Ohio State Buckeyes: Jordan Hill

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.
The 2012 All-Big Ten teams and individual award winners will be revealed at 7 p.m. ET tonight on the Big Ten Network. We'll post the full lists shortly thereafter as well as reaction.

The four major awards -- Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Freshman of the Year -- will be revealed Tuesday night. We will have our official blog endorsements for each of these throughout Tuesday, so be sure to check in.

To clarify, we don't have official votes for All-Big Ten (not like we cover the league closer than anyone year-round or anything, but we're not bitter), but we will reveal our own all-conference team at a later date.

For now, we're going to give our opinions on some of the key debates surrounding this year's all-conference team.

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Meyer-O'BrienAP Photo/ US PresswireOhio State's Urban Meyer, left, and Penn State's Bill O'Brien have already left a mark on their respective programs.
Penn State senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill knew about the rumblings last year that Urban Meyer might be interested in succeeding Joe Paterno. He noticed when Meyer attended Nittany Lions practices as part of his job as an ESPN analyst.

"We heard the rumors," Hill said Tuesday. "But you never know what's true and what's not."

Well, this much we know is true: Both Penn State and Ohio State ended up with the right coaches at the right time.

Just try to name two better offseason coaching hires than Meyer and Bill O'Brien. They enter Saturday's game in State College, Pa., as two of the leading candidates for national coach of the year awards, and not even NCAA probation has slowed them down in their first year on the job.

Both schools got it right by going away from tradition.

Meyer was a no-brainer hire, an Ohio native with a pair of BCS championships and an undefeated season at Utah under his belt. Yet his arrival meant a departure from Ohio State's traditionally conservative style of play on offense, made famous by Woody Hayes and, more recently, Jim Tressel. Unlike the buttoned-down, senatorial Tressel, Meyer is a rock-star coach who's not afraid to give very blunt assessments of his team and players in the media.

Penn State's success was built on the loyalty of one man, Paterno. For decades, Nittany Lions fans speculated on who would succeed JoePa, often zeroing in on former assistants. Instead, in part because of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the school hired a guy in O'Brien with no previous ties to Penn State.

The choice was a bold one in that O'Brien had never been a head coach at any level. He'd gone largely unnoticed as an offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech and Duke before deciding to work his way up the New England Patriots ladder. Yes, he'd gained attention as the Patriots' quarterbacks coach and eventually the play-caller for one of the NFL's best offenses. But former Patriots assistants haven't always worked out in their new gigs, and the last ex-New England offensive coordinator to land a major-college head-coaching job is known more for his spectacular failures than his early achievements.

O'Brien also had to deal with unprecedented NCAA sanctions handed down this summer, along with the loss of 12 players who transferred and 18 who left the program since the end of last season. Yet here are the Nittany Lions surging, not sagging. They have won five straight games and seem to be getting better each week, including last week's dominant 38-14 win at Iowa.

O'Brien -- who turned 43 today -- has transformed an offense that had grown stagnant and stale under Paterno into a modern, versatile attack that keeps defenses guessing. Senior Matt McGloin has blossomed from arguably the Big Ten's worst quarterback a year ago into the league's best traditional-style passer. O'Brien has instilled an aggressiveness in the players, going for it on fourth down more than any other team in the country.

I asked Hill, the Lions' star defensive lineman, what he thought was the biggest attribute O'Brien gave to Penn State.

"A winning mentality," Hill said. "He wants to win, and he wants to win now. There was no coming in and just getting your feet wet and trying to work into things. He brought in a game plan and what he wants to do with this program, and he's doing everything he's wanted to do."

The same could be said for Meyer, whose spread offense has found its perfect match in sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller. The team is averaging 39 points per game and eclipsed 50 points in back-to-back games earlier this month.

But the 8-0 Buckeyes have also had to hang on for dear life in close wins over California, Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue, the latter of which took a near-miracle to send the game into overtime last week. Thinned by injury, the defense is hanging on by a thread. Though not as severe as Penn State's, Meyer has had to deal with some of his own roster issues.

Meyer was asked this week how he would grade the job he and his coaching staff have done so far this season.

"I think pretty good," he said. "I wouldn't grade it an Aplus or something like that. I'll evaluate that at the end of the year. But Ohio State, we've certainly got to get healthy and develop and recruit and get going. There's a lot of holes that need to be filled and enhanced."

The winner of this week's game could have a leg up in the Big Ten coach of the year race. O'Brien remains the favorite and will likely take it home if Penn State finishes strong, just because of everything his team has had to endure. But if Meyer can lead Ohio State to an 11-1 or 12-0 record a year after it went 6-7, he'll make a very strong case as well.

Regardless of who wins that honor, they both rank as the top offseason hires in college football. And neither team would trade its coach for anybody else right now.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 8

October, 22, 2012
10/22/12
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Take that and rewind it back.

Team of the week: Penn State. Plenty of candidates this week, as Michigan ended Michigan State's four-game winning streak in the rivalry, Nebraska got a much-needed road victory and Wisconsin kept chopping in the Axe series. But no team was as impressive as the Nittany Lions, who went on the road in a hostile atmosphere and simply dismantled Iowa from start to finish in a 38-14 win. That was as complete a performance as you're going to see in this league, and as Adam wrote on Saturday, Bill O'Brien's team is no longer just a nice little story.

[+] EnlargeKenny Guiton
Greg Bartram/US PresswireBackup quarterback Kenny Guiton led the Buckeyes to an overtime win against Purdue on Saturday.
Game of the week: Lots of good ones, including Michigan's nailbiter over Michigan State, Nebraska's comeback over Northwestern and even Indiana's loss at Navy. But for pure drama, it's hard to beat the Ohio State-Purdue game and how it ended. To review: the Buckeyes trailed by eight points and took possession at their 39-yard line with less than a minute to go. Braxton Miller was in the hospital and backup Kenny Guiton was at quarterback. Somehow, Ohio State made it work, driving for a touchdown and then the tying two-point conversion on a beautifully designed play. There seemed to be little doubt who would win in overtime after that, though Urban Meyer seemed stunned after the 29-22 decision. "I'm still trying to figure this bad boy out," he said. "We won, right?"

Biggest play: The first play of that Ohio State tying drive was a 39-yard completion from Guiton to Devin Smith that made everything else possible. It was a slow-developing play that the Buckeyes were a little hesitant to call because it demands such good protection by the O-line. Maybe too good, as Purdue coach Danny Hope complained that his defense "probably would have [gotten to Guiton] if we didn't have quite so many hooks and so many hands on our jerseys." Regardless, it was still a play that will go down in Ohio State lore.

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What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 5

September, 27, 2012
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Ten items to track around the Big Ten as conference play finally gets under way:

1. Miller Time vs. The Green Monster: The Big Ten's most dynamic offensive player goes up against the league's top defense Saturday afternoon at Spartan Stadium. Michigan State will see a very different Braxton Miller than the one it bottled up last year in Columbus in a near-shutout victory against the Buckeyes. Miller, who leads the Big Ten with seven rushing touchdowns, faces by far his toughest test in a Spartans' defense that ranks in the top 11 nationally in scoring, rushing and pass efficiency. Despite Michigan State's stingy defensive numbers, it looks to make more game-changing plays after recording just six takeaways and three sacks in the first four games.

2. Big Red redemption: After its Big Ten debut turned into a disaster last year in Madison, Wis., Nebraska finally gets a chance for redemption Saturday night as Wisconsin comes to town. Huskers junior quarterback Taylor Martinez once again will be in the spotlight after throwing a career-high three interceptions last year against the Badgers. Martinez has looked like a different player this season, throwing nine touchdown passes and just one interception and ranking 10th nationally in passer rating (180.9). With a healthy Rex Burkhead back in the fold, Martinez leads the Big Ten's top offense against a Wisconsin defense that has looked strong so far.

3. Poaching season in Champaign: Coach Bill O'Brien and his Penn State players held their tongues this week, but they haven't forgotten what Illinois' coaching staff did last summer. Illini coach Tim Beckman sent eight assistant coaches to State College to recruit Penn State players after the NCAA imposed heavy sanctions on the Lions' program. Senior linebacker Michael Mauti and his teammates will be geared up to make Beckman's team pay Saturday in the Big Ten opener for both teams. While it's important for Penn State to control its emotions -- "You never want to take it too far," defensive tackle Jordan Hill said -- the Lions visit Memorial Stadium with some momentum after back-to-back wins.

[+] EnlargeJerry Kill
Jesse Johnson/US PresswireJerry Kill aims to lead Minnesota to its third consecutive win over Iowa, something the Gophers haven't done since 1998-2000.
4. Three little pigs: The landscape could be shifting in the Minnesota-Iowa series. After losing eight of nine games to an obviously superior Iowa program, Minnesota has won consecutive games. The Gophers carry a perfect record into Iowa City, while the Hawkeyes are reeling after falling apart late in last week's loss to Central Michigan. Although Iowa is favored, Minnesota comes in with the momentum following a strong defensive effort last week against Syracuse. The Gophers aim for their first win at Kinnick Stadium since 1999 and try to bring home the bacon (Floyd of Rosedale) for the third consecutive year, something they haven't done since 1998-2000.

5. Bell tolls for Buckeyes: Tackling has been a problem for Ohio State's defense, which inexplicably ranks last in the Big Ten in yards allowed heading into league play. Luke Fickell's unit had better tighten things up before Saturday, or Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell will steamroll the Buckeyes. At 6-foot-2 and 244 pounds, Bell can batter his way through decent tackling attempts, so Ohio State will need to swarm the Big Ten's leading rusher (610 yards). The Buckeyes can expect a steady diet of Bell, who leads the nation in rushing attempts with 117 (29.25) through the first four games. On the flip side, Michigan State likely needs to generate some offense outside of Bell to win.

6. Making his Mark: While more heralded Big Ten running backs have struggled with injuries or poor production, Northwestern's Venric Mark has put himself on the radar as an early Offensive Player of the Year candidate. Mark ranks third among Big Ten running backs with 399 rush yards and has recorded more than 120 all-purpose yards in all four games this season. The Wildcats have been much more of a run-driven offense this year, thanks to Mark and an improved line. Saturday, Mark takes aim at Indiana as Northwestern tries to improve to 5-0.

7. Stave symphony: Joel Stave showed in April that he could play piano under pressure. He showed last week he could handle himself in his first career start (210 pass yards, 1 TD). But how will the Wisconsin quarterback handle a hostile environment like Nebraska's Memorial Stadium? Find out Saturday night as Stave makes his first career road start against Nebraska. Stave certainly benefits from having top receiver Jared Abbrederis on the field, and he could have a full complement of running backs if Montee Ball passes his concussion tests. Wisconsin went with Stave as its starter because of his steadiness. The Badgers need the redshirt freshman to limit mistakes and make plays when they're available in a pressure-packed situation Saturday night.

8. Iowa, Illinois get defensive: Both Iowa and Illinois saw their defenses gashed last week in humbling home losses to Central Michigan and Louisiana Tech, respectively. Iowa's defense performed well in the first three games and better than expected up front before caving against the Chippewas last week. Illinois' defense, pegged to be among the Big Ten's best, has been shockingly poor in the team's two losses, surrendering a combined 97 points to Arizona State and Louisiana Tech. With both teams not getting enough from the quarterback position, the defenses need to tighten up Saturday for crucial Big Ten openers against Minnesota and Penn State.

9. Wilson returns to roots: Indiana coach Kevin Wilson built his reputation as an offensive genius at Northwestern, where he coordinated one of the nation's best offenses in 2000, before moving onto more success at Oklahoma. "I stand here today because of what those kids did for us in 2000," he said Tuesday. Wilson returns to Evanston on Saturday with an Indiana team searching for its first Big Ten victory on his watch. The Hoosiers have looked good on offense this year, despite losing top quarterback Tre Roberson to a season-ending broken leg. Cameron Coffman makes his first career road start at quarterback as he leads the Big Ten's top passing attack (326 ypg) against a Northwestern team that hasn't been tested much through the air since struggling in its opener at Syracuse.

10. Marshall plan: Purdue wraps up non-league play Saturday against Marshall, which should provide a nice test for a Boilers' defense that has played well to date. The Thundering Herd lead the nation in passing offense (383.5 ypg) and offensive plays (371). Purdue has surrendered only one passing touchdown this season. Although it's important for Boilers quarterback Caleb TerBush and the offense to capitalize on a weak Marshall defense, it's also vital for Purdue to contain Marshall as it prepares to face other spread offenses in Big Ten play.

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