<
>

B1G mailbag: New West Division favorite? Curtis Samuel 1K/1K?

It's time for another Big Ten mailbag. As always, you can tweet me your questions or email longer ones to ESPNBigTenMailbag@gmail.com.

What ya got?

Brian Bennett: The loss of Matt VandeBerg to a foot injury is a big hit. He has been the team's leading receiver since the start of last season and is the go-to guy for C.J. Beathard. Without him, the Hawkeyes are going to have to find other ways to move the ball, which they haven't had much success doing since halftime of the North Dakota State game. They simply have to get the running game going.

Like many, I picked Iowa to win the West Division before the preseason, but it's pretty clear to me that Wisconsin and Nebraska are better right now. And Minnesota, my sleeper pick, is lurking. Here's the thing, though: The Badgers and Cornhuskers must come to Iowa City and Iowa's toughest crossover game -- Michigan -- is also at Kinnick Stadium. Meanwhile, Wisconsin plays at Michigan and vs. Ohio State its next two games, and Nebraska still has to go to Columbus.

So there's a long way to go, and Iowa still has several advantages in this race. It just has to get back to playing Iowa football.

Brian Bennett: Given that the Huskers lost to Illinois and Purdue last year -- how weird is that to think about? -- I doubt any players or coaches will overlook those teams. Nebraska gets both those games at home, too, and is simply much better than either the Illini or Boilermakers. If Mike Riley's team can keep playing the way it has been, especially in avoiding turnovers, it shouldn't have much trouble in either of those games.

The Indiana road game is a bit more intriguing because of the Hoosiers' offensive firepower. On the other hand, Tommy Armstrong and the Nebraska rushing attack could have a huge day in Bloomington. There's a great chance for the Huskers to get to 7-0.

Brian Bennett: That's an interesting question.

Samuel is at 260 rushing yards and 259 receiving yards right now, numbers that would put him on pace for more than 1,000 in both over 13 games (and Ohio State could play 14 or 15 if it makes the College Football Playoff). How impressive would that be? Only two players in NFL history -- over 16 games, mind you -- have ever even done it: Marshall Faulk and Craig James. Urban Meyer has said Samuel is the best fit he's had at Ohio State for the H-back role, sometimes referred to as the Percy Harvin position. In Harvin's best year for Meyer at Florida, in 2007, he had 764 rushing yards and 858 receiving yards.

The odds are against Samuel doing it because he'd not only have to stay healthy and highly productive, but defenses will start to key on him more in Big Ten play. But the fact we're even talking about it tells you what a talent he is. And if he does manage to get to those numbers, don't we have to start talking about him as a serious Heisman Trophy candidate?

Brian Bennett: I'm not sure there's a whole lot of room for the defense to improve. The Badgers are allowing just 11.8 points per game and didn't let Michigan State inside their 20-yard line until the final few seconds last week. Justin Wilcox's crew has been spectacular.

But offensively? Yeah, there's definitely room for improvement. The offensive line has had to shuffle around, with former walk-on Brett Connors making his first career start at center last week. Corey Clement hasn't been 100 percent for a while. Wisconsin is averaging only 3.9 yards per carry, and while some of that is from playing the likes of LSU and Michigan State, that can definitely -- and needs to -- get better. And don't forget that quarterback Alex Hornibrook should continue to grow with experience.

Will it be enough to beat Michigan and/or Ohio State? That's the big question. But what Wisconsin has already done despite injury problems is mighty impressive.

Anthony M. writes: If Malik Hooker continues his dominance this season, do you expect him to declare early for the NFL draft?

Brian Bennett: It feels like the Ohio State safety has just come into our lives, but he's a redshirt sophomore and thus eligible for the draft next spring. I can't claim to know his future intentions, especially at this point. But he certainly looks like a first- or second-round talent to me. Though he could use more game experience, Hooker likely will have a lot of NFL teams hoping he leaves school early this winter.

Brian Bennett: Any Big Ten team that goes undefeated will make the playoff, regardless of schedule. See: Iowa 2015.

But, yeah, that's crazy.