Ohio State Buckeyes: Kenny Bell
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.
- What Rutgers can expect in its new home. Ten reasons for the Scarlet Knights to be excited.
- Who will be Maryland's rival in the Big Ten?
- Braxton Miller has been working hard this summer -- even on Friday nights.
- Can Kenny Bell still get loose deep for Nebraska?
- Top Minnesota recruit Jeff Jones is still academically ineligible, putting his status for this season in doubt.
- Michigan's 2015 class is filling up fast. The Wolverines' defense needs to go from good to great.
- Who would be on Iowa's quarterback Mt. Rushmore?
- A closer look at Penn State's linebacker corps.
- Former Wisconsin players are in favor of boosting scholarships.
- A Florida linebacker committed to Purdue.
The 1,000-yard mark means more to wide receivers than rushers, especially in the Big Ten. Four players reached the milestone in 2013 after just one (Robinson) in 2012. The Big Ten had four 1,000-yard receivers in 2011 but none in 2010 and just one (Purdue's Keith Smith) in 2009. So this category can be tricky to forecast.
Although no Big Ten returning player had more than 800 receiving yards in 2013, the league boasts several potential breakout stars. Your task today: Select the Big Ten player most likely to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards this fall.
The candidates ...
Kenny Bell, Nebraska, senior: The 'fro, tragically, is no mo' after Bell lost a bet to his friend, Northern Colorado defensive lineman Devontae Chapple. But perhaps less hair will mean more production after Bell's receiving yards went from 863 in 2012 to 577 last year. Nebraska never has had a 1,000-yard receiver, and quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. has much to prove as a passer, but Bell is one of the nation's most experienced wideouts.
Stefon Diggs, Maryland, junior: Big Ten fans who haven't seen Diggs are in for a treat, at least when he's not facing their favorite team. An ESPN 150 recruit who picked Maryland over Ohio State and others, Diggs finished eighth nationally in all-purpose yards (174.2) as a true freshman. He averaged 17.3 yards per reception through Maryland's first seven contests last season before suffering a broken leg. Diggs should be fine for the season and can put up huge numbers with his big-play ability. Maryland's depth at receiver -- Deon Long also returns from a broken leg -- could make it tough for Diggs to get to 1,000 yards.
Devin Funchess, Michigan, junior: Funchess is listed as a tight end and won the Big Ten's tight end of the year award last fall, but he plays like a bigger receiver at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds. He has averaged 15.5 yards per reception in his first two seasons with 11 touchdowns, setting a team record for receiving yards by a tight end with 748 last fall. Funchess becomes quarterback Devin Gardner's favorite target as Gallon departs. Michigan needs its receivers to step up, but Funchess could threaten 1,000 yards this year.
Shane Wynn, Indiana, senior: Like Bell, Wynn saw a slight production drop from 2012, when he led Indiana with 68 receptions, to last season, when he had 46 but still put up about the same yardage. But the departures of Latimer and tight end Ted Bolser, both selected in the NFL draft, along with Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson leave Wynn as undoubtedly Indiana's No. 1 passing target. Quarterbacks Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson will be looking for Wynn a lot this fall, and his numbers could surge in a productive IU offense.
And, finally ...
Mystery man: Don't like any of these candidate to reach 1,000 receiving yards? This is the spot for you. Maybe Rutgers' Leonte Carroo complements his touchdowns with bigger yards totals this fall. One of the Northwestern Joneses (Christian or Tony) might reach 1,000 yards in a more pass-driven offense. Geno Lewis could follow Robinson's path at Penn State. Maybe Ohio State's Devin Smith gets there. Will one of Michigan State's receivers -- Tony Lippett, Macgarrett Kings, Aaron Burbridge, Keith Mumphery -- separate from the pack? Maybe one of the spring standouts -- Iowa's Derrick Willies, Illinois' Geronimo Allison or Mikey Dudek, Michigan's Freddy Canteen -- has a true breakout season.
- Mark Dantonio is planning on keeping Michigan State football on a roll.
- Improving Penn State's branding is high on James Franklin's to-do list. A rather exhaustive preview of the 2014 Nittany Lions.
- Ohio State landed a quarterback for its 2015 class, and it could take another. A look at the Buckeyes' play-action package.
- Nebraska's summer camps will feature some new experts: current Huskers players. Sadly, Kenny Bell's tremendous Afro is gone.
- Minnesota offensive lineman Caleb Bak called it quits on his career.
- Illinois got a commitment from a Washington, D.C., running back.
- Seven home games per year is not necessarily the way of the future for Big Ten teams.
- Former Michigan receiver Drew Dileo will get a shot with the Miami Dolphins.
- Looking back on how Rutgers' 2011 recruiting class panned out.
- Athlon lists its best quarterback-head coach tandems for 2014, and it includes several Big Ten duos.
Brutus from The Ninth Circle writes: Brian, what are you looking forward to the most this coming season? Seeing a team coached by James Franklin? Seeing Maryland and Rutgers play their first games in the B1G? Seeing more night games at Michigan? Personally, I can't wait to see Maryland's games in the B1G. The eastward expansion should play havoc on my Saturday TV scheduling, but bring it on!
Brian Bennett: From a big-picture perspective, what I'm most excited about is the new playoff system, and in particular the semifinals on New Year's Day. That could be one of the best days in college football history. From, um, a B1G-picture perspective, I'm really interested in how Maryland and Rutgers fit into the league, how Franklin's Penn State debut will go and how the new division alignment shakes out. But I'm probably most excited about an upgraded nonconference schedule that includes games like Michigan State-Oregon, Wisconsin-LSU and Ohio State-Virginia Tech. There's nothing like high-profile out-of-league games early on to get a read on just how strong the Big Ten might be in 2014.
Brian Bennett: Grant, I wrote about this a lot in a piece last month following a visit to East Lansing. Dantonio started warning about complacency in the first team meeting back home after the Rose Bowl, and he pushed the start of spring practice back to late March so he could have the players go through grueling, early-morning winter conditioning longer. That's one way to deflate big heads. I also thought it was an encouraging sign that Michigan State players like Connor Cook told me they were sick of talking about the Rose Bowl and 2013 this offseason and that they wanted to create their own legacy. Add in the fight for playing time at several defensive positions and along the offensive line and other spots, and there is reason to believe this team won't rest on its '13 accomplishments. You never really know. But that Week 2 showdown against the Ducks on the road should be enough to get these Spartans focused on the here and now, or else they're going to learn that lesson the hard way.
Brian Bennett: Meyer does collect top talent from Ohio -- he signed nine players from the Buckeye State in the 2014 class, for example -- but he doesn't just rely on homegrown players. Ohio State wants to compete for national titles, and the way to do that is to get the best players, no matter where they're from. Fact is, Big Ten country doesn't produce as many elite athletes as it once did, and many of those guys are in the South, in Texas and California. Any Big Ten program with legitimate national title aspirations has to recruit outside its region, as well as protecting its own backyard.
Brian Bennett: I firmly believe that one of the absolute best things about college football is the supreme importance of the regular season. Every week, in essence, becomes a playoff. Having a four-team playoff at the end will dilute that slightly but not enough, in my opinion, to hurt the sport. So I'm against any idea that would make games in any part of the season lose their significance.
Michigan State's problem last year was not so much its loss at Notre Dame but the fact that it really didn't play another marquee game until the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State. That's why upgraded schedules for the league are so important. A loss (or possibly even two, in some years) will be much easier to forgive if a team has played a grueling schedule and collected impressive wins throughout. I do hope the selection committee pays particular attention to schedule strength and does not get caught up on picking teams who might have simply coasted to a 12- or 11-win season. The in-season polls that the committee will release seem problematic to me, but everything they have said so far indicates they will judge teams on the quality of their résumés.
Brian Bennett: Thanks, Luke. It was a dream trip, and I highly recommend it. As for Nebraska, I've thought for a while that guys like Bell and Turner could do even more with a consistent passing game. Taylor Martinez was actually pretty solid in 2012, throwing for 2,871 yards and 23 touchdowns, though his 62 percent completion rate wasn't spectacular. It's no coincidence that Bell had by far his best season in 2012. There was too much turnover and inexperience under center last year for Nebraska once Martinez got injured. Tommy Armstrong simply has to improve on his 51.9 percent completion rate from a year ago, and he's got the playmakers to make big things happen.
To recap: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (incoming recruits are not). The teams will pick in reverse order of regular-season finish last year. Picks are based on factors like position need, remaining eligibility, scheme, previous players lost in the draft.
Check out the first half of the first round here. It gets a bit messy with teams swiping each other's top players, but that makes it fun.
Now, for the final seven picks ...
Pick No. 8: Penn State
The offensive line is Penn State's shakiest position group, but Christian Hackenberg (selected No. 5 by Rutgers) leaves a massive hole at quarterback. Cook, a pro-style signal-caller with a big arm and more experience than Hackenberg, makes a lot of sense as he fits the system and comes off top performances in the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl.
Brian Bennett says the Lions select ... Ohio State OT Taylor Decker
Penn State does need help on the offensive line, but it can afford to be patient. Decker was playing as well as any Ohio State offensive lineman late last season, when he was only a redshirt freshman. He can come to State College and offer help now and for the next three years, seeing the Lions through probation.
Pick No. 9: Minnesota
Rittenberg says the Gophers select ... Maryland WR Stefon Diggs
Minnesota loses some star power on defense, but I expect coordinator Tracy Claeys to produce a solid unit. The bigger issue is boosting a pass offense that ranked 115th nationally last season. Diggs comes off an injury-shortened season, but he's an explosive playmaker with 88 career receptions and two years of eligibility left. He would complement promising young wideouts like Drew Wolitarsky.
Bennett says the Gophers select ... Nebraska WR Kenny Bell
The Gophers might just be a downfield receiving threat away from being actual division contenders. Bell is a senior but offers two things Jerry Kill wants: leadership and toughness as a blocker. Bell would also deliver some explosiveness while guiding Minnesota's young wideouts along.
Pick No. 10: Iowa
Rittenberg says the Hawkeyes select ... Indiana LT Jason Spriggs
Brandon Scherff (selected No. 1 by Purdue) is a major loss for Iowa, which now needs a replacement to anchor its offensive line. Spriggs might not be as big a name as Scherff, but he has quietly started the first 24 games of his college career and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors the past two seasons. He also has two years of eligibility left.
Bennett says the Hawkeyes select ... Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon
True, Iowa has about 37 tailbacks right now. But the pure speed and playmaking ability of Gordon is tough to pass up here, especially for an offense seeking more home-run plays. Plus, he originally committed to the Hawkeyes, so this is a way for them to finally get Gordon in black and gold.
Pick No. 11: Nebraska
Rittenberg says the Huskers select ... Ohio State DE Joey Bosa
Running back Ameer Abdullah (selected No. 6 by Maryland) is a significant loss, but the Huskers have good depth behind him. They need a replacement for All-Big Ten end Randy Gregory (selected No. 4 by Indiana), and Bosa, who ended his freshman season in beast mode, is an easy choice. He should keep the expectations high for the Huskers' defensive front seven. And he has at least two seasons left.
Nebraska doesn't seem to have a lot of gaping holes but could use a playmaker in the passing game after losing Bell (selected No. 9 by Minnesota). Funchess would make a nice safety valve for Tommy Armstrong and is a destroyer of red zone defenses. Tim Beck lobbies hard for this pick and would get two years to deploy Funchess in a variety of ways.
Pick No. 12: Wisconsin
Rittenberg says the Badgers select ... Ohio State DL Michael Bennett
Like Nebraska, Wisconsin has lost an elite running back (Melvin Gordon, selected No. 7 by Michigan), and like the Huskers, the Badgers have enough to get by without him. Wisconsin has an even bigger need to upgrade its defensive front seven after losing six starters to graduation. Bennett, a junior who could play either line spot and had seven sacks last season, is a really good fit for Wisconsin.
Bennett says the Badgers select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook
The passing game remains a sore spot for Wisconsin, and no clear starter under center emerged this spring. Cook knows how to run a pro-style offense and would have two years left in Madison.
Pick No. 13: Ohio State
Rittenberg says the Buckeyes select ... Michigan QB Devin Gardner
Well, this should be interesting. Ohio State needs a quarterback after losing Braxton Miller to Northwestern (pick No. 3), and there aren't too many proven options out there. The Buckeyes likely can get by with a one-year player to allow younger guys to develop. Gardner is a good fit in a true spread offense, and he showed at times last year that he can put up huge numbers.
Bennett says the Buckeyes select ... Indiana QB Tre Roberson
I had Rutgers snagging Miller earlier in the first round. Roberson might be the closest facsimile to Miller in the league right now, a guy with good wheels who can also sling it around the field. He has plenty of game experience and two years of eligibility left.
Pick No. 14: Michigan State
Rittenberg says the Spartans select ... Iowa QB Jake Rudock
OK, the quarterback swapping is getting a little silly, but Michigan State needs one after losing Cook (selected No. 8 by Penn State), and Rudock brings experience to the Spartans backfield. Rudock comes from a pro-style system at Iowa and should take another step this season. Plus, he has two years of eligibility left.
Bennett says the Spartans select ... Ohio State S Vonn Bell
You can't convince me that Mark Dantonio wouldn't go defense first in a draft like this. And I think the prospect of a stud defensive back would prove too hard for him to resist. Bell showed real promise in his brief exposure last year with the Buckeyes and has three years left to help fortify the No-Fly Zone.
- Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman hosted a meeting of some top offensive minds last week in Columbus. A pro day recap from Ohio State.
- Maryland RB Wes Brown had a reality check last fall when he lost the chance to play football.
- Tom Mulhern shares his thoughts on the first week of Wisconsin's spring practice.
- Nebraska WR Kenny Bell forms a strong connection with QB Tommy Armstrong.
- Illinois coach Tim Beckman is open to weeknight games. Former Illini RB Rashard Mendenhall on why he's retiring at 26.
- Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison thinks the experience among younger players will pay off this season.
- Penn State dished out more than $2.5 million in football severance payments in 2012 and 2013.
- Andy Graham debates whether Indiana should name a starting quarterback before the end of the spring (subscription required).
- Spring Q&As with Purdue defensive coordinator Greg Hudson and offensive coordinator John Shoop.
- Athlon picks the top Big Ten defensive backs of the BCS era.
- Former Michigan State LBs Max Bullough and Kyler Elsworth, who signed autographs together Sunday, will always be linked in Spartans lore.
Illinois:The Illini might not be exceptional in the kicking game, but they're in better shape than they were when coach Tim Beckman arrived. Punter Justin DuVernois returns after a solid junior season, while Taylor Zalewski looks for a bit more consistency in his second full season as the placekicker. Zalewski made 12 of 17 field-goal attempts last fall. The return game is the real plus, as V'Angelo Bentley provides a major threat, especially on punt returns.
Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana brings back a dynamic returner in Shane Wynn, who averaged 14 yards on punt run-backs despite limited work. Punter Erich Toth also is back for his third season as the starter. Toth placed 18 of 52 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. IU suffers a big loss at kicker as Mitch Ewald, the team's career field goals and field-goal percentage leader, departs. Aaron Del Grosso and Griffin Oakes will compete at kicker, and Jake Shake (shake and bake!) could enter the mix this summer.
Iowa: Here's another Big Ten team that looks very strong on returns, as Iowa boasts the Big Ten's most dynamic tandem in Kevonte Martin-Manley (punts) and Jordan Cotton (kickoffs). Martin-Manley had two punt-return touchdowns in 2013. Punter Connor Kornbrath ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in average, but placed 27 of 65 attempts inside the opponent's 20. Iowa loses kicker Mike Meyer, a four-year starter. Junior Marshall Koehn seems likely to step up, but could be pushed by incoming freshman Mick Ellis and others.
Maryland: Notice a theme so far? Most Big Ten teams are strong in the return game, and Maryland is no exception. If Stefon Diggs returns at full strength from his leg injury, he'll be a dangerous man with punts and kickoffs in his hands. Will Likely performed extremely well in Diggs' spot, averaging 26 yards on kickoff returns and 12.8 yards on punt returns. Maryland brings back an excellent kicker in Brad Craddock (21-for-25 on field goals last year), and punter Nathan Renfro enters his third season as the starter.
Michigan: Matt Wile has done a bit of everything for Michigan, but could settle into the starting placekicker role this fall. Wile handled kicking duties late last season and also served as Michigan's punter after Will Hagerup was suspended for the season. Hagerup, the Big Ten's punter of the year in 2012, will reclaim the role if he can avoid off-field problems that have surfaced throughout his career. Wile then could focus on kicking, as Kenny Allen is the only other option there. Michigan is still waiting for big things from kick returner Dennis Norfleet and must find someone to handle punts. Top recruit Jabrill Peppers could help.
Michigan State: Special teams once again should be a strength for MSU, which returns All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler, a Ray Guy award semifinalist who will contend for All-America honors in 2014. Kicker Michael Geiger also is back after connecting on 15 of 16 field-goal attempts as a true freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Andre Sims Jr. both put up good numbers on punt returns. Michigan State had by far the fewest kick returns (18) in the Big Ten last year and will look for a boost from R.J. Shelton and others.
Minnesota: After an above-average year on special teams in 2013, Minnesota again should be good in the third phase. Punter Peter Mortell didn't get as many accolades as Sadler or Purdue's Cody Webster, but he had an excellent sophomore season, averaging 43.3 yards per attempt with 15 of 50 yards or longer. Marcus Jones is a major threat on returns after bringing back both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last fall. Redshirt freshman kickers Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte will compete as the Gophers lose Chris Hawthorne.
Nebraska: The Huskers are looking for some upgrades on special teams, particularly on punt returns, as Nebraska ranked 123rd in the FBS last fall. Primary returner Jordan Westerkamp is back, but he'll face some competition. Nebraska brings back punter Sam Foltz, who had a solid freshman season, averaging 41.6 yards per boot. Mauro Bondi is set to step in at kicker as Pat Smith departs. If Bondi struggles, incoming freshman Kris Brown could get a look this summer. Kenny Bell, who led the Big Ten in kick return average (26.5 yards per return), is back.
Northwestern: The Wildcats lose a huge piece in Jeff Budzien, named the Big Ten's top kicker in each of his final two seasons. Hunter Niswander can handle both kickoffs and punts but seems likely to slide into Budzien's spot. Northwestern's punting was a mess in 2013, ranking 118th nationally in net average (33.2 ypp). Brandon Williams departs and Chris Gradone or Niswander will take over. The big news is Northwestern brings back Venric Mark , an All-America punt returner in 2012. Primary kick returner Matt Harris is back after a solid freshman season.
Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Indeed, the Aussie is back at punter as Cameron Johnston returns after an excellent debut season (I refuse to call a 21-year-old a freshman). Ohio State hopes for similar results from another first-year specialist in kicker Sean Nuernberger, an early enrollee expected to step in for the departing Drew Basil. Sophomore Dontre Wilson will continue to have a big role on returns after handling kickoffs last year. Ohio State must replace Corey Brown on punt returns and could look to redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall or true freshmen Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon.
Penn State: The kicking game continues to be an area of concern.Sam Ficken owns the team record for consecutive field goals (15) and started strong last season but ended with just 15 of 23 conversions, including four misses inside 40 yards. Penn State needs a new punter after losing Alex Butterworth, and will turn to Chris Gulla. Jesse Della Valle did a good job on punt returns, but Penn State needs a boost on kickoffs after finishing last in the league (19.1 yards per return). The Lions could stick with Geno Lewis or look for a newcomer such as De'Andre Thompkins to emerge. PSU also must shore up its coverage units.
Purdue: As if the Boilers didn't have enough to address on offense and defense, the kicking game needs attention. Punter Cody Webster finished his spectacular career with All-America honors, and the Boilers finished second nationally in net punting (41.7 yards per punt). Incoming freshman Austin McGehee will take over for Webster. Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows continue to work at kicker, as Griggs made only 50 percent of his attempts (6 of 12) last season. The kick return game is strong with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, but Purdue must replace punt returner Ricardo Allen. B.J. Knauf could be a good fit there.
Rutgers: The kicking game historically is a strength for Rutgers, which has a knack for blocking kicks and pulling off fakes. Rutgers loses a productive piece in punter Nick Marsh, who also handled kickoffs. The Scarlet Knights will turn to Joseph Roth as their replacement. Kicker Kyle Federico finished the season well, particularly in the Pinstripe Bowl, and returns for his junior season. Rutgers has a major weapon on returns in Janarion Grant, who brought back both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown during his freshman season.
Wisconsin: The kicking game has held back Wisconsin in the past, so it's definitely an area to watch during the offseason. Kicker Jack Russell converted 9 of 13 field-goal attempts after taking over for Kyle French. He'll try to hold off incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone. Andrew Endicott, who handled kickoffs last fall, also returns. Wisconsin is looking for more from punter Drew Meyer, who averaged just 38.6 yards per attempt in 2013. Top returner Kenzel Doe is back and should handle both punts and kickoffs, although Wisconsin could look to others for help, such as newcomers Serge Trezy and Natrell Jamerson.
More position breakdowns
Much will change between now and August. Heck, much will change between now and spring practice. But for right now, the 2014 Big Ten season is shaping up as one that possibly lacks a clear-cut, slam-dunk favorite in either of the new East or West divisions.
In colleague Mark Schlabach's way-too-early Top 25 for next season, Michigan State tops all league teams by checking in at No. 6. Makes plenty of sense, as the Spartans went 13-1, won the Rose Bowl over Stanford and return the vast majority of their offense, along with a solid core on that outstanding defense.
"I have held all along that the Buckeyes, close as they were in 2013, were built for '14," Haney writes. "The talented 2013 freshman class that Urban Meyer brought in [ranked third in the nation according to ESPN's RecruitingNation] had bright spots, such as Joey Bosa at defensive end, but it'll really start to have an impact next season. The defense could quickly go from liability to strength, with young players such as Bosa, safety Vonn Bell and end Noah Spence becoming bigger pieces."
I think there's a lot of truth to that about the defense, which started six freshmen or sophomores against Clemson in the Orange Bowl loss. But Ohio State also loses Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby from a defense that struggled down the stretch, and the offense must replace 80 percent of the offensive line, leading rusher Carlos Hyde and leading receiver Philly Brown. Plus, the Buckeyes have to play at Michigan State.
Those two will headline the new East, and it's up to teams like Michigan and Penn State to get better and make that more than a two-team race. The West Division looks even more wide open.
Schlabach ranks Wisconsin No. 15, which comes as a bit of a surprise considering all of the valuable seniors the Badgers lose on defense, plus receiver Jared Abbrederis. The Badgers also have to open the season against LSU, though the schedule is much more favorable after that with no Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State on the docket.
Iowa checks in at No. 21 in Schlabach's rankings and has to be considered a West contender after going 8-4 in the regular season. The Hawkeyes' offense could make strides in 2014 with most of the key pieces returning, but replacing those three senior starting linebackers won't be easy.
Schlabach does not rank Nebraska, which surprises me. The Huskers finished 9-4, which apparently is an annual federal requirement under Bo Pelini, and bring back just about everybody on defense, plus Ameer Abdullah, Tommy Armstrong Jr., Kenny Bell and several other key players on offense. If forced to choose right now, I'd make Nebraska the West favorite, even though the Huskers have to go to Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State in the fall.
Northwestern figures to bounce back from an incredibly unlucky 2013, and Minnesota won eight games with a lot of young players in major roles this year. Neither can be counted out in the division.
The East looks stronger at the top in 2014 than the West, at least for now. But unlike the 2013 season, when Ohio State was the clear favorite after going 12-0 the previous year, there's no slam-dunk, clear-cut favorite in either division.
But we can also say with confidence that we watched more Big Ten football here at the blog than anyone else. So here are our picks for the 2013 ESPN.com All-Big Ten team:
RB: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan
OL: Jack Mewhort, Ohio State
OL: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OL: Corey Linsley, Ohio State
OL: Ryan Groy, Wisconsin
DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
DT: Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB: James Morris, Iowa
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State
DB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
DB: Brock Vereen, Minnesota
K: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa
OK, so we cheated just a bit on positions, going with three tackles on our offensive line and a 3-4 defense. But considering the coaches had six defensive backs and two punters on their first team, we don't feel too bad about it. ... We wanted to include Scherff, Lewan and Mewhort on the first team, because we thought they were the three best linemen in the league. If we had to field an actual team with these guys, we're sure we could figure it out. It was a tough call between Groy and Penn State's John Urschel, whom we love for his on- and off-the-field accomplishments. We just felt Wisconsin had the better overall season as an offensive line, so we went with Groy. ... We went with the 3-4 because linebacker was such a deep position in this league -- so deep that we had to leave off some deserving players, like Michigan State's Denicos Allen -- while defensive line wasn't nearly as strong. ... The defensive backfield was a tough call (no wonder the coaches had an, ahem, pick six there). Dennard was a lock, and we felt that Drummond was the league's best safety in a year when that position was a bit weak conference-wide. We like what Vereen did in providing versatility and leadership for the Gophers, and Roby overcame a slow start to do his usual fine work. We had to leave off very good cornerbacks like Michigan's Blake Countess, Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Iowa's B.J. Lowery -- but that's what a second team is for. Stay tuned. ... Ohio State leads the way with six selections, followed by Michigan State with five. It's almost as if those were the two best teams in the league or something.
Will Brian Bennett inch back in front, or will Adam Rittenberg gain the edge entering the final week? Loser buys dinner in Indy.
MICHIGAN STATE at NORTHWESTERN
Bennett: Let's see in which heartbreaking manner can Northwestern lose this week? The Wildcats can't be counted out here, as they've come close to knocking off several teams in recent weeks, and it is senior day in Evanston, Ill. But Northwestern doesn't have enough offensive versatility to counter Michigan State's defense. Jeremy Langford goes over 100 yards again, and the Spartans clinch their Big Ten championship berth Michigan State 20, Northwestern 10
Rittenberg: The Spartans can taste a trip to the Big Ten championship game and will get there, though not without a fight from Northwestern, which has continued to play hard during a nightmarish stretch. Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook starts slowly but gets hot in the third and finishes with two touchdown passes. Kain Colter makes some plays on senior day but Northwestern once again can't find the end zone enough and drops another one in single digits. Sparty on to Indy. Michigan State 23, Northwestern 16
MICHIGAN at IOWA
Rittenberg: Michigan will actually need touchdowns in regulation to win this week and faces a better defensive line in Iowa. Neither offense does much in the first two and a half quarters before Iowa's run game starts to stir behind Jordan Canzeri and Mark Weisman, both of whom reach the end zone. The Hawkeyes break a tie early in the fourth quarter and seal the win on a B.J. Lowery interception of Devin Gardner. Iowa 20, Michigan 13
Bennett: A very cold, potentially windy day in Iowa City favors the team that can run the ball, and Michigan is not that team. It won't be pretty, but the Hawkeyes' offensive line and Mike Meyer (three field goals) get the job done. Iowa 16, Michigan 13
ILLINOIS at PURDUE
Bennett: The Streak is dead. Illinois snaps the 20-game Big Ten losing skid against a Purdue team that is bad enough to build its own lamentable streak. At least we know the Illini can score. I'm still not sure what the Boilers are good at. Nathan Scheelhaase throws for four scores. Illinois 35, Purdue 21
Rittenberg: This game features two bad defenses, one improving, but still weak, offense and one potent offense. Illinois breaks The Streak behind Scheelhaase, who piles up 350 pass yards and three touchdowns. Josh Ferguson adds a rushing touchdown as Illinois holds off Purdue, which receives a good performance (220 pass yards, two TDs) from Danny Etling. Illinois 34, Purdue 24
WISCONSIN at MINNESOTA
Rittenberg: Minnesota is looking a lot more like Wisconsin these days, which is a good thing, but the Badgers still are the superior version. The Gophers jump ahead early behind a David Cobb touchdown run, but Wisconsin's defense buckles down and James White and Melvin Gordon get rolling, combining for three touchdowns. Minnesota hangs tight, but Wisconsin retains the axe for a 10th consecutive season. Wisconsin 28, Minnesota 20
Bennett: The Minnesota mojo makes it tempting to pick the home team. But as well as the Gophers are playing, Wisconsin is on even more of a roll. The Wisconsin run game will take its toll and help the Badgers break through with a pair of touchdown runs by White in the fourth quarter, chopping down the Gophers. Wisconsin 31, Minnesota 17
INDIANA at OHIO STATE
Bennett: Indiana has played Ohio State tough the past two seasons, but pair the Hoosiers' terrible defensive efforts with this hyper-explosive Buckeyes offense and the potential for a rout is high. IU can't stop the run, so Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde will enjoy the open lanes for a combined 350 yards and five touchdowns before sitting out the fourth quarter. A mad Ohio State defense records a pair of interceptions, including a pick-six. Ohio State 59, Indiana 17
Rittenberg: Shield your eyes, Hoosiers fans, as this one will get ugly early. Ohio State builds a 28-7 lead at the end of the first quarter as Hyde eclipses 1,000 yards for the season on a touchdown run and finishes with 210 yards and three scores. Indiana's offense shows up and wideout Cody Latimer records two long scoring passes, but Ohio State gets contributions from everyone against the overmatched Hoosiers defense. Ohio State 63, Indiana 24
NEBRASKA at PENN STATE
Rittenberg: Both teams are flawed, and, while Penn State is much better on its home field, Nebraska's run game and improving defense will be the difference. Ameer Abdullah rushes for 140 yards and a touchdown, and Tommy Armstrong Jr. bounces back. Penn State gets some production from Zach Zwinak (120 yards, two TDs) and its run game as well, but Nebraska mounts a game-winning drive in the closing seconds for the victory. Nebraska 31, Penn State 28
Bennett: Don't count out Penn State on what should be an emotional senior day. But Nebraska just has more athletes right now. Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa exploit a shoddy Nittany Lions pass defense for a couple of touchdown catches, while Randy Gregory makes life miserable for Christian Hackenberg. Nebraska 24, Penn State 17
You've seen our predictions. Now it's time to hear from one of you. As a reminder, throughout the season, we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please), hometown and a brief description of why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.
This week's guest is Ali Tomek from Evanston, Ill. Ali, take it away
I should be the guest picker for this week because I love the blog and B1G football! I grew up in Omaha and have attended nearly every home game at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium since I was in elementary school. I'm definitely one of those football-obsessed Husker fans: I still feel bitter about that 13-12 loss to Texas in the 2009 B12 Championship. I've also attended games in five B1G stadiums: Nebraska, Northwestern, Michigan, Iowa and Penn State. OH, AND I'm an undergrad at Northwestern! Unfortunately for the Wildcats, though, my true loyalties will always lie with the Cornhuskers. Go Big Red!
Let's hope Ali's professors don't read this note before final exams. Ouch.
Here are her picks:
Michigan State 27, Northwestern 10
Michigan 17, Iowa 13
Illinois 35, Purdue 17
Wisconsin 31, Minnesota 17
Ohio State 56, Indiana 14
Nebraska 24, Penn State 17
Brian Bennett: 68-14
Adam Rittenberg: 68-14
Guest pickers: 65-19
Both standout cornerbacks paid the increased price -- ejection from a game -- for hits that officials deemed to be dangerous. Although both disqualifications sparked debate and doubt, neither altered the outcome of the games (Nebraska and Ohio State both won), and the greater message about high hits and player safety came through.
"They've lowered the target," Carollo said Tuesday on a conference call with reporters from ESPN.com and BTN.com. "They've done a better job coming in full speed, trying to make a play and separate the opponent from the ball. They see the numbers, they see what they hit, they try to wrap up. Even from the first week of the season, I've seen players adjusting, trying to get their head to the side, trying to get their head down."
Despite grumbling from those most affected by targeting ejections -- Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, Nebraska wide receiver Kenny Bell -- the changes are working, according to Carollo. The Big Ten had six targeting fouls in 2012 that would have resulted in ejections, he said, but only two so far this season. The numbers are also down nationally, from one targeting foul in approximately every eight games in 2012 to one in approximately every 10 games this season.
There have been 54 targeting fouls in 534 FBS games so far this season, 15 of which were overturned following replay review. Every targeting penalty is reviewed by a replay official, who can uphold the ejection or overturn it. Carollo said replay is a big reason for the early success.
"Our antennas are up, we're looking for it more, but the actual numbers are down, which I think is a positive result of our efforts in this area," Carollo said.
Carollo is pleased with the results through the first two months but said mistakes have been made, even by replay officials overturning ejections (the Big Ten has had no targeting fouls overturned by replay). There have been borderline plays, and while officials are instructed to throw the flag if in doubt, the "over-officiating" Carollo feared when the new policy was implemented hasn't taken place.
Coaches don't all like the rule, but they understand the reasoning. Carollo credits them for emphasizing the rule with their teams from spring practice onward.
"Sometimes the coaches talk about the intent of the player, [that] he didn't mean to do it," Carollo said. "That isn't part of the rules. Intent doesn't make a whole lot of difference. In this case, it's pretty clear cut: Is he defenseless? Did he use the crown of the helmet? Did he hit in the head or neck area?"
There could be some amendments to the targeting policy, including possibly removing the 15-yard penalties for fouls overturned by replay, which the SEC is advocating. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has proposed using a soccer-style system for enforcing targeting -- a warning (yellow card) followed by an ejection (red card).
Carollo called Fitzgerald's proposal "an interesting concept" but added, "I don't know if a stepped approach will have the effect and get the attention that we're getting today." Carollo is open to changes if they make sense, although none would be implemented until the 2014 season.
"We're trying to change player behavior," Carollo said. "There's no hiding behind our motive. We thought if we immediately penalize these players and throw them out of the game, it will get their attention.
"It's kind of a hard learning curve right now, but we're heading in the right direction."
This man @jeremygallon1 is going HAM! He's gonna go for 300 receiving.
— Kenny Bell (@AFRO_THUNDER80) October 19, 2013
Scratch that. Gallon is going for 400 — Kenny Bell (@AFRO_THUNDER80) October 19, 2013
@CodyLatimer3 y'all wrs in that michigan game went off!!! — Jared Abbrederis (@abbrecadabra) October 21, 2013
@abbrecadabra tryna get like you bro! You had more yards against Ohio state then I got this year!
Yes, it's fair to say that Big Ten receivers are noticing what others at the position are doing. These days, it's becoming harder and harder not to notice.
Last season, Penn State's Allen Robinson was the only league player to finish in the Top 71 in the FBS in receiving yards per game -- prompting me to ask where all the Big Ten star receivers had gone. A year later, we have our answer.
Three Big Ten receivers -- Michigan's Jeremy Gallon, Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis and Robinson -- rank in the top 20 nationally in receiving yards, with Indiana's Cody Latimer checking in at No. 27. Meanwhile, Nebraska's Quincy Enunwa is tied for ninth in the country with seven touchdown receptions.
We sure did. Indiana's outstanding group of pass-catchers allowed the Hoosiers to throw for 410 yards in the Big House. But the Wolverines' Gallon nearly matched that himself with a Big Ten record receiving 369 yards in the 63-47 shootout. You'd better believe that other wideouts noticed that.
"That's just ridiculous," Abbrederis told ESPN.com. "That's crazy. That was almost half my season [total] last year. That's a day that wide receivers dream of."
Abbrederis had his own standout game earlier this year when he recorded 10 catches for 207 yards at Ohio State while being defended by All-America cornerback Bradley Roby. But he joked "mine was kind of small" compared to Gallon's day.
Penn State's Robinson has had his own stat-stuffing days, including a 12-catch, 172-yard, two-touchdown showing in a loss at Indiana. He watched some of Gallon's performance during Penn State's bye week and thinks that he could match the 369-yard performance if the conditions were right.
"He was able to go out there and beat the defensive backs pretty much all game and get open for his team," Robinson told ESPN.com. "So I would say that's something other receivers could do if they got the opportunity."
Robinson easily won the Big Ten's Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year award as the league's only 1,000-yard producer last year, but he's got company this season. Gallon, Abbrederis and Latimer are all on pace to eclipse 1,000 yards right now.
Is Robinson eager to retain his trophy?
"That's out of my control as far as awards," he said. "Each and every game and in the offseason, I continue to try to be best player I can be, and whatever comes with that is fine. I don't try to stress myself over it too much or lose sleep too much. We have a talented group of receivers in this league."
This group, in fact, includes some of the best in school history.
They're the big three in the league right now, but there are plenty of others excelling at the position. Nebraska's Bell hasn't put up big receiving numbers yet but is still capable of jaw-dropping plays like this one. Like Enunwa, he's also a physical blocker for the Huskers running game. And the junior ranks fourth all-time in Nebraska career receiving yards and needs less than 900 to become the school's all-time leader.
Indiana's Latimer has great size (he's 6-foot-3) and hands and is joined by Kofi Hughes and Shane Wynn to form a three-headed receiving monster. Ohio State's Philly Brown has developed into a go-to weapon. Michigan's Devin Funchess is a receiver hiding in a tight end's body.
"I saw the game [Robinson] had against our rivals, and he was fantastic," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "He's a very fast and talented guy who goes up and high points the ball. I nominated Abbrederis for a bunch of the postseason awards when I got to see him live and in color. He's a tremendous player. So I think those are NFL players we're getting to face almost every week."
They remain very collegial while still in college.
Abbrederis says he started following Bell closely after Wisconsin played Nebraska twice last year. Bell told the Omaha World-Herald that he and Enunwa watch tape of Abbredris every week because "that guy's a stud.” Robinson is tight with Iowa's Kevonte Martin-Manley and sends him the occasional text or tweet during the season.
"I'm obviously not going to play directly against them, so it's not bad to have a relationship," Abbrederis said. "It's good to see guys doing some good things in this league."
It's getting harder and harder not to notice all those good things.
"We had a Heisman Trophy winner at receiver in the Big Ten with Desmond Howard," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "So there have always been a lot of good receivers in this league, and there are definitely some good ones right now."
WEEK 6/SEASON RECORD
Adam Rittenberg: 3-2, 47-8
Brian Bennett: 4-1, 47-8
Here's one last look at the Week 6 predictions made by us and our guest picker, Brandon Poturica, who is stationed at Morón Air Base in Spain.
It's rewind time ...
Penn State at Indiana
- Brian Bennett's pick: Penn State 42, Indiana 34
- Adam Rittenberg's pick: Penn State 38, Indiana 27
- Actual score: Indiana 44, Penn State 24
- 20-20 hindsight: We start off with a big swing and a miss. Other than my prediction of two Christian Hackenberg-Allen Robinson touchdown connections, we were way off as Indiana surged in the second half. Indiana emerged with more clarity than controversy at quarterback as Nate Sudfeld (321 pass yards, 2 TDs) performed well, and Brian's prediction of three Zach Zwinak touchdowns fizzled as Zwinak failed to reach the end zone.
- Bennett's pick: Nebraska 38, Illinois 28
- Rittenberg's pick: Nebraska 38, Illinois 31
- Actual score: Nebraska 39, Illinois 19
- 20-20 hindsight: We both nearly nailed Nebraska's score, and Huskers RB Ameer Abdullah (225 rush yards, 2 TDs) and WR Kenny Bell (65 receiving yards, 1 TD) both had strong performances, like we thought they would. The early lead I had predicted from Illinois never transpired, as Nebraska stormed out to a 30-5 advantage, and Illini QB Nathan Scheelhaase threw zero touchdown passes, not the three Brian had predicted.
- Bennett's pick: Michigan State 13, Iowa 10
- Rittenberg's pick: Iowa 20, Michigan State 17
- Actual score: Michigan State 26, Iowa 14
- 20-20 hindsight: Bennett finally benefited from picking against Iowa, and he correctly pegged Michigan State to shut down Hawkeyes RB Mark Weisman (seven carries, nine yards). The open week allowed the Spartans to open up the playbook and stretch the field a little more, as Brian thought they would. I was off base here, as Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard, not Iowa LB James Morris, ended up sealing a win with a fourth-quarter interception.
- Bennett's pick: Michigan 28, Minnesota 14
- Rittenberg's pick: Michigan 31, Minnesota 14
- Actual score: Michigan 42, Minnesota 13
- 20-20 hindsight: This one went about as expected, and our score predictions would have been closer if Michigan hadn't tacked on two touchdowns in the final three minutes. Wolverines QB Devin Gardner made better decisions and took fewer risks, as we both predicted he would, although he accounted for only two touchdowns, not the four in Brian's forecast. Michigan RB Fitz Toussaint (78 rush yards, 2 TDs) came up 52 rush yards shy of my prediction.
- Bennett's pick: Ohio State 36, Northwestern 27
- Rittenberg's pick: Ohio State 34, Northwestern 31
- Actual score: Ohio State 40, Northwestern 30
- 20-20 hindsight: If not for a Buckeye touchdown on the final play -- craziest backdoor cover ever? -- this would have been my best prediction of the week, as Ohio State led 34-30 with seconds to play. Venric Mark had no touchdowns but performed effectively in his return, and Northwestern had success against an undermanned Ohio State secondary. Buckeyes QB Braxton Miller (203 pass yards, 68 rush yards, three turnovers) didn't have his best game, as Brian predicted, but RB Carlos Hyde certainly did (168 rush yards, 3 TDs).
You've seen how we performed. Now it's time to check on our guest picker, Brandon.
Penn State 38, Indiana 17
Illinois 28, Nebraska 21
Iowa 17, Michigan State 14
Michigan 38, Minnesota 10
Ohio State 56, Northwestern 35
Ouch. A rough week for our guest picker, who went 2-3. The Michigan-Minnesota prediction looks pretty good, but Nebraska and Michigan State exceeded your expectations, as did Indiana, which surprised us with its first ever win against Penn State. Thanks again to Brandon for your service overseas. Be safe and hope to have you stateside again soon.
Who's our next guest picker? Tell us why you should be the choice here and here.
Without further ado, the crystal ball says
PENN STATE at INDIANA
Brian Bennett: Indiana is 0-for-16 lifetime against Penn State, so you'd have to ignore all historic precedent to pick the Hoosiers. I see IU doing some damage on Penn State's pass defense just as UCF and Blake Bortles did. But the Hoosiers' defense won't have any answers for Christian Hackenberg and Zach Zwinak, the latter of whom scores three times. Penn State 42, Indiana 34
Adam Rittenberg: The Lions defense isn't as bad as it performed against UCF and not as good as it performed against Kent State. But an average Penn State defense, combined with Hackenberg and a stable of running backs, will be too much for Indiana to overcome. Hackenberg twice connects with Allen Robinson for touchdowns, and Indiana's quarterback situation becomes cloudier. Penn State 38, Indiana 27
ILLINOIS at NEBRASKA
Adam Rittenberg: Illinois' big-play offense isn't a welcome sight for Nebraska's beleaguered defense, which has been gashed by pretty much everyone so far this season. But Bo Pelini's teams typically perform well after open weeks, and at some point, the defense will start to tighten up. Illinois' Josh Ferguson gives his team an early lead, but Nebraska rallies in the second half behind running backs Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross, as well as wideout Kenny Bell, who hauls in two touchdown passes. Nebraska 38, Illinois 31
Brian Bennett: The Illini have a chance here, especially if Taylor Martinez doesn't play or is severely limited. Nathan Scheelhaase will burn the Huskers for three touchdown passes. But Nebraska's running game, led by a 150-yard day from Abdullah, will prove the difference, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste picks off Scheelhaase late to thwart a potential rally. Nebraska 38, Illinois 28
MICHIGAN STATE at IOWA
Brian Bennett: I've picked against the Hawkeyes three times already and have been wrong twice. (It's nothing personal, Iowa fans, I swear). I really should learn from my mistakes. But I think Michigan State's defense can slow down Mark Weisman and generally make life miserable for Jake Rudock on Saturday. I have little confidence in the Spartans' offense, but a bye week should have given Dave Warner and Jim Bollman a chance to come up with a couple of plays that work. That may be all it takes in a game like this, which is decided on field goals. Michigan State 13, Iowa 10.
Adam Rittenberg: Tsk, tsk, Brian. Haven't you learned never to doubt Herky in an under-the-radar year? Iowa has the momentum right now, and the Hawkeyes will wear down the Spartans in the second half with Weisman (2 TDs) and Damon Bullock. Michigan State's defense keeps it close as always, but the offensive issues continue as Iowa linebacker James Morris seals the win with his third interception of the season. Iowa 20, Michigan State 17
MINNESOTA at MICHIGAN
Adam Rittenberg: The open week came at a perfect time for Michigan to clean up its act. Quarterback Devin Gardner limits his risks and makes smarter decisions in this one, firing two second-half touchdown passes to Jeremy Gallon. Michigan rides running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (130 rush yards, 2 TDs) and contains a Minnesota offense that simply doesn't look ready for Big Ten play. Michigan once again teaches Minnesota how to juggy. Michigan 31, Minnesota 13
Brian Bennett: The Wolverines have issues, but I don't think they are as big as the problems Minnesota has, which include an MIA passing game. Surely two weeks of studying film have made Gardner more cautious with the ball. Michigan just has more weapons, especially at home where they never lose under Brady Hoke. It's not always pretty, but Gardner accounts for four touchdowns behind a revamped offensive line. Michigan 28, Minnesota 14
OHIO STATE at NORTHWESTERN
Brian Bennett: Northwestern should be able to make some plays on Ohio State's defense, especially with Venric Mark back and some questions in the Buckeyes' secondary. But I think the Wildcats will need turnovers to have a strong chance to win. They'll get two, but it won't be enough as Braxton Miller has his best game of the year, running for 120 yards and passing for 250. Ohio State starts fast again and holds on. Ohio State 36, Northwestern 27
Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern hasn't handled spotlight games well in the past, although the team seemed to turn a corner last year in ridding itself of its bowl bugaboo. Is Northwestern's Buckeye bugaboo next? I expect the Wildcats' offense to perform well and open up the playbook, especially with Mark back in the fold. Mark twice reaches the end zone and Trevor Siemian attacks a vulnerable Ohio State secondary playing without Christian Bryant. But Ohio State's big-play ability will be a little too much to overcome, as Miller leads a memorable game-winning drive in the final minutes. Ohio State 34, Northwestern 31
Now it's time for our guest picker. As a reminder, throughout the season we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please) and hometown and a brief description why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.
This week's guest prognosticator is Brandon Poturica, who's stationed at Morón Air Base in Spain. Take it away, Brandon:
"Adam & Brian: Why you should choose me is simple. I met Urban Meyer in Kuwait during a USO tour in the summer of 2011, only months away from when he took the OSU job. I'm from his hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio, and have been stationed overseas since he took the job (Japan and Spain). The Buckeyes have been undefeated since the last time I stepped on American soil, and I'm a superstitious man, so if that means I don't return home and they keep winning, then I'll just have to cheer from afar. Go Bucks and God Bless the USA."
How could we say no to that? Thanks for your service, Brandon, and save us some sangria and tapas. Here are Brandon's picks:
Penn State 38, Indiana 17
Illinois 28, Nebraska 21
Iowa 17, Michigan State 14
Michigan 38, Minnesota 10
Ohio State 56, Northwestern 35
Adam Rittenberg: 44-6
Brian Bennett: 43-7
Guest pickers: 40-10