Big Ten Friday mailbag

It's almost the weekend, and only three more of these without football. Use it wisely.

Don't forget that I'm hanging out in a new space on Twitter, and you can follow me here.

Now, I'm 'bout to 'bag it up:

Chasmo from Greenwich Village writes: I know you were anti-union last spring when Northwestern's players were about to vote but after writing your story about how the Big Ten football coaches want autonomy for their sport and a commissioner who will pay attention to just football all year long, can you still support coaches like Pat Fitzgerald when they make argument that Big Ten players are really students and not employees? And did you notice that, aside from agreeing to pay the players a small stipend, there wasn't a lot in your story about the need to make the lives of players better, but instead the need to make the "product" better?

Brian Bennett: I've long been an advocate of more benefits and more power for players. I just didn't think a union was necessarily the right way to go about it, or that Northwestern was exactly a great test case for abuse. What I like about autonomy is that it should clear the way quickly for Power 5 schools to offer full cost-of-attendance stipends, medical benefits and four-year scholarship guarantee. Indiana recently came out with its athlete bill of rights that, among other things, will let any former player who left in good standing resume their education for free. These aren't small benefits, especially when you consider the skyrocketing costs of higher education and health care. Current players will also have 15 seats on the 80-member voting panel for the Power 5 leagues under autonomy. At least they will have a say now.

I also love the idea by West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck that players can be compensated for their image and likenesses. Why not? Olympic athletes can get paid for endorsements, and that didn't ruin the Olympics. It would only really apply to the star athletes, as the third-string offensive guard probably isn't getting paid to do a commercial. But if he's getting free tuition, a stipend and medical care, he's still doing pretty well.

Autonomy isn't a cure-all, for sure, and it would be nice if these things had occurred without all the threats of lawsuits and unions forcing the sport's hand. But at least there is undeniable progress, at long last.

Brian Bennett: In case you missed it, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier recently said that playing East Carolina "is a lot tougher game than maybe picking up one of those bottom Big Ten teams." The Pirates are a good team, so no arguments there. But why did Spurrier pick on the Big Ten when he had plenty of examples in his own conference?

Kentucky and Arkansas both went 0-8 in the league last year. I can speak with some authority on the Wildcats and don't think they would have beaten any Big Ten team except for Purdue. Arkansas lost to Rutgers (for the second straight year). Tennessee and Florida were no great shakes, either; the Gators lost at home to Georgia Southern, and the Vols -- well, our new editor is a Tennessee fan, so I'd better shut up now.

That's the most bothersome thing, to me, about the wild, over-the-top love that is showered on the SEC. The teams at the top of that league have been great, no doubt, and much better than the cream of the crop in the Big Ten in recent years. But the teams at the bottom of the SEC somehow get credit for just breathing the same air, when they're no better than any other mediocre-to-bad FBS clubs. Bob Stoops was right.

Joshua from Minnesota writes: Who has a better chance of playing spoiler among the top favorites for the West Division title between Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin this fall: Minnesota or Northwestern?

Brian Bennett: I love this question so much that I want to take it on a moonlit walk. I view the West Division much like a horse race. (I am from Kentucky, after all.) Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin are the three favorites with the best pedigrees. Northwestern and Minnesota are the live long shots. Illinois and Purdue are just hoping to hit the board (and may need a pileup to do so).

Let's not forget that the Gophers were 8-2 at one point last year with wins over Penn State and Nebraska. Wisconsin and Michigan State had to slog their way to victories over Minnesota in the final two weeks. This is going to be a physical team with a strong defense, and if the passing game improves to where it's an actual threat, Jerry Kill's team will be a factor.

Meanwhile, Northwestern won 10 games just two years ago and, despite every bad break in the world last year, was just a few bounces away from winning eight or even nine games (the "one play away" game is a treacherous path to tread, but the Wildcats were ludicrously unlucky in 2013). Last season's collapse obscures the fact that the trend line is going up in Evanston, and Fitzgerald has recruited good athletes the past few years who could start to help that defense.

So, yeah, both are spoilers in the West. Who has a better chance of emerging as a true contender? I'd say Northwestern. While the Wildcats' schedule is not easy, Minnesota ends the season like this: Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska and at Wisconsin. That's brutal, and when you throw in a crossover game at the Big House, the Gophers have a massive hill to climb.

Charlie from Dakota Dunes, S.D., writes: Ohio State has finished the regular season undefeated that past two seasons. The Buckeyes have a realistic chance to do it again this season making it three in a row. Has any other team done that in the last 30 or 40 years? Maybe Boise State or Nebraska in the 90s? What are the chances they do start the season 12-0 again?

Brian Bennett: Nebraska went undefeated in the regular season from 1993-95, with its only loss during that time coming to Florida State in the Orange Bowl in the 1993 season. Which was followed by two straight national championships. Boise State came close, going undefeated in the regular season in 2006, 2008 and 2009. So, yes, it's extremely difficult and rare. Ohio State has a chance to do it again this year, if its young talent develops as hoped. The Buckeyes' toughest road tests will be at Michigan State and Penn State. It's hard to envision them losing any games at The 'Shoe.

The big question, of course, is whether Ohio State can win a Big Ten title and a major bowl game this year. Without those accomplishments, the three straight regular seasons will be more of a footnote than anything else.

Brian Bennett: Man, can we see at least one 2014 game first? I'm continually amazed how sports fans are constantly obsessed with what's next instead of what's right in front of them. But I'd better hurry up and answer this question so I can get back to studying St. Louis Cardinals prospect scouting reports.

A million things can change over the next 12 months, but one of the big questions to me will be who plays quarterback at Ohio State. The Buckeyes could be the favorite again given all their young talent, but is either Cardale Jones or J.T. Barrett a championship quarterback? That's a major issue. Assuming Connor Cook comes back for his senior year, Michigan State should be in great shape. Wisconsin will have another advantageous league schedule and should bring a lot of pieces back. And that's about as clear as my crystal ball gets right now.