Here's who we see as the top four candidates right now, though others have a strong case as well:
- Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier: He leads the Big Ten with 14.5 tackles for loss and paces the No. 3 Buckeyes with 88 total stops, to go along with 4.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.
- Wisconsin LB Chris Borland: Borland is the clear leader of a Wisconsin defense that ranks just behind Michigan State. He has 80 tackles and four sacks, though he did miss the Iowa game and most of the Illinois game.
- Nebraska DE Randy Gregory: The junior college import leads the Big Ten in sacks with 8.5 and is second to Shazier with 13.5 tackles for loss.
- Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard: The best cornerback in the league, if not the nation, Dennard has three interceptions and makes the Spartans defense go by locking down his side of the field.
To the debate we go …
Those are four pretty good candidates, and we haven't even mentioned guys like Shilique Calhoun, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen, Ra'Shede Hageman, James Morris, etc. Has any player truly separated himself in this race at this point?
Mitch Sherman: It’s still wide open. Each one of the four brings something unique. I’ve seen more of Gregory than the others, and he’s simply an athletic freak, though a better candidate to be the league's top newcomer. Shazier is probably the best football player in this group; Borland is the best leader and difference-maker in the locker room. And while it’s often tough to consider a cornerback in this kind of company, Dennard is dominant in a way I’ve not seen from any player nationally at his position.
Brian Bennett: It's incredibly difficult to decide between the top four candidates we named, and some other defensive players are also having outstanding years. I was leaning toward Borland because of his outstanding leadership, but missing two Big Ten games hurt his cause. Not fair, but in a race this close, that has to factor in. Gregory is really coming on strong. Still too close to call, in my view.
How should we deal with Michigan State's defense? The Spartans have put up some mind-boggling numbers, but with so many stars which one should we single out for this award?
Adam Rittenberg: Brian brings up a good point about Michigan State's use of its corners, which also allows linebackers like Allen to blitz so much. Calhoun to me has been the difference maker as Michigan State lacked an elite pass rusher last season. Dennard is the most naturally talented player on the unit, Calhoun gives opposing offensive linemen fits and Bullough doesn't get his due nationally, in my view. I don't think you can single out one player, which is why the unit excels.
Sherman: Normally in this situation, one great teammate can detract from another's candidacy. Not here with Dennard. I agree that he's the most elite among the Spartans' superior unit. As others struggled last week with Nebraska's offense, Dennard eliminated receiver Quincy Enunwa, himself a physical force who has manhandled Big Ten defenders. Halfway through the game, in fact, I wondered if Enunwa was sitting out. Nope, just blanketed by Dennard. Even among the Spartans, he does plenty to stand out.
What can each candidate do in the final two weeks to make a lasting impression?
Ward: The one thing missing from Shazier's resume this season is a touchdown, and he knows it. His interception return for a score last season against Penn State was a turning point in a crucial game on the road and a signature moment that summed up his impact for the Buckeyes over the course of the season. And while a defensive touchdown is hard to come by and perhaps shouldn't make much of a difference, it can be a valuable tiebreaker of sorts given the situation. Since Shazier is already leading the race in my opinion, that could seal the deal.
Rittenberg: It's all about making impact plays, ideally in big games with something on the line. Borland still is chasing the NCAA forced fumbles record. If he can break it during the next two games, his candidacy will be helped. Shazier already has some signature moments, but a monster game against Michigan -- always a national showcase game -- will help him. Dennard has matched his interceptions total (3) from the past two seasons; now, can he eclipse it? Calhoun and Gregory both have put themselves on the radar, but they'll need some big days down the stretch to beat out the more familiar names.
Who would get your vote if the season ended today? Make a case for your candidate.
Bennett: It's Shazier right now, by a nose. He makes plays all over the field, and with a young defensive front, Bradley Roby having a disappointing year and Christian Bryant out with an injury, the junior linebacker has led the way for Ohio State. He showed his value last week at Illinois when the Buckeyes were down two starting linebackers by recording 16 tackles and a key safety. He could have won the award last year and probably will do so this year.
Ward: Shazier. There's really no way to overstate the importance of the junior linebacker to the Ohio State defense, which would be completely lost if not for Shazier providing stability, experience, leadership and an enormous amount of plays all over the field. Despite needing to replace the entire defensive line, two starters next to him at linebacker and losing safety Christian Bryant to a fractured ankle, Shazier has kept the Buckeyes in the top four in the Big Ten in scoring and total defense, which is no small feat. He's the total package, everything the Big Ten defensive player of the year should be.
Rittenberg: It's between Shazier, Borland and Dennard for me. Ohio State's defense can't match Wisconsin or Michigan State, but both of those units returned a lot more from the 2012 team. Shazier not only continues to make huge plays, but as I mentioned earlier, he leads a young linebacker corps and helps guide a line that had to replace all four starters from last year's team. Borland would be the first one I'd pick to start my team, but I also give Shazier the edge heading into the final two weeks.
- For Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, breaking down offensive film isn't easy because so few opponents use the 3-4. But, as far as Aranda's concerned, the fewer teams playing the 3-4, the bigger the advantage to the Badgers.
- First-year coach Gary Andersen has quickly earned the trust of his Wisconsin players.
- Minnesota's turnaround this season is raising plenty of eyebrows, and it's drawn quite a bit of praise -- and still some skepticism -- so far this season.
- With Ohio State on the verge of breaking the program record for the longest-winning streak, past Buckeyes reflect on Woody Hayes' 22-game streak and tip their cap to the current players.
- Michigan State has found its identity and, The Detroit News' Bob Wojnowski writes it's a pretty darn good one.
- Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald is nearly as conservative as a guy who plays penny slots, Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein writes, and that type of style isn't helping the Wildcats.
- Michigan coach Brady Hoke went with the glass half-full approach and said, "Honestly, we're a pretty good team."
- Conor Boffeli's last game at Kinnick Stadium will be special in no small part thanks to his younger brother, who survived a malignant brain tumor.
- Job security for Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is no guarantee after this season, but it's "business as usual" for him as he prepares for Penn State.
- Grantland's Lindsay Schnell takes a closer look at Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and just how he's bringing happiness back to Happy Valley.
- Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has praised Braxton Miller for being a complete quarterback this season, and the numbers certainly bear that out. He's attempting 84 percent of his passes inside the pocket -- an increase of 18 percentage points compared to last season -- and he's completing 71.3 percent of those passes, which is the best in the Big Ten.
- Both Indiana and Ohio State are tied for second in the FBS with 18 touchdowns on drives lasting 1 minute or less. But the Hoosiers haven't been able to piece together sustained drives. The Buckeyes have eight touchdown drives lasting five minutes or longer. Indiana? Zero.
- Michigan State's defense is arguably the best in the nation. And here are some numbers to chew on that might just back that up: The Spartans have allowed 13 runs of 10 yards or longer, which is seven fewer than any other FBS team. They lead the BCS with 122 total pressures (hurries, knockdowns, sacks). And they've allowed a BCS conference-low 29.1 yards-before-contact per game on designed runs.
- Just how good has MSU quarterback Connor Cook been in the clutch? On third downs, he's statistically the best quarterback in the conference. In Big Ten games, he has a QBR of 93.2 on third downs. He's converting 49 percent of those downs, completing 64.7 percent of his passes and averaging nine yards every pass attempt.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Al GoldisConnor Cook is among the best in the country on third down.
- Northwestern's penchant for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory has been pretty well documented this season, and no other team has really experienced as much heartbreak. The Wildcats have an FBS-high six losses when it has a lead in the fourth quarter in the last two seasons. And they've lost four games this year when tied or leading in the fourth quarter, which is tied for the most such losses in the country along with Temple, South Alabama and Utah.
- In some respects, Wisconsin's rushing attack has been the most dominant in the nation. The Badgers average 4.3 yards per rush before first contact, the most in the BCS. It's averaging a BCS-best 9.4 yards per rush outside the tackles. And it leads the nation in rushes of 30 yards or longer (20) and 50 yards or longer (9).
- Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson obviously has made some long strides since the beginning of the season, but he's really been on top during Minnesota's four-game winning streak. His 90.5 opponent-adjusted QBR ranks second-best in the FBS since Week 8, behind only Florida State's Jameis Winston (94.3). (He's a full point above Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel.)
- Nebraska has shown, again and again, its ability to win the close games. As a matter of fact, Nebraska has won seven games in a row that were decided by seven or fewer points. That's the second-longest streak in the country, behind only Arkansas State's eight wins. And the Cornhuskers also have won six Big Ten games in the past two seasons after trailing in the fourth quarter.
- Iowa's defense doesn't get as much credit as the Spartans, but it's still a top-10 unit -- and it's especially good in the red zone. The Hawkeyes have allowed just nine red-zone touchdowns, which is tied for the lowest total in the nation. And they haven't allowed a first-quarter touchdown since Week 1.
- Illinois sophomore tailback Josh Ferguson is quite the balanced player. He leads the Illini in rushing yards (554), but he's also a big part of the passing game. He has 498 receiving yards on 43 receptions, which puts him at second in the nation in terms of receiving yards by a running back. And he needs just six yards to break Kameno Bell's single-season school record for receiving yards by a running back.
Limit it to teammates, and the votes poured in to make Kenny Guiton a captain at Ohio State.
Even across the country, a brief stint in the spotlight in September earned him recognition as the national player of the week and turned him into a household name.
That near universal admiration is rare enough for anybody, let alone a backup quarterback.
But Ohio State's has become a cult hero. And as he takes in the appreciation for what he’s accomplished for the last time on Saturday at Ohio Stadium, he will do so knowing just how easily he could have missed out on it entirely.
The accidental Buckeye
Tom Herman wasn’t the only recruiter who had taken an interest in the quarterback from Houston, but he was in the same boat as the rest of the small handful of coaches seeking Guiton's services back in 2008.
Then an assistant at Rice, Herman saw the multipurpose potential Guiton brought to the position. There was an accurate, but not overpowering, arm capable of leading a passing attack. Mobility, but perhaps not game-changing acceleration, which could extend plays and pose a threat as a rusher.
But Guiton wasn’t the kind of recruit worth waiting around forever for, and ultimately Rice had to move on and take another quarterback.
“Kenny had kind of put off his decision, kept waiting and waiting,” Herman said. “At that time we felt like we had to fish or cut bait.
“I think that’s why it didn’t work out for a lot of different places that he originally had offers to.”
At the top of Guiton’s list was Kansas.
When he called the Jayhawks, they had already filled their need for a passer.
Guiton placed a call to his next choice in the Big 12.
“I called Iowa State, and they were like, ‘We just had a commit two or three days ago,’” Guiton said. “I just waited too long.
"After a while, there was nothing on the table.”
There was still Prairie View A&M, and after dragging his feet, that option was looking pretty appealing.
Then Ohio State swooped in unexpectedly after it was spurned by its top targets and scrambling to fill the late void in its 2009 recruiting class, offering a nice landing spot in the Big Ten. But what it didn’t necessarily provide was a place where much was expected of him.
Even Rice thought it might have a bit of a project on its hands with Guiton, and the Buckeyes were in reasonably good shape at the position in the first place.
“I’d be lying to you if I told you we thought [at Rice] this was possible,” said Herman, now the quarterbacks coach at Ohio State. “They didn’t here, let’s be honest. Nobody did, and Kenny has continued to prove the naysayers wrong in everything he does.
“I think they understood he would be a developmental guy, and he has exceeded expectations. And I think he understands that, and it adds a little fuel to his fire, a little chip on his shoulder.”
It would come in handy again well after arriving on campus.
Career at a crossroads
Braxton Miller had individual awards already after a breakout freshman season, and he also had the support of a new coach before spring practice even started in 2012.
Guiton couldn't blame Urban Meyer for his enthusiasm about working with the freakishly talented Miller in his spread offense, and in truth he had no problem again accepting a role as a backup. But with the sense there would be no battle for the starting job, not to mention showing up late for Meyer’s first team meeting and having what Guiton himself called a “childish mentality,” the relationship didn't get off to an ideal start for either party.
“He wasn’t acting like a quarterback at Ohio State,” Meyer said. “That’s a lofty standard to play quarterback at a place like this. You’re expected to live your life a certain way, and he wasn’t doing it.”
Guiton was again at a crossroads.
He hadn’t done anything of consequence for the Buckeyes, and it would have been difficult then to predict Guiton might wind up being somebody who would be missed.
He made some calls home to his family, who pointed out the value of a degree at Ohio State. He talked it over with his close teammates, in the process recognizing how deep their bond was after already enduring plenty of adversity together. He also survived the early morning workouts with strength coach Mickey Marotti as part of his punishment for showing up late to that meeting, proving to the staff he had the toughness to make it in their program.
“I was like, ‘This guy is on me and I’m not even his starter,’” Guiton said. “The vibe wasn’t there. Is it worth it? That’s what I’m thinking. Is it worth it?
“But, man, I’ve been through so much. I feel like I’ve grown to be a man, and that really helped me to mature.”
Improvements as a football player came along with the maturation.
‘Kenny G … Kenny G’
When Miller has been knocked out of action, Guiton has showed an uncanny ability to come directly off the bench and finish scoring drives.
Most memorably, he salvaged an unbeaten season last year by rallying the Buckeyes in the final minute to force overtime against Purdue when Miller had been sent to the hospital.
He added his lore in September during his first career start at California, throwing three touchdowns in the first six minutes, finishing with 368 yards of total offense and earning national player of the week honors. The next time out, he set a school record with six touchdown passes -- all in the first half.
He returned to the bench for Big Ten play as Miller healed and reclaimed his job, but it was clear Guiton wasn’t forgotten even if the spotlight was gone.
The Buckeyes installed a two-quarterback package nicknamed “Jazzy” in reference to Guiton’s shared moniker with musician Kenny G., a reflection of the faith in him from within the program. And the roar of approval from the Ohio State fans when "Jazzy" made its debut against Penn State, his first action since Miller’s return, confirmed that his popularity with the public hadn’t waned a bit.
The ensuing touchdown on a 2-yard rush only dialed up the volume.
“I was kind of nervous for the snap,” Guiton said. “Everyone was yelling, standing ovation. Then after the game, Coach Meyer came up to me and was doing that chant: ‘Kenny-G, Kenny-G.’
“I told him, ‘I know, coach. I love it.’”
The feeling is obviously mutual. And from the smallest sample size in the locker room to the larger one in the stadium, Ohio State will have one more chance to show it to the backup quarterback with the perfect approval rating.
JUCO OL Chad Mavety (Garden City, N.Y./Nassau Community College): Ohio State is still looking to add an offensive lineman in this class and Mavety might be the guy. He has spoken highly of Ohio State thus far, and this trip could get him closer to a decision.
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For BCS at-large berths, I'm considering only teams currently in the BCS standings.
Here we go ...
B1G candidate: No. 3 Ohio State (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten)
The Buckeyes should root for ...
- Oklahoma State to beat Baylor. This is the big one in Week 13, as a Baylor victory almost certainly would propel the fourth-rated Bears past the third-rated Buckeyes in the BCS standings. Oklahoma State is Baylor's toughest remaining test, and if Art Briles' crew wins in Stillwater, a perfect regular season is definitely within reach.
- A miracle in Tuscaloosa or Tallahassee. Alabama and Florida State aren't going to lose to Chattanooga and Idaho, respectively, but Ohio State always can hope, right? The Buckeyes already are Auburn fans, as Alabama visits The Plains next week.
- Arizona to beat Oregon. Ohio State doesn't have to worry too much about the Ducks just yet, but a second loss would knock Oregon completely out of the title picture.
- Wisconsin and Michigan State to beat Minnesota and Northwestern, respectively. Wins by the Badgers, whom Ohio State beat in September, and the Spartans, the Buckeyes' likely Big Ten title game opponent, only enhance a résumé not being helped by the schedule.
B1G candidates: No. 13 Michigan State (9-1, 6-0); No. 19 Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1); No. 25 Minnesota (8-2, 4-2)
The Spartans, Badgers and Gophers should root for ...
- The Citadel to beat Clemson. OK, file this in the Chattanooga/Idaho miracle category, as Clemson should easily win this week. But Clemson could be the Big Ten's biggest competition for an at-large berth, so a loss in the next two weeks -- the Tigers visit rival South Carolina on Nov. 30 -- would be big.
- Baylor to beat Oklahoma State. The Big Ten's at-large hopefuls want only one Big 12 team in a BCS bowl. An Oklahoma State loss would virtually assure this of happening.
- Arizona to beat Oregon and Stanford to beat California. See above. It's the same deal with the Pac-12.
- New Mexico to beat Fresno State. Another extreme long shot here, but a Fresno State loss would eliminate the Bulldogs from BCS buster contention. Northern Illinois already won its Week 13 game on Wednesday night at Toledo.
- Wisconsin should root for Iowa and BYU to beat Michigan and Notre Dame, respectively, as the Badgers lack quality wins and need some help to reach the top 14 of the final BCS standings.
Candidates: Michigan State, Minnesota
Michigan State should root for ...
- Wisconsin to beat Minnesota. A Gophers loss would eliminate Minnesota from the race and give Michigan State the outright division title, regardless of what happens when the Spartans visit Northwestern.
Minnesota should root for ...
- Northwestern to beat Michigan State. Minnesota needs a win against Wisconsin and a Michigan State loss to set up a division championship next week when it visits East Lansing.
Candidates: Ohio State, Wisconsin
Ohio State should root for ...
- Minnesota to beat Wisconsin. A Badgers loss eliminates them from the division race, regardless of how the Ohio State-Indiana game turns out. Ohio State holds the head-to-head tiebreaker against Wisconsin.
Wisconsin should root for ...
- Indiana to beat Ohio State. The Badgers must win out and have Ohio State to lose its final two games (Indiana, Michigan) to make a third consecutive trip to Indianapolis.
Deadly serious and locked into preparation for Indiana, outside linebacker Ryan Shazier stressed several times that he didn’t have time to think about anything else right now.
Playful, smiling and quick with a few laughs, quarterback Braxton Miller acted surprised that the discussion was even happening and refused to take part in it.
“Who, me?” Miller said. “Oh, I ain’t talking about that.
“I haven’t thought about it at all. I had that early injury, so you know, I don’t know. Hopefully, I’m trying to get better for myself and my teammates, and we’ll go out there and win games.”
Miller has won plenty of games in the last two seasons during Ohio State’s unbeaten run, and the junior quarterback has clearly made notable improvement as a passer to complement his incredible athleticism as a rusher.
Shazier has been just as integral on the other side of the football, far and away the most prolific contributor across the board defensively while also becoming a respected leader and the glue for a unit that currently has only two other starters from last season in the lineup.
The Buckeyes already know they’ll be losing cornerback Bradley Roby to the NFL, but that information has been readily available since spring camp and has given the coaching staff plenty of time to plan ahead as they try to replace him. But if Miller and Shazier decide to follow Roby and forgo their final seasons of eligibility, filling those voids could be a much bigger chore for a program that will again have national championship aspirations -- a goal that would be much easier to chase down with a Heisman Trophy candidate and one of the nation’s best linebackers on hand.
Of course, for three or four more games, the Buckeyes still have Roby, Miller and Shazier. And they remain in the mix for the crystal football, which has the NFL conversation on hold.
“That’s real,” Meyer said. “At some point [we will talk about it], but it's after the season, between the bowl game and end of the season.
“I've sat in a lot of those meetings. We'll probably have a couple this year, but not yet.”
The top candidates for those discussions aren’t hard to identify, and Shazier's draft stock in particular is rising with another dynamic campaign. He leads the Buckeyes with 88 tackles and the Big Ten with 14.5 tackles for loss. Shazier could potentially be a first-round draft pick if he elects to come out, but the opinions on Miller are harder to gauge at this point.
While Miller has been far more accurate this season, completing 68 percent of his attempts, he has been among the first to admit there is still room for him to grow as a passer. And with the 2014 draft class expected to be loaded with talented quarterbacks, that crowded marketplace might provide an incentive to return for another year of seasoning with Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman.
But the coaches aren’t making a pitch for that at this point, and neither Miller nor Shazier are giving anything away publicly.
“Honestly, I’m not being coy. I hadn’t given it two thoughts,” Herman said. “I’m sure with some of the juniors that the discussion is happening with, we’ll talk about it after the bowl game and advise them.
“I haven’t given it any thought.”
If either Shazier or Miller have been mulling it over, they each have a unique way of disguising it.
- Michigan State can impress off the field, too. The Spartans break down some of their dance moves after they were caught on camera celebrating the win over Nebraska.
- Brady Hoke defended his decision after coming up short on a late gamble last week before Michigan ultimately won its game vs. Northwestern.
- The run of success Minnesota has been on lately is building buzz from alumni, which could help sustain the program into the future.
- Wisconsin is dealing with some health concerns at center, which could be a problem as its offensive line tries to slow down Minnesota "freak" Ra'Shede Hageman.
- Senior day for Ohio State will provide an opportunity to pay tribute to an invaluable group of four veterans on the offensive line. It's also a reminder that it will soon have to replace them all.
- Once a "gangly gazelle," Sam Burtch has filled out his frame and is becoming an impact receiver for Nebraska.
- Iowa still has memories of what Devin Gardner did to its defense last season, and it has made an emphasis on avoiding a repeat performance against Michigan on Saturday.
- Indiana has been at its worst on the road and in bad weather, which might not be the best formula for visiting Ohio State late in the year.
- Pat Zerbe's dream to play at Penn State came true, and he will put the finishing touches on his career at home this weekend.
- Tim Beckman's back is to the wall, and there's already talk that the Illinois coach may need to beat Purdue to save his job.
1. Let’s settle this: Yes, four teams remain in the running to play in the Big Ten title game. But seriously, it’s going to be Ohio State and Michigan State. OK, crazy things can happen, but the third-ranked Buckeyes, who welcome Indiana to the Ohio Stadium on Saturday, must lose twice. Same goes for the No. 13 Spartans, who visit Northwestern and host Minnesota to close. It’s time to end the uncertainty and start booking travel to Indy. Who are we kidding, it’s already started.
3. A trophy game that's not worth a trophy: If the Purdue Cannon fails to launch and implodes inward Saturday, well, that would create a mess befitting of this battle of winless Leaders Division teams. Illinois, which has lost 20 straight Big Ten games, is favored by a touchdown on the road over the Boilermakers, who have fallen apart since playing Michigan State to within two touchdowns Oct. 19. Since then, Purdue has been outscored 139-35 by Ohio State, Iowa and Penn State. The Illini, meanwhile, have scored 35 points in back-to-back losses to Indiana and OSU. Something’s gotta give Saturday.
4. Freshman quarterbacks on display: Two of the league's top young QBs converge at Beaver Stadium. Nebraska redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong earns his seventh start, and true freshman Christian Hackenberg, looking to secure a winning record for Penn State on Senior Day, again gets the call for the Nittany Lions. Hackenberg has endured ups and downs, but his numbers are solid considering the circumstances. Armstrong has struggled with turnovers, but he's 5-1 as a starter and displaying impressive poise behind an injury-plagued Nebraska offensive line that might be without four season-opening starters Saturday.
5. Dark days continue for Wildcats: Northwestern has fallen so far off the map after a perfect nonconference season that it's not even visible from the top of the Legends Division as we reach late November. Who'd have thought these Wildcats would sit 0-6 in league play when "College GameDay" visited Evanston on Oct. 5 as Pat Fitzgerald’s team lost 40-30 to Ohio State? Each of the past four losses has come in excruciating fashion, from the Hail Mary defeat at Nebraska to overtime thrillers against Iowa and Michigan. These Wildcats might have forgotten how to win, and Michigan State, trying to secure an outright division title, appears likely to extend their misery.
6. Buckeyes and the BCS: It seems inevitable now that if Ohio State keeps winning and Baylor keeps winning, the Bears will pass OSU in the BCS standings and upend the Buckeyes' bid to reach the title game if Alabama or Florida State slips. No. 4 Baylor trails Ohio State this week by 13 thousandths of a point. The switch might occur Sunday as the Bears visit No. 10 Oklahoma State while Ohio State faces Indiana. No score against the Hoosiers or amount of Buckeyes lobbying is likely to reverse the Baylor climb. So expect all eyes in Columbus, Ohio, to be on Stillwater, Okla., Saturday night.
7. Could it be Braxton Miller’s finale at the Horseshoe? Ohio State's junior quarterback was understandably mum when asked this week if Saturday at home against Indiana might mark the final game of his collegiate career. Miller has made huge strides under coach Urban Meyer as a dual-threat QB, and his strengths fit the evolving style of NFL offenses, though he's far from a done deal to leave early. If this is the end, expect him to go out with a bang against the Hoosiers, who have lost four of five and rank among the bottom five nationally in total defense and rushing defense.
8. Tracking the top running backs: November brings out the best in Big Ten running backs. Six of the league's top individual rushing performances have occurred in the past three weeks, highlighted by a 246-yard effort from Ohio State's Carlos Hyde last week. White, Indiana's Tevin Coleman and Penn State's Bill Belton also have topped 200 yards in a game this month. Hyde and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, who has reached 100 yards in every conference game, rank among the leading candidates for Big Ten offensive player of the year. Hyde has rushed for 821 yards in the past five games. He needs 53 yards to become the first running back ever to top 1,000 yards under Meyer.
9. The at-large BCS watch: Michigan State jumped three spots to 13th in the BCS standings Sunday, promoting the Spartans into position to qualify for an at-large BCS bowl bid. But if it loses again -- even to Ohio State in Indy -- MSU might slide back out of contention. It would be well served to win impressively against Northwestern and Minnesota and root for losses this week from the likes of Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Missouri, which face challenging games. Wisconsin, at No. 19 in the BCS standings, still must jump into the top 14 to qualify for BCS consideration, though chaos is its best hope.
10. And then there's Iowa-Michigan: What's the compelling storyline here? Iowa has exceeded expectations this year, but the Hawkeyes are no longer fighting to get bowl eligible for the 12th time in 13 seasons after a win two weeks ago at Purdue. Michigan has failed to meet expectations but last week ended its skid with a win at Northwestern. Iowa has won three of the past four meetings, including two straight in Iowa City. And here's an interesting stat to close: The four teams to beat the Hawkeyes this season have a combined record of 37-3.
Will Brian Bennett inch back in front, or will Adam Rittenberg gain the edge entering the final week? Loser buys dinner in Indy.
MICHIGAN STATE at NORTHWESTERN
Bennett: Let's see in which heartbreaking manner can Northwestern lose this week? The Wildcats can't be counted out here, as they've come close to knocking off several teams in recent weeks, and it is senior day in Evanston, Ill. But Northwestern doesn't have enough offensive versatility to counter Michigan State's defense. Jeremy Langford goes over 100 yards again, and the Spartans clinch their Big Ten championship berth Michigan State 20, Northwestern 10
Rittenberg: The Spartans can taste a trip to the Big Ten championship game and will get there, though not without a fight from Northwestern, which has continued to play hard during a nightmarish stretch. Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook starts slowly but gets hot in the third and finishes with two touchdown passes. Kain Colter makes some plays on senior day but Northwestern once again can't find the end zone enough and drops another one in single digits. Sparty on to Indy. Michigan State 23, Northwestern 16
MICHIGAN at IOWA
Rittenberg: Michigan will actually need touchdowns in regulation to win this week and faces a better defensive line in Iowa. Neither offense does much in the first two and a half quarters before Iowa's run game starts to stir behind Jordan Canzeri and Mark Weisman, both of whom reach the end zone. The Hawkeyes break a tie early in the fourth quarter and seal the win on a B.J. Lowery interception of Devin Gardner. Iowa 20, Michigan 13
Bennett: A very cold, potentially windy day in Iowa City favors the team that can run the ball, and Michigan is not that team. It won't be pretty, but the Hawkeyes' offensive line and Mike Meyer (three field goals) get the job done. Iowa 16, Michigan 13
ILLINOIS at PURDUE
Bennett: The Streak is dead. Illinois snaps the 20-game Big Ten losing skid against a Purdue team that is bad enough to build its own lamentable streak. At least we know the Illini can score. I'm still not sure what the Boilers are good at. Nathan Scheelhaase throws for four scores. Illinois 35, Purdue 21
Rittenberg: This game features two bad defenses, one improving, but still weak, offense and one potent offense. Illinois breaks The Streak behind Scheelhaase, who piles up 350 pass yards and three touchdowns. Josh Ferguson adds a rushing touchdown as Illinois holds off Purdue, which receives a good performance (220 pass yards, two TDs) from Danny Etling. Illinois 34, Purdue 24
WISCONSIN at MINNESOTA
Rittenberg: Minnesota is looking a lot more like Wisconsin these days, which is a good thing, but the Badgers still are the superior version. The Gophers jump ahead early behind a David Cobb touchdown run, but Wisconsin's defense buckles down and James White and Melvin Gordon get rolling, combining for three touchdowns. Minnesota hangs tight, but Wisconsin retains the axe for a 10th consecutive season. Wisconsin 28, Minnesota 20
Bennett: The Minnesota mojo makes it tempting to pick the home team. But as well as the Gophers are playing, Wisconsin is on even more of a roll. The Wisconsin run game will take its toll and help the Badgers break through with a pair of touchdown runs by White in the fourth quarter, chopping down the Gophers. Wisconsin 31, Minnesota 17
INDIANA at OHIO STATE
Bennett: Indiana has played Ohio State tough the past two seasons, but pair the Hoosiers' terrible defensive efforts with this hyper-explosive Buckeyes offense and the potential for a rout is high. IU can't stop the run, so Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde will enjoy the open lanes for a combined 350 yards and five touchdowns before sitting out the fourth quarter. A mad Ohio State defense records a pair of interceptions, including a pick-six. Ohio State 59, Indiana 17
Rittenberg: Shield your eyes, Hoosiers fans, as this one will get ugly early. Ohio State builds a 28-7 lead at the end of the first quarter as Hyde eclipses 1,000 yards for the season on a touchdown run and finishes with 210 yards and three scores. Indiana's offense shows up and wideout Cody Latimer records two long scoring passes, but Ohio State gets contributions from everyone against the overmatched Hoosiers defense. Ohio State 63, Indiana 24
NEBRASKA at PENN STATE
Rittenberg: Both teams are flawed, and, while Penn State is much better on its home field, Nebraska's run game and improving defense will be the difference. Ameer Abdullah rushes for 140 yards and a touchdown, and Tommy Armstrong Jr. bounces back. Penn State gets some production from Zach Zwinak (120 yards, two TDs) and its run game as well, but Nebraska mounts a game-winning drive in the closing seconds for the victory. Nebraska 31, Penn State 28
Bennett: Don't count out Penn State on what should be an emotional senior day. But Nebraska just has more athletes right now. Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa exploit a shoddy Nittany Lions pass defense for a couple of touchdown catches, while Randy Gregory makes life miserable for Christian Hackenberg. Nebraska 24, Penn State 17
You've seen our predictions. Now it's time to hear from one of you. As a reminder, throughout the season, we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please), hometown and a brief description of why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.
This week's guest is Ali Tomek from Evanston, Ill. Ali, take it away
I should be the guest picker for this week because I love the blog and B1G football! I grew up in Omaha and have attended nearly every home game at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium since I was in elementary school. I'm definitely one of those football-obsessed Husker fans: I still feel bitter about that 13-12 loss to Texas in the 2009 B12 Championship. I've also attended games in five B1G stadiums: Nebraska, Northwestern, Michigan, Iowa and Penn State. OH, AND I'm an undergrad at Northwestern! Unfortunately for the Wildcats, though, my true loyalties will always lie with the Cornhuskers. Go Big Red!
Let's hope Ali's professors don't read this note before final exams. Ouch.
Here are her picks:
Michigan State 27, Northwestern 10
Michigan 17, Iowa 13
Illinois 35, Purdue 17
Wisconsin 31, Minnesota 17
Ohio State 56, Indiana 14
Nebraska 24, Penn State 17
Brian Bennett: 68-14
Adam Rittenberg: 68-14
Guest pickers: 65-19
Not even Urban Meyer.
But after a performance that perhaps wasn't the finest of the year for the Buckeyes even though they rolled to a 60-35 blowout down the stretch, Meyer has another reminder of how important it is to block out as much as possible and focus on the task at hand. And that doesn't just apply to the players as Ohio State prepares for a visit from Indiana on Saturday at the Horseshoe.
"My job is to coach these players, not worry about anyone else," Meyer said. "I grade myself a 'C' last week. I was worried about too many other things.
"I can promise you, we're going to coach better this week."
The Buckeyes still celebrated a victory with a meal together on Sunday night like they always do, and Meyer has continued to at least briefly address where his team stands in the conference and national title pictures rather than ignore it entirely. But he made it clear beginning on Monday that everybody in the program needed to narrow their focus again heading into the final two weeks of the regular season and a likely appearance in the Big Ten title game, because they can ill afford one slip up if their yearlong emphasis on "The Chase" for a championship is going to become a reality.
The trick is remembering how critical each practice and each game is to reaching that goal -- and not spending too much time thinking about it in the process.
"It really has no bearing on how we prepare, how we play," offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "And to waste brain cells, as I call it, thinking about it, worrying about it, those would be brain cells that I can use better to help the offense or help [quarterback] Braxton [Miller], be a better husband or better father, whatever the case may be.
"It's out of our control. So we can just go win games, play as well as we can and keep getting better every week."
That can be a challenge for more than just the players, and starting with Meyer, it was issued all the way from the top of the mountain on down.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Bradley Roby has made his intentions to declare for the NFL draft after this season well known for a while, and the Ohio State cornerback has the blessing of his coach and permission to participate in the senior activities ahead of his last home game.
Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer confirmed that his star cornerback will be forgoing his final year of eligibility after his redshirt junior campaign is over and said he has no problems with either Roby's decision or honoring him before Saturday's game against Indiana.
"He's cleared," Meyer said after practice Wednesday. "We talked, and he's going to go, going to move on. But that's all you ask -- you don't ask for five years nowadays.
"It's no secret. I think it's great for him and good for Ohio State."
Roby flirted with leaving the Buckeyes after a banner 2012 season in which he earned first-team All-America honors from ESPN.com and led the nation in passes defended while helping the program to an undefeated record.
But Roby left little doubt that he wouldn't be putting off his professional career twice, saying as far back as April that "this is going to be my last year, everybody knows that."
Roby has had a bit of an up-and-down season for the No. 3 Buckeyes and has been part of a few rough outings for a secondary that has allowed some prolific passing performances this year, including a 207-yard outing by Wisconsin receiver Jared Abbrederis. Roby also was suspended for the season opener after an offseason incident at an Indiana bar in July.