Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, May 3, 2016

I dig into my Big Ten Mailbag to answer your questions about the Big Ten?s looming nine-game league schedule, Michigan State concerns and Iowa?s prospects in 2016, among other topics. Let?s go!

With schools playing nine Big Ten games this year, how important will scheduling be in deciding outcomes this fall? – Larry Roehrkasse

It will be big, as for the first time since 1984, Big Ten teams will have to a nine-game conference schedule. Teams from the East Division will host five conference home games during even-numbered years, while teams from the West Division will host five conference home games during odd-numbered years. This no doubt will be advantage for schools with more league home games. But, no one ever said life was going to be fair. The Pac-12 has been playing an unbalanced league schedule for several seasons ? and the earth hasn?t exploded.


How do you see the Michigan State offense working out next season? Who will step up at receiver, RB, O-line? Also what about the D-line? – Ben

Yes, a lot of questions on the horizon for Michigan State, but you know there is talent on hand. And you know it will be well-coached. The area to watch is the trenches, where games are won. On offense, the Spartans need players like Brian Allen and Kodi Kieler to be leaders with Jack Conklin, Jack Allen and Donavon Clark gone. And players like Miguel Machado, David Beedle and Benny McGowan, among others, need to step up. On defense, Shilique Calhoun, Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas are gone. Now, Demetrius Cooper and Malik McDowell need to be stars. LJ Scott will be fine as the lead back, and Tyler O?Connor is ready to be the quarterback. And does any school have a better collection of young wideouts than MSU? Maybe not.


Realistically, how long will; it be before Lovie Smith can build a contender at Illinois in the West? – Mike Lewis

I think it will take at least three years to infuse this roster with talent to make Illinois a legit contender. It?s deficient, as numbers are down. Smith will open doors on the recruiting front. Can he close deals? That will be the key. Recruits will be watching for results, wanting to see something tangible. Smith has built a good staff, so kids know they will be well-coached. They also will be asked to play hard. Those two things alone will make the Illini better. Factor in better recruits, and you can see why there is so much excitement and hope around this program. It also helps Smith that the hill to climb in the Big Ten West isn?t huge.


If Tyler O'Conner is not the answer at quarterback for Michigan State, how long will Mark Dantonio wait before he has to make the change? I think he stuck with Andrew Maxwell too long in 2012, and that season went downhill fast. – Bob Keto

The Spartans went 7-6 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten in 2012. It was the only season since 2010 in which Michigan State has failed to win at least 11 games. In fact, the Spartans lost a combined 10 games in 2010-11 and 2013-15 ? and six in that one fateful 2012. I think Dantonio will be patient with O?Connor, the likely starter. Dantonio isn?t one to make a hasty decision. Besides, is anyone else really capable of leading this team right now? Damion Terry? Brian Lewerke? We will know a lot about O?Connor by the end of September, as MSU plays at Notre Dame and vs. Wisconsin. Remember: This is a guy who started and won at Ohio State last year.


Can Iowa repeat as champs of the West? – Mike L.

I think the Hawkeyes will be the pick of most to win the division again in 2016. Having QB C.J. Beathard and CB Desmond King back are two great starting points on both sides of the ball. The areas to watch will be the lines on both sides of the ball. And playmakers are needed at receiver. Plus, keep an eye on the kicking. Still, this is a program with a lot of momentum. But know this: The schedule is more challenging than last season. A non-league game vs. FCS power North Dakota State will be tough. There are also five Big Ten road games and just four in Kinnick Stadium. The cross-division tilts include a trip to Penn State and visit from Michigan.


Why would NFL teams pass on Brad Craddock, a Groza award winner? Granted, his senior year at Maryland didn?t go as expected because of injury. Still, the guy is a talent. – Frank Ramano

No doubt, Craddock didn?t have a very good senior year after winning the Groza in 2014. The Aussie started the first nine games last year before suffering a season-ending injury and connected on 8-of-10 field goals and 22-of-23 PATs. He inked a free-agent deal with the Browns. No shame in not getting drafted, as kickers are rarely drafted. All he can ask for is an opportunity. And, he?s getting one.


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