Michigan Wolverines: Sam Ficken

We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. The series wraps up with the specialists.

Illinois:The Illini might not be exceptional in the kicking game, but they're in better shape than they were when coach Tim Beckman arrived. Punter Justin DuVernois returns after a solid junior season, while Taylor Zalewski looks for a bit more consistency in his second full season as the placekicker. Zalewski made 12 of 17 field-goal attempts last fall. The return game is the real plus, as V'Angelo Bentley provides a major threat, especially on punt returns.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana brings back a dynamic returner in Shane Wynn, who averaged 14 yards on punt run-backs despite limited work. Punter Erich Toth also is back for his third season as the starter. Toth placed 18 of 52 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. IU suffers a big loss at kicker as Mitch Ewald, the team's career field goals and field-goal percentage leader, departs. Aaron Del Grosso and Griffin Oakes will compete at kicker, and Jake Shake (shake and bake!) could enter the mix this summer.

Iowa: Here's another Big Ten team that looks very strong on returns, as Iowa boasts the Big Ten's most dynamic tandem in Kevonte Martin-Manley (punts) and Jordan Cotton (kickoffs). Martin-Manley had two punt-return touchdowns in 2013. Punter Connor Kornbrath ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in average, but placed 27 of 65 attempts inside the opponent's 20. Iowa loses kicker Mike Meyer, a four-year starter. Junior Marshall Koehn seems likely to step up, but could be pushed by incoming freshman Mick Ellis and others.

Maryland: Notice a theme so far? Most Big Ten teams are strong in the return game, and Maryland is no exception. If Stefon Diggs returns at full strength from his leg injury, he'll be a dangerous man with punts and kickoffs in his hands. Will Likely performed extremely well in Diggs' spot, averaging 26 yards on kickoff returns and 12.8 yards on punt returns. Maryland brings back an excellent kicker in Brad Craddock (21-for-25 on field goals last year), and punter Nathan Renfro enters his third season as the starter.

Michigan: Matt Wile has done a bit of everything for Michigan, but could settle into the starting placekicker role this fall. Wile handled kicking duties late last season and also served as Michigan's punter after Will Hagerup was suspended for the season. Hagerup, the Big Ten's punter of the year in 2012, will reclaim the role if he can avoid off-field problems that have surfaced throughout his career. Wile then could focus on kicking, as Kenny Allen is the only other option there. Michigan is still waiting for big things from kick returner Dennis Norfleet and must find someone to handle punts. Top recruit Jabrill Peppers could help.

Michigan State: Special teams once again should be a strength for MSU, which returns All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler, a Ray Guy award semifinalist who will contend for All-America honors in 2014. Kicker Michael Geiger also is back after connecting on 15 of 16 field-goal attempts as a true freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Andre Sims Jr. both put up good numbers on punt returns. Michigan State had by far the fewest kick returns (18) in the Big Ten last year and will look for a boost from R.J. Shelton and others.

Minnesota: After an above-average year on special teams in 2013, Minnesota again should be good in the third phase. Punter Peter Mortell didn't get as many accolades as Sadler or Purdue's Cody Webster, but he had an excellent sophomore season, averaging 43.3 yards per attempt with 15 of 50 yards or longer. Marcus Jones is a major threat on returns after bringing back both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last fall. Redshirt freshman kickers Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte will compete as the Gophers lose Chris Hawthorne.

Nebraska: The Huskers are looking for some upgrades on special teams, particularly on punt returns, as Nebraska ranked 123rd in the FBS last fall. Primary returner Jordan Westerkamp is back, but he'll face some competition. Nebraska brings back punter Sam Foltz, who had a solid freshman season, averaging 41.6 yards per boot. Mauro Bondi is set to step in at kicker as Pat Smith departs. If Bondi struggles, incoming freshman Kris Brown could get a look this summer. Kenny Bell, who led the Big Ten in kick return average (26.5 yards per return), is back.

Northwestern: The Wildcats lose a huge piece in Jeff Budzien, named the Big Ten's top kicker in each of his final two seasons. Hunter Niswander can handle both kickoffs and punts but seems likely to slide into Budzien's spot. Northwestern's punting was a mess in 2013, ranking 118th nationally in net average (33.2 ypp). Brandon Williams departs and Chris Gradone or Niswander will take over. The big news is Northwestern brings back Venric Mark , an All-America punt returner in 2012. Primary kick returner Matt Harris is back after a solid freshman season.

Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Indeed, the Aussie is back at punter as Cameron Johnston returns after an excellent debut season (I refuse to call a 21-year-old a freshman). Ohio State hopes for similar results from another first-year specialist in kicker Sean Nuernberger, an early enrollee expected to step in for the departing Drew Basil. Sophomore Dontre Wilson will continue to have a big role on returns after handling kickoffs last year. Ohio State must replace Corey Brown on punt returns and could look to redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall or true freshmen Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon.

Penn State: The kicking game continues to be an area of concern.Sam Ficken owns the team record for consecutive field goals (15) and started strong last season but ended with just 15 of 23 conversions, including four misses inside 40 yards. Penn State needs a new punter after losing Alex Butterworth, and will turn to Chris Gulla. Jesse Della Valle did a good job on punt returns, but Penn State needs a boost on kickoffs after finishing last in the league (19.1 yards per return). The Lions could stick with Geno Lewis or look for a newcomer such as De'Andre Thompkins to emerge. PSU also must shore up its coverage units.

Purdue: As if the Boilers didn't have enough to address on offense and defense, the kicking game needs attention. Punter Cody Webster finished his spectacular career with All-America honors, and the Boilers finished second nationally in net punting (41.7 yards per punt). Incoming freshman Austin McGehee will take over for Webster. Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows continue to work at kicker, as Griggs made only 50 percent of his attempts (6 of 12) last season. The kick return game is strong with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, but Purdue must replace punt returner Ricardo Allen. B.J. Knauf could be a good fit there.

Rutgers: The kicking game historically is a strength for Rutgers, which has a knack for blocking kicks and pulling off fakes. Rutgers loses a productive piece in punter Nick Marsh, who also handled kickoffs. The Scarlet Knights will turn to Joseph Roth as their replacement. Kicker Kyle Federico finished the season well, particularly in the Pinstripe Bowl, and returns for his junior season. Rutgers has a major weapon on returns in Janarion Grant, who brought back both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown during his freshman season.

Wisconsin: The kicking game has held back Wisconsin in the past, so it's definitely an area to watch during the offseason. Kicker Jack Russell converted 9 of 13 field-goal attempts after taking over for Kyle French. He'll try to hold off incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone. Andrew Endicott, who handled kickoffs last fall, also returns. Wisconsin is looking for more from punter Drew Meyer, who averaged just 38.6 yards per attempt in 2013. Top returner Kenzel Doe is back and should handle both punts and kickoffs, although Wisconsin could look to others for help, such as newcomers Serge Trezy and Natrell Jamerson.

More position breakdowns

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

October, 16, 2013
10/16/13
5:00
PM ET
It's mail time. I'll warn you in advance, it's going to get weird at the end.

Jason from Columbus writes: Brian, Iowa is the only FBS team in the country that has not allowed a rushing touchdown in the country this season. Ohio State is 12th in the country with 17 rushing touchdowns in only 6 games. Who comes out on top this weekend, Iowa's rush defense or Carlos Hyde, Dontre Wilson, Jordan Hall, and the rest of the Buckeyes who can run through a defense?

Brian Bennett: Good question. Urban Meyer is so impressed with Iowa's front seven that he mentioned them in the same sentence as Alabama this week. Not sure I'd go that far, but the improvement of the Hawkeyes' defense up front has been one of the pleasant surprises this season. However, as you mentioned, Ohio State has a great running game. And that all starts with what has been the best offensive line in the Big Ten for the past two years. The Buckeyes' blockers are big, physical and smart, and they pave the way for the speed of Hall, Wilson and Braxton Miller as well as the power of Hyde. That's going to be tough for any defense to stop, including one playing as well against the run as Iowa.

The bigger concern I'd have if I were Kirk Ferentz and Phil Parker is Miller taking shots down the field. Ohio State is not a consistently good passing team but does connect at times on the deep ball, and the Hawkeyes are more vulnerable on the back end.

David K. from Oxnard, Calif., writes: First off, I'm biased: I've been a Badger football fan since November 1962, when I attended the UW-Minnesota game, which the Badgers won with a great comeback, led by Ron Vanderkelen and Pat Richter. And I attended the UW, off and on, from 1966 to 1974. Biases admitted, why the heck isn't Melvin Gordon even being mentioned in the discussions regarding the 2013 Heisman Trophy? He's the 3rd-leading rusher in the BCS division with a 9.7 YPC average. Every time he touches the football, everybody holds their breath. I mean, c'mon, guys, what does he have to do? Leap tall buildings in a single bound?

Brian Bennett: I love watching Gordon, and we named him our midseason offensive player of the year as well as an ESPN.com first half All-American. So he's on the radar for the Heisman, but there are a few things really working against him. One is that Wisconsin has two losses. For better or worse, the Heisman usually goes to players on national title contenders, although Robert Griffin III and Tim Tebow both won it on teams with multiple losses. Another problem is that in the Badgers' signature game, at Ohio State in primetime, Gordon has his lowest output of the season and got injured to boot. Wisconsin simply doesn't have any marquee games left on the schedule, so he won't get the opportunity to make up for it. Gordon would have to put up insane numbers to get back in the conversation. He is, of course, capable of doing just that.

Alex H. from Bloomington, Ill., writes: Watching that Michigan-PSU game was a bummer, I will not lie. Can we not act like the sky is falling for a moment? The defense played opportunistic despite that last-minute 4th quarter drive, and even on those throws coverage wasn't bad. I was impressed with Gardner's 2nd half. The biggest concern is Lewan out, the run game stalling. This loss doesn't hinder there Big Ten championship goals as they still play Neb, NU, MSU in November. I'd still put them near the top of the Legends, am I being too optimistic in thinking Indy?

Brian Bennett: Michigan certainly can still win the Legends Division. But the Wolverines are going to have to fix some major problems first. You mentioned the running game, and it is abysmal. It's going to be hard to win those big games in November if Michigan cannot effectively run the ball. The turnovers by Gardner are of course another massive problem. The defense, meanwhile, has been decent but not overpowering, though Jake Ryan's return should help. As I've written and asked, what exactly is the strength of this Michigan team? I can't seem to find one. And so it's hard to envision a team like putting together a long winning streak, especially once the schedule toughens up in November.

John K. from Austin, Texas, writes: You and Adam noted that Brady Hoke "played for the safe field goal instead of going for the touchdown in overtime" as if that is a bad thing. Now, I can understand if he was just going for the tie, but each time it was for the win. He has a good kick (or at least at that point no reason not to believe that). With a good kicker and 42 yards for the win... I'm taking that every day of the week!

Brian Bennett: To be clear, I'm not saying Hoke should have been going for it on fourth down when all he needed was a field goal to win. I have a major problem with the playcalling on first and second down, when Michigan gained two total yards after Sam Ficken missed a field goal in the first overtime. I know Brendan Gibbons has been a very good kicker, but a 40-yard field goal on the road in overtime is by no means a sure bet for most college kickers. And then you run the risk of having it blocked, which is exactly what happened.

It's only fair to also point out that Michigan did throw a pass in the third overtime after Allen Robinson's fumble, and it gained nine yards. But then on third and one, I hated the call to have Fitzgerald Toussaint run it when Michigan's running game had been terrible all game.

We saw the same thing late in the fourth quarter, when Michigan had the ball at Penn State's 28-yard line with 3:10 left, leading by seven. The next three plays were Toussaint runs, which ended up losing two yards, plus a delay of game penalty, to take the Wolverines out of field-goal range.

I understand playing it safe with the lead on the road, but Toussaint had 27 rushes for 27 yards in last week's game. Why would you go to that well 27 times when it clearly isn't working, especially when the game is on the line? You might as well just kneel. And how many times over the years have we seen teams stop being aggressive and then lose?

Sam from East Lansing writes: First time, long time. Brian, as we progress through the season and my Spartan offense has appeared to return to average (very, very average), I have a scenario question for you. If a Legend' team plays an undefeated Ohio State team in the B1G Championship and loses, possibly putting the Buckeyes in the National Championship, does that mean the loser of B1G Championship game is put in the Rose Bowl automatically or would the bowl committee go back and look at win-loss records, including the B1G Championship lose? Should Legends contender teams who miss Ohio State on the schedule (ie. Michigan State, Nebraska) be rooting for Ohio State to go undefeated? Thoughts of Michigan 2012 Sugar Bowl mishap are dancing in my head. Please calm them.

Brian Bennett: Not sure you'll like my answer, Sam. If Ohio State goes to the BCS title game, then the Rose Bowl is free to choose any team that qualifies in the BCS standings as its replacement pick. That means the Rose could go outside the Big Ten for its choice, but with this being the 100th edition of the game and the last one before the playoff could disrupt things, I think the Rose Bowl will make every attempt to stage a classic Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup.

The problem is that, historically, losers of conference championship games don't get selected for at-large spots. Bowls prefer teams who are riding winning streaks rather than ones coming off a loss. And Michigan State's issue could be a lack of signature wins. A team like Wisconsin, should it go 10-2, or a Legends runner-up like Nebraska or Michigan could leapfrog the Big Ten runner-up in such a scenario.

As an aside, I know Michigan State is dying to get back to the Rose Bowl. If the Spartans lost to Ohio State in the championship game but still got picked for the Rose, would it feel ... earned? Or does just getting to the Rose Bowl any way possible enough?

Glenn from Florida writes: Brian, aside from your's, Adam's, and all of ESPN's love for OSU, how can you justify the PSU-Michigan game as not the best and biggest game?

Brian Bennett: I guess you're talking about our choice of Ohio State-Northwestern as the top game of the first half. You know, just because games go to multiple overtimes does not mean they're great. Michigan-Penn State was very sloppy, and some of the continued failures in overtime was ugly to watch. Northwestern-Ohio State was a far better game aesthetically, in my opinion.

Barry M. from Sheboygan, Wis., writes: I'm guessing we will not see any Purdue players on [your fantasy teams] this season. You could make it interesting and add a rule that you must take a player from each team for at least one week during the season.

Brian Bennett: It's nothing personal, Barry, it's just that I want to beat Adam much more than I want to have every school represented on my fantasy team. This isn't the baseball all-star game. Purdue does not have a player in the top 10 in rushing or passing and is starting a true freshman quarterback. There's just not much to choose from. But I'll make you this promise, Barry. If I have either wrapped up the championship or am out of it in the final week, I will pick up a Boilermaker for my team. Even if it's just the kickers.

Bart from Waverly, Neb., writes: I see how you and Adam both voted Wisconsin in the 17-18 spot. My question is, how do you justify ranking them that high when they have two losses? Granted, one was to OSU, but the other was to a (currently) unranked ASU. I am just curious as the Huskers have had their defensive troubles, but our single loss was to a top-10 team in UCLA, and only Adam was generous enough to include Big Red in his rankings.

Brian Bennett: I've heard from a few Huskers fans who are miffed that I didn't rank Nebraska, and many of them try to use the loss to UCLA as some sort of justification. Sorry, but you don't get credit just for playing a highly-ranked team, especially if you lose to said team by 20 points at home while looking terrible in the second half. Nebraska just hasn't beaten anyone with a pulse. I won't rank the Huskers until they do, and if that happens, they'll climb up my ballot quickly.

It's a much different story for Wisconsin, whose two losses were on the road to very good teams, and one of those defeats was a direct result of some of the worst officiating incompetency I've ever seen. The Badgers played Ohio State, clearly the best team in the league, to within a touchdown on the road and smashed what was a Top 20 Northwestern team. There's no doubt in my mind that Wisconsin deserves a Top 20 ranking.

Tim P. from Port Washington, Wis., writes: It is maddening to me to keep hearing about Michigan's "winged" helmets. The markings on a wolverine are the alleged "wings" on its head and stripes down the rest of its body. The Michigan helmet is thus simply a representation of the markings on the wolverine animal. Of course, the Michigan athletic department gets away with calling these helmets "winged" because few, if any, Michiganders have ever actually seen a wolverine. Wolverines are not indigenous to Michigan as their habitat is prmarily alpine tundra and mountain forests; environments which are found only in North America in Canada and the Western U.S. It is estimated there are only 250 to 300 wolverines still living and they are found in Western Montana, Idaho and Eastern Washington and Oregon. So I don't know who started this myth that the Michigan helmets are "winged" but I am sick and tired of hearing about it.

Brian Bennett: OK, then. It appears we've reached the bizarre part of the mailbag. Proceed with caution...

SSG Smith, Justin from Ft Campbell Ky writes: Hey Brian, I am not by any means the most knowledgeable NCAA Football fan out there. I say this to humble my self before I ask this question. Were you bullied by a Nebraska fan as a child (or young adult)? ... How do you give so many teams the advantage over Nebraska. Your Biased is unprofessional and your over all hate for the Huskers is blinding. Why do you blog for the Big Ten without being biased?

Brian Bennett: Ho, boy. Yep, I hate Nebraska so much that I picked the Huskers to win the Legends Division in the preseason. And I picked them to win the Big Ten title game last year. What a hater! Justin also included in his email the records of the teams Nebraska has beaten this year, as if that somehow helped his case. But he did admit right up front that he wasn't knowledgeable, so I can forgive.

John F. from Mansfield, Ohio, writes: IF you represent the BIG, you should parlay this into BIG votes, I constantly watch "How You VOTED" and ALL I see is YOUR votes for the SEC not the BIG ... YOU cannot say you are BIG representatives, and continue to give other conferences your votes....... this makes you 2-faced and opinionated as well, that's great for people who choose to pencil whip a conference for being the best in the nation... It is press writers who have a vote that are destroying the BIG .......... NOT THE PLAYERS

Brian Bennett: I only included about half of John's email, which if there were any justice would have been cobbled together by random letters from magazines. I guess the ESPN.com power rankings ballots that Adam and I submit each week are what's holding the Big Ten back. Sure, makes sense. Also, covering a league as a reporter and "representing" a conference are two very different things. Until the Big Ten starts signing my checks, I'll report, write and vote with my conscience, thanks.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 1

September, 2, 2013
9/02/13
11:00
AM ET
Exhale.

You wait nearly nine months for the return of college football, to see players and coaches that have been endlessly analyzed all offseason, and then it all spills out on opening weekend. So of course the natural inclination is to make immediate judgments on what you’ve seen, and to find instant reasons to panic.

Nebraska’s defense is going to be historically bad! Michigan State’s offense is somehow worse than last year's! Ohio State is wildly overrated! Purdue and Iowa might not win a game in the conference besides the one against each other!

Some concerns obviously are valid. But remember that it was just opening week. Teams and players are still figuring things out, learning who and what they are. In Week 1 last year, for example, Michigan State beat a ranked Boise State team, Michigan got destroyed by Alabama, Minnesota needed triple-overtime to put away a bad UNLV team, Penn State lost at home to Ohio and Illinois rolled over Western Michigan. Those outcomes hardly defined the season for those teams.

Or better yet, look back to Iowa’s win over Northern Illinois in the first game of the 2012 season. Who would have guessed then that the victorious team would wind up 4-8 and that the loser would go to the Orange Bowl?

Many of Saturday’s games were also played in extreme heat, a stark contrast to the unseasonably cool August temperatures most teams trained in during the preseason. That’s not an excuse, because Big Ten opponents had to deal with the same conditions. But the league race will be decided in October and November in much different weather, and probably by teams that will look a whole lot different.

It’s a coach’s cliché that teams make their biggest improvements from Week 1 to Week 2. So it’s not time to panic yet. At least not for another Saturday.

Take that and rewind it back:

[+] EnlargeTreyvon Green
AP Photo/Ben MargotTreyvon Green rushed for 129 yards and two touchdowns in the victory over Cal.
Team of the week: Northwestern. The Wildcats went to Pac-12 country, where Big Ten teams have had little success in recent years. They lost starting quarterback Kain Colter to injury on the second play against Cal, star tailback/returner Venric Mark spent more time on the exercise bike than the field, and cornerback Daniel Jones went down with a knee injury right before halftime. Meanwhile, Cal threw some haymakers and seemed to seize the momentum in the third quarter. Yet Northwestern -- which had some trouble holding onto late leads last year -- prevailed 44-30.

The win didn't come without controversy, as Cal fans and coaches thought Wildcats players were faking injuries in the second half to slow down the Bears' high-tempo offense. During one Cal drive, Northwestern players went down to the turf after three consecutive plays. Some players, such as linebacker Damien Proby, went down more than once. Cal coach Sonny Dykes threw up his hands in frustration at one point, while Bears fans booed, which was pretty funny, given Cal’s own history with faking injuries against a high-tempo offense.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said his team wasn't up to any hijinks.

“If anybody were to question the integrity of myself, our program or our players, I question theirs,” he said in the postgame news conference. “When our guys get dinged up, they are instructed to go down, not hobble off to the sideline.”

Worst hangover: The Boilermakers got outscored 35-0 in the second half of their 42-7 loss at Cincinnati and might have gotten shut out if not for a botched Bearcats punt return late in the first half. Purdue was a mess in just about every area and was neither physical nor disciplined, two traits that Darrell Hazell has made priorities.

We’re going streaking: Thanks to Iowa’s loss and Illinois’ escape against Southern Illinois, the Hawkeyes now have the Big Ten’s longest current losing streak, at seven games. That’s tied for the fifth-longest losing streak in the FBS and second-worst among AQ teams, behind only Kansas, which was idle last week. The good news is that Iowa should finally get back in the win column this week versus Missouri State, and its Week 3 opponent, Iowa State, lost to Northern Iowa on Saturday.

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Information): Yes, the Michigan State passing attack was as bad as it looked against Western Michigan. Through Sunday's games, the Spartans rank second-to-last among all FBS teams in yards per pass attempt (3.14) and percentage of completions that went for at least 10 yards (17.6). ... No team gave up more first downs in Week 1 than Nebraska, which allowed Wyoming to move the chains 35 times. The Huskers were also one of only two AQ teams that gave up more than 500 yards of offense to a non-AQ team in regulation. Oregon State was the other. ... Michigan’s Devin Gardner threw two interceptions, but he had the Big Ten’s top QBR score and was No. 15 nationally in Week 1. ... Wisconsin averaged 8.9 yards per rush against UMass and ranks third nationally in that stat. ... Penn State is last in the FBS in third-down conversions after going 1-for-16 against Syracuse. Of course, third down is often only a prelude to the next play for Bill O’Brien.

Point-ing up: Indiana leads the nation in scoring after putting up 73 against Indiana State on Thursday. The schedule really helped, but offense was up throughout the Big Ten. Eight of the 12 league teams scored at least 37 points and the conference scoring average after one week is 39.5 points per game. Compare that to last year, when the league averaged 26.7 points per game in Week 1. Again, many of the opponents weren't great last week, but the simple eyeball test tells you that several Big Ten teams look more comfortable and have more playmakers on offense. With a couple of notable exceptions.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Sure, it was against an FCS team, which is why we excluded him from our helmet stickers. But let's recognize Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who threw for a carer-high 416 yards and two touchdowns in Bill Cubit's new offense. In one game, Scheelhaase accounted for more than 30 percent of his entire passing yardage in the 2012 season.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Northwestern linebacker Collin Ellis helped save the day, er, night at Cal with a pair of pick-sixes.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Tons of big special teams plays this weekend, including kickoff returns for scores by Minnesota's Marcus Jones and Illinois' V'Angelo Bentley and a punt return TD from Indiana's Shane Wynn. Michigan's Joe Reynolds scored on a blocked punt by teammate Dymonte Thomas. But how about Penn State's Sam Ficken? The kicker who was such a liability early last season has turned into a strength, and he made all three of his field goals -- including a career-best 46-yarder -- in the Nittany Lions' 23-17 win over Syracuse.

Best play: Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond's one-handed interception against Western Michigan. Now, can he play receiver?

Looking ahead: The “GameDay” crew will be at Notre Dame-Michigan, and the Big Ten had better hope for a good showing in this spotlight game. That’s because there’s nothing much else of interest going on in Week 2. Two Big Ten opponents -- South Florida (at Michigan State) and San Diego State (at Ohio State) -- were blown out by FCS squads in their openers, while another, Southern Miss (versus Nebraska) lost to Texas State. Northwestern-Syracuse is probably the week’s second-best game, and the Orange are 0-1 after losing to Penn State.

Most to prove in the Big Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Predictions: Big Ten Week 3

September, 13, 2012
9/13/12
9:00
AM ET
Redemption Saturday is nearly upon us. That certainly goes for the Big Ten, which went 6-6 in a miserable Week 2, and for the Big Ten bloggers, who didn't fare much better (Rittenberg went 8-4; Bennett went 7-5).

This week's slate certainly looks a lot more manageable for the Big Ten, and several teams -- looking at you, Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State -- definitely need a W.

It's prediction time ...

WESTERN MICHIGAN at MINNESOTA

Brian Bennett: The Gophers improve to 3-0 -- barely. Jordan Wettstein nails his second game winner of the young season after MarQueis Gray leads the team down the field in the final two minutes. Minnesota overcomes three turnovers to escape at home. ... Minnesota 27, Western Michigan 24

Adam Rittenberg: Broncos quarterback Alex Carder provides the first real test for Minnesota, which gives up two early touchdowns before settling down. It'll be a close one, but Gray and the run game do enough as Minnesota goes to 3-0. ... Minnesota 30, Western Michigan 24

ARKANSAS STATE at NEBRASKA

Adam Rittenberg: It'll take more than a week for Nebraska to fix its defensive woes against fast-paced, spread-ish offenses. Gus Malzahn's team makes some plays, but Arkansas State can't stop anyone, and both Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah rush for more than 100 yards. ... Nebraska 41, Arkansas State 21

Brian Bennett: I think the Huskers come out angry after the loss to UCLA and take it out on Malzahn's team. The defense gives up some big plays but keeps Arkansas State under 400 total yards. Martinez has four touchdowns, including two scoring tosses to Kenny Bell. ... Nebraska 45, Arkansas State 24

CALIFORNIA at No. 12 OHIO STATE

Brian Bennett: No rest this week for Braxton Miller, but he'll enjoy running and passing against Cal's shaky defense. The Golden Bears hang around for a while, but two more picks by an opportunistic Buckeyes defense kills any upset thoughts ... Ohio State 35, Cal 21

Adam Rittenberg: I grew up in Berkeley going to Bears games, and it's sad to say the Cal program is in free fall under coach Jeff Tedford. Ohio State has some initial trouble figuring out the Cal defense, but Miller gets going eventually and accounts for three touchdowns. Cornerback Bradley Roby records his first interception of the season as Ohio State pulls away in the third quarter. ... Ohio State 31, Cal 17

CHARLESTON SOUTHERN at ILLINOIS

Adam Rittenberg: We ranked this as the worst Big Ten nonconference game, and it won't disappoint (not sure if that's possible). Josh Ferguson eclipses 200 rushing yards, and at least two Illinois quarterbacks fire touchdown passes as the Illini roll. ... Illinois 45, Charleston Southern 3

Brian Bennett: I'd be more interested in watching the Illini stage an intrasquad scrimmage than this yawner. Doesn't matter if Nathan Scheelhaase or a line cook from Nathan's Famous starts at quarterback. Illinois will win in a rout, and we won't learn a thing. ... Illinois 49, Charleston Southern 0

EASTERN MICHIGAN at PURDUE

Adam Rittenberg: Eastern Michigan looks like the perfect opponent for Purdue's offense to recharge against. Akeem Shavers rushes for 150 yards and three scores against the nation's No. 118 rush defense, and Caleb TerBush fires two touchdown passes. ... Purdue 38, Eastern Michigan 14

Brian Bennett: The Boilers, still smarting from the Notre Dame loss and the Robert Marve injury news, get off to a slow start. But their defense and running game take over and wear down Eastern Michigan. Shavers runs for 100 yards and two scores. ... Purdue 42, Eastern Michigan 17

BOSTON COLLEGE at NORTHWESTERN

Brian Bennett: I love the way the Northwestern defense stepped up against Vandy, and Venric Mark is becoming a star. But ... history tells us the Cats usually slip up after good things happen. So I'm picking the mild upset here, with Chase Rettig throwing the winning score late in the fourth quarter. ... BC 31, Northwestern 28

Adam Rittenberg: Toughest game of the week to predict. (I haven't been right on Northwestern yet.) I like Pat Fitzgerald's approach to ward off a letdown, and while Boston College jumps ahead early and attacks Northwestern's secondary more, I don't think the Eagles can slow down Mark and the run game for four quarters. Expect another Trevor Siemian-led rally as Northwestern improves to 3-0. ... Northwestern 28, Boston College 27

MASSACHUSETTS at No. 17 MICHIGAN

Adam Rittenberg: This isn't the same UMass team that nearly stunned Michigan in the Big House in 2010. The Minutemen are awful. Fitz Toussaint gets back in the groove with three rushing touchdowns, and Denard Robinson puts up more sick stats in a total laugher. ... Michigan 65, UMass 0

Brian Bennett: If Brady Hoke wanted Robinson to get 700 yards in this game, he could. Instead, Robinson puts up 100 yards rushing and three total touchdowns before sitting in the third quarter, while Toussaint finally gets going against what is likely the nation's worst FBS team. ... Michigan 55, UMass 3

NAVY at PENN STATE

Brian Bennett: OK, I incorrectly picked the Nittany Lions to win the first two weeks (although they won everywhere but the scoreboard at Virginia). I'm guaranteeing that Penn State gets off the schneid against the Midshipmen. The Lions' problems on defense have revolved around stopping the pass, which won't be an issue against the option. Matt McGloin helps PSU find the end zone three times. ... Penn State 24, Navy 14

Adam Rittenberg: Penn State has played well enough to win, and the Lions finally get over the hump this week. I like the matchup for Penn State's defense, which doesn't have to worry too much about the pass. McGloin fires two touchdown passes, and Sam Ficken connects on a 50-yarder as Penn State finally celebrates. ... Penn State 17, Navy 13

NORTHERN IOWA at IOWA

Adam Rittenberg: I've wanted to pick against Iowa twice now and hesitated, getting burned last week. This time, I'm going against the Hawkeyes, even though the opponent is Northern Iowa. The FCS Panthers have nothing to lose, while Iowa continues to play tight on offense. UNI nearly beat a good Iowa team in 2009. It beats a bad one this year. ... Northern Iowa 17, Iowa 16

Brian Bennett: The Hawkeyes fail to score a touchdown yet again, but get by on four Mike Meyer field goals. Iowa blocks a three-point try by the Panthers on the final play to survive. ... Iowa 12, Northern Iowa 9

BALL STATE at INDIANA

Brian Bennett: The 2-0 start for Indiana is a nice story, but the schedule hasn't been very good. Ball State is a major step up, and with Cameron Coffman getting his first start at quarterback, this is a dangerous assignment for the young Hoosiers. They lead early but can't control the Cardinals' running game in the fourth quarter. ... Ball State 35, Indiana 28

Adam Rittenberg: I really think the Hoosiers are getting better, but I agree with you about the schedule. Ball State is a significant jump in competition, and while Coffman fires two touchdown passes, he also fires two interceptions in his first start. The Cardinals rally to make it three straight against the Hoosiers. ... Ball State 31, Indiana 30

No. 20 NOTRE DAME at No. 10 MICHIGAN STATE

Adam Rittenberg: Get ready for another defensive struggle at Spartan Stadium. Michigan State's defense has been as advertised, and coordinator Pat Narduzzi told me this week that the unit is nowhere near its potential. Isaiah Lewis and the Spartans make it a rough night for Notre Dame's quarterbacks, and Le'Veon Bell rushes for two scores as MSU improves to 3-0. ... Michigan State 17, Notre Dame 10

Brian Bennett: This one will come down to defense, as Michigan State hasn't allowed an offensive touchdown all year and the Irish front seven will give Andrew Maxwell some problems. The Spartans' D is just better, however, and creates one score off a turnover. Bell does the rest with two touchdowns. ... Michigan State 21, Notre Dame 17

UTAH STATE at WISCONSIN

Brian Bennett: No Badgers assistant coaches will lose their jobs after the team gets back in the winning column. But it won't be easy against an Aggies team that just beat Utah. The Wisconsin offensive line looks a bit better, and Montee Ball runs for 125 yards and two scores. ... Wisconsin 23, Utah State 14

Adam Rittenberg: If Wisconsin's offensive linemen have any pride, they come out angry in this one. And a bunch of angry 300-pounders means bad things for the Aggies. The Badgers start quickly and get their swagger back, racking up 250 rush yards. ... Wisconsin 31, Utah State 17

SEASON RECORDS

Rittenberg: 18-6 (.750)

Bennett: 17-7 (.708)
We're required by law to call these power rankings, but there wasn't much power in the Big Ten during Week 2. It was a miserable week for the league, no matter how you spin it.

What we do know -- and perhaps all we know -- is that Michigan State clearly looks like the class of the conference. The Spartans handled their business in Week 2, which few Big Ten teams can say. Nebraska and Wisconsin tumble in the rankings, along with Iowa, which can't find the end zone. Northwestern makes a move in the right direction after its defense-driven win against Vanderbilt.

The rankings are beginning to shift from what we thought these teams were to what they are at the present moment. For most of the season, the power rankings are a snapshot of how the teams are performing in real time.

Let's get to the rundown ...

1. Michigan State (2-0, last week's ranking: 1): The Spartans got the bounce-back performance they needed from quarterback Andrew Maxwell, who had two touchdown passes and no interceptions against Central Michigan. Spurred by another stifling defensive performance, Michigan State should have had a shutout. Another big-time home showdown awaits Mark Dantonio's crew as rival Notre Dame visits East Lansing.

2. Ohio State (2-0, last week: 5): After cruising in Week 1, the Buckeyes faced a much better test from UCF and had to work hard to shake free of the Knights. Quarterback Braxton Miller looks like a superstar in Urban Meyer's offense, but he needs some help around him. Ohio State's defense had its struggles at times against UCF's offense, but timely turnovers generated by the secondary helped save the day. This team is a work in progress, but the future looks very promising.

3. Michigan (1-1, last week: 3): Typically a six-point home win against Air Force results in a drop in the rankings, but Michigan holds at No. 3 because so many of its Big Ten brethren stumbled. The Wolverines resembled their 2010 version at times Saturday, as Denard Robinson carried the team on his shoulders and fast feet, while the defense endured more than a few breakdowns against a tricky opponent. Greg Mattison's unit eventually made enough plays to win, but Michigan will need to be better as several tough road games (Notre Dame, Purdue) are on the horizon.

4. Nebraska (1-1, last week: 2): It's tough to know where the Huskers are after a woeful defensive performance at UCLA that left coach Bo Pelini "embarrassed." We still like Big Red's offense enough to keep the team here, as Taylor Martinez, Ameer Abdullah and others continue to gash opposing defenses. Still, Saturday's loss brought back all the questions about consistency and poise that have dogged Pelini during most of his tenure. Nebraska certainly didn't look like a team that will be returning to Pasadena on Jan. 1.

5. Northwestern (2-0, last week: 9): Other than Michigan State, Northwestern has the Big Ten's best résumé through the first two weeks. The Wildcats have beaten two major-conference foes (Syracuse and Vanderbilt), won both on the road and at home and delivered in different ways. Saturday night's defense-driven win is a significant step for a team that has struggled mightily on defense the past two years. Pat Fitzgerald's quarterback rotation of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian also seems to be working. Northwestern is by no means a finished product, but things are coming together for a young team faster than expected.

6. Purdue (1-1, last week: 6): The Boilers had the best of the Big Ten's six losses Saturday and gave Notre Dame all it could handle in a game that went down to the final seconds. After some early struggles, quarterback Caleb TerBush relieved the injured Robert Marve and made some big throws on the game-tying touchdown drive, while Purdue sacked Irish quarterbacks five times. The defense couldn't get the stops it needed on the final drive, but Purdue showed it can be a major factor in a completely wide-open Leaders Division.

7. Wisconsin (1-1, last week: 4): No loss stunned the Big Ten community more than Wisconsin's at Oregon State, and the only thing more surprising about the loss was how it happened. Wisconsin's anemic offensive performance has sparked a panic in America's dairyland, and for good reason. Although the Badgers have a new offensive staff, they boast a Heisman Trophy finalist in Montee Ball and an always formidable offensive line. To nearly be shut out by a midlevel Pac-12 team is inexcusable. Bret Bielema's team faces its first real crisis since the 2008 season.

8. Minnesota (2-0, last week: 11): There was no FCS disaster in Gopher Country this year as Minnesota made quick work of New Hampshire. The Gophers' defense continues to impress, especially up front, where end D.L. Wilhite (2.5 tackles for loss, forced fumble) and tackle Ra'Shede Hageman (2 sacks) delivered another outstanding performance. Senior quarterback MarQueis Gray settled down nicely and broke off a 75-yard touchdown. The competition will get better in the coming weeks, but the Gophers certainly look like an improved team.

9. Illinois (1-1, last week: 7): It's never easy to win on the road without your starting quarterback, and Illinois undoubtedly missed the injured Nathan Scheelhaase on Saturday night. But the Illini defense was supposed to keep the team afloat. Instead, it caved against the Sun Devils, surrendering 45 points, 26 first downs and 510 total yards. It's unacceptable for a unit that likes to consider itself among the nation's elite. The Illini never challenged Arizona State, and while Josh Ferguson's performance (14 carries, 101 yards) is a nice building block, the team still lacks threats in the pass game.

10. Iowa (1-1, last week: 8): We were tempted to drop Iowa even more after a pathetic offensive performance against rival Iowa State at home. The Hawkeyes failed to score a touchdown and have a grand total of one in the first two games under coordinator Greg Davis. Only six other FBS teams have that sorry distinction. Senior quarterback James Vandenberg has struggled, and so have his pass-catching targets. Although the competition has been decent, Iowa will face tougher teams in Big Ten play and must find some sort of identity in a hurry.

11. Penn State (0-2, last week: 10): The Lions have played one of the tougher schedules in the league and shown some good things, including an inspired defensive performance for 58 minutes Saturday at Virginia. But this sport is about getting wins and converting opportunities, and Penn State has done neither in its first two games. It's hard to lose when you're plus-four in turnover margin, but Penn State once again couldn't finish drives and kicker Sam Ficken had a day he'd like to forget in Charlottesville. Penn State has the potential to turn things around, but confidence has to be an issue for a team living under a dark cloud.

12. Indiana (2-0, last week: 12): Hoosiers fans, it's nothing personal. We realize Indiana is 2-0 and looked very good in Saturday's road win against Massachusetts. The reason IU is still here is because the competition level hasn't provided a sufficient gauge of the team through the first two weeks. We believe if the Hoosiers played Penn State or Iowa right now, especially without top quarterback Tre Roberson, they would lose. Indiana will change our opinion in a hurry if it keeps winning, and the competition gets better soon, beginning Saturday night as Ball State visits Bloomington.

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