Nebraska Cornhuskers: Shilique Calhoun

Michigan's defense controlled play throughout the spring game Saturday at Michigan Stadium, echoing a theme throughout most of the league that day.

Several Big Ten squads held scrimmages or open practices, and the defenses had the edge in most of them. The offenses stepped up in a few, and several quarterbacks appear to be separating themselves.

Let's recap the weekend scrimmages. (Note: Scrimmages that were closed to the media and had no available statistics.)

WISCONSIN

Despite a new-look front seven and several position changes, Wisconsin's defense dominated Saturday's scrimmage. Cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary both had good days against an undermanned receiving corps, and coach Gary Andersen called the quarterback play very average. "We have a long way to go in the throw game, and that's disappointing," Andersen said. "If we want to be a good team, we have to figure that out." The defense also shined against the run, even against top backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement.

PURDUE

Technically, the Boilers' offense won Saturday's jersey scrimmage at Ross-Ade Stadium. But the defense looked stronger for much of the day, recording seven sacks and two takeaways. Unofficially, five Boilers recorded sacks, including two from tackle Michael Rouse III, who finished with three tackles for loss. Coach Darrell Hazell said of the defensive line, "They played in the [offensive] backfield."

Top quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby struggled, combining to complete 21 of 42 passes for 205 yards with a touchdown (Etling) and an interception (Appleby). Running back Raheem Mostert highlighted the offense with 134 yards and two touchdowns on only nine carries. Mostert is making a strong push this spring to be Purdue's No. 1 running back.

MINNESOTA

The Gophers' defense loses top performers Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen from last fall's unit, but it controlled play on Saturday. Minnesota's D held the offense without a point on its first seven possessions in the scrimmage. Safety Cedric Thompson had an excellent interception off a deflection on the first drive. The offense picked it up later in the scrimmage, as quarterback Mitch Leidner found KJ Maye for a 50-yard touchdown strike, and both Leidner and Berkley Edwards had long touchdown runs.

NEBRASKA

Here's one offense that flexed its muscles on Saturday after being subdued earlier in the week. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. had an "efficient" performance, according to coach Bo Pelini, as he continues to look like the team's top signal-caller. Armstrong ran for two touchdowns. Sophomore Terrell Newby received a lot of work at running back as Ameer Abdullah sat out, and receiver Jordan Westerkamp turned a short pass into a long gain. Defensive tackle Aaron Curry left the field with a neck injury, but Pelini thinks he'll be fine.

MICHIGAN STATE

The offense recorded a 27-25 win against the defense in MSU's first spring jersey scrimmage, as quarterback Connor Cook completed 15 of 21 passes for 187 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett, who has been relatively quiet since transferring from Tennessee, had five receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown. Tyler O'Connor, competing for the backup quarterback job, had a good day (10-for-15 passing, 132 yards, TD).

After allowing a touchdown on the opening possession, the defense forced four consecutive stops. Standouts included safety Kurtis Drummond (six tackles, 1 TFL, interception), end Shilique Calhoun (two sacks) and linebacker Chris Frey, an early enrollee, who had two sacks and three tackles for loss.

ILLINOIS

The Illini had their second off-site practice of the spring, traveling to Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield for a controlled scrimmage on Friday night. Quarterback Wes Lunt continues to look like Illinois' starter. According to Rivals.com's Doug Buchson, Lunt completed his first 14 pass attempts against the second-string defense for about 250 yards and two touchdowns. Freshman wideout Mike Dudek continues his strong spring, and receiver Geronimo Allison had a 45-yard touchdown catch from Lunt.

Defensive linemen Kenny Nelson and DeJazz Woods stood out against the second-team offensive line, consistently penetrating the backfield. Cornerback Caleb Day also looked good.

RUTGERS

The most important thing coming out of Rutgers' first spring scrimmage was some clarity at quarterback, as Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano all worked with the first-team offense. Although a rash of injuries made it tough to get a true gauge, Bimonte had the best day, leading two touchdown drives. Coach Kyle Flood said all three signal-callers will continue to work with the top offense. Flood singled out defensive linemen Darius Hamilton and Kemoko Turay for their play during the scrimmage.

NORTHWESTERN

Like several other Big Ten teams, Northwestern can't have full-blown scrimmages because of its injury situation. But the Wildcats had their top units match up for stretches of Saturday's practice on the lakefront. Trevor Siemian entered the spring as the No. 1 quarterback and appears to be ending it the same way. Siemian looked sharp on his first series, completing all three of his attempts. Dropped passes were a problem for much of the day, but wide receiver Kyle Prater, a USC transfer who has battled injuries for much of his career, had a one-handed grab on a pass from Zack Oliver. Cornerback Matt Harris and safety Kyle Queiro both made plays for the defense.

OHIO STATE

The Buckeyes invited students inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for Saturday's practice, creating some cool scenes. Several young players stood out, namely cornerback Eli Apple, who had two interceptions and a big hit. Running back Curtis Samuel, an early enrollee, also sparked the crowd with a 50-yard touchdown run. Linebacker has been an area of concern for Ohio State, but Darron Lee and Chris Worley both made some plays on the outside. Ezekiel Elliott is looking more like Ohio State's top running back, as he showed his size and versatility during the practice.
The ultimate Big Ten road trip for the 2014 season is, sadly, over. It's back to the reality of travel budgets and some Saturdays on the couch. For those who weren't paying attention the past few weeks, Brian Bennett and I each picked a game to attend -- featuring at least one Big Ten team -- during each week of the 2014 season.

The full itinerary is below:

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
Week 5: Brian at Cincinnati-Ohio State; Adam at Minnesota-Michigan
Week 6: Adam at Nebraska-Michigan State; Brian at Nebraska-Michigan State
Week 7: Brian at Penn State-Michigan; Adam at Northwestern-Minnesota
Week 8: Adam at Iowa-Maryland; Brian at Nebraska-Northwestern
Week 9: Brian at Michigan-Michigan State; Adam at Ohio State-Penn State
Week 10: Adam at Northwestern-Iowa; Brian at Wisconsin-Rutgers
Week 11: Brian and Adam at Ohio State-Michigan State
Week 12: Adam and Brian at Nebraska-Wisconsin
Week 13: Brian and Adam at Wisconsin-Iowa
Week 14: Adam at Michigan-Ohio State; Brian at Nebraska-Iowa

You've seen our picks. Now it's time for yours.

Today's poll asks you to pick one game to attend during the 2014 season. It's a tall order, we know, as there are several good options. You can pick the biggest game for your favorite team if you'd like, but we'd also like you to think a little broader. Consider the locations, the timing, the game-day atmosphere, the culinary/beverage options and more.

It wasn't easy narrowing the options to five, but here goes ...
    SportsNation

    Which Big Ten game would you most like to attend?

    •  
      11%
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      15%
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      15%
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      29%
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      30%

    Discuss (Total votes: 9,218)

  • Wisconsin vs. LSU, Aug. 30 in Houston: If you like Texas barbecue, running backs and blockbuster season openers, this is the game for you. Wisconsin standout Melvin Gordon begins a potential Heisman Trophy campaign against a strong LSU defense at Reliant Stadium (soon to be NRG Stadium). The Badgers have a big chance to make a statement about their place in the Big Ten race and possibly the playoff picture.
  • Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6: The Big Ten has the biggest stadiums in college football, but Oregon probably has the loudest in Autzen Stadium. The Ducks also boast an excellent team led by quarterback Marcus Mariota. Michigan State's last trip to the West Coast was great one, and the Spartans can put themselves in the playoff mix with an upset win in Eugene. Also, sources tell me the Oregon dance team will be there.
  • Ohio State at Michigan State, Nov. 8: A rematch of the 2013 Big Ten championship game pairs the two preseason favorites in the East Division. The game features standout quarterbacks (Braxton Miller and Connor Cook) and pass rushers (Shilique Calhoun, Joey Bosa and Noah Spence). It also could kick off under the lights, despite being in November. Sparta will be rocking.
  • Nebraska at Wisconsin, Nov. 15:The West Division title could be on the line as the Huskers and Badgers meet at Camp Randall, site of Nebraska's league debut as a Big Ten member in 2011. Ameer Abdullah and the Huskers look for a much better result this time around. Abdullah will share the field with his good friend, Gordon, in a matchup of the league's top two running backs. Madison could be chilly, but it offers a lot to see, do, eat and drink.
  • Michigan at Ohio State, Nov. 29: The Game doesn't need much of a sales pitch, especially after last season's thriller in Ann Arbor. Miller plays his final home game and tries to finish with three consecutive wins against the Wolverines. Michigan aims for its first win in Columbus since 2000. It's a big year for Wolverines coach Brady Hoke, who could use another win against Michigan's archrival.

Time to vote.
We've reached October in our 2014 ultimate Big Ten road trip. Keep in mind this is basically pure fantasy because of budget limitations (but if you guys want to contribute to a Kickstarter to get us out to the biggest games every week, well, we wouldn't be opposed).

For those just joining in, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the 2014 season. We aren't tied down by a travel budget or nagging editors. If we want to attend a game -- depending on matchup, location, culinary offerings or any other factors -- we can go.

Here's our menu of selections for Week 6:

North Texas at Indiana
Nebraska at Michigan State
Michigan at Rutgers
Ohio State at Maryland
Purdue at Illinois
Wisconsin at Northwestern

Open date: Iowa, Minnesota, Penn State

Brian Bennett's pick: Nebraska at Michigan State

Well, this one's a no-brainer. While it might be fun to watch Big Ten newbies Maryland and Rutgers play host to the two most storied names in league history, you just can't beat Huskers-Spartans for competitive and entertainment purposes. They are the only two teams to ever represent the Legends Division in the Big Ten title game, and now they'll be playing a cross-division, East-West matchup that could have a huge impact on who gets to Indianapolis this December.

This has been a pretty good series in the last three years, with Nebraska unexpectedly dominating the Spartans at home in 2011, the Huskers pulling off a miracle comeback in East Lansing in 2012 and Michigan State exacting revenge in Lincoln last year in a wild, turnover-filled game. I'd pay money just to watch Randy Gregory and Shilique Calhoun on the same field. Then you've got Ameer Abdullah and Jeremy Langford at tailback, two of the more interesting young quarterbacks in the league in Connor Cook and Tommy Armstrong Jr. and what could be two of the conference's best defenses, if Nebraska's young talent continues to develop.

I didn't have to think twice about this one. Adam, should I save a spot for you at Crunchy's, or will you be checking out one of those titanic tilts in Bloomington or Champaign?

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Nebraska at Michigan State

Crunchy's? Yes, please. And before that, we can stop by The Peanut Barrel, where sources tell me colleague Jesse Palmer once ordered the rod-ay-o burger and was rightly panned. I considered staying home for Wisconsin-Northwestern, especially because my son turns 1 a few days later, but I'll be back in plenty of time for a birthday he certainly won't remember.

Although this game loses a bit of luster because it's no longer within the Legends Division (tear), the teams and the storylines make up for it. I've never seen a Michigan State-Nebraska contest and don't want to miss a key game for both squads. You've got two potential All-America candidates at defensive end in Calhoun and Gregory. Abdullah faces a new-look defensive front seven, but one that should still be pretty solid despite departures at both defensive tackle and linebacker. Nebraska has given Michigan State's defense some trouble in recent years, and the Huskers will feature a dual-threat quarterback, whether it's Armstrong, Johnny Stanton or wide receiver Jamal Turner, who has been taking snaps at QB this spring. Cook and the Big Ten's most improved receiver corps take aim at a Nebraska secondary trying to reload after losing two all-conference cornerbacks (Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans).

The game could be a preview of the Big Ten championship, and I've yet to see Michigan State play in this series. There's something about Nebraska that brings us together, Bennett. Meet you in Sparta.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
Week 5: Brian at Cincinnati-Ohio State, Adam at Minnesota-Michigan
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive lines.

Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.

Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.

Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.

Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.

Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.

Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.

Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.

Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.

Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.

Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.

Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.

Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.

Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.

Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
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, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Noah Spence, Vincent Valentine, Avery Moss, Randy Gregory, Sean McEvilly, Marcus Rush, Malik McDowell, DaQuan Jones, Ra'Shede Hageman, Adolphus Washington, Antoine White, Shilique Calhoun, Maliek Collins, Greg McMullen, Nick Mangieri, Deion Barnes, Theiren Cockran, Tyler Scott, Darius Latham, Joey Bosa, Dave Aranda, Beau Allen, Carl Davis, Louis Trinca-Pasat, Houston Bates, Teko Powell, Ryan Russell, Bruce Gaston Jr., Joe Keels, Anthony Zettel, Drew Ott, Tarow Barney, Tyler Hoover, Jihad Ward, David Kenney, Ralphael Green, Larry Johnson, Micajah Reynolds, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Langston Newton, C.J. Olaniyan, Mark Scarpinato, Aaron Curry, Joel Hale, Joe Fotu, Scott Ekpe, B1G spring positions 14, Paul James, Alex Keith, Andre Monroe, Arthur Goldberg, Austin Teitsma, Cameron Botticelli, Chance Carter, Chikwe Obasih, Chris Carter, Damon Knox, Darian Cooper, Darius Kilgo, David Milewski, Dawuane Smoot, Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson, Djwany Mera, Dominic Alvis, Evan Panfil, Greg Latta, Harold Legania, Isaac Holmes, Jake Keefer, Jalani Phillips, Jamal Marcus, James Adeyanju, James Kittredge, Jamil Merrell, Julian Pinnix-Odrick, Keith Bowers, Kemoko Turay, Konrad Zagzebski, Lawrence Thomas, Marcus Thompson, Max Chapman, Michael Amaefula, Michael Rouse III, Nate Meier, Quinton Jefferson, Roman Braglio, Ryan Isaac, Ryan Phillis, Ryan Watson, Sebastian Joseph, Tim Kynard, Tommy Schutt, Warren Herring, Zack Shaw

Darqueze DennardMike Carter/USA TODAY SportsDarqueze Dennard fell just short of the top spot in the 2013 Big Ten final player countdown, but the Michigan State cornerback was one of six Spartans that made the cut, the most of any school.

Our postseason Top 25 player countdown concluded earlier today with a familiar name -- Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller -- at the top. What did you think of the rundown? Let us know here and here.

Let's dive into the rankings ...

BY TEAM

Michigan State: 6
Ohio State: 5
Wisconsin: 4
Nebraska: 2
Michigan: 2
Iowa: 2
Indiana: 1
Illinois: 1
Penn State: 1
Minnesota: 1

Northwestern and Purdue weren't represented on the list, although several players -- Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and kicker Jeff Budzien, along with Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen -- were considered.

BY POSITION

Linebacker: 5
Running back: 5
Wide receiver: 4
Quarterback: 3
Offensive tackle: 3
Defensive end: 2
Cornerback: 2
Defensive tackle: 1

The Big Ten remains a linebacker- and running back-driven league, just like we thought it would be entering the season. Wide receiver saw an improvement in 2013 as four players made the list, up from just one (Penn State's Allen Robinson) following the 2012 season. Cornerback is another spot that improved around the league. Although just two made the list, others such as Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Purdue's Allen and Michigan's Blake Countess wouldn't have been bad choices.

Center traditionally has been a strong position in the Big Ten but none made the cut this year (Ohio State's Corey Linsley came close). Safety continues to be a bit of a problem around the league. There are some good safeties but few great ones. That could change in 2014 as players such as Kurtis Drummond and Ibraheim Campbell return.

BY CLASS (eligibility)

Senior: 13
Junior: 8
Sophomore: 4

Of the nine juniors, five are returning for the 2014 season. Draft-eligible sophomores such as Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon also are returning.

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg was the only freshman (true or redshirt) seriously considered for the list.

RANKINGS HISTORY

Ten players also appeared in the 2012 postseason rankings. Here they are:

No. 1: Braxton Miller (No. 1 in 2012 rankings)
No. 2: Darqueze Dennard (No. 19 in 2012 rankings)
No. 3: Carlos Hyde (No. 21 in 2012 rankings)
No. 4: Ameer Abdullah (No. 20 in 2012 rankings)
No. 5: Ryan Shazier (No. 10 in 2012 rankings)
No. 6: Chris Borland (No. 13 in 2012 rankings)
No. 7: Allen Robinson (No. 11 in 2012 rankings)
No. 9: Taylor Lewan (No. 7 in 2012 rankings)
No. 14: Max Bullough (No. 15 in 2012 rankings)
No. 16: Bradley Roby (No. 16 in 2012 rankings)

Dennard, Hyde and Abdullah were the biggest risers from 2012, while Calhoun, who finished No. 8 after being unranked after his freshman year, made the biggest overall jump.

When it comes to the preseason Top 25, 14 players who made the list also appear in the postseason rankings. Dennard (preseason No. 10), Abdullah (preseason No. 13), Gordon (preseason No. 22) and Wisconsin running back James White preseason No. 23) are among the biggest risers, while Lewan (preseason No. 2), Bullough (preseason No. 7) and Roby (preseason No. 9) slipped a bit. Hyde would have made the preseason rankings, but we weren't sure of his status because of the night club incident.

FIVE THAT JUST MISSED THE CUT

[+] EnlargeIllinois' Jonathan Brown
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsJonathan Brown (45) was one of the top linebackers in the conference and just barely missed making the Top 25.
Illinois LB Jonathan Brown: Brown definitely was No. 26 on our list and certainly could have made the Top 25 rundown. The second-team All-Big Ten selection finished second in the league in tackles (119) and fourth in tackles per loss average (1.25 per game).

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: He had some typical freshman moments but finished the season extremely well and showed tremendous potential. Hackenberg earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors and passed for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Iowa LB Anthony Hitchens: Hitchens had an excellent senior season as part of the Big Ten's top linebacker corps. He finished sixth in the league in tackles per game and seventh in tackles for loss. He recorded two forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovered.

Penn State DT DaQuan Jones: Jones earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches and was a bright spot for a defense that struggled for much of the season. He had 56 tackles, including a team-high 11 tackles for loss, and three sacks.

Ohio State DE Noah Spence: Spence began to display his tremendous potential for a young Buckeyes defensive line, finishing second in the league in sacks (8) and sixth in tackles for loss (14.5). He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media and second-team honors from the coaches.

Big Ten lunchtime links

January, 8, 2014
Jan 8
12:00
PM ET
Only 35 days until pitchers and catchers report.

Recapping the Big Ten All-Americans

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier

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

Michigan OT Taylor Lewan

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

Wisconsin LB Chris Borland

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

Penn State WR Allen Robinson

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

Ohio State OT Jack Mewhort

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

Northwestern K Jeff Budzien

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

Michigan State P Mike Sadler

First team: ESPN.com, CBSSports.com

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

Second team: AP, Walter Camp, SI.com

Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde

Third team: AP

Iowa OT Brandon Scherff

Second team: FWAA

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Third team: AP

Penn State G John Urschel

Third team: AP

Wisconsin G Ryan Groy

Third team: AP

Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman

Third team: AP

Michigan State LB Max Bullough

Third team: AP

Michigan State LB Denicos Allen

Second team: SI.com
Third team: AP

Nebraska G Spencer Long

Third team: CBSSports.com

Ohio State S C.J. Barnett

Third team: CBSSports.com

Big Ten lunchtime links

December, 18, 2013
12/18/13
12:00
PM ET
I'm Ron Burgundy?

Shazier, Dennard lead AP All-Americans

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

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

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

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

Several Big Ten players are featured on the AP's third team. They are:
Congrats to all the honorees. Kind of surprised that neither Mike Sadler nor Cody Webster made any of the three teams at punter, but the Big Ten is well represented among the All-Americans.
The Big Ten released its all-conference teams as selected by coaches and the media earlier this month. We didn't have a vote for the media teams, and we don't pretend to know as much about football as the league's coaches.

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

Offense

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

Defense

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

Specialists

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

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

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

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

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

Let's begin ...

Adam Rittenberg's first impressions

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

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

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

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

Brian Bennett's first impressions

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

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

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

The bowl season will be a success if: At least one BCS win is a necessity, especially with opponents who are similar in style in both games. Winning at least one of the games against the SEC on New Year's Day is also important; that holiday has been unkind to the Big Ten of late, and Georgia and LSU look more vulnerable than usual. An overall winning record is possible and could start to change the conference's image. Another sign of success will be if Wisconsin can avoid adding to Clowney's postseason highlight reel.
The Big Ten has released its official 2013 all-conference teams as selected by the coaches and media, along with some of the major individual award winners. We'll have reaction to the choices in a bit, but first digest these lists:

Griese-Brees Quarterback of the Year: Braxton Miller, Ohio State

Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year: Allen Robinson, Penn State

Ameche-Dayne Running Back of the Year: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State

Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year: Devin Funchess, Michigan

Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year: Taylor Lewan, Michigan

Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the Year: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State

Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year: Chris Borland, Wisconsin

Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State

Bakken-Andersen Kicker of the Year: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern

Eddleman-Fields Punter of the Year: Cody Webster, Purdue

First team (coaches)

QB: Braxton Miller, Ohio State
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
RB: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsOhio State's Braxton Miller has been named the Griese-Brees Quarterback of the Year in the Big Ten.
C: Corey Linsley, Ohio State
G: John Urschel, Penn State
G: Ryan Groy, Wisconsin
T: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
T: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
TE: C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
K: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern

DL: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
DL: Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
DL: Randy Gregory, Nebraska
DL: DaQuan Jones, Penn State
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
DB: Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State
DB: Brock Vereen, Minnesota
DB: Ciante Evans, Nebraska
DB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
P: Cody Webster, Purdue

First team (Media)

QB: Braxton Miller, Ohio State
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
RB: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
C: Corey Linsley, Ohio State
G: Andrew Norwell, Ohio State
G: John Urschel, Penn State
T: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
T: Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan
K: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern

DL: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
DL: Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
DL: Randy Gregory, Nebraska
DL: Noah Spence, Ohio State
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
DB: B.J. Lowery, Iowa
DB: Blake Countess, Michigan
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
P: Cody Webster, Purdue

Second team (Coaches)

[+] EnlargeShilique Calhoun
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State's Shilique Calhoun has been named the Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the Year in the Big Ten.
QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
RB: James White, Wisconsin
WR: Jeremy Gallon, Michigan
WR: Corey Brown, Ohio State
C: Cole Pensick, Nebraska
G: Blake Treadwell, Michigan State
G: Andrew Norwell, Ohio State
T: Brett Van Sloten, Iowa
T: Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan
K: Mitch Ewald, Indiana

DL: Carl Davis, Iowa
DL: Frank Clark, Michigan
DL: Michael Bennett, Ohio State
DL: Noah Spence, Ohio State
LB: Anthony Hitchens, Iowa
LB: James Morris, Iowa
LB: Denicos Allen, Michigan State
DB: Blake Countess, Michigan
DB: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska

Second team (Media)

QB: Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
RB: James White, Wisconsin
WR: Cody Latimer, Indiana
WR: Jeremy Gallon, Michigan
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State
G: Blake Treadwell, Michigan State
G: Ryan Groy, Wisconsin
T: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
T: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin
TE: C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
K: Mike Meyer, Iowa

DL: Theiren Cockran, Minnesota
DL: Tyler Scott, Northwestern
DL: Michael Bennett, Ohio State
DL: DaQuan Jones, Penn State
LB: Jonathan Brown, Illinois
LB: James Morris, Iowa
LB: Denicos Allen, Michigan State
LB: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
DB: Ciante Evans, Nebraska
DB: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska
DB: Ricardo Allen, Purdue
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State

Honorable mention (coaches): ILLINOIS: Jonathan Brown, Steve Hull, Nathan Scheelhaase; INDIANA: Ted Bolser, Tevin Coleman, Cody Latimer, Jason Spriggs; IOWA: Austin Blythe, Conor Boffeli, Christian Kirksey, B.J. Lowery, Tanner Miller, Louis Trinca-Pasat; MICHIGAN: Jibreel Black, Michael Schofield; MICHIGAN STATE: Jack Allen, Fou Fonoti, Dan France, Jeremy Langford, Marcus Rush, Trae Waynes; MINNESOTA: Caleb Bak, Aaron Hill, Peter Mortell, Eric Murray; NEBRASKA: Jason Ankrah, Kenny Bell, Corey Cooper, Andrew Rodriguez, Jeremiah Sirles; NORTHWESTERN: Ibraheim Campbell, Tyler Scott, Brandon Vitabile; OHIO STATE: C.J. Barnett, Drew Basil, Joey Bosa, Doran Grant, Marcus Hall, Jeff Heuerman, Cameron Johnston, Devin Smith; PENN STATE: Adrian Amos, Glenn Carson, Christian Hackenberg, Ty Howle, Jordan Lucas, C.J. Olaniyan, Donovan Smith; PURDUE: Ricardo Allen; WISCONSIN: Beau Allen, Rob Havenstein,Tyler Marz, Pat Muldoon, Jacob Pedersen, Dezmen Southward.

Honorable mention (media): ILLINOIS: Houston Bates, Steve Hull; INDIANA: Tim Bennett, Ted Bolser, Tevin Coleman, Mitch Ewald, Collin Rahrig, Jason Spriggs; IOWA: Austin Blythe, Conor Boffeli, Carl Davis, Anthony Hitchens, Christian Kirksey, Casey Kreiter, John Lowdermilk, Tanner Miller, Louis Trinca-Pasat, Brett Van Sloten; MICHIGAN: Jibreel Black, Frank Clark, Devin Gardner, Brendan Gibbons; Raymon Taylor; MICHIGAN STATE: Connor Cook, Fou Fonoti, Dan France, Michael Geiger, Jeremy Langford, Isaiah Lewis, Marcus Rush; Trae Waynes; MINNESOTA: Caleb Bak, Josh Campion, Zac Epping, Peter Mortell, Eric Murray, Brock Vereen; NEBRASKA: Jason Ankrah, Kenny Bell, Cole Pensick, Andrew Rodriguez, Jeremiah Sirles, Pat Smith; NORTHWESTERN: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Ibraheim Campbell, Damien Proby, Brandon Vitabile; OHIO STATE: C.J. Barnett, Drew Basil, Joey Bosa, Corey Brown, Doran Grant, Marcus Hall, Jeff Heuerman, Cameron Johnston; PENN STATE: Glenn Carson, Sam Ficken, Christian Hackenberg, Ty Howle, Jesse James, Jordan Lucas, C.J. Olaniyan, Donovan Smith; WISCONSIN: Beau Allen, Michael Caputo, Tyler Marz, Pat Muldoon, Jacob Pedersen, Sojourn Shelton, Dezmen Southward, Joel Stave.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One last note: Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 14

November, 26, 2013
11/26/13
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Next week, the Big Ten will hand out its individual awards. Let's take a look at where a few of those races stand with one more weekend left to impress voters:

Graham–George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: He added another 147 rushing yards last week against Penn State and would have had more if his potential game-winning touchdown run hadn't been called back on a highly questionable penalty. If Abdullah gets close to his average this week against Iowa, he'll finish the regular season with 1,600 rushing yards.

2. Ohio State QB Braxton Miller: Given the way other Heisman candidates have fallen off, Miller would have been a virtual lock to get to New York had he not missed three games in September. During conference play, he leads the Big Ten in total offense with more than 296 yards per game and is responsible for 22 touchdowns in seven league games.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesCarlos Hyde leads the Big Ten in rushing yards and touchdowns in conference play.
3. Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde: He became the first running back under Urban Meyer to eclipse 1,000 yards for the season, and he has more rushing yards (1,023) and rushing touchdowns (13) than any other player in Big Ten action. Like Miller, he is being held down only by missed time in September.

4. Wisconsin RB James White: A 125-yard day at Minnesota gave White his sixth consecutive game with at least 98 yards rushing. He's third behind Abdullah and Hyde in rushing during conference play.

5. Penn State WR Allen Robinson: He put up his seventh 100-yard receiving game of the season with 106 vs. Nebraska. But Robinson has been held without a touchdown in his last four contests.

Nagurski–Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier: He followed up a 16-tackle performance against Illinois with 20 tackles and five tackles for loss against Indiana. He also was named a Butkus Award finalist and now leads the league in both total tackles (108) and tackles for loss (19.5). Shazier sure looks headed toward hoisting this trophy next.

2. Wisconsin LB Chris Borland: Borland was snubbed as a Butkus Award finalist and might finish second to Shazier for both defensive player and linebacker of the year. But as his 12-tackle, two fumble recovery day at Minnesota reminded us, he's every bit as good as any linebacker in the country.

3. Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard: He grabbed his fourth interception of the season at Northwestern, adding another chapter in what has been an incredible and All-America-worthy season.

4. Nebraska DE Randy Gregory: He didn't get to the quarterback on Saturday, but leads the Big Ten in sacks with 8.5 and is second with 14.5 tackles for loss.

5. Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun: He was quiet last week with just one tackle, but he still has a league-best four fumble recoveries and 6.5 sacks.

Rimington–Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year

1. Ohio State OT Jack Mewhort: To the victors go the spoils, and Ohio State leads the Big Ten in scoring, total offense and rushing yards while giving up the fourth-fewest sacks. Urban Meyer has said that Mewhort is the "absolute leader" of the offense, and it was apparent how much the league's best offensive line missed him when he came out of the Illinois game.

2. Michigan OT Taylor Lewan: The Wolverines say Lewan is grading out an even higher rate than last season, when he was an All-American and he won this award. We'll take their word on that, but the overall struggles of the offense and the line in general can't be overlooked, which is why we'd vote for Mewhort over Lewan.

3. Iowa OT Brandon Scherff: The junior has had a terrific year in helping the Hawkeyes re-establish the run game -- they're averaging 191 rushing yards per game. Iowa has only given up 10 sacks and a league-low 40 yards from sacks in 11 games.

Roundtable: B1G defensive player of year

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

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

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

To the debate we go …

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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