Answering some Monday mail while counting down the days until the return of "Breaking Bad" ...
Rich from Frisco, TX, writes: I know a lot of people are having doubt about the Iowa program after last year's record. I am personally not worried at all. I am excited. I think last year was a wakeup call for the whole program. In the last 5 years, Iowa has had 21 games decided by 3 points or less and was 8-13 in those games. Every year the fans are left wondering what if the Hawks could have won the close games. What if we could have won those games decided by 3 point or less games last year, we would have been 8-4 and Iowa fans could have lived with that? Last year was the first year the what if games caused Hawkeyes not to be bowl eligible. ... The bottom line is I think this was the first year that Kirk Ferentz saw the writing on the wall and decided to make some changes in the program. We have seen more coaching changes last year than we had in all of KF other years combined. I believe there is a new attitude around the program and I hope our days of watching the Hawks play for a 21-17 win against an inferior opponent are over. ... I am saying the Hawks finish 8-4 or 9-3.
Brian Bennett: Last year's 4-8 record for Iowa certainly looks like an aberration in the Ferentz era, and injuries on the offensive line and at running back contributed to that. On the other hand, I'd be concerned that Iowa has been trending downward now for a couple of years. You brought up the close games, and it's true the Hawkeyes were in quite a few of them last year. They were 2-4 in games decided by three points or fewer, and the two they won -- Northern Illinois and Michigan State -- both came away from home. Close games are going to happen, and there are years when the breaks aren't going to go your way -- ask last year's Spartans. The more troubling thing for Iowa was how noncompetitive it was in games against Penn State and Michigan and how lifeless the offense was for most of the season. I see a better record this year, but the lack of elite talent at receiver, defensive line and other areas is a major problem.
Brian from Omaha, Neb., writes: Not only do you have a great name but I appreciate that you spell it correctly. In the article you recommended from The Gazette, it pointed out that Nebraska and Iowa are similar due to the past 12 year runs of each program. I take umbrage to the arbitrary number of years that we are comparing. The author indicated that a national title 16 years ago can't be taken into consideration then without any reasoning picks the last 12 years. That happens to be the best 12 year run in Iowa football history and includes four of the worst seasons in Nebraska football history since the 1960s. I do think all 5 of the national championships have an impact on recruiting which will always help Nebraska against the Iowas of the world. For the best comparison of how the schools sit currently I think we should compare the winning percentages of the current coaches, both have been around long enough for you to know what impact they have. Kirk Ferentz has had a 57% winning record and Bo Pelini has had a 71% winning record.
Brian Bennett: Nebraska clearly has a richer history than Iowa in football. Any time period you choose, however, would be arbitrary. I think it's OK to compare two programs since 2000, since current high school recruits can't remember much farther back than that. Does success in the 1970s and 1990s still resonate with current teenagers? The larger point is we shouldn't just use two- or three-year windows to make judgments on whether a rivalry can be made. But as I've written, Iowa needs to play better, or the Heroes Game won't resonate much.
Todd from Peoria, Ill., writes: With the 9 game league schedule creating an imbalance of 5/4 or 4/5 home/away, do you think the B1G would consider a neutral site game for every team once per year so it's 4/4/1 home/away/neutral? I know there's loss of stadium income, but couldn't something be worked out with those sites? Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, New York, Baltimore, etc. would be great places for games.
Brian Bennett: Todd, there has been some talk of neutral-site league games, and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith likes the idea. But I doubt we'll ever see it as an annual, once-per-team thing. For starters, schools like Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State would have no interest in giving up a home game at their mammoth stadiums. And with each division playing the same number of home-away league games every year, the imbalance is not as big of a concern. I think it's more likely we'll see schools like Rutgers and Maryland going to some neutral site conference games to ensure big crowds and a nice payday every now and then.
Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: I assume you have seen Coach Jerry Kill's comments that he is on his second recruiting class when he "technically speaking" has had three (though he started late). Could that be coach-speak to not expect the improvement with the Gopher team that he had at SIU and NIU in his third year?
Brian Bennett: Craig, Kill has pointed that out often, noting that he honored every scholarship offer that was handed out by Tim Brewster's staff when he arrived at Minnesota. So, in his view, Kill and his staff have only had two recruiting classes of their own. But I don't see that as him downplaying expectations. In every conversation I've had with Kill and other Gophers assistants this offseason, they seem very excited about the potential of this team and the improved athleticism all over the roster.
Scott D. from Philadelphia writes: In your article on the coaches poll ranking, you mentioned that 6 big ten coaches vote in the poll. Out of curiosity, how do the organizers of the poll decide which coaches vote in the poll? Does it rotate each year?
Brian Bennett: Scott, USA Today uses a panel of 62 head coaches, all of whom are at FBS schools and are members of the American Football Coaches Association. That panel makes up about half of the FBS head coaches. The AFCA asks coaches in the offseason if they want to vote in the poll, and those who say yes are put into a pool. The names are then drawn at random, while organizers make sure each conference is well represented. Some coaches decline to vote in the poll, and I can't blame them for that. It's a blatant conflict of interest, and luckily the coaches' poll should not hold much influence over the new playoff system.
Justin from Oxford writes: Everyone else wants to tiptoe around the issue so I'll just say it. The problem with having the Michigan-MSU game at night is that Spartan fans have a long held tradition of trashing Ann Arbor every year. You've heard of Theta Xi members camping around the block M in the diag to protect it from Sparty fans -- that is the ONLY game they do that for, not for Ohio not for ND not for Minnesota. And that's only the interesting puff piece type of stuff you hear about. Other rivalries across the country are heated and the fan bases hate each other but there is still respect there. Both fan bases came down hard on the guy that killed the Auburn trees because that crossed a line and the schools still respected each other. There is NO respect between Michigan and MSU, just full on violent hate. Dave Brandon doesn't want a night game because he doesn't want Sparty fans in Ann Arbor any longer than they need to be. He wants to keep the city intact and its citizens safe. And that's worth more than anything gained from moving a regional rivalry to prime time. And to be honest do people even care? I feel like Michigan fans could care less about the Iron Bowl or USC-UCLA or Oregon-Oregon State. Why would they watch Michigan trounce on MSU every year?
Brian Bennett: I don't doubt that there are some shenanigans going on in this rivalry, or that there is plenty of hate on both sides. But you can't convince me that there is more animosity between Michigan and Michigan State than there is between Auburn and Alabama. Keeping the city intact and the citizens safe? Spartans fans may be rowdy, but I don't think they're the marauding vikings from those Capital One commercials. And as far as Michigan trouncing MSU every year, I'd say the past five seasons (four Michigan State wins, last year's two-point victory for Michigan) kind of debunk that theory.