Big Ten Thursday mailbag

It's mail time. Let's see what's on your minds this week.

Matt T. from Des Moines writes: Your bold prediction was that Michigan goes to the Rose Bowl. I'm not going to sit here and say Iowa will go, or any team in a shaky, unpredictable Legends Division will go. ... BUT Denard has to beat MSU or Iowa for the first time in his career for this to happen I would say.

Brian Bennett: That is true, and predicting anything in this league is a dicey proposition. One big reason to think Michigan will get past both the Spartans and Hawkeyes is that those games are in the Big House. Neither Iowa nor Michigan State has a very impressive offense, either, so the Wolverines may be able to use a more conservative game plan with Robinson and not risk turnovers. We shall see.

Ryan from Toledo writes: Adam doesn't seem to want to answer my question, so I thought I would try you. Can someone please address Ohio State's horrible schedule? They are ranked in the top 10 simply because they have played a below-average schedule, and everyone else has lost in front of them. They are a very average team. I don't understand why Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes get such an easy pass from you guys. Please address their schedule. It's horrible!!!!

Brian Bennett: That Adam guy is a prima donna. Well, let's take a look at the Buckeyes' schedule. They played Miami (Ohio), UCF, California and UAB in the nonconference schedule. Not exactly murderers' row. In fact, those four teams are a combined 11-15 on the season, and only UCF (4-2) has a winning record. That's a pretty ludicrously soft schedule for a program of Ohio State's caliber, and we had a healthy skepticism about the Buckeyes when they started 4-0 but didn't look dominant against that slate.

However, since then Ohio State went to Michigan State and won. It kneecapped Nebraska in the single most impressive offensive performance this season by a Big Ten team. And, OK, it escaped at Indiana, though the Buckeyes never seemed truly in danger of losing that game. Ohio State is far from a perfect team, especially with that defense. But it keeps winning, and there's no other league team that can say that.

Eric M. from Wisconsin writes: Can you explain to me this ridiculous notion that SOS will be emphasized under a four-team playoff? The current BCS components are computer rankings (based PURELY on SOS) and polls that compare teams with similar records based on which teams they beat -- aka SOS. Even the undefeated Boise State teams of 08 & 09 didn't finish the regular season in the top 4 of the BCS rankings, because they didn't play enough quality teams. It isn't the emphasis on SOS that will change, it's just the need to finish in the Top 4 rather than the Top 14.

Brian Bennett: It's only ridiculous if you haven't followed the playoff discussions, Eric. The BCS formula as we know it is almost certainly going away. There is heavy support for a selection committee, where actual humans will choose the four best teams. In large part because of Jim Delany's urging, conference championships will matter. And just like in the men's basketball selection process, when there are comparable one-loss teams out there, who you played and who you beat will become a very important -- if not the crucial -- element for selection. If you can schedule your way into an undefeated season as a major-conference champion, then you'll probably be fine. But if you want to be chosen ahead of similar teams for that last spot in the playoff, you'd better be able to show that you played tough opponents.

Matt M. from Chicago writes: It seems like a regular theme in chats / mailbags is, "Won't the B1G have a chance at a stronger bowl season without a BCS at-large bid?" In most years that might make sense because then everyone else won't have to "play up" in a Bowl that is a spot above their ranking. However, this year things could end up worse than a standard two-BCS bid year. If Ohio State and Penn State end up as two of the three best in the conference, you will have every team from the Capital One on down playing TWO BOWLS above their finishing position. Am I just being pessimistic, or should we be slowing down the excitement about a strong bowl performance by the B1G?

Brian Bennett: That's a good point that I haven't seen brought up before, Matt. The Big Ten will suffer from not having Ohio State play in one its top bowls. While Penn State may or may not be one of the top two or three teams, it would likely compete well in a mid-level bowl game. The situation could also get interesting if not enough Big Ten teams are bowl eligible. Let's say Purdue does not get to six wins, but Minnesota does. The Gophers could then be playing a spot higher in the bowl pecking order and therefore facing better competition. Of course, Ohio State's probation is a big reason why the second BCS bid looks highly unlikely.

Dave R. from Columbus, Ohio, writes: So if I have it right -- and since I'm not sure, I figured I'd ask an expert like yourself -- if Wisconsin beats Indiana, they automatically get the invite to Indy since they've already beaten IL and Purdue? They'll have all the necessary head-to-heads. Am I missing something? Or is it just that big of a cake-walk for them now?

Brian Bennett: It's not quite that simple, Dave. Remember, it's overall conference record first that determines division winners. So if Wisconsin beats Indiana, we know the Badgers will have three Big Ten wins. But they would still not take the division slot in the Big Ten title game if an eligible team finished ahead of them. So let's say Wisconsin beats Minnesota but loses to Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State. That's a 4-4 division record. If, say, Purdue finished 5-3, then the Boilers would go despite the head-to-head loss.

Keep an eye on this week's games, though. If Purdue loses to Ohio State and the Badgers beat Minnesota, it's going to be awfully hard for anyone to catch Wisconsin. Purdue, Indiana or Illinois would have to win out, while Wisconsin would have to go 1-3 or 0-4 the rest of the way. That is, to put it gently, unlikely. Besides the Badgers, the three other eligible Leaders Division teams are a combined 0-8 in Big Ten play.

Nick Columbus writes: I liked the recent poll of who will win the Legends Division but in a 6-team division did you really have to go with 5 options instead of all 6? The poor Gophers have their best start in 5 years and they aren't even an option.

Brian Bennett: Our friends over at SportsNation build those polls for us, and we're grateful because we think it adds a fun interactive element to the blog. However, they have told us that their format only allows for five answers to any given question. That's why I had to limit the choices to five in that poll.

I was frankly surprised at the outrage some Minnesota fans expressed at their exclusion. Every Gophers fan I heard from in the offseason was optimistic about a possible return to a bowl game this season and was hopeful of getting to six or seven wins after a 3-9 record in 2011. No one, probably not even Jerry Kill, was thinking division title. Minnesota has made a lot of progress, but let's not get ahead of ourselves here. I haven't heard any more complaints since the Gophers lost to Northwestern to fall to 0-2 in the division. Funny how that works.

Matt from Detroit writes: After watching defenses like Ohio State and Nebraska get absolutely rolled by the spread, I am wondering if it's not a significant disadvantage to play a pro-style offense in the Big Ten nowadays? I know MSU got it done last year, but it seems like defenses in the Big Ten are all geared perfectly to stop the pro-style run attack? I just get frustrated when I see a team like Nebraska shut MSU down last year and then get destroyed by Michigan. Ohio State held MSU to 16 then gave up 1000 to Indiana. Is there any chance Mark Dantonio (or Kirk Ferentz) make any changes or adjustments to this new style for 2012 or beyond? Both offenses are greatly underperforming this year and neither seem to be from lack of talent. I'm not suggesting a complete jump to the spread like Rich Rod tried to pull, but something that results in more than 21 ppg would be nice to see, and it looks like all types of spreads are working in the Big Ten right now.

Brian Bennett: I'd be more inclined to agree with you if not for the fact that the two teams that played in the Big Ten championship game last year were pro-style teams. Wisconsin averaged 44.1 points per game in 2011, while Michigan State averaged 31. The difference this year isn't really the style as much as it is the players. Michigan State had Kirk Cousins and three senior receivers last year, while Wisconsin had Russell Wilson. It's hard to run a pro-style successfully without a veteran, talented quarterback and an excellent offensive line, as both schools have found early this season. The No. 1 team in the country (Alabama) runs a pro style, and that type of offense is working fine for Penn State this year. I also think you'll be seeing Michigan go to much more of a pro style once Denard Robinson leaves.

The bigger issue for this league right now is the dearth of successful pocket quarterbacks. Iowa's James Vandenberg is having a disappointing year, Wisconsin had to turn to a freshman after Danny O'Brien didn't work out and Andrew Maxwell has had his share of growing pains. With the exception of Matt McGloin, the best QBs in the league right now are all dual-threat guys like Robinson, Braxton Miller, Taylor Martinez, Kain Colter, etc.

BigBear from Burbank, Calif., writes: Northwestern has to be the ultimate wildcard this year in the Big Ten -- when they play with the grit and skill they're capable of, they could beat anyone, but they're just so inconsistent. Obviously they have a lot of different problems depending on the day, but in your opinion what is the single most important thing they need to fix in order to get over being a wild card and become elite? Additionally, they usually are good for at least one big upset each year, who do you see them taking down this year?

Brian Bennett: An obvious answer to that question would be Northwestern's pass defense, as its secondary is still somewhat shaky. But look at the biggest games left on the schedule -- Nebraska, Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa. Those are not great passing teams. So I would say where the Wildcats need to improve is in their own passing game. They currently rank last in the Big Ten at 180 yards passing per game, which is a surprise given what looked to be a deep corps of receivers this year. Northwestern makes up for that with a strong ground game led by Kain Colter and Venric Mark. But it needs to have a balanced attack, whether that's Colter or Trevor Siemian completing passes to keep the chains moving and defenses guessing. That would also help keep its own defense off the field, which the team could not do in its one loss this season, at Penn State.

Jordan from Mickie's Dairy Bar writes: Despite the early season growing pains (to put it mildly), I would posit that Wisconsin is exactly where it was expected to be as of Mid-October. If I had told you in July that on October 15: 1) Wisconsin would be 4-2, with its only losses coming at Nebraksa (by 3) and against the No. 8 team in the country on the road (also by 3); 2) Monte Ball had 800+ yds and 11 TDs; and 3) the Badgers were the frontrunner to return to Indy, you would have responded with "Duh...wait, who's the #8 team!?" IMHO, Bucky is where it should be as of today. Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic, but it seems fair to think the Badger's second-half outlook is bright, particularly in light of all the early season transition (failed transfer QB; coaching changes, etc.) that lead to the growing pains. In sum, would you agree that, as of today, Bucky is close to where it should be and what we all expected?

Brian Bennett: I agree with you that the Oregon State loss is looking better all the time as the surprising Beavers just keep on winning. It's not where the Badgers are so much as how they got there. They still should have scored more than seven points against Oregon State. And remember they needed some very good fortune to beat Utah State at home. Wisconsin's offense hasn't looked right until recently, though the defense has played pretty well all season. The Purdue performance was highly encouraging, and ultimately this season will be about how Bret Bielema's team finishes. It only has to marginally take care of business to get to Indianapolis, and from there this is basically a one-game season for the Badgers to get back to the Rose Bowl. I'm not counting them out by any means.

Ben from Detroit, Texas, and Washington writes: Why do the Cardinals always win Brian? Why? WHY? WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY?

Brian Bennett: Heart of a champion, my friend. There is magic in those jerseys.