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To the inbox ...
Pat from Iowa writes: Who would you consider the biggest surprise team this year for good or for worse? Northwestern's down spiral, Minnesota's amazing year, or perhaps a great Iowa rebound year? Thoughts?
Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern's downturn definitely is the biggest surprise, especially considering where the Wildcats were on Oct. 5 (4-0, leading Ohio State in the fourth quarter, College GameDay on campus). I attended that game and also last week's home finale, where the stands were mostly empty and the team had been decimated by injuries and poor play. Northwestern returned its core from a 10-win team and won't make a bowl -- big surprise. Minnesota, while deserving a lot of credit, likely will win only two more regular-season games than it did last year. And Iowa couldn't have been much worse after the 2012 season, although the Hawkeyes have been a nice story.
Mike from Colorado Springs, Colo., writes: I appreciate your dissatisfaction with Ameer Abdullah not being a finalist for the Doak Walker Award. I think he is way underrated because of the season Nebraska is having. With all the injuries on offense, he has been the one guy they can count on. If you look at the stats he also has much fewer carries than Andre Williams and Ka'Deem Carey and they are Heisman candidates. Not to discredit what Williams has done because it is really special, but if Abdullah gets the carries he does I think the stats are pretty similar. Is Abdullah a Heisman candidate if Nebraska is more in the national picture? These other guys are and Arizona and Boston College are lower on the totem pole than Nebraska. What is hindering him from the national spotlight?
Adam Rittenberg: I thought Nebraska's relatively early exit from the national spotlight (the UCLA game) hurt Abdullah's national exposure a bit, but Arizona and Boston College aren't exactly challenging for league championships, either. So it's a bit puzzling. Abdullah's lack of touchdowns might play a role, and several of his signature plays -- like the fourth-down conversion against Northwestern before the Hail Mary -- haven't resulted in touchdowns. He has been the model of consistency and should be getting more attention, but it hasn't happened. Disappointing for sure.
Kyle from Dover, Del., writes: Adam, yes or no, does Jabrill Peppers stay committed to Michigan despite the absolutely terrible season we have had?Also, do you think Shane Morris will be ready to lead the Wolverines entering the 2014 season? God bless, go blue, happy holidays.
Adam Rittenberg: Same to you, Kyle. I fully expect Peppers to Go Blue come national signing day. Coach Brady Hoke isn't going anywhere, and neither is defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. Hoke's future never was in doubt at Michigan, but Peppers obviously got concerned about the coach keeping his job in 2014. Those concerns should go away. Peppers really seems all in for Michigan, and while recruits can always change their minds at the last minute, I wouldn't worry. As for Morris, I still think Devin Gardner is the Michigan quarterback in 2014. Gardner isn't the problem with that unit.
JB from Scottsdale, Ariz., writes: Hey Adam,I know it sucks to be a MSU fan because of their bad luck getting into a BCS bowl, but all of this campaigning by Coach D is a joke. We can talk about this all we want, but the reality is if they lose the Big Ten championship game they can say hello to Orlando and the Capital One Bowl. Wisconsin should only have one loss on the season, and will be riding a seven-game winning streak. Also, the perception of a larger fan base means more money, they would go to the Orange Bowl. Most experts have Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl, and I can't see that changing. Even if MSU loses against OSU, but stays in the Top 14, Wisconsin would still be higher.
Adam Rittenberg: JB, you might be right, and Wisconsin might get an at-large berth ahead of Michigan State. But I think if the Spartans lose to Ohio State and stay in the top 14, they'll likely go ahead of Wisconsin. Maybe it's just a hunch, but Wisconsin has been to three consecutive Rose Bowls, while Michigan State hasn't been to BCS bowl during the BCS era and last went to a BCS-level bowl during the 1987 season (Rose). If the Spartans play Ohio State to the wire and lose, athletic director Mark Hollis and campaigning coach Mark Dantonio would have some good selling points. Your last point is really irrelevant as we constantly see teams ranked lower in the final BCS standings receive at-large berths. So if Michigan State remains in the top 14 -- remember, that was the issue in 2011, which no one mentions -- I think the Spartans could get an at-large spot ahead of Wisconsin.
Zach from Dallas writes: Adam, I'm going to ask you an impossible question to answer. If you had to pick one current Big Ten Player to build a defense around, who would it be? Ryan Shazier and Chris Borland are fantastic linebackers who put up big numbers. Darqueze Dennard is probably the best DB in the nation and cuts off half the field. Max Bullough is an extension of the coach on the field and can control a game by himself.
Adam Rittenberg: Zach, it is an extremely difficult question with no absolute right or wrong answer. There are so many great options in this league. But I've gone record before that Borland would be my starting point for putting together a defense. He's not only one of the smartest players I've ever covered, but he's the consummate playmaker, always around the ball and causing problems for the opponent. He has universal respect from opposing coaches and Gary Andersen, despite being with him for only one year, is calling him the best he has ever coached. So you can't go wrong here, but give me Borland.
Charles from Knoxville, Tenn., writes: Adam, if Auburn manages to do the unthinkable and beat Alabama this weekend, that should be enough to solidify OSU into a national title game slot. My question is do you think the B1G front office would put pressure on MSU to allow OSU a pass in the title game, to ensure OSU's shot at a national title?
Adam Rittenberg: Charles, while the Big Ten would love to see Ohio State reach the BCS title game, the thought it would tell another of its teams to tank in the championship game is absurd. Not only would it be highly unethical and unfair to Michigan State, but the Big Ten wouldn't want its showcase event -- the title game -- tarnished in any way. Plus, why would Michigan State listen? The Spartans are well aware of what happens to title game losers in the BCS picture, as they often miss the big bowls entirely. I also wouldn't be so certain Ohio State is safe if Auburn beats Alabama, as there would be significant pressure to have an SEC team in the title game.
Enrique from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: Adam, please fix your Big Ten picks overall records! There are 48 non-conference games and 48 conference games to pick during the regular season (96 total). Right now you are both 74-14 for a total of 88 picks. With six games left to pick that would put you at only 94. You guys got off track a few weeks ago. You'll want to double check, but I think you're both at 76-14. And if you'd like a question for your mailbag: The disparity between the Leaders is greater than that of the Legends this year. With the alignment shift next year, which division do you think will have greater disparity between the best and worst?
Adam Rittenberg: Enrique, thanks to you and others for pointing out the error in our picks records. They've both been updated to 76-14. Math never was my strong suit, and I clearly didn't give Brian or I enough credit here. The general feeling is that the Big Ten East will be much stronger than the West, and that could happen if programs like Michigan State continue to surge. Wisconsin looks like the premier program in the West. It will be interesting to see if Nebraska, Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota can rise up to match the Badgers in the coming years. But if Michigan and Penn State make some progress this offseason, it's easy to envision the East being stronger, perhaps much stronger.