Michigan Wolverines: Melvin Gordon

If the preseason All-America teams are any indication, the Big Ten will have a very good year in the offensive backfield -- both carrying the ball out of it and penetrating it.

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Ten is tied with the Pac-12 for third among overall Athlon All-America selections with 18, trailing both the ACC (27) and SEC (26).
The 2015 NFL draft is nearly a year away and doesn't even have a determined location, so why should you get excited about it? Because the Big Ten could have a breakthrough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First team:

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

Ohio State DT Michael Bennett

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

Second team:

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Iowa OT Brandon Scherff

Nebraska DE Randy Gregory

Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Iowa PR Kevonte Martin-Manley

Third team:

Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Michigan WR Devin Funchess

Iowa DT Carl Davis

Michigan LB Jake Ryan

Michigan State CB Trae Waynes

Michigan State S Kurtis Drummond

Illinois PR V'Angelo Bentley

Indiana LS Matt Dooley

Fourth team:

Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford

Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman

Wisconsin OT Rob Havenstein

Northwestern RB/KR Venric Mark

Big Ten lunch links

June, 2, 2014
Jun 2
12:00
PM ET
Chicago Blackhawks -- One Goal (Away). So close. But congrats to the Kings, a more resilient team.

Links time ...
The playoff era is here in college football, so feel free to do somersaults and backflips (no lawsuits if you get hurt). We're previewing the playoff and its top contenders today, and if you'd like to chat with Mark Schlabach, Brett McMurphy and Brad Edwards, go here right now. The blog isn't going anywhere.

ESPN.com's contenders preview features 16 potential playoff teams picked by our mock selection committee, including three Big Ten squads: Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Most would agree Michigan State, the defending Big Ten and Rose Bowl champion, and Ohio State, which has the league's most accomplished coach (Urban Meyer) and typically the most talent, belong in the conversation.

Wisconsin? I'm not so sure. The Badgers are going through a roster redux and have major questions on both sides of the ball. Their schedule is favorable, especially in Big Ten play, but in my view, Wisconsin is on the very fringes of the playoff conversation right now.

Disagree with me? Here's your chance to show it.

Today's poll question asks: Which team is the Big Ten's third playoff contender? Wisconsin is on the list, as are three other schools.

SportsNation

Besides Michigan State and Ohio State, which team should be the Big Ten's third playoff contender in 2014?

  •  
    19%
  •  
    17%
  •  
    31%
  •  
    19%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 12,505)

The candidates ...

Iowa: For the first time since the summer of 2010, Iowa is in the national discussion. A rebound season in 2013 is one reason. A roster that returns plenty of linemen, running backs and quarterbacks is another. But the most convincing argument for the Hawkeyes as playoff contenders is what lies ahead. Their schedule doesn't include Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State or Michigan, and Iowa will play host to both Wisconsin and Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium.

Michigan: Why include a Michigan team that hasn't even made the Big Ten championship game and took a significant step back last season? At some point, the talent has to rise, and this could be the year. Coach Brady Hoke hopes new coordinator Doug Nussmeier creates more consistency on offense, and Michigan returns most of its core pieces on defense. It will be an uphill climb as the Wolverines face Notre Dame, MSU and Ohio State all on the road, where they've struggled under Hoke.

Nebraska: Bo Pelini's players always have been open about discussing the national title, even though the Huskers last played for one in January 2002 and last won a conference title in 1999. It will take a Big Ten championship -- and perhaps a 14-0 record -- for Nebraska to make the playoff, but there's optimism in Lincoln as superstars such as running back Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Randy Gregory return. Like Michigan, Nebraska will need to be tough on the road as it visits East Lansing, Madison and Iowa City.

Wisconsin: The Badgers have been close to nationally elite status in recent years but seem to struggle to take that next step. Star running back Melvin Gordon made it clear that he bypassed the NFL draft for a chance to take the Badgers over the threshold. Wisconsin will need a revamped defensive front seven to hold up and a threat to emerge at quarterback, whether it's incumbent starter Joel Stave or dual-threat Tanner McEvoy, who took most of the reps in the spring. If Wisconsin beats LSU in the season opener, a playoff run is possible as the Badgers don't play Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State in the East Division.

Don't think any of these teams are true playoff candidates? That's why we included a fifth option.

Time to vote.
Everybody is a draftnik this week, and we're putting our own Big Ten spin on things. Rather than looking at the players leaving the league -- don't worry, we'll do that, too -- we're speculating on how a draft within the conference would play out.

To recap: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (incoming recruits are not). The teams will pick in reverse order of regular-season finish last year. Picks are based on factors like position need, remaining eligibility, scheme, previous players lost in the draft.

Check out the first half of the first round here. It gets a bit messy with teams swiping each other's top players, but that makes it fun.

Now, for the final seven picks ...

Pick No. 8: Penn State

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook's Rose Bowl-winning resume makes him a popular choice in the second half of the first round of the Big Ten draft.
Adam Rittenberg says the Lions select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook

The offensive line is Penn State's shakiest position group, but Christian Hackenberg (selected No. 5 by Rutgers) leaves a massive hole at quarterback. Cook, a pro-style signal-caller with a big arm and more experience than Hackenberg, makes a lot of sense as he fits the system and comes off top performances in the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl.

Brian Bennett says the Lions select ... Ohio State OT Taylor Decker

Penn State does need help on the offensive line, but it can afford to be patient. Decker was playing as well as any Ohio State offensive lineman late last season, when he was only a redshirt freshman. He can come to State College and offer help now and for the next three years, seeing the Lions through probation.

Pick No. 9: Minnesota

Rittenberg says the Gophers select ... Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Minnesota loses some star power on defense, but I expect coordinator Tracy Claeys to produce a solid unit. The bigger issue is boosting a pass offense that ranked 115th nationally last season. Diggs comes off an injury-shortened season, but he's an explosive playmaker with 88 career receptions and two years of eligibility left. He would complement promising young wideouts like Drew Wolitarsky.

Bennett says the Gophers select ... Nebraska WR Kenny Bell

The Gophers might just be a downfield receiving threat away from being actual division contenders. Bell is a senior but offers two things Jerry Kill wants: leadership and toughness as a blocker. Bell would also deliver some explosiveness while guiding Minnesota's young wideouts along.

Pick No. 10: Iowa

Rittenberg says the Hawkeyes select ... Indiana LT Jason Spriggs

Brandon Scherff (selected No. 1 by Purdue) is a major loss for Iowa, which now needs a replacement to anchor its offensive line. Spriggs might not be as big a name as Scherff, but he has quietly started the first 24 games of his college career and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors the past two seasons. He also has two years of eligibility left.

Bennett says the Hawkeyes select ... Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

True, Iowa has about 37 tailbacks right now. But the pure speed and playmaking ability of Gordon is tough to pass up here, especially for an offense seeking more home-run plays. Plus, he originally committed to the Hawkeyes, so this is a way for them to finally get Gordon in black and gold.

Pick No. 11: Nebraska

Rittenberg says the Huskers select ... Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Running back Ameer Abdullah (selected No. 6 by Maryland) is a significant loss, but the Huskers have good depth behind him. They need a replacement for All-Big Ten end Randy Gregory (selected No. 4 by Indiana), and Bosa, who ended his freshman season in beast mode, is an easy choice. He should keep the expectations high for the Huskers' defensive front seven. And he has at least two seasons left.

[+] EnlargeDevin Funches
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsDevin Funchess would give Nebraska an athletic, versatile playmaker in the passing game.
Bennett says the Huskers select ... Michigan WR/TE Devin Funchess

Nebraska doesn't seem to have a lot of gaping holes but could use a playmaker in the passing game after losing Bell (selected No. 9 by Minnesota). Funchess would make a nice safety valve for Tommy Armstrong and is a destroyer of red zone defenses. Tim Beck lobbies hard for this pick and would get two years to deploy Funchess in a variety of ways.

Pick No. 12: Wisconsin

Rittenberg says the Badgers select ... Ohio State DL Michael Bennett

Like Nebraska, Wisconsin has lost an elite running back (Melvin Gordon, selected No. 7 by Michigan), and like the Huskers, the Badgers have enough to get by without him. Wisconsin has an even bigger need to upgrade its defensive front seven after losing six starters to graduation. Bennett, a junior who could play either line spot and had seven sacks last season, is a really good fit for Wisconsin.

Bennett says the Badgers select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook

The passing game remains a sore spot for Wisconsin, and no clear starter under center emerged this spring. Cook knows how to run a pro-style offense and would have two years left in Madison.

Pick No. 13: Ohio State

Rittenberg says the Buckeyes select ... Michigan QB Devin Gardner

Well, this should be interesting. Ohio State needs a quarterback after losing Braxton Miller to Northwestern (pick No. 3), and there aren't too many proven options out there. The Buckeyes likely can get by with a one-year player to allow younger guys to develop. Gardner is a good fit in a true spread offense, and he showed at times last year that he can put up huge numbers.

Bennett says the Buckeyes select ... Indiana QB Tre Roberson

I had Rutgers snagging Miller earlier in the first round. Roberson might be the closest facsimile to Miller in the league right now, a guy with good wheels who can also sling it around the field. He has plenty of game experience and two years of eligibility left.

Pick No. 14: Michigan State

Rittenberg says the Spartans select ... Iowa QB Jake Rudock

OK, the quarterback swapping is getting a little silly, but Michigan State needs one after losing Cook (selected No. 8 by Penn State), and Rudock brings experience to the Spartans backfield. Rudock comes from a pro-style system at Iowa and should take another step this season. Plus, he has two years of eligibility left.

Bennett says the Spartans select ... Ohio State S Vonn Bell

You can't convince me that Mark Dantonio wouldn't go defense first in a draft like this. And I think the prospect of a stud defensive back would prove too hard for him to resist. Bell showed real promise in his brief exposure last year with the Buckeyes and has three years left to help fortify the No-Fly Zone.
So there's this little event called the NFL draft that begins Thursday night in New York. First you've heard of it? Don't fret. There has been virtually no buildup.

Like every year, we'll recap the Big Ten's draft performance, but we're admittedly more focused on the players still in the conference. That's why we're bringing back our version of a mock draft, where we select current Big Ten players to help current Big Ten teams. We did this last year and it was a lot of fun.

Here's how it works: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (incoming recruits are not). The teams will pick in reverse order of regular season finish last year, just like the NFL. Big Ten newcomers Rutgers and Maryland will pick based on their 2013 records in other leagues, so they will select fifth and sixth, respectively.

We're also making picks based on several factors. It's not simply about selecting the best overall player. What does a team need based on its personnel and schemes? Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller might not be the best fit for a non-spread offense. Also, eligibility matters as some teams might want to build for the future and make a real push in 2015 or 2016 rather than this fall.

Things get a bit messy as once a player gets drafted, it creates a hole on his former team. But that's all part of the draft debate.

Our first seven first-round picks are below. We'll finish up the first round a little later.

Pick No. 1: Purdue

Adam Rittenberg says the Boilers select ... Iowa LT Brandon Scherff

[+] EnlargeBrandon Scherff
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsBrandon Scherff is one of the Big Ten's best linemen and would be a great fit for a lot of teams.
Purdue's priority is line play, and while both fronts need help, I like the potential more on defense. The offensive line must improve significantly for Purdue to have any chance this fall, and it's why the Boilers need Scherff, a first-team All-Big Ten selection who could have been a first round draft pick if he had declared. Even though Scherff is a senior, he makes Purdue better immediately.

Brian Bennett says the Boilers select ... Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Let's face it: Purdue is in a major rebuilding effort and won't be contending any time soon. So eligibility matters here. Bosa is a true sophomore who could offer the Boilermakers three more years of high-end production and the big-time pass rush the Boilermakers haven't had in a while. I say a defensive end goes first in both the NFL (Jadeveon Clowney) and imaginary Big Ten drafts.

Pick No. 2: Illinois

Rittenberg says the Illini select ... Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

I thought about Braxton Miller as Illinois needs a quarterback, but I have enough faith in coordinator Bill Cubit to find the answers. Illinois' defense was the big problem in 2013, especially the line. Calhoun, a junior, provides a significant playmaking presence after recording 7.5 sacks, a league-high four forced fumbles and 14 tackles for loss last fall.

Bennett says the Illini select ... Calhoun

As bad as the Illini were against the run last year, they could probably use a defensive tackle even more. But since I don't see a lot of surefire, dominant run-stuffers in the league right now, Calhoun is a solid pick here for a defense-hungry team. Tim Beckman is in win-now mode, so eligibility isn't as big of a factor here.

Pick No. 3: Northwestern

Rittenberg says the Wildcats select ... Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

I thought about going offensive line here, as Northwestern really struggled up front in 2013. But Miller is simply too good a fit for a spread offense that needs a major jolt after finishing 10th in the Big Ten in scoring (26.2 ppg). The return of running back Venric Mark plays a role here, too, as the Miller-Mark speed combination would be extremely tough to stop.

Bennett says the Wildcats select ... Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg

Sure, Miller is probably a better fit for Northwestern's preferred offensive style than Hackenberg, but I just can't see Hackenberg -- who has three years of eligibility left after an outstanding freshman season -- falling lower than third in this draft. Mick McCall would be more than happy to build his offense around this young stud.

Pick No. 4: Indiana

Rittenberg says the Hoosiers select ... Nebraska DE Randy Gregory

Gregory nearly began his college career in the Hoosier State at Purdue before heading to a junior college and then to Nebraska, where he dazzled in his first season, recording 19 tackles for loss, a league-high 10.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hurries. It's no secret Indiana needs stars on defense, especially up front.

Bennett says the Hoosiers select ... Gregory

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesChristian Hackenberg doesn't fit the offensive style of all the Big Ten teams, but his future might be the brightest of all the league's QBs.
As much as Kevin Wilson loves offense and quarterbacks, I could see him being tempted by Miller (or even somehow trading up to get Hackenberg). But he knows as well as anyone that Indiana is desperate for playmakers on defense. Gregory would fit in extremely well in the Hoosiers' new 3-4 and might be enough to get them over the hump and into a bowl game immediately.

Pick No. 5: Rutgers

Rittenberg says the Scarlet Knights select ... Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg

I considered going defensive line here as Rutgers needs to bulk up there, but a difference-maker at quarterback takes precedence. Hackenberg looks like a future NFL player and has three seasons of eligibility remaining, which would be huge for a Rutgers program transitioning to the Big Ten.

Bennett says the Scarlet Knights select ... Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

Though Miller only has one year of eligibility left, snagging him at No. 5 for a team with major quarterback issues is a coup for the Scarlet Knights. Kyle Flood might need to reach a bowl game to feel safe about his job in 2015, so why not roll with the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year?

Pick No. 6: Maryland

Rittenberg says the Terrapins select ... Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Yes, I know Maryland returns a lot of options at running back, but none brings Abdullah's consistency, production and leadership. He'll stay on the field for a unit ravaged by injury and bring the toughness for a program transitioning to a physical league.

Bennett says the Terrapins select ... Michigan State CB Trae Waynes

The Terps are pretty solid on offense, assuming everyone comes back healthy. Will Likely had an impressive spring at one cornerback spot, but the other starting job is up for grabs. Waynes could instantly solidify that secondary and the junior could potentially lock down one side of the field for two years for Randy Edsall.

Pick No. 7: Michigan

Rittenberg says the Wolverines select ... Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

Offensive line would be my preference here but there isn't a guaranteed difference-maker available. Fortunately, Gordon doesn't need much room to do some special things with the ball in his hands. He gives Michigan's shaky run game a true big-play threat, and the combination of Gordon and Derrick Green could turn out very well.

Bennett says the Wolverines select ... Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff

Brady Hoke would run to the podium to turn in this pick if Scherff was still on the board. He only has one year of eligibility left, but the Hawkeyes' left tackle could add much-needed stability and leadership to a Wolverines offensive line with all kinds of question marks.

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
12:00
PM ET
I missed all the spring games this weekend because I was busy attending Joffrey's wedding.

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
5:45
PM ET
Coming at you from America's dairyland. Don't forget to join our Twitter minions.

Inbox time ...

Jimmy H. from Six Feet Under a Driveway in Grosse Point writes: We can probably all agree that the current system does exploit the players. Well, what if say, 2 percent of football revenues went to the players? You could even pay the money out in limited checks while in school, or perhaps after graduation. Alternatively, would it radically change the game if say, seniors only, could do promotions and product sponsorship? Imagine if each conference started to allocate 5 percent of conference football revenue to their players, paid out either as stipends during college or over a period following graduation. I think the BIG would once again start dominating the recruiting battles.

Adam Rittenberg: Jimmy, some interesting ideas here. I like that your proposals would affect players across the board, not necessarily just stars. There's no doubt that more of the record revenue being generated can go toward the athletes. Whether it's a stipend for travel/standard expenses, a trust to ensure further education for those who leave school early, or a fund to cover long-term medical injuries sustained while playing, there are ways to improve the college player experience. Some of these already have been proposed by the Big Ten and other conferences, but nothing substantial has come to fruition. The NCAA has let these issues drag for years and now could pay a substantial price, and not just in dollars.


Matt from Michigan writes: MSU has more hype than it deserves. Yes, they won the Rose Bowl, and that is great for a conference that needed a team to do it, but you are forgetting how little one random year means in actually being a consistent program. MSU was 7-6 the previous year. Are you forgetting they had four HOME losses that year? Pat Narduzzi is a fantastic assistant with a great scheme. But that scheme was helped by having talent AND experience at some key positions last year. Something that MSU does not have much of coming back. Looking at just last season, MSU deserves all the recognition it has gotten, but as for the future, please slow down the hype train for the inconsistent Spartan program.

Adam Rittenberg: A couple things, Matt. Go find me a projection that has Michigan State in the College Football Playoff. There aren't many, if any, out there. You cite the 7-6 season MSU had in 2012. That's fair, and the Spartans must show they can build on a season like last one with another strong performance. But to label Michigan State inconsistent is inaccurate. MSU has recorded 11 or more wins in three of the past four seasons. It has produced a top-five defense in each of the last three seasons, despite some personnel moving in and out. Will the 2014 Spartan Dawgs be as dominant as their predecessor? Probably not, but the offense certainly could be better than the 2013 version. I'm going to take a wild guess and say you're a Michigan fan. If we were talking about Michigan, because of its superior overall history, it would be mentioned as a playoff candidate. Michigan State isn't getting the same treatment.


Mark from Champaign, Ill., writes: Is Julie Hermann too outspoken? She doesn't seem to have any boundaries and will talk about anything to any audience. Looks to be a thorn in Jim Delany's side right away.

Adam Rittenberg: I don't know if she has boundaries, Mark, but she's showing her inexperience in the role. Major-conference athletic directors must deal with scrutiny, especially those operating in major markets. She certainly has had more than her share for a first-year AD, but the spotlight is always on, and people are looking for poise, not noise about the media. As an AD, you have to focus on the bigger picture and stay above this stuff. It will be important for Hermann to do so going forward with the Big Ten transition.


Scott from Pleasanton, Calif., writes: After reading some articles about James Franklin's long hours and boundless energy, I wanted to get your take on the following -- does it matter that much? I mean, the coaches aren't on the field making plays, so it seems to me there may be diminishing returns with respect to the total number of hours spent in the office. Would he be just as effective if he worked a little less and got some more sleep?

Adam Rittenberg: He could be, Scott, but coaches always talk about being who they are, and Franklin knows no other way to do the job. The long-hours thing gets overplayed, but I think his energetic approach -- and that of his staff -- is effective in making connections with a group of players who have been through a lot with the coaching changes and sanctions. They want to see the coaches invested in them and in the program. They're getting that with Franklin.


Joel from Minneapolis writes: The Big 12 Blog recently gave its take on whether spring games were still necessary or have become irrelevant. I'd be interested to know your (and Bennett's) takes are on these events. Obviously they're a nice bridge that fills such a long offseason, but some schools can barely attract enough fans to fill even a fraction of their stadiums, and as many coaches in the B12 blog pointed out, have become so guarded as to showcasing how far their team has come along. Perhaps its time for the marketing departments at each school to rebrand these events into a more quasi-athletic affair, showcasing other aspects the athletic department. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Joel, schools take different approaches and some try to pair the spring football games with another athletic event (Ohio State typically schedules a lacrosse game beforehand). The bigger issues I see are existing injuries or the fear of more injuries. Some teams are so beaten up along the lines that it's impossible to field two true teams. Can't blame them for that. Other coaches are concerned about starters being hurt. I can tell you Wisconsin will have a true spring game, despite its injuries, as only a handful of players (RB Melvin Gordon among them) will be held out as a precaution. Spring games are fun events for the die-hards, but they often don't matter nearly as much as the 14 preceding practices. I'm fine with having the events continue, but I don't expect much from them.
Colleague Travis Haney recently compiled a list of sleeper teams to make the initial College Football Playoff, selecting one from each major league. Wisconsin got the nod as the Big Ten's sleeper, as Haney noted Wisconsin's consistency on both sides of the ball in coach Gary Andersen's first season at the helm.

Andersen and his staff are no longer newcomers in Madison, but the roster dramatically resets in Year 2, especially on defense. Wisconsin has a big opportunity in its season opener against LSU in Houston, and its Big Ten schedule doesn't feature Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State.

Could Melvin Gordon and the Badgers make a run for the Playoff? If they get by LSU, it's certainly possible.

Is Wisconsin the Big Ten's only sleeper team?

Michigan State and Ohio State clearly are the league's frontrunners and legitimate candidates to make the playoff. The sleeper label doesn't apply to the Spartans or Buckeyes.

Which teams belong in the category? Here are three other possibilities:

Nebraska: Some would argue that the Huskers still must get past the four-loss barrier before worrying about a playoff push. Bo Pelini's crew has to avoid its annual meltdown or two, but there are reasons for optimism on defense, and the offense boasts a tremendous weapon in senior running back Ameer Abdullah. Nebraska's road schedule (Fresno State, Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa) could torpedo any real chance.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes improved their win total by four games last season and return most of their core in every spot except linebacker, where all three starters depart. Iowa might not be an elite team, but it could have an elite record because of an extremely favorable schedule. The Hawkeyes' toughest Big Ten road game is Minnesota. They don't play any of the East Division powers this year, and they get both Wisconsin and Nebraska at home.

Michigan: Some will say Michigan is being included simply because of its name, and maybe they're right. The Wolverines have shown little in the past two years to suggest a surge to elite status is on the way. But the recruiting success can't be overlooked, and if Michigan can just run the ball better and protect the pocket, it will dramatically change the outlook for the team. Like Nebraska, the Wolverines' road schedule could take them out of the discussion as they visit Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State.

Bottom line: Beyond MSU and OSU, I'd be surprised if the Big Ten has a Playoff contender. But because of the schedules, Wisconsin and Iowa shouldn't be overlooked.
The ultimate Big Ten road trip for the 2014 season is, sadly, over. It's back to the reality of travel budgets and some Saturdays on the couch. For those who weren't paying attention the past few weeks, Brian Bennett and I each picked a game to attend -- featuring at least one Big Ten team -- during each week of the 2014 season.

The full itinerary is below:

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
Week 5: Brian at Cincinnati-Ohio State; Adam at Minnesota-Michigan
Week 6: Adam at Nebraska-Michigan State; Brian at Nebraska-Michigan State
Week 7: Brian at Penn State-Michigan; Adam at Northwestern-Minnesota
Week 8: Adam at Iowa-Maryland; Brian at Nebraska-Northwestern
Week 9: Brian at Michigan-Michigan State; Adam at Ohio State-Penn State
Week 10: Adam at Northwestern-Iowa; Brian at Wisconsin-Rutgers
Week 11: Brian and Adam at Ohio State-Michigan State
Week 12: Adam and Brian at Nebraska-Wisconsin
Week 13: Brian and Adam at Wisconsin-Iowa
Week 14: Adam at Michigan-Ohio State; Brian at Nebraska-Iowa

You've seen our picks. Now it's time for yours.

Today's poll asks you to pick one game to attend during the 2014 season. It's a tall order, we know, as there are several good options. You can pick the biggest game for your favorite team if you'd like, but we'd also like you to think a little broader. Consider the locations, the timing, the game-day atmosphere, the culinary/beverage options and more.

It wasn't easy narrowing the options to five, but here goes ...
    SportsNation

    Which Big Ten game would you most like to attend?

    •  
      11%
    •  
      15%
    •  
      15%
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      29%
    •  
      30%

    Discuss (Total votes: 9,229)

  • Wisconsin vs. LSU, Aug. 30 in Houston: If you like Texas barbecue, running backs and blockbuster season openers, this is the game for you. Wisconsin standout Melvin Gordon begins a potential Heisman Trophy campaign against a strong LSU defense at Reliant Stadium (soon to be NRG Stadium). The Badgers have a big chance to make a statement about their place in the Big Ten race and possibly the playoff picture.
  • Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6: The Big Ten has the biggest stadiums in college football, but Oregon probably has the loudest in Autzen Stadium. The Ducks also boast an excellent team led by quarterback Marcus Mariota. Michigan State's last trip to the West Coast was great one, and the Spartans can put themselves in the playoff mix with an upset win in Eugene. Also, sources tell me the Oregon dance team will be there.
  • Ohio State at Michigan State, Nov. 8: A rematch of the 2013 Big Ten championship game pairs the two preseason favorites in the East Division. The game features standout quarterbacks (Braxton Miller and Connor Cook) and pass rushers (Shilique Calhoun, Joey Bosa and Noah Spence). It also could kick off under the lights, despite being in November. Sparta will be rocking.
  • Nebraska at Wisconsin, Nov. 15:The West Division title could be on the line as the Huskers and Badgers meet at Camp Randall, site of Nebraska's league debut as a Big Ten member in 2011. Ameer Abdullah and the Huskers look for a much better result this time around. Abdullah will share the field with his good friend, Gordon, in a matchup of the league's top two running backs. Madison could be chilly, but it offers a lot to see, do, eat and drink.
  • Michigan at Ohio State, Nov. 29: The Game doesn't need much of a sales pitch, especially after last season's thriller in Ann Arbor. Miller plays his final home game and tries to finish with three consecutive wins against the Wolverines. Michigan aims for its first win in Columbus since 2000. It's a big year for Wolverines coach Brady Hoke, who could use another win against Michigan's archrival.

Time to vote.

Spring position breakdown: RBs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Ten lunch links

February, 20, 2014
Feb 20
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The links would like to be back in Indianapolis, but they're never going pro.
  • After picking up some new hardware, Braxton Miller talks about his decision to return to Ohio State for one more season.
  • Is there really a quarterback competition on tap for Michigan this spring? Opinions are somewhat divided ahead of the start of camp for the Wolverines.
  • Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard is fighting to be the first cornerback taken in the draft, and a strong showing at the NFL combine could put him in that position.
  • Reserve guard Tanner Hartman is leaving Penn State, dropping James Franklin's roster down to 78 scholarship players. The Nittany Lions eventually need to get down to 75 by August.
  • Bo Pelini has a new administrator to report to as Nebraska made a personnel change in the football operations department.
  • At the top of the list of questions for Indiana's offense: Who is the top quarterback heading into spring practice?
  • The Northwestern hearings continued on Wednesday as the debate focused on whether or not players could be considered employees.
  • With a presence in nearly half of the nation's top 15 media markets, Pat Caputo calls the Big Ten a "demographics dream."
  • There's no question about Melvin Gordon's talent, but the next step is proving the Wisconsin running back can flourish in a featured role.
  • Quarterback transfers appear to be on the rise, and players are both coming and going in the Big Ten.
Darqueze DennardMike Carter/USA TODAY SportsDarqueze Dennard fell just short of the top spot in the 2013 Big Ten final player countdown, but the Michigan State cornerback was one of six Spartans that made the cut, the most of any school.

Our postseason Top 25 player countdown concluded earlier today with a familiar name -- Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller -- at the top. What did you think of the rundown? Let us know here and here.

Let's dive into the rankings ...

BY TEAM

Michigan State: 6
Ohio State: 5
Wisconsin: 4
Nebraska: 2
Michigan: 2
Iowa: 2
Indiana: 1
Illinois: 1
Penn State: 1
Minnesota: 1

Northwestern and Purdue weren't represented on the list, although several players -- Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and kicker Jeff Budzien, along with Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen -- were considered.

BY POSITION

Linebacker: 5
Running back: 5
Wide receiver: 4
Quarterback: 3
Offensive tackle: 3
Defensive end: 2
Cornerback: 2
Defensive tackle: 1

The Big Ten remains a linebacker- and running back-driven league, just like we thought it would be entering the season. Wide receiver saw an improvement in 2013 as four players made the list, up from just one (Penn State's Allen Robinson) following the 2012 season. Cornerback is another spot that improved around the league. Although just two made the list, others such as Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Purdue's Allen and Michigan's Blake Countess wouldn't have been bad choices.

Center traditionally has been a strong position in the Big Ten but none made the cut this year (Ohio State's Corey Linsley came close). Safety continues to be a bit of a problem around the league. There are some good safeties but few great ones. That could change in 2014 as players such as Kurtis Drummond and Ibraheim Campbell return.

BY CLASS (eligibility)

Senior: 13
Junior: 8
Sophomore: 4

Of the nine juniors, five are returning for the 2014 season. Draft-eligible sophomores such as Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon also are returning.

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg was the only freshman (true or redshirt) seriously considered for the list.

RANKINGS HISTORY

Ten players also appeared in the 2012 postseason rankings. Here they are:

No. 1: Braxton Miller (No. 1 in 2012 rankings)
No. 2: Darqueze Dennard (No. 19 in 2012 rankings)
No. 3: Carlos Hyde (No. 21 in 2012 rankings)
No. 4: Ameer Abdullah (No. 20 in 2012 rankings)
No. 5: Ryan Shazier (No. 10 in 2012 rankings)
No. 6: Chris Borland (No. 13 in 2012 rankings)
No. 7: Allen Robinson (No. 11 in 2012 rankings)
No. 9: Taylor Lewan (No. 7 in 2012 rankings)
No. 14: Max Bullough (No. 15 in 2012 rankings)
No. 16: Bradley Roby (No. 16 in 2012 rankings)

Dennard, Hyde and Abdullah were the biggest risers from 2012, while Calhoun, who finished No. 8 after being unranked after his freshman year, made the biggest overall jump.

When it comes to the preseason Top 25, 14 players who made the list also appear in the postseason rankings. Dennard (preseason No. 10), Abdullah (preseason No. 13), Gordon (preseason No. 22) and Wisconsin running back James White preseason No. 23) are among the biggest risers, while Lewan (preseason No. 2), Bullough (preseason No. 7) and Roby (preseason No. 9) slipped a bit. Hyde would have made the preseason rankings, but we weren't sure of his status because of the night club incident.

FIVE THAT JUST MISSED THE CUT

[+] EnlargeIllinois' Jonathan Brown
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsJonathan Brown (45) was one of the top linebackers in the conference and just barely missed making the Top 25.
Illinois LB Jonathan Brown: Brown definitely was No. 26 on our list and certainly could have made the Top 25 rundown. The second-team All-Big Ten selection finished second in the league in tackles (119) and fourth in tackles per loss average (1.25 per game).

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: He had some typical freshman moments but finished the season extremely well and showed tremendous potential. Hackenberg earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors and passed for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Iowa LB Anthony Hitchens: Hitchens had an excellent senior season as part of the Big Ten's top linebacker corps. He finished sixth in the league in tackles per game and seventh in tackles for loss. He recorded two forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovered.

Penn State DT DaQuan Jones: Jones earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches and was a bright spot for a defense that struggled for much of the season. He had 56 tackles, including a team-high 11 tackles for loss, and three sacks.

Ohio State DE Noah Spence: Spence began to display his tremendous potential for a young Buckeyes defensive line, finishing second in the league in sacks (8) and sixth in tackles for loss (14.5). He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media and second-team honors from the coaches.
The Wolverines played against a few guys in 2013 that they’re pleased they won’t have to face again. Linebacker Ryan Shazier left Ohio State early for the NFL and every Michigan running back is likely pleased about that. Wide receiver Allen Robinson left Penn State and each Michigan defensive back who had to cover him is glad they won’t have to attempt that again. OSU cornerback Bradley Roby won’t be covering any Wolverines in the Big Ten again, and Indiana wideout Cody Latimer won’t have the chance to beat down Michigan’s cornerbacks one more time.

However, there are a few players the Wolverines will see again next season that perhaps they were hoping would join the ranks of Shazier, Robinson, Roby and Latimer in leaving early. Here’s the official “We have to see them again?” list for the 2014 season.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Tony DingThe Wolverines have to face Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller one more time -- in 2014 in Columbus.
1. Ohio State QB Braxton Miller | Nov. 29 @ Ohio State

Carlos Hyde graduated so the Wolverines won’t have to gameplan for him again, but Miller is one they’ll have to face. Some people thought that even though Miller missed some time earlier this season he’d leave early for the NFL draft, but he has decided to return and with that, he’ll get another chance at Michigan in the Horseshoe. Against Michigan this season he rushed for three touchdowns and 153 yards. He also threw for two touchdowns and 133 yards, and the passing game is where he could make major strides again this offseason. From 2012 to 2013, Miller went from completing 58 percent of his passes to completing almost 64 percent. Additionally, he went from throwing 15 touchdowns and six interceptions to 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions. If he makes those kinds of strides again, it could be even worse news for the Wolverines as they travel to Columbus in 2014.

2. Northwestern RB Venric Mark | Nov. 8 @ Northwestern

Mark was given a fifth season of eligibility after his medical hardship waiver was approved. He appeared in only three games this season so the Wolverines didn’t have to deal with him, but with a fifth season of eligibility and the Wildcats coming off such a disappointing season (and with how they lost to Michigan), it’s a safe bet that Mark will have the Michigan game circled on his calendar. He’s a talented tailback who rushed for 1,366 yards in 2012. Against the Wolverines that season he rushed for one touchdown and 104 yards. It’s always a good thing when players can play out their careers and Mark deserves a final season. But U-M defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is going to be thinking this summer of ways to scheme against him.

3. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah | Dec. 6 @ Indianapolis

This would happen only if the Wolverines were to make the Big Ten Championship game. But if they did there’s a decent chance they’d meet the Cornhuskers, and Abdullah would be another player Michigan would really not want to see again. Abdullah rushed for one touchdown and 105 yards as well as recording a TD reception against the Wolverines in 2013, delivering coach Brady Hoke his first loss in the Big House. After a Big Ten-leading 1,690 rushing yards this season, as well as 11 100-yard rushing performances, most figured he’d enter the NFL draft. He spoke with good friend and Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon (a player the Wolverines are glad isn’t on their matchup list in 2014), however, and decided he had more to add to his legacy at Nebraska.

4. Iowa OT Brandon Scherff | Dec. 6 @ Indianapolis

Again, this is a player the Wolverines would see only if both teams made the title game, but most defensive linemen would prefer not to see Scherff again. He probably could've been a high pick in the 2014 draft, but he chose to stay for his senior year and protect Iowa QB Jake Rudock for one more year, which the Wolverines know about all too well. He's the third returning starter on the O-line for the Hawkeyes, but he's the most talented by far, so if this matchup were to happen, it'd be another that Mattison would really have to game plan for.

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