Big Ten Monday mailbag

I answered your emails on Thursday and Friday, and now I'm back at it again today. Next one will be Thursday, and Adam will be back at the end of the week.

What's on your minds today?

Mac from Ohio writes: Brian, many people are saying that Ohio State always has a weak non conference schedule. Sure the past 2 years it has been weak but when you schedule teams 3-4 years in advance, it is hard to tell how strong teams are going to be. If everything went to plan they should have had Cal and Vandy on the schedule this year. Also I feel like OSU has played the biggest teams out of conference more consistently. Since 2005 they have played Texas twice, USC twice, the U twice and Cal twice. What are your thoughts about this and which B10 team do you feel like has played the hardest non conference schedules the past decade?

Brian Bennett: It would be disingenuous to say Ohio State has consistently played weak schedules. In fact, in many years, the Buckeyes have had the top marquee out-of-league game, with the Texas and USC series you mentioned, along with Miami. Ohio State caught a bit of a bad break by scheduling Cal right as that program took a dip south (Vandy would have made this a better schedule but still not a great -- or national-championship worthy -- one). It's hard to say which team has played the toughest nonconference schedule in the past decade because the schedules vary so much from year to year. But the Buckeyes have challenged themselves more frequently against high-caliber, cross-regional games than just about anybody. Which is part of what makes the 2012 and '13 schedules so disappointing.

M.V. from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: Is Iowa that bad? I have seen predictions range from 4-8 (no wins in the Big Ten) to 6-6; that was the best outlook. I find it hard to believe that this team will be worse than last year's.

Brian Bennett: M.V., I don't think this year's team will be as bad as last year's Hawkeyes, in large part because it would be difficult for Iowa to replicate a year in which it lost its final six games, including back-to-back losses to Purdue (at home) and Indiana. Injuries played a big role in that; remember that Iowa was 4-2 at the midway point, with a victory over Orange Bowl-bound Northern Illinois and on the road at Michigan State (plus that crazy loss to Central Michigan at home). I think the offense will have a better sense of itself during the second year under Greg Davis and with more healthy tailback options, including Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri and Damon Bullock. Yet this year's team does have to play at Ohio State and against Wisconsin from the Leaders Division, and the Northern Illinois and Iowa State games look tricky. Plus, I wonder if there really are many more playmakers at key spots like receiver and defensive line, and there's no experience returning at quarterback. Iowa should rebound from its nightmarish 2012, but 6-6 seems about like the ceiling this year, in my opinion.

Aaron from Cottage Grove, Minn., writes: The way I see it, two lower-tier Big Ten teams took modest steps up last season (Minnesota and Indiana), and three upper-tier teams took steps back as well (Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan State). In your opinion, which "rising" program has the best chance of continuing to rise for the foreseeable future, and which team that had an off year is at the most risk of continuing to fall? For the record, my picks are Minnesota and Iowa, though I might be biased.

Brian Bennett: I see little fault with your logic. I expect Jerry Kill to build a really solid program at Minnesota; the question, of course, is just how high that program can climb and whether it can become a legitimate Big Ten title contender. Iowa has lost a lot of momentum and needs to get things turned around quickly, or else the Hawkeyes could risk losing even more ground in recruiting. I don't know where Northwestern fits in your definition of lower or upper tiers, but that's another program I see as continuing to rise, given its strong recruiting efforts and forthcoming facility upgrade.

Tim from Piqua, Ohio, writes: The Big Ten powerhouses Ohio State and Michigan seem to be on the rise with their recruiting and coaching. How competitive do you see them being with the start of the 4 team playoff? We know Urban Meyer can build a team to match the SEC and is already close to it. Brady Hoke is a solid coach that has brought Michigan back. I know this season will tell a lot about both team progress towards being able to beat the SEC.

Brian Bennett: I expect both programs to regularly compete for a berth in the College Football Playoff. Heck, it was only seven years ago that both Michigan and Ohio State would have made it in had there been a four-team playoff, and the Buckeyes have had several seasons in the 2000s when they would have been included. With the way both are recruiting and with the right coaches in place, there's no reason to think they will getting cracks at the national title, though navigating through the East Division, especially once the league goes to a nine-game schedule, won't be easy. Actually winning the national title -- and perhaps beating an SEC power along the way -- could be the hardest part of that equation.

Dave from Marietta, Ohio, writes: Regarding a question from Friday's mailbag: It's my opinion that PSU and Maryland should be the end of season rivalry game for them. The two played a lengthy (one-sided) series before PSU joined the B1G. And I've read Maryland fans want to start paying some of that back. Now that both are in the same conference, it seems like a natural to me. Your thoughts, please.

Brian Bennett: Penn State-Maryland is a natural rivalry with some history to it. But Rutgers-Penn State should also make for a good rivalry, along with Rutgers-Maryland. I think the league is right to see how these games all shake out and what develops organically into the best rivalry before determining an end-of-season annual game. Speaking of ...

Jeff S. from East Lansing, Mich., writes: You had mentioned that MSU has no organic rivalries formed outside of UM recently and I have to disagree. Many Spartans on campus believe that Wisconsin is our newest developing rival because of the nature of our last handful of meetings. Every badger Ive ever talked to seems to be very bitter about the Hail Mary victory and every Spartan is sick to their stomach about the roughing the punter penalty that ultimately sealed our lose in the B1G Championship game. I think it would be wise for the B1G to consider that bitterness and continue the momentum this budding rivalry is gaining, wouldn't you agree?

Brian Bennett: I like the way the Michigan State-Wisconsin has developed, and so I'm happy to see the two teams playing each other in 2016 (though not in '17). There are a couple of problems with the league trying to push this rivalry more, however. The main one is that the Badgers and Spartans will be in different divisions starting next season, and the Big Ten is not going to protect any rivalries outside of Purdue-Indiana in order to gain more schedule flexibility. The other is that Minnesota is Wisconsin's obvious choice for the end-of-season rivalry game. Odds are that Michigan State is never going to have a true annual rivalry game on the final weekend.

Jay from Boston writes: Brian, love your work! Looking at the end of the Gophers' 2017 schedule, can you talk me off the ledge? (@UMich, Nebraska, @Northwestern, Wisco) The Axe game is right where it belongs, but shouldn't the Jug be at least a few weeks earlier? Also, does the calendar in 2017 lineup so that a full 12-game slate results in zero weeks off? If so, I sympathize with the student-athletes who are academically engaged.

Brian Bennett: It's a little strange to see the Minnesota-Michigan game where it is in 2017 since the league is trying to make division games the focus down the stretch, but it's never going to line up perfectly. That does look like a very challenging finish to the season for the Gophers, but let's remember we have four full seasons to play before 2017, and there's no way of knowing which teams will actually be good that far in advance. Plus, if Kill and his staff stick around, they should have the program in good shape (though, again, predicting any coach to stay anywhere that long is risky business). As for your other question, the 2017 season is set up to play 12 games in 13 weeks, but there are very few byes built into Big Ten play that year. The only teams that get byes during conference action are the ones who start early -- Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan, Rutgers and Nebraska. Most everyone else will get a week off in September and close with nine straight weeks of Big Ten games.

Matt from Minneapolis writes: You wrote ... "Is anyone really clamoring for the Indiana-Minnesota game?" Yes, actually quite a few people are. If you haven't noticed, those are two of the most historically successful athletic programs in the Big Ten. That, coupled with an Indiana Hoosier team that is going to shock the Big Ten this year. I'm a Spartan, so I'm not on the defensive, but it's comments like yours that give uneducated/casual spectators of sports a skewed opinion on teams and their performance. Are they powerhouse football programs? Of course not. Do they have more alumni fans than, say, Michigan or Northwestern? You bet. Trust me, none of the nerds who went to the two aforementioned care a rip about athletics.

Brian Bennett: There are so many parts of this email that confuse me, from how "historically successful athletic programs" mean anything when it comes to a specific football game, to how I am somehow skewing the perception of Minnesota and Indiana football or how Michigan and Northwestern alums don't care about sports. Or maybe it's just that a Michigan State fan is excited about a Minnesota-Indiana game. My head is spinning.