Michigan Wolverines: Jake Butt

Picks to click: Week 5

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
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Michigan starts the Big Ten portion of its schedule this weekend with a rivalry game they have dominated during the last quarter-century. The Wolverines are looking at Saturday’s meeting with Minnesota as a chance for a clean slate.

Since 1986, Minnesota has beaten Michigan once. The Gophers come to Ann Arbor with one of the top rushers in the nation in David Cobb and the second-most takeaways among FBS teams. Michigan remains a double-digit favorite, but Saturday might be Minnesota’s best chance to upset a reeling Wolverines team since its victory in 2005. Here are a few players who could play a big role in making sure that Michigan retains possession of the little brown jug Saturday:

LB Jake Ryan: The fifth-year senior is settling into his role in the middle of the defense after playing outside linebacker earlier in his career. He made a team-high 13 tackles in a 26-10 loss to Utah last week. He’ll get another chance to shine against a one-dimensional Gophers offense and a workhorse back like Cobb. Another double-digit tackle performance from Ryan could turn him into an all-conference candidate on a team that hasn't had many bright spots so far this season.

TE Jake Butt: Michigan coach Brady Hoke promised changes were coming to a dismal offense this week. One possible new direction could include a bigger role for his sophomore tight end. Butt is still climbing back toward full health after offseason ACL surgery. Hoke said he wants to use the big, versatile pass-catcher as much as his healing knee will allow. After three catches and a touchdown in a win over Miami (Ohio), Butt didn’t see much action last week. He should be getting closer to playing a full role and opening up some options for whoever winds up starting at quarterback.

WR Dennis Norfleet: Michigan’s return specialist and speedster in the passing game gave a passionate defense of his head coach earlier in the week. He has emerged as one of the team leaders in his junior year. Norfleet’s emotion, if he can translate it to the field, could help provide a big special-teams play to spark a Michigan team that will take points any way it can get them.

Michigan helmet stickers: Week 3

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
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The top performers from the Wolverines' 34-10 victory against visiting Miami (Ohio) Saturday:
  • RB Derrick Green: The sophomore powered Michigan’s rushing attack with 137 yards and two touchdowns against Miami (Ohio). He averaged 6.2 yards per carry, but his best run of the day picked up only two yards. He sidestepped one would-be tackler in the backfield and dragged another past the first down marker on a 3rd-and-1 in the fourth quarter. That second effort helped Green finish the day without getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage.
  • LB Joe Bolden: The Ohio native made seven stops against the RedHawks, increasing his team-leading total to 22 tackles this season. Bolden also dove to deflect a third-down pass for his highlight-reel moment, which killed Miami’s first drive of the second half when the game was still in question.
  • TE Jake Butt: In his first fully active appearance since tearing his ACL in February, Butt caught three passes for 59 yards and a touchdown. Two plays after yanking a potential interception away from a Miami linebacker for his first catch of the season, Butt slipped into a wide-open field on a fake screen play and hauled in a much-needed, 29-yard scoring play. "Things weren’t going exactly how we wanted them that game," he said. "[I] went in there and took the ball out of the defender’s hands and scored the touchdown. It kind of provided a good spark for our team."

Big Ten lunch links

June, 5, 2014
Jun 5
12:00
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Meet me in Chicago.
  • Michigan sophomore tight end Jake Butt is jogging again, raising some hopes that he might be back early in the season after having ACL surgery in February.
  • There's an established starter in place in the Michigan State backfield, but that isn't stopping Madre London from setting some high goals for his first season on campus.
  • Urban Meyer reflects on the NCAA sanctions and the circumstances that brought him back to Ohio State.
  • The Penn State defense isn't generating all that much buzz, but a pair of tackles could be worthy of a little attention heading into the season.
  • Nebraska associate athletic director Paul Meyers, a man considered a confidant of Bo Pelini, resigned his post this week, and Steven M. Sipple asks a few questions about the move.
  • Purdue fans longing to be represented on the team helmet are having their dreams come true.
  • The Indiana receiving corps set the bar high a year ago. Can the Hoosiers match the production this fall?
  • TCF Bank Stadium will still have separate logos for the Gophers and the Vikings while the two share the facility for the next two seasons.
  • Big Ten fever is apparently running wild at Rutgers, where season-ticket sales are on the rise.
  • A revised witness list in the O'Bannon case includes Jim Delany's name.
The unofficial start of summer begins this holiday weekend, but we're dreaming about the fall. With that in mind, we're looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.

By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/involved in a time-travel mishap, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. Our next stop in the series is the Michigan Wolverines.

[+] EnlargeDevin Funchess
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesA lack of depth at the position makes Devin Funchess an invaluable asset to Michigan's offense.
Devin Funchess, WR, Jr.

It's tempting to pick the other Devin here and go with quarterback Devin Gardner. And maybe that would be the smarter call. But Brady Hoke keeps insisting that Shane Morris has made progress and is catching up to Gardner, so the Wolverines could weather a prolonged absence from Gardner. Depth is a much more pressing issue at the position Funchess plays. After losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo to graduation and Jake Butt to injury, Michigan has few other experienced receiving options. Freddy Canteen turned heads this spring but is still just a true freshman, while other players such as Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh must prove themselves. Funchess caught 49 passes for 748 yards and six touchdowns last fall, and the converted tight end is a matchup nightmare, especially in the red zone. His playmaking skills would be sorely missed.

Frank Clark, DE, Sr.

The Wolverines are building talent and depth along their defensive line, but Clark is still the best playmaker up front. He led the team with 12 tackles for loss last season while adding 4.5 sacks. The 6-foot-2, 270-pounder has elite athleticism and is looking for a major breakthrough season as a senior. Michigan has other options at defensive end, including Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley. But Clark has a chance to be the leader for an improved defensive line that could be the key to the entire defense.

Big Ten lunch links

March, 14, 2014
Mar 14
12:00
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Big Ten fans: Please consider a donation to help former Northwestern player Nathan Shanks, an Illinois state trooper involved in a major auto accident while on duty earlier this month. Shanks suffered severe burns and several fractured bones and has significant medical expenses.

To the links ...
Spring ball starts on Feb. 25, and until then we’re taking looks at different players, position groups and parts of the team to keep an eye on as the Wolverines wind through their month of spring practices. We hit the midway point of our countdown today with No. 3.

[+] EnlargeDevin Funches
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsDevin Funchess showed big-play ability for Michigan in 2013, but the Wolverines are hoping he'll make the leap this spring and be a more complete player.
No. 3: Devin Funchess
Height: 6-foot-5
Weight: 235 pounds
2013 stats: 13 games, 9 starts, 748 yards, 6 touchdowns

The Wolverines receiving corps is a huge question mark at this point. From Amara Darboh returning from a foot injury to Jake Butt possibly making a return midway through next season from a torn ACL, to a crop of young freshmen trying to take the next step in contributing, there are a lot of question marks. The closest thing Michigan has to a sure thing next season is Funchess.

His development was going to be of huge importance coming into this spring considering the departure of leading receiver Jeremy Gallon. There were definitely big shoes (and yards and touchdowns) to be filled. But now, with Butt’s ACL tear, he’s going to need to contribute that much more.

With the change in offensive coordinator, Funchess will need to use the spring to learn Doug Nussmeier’s playbook. The more he can learn and get under his belt during this spring, the less he’ll need to do this fall and the more he’ll just be able to help the offense grow.

He’ll also use this spring to gain more chemistry with Devin Gardner and Shane Morris, as he’ll probably be the biggest target the Wolverines have next season. He grew accustomed to tighter coverage the more he established himself in 2013, but he needs to get tougher in the blocking game and work on not dropping as many balls.

Funchess is likely going to be the name and player on this list whose abilities are the most well-known to the Michigan fanbase, but because of circumstances, coaching changes and his own personal growth, he needs to make this spring count. The more he can grow now, the better the offense will be able to function next fall.

The countdown:

Big Ten lunchtime links

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
12:00
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Happy Valentine's Day, Big Ten lovers.
The loss of freshman tight end Jake Butt to an ACL injury suffered during winter conditioning is obviously a huge blow to the Wolverines.

It hurts not only from a production standpoint, but it's a big disappointment for a young player who showed such potential in 2013.

[+] EnlargeJake Butt
AP Photo/Tony DingMichigan will look for other options to replace Jake Butt's productivity (20 receptions, 235 yards and two TDs).
Butt’s diagnosis marks the ninth ACL injury during coach Brady Hoke’s tenure at Michigan. The most impressive recovery came from linebacker Jake Ryan, who returned in six months, coming back midway through this past season. Players such as quarterback Russell Bellomy and offensive lineman Joey Burzynski have yet to play in a game after suffering their injuries. But cornerback Blake Countess and defensive lineman Chris Wormley both made solid recoveries as well.

That number (average of three per season under Hoke) seems quite high. Following running back Drake Johnson’s ACL tear, which happened in early September, Hoke said that there would be a self-assessment among the coaching staff. The general thought was that, essentially, sometimes these things just happen. It could be just bad luck.

“You know, I'm sure we'll look at it, but with Drake's -- he gets pushed in the back a little bit, he's busting his butt trying to make a tackle, guy kind of pushed him in the back. I mean, those things -- I don't know what else you can do about it,” Hoke said on Sept. 2. “But we will, because I know our strength coach and I know our training staff. They'll get their heads together on it.”

Outside of the larger issue of ACL injuries under Hoke, the Wolverines will regroup and try to figure out how to address this from a tight end production level.

Devin Funchess is still around and will lead the way at the position. He was the team’s second-leading receiver last season with 49 catches for 748 yards and six touchdowns.

Butt had been the third-leading receiver with 20 receptions for 235 yards and two touchdowns. However, outside of Funchess and Butt, the only other Michigan tight end to appear on the stat sheet was A.J. Williams (one catch).

So Michigan will dive into its depth now to find players who can block, catch and possibly do both. Williams is more of a blocking tight end, and while Funchess has progressed a bit in that category, he is obviously more talented as a pass-catching TE.

The Wolverines have other options, but are limited in experience.

Redshirt junior Dylan Esterline and redshirt freshman Michael Jocz both appeared in one game last fall. Freshman Khalid Hill redshirted, and redshirt junior Jordan Paskorz was a name that was mentioned during bowl season and during Williams’ one-game suspension. Paskorz played in seven games and recorded one start.

Michigan signed one tight end in the 2014 class, Ian Bunting. He has the height factor at 6-foot-6 and with experience in basketball and volleyball, he should be productive.

Another option would be early enrollee/linebacker Michael Ferns. Michigan offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier actually offered Ferns as a tight end at Alabama, so he clearly saw his potential.

Nussmeier should be able to find players to get some reps. And with six-and-a-half months until the season starts, it’s not completely outlandish to say that Butt could return before or during the Big Ten schedule. However, he is eligible for a medical redshirt, and with the ACL issues Michigan has had, it might want to give the young player a longer time to recover and make sure he doesn’t do any long-term damage.

Regardless, spring camp starts in less than two weeks and Nussmeier and Hoke, who already had their work cut out for them with this Michigan offense, were just given another challenge on top of that by losing Butt.

Big Ten Thursday chat wrap

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
4:00
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As we suffer through winter and the offseason together, we also bond over Big Ten football. Thanks to those who joined me earlier today for the weekly Big Ten chat. We discussed the East-West balance in the Big Ten, recruits flipping, new coaching hires and more.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsAs James Franklin can attest to, flipping recruits is part of the business.
Did you miss out? Not to worry. Here's a full chat transcript, along with some highlights:

Bernard from Columbus: Larry Johnson an upgrade over [Mike] Vrabel in both recruiting and coaching?

Adam Rittenberg: Hmmm, good question. In coaching, I'd say yes, mainly because Johnson has way more experience than Vrabel and a track record of producing elite defensive linemen. As a recruiter, I'd also give Johnson a slight edge because of his long-term success, but Vrabel had quickly developed himself into an outstanding recruiter.

Rob from Morristown, N.J.: What is your honest take on [James] Franklin flipping recruits from Vandy to PSU? I hear a lot of other teams' fans talking about how we were up in arms when other programs were poaching our players once the sanctions were handed down ... as much as many of us were upset that recruits like Noah Spence and Armani Reeves flipped to Ohio State ... there is no comparison, we were upset that other schools were trying to flip our CURRENTLY enrolled players ... just wanted to get that out there...

Adam Rittenberg: Rob, we both know that no fan base likes it when coaches flip their recruits, but fans also should know by now that it happens all the time and will continue to happen unless there's an early signing period. James Franklin was honest about it when asked: Players do pick coaches, not schools, and will follow coaches if they leave. Is it unfortunate? To a degree. But it's the nature of the business, and Penn State has experienced both sides of it in recent years. I agree that the attempts to flip current players -- looking at you, Tim Beckman -- annoyed PSU fans more than losing recruits to Urban [Meyer].

TB from Champaign, Ill.: What are the odds of me keeping my job with the Illini after 2014 and finishing off my "Fighting Force 2015" recruiting class?

Adam Rittenberg: It could happen, TB, but you need to make a bowl game this season. Few coaches with three bowl-less seasons are going to survive, especially those who have never won over the fan base/boosters. So how do you get to six wins? It's certainly possible with a schedule that includes three likely non-league wins (Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State), and a crossover schedule that doesn't include Michigan State or Michigan. The road schedule is once again brutal (Washington, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northwestern), so your team must play well on its home field.

Rick from Georgia: Adam, with a new OC at Michigan, do you think they may go in the direction of using a two-QB system similar to Northwestern? It would be nice to see [Devin] Gardner line up at wide receiver while also getting snaps at QB.

Adam Rittenberg: Rick, while you can't rule this out because Michigan loses both [Jeremy] Gallon and [Drew] Dileo, the team would like to keep Gardner at quarterback, if at all possible. The Wolverines have some talent at tight end with [Devin] Funchess (essentially a WR) and Jake Butt, but they must develop some other options at receiver this spring. Shane Morris' progress at QB also will be key. Can he really push Gardner, or will a healthy Gardner separate himself in spring ball? Should be really interesting.

Steve from NJ: Adam, really miss chatting with everyone since the turn to Facebook, but oh well. As for the B1G East this year, I have no trouble giving OSU credit for what they did, although you have to admit, many of [its] games could have gone either way. MSU looks very strong. UM hasn't shown much of late. And PSU, even with the sanctions, is still hanging on. My point is, the winner of the East could be any of those four based on how the ball bounces. In the West, I really only see Wisc and Neb, with NW and Iowa having an outside shot.

Adam Rittenberg: Steve, I guess I wonder why you think Wisconsin and Nebraska are far and away the favorites in the West? Wisconsin loses an enormous senior class and has QB questions. Nebraska lost to Iowa and Minnesota and was a Hail Mary tip from losing to Northwestern. Will the Huskers suddenly eliminate their sloppiness and become dominant in 2014? Maybe, maybe not. I think the West is pretty even with the top 4-5 teams, while the East likely will be a 2- or 3-team race, as I don't think Penn State has enough to keep up.

Thanks again for your questions and participation. Let's do it again soon.
It was far from an exciting game. But the Wolverines' 31-14 loss to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl showed a lot about this team. Here are three things we learned about Michigan in its loss.

1. The young guys are the bright spot for this team. Freshman quarterback Shane Morris stepped in for an injured Devin Gardner and exceeded nearly everyone's expectations. He finished the game 24-of-38 passing for 196 yards and rushed for a team-high 43 yards on four carries (one of those carries was a season-long 40 yarder for the Wolverines). On top of that, tight end Jake Butt finished out his surprising season with three catches for 33 yards. Freshman running back De'Veon Smith got the most carries of the day, though he produced only seven yards off four carries. The surprise was Derrick Green's lack of carries, but still he has a definite future at Michigan. It definitely wasn't the kind of outcome the Wolverines wanted, but the experience for these young players on a stage like this will be valuable in their futures. If they continue to grow, this offense could be quite good.

2. The chemistry between Gardner and Jeremy Gallon was key this year. Gallon accounted for 89 yards on nine catches. Gallon is certainly a talented receiver but this game showed how much of a difference the QB-WR chemistry factor makes for a talented wide receiver. Whether it was an awareness of where Gallon was on the field or knowing exactly how Gallon wanted the ball and at what speed, Gardner had an ability to find the senior. Morris was able to get Gallon the ball, but not at the same kind of level that Gardner generally did. The chemistry between Gallon and Gardner came from years of throwing to one another, so it's not a huge surprise that Gardner's absence affected Gallon. This wasn't Gallon's best game from a statistical perspective, but it does show how much of a difference those long hours in the summer and after practice really make.

3. The defense's performance against OSU wasn't an aberration. The defense that allowed 526 yards against Ohio State and gave up big play after big play made another appearance in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The Wolverines choked up 420 yards to the Wildcats. Kansas State tallied 11 plays of 10 or more yards, including four plays of 20 or more. And it was a pretty balanced attack in those big plays, showing that there were breakdowns all over the field. Of those 11 plays, six were passing and five were rushing. Michigan had a true freshman quarterback making his first start -- that was supposed to be the area where Michigan would struggle most. But the Michigan D stepped up and took that honor by giving the OSU game an encore.
Shoulda, coulda, woulda is back and still looking at the Michigan offense. It was an offense that seemed full of potential, but had far too many shortcomings to ever be great. But from a silver lining perspective, tight end Jake Butt’s was this season’s breakout star. From early enrolling last year and being too skinny to play -- and with an expected redshirt year ahead of him -- to this season, being the third-leading receiver, he has made quite the surprising jump. So here is what shoulda, coulda and woulda happened with this frosh.

[+] EnlargeJake Butt
AP Photo/Tony DingFreshman tight end Jake Butt went from being used very little to the Wolverines' third-leading receiver.
Previous posts:
Shoulda, coulda, woulda: Derrick Green

Shoulda … got Butt more involved in the pass game earlier in the season. Yes, he came in to the tight end position to really free up Devin Funchess to get more looks in the air, but Butt proved throughout the season that his hands were effective and relatively reliable. In several situations this season, quick, short passes would’ve done wonders for Michigan, but the Wolverines just didn’t throw them. They could’ve and should’ve thrown those to Butt. Through the first eight games he had only accounted for seven catches for 67 yards. But through the final four games of the season he tallied 10 catches for 135 yards and two touchdowns. That’s more than doubling his catches per game average and his yards per catch jumped from 9.6 to 13.5 from the first eight games of the season to games nine through 12.

Coulda … Had another threat for opponents to game plan against. At times, teams sent pressure at will because they knew it was a bomb pass or nothing from the Michigan offense. Having a multitalented player like Butt, however, helps a little bit to keep defenses on their toes. With Butt on the field, Michigan had more of a complete tight end. Funchess wasn’t much of a blocker. AJ Williams wasn’t much of a catcher. Butt could’ve done both for this team far more often than he did. What would teams have done to game plan against Butt if he had been a bigger threat throughout the season? His confidence grew alongside his playing time and experience. He made Michigan’s offense more dangerous, but the coaches didn’t utilize him quickly enough.

Woulda … Been more competitive against Michigan State and Iowa. I’m not saying that they would’ve won in either game, but short, quick passes to someone like Butt could’ve been effective in both of those games and he went without a catch against both teams. Against Ohio State, Butt caught five passes for 85 yards. If he had been targeted like he was in that game more often through the season (and obviously they couldn’t do that super early because he was still learning), the offense would’ve been much more threatening. If the Buckeyes couldn’t find an answer to that, Iowa and Nebraska probably wouldn’t have either.
Earlier today, we presented our All-Big Ten team. Now it's time to honor the top freshmen from 2013 with our Big Ten all-freshman team.

Here it is:

OFFENSE
QB: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (captain)
RB: Corey Clement, Wisconsin
WR: DeAngelo Yancey, Purdue
WR: Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska*
TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota*
TE: Jake Butt, Michigan
OL: Dan Voltz, Wisconsin*
OL: Ben Lauer, Minnesota*
OL: Jack Conklin, Michigan State*
OL: Jacob Bailey, Indiana*
OL: Kyle Kalis, Michigan*

DEFENSE
DL: Joey Bosa, Ohio State (captain)
DL: Austin Johnson, Penn State*
DL: Avery Moss, Nebraska*
DL: Willie Henry, Michigan*
LB: Michael Rose, Nebraska*
LB: Nyeem Wartman, Penn State*
LB: T.J. Simmons, Indiana
DB: Sojourn Shelton, Wisconsin
DB: Desmond King, Iowa
DB: Tyvis Powell, Ohio State*
DB: Matthew Harris, Northwestern

SPECIALISTS
K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State
P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State
All purpose: Dontre Wilson, Ohio State

* -- redshirt freshman

It was a pretty strong year for freshmen in the league, highlighted by Hackenberg and Bosa. Shelton was terrific as well. ... Tight end is a promising position for the future. Penn State's Adam Breneman just missed, but he looks like a future star. And Michigan State's Josiah Price had a big impact in the Big Ten title game. ... Nebraska's young defense could really turn into something special. We also considered defensive lineman Vincent Valentine and linebackers Jared Afalava, Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas. ... It was also a good year for rookie QBs, as beyond Hackenberg there was Purdue's Danny Etling, Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong and Minnesota's Mitch Leidner. ... Ohio State's Wilson didn't have a true position, but he did a lot of things and was a good return man, so that's why he gets our all-purpose slot. ... Some others we considered included Penn State receiver Geno Lewis and linebacker Brandon Bell, Purdue offensive lineman Jason King and Indiana defensive lineman Ralphael Green.
The Big Ten's best two teams played Saturday night in Indianapolis, and Michigan State proved that it belongs on top. Ohio State had occupied the No. 1 spot throughout the season, but Mark Dantonio's team outclassed the Buckeyes, scoring the game's first 17 points and its final 17 points after Ohio State surged midway through the contest.

Both teams are headed to BCS bowls, but the Spartans earned their way to Pasadena for the first time since the 1987 season.

There are no changes in the final 10 spots.

Here's one final look at the Week 14 rankings.

Now, for the fresh rundown …

1. Michigan State (12-1, last week: 2): We knew the Spartans had a nationally elite defense and a much-improved offense, but we didn't know whether they could put it all together against a team that hadn't lost a game in two seasons. Quarterback Connor Cook, linebacker Denicos Allen and others provided the answers against Ohio State. Cook passed for a career-high 304 yards and three touchdowns, while Allen and the Spartan Dawgs limited Ohio State to 25 yards in the fourth quarter. Next stop: the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio.

2. Ohio State (12-1, last week: 1): It's odd to see a "1" in the loss column, but Meyer's Buckeyes looked shaky both early and late in their biggest test since the 2011 Sugar Bowl. Penalties and poor pass defense, as well as a one-dimensional offense that didn't sustain a rhythm, doomed Ohio State against Michigan State. Quarterback Braxton Miller and his teammates squandered a chance to play for a national title. They'll try to finish the season strong with a win against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

3. Wisconsin (9-3, last week: 3): No Big Ten team wants to get on the field more than the Badgers, who delivered their worst performance of the season at the worst time against Penn State. Linebacker Chris Borland and a proud and decorated group of seniors should be much better in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina. Quarterback Joel Stave tries to bounce back after throwing a career-high three interceptions against PSU.

4. Iowa (8-4, last week: 4): Coach Kirk Ferentz sees similarities between his current team and the 2008 version, which also finished strong after a so-so start. The 2008 squad finished with an Outback Bowl victory, and the Hawkeyes will try to do the same when they face LSU in a rematch of the 2005 Capital One Bowl. Linebacker James Morris and an improved defense will be tested, and Iowa will try to control the clock with its power run game.

5. Minnesota (8-4, last week: 5): The season will be a success no matter what, but Minnesota would like to end on a positive note after dropping its final two regular-season games to ranked opponents. The Gophers return to the Texas Bowl, where coach Jerry Kill thinks they set the foundation for this year with a good effort last December against Texas Tech. Minnesota's defense will show up against Syracuse, but can the offense find a passing game?

6. Nebraska (8-4, last week: 6): Barring a surprise, Bo Pelini will get another chance to bring a championship to Lincoln next season. It would be nice to end this year on a positive note, however, especially after a blowout home loss to Iowa on Black Friday. Nebraska's young team has a chance to grow up the next few weeks before a matchup against Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, a rematch of last year's Capital One Bowl.

7. Penn State (7-5; last week: 7): The season is over but Penn State can feel optimistic about the future, particularly on offense with Big Ten Freshman of the Year Christian Hackenberg at quarterback. Hackenberg completed a strong debut with 2,955 passing yards and 20 touchdowns, and he'll have most of his weapons back for 2013. Last week brought the somewhat surprising departures of two assistants, including longtime linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden. It will be interesting to see where Bill O'Brien goes with his replacements.

8. Michigan (7-5, last week: 8): Michigan's performance in The Game left many wondering where that team was all season. The Wolverines hope to follow up with another strong effort -- and a win -- as they take on Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. It's important for Michigan to end a disappointing season on a positive note, especially for the offense, which surged behind Devin Gardner, Jeremy Gallon, Jake Butt and others against Ohio State.

9. Indiana (5-7, last week: 9): It's a pivotal offseason for the Hoosiers, who should in no way be satisfied with a five-win season that includes three Big Ten victories. Indiana should have made a bowl this season with such an explosive offense and must make the necessary upgrades -- coaching, talent and elsewhere -- to get to the postseason in 2014. Kevin Wilson has some work ahead to ensure he's not the latest offensive-minded coach to flame out in Bloomington.

10. Northwestern (5-7, last week: 10): Here's another team bitterly disappointed with its 2013 season that has some work to do this winter. Coach Pat Fitzgerald's first priority is keeping together or perhaps enhancing the strongest recruiting class in his tenure. Northwestern also must evaluate its offensive vision after enduring quarterback injuries in three of the past four seasons. The Wildcats should get a big boost at running back if Venric Mark is granted a fifth year, as expected.

11. Illinois (4-8, last week: 11): Tim Beckman will lead the Illini for a third season, athletic director Mike Thomas confirmed earlier this week. Like Indiana's Wilson, Beckman will focus on improving a defense that slipped to 110th nationally in total defense and 104th in scoring defense. He fixed the offense after the 2012 season by bringing in coordinator Bill Cubit. If he can do the same on defense, Illinois should go bowling next fall. If not, it could be the end for Beckman in Champaign.

12. Purdue (1-11, last week: 12): After a historically poor season, Purdue begins the rebuilding process on the recruiting trail, where it must get better in a lot of areas. The Boilers lose some of their top defenders like Bruce Gaston Jr. and Ricardo Allen, and must build a lot more depth on that side of the ball. Offensive line also is a target area as the Boilers allowed a league-worst 38 sacks this fall.
By Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s standards, this season was a failure.

However, Michigan’s participation in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl on Dec. 28 can be interpreted as a huge victory for the team, and specifically its youth.

Obviously, beating Kansas State will be put at a premium. But the coaching staff won’t overlook the fact that they’ll get extra practice time with the young players on this team.

There aren’t any special bowl-prep practice rules. Michigan can practice for the bowl as they did during the regular season -- 20 hours a week with a maximum of four hours a day.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
AP Photo/Tony DingA bowl game gives Brady Hoke and his staff more time to work with underclassmen.
“The great thing about bowl games is that you get a chance to get so many more practices,” defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. “In our case, we’re a very young football team and it gets our young guys another 15 or 12 practices to get better and to improve on the mistakes that they’ve made. That’s where the real plus in this bowl game is.”

And while Michigan isn’t going to scrap its depth chart and only work with the scout team over the next few weeks, it will be a huge opportunity for players who are lower on the depth chart or only played sporadically this season to get more repetitions.

Obviously, the offensive line had a bit of that throughout the season. Six freshmen and sophomores started at least one game this season, and while that created a lot of confusion and growing pains, left tackle Taylor Lewan preached about how much that would help the team in the next few seasons.

So during the next two-and-a-half weeks, young players such as Kyle Kalis, Erik Magnuson and Kyle Bosch will continue that growth. But it will be even more helpful as offensive line coach Darrell Funk is able to work with reserve player such as Ben Braden and Blake Bars or players who redshirted this season such as David Dawson and Patrick Kugler.

It’s the same story for the defense. Freshmen defensive backs Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling, linebacker Ben Gedeon and defensive lineman Taco Charlton each played this season, but during that time they were targeted by opposing teams from time to time specifically because they were freshmen.

And then there are players such as running backs Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith and tight end Jake Butt, who made large contributions by the end of the season, but didn’t really get the full season of experience as a first or second-stringer.

This cluster of practices will be like an extra three game weeks.

“A lot of these young guys have earned a right to play, and it didn’t start out the first week,” Mattison said. “It has been throughout the season, so every chance they get to play another game and to have this practice time is tremendous for us.”

While the 7-5 season isn’t what the Wolverines had hoped for, they’ll be able to use this as a new season going forward, a chance to go 1-0.

The fact that so many freshmen and sophomores played this fall shows how confident Hoke and his staff are in the job they’ve done on the recruiting trail.

“We’re very, very excited about our football team and we feel very strongly that the young men that we’ve recruited in the two or three years that we’ve been here now are the right young men,” Mattison said. “Now, it’s getting that experience. … You can’t put a price tag on these 15 more practices where you can gain on individual drills and become a smarter football player.”
Auburn-Alabama kind of stole the spotlight from Michigan-Ohio State, but regardless, it was a really great game with a fantastic ending. With that, we decided to move the mailbag up to Monday to make sure we get to any lingering questions about the Wolverines and Buckeyes, as well as some others too.

Tobin, Tecumseh: Was the two-point conversion the right decision?

A: I think so. With how the Michigan defense was playing, I don’t know if it would’ve been able to stop the Buckeyes in overtime. But I think the Ohio State defense could’ve found a way to slow Michigan in OT, especially considering how apparent it became that Devin Gardner was nearing the end of his rope, injury-wise. So why go into a situation in which you have to weigh those odds against an opportunity to win the game right here, right now? It was a gutsy call but I think making it, especially with the backing of the seniors, was the right way to go about it.

Now, Ohio State cornerback coach Kerry Coombs said he knew what play was coming which is why the Buckeyes were able to so easily stifle it. So, if that’s true, perhaps a different play call should’ve been the answer. But, with how Gardner appeared (injury-wise) at that point in the game, Al Borges' playbook was likely limited.

James, Chicago: Why did Michigan not play this well offensively until this late in the season?

A: I think a lot of it has to do with the offensive line. The Wolverines finally put together a group that gave Gardner time in the pocket and gave the play calls time to develop on the field. It’s crazy how much of a different half a second makes, but with that kind of push, it just allows the offense to really live up to its potential. The O-line also created holes for the running backs to hit. I was impressed with Derrick Green, Fitzgerald Toussaint and De’Veon Smith, and I think the only mistake there is that Green and Smith should’ve picked up more carries earlier in the season.

Nathan Cole, Grand Rapids: Is there any realistic chance that Shane Morris is the starting QB next year and Devin Gardner goes back to WR?

A: I don’t know. I thought Gardner looked pretty solid against a good Ohio State defense. He threw for four touchdowns and 451 yards against the Buckeyes and played clutch, leading the Wolverines from down two touchdowns to a play in which Michigan had the chance to snag a win. This was really the first time in the conference season that the offensive line has put together a complete game and look what Gardner did with it. I’m not sure why people would still be calling for his head. Morris will compete for the job, as will early enrollee Wilton Speight. The best player will play but I see no reason why Gardner doesn't have the lead as of now (seriously, four touchdowns and 451 yards against Ohio State!). Plus, next season, Amara Darboh will be back from injury and the Wolverines will have receivers with experience in Jehu Chesson, Devin Funchess, Jake Butt and some talented freshmen.

Patrick, Nashville: How important has Jake Butt been this season?

A: I think it’s fair to say that the Wolverines wouldn’t have experienced the same level of success that they’ve had without Butt. If he hadn’t emerged as a player, there’s a pretty good chance Michigan would still have Funchess as a tight end. And because Funchess can move out to WR, that has helped the production of every other receiver because defenses have keyed in on him more. Butt becoming a usable player allowed the Wolverines to have a more well-rounded attack. And the more he comes out as a pass catcher, the more valuable he’ll become because that’ll forces defenses to be even more honest.

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