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Sean from Houston writes: I know that conference expansion/realignment talk is currently on the back burner. (I hope it stays there for a while.) I am interested in what your view is on what seems to be a significant effort by Virginia Tech to schedule games against Big Ten teams. They currently have home and away games scheduled with Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan and just recently Penn State. Do you think they are doing it for just increased exposure or are working to develop relationships with the Big Ten that may make them look more viable down the road?
Adam Rittenberg: I see Virginia Tech's recent additions more as positioning itself for a possible College Football Playoff run than improving its chances of joining another conference. The Hokies likely would have been a fringe Playoff team for much of Frank Beamer's tenure, and the selection committee's presumed emphasis on strength of schedule has caused a lot of programs like Virginia Tech to beef up their non-league schedules. The ACC's recent grant of media rights agreement makes it almost impossible for teams to leave the league, and Virginia Tech has been mentioned more as an SEC expansion target than Big Ten. So I don't view the recent moves as a push for the Big Ten.
Becket from Portage, Mich., writes: I am a lifelong MSU fan and alum, but am generally pretty realistic in terms of the teams we field in football and basketball. Two questions. Am I crazy to think that this should be a 9-win team, +/- one game depending on the presence or absence of stupid errors in close games (generally penalties at the worst time)? Second, more important question. Am I crazy to think that the best shot this team has is with Maxwell finding his calling as a backup quarterbacks coach, holding a clipboard and wearing a headset this season? I know everyone wants to compare this season for Maxwell with Cousins second season as a starter and assume it will be a lift off point for him, but I don't see it...at all.
Adam Rittenberg: You're certainly not crazy in thinking Michigan State could improve its wins total this season. The Spartans lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points, and they return most of the core pieces on defense, a Top 10 unit nationally in each of the past two seasons. Most of us agree the defense will keep Michigan State in every game this season, so it comes down to winning more of the nail-biters. I expect at least eight wins out of Mark Dantonio's crew.
As to your second question, while I can understand your concern about Maxwell after his struggles last season, I would give him a chance early this year to show things will be different. I like that Dantonio will play multiple QBs early -- Michigan State shouldn't be challenged much in the first three games -- before settling on a guy, likely for the Notre Dame game and beyond. Maxwell has some good attributes and should benefit from a full year under his belt and possibly a stronger group of receivers at his disposal. But Michigan State made a mistake by not getting Maxwell a taste of game action before last season. It's important not to let that happen again.
Apurba from Oakland, Calif., writes: I've noticed on a few mailbags (including yours) that Nebraska fans have written in to state that Bo Pelini is on the hot seat. Usually the respondents have been pretty sympathetic to that stance and I just wanted to throw in my two cents, which is that such an opinion is crazy.In Bo's years at Nebraska he really only has one horrid loss (Iowa State) and one bad loss (NW last year). It is absolutely the case that his teams haven't beaten a single team that they shouldn't have but you can only win 9.6 games a year by basically never losing to the middle and cellar dwellers. These teams have real coaches with real plans and real game strategies and they want to beat Nebraska but they haven't. Yes, it sucks to get blown out by good teams and not feel like you're even in the same league but until he starts regularly dipping in the 7 or 8 win territory he's safe. No AD could fire a guy whose teams are this consistent.
Adam Rittenberg: Apurba, you make some good points here about Bo's ability to win consistently and beat the teams Nebraska is supposed to beat. I'd disagree that he has had only one horrid loss. Sure, he hasn't lost to many middling/bad teams, but I'd count the loss to Wisconsin in last year's Big Ten title game as nothing short of horrid. Wisconsin wasn't a bad team by any means, but the Badgers came in at 7-5, including a loss to Nebraska in Lincoln. The nature of that loss -- falling flat on a big stage -- can't be dismissed when evaluating Bo. The same holds true for some of the other big-game flops Nebraska has had under his watch, especially in Big Ten play. Eventually, those types of losses get coaches fired. But I agree that the hot-seat talk for Pelini is premature as long as he keeps winning nine or more games a year, which I see continuing in 2013.
Adam from Akron, Ohio, writes: Adam, I'm an Buckeye born and raised so I understand the perception the Big 10 has vs. other stronger football conferences such as the SEC and Pac 12, and perception is reality. But I have a very simple question. We all can agree a 1-loss SEC Champ makes it to the title game this year, especially if it's Alabama. But in this following scenario, who would they play? An undefeated Ohio State team and Big 10 Champion or an Undefeated Oregon/Stanford team and Pac-12 champion? All 3 non-league schedules this year of Ohio State, Oregon, and Stanford don't really help either team in the BCS formula as they are all quite weak. So all things being equal in non-conference wins, what would weight more, running the conference table in the Big 10 or Pac 12? Hard to argue that the Big 10 conference schedule of Ohio State is tougher than that of an Oregon or Stanford, but would the BCS formula actually leap frog an Ohio State team that has won 25 straight games for an undefeated Pac 12 team? Talk about more chaos in the last year of the BCS!
Adam Rittenberg: I agree, Adam, that chaos would reign in those final weeks before the BCS selections. Would a 1-loss SEC champion automatically make it in against undefeated teams from both the Pac-12 and Big Ten? It seems likely, but it might have to be the right SEC team, too (Alabama, Texas A&M). Assuming an SEC team makes the title game no matter what, it would be interesting to see if Ohio State could make it in ahead of an undefeated Pac-12 champ. I do think the Pac-12 is perceived to be stronger -- perhaps substantially stronger -- than the Big Ten. It's why the entire Big Ten, not just Ohio State, needs to perform well in non-league play, especially in games against the Pac-12 (Nebraska-UCLA, Wisconsin-Arizona State, Illinois-Washington).
Ohio State's non-league schedule won't help its cause, so the entire Big Ten must boost the Buckeyes, both in the polls and in the computers, if they want to leapfrog a team from a conference perceived, at least right now, to be better. The Buckeyes can help themselves with decisive wins, particularly against Michigan and in the Big Ten championship game (ideally against another top 10 opponent).
Tom from Madison, Wis., writes: At what point should Wisconsin fans begin to worry that a starting quarterback hasn't been chosen? With all of the new coaches and whatever changes Gary Andersen has made on offense, wouldn't it be beneficial for the starter to get as many reps as possible? I don't doubt that each candidates is talented, but we have a difficult non-con game (for once) early in Arizona State and I don't want problems with miscommunication.
Adam Rittenberg: Tom, while I understand your concern, it's not as if Wisconsin is dealing with quarterback candidates who have never played. Both Joel Stave and Curt Phillips have started Big Ten games for the Badgers, and in Phillips' case, he has been around the program seemingly forever. Yes, the coaching staff is new, but Wisconsin's offensive structure isn't changing dramatically under Andy Ludwig, who understands what has made the Badgers so strong over the years. Many teams wait until 7-10 days before the opener to name a starter, and I think we'll have a resolution soon, possibly after Monday's scrimmage, which I'll attend.
Gale from Virginia Beach, Va., writes: As long as Hoke is coaching the Wolverines, will Borges and Mattison be on his staff??
Adam Rittenberg: I think there's a pretty good chance, Gale. Greg Mattison has said multiple times, especially after his recent contract extension, that Michigan will be his final coaching stop. His affinity for the school and the program is on par with Brady Hoke's, and Mattison turns 64 in November and likely will coach only a few more years. Borges also loves being at Michigan, and after hopscotching the country to various offensive coordinator jobs, I can imagine he'd like to stay put for a while as long as Michigan will have him. Unless a head-coaching opportunity surfaces, I expect Borges to remain at Michigan for a while.
Samuel from Iowa City, Iowa, writes: "Loh makes a totally reasonable point, but facilities are integral to recruiting, especially when you're competing with heavyweights like Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State." Why are you slamming Maryland's choice of priorities? Just as you mentioned it in your post, MD is on the take. A free lunch is more important than winning football games.
Adam Rittenberg: Samuel, I'm not slamming Maryland's choice there at all. Of course it's the right one, as a major-conference athletic program has to provide adequate meal plans to its athletes. That goes without saying. I was just trying to underscore how much of a disadvantage Maryland could find itself in, because of its overall financial problems, as it enters a new league filled with programs that have all the resources at their disposal. It's not an either/or thing. Maryland needs to get on financial footing as an overall athletic program as soon as possible.