Since tomorrow is the Mardi Gras of Big Ten bowl games, the Wednesday mailbag is coming to you a day early for a second straight week. Finish off 2013 with another Eve mailbag:
Eric from Columbus, OH, writes: Brian. Doom. That's the feeling hanging over my head looking into the bowl season. Minnesota losing a game they should have won. Michigan being crushed by K-State. Wisconsin and Michigan State have a shot, but could easily lose. Now I hear Ohio State will probably be without Bradley Roby and Noah Spence? *sigh* Things aren't looking very good....
Brian Bennett: You forgot to mention Devin Gardner's injury, or the stomach bug that's passing through Ohio State. Or the biggest "doom" of all: Max Bullough's stunning suspension. Teams deal with issues every bowl season, as a combination of the end of a semester coupled with too much down time in between games. But it does seem like there's more bad news than usual so far for the Big Ten. As if the league needed bad luck to go along with an already uphill battle in the postseason. But don't despair yet. If the conference can pull off a BCS win or two and beat two SEC teams, the rough start will be forgotten.
DJ from Minneapolis writes: It seems Minnesota took a major step backward with its lackluster performance against Syracuse, halting a lot of the momentum that had built up during the season. Is this a sign that Gophers football is back to reality again and lower-tiered bowl games is the best the program can reach?
Brian Bennett: I wouldn't go that far, DJ. We often see teams look completely different during bowl games because of the break between the end of the regular season and the postseason. To me, Minnesota's performance looked like a continuation of the last two games of the regular season against Wisconsin and Michigan State, when the Gophers offense couldn't do anything. Yes, those were the Big Ten's top two defenses, but I think we overlooked how good Syracuse's run D was. Without the ability to run the ball at a high level, Minnesota was in real trouble because of its continued lack of a passing game.
It was very disappointing that the passing game did not make any progress during the pre-bowl practices, however. And after playing Mitch Leidner over Philip Nelson most of the game, Jerry Kill has set up an offseason full of questions about the quarterback spot. The Gophers simply have to get better through the air to have a chance of competing at a high level. The Texas Bowl is one they should have won, and it was frustrating to see them play poorly for large stretches of the game. But this is still a young team with a lot of promise.
Alex from Harrisburg, Pa., writes: If Bill O'Brien does leave, what are the chances the program destabilizes completely (meaning we lose top recruits, see mass transfers, losing seasons)? It seems that experience tells us the majority of coaching changes are risky propositions even in the best of times. I understand there is much more optimism for a change now than before the sanctions, but I still feel like if O'Brien leaves it would definitely knock PSU down another five or 10 years before being able to be elite again. Finally would Mack Brown make a viable candidate? While unlikely, he could bring the stability needed to the program and also bring a much needed positive public figure in as the coach.
Brian Bennett: That's a very difficult question to answer without knowing whom Penn State would hire to replace O'Brien. The NCAA's get-out-of-jail-free transfer card has expired, so I wouldn't expect to see mass transfers. When players actually look at what transfering would mean -- sitting out a year, competing for a roster spot on an unfamiliar team, leaving their friends behind -- they often don't like it. There's always some attrition during a coaching change, but most of the guys who came to Penn State did so because they love the school and were willing to deal with the sanctions. That shouldn't change much because of a coaching change, unless the new guy brought a totally new system on one side of the ball.
It's also true that O'Brien would leave the program in much better shape than when he started his first season, under that cloud of scandal and sanction. The Nittany Lions can see the light at the end of the tunnel now, and the next guy could step in and have a bowl game and the possibility of a full roster on the near horizon. That makes the job attractive, though the lack of stability at president and AD is a challenge. Coaching moves, as you noted, are often a gamble. But as long as Penn State doesn't make a disastrous hire, the program should be able to continue moving forward. And no on Mack Brown. He's at the end of the coaching road, and the Nittany Lions need a guy who will be there a while.
Jack from Urbana, Ill., writes: Hey Brian! As an Illinois fan I was certainly not the happiest to hear that Tim Beckman was going to be bringing Tim Banks back as our defensive coordinator. After watching every single game it was incredibly frustrating to watch them struggle the way they would, giving up so many first downs after keeping the opposition to to third-and-long. However when thinking about it and listening to his reasoning I began to question whether or not I was too hard on his decision. Obviously as a fan I want to see improvement. However, given the fact it was a young defense he does hold a point that continuity may be best for a defense that returns most of its members. Not to mention we had an abysmal offense that turned into one of the most dynamic in the Big Ten. Should I be hopeful to see a similar improvement on defense that the offense had this year or is Beckman just loony?
Brian Bennett: Jack, I covered Banks back when he was at Cincinnati and there was still such a thing as the Big East blog. Banks took over a roster that had some serious holes in it when Brian Kelly left, and by Year 2, he had put together an outstanding defense.
So I know Banks can coach. The problems on the Illini defense have been puzzling, more so two years ago when there was still quite a bit of talent there (though injuries played a key role). The defense this year was abysmal, but Illinois was still playing a bunch of young guys. The talent up front just didn't seem to be there. Outside of Jonathan Brown, who was without question the MVP on the defense in 2013, almost every key contributor returns in '14, along with some recruiting reinforcements. It's quite fair to expect a major jump in performance next season. Banks' job -- and quite possibly Beckman's along with it -- depends upon it.
Tanner V . from Omaha, Neb., writes: I sound like a typical overconfident Nebraska fan here, but with a relatively weak West Division (besides Wisconsin) and a lot of talent returning on both sides of the ball, I like Nebraska's chances to get back to the Big Ten championship game next season. Who are your picks to represent the conference in the championship game next year?
Brian Bennett: Oh, boy. We haven't even gotten through bowl season, and you want to talk about the end of next year? It's far too soon to make predictions. I do see the West as being pretty darn wide open. Wisconsin could take a step back just because it loses so many valuable seniors, especially on defense. Nebraska should be a contender, with a rising defense and players such as Ameer Abdullah, Kenny Bell and Tommy Armstrong Jr. on offense. But can we really trust these Huskers? I want to see how they play against Georgia, especially since this is as healthy as Bo Pelini's team has been in a long time. Iowa will be a factor, and Minnesota could make noise once again as it brings back a whole lot from its two-deep. And what are we to make of Northwestern, which I can't see being this bad -- and this unlucky -- again?
So, yeah, the West looks pretty jumbled in '14. As for the East,much depends on whether Braxton Miller comes back for Ohio State. If so, the Buckeyes are probably a slight favorite. If not, I'd give the edge to Michigan State.
Kenny N from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., writes: Ohio State hasn't won a Big Ten championship in five years! They have two division titles, for which they made a big deal about "Division Championship Rings,"and such. Wisconsin has won three out of the last four Big Ten championships! Michigan State has played in two Big Ten championship games, winning the most recent. Ohio State is the third best team in the Big Ten over the last five years.You can't rewrite the record book. Deal with it!
Brian Bennett: I'm not sure what your point is, Kenny. I'm guessing you're referring to the piece I wrote about the Buckeyes' success in the BCS era; the numbers there can't really be refuted, as Ohio State has made more BCS bowls than anyone and is tied for the most wins. Ohio State won the Big Ten championship every year from 2005-09 and tied for the title in 2010 when there was a three-way deadlock. The Buckeyes were also clearly the best team in the league in 2012 when they were on probation, as they beat both teams that went on to the title game.
So all I can gather from your note is that you don't like Ohio State. At least you won't have to deal with them living in Fort Lauderdale. Oh, wait.
I'm in Fort Lauderdale, too, and am going to go celebrate New Year's Eve in the warm weather. Have a safe and happy night, everybody, and enjoy the plethora of games on Wednesday.