Great basketball on tap this week, and we're getting closer to the first set of Big Ten spring games.
To the mail ...
Ethan from Hershey, Pa., writes: As a PSU fan, I'm really looking forward to renewing our rivalry with Maryland. When the B1G announced the new additions, I was excited about the Terps, but more indifferent to Rutgers. Recently, you suggested PSU back with MSU for your potential final week rivalries. I would much rather prefer Maryland, but it got me wondering who you think will become our biggest rival. Maryland or Rutgers? Maybe OSU (unrequited) or MSU (LAND GRANT TROPHY)?
Adam Rittenberg: I still think Ohio State is Penn State's biggest conference rival because of the schools' relative proximity, the historical success of both programs and the number of recruiting battles they have for prospects. There's definite rivalry potential with Maryland, primarily because Penn State has had so much success recruiting the Maryland/D.C./Northern Virginia area. Let's also not forget Penn State's rivalry with Michigan. There have been some memorable games in the series through the years. The Penn State-Michigan State rivalry always seemed really forced, and neither fan base seems to care too much. Maybe Penn State-Maryland makes more sense on the final regular-season Saturday. I think there's more rivalry potential there than with Rutgers.
Connor from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Long time reader, first time writer. I'm continually getting frustrated with the Big Ten (I hate writing B1G) fans. When Legends and Leaders came out, all we did was whine and complain about names and teams, this and that. Finally the conference is actually making the East/West alignment that so many of us wanted. Now all I hear is the same thing. Whine, whine, whine... not fair, unbalanced. What's the deal?! Can the conference actually appease the fans?
Adam Rittenberg: The short answer is no, it can't. I've received numerous emails since my divisions report came out wondering why the league isn't making competitive balance a bigger priority. Well, it was by far the No. 1 priority the first time around and many folks complained about the loss of annual rivalries, the meaningless crossover games (i.e. Iowa-Purdue), etc. I understand fans' concern that the proposed divisions shift too much power to the East, and if the Big Ten moves Michigan State to the West, some folks likely would quiet down. But not everyone.
The proposed divisions solve a lot of the rivalry issues the league has right now, and they eliminate almost all of the crossover games that create a bad overall scheduling rotation. The other thing people need to understand is marking/branding is the driving force behind the Big Ten's recent expansion. The league needs to bring in new markets and change its demographics. You don't talk about being a bi-regional conference and then not showcase your three biggest brands -- Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan -- in those new markets as much as possible. The Big Ten doesn't have to worry about selling itself in Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois. From a business perspective, you want Ohio State playing in Maryland, Michigan playing near the New York market, etc.
But no, you can never please everyone.
Loki from Lindisfarne, U.K., writes: I just read an article ripping on B1G non-conference schedules, particularly Nebraska's, and I had a question. While I agree there's something left to be desired with a lot of the schedules, why do writers always bring up the previous season's records? They realize these games are usually scheduled years in advance, right? Wouldn't it make more sense to look at an opponent's season records the year contracts were signed? For instance, how was Nebraska supposed to know Southern Miss would go from 12 wins to 0 in one season? The Huskers have been praised for scheduling Oklahoma in a few years, but should they be castigated if OU goes through a phase where they're more early 90s than early 00s?
Adam Rittenberg: Loki, I think this is a fair criticism. Nonconference scheduling is an inexact science, and while athletic directors can project certain programs to be strong, it isn't always the case. The Nebraska-Southern Miss game is a good example, as Southern Miss obviously was a much stronger team in 2011, the year before it visited Lincoln. The Ohio State-Cal series is another good example. When the Buckeyes added the Bears to their schedule, Cal was among the Pac-12's elite programs. But when the first game occurred, Cal was sputtering in Jeff Tedford's final season as coach. The teams will meet again this year, but Ohio State is a national title contender, while Cal is rebuilding under a new coach (Sonny Dykes). So it's certainly a crapshoot, and that should be taken into consideration. That said, Nebraska hasn't been overly ambitious in recent non-league scheduling. It's nice to see the Huskers bring back Oklahoma to the slate, based on the high probability OU will be a good test. But as you point out, we never know until the games roll around.
Ron from Houston writes: Shouldn't the Big 10 think about adding Missouri? Yes, I know it is a member of the great SEC. But it is bottom feeder in the conference with not much room to grow? especially with Florida, South Carolina and Georgia standing in the way. However Missouri would do at least a little better in the Big 10's West division; having natural rivalries with Nebraska and Illinois. Missouri has been begging to get into the Big 10 for years now, and I think we should welcome them and their large Kansas City/St. Louis markets. The Tigers are a much better option than bankrupt Maryland anyway.
Adam Rittenberg: Ron, I've always thought Missouri fits in much better with the Big Ten than it does in the SEC. Although you couldn't blame Mizzou for making the move to the SEC, given the Big 12's shaky future, the Tigers face tougher challenges in football and lose some of their great rivalries (i.e. Kansas) in basketball. The bottom line, however, is that Missouri obviously wanted to join the Big Ten back in 2010 and the Big Ten had little to no interest.
Has anything changed since then? Well, the Big Ten has made it clear it wants to be in two separate regions -- the Midwest and East Coast. Missouri obviously doesn't strengthen the Big Ten's presence on the East Coast. I really believe if and when the Big Ten expands again, it will look once again to the current ACC to strengthen itself in its new region. That said, if the Big Ten had a major expansion -- more than two schools -- and wanted another Midwest program that could bring in new markets, Missouri makes a lot more sense than other candidates. But would Missouri still want the Big Ten? The school is already cashing in with the SEC, so there's not a major financial gain with another league move, although it really seems like the B1G would be a better fit.
Dave from Nashville, Tenn., writes: As you have probably noticed, it seems most MSU fans are not happy with the proposed divisional alignments. I sense they would much prefer the West division (easier) with a protected cross-over with UM. Some are even calling it 'unacceptable' that Mark Hollis let them get roped into the East. But it occurred to me that perhaps getting lost in all this shuffle was that UM would not agree to a protected cross-over with MSU? If that were the case, I would imagine the MSU faithful would be equally unhappy if Hollis came back and said "We're in the West and get to play UM twice a decade." It seems rather presumptuous on MSU fans' part to assume they could just have it both ways. Perhaps Hollis had to choose one or the other. Thoughts?
Adam Rittenberg: A couple things here, Dave. First of all, the process isn't over, although I've been told Michigan State moving to the West isn't being considered. Second of all, MSU fans don't know what went on in the discussions. From what I've been told, Hollis wanted Michigan State in the West, but ultimately was overruled. It wasn't as if he didn't try, but you don't just name your division and everyone goes along with it. I haven't heard anything about Michigan resisting a potential crossover game against MSU. It's an important rivalry to Michigan and a great game for the Big Ten, and Dave Brandon would hear it from his fan base if Michigan and MSU didn't play annually. A more likely explanation is that the Big Ten didn't want Michigan tied into a crossover game and wants to have one of its top brands play an unrestricted crossover rotation. Basically, the Big Ten wants Michigan and Nebraska to play as often as possible (two huge brands, TV ratings), Michigan and Wisconsin to play as often as possible, etc. By putting Michigan with both Ohio State and Michigan State, the Big Ten avoids having to use a protected crossover for the Wolverines. I don't understand the anger toward Hollis. He's a great AD.
Chad from Chicago writes: Good to see you finally picked an IU game to attend on your pretend road trip. I think you are spot on thinking this game could be a good ole fashion barn burner with these two offenses. Roberson vs Gardner passing and rushing their way to over 500 total yards each? Maybe a little unrealistic, but you get my point. I know these are almost completely different teams since the last couple times they have met, but IU has had Michigan on the ropes the past two times. In 2009 when IU was screwed with that call at the end, which should have gone to the receiver, and infuriating Lynch to throw his gum. Then in 2010, IU scored to make the game 35-35 late, but Michigan got away with an offensive pass interference for a long gain to set up the winning TD. I am interested to see where you and Brian have IU in your preseason rankings for the Big Ten. I think IU will be a dark horse and really surprise people this year, especially with 8 home games.
Adam Rittenberg: Some really good points here, Chad. Indiana easily could have won its past two games against Michigan. Denard Robinson really saved the Wolverines in Bloomington as neither team played any defense that day. I agree Indiana could be a dark horse this season, and I have little doubt that the Hoosiers will be among the Big Ten's most dangerous offenses. But the defense remains a huge question mark, even with the improved recruiting efforts on that side of the ball. For that reason, I think we'll be hesitant to put the Hoosiers too high in the preseason rankings, although a lot can happen between now and then. Even a serviceable defense likely gets Indiana to a bowl game in 2013, but we haven't seen too many serviceable defenses in Bloomington the past 15 years. I think Indiana should go bowling this season, especially with the eight home games, but it all comes back to creating depth on defense.
Merle from Harrisburg, Pa., writes: When talking about the balance of power in the league, usually you've been referencing teams like Wisconsin, MSU, and Northwestern that you think will be able to stay competitive with OSU and Michigan. Sometimes you include Iowa in that list, but often you don't. Do you think this recent slide by the Hawkeyes is a trend, and they will stay below Northwestern for the next 5-10 years? Or do you see Ferentz being able to turn the program around and remain a part of the upper middle of the pack?
Adam Rittenberg: Merle, I should have included Iowa on the last list because the Hawkeyes, more than Northwestern or Michigan State, have shown the ability to compete at a nationally elite level in recent years (BCS bowl appearances). If we were having this conversation three years ago, the thought of excluding Iowa from the discussion would be ridiculous as the Hawkeyes were coming off of an Orange Bowl championship. But it's fair to ask whether Kirk Ferentz can restore a program that clearly has lost momentum, beginning with an incredibly disappointing 2010 season. Ferentz has done it before, turning things around in 2008 after several mediocre seasons. But the combination of staff changes and an apparent drop in recruiting has me a little bit concerned. Iowa always has developed players extremely well, but it seems like the Hawkeyes lack difference-makers on both sides of the ball right now. Continuity always has been a hallmark of Ferentz's program, and while he's still there, the staff has been shuffled a lot since the end of the 2011 season. Northwestern, meanwhile, has kept its staff completely intact and has upgraded recruiting the past few seasons. The Wildcats have more momentum right now than Iowa, but things can change in a hurry.