Nebraska Cornhuskers: Denicos Allen

Big Ten Friday mailblog

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
4:30
PM ET
One final check of the mail before the weekend. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter.

To the inbox ...

Aaron from Minneapolis writes: Gophers fans, by and large, are nothing short of in love with Jerry Kill right now, and understandably so. And yet, a significant raise, contract extension, and renewed university commitment to football facilities seems to have raised the bar for Kill and his staff, and I doubt everyone will remain happy if Minnesota just floats around .500 for the next five years. So, as a less biased observer, what do you think should be the new expectation for the Gophers over the next 3-5 years under Kill?

Adam Rittenberg: Good question, Aaron. I always go back to the Glen Mason situation. Minnesota decided that seasons with six to eight wins weren't good enough and parted ways. The program paid the price in the following years until Kill stabilized things. There needs to be a certain level of realism at Minnesota, as the Golden Gophers aren't going to win 10 games every year. But Minnesota also should expect breakthrough seasons every now and then, especially in the seemingly weaker West Division.

Getting to the Big Ten championship game is a reasonable expectation for Kill in the next 4-5 years. At some point, Minnesota must end its Big Ten title drought. But the general expectation should be bowl games every year and winning at least seven games in most years. Fans should always expect big things, but you run into trouble when you think you're something that you're not.


Erik from Charleston, S.C., writes: I don't think the B1G should be too keen on weekday football games anytime soon (save for Labor Day and Thanksgiving). Living in the South, I witnessed billboards eight months in advance for Clemson trying to sell tickets for a Thursday night game. Even here on the coast, which is 200 miles away, they were looking to sell tickets, and Clemson was pretty good last year! About the only place I see this happening is Northwestern, which has the advantage of being near Chicago and it would help if they had Illinois coming to town. Maryland could possibly, too, if their team gets better and people show up from the Washington, D.C., area. Other than that, fan bases tend to concentrate within a few hours of the campus.

Adam Rittenberg: Erik, you're not the only person who has brought up the challenge of mobilizing fan bases for weekday games. I agree it's an important factor for certain programs, especially those not located in or near cities like Penn State. But most of the programs that could benefit most from these games -- Northwestern, Minnesota, Maryland, Rutgers -- are located in metropolitan areas. Indiana has some transportation issues and so does Purdue, but they have to weigh those against the exposure they'd receive from being in the weekday TV windows.

Ohio State doesn't need the midweek exposure, but I still think Ohio Stadium would be packed for a Thursday night game, in part because of its metro location. Clemson doesn't need midweek games, either, largely because of its location. Attendance is an increasing concern in college football. We've written extensively about that. But a lot of Big Ten teams are irrelevant on Saturdays because of other games going on.


Aaron from Syracuse, Kan., writes: Adam, I think Uppercut from Omaha was on a right track, even though Nebraska vs. Kansas wouldn't be the non-con that would get the masses going. Nebraska vs. Missouri, on the other hand, would. Lots of history in that game, including a traveling trophy, it would pit a B1G team against an SEC team, and could be played on a neutral field (Kansas City comes to mind). It should almost be a requirement that a B1G team play a non-con rival every year!

Adam Rittenberg: Here's the problem with that approach, Aaron. When the Big Ten moves to nine league games, beginning in 2016, most teams will play only one major-conference, non-league opponent per year. These series are home-and-homes or would happen at neutral sites. The problem is lack of variety. If Nebraska plays Missouri every year, it never can branch out to play Oregon (as it will in 2016-17) or Oklahoma, a team with which the Huskers have a stronger historical rivalry. I'd rather see variety, especially as Nebraska positions itself for the College Football Playoff. Facing Missouri every now and then is great. An annual series? No, thanks.


Kevin from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: You listed in your B1G spring position breakdown: LB article that six talented MSU linebackers are fighting for three linebacker positions (not including true freshmen). You proceed to state that depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring. Depth? Seriously? Experience maybe, but depth?

Adam Rittenberg: Kevin, it depends on how you define depth. To me, experience and depth often go together, unless you have immensely talented players who can't get on the field because the guys in front of them are consistently better. That might be the case at Michigan State, but the bottom line is the Spartans lose two linebackers -- Max Bullough and Denicos Allen -- who combined for 80 career starts. They also lose a top reserve in Kyler Elsworth. The cupboard is hardly empty as I love Ed Davis' potential, and Darien Harris could be the answer at one starting spot. I should have mentioned Riley Bullough as well, as he moves back to linebacker. But in terms of experienced depth, MSU is lacking because Bullough and Allen were so good for so long.


Eric from Florham Park, N.J., writes: Hi, Adam. Regarding Purdue, the best WR they have and wasn't mentioned is B.J. Knauf. He had gotten hurt and was suspended a game or two, but this guy is their best playmaker at WR by far. Just curious why he wasn't mentioned at all.

Adam Rittenberg: Eric, you can't mention every player in these posts, although I noticed Knauf last year and agree he could help Purdue's offense this fall. He had only 14 receptions in eight games, but showed promise as a rusher and a return man. I don't know if I'd call him Purdue's best playmaker at this point, as DeAngelo Yancey was much more productive. But Knauf has a great opportunity to work his way into the rotation this year.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
Tags:

Big Ten Conference, Illinois Fighting Illini, Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Purdue Boilermakers, Wisconsin Badgers, Big Ten, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Raekwon McMillan, Nathan Gerry, David Santos, Zaire Anderson, Jake Ryan, Max Bullough, Collin Ellis, Josh Banderas, Derek Landisch, Michael Rose, Mason Monheim, Gelen Robinson, De'Vondre Campbell, Joe Schobert, Jonathan Brown, Damien Proby, Brandon Bell, Clyde Newton, Marcus Oliver, T.J. Simmons, Mylan Hicks, Troy Reeder, Curtis Grant, Taiwan Jones, Ryan Russell, Denicos Allen, Ben Kline, Mike Hull, Ed Davis, Marcus Trotter, Nyeem Wartman, Marcus Newby, Darien Harris, Brian Knorr, Chi Chi Ariguzo, Drew Smith, Jaylen Prater, Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman, Travis Perry, B1G spring positions 14, Matt Robinson, Abner Logan, Alec James, Alex Twine, Allen Gant, Ben Gedeon, Camren Williams, Cole Farrand, Cole Fisher, Damien Wilson, Danny Ezechukwu, Darron Lee, David Cooper, Davon Jacobs, De'Niro Laster, Eric Finney, Forisse Hardin, Gary Wooten, Jack Lynn, Jamal Merrell, James Ross III, Jimmy Hall, Joe Bolden, Joe Gilliam, Jon Reschke, Joseph Jones, Joshua Perry, Kevin Snyder, L.A. Goree, L.J. Liston, Leon Jacobs, Marcus Whitfield, Michael Trotter, Mike Svetina, Nick Rallis, Quentin Gause, Ralph Cooper, Royce Jenkins-Stone, Shane Jones, Steve Longa, T.J. Neal, Trey Johnson, Vince Biegel, Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil

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.

Big Ten all-bowl team

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
9:00
AM ET
The Big Ten went 2-5 in bowl games for the second consecutive season, but there were notable performances around the league, even in losing efforts.

Here's a look at ESPN.com's Big Ten all-bowl squad:

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook threw for 332 yards and two TDs to lead the Spartans to a Rose Bowl win over Stanford.
QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: He followed his first career 300-yard passing performance in the Big Ten championship with his second in the Rose Bowl against Stanford. Cook overcame an ugly pick-six to pass for a career-high 332 yards and two touchdowns on 22 of 36 attempts. He earned offensive player of the game honors.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: The Badgers featured Gordon, who will return next year, in the Capital One Bowl and received good production, as the sophomore rushed for 143 yards on 25 carries. His fumble in the closing minutes allowed South Carolina to run out the clock, but he showed his typical explosiveness as well as durability that should help him in the 2014 season.

RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: Abdullah ended a tremendous junior season with his 11th 100-yard rushing performance as Nebraska upset Georgia in the Gator Bowl. He finished with 122 rush yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.

WR: Quincy Enunwa, Nebraska: Enunwa ended his Huskers career with his best performance, recording a career-high 129 receiving yards and two touchdowns, including a 99-yarder in the third quarter that proved to be the winner. He broke Nebraska's single-season record with 12 touchdowns and earned bowl MVP honors.

WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State: MSU leaned on its passing game to open up the deep middle, and Lippett repeatedly attacked Stanford's vulnerable secondary. He had five receptions for a career-high 94 yards, and his 25-yard touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter ended up being the winner. His five receptions marked the most by a Spartans receiver in a Rose Bowl.

TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota: The Gophers' offense wasn't pretty in a disappointing Texas Bowl loss to Syracuse, but Williams again provided a bright spot in a mostly meek passing attack. The freshman led Minnesota with five receptions for 76 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

C: Cole Pensick, Nebraska: Pensick returned to the center spot after playing several games at guard and helped Nebraska to a win. Georgia had only one sack, and the Huskers rushed for 144 yards.

OL: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: Costigan and his fellow linemen held up well against Jadeveon Clowney and Co., as the Badgers racked up 293 rush yards on 43 attempts.

OL: Blake Treadwell, Michigan State: The Spartans' co-captain graded out well in the Rose Bowl as MSU had success moving the ball against a strong Stanford defense.

OL: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: Like Costigan, Havenstein helped Gordon and James White both eclipse 100 rushing yards against South Carolina, which recorded only one sack in the game.

OL: Jack Allen, Michigan State: Allen was among three Spartans linemen not to allow a sack and aided an offense that racked up 21 first downs and 24 points against Stanford.

DEFENSE

DE: Jason Ankrah, Nebraska: Another Husker who shined in his final college game, Ankrah recorded two sacks, a forced fumble and two quarterback hurries as the line applied good pressure on Georgia backup quarterback Hutson Mason. It marked the first multi-sack performance of Ankrah's career.

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesOhio State's Joey Bosa made plenty of big hits in the Orange Bowl, including this one on Clemson's Tajh Boyd that resulted in a safety after Boyd was called for intentional grounding.
DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State: If you're looking for reasons to feel optimistic about Ohio State's beleaguered defense, Bosa certainly provides a big one. The freshman made his presence known in the Orange Bowl despite an ankle injury, combining with linebacker Joshua Perry to force a first-quarter safety. He finished with five tackles, including a sack.

DT: Micajah Reynolds, Michigan State: The 307-pound Reynolds clogged the middle and helped Michigan State shut down Stanford's running attack for the final three quarters of the Rose Bowl. He recorded a team-high two tackles for loss and finished with four solo tackles in his final college game.

DT: Thad Randle, Nebraska: Like several Huskers on this list, Randle saved arguably his best performance for his final game. He recorded eight tackles as Nebraska held Georgia to 2.2 yards per rush and only 12 points on six trips inside the red zone.

LB: Kyler Elsworth, Michigan State: Thanks to Elsworth, Max Bullough's absence had little bearing on the Spartans' defense, which limited Stanford to 13 offensive points. Elsworth recorded 1.5 tackles for loss and was the first man in on the decisive fourth-down stop of Stanford's Ryan Hewitt. He earned Rose Bowl defensive player of the game honors.

LB: James Morris, Iowa: Morris ended an excellent senior season with 2.5 tackles for loss, including two sacks, as the defense kept Iowa alive for much of the Outback Bowl against LSU. He finished the season with a team-high eight sacks and eclipsed 400 career tackles.

LB: Denicos Allen, Michigan State: Allen also stepped up in Bullough's absence and sparked Michigan State with 1.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He helped Michigan State hold Stanford to only three offensive points in the final three quarters.

CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State: You didn't hear Dennard's name called much during the Rose Bowl because he shut down Stanford's Ty Montgomery and one side of the field. He finished with a tackle for loss and made sure Stanford didn't attack the No Fly Zone in his final game.

CB: Josh Mitchell, Nebraska: Mitchell made two plays to set up Nebraska touchdowns against Georgia: a second-quarter fumble recovery and a third-quarter interception on the first series of the second half. He hadn't had a takeaway all season before the bowl but stepped up at the right time.

S: John Lowdermilk, Iowa: He gave Iowa new life in the third quarter of the Outback Bowl with a 71-yard interception return. It should have been a touchdown, as Lowdermilk dropped the ball short of the goal line, but Iowa scored three plays later to cut LSU's lead in half. Not a bad time for Lowdermilk's first career interception.

S: Cedric Thompson, Minnesota: Thompson recorded a career-high 14 tackles in the Texas Bowl as Minnesota held Syracuse to only 188 pass yards. He also recovered a fumble in Gophers territory in the first quarter as the defense kept Minnesota in the game.

SPECIAL TEAMS

P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie (Oi Oi Oi). Ohio State's Australian import ended a tremendous debut season with a big performance in the Orange Bowl. He averaged 48.2 yards on five punts, with a long of 63 yards, and placed three punts inside Clemson's 20-yard line, including one downed at the Tigers' 1 that set up an Ohio State safety. There were a lot of good choices here (MSU's Mike Sadler and Minnesota's Peter Mortell also were terrific), which says something about the Big Ten's bowl showing.

K: Matt Wile, Michigan: Not many great choices here, but Wile was the only Big Ten kicker to convert multiple field-goal attempts in a bowl. Wile did a nice job filling in for starter Brendan Gibbons in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and also handled punts and kickoffs.

Returner: Kenzel Doe, Wisconsin: Doe kept Wisconsin's hopes alive in the Capital One Bowl with a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown after the Badgers had fallen behind by 10 points. It marked Wisconsin's first kickoff return touchdown in a bowl game and its first since David Gilreath's 97-yard runback on the opening play of the Badgers' win against No. 1 Ohio State in 2010.
Now that the 2013 college football season is officially in the books (thank you, Florida State, for ending our SEC nightmare), it's natural to take an early look toward 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recapping the Big Ten All-Americans

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
2:30
PM ET
If you thought the Hollywood awards season lasted a long time, well, it has nothing on college football.

There's now an endless number of individual trophies, many sponsored by city sports commissions or other groups who want to be associated with college football. And the same is true with All-America teams. Major ones now include the Associated Press, American Football Coaches Association, Football Writers Association of America, Walter Camp, Sporting News, ESPN.com, SportsIllustrated.com and CBSSports.com. Whew.

It can be hard if not impossible to keep up with all of it. So we're here to recap it for you, with a list of every Big Ten player who made one of those major All-America teams. In all, eight different Big Ten players garnered at least one first-team All-America nods, while 19 earned at least a second- or third-team honor. (Note that some organizations, like Walter Camp and ESPN.com, release only a first team).

We start the list with the lone unanimous first-team All-American from the conference:

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State corner Darqueze Dennard was the Big Ten's only unanimous first-team All-American.
Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard

First team: AP, AFCA, FWAA, Walter Camp, Sporting News, ESPN.com, SI.com, CBSSports.com

Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier

First team: AP, ESPN.com, SI.com
Second team: FWAA, Walter Camp, CBSSports.com

Michigan OT Taylor Lewan

First team: Sporting News
Second team: AP, Walter Camp, CBSSports.com, SI.com

Wisconsin LB Chris Borland

First team: FWAA
Second team: AP, CBSSports.com, SI.com

Penn State WR Allen Robinson

First team: CBSSports.com, Sporting News
Second team: FWAA, SI.com
Third team: AP

Ohio State OT Jack Mewhort

First team: ESPN.com
Second team: FWAA, Walter Camp, SI.com
Third team: AP, CBSSports.com

Northwestern K Jeff Budzien

First team: Sporting News
Second team: Walter Camp
Third team: AP

Michigan State P Mike Sadler

First team: ESPN.com, CBSSports.com

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

Second team: AP, Walter Camp, SI.com

Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde

Third team: AP

Iowa OT Brandon Scherff

Second team: FWAA

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Third team: AP

Penn State G John Urschel

Third team: AP

Wisconsin G Ryan Groy

Third team: AP

Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman

Third team: AP

Michigan State LB Max Bullough

Third team: AP

Michigan State LB Denicos Allen

Second team: SI.com
Third team: AP

Nebraska G Spencer Long

Third team: CBSSports.com

Ohio State S C.J. Barnett

Third team: CBSSports.com

Shazier, Dennard lead AP All-Americans

December, 17, 2013
12/17/13
1:30
PM ET
The Associated Press All-America team is out, and two Big Ten defensive players have made the first team: Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier and Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard.

Shazier did not win the Big Ten defensive player of the year or linebacker of the year honors but did lead the league in tackles and tackles for loss while tying for the lead in forced fumbles. Dennard won the Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back.

Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun and Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland all made the second team.

Lewan was a first-team All-American last year. Calhoun earned the honor in his first full year of starting. Borland was named the Big Ten defensive player of the year.

Several Big Ten players are featured on the AP's third team. They are:
Congrats to all the honorees. Kind of surprised that neither Mike Sadler nor Cody Webster made any of the three teams at punter, but the Big Ten is well represented among the All-Americans.
Officially, we only do a first-team All-Big Ten here at the ol' blog. But there were tough decisions and plenty of players deserving of recognition in the 2013 season. So if we had to do a second team, here's what it would look like:

Offense

QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State
RB: Jeremy Langford, Michigan State
RB: James White, Wisconsin
WR: Jeremy Gallon, Michigan
WR: Cody Latimer, Indiana
TE: C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State
OL: John Urschel, Penn State
OL: Blake Treadwell, Michigan State
OL: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin
OL: Andrew Norwell, Ohio State

Defense

DL: Michael Bennett, Ohio State
DL: DaQuan Jones, Penn State
DL: Theiren Cockran, Minnesota
DL: Carl Davis, Iowa
LB: Denicos Allen, Michigan State
LB: Anthony Hitchens, Iowa
LB: Jonathan Brown, Illinois
DB: Blake Countess, Michigan
DB: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska
DB: Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State
DB: B.J. Lowery, Iowa

Specialists

K: Pat Smith, Nebraska
P: Cody Webster, Purdue
KR: Akeem Hunt, Purdue

Some tough calls here, including the quarterback. Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase has a strong case. But ultimately we went with the guy who was 9-0 in the Big Ten as a starter and won a league title with a 20-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. ... Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon couldn't crack our first two teams despite running for 1,466 yards. We thought White and Langford were better in the key parts of the season than Gordon, who did most of his best work in the first six games. ... We had three tackles on our first team, so the interior linemen get their due with four spots on the second team. ... Several of our defensive players here were difficult omissions from the first team, including Allen, Countess, Jean-Baptiste, Lewis and Lowery. ... We chose Smith as the kicker in a close call over Michigan State's Michael Geiger, whom we honored on our all-freshman team.
The Big Ten released its all-conference teams as selected by coaches and the media earlier this month. We didn't have a vote for the media teams, and we don't pretend to know as much about football as the league's coaches.

But we can also say with confidence that we watched more Big Ten football here at the blog than anyone else. So here are our picks for the 2013 ESPN.com All-Big Ten team:

Offense

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller is one of six Buckeyes on ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team.
QB: Braxton Miller, Ohio State
RB: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan
OL: Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
OL: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OL: Corey Linsley, Ohio State
OL: Ryan Groy, Wisconsin

Defense

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
DT: Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB: James Morris, Iowa
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
DB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
DB: Brock Vereen, Minnesota

Specialists

K: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa

OK, so we cheated just a bit on positions, going with three tackles on our offensive line and a 3-4 defense. But considering the coaches had six defensive backs and two punters on their first team, we don't feel too bad about it. ... We wanted to include Scherff, Lewan and Mewhort on the first team, because we thought they were the three best linemen in the league. If we had to field an actual team with these guys, we're sure we could figure it out. It was a tough call between Groy and Penn State's John Urschel, whom we love for his on- and off-the-field accomplishments. We just felt Wisconsin had the better overall season as an offensive line, so we went with Groy. ... We went with the 3-4 because linebacker was such a deep position in this league -- so deep that we had to leave off some deserving players, like Michigan State's Denicos Allen -- while defensive line wasn't nearly as strong. ... The defensive backfield was a tough call (no wonder the coaches had an, ahem, pick six there). Dennard was a lock, and we felt that Drummond was the league's best safety in a year when that position was a bit weak conference-wide. We like what Vereen did in providing versatility and leadership for the Gophers, and Roby overcame a slow start to do his usual fine work. We had to leave off very good cornerbacks like Michigan's Blake Countess, Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Iowa's B.J. Lowery -- but that's what a second team is for. Stay tuned. ... Ohio State leads the way with six selections, followed by Michigan State with five. It's almost as if those were the two best teams in the league or something.
The Big Ten's best two teams played Saturday night in Indianapolis, and Michigan State proved that it belongs on top. Ohio State had occupied the No. 1 spot throughout the season, but Mark Dantonio's team outclassed the Buckeyes, scoring the game's first 17 points and its final 17 points after Ohio State surged midway through the contest.

Both teams are headed to BCS bowls, but the Spartans earned their way to Pasadena for the first time since the 1987 season.

There are no changes in the final 10 spots.

Here's one final look at the Week 14 rankings.

Now, for the fresh rundown …

1. Michigan State (12-1, last week: 2): We knew the Spartans had a nationally elite defense and a much-improved offense, but we didn't know whether they could put it all together against a team that hadn't lost a game in two seasons. Quarterback Connor Cook, linebacker Denicos Allen and others provided the answers against Ohio State. Cook passed for a career-high 304 yards and three touchdowns, while Allen and the Spartan Dawgs limited Ohio State to 25 yards in the fourth quarter. Next stop: the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio.

2. Ohio State (12-1, last week: 1): It's odd to see a "1" in the loss column, but Meyer's Buckeyes looked shaky both early and late in their biggest test since the 2011 Sugar Bowl. Penalties and poor pass defense, as well as a one-dimensional offense that didn't sustain a rhythm, doomed Ohio State against Michigan State. Quarterback Braxton Miller and his teammates squandered a chance to play for a national title. They'll try to finish the season strong with a win against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

3. Wisconsin (9-3, last week: 3): No Big Ten team wants to get on the field more than the Badgers, who delivered their worst performance of the season at the worst time against Penn State. Linebacker Chris Borland and a proud and decorated group of seniors should be much better in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina. Quarterback Joel Stave tries to bounce back after throwing a career-high three interceptions against PSU.

4. Iowa (8-4, last week: 4): Coach Kirk Ferentz sees similarities between his current team and the 2008 version, which also finished strong after a so-so start. The 2008 squad finished with an Outback Bowl victory, and the Hawkeyes will try to do the same when they face LSU in a rematch of the 2005 Capital One Bowl. Linebacker James Morris and an improved defense will be tested, and Iowa will try to control the clock with its power run game.

5. Minnesota (8-4, last week: 5): The season will be a success no matter what, but Minnesota would like to end on a positive note after dropping its final two regular-season games to ranked opponents. The Gophers return to the Texas Bowl, where coach Jerry Kill thinks they set the foundation for this year with a good effort last December against Texas Tech. Minnesota's defense will show up against Syracuse, but can the offense find a passing game?

6. Nebraska (8-4, last week: 6): Barring a surprise, Bo Pelini will get another chance to bring a championship to Lincoln next season. It would be nice to end this year on a positive note, however, especially after a blowout home loss to Iowa on Black Friday. Nebraska's young team has a chance to grow up the next few weeks before a matchup against Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, a rematch of last year's Capital One Bowl.

7. Penn State (7-5; last week: 7): The season is over but Penn State can feel optimistic about the future, particularly on offense with Big Ten Freshman of the Year Christian Hackenberg at quarterback. Hackenberg completed a strong debut with 2,955 passing yards and 20 touchdowns, and he'll have most of his weapons back for 2013. Last week brought the somewhat surprising departures of two assistants, including longtime linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden. It will be interesting to see where Bill O'Brien goes with his replacements.

8. Michigan (7-5, last week: 8): Michigan's performance in The Game left many wondering where that team was all season. The Wolverines hope to follow up with another strong effort -- and a win -- as they take on Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. It's important for Michigan to end a disappointing season on a positive note, especially for the offense, which surged behind Devin Gardner, Jeremy Gallon, Jake Butt and others against Ohio State.

9. Indiana (5-7, last week: 9): It's a pivotal offseason for the Hoosiers, who should in no way be satisfied with a five-win season that includes three Big Ten victories. Indiana should have made a bowl this season with such an explosive offense and must make the necessary upgrades -- coaching, talent and elsewhere -- to get to the postseason in 2014. Kevin Wilson has some work ahead to ensure he's not the latest offensive-minded coach to flame out in Bloomington.

10. Northwestern (5-7, last week: 10): Here's another team bitterly disappointed with its 2013 season that has some work to do this winter. Coach Pat Fitzgerald's first priority is keeping together or perhaps enhancing the strongest recruiting class in his tenure. Northwestern also must evaluate its offensive vision after enduring quarterback injuries in three of the past four seasons. The Wildcats should get a big boost at running back if Venric Mark is granted a fifth year, as expected.

11. Illinois (4-8, last week: 11): Tim Beckman will lead the Illini for a third season, athletic director Mike Thomas confirmed earlier this week. Like Indiana's Wilson, Beckman will focus on improving a defense that slipped to 110th nationally in total defense and 104th in scoring defense. He fixed the offense after the 2012 season by bringing in coordinator Bill Cubit. If he can do the same on defense, Illinois should go bowling next fall. If not, it could be the end for Beckman in Champaign.

12. Purdue (1-11, last week: 12): After a historically poor season, Purdue begins the rebuilding process on the recruiting trail, where it must get better in a lot of areas. The Boilers lose some of their top defenders like Bruce Gaston Jr. and Ricardo Allen, and must build a lot more depth on that side of the ball. Offensive line also is a target area as the Boilers allowed a league-worst 38 sacks this fall.

The Big Ten's bowl lineup is now official. Both participants from the league championship game are headed to BCS bowls, while five others will play postseason games in Florida, Arizona and Texas. The overall lineup doesn't seem quite as daunting as last season's, when the Big Ten had zero top-10 teams and played three top-10 opponents in the postseason.

We'll be breaking down these games for the next few weeks, but we wanted to share our first impressions of the lineup:

Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, Jan. 1: Michigan State vs. Stanford
Discover Orange Bowl, Jan. 3: Ohio State vs. Clemson
Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1: Wisconsin vs. South Carolina
Outback Bowl, Jan. 1: Iowa vs. LSU
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Dec. 28: Michigan vs. Kansas State
TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Jan. 1: Nebraska vs. Georgia
Texas Bowl, Dec. 27: Minnesota vs. Syracuse

Let's begin ...

Adam Rittenberg's first impressions

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesMark Dantonio's Spartans enter the Rose Bowl on a nine-game win streak.
Best game: Rose. The most tradition-rich bowl will celebrate its 100th edition with a matchup of teams with traditional offenses based around the power-run and aggressive, hard-hitting defenses. Michigan State recorded the signature win of the Mark Dantonio-era against Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game and enters the Rose Bowl on a nine-game win streak, winning each contest by at least 10 points. Both teams have standout defenders (MSU's Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Shilique Calhoun and Denicos Allen; Stanford's Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Jordan Richards), underrated quarterbacks in Connor Cook and Kevin Hogan and impressive running backs in Jeremy Langford and Tyler Gaffney. Good times.

Worst game: Gator. I'm probably not as upset about this one as Brian (or most Nebraska fans), but a rematch of last season's Capital One Bowl featuring two teams playing without their starting quarterbacks doesn't move the needle. At least running backs Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska) and Todd Gurley (Georgia) are fun to watch.

Sneaky good game: Capital One Bowl. Not sure how sneaky this one is, but both teams are talented on both sides of the ball and easily could have better records. The game features the nation's most talented defender in South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney against one of the nation's most accomplished defenders in Wisconsin's Chris Borland. The Badgers' seniors want to go out on a good note after a stunning home loss to Penn State, not to mention three consecutive losses in the Rose Bowl.

The bowl season will be a success if: The Big Ten records a winning record with at least one BCS bowl win. This season's lineup is slightly more favorable, and four wins certainly isn't out of the question. Ohio State and Minnesota both should win their games, and Michigan State, while less experienced than Stanford in BCS games, is playing its best football. Wisconsin needs to rebound, Iowa has a tough draw and both Michigan and Nebraska have been enigmatic, but the Big Ten should expect a little more in its final season of its self-created meat-grinder bowl lineup.

Brian Bennett's first impressions

Best game: The Rose Bowl is tremendous and looks to be the second-best game outside of the BCS title game. But let me also put in a plug for a possible underrated Orange matchup between Ohio State and Clemson. I saw Clemson earlier this season, and while the Tigers stumbled badly against Florida State and South Carolina, they are loaded with athletes. Put Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde all on the same field, and you're guaranteed some fireworks. Both teams score more than 40 points per game so we could have an entertaining shootout with some intriguing back stories (the Woody Hayes punch, Urban Meyer's return to the state of Florida).

Worst game: Minnesota had a great season and has a legitimately good defense and solid running game led by David Cobb. So I was hoping to see the Gophers get a chance to prove themselves against a decent opponent. Unfortunately, they drew a 6-6 Syracuse squad that beat absolutely no one and has an even lower-scoring offense than Minnesota. A bowl win is probably all that matters to Jerry Kill and his players, but I think they deserved a better showcase opportunity.

Sneaky good game: Outback. Iowa will have to make up for a talent gap with LSU -- as most teams do when they play the Tigers. But the Hawkeyes really hit their stride in the season finale at Nebraska, and they have only lost to teams ranked in the top 20. LSU, meanwhile, will be without starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who tore his ACL in the season finale, and this was not a vintage Tigers' defense. Both teams like to run the ball a lot, and Iowa linebackers James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey must continue to lead the way for Phil Parker's defense. Maybe if we're lucky, we'll get an ending half as good as the 2005 Capital One Bowl.

The bowl season will be a success if: At least one BCS win is a necessity, especially with opponents who are similar in style in both games. Winning at least one of the games against the SEC on New Year's Day is also important; that holiday has been unkind to the Big Ten of late, and Georgia and LSU look more vulnerable than usual. An overall winning record is possible and could start to change the conference's image. Another sign of success will be if Wisconsin can avoid adding to Clowney's postseason highlight reel.
Rivalry week in the Big Ten left no doubt: The conference's top two teams will meet in the league championship.

Wisconsin's shocking home loss to Penn State ends the debate over whether the Badgers or Michigan State should be at No. 2 behind front-runner Ohio State. Although the Buckeyes and, to a lesser extent, the Spartans had some struggles Saturday, they found ways to win. The Badgers had their worst performance of the season, and it cost them a potential BCS at-large berth.

That doesn't take away from Penn State, which received big boosts from quarterback Christian Hackenberg and others.

Our big dilemma this week was what to do with the 6-8 spots. Penn State had by far its best showing of the season, and Michigan had its best showing in months, even in defeat, against archrival Ohio State. Nebraska didn't show up at home on Black Friday, however, the Huskers have road wins against both the Lions (six days before the Iowa clunker) and Michigan.

After some spirited debate, we ultimately went with body of work to determine the rundown, especially since these are the final regular-season rankings. We understand it devalues the Week 14 performances a bit.

Here's one last look at the Week 13 rankings.

Now for the new rundown, final regular-season version.

1. Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten: last week: 1): The Buckeyes lost their composure early and nearly lost their perfect season late. They were faced with adversity for the first time in six weeks, but they made enough plays on both sides of the ball to win. Running back Carlos Hyde (226 yards, one TD) and quarterback Braxton Miller (five total TDs) led a virtually unstoppable offense, which helped overcome some shoddy pass defense. The Buckeyes now await Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.

2. Michigan State (11-1, 8-0; last week: 3): There weren't many style points against Minnesota, but the Spartans came away with another double-digit Big Ten win. The defense kept Minnesota out of the end zone, as linebacker Denicos Allen led the way. Running back Jeremy Langford (134 rush yards, TD) had another big day as Michigan State moved closer to a BCS bowl berth, regardless of the result in Indianapolis.

3. Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2; last week: 2): It's only a one-spot drop for Wisconsin, but what a downer in Mad City. A team that had been so dominant since falling at Ohio State never showed up on Senior Day against a plucky Penn State team that took control from the onset. Quarterback Joel Stave threw three interceptions in the loss, and one of the Big Ten's better defenses allowed a slew of big plays as Penn State racked up 465 yards. It led to Wisconsin's most surprising home loss in recent memory.

4. Iowa (8-4, 5-3; last week: 4): Kirk Ferentz's crew entered the regular season as a popular pick to finish last in the Legends Division. The Hawkeyes emerged as one of the better teams not only in the division but the entire Big Ten. They've flipped their 2012 regular-season record behind a salty rush defense, led by an outstanding group of linebackers, and a functional offense. After two lackluster showings in the Heroes Game, Iowa outclassed Nebraska in Lincoln and should move up the bowl pecking order.

5. Minnesota (8-4, 4-4; last week: 5): It doesn't take a doctor at the Mayo Clinic to diagnose what's wrong with Minnesota. The Gophers' defense keeps them in every game, and Saturday's matchup at Michigan State proved to be no exception. But the offense simply can't score or consistently pass the football. Minnesota failed to reach double digits for the third time this season despite multiple opportunities in Spartans territory. It's still a great season for Jerry Kill's team, but there's a lot of work to do on offense before a bowl appearance.

6. Nebraska (8-4, 5-3; last week: 6): No one would dispute Bo Pelini that this has been a difficult season in Husker Country. No one would argue with Nebraska's ability to keep fighting. But when the same problems (namely turnovers) surface year after year, the bigger picture of the program becomes more depressing. The Huskers and their head coach self-destructed for much of the Iowa game and fell for the third time on their home field. Fortunately for Pelini, it didn't cost him his job, and he should get another chance to compete for an elusive league title in 2014.

7. Penn State (7-5, 4-4; last week: 8): The Lions had a better team in Bill O'Brien's first season, but they didn't have a better win than Saturday's stunning upset of Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. After losing their first three road games by a combined score of 131-48, Penn State dominated Wisconsin for much of the afternoon at a place where the Badgers rarely lose. Hackenberg ended his freshman season with a signature performance (339 pass yards, 4 TDs) as the offense repeatedly gashed Wisconsin. A much-maligned defense held the Badgers' run game in check as Penn State ended an up-and-down season on a very good note.

8. Michigan (7-5, 3-5; last week: 7): After plummeting to historic lows earlier in the month, Michigan's offense looked like a completely different unit against Ohio State. Quarterback Devin Gardner played brilliantly, coordinator Al Borges called a good game and several others -- Jeremy Gallon, Jake Butt and De'Veon Smith -- stepped up in a 603-yard effort. It wasn't enough, as Michigan fell by a point and the defense had no answers for Ohio State, but the Wolverines played their best game in months and can feel a bit better entering the postseason.

9. Indiana (5-7, 3-5; last week: 9): Oh, what might have been for Indiana. A team with such an explosive offense and eight home games should have made a bowl game, period, but the Hoosiers couldn't get it done. At least they reclaimed the Old Oaken Bucket as quarterback Tre Roberson (six TD passes, 273 pass yards, 154 rush yards) torched Purdue and received help from Stephen Houston, D'Angelo Roberts, Cody Latimer and others. It's clear the Hoosiers have to make upgrades on defense. They can't keep wasting such explosiveness on offense.

10. Northwestern (5-7, 1-7; last week: 11): A season to forget for Northwestern ended on a positive note, as Pat Fitzgerald's team avoided a winless Big Ten season and recorded another victory against its in-state rival. Quarterback Trevor Siemian enters the offseason with some confidence after passing for a career-high 414 yards and four touchdowns against Illinois. Wide receiver Christian Jones (13 catches, 182 yards, two TDs) also stepped up as Northwestern twice rallied from deficits against Illinois. Fitzgerald said afterward that Northwestern "will be back" in 2014. The work begins now.

11. Illinois (4-8, 1-7; last week 10): The wins total doubled from two to four, which is nothing to celebrate. But Illinois clearly improved in Year 2 under coach Tim Beckman, who should receive another season in Champaign. Illinois has fixed the offense, and while quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will be tough to replace, several playmakers like Josh Ferguson return. A bigger issue is the defense, which had no answer for Northwestern's passing attack on Saturday and surrendered more than 40 points and more than 500 yards per game in Big Ten play.

12. Purdue (1-11, 0-8; last week: 12): The optimist sees a dynamic young quarterback in Danny Etling, who finished his freshman season with 485 pass yards and four touchdowns against Indiana, and a team that can only get better. The pessimist sees a Purdue squad that was the worst in recent Big Ten history and has much work to do on both sides of the ball to become competitive in coach Darrell Hazell's second season. A big offseason awaits Hazell and his staff as they can't go through another season like this one.
Recognizing the best and the brightest around the Big Ten during rivalry weekend:
  • Iowa LBs James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens: The Hawkeyes' starting linebackers have played huge roles in the team's turnaround this season, and they showed why on Black Friday against Nebraska. They combined for seven tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two interceptions and two sacks. Morris recorded his fourth interception of the season, Kirksey led the team with 11 tackles (3 for loss), and Hitchens had his first career pick. The three seniors have combined for 10 takeaways this season.
  • Michigan State LB Denicos Allen: He led the Spartans' defensive effort with 13 tackles, including two tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries. He tracked down David Cobb from behind near the goal line to keep Minnesota out of the end zone early. Hat tips also go to Trae Waynes, who had his first two career interceptions, and Tyler Hoover, who forced a key fumble deep in the Spartans' red zone in the fourth quarter.
  • Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: This was the best game of the season for the true freshman, as Wisconsin dared the Nittany Lions to pass. Hackenberg responded in a big way and finished 21-of-30 for 339 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He played a nearly flawless first half and helped engineer a huge upset over No. 15 Wisconsin. There's no need to wait until Monday; it's pretty clear he's the Big Ten freshman of the week.
  • Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde: In a tight game where Braxton Miller attempted just 15 passes, Urban Meyer leaned heavily on Hyde -- and Hyde didn't disappoint. He carried 27 times for 226 yards (8.4 ypc) and a touchdown. Although his fumble led to a Michigan score, the Buckeyes never would've found themselves in the red zone so often without him. Twenty of his carries went for at least 5 yards, and 10 went for at least 10 yards. He ran consistently hard.
  • Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian and WR Christian Jones: It's difficult to pick one over the other since they formed such a dangerous combination on Saturday. Siemian threw for 414 yards -- surpassing his previous season high by 138 yards -- and added four touchdowns. Jones was the main beneficiary as he caught a career-high 13 catches for 182 yards. That nearly doubled his previous career high of 94 yards. It was definitely a game to remember for those two, as the Wildcats finally came away with a Big Ten win.
  • Indiana QB Tre Roberson: It was a good day for Big Ten quarterbacks, and Roberson continued the trend. He didn't exactly play a tough opponent (Purdue), but his performance on the stat sheet was the most impressive. He tossed six touchdowns to two interceptions. And he added 273 passing yards to a game-high 154 rushing yards. The Hoosiers' uptempo offense went through Roberson, and he made the most of it.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
5:00
PM ET
What you gobblin' about, turkeys?

Daniel from Enemy Territory, Ohio, writes: Brian, what can Michigan do (short of a miracle or swapping teams with say, Alabama) to pull off the major upset against OSU this week?

Brian Bennett: Well, the Wolverines should be praying the rosary and searching for a Zoltar Speaks machine. That's still their best bet in a game in which they are -- and should be -- heavy underdogs.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJake Ryan must play well if the Wolverines are going to hang around with the Buckeyes.
The good news, if there is any, is that Michigan is at home, and the team really has nothing to lose. So if the game is close in the second half, the pressure will be all on Ohio State. The Wolverines will have to find a way to create turnovers and then do something with them -- remember, they were plus-three in turnovers last week at Iowa to no avail. They've got to short-circuit that Ohio State offense somehow. Maybe Jake Ryan has the game of his life. And on offense, Michigan should throw something at the Buckeyes that they haven't seen on film all season. Forget the running game, which hasn't worked all season and won't work this week. Line up with four- and five-wide, run the hurry up and try to get something going in the passing game, which is still probably the best way to exploit the Ohio State D. If Al Borges is going down, why not in a blaze of glory?

But in all likelihood, it will be a blaze of gory for the Maize and Blue.

John from Au Gres, Mich., writes: Are you on board with the idea that MSU can pass Wiscy with a more impressive victory of Minny this weekend? Be prepared, I have a feeling the Spartans play for style points, which is out of character. However, we are still stuck with the BCS, and perception matters. Coach D has already said he thinks the Spartans are playing for a BCS bid this weekend.

Brian Bennett: I assume you mean in our power rankings and on my own personal ballot, since Michigan State is already ahead of Wisconsin where it actually matters. And sure, I'm on board. I'll be in East Lansing on Saturday and am greatly looking forward to seeing the Spartans in person. I already think this is a fantastic team that can play with any team in the country. My only reservation about the Spartans, and it's a slight one, is that the schedule has been highly favorable.

But I just saw Wisconsin play Minnesota last week so should have a great comparison this week. I've said all along that this is basically a flip-a-coin, 2A and 2B situation. I'm totally willing to switch the teams based on what we see this weekend.

Bob Noble from Grand Ledge, Mich., writes: What am I missing? You continue to have Ryan Shazier and Chris Borland rated 1 and 2, respectively as Big Ten defensive POY, while Darqueze Dennard is at No. 3. Which one of the three is a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Award as the NATIONAL Defensive POY? Oh yeah, that would be Dennard of MSU. So how is DD lower on the list of Big Ten POY when the two players listed above him aren't even being considered for NATIONAL POY?

Brian Bennett: First of all, nobody loves Dennard as a player more than me. If he doesn't win the Thorpe Award or make first-team All-America, I'll scream. He is absolutely tremendous and deserving of any honor you want to give him.

Secondly, let's not put a whole lot of stock in whom one award names as its finalists. There are approximately 1.2 million college football postseason awards, and as we've seen over and over again, the voting for those can often turn out inexplicable and wacky.

Finally, while all three are great players, I have Shazier and Borland rated a little higher because I think a linebacker makes a little more overall impact on a defense than a cornerback. And while Dennard has other stars around him such as Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Shilique Calhoun, Borland and Shazier are the unquestioned focal points of their defense.

Paul W. from Dodge City writes: Do you think if Nebraska was 10-1 or 11-0 right Ameer Abdullah would be in the Heisman hunt? I know that he has a lower touchdown total than other running backs but a good game Friday and he could surpass Mark Ingram's rushing total from his Heisman season.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
AP Photo/Nati HarnikAmeer Abdullah has topped 100 rushing yards in 10 of Nebraska's 11 games. The Huskers' only loss came when he didn't reach the century mark.
Brian Bennett: I think you're on to something. Nebraska in a lot of ways has really been out of the national spotlight since the UCLA loss. A lot of people around the country probably don't realize exactly what Abdullah has done, or how he has done it through a spate of injuries around him. Abdullah also hasn't had nearly as many carries as the three Doak Walker finalists have gotten this year. He'll have to settle for likely winning the Big Ten running back of the year award, and, possibly, offensive player of the year.

Ethan from Abbottstown, Pa., writes: The PSU special teams has been awful this year, and it is one of the major impacts of the sanctions. Do you attribute this special teams downfall to the fact the former only special teams specialists are now being used to fill out the offense and defense? Or the fact that PSU must now recruit only must-need positions and not players who could find a home on kickoff and kick return?

Brian Bennett: Special teams have been a problem, really, in both seasons so far for Bill O'Brien. But they have been particularly glaring of late. The sanctions certainly have played a role; it's hard not to notice that Anthony Fera, who transferred from Penn State after the NCAA free pass, is a Lou Groza Award finalist. O'Brien is also forced to play some walk-ons in key spots in the kicking game.

But I don't think you can blame all the problems on scholarship reductions. Coaching still has to enter the equation, and there have been some obvious breakdowns in coverage and returns. And Penn State's special teams weren't very good last year when the scholarship numbers were much higher. So while I continue to believe the sanctions will have an impact on special teams in the near future, I also think the Nittany Lions can do a better job than they have of working around those depth issues in the kicking game.

John from Lima, Ohio, writes: As a Buckeye fan it has been very frustrating to hear all year how bad their schedule is and that being the sole reason they should be held out of the title game, never mind how good they actually are. Especially when you see a team like Clemson sneaking back up the rankings when they have zero wins against currently ranked FBS teams, all their FBS wins are against teams with at least four losses, and they played not one, but TWO FCS teams this season. So while OSU's schedule might not be murderer's row this year, why does the media single them out when other teams have the same issues?

Brian Bennett: Let's not kid ourselves: the negative perception of the Big Ten is weighing down Ohio State. And the Buckeyes are also paying a price for losing by double digits in two BCS title games in the previous decade, which is ridiculous. I also believe not playing in a bowl game last year hurt Ohio State. Clemson got a significant perception bump last year by beating LSU in a bowl game, allowing the Tigers to start out high in the polls. Then they began the year by beating a Georgia team that was ranked in the top 5. That has been enough to keep Clemson ranked high, even though Georgia has since fallen apart because injuries. Ohio State has nothing out of conference to hang its hat on from the past two years.

Pat from Iowa writes: Who would you consider the biggest surprise team this year for good or for worse? Northwestern's down spiral, Minnesota's amazing year, or perhaps a great Iowa rebound year? Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: The biggest positive surprise has been Minnesota. No one thought the Gophers would be 8-3 at this point, especially after Jerry Kill took his leave of absence in the middle of the season. That's been an unbelievable story. Northwestern has to be the biggest negative surprise. This was a Top 20 team earlier in the year that most people thought could contend in the Legends Division. If the Wildcats don't beat Illinois, they'll end up 0-8 in the Big Ten. Unreal. No. 2 on both my lists would be Iowa on the positive side and Michigan on the negative.

Martyn from Cuenca, Ecuador, writes: I read the Big Ten blog religiously. Moved from Madison to Ecuador this year. Miss the atmosphere at Camp Randall & the Kohl Center. On your recent blog about Big Ten linebackers you mentioned Borland's 14 forced fumbles tying the B1G record. I believe it is the FBS record? I will prepare myself to apply to be a guest predictor next year. I catch a few broadcasts on my computer. Keeps my Badger jones in check. A little early, but Happy Holidays.

Brian Bennett: Vaya con Dios, Martyn. Do they have cheese curds in Ecuador? There was a little confusion in regards to Borland's record. He came into the year needing one to tie the FBS record. But Buffalo's Khalil Mack had three forced fumbles in his last game to set the new FBS career mark of 16. Borland is now tied for second and tied for the Big Ten career mark with Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan.

One last note: Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Roundtable: B1G defensive player of year

November, 22, 2013
11/22/13
1:00
PM ET
On Tuesday, we debated who should be the frontrunner for Big Ten offensive player of the year. Naturally, we decided to turn our attention today to who should be the league's defensive player of the year. And the race is even more wide open on this side of the ball with two weeks left in the regular season.

Here's who we see as the top four candidates right now, though others have a strong case as well:

  • Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier: He leads the Big Ten with 14.5 tackles for loss and paces the No. 3 Buckeyes with 88 total stops, to go along with 4.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.
  • Wisconsin LB Chris Borland: Borland is the clear leader of a Wisconsin defense that ranks just behind Michigan State. He has 80 tackles and four sacks, though he did miss the Iowa game and most of the Illinois game.
  • Nebraska DE Randy Gregory: The junior college import leads the Big Ten in sacks with 8.5 and is second to Shazier with 13.5 tackles for loss.
  • Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard: The best cornerback in the league, if not the nation, Dennard has three interceptions and makes the Spartans defense go by locking down his side of the field.

To the debate we go …

Those are four pretty good candidates, and we haven't even mentioned guys like Shilique Calhoun, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen, Ra'Shede Hageman, James Morris, etc. Has any player truly separated himself in this race at this point?

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
Raj Mehta/USA TODAY SportsLB Ryan Shazier has been the heart and soul of the Ohio State defense.
Austin Ward: This is about as crowded as a field can get for an individual award, and it's a reflection that there has been some pretty good defense played in the picked-on Big Ten this season. This race is going down to the wire, and a strong case could be made for all of the four finalists -- and the margin isn't that wide between those guys and the next wave of defenders worthy of consideration. Shazier's production and vital importance to an Ohio State team that has had to replace so many key contributors from a year ago pushes him over the top, but it's impossible to ignore how much individual talent is lining up defensively in the league.

Mitch Sherman: It’s still wide open. Each one of the four brings something unique. I’ve seen more of Gregory than the others, and he’s simply an athletic freak, though a better candidate to be the league's top newcomer. Shazier is probably the best football player in this group; Borland is the best leader and difference-maker in the locker room. And while it’s often tough to consider a cornerback in this kind of company, Dennard is dominant in a way I’ve not seen from any player nationally at his position.

Brian Bennett: It's incredibly difficult to decide between the top four candidates we named, and some other defensive players are also having outstanding years. I was leaning toward Borland because of his outstanding leadership, but missing two Big Ten games hurt his cause. Not fair, but in a race this close, that has to factor in. Gregory is really coming on strong. Still too close to call, in my view.

How should we deal with Michigan State's defense? The Spartans have put up some mind-boggling numbers, but with so many stars which one should we single out for this award?


[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsCB Darqueze Dennard, like many other MSU players, wasn't considered an elite prospect coming out of high school but has developed into a top performer.
Bennett: The Michigan State defense is one of those rare units that has stars at every level. The sum is greater than the individual parts, but the individual parts are pretty darn great as well. While Calhoun has given the Spartans a much-needed pass rush, Bullough is the engine and Allen the big-play guy, Dennard is the guy who stands out for me. Much of what Pat Narduzzi is able to do stems from having physical cornerbacks who can defend on an island, freeing safeties up to help against the run. And Dennard is the best in the business at that.

Adam Rittenberg: Brian brings up a good point about Michigan State's use of its corners, which also allows linebackers like Allen to blitz so much. Calhoun to me has been the difference maker as Michigan State lacked an elite pass rusher last season. Dennard is the most naturally talented player on the unit, Calhoun gives opposing offensive linemen fits and Bullough doesn't get his due nationally, in my view. I don't think you can single out one player, which is why the unit excels.

Sherman: Normally in this situation, one great teammate can detract from another's candidacy. Not here with Dennard. I agree that he's the most elite among the Spartans' superior unit. As others struggled last week with Nebraska's offense, Dennard eliminated receiver Quincy Enunwa, himself a physical force who has manhandled Big Ten defenders. Halfway through the game, in fact, I wondered if Enunwa was sitting out. Nope, just blanketed by Dennard. Even among the Spartans, he does plenty to stand out.

What can each candidate do in the final two weeks to make a lasting impression?

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesIt might be tough for Randy Gregory to overtake the others, but there is no denying the impact he's had on the Nebraska defense.,
Sherman: In a tight race, I think you've got to make big plays in big moments, which hurts Gregory, because much of the drama has been removed from this Nebraska season. Wisconsin is still playing for a BCS bowl bid, so a standout performance from Borland on Saturday at Minnesota could help him. It's more complicated for Dennard, who does most of his best work when he's not getting noticed. Shazier's resume looks the most complete among our finalists, and he's got an opportunity to pile up more stats against Indiana and Michigan.

Ward: The one thing missing from Shazier's resume this season is a touchdown, and he knows it. His interception return for a score last season against Penn State was a turning point in a crucial game on the road and a signature moment that summed up his impact for the Buckeyes over the course of the season. And while a defensive touchdown is hard to come by and perhaps shouldn't make much of a difference, it can be a valuable tiebreaker of sorts given the situation. Since Shazier is already leading the race in my opinion, that could seal the deal.

Rittenberg: It's all about making impact plays, ideally in big games with something on the line. Borland still is chasing the NCAA forced fumbles record. If he can break it during the next two games, his candidacy will be helped. Shazier already has some signature moments, but a monster game against Michigan -- always a national showcase game -- will help him. Dennard has matched his interceptions total (3) from the past two seasons; now, can he eclipse it? Calhoun and Gregory both have put themselves on the radar, but they'll need some big days down the stretch to beat out the more familiar names.

Who would get your vote if the season ended today? Make a case for your candidate.

[+] EnlargeChris Borland
AP Photo/David StlukaWisconsin's Chris Borland went from overlooked prospect to one of the Big Ten's best defensive players.
Sherman: I'm going with Borland. Perhaps it's somewhat sentimental. After all, Shazier has better numbers on championship-caliber team. Gregory and Dennard are better athletes with more ability to dominate. But I love Borland's story -- the underdog Ohio kid who had no chance to play for his home-state school, so he left for a division rival and helped the Badgers advance three times to the Rose Bowl. And now, as a senior, he's the heart and soul of a strong unit, such a smart player and featured on perhaps the nation's most underrated team. The injury hurt his stats, but I can't help but constantly keep watch of Borland. Badgers foes are advised to do the same.

Bennett: It's Shazier right now, by a nose. He makes plays all over the field, and with a young defensive front, Bradley Roby having a disappointing year and Christian Bryant out with an injury, the junior linebacker has led the way for Ohio State. He showed his value last week at Illinois when the Buckeyes were down two starting linebackers by recording 16 tackles and a key safety. He could have won the award last year and probably will do so this year.

Ward: Shazier. There's really no way to overstate the importance of the junior linebacker to the Ohio State defense, which would be completely lost if not for Shazier providing stability, experience, leadership and an enormous amount of plays all over the field. Despite needing to replace the entire defensive line, two starters next to him at linebacker and losing safety Christian Bryant to a fractured ankle, Shazier has kept the Buckeyes in the top four in the Big Ten in scoring and total defense, which is no small feat. He's the total package, everything the Big Ten defensive player of the year should be.

Rittenberg: It's between Shazier, Borland and Dennard for me. Ohio State's defense can't match Wisconsin or Michigan State, but both of those units returned a lot more from the 2012 team. Shazier not only continues to make huge plays, but as I mentioned earlier, he leads a young linebacker corps and helps guide a line that had to replace all four starters from last year's team. Borland would be the first one I'd pick to start my team, but I also give Shazier the edge heading into the final two weeks.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Nebraska Debuts New Mascot At Spring Game
Bo Pelini responded to a fake Twitter account by holding a cat prior to the kickoff of Nebraska's spring game.Tags: Bo Pelini, Nebraska, Spring Game
VIDEO PLAYLIST video