Michigan Wolverines: Jeremy Langford

Big Ten lunch links

July, 22, 2014
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Oppressive heat returns to the Midwest. Must be almost time for the start of football practice.
If the preseason All-America teams are any indication, the Big Ten will have a very good year in the offensive backfield -- both carrying the ball out of it and penetrating it.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon has averaged a gaudy 8.1 yards per rushing attempt during his career.
Running back and defensive line appear to be the league's two strongest position groups -- possibly by a wide margin -- entering the 2014 season. Athlon on Monday came out with its preseason All-America teams, following up Phil Steele, who released his last week. Three Big Ten players made Athlon's first team: Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett and Michigan State punter Mike Sadler. Four other defensive linemen -- Nebraska's Randy Gregory (second team), Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun (second team), Ohio State's Joey Bosa (fourth team) and Iowa's Carl Davis (fourth team) -- made one of the remaining three teams, and two other running backs -- Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (second team) and Michigan State's Jeremy Langford (fourth team) -- also appear.

Steele had Bennett and Calhoun on his first team, Gregory and Bosa on his second team and Davis on his third team. Like Athlon, he lists Gordon as a first-team running back and Abdullah on the second team. It's interesting to see Calhoun getting a bit more love than Gregory, even though Gregory led the Big Ten in sacks and is projected as a higher draft pick.

Not sure about you, but I can't wait for Calhoun and Gregory to share the field Oct. 4 at Spartan Stadium, or for longtime friends Gordon and Abdullah to match up on Nov. 15 at Camp Randall Stadium. Both matchups should be fun to watch all season.

It's not unusual for defensive line and running back to headline the Big Ten. Both positions historically are strong in the league, especially defensive line. A potential concern is that only one quarterback -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller -- and zero wide receivers make any of Athlon's teams. Steele has two Big Ten wideouts, Maryland's Stefon Diggs and Michigan's Devin Funchess (has played tight end but listed as a receiver), on his third team. Still, it's clear these are two positions where the Big Ten continues to need upgrades.

Other Athlon preseason All-America selections include: Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff (second team), Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman (third team), Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond (third team), Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston (third team), Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan (fourth team), Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes (fourth team) and Northwestern punt returner Venric Mark (fourth team).

The Big Ten is tied with the Pac-12 for third among overall Athlon All-America selections with 18, trailing both the ACC (27) and SEC (26).
Big Ten reporters Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

A couple of weeks ago, we took a look at potential 3,000-yard passers in the Big Ten in 2014. Then we had you vote on who would most likely get to that plateau this season.

The league's leading passer from last season was Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase. He's now pursuing a career in the ministry. No other 3,000-yard passers return, although Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Michigan's Devin Gardner got very close. So today's Take Two topic is this: Who will lead the Big Ten in passing yards in 2014?

[+] EnlargeNate Sudfeld
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerIndiana's Nate Sudfeld will have the reins to the Hoosiers' offense to his self next season.
Take 1: Brian Bennett

Hackenberg is the easy answer. But I do worry about his offensive line and the lack of experience at receiver. Gardner also had some monster games last season, but Michigan has many of the same issues as Penn State, and new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier wants to run the ball more.

That's why I'm going with Indiana's Nate Sudfeld. That might sound like a mild surprise, but after last week's announcement that Tre Roberson would transfer, I think Sudfeld is in line for a huge season. Consider that he and Roberson combined to throw for 3,651 yards last season while splitting time. Sudfeld alone passed for over 2,500 yards in just eight starts.

The junior has an NFL-caliber arm and will finally have the offense all to himself, with no other experienced quarterbacks on the roster. The Hoosiers do need to develop some receiving targets after losing Cody Latimer, Kofi Hughes and Ted Bolser to the NFL. Still, coach Kevin Wilson loves to throw the ball, and Sudfeld won't have to look over his shoulder in 2014. I think he'll go more than 3,000 yards and lead the Big Ten in passing yards.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State's Connor Cook has most of his offensive weapons returning in 2014.
Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

I'm also tempted to go with Hackenberg, but the questions at line and at receiver, coupled with a new offensive staff, steer me elsewhere. But instead of choosing Sudfeld or Gardner, I'm going with the quarterback who ended his season playing better than any other in the Big Ten (and perhaps the country). Where's the love for Michigan State's Connor Cook?

He's the guy who won MVP honors at both the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl after recording the first two 300-yard passing performances of his career. Although the first performance came against a porous Ohio State secondary, Cook also put up 332 pass yards against Stanford. He finished fourth in the Big Ten in passing yards (2,755), but he only became the clear-cut starter in league play.

Michigan State returns all but one of its core receivers, as well as tight end Josiah Price, an emerging target for Cook late in the season. Coach Mark Dantonio wants to run the ball and has Jeremy Langford back in the fold, but Cook has proven what he can do with the ball in his hands and should get more chances this year. Hackenberg is the best pure passer in the league and Sudfeld might play in the most pass-friendly offense -- although Tevin Coleman's presence could change that -- but I'm going with the hot hand in Cook.
The 2015 NFL draft is nearly a year away and doesn't even have a determined location, so why should you get excited about it? Because the Big Ten could have a breakthrough.

ESPN's Mel Kiper has produced lists of top prospects at quarterback, defensive end, running back and defensive tackle. If Kiper's projections prove true, it will be a very good draft for the Big Ten, which hasn't had a top-10 pick since 2008, when Michigan tackle Jake Long went No. 1 overall.

Check out each of Kiper's lists on ESPN Insider for more detailed analysis, but here's where the Big Ten players stack up.

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThanks to players like Nebraska's Randy Gregory, defensive line talent is a strength in the Big Ten this fall.
Quarterback
Defensive end
Running back
Defensive tackle
We know about the Big Ten's strength at running back with Abdullah and Gordon at the top, but defensive line once again figures to be the league's strength when it comes to top draft prospects. Two players soaring on the early draft boards: Nebraska's Gregory and Ohio State's Bennett.

What do you think about the Big Ten projections?
Few preseason prognosticators create as much excitement around their summer picks as Phil Steele.

The college football guru packs a tremendous amount of information and research into his preseason magazines. And Steele has released his choices for the 2014 All-Big Ten team, which you can find here.

[+] EnlargeStefon Diggs
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsMaryland receiver Stefon Diggs could make an immediate impact in the Big Ten.
Some thoughts on the selections:

Steele sees newcomers Maryland and Rutgers bringing some talent into the league quickly, as he has two Terrapins (wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long) and two Scarlet Knights (guard Kaleb Johnson and linebacker Steve Longa) on the first team. ... A mild surprise on the first team is Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones, who will attempt to take over the middle spot from Max Bullough this year. ... The first-team defensive line is absolutely loaded, with Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, and Ohio State's Michael Bennett and Joey Bosa. Iowa's Carl Davis and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran were relegated to second-team status. ... Speaking of the second team, Steele puts Northwestern wide receiver Kyle Prater there, apparently expecting big things at long last from the former USC transfer. ... Steele also has Ohio State's Dontre Wilson and Devin Smith breaking out as second-team All-Big Ten receivers. ... Penn State fans might be a bit miffed to see Christian Hackenberg as only the third-team quarterback. Michigan State's Connor Cook is Steele's choice for second-team QB, with Braxton Miller obviously No. 1. ... Michigan State leads the way with five players on Steele's first-team offense and defense. Ohio State has four, while Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan each have three.

Steele also has released his preseason All-America team, which includes some familiar Big Ten names. Here's a quick rundown:

First team:

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

Ohio State DT Michael Bennett

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

Second team:

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Iowa OT Brandon Scherff

Nebraska DE Randy Gregory

Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Iowa PR Kevonte Martin-Manley

Third team:

Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Michigan WR Devin Funchess

Iowa DT Carl Davis

Michigan LB Jake Ryan

Michigan State CB Trae Waynes

Michigan State S Kurtis Drummond

Illinois PR V'Angelo Bentley

Indiana LS Matt Dooley

Fourth team:

Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford

Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman

Wisconsin OT Rob Havenstein

Northwestern RB/KR Venric Mark
Head coaches from the Big Ten East Division, along with a player from each team, addressed the media this afternoon on teleconferences. The West Division players and coaches spoke Wednesday.

Here's a closer look at the East:

INDIANA
  • Defense has been a lingering Indiana concern for years, but coach Kevin Wilson believes he's starting to see a change, thanks to new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr. The scheme hasn't changed radically, but the Hoosiers return 10 starters there -- and Wilson's seen a promising spring so far with an added focus on competition and communication: "They've for sure held their own on a daily basis -- and, in some ways, probably even better -- against the offense."
  • Wilson believes teams need to invest scholarships into the kicking game, but he thinks it's also too risky to offer recruits straight out of high school. If you look at the NCAA's top 25 kickers, Wilson estimated at least 15 started out as walk-ons. So he's hoping to find some walk-ons who are willing to work for a scholarship, rather than be granted one right away.
  • At 5-foot-7, Shane Wynn is the Hoosiers' leading returning receiver, and he's transitioning to playing the outside. It's been a little different for Wynn, who said he's had to watch more film as a result. He's reading the corners now, instead of the safeties, as just one example.
MARYLAND
  • Maryland coach Randy Edsall is confident in his offense and believes the Terrapins have enough options so that opponents can't focus on just one person. If defenses lock on to wideout Stefon Diggs, then quarterback C.J. Brown can take off running or receiver Deon Long can pick up some slack. "The No. 1 thing I do like," Edsall said, "is we can spread the field."
  • Maryland's staff has already started looking at film of Big Ten teams, so they know what to expect when the conference season begins. Edsall said he wants to at least get a feel for their personnel and what kind of schemes he'll face. He's also confident the Terps will be ready: "We fully expect to be able to compete when we get into the Big Ten this year."
  • Brown said one of the main reasons he committed to Maryland was the coach who recruited him at the time, former Terps assistant and current Penn State coach James Franklin. He's looking forward to squaring off against Franklin this season, and Edsall said there's no question he would like to develop a rivalry with the Nittany Lions.
MICHIGAN
  • The quarterback derby will continue, and Brady Hoke included all three of his options in the discussion heading into the offseason. The Wolverines coach did acknowledge, though, that Devin Gardner “probably would be” the starter if there was a game on the schedule this weekend. There isn’t, so Shane Morris and Wilton Speight will continue to be in the conversation.
  • The first opponent on the schedule will always stir emotions for Michigan fans, but Hoke didn’t attach any revenge or sentimentality to his reasons for wanting to take on Appalachian State in the opener this fall. “We needed a game,” Hoke said. “I thought it would be a good game.” Defensive end Frank Clark was certainly aware of the history between the programs, even though he was still years away from joining Michigan and getting a shot at making up for the upset loss in 2007 -- which he called “shocking” and “shows how hard those guys play.”
MICHIGAN STATE
  • Michigan State is coming off a Rose Bowl victory, but coach Mark Dantonio and quarterback Connor Cook would prefer not to think about that any longer. Dantonio said they've talked a lot these last four months about not growing complacent, and Cook only echoed his coach. "A lot of people keep bringing up the Rose Bowl," Cook said. "But we're past that. We're focusing on the now."
  • The offensive line has made some big strides since January, at least according to Cook. He felt like he had no time in the pocket last spring and said the pass rush was getting to him every time. This spring? He doesn't feel rushed in the pocket, and he thinks that's pretty indicative of how far this line has come.
  • Jeremy Langford earned a lot of praise from Cook, who said the running back has become a much bigger part of the passing attack. "He's improved a lot with catching the ball," Cook said, complimenting Langford's versatility. "He's done so many different things for us."
OHIO STATE
  • There is still work to be done in addressing the most glaring weakness on the team last season, but Urban Meyer called Ohio State’s pass defense “drastically improved” and will be watching closely for more signs of progress in Saturday’s spring game. The Buckeyes will play a traditional game, but the emphasis will be on throwing the football and assessing the skill players on both offense and defense -- giving Meyer a chance to evaluate backup quarterback Cardale Jones in a live setting in addition to checking out the secondary.
  • Arguably the strongest part of last season's team is undergoing a transition without four senior starters, and the offensive line is somewhat of a concern for Meyer heading into the offseason. With guard Pat Elflein the only other player to have earned a first-team slot to play alongside junior Taylor Decker at this point, that competition is likely to spill over into preseason camp in August. Both tackle Darryl Baldwin and guard Antonio Underwood were praised for their work by defensive tackle Michael Bennett, and Billy Price and Jacoby Boren are dueling at center.
PENN STATE
  • Franklin said he knew exactly what he was getting into at Penn State, in terms of the current depth and sanctions. He and former coach Bill O'Brien worked together at Maryland, and he said the two had a lot of honest conversations about the current state of the Nittany Lions. The two have continued to talk since.
  • Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia are both making transitions from defensive tackle to offensive guard, and Franklin said he has been pleased with their performances so far: "They're doing a good job for us -- and they have to. We're thin at that position."
  • Franklin said he feels especially comfortable with the talent at running back and defensive line. Middle linebacker Mike Hull was more specific about naming the players who impressed him, pointing to backup linebacker Gary Wooten and cornerback Da'Quan Davis. Hull said Wooten is always around the football and that Davis, who missed part of the spring with a hamstring injury, has come up with several interceptions.
RUTGERS
  • Another open competition at the most critical position on the field -- quarterback -- is still playing out at Rutgers, and coach Kyle Flood isn’t ready to declare a winner in what would seem to be a wide-open battle. Flood indicated that Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano are all “really vying for that first-team job.”
  • The change in conference affiliation has been welcomed with open arms by the Scarlet Knights, who can “feel the energy” as theypractice for their first season in the Big Ten. Defensive tackle Darius Hamilton said the team was already buzzing with excitement about the opportunity, and Flood called joining the league a “positive in every way.” The move also presents the opportunity for a rivalry to develop with new divisional neighbor Penn State, with both Flood and Hamilton citing the proximity between the schools as a bonus.
The best offenses can threaten defenses at the quarterback, running back and wide receiver positions. Brian Bennett on Tuesday examined the triple-threat combinations from the Big Ten's new West Division.

Now let's turn our attention to the East Division and rank the triple-threat combinations. The division is strong at quarterback but lacking elite wide receivers.

1. Indiana

QB Nate Sudfeld, RB Tevin Coleman, WR Shane Wynn

The Hoosiers featured the league's No. 2 offense in 2013 and top this list even though top receiver Cody Latimer bolted for the NFL draft. They have two options at quarterback, but Sudfeld, who had nearly 1,400 more passing yards than teammate Tre Roberson, gets the nod here. Coleman brings explosiveness to the backfield after rushing for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns in only nine games. Wynn finished near the top of the league in receiving touchdowns (11) and had 46 receptions for 633 yards.

2. Ohio State

QB Braxton Miller, RB Ezekiel Elliott, WR Devin Smith

You would think a team with the back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year at quarterback would be rated higher, but the Buckeyes lose a huge piece at running back in Carlos Hyde, as well as top receiver Corey Brown. Elliott, who had 262 rushing yards last season, is competing for the starting position this spring. Smith has been Miller's big-play target throughout his career and had eight touchdown catches and averaged 15 yards per reception last fall. Tight end Jeff Heuerman provides another weapon in the pass game.

3. Michigan State

QB Connor Cook, RB Jeremy Langford, WR Tony Lippett

The skinny: A year ago, Michigan State's offense looked like a mess. Cook began the season as the backup but emerged to lead the Spartans to nine Big Ten wins, all by double digits, and a Rose Bowl championship. Langford answered Michigan State's running back questions with 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. There's no true No. 1 receiver on the roster, and while Macgarrett Kings (513 receiving yards in 2013) could claim the role, Lippett gets the nod after leading the team in receptions (44) and finishing second in receiving yards (613) last year.
4. Penn State

QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Zach Zwinak, TE Jesse James

The Lions have the Big Ten's top pocket passer in Hackenberg, the league's freshman of the year in 2013. But Hackenberg loses his favorite target in Allen Robinson, and wide receiver is a major question entering the fall. The tight end position looks much stronger with James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman. Penn State also has options at running back, but Zwinak has led the team in rushing in each of the past two years, finishing with 989 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall.

5. Maryland

QB C.J. Brown, RB Brandon Ross, WR Stefon Diggs

Don't be surprised if Maryland finishes higher on the postseason triple-threats list as long as their top players stay healthy, which is hardly a guarantee after the past two seasons. Brown is a veteran dual-threat player who had 2,242 passing yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Ross leads a potentially deep group of running backs after leading the team with 776 rushing yards. Although Levern Jacobs led Maryland in receiving last year and returns, Diggs is the team's top threat after averaging 17.3 yards per catch before a season-ending injury in October.

6. Michigan

QB Devin Gardner, RB Derrick Green, TE/WR Devin Funchess

Gardner is capable of putting up some big numbers, as he showed last year, but he loses top target Jeremy Gallon. The run game is a major question mark for new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, although hopes are high for Green, a heralded recruit who had 270 rushing yards as a freshman. At 6-5 and 230 pounds, Funchess is a tight end who plays like a wide receiver. He finished second on the team in receptions (49), receiving yards (748) and touchdowns (6).

7. Rutgers

QB Gary Nova, RB Paul James, TE Tyler Kroft

New coordinator Ralph Friedgen tries to spark an offense that finished 77th nationally in scoring and 95th in yards last season. Nova is competing this spring to retain the starting job, which he has held since the middle of the 2011 season. James averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season and can be very effective when healthy. Rutgers is scrambling at bit at the wide receiver position but returns a solid option at tight end in Kroft, who led the team in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last fall.

The magical mystery tour known as the ultimate Big Ten road trip (2014 version) is underway. Brian has traded his Kentucky drawl for an Irish brogue after visiting Dublin for Penn State-UCF, while Adam no longer talks like a Yankee after trekking to Houston for Wisconsin-LSU.

It's now time for our Week 2 destinations. Remember, we're picking one game a week to attend based on matchup quality, location and other factors. Money is no issue, and neither are editors.

Week 2 offers a fairly appetizing slate of games, at least for East division teams.

Here's the schedule:

Sept. 6

Maryland at South Florida
Michigan at Notre Dame
Michigan State at Oregon
Virginia Tech at Ohio State
Akron at Penn State
Howard at Rutgers
Western Kentucky at Illinois
Ball State at Iowa
Middle Tennessee at Minnesota
McNeese State at Nebraska
Northern Illinois at Northwestern
Central Michigan at Purdue
Western Illinois at Wisconsin

Open week: Indiana

Brian Bennett's pick: Michigan State at Oregon

After visiting the Emerald Isle in Week 1, I'm going to be seeing a lot of green again in Week 2 with a trip out to Eugene. And I'll be racking up plenty of frequent flyer miles.

Truth is, I'd fly to the end of the earth to see this game in person. What an early-season treat this is, with the Spartans' ferocious defense going up against the Ducks' space-age offense (and uniforms). Both teams should be in the top 10 if not the top 5 coming into the game (they are Nos. 3 and 4 in Mark Schlabach's way-too-early Top 25). It's like staging the Rose Bowl in September.

The Spartans will have to rebuild on defense after losing stars Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen, Isaiah Lewis and others. They'll need to be ready right away, because quarterback Marcus Mariota might well enter the season as one of the Heisman Trophy favorites, and Oregon's speed will be unlike most of what Michigan State sees in the Big Ten. But Spartans defensive boss Pat Narduzzi has shown he can reload on that side of the ball, and the offense should be prepared to hit the ground running with quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and several other key members of last season's Rose Bowl champions returning.

Big Ten teams haven't traditionally fared well when traveling into Pac-12 territory, and Autzen Stadium figures to offer about as intimidating an environment as possible. But Mark Dantonio's program made a leap last season and wants to prove it can stay among the elite. There's no better chance to do so than on Sept. 6, and there's no place on earth I'd rather be that day.

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Michigan at Notre Dame

I double-majored in history (insert your nerd joke here), so while Michigan State-Oregon might be the sexier matchup and more appealing trip, I want to be there when Michigan and Notre Dame meet for the final time in the foreseeable future. The past three matchups have taken place at night in electric stadium environments, which just shows once again how unfortunate it is that this series going on hiatus. The 2014 matchup also kicks off in prime time, and after attending the last two Michigan-Notre Dame games, I'm making the drive to South Bend, probably with my guy Matt Fortuna riding shotgun.

Both teams really need a win after disappointing 2013 seasons, and both have more tests ahead as Michigan visits both Michigan State and Ohio State in Big Ten play, while Notre Dame enters its standard gauntlet with Stanford, Florida State, Arizona State, Louisville and USC. Quarterback play always is a storyline, as Michigan's Devin Gardner tries to repeat his brilliance against the Irish last season, while Notre Dame's Everett Golson returns to the rivalry after a year away from school. We saw a defensive struggle two years ago at Notre Dame Stadium, and an offensive shootout last year at the Big House.

You'll get zero complaints from me if I end up at raucous Autzen Stadium for green-on-green combat, but I'm among those who will really miss Michigan-Notre Dame every September, and this season's matchup will be the last for a while. I've always been a fan of Notre Dame Stadium for its old-school feel, and this is an old-school matchup. I guess I'm getting old.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
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Spring practice is off and running in the Big Ten, as Michigan took the field Tuesday and Northwestern followed on Wednesday. We're taking snapshots of where each team stands at each position group.

We've already discussed the quarterbacks -- and will have much more on the way -- so the series begins with the running backs.

Illinois: The Illini are in a bit better shape here than they were the past two springs, as veterans Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young both return. Ferguson averaged 5.5 yards per carry and added 50 receptions for 535 yards as the primary playmaker for Illinois' revamped offense. Young added 376 yards on 93 carries. The Illini are looking for others behind the top two, and Dami Ayoola is back with the team after being dismissed in September for a rules violation.

Indiana: Tevin Coleman quietly put together a superb sophomore season and leads the Hoosiers' running backs in 2014. Coleman provides big-play ability after averaging 7.3 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns on only 131 attempts in 2013. Indiana loses Stephen Houston but brings back veteran D'Angelo Roberts, who will play behind Coleman. Younger players such as sophomore Laray Smith could get a look here.

Iowa: Not only did the Hawkeyes toss AIRBHG to the side and get through the season without any major injurie, but they bring back everyone for 2014. Senior Mark Weisman leads the contingent after rushing for 975 yards and eight touchdowns last fall. Jordan Canzeri came on strong late in the season and is showing no effects from his ACL tear in 2012. Veteran Damon Bullock also returns to the mix, and Iowa has talented younger backs such as LeShun Daniels Jr. at its disposal. Good situation here.

Maryland: The Terrapins wide receivers tend to get more attention, but the team also returns its top three running backs from 2013 in Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Jacquille Veii. Maryland also regains the services of Wes Brown, who finished second on the team in rushing as a freshman in 2012 before being suspended for all of last season. Joe Riddle is back in the fold as well. The group brings different strengths, from power (Brown) to speed (Veii) to a mixture of both (Ross, Reid).

Michigan: Sophomore Derrick Green enters the spring as the frontrunner to be Michigan's lead back, although coach Brady Hoke wants to ramp up competition everywhere. The Wolverines struggled to consistently run between the tackles, but the 240-pound Green could change things. Hoke also is excited about another sophomore, De'Veon Smith. Michigan moved Ross Douglas from cornerback to running back, and Justice Hayes and Wyatt Shallman also are in the mix. "We've got more depth," Hoke said.

Michigan State: Things look much more promising than they did last spring, when the Spartans ended the session with a linebacker (Riley Bullough) as their top back. Jeremy Langford emerged as a very solid option during the season, rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. He's back as the clear-cut starter, and Nick Hill also returns. It will be interesting to see if Gerald Holmes makes a push, or whether Delton Williams remains on offense.

Minnesota: Here's another team that finds itself in very good shape at running back entering the spring. David Cobb leads the group after rushing for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. Veterans Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr. are still around, and highly touted redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards will take the field after missing last fall because of knee and ankle injuries. Perhaps the best news will come in the summer as decorated recruit Jeff Jones arrives.

Nebraska: Notice a theme here? Nebraska is yet another Big Ten squad that can feel very good about its running backs entering the spring. Ameer Abdullah elected to bypass the NFL draft for one final season at Nebraska, where he led the Big Ten with 1,690 yards on 281 carries as a junior. Abdullah will contend for national awards in the fall. Imani Cross, who rushed for 10 touchdowns last year, is one of the nation's top backups. Terrell Newby and others add depth behind the top two.

Northwestern: Top back Venric Mark (ankle) will miss spring practice following surgery, and reserve Stephen Buckley (knee) also is rehabbing, but Northwestern has no reason to panic. Treyvon Green, who filled in well for Mark last season with 736 rushing yards, will get much of the work. Warren Long also is in the mix after appearing in seven games as a true freshman. Northwestern also loaded up at running back in recruiting to solidify the position for years to come.

Ohio State: This will be a position to watch in the spring as Ohio State must replace Carlos Hyde, who was nearly unstoppable during Big Ten play last fall. Veteran Jordan Hall also departs, and Rod Smith will be the veteran of the group despite only 83 career carries. The Buckeyes have some talented young backs, from Dontre Wilson, who saw significant playing time last fall, to Bri'onte Dunn, Ezekiel Elliott and Warren Ball. Keep an eye on Elliott, who averaged 8.7 yards per carry in limited work last season but could emerge this spring.

Penn State: If it feels like Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton have been competing for carries forever at Penn State, it's because they have. Zwinak and Belton have been part of Penn State's running back rotation for the past two seasons and enter another competition this spring with talented sophomore Akeel Lynch, who rushed for 358 yards on only 60 carries last season. It will be interesting to see how much Lynch can push Zwinak and Belton in the team's first spring under a new coaching staff. Penn State has depth issues at several positions, but running back isn't one of them.

Purdue: The Boilers finished 122nd nationally in rushing offense last season, so the fact all of their running backs return might not spark mass celebration. Senior Akeem Hunt leads the group after recording 123 of the team's 319 rushing attempts in 2013. Other veteransBrandon Cottom and Raheem Mostert also are back, along with younger ball-carries such as Dayln Dawkins and three backs -- Keyante Green, David Yancey and Keith Byars II -- who redshirted last fall and could have much bigger roles.

Rutgers: Here's yet another team that returns basically its entire stable of running backs for spring ball. Paul James is the name to watch, as he rushed for 573 yards in the first four games last season before suffering a leg injury. James' health is a concern for Rutgers, which could also turn to Justin Goodwin, who showed some flashes following James' injury. Savon Huggins, who entered last season as the starter before losing ground, is in the mix as he looks to re-establish himself on the depth chart.

Wisconsin: How many teams can lose a 1,400-yard rusher and still claim to have the best running back group in the Big Ten? James White is gone, but Wisconsin remains in very good shape in the backfield. Melvin Gordon bypassed the NFL draft for another year in Madison after rushing for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. Gordon should move into more of a featured role beginning this spring, although he'll be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 yards and seven touchdowns on only 67 carries. Jeff Lewis provides another option behind the top two.
The Michigan defense has to make some strides in 2014 if it wants to live up to the expectations of a Michigan defense.

And the Wolverines won't get a break because there are plenty of offensive weapons on the schedule next season.

Here’s a look ahead to the biggest challenges Michigan will face.

[+] EnlargeBen Gedeon
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsMichigan will once again have its hands full with Ohio State dual-threat QB Braxton Miller in 2014.
1. QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State. No surprises here. The Ohio State quarterback gets his chance to take on the Michigan defense in The Horseshoe. And with his production on the field the past two seasons, he should be even better next season. Miller is the best dual-threat quarterback the Wolverines will face in 2014. He averaged 175 yards passing yards and 89 yards rushing per game. His TD percentage (TD/pass attempts) was second only to Jameis Winston in 2013.

2. QB Connor Cook, Michigan State. Cook was another signal-caller who made significant improvement, specifically down the stretch in the Big Ten Championship game and in the Rose Bowl. He’s secured his starting role and isn’t in the midst of a three- or four-quarterback controversy, which should also aid his growth as a leader and player. Like Miller, he has the luxury of playing Michigan in his home stadium. Cook led the conference with the lowest interception percentage (INT/pass attempts) at 1.6, and with an offseason to develop with his receivers and the MSU run game, he -- like Miller -- should be much better in 2014 than he was in 2013.

3. QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State. Hackenberg has a new head coach and a new offensive coordinator, but the freshman showed such potential this past season that he should be a considerable offensive threat this fall. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year should be in good hands, considering what new coach James Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan did at Vanderbilt. Hackenberg finished in the middle of the pack in many Big Ten quarterback stats this season, but that could change in 2014.

4. RB Jeremy Langford, Michigan State. Like Cook, Langford was a guy stuck in the middle of a position controversy early in the 2013 season. Now, with the position solidified, he should be able to have a strong offseason and come in as the guy. His growth will only help Cook’s, and vice versa, so these two should create a pretty tough threat for defenses.

5. Penn State tight ends. The Nittany Lions certainly lost a lot at receiver when Allen Robinson declared for the NFL draft. With his 119 yards per game gone, Hackenberg will look to spread it out a bit more. He’ll look more for the talented tight ends on the roster. With Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman, Hackenberg has plenty of offensive threats. And with the way the Wolverines struggled in pass coverage, talented tight ends who can block and catch aren’t what they want to see from an offense. And certainly not several from one team with those capabilities.

Honorable mention:

  • RB Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State: The rising sophomore has some big shoes to fill, but his size and athleticism indicate he’s more than ready to do it. Michigan struggled against the run in 2013, and he’s a guy who could exploit those issues up front, especially if Miller takes the attention from the defense.
  • QB Nate Sudfeld and RB Tevin Coleman, Indiana: Coleman was the No. 5 rusher in the Big Ten in 2013, and while he rushed for just 78 yards and one touchdown against the Wolverines, this could be one of those tandems that could catch Michigan off guard in the fall (much as it did last fall).
  • QB Everett Golson, Notre Dame: Golson has returned, and Brian Kelly is back calling the plays. This should create a comfort level between the two, but how effective Golson will be depends on if Notre Dame can get some receiving weapons to step up.
  • OT Taylor Decker, Ohio State: The only returning starter on the Buckeyes' offensive line will be a handful for the Wolverines' front four, especially if Michigan's pass rush looks anything like it did in 2013.

Certainly there are players in the B1G West such as Iowa QB Jake Rudock and OT Brandon Scherff and Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon who could pose huge threats, but the Wolverines wouldn’t see them until a potential Big Ten championship game, so they weren’t included on this list.
Officially, we only do a first-team All-Big Ten here at the ol' blog. But there were tough decisions and plenty of players deserving of recognition in the 2013 season. So if we had to do a second team, here's what it would look like:

Offense

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

Defense

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

Specialists

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

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

The Big Ten's bowl lineup is now official. Both participants from the league championship game are headed to BCS bowls, while five others will play postseason games in Florida, Arizona and Texas. The overall lineup doesn't seem quite as daunting as last season's, when the Big Ten had zero top-10 teams and played three top-10 opponents in the postseason.

We'll be breaking down these games for the next few weeks, but we wanted to share our first impressions of the lineup:

Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, Jan. 1: Michigan State vs. Stanford
Discover Orange Bowl, Jan. 3: Ohio State vs. Clemson
Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1: Wisconsin vs. South Carolina
Outback Bowl, Jan. 1: Iowa vs. LSU
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Dec. 28: Michigan vs. Kansas State
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Jan. 1: Nebraska vs. Georgia
Texas Bowl, Dec. 27: Minnesota vs. Syracuse

Let's begin ...

Adam Rittenberg's first impressions

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesMark Dantonio's Spartans enter the Rose Bowl on a nine-game win streak.
Best game: Rose. The most tradition-rich bowl will celebrate its 100th edition with a matchup of teams with traditional offenses based around the power-run and aggressive, hard-hitting defenses. Michigan State recorded the signature win of the Mark Dantonio-era against Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game and enters the Rose Bowl on a nine-game win streak, winning each contest by at least 10 points. Both teams have standout defenders (MSU's Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Shilique Calhoun and Denicos Allen; Stanford's Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Jordan Richards), underrated quarterbacks in Connor Cook and Kevin Hogan and impressive running backs in Jeremy Langford and Tyler Gaffney. Good times.

Worst game: Gator. I'm probably not as upset about this one as Brian (or most Nebraska fans), but a rematch of last season's Capital One Bowl featuring two teams playing without their starting quarterbacks doesn't move the needle. At least running backs Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska) and Todd Gurley (Georgia) are fun to watch.

Sneaky good game: Capital One Bowl. Not sure how sneaky this one is, but both teams are talented on both sides of the ball and easily could have better records. The game features the nation's most talented defender in South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney against one of the nation's most accomplished defenders in Wisconsin's Chris Borland. The Badgers' seniors want to go out on a good note after a stunning home loss to Penn State, not to mention three consecutive losses in the Rose Bowl.

The bowl season will be a success if: The Big Ten records a winning record with at least one BCS bowl win. This season's lineup is slightly more favorable, and four wins certainly isn't out of the question. Ohio State and Minnesota both should win their games, and Michigan State, while less experienced than Stanford in BCS games, is playing its best football. Wisconsin needs to rebound, Iowa has a tough draw and both Michigan and Nebraska have been enigmatic, but the Big Ten should expect a little more in its final season of its self-created meat-grinder bowl lineup.

Brian Bennett's first impressions

Best game: The Rose Bowl is tremendous and looks to be the second-best game outside of the BCS title game. But let me also put in a plug for a possible underrated Orange matchup between Ohio State and Clemson. I saw Clemson earlier this season, and while the Tigers stumbled badly against Florida State and South Carolina, they are loaded with athletes. Put Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde all on the same field, and you're guaranteed some fireworks. Both teams score more than 40 points per game so we could have an entertaining shootout with some intriguing back stories (the Woody Hayes punch, Urban Meyer's return to the state of Florida).

Worst game: Minnesota had a great season and has a legitimately good defense and solid running game led by David Cobb. So I was hoping to see the Gophers get a chance to prove themselves against a decent opponent. Unfortunately, they drew a 6-6 Syracuse squad that beat absolutely no one and has an even lower-scoring offense than Minnesota. A bowl win is probably all that matters to Jerry Kill and his players, but I think they deserved a better showcase opportunity.

Sneaky good game: Outback. Iowa will have to make up for a talent gap with LSU -- as most teams do when they play the Tigers. But the Hawkeyes really hit their stride in the season finale at Nebraska, and they have only lost to teams ranked in the top 20. LSU, meanwhile, will be without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who tore his ACL in the season finale, and this was not a vintage Tigers' defense. Both teams like to run the ball a lot, and Iowa linebackers James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey must continue to lead the way for Phil Parker's defense. Maybe if we're lucky, we'll get an ending half as good as the 2005 Capital One Bowl.

The bowl season will be a success if: At least one BCS win is a necessity, especially with opponents who are similar in style in both games. Winning at least one of the games against the SEC on New Year's Day is also important; that holiday has been unkind to the Big Ten of late, and Georgia and LSU look more vulnerable than usual. An overall winning record is possible and could start to change the conference's image. Another sign of success will be if Wisconsin can avoid adding to Clowney's postseason highlight reel.
You've had a chance to check out the 2013 All-Big Ten teams and individual award winners. The four major award winners -- Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Freshman of the Year -- will be unveiled Tuesday.

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

INDIVIDUAL AWARDS

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

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

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

Wisconsin's shocking home loss to Penn State ends the debate over whether the Badgers or Michigan State should be at No. 2 behind front-runner Ohio State. Although the Buckeyes and, to a lesser extent, the Spartans had some struggles Saturday, they found ways to win. The Badgers had their worst performance of the season, and it cost them a potential BCS at-large berth.

That doesn't take away from Penn State, which received big boosts from quarterback Christian Hackenberg and others.

Our big dilemma this week was what to do with the 6-8 spots. Penn State had by far its best showing of the season, and Michigan had its best showing in months, even in defeat, against archrival Ohio State. Nebraska didn't show up at home on Black Friday, however, the Huskers have road wins against both the Lions (six days before the Iowa clunker) and Michigan.

After some spirited debate, we ultimately went with body of work to determine the rundown, especially since these are the final regular-season rankings. We understand it devalues the Week 14 performances a bit.

Here's one last look at the Week 13 rankings.

Now for the new rundown, final regular-season version.

1. Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten: last week: 1): The Buckeyes lost their composure early and nearly lost their perfect season late. They were faced with adversity for the first time in six weeks, but they made enough plays on both sides of the ball to win. Running back Carlos Hyde (226 yards, one TD) and quarterback Braxton Miller (five total TDs) led a virtually unstoppable offense, which helped overcome some shoddy pass defense. The Buckeyes now await Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.

2. Michigan State (11-1, 8-0; last week: 3): There weren't many style points against Minnesota, but the Spartans came away with another double-digit Big Ten win. The defense kept Minnesota out of the end zone, as linebacker Denicos Allen led the way. Running back Jeremy Langford (134 rush yards, TD) had another big day as Michigan State moved closer to a BCS bowl berth, regardless of the result in Indianapolis.

3. Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2; last week: 2): It's only a one-spot drop for Wisconsin, but what a downer in Mad City. A team that had been so dominant since falling at Ohio State never showed up on Senior Day against a plucky Penn State team that took control from the onset. Quarterback Joel Stave threw three interceptions in the loss, and one of the Big Ten's better defenses allowed a slew of big plays as Penn State racked up 465 yards. It led to Wisconsin's most surprising home loss in recent memory.

4. Iowa (8-4, 5-3; last week: 4): Kirk Ferentz's crew entered the regular season as a popular pick to finish last in the Legends Division. The Hawkeyes emerged as one of the better teams not only in the division but the entire Big Ten. They've flipped their 2012 regular-season record behind a salty rush defense, led by an outstanding group of linebackers, and a functional offense. After two lackluster showings in the Heroes Game, Iowa outclassed Nebraska in Lincoln and should move up the bowl pecking order.

5. Minnesota (8-4, 4-4; last week: 5): It doesn't take a doctor at the Mayo Clinic to diagnose what's wrong with Minnesota. The Gophers' defense keeps them in every game, and Saturday's matchup at Michigan State proved to be no exception. But the offense simply can't score or consistently pass the football. Minnesota failed to reach double digits for the third time this season despite multiple opportunities in Spartans territory. It's still a great season for Jerry Kill's team, but there's a lot of work to do on offense before a bowl appearance.

6. Nebraska (8-4, 5-3; last week: 6): No one would dispute Bo Pelini that this has been a difficult season in Husker Country. No one would argue with Nebraska's ability to keep fighting. But when the same problems (namely turnovers) surface year after year, the bigger picture of the program becomes more depressing. The Huskers and their head coach self-destructed for much of the Iowa game and fell for the third time on their home field. Fortunately for Pelini, it didn't cost him his job, and he should get another chance to compete for an elusive league title in 2014.

7. Penn State (7-5, 4-4; last week: 8): The Lions had a better team in Bill O'Brien's first season, but they didn't have a better win than Saturday's stunning upset of Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. After losing their first three road games by a combined score of 131-48, Penn State dominated Wisconsin for much of the afternoon at a place where the Badgers rarely lose. Hackenberg ended his freshman season with a signature performance (339 pass yards, 4 TDs) as the offense repeatedly gashed Wisconsin. A much-maligned defense held the Badgers' run game in check as Penn State ended an up-and-down season on a very good note.

8. Michigan (7-5, 3-5; last week: 7): After plummeting to historic lows earlier in the month, Michigan's offense looked like a completely different unit against Ohio State. Quarterback Devin Gardner played brilliantly, coordinator Al Borges called a good game and several others -- Jeremy Gallon, Jake Butt and De'Veon Smith -- stepped up in a 603-yard effort. It wasn't enough, as Michigan fell by a point and the defense had no answers for Ohio State, but the Wolverines played their best game in months and can feel a bit better entering the postseason.

9. Indiana (5-7, 3-5; last week: 9): Oh, what might have been for Indiana. A team with such an explosive offense and eight home games should have made a bowl game, period, but the Hoosiers couldn't get it done. At least they reclaimed the Old Oaken Bucket as quarterback Tre Roberson (six TD passes, 273 pass yards, 154 rush yards) torched Purdue and received help from Stephen Houston, D'Angelo Roberts, Cody Latimer and others. It's clear the Hoosiers have to make upgrades on defense. They can't keep wasting such explosiveness on offense.

10. Northwestern (5-7, 1-7; last week: 11): A season to forget for Northwestern ended on a positive note, as Pat Fitzgerald's team avoided a winless Big Ten season and recorded another victory against its in-state rival. Quarterback Trevor Siemian enters the offseason with some confidence after passing for a career-high 414 yards and four touchdowns against Illinois. Wide receiver Christian Jones (13 catches, 182 yards, two TDs) also stepped up as Northwestern twice rallied from deficits against Illinois. Fitzgerald said afterward that Northwestern "will be back" in 2014. The work begins now.

11. Illinois (4-8, 1-7; last week 10): The wins total doubled from two to four, which is nothing to celebrate. But Illinois clearly improved in Year 2 under coach Tim Beckman, who should receive another season in Champaign. Illinois has fixed the offense, and while quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will be tough to replace, several playmakers like Josh Ferguson return. A bigger issue is the defense, which had no answer for Northwestern's passing attack on Saturday and surrendered more than 40 points and more than 500 yards per game in Big Ten play.

12. Purdue (1-11, 0-8; last week: 12): The optimist sees a dynamic young quarterback in Danny Etling, who finished his freshman season with 485 pass yards and four touchdowns against Indiana, and a team that can only get better. The pessimist sees a Purdue squad that was the worst in recent Big Ten history and has much work to do on both sides of the ball to become competitive in coach Darrell Hazell's second season. A big offseason awaits Hazell and his staff as they can't go through another season like this one.

Big Ten Week 14: Did you know?

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
10:00
AM ET
You already know who's going to land in the Big Ten title game -- but I bet you don't know most of these crazy Big Ten facts and figures:
  • It should be a good battle in the trenches for The Game. No, seriously -- the Ohio State rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense should be a good matchup. The Wolverines have allowed just five rushes that have gained 20 or more yards this season, tied for the fifth fewest allowed among FBS teams. Ohio State's offense has had 32 such rushes -- which is tied for fifth most in the FBS.
  • Braxton Miller might be better in the pocket this season, but that doesn't mean he can't run anymore. In his first seven games this year, he attempted 25 zone-read rushes and gained 87 yards from them. In the last two contests, Miller has shown he can still get it done by rushing 15 times on such plays for 216 yards.
  • Wondering just how much Devin Gardner's performance has dropped off since last season? Well, besides the obvious stats, take a look at his performance on third downs. Last season, he had a QBR of 98.3 on third downs, which ranked second behind only Johnny Manizel among players with at least 50 third down plays. This season? His QBR has fallen to 49.8 on third downs this year and Gardner has taken 15 sacks and committed seven turnovers. He's thrown nine TDs to seven interceptions on third downs this season, compared to 11 touchdowns and two picks last year.
  • Minnesota's run-heavy offense could be in trouble against Michigan State. The Gophers have run on 68 percent of their plays this season -- the seventh-highest ratio in the FBS -- and Michigan State has not been kind to those run-first teams. The Spartans have allowed just 15 rushes of 10 or more yards this season, six fewer than the No. 2 team in that category. Also, Michigan State has not allowed a drive of 80 yards or longer this season. The last team to do that? Alabama in 2008.
  • Michigan State's Jeremy Langford has rushed for at least 100 yards in six straight games -- and those yards have been well-earned. During that span, he has the third-most yards after contact (453) of any BCS player. He's behind only Boston College's Andre Williams (608) and Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey (512).
  • The ability of Wisconsin to run the ball has been well-documented this season, so let's look at the affect those runs have had on the passing game. On play-action passes, Joel Stave is averaging 12.1 yards per attempt. Without play-action, he's averaging 6.5 yards through the air. Also, the touchdown-to-interception ratio is pretty noticeable. With the play-action, he has nine touchdown strikes and two interceptions. Without? Eight TDs, seven interceptions.
  • In the Penn State passing attack, there's basically Allen Robinson and ... well ... OK, that's pretty much it. Just look at the numbers. When Christian Hackenberg throws Robinson's way, he's completing 63.6 percent of his passes, averages 9.2 yards per attempt and has thrown five TDs to one pick. When he targets anyone not named Robinson, he's completing 50.4 percent of his passes, averages 5.1 yards per attempt and has thrown four touchdowns to four picks.
  • The Hawkeyes' defense might not get as much love because of the Spartans, but their run defense is pretty darn good. Iowa has held 10 of its 11 opponents under their rushing average this season. Iowa has allowed just four rushing touchdowns this year -- tied for lowest total in the nation -- and it's allowing an average of just 3.6 yards per rush.
  • Ameer Abdullah didn't get much love from voters for the Doak Walker Award, but he's still having quite the season. Here are a few Nebraska numbers to chew on: His rushing total right now (1,483 yards) is the most by a Husker since Ahman Green's 1,877 in 1997. He's rushed for 100 yards in eight straight games, which ties him for the fourth-longest streak in Nebraska history. And he also has 10 100-yard games this season, which is also good for fourth on the Cornhuskers' record lists. He needs just one more game to tie the record of 11 held by Mike Rozier (1983), Lawrence Phillips (1994) and Green (1997).
  • November has been a pretty good month for Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase. He's gone 128-for-189 (67.7 percent) for 1,316 yards -- which is the second-most passing yards this month behind only Fresno State's Derek Carr (1,374). He's also the only active player in the nation with more than 8,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards ... but, of course, that's for his career -- not just November.

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The Spartans have won five of their last six against the Wolverines. ESPN college football reporter Adam Rittenberg forecasts what the near future of the rivalry holds.
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