Nebraska Cornhuskers: Venric Mark

B1G awards watch list roundup

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
3:00
PM ET
College football preseason awards watch lists are, at best, little more than a summertime curiosity these days and, at worst, an easy punchline.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just happy to be nominated: Northwestern's Chi Chi Ariguzo and Michigan's Devin Funchess are both outstanding players who should be in strong contention for all-conference and quite possibly All-America honors this season. But they have about as good a chance of winning a national player of the year award (which almost always goes to quarterbacks or running backs, anyway) as I do. Funchess was nominated for both the Maxwell and Walter Camp award, which means he has a great public relations man. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's Joel Stave isn't even guaranteed to start at quarterback this season for the Badgers, yet he found himself on the Davey O'Brien watch list. As usual, it doesn't hurt to cover all the bases when compiling a preseason watch list.
If the preseason All-America teams are any indication, the Big Ten will have a very good year in the offensive backfield -- both carrying the ball out of it and penetrating it.

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Ten is tied with the Pac-12 for third among overall Athlon All-America selections with 18, trailing both the ACC (27) and SEC (26).

Big Ten Friday mailbag

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
4:30
PM ET
I'm taking your questions for a third time this week, filling in the Friday time slot for the vacationing Rittenberg. I'll be gone myself next week, so this will be the last time I talk to you for a bit.

What do you got?

Doc from Scottsdale, Arizona, writes: What is your best case scenario for the Big Ten brand next season in regards to the Playoff? Assuming just one team gets into the Playoff, does it matter which school is there "representing" for the BIG or should just having a presence in the game be considered a victory for the league?

Brian Bennett: Best-case scenario, naturally, is winning a national title. Nothing enhances your brand quite like that. But the second part of your question is the important one, Doc. I think it's vital for the Big Ten to get a team into the Playoff this season. Conferences that don't take part in the four-team event will basically be irrelevant. I don't even think it matters if a Big Ten representative wins its semifinal as long as it is competitive (nightmare scenario: a blowout loss to the No. 2 SEC team in a semi.) Makes no difference which team from the league gets there, but the conference needs to make sure its champion is involved most years.


JR from Winchester, Virginia, writes: What signs or trends from the first few nonconference games will you be looking for that will telegraph what kind of year Nebraska will have? (Turnovers? Ability to pass the ball? Defensive line play?) Thanks.

Brian Bennett: You picked three good ones there, JR. Nebraska should have little to no trouble with its first two opponents, Florida Atlantic and McNeese State. Fresno State on the road in Week 3 could prove a bit dicier, but the Huskers should still win that game if they are a legitimate Big Ten contender. I want to see dominance, especially in the trenches and on that defensive line, in those first three games. I want to see Tommy Armstrong take care of the ball and show that he can make plays down the field. And mostly, I want to see Nebraska avoid some of the extreme mood swings and fluctuations we've witnessed in the past.

A great nonconference performance doesn't guarantee anything, because an injury or other adversity can strike any time. But it would be nice for the Huskers to avoid drama early on.


@TimShay17 via Twitter writes: The Badgers' passing game is their biggest question mark this season. Which is more of a concern: QB race or the unknowns at WR?

Brian Bennett: Good question, and I say it's the wide receivers. Joel Stave, at the very least, is a known quantity. The team won nine games with him as its starter last season, and an extra year of experience can only help him. If Tanner McEvoy beats out Stave, then it's because McEvoy is playing well in practice and offering an improvement. The receivers are still a giant question mark. It's anyone's guess who will lead this team in receiving this year after Wisconsin relied so heavily on Jared Abbrederis the past two seasons.


PurpleCatResurgence from Northbrook, Illinois, writes: Look I get it, Northwestern was sub-.500 last year, and the team still has some holes to fill, but the Cats are getting NO love in the national publications. This is almost the same team that if they get what, 5-6 plays go their way, they are a 9- or maybe even a 10-win team. They have a tough schedule this season, no doubt, but how many wins do you see this team achieving? In your view, what has to break right for this team to play in Indy this fall? Love the blog- Go Cats!

Brian Bennett: It is funny how quickly things can change. Northwestern was 4-0 and rising toward the top 15 heading into October last season. Then came the loss to Ohio State, the first of seven straight defeats, and now the Wildcats are basically off the national radar. Still, this is a team that won 10 games in 2012 and had been to five straight bowl games. As you said, Northwestern dealt with some serious bad luck in 2013, not only late in games but also with a ridiculous rash of injuries.

So Pat Fitzgerald's team could easily be one of the most improved in the Big Ten in 2014. Venric Mark is healthy again, and the offense has a solid identity behind Trevor Siemian. Plenty of talent returns on defense. The schedule is not easy, as the Wildcats drew Michigan and Penn State from the East Division and play at Notre Dame in November. On the other hand, the West does not appear to have any truly dominant teams. I definitely see the 'Cats getting back to a bowl. For them to truly contend for a division title, the offense needs to rediscover its explosiveness, and Fitzgerald will have to figure out how to get over the hump in some of those close games.


@mort_c15 via Twitter asks: Urban Meyer has said repeatedly that this year's freshmen will play will for OSU and few will redshirt. How many will, in your opinion, RS?

Brian Bennett: Meyer told me this spring, as he said often, that he made a mistake by not playing more true freshmen last season. He plans to avoid that in 2014. At the same time, he's not going to play freshmen just to play them. Barring injuries, it's safe to say that Raekwon McMillan, Johnnie Dixon, Curtis Samuel and Jalyn Holmes will play. Erick Smith could get a look at safety. Guys like Marshon Lattimore and Malik Hooker could force their way onto the field on special teams, at the very least. The more likely redshirt candidates are offensive linemen, like Kyle Trout and Brady Taylor, and quarterback Stephen Collier. Expect to see a lot of true freshmen on the field for the Buckeyes, but if a whole bunch of them are in key roles, that's probably not the best sign.


Dave from Columbus, Ohio, writes: There seems to be more time travelers here predicting how their favorite team (who has never shown the ability to win out) is going to just absolutely BEAT everyone, go undefeated and win the national championship. Yet you restrain yourself from laughing at them. Is it ever hard to do so?

Brian Bennett: I may have to hold back a chuckle or two. But that's the beauty of the preseason in college football (or any sport, really). Everybody's undefeated, and optimism abounds. Why punish that? The actual season will do that on its own.
Big Ten reporters Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

A couple of weeks ago, we took a look at potential 1,000-yard rushers in the Big Ten in 2014. Then we had you vote on who would break through to that plateau this season.

The league had seven 1,000-yard rushers in 2013 and a handful of others who got pretty close, and many of them return. The race for this year's rushing title should be extremely competitive. So Tuesday's Take Two topic is this: Who will lead the Big Ten in rushing yards in 2014?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

[+] EnlargeGordon
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesMelvin Gordon is a big-play threat at Wisconsin.
There are so many good contenders here. It's hard to go against the heart and determination of Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah. Michigan State's Jeremy Langford could be even better this year after coming on in midseason last year on his way to 1,422 yards and 18 scores. Indiana's Tevin Coleman is so explosive, and Northwestern's Venric Mark is back from injury.

But I keep coming back to Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. He finished 81 yards behind Abdullah last season, and it was Gordon's first full year as a starter. He also had 206 carries, which was 75 fewer than Abdullah and 86 fewer than Langford. Heck, Gordon didn't even get the most carries on his own team, as James White received 221. I don't expect Gordon to suddenly become a 300-carry guy, and the Badgers will continue their successful backfield tandem style with promising sophomore Corey Clement.

I do believe, though, that Gordon will have more rushing attempts this season than he did a year ago, possibly in the 250 range. And for a guy who averaged a ridiculous 7.8 yards per carry a year ago, that could translate into a huge yardage total. Assuming he becomes a little better between the tackles and avoids fumbling issues, the Wisconsin junior should challenge not only for the Big Ten rushing title, but also the FBS one.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
AP Photo/Nati HarnikAmeer Abdullah will get plenty of chances to impress at Nebraska.
I'm really tempted to join you with the Gordon pick, as he's the nation's top big-play back -- a must-see every time he touches the ball. But I'm going with Abdullah for several reasons. He was the more consistent back in 2013, eclipsing 100 rushing yards in 11 of 13 games. Gordon got there eight times, but only twice in Wisconsin's final six games. White had a lot to do with that and he's not in Madison anymore, but I think the Badgers will have a tough time keeping Clement off the field.

That gets me to my second point. Although Clement and Nebraska's Imani Cross both are talented backups, I give Clement the edge. If he builds on a strong spring, I don't see Gordon logging more than 260 carries. The big-play factor could put Gordon ahead of Abdullah, but Abdullah should log more carries again. Abdullah is hardly a plodder, averaging 5.4 yards per carry in his career and six yards per carry last season. Only two Big Ten teams (Michigan and Iowa) held him to fewer than five yards per rush.

This is a really tough call, and like you, I wouldn't count out players such as Coleman, Langford and Mark. If Coleman gets enough chances behind a massively underrated line, he could be the league's yards leader. But Abdullah has been so good for so long, and he'll end his senior season atop the Big Ten's rushing chart.
Few preseason prognosticators create as much excitement around their summer picks as Phil Steele.

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

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

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

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

First team:

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

Ohio State DT Michael Bennett

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

Second team:

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Iowa OT Brandon Scherff

Nebraska DE Randy Gregory

Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Iowa PR Kevonte Martin-Manley

Third team:

Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Michigan WR Devin Funchess

Iowa DT Carl Davis

Michigan LB Jake Ryan

Michigan State CB Trae Waynes

Michigan State S Kurtis Drummond

Illinois PR V'Angelo Bentley

Indiana LS Matt Dooley

Fourth team:

Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford

Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman

Wisconsin OT Rob Havenstein

Northwestern RB/KR Venric Mark
Most would agree New Year's Day bowl games don't mean what they used to. You could say the same thing about rushing for 1,000 yards. There are more games and more plays in the sport today, and it's hardly uncommon for a player to reach four digits on the ground, as 51 FBS players got there in 2013.

Still, the 1,000-yard rushing mark is no small feat, and it's a good gauge for assessing players, teams and leagues. The Big Ten had seven 1,000-yard rushers in 2013, one fewer than it had in 2012.

We begin a series of statistical projections for the 2014 season with 1,000 rush yards, and our analysis begins with the five men who got there last fall and who return to their teams this year.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsNebraska's Ameer Abdullah is looking to post his third season of rushing for over 1,000 yards.
Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska (1,690 rush yards in 2013): Abdullah was one of the most consistent backs in the country last fall, eclipsing 100 rush yards in 11 of 13 games, including a streak of eight consecutive 100-yard performances. He will try to become the first Husker with three seasons of 1,000 rush yards or more. Although it might be tough for Abdullah to match last year's overall rushing numbers, barring injury, he should have little trouble reaching the 1,000-yard mark.

Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin (1,609 yards): Gordon surged out of the gate with 140 rush yards or more in each of his first four games last season, as he topped the FBS rushing chart. Despite sharing time with fellow 1,000-yard back James White and never logging more than 22 carries, Gordon had eight games with at least 140 rush yards and averaged 7.8 yards per carry. He's arguably the nation's top big-play ball-carrying threat and should easily eclipse 1,000 rush yards as he steps into a bigger role.

Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State (1,422): It's impossible to quietly rush for 1,400 yards in a season, but Langford slipped under the radar as his teammates on defense and at quarterback received more attention. Still, his consistency should not be overlooked: He set a team record with eight consecutive 100-yard rushing performances and led the Big Ten with 18 rushing touchdowns. He did much of his damage late in games. Although Langford likely won't get 292 carries again, he should easily get to 1,000 rush yards.

David Cobb, RB, Minnesota (1,202) Arguably no Gophers player benefited more from the team's commitment to the power run on offense. Cobb logged 237 carries -- second in the Big Ten behind Langford and Abdullah -- and had five 100-yard rushing performances, the most by a Minnesota player since Marion Barber III in 2003. Cobb did much of his damage in Big Ten play, recording four consecutive 100-yard rushing performances. Another 1,000-yard season is possible, but Cobb faces arguably more competition than any back on this list and will have to keep progressing.

Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State (1,068): Miller is poised to finish his career as one of the Big Ten's most productive offensive players. The league's reigning two-time offensive player of the year needs just 842 rush yards to move into second place on the Big Ten's all-time quarterback rushing list. More impressive, he needs 715 yards to claim second place on Ohio State's all-time rushing list (all players). Miller certainly is capable of a third 1,000-yard season, but a revamped line and his goal of improving as a passer could make it challenging.

Now let's take a look at eight other players who could challenge that 1,000-yard mark in 2013, in order of likelihood:

Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana (958 rush yards in 2013): Coleman finished ahead of Langford, Cobb and Miller in rushing average (106.4 ypg) and easily would have reached four digits had he played in more than nine games. A big-play threat who averaged a Gordon-like 7.3 yards per carry last season, Coleman should have no trouble surging past 1,000 yards this season.

[+] EnlargeMark Weisman
David Purdy/Getty ImagesIowa's Mark Weisman has just missed 1,000 yards in the past two years, but this could be the season he tops that magic number.
Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa (975): Weisman has been close to 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons and should get there as a senior. He will be sharing carries with Jordan Canzeri and others, and Iowa likely will balance out Weisman's touches a bit more. But if Weisman can break off a few more big runs behind a good offensive line, he'll get to 1,000.

Zach Zwinak, RB, Penn State (989): Some would argue Zwinak isn't the best running back on his team (Bill Belton), but the fact remains he reached 1,000 yards in 2012 and nearly got there last season. The carries balanced between Zwinak and Belton could make it tougher for either back to reach the milestone, and the offensive line is a concern.

Paul James, RB, Rutgers (881): Know the name, Big Ten fans. James rushed for 881 yards on only 156 carries last season. His rushing total through the first four games (573 yards) trailed only Gordon for the FBS lead. Health is a concern here, but if James stays on the field, a 1,000-yard season is easily within reach.

Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern: Projecting Mark is tricky as he rushed for 1,371 yards in 2012 but missed most of last season with injuries and remains prone to more health issues. He's an excellent candidate to gash defenses for big yards if he remains on the field, and he should play behind an improved offensive line.

Josh Ferguson, RB, Illinois (779): It all comes down to opportunities for Ferguson, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season but also finished second on the team in receptions with 50. A true big-play threat, Ferguson is capable of getting to 1,000 yards but likely needs at least 25 more carries.

Bill Belton, RB, Penn State (803): Like Zwinak, Belton faces some challenges: sharing carries and playing behind a potentially leaky line. But he has shown superstar potential at times and turned in a strong spring for the new coaching staff.

Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin (547): Like Gordon, Clement makes the most of his opportunities. He averaged 8.2 yards per carry as a freshman, and while he's Gordon's backup now, he could become a 1A player by midseason. Gordon and White set an NCAA record for single-season rush yards by teammates. Gordon and Clement could challenge it.

Who do you think reaches 1,000 rush yards this fall? Let us know.
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
1:00
PM ET
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.

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