Michigan Wolverines: Montee Ball

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Tony DingBraxton Miller was fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting as a sophomore in 2012 and was ninth in 2013.
Braxton Miller has a chance to make Big Ten history this season by winning his third straight conference player-of-the-year award and by earning Heisman votes for the third consecutive season.

Of course, he’s not the only Big Ten player to ever enter his senior year with big expectations. In the past 20 years, six other conference players earned Heisman votes before their final seasons and were preseason candidates a season later. (Thirteen non-seniors in all earned votes, but seven left early for the NFL draft. Another, Northwestern's Damien Anderson, played in just eight games the season after and isn't listed below.)

Although it’s still anyone’s guess exactly how Miller will fare this season, here’s a look at players who found themselves in similar positions and how they performed in the season after receiving Heisman votes:




Wisconsin RB Montee Ball, 2011, junior

Heisman votes as a junior: 22 first-place votes; finished fourth overall. Led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards (6.3 yards per carry) and also finished with an NCAA-best 33 rushing TDs.

How he fared the next year: Without quarterback Russell Wilson, some experts predicted Ball would struggle to equal the numbers from his junior campaign. Sure enough, with a rotating quarterback carousel, that’s exactly what happened. The Badgers threw just 289 times that season and Ball finished with a career-high 356 carries. Ball’s importance and talent were still undeniable but, as defenses zeroed in against him, he watched his yards-per-carry average fall by more than a yard.

How the team fared: Wisconsin leaned on Ball heavily -- just take a look at this box score against Utah State -- and fared well when it counted. The Badgers won the Big Ten championship, embarrassing Nebraska in a 70-31 blowout, and earned a spot in the Rose Bowl. They finished 8-6.




Michigan QB Denard Robinson, 2010, sophomore

Heisman votes as a sophomore: Six first-place votes; finished sixth overall. Went 182-of-291 passing (62.5 percent) for 2,570 yards, 18 TDs and 11 INTs; rushed for 1,702 yards (6.6 ypc) and 14 TDs.

How he fared the next year: Speculation swirled on whether Robinson would transfer before the season because the firing of Rich Rodriguez meant he had to deal a new coaching staff and some offensive changes. But Robinson stayed and performed well – even if his numbers decreased across the board. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was able to take some pressure off Robinson, and the change in statistics wasn’t dramatic. After all, Robinson still rushed for more than 1,000 yards and passed for more than 2,000. It wasn’t as impressive as 2010, but Robinson was still named team MVP and earned a spot on the All-Big Ten second team.

How the team fared: Michigan fans were just fine with Robinson’s drop-off because the team soared in Brady Hoke’s first season. Robinson guided the Wolverines to an 11-2 finish -- their best record in five years -- and helped Michigan win the Sugar Bowl.




Michigan RB Mike Hart, 2006, junior

Heisman votes as a junior: Five first-place votes; finished fifth overall. Finished second in the B1G with 1,562 yards (4.9 ypc) and had 14 rushing TDs

How he fared the next year: Hart became a team captain and turned in an even stronger performance. If it wasn’t for an ankle injury that sidelined him for three full games, Hart likely would’ve been in the Heisman race again. Through nine Michigan games, he led all BCS runners with 154 yards a game – and he was still a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and a consensus pick as first-team All-Big Ten. Overall, his importance was pretty difficult to ignore. After opening the season with two losses, Hart helped to shift the tone by guaranteeing a win against Notre Dame – Michigan won 38-0 –and then winning eight straight. He finished the year with 5.1 ypc and matched his 14-touchdown total despite carrying the ball 53 fewer times.

How the team fared: The Wolverines put an early end to their national title hopes by losing to Appalachian State in the opener. Michigan failed to repeat its Rose Bowl berth but rebounded after a slow start to go 9-4 and win the Capital One Bowl.




Purdue QB Drew Brees, 1999, junior

Heisman votes as a junior: Three first-place votes; finished fourth overall. Led the conference in every major passing category: passing yards (3,909), passing TDs (25), pass attempts (554) and pass completions (337) and threw 12 interceptions.

How he fared the next year: Brees’ consistency was pretty darn impressive, as all of his numbers were nearly identical even though Purdue didn't have much of a running game. He again led the Big Ten in those same statistical categories and improved his standing in the Heisman race -- he finished third as a senior with 69 first-place votes. Plus, he won the Maxwell Award and was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Brees’ success is pretty well documented, but something fans might have forgotten: He rushed for 521 yards and 5.5 yards per carry as a senior. Brees really could do it all.

How the team fared: The Boilermakers shared the Big Ten title and improved their victory total from the year before, from 7-5 to 8-4. They earned a berth in the Rose Bowl.




Northwestern RB Darnell Autry, 1995, sophomore

Heisman votes as a sophomore: 87 first-place votes; finished fourth overall. Led the NCAA with 387 rushing attempts and had 1,785 yards (4.6 ypc) and 17 TDs; caught 27 passes for 168 yards and one score.

How he fared the next year: Autry fared a bit better in 1996, as Northwestern’s passing attack improved and defenses could no longer key on him. In 1995, he literally accounted for half of the offense’s total yards (1,953 of 3,916). In 1996, he carried the ball 107 fewer times – his 280 attempts were still the fourth-highest in the conference -- but he matched his 17 rushing TDs from the previous season and increased his average by more than a half-yard, up to 5.2 yards per carry. He dropped a bit in the Heisman voting, but that was mostly because his rushing yards dropped with a smaller workload. Autry still dominated.

How the team fared: Northwestern shared the Big Ten title and improved its record to 9-3 – but lost in the Citrus Bowl. Autry’s Wildcats shocked the B1G that October when they overcame a 16-0 deficit against Michigan by rallying in the fourth quarter.

Big Ten lunch links

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
12:00
PM ET
The links have decided to unionize.

Big Ten all-BCS-era team

January, 13, 2014
Jan 13
10:00
AM ET
The BCS is dead. RIP. As we memorialize the BCS era throughout ESPN.com today, we're selecting All-BCS teams from each conference. As a reminder, the BCS era lasted from the 1998 season through the recently completed 2013 season. To narrow our selections a bit, players had to play at least two seasons in the BCS era to be eligible. Nebraska players are part of our list even though the Huskers played in the Big 12 until 2011.

Here's our Big Ten All-BCS team.

Coach: Jim Tressel, Ohio State -- Tressel led Ohio State to the 2002 national title, the Big Ten's only championship in the BCS era, as well as seven Big Ten titles (one vacated).

OFFENSE

QB: Drew Brees, Purdue (1997-2000) -- He led Purdue to the 2000 Big Ten championship and finished his career with league records for passing yards (11,792), touchdown passes (90), total offensive yards (12,693), completions (1,026), and attempts (1,678). Brees won the Maxwell Award in 2000.

RB: Ron Dayne, Wisconsin (1996-99) -- The 1999 Heisman Trophy winner set the NCAA's career rushing record with 6,397 yards (not including bowl games). He won all the major national individual awards in 1999 and became the first player to repeat as Rose Bowl MVP.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMontee Ball had 39 TDs for Wisconsin in 2011.
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin (2009-2012) -- The man nicknamed "MoneyBall" tied Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season touchdowns record with 39 in 2011 and set the mark for career touchdowns with 83. He won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back in 2012.

WR: Braylon Edwards, Michigan (2001-04) -- The Big Ten's most recent Biletnikoff Award winner holds the league record for career touchdown receptions (39) and ranks fourth in career receiving yards (3,541). He's the only Big Ten receiver to record 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.

WR: Lee Evans, Wisconsin (2000-03) -- Evans twice led the Big Ten in receiving yards, eclipsing 1,500 yards in 2001 before rebounding from an ACL tear to record 1,213 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2003.

TE: Dallas Clark, Iowa (1999-2002) -- Clark earned the John Mackey Award in 2002 after recording 43 receptions for 742 yards as Iowa went undefeated in the Big Ten.

OL: Greg Eslinger, Minnesota (2002-05) -- One of the more decorated Big Ten linemen in the BCS era, Eslinger won the Outland Trophy in 2005. He was a two-time first-team All-America selection and a three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection for one of the nation's top rushing offenses.

OL: Joe Thomas, Wisconsin (2003-06) -- Another Outland Trophy winner (2006), Thomas earned unanimous consensus All-America honors that year. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in each of his final two seasons and was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft.

OL: Dominic Raiola, Nebraska (1998-2000) -- In 1998, Raiola became the first Nebraska freshman offensive lineman to start a game in seven years. He went on to earn the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center, first-team All-Big 12 honors in his final two seasons and consensus first-team All-America honors in 2000.

OL: Robert Gallery, Iowa (1999-2003) -- Gallery claimed the Outland Trophy in 2003 as well as first-team All-America honors. He twice earned first-team All-Big Ten honors as the anchor of a nationally elite offensive line.

OL: Jake Long, Michigan (2003-07) -- Although Long didn't win the Outland, he twice earned consensus first-team All-America honors (unanimous selection in 2007) and twice earned Big Ten offensive lineman of the year honors (beating out Thomas in 2006). Long was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft.

DEFENSE

DE: LaMarr Woodley, Michigan (2003-06) -- Woodley claimed the Rotary Lombardi Award in 2006 as the nation's top lineman. A first-team All-American that season, he finished his career with 10 forced fumbles, tied for seventh on the Big Ten's career list.

DE: Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue (2007-10) -- Unlike most of the men on this list, Kerrigan never played for any BCS bowl teams at Purdue but still had a remarkable career that ended with unanimous consensus first-team All-America honors in 2010. The Big Ten defensive player of the year tied the NCAA record for forced fumbles (14) and recorded 33.5 sacks and 57 tackles for loss.

DT: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska (2005-09) -- The most dominant defender in recent years finished fourth in Heisman voting in 2009 (should have been higher) and earned several awards, including the Bednarik, Nagurski and Outland. Suh finished his career with 24 sacks, 57 tackles for loss, four interceptions, three forced fumbles and 41 quarterback hurries.

DT: Devon Still, Penn State (2008-11) -- Penn State produced a string of outstanding defensive tackles including Still, the Big Ten's defensive player of the year in 2011. Still earned consensus first-team All-America honors after recording 17 tackles for loss.

LB: James Laurinaitis, Ohio State (2005-08) -- Laurinaitis won major national awards in each of his final three seasons, including the Nagurski Trophy in 2006. The two-time Big Ten defensive player of the year became just the third Ohio State player to earn consensus All-America honors in three seasons.

LB: Paul Posluszny, Penn State (2003-06) -- Posluszny is one of only two players (Pat Fitzgerald) to twice win the Bednarik Award as the nation's top defender. He became the first Penn State linebacker to twice earn AP All-America honors.

LB: LaVar Arrington, Penn State (1997-99) -- A freakishly athletic linebacker at Linebacker U., Arrington twice earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and won the Bednarik and Butkus Awards as a junior in 1999. He was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft.

CB: Jamar Fletcher, Wisconsin (1998-2000) -- Fletcher claimed the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back in 2000, won Big Ten defensive player of the year honors that year and was a three-time first-team all-conference selection. He's tied for fourth in league history with 21 career interceptions and holds the league record for interception return yards (459).

CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State (2010-13) -- Dennard also claimed the Thorpe Award as he helped Michigan State to its first outright Big Ten title in 26 years and a Rose Bowl victory against Stanford. The two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection recorded 10 career interceptions and led the "No Fly Zone" Spartans secondary.

S: Tyrone Carter, Minnesota (1996-99) -- The only Big Ten safety to win the Thorpe Award, Carter also twice earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and earned unanimous All-America honors in 1999. He set the FBS record for career tackles by a defensive back with 528.

S: Mike Doss, Ohio State (1999-2002) -- A three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection, Doss earned unanimous consensus All-America honors in 2002 as Ohio State won the national title.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Mike Nugent, Ohio State (2001-04) -- Nugent won the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top kicker in 2004 and claimed consensus All-America honors in both 2002 and 2004. He holds the Big Ten record for consecutive made field goals with 24.

P: Brandon Fields, Michigan State (2003-06) -- His name is on the Big Ten's punter of the year award for a reason. Fields earned consensus All-America honors in 2004, earned first-team All-Big Ten honors three times and twice led the league in punting, tying for third in career average (45 ypp).

Returns: Ted Ginn, Ohio State (2004-06) and Steve Breaston, Michigan (2003-06) -- Ginn holds the Big Ten single-season records for kick return average (25.6 ypr) and career punt return touchdowns (6), while Breaston claims the league mark for career punt return yards (1,599) and is tied for third in punt return touchdowns (4).

It's tough enough putting together these teams for one season, much less 16 seasons. You can't please everyone, and many exceptional players didn't make the cut.

We decided to go with five offensive linemen rather than a center, two guards and two tackles, in order to recognize the best overall players in the trenches.

There was some debate for a second receiver alongside Michigan's Edwards, as the Big Ten hasn't exactly mass-produced superstars at the position. Several players had great seasons like Michigan State's Charles Rogers in 2002, but we put more stock into overall career output and went with Wisconsin's Evans, who led the league in receiving in 2001 and 2003.

Cornerback created some debate among Fletcher, Dennard and Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins, also a Jim Thorpe Award winner. We faced another tough decision at safety between Ohio State's Doss and Iowa's Bob Sanders.

Surprisingly, the defensive tackle spot produced few bona-fide superstars. Nebraska's Suh, who played his entire career in the Big 12, was an obvious choice but a second choice proved to be tough.

Arguably the toughest choice came at kicker between Nugent and Iowa's Nate Kaeding. Both won Lou Groza Awards and set numerous records. We gave the nod to Nugent, but not by much.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

October, 18, 2013
10/18/13
4:00
PM ET
Wishing you a great weekend of football watching. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter, the best way to keep track on Saturdays.

To the inbox ...

Sumeet from San Francisco writes: Adam, what else, schedule questions. I have one, parity-based scheduling doesn't appear to be working as you may think, coming from a PSU fan. From 2014-2019 (a six-season stretch), PSU plays Nebraska once and Wisconsin once, both at Beaver Stadium. Really? This after we played both teams annually the past three years with some classic games? But we play Iowa four times in a row, and the other West teams multiple times over the six years. PSU-Nebraska especially had the makings of a budding rivalry, but now we won't see them until 2017, and Wisky in 2018. What gives?

Adam Rittenberg: Sumeet, it's unfortunate that the Lions and Huskers will meet so infrequently during that stretch, as both fan bases love that game on the schedule. It seems like the Big Ten has prioritized certain games over others with parity-based scheduling. Nebraska and Ohio State, for example, meet every year between 2016 and 2019, but Nebraska and Michigan meet just once between 2014 and 2019. Wisconsin and Michigan also meet every year between 2016-19, but the Badgers only play Penn State once during that span. The Big Ten is trying to create appealing matchups more often while also satisfying its principle to have teams meet at least once in a four-year span.

Penn State does seem to be put in the second tier when it comes to this approach, as the Lions aren't facing the marquee West division teams as often as you'd hope. I would point out, though that, Penn State-Iowa was a significant Big Ten matchup not long ago, and could be once again in the near future. It's not the same as facing Nebraska every year, but Penn State and Iowa had a nice rivalry going for a while.




Jackie from New York: It's no secret that Badger running backs have great respect for each other and pride in their performance as a unit. That said, is there any cause for concern that the unbelievable depth could hurt the Badgers in recruiting? You could argue that not just two, but all three of the Badgers' current backs are FBS starting caliber, even though the third, Corey Clement, is a true freshman. Melvin Gordon, leading candidate for B1G offensive player of the year is not even first on the depth chart. Heck, they even have J.J. Watt's little brother lining up back there at fullback! So, my question is, how do you keep convincing big-time recruits to come to Madison when they might have to spend years sharing carries?

Adam Rittenberg: I don't think you worry about it until it becomes a problem, Jackie. The beauty of Wisconsin's running back situation is that the players all buy in to the spirit of competition and don't simply look for a place where they can be The Guy without first earning it. Running backs coach Thomas Hammock fosters this atmosphere of constant competition, and he looks for guys who want to compete and not have things just handed to them. Look at Montee Ball. He was the third-stringer for most of 2010 and had to boost his game to a point where he could be a featured back. Could Wisconsin's way lead to a transfer eventually or a highly touted player going elsewhere? Sure. But Wisconsin has built such a strong reputation for producing elite running backs that the talent will continue to come to Madison. More important, the right types of players will show up -- those ready to compete.




Ian from Tacoma, Wash., writes: Adam, there was a recent question from another B1G fan in one of your chats that I found pretty absurd. Someone made a comment along the lines of "Do we want Ohio State in the championship game" with the assumption that Ohio State losing somehow damages the B1G's reputation. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Ohio State is the only B1G team to PLAY in the NC game, much less win it. Ohio State also has the most BCS wins and appearances of any school, and has more BCS wins than any other B1G teams have appearances. Big Ten fans can hate Ohio State all they want, but the Buckeyes have accomplished more in the BCS era than any other league school, and it's not even close.

Adam Rittenberg: You're absolutely right, Ian. Ohio State has been the Big Ten's only consistently elite team during the BCS era. It underscores the Big Ten's lack of depth at the top, which is a big reason it lags behind the SEC, a conference that has multiple teams that can challenge for national titles almost every year. As I said in the chat, the only way the Big Ten boosts its perception is to win a national title, and you can't win one without reaching that game. Ohio State still unfairly gets blamed for its title-game losses more than half a decade ago. But you have to wonder whether this Buckeyes team is ready to compete with an Alabama or an Oregon on Jan. 7. We could find out.




Bob from Iowa writes: My Hawkeyes are going into a very hostile environment this weekend at OSU. This team has me thinking about the Hawks' 2008 team. An improving team whose previous three years were very IOWA (mediocre). They entered the 2008 season with a bit of QB controversy (2008 Christiansen vs. Stanzi the Manzi). In 2008, they had a power running game on which they leaned on for the majority of the year. Now, that same year they beat the No. 3 team in the nation, Penn State. Understandable, it was in IC but that doesn't mean it couldn't happen again, right? They finished the year with an 8-4 record and they trounced South Carolina in the Gator Bowl (I believe). The following year they went to the Orange Bowl. Do you think these same results are possible again in our present timeline? What needs to go right?

Adam Rittenberg: Bob, I love the optimism, and I agree that this season could springboard Iowa to bigger and better things next season, much like the 2008 season did for the 2009 team. Iowa's 2014 schedule is much, much more favorable with no overly difficult road games (Pitt, Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota and Illinois) and no Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State or Penn State on the slate. If certain things fall right, the Hawkeyes will be in the mix for the West division title. Now can Iowa beat Ohio State on Saturday? I don't see it. This Hawkeyes team isn't as strong as the 2008 version, which lost some games it shouldn't have and ended the year playing as well as anyone in the Big Ten. There was a ton of NFL talent on that team, which I don't see with the current version. Iowa will need to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, commit no turnovers and gain a few takeaways to stay in Saturday's game. The Hawkeyes also need the edge in the kicking game. It's a tall task, but not an impossible one.




Alden from Chicago writes: I wish the B1G would leave the end-of-year games alone for the Spartans. I understand that the so-called rivalry with Penn State was squandered through the 90s and 00s. But now that we're going to be in the same division again, with MSU more competitive, why not reinstate it? What does MSU have to look forward to by playing Rutgers and Maryland? I feel like it's a major disadvantage in the rankings as well, would you agree? Is it Penn State that wants to end the year playing against the east coast? I say let the Knights and Terrapins play each other to end November.

Adam Rittenberg: Alden, it very well may work out that Michigan State plays Penn State to end the regular season in most years, but I don't see the problem with rotating that game with several opponents. Penn State has more rivalry potential with Rutgers and Maryland than Michigan State does, and the Big Ten wants to see where those games go over time. I don't understand your point about the game being a "major disadvantage" in the rankings. MSU still will play PSU every season in the division, in addition to both Michigan and Ohio State. The Spartans also typically will have a good crossover game (Nebraska, Northwestern, Wisconsin, etc.). Strength of schedule shouldn't be an issue for any team in the East division.

The plus of playing Rutgers and Maryland -- whenever it falls during the season -- is being able to showcase your product in new markets. Michigan State AD Mark Hollis has talked about the school's large alumni base on the east coast. Those folks will get to see the Spartans play in their backyard in late November. So will recruits that Michigan State targets in states like New Jersey and Maryland. I just can't get excited about the MSU-PSU series enough to make it an annual end-of-season rivalry.




John from San Antonio writes: After a promising start against nonconference creampuffs, it's fair to say that the Beckman rebuild has turned into a hopeless spiral of failure and depression. A five-win season would be a miracle and the next honest shot at a 6-6 season comes in 2107 with the return of Indiana, which is coincidentally when his contract runs out. But the problem is no coach could turn it around before then. So what's a fan to do? Pray for a merciful end to yet another hiring mistake and allow someone else to do no worse? Or fake joy at the "progress" of 4-8 seasons, concluded with a lethargic 2017 campaign for a 6-6 bowl appearance allowing Beckman to go out on a not-exactly-winning note?

Adam Rittenberg: Wow, John, tell me how you really feel. I don't think you should be doing backflips about the Illini this year, but you have to acknowledge the improvement taking place there, especially on offense. This is still a young team that could take some steps late this season into next season. The remaining schedule looks daunting, and three more wins seem unlikely, but you never know. You can't say the next "honest shot" at a 6-6 season comes only in 2017, and that no coach could turn things around before then. Illinois is going to the West division, which should be the easier side to navigate. The team is already starting to mature a bit, and quarterback transfer Wes Lunt becomes eligible next fall. If you don't believe Tim Beckman is the guy, that's fine. But to project that the next four years will bring no bowls or tangible progress is a defeatist approach. Let's see how the rest of this season plays out.




Christopher from Middleton, Wis., writes: Big Ten football's demise is a cyclical phenomenon and not a failure to recruit. Scandal and coaching turnover, not style of play, is the biggest problem. Penn State and Ohio State, possibly the two best programs in the Big Ten were hit with big penalties. Michigan mis-hired with Rich Rod, who by the way was a spread-offense guy. Michigan players left, disgusted with Rich Rod's behavior. It takes many more years than just the years they are penalized or the years the coach is active, for a program to be rebuilt. Programs that have been consistent with coaching and offensive styles have done well, Wisconsin and Northwestern are successful without ranking high in recruiting. Michigan has always been a top recruiter, but had turnover, controversy, and a change of football philosophy that disrupts a program for years. It is not the recruiting but scandal, coaching turnover and the change of football philosophy that calls for different player personnel that goes with coaching change that has hit the Big Ten. Years ago the Big Ten basketball conference was considered weak, and now it is the top conference. My question is, how is recruiting in basketball different than football other than number of players?

Adam Rittenberg: Some good points here, Christopher, especially about coaching continuity leading to success and the lack of it in the Big Ten in recent years. It's important for programs to build their identities around the coach and the systems they run. We saw Iowa win the Rose Bowl after the 2009 season with a coaching staff and schemes that had been the same for a long time. All that said, football recruiting is quite different from basketball recruiting. The numbers are a huge factor. One or two basketball recruits can transform a program, but a football team needs much more depth.

Also, the Midwest remains a prime spot for elite basketball recruits. Look at all of the players coming out of major cities like Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis and other Big Ten cities. It's not the same for football, as the numbers don't lie for where the players are coming from. The Big Ten's football downturn is related to all of these factors: lack of coaching continuity, scandals and recruiting all play roles.
It's awards season in Hollywood, as the film industry lines up to congratulate itself again and again until we're all sick of it before the Oscars.

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

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

(Read full post)

Big Ten predictions: Bowl picks

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
12:00
PM ET
Big Ten bowl season officially arrives tomorrow night when Minnesota kicks off the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas against Texas Tech.

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


Outback Bowl

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


Season records

Adam Rittenberg: 76-21 (.784)
Brian Bennett: 71-26 (.732)
The 2012 All-Big Ten teams and individual award winners will be revealed at 7 p.m. ET tonight on the Big Ten Network. We'll post the full lists shortly thereafter as well as reaction.

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

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

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

(Read full post)

Big Ten Week 13 preview

November, 19, 2012
11/19/12
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It's the last week before the Big Ten championship game, which means this is the last game before bowl season for some teams and the last game until next year for others. Let's look at the story lines for Week 13:

Friday

No. 14 Nebraska (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) at Iowa (4-7, 2-5), Noon, ABC: In the second installment of the Heroes Game, Iowa will need a heroic effort to pull off the upset, even at home. The Hawkeyes have lost five straight, while Nebraska comes in riding a five-game winning streak and just needing to take care of business here to win the Legends Division. It's hard to imagine the Huskers slipping up now, but as we saw this past weekend, sometimes crazy stuff happens.

Saturday

No. 19 Michigan (8-3, 6-1) at Ohio State (11-0, 7-0), Noon, ABC: Perhaps you've heard that these two schools have a little bit of a rivalry going on. The Game is always a big deal, and this year's edition looks like the biggest one since 2006. The Buckeyes are looking to finish off a perfect season, while the Wolverines would not only love to ruin that but need it to stay alive for a division title and for an outside shot at a BCS at-large bid. The Devin Gardner/Denard Robinson combo gives Michigan some crazy explosiveness, while Braxton Miller will try to rebound from his first subpar game of the season at Wisconsin. And it's Urban Meyer's first entry into this rivalry as head coach. Is it Saturday yet?

Wisconsin (7-4, 4-3) at Penn State (7-4, 5-2), 3:30 p.m., ESPN2: This game is meaningless in the big picture, but it won't feel that way for the Nittany Lions' seniors who have created a unique legacy. The Badgers no longer have a division title to play for and are going to Indianapolis regardless. Still, Wisconsin can help its bowl placement with a win and doesn't want to go into the Big Ten title game on a two-game losing streak. Montee Ball needs one more touchdown to break a tie with Travis Prentice for the NCAA career record.

Michigan State (5-6, 2-5) at Minnesota (6-5, 2-5), 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network: It's still a little hard to believe that the Spartans have to win their finale just to go bowling, but that's the predicament they put themselves in. At least they're on the road and not at home, where they went winless in Big Ten play. Will any Michigan State fan even want to travel to watch this team play another game? Minnesota could make that a moot point by winning on senior day and getting to seven wins, which would be a great achievement in Jerry Kill's second year. The Gophers' home finale could be overshadowed by the A.J. Barker controversy this week, however.

Indiana (4-7, 2-5) at Purdue (5-6, 2-5), Noon, BTN: The Old Oaken Bucket game takes on real meaning as Purdue needs to win to reach its second straight bowl. Indiana saw its bowl hopes end last year, but the Hoosiers will be fired up for this rivalry and would love to keep the Boilermakers home. Danny Hope could be coaching for his job. Purdue has won eight of the last 10 meetings between these two, but Indiana came out on top the last time they met in West Lafayette in 2010.

Illinois (2-9, 0-7) at Northwestern (8-3, 4-3), Noon, BTN: Northwestern can wrap up a pretty impressive nine-win season and extend the misery of its top rival. The health of Kain Colter and Venric Mark will be the main angle to watch this week. Illinois coach Tim Beckman hasn't done much if anything to endear himself to Illini fans this season, but a win here could be a small step in that direction. His team is really thin, though, after enduring several more injuries last week. What are the chances Daniel Day-Lewis can show up in character to present the Land of Lincoln Trophy?

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 12

November, 15, 2012
11/15/12
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Ten items to track around the Big Ten entering Week 12:

1. Ballin' for history: Thirteen years after Ron Dayne broke the NCAA career rushing record, another Wisconsin running back is on the doorstep of a major milestone. Badgers senior Montee Ball, who, unlike Dayne, spent a year and a half as a reserve, needs one more touchdown Saturday against Ohio State to tie the NCAA career mark of 78 held by former Miami (Ohio) star Travis Prentice. Ball has scored 13 touchdowns in his past six games and is averaging 179.1 yards and three touchdowns in his past nine November games. A big performance against the unbeaten Buckeyes will once again put Ball on the radar for top national honors. Ball's next rushing touchdown will mark his 72nd, moving him past Dayne for the Big Ten career record.

2. Holding serve in the Legends: Nebraska and Michigan are tied atop the Legends Division at 5-1, and on paper, they should stay that way after Week 12. Both teams are favored to take care of Minnesota and Iowa, respectively, on senior day in Lincoln and Ann Arbor. Nebraska's magic number (wins and Michigan losses) to punch its ticket to Indianapolis is 2. A Huskers loss and a Michigan win puts the Wolverines in control of their own fate in the division. One senior day subplot is whether face-of-the-program stars like Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson will play after missing time with injuries. Burkhead (knee) returned to practice this week and seems closer to a return, while Robinson (elbow) remains day-to-day.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireLe'Veon Bell and the Spartans plan to finish strong against Northwestern on Saturday.
3. Finishing school: Northwestern and Michigan State easily could be playing for a Legends Division title Saturday. Instead, both teams' inability to finish against the likes of Nebraska and Michigan has left them looking for a full 60-minute performance. Michigan State's four Big Ten losses have come by a combined 10 points. Northwestern held double-digit second-half leads in all three of its Big Ten losses. Something's gotta give Saturday as the teams meet at Spartan Stadium. "Their problem, just like ours, has been closing out games," Spartans linebacker Chris Norman told ESPN.com this week. "... It's going to come down to who can finish the best. Saturday is going to be interesting."

4. Hope and a prayer: There's growing talk that Purdue will make a head-coaching change after the regular season no matter what happens in the final two games. But can fourth-year boss Danny Hope save himself with a three-game win streak to become bowl-eligible? It's reason enough to tune in for an otherwise off-the-radar game between Purdue and slumping Illinois on Saturday. A loss to the Illini would prevent Purdue from getting bowl-eligible and likely seal Hope's fate, while a Purdue win adds intrigue to next week's Bucket game against Indiana. The Boilers' offense got on track last week behind quarterback Robert Marve and running back Ralph Bolden, while defensive tackle Kawann Short had his best game of the season at Iowa.

5. Rivalry renewed: Saturday's game at Camp Randall Stadium won't decide which Leaders Division team goes to the Big Ten title game, as Wisconsin already punched its ticket last week. But Ohio State can lock up the Leaders Division championship -- the only title it can win this season -- while Wisconsin can legitimize its trip to Indy by handing Urban Meyer's Buckeyes their first loss of the season. Looking ahead, the Ohio State-Wisconsin game likely will be the signature contest in the division for years to come. Illinois is a mess, Purdue has backslid this season, Indiana is still building and Penn State still has three more years of postseason bans. "I hate Wisconsin just as much as Michigan," Ohio State wide receiver Corey Brown said this week. While Meyer and Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema say their post-signing day spat is a thing of a past, it could bubble up Saturday depending on how the game goes.

6. Taking a pass: The Big Ten might not be flush with elite quarterbacks and high-powered offenses this season, but a few of its teams can sling the ball a bit, and two of them meet at Beaver Stadium. Indiana and Penn State are the Big Ten's top two pass offenses, ranking 26th and 40th nationally, respectively. They'll share the field Saturday as they try to rebound from different types of losses. Indiana quarterback Cameron Coffman struggled with his accuracy (25-for-46) in last week's loss to Wisconsin and looks for a sharper afternoon. Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin wasn't a happy guy after the Nebraska loss and will try to take it out on IU. The game features two of the Big Ten's top receivers in Penn State's Allen Robinson and Indiana's Cody Latimer.

7. Hawkeye hex: Iowa has been in a funk for much of the season and particularly in the past month, dropping four consecutive Big Ten contests. Perhaps a date with Michigan can put the Hawkeyes back on track. See, Iowa has won three straight against Michigan for the first time in team history and five of its past eight against the Wolverines. Michigan's seniors are anxious to finally get over the hump against Iowa, one of two Big Ten teams (Penn State the other) they have yet to beat. But maybe it works the other way and Iowa finally shows a spark on offense and stiffens its defense. If not, the Hawkeyes won't be going bowling for the first time since the 2006 season, and it'll be a very long winter for Kirk Ferentz. "It doesn't hurt, obviously," Ferentz said of his team's Michigan win streak, "but it doesn't guarantee us anything."

8. Backs of different sizes: Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell is the biggest featured running back in the Big Ten, checking in at 6-2 and 244 pounds. Northwestern's Venric Mark is the smallest, checking in at 5-8 and 175 pounds. But both have been extremely effective this season with the ball in their hands. Bell leads the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,249), while Mark ranks third in rushing yards (1,181) and first in all-purpose yards (1,917). Each has been the MVP of his respective offense, and it'll be interesting to see them on the same field at Spartan Stadium. Both Michigan State and Northwestern defend the run well, too, both ranking in the top 25 nationally.

9. Illini look for a spark: Illinois ranks last in the Big Ten in scoring, rushing and total offense, and lingers near the bottom of the FBS in all the significant categories. The Illini need some sort of boost on offense or a 2-10 season is a virtual certainty. Head coach Tim Beckman, whose background is defense but who had a high-powered offense at Toledo the past few years, took a more active role with the offense this week in an effort to get things going. Beckman also noted that co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales call plays on different downs. Hmmm. Starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne took more reps with the wide receivers this week and could see an increased role against Purdue. Illinois aims to win on senior day for the first time since 2007.

10. Bowl picture taking shape: We learned a little more about the Big Ten bowl contingent last week as Minnesota became bowl-eligible, Purdue took a big step toward the postseason and both Iowa and Indiana took a step toward a winter at home. There should be some more answers in Week 12. Michigan State aims for its sixth win to go bowling for the sixth consecutive season under coach Mark Dantonio. Purdue must keep its bowl hopes alive at Illinois, while both Iowa and Indiana must win on the road to avoid loss No. 7. It won't be easy for the Hawkeyes or Hoosiers. Indiana never has won at Beaver Stadium in 15 previous meetings with Penn State. Iowa never has won consecutive games at Michigan Stadium.

Big Ten stock report: Week 12

November, 14, 2012
11/14/12
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We take a look inside the Big Ten trends, with no insider trading needed.

Stock up

James White: While Montee Ball understandably is getting all the attention right now, don't forget the job Wisconsin's No. 2 back is doing. White rushed for 161 yards on just 14 carries last week at Indiana, including the back-breaking 69-yard touchdown at the end of the first half. White has run for at least 100 yards in three of his last four games.

Baker Steinkuhler: The Nebraska defense has played much better in recent weeks -- particularly in the second halves -- and senior defensive tackle Steinkuhler is a reason why. A one-time highly decorated recruit, Steinkuhler is living up to that reputation by playing the best football of his career the past few weeks, coach Bo Pelini said this week. He had six tackles and a sack against Penn State last week. “Baker’s a stud," Pelini said. "He’s a leader. He’s everything you want.”

Purdue's ACL trio:
Take a knee, gentlemen. The Boilermakers' backfield trio of Robert Marve, Rob Henry and Ralph Bolden -- who have seven torn ACLs between them -- had a big day at Iowa last week. Marve threw for 266 yards and led the final drive for the winning field goal. Henry continued to play his jack-of-all trades role, including a flip to Akeem Shavers on a double option for a touchdown. Maybe most encouragingly, Bolden eclipsed 100 rushing yards for the first time since the beginning of last season. "That was very special for our whole football family," head coach Danny Hope said.

Donnell Kirkwood: The Minnesota running back is somewhat quietly putting together a strong season. The sophomore ran for a career-best 152 yards and two touchdowns last week against Illinois, his third 100-yard game of the season. Kirkwood now has 819 rushing yards on the season and has a great shot at going over 1,000 for the year, especially with the Gophers reaching a bowl game. Minnesota's last 1,000-yard back was Amir Pinnix in 2006 (1,272).

Michigan's passing game: There's no doubt the Wolverines' passing game has improved with Devin Gardner at quarterback, which has seemed to raise the level of play of the receivers. Senior Roy Roundtree had 139 yards receiving last week against Northwestern and 64 yards the week before; Roundtree's previous season high was 33 yards. Jeremy Gallon had seven catches for 94 yards last week and four grabs for 72 yards the week before. Gallon hadn't caught more than three balls in a game since catching four in the season-opening loss to Alabama. As Kyle Meinke points out, Michigan has 520 passing yards the past two weeks under Gardner, compared to 482 in five previous Big Ten games from Denard Robinson.

Stock down

Indiana's rush defense: Well, this one is fairly obvious after the Hoosiers surrendered 564 yards on the ground to Wisconsin. That won't help your stats, and Indiana now ranks 118th nationally -- out of 120 FBS teams -- in allowing 244 rushing yards per game. What's most disappointing about last week's effort is the Hoosiers knew Wisconsin would have a first-time starter at quarterback, so the Badgers were going to try to run the ball as much as possible. Knowing what's coming and stopping it are two different things.

Iowa's running game: Focus on the failures in the passing game if you want, but Iowa's real problems are in its bread and butter: the running game. During the Hawkeyes' current four-game losing streak, they are averaging just 78 rushing yards per game and a mere 2.5 yards per carry. Offensive line injuries and the rotating cast at running back have played a large role.

Illinois' offensive line: The Illini struggles up front on offense aren't exactly new, but they're not getting any better, either. Illinois is last in the Big Ten with 21 sacks allowed through 10 games. That ranks the team 114th nationally. Tim Beckman will not get this program going until he first solves the issues on the O-line. "We've had tremendous problems protecting Nathan [Scheelhaase] or Reilly [O'Toole]," Beckman said. "We've got to continue to improve in those categories and get our young players going. We need to get ourselves in the weight room and get stronger and get much more physical."

Penn State's finishing kicks: No Big Ten team has been better at jumping out to an early lead than the Nittany Lions. But Penn State's second halves leave something to be desired. The team has either led or has been tied at halftime in all four of its losses, including last week when it lost 32-23 at Nebraska after taking a 20-6 lead into the break. "That's probably more of a discussion for after the season," coach Bill O'Brien said. "So in the offseason, we're going to dive into this thing and scout ourselves and see if we can improve. But over the next two weeks we need to make sure we do a better job of coming out after halftime."
Lessons learned from Week 11 in the Big Ten:

1. A Wisconsin-Nebraska title game looks very likely: Wisconsin and Nebraska opened the Big Ten season under the lights in Lincoln on Sept. 29. The Badgers and Huskers probably will close out the conference season Dec. 1 in Indianapolis. Wisconsin punched its ticket for the Big Ten title game Saturday by crushing Indiana 62-14. Montee Ball and the Badgers rushed for a team-record 564 yards -- the highest total in Big Ten play since 1975 -- and completed a rough road back to Indy with a very easy final leg. Nebraska and Michigan remain tied atop the Legends division, but the Huskers hold the head-to-head tiebreaker and took a big step toward Lucas Oil Stadium with another come-from-behind victory Saturday against Penn State. Nebraska once again overcame mistakes and turned in a big second half to remain perfect at home this season. If the Huskers take care of Minnesota at home and Iowa on the road, they'll head to Indianapolis, regardless of what Michigan does in its final two games. These two teams provided plenty of excitement in their first meeting, and it looks as though they'll be reuniting in three weeks.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Tony DingPat Fitzgerald has seen his Northwestern squad blow double-digit leads in each of its three losses.
2. Northwestern's late-game problems are an epidemic: Northwestern still calls itself the "Cardiac Cats" and touts its long-term record in close games (32-13 in games decided by seven points or fewer since 2004), but blown leads have been a problem throughout Pat Fitzgerald's tenure, and they've been magnified this season. The Wildcats have squandered double-digit second-half leads in each of their three losses (Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan). The most painful collapse arrived Saturday as Northwestern outplayed Michigan most of the way but couldn't knock down a desperation pass to Roy Roundtree (or interfere with Roundtree, which might have been just as good) that set up the game-tying field goal. There have been different explanations for each blown lead -- not having top cornerback Nick VanHoose might have cost Northwestern two games -- but Fitzgerald's late-game strategy should be called into question. There have been too many games like this under his watch, and until something shifts, Northwestern won't get over the hump. This is a young Wildcats team that has overachieved to a degree, but the season will be one filled with missed opportunities.

3. Iowa is staring at a lost season: It has been a season of low points for Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes. The first arrived in Week 4, when they blew a late lead and fell to a woeful Central Michigan team at Kinnick Stadium. The next came a month later, as Penn State turned a much-anticipated night game at Kinnick into an offensive and defensive clinic. More misery arrived the next two weeks, but Iowa managed to find a new low Saturday against a Purdue team that had dropped five straight and had been blown out four times in the Big Ten. Purdue gave Iowa opportunities with three turnovers, but the Hawkeyes couldn't cash in nearly enough, continuing a season-long theme, and lost 27-24. Iowa is plus-11 in turnover margin this season, among the national leaders, and sits at 4-6. That's very hard to do, and underscores Iowa's problems on offense. With upcoming games against Michigan (road) and Nebraska (home), Iowa is staring at a 4-8 season, which would be its worst under Ferentz since a 3-9 campaign in 2001. Tough times right now in Hawkeye Country.

4. The Big Ten's bowl contingent now could be growing: The Week 10 lessons noted that the Big Ten could have as few as five teams in the postseason this season, its lowest number since 1998. That still could be the case, but things changed a bit after Purdue scored an upset victory at Iowa and Minnesota ensured it will be bowling for the first time since 2009 after a victory at Illinois. As poorly as Purdue has played in the Big Ten, the Boilers still have a very realistic chance to get to 6-6, which is all you need this season in the Big Ten. Danny Hope's crew must beat Illinois on the road and Indiana at home, which doesn't seem overly daunting after the way the Hoosiers performed against Wisconsin. To their credit, the Boilers dominated Iowa at Kinnick Stadium and wouldn't have needed a last-second field goal to win if not for three turnovers. Perhaps Purdue can finish strong. Minnesota rode defense and Donnell Kirkwood to the six-win plateau, notching a crucial win before a tough closing stretch (at Nebraska, Michigan State). If Michigan State beats Northwestern on Saturday, five of the six Legends division teams will be bowling.

5. The Big Ten has an officiating problem: Crisis is probably too strong a word, but at the very least, the Big Ten has an image issue with its officiating after the past several weeks. Michigan State coaches and players were livid with some of the late-game calls in the loss against Nebraska, particularly a pass-interference penalty near the end zone at the end of the game. Michigan and Minnesota also griped about pass-interference interpretations, while Penn State has felt as though it has gotten the short end of the stick a lot this year, especially with a lack of holding calls versus Ohio State. Frustrations boiled over for the Nittany Lions on a controversial fumble ruling late in Saturday's loss to Nebraska, which led quarterback Matt McGloin to suggest an officiating conspiracy against Penn State. That's taking things a little too far, but Big Ten officiating has some credibility issues right now. It would be nice if the league would issue some sort of statements about the most controversial calls, but the Big Ten prefers to handle such things in-house. The conference needs to make sure its officiating house is in order going forward.

Big Ten predictions: Week 9

October, 25, 2012
10/25/12
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Some weeks are better than others, and Week 9 in the Big Ten is a very good one. All six games pair fairly evenly matched teams, and there's something at stake in all six contests (yes, even Indiana-Illinois).

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. Bill O'Brien's offense will pick apart the Buckeyes' questionable back seven as Matt McGloin throws three TD passes. That and a crazed home-field atmosphere are enough to ruin Ohio State's perfect season. ... Penn State 28, Ohio State 21


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

Season records

Adam Rittenberg: 54-14 (.794)

Brian Bennett: 49-19 (.721)

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 8

October, 22, 2012
10/22/12
2:26
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Take that and rewind it back.

Team of the week: Penn State. Plenty of candidates this week, as Michigan ended Michigan State's four-game winning streak in the rivalry, Nebraska got a much-needed road victory and Wisconsin kept chopping in the Axe series. But no team was as impressive as the Nittany Lions, who went on the road in a hostile atmosphere and simply dismantled Iowa from start to finish in a 38-14 win. That was as complete a performance as you're going to see in this league, and as Adam wrote on Saturday, Bill O'Brien's team is no longer just a nice little story.

[+] EnlargeKenny Guiton
Greg Bartram/US PresswireBackup quarterback Kenny Guiton led the Buckeyes to an overtime win against Purdue on Saturday.
Game of the week: Lots of good ones, including Michigan's nailbiter over Michigan State, Nebraska's comeback over Northwestern and even Indiana's loss at Navy. But for pure drama, it's hard to beat the Ohio State-Purdue game and how it ended. To review: the Buckeyes trailed by eight points and took possession at their 39-yard line with less than a minute to go. Braxton Miller was in the hospital and backup Kenny Guiton was at quarterback. Somehow, Ohio State made it work, driving for a touchdown and then the tying two-point conversion on a beautifully designed play. There seemed to be little doubt who would win in overtime after that, though Urban Meyer seemed stunned after the 29-22 decision. "I'm still trying to figure this bad boy out," he said. "We won, right?"

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Big Ten predictions: Week 7

October, 11, 2012
10/11/12
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Will lucky Week 7 bring out a perfect set of predictions from the Big Ten bloggers? Both of us are still searching for perfection in this highly imperfect Big Ten season.

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.

Season records

Adam Rittenberg: 45-12 (.789)

Brian Bennett: 41-16 (.719)

Big Ten predictions: Week 5

September, 27, 2012
9/27/12
9:00
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Prediction time is here again, and at last, we can start forecasting some Big Ten conference games.

League play opens up at five Big Ten venues Saturday, while Purdue returns from an open week to wrap up its nonleague slate against Marshall. Week 4 was a rough one for Brian Bennett, who went 6-4 in predictions and fell three games behind Adam Rittenberg in the season standings. The good news: The entire Big Ten slate remains, so Bennett, like most Big Ten teams, has time to improve his record.

Let's get started ...

INDIANA (2-1) at NORTHWESTERN (4-0)

Brian Bennett: The Hoosiers are apt to hang around in this one, and their passing game could give the Wildcats' still somewhat shaky secondary a big test. But Northwestern has shown too much toughness so far this season to slip up now. Venric Mark rushes for two scores and Kain Colter throws for two more as Pat Fitzgerald's team moves to 5-0. ... Northwestern 35, Indiana 21

Adam Rittenberg: These teams typically play close games, and Indiana's passing game, led by quarterback Cameron Coffman, will challenge Northwestern's secondary more than the Wildcats' past few opponents did. Northwestern's offensive line is in a good rhythm, though, and Mark will record another 100-yard rushing performance and two touchdowns. The Wildcats open up their passing game a bit in the second half and improve to 5-0. ... Northwestern 34, Indiana 26

PENN STATE (2-2) at ILLINOIS (2-2)

Adam Rittenberg: Penn State is hitting its stride under Bill O'Brien, and the Lions will be fired up to face poacher coach Tim Beckman and the Illini. Matt McGloin and Allen Robinson connect for two more touchdowns, and running back Bill Belton adds another score in his return. The Lions bottle up Illinois' run game in the second half and win their third straight. ... Penn State 21, Illinois 17

Brian Bennett: The Nittany Lions' offense isn't going to give the Illini defense as many fits as the spread teams have this season. But McGloin is slinging it pretty well, and I don't know what the offensive identity is for Beckman's club. This one won't be pretty, but Penn State gets out to an early lead and hangs on with a defensive stand in the fourth quarter. ... Penn State 17, Illinois 10

MINNESOTA (4-0) at IOWA (2-2)

Brian Bennett: Somehow, Iowa is favored in this game. But even though it's at Kinnick Stadium, all the good vibes belong to Minnesota going into Saturday. The Gophers' pass defense has been strong, while James Vandenberg and the Hawkeyes' passing attack has sputtered. Mark Weisman will batter his way to 160 yards, but the Gophers come up with two picks and a special teams score to hogtie the Hawks. ... Minnesota 21, Iowa 14

Adam Rittenberg: I went against the Gophers last week and paid the price. Not happening again. The Gophers' defense contains Weisman and forces some mistakes from Vandenberg, while the run game surges behind Donnell Kirkwood. It'll be an up-and-down day for Max Shortell, but he finds senior tight end and Iowa native John Rabe for the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. ... Minnesota 24, Iowa 20

MARSHALL (2-2) at PURDUE (2-1)

Adam Rittenberg: After dealing with a migraine in the Eastern Michigan game, Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush bounces back nicely with a three-touchdown, zero-interception performance against the Thundering Herd. The Akeems run all over a woeful Marshall defense and Purdue pulls away in the second quarter and cruises to another easy win. ... Purdue 38, Marshall 21

Brian Bennett: The Thundering Herd lead the nation in passing, so they'll have a puncher's chance in West Lafayette. But they also have one of the worst defenses in the country, which should help TerBush and company enjoy a big day. Kawann Short and the Purdue defensive line are too much here, sacking Rakeem Cato five times. ... Purdue 48, Marshall 24

No. 14 OHIO STATE (4-0) at No. 20 MICHIGAN STATE (3-1)

Brian Bennett: At some point, the Spartans have to start catching balls thrown right at them. How about this week? This is a better matchup for the scuffling Ohio State defense, but I think Spartans defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi will devise a plan to contain Braxton Miller. An actual touchdown pass from Andrew Maxwell and a 100-yard day from Le'Veon Bell will be just enough for Michigan State to escape at home. Next prediction. ... Michigan State 19, Ohio State 17

Adam Rittenberg: Ohio State looks like a team waiting to be beaten one of these weeks, but Miller Time refuses to lose. Miller starts slowly but turns in a big fourth quarter and breaks free for two touchdown runs to rally Ohio State for the victory. Michigan State's passing woes continue, and the Buckeyes' defense forces a key third-quarter turnover and starts looking a bit more like the silver bullets again. ... Ohio State 20, Michigan State 17

WISCONSIN (3-1) at No. 22 NEBRASKA (3-1)


Adam Rittenberg: Although Wisconsin started to look like its old self a bit at the end of the UTEP game, I don't see how the Badgers win this one. Nebraska has more weapons on offense, the home-field advantage and no shortage of motivation after being embarrassed last year in Madison. Chris Borland and the Wisconsin defense keeps this close for a while, but Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez goes off in the second half, and Rex Burkhead adds another long touchdown run. ... Nebraska 34, Wisconsin 21

Brian Bennett: I don't like where this is headed for the Badgers. They've got a quarterback making his first start on the road, a banged-up Montee Ball and injuries on their defensive line. These are all bad signs against a Huskers team that is averaging 54 points per game at home this season. Martinez (three touchdowns) and the Nebraska defense get redemption by pulling away in the third quarter. Call it an early retirement gift for Tom Osborne. ... Nebraska 35, Wisconsin 17

Michigan is off this week.

Season Records

Rittenberg: 36-10 (.783)

Bennett: 33-13 (.717)

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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12