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As the college football world gets ready for spring football, Toni Collins and ESPN Big Ten reporter Chantel Jennings discuss who are some of the top returning players in the new Big Ten East division.

Ohio State spring predictions: No. 4

February, 25, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Preparations to end a two-game losing streak have already started for Ohio State, but the chance to make them with the pads on again after a two-month wait isn't over yet.

There's still a week left until spring practice, and given the disappointing end to the 2013 season and the rigorous offseason conditioning program the Buckeyes have been going through, that time surely can't fly by quickly enough for them. We've already looked at players facing critical springs and key positional battles, and to count down these final few days before camp opens, we'll make a handful of predictions for what should go down in March and April as Ohio State reloads for another run at a title in the fall.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesOhio State quarterback Braxton Miller must improve his passing this spring.
No. 4: Braxton Miller takes another step forward as a passer

The trend is easy to identify on the stat sheet, and the improvements Miller has made as a passer have been hard to ignore over the last three seasons.

The numbers at the end of his junior campaign, though, made it just as clear that Ohio State's signal-caller isn't yet a finished product, leaving him more room to grow when camp opens in March and continuing well after the spring game. And while the minor shoulder surgery that was performed last week will limit him during workouts, it might also be a benefit for him during a camp that was always going to emphasize improvements on the mental side of the game.

His physical performances in March and April have been useful in monitoring his development as a passer, and it was another breakout performance in the spring game a year ago that provided an early sign he was ready to jump from a 58-percent passer to a guy capable of completing 64 percent of his throws. There were similar signs the year before that during the spring after posting a completion percentage of 54 percent as a freshman, and that upward trend makes it easy for the Buckeyes to get excited about what he might be capable of doing as a senior.

Miller's legs are always going to make life difficult for opposing defenses, and by all accounts the coaching staff doesn’t question the talent in his arm. But it's taking his ability to read defenses, know the offense inside and out and make consistently intelligent decisions up one more level that may truly allow the spread offense to keep even the most elite teams off-balance, which the Buckeyes couldn't do enough in the Big Ten championship against Michigan State as their national-title hopes collapsed in the fourth quarter.

Taking the aerial attack to a higher gear isn't his responsibility alone, of course, and Ohio State will have to plug holes on the offensive line and find a few new weapons at wide receiver as part of the process. But the center of attention will always be Miller, and even while watching he should have a chance to grow and focus on the part of the game that has the most room for improvement.

Top position classes: Big Ten 

February, 25, 2014
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With national signing day in the books, RecruitingNation is looking at the top position classes in each conference. For the full series, click here.

Quarterback
While Penn State has one of the nation’s top young quarterbacks returning in Christian Hackenberg, the Nittany Lions needed to look to the long-term future and build depth at the position in this class. James Franklin certainly did that with his initial class in Happy Valley. No. 6 pocket passer Michael O’Connor (Bradenton, Fla./IMG Academy) has already enrolled, and will quickly begin his development process. His size, ball placement and upside make him a near ideal fit in Penn State’s pro-style scheme. Three-star athlete Trace McSorley (Ashburn, Va./Briar Woods) is a second possible signal-caller in the class.


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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.

Big Ten lunch links

February, 24, 2014
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Congrats to Penn State students, who raised more than $13 million for pediatric cancer research at the school's annual THON event.
The 2014 NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis is more than halfway over, and testing results have been recorded for quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, offensive linemen and specialists. As we do every year around this time, let's check in on how the Big Ten contingent is performing at the site of the Big Ten championship game (Lucas Oil Stadium).

Note: These are results through Sunday.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMichigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan was one of several Big Ten players who increased their stock at the NFL combine over the weekend.
TOP PERFORMERS

Overall

  • Nebraska WR Quincy Enunwa is tied for 14th in the 40-yard dash at 4.45 seconds.
  • Ohio State C Corey Linsley is tied for second with 36 bench-press repetitions at 225 pounds.
  • Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman is tied for 10th in bench-press repetitions with 32.
  • Penn State WR Allen Robinson is tied for eighth in the vertical jump at 39 inches; tied for eighth in the broad jump at 10 feet, 7 inches; seventh in the 20-yard shuttle at four seconds and sixth in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.36 seconds.
  • Michigan State WR Bennie Fowler is ninth in the broad jump at 10 feet, 6 inches; 12th in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.52 seconds.
  • Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis is 14th in the 3-cone drill at 6.8 seconds; 12th in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.08 seconds and seventh in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.39 seconds.
By position

Running backs: Wisconsin's James White is tied for fourth in bench-press reps with 23; Ohio State's Carlos Hyde is tied for 13th with 19.

Wide receivers: Enunwa is tied for 11th in 40-yard dash and seventh in bench-press reps with 19; Indiana's Cody Latimer is first in bench-press reps with 23; Rutgers' Brandon Coleman is tied for second in bench-press reps with 21; Michigan's Jeremy Gallon is tied for 13th in bench-press reps with 15; Robinson is sixth in vertical jump, tied for third in broad jump, seventh in 20-yard shuttle and sixth in 60-yard shuttle; Fowler is tied for fifth in broad jump, 15th in 20-yard shuttle and 12th in 60-yard shuttle; Abbrederis is 12th in 3-cone drill at 6.8 seconds, 11th in 20-yard shuttle and seventh in 60-yard shuttle.

Tight ends: Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz is sixth in the 40-yard dash (4.76 seconds), fifth in bench-press reps (25), tied for 11th in vertical jump (31.5 inches), tied for sixth in broad jump (9 feet, 8 inches), first in 3-cone drill (7.1 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle (4.26 seconds); Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen is tied for 13th in the 40-yard dash (4.89 seconds), 11th in 3-cone drill (7.55 seconds), seventh in 20-yard shuttle (4.4 seconds) and tied for second in 60-yard shuttle (12.19 seconds).

Offensive linemen: Michigan's Taylor Lewan is first in 40-yard dash (4.87 seconds) and broad jump (9 feet, 9 inches), tied for 11th in bench-press reps (29), tied for third in vertical jump (30.5 inches), fourth in 3-cone drill (7.39 seconds), ninth in 20-yard shuttle (4.49 seconds); Michigan's Michael Schofield is sixth in 40-yard dash (5.01 seconds), 13th in 3-cone drill (7.62 seconds) and 11th in 20-yard shuttle (4.57 seconds); Linsley is tied for second in bench-press reps; Penn State's John Urschel is tied for eighth in bench-press reps (30), tied for fifth in vertical jump (29 inches), ninth in 3-cone drill (7.55 seconds) and tied for sixth in 20-yard shuttle (4.47 seconds); Ohio State's Jack Mewhort is tied for 14th in bench-press reps (28); Wisconsin's Ryan Groy is tied for seventh in broad jump (9 feet), eighth in 3-cone drill (7.49 seconds) and tied for sixth in 20-yard shuttle (4.47 seconds); Iowa's Conor Boffeli is seventh in 3-cone drill (7.44 seconds) and 13th in 20-yard shuttle (4.61 seconds).

Defensive linemen (bench-press only): Hageman is tied for third with 32 repetitions.

Workouts and testing for defensive linemen and linebackers takes place Monday, followed by the defensive backs on Tuesday. We'll have more updates as the results come in, but you should check out ESPN.com's full combine coverage here.

Ohio State spring predictions: No. 5

February, 24, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Preparations to end a two-game losing streak have already started for Ohio State, but the chance to make them with the pads on again after a two-month wait isn't over yet.

There's still more than a week left on that wait to hit the practice field again, and given the disappointing end to the 2013 season and the rigorous offseason conditioning program the Buckeyes have been going through, that time surely can't fly by quickly enough for them. We've already looked at players facing critical springs and key positional battles, and to count down these final few days before camp opens, now we'll make a handful of predictions for what should go down in March and April as Ohio State reloads for another run at a title in the fall.

[+] EnlargeMichael Thomas
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesCan Buckeyes wideout Michael Thomas have a breakout season in 2014?
No. 5: Michael Thomas has another big camp.

His springs have been almost unforgettable.

After a horrendous season for Ohio State's receivers in 2011 with no player recording more than 14 catches, Thomas burst on the scene and provided instant optimism for the future of the spread offense with 12 receptions in one memorable outing in the spring game before his freshman season. He followed that up with another prolific set of workouts a year ago, dominating individual drills, making difficult catches look routine and displaying some jaw-dropping athleticism on the perimeter.

His falls have provided almost nothing worth remembering at all.

There were only 3 receptions during that debut season in 2012. Last season, Thomas didn't even see the field and wound up taking a redshirt, though he actually did step on the turf during the brawl at Michigan for his only action of what at this time a year ago seemed likely to be a big sophomore campaign.

Now Thomas appears like he's already at a critical crossroads in his career with the Buckeyes, and both he and the coaching staff could use another head-turning spring from the talented wideout -- provided, of course, that the third time actually is charmed and becomes a springboard into the season.

Ohio State is losing leading receiver Philly Brown and another veteran in Chris Fields, leaving playing time available on the perimeter for an offense that will emphasize the passing game during camp in an effort to find more balance with the play calling. Thomas has a strong relationship with quarterback Braxton Miller, he has all the tools to be an effective weapon and by now there should be no uncertainty at all with the playbook after two seasons in the program. Last spring, Thomas overpowered defensive backs when challenged physically, he made acrobatic catches on deep throws and with his 6-foot-3, 202-pound frame, he presents an inviting target for intermediate routes to help move the chains.

More of the same should be expected leading into April and another exhibition opportunity to show his stuff. The next step will be finally building off it in August.

Big Ten makes progress in diversity

February, 24, 2014
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The Big Ten likes to consider itself a leader on many fronts in college sports. Several Big Ten schools were among the first to integrate their football programs, and the first two African-American head football coaches in a major conference called the league home.

But for much of this century, when it came to football coaching diversity, the Big Ten lagged behind the rest of the nation.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/Eric Christian SmithPenn State's decision to hire James Franklin as its first African-American head football coach can't be underestimated.
After the third African-American head coach in league history -- Michigan State's Bobby Williams -- was fired late in the 2002 season, the conference went a decade without another black head football coach. The Big Ten was the only one of the six BCS AQ conferences that did not have at least one African-American head coach during that span; the SEC, by contrast, had four in the same time frame.

Thankfully, things have begun to improve. Two of the last three head coaches hired in the Big Ten -- Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Penn State's James Franklin -- are African-American.

"That's great news, to have that diversity," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "Now we just need to give them time and let them be successful where they are and develop their programs. I'm glad there is progress, and we need to continue to do more across the country."

There weren't a lot of opportunities, period, for head coaching jobs in the Big Ten during the recent diversity drought, as schools like Iowa, Northwestern, Penn State and Ohio State remained mostly stable at the top. But coaching turnover has increased in the league in the past few years; Penn State, for instance, just hired its second coach in three years after going nearly a half-century without a transition.

Was improving diversity a league-wide priority? Conference officials say no.

"What our schools try to do is hire the best coaches in their pool," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "We've had plenty of African-American basketball coaches.

"It's more about a commitment to opportunity and a fair process, and as long as our people are hiring the best people in processes that are open, you would hope and think that it would be sort of a broad representation of people. Whether you hire James Franklin or a new coach at any place, I'm not sure race should be the factor. Certainly people wouldn't want it to be a factor. It's really an outcome."

Still, it's hard not to note the importance of Penn State hiring its first African-American head football coach. More so than Dennis Green or Francis Peay at Northwestern or even Williams at Michigan State, Franklin is leading a flagship, blue-blood program. The timing was fortuitous, as the Pennsylvania native was ready for a new challenge after proving himself at Vanderbilt and the Nittany Lions needed a dynamic new leader.

“It’s a lot of significance," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. "We hired James because of the kind of person and coach he is. The fact he’s African American is great. It’s a great testimony to opportunity. A hundred years ago, that wouldn’t have happened in this country."

[+] EnlargeJim Delany
AP Photo/Ting Shen/Triple Play New MediaBig Ten commissioner Jim Delany said the hiring process should be fair and a commitment to opportunity for all coaches.
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports hasn't yet released its annual hiring report card for college football. But Richard Lapchick, the center's director, said the Big Ten's recent moves are "definitely a sign of progress." While there are only 11 FBS black head coaches heading into the 2014 season, it's noteworthy that minorities have gotten opportunities to lead storied programs like Penn State and Texas (Charlie Strong), Lapchick said.

"That's critically important," he said. "Historically, the opportunities in general that have gone to African-American coaches have been at programs that have been really down, and the opportunities to turn them around have been very problematic. Let's hope [Hazell and Franklin] are successful, because they will help create more opportunities for other African-American and Latino coaches in FBS conferences."

The next step for the Big Ten is to continue to develop and identify the next wave of minority head coaching candidates. Both Franklin and Hazell, who led Kent State for two seasons before Purdue hired him, had already established themselves as winning head coaches elsewhere, though Hazell was also a well-regarded assistant at Ohio State. The Big Ten sent several African-American assistant coaches to the annual minority coaches' forum between 2006 and 2010, and some athletic directors see it as their job to mentor young black coaches.

Smith saw Everett Withers leave the Buckeyes staff this winter to land the James Madison head coaching job and said he is spending time this offseason with running backs coach Stan Drayton to get Drayton accustomed to non-football issues like university budgets and policies.

"We want to have guys who are trained to hopefully win in the interview process," Smith said. "Sometimes, those are beauty contests. You've got to be able to answer the questions the right way and demonstrate an ability to lead."

That's the ultimate goal, to have more minority candidates who are ready when those opportunities do arise. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said that wasn't the case a few years ago, but the pool of potential coaches is increasing.

"We’re starting to see more and more diversity among the coaching staffs and up-and-coming diverse candidates in all various positions in the sport," Brandon said. "Now, we're seeing more representation at the head coaching level. That was bound to happen and important to have happen, and I'm glad to see that trend evolve."

Braxton Miller to be limited in spring

February, 21, 2014
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Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller underwent minor surgery on his right shoulder Friday morning and will be limited in his activities throughout spring drills, the school announced.

The arthroscopic procedure took place at Ohio State University Medical Center.

The Buckeyes' spring practice begins March 4.

Miller completed 162-of-255 passes for 2,094 yards and 24 touchdowns this past season for Ohio State, leading the Buckeyes to the Discover Orange Bowl, where they lost to Clemson.

Sources told The Columbus Dispatch that Miller's shoulder has bothered him since that game, and a decision was made to have the surgery.


(Read full post)


Big Ten Friday mailblog

February, 21, 2014
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Wishing you a great weekend. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter.

To the inbox …

Jeremy from the South Carolina Cornfields writes: It has been interesting seeing the opinions of some new member fans from Rutgers and Maryland. What I found most interesting is which teams those fans seemed to fear/respect the most. Nearly all give credit to OSU and rightfully so. But I am surprised to see less concern about facing Wisconsin, Nebraska, and even Michigan State to a degree. However both Michigan and Penn State seem to garner more respect. Both have great name recognition, but both are also a shade of their former glory. Do you think that fan perception really is that regional and possibly outdated as a result?

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsAre the fans of new B1G members Rutgers and Maryland overlooking Mark Dantonio and MSU?
Adam Rittenberg: Whether it's fan perception or media perception, a lot of it is outdated, Jeremy. It's why historic powers like Notre Dame and Michigan often appear in polls when they shouldn't. People are used to certain things in the sport, even when recent history has shown otherwise. Wisconsin certainly has the respect of most college football fans, even those outside the Big Ten. But the Badgers would have helped themselves by winning at least one Rose Bowl between 2010-12.

Nebraska is more like Michigan and Penn State as a historic power, but the Huskers have been down, at least by their standards, for longer than both programs. Michigan and Penn State both have made multiple BCS bowls in the past decade, while Nebraska's last came during the 2001 season. That's a long time. Michigan State undoubtedly helped its perception by winning the Rose Bowl. The Spartans now must follow it up with another strong season (would be fourth in five years under Mark Dantonio).




Desert Husker from Tucson, Ariz., writes: ESPN has had a lot of press on the drop in student sections at football games. I'm curious what your thoughts are on the role of television in this drop? Think about it for a moment. Now every game is carried on TV. And with that came some of the changes: variable kickoff times (morning kickoffs, late kickoffs), weekday games, no more PPV.

Adam Rittenberg: It might not be as significant as ticket prices and schedules, but TV definitely plays a role, Husker. Fans have access to everything, and they want to be as tuned in at games as they can be at home. That's the challenge for schools. The days of simply reading out-of-town scores are over. More schools are showing live cut-ins or highlights of other games on the video board. But's it's a challenge. As Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told me, "They've got every picture right there. We have to respond to those times."




Steve from Boston writes: Adam, Do you feel that [Kain] Colter is bitter about his experience at Northwestern? Wasn't he taken care of medically while he was injured? Not to mention, he ultimately made the choices he did to not go into pre-med classes, while still getting a degree from a highly esteemed university. I feel like he is upset about something else which is driving this unionization of players.

Adam Rittenberg: It's a bit puzzling, Steve, because Colter consistently has said that he had a great experience at Northwestern and harbors no ill will toward the program. I think he's under a lot of pressure to expose the problems of the system, and he's trying to paint his own experience -- one that was largely positive -- in a somewhat negative light. His testimony shocked a lot of folks in Evanston who had seem him blossom as a player.




Steve from Nebraska: What are your thoughts on parody twitter accounts involving college coaches and players? For example @FauxPelini. His tweets are hilarious but sometimes cross the line. Another example is @NotMarkWeisman, who is popular among Iowa fans. Are these fake twitter accounts just for fun or are they becoming out of hand?

Adam Rittenberg: Is this baseball pitching phenom Steve Nebraska? Someone call Albert Brooks. … I'm a huge fan of @FauxPelini. He's the best in the Twitter parody business, and it's not really close. When the real Bo Pelini acknowledged Faux during the national title game, it made my night. But I agree many of the parody accounts cross the line. I've had to unfollow a few that became too lewd with their comments. I prefer the coach parody accounts to the player ones because the coaches are older, in power positions and usually hear a lot worse criticism.




Paul from Wappingers Falls, N.Y., writes: With regard to the diminishing student fan base in the B1G, should the ADs reconsider the "after Thanksgiving" game? It was instituted just two or three years ago so that BCS voters wouldn't lose sight of the conference as they were dormant that weekend and the other conferences were playing. Now with the playoff with its selection committee is in place and with the B1G having their own championship game on the same weekend as the other conferences, that concern has to be somewhat diminished. Does it not? Scheduling the regular season to end the weekend before Thanksgiving not only alleviates the inconvenience for the students who now have to return early to school, but would allow for the scheduling of a game earlier in the year.

Adam Rittenberg: Some good points here, Paul, but you're not going to see all of college football move up the start date a week just so the Big Ten can wrap up before Thanksgiving. I definitely agree the relevancy argument isn't as strong with the championship game in place. One concern is having a bye week for each team, which can be hard if the season starts in early September and must wrap up before Thanksgiving. Most Big Ten schools had no bye week in 2009. While no one likes the double-byes, coaches want to have one off week so players can rest. Is it possible to go back to the old way? Sure. But I don't see it happening.

Video: B1G shoes to fill, Ohio State

February, 21, 2014
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ESPN.com reporter Austin Ward talks about Ohio State's effort to replace Ryan Shazier at outside linebacker this spring.

Big Ten lunch links

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
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A gold medal-winning version of the links.

How will schedules affect East race?

February, 21, 2014
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Earlier this week, Adam took a look at how the schedules would impact the West Division race in 2014. Schedules become a key factor because that division looks like a wide-open scrum, and a couple of teams (looking at you, Iowa and Wisconsin) appear to have curried favor with the scheduling gods.

[+] EnlargeTony Lippett, C.J. Barnett
AP Photo/Michael ConroyAfter an epic meeting in the Big Ten title game, Michigan State and Ohio State will meet as division foes for the first time on Nov. 8.
Things are different in the East Division, primarily because that side of the new Big Ten alignment looks far more top-heavy than the West. Defending league champion Michigan State and runner-up Ohio State figure to be the overwhelming favorites to win the Big Ten next season and should both start the season in the top 10 of the major polls.

Do either the Spartans or Buckeyes have a scheduling advantage? Let's take a look at the two teams' crossover opponents in 2014:

Michigan State: Nebraska (home), Purdue (road)

Ohio State: Minnesota (road), Illinois (home)

Slight edge to Ohio State there, as Nebraska looks like the best team of that bunch, though Minnesota could conceivably be feisty at home. The Huskers do have to come to Spartan Stadium, but they won there two seasons ago, for whatever that is worth.

What about inside the division? Ohio State travels to East Lansing on Nov. 8 in what is the game of the year in the Big Ten, at least right now on paper. Having that game at home (and possibly under the lights?) is a major advantage for the Spartans, who could theoretically afford to lose a game elsewhere and still make it to Indianapolis via a head-to-head tiebreaker win over the Buckeyes.

A couple of other teams in the East will have at least a say in who wins the division. With apologies to Indiana, Maryland and Rutgers, however, Michigan and Penn State look like the only clubs who will truly be able to make a run at the title. Let's look at their crossovers and their matchups against the other top contenders:

Michigan

Crossovers: Minnesota (home), Northwestern (road)

Vs. division contenders: Michigan State and Ohio State on the road, Penn State at home

Penn State

Crossovers: Northwestern (home), Illinois (road)

Vs. division contenders: Michigan State and Ohio State at home, Michigan on the road

Of those two, Penn State has the far more advantageous schedule, with what looks like the best crossover schedule of the four contenders and with both the Spartans and Buckeyes coming to Beaver Stadium. Michigan State, in fact, will have to go to State College for the season finale Nov. 29, and we've seen what the Nittany Lions have done in their two season-ending games against Wisconsin while serving their bowl ban. Assuming that sanction remains in place, could an emotional Penn State team help decide the East race on senior day?

That's a possibility. While the schedule will likely not be nearly as big a factor in the East as it is the West this season, its impact can't be discounted, either.
Our nostalgic trip through the top individual performances of the 2013 Big Ten season is close to wrapping up.

We're down to the last three in our list, which takes into account the difficulty of opponent and stakes of the game and tries to identify record-breaking, honor-winning, jaw-dropping games from league players. Players are limited to one entry on this list, for variety's sake.

This next guy turned in several possibilities for this list, but we could only pick one ...

[+] EnlargeOhio State Touchdown
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsBuckeyes tailback Carlos Hyde ran wild vs. Illinois in 2013.
No. 3: Illinois has no answer for Carlos danger

Who and against whom: Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde steamrolled the Illini defense in a 60-35 win in Champaign on Nov. 16

The numbers: Hyde carried 24 times for 246 yards and four touchdowns, while also catching a touchdown pass.

A closer look: OK, let's get this out of the way at the start. Yes, Illinois' run defense was flat-out awful last season. Still, Hyde did some incredible work in a game that was a little too close for comfort for the Buckeyes on a windy November Saturday.

Hyde's 246 yards were his career high, and that number tied Archie Griffin for the third-highest single game rushing total in Ohio State history. That's a pretty good history, in case you didn't know.

Hyde didn't start the game because of an academic issue but came in on the third play and was basically unstoppable after that. What he did at the end of the game was the most impressive.

Illinois cut the lead to 47-35 midway through the fourth quarter to make things interesting. But Hyde erased any thoughts of an upset by breaking off a 51-yard touchdown followed by a 55-yard score in the final 4:03.

Hyde had many great performances during his 1,521-yard season in 2013. But he was never more dominant than this.

More top performances

Christian Kirksey vs. Nebraska

Jared Abbrederis vs. Ohio State

Braxton Miller vs. Penn State

Ryan Shazier vs. Indiana

Shilique Calhoun vs. South Florida

Christian Hackenberg vs. Wisconsin

Devin Gardner vs. Ohio State

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National recruiting analysts Tom Luginbill and Craig Haubert count down the top 10 recruits in the latest ESPN 300 player rankings update. The complete ESPN 300 will be released April 16.Tags: Tim Settle, CeCe Jefferson, Torrance Gibson, Mitch Hyatt, Terry Beckner Jr., Byron Cowart, Josh Sweat, Kevin Toliver II, Martez Ivey, Trevon Thompson, ESPN 300, RecruitingNation, high school football recruiting, Tom Luginbill, Craig Haubert
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