The biggest number at the BTN offices today is 5 – as in our five-year anniversary. The years have flown by – though some of the days have been a bit arduous. That’s the nature of any kind of new venture. I was reflecting this morning on my first meeting with the BTN people. Frankly, I wasn’t sure how interested I was. I really didn’t understand what it was going to be.
But then-Executive Producer Leon Schweir, President Mark Silverman and Commissioner Jim Delany all blew me away with their vision for this place. By the time I left, I knew this was a chance to be a part of something big and ground-breaking. I had high expectations for BTN, but I could have never imagined that it would become what it has. That is thanks to the tireless efforts of so many great people. It’s remarkable how much we’ve learned along the way and what we’ve accomplished on the journey – and I can’t wait to see what the next chapter holds.
Here’s a YouTube clip of our first moments on the air.
That first season kicked off with Appalachian State’s stunning upset over Michigan and the first football game ever on our air. Season six starts this weekend. Let’s get into the numbers:
Minnesota is the first Big Ten team to get going – squaring off with UNLV in the desert tonight. So where better to start than with the Gophers?
4th: Quarterback MarQueis Gray led Minnesota in rushing last year with 966 yards. Not only was that the most ever for a Minnesota quarterback, it was also the 4th most for any QB in Big Ten history – and the most by anyone not named Denard Robinson or Antwaan Randle-El. Some pretty good company.
That being said, the Gophers need to find a tailback to take some of the pressure off Gray this year. When we were at camp, I thought James Gillum looked like the best candidate to do so. Gray also needs to be far more accurate as a passer.
More than anything, though, the Gophers have to be better defensively – a fact reflected in many numbers, perhaps most tellingly in this one:
9: Minnesota forced just 9 takeaways last season. That was tied for the fewest in the nation.
Michigan State is the next Big Ten team up – kicking things off Friday night against perennial power Boise State. The Broncos lost a ton of star-power off of last year’s team, including the all-time winningest QB in FBS history in Kellen Moore as well as nine of their top ten tacklers on defense.
While their outstanding defense returns virtually intact, the Spartans have some production to replace as well.
21%: Michigan State returns just 21% of its offensive yards from last year – the second-lowest percentage in FBS football, ahead of only Houston. This counts passing, receiving and rushing yards. Obviously, the passing game is “double-counted” in this system, but it does give you a sense of just how depleted they are at the skill positions.
After seeing them in camp, I still think the Spartans will be fine offensively, and they’ll be better than fine on “D” – a group that should continue to put up numbers like this one:
4: Michigan State has allowed just 4 individual 100-yard rushers since the start of the 2010 season – only Alabama has allowed fewer nationally in that span.
Saturday’s games feature two debuts that figure to be heavily scrutinized – including Urban Meyer’s first game at Ohio State, which you can see on BTN at noon ET.
Meyer hasn’t even coached a game, and already he has the Bucks making history.
45th: Ohio State is ranked 18th in the Preseason AP poll. This marks the 45th straight season they’ve been ranked at least once in that poll, tying them with Alabama, which put together an identical streak between 1959 and 2003, for the longest run ever. After watching the Bucks in camp, I’d be shocked if they don’t break the record next season. They are loaded with young talent. It was the most impressive team we saw on our tour.
The other big debut is that of Bill O’Brien at Penn State. We spoke a great deal on BTN during the summer about the horrific acts perpetrated by Jerry Sandusky and the university’s insufficient response. But whatever you think about what happened and Joe Paterno’s role in it, it’s impossible to dispute the assertion that, strictly on the field, no one in the history of college football has ever had bigger shoes to fill or more difficult circumstances to do it in than Bill O’Brien.
He takes over a massively depleted roster from a group that, even when at full strength last year, had some serious offensive problems.
19.3, 38.9: Penn State averaged just 19.3 points per game last season – 11th in the Big Ten and 110th nationally. This came just three seasons after the Nittany Lions put up 38.9 points per game in 2008, which, at the time, was the best scoring average in the Big Ten in 15 years.
At the other end of the scoring spectrum, we bring you the Wisconsin Badgers.
618: Wisconsin scored 618 points last season. That was the most for any Big Ten team since Minnesota tallied 725 back in ’04. Yes, that’s 1904. While the Badgers had the advantage of playing 14 games, which distorts the numbers a bit, it should be noted that they didn’t have the benefit of a slate quite like the one the Gophers played that season.
Minnesota’s 13-0 mark included a 107-0 squeaker over Twin Cities Central High School and a 146-0 nail-biter against Grinnell. And people accused Glen Mason of scheduling soft.
Montee Ball played a huge part in Wisconsin’s scoring onslaught last year, tying Barry Sanders’ all-time FBS record with 39 touchdowns in a season – which brings us to these numbers…
39, 32: Ball scored 39 touchdowns last year. The Wisconsin defense gave up 32.
Speaking of impressive defensive performances – lost in Illinois’ late-season slide and the dismissal of Ron Zook was the fact that the Illini played some stellar “D” of their own last season.
9: Illinois held 9 opponents to 21 points or fewer last year. Usually, that would put you in a position to compete for a conference title, but the offense really let them down.
11: The Illini averaged just 11 points per game during the six-game losing streak which came on the heels of their 6-0 start.
Purdue is also looking for more offense – particularly of the big-play variety.
6: The Boilers had just 6 plays last year that went for 40 or more yards, one of just two teams in the Big Ten with fewer than ten.
After seeing them in camp, I’d be shocked if the Boilers don’t greatly exceed this number this season. Danny Hope has made a concerted effort to infuse this roster with more team speed, and, my sense from watching them is that he has some game-breakers on the roster. I talked to offensive coordinator Gary Nord about this as well. He said they plan to use the pass more to set up the run rather than vice versa. He feels this will lead to more explosion plays.
More offensive tidbits, as we turn to Iowa. It was a Hawkeyes team that started strong before fading down the stretch.
31: Iowa scored 31 or more points in six of its first seven games last season. The Hawks did so in just one of their last six outings. Some of that is obviously a function of the beginning of the season coinciding with a relatively easy non-conference schedule, but the Hawks also seemed out of synch offensively down the stretch.
Iowa’s offensive success is generally premised on the running game.
14-2, 1-9: The Hawks are 14-2 over the last two seasons when rushing for 120 or more yards as a team. They’re 1-9 when they don’t.
Given their ongoing running back issues, this doesn’t bode so well going into the season. After watching Iowa in practice, Howard Griffith and Gerry DiNardo both seemed to feel like Barkley Hill was their best option at running back. Of course, he’s now lost for the year with a knee injury. I liked Greg Garmon quite a bit too. I think both of those guys were afraid he might not be “thick” enough to endure the pounding in the Big Ten. Damon Bullock will get the start against Northern Illinois. No great secret, but this will be the position to watch for the Hawks.
Important as the run game is to Iowa, no team’s run game dictates its success more than Nebraska’s.
19-0, 0-8: Over the last two seasons, the Huskers are 19-0 when they rush for 185 yards or more as a team. They’re 0-8 when they don’t.
It simply doesn’t get more clear-cut than that. Frankly, I don’t understand the obsession Nebraska fans have with Taylor Martinez and his throwing motion. All anybody wanted to know after we visited camp was whether it was better. I’m obviously not trained in nuances like that, but Howard, Gerry and I all felt like it looked largely the same. The bottom line to me is: it doesn’t matter. Martinez needs to be enough of a threat with his arm to keep defenses honest – which he is. But, Nebraska’s fortunes will rise and fall with the run game and the defense (which, by the way, is much deeper than it was a year ago).
Thought it didn’t translate into the win column, Indiana had some ground success last year.
200: The Hoosiers went over 200 yards rushing in four of their last six games – all conference battles. Before last season, they hadn’t gone over 200 on a conference foe since 2007.
That being said, I think it’s going to be all about the passing game for the Hoosiers this year. From what we saw at camp, it looks like they’re installing a pass-heavy attack – along the lines of what Mike Leach did at Texas Tech. It will be interesting to see how Tre Roberson fits in that scheme. He was perfect for what they were doing last year, but accuracy as a passer is at more of a premium in a system like this one. Cameron Coffman may end up being a factor.
Inexperience will definitely be a factor for the Hoosiers.
3rd: Indiana has just eight seniors on its roster. That is tied for the 3rd fewest nationally.
Three is a key number for Northwestern as well.
3: The ‘Cats face 3 teams from automatic qualifying BCS conferences in non-conference play (Syracuse, Vanderbilt, and Boston College). They are one of just 3 major conference team that will do so. Syracuse and Maryland are the other two.
NU has an absolutely fantastic duo in Athletic Director Jim Phillips and Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald. They both like this direction for the program.
With all due respect to those two, I question this philosophy, which NU will also employ going forward (they play Cal, Syracuse and Vandy next year; and Cal, Vandy and Notre Dame in 2014). It will make it more difficult for them to qualify for a bowl game, and I think it’s important that they continue to play in the post-season in order to keep the momentum the program has generated. That being said, I understand that they also need to sell more tickets, and, perhaps, higher-profile opponents will bring more fans to Ryan Field.
Of course, not all BCS conference opponents are created equal. And few, if any, are equal to the one Michigan is facing in this weekend’s marquee game.
1st: Alabama was 1st in the nation last year in rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense and scoring defense. The Tide gave up just 183 yards per game and just over eight points per game. It will be a huge challenge for Michigan.
The Wolverines’ offense put up some impressive numbers of its own – most notably by Denard Robinson.
15.3: Robinson averaged 15.3 yards per completion last year. That placed him first nationally.
Can’t wait to watch all the action on Saturday. By my count, we have 14 straight hours of live Big Ten football games, coverage and analysis on BTN. It all starts with the Auto Owners Insurance Pregame at 11 a.m. ET, wrapping up with The Final Drive at midnight.