Nebraska Cornhuskers: Venric Mark

The best offenses are usually the ones with the best triple threats: a big-time quarterback, an elite running back and a go-to wide receiver.

So which Big Ten offenses have the most intimidating three-headed monsters on offense for 2014? Glad you asked. We're going to look at each team's top triple-threat combo and rank them in their divisions. First up: the Big Ten West.

1. Nebraska

QB Tommy Armstrong Jr., RB Ameer Abdullah, WR Kenny Bell

The skinny: Yes, Armstrong still has a lot to prove as a full-time starting quarterback. But the Huskers have one of the best running backs in the country in Abdullah and a proven wideout in Bell. As you'll see, not every team in the division has that luxury. If Armstrong can simply be steady, the Nebraska offense should produce at a high level.

2. Wisconsin

QB Joel Stave, RB Melvin Gordon, RB Corey Clement

The skinny: Who emerges as the Badgers' top wide receiver is anyone's guess after the departure of Jared Abbrederis. But Wisconsin has shown the ability to pile up yards simply by running the ball, and the duo of Gordon and Clement has the potential to be really special if Clement makes the expected leap. Stave, however, needs to find more consistency -- assuming he even retains the starting job this season.

3. Northwestern

QB Trevor Siemian, RB Venric Mark, WR Christian Jones

The skinny: The Wildcats have a chance to improve this standing if Mark is fully recovered from last season's injuries and if Siemian continues to develop as a passer. But they lack a true No. 1 wideout -- Jones had 54 catches for 688 yards and four touchdowns, while Tony Jones caught 55 balls for 630 yards last season.

4. Iowa

QB Jake Rudock, RB Mark Weisman, WR Kevonte Martin-Manley

The skinny: Rudock completed 59 percent of his passes as a first-year starter and faces a bit of competition this spring from C.J. Beathard. The strength of the Hawkeyes' offense remains their running game, led by Weisman. Iowa needs more from its receivers, as the senior Martin-Manley led the team with just 388 receiving yards last season. Perhaps Damond Powell or Tevaun Smith can add some sizzle to the passing game.

5. Illinois

QB Wes Lunt, RB Josh Ferguson, WR Martize Barr

The skinny: We trust offensive coordinator Bill Cubit to put together a potent attack this fall and probably make this ranking look way too low. But there are a lot of uncertainties right now, as Oklahoma State transfer Lunt hasn't even officially won the starting job and Barr is the top returning receiver despite posting just 246 receiving yards last season.

6. Minnesota

QB Mitch Leidner, RB David Cobb, TE Maxx Williams

The skinny: Scoring in bunches wasn't exactly the Gophers' calling card last season. On the plus side, they do return a 1,200-yard back in Cobb, who will be joined by Donnell Kirkwood (926 yards in 2012) and incoming top recruit Jeff Jones to form a deep backfield. But the passing game was one of the least productive in the FBS last season and needs major steps forward from Leidner and young receivers like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones.

7. Purdue

QB Danny Etling, RB Akeem Hunt, WR DeAngelo Yancey

The skinny: The Boilers averaged a putrid 14.9 ppg last season, though the potential for better things is there with true sophomores Etling and Yancey. The running game simply has to get better, however, as Hunt led the team with just 464 yards on the ground in 2013.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

March, 21, 2014
Mar 21
4:30
PM ET
Brackets still intact? Didn't think so. Be sure to follow us on Twitter.

Let's check the mail ...

Husker Jeff from Lincoln Park writes: Adam, can we get some decent weather here in the Windy City? ... Anyway, a conference that is always known for its running backs looks to have some salty returners for the 2014 season. What's your top five at the RB position for this upcoming season?

Adam Rittenberg: Jeff, this winter can't end soon enough. Just brutal. ... Yes, the Big Ten once again will be a running back's league in 2013, despite losing standouts such as Carlos Hyde and James White.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsNebraska's Ameer Abdullah is the top returning running back in the Big Ten.
Here's my top five entering the fall:

1. Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: Most consistent back in the league and helps his team in so many ways. Needs to score more touchdowns.

2. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Has the most star potential and could be on the Heisman Trophy radar. Must show more consistency in Big Ten play.

3. Venric Mark, Northwestern: Recent injury history is a concern, but his speed and willingness to mix it up between the tackles makes him stand out. Also a huge threat on returns.

4. Tevin Coleman, Indiana: Explosive player who averaged 7.3 yards per carry as a sophomore. Must show he can handle more touches this season.

5. Jeremy Langford, Michigan State: Solid back who gets stronger as games go on. Yards-per-carry average isn't exceptional, but he gets the job done.

Also in the mix: David Cobb, Minnesota; Josh Ferguson, Illinois; Mark Weisman, Iowa


Alex from York, Neb., writes: Is it me, or does it seem like nobody is favoring Nebraska to win the West Division this year? It seems like most everyone favors Wisconsin, Iowa or Minnesota. Nebraska's young defense, which improved greatly at the end of last year, only loses a few starters in the secondary, but secondary is always a strength here regardless who's in it. Gregory is back, Abdullah is back and QB play should improve this year. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Nebraska is definitely in the conversation, Alex, and you can make a case (as you have) for the Huskers being the front runner. But there's no clear favorite in the West, and all five of the top contenders -- I'd throw Northwestern in there, too -- have potential flaws. When a group of teams is about even on paper, you look to factors such as schedule to separate them. And that's where both Wisconsin and Iowa have a huge edge.

Neither team faces Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan nor Penn State in crossover games. Iowa gets both Wisconsin and Nebraska at home. Nebraska, meanwhile, must visit both Wisconsin and Iowa, as well as Michigan State and Northwestern. The Huskers must be good away from Lincoln, perfect at home and avoid the blowout losses that have plagued them.


Dan from Cleveland writes: Adam, by now I'm sure you are exhausted of explaining how next year's Wisconsin squad has to replace essential starters on both sides of the ball. My question is, as of right now, what should we expect from LSU? Will they be SEC contenders? Rebuilding? Underdogs in this matchup? (I know the last one is far-fetched, but one can dream, right?)

Adam Rittenberg: LSU has lost 18 underclassmen to the NFL draft in the past two seasons, including five offensive players from the 2013 squad. For that reason it's difficult to label the Tigers as an SEC title contender, especially with Auburn and Alabama in the same division. But LSU always has talent, especially on defense, and one of the nation's best defensive coordinators in John Chavis. The Tigers also bring in running back Leonard Fournette, the nation's No. 1 recruit. They'll be the favorite in Houston.


Matt from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Hi, Adam, I have to wonder if Penn State is being severely overlooked in the Big Ten East race this coming fall? Their schedule appears to be the easiest of all those in the East Division by far. Weak out-of-conference games. Crossover games against Northwestern and Illinois should be easy wins. The they get both MSU and OSU at home, while traveling to Michigan. If they can find a away to win in Ann Arbor, a split with MSU and OSU might just be enough to win the division.

Adam Rittenberg: Penn State has some schedule advantages, although UCF is hardly a pushover and Northwestern should be a tough game, as the Wildcats easily could have won seven or eight contests last year. The Lions still have some potentially major depth issues, especially along both lines. Their starting 11s on both sides could be better than they were in 2013, but they can't afford many injuries. As coach James Franklin told me last month, the longer you're in a limited scholarship situation, the harder it is to manage. But if Penn State is salty at home with MSU and OSU coming in, anything can happen in the East.


Adam from Baltimore writes: I know we at MSU are talking about the playoff and national championship, and I think those expectations are justified. But I get the sense from the media that the season will be somewhat defined by the Oregon game. I understand that it is a huge chance to prove that we belong in the national conversation against a big dog, but what if the game is a blowout one way or the other?

Adam Rittenberg: A blowout certainly hurts the loser's playoff chances, although Oregon would be hurt more by any loss than Michigan State. The Spartans would face an uphill climb if they lose and would need to run the table and likely need help elsewhere to make the top four. But an early season loss, especially a fairly close one on the road, can be forgiven. Michigan State would want Oregon to keep winning. An Oregon loss, meanwhile, could knock the Ducks out of the playoff picture.
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 are the choices for Week 8:

Oct. 18

Iowa at Maryland
Michigan State at Indiana
Nebraska at Northwestern
Purdue at Minnesota
Rutgers at Ohio State

Open date: Illinois, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin

Brian Bennett's pick: Nebraska at Northwestern

Making this pick means I will have seen Nebraska three times in five weeks, which wasn't really my intention going in. But it would also be my first Northwestern game of the year and my first-ever visit to Ryan Field. And in a potentially pretty weak slate of games, I'm grabbing the matchup that has produced three memorable contests in the past three seasons.

We had the Wildcats' surprise win in Lincoln in 2011, followed by the magical Taylor Martinez-led Huskers comeback in 2012, capped off by the Ron Kellogg III -Jordan Westerkamp Hail Mary miracle last year. Maybe it's that both schools go by the initials NU, or maybe it's because both are so unpredictable at the end of games. Whatever the reason, they usually end up creating something special.

That could be the case again this year. Don't sleep on Northwestern, which is bound to have better luck and health than it did during the miserable 2013 season. The Wildcats' offense has given Nebraska problems in the past. While we could likely see another sea of Big Red in the stands, it's still a tough road game for the Huskers and a potentially pivotal contest in the West Division race. Plus, Ameer Abdullah and Venric Mark will be on the same field, and there's nothing wrong with that. I'll even look for the Rittenberg statue in Evanston.

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Iowa at Maryland

The statue is nestled between two of the town's finest dumpsters. It's a favorite spot for inebriated students or townsfolk who can't make it to the bathroom. You'll love it.

Damn you, double-bye! Another October with very few must-see matchups. Brian is right about the entertainment value that Northwestern and Nebraska bring when they match up. I could regret my decision, but I'm looking to rack up a few more airline points and check out two teams I've yet to see, including a Big Ten newcomer in Maryland.

Most expect Maryland to struggle in its new league, particularly in the East Division, but I see some reasons for optimism with the Terps. They return a veteran quarterback in C.J. Brown, a talented receiving corps highlighted by Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, and some solid pieces on defense like end Andre Monroe. If Maryland can stay healthy -- a big if after the past two seasons -- it could surprise some people. Iowa made significant strides last season and will set its sights on the West Division title. The Hawkeyes return running back Mark Weisman, tackle Brandon Scherff and most of their offense, along with a much-improved defensive line. They also have arguably the softest schedule in the division.

Iowa easily could come into this game with a perfect record, raising the stakes for Kirk Ferentz's crew. Maryland has a much tougher slate and must play well at home to get back to the postseason. I covered a game at Byrd Stadium a decade ago, so it's a good time to go back and check out the scene. Having quite a few friends who live in Washington D.C. makes the decision easier. I'll be sure to rub Testudo's nose and ask for good luck in the predictions race. You cleaned me out last year.

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
Week 6: Adam at Nebraska-Michigan State; Brian at Nebraska-Michigan State
Week 7: Brian at Penn State-Michigan; Adam at Northwestern-Minnesota
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. The series wraps up with the specialists.

Illinois:The Illini might not be exceptional in the kicking game, but they're in better shape than they were when coach Tim Beckman arrived. Punter Justin DuVernois returns after a solid junior season, while Taylor Zalewski looks for a bit more consistency in his second full season as the placekicker. Zalewski made 12 of 17 field-goal attempts last fall. The return game is the real plus, as V'Angelo Bentley provides a major threat, especially on punt returns.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana brings back a dynamic returner in Shane Wynn, who averaged 14 yards on punt run-backs despite limited work. Punter Erich Toth also is back for his third season as the starter. Toth placed 18 of 52 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. IU suffers a big loss at kicker as Mitch Ewald, the team's career field goals and field-goal percentage leader, departs. Aaron Del Grosso and Griffin Oakes will compete at kicker, and Jake Shake (shake and bake!) could enter the mix this summer.

Iowa: Here's another Big Ten team that looks very strong on returns, as Iowa boasts the Big Ten's most dynamic tandem in Kevonte Martin-Manley (punts) and Jordan Cotton (kickoffs). Martin-Manley had two punt-return touchdowns in 2013. Punter Connor Kornbrath ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in average, but placed 27 of 65 attempts inside the opponent's 20. Iowa loses kicker Mike Meyer, a four-year starter. Junior Marshall Koehn seems likely to step up, but could be pushed by incoming freshman Mick Ellis and others.

Maryland: Notice a theme so far? Most Big Ten teams are strong in the return game, and Maryland is no exception. If Stefon Diggs returns at full strength from his leg injury, he'll be a dangerous man with punts and kickoffs in his hands. Will Likely performed extremely well in Diggs' spot, averaging 26 yards on kickoff returns and 12.8 yards on punt returns. Maryland brings back an excellent kicker in Brad Craddock (21-for-25 on field goals last year), and punter Nathan Renfro enters his third season as the starter.

Michigan: Matt Wile has done a bit of everything for Michigan, but could settle into the starting placekicker role this fall. Wile handled kicking duties late last season and also served as Michigan's punter after Will Hagerup was suspended for the season. Hagerup, the Big Ten's punter of the year in 2012, will reclaim the role if he can avoid off-field problems that have surfaced throughout his career. Wile then could focus on kicking, as Kenny Allen is the only other option there. Michigan is still waiting for big things from kick returner Dennis Norfleet and must find someone to handle punts. Top recruit Jabrill Peppers could help.

Michigan State: Special teams once again should be a strength for MSU, which returns All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler, a Ray Guy award semifinalist who will contend for All-America honors in 2014. Kicker Michael Geiger also is back after connecting on 15 of 16 field-goal attempts as a true freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Andre Sims Jr. both put up good numbers on punt returns. Michigan State had by far the fewest kick returns (18) in the Big Ten last year and will look for a boost from R.J. Shelton and others.

Minnesota: After an above-average year on special teams in 2013, Minnesota again should be good in the third phase. Punter Peter Mortell didn't get as many accolades as Sadler or Purdue's Cody Webster, but he had an excellent sophomore season, averaging 43.3 yards per attempt with 15 of 50 yards or longer. Marcus Jones is a major threat on returns after bringing back both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last fall. Redshirt freshman kickers Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte will compete as the Gophers lose Chris Hawthorne.

Nebraska: The Huskers are looking for some upgrades on special teams, particularly on punt returns, as Nebraska ranked 123rd in the FBS last fall. Primary returner Jordan Westerkamp is back, but he'll face some competition. Nebraska brings back punter Sam Foltz, who had a solid freshman season, averaging 41.6 yards per boot. Mauro Bondi is set to step in at kicker as Pat Smith departs. If Bondi struggles, incoming freshman Kris Brown could get a look this summer. Kenny Bell, who led the Big Ten in kick return average (26.5 yards per return), is back.

Northwestern: The Wildcats lose a huge piece in Jeff Budzien, named the Big Ten's top kicker in each of his final two seasons. Hunter Niswander can handle both kickoffs and punts but seems likely to slide into Budzien's spot. Northwestern's punting was a mess in 2013, ranking 118th nationally in net average (33.2 ypp). Brandon Williams departs and Chris Gradone or Niswander will take over. The big news is Northwestern brings back Venric Mark , an All-America punt returner in 2012. Primary kick returner Matt Harris is back after a solid freshman season.

Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Indeed, the Aussie is back at punter as Cameron Johnston returns after an excellent debut season (I refuse to call a 21-year-old a freshman). Ohio State hopes for similar results from another first-year specialist in kicker Sean Nuernberger, an early enrollee expected to step in for the departing Drew Basil. Sophomore Dontre Wilson will continue to have a big role on returns after handling kickoffs last year. Ohio State must replace Corey Brown on punt returns and could look to redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall or true freshmen Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon.

Penn State: The kicking game continues to be an area of concern.Sam Ficken owns the team record for consecutive field goals (15) and started strong last season but ended with just 15 of 23 conversions, including four misses inside 40 yards. Penn State needs a new punter after losing Alex Butterworth, and will turn to Chris Gulla. Jesse Della Valle did a good job on punt returns, but Penn State needs a boost on kickoffs after finishing last in the league (19.1 yards per return). The Lions could stick with Geno Lewis or look for a newcomer such as De'Andre Thompkins to emerge. PSU also must shore up its coverage units.

Purdue: As if the Boilers didn't have enough to address on offense and defense, the kicking game needs attention. Punter Cody Webster finished his spectacular career with All-America honors, and the Boilers finished second nationally in net punting (41.7 yards per punt). Incoming freshman Austin McGehee will take over for Webster. Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows continue to work at kicker, as Griggs made only 50 percent of his attempts (6 of 12) last season. The kick return game is strong with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, but Purdue must replace punt returner Ricardo Allen. B.J. Knauf could be a good fit there.

Rutgers: The kicking game historically is a strength for Rutgers, which has a knack for blocking kicks and pulling off fakes. Rutgers loses a productive piece in punter Nick Marsh, who also handled kickoffs. The Scarlet Knights will turn to Joseph Roth as their replacement. Kicker Kyle Federico finished the season well, particularly in the Pinstripe Bowl, and returns for his junior season. Rutgers has a major weapon on returns in Janarion Grant, who brought back both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown during his freshman season.

Wisconsin: The kicking game has held back Wisconsin in the past, so it's definitely an area to watch during the offseason. Kicker Jack Russell converted 9 of 13 field-goal attempts after taking over for Kyle French. He'll try to hold off incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone. Andrew Endicott, who handled kickoffs last fall, also returns. Wisconsin is looking for more from punter Drew Meyer, who averaged just 38.6 yards per attempt in 2013. Top returner Kenzel Doe is back and should handle both punts and kickoffs, although Wisconsin could look to others for help, such as newcomers Serge Trezy and Natrell Jamerson.

More position breakdowns

Big Ten Friday mailblog

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
4:30
PM ET
Your second mailblog of the week has arrived. Enjoy another weekend of snow (if you're in the Midwest, at least). Spring ball kicks off Saturday at Maryland, and eight teams get started next week. Good times.

Don't forget: Twitter!

To the inbox ...

Logan from just north of Piscataway writes: In response to Matt Brown's lengthy article on Nebraska, I can say that it has been quite frustrating, this past decade. I graduated from UNL in 2003, meaning that I was there for the end of the heyday. That was hard. I've watched my Big Red on four different continents, having kickoffs at all hours of the night and day, and it has worn on me, them not winning. However, I do have great faith in Coach Bo and truly do believe he is the man for the job. He's passionate and, yes, a bit gnarly with the press at times. My question: Do you feel this kind of coach helps, or is he just a distraction?

Adam Rittenberg: I think teams reflect their coach, and Nebraska at times has reflected Bo Pelini's volatile personality. It comes through the annual turnover problems and the week-to-week unpredictability (which team will show up?). Still, I think Bo is an excellent defensive coach who could produce a very good defense in Lincoln most seasons, including 2014. His players really like him, and the program hasn't had many off-field issues. So there are some things to like. Coaches always talk about how they have to be themselves, and Bo always will be a fiery guy. That's OK. But sometimes it goes too far, and the team seems to reflect that volatility.


John from Boise writes: Do you think the Big Ten would ever follow the ACC/SEC model and allow teams to schedule traditional rivals the last week of the season instead of creating conference rivals that make no sense? I mean, Penn State-Pitt is more interesting than Penn State-Mich State, Rutgers, Maryland, etc. Would make more sense and possibly help the lower attendance over the Thanksgiving weekend.

Adam Rittenberg: John, I'll look into this some more, but I think there will be an increased willingness to do so, especially with the Big Ten scheduling league games earlier in the future. Although the Big Ten wants to showcase some of its best games during Thanksgiving weekend, there are certain conference matchups that don't move the needle and others, like Penn State-Pitt, that could do much better in terms of interest/ratings. It's good to see the Big Ten embracing earlier league games, especially with the move to a nine-game league slate in 2016.


Kevin from Evanston, Ill., writes: Trevor Siemian seems to be the No. 1 QB heading into spring practices. Do you think Northwestern would be better off going with Matt Alviti as a starter this year? I feel like with Alviti as QB, they will get the best out of Venric Mark. I think with Trevor Siemian in there, Venric may not used to the best of his ability. I think we will end up seeing the two-QB system, however I feel like it may be more like last year rather than the year before. Also, exactly how good is Oliver?

Adam Rittenberg: Some good points here, Kevin. I agree Alviti's style might better serve Mark, but ultimately you have to go with the best option for the entire offense. Mark's durability is a question mark after last year (and the end of the 2012 season), so building the offense around him and the option game has its risks. Northwestern fans are optimistic about Alviti because of his success in high school, but he has to show significant improvement this spring to truly push Siemian, who has been pretty good in games when healthy. The same goes for Zack Oliver, who has been better in practice after some rough days early in his career.

I disagree Northwestern will use a two-QB system. That ship seems to have sailed. If Siemian wins the job, as expected, I think you'll see an offense that more closely resembles the 2007-10 version (pass-focused, a lot of short- to medium-length throws).


Sammy from Buffalo, N.Y., writes: As an IU fan, and as a student there I was excited when the team played night games, but was discouraged when at least half the crowd leaves at halftime. This does not only happen when the Hoosiers are losing, but it happened in every game this season. College students don't want to be at a dry stadium until 11 p.m. on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, especially at a school like Indiana, and the older alumni have a long drive home on a slow moving state highway. Am I wrong in thinking that night games may actually hurt the Hoosiers more than help them?

Adam Rittenberg: Sammy, it might hurt them with students, but the student-attendance problems at IU, where many traditionally gather outside the stadium but not enough go inside, aren't going away until the team starts winning more. Night games are family-friendly because many kids have their own games in the morning or early afternoon on Saturdays. I agree they can be hard on the older alumni, but there are more benefits for your real target audience (ages 18-45, plus kids), not to mention the increased exposure the program gets from playing under the lights.


Rick from Union City, Calif., writes: Hey Adam, when (not if) the BIG expands, and if they do think about adding KU and OK and possibly TX … do you think that then they will finally invite Mizzou to help create a BIG western (old Big Eight) division? I really don't think that VA or UNC will ever leave the ACC ... stopping any further southern expansion. Any thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Ah, expansion questions, how I've missed thee. The problem with Oklahoma and Texas is the likelihood of having to add other schools such as Oklahoma State and Texas Tech that don't fit into the Big Ten from an academic/profile standpoint. Remember Gordon Gee's email comment about Texas's "Tech problem?" That's still an issue. Same with Oklahoma regarding Oklahoma State. Moreover, the Big Ten is clearly making a push toward the East Coast and its big markets. These schools don't really fit into that vision.

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
1:00
PM ET
Spring practice is off and running in the Big Ten, as Michigan took the field Tuesday and Northwestern followed on Wednesday. We're taking snapshots of where each team stands at each position group.

We've already discussed the quarterbacks -- and will have much more on the way -- so the series begins with the running backs.

Illinois: The Illini are in a bit better shape here than they were the past two springs, as veterans Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young both return. Ferguson averaged 5.5 yards per carry and added 50 receptions for 535 yards as the primary playmaker for Illinois' revamped offense. Young added 376 yards on 93 carries. The Illini are looking for others behind the top two, and Dami Ayoola is back with the team after being dismissed in September for a rules violation.

Indiana: Tevin Coleman quietly put together a superb sophomore season and leads the Hoosiers' running backs in 2014. Coleman provides big-play ability after averaging 7.3 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns on only 131 attempts in 2013. Indiana loses Stephen Houston but brings back veteran D'Angelo Roberts, who will play behind Coleman. Younger players such as sophomore Laray Smith could get a look here.

Iowa: Not only did the Hawkeyes toss AIRBHG to the side and get through the season without any major injurie, but they bring back everyone for 2014. Senior Mark Weisman leads the contingent after rushing for 975 yards and eight touchdowns last fall. Jordan Canzeri came on strong late in the season and is showing no effects from his ACL tear in 2012. Veteran Damon Bullock also returns to the mix, and Iowa has talented younger backs such as LeShun Daniels Jr. at its disposal. Good situation here.

Maryland: The Terrapins wide receivers tend to get more attention, but the team also returns its top three running backs from 2013 in Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Jacquille Veii. Maryland also regains the services of Wes Brown, who finished second on the team in rushing as a freshman in 2012 before being suspended for all of last season. Joe Riddle is back in the fold as well. The group brings different strengths, from power (Brown) to speed (Veii) to a mixture of both (Ross, Reid).

Michigan: Sophomore Derrick Green enters the spring as the frontrunner to be Michigan's lead back, although coach Brady Hoke wants to ramp up competition everywhere. The Wolverines struggled to consistently run between the tackles, but the 240-pound Green could change things. Hoke also is excited about another sophomore, De'Veon Smith. Michigan moved Ross Douglas from cornerback to running back, and Justice Hayes and Wyatt Shallman also are in the mix. "We've got more depth," Hoke said.

Michigan State: Things look much more promising than they did last spring, when the Spartans ended the session with a linebacker (Riley Bullough) as their top back. Jeremy Langford emerged as a very solid option during the season, rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. He's back as the clear-cut starter, and Nick Hill also returns. It will be interesting to see if Gerald Holmes makes a push, or whether Delton Williams remains on offense.

Minnesota: Here's another team that finds itself in very good shape at running back entering the spring. David Cobb leads the group after rushing for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. Veterans Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr. are still around, and highly touted redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards will take the field after missing last fall because of knee and ankle injuries. Perhaps the best news will come in the summer as decorated recruit Jeff Jones arrives.

Nebraska: Notice a theme here? Nebraska is yet another Big Ten squad that can feel very good about its running backs entering the spring. Ameer Abdullah elected to bypass the NFL draft for one final season at Nebraska, where he led the Big Ten with 1,690 yards on 281 carries as a junior. Abdullah will contend for national awards in the fall. Imani Cross, who rushed for 10 touchdowns last year, is one of the nation's top backups. Terrell Newby and others add depth behind the top two.

Northwestern: Top back Venric Mark (ankle) will miss spring practice following surgery, and reserve Stephen Buckley (knee) also is rehabbing, but Northwestern has no reason to panic. Treyvon Green, who filled in well for Mark last season with 736 rushing yards, will get much of the work. Warren Long also is in the mix after appearing in seven games as a true freshman. Northwestern also loaded up at running back in recruiting to solidify the position for years to come.

Ohio State: This will be a position to watch in the spring as Ohio State must replace Carlos Hyde, who was nearly unstoppable during Big Ten play last fall. Veteran Jordan Hall also departs, and Rod Smith will be the veteran of the group despite only 83 career carries. The Buckeyes have some talented young backs, from Dontre Wilson, who saw significant playing time last fall, to Bri'onte Dunn, Ezekiel Elliott and Warren Ball. Keep an eye on Elliott, who averaged 8.7 yards per carry in limited work last season but could emerge this spring.

Penn State: If it feels like Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton have been competing for carries forever at Penn State, it's because they have. Zwinak and Belton have been part of Penn State's running back rotation for the past two seasons and enter another competition this spring with talented sophomore Akeel Lynch, who rushed for 358 yards on only 60 carries last season. It will be interesting to see how much Lynch can push Zwinak and Belton in the team's first spring under a new coaching staff. Penn State has depth issues at several positions, but running back isn't one of them.

Purdue: The Boilers finished 122nd nationally in rushing offense last season, so the fact all of their running backs return might not spark mass celebration. Senior Akeem Hunt leads the group after recording 123 of the team's 319 rushing attempts in 2013. Other veteransBrandon Cottom and Raheem Mostert also are back, along with younger ball-carries such as Dayln Dawkins and three backs -- Keyante Green, David Yancey and Keith Byars II -- who redshirted last fall and could have much bigger roles.

Rutgers: Here's yet another team that returns basically its entire stable of running backs for spring ball. Paul James is the name to watch, as he rushed for 573 yards in the first four games last season before suffering a leg injury. James' health is a concern for Rutgers, which could also turn to Justin Goodwin, who showed some flashes following James' injury. Savon Huggins, who entered last season as the starter before losing ground, is in the mix as he looks to re-establish himself on the depth chart.

Wisconsin: How many teams can lose a 1,400-yard rusher and still claim to have the best running back group in the Big Ten? James White is gone, but Wisconsin remains in very good shape in the backfield. Melvin Gordon bypassed the NFL draft for another year in Madison after rushing for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. Gordon should move into more of a featured role beginning this spring, although he'll be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 yards and seven touchdowns on only 67 carries. Jeff Lewis provides another option behind the top two.
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.
Spring football kicks off earlier than normal in the Big Ten, as Michigan takes the field Tuesday, Northwestern follows Wednesday and eight other squads begin their sessions by March 8.

The accelerated schedules seem appropriate in a league filled with players, coaches and teams itching for fresh starts.

New assistants get their first chance to repair struggling units, whether it's Doug Nussmeier with Michigan's offense, Brian Knorr with Indiana's defense or Chris Ash and Larry Johnson with a once-feared Ohio State defense. Quarterback competitions begin or resume at nine places, as new faces such as Illinois' Wes Lunt, Nebraska's Johnny Stanton and Minnesota's Chris Streveler enter the mix, while veterans like Wisconsin's Joel Stave and Michigan's Devin Gardner try to retain their starting jobs.

Happy Valley continues to buzz about new Penn State coach James Franklin, who seems to galvanize everyone whom he encounters. But Franklin barely has been around his new players and finally begins the real work with a team facing very real challenges.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes his team can start a rebound from a disappointing, injury-riddled 2013 season.
Spring also allows teams such as Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue and Indiana to look forward after disappointing seasons. Michigan State, meanwhile, continues to bask in the Rose Bowl glow but looks toward its next goal -- a national championship -- as spring ball kicks off March 25.

"It's big-picture stuff, building relationships with the players and everyone associated with the program," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The other thing is laying a really good foundation with the philosophies and schemes of how we're going to do things. That's going to happen naturally over time, but I'm not the most patient person. I wish it would have happened yesterday."

Franklin doesn't water down his goals for Penn State, especially in recruiting, but he's also realistic about the challenges of a reduced roster. The Nittany Lions return strong pieces such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive back Adrian Amos, but the two-deep has some holes that Franklin and his assistants must address, while installing new schemes.

"It's one thing when you get put in this situation in the first place with limited scholarships," Franklin said, "but the longer you're in it, the more effect it has. We've got some depth issues, there's no doubt about it, across the board. We're going to have to get creative."

Northwestern also is focused on depth after being hit hard by key injuries in 2013. Pat Fitzgerald blames himself and his staff for failing to get enough second-stringers ready, which proved costly in close Big Ten losses.

After their first bowl-less winter in six years, the Wildcats responded well in the weight room, as more than 50 players recorded personal bests. Although 11 players will miss spring practice, including standout running back/returner Venric Mark, the depth should be better in areas like the secondary.

"We're really emphasizing taking ownership of the finish," Fitzgerald said. "Finishing your technique, finishing the call, finishing the route. There's a lot of disappointment in the way the program didn't take the next step forward."

Michigan coach Brady Hoke restructured the roles of his defensive assistants for 2014, but the Wolverines' offense will be in the spotlight this spring after a wildly inconsistent season. Gardner, who continues to recover from a foot injury and likely won't be 100 percent until midway through the spring, will compete with Shane Morris, Russell Bellomy and midyear enrollee Wilton Speight.

But other positions, such as offensive line, figure to be just as important as Michigan tries to achieve Hoke and Nussmeier's vision.

"We had good intentions as far as what we wanted our identity to be, but obviously I don't think it came out the way we'd like it to," Hoke said. "The quarterback position is as important as any, and we have a guy [Gardner] who is very talented and had some really good games and games where we had to protect him better, have a better run game and take pressure off of him, and I don't think we did."

While Michigan turns the page on offense, Ohio State focuses on a defense that allowed 115 points in its last three games and finished 110th nationally in pass yards allowed (268 YPG). The Buckeyes lost top defenders Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, but they also added two accomplished assistants.

Johnson, who churned out NFL linemen during 18 years at Penn State, chose Ohio State instead of remaining in State College. Ash leaves a sole coordinator role at Arkansas for a co-coordinator role at Ohio State, where he'll work with the embattled Luke Fickell and others to mend the defense through a simplified scheme.

"Back in the day when Ohio State played great defense, you knew what you were going to get," Ash said. "They played with swagger, played with confidence, played with toughness. We have to get back to that. The simplicity of the things we're going to do will lead to faster players, more plays made and a more aggressive defense.

"I wasn't here [in 2013], but I can tell you what Coach Meyer has told me, what Luke Fickell has told me and what I watch on film. I can see there's some hesitation, there's some uncertainty. Why that is, I don't know. But it's my job to get it fixed."

Purdue has plenty to fix after a 1-11 season, and players not surprisingly are wearing T-shirts with the word "FORWARD" on the backs. Maryland and Rutgers move forward to a new conference after an offseason that saw several staff changes, including new coordinators at Rutgers (Ralph Friedgen, Joe Rossi).

There's a fresh start of sorts at Wisconsin, as a large and decorated senior class departs. Coach Gary Andersen's markings will be more obvious with his second team, which begins practice March 7.

Wisconsin is just one of many places where the top quarterback job is at stake. Lunt, who sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, competes with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey at Illinois.

"Competition's competition, no matter where it's at," said Lunt, who has added about 15 pounds since his arrival and checks in at 225. "It's different because it’s different people, different coaches, but I'm excited for it."

He's not alone in the Big Ten. Spring ball can't start soon enough.

Final Big Ten Power Rankings

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
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Before we close the book on the 2013 season, here's the final version of the Big Ten power rankings. Bowl performances were factored in, as well as how teams finished the season, although there aren't too many changes from the previous version of the power rankings.

Let's get started ...

1. Michigan State (13-1, previously: 1): The Spartans rallied to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO to record their team-record 13th victory. Thanks to stifling defense and improved quarterback play, Michigan State had its best season since the mid-1960s. The Spartans return QB Connor Cook and most of the skill players on offense, but must replace a lot of production on defense.

2. Ohio State (12-2, previously: 2): After winning 24 consecutive games to open the Urban Meyer era, Ohio State dropped consecutive games on big stages. The Buckeyes' defense couldn't slow down Clemson's pass game in the Discover Orange Bowl, and turnovers doomed Ohio State in the second half. Meyer's defensive staff will have a different look with new assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson.

3. Wisconsin (9-4, previously: 3): Like Ohio State, Wisconsin ended its season with a thud and a sloppy bowl performance against South Carolina. The Badgers received big performances from running backs Melvin Gordon and James White but couldn't stop South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw or hang on to the football.

4. Nebraska (9-4, previously: 6): All roads lead to 9-4 for Bo Pelini's team, but the Huskers are much happier to be there after an upset victory over Georgia in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. An improved defense did a nice job of keeping the Bulldogs out of the end zone, and seniors such as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa stepped up in their final college game.

5. Iowa (8-5, previously: 4): A stout Hawkeyes defense kept the team in the Outback Bowl, but the offense never truly got going and lost starting quarterback Jake Rudock to injury. Iowa had its chances for a quality bowl win, but has to settle for a strong regular-season improvement and raised expectations entering the 2014 season.

6. Penn State (7-5, previously: 7): An impressive victory at Wisconsin marked the final game of the Bill O'Brien era. New coach James Franklin has brought a lot of enthusiasm to Happy Valley and should sparkle on the recruiting trail. His management of talented quarterback Christian Hackenberg and an undermanned defense will loom large this fall.

7. Minnesota (8-5, previously: 5): The Gophers had by far the most favorable bowl matchup but didn't reach the end zone for more than three quarters against Syracuse. Although a special-teams play ultimately doomed Minnesota, the Gophers' inability to establish a better passing game was a key element in a very disappointing loss. Minnesota should expect more in 2014.

8. Michigan (7-6, previously: 8): You knew it would be tough for Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl when quarterback Devin Gardner hobbled off of the plane on crutches. But the Wolverines never gave themselves a chance in the game, caving defensively against Kansas State's Jake Waters and Tyler Lockett. A blowout loss ended Michigan's highly disappointing season and marked the end for offensive coordinator Al Borges. Can coach Brady Hoke get things turned around in 2014?

9. Northwestern (5-7, previously: 9): Northwestern is awaiting confirmation that running back Venric Mark can return for a fifth season, and should get it in the next few weeks. Mark will help an offense that never truly got on track last fall and might need to be more of a pass-first unit if Trevor Siemian remains the starting quarterback. The defense returns nine starters.

10. Indiana (5-7, previously: 10): It took a little longer than expected, but coach Kevin Wilson fired defensive coordinator Doug Mallory last week as Indiana again will try to upgrade a perennially porous unit. The Hoosiers will be more experienced throughout the roster this fall, but the defense must change the script under new leadership as they enter the brutal East Division.

11. Illinois (4-8, previously: 11): While Wilson made a change at defensive coordinator, coach Tim Beckman is sticking with Tim Banks and the rest of his staff for a pivotal 2014 season. Like Indiana, Illinois will be more experienced on defense but must replace Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback. A favorable schedule gives Illinois a chance to make a bowl game.

12. Purdue (1-11, previously: 12): No Big Ten team is more excited to start working this offseason than the Boilers, who are rebuilding through the quarterback spot with Danny Etling and early enrollee David Blough, who officially arrived this week. Purdue must improve along both lines and replace veteran defenders such as cornerback Ricardo Allen and tackle Bruce Gaston Jr.

2013 Big Ten regular-season wrap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for some superlatives ...

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

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

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

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

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

Best game: The Game -- Ohio State 42, Michigan 41, Nov. 30 at Michigan Stadium. Michigan once again proved the adage that rivalry games are different, delivering its best performance in months and pushing Ohio State to its limit. Woody and Bo wouldn't recognize the teams that combined for 83 points, 54 first downs and 1,129 total yards. The teams traded scores all afternoon, culminating with a two-point conversion attempt with 32 seconds left that Ohio State snuffed out to preserve its perfect season.
The Big Ten's best two teams played Saturday night in Indianapolis, and Michigan State proved that it belongs on top. Ohio State had occupied the No. 1 spot throughout the season, but Mark Dantonio's team outclassed the Buckeyes, scoring the game's first 17 points and its final 17 points after Ohio State surged midway through the contest.

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

There are no changes in the final 10 spots.

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

Now, for the fresh rundown …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Ten Week 10 primer

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

Noon ET

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

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

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

3:30 ET

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

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

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

Weather

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

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

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Five things: Northwestern-Nebraska

November, 2, 2013
11/02/13
7:00
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska went back to the drawing board in the wake of a troubling loss at Minnesota, shuffling personnel on both sides of the ball as it looked to sharpen focus with the strength of the schedule at hand. Will it make a difference against Northwestern?

Here’s what we'll be watching:

The return of Tommy Armstrong: Every discussion about this roller-coaster ride of a season for the Huskers seemingly starts with the quarterback position. This week, Taylor Martinez is out, and the redshirt freshman Armstrong is back for a fourth start, marking the first season since 1999 that two Nebraska QBs will have started more than three games. A sense exists that if Armstrong and his backup, senior Ron Kellogg III, enjoy success on Saturday, the move away from Martinez, regardless of his health, might turn permanent.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesCould a solid performance against Northwestern give Tommy Armstrong the starting job for the remainder of the season?
Distribution of the football: Offensive coordinator Tim Beck drew criticism for his balance in the game plan last week. The Huskers rushed the football 30 times and threw it 30 times. Sounds good, but a closer look shows that Nebraska experienced much more success on the ground than through the air. Considering the weather conditions favored a ground attack, and with Martinez’s iffy health, Beck might have been better suited to stay conservative. The same thing applies this week, though star I-back Ameer Abdullah missed practice time with an ankle injury. The Huskers might have to rely some on backups Imani Cross and Terrell Newby -- plus Armstrong in the option game -- against the Wildcats.

Leadership on defense: It’s safe to say the Huskers are continuing to search for answers on the defensive side. After the Gophers gouged Nebraska for 271 yards rushing, the Blackshirt jerseys disappeared from practice in Lincoln this week. Two starters were replaced in the heart of the defense. Perhaps freshmen linebackers Josh Banderas and Michael Rose can provide the necessary spark for this unit to regain some of the energy it displayed against Illinois and Purdue, but they’re young, obviously, as is so much of that front seven.

Northwestern’s state of mind: Since a 4-0 start, the season has turned disastrous for the Wildcats. They’ve lost four in a row and played large stretches without star running back Venric Mark and play-making quarterback Kain Colter. Mark might try to take a redshirt. Colter, instrumental two years ago in his team’s win in Lincoln, returned last week in the Wildcats’ overtime loss at Iowa, but he’s still limited by an ankle injury. So will Northwestern look at Saturday as an opportunity to get well against another wounded team, or have the Wildcats lost their way in this difficult stretch?

It’s that time of year: Coach Bo Pelini’s teams have traditionally played their best football in November. The Huskers are 16-4 in the final month of the regular season in five seasons under Pelini, including perfect Novembers in 2009 and 2012 to earn division championships. The calendar flipped just in time for Pelini, who might feel the walls closing in a bit as the margin for error in this season has grown thin. A poor performance against Northwestern would threaten to send the Huskers into a tailspin, facing a trip to Michigan next week, followed by a visit from Legends Division front-runner Michigan State.
Some items to keep your eye on this weekend in Big Ten action:

1. Whether Taylor Martinez plays: The Nebraska quarterback returned to practice this week after being out more than a month with a turf toe injury. Bo Pelini said Martinez looked good in Sunday’s practice but whether that translates into getting game snaps Saturday at Minnesota remains to be seen. With Martinez out, senior Ron Kellogg III has stepped in and played well. The Cornhuskers have picked up three consecutive wins since the UCLA loss, but they definitely aren’t the same team without Martinez calling the shots. Nebraska has a favorable schedule to run the table in conference play, but the Cornhuskers will have to make sure they don’t slip up anywhere, and those kind of slip-ups seem much more probable with Martinez on the sideline. If he’s 100 percent, he should play this weekend, so it’ll be interesting to see if and how he takes the field.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State's Jeremy Langford scored four touchdowns against Indiana.
2. Opportunities for big nights: There are a few matchups this weekend that provide interesting pairings and could produce big nights for a few individuals. Michigan State faces Illinois, the second-worst rushing defense in the Big Ten. Of late, MSU running back Jeremy Langford has really come into his own (two consecutive 100-yard games). Northwestern has the No. 9 rushing defense in the Big Ten, and Iowa running back Mark Weisman -- who has had a few disappointing games in a row but is looking for a chance to rebound -- will have the opportunity to face a defense that he could tear apart. But it’s not just Weisman who could have a big night. Northwestern also has the No. 11 pass defense in the Big Ten, so QB Jake Rudock could look to take shots of his own downfield.

3. Young QBs with road trips: Michigan State redshirt sophomore Connor Cook and Penn State freshman Christian Hackenberg are two years apart, but they’re both in their first full seasons of commanding their offenses. This weekend, the two will look for big wins on the road. Cook has gone 1-1 in the Spartans’ road games (lost at Notre Dame, won at Iowa), while Hackenberg’s task in Columbus will be a bit more difficult. The true freshman has never played in an environment quite like The Horseshoe. Penn State’s only road game this season was three weeks ago at Indiana. This weekend, he’ll be thrown into a very hostile environment. He’ll have the chance to see and feel what every opposing QB has to go through when they come to Beaver Stadium.

4. Northwestern looking to pick up its first Big Ten win: Did anyone bet on the Wildcats going through the first month of their conference schedule without a single win? Bueller? Bueller? It has definitely been a surprise to see how flat the Wildcats have fallen after their Big Ten opening loss to Ohio State. The way in which they lost to Wisconsin and the fact they lost to Minnesota came as big shocks and so now, a month after the conference season began, we’re still waiting on the Wildcats to pick up that elusive first win. They’ll play at Iowa, which is a difficult environment as the fans are basically on top of the players. But the Buckeyes took care of business against Iowa last weekend, so if Northwestern can replicate that kind of play (or the play the Cats had against Ohio State), we might see a mark in the W column.

5. Relapse or improvements -- it could go either way for some teams: Northwestern isn’t the only team that wants to improve on its most recent performance(s). Add the Buckeyes and Michigan State to that list as well. Ohio State trailed Iowa at the half last weekend in Columbus. The Buckeyes offense got off to a bit of a slow start as it scored only 10 first-half points, and Carlos Hyde rushed for just 43 yards. Michigan State suffered similar issues but worse. The defense scored its fifth touchdown of the season, but the Spartans offense didn’t score until the fourth quarter and it was on a trick play. Michigan State heads to Illinois. The Illini are giving up more than 32 points per game and are winless in Big Ten play. So it’ll be interesting to see how the Spartans, Buckeyes and Wildcats respond after performances that were less than inspiring.

6. Minnesota picking up momentum ... sort of: It’s hard to say the Gophers are starting to put it together since their win against Northwestern came when the Cats were missing running back Venric Mark and quarterback Kain Colter. But it was a road win that brought Minnesota quite a bit of confidence. This weekend, they’ll welcome Nebraska to Minneapolis. The Cornhuskers might be without their QB, which would obviously benefit the Gophers defense and be another situation that could produce a “they won, but ...” situation.

Injury impact: Big Ten

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
8:00
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Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game. Every team must deal with them, but some teams get hurt harder than others. Today, we're taking a look at the teams that have been impacted the most this season. Here's our ranking of the top three:

1. Northwestern: Injuries have played a major role in the Wildcats' 0-3 start in Big Ten play. All-American kick returner and star tailback Venric Mark has been healthy enough to play exactly one full game -- against Ohio State. Quarterback Kain Colter has been banged up just about all season as well. Both were reinjured at Wisconsin and missed all of last week's loss to Minnesota. In addition, top defensive tackle Sean McEvilly has played in only three games, while starting cornerback Daniel Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener at Cal.

2. Penn State: The Nittany Lions had major depth issues to begin with because of NCAA sanctions. It hasn't helped that they have also dealt with a series of injuries. Tight ends Matt Lehman and Brent Wilkerson and defensive end Brad Bars were lost for the season. Linebacker Mike Hull was hurt for most of the first two months, as was tight end Kyle Carter. Wide receiver Brandon Felder missed the Indiana loss with an ankle problem. Linebacker Ben Kline has been limited after offseason shoulder surgery. Safety Ryan Keiser has been dealing with a hand injury since the Kent State game. This team can't afford many more injuries as it approaches the homestretch of the season.


3. Nebraska: The Huskers' injury problems haven't adversely affected them -- at least not yet. Still, it's never easy when you lose your four-year starting quarterback, and Taylor Martinez hasn't played since Week 3 versus UCLA because of turf toe. He could be back this week, but All-American guard Spencer Long was lost for the season in the last game against Purdue with a knee injury. He'll be tough to replace.

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