Big Ten mailblog

Game week edition.

Charles from Phoenix writes: Hi Adam, we're only 2 days away from Big Ten football! FINALLY! Do you think that Gilbert will be able to cause enough disruption in opposing backfields to take some pressure off the Badger's secondary? This D looked great on paper but I'm worried it's mostly due to the offense keeping things rolling and with an unknown quantity under center the defense may have to win a game or two this year and I think Gilbert can be the Watt-like spark that gets it done, what do you think?

Adam Rittenberg: David Gilbert's presence should help Wisconsin's pass rush, but the jury is out on whether he'll be a true difference-maker. He had a nice start to 2011 before the injury, and while he has worked his way back, he needs to show explosiveness off of the edge for the Badgers' line. I think the numbers lied a bit about Wisconsin's defense in 2011. While the unit had some good players, the elite numbers were due in large part to not being on the field very much because of the Badgers' record-setting offense. I completely agree that Wisconsin's defense will need to win a game or two this season, and having a better pass rush is critical. Gilbert certainly is a part of that, but I need to see him against Big Ten competition before proclaiming him a difference-maker.

Dennis from Airville, Pa., writes: Adam: Both you & BB have predicted that no team will get out of the Big 10 unbeaten. I don't see any team coming out of conference unbeaten. The most likely in my opinion is USC although they face Oregon. Will this year's NC game be between 2 teams each with at least 1 loss? If so, what are the chances that 1 of those teams will be a 1 loss Big 10 team? Thanks.

Adam Rittenberg: Good question, Dennis. Conference perception has a lot to do with a one-loss team reaching the national title game, and the Big Ten's perception isn't good right now (no top-5 teams, only one top-10 team). I'm trying to figure out a scenario where a one-loss Big Ten team would get in, most likely over several other good one-loss teams. Maybe if Michigan barely loses to Alabama and runs the table, it could rematch with the Tide in the title game. Michigan State also has some nonconference schedule strength with both Boise State and Notre Dame. But beyond that, I have a hard time seeing a one-loss Big Ten team getting in because the league isn't perceived to be among the nation's best. The SEC has one spot in the title game locked down. The other could go to a one-loss team from the Pac-12, Big 12, Big Ten or ACC. Unless chaos ensues elsewhere, I just don't see the Big Ten team getting the nod over those from the other leagues. Michigan certainly has the best chance, though.

Nate from Nodak writes: I talk to people about the upcoming season and they all seem to agree about Nebraska. The defense is question, no star power is the big point they make, but remember last year Crick wasn't around and 100% the whole year(pectoral injury), Dennard the same way(hamstring if i recall correctly). Obviously David was there and was extremely important and you cant replace a player like that easily if at all. But is there too much emphasis being put on "star power". To me they are deeper at linebacker this year. The secondary returns almost everyone and will be much more experienced. The Dline is pretty much all back as well and they gained experience last year too. The point I'm getting at is I wouldn't be surprised to see this defense finish at the top of the league, combine that with an offense that should be better, this is a team that I believe will be in Indy at the end of the year. Your Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: It's entirely possible, Nate, and it wouldn't surprise me if things played out like that for Nebraska. On paper, this Huskers defense is deeper and potentially better than its predecessor, despite the loss of star power. While I'm more concerned about the linebacker depth than you are, I'll reserve judgment on the group until a few Big Ten games are played. I do expect better overall play from both the line and the secondary. What I really want to see out of Nebraska is a unit that makes fewer mistakes and shows why its unique scheme can be a difference maker in the league. Crick talked a lot last summer about how Nebraska is so different with the two-gap defense and how the Big Ten won't know what hit it. I didn't see that schematic advantage on the field much at all. If the Huskers execute their scheme and get production from a wider variety of sources, they should have a great chance to win the division. But they also must win big games on the road within the league. Until then, it's tough to brand Nebraska as a bona fide Big Ten title contender.

Kevin from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Adam, I am really scratching my head looking at your Bowl projections and Power Rankings. I just don't understand why you and Brian have so much love for Michigan State this year. I understand their defense is going to be stout, but their offense will surely be below average and possibly terrible on the road. Don't you have to score points in football to win games? They bring in a new quarterback with receivers who have no game time experience. They will not be able to rely on Bell running the ball all season. Michigan deserve more credit for they are more balanced, return players in key positions, and like you and Brian have mentioned, will be better than last year's team but with a possible worse record. Their record in the B1G will be equal if not better though. I see Michigan beating MSU AND OSU this year en route to a big ten title and rose bowl berth after beating Wisconsin in Indianapolis. GO BLUE from the BUCKEYE STATE!

Adam Rittenberg: Kevin, you certainly could turn out to be right, and Michigan might be the more balanced team in the end. But I'd still take one nationally elite unit (Michigan State's defense) and one average one (Spartans offense) over two units with potentially significant question marks. Let's not gloss over what Michigan lost, especially on both lines. If the Wolverines show me they can consistently win at the line of scrimmage -- starting Saturday against Alabama -- I'll feel totally different about their season. Right now, I see a team with some significant question marks on both lines (defense more than offense) and an absolutely brutal schedule. Michigan won 11 games last season, but the schedules simply don't compare. As I've said all along, I think by season's end, Michigan will be a better team than it was in 2011. But the record won't match up. As for Michigan State, the quarterback and receiver questions are justified, but plenty of Big Ten teams get by with a game manager and effective run game, which I think the Spartans will have with Le'Veon Bell and a more seasoned line.

Drew from Swansea, Ill., writes: What team do you think is most likely to make your predictions look silly (either overestimating or underestimating)? I'm clearly biased as an Illinois fan, but I think the schedule is somewhat favorable (don't think it's farfetched to go 7-0 or 6-1 at home and games at Arizona State and Northwestern are certainly winnable).

Adam Rittenberg: Illinois is a good call, Drew. Big Ten coaches I spoke with this month certainly are aware of the talent Tim Beckman inherits in Champaign. On the flip side, both the Western Michigan and Arizona State games will be tricky, especially for an Illini secondary that isn't 100 percent. I'd be pretty worried about the opener, actually. The other thing working against Illinois is the Big Ten road schedule: Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Northwestern. Pretty tough slate there. A lot comes down to the offense and whether playmakers can emerge around Nathan Scheelhaase. Illinois won't have to score 35 points to win games because of its defense, but it'll need to show more of a pulse offensively than it did down the stretch in 2011. The Illini are a fascinating team, and one that could make my predictions look way off base.

Tyler from Charlotte, Mich., writes: What are the chances your fantasy team beats Brian's this year? I will go ahead and make a bold prediction and say that you go undefeated this year. Bennett is going to hit that sophomore slump this time around.

Adam Rittenberg: That's a bold prediction, indeed. Check's in the mail, Tyler. I definitely like my chances, and it's going to kill Bennett not having his man-crush Montee Ball on his team this fall.

Ford from Omaha writes: I have a two pronged question: 1) How long until the B1G is forced to go to 14 teams to keep up in the conference arms race? 2) Which level of success does the conference need to have against Notre Dame and for how long until they petition to be member 13 or 14?

Adam Rittenberg: 1) The Big Ten doesn't want to expand for the sake of expansion, but I think the league would have to act if three of the other power conferences (SEC, Pac-12, etc.) reach 16 teams. It would be tough to stay at 12 in that scenario. But my question always has been, how do both the Big 12 and Pac-12 reach 16? There aren't enough teams in that part of the country to merit an expansion to 16. It's why the Pac-12 swallowing up the Big 12 made more sense (and why Larry Scott tried so hard to make it happen). 2) I don't think the Big Ten's performance against Notre Dame has any bearing on Notre Dame wanting to join the Big Ten. The invitation has been out there twice and Notre Dame has declined. If the Irish join a league, it'll likely be the ACC, but Notre Dame's demands might be too steep for any league. The Big Ten isn't going to pursue Notre Dame any longer -- not while Jim Delany is commissioner, at least. So if the Irish want in, they need to show interest.

Erik from Tallahassee, Fla., writes: Adam, I need some clarification here. Even though Penn State and Ohio State are both banned from post season play for this season, are they also ineligible to be named Big Ten Leaders Division Champions? Though most analysts have decided the fate of Penn State's season, many agree that Ohio State would have a good shot at the conference title were it not for their penalties. If OSU was first and Wisconsin was second in the conference at the end of the season, would Wisconsin officially be named Legends Division Champion since it would be the highest qualifying team from the division to be eligible or would Ohio State keep the title? I haven't seen a single analyst name Ohio State the division winner and advance another team to the conference championship game.

Adam Rittenberg: From an official standpoint, neither Ohio State nor Penn State could be Leaders Division champion this season (and, in Penn State's case, for the next three seasons). The league recognizes the champion who appears in the title game, and because both Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible, they won't be recognized as official division champions. That doesn't mean they won't be viewed symbolically as the best team in the division if they have the best record. But from an official standpoint, no, they cannot be division winners this year.