Michigan Wolverines: Jake Ryan

video
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- On Friday, Michigan plans to unveil a new museum area inside Schembechler Hall. The centerpiece display is a glass case reaching from floor to ceiling that contains 910 footballs, or one for every Wolverines victory.

There is room in the case for at least a couple hundred more balls. It’s also safe to presume that the all-time winningest program in college football history expects to add more than seven of those per year.

But that’s how many Team 134 contributed in 2013 in a disappointing 7-6 campaign that ended with a thud in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
AP Photo/Tony DingThe 2013 season was a frustrating one for all involved in the Michigan program, as Brady Hoke and the Wolverines stumbled to a 7-6 record.
“That wasn’t a Michigan record,” senior linebacker Jake Ryan said.

It seemed almost quaint two years ago when Brady Hoke labeled the 2011 season -- one that included 11 wins and a Sugar Bowl title -- as “a failure” because the team didn’t capture a Big Ten championship. Since then, Hoke has flirted with actual failure, going just 15-11 in his second and third seasons as head coach.

As a result, Hoke made the first major staff shakeup of his tenure this offseason. He fired offensive coordinator Al Borges -- a move he called difficult because of their personal friendship -- and hired Doug Nussmeier from Alabama. He also switched around several defensive roles and took himself out of the defensive line coaching mix. Those moves signaled what had become obvious: Change was necessary to get Michigan back to being Michigan.

“Our first message to the players this offseason was to learn from going 7-6 on every front you can,” Hoke said. “That’s from how you prepared to how you came in the building every day.

“It’s the same thing with us as coaches. We talked a lot about us doing a better job with the fundamentals of playing the game and holding everybody to those expectations. And I think you always have to check yourself before you go anywhere else with it.”

Hoke hopes Nussmeier can help establish the true pro-style, physical offense that Borges could never quite take from vision to reality. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will coach the linebackers this season while Roy Manning and Curt Mallory will both work with the secondary, an idea Hoke said he got from talking to NFL coaches. Mattison wants to bring more pressure on defense this season, something the Wolverines didn’t do well in 2013. But with experience now in the front seven and incoming star recruit Jabrill Peppers potentially adding a lockdown cornerback, Michigan expects to go on the attack.

“In 2011, I think we had a much more aggressive style of defense,” Hoke said. “We probably got away from that a little bit.”

Perhaps the changes can finally answer last season's unsolved mystery: Who exactly are these Wolverines?

They were a wildly inconsistent crew that could set offensive records one week and fail to find the end zone the next. They nearly upset Ohio State in a thriller and lost four Big Ten games by just 11 points. But they also nearly lost to Akron, UConn and Northwestern and surrendered more than 40 points three times.

“Last year, we lacked an identity,” senior defensive end Frank Clark said. “This year, the main talk around here has been to develop an identity, as a defense especially. You look at every other top team across the country, and everybody either has a tough running game or a crazy pass game or a crazy defense. We want to go into a game and have our opponent say ‘Oh, man, it’s going to be a long day.’”

One of the main differences between his first team and the past two, Hoke said, was that the 2011 Sugar Bowl squad had “some fourth- and fifth-year guys who really understood what Michigan meant.” Leadership is a concern for this year’s team, which has only 12 seniors, though guys such as Ryan, Clark and quarterback Devin Gardner provide a great starting point. Hoke has taken his seniors to California for Navy SEALs training in the past and says he has some new ideas in store for this summer which he’s not yet ready to reveal.

The players and coaches are also trying to develop more of a competitive edge this spring.

“There’s definitely a different focus,” linebacker James Ross III said. “A lot of guys getting on each other, but it’s positive. Last year, I don’t think we had that as much. We’re holding each other accountable now, and I think we let a lot of things slide last year.”

Michigan’s success or failure in 2014 will ultimately depend on how quickly its young players, many of whom were decorated recruits, can develop. It says something about the state of the program that two guys who just enrolled in January -- receiver Freddy Canteen and offensive lineman Mason Cole -- have been among the standouts of the spring. The Maize and Blue are extremely green on offense, particularly up front on a line that has been a sore spot for the past two seasons. With tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield graduated, that group is now mostly comprised of freshmen and sophomores.

Hoke said the youth on the O-line is a remaining byproduct of the transition from Rich Rodriguez. You might recall that Rodriguez was fired in 2010 after going 7-6 in his third year. Athletic director Dave Brandon remains in Hoke’s corner, and Hoke says the only pressure he feels is the internal pressure to do right by all of his players.

Still, the message should be loud and clear when Hoke walks into Schembechler Hall every day. They don’t dedicate museum displays to teams that go 7-6.

“The atmosphere around this building now is that we’ve got to win,” defensive lineman Taco Charlton said. “That’s period, point blank, whatever we’ve got to do.”
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Not long after he tore his ACL in spring practice last year, Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan cut off the long blonde locks that used to billow out of his helmet.

The hair had become his signature look and a sign of impending doom for ball carriers unlucky enough to see it up close during his destructive 2012 season. But the maintenance became too much.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJake Ryan is looking forward to new challenges at middle linebacker.
“My showers were taking way too long,” Ryan said. “It was way too much to take care of that and the knee. You can’t have too much on your mind.”

Ryan made a rapid return to the field last season for the Wolverines. His 2013 debut came on Oct. 12 against Penn State, less than seven months after he tore the ligament in his right knee.

But something looked a little different about him, and it wasn’t just the short hair. That he managed to play in eight games, with five starts, qualified as a minor medical marvel. Yet Ryan did not record a sack or cause a turnover last year and produced just four tackles for loss. This came a season after he racked up 16 TFLs, 4.5 sacks and four forced fumbles as Michigan’s top defensive disrupter.

Like most players coming back from a major injury, Ryan said he was a bit tentative at times.

“It was more mental than anything, because you still never know what’s going to happen [with the knee],” he said. “The first couple of games, I was kind of shaky. I was starting to feel a lot better around the Ohio State game, getting back to 100 percent. Now, I’m there.”

Where Ryan is this spring is back at full strength, creating problems for the offense. Just at a different position.

Michigan shook up its linebacker lineup this spring in an effort to maximize its athleticism and playmaking. So Ryan moved to middle linebacker. James Ross III, who finished second on the team with 85 tackles last year as a sophomore, went from the weak side to Ryan’s old strongside slot. And Desmond Morgan shifted from the middle to the weak side.

“I think the coaches did a good job of analyzing where we best fit,” Ross said. “Now, we’ve got more athletic guys in space.”

That means Ryan is in a different space, one where he has a bit more responsibility. But so far, he says, the transition suits him.

“It’s been different, because now I’m blitzing up the middle,” he said. “And last year I was looking at the tight and now I’m reading the running back. But I like it a lot better because you’re in the mix of everything. It’s cool.”

Ross, at 225 pounds, will need to take on tight ends and says he has already had many spring battles with 265-pound Wolverines tight end A.J. Williams. Ross says he’s ready for the challenge.

“I’ve been able to hold my own through my whole career,” he said. “I’ve always been kind of a smaller guy, but I’m physical at the point of attack.”

Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is coaching the linebackers this season and will look to use them in a more aggressive, blitzing style. The Wolverines’ defense ranked eighth in the Big Ten in points allowed last year and had notable breakdowns at times, especially against Indiana and Ohio State.

Linebacker once again should be the best and deepest position on the defense, as the three veteran starters get support from juniors Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone, sophomore Ben Gedeon and redshirt freshman Mike McCray.

Mattison wants to send his linebackers on pressures more in 2014, but they have to make sure they’re actually getting home on those calls. Only Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue collected fewer sacks than Michigan during league play a year ago.

“He’s tried to stress the fact that when he calls a blitz, I need to be antsy -- grabbing that grass and being ready to go,” Ross said. “He said if I do my job, I could be hitting that quarterback pretty often.”

The same could go for Ryan, who likes some of the blitz packages from his new spot. So far, the early reviews from practice are encouraging.

“I see Jake being a real confident guy out there making plays all over,” Ross said. “He’s a real physical player. A big-time game-changer.”

The biggest boost for Michigan’s defense could be getting back the Jake Ryan from 2012. Minus the long hair, of course.
Michigan’s spring game is less than a month away, so we’re going to try our best to look into the future and make five predictions for the next few weeks and what we might or might not see in the scrimmage.

Prediction No. 3: The linebackers will be the strongest position group by far -- offense and defense -- in the spring game.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMichigan linebacker Jake Ryan is moving to the middle for his senior season.
It was the deepest position group in the 2013 season and everyone returns, so this prediction isn’t far-fetched. But with position shifts happening, each player is going to need to learn the nuances and how they fit into the group.

With any position group, it would be hard to say that you could shake up the positions and still have them come out, guns blazing, ready to lead a team. However, behind two-year captain Jake Ryan, this will be the group making the most ridiculous plays (again, offensively and defensively) for the Wolverines this spring game, and likely next fall.

By putting Ryan in the middle of the field, the coaches are allowing him better access to whatever play is unfolding on the other side of the field. And with the relationship between Ryan and Greg Mattison, the rising senior likely will be given a lot of freedom to make whatever kind of calls he believes are best for the defense, the linebackers and himself.

Looking forward to the fall, it wouldn't be shocking if at least half of the top plays at the end of the season come from the linebackers. Desmond Morgan and James Ross III have enough experience that they should be able to adapt just as quickly with Ryan.

Plus, all these guys are going to be with Mattison day in and day out. They’ll be in his meeting room and watching film with him. Mattison switched which position group he coaches so that he can direct the defense from the middle of the field. It would be shocking if these players don’t back up that decision with highlight-reel plays, starting with this spring game.

Other predictions:
After four weeks of scouring the nation -- and, in Brian's case, the world -- for top games, our ultimate Big Ten road trip has reached the start of league play, at least for most teams. We'll likely be spending more time in our cars the next few months, but we don't mind.

For those just joining in, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the 2014 season. We aren't tied down by a travel budget or nagging editors. If we want to attend a game -- depending on matchup, location, culinary offerings or any other factors -- we can go.

Here are the Week 5 offerings around the league, as all 14 teams are in action:

Sept. 27

Maryland at Indiana
Minnesota at Michigan
Wyoming at Michigan State
Cincinnati at Ohio State
Northwestern at Penn State
Tulane at Rutgers
Illinois at Nebraska
Iowa at Purdue
South Florida at Wisconsin

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Minnesota at Michigan

For a week where every team is in action, Week 5 is a bit underwhelming. Of the five league games, I'm choosing between Minnesota-Michigan and Northwestern-Penn State, but the Jug game gets my vote. Sure, this series hasn't been very competitive, as Michigan has won six straight against Minnesota and 22 of the past 23 meetings. Michigan has been particularly dominant at the Big House. After Minnesota pulled off an upset in 2005, Michigan has claimed the past three meetings in Ann Arbor by a combined score of 134-23.

So why head to Michigan? Minnesota is an improving program under Jerry Kill that made significant strides after last season's loss at Michigan, winning four of its final six league contests. The next step for the Gophers is to perform better in rivalry games like this one. I'm interested to see if Mitch Leidner is a different quarterback, if he's getting more help from his receivers and if incoming freshman Jeff Jones is contributing at running back alongside David Cobb. Speaking of young running backs, will this be a breakout year for Michigan's Derrick Green? The sophomore will need help from a besieged offensive line that must develop during the spring and summer.

Both defenses are going through a bit of a makeover. Michigan has much of the same personnel but shuffled its linebacker responsibilities, as senior Jake Ryan moves to the middle. Minnesota has been a very solid defense under Tracy Claeys but must replace its biggest piece up front (Ra'Shede Hageman) and in the secondary (Brock Vereen). Perhaps this turns into another easy win for Michigan, which needs a good start to Big Ten play, but I'm interested to see if Minnesota will keep moving in the right direction under Kill. Plus, I haven't seen the Gophers in person since the 2009 season.

Brian Bennett's pick: Cincinnati at Ohio State

It seems odd in a week with several Big Ten games to pick a nonconference matchup. But after logging a whole lot of mileage in the first four weeks, I'm happy to stay a bit closer to home. And this is also a good time to get a look at the Buckeyes, whom I've passed over so far despite a couple of interesting early tilts (Navy in Baltimore in Week 1, Virginia Tech in Week 2).

Also, I'm a sucker for these kinds of in-state games. Cincinnati has always lived in Ohio State's shadow, and Urban Meyer's alma mater would love nothing more than to pull off its first win over the Buckeyes since 1897. The Bearcats' program has been very solid for several years now, and it returns most of the production from a nine-win season in 2013. The offseason focus will be at quarterback, where Notre Dame transfer and one-time Indiana commit Gunner Kiel could start. (And choosing this game gives me an excuse to mention Munchie Legaux, who is battling back from a gruesome leg injury.)

But mostly, this game is about taking the temperature of the Buckeyes, who will be challenged much more in the nonconference schedule this fall than they were in the past two seasons combined. We should learn a lot from the Virginia Tech game, and I'm curious to see how the defense bounces back from a rough finish to '13 without stars Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby. How will the revamped offensive line perform, and can anyone match Carlos Hyde's impact in the running game? Plus, if I get a chance to watch Braxton Miller play, I'm usually going to take it. Ohio State could be hovering in or near the top five if it is undefeated going into this game, and that demands an in-person visit.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
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, Big Ten, Royce Jenkins-Stone, Jake Ryan, Jonathan Brown, Allen Gant, Joe Bolden, Ben Gedeon, Ryan Russell, Denicos Allen, Gelen Robinson, Max Bullough, Curtis Grant, James Ross III, Jon Reschke, Marcus Whitfield, Shane Jones, Chi Chi Ariguzo, David Santos, Trey Johnson, De'Vondre Campbell, Reggie Spearman, Raekwon McMillan, Zaire Anderson, Joshua Perry, Collin Ellis, Damien Wilson, Drew Smith, Derek Landisch, Eric Finney, Mike Svetina, Mason Monheim, Jimmy Hall, Leon Jacobs, Joe Gilliam, Josh Banderas, Joe Schobert, T.J. Simmons, Damien Proby, Mylan Hicks, Troy Reeder, Camren Williams, Taiwan Jones, Michael Rose, Ed Davis, Marcus Trotter, Brandon Bell, Nathan Gerry, Nyeem Wartman, Darien Harris, Brian Knorr, B1G spring positions 14, Matt Robinson, Abner Logan, Alec James, Alex Twine, Ben Kline, Clyde Newton, Cole Farrand, Cole Fisher, Danny Ezechukwu, Darron Lee, David Cooper, Davon Jacobs, De'Niro Laster, Forisse Hardin, Gary Wooten, Jack Lynn, Jamal Merrell, Jaylen Prater, Joseph Jones, Kevin Snyder, L.A. Goree, L.J. Liston, Marcus Newby, Marcus Oliver, Michael Trotter, Mike Hull, Nick Rallis, Quentin Gause, Quinton Alston, Ralph Cooper, Steve Longa, T.J. Neal, Travis Perry, Vince Biegel, Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil

The Wolverines are two practices into their spring season and already the coaches have announced some big changes that fans will see in the spring game next month. This week, with the players on spring break, we’ll examine some of the changes to expect in 2014.

The linebackers were the most productive and deep group on the Wolverines' roster this season. Generally when something works, the last thing any coach would want to do is change it. However, with the Michigan coaches moving players around in position groups, the make up of the linebackers will see some changes as well.

Desmond Morgan will play weakside linebacker and James Ross III will move to the strongside. But the most interesting move is shifting Jake Ryan from strongside linebacker to middle linebacker.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarMichigan is hoping that moving Jake Ryan to middle linebacker will cause more celebratory reactions after big plays.
Ryan was the Wolverines’ best defensive player two seasons ago. Last year, after returning from an ACL injury, he showed flashes of being that same player, but he wasn’t able to display it consistently. Now, with another offseason of development coming up, much is expected of Ryan in his final season at Michigan.

The coaches believe that the move to inside linebacker will help Ryan play up to his potential and create more of the big plays that he was known for two seasons ago.

“From a playmaking standpoint, you’re putting him in the middle of the defense,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “I think that’s an aspect that’s good.”

Ryan said he’s excited about the move and eager to do whatever the team needs in order to have a more successful season in 2014. One of the main differences is that Ryan will go from reading the tight end, as he did on the strongside, to reading the running back.

It’s a way to allow Ryan to become more involved throughout the course of a game. With defensive coordinator Greg Mattison becoming the linebackers coach, moving Ryan to middle linebacker presumably makes him the focal point of the defense.

Ryan should be able to disrupt to opposing running games while also being more involved in defending the passing game by dropping into coverage. Presumably, Mattison will try to use Ryan similarly to how he used Ray Lewis as a middle linebacker when he was with the Baltimore Ravens.

“My feeling on Jake is that he’s one of our best defensive players, and he has got to get to the football, and he’s a really good blitzer,” Mattison said. “The problem with our defense and the way offenses are going now is that [strongside linebacker] was always out in the flanks. If they’re not running at him, your best player is not as involved in the game as he should be. We felt that would be a good move so he would be right in the middle of everything.”

It’s a big move for a Michigan defense that needs to make major strides next season. The Wolverines gave up 371.5 yards per game this past season (No. 41 nationally, No. 5 in the Big Ten). Michigan allowed 3.8 yards per rush (No. 36 nationally, No. 6 in the Big Ten) and 6.93 yards per pass attempt (No. 54 nationally, No. 7 in the Big Ten).

By putting a team’s best playmaker in the middle of the defense, Ryan should be able to affect and help the Wolverines improve in all of those categories. His presence could also help the pass rush get to opposing quarterbacks with less difficulty. Last year Michigan recorded 25 sacks (tied for 65th nationally, No. 7 in the Big Ten), so that number is going to need to jump next season if the Wolverines want to have a more effective defense.

Mattison said that every year he evaluates who his consistent playmakers are and then tries to find a way to get them as involved as possible. That seemed to work for Ryan at the strongside position two seasons ago, but it didn’t work quite as well in 2013. Now, with the change happening before the spring season, the Wolverines will have a chance to see how Ryan looks playing in the middle of the defense. So far, that picture appears to be bright.
The excitement of Hollywood’s biggest night isn’t completely over yet. There’s no reason not to carry over Oscar fun and relate it, somehow, to the Wolverines.

So, here are our best guesses for the 2015 Michigan football Oscars, a look ahead to what could be the best performances and must-sees of the 2014-15 season.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallDevin Gardner passed for eight TDs and zero interceptions in his final four games last season.
Best picture: This was about as obvious a pick as "Titanic" in 1998. Leo stole our hearts and there just might be a game next year that could do the same. The best picture of the Michigan football season will be the Michigan-Ohio State game. If Nov. 29 isn’t already circled, do so now. It’ll be the must-see of the year. Ohio State QB Braxton Miller returns, but he has lost his running counterpart Carlos Hyde. However, the good thing about this game happening at the end of every season is so each team has enough time to come into its own and develop the talent. Both the Wolverine and Buckeye rosters have a lot of talent that could grow into its own and when these teams take the field expect plenty of nominee-worthy performances.

Best actor in a leading role (offense): Devin Gardner. The QB job is his to lose and as long as nothing goes wrong this spring and he takes his spot, there’s little to no reason why he shouldn’t be the offensive MVP next year. Yes, he was inconsistent last season, but it was a trend of the team, not just him. If he can bottle his performances from the last four games and turn that into a full season, he could have a really fantastic year ahead of him and the Wolverines could, too.

Best actor in a supporting role (offense): The offensive line. It’s kind of a cheat to give this to a group, but with an offensive line at its best, it moves as one. So we’ll go with that. This past season proved that it’s much harder (or nearly impossible) for any quarterback, running back, wide receiver or tight end to be productive, if the offensive line isn’t effective first. If Gardner has a big season, part of it will be because of what he did in the offseason, but a big part of it will be because the offensive line gave him time and kept him protected. Plus, the offensive line has quite a few interesting and creative guys, so if someone were to craft a speech to rival Jared Leto’s, it’d be someone on the O-line.

Best actor in a leading role (defense): Jake Ryan. He never really seemed to hit his stride last season after returning from his ACL tear. But now in his final year for the Wolverines, expect him to have his best season yet. He has moved inside to the middle linebacker spot so he’ll be reading the opposing running backs instead of tight ends, and Greg Mattison said this will give him a chance to get into more plays. With how instinctual Ryan is and how he has displayed that in the past, putting him a position to get to the ball more seems like a fantastic idea and one that could make him one the Wolverines’ leading men.

Best actor in a supporting role (defense): Frank Clark. Don’t get me wrong, Clark also could have a huge season but in order for Ryan to really play up to his potential, the defensive line will need to get some consistent pressure. Like the offensive line it’ll need to work as a unit, but looking at the Wolverine defensive line, Clark is a name that jumps out as one that could wreak havoc for opposing quarterbacks. The more he can do that, the more double teams he’ll draw and the more space he’ll be able to free up for Ryan to make big plays.

Best costume design: It’s quite doubtful Michigan will ever have a period piece-inspired uniform, though the nice thing about those period pieces is that the color “highlighter yellow” didn’t seem to exist. So, I can’t say I’d totally be opposed to that. However, uniform changes probably will be pretty subtle next season but don’t be too surprised if Michigan pulls something out for the MSU or OSU game. The best bet would be Notre Dame, however, as it is the final matchup. Michigan can’t do fireworks and Queen Bey at an away game, but it can do something big with its uniform.

Best original score: A score is essentially the same thing as a game plan, right? So, let’s go with Michigan’s offensive attack against Michigan State. Last season the Wolverines allowed seven sacks to the Spartans and finished the day with minus-48 rushing yards. Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is back so fans can expect that even though the Spartans lost plenty of talent, that MSU will be more than prepared for the Wolverines. But new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier should have some tricks up his sleeve. The Wolverines will have seven games before they face the Spartans so Nussmeier should have a good idea of what Michigan does well and what it doesn’t do as well, so expect his game plans to bring you tears just like the way "Up" did.

Best original screenplay: We can’t leave the marching band out on this one. The Michigan Marching Band will somehow need to find a way to best last season’s Beyonce performance. However, the best guess for when this show-stopping performance happens would be the Appalachian State game. For starters, it’s the App State game and with so many terrible memories for Michigan fans from the last version, an impressive halftime show could add even more to a dominant win. Also, with games against Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State away from Ann Arbor, the options for blowout shows are kind of limited. Expect the Michigan Marching Band to run the world and make App State fans realize the marching band is the best thing they never had.

Big Ten lunchtime links

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
12:00
PM ET
Cold, cold, go away.

Big Ten lunch links

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
12:00
PM ET
A gold medal-winning version of the links.
At this time last year, prospects for the SAM linebacker position were great. But by the end of spring football, there were more questions and fears than anything else because of Jake Ryan’s ACL tear. But Ryan made a speedy recovery and an impressive return, and his absence early in the season brought more depth to the SAM spot. A lot can happen between now and next fall, but at this point, there seems to be the same optimism there was a year ago.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsJake Ryan, coming off a torn ACL that cost him a sizable chunk of his junior season, should be the full-time SAM linebacker in 2014.
THE GOOD: Senior Cam Gordon and junior Brennen Beyer really played well as they stepped in for Ryan. Some wondered if there would be a huge drop in production or a gap in the defense without Ryan on the field and it really didn’t seem that noticeable in the first few games, which is a credit to Beyer, Gordon and the defensive coaches. In the 2012 season, Ryan took the majority of snaps at the SAM position and Beyer played on the defensive line, so neither Gordon nor Beyer came in with the experience of an upperclassman at the position. But with Ryan sidelined, both played very, very well, and when Ryan came back, the rotation still seemed to work. Gordon led the team in sacks (five) and Beyer was second on the team with five quarterback hurries. Ryan played in eight games and finished the season with 30 tackles. The position, as a whole, was productive. The three accounted for 97 tackles, including 17 for loss.

THE BAD: Obviously the Ryan injury was terribly unfortunate for both himself and the defense. Had he played a whole season and been 100 percent, he could have been in the running for conference or national awards, based in his production in 2012 as a sophomore. The injury also forced Beyer and Gordon to move around … again. Gordon came in to Michigan as a wide receiver before being moved to safety and then outside linebacker. Beyer has flip-flopped from SAM to defensive end nearly every season for the Wolverines. All things considered, the trio seemed to make the best out of a situation that was less than favorable.

THE FUTURE: Ryan will be the Wolverines’ starter in 2014 as a senior, and with another offseason of weight training and conditioning, he should be able to play almost full games at the spot. When he needs to take a break here and there, the coaches are going to have to decide whether they want to go with Beyer -- who should be back on the defensive line, but can come in at SAM to give Ryan a break -- or Allen Gant, who could use the experience as a sophomore but only played on special teams this season. Past that, the coaching staff would really be looking at true freshman talent, so it seems doubtful they’d get that far. Depending on the situation, Gant might be the better way to go because he’s going to need the experience. Ryan and Beyer will graduate after next season, so it would be good to have someone step into Ryan’s shoes with a bit of experience.

Previous posts:
Quarterback
Running back
Wide receiver
Tight end
Offensive line
Defensive line
Middle, weakside linebackers
Generally, the end of a season brings some kind of closure to the coaches, players and fanbase. However, with Michigan's 31-14 loss in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl to Kansas State, it seems as though there are twice as many questions as answers about what Team 134 actually was.

Here’s a closer look at those questions that will now become the identity of this team for the next eight months.

Does Shane Morris take over at QB next season?

[+] EnlargeShane Morris
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesShane Morris' performance was a glimmer of hope in a bleak Buffalo Wild Wings bowl performance for Michigan on Saturday.
He definitely surprised quite a few people with how composed he was through the game. Even more surprising was that he was most effective in the first half (15-of-19 passing for 121 yards), when most young quarterbacks would probably be finding their footing. Though he is the prototypical pocket passer, he still displayed his athleticism in the second half when he broke out for a 40-yard run. One more year of Devin Gardner at quarterback means one more year that Brady Hoke and Al Borges don’t begin running the offense that they really want. And if he can use his game experience and grow during the offseason, he could be the best bet for the Wolverines come fall.

Does Morris’ poise and Michigan’s lack of playmakers means Gardner is a WR again?

The Wolverines are clearly in need of wide receivers next season. Devin Funchess (49 catches, 748 yards) and Jake Butt (20 catches, 235 yards) both return, but the only other receiver who tallied more than 10 catches this season that will be back is Jehu Chesson (15 catches, 221 yards). When Gardner played receiver last season he picked up 266 yards on 16 receptions. That kind of production could be huge in the receiver corps next season.

What was with Derrick Green's lack of touches during the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl?

Green saw the field in the first half but didn’t get a carry (his only carry) until the second half. After a season in which he carried the ball 82 times for 265 yards, he only accounted for five yards on one carry against Kansas State. The Wolverines' run game was nearly nonexistent, and yet they didn’t even give Green the chance to turn it into something early on. Hoke said that the Wolverines needed to pass the ball more in the second half since they were down, but that doesn’t explain that lack of Green -- who proved himself as the most talented running back this season -- during the first two quarters.

Did the defense do anything between Ohio State and Kansas State?

The Wolverines defense never picked up any momentum on defense and did nothing to aid an offense that -- all things considered -- looked at least decent. On the first three drives the Wildcats scored without much opposition from Michigan. Kansas State was 7 of 11 on third downs. The scouting report was relatively clear, and the Wolverines just didn’t seem to execute. The first item on that report would’ve been: Tyler Lockett is the go-to receiver. Lockett accounted for three touchdowns on 10 receptions and 116 yards against Michigan.

Second, the defensive line needed to find a way to get pressure on Jake Waters and instead, Michigan only accounted for two sacks and four tackles for a loss. Those aren’t exactly promising stats when the Wolverines really needed rattle Waters in order for the D to get off the field. Third, Michigan needed to play with fundamentals and technique -- their keywords this season-- against a team that they knew would be very well-coached and very disciplined. Instead, it gave up big plays on several occasions because it was out of position.

Why did the problems stay the same all season?

Obvious statement: Over the course of four months teams should improve. However, with Michigan the problems that cropped up in week one and two were the same ones that plagued Michigan on Saturday: the offensive line’s inability to run block, the lack of a running back being able to create anything when the O-line did block, dropped passes, struggling to create a solid four-man rush, a secondary that is either out of position or in the right position but not able to finish on plays consistently. Why couldn’t the Wolverines find answers to these consistently throughout the season? Why couldn’t the coaches correct them? Why couldn’t the players execute? This might be the most troublesome question of all.
The Michigan-Kansas State match up in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl should be a good one. The Wildcats are coming in with a ton of momentum, having won five of their last six. Meanwhile, the Wolverines have a bit of a chip on their shoulders, having lost five of their last seven.

With these two teams coming from such different places, both with a lot to prove, the game should be very, very good. But the Wolverines will need to execute with consistency, which has been one of their biggest struggles all year. Here are three keys -- offensively and defensively -- that need to happen if Michigan wants to walk away with a win.

Offensive keys:

1. Give Devin Gardner time in the pocket. He has shown this season that he and the offense can be potent when he has enough time to allow to plays to develop. And when those plays haven't developed, he has the speed and athleticism to create by himself. With Gardner (possibly) being healthy enough, those two could provide enough of an offensive spark for Michigan to really get going.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsPlaying in his first bowl game, freshman running back Derrick Green would benefit from early carries.
2. Find Derrick Green early carries. This will be a big moment for the freshman. He got to tote the ball a bit more near the end of the season, but this is his first bowl game and his first time playing on a bigger stage outside of the Big House. If the coaches can allow him to pound a few times in early series, he'll get a feel for the game, and he'll be able to make plays happen.

3. Allow both Devin Funchess and Jeremy Gallon to get involved as quickly as possible. Opponents struggled to guard both of these players this year. The tendency was to focus on one, and the other one would -- by no coincidence -- have a big game. Funchess getting catches only helps Gallon, and vice versa. And both getting catches make the Michigan offense reach its potential. If the Wolverines can strike first and get the Wildcats on their heels defensively, Michigan will be able to get some momentum going.

Defensive keys:

1. Stop the run. This was Michigan's biggest problem against Ohio State (and a lot of the year, too). However, when the Wolverines faced Northwestern earlier this season, they were able to handle Northwestern's two-QB attack pretty well. Michigan allowed only 143 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown. However, that was Northwestern without Venric Mark, and Kansas State's John Hubert -- who has rushed for nearly 1,000 yards this season -- is probably closer to Mark's level than to Mark's backups, Mike Trumpy or Treyvon Green.

2. Communicate. This hurt Michigan at times this year, especially in road games. With everyone, presumably, back at full strength, this defense doesn't have the excuse to not go 100 percent on every single down ... unless there are communication errors and not everyone to knows which page they should be on. If each position group communicates internally and with each other, the Wolverines have a chance to make some big plays. But it only takes one guy being out of position or not knowing exactly where he should be for Kansas State to find leading receiver Tyler Lockett or for Hubert to make something happen. If Michigan can contain the number of big plays in that way, it'll be in a good position.

3. Give Jake Ryan the space to make something happen. We've been waiting for Ryan to have a real breakout game. He has looked solid but not quite where he was last season, and he hasn't had that highlight-reel game that seems more than possible with his athleticism, instincts and skill set. If Mattison can dial up some blitzes and allow Ryan to do what Ryan does best, this could be his best game of the season. And if Ryan can get the defense fired up, then keys No. 1 and No. 2 would seem less difficult.
Hindsight is 20/20, and it’s especially hard to draw conclusions about what could’ve or should’ve happened when an injury is involved. But with how confident the coaches seem to be in Jake Ryan in everything he does, I don’t think they should’ve had anything but confidence when he said he’d be back by October. So while this shoulda, woulda, coulda is shaped around Brennen Beyer, it also has Ryan as a key component.
Previous posts:

Coulda, shoulda, woulda: Jake Butt

Coulda, shoulda, woulda: Derrick Green

[+] EnlargeBrennen Beyer
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallGetting Brennen Beyer more reps at DE early would have helped Michigan's DE during the Big Ten season.
Shoulda … played Beyer at defensive end some through the first four games. Before Ryan came back the coaches said that they weren’t really thinking about what they would do when Ryan got back on to the field. However, even if Ryan didn’t play quite as well as he did last season (and I still think Ryan could best that in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl), I think they knew he’d be a SAM, that he’d take reps, that he would be a player they wanted on the field. With that mindset, they should’ve been preparing Cameron Gordon and Beyer for that and deciding what to do with them. There’s no problem with Beyer still taking reps at SAM, but he could’ve been building in-game chemistry with the defensive linemen and getting game reps there through the first four games.

Coulda … Put more pressure on opposing QBs throughout the season. It's hard to put a number or exact statistic on this, but Beyer is definitely one of the better pass rushers on the team. Chemistry is really important on the defensive line and with him up front gaining chemistry with other players early in the season, it would’ve allowed the line to be more consistent later in the season. It also would’ve meant another leader on the defensive line. Jibreel Black and Quinton Washington were good leaders up there, but having another upperclassmen to work with the younger guys, get players up for games, and keep them organized is never a bad thing, especially when some of the defensive line issues stemmed from communication problems. Beyer isn’t the loudest person in the world, but he’s definitely more talkative than Washington and a bit louder than Black.

Woulda … Had a better idea of what their line would look like through conference play. The Michigan defensive line didn’t reach the expectation for the position this season, but having Beyer take a few reps through the non-conference schedule would’ve given the D-line a chance to be closer to that expectation by the end of the season. The coaches should’ve trusted that Ryan would return, and had they started giving Beyer time on the line two or three weeks before they expected Ryan back, it would’ve given the defensive line a jump start in the Big Ten season.
The Michigan football team held its annual banquet on Monday night. There were laughs, shots fired and awards given out. Here’s a recap of the evening.
    THE OFFICIAL AWARDS
Schembechler MVP: WR Jeremy Gallon
2012 winner: S Jordan Kovacs

Hugh H. Rader O-lineman Award: Taylor Lewan
2012 winner: Lewan

Dick Katcher D-lineman Award: Frank Clark
2012 winner: Craig Roh

Zatkoff Linebacker Award: Jake Ryan
2012 winner: Ryan

Ufer Spirit Award: LB Cam Gordon, WR Drew Dileo, WR Joe Reynolds
2012 winner: Kovacs

Dr. Arthur D. Robinson Scholarship Award (Academics): Reynolds
2012 winner: OL Patrick Omameh
    THE UNOFFICIAL AWARDS
Best dressed: RB Fitzgerald Toussaint. The senior’s coat stole the day, even getting a comment from Brady Hoke (“I was going to wear that coat”). Basically, it was a dark blue suit coat with a gold metallic design laid over it -- very lovely in the light. But he paired that with a gold dress shirt, blue vest and a blue tie with gold dots.

Biggest surprise: Devin Gardner entered on crutches. There wasn’t any availability following the event, but Hoke said that Gardner had turf toe last Monday and was wearing a walking boot following the Ohio State game.

Most honored: Jon Falk, the team manager of 40 years. From guest speaker Brian Griese to Hoke to nearly every senior who spoke, everyone had something to say about Falk. He was also honored with the distinguished alumni award.

Most touching moment: DL Quinton Washington getting a standing ovation. Washington began his speech talking about how his father underwent triple bypass surgery last July but still made it to every game (a 13-hour drive from their home in South Carolina). However, in the middle of his speech he began to open up about his stuttering problem that he came to Michigan with -- one that prevented him from making phone calls or ordering food at restaurants. He thanked Dr. David Daly, who helped him get over his stuttering problem, saying that Daly “gave [him] a voice.” Washington wasn’t 100 percent comfortable in front of the room, but for a kid who once couldn’t even introduce himself, it was a tremendous accomplishment worthy of the ovation.

Most surprising stat: Gordon has had seven position coaches during his time at Michigan (counting the coaching changes as well as several position changes). He came in as a wide receiver and was moved to strong safety before he settled in at SAM linebacker this season.

Quote of the night: Lewan, talking about his freshman year of high school: “I was fat, out of shape. I was kind of the awkward skinny fat with the skinny arms and the belly, like Mike from Monsters Inc.”

It should come as no surprise that Lewan had the best quote. He has so much personality that many thought (and hoped) he might go much longer than his five minutes. He started his speech by admitting that he didn’t plan it or write it down and then thanking his mother “who has been the loudest woman here all night.” But it was a nice speech, touching on the fact that he was glad to be back and wouldn’t change anything for the world.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
5:00
PM ET
What you gobblin' about, turkeys?

Daniel from Enemy Territory, Ohio, writes: Brian, what can Michigan do (short of a miracle or swapping teams with say, Alabama) to pull off the major upset against OSU this week?

Brian Bennett: Well, the Wolverines should be praying the rosary and searching for a Zoltar Speaks machine. That's still their best bet in a game in which they are -- and should be -- heavy underdogs.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJake Ryan must play well if the Wolverines are going to hang around with the Buckeyes.
The good news, if there is any, is that Michigan is at home, and the team really has nothing to lose. So if the game is close in the second half, the pressure will be all on Ohio State. The Wolverines will have to find a way to create turnovers and then do something with them -- remember, they were plus-three in turnovers last week at Iowa to no avail. They've got to short-circuit that Ohio State offense somehow. Maybe Jake Ryan has the game of his life. And on offense, Michigan should throw something at the Buckeyes that they haven't seen on film all season. Forget the running game, which hasn't worked all season and won't work this week. Line up with four- and five-wide, run the hurry up and try to get something going in the passing game, which is still probably the best way to exploit the Ohio State D. If Al Borges is going down, why not in a blaze of glory?

But in all likelihood, it will be a blaze of gory for the Maize and Blue.

John from Au Gres, Mich., writes: Are you on board with the idea that MSU can pass Wiscy with a more impressive victory of Minny this weekend? Be prepared, I have a feeling the Spartans play for style points, which is out of character. However, we are still stuck with the BCS, and perception matters. Coach D has already said he thinks the Spartans are playing for a BCS bid this weekend.

Brian Bennett: I assume you mean in our power rankings and on my own personal ballot, since Michigan State is already ahead of Wisconsin where it actually matters. And sure, I'm on board. I'll be in East Lansing on Saturday and am greatly looking forward to seeing the Spartans in person. I already think this is a fantastic team that can play with any team in the country. My only reservation about the Spartans, and it's a slight one, is that the schedule has been highly favorable.

But I just saw Wisconsin play Minnesota last week so should have a great comparison this week. I've said all along that this is basically a flip-a-coin, 2A and 2B situation. I'm totally willing to switch the teams based on what we see this weekend.

Bob Noble from Grand Ledge, Mich., writes: What am I missing? You continue to have Ryan Shazier and Chris Borland rated 1 and 2, respectively as Big Ten defensive POY, while Darqueze Dennard is at No. 3. Which one of the three is a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Award as the NATIONAL Defensive POY? Oh yeah, that would be Dennard of MSU. So how is DD lower on the list of Big Ten POY when the two players listed above him aren't even being considered for NATIONAL POY?

Brian Bennett: First of all, nobody loves Dennard as a player more than me. If he doesn't win the Thorpe Award or make first-team All-America, I'll scream. He is absolutely tremendous and deserving of any honor you want to give him.

Secondly, let's not put a whole lot of stock in whom one award names as its finalists. There are approximately 1.2 million college football postseason awards, and as we've seen over and over again, the voting for those can often turn out inexplicable and wacky.

Finally, while all three are great players, I have Shazier and Borland rated a little higher because I think a linebacker makes a little more overall impact on a defense than a cornerback. And while Dennard has other stars around him such as Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Shilique Calhoun, Borland and Shazier are the unquestioned focal points of their defense.

Paul W. from Dodge City writes: Do you think if Nebraska was 10-1 or 11-0 right Ameer Abdullah would be in the Heisman hunt? I know that he has a lower touchdown total than other running backs but a good game Friday and he could surpass Mark Ingram's rushing total from his Heisman season.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
AP Photo/Nati HarnikAmeer Abdullah has topped 100 rushing yards in 10 of Nebraska's 11 games. The Huskers' only loss came when he didn't reach the century mark.
Brian Bennett: I think you're on to something. Nebraska in a lot of ways has really been out of the national spotlight since the UCLA loss. A lot of people around the country probably don't realize exactly what Abdullah has done, or how he has done it through a spate of injuries around him. Abdullah also hasn't had nearly as many carries as the three Doak Walker finalists have gotten this year. He'll have to settle for likely winning the Big Ten running back of the year award, and, possibly, offensive player of the year.

Ethan from Abbottstown, Pa., writes: The PSU special teams has been awful this year, and it is one of the major impacts of the sanctions. Do you attribute this special teams downfall to the fact the former only special teams specialists are now being used to fill out the offense and defense? Or the fact that PSU must now recruit only must-need positions and not players who could find a home on kickoff and kick return?

Brian Bennett: Special teams have been a problem, really, in both seasons so far for Bill O'Brien. But they have been particularly glaring of late. The sanctions certainly have played a role; it's hard not to notice that Anthony Fera, who transferred from Penn State after the NCAA free pass, is a Lou Groza Award finalist. O'Brien is also forced to play some walk-ons in key spots in the kicking game.

But I don't think you can blame all the problems on scholarship reductions. Coaching still has to enter the equation, and there have been some obvious breakdowns in coverage and returns. And Penn State's special teams weren't very good last year when the scholarship numbers were much higher. So while I continue to believe the sanctions will have an impact on special teams in the near future, I also think the Nittany Lions can do a better job than they have of working around those depth issues in the kicking game.

John from Lima, Ohio, writes: As a Buckeye fan it has been very frustrating to hear all year how bad their schedule is and that being the sole reason they should be held out of the title game, never mind how good they actually are. Especially when you see a team like Clemson sneaking back up the rankings when they have zero wins against currently ranked FBS teams, all their FBS wins are against teams with at least four losses, and they played not one, but TWO FCS teams this season. So while OSU's schedule might not be murderer's row this year, why does the media single them out when other teams have the same issues?

Brian Bennett: Let's not kid ourselves: the negative perception of the Big Ten is weighing down Ohio State. And the Buckeyes are also paying a price for losing by double digits in two BCS title games in the previous decade, which is ridiculous. I also believe not playing in a bowl game last year hurt Ohio State. Clemson got a significant perception bump last year by beating LSU in a bowl game, allowing the Tigers to start out high in the polls. Then they began the year by beating a Georgia team that was ranked in the top 5. That has been enough to keep Clemson ranked high, even though Georgia has since fallen apart because injuries. Ohio State has nothing out of conference to hang its hat on from the past two years.

Pat from Iowa writes: Who would you consider the biggest surprise team this year for good or for worse? Northwestern's down spiral, Minnesota's amazing year, or perhaps a great Iowa rebound year? Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: The biggest positive surprise has been Minnesota. No one thought the Gophers would be 8-3 at this point, especially after Jerry Kill took his leave of absence in the middle of the season. That's been an unbelievable story. Northwestern has to be the biggest negative surprise. This was a Top 20 team earlier in the year that most people thought could contend in the Legends Division. If the Wildcats don't beat Illinois, they'll end up 0-8 in the Big Ten. Unreal. No. 2 on both my lists would be Iowa on the positive side and Michigan on the negative.

Martyn from Cuenca, Ecuador, writes: I read the Big Ten blog religiously. Moved from Madison to Ecuador this year. Miss the atmosphere at Camp Randall & the Kohl Center. On your recent blog about Big Ten linebackers you mentioned Borland's 14 forced fumbles tying the B1G record. I believe it is the FBS record? I will prepare myself to apply to be a guest predictor next year. I catch a few broadcasts on my computer. Keeps my Badger jones in check. A little early, but Happy Holidays.

Brian Bennett: Vaya con Dios, Martyn. Do they have cheese curds in Ecuador? There was a little confusion in regards to Borland's record. He came into the year needing one to tie the FBS record. But Buffalo's Khalil Mack had three forced fumbles in his last game to set the new FBS career mark of 16. Borland is now tied for second and tied for the Big Ten career mark with Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan.

One last note: Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Michigan Outlook: 2014
Brian Bennett discusses the outlook for the Michigan Wolverines' football program in 2014.Tags: Michigan Wolverines, Braxton MIller, Brian Bennett, Devin Gardner
VIDEO PLAYLIST video