Dienhart: It's Big Ten Mailbag time

You have questions, I have answers in this week’s mailbag. Many of you are still in football mode, wondering about the recently completed bowl season—while also wanting to sneak a peek toward 2012. Here we go.

Just judging from the Big Ten’s recent bowl records, is there anything that can be done either from an administrative standpoint or otherwise to make the conference more competitive in bowl games?- Stephanie

What is the league gonna do? These things just go in cycles. The Big Ten will bounce back and started to do so in this postseason in forging a 4-6 record. There were really only two bowls that “got away” from the Big Ten: Nebraska’s loss to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl; and Penn State’s loss to Houston in the TicketCity Bowl. The other losses all were respectable—Wisconsin to Oregon in the Rose; Ohio State to Florida in the Gator; Northwestern to Texas A&M in the Meineke Car Care; Iowa to Oklahoma in the Insight. I thought Michigan State’s win over Georgia was most impressive.

It could be scheme, personnel or just plain bad luck, but the Gator Bowl loss to Florida seemed to be a continuation of poor play by the Ohio State defense and mental errors on special teams (KO return and punt block). Since the defense is his unit, was keeping co-coordinator Luke Fickell and assistants Mike Vrabel and Taver Johnson a good idea? – Dee

I didn’t think the defense was an issue during the Gator Bowl or all season. The Buckeyes limited Florida to 263 yards and forced three turnovers. I think any coach on the planet would take those numbers. Rather, it was the offense that held back Ohio State all season. Having a true freshman quarterback didn’t help. And neither did not having some key players for extended stretches because of suspensions, including receiver DeVier Posey and running back Dan Herron. The special teams breakdowns you mentioned were why Ohio State lost to Florida. It wasn’t because of the defense. Fickell, Vrabel and Johnson are good coaches who will be joined by Everett Withers to give Ohio State a strong staff of defensive coaches.

Your comments were right on for the Meineke Car Care Bowl. The only true running game for Northwestern was by the quarterback. Northwestern didn’t really look good until Fitzgerald called team together on sideline in fourth quarter and spoke with them. He did good job of keeping them together, when better talent was on the other sideline. – Dick B.

Pat Fitzgerald has done some great things at Northwestern and has the program on solid footing, getting them to four bowls in a row. They will miss QB Dan Persa, but you have to like Kain Colter in 2012. The Wildcats need to develop a running back to ease the burden on the signal-caller. And the defense needs to continue to make strides, developing some playmakers up front. I think Northwestern has some good young talent in the program to step up on the defensive side of the ball under coordinator Mike Hankwitz as NU looks to end that nine-game bowl losing streak.

I know this may sound like whining from a true Spartan fan, but why does it seem like the last two years the BCS has not been kind to MSU? How does Michigan get a bigger bowl and rank higher when MSU handled them?- Thomas C Threatt Jr.

If teams rank in the Top 14 of the final BCS standings and win at least nine regular-season games, they are eligible to be selected for an at-large BCS bowl slot. Michigan met both criteria. Michigan State did not. I know the Spartans are aching for the first BCS bowl berth, in particular that first trip to the Rose Bowl since the 1987 season. It will come some day. Hang in there.

I know it is not a Big Ten question, but who wins: LSU or Alabama? – Mike Adams

Should be an iconic battle between what I think are the two best teams in America. I expect another defensive battle, just like the first meeting that saw LSU take a 9-6 overtime verdict in Tuscaloosa. I think the Tide will win the rematch. They have a chip on their shoulder. And I still like quarterback A.J. McCarron and believe Trent Richardson is better than any option the Tigers have at running back.

In your opinion, would the Big Ten think about re-aligning the divisions so Ohio State and Michigan are in the same division to protect the rivalry on the final weekend of the regular season? It seems traditions no longer seem important in today’s college football and it seems inevitable that executive powers will move that game to October. Why can’t the two schools be in the same division like Alabama/Auburn to protect traditions? – Jonathan

The rivalry has been protected. While they are in opposite divisions, the schools still will meet each season. How? The Big Ten has allowed for each team to have one “protected” rival from the other division. And, Ohio State and Michigan are each other’s protected rival—so they are guaranteed to meet annually. Also, I know Michigan A.D. David Brandon has said there is no truth to the game being moved to the middle of the season. This is a rivalry so deeply rooted in tradition, I never see it being “messed with.”

Who do you think will be the favorite in the Leaders Division next year? – Joe

That is a tough call. Ohio State isn’t eligible for the Big Ten title or a bowl. Indiana will be in just its second year under Kevin Wilson; Purdue is still a work in progress; Illinois and Penn State will have new coaches; Wisconsin has some big holes to fill and a rebuilt coaching staff. The Buckeyes look like the top team, but since they can’t go to the Big Ten title game, I’m giving the nod to Wisconsin. Yes, I know about the issues in Madison, but his program is at the stage where it gets the benefit of the doubt from me.

Tom Dienhart is a senior writer for BTN.com. Find all of his work at www.btn.com/tomdienhart, follow Dienhart on Twitter at @BTNTomDienhart, send a question to his weekly mailbag here, and click here to subscribe to his RSS feed.

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