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Pick Six: Talking Big Ten Football With Stewart Mandel

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Tim Cary

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As the start of the 2009 season draws closer, FBT will periodically host short interviews on the blog to get an outside perspective on Big Ten football.  Every new edition of "Pick Six" will shed light on a half-dozen conference topics, picking the brain of a different nationally-recognized writer, broadcaster, expert, or other football personality each time. 

And without further ado, "Pick Six" debuts today as Sports Ilustrated writer (and Northwestern graduate) Stewart Mandel drops by FirstandBigTen.com.
Stewart Mandel is a senior writer for SI.com, where he's covered college football since 1999.  He is also the author of "Bowls, Polls, and Tattered Souls," which was published in 2007 and can be ordered here.  Stewart, thanks for taking the time and let's jump right into Pick Six.



1.  If you had to choose the top five players in the Big Ten (regardless of position) for the 2009 season, who would they be?

Mandel:  Hmm. I'll go with Terrelle Pryor, Evan Royster, Corey Wootton, Eric Decker and Arrelious Benn.
CFB: Ohio vs Northwestern SEP 20


2.  The Big Ten obviously needs to start performing better in non-conference games and bowls to earn some national respect.  Outside the USC/Ohio State showdown, what one non-conference game do you think is the most important for a Big Ten team to win in 2009?


Mandel:  That's by far the biggest, primarily because there aren't a lot of marquee non-conference games in the Big Ten this year. There are a lot of pretty laughable schedules. But I'm going to go with Michigan-Notre Dame. While that may cause more criticism of Notre Dame than praise of Michigan, it would be a big win for Rich Rodriguez and a sign that things are headed back in the right direction there.


3.  When the season's over in January, which team from the Big Ten will be the biggest positive surprise, and which will have been the biggest negative disappointment?


Mandel:  Illinois seems like the best bet to be the biggest surprise. They weren't as bad as their record last year, they just had a lot of trouble with turnovers. I see no reason why they can't have another year like they did in '07. And I don't think Penn State will finish as a top 10 team like they're being predicted. They lost too many valuable seniors on offense, particularly on the offensive line. Their recent history has been that there's usually a bit of a drop-off after one of their big years.


4.  Which happens first?  A 12th team and championship game for the Big Ten or a playoff system replacing the BCS?

Mandel:  Unless Notre Dame has a change of heart, there will never be a 12-team Big Ten/championship. They have no need for it. None of the other potential schools expand their TV reach, which is already the biggest in the sport. So I guess playoff -- but that's not happening anytime soon, either.


5.  What's the best Big Ten game you've ever seen in person?


Mandel:  I saw some great ones as a student at Northwestern, but since I've been covering the sport, definitely the '06 Ohio State-Michigan game. After all the hype, it really was an exciting game with so many big plays on both sides. Troy Smith was on fire that night. In hindsight, that was kind of the last great Big Ten moment before the backlash hit.
Michigan Wolverines v Ohio State Buckeyes


6.  For a Big Ten team to win the national championship, _______ must happen.  (Fill in the blank with as long a list as necessary.)

Mandel:  Someone's got to step up and win some big games, both during the regular season and in the bowls. Right now, Ohio State may be the only team that has the opportunity to do that, both because of its schedule (playing USC) and its talent level, so it's also important that Michigan gets back to being Michigan soon. Penn State will get a similar opportunity next year when it plays Alabama. As much as people are making of the recent down cycle, it really only takes a couple of big wins to change that perception.


Thanks again to Stewart Mandel for kicking off our Pick Six series at FirstandBigTen.com!  Don't forget, if you're on Twitter, you can follow Mandel at @slmandel and keep up with FBT at @firstandbigten.  Let us know who you'd like to see in the next edition of Pick Six!
 

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