Michigan Wolverines: Rex Burkhead

The Big Ten's All-Bowl team

January, 10, 2013
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The Big Ten won only two bowl games this season, but several players stood out around the league.

Let's take a look at ESPN.com's Big Ten All-Bowl squad ...

OFFENSE

QB: Devin Gardner, Michigan -- There weren't many good choices around the league, but Gardner fired three touchdown passes and racked up 214 pass yards. He has accounted for at least two touchdowns in all five of his starts at quarterback for the Wolverines.

RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State -- The nation's ultimate workhorse running back did his thing in his final game as a Spartan. Bell had 32 carries for 145 yards and a touchdown, recording his eighth 100-yard rushing performance of the season. He also threw a 29-yard pass on a pivotal third-down play.

RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska -- Another back who stood out in his final collegiate game, Burkhead racked up 140 rush yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, and added four receptions for 39 yards. It's really too bad we didn't get to see what Burkhead could have done all season when healthy.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Gallon celebrates one of his two touchdown catches against South Carolina.
WR: Jeremy Gallon, Michigan -- Gallon recorded career highs in receptions (9) and receiving yards (145), and scored two touchdowns against a strong South Carolina defense in the Outback Bowl. It was his third 100-yard receiving performance of the season.

WR: Derrick Engel, Minnesota -- Along with quarterback Philip Nelson, Engel provided some hope for Minnesota's future on offense with 108 receiving yards on four receptions in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. His 42-yard reception marked the third longest of Minnesota's season.

TE: Dan Vitale, Northwestern -- The freshman provided offensive balance Northwestern needed against a Mississippi State team that focused on taking away Venric Mark and the run game. Vitale recorded team highs in both receptions (7) and receiving yards (82) as Northwestern ended the nation's longest bowl losing streak in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan -- Everyone remembers Jadeveon Clowney's near decapitation of Michigan's Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl -- which resulted from a miscommunication between Lewan and tight end Mike Kwiatkowski -- but the Wolverines' left tackle did a good job overall against college football's most dominant defensive lineman. Lewan anchored a line that helped Michigan put up decent numbers against an elite defense.

OL: Zac Epping, Minnesota -- Minnesota's offensive line showed flashes of the dominance it displayed for much of the Glen Mason era against Texas Tech. The Gophers racked up 222 rush yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries, as Epping and his linemates opened up holes for Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick Williams and MarQueis Gray.

OL: Brian Mulroe, Northwestern -- Mulroe made his 40th career start and helped Northwestern finally get over the hump in a bowl game. The Wildcats had a balanced offensive attack, avoided the penalty flag and didn't allow a sack against Mississippi State.

OL: Cole Pensick, Nebraska -- Stepping in for the injured Justin Jackson at center, Pensick helped the Huskers find success running the ball against Georgia, especially up the middle. Nebraska had 239 rushing yards in the Capital One Bowl.

OL: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin: The Badgers rushed for 218 yards against Stanford, which came into the Rose Bowl with the nation's No. 3 rush defense. They also gave up only one sack to a defense which led the FBS in that category. Frederick played very well at center and announced he would skip his junior year to enter the NFL draft a few days later.

DEFENSE

DL: Quentin Williams, Northwestern -- Williams set the tone for Northwestern's win with an interception returned for a touchdown on the third play from scrimmage. He also recorded two tackles for loss, including a sack, in the victory.

DL: William Gholston, Michigan State -- Another player who stood out in his final collegiate game, Gholston tied for the team lead with nine tackles, including a sack, and had a pass breakup in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win against TCU. The freakishly athletic defensive end stepped up in a bowl game for the second straight season.

DL: Tyler Scott, Northwestern -- Scott and his fellow linemates made life tough for turnover-prone Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell in the Gator Bowl. The Wildcats junior defensive end recorded three tackles for loss, including two sacks, and added a quarterback hurry in the win.

DL: Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota -- The big man in the center of Minnesota's defensive line stood out against Texas Tech, recording six tackles, including a sack, and a pass breakup. Gophers fans should be fired up to have Hageman back in the fold for the 2013 season.

LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State -- Bullough once again triggered a strong defensive performance by Michigan State, which held TCU to just three points in the final two and a half quarters of the Wings bowl. The junior middle linebacker tied with Gholston for the team tackles lead (9) and assisted on a tackle for loss.

LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin -- The Badgers' defense clamped down against Stanford after a slow start, and Borland once again stood out with his play at middle linebacker. The standout junior led Wisconsin with nine tackles as the defense kept the Badgers within striking distance in Pasadena.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan -- Ryan capped a breakout season with another strong performance in the bowl game, recording 1.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and half a sack. He'll enter 2013 as a top candidate for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.

CB: Michael Carter, Minnesota -- Carter finished off a strong senior year with two interceptions, a pass breakup and seven tackles in the 34-31 loss to Texas Tech.

CB: Nick VanHoose, Northwestern: The redshirt freshman picked off a Mississippi State pass and returned it 39 yard to set up the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter.

S: Jared Carpenter, Northwestern: The senior was named MVP of the Gator Bowl win with a game-high 10 tackles and a near interception late in the game.

S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: The Wildcats dominate our all-bowl team secondary for good reason. Campbell had an interception and a pass breakup against the Bulldogs.

Specialists

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State -- The punters took center stage in Tempe as both offenses struggled, and Sadler provided MSU with a huge lift in the field-position game. He set Spartans bowl records for punts (11) and punting yards (481), averaging 43.7 yards per punt with three inside the 20-yard line. His booming punt inside the TCU 5 helped lead to a game-turning fumble by the Horned Frogs' Skye Dawson.

K: Brendan Gibbons and Matt Wile, Michigan -- Both kickers share the honors after combining to go 3-for-3 on field-goal attempts in the Outback Bowl. Gibbons, the hero of last year's Sugar Bowl, connected from 39 yards and 40 yards in the first half. Wile hit a career-long 52-yard attempt in the third quarter, setting an Outback Bowl record.

Returner: Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota -- It took a bit longer than expected, but Stoudermire finally set the NCAA record for career kick return yards with a 26-yard runback on the opening kickoff against Texas Tech. The senior cornerback finished the game with 111 return yards, including a 37-yard runback, on four attempts.

Ranking the Big Ten's bowl games

December, 12, 2012
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The Big Ten bowl season kicks off Dec. 28 in Texas, continues the following day in Arizona and wraps up with five games on New Year's Day. Seven Big Ten teams appear in the postseason, and the number would have been larger had Ohio State and Penn State been eligible. Although most would describe the Big Ten's bowl lineup as more daunting than exciting, it's always fun to rank the games based on intrigue. Which games will be the most entertaining, and which will put you to sleep?

Here's my take:

1. Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, Wisconsin vs. No. 6 Stanford (Jan. 1, ESPN, 5 p.m. ET, Rose Bowl Stadium, Pasadena, Calif.) -- The first Rose Bowl featuring a 5-loss team doesn't sound too appetizing, but Wisconsin finished the season with a 70-point performance in the Big Ten title game and has a lot of stylistic similarities to Stanford. But who are we kidding. The real reason to watch is Barry Alvarez, the former Wisconsin coach who won three Rose Bowls and has taken over the head-coaching duties for the game following the sudden departure of Bret Bielema. Barry's back, and he's going for a 4-0 mark in Pasadena.

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesDenard Robinson will play his final college game in the Outback Bowl.
2. Outback Bowl, No. 18 Michigan vs. No. 10 South Carolina (Jan. 1, ESPN, 1 p.m. ET, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa) -- Record-setting Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson plays his final game in Maize and Blue, and likely will spend most of it at running back as the Wolverines face a fearsome South Carolina defense led by star end Jadeveon Clowney. Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan matches up against Clowney in a battle of likely future first-round picks. Michigan has plenty of "good" losses on its résumé, but this is the last chance for the Wolverines to record a signature win.

3. TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, No. 20 Northwestern vs. Mississippi State (Jan. 1, ESPN2, noon ET, EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.) -- Everyone knows about Northwestern's bowl drought -- the team hasn't won a bowl since the 1949 Rose -- but bad matchups certainly have played a role. Northwestern finally gets a more evenly matched opponent in Mississippi State, which started strong but faded late. The Wildcats return almost all of their key players in 2013, including star running back/returner Venric Mark and quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, so this game could be a springboard for bigger things ahead if Northwestern comes out on top. Cowbell, anyone?

4. Capital One Bowl, No. 16 Nebraska vs. No. 7 Georgia (Jan. 1, ABC, 1 p.m. ET, Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando) -- This game usually ranks higher on the intrigue-o-meter, but it's tough to get too excited about a matchup featuring two teams that would much rather be elsewhere. Nebraska comes off of its worst performance in years, a complete clunker at the Big Ten title game. Georgia performed much better at the SEC championship, but once again couldn't get over the hump. There are some exciting individual players like Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead, and Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and linebacker Jarvis Jones. Nebraska needs to significantly upgrade its performance to have a chance against the Dawgs.

5. Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Michigan State vs. TCU (Dec. 29, ESPN, 10:15 p.m. ET, Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.) -- If your entertainment gauge is based entirely on number of points scored, this probably isn't the game for you. But if you enjoy fast, physical defenses, be sure and tune in as the Spartans and Horned Frogs square off. Michigan State ranks fourth nationally in total defense, and TCU ranks 18th. It's likely the last chance to catch Spartans star running back Le'Veon Bell in Green and White, and Michigan State could shake some things up on offense with some extra time to prepare.

6. Heart of Dallas Bowl, Purdue vs. Oklahoma State (Jan. 1, ESPNU, noon ET, Cotton Bowl Stadium, Dallas) -- It's a coin flip for the last spot in the Big Ten bowl rankings, but at least this contest should feature some points. Oklahoma State ranks fourth nationally in scoring and fifth in total offense. While Purdue's offense had its ups and downs, the Boilers finished on a good note behind quarterback Robert Marve and play-caller Patrick Higgins, averaging 482 yards in the final three games. Oklahoma State is a heavy favorite, but Purdue, playing with an interim coach (Higgins) and a large senior class, has nothing to lose and should have some surprises.

7. Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, Minnesota vs. Texas Tech (Dec. 28, ESPN, 9 p.m. ET, Reliant Stadium, Houston) -- Again, there's not much separating this game from the one above it, but Texas Tech has an interim head coach after Tommy Tuberville's surprising exit, and Minnesota really struggled offensively late in the season as injuries piled up. It will be interesting to see how cornerback Michael Carter and Minnesota's improved secondary handles a Texas Tech offense ranked second nationally in passing. But unless Minnesota's offense makes major strides in bowl practices, it's tough to see this one being close.
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)

Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

1. The Ineligibles overachieved under great coaches: We won't see Ohio State or Penn State until next fall, but both teams went out on positive notes to end seasons in which they overachieved. Aside from die-hard Buckeyes believers, who expected Ohio State to go 12-0 and record just the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history? Even fewer people expected Penn State to go 8-4 after a tumultuous offseason that featured the exodus of running back Silas Redd and other key players. And when the Lions started 0-2, most folks wrote them off. But Bill O'Brien and his team never lost faith and surged through most of the Big Ten season. It was fitting that kicker Sam Ficken, whose struggles at Virginia led to Penn State's loss, had the game-winning field goal Saturday as the Lions beat Wisconsin in overtime. O'Brien exceeded all expectations in his first season as a head coach, recording the most wins ever by a first-year Lions boss. Will he be Big Ten Coach of the Year? The only other worthy candidate is Urban Meyer, who took a seven-loss Buckeyes team with significant depth issues and transformed it into one of the nation's best.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
Evan Habeeb/US PresswireBill O'Brien faced tough questions from prospective recruits, but the Penn State coach and his staff kept a top-25 recruiting class together.
2. Michigan isn't really back: Sure, the Wolverines have dug themselves out from the Rich Rodriguez-created crater, and they had a charmed season end in a Sugar Bowl title last season. But in terms of beating really good teams, the ones that signify Michigan once again has a place among the nation's elite, Brady Hoke's crew is still looking for a breakthrough. Michigan won a respectable eight games, but its four losses in the regular season -- Alabama, Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State -- came against the best four teams it played. The Wolverines were extremely fortunate to beat a good Northwestern team and a mediocre Michigan State squad on their home field. While it was nice to end the losing streak against Ohio State last season, Michigan beat the worst Buckeyes team we've seen in more than a decade. The offense still seems hamstrung in some ways by the Denard Robinson era, though the emergence of Devin Gardner is promising for the future. There are signs Michigan is close, and the renaissance on defense under Hoke and Greg Mattison can't be denied. But it'll take a bit longer for Michigan to truly claim it is back, although a Jan. 1 bowl victory against an SEC foe would help.

3. Rex Burkhead still can make an impact: This hasn't been the season the Nebraska senior running back envisioned, but he can still play a major role in how it turns out for Big Red. Burkhead returned to the field in the second half Friday against Iowa after Nebraska's offense stumbled and fell behind 7-3. In his first appearance since Oct. 20, Burkhead racked up 69 yards and Nebraska's only touchdown on 16 carries. He might not be 100 percent, but he showed the skills that make him beloved in the Cornhusker State, particularly on a grinding 9-yard run to pick up a first down after Nebraska was pinned inside its own 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Nebraska had hoped to get through the Iowa game without Burkhead, but when the team needed him, he delivered. He likely will play a bigger role this week against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Burkhead had 86 rush yards against the Badgers in the Big Ten opener, the only full game he has played this season. He could be the boost Nebraska needs to win its first league title since 1999 and possibly win the Rose Bowl, too.

4. Danny Hope's players didn't quit on him: Many Purdue fans have seen enough of fourth-year coach Danny Hope, but Hope has plenty of allies in his locker room. The Boilers easily could have quit after dropping their first five Big Ten games -- four blowouts (three at home) plus the heartbreaker at Ohio State. Some teams projected to do much more would have gone in the tank. But Purdue rallied behind Hope and gutsy quarterback Robert Marve, who played despite a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and won its final three games to secure a bowl berth. The product rarely looked pretty, and even Saturday's Bucket game against Indiana featured some bang-your-head-against-the-wall moments. But Purdue's players never stopped fighting and will head somewhere warm for the holidays. Whether Hope joins them remains to be seen, but he deserves some credit for keeping the team afloat during such a difficult stretch.

5. Bowl practices will be crucial for Big Ten teams: We don't know the bowl matchups yet, but they will be daunting for the Big Ten, which will be without two of its best teams (Ohio State and Penn State) in the postseason. For the league to avoid another bad bowl performance, several teams must take significant steps during bowl practices. Michigan State has the defense and the running back (Le'Veon Bell) to win its bowl game, but it needs quarterback Andrew Maxwell and a young receiving corps to develop. Coach Mark Dantonio hinted this week that his offense needed an update to keep up with the times. Maybe that can start next month in earnest. Minnesota has to get healthy and re-establish its offensive identity behind true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson, who will benefit from the 15 practices. Wisconsin also will have a chance to iron out its offensive issues, while a young Northwestern team that made major strides this fall must make another before facing what should be a heavily favored SEC foe in Florida. Michigan also gets some extra time to figure out its vision on offense with Gardner and Robinson.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 12

November, 15, 2012
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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.

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Three weeks after getting blown out at Ohio State, Nebraska has rallied to take control of the Legends division. The Huskers beat a Michigan team playing without star quarterback Denard Robinson in the second half, receiving big performances from their defense and enough offense from Taylor Martinez and Co.

Let's take a quick look at Nebraska's 23-9 win at Memorial Stadium.

It was over when: We didn't know it at the time, but Michigan had very little chance to win after Robinson aggravated a right elbow injury late in the second quarter. He did not return and backup Russell Bellomy misfired on his first 11 pass attempts and threw three interceptions. Nebraska officially put it away when Ameer Abdullah scored from 12 yards out on a nice cutback run to put the Huskers up two touchdowns with 10:19 to play.

Gameball goes to: Nebraska running back Abdullah. While several defenders stepped up for the Huskers, Abdullah provided the boost Nebraska needed on offense as it played without star senior Rex Burkhead (knee). Abdullah showed tremendous quickness and vision, racking up 101 rush yards and a touchdown on 24 carries.

Stat of the game: Michigan failed to score a touchdown for the second consecutive game. The Wolverines last reached the end zone on a Thomas Rawls run with 6:01 left in their 45-0 win against Illinois on Oct. 13.

What Michigan learned: As good as the Wolverines are on defense, they can't win without Robinson, at least not now. Robinson accounts for too much of the offense and too much of the game plan. Bellomy was put in a tough spot but looked completely overmatched against an aggressive Nebraska defense. If Robinson is out for an extended period, Michigan will have a tough time remaining in the division race.

What Nebraska learned: The Blackshirts are starting to show up against spread offenses. After keeping Northwestern at bay, Nebraska's defense held Michigan in check, even before Robinson's injury. The Huskers still make too many mistakes, but they seemed to have turned a corner since the Ohio State debacle, and Martinez has played well the past two games. The Big Ten is up for grabs, and Nebraska might be right there to take it.

What it means: Nebraska and Michigan are tied atop the Legends division at 3-1, but the Huskers hold the all-important head-to-head tiebreaker. Bo Pelini's team can take a huge step toward locking up the division next week as it visits Michigan State, which has dropped three games at home this season. Michigan, meanwhile, must hope Nebraska falters at least once in order to get to Indianapolis.

It's game day at Memorial Stadium

October, 27, 2012
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- The Sea of Red will be rocking tonight as Nebraska hosts No. 22 Michigan for the first time in 101 years.

A huge Legends Division matchup is on tap as Michigan (5-2, 3-0 Big Ten) aims to preserve its perfect mark in Big Ten play and take a big step toward Indianapolis, while Nebraska (5-2, 2-1) can put itself in the driver's seat -- because of head-to-head tiebreakers -- with a victory. Every other Legends Division team has at least two losses in league play, so it's quite possible we see tonight's winner take on Wisconsin on Dec. 1 in Indianapolis.

Nebraska has won 10 consecutive home night games, including historic comebacks both Sept. 29 against Wisconsin and last year against Ohio State (largest in team history). The Huskers are 36-5 under the lights at Memorial Stadium, which will be packed and very, very loud. I haven't been here since the East stadium expansion really got rolling, and it's going to make an already electric venue even better.

Michigan dominated Nebraska last year in Ann Arbor, as Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint had their way with the Huskers' defense. Nebraska defended the spread decently last week against Northwestern, although Northwestern had a head-scratching game plan that played right into what the Huskers wanted. Bo Pelini's team knows exactly what's coming their way tonight -- lots of Robinson on the ground. An interesting subplot will be whether or not Toussaint, a major disappointment this season, can finally get going. If Nebraska can contain the run game and force Robinson to throw the ball, it will have chances to record interceptions.

Nebraska's offense, meanwhile, will be the most explosive Michigan has seen since the season opener against Alabama. The Huskers are expected to be without senior running back Rex Burkhead, who aggravated his knee injury for the second time in three games last week at Northwestern. They should be more than fine with Ameer Abdullah, Braylon Heard and Imani Cross carrying the rock, but they'll need quarterback Taylor Martinez to make plays in a place where he typically steps up.

Michigan's defense has been exceptional in Big Ten play, as linebacker Jake Ryan leads the unit. The secondary has held up decently without starting cornerback Blake Countess, but Nebraska's receiving corps, which played very well last week, will test the back four.

Much more to come from Memorial Stadium throughout the night. I'll be tweeting throughout the game and back with more coverage immediately afterward.
So ... how about you, Nebraska?

We need to project somebody from the Big Ten to win the league and make the Rose Bowl. Michigan State's passing offense is too anemic. Michigan is too sloppy and still too reliant on Denard Robinson. Ohio State is ineligible. Wisconsin still has offensive issues. Northwestern and Minnesota are both 4-0 but probably not ready. Purdue would have to take a major step up.

So why not Nebraska, which we know at least has a seriously potent offense? We're not projecting Nebraska to the Rose Bowl because of anything that happened against Idaho State, mind you (well, except maybe for Rex Burkhead's return). There just isn't a better candidate right now.

The Huskers take the top spot for now. Northwestern, Purdue and Minnesota are all trending upward, while Iowa is hanging on by the thinnest of threads. Illinois is out after its 52-24 loss at home to Louisiana Tech.

Our latest attempt at picking the bowls (at least it's officially fall now):

Rose Bowl (Jan. 1): Nebraska
Capital One Bowl (Jan. 1): Michigan
Outback Bowl (Jan. 1): Purdue
Gator Bowl (Jan. 1): Michigan State
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (Dec. 29): Northwestern
Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas (Dec. 28): Wisconsin
TicketCity Bowl (Jan. 1): Minnesota
Little Caesars Pizza Bowl (Dec. 26): Iowa

Big Ten Week 4 preview

September, 17, 2012
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There are only 14 weeks in the college football regular season. This is one of them.

That's about the nicest thing I can say about this week's slate of Big Ten games, which makes me yawn every time I scroll through it. But that's not to say there aren't any interesting contests on tap. Here's a quick preview of what's coming on Saturday in order of most to least interest (all times ET):

No. 18 Michigan (2-1) at No. 11 Notre Dame (3-0), 7:30 p.m., NBC: No doubt this is the headliner of the week, a game that has taken on even more prestige given the strong start this season by the Irish. Can the Wolverines do what Purdue and Michigan State couldn't and topple the Golden Domers? They do have Denard Robinson, who has caused more nightmares in South Bend than the bogeyman. With the game under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium, this should be a whole heap of fun.

Syracuse (1-2) at Minnesota (3-0), 8 p.m., Big Ten Network: A game that didn't seem all that interesting in the preseason now looks like maybe the second-best option for Week 4. The Gophers look to get to 4-0 but will have to do so without the injured MarQueis Gray. The Orange are 1-2 but played Northwestern close and hung with USC, and they rank third in the nation in passing yards behind Ryan Nassib. This will be a real test for Minnesota.

Temple (1-1) at Penn State (1-2), 3:30 p.m., ABC: The Nittany Lions finally got a win last week against Navy and need that mojo this week to avoid losing to Temple for the first time since 1941. The Owls didn't inspire a lot of confidence in losing to Maryland last week, but they nearly pulled off the upset of Penn State last year in Philly.

Louisiana Tech (2-0) at Illinois (2-1), 8 p.m., BTN: It says something when this is the fourth best game of the week, but I actually think this could be a good one. The Bulldogs are better than you think, having won eight games last year and playing TCU close in their bowl. Their opener against Texas A&M got postponed by weather, but they've averaged 56 points and nearly 290 rushing yards in wins over Rice and Houston. If the Illini are still banged up and not at their best, they could lose here.

UTEP (1-2) at Wisconsin (2-1), Noon, ESPN2: Fun fact: UTEP is ranked 106th in scoring offense. Wisconsin is ranked 113th. OK, that's not much fun if you're a Badgers fan. But the point is, Wisconsin has played so poorly that no game is safe at this point. The Miners gave Oklahoma a minor scare in Week 1.

South Dakota (1-1) at Northwestern (3-0), 3:30 p.m., BTN: After playing three straight BCS AQ teams, the Wildcats get a bit of a break here and should improve to 4-0. South Dakota did win at Minnesota two years ago, but the Coyotes lost to Maine in their season opener.

Central Michigan (1-1) at Iowa (2-1), Noon, BTN: Yes, we've reached the real snoozer portion of the schedule. The Chippewas got drilled at home by Michigan State two weeks ago. Iowa found a little bit of an offensive rhythm against Northern Iowa and should not have much trouble if it can keep that up.

UAB (0-2) at No. 16 Ohio State (3-0), Noon, BTN: This is little more than a tune-up for the Buckeyes before their showdown at Michigan State on Sept. 29. The Blazers have been outscored 88-35 in their first two games, losses to Troy and South Carolina. Have fun, Braxton Miller.

Eastern Michigan (0-3) at No. 21 Michigan State (2-1), 3:30 p.m., BTN: The Spartans will also just be tuning up before that Ohio State game, not to mention relieving some frustration from the Notre Dame loss. Eastern Michigan was last seen losing 54-16 to Purdue and ranks nationally in rush defense. Good luck stopping Le'Veon Bell this week, fellas.

Idaho State at No. 25 Nebraska (2-1), 3:30 p.m., BTN: Just about the only storylines for this one are Bo Pelini's health and Rex Burkhead's availability. The FCS Vandals lost to Air Force in the opener but then rebounded to beat Black Hills State, which is apparently a real team. Conference season can't get here soon enough.

Byes: Indiana, Purdue
The Big Ten doesn't announce an official preseason all-conference team. But that doesn't mean we can't.

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

Offense

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

Defense

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

Specialists

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

Thoughts: The first thing that likely jumps out at you is that we have three running backs and just one receiver on our first-team offense. No, we haven't forgotten the rules of football. It's just that we continue to feel the wide receiver crop is weak this season, and no great candidates for the second spot leap out at us. Perhaps Keenan Davis of Iowa or one of Northwestern's many receivers will have a great season, but no one has proved anything on a consistent basis. We'd rather have Bell -- who we believe is primed for a huge year -- on the team than any of the receiver candidates. Plus, isn't running the ball what Big Ten football is all about? ... Some of the toughest omissions came at linebacker, where Michigan State's duo of Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and Wisconsin's Mike Taylor were among those left out. At least we know we'd have an outstanding second-team unit at that position. ... Fiedorowicz is a bit of a projection pick, but we love the way he finished last season and how he fits into Greg Davis' new scheme. You certainly could make a strong case for Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen or Ohio State's Jake Stoneburner there as well. ... Some of these players won't live up to expectations, and others will explode on the scene this fall. But for now, we'd feel pretty good about throwing this team on the field.
video
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett break down the Offensive Player of the Year race in 2012.
We're just two days away from the 2012 college football season, and it's time to check out the top Big Ten games to watch this fall, in chronological order.

Here are 12 contests you don't want to miss ...

Friday

Boise State at Michigan State: Although Michigan is the Big Ten's highest-rated team entering the season, Michigan State is getting more love as the league favorite. The Spartans get a chance to make a statement against a Boise State team that has built its reputation on winning games like these.

Saturday

Michigan vs. Alabama (at Arlington, Texas): No regular-season game can shape the Big Ten's national perception more than this one, as Michigan takes on the defending national champ at JerryWorld. After an 11-win season in its first year under Brady Hoke, Michigan looks to take the next step and re-establish itself as a national power. Quarterback Denard Robinson has been very good in September throughout his career, and he can make a push for the Heisman Trophy with a big game against Bama.

Sept. 22

Michigan at Notre Dame: The teams' past three meetings have had plenty of drama, thanks in large part to Robinson, who engineered Michigan's historic comeback under the lights last year in Ann Arbor. Robinson attempts to complete a career of tormenting the Irish in another night game at Notre Dame Stadium. Both teams play brutal schedules this fall, but Notre Dame, as the home team, really needs to end its slide against the Maize and Blue.

Sept. 29

Wisconsin at Nebraska: Wisconsin rudely welcomed Nebraska to the Big Ten last fall with a 48-17 walloping in Madison. The Huskers try to avenge the loss as they open Big Ten play at Memorial Stadium. This is a big one for Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, who threw three interceptions against the Badgers in 2011. The game also pits the league's top two running backs in Wisconsin's Montee Ball and Nebraska's Rex Burkhead.

Penn State at Illinois: This game wouldn't have made the list six weeks ago. That was before the NCAA hammered Penn State with sanctions and Illinois coach Tim Beckman sent eight assistant coaches to Happy Valley to try to poach Lions players (he landed one in offensive lineman Ryan Nowicki). It's safe to say Beckman won't be receiving a Christmas card from Bill O'Brien. The Big Ten opener in Champaign has gotten a lot more interesting as two similar teams dealing with change face off.

Oct. 6

Nebraska at Ohio State: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini returns to his alma mater for a critical cross-division game. The Huskers need to prove they can win in a hostile Big Ten venue, while Ohio State plays its league home opener under Urban Meyer. If you enjoy athletic quarterbacks, be sure to tune in as Martinez matches up with Ohio State's Braxton Miller, who flustered the Huskers last season before leaving the game with an ankle injury.

Oct. 20

Michigan State at Michigan: This could be the game of the year in the Big Ten as the league's two highest-rated teams in the preseason square off. It's a rivalry game and a contest that could shape the race in the Legends Division. Last year's spicy contest in East Lansing only thickens the plot, and all eyes will be on Michigan State's Will Gholston and Michigan's Taylor Lewan as they reunite. The Spartans aim for their first-ever five-game win streak against the Wolverines.

Oct. 27

Michigan State at Wisconsin: Blockbuster Saturday in the Big Ten begins with a rematch of the 2011 league title game. These teams brought us plenty of drama in 2011, and could be on course for a rematch in Indianapolis. The game features two outstanding running backs in Ball and Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell, as well as two quarterbacks -- Wisconsin's Danny O'Brien and Michigan State's Andrew Maxwell -- with something to prove. The Badgers have dropped just one home game to Michigan State since 1991.

Michigan at Nebraska: Another pivotal Legends Division showdown takes place under the lights at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium. Although both teams face tests before this game, they should both be in the division race. Martinez and Robinson are two of the league's most exciting offensive players. Nebraska tries to avenge last year's blowout loss in Ann Arbor against a Michigan team that will be accustomed to hostile environments.

Nov. 3

Nebraska at Michigan State: The final matchup between Legends Division frontrunners takes place in East Lansing. It completes a tortuous stretch for Michigan State (Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska), and marks another chance for Nebraska to prove itself on the road in Big Ten play. The Huskers dominated last year's contest, but Michigan State hasn't lost a home game since the 2009 season.

Nov. 17

Ohio State at Wisconsin: The Buckeyes-Badgers rivalry should be the top Leaders Division matchup for years to come, and while Ohio State's bowl ban takes away some luster from this year's class, no one has forgotten the post-signing day spat between Bret Bielema and Meyer. There's no love lost between these two programs and their coaches, and though Ohio State can't win the division this year, it can shape the race with a victory in Madison, where Wisconsin has been dominant under Bielema.

Nov. 24

Michigan at Ohio State: Hoke and Meyer meet for the first time in The Game, which should pit two good teams for the first time since the 2007 season. Michigan could be in the mix for the Legends Division title and possibly more, while Ohio State knows its season will end against the hated Wolverines. The Robinson-Miller matchup adds intrigue, and both teams should be strong on the defensive side. The unique circumstances surrounding the game make it a must-see event.

Big Ten media days preview

July, 16, 2012
7/16/12
11:00
AM ET
You know the season is right around the corner when media days approach. The Big Ten will hold its annual media days and preseason kickoff luncheon next week. Here's a quick preview of the event:

Dates: July 26 and 27

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

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

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

What to expect: Here are some of what we think will be the most popular subjects of conversation in Chicago:
  • Playoff talk. The four-team playoff is still a couple of years away, but it figures to be a huge topic of conversation for every conference on the media days circuit this summer. Players and coaches will be asked for their opinion on the subject, and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany likely will field plenty of questions about how the league has fared thus far in the postseason negotiations. The idea of a selection committee and who should serve on it will be a major discussion point.
  • Penn State fallout. You almost feel bad for the three Penn State players (Redd, Jordan Hill and John Urschel) who are attending, along with head coach Bill O'Brien. Though none of them had anything to do with the Sandusky scandal, they will have to answer repeated questions about Joe Paterno and the controversy that has enveloped their campus. So far throughout this trying time, current players and coaches have handled the situation with grace and tact. Also, expect Delany to be grilled about potential Big Ten punishment for the Nittany Lions.
  • Urban Meyer. Few first-year coaches have ever gotten as much attention as Meyer has since he was hired by Ohio State, and understandably so. This is Meyer's first Big Ten showcase event, and there will likely be a buzz in the room when he takes the podium. Also, look for lots of talk about the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry heating up (if it's possible for that to get hotter). And if you don't think Wisconsin's Bret Bielema will be asked at least one question about Meyer, you haven't been paying attention.
  • Heisman hopefuls. The player contingent does not lack for star power this year. Ball was a Heisman finalist last year and will draw a crowd. Same goes for Michigan's Robinson, who will speak on behalf of the players at the kickoff luncheon on Friday. Burkhead is also an outside Heisman candidate, along with Redd.
  • Big Ten/Pac-12 series cancellation. The two leagues announced on Friday their scheduling partnership had dissolved before it ever began. Delany will have to answer questions about what happened to the promising series as well as address how the league plans to address future scheduling. Is a nine-game conference schedule officially back on the table?
  • New coaches. Meyer will be the main attraction, but Penn State's O'Brien and Illinois' Tim Beckman are also making their Big Ten media days debut. There will be much interest in how they will build their programs, particularly for O'Brien.
  • National title potential. The Big Ten is working on a long national championship drought, and none of the league's teams will be among the preseason favorites to win it all. Michigan likely will enter the year as the highest ranked team, and Brady Hoke will be asked about the season opener against Alabama. Michigan State, Wisconsin and Nebraska could all be preseason Top 20 teams. Are any of them BCS title caliber, and what's it going to take for the Big Ten to get back there?
Now that the season is over, it's time to take a look back at our Top 10 moments of the year in Big Ten football, on and off the field:

No. 1

"Rocket" men (Oct. 22)


[+] EnlargeMichigan State Spartans wide receiver Keith Nichol
Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIREMichigan State Spartans wide receiver Keith Nichols' (right) catch to defeat the Wisconsin Badgers was the top play of the 2011 Big Ten season.
Michigan State's 44-yard Hail Mary pass from Kirk Cousins to Keith Nichol (via B.J. Cunningham's facemask) stands as the most memorable play of the Big Ten season and, we would argue, the top play of the college football year. The Spartans' 37-31 win over Wisconsin derailed the Badgers' national title hopes and helped propel Michigan State to a Legends Division title. And that set up another fantastic moment ...

No. 2

Badgers get revenge (Dec. 3)

The first Big Ten championship game couldn't have asked for much more drama, as Wisconsin and Michigan State staged a highly-anticipated rematch of their earlier classic. This one played out in almost the same fashion, with each team trading huge plays in a thrilling game. This time, the Badgers completed a desperation heave, as Russell Wilson found Jeff Duckworth on a long pass in the fourth quarter to set up the go-ahead touchdown. A running-into-the-punter penalty ended the Spartans' chances of winning in the final minute again. Wisconsin clinched a second straight Rose Bowl appearance with its 42-39 victory, and another Spartans-Badgers epic duel made the inaugural title game a smashing success.

No. 3

Michigan's miracle (Sept. 10)

If not for those Michigan State-Wisconsin games, Michigan's 35-31 win over Notre Dame would likely be remembered as the most exciting game of the Big Ten season. The Wolverines trailed 24-7 after three quarters and couldn't get much going offensively. But then Denard Robinson took over. The two teams scored three touchdowns in the final 1:12, until Robinson ended matters with a 16-yard scoring strike to Roy Roundtree with two seconds left. That kind of magic would stay with Michigan all season long, right through its equally improbable Allstate Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech.

No. 4

Braxton's bomb (Oct. 29)

A week after losing on that Hail Mary in East Lansing, Wisconsin had its guts ripped out all over again in Columbus. Precocious Ohio State freshman quarterback Braxton Miller scrambled and nearly crossed the line of scrimmage before firing a 40-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Devin Smith with 20 seconds left as the Buckeyes won 33-29. Little did we know then that it would be Ohio State's last great moment of the season, or that the Badgers would somehow regroup to still win the league championship.

No. 5

The fall of an icon (Nov. 9)

No story in the Big Ten, or in all of sports, was bigger than the child sex abuse scandal that erupted at Penn State in November. The rape allegations against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, as well as charges that school administrators failed to stop him and/or lied under oath, became international news. And on Nov. 9, that scandal led to the firing of legendary head coach Joe Paterno, who won 409 games while leading the program since 1966. Everything about that week in State College, from students rallying on Paterno's front lawn to the bizarre, circus-like atmosphere at the Board of Trustees news conference announcing his dismissal, was and remains surreal.

No. 6

A time for healing (Nov. 12)

After all the events and controversy leading up to Penn State's home game against Nebraska, which included student riots in the streets of downtown a few days earlier, there was serious concern about what would happen at Beaver Stadium that Saturday. Security was on high alert. But the Nittany Lions and Huskers players helped diffuse the tension by meeting at midfield just before kickoff for a moving prayer. Nebraska won the game and won some admirers for how it handled the difficult situation.

No. 7

Urban renewal (Nov. 28)

Most of Ohio State's season, which featured a 6-7 record and a 2012 NCAA bowl ban handed down in December, was something its fans would like to forget. But Buckeyes fans can't wait for the future after the school hired Ohio native Urban Meyer as its next head coach. Meyer's first season will be hampered by the postseason ban. Still, for Ohio State to go through the mess it faced during 2011 and still end up with a coach of Meyer's stature and pedigree has to be considered a victory.

No. 8

Gophers go hog wild (Oct. 29)

Minnesota barely looked like an FBS team, much less a Big Ten one, during its 1-6 start. The Gophers had lost to North Dakota State and were outscored 144-31 in their first three league contests. But the rivalry game against Iowa brought out the best in them. Minnesota scored two touchdowns in the final 8:22 and pulled off a daring onside kick to stun the Hawkeyes 22-21 in the upset of the Big Ten season. The Gophers kept the Floyd of Rosedale trophy in Minneapolis for a second straight season.

No. 9



Huskers' historic comeback (Oct. 8)

Nebraska's first Big Ten home game was one to remember. The Huskers trailed Ohio State by 21 points in the second half before rallying for the biggest comeback victory in program history. Taylor Martinez, Rex Burkhead and Lavonte David all had huge nights as the team scored 28 straight points for a 34-27 victory. And by beating the league's reigning blue-chip program, Nebraska proved it belonged in the Big Ten.

No. 10

The Streak ends (Nov. 26)

Brady Hoke promised to "Beat Ohio" when he took the Michigan job. And he delivered with an exciting 40-34 victory that snapped an infuriating seven-game losing streak to the hated Buckeyes. Robinson accounted for five touchdowns as the Wolverines held off a big performance from Ohio State's Miller. With Hoke and Meyer now battling it out every year, The Game could resume its place as college football's top rivalry.

The college football season is officially over. So it's time to break out the crystal ball and offer our projections for the preposterously-too-early 2012 Big Ten power rankings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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