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NITTANY NOTES: Around the Even Bigger Ten

February 19. 2013 6:31PM
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And to think I had more or less retired that stupid Increasingly Inaccurately Named Big Ten joke.


The league's bank account will be strengthened but the on-field product will be undeniably weaker with this week's addition of Maryland and Rutgers.

At the very least, it was good to hear some real honesty from a few of the principal parties in this latest expansion. University of Maryland president Wallace Loh came right out and said that finances are the No. 1 reason the Terps are jumping ship from the ACC.

Somebody has to... pay... the... bills, Loh said rather dramatically during Monday's press conference.

Big Ten commish Jim Delany referred to the expansion as a demographic decision. Whereas Nebraska added a storied team and a great boon to the league competitively, the Huskers brought little to the table in terms of a TV market and new cable systems that the conference is hungrily looking to absorb into the maw of the Big Ten Network.

The Terps and Knights are average at best football programs -- Rutgers' top-25 ranking isn't all that telling giving the competition. And that's probably putting it kindly to call the teams average for the long haul.

But Delany sees a population shift that continues to trend away from the Midwest and toward the South and Mid-Atlantic. Why did Notre Dame cast its (non-football) lot with the ACC instead of the Big Ten? Because the Irish are looking five decades down the line, not five years.

And that's why the Big Ten will inevitably become the Big Sixteen within a few years or so. And the two new teams will undoubtedly come from new states in new markets, with more ACC schools almost certainly on the radar. States like Virginia and North Carolina and Georgia.

It's why none other than legendary Duke hoops coach Mike Krzyzewski said on the radio this week that he's legitimately concerned for the future of the ACC. You'll also note that I use terms like on-field instead of on-court during this missive. Yes Maryland has a great hoops program. But basketball is so far off the radar when it comes to these expansion deals that it's almost not worth mentioning.

Football pays the bills. And, as we've discovered again this week, so does the Big Ten Network. That's the main reason that two athletic departments that have combined to slash more a dozen sports teams in recent years are joining up. They need the cash.

Ironically, this push eastward finally comes 10 months after the death of Joe Paterno, who spent the better part of the 80s trying to organize an all-sports Eastern conference and then spoke up to convince the Big Ten to shift to the East in his final years.

Rutgers was one of his prime targets for that proposed Eastern conference, and the Lions coach thought that Maryland could ultimately be swayed to join if others like Pitt, Syracuse and Boston College were already aboard.

Instead they joined up with the Big East, a league founded on basketball. Penn State ended up in the Big Ten and the Lions' future was dramatically changed -- for better and for worse. Many would argue it's the latter.

And now none of those teams remain in the Big East, which continues to crumble. With football being the driving force, Pitt and Syracuse are ACC-bound. B.C. has been there awhile now. West Virginia cast in with the Big 12. And outside of hoops, the Big East is just a punchline that will feature league games between Temple and San Diego State. The Owls will be part of something called the Big East West Division (west of Europe?)

For Penn State fans, the expectation is that Rutgers and Maryland will both join them in the Leaders Division, though Delany firmly denied an ESPN report that suggested it was already a done deal. But the Lions can expect some much shorter road trips and some watered-down competition in the future. With the program stuck in the morass of NCAA sanctions when the Terps join in 2014 (Rutgers still needs to negotiate an exit date), maybe that's not a bad thing for the Lions.

The league will almost certainly expand to nine-game league schedules so that teams like Penn State and Michigan don't go six... eight... ten? years in between regular-season meetings. But that might happen anyway when the expansion pushes to 16 teams with either two eight-team divisions or four pods of four teams apiece.

Actually that's a little depressing to think of right now. Am I really going to have to write 14 (16) of these game capsule thingies in a September down the line?

Oof. Let's just get this week out of the way first.




No. 14 NEBRASKA (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten)
 at IOWA (4-7, 2-5 Big Ten)


Noon, Friday

Kinnick Stadium,
Iowa City, Iowa


LINE: UNL by 14.5. We open up the final week here with Friday's Children of the Corn Bowl, which would have the makings of a decent little rivalry if Iowa wasn't wallowing in shame at this point. Yes, the Hawkeyes were actually unbeaten in Big Ten play when Penn State came to town last month. That was the first of five losses for Iowa, one of the very worst stretches of football in the Kirk Ferentz era. Only seven more years left on that contract, Hawkeyes fans! There are too many things at play here to attribute Iowa's collapse just to Ferentz, though. Yeah, there are two new coordinators, though the team was without Norm Parker for long stretches in recent years because of health problems. And yeah, the injuries -- particularly to the running backs -- have been just brutal. But there's no reason Iowa should enter this game already eliminated from bowl contention, especially given the sorry state of the Big Ten from top-to-bottom. Unfortunately for Iowa, one of those sorrier (that's a word, right?) squads isn't coming into Kinnick for the holiday. Nebraska is a solid team and one that has plenty to play for. A win clinches a spot in the Big Ten title game and at least a share of the Legends Division title. The Huskers will win handily because the last thing they want to do is leave things up to...

No. 19 MICHIGAN (8-3, 6-1 Big Ten)
at OHIO STATE (11-0, 7-0 Big Ten)


Noon, Saturday

Ohio Stadium,
Columbus, Ohio



LINE: OSU by 3.5. ...The Game. Oh, but it's good to have both sides back to some national relevance after that depressing Rich Rodriguez era and Luke Fickell's lame duck season. Things had been all downhill for the rivalry after hitting a frenzied and hysterical high in that 2006 finale that saw both teams ranked atop the country and battling for a spot in the national title game. Welcome back, boys. Sure, some luster is taken off of this one with Ohio State facing a bowl ban -- Buckeyes AD Gene Smith is still cleaning eggs off the front of his house daily for not self-imposing the ban for last year's meaningless transition year. But I'm sure Bucks fans have fond, fond memories of that Gator Bowl loss that dropped them to 6-7 to tide them over while a one-loss team plays for the national title in January. (Well, it does beat memories of the last-ever TicketCity Bowl, I can promise you that). On the field, it was fun to watch Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges figure a way to use Denard Robinson in his final game at the Big House. Robinson still can't throw with his elbow injury, but he sure can run, running some wild option plays with Devin Gardner under center. It led to Gardner scoring six, count 'em six, touchdowns -- three rushing, three passing -- last week against Iowa. It was as much a show to keep Urban Meyer and Fickell burning the midnight oil for this game as it was to honor Robinson. Both defenses will have their hands full and the Wolverines would love nothing more than to spoil an undefeated season for their archrival -- keeping alive a longshot for a second straight BCS at-large berth. I don't know that there's room in the BCS for Michigan even with the necessary top-14 ranking. But I do think the Wolverines pull the upset.

ILLINOIS (2-9, 0-7 Big Ten)
at NORTHWESTERN (8-3, 4-3 Big Ten)


Noon, Saturday

Ryan Field,
Evanston, Ill.


LINE: NU by 19.5. And then we have Illinois. There really is no good way to segue into a discussion about the Illini unless we're starting off talking about violations of the Geneva Convention. Oh, but that win against Charleston Southern seems so long ago. Nathan Scheelhaase just has no help on offense as the leading passer and rusher last week against Purdue. The junior completed 22 passes in the loss to the Boilers but somehow finished with just 160 yards through the air. There's really nothing positive at all to say about this team or its chaw-chewin' coach, so these are happily the last words I'll write about them all year. The Wildcats conquered some demons last week by taking a lead into the fourth quarter and then actually holding onto it. Imagine that. OK, so they actually blew the touchdown lead they had midway through the fourth, but this time they came through with a late field goal to beat Michigan State on the road. Annoying sarcasm aside, that's not too shabby. Now the Cats need to finish strong by dominating their sorta-rivals on senior day. And with some help around the league, Northwestern could well find itself playing back on New Year's Day, perhaps in the Outback Bowl. A win over Illinois should go without saying at this point.

INDIANA (4-7, 2-5 Big Ten)
at PURDUE (5-6, 2-5 Big Ten)


Noon, Saturday

Ross-Ade Stadium,
West Lafayette, Ind.


LINE: PU by 5.5. Really, really struggling down the home stretch here to finish these previews off. Surprisingly, this game is less miserable for all involved than was predicted a few weeks ago. The Boilers actually have a damn good chance of playing in a bowl game now, just an Old Oaken Bucket victory away. Touched on this a bit last week, but is making it to an irrelevant bowl game worth if for Purdue if it ends up saving Danny Hope's job? If the best you can do is a 6-6 record in your fourth season with the most returning starters in the league, I'm not sure what more the Boilers can really expect down the line. If the school has a solid candidate in mind, then the best outcome would be to smack the Hoosiers here, take advantage of the extra weeks of practice leading up to the bowl game, and then get rid of Hope anyway after the season. But actually, I'm not convinced the Boilers will have that choice. Because after all of that talk, I can see Cameron Coffman building off of that 454-yard game against Penn State and outscoring the Boilers on their own turf. Hoosiers fans turned their attention to their No. 1-ranked hoops team weeks and weeks ago, but they can get some satisfaction from beating their rivals on the gridiron as well.

MICHIGAN STATE (5-6, 2-5 Big Ten)
at MINNESOTA (6-5, 2-5 Big Ten)


3:30 p.m., Saturday

TCF Bank Stadium,
Minneapolis, Minn.


LINE: MSU by 8.5. On one side, we have Mark Dantonio more or less guaranteeing a win this week without actually using the word guarantee. (Did you just guarantee a win, Coach? // I didn't say that). On the other side, we have Jerry Kill dealing with his best wide receiver's announcement that he is quitting the team via Twitter and then promptly posting a 4,000-word essay on a tumblr account on why Kill, his staff and his team trainers are all jerks. Ah, technology! What a time to be alive. The player in question is A.J. Barker, a walk-on who emerged from a bland and inspiring group of receivers to develop a strong connection with new QB Phillip Nelson. But an ankle injury has kept him out of the lineup and it seems the disagreement on how it should be treated is at the crux of the problem here, with Kill allegedly exploding at Barker in front of the whole team before trying to make-up in private afterward. Oh, it's all there in this missive. Settle into a comfy chair first. I mean anything called Untitled -- My Letter to Jerry Kill, why I quit should give you a good idea about what you're in for. The Spartans aren't in a much better mood after losing to Northwestern at home, and the fact that they need to win this just to qualify for a bowl game is absurd. Dantonio and crew really need to figure out how they went from a few close calls away from the Rose Bowl to... whatever you call this. I think Sparty makes good on this guarantee and makes the postseason. Because God knows this year's edition of the Big Ten deserves as many unappetizing 6-6 bowl teams as possible.

WISCONSIN (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten)
at PENN STATE (7-4, 5-2 Big Ten)


3:30 p.m., Saturday

Beaver Stadium,
State College


LINE: PSU by 3. Full breakdown tomorrow. Yeah, Penn State fans, life ain't fair. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that you know that already after these last 13 months. And I'm not talking about scandals or sanctions or statues, or any of that crap. You've all got strong opinions on all of those things and I don't begrudge anyone for their thoughts on any of those polarizing topics. No, what I'm talking about today is how miserable it is that a great kid like Mike Mauti, who has poured every ounce of himself into saving his football program, will have to watch his senior day game from the sideline. How terrible it is that he's deprived of even that much because some backup tailback took a cheap shot at him, diving right at his knee brace while he was already tangling with another blocker. If Bill O'Brien seemed especially steamed after the game during his press conference, snapping at questions about Mauti's future and his own (we can address that little topic next week), well, you can bet it was because that play ruined his day. Thankfully, this game is a later kick, so there should be more people in the stands before kickoff than the few that show up early for noon games. Because Mauti will receive one of the loudest senior day pops from the crowd in recent memory. If it were a primetime game and the place was packed, it would probably rival the roar Adam Taliaferro got prior to the opener in 2001. I'm rarely outspoken about PSU topics, even on the Ol' Blog here, but if anyone deserves an inspired sendoff, it's Mike Mauti. I don't have the first clue if he'd actually be interested in petitioning for a sixth year -- he'd be able to at least try because his redshirt year in 2009 was entirely for injury reasons -- but somehow I don't think his football career is over just yet. O'Brien said as much this week on his radio show when a fan asked him if Mauti could possibly hang around to start on a coaching career and O'Brien firmly said that his linebacker is a long ways away from that. I've written a lot here without touching on the actual game against the Badgers, but that can come later. It's going to be a senior day like no other in Happy Valley.

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