Ohio State Buckeyes: Denard Robinson

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Tony DingBraxton Miller was fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting as a sophomore in 2012 and was ninth in 2013.
Braxton Miller has a chance to make Big Ten history this season by winning his third straight conference player-of-the-year award and by earning Heisman votes for the third consecutive season.

Of course, he’s not the only Big Ten player to ever enter his senior year with big expectations. In the past 20 years, six other conference players earned Heisman votes before their final seasons and were preseason candidates a season later. (Thirteen non-seniors in all earned votes, but seven left early for the NFL draft. Another, Northwestern's Damien Anderson, played in just eight games the season after and isn't listed below.)

Although it’s still anyone’s guess exactly how Miller will fare this season, here’s a look at players who found themselves in similar positions and how they performed in the season after receiving Heisman votes:




Wisconsin RB Montee Ball, 2011, junior

Heisman votes as a junior: 22 first-place votes; finished fourth overall. Led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards (6.3 yards per carry) and also finished with an NCAA-best 33 rushing TDs.

How he fared the next year: Without quarterback Russell Wilson, some experts predicted Ball would struggle to equal the numbers from his junior campaign. Sure enough, with a rotating quarterback carousel, that’s exactly what happened. The Badgers threw just 289 times that season and Ball finished with a career-high 356 carries. Ball’s importance and talent were still undeniable but, as defenses zeroed in against him, he watched his yards-per-carry average fall by more than a yard.

How the team fared: Wisconsin leaned on Ball heavily -- just take a look at this box score against Utah State -- and fared well when it counted. The Badgers won the Big Ten championship, embarrassing Nebraska in a 70-31 blowout, and earned a spot in the Rose Bowl. They finished 8-6.




Michigan QB Denard Robinson, 2010, sophomore

Heisman votes as a sophomore: Six first-place votes; finished sixth overall. Went 182-of-291 passing (62.5 percent) for 2,570 yards, 18 TDs and 11 INTs; rushed for 1,702 yards (6.6 ypc) and 14 TDs.

How he fared the next year: Speculation swirled on whether Robinson would transfer before the season because the firing of Rich Rodriguez meant he had to deal a new coaching staff and some offensive changes. But Robinson stayed and performed well – even if his numbers decreased across the board. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was able to take some pressure off Robinson, and the change in statistics wasn’t dramatic. After all, Robinson still rushed for more than 1,000 yards and passed for more than 2,000. It wasn’t as impressive as 2010, but Robinson was still named team MVP and earned a spot on the All-Big Ten second team.

How the team fared: Michigan fans were just fine with Robinson’s drop-off because the team soared in Brady Hoke’s first season. Robinson guided the Wolverines to an 11-2 finish -- their best record in five years -- and helped Michigan win the Sugar Bowl.




Michigan RB Mike Hart, 2006, junior

Heisman votes as a junior: Five first-place votes; finished fifth overall. Finished second in the B1G with 1,562 yards (4.9 ypc) and had 14 rushing TDs

How he fared the next year: Hart became a team captain and turned in an even stronger performance. If it wasn’t for an ankle injury that sidelined him for three full games, Hart likely would’ve been in the Heisman race again. Through nine Michigan games, he led all BCS runners with 154 yards a game – and he was still a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and a consensus pick as first-team All-Big Ten. Overall, his importance was pretty difficult to ignore. After opening the season with two losses, Hart helped to shift the tone by guaranteeing a win against Notre Dame – Michigan won 38-0 –and then winning eight straight. He finished the year with 5.1 ypc and matched his 14-touchdown total despite carrying the ball 53 fewer times.

How the team fared: The Wolverines put an early end to their national title hopes by losing to Appalachian State in the opener. Michigan failed to repeat its Rose Bowl berth but rebounded after a slow start to go 9-4 and win the Capital One Bowl.




Purdue QB Drew Brees, 1999, junior

Heisman votes as a junior: Three first-place votes; finished fourth overall. Led the conference in every major passing category: passing yards (3,909), passing TDs (25), pass attempts (554) and pass completions (337) and threw 12 interceptions.

How he fared the next year: Brees’ consistency was pretty darn impressive, as all of his numbers were nearly identical even though Purdue didn't have much of a running game. He again led the Big Ten in those same statistical categories and improved his standing in the Heisman race -- he finished third as a senior with 69 first-place votes. Plus, he won the Maxwell Award and was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Brees’ success is pretty well documented, but something fans might have forgotten: He rushed for 521 yards and 5.5 yards per carry as a senior. Brees really could do it all.

How the team fared: The Boilermakers shared the Big Ten title and improved their victory total from the year before, from 7-5 to 8-4. They earned a berth in the Rose Bowl.




Northwestern RB Darnell Autry, 1995, sophomore

Heisman votes as a sophomore: 87 first-place votes; finished fourth overall. Led the NCAA with 387 rushing attempts and had 1,785 yards (4.6 ypc) and 17 TDs; caught 27 passes for 168 yards and one score.

How he fared the next year: Autry fared a bit better in 1996, as Northwestern’s passing attack improved and defenses could no longer key on him. In 1995, he literally accounted for half of the offense’s total yards (1,953 of 3,916). In 1996, he carried the ball 107 fewer times – his 280 attempts were still the fourth-highest in the conference -- but he matched his 17 rushing TDs from the previous season and increased his average by more than a half-yard, up to 5.2 yards per carry. He dropped a bit in the Heisman voting, but that was mostly because his rushing yards dropped with a smaller workload. Autry still dominated.

How the team fared: Northwestern shared the Big Ten title and improved its record to 9-3 – but lost in the Citrus Bowl. Autry’s Wildcats shocked the B1G that October when they overcame a 16-0 deficit against Michigan by rallying in the fourth quarter.

Most to prove in the Big Ten

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
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Every season, each Big Ten player, coach and team sets out to prove something. Maybe it's to prove last season was just a hiccup or that this season is the start of something special.

Whatever it is, some naturally have more to prove than others. So here's a look at 10 players, units and coaches in the Big Ten who have the most to prove:

[+] EnlargeAndrew Maxwell
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesAndrew Maxwell could be on a short leash in East Lansing, so he has plenty to prove.
1. Michigan State QB Andrew Maxwell. Despite starting every game last season, Maxwell was just named the 2013 starter on Tuesday. So it's not exactly a stretch to think he's on a short leash. Connor Cook will get some playing time Friday, Tyler O'Connor is "in the mix" and true freshman Damion Terry wowed the staff in a recent scrimmage. If Maxwell doesn't quickly prove he's the right man for the job, he'll be watching the right man from the bench.

2. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz/offensive coordinator Greg Davis. Are Ferentz's best years behind him? And was last year's passing offense the start of a trend for Davis? The Hawkeyes finished last season at 4-8, their worst record since 2000, and finished with the nation's No. 114 offense. There are plenty of questions surrounding both of these coaches right now, and quieting them would certainly go a long way in proving Iowa's winning tradition isn't gone for good.

3. Penn State special teams. The Nittany Lions ranked near the bottom statistically in nearly every special teams category in the Big Ten last year. They were tied for ninth in field goal percentage, 11th in punting average, last in kick return average and ninth in punt return average. Sam Ficken rebounded in the second half of the season after missing four field goals against Virginia, but he was sporadic again in the Blue-White Game. Alex Butterworth's hang time also needs to improve.

4. Purdue coach Darrell Hazell. He guided Kent State to an impressive 11-3 record last season, became the Mid-American Conference coach of the year and nearly earned a berth in the Rose Bowl. But that was the MAC and this is the Big Ten. There's a big difference, and he wants to show fans of the gold and black that kind of success can carry over.

5. Michigan QB Devin Gardner. He has big shoes to fill when it comes to replacing Denard Robinson, but expectations are already soaring for the player who has started just four career games at quarterback. Some sporting books have increased Gardner's odds at the Heisman to 25-to-1, which means increased confidence, and Michigan is expected to compete with Ohio State for the conference title this season. That's a lot of pressure and, by default, means Gardner has a lot to prove.

6. Wisconsin front seven. New coach Gary Andersen is hoping the new 3-4 defense can create some headaches for opposing offenses, and the front seven here are trying to show they're quick studies. Wisconsin will have to rely on these seven to win, and their adjustment to the new scheme will have a direct impact on the number of marks in the "W" column.

7. Ohio State defensive line. Having four new starters tends to mean there are question marks, and this young group will have to answer them. Noah Spence came in as the nation's No. 4 recruit back in 2012, and reports all seem to conclude he's living up to the hype. Depth here isn't great and neither is experience, but talent and health are the main things that matter.

8. Nebraska defense. There's no problem on the offensive side of the ball with players such as Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah, but defense is what's preventing this team from being great. The Huskers' run defense ranked 90th in the nation last season -- allowing 653 yards, 498 yards, 640 yards and 589 yards in their four losses -- and they could be even worse this year. Three new linebackers will take the field, and Nebraska lost two of its top pass-rushers. A lot to prove? You bet.

9. Michigan RB Fitzgerald Toussaint. There's no way around it. You have to use the term "disappointment" when referring to Toussaint's 2012 season. Coming off a breakout 1,000-yard campaign in 2011, he struggled last season, averaging just four yards a carry and running inconsistently before breaking his leg against Iowa. He wants to show that 2012 was an aberration.

10. Badgers' receivers outside of Jared Abbrederis. If you're having difficulty naming a Wisconsin receiver other than Abbrederis, don't feel bad. Abbrederis caught 49 balls last season -- more than all of the other Wisconsin wideouts combined (48). Jordan Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Kenzel Doe will need to step up to make sure secondaries don't just focus on the fifth-year senior.
After looking at my team in our All-Time Draft and seeing some obvious holes -- defense? running back? -- I immediately tried to rectify my decision by heading over to Ohio State to try and pilfer one of their players from one of their all-time rosters.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Hawk
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesFormer Ohio State linebacker A.J.Hawk is an instinctive playmaker who would bolster any defensive lineup.
While the obvious choice for a steal would be two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin, I feel decent enough about my running back/flex combination of Butch Woolfolk and Denard Robinson that I can try to bolster my defense. So the guy I would try to steal is linebacker A.J. Hawk.

Hawk might not have been the best linebacker in Ohio State history -- that was Chris Spielman -- but the former first-team All-American and 2005 Lombardi Award winner would fit well in the defensive scheme my coaches would devise. And the hair. You have to appreciate the hair.

In all seriousness, though, having covered Hawk during the 2006 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, when he played against his future brother-in-law Brady Quinn and Notre Dame, I saw first-hand what Hawk was able to do to an opposing offense. He sacked Quinn twice that day and changed much of what Notre Dame had tried to do.

His 394 tackles are fifth in school history, and his 41 tackles for loss are eighth. His 15 sacks are 13th. He led Ohio State in tackles for three consecutive years.

The final piece is that Hawk is a high-character guy. He is an intelligent playmaker with good instincts and can make plays from sideline-to-sideline. He would be the one player from Ohio State I’d steal.
Way back in the heady days of the 2012 preseason, we ranked every Big Ten position group from No. 1 through 12. We had to base our thoughts on previous performance and a lot of projections in August.

We're going back now and issuing a final, postseason ranking for each position group, and these will be far less subjective now because we have an actual full season's worth of data on hand.

Quarterbacks, naturally, are up first. (Those guys hog all the glory). You can take a look back and see how we ranked this group in the preseason here. Depth is an important factor in these position rankings, but having a standout main guy under center (or in the shotgun) is the most overriding concern with this group.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteThanks to consistent play by QB Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes finished the 2012 season unbeaten.
1. Ohio State (Preseason rank: 5): We figured Braxton Miller would improve greatly in his second year of starting and in Urban Meyer's system. We didn't know he'd become the Big Ten offensive player of the year or finish fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. While he didn't always throw the ball with precision, Miller made all the big plays and led his team to a 12-0 record. The biggest preseason worry was what would happen if he got hurt. Kenny Guiton answered that in the Purdue comeback.

2. Penn State (Preseason: 12): The Nittany Lions were dead last in our preseason rankings, and with good reason considering their past performances at the position. But I did write at the time: "Call me an optimist, but I believe Matt McGloin will be more effective at quarterback now that he's got a more modern offensive system and peace of mind that he's the starter." Uh, yeah. McGloin led the Big Ten in passing yards (3,266) and passing touchdowns (24) while throwing only five interceptions. And he stayed healthy, keeping Penn State's youthful backups from getting exposed.

3. Nebraska (Preseason: 3): Taylor Martinez led the Big Ten in total offense and completed a career-best 62 percent of his passes. When he was good, he was as good as there was in the league. But he still struggled with turnovers in key games, including 12 interceptions and numerous fumbles. If he can eliminate the mistakes, the sky's the limit.

4. Michigan (Preseason: 2): The Wolverines are a hard to team to peg in these rankings. Do we rank them based on Denard Robinson's poor showings in big games against Alabama and Notre Dame? Do we rank them based on Devin Gardner's strong finish to the season, when he was as productive as any Big Ten QB? How much do we factor in the team's lack of a solid backup plan in the Nebraska loss when Robinson got hurt early? You have to weigh the good with the bad, which makes this spot feel about right.

5. Northwestern (Preseason: 9): Starting quarterback Kain Colter threw for 872 yards, which was nearly 450 yards less than nominal backup Trevor Siemian. But Colter also rushed for 894 yards and kept defenses off balance with his versatility. Meanwhile, the Wildcats could use Siemian when they needed to stretch the field. The next step for Northwestern is developing a more consistent downfield passing attack.

6. Indiana (Preseason: 11): Who would have guessed in the preseason that the Hoosiers would actually exhibit the best depth at quarterback? After starter Tre Roberson went down in Week 2, Indiana was able to plug in juco transfer Cameron Coffman and true freshman Nate Sudfeld to sustain the league's top passing offense. The three combined to throw for more than 3,700 yards. Coffman got the bulk of the work but needed a better touchdown-to-interception ration than his 15-to-11 mark.

7. Purdue (Preseason: 1): We overrated the Boilermakers' depth in the preseason. It turned out that only one of the trio of former starters performed at a high level, and Robert Marve didn't play enough because of a torn ACL and Danny Hope's misguided insistence on sticking with Caleb TerBush. Purdue actually led the Big Ten in passing touchdowns (30) and finished third in passing yards, but much of that was because the team often had to throw the ball a lot after falling way behind. This ranking could have been higher with a full season of Marve.

8. Wisconsin (Preseason: 8): Danny O'Brien quickly showed that he was not the next Russell Wilson, but luckily the Badgers had some depth. Redshirt freshman Joel Stave showed major promise before his season was derailed by a broken collarbone, and Curt Phillips turned in a nice comeback story by managing the team well down the stretch. Still, Wisconsin ranked last in the Big Ten in passing yards.

9. Michigan State (Preseason: 10): It was not exactly a season to remember for first-year starter Andrew Maxwell, who was benched late in the Spartans' bowl game. But for all his struggles, Maxwell still finished No. 4 in the league in passing and had some nice games in the middle of the year.

10. Minnesota (Preseason: 6): What could MarQueis Gray have done if he hadn't hurt his ankle, prompting an eventual move to receiver? True freshman Philip Nelson took over the reins midseason and broke out with a huge first half against Purdue. However, he failed to throw for more than 80 yards in the team's final three regular season games. Nelson led the team with just 873 passing yards on the season, and the Gophers threw 15 interceptions.

11. Iowa (Preseason: 4): Nobody took a bigger tumble than the Hawkeyes, as James Vandenberg went from a 3,000-yard passer as a junior to often looking lost as a senior. He completed only 57.3 percent of his passes and tossed only seven touchdowns, with eight interceptions, and Iowa showed almost no ability to go vertical. And no other Hawkeye attempted a pass all season.

12. Illinois (Preseason: 7): The Illini had experience at the position with Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole, but they were both part of a wildly dysfunctional offense. Illinois was next-to-last in passing yards in the Big Ten and also had just 11 touchdown passes versus 14 interceptions. In fairness, both QBs were often running for their lives and had very little help.
Maybe it's a reflection of a lousy Big Ten season, but the league sent a smaller-than-normal contingent to the Senior Bowl. The group already has been reduced by three as injuries have prevented Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams, Ohio State offensive tackle Reid Fragel and Ohio State defensive lineman John Simon from participating.

As for the Big Ten players on the practice field, the reviews haven't been overly favorable.

The ESPN Scouts Inc. crew cited several issues Insider with Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short on Tuesday, noting that the Boilers standout took off plays during practice and was "loose with his arms" during drills. Short clearly has the size and ability to succeed in the NFL, but he'll need to answer the effort questions going forward. There are a lot of similarities between Short and former Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.

Not surprisingly, Michigan's Denard Robinson is attracting plenty of attention this week. The record-setting quarterback for the Wolverines is working primarily as a wide receiver and trying to show that his unique talents can translate to the NFL at several potential positions. But Robinson also is banged up and is still waiting to be cleared for contact drills. He had several dropped passes during noncontact drills Tuesday and muffed two punts at the end of practice.

Illinois offensive lineman Hugh Thornton drew mostly positive reviews Tuesday, while it seemed like an up-and-down day for another Big Ten offensive lineman, Wisconsin's Ricky Wagner.

We'll see if things improve for the Big Ten group today.

Be sure and track our Senior Bowl coverage throughout the week.
Alabama and Notre Dame put a bow on the 2012 college football season Monday night. Most of the Big Ten would just as soon douse it with gasoline and light a match.

But before a largely forgettable 2012 Big Ten season goes up in flames, let's take one final look at the power rankings following the bowls. Ohio State not surprisingly remains on top, and the bottom three teams stay the same as well. There's a bit of shuffling among the seven bowl teams after varying performances. As has been the case most of the season, very little separates Nos. 2-6.

Here's a look at the pre-bowl power rankings.

Let's get to it ...

1. Ohio State (12-0; previously: 1): The Buckeyes will occupy this spot until they lose a game, which might be a while under coach Urban Meyer. After recording just the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history, Ohio State sets its sights on even bigger goals as it emerges from NCAA sanctions. The Buckeyes showed major strides on offense behind sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller and improved on both lines as the season went on. Meyer exceeded most expectations in Year 1, but they'll be much higher in 2013.

2. Northwestern (10-3; previously: 5): Pat Fitzgerald's team moves up three spots after claiming its first bowl victory in 64 years. There was surprisingly little drama as Northwestern capitalized on Mississippi State's errors and won the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl by two touchdowns. The Wildcats recorded just the third 10-win season in team history and easily could have won another game or two despite a young roster. Things are headed in the right direction in Evanston.

3. Michigan (8-5; previously: 2): The Wolverines were one defensive stop away from recording the most impressive win in the Big Ten's bowl season and in the Brady Hoke era. They paced a very talented South Carolina team in the Outback Bowl and received big performances from wideout Jeremy Gallon, running back Denard Robinson and quarterback Devin Gardner. Unfortunately for Michigan, an elite pass defense couldn't get it done in the end. Four of Michigan's five losses came against top-10 teams, but an 8-5 record isn't what Hoke or his players had in mind this fall.

4. Penn State (8-4; previously: 3): Penn State and Michigan are similar in that both teams have "good" losses on their résumés (Michigan a few more than Penn State). Both teams rallied to beat Northwestern at home, while Penn State has another quality win against Wisconsin. The Lions and Wolverines didn't play one another, and we'll never know how Penn State would have fared against a team like South Carolina. Michigan gets the slight edge here, but Penn State had a terrific season behind a dramatically improved offense and a defense led by senior stars Michael Mauti, Jordan Hill and Gerald Hodges.

5. Nebraska (10-4; previously: 4): The Huskers beat the three teams ahead of them in the rankings, but the power rankings place more weight on recent results, and Nebraska finished the season with a thud. Bo Pelini's team surrendered 105 points in its last two games -- losses to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game and to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. Nebraska showed it could move the ball and score against anyone, despite being turnover-prone. But the defense was abysmal in the four losses and raises serious concerns for Pelini's program going forward.

6. Wisconsin (8-6; previously: 6): The Barry Alvarez-led Badgers showed they could hang with Stanford, but they couldn't take advantage of the unique opportunity to play in the Rose Bowl Presented by Vizio despite finishing third in the Leaders Division. The inconsistent offensive execution that plagued Wisconsin throughout the season surfaced once again against a tough and talented Stanford defense. Wisconsin just didn't have enough firepower to get over the hump, which was really the story of its season.

7. Michigan State (7-6; previously: 7): A come-from-behind win against TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl takes the sting off of a season that didn't go according to plan for Michigan State. The Spartans leaned on their defense and received just enough offense from backup quarterback Connor Cook and Co. to get past a young Horned Frogs team in Tempe, Ariz. Michigan State posted its second straight bowl win under coach Mark Dantonio and said goodbye to three juniors -- running back Le'Veon Bell, tight end Dion Sims and defensive end William Gholston -- in the days following the game.

8. Minnesota (6-7; previously: 9): Minnesota appeared poised to give the Big Ten a surprising 1-0 start to the bowl season. The Gophers made strides on offense between the end of the regular season and the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, as young quarterback Philip Nelson and the offensive line looked a lot better against Texas Tech. But Minnesota still doesn't know how to finish and suffered breakdowns down the stretch in a tough loss to the Red Raiders. The team still doubled its win total in Jerry Kill's second season and could make some noise in a tough Legends Division next fall.

9. Purdue (6-7; previously: 8): The Boilermakers and Minnesota swap places after Minnesota performed much better in its bowl game than Purdue did. A mismatch on paper turned into a total whitewash on the field as Oklahoma State, which had no business being in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, outclassed Purdue from the get-go. Purdue's once-promising season ended with a thud as a veteran-laden Boilers team that kept pace with both Notre Dame and Ohio State struggled mightily against most of the good-to-great teams it faced this season.

10. Indiana (4-8; previously: 10): After going 1-11 in Kevin Wilson's first year, Indiana could only get better, and took some important steps this season. The Hoosiers showed they can score points on just about every defense in the Big Ten, and their group of skill players is among the league's best. IU's defense still isn't at a Big Ten level, and improving the talent and depth on that side of the ball is the chief challenge for Wilson and his staff entering the 2013 season.

11. Iowa (4-8; previously: 11): A bowl appearance looked like a guarantee before the season as the schedule set up favorably for eight or more wins. But the offense took a giant step backward, and injuries hurt the unit throughout the season. Iowa's defense kept it in quite a few games but also let down against better offenses like Northwestern and Michigan. The Hawkeyes will look for more cohesion on offense and more playmakers to emerge. The Legends Division seems to be getting only tougher.

12. Illinois (2-10; previously: 12): No team and no coach wants to turn the page on 2012 more than Illinois and Tim Beckman. Almost nothing went right in Beckman's first season, as the offense stalled and the defense struggled against spread offenses. The Illini dropped all eight of their Big Ten contests and lost by fewer than 14 points just once. Perhaps new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit can get the offense on track. The defense, meanwhile, must fill holes up front and in the secondary. At least Illinois gets a fresh start in 2013.
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

1. The Ineligibles overachieved under great coaches: We won't see Ohio State or Penn State until next fall, but both teams went out on positive notes to end seasons in which they overachieved. Aside from die-hard Buckeyes believers, who expected Ohio State to go 12-0 and record just the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history? Even fewer people expected Penn State to go 8-4 after a tumultuous offseason that featured the exodus of running back Silas Redd and other key players. And when the Lions started 0-2, most folks wrote them off. But Bill O'Brien and his team never lost faith and surged through most of the Big Ten season. It was fitting that kicker Sam Ficken, whose struggles at Virginia led to Penn State's loss, had the game-winning field goal Saturday as the Lions beat Wisconsin in overtime. O'Brien exceeded all expectations in his first season as a head coach, recording the most wins ever by a first-year Lions boss. Will he be Big Ten Coach of the Year? The only other worthy candidate is Urban Meyer, who took a seven-loss Buckeyes team with significant depth issues and transformed it into one of the nation's best.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
Evan Habeeb/US PresswireBill O'Brien faced tough questions from prospective recruits, but the Penn State coach and his staff kept a top-25 recruiting class together.
2. Michigan isn't really back: Sure, the Wolverines have dug themselves out from the Rich Rodriguez-created crater, and they had a charmed season end in a Sugar Bowl title last season. But in terms of beating really good teams, the ones that signify Michigan once again has a place among the nation's elite, Brady Hoke's crew is still looking for a breakthrough. Michigan won a respectable eight games, but its four losses in the regular season -- Alabama, Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State -- came against the best four teams it played. The Wolverines were extremely fortunate to beat a good Northwestern team and a mediocre Michigan State squad on their home field. While it was nice to end the losing streak against Ohio State last season, Michigan beat the worst Buckeyes team we've seen in more than a decade. The offense still seems hamstrung in some ways by the Denard Robinson era, though the emergence of Devin Gardner is promising for the future. There are signs Michigan is close, and the renaissance on defense under Hoke and Greg Mattison can't be denied. But it'll take a bit longer for Michigan to truly claim it is back, although a Jan. 1 bowl victory against an SEC foe would help.

3. Rex Burkhead still can make an impact: This hasn't been the season the Nebraska senior running back envisioned, but he can still play a major role in how it turns out for Big Red. Burkhead returned to the field in the second half Friday against Iowa after Nebraska's offense stumbled and fell behind 7-3. In his first appearance since Oct. 20, Burkhead racked up 69 yards and Nebraska's only touchdown on 16 carries. He might not be 100 percent, but he showed the skills that make him beloved in the Cornhusker State, particularly on a grinding 9-yard run to pick up a first down after Nebraska was pinned inside its own 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Nebraska had hoped to get through the Iowa game without Burkhead, but when the team needed him, he delivered. He likely will play a bigger role this week against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Burkhead had 86 rush yards against the Badgers in the Big Ten opener, the only full game he has played this season. He could be the boost Nebraska needs to win its first league title since 1999 and possibly win the Rose Bowl, too.

4. Danny Hope's players didn't quit on him: Many Purdue fans have seen enough of fourth-year coach Danny Hope, but Hope has plenty of allies in his locker room. The Boilers easily could have quit after dropping their first five Big Ten games -- four blowouts (three at home) plus the heartbreaker at Ohio State. Some teams projected to do much more would have gone in the tank. But Purdue rallied behind Hope and gutsy quarterback Robert Marve, who played despite a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and won its final three games to secure a bowl berth. The product rarely looked pretty, and even Saturday's Bucket game against Indiana featured some bang-your-head-against-the-wall moments. But Purdue's players never stopped fighting and will head somewhere warm for the holidays. Whether Hope joins them remains to be seen, but he deserves some credit for keeping the team afloat during such a difficult stretch.

5. Bowl practices will be crucial for Big Ten teams: We don't know the bowl matchups yet, but they will be daunting for the Big Ten, which will be without two of its best teams (Ohio State and Penn State) in the postseason. For the league to avoid another bad bowl performance, several teams must take significant steps during bowl practices. Michigan State has the defense and the running back (Le'Veon Bell) to win its bowl game, but it needs quarterback Andrew Maxwell and a young receiving corps to develop. Coach Mark Dantonio hinted this week that his offense needed an update to keep up with the times. Maybe that can start next month in earnest. Minnesota has to get healthy and re-establish its offensive identity behind true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson, who will benefit from the 15 practices. Wisconsin also will have a chance to iron out its offensive issues, while a young Northwestern team that made major strides this fall must make another before facing what should be a heavily favored SEC foe in Florida. Michigan also gets some extra time to figure out its vision on offense with Gardner and Robinson.

Perfection hard to beat for Buckeyes

November, 24, 2012
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State won't have a chance to play for a national title and won't get to prove itself a 13th time this season because of NCAA sanctions.

But in a way, the Buckeyes earned something just as lasting as any crystal football. By finishing off a 12-0 campaign with Saturday's 26-21 win over archrival Michigan, they will remain perfect in memory and ideal in their fans' imagination.

If -- as several Ohio State players like Carlos Hyde and Ryan Shazier did Saturday afternoon -- this team wants to say it deserves the No. 1 ranking in The Associated Press poll, how can you convincingly tell the players they're wrong? A Notre Dame loss would leave the Buckeyes as the only undefeated team in the country, and we'll never know for sure how they would stack up against the other national powers.

"You can say what you want, but we're 12-0," senior linebacker Etienne Sabino said. "People can talk what they want and say a bunch of what-ifs now, but I know we took care of what we had to do. At the beginning of the year we set out to win every single game, and that's what we did. It wasn't pretty, but it happened."

Ohio State fans sure didn't seem to care much about bowl bans. They poured onto the field in droves when the win was secured and stayed there long after the game had ended, taking photos and singing with the school band.

In between the first and second quarter, former coach Jim Tressel was honored along with other members of the 2002 national championship team. Those former players picked Tressel up and carried him off the field on their shoulders as the crowd roared. Of course, Tressel's deception of his bosses and the NCAA directly led to the sanctions that will keep this year's team home. But the irony of choosing the day when the current team would finish 12-0 to honor Tressel appeared lost on a forgiving fan base.

Time may heal all wounds, but going undefeated helps wipe out even the memory of those pains. Instead, fans can now remember this team as one of six unbeaten squads in school history, yet the first since 1944 to do so without going to a bowl.

"It kind of stinks," said tight end/receiver Jake Stoneburner. "We wish we were playing in a bowl game. But, shoot, I'll take 12-0 any day of the week."

A postseason game would bring the potential of a loss that could tarnish this team's legacy. Instead, it will be revered for turning last year's 6-7 disaster into the best possible building block for the future under first-year coach Urban Meyer.

Meyer said he would make sure the 2012 team would get some sort of permanent recognition around the team's facilities. He joked about erecting 19 bronze statues for each of this year's seniors.

[+] EnlargeOhio State Buckeyes
Andrew Weber/US PresswireWith his defense much improved, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said he feels his team can now compete with the nation's elite.
As for whether this team deserves a No. 1 ranking, Meyer was too media savvy to take that bait. But unlike earlier in the year, he was happy to heap plenty of praise on the Buckeyes.

"I'd say at this point in time, Ohio State could go play with anybody in America," he said.

Meyer wouldn't have put his own team in such company back in mid-October. But the improvement of his defense from a poor-tackling, easily exploitable bunch to a true strength has changed his perception.

In fact, Saturday's game was a perfect encapsulation of the Buckeyes' season. In the first half, they needed some great work by quarterback Braxton Miller to keep them in the game as Michigan rolled up 21 points and several explosive plays, like a 75-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree and Denard Robinson's 67-yard touchdown sprint.

But just like in the season as a whole, the defense took over in the second half. Keying on Robinson as a runner and aided by some bizarre Michigan play calling, the Silver Bullets (yes, they've earned back that nickname) didn't let the Wolverines cross midfield after halftime. They allowed only 39 total yards and no points in the second half and forced three turnovers. Robinson and Devin Gardner were hemmed in as Michigan ran only 21 offensive plays in the second half.

"We just had to limit the big plays," linebacker Shazier said. "We were missing way too many tackles at the beginning of the game. We settled down on that and settled down on the big plays in the second half."

This wouldn't have been the 2012 Buckeyes without some adversity and drama. The defense played without star defensive end John Simon, who experienced swelling in his knee after last week's Wisconsin game. And even with the second-half defensive domination, Ohio State kept frittering away excellent scoring chances and settled for just two field goals to keep Michigan in the thick of it.

In the end, that's the signature of these Buckeyes. They never made things easy, but they never lost.

"We have so much confidence because we've been in so many close games like this," Sabino said. "We know how to come out with the win."

Now all they can do is watch football until the spring. Several players said they planned to watch next week's Big Ten championship game between Wisconsin and Nebraska, two teams they beat earlier this season.

They will do so believing someone else will get a trophy they earned.

"I feel like we're the true Big Ten champions," Shazier said. "We won every game and did exactly what we're supposed to do and finished out strong. We showed it today."

The Buckeyes can do nothing more to prove themselves. But no one can ever definitively tell them they weren't the best team in the country, either. They'd love a shot at the national title. They'll settle for perfection.

Michigan-Ohio State pregame ponderables

November, 24, 2012
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Hello from the Horseshoe, where one of the best rivalries in sports is about to kick off with some extra meaning.

Nebraska's win against Iowa took a little bit of drama away from the proceedings, as Michigan now cannot make the Big Ten title game. In another situation, you might wonder how that would affect a team's motivation. But not this one. The records don't really matter in The Game.

But one record does matter to Ohio State: 12-0. The Buckeyes are one win away from perfection, and while they can't go bowling, finishing up the season with a victory against the Wolverines would be better than just about any bowl victory.

We've got some perfect Big Ten late November weather here, with temperatures in the low 30s and a light snow. The snow isn't sticking, so it shouldn't have too much impact on the game, except maybe adding some moisture to challenge ball carriers. I still expect Brady Hoke to come out in short sleeves.

It just doesn't get much better than this rivalry. Some Michigan fans already fired the first shot by writing "Beat Ohio" and a giant "M" in chalk on the south stadium wall this morning.

A key question looming over this game is the health of John Simon. Reports surfaced Friday that Ohio State's star defensive end is injured and might not play. We have confirmed that Simon is a game-time decision with a knee issue. It's hard to imagine the senior not trying to go on senior day if there's any way his body can be held together. But if he's missing or at far less than 100 percent, that's a big loss for a Buckeyes defense going against an explosive Michigan attack led by Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson.

Both teams have had some trouble stopping spread offenses and containing the perimeter on defense this season. Both offenses will look to exploit that weakness. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller has been a little more cautious with his running style since suffering an injury against Purdue, trying to stay healthy for the rest of the season. But there is no more season to worry about after today, and the Michigan game is where Buckeyes players build their legacies, so I'd expect the sophomore star to play with abandon this afternoon.

But will Miller be able to throw effectively against a Michigan team that leads the nation in defending the pass? The Wolverines have not allowed anybody to pass for 200 yards this season.

Speaking of passing games, Michigan's has gotten a lot better since Gardner took over the quarterback job. But receivers Jeremy Gallon and Roy Roundtree will face a good challenge today, going up against certain first-team All-Big Ten selection Bradley Roby and teammate Travis Howard. The Buckeyes' cornerbacks have been ball-hawks, and should give Gardner more of a test than Minnesota, Northwestern and Iowa did.

There are great matchups all over the field, as you'd expect, and another great one on the sidelines between Hoke and Urban Meyer. Can't wait to get this one started.


Four downs: Keys to The Game 

November, 23, 2012
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Ohio StadiumKirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireOhio Stadium will be the venue for this weekend's game.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Critical areas for the Buckeyes as they welcome Michigan looking to close out a perfect season at home with a win over their hated rival. The game will be televised live on ABC at noon ET Saturday from Ohio Stadium.

FIRST DOWN
Keep it in check: A perfect season, a rivalry, the last game for the seniors and a chance to send a message to poll voters are all out there looming as potential distractions. And if Ohio State gets too wrapped up in any of them, everything could slip away from them.

Picks to click: Bucks to watch vs. Michigan 

November, 22, 2012
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A look at three Ohio State players who will be critical as the Buckeyes prepare to close the season with a rivalry showdown against Michigan on Saturday at The Horseshoe (TV: ABC, noon).

Carlos Hyde
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesCarlos Hyde (34) should see a lot of action against Michigan after being somewhat forgotten against Wisconsin.
Carlos Hyde

  • The basics: The sophomore running back didn’t hide his frustration with not getting the football more often last week, but the Buckeyes won’t hold it against him. Urban Meyer admitted almost as soon as the victory over Wisconsin was over that Hyde needed more touches to spark the rushing attack, particularly because he only gets more difficult to bring down the deeper a game gets with his unique combination of size and undervalued speed.

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Big Ten Week 13 preview

November, 19, 2012
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It's the last week before the Big Ten championship game, which means this is the last game before bowl season for some teams and the last game until next year for others. Let's look at the story lines for Week 13:

Friday

No. 14 Nebraska (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) at Iowa (4-7, 2-5), Noon, ABC: In the second installment of the Heroes Game, Iowa will need a heroic effort to pull off the upset, even at home. The Hawkeyes have lost five straight, while Nebraska comes in riding a five-game winning streak and just needing to take care of business here to win the Legends Division. It's hard to imagine the Huskers slipping up now, but as we saw this past weekend, sometimes crazy stuff happens.

Saturday

No. 19 Michigan (8-3, 6-1) at Ohio State (11-0, 7-0), Noon, ABC: Perhaps you've heard that these two schools have a little bit of a rivalry going on. The Game is always a big deal, and this year's edition looks like the biggest one since 2006. The Buckeyes are looking to finish off a perfect season, while the Wolverines would not only love to ruin that but need it to stay alive for a division title and for an outside shot at a BCS at-large bid. The Devin Gardner/Denard Robinson combo gives Michigan some crazy explosiveness, while Braxton Miller will try to rebound from his first subpar game of the season at Wisconsin. And it's Urban Meyer's first entry into this rivalry as head coach. Is it Saturday yet?

Wisconsin (7-4, 4-3) at Penn State (7-4, 5-2), 3:30 p.m., ESPN2: This game is meaningless in the big picture, but it won't feel that way for the Nittany Lions' seniors who have created a unique legacy. The Badgers no longer have a division title to play for and are going to Indianapolis regardless. Still, Wisconsin can help its bowl placement with a win and doesn't want to go into the Big Ten title game on a two-game losing streak. Montee Ball needs one more touchdown to break a tie with Travis Prentice for the NCAA career record.

Michigan State (5-6, 2-5) at Minnesota (6-5, 2-5), 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network: It's still a little hard to believe that the Spartans have to win their finale just to go bowling, but that's the predicament they put themselves in. At least they're on the road and not at home, where they went winless in Big Ten play. Will any Michigan State fan even want to travel to watch this team play another game? Minnesota could make that a moot point by winning on senior day and getting to seven wins, which would be a great achievement in Jerry Kill's second year. The Gophers' home finale could be overshadowed by the A.J. Barker controversy this week, however.

Indiana (4-7, 2-5) at Purdue (5-6, 2-5), Noon, BTN: The Old Oaken Bucket game takes on real meaning as Purdue needs to win to reach its second straight bowl. Indiana saw its bowl hopes end last week, but the Hoosiers will be fired up for this rivalry and would love to keep the Boilermakers home. Danny Hope could be coaching for his job. Purdue has won eight of the last 10 meetings between these two, but Indiana came out on top the last time they met in West Lafayette in 2010.

Illinois (2-9, 0-7) at Northwestern (8-3, 4-3), Noon, BTN: Northwestern can wrap up a pretty impressive nine-win season and extend the misery of its top rival. The health of Kain Colter and Venric Mark will be the main angle to watch this week. Illinois coach Tim Beckman hasn't done much if anything to endear himself to Illini fans this season, but a win here could be a small step in that direction. His team is really thin, though, after enduring several more injuries last week. What are the chances Daniel Day-Lewis can show up in character to present the Land of Lincoln Trophy?

Video: Friday Four Downs

November, 16, 2012
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Brian Bennett presents the Friday Four Downs in the Big Ten.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 12

November, 15, 2012
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Ten items to track around the Big Ten entering Week 12:

1. Ballin' for history: Thirteen years after Ron Dayne broke the NCAA career rushing record, another Wisconsin running back is on the doorstep of a major milestone. Badgers senior Montee Ball, who, unlike Dayne, spent a year and a half as a reserve, needs one more touchdown Saturday against Ohio State to tie the NCAA career mark of 78 held by former Miami (Ohio) star Travis Prentice. Ball has scored 13 touchdowns in his past six games and is averaging 179.1 yards and three touchdowns in his past nine November games. A big performance against the unbeaten Buckeyes will once again put Ball on the radar for top national honors. Ball's next rushing touchdown will mark his 72nd, moving him past Dayne for the Big Ten career record.

2. Holding serve in the Legends: Nebraska and Michigan are tied atop the Legends Division at 5-1, and on paper, they should stay that way after Week 12. Both teams are favored to take care of Minnesota and Iowa, respectively, on senior day in Lincoln and Ann Arbor. Nebraska's magic number (wins and Michigan losses) to punch its ticket to Indianapolis is 2. A Huskers loss and a Michigan win puts the Wolverines in control of their own fate in the division. One senior day subplot is whether face-of-the-program stars like Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson will play after missing time with injuries. Burkhead (knee) returned to practice this week and seems closer to a return, while Robinson (elbow) remains day-to-day.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireLe'Veon Bell and the Spartans plan to finish strong against Northwestern on Saturday.
3. Finishing school: Northwestern and Michigan State easily could be playing for a Legends Division title Saturday. Instead, both teams' inability to finish against the likes of Nebraska and Michigan has left them looking for a full 60-minute performance. Michigan State's four Big Ten losses have come by a combined 10 points. Northwestern held double-digit second-half leads in all three of its Big Ten losses. Something's gotta give Saturday as the teams meet at Spartan Stadium. "Their problem, just like ours, has been closing out games," Spartans linebacker Chris Norman told ESPN.com this week. "... It's going to come down to who can finish the best. Saturday is going to be interesting."

4. Hope and a prayer: There's growing talk that Purdue will make a head-coaching change after the regular season no matter what happens in the final two games. But can fourth-year boss Danny Hope save himself with a three-game win streak to become bowl-eligible? It's reason enough to tune in for an otherwise off-the-radar game between Purdue and slumping Illinois on Saturday. A loss to the Illini would prevent Purdue from getting bowl-eligible and likely seal Hope's fate, while a Purdue win adds intrigue to next week's Bucket game against Indiana. The Boilers' offense got on track last week behind quarterback Robert Marve and running back Ralph Bolden, while defensive tackle Kawann Short had his best game of the season at Iowa.

5. Rivalry renewed: Saturday's game at Camp Randall Stadium won't decide which Leaders Division team goes to the Big Ten title game, as Wisconsin already punched its ticket last week. But Ohio State can lock up the Leaders Division championship -- the only title it can win this season -- while Wisconsin can legitimize its trip to Indy by handing Urban Meyer's Buckeyes their first loss of the season. Looking ahead, the Ohio State-Wisconsin game likely will be the signature contest in the division for years to come. Illinois is a mess, Purdue has backslid this season, Indiana is still building and Penn State still has three more years of postseason bans. "I hate Wisconsin just as much as Michigan," Ohio State wide receiver Corey Brown said this week. While Meyer and Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema say their post-signing day spat is a thing of a past, it could bubble up Saturday depending on how the game goes.

6. Taking a pass: The Big Ten might not be flush with elite quarterbacks and high-powered offenses this season, but a few of its teams can sling the ball a bit, and two of them meet at Beaver Stadium. Indiana and Penn State are the Big Ten's top two pass offenses, ranking 26th and 40th nationally, respectively. They'll share the field Saturday as they try to rebound from different types of losses. Indiana quarterback Cameron Coffman struggled with his accuracy (25-for-46) in last week's loss to Wisconsin and looks for a sharper afternoon. Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin wasn't a happy guy after the Nebraska loss and will try to take it out on IU. The game features two of the Big Ten's top receivers in Penn State's Allen Robinson and Indiana's Cody Latimer.

7. Hawkeye hex: Iowa has been in a funk for much of the season and particularly in the past month, dropping four consecutive Big Ten contests. Perhaps a date with Michigan can put the Hawkeyes back on track. See, Iowa has won three straight against Michigan for the first time in team history and five of its past eight against the Wolverines. Michigan's seniors are anxious to finally get over the hump against Iowa, one of two Big Ten teams (Penn State the other) they have yet to beat. But maybe it works the other way and Iowa finally shows a spark on offense and stiffens its defense. If not, the Hawkeyes won't be going bowling for the first time since the 2006 season, and it'll be a very long winter for Kirk Ferentz. "It doesn't hurt, obviously," Ferentz said of his team's Michigan win streak, "but it doesn't guarantee us anything."

8. Backs of different sizes: Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell is the biggest featured running back in the Big Ten, checking in at 6-2 and 244 pounds. Northwestern's Venric Mark is the smallest, checking in at 5-8 and 175 pounds. But both have been extremely effective this season with the ball in their hands. Bell leads the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,249), while Mark ranks third in rushing yards (1,181) and first in all-purpose yards (1,917). Each has been the MVP of his respective offense, and it'll be interesting to see them on the same field at Spartan Stadium. Both Michigan State and Northwestern defend the run well, too, both ranking in the top 25 nationally.

9. Illini look for a spark: Illinois ranks last in the Big Ten in scoring, rushing and total offense, and lingers near the bottom of the FBS in all the significant categories. The Illini need some sort of boost on offense or a 2-10 season is a virtual certainty. Head coach Tim Beckman, whose background is defense but who had a high-powered offense at Toledo the past few years, took a more active role with the offense this week in an effort to get things going. Beckman also noted that co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales call plays on different downs. Hmmm. Starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne took more reps with the wide receivers this week and could see an increased role against Purdue. Illinois aims to win on senior day for the first time since 2007.

10. Bowl picture taking shape: We learned a little more about the Big Ten bowl contingent last week as Minnesota became bowl-eligible, Purdue took a big step toward the postseason and both Iowa and Indiana took a step toward a winter at home. There should be some more answers in Week 12. Michigan State aims for its sixth win to go bowling for the sixth consecutive season under coach Mark Dantonio. Purdue must keep its bowl hopes alive at Illinois, while both Iowa and Indiana must win on the road to avoid loss No. 7. It won't be easy for the Hawkeyes or Hoosiers. Indiana never has won at Beaver Stadium in 15 previous meetings with Penn State. Iowa never has won consecutive games at Michigan Stadium.

Big Ten stock report: Week 12

November, 14, 2012
11/14/12
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We take a look inside the Big Ten trends, with no insider trading needed.

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