Big Ten: Indiana Hoosiers

Indiana Hoosiers spring preview

March, 26, 2015
Mar 26
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Indiana won the last time it hit the field, beating Purdue 23-16 in the season finale. But that merely snapped a six-game losing streak that ensured the Hoosiers would miss a bowl game for the seventh straight season.

Head coach Kevin Wilson enters his fifth year in Bloomington, still seeking a postseason berth. Star running back Tevin Coleman is gone after a 2,000-yard season, but quarterback Nate Sudfeld returns after a shoulder injury ended his 2014 campaign prematurely.

Can Indiana finally find that elusive sixth win? The quest begins now.

[+] EnlargeNate Sudfeld
AP Photo/Matthew PutneyIndiana's passing game took a big hit last season when the Hoosiers lost Nate Sudfeld.

Schedule: The Hoosiers open spring drills on Thursday morning and will go again Saturday and Sunday. The spring game will be 2 p.m. ET on April 18, but that won't be the end of spring ball. IU will also practice the following week, including an open session on April 23 as part of Little 500 weekend.

What’s new? The coaching staff remains intact. The biggest additions are a pair UAB transfers: running back Jordan Howard and receiver Marqui Hawkins.

Biggest question: Can Indiana regain its passing potency? After fielding the Big Ten's top passing offense in both 2012 and 2013 while topping 3,600 yards through the air both seasons, the Hoosiers had the league's worst aerial attack last year with just 1,697 yards passing. Most of that can be blamed on Sudfeld's injury, but the team also didn't develop enough receiving options to help the now-departed Shane Wynn.

Three things we want to know:

1. A healthy-ish Sudfeld and receivers emerging: Sudfeld went down with a shoulder injury against Iowa on Oct. 11 and did not play again. He could be a little limited this spring as he recovers, but having him be ready to go in the fall is enormous, as his backups didn't show a lot last year when they were thrust into a tough situation. Maybe even more importantly, the young receivers need to step up, because they are such a key to Indiana's offense. Hawkins could help, along with players who earned some experience last year like Dominique Booth, Simmie Cobbs and J-Shun Harris.

2. Howard fitting in: Coleman and his school record 2,036 rushing yards are off to the NFL, but Howard did run for 1,587 yards last year at UAB. Will his stats from Conference USA translate to the Big Ten? And how quickly can he adapt to the offense this spring? It would be unfair to ask him to duplicate Coleman's numbers, but he won't have to shoulder the load if the passing game gets back to its normal levels under Wilson.

3. Any optimism for the defense?: Brian Knorr brought in a new 3-4 scheme in his first year as defensive coordinator, but the Hoosiers mostly had the same, sorry results on defense. Once again, they allowed more than 30 points per game (which Indiana has done every year since 2007) and had a hard time stopping anybody in the conference. Nearly half the starters from last year are gone, including some key contributors in the secondary. Maybe that's not such a bad thing, as Wilson has been recruiting better athletes for that side of the ball of late. It would be nice to exit the spring with some optimism for the defense, but seeing will be believing in the fall for such a consistently poor unit.

Big Ten morning links

March, 25, 2015
Mar 25
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Urban Meyer makes news when he thinks about the quarterback decision that he faces before next season. He actually talked about it Tuesday.

Meyer said the dilemma has started to "eat away" at him.

In this report by Tim May of the Columbus Dispatch, Meyer praised the Ohio State quarterbacks for their positive attitude in spring practice, specifically mentioning a compliment offered by Braxton Miller to Cardale Jones. Miller and J.T. Barrett talked a little football at practice, he said.

These are insignificant details, though they remain fascinating in the context of the OSU QB race, especially when offered by Meyer. The battle won't actually hit its stride until August of course, when all three accomplished players presumably will enter preseason camp in good health.

Meyer said Tuesday that he was moved to feel this way about the quarterbacks because he has "such great respect for all three guys."

He also offered a dose of reality. "The negative: Two people are going to have to watch."

This storyline has already taken on a life of its own. It's in danger of spinning out of control at some point before August, at least in the uncontrolled environment away from the Ohio State campus. Twelve practices remain for the Buckeyes this spring -- more time for the media and fans to anticipate and overanalyze every minor twist.

And if Meyer is already feeling a burden now, imagine how he'll feel in August.

Let's get to the links:

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Our tournament continues with a matchup that doesn’t appear close on paper, but bigger upsets have happened ... probably.

The winner of this game will move on to face the victor of the No. 6 Iowa-No. 11 Illinois matchup. Vote early and often; polls close midnight Wednesday.

No. 3 Wisconsin vs. No. 14 Indiana

Tournament resumes:

Wisconsin: Where to begin? The bratwursts are big, the crowds are loud and the atmosphere is electric. The marching band performs a pregame concert at Union South -- listen for "On Wisconsin" -- an hour before every game, Regent Street/Breese Terrace are packed with fans and bars blaring House of Pain before and after the game, and the entire downtown takes on a football flavor. Inside Camp Randall, the excitement really picks up. The most famous tradition is "Jump Around," when the song sends the entire stadium rocking between the third and fourth quarters. But there’s also the wave, singing along to "Build Me Up Buttercup," and remaining seated after the game to listen to the marching band perform once more. And after all that? It’s time to take that energy back on downtown to continue the party.

Indiana: There may be no mascot or any truly long-standing traditions in Bloomington, Ind., but the Hoosiers do proudly boast the largest flagpole in all of college football. The pole measures 154 feet, 6 inches and helps set the basketball school apart in that arena. There are also the fireworks to look forward to before the game and, in a tradition less than a decade old, players and coaches will touch "Hep’s Rock" -- a chunk of limestone named after former coach Terry Hoeppner, who died of brain cancer in 2007 -- in the north end zone before running onto the field. For the claustrophobic, the good news is that large crowds are unusual and, for the cheap, tickets can be had for relatively little on StubHub.

Big Ten morning links

March, 20, 2015
Mar 20
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Throughout this week, all sorts of columnists and experts have chimed in with their opinions on Chris Borland's decision to retire. It's either the start of a trend, or the start of nothing. A significant and symbolic move, or a trivial decision in the grand scheme.

I'm not going to share my opinion -- every stance has already been expressed -- but I will pass on one that I feel deserves to be read.

Take a look at this essay by ex-Penn State offensive guard John Urschel: "Why I Play Football." Maybe no one in the NFL has more on the line than him. He's been published in major journals, graduated with a 4.0 GPA, and is intent on earning a chess title. Basically, by all accounts, he boasts a brain that seems more befitting a brain surgeon than a brawny ballplayer.

He doesn't need football. He says as much. He could make a living in mathematics instead of hitting grown men for a living. So, why does someone with so much on the line keep playing? Why does he keep risking his future on the present? His words:

"What my mother and a great majority of my friends, family, and fellow mathematicians don’t understand is that I’m not playing for the money. I’m not playing for some social status associated with being an elite athlete. No, the media has not brainwashed me into thinking this is what real men do. ... I play because I love the game. I love hitting people. There’s a rush you get when you go out on the field, lay everything on the line and physically dominate the player across from you. This is a feeling I’m (for lack of a better word) addicted to, and I’m hard-pressed to find anywhere else."

You can call him idealistic, but don't call him dishonest. Maybe no player's take is more relevant.

Urschel's words might not hold true for all players. Heck, maybe that truth is different for each player. But it's a take worth reading.

He ends with: "Simply put, right now, not playing football isn’t an option for me. And for that reason, I truly envy Chris Borland."

Now, on to the links ...

Big Ten morning links

March, 19, 2015
Mar 19
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Here in the throes of March Madness, football takes a temporary backseat, especially for the Big Ten schools involved in the NCAA tournament.

(In 30 seconds, name the league’s seven men’s basketball teams vying for the big prize. Scroll down for the answer.)

They’re still talking football in Iowa, even as the state’s three basketball programs compete in the tournament. The cost of football recruiting, to be more exact.

The Des Moines Register examined recruiting costs associated with campus visits and coaches’ travel, finding that Iowa nearly doubled its spending over a five-year period that ended in 2013. The 98.7-percent increase ranked second in the Big Ten to Penn State over that same time.

Interestingly, the Hawkeyes still trailed rival Iowa State by more than $100,000 on recruiting expenditures in 2013, and spent 35 percent less than ISU over the five years.

Of the spending increase, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz told the Register: "It’s really a national trend. I think everybody’s being a little more aggressive than they used to be."

It’s a good sign for Iowa that it’s trying to keep pace. The Hawkeyes and Ferentz, entering his 17th season, are too often slow to adjust at times. Over the five years of gathered data, Iowa ranks 10th in the Big Ten in total spending on recruiting.

To reverse its current trajectory on the field, Iowa would be well served to rank higher than 10th over the next five years.

Here’s the full list of schools nationally, as compiled by USA Today. Just wondering, but how did Auburn spend nearly $1.4 million on recruiting in 2013 when more than 80 percent of its signees in 2013 and 2014 lived within the SEC footprint?

A final aside on recruiting expenses: Though they offer an excellent window into these programs, be careful about comparisons.

Air travel, the most significant recruiting expense, is classified by programs in different ways. Some schools own planes, jetting coaches from coast to coast; others receive donated private air time; others rely solely on commercial travel.

And here is your answer to the above question: Ohio State and Purdue play Thursday. Michigan State, Indiana, Maryland, Iowa, and Wisconsin take the court Friday. Enjoy the basketball.

Let's go around the rest of the league:

Big Ten morning links

March, 18, 2015
Mar 18
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Hitting the links before diving headfirst into the brackets ...

1. Penn State coach James Franklin offered a preview of spring practice on Tuesday, and one of the most interesting developments to come out of it was the official revelation that cornerback Jordan Lucas is moving to safety.

Lucas has started the past two years at corner and has been excellent at the position. But Franklin said that while Lucas has the talent to play cornerback in the NFL, he has a chance to "be special" at safety.

The move had been hinted at earlier this offseason. Penn State is light at safety after Adrian Amos, Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle all graduated, but it is flush with young talent at corner. Lucas should make a relatively smooth transition to safety, and at this point, you have to give Bob Shoop the benefit of the doubt on all matters pertaining to defense.

2. Michigan State's task of replacing ultra-productive running back Jeremy Langford might have gotten a little more difficult.

The team's leading returning rusher, sophomore Delton Williams, was suspended from all team activities on Tuesday by head coach Mark Dantonio. He was charged with brandishing a firearm in an apparent road rage incident on Monday night (side note: is the word brandishing ever used with anything else but a weapon?).

Williams reportedly had a permit for the handgun, and the charge is only a misdemeanor. However, Michigan State's code of conduct prohibits any guns on campus property, so some serious university sanctions could be coming as well.

Williams, who ran for 316 yards and five touchdowns last season, was seen as the early frontrunner to replace Langford. For at least the time being, sophomore Gerald Holmes is the most experienced returning back with 44 rushing yards last season. Redshirt freshman Madre London and true freshman L.J. Scott could also take on bigger responsibilities.

Another Michigan State player -- receiver Macgarrett Kings Jr. -- was arrested late last month on drunken and disorderly charges. The Spartans don't start spring practice until next week, and hopefully no more players will make bad decisions before then.

Around the Big Ten ...

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Historically, the Big Ten hasn’t been a great passing conference.

How bad has it been? Well, when it comes to producing 2,500-yard passers, we crunched the numbers and found that no Power 5 conference has had fewer -- either in 2014 or over the past five seasons -- than the ground-and-pound conference.

Over the past five years, there has been a wide gulf between the B1G and everybody else. Even when you take all the B1G realignment into account, a B1G team produces a 2,500-yard quarterback at less than a 40 percent clip. Compare that to the Pac-12 (68.3 percent) or even the SEC (48.6 percent), and it’s not too pretty.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarChristian Hackenberg leads a group of Big Ten QBs expected to surpass 2,500 passing yards in 2015.

But it’s not all doom-and-gloom for the Big Ten. This season should put an end -- at least temporarily -- to those poor passing numbers. Three returning Big Ten signal-callers reached the milestone last season and are near-locks to surpass 2,500 yards again: Michigan State’s Connor Cook, Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg, and Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong.

Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett also surpassed 2,500 yards in 2014, although there is no telling what his numbers might be with a crowded race under center. Still, boasting three NFL-caliber quarterbacks on the same roster should merit some extra credit.

On top of those four returners, healthy quarterbacks like Nate Sudfeld and Wes Lunt have great opportunities for 2,500 yards, and Iowa was just 64 yards shy last season after C.J. Beathard split time with Jake Rudock. With Rudock seeking a transfer, that passing mark seems more attainable this season. Maryland also would have achieved the feat last season if C.J. Brown had remained healthy, so Caleb Rowe could very well end the Terps’ seven-year drought this season.

Other teams need to settle on their quarterbacks first. And no one is expecting Wisconsin or Minnesota to become pass-first teams overnight. But trends like this tend to happen in cycles, and it looks as if the Big Ten is finally on an upswing in 2015.

It’s basically the opposite message from last week, with the 1,000-yard rushing club. The Big Ten had a great 2014, and it likely won’t equal that rushing performance again in 2015. With passing, it saw only five of 14 starting quarterbacks surpass 2,500 yards last season -- again, the worst among the Power 5, by far -- but it would be a huge surprise if it didn’t improve upon that number.

Now, our most recent chart doesn’t necessarily measure passing success. Two- and three-quarterback systems, signal-caller battles and injured players tend to blur those numbers, but this should be a memorable year for the B1G through the air. If Purdue, Michigan, Northwestern or Rutgers can settle on a starter and get off to a quick start, it could be even better.

Big Ten morning links

March, 16, 2015
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Even with every NFL team represented at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, there was a noticeable lack of fanfare as Ohio State showcased its seniors for scouts, coaches and general mangers on its pro day.

Clearly the Buckeyes must be saving it up for what promises to be a circus at this time next year.

There were a couple guys making a final push to try to sneak into the first round. Wide receiver Devin Smith drew ample attention during his positional workout as teams weigh their options with one of the most successful collegiate deep threats in recent memory. But for the most part, Friday inadvertently served as just one more reminder of how much talent Ohio State has returning to defend the national title. The buzz is already building for what figures to be a more meaningful pro day in terms of shaping the early rounds of the the 2016 NFL draft.

There will probably be a couple quarterbacks to evaluate. Ohio State will have a pair of multi-year starters on the offensive line working out, plus a couple defenders with three years of first-team experience. But the real show could be put on by a handful of blue-chip prospects who could be foregoing their final year of eligibility, with defensive end Joey Bosa, running back Ezekiel Elliott, wide receiver Michael Thomas and safety Vonn Bell all looking like potential options to jump to the next level at this early stage.

The collection of talent Urban Meyer has recruited for the Buckeyes since taking over the program is staggering, though NFL teams are still going to have to wait a little longer to get their hands on most of it. And while Ohio State has long been a pipeline for the pros, the floodgates might really open up next season with one more year to develop for the core of last year's title team.

The roles Smith, defensive tackle Michael Bennett, cornerback Doran Grant and tight end Jeff Heuerman played for the Buckeyes obviously shouldn't be overlooked, and all of them have the tools to be valuable assets at the next level even if they don't have their names called early in the draft. But it seems pretty clear that some of the most coveted Buckeyes were just watching the festivities from the sideline on Friday, and their chance to show what they can do next year is going to draw a crowd that just might test the capacity of the practice facility.

Elsewhere in the Big Ten

Last season was undoubtedly the "Year of the Running Back" in the Big Ten.

We've talked about it ad nauseam around here, but in case you need a refresher course, the league featured such star tailbacks as Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb, Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Northwestern's Justin Jackson. When you have two 2,000-yard rushers and five others go over 1,100 yards -- including the offensive MVP of two playoff games -- then there's no debate which position is the strongest.

The running back position isn't going to drop off a cliff this year, either, as Elliott and Jackson return and new stars like Wisconsin's Corey Clement will emerge. But 2015 is going to be the "Year of the Quarterback" in the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook has a 23-3 record as a starter at Michigan State.
That might sound silly, just based on recent history. Elite quarterback play in this league has been hard to find at times in the past few years, and the conference has not produced a first-round NFL draft pick at quarterback since Penn State's Kerry Collins in 1995. That streak won't end with this spring's draft, either.

But the drought almost certainly will change with the 2016 draft. In fact, there's a good chance the Big Ten will have multiple quarterbacks taken in the first round next year -- and we're not just talking about all of Ohio State's guys.

The Buckeyes are a great place to start in this discussion, as one of their three candidates for this year's starting job -- Cardale Jones, Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett -- instantly will become a Heisman Trophy front-runner the second he earns the gig. Assuming all three stick around until the fall, that will be a continuing topic of conversation and curiosity in Columbus and beyond.

There's zero quarterback controversy in East Lansing, as Connor Cook decided to return to Michigan State for his senior year. He's got a 23-3 record as a starter (and is 16-1 in Big Ten games) and already has led the team to victories in the Rose and Cotton bowls. If Cook can shore up some of his footwork and decision-making, he could be the first quarterback off the board next year ... unless, that is, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg comes out as a junior.

Hackenberg had major struggles last season as a sophomore, owing a lot to an offensive line held together with spit and string. But his natural talent is undeniable, and he reminded everybody of that by throwing for 350 yards and four touchdowns against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. With better protection and more experience at receiver, Hackenberg could bounce back in a big way in 2015.

There aren't as many household names under center at other Big Ten campuses. But Indiana's Nate Sudfeld has long been viewed as a pro prospect. His 2014 season was cut short by a shoulder injury, and he should be fully healed by the start of 2015. Illinois' Wes Lunt also was hampered by injuries last year, but when he was healthy, he threw for at least 266 yards four times. Both Sudfeld and Lunt are listed at 6-foot-5 and have the classic quarterback builds.

Tommy Armstrong Jr. has the perfect last name for a quarterback and could take the next step in his development as a junior for Nebraska. He'll play in a more passer-friendly offense under Mike Riley, and Armstrong gave a hint of his potential with a 381-yard, three-touchdown showing against USC in the Holiday Bowl.

Questions abound at other places, like Wisconsin, Rutgers, Purdue, Northwestern and Michigan. But each team has talented options that could be unlocked. Mitch Leidner moves into his third year of starting for Minnesota and had one of his better games in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. C.J. Beathard appears to be the man moving forward for Iowa, and his big arm and fearlessness gave the offense a spark last year.

The Big Ten looks like it's on an upswing, especially after a strong showing in the postseason. Improved quarterback play is a big reason why. This will be the best crop of signal-callers throughout the league in a long time, which is why 2015 will be the Year of the Quarterback.

Big Ten morning links

March, 12, 2015
Mar 12
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Gary Nova is fast?

The former four-year starting quarterback at Rutgers ran the 40-yard dash in 4.61 seconds Wednesday at pro day in Piscataway, part of an overall solid performance before scouts from every NFL team.

Nova gained 141 rushing yards as a senior and lost 146. He was sacked 69 times in his career and was rarely known as a threat to escape the pocket.

Apparently, though, he can run. Nova clocked a 4.65 in his second shot at the 40. His best mark Wednesday would have ranked fourth among quarterbacks -- behind Marcus Mariota, Nick Marshall and Blake Sims -- at the NFL combine last month.

Nova was not among 15 quarterbacks invited to the combine after he threw for 9,258 yards and 73 touchdowns at Rutgers over four seasons. He measured 6-foot-1 and 222 pounds at pro day.

Mentored by former NFL QB Jay Fiedler, Nova is viewed as a likely free-agent signing after the draft. Clearly, if he makes a roster, Nova -- who turns 22 the week of the draft -- won't be asked to showcase that 4.6 speed at the next level.

Perhaps the knowledge that he's more athletic and mobile than his time at Rutgers indicated, though, will convince more organizations to give him consideration. It can't hurt.

David Jones of PennLive.com offered a thought-provoking comparison this week between Penn State football and Syracuse basketball, recently hit with sanctions by the NCAA for widespread violations.

Both programs achieved huge success under iconic coaches and built brands known nationally.

While it may not be the case for a variety of reasons at Syracuse, Jones suggests that PSU was well equipped to weather its sanctions because of the Nittany Lions’ reputation as a football power.

He writes:
Even though the Sunbelt has transcended this area as the nation's talent honeypot, gifted athletes and players across the country know the brand name. They know it as a place where you can play with other great talents which means everything in this age of herding.

It takes a lot to undo that name recognition and resultant power. Even the Sandusky scandal, Joe Paterno's dismissal and NCAA sanctions could not unplug Penn State's cachet.

So the next question: Are some brands in college athletics too big to fail? It’s a sobering thought, but one worth considering as the powerful programs gain even more power in this era of autonomy.

We hit the final installment of the Omaha World-Herald's four-part series on Mike Riley Wednesday in the links with this story on the influence of the new Nebraska coach on the career of Paul Chryst.

The earlier articles, also worth a look, documented Riley's courtship at the college and pro levels of Tom Brady and the how the rise of Oregon’s money-driven powerhouse cast a shadow over Riley at Oregon State, playing a role in his departure.

Dirk Chatelain's anchor piece, which details Riley’s upbringing and his long path to Lincoln, is a must-read for those interested in learning more about the man in charge at Nebraska.

Riley’s hire in December stunned many observers, primarily those who knew little about the 61-year-old coach. Now, the more Nebraskans learn about Riley -- and nothing published in the past three months revealed more than a small fraction of the detail offered in this series -- the more this move makes sense.

On to the rest of the links:
The results are in … and the Big Ten is tied as the top Power 5 conference when it comes to producing 1,000-yard rushers.

Surprised? Didn’t think so.

The numbers back up the obvious: No conference fared better here last season, as half the B1G teams finished with a rusher that topped the 1,000-yard mark. With a lineup consisting of Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman and Ameer Abdullah -- along with 2015 Heisman front-runner Ezekiel Elliott -- talent and depth weren’t issues on the ground in 2014.

The bigger surprise? The B1G didn’t run away with the honor, as the Pac-12 also saw half its teams end the season with a 1,000-yard rusher. The conference out west even had nine of its 12 schools boast a runner who reached the milestone last year or the year before – more than the Big Ten.

Now, the list is meant to be more for fun than projecting, but it goes without saying that rushing is important in the hard-nosed B1G. After all, only one of the last 13 conference winners didn’t have a rusher who hit the 1,000-yard mark -- the 2009 Buckeyes, who boasted three players with more than 600 rush yards. Historically, in the B1G, feature backs trump the committee approach.

So, can the Big Ten keep producing those workhorse runners? It will undoubtedly get a little harder this season, with all but two of its 1,000-yard players heading to the NFL. The Pac-12 could be poised to knock the B1G off its perch in 2015; it returns all but two of its 1,000-yard players.

The good news for the B1G is it should get a boost from a healthy Paul James, who could end a two-year drought at Rutgers. Michigan State also generally likes to stick with a featured back, and Wisconsin’s Corey Clement shouldn’t have a problem reaching quadruple digits. But Minnesota? Without David Cobb on the roster, it could wind up going with the running-back-by-committee approach. Ditto for Michigan.

And all bets are off with the bottom-three teams in this category. Maryland and Purdue haven’t had 1,000-yard rushers since 2008, and both running back situations are muddled right now. Illinois is in the midst of a four-season drought, and that likely won’t end as long as Josh Ferguson is averaging about 11 carries a game.

So, sure, the Big Ten is king now -- and producing 1,000-yard rushers has been important to the conference in the past. But that trend could very well take a dip, albeit temporarily, in 2015.
We have a hard enough time predicting what's going to happen in the games in the fall -- you've seen our picks records, right? So trying to forecast what's going to happen in spring practice -- not a game, we're talking 'bout practice -- seems especially futile.

But let's be bold. Here are 10 predictions for spring practice in the Big Ten:

1. Cardale Jones takes command: You might remember Jones from such previous performances as "Whipping Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game," "Mauling Alabama in the Sugar Bowl" and "Beating Oregon for the national championship." Now he'll be the headliner in Ohio State's star-studded quarterback battle as the only one of the three who will be healthy enough to participate fully in drills. Expect Jones to have a big spring and take the lead in the race, though J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller will have their say this summer.

2. Tommy Armstrong Jr. leads in Lincoln: Nebraska's starting quarterback will have to prove himself all over again to a new coaching staff. But while Johnny Stanton and, to a lesser extent, Ryker Fyfe have their supporters among the Big Red fan base, Armstrong's superior leadership skills and experience will ensure that he's the man for Mike Riley this spring.

3. Penn State finds some answers on the offensive line: The Nittany Lions can't possibly be as bad up front as they were last year, and now they have a lot more options. Junior college transfer Paris Palmer will win the right tackle job and Andrew Nelson will take a step forward in a move to left tackle. Throw in some promising youngsters, and QB Christian Hackenberg will be feeling more secure heading into this fall.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Beathard
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsC.J. Beathard enters spring as the starting quarterback at Iowa.
4. C.J. Beathard wins Iowa's quarterback competition: Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz wouldn't abandon a two-year starter like Jake Rudock lightly. But Beathard seemed to give the entire offense a spark when he entered games last season, and the Hawkeyes could sure use some energy on that side of the ball. Ferentz surprisingly listed Beathard as the No. 1 quarterback on a rare January depth chart, so he's obviously serious about a possible change.

5. Joel Stave faces serious heat for his job at Wisconsin: Stave has a 20-6 career record as a starter, something few Big Ten quarterbacks can match. Yet, like Iowa, the Badgers need a jolt in their passing game. Either redshirt freshman D.J. Gillins or true freshman Austin Kafentzis will make this a real competition this spring, leaving the starting job up for grabs in fall camp.

6. Minnesota's receivers provide optimism: The passing games at Wisconsin and Iowa are prolific compared to the Gophers, largely because Minnesota has lacked playmaking wideouts the past few years. But Minnesota will emerge from the spring feeling much better about its options at the position as some redshirt freshmen make plays. Two names to watch: Isaiah Gentry and Jerry Gibson.

7. Hayden Rettig has a big spring for Rutgers: Chris Laviano has an edge in experience in the Scarlet Knights' quarterback competition, but Rettig has the pedigree. A former four-star recruit who transferred from LSU, Rettig's big arm will make a large impression this spring.

8. Indiana doesn't miss Tevin Coleman ... too much: Coleman put up the best rushing season in the Hoosiers' history, but his absence won't create a crater this spring. That's because UAB transfer Jordan Howard will step in and immediately replace most of that production. He might not match Coleman's pure explosiveness, but the offense won't suffer too much.

9. New defensive stars emerge at Michigan State: This happens every spring. Even with Pat Narduzzi gone, the Spartan Dawgs will remain strong behind new co-defensive coordinators Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett. And they've always got a wave of players ready to step in for departed leaders. Some names to watch include Demetrious Cox, Malik McDowell, Riley Bullough, Montae Nicholson and Darian Hicks.

10. A couple of quarterbacks transfer: This has become a trend in college football -- a quarterback can be quick to bolt when he finds out he won't be the starter. Keep an eye on places where there are a lot of candidates bunched together, such as Purdue (Austin Appleby, Danny Etling, David Blough) or where the two-man competition is heated, such as Iowa. And, of course, Ohio State remains on high alert. But it's almost inevitable that there will be some quarterback transfers in the summer.

Big Ten morning links

March, 6, 2015
Mar 6
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The well-documented Melvin Gordon-Ameer Abdullah rivalry, which pre-dates their years in college, was effectively extinguished on Nov. 15.

Remember that day?

Nebraska players and their fans prefer to forget it. Gordon rushed for 408 yards, then an FBS record, as Wisconsin stomped the Cornhuskers 59-24. That performance propelled him to a runner-up finish in the Heisman Trophy balloting

On one good leg on that snowy afternoon in Madison, Abdullah mustered 69 yards on the ground in a performance representative of the anticlimactic finish to his record-setting career.

They met again at the NFL combine last month in Indianapolis, where both backs performed well enough to claim victory. The bigger Gordon ran a faster 40-yard dash (4.52 to 4.60), though Abdullah walked away with the best marks among an accomplished group at their position in the vertical leap, broad jump, three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle.

Abdullah appeared to improve his 40 time -- pending official results -- Thursday at Nebraska’s pro day.

When it was over, Abdullah, typically reserved, did not mince words. He said he believes he’s the best running back in this draft class. Gordon included.

“I’m not real worried about Melvin,” Abdullah said. “He has his own agenda. I have my own agenda.”

But Abdullah, training this spring in Dallas, said more.

“I don’t know what he’s doing," Abdullah said. "He doesn’t know what I’m doing. Obviously, we want to compete, but it’s more of a mental edge than anything. When you’re working and you’re tired, I say, ‘Well, Melvin’s still working harder than me, so I’ve gotta go harder.’”

Clearly they remain linked, a salivating thought for fans of Big Ten football, anxious to watch continued competition between the talented duo play out on a new stage.

Analysts rate Gordon as the better prospect, and how can you argue with 2,587 yards -- a career figure for many that Gordon accumulated in merely 13 games last fall?

But here’s what I know about Abdullah: He’s at his most dangerous as an underdog.

The large chip on his shoulder that Abdullah carried to Nebraska out of high school in Alabama, where SEC schools declined to recruit him as a running back, fueled his journey to become the first three-time 1,000-yard rusher in Huskers history.

The chip is back. I’ve rarely, if ever, heard Abdullah speak with more conviction than Thursday after his workout.

“Whatever team that takes me,” Abdullah said, “I’m going to be in shape and ready to go when I get there.”

Whether he knows it or not, Gordon is providing a bit of fuel for Abdullah’s drive toward the draft.

Around the rest of the Big Ten:

Big Ten morning links

March, 3, 2015
Mar 3
9:00
AM ET
Minnesota opens spring practice Tuesday without a quarterback problem. Mitch Leidner, though far from prolific, brings 16 games of starting experience, a level of efficiency and style of play to the position that fits the Gophers well.

The same cannot be said of at least five teams in the Big Ten this spring.

Ohio State -- clearly not on any quarterback-deprived list -- and Michigan made this rundown by Ben Kercheval of Bleacher Report on the top QB battles of spring. It includes predicted post-spring leaders at the position.

Michigan practice is already underway, though on break this week.

Maryland and Nebraska get started before the end of the week in addition to Minnesota. The Terrapins, while likely set with Caleb Rowe, who's expected back from knee surgery in plenty of time for fall camp, are splitting time between Shane Cockerille and Perry Hills in the spring.

Let's take a look at the best Big Ten spring QB battles, sans Ohio State, where it won't get all that interesting until closer to summer:

Michigan candidates: Shane Morris (junior next season), Wilton Speight (redshirt freshman) and Alex Malzone (true freshman)

Predicted post-spring leader: Morris, simply because of his experience. But this race will extend into the spring, when true freshman Zach Gentry joins the mix. And don't go to sleep on a summer surprise.

Iowa candidates: Jake Rudock (senior), C.J. Beathard (junior)

Predicted post-spring leader: Beathard. He'll get the benefit of the doubt this spring -- treatment to which Rudock has grown accustomed over the past two years -- after the Hawkeyes placed the junior atop the depth chart in January.

Rutgers candidates: Chris Laviano (sophomore), Hayden Rettig (sophomore), Giovanni Rescigno (redshirt freshman)

Predicted post-spring leader: Rettig. He's got an upside that the other two can't match, and with a season to acclimate after his transfer from LSU, look for Rettig to emerge this spring as one of the league's top newcomers.

Northwestern candidates: Zack Oliver (senior), Matt Alviti (sophomore), Clayton Thorson (redshirt freshman)

Predicted post-spring leader: Oliver, who's tall and strong and maybe a bit underappreciated this spring because of his turnover-prone play to finish last season. He'll enjoy a nice spring, but the battle will continue in August, and don't count out Thorson.

Purdue candidates: Austin Appleby (junior), Danny Etling (junior), David Blough (redshirt freshman)

Predicted post-spring leader: Appleby, in perhaps the league's toughest spring call. He faded in November, and both competitors will apply pressure in the spring. But Appleby will draw strength from his best moments of 2014.

Around the rest of the league:
Spring is springing in the Big Ten. Michigan and Northwestern have already hit the practice field, Minnesota, Maryland and Nebraska join them this week and the rest will follow soon.

With spring in the air, we've got some burning questions about the league during this season of practice and hope:

1. Who's going to win the Ohio State quarterback race? This is a question destined to not return an answer this spring. That's because only Cardale Jones will be healthy enough to go through full spring drills. J.T. Barrett will do some light seven-on-seven stuff as he recovers from a broken ankle, while Braxton Miller won't be cleared to throw with his medically repaired shoulder until at least May. So Jones has a chance to gain an early edge in perhaps the most interesting quarterback battle of all time. Can he seize it?

2. How quickly does Jim Harbaugh remake Michigan's culture? Expecting an overnight turnaround in Ann Arbor is unfair and unrealistic, even with Harbaugh's sterling track record. The Wolverines need to find answers at quarterback, running back and receiver, but the more pressing issue is simply developing more toughness than they showed throughout much of the Brady Hoke era. How quickly Michigan adapts to Harbaugh's ways will determine how fast this rebuilding effort will go, and Harbaugh let the message be known last week.

3. What will Nebraska look like under Mike Riley? Huskers athletic director Shawn Eichorst surprised the college football world by hiring Riley away from Oregon State. Riley couldn't possibly be more different, personality-wise, from previous Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. But what does that mean in how Big Red looks on the field? Riley has been known for running a pro-style offense, though he says he'll design the offense around the strength of his players. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. will need to fend off challenges to his job this spring. The Huskers seemed to take on the volatile traits of Pelini during his tenure; can they now mirror Riley's straight-forward, low-key approach?

4. Who'll win the quarterback job at Iowa, Northwestern, Rutgers and Purdue? Who starts under center will be the dominant story line at all four places this spring. At Iowa, head coach Kirk Ferentz will let C.J. Beathard battle incumbent two-year starter Jake Rudock. Northwestern has a three-man scrum, with Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson fighting to replace Trevor Siemien. Chris Laviano and LSU transfer Hayden Rettig are the main candidates to succeed Gary Nova at Rutgers. And Purdue will open things up once again between Austin Appleby, Danny Etling and David Blough. These competitions could all last until fall camp but will be heavily scrutinized in March and April.

5. How does Michigan State replace its stars? Under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have usually just moved on to the next guy when a star leaves. But Michigan State, which could be ranked in the top 10 in the preseason, still has to replace some of the most productive players in recent program history, including running back Jeremy Langford, receiver Tony Lippett, cornerback Trae Waynes, defensive end Marcus Rush and safety Kurtis Drummond. We'll get to see this spring just how well those holes can be filled.

6. Can Penn State fix its offensive line? Christian Hackenberg's bruises from last year might just now be healing, as the Nittany Lions' offensive line was one of the worst in the country in 2014. The best player on that line, left tackle Donovan Smith, left for the NFL, and starting guard Miles Dieffenbach also is gone. Yet there's hope for improvement, thanks to incoming juice transfer Paris Palmer, true freshman Sterling Jenkins and some young players who redshirted. Penn State must begin to find the right mix and build cohesion there this spring.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesJoel Stave will be fighting for the top spot as Wisconsin looks for a starting quarterback.
7. Can Paul Chryst work magic at the quarterback position for Wisconsin? The Badgers have been a consistent Big Ten title contender for the past several years, but the quarterback position has been lacking since Russell Wilson completed his one year in Madison. New head coach/old offensive coordinator Chryst could help rectify that situation, whether it's by building on the skills of veteran Joel Stave or going young with a fresh face such as D.J. Gillins or Austin Kafentzis. Wisconsin will need much better play at that position before opening 2015 against Alabama.

8. Does Minnesota have any receivers? Jerry Kill and his staff think they can improve one of the biggest problem positions in recent years for the Gophers. Redshirt freshmen Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland Jr. and Desmond Gant are full of promise. They need to start fulfilling it this spring, because the security blanket of tight end Maxx Williams is gone.
9. Can changes help the defenses at Illinois and Maryland? If the Illini are going to build some momentum after last season's bowl appearance, their leaky defense must improve. Tim Beckman hired former NFL assistant Mike Phair as co-defensive coordinator this offseason, and job No. 1 is figuring out a way to stop the run, which Illinois hasn't been able to do for a few years. Maryland parted ways with defensive coordinator Brian Stewart a little more than a year after giving him a contract extension and elevated inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski to the role. The Terps will also switch to a 4-3 base and hope to right a defense that rarely dominated in 2014.

10. Where's the next wave of running back stars? Last season saw an unprecedented amount of production from elite running backs, including Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb and Langford. All of those guys are gone, but budding superstars such as Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Wisconsin's Corey Clement and Northwestern's Justin Jackson remain. In a league that churns out tailback talent, plenty of new names are sure to emerge as well.

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