Michigan Wolverines: MarQueis Gray
We're going back now and issuing a final, postseason ranking for each position group, and these will be far less subjective now because we have an actual full season's worth of data on hand.
Quarterbacks, naturally, are up first. (Those guys hog all the glory). You can take a look back and see how we ranked this group in the preseason here. Depth is an important factor in these position rankings, but having a standout main guy under center (or in the shotgun) is the most overriding concern with this group.
2. Penn State (Preseason: 12): The Nittany Lions were dead last in our preseason rankings, and with good reason considering their past performances at the position. But I did write at the time: "Call me an optimist, but I believe Matt McGloin will be more effective at quarterback now that he's got a more modern offensive system and peace of mind that he's the starter." Uh, yeah. McGloin led the Big Ten in passing yards (3,266) and passing touchdowns (24) while throwing only five interceptions. And he stayed healthy, keeping Penn State's youthful backups from getting exposed.
3. Nebraska (Preseason: 3): Taylor Martinez led the Big Ten in total offense and completed a career-best 62 percent of his passes. When he was good, he was as good as there was in the league. But he still struggled with turnovers in key games, including 12 interceptions and numerous fumbles. If he can eliminate the mistakes, the sky's the limit.
4. Michigan (Preseason: 2): The Wolverines are a hard to team to peg in these rankings. Do we rank them based on Denard Robinson's poor showings in big games against Alabama and Notre Dame? Do we rank them based on Devin Gardner's strong finish to the season, when he was as productive as any Big Ten QB? How much do we factor in the team's lack of a solid backup plan in the Nebraska loss when Robinson got hurt early? You have to weigh the good with the bad, which makes this spot feel about right.
5. Northwestern (Preseason: 9): Starting quarterback Kain Colter threw for 872 yards, which was nearly 450 yards less than nominal backup Trevor Siemian. But Colter also rushed for 894 yards and kept defenses off balance with his versatility. Meanwhile, the Wildcats could use Siemian when they needed to stretch the field. The next step for Northwestern is developing a more consistent downfield passing attack.
6. Indiana (Preseason: 11): Who would have guessed in the preseason that the Hoosiers would actually exhibit the best depth at quarterback? After starter Tre Roberson went down in Week 2, Indiana was able to plug in juco transfer Cameron Coffman and true freshman Nate Sudfeld to sustain the league's top passing offense. The three combined to throw for more than 3,700 yards. Coffman got the bulk of the work but needed a better touchdown-to-interception ration than his 15-to-11 mark.
7. Purdue (Preseason: 1): We overrated the Boilermakers' depth in the preseason. It turned out that only one of the trio of former starters performed at a high level, and Robert Marve didn't play enough because of a torn ACL and Danny Hope's misguided insistence on sticking with Caleb TerBush. Purdue actually led the Big Ten in passing touchdowns (30) and finished third in passing yards, but much of that was because the team often had to throw the ball a lot after falling way behind. This ranking could have been higher with a full season of Marve.
8. Wisconsin (Preseason: 8): Danny O'Brien quickly showed that he was not the next Russell Wilson, but luckily the Badgers had some depth. Redshirt freshman Joel Stave showed major promise before his season was derailed by a broken collarbone, and Curt Phillips turned in a nice comeback story by managing the team well down the stretch. Still, Wisconsin ranked last in the Big Ten in passing yards.
9. Michigan State (Preseason: 10): It was not exactly a season to remember for first-year starter Andrew Maxwell, who was benched late in the Spartans' bowl game. But for all his struggles, Maxwell still finished No. 4 in the league in passing and had some nice games in the middle of the year.
10. Minnesota (Preseason: 6): What could MarQueis Gray have done if he hadn't hurt his ankle, prompting an eventual move to receiver? True freshman Philip Nelson took over the reins midseason and broke out with a huge first half against Purdue. However, he failed to throw for more than 80 yards in the team's final three regular season games. Nelson led the team with just 873 passing yards on the season, and the Gophers threw 15 interceptions.
11. Iowa (Preseason: 4): Nobody took a bigger tumble than the Hawkeyes, as James Vandenberg went from a 3,000-yard passer as a junior to often looking lost as a senior. He completed only 57.3 percent of his passes and tossed only seven touchdowns, with eight interceptions, and Iowa showed almost no ability to go vertical. And no other Hawkeye attempted a pass all season.
12. Illinois (Preseason: 7): The Illini had experience at the position with Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole, but they were both part of a wildly dysfunctional offense. Illinois was next-to-last in passing yards in the Big Ten and also had just 11 touchdown passes versus 14 interceptions. In fairness, both QBs were often running for their lives and had very little help.
Let's take a look at ESPN.com's Big Ten All-Bowl squad ...
QB: Devin Gardner, Michigan -- There weren't many good choices around the league, but Gardner fired three touchdown passes and racked up 214 pass yards. He has accounted for at least two touchdowns in all five of his starts at quarterback for the Wolverines.
RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State -- The nation's ultimate workhorse running back did his thing in his final game as a Spartan. Bell had 32 carries for 145 yards and a touchdown, recording his eighth 100-yard rushing performance of the season. He also threw a 29-yard pass on a pivotal third-down play.
RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska -- Another back who stood out in his final collegiate game, Burkhead racked up 140 rush yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, and added four receptions for 39 yards. It's really too bad we didn't get to see what Burkhead could have done all season when healthy.
WR: Derrick Engel, Minnesota -- Along with quarterback Philip Nelson, Engel provided some hope for Minnesota's future on offense with 108 receiving yards on four receptions in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. His 42-yard reception marked the third longest of Minnesota's season.
TE: Dan Vitale, Northwestern -- The freshman provided offensive balance Northwestern needed against a Mississippi State team that focused on taking away Venric Mark and the run game. Vitale recorded team highs in both receptions (7) and receiving yards (82) as Northwestern ended the nation's longest bowl losing streak in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.
OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan -- Everyone remembers Jadeveon Clowney's near decapitation of Michigan's Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl -- which resulted from a miscommunication between Lewan and tight end Mike Kwiatkowski -- but the Wolverines' left tackle did a good job overall against college football's most dominant defensive lineman. Lewan anchored a line that helped Michigan put up decent numbers against an elite defense.
OL: Zac Epping, Minnesota -- Minnesota's offensive line showed flashes of the dominance it displayed for much of the Glen Mason era against Texas Tech. The Gophers racked up 222 rush yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries, as Epping and his linemates opened up holes for Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick Williams and MarQueis Gray.
OL: Brian Mulroe, Northwestern -- Mulroe made his 40th career start and helped Northwestern finally get over the hump in a bowl game. The Wildcats had a balanced offensive attack, avoided the penalty flag and didn't allow a sack against Mississippi State.
OL: Cole Pensick, Nebraska -- Stepping in for the injured Justin Jackson at center, Pensick helped the Huskers find success running the ball against Georgia, especially up the middle. Nebraska had 239 rushing yards in the Capital One Bowl.
OL: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin: The Badgers rushed for 218 yards against Stanford, which came into the Rose Bowl with the nation's No. 3 rush defense. They also gave up only one sack to a defense which led the FBS in that category. Frederick played very well at center and announced he would skip his junior year to enter the NFL draft a few days later.
DL: Quentin Williams, Northwestern -- Williams set the tone for Northwestern's win with an interception returned for a touchdown on the third play from scrimmage. He also recorded two tackles for loss, including a sack, in the victory.
DL: William Gholston, Michigan State -- Another player who stood out in his final collegiate game, Gholston tied for the team lead with nine tackles, including a sack, and had a pass breakup in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win against TCU. The freakishly athletic defensive end stepped up in a bowl game for the second straight season.
DL: Tyler Scott, Northwestern -- Scott and his fellow linemates made life tough for turnover-prone Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell in the Gator Bowl. The Wildcats junior defensive end recorded three tackles for loss, including two sacks, and added a quarterback hurry in the win.
DL: Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota -- The big man in the center of Minnesota's defensive line stood out against Texas Tech, recording six tackles, including a sack, and a pass breakup. Gophers fans should be fired up to have Hageman back in the fold for the 2013 season.
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State -- Bullough once again triggered a strong defensive performance by Michigan State, which held TCU to just three points in the final two and a half quarters of the Wings bowl. The junior middle linebacker tied with Gholston for the team tackles lead (9) and assisted on a tackle for loss.
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin -- The Badgers' defense clamped down against Stanford after a slow start, and Borland once again stood out with his play at middle linebacker. The standout junior led Wisconsin with nine tackles as the defense kept the Badgers within striking distance in Pasadena.
LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan -- Ryan capped a breakout season with another strong performance in the bowl game, recording 1.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and half a sack. He'll enter 2013 as a top candidate for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.
CB: Michael Carter, Minnesota -- Carter finished off a strong senior year with two interceptions, a pass breakup and seven tackles in the 34-31 loss to Texas Tech.
CB: Nick VanHoose, Northwestern: The redshirt freshman picked off a Mississippi State pass and returned it 39 yard to set up the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter.
S: Jared Carpenter, Northwestern: The senior was named MVP of the Gator Bowl win with a game-high 10 tackles and a near interception late in the game.
S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: The Wildcats dominate our all-bowl team secondary for good reason. Campbell had an interception and a pass breakup against the Bulldogs.
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State -- The punters took center stage in Tempe as both offenses struggled, and Sadler provided MSU with a huge lift in the field-position game. He set Spartans bowl records for punts (11) and punting yards (481), averaging 43.7 yards per punt with three inside the 20-yard line. His booming punt inside the TCU 5 helped lead to a game-turning fumble by the Horned Frogs' Skye Dawson.
K: Brendan Gibbons and Matt Wile, Michigan -- Both kickers share the honors after combining to go 3-for-3 on field-goal attempts in the Outback Bowl. Gibbons, the hero of last year's Sugar Bowl, connected from 39 yards and 40 yards in the first half. Wile hit a career-long 52-yard attempt in the third quarter, setting an Outback Bowl record.
Returner: Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota -- It took a bit longer than expected, but Stoudermire finally set the NCAA record for career kick return yards with a 26-yard runback on the opening kickoff against Texas Tech. The senior cornerback finished the game with 111 return yards, including a 37-yard runback, on four attempts.
Heavens knows I need a new season to begin after a horrible showing in the regular season, when I finished a full five games behind Rittenberg. My pride suffered, and so did my bank account when I was forced to pick up his steak at St. Elmo's in Indy.
But bowl season offers a chance at redemption, not just for me but for the Big Ten as a whole after the league took some beatings in the fall. Here are our picks for the seven bowl games involving conference teams:
Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas
MINNESOTA vs. TEXAS TECH (Dec. 28)
Brian Bennett: The Red Raiders have an interim coach, and Minnesota has had a month to heal the many injuries that ravaged its offense late in the season, both of which are positives for the Gophers. I think Matt Limegrover will find some creative ways to use MarQueis Gray. Still, Minnesota lacks the weapons to go up and down the field against a high-scoring Big 12 team. Michael Carter and the Gophers secondary will make some plays but not enough to stop Texas Tech, which pulls away after a close first two-and-half quarters. ... Texas Tech 31, Minnesota 17.
Adam Rittenberg: The Gophers' defense is much improved in Year 2 under Tracy Claeys, but you need a decent amount of offensive firepower to keep pace with Texas Tech. Like you, my concern is the lack of playmakers surrounding Philip Nelson and Gray. Both men will see time at quarterback and help the Gophers take a first-half lead, but a Minnesota turnover changes the game and Texas Tech strikes for two fourth-quarter passing touchdowns to win. ... Texas Tech 34, Minnesota 21
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl
TCU vs. MICHIGAN STATE
Adam Rittenberg: This figures to be a close, low-scoring game that likely comes down to how much progress Michigan State's offense has made in the past month or so. TCU is loaded with young talent and could contend for the Big 12 title next year, but I saw the Frogs' regular-season finale against Oklahoma and wasn't overly impressed. A heavy dose of Le'Veon Bell combined with a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Andrew Maxwell to Dion Sims gives Michigan State just enough, as the Spartans' defense rises to the occasion once more. ... Michigan State 21, TCU 17
Brian Bennett: I've been wrong about Michigan State most of the year, so what's one more? The extra 15 practices must have helped the Spartans' sluggish passing game at least a little bit, and TCU will have to adapt to a more physical style of play than it saw in the Big 12. Johnny Adams' turf toe injury worries me, but I like Bell to rush for 150 yards in probably his final college game, while Maxwell provides optimism for 2013 with 200 yards passing. Max Bullough makes a defensive stop at the end of the game to seal it. ... Michigan State 20, TCU 16
Heart of Dallas Bowl
PURDUE vs. OKLAHOMA STATE (Jan. 1)
Brian Bennett: There's a reason why the Boilers were the biggest underdog on the board in bowl season. They've got an interim coach in Patrick Higgins and have been exposed by some of the better offenses on their schedule, which is a frightening prospect against the high-flying Cowboys. I believe a healthier defensive line will give Purdue a chance in this one, and Oklahoma State is not going to be really pumped up to be in this game a year after playing in a BCS bowl. Robert Marve tosses a couple of scores and Akeem Shavers runs for 135 yards. But in the end, the Pokes -- led by 175 receiving yards from Josh Stewart -- have a little too much for Purdue in a wild one. ... Oklahoma State 31, Purdue 27
Adam Rittenberg: Again, the Big Ten team might be more motivated than the Big 12 squad, but can Purdue keep up on the scoreboard? I don't think so. Although cornerbacks Josh Johnson and Ricardo Allen give the Boilers' a chance against the pass-happy Pokes, Purdue isn't consistent enough or dangerous enough on offense to pace Oklahoma State. I agree Marve has a nice performance in his final college game and Antavian Edison scores twice, but Purdue will be playing catch up after a rough first half and falls short. ... Oklahoma State 38, Purdue 28
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl
MISSISSIPPI STATE vs. No. 20 NORTHWESTERN (Jan. 1)
Adam Rittenberg: Is this the year Northwestern ends the bowl losing streak? I think it is for several reasons. Northwestern has its most complete team under coach Pat Fitzgerald. The Wildcats can run the ball effectively and perform well for the most part on special teams. Plus, they ended the season playing better than Mississippi State. Northwestern never makes it easy and will have some tense moments in this one, but Venric Mark and Kain Colter will find room, combining for 175 rush yards and two scores. Backup quarterback Trevor Siemian comes in to throw a third-quarter touchdown and linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo seals the win with an interception. ... Northwestern 27, Mississippi State 24
Brian Bennett: No more monkeying around. Northwestern finally has a more manageable bowl matchup, though it's certainly still not an easy assignment. The month off should help refresh the legs of Colter and Mark, who work their option magic against a mediocre Mississippi State run defense. Mark scores twice on the ground and also returns a punt for a touchdown. The Bulldogs' Tyler Russell shreds the Northwestern defense for 300 passing yards, but Jeff Budzien hits a game-winning field goal with no time left. Fitzgerald and his players party like it's 1949. ... Northwestern 28, Mississippi State 27
No. 10 SOUTH CAROLINA vs. No. 18 MICHIGAN (Jan. 1)
Brian Bennett: I like this matchup a lot and think Michigan can get some things done on offense with a month to prep the Devin Gardner/Denard Robinson combo. But South Carolina's fearsome defense has shut down better attacks in wins against Clemson and Georgia this season and will soon enough figure out Al Borges' bag of tricks. Michigan jumps ahead early on a long Robinson run and a Gardner touchdown pass. Jadeveon Clowney & Co. lock things down in the second half, and Connor Shaw runs for a pair of scores for the Gamecocks. ... South Carolina 24, Michigan 17
Adam Rittenberg: It'll be a lot of fun to watch Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan match up against Clowney. Two potential first-round draft picks going at it. I agree Borges will get really creative in this one, but Michigan's offensive line won't be able to stop the Gamecocks for four quarters. The Wolverines make a nice rally in the third quarter as Gardner finds Robinson on a touchdown strike, but South Carolina controls the ball and the clock in the fourth. ... South Carolina 21, Michigan 16
Capital One Bowl
No. 7 GEORGIA vs. No. 16 NEBRASKA (Jan. 1)
Adam Rittenberg: It's hard to have much faith in Nebraska after what we witnessed in Indianapolis. Great teams don't let down on defense like the Huskers did. Great teams don't play such a chaotic brand of football with so many turnovers. Maybe the Huskers face a napping Bulldogs team, jump ahead behind their dynamic offense and hold on for the win. But I don't see it. Georgia will be sluggish early, but I get the sense Aaron Murray wants to make a statement after the way the SEC championship game ended. Murray and the Bulldogs light up the Huskers in the second half, while Taylor Martinez commits two costly turnovers. ... Georgia 38, Nebraska 23
Brian Bennett: Does either team want to be here? Can either defense stop the other? Those are the main questions leading into this game. I'm not too worried about the disappointment angle but am concerned about Nebraska's ability to slow down Murray, Todd Gurley and a well-balanced Bulldogs offense. The Huskers and Taylor Martinez absolutely must hang onto the football in this one, but I see Jarvis Jones forcing a couple of costly turnovers. Nebraska will do a good job against the pass but will give up too much in the running game, as Gurley goes for 150 and a pair of scores. Martinez compiles 300 total yards but is pressured more often than he's used to and forces a couple of bad throws. Georgia owns the fourth quarter. ... Georgia 35, Nebraska 24.
Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO
WISCONSIN vs. No. 6 STANFORD (Jan. 1)
Brian Bennett: These two teams share a lot of similar traits, as Stanford is the most Big Ten-like Pac-12 team imaginable. The line of scrimmage will be for grown men only. I'd like Wisconsin's chances a lot better if the team didn't have to deal with the distraction of the coaching turmoil. No matter what the Badgers say, that had to hurt their preparation at least a little bit. Plus, the Cardinal seem a little better equipped to throw the ball if the rushing game gets stuffed, while Wisconsin is a little more one-dimensional and will face one of the best run defenses in America. Never count out Barry Alvarez in Pasadena, but I think Montee Ball will have to work a little too hard for his yards in this one. Stanford beats the Badgers at their own game, running the clock out late with a physical rushing attack as Wisconsin goes 0-for-Pasathreena. ... Stanford 24, Wisconsin 21.
Adam Rittenberg: We can't agree on every pick, can we? Nah. Barry's back and I'm a believer. Stanford's defense is as good as advertised, but the Badgers' offense is confident after the Big Ten title game and once again will empty the playbook. The Badgers score early on some razzle-dazzle, and receive a strong performance from Ball (150 rush yards, 2 TDs) in his final collegiate game. Stanford's pressure forces a turnover in the third quarter that changes momentum, but Wisconsin's underrated defense will be the difference, as Chris Borland forces a Stepfan Taylor fumble in crunch time. Alvarez improves to 4-0 in the Rose. ... Wisconsin 24, Stanford 23
Adam Rittenberg: 76-21 (.784)
Brian Bennett: 71-26 (.732)
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?
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.
These might be our most challenging picks of the season, which could be a good thing for Brian Bennett, who trails Adam Rittenberg by a whopping five games in the season standings.
Without further ado, let's get to the picks ...
IOWA at NORTHWESTERN
Brian Bennett: Both teams are searching for some answers on defense, but the Wildcats are much healthier than the Hawkeyes, who are banged up at offensive line and running back. I think we'll see Northwestern get back to running the ball more with Kain Colter and Venric Mark this week, which works well enough to hold back an Iowa team whose quarterback is under fire. ... Northwestern 23, Iowa 17
Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern does have some injury issues of its own at cornerback, but James Vandenberg hasn't been able to take advantage of much this season. I like this matchup for Northwestern, even though the Wildcats have an identity crisis on offense right now. Iowa takes the early lead, but Northwestern finally puts the ball in Colter's hands, and he rushes for two second-half touchdowns. Mark Weisman bullies his way to 100 rush yards, but Northwestern gets it done on Homecoming. ... Northwestern 24, Iowa 20
INDIANA at ILLINOIS
Adam Rittenberg: I really think Illinois will be better following the open week -- the Illini can't get much worse -- and should capitalize on Indiana's defensive woes. But Indiana's spread offense matches up very well against an Illinois defense that, while talented, struggles mightily against spread teams. Hoosiers receivers Shane Wynn, Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes each catch touchdowns and Indiana finally finds a way to hold on for its first Big Ten win under Kevin Wilson. ... Indiana 31, Illinois 27
Brian Bennett: I guess I can't pick both to lose this week, huh? The Hoosiers have been much more competitive for the past several weeks than Illinois has, and their offense is better than any unit the Illini can put out there right now. Expect some new wrinkles from Tim Beckman after the bye week, but Indiana's passing game is too much as Nate Sudfeld comes off the bench for a pair of second-half touchdown passes. ... Indiana 28, Illinois 27
PURDUE at MINNESOTA
Brian Bennett: One of these teams has to get itself off the mat, and I think it's going to be Minnesota. Purdue has to be feeling a bit of a hangover from last week's heartbreaking loss to Ohio State, and another week of experience will do wonders for Gophers freshman quarterback Philip Nelson. He throws a key touchdown pass to MarQueis Gray, and a late field goal wins it. ... Minnesota 20, Purdue 19
Adam Rittenberg: This game is all about Purdue's demeanor after last week's heartbreaker. If we see the team that showed up in Columbus, the Boilers will win. If not, Nelson and the Gophers will get it done. I've been burned before, but I don't think Purdue is finished just yet. The Boilers' defense pressures Nelson, forces some takeaways and limits a low-scoring Gophers offense to 17 points. Purdue hits on some big plays to Gary Bush and Antavian Edison and gets a win it absolutely has to have. ... Purdue 23, Minnesota 17
MICHIGAN STATE at No. 25 WISCONSIN
Adam Rittenberg: I nearly went with the Spartans here, as I just can't believe Mark Dantonio's squad is on the verge of falling below .500. Then again, Wisconsin doesn't lose at Camp Randall Stadium, especially to teams that have no offense. This game follows a familiar script for Michigan State, which hangs around for a while behind its defense but allows a late score. Le'Veon Bell has 120 rush yards, but both Montee Ball and James White score in the second half as Wisconsin prevails. ... Wisconsin 20, Michigan State 13
Brian Bennett: Pretty simple here: Michigan State can't score, and I don't see how that changes this week against an underrated Wisconsin defense that's playing well. Ball & Co. won't find as much running room as normal against this Spartans defense, so quarterback Joel Stave will have to play well. He does well enough to get the win, hitting big passes to Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen to set up scores in a close one. ... Wisconsin 17, Michigan State 14
OHIO STATE at PENN STATE
Brian Bennett: I learned my lesson in picking against Penn State last week. Ohio State is getting thinned by injuries, and quarterback Braxton Miller might not be at full strength after last week's brief hospitalization.
Adam Rittenberg: The Buckeyes' slow starts, Miller's injury issues and Ohio State's lack of depth at linebacker are real concerns here. Penn State tight ends Kyle Carter and Jesse James find enough gaps in Ohio State's defense, and Bill Belton racks up 115 rush yards and two scores. Miller plays and keeps his team in the game, but Penn State has too much offense and a huge edge with the Beaver Stadium crowd. Buckeyes go down for the first time. ... Penn State 27, Ohio State 24
No. 22 MICHIGAN at NEBRASKA
Adam Rittenberg: I know Nebraska plays much better at home, and quarterback Taylor Martinez has made obvious improvement this season. But Michigan is the steadier team right now, and the better defensive squad. The Wolverines got over the hump last week against rival Michigan State, and they'll find a way to record a signature road win. Linebacker Jake Ryan recovers two Nebraska fumbles and Denard Robinson breaks off a long touchdown run in the fourth quarter as the Wolverines silence the Sea of Red. ... Michigan 26, Nebraska 24
Brian Bennett: The Legends Division race could get pretty boring if Michigan wins in Lincoln. One thing this league has not been this year is predictable. The Wolverines' recent conservative ways on offense will play into the hands of a Huskers defense that plays better when it knows what to expect. Martinez will pick on Michigan cornerbacks and turn in one of the finest moments of his career as Nebraska roars back from an early double-digit deficit to win. ... Nebraska 28, Michigan 23
Adam Rittenberg: 54-14 (.794)
Brian Bennett: 49-19 (.721)
Michigan State (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) at No. 23 Michigan (4-2, 2-0), 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network: Where's the threat? Or maybe we should say, are the Spartans still a legitimate threat to Michigan's Big Ten ambitions? This game has lost a lot of luster thanks to Michigan State's stumbles, but there's still plenty on the line. The Wolverines need to break a four-game losing streak in this rivalry, while MSU would be in danger of a losing season with a defeat here and Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern up next. All eyes will be on Denard Robinson and a Spartans defense that has shut him down the last two years.
Penn State (4-2, 2-0) at Iowa (4-2, 2-0), 8 p.m., BTN: Raise your hand if you had these two teams atop their respective divisions midway through October. They're both doing it with defense, as Penn State is No. 2 and Iowa No. 3 in the Big Ten in points allowed, and some surprising contributors on offense (Mark Weisman for the Hawkeyes, a surging Matt McGloin and Allen Robinson for the Nittany Lions). Expect a slugfest, but hopefully one with more points than last year's 13-3 Penn State win.
Nebraska (4-2, 1-1) at Northwestern (6-1, 2-1), 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2: The Cornhuskers will have had two weeks to try and figure out their defensive problems against spread teams and on the road. They will need to have answers versus a Wildcats team that beat them in Lincoln last season. Kain Colter had a great game at Nebraska last year and is the kind of mobile quarterback that has given Bo Pelini's defense fits. The loser of this one could find themselves two games back in the Legends standings.
Minnesota (4-2, 0-2) at Wisconsin (5-2, 2-1), Noon, ESPNU: It's Axe season. But can the Gophers accrue better dividends in this ancient rivalry? Wisconsin has won eight straight in the series, including the last two by a combined 47 points. The Badgers' offense also looked rejuvenated on Saturday against Purdue, which could mean this is bad timing for Minnesota. Questions about the status of head coach Jerry Kill and quarterback MarQueis Gray could linger this week for the Gophers.
Purdue (3-3, 0-2) at No. 8 Ohio State (7-0, 3-0), Noon, ABC/ESPN2: At what point do we really start to worry about the Buckeyes' defense? Probably not this week against a Purdue team that is a mess on both sides of the ball right now. The Boilermakers did beat Ohio State last year in West Lafayette, but their own defense has major issues after surrendering an average of 41 points and 385 rushing yards in their first two Big Ten contests. And now comes Braxton Miller and Co., who have scored 115 points the past two weeks. The Boilers are staring down the barrel of an 0-3 conference start, while the Buckeyes look to get to 8-0 before a showdown at Penn State.
Indiana (2-4, 0-3) at Navy (3-3), 3:30 p.m., CBS College Sports: The Hoosiers are doing a lot of things well -- especially on offense -- and have been right in every game. Yet all they have to show for it is a four-game losing streak. Maybe stepping out of conference will help, especially against a not-so-classic Midshipmen squad. Defending the option on the road presents its challenges, but Navy was shut out at home by San Jose State a few weeks ago.
Oh, Gene Smith. If only Ohio State had self-imposed a bowl ban in 2011 before the NCAA did (for 2012), there's a good chance the unbeaten Buckeyes would be headed to some BCS game, perhaps the big one Jan. 7 in Miami.
As it stands, Ohio State is out of the mix (along with Penn State), and Michigan, despite two losses to top-10 teams, looks like the Big Ten's best bet to reach the Rose Bowl. The Wolverines have been dominant in their first two Big Ten games, and enter a crucial Legends stretch against Michigan State and Nebraska. Right now, Brady Hoke's squad clearly is the team to beat.
Wisconsin makes a nice move in the projections after dismantling Purdue at Ross-Ade Stadium. Following back-to-back trips to Pasadena, the Badgers are pegged for a familiar bowl site -- Orlando, Fla. -- in the Capital One Bowl. Nebraska drops a spot in the projections, partly because of its struggles and partly because it visited the Capital One Bowl last season. Iowa, meanwhile, moves up after its road upset of Michigan State. Although Iowa and Northwestern could finish with similar records, Iowa's larger fan base gets it the nod to the Gator Bowl.
Michigan State, our preseason Rose Bowl pick, tumbles to the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas following its third home loss of the season. The Spartans could be looking at more defeats, as their upcoming schedule (Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska) only gets tougher.
We're keeping both Minnesota and Purdue in the bowl projections for now, but both teams have some work to do. The Gophers certainly could get to six wins with MarQueis Gray, but the senior quarterback's health remains a question mark. Purdue is an absolute mess and could have a tough time winning three more times. Indiana isn't in the projections just yet but has shown impressive fight in Big Ten play and has some winnable games left.
Here's our latest way-too-early stab at projecting the postseason:
Rose Bowl, Jan. 1: Michigan
Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1: Wisconsin
Outback Bowl, Jan. 1: Nebraska
Gator Bowl, Jan. 1: Iowa
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Dec. 29: Northwestern
Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, Dec. 28: Michigan State
Heart of Dallas Bowl, Jan. 1: Minnesota
Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, Dec. 26: Purdue
After a pair of identical 4-1 marks in Week 6, Adam Rittenberg maintains a four-game lead against Brian Bennett in the season standings. Those shrimp cocktails at St. Elmo's in Indianapolis -- on Brian's dime -- are sounding pretty good right now, but there's still a long way to go and time for Brian to catch up.
It's prediction time ...
IOWA at MICHIGAN STATE
Brian Bennett: Get ready for a classically rugged Big Ten game between two teams who love to pound the rock and play defense. Neither team will be able to sustain many long drives against strong defenses. But home-field advantage and a key turnover forced by the Spartans' defense will make the difference. Le'Veon Bell contributes two scores as he outduels Mark Weisman. ... Michigan State 17, Iowa 14
Adam Rittenberg: While I'm tempted to pick Iowa in the upset, Michigan State matches up well against the Hawkeyes on both sides of the ball. The Spartans' defense holds Weisman to 90 rushing yards and records a key second-half interception against James Vandenberg. Bell records 100 yards and two scores as Michigan State grabs the early lead and holds on for its second straight win. ... Michigan State 21, Iowa 17
NORTHWESTERN at MINNESOTA
Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern can't afford another poor start on offense, and I think the Wildcats come out of the gates a little stronger and take an early lead. Minnesota's Max Shortell makes some plays in the pass game, firing two touchdown passes, but Northwestern gets the ball in the hands of playmakers Venric Mark and Kain Colter a lot more often this week than last. Mark and Colter combine for three touchdowns and Northwestern survives a late scare to improve to 6-1. ... Northwestern 28, Minnesota 24
Brian Bennett: If the Gophers had a fully healthy MarQueis Gray, I'd be more likely to pick them here. As it stands, I don't think a gimpy Gray gives them enough firepower to get past Northwestern. Minnesota struggled against the run last time out against Iowa, and will do the same against Colter and Mark. A Jeff Budzien field goal provides the difference. ... Northwestern 31, Minnesota 28
WISCONSIN at PURDUE
Brian Bennett: It's practically do-or-die time for the Boilermakers, and I expect them to play as if their Leaders Division lives depend on this effort. In fact, they will lead most of the way after a couple of quick-strike scores early. But an improving Wisconsin offense chips away until Joel Stave hits Jared Abbrederis for a long touchdown in the fourth quarter, and the Badgers' defense hangs on late. ... Wisconsin 23, Purdue 20
Adam Rittenberg: You touched on the sense of urgency for Purdue and coach Danny Hope, and I think that'll be the difference in this game. A Boilers defense hungry to avenge last week's poor showing records an early takeaway against Stave. Both Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve play and fire touchdown passes. Although Wisconsin's Montee Ball records two rushing scores, the kicking game is the difference as Raheem Mostert breaks off a long return to set up the game-winning touchdown. ... Purdue 27, Wisconsin 24
ILLINOIS at No. 25 MICHIGAN
Adam Rittenberg: Little is going right for the Illini right now, and they catch Michigan at the wrong time. After a quiet first quarter, Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson turns in another big performance (150 rushing yards, 175 pass yards, 2 rushing TDs, 2 passing TDs), and linebacker Jake Ryan records his first interception of the season. Versatile running back Josh Ferguson has a nice game for the Illini, but Michigan has far too much firepower and pulls away in the second quarter. ... Michigan 37, Illinois 14
Brian Bennett: The Illini's problems defending the spread and finding any kind of offensive rhythm don't bode well for this week's game in Ann Arbor. Robinson will throw for three touchdowns this week, and Michigan's defense holds Illinois to under 250 yards. ... Michigan 34, Illinois 10
No. 8 OHIO STATE at INDIANA
Brian Bennett: The Hoosiers are getting closer and closer to finally winning a Big Ten game. But it won't happen this week, as their shaky run defense is going to have a lot of trouble containing Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde. Those two combine for four touchdowns, and Bradley Roby picks off another pass to stymie Indiana's mild second-half charge as the Buckeyes move to 7-0. ... Ohio State 42, Indiana 24
Adam Rittenberg: I've also been impressed with Indiana's ability to compete, but this is just a tough matchup against Big Bad Brax. Miller runs for 150 yards and two touchdowns, and Hyde records his second straight 100-yard rushing performance. Quarterbacks Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld both play and have some success in the first half, and receiver Cody Latimer tests the Buckeyes' defense, but Ohio State shifts into fifth gear late in the second quarter and cruises to 7-0. ... Ohio State 45, Indiana 21
Nebraska and Penn State are off this week.
Adam Rittenberg: 45-12 (.789)
Brian Bennett: 41-16 (.719)
There's no shuffling at the top and very little separation throughout the rankings. Although both Wisconsin and Michigan State fall, while Penn State rises, you can slide a sheet of paper between these teams. Ohio State remains at the top but will be tested this week by Nebraska.
Let's get to the rundown ...
1. Ohio State (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten, last week: 1): It's not easy to overcome three turnovers on the road, but the Buckeyes received enough magic from quarterback Braxton Miller and solid play along both lines at Michigan State. Linebacker Etienne Sabino stepped up in a big way for the defense. Urban Meyer's team has its flaws, but it can still win a lot of games in a flawed Big Ten. Ohio State showed it can win a big road game. Nebraska provides a nice test this week.
2. Nebraska (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten, last week: 2): After a miserable start against Wisconsin, Nebraska rallied from 17 points down in the third quarter to record a win it absolutely had to have. It tied the second-largest comeback in team history, and provided Taylor Martinez and the offense some confidence heading to Ohio State. The Huskers are loaded with offensive weapons and received terrific linebacker play from Will Compton, Alonzo Whaley and Sean Fisher. They still put the ball on the ground too much, though, and can't afford another slow start in Columbus.
3. Northwestern (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten, last week: 3): Thanks to Kain Colter, Northwestern remained perfect on the season and starts 5-0 for the third time in five years. The concern is that the Wildcats once again couldn't finish off a team after storming out to a 27-0 lead. No lead is truly safe with Northwestern, and while the defense has been very good most of the season, it needs to limit bad quarters like the third on Saturday. This is a young, maturing team that continues to win, but the tests get tougher beginning this week at red-hot Penn State.
4. Michigan (2-2, last week: 5): In this year's sputtering Big Ten, sometimes it pays off not to play. Michigan moves up in the rankings after Purdue struggled to hold off Marshall on Saturday. There's not much separating the Wolverines and the Boilers, and we'll find out the superior team this week when they meet at Ross-Ade Stadium. Michigan's defense took a nice step at Notre Dame, but as usual, the team's fortunes likely rest on how quarterback Denard Robinson performs.
5. Purdue (3-1, last week: 4): After storming out to a 42-14 halftime lead, Purdue had to hold on to win a shootout against Marshall and thus drop a spot. Although the Boilers won't face another passing offense quite like Marshall's this season, they have to be a bit concerned about their defense, which surrendered 439 passing yards and 534 total yards. Purdue faces another spread-ish offense -- and certainly a spread-ish quarterback in Michigan's Robinson -- this week in West Lafayette. The Michigan game begins a defining stretch for Danny Hope's crew.
6. Penn State (3-2, 1-0, last week: 9): The Big Ten's hottest team makes the biggest move of the week, rising three spots after another impressive win against Illinois. Linebacker Michael Mauti is leading a revived defense, while quarterback Matt McGloin continues to perform well in the new offense. You can't say enough about the job Bill O'Brien has done in his first season as Lions coach. Penn State faces its biggest test since the season opener this week against Northwestern before a challenging stretch with three of four on the road.
7. Michigan State (3-2, 0-1, last week: 5): The Spartans lost to Ohio State by only a point and were burned by a premature whistle that killed a potential fumble return for a touchdown. Then again, Michigan State had numerous opportunities to beat Ohio State and held a plus-3 turnover margin on its home field. The offense simply isn't coming together well enough, as good passing Saturday was offset by an invisible Le'Veon Bell. We still think the Spartans can make a run for the Big Ten title, but they haven't looked impressive in the early going.
8. Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1, last week: 8): For a half and change, it looked like Wisconsin would make a major move up the power rankings. The Badgers came out hot against Nebraska and took a big lead behind the inspired play of linebacker Chris Borland and the poise of quarterback Joel Stave in his first career road start. But the same problem that plagued the Badgers in the first four weeks -- flimsy offensive line play -- coupled with a defense that couldn't keep pace with Martinez led to a crushing defeat. Wisconsin still can take some pluses from Saturday night. It needs to take another step this week against Illinois before next week's showdown at Purdue.
9. Iowa (3-2, 1-0, last week: 11): Besides maybe Illinois, no team needed a win in Week 5 more than the Hawkeyes, and they delivered in a big way. Iowa took control from the get-go against Minnesota and brought home the bacon to fill its long-empty trophy case. Running back Mark Weisman continues to be one of the Big Ten's best early season stories, and the Hawkeyes' defense responded well from a poor performance against Central Michigan, receiving great play from the linebackers. An open week comes at a good time before Iowa resumes play at Michigan State.
10. Minnesota (4-1, 0-1, last week: 7): Week 5 brought a reality check of sorts for Minnesota, which never really challenged Iowa and lost the Floyd of Rosedale for the first time since 2009. As coach Jerry Kill said Sunday, the Gophers really need top quarterback MarQueis Gray (ankle) to get healthy, as backup Max Shortell had three interceptions at Iowa. More unsettling was the play of Minnesota's defense, which couldn't stop Weisman. The Gophers can regroup during the bye week before their league home opener against Northwestern.
11. Indiana (2-2, 0-1, last week: 10): Credit the Hoosiers for fighting back at Northwestern and making it a one-possession game in the fourth quarter. Indiana has some serious talent at wide receiver with Kofi Hughes and Cody Latimer, both of whom made circus catches Saturday. The Hoosiers also saw some good signs in their run game. But again, the defense continues to struggle mightily, surrendering more than 700 yards to the Wildcats. Until IU can defend like a Big Ten team, it won't win a Big Ten game.
12. Illinois (2-3, 0-1, last week: 12): Oy vey. If we could drop Illinois to 13th, we would. Tim Beckman's program is in complete disarray just five weeks into his first season. From the turnovers to the special teams miscues to a supposedly elite defense showing cracks each week, Illinois is in a tailspin. The Illini really needed to build some confidence at home. Instead, they're going to have to get it together on the road against Wisconsin and then Michigan. There's a lot of talent in Champaign, but once again, it doesn't seem to matter.
1.) The Big Ten season is on the horizon, here's your chance to make one bold prediction regarding the Wolverines' conference schedule. What is it? Michael Rothstein: This fits with Michigan and the rest of the Big Ten, actually, but no team in the league finishes with fewer than two losses. The conference itself is mediocre from top to bottom, and frankly, Michigan might still be the best team in the league. It certainly has been tested the most. But as far as the Wolverines go, Michigan's leading tackler this season will not be Jordan Kovacs, but the guy next to him, Thomas Gordon.
Tom Van Haaren: With this conference I don't know if any prediction is really bold. Michigan has a chance, I think, to make it to the Big Ten championship game. The key will most likely be on Oct. 20 when Michigan takes on Michigan State. So my bold prediction will be that Michigan beats Michigan State at home to end the losing streak.
That's about the nicest thing I can say about this week's slate of Big Ten games, which makes me yawn every time I scroll through it. But that's not to say there aren't any interesting contests on tap. Here's a quick preview of what's coming on Saturday in order of most to least interest (all times ET):
No. 18 Michigan (2-1) at No. 11 Notre Dame (3-0), 7:30 p.m., NBC: No doubt this is the headliner of the week, a game that has taken on even more prestige given the strong start this season by the Irish. Can the Wolverines do what Purdue and Michigan State couldn't and topple the Golden Domers? They do have Denard Robinson, who has caused more nightmares in South Bend than the bogeyman. With the game under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium, this should be a whole heap of fun.
Syracuse (1-2) at Minnesota (3-0), 8 p.m., Big Ten Network: A game that didn't seem all that interesting in the preseason now looks like maybe the second-best option for Week 4. The Gophers look to get to 4-0 but will have to do so without the injured MarQueis Gray. The Orange are 1-2 but played Northwestern close and hung with USC, and they rank third in the nation in passing yards behind Ryan Nassib. This will be a real test for Minnesota.
Temple (1-1) at Penn State (1-2), 3:30 p.m., ABC: The Nittany Lions finally got a win last week against Navy and need that mojo this week to avoid losing to Temple for the first time since 1941. The Owls didn't inspire a lot of confidence in losing to Maryland last week, but they nearly pulled off the upset of Penn State last year in Philly.
Louisiana Tech (2-0) at Illinois (2-1), 8 p.m., BTN: It says something when this is the fourth best game of the week, but I actually think this could be a good one. The Bulldogs are better than you think, having won eight games last year and playing TCU close in their bowl. Their opener against Texas A&M got postponed by weather, but they've averaged 56 points and nearly 290 rushing yards in wins over Rice and Houston. If the Illini are still banged up and not at their best, they could lose here.
UTEP (1-2) at Wisconsin (2-1), Noon, ESPN2: Fun fact: UTEP is ranked 106th in scoring offense. Wisconsin is ranked 113th. OK, that's not much fun if you're a Badgers fan. But the point is, Wisconsin has played so poorly that no game is safe at this point. The Miners gave Oklahoma a minor scare in Week 1.
South Dakota (1-1) at Northwestern (3-0), 3:30 p.m., BTN: After playing three straight BCS AQ teams, the Wildcats get a bit of a break here and should improve to 4-0. South Dakota did win at Minnesota two years ago, but the Coyotes lost to Maine in their season opener.
Central Michigan (1-1) at Iowa (2-1), Noon, BTN: Yes, we've reached the real snoozer portion of the schedule. The Chippewas got drilled at home by Michigan State two weeks ago. Iowa found a little bit of an offensive rhythm against Northern Iowa and should not have much trouble if it can keep that up.
UAB (0-2) at No. 16 Ohio State (3-0), Noon, BTN: This is little more than a tune-up for the Buckeyes before their showdown at Michigan State on Sept. 29. The Blazers have been outscored 88-35 in their first two games, losses to Troy and South Carolina. Have fun, Braxton Miller.
Eastern Michigan (0-3) at No. 21 Michigan State (2-1), 3:30 p.m., BTN: The Spartans will also just be tuning up before that Ohio State game, not to mention relieving some frustration from the Notre Dame loss. Eastern Michigan was last seen losing 54-16 to Purdue and ranks nationally in rush defense. Good luck stopping Le'Veon Bell this week, fellas.
Idaho State at No. 25 Nebraska (2-1), 3:30 p.m., BTN: Just about the only storylines for this one are Bo Pelini's health and Rex Burkhead's availability. The FCS Vandals lost to Air Force in the opener but then rebounded to beat Black Hills State, which is apparently a real team. Conference season can't get here soon enough.
Byes: Indiana, Purdue
This week's slate certainly looks a lot more manageable for the Big Ten, and several teams -- looking at you, Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State -- definitely need a W.
It's prediction time ...
WESTERN MICHIGAN at MINNESOTA
Brian Bennett: The Gophers improve to 3-0 -- barely. Jordan Wettstein nails his second game winner of the young season after MarQueis Gray leads the team down the field in the final two minutes. Minnesota overcomes three turnovers to escape at home. ... Minnesota 27, Western Michigan 24
Adam Rittenberg: Broncos quarterback Alex Carder provides the first real test for Minnesota, which gives up two early touchdowns before settling down. It'll be a close one, but Gray and the run game do enough as Minnesota goes to 3-0. ... Minnesota 30, Western Michigan 24
ARKANSAS STATE at NEBRASKA
Adam Rittenberg: It'll take more than a week for Nebraska to fix its defensive woes against fast-paced, spread-ish offenses. Gus Malzahn's team makes some plays, but Arkansas State can't stop anyone, and both Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah rush for more than 100 yards. ... Nebraska 41, Arkansas State 21
Brian Bennett: I think the Huskers come out angry after the loss to UCLA and take it out on Malzahn's team. The defense gives up some big plays but keeps Arkansas State under 400 total yards. Martinez has four touchdowns, including two scoring tosses to Kenny Bell. ... Nebraska 45, Arkansas State 24
CALIFORNIA at No. 12 OHIO STATE
Brian Bennett: No rest this week for Braxton Miller, but he'll enjoy running and passing against Cal's shaky defense. The Golden Bears hang around for a while, but two more picks by an opportunistic Buckeyes defense kills any upset thoughts ... Ohio State 35, Cal 21
Adam Rittenberg: I grew up in Berkeley going to Bears games, and it's sad to say the Cal program is in free fall under coach Jeff Tedford. Ohio State has some initial trouble figuring out the Cal defense, but Miller gets going eventually and accounts for three touchdowns. Cornerback Bradley Roby records his first interception of the season as Ohio State pulls away in the third quarter. ... Ohio State 31, Cal 17
CHARLESTON SOUTHERN at ILLINOIS
Adam Rittenberg: We ranked this as the worst Big Ten nonconference game, and it won't disappoint (not sure if that's possible). Josh Ferguson eclipses 200 rushing yards, and at least two Illinois quarterbacks fire touchdown passes as the Illini roll. ... Illinois 45, Charleston Southern 3
Brian Bennett: I'd be more interested in watching the Illini stage an intrasquad scrimmage than this yawner. Doesn't matter if Nathan Scheelhaase or a line cook from Nathan's Famous starts at quarterback. Illinois will win in a rout, and we won't learn a thing. ... Illinois 49, Charleston Southern 0
EASTERN MICHIGAN at PURDUE
Adam Rittenberg: Eastern Michigan looks like the perfect opponent for Purdue's offense to recharge against. Akeem Shavers rushes for 150 yards and three scores against the nation's No. 118 rush defense, and Caleb TerBush fires two touchdown passes. ... Purdue 38, Eastern Michigan 14
Brian Bennett: The Boilers, still smarting from the Notre Dame loss and the Robert Marve injury news, get off to a slow start. But their defense and running game take over and wear down Eastern Michigan. Shavers runs for 100 yards and two scores. ... Purdue 42, Eastern Michigan 17
BOSTON COLLEGE at NORTHWESTERN
Brian Bennett: I love the way the Northwestern defense stepped up against Vandy, and Venric Mark is becoming a star. But ... history tells us the Cats usually slip up after good things happen. So I'm picking the mild upset here, with Chase Rettig throwing the winning score late in the fourth quarter. ... BC 31, Northwestern 28
Adam Rittenberg: Toughest game of the week to predict. (I haven't been right on Northwestern yet.) I like Pat Fitzgerald's approach to ward off a letdown, and while Boston College jumps ahead early and attacks Northwestern's secondary more, I don't think the Eagles can slow down Mark and the run game for four quarters. Expect another Trevor Siemian-led rally as Northwestern improves to 3-0. ... Northwestern 28, Boston College 27
MASSACHUSETTS at No. 17 MICHIGAN
Adam Rittenberg: This isn't the same UMass team that nearly stunned Michigan in the Big House in 2010. The Minutemen are awful. Fitz Toussaint gets back in the groove with three rushing touchdowns, and Denard Robinson puts up more sick stats in a total laugher. ... Michigan 65, UMass 0
Brian Bennett: If Brady Hoke wanted Robinson to get 700 yards in this game, he could. Instead, Robinson puts up 100 yards rushing and three total touchdowns before sitting in the third quarter, while Toussaint finally gets going against what is likely the nation's worst FBS team. ... Michigan 55, UMass 3
NAVY at PENN STATE
Brian Bennett: OK, I incorrectly picked the Nittany Lions to win the first two weeks (although they won everywhere but the scoreboard at Virginia). I'm guaranteeing that Penn State gets off the schneid against the Midshipmen. The Lions' problems on defense have revolved around stopping the pass, which won't be an issue against the option. Matt McGloin helps PSU find the end zone three times. ... Penn State 24, Navy 14
Adam Rittenberg: Penn State has played well enough to win, and the Lions finally get over the hump this week. I like the matchup for Penn State's defense, which doesn't have to worry too much about the pass. McGloin fires two touchdown passes, and Sam Ficken connects on a 50-yarder as Penn State finally celebrates. ... Penn State 17, Navy 13
NORTHERN IOWA at IOWA
Adam Rittenberg: I've wanted to pick against Iowa twice now and hesitated, getting burned last week. This time, I'm going against the Hawkeyes, even though the opponent is Northern Iowa. The FCS Panthers have nothing to lose, while Iowa continues to play tight on offense. UNI nearly beat a good Iowa team in 2009. It beats a bad one this year. ... Northern Iowa 17, Iowa 16
Brian Bennett: The Hawkeyes fail to score a touchdown yet again, but get by on four Mike Meyer field goals. Iowa blocks a three-point try by the Panthers on the final play to survive. ... Iowa 12, Northern Iowa 9
BALL STATE at INDIANA
Brian Bennett: The 2-0 start for Indiana is a nice story, but the schedule hasn't been very good. Ball State is a major step up, and with Cameron Coffman getting his first start at quarterback, this is a dangerous assignment for the young Hoosiers. They lead early but can't control the Cardinals' running game in the fourth quarter. ... Ball State 35, Indiana 28
Adam Rittenberg: I really think the Hoosiers are getting better, but I agree with you about the schedule. Ball State is a significant jump in competition, and while Coffman fires two touchdown passes, he also fires two interceptions in his first start. The Cardinals rally to make it three straight against the Hoosiers. ... Ball State 31, Indiana 30
No. 20 NOTRE DAME at No. 10 MICHIGAN STATE
Adam Rittenberg: Get ready for another defensive struggle at Spartan Stadium. Michigan State's defense has been as advertised, and coordinator Pat Narduzzi told me this week that the unit is nowhere near its potential. Isaiah Lewis and the Spartans make it a rough night for Notre Dame's quarterbacks, and Le'Veon Bell rushes for two scores as MSU improves to 3-0. ... Michigan State 17, Notre Dame 10
Brian Bennett: This one will come down to defense, as Michigan State hasn't allowed an offensive touchdown all year and the Irish front seven will give Andrew Maxwell some problems. The Spartans' D is just better, however, and creates one score off a turnover. Bell does the rest with two touchdowns. ... Michigan State 21, Notre Dame 17
UTAH STATE at WISCONSIN
Brian Bennett: No Badgers assistant coaches will lose their jobs after the team gets back in the winning column. But it won't be easy against an Aggies team that just beat Utah. The Wisconsin offensive line looks a bit better, and Montee Ball runs for 125 yards and two scores. ... Wisconsin 23, Utah State 14
Adam Rittenberg: If Wisconsin's offensive linemen have any pride, they come out angry in this one. And a bunch of angry 300-pounders means bad things for the Aggies. The Badgers start quickly and get their swagger back, racking up 250 rush yards. ... Wisconsin 31, Utah State 17
Rittenberg: 18-6 (.750)
Bennett: 17-7 (.708)
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.
Here's how this works: Bovada Sportsbook provided baseline totals for regular-season wins only for every Big Ten team except Indiana, Minnesota, Northwestern and Purdue. For those teams, we came up with our own reasonable number. Then it's a matter of deciding if we think each team will finish above or below that baseline (or a push, in some cases).
We tried this last year and didn't fare too well. I went 6-6, while Adam was 4-8. But we are improvement-driven. Let's start this off with the Legends Division.
Over-under: 7.5 wins
Adam's pick: Over. Just barely. The favorable schedule pays off for the Hawkeyes, who drop a game they shouldn't, maybe in non-league play, but also win one they shouldn't in Big Ten play. Iowa finishes 8-4.
Brian's pick: Over. We are on the same page, as I've also got Iowa at 8-4. Don't necessarily love the composition of this team right now, but I love that schedule. I see a 5-0 start and then just enough in the final seven games to get it done.
Over-under: 9 wins
Brian's pick: Under. This will be an unpopular opinion in Wolverine Nation, but I'm picking Michigan to go 8-4. Tough, tough games against Alabama, Michigan State, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Ohio State -- the last of those three on the road -- make me think the Wolverines take a step back this year.
Adam's pick: Push. While I'd love to answer this question after Week 1, we're doing it now, and I'm sticking with my belief that Michigan will be a better team than in 2011 with a worse record. The schedule simply is too treacherous, although a win against Alabama changes everything.
Over-under: 8.5 wins
Adam's pick: Over. The Spartans have been perfect at home the past two seasons, and I don't see them slowing down in 2011. They have a treacherous midseason stretch in Big Ten play and some early challenges, but they'll get to nine wins at least.
Brian's pick: Over. If I didn't think sports gambling was a great way to lose money, I would have thrown down a bunch of cash on the Spartans' ridiculous over-under of 7 wins last year. I feel nearly the same about this one. This is a nine-win team or better.
Over-under: 8.5 wins
Brian's pick: Over. The Huskers have won at least nine games in each of the past four seasons, and I think they get to that number before the regular season ends. Taylor Martinez and the defense should both be improved over last year's 9-4 squad.
Adam's pick: Over. While there are some potential challenges in non-league play, Nebraska should get through unscathed and win at least five Big Ten games again. A more experienced team plus greater familiarity with the Big Ten translates into a season at least as good as last year's.
Over-under: 6.5 wins
Adam's pick: Under. I'm torn between 6-6 or 7-5 for the Wildcats, and a strong start certainly raises the ceiling on the season. Ultimately, Northwestern drops at least one non-league game and has some ups and downs in Big Ten play, finishing 6-6 in the regular season yet again.
Brian's pick: Over. I like a 7-5 season for Northwestern, which has to get a little bit better on defense and has a strong cadre of receivers for Kain Colter. Wildcats lose a game they shouldn't but continue their tradition of at least one big upset.
Over-under: 4.5 wins
Brian's pick: Over. I could see the Gophers winning all four of their nonconference games and making a run at a bowl game. In reality, that's probably a bit ahead of schedule. But if MarQueis Gray has the kind of year I think he will and the defense improves, Minnesota will be much more competitive and should get to five wins.
Adam's pick: Over. Minnesota will be a better team in Year 2 of the Jerry Kill era. Will it be enough to get back to a bowl? Not so sure. The schedule doesn't give Minnesota many breaks, but I see the Gophers going 3-1 in non-league play and winning two Big Ten contests to finish 5-7.
Today, we're going to take a look at the position that puts every player under the spotlight: quarterback. We're ranking the top 10 individual players at each spot and then offering team rankings a little later on. These rankings are based on past performance and potential for the 2012 season, placing a bit more emphasis on their track record to this point.
Quarterback is an intriguing group heading into '12. Here's our Top 10:
1. Denard Robinson, Michigan, senior: Say what you will about Robinson's faults -- and we've said plenty about his sometimes erratic throws and Big Ten worst 15 interceptions in 2011. Robinson remains one of the best playmakers in the country and a three-year starter who's got plenty of heroic moments under his belt. He showed improved passing mechanics this spring and should benefit from his second year under Al Borges. And we all know what he can do with his feet. With the league's top precision passers from 2011 all having moved on, Robinson inherits the top spot.
2. James Vandenberg, Iowa, senior: Only 17 returning players in the FBS threw for more yards in 2011 than Vandenberg, who had 3,022, plus 25 touchdowns. His completion percentage needs to improve, as does his road performance, and he won't have Marvin McNutt around anymore. But he's easily the most polished pocket passer in the league heading into the season.
3. Braxton Miller, Ohio State, sophomore: Miller still has a lot to learn and he'll be doing so in an entirely new offensive system. Yet he showed flashes of brilliance last year, such as his performance against Michigan or his game-winning play versus Wisconsin. He's got the athleticism to be a tremendous dual threat quarterback. Matched with Urban Meyer's creativity, Miller has enormous potential.
4. Taylor Martinez, Nebraska, junior: Martinez put in a lot of time this offseason working on his throwing motion. His dedication to self-correction is very encouraging, and a better understanding of Tim Beck's offense plus more experienced receivers could lead to a higher completion percentage than last year's 56.3. If Martinez can become a reliable passer to go along with his explosive running skills, look out.
5. MarQueis Gray, Minnesota, senior: Gray had a rocky beginning to the season as he adjusted back to the quarterback position and a new coaching staff. But in his last five games, he averaged 255 yards of total offense. Of returning Big Ten players, only Robinson, Vandenberg and Martinez were responsible for more total yardage than Gray last season. Like many on this list, Gray has worked on improving his mechanics and accuracy. There isn't a more impressive physical specimen at quarterback than this 6-foot-4, 240-pounder.
7. Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois, junior: After a promising freshman campaign and solid start to 2011, Scheelhaase struggled along with the entire Illini offense. He bounced back with a good bowl game performance against UCLA and now must master the new spread attack under Tim Beckman. There are always going to be questions about Scheelhaase's size and arm strength but not about his intelligence and toughness. Does he have enough skill position complements this year?
8. Kain Colter, Northwestern, junior: Is Colter simply an athlete playing quarterback? Or can he become much more than that? Those are big questions heading into the year for a guy who filled in quite nicely for Dan Persa last year. Colter has elite athleticism but only attempted 22 passes in Northwestern's final 10 games. He could be helped by perhaps the league's deepest receiving corps.
9. Caleb TerBush, Purdue: Though he's being pushed by veterans Robert Marve and Rob Henry, TerBush got the vote of confidence as the starter from Danny Hope after spring ball. Thrust into a starter's role because of injuries to start last season, he improved as the year went on. He'll need to continue working on his decision-making, because the Boilermakers won't hesitate to go to one of their other options.
10. Andrew Maxwell, QB, Michigan State: Maxwell has attempted only 51 career passes in mostly mop-up duty. But he has spent four years in the Spartans' system, being groomed under Kirk Cousins. At 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, he's got the physical and mental makeup needed to be a standout Big Ten quarterback. He just needs more experience.