Picks to click: Week 13

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A closer look at Ohio State players in position for big outings as the No. 6 Buckeyes try to clinch another division title on Saturday against Indiana.

RB Ezekiel Elliott
  • The Buckeyes figure to be able to score any way they want against a defense that is allowing more than 33 points per game, and it's a safe bet J.T. Barrett is going to throw for a few touchdowns. But Ohio State will probably lean more heavily on its ground game against the Hoosiers, and Elliott will be the direct beneficiary of a game plan that could keep the clock rolling along while still lighting up the scoreboard just in case Urban Meyer thinks he needs some style points to impress the selection committee. Expect Elliott to get the 46 yards he needs to top 1,000 for the season by the end of the first quarter as the Buckeyes play it relatively safe and conservative while feeding the sophomore rusher carries.
  • DB Tyvis Powell
  • The Hoosiers have been a mess throwing the football since losing Nate Sudfeld to injury, and they weren't even all that dangerous through the air even with their starting quarterback healthy. No Big Ten team has more interceptions than Ohio State's 16, and it will no doubt be looking to add to that total this weekend -- and there might not be a player with more motivation to make a big play than Powell after a bit of an inconsistent outing against Minnesota. Powell's contributions have perhaps been a bit overlooked this season considering he's tied for second on the team with 54 tackles and he's picked off a pair of passes, but he could be in the spotlight against the Hoosiers for all the right reasons.
  • QB Barrett
  • Maybe he's a safe choice, and perhaps he will only be needed to play a half, like in his last home outing, against Illinois. But with the way the redshirt freshman is rolling, no list would be complete for Ohio State right now without his name on it. Backup Cardale Jones actually did some impressive work in relief of Barrett against the Illini, and Jalin Marshall has chipped in admirably as a Wildcat threat, so potentially the quarterback position in general could shine and not just Barrett. But with a Heisman campaign in full swing, Barrett probably won't leave the game until he's added to his already bursting resume.
Just like the West Division, our league's race is starting to clear up.

Thanks to huge days by Melvin Gordon (64 fantasy points) and J.T. Barrett (44 fantasy points), it now appears as if it's just a two-team race between the Coal Crackers and Massive Attack. Who will come out on top these last two weeks?

Stay tuned ...

Your results this week:

Coal Crackers (Josh Moyer): 186
Massive Attack (Austin Ward): 156
Legendary Leaders (Brian Bennett): 107
The Trombone Shorties (Adam Rittenberg): 76
Sherman Tanks (Mitch Sherman): 63

And the overall standings:

Coal Crackers: 1,460
Massive Attack: 1,417
The Trombone Shorties: 1,327
Legendary Leaders: 1,164
Sherman Tanks: 1,048

Waiver wire: Rittenberg trails by 133 points after a down week and, as a result, he is trying to make up for some lost ground. He accounted for exactly half of our league's six moves this week. But, overall, last week's starting rosters are mostly intact.

Sherman adds Michigan RB De'Veon Smith and drops Nebraska RB Imani Cross

Bennett adds Michigan WR Devin Funchess and drops Penn State TE Jesse James

Rittenberg adds Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian and drops Wisconsin QB Tanner McEvoy

Moyer adds Michigan WR Amara Darboh and drops Illinois WR Geronimo Allison

Rittenberg adds the Michigan defense and drops the Rutgers defense

Rittenberg adds the Maryland kickers and drops the Minnesota kickers

Coal Crackers (Moyer)

Purdue QB Austin Appleby
Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner
Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
Indiana RB Tevin Coleman
Rutgers WR Leonte Carroo
Michigan WR Amara Darboh
Wisconsin kickers
Penn State defense
Bench: Maryland QB C.J. Brown (at Michigan)

Massive Attack (Ward)

Iowa QB Jake Rudock
Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett
Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott
Minnesota RB David Cobb
Ohio State WR Michael Thomas
Penn State WR DaeSean Hamilton
Penn State kickers
Michigan State defense
Bench: Illinois RB Josh Ferguson (vs. Penn State)

The Trombone Shorties (Rittenberg)

Northwestern QB Trevor Siemian
Michigan State QB Connor Cook
Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah
Northwestern RB Justin Jackson
Ohio State WR Devin Smith
Nebraska WR Kenny Bell
Maryland kickers
Michigan defense
Bench: Ohio State RB Dontre Wilson (vs. Indiana)

Legendary Leaders (Bennett)

Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong
Illinois QB Wes Lunt
Iowa RB Mark Weisman
Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford
Michigan WR Devin Funchess
Illinois WR Mike Dudek
Ohio State kickers
Wisconsin defense
Bench: Wisconsin QB Joel Stave (at Iowa)

Sherman Tanks (Sherman)

Rutgers QB Gary Nova
Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg
Michigan RB De'Veon Smith
Purdue RB Akeem Hunt
Michigan State WR Tony Lippett
Iowa Kevonte Martin-Manley
Michigan State kickers
Ohio State defense
Bench: Wisconsin RB Corey Clement (at Iowa)
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A public endorsement as a Heisman Trophy candidate is one thing, and when it’s earned, Urban Meyer has no problem offering it.

But a private conversation about an individual award is something else entirely, and the Ohio State coach doesn’t have plans for one of those with J.T. Barrett any time soon.

The redshirt freshman quarterback and blossoming national star is certainly attracting more attention, and he is steadily shooting up the polls as a candidate for the game’s most prestigious honor. Though Meyer has some experience dealing with the hoopla that accompanies a Heisman campaign and could counsel his young star if need be, at this point there appears be no need for a State of the Stiff-arm the way he might otherwise address his team’s playoff chances.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesJ.T. Barrett is part of the Heisman conversation, but has not changed his work habits or attitude.
"That’s real, you start having that [exposure], but this kid is so grounded," Meyer said. "Once again, that’s a credit to his family.

"But if I saw it [being a distraction], certainly I’d jump in the middle of that. But I haven’t even given it two thoughts."

Barrett seems to be giving it little consideration as well, though he is clearly aware that he is now part of the conversation as the season hits the closing stretch with the No. 6 Buckeyes gaining steam thanks to his 38 total touchdowns.

His emergence has been well-documented since taking over during training camp following an injury to Braxton Miller, who was supposed to be staging his own run for the Heisman as a senior after finishing in the top 10 each of the past two seasons. But Barrett has now gone well beyond being simply a caretaker for the spread attack in Miller’s absence, shattering records on a weekly basis and helping the Buckeyes expand the playbook thanks his accuracy as a passer, underrated athleticism and an uncanny ability to make the right decision -- both through the air and on the ground.

His success has done more than draw the spotlight to him as a potential candidate for individual awards, prompting additional speculation now about whether Barrett has so far exceeded Miller’s decorated tenure that the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year should be his backup next season, or even switch positions once his surgically repaired shoulder heals. But if all that extra attention or scrutiny is changing Barrett, it certainly doesn’t seem to be inflating his ego or impacting his preparation.

"I hope it doesn’t change me," Barrett said. "I hope I stay the same. I try hard to be the same. Working hard, being here on a Wednesday night, I probably won’t leave until like 9 o’clock, you know, grinding, getting right and everything like that.

"I hope it doesn’t change me, I’m going to do my best to make sure it doesn’t. I have people around here to keep me grounded, so it’s really unlikely for that to happen."

Meyer has made it clear he would be among the first to bring Barrett back to earth if necessary, though so far he hasn’t needed to lean on the expertise acquired while guiding Alex Smith or Tim Tebow through the Heisman circus.

Barrett also has the benefit of sharing a locker room with a couple teammates who are dealing with similar attention, albeit on slightly smaller scales. Joey Bosa is a finalist for the Lombardi Award, Michael Bennett was a preseason All-America still pushing for individual honors, and a handful of skill players on both sides of the ball are in the mix for all-conference accolades.

For all of them, starting with Barrett and his high-profile campaign, one thing above all else is driving the conversation. And worrying about individual awards instead of team victories would be getting it all completely backwards.

"I'm having a lot of fun coaching this team," Meyer said. "J.T. is a Heisman candidate that knows that he could have played much better Saturday, and that's the best thing about coaching these guys right now. I hope it doesn't change.

"That's something we're watching very closely with guys that are starting to get some notoriety. You know, [Ezekiel Elliott] has a chance to get 1,000 yards, and the minute he becomes something other than Zeke Elliott, that's a problem, and same with J.T., same with Joey Bosa. I've just got to make sure they don't change."

For now that means it’s fine to publicly talk about awards or tout Buckeyes as candidates. But Meyer doesn’t expect to have any other conversations after that.

Big Ten recruiting: By the numbers 

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
10:00
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We are in week 13 of the regular season and only a few months away from signing day. That means that programs have most of their recruiting done and are trying to fill in the last spots of the class.

This is a good time to take a look at the Big Ten recruiting efforts, where some teams are having success and some need help. The numbers below help show the makeup and statistics behind the recruiting classes within the conference.

Commits from different states:

Big Ten's top recruiting visits 

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
9:00
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The Big Ten will have an important recruiting weekend despite the weather in most areas being poor and the regular season coming close to the end. Here is a look at the most important visitors of the weekend for the conference.

Michigan versus Maryland:


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Big Ten morning links

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
8:00
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Since Ohio State stormed Spartan Stadium on Nov. 8 in the Big Ten’s regular season game of the year, the Buckeyes have dominated headlines in the league -- well, aside from the Melvin Gordon Heisman push.

Urban Meyer’s team deserves the attention.

Yes, it has more talent on the bench than most Big Ten teams feature in their starting lineups. But OSU rise behind freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett rates as a truly unexpected story of national significance.

Take a moment, though, as Michigan State honors 18 seniors on Saturday, to appreciate the legacy of Spartans like Jeremy Langford, Tony Lippett and Taiwan Jones.

It’s shame that their careers are closing on something of an anticlimactic note.

They’ve anchored the most consistent and most winning program in the conference over the past four years and traveled various paths, as Matt Charboneau of the Detroit News writes, to earn a shot to equal the 2013 senior class as the best in school history.

If they beat Rutgers on Saturday, Penn State next week and notch a win in a bowl game -- perhaps among the New Year’s Six -- the MSU seniors would finish 42-12.

These seniors have already won two Big Ten crowns and three bowl games, including the Rose Bowl last season. The News article shows that Michigan State's senior classes since 2010 have posted the five highest win totals in program history. It’s an incredible accomplishment. And all but Jones, who did not redshirt, have been there in East Lansing with each class.

They deserve a share of the spotlight this month.

Decisions ahead

Staying with the Spartans, coach Mark Dantonio made an interesting comment Thursday on his radio show about quarterback Connor Cook as a future team captain. That would, of course, only happen if Cook returns next season for his senior year.

Cook is considered a potential early-round selection if he declares for the NFL draft. No Big Ten quarterback has been selected in the first round since Kerry Collins in 1995.

Cook could end the drought.

MSU junior defensive end Shilique Calhoun also faces a decision. Calhoun, ranked on Mel Kiper's 25-player Big Board, said this week that he had not reached a decision.

"My primary focus is this season," Calhoun told MLive.com, "and this season isn't over yet. I'm just trying to do great things to help my team win."

These decisions figure to factor heavily in the bid of the Spartans' senior class of 2015 to match the accomplishments of the five that came before it.

Seeing double

As Gordon has nearly pulled even with leader Marcus Mariota in the Heisman Watch and Barrett continues to surface in conversation for out the award, what could it mean for the Big Ten to send two finalists to New York for the ceremony?

It wouldn't exactly change the suffering national perception of the league, but it couldn't hurt, what with the Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC unlikely to produce more than one finalist apiece.

Only the SEC, with Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, can match the Big Ten with two potential finalists.

Just as important, when Gordon and Barrett play during this stretch run of the season, it's a must-see TV event.

Wisconsin and Gordon, after his 408-yard explosion against Nebraska, visit Iowa (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) on Saturday. And the Hawkeyes are taking notice.

Barrett stays home to face Indiana. That could get out of hand.

Around the rest of the league:

East Division
West Division

B1G Roundtable: Week 13 bold predictions

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
4:00
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The Big Ten blog resident psychics are back this afternoon with bigger, better and more specific crystal balls and tarot cards. You have our picks for this Saturday's winners, and now a roundtable of our bold predictions.

Mitch Sherman: Melvin Gordon goes over 2,000 yards for the season during the second quarter against Iowa.

I learned from the prediction last week of colleague Adam Rittenberg that it’s not a good idea to underestimate Wisconsin’s superstar back. Gordon needs 91 yards to get to 2,000 and likely secure success for the #GordontoGotham campaign. He could reach 2,500 by the end of the season. But against the Hawkeyes, the milestone carry will arrive before halftime. (ESPN Stats & Information projects it to happen on his 11th carry, based on Gordon’s 8.6-yard average.) Iowa’s rush defense ranks 46th nationally, and it held Gordon to 62 yards last year. But as Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said of Gordon – the Gophers get him next week -- he’s “on a different planet right now.”

Austin Ward: Ohio State's defensive line pins down Tevin Coleman.

[+] EnlargeTevin Coleman
AP Photo/Darron CummingsTevin Coleman is on pace to become Indiana's all-time single-season rushing leader, but it could be tough to make it over the top on Saturday at Ohio State.
At the rate they’re going, Joey Bosa is going to have to establish some new personal goals and Michael Bennett will wind up as an all-conference performer even after a somewhat modest statistical start to the season. The two terrors up front for Ohio State have made life miserable for blockers recently, combining for 8.5 tackles for loss in the last three games to help the unit live up to some of its preseason billing as one of the nation’s best defensive lines. The Buckeyes haven’t been perfect against the rush, and Coleman has routinely made teams pay this season on the ground. But the explosive Indiana tailback is going to struggle to find room to operate on Saturday, and he will be stopped in the backfield multiple times by Bosa and Bennett.

Brian Bennett: Ohio State cracks the 60-point barrier.

Maybe this isn't that bold, as the Buckeyes are playing Indiana. But Urban Meyer's team has been ridiculously explosive at home, scoring 55 against Illinois, 56 against Rutgers, 50 vs. Cincinnati and 66 against Kent State. After two straight road games, Ohio State will enjoy its return to the Horseshoe -- and a few style points certainly can't hurt the cause. J.T. Barrett will account for five total touchdowns, break Troy Smith's passing touchdown record and enjoy the final quarter-and-a-half from the bench in this romp.

Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern wins another shootout in the Hoosier State.


My bold predictions generally have been terrible, so keep that in mind. Also, the weather in West Lafayette is supposed to be nasty. But I think Northwestern found something on offense last week at Notre Dame and could have put up way more than 40 points if its receivers could hang on to the ball. Purdue is much improved on offense and has big-play threats in the backfield with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert. I see both teams making plays on offense and eclipsing 35 points despite the weather, but Northwestern will score a late touchdown to prevail at Ross-Ade Stadium.

Josh Moyer: Three Big Ten running backs set single-season school records.

It's been the Year of the Running Back so far this season, and this Saturday should make it a bit more memorable. David Cobb needs just 115 yards to break Minnesota's single-season record for rushing yards set by Laurence Maroney in 2005 (1,464 yards). Indiana's Coleman needs 128 yards to break Vaughn Dunbar's 1991 mark of 1,805 yards. And Wisconsin's Gordon is 201 yards shy of surpassing Ron Dayne's 2,109-yard record from 1996. At least two of those records should easily be broken Saturday, and I'm predicting that all three will go down within hours of one another. The only real reach is Gordon, who's averaging fewer than 201 yards a game -- but it's difficult to bet against a guy who just set an NCAA record with 408 rushing yards in a game.

Dan Murphy: No Big Ten back will set his school's single-season rushing record Saturday.

Josh and I are on opposite sides of the fence on this one. All three -- Cobb, Coleman and Gordon -- will almost certainly get to the top of their school's record books before the season is over, but I'm guessing the celebration will have to wait until the final week of the regular season. Cobb faces a Nebraska defense eager to redeem itself and he'll come up just shy of the 115 yards he needs. Ohio State can key on Coleman and keep him from the 128 yards he needs. And Gordon might have another big day against Iowa, but not quite 201 yards big.

Lombardi Award finalists announced

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
2:26
PM ET

HOUSTON -- Clemson's Vic Beasley, Ohio State's Joey Bosa, Washington's Hau'oli Kikaha and Arizona's Scooby Wright are finalists for the Lombardi Award for college football's best lineman or linebacker.

Beasley, a defensive end, leads the Tigers with eight sacks and 14½ tackles for losses. Also a defensive end, Bosa is fifth in the nation with 11½ sacks and has 17 tackles for losses.

Kikaha, who is a linebacker, is tied for first in the country with 16½ sacks and his 22½ tackles for losses leads the nation. Wright, who is also a linebacker, has 12 sacks and is second to Kikaha with 21 tackles for losses.

The award will be given Dec. 10 in Houston.


(Read full post)


Big Ten Show: Week 13 (2 p.m. ET)

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
10:30
AM ET
Join ESPN.com Big Ten reporters Brian Bennett, Josh Moyer, Mitch Sherman and Austin Ward as they discuss the biggest matchups on the weekend slate and answer your questions.

Big Ten Week 13 predictions

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
9:00
AM ET


Why Minnesota will win: There’s no letup coming for the Blackshirts, who were historically carved up by Melvin Gordon last week and must turn right around and face the Gophers' David Cobb and another productive rushing attack, with flickering hopes of winning the West Division hanging in the balance for both teams. Ameer Abdullah doesn’t look quite back to full speed on his injured knee, and the Gophers are perhaps underrated for their defensive ability when they’re dialed in and aggressive, which could make it tough for the Huskers if the star rusher is limited again. Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner has been inconsistent this season, but this seems like a good opportunity for him to bounce back in the play-action passing game with the Huskers trying to avoid another soft performance on the ground. ... Minnesota 27, Nebraska 24 -- Austin Ward

Why Nebraska will win: Melvin Gordon had his way with the Huskers last week, but Minnesota’s David Cobb -- who’s accounted for more than 40 percent of the offense -- is a different kind of runner. Most of Gordon’s yards came with speed outside the tackles; most of Cobb’s will come from power between the tackles. Nebraska shouldn’t allow half as many big offensive plays this weekend, and the Huskers’ offense clearly has the edge here. Bo Pelini’s squad averages 8.8 more points per game, the offense gains an average of 100 more yards a game, and Ameer Abdullah is one week healthier. Minnesota won’t be able to keep up. ... Nebraska 34, Minnesota 24 -- Josh Moyer



Why Michigan wins: It's the last home game for Michigan seniors such as linebacker Jake Ryan and quarterback Devin Gardner and possibly the last for coach Brady Hoke. The Wolverines will ride their defense and limit mistakes on offense to outlast a Maryland team that has been tough to figure out week-to-week. It's a field-goal fest early on, but Michigan records a defensive touchdown in the third quarter and holds off a Terrapins rally to get bowl-eligible. ... Michigan 19, Maryland 16 -- Adam Rittenberg

Why Maryland wins: Maryland has been a puzzle this season, but my bet is Randy Edsall fits the right pieces together Saturday at Michigan. The Terps are at their best when airing out the deep ball on offense (even without Stefon Diggs). If Michigan can't get a decent pass rush in the absence of Frank Clark, C.J. Brown should have enough time to connect with his receivers on a couple bombs. Michigan's seniors will pour their hearts onto the field for a final time at the Big House, but in close games, Maryland kicker Brad Craddock has been a difference-maker for the Terps. He plays the heartbreaker role again in Ann Arbor. ... Maryland 24, Michigan 21 -- Dan Murphy



Why Northwestern will win: It's a risk picking the Wildcats here because they only seem to play well against top-20 teams. But I've got to believe Pat Fitzgerald's team built some confidence in that upset at Notre Dame, and certainly that was the best Trevor Siemian has looked all year. Purdue has some big-play ability that will give Northwestern trouble, but the Wildcats now have a realistic shot at a bowl and should play with all-out effort with that in mind. ... Northwestern 24, Purdue 21 -- Brian Bennett

Why Purdue wins: Northwestern has shown great fight in coming back from the dead twice this year. Its most remarkable achievement -- slightly ahead of the home victory over Wisconsin last month -- came Saturday with a road win at Notre Dame. But I just don’t trust the Wildcats, who are dreaming of a bowl game. Remember, this is a team that lost by 41 at Iowa three weeks ago. Purdue is playing without pressure. Sure, it has struggled down the stretch, but Austin Appleby is capable of a strong performance against a mediocre defense. If you want my real strategy in pick the Boilermakers, look no further than the calendar. Since 1947, Purdue is unbeaten in nine games on Nov. 22. ... Purdue 35, Northwestern 31 -- Josh Moyer

Unanimous decisions

Ohio State 59, Indiana 10: Shield your eyes from this one, folks. The league's best team and top offense take aim at the winless-in-conference Hoosiers at home and with a need to impress. It's going to get ugly early and stay that way.

Michigan State 42, Rutgers 21: The Scarlet Knights got bowl eligible last week but weren't terribly impressive against Indiana. Meanwhile, the Spartans regained their mojo at Maryland and should have an easy time dissecting a very leaky Scarlet Knights defense. Jeremy Langford will close out his home career in style on senior day with 175 rushing yards.

Penn State 17, Illinois 13: Odds are the Nittany Lions aren't going to blow any Big Ten opponents away because of their limited offense. But their defense has been one of the best in college football, and Anthony Zettel and Mike Hull will consume the Illini offensive line. A pick-six helps Penn State escape Champaign with win No. 7.

Wisconsin 31, Iowa 24: The Badgers won't have as easy a time running the ball as they did against Nebraska last week (historically speaking, that would be almost impossible). But Melvin Gordon isn't going to slow down now that he has a Heisman Trophy in his sights. Iowa will hang around all day, but Wisconsin's defense will make the necessary stops to pull another step closer to the West Division title.

Our records:
T-1. Mitch Sherman: 78-20 (.796)
T-1. Austin Ward: 78-20 (.796)
3. Dan Murphy: 47-14 (.787)
4. Brian Bennett: 77-21 (.786)
T-5. Adam Rittenberg: 73-25 (.745)
T-5. Josh Moyer: 73-25 (.745)

National links: Expand the playoff? 

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
8:30
AM ET
The first four teams to ever make the College Football Playoff have yet to be determined. But the backlash against the committee has been so intense, people already are suggesting ways to fix the system.

ACC commissioner John Swofford spoke Wednesday at a weekly Durham (N.C.) Sports Club meeting and said eight teams would be "ideal" in a playoff format.

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Big Ten morning links

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
8:00
AM ET
November upside: Competitive games, division races. Downside: Dropping temperatures, snow flurries.

The Big Ten is definitely making the trade worth it.

1. Boiling down the Broyles: The guys on the field jockeying for individual awards deserve the attention, and their coaches are always quick to deflect any praise back to the players doing the work in pads. But it's time to take a minute and give a little credit to the assistants in headsets, either on the sidelines or in the booth, because the Big Ten might have the deepest pool of candidate for the coveted but often overlooked Broyles Award for the country's top assistant. The list is longer than three names in the league, of course, but Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop would all be deserving winners for the incredible work they've done this season. The guys on the defensive side of the ball have put together units that both rank in the top three in the nation in total defense, with the Badgers currently No. 1. That gives Aranda a slight edge over Shoop, but it's a tougher call against Herman, who not only has Ohio State leading the Big Ten in scoring again, but as the quarterbacks coach, is also responsible for the rapid rise of redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett. If both teams stay on track for a collision in the Big Ten title game, maybe they can settle the matter once and for all in Indianapolis.

2. B1G love: The first time could have been written off as a fluke, but the College Football Playoff selection committee proved it truly respects the depth at the top of the Big Ten this week with five teams ranked among its Top 25. It would have been easy to write off No. 25 Minnesota following a home loss or to drop Nebraska out entirely after getting crushed by Wisconsin. But just like Michigan State last week, the way the committee has reacted to losses in the conference reflects how highly it thinks of the Big Ten despite those early missteps to start the year. The Huskers and Gophers square off Saturday in what will definitely serve as an elimination game in the West Division and will probably wind up being a loser-leaves-town matchup for the committee, which would drop the Big Ten down to four teams in its poll. But considering how that compares with the ACC or Big 12, the committee still clearly isn't buying the supposed demise of the Big Ten.

3. Under-the-radar matchup: Michigan has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons essentially all season long, and this week has been no exception with the troubling off-the-field issues with defensive lineman Frank Clark and his subsequent dismissal. The Wolverines may even be in a hurry to get the year over with and move on. Even with all their problems on the field, they are in position to qualify for the postseason and go out on a high note as Brady Hoke's tenure likely draws to a close. The odds are going to be stacked against them in a major way next week against Ohio State, but the Wolverines have home-field advantage, an underrated defense and potentially no shortage of motivation with Maryland coming to the Big House -- and if the chance to earn a trip to a bowl game doesn't bring out the best in Hoke's club, there's really no reason to even consider it a possibility he could return for another year.

East Division
West Division

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

November, 19, 2014
Nov 19
5:00
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It's been a little while since I dipped into the old mailbag (or more like it these days, the tweet-tote). Glad to be back. Let's see what's on your mind:
Brian Bennett: The closer you are to the fire, the hotter the flames. No doubt, in Lincoln and throughout the state of Nebraska, the reaction is louder and more over the top whenever the Huskers suffer a loss, especially one as ugly as last week's at Wisconsin. This is true anywhere, but even more so for such a passionate fan base. It's no wonder many Nebraska fans feel like the sky is falling after repeated blowout losses in the Bo Pelini.

But is the program's reputation really much better nationally? I think most observers outside the fan inner circle view the Huskers as a team that continually wins nine or 10 games under Pelini yet cannot get over the hump toward true greatness. It's a program that has plateaued at very good, and there are a lot worse places to be, for sure. Yet the championships just aren't there and don't seem to be coming soon.

I think most reasonable Huskers fans would agree with that assessment. Brian Bennett: It's a great question, and it's one we might not know the answer to until Dec. 7. A lot will come down to just how much the committee values conference championships. All along, that has been touted as an important factor, and it's one that Mississippi State will not be able to procure. TCU could be looking at a split conference title with Baylor, a team it lost to, and will not have a conference title game to improve its resume.

Meanwhile, Ohio State should glide into the Big Ten title game and could potentially play a top-10 Wisconsin team in Indianapolis. So I'm starting to feel a lot better about the Buckeyes' chances. And remember that TCU still has to go to Texas, which is starting to figure things out under Charlie Strong, and Mississippi State has to win the Egg Bowl on the road at Ole Miss. Things might just sort themselves out. Brian Bennett: If Iowa can make those two things happen, it will have a great shot at upsetting Wisconsin and keeping its Big Ten West Division title hopes alive. But can the Hawkeyes get it done?

Remember that only one team has slowed down Melvin Gordon all year long: Western Illinois, which obviously must have the best rush defense ever invented. Every Wisconsin opponent has made Gordon the focus of its game plan, yet he keeps leaving them choking on his chem trails.

I doubt Iowa will break down in its fundamentals as much as Nebraska did last week, and its two big defensive tackles -- Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat -- can help gum things up inside. But that only means it's more likely Gordon will bounce it to the outside, where he's at his most dangerous.

Some reason for hope: Gordon had only 62 yards on 17 carries last year in Iowa City, though James White did run for 132 and two scores. Of course, Iowa also has given up 219 yards to Indiana's Tevin Coleman and 155 to Pitt's James Conner this year. I don't think you stop Gordon right now so much as you try to limit his ridiculousness. Like maybe under 400 yards this time.

Alien Spartan from Novi, Michigan, writes: Brian, I can't help thinking we have the best coach in the B1G. I mean that sincerely. It doesn't matter who wins it this year. Mark Dantonio embodies the best of the best and I'm sure his legacy will speak to that. You have been closer to him than I may ever hope to be. So here's my question. How long do you think he remains head coach? Does he hang on to make the playoff? What are his goals?

Brian Bennett: I don't see Dantonio leaving East Lansing anytime soon. Athletic director Mark Hollis has done a phenomenal job of making the Spartans a family-like atmosphere where coaches like Dantonio and Tom Izzo want to be lifers. Dantonio will turn 59 next March and -- despite some earlier health issues -- appears to be in great shape. Who knows exactly how long he'll want to coach, but I get the feeling the Rose Bowl title has made him hungry for more and to get the program to the final level where it's a national title contender. His consistency has been amazing, and Michigan State fans are lucky to have him around. Brian Bennett: Northwestern would have the "hot team" thing going, as it would have won its final three games if it gets to six wins. The Wildcats would no doubt be one of the weirder bowl teams in recent memory but would have those two marquee wins you mentioned. Pat Fitzgerald's team probably wouldn't be in line for one of the top-tier bowls -- its lack of a huge fan base will always be an albatross in such things -- but would be intriguing for the lower-tier ones. And the Cats would have to hope to face a very good opponent, because that's when they somehow seems to play their best this season.
In just a couple of weeks, the Big Ten will announce its individual award winners for 2014. We've been giving you the scoop on those races all season long, and it's time again to see who leads for the top offensive and defensive honors. Plus, this week we look at the chase for the punter of the year award. Hey, punters need love, too!

Here we go:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon (six first-place votes): Well, yeah. After his 408-yard performance last week, Gordon has solidified his grip here. He's on pace to do things that only one or two FBS running backs have ever done, like finish with 2,000 yards and 30 TDs.

2. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: He's coming on strong and is a bona fide Heisman contender now. In another year, Barrett would be running away with this award. If Gordon falters in the next two weeks, maybe he can sneak in.

3. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: Speaking of "in any other year ..." Coleman is No. 2 nationally in rushing yards (1,678) and put up 307 at nearly the same time Gordon was doing his thing. Phenomenal player on a crummy team.

4. Minnesota RB David Cobb: If you still had any doubts about Cobb, he answered them with a 145-yard, three-touchdown performance against Ohio State. He should break Minnesota's single-season rushing record.

5. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: We hate to see Abdullah finish this way. He clearly wasn't himself against Wisconsin, running for just 69 yards on 18 carries. Hopefully he'll get healthier and end his illustrious career on a high note.

Also receiving votes: Michigan State WR Tony Lippett

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa (six first-place votes): Ho hum, just 1.5 sacks against Minnesota. He's got 11.5 sacks in 10 games, or more than any Big Ten player managed in either of the past two full seasons.

2. Penn State LB Mike Hull: The Nittany Lions rank third nationally in total defense, and Hull -- the Big Ten's top tackler -- is a big reason why.

3. Penn State DT Anthony Zettel: Did we mention how good Penn State's D has been? Zettel has been the anchor up front all year long. He's got 11 tackles for loss, which is a big number for an interior lineman.

T-4: Michigan LB Jake Ryan: There haven't been many bright spots for Michigan all season, but Ryan (90 tackles, 13 for loss) has been a beacon of hope.

T-4: Wisconsin LB Vince Biegel: It's hard to pick just one of the Badgers' outstanding quartet of linebackers. But Biegel might be the most versatile, and he's second in the league in TFLs with 14.

Also receiving votes: Iowa DE Drew Ott

Eddleman-Fields Punter of the Year

1. Minnesota's Peter Mortell (six first-place votes): Mortell was brilliant against Ohio State, consistently flipping field position. He leads the league with a 45.4-yard average.

2. Illinois' Justin DuVernois: He's right behind Mortell with a 44.9-yard average, including a league-best 74-yarder. Illinois also leads the Big Ten in net punting

Also receiving votes: Ohio State's Cam Johnston
You can question whether the Big Ten always competes at the same elite level as some other leagues. You can question, at times, some conference teams' all-out commitment to winning national championships in football.

But you can't question whether Big Ten head coaches are paid like the best of the best, at least at the top of the heap. USA Today has again done yeoman's work in compiling the salaries and compensation for every FBS head coach, and several Big Ten bosses remain among the most richly rewarded.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
AJ Mast/Icon SportswireMark Dantonio is the Big Ten's highest-paid coach at $5.6 million in total pay.
According to the database, the league has four of the top 10 highest-paid coaches in the FBS, though the names and rankings may surprise you a bit. Michigan State's Mark Dantonio surprisingly, checks in at No. 2 at more than $5.6 million in compensation, behind only his former boss, Alabama's Nick Saban.

It's important to note here that USA Today's methodology includes bonuses and other pay besides just salary. Dantonio received a $2 million longevity bonus that is being calculated into this list; his salary, which was bumped up after the Spartans won the Rose Bowl, is $3.64 million.

Ohio State's Urban Meyer checks in at No. 6 at just over $4.5 million, followed by Penn State's James Franklin (No. 8 overall at $4.3 million) and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz (No. 9, $4.075 million). Note that the figure for Franklin is based on a proposed financial term sheet released by the school, which declined to make Franklin's actual contract public.

Surprised not to see Michigan in the Top 10? Brady Hoke checks in at a relatively (key word) modest $2.85 million, good for only No. 30 in the FBS. Hoke ranked in the top 10 last year because of a large retention bonus he received. If the Wolverines make a coaching change and decide to land an established head coach, they could easily pay in the $3 million to $4 million range. Maybe more, if they could reel in a truly big fish like Les Miles or one of the Harbaughs.

The difference between the Big Ten and the SEC in salaries is much like the on-field rankings: depth. Twelve of the 14 SEC coaches are ranked in the Top 30 in salary and all 14 are ranked in the Top 34. Just six of the Big Ten coaches are in the top 30, which is one less than the Big 12 has. The SEC also boasts eight of the top 20 highest-paid coaches in the FBS, while half of the Big Ten's 14 coaches are ranked No. 41 or lower.

Here's how the rest of the Big Ten coaches stack up:

No. 24: Nebraska's Bo Pelini: $3.08 million
No. 39: Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald: $2.48 million
No. 41: Wisconsin's Gary Andersen: $2.29 million
No. 45: Minnesota's Jerry Kill: $2.1 million
No. 46: Purdue's Darrell Hazell: $2.09 million
No. 47: Maryland's Randy Edsall: $2.03 million
No. 52: Illinois' Tim Beckman: $1.95 million
No. 66: Indiana's Kevin Wilson: $1.3 million
No. 73: Rutgers' Kyle Flood: $987,000

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