Mailbag: On bowl chances, respect, & rankings

You have questions, I have answers in my weekly mail bag. Keep the great questions coming as we enter Week 7 of this  Big Ten season.

Who has done a better job turning around their program: Jerry Kill at Minnesota or Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern?
- Tim Kiemel

We will get to see the two square off this Saturday at Minnesota. I can’t wait. That is a tough call, and it may not be a fair comparison for now. Kill is in just his second season, while Fitzgerald has been on the job since 2006. So, obviously, Fitzgerald has an edge over Kill in that his roster is stocked with players he recruited and his system is deeply entrenched. And I don’t think Fitzgerald inherited into as bad a situation as Kill did. Still, Fitzgerald has led the Wildcats to a school-record four bowls in a row. And that number figures to grow to five. But I expect Kill to get the Gophers in the postseason early and often. In fact, they should make it this season. These are two good coaches who are terrific fits for their respective schools.

Squeaking by Eastern Michigan and Indiana means that the Spartans are back? Really? C’mon. Michigan State isn’t half the team it was last season. – Sean

No doubt. In fact, the Spartans don’t appear to be on par with their last two squads, which each won 11 games. The defense is still very good, pacing the Big Ten. But the offense has struggled for consistency in the pass game. The receiving corps may be coming around if true freshman Aaron Burbridge can build on his breakout effort last week. I just think winning a game like Michigan State did last week could prove to be a spark. Good teams find a way to win games they really have no business winning. And that’s exactly what Michigan State did last week at Indiana.

Will the B1G have enough teams eligible to fulfill all of its bowl slots. And if not, who will get those selections? The MAC? - Jonathan Roth

The Big Ten has eight bowl slots—and it has 10 bowl-eligible teams to fill those (Ohio State and Penn State are on probation). Despite the Big Ten being down this year, I think it still will fill its bowl slots. I think we’ll see Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, Northwestern, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Purdue get bowl eligible. Illinois? Indiana? I think they may be on the outside looking in. However, keep an eye on the Boilermakers. They have three wins now. But they could struggle to get the six wins needed for bowl eligibility. If the Big Ten can’t fill its bowl slots, the bowls that need a spot filled can find whomever they want to fill the opening.

How do you think Illinois could improve their offense? – Jameson

It sure would help if the line could develop. The unit has been in flux going back to fall camp when we visited on the Big Ten Network tour. Injuries have played a big role in the unit not coming together. It also didn’t help that quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase hurt an ankle in the season opener that kept him out of action for a while. And the receiver corps hasn’t come together as anticipated. Who is the go-to guy? Plus, the players have had to adapt to a new spread scheme under Tim Beckman, so there has been a learning curve. Add it up, and you can see why the Illini offense has had issues and ranks 11th in the Big Ten (338.8 ypg).

You said you were waiting to see Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson do well against a quality opponent. Well, he did well against a Purdue defense that you and others said was good. Has Robinson answered your questions? – Scott Schlaack

I was at the game and he certainly looked very impressive in running 24 times for 235 yards (9.8 ypg) and hitting 8-of-16 passes for 105 yards against  the Boilermakers. That was a good Purdue defensive line led by tackles Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston. Robinson and the offense deftly attacked the edges with the zone-read. If you can get to the second level of the Boilermaker defense, you can have success. The linebackers are average at best, as well as the safeties. Kudos to Robinson, who still has big games left vs. Michigan State, Nebraska and Ohio State.

Is Bo Pelini’s job seriously at risk? The Nebraska defense is the worst I can ever remember from a Cornhusker team. - R. Gregory Stein

I don’t think so. The guy is 43-18 in his fifth season in Lincoln. And he led Nebraska to a pair of Big 12 title game appearances and has been to a bowl in each of his seasons with Nebraska. Is the 63-38 loss at Ohio State a disappointment? Yes. And allowing 653 yards at UCLA in September also hurts. But I refuse to think that Pelini suddenly forgot how to coach defense overnight. There are, however, some personnel issues that need to be addressed. But there still is time to win a Legends Division race that looks wide open. The remaining schedule for the 4-2 Cornhuskers after an off week this Saturday: at Northwestern; Michigan; at Michigan State; Penn State; Minnesota; at Iowa. Win out—or lose just once—and the Huskers may find themselves in Indianapolis playing for the Big Ten crown.

How can Ohio State be ranked or involved in any postseason awards while on probation for NCAA violations? – Jeff Hanson

The NCAA’s jurisdiction has limitations. It oversees the bowls, so it can ban teams from competing. But the NCAA can’t tell the polls who can and can’t be ranked. It can’t tell trophies like the Heisman who can and can’t win it. It can’t tell conferences who can and can’t compete for league hardware. It’s up to those individual entities. So, the AP (media) poll ranks the Buckeyes, just like it has ranked other teams on probation in years past.

The AP poll isn’t part of the BCS formula but does award a national championship. Now, the Coaches poll—which is part of the BCS formula–opts to not rank teams on probation. The Big Ten has said it would give Ohio State a Leaders Division championship trophy if it won the division, but it won’t allow the Buckeyes to play in the conference championship game. And Braxton Miller can win any trophy, including the Heisman. So, there you have it.

BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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2 Comments

Your Opinion?
Show Comments (2 Comments)
Doug on 10/12/2012 @ 8:37am EST Said:

Hey Scott, it’s been 4 years. Denard still hasn’t beaten a quality opponent. You think beating Purdue was a quality win? Wow, you michigan fans are desparate.

sbuel2 on 11/12/2012 @ 11:27pm EST Said:

Bo Pelini took over the defense himself after that loss to Ohio State, and part of that loss is on the offense and Taylor Martinez who came into the game in the old taylor Martinez style, perhaps scared himself before the game. Injury to Burkhead hurt, especially since it happened out of bounds and seemed deliberate by the ohio state player twisting his leg.

Defense in the start of the Penn State game this weekend was mixed up and three timeouts trying to take care of business, and yes Bo was yelling at damon stafford who was yelling back. at the post game interview, Bo took responsibility for putting Nebraska defense into bad positions costing a touchdown or more.

Each year that Bo has been at Nebraska, his teams have won at least 9 games.

Remember how bad the prior five years under Bill Callahan were. total mess and a losing season.

Nebraska has hurt itself more than most other teams with penalties, fumbles, interceptions and a kicker who was nearly perfect last year but inconsistent, often at the worst times this year in punting (how many shanks, even multiples in the same game), missing easy field goals, kickoffs going out of bounds????
Luckily this team doesn’t believe it can lose and plays like it at this point in the season