The countdown started on Monday with the first five players and we climbed up to No. 16 on Tuesday, setting the table for our next group of impact performers today.
No. 15: Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern Wildcats: Mark is healthy and ready to go again for the Wildcats, and if there was a guarantee that he could return to the elite level he was at in 2012, the veteran rusher would surely be higher on the list. Instead he'll have to prove himself all over again this fall, though Mark will do so behind what should be an improved offensive line that could allow him to flash the explosiveness the Wildcats missed dearly last season.
No. 14: Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana Hoosiers: In a league loaded with talented tailbacks, Indiana's dangerous, elusive rusher often goes overlooked. But Coleman is one of the most lethal weapons in the league when he's on the field, and despite playing in just nine games last season, he nearly topped 1,000 yards thanks to his eye-popping 7.3 yards per touch. If he can duplicate that again, the Hoosiers will keep racking up points and more attention will surely come his way.
No. 13: Carl Davis, DT, Iowa Hawkeyes: There may be some uncertainty behind him with Iowa breaking in three new starters at linebacker, but those fresh faces should benefit greatly thanks to the consistent work Davis can provide up front. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound, space-eating lineman doesn't accrue many individual statistics and was credited with just 41 tackles last year, but the job he does occupying blockers is invaluable for the rest of the Hawkeyes around him.
No. 12: Noah Spence, DE, Ohio State Buckeyes: Even without getting a chance to play the first two games as he wraps up a suspension, Spence still figures to challenge for the league lead in sacks by the time the season ends. The junior's incredible first step off the edge and a stacked group of Buckeyes on the defensive line will allow him to avoid double-teams, and that figures to be bad news for opposing quarterbacks as Spence tries to build on an eight-sack campaign last year.
No. 11: Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland Terrapins: The Terps were stung repeatedly by critical injuries last season, but nothing might have hurt as much as seeing Diggs on the ground after breaking his leg against Wake Forest. Without his top-notch speed and ability to break free for big gains at any moment, Maryland's offense wasn't the same minus Diggs on the perimeter. He, too, will have to prove he's back to 100 percent. But Diggs has already suggested he's coming back even faster, which could make life miserable for a few defensive backs in the Big Ten.
Stay tuned as we move into the top 10 on Thursday ...
CHICAGO -- Big Ten media days are in the books and the countdown to the 2014 season can officially begin. It was a mostly uneventful session at the Hilton Chicago, despite the presence of stars such as Braxton Miller, Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah and Shilique Calhoun.
Our Big Ten reporting crew weighs in on some of the topics from the past two days.
What was the biggest surprise at Big Ten media days?
Austin Ward: The lack of major headlines coming from the league was a bit of a shock considering some of the star power in Chicago, the storylines around college football right now and the amount of trash talk between leagues that has popped up this month. Not even Ohio State coach Urban Meyer or Penn State coach James Franklin were able to stir the pot much nationally, and typically they are always good for a viral sound bite or hot topic in late July. There's nothing wrong with avoiding controversy, but the Big Ten didn't do much to draw attention to itself over two days.
Mitch Sherman: Other than the bright-red pants worn by Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown on Tuesday to go with his dark jacket and tie, I was surprised most by the lack of bravado we saw out of Michigan State. I know the Spartans are a blue-collar bunch and that this spot atop the Big Ten is new to them. But after a 13-1 season and set to play arguably the most significant nonconference game nationally on Sept. 6 at Oregon, I thought Michigan State would come to Chicago with a little more swagger. If coach Mark Dantonio hadn't worn his giant championship ring, I’m not sure I would have remembered that MSU beat Ohio State in December, then Stanford in the Rose Bowl. This is not to suggest it's a bad thing; simply that the Spartans -- even flamboyant defensive end Shilique Calhoun -- are not resting on their accomplishments of 2013.
Josh Moyer: OK, let's say you pulled aside the top three offensive players in the Big Ten -- Braxton Miller, Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah -- and asked them, in separate interviews, about the most exciting offensive player in the conference. Who do you think they would say? Well, their answer was my biggest surprise this week; they all said the same guy -- Indiana wideout Shane Wynn. Maybe they just wanted to put the spotlight on an underrated player, but it was still a shock to hear Wynn's name so often. Heck, I told Wynn about that -- and even he was surprised. It's fun to watch a short guy like Wynn, who is 5-foot-7, run circles around defenders. So while I thought Wynn would be in for a good season, I can't say I would've mentioned him in the same breath as those three.
Who had the most memorable interview?
Moyer: I have to go with Purdue tailback Raheem Mostert. He's the fastest player in the Big Ten, and he might just be the most charismatic. You couldn't blame Purdue if it came out a little quiet at this media day after the season the Boilermakers had, but Mostert didn't shy away from making some bold statements. He said his offense was capable of scoring 30-some points a game and, while I still think there’s zero chance of that happening, it takes some guts to make that statement. Plus, he was hilarious in talking about how far along Danny Etling’s come. He couldn't say enough good things about Etling now, but said last season he looked like a guy who just lost his dog every time he threw a pick. So my "Most Optimistic" and "Most Well-Spoken" awards go to Mostert.
Sherman: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was on fire Tuesday during the group session. Fitzgerald, always an eloquent speaker, had plenty to get off his chest in the wake of an offseason like no other in Evanston, Illinois. He waxed on about problems with the current model of college athletics, in particular criticizing some of the outdated rules that govern recruiting. "I don't want to be basketball," Fitzgerald said in the midst of his monologue. "We're going there." He harped on the disingenuous ways that some college coaches try to attract prospects. All of this after his players voted recently on whether to unionize. The issues of unionization and inequity within the sport are inseparable. Still, Fitzgerald managed keep his own players and former players largely out of the discussion. And the coach made a lot of sense.
Rittenberg: Well, my favorite moment was Michigan State's Connor Cook, midway through an answer Tuesday about how Dantonio had loosened up over time, stared blankly and said, "Sorry, my brain, I just blacked out right there." Must have been a fun Monday night in Chicago. ... I really enjoy Franklin's energy, especially in a league of mostly decaffeinated coaches. Franklin on Tuesday excitedly recalled the night the Penn State staff watched assistant Herb Hand appear on "Chopped" while riding a bus between their guest-coaching camp stops in the South. "It was awesome, we were driving and Herb comes walking out [on the show] and the whole bus explodes: 'Herbie! Herbie!'" Franklin said, clapping his hands. "The other guys come out and the whole bus is booing them, 'Boo! Boo!' So Herbie wins the first round and the bus goes crazy, 'That's our boy!' He loses the next round and that bus turned on him in an instant. Everybody's bashing him. His flavors were good but the presentation was awful." Again, something different and refreshing.
Ward: Calhoun had little interest in a standard question-and-answer interview, instead turning his podium session on Monday into an interactive experience that livened up the event while the Michigan State star was in the spotlight. He spent his 30 minutes joking, laughing and telling reporters how much he enjoyed watching them talk over each other to ask questions and then yelling across the room at Cook to clarify comments the quarterback had supposedly made about him earlier. In one brief session, Calhoun made the kind of memorable impact on the media he’s been known to make on opposing quarterbacks.
What's one new thing you learned?
Rittenberg: Big Ten teams aren't shying away from the playoff talk. Players, coaches and the commissioner all acknowledged that if you don't make the playoff, you're basically irrelevant in college football. And that's the right position for this league to take. The perception is that Big Ten players and coaches only care about the Rose Bowl and don't aim higher. Perhaps some of that is true, but most of the folks I encountered this week seemed to embrace the significance of the new system. I loved what Ohio State defensive lineman Michael Bennett said: Anything short of a national title would be disappointing. That's how the Big Ten needs to think.
Moyer: Nebraska's Kenny Bell has a killer Afro? Michigan State's Kurtis Drummond has great fashion sense? Penn State's Sam Ficken will never escape questions about the 2012 Virginia game? There were certainly a lot of tidbits. But I was impressed with how even-keeled Maryland coach Randy Edsall was. At one point, during podium interviews, an irate cameraman kept yelling at reporters to move out of his shot. It went on for a few minutes, but Edsall never paused or broke from his calm demeanor. Other coaches might have yelled for some quiet; Edsall just pretended like nothing was wrong. It was an interesting juxtaposition.
Ward: The Spartans have some really nice bling. Both Cook and Dantonio flashed their championship rings on Monday, and the huge, sparkling accessories were hard to miss. At one point Cook took his off to allow the media a closer look at the prize he helped earn with breakout passing outings against Ohio State in the conference title game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl, but he might have really just needed a break from lugging around the heavy jewelry on his hand.
Sherman: Even in the age of the College Football Playoff, with more potential for sweeping change in the sport, old habits die hard in the Big Ten. From Michigan coach Brady Hoke's lamenting about the elimination of tradition at the Rose Bowl when Pasadena serves as a semifinal site to Iowa's Kirk Ferentz preaching the values of old-school football, the more things change nationally, the more they stay the same in the Big Ten. This is comforting and disturbing all at once. I heard Nebraska's Bell speak of unity among the league and Ohio State's Miller project confidence that the Buckeyes can make another run at a perfect season. But the league needs a larger dose of more progressive thinking.
So on Tuesday morning, five offensive players and five defensive players offered their takes regarding those top athletes. We ran the offensive player results earlier on Tuesday, and up now are the results from the defense.
The full question: Besides you or players on your team, who's the best -- or most exciting -- defensive player in the Big Ten?
S Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: "I like watching Randy Gregory and the way he can tackle people. We got a lot of good players in this conference, so that's kind of tough to say. But I like his motor, I like the way he gets after people, and I like his excitement. I like guys that are out there having fun, and you can tell he has fun the way he plays."
DT Michael Bennett, Ohio State: "A lot of them left last year. Hmm ... I'd have to say Shilique Calhoun because he's the only other name I really know. He makes plays. Other than that, I watched his film and I wasn't really sure what the hype was -- but then, somehow, in our game he comes out with two forced fumbles and three sacks or something like that. So the guy is a playmaker and he gets the job done."
LB Mike Hull, Penn State: "That's tough. There's a lot of good players, but I really follow a lot of the linebackers. So I'd say Jake Ryan. He's a solid linebacker, makes good plays and has really good fundamentals. Just have respect for Michigan."
S Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: "It's tough to say ... but there's some defenses that stand out. Michigan State's defense always stands out. It's more of a concerted effort; their whole unit plays with a good energy that I like. I'll always be watching them during the season, and they'll always stand out to me. If we're watching Illinois' offense and they played Michigan State, they'll just kind of stand out as one of the best teams defensively."
So, on Tuesday morning, five offensive players and five defensive players offered their takes regarding those top athletes. We'll have the defensive player poll later on Tuesday. Here are the offensive results.
The full question: Besides you or players on your team, who's the best -- or most exciting -- offensive player in the Big Ten?
QB Connor Cook, Michigan State: "Ameer Abdullah. When we played them at Nebraska, watching him run around, he made our defense look bad. We had a pretty good defense this past year, and watching him run around, he was like a water bug. You couldn’t tackle him."
RB Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: "Shane Wynn, that’s my boy. He also played in the Offense-Defense [All-American] Bowl with me and Melvin. So I’ve known Shane for a little while just like I’ve known Melvin. And Shane Wynn, he’s electrifying. He gets the ball in his hands, he can stop on a dime, he’s really fast, and he’s a really crafty route runner. So I like watching him play."
OT Brandon Scherff, Iowa: "I’d say Braxton Miller or Melvin Gordon. Braxton makes those dead plays turn into 50-yard touchdowns. All those unreal plays. I remember last year playing him; he did some pretty unreal things. And Melvin Gordon is just a great football player. He’s tough and physical, and it’s fun to watch him."
QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State: "I know Shane Wynn, he’s here. He’s like a little midget over there [laughs]. That’s my friend; we’re good friends. He’s good, he’s explosive -- and you see how little he is? He can make a lot of plays, and it’s just fun to watch him. And I don’t know who else. Melvin Gordon, I’ve seen a couple highlights of him and he’s pretty solid, too. … If I had a chance to pick him or Carlos [Hyde], I don’t know. We’ll see. Well, Carlos, yeah, Carlos."
Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah preps his Kickoff Luncheon speech
Umm, what else can we ask?
James Franklin was just asked whether playing on natural grass is an advantage. Yep, we're out of questions, media day is over.— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) July 29, 2014
A public service reminder from Nebraska's Bo Pelini
I heard just end of odd exchange that ended when Bo Pelini said: "There is football played outside of the SEC, contrary to popular belief."— Mitch Sherman (@mitchsherman) July 29, 2014
Huskers' Abdullah a dual threat at media days
Force is strong at Penn State
James Franklin just called his strength coach a Jedi. The force is flowing through Penn State.— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 29, 2014
B1G fashion statements
Ohio State's Urban Meyer on LeBron coming home
Urban Meyer fielding questions about LeBron's return this morning. Said it's big in recruiting and he could play H-back or TE for him.— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 29, 2014
Coaches are talking about the importance of taking it one game at a time while chasing a conference title. Players have busted out their finest suits and are raving about how difficult the offseason conditioning program was at their schools. And the media grabbed some free food between interviews.
There is one more day to go before the circus leaves Chicago, but before we get to that, the Big Ten blog is handing out some awards to put a bow on the opening day.
Best-dressed player: Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond. The honors could just as easily have gone to teammates Shilique Calhoun or Connor Cook, the former for his bow tie and the latter for his accessorizing with his enormous championship ring. But Drummond stole the show as the sharpest of the Spartans, who clearly looked the part of returning conference champs.
I think the Best Dressed award has been locked up today. Kurtis Drummond, folks. pic.twitter.com/XAnHXjJWKP— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Most fun-loving players: The bright spotlight and huge crowd around him might have kept Ohio State coach Urban Meyer a bit guarded, but his players certainly welcomed the attention and weren't afraid of being playful with the media. Tight end Jeff Heuerman loosened things up by locking quarterback Braxton Miller in a headlock, and after that, both decided to moonlight as media members by sneaking over to ask Meyer a few questions toward the end of a session -- a rare glimpse at the personalities off the field of two of the league's best talents on it.
Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman and Braxton Miller decided to join the media today and interview Urban Meyer. pic.twitter.com/scWhYDZRNs— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) July 28, 2014
Biggest missed opportunity: The Wisconsin-LSU matchup to open the season is appealing enough at a neutral site. But the Badgers and Tigers could have taken the intrigue to another level by hosting those games at two of the loudest, most hostile stadiums in the country -- if only Gary Andersen had been around a couple of years earlier. The Badgers' coach said he "would have said yes" to a home-and-home series at Camp Randall and in Death Valley, a tantalizing what-might-have-been if the Tigers might have been as willing as Andersen.
Most appropriate Twitter handle: Nebraska’s Kenny Bell (@AFRO_THUNDER80). The 6-foot-1 receiver was probably the easiest player to pick out of a crowd, as his puffy afro towered over opposing players. Bell’s play didn’t earn him an award last season -- he was honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team -- but we just couldn’t go one more day without recognizing that 'fro.
Best-dressed coach: Penn State’s James Franklin. Every day, the head coach spends 22 minutes to shave his head in every direction and trim that goatee ... so it seems slightly surprising that he is probably the coach who spends the most time on his head, considering he’s bald. But, hey, it takes time to pull that look off -- and he was also looking dapper with that Penn State lapel, blue tie and matching pocket square. Franklin often jokes that he doesn’t need to sleep, so maybe he uses some of that extra time to pick out the right clothes.
James Franklin and our Josh Moyer are sharing head shaving techniques. Seriously. pic.twitter.com/S7iVnnNvo9— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) July 28, 2014
Quote of the day: Penn State linebacker Mike Hull has learned under three head coaches -- Joe Paterno, Bill O'Brien and Franklin -- during his career, and their personalities really couldn’t have been any different. Hull laughed while providing their takes on social media as an example.
“Yeah, I’ve seen the whole evolution,” he said. “Joe didn’t know what Facebook was, O’Brien called Facebook ‘Spacebook’ and, now, Coach Franklin probably has every social media there is to have. It’s crazy.”
Most Big Ten quote: “How are you going to approach the Rose Bowl?” -- Michigan coach Brady Hoke, lamenting some aspects of the College Football Playoff in years, like this season, when the Granddaddy of Them All is to serve as a national semifinal game. Hoke suggested that some of the pageantry associated with the game -- for instance, the Beef Bowl team competition at Lawry’s, a prime rib restaurant in Beverly Hills -- will be eliminated because of the high stakes and need for a regular game-week regimen. Of the traditional Rose Bowl, Hoke added: “It’s the greatest experience in America for kids.”
Most Iowa quote (maybe ever): “Sometimes, old school is a good school.” -- Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz on his program’s resistance to some of the offensive innovation that has swept college football.
Best quote about a player not in attendance: “I don’t like standing too close to him because it seems like the wind is always blowing through his hair. When he smiles, this little thing comes off his tooth like in the toothpaste commercial.” -- Penn State coach James Franklin on sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Drive Through: Virginia Tech Fallout
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
12:00 PM ET Iowa Pittsburgh 12:00 PM ET Eastern Michigan 11 Michigan State 12:00 PM ET Western Illinois Northwestern 12:00 PM ET Southern Illinois Purdue 12:00 PM ET Bowling Green 19 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET Maryland Syracuse 3:30 PM ET Utah Michigan 3:30 PM ET Rutgers Navy 4:00 PM ET Massachusetts Penn State 4:00 PM ET San Jose State Minnesota 4:00 PM ET Texas State Illinois 4:00 PM ET Indiana 18 Missouri 8:00 PM ET Miami (FL) 24 Nebraska