Nebraska Cornhuskers: Quincy Enunwa

It’s getting close now. Spring practice starts on Saturday at Nebraska. Can you feel it?

We’ve spent the past three weeks counting down the position groups with most room to improve, the top players to watch and position battles. Now is the time for predictions.

Let’s get to it, with No. 5:

A receiver is going to break out

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsNebraska has no worries about top returning WR Kenny Bell, but who will emerge as the No. 2 target?
Senior Kenny Bell is set to challenge school records next season for career receptions and receiving yardage. He’s the top target of Nebraska’s quarterback, for sure.

Bell can’t do it alone. And he won’t have to.

Though the Huskers lose Quincy Enunwa -- likely to be just the second Nebraska receiver to land in the NFL draft in the past decade -- plenty of talent exists to fill his shoes.

Candidates include sophomore Jordan Westerkamp, already etched in Nebraska history for his Hail-Mary grab last year to beat Northwestern; oft-injured senior Jamal Turner, who has game-breaking ability; junior Taariq Allen; junior Sam Burtch and redshirt freshman Kevin Gladney.

Sophomore Alonzo Moore, who started two games last season, is out this spring with an injury.

Rich Fisher in three seasons has earned his stripes as a receivers coach. He worked wonders with Bell and Enunwa. Westerkamp, too, shows promise and stands as the most likely of the prospects to take on a major role in the Nebraska passing game.

If Monte Harrison turns down pro baseball and makes it to practice in August as a freshman, he might jump into the lineup quickly and bolster what looks like an already strong group of receivers. For now, though, the Huskers go to work without him.

Six weeks from now, expect to find a solid second option behind Bell.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. The wide receivers and tight ends are up next.

Illinois: The Illini are looking for more from this group after losing top target Steve Hull, who exploded late in the season to finish just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. While running back Josh Ferguson (50 catches in 2013) will continue to contribute, Illinois could use a boost from Martize Barr, who arrived with high expectations but only had 26 receptions last fall. Another junior-college transfer, Geronimo Allison, could make an impact beginning this spring, but there's some mystery at wideout. Illinois looks more solid at tight end with seniors Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.

Indiana: Despite the somewhat surprising early departure of All-Big Ten selection Cody Latimer, Indiana should be fine here. Shane Wynn is the veteran of the group after recording 633 receiving yards on 46 catches last season. Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson also depart, so Indiana will be leaning more on Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree. The Hoosiers have high hopes for early enrollee Dominique Booth, a decorated recruit who could fill Latimer's spot on the outside. Productive tight end Ted Bolser departs and several players will compete, including early enrollee Jordan Fuchs.

Iowa: Almost all the wide receivers are back from a group in which none eclipsed more than 400 receiving yards in 2013. Balance is nice, but separation could be nicer for the Hawkeyes this spring. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced wideout and has 122 career receptions. Tevaun Smith also returns, and Iowa fans are excited about big-play threat Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards on only 12 receptions last season. Iowa loses its top red-zone target in tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and will need Jake Duzey to deliver more Ohio State-like performances.

Maryland: When the Terrapins get healthy, they might have the Big Ten's best wide receiving corps. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom sustained broken legs against Wake Forest last season, have the ability to stretch the field as both averaged more than 15 yards per reception before the injuries struck. Leading receiver Levern Jacobs also returns, alongside junior Nigel King and sophomore Amba Etta-Tawo, who averaged more than 16 yards per catch in 2013. Marcus Leak, who started seven games in 2012, rejoins the team after a year away. The Terps are unproven at tight end after losing Dave Stinebaugh.

Michigan: There's a reason why some Michigan fans want Devin Gardner to return to wide receiver for his final season. The Wolverines are thin on the perimeter after losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Redshirt sophomores Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are both candidates to start, and Dennis Norfleet could be the answer in the slot. But there's plenty of opportunity for younger players like Drake Harris, an early enrollee. Michigan's best pass-catching option, Devin Funchess, is listed as a tight end but plays more like a receiver. The Wolverines will be without their second-string tight end, Jake Butt, who suffered an ACL tear in winter conditioning.

Michigan State: Remember all the justified angst about this group a year ago? It has pretty much gone away as the Spartans wideouts rebounded nicely in 2013. Bennie Fowler departs, but MSU brings back its top two receivers in Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, who showed explosiveness down the stretch last fall. Aaron Burbridge had a bit of a sophomore slump but provides another option alongside veteran Keith Mumphery, who averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2013. Josiah Price leads the tight end group after a solid freshman season.

Minnesota: Here's a group to watch during spring practice, particularly the wide receivers. Minnesota has proven it can run the ball and defend under Jerry Kill, but the passing game was putrid in 2013, ranking last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally. Youth is partly to blame, and while the Gophers still lack experience, they can expect more from promising players like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. Senior Isaac Fruechte provides a veteran presence. Minnesota looks solid at tight end with sophomore Maxx Williams, the team's receiving yards leader (417) in 2013.

Nebraska: The Huskers lose a significant piece in Quincy Enunwa, who led the team in receiving yards (753) and had three times as many receiving touchdowns (12) as anyone else in 2013. Kenny Bell is set to recapture the No. 1 receiver role, which he had in 2012, and comes off of a 52-catch season as a junior. Nebraska must build around Bell this spring with players like the mustachioed Jordan Westerkamp, who had 20 catches as a freshman, including a rather memorable one to beat Northwestern. Will Jamal Turner turn the corner this offseason? Juniors Sam Burtch and Taariq Allen also return. Cethan Carter started six games at tight end last fall and should take over the top spot there as Jake Long departs.

Northwestern: The passing game fell short of expectations in 2013, but there's reason for optimism as Northwestern returns its top three pass-catchers in Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. The two Joneses (no relation), who combined for 109 catches in 2013, lead the receiving corps along with junior Cameron Dickerson. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler provides a playmaking spark, possibly at slot receiver. Vitale, who had a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, has All-Big Ten potential at the superback (tight end) spot. Although Northwestern rarely plays true freshmen, superback Garrett Dickerson, Cameron's brother, could see the field right away.

Ohio State: A group that drew heavy criticism from coach Urban Meyer two springs ago is stockpiling talent. Devin Smith is the familiar name, a big-play senior who has started each of the past two seasons and boasts 18 career touchdowns. Ohio State must replace top wideout Corey Brown and will look for more from Evan Spencer. Michael Thomas has stood out in practices but must translate his performance to games. This could be a breakout year for H-back Dontre Wilson, who averaged nine yards per touch as a freshman. Buckeyes fans are eager to see redshirt freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark, and incoming players like Johnnie Dixon could make a splash right away. Ohio State returns an elite tight end in Jeff Heuerman.

Penn State: The Lions have very different depth situations at receiver and tight end. They're looking for contributors on the perimeter after losing Allen Robinson, the Big Ten's top wide receiver the past two seasons, who accounted for 46 percent of the team's receiving production in 2013. Brandon Felder also departs, leaving Geno Lewis as the likeliest candidate to move into a featured role. Richy Anderson also returns, but there will be plenty of competition/opportunity at receiver, a position new coach James Franklin targeted in recruiting with players like Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Things are much more stable at tight end as the Lions return three talented players in Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman.

Purdue: If you're looking for hope at Purdue, these spots aren't bad places to start. There are several promising young players like receiver DeAngelo Yancey, who recorded a team-leading 546 receiving yards as a freshman. Cameron Posey also had a decent freshman year (26 catches, 297 yards), and Danny Anthrop averaged 18.4 yards as a sophomore. A full offseason with quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby should help the group. Tight end also should be a strength as Justin Sinz, who led Purdue with 41 catches last season, is back along with Gabe Holmes, who returns after missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury.

Rutgers: The good news is tight end Tyler Kroft returns after leading Rutgers in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last season. Kroft will immediately contend for All-Big Ten honors. Things are murkier at wide receiver, where top contributors Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt both depart. Leonte Carroo took a nice step as a sophomore, averaging 17.1 yards per catch and enters the spring as the frontrunner to become the team's No. 1 wideout. Ruhann Peele is another promising young receiver for the Scarlet Knights, who boast size with Carlton Agudosi (6-foot-6) and Andre Patton (6-4).

Wisconsin: The quarterback competition will gain more attention this spring, but Wisconsin's receiver/tight end situation could be more critical. The Badgers lose Jared Abbrederis, their only major threat at receiver the past two seasons, as well as top tight end Jacob Pedersen. Players like Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe must translate their experience into greater production, and Wisconsin will look for more from young receivers like Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright. Help is on the way as Wisconsin signed five receivers in the 2014 class, but wideout definitely is a position of concern right now. Sam Arneson is the logical candidate to step in for Pedersen, but there should be competition as the Badgers lose a lot at the position.
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, Football Recruiting, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Alex Erickson, Jared Abbrederis, Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe, Allen Robinson, Quincy Enunwa, Kenny Bell, Jamal Turner, Garrett Dickerson, Shane Wynn, Devin Smith, Jeremy Gallon, Drake Harris, Geronimo Allison, Sam Burtch, Cethan Carter, Tony Jones, Danny Anthrop, Dontre Wilson, Christian Jones, Kofi Hughes, Ted Bolser, Jalin Marshall, james clark, Gabe Holmes, Josh Ferguson, Kevonte Martin-Manley, Justin Sinz, Nick Stoner, Adam Breneman, Richy Anderson, Steve Hull, Johnnie Dixon, Cameron Posey, Damond Powell, Danny Etling, Corey Brown, Jordan Westerkamp, MacGarrett Kings, Cody Latimer, Devin Funchess, Jacob Pedersen, DeAngelo Yancey, Chris Godwin, Jake Duzey, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Kyle Carter, Maxx Williams, Dan Vitale, Keith Mumphery, Drew Dileo, Dominique Booth, Donovahn Jones, Drew Wolitarsky, Josiah Price, Martize Barr, Tony Lippett, Austin Appleby, Saeed Blacknall, Brandon Coleman, Robert Wheelwright, Tevaun Smith, B1G spring positions 14, Aaron Burbridge, Amara Darboh, Amba Etta-Tawo, Andre Patton, Brandon Felder, Cameron Dickerson, Carlton Agudosi, Dave Stinebaugh, Deon Long, Duwyce Wilson, Evan Spencer, Geno Lewis, Isaac Fruechte, Isaiah Roundtree, Jehu Chesson, Jesse James, Jon Davis, Jordan Fuchs, Leonte Carroo, Levern Jacobs, Marcus Leak, Matt LaCosse, Michael Thomas, Miles Shuler, Nigel King, Quron Pratt, Ruhann Peele, Sam Arneson, Stefon Diggs, Taariq Allen, Tyler Kroft

The 2014 NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis is more than halfway over, and testing results have been recorded for quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, offensive linemen and specialists. As we do every year around this time, let's check in on how the Big Ten contingent is performing at the site of the Big Ten championship game (Lucas Oil Stadium).

Note: These are results through Sunday.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMichigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan was one of several Big Ten players who increased their stock at the NFL combine over the weekend.
TOP PERFORMERS

Overall

  • Nebraska WR Quincy Enunwa is tied for 14th in the 40-yard dash at 4.45 seconds.
  • Ohio State C Corey Linsley is tied for second with 36 bench-press repetitions at 225 pounds.
  • Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman is tied for 10th in bench-press repetitions with 32.
  • Penn State WR Allen Robinson is tied for eighth in the vertical jump at 39 inches; tied for eighth in the broad jump at 10 feet, 7 inches; seventh in the 20-yard shuttle at four seconds and sixth in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.36 seconds.
  • Michigan State WR Bennie Fowler is ninth in the broad jump at 10 feet, 6 inches; 12th in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.52 seconds.
  • Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis is 14th in the 3-cone drill at 6.8 seconds; 12th in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.08 seconds and seventh in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.39 seconds.
By position

Running backs: Wisconsin's James White is tied for fourth in bench-press reps with 23; Ohio State's Carlos Hyde is tied for 13th with 19.

Wide receivers: Enunwa is tied for 11th in 40-yard dash and seventh in bench-press reps with 19; Indiana's Cody Latimer is first in bench-press reps with 23; Rutgers' Brandon Coleman is tied for second in bench-press reps with 21; Michigan's Jeremy Gallon is tied for 13th in bench-press reps with 15; Robinson is sixth in vertical jump, tied for third in broad jump, seventh in 20-yard shuttle and sixth in 60-yard shuttle; Fowler is tied for fifth in broad jump, 15th in 20-yard shuttle and 12th in 60-yard shuttle; Abbrederis is 12th in 3-cone drill at 6.8 seconds, 11th in 20-yard shuttle and seventh in 60-yard shuttle.

Tight ends: Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz is sixth in the 40-yard dash (4.76 seconds), fifth in bench-press reps (25), tied for 11th in vertical jump (31.5 inches), tied for sixth in broad jump (9 feet, 8 inches), first in 3-cone drill (7.1 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle (4.26 seconds); Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen is tied for 13th in the 40-yard dash (4.89 seconds), 11th in 3-cone drill (7.55 seconds), seventh in 20-yard shuttle (4.4 seconds) and tied for second in 60-yard shuttle (12.19 seconds).

Offensive linemen: Michigan's Taylor Lewan is first in 40-yard dash (4.87 seconds) and broad jump (9 feet, 9 inches), tied for 11th in bench-press reps (29), tied for third in vertical jump (30.5 inches), fourth in 3-cone drill (7.39 seconds), ninth in 20-yard shuttle (4.49 seconds); Michigan's Michael Schofield is sixth in 40-yard dash (5.01 seconds), 13th in 3-cone drill (7.62 seconds) and 11th in 20-yard shuttle (4.57 seconds); Linsley is tied for second in bench-press reps; Penn State's John Urschel is tied for eighth in bench-press reps (30), tied for fifth in vertical jump (29 inches), ninth in 3-cone drill (7.55 seconds) and tied for sixth in 20-yard shuttle (4.47 seconds); Ohio State's Jack Mewhort is tied for 14th in bench-press reps (28); Wisconsin's Ryan Groy is tied for seventh in broad jump (9 feet), eighth in 3-cone drill (7.49 seconds) and tied for sixth in 20-yard shuttle (4.47 seconds); Iowa's Conor Boffeli is seventh in 3-cone drill (7.44 seconds) and 13th in 20-yard shuttle (4.61 seconds).

Defensive linemen (bench-press only): Hageman is tied for third with 32 repetitions.

Workouts and testing for defensive linemen and linebackers takes place Monday, followed by the defensive backs on Tuesday. We'll have more updates as the results come in, but you should check out ESPN.com's full combine coverage here.
We’ve reached the fourth day in our pre-spring countdown of Nebraska’s position groups with most room to improve.

Up next, a group that went unnoticed at times -- all the evidence required for inclusion on this list. At No. 2, it’s the tight ends:

Major losses: Jake Long looked poised for a nice senior season after stepping into a starting role vacated last year by the departure of Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed. Because of injuries, it didn’t materialize as planned, much like the senior season of Long’s twin brother, All-Big Ten guard Spencer Long. Jake caught just eight passes for 121 yards.

[+] EnlargeCethan Carter
AP Photo/Nati HarnikCethan Carter led Nebraska tight ends with 10 catches in the 2013 season.
Top returnees: Cethan Carter showed flashes as a true freshman. He grabbed 10 passes for 127 yards. Sam Cotton, as a redshirt freshman, caught three passes for 22 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown against Minnesota, the only score by a tight end last season. Rising sophomore Trey Foster and junior David Sutton played minor roles in 2013.

Numbers to know: Tight ends at Nebraska caught 22 passes in 14 games, with no gain longer than 26 yards. That’s just not good enough for Barney Cotton’s group, even with all the inexperience and Long’s hobbled state. Here’s one number to watch: 39.2. It’s the Huskers’ third-down conversion rate last season, 72nd nationally and ninth in the Big Ten. With a productive core of tight ends, that will improve.

Key question: Productive tight ends can make a huge difference in the play-action passing game for Nebraska, potentially a strength for Tommy Armstrong Jr. or Johnny Stanton at quarterback. Is that tight end on the roster?

The outlook: The lack of tight end production last year involved more than injuries and inexperience. Part of it fell on Armstrong, who started eight games and locked too often on top receiving options Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa.

They were excellent choices, but so is a dangerous tight end, which adds a difficult-to-defend element to any offense.

Nebraska’s quarterbacks get an offseason to work with Carter, who should develop into a big-play threat, and Cotton. The overall comfort level should improve, and the addition of redshirt freshman Greg Hart adds another big target.

True freshman Freedom Akinmoladun rates as a dark horse in the 2014 recruiting class to make a quick impact. If he’s ready, the opportunity is there.

Countdown of Nebraska position groups with most room to improve:

No. 5: Secondary
No. 4: Quarterbacks
No. 3: Linebackers
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.
It's Senior Bowl week, so you should be following our draft experts as they track the 15 Big Ten players suiting up for the North squad on Saturday in Mobile, Ala. Before turning the page toward the Senior Bowl, let's review how the Big Ten groups performed this past weekend in the East-West Shrine Game and NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.

East-West Shrine Game

Players who registered statistics:
  • Michigan WR Jeremy Gallon led the East team with four receptions for 55 yards
  • Purdue CB Ricardo Allen ranked second on the East team in tackles with five. He also had three punt returns for 56 yards, including a 30-yarder
  • Purdue DT Bruce Gaston Jr. had two tackles for the East team, both on run plays that went for one yard
  • Penn State LB Glenn Carson had four tackles for the East team
  • Penn State S Stephen Obeng-Agyapong had three tackles and a pass breakup for the West team
  • Indiana TE Ted Bolser had two receptions for eight yards for the West team
  • Michigan State LB Max Bullough had three tackles for the West team
  • Minnesota S/CB Brock Vereen had one tackle for the West team
  • Nebraska WR Quincy Enunwa had one tackle on special teams but no receptions for the West team
NFLPA Collegiate Bowl

Players who registered statistics:
  • Ohio State QB Kenny Guiton completed 1 of 4 pass attempts for nine yards. He also lost a fumble for Team American
  • Wisconsin TE Brian Wozniak had two receptions for 25 yards for Team American
  • Nebraska OT Brent Qvale registered a tackle on the play where Guiton fumbled for Team American
  • Ohio State S C.J. Barnett had a tackle for Team American

Best and worst of the Big Ten bowls

January, 10, 2014
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As we continue to wrap up the 2013 bowl season, let's take a look at some of the best and worst of the Big Ten's seven postseason games:

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesThe Buckeyes couldn't slow down Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd in the Discover Orange Bowl.
Best game: Michigan State's 24-20 win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO. The Orange Bowl was a wilder game with more huge momentum swings, but the Spartans won a classic, old-school slugfest. The context also included the 100th edition of the Rose Bowl -- and the last one before the College Football Playoff potentially changes everything -- and Michigan State's first Pasadena appearance since 1988. That adds up to make it the best game of the Big Ten's bunch.

Worst game: You have to wonder if the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl would have picked Michigan ahead of Nebraska had game organizers known that quarterback Devin Gardner wasn't going to play. Probably so, since the attendance was still very good. But the Wolverines were noncompetitive in the desert, needing a touchdown and two-point conversion with 1:15 left just to make the final score 31-14.

Best play: This one's an easy call. On third-and-long from its own 1-yard line, Nebraska opted to throw the ball against Georgia in the third quarter of the Gator Bowl. Tommy Armstrong Jr. found wide receiver Quincy Enunwa, and the result was a 99-yard touchdown pass, the longest play in Cornhuskers and Gator Bowl history.

Best surprise: Minnesota coach Jerry Kill left the press box at halftime of the Texas Bowl against Syracuse and coached the rest of the game from the sideline, something he hadn't done since Sept. 28. Having Kill back on the sidelines gave the Gophers a spark as they erased a halftime deficit, but Syracuse still went on to win the game.

Worst bowl week: Ohio State enjoyed an oceanside hotel at the Discover Orange Bowl, but the buildup to the game was no day at the beach. A stomach bug swirled through the team, leaving several players nauseous and vomiting for about 12 hours each. The school found out that defensive end Noah Spence would be suspended for the game against Clemson and the first two contests of 2014. And cornerback Bradley Roby couldn't recover from his knee injury. It's a wonder Ohio State came so close to winning the game with all that went wrong leading into it.

Worst early celebration: Iowa safety John Lowdermilk intercepted an LSU pass and ran it back 71 yards in the third quarter of the Outback Bowl. But just before he crossed the goal line, Lowdermilk -- who had no defenders around him -- casually dropped the ball out of his right hand. The play was ruled a fumble, and luckily Iowa went on to score the touchdown. But not before some embarrassment for Lowdermilk. “I don’t know what I was doing," he said. "I really regret it and apologize. If I’m lucky enough to get in that situation again, I’ll probably put two hands around the ball and go to the back of the end zone, just to make sure."

Worst late celebration: Michigan State players tried to give coach Mark Dantonio a Gatorade shower near the end of the Rose Bowl. But Dantonio skipped out of the way, and the players' effort was embarrassingly off mark. Dantonio had already shown that he's light on his feet this year with all his dancing to Rich Homie Quan. It's way past time we retire the Gatorade bath, anyway, and come up with something a little more clever.

[+] EnlargeGordon
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesRunning back Melvin Gordon had a big day for the Badgers vs. South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl.
Best poetic ending: Kyler Elsworth filled in for the suspended Max Bullough at middle linebacker for Michigan State. On Stanford's final offensive play, a fourth-and-1 run by fullback Ryan Hewitt, Elsworth launched himself over the pile and stuffed Hewitt. That the fifth-year senior and former walk-on earned Rose Bowl defensive MVP honors spoke volumes about the depth and team-first program Mark Dantonio has built.

Best overlooked achievement: Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and James White both ran for more than 100 yards in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina and set a FBS record in the process. They finished the season with a combined 3,053 rushing yards, surpassing the top total for a pair of teammates that Nevada’s Cody Fajardo and Stefphon Jefferson established with 3,004 yards in 2012. Gordon and White also were the first teammates to each rush for more than 1,400 yards in the same season. But the Badgers didn't feel much like celebrating as they dropped their fourth straight bowl game.

Wildest finish: The Orange Bowl had more endings than "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." The game looked like it was over when Braxton Miller fumbled on a big hit by Clemson's Bashaud Breeland with 3:12 left. But then the Tigers threw an interception on a questionable call three plays later. Miller then returned the favor with an interception of his own with 1:18 remaining. It was a fitting conclusion to a game that contained all kinds of wild momentum swings.

Worst clock management: This one goes to LSU, against Iowa. The Tigers took possession with 1:42 left, and even with Iowa holding one timeout, they should have been able to run out the clock. But with confusion on the sideline and at quarterback, LSU called its own timeout with eight seconds left and had to punt. When Les Miles and clocks are involved, things are never boring.
A man wearing a newsboy cap approached Kirk Cousins and offered congratulations to the former Michigan State quarterback, who held court with reporters in the Rose Bowl tunnel moments after the Spartans beat Stanford.

Jim Delany wasn't easy to spot in the headgear, and one could argue that the Big Ten commissioner wisely disguised himself on a day that hasn't been kind to his league in recent years. But for the first time in four years, and for just the second time in 14 years, Delany walked out of the Rose Bowl with a smile on his face.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook and Michigan State gave the Big Ten plenty to celebrate.
For Delany and the Big Ten, the Rose Bowl sits on a pedestal. And after just one Big Ten win in the previous 10 tries, Michigan State's 24-20 triumph in the game's 100th edition was cause for celebration. MSU's victory doesn't dull the pain of the Big Ten's second consecutive 2-5 bowl season, but it certainly helps to prevail in the most important postseason game on the biggest stage against the best opponent.

The Spartans won a team-record 13 games and completed the best season for a Big Ten team in recent memory, finishing No. 3 in the final polls. Nebraska provided the other bright spot, upsetting Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl thanks to a stingy red-zone defense and several standout performances from seniors.

Elsewhere, the Big Ten felt the familiar postseason sting of what might have been. The league easily could have had a better record in the Florida bowls, but Wisconsin and Ohio State had sloppy performances and Iowa's offense never got on track against LSU.

Wisconsin never punted in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina and had two 100-yard rushers in Melvin Gordon and James White, but the Badgers committed four turnovers and scored just 17 offensive points. A team that had been so solid through the first 11 games unraveled in the regular-season finale against Penn State and in the bowl, failing to capitalize on a great chance to build on a 17-13 third-quarter lead. Dave Aranda's defense was shredded for the second straight game as South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw accounted for five touchdowns (3 pass, 1 rush, 1 receiving). A decorated Wisconsin senior classes ended 0-4 in Jan. 1 bowls.

Ohio State also finished the season on a surprising losing streak, squandering two second-half leads in a 40-35 loss to Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. Like Wisconsin, the Buckeyes also were doomed by turnovers, particularly a muffed punt by Corey Brown in the third quarter with a nine-point lead. A depleted Ohio State defense couldn't stop Clemson's big-play receivers, the coaches once again avoided running back Carlos Hyde in crunch time, and a banged-up Braxton Miller committed turnovers on Ohio State's final two possessions.

Injuries and personnel issues were a theme throughout the Big Ten during the bowl season. Wisconsin and Iowa saw their starting quarterbacks hurt during games, while Michigan's top signal-caller, Devin Gardner, showed up in Arizona on crutches and didn't play in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Michigan State overcame the loss of starting middle linebacker and co-captain Max Bullough, as Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris filled in well. Ohio State played without top cornerback Bradley Roby (injury) and top pass-rusher Noah Spence (suspension).

A little more offense could have put Iowa and Minnesota over the top in their bowl games. Minnesota didn't reach the end zone for three quarters in the Texas Bowl, eventually falling 21-17 to a mediocre Syracuse team. Iowa's only touchdowns came on drives of 1 and 4 yards, as the Hawkeyes had just 11 first downs and 233 total yards against LSU.

It wouldn't have taken much for the Big Ten to post a winning record in the bowls. The league had only one non-competitive performance, coming from Michigan in the Wings Bowl, as the Wolverines ended a disappointing season on a down note. The defense never gave first-time starting quarterback Shane Morris much of a chance, allowing touchdowns on Kansas State's first three possessions. Morris held his own but Michigan didn't reach the end zone until the 58th minute in what proved to be the final game for beleaguered offensive coordinator Al Borges.

Nebraska started New Year's Day on a good note as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa triggered the win with a 99-yard touchdown reception, while defensive linemen Jason Ankrah, Randy Gregory and Thad Randle limited Georgia's offense. Michigan State capped the afternoon by rallying past Stanford behind a suffocating defense and quarterback Connor Cook, who collected another postseason MVP honor and his second straight 300-yard passing performance.

The Spartans boost hope for the future after another Big Ten postseason rife with missed opportunities. The league has another team capable of competing for a national championship.

The playoff arrives in 2014, along with a more palatable Big Ten bowl lineup and most likely more bowl-eligible teams. The Big Ten took a small step in the postseason after a historically bad 2012 campaign, but more progress must be made for the rest of college football to start tipping its cap.

Big Ten all-bowl team

January, 9, 2014
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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.

Poll: Big Ten bowl MVP

January, 8, 2014
Jan 8
4:00
PM ET
The Big Ten only won two of its seven postseason games, but there were some outstanding performances during the bowls by league players.

SportsNation

Who was the MVP of Big Ten bowl season?

  •  
    40%
  •  
    12%
  •  
    39%
  •  
    5%
  •  
    4%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,497)

Which one was the best? We'll let you decide out of these five candidates:
  • Michigan State QB Connor Cook: He passed for a career-high 332 yards and two touchdowns against a stingy Stanford defense to earn Rose Bowl MVP honors. Cook did have a pick-six and a couple of other near interceptions, however.
  • Michigan State LB Kyler Elsworth: He filled in more than ably for the suspended Max Bullough, earning defensive MVP honors and sacrificing his body to make the key stop on Stanford's final, fourth-down play.
  • Nebraska WR Quincy Enunwa: He capped off a terrific senior season with a career-best 129 yards and two touchdowns, including a 99-yard touchdown reception, to help beat Georgia in the Gator Bowl.
  • Ohio State QB Braxton Miller: The Buckeyes lost the Orange Bowl to Clemson, but Miller gave it everything he had while taking a savage beating. He threw for 234 yards and two scores and ran for two more touchdowns, though he did have two interceptions.
  • Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: The Badgers star ran like he did during the first half of the season against South Carolina, piling up 143 yards on 25 carries in the Capital One Bowl loss.

Vote now in our poll.

Nebraska helmet stickers

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
11:00
AM ET
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Top performers for Nebraska in its 24-19 TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl victory over Georgia on Wednesday:

WR Quincy Enunwa: You can’t overlook the game’s MVP, though there are many strong candidates for the Huskers in their ninth victory of the season. Enunwa lunged to catch a four-yard touchdown from Tommy Armstrong Jr. in the second quarter to give Nebraska a lead it never relinquished. The play of the game -- and likely his career -- came in the third quarter, with the Huskers backed up just an inch or two from the goal line on third down. Enunwa got free and snagged Armstrong’s throw near midfield. The senior from Moreno Valley, Calif., sprinted home for a 99-yard touchdown. With his 12th TD catch of the year, Enunwa broke Johnny Rodgers’ 42-year-old record.

IB Ameer Abdullah: If Wednesday served as Abdullah’s final game at Nebraska, he went out in style -- just like Enunwa. The junior from Homewood, Ala., rushed 27 times for 122 yards and one score, reaching triple digits for the 11th time this season. Abdullah was the force that kept the Huskers afloat all season, and it was no different in Jacksonville. Even on drives that ended in punts, Abdullah often dug Nebraska out of poor field position. His season rushing total of 1,690 yards ranks fourth in Nebraska history, remarkable considering the slew of injuries suffered on the offensive line this season and the absence of QB Taylor Martinez for all but four games. Abdullah, if he turns down a jump to the NFL, could become the first three-time 1,000-yard rusher ever at Nebraska next season.

CB Josh Mitchell: What a time for the junior from Corona, Calif., to turn into a ball-hawking specialist. Nebraska would not have beaten the Bulldogs without the two turnovers secured by Mitchell. He pounced on Reggie Davis’ second-quarter punt-return muff after four Nebraska possessions produced four punts. The first turnover set up a 14-yard scoring drive. Mitchell intercepted Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason in the third quarter, returning the football four yards to the Georgia 38 to set up a seven-play drive for the Huskers’ second touchdown. The positive turnover margin (plus-1) came after a putrid October and November in which Nebraska was minus-16 in the category, worst in the nation. It must correct the problem in 2014. Mitchell’s New Year’s Day performance serves as a good start.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Five thousand or so Nebraska fans still sat in their soaked seats at EverBank Field about 15 minutes after the Huskers wrapped up a 24-19 win on New Year’s Day over No. 22 Georgia in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. They chanted, “Bo, Bo, Bo,” as hugs and handshakes ruled the day below around the trophy stand.

Coach Bo Pelini took the mike. He thanked TaxSlayer.com, the sponsor. (So polished, that Bo.)

He lauded MVP Quincy Enunwa, who caught the longest pass in college football history in the third quarter. Pelini said he’s never been more proud of a group of players.

“We’re looking forward to some championships in the near future,” the coach said.

Where were we? Did someone hit the reset button on the season or transport everyone here five years into the future or past?

[+] EnlargeQuincy Enunwa
AP Photo/Stephen B. MortonQuincy Enunwa caught two touchdown passes in Nebraska's victory over Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla.
This is not the Nebraska football team we last saw on Nov. 28, losing by three touchdowns on its home turf to Iowa as Pelini ranted in the postgame circus as if he had his bags packed in the office upstairs.

The Huskers were fundamentally sound Wednesday. They tackled exceptionally well. They were smart, making good decisions under duress. They adjusted well at halftime. They won the turnover battle. They scored twice after takeaways. They were ultra-efficient in the red zone -- on both sides.

Nebraska did not botch a punt return. The Huskers won a game against an SEC team despite being outgained by more than 100 yards.

This is what Nebraska football can be.

Pelini said he doesn’t believe the solid performance will have a carryover effect in Lincoln. The Huskers won’t reconvene on the practice field until March. They don’t play again for almost eight months. So much will change before the meat of the next nonconference season against Fresno State and Miami.

The Huskers ought to remember what they can from Wednesday, though.

“I think what it does is serve as an example for your football team,” Pelini said.

Nebraska, in October and November, was minus-16 in turnover margin. That ranked dead last in the nation; no other program was worse than minus-12. Since 2008, Nebraska is minus-31 in turnover margin -- 106th nationally, the worst by 42 spots among programs that won 70 percent of their games.

Nebraska couldn’t get out of its own way this season. When penalties struck, the timing was often bad. When they missed tackles, it happened in bunches.

In other words, the Huskers operated regularly like the opposite of a championship team.

Pelini said the Nebraska coaches talked with their players before the Gator Bowl about the areas that hurt the Huskers this season. They’ve been talking for six years.

Did it finally sink in? If so, run with it.

“It’s the first game of the new year,” defensive end Randy Gregory said. “I think we intend on taking this momentum through the rest of the year.”

Gregory got tangled early with Georgia left tackle Kenarious Gates, and it got worse from there. Twice, fights nearly erupted. Gregory said he liked it.

“I haven’t really been a fan of the SEC,” Gregory said. “To go out there and play against these guys, I think it was big for all of us.”

He contributed a sack on Wednesday, his 10th of the season. Gregory is an SEC-caliber defender. He said after the game that he’s definitely set to return as a fourth-year junior in 2014.

“I’m here,” he said. “I’m behind Bo.”

I-back Ameer Abdullah wasn’t so certain. He’ll soon make a decision on the NFL after rushing for 122 yards against Georgia -- his 11th triple-digit game – to reach 1,690 yards this season. That total is fourth in school history.

Beyond Gregory and Abdullah, the Huskers aren’t stocked with SEC-type talent. This isn’t the 1990s. The dynamic has changed drastically since that championship era, a reality Nebraska and its fans can accept.

What they shouldn’t accept is mistake-filled football. The Huskers beat Georgia largely by avoiding mistakes. In the Big Ten, they can win big that way.

After the Bulldogs scored their lone touchdown to pull within five points on the first play of the fourth quarter and the teams traded punts, freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong gathered his teammates on the sideline.

“We’re in control of this game,” Armstrong said he told them. “The defense is going to get stops. Just stay calm and run our offense.”

The Huskers won as Georgia stalled at the Nebraska 16-yard line with less than 30 seconds to play. Armstrong was right. He was calm and cool, as usual, in the aftermath.

"I think he’s going to lead this team to a championship,” offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles said after his final game.

Sounds kind of simple, the formula of strong leadership and fundamental, opportunistic play.

Six years in the making -- three years after a seismic shift to the Big Ten -- the Huskers saw on Wednesday what they can be. Where from here? We’ll know in about nine months.
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nebraska extended its streak of nine-win seasons to six under coach Bo Pelini with a 24-19 upset victory over No. 22 Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. Here's a quick recap:

It was over when: The Bulldogs (8-5) turned it over on downs with 25 seconds to play as tight end Arthur Lynch dropped a fourth-and-3 pass from quarterback Hutson Mason inside the Huskers' 10-yard line. Nebraska linebacker David Santos received credit for a breakup, but it appeared to bounce straight off the hands of Lynch, who was the top receiving target all afternoon for Mason.

Game ball goes to: Tommy Armstrong. The Huskers' redshirt freshman quarterback was cool under pressure in his return after missing most of the season's final two games with an ankle injury. Armstrong threw a pair of touchdown passes and had another dropped. He made smart decisions in the run game and largely avoided mistakes.

Stat of the game: Twelve. That's the touchdown catch total for Nebraska senior Quincy Enunwa after his two scores on Wednesday, including a 99-yard reception from Armstrong in the third quarter. Enunwa's total breaks a Nebraska record set in 1971 by Johnny Rodgers, one year before he won the Heisman Trophy. A physical force in the run and pass game, Enunwa, by the way, didn't make it on the Big Ten's all-conference list, even at honorable mention. With the likes of Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis and Penn State's Allen Robinson, it was an exceptional season for receivers in the league. But Enunwa deserves some recognition.

Unsung heroes: Thad Randle and Jason Ankrah, the seniors up front on the Nebraska defense. Randle has never been healthy in college, and Ankrah was without help on Wednesday from Avery Moss, who didn't travel to Florida. They formed an important part of the front seven, which was as usual led by Randy Gregory at defensive end. They slowed Todd Gurley and pressured Mason on Wednesday. In the red zone, the Huskers were especially strong.

What Nebraska learned: It's got a gamer in Armstrong, the quarterback who started eight games this year and will enter spring practice as the leader to start in 2014. He'll get pushed by Johnny Stanton and possibly incoming freshman Zack Darlington, but Armstrong might be tough to unseat after the poise he showed Wednesday. If I-back Ameer Abdullah and Gregory return, the building blocks exist for Nebraska (9-4) to break through in 2014. It would help mightily to use Wednesday as a springboard to play fundamental football in the new year and capitalize on opponents' errors.

What Georgia learned: Transition from the Aaron Murray era won't be easy. When a program has played with one quarterback for four seasons, the offensive system morphs to reflect his strengths. Under Mason, the Bulldogs must find the right balance. It wasn't going to happen in this bowl season. The problems in the secondary on Wednesday can't be explained away by injuries. While Georgia has the talent to field an elite defense, it never came together over the past four months.

To watch the trophy presentation of the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, click here.
New Year’s Day is near, along with the end to long layoffs for No. 22 Georgia and Nebraska.

Mitch Sherman and David Ching come together for a final discussion on the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, set for Wednesday at noon ET on ESPN2:

How motivated is Georgia to win this game and why?

Ching: That's the big question entering this game, isn't it? It doesn't feel like either fan base is particularly jazzed about this matchup since these teams just played in a bowl a year ago. It wouldn't be a surprise if the teams deal with the same problem. Georgia seems like the more talented team here, but the coaches have to convince the Bulldogs that this is a game worth playing their best.

Sherman: I don’t expect motivation to be a problem for Nebraska. The Huskers don’t want their streak of nine-win seasons -- a point of much discussion and pride -- to end. A victory over an SEC opponent would serve as boost for Bo Pelini’s program and the Big Ten. Moreover, it has been a long, trying season in Lincoln; playing well in the Gator Bowl could change the narrative and allow the Huskers and their fans to focus on positives.

What do you expect out of the quarterback position?

Ching: Hutson Mason has the benefit of already making one start in a huge game. He started slowly against Georgia Tech in the regular-season finale, but helped the Bulldogs rally for a double-overtime win. Nebraska has a talented secondary that will test him, but I expect Mason to perform well. He has waited his turn behind Aaron Murray, but is well prepared to become a solid performer as a senior in 2014.

Sherman: We saw at the Big House in November that Tommy Armstrong has a knack for playing well under the spotlight. And for a redshirt freshman with seven starts under his belt, New Year’s Day is big. Armstrong is motivated. His linemen are healthier than at any point since late October. His receivers are healed up, and while Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa won’t surprise Georgia with their athleticism after last year, look for the Huskers to make plays in the passing game.

Who holds the edge when Nebraska has the football?

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley, Ahmad Christian
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia tailback Todd Gurley has been effective since returning for injury, rushing for six touchdowns in his last five games.
Ching: Probably Nebraska. I know the Huskers have struggled on offense for most of the season without Taylor Martinez, but Georgia's defense has only dominated against the least of its competition this season. I expect Nebraska to produce decent yardage and point totals against the Bulldogs, considering how half of their opponents this season generated at least 400 yards of offense and eight scored at least 30 points.

Sherman: If we’re answering based off the second half of the season, it’s Georgia, despite its defensive injuries and propensity to allow chunks of yardage. Offensively, Nebraska simply hit a wall after mid-October, with the exception of the Michigan State game. The Huskers didn’t once scored 30 points after all-conference guard Spencer Long went down on Oct. 12 at Purdue. Injuries are the wild card, though. Long remains out, but most of the others who missed time are back. If Nebraska creates some momentum early, it could top 400 yards for the first time in five games.

Who holds the edge when UGA has the football?

Ching: Georgia. The Huskers haven't defended the run particularly well -- they're 60th nationally at 161.2 yards per game -- and that doesn't bode well for stopping Todd Gurley after he's had a month to allow his injured ankle to heal. Nebraska's defense has been fairly average in every way, so even with someone other than Murray at the helm, I expect Georgia's high-scoring offense to keep rolling in Jacksonville.

Sherman: Season-long statistics don’t tell the whole story of this Nebraska defense. The Blackshirts are much improved from September, when they were trampled in the opening quarter by an FCS-level foe. Since Nov. 1, the Huskers rank among the top 20 defensive units nationally. They’re especially strong against the pass. And with time to prepare, Pelini will devise a scheme to test Mason. As for Gurley, well, he could pose a problem. The Huskers will miss defensive end Avery Moss. And Big Ten results so far this bowl season don’t bode well for Nebraska.

Season report card: Nebraska

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
1:00
PM ET
We continue our delivery of the regular-season report cards with Nebraska.

It was an odd year in Lincoln, shaped by injuries and controversy but growth and promise, and it ended with a fan base largely divided. For every member of Husker Nation ready to hand out passing grades, there’s another who saw it in just the opposite way.

So at the risk of just adding to the confusion, here it goes:

Offense: B-minus

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah, who ran for 1,568 yards, was one of the bright spots for the Nebraska offense this year.
Considering the bevy of injuries on the offensive line and the loss of quarterback Taylor Martinez for all but one game in Big Ten play, Nebraska gets the benefit of the doubt. Its replacements played well enough to keep the Huskers in every game -- if not for the turnovers.

Oh, the turnovers. Nebraska lost the football 28 times, most in the Big Ten, and often turnovers came at the worst times. There’s likely not a team in the country that could have handled four fumbles and an interception against Michigan State better than the Huskers did on Nov. 16. But it was still a 13-point loss.

Before the injuries hit, the Huskers’ running game was a force. And I-back Ameer Abdullah still finished with 1,568 yards, arguably the best season by a Huskers back since 1997. Freshman QB Tommy Armstrong enjoyed some nice moments. Receivers Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa did their jobs well.

Nebraska badly missed a playmaker at tight end. But no one will soon forget the Ron Kellogg-to-Jordan Westerkamp Hail Mary that beat Northwestern, a play that single-handedly nudges this grade upward.

Defense: C

Remember the fourth quarter against Wyoming and the first 15 minutes against South Dakota State? Too much bad stuff happened to bump this grade past the point of average.

Sure, the Huskers were young. They needed time to grow into their roles. Why is that, though? How did Nebraska find itself, six years into the coach Bo Pelini regime, in a spot that required a rebuilding job? In year two or three, we’d understand more easily.

There was also debacle in Minneapolis as Minnesota rushed for 271 yards and basically punched the Blackshirts in the face.

Nebraska responded well late. It played a great defensive game in the win at Michigan and a good one to win at Penn State. Even against Iowa, despite losing 38-17, the defensive play was decent.

When factoring the promise for next year -- with emerging stars like Randy Gregory, Avery Moss and Michael Rose -- this defense is better than average. But production doesn’t always meet potential.

Special teams C-minus

Bell on kickoff returns and place-kicker Pat Smith, who was solid all year and hit a game-winning field goal in overtime at Penn State, prevented a failing grade here.

Just too many mistakes and lack of adjustments.

Nebraska averaged 3.04 yards per punt return -- better nationally than only Mississippi State and 1-11 Cal. More than that, the Huskers fumbled a pair of punt returns and erred too often on decisions in the return game.

Additionally, Michigan State converted a key fake field goal against the Huskers, and Pelini’s ill-advised decision to fake a punt against Iowa proved costly.

Overall: C-plus

Nebraska sits 8-4 as it prepares for the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl against Georgia, leaving it with a chance to again reach nine wins. A loss on New Year’s Day would mark Pelini’s first season with five defeats and make this the second Nebraska team not coached by Bill Callahan since 1968 to miss the nine-win benchmark. The absence of key players, youth on defense, turnovers and other mistakes factor in the Huskers’ overall grade. None of it weighs heavily enough to sink this team to great depths, yet Nebraska hasn’t done enough, either, to get far above the industry average.

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