Big Ten Monday mailbag

There is one more full weekend before most Big Ten teams report for fall practice. My advice to players: stay home this weekend, maybe catch up on some TV. Bad things happen in bars at the end of summer.

Good things happen when you email me. Like this mailbag:

Chris from the Show Me State writes: As a MSU fan that has spent much time in the Midwest I have a few observations about the upcoming season. 1. NW is going to surprise everybody this year. They are legit and I wouldn't be shocked if they finish 1 or 2 in the Legends. 2. NW has the offensive playmakers to make some noise but are they deep enough and well rounded (defense) to weather the storm? 3. I understand it is good for the Big 10 when Michigan is good but I believe Blue has a set back year. Recruiting championships and September Heismans are noise and don't = Big Ten wins. I predict 5 Big losses ...

Brian Bennett: Since you're from the home state of the first-place St. Louis Cardinals, I'll let you go first today, Chris. I agree that Northwestern certainly could finish first or second in the Legends Division, but would that really "surprise everybody?" If so, everybody isn't paying attention. The Wildcats won 10 games last year and held late fourth-quarter leads over Michigan and Nebraska, so they have to be considered a legitimate division contender. The defense, as you mentioned, will always be something of a question mark. But I like the linebacker group, led by Chi Chi Ariguzo and Damien Proby, and I think the secondary will be improved with a healthy Nick VanHoose and Ibraheim Campbell back. The defensive front is underrated and anchored by Tyler Scott. Northwestern's defense still has to prove it on the field, especially late in games against top opponents, but I believe the talent is there.

As for Michigan, it's safe to say you might be a little biased there. The Wolverines have a pretty favorable schedule, with Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State all coming to Ann Arbor, though road trips to Northwestern and Michigan State will be tricky. Anything is possible, but I'd be surprised if Michigan doesn't improve after last year's five-loss season against a much more brutal schedule.

Jon from Columbus writes: Last chance to change your vote on OSU winning the B1G. They were an 8-4 team, even within the conference, in terms of talent that got all the right breaks to go undefeated. Looks like Carlos Hyde may be kicked off the team, if not out of the university. Prediction: the Bucks lose 3 games in conference and Wisconsin goes to Indianapolis to take on Michigan.

Brian Bennett: Well, it's not the last chance, because I have not offered my official, final preseason picks yet. (I did vote for Ohio State in The Plain Dealer media poll, but I consider my official pick to be the one that Adam and I reveal in August -- and I'm currently trying to erase all evidence of last year's Michigan State pick). I can't agree with you that Ohio State had 8-4 talent last year, not with Braxton Miller, John Simon, Bradley Roby, the league's best offensive line, etc. And especially not in what was a down year for the league overall in 2012. The loss of Hyde hurts, but running backs can be replaced. That in and of itself is not enough to dissuade me from the opinion that the Buckeyes have to be the favorite in 2013.

Ken G. from Highland Park, Ill., writes: Is there any reason to believe the Illini can win 5 games this year?

Brian Bennett: Well, let's play the optimist and see if we can figure out a way. First, the team will have to stay healthy, because depth remains an issue. Let's say the offense takes a big jump forward with Bill Cubit as offensive coordinator and Nathan Scheelhaase rediscovering his early-career form. Junior college transfers make a big impact, and Jonathan Brown gets back to blowing up plays at linebacker. And let's give Illinois wins at home over Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio). A big key will be whether the Illini can beat either Cincinnati at home or Washington in Chicago, because I think winning three league games in a Big Ten schedule that includes crossovers against Nebraska, Michigan State and Northwestern is going to be tough. The games against Indiana and Purdue -- two teams that Illinois competed reasonably well against last year -- are both on the road. So it is definitely an uphill climb.

Adam from Des Moines writes: With regards to John from Philadelphia's comment about Iowa/Nebraska not being a rivalry, I agree that the matchups have been one-sided. But why does everyone make a fuss about that matchup and nobody cares that OSU and UM have some very lopsided B1G Rivalries, too? Being a Husker fan living in Iowa, I really enjoy the rivalry being surrounded by Hawks fans. It's kind of fun watching them squirm on rivalry weekend. I know that the hatred runs pretty thick around here and if Uof I can win a couple it might get more interesting, but for now it's still interesting to me.

Brian Bennett: While it's impossible to compare Iowa-Nebraska to Ohio State-Michigan, we also need to remember that the Heroes Game has only been played twice. It's way too soon to write it off as a rivalry that's never going to take off. The geography makes the game a natural one, and even though Iowa has been down, the Hawkeyes made the Huskers sweat during last year's 13-7 slog in Iowa City when the division title was at stake. All it will take is a couple of Iowa upsets to inject some heat into this series. But the Hawkeyes need to hold up their end of the bargain.

Dan P. from West Milford, N.J., writes: I'd like to applaud you on your patience on the following topic. I keep reading about the lack of a consistent rivalry game for Penn State and the dismissal of both Maryland and Rutgers to fill that gap. History -- RU first played PSU in 1918 and won, since then they have not been as lucky going 1-22 over the next 90 or so years. PSU has not played RU on campus since 1955, all of the other "home" games were played at Giants Stadium. If you ever had the pleasure to go to one of those games you would know it was really a PSU home game 6 hours away from Happy Valley. What you truly need for a good rivalry is equal competition and close games, RU needs to beat PSU a couple of times in the next few years and I guarantee that both sides will circle that game on the schedule. The question is can RU do it? And not over just 2-3 years, but over the next 10-15? We have never been the model of football consistency. I like to believe so, but only time will tell. Also was that you masquerading as Matt Damon last week on Nebraska's campus??

Brian Bennett: I think the Rutgers-Penn State series in the Big Ten has real potential, despite its historic lopsidedness. Both campuses are within easy driving distances of one another, and the two programs compete for a lot of the same recruits. The Scarlet Knights in recent years have done a better job of actually winning several of those recruiting battles versus the Nittany Lions, and Rutgers sure looks like a team on the rise. You could argue that Rutgers should be in much better shape in the next few years than a Penn State program dealing with harsh scholarship reductions. Which also means the time for the Scarlet Knights to strike back at the Lions is now, because Penn State has tradition and a much bigger fan base on its side. I have higher hopes for a Penn State-Rutgers rivalry than I do for Penn State-Maryland.

It's funny that you mention that about Matt Damon. He's the celebrity I've been told I look like the most, though it happened much more in my younger days since Damon doesn't have nearly as much grey hair as I. Hopefully he'll start going to Nebraska games and I can cover one so we can finally be in the same place at the same time.

Mitch from Lincoln writes: Just saw the candidates who are to represent the B1G on the playoff committee and I was very surprised that Tom Osborne was not on the list. I am not sad or mad either way, just very surprised he wasn't in the discussion. Is it because Nebraska is new to the B1G and they wanted someone closer to home who has more history with the conference? I understand both for and against, but I just wanted him to have a chance.

Brian Bennett: Mitch, I'm guessing you're referring to our poll on Friday. To be clear, that was just a poll we did after it was reported that current athletic directors would be a part of the selection committee. Of course, Tom Osborne is not a current athletic director, since he retired from that post in January. Former athletic directors could still serve on the committee, and if so, Osborne would be an outstanding choice if he's interested.

Gale from Virginia Beach, Va., writes: Can Jake Ryan qualify for a medical redshirt and play a 5th year for the Wolverines??

Brian Bennett: Gale, Ryan redshirted his first year with the Wolverines, so he'd have to finish his career and apply for a sixth year through the NCAA if he does not play this year. The NCAA has been pretty good lately in granting those to players who missed a year because of injury. But the plan remains for Ryan to come back and play this year, possibly by midseason. We'll see if that happens and whether Ryan -- who suffered a torn ACL in the spring -- is far enough along early enough in the fall for a return to be worth it for both him and the team.

Jon B. from Houston writes: Your comment on the Florida A&M band not traveling to Columbus suggested you might not be aware that the band is currently suspended for a hazing death of one of the band members.

Brian Bennett: I had forgotten about that story, Jon, but the band actually had its suspension lifted last month. The school has said the band has to prove it deserves its second chance. So maybe a trip to Columbus isn't warranted. But it sure makes that game even less appealing.