Big Ten Thursday mailbag

College football kicks off in just a couple of hours. Ohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh. OK, just breathe. I clearly need something to get me through the last vestiges of the offseason, so let's hit the mailbag:

Brandon from Toledo writes: If Michigan defeats Alabama this weekend and Michigan State loses to Boise St, will you change your prediction for conference champion? Neither of these games would affect the league race and it is early in the season. Assuming this were to occur though, would you change your conference outlook or stick with your preseason gut feeling?

Brian Bennett: Preseason predictions are just that, Brandon. We go with what we think might happen based on what we know and what we've seen in practice. But once the actual season begins, everything changes. I try to base my rankings on what has actually occurred. If Michigan beats Alabama, no matter what else happens, I'll have the Wolverines not only at the top of the Big Ten power rankings, but I'll vote them No. 1 in the ESPN.com Top 25 as well. Hopefully, all poll voters throw out their preseason perceptions once we have actual game results.

Bryan S. from Philadelphia writes: With the Michigan-Alabama game coming up, all the focus has been on the Michigan offense vs. the Alabama defense, and rightly so. However, with an improving Michigan D, how does the matchup look vs the Alabama offense? Can Michigan keep them from scoring enough points to win or maybe even shut them down completely so the offense doesn't have to win the game for them?

Brian Bennett: To me, the entire key to this game is whether the Michigan defensive line can hold up against the Alabama offensive line. Denard Robinson can make some things happen, but we know the Crimson Tide defense will be tough. While Alabama might not have an explosive offense, its O-line looks like an NFL unit, led by Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones at center. Michigan's rebuilt defensive line has been its most pressing concern all offseason. If guys like Will Campbell and Craig Roh don't have good games, it could be a long night in Texas for the Wolverines.

Joe W. from Urbandale, Iowa, writes: I must admit I'm disappointed and a bit offended by the audacious decision to pioneer a new 3-running-back format for the preseason all-conference team. Where were you on this last year when you named Penn State's Derek Moye a preseason first teamer coming off a 40-catch, 3-TD season??? His prospects going into last year were really higher than Iowa's Keenan Davis this year, who's coming off a 50-catch 4-TD season and who, oh by the way, is now the No. 1 target for the best passing QB in the B1G? Yeah, caught you there, didn't I? Which brings me to my next point: you call WR a weak position, and yet you name a tight end with 16 career catches (Iowa's CJ Fiedorowicz) to the first team based on "potential"? So you contradicted yourself merely six players into your own newly formed 3-RB all B1G team. I'm an Iowa fan and I even think that's ludicrous. If any position was deserving of being nixed this year, it's tight end. And while I love Le'Veon Bell and Rex Burkhead, neither is yet deserving of being named with Montee Ball.

Brian Bennett: We knew that decision would be controversial, and I can tell you we had Davis as the second WR on our first draft. I think he has a chance to have a really good season, but we're just not sold yet on a player who has had too many drops in the past. I disagree with you on Burkhead; he has more than earned first-team status and is one of the nation's top running backs. Bell nearly had 1,000 yards last year despite not being the full-time starter until midseason and playing for a team that was pass-heavy. He is ready to erupt this season. I was bigger than Adam on Fiedorowicz, but I thought he really emerged late last year and had by all accounts an excellent offseason. I feel good about his chances of having a standout year in a league which should experience a tight end renaissance.

Nathan D. from East Lansing writes: F weeks I've been reading comments and questions from other readers about their disappointment in MSU being ranked so highly among you and Adam and other outlets picking them to win the division and possible Rose Bowl Berth because of the fact that they lost so much on offense. While I agree that starting three brand new receivers with little to no game experience is a little unorthodox and rarely happens, EVERY team in the country starts a new QB every 2-3 years with them also having little to no game experience. Why is the fact that Andrew Maxwell is a new starter causing such a huge fuss among people? Even if it's clear that he is further along than Cousins was at this point and could possibly be better by being in the program for four years now? Thanks.

Brian Bennett: It makes sense why people are skeptical of teams with new quarterbacks. It's the most important position on the field and one in which players usually need time to develop. But as you mentioned, Maxwell is a little different because of all the time he has spent in the Spartans' system. Michigan State also has an outstanding defense and what should be a vastly improved running game to lean on. We think that's enough to make the Spartans the best in the Big Ten. We'll find out a lot on Friday night.

Keith from Honolulu writes: Brian, great thing you and Adam have here! Riddle me this...which team from each of the divisions have the biggest talent gap between their offensive units and defensive units? GO B1G!

Brian Bennett: Thanks, Keith. Can I come to your place to blog on Saturday? Anyway, I'd say the choices here are Penn State in the Leaders and Northwestern in the Legends. The Nittany Lions have a terrific front seven, as good as there is in the league, and a talented if inexperienced secondary. The defense is why they won games last year. But the offense is just not nearly to the same level, especially after the transfers of projected stars Silas Redd and Justin Brown. Bill O'Brien should start to change that. Northwestern is the opposite. The Wildcats continue to field an explosive offense and should score a lot of points this year with the multi-dimensional Kain Colter and a deep receiving corps. But they still lack elite playmakers on defense and had trouble stopping anybody last year. Imagine if you could combine Northwestern's offense with Penn State's defense.

Matt from Burbank, Calif., writes: Brian, it's tough to be a fan of a largely irrelevant team. Northwestern has been getting better and working hard to gain respect, but last year was so painful that we've largely fallen off the radar. It wasn't just the losses -- it was how we lost. We used to be the Cardiac Cats, but now we're the ones blowing late leads. Do you think there's any chance that the 'Cats end their bowl drought this year? If not, how long do think we'll have to wait before we get this monkey off our back? Thanks, no matter what I'm looking forward to this season. Go 'Cats! Go Big Ten!

Brian Bennett: Northwestern was a frustrating team last year, one that was somehow good enough to beat Nebraska on the road yet lose to Army and suffer five double-digit losses along the way. The Wildcats haven't won a bowl since 1949 but were very close in '03 (lost to Bowling Green by four), '08 (lost to Missouri in OT), '10 (lost to Auburn in OT) and '11 (lost to Texas Tech by seven). The Big Ten bowl lineup is such that Northwestern is often matched against teams that may be a little bit better and more talented. But the program is not far away, and if the defense can make strides this year, Pat Fitzgerald's team could make some noise. One thing you have for sure: your team's games are rarely boring.

Kevin from Oak Creek, Colo., writes: You have Wisconsin losing 3 conference games, which games are those? The only loss that I think might happen would be in Nebraska but other then that they should be either 11-1 or 12-0 going into the Big Ten title game.

Brian Bennett: I have the Badgers losing at Nebraska, at Purdue and at Penn State to end the year. Crazy? Perhaps. But Wisconsin is simply a different team on the road, and I think the Boilermakers could be lying in wait for them in West Lafayette. And Penn State will be fired up for the Badgers in what is essentially their bowl game in the regular-season finale. The Badgers might already have the division wrapped up by then, anyway.

Allen from Lincoln writes: Brian, who would you rather have as quarterback? Taylor Martinez or Denard Robinson? Go back and look at their stats from last year, they are not that different. Plus Taylor had half as many interceptions as Denard and more attempts. Yes, Taylor has a horrible looking throwing motion, but he seems to get the job done. Yes, he lost two big games to Michigan and Wisconsin, but Denard had some bad losses as well. Going into this season who do you think is going to be better? Denard who lost some of his big name receivers? Or Taylor, who has almost his entire corp back intact, plus two great tight ends and a do everything back behind him. I think it is a closer call than a No. 25 and No. 6 ranking.

Brian Bennett: I'd rather have Denard Robinson. No matter what numbers you want to use, Robinson just has the ability to win games and make huge plays in big spots. When he's on, he's as dangerous an offensive player as there is in the country. Martinez hasn't come through in as many big games. I do expect Martinez to improve as a passer this year. But if I had to choose one to go win a game for me, I'd pick Robinson every time.

Mike from Jackson, Mich., writes: Why are you and Adam giving Brady Hoke and Michigan a pass on Toussant? Every other coach has suspended their starter for transgressions similar/same as DUI, yet Hoke has him practicing and listed as a starter. What gives?

Brian Bennett: We have hardly given Hoke a pass, Mike. Toussaint was suspended after the arrest, and Hoke has not said whether his running back will play in the opener. Adam and I have both said we think Toussaint should sit against Alabama. If he does play, Hoke will be criticized by many, including us. I suspect that's probably what will end up happening. But it's hard to get too worked up over something that hasn't happened yet.

Ron from Huntersville, N.C., writes: What is the point of Best/Worst cases reporting nonsense? Can't you report intelligently about real, current event sports topics?

Brian Bennett: Yes, Ron, a whole bunch of reporting goes into those posts. Sigh. I guess we are not supposed to have any fun at all when it comes to football, which is still after all a game people play. And those have been one post out of about 12 per day. I guess humor is not your thing. I hope you can enjoy yourself when the real games start in a couple of hours. Just remember that it's football, not life and death.