Nebraska Cornhuskers: Randy Gregory

Nebraska players to watch

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
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Nebraska players to watch on Saturday as the 21st-ranked Huskers play host to Illinois at 8 p.m. ET:

WR De'Mornay Pierson-El: Look for the Huskers to involve the freshman more into the offensive plan. He ran a reverse last week against Miami. Though it didn’t produce a big play, Pierson-El is electric when he touches the football. He leads the nation in punt returns with 14 -- an odd stat on which to base much, unless it’s at Nebraska, where the Huskers have endured frustration in recent years simply getting to the football in the return game. Pierson-El is averaging more than 16 yards per return.

DE Randy Gregory: Obvious choice here, but he’s on the list for multiple reasons. Gregory announced his return from a knee injury two weeks ago at Fresno State as a disruptive presence. He collected two sacks against Miami but also regularly found himself as a target of the Hurricanes’ ire. The result? A pair of fights. Gregory continues to wear a big, red X on his back for Nebraska opponents. The ultra-talented junior must handle himself well and avoid the temptation to push back if the Illini try to agitate him. If all goes well, he’ll meet up a few times with Illinois QB Wes Lunt.

CB Daniel Davie: It’ll be a busy night for the junior first-year starter. Illinois ranks second in the Big Ten with 157 pass attempts through four games. Four Illini receivers have caught more than 10 passes in addition to running back Josh Ferguson. To best defend Illinois, Nebraska’s cornerbacks must do their jobs in coverage, allowing extra defensive backs to provide assistance against Ferguson – who creates a mismatch against any Nebraska linebacker. Davie grew more comfortable through the nonconference season. This could be his biggest test yet.

Nebraska helmet stickers: Week 3

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
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Top performers in Nebraska’s 55-19 win on Saturday over Fresno State:
  • Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. The sophomore accumulated 325 yards of total offense, his third straight game over 300, including 260 through the air on 12-of-21 passing. His 258 rushing yards this season rank fifth among FBS quarterbacks, and his 18 yards per completion are 17th.
  • Wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El. The true freshman injected life into the Huskers’ once-dormant punt-return game to earn recognition as the Big Ten's special teams player of the week. Pierson-El raced 86 yards for a score in the second quarter, the longest ever by a freshman at Nebraska, and nearly broke another, settling for 50 yards. Nebraska, as a team, totaled 70 yards in punt returns all of last season.
  • Defensive end Randy Gregory. Though slowed by the oppressive heat and a sick stomach, the junior changed the game in his return from a knee injury that caused him to miss most of the first two games. In limited time, Gregory reminded us that he can rush the passer better than anyone at Nebraska, cover a wide receiver and blitz like a linebacker.

What to watch: Nebraska-Fresno State

September, 12, 2014
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What to watch in Week 3 for Nebraska as it hits the road for the first time, playing Fresno State on Saturday at 10:30 p.m. ET:
  • The start: It’s an overused talking point to suggest the beginning of a game rates as important; of course, it does. But in this instance, the first half of the first quarter figures to provide more insight than usual, considering the psyche of both teams. Fresno State is something of a wounded animal after consecutive blowout losses on the road against USC and Utah. The Bulldogs are not accustomed to such failure and have won 13 straight games at home, the second-longest active streak among FBS teams. But prolific quarterback Derek Carr is gone, replaced by Brandon Connette and Brian Burrell. Fresno ranks 107th nationally in total offense and 109th in scoring. The home field might make a huge difference. We should know early. Meanwhile, what is the Nebraska mindset after winning in the final minute against McNeese State? The Huskers could respond with excellent focus -- a common trait of Bo Pelini teams in road games -- or with a shaky level of confidence, potentially worsened by any mistake early against the Bulldogs. Pay attention to the first two drives for both teams.
  • The health: Hit hard in preseason practice by injuries, the Huskers haven’t fared much better in the opening two games. First, junior Randy Gregory, an All-America candidate at defensive end, went down with a knee injury during the opening series against Florida Atlantic that required minor surgery. Then senior wide receiver and captain Kenny Bell suffered a groin injury early in the win against McNeese State. To complicate the situation at receiver, Nebraska lost Jamal Turner for the reason with a torn Achilles tendon and has yet to gain the services Sam Burtch and Brandon Reilly, who are not traveling to California. Gregory and Bell are expected back. They are two of Nebraska’s best athletes. Their presence transforms the look of this team. If healthy, Gregory and Bell figure to inject life into the Huskers' pass rush and passing game -- both of which went dormant in the second half under adverse conditions last week.
  • Offensive distribution: Nebraska operated with such efficiency in Week 1, accumulating a Big Ten modern day-record 784 yards, that it was sure to experience some decline last week. Still, the difference was stunning. Chief among the reasons for the Huskers’ failure to generate offense after halftime against McNeese State was the inexplicable absence of Ameer Abdullah. The senior I-back went missing for most of the final 30 minutes until his remarkable 58-yard touchdown catch that provided the game-winning points with 20 seconds to play. In the aftermath, Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck harped on the need to more involve Abdullah, who rushed for 232 yards in the opener and just 54 in Week 2. The Huskers are ripe for a game plan that overcompensates, and you can bet Fresno will be ready for Abdullah. Nebraska has plenty of weapons on offense, especially if Bell is good to go. Receivers Jordan Westerkamp and Alonzo Moore, tight end Cethan Carter and running backs Imani Cross and Terrell Newby need to be involved. Abdullah is good, but he is not built to be a one-man show, despite his late heroics last week.

B1G awards watch list roundup

July, 21, 2014
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College football preseason awards watch lists are, at best, little more than a summertime curiosity these days and, at worst, an easy punchline.

For one, there are far too many awards -- only country music likes to give itself as many trophies as this sport. There are often way too many players on these lists -- the Rimington Trophy list, for example, includes 64 players, or basically half the starting centers in the FBS, and 10 from the Big Ten alone. And, of course, eventual winners of these awards sometimes come out of nowhere, making the preseason lists even more meaningless.

We relegated almost all the watch list releases to tweets, but if you're interested, we thought we'd compile all the Big Ten players who were nominated in one place. If nothing else, you can come back to this page in December and perhaps have a good chuckle. Here you go:

Maxwell Award (Player of the Year)
Walter Camp (Player of the Year)
  • Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE Michigan State
  • Stefon Diggs,WR, Maryland
  • Devin Funchess, WR, Michigan
  • Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
Bednarik Award (Defensive Player of the Year)
Bronko Nagurski Trophy (Defensive Player)
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
  • Frank Clark, DE, Michigan
  • Blake Countess, DB, Michigan
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Kurtis Drummond, S, Michigan State
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State
Outland Trophy (Interior lineman)
Davey O’Brien Award (Quarterback):
  • Connor Cook, Michigan State
  • Devin Gardner, Michigan
  • Christian Hackenberg, Penn State
  • Braxton Miller, Ohio State
  • Joel Stave, Wisconsin
Doak Walker Award (Running back)
Butkus Award (Linebacker)
Rotary Lombardi Award (Lineman/Linebacker)
  • Chi Chi Ariguzo, LB, Northwestern
  • Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
  • Austin Blythe, C, Iowa
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
  • Carl Davis, DT, Iowa
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
  • Ron Havenstein, T, Wisconsin
  • Kaleb Johnson, G, Rutgers
  • Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
  • Brandon Scherff, T, Iowa
Biletnikoff Award (Wide receiver)
Jim Thorpe Award (Defensive back)
  • Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
  • Blake Countess, Michigan
  • Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
  • Jordan Lucas, Penn State
  • Trae Waynes, Michigan State
Mackey Award (Tight end)
Rimington Trophy (Center) Lou Groza Award (Kicker)
Ray Guy Award (Punter)

Finally, watch this list of my preseason awards watch list, uh, awards:

Most nominated: Thanks to his inclusion on multiple defensive award lists as well as one player of the year recognition, Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory leads the way with four nods.

Biggest "snubs:" We use the word "snub" very, very lightly here. Still, it was a mild surprise not to see Venric Mark on the Doak Walker list (he was, after all, nominated for the Maxwell) or for Maryland defensive lineman Andre Monroe to not show up anywhere. Apparently, Monroe's 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss last year weren't good enough to get him on the same list as dozens of other less productive players.

Weirdest list: The Butkus Award folks, bless them, either know something we don't or really swung and missed this year. Neither Maryland's Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil nor Ohio State's Curtis Grant were on anybody's radar for a major award, and you could make a very strong argument that neither is even the best linebacker on his own team (the Terps' Matt Robinson and the Buckeyes' Joshua Perry would have made more sense here). And then there's the omission of Rutgers' Steve Longa, who had 123 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. Just plain odd all around.

Just happy to be nominated: Northwestern's Chi Chi Ariguzo and Michigan's Devin Funchess are both outstanding players who should be in strong contention for all-conference and quite possibly All-America honors this season. But they have about as good a chance of winning a national player of the year award (which almost always goes to quarterbacks or running backs, anyway) as I do. Funchess was nominated for both the Maxwell and Walter Camp award, which means he has a great public relations man. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's Joel Stave isn't even guaranteed to start at quarterback this season for the Badgers, yet he found himself on the Davey O'Brien watch list. As usual, it doesn't hurt to cover all the bases when compiling a preseason watch list.
Big Ten reporters Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

Earlier this month, we took a look at potential double-digit sack artists in the Big Ten in 2014. Then we had you vote on who would lead the league in that category.

Nebraska's Randy Gregory was the only player to reach 10 sacks in the Big Ten last year -- or for the last two seasons, for that matter. Yet several talented defensive ends and pass rushers can be found around the league. So today's Take Two topic is this: Who will lead the Big Ten in sacks in 2014?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

Gregory is an obvious answer here. You could also easily pick defending Big Ten defensive lineman of the year Shilique Calhoun from Michigan State, Maryland's Andre Monroe or Minnesota's Theiren Cockran. All would be excellent choices.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa, Connor Cook
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsOhio State's Joey Bosa has the talent and the drive to be the Big Ten's best pass-rusher as a sophomore.
But I'm going with the guy who might have the highest ceiling of all. That's Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa. He had 7.5 sacks as a true freshman, which is a pretty remarkable achievement. Bosa was good all year, but he really impressed me in the Orange Bowl loss to Clemson when he basically played on one leg because of an ankle injury. He is a freakish athlete with a nonstop motor and a desire to be the best. Those qualities virtually assure we're looking at a future superstar.

I believe the Buckeyes will have one of the best defensive lines in the country this year, especially when Noah Spence returns from his suspension after two games. That will prevent offensive lines from keying on Bosa too much, while I think Gregory could be seeing a lot more attention. I predict JBBigBear, as Bosa calls himself on Twitter, takes it to the next level as a sophomore and leads the Big Ten with 11.5 sacks.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

Really good call on Bosa. I strongly considered selecting him myself, especially because of Ohio State's depth along the defensive line. But I think the sacks will be distributed a little more evenly for the Buckeyes, as Spence, Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington all can get into the backfield. Calhoun also could top the Big Ten sacks chart, especially with underrated veteran Marcus Rush and promising redshirt freshman Demetrius Cooper to distract offensive linemen. Minnesota's Cockran will be overlooked in this conversation, but he's bulking up and absolutely could build on his big sophomore season.

[+] Enlargenebraska
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsRandy Gregory made an instant impact with Nebraska in 2013.
Ultimately, I'm going with the best player, the guy with the highest ceiling: Nebraska's Gregory. Sure, he's the only truly scary player on the Huskers defense and undoubtedly will see more double-teams that he did in his first FBS season. But I think back to Wisconsin's J.J. Watt and how I thought he would be marginalized in 2010 after the departure of O'Brien Schofield (12 sacks in 2009). Watt simply went out and dominated, racking up seven sacks and 21 tackles for loss, earning All-America honors and becoming a first-round draft pick.

Gregory is the best pure pass rusher in the league. (Bosa is close, and Calhoun affects the game in other ways.) Gregory should be even better in his second season as a Husker. Sure, more teams will know about him and gear their protections toward him. Won't matter. Gregory will top the Big Ten sacks chart again before becoming a top-10, possibly a top-5, draft pick.
If the preseason All-America teams are any indication, the Big Ten will have a very good year in the offensive backfield -- both carrying the ball out of it and penetrating it.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon has averaged a gaudy 8.1 yards per rushing attempt during his career.
Running back and defensive line appear to be the league's two strongest position groups -- possibly by a wide margin -- entering the 2014 season. Athlon on Monday came out with its preseason All-America teams, following up Phil Steele, who released his last week. Three Big Ten players made Athlon's first team: Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett and Michigan State punter Mike Sadler. Four other defensive linemen -- Nebraska's Randy Gregory (second team), Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun (second team), Ohio State's Joey Bosa (fourth team) and Iowa's Carl Davis (fourth team) -- made one of the remaining three teams, and two other running backs -- Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (second team) and Michigan State's Jeremy Langford (fourth team) -- also appear.

Steele had Bennett and Calhoun on his first team, Gregory and Bosa on his second team and Davis on his third team. Like Athlon, he lists Gordon as a first-team running back and Abdullah on the second team. It's interesting to see Calhoun getting a bit more love than Gregory, even though Gregory led the Big Ten in sacks and is projected as a higher draft pick.

Not sure about you, but I can't wait for Calhoun and Gregory to share the field Oct. 4 at Spartan Stadium, or for longtime friends Gordon and Abdullah to match up on Nov. 15 at Camp Randall Stadium. Both matchups should be fun to watch all season.

It's not unusual for defensive line and running back to headline the Big Ten. Both positions historically are strong in the league, especially defensive line. A potential concern is that only one quarterback -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller -- and zero wide receivers make any of Athlon's teams. Steele has two Big Ten wideouts, Maryland's Stefon Diggs and Michigan's Devin Funchess (has played tight end but listed as a receiver), on his third team. Still, it's clear these are two positions where the Big Ten continues to need upgrades.

Other Athlon preseason All-America selections include: Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff (second team), Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman (third team), Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond (third team), Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston (third team), Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan (fourth team), Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes (fourth team) and Northwestern punt returner Venric Mark (fourth team).

The Big Ten is tied with the Pac-12 for third among overall Athlon All-America selections with 18, trailing both the ACC (27) and SEC (26).
Last week, we finished up our series looking at the most indispensable players for each Big Ten team. Now, we're interested in your opinion. Who is the most indispensable player is in the entire league.

As we mentioned over and over again at the top of those posts, indispensable doesn't necessarily translate into "best." It means the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/shrunk by Rick Moranis, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.

SportsNation

Who is the most indispensable player in the Big Ten in 2014?

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Discuss (Total votes: 8,988)

We gave you two from each team during the series. Now we want you to pick one of these five candidates:
  • Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: The Buckeyes got to see what life without Miller would look like this spring while he was recovering from shoulder surgery. They hope that was merely a drill. The senior is the two-time, defending Big Ten offensive player of the year, and backups Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett have no real experience. Without Miller, Ohio State could easily fall from national championship contender to Big Ten also-ran.
  • Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State: Hackenberg threw for nearly 3,000 yards as a true freshman and will again be the focal point of the Nittany Lions' offense this season. There's also a severe lack of experience behind him, with Penn State likely needing to turn to true freshman Michael O'Connor or a walk-on should something unfortunate happen to its young star.
  • Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska: The Cornhuskers' defense simply wouldn't be the same without Gregory, who led the Big Ten in sacks (10.5) and tied for second in tackles for loss (17.5) last season. With the other defensive end position a little bit of a question mark and young players being counted on at tackle, Gregory's tremendous pass-rushing skills are a necessity for Nebraska to contend for the West Division title and beyond.
  • Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State: After finally finding some stability at quarterback, the last thing the Spartans want to do is go through another carousel at the position. Tyler O'Connor and redshirt freshman Damion Terry could provide decent replacement options. But Cook's poise and confidence helped take Michigan State to another level last season -- a Rose Bowl-winning level.
  • Brandon Scherff, LT, Iowa: The Hawkeyes know how to develop offensive linemen, so they'd probably find someone to fill Scherff's shoes. But how well? The senior enters the season as the best lineman in the Big Ten and is integral to everything Iowa wants to do on offense. Losing the likely 2015 first-round NFL draft pick for any significant stretch this season would likely reverberate throughout Kirk Ferentz's team this fall.

Which of these players is the most indispensable to his team's fortunes in 2014? Vote now in our poll.
Summer is a time in college football where the only news is usually bad news. With that in mind, we're looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.

By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/encounter Sharknado. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. The series wraps up Wednesday with the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesRandy Gregory arrived in the Big Ten with a bang, leading the league in sacks.
Randy Gregory, DE, junior

This selection won't surprise Nebraska fans who fell in love with Gregory during his first season with Big Red. Few defenders have to be accounted for on every play, but Gregory does after leading the Big Ten in sacks (10.5) and tying for second in tackles for loss (17.5). Gregory recorded nine sacks in league games, including three in a road win against Michigan. He led the team with 18 quarterback hurries and recorded a pick-six, a fumble forced and a fumble recovered. Nebraska's defensive end depth isn't great as Avery Moss serves a year-long suspension, and while Greg McMullen looks promising, Gregory undoubtedly is the linchpin. Nebraska's defense needs No. 44 on the field to continue its progress from late last season.

Kenny Bell, WR, senior

Bell no longer has the Big Ten's most indispensable 'fro, but his value remains high for the Huskers. He's one of the nation's most experienced wide receivers with 134 career receptions for 1,901 yards and 15 touchdowns. Although his yards numbers went down from 2012 to 2013, his receptions total went up. Nebraska loses Quincy Enunwa and likely will rely more on Bell, who not only gives quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. a proven target but provides excellent perimeter blocking skills for Ameer Abdullah and the run game. Nebraska is still waiting for Jamal Turner to blossom. Jordan Westerkamp and Alonzo Moore are young and Taariq Allen hasn't been in a featured role. Bell contributes in so many ways and would be missed if he's not on the field this fall.
The 2015 NFL draft is nearly a year away and doesn't even have a determined location, so why should you get excited about it? Because the Big Ten could have a breakthrough.

ESPN's Mel Kiper has produced lists of top prospects at quarterback, defensive end, running back and defensive tackle. If Kiper's projections prove true, it will be a very good draft for the Big Ten, which hasn't had a top-10 pick since 2008, when Michigan tackle Jake Long went No. 1 overall.

Check out each of Kiper's lists on ESPN Insider for more detailed analysis, but here's where the Big Ten players stack up.

[+] EnlargeRandy Gregory
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThanks to players like Nebraska's Randy Gregory, defensive line talent is a strength in the Big Ten this fall.
Quarterback
Defensive end
Running back
Defensive tackle
We know about the Big Ten's strength at running back with Abdullah and Gordon at the top, but defensive line once again figures to be the league's strength when it comes to top draft prospects. Two players soaring on the early draft boards: Nebraska's Gregory and Ohio State's Bennett.

What do you think about the Big Ten projections?

Video: B1G missing piece -- Nebraska

June, 10, 2014
Jun 10
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Mitch Sherman identifies a missing piece on the Nebraska defense and discusses how the Huskers plan to fill it in 2014.
Few preseason prognosticators create as much excitement around their summer picks as Phil Steele.

The college football guru packs a tremendous amount of information and research into his preseason magazines. And Steele has released his choices for the 2014 All-Big Ten team, which you can find here.

[+] EnlargeStefon Diggs
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsMaryland receiver Stefon Diggs could make an immediate impact in the Big Ten.
Some thoughts on the selections:

Steele sees newcomers Maryland and Rutgers bringing some talent into the league quickly, as he has two Terrapins (wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long) and two Scarlet Knights (guard Kaleb Johnson and linebacker Steve Longa) on the first team. ... A mild surprise on the first team is Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones, who will attempt to take over the middle spot from Max Bullough this year. ... The first-team defensive line is absolutely loaded, with Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, and Ohio State's Michael Bennett and Joey Bosa. Iowa's Carl Davis and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran were relegated to second-team status. ... Speaking of the second team, Steele puts Northwestern wide receiver Kyle Prater there, apparently expecting big things at long last from the former USC transfer. ... Steele also has Ohio State's Dontre Wilson and Devin Smith breaking out as second-team All-Big Ten receivers. ... Penn State fans might be a bit miffed to see Christian Hackenberg as only the third-team quarterback. Michigan State's Connor Cook is Steele's choice for second-team QB, with Braxton Miller obviously No. 1. ... Michigan State leads the way with five players on Steele's first-team offense and defense. Ohio State has four, while Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan each have three.

Steele also has released his preseason All-America team, which includes some familiar Big Ten names. Here's a quick rundown:

First team:

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

Ohio State DT Michael Bennett

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

Second team:

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Iowa OT Brandon Scherff

Nebraska DE Randy Gregory

Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Iowa PR Kevonte Martin-Manley

Third team:

Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Michigan WR Devin Funchess

Iowa DT Carl Davis

Michigan LB Jake Ryan

Michigan State CB Trae Waynes

Michigan State S Kurtis Drummond

Illinois PR V'Angelo Bentley

Indiana LS Matt Dooley

Fourth team:

Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford

Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman

Wisconsin OT Rob Havenstein

Northwestern RB/KR Venric Mark
Stats don't always tell the full story for a defensive player, but one number usually correlates to a tremendous season: 10 sacks.

Only one player in the Big Ten in the past two years has gotten to 10 sacks in a season, and only 20 players in the FBS did it last year. But there are some talented pass rushers in the league in 2014, so several could threaten to break double digits.

SportsNation

Which of these players will have the most sacks in 2014?

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Discuss (Total votes: 7,026)

We gave you our top candidates earlier this week, and now we want your take. Which of these players is most likely to reach 10 sacks and lead the Big Ten in that category in 2014?
  • Randy Gregory, Nebraska: The league's reigning sack master registered 10.5 last year in his first season of Division I competition. He could do even more damage this year while cementing himself as a top-10 NFL draft pick next spring.
  • Joey Bosa, Ohio State: Bosa had 7.5 sacks as a true freshman and looks to be on his way as one of the dominant pass rushers in the Big Ten. He gets the Buckeye nod over teammate Noah Spence, who will miss the first two games of the season because of a suspension. The two of them together could be devastating.
  • Andre Monroe, Maryland: Here's a name to remember, Big Ten fans. The Terps senior had 9.5 sacks last year and will be a lot for his new league's offensive lines to handle in 2014.
  • Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: The defending Big Ten defensive lineman of the year had 7.5 sacks last year and should be even more of a focal point for the Spartans defense this year after the graduation of several senior stars. How much higher can he go?
  • Theiren Cockran, Minnesota: Cockran was leading the league in sacks around midseason and finished with 7.5. He's fast, long and rangy and should spend a lot more time in opposing backfields this fall.

Who will be this year's sack master? Vote now in our poll.
Last week, we took a look at some notable offensive milestones -- 3,000 yards passing, 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving -- and which players in the Big Ten were most likely to reach them. Now, let's turn to the defensive side of the ball and examine which players might get to another impressive plateau: 10 sacks.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsOhio State's Joey Bosa is poised to become one of the Big Ten's fiercest pass rushers.
In light of those quadruple-digit offensive numbers, 10 might seem like a modest goal for sacks. But only one Big Ten player made it there last season -- Nebraska's Randy Gregory, whom we correctly pegged as a possibility last summer -- and none did in 2012. Only 20 players in the FBS finished in double digits in sacks last season. So it's not easy.

But there are a handful of players in the league who have the ability and opportunity to register 10 or more sacks in 2014. They are:

  • Randy Gregory, Nebraska (10.5 sacks in 2013): The physically imposing Huskers defensive end could cause even more damage now that he has a full season of FBS competition under his belt. There's a reason some are projecting him as top-10 NFL draft pick next spring.
  • Joey Bosa, Ohio State (7.5): Bosa burst onto the scene as a true freshman, finishing with 7.5 sacks. His freakish combination of strength and speed could help him achieve true superstar status as a sophomore. Also watch out for Buckeyes teammate Noah Spence, who had eight sacks a year ago but will miss the first two games of the year because of a suspension. It will be extremely difficult for opponents to double-team the two defensive ends once Spence comes back.
  • Andre Monroe, Maryland (9.5): We have to rank the Terps senior this high because he very nearly recorded 10 sacks last season in the ACC. The self-proclaimed fireball aims to burn Big Ten offensive lines this fall.
  • Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State (7.5): The Big Ten's defensive lineman of the year became known for his early season scoring prowess and was a fearsome pass rusher. But despite having a great year over 14 games, he still finished well shy of 10 sacks. Shows you how hard it is to get there.
  • Theiren Cockran, Minnesota (7.5): Somewhat quietly, Cockran was one of the leading sack artists in the league a year ago. He's long and quick off the edge. He won't have Ra'Shede Hageman inside to take away attention, but Cockran has shown that he can do damage by himself.
  • C.J. Olaniyan, Penn State (5): It's hard to block the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Nittany Lions senior, who led the team in quarterback takedowns a year ago. Of course, we also have to mention Deion Barnes, who had six sacks in 2012 en route to Big Ten freshman of the year honors but slipped to just two in a disappointing 2013. Can Barnes bounce back?
  • Frank Clark, Michigan (4.5): Clark didn't quite have the monster breakout year some predicted for him in 2013, but he was very solid with 12 tackles for loss. He's got enough skill and experience to improve those numbers for a Wolverines defense that aims to pressure opposing passers a lot more this year. Perhaps a healthy Jake Ryan, who had 4.5 sacks in 2012 but none in an injury-shortened season last fall, also could make some noise in this category.

 
The playoff era is here in college football, so feel free to do somersaults and backflips (no lawsuits if you get hurt). We're previewing the playoff and its top contenders today, and if you'd like to chat with Mark Schlabach, Brett McMurphy and Brad Edwards, go here right now. The blog isn't going anywhere.

ESPN.com's contenders preview features 16 potential playoff teams picked by our mock selection committee, including three Big Ten squads: Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Most would agree Michigan State, the defending Big Ten and Rose Bowl champion, and Ohio State, which has the league's most accomplished coach (Urban Meyer) and typically the most talent, belong in the conversation.

Wisconsin? I'm not so sure. The Badgers are going through a roster redux and have major questions on both sides of the ball. Their schedule is favorable, especially in Big Ten play, but in my view, Wisconsin is on the very fringes of the playoff conversation right now.

Disagree with me? Here's your chance to show it.

Today's poll question asks: Which team is the Big Ten's third playoff contender? Wisconsin is on the list, as are three other schools.

SportsNation

Besides Michigan State and Ohio State, which team should be the Big Ten's third playoff contender in 2014?

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Discuss (Total votes: 12,505)

The candidates ...

Iowa: For the first time since the summer of 2010, Iowa is in the national discussion. A rebound season in 2013 is one reason. A roster that returns plenty of linemen, running backs and quarterbacks is another. But the most convincing argument for the Hawkeyes as playoff contenders is what lies ahead. Their schedule doesn't include Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State or Michigan, and Iowa will play host to both Wisconsin and Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium.

Michigan: Why include a Michigan team that hasn't even made the Big Ten championship game and took a significant step back last season? At some point, the talent has to rise, and this could be the year. Coach Brady Hoke hopes new coordinator Doug Nussmeier creates more consistency on offense, and Michigan returns most of its core pieces on defense. It will be an uphill climb as the Wolverines face Notre Dame, MSU and Ohio State all on the road, where they've struggled under Hoke.

Nebraska: Bo Pelini's players always have been open about discussing the national title, even though the Huskers last played for one in January 2002 and last won a conference title in 1999. It will take a Big Ten championship -- and perhaps a 14-0 record -- for Nebraska to make the playoff, but there's optimism in Lincoln as superstars such as running back Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Randy Gregory return. Like Michigan, Nebraska will need to be tough on the road as it visits East Lansing, Madison and Iowa City.

Wisconsin: The Badgers have been close to nationally elite status in recent years but seem to struggle to take that next step. Star running back Melvin Gordon made it clear that he bypassed the NFL draft for a chance to take the Badgers over the threshold. Wisconsin will need a revamped defensive front seven to hold up and a threat to emerge at quarterback, whether it's incumbent starter Joel Stave or dual-threat Tanner McEvoy, who took most of the reps in the spring. If Wisconsin beats LSU in the season opener, a playoff run is possible as the Badgers don't play Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State in the East Division.

Don't think any of these teams are true playoff candidates? That's why we included a fifth option.

Time to vote.

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To the inbox ...

Jared from Nebraska writes: As a big Husker fan, I was obviously excited to see Ameer Abdullah return for his senior season. My worry is though that he might not have as good of a year this year. If I was an opposing defensive coordinator, I would load the box and blitz to stop the run and make Tommy Armstrong Jr. pass knowing that he has had some interception troubles and NU has only one solid WR. Now if I thought of this I'm sure the coaches actually hired to this position have as well. Wouldn't this make it very hard for Abdullah to have the senior season he is looking for?

Adam Rittenberg: Jared, Abdullah obviously needs Nebraska to pose a passing threat, and he would benefit from Armstrong's improvement in the program. But keep in mind that Abdullah rushed for 1,690 yards in 2013 with Armstrong as a new starting quarterback for most of the season. If Armstrong develops, Abdullah should have room to run. The key area to me is whether a somewhat new-look offensive line holds up. Although Quincy Enunwa is a big loss at receiver, I think the Huskers will be all right if players such as Jordan Westerkamp, Jamal Turner and Taariq Allen continue to take steps this offseason.

Could Abdullah's numbers go down? Sure. But I don't think the opposing strategy against him changes too much from 2013 to 2014.

 




 

Pete from Cincinnati writes: I think the odds are good that the Big Ten will have a top-10 pick next year. If I had to pick one player based on what I saw last year, I'd pick Calhoun. Awesome talent. But the reason I think the odds are good is because there are several candidates who could make it, including Scherff and Gregory. Here's a sleeper pick: Iowa's Carl Davis. Like Gregory, if he continues to improve on pace with last year, he'll have a very big year .

Adam Rittenberg: Really good point, Pete. I agree that having more candidates with the potential to make the top 10 improves the Big Ten's chances considerably. There's no doubt Shilique Calhoun, Randy Gregory and Brandon Scherff all are on the NFL radar, and all play positions where you see quite a few top-10 draft picks. Good call on Carl Davis from Iowa. He's a big body at defensive tackle and could become a dominant player this season. He would have to boost his sacks and tackles for loss numbers and become a truly disruptive player to rise that high.

 




 

Brett from Alliance, Ohio, writes: What about Noah Spence? I saw a mock draft with him in the top 15. If he repeats his production from 2013 could he go first round?

Adam Rittenberg: It's possible, Brett, although some would ask whether Spence is the best defensive end on his own team. After the way Joey Bosa ended his freshman season, he could be the one rocketing up draft boards, albeit for 2016, not 2015. It's certainly a good situation for Ohio State to have, as Spence and Bosa combined for 15.5 sacks last season. But you're right. If Spence has a big junior year, he could be in the first-round mix.

 




 

John from Phoenix writes: Your B1G Must Strike East-Midwest Balance article was very enlightening. One quote grabbed my attention regarding the "New B1G." Barry Alvarez said, "Our fans have to accept it." I respond: You're wrong Mr. Alvarez, the fans don't have to accept it. They can walk. Ever heard of the NFL? I found the Alvarez statement arrogant and reveals how Jim Delany and the rest of the money-mongers running the B1G take fan loyalty for granted. In closing, Adam, do you believe the B1G is in danger of losing fans while chasing the money on the East Coast? I am a Husker alumnus, so I will always follow my team to some extent, but my interest in college ball is waning, and sacrificing product in favor of TV money may be the last straw.

Adam Rittenberg: John, I think it's important the Big Ten doesn't take its fans for granted. The league must listen to its fans and not alienate them while going forward with its expansion and building the brand in a new region. Although I understand your frustration, you mentioned that you'll always follow Nebraska to a degree. Many Big Ten fans will do so with their teams. College football remains incredibly popular, and while there might not be league loyalty there still is school loyalty. The Big Ten is cognizant of the declining game attendance in college football and wants to upgrade the stadium experience for its fans. But this sport is driven by TV money, and that's why the Big Ten is making these moves.

 




 

Kenny from Cincy writes: I read the Michigan-Notre Dame article about the series being dead. Can you give me some inside information on why? I know U-M made it seem like ND was "chickening out." But is U-M at fault too? Do you think both programs' recent struggles may factor into the equation (rather have an easy win than a maybe)? I feel like the main reason, money, is involved but I feel like they both stand to make lots more off of a rivalry.

Adam Rittenberg: Michigan has made it pretty clear that it wanted to continue the Notre Dame series in some form. Michigan added series like Arkansas and UCLA, and games like Florida, after Notre Dame pulled out of the 2015-17 games. Several factors fueled Notre Dame's decision: the schedule agreement with the ACC; the desire to keep playing rivals USC, Navy and Stanford; and a desire to play more often outside the Midwest. But the ACC pact really was the driving force. You bring up the two programs' recent struggles. That's an interesting point because beating Michigan or beating Notre Dame doesn't mean what it used to. Plus, the ability to play more of a national schedule could help both teams as they target playoff spots.

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Getting It Done: Abdullah's Four TDs
Ameer Abdullah finished the day with 146 yards rushing and four touchdowns in No. 19 Nebraska's 38-17 win over Northwestern.
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