Michigan Wolverines: Taylor Martinez

The official invite list for the 2014 NFL combine is out, and 36 Big Ten players will try to impress pro scouts during workouts in Indianapolis from Feb. 22-25. In case you were wondering, that's fourth most among conferences behind the SEC (71 invitees), the ACC (48) and the Pac-12 (45).

Here are the Big Ten players who were invited, broken down by position:

Quarterbacks (0)

Running backs (2)

Wide receivers (8)

Tight ends (2)

Offensive linemen (8)

Defensive linemen (2)

Linebackers (7)

Defensive backs (7)

Specialists (0)

Breakdown
It's a strong list of players, but were there any snubs. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen and Iowa cornerback B.J. Lowery jump out right away as missing, though Martinez has injury (and position) concerns, while Allen's small frame means he'll have to prove to scouts he can play at the next level.

I'm also a bit surprised not to see Indiana's Ted Bolser on this list; he's not a traditional blocking tight end, but his receiving skills would seem to translate to the NFL. Only nine kickers and punters were invited to Indy, yet it's a little disappointing that Purdue's Cody Webster and Northwestern's Jeff Budzien weren't included in the specialists.

Others who could have gotten an invite include Purdue defensive tackle Bruce Gaston, Ohio State guard Andrew Norwell and Nebraska defensive back Ciante Evans.

That doesn't mean those guys won't play in the NFL. But their path to the league might be a little more winding.

2013 Big Ten regular-season wrap

December, 16, 2013
12/16/13
10:00
AM ET
The talk that Big Ten football has never been worse is still there, but it's just that: talk.

History will show that the league truly reached rock bottom in 2012, when it combusted in nonleague play, sent an 8-5 team to the Rose Bowl, had no postseason-eligible top-15 teams in the final polls and absorbed body blows from September to January. The results this season won't prompt the league office to print "B1G is back" banners, and few would label the Big Ten as the nation's No. 1 or No. 2 conference. Until the Big Ten wins a national championship, it won't win any perception prizes, and the league's crystal-ball drought will reach 11 seasons.

But if you're looking for progress, even minimal progress, the Big Ten provided some in 2013.

Just look at the league's signature event Dec. 7 in Indianapolis. A record crowd and a large media contingent watched two top-10 teams deliver an entertaining game with wild momentum swings and national championship implications on the line. A year earlier, Lucas Oil Stadium was one-third empty as 7-5 Wisconsin blasted Nebraska to go to its third consecutive Rose Bowl only because Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible for postseason play.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State chased down Braxton Miller and Ohio State in a memorable Big Ten championship game.
This season undoubtedly brought more bright spots. Michigan State and Ohio State each went 8-0 in league play and finished in the top seven of the final BCS standings. The Spartans and Buckeyes formed a small but strong elite class with Wisconsin, despite the Badgers' loss to Penn State in the regular-season finale. Minnesota endured the midseason health absence of head coach Jerry Kill and responded by winning four consecutive Big Ten games for the first time in 40 years en route to an 8-4 record. Iowa flipped its record from 4-8 to 8-4, surging behind an underrated defense with an exceptional linebacker corps and an offense that found its identity. Penn State showed the effects of its scholarship losses, but Bill O'Brien's bunch of, er, fighters found a way to post another winning record, capped by a signature win in Madison.

The Big Ten went 10-8 against teams from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences as well as independents Notre Dame and BYU, and Wisconsin could have had another big win against Pac-12 South champion Arizona State before Pac-12 officials intervened.

There was star power on both sides of the ball, not only at some expected positions such as linebacker and running back but also at wide receiver, an incredibly thin spot in 2012 that produced more playmakers this season.

Make no mistake, the Big Ten had its share of disappointments. After a 4-0 record in nonleague play, Northwestern suffered through its longest losing streak in 15 years and fell out of bowl contention. Michigan didn't capitalize on a strong start and its run game reached historic lows in early November. Nebraska couldn't hop off of the roller coaster, and Illinois' Big Ten losing streak reached 20 games before the Illini beat Purdue, one of the worst teams in recent Big Ten history. Indiana missed a bowl despite eight home games and an explosive offense.

Star players such as Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez and Northwestern running back Venric Mark missed most of the season, and a knee injury took Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller out of the Heisman Trophy race.

But the overall picture is a little sunnier for the Big Ten. Now it's time to brighten things further with a decent bowl performance.

Time for some superlatives ...

Offensive MVP: Ohio State QB Braxton Miller. He missed time with injury and had some inconsistent passing performances, but he's still the league's most dynamic and dangerous player with the ball in his hands. Miller eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards for the second consecutive season, averaged 6.8 yards per carry, improved his completion percentage from 58.3 to 63.2 and fired 22 touchdown passes against just five interceptions.

Defensive MVP: Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard. Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland won Big Ten defensive player of the year honors, and the Big Ten blog endorsed Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier for the award before the title game. Both are fine choices, but after watching the Big Ten championship, the pick here is Dennard, quite possibly the nation's best cornerback. He shut down opposing receivers all season and recorded four interceptions, 10 pass breakups, two forced fumbles and five quarterback hurries in leading the "No Fly Zone" secondary.

Newcomer of the year: Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg. It's a close call between Hackenberg, the league's top freshman, and Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory, a junior-college arrival. Hackenberg gets the nod after backing up the immense recruiting hype he received. The wunderkind passed for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns and delivered his best performance in the finale against Wisconsin's top-10 defense.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
David Banks/USA TODAY SportsPat Fitzgerald and Northwestern endured a frustrating season in which nothing seemed to go right.
Biggest surprise: Iowa. The Hawkeyes' preseason forecast looked gloomy after they posted their worst record in 12 years and lacked a quarterback with any collegiate game experience. But Kirk Ferentz's squad found its way, particularly down the stretch with wins in four of its final five games. Iowa's four losses came against ranked teams with a combined record of 45-6.

Biggest disappointment: Northwestern. On Oct. 5, the Wildcats had a 4-0 record, a top-20 ranking, ESPN "College GameDay" on campus and a fourth-quarter lead against Ohio State. On Nov. 23, they were blown out 30-6 by Michigan State on the same field, ending their hopes of a sixth consecutive bowl appearance. In between, Northwestern endured several injuries, a loss on a Hail Mary at Nebraska, overtime defeats against both Iowa and Michigan and plenty of heartache. Just a miserable year for Pat Fitzgerald's crew.

Best game: The Game -- Ohio State 42, Michigan 41, Nov. 30 at Michigan Stadium. Michigan once again proved the adage that rivalry games are different, delivering its best performance in months and pushing Ohio State to its limit. Woody and Bo wouldn't recognize the teams that combined for 83 points, 54 first downs and 1,129 total yards. The teams traded scores all afternoon, culminating with a two-point conversion attempt with 32 seconds left that Ohio State snuffed out to preserve its perfect season.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
4:00
PM ET
Sadly, there's no Big Ten football this weekend for the first time since August. I'll be counting the minutes until bowl season.

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter.

To the inbox ...

Matthew from Minneapolis writes: Hey Adam, I can't help but feeling you've been dodging my question about "national brand teams" in Michigan/Penn State. What qualitative or quantitative data do you have to substantiate these claims? You recently wrote "...what they're used to seeing, and that's Michigan/Penn State [being good]..." really? When was the last time either of these teams were even remotely decent?

Adam Rittenberg: Matthew, I'm not sure how old you are. If you're under 30, the Michigan and PSU brands might not resonate for you as much as Wisconsin's, MSU's and Iowa's. But it's different for those who remember Michigan's national title in 1997 and five Big Ten championships between 1997-2004, not to mention the program's long-term history. The same holds true for those who remember Penn State's national titles in the 1980s or the great teams in 1994, 2005 and 2008.

You want data that validates Michigan and Penn State as big brands? Look at the money they bring in. They're always included in Forbes' list of most valuable college football teams. They have huge stadiums, massive alumni/fan bases and plenty of NFL alumni. I'm not arguing that Michigan and, to a lesser extent because of the circumstances, Penn State are underachieving. I'm actually underscoring that in Michigan's case. But they're still national brands because of what they've done over time.


Ron from Minneapolis writes: Hi, Adam. I think the Gophers got the shaft this year for their bowl game. Gophers fans don't travel well because they end up in bad bowl games. I would bet anything that had they been selected to the Gator Bowl, the fan base would be very good. What I worry about is, even if they would go 9-3 or 10-2 next year, they will still get passed over to a good bowl because of fan travel? It's hard to recruit and become a contender when people don't even watch a lower bowl game like this. As fans, how do we get the word out to the bowl committees so this doesn't keep happening?

Adam Rittenberg: Ron, the good news for you and your fellow Gophers fans is that the Big Ten, beginning in 2014, will take over the bowl selection process rather than put it solely in the hands of bowl officials. Bowls and teams will be assigned to tiers, and the league will work to avoid repeat destinations or repeat opponents for teams. "We're going to really want to have different teams in different bowls," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said in announcing the new bowl lineup in June. "... You'll see a real focus on getting diversity and freshness."

All that said, it's important for Minnesota fans to show up at this year's Texas Bowl, support a good team and begin to change the perception about how well they travel. Quite frankly, you're overestimating the gap between the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl and the Texas Bowl. The Gator Bowl has some more tradition, but I'd argue the Texas Bowl is in better location with a better time slot, away from the New Year's Day gridlock. Bowl committees don't care about head-to-head results or fans whining about being passed over. You probably won't have this problem in the future, but you still should go and support your team if possible.


Todd from Peoria, Ill., writes: How did Ohio State end up playing Clemson and Alabama playing Oklahoma? Given how close both came to the title game, wouldn't that be a better match-up than either got this year? It would prove how the (true) best SEC team this year compares to the best available B1G team and whether OSU had any business thinking of playing for the crystal football. Also, what do you think of the apparent decision by Tim Beckman to keep DC Tim Banks despite two years of dismal defense by my beloved Illini?

Adam Rittenberg: Todd, it has more to do with the current relationships between BCS bowls and certain leagues. The ACC's tie to the Discover Orange Bowl led the bowl to replace Florida State with Clemson. The same held true with the SEC and the Allstate Sugar Bowl, which replaced Auburn with Alabama. Ohio State-Alabama would have been great, though I was hoping the Sugar would pick Oregon to face Bama, a matchup we've wanted for years. But because of the game's upcoming Big 12 tie-in (Champions Bowl), it went with Oklahoma, and Alabama-Oklahoma looks like a mismatch.

As for Illinois, I'm a little surprised Beckman will keep his entire defensive staff intact. He's entering a make-or-break season, and he wants to sink or swim with the coaches he hired. He probably doesn't want another year of significant staff turnover. But the defense must get a lot better.


Tony from Austin, Texas, writes: Hey Adam, what are the chances of Taylor Martinez playing in the NFL? Is it likely he has a future as an NFL quarterback or is he best changing positions (see Denard Robinson)?

Adam Rittenberg: Tony, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini told me before the season that he thinks Martinez can play quarterback in the NFL. Pelini knows the NFL, but I'd be surprised if Martinez is taking snaps in the pros next year. His mechanics are improved from his sophomore year but remain far from textbook, which is the standard in the NFL. I don't see enough arm strength, either. Martinez certainly has skills that translate to the next level, namely his speed, so I see him moving to another position.


Todd from Louisville writes: Adam, your comments in two different posts appear to be almost directly opposed to me. Should Iowa fans demand and expect more than an 8-4 record or be realistic/objective about being ambitious and excited for the future? Do you intend to appear combative with these fans no matter what position they espouse?

Adam Rittenberg: Todd, I think my Iowa comment was misinterpreted, and that's my fault. Iowa fans obviously should be excited about their team's four-win improvement this season. My comment was that in general, an 8-4 record seems to please more fan bases in the Big Ten then it would in the SEC. I don't think enough Big Ten fan bases demand excellence from their programs. That's not a shot at Iowa fans, who were understandably disappointed in 2012. But now the bar must be raised for 2014. Iowa has a real chance to win the West division, and anything less should be considered a disappointment. Kirk Ferentz makes big money and should be held to a higher standard than 8-4. That's more than fair.

There are many reasons why the Big Ten has slipped a bit nationally in football. But I wonder if enough teams in this league take a championship-or-bust approach to seasons, and whether that's contributing to the mediocrity.


Sam from Detroit writes: Adam, if things go how they usually go with Nick Saban and he decides to leave for Texas, do you think Mark Dantonio would be a candidate for the Alabama job? He has to be one of the more desirable coaches out there right now, and Alabama is obviously one of the better jobs. I seem to remember Dantonio being in the middle of the pack as far as compensation for B1G coaches and while I'm sure he'll get a bump this year, it won't be an SEC-esque bump. Do you think he'd leave for a job like Alabama?

Adam Rittenberg: I don't think so, but Michigan State needs to step up and provide Dantonio and his assistants substantial raises. Dantonio knows he's in a great situation at MSU. He has a great boss in Mark Hollis, and his family is happy there. His only tie to the SEC is the fact he played at South Carolina. Dantonio definitely has some leverage if other schools begin courting him, but I'd be a bit surprised if he leaves. He's not a guy completely driven by money, and he knows he can compete for the College Football Playoff at MSU.

Grading our over-under predictions

December, 10, 2013
12/10/13
1:30
PM ET
In the preseason, we took a stab at picking the over-under regular-season win totals for each Big Ten team. We used the baselines established by oddsmakers in Vegas.

Now, it's time to see how we fared -- and find out which of us was smarter in August.

Illinois

Over-under: 3.5
Actual wins: 4
Brian's pick: Under
Adam's pick: Under
20/20 hindsight: We both had the Illini finishing 3-9; the preseason over-under number was a good one. Illinois' blowout win over Cincinnati remains one of the more surprising results of the season, but the Illini also came close to beating Penn State, Indiana and Northwestern.

Indiana

Over-under: 5.5
Actual wins: 5
Brian's pick: Over
Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight: Vegas got us again. Both of us were bullish on the Hoosiers making a bowl game this year. Home losses to Navy and Minnesota were killers.

Iowa

Over-under: 5.5
Actual wins: 8
Brian's pick: Under
Adam's pick: Under
20/20 hindsight: Like most people, we underestimated the Hawkeyes this year. By a lot.

Michigan


Over-under: 8.5
Actual wins: 7
Brian's pick: Over
Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight: So, um, yeah. This isn't going too well for us.

Michigan State

[+] EnlargePhilip Nelson
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesThe Big Ten bloggers correctly predicted a bowl-bound season for Philip Nelson and the Gophers.
Over-under: 8.5 Actual wins: 11 Brian's pick: Under Adam's pick: Over 20/20 hindsight: Finally, somebody gets one right, and it's Adam. I had Michigan State at 8-4. Adam had the Spartans at 9-3. We both underestimated them.

Minnesota

Over-under: 6.5
Actual wins: 8
Brian's pick: Over
Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight: And I'm on the board. Finally. But 8-4 still surprised us.

Nebraska

Over-under: 9.5 Actual wins: 8 Brian's pick: Over Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight:
I said in my prediction that it wouldn't shock me if Nebraska went 8-4, which they did. Adam called the over "a fairly easy call."

Northwestern

Over-under: 8.5
Actual wins: 5
Brian's pick: Under
Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight: Neither of us thought the Wildcats would miss a bowl game, but I had them falling short of expectations because of the schedule.

Ohio State

Over-under: 11 Actual wins: 12 Brian's pick: Push
Adam's pick: Push 20/20 hindsight: Though we both figured Ohio State would be dominant, we just thought it would be too hard to go undefeated again. It wasn't -- at least until the Big Ten title game.

Penn State

Over-under: 8 Actual wins: 7
Brian's pick:
Push Adam's pick: Push 20/20 hindsight: Another whiff. I even mentioned a possible 6-0 start for Penn State. At least the Nittany Lions beat Wisconsin to get closer to the preseason number.

Purdue

Over-under: 5.5 Actual wins: 1 Brian's pick: Under Adam's pick: Under 20/20 hindsight: Guess it's safe to say the Boilermakers fell way short of expectations in Darrell Hazell's first year, though we both expected some struggles.

Wisconsin

Over-under: 9 Actual wins: 9 Brian's pick: Push Adam's pick: Under 20/20 hindsight: Once again, the wiseguys were right on the number, and so was I, as I predicted a 9-3 season with losses to Arizona State, Ohio State and one other Big Ten team. Blind squirrel, meet nut.

Final results

Brian: 4-8
Adam:
3-9

I won but take no pride in those picks. The lesson here, as always: Don't mess with Vegas.

We also took a stab at some random over-unders of our own in the preseason. Let's take a look at how those turned out:

Michigan State starting QBs

Over-under: 2
Actual: 2
Brian's pick: Over
Adam's pick: Under
20/20 hindsight: The Spartans played three quarterbacks early and very nearly went with a fourth in Damion Terry. But only Andrew Maxwell and Connor Cook started.

Taylor Martinez touchdowns + turnovers

Over-under: 50
Actual: 13
Brian's pick: Under
Adam's pick: Under
20/20 hindsight: This one became a lock because of Martinez's injuries. He finished with 10 touchdowns, two interceptions and a lost fumble. We'll never know what a healthy T-Magic could have done his senior season, and that's a shame.

Big Ten players ejected for targeting

Over-under: 2.5
Actual: 5
Brian's pick: Under
Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight:
It took a while for the league to have its first player ejected, but then the new rule showed its impact. For the record, the five players ejected were Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Ohio State's Bradley Roby, Indiana's David Kenney, Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis and Purdue's Landon Feichter.

Braxton Miller rushing attempts

Over-under: 188 Actual: 131 Brian's pick: Over Adam's pick: Over 20/20 hindsight: Another category where an injury affected things. Miller would have gotten close and possibly reached our over-under if he didn't miss three games with a knee injury.

Chris Borland takeaways

Over-under: 7.5 Actual: 3 Brian's pick: Under Adam's pick: Over 20/20 hindsight: Borland wasn't as active on the turnover front as Adam thought, but he still wound up as the Big Ten defensive player of the year.

Indiana defensive points allowed

Over-under: 29 ppg Actual: 38.8 ppg Brian's pick: Over Adam's pick: Over 20/20 hindsight: And this is why the Hoosiers didn't make a bowl.

Devin Gardner's rushing totals

Over-under: 400 yards and 10 touchdowns Actual: 483 and 11 Brian's pick: Over
Adam's pick: Under
20/20 hindsight: Thanks to a whole lot of sack yardage, Gardner came very close to our preseason baselines.

Iowa AIRBHG strikes

Over-under: 2
Actual: 0 20/20 hindsight: The Iowa running back curse was thankfully lifted this year. Afraid to say anything more for fear of jinxing it.

Totals

Brian: 4-4
Adam: 5-3

Big Ten's lunch links

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
12:00
PM ET
Happy Turkey Day eve.

Big Ten Week 10 primer

November, 2, 2013
11/02/13
7:00
AM ET
Get ready for a full set of Big Ten games, and it should all be all over in time for dinner. That’s November in the Big Ten. Here’s a preview:

Noon ET

No. 4 Ohio State (8-0, 4-0) at Purdue (1-6, 0-3), Big Ten Network: For more than a decade, the trip to West Lafayette has served as a Buckeyes stumbling block. Forget it this time. Ohio State, winners of 20 straight, is rolling. Purdue, with freshman QB Danny Etling, is struggling mightily on offense. And the Boilermakers defense, despite a few bright moments, doesn’t figure to have an answer for Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde.

[+] EnlargeJames Morris
Stephen Mally/Icon SMIJames Morris and the Iowa defense will have their work cut out for them against Wisconsin's dynamic rushing attack.
No. 24 Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1) at Iowa (5-3, 2-2), ABC/ESPN2: There’s much more than bowl eligibility at stake in the Hawkeyes’ annual “Blackout” game. Both teams appear to have hit their strides at the right time, and a major battle is brewing here between the Badgers’ powerful run game, led by Melvin Gordon, and Iowa’s stout run defense. The Hawkeyes have led at halftime in every game this season and have allowed a nation-low two rushing touchdowns. Gordon alone has scored a league-best 11 TDs.

Illinois (3-4, 0-3) at Penn State (4-3, 1-2), ESPN: Negative energy all around. Penn State is coming off a once-in-a-century rout at the hands of Ohio State. Illinois entered league play with buoyed hopes, but losses by 20, 24, and 39 points have only served to extend the Fighting Illini’s Big Ten losing streak to 17 games. Who can better shake the bad vibe? Signs point to Penn State, which has responded to six straight losses under Bill O’Brien with wins in the next game. Count on production from the Christian Hackenberg-to-Allen Robinson connection.

3:30 ET

No. 21 Michigan (6-1, 2-1) at No. 22 Michigan State (7-1, 4-0), ABC: While the polls favor Michigan, the computers like Michigan State this season over its in-state rival. We’ll see who’s smarter, man or machine. Don’t discount the home-field factor, which was huge for the Spartans two years ago in this series. The Wolverines have struggled this season, and the two before that, on the road. And Michigan State sophomore Connor Cook is making solid progress at quarterback.

Minnesota (6-2, 2-2) at Indiana (3-4, 1-2), BTN: The Golden Gophers seek a three-game, Big Ten winning streak for the first time since they opened the 2008 conference season with victories over Indiana, Illinois and Purdue. The two-QB system with Mitch Leidner and Philip Nelson is working for Minnesota. Indiana just needs one guy to put up huge numbers. But can Nate Sudfeld do enough for the Hoosiers, who have dropped two straight despite scoring 75 points?

Northwestern (4-4, 0-4) at Nebraska (5-2, 2-1), BTN: It’s put-up-or-shut-up time for these Legends Division foes. Northwestern is already out of title contention, but its season has nearly slipped away as offensive anchors Venric Mark and Kain Colter continue to fight injuries. Colter will play this week, but his counterpart at Nebraska, quarterback Taylor Martinez, won’t. Freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. gets his fourth start. Expect senior Ron Kellogg III to again assist and keep an eye on Huskers I-back Ameer Abdullah, bothered this week by an ankle injury.

Weather

We’ve made it to November, so all things considered, not a bad day on tap. It’ll be chilly before early kickoffs in Iowa City and West Lafayette. Both games call for temperatures warming into the low 50s and some wind. For the other noon start, there’s a slight chance of showers in State College, though it should be comfortable.

Looks like a nice day in Lincoln, with a high temperature near 60 and sunny skies. Similar conditions appear set for Bloomington. East Lansing gets the worst weather of the day for the best game -- overcast, a slight chance of rain and temps that won’t reach 50.

Top Week 10 stories

What to watch in the Big Ten | Predictions | Did you know?

Iowa-Wisconsin are common enemies

Miller getting better one pass at a time

No room for QB gray area at Nebraska

Minnesota rouses at unlikeliest of times

Freeman at home on sideline with Boilers

MSU’s Connor Cook thrives under pressure

U-M hopes to survive mayhem on the road

Time for Hoke, Michigan to take next step

Dynamic frosh has opponents’ attention

O’Brien, Della Valle defend coordinator

Q&A: Wisconsin NT Beau Allen

Video: Big Ten Game of the Week

Wildcats aim for another Lincoln revival

Michigan-Michigan State roundtable

Happy Halloween in the Big Ten

Big Ten Week 10: Did you know?

November, 1, 2013
11/01/13
10:00
AM ET
A full slate of Big Ten games awaits on Saturday. Here’s a look at facts and figures to preview the opening week of November football in the league:
  • The short-yardage run game is clicking for Minnesota. And we’re talking very short yardage. The Gophers’ past eight touchdowns on the ground have covered 1 yard. Eleven of their 19 touchdowns this season were punched in from the 1, and 15 covered 5 yards or fewer. Minnesota rushed for just 14 touchdowns last year. The Gophers are 13-10 under coach Jerry Kill when they score a rushing TD and 2-8 when they don’t.
  • Indiana’s offense is doing its part in the program’s bid for a winning season. The Hoosiers have scored 28 or more points in eight consecutive games, a first at the school. They’ve passed for more than 300 yards six times season in seven games. Indiana receivers Cody Latimer, Shane Wynn, Kofi Hughes and tight end Ted Bolser have all surpassed 100 career receptions and 1,000 yards in the past four weeks. Indiana is the only team nationally and the first in the Big Ten since Northwestern in 2008 with four 100-1,000 players.
  • Despite scoring just three points last week against Michigan State, Illinois’ offense remains one of the most improved units nationally. From last season, the Illini have jumped more than 60 spots in the national rankings in passing efficiency, big plays (20 yards or more), first downs per game, passing yardage per game, turnovers lost and scoring offense. Illinois averages 400.7 yards of total offense, up 46 spots from last year, when it ranked 119th at 296.7 yards per game.
  • Penn State, under coach Bill O’Brien, has not lost consecutive games since it opened last season 0-2. Its Oct. 12 win over Michigan, 43-40 in four overtimes -- the longest game in Big Ten history -- prevented a two-game skid on the heels of a loss at Indiana. Penn State needs a win on Saturday over Illinois to prevent consecutive defeats in the wake of a 63-14 loss last week to Ohio State. O’Brien is 5-1 at PSU in games after a loss.
  • Senior Jeremy Gallon’s 369 yards on 14 catches last week against Indiana set Michigan and Big Ten records for receiving yardage in a game. It was the second-highest figure ever posted by an FBS receiver, and the 14 receptions were the second most at Michigan in one game. Gallon has recorded a reception in 33 straight games, with nine touchdown receptions over his past eight. He ranks second in the Big Ten in receiving yardage per game at 118.7.
  • A win for Michigan State on Saturday over Michigan would keep the Spartans in control of the Legends Division and mark their third consecutive victory over the Wolverines at Spartan Stadium, which has never happened in the 105-game series. Michigan is 19-12-2 against Michigan State in East Lansing, but under Brady Hoke, the Wolverines are 6-8 away from Michigan Stadium. A win for the Spartans would also be their fifth in six games over Michigan. That hasn’t happened since MSU won six of seven from 1956 to 1962.
  • No team in the Big Ten feels quite like Northwestern about October. The Wildcats went 0-3 to even their record at 4-4 as November arrives. This final month of the regular season has proven much more kind to Northwestern. It is 12-6 in November since 2008, with five victories over teams ranked in the top 20, including a 28-25 upset in Lincoln over No. 9 Nebraska in 2011. The Wildcats’ lone November loss a year ago came at Michigan in overtime.
  • Redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong, set to start for the fourth time this season on Saturday, has guided Nebraska to scores on 12 of 24 possessions in his previous three starts. Armstrong again replaces senior Taylor Martinez, out after he suffered a hip pointer last week in his return at Minnesota after a three-game absence because of a foot injury. A fourth start by Armstrong would mark the first time at Nebraska since 1998, when Bobby Newcombe and Eric Crouch split time, that two quarterbacks started more than three games in the same season.
  • Ohio State has remained unbeaten this year to extend its nation-leading winning streak to 20 games in large part because of its success at running the football. OSU, after a season-best 408-yard rushing effort against Penn State -- the first 400-yard day at the school since 1995 -- ranks second in the Big Ten and ninth nationally with a 295.6-yard rushing average. Senior Carlos Hyde has rushed for 464 yards and seven touchdowns in the past three games. Hyde and senior Jordan Hall have combined to rush for 1,038 yards and 15 touchdowns.
  • Purdue has taken Ohio State to overtime in the past two meetings, losing 29-22 a year ago at Ohio Stadium after a 26-23 victory by the Boilermakers in 2011 that marked the program’s second straight home win over the Buckeyes. Saturday appears to set up differently as Purdue starts one of the youngest teams nationally. Offensively, four true freshmen, including quarterback Danny Etling, and three redshirt freshmen have participated on the same play in the past two games.
  • Wisconsin needs one victory to become bowl eligible for the 12th consecutive season. Its run of 11 straight bowl appearances ranks as the longest in the Big Ten and ties the Badgers for the eighth-longest streak nationally. A win would also give Wisconsin an edge in the all-time series against Iowa. It is currently equal at 42-42-2. The Badgers have won six straight games that fall after a bye week, including a 35-6 win three weeks ago over Northwestern.
  • Iowa cornerback Desmond King is averaging 7.2 tackles in Big Ten games, according to the school, more than any other true freshman in the league. King, who has started seven of the Hawkeyes’ eight games, recorded a season-best 12 tackles at Ohio State on Oct. 19 and 11 against Michigan State on Oct. 5. King is the first true freshman to start in the Iowa secondary since Jovon Johnson in 2002. His third-down pass breakup last week against Northwestern negated a potential first down in overtime, helping lead to the Iowa win.

Big Ten predictions: Week 10

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
9:00
AM ET
Trick or treat, everyone. Ready for the scariest set of Big Ten predictions you've ever seen? What's truly scary is the fact that this marks the first week since Week 3 that all 12 league squads are playing. It's a full slate of Big Ten action, and with the predictions race all tied up, this is a big week.

At steak: dinner at St. Elmo in Indianapolis.

Let's begin ...

ILLINOIS at PENN STATE

Brian Bennett: The last time Illinois coaches came to State College ... OK, that's old news by now. Both defenses are really struggling right now, but the Fighting Illini have even more issues than Penn State. And I expect the Nittany Lions to be much better at home than on the road the rest of the way. Allen Robinson scores three times in a big Penn State win. ... Penn State 42, Illinois 20


Adam Rittenberg: The Lions get well this week against an Illinois defense that hasn't stopped anyone lately. Bill Belton racks up 130 rush yards and two scores in establishing himself as the Lions' top back. Penn State's tight ends get more involved in the pass game as the Lions pull away early in the third quarter. ... Penn State 38, Illinois 21

WISCONSIN at IOWA

Rittenberg: It's great to have this rivalry back on the slate, and I expect an extremely physical game at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa jumps ahead early on a Damon Bullock touchdown run, but Wisconsin's offense kicks into gear after another long scoring run by Melvin Gordon on a jet sweep. Badgers quarterback Joel Stave finds wideout Jared Abbrederis for a fourth-quarter touchdown that proves to be the difference. ... Wisconsin 28, Iowa 21

Bennett: Very excited for this one and tempted to pick Iowa, whose three losses are to teams that are a combined 23-1 this season. But I also saw how Northwestern shut down the Hawkeyes' offense after the first drive last week, and that scares me away from choosing the home team. Stave has a nice game and throws for three touchdown passes after Iowa stacks the box defensively. ... Wisconsin 30, Iowa 20


OHIO STATE at PURDUE

Bennett: Can you say cruise control? That's what Ohio State will be on after scoring 21 points in the first 10 minutes on Saturday. Carlos Hyde has four touchdowns in the first half of a romp. ... Ohio State 56, Purdue 13


Rittenberg: Like they say at Harry's Chocolate Shop, this one will go ugly early. Although Ross-Ade Stadium usually brings out the worst in Ohio State, I expect another big game from Braxton Miller, who picks apart Purdue's secondary for three touchdown passes. Purdue's offense looks better than it did against Michigan State as Danny Etling connects with B.J. Knauf for a touchdown, but it's way too much Ohio State in this one. ... Ohio State 48, Purdue 10

MINNESOTA at INDIANA

Rittenberg: Minnesota's recent surge has been incredibly impressive, but I just don't like the matchup here for the Gophers. Indiana is playing for its bowl life and must win this game at home coming off of a bye. Unlike Minnesota's past two opponents, Indiana is healthy on offense and will strike with big-play threats Cody Latimer and Shane Wynn for some early scores. Minnesota's run game shows up again, but the Hoosiers use a big fourth quarter to get the W. ... Indiana 35, Minnesota 31

Bennett: Does Vegas know something here? Indiana is a solid favorite despite how well Minnesota is playing. Seems weird. But ... maybe the wiseguys are on to something. Indiana has had two weeks to prepare and figure out something defensively, and this will be one of the best offenses the Gophers have seen. I predict a big day for Tre Roberson as the Hoosiers temporarily halt Minnesota's nice run. ... Indiana 33, Minnesota 30.


MICHIGAN at MICHIGAN STATE

Bennett: Bottom line here is I know what I'm getting from Michigan State. I have no real idea what to expect from either side of the ball from Michigan. The Wolverines could come out and play great or turn the ball over a bunch of times. I'll side with the elite defense and the home team. The Spartans will force three turnovers, including a pick-six from Denicos Allen, and they will emerge as the leaders of the Legends. ... Michigan State 17, Michigan 14


Rittenberg: Michigan needs this game more than Michigan State. It could be the most important game in coach Brady Hoke's tenure to date. But Mark Dantonio is masterful in getting Michigan State in the right mindset to play Michigan, and the Spartans defense is the best unit on the field. MSU cornerback Darqueze Dennard records a key fourth-quarter interception against Devin Gardner, and the Spartans get two more rushing touchdowns from Jeremy Langford to rally for a win. ... Michigan State 21, Michigan 17

NORTHWESTERN at NEBRASKA

Rittenberg: Both teams seem fragile at the moment, and it's hard to confidently pick one over the other. This is a better matchup for Northwestern's offense to finally get on track, and Kain Colter has given Nebraska problems before. Colter takes the team on his back and scores three second-half touchdowns, including the game-winner in the final minute. Nebraska wastes another 150-yard rushing performance from Ameer Abdullah as Pelini Watch really begins. ... Northwestern 27, Nebraska 24

Bennett: Northwestern has given Nebraska trouble the past two seasons, but the Wildcats don't seem able to get out of their own way right now. Taylor Martinez sits this one out and the Huskers rely heavily on the run game, overcoming two costly fumbles to win on a late field goal. ... Nebraska 24, Northwestern 21.


You've heard from us. Now it's time to hear from one of you. As a reminder, throughout the season we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please), hometown and a brief description of why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.

This week's guest is Andrew Schout from Kansas City, Mo. Andrew, the floor is yours.
I am a Michigan State grad who just happens to be getting married the same day as the biggest football game of the year. As a football fan, I know the frustration/annoyance of missing a game due to a wedding. Now I'm the guy causing those feelings in others. On what's sure to be a big day, for more reasons than just the game, I'd enjoy the chance to be your guest picker! Thanks, Andrew S., Michigan State University, Class of 2005.

Congrats, Andrew! Here's a prediction from us: "Twist and Schout" will play at your wedding. And we might crash the reception.

Here are Andrew's Week 10 picks:

Penn State 34, Illinois 24
Wisconsin 24, Iowa 17
Ohio State 48, Purdue 10
Indiana 41, Minnesota 38
Michigan State 27, Michigan 16
Nebraska 26, Northwestern 20

SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 57-11
Brian Bennett: 57-11
Guest pickers: 52-16

Big Ten predictions: Week 9

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
9:00
AM ET
Who are these guys? We're the real American pickers, and we're sifting through the Big Ten rubble to make our selections for Week 9. Thankfully, this is the final Saturday with a measly four games on the docket, as all 12 teams will be in action Nov. 2.

Adam clings to a one-game lead in the season standings, as the race for a dinner at St. Elmo in Indianapolis remains at steak. Our Week 8 picks mirrored one another. Will it be the same in Week 9?

Let's get started …

NEBRASKA at MINNESOTA


Brian Bennett: This is a good spot to bring back Taylor Martinez, so he can shake off some rust before the telling November stretch begins. I think Nebraska will still want to be a bit careful with its quarterback, however, and not risk any further harm to his turf toe. So Martinez doesn't run much but throws a pair of touchdowns to Quincy Enunwa, and the improving Huskers defense has a strong showing against a rather one-dimensional Minnesota attack. … Nebraska 28, Minnesota 16


Adam Rittenberg: A healthy Martinez makes the difference for the Huskers as the senior quarterback breaks off a long touchdown run in the first quarter and finishes with three combined scores. Philip Nelson rallies Minnesota in the second quarter with touchdown passes to Maxx Williams and Derrick Engel, but the Huskers' offense proves to be too much in the second half as Ameer Abdullah records another 100-yard game. … Nebraska 35, Minnesota 24

NORTHWESTERN at IOWA


Adam Rittenberg: Iowa has played better than its record shows, while Northwestern is in a major tailspin. So why am I picking Northwestern? Kain Colter's likely return gives Northwestern the ingredients it has been missing on offense the past two weeks. Colter will convert key third downs like he did last year against Iowa, and while the Hawkeyes take an early lead behind Mark Weisman's rushing and their tight-end play, Northwestern finds its offense again in the second half and rallies for a win at Kinnick. … Northwestern 31, Iowa 28

Brian Bennett: I've picked against Iowa a lot this season, with some successes (Northern Illinois, Michigan State) and some failures (Iowa State, Minnesota). I might give Hawkeyes fans a complex if I pick against them at home against a team that's 0-3 in the Big Ten. I'm still tempted to go with Northwestern because of the Wildcats' recent success against Iowa and the return of Colter. But I also really liked the way the Hawkeyes played at Ohio State on offense and think they can keep it up by using those big tight ends. It's going to be a close one, but Mike Meyer hits the game-winner with 90 seconds to go. … Iowa 27, Northwestern 24


MICHIGAN STATE at ILLINOIS


Brian Bennett: The Illini are at home, and Michigan State might get caught peeking toward Michigan. But the Illinois defense is really struggling right now, too much so to foresee an upset here. I think Connor Cook will get back on track a bit with 200 yards passing and a TD, and the Michigan State defense will force three turnovers against Nathan Scheelhaase & Co., including another one for a score. … Michigan State 24, Illinois 12


Adam Rittenberg: This could be a trap game for the Spartans before next week's home showdown against rival Michigan, but I think Michigan State's offense received its wakeup call against Purdue. Illinois' struggles against the run continue as Jeremy Langford goes for 120 yards and two touchdowns. The Illini strike first with a long scoring pass to Ryan Lankford and move the ball well at times, but Michigan State clamps down and records another defensive touchdown in the third quarter. … Michigan State 27, Illinois 16

PENN STATE at OHIO STATE


Adam Rittenberg: Get ready for another fun one at the Horseshoe, as both offenses can put up points and stretch the field. Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg looks nothing like a freshman in the first half with two touchdown passes before showing his youth late in the game, as he's picked off by Buckeyes cornerback Bradley Roby. As we've seen in the past few games, Ohio State's offensive line takes control in the second half. Carlos Hyde goes for 120 yards and a score as the Buckeyes use a big fourth quarter to win. … Ohio State 38, Penn State 28

Brian Bennett: Yeah, I think this has a chance to be a wild one. So wild that I'm calling for … overtime. With a week off to prepare, I expect Bill O'Brien to throw the kitchen sink at the Buckeyes' defense, and for Hackenberg to hook up with Allen Robinson for three scores. Ohio State mounts its patented comeback, ties the score on a Braxton Miller heave to Corey Brown, and wins it on a Hyde run in the second OT. … Ohio State 51, Penn State 48


That's how we see things playing out on Saturday. Now it's time to hear from our guest picker. As a reminder, throughout the season we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please), hometown and a brief description of why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.

This week's guest picker is Nick Galea from Normal, Ill. What'cha got, Nick?
Hey guys, I should be the guest picker because my life revolves around Big Ten football. I currently hold two degrees from Big Ten schools (MSU undergrad/Illinois law), and I've watched Big Ten football in 7 different venues in my life. This week is of special significance to me, as my two alma maters square off in Champaign. I'd love to have a prediction on the line while I'm in Memorial Stadium watching Nate Scheelhaase test the league's No. 1 defense. Thanks!

Here are Nick's Week 9 picks ...

Nebraska 38, Minnesota 24
Iowa 28, Northwestern 27
Michigan State 27, Illinois 10
Ohio State 45, Penn State 38

SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 55-9
Brian Bennett: 54-10
Guest pickers: 49-15
The top half of the Power Rankings remains virtually unchanged, as Big Ten kingpin Ohio State rallied to beat Iowa, Wisconsin stomped Illinois, and the Michigan schools held serve in vastly different ways (all defense for Michigan State, all offense for Michigan).

The changes come in the league's second tier, as Northwestern continues its shocking tumble after a home loss to Minnesota, which moves up three spots. Iowa actually moves up despite a loss, as we liked the Hawkeyes' game plan and execution against Ohio State. Indiana also holds steady after nearly winning a shootout at the Big House.

Let's take one final look at the Week 7 rankings.

Now for the fresh rundown ...

1. Ohio State (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): Another test passed for Ohio State, which overcame a plucky Iowa team with a stellar second half behind quarterback Braxton Miller (222 pass yards, 2 TDs, 102 rush yards) and running back Carlos Hyde (149 rush yards, 2 TDs). The Buckeyes also survived the ejection of star cornerback Bradley Roby in the first quarter and limited Iowa's offense to one big play in the second half. The defense once again will be challenged this week as Christian Hackenberg, Allen Robinson and Penn State visit Columbus.

2. Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1; last week: 2): Ohio State retains its spot atop the rankings with a perfect record, but Wisconsin has looked like the Big Ten's most dominant team of late. After crushing Northwestern at Camp Randall Stadium, the Badgers went on the road and steamrolled Illinois, as running backs Melvin Gordon (142 rush yards, 3 TDs) and James White (98 rush yards, 2 TDs, 29 receiving yards, 1 TD) did their thing and Joel Stave had an extremely efficient performance (16 of 21 passing, 189 yards, 2 TDs). The second open week comes at a good time as linebacker Chris Borland must get healthy for the stretch run, which features some tricky games.

3. Nebraska (5-1, 2-0; last week: 3): The Huskers might be the Legends Division favorite at this point, as they get Michigan State at home. Quarterback Taylor Martinez should make his return from turf toe this week against Minnesota as Nebraska tries to keep building momentum before the season's defining month. Martinez needs some work before the schedule gets tougher, and the Huskers' offensive line plays its first game without standout guard Spencer Long.

4. Michigan State (6-1, 3-0; last week: 4): A shutout of Purdue wasn't surprising. Neither was another defensive touchdown, Michigan State's fifth of the season, courtesy of linebacker Denicos Allen. But Michigan State's offense took a step backward, as the line struggled to control Purdue's defensive front and Connor Cook completed only 13 passes for 107 yards. The Spartans will need to be sharper this week against Illinois and particularly when the schedule gets tougher in November.

5. Michigan (6-1, 2-1; last week: 5): We think Jeremy Gallon just caught another long pass. Gallon set a Big Ten single-game record with 369 receiving yards (second most in FBS history), while quarterback Devin Gardner set team records for pass yards (503) and total yards (584) and accounted for five total touchdowns. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint added 151 yards and four touchdowns. Michigan needed all the offense to win a shootout with Indiana at the Big House. As for the defense? A problem for another day. Michigan has two weeks to prepare for its Nov. 2 showdown at Michigan State.

6. Penn State (4-2, 1-1; last week: 7): The off week came at a good time for Penn State after a physically and emotionally draining four-overtime win against Michigan. The Lions had more diversity in their passing game against the Wolverines and will need the same -- as well as strong run production -- to keep pace with Ohio State on Saturday in Columbus. Penn State has won two of its past three games at Ohio Stadium and could play spoiler down the stretch in Leaders Division play.

7. Iowa (4-3, 1-2; last week: 8): Credit Iowa for an excellent game plan coming off the open week. The Hawkeyes racked up 17 first-half points against Ohio State and controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Ultimately, better talent won out as Iowa couldn't keep pace with Miller, Hyde and the Buckeyes, but the Hawkeyes certainly could make some noise down the stretch in the wide-open Legends Division. Sophomore tight end Jake Duzey (6 receptions, 138 yards, 1 TD) gives Jake Rudock another weapon in the passing game. Iowa returns home this week to face sputtering Northwestern.

8. Minnesota (5-2, 1-2; last week: 11): The bye week clearly paid off for Minnesota, and so did a halftime pep talk from coach Jerry Kill, who made his presence felt at Ryan Field without being on the sideline. Minnesota dominated the line of scrimmage, as defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, running back David Cobb and quarterback Philip Nelson, who relieved Mitch Leidner, stepped up in the final three quarters. The Gophers took advantage of a short-handed Northwestern team and overcame several bad calls to record a big road win. Up next: Nebraska at home.

9. Indiana (3-4, 1-2; last week: 9): The Hoosiers are high on entertainment value, boasting the Big Ten's best quick-strike offense and quite possibly the league's best group of wide receivers. But all those highlights and points still aren't translating to enough wins. It's the same movie with IU, with an A-plus offense and a D-minus defense, which surrendered an unacceptable 63 points and 751 yards to Michigan on Saturday. Tre Roberson was brilliant at Michigan and seemed to pass by Nate Sudfeld in the quarterback pecking order. But the defense remains the team's top priority entering the open week.

10. Northwestern (4-3, 0-3; last week: 6): The free-fall continues for a Wildcats team that was No. 2 in the power rankings just two weeks ago. Remember when Northwestern held a fourth-quarter lead against Ohio State? Key injuries certainly have played a role in Northwestern's downfall, but quarterback Trevor Siemian seems to be regressing and so is the offensive line. A bowl game suddenly is no guarantee for the Wildcats, who need to get Kain Colter and Venric Mark healthy and refocus for the stretch run. They visit Iowa this week.

11. Illinois (3-3, 0-2; last week: 10): The Illini needed a fast start coming off the open week against Wisconsin but stumbled out of the gate, falling behind 21-0 on their home field before course-correcting in the second quarter. Quarterback play wasn't the issue, as Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole combined to complete 25 of 32 passes for 318 yards, but two fumbles led to Wisconsin touchdowns and Illinois' defense couldn't slow down the Badgers. The Illini need at least one upset down the stretch to have a chance to reach six wins and a bowl.

12. Purdue (1-6, 0-3; last week: 12): Darrell Hazell's squad can build on Saturday's road performance against Michigan State, especially a Boilers defense that allowed just one score and repeatedly penetrated the backfield. The offense had several chances but couldn't finish drives in Spartans territory. Purdue needs to clean up its pass protection after allowing five sacks, but if Bruce Gaston Jr. and the defensive front continues to step up, a win could be coming down the stretch. The Boilers have a week off before hosting Ohio State.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 8

October, 17, 2013
10/17/13
10:15
AM ET
Ten things to keep your eyes on in the five Big Ten games on Saturday:

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCan Braxton Miller and Ohio State's high-powered offense move the ball against Michigan State's stingy defense?
1. Can Iowa's defense slow down Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes? The Hawkeyes boast a solid group of linebackers, and the Hawkeyes are ranked ninth in the country in total defense and 12th in scoring defense. Still, they haven't faced an offense anywhere close in talent to Ohio State, and it'll be interesting to see how Kirk Ferentz's squad matches up. For Ohio State, it hasn't mattered who's lined up under center or in the backfield. The Buckeyes have posted at least 31 points in every game -- and 40 points in five out of six. Iowa hasn't allowed more than 30 points all season. Something has to give.

2. Big injuries at Northwestern: The Wildcats' read-option could be in trouble Saturday. Both quarterback Kain Colter and tailback Venric Mark are nursing injuries, and they're both listed as questionable. Even if they do return, neither will be at 100 percent -- and both are crucial to a team that's been forced to rely on a high-scoring offense to win.

3. Different head coach, different starting quarterback: A lot has changed for Minnesota in the past few weeks. In Week 1, it looked as if Philip Nelson was the quarterback of the future and head coach Jerry Kill would lead this team to continued improvement. Now? Well, Mitch Leidner has been promoted to starting quarterback, while Kill has taken a leave of absence due to seizures. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will take over for Kill on Saturday, and Claeys will be coaching from the sideline -- he usually coaches from the press box -- against Northwestern. Claeys still plans to call the defensive plays, so he'll have to spend some time committing those play calls to memory. He won't have those charts in front of him anymore.

4. Michigan's response: The Wolverines suffered a heartbreaker in Happy Valley, as they couldn't put the game away despite several chances. They're now set to face the team, Indiana, that bounced the Nittany Lions. Michigan may have five wins already on the season, but it's been extremely shaky. A convincing win against the Hoosiers -- and their Big Ten-best passing attack -- could go a long way in showing this team is still a contender. And, of course, that all starts with Devin Gardner.

5. Inexperience no problem for this defensive line: The Buckeyes had to rebuild their defensive line from scratch this season as no starters returned, but these young players have stepped up in a big way. They slowed down Wisconsin's running attack and have contributed to the sixth-best run defense in the nation. True freshman DE Joey Bosa is listed as the starter against Iowa this week, and he already has four tackles for loss and a touchdown listed next to his name. Mark Weisman and the Hawkeyes will face a stiff test Saturday.

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Keith Gillett/Icon SMIIllinois coach Tim Beckman says the players believe and are no longer saying "Can we do it" but instead are now saying "When we do it."
6. Illini still riding a conference-worst streak: Illinois has dropped 15 straight Big Ten games, which means it last won a conference game on Oct. 8, 2011, against Indiana. Illinois plays Purdue on Nov. 23 but, before then, there will be no easy victories. The Illini will play Wisconsin this weekend, followed by Michigan State, Penn State, Indiana and Ohio State. Luckily for Tim Beckman's crew, it's still nowhere close to the Big Ten record for the worst conference losing streak. That unfortunate record-holder would be Northwestern, which lost 38 straight Big Ten games between 1978 and 1982.

7. Spartans' offense in the midst of a turnaround: Early on, it seemed as if Michigan State's offense would be a liability all season. After all, in the first two games, the defense scored more touchdowns while Mark Dantonio couldn't settle on a quarterback. But Connor Cook has since taken over and the running game has taken off. Cook's QBR has taken a step up each week against the FBS, from 17.1 to 27.8 to 68.1 and, last Saturday, to 83.1. Jeremy Langford is also starting to make a name for himself, with four touchdowns this past week. The Spartans are trending upward, and they might be difficult to stop. It won't be easy for Purdue.

8. MGIII might be unstoppable the rest of the way: Yes, the Buckeyes limited Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon to 74 yards on 15 carries -- but he'll face just one more top-10 defense the rest of the regular season. He's third in the FBS with 870 rushing yards, ranks second nationally in yards per carry (9.7) among tailbacks and is 10th in the nation in rushing touchdowns (8). He's one of the most exciting players in the Big Ten, and every team going forward will likely struggle stopping him. His next opponent, Illinois, is allowing nearly 200 rushing yards a game.

9. Can Purdue do anything right? Nothing's been easy for Darrell Hazell's Boilermakers. They just scooted past FCS team Indiana State 20-14, and four of their five losses were decided by 31 points or more. Purdue's future hopes are pinned to true freshman quarterback Danny Etling. But, for now, there's no guarantee that Purdue will escape the 2013 season with another win. It's ranked No. 118 in scoring offense and, in scoring defense, it's ranked No. 114. At this point, Purdue would just be fortunate to hang in tough against Michigan State.

10. Home of inconsistent quarterbacks and good defenses: Welcome to the Big Ten! The conference boasts three teams (Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin) that are nationally ranked in the top 10 in total defense, and three more (Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State) that are within the top 20. Still, the passing offenses haven't exactly taken off as planned. The Big Ten's top QBs entering this season -- arguably Taylor Martinez, Gardner and Miller -- have either missed time due to injury or have been on the receiving end of some quarterback controversy.
Astronomers have made some fascinating discoveries recently while studying dying stars. In the Big Ten, we've merely been captive observers as some of the league's biggest stars have seen their brightness dim this season.

It has been a trying, and in some cases troubling, first half of the season for several players we thought would make the biggest impact in the conference. In fact, I seem to recall someone writing in the preseason that a trio of quarterbacks -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Michigan's Devin Gardner -- would be the marquee names in the league. (Who was that dummy, anyway?)

If the season ended today, none of the three would get my vote for even first-team All-Big Ten honors. And I'd have to think hard about including Miller on the second team. None of them, in fact, rank in the top four in the Big Ten in passing yards or the top six in passer efficiency rating.

The reasons for this are varied and well-known, but let's review anyway:

• Martinez did not look like himself in the UCLA loss in Week 3 as he appeared hesitant to run. We later found out why: he'd been battling a case of turf toe. The Huskers senior hasn't played since that loss to the Bruins, giving way to freshman Tommy Armstrong. Martinez is "doing better," according to coach Bo Pelini, but whether he'll play next week against Minnesota remains a question mark.

"He can run straight ahead," Pelini said Tuesday. "It's when he feels he can push off."

Remember, this is a guy who'd made 42 career starts before the turf toe hit. It's got to be killing him to be missing so many games in the middle of his senior season.

"He is frustrated like anybody would be," Pelini said. "He's a competitor who wants to be out there, but he's also smart and knows his body. He knows what he can do and what he can't do at this point. He's spending a lot of time in the training room, and hopefully he will turn a corner here soon."

• Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner had far less experience than the other two members of the trio, but he showed off some exciting skills at the end of last season. And when accounted for five touchdowns in a primetime win over Notre Dame in Week 2, he even started getting some Heisman buzz.

Since then, though, it has been a rough go of things for New No. 98. His 10 interceptions -- including two more in a loss at Penn State last week -- are tied for third-worst among all FBS quarterbacks. His best attribute appears to be his running ability, but the Wolverines are hesitant to run him too much for fear of injury. Still, his coach is backing Gardner.

"If I had no confidence in our quarterback, with the interceptions that we’ve had, he wouldn’t be our quarterback," Brady Hoke said Monday. "I have all the confidence in the world in Devin Gardner."

• Finally, there's Miller. He has faced less adversity than the other two, but it's still been a bumpy road for the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year.

Miller was hurt early in the San Diego State game in Week 2. In his absence, backup Kenny Guiton played like a Heisman Trophy candidate for three games, creating an actual debate on whether Guiton should keep the job when Miller's knee healed. Miller quieted that talk with a big performance against Wisconsin, but a week later at Northwestern, Urban Meyer admitted he almost pulled Miller for Guiton after some first-half struggles. The sample size is small, but Miller has not thrown for more than 203 yards in a game this season or run for more than 83 yards in one.

Fans at all three schools have at some point questioned whether their star quarterback should be benched. That's something we certainly didn't see coming in the summer.

And the quarterbacks are not alone. Northwestern running back Venric Mark was an All-America punt returner last year who also ran for 1,366 yards. But a leg injury kept him out of almost all of the Wildcats' first four games. He returned against Ohio State and ran for 60 yards on 17 carries, but he hurt his ankle last week at Wisconsin and had to sit out most of the game.

So Mark, who seemed poised for a big senior year, has played in one full game this year and has a total of 97 rushing yards. His status for this week's game vs. Minnesota is uncertain.

"I don't want to speak for him on how hard it's been," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "From my perspective and the conversations he and I have had, it's been very difficult. But from the standpoint of what he's brought to the team, he's been phenomenal. His attitude has been outstanding. He wants to play so bad, and it's got to be eating at him. But it hasn't shown in his attitude."

The good news for all four players is that there is still half a season left. If they can get healthy and in some cases iron out some issues, they have plenty of time to remind us of their brilliance, especially since their teams all remain in contention. And maybe we'll just remember the first half of 2013 as an interesting way of looking at the stars.

Big Ten second-half preview

October, 15, 2013
10/15/13
11:30
AM ET
We've closed the book on the first half of Big Ten play, and what a dull, uninspiring book it was.

From the mediocre nonconference showing (9-8 against BCS automatic-qualifying teams) to the excess of open weeks to the lack of marquee league matchups, the first seven weeks have been mostly forgettable. Three of the Big Ten's biggest stars -- Braxton Miller, Taylor Martinez and Venric Mark -- have barely played because of injury.

Here's the good news, folks. It's about to get much better.

We have to endure two more ho-hum Saturdays in October, but the Big Ten's November schedule promises to bring a lot of excitement, particularly in the Legends Division. All of the likely division title contenders -- Michigan State, Nebraska, Michigan, Northwestern and even Iowa -- start facing one another, beginning Nov. 2 with Michigan visiting Michigan State and Northwestern visiting Nebraska. November will finally bring some answers about the Spartans and Huskers, two teams that have handled their business against weaker opponents and lost their only featured games to date.

Ohio State's quest for a second straight perfect season -- and a possible berth in the national title game -- also comes into focus as the Buckeyes host Iowa and Penn State to finish October and conclude November with the big one at the Big House. Speaking of Michigan, the Maize and Blue will face Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern, Iowa and Ohio State in November. Talk about a prove-it type of month for Brady Hoke and his team.

The next two months also will show whether Indiana can reach a bowl for the first time since 2007, and if Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota reach the six-win plateau. Penn State could keep playing spoiler, while Wisconsin could sneak into the league title game again if Ohio State stumbles a few times.

Enjoy the halftime show, everyone. The second half will feature plenty of fireworks.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesMelvin Gordon has made Wisconsin a dangerous team on the ground.
Bold prediction: Wisconsin sweeps three of the four major Big Ten awards. Running back Melvin Gordon takes home offensive player of the year honors, while linebacker Chris Borland caps his magnificent career with defensive player of the year honors. And even though Ohio State runs the table again, the coach of the year curse continues for Buckeye bosses as Urban Meyer loses out to his good friend, Gary Andersen, whose team finishes 10-2.

Looking forward to: The Legends Division race. We don't know how good Nebraska and Michigan State are, but we'll find out in November. Michigan hasn't played to its potential but could turn things around. And while Northwestern is 0-2 in Big Ten play, the Wildcats have played the toughest schedule in the division and typically surge in November. Do you know your Big Ten division tiebreakers? Better brush up.

Top five games

Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 30 -- Despite Michigan's first-half shakiness, The Game figures to be electric as Ohio State should be aiming for another 12-0 regular season to keep its national title hopes alive. Michigan might be playing for a division title and a rematch with Ohio State in Indianapolis.

Michigan State at Nebraska, Nov. 16 -- A lot will change from now until kickoff, but the Spartans and Huskers are the Legends Division favorites right now. Michigan State has yet to beat Nebraska since the Huskers joined the league. The matchup features the only teams that have won the Legends Division.

Michigan at Michigan State, Nov. 2 -- There's more than in-state pride on the line as this game could set the course for the division race in November. The teams' last meeting in East Lansing brought five personal foul penalties (four on Michigan State) and plenty of defensive highlights. Michigan ended a four-game losing streak to the Spartans last year at Michigan Stadium.

Northwestern at Nebraska, Nov. 2 -- Like Michigan-Michigan State, this contest in Lincoln could loom large in the division race. Nebraska faces its best opponent since UCLA, while Northwestern aims for a second consecutive win at Memorial Stadium. Two of the league's more exciting offenses will be on display.

Nebraska at Michigan, Nov. 9 -- Most pegged Michigan or Nebraska to win the Legends Division before the season, and last year's meeting in Lincoln helped the Huskers reach the league championship. What would have happened if Devin Gardner had played quarterback for Michigan last year? You can find out as Gardner leads the Wolverines against a Husker team looking for a signature road win.

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October, 14, 2013
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Kicking off the work week ...
Ohio State still sits atop the Power Rankings, but there has been a significant shake-up after the Buckeyes.

Wisconsin's impressive victory against lifeless Northwestern vaults the Badgers to No. 2, as we consider Gary Andersen's team the closest to Ohio State at this point in the season. Northwestern takes a significant tumble, and Michigan also falls after failing to pull off another escape against Penn State. Nebraska and Michigan State are taking care of business against weak competition, which helps both teams now but won't mean much when the schedule gets tougher in November.

Penn State makes a move in a positive direction following its dramatic win against Michigan in four overtimes. The bottom of the rankings holds steady as most teams were off.

Here's one last look at the Week 6 rankings.

Week 7 rankings in three, two, one …

1. Ohio State (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): After two hard-fought victories to open Big Ten play, the unbeaten Buckeyes had a well-deserved week off. Their young defensive front seven is starting to blossom, which should help against Iowa's power run game on Saturday at The Shoe. Running back Carlos Hyde takes aim at an Iowa defense that has yet to allow a rushing touchdown. Ohio State is halfway to another perfect regular season.

2. Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1; last week: 3): The Badgers looked refreshed, recharged and exceptionally prepared for Northwestern following their open week. Wisconsin's defense completely flustered Northwestern, particularly on third down, where the Wildcats typically excel. Melvin Gordon did his thing and Wisconsin moved the ball despite playing without top receiver Jared Abbrederis for most of the game. The schedule is favorable the rest of the way and a 10-2 mark is hardly out of the question. Wisconsin visits Illinois this week.

3. Nebraska (5-1, 2-0; last week: 5): Credit Nebraska for handling its business against inferior competition and not even flirting with a loss for the second consecutive Big Ten game. The defense once again took a step forward as one-time Purdue recruit Randy Gregory had two tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. Backup quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. struggled, but he had plenty of help from the run game, led by Ameer Abdullah (126 rush yards, 1 TD). The Huskers once again are off this week, which should allow top signal-caller Taylor Martinez to heal from his toe injury.

4. Michigan State (5-1, 2-0; last week: 6): Defense always will be the Spartans' bread and butter, but Michigan State is capable of winning games with its offense. Sure, Indiana's defense isn't a great barometer, but Spartans fans have to be encouraged by quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and a unit that seems to be gaining more confidence by the week. Like Nebraska, Michigan State is handling its business during a favorable stretch of the schedule, which continues this week against flailing Purdue.

5. Michigan (5-1, 1-1; last week: 2): The Wolverines twice had flirted with losing in their first five games, only to find a way to pull through. They nearly pulled off another escape at Penn State after a strong second half, but breakdowns in all three phases led to a crushing loss in four overtimes. The defense broke down at the end of regulation, the offense couldn't find the end zone in overtime and the normally reliable Brendan Gibbons missed three attempts (one was blocked). Michigan will need to grow up in a hurry to challenge for the Legends Division title.

6. Northwestern (4-2, 0-2; last week: 2): It's a four-spot drop for the Wildcats, and that might be kind after the egg they laid Saturday in Madison. Northwestern clearly had a hangover from the Ohio State game, although there are some troubling trends on offense, namely the inability to covert manageable third downs, which has been a hallmark of past Wildcats teams. The injuries are piling up for Pat Fitzgerald's crew, as Venric Mark (ankle) barely played and Kain Colter (ankle) didn't do much at quarterback. Northwestern really needs to get well this week against Minnesota.

7. Penn State (4-2, 1-1; last week: 9): What do we make of Bill O'Brien's Lions? A week after Penn State's first loss to Indiana -- by 20 points, no less -- the Lions rebounded to outlast Michigan 43-40 in a four-overtime thriller. O'Brien played to win while Michigan's coaches went conservative, and freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg rebounded from some mistakes to lead the game-tying touchdown drive at the end of regulation. This Penn State team isn't as good as its predecessor, but it exhibits the same type of resilience and toughness. Penn State gets a well-deserved week off before heading to Ohio State.

8. Iowa (4-2, 1-1; last week: 7): The open week arrived at a good time for Iowa, which came out of the Michigan State loss with several injuries, although none of the long-term variety. The Hawkeyes need to reboot Mark Weisman and the run game after being shut down by the Spartans. Iowa's defense faces its first major test of the season in Ohio State, which will try to stretch the field. The Hawkeyes last won in Columbus in 1991.

9. Indiana (3-3, 1-1; last week: 8): The inconsistency that has plagued Indiana through the first half of the season showed up Saturday against Michigan State. The offense had more success against Michigan State's venerated defense than most opponents but still left points on the field. Indiana's defense, meanwhile, took a step back as the Spartans had success both on the ground and through the air. The Hoosiers' quarterback situation took another turn as Tre Roberson outperformed Nate Sudfeld. IU heads back to the Mitten State this week to face Michigan.

10. Illinois (3-2, 0-1; last week: 10): The Illini didn't play for the second time in four weeks after struggling on both sides of the ball at Nebraska. If Tim Beckman's squad intends to go bowling, it might need a home upset victory in the next two weeks as it hosts Wisconsin and then Michigan State. Illinois hopes to get defensive lineman Teko Powell back from injury before facing the dominant Wisconsin rush attack. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase must rebound after completing only 50 percent of his passes against Nebraska.

11. Minnesota (4-2, 0-2; last week: 11): Adversity continues for the Gophers as head coach Jerry Kill has taken a leave of absence as he tries to get his epilepsy under control. Although Minnesota assistants and players know how to adjust without Kill, it doesn't make the situation much easier. The big on-field concern for the Gophers is the schedule, which doesn't get any easier this week against Northwestern. The Gophers are still looking for more explosiveness on offense.

12. Purdue (1-5, 0-2; last week: 12): There will be better days ahead for Danny Etling and the Boilers, but it's very ugly right now. Purdue never challenged Nebraska at Ross-Ade Stadium, and the Boilers' problems on offense clearly go beyond the quarterback position as Etling couldn't get much going. Purdue didn't cross midfield until the fourth quarter. The defense had no answers for Nebraska, which piled up 435 yards. This is a really bad football team, folks, and things don't get easier with Michigan State and Ohio State to follow.

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