I've got the perfect cure for your post-holiday weekend hangover. It's the Monday mailbag:
John from Omaha writes: Regarding Nebraska vs. Expansion, you missed an important point in your assessment of Husker aversion to the new additions and the resulting new divisions. First, the West Division reminds Husker fans of the Big XII North. This is a problem because there are real disadvantages of being part of a division that is weak in terms of its national brand (star power). Husker fans want to be associated with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan because it will help our program be successful. Playing Michigan, OSU and PSU brings national exposure. Exposure brings more success; exposure builds the Husker national brand, exposure helps recruiting. Exposure is everything. You missed the point entirely by saying the Huskers think they are too good for the West; it's not about Nebraska being too good for the West. IT'S ABOUT NATIONAL EXPOSURE!
Brian Bennett: John, I wrote in that piece that Nebraska "thought that leaving the Big 12 for Jim Delany's league meant plenty of games against Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State" and that the Eastern expansion didn't help the Huskers much. So we're on the same wavelength. Remember that one of the goals of adding Maryland and Rutgers was adding that exposure in the highly populated Eastern regions, yet Nebraska might play on the East Coast only once every couple of years.
As for the Big Ten West resembling the Big 12 North, I think that might be a bit unfair. Wisconsin, after all, has been to three Rose Bowls in the past four years and is a nationally recognized brand. Iowa has had a lot of success this century and appears to be on another upswing. Northwestern and Illinois have had their tastes of major bowls. If anything, the West should feature a lot of parity, if not a many superpowers. It will be up to those teams to make sure the balance of power between the two divisions doesn't get out of whack.
Sky F. from Norfolk, Neb., writes: I'd like to quote Herm Edwards here: "YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME!" We here in Nebraska don't really care who we play, so long as we are playing. I'd also like to quote you another saying: "Not the victory but the action, not the goal but the game: in the deed the glory." If that doesn't sum up to you what Nebraska football means to us I don't know what else can. I couldn't care less who we are playing, I regret NOT AT ALL leaving the Big 12; I care only for those fall Saturday afternoons and watching my team play. Sure it'd be nice to play OSU or Michigan, but I'm not going to be too fussed about it one way or another.
Brian Bennett: An interesting take there, Sky, and I would say the record 333-game sellout streak at Memorial Stadium indicates that Big Red will show up no matter who is on the opposing sideline. Parity scheduling should also mean that the Huskers get at least one big-name opponent from the East Division most years, and upgraded nonconference scheduling including the likes of Oklahoma also helps. If Nebraska wins at a healthy rate and plays often in the Big Ten championship game, I don't think there will be too many complaints in Lincoln. Playing in the West can be an advantage, after all.
Bob in Virginia writes: Brian, I can't disagree with your assessment of Rutgers' chances in the key stretch of Michigan, OSU, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Though I would also submit much of the rest of the league would have trouble winning more than one game against that group. I'm not sure Wisconsin's O-line will be the deciding factor in that game. Arkansas had big bodies up front last year as well, though probably not as talented. In the end RU is going to live or die on Gary Nova's arm. If he performs like a senior should we'll win one or two of those games. If not, we're in trouble.
Brian Bennett: Bob, that prediction of 0-4 wasn't a knock on Rutgers as much as it was an acknowledgment of how incredibly difficult that stretch would be for anyone, let alone a team adjusting to a brand new league. As I wrote, Michigan looks like the most beatable team of that group, especially if the Wolverines continue their up-and-down pattern of a year ago. Rutgers might have beaten a Bret Bielema-coached team last year, but he doesn't have Arkansas quite up to his old Wisconsin standards yet. It will be fascinating to see how the Scarlet Knights' undersized but athletic defensive front handles what has long been one of the Big Ten's toughest units to handle in the Badgers' massive O-line. I am with you on your last point: if Rutgers is going to jump up and make some noise, it will have to make huge improvements on offense and at quarterback in general. Ralph Friedgen might be the man to make that happen.
Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: You and quite a few others have stated that the Minnesota 2014 team could be better than the 2013 team and have a worse record. What might be signs of improvement if that is the case: a win over Michigan or perhaps Wisconsin? The defense having similar ratings to last year?
Brian Bennett: The difficulty of the Gophers' 2014 league schedule -- crossover games against Michigan and Ohio State, road matchups at Nebraska and Wisconsin -- make it hard to forecast a better record than last year's 8-4 regular-season mark. But every time I talk to Gophers players and coaches, they sound confident that this could be the best team in the Jerry Kill era. The obvious area for major improvement is in the passing game, which really couldn't be more ineffective than it was last year. The offensive line and running game should remain strong, and the defense should be good if the Gophers make up for the absence of Ra'Shede Hageman. Whether Minnesota can take another step forward likely will come down to if it can pull of some upsets, like breaking those losing streaks against the Wolverines and Badgers.
Thomas C. from Charlotte N.C., writes: Do you see a lack in developing players at Ohio State compared to Michigan State? It seems, if you believe in the rating system that Ohio State and even Michigan land the five-stars and four-stars while others like Michigan State get the leftovers. You can see how well coached the kids at Michigan State are and the impressive wins they are piling up. Do you think kids coming into a system being ranked as a three-star with no hype are easier to develop then the five-star kids who believe they already have one foot into the NFL as freshmen? Concerned Buckeye!
Brian Bennett: I think many programs would suffer in comparison to the player-development abilities of Michigan State (with the exception of maybe Iowa and Wisconsin). The Spartans do that as well as anybody, and though not all of their recruits are highly rated, they do an outstanding job of locating athletes who fit their profile and system without worrying about star rankings. Still, I don't think there's any lack of development at Ohio State. We saw how the offensive line went from an underachieving group to becoming the best in the Big Ten for two years under Ed Warriner. Guys like Ryan Shazier, Bradley Roby, Carlos Hyde and Philly Brown more than lived up to their potential. The safety position and linebackers outside of Shazier haven't had as much success, but I think we'll see that start to change this year. I'm more concerned about Michigan's player-development system, given how few true superstars have emerged yet out of some highly ranked classes in Ann Arbor. But there is still time.