Podcast With BTN’s Tom Dienhart
The Big Ten is loaded with juicy story lines entering the 2013 season. Can Urban Meyer and Ohio State reach the BCS title game? Will OSU QB Braxton Miller win the Heisman Trophy? Is Michigan back to being a national power? Will Nebraska’s porous defense improve? And can Northwestern reach its third Rose Bowl ever?
Jim Weber recently spoke with the BTN’s Tom Dienhart to answer these questions and more.
Jim Weber: This is Jim Weber from LostLettermen.com. I’m joined by Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network. Tom, thanks so much for joining me. I wanted to ask you: First, the favorites are obviously Ohio State and Michigan. Do you see them playing twice this season – once at the end of the regular season and once in the Big Ten title game?
Tom Dienhart: Jim, a lot of people were talking about that today at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. This would, of course, be the last year that it’s a possibility with the divisions changing up in 2014.
But, I’ll say this: I’m like everybody else. I love Ohio State to win the Leaders Division running away. I think Nebraska’s going to be the team that comes out on top in the Legends (Division) for a second year in a row. So, I guess I sort of like a Nebraska-Ohio State Big Ten Championship Game.
JW: So, you foresee Nebraska beating Michigan in the Big House this year?
TD: I do. I know there are questions about Nebraska’s defense. I guess I think the front seven’s going to be OK. I like the young linebackers. I think by the time these teams meet in Ann Arbor, I think that front seven will have solidified. Will it be a steel curtain? No, but I think it will be good enough to get the job done in that environment.
And, if there are any real hiccups along the way for that Nebraska defense, I think the offense is going to be able to cover those up. In fact, I think the Nebraska offense is going to be the best offense in the Big Ten this year.
JW: What gives you confidence in Nebraska’s defense? I know that Bo Pelini, when he came to Nebraska, he completely overhauled what they were doing and they had such great defenses the first couple of years. Then last year their doors got kind of blown off, especially in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin. What gives you the confidence that they’ll be better this year?
TD: Yeah, there were three just abysmal performances last year, weren’t they? It began at UCLA, a 36-30 loss. They gave up, I think, 653 yards. The game at Ohio State at night was an abomination. And then the epic meltdown, which of course you referenced in the Big Ten title game, against Wisconsin was just downright embarrassing.
Again, I think it’s the youngsters. Vincent Valentine, he’s a big tackle they love on the inside, the interior of the line. Randy Gregory’s a junior college defensive end who I think could be a difference maker off the edge, which they really haven’t had since Jared Crick left. Even guys like David Santos, the linebacker, I think they’ve improved their athleticism at linebacker. I think they’ve gotten a little bit bigger and tougher and stronger up front with some guys with the ability to come off the edge as well.
So, I guess those are the real reasons why I think Nebraska defense has the chance to go from suspect to, at the very least, solid in 2013.
JW: You said that you have Ohio State running away with their division and everyone is talking about Braxton Miller as a Heisman favorite. From what you’ve seen and what you’ve heard, how much better has he gotten in the offseason? It’s been a long offseason for Ohio State. How much better has he gotten as a passer?
TD: We’ll find out. Everybody always says the right thing this time of year. I guess I’m of the belief that by the time you’re at this point in your career, I think you sort of are what you are. I guess I don’t think you can ever make great improvements – real, super, marked improvements in any real part of your game.
So, I think Urban Meyer would love to say he doesn’t want an athlete playing quarterback. He wants a great athlete who plays quarterback. Well, I still think Braxton Miller is always going to be a guy whose default mode is to go rely on his feet and athleticism to make a play when it’s all said and done. He’s never going to be confused with Dan Marino. He’s just a solid passer. I guess I’m not expecting great strides or to watch him pass this year and just have my jaw hit the ground in awe at Braxton Miller’s ability to pass.
I think it’ll be what we’ve seen in recent years, which is still pretty good when you consider he won The Chicago Tribune Silver Football Award last year as the league’s MVP.
JW: Do you think he can win the Heisman without making progress as a passer?
TD: It will be difficult. I think he was fifth in the voting last year. I think he can. You don’t have to be a tremendous passer, obviously, to win the Heisman Trophy as a quarterback. I mean, Eric Crouch is just one example that pops into my mind.
Yeah, I do. I think he has a chance if Ohio State does go 12-0, like so many people think. You’ve got to think along the way that Miller is going to have some spectacular games and one or two Heisman Trophy moments. We’ve seen him get some big passes to win games in the past. So, yeah, I think he can still be a very viable guy who can win the Heisman even if he’s not the country’s best passer.
JW: I know that you have Nebraska playing Ohio State in the Big Ten Title Game, but do you think Jim Delaney is secretly worried that Michigan and Ohio State will play twice? It could be kind of awkward if Ohio State wins, and then could have their national title dreams dashed when they play a week later. (And) if Michigan loses the first game and then goes into the Big Ten title game actually needing to lose again in order to play for the Rose Bowl because Ohio State would probably go to the Rose Bowl if they had one loss. It just seems like an awkward situation to have that happen.
TD: It certainly does. Could you imagine Ohio State ranking one or two in the BCS poll going into that championship weekend and then losing to a Michigan team it had beaten a week before, costing Ohio State in the Big Ten a chance to play for the BCS championship?
Not ideal, but nobody is going to go on record saying that’s a scenario they want to avoid. Everybody wants to embrace expectations. It’s some of the excitement, I think, of a Michigan-Ohio State (game): Playing for the Big Ten Title. But, there is no doubt about it: I think it could end up being, in some ways, a real bad situation. You may even call it a disastrous situation, if the Buckeyes should fall to a Wolverine team in the Big Ten title game a week after they have beaten them to go 12-0 and possibly be ranked one or two in the BCS poll.
JW: I wanted to ask you about Indiana. It seems like they are getting a lot of attention. A lot of people excited about the Hoosiers, think they could play for a bowl game – maybe upset some teams. They came close to beating Ohio State at home last year. I think the big question with Indiana is: Can they make enough stops to win football games? How do you see their season playing out?
TD: Yeah, that’s a terrific summation right there. Offensively, I’ve talked about Nebraska’s offense. Well, Indiana’s offense is going to be one of the top two or three in the conference just like it was last year. Every key cog is back. So again, they’ll be fine on that side of the ball.
But, like you said, the defense has to go from awful to at least maybe below average. If that does happen, Indiana, if you look at their schedule, has a good shot to at least go 6-6. Maybe, with a big outside shot, maybe going 7-5. But 6-6 is very plausible with their schedule. And any slight improvement on defense - again, this could be a Hoosier team posed for a little bit of a breakout in year three year under Kevin Wilson.
And they haven’t been to a bowl since the 2007 season. So again, there’s a little bit of urgency in Bloomington if Wilson can get IU over the hump. That would be a gift for his long-term security there, I think.
JW: Another up-and-coming team I wanted to ask about is Northwestern. You know, they took a huge stop forward last season by finally winning a bowl game. Expectations are high for Pat Fitzgerald. How long do you think it will take him to get back to the Rose Bowl like he did as a player?
TD: Well, it could happen this year. I think this is the hip, cool pick a lot of people - maybe, not just to win the Legends, but maybe win the Big Ten. First time since they went back to back in ’95-’96. So, yeah, it could happen this year, maybe punch their ticket to Pasadena. The roster is loaded with veteran talent. Defensively, you never think about Northwestern being a juggernaut. But, I know Pat Fitzgerald thinks he has more speed and athleticism on that side of the ball than he’s ever had.
You know what the biggest hurdle for Northwestern is going to be schedule. The Legends Division is awfully tough. The cross-division games with Ohio State, Wisconsin, on top of, again, playing Nebraska in Lincoln and again, playing Michigan at home. So, again, that schedule may be the thing that really prevents Northwestern from having the big season a lot people think it could have.
JW: Last question for you. Everyone knows about the stars in the Big Ten. There’s Taylor Martinez, Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde, Devin Gardner – who’s someone off the radar that the average fan doesn’t know about that you foresee having a big breakout year.
TD: You know, I think one of the two running backs at Illinois: Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young. I think that new offense of Bill Cubit could have a big year. He’s changed the blocking scheme and the running style up over in Champaign. So I think one of those two guys can sort of build on the Illinois running back tradition that really has been pretty decent in the last 5-10 years or so. So, I think those are a couple of guys to watch.
I think quarterback at Penn State, I think it’s going to be Christian Hackenberg, the-18-year old who comes in with so much hype. Yeah, it’s always dicey when you start an 18-year-old true freshman, but the Penn State offense is really built for a young quarterback. The kid’s going to have a terrific line in front of him, a nice receiving corps led by Allen Robinson, the best collection of tight ends in the Big Ten and a couple of nice veteran backs led by Zach Zwinak.
So those are a couple of guys flying a little bit off the radar and I think could end up emerging as key players in the conference this fall.