I'm back from my Italian adventure (10 days, nine cities and about 25 extra pounds). Let's catch up, shall we?
Brutus from The Ninth Circle writes: Brian, what are you looking forward to the most this coming season? Seeing a team coached by James Franklin? Seeing Maryland and Rutgers play their first games in the B1G? Seeing more night games at Michigan? Personally, I can't wait to see Maryland's games in the B1G. The eastward expansion should play havoc on my Saturday TV scheduling, but bring it on!
Brian Bennett: From a big-picture perspective, what I'm most excited about is the new playoff system, and in particular the semifinals on New Year's Day. That could be one of the best days in college football history. From, um, a B1G-picture perspective, I'm really interested in how Maryland and Rutgers fit into the league, how Franklin's Penn State debut will go and how the new division alignment shakes out. But I'm probably most excited about an upgraded nonconference schedule that includes games like Michigan State-Oregon, Wisconsin-LSU and Ohio State-Virginia Tech. There's nothing like high-profile out-of-league games early on to get a read on just how strong the Big Ten might be in 2014.
Grant from San Francisco writes: Hey, Brian. As a lifelong Spartan fan, I am becoming increasingly weary of all the unbridled optimism surrounding the program this coming season. I have experienced this before and know just how fast the wheels can come off. You guys spent some time with the team, so maybe you can provide some insight. With a huge match-up in Week 2 against Oregon, what exactly is Mark Dantonio doing now that the team is starting at the top with everything to lose, rather than starting unranked with nothing to lose? Quotes keep coming out about "we are hungry" ... "We are tired of talking about last year" ... but how exactly are they preventing complacency?
Brian Bennett: Grant, I wrote about this a lot in a piece last month following a visit to East Lansing. Dantonio started warning about complacency in the first team meeting back home after the Rose Bowl, and he pushed the start of spring practice back to late March so he could have the players go through grueling, early-morning winter conditioning longer. That's one way to deflate big heads. I also thought it was an encouraging sign that Michigan State players like Connor Cook told me they were sick of talking about the Rose Bowl and 2013 this offseason and that they wanted to create their own legacy. Add in the fight for playing time at several defensive positions and along the offensive line and other spots, and there is reason to believe this team won't rest on its '13 accomplishments. You never really know. But that Week 2 showdown against the Ducks on the road should be enough to get these Spartans focused on the here and now, or else they're going to learn that lesson the hard way.
Art from Columbus, Ohio, writes: I wanted to get your thoughts on James Franklin's recruiting approach of dominating the state (PA) and Northeast vs. Urban Meyer's approach of recruiting the best players in the country. My feeling is that Coach Franklin has the better long term approach to build a program and wish Meyer would take an approach of getting the best players in Ohio first and then meet other needs from the rest of the country. My thinking is that if you don't put Ohio first, you will start to turn Ohio kids and high school coaches off to the program. What do you think?
Brian Bennett: Meyer does collect top talent from Ohio -- he signed nine players from the Buckeye State in the 2014 class, for example -- but he doesn't just rely on homegrown players. Ohio State wants to compete for national titles, and the way to do that is to get the best players, no matter where they're from. Fact is, Big Ten country doesn't produce as many elite athletes as it once did, and many of those guys are in the South, in Texas and California. Any Big Ten program with legitimate national title aspirations has to recruit outside its region, as well as protecting its own backyard.
Husker from Tucson, AZ, writes: While considering the football playoffs, a thought came to mind. A team which gets a tough loss early in the season but then wins out gets hurt in the rankings (case in point: MSU and the Notre Dame game). This essentially eliminated them from the championship game but they probably would have gotten into the playoffs in the new system. However, it's conceivable to me that there will be teams like this in the future who miss out on even the playoffs. It would be nice if we could somehow reduce the emphasis on numbers like 11-1 vs. 12-0 especially when that one loss comes early in a season before players have really had a chance to develop (Connor Cook to name one for MSU). Do you think we could ever see college football have games "pre-preseason" which have no effect on teams' records? I worry that if this was the case we would get what are essentially spring games as teams rest their best players and go at half-speed, but it might be nice to consider. Any thoughts on this?
Brian Bennett: I firmly believe that one of the absolute best things about college football is the supreme importance of the regular season. Every week, in essence, becomes a playoff. Having a four-team playoff at the end will dilute that slightly but not enough, in my opinion, to hurt the sport. So I'm against any idea that would make games in any part of the season lose their significance.
Michigan State's problem last year was not so much its loss at Notre Dame but the fact that it really didn't play another marquee game until the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State. That's why upgraded schedules for the league are so important. A loss (or possibly even two, in some years) will be much easier to forgive if a team has played a grueling schedule and collected impressive wins throughout. I do hope the selection committee pays particular attention to schedule strength and does not get caught up on picking teams who might have simply coasted to a 12- or 11-win season. The in-season polls that the committee will release seem problematic to me, but everything they have said so far indicates they will judge teams on the quality of their résumés.
Luke from Ord, Neb., writes: Brian, first I hope that your vacation is going well for you. I wanted your thoughts on how much will Nebraska's WRs benefit with a quarterback that will be able to deliver the ball with more accuracy and consistency than the past 3.5 years. In my opinion Quincy Enunwa was hurt in draft status because he didn't have QB that could consistently get him the ball in stride and let him move. I think guys like Kenny Bell and Jamal Turner can do wonders if they can get a quarterback with short and intermediate passing accuracy.
Brian Bennett: Thanks, Luke. It was a dream trip, and I highly recommend it. As for Nebraska, I've thought for a while that guys like Bell and Turner could do even more with a consistent passing game. Taylor Martinez was actually pretty solid in 2012, throwing for 2,871 yards and 23 touchdowns, though his 62 percent completion rate wasn't spectacular. It's no coincidence that Bell had by far his best season in 2012. There was too much turnover and inexperience under center last year for Nebraska once Martinez got injured. Tommy Armstrong simply has to improve on his 51.9 percent completion rate from a year ago, and he's got the playmakers to make big things happen.