Big Ten mailbag

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Your questions, my answers.

Danny from Philadelphia writes: My question is: is the argument about Linebacker U how good these guys are in college or in the pros? Penn State linebackers clearly dominate the college game, as seen with recent awards by Poz, Connor and maybe next year Sean Lee. No doubt, this year's USC LB corps was unbelievable, and Ohio State's with Hawk and Animal Jr. was amazing, too. I always thought the Linebacker U distinction came from college performance, not NFL. It's always nice to see a PSU player perform well in the pros, but it's the college years that we usually judge them by for that distinction. In that case, the entire argument is misleading. Penn State doesn't try to emulate a pro factory, while USC does. That much is clear, and that's the difference between the two schools. PSU is still Linebacker U in my book, since the school's defense has been anchored by stellar linebackers since Paterno took over the helm during George Washington's administration.

Adam Rittenberg: Todd McShay's story focused on college football teams that produced top-level NFL linebackers, so the Linebacker U. distinction does get a little fuzzy. Penn State undoubtedly has continued to produce decorated linebackers at the college level. Had Sean Lee been healthy last fall, Penn State might have had four consecutive Bednarik Award winners. I think you bring up a great point, Danny, about Penn State not trying to emulate a pro factory. I can't remember how many stories I read leading up to the Rose Bowl about how different the cultures were at Penn State and USC. And there certainly are differences between the two places, some that may play out on draft day. It's hard to argue with USC's recent track record of producing pro linebackers. But, as you write, if the Linebacker U. label applies to the college game, it remains with Penn State.

Charles from Parts Unknown writes: It looked to me that Ohio St and Texas were two evenly matched teams. Maybe the edge should even go to Ohio St. What was your opinion of that game?

Adam Rittenberg: For a game that most pegged as a blowout, the teams certainly looked pretty darn even to me. I saw a Texas team with a terrific quarterback but a gimmicky offense that didn't surge against a defense that actually knew how to tackle people. The irony of the game was that a missed tackle by Ohio State's Anderson Russell allowed the winning touchdown in the final minute. Ohio State hung around and put itself in position to win, though the Buckeyes' season-long offensive struggles were magnified at times.

Kris from Terre Haute, Ind., writes: As a Gophers fan, I am wondering if I should get myself excited about the direction the program is going. The new Stadium, the coaching staff, and the recent recruiting all seemingly point to positive progress for Minnesota. Am I reading the signs correctly or just fanatically letting my hopes get up?

Adam Rittenberg: I'd agree that all those things are reasons to get excited, Kris, but I would also caution Gopher Nation about expectations for this season. Minnesota could be a better team that has the same record -- or even worse -- because of a significantly harder schedule. Nonleague games against Air Force and Cal (preseason top 15) won't be easy, and both Penn State and Michigan State return to the slate. The Gophers also are changing their philosophy on offense, which may take more than a year to fully sink in. Minnesota could very well be the Big Ten's surprise team this year, or it could go 5-7 without major regression on the field.

Dan from Evanston, Ill., writes: As you probably know, this is a question that Wildcat fans talk about endlessly. What does Northwestern have to do to fill Ryan Field with purple?

Adam Rittenberg: That's the eternal question, Dan. It starts with making a much stronger effort to reach out to the Chicago market, whether it's to media members, general sports fans, businesses, etc. For far too long, Northwestern has been content to be a non-story in Chicago, an afterthought in a congested sports market. Northwestern lacks a strong local alumni presence, so it has to sell itself to those without a strong connection to the university. This is a white-collar school selling itself to a blue-collar city, which is never easy.

The good news for NU is that athletic director Jim Phillips, a Chicago native, gets it. He understands the challenge for the school but seems more willing to be creative in marketing the program. Trying to play a game at Wrigley Field is a brilliant idea, even if it doesn't pan out, just because casual Chicago sports fans are interested in the story. Also, having a football coach in Pat Fitzgerald who is from the area and connects to the Chicago market really helps.

Scott from State College, Pa., writes: Adam, who is your favorite right now to win the 2009 Big Ten Championship? While I may be slightly biased, I can't see Penn State losing this year. They do have holes to fill at WR and DB but to say that they have a favorable schedule is an understatement. 8 home games, including Iowa and Ohio State, and a joke of a non-conference slate. Your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Right now, it's between Ohio State and Penn State for me. Iowa also is in the mix, but the Hawkeyes conference road schedule (Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, Wisconsin) is simply brutal. Penn State certainly has the easiest schedule and a history of replacing standout linemen on both sides of the ball. Ohio State must travel to Happy Valley, but the Buckeyes have won 15 consecutive Big Ten road games. Other teams like Michigan State and Northwestern could sneak into the mix, but the league title once again should come down to Nov. 7 at Beaver Stadium.