Michigan Wolverines: B.J. Lowery

We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive backs.

Illinois: The secondary returns mostly intact from 2013, as Illinois returns starters at both cornerback spots (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence), as well as Zane Petty, who started the final seven games at free safety. Taylor Barton, who opened last season as a starting free safety, also is back. Building safety depth is important this spring as Illinois must replace Earnest Thomas III. Barton will compete with Jevaris Little and others for playing time. The depth is much better at corner as Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap both saw significant action as freshmen last fall.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana returns a lot in the defensive backfield but must improve after struggling to stop opponents in 2013. The Hoosiers also lose only one starter in safety Greg Heban, a mainstay during the past four seasons. There's a lot of experience at cornerback with returning starters Tim Bennett (senior) and Michael Hunter (junior), along with reserve Kenny Mullen (senior). Decorated recruit Rashard Fant, who redshirted in 2013, will compete for significant playing time. Senior safety Mark Murphy will lead the secondary, and sophomore Antonio Allen could fill the other safety spot when he returns from an ACL tear. Building depth here always is a priority at IU.

Iowa: The situation isn't as dramatic as the linebacker spot, but Iowa still must replace two productive players in cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller, who combined for six interceptions in 2013. Lowery is the more significant loss, as he had 19 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The good news is Desmond King looks like a budding star and he will move into the featured role Lowery occupied. Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and others will compete to start opposite King. Strong safety John Lowdermilk returns after a solid junior season. Lomax also could play free safety and will compete there with Anthony Gair and Nico Law, who both appeared in all 13 games last fall as reserves.

Maryland: The back four aims for better results on the injury front and on the field in 2013. Maryland returns both starters at safety in Sean Davis, the team's leading tackler with 102 last fall, and Anthony Nixon, but there should be competition behind them with A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel. The cornerback position is worth watching this spring as Dexter McDougle departs and Jeremiah Johnson remains limited by a toe injury. Will Likely has opened the spring as a starter, and Alvin Hill could rise up after recording 24 tackles last season.

Michigan: The secondary took a step back in 2013 and all jobs are open even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks -- Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor -- and some experience at safety. Jabrill Peppers, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will play a major role for the Wolverines this fall, whether it's at corner, safety or nickel. Junior Jarrod Wilson started the first seven games of last season at free safety, and Dymonte Thomas is a good candidate to start at one of the safety spots. Michigan should expect more from this group in 2014.

Michigan State: Will opposing offenses invade the No Fly Zone in 2014? Not if Michigan State can fill several spots, none bigger than Darqueze Dennard's at cornerback. Dennard, a unanimous All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, departs to the NFL, and junior Trae Waynes slides into the featured corner role after a promising sophomore season. The competition opposite Waynes heats up this spring as Ezra Robinson, Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun compete. Free safety Kurtis Drummond boasts 21 career starts and enters 2014 as one of the league's top safeties. RJ Williamson likely will fill Isaiah Lewis' spot at strong safety, and Demetrious Cox provides depth.

Minnesota: Like the Gophers' defensive line, the secondary loses a huge piece in Brock Vereen, who played both safety and cornerback last season. But there might be enough returning pieces to fill the void. Cornerback Eric Murray had a very solid first season as a starter, and Minnesota also brings back Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both of whom have starting experience. Leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson finished last season as the starting safeties, and both are back. Senior Grayson Levine provides some experience in a reserve safety role.

Nebraska: An important spring awaits new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who must identify new starters at cornerback, safety and nickel. The Huskers are replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who combined for eight interceptions, 18 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss in 2013. Safety Andrew Green, who made 10 starts in 2013, also leaves. The good news is cornerback Josh Mitchell had an excellent bowl game and will fill a starting spot. Leading tackler Corey Cooper also returns at safety. There's not much experience at corner other than Mitchell, and Daniel Davie, Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose and others will compete. Nebraska brings back more at safety with Harvey Jackson, who made three starts in 2013, and junior Charles Jackson.

Northwestern: That the Wildcats' secondary could be one of the team's biggest strengths seemed laughable three years ago, but it could be true this fall. All four starters return, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders (262 career tackles). The depth at cornerback looks strong as starters Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris return, along with Dwight White and Daniel Jones, who opened 2013 as a starter and is coming back from an ACL tear. Traveon Henry should start alongside Campbell, and there are some promising young safeties like Godwin Igwebuike.

Ohio State: Pass defense proved to be Ohio State's downfall in 2013, and the Buckeyes' secondary will be under the microscope this spring as new assistant Chris Ash steps in. Ohio State loses All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby and will lean more on Doran Grant, who started opposite Roby in 2013. Ash also expects big things from Tyvis Powell, who will start at one of the safety spots. Safety Vonn Bell finally logged significant playing time in the Orange Bowl and could become a permanent starter as a sophomore. Veteran Ron Tanner and Cam Burrows also are in the mix at safety. There should be good competition to start opposite Grant, as Armani Reeves tries to hold off redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple.

Penn State: After a season of moving parts and inconsistent plays, Penn State hopes for a more settled secondary. Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last season, will lead the group and brings plenty of experience. Jordan Lucas likely will start opposite Amos at cornerback after making strides toward the end of his sophomore season. PSU loses some leadership at safety with Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong departing and will lean on Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both of whom have starting experience. Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden provide depth at cornerback and safety, respectively.

Purdue: The rotation from 2013 returns almost completely intact, but Purdue loses a very big piece in cornerback Ricardo Allen, a four-year starter. Cornerback Frankie Williams enters his third year as a starter and will slide into Allen's featured role, while the competition for the other top corner spot will feature Antoine Lewis and Leroy Clark, among others. Purdue has plenty of experience at safety with Taylor Richards, who started every game in 2013, and Anthony Brown, who replaced the injured Landon Feichter and had 69 tackles. Feichter also is back from a broken leg.

Rutgers: This group is anxious to turn the page after a season filled with personnel issues and poor performance (Rutgers finished 120th nationally in pass defense). Senior safety Lorenzo Waters leads the group after recording 62 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013. Johnathan Aiken will try to start opposite Waters at free safety, although he'll be pushed by Delon Stephenson and Tejay Johnson, who started three games last fall. Gareef Glashen started six games last season and seems likely to retain one of the top cornerback spots. There will be competition at the other between Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, both of whom started games as true freshmen in 2013. The most intriguing player to watch is cornerback Ian Thomas, who returns to the team after quitting midway through last season, one that he began as a starter.

Wisconsin: The Badgers are relatively young at both secondary positions but boast far more experience at cornerback than safety. Junior Darius Hillary and sophomore Sojourn Shelton started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Peniel Jean adds even more experience at the position. Safety is much less settled as Dezmen Southward graduates, Michael Caputo shifts to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy returns to quarterback. Nate Hammon and Leo Musso both played in all 13 games last fall as reserves. Newcomers like Serge Trezy and Austin Hudson could compete for time when they arrive this summer.
Tags:

Maryland Terrapins, Michigan Wolverines, Big Ten Conference, Illinois Fighting Illini, Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Purdue Boilermakers, Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan State Spartans, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Blake Countess, Armani Reeves, Adrian Amos, Ibraheim Campbell, Mark Murphy, Dymonte Thomas, Jarrod Wilson, Cam Burrows, Raymon Taylor, Gareon Conley, Doran Grant, sojourn shelton, Jabrill Peppers, Daniel Jones, Nick VanHoose, Rashard Fant, Godwin Igwebuike, V'Angelo Bentley, Zane Petty, Dezmen Southward, Kurtis Drummond, Dwight White, Corey Cooper, Josh Mitchell, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Landon Feichter, Tim Bennett, Michael Caputo, Matt Harris, Taylor Richards, Antonio Allen, B.J. Lowery, Ryan Keiser, Derrick Wells, Austin Hudson, Jesse Della Valle, Michael Hunter, Trae Waynes, Eaton Spence, Jaylen Dunlap, Darius Mosely, Tyvis Powell, Cedric Thompson, John Lowdermilk, Charlton Warren, B1G spring positions 14, A.J. Hendy, Alvin Hill, Andrew Green, Anthony Cioffi, Anthony Gair, Anthony Nixon, Antoine Lewis, Antonio Johnson, Arjen Colquhoun, Charles Jackson, Daniel Davie, Darian Hicks, Darius Hillary, Delon Stephenson, Demetrious Cox, Dexter McDougle, Eric Murray, Ezra Robinson, Frankie Williams, Gareef Glashen, Grayson Levine, Harvey Jackson, Ian Thomas, Jeremiah Johnson, Jermaine Edmonson, Jevaris Little, Johnathan Aiken, Jonathan Rose, Jordan Lomax, Kenny Mullen, Leroy Clark, Lorenzo Waters, Malik Golden, Nadir Barnwell, Nate Hammon, Peniel Jean, RJ Williamson, Ron Tanner, Sean Davis, Sean Draper, Serge Trezy, Tanner Miller, Taylor Barton, Tejay Johnson, Traveon Henry, Trevor Williams, Will Likely, Zach Dancel

The official invite list for the 2014 NFL combine is out, and 36 Big Ten players will try to impress pro scouts during workouts in Indianapolis from Feb. 22-25. In case you were wondering, that's fourth most among conferences behind the SEC (71 invitees), the ACC (48) and the Pac-12 (45).

Here are the Big Ten players who were invited, broken down by position:

Quarterbacks (0)

Running backs (2)

Wide receivers (8)

Tight ends (2)

Offensive linemen (8)

Defensive linemen (2)

Linebackers (7)

Defensive backs (7)

Specialists (0)

Breakdown
It's a strong list of players, but were there any snubs. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen and Iowa cornerback B.J. Lowery jump out right away as missing, though Martinez has injury (and position) concerns, while Allen's small frame means he'll have to prove to scouts he can play at the next level.

I'm also a bit surprised not to see Indiana's Ted Bolser on this list; he's not a traditional blocking tight end, but his receiving skills would seem to translate to the NFL. Only nine kickers and punters were invited to Indy, yet it's a little disappointing that Purdue's Cody Webster and Northwestern's Jeff Budzien weren't included in the specialists.

Others who could have gotten an invite include Purdue defensive tackle Bruce Gaston, Ohio State guard Andrew Norwell and Nebraska defensive back Ciante Evans.

That doesn't mean those guys won't play in the NFL. But their path to the league might be a little more winding.
Officially, we only do a first-team All-Big Ten here at the ol' blog. But there were tough decisions and plenty of players deserving of recognition in the 2013 season. So if we had to do a second team, here's what it would look like:

Offense

QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State
RB: Jeremy Langford, Michigan State
RB: James White, Wisconsin
WR: Jeremy Gallon, Michigan
WR: Cody Latimer, Indiana
TE: C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State
OL: John Urschel, Penn State
OL: Blake Treadwell, Michigan State
OL: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin
OL: Andrew Norwell, Ohio State

Defense

DL: Michael Bennett, Ohio State
DL: DaQuan Jones, Penn State
DL: Theiren Cockran, Minnesota
DL: Carl Davis, Iowa
LB: Denicos Allen, Michigan State
LB: Anthony Hitchens, Iowa
LB: Jonathan Brown, Illinois
DB: Blake Countess, Michigan
DB: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska
DB: Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State
DB: B.J. Lowery, Iowa

Specialists

K: Pat Smith, Nebraska
P: Cody Webster, Purdue
KR: Akeem Hunt, Purdue

Some tough calls here, including the quarterback. Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase has a strong case. But ultimately we went with the guy who was 9-0 in the Big Ten as a starter and won a league title with a 20-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. ... Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon couldn't crack our first two teams despite running for 1,466 yards. We thought White and Langford were better in the key parts of the season than Gordon, who did most of his best work in the first six games. ... We had three tackles on our first team, so the interior linemen get their due with four spots on the second team. ... Several of our defensive players here were difficult omissions from the first team, including Allen, Countess, Jean-Baptiste, Lewis and Lowery. ... We chose Smith as the kicker in a close call over Michigan State's Michael Geiger, whom we honored on our all-freshman team.
The Big Ten released its all-conference teams as selected by coaches and the media earlier this month. We didn't have a vote for the media teams, and we don't pretend to know as much about football as the league's coaches.

But we can also say with confidence that we watched more Big Ten football here at the blog than anyone else. So here are our picks for the 2013 ESPN.com All-Big Ten team:

Offense

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller is one of six Buckeyes on ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team.
QB: Braxton Miller, Ohio State
RB: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan
OL: Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
OL: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OL: Corey Linsley, Ohio State
OL: Ryan Groy, Wisconsin

Defense

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
DT: Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB: James Morris, Iowa
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
DB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
DB: Brock Vereen, Minnesota

Specialists

K: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa

OK, so we cheated just a bit on positions, going with three tackles on our offensive line and a 3-4 defense. But considering the coaches had six defensive backs and two punters on their first team, we don't feel too bad about it. ... We wanted to include Scherff, Lewan and Mewhort on the first team, because we thought they were the three best linemen in the league. If we had to field an actual team with these guys, we're sure we could figure it out. It was a tough call between Groy and Penn State's John Urschel, whom we love for his on- and off-the-field accomplishments. We just felt Wisconsin had the better overall season as an offensive line, so we went with Groy. ... We went with the 3-4 because linebacker was such a deep position in this league -- so deep that we had to leave off some deserving players, like Michigan State's Denicos Allen -- while defensive line wasn't nearly as strong. ... The defensive backfield was a tough call (no wonder the coaches had an, ahem, pick six there). Dennard was a lock, and we felt that Drummond was the league's best safety in a year when that position was a bit weak conference-wide. We like what Vereen did in providing versatility and leadership for the Gophers, and Roby overcame a slow start to do his usual fine work. We had to leave off very good cornerbacks like Michigan's Blake Countess, Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Iowa's B.J. Lowery -- but that's what a second team is for. Stay tuned. ... Ohio State leads the way with six selections, followed by Michigan State with five. It's almost as if those were the two best teams in the league or something.
You've had a chance to check out the 2013 All-Big Ten teams and individual award winners. The four major award winners -- Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Freshman of the Year -- will be unveiled Tuesday.

Let's dive into today's selections ...

INDIVIDUAL AWARDS

The overall list isn't bad, although some of the selections certainly are debatable.
  • Ohio State's Carlos Hyde takes home the Ameche-Dayne Running Back of the Year award after bulldozing the competition in Big Ten play (1,249 rush yards, 14 touchdowns). Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah has a strong case for the honor after his consistent success, eclipsing 100 rush yards in 10 of 12 games. But Hyde certainly finished on a stronger note with 226 rush yards against Michigan, the most ever for an Ohio State player in The Game. He was unstoppable in the most important games.
  • Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan claims Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year honors for the second consecutive season. Lewan had a very good season, and a great season, if you believe Wolverines coach Brady Hoke. But he anchored a line that struggled for much of Big Ten play. Ohio State tackle Jack Mewhort probably has a case here, as he led the league's best front five.
  • Wisconsin's Chris Borland gets the nod for Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year, ahead of fellow standouts like Ohio State's Ryan Shazier, Michigan State's Max Bullough and Iowa's James Morris. Borland did it all in his four seasons as a Badger, constantly swarming to the ball and making plays. But he missed some time with a hamstring injury this season, and Shazier's overall numbers are more impressive. It will be interesting to see who wins Defensive Player of the Year honors. There are so many great linebackers in this league.
  • Purdue's Cody Webster won Eddleman-Fields Punter of the Year ahead of Michigan State's Mike Sadler, Ohio State's Cameron Johnston and others. Webster is the Big Ten's only finalist for the Ray Guy Award, but Sadler should have been on there as well. It's a really close call between Webster and Sadler, who successfully executed two fakes and played for a much better team.
  • Four players are repeat winners from 2012: Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson, Lewan and Northwestern kicker Jeff Budzien.
ALL-BIG TEN TEAMS

Overall, these looked a little better than the 2012 version, which contained several glaring problems in our view. The coaches' team continues to surprise us (not in a good way) with six defensive backs and two punters because of ties in the voting, and no Mewhort on the first team is hard to believe. But this was a slight step up.

(By the way, the Big Ten still doesn't have either of us vote for the media team, so direct your blame elsewhere).
  • Lewan, Mewhort and Iowa's Brandon Scherff all are terrific tackles, but we would have gone with Mewhort and Lewan on the first team, which the coaches did not.
  • Although Michigan's Devin Funchess claimed Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year honors, the coaches went with Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz as their first-team tight end. We can debate whether Funchess actually is a tight end or not, but his receiving numbers (47 catches, 727 yards, six touchdowns) are way better than Fiedorowicz's (26 catches, 253 yards, six TDs).
  • The coaches had six first-team defensive backs but didn't find room for Michigan's Blake Countess, who tied for the league lead in interceptions, or Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who had four picks and 11 pass breakups. Maybe only one Michigan State safety (our pick would be Kurtis Drummond) should be there.
  • Michigan wide receiver Jeremy Gallon had some huge performances, but he probably belongs on the second team behind Penn State's Robinson and Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis, who were more consistent as the season went along. The coaches went with Ohio State's Corey Brown as their other second-team wideout, while the media went with Indiana's Cody Latimer. We like Latimer there.
  • One player the coaches and media differed on is Minnesota safety Brock Vereen, a first-team selection by the coaches but just an honorable mention selection by the media. He probably belongs right in between, on the second team, after leading a stout Gophers defense.
  • Another big difference between the coaches and media involved Iowa's B.J. Lowery. The media voted him as a first-team defensive back, while the coaches did not have Lowery among their eight choices on the first and second teams. Lowery is a nice player, but we're scratching our heads a bit as to why he was a first-team pick by the media.
  • Both Wisconsin back, Melvin Gordon and James White, made the second team. It says a lot about the depth at running back this year that Michigan State's Jeremy Langford, who ran for 1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns, couldn't crack the first or second teams.
  • We sure wish the league had a process for breaking ties on the coaches' team. Six defensive backs and two punters? That's just strange, though we'd like to see that two-punter formation in real life.
  • Connor Cook or Nathan Scheelhaase as the second-team quarterback? The coaches and media split on that. Scheelhaase has the better numbers, but Cook won all eight Big Ten starts. No wonder that latter fact probably impressed the coaches more.
  • The major awards -- offensive and defensive players of the year, freshman of the year and coach of the year -- will be announced on Tuesday.

Big Ten predictions: Week 13

November, 21, 2013
11/21/13
9:00
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The predictions race is all square, and Week 13 brings a full slate of Big Ten action, as every team will be on the field Saturday afternoon.

Will Brian Bennett inch back in front, or will Adam Rittenberg gain the edge entering the final week? Loser buys dinner in Indy.

Let's begin …

MICHIGAN STATE at NORTHWESTERN

Bennett: Let's see … in which heartbreaking manner can Northwestern lose this week? The Wildcats can't be counted out here, as they've come close to knocking off several teams in recent weeks, and it is senior day in Evanston, Ill. But Northwestern doesn't have enough offensive versatility to counter Michigan State's defense. Jeremy Langford goes over 100 yards again, and the Spartans clinch their Big Ten championship berth … Michigan State 20, Northwestern 10


Rittenberg: The Spartans can taste a trip to the Big Ten championship game and will get there, though not without a fight from Northwestern, which has continued to play hard during a nightmarish stretch. Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook starts slowly but gets hot in the third and finishes with two touchdown passes. Kain Colter makes some plays on senior day but Northwestern once again can't find the end zone enough and drops another one in single digits. Sparty on to Indy. … Michigan State 23, Northwestern 16

MICHIGAN at IOWA

Rittenberg: Michigan will actually need touchdowns in regulation to win this week and faces a better defensive line in Iowa. Neither offense does much in the first two and a half quarters before Iowa's run game starts to stir behind Jordan Canzeri and Mark Weisman, both of whom reach the end zone. The Hawkeyes break a tie early in the fourth quarter and seal the win on a B.J. Lowery interception of Devin Gardner. … Iowa 20, Michigan 13

Bennett: A very cold, potentially windy day in Iowa City favors the team that can run the ball, and Michigan is not that team. It won't be pretty, but the Hawkeyes' offensive line and Mike Meyer (three field goals) get the job done. … Iowa 16, Michigan 13


ILLINOIS at PURDUE

Bennett: The Streak is dead. Illinois snaps the 20-game Big Ten losing skid against a Purdue team that is bad enough to build its own lamentable streak. At least we know the Illini can score. I'm still not sure what the Boilers are good at. Nathan Scheelhaase throws for four scores. … Illinois 35, Purdue 21


Rittenberg: This game features two bad defenses, one improving, but still weak, offense and one potent offense. Illinois breaks The Streak behind Scheelhaase, who piles up 350 pass yards and three touchdowns. Josh Ferguson adds a rushing touchdown as Illinois holds off Purdue, which receives a good performance (220 pass yards, two TDs) from Danny Etling. … Illinois 34, Purdue 24

WISCONSIN at MINNESOTA

Rittenberg: Minnesota is looking a lot more like Wisconsin these days, which is a good thing, but the Badgers still are the superior version. The Gophers jump ahead early behind a David Cobb touchdown run, but Wisconsin's defense buckles down and James White and Melvin Gordon get rolling, combining for three touchdowns. Minnesota hangs tight, but Wisconsin retains the axe for a 10th consecutive season. … Wisconsin 28, Minnesota 20

Bennett: The Minnesota mojo makes it tempting to pick the home team. But as well as the Gophers are playing, Wisconsin is on even more of a roll. The Wisconsin run game will take its toll and help the Badgers break through with a pair of touchdown runs by White in the fourth quarter, chopping down the Gophers. … Wisconsin 31, Minnesota 17


INDIANA at OHIO STATE

Bennett: Indiana has played Ohio State tough the past two seasons, but pair the Hoosiers' terrible defensive efforts with this hyper-explosive Buckeyes offense and the potential for a rout is high. IU can't stop the run, so Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde will enjoy the open lanes for a combined 350 yards and five touchdowns before sitting out the fourth quarter. A mad Ohio State defense records a pair of interceptions, including a pick-six. … Ohio State 59, Indiana 17

Rittenberg: Shield your eyes, Hoosiers fans, as this one will get ugly early. Ohio State builds a 28-7 lead at the end of the first quarter as Hyde eclipses 1,000 yards for the season on a touchdown run and finishes with 210 yards and three scores. Indiana's offense shows up and wideout Cody Latimer records two long scoring passes, but Ohio State gets contributions from everyone against the overmatched Hoosiers defense. … Ohio State 63, Indiana 24

NEBRASKA at PENN STATE

Rittenberg: Both teams are flawed, and, while Penn State is much better on its home field, Nebraska's run game and improving defense will be the difference. Ameer Abdullah rushes for 140 yards and a touchdown, and Tommy Armstrong Jr. bounces back. Penn State gets some production from Zach Zwinak (120 yards, two TDs) and its run game as well, but Nebraska mounts a game-winning drive in the closing seconds for the victory. … Nebraska 31, Penn State 28

Bennett: Don't count out Penn State on what should be an emotional senior day. But Nebraska just has more athletes right now. Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa exploit a shoddy Nittany Lions pass defense for a couple of touchdown catches, while Randy Gregory makes life miserable for Christian Hackenberg. … Nebraska 24, Penn State 17

You've seen our predictions. Now it's time to hear from one of you. As a reminder, throughout the season, we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please), hometown and a brief description of why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.

This week's guest is Ali Tomek from Evanston, Ill. Ali, take it away …
I should be the guest picker for this week because I love the blog and B1G football! I grew up in Omaha and have attended nearly every home game at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium since I was in elementary school. I'm definitely one of those football-obsessed Husker fans: I still feel bitter about that 13-12 loss to Texas in the 2009 B12 Championship. I've also attended games in five B1G stadiums: Nebraska, Northwestern, Michigan, Iowa and Penn State. OH, AND I'm an undergrad at Northwestern! Unfortunately for the Wildcats, though, my true loyalties will always lie with the Cornhuskers. Go Big Red!

Let's hope Ali's professors don't read this note before final exams. Ouch.

Here are her picks:

Michigan State 27, Northwestern 10
Michigan 17, Iowa 13
Illinois 35, Purdue 17
Wisconsin 31, Minnesota 17
Ohio State 56, Indiana 14
Nebraska 24, Penn State 17

SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 68-14
Adam Rittenberg: 68-14
Guest pickers: 65-19

Big Ten lunch links

September, 27, 2013
9/27/13
12:00
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Enjoy the fact that your royal overlords are a frail old woman and a tiny baby.

Big Ten lunchtime links

September, 25, 2013
9/25/13
12:00
PM ET
Wacha Wacha Wacha.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 4

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
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The constant talk about the Big Ten's national perception and performance against other conferences can get a bit tiresome.

But there's also no denying that the league has an image problem that stems from a lack of noteworthy wins. And with nonconference play all but wrapped up (three nonleague games remain -- Illinois versus Miami (Ohio) and Purdue versus Northern Illinois this week, and BYU at Wisconsin in November), we can make a few judgments.

[+] EnlargeKevonte Martin-Manley
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley returned two punts for touchdowns in the Hawkeyes' rout of Western Michigan.
The good news is that there weren't many total embarrassments, though Michigan certainly flirted with a couple the past two weeks. The not-so-good news: The Big Ten finished an underwhelming 9-8 against BCS AQ teams. That record is even less impressive when you consider the caliber of the competition.

The best win remains Michigan's Week 2 triumph over Notre Dame, which is the conference's only victory over a ranked opponent for now. Other BCS AQ scalps include California (twice), Cincinnati, Connecticut, Iowa State, South Florida and Syracuse (twice). The losses were to Arizona State (allegedly), Cincinnati, Notre Dame (twice), Missouri, UCF, UCLA and Washington.

The Big Ten went 3-2 against the AAC, 2-0 against the ACC (Syracuse), 1-0 against the Big 12 (Iowa State), 2-3 against the Pac-12, 0-1 against the SEC (Missouri) and 1-2 against Notre Dame. As you can tell, the league didn't exactly play the cream of the crop in the ACC, Big 12 or SEC. The Big Ten's slate was low on marquee games, and the conference didn't win any of the ones that were there, save for going 1-for-3 against what looks like a decent but not great Notre Dame team.

Luckily, conference play is almost here, and that will consume us for the next couple of months. But if the Big Ten wants to earn more respect nationally, it will have to wait until bowl season for another shot.

Take that and rewind it back ...

Team(s) of the week: It's a tie between Iowa and Minnesota. The Hawkeyes beat Western Michigan 59-3 in their most complete performance in ages, while the Gophers dismantled San Jose State and its NFL-caliber quarterback 43-24. Bring on Floyd of Rosedale!

Worst hangover: Michigan State hoped that maybe, just maybe, it had found a solution to its passing game woes when Connor Cook and the offense rolled against Youngstown State two weeks ago. Instead, the Spartans' passing game looked just as bad as last year in a 17-13 loss at Notre Dame. And the quarterback controversy is not even over, as coach Mark Dantonio strangely went with Andrew Maxwell on Michigan State's final possession -- which unfolded just as you would have expected, with three incomplete passes, two penalties and a Maxwell scramble that came up far short of the first-down marker on fourth-and-long.

The Spartans also killed the small momentum they had going in the second half by calling for a halfback pass from R.J. Shelton, who threw an interception into tight coverage. Apparently, Michigan State failed to learn from its rival last year, but how about everyone in the Big Ten agree not to call halfback passes in South Bend for a while? Dantonio said he made the Shelton pass call, and he likes to name his trick plays after kids' movies. Call that one "The NeverEnding Story," because that's what MSU's offensive disaster has become.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner made his first career start in place of the injured Philip Nelson, and he didn't disappoint. Leidner ran for 151 yards and four touchdowns against San Jose State. The 6-foot-4, 233-pounder showed off some speed when going around the edge and lots of toughness as he continually pushed forward for more yards after first contact.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Iowa cornerback B.J. Lowery had a pair of pick-sixes against Western Michigan.

Big Man on Campus (Special Teams): This one's an easy call: Iowa's Kevonte Martin-Manley returned a pair of punts for touchdowns in the second quarter, piling up 184 total punt return yards. He became the third Big Ten player to have two punt return touchdowns in the same game and the first since 1983 (Ohio State’s Garcia Lane).

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Information): Your new Big Ten leader in Total QBR: Ohio State's Kenny Guiton, who's No. 10 nationally with an 86.7 rating (based on a 100-point scale). A fan asked on Twitter on Saturday night whether the Buckeyes' Guiton and Braxton Miller might be the best two quarterbacks in the league. A strong case could be made for that. ... Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon leads the nation in rushing with 624 yards. What's crazy is that the No. 2 rusher, Rutgers' Paul James, trails Gordon by 51 yards and has 25 more carries on the season. Gordon is still averaging just over 13 rushes per game. ... Michigan State in a nutshell: The Spartans rank third nationally in total expected points added by the defense at 74.32; the offense, meanwhile, has contributed negative-six expected points added. ... Four Big Ten teams (Wisconsin, Ohio State, Minnesota and Nebraska) rank among the top five in the FBS in rushing yards. Five league teams (Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Northwestern and Ohio State) rank in the top 10 in number of total rush attempts, with the Hawkeyes leading the way at 218 (third nationally). ... Problem not solved: Nebraska has fumbled eight times this year, more than every team except Idaho. The only good news is that the Huskers have lost only four of them. ... Penn State's defense has allowed only 12.8 first downs per game, ranking fourth in the FBS, just behind Michigan State. ... An overlooked part of Minnesota's early success: Gophers opponents have started their possessions inside their own 25-yard line after a kickoff 17 times this season, the most in the nation. Thank kicker Chris Hawthorne and the coverage unit for that. By comparison, Michigan's opponents have started a drive after a kickoff inside their 25-yard line just five times this season.

Stern discipline: Five days after the Pac-12 reprimanded the officials who botched the ending of the Wisconsin-Arizona State game and promised "additional sanctions" for that crew, the same group worked the Utah-BYU game on Saturday night. Yep, that's some punishment, having those officials call an intense in-state rivalry featuring a Pac-12 team on the road. BYU fans didn't like the calls that went against their team in the 20-13 Utes win and pelted the officials with trash after they left the field. That was deplorable by those fans, but as far as we can tell, it was the only real punishment those refs received. The Pac-12 refs aren't the only ones who mess up, though. That was a Big Ten unit hosing Michigan State on those pass interference calls at Notre Dame.

Strangest moment(s): San Jose State's Harrison Waid tried to get revenge for battered punters everywhere after he got pancaked on a block by Minnesota's Derrick Wells. Waid hopped up and tried to go after Wells. Alas, that's a battle a punter will never win, and he got ejected from the game. Yes, a punter was kicked out for fighting.

Meanwhile in Columbus ... as if Ohio State needed any extra help against Florida A&M, running back Jordan Hall used umpire Jim Krogstad as a blocker and then a bowling pin on his way to a touchdown. Maybe FAMU could let Krogstad wet his beak on some of the $900,000 Ohio State paid the school for that 76-0 steamrolling.

Say what?: Remember when Penn State coach Bill O'Brien called his team a bunch of "fighters" on national TV at the end of last year's Wisconsin finale, but several people thought he said a different "F" word? Well, O'Brien appeared to almost use another "F" word during his postgame news conference Saturday before catching himself. O'Brien was then asked if he was going to say "fighters" again. "We do have a bunch of fighters," he said. "I don't know anyone who debates me on that. It's like my mom -- she still doesn't believe I said 'fighters.' Do I look like the type of guy who swears?"

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 4

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
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Remember two weeks ago when we were debating Ohio State versus Michigan as the Big Ten's top team? Well, the Buckeyes have created some separation from Michigan and the rest of the league with two dominant offensive performances. Michigan, meanwhile, either has a massive hangover from beating Notre Dame or a lot of issues to sort out.

We gave the Wolverines the benefit of the doubt after the Akron game and kept them at No. 2. After Saturday night's slopfest at Connecticut, we can no longer keep Michigan in the second slot. Northwestern looked lackluster for the second straight week but avoided the major scare Michigan has endured. Wisconsin, meanwhile, might be the league's second-best squad. We'll find out a lot about the Badgers this week in Columbus.

Minnesota and Iowa make nice moves this week, while Indiana takes a tumble.

As a reminder, we keep these rankings consistent with how we vote in the ESPN.com Top 25. Here's one final look at last week's power poll.

Let's get to the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (4-0, last week: 1): We'll finally get a gauge on these Buckeyes as they open Big Ten play Saturday night against Wisconsin, but the recent results have been encouraging. Braxton Miller's absence once again didn't faze Ohio State, which scored 34 points in the first quarter and received a nice boost from running back Carlos Hyde in his season debut. Backup signal-caller Kenny Guiton continued his surge with a school-record six touchdown passes. Miller likely returns this week, but the Buckeyes' offense clearly is more than just one man this season.

2. Northwestern (4-0, last week: 3): For whatever reason, Northwestern looks worse against weaker nonleague foes than seemingly stronger ones. The Wildcats had more positives against Cal and Syracuse than Western Michigan and Maine, although they were never in serious danger of losing in the past two weeks. Linebacker Damien Proby sparked a takeaway-driven defense Saturday. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian struggled but have two weeks to prepare for Ohio State, when running back Venric Mark is expected back.

3. Wisconsin (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten; last week: 4): Credit Gary Andersen's players for not letting last week's unfortunate ending linger as they opened Big Ten play against Purdue. Wisconsin went back to what it does best, overpowering opponents with the run game, as Melvin Gordon and James White combined for 292 rush yards and four touchdowns. The Badgers' defense bottled up Purdue, surrendering only 12 first downs, 45 rush yards and 180 total yards. You have to like how Wisconsin is performing before this week's showdown in Columbus.

4. Michigan (4-0, last week: 2): The Akron game could be forgivingly dismissed as a letdown. But when many of the same issues surface for the second straight week against a poor opponent, it's reason to be concerned. Michigan won't stay perfect much longer if quarterback Devin Gardner keeps turning over the ball (he leads the nation with 10 turnovers) and the offensive line endures periods of inconsistent play. Coach Brady Hoke and his staff have plenty of items to address this week before the Jug game against potentially undefeated Minnesota.

5. Nebraska (3-1, last week: 6): After a turbulent eight days, Bo Pelini wanted his players to have some fun in their final nonleague tuneup. The offense had plenty despite playing without top quarterback Taylor Martinez, eclipsing 300 pass yards and 300 rush yards. Reserve quarterbacks Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg III both performed well. The defense had a lot less fun, however, surrendering 465 yards in a performance that Pelini labeled its worst of the season. Nebraska has to get a handle on its defense this week before opening Big Ten play against Illinois.

6. Minnesota (4-0, last week: 7): Knock San Jose State if you must, but the Spartans provided the biggest test for Minnesota to date, and the Gophers passed it with flying colors. Minnesota showed the physical dominance coach Jerry Kill has been waiting for, piling up 353 rush yards and six touchdowns behind quarterback Mitch Leidner and running back David Cobb. Although San Jose State's David Fales showed why he's an NFL prospect, the Gophers continued to force turnovers. Minnesota hosts Iowa this week in a game that has more than bacon on the line.

7. Michigan State (3-1, last week: 5): The Spartans looked like the better team for much of Saturday's game at Notre Dame. But many of the same issues that surfaced in close losses last season -- stalled drives, dropped passes, not enough takeaways and missed field goals -- surfaced in a 17-13 setback. Coach Mark Dantonio and his players say this feels different, and that they can overcome their errors to make some noise in a wide-open Legends Division. The defense remains championship-level, but there are other issues to sort out, namely quarterback.

8. Penn State (3-1, last week: 8): Kent State's woeful offense turned out to be the perfect cure for a Nittany Lions defense that struggled mightily in a Week 3 loss to Central Florida. Safety Ryan Keiser and cornerback Jordan Lucas helped trigger Penn State's first shutout since 2010, as the Lions allowed only nine first downs and 190 total yards. The run game once again surged behind Akeel Lynch (123 rush yards) and others. Penn State's defense will face much greater tests when Big Ten play begins in two weeks.

9. Iowa (3-1, last week: 11): Kirk Ferentz's crew is clearly on the rise after its most complete performance in recent memory. Iowa received numerous contributions on offense, two punt return touchdowns from Kevonte Martin-Manley and a pick-six from B.J. Lowery -- all during a 38-point first half against Western Michigan. Lowery added another pick-six in the second half and stomped the Broncos. After a rough start to the season, Iowa has the momentum it needs heading into a pivotal Big Ten opener against Minnesota.

10. Illinois (2-1, last week: 10): The Illini sat back and watched the rest of the Big Ten in Week 4, enjoying the first of two open weeks. They'll have an excellent chance to improve to 3-1 this week against an 0-3 Miami (Ohio) squad that was shut out Saturday against Cincinnati and has scored just 21 points in its first three games. This is the perfect opportunity for Illinois' defense to rebound after getting gashed by Washington in Week 3. Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase tries to bounce back after completing just 9 of 25 pass attempts.

11. Indiana (2-2, last week: 9): Just when Indiana appears ready to turn a corner, it becomes Indiana again. For the second time in three games, Indiana limped out of the gate and fell behind, never finding a good offensive rhythm and struggling to stop Missouri's balanced attack. Missouri piled up 623 yards, a Memorial Stadium record for an Indiana opponent. The Hoosiers' defense remains far too vulnerable, and quarterback Nate Sudfeld struggled, throwing three interceptions. There's a lot to fix in the open week before Penn State comes to town.

12. Purdue (1-3, 0-1 Big Ten; last week: 12): Trips to Madison haven't been kind to the Boilers, and Saturday's proved to be no exception as Darrell Hazell's team took a step back after an encouraging performance against Notre Dame. When you can't run the ball or stop the run, you have no chance, and Purdue struggled mightily in both areas. Hazell admits Purdue must do some "soul searching" following a rough start, and things don't get any easier this week against Jordan Lynch and Northern Illinois.
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football:

1. Wisconsin-Ohio State could be the Big Ten's game of the year: In recent years, the Badgers-Buckeyes matchups have been more significant than Ohio State-Michigan or any other conference pairing. This week's showdown at Ohio Stadium could be just as significant. Ohio State is the Big Ten's best team, and Wisconsin might be No. 2 after another dominant rushing performance against Purdue. Both teams ascribe to the power run game but do it in vastly different yet equally entertaining ways. Although the Kenny G show has been terrific for the Buckeyes, top quarterback Braxton Miller should be back for the Big Ten opener. Miller might not be the biggest offensive star on the field, as Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon has performed as advertised, racking up 624 rush yards and seven touchdowns in the first four games. The game features first-year Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen going up against his former boss, Urban Meyer. One of these teams has held at least a share of the past eight Big Ten titles. The winner takes control of the Leaders Division. Should be a great one.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner, Jefferson Ashiru
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesMichigan quarterback Devin Gardner had another three turnovers in the Wolverines' close win over UConn.
2. Michigan has real problems: It was tempting to write off Michigan's struggle to beat Akron last week as a hangover from the high-stakes Notre Dame game. But no hangovers the past two weeks. The Wolverines found themselves down two touchdowns in the second half Saturday night at UConn, the same Huskies team that lost at home by 15 to Towson in the opener. Michigan rallied for the 24-21 win, and at least Brady Hoke's team has shown grit at the end of games the past three weeks. But quarterback Devin Gardner committed three more turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble), and he has devolved from potential Heisman candidate to a potential problem spot in just a fortnight. An even thornier issue is the continued inability of the Michigan offensive line to open consistent holes for the running game. If the Wolverines are having trouble running the ball against Akron and UConn, what's going to happen in Big Ten play? There's plenty of time for Hoke & Co. to right the ship, and the upcoming bye week is a welcome sight. But right now, Michigan does not look like the top-15 team we thought it was two weeks ago.

3. The Iowa-Minnesota game has added meaning: We love the pig, but there's a lot more than the Floyd of Rosedale at stake (steak?) this week as Iowa and Minnesota open Big Ten play in Minneapolis. Both teams have shown improvement, especially with their power running games, and enter the matchup with momentum. Iowa exploded for 38 first-half points Saturday against Western Michigan and finished with 59, its highest total since 2002. The Hawkeyes received contributions in all three phases, including two punt return touchdowns from receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley and two pick-sixes from cornerback B.J. Lowery. Iowa's defense has yet to allow a rushing touchdown. After a miserable offensive performance in 2012, Iowa is starting to establish an identity behind its line and a stable of running backs. Minnesota is doing the same, finally showing it can control the line of scrimmage and dominate on the ground. Despite not having its starting quarterback (Philip Nelson) or starting running back (Donnell Kirkwood), Minnesota racked up 353 yards and six rushing touchdowns, including four by backup signal-caller Mitch Leidner, in an impressive win against San Jose State. The Gophers are 4-0 for the second straight season. Both teams have very challenging league schedules, so getting off to a 1-0 start is huge. Big one at TCF Bank Stadium this week.

4. Bo Pelini is still standing, but needs time to regroup: The open week couldn't come at a better time for Nebraska's coach and his team, which ended an emotional week with a 59-20 thumping of FCS South Dakota State. The firestorm from audio-gate should die down, at least a little, as Pelini got through Saturday's game without any further controversy, and received mostly support from Huskers fans. Pelini is hardly out of the woods, though, and must turn his attention to a defense that needs a ton of work before Big Ten play begins Oct. 5 against Illinois. The Huskers surrendered 465 yards to the Jackrabbits, who had a balanced attack (238 yards passing, 227 yards rushing). Pelini called it the defense's worst performance in a season filling up with them. Whether it's youth, talent, scheme or attention to detail, Nebraska's defense must get back on track soon. Although the schedule remains favorable the next month or so, it's hard to see the Huskers repeating as Legends Division champs without some significant upgrades on D.

5. Indiana still hasn't arrived: Indiana entered the year with high hopes for a bowl game this year, and with a warp-speed offense averaging 50 points a game through three weeks, the Hoosiers didn't appear to be deluding themselves. But after an impressive showing last week against Bowling Green, Kevin Wilson's team found itself right back in a familiar spot: unable to defend a good team. Missouri racked up 623 yards -- the most in Memorial Stadium history -- in a 45-28 win in Bloomington on Saturday. The game wasn't even as close as the final score, as Indiana tacked on a touchdown and two-point conversion with 10 seconds to go, and Missouri had three turnovers in the first half to kill promising drives. The Hoosiers' vaunted offense failed to score from the 6:31 mark of the second quarter until there was 11:24 left in the game, and IU punted nine times after punting only five times in the first three games combined. The loss to Navy now hurts even more, as Wilson's team would have to go 4-4 in Big Ten play to become bowl eligible. That seems like an awfully tall order. Penn State comes in next after a bye for both teams, and the Nittany Lions just righted their defense in a 34-0 shutout of Kent State. Penn State has never lost to Indiana and will be favored soundly again on Oct. 5. It might be wait for next year time again in Hoosierland.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 4

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
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Recognizing the best and the brightest from Week 4 in the Big Ten:

Iowa PR/WR Kevonte Martin-Manley and CB B.J. Lowery: Here's one way to ring up a bunch of points: Get four combined special teams and defensive scores. Martin-Manley scored on back-to-back punt returns in the second quarter, from 83 yards and 63 yards out, and Lowery brought a pair of interceptions to the house, from 35 and 13 yards away, in the Hawkeyes' 59-3 blasting of Western Michigan.

Ohio State QB Kenny Guiton: OK, it was only Florida A&M, which was wildly overmatched in the Horseshoe. Still, we have to acknowledge Guiton's unbelievable run as Braxton Miller's replacement. He set a Buckeyes' record with six touchdown passes while completing 24-of-34 passes for 215 yards in the 76-0 whitewashing. And now it's probably back to being the backup when Miller returns.

Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner: Subbing for the injured Philip Nelson (hamstring), Leidner set a Gophers quarterback record with four touchdown runs in a 43-24 win over San Jose State. He piled up 151 yards on 24 rushing attempts and was virtually impossible to bring down on first contact. Leidner only completed five passes for 71 yards, but Minnesota hardly needed to throw, as its ground game dominated.

Wisconsin RBs Melvin Gordon and James White: The Badgers' dynamic backfield duo was at it again versus Purdue. Gordon ran 16 times for 147 yards and three touchdowns, while White added 145 yards on 16 carries, as both averaged better than nine yards per attempt. White also had three catches for 49 yards in the 41-10 conference victory.

Michigan LB Desmond Morgan: He gets a sticker for just one play, but it was a big one. Morgan picked off UConn's Chandler Whitmer early in the fourth quarter and returned it 29 yards to set up the tying touchdown in Michigan's 24-21 escape in East Hartford. That might go down as a season-saving play for the Wolverines.

Legends Division race looks wide open

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
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The Big Ten Leaders Division race could very well be decided next week when Wisconsin goes to Ohio State. With Penn State ineligible for the conference championship game and Illinois, Indiana and Purdue all looking at least a step behind, the winner of that Saturday showdown in Columbus will occupy the inside lane on the road to Indianapolis.

As for the Legends race? Well, it might take all season to sort out that scrum.

A little more than a week ago, Michigan looked like the division favorite. That was before the Wolverines barely got by Akron at home, and then -- as if to prove that wasn't merely a post-Notre Dame letdown -- they struggled mightily in a come-from-behind, 24-21 squeaker at winless UConn in Week 4. Brady Hoke's team has some serious issues, including an unreliable running game and Devin Gardner's sudden inability to keep the ball from going to the other team.

[+] EnlargeB.J. Lowery
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallB.J. Lowery had a pair of pick-sixes in Iowa's win and the improved Hawkeyes are showing signs of life in the conference race.
Northwestern remains a major threat, but the Wildcats' tendency to play down to their competition surfaced again in an unimpressive 35-21 win over Maine. It sure seemed as though Pat Fitzgerald's team was playing with one eye on the calendar, which presents a bye week in Week 5 followed by possibly the biggest regular-season game in school history: Ohio State's visit to Evanston on Oct. 5.

In South Bend, Michigan State showed it is exactly what we thought -- a great defense saddled by continual ineptitude on offense. The Spartans will be in every game because of that defense; how many they can actually pull out is a big question mark. Nebraska weathered the storm of the Bo Pelini controversy but still hasn't ironed out its problems on defense, which is priority No. 1 for Pelini for the upcoming bye week.

But the real reason the Legends has become so unpredictable is because the bottom has risen up.

Two of the most eye-opening performances of Week 4 in the Big Ten belonged to Iowa and Minnesota. The Hawkeyes smothered Western Michigan 59-3, getting four non-offensive scores on a pair of punt return touchdowns by Kevonte Martin-Manley and two pick-sixes by cornerback B.J. Lowery. Head coach Kirk Ferentz called it a "doubledouble victory" because for once the Hawkeyes got to empty their bench and didn't have to lean too hard on workhorse back Mark Weisman. Iowa is now 3-1 and starting to develop toughness in the trenches, the leading trait of all Ferentz's teams.

"We're pleased with the win, don't get me wrong, but I think everybody realizes we're still very much a work in progress," Ferentz said after the game. "But I think we improved today. There's no question I felt better today than I did two weeks ago sitting here. We're on the right track, but it's daytoday, weektoweek, and I know our older guys understand that."

The Hawkeyes are by no means a juggernaut, but they're turning into the type of team no one will want to play. The same goes for Minnesota, which pounded San Jose State 43-24 behind 353 rushing yards and only 12 passing attempts. The Gophers improved to 4-0 against an admittedly weak schedule, but they have a definite identity.

"They are Midwest, Big Ten football," San Jose State head coach Ron Caragher said in what must have been music to Jerry Kill's ears. "It is about the power run game for four yards and eat up the clock."

Iowa and Minnesota will knock heads for the Floyd of Rosedale next week in what should be one of the most evenly-matched editions of the pig game in several years. While it's unlikely that either will win the Legends, both teams appear much better equipped to compete physically with their division opponents than they did a year ago.

That's why the Legends race should be fun to follow, long after the Leaders' frontrunner is determined next week.



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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Saturday, 1/10
Monday, 1/12