Coming back at you with another mailbag. Bring it:
Husker fan from St Louis writes: The Big Ten's 2014 pre-bowl perception will be largely base on the nonconference games you ranked Tuesday 1 to 14. What kind of record does the Big Ten need to fare favorably? What key games are must wins for perception? What's your prediction for the Big Ten's record in those games?
Brian Bennett: It's not just perception on the line but also the Big Ten's chances of getting a team in the College Football Playoff. The view of a 12-1 Big Ten champion would be greatly enhanced if the league scored several key out-of-conference wins. Conversely, the league could find itself shut out if the nonconference performance suffers.
The two most important games, obviously, are Michigan State at Oregon in Week 2 and Wisconsin vs. LSU in the opener. Of course, the Big Ten entry figures to be a significant underdog in those games. Of the top 14 listed, I see two other matchups where the Big Ten team should be a sizeable underdog: Illinois at Washington and Indiana at Missouri. The league should be favored to win the following matchups:
Ohio State vs. Virginia Tech, Navy and Cincinnati
Iowa vs. Iowa State and (possibly) at Pitt
Nebraska vs. Miami
Most of the other games are likely toss-ups, or close to it, on paper. The league needs to win more than its fair share and can't have a team like Ohio State or Nebraska lose a game it is supposed to win, especially at home. Even competitive games but close losses by Michigan State and Wisconsin would not necessarily be a bad thing if the conference takes care of business elsewhere. And doing well against Notre Dame always helps keep the critics at bay.
Glenn K. from Siesta Key writes: Brian, it's almost going beyond annoying to being funny that year after year you, Adam and other so-called "experts" continue to pick OSU as the favorite to either win the division or the B1G title outright. Yet, each year they choke in the big games where it really counts or win their division by default. You even mentioned the question marks about some position groups for the 2014 season, yet you justify them by saying that Saint Urban is their coach, which makes everything OK. Stop riding his shirt tails from the national championships he won at Florida, playing a lot of questionable recruits. What has he really done in Ohio, except go undefeated with Jim Tressel's recruits?
Brian Bennett: Funny, huh? I assume you're trolling here, Glenn. Because you do realize, I hope, that Ohio State has won the division in each of the past two years, and I don't think going 12-0 in two straight regular seasons involves any kind of default. And surely you're aware that between 2002 and 2010, the Buckeyes won or shared the league championship seven times and captured five BCS bowl victories. Ohio State gets too much grief for its back-to-back losses in the national title game (when no other Big Ten team ever made it that far in the BCS era) and not enough credit for its big bowl wins. To be clear, I haven't yet officially picked anybody to win the East Division or Big Ten title in 2014, and I may or may not wind up picking the Buckeyes. But based on recent track record alone, they make for a very safe choice.
Truman from Chicago writes: You wrote: "Ohio State is officially the odds-on favorite to win the Big Ten title at 1-to-1. It's interesting that the Buckeyes are such favorites despite so many question marks, including offensive line, running back, receiver and defensive back seven. But the faith in Urban Meyer is strong." Or is it that Vegas believes the rest of the league is really that bad? I have a hard time seeing anyone other than Ohio State in the Top 25 at the end of the season. Yes, even Michigan State could be a letdown. After the early loss to Oregon the Spartans will be prime upset candidates. So does the Big Ten getting to the playoff rely on Michigan State beating Oregon?
Brian Bennett: You guys are downers today. No one besides Ohio State in the Top 25? That's just silly. Even in a relatively down year like 2012, the Big Ten had four teams finish in the Top 25. Let's be realistic here. Michigan State is a legitimately good team and will be fine regardless of the outcome in Eugene. Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa and others are also prime candidates to not only win the league but finish ranked. And there are several others who could jump up.
Ohio State's odds, I believe, are influenced at least a little by its name brand. Remember that the Vegas guys set odds hoping to get you to bet money; they know that there are a ton of Buckeyes fans roaming around and that casual fans recognize the Urban Meyer factor. Teams like Michigan State and Iowa are a little undervalued right now. Hint, hint.
Dave in the 740 writes: It's my contention that the B1G screwed up by going to an East-West setup and not a North-South setup. Look at what a North-South setup could look like:
North: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern and Purdue.
South: Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers.
This setup would allay most of Nebraska's concerns, as well as a number of others. It would get them annual games with Penn State and Ohio State (as an Ohio State follower, I wonder why they would want to play a program in decline like Michigan, but whatever). It would also set up annual North division rivalry games between Minnesota-Iowa (Floyd of Rosedale...the best trophy game of all time), Minnesota-Wisconsin (Paul Bunyan's Axe, tied for second best with...), Minnesota-Michigan (The Jug), Michigan-Michigan State (a budding annual classic) and maybe Northwestern-Purdue. Yes, Purdue-Indiana and Ohio State-Michigan would be protected rivalries, but so what? It would also preserve the Ohio State-Illinois Illibuck rivalry (such as it is), keep the Ohio State-Penn State series going, and allow Penn State to continue its off-and-on rivalry with Maryland (35-1-1!) and build one with Rutgers.
Brian Bennett: A couple of things here. First off, I thought it was very important -- and the league obviously agreed -- to put Ohio State and Michigan in the same division to avoid a possible rematch a week after The Game (not that the Wolverines have been all that close to going to the Big Ten title game lately, but still). I like the East-West setup because it's a lot easier to remember which schools are in the East and which are West than it is to figure out if, for example, Lincoln, Nebraska, is south of West Lafayette, Indiana.
The one difference in the current setup that I argued for was switching Michigan State to the West Division. Given the way the Spartans have played in recent years, that would have put another power in the West and potentially balanced out the divisions more. But, hey, the East-West is here the way it is, so let's see how it plays out. We can all agree it's a vast improvement over Legends and Leaders.
Rodney from Grantville, Pennsylvania, writes: Has the B1G considered scheduling crossover games based on previous year standings? If they were doing the nine-game schedule this year, MSU would have to play Wisconsin and Iowa -- same for OSU -- and on the other end Purdue would play Indiana and Rutgers, for example. This would give the B1G more marquee matchups and would also give the schools that are struggling a break from having difficult crossover games giving them more of a chance to become bowl eligible.
Brian Bennett: It's a nice idea in theory, Rodney, but college football isn't the same as the NFL. Schedules are done years in advance to give schools plenty of time to prepare and set up their nonconference schedule. It would be great if there were a little more flexibility in those schedules, but no conference does it that way. We can hope the parity scheduling idea results in good matchups down the road, but the danger of setting those in advance is that teams' fortunes can rise and fall dramatically in the intervening years.