We're not celebrating any presidents on Monday, so I'm back to a twice-weekly mailbag. Keep those cards and letters flowing. Or, you know, email me. Yeah, that's probably better.
David from Minneapolis writes: In your QB race Take Two the other day, you mentioned Wisconsin as your race to watch. While I agree that starting a new QB with no or limited experience out of the gate this year against LSU wouldn't be ideal, would you not want to consider the schedule for the next couple years as well? Over the next three seasons UW opens with LSU (twice) and Alabama. Wouldn't risking this year's game with LSU be worth it to possibly have Gary Andersen's type of QB ready to go by next fall and the year after for those big SEC games? Almost taking this year to develop him and the young receivers so you can have sustained success going forward?
Brian Bennett: David, I don't think any coach thinks like that, nor should one in a situation like Wisconsin. You're promised nothing but the present in college sports. Andersen is going to do what he thinks gives his team the best chance to win in every game. If he wants to go with a younger, more mobile quarterback, he could always do that later in the season. Connor Cook didn't start the opener for Michigan State, but that turned out pretty well last season. Joel Stave has a huge experience edge that makes him the overwhelming favorite to start the opener vs. LSU. Other candidates Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and D.J. Gillins are going to have to outplay him to see the field.
Rob from New York, N.Y., writes: Brian, in an Insider article arguing that Iowa has a shot at winning the B1G West, KC Joyner used as a presumption that Wisconsin was in a state of decline. Your boy Adam reiterated a similar point (though more focused on just 2014) in your article about next year's West outlook. Now, I don't think the Hawkeyes are going to be bad or that Wisconsin will definitely win the West, but it's a little rich to hear the same guys who argued that Wisconsin was on the cusp of "elite" suddenly assuming it is in decline mere weeks later. Losing the last two games hurts, but there's not much shame in losing to the No. 4 team in the country in an effective road game. And losing a stellar senior class hurts this upcoming year, sure (and to be fair, that was more Adam's point), but that's less about the *program* and more cycles of recruiting. So, let's hit the brakes and understand the following: Andersen has a highly regarded class coming in that will vastly improve the speed overall but especially on the outside (a weakness Bret Bielema routinely failed to cure), the offense will have a real competition at QB with four viable options, and all the young'uns will have another year of experience in what is a very new system.
Brian Bennett: Rob, if there's any talk about a "decline" for the Badgers, it's simply about 2014. And it's only because Wisconsin lost a huge and highly productive group of seniors, has no proven receiving targets and must reload in the defensive front seven. This is a program that has shown it can maintain a high level of success year in and year out, but it's hard for any team to avoid taking a minor step back when guys such as Chris Borland, Jared Abbrederis, Jacob Pedersen and Beau Allen depart. There are good young players on the roster, but they have to prove themselves. Then again, with Wisconsin's schedule after the LSU opener, this year's team might put up a better record than last year and not be quite as good.
Glenn G. from Vancouver writes: I was pleased to hear Troy Calhoun's comment asking for some evidence of injury relative to the hurry-up offense. With the increase of hype over substance in sports reporting (your and Adam's work excluded), don't you think that if there was a sniff of an injury trend here the sports media would have blown it WAY out of proportion by now? Oregon has been running that game for what, five or six years? I haven't heard a peep. It's possible I don't hear very well, but what I do hear is some powerful coaches making a political play to give their teams an edge. What do you think the reality of the injury situation is, and what is the likelihood the rules committee will pass the slowdown? Restore my faith in common sense!
Brian Bennett: Glenn, solid statistical information showing that hurry-up offenses affects injuries would be very difficult to compile (though here is one admirable attempt, which appears to suggest the opposite of the slow-down crowd's argument). As you said, there has been very little talk in recent years of that happening and no real anecdotal evidence, either. Bielema has not been making new friends while suggesting the up-tempo offense and a Cal player's death belong in the same argument. I agree that the injury argument seems like a pretty convenient excuse made by coaches who don't favor that style of play. If fast-paced offenses really caused more players to get hurt, wouldn't programs like Oregon and Baylor have a rash of injuries in practice?
Jpeezy from Chicago writes: Unlike Wednesday's Purdue fan, I do not believe in Darrell Hazell. I know it's pretty early to write him off, but hear me out. Initially, I was disturbed at how difficult it was for Purdue to get plays called, get 11 guys on the field and not commit costly pre-snap penalties through the first few games of the year. As that got better, execution flaws took their place. For example, calling screens to combat pressure is a good idea, but the line and running backs couldn't release at the same time or in the same direction with enough consistency for the defense to respect the threat. Further, it troubled me that the coaching staff didn't adjust to the lack of execution by at least sprinkling in some easier-to-execute pass plays like quick passes to the flat or slants to get defenses off their back until late in the season. Does it seem reasonable to attribute these concerns to the installation of a new coaching staff? Does a coach at a program like Purdue get a pass for a couple years where you just look the other way?
Brian Bennett: Like you, I was pretty astonished at Purdue's inability to simply administer the basic parts of the game early in the season. Some of that can be attributed to a new staff, but that really should never happen at this level. I'd have more concerns about Hazell if he hadn't already demonstrated that he could win at Kent State. Sure, the MAC is not the Big Ten, but that league was very competitive two years ago when Hazell's Golden Flashes nearly beat Northern Illinois in the MAC title game. My bigger concern for the Boilermakers is whether Hazell's preferred physical, run-first style of offense is the right fit for this program. Purdue is likely never going to out-recruit and out-athlete upper-tier Big Ten teams, so running a version of Tressel-ball without elite players becomes problematic. The spread offense was a great equalizer. Let's see how Hazell adjusts, and I think he's a bright and very capable coach.
Jim M. from San Francisco writes: Do you anticipate a step up in the effectiveness of Nebraska's special teams this year, given the apparent added depth, as well as the addition of several recruits with return abilities (assuming one or more of them do not redshirt this season), and the lack of much of a punt return game last season?
Brian Bennett: Jim, predicting performance on special teams is a tricky matter and an often overlooked aspect of the game. I find it incredibly hard to believe, though, that Nebraska can't improve its 2013 punt return average of 3 yards per attempt, which ranked 121st out of 123 FBS teams. The Cornhuskers have too many good athletes for that to happen again, and it's clearly a sign that the approach needs to change. While half the battle of returning punts is simply catching the ball cleanly, knowing when to signal for a fair catch, etc., I'd certainly expect Bo Pelini and special teams coordinator Ross Els to review and revise the punt return unit and figure out a way to provide the offense with better field position.