Big Ten mailbag

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

This will be a regular feature Tuesday and Friday, so send in your e-mails. I'll pick things up as the countdown to the opener reaches four days.

Kyle from Louisville writes: I give all due respect to Rashard Mendenhall because he was a horse last year for Illinois, but looking back it seems to me that the Illini offense could be just as good or better this year. In Illinois' five biggest games of the regular season last year - Missouri, Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State - Mendenhall only went over 100 yards once, and twice (against Missouri and Ohio State), returning sophomore Daniel Dufrene outrushed him. Otherwise, Rashard put up huge numbers against less-talented teams. Am I completely off-base here or could Illinois be just as good this year on the offensive side of the ball?

Adam Rittenberg: You can't underestimate what Mendenhall did last season. He wasn't just a workhorse, but a breakaway threat. He helped Juice Williams, he helped Rejus Benn, he helped everybody, even when he didn't rush for 100 yards. But I agree that the Illini offense should be strong this fall. Dufrene looks like a solid back and he's picked up his play in preseason camp after a poor spring, but the only reason he outrushed Rashard against Ohio State was the 80-yard run that should have resulted in a fumble. Where Illinois should be much better is the wide receiver position. Benn will be dominant this season as he's fully healthy, and I've heard great things about Chris Duvalt's emergence this summer. When Jeff Cumberland returns from a foot injury, he gives that group size and tremendous leaping ability. Chris James and three freshmen also will contribute. So Illinois could certainly match last year's numbers on offense with a better passing attack.

Matthew from Toledo, Ohio, writes: Adam, you've got to further explain your reasoning behind ranking Purdue as having the toughest schedule. I just don't see how that works out. OSU and Purdue go to Michigan State; there's no way Oregon is even in the same difficulty ball park as the USC game, even if Oregon's quarterback wasn't sidelined with injury. Yes, Purdue goes to Columbus, but the Buckeyes go to Camp Randall, and given the Buckeye lack of success there, and given that Bielema is undefeated in Madison...sorry, but I just think you're wrong on this one.

Adam Rittenberg writes: I struggled with those two, Matthew, and it could go either way. Nonconference schedule was the deciding factor. The USC game is by far the hardest non-league test for any Big Ten team, but other than that, Ohio State plays Youngstown State, Ohio and Troy, all at home. Pretty weak, especially since Troy should have a down year. Purdue not only plays Oregon but Central Michigan, the back-to-back MAC champion that boasts one of the nation's best unsung quarterbacks [Dan LeFevour]. The Boilers also have to go to Notre Dame, a team that, like it or not, will be much improved this fall. Ohio State has a slightly tougher league slate, Purdue has a slightly tougher non-league slate with a trip to Columbus. Again, it was very close, but Purdue got the nod.

Bobak in Minneapolis writes: Minnesota question: While I understand Gophers Head Coach Tim Brewster's desire to field a more competitive team this season --especially after allowing 36 points a game in 2007-- I am puzzled by the choice of Ted Roof who, as head coach of Duke from 2003-07, saw his teams allow an average of over 32 points a game during his 6-45 tenure. How was this a wise hire? Yes he ran a college football program, but Duke convinced a court of law this year that they're as bad as bad gets.

Adam Rittenberg writes: You can debate Roof as a head coach, and you can also debate whether anyone will ever win at Duke [David Cutcliffe will find out soon enough]. But the guy is a good defensive mind with a track record of turning things around on that side of the ball [Georgia Tech, early on at Duke]. Roof has a lot more talent to work with in Minneapolis, especially with all the junior-college transfers joining the mix this season. I like this hire because Roof loves major challenges and after last season, Minnesota certainly fits under that category. I really don't know how Everett Withers possibly got another coordinator job after last season, but Roof will be fine. He reemphasized fundamentals this offseason and should get that unit back to respectability.

Kenny from State College, Pa., writes: I was somewhat surprised to see PSU @ OSU or @WIsconsin not in your top big 10 games this year. I really think those games could decide the big 10 champion.

Adam Rittenberg writes: You know, I was really close to cheating on that list and adding an 11th game in my top 10. It would have been Penn State at Ohio State. The series is usually very intriguing and it will be interesting to see how Daryll Clark fares in a raucous road setting like Ohio Stadium. If the Nittany Lions start strong, and the opportunity is there with their schedule, they could head to Columbus playing for first place in the league. But they'll first have to get by Illinois, Wisconsin and a Michigan team that always gives them problems.

Michael from Springfield, Mo., writes: Adam, What does the depth chart at running back look like for Michigan? From what I've been reading the two-deep could include any combination of Brown, Minor, McGuffie, and Shaw. Are these freshmen really that talented, or are there other factors coming into play? Basically, I want to know if I should be concerned about the fact that Brown and Minor are in danger of being beat out for the starting spot by two true freshman.

Adam Rittenberg writes: True freshmen Sam McGuffie and Michael Shaw are listed as co-starters on the Week 1 depth chart, ahead of both Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor. But Rich Rodriguez says all four backs will play Saturday and I believe him. He's got to see everything he has in a game situation, especially since so many guys are unproven. It is telling, though, that McGuffie and Shaw are listed first. They are smaller, quicker backs, the types that Rich has used in the past with his system. He's always willing to sacrifice size for speed, and those two freshmen fit the mold. I can't imagine Brown and Minor won't get a good chunk of carries as well, but if McGuffie and/or Shaw perform, they'll be the future at that position.

Kyle from Utica, Mich., writes: Hey Adam, Great coverage this offseason. Based on what you've seen out of the quarterbacks, if you were Rich Rodriguez, who would you start at QB against Utah?

Adam Rittenberg writes: Thanks, Kyle. I think Rich will start Steven Threet on Saturday, but I believe him when he says that more than one guy will play. It's highly unlikely Threet or Nick Sheridan will go out, totally grasp the system and dominate, so even though winning is paramount, Michigan has to see what it has at that position. It seems as though Sheridan has come on strong in preseason camp, and though he lacks Threet's size, teammates describe him as the more relaxed -- and potentially more confident -- quarterback. We'll see if it plays out on Saturday.