana wide receiver was suspended after he got involved in an early-morning scuffle.
- Maryland kicker Brad Craddock is taking his game up a notch.
- Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner is doing more pre-snap reads now and, surprisingly, says he never read a "mike" (or middle linebacker) before Doug Nussmeier showed up.
- Michigan State has sympathy for Braxton Miller. The Spartans named their captains -- Kurtis Drummond, Travis Jackson and Shilique Calhoun -- as well as a pair of defensive starters.
- Ohio State believes it can still win the Big Ten championship without Miller.
- James Franklin was a hit at his first Penn State radio show.
- Rutgers got a commitment from Paul James' younger brother.
- The combo of Wes Lunt and Bill Cubit makes for an intriguing team at Illinois.
- Dallas Clark sizes up the latest crop of Iowa tight ends.
- Minnesota's left tackle and top returning wide receiver are ailing right now.
- A final camp stock report on Nebraska.
- Northwestern says it has better team unity, but will that lead to more wins?
- A Purdue season preview.
- Vonte Jackson's career is over, Wisconsin will go with a freshman kicker and more Badgers notes.