Big Ten: Michigan State Spartans

Big Ten morning links

January, 27, 2015
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Happy Tuesday, Big Ten fans. We hope all of you in the Northeast are staying safe amid snowmageddon.

1. Well, the Craig Kuligowski to Illinois buzz was nice while it lasted. The Missouri defensive line coach, one of the nation's most underrated assistants, opted to stay with the Tigers rather than join Illinois in what likely would have been a co-defensive coordinator role.

According to longtime Missouri beat writer Dave Matter, Illinois thought it had Coach Kool until Missouri's Gary Pinkel stepped in late and "delivered finishing move."

FINISH HIM!

Kugligowski would have been a nice boost for Illinois, especially with a defensive front that has underperformed during Tim Beckman's tenure. Kugligowski, whose Twitter handle says it all, mass-produces elite linemen, including each of the past two SEC defensive players of the year (Shane Ray and Michael Sam). He would have been a nice upgrade to Illinois' defensive staff. And it would have been nice for the Illini to swipe a top assistant from their braggin' rights rival.

But he's not the only solution for Illinois, as the Chicago Sun-Times' Steve Greenberg points out during this Twitter exchange with yours truly. Greenberg notes that Illinois wants more than a position coach for this role, and there's no guarantee Kugligowski would have succeeded in a broader role.

This remains a critical hire for Beckman, who needs a Bill Cubit-like savior for the defense before a pivotal 2015 season.

2. ACC members North Carolina and Wake Forest took an unusual but necessary step Monday and scheduled a home-and-home nonconference series for 2019 and 2021. As colleague Andrea Adelson writes, the ACC's recent expansions have limited the league's oldest rivals to just four meetings since 2004. These lengthy lulls are a major downside of bloated leagues with divisions. Iowa and Illinois went six seasons without a game until the Hawkeyes visited the Illini this past November.

The schedule-niks among you will recall how Big Ten teams explored the possibility of adding nonleague games against one another not too long ago. The introduction of a nine-game league schedule in 2016, plus divisions aligned with geography in mind, shortens the gaps between certain matchups. Still, there will be certain cross-division matchups we would like to see more often, and divisional games that we could do without every year.

Ultimately, I'd like to see leagues ditch divisions and perhaps championship games altogether (especially if it replaces them with playoff quarterfinal games). But the ACC, which opted to follow big brother SEC and stay with eight-game league schedules, could see more "non-league" matchups like Wake-UNC.

Links from around the league, plus an early Big Ten forecast from Athlon.

East Division
West Division
We're examining one position that needs improvement this offseason for every Big Ten team. These areas may require an upgrade in talent or simply face a drop-off as a result of departing contributors.

Next on the list is the only team nationally to face both participants in the inaugural College Football Playoff national championship. Of course, we’re talking about the Michigan State Spartans.

Position to improve: Running back

Why running back could be a problem: Pretty obvious, isn’t it? The Spartans lose workhorse Jeremy Langford, who rushed for 40 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards over the past two seasons. Gone also is top backup Nick Hill, who gained 622 yards as a senior. Even with star QB Connor Cook and an experienced group of receivers -- minus Tony Lippett -- MSU values a strong running game. Experience is lacking.

How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): The Spartans have traditionally featured big-bodied backs. Next year looks no different. Delton Williams (6-foot-1, 228 pounds) returns as a junior after rushing for 316 yards and five scores. Gerald Holmes (6-0, 221) carried the football 15 times in his first year of action, and Madre London (6-1, 213) redshirted as a freshman out of Florida.

How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): The name to know is L.J. Scott, a 6-1, 217-pound prospect from Hubbard, Ohio, who committed to the Spartans in July over offers from Ohio State, Alabama and others. He ranks 93rd in the ESPN 300, seventh among running backs, and was named one of 10 instant-impact recruits for 2015 by ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill.

Early 2015 outlook: The spring will provide an important chance to impress for Williams, Holmes and London, all of whom were well regarded as recruits, though none on the level of Scott. The Spartans redshirt most freshmen, though Williams played in 2013. Can Scott see the field? Probably, but MSU would be well served to find a solid option as Langford’s replacement before August. The best guess to open the season in the backfield is Williams.

Big Ten morning links

January, 26, 2015
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Good morning. Only 24 days until pitchers and catchers report. But we get you caught up on Big Ten news reports every day ...

1. It has been the year of the Big Ten running back, so was it any surprise that two of them shined in Saturday's Senior Bowl?

Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah won game MVP honors while leading the North to victory. Abdullah had 73 rushing yards and added another 40 receiving yards while showing NFL teams that the only measurable that matters with him is the size of his heart. I still wish Abdullah would have stayed healthy all season, because I think he could have joined Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman by making a run at 2,000 yards.

Minnesota's David Cobb was another Big Ten back who had a special season, and he produced 69 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries at the Senior Bowl. Cobb may not have the breakaway speed of other NFL running back hopefuls, but he is one tough dude to tackle.

Of course, the Senior Bowl is as much about the practices as it is the game itself. Our Todd McShay says Iowa defensive tackle Carl Davis is among 10 players who helped themselves the most in Mobile. Davis was named the outstanding practice player of the week by Senior Bowl officials. He could have solidified his spot as a first-rounder.

Other Big Ten alumni who gained notice at the Senior Bowl included a pair of tackles in Wisconsin's Rob Havenstein and Penn State's Donovan Smith.

2. How cool was Ohio State's national championship celebration on Saturday morning? I also love that the Buckeyes held the event during a key recruiting weekend. What prospect wouldn't be excited about seeing 45,000 fans turn out to the Horseshoe or be impressed by the national championship trophies on display?

Urban Meyer is already one of the greatest closers ever on the recruiting trail, and now he's got even more to sell. Ohio State picked up two players for their future classes on Sunday, including a blue-chip tight end.

3. Of course, the big "news" from Columbus during the celebration was Braxton Miller telling the fans "we've got another more year to do it [again]." That was hardly a definitive answer on the senior quarterback's future, and he was unlikely to announce a transfer in that atmosphere. But it is the most we've heard yet from Miller himself about his plans.

What Saturday might have shown Miller is that while he could transfer somewhere else and start right away next season, he'll probably never be as loved as he is by his home-state fans. Perhaps all of Meyer's talk about the unselfishness on this year's Buckeyes -- including the great story about walk-on Nik Sarac declining a scholarship so a player more in need could take it -- will convince Miller to come back and sacrifice some playing time or even change positions to make another championship run.

Who knows, really? The tug of home and the Buckeyes will be strong on Miller. But this saga is far from over.

Elsewhere in Big Ten country ...

East Division
West Division

Best of the visits: Big Ten

January, 25, 2015
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It was a huge recruiting visit weekend in the Big Ten, as eight commitments had taken place in the conference by Sunday morning. With a little more than a week left until signing day (Feb. 4), programs have put their recruiting efforts into overdrive to try to close out their classes strong.

These visits were crucial to help get some of those big targets to make final decisions, so here's a look at some of the best social posts from those recruiting visits.

PENN STATE:

The Nittany Lions had a ton of visitors on campus, mostly comprised of current commitments. Offensive line commit Steven Gonzalez took a picture with all the visitors and his future offensive line coach, Herb Hand.


The Penn State coaches did land a commitment from one of their visitors in defensive tackle Robert Windsor on Sunday morning. The staff had a few uncommitted prospects on hand, including defensive end Shareef Miller.

MICHIGAN:

The Michigan staff was hoping this weekend would produce a few commitments, and it did just that. The Wolverines had six 2015 commitments prior to the weekend but ended up flipping former Texas quarterback commit Zach Gentry during the Michigan basketball game.


Gentry is an ESPN 300 prospect and the No. 9-ranked pocket passer in the 2015 class. He joins fellow quarterback commit Alex Malzone in Michigan’s class and will help bolster much-needed competition at the position.

Florida defensive end Reuben Jones also committed to the Wolverines on his visit and happens to fill another need on the depth chart.


The Wolverines are still hoping the weekend produces a few more commitments from some of the visitors, including defensive back Chris Williamson.

ILLINOIS:

Illinois had some big visitors on campus, including defensive tackle Jamal Milan and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Both prospects would be huge additions to the class, so it was only the finest ice sculptures and cake that came out for the visitors.

MARYLAND:

The Terps have been on a nice streak of landing commitments, and the coaches continued that this weekend by getting 2016 wide receiver D.J. Turner.

OHIO STATE:

The Buckeyes had an excellent weekend for big visitors, as the visit weekend coincided with the national championship celebration. It gave the recruits a chance to see all the trophies Ohio State won this season while seeing what else the Buckeyes have to offer.

Danny Clark, a 2017 quarterback commit for Ohio State, was on campus doing some recruiting for his future team.


The coaches were doing a ton of recruiting themselves, especially with the 2015 official visitors. Wide receiver K.J. Hill showed off the cookie cake he received on his visit.


Since the 2015 class only has a few pieces left to fill, Ohio State also had a junior day of sorts with some of the top 2016 targets on campus. ESPN Junior 300 receiver Austin Mack stopped to take a selfie with the head man himself on the trip.

INDIANA:

If you haven’t noticed that cookie cakes and desserts are a common theme of recruiting, then here's another reminder. Hoosiers quarterback commit Austin King tweeted a picture of his cookie cake on his visit to Indiana.

WISCONSIN:

The Badgers had a successful weekend of their own by landing two big commitments. The first was defensive tackle Kraig Howe from Ohio, who tweeted his announcement.


The second was 2015 running back Bradrick Shaw, who also took to Twitter to announce his decision.



Howe fills a need for the Badgers and Shaw gives Wisconsin three running back commits ranked as four-star prospects between the 2015 and 2016 classes. The Wisconsin staff is reloading at running back to continue the excellent tradition at the position.

MICHIGAN STATE:

The Spartans didn’t have a ton of big-name visitors on campus this weekend, but the coaches were hosting a very important target for the 2015 class. ESPN 300 linebacker Quart’e Sapp took his visit to Michigan State and took to Twitter to show off his time on the trip.


Sapp would be a huge get for the Spartans, who find themselves in his top four along with Miami, Missouri and Tennessee.

NEBRASKA:

Nebraska’s new staff has hit a groove in recruiting and hosted a big visitor list this weekend, including plenty of the Cornhuskers’ commitments. Offensive lineman Christian Gaylord shared a picture of some of the offensive linemen on the visit in uniform.


Linebacker Tyrin Ferguson also took to Twitter to show his time in Lincoln.


The staff did also have a few targets on campus who were not committed to Nebraska, including Kansas State commit Mohammed Barry.

Nebraska was also hosting a few commitments it is trying to hang onto and convince to stay on board come signing day. That included defensive lineman Daishon Neal, who became that much more important with the decommitment of Reuben Jones.

We've been counting down the top 25 players from the 2014 Big Ten season all week, and now we have reached the summit.

Like Chris Rock, we're ready to deliver a top 5. These are the best of the best from the year that was.

No. 1: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin

This one was pretty easy. Gordon won the Doak Walker Award, was the Big Ten's offensive player of the year and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. He amassed 2,587 rushing yards -- second most ever by an FBS player, behind only Barry Sanders -- and 32 total touchdowns while picking up 7.5 yards per carry. We'll never forget his epic 408-yard performance in just three quarters on Nov. 15 against Nebraska, even if that single-game record stood for only one week. It was the year of the running back in the Big Ten, and Gordon was the king of the class.

No. 2: Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State

The Big Ten's defensive player of the year, Bosa led the league with 13.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss while also forcing four fumbles. He could change or even win games with his pass-rushing prowess, as he showed in overtime at Penn State. He was a finalist for the Bednarik and Ted Hendricks awards and the Lombardi Trophy, and he's a good bet to win a major award as a junior in 2015. How does he combine so much speed, power and personality in one package?

No. 3: Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana

If the Hoosiers had been a better team, or if Coleman had more help from his passing game, then perhaps his 2014 season would be discussed in the same kinds of hushed tones we reserve for Gordon. Make no mistake, though: Coleman's season was also one for the ages, as he ran for a school-record 2,036 yards (in two fewer games than Gordon) and averaged 7.5 yards per carry (the same as Gordon). He had five games of at least 190 yards rushing, including a 228-yard, three-touchdown tour de force at Ohio State late in the year.

No. 4: J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State

How would Barrett's 2014 campaign have looked if he hadn't broken his ankle against Michigan in the season finale? Would the Buckeyes still have won the national title? It's a great debate. But what can't be argued is how remarkable Barrett's year was. Thrust into the starting job after Braxton Miller's shoulder injury in late August, the redshirt freshman broke just about every school record and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. He accounted for 45 total touchdowns, led the Big Ten in total offense and pass efficiency, and rode the most famous scooter in Ohio State postseason history.

No. 5: Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State

The Cotton Bowl win over Baylor summed up Cook in a nutshell. After a terrible interception and a couple of errant throws through the end zone, he calmly delivered the game-winning, 10-yard strike with 17 seconds left. Cook isn't always perfect, but there are few quarterbacks you'd take ahead of him with the game on the line. He threw for 3,214 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2014, and the Spartans couldn't be happier that he will return as a senior to lead this fall.
They didn't sneak up on us.

Anyone who tracked the Big Ten's summer buzz -- or reviewed the list of players attending preseason media days in Chicago -- noticed the league's surplus of standout running backs.

Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon had spurned the NFL, and a potential first-round draft selection, for a run at the Heisman Trophy and a national championship. Gordon's good friend Ameer Abdullah also was back for one final season at Nebraska, where he had been among the nation's most productive players. Indiana football might not have held your attention, but Tevin Coleman's 7.3 yards-per-carry average certainly did.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsIn many years, Doak Walker Award winner Melvin Gordon would have taken home the Heisman Trophy.
Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Minnesota's David Cobb had been workhorses in 2013 -- combining for 529 carries -- and were back for more. Almost every team had a player capable of logging 1,000 rush yards.

"In this league," Cobb told ESPN.com's Austin Ward in August, "there's a good running back on every team."

Turned out, Cobb was underselling himself and his fellow backs. Most Big Ten teams had great, if not elite, running backs.

The numbers back it up: 2014 was easily the best season for running backs in Big Ten history.

The league produced six 1,500-yard rushers -- no other conference had more than three (no other Power 5 league had more than two). According to research from the Big Ten office, until 2014 the league never had more than three 1,500-yard rushers in the same season. Although a 12-game regular season, a championship game and the College Football Playoff provide more opportunities, Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott was the only back who needed the extra contests to reach -- and ultimately far eclipse -- 1,500 yards.

According to ESPN Stats and Info, no FBS conference has had even five 1,500-yard rushers since at least 1996.

The Big Ten produced the nation's top three rushers in Gordon, Coleman and Elliott. It had all three finalists for the Doak Walker Award in Gordon (who won), Coleman and Abdullah. Gordon was a Heisman finalist and likely would have won the award in any other year, as Marcus Mariota's numbers were overwhelming. Coleman and Gordon were consensus All-Americans, and Elliott earned offensive MVP honors in both the Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl, and in the national championship game.

So much star power eclipsed the consistency of players such as Cobb and Langford, the emergence of Northwestern freshman Justin Jackson, the speed threat of Purdue's Akeem Hunt, or the versatility of Illinois' Josh Ferguson.

Go ahead. Try to find a more productive season at running back -- for any league -- in college football history.

But what stands out about the Year of the Big Ten Running Back was that it occurred in stanzas. Just when one star back broke from the pack, another would seize the spotlight.

Let's take a quick look back:

Act 1: Fear Ameer

Abdullah and Georgia's Todd Gurley were the nation's best backs in the first month of the season. The Nebraska senior opened with a 232-yard performance against Florida Atlantic, and finished September with consecutive 200-yard efforts against Miami and Illinois. Abdullah finished with just 54 rush yards against FCS McNeese State but delivered one of the season's most memorable plays -- a 58-yard run after catch through McNeese State defenders with 20 seconds left that secured a Cornhuskers win.

Although Coleman also had a strong start and other Big Ten backs had their moments, Abdullah put himself in the Heisman talk with 833 rush yards and eight touchdowns by the end of September.

Act 2: Melvin makes his move

It was a bizarre start for Gordon: a huge first half (plus one play) against LSU, followed by a mysterious absence, followed by a 17-carry, 38-yard clunker against Western Illinois. Goodbye, Heisman? Hardly.

Beginning with a 253-yard performance against Bowling Green, Gordon posted 10 consecutive games of 100 or more rush yards, five 200-yard performances and seven games with multiple rushing touchdowns. By the end of October, he had returned to the national awards races.

[+] EnlargeTevin Coleman
AP Photo/Darron CummingsTevin Coleman's monster performances were hard to miss, even if Indiana was otherwise struggling.
Act 3: Coleman gets his due

It's always hard to get noticed on a struggling team, but when a player consistently puts up numbers like Coleman, he commands attention. Coleman averaged at least 6.9 yards per carry in six of his first seven games, including 14.5 yards per rush in a 219-yard effort at Iowa. Although his 307-yard explosion at Rutgers was overshadowed by Gordon's record-setting day against Nebraska, he earned national respect by running for 228 yards and three touchdowns at Ohio State in a game that Indiana led in the third quarter.

Coleman averaged 197.3 rush yards in road games, barely trailing Gordon (198 ypg) for the national lead.

Act 4: What about the other guys?

Cobb and Langford lacked the flash of Gordon, Coleman or Abdullah, but their consistency, durability and production eventually became impossible to ignore. Cobb logged five performances of 145 rush yards or more and recorded 30 or more carries in four consecutive games. Langford started slowly but ended the season with 10 consecutive 100-yard rushing performances, a team record. He ended his career with 15 consecutive 100-yard performances in Big Ten games, the longest such streak for any FBS player in regular-season conference games since at least 1996.

Elliott also surfaced with 154 yards at Michigan State, the first of many big-stage performances he would deliver down the stretch.

Act 5: Gordon's Heisman move

Some felt Mariota had the Heisman locked up by early November. Gordon made them reconsider. After a ho-hum 205-yard effort at Purdue, Gordon gashed Nebraska for an NCAA-record 408 rush yards as snow fell at Camp Randall Stadium. His milestone, compiled in just three quarters, lasted just one week as Oklahoma's Samaje Perine broke the record, but Gordon made the Heisman a two-man race again. He followed up with 200 yards at Iowa and a workmanlike 151 against Minnesota as Wisconsin won the Big Ten West Division.

Gordon fell shy of the Heisman but won the Doak Walker Award and secured a place as one of the great -- and perhaps the greatest -- Wisconsin back.

Act 6: Riding the E Train to a championship

The Year of the Big Ten Back was supposed to end with Gordon, but Elliott provided a surprise addendum. It started with 220 rush yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries in Ohio State's 59-0 stomping of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Elliott then followed with 230 yards and two scores on 20 carries in the Playoff semifinal against Alabama at the Sugar Bowl, including a Crimson Tide-taming 85-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

He ended with an even better performance -- 246 rush yards and four touchdowns -- as "ZEEEEEKE!" cheers reverberated throughout AT&T Stadium in Ohio State's national title win against Oregon.

The final carry for a Big Ten back this season: Elliott's 1-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds to play, providing a fitting exclamation point.

Big Ten morning links

January, 23, 2015
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Wrapping up the first full week since August without college football. Just 30 more weeks until the games start again:

Oregon State coach Gary Andersen confirmed, in an interview with Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports, that he left Wisconsin last month in large part over frustration with the school's admission standards.

No surprise there, though it was interesting to read Andersen's explanation and the matter-of-fact nature with which he -- and Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez -- spoke about the situation.

"I don't expect anybody to understand it," Andersen told Dodd in reference to making the move to Oregon State. "I don't expect any one person to look at me and say, 'I get it.' But I get it."

Alvarez offered no apologies or even a suggestion that Wisconsin would relax its standards.

Sounds like Andersen and Alvarez were at odds to stay over admissions. The blowout loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game likely provided the push Andersen needed to act sooner rather than later. And Oregon State, after Mike Riley's move to Nebraska, found itself in the right place at the right time to land the coach.

As a result of Riley's decision to leave Corvallis, Andersen, Paul Chryst at Wisconsin and Pat Narduzzi at Pittsburgh all landed in positions to better succeed on their terms ...

The quarterback situation at Michigan is tenuous, with little experience of note among the four quarterbacks on the roster. In fact, Shane Morris, the most experienced of the bunch, is known best for his place at the center of a controversy last September as he returned to play against Minnesota after suffering a concussion.

It appears that Jim Harbaugh is interested in adding another QB to the mix. The new U-M coach, according to reports, visited 6-foot-7 signal caller Zach Gentry in Albuqerque, New Mexico, this week, and Gentry looks set to set visit Ann Arbor this weekend.

Gentry, rated 118th in the ESPN 300, has been committed to Texas since May. (Texas, for what it's worth, is trying at the same time to flip No. 1-rated QB Kyler Murray from his pledge to Texas A&M.)

As for Gentry, it makes great sense for him to consider Michigan. Harbaugh's work with Andrew Luck at Stanford speaks for itself. The coach, a successful QB at the college and NFL level, will be a recruiting force with the nation's top quarterbacks for as long as he remains at Michigan. Meanwhile, Texas represents much more of a crapshoot for Gentry ...

As you may have heard, this happened over the past couple days at Pitt and Penn State.

Fun stuff. In spite of the prevalence of mediocre teams in the state of Pennsylvania, it's great to see the old rivals sparring on social media. Nothing brings out the feistiness in college coaches quite like recruiting, by the way.

Let's allow this episode to mark the start of an unofficial countdown to the renewal of the PSU-Pitt rivalry. They'll play for the first time in 16 years in September 2016 at Heinz Field, then in 2017 at Beaver Stadium, followed by a repeat of the home-and-home arrangement in 2018 and 2019.

The arrival of Narduzzi at Pitt comes at the right time for this. He is, of course, familiar with the Nittany Lions as former defensive coordinator at Michigan State. And with excitement on the rise at both schools, no better time exists than now for a little stoking of the flames.

And how about Herb Hand, the Penn State offensive line coach, with a barrage of Twitter barbs? We won't make more than a quick reference to the 44 sacks for which his position group was largely responsible in 2014. You can bet Pitt fans will take note -- now and for the next 19 months.

Around the rest of the league:
We've been counting down our postseason Top 25 player rankings for the Big Ten's 2014 season all week. There's still a ways to go until we get to No. 1, and I won't spoil who topped the list (it's not that hard to figure out).

These postseason rankings are fun because we base them on actual performance in the previous season, not projections or expectations. But let's do a little bit of those latter things here and look ahead to who might top the player rankings in 2015.

It should be an exciting race, full of star power. Let's start with what I'll call the Buckeye 5, a quintuplet of Ohio State stars all returning to Columbus:

Joey Bosa: The league's reigning defensive player of the year is just a true junior, and after leading the Big Ten in sacks and tackles for loss and nearly winning some national awards, he could be ready for another leap forward. Which is truly a scary thought.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesEzekiel Elliott could become the Big Ten's top star in 2015 after shining down the stretch this season.
Ezekiel Elliott: The MVP of both the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, Elliott caught fire down the stretch and finished with more than 1,800 yards. With the Big Ten's plethora of star backs moving on, he could become the new face of the league. Unless it's one of his teammates in the backfield like ...

Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones: Miller finished No. 1 on our player rankings the previous two years, so he'd be an obvious choice ... if we were sure that he'd A) stay at Ohio State, B) resume full health in his throwing shoulder and C) reclaim his old starting job. Barrett was No. 5 in the Heisman Trophy voting this season after a record-breaking campaign, while Jones merely led the team to victory in all three postseason games. No one can say for sure at this point who the Buckeyes' main QB will be in the fall, but whoever it is figures to put up massive numbers for what could be a truly great team.

Ohio State is stuffed full of contenders, and our money is on one of them. But what if they all cancel each other out? Here are a few other candidates:

Michigan State QB Connor Cook: He needs to eliminate some of his careless throws, but no one shakes off a mistake and bounces back with a great play like Cook. Getting him back for his senior season was huge for the Spartans, and he'll have an excellent supporting cast around him.

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: OK, so much of his sophomore season was miserable. But he reminded everyone of his talent with a 371-yard, four-touchdown performance against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. If the Nittany Lions can block for him, watch out.

Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong: Is Armstrong ready to carry the Huskers' offense without Ameer Abdullah? He threw for 381 yards and had four total touchdowns against USC in the Holiday Bowl, and new coach Mike Riley has a reputation as a strong developer of quarterbacks.

Illinois QB Wes Lunt: A bit of a reach, perhaps, but Lunt missed five games because of a broken leg and battled hurt through others while still passing for 1,763 yards and 14 touchdowns. A healthy, second year of starting in Bill Cubit's system, with top-notch receiving target Mikey Dudek, could equal big numbers.

Wisconsin RB Corey Clement: Melvin Gordon is gone, but the Badgers aren't going to stop running the ball at a highly successful rate. Clement, who ran for 949 yards and nine touchdowns as Gordon's understudy, should see a huge spike in carries and is a leading candidate to top the Big Ten in rushing this year.

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun: His reputation outpaced his 2014 production from a pure statistical stretch (eight sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss), but Calhoun still is one of the most feared pass-rushers around. The 2013 Big Ten defensive lineman of the year surprised many by returning for his senior year, and he could be in line for a monstrous final go-round in East Lansing.
To quote the band Europe, we're in the final countdown. Our list of the best Big Ten players from the 2014 season has reached the top 10. This next group reflects the league's strongest position (by far): running back.

Let's get to it.

No. 6: Ameer Abdullah, RB Nebraska

Abdullah won't soon be forgotten by Nebraska fans who have seen plenty of elite running backs over the decades. The heart and soul of Huskers football the past few years eclipsed 1,600 rushing yards for the second consecutive season, ranked fourth nationally in all-purpose yards (174.8 ypg) and had 22 total touchdowns, numbers that would have been even greater if not for a late-season knee sprain. Abdullah earned second-team AP All-America honors and was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award.

No. 7: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State

For most of the season, it was the Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman and Ameer Abdullah show, with some cameos from David Cobb. No one mentioned Elliott, mostly because Buckeyes freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett kept stealing the show with his performances. But Elliott took center stage in Ohio State's championship run, earning offensive MVP honors in both the College Football Playoff semifinal and championship game. Cheers of "Zeeke!" echoed in Indianapolis, New Orleans and Arlington, Texas, as Elliott racked up 696 rush yards and eight touchdowns in the Big Ten championship and playoff games. He finished third nationally in rushing yards with 1,878.

No. 8: Anthony Zettel, DT, Penn State

The only non-running back in this portion of the player rankings earned his spot largely by making life miserable for opposing running backs. Zettel moved from end to tackle in the spring and emerged as an interior force, finishing second in the Big Ten in tackles for loss (17) and tied for fourth in sacks (8). He also tied for the team lead in interceptions (3). An exceptional athlete who supplements his football work with mixed martial arts training, Zettel is continuing Penn State's tradition of elite defensive tackles.

No. 9: David Cobb, RB, Minnesota

The 220-pound Texan put Minnesota's offense on his back for much of the season. Cobb set single-season team records for both carries (314) and rush yards (1,626), and logged seven 100-yard rushing performances. The second-team All-Big Ten selection had big performances against both Ohio State (145 yards) and Michigan (183 yards) and reached the end zone in each of his final six Big Ten games. Minnesota's offense lacked balance at times, but Cobb kept the chains moving.

No. 10: Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State

Langford might be the nation's most under-appreciated running back in the past two seasons. Constantly overshadowed by flashier players in the Big Ten and elsewhere, he has been remarkably consistent and productive, recording 10 100-yard rushing performances to give him a team-record 18 for his career. He also tied Michigan State's single-season rushing touchdowns record with 22. Like in 2013, Langford did much of his damage in Big Ten play, averaging 127.5 rush yards per game. In almost any other league, he's a first-team all-conference selection.

Big Ten morning links

January, 22, 2015
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I took a few days off shortly after the national title game for a mini-vacation, so that helped delay my football withdrawal. But now reality is starting to settle in: we won't have any more college football games for a long, bleak eight months.

Yet when the 2015 season finally does kick off over Labor Day weekend, we will be immediately welcomed back with a slate of fascinating games. Last year, we had the delicious Wisconsin-LSU opener to look forward to, along with some minor curiosities like Rutgers-Washington State, Penn State-UCF in Ireland and Ohio State-Navy. This year's opening slate will be even better.

It will all begin with an absolute blockbuster of a Thursday night. TCU will play at Minnesota in what looks like the biggest nonconference game of the Jerry Kill era. Our Mark Schlabach ranked the Horned Frogs No. 1 in his way-too-early 2015 Top 25 (and, no, I have no idea why he didn't put Ohio State at No. 1, either). At the very least, TCU figures to be a Top 5 team when it comes to TCF Bank Stadium, offering the Gophers a chance to make a major early statement.

That same night, we get the debut of Jim Harbaugh as head coach of Michigan, which will play its first-ever Thursday night game at Utah. The Utes have beaten the Wolverines the past two times they played them, including last September, and opening at Rice-Eccles Stadium won't be easy. But everyone will want to see Harbaugh on the Maize and Blue sidelines for the first time.

Those games set the table for a strong Saturday which includes Wisconsin and new head coach Paul Chryst going up against Alabama at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Badgers will be heavy underdogs, but Ohio State showed it's possible for a Big Ten team to bully big, bad 'Bama. We'll also get Mike Riley's first game as Nebraska head coach in an intriguing matchup against BYU and Northwestern seeking a rebound season that will begin by hosting Stanford.

The icing on the cake arrives on Labor Day night, as the defending champion Buckeyes go on the road to Virginia Tech. The Hokies were the only team to beat Ohio State in 2014, and Lane Stadium should be total pandemonium for this one.

The Big Ten changed the narrative and greatly bolstered its reputation during bowl season. The league will get a chance to continue that momentum right away in the 2015 season, even if it feels a million miles away at this point. ...

Speaking of scheduling, Michigan State added BYU to its future schedules for 2016 and 2020 on Wednesday. The Cougars replaced Eastern Michigan on the schedule for the Spartans, which is a win for everybody. Athletic director Mark Hollis has been committed to scheduling at least one strong nonconference opponent per year, and Oregon comes to East Lansing in Week 2 of 2015 to complete a home-and-home.

Future Spartans' nonconference schedules in 2016 and beyond (the dawn of the nine-game Big Ten slate) will include Notre Dame (2016 and '17), Arizona State (2018, '19), Miami (2020, '21) and Boise State (2022, '23), along with BYU. That's smart, aggressive scheduling in the playoff era, and in the years when Michigan State plays both BYU and Notre Dame in addition to nine Big Ten contests, it will have to be ready for a season-long grind.

Elsewhere in the Big Ten:
The long harsh offseason is in full swing, and we’re examining what each Big Ten team must accomplish in the coming months to be ready in early September.

Michigan State has a program built to last, but Mark Dantonio's team still has some things to get done in the coming months.

1. Restock the "No Fly Zone:" The Spartans must replace cornerback Trae Waynes, who skipped his senior year to become a potential first- or second-round NFL draft pick, and safety Kurtis Drummond, who was named the Big Ten defensive back of the year. Even with those guys on the field in 2014, Michigan State's vaunted secondary had some issues this fall, particularly against its best opponents. Safety RJ Williamson and cornerback Darian Hicks return as starters, and Montae Nicholson seems likely to claim the other safety spot after starting there three times as a freshman. The other cornerback job will be up for grabs, with Demetrious Cox the likely front-runner. But there will be heavy competition this spring and summer.

2. Replace stars at RB, WR: Jeremy Langford and Tony Lippett were two of the best players at their respective positions in modern-day Michigan State history. Langford was a 100-yard per-game metronome and a workhorse tailback who ran for 2,944 yards and 40 touchdowns in the past two seasons combined. Lippett was the Big Ten's top receiver in 2014 with an 1,198-yard season -- and he started at cornerback late in the season, too. Replacing them will be a tall order, though the Spartans have plenty of options. Delton Williams is the most experienced returning running back and will get some competition from Madre London and others this spring. At receiver, Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings Jr. have made big plays in their career and have the potential for more. Young players will be thrown into the mix at both spots right away, too. Can any of them rise to the star level that Langford and Lippett achieved?

3. Find ways to slow Ducks, Bucks: As it did in 2014, Michigan State's 2015 season could really come down to two games: the Week 2 visit from Oregon and the Nov. 21 trip to Ohio State. Those two teams played for the national championship and were the only ones to beat the Spartans last season. But they did so handily, as Oregon won 46-27 and Ohio State rolled 49-37. With Pat Narduzzi gone to Pitt, new co-defensive coordinators Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel need to study every millisecond of film this offseason to find some type of way to put the brakes on those two high-flying offenses. That's much easier said than done, of course. But unless Michigan State wins at least one of those games, it will have no chance to reach the College Football Playoff. As always with a Dantonio team, it starts with defense.

Big Ten morning links

January, 21, 2015
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Tuesday brought an end to questions about the final spots on the coaching staffs at Michigan and Nebraska.

Both are now full, though at Michigan, the addition of Mike Zordich as secondary coach and Jay Harbaugh as tight ends coach came as no surprise. Nebraska, more than two weeks after Mike Riley unveiled additions to bring his staff to eight, tabbed a receivers coach, Keith Williams, from Tulane.

An official announcement is forthcoming after Williams, 42, spent time Tuesday in Lincoln.



The highlight of the Jay Harbaugh hire came as the head coach’s 25-year-old son revealed that his dad once poured Gatorade on his cereal.

Excuse me, what? Way to set the bar high on your first official day, Jay; we’ll definitely expect more where that came from that in future interviews.

Fact is, Jim Harbaugh could have hired daughters Grace, Addie or Katie, ages 14, 6, and 4, respectively, to fill a spot on this staff, and Michigan fans would have leapt with joy. Such is their level of excitement with Harbaugh, as it should be.

And that’s no knock against Jay, 25, who worked for his uncle, John, the past three seasons as an offensive quality control coach for the Baltimore Ravens. The young Harbaugh looks like a fine pick, especially paired with Jedd Fisch and Tyrone Wheatley on the offensive side and veteran special teams coordinator John Baxter.

If Jay brings a fraction of his father’s enthusiasm, he’ll be a big hit on the recruiting trail.

Back to Jay Harbaugh. It’s interesting that he worked on Riley’s staff at Oregon State as an undergraduate assistant for four years. Not surprising, though, that Jim’s son got his foot in the door with Riley.

The Riley-Harbaugh connections run deep. New Nebraska running backs coach Reggie Davis came to Riley from Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers.

And oh, yes, Harbaugh played on Riley’s San Diego Chargers in 1999 and 2000.

When Nebraska and Michigan meet again in 2018 -- if both coaches last that long and they don’t meet first in a Big Ten title game -- it’s going to feel a little like a family reunion.

Around the rest of the Big Ten:

East Division
West Division
The weeklong countdown of the best players in the Big Ten from 2014 continues with the next set of five, headlined by a trio of linemen.

No. 11: Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State

The anchor on the interior for an Ohio State defense that grew into a dominant unit as the season progressed, Bennett played his best as his senior season neared an end. He accumulated five of his seven sacks and 9.5 of 14 tackles behind the line of scrimmage in November and the Big Ten championship game. By the time the Buckeyes controlled seemingly unstoppable Alabama and Oregon, Bennett was a force as part of a ferocious front four that made life much easier for the play-making linebackers and defensive backs behind him.

No. 12: Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa

A rock of consistency amid an up-and-down Iowa offense, Scherff did his part to contribute to the Hawkeyes' success. The Outland Trophy winner couldn't score touchdowns, though he would have gladly tried if given the chance. Scherff displayed his legendary strength and quick feet in protecting the blind side of Jake Rudock. When the Iowa offense hummed against Indiana, Northwestern and Illinois, Scherff was at the center of it.

No. 13: Taylor Decker, OT, Ohio State

The lone returning starter on an Ohio State offensive line that developed from a potential liability into a fearsome five-some over 15 games, Decker served as a cornerstone of the Buckeyes' success. Over the final four games, against Michigan, Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon, Ohio State rushed for 15 touchdowns. Credit Ezekiel Elliott -- but also Decker, a 6-foot-7 junior, and the line for punishing opponents as games grew long. And with inexperienced quarterbacks taking snaps all season, it was Decker who provided a security blanket in pass protection.

No. 14: Mike Hull, LB, Penn State

Hull didn't just lead the Nittany Lions in tackles as a senior. He led the Big Ten by a margin of 28 stops. A tackling machine, he served as the “heart and soul,” according to defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, of a group that carried PSU through 2014. Led by Hull and his 140 tackles, the defense led the Big Ten in yards allowed per game and play and in scoring, among numerous other categories. The sure-handed Hull was always in place to clean up. He contributed 10.5 tackles for losses and excelled in a leadership role.

No. 15: Tony Lippett, WR, Michigan State

Voted the team MVP and Big Ten receiver of the year, Lippett leaves MSU after catching 65 passes for a league-best 1,198 yards and 11 touchdowns. Firmly established as Connor Cook's top target, Lippett drew the attention of every MSU foe but often came up big against the best competition; against Oregon, for instance, he caught a career-best 11 passes. And Lippett did more than just catch passes. He started at cornerback on Senior Day against Rutgers and saw extensive time on defense against Penn State.
This may shock you, so make sure you're sitting down: We actually put some time and thought into the Big Ten postseason player rankings.

Yes, I know it's stunning that we don't just throw 25 names out there. There was ample discussion about several candidates, particularly at the bottom of the list.

So who just missed the cut? Here are five players we considered but ultimately left out of the Top 25.

Maryland CB/KR/PR Will Likely: The Terrapins' playmaking extraordinaire appeared in several versions of the Top 25 before missing the final cut. He had four scoring returns this season: two interceptions, one punt and one kickoff. Likely tied for the league lead in interceptions (6) and also led the league in kick return average (31 ypr), while finishing third in punt return average (11.1 ypr). This was a tough one and we understand criticism for leaving out such a productive player.

Michigan State C Jack Allen: Allen was another player who made our initial Top 25 postseason countdown. He was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection and a finalist for the Rimington Award, given to the nation's top center. Allen anchored an MSU line that has become one of the team's stronger groups the past few seasons. Ultimately, we didn't find room for him but he'll enter the 2015 season as one of the nation's top linemen.

Ohio State QB Cardale Jones: He merely led Ohio State to its first national championship since 2002 and the first in the College Football Playoff era. Jones was brilliant in three postseason appearances, especially in the Big Ten championship game, his first career start, and the Playoff semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Ultimately, we put more weight on a player's performance throughout the season and had a hard time including someone who was a non-factor until the final three games, as big as they were.

Ohio State CB Doran Grant: The development of Ohio State's secondary under new co-coordinator Chris Ash played a major role in the Buckeyes' championship run. We wanted to include at least one Buckeyes defensive back in the rundown. We ended up going with safety Vonn Bell at No. 25, but Grant also was considered after a strong senior season. Grant tied for third in the Big Ten with five interceptions and led Ohio State with 14 total passes defended.

Maryland WR Stefon Diggs: Terrapins fans probably think we're out to get them -- does it help that I'm wearing Under Armour gear as I type this? -- but we left two Maryland players just out of the rankings. Diggs showcased his immense talent at times this season, leading Maryland with 62 receptions for 792 yards and five touchdowns, despite appearing in only 10 games. Diggs might have made the list if not for an injury late in the regular season. He has a bright future in the NFL.

Big Ten morning links

January, 20, 2015
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A week ago, the Big Ten was waking up to a national championship.

1. Defensive end Noah Spence couldn't take part in Ohio State's title run after being declared ineligible from the team because of two failed drug tests. But Spence's college career will continue at FCS Eastern Kentucky, his father told me Monday night. A first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2013, Spence had eight sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss with the Buckeyes. But the first of two failed drug tests sidelined him for the Orange Bowl, and the second effectively ended his Buckeyes career.

The good news: Spence is doing well, according to his father, Greg, and "continues to be open and receptive to all of the guidance that has been provided professionally and non-professionally in regards to those areas of concern." He considered entering the NFL draft and received projections in the third to fifth round, but ultimately elected for one more year at the college level to mature both on and off the field. Greg Spence repeatedly praised Urban Meyer and the Ohio State coaches and athletic department for standing by his son during a trying time.

"He's extremely excited to play football again as well as grateful for another opportunity," Greg Spence said.

Best of luck to Noah Spence at EKU. He's an incredibly talented player. Here's hoping his story takes a positive turn and results in an long NFL career.

2. Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour on Monday night apologized for a recent tweet that characterized the #409 displays worn by Lions teams as "inappropriate and insensitive." Barbour told WBLF-AM radio in State College that the restoration of Joe Paterno's wins total is a moment to celebrate for Penn State fans. She also defended hockey coach Guy Gadowsky, who had been criticized after his team wore 409 decals during Friday's game.

"I don't want him to beat up about this," Barbour told WBLF. "He also got killed by the advocate's side of this, and I think just as we have to understand and be sensitive to the victim side, there also has to be some understanding of why we would celebrate."

Barbour also said Paterno would be honored "over time" but that Penn State would need to be "deliberate" in figuring out the right approach. This is delicate ground for Barbour, who can use her status as an outsider to her advantage in trying to strike the right chord with PSU fans but also project the right image nationally. It's still not an easy task.

3. An early signing period is coming closer to reality as a committee has recommended a 72-hour period in December when prospects can sign with colleges. The early period would begin with the class of 2016, and would coincide with the current signing period for junior-college players. Former Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen supported this schedule when we talked in the spring, and it makes sense to give long-committed recruits a chance to make things official.

Still, the more important piece for Big Ten teams -- and the one league coaches should push -- is earlier official visits. A small window in May or June when Big Ten teams could pay for recruits and their families to visit campus would be huge in expanding the league's recruiting reach. The SEC coaches seem united on everything. Why don't the Big Ten coaches stand together and make their voices heard?

Time for the division dish ...

East Division
West Division

And, finally, the Cleveland Cavaliers should invite Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes at every game. It sure worked Monday night.

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