Michigan Wolverines: Russell Wilson

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

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

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




Wisconsin RB Montee Ball, 2011, junior

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

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

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




Michigan QB Denard Robinson, 2010, sophomore

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

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

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




Michigan RB Mike Hart, 2006, junior

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

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

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




Purdue QB Drew Brees, 1999, junior

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

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

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




Northwestern RB Darnell Autry, 1995, sophomore

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

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

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

Big Ten's lunch links

February, 3, 2014
Feb 3
12:00
PM ET
The lunch links: Snapping the ball over your head since 2008.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

January, 31, 2014
Jan 31
4:30
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Wishing you a great weekend. I'll be hooping it up Saturday in Madison.

Don't forget: Twitter.

B1G in Memphis writes: I agree in principle with Kain Colter's call for the organization of student athletes if it seeks to prevent injuries or compensate student athletes for injuries sustained in their college careers. However, the concept of paying student athletes that many have suggested seems unreasonable to me. You couldn't just pay the revenue sports players, because that would be discriminatory to female athletes (Title IX, anyone?). And if you paid all athletes, athletic departments would have an incentive to eliminate non-revenue sports.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter before game
Adam Rittenberg/ESPN.comNorthwestern QB Kain Colter's attempts to unionize players might have good intentions, but seems like it will face many obstacles.
Adam Rittenberg: Some really good points, B1G. I have a hard time seeing how anything changes without adhering to Title IX. My understanding is if the value of athletic scholarships increase, as the Big Ten and other major conferences have wanted for years, it would apply to all full-scholarship athletes to meet Title IX standards. Colter made it clear that money isn't the top priority in all of this -- long-term medical expenses are -- and if there are some additional protections athletes can receive, that's a good thing.

Chase from Detroit writes: Adam, I think the other side to the this Brendan Gibbons story is missing here. The program and university definitely need to answer questions about when Gibbons' separation from the university was official, how the information should have been released, and why the investigation took so long. But let's not forget the fact that Gibbons was investigated by the police and faces no legal charges. How is his situation any different from Jameis Winston from FSU, Keith Appling and Adreian Payne from MSU, or Prince Shembo from ND? All of these guys were involved in serious sexual assault investigations, but there was never enough evidence or cooperation to face legal charges like Gibbons. Shouldn't Michigan also be commended for taking a hard-line stance even where there were no legal charges?

Adam Rittenberg: Chase, while Michigan seems to have its policy correct now, we don't know the full story of how the university responded to the initial allegations. Did the alleged victim feel the university responded swiftly and appropriately in her case? It's unfortunate that an incident in 2009 only has repercussions four years later, essentially after Gibbons' playing career. But it does seem like Michigan will approach these situations correctly going forward. I don't think that calls for a ton of praise, though.


Nathan from Burlington, Vt., writes: Adam, I'm a die-hard Rutgers fan. This year was pretty disappointing for us. I expect us to have a .500 record our first year in the B1G but have high hopes for 2015. We have a great recruiting class coming in. Do you think we have a shot at being a top team in 2-3 years in the B1G?

Adam Rittenberg: Nathan, you mention the recruiting class, and that's what it will take for Rutgers to rise up in the Big Ten, particularly in a tough division like the East. Rutgers will have to lock down its borders and keep the best in-state players at home, which is no easy task given how many Big Ten programs recruit in the Garden State. I also think Rutgers must make strong financial investments in its program, including the coaching staff, to keep pace with the deep-pocketed Big Ten. Should be interesting.


Rob from Chicago writes: What questions must Michigan answer? The timing of the incident is known. The timing of when it was reported to the school is known. The expulsion came at the end of the school's investigation and its own determinations. No criminal charges were ever filed, and there is not an ongoing investigation by the police. (A fact dropped from your attack piece.) Without criminal charges, its akin to the Jameis Winston case. There was no suspension there. Maybe ask MSU the tough questions about [Max] Bullough? ... If we are going to ask tough questions, ask that one as well.

Adam Rittenberg: Yes, Rob, it's always about what the other school did in its case, never about yours. The glee that certain fan bases take about the troubles of rival teams really bothers me, but whatever. The question here is when Michigan's athletic department and Brady Hoke knew about two things: the initial letter stating the school had determined Gibbons engaged in unwanted sexual conduct, and when the school had decided to suspend Gibbons. If Michigan knew all of this in November and still let Gibbons play at Iowa, that's a problem in my view -- if not a legal/official one, a moral one.


Drew from Kennebunk, Maine, writes: What does Indiana have to do to fix its defense, which has been last in the Big Ten the last three years running, and one of the worst in the nation. They hired a new DC recently, but is coaching the issue here, or something else? Is it more of a lack of talented defensive players, rather than coaching?

Adam Rittenberg: Love Kennebunk and that entire area, Drew. Talent certainly is the biggest factor when it comes to IU's defense, and Indiana played a bunch of freshmen in Kevin Wilson's first two seasons. New coordinator Brian Knorr will inherit a group with a lot of starting experience. IU will never have the best defensive talent in the Big Ten, but with improved recruiting and a good scheme, the defense can rise to a respectable level, which might be enough because the offense is so strong. If Indiana has a mediocre defense last season, it probably wins seven games.


Max Wittek from Los Angeles writes: Hey Adam, I'm an unrestricted free agent eligible to play immediately after graduation this spring. What are the chances of me continuing the QB transfer tradition in Madison? If the Badgers pursue me, am I Danny O'Brien or will I be Russell Wilson? How's the weather compared to LA?

Adam Rittenberg: Weather is awesome, Max. Just like L.A. I'd be a little surprised if you ended up in Madison, especially since Wisconsin has several younger quarterbacks it's looking to develop. Bart Houston is only a redshirt sophomore, and Joel Stave still has two seasons of eligibility left and a lot of experience under his belt. I don't know if the desperation is the same as it was when Wilson and O'Brien came to Madison.


Matt from Plymouth, Minn., writes: With Jeff Jones canceling his visits to Florida and Michigan, it's looking more and more like he will end up a Gopher after all. How big is this going to be for Jerry Kill and the Gopher program if they end up with this year's top in state player?

Adam Rittenberg: It's huge, Matt. Minnesota has lost many of its top in-state prospects to other programs over the years. There are a limited amount of great players in the state, so to be able to keep one at home is really significant. Jones is a guy who could step in right away and help David Cobb in the run game.

Big Ten lunch links

January, 30, 2014
Jan 30
12:00
PM ET
Anybody up for a little fish fry?
  • Former Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons is apparently not facing charges for the incident that seems to have led to his expulsion from the school.
  • The Wolverines have seen some of their recruiting momentum slip away. Could Michigan State capitalize on that given its strong finish on the field last season?
  • Ohio State has found itself a new president, and he was a popular guy with at least one coach during his stint at UC-Irvine.
  • The Buckeyes are keeping their current athletic director around for a while, and Doug Lesmerises takes a look at the contract extension signed by Gene Smith.
  • Former Minnesota quarterback Phillip Nelson has picked his next school, and he'll be staying in the Big Ten as he heads to Rutgers.
  • Should likely defensive coordinator Joe Rossi be judged for the performance of the Scarlet Knights in the bowl game against Notre Dame?
  • Iowa has fired an athletic department employee over missing funds from ticket sales on the Hawkeye Express.
  • Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst has been on the job for a year, and he's crammed plenty into that relatively short timeframe.
  • Penn State's new passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach knows better players can make for better coaches, and Ricky Rahne is set to work with another talented signal caller in Christian Hackenberg.
  • A Madison-based company landed Russell Wilson for his first solo Super Bowl commercial, and it struck gold when the former Wisconsin quarterback actually led Seattle to the NFL championship game.

Big Ten lunch links

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

It's time to look back and recognize some of the highlights and lowlights from the Big Ten bowl season:

Best performance: Michigan State. After falling behind 16-0 to Georgia, the Spartans rallied back to take the lead in the second half. When they needed to drive the field for a tying touchdown with only 1:55 left, they did just that. When Kirk Cousins threw an interception on the first overtime possession, they responded by holding tough on defense. Michigan State had 17 tackles for loss against the Bulldogs, including five by defensive end William Gholston. Darqueze Dennard grabbed two interceptions, and the special teams came up with a blocked kick to win the game. The 33-30 triple-overtime victory was yet another milestone for the program under Mark Dantonio.

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gholston and Aaron Murray
J. Meric/Getty ImagesMichigan State's William Gholston is looking to build off his two-sack performance in the Outback Bowl.
Worst performance: Penn State clearly didn't want to go to the TicketCity Bowl, and it showed right away. Houston quarterback Case Keenum made a mockery of the Nittany Lions' defense, throwing for 227 yards in the first quarter alone. Penn State had allowed that many yards passing in an entire game only once all season. He'd finish with 532 yards passing as the Cougars breezed to a 30-14 victory.

Best new mascot: Northwestern brought a stuffed monkey with a No. 63 jersey to its Meineke Car Care Bowl game against Texas A&M, symbolizing its quest to end a 63-year bowl victory drought. Alas, the Wildcats will have to order a No. 64 uniform after losing 33-22. Better make it a big jersey, because this postseason curse is more like an 800-pound gorilla at this point.

Worst near-death experience: Near the end of Iowa's Insight Bowl loss to Oklahoma, star Hawkeyes receiver Marvin McNutt was nearly taken out by ESPN's skycam, which fell to the field from its cables. The heavy camera almost hit McNutt off the bounce, and he got caught up in its wiring as he left the Iowa huddle. The skycam was unceremoniously escorted off the field, kind of like how Iowa's season ended in a 31-14 loss.

Worst ball security: Purdue and Western Michigan combined for 11 turnovers in a wild Little Caesars Bowl. On two separate occasions, the Boilermakers forced a turnover only to give the ball right back to the Broncos as defenders coughed it up trying to go the other way. Ultimately, Purdue got the upper hand by creating seven takeaways and holding on for a 37-32 victory.

Best clock management: Michigan State trailed Georgia 27-20 late in the fourth quarter of the Outback Bowl when the Spartans were called for pass interference on third-and-3 from the Bulldogs' 37. The officials ruled that Georgia had completed the pass on the play even though receiver Malcolm Mitchell clearly dropped the ball. Dantonio challenged the ruling, despite the fact that Georgia was going to get a first down either way. Dantonio's successful challenge meant that instead of the clock running down toward three minutes, the clock was stopped and reset to 3:43. That extra time proved enormous, as the Spartans tied the game with 14 seconds left in regulation.

Worst clock management: Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema was unsure if he could challenge the ruling when Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas hesitated and nearly left the end zone before kneeling down for kick-return touchback. As Bielema asked the sideline official for a clarification, he was charged with a timeout. That was the second timeout burned by the Badgers early in the second half. They dearly could have used the stoppages when the offense ended the game at the Oregon 25-yard line. Russell Wilson hurried to the line and was instructed to spike the ball with two seconds left, but officials ruled there was no time left.

Best impersonation of a wide receiver: Michigan's fake field goal attempt late in the first half of the Allstate Sugar Bowl went awry when holder Drew Dileo's intended receiving target, tight end Kevin Koger, didn't know the fake was on. So Dileo threw the ball into a crowd, and Virginia Tech deflected it. But long snapper Jareth Glanda saved the day by hauling it in for an 11-yard gain. The Wolverines ended up with a field goal on the play, and they needed every point in an overtime victory.

Best use of the kicking game: Purdue coach Danny Hope turned into a riverboat gambler in the Little Caesars Bowl, calling for two consecutive onside kicks in the first half. Both worked and led to points. Raheem Mostert also returned a kickoff 99 yards for a score.

Worst use of the kicking game: Ohio State had a punt blocked for a touchdown and allowed a 99-yard kickoff return by Florida. The Buckeyes lost by seven points in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

Worst loss of composure: Nebraska star cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery let their emotions get the best of them in the third quarter of the Capital One Bowl. Dennard took a coupLe of swings at Jeffery, who pushed Dennard's helmet back. Both players were rightly ejected. Amazingly, Jeffery was still named MVP of South Carolina's 30-13 win.

Best crisis management: We saw what happened to Penn State and Ohio State as they played for lame-duck head coaches. Illinois not only had to deal with that but also a six-game losing streak and a group of assistants threatening to boycott the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl hours before the game. Somehow, interim head coach Vic Koenning managed to hold things together to help the Illini win 20-14 over UCLA.

Best inspiration: As Michigan's Brendan Gibbons lined up for the 37-yard kick to win the game in overtime, he had one thing on his mind. "Brunette girls,” Gibbons said. “Every time we were like struggling in kicking, coach tells me to think about girls on a beach or brunette girls," Gibbons told reporters. "So that's what we did. Made the kick." And they say blondes have more fun.
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.
Junior Denard Robinson was named as one of the semifinalists for the Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award. Robinson joins seniors Russell Wilson of Wisconsin and Kirk Cousins of Michigan State as Big Ten quarterbacks on the list.

A news release from the University of Michigan states that, “The O'Brien is presented annually to the nation's best college quarterback and is the oldest and most prestigious national quarterback award. It honors candidates who exemplify Davey O'Brien's enduring character while exhibiting teamwork, sportsmanship and leadership in both academics and athletics.”

The list will be narrowed from 16 to three on Nov. 21, and the winner will be announced on Dec. 8.

Predictions: Big Ten Week 7

October, 13, 2011
10/13/11
9:52
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Big Ten play has been no match for us so far, as we're 21-for-22 in predictions for league games (Bennett's miss on Iowa-Penn State being the only blemish).

But Week 7 certainly has the potential to trip us up. It's by far the most difficult set of games we've had this season. The teams, the locations, winning/losing streaks, rivalries and other factors all could play into what takes place Saturday afternoon and evening. There are at least three potential toss-up games on the Week 7 slate.

Let's get picky ...

NO. 11 MICHIGAN at NO. 23 MICHIGAN STATE

Brian Bennett: Denard Robinson's mistakes finally catch up to him against a nasty Michigan State defense, which comes up with three turnovers. Kirk Cousins and B.J. Cunningham hook up early and often, and the Spartans make it four Bunyans in a row. ... Michigan State 24, Michigan 20

Adam Rittenberg: Four Bunyans? Sounds nasty. I wrestled with this one all week, as there are so many interesting subplots, all of which could go by the wayside because it's a rivalry game. Although Michigan is undefeated, I think this game has greater significance for Michigan State. The Spartans do enough to slow down Robinson and get enough from running backs Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker. Michigan State rallies in the fourth quarter and wins on a last-minute field goal. ... Michigan State 23, Michigan 21

PURDUE at PENN STATE

Adam Rittenberg: Purdue will hang around in this one, but the Boilers make too many mistakes (8.6 penalties per game) to win in a place like Beaver Stadium. Penn State's defense bends but doesn't break, and the Lions' offensive line builds on its performance from last week as Silas Redd and Curtis Dukes both reach the end zone. ... Penn State 24, Purdue 13

Brian Bennett: The Lions could have a little letdown after an emotional win over Iowa last week. But Purdue just doesn't have enough playmakers to puncture that Penn State defense. Devon Still introduces himself to Caleb TerBush a couple of times, and the formula of defense and just enough offense gets it done for JoePa again. ... Penn State 20, Purdue 7

INDIANA at NO. 4 WISCONSIN

Brian Bennett: Not quite 83-20, but it's still ugly. A struggling IU team is no match for the Badgers' freight train. Four more touchdowns for Montee Ball in a Wisconsin laugher. ... Wisconsin 58, Indiana 17

Adam Rittenberg: Yeah, I can't see Wisconsin hanging 83 on Indiana again (or the Hoosiers lying down like they did last year). The Badgers won't be sweating this one out, as Ball adds to his touchdowns total and James White reaches the end zone twice. Russell Wilson has a short day, as Wisconsin can start gearing up for the Michigan State showdown. ... Wisconsin 54, Indiana 10

OHIO STATE at NO. 16 ILLINOIS

Adam Rittenberg: Upset special! Yes, Ohio State is fragile and Illinois is rolling. But the Buckeyes are desperate, and Illinois hasn't paid for some of its miscues (turnovers, penalties, forgetting the score). It catches up to the Illini this week. Dan Herron scores two touchdowns in his return, and Ohio State's defense does just enough to slow down Nathan Scheelhaase and A.J. Jenkins. ... Ohio State 21, Illinois 20

Brian Bennett: What? No love for the Zooker, Adam? I agree this will be a tough test for the Illini, but I'm not convinced Braxton Miller will be able to move effectively on his sprained ankle. And if he can't elude Whitney Mercilus, Jonathan Brown and the rest of Vic Koenning's defense, it will be another long day for the Buckeyes' offense. ... Illinois 17, Ohio State 14

NORTHWESTERN at IOWA

Brian Bennett: I went with history with last week's Iowa-Penn State pick and it let me down. But I was a history major in college. So I'll try it again and say Northwestern continues its dominance in this series. The Wildcats look close to breaking through, and Dan Persa tortures the porous Hawkeyes defense in an Iowa City shootout. ... Northwestern 38, Iowa 35

Adam Rittenberg: History was one of my majors, Bennett, but this is the Year of the Opposites -- Penn State beats Iowa, Iowa beats Northwestern, you're amazingly beating me in picks. Both defenses will struggle, but James Vandenberg and his receivers get well against a Northwestern team that can't stop anyone. Iowa feeds off the home crowd and rallies in the fourth quarter for a win. ... Iowa 27, Northwestern 24

BYE: Nebraska, Minnesota

SEASON RECORDS

Bennett: 46-11 (.807)

Rittenberg: 44-13 (.772)

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