Michigan Wolverines: John Simon

It's awards season in Hollywood, as the film industry lines up to congratulate itself again and again until we're all sick of it before the Oscars.

But, hey, some performances do need recognition. With that in mind, we're listing the Top 10 individual performances by Big Ten players from the 2012 season today. Degree of difficulty is a factor here, so we'll reward those players who shined against tough opponents over those who piled up stats vs. cupcakes. And, ideally, the performance came in a victory for the player's team.

Enough with the intro. A drum roll, please, for our Top 10:

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Maybe it's a reflection of a lousy Big Ten season, but the league sent a smaller-than-normal contingent to the Senior Bowl. The group already has been reduced by three as injuries have prevented Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams, Ohio State offensive tackle Reid Fragel and Ohio State defensive lineman John Simon from participating.

As for the Big Ten players on the practice field, the reviews haven't been overly favorable.

The ESPN Scouts Inc. crew cited several issues Insider with Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short on Tuesday, noting that the Boilers standout took off plays during practice and was "loose with his arms" during drills. Short clearly has the size and ability to succeed in the NFL, but he'll need to answer the effort questions going forward. There are a lot of similarities between Short and former Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.

Not surprisingly, Michigan's Denard Robinson is attracting plenty of attention this week. The record-setting quarterback for the Wolverines is working primarily as a wide receiver and trying to show that his unique talents can translate to the NFL at several potential positions. But Robinson also is banged up and is still waiting to be cleared for contact drills. He had several dropped passes during noncontact drills Tuesday and muffed two punts at the end of practice.

Illinois offensive lineman Hugh Thornton drew mostly positive reviews Tuesday, while it seemed like an up-and-down day for another Big Ten offensive lineman, Wisconsin's Ricky Wagner.

We'll see if things improve for the Big Ten group today.

Be sure and track our Senior Bowl coverage throughout the week.

Michigan's Lewan gears up for Clowney

December, 10, 2012
12/10/12
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Hours before Michigan's game at Nebraska, Wolverines offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and two of his linemates killed some time in the hotel by watching South Carolina take on Tennessee.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
Patrick Green/Icon SMIMichigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan has been studying South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney in preparation for their Jan. 1 bowl game.
Not surprisingly, Lewan soon noticed No. 7 in maroon for the Gamecocks. Sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is hard to miss.

"You know what," Lewan told teammates Elliott Mealer and Jack Miller, "that guy's a good player."

Lewan had no idea at the time that he'd be spending most of December watching Clowney. Michigan faces South Carolina on Jan. 1 at the Outback Bowl, and no individual matchup in the game brings more intrigue than Lewan vs. Clowney.

Both men have appeared on All-America teams and earned conference recognition, as Lewan won the Big Ten's Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year award and was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten pick. Clowney claimed the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award from the league's coaches and unanimous All-SEC honors. Clowney recorded 13 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss this season.

"I can't say enough about him," Lewan said. "He's a great player, and I'm excited about the opportunity to go against him. Big, physical player, gets his hands off, swings a lot."

Lewan hasn't faced a defensive end quite like the 6-6, 256-pound, freakishly athletic Clowney in the Big Ten this season. He said the closest comparisons are Ohio State's John Simon -- the 2012 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year -- and former Purdue star Ryan Kerrigan, who won 2010 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors before becoming a first-round pick of the Washington Redskins.

Lewan has been projected as a potential first-round draft pick if he chooses to forgo his senior season. Clowney can't enter the draft until after the 2013 season, but he's the most draft-ready true sophomore in college football. Lewan says he's not thinking about his draft decision, or whether a matchup against Clowney gives him a gauge of what he could do at the next level.

But he does plan to see plenty of the South Carolina star in Tampa.

"He lines up across from the left tackle every time, from what I've seen," Lewan said. "I'm not sure what their game plan is, but I'm sure we'll be going against each other a lot."

Lewan acknowledges that Michigan's offensive line has had its ups and downs this season. The Wolverines eclipsed 400 yards of offense six times and were held to fewer than 300 yards four times, including in a Nov. 24 loss to rival Ohio State in the regular-season finale.

Although "one game won't define us as an offensive line," Lewan knows there's a lot at stake against Clowney and a South Carolina defense that ranks in the top 20 nationally in total defense (12th) scoring defense (13th), rushing defense (15th), sacks (fifth) and tackles for loss (19th).

"There's three seniors on the starting offensive line right now (guards Patrick Omameh and Ricky Barnum and Mealer), and I want them to go out with a bang," Lewan said. "There'd be nothing better than going out with an Outback win."
The 2012 All-Big Ten teams and individual award winners will be revealed at 7 p.m. ET tonight on the Big Ten Network. We'll post the full lists shortly thereafter as well as reaction.

The four major awards -- Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Freshman of the Year -- will be revealed Tuesday night. We will have our official blog endorsements for each of these throughout Tuesday, so be sure to check in.

To clarify, we don't have official votes for All-Big Ten (not like we cover the league closer than anyone year-round or anything, but we're not bitter), but we will reveal our own all-conference team at a later date.

For now, we're going to give our opinions on some of the key debates surrounding this year's all-conference team.

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Michigan-Ohio State pregame ponderables

November, 24, 2012
11/24/12
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Hello from the Horseshoe, where one of the best rivalries in sports is about to kick off with some extra meaning.

Nebraska's win against Iowa took a little bit of drama away from the proceedings, as Michigan now cannot make the Big Ten title game. In another situation, you might wonder how that would affect a team's motivation. But not this one. The records don't really matter in The Game.

But one record does matter to Ohio State: 12-0. The Buckeyes are one win away from perfection, and while they can't go bowling, finishing up the season with a victory against the Wolverines would be better than just about any bowl victory.

We've got some perfect Big Ten late November weather here, with temperatures in the low 30s and a light snow. The snow isn't sticking, so it shouldn't have too much impact on the game, except maybe adding some moisture to challenge ball carriers. I still expect Brady Hoke to come out in short sleeves.

It just doesn't get much better than this rivalry. Some Michigan fans already fired the first shot by writing "Beat Ohio" and a giant "M" in chalk on the south stadium wall this morning.

A key question looming over this game is the health of John Simon. Reports surfaced Friday that Ohio State's star defensive end is injured and might not play. We have confirmed that Simon is a game-time decision with a knee issue. It's hard to imagine the senior not trying to go on senior day if there's any way his body can be held together. But if he's missing or at far less than 100 percent, that's a big loss for a Buckeyes defense going against an explosive Michigan attack led by Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson.

Both teams have had some trouble stopping spread offenses and containing the perimeter on defense this season. Both offenses will look to exploit that weakness. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller has been a little more cautious with his running style since suffering an injury against Purdue, trying to stay healthy for the rest of the season. But there is no more season to worry about after today, and the Michigan game is where Buckeyes players build their legacies, so I'd expect the sophomore star to play with abandon this afternoon.

But will Miller be able to throw effectively against a Michigan team that leads the nation in defending the pass? The Wolverines have not allowed anybody to pass for 200 yards this season.

Speaking of passing games, Michigan's has gotten a lot better since Gardner took over the quarterback job. But receivers Jeremy Gallon and Roy Roundtree will face a good challenge today, going up against certain first-team All-Big Ten selection Bradley Roby and teammate Travis Howard. The Buckeyes' cornerbacks have been ball-hawks, and should give Gardner more of a test than Minnesota, Northwestern and Iowa did.

There are great matchups all over the field, as you'd expect, and another great one on the sidelines between Hoke and Urban Meyer. Can't wait to get this one started.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 13

November, 21, 2012
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Ten items to track around the Big Ten on the final weekend of the regular season:

1. Bigger than The Game: Michigan defensive lineman Will Campbell told me this week that The Game never wavers in importance, whether Ohio State is 0-11 or 11-0. That's a good attitude for a player to have, but from the outside looking in, the Michigan-Ohio State game is much more appealing when there's a lot at stake for both teams. For the first time since 2007, that's the case. Ohio State aims for the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history. Michigan can hand the Buckeyes their first loss and possibly reach the Big Ten title game. This one should be fun. "It makes the game even bigger," Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby said.

2. Bo knows: Stunned by his team's performance in a 63-38 loss to Ohio State, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini sat in the visitors' media room at Ohio Stadium and said, "Like I just told the football team, we need to win out. We need to win out." Few thought it would happen, and even Pelini's faith had to be wavering a bit at that low point. But Nebraska has won five consecutive games, rallying for three of the victories, and need only beat slumping Iowa in the Heroes Game to punch its ticket to Indianapolis. The Huskers have ridden the roller coaster all season, but they'd need a serious derailment in Iowa City not to fulfill Pelini's pledge.

3. Senior day in State College: There might never be another senior day at Penn State quite like the one Saturday at Beaver Stadium. Penn State will recognize a class that kept the team together during a tumultuous summer that included severe NCAA sanctions being handed down and several key player departures. "There's no doubt," first-year coach Bill O'Brien said, "that they set the tone for the future of Penn State football." Unfortunately, Penn State will play without senior linebacker Michael Mauti, a top candidate for Big Ten defensive player of the year and the team's emotional leader. Mauti, who suffered a knee injury last week, will be recognized along with his classmates.

4. Spartans, Boilers face must-wins: Both Michigan State and Purdue entered the season with lofty goals, particularly the Spartans, pegged by many to win the Big Ten and reach the Rose Bowl for the first time in a quarter-century. Few expected MSU and Purdue to be fighting for bowl eligibility in Week 13, but that's exactly the case. Michigan State must win at Minnesota, and coach Mark Dantonio is confident, saying Tuesday, "When we win Saturday -- and I'll say when -- we'll be a 6-6 football team." Purdue, meanwhile, aims for its third straight win when it hosts rival Indiana in the Bucket game. Will a 6-6 season save fourth-year coach Danny Hope?

[+] EnlargeJim Tressel
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireJim Tressel, now a consultant for the Indianapolis Colts, will be part of Ohio State's celebration of its 2002 national-title team.
5. Tressel's return: Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel will return to Ohio Stadium on Saturday for a reunion of the school's 2002 national championship team. It marks Tressel's first major public appearance at Ohio State since resigning from his post on Memorial Day in 2011. It will be interesting to see how the Buckeyes faithful react to Tressel, whose actions helped land the team in hot water with the NCAA. On the flip side, Ohio State's program is arguably better off with Urban Meyer as coach. "Some people will embrace it, some people will not," athletic director Gene Smith told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer. "Some people will feel it's awkward, some people will not. I'm not going to feel it's awkward because I'm realistic -- he was part of that team. And I know what he means to those players."

6. Their kind of town: Northwestern and Illinois both want to increase their clout in the Chicago area. Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats have been the more consistent program in the past decade and take an 8-3 record into Saturday's clash with the Illini at Ryan Field. With a win, Northwestern will match its highest victories total under Fitzgerald, who would tie Lynn "Pappy" Waldorf for the school's career coaching wins record (90). Illinois first-year coach Tim Beckman has emphasized the Northwestern rivalry from the moment he arrived. Perhaps his players will respond with a strong effort to end an otherwise miserable season.

7. Making their cases for awards: The Big Ten hands out all its awards next week, and races for offensive and defensive player of the year are still very much in doubt. Mauti's injury creates a potential opening in the defensive player of the year race, and a lot could depend on what happens in Columbus, as candidates such as Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan and Ohio State's tandem of John Simon and Ryan Shazier take the field. Other candidates, such as Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short, also are in action. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller remains the front-runner for offensive player of the year, but Nebraska's Taylor Martinez has been brilliant of late and could challenge Miller if he turns in a monster game at Iowa.

8. Boiler spoilers: Two weeks ago, Indiana was a home victory from putting itself in line to represent the Leaders Division in the Big Ten title game. The Hoosiers now know their season will end Saturday in West Lafayette, as they won't be going bowling for the fifth consecutive season. But Kevin Wilson's team still can reclaim The Bucket and prevent Purdue from making a bowl game. Wilson talked Tuesday about how the season doesn't feel like it's ending, and with so many young players, the future is promising. He downplayed the spoiler role, saying Tuesday, "It has nothing to do with what it does for them; it's about what it does for us. Winning is good for us. Winning builds us." Indiana has eight home games next season and should be in the mix for a bowl. A victory Saturday would be a nice boost before a crucial offseason.

9. Gray's day: Minnesota will recognize 15 seniors Saturday against Michigan State, and none has had a more unique career than MarQueis Gray. He arrived as a nationally heralded dual-threat quarterback recruit, played quarterback for a year, played primarily wide receiver for a year, started 10 games at quarterback in 2011 and opened this season as the top signal-caller but moved to wide receiver following an ankle injury. He will play primarily at receiver against the Spartans but had two rushing touchdowns last week and could see increased time in the backfield. Gray talked this week about "closing the chapter" on his Gophers career, and it'll be interesting to see how he performs in his final game at TCF Bank Stadium.

10. Denard and Devin: Michigan's Denard Robinson is healthy again, but how much quarterback he will play against Ohio State remains to be seen. Robinson's replacement, Devin Gardner, has been spectacular since returning to the quarterback role, accounting for 13 touchdowns in the past three games, including six last week against Iowa. Michigan started the Iowa game with Gardner at quarterback and Robinson at running back, and offensive coordinator Al Borges has the "creative juices" flowing as he crafts the game plan for Ohio State. Robinson and Gardner certainly give Michigan's offense a different look -- and some extra homework for Ohio State's improving defense.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 6

October, 8, 2012
10/08/12
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Bring that beat back.

Team(s) of the week: Ohio State and Michigan share top billing this week. The Buckeyes turned in an attention-grabbing 63-38 blowout of Nebraska on national TV and have climbed up to No. 8 in The Associated Press poll. An undefeated season remains a strong possibility. Michigan was also very impressive, going on the road to clobber Purdue 44-13 in a must-have win. Anybody else already looking forward to The Game this year?

Best game: Even though Northwestern led Penn State 28-17 in the fourth quarter, you just knew it wasn't over. In fact, the Nittany Lions were just getting started. They reeled off 22 fourth-quarter points in a game that featured several wild momentum swings and fourth-down plays.

[+] EnlargeAaron Burbridge
Darron Cummings/AP PhotoMichigan State wide receiver Aaron Burbridge makes a reception while being defended by Indiana linebacker Forisse Hardin.
Biggest play: Michigan State probably didn't think it would need a big play in the fourth quarter against Indiana, but it sure did. The Spartans were down 27-17 and faced third-and-10 from their own 29 when Andrew Maxwell hit receiver Aaron Burbridge through double coverage for a 16-yard gain. A punt deep in its own territory would have made it difficult for Michigan State's slow-moving offense to complete the comeback. But that third-down conversion kept alive a drive that resulted in a touchdown en route to a 31-27 victory. Burbridge, a true freshman, gave the Spartans a much-needed shot in the arm with eight catches for 134 yards in his first start.

Best call: No one can accuse Bill O'Brien of playing it safe. Even though Penn State's kicking game is very shaky, most coaches would have settled for the field goal on fourth-and-4 from the other team's 5-yard line when trailing by three points in the fourth quarter. O'Brien is not most coaches. He rolled the dice and went for it, and Matt McGloin scrambled into the end zone for what turned out to be the winning score. Penn State was 5-of-6 on fourth-down conversion attempts against Northwestern.

Second guessing: Indiana was humming along in the first half against Michigan State but got strangely conservative right before halftime. Kevin Wilson gambled and pulled off an onsides kick after going up 24-14 late in the half. But after driving to the Michigan State 6-yard line, the Hoosiers ran three straight running plays and gained only 4 yards. Wilson elected to kick the field goal instead of going for it on fourth down, even though Michigan State was on the ropes and a touchdown might have provided a knockout blow. That's not the reason Indiana lost, because the Spartans pitched a shutout in the second half. But I bet Wilson would at least throw a pass into the end zone if he had to do that over again. Maybe he and O'Brien should compare notes.

Big men on campus (offense): It's all about the quarterbacks. Michigan's Denard Robinson ran for 235 yards (more than Purdue's entire offense generated) and threw for 105 more in the win over the Boilermakers. Ohio State's Braxton Miller ran for 186 yards and threw for 127 more in the pasting of Nebraska. And McGloin threw for 282 yards and accounted for three touchdowns while leading the Nittany Lions' fourth-quarter comeback.

Big man on campus (defense): Ohio State's Bradley Roby had a pair of interceptions against Nebraska and returned the first one 49 yards for a touchdown to open the Buckeyes' scoring onslaught. Props also to Roby's teammate John Simon, who had five tackles for loss versus the Huskers.

Big men on campus (special teams): Northwestern's Venric Mark and Ohio State's Corey Brown each scored on punt returns. Mark went for 75 yards against Penn State, while Brown took his 76 yards to the house.

Worst hangover: Purdue. Yes, Nebraska isn't going to enjoy the next two weeks after getting steamrolled by Ohio State. But the Cornhuskers always knew that was going to be a tough road game they could lose and still win the Big Ten. The Boilermakers were fired up after a solid start to the season, and many around the team believed a breakthrough was coming for Danny Hope's program. Instead, Michigan waltzed into Ross-Ade Stadium, rolled out to a 28-3 first-half lead and put Purdue back in its place. Now there are questions again about whether the Boilers will ever turn the corner under Hope. A win over Wisconsin this week now becomes paramount.

Strangest moment(s): It was a painful day for some of the officials in the Big Ten on Saturday.

In the Northwestern-Penn State game, line judge Michael Mahouski suffered a ruptured quad tendon while avoiding a hit on the sideline and had to be carted off. Another line judge was carted off in the Illinois-Wisconsin game. Forget replacement refs. Big Ten officials might need some replacement hips at this rate.

But those weren't even the weirdest circumstances involving an official on Saturday. In that Illinois-Wisconsin game, Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase tried to high-five back judge Mike Brown after scoring on a short touchdown run. Brown was not having any of it.

"Our deal is to hand the ball to the official," Scheelhaase explained. "But somehow the ball got loose -- I probably, like, threw it a little bit -- and in apology, I tried to give him a high-five. I almost knocked him over. He almost tripped.

“I don’t think they can [high-five players]. One of the refs told me they weren't able to do that.”

At least Mahouski got a handshake from Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald as he left the field on the cart.
The Big Ten doesn't announce an official preseason all-conference team. But that doesn't mean we can't.

Here are our picks for the 2012 preseason All-Big Ten team:

Offense

QB: Denard Robinson, Michigan
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska
RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
OT: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OT: Ricky Wagner, Wisconsin
OG: Spencer Long, Nebraska
OG: Chris McDonald, Michigan State
C: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin

Defense

DE: John Simon, Ohio State
DE: William Gholston, Michigan State
DT: Kawann Short, Purdue
DT: Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State
LB: Gerald Hodges, Penn State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Jonathan Brown, Illinois
CB: Johnny Adams, Michigan State
CB: Ricardo Allen, Purdue
S: Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State
S: Jordan Kovacs, Michigan

Specialists

K/P: Brett Maher, Nebraska
KR: Raheem Mostert, Purdue
PR: Abbrederis

Thoughts: The first thing that likely jumps out at you is that we have three running backs and just one receiver on our first-team offense. No, we haven't forgotten the rules of football. It's just that we continue to feel the wide receiver crop is weak this season, and no great candidates for the second spot leap out at us. Perhaps Keenan Davis of Iowa or one of Northwestern's many receivers will have a great season, but no one has proved anything on a consistent basis. We'd rather have Bell -- who we believe is primed for a huge year -- on the team than any of the receiver candidates. Plus, isn't running the ball what Big Ten football is all about? ... Some of the toughest omissions came at linebacker, where Michigan State's duo of Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and Wisconsin's Mike Taylor were among those left out. At least we know we'd have an outstanding second-team unit at that position. ... Fiedorowicz is a bit of a projection pick, but we love the way he finished last season and how he fits into Greg Davis' new scheme. You certainly could make a strong case for Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen or Ohio State's Jake Stoneburner there as well. ... Some of these players won't live up to expectations, and others will explode on the scene this fall. But for now, we'd feel pretty good about throwing this team on the field.
Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

Game week is here, and not a moment too soon.

Preseason camps have wrapped up around the Big Ten, and teams are now locking in for their openers this coming weekend. The power rankings will appear each Monday throughout the season, and we're getting things kicked off today.

There aren't many changes from our last version, although some offseason news has affected the rundown. The top five teams certainly have separated themselves in our eyes, while there's not much separating the next five on the list.

Here we go ...

1. Michigan State: We understand why Michigan is the highest-rated Big Ten team in the polls, but Michigan State gets the top spot in our power rankings because of its defense. A top-10 unit in 2011 could easily become a top-five unit this season, as the Spartans are strong at just about every position. While the concerns at quarterback and receiver are warranted, the offense will be effective enough with the run as Le'Veon Bell and a more seasoned line return.

2. Michigan: The Wolverines endured some injuries and off-field issues this summer and in camp, but they still enter the season with justifiably high hopes. Senior quarterback Denard Robinson has matured during his career and could make a serious push for national awards this fall. Michigan must shore up its lines and hope some young players grow up in a hurry. A relentless schedule is the biggest challenge for Brady Hoke's squad.

3. Wisconsin: The offense might not be as electric as it was the past two seasons and the defense has some question marks (secondary, pass rush), but Wisconsin knows how to win and boasts enough to claim another Big Ten title. Montee Ball is extremely motivated after a rough summer, and while Danny O'Brien isn't Russell Wilson, he gives the offense some stability. A favorable schedule with both Michigan State and Ohio State at home helps the Badgers.

4. Ohio State: It's a close call for the No. 4 spot, but the Buckeyes get the edge based on a defense with the potential to be one of the nation's best. John Simon anchors arguably the league's top defensive line, and almost everyone returns in the secondary. While there will be growing pains on offense, the unit can't possibly be worse than last year's, and Braxton Miller has a chance to make significant strides this season.

5. Nebraska: Fifteen starters return to a Huskers team that should be much more comfortable with the Big Ten in Year 2. But questions remain surrounding quarterback Taylor Martinez, replacing star power on defense and getting over the hump on the road. A signature road victory would go a long way for Bo Pelini's program, which returns 15 starters and has a great chance to climb this list and challenge for the Legends division.

6. Purdue: Danny Hope repeatedly called this his best Boilers team during the offseason, and we can see why. Purdue boasts a formidable defensive front and two bona-fide stars on defense in tackle Kawann Short and cornerback Ricardo Allen. The Boilers also return most of their key weapons on offense. What we still need to see is a team that can avoid the major mistakes and mental lapses that have plagued Purdue throughout Hope's tenure. A challenging start to Big Ten play will tell a lot about the Boilers.

7. Penn State: The Lions will ride emotion and a stout defensive front seven this fall, and they could go further than most think after a brutal offseason. Still, it's hard to figure out how Penn State will score points, and the turmoil is bound to catch up with Bill O'Brien's crew at some point. If O'Brien bolsters an offense featuring mostly unproven personnel, Penn State could make a strong push. The schedule is favorable as the Lions get both Ohio State and Wisconsin at Beaver Stadium.

8. Iowa: Youth will be served this fall in Iowa City as the Hawkeyes turn to unproven players at several spots, namely defensive line and running back. The good news is that Iowa boasts a veteran in senior quarterback James Vandenberg, who could thrive under new coordinator Greg Davis. Iowa must ride Vandenberg's right arm and a talented back seven on defense headlined by cornerback Micah Hyde and linebacker James Morris. Iowa also should benefit from its schedule.

9. Illinois: The Illini and Penn State are nearly mirror images, as both teams have first-year coaches, talented defensive front sevens and question marks on offense. Defense could carry Illinois a long way this fall, as end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Jonathan Brown anchor the unit. A new offensive scheme could spark third-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, although he'll need unproven weapons to emerge. Illinois could be a sleeper team this fall, although its Big Ten road schedule is flat-out brutal (Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern).

10. Northwestern: After a drop in wins the past three seasons, can Northwestern get things turned around? The Wildcats once again should be strong on offense as Kain Colter takes over at quarterback, although there are some questions up front. The defense can't be much worse than it was in 2011, and while there will be more youth throughout the unit, there also should be more talent. Northwestern must capitalize on the first chunk of the schedule, which features several toss-up games but isn't overly taxing.

11. Minnesota: The Gophers will be an improved team in Year 2 under Jerry Kill. The problem is they play in a loaded division and face a tricky schedule with no gimme games. Quarterback MarQueis Gray has a chance to do big things as a senior, although his supporting cast remains a mystery. Troy Stoudermire's return should spark the defense, which played better down the stretch in 2011. Like Northwestern, Minnesota needs to get off to a good start and build confidence.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers won't go 1-11 again, and they could be dangerous on the offensive side as sophomore quarterback Tre Roberson matures and the passing game becomes a bigger part of the plan. Question marks remain throughout the defense, and Indiana hopes an influx of junior-college players helps the situation immediately. Indiana will be older and better than it was in 2011, and the Hoosiers should be more competitive in Big Ten games. But until they prove otherwise, they're at the bottom.
Our "Inside the Game" positional previews with WolverineNation's Michael Rothstein and BuckeyeNation's Austin Ward continue in the trenches.

Ward and Rothstein discuss the contrast in the defensive lines. The Buckeyes could go as far as nine deep and believe they are among the nation's best units, while the Wolverines lost three-fourths of their top-notch line from a year ago, have another player on indefinite suspension and are unsettled at best.


Ohio State
Ward:
The expectation up front for Ohio State is not just to be better than its rivals.

It’s not even to be the best in the conference.

The Buckeyes are going into this season with the goal of establishing themselves as the deepest and most talented group in the nation, and they certainly have a shot at building their case.

It helps to start at the top with the return of tireless, tenacious end John Simon and the emergence of Johnathan Hankins next to him as a force at defensive tackle, but there’s plenty more ammunition than that.

Garrett Goebel and Adam Bellamy round out the projected first unit, and even though he’s listed behind Hankins, Michael Bennett could be too disruptive in the middle to keep on the sideline. When Nathan Williams receives full clearance from his knee surgery, he could provide another scary weapon on the edge for a team that could conceivably roll through nine guys without a substantial drop-off.

On top of that, there’s a talented trio of newcomers who will fight to either be included or expand that rotation. Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Se’Von Pittman gave Ohio State a recruiting haul in February that would make any program envious. And it figures to set up the Buckeyes not just for a good run in the trenches this fall, but also into the next few seasons.

Michigan
Rothstein:
On a team filled with current or former defensive line coaches -- besides Jerry Montgomery both head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison came up as defensive line coaches before assuming loftier titles -- there is a lack of a lot of things with their former pet position.

Experience, for one, is lacking as the line will boast three new starters and the one returning starter, senior Craig Roh, is adjusting to added weight and a new position as a strongside defensive end.

Depth is another issue, as the Wolverines could see multiple freshmen push for time on the line behind some of the inexperienced starters.

Will Campbell and Jibreel Black are the likely starters on the interior of the line, with Campbell being three years of promise without production and Black adding weight and learning to play inside after being converted from defensive end. At rush end, sophomore Brennen Beyer slides in as the likely starter after Frank Clark’s indefinite suspension due to legal issues.

Behind them are talented freshmen in Ondre Pipkins, Tom Strobel, Chris Wormley and Matt Godin -- all of whom could push for time. Nathan Brink provides some veteran stability at end and tackle, but the walk-on doesn’t have a ton of experience.

It’s a position full of questions at a spot where the Wolverines can’t really have them, as much of what Mattison likes to do on defense comes from the expectation of a defensive line getting pressure on a quarterback.

Big Ten media days preview

July, 16, 2012
7/16/12
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You know the season is right around the corner when media days approach. The Big Ten will hold its annual media days and preseason kickoff luncheon next week. Here's a quick preview of the event:

Dates: July 26 and 27

Location: Hyatt Regency McCormick Place and McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago

Big names in attendance: Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin; Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan; Rex Burkhead, RB, Nebraska; James Vandenberg, QB, Iowa; John Simon, DE, Ohio State; Silas Redd, RB, Penn State; Kawann Short, DT, Purdue.

Big names not in attendance: Gerald Hodges, LB, Penn State; Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State; Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska; William Gholston, DE, Michigan State; Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin.

What to expect: Here are some of what we think will be the most popular subjects of conversation in Chicago:
  • Playoff talk. The four-team playoff is still a couple of years away, but it figures to be a huge topic of conversation for every conference on the media days circuit this summer. Players and coaches will be asked for their opinion on the subject, and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany likely will field plenty of questions about how the league has fared thus far in the postseason negotiations. The idea of a selection committee and who should serve on it will be a major discussion point.
  • Penn State fallout. You almost feel bad for the three Penn State players (Redd, Jordan Hill and John Urschel) who are attending, along with head coach Bill O'Brien. Though none of them had anything to do with the Sandusky scandal, they will have to answer repeated questions about Joe Paterno and the controversy that has enveloped their campus. So far throughout this trying time, current players and coaches have handled the situation with grace and tact. Also, expect Delany to be grilled about potential Big Ten punishment for the Nittany Lions.
  • Urban Meyer. Few first-year coaches have ever gotten as much attention as Meyer has since he was hired by Ohio State, and understandably so. This is Meyer's first Big Ten showcase event, and there will likely be a buzz in the room when he takes the podium. Also, look for lots of talk about the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry heating up (if it's possible for that to get hotter). And if you don't think Wisconsin's Bret Bielema will be asked at least one question about Meyer, you haven't been paying attention.
  • Heisman hopefuls. The player contingent does not lack for star power this year. Ball was a Heisman finalist last year and will draw a crowd. Same goes for Michigan's Robinson, who will speak on behalf of the players at the kickoff luncheon on Friday. Burkhead is also an outside Heisman candidate, along with Redd.
  • Big Ten/Pac-12 series cancellation. The two leagues announced on Friday their scheduling partnership had dissolved before it ever began. Delany will have to answer questions about what happened to the promising series as well as address how the league plans to address future scheduling. Is a nine-game conference schedule officially back on the table?
  • New coaches. Meyer will be the main attraction, but Penn State's O'Brien and Illinois' Tim Beckman are also making their Big Ten media days debut. There will be much interest in how they will build their programs, particularly for O'Brien.
  • National title potential. The Big Ten is working on a long national championship drought, and none of the league's teams will be among the preseason favorites to win it all. Michigan likely will enter the year as the highest ranked team, and Brady Hoke will be asked about the season opener against Alabama. Michigan State, Wisconsin and Nebraska could all be preseason Top 20 teams. Are any of them BCS title caliber, and what's it going to take for the Big Ten to get back there?
The college football season is officially over. So it's time to break out the crystal ball and offer our projections for the preposterously-too-early 2012 Big Ten power rankings.

1. Michigan State: The Spartans must replace a lot of leadership, including quarterback Kirk Cousins, receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin and All-American defensive tackle Jerel Worthy. But nine starters return off the Big Ten's top overall defense, featuring Will Gholston, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis as potential breakout stars. Le'Veon Bell could have a big year as the No. 1 tailback, and if Andrew Maxwell can adequately fill in for Cousins, the offense should be fine, especially if Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett gets his waiver to become immediately eligible at receiver. Plus, the road schedule (at Central Michigan, at Indiana, at Michigan, at Wisconsin, at Minnesota) is far more manageable than what the team navigated in 2011.

2. Michigan: A lot of things went right for the Wolverines in 2011, including a favorable schedule. That slate gets harder in 2012, beginning with Alabama at Cowboys Stadium and including road trips to Nebraska and Ohio State. Still, Denard Robinson and Fitz Toussaint form one of the most dangerous offensive duos in the league, and the second year under Brady Hoke and his staff should mean more familiarity and comfort. Coming off a BCS win, Michigan could start the season in the Top 10.

3. Wisconsin: The Badgers will have to overcome many challenges to reach their third straight Rose Bowl. The biggest concern is at quarterback, where there's no experience to replace Russell Wilson and his record-breaking efficiency level. Bret Bielema will have to remake almost his entire offensive coaching staff after Paul Chryst took several assistants with him to Pittsburgh. Still, Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball returns to keep the Wisconsin running game among the best in the country. And the two Big Ten teams who beat the Badgers in 2011 -- Michigan State and Ohio State -- must come to Madison in '12.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes aren't eligible to make the Big Ten title game, but don't be surprised if they put up the best record in the Leaders Division. A transition period can be expected as Urban Meyer takes over as head coach and installs an entirely new offensive system. But Ohio State had a small senior class in 2011 and brings back many talented players, such as defensive lineman John Simon, quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde. A schedule that features eight home games should equal much improvement over this year's 6-7 record.

5. Nebraska: Few teams will be as experienced on offense as Nebraska, which returns seven starters and just about every key skill player on that side of the ball. Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead should be even better with another year in offensive coordinator Tim Beck's system. The questions are on defense, where the Huskers struggled at times in 2011 before losing their top two players in linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. Nebraska must get tougher up front defensively to handle the Big Ten grind and has difficult road assignments looming at Ohio State and Michigan State.

6. Penn State: For the first time since 1965, we'll see what a Penn State team looks like that is not coached by Joe Paterno to start the season. New coach Bill O'Brien made a wise decision to retain defensive assistants Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden, and even without All-American lineman Devon Still, that side of the ball should stay stout with standouts like Gerald Hodges, Jordan Hill and hopefully a healthy Michael Mauti. O'Brien's biggest impact should come on offense. The former New England Patriots offensive coordinator will try to bring the Nittany Lions attack into the 21st century with a competent passing game. Tailback Silas Redd provides a nice crutch while that transition occurs.

7. Iowa: After two straight 7-5 regular-season finishes, the Hawkeyes will look to get back into Big Ten contention. But they'll have to overcome the losses of star receiver Marvin McNutt, offensive tackle Riley Reiff, defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns and cornerback Shaun Prater. When he's on, James Vandenberg is as good a dropback passer as there is in the Big Ten, but making up for McNutt's production won't be easy. Assuming Marcus Coker returns from suspension, the running game should be very good. The defense simply has to improve after giving up too many big plays in 2011, and Kirk Ferentz hasn't yet named a successor to veteran defensive coordinator Norm Parker, who retired.

8. Purdue: The Boilermakers have a chance to make a move in a Leaders Division that is marked by coaching changes. They return most of the major pieces of their Little Caesars Bowl-winning team, and the return of Rob Henry from his season-ending knee surgery opens up some interesting possibilities at quarterback. Kawann Short should be one of the top defensive linemen in the league if he decides to return for his senior year. We'd still like to see more consistency from Danny Hope's program before we rank Purdue too high, however.

9. Northwestern: Dan Persa and his record-breaking accuracy are gone, along with top receiver Jeremy Ebert. Yet we're not too concerned about the offense and like the multi-dimensional options that Kain Colter provides with his all-around athleticism. Northwestern's issue is whether it can fix a defense that had trouble stopping anybody. The fact that the Wildcats lose their top three defensive backs from a secondary that was routinely torched does not inspire confidence.

10. Illinois: New coach Tim Beckman has his work cut out for him in Year One. He has to completely revamp an offense that couldn't shoot straight in the back half of 2011 while implementing a new spread style. He has to try to maintain the defense without coordinator Vic Koenning or All-American defensive end Whitney Mercilus. And he faces a schedule that sees the Illini going to Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan, all three of which won in Champaign this past season. There's still talent on defense, led by promising linebacker Jonathan Brown. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase needs to build on his second-half showing in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

11. Minnesota: After a horrible start, the Gophers showed a lot more fight down the stretch in 2011, beating Iowa and Illinois at home. Jerry Kill knows how to build a program, and the team can't help but be better in 2012, especially if MarQueis Gray continues to develop at quarterback. But Minnesota still has some holes on its roster that can only be fixed through recruiting, and while the Gophers could make a run at bowl eligibility this year, they'll be hard-pressed to make too much noise in a stacked Legends Division.

12. Indiana: The good news for the Hoosiers is that they played a ton of freshmen in 2011, and the growing pains should start to pay off for guys such as Tre Roberson and Mark Murphy in 2012. The second year under Kevin Wilson should also bring progress. Still, this is a team that went 1-11 in 2011 with no wins over FBS teams, so it remains an uphill climb.

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