The only thing better than Big Ten mailbags during the preseason? Big Ten mailbags during the season.
Practice has started up, and we're getting closer to kickoff. So let's try to pass some time together with some mailbag questions:
@ESPNJoshMoyer is it a bad idea for Big Ten teams to play tough non-conference games? If they lose, aren't their National Title hopes gone?— Patrick Meade (@Peart_Meade) August 5, 2014
@ESPNJoshMoyer: That's the beauty of the new college football playoff, Patrick: A single loss no longer means an almost-inevitable exit from the national title picture. As a matter of fact, strength of schedule should be more important than ever before. Don't believe me? Here's what selection committee member Tim Jernstedt had to say: "Strength of schedule will become such an important factor that if you want to be under consideration, you need to have a more meaningful schedule than perhaps you have had in previous years."
That being said, scheduling tough opponents is still a bit high-risk, high-reward -- but it makes more sense now than it ever did during the BCS era. If Oregon slips past Michigan State or LSU edges Wisconsin, neither team is out of the playoff picture. And on another positive note, by winning those kinds of games, a B1G team could make its case for a second playoff spot if it comes up short in the conference title race and the champ is more deserving. We'll have to see how it plays out this first season, to be sure. But the bottom line is this: It's better to schedule tough games now than it was before. And if you don't believe me or Jernstedt, then here's Oliver Luck reinforcing the importance of strength of schedule.
@ESPNJoshMoyer: The West is a close call with Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin. But If I had to choose today, I'd pick the Huskers to win their division. Granted, I don't think they're any better than Ohio State or Michigan State, but I do think they'll find a spot in the Big Ten title game. So I think their odds are better than most. Chalk up the presence of Ameer Abdullah as Reason No. 1.
Don't get me wrong. Just like with Iowa and Wisconsin, there's plenty to be concerned about. The offensive line returns just one starter, but at least big things are expected out of transfer Alex Lewis. The defense also has quite a few question marks, such as line depth and the secondary, but it also boasts -- in my opinion -- the best defensive player in the conference. (Do I really need to point out it's Randy Gregory?) Almost anything could happen with the top three teams in that division -- and the crown will almost certainly be won in those final three weeks. But Bo Pelini finally has some good linebackers to work with, wideout Kenny Bell returns and quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. can only get better. How will Iowa fare with a new linebacker rotation, and can Wisconsin's Joel Stave reclaim the starting job and thrive without Jared Abbrederis? Those questions worry me a bit more than the Huskers'. So it's sure to be a tight race, but I think Nebraska has a solid shot of at least making the Big Ten title game.
@espnjoshmoyer Some kind of update on the o-line please. Who's out there, what kind of push are they getting etc. please— Charles J. Malu (@charlesmalu5) August 4, 2014
@ESPNJoshMoyer: Well, since you asked nicely, Charles, I've got to answer this. Yes, I was at Penn State's practice Monday -- at least the part that was open -- and was able to see a few things first-hand. But I'm afraid I can't tell you exactly how much or how little the offensive line will struggle this season, at least based on a handful of drills.
What I can tell you is there's some obvious reason for concern -- but also that OL coach Herb Hand has been in this situation before. Left tackle Donovan Smith was wearing a powder-blue jersey (perhaps, Penn State's answer to the red jersey?) and didn't participate in some drills. Obviously, that's not good news since he's the only returning starter. Also, Wendy Laurent and projected starting RT Andrew Nelson were in the powder blues -- but still did more than Smith. Brendan Mahon can move inside or outside, and DTs-turned-OGs Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia are competing for starting jobs.
But it's not entirely bad news. Hand is undoubtedly a talented coach, and he said he faced a similar situation at Tulsa. In his first year there, Tulsa's line returned just one regular starter and Hand moved a defensive tackle over to offense. Curious how the offense fared that season? "We led the country in offense that year," Hand said. The offensive line certainly appears to be the weak link at Penn State, so it should be key in determining the Nittany Lions' success this season. Hand has this unit confident, but it'll be sink-or-swim once the conference season begins. It's worth keeping a close eye on this line until then.