Michigan Wolverines: Noah Spence

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?

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      11%
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      15%
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      15%
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      29%
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      30%

    Discuss (Total votes: 9,218)

  • 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.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive lines.

Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.

Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.

Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.

Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.

Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.

Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.

Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.

Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.

Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.

Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.

Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.

Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.

Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.

Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
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Maryland Terrapins, Michigan Wolverines, Big Ten Conference, Illinois Fighting Illini, Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Purdue Boilermakers, Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan State Spartans, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Marcus Rush, Adolphus Washington, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Noah Spence, Ryan Russell, Larry Johnson, Darius Latham, Chikwe Obasih, Malik McDowell, Joey Bosa, Anthony Zettel, Deion Barnes, Louis Trinca-Pasat, Tyler Scott, Evan Panfil, Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter, Dave Aranda, Randy Gregory, Ra'Shede Hageman, Joel Hale, Antoine White, Tim Kynard, Shilique Calhoun, Mark Scarpinato, Aaron Curry, Ryan Isaac, Michael Rouse III, Carl Davis, Vincent Valentine, Sean McEvilly, DaQuan Jones, Bruce Gaston Jr., Nick Mangieri, Theiren Cockran, Avery Moss, Beau Allen, Greg McMullen, Teko Powell, Lawrence Thomas, Tyler Hoover, Drew Ott, Tarow Barney, Joe Keels, David Kenney, Ralphael Green, Jihad Ward, Micajah Reynolds, Langston Newton, C.J. Olaniyan, Paul James, B1G spring positions 14, Alex Keith, Andre Monroe, Arthur Goldberg, Austin Teitsma, Cameron Botticelli, Chance Carter, Damon Knox, Darian Cooper, Darius Kilgo, David Milewski, Dawuane Smoot, Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson, Djwany Mera, Dominic Alvis, Greg Latta, Harold Legania, Houston Bates, Isaac Holmes, Jake Keefer, Jalani Phillips, Jamal Marcus, James Adeyanju, James Kittredge, Jamil Merrell, Joe Fotu, Julian Pinnix-Odrick, Keith Bowers, Kemoko Turay, Konrad Zagzebski, Maliek Collins, Marcus Thompson, Max Chapman, Michael Amaefula, Nate Meier, Quinton Jefferson, Roman Braglio, Ryan Phillis, Ryan Watson, Scott Ekpe, Sebastian Joseph, Warren Herring, Zack Shaw

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 Michigan offense spent most of this season trying to figure out its identity. It has returning pieces next year, but there are still a lot of question marks out there.

Here are the defensive players that the Wolverines will definitely face this upcoming season who could prove to be the biggest threats.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesDevin Gardner and Michigan are all too familiar with Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, who is back for another year of harassing the Wolverines.
DL Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: He recorded just 37 tackles, but 14 of those were for a loss. Calhoun also accounted for a team-high 7.5 sacks, a team-high 18 quarterback hurries, a team-high four fumble recoveries and one interception en route to being named the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year. His ability to get to quarterbacks is going to be an issue for the Wolverines this upcoming season, just as it was last year.

DL Noah Spence, Ohio State: This past season, Spence accounted for 14.5 tackles for a loss, including a team-high eight sacks. The Buckeyes will deal with a changing coaching staff, as Mike Vrabel joined former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien with the Houston Texans. Vrabel was replaced by Larry Johnson, who comes to Columbus with an impressive track record. During Johnson’s 14 seasons at Penn State, he produced six defensive linemen who were first-round NFL draft picks, so he certainly knows how to develop talent up front. Between Spence and the next guy on our list, Johnson will have plenty to work with as he devises ways to terrorize opposing offenses.

DL Joey Bosa, Ohio State: Bosa burst onto the Big Ten scene this season, becoming a starter as a freshman. He recorded 13.5 tackles for a loss, including 7.5 sacks, and six quarterback hurries. In the Big Ten championship game, he was effective in getting to Michigan State QB Connor Cook, and the ability to generate consistent pressure is likely to be the norm for Bosa as a sophomore. In other words, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner is going to have to look out.

S Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: The Spartans’ no-fly zone loses All-American Darqueze Dennard, but Drummond will be back, attempting to keep quarterbacks from even looking downfield. Drummond was the clean-up guy this season when QBs did get passes through, leading the Spartans secondary with 91 tackles, including 3.5 for a loss. He was tied with Dennard for the team-high in interceptions with four and will look to make an even bigger impact for MSU next season.

LB Taiwan Jones, Michigan State: The Spartans are going to need someone to step up in the middle of the field this season to fill the shoes left by Max Bullough, and Jones could likely be that guy. This past season he had 67 tackles, including seven for a loss. Michigan will need to figure out its run game this season far more quickly than it did last season, because in the fourth conference game of the year, the Wolverines will face Jones and an MSU defense that will look to be just as effective in 2014 against the run as it was in 2013.

Honorable mention:

  • CB Trae Waynes, Michigan State: Joining Drummond in the secondary will be Waynes. He was a key contributor this season and will look to step up even more as the Spartans try to replace Dennard.
  • LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern: Airguzo recorded 106 tackles, which was fifth-best in the Big Ten. He had four interceptions, two sacks, six passes defended and three quarterback hurries. With the Wildcats looking for revenge against the Wolverines, he could be a big defensive threat.
  • LB Mike Hull, Penn State: Hull was second on the Nittany Lions with 78 tackles this season. But against the Wolverines he had a game-high 10 tackles, including two for a loss, and one pass break-up. If Michigan wants to have success running the ball against the Nittany Lions, it will have to get through Hull first.
  • DL Marcus Rush, Michigan State: He ranked among the top 20 in the Big Ten with five sacks and will join Calhoun up front for the Spartans to harass opposing quarterbacks. Rush recorded one tackle for a loss of seven yards against the Wolverines this past season, but with another year of experience, he and Calhoun will be coming at Gardner hard in 2014, hoping to help MSU record a third consecutive seven-sack effort against the Wolverines.

Best and worst of the Big Ten bowls

January, 10, 2014
Jan 10
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As we continue to wrap up the 2013 bowl season, let's take a look at some of the best and worst of the Big Ten's seven postseason games:

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesThe Buckeyes couldn't slow down Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd in the Discover Orange Bowl.
Best game: Michigan State's 24-20 win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO. The Orange Bowl was a wilder game with more huge momentum swings, but the Spartans won a classic, old-school slugfest. The context also included the 100th edition of the Rose Bowl -- and the last one before the College Football Playoff potentially changes everything -- and Michigan State's first Pasadena appearance since 1988. That adds up to make it the best game of the Big Ten's bunch.

Worst game: You have to wonder if the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl would have picked Michigan ahead of Nebraska had game organizers known that quarterback Devin Gardner wasn't going to play. Probably so, since the attendance was still very good. But the Wolverines were noncompetitive in the desert, needing a touchdown and two-point conversion with 1:15 left just to make the final score 31-14.

Best play: This one's an easy call. On third-and-long from its own 1-yard line, Nebraska opted to throw the ball against Georgia in the third quarter of the Gator Bowl. Tommy Armstrong Jr. found wide receiver Quincy Enunwa, and the result was a 99-yard touchdown pass, the longest play in Cornhuskers and Gator Bowl history.

Best surprise: Minnesota coach Jerry Kill left the press box at halftime of the Texas Bowl against Syracuse and coached the rest of the game from the sideline, something he hadn't done since Sept. 28. Having Kill back on the sidelines gave the Gophers a spark as they erased a halftime deficit, but Syracuse still went on to win the game.

Worst bowl week: Ohio State enjoyed an oceanside hotel at the Discover Orange Bowl, but the buildup to the game was no day at the beach. A stomach bug swirled through the team, leaving several players nauseous and vomiting for about 12 hours each. The school found out that defensive end Noah Spence would be suspended for the game against Clemson and the first two contests of 2014. And cornerback Bradley Roby couldn't recover from his knee injury. It's a wonder Ohio State came so close to winning the game with all that went wrong leading into it.

Worst early celebration: Iowa safety John Lowdermilk intercepted an LSU pass and ran it back 71 yards in the third quarter of the Outback Bowl. But just before he crossed the goal line, Lowdermilk -- who had no defenders around him -- casually dropped the ball out of his right hand. The play was ruled a fumble, and luckily Iowa went on to score the touchdown. But not before some embarrassment for Lowdermilk. “I don’t know what I was doing," he said. "I really regret it and apologize. If I’m lucky enough to get in that situation again, I’ll probably put two hands around the ball and go to the back of the end zone, just to make sure."

Worst late celebration: Michigan State players tried to give coach Mark Dantonio a Gatorade shower near the end of the Rose Bowl. But Dantonio skipped out of the way, and the players' effort was embarrassingly off mark. Dantonio had already shown that he's light on his feet this year with all his dancing to Rich Homie Quan. It's way past time we retire the Gatorade bath, anyway, and come up with something a little more clever.

[+] EnlargeGordon
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesRunning back Melvin Gordon had a big day for the Badgers vs. South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl.
Best poetic ending: Kyler Elsworth filled in for the suspended Max Bullough at middle linebacker for Michigan State. On Stanford's final offensive play, a fourth-and-1 run by fullback Ryan Hewitt, Elsworth launched himself over the pile and stuffed Hewitt. That the fifth-year senior and former walk-on earned Rose Bowl defensive MVP honors spoke volumes about the depth and team-first program Mark Dantonio has built.

Best overlooked achievement: Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and James White both ran for more than 100 yards in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina and set a FBS record in the process. They finished the season with a combined 3,053 rushing yards, surpassing the top total for a pair of teammates that Nevada’s Cody Fajardo and Stefphon Jefferson established with 3,004 yards in 2012. Gordon and White also were the first teammates to each rush for more than 1,400 yards in the same season. But the Badgers didn't feel much like celebrating as they dropped their fourth straight bowl game.

Wildest finish: The Orange Bowl had more endings than "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." The game looked like it was over when Braxton Miller fumbled on a big hit by Clemson's Bashaud Breeland with 3:12 left. But then the Tigers threw an interception on a questionable call three plays later. Miller then returned the favor with an interception of his own with 1:18 remaining. It was a fitting conclusion to a game that contained all kinds of wild momentum swings.

Worst clock management: This one goes to LSU, against Iowa. The Tigers took possession with 1:42 left, and even with Iowa holding one timeout, they should have been able to run out the clock. But with confusion on the sideline and at quarterback, LSU called its own timeout with eight seconds left and had to punt. When Les Miles and clocks are involved, things are never boring.
A man wearing a newsboy cap approached Kirk Cousins and offered congratulations to the former Michigan State quarterback, who held court with reporters in the Rose Bowl tunnel moments after the Spartans beat Stanford.

Jim Delany wasn't easy to spot in the headgear, and one could argue that the Big Ten commissioner wisely disguised himself on a day that hasn't been kind to his league in recent years. But for the first time in four years, and for just the second time in 14 years, Delany walked out of the Rose Bowl with a smile on his face.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook and Michigan State gave the Big Ten plenty to celebrate.
For Delany and the Big Ten, the Rose Bowl sits on a pedestal. And after just one Big Ten win in the previous 10 tries, Michigan State's 24-20 triumph in the game's 100th edition was cause for celebration. MSU's victory doesn't dull the pain of the Big Ten's second consecutive 2-5 bowl season, but it certainly helps to prevail in the most important postseason game on the biggest stage against the best opponent.

The Spartans won a team-record 13 games and completed the best season for a Big Ten team in recent memory, finishing No. 3 in the final polls. Nebraska provided the other bright spot, upsetting Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl thanks to a stingy red-zone defense and several standout performances from seniors.

Elsewhere, the Big Ten felt the familiar postseason sting of what might have been. The league easily could have had a better record in the Florida bowls, but Wisconsin and Ohio State had sloppy performances and Iowa's offense never got on track against LSU.

Wisconsin never punted in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina and had two 100-yard rushers in Melvin Gordon and James White, but the Badgers committed four turnovers and scored just 17 offensive points. A team that had been so solid through the first 11 games unraveled in the regular-season finale against Penn State and in the bowl, failing to capitalize on a great chance to build on a 17-13 third-quarter lead. Dave Aranda's defense was shredded for the second straight game as South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw accounted for five touchdowns (3 pass, 1 rush, 1 receiving). A decorated Wisconsin senior classes ended 0-4 in Jan. 1 bowls.

Ohio State also finished the season on a surprising losing streak, squandering two second-half leads in a 40-35 loss to Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. Like Wisconsin, the Buckeyes also were doomed by turnovers, particularly a muffed punt by Corey Brown in the third quarter with a nine-point lead. A depleted Ohio State defense couldn't stop Clemson's big-play receivers, the coaches once again avoided running back Carlos Hyde in crunch time, and a banged-up Braxton Miller committed turnovers on Ohio State's final two possessions.

Injuries and personnel issues were a theme throughout the Big Ten during the bowl season. Wisconsin and Iowa saw their starting quarterbacks hurt during games, while Michigan's top signal-caller, Devin Gardner, showed up in Arizona on crutches and didn't play in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Michigan State overcame the loss of starting middle linebacker and co-captain Max Bullough, as Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris filled in well. Ohio State played without top cornerback Bradley Roby (injury) and top pass-rusher Noah Spence (suspension).

A little more offense could have put Iowa and Minnesota over the top in their bowl games. Minnesota didn't reach the end zone for three quarters in the Texas Bowl, eventually falling 21-17 to a mediocre Syracuse team. Iowa's only touchdowns came on drives of 1 and 4 yards, as the Hawkeyes had just 11 first downs and 233 total yards against LSU.

It wouldn't have taken much for the Big Ten to post a winning record in the bowls. The league had only one non-competitive performance, coming from Michigan in the Wings Bowl, as the Wolverines ended a disappointing season on a down note. The defense never gave first-time starting quarterback Shane Morris much of a chance, allowing touchdowns on Kansas State's first three possessions. Morris held his own but Michigan didn't reach the end zone until the 58th minute in what proved to be the final game for beleaguered offensive coordinator Al Borges.

Nebraska started New Year's Day on a good note as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa triggered the win with a 99-yard touchdown reception, while defensive linemen Jason Ankrah, Randy Gregory and Thad Randle limited Georgia's offense. Michigan State capped the afternoon by rallying past Stanford behind a suffocating defense and quarterback Connor Cook, who collected another postseason MVP honor and his second straight 300-yard passing performance.

The Spartans boost hope for the future after another Big Ten postseason rife with missed opportunities. The league has another team capable of competing for a national championship.

The playoff arrives in 2014, along with a more palatable Big Ten bowl lineup and most likely more bowl-eligible teams. The Big Ten took a small step in the postseason after a historically bad 2012 campaign, but more progress must be made for the rest of college football to start tipping its cap.

Big Ten lunchtime links

January, 8, 2014
Jan 8
12:00
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Only 35 days until pitchers and catchers report.
Now that the 2013 college football season is officially in the books (thank you, Florida State, for ending our SEC nightmare), it's natural to take an early look toward 2014.

Much will change between now and August. Heck, much will change between now and spring practice. But for right now, the 2014 Big Ten season is shaping up as one that possibly lacks a clear-cut, slam-dunk favorite in either of the new East or West divisions.

In colleague Mark Schlabach's way-too-early Top 25 for next season, Michigan State tops all league teams by checking in at No. 6. Makes plenty of sense, as the Spartans went 13-1, won the Rose Bowl over Stanford and return the vast majority of their offense, along with a solid core on that outstanding defense.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Clemons
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesBrandon Clemons and the Spartans are a likely favorite in the Big Ten East in 2014.
But Michigan State does lose several defensive stars, including Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis. The Spartans also will have to play in the same division, the East, as Ohio State. The Buckeyes check in at No. 9 in Schlabach's rankings, and colleague Travis Haney goes so far as to predict that Urban Meyer's team will make the College Football Playoff next year.

"I have held all along that the Buckeyes, close as they were in 2013, were built for '14," Haney writes. "The talented 2013 freshman class that Urban Meyer brought in [ranked third in the nation according to ESPN's RecruitingNation] had bright spots, such as Joey Bosa at defensive end, but it'll really start to have an impact next season. The defense could quickly go from liability to strength, with young players such as Bosa, safety Vonn Bell and end Noah Spence becoming bigger pieces."

I think there's a lot of truth to that about the defense, which started six freshmen or sophomores against Clemson in the Orange Bowl loss. But Ohio State also loses Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby from a defense that struggled down the stretch, and the offense must replace 80 percent of the offensive line, leading rusher Carlos Hyde and leading receiver Philly Brown. Plus, the Buckeyes have to play at Michigan State.

Those two will headline the new East, and it's up to teams like Michigan and Penn State to get better and make that more than a two-team race. The West Division looks even more wide open.

Schlabach ranks Wisconsin No. 15, which comes as a bit of a surprise considering all of the valuable seniors the Badgers lose on defense, plus receiver Jared Abbrederis. The Badgers also have to open the season against LSU, though the schedule is much more favorable after that with no Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State on the docket.

Iowa checks in at No. 21 in Schlabach's rankings and has to be considered a West contender after going 8-4 in the regular season. The Hawkeyes' offense could make strides in 2014 with most of the key pieces returning, but replacing those three senior starting linebackers won't be easy.

Schlabach does not rank Nebraska, which surprises me. The Huskers finished 9-4, which apparently is an annual federal requirement under Bo Pelini, and bring back just about everybody on defense, plus Ameer Abdullah, Tommy Armstrong Jr., Kenny Bell and several other key players on offense. If forced to choose right now, I'd make Nebraska the West favorite, even though the Huskers have to go to Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State in the fall.

Northwestern figures to bounce back from an incredibly unlucky 2013, and Minnesota won eight games with a lot of young players in major roles this year. Neither can be counted out in the division.

The East looks stronger at the top in 2014 than the West, at least for now. But unlike the 2013 season, when Ohio State was the clear favorite after going 12-0 the previous year, there's no slam-dunk, clear-cut favorite in either division.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
5:00
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The weather outside is frightful. But your emails are so delightful. Well, except for the guy who sent me repeated missives in all caps about how Braxton Miller should have been suspended for the Big Ten championship game. Dude, give it a rest.

Anyway, on to the mailbag:

Scott M. from Charlotte, N.C., writes: Will we ever know why Ohio State felt two carries were plenty for Carlos Hyde in the fourth quarter? The game turned in the third quarter because of the bruiser. Braxton Miller is the driver of the car but those two calls late in the game were just awful. How anyone can say I have third-and-three for the game and my 230 pound, 7-yards-a-rush running back will not touch the ball really needs to look at themselves in the mirror.

Brian Bennett: Should Carlos Hyde have gotten more than 18 carries against Michigan State? Probably. But don't forget that the Spartans defense specializes in loading the box and daring teams to throw deep. Plus, Miller was the more effective runner of the two most of the night and finished with more yards and yards per carry than Hyde.

The fourth quarter began with an Ohio State punt. Then Michigan State drove for a field goal. On Ohio State's first real possession of the fourth, Hyde ran for four yards on second-and-10, setting up a passing situation on third down. Miller then threw an incomplete pass. The series you're talking about started with 7:36 left. The Buckeyes had Miller run it on third and fourth down, and he was stuffed both times. Urban Meyer said it was his call to give the ball to Miller on fourth-and-2.

And it's hard to fault him for that. We're talking about the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year who ran for 142 yards vs. Michigan State. A running quarterback is one way to counter the Spartans defense. It didn't work out, mostly because Pat Narduzzi called the right blitz and Denicos Allen made a great play. After that, Michigan State scored a touchdown to go up by 10 points, and the the time to run the ball was over for Ohio State.

Bottom line is you have to be successful passing the ball to beat the Spartans. And Ohio State went 8-for-21 for 101 yards through the air.

Tommy B. from Savannah, Ga., writes: Brian, as a Buckeye fan it's crazy for me to think that after the 2011 6-7 disaster that I'd be so disappointed after the team would go 24-1 under Urban Meyer so far. I'd almost forgot what it felt like to lose on a Saturday (emphasis on almost, it felt terrible in case you were wondering). The problem has obviously been complete inconsistency with the defense. They have big name veteran stars with gaudy numbers and at times (including in the B1G title game) they've been dominant. But in the Michigan game and for some big game-changing plays against MSU they've had complete breakdowns. They have the talent to be better than they are. In your opinion, what's the problem? Fickell? Key injuries (Bryant)? Fickell? Youth in key positions? Fickell?

Brian Bennett: It's a good question. The place we thought Ohio State's defense might be vulnerable to start the year was up front because of all the youth there. Yet that was arguably the strength of the defense, with guys like Michael Bennett, Joey Bosa, Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington. The problem really seemed to be at the linebacker positions other than Ryan Shazier and at safety, especially when Christian Bryant got injured. Michigan State exposed the Buckeyes' safeties early on last Saturday.

It's kind of hard to believe that Ohio State would find itself so thin at linebacker. The Buckeyes recruited some highly-regarded defensive backs last year, but guys like Vonn Bell didn't have much of an impact this season. They're still young, so that's to be expected, but it was disappointing that some of the more veteran players didn't have great seasons (relatively speaking, because Ohio State did go 12-0).

The Buckeyes' defensive coaches all have strong track records, so I have a hard time believing it's simply a coaching issue. But Ohio State clearly needs to develop better depth in its back seven, especially if Shazier decides to leave for the NFL.

Randy from Waukesha, Wis., writes: I just learned that Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis won an award for the national best walk-on player-of the-year in CF! Did I miss your guys' article on this? If not please tell us more..... B1G can use all the kudos it can get, especially at this time of the year!

Brian Bennett: Yes, Abbrederis won the Burlsworth Trophy, which is award to the best player who started his career as a walk-on. We didn't write a post about it, mainly because there are seemingly thousands of college football awards now, but we did tweet it. Abbrederis was a slam-dunk choice for that award, and it's hard to believe he ever was a walk-on. He'll be on an NFL roster next fall.

King from Los Angeles writes: I agreed with you about the silliness of the coaches' poll. I am a Huskers fan and I do not believe we deserved a top 25 ranking even though Bo thinks so. I think they should change the way coaches vote by making a rule that you cannot vote for your own team. That could take away all the biases. What do you think?

Brian Bennett: That would only solve part of the problem, as there still would be inherent conflicts of interest involving teams in a coach's own conference, his opponents, friends, etc. The good news is it won't matter at all as part of the national championship provess next year, so the coaches can be as silly as they want to be. And given how little most coaches want to deal with the hassle, I'm not sure why there should even be a coaches' poll next year.

Greg from Lansing, Mich., writes: In giving conferences more power on selecting bowl match-ups should we just assume Ohio State/Michigan will always occupy the better bowl games? (If they aren't already in the play-off).

Brian Bennett: I can understand why there's a feeling in some quarters that Ohio State and Michigan get preferential treatment from the league office. But the truth is that the biggest brand-name schools already get preferential treatment from bowls. Is there any reason why Michigan at 7-5, should be in the Big Ten's No. 3 non-BCS bowl this year? Or why Ohio State went to the Gator at 6-6 in 2011? Only one: drawing power.

What the new system will basically do is allow the leagues more input on the process so as to avoid teams going to the same destination over and over again and to create better matchups. Had it been in place this year, however, I doubt we'd see Nebraska going back to Florida for a rematch with Georgia. Bowls are always going to want big-name teams as long as they are businesses. But better matchups and fresher destinations should help fans.

Greg from Atlanta writes: As an Iowa fan living in Georgia, I'm wondering how an 8-4 Georgia team gets ranked and an 8-4 Iowa team doesn't? Now, I'm not saying Iowa deserves a ranking, because 4 wins shouldn't get you in the top 25. But, Georgia lost to Vandy and needed double OT to beat Ga Tech. They also struggled with teams they should have throttled and fell far below expectations. Iowa played two teams tough that will both play in BCS bowls. Is this just more bias against the Big Ten? If so, will that bias ever go away?

Brian Bennett: I don't think this is a case of anti-Big Ten bias as much as it is probably pro-SEC sentiment. Iowa is a tough case and a team I debated putting in my final Top 25 for a while before ultimately deciding against it. Barely. The Hawkeyes' four losses are all highly respectable -- Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Northern Illinois. But you shouldn't get credit for just losing to good teams. Iowa's best wins are over Minnesota, Michigan and Nebraska, with two of those on the road. Very solid, but not spectacular.

Georgia's in a similar boat in terms of "good" losses, including Clemson and Missouri. The Dawgs also lost on the road to Auburn thanks to a miracle play at the end. They have also beaten South Carolina and LSU, two wins better than anything Iowa can claim, and the team was decimated by injuries this season.

I think the Hawkeyes are good, and they have some nice momentum after winning their final three games. That's why I'm really looking forward to seeing how they play against LSU. Iowa definitely ends the season in the Top 25 with a win over the Tigers in the Outback. And given the wide-open nature of next year's West Division, at least on paper, Iowa could emerge as one of the preseason favorites in that division in 2014.

Big Ten picks rewind: Week 1

September, 3, 2013
9/03/13
3:00
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Every Monday or Tuesday, I'll take a look back at our Big Ten predictions and poke fun at Brian, our guest picker and myself. Unfortunately, Brian is the big winner after Week 1, going a perfect 12-0 in picks to lead me by a game.

To review, the Week 1 predictions made by the reporters and guest picker Ryan Stitt of Litchfield, Ill.

WEEK 1/SEASON RECORD

Brian Bennett: 12-0 (1.000)

Adam Rittenberg: 11-1 (.917)

It's rewind time …

Indiana State at Indiana
  • Bennett's pick: Indiana 38, Indiana State 14
  • Rittenberg's pick: Indiana 42, Indiana State 20
  • Actual score: Indiana 73, Indiana State 35
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both underestimated the prowess of Indiana's offense, which set a stadium record for points scored. Bennett correctly pegged Tre Roberson to start at quarterback for the Hoosiers and Nate Sudfeld to take over and play plenty. My prediction of three combined rush touchdowns for Tevin Coleman and Stephen Houston fell one score short.
UNLV at Minnesota

  • Bennett's pick: Minnesota 31, UNLV 16
  • Rittenberg's pick: Minnesota 27, UNLV 14
  • Actual score: Minnesota 51, UNLV 23
  • 20-20 hindsight: Again, we didn't expect such a scoring explosion from the Big Ten team. I correctly predicted Minnesota would record several takeaways (it had two). Bennett's pick to click, Gophers running back Donnell Kirkwood, had his night cut short by an ankle injury.
Western Michigan at Michigan State

  • Bennett's pick: Michigan State 28, Western Michigan 6
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan State 31, Western Michigan 10
  • Actual score: Michigan State 26, Western Michigan 13
  • 20-20 hindsight: Both of us correctly pegged the Spartan Dawgs defense for a big night, although their pick-six came from a safety (Kurtis Drummond), not a cornerback, as I predicted. Bennett had the better forecast on the offense, writing that the quarterback competition wouldn't be settled in Week 1.
Buffalo at Ohio State

  • Bennett's pick: Ohio State 42, Buffalo 14
  • Rittenberg's pick: Ohio State 49, Buffalo 13
  • Actual score: Ohio State 40, Buffalo 20
  • 20-20 hindsight: Bennett came closer on the score prediction, but we both had the wrong Buckeyes going for long touchdowns as running back Jordan Hall and wide receiver Devin Smith did their thing. Defensive end Noah Spence had a sack, but neither Adolphus Washington nor Ryan Shazier recorded one, as I had predicted.
Massachusetts at Wisconsin

  • Bennett's pick: Wisconsin 38, UMass 7
  • Rittenberg's pick: Wisconsin 48, UMass 10
  • Actual score: Wisconsin 45, UMass 0
  • 20-20 hindsight: This was one of our easier and better predictions of Week 1. Bennett's combined yards prediction of 275 for James White and Melvin Gordon came extremely close -- they had 287 -- and I correctly pegged Badgers quarterback Joel Stave to twice find Jared Abbrederis for touchdowns.
Southern Illinois at Illinois

  • Bennett's pick: Illinois 31, Southern Illinois 13
  • Rittenberg's pick: Illinois 27, Southern Illinois 17
  • Actual score: Illinois 42, Southern Illinois 34
  • 20-20 hindsight: Sense a theme? We both undervalued the offenses of several second-division Big Ten squads in Week 1. Brian came close with his predictions of 35 pass attempts (Illinois had 37) and three Nathan Scheelhaase touchdown passes (he had two).
Purdue at Cincinnati

  • Bennett's pick: Cincinnati 28, Purdue 27
  • Rittenberg's pick: Cincinnati 27, Purdue 24
  • Actual score: Cincinnati 42, Purdue 7
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both expected much more from Purdue in coach Darrell Hazell's debut. Cincinnati quarterback Munchie Legaux made big plays early, not late, as Brian predicted. I had Purdue quarterback Rob Henry committing a key fourth-quarter turnover, but he threw picks in the first and third quarters in a poor performance.
Central Michigan at Michigan

  • Bennett's pick: Michigan 35, Central Michigan 17
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan 38, Central Michigan 14
  • Actual score: Michigan 59, Central Michigan 9
  • 20-20 hindsight: We had similar score predictions and both turned out to be way off, at least when it comes to Michigan's offensive output. Michigan receiver Jeremy Gallon had one touchdown catch, not two as I had predicted. Wolverines running back Fitzgerald Toussaint had 57 rush yards, falling short of Brian's prediction (95).
Penn State vs. Syracuse


  • Bennett's pick: Penn State 27, Syracuse 23
  • Rittenberg's pick: Penn State 24, Syracuse 21
  • Actual score: Penn State 23, Syracuse 17
  • 20-20 hindsight: One of our better score predictions, as we both expected a fairly low scoring close game and got one. Penn State had zero rushing touchdowns, not the two I had predicted.
Northern Illinois at Iowa

  • Bennett's pick: Northern Illinois 23, Iowa 21
  • Rittenberg's pick: Iowa 24, Northern Illinois 23
  • Actual score: Northern Illinois 30, Iowa 27
  • 20-20 hindsight: Our lone disagreement of Week 1 went Bennett's way, even though I was in good shape for most of the second half. Iowa running back Mark Weisman (100 rush yards) came 50 yards and two touchdowns shy of my prediction. NIU got a big lift late in the fourth quarter from a Jordan Lynch touchdown pass, not a Lynch scoring run, which was Bennett's forecast.
Wyoming at Nebraska

  • Bennett's pick: Nebraska 49, Wyoming 21
  • Rittenberg's pick: Nebraska 52, Wyoming 17
  • Actual score: Nebraska 37, Wyoming 34
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both expected a stress-free night for the Huskers and a much better performance from the young Nebraska defense. Neither happened. I correctly pegged Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez to find Quincy Enunwa for two touchdown passes. Brian's prediction of five combined touchdowns for Martinez and Ameer Abdullah came up short as Imani Cross had Nebraska's two rushing touchdowns.
Northwestern at California

  • Bennett's pick: Northwestern 30, Cal 24
  • Rittenberg's pick: Northwestern 33, Cal 24
  • Actual score: Northwestern 44, Cal 30
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both came up short with our score predictions, although Bennett's forecast of Northwestern recording two timely interceptions proved spot on as linebacker Collin Ellis had a pair of pick-sixes in the second half. Injuries prevented the big night I predicted for Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark.

And now for our guest picker …

Indiana 21, Indiana State 13
UNLV 21, Minnesota 17
Michigan State 28, Western Michigan 17
Ohio State 45, Buffalo 13
Wisconsin 38, UMass 14
Southern Illinois 20, Illinois 17
Cincinnati 27, Purdue 21
Michigan 28, Central Michigan 17
Penn State 28, Syracuse 23
Iowa 24, Northern Illinois 13
Nebraska 27, Wyoming 16
Northwestern 24, California 21

Record: 9-3

Assessment: Not too shabby, Ryan, although you've clearly lived in Big Ten country too long with some of those low score predictions. You came close with Michigan State-Western Michigan but, like the two of us, underestimated the offensive prowess of teams like Michigan, Northwestern, Indiana, Minnesota and Illinois. That UNLV pick doesn't look too good, but not a terrible first effort.

Who's next?

Most to prove in the Big Ten

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
10:00
AM ET
Every season, each Big Ten player, coach and team sets out to prove something. Maybe it's to prove last season was just a hiccup or that this season is the start of something special.

Whatever it is, some naturally have more to prove than others. So here's a look at 10 players, units and coaches in the Big Ten who have the most to prove:

[+] EnlargeAndrew Maxwell
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesAndrew Maxwell could be on a short leash in East Lansing, so he has plenty to prove.
1. Michigan State QB Andrew Maxwell. Despite starting every game last season, Maxwell was just named the 2013 starter on Tuesday. So it's not exactly a stretch to think he's on a short leash. Connor Cook will get some playing time Friday, Tyler O'Connor is "in the mix" and true freshman Damion Terry wowed the staff in a recent scrimmage. If Maxwell doesn't quickly prove he's the right man for the job, he'll be watching the right man from the bench.

2. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz/offensive coordinator Greg Davis. Are Ferentz's best years behind him? And was last year's passing offense the start of a trend for Davis? The Hawkeyes finished last season at 4-8, their worst record since 2000, and finished with the nation's No. 114 offense. There are plenty of questions surrounding both of these coaches right now, and quieting them would certainly go a long way in proving Iowa's winning tradition isn't gone for good.

3. Penn State special teams. The Nittany Lions ranked near the bottom statistically in nearly every special teams category in the Big Ten last year. They were tied for ninth in field goal percentage, 11th in punting average, last in kick return average and ninth in punt return average. Sam Ficken rebounded in the second half of the season after missing four field goals against Virginia, but he was sporadic again in the Blue-White Game. Alex Butterworth's hang time also needs to improve.

4. Purdue coach Darrell Hazell. He guided Kent State to an impressive 11-3 record last season, became the Mid-American Conference coach of the year and nearly earned a berth in the Rose Bowl. But that was the MAC and this is the Big Ten. There's a big difference, and he wants to show fans of the gold and black that kind of success can carry over.

5. Michigan QB Devin Gardner. He has big shoes to fill when it comes to replacing Denard Robinson, but expectations are already soaring for the player who has started just four career games at quarterback. Some sporting books have increased Gardner's odds at the Heisman to 25-to-1, which means increased confidence, and Michigan is expected to compete with Ohio State for the conference title this season. That's a lot of pressure and, by default, means Gardner has a lot to prove.

6. Wisconsin front seven. New coach Gary Andersen is hoping the new 3-4 defense can create some headaches for opposing offenses, and the front seven here are trying to show they're quick studies. Wisconsin will have to rely on these seven to win, and their adjustment to the new scheme will have a direct impact on the number of marks in the "W" column.

7. Ohio State defensive line. Having four new starters tends to mean there are question marks, and this young group will have to answer them. Noah Spence came in as the nation's No. 4 recruit back in 2012, and reports all seem to conclude he's living up to the hype. Depth here isn't great and neither is experience, but talent and health are the main things that matter.

8. Nebraska defense. There's no problem on the offensive side of the ball with players such as Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah, but defense is what's preventing this team from being great. The Huskers' run defense ranked 90th in the nation last season -- allowing 653 yards, 498 yards, 640 yards and 589 yards in their four losses -- and they could be even worse this year. Three new linebackers will take the field, and Nebraska lost two of its top pass-rushers. A lot to prove? You bet.

9. Michigan RB Fitzgerald Toussaint. There's no way around it. You have to use the term "disappointment" when referring to Toussaint's 2012 season. Coming off a breakout 1,000-yard campaign in 2011, he struggled last season, averaging just four yards a carry and running inconsistently before breaking his leg against Iowa. He wants to show that 2012 was an aberration.

10. Badgers' receivers outside of Jared Abbrederis. If you're having difficulty naming a Wisconsin receiver other than Abbrederis, don't feel bad. Abbrederis caught 49 balls last season -- more than all of the other Wisconsin wideouts combined (48). Jordan Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Kenzel Doe will need to step up to make sure secondaries don't just focus on the fifth-year senior.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 19, 2013
8/19/13
1:14
PM ET
We are here to do a job, not channel Scrooge McDuck.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

August, 12, 2013
8/12/13
5:00
PM ET
Can we hop in the DeLorean and travel ahead to Aug. 29? No? OK, then, let's just answer some emails.

Justin from Baltimore writes: Hi, Brian. Which of the following outcomes would be most beneficial in boosting the BIG's national rep? 1. Win all nine of the top nonconference games (ND at Michigan, UCLA at Nebraska, MSU at ND, Wisconsin at ASU, OSU at Cal, PSU vs. Syracuse, BYU at Wisconsin, NW at Cal, and Iowa at ISU ... I think it would actually be in the BIG's interest for ND to beat Purdue in game No. 10 as to not totally devalue the other victories against the Irish). 2. Win the Rose Bowl. 3. Place a team in the BCS championship game and lose in a close, competitive game that really could have gone either way?

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Sam RicheOhio State and Braxton Miller have their eyes on the big prize this season.
Brian Bennett: I think we can quickly rule out No. 1. The Big Ten just doesn't have many high-profile nonconference games. If Notre Dame loses to both Michigan schools, that probably means the Irish won't have a great season, and beating teams like Cal, UCLA and Arizona State simply doesn't carry that much weight. A Rose Bowl win would be great, but we don't know who the opponent would be. Is it a highly-ranked Pac-12 champion? Even then, I think the No. 3 item in your scenario is the most important. Winning championships is obvious the most beneficial accomplishment for a league's perception. The second-best way to do that might be playing for a championship and coming really close. Especially if a Big Ten team were to take an SEC champ to the wire, that could go a long way toward improving perception.

Nick from Bay Area, Calif., writes: Suppose the following situation plays out: In the Legends Division, Nebraska finishes 11-1 with its only loss at Michigan. Michigan loses a close one to the Buckeyes and drops another on the road (take your pick, @PSU, @NW, @MSU) to finish 10-2. In the Leaders, Ohio State finishes 12-0 and Wisconsin loses close ones at OSU and Arizona State to finish 10-2. Ohio State destroys Nebraska in the B1G CG. If the Buckeyes go to the NCG, is there a shot that the Badgers could end up in the Rose Bowl again?

Brian Bennett: I see it's a hypothetical day. Yep, we all need some real football around here to talk about. Anyway, it's an interesting question. Of course, there are scenarios where the Rose Bowl could take a non-Big Ten team if it lost the league champion to the BCS title game, but I doubt the game would want to do that in the final season before the playoff and certainly not in its 100th edition. Let's assume all three Big Ten teams you mentioned finished in the top 14 of the BCS standings but not in the top four. The Rose would be free to take its pick of those teams. I actually think Nebraska or Michigan would be more likely to go to Pasadena, both because they'd have stronger nonconference wins in your scenarios (Notre Dame for the Wolverines, UCLA for the Huskers) than Wisconsin, and because the Rose Bowl might have a bit of Badgers fatigue (and vice versa).

Glenn from Leesburg, Fla., writes: Brian, why all the hype over OSU? Realistically, what more do they have than teams like UM, PSU, Wisconsin, and Nebraska? They have Braxton Miller, but except for PSU, there's some pretty good QBs starting for the other three schools. OSU appears to have a good secondary, so does PSU. OSU lacks depth at LB and DL. They have a good OL, so does PSU and UM. OSU has Urban Meyer, PSU has last season's Coach of the Year, UM has Brady Hoke. OSU has a questionable backfield to support Miller, especially the first few games. OSU had a great recruiting year, so did UM which was ranked ahead of the Bucks in that category. Last fall's undefeated season for OSU has nothing to do with this year's upcoming season. So, why all the hype? You and Adam make it sound like we might as well skip the BIG season and send OSU right to the BCS championship game. Biased much?

Brian Bennett: Well, let me tackle the "biased much" question first, since it is so ridiculous. Our job here involves giving informed opinions and predictions at times, and we have both said Ohio State is the league favorite. This is not an absurd opinion, since the Buckeyes are ranked No. 2 in the preseason coaches' poll and have been picked to win the Big Ten by just about every major publication, writer, etc. Last year, we both picked Michigan State to win the Big Ten. Did that make us biased toward the Spartans? Come on, Glenn.

Anyway, as a guy from Florida, you should know part of the answer here: Urban Meyer. Yes, he's not the only great coach in the league. But he is the only one with national title rings. And in his first season in the conference, he went 12-0. The Buckeyes have had an abundance of talent most years, and they're loaded again in 2013. The offensive line is excellent, Miller finished fifth in the Heisman voting last year, and the skill players are improving, especially with the rave reviews freshman Dontre Wilson has garnered thus far. There are questions on defense, but there are also All-America type players on that side like Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, plus stars-in-the-making like Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence. I've said I think it will be hard for the Buckeyes to go undefeated again, and let's not forget that they had several close calls last season. But if you're going to predict a 2013 Big Ten champ, Ohio State is the obvious pick right now.

Brian M. from Oregon, Ohio, writes: Brian, I must take exception to your response to Brian from Atlanta. You can't look at it as 25 games in a row. You have to look at it one game at a time. The Buckeyes aren't playing 25 straight games. They're playing one opponent, and then preparing for the next. When you look at it on a game-by-game basis, you're hard pressed to think that Ohio State won't finish undefeated. Further, what happened last season is already in the past. It has no bearing on this season. From here, it's 14 games to go, not 25 (or 26 as it were). Additionally, Brian from Atlanta mentioned some of the close games Ohio State had last year. This seems to be a common misapprehension amongst Buckeye doubters. The Buckeye team that beat that school up north in November, was far better than the one that took the field against Miami (OH) (IO) in September. Certainly other teams have improved as well, but consider the giant leap forward Urban Meyer-coached teams traditionally take in Year 2 of his system. Other teams will have improved, but Ohio State has improved more, and they are better to begin with. Once again, it seems far more likely that Ohio State will finish undefeated than not.

Brian Bennett: While it's true that this season's Ohio State team is different, and it won't have to win 25 games in a row this season, my point was that it's really, really hard to go undefeated in any given year, much less do it two years in a row. You make a good point about Meyer's second-year track record, but also recall that he had only one undefeated season under his belt before last year, and that was at Utah. You also make it sound like Ohio State didn't have close games late in the season, but the Buckeyes won an overtime game in the penultimate game at Wisconsin, as well as that miracle comeback against Purdue on Oct. 20. And remember that they only beat Michigan by five points, at home. Yes, Meyer's team should be favored in at least 11 games this season, but we are saying that based mostly on what those opponents did last year, not the teams that they will become this season. I won't be surprised if the Buckeyes run the table, but I'd give better odds that they slip up somewhere.

Josh from Madison, Wisc., writes: Who ultimately starts for the Badgers this season, Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy?

Brian Bennett: You're giving short shrift to Curt Phillips, who might not have the arm strength of Stave or the athleticism (post injuries) of McEvoy but has a combination of both and serious veteran moxie. It's nearly impossible right now to tell whom Gary Andersen and Andy Ludwig will choose as their starter. McEvoy is at a disadvantage because he didn't arrive on campus until the summer, and his experience at playing quarterback on any level is limited. I'd probably put my money on Stave, just because he has the best chance to help the offense stretch the field with his downfield passing ability, and he played well last season before getting hurt. But I also think McEvoy will play at some point this fall, and I still wouldn't count out Phillips being the last man standing.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Training camp hasn't even started yet. After that grueling month, there's still almost an entire season to be played before "The Game" that matters most.

But it's never too early to set the table for the feud between Ohio State and Michigan, and at BuckeyeNation and WolverineNation, we're doing it all week.

We looked back on Monday at some heroes and villains on both sides of the rivalry. Today we're looking ahead at the strengths and weaknesses that could decide the latest edition in the storied series, which is just more than four short months away.

STRENGTHS

Ground and pound:

Carlos Hyde
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesOhio State running back Carlos Hyde is poised for a big senior season.
The Ohio State rushing attack was potent enough a year ago, but it's only added more experience and weapons to the mix now. By November, it might be almost impossible to slow down the Buckeyes on the ground as they incorporate the new pieces to the attack and potentially get more support from the passing game. Braxton Miller is obviously a threat to score from anywhere on the field, and if Carlos Hyde makes the kind of improvement he's targeted in terms of making defenders miss at the second level, that one-two combination will continue to rank among the best in the country, particularly with four seniors back on the offensive line.

But it might be the added dimension of a healthy Jordan Hall or a true freshman such as Dontre Wilson or Jalin Marshall at the hybrid, Pivot position that gives opponents even more fits. Or maybe it's a backfield that can be loaded up with as many as three talented rushers, rolling out Rod Smith or Bri'onte Dunn in a diamond formation with Hyde and Miller. Either way, the Buckeyes have the personnel to give Michigan a workout in the front seven.

Air patrol:

The expectations are growing for Michigan's passing attack now that Devin Gardner has the position all to himself, and he'll have plenty of time to develop and find a rhythm before meeting up with the Buckeyes. But there might be no stiffer test in the country than the one Ohio State can present a quarterback thanks to its overflowing talent and veteran savvy in the secondary. Cornerback Bradley Roby and safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett would make life difficult on their own, but the Buckeyes can complement that with another senior safety in reserve in Corey "Pittsburgh"' Brown, a junior cornerback looking to make a name for himself in Doran Grant and a class of incoming defensive backs that represented perhaps the best signing day haul in the nation.

The Buckeyes plan to get as many of those guys involved as possible this season, which could make the secondary even more fearsome by the time Gardner gets a crack at them.

WEAKNESSES

Middle ground:

The fresh faces are almost everywhere in the front seven, but heading to training camp, there's not all that much uncertainty about who will be filling which shoes left behind by the defenders who helped the Buckeyes go unbeaten last fall. Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington are poised for breakouts at end and Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry appear ready to lend a hand next to Ryan Shazier at linebacker, but there are two critical spots on the inside of the line that bear monitoring as Ohio State prepares to stop opposing rushing attacks. Michael Bennett is close to a lock for one role, but there could be a heated competition for reps next to him to complete the rotation. Tommy Schutt battled injuries throughout spring practice, but he has the ability to be a future star. Joel Hale is a grinder and respected leader, and the junior could be an intriguing option as well. And if big Chris Carter can manage his weight, his massive frame clearly could fill up some rushing lanes.

By November, the Buckeyes figure to have long ago answered those questions up front and should have also built up plenty of experience. But that will be at the top of the priority list as Ohio State chases a Big Ten title -- and keeps an eye on its rival.

Kicking it:

More often than not, the Buckeyes had the edge over opponents in the third phase. But considering how much value Urban Meyer places on special teams and how much production he expects, Ohio State wasn't all that close to giving him what he wanted a year ago. Kicker Drew Basil wasn't used all that much, aside from the season-ending win over Michigan, but among his 11 attempts last season were a pair of missed field goals from less than 39 yards that didn't exactly inspire confidence. The Buckeyes will be breaking in a new punter as well, and winning the field position battle is as important under Meyer as it has always been under previous regimes at Ohio State -- putting pressure on some young contributors to make plays in kickoff and punt coverage.

Philly Brown took a couple punts back for touchdowns last year and the "Freak Show" punt block unit made itself a nuisance a few times, but Meyer and newly-promoted special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs keep the bar pretty high in that area of the game. And in tightly contested rivalries, it can make all the difference.
Is it preseason All-America team season already? You bet it is.

Phil Steele has issued his 2013 preseason All-America teams, and a total of 15 players from the Big Ten made the four squads.

Let's take a look:

First team
Second team
Third team
Fourth team

Some notes and thoughts:
  • Lewan is an obvious choice for the first team, while Steele clearly sees the potential in Shazier and Roby after breakout seasons for the 12-0 Buckeyes in 2012. I don't see much separating Bullough from Shazier and Dennard from Roby, and wouldn't be surprised to see either Spartans defender moving up a team on the postseason All-America list.
  • Ohio State's Miller is listed behind only Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and ahead of Alabama's A.J. McCarron and Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater. It's clear Miller will enter the season very much on the Heisman radar. Nebraska's Taylor Martinez didn't make the top four signal callers, but can't be too far behind.
  • Wisconsin's Pedersen is a solid player, but Penn State's Kyle Carter has the higher ceiling among Big Ten tight ends, in my view. Carter had 453 receiving yards in just nine games in 2012. He'll be a big help for Penn State's new starting quarterback, and could work his way onto the postseason All-America list.
  • It's not a huge snub, but Northwestern's Mark should be better than a fourth-team all-purpose player. He earned first-team All-America honors in 2012, and also was a second-team All-Big Ten selection as a running back. Mark could have worked his way onto the list as a running back. Instead, Steele went with former Penn State star Silas Redd as a fourth-teamer despite a so-so first season at USC. Mark's teammate Jeff Budzien also was snubbed from the kickers list after a near-perfect junior season.
  • Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan didn't make the preseason list despite an excellent 2012 season. Ryan suffered a torn ACL this spring, but is expected back before the end of October. It'll be interesting to see if other Wolverines players besides Lewan put themselves in contention for postseason All-America honors.
  • It's nice to see Steele recognize Wisconsin's Abbrederis, who might still be the Big Ten's top receiver. Like Pedersen, Abbrederis' numbers suffered in 2012 as Wisconsin sputtered on offense, and especially in the passing game. Abbrederis is an excellent route runner, a big-play threat, and a good return man.
  • I'm interested to see which Big Ten linemen work their way onto Steele's postseason All-America teams. Keep an eye on guys like Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, Penn State defensive end Deion Barnes, Wisconsin offensive lineman Ryan Groy, Northwestern defensive end Tyler Scott, Penn State guard John Urschel, and Ohio State's dynamic young pairing of defensive linemen Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington.

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Brian Bennett discusses the outlook for the Michigan Wolverines' football program in 2014.Tags: Michigan Wolverines, Braxton MIller, Brian Bennett, Devin Gardner
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