Ohio State Buckeyes: Mark Weisman

Big Ten Monday mailbag

June, 9, 2014
Jun 9
4:30
PM ET
Mondays stink. Except when it's mailbag time. Which it is right now. Go.

Mitchell C. from Parts Unknown writes: How confident should Ohio State be coming into the third year with Urban Meyer and five new starters on defense and six new starters on offense? And will new RB Ezekiel Elliott be like Carlos Hyde and live up to the (production) he left behind?

Brian Bennett: Those are good questions, and they are why I find the 2014 Buckeyes to be one of the most fascinating teams in the Big Ten and the nation. A lot of people assume that Ohio State won't drop off at all from the first two seasons under Meyer, but the team is dealing with a lot of turnover and counting on numerous young players to step forward. Yet there is serious reason for optimism. For one, those young players are incredibly talented and athletic, which can help make up for a lot of mistakes. The coaching staff is also a proven commodity. For example, while the offensive line replaces four starters, position coach Ed Warriner faced similar questions two years ago and quickly turned that unit into the best offensive line in the Big Ten for two years running. Elliott might not match Hyde's numbers, both because Hyde put up huge stats and because Ohio State is likely to spread the ball out a bit more than it did in 2013. But he's another prime example of the immense potential on hand.

With all that talent and coaching, the Buckeyes should feel optimistic about 2014. Unless Braxton Miller gets hurt. Then all bets are off.


Christopher from Middleton, Wis., writes: I was reading your take on the Athlon Big Ten predictions, and I have to tell you that your take on Wisconsin's QB situation is a bit off the mark but is similar to what I am reading from other Big Ten predictors. Joel Stave is playing his third year. In 2012, his QB rating was 148.3, and his stats were comparable to Devin Gardner. In 2013, Stave was fourth in the Big Ten in QB rating at 138.1. Statistically, he was ranked sixth in the B1G because Wisconsin ran the ball (so well). With the above in mind how can QB be a major concern? Keep in mind that Wisconsin has basically its entire offensive line back and should be deeper and healthier, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement should challenge if not beat the rushing record set by James White and Gordon. The issue at Wisconsin is not that the QB position is weak but that it has lots of competition. Stave does have his weaknesses and I hope he overcomes them or is beat out by Tanner McEvoy, but the QB position should not be a concern.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
David Manning/USA TODAY SportsA more consistent Joel Stave would go a long way toward bolstering Wisconsin's Big Ten hopes.
Brian Bennett: One thing we can agree on about Stave is his experience should help him. Last year was his first as a full-season starter after he got knocked out early in 2012 because of an injury. And when Stave is on, he shows good arm strength and decision-making. Unfortunately, what we saw from Stave on the field last year didn't always line up with some of the stats you mentioned. Several times he misfired on completely wide-open receivers down the field as defenses keyed on that running game. (What would Jared Abbrederis' numbers have looked like had Stave hit him in stride all those times he had gotten behind defenders?).

Stave played poorly in the upset loss to Penn State to end the year and against South Carolina, causing Gary Andersen to say the team needed better play from its quarterback position. There's a reason the Badgers opened up the quarterback competition this spring despite having a veteran starter. And Stave's shoulder injury is worrisome.

Maybe Stave gets healthy and builds upon his experience. Or maybe McEvoy steps in and plays well. But you're talking about one guy who has yet to put it all together and another who has never done it at this level. That's why there are legitimate reasons for concern at the quarterback spot in Madison, before we even get to the pressing issue of who is going to catch the ball for Wisconsin. That's a big reason why I'm a little surprised by all the rosy preseason projections for the Badgers.


DJ from Minneapolis writes: I have to slightly disagree with you about Minnesota not seeing a benefit to an early signing period. As Brady Hoke mentioned, they might have to start allowing earlier or summer visits which would be a big boon to Minnesota. It would show all of the recruits in the South that it isn't actually minus-40 degrees 365 days a year here like a lot of people make it out to be.

Brian Bennett: DJ, I think you might be conflating two different issues here. As I mentioned in my early signing day piece, schools that are farther away from major talent bases (i.e., Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, etc.) wouldn't see as much benefit with an early signing period without the corresponding move of allowing for earlier official visits. (Adam did a great job of exploring that issue in this post). Right now, prospects can't take official visits (i.e., have their trips paid for by the school) until the start of their senior year in high school. It's difficult and expensive for many prospects, especially ones who live in the South and in other far-flung locales, to visit northern schools like Minnesota on their own dime. They can often take unofficial trips to schools closer to their hometown with far less hassle, however.

That's why, if there's an early signing period -- especially one in the summer before a prospect's senior year as the ACC has proposed -- kids could be inking their national letters of intent before ever getting on a plane to Minneapolis. The Gophers would stand to gain if prospects could receive a paid trip to their campus in the spring and summer, when it's a great time to be in the Twin Cities. Those earlier visits, then, loom as even more important for a school like Minnesota than an early signing period would be.


Spencer from Lincoln, Neb., writes: On your piece about impact freshmen, I noticed you left off Tanner Farmer. My question is: Why? The kid is a beast of a specimen. Athletic. Big. He is your typical Midwest hard-working player. He even benches 500 pounds! Name another one of your impact freshmen you chose that can do that.

Brian Bennett: Spencer, I am very intrigued by Farmer and think he can end up being a cult hero to Nebraska fans. We didn't have time or space in that post to mention every promising freshman in the league, though, and it's much tougher for a first-year player out of high school to make a big impact on the offensive line than it is for just about any other position, save perhaps defensive tackle. Farmer could be an exception. We shall see.


Joel L. from Tuscola, Ill., writes: In regards to Tim Beckman's job status: I think from the perspective of a huge Illinois fan the situation is actually going to be very difficult for Mike Thomas. I will say before I start here if we win 4 games or less I think Thomas' hands are tied and he will have to let Beckman go because the attendance will be dismal and it will probably affect season ticket sales the next year. If I had to guess, we will most likely end up with five wins this season. That will cause a major predicament for Thomas because Beckman's recruiting class next year is actually going to be very solid, especially with offensive talent that Bill Cubit (who is the mastermind of the offense) will be able to use immediately. That is where the problem will lay for Thomas, because Beckman really could turn this around in year 4, but Illinois fans are ruthless and if we do not make a bowl game this year people will go absolutely nuts if he is retained.

Brian Bennett: Some good points here, Joel, and I agree that five wins is kind of the fulcrum for Beckman in 2014. If that happens, I think a lot will depend on how that 5-7 season went down. Were the Illini highly competitive in their Big Ten games, especially against the best the league has to offer? Did young players show obvious development and improvement? Were fans responding in a positive way? You're right that Beckman could have his best and most experienced roster in 2015, and Thomas might be able to bank on that. However, three years without a bowl and a potential devastating hit to attendance and season-ticket sales might be too much to overcome.


Pat from Iowa City writes: Is it safe to say that AIRBHG is gone for good?

Brian Bennett: Oh, Pat, how dare you tempt the curse! You might have just woken that evil spirit from its peaceful slumber in that great cornfield in the sky. We apologize in advance to Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri, Damon Bullock, et al. Pay no heed to Pat's question, AIRBHG. We kneel and offer you this bushel of corn as a humble token of our appreciation for your recent mercy.
Most would agree New Year's Day bowl games don't mean what they used to. You could say the same thing about rushing for 1,000 yards. There are more games and more plays in the sport today, and it's hardly uncommon for a player to reach four digits on the ground, as 51 FBS players got there in 2013.

Still, the 1,000-yard rushing mark is no small feat, and it's a good gauge for assessing players, teams and leagues. The Big Ten had seven 1,000-yard rushers in 2013, one fewer than it had in 2012.

We begin a series of statistical projections for the 2014 season with 1,000 rush yards, and our analysis begins with the five men who got there last fall and who return to their teams this year.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsNebraska's Ameer Abdullah is looking to post his third season of rushing for over 1,000 yards.
Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska (1,690 rush yards in 2013): Abdullah was one of the most consistent backs in the country last fall, eclipsing 100 rush yards in 11 of 13 games, including a streak of eight consecutive 100-yard performances. He will try to become the first Husker with three seasons of 1,000 rush yards or more. Although it might be tough for Abdullah to match last year's overall rushing numbers, barring injury, he should have little trouble reaching the 1,000-yard mark.

Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin (1,609 yards): Gordon surged out of the gate with 140 rush yards or more in each of his first four games last season, as he topped the FBS rushing chart. Despite sharing time with fellow 1,000-yard back James White and never logging more than 22 carries, Gordon had eight games with at least 140 rush yards and averaged 7.8 yards per carry. He's arguably the nation's top big-play ball-carrying threat and should easily eclipse 1,000 rush yards as he steps into a bigger role.

Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State (1,422): It's impossible to quietly rush for 1,400 yards in a season, but Langford slipped under the radar as his teammates on defense and at quarterback received more attention. Still, his consistency should not be overlooked: He set a team record with eight consecutive 100-yard rushing performances and led the Big Ten with 18 rushing touchdowns. He did much of his damage late in games. Although Langford likely won't get 292 carries again, he should easily get to 1,000 rush yards.

David Cobb, RB, Minnesota (1,202) Arguably no Gophers player benefited more from the team's commitment to the power run on offense. Cobb logged 237 carries -- second in the Big Ten behind Langford and Abdullah -- and had five 100-yard rushing performances, the most by a Minnesota player since Marion Barber III in 2003. Cobb did much of his damage in Big Ten play, recording four consecutive 100-yard rushing performances. Another 1,000-yard season is possible, but Cobb faces arguably more competition than any back on this list and will have to keep progressing.

Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State (1,068): Miller is poised to finish his career as one of the Big Ten's most productive offensive players. The league's reigning two-time offensive player of the year needs just 842 rush yards to move into second place on the Big Ten's all-time quarterback rushing list. More impressive, he needs 715 yards to claim second place on Ohio State's all-time rushing list (all players). Miller certainly is capable of a third 1,000-yard season, but a revamped line and his goal of improving as a passer could make it challenging.

Now let's take a look at eight other players who could challenge that 1,000-yard mark in 2013, in order of likelihood:

Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana (958 rush yards in 2013): Coleman finished ahead of Langford, Cobb and Miller in rushing average (106.4 ypg) and easily would have reached four digits had he played in more than nine games. A big-play threat who averaged a Gordon-like 7.3 yards per carry last season, Coleman should have no trouble surging past 1,000 yards this season.

[+] EnlargeMark Weisman
David Purdy/Getty ImagesIowa's Mark Weisman has just missed 1,000 yards in the past two years, but this could be the season he tops that magic number.
Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa (975): Weisman has been close to 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons and should get there as a senior. He will be sharing carries with Jordan Canzeri and others, and Iowa likely will balance out Weisman's touches a bit more. But if Weisman can break off a few more big runs behind a good offensive line, he'll get to 1,000.

Zach Zwinak, RB, Penn State (989): Some would argue Zwinak isn't the best running back on his team (Bill Belton), but the fact remains he reached 1,000 yards in 2012 and nearly got there last season. The carries balanced between Zwinak and Belton could make it tougher for either back to reach the milestone, and the offensive line is a concern.

Paul James, RB, Rutgers (881): Know the name, Big Ten fans. James rushed for 881 yards on only 156 carries last season. His rushing total through the first four games (573 yards) trailed only Gordon for the FBS lead. Health is a concern here, but if James stays on the field, a 1,000-yard season is easily within reach.

Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern: Projecting Mark is tricky as he rushed for 1,371 yards in 2012 but missed most of last season with injuries and remains prone to more health issues. He's an excellent candidate to gash defenses for big yards if he remains on the field, and he should play behind an improved offensive line.

Josh Ferguson, RB, Illinois (779): It all comes down to opportunities for Ferguson, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season but also finished second on the team in receptions with 50. A true big-play threat, Ferguson is capable of getting to 1,000 yards but likely needs at least 25 more carries.

Bill Belton, RB, Penn State (803): Like Zwinak, Belton faces some challenges: sharing carries and playing behind a potentially leaky line. But he has shown superstar potential at times and turned in a strong spring for the new coaching staff.

Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin (547): Like Gordon, Clement makes the most of his opportunities. He averaged 8.2 yards per carry as a freshman, and while he's Gordon's backup now, he could become a 1A player by midseason. Gordon and White set an NCAA record for single-season rush yards by teammates. Gordon and Clement could challenge it.

Who do you think reaches 1,000 rush yards this fall? Let us know.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
12:00
PM ET
Sure looked like Eddie Johnson was onside to me. I'll count it as another rivalry win.
  • Ohio State offensive line coach Ed Warinner joined in the tradition of poking fun at a rival during a fundraising event with fans. Should anybody be offended by his canned jokes?
  • Michigan coach Brady Hoke responded to Warinner's comments with a bit of humor of his own.
  • Mark Dantonio doesn't usually hold press conferences to talk about one player, but the recruitment of Malik McDowell called for some discussion of how it all went down for Michigan State.
  • Penn State tight end Adam Breneman will be on the shelf for the rest of spring practice thanks to a bone bruise in his knee.
  • Nebraska wide receiver Sam Burtch is a no-nonsense guy, and his businesslike approach could be a boost for the offense this fall.
  • Mark Weisman saw plenty of room to grow after reviewing every carry from last season, and the Iowa running back might need to improve to keep getting most of the carries in a crowded backfield.
  • Purdue tailback Raheem Mostert's speed isn't up for debate based on his times on the track. The next thing he has to do is prove he can be physical on the football field.
  • Illinois is looking for more team speed on defense, and the early returns from spring practice suggest the unit might be getting faster.
  • Yet another Big Ten tight end is currently stuck on the sideline during spring practice, and like the others, Tyler Kroft is trying to make the most of it.
  • Deon Long is now "90 percent" healthy, but he's well on the way to getting back and helping Maryland at wide receiver.

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
1:00
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Spring practice is off and running in the Big Ten, as Michigan took the field Tuesday and Northwestern followed on Wednesday. We're taking snapshots of where each team stands at each position group.

We've already discussed the quarterbacks -- and will have much more on the way -- so the series begins with the running backs.

Illinois: The Illini are in a bit better shape here than they were the past two springs, as veterans Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young both return. Ferguson averaged 5.5 yards per carry and added 50 receptions for 535 yards as the primary playmaker for Illinois' revamped offense. Young added 376 yards on 93 carries. The Illini are looking for others behind the top two, and Dami Ayoola is back with the team after being dismissed in September for a rules violation.

Indiana: Tevin Coleman quietly put together a superb sophomore season and leads the Hoosiers' running backs in 2014. Coleman provides big-play ability after averaging 7.3 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns on only 131 attempts in 2013. Indiana loses Stephen Houston but brings back veteran D'Angelo Roberts, who will play behind Coleman. Younger players such as sophomore Laray Smith could get a look here.

Iowa: Not only did the Hawkeyes toss AIRBHG to the side and get through the season without any major injurie, but they bring back everyone for 2014. Senior Mark Weisman leads the contingent after rushing for 975 yards and eight touchdowns last fall. Jordan Canzeri came on strong late in the season and is showing no effects from his ACL tear in 2012. Veteran Damon Bullock also returns to the mix, and Iowa has talented younger backs such as LeShun Daniels Jr. at its disposal. Good situation here.

Maryland: The Terrapins wide receivers tend to get more attention, but the team also returns its top three running backs from 2013 in Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Jacquille Veii. Maryland also regains the services of Wes Brown, who finished second on the team in rushing as a freshman in 2012 before being suspended for all of last season. Joe Riddle is back in the fold as well. The group brings different strengths, from power (Brown) to speed (Veii) to a mixture of both (Ross, Reid).

Michigan: Sophomore Derrick Green enters the spring as the frontrunner to be Michigan's lead back, although coach Brady Hoke wants to ramp up competition everywhere. The Wolverines struggled to consistently run between the tackles, but the 240-pound Green could change things. Hoke also is excited about another sophomore, De'Veon Smith. Michigan moved Ross Douglas from cornerback to running back, and Justice Hayes and Wyatt Shallman also are in the mix. "We've got more depth," Hoke said.

Michigan State: Things look much more promising than they did last spring, when the Spartans ended the session with a linebacker (Riley Bullough) as their top back. Jeremy Langford emerged as a very solid option during the season, rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. He's back as the clear-cut starter, and Nick Hill also returns. It will be interesting to see if Gerald Holmes makes a push, or whether Delton Williams remains on offense.

Minnesota: Here's another team that finds itself in very good shape at running back entering the spring. David Cobb leads the group after rushing for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. Veterans Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr. are still around, and highly touted redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards will take the field after missing last fall because of knee and ankle injuries. Perhaps the best news will come in the summer as decorated recruit Jeff Jones arrives.

Nebraska: Notice a theme here? Nebraska is yet another Big Ten squad that can feel very good about its running backs entering the spring. Ameer Abdullah elected to bypass the NFL draft for one final season at Nebraska, where he led the Big Ten with 1,690 yards on 281 carries as a junior. Abdullah will contend for national awards in the fall. Imani Cross, who rushed for 10 touchdowns last year, is one of the nation's top backups. Terrell Newby and others add depth behind the top two.

Northwestern: Top back Venric Mark (ankle) will miss spring practice following surgery, and reserve Stephen Buckley (knee) also is rehabbing, but Northwestern has no reason to panic. Treyvon Green, who filled in well for Mark last season with 736 rushing yards, will get much of the work. Warren Long also is in the mix after appearing in seven games as a true freshman. Northwestern also loaded up at running back in recruiting to solidify the position for years to come.

Ohio State: This will be a position to watch in the spring as Ohio State must replace Carlos Hyde, who was nearly unstoppable during Big Ten play last fall. Veteran Jordan Hall also departs, and Rod Smith will be the veteran of the group despite only 83 career carries. The Buckeyes have some talented young backs, from Dontre Wilson, who saw significant playing time last fall, to Bri'onte Dunn, Ezekiel Elliott and Warren Ball. Keep an eye on Elliott, who averaged 8.7 yards per carry in limited work last season but could emerge this spring.

Penn State: If it feels like Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton have been competing for carries forever at Penn State, it's because they have. Zwinak and Belton have been part of Penn State's running back rotation for the past two seasons and enter another competition this spring with talented sophomore Akeel Lynch, who rushed for 358 yards on only 60 carries last season. It will be interesting to see how much Lynch can push Zwinak and Belton in the team's first spring under a new coaching staff. Penn State has depth issues at several positions, but running back isn't one of them.

Purdue: The Boilers finished 122nd nationally in rushing offense last season, so the fact all of their running backs return might not spark mass celebration. Senior Akeem Hunt leads the group after recording 123 of the team's 319 rushing attempts in 2013. Other veteransBrandon Cottom and Raheem Mostert also are back, along with younger ball-carries such as Dayln Dawkins and three backs -- Keyante Green, David Yancey and Keith Byars II -- who redshirted last fall and could have much bigger roles.

Rutgers: Here's yet another team that returns basically its entire stable of running backs for spring ball. Paul James is the name to watch, as he rushed for 573 yards in the first four games last season before suffering a leg injury. James' health is a concern for Rutgers, which could also turn to Justin Goodwin, who showed some flashes following James' injury. Savon Huggins, who entered last season as the starter before losing ground, is in the mix as he looks to re-establish himself on the depth chart.

Wisconsin: How many teams can lose a 1,400-yard rusher and still claim to have the best running back group in the Big Ten? James White is gone, but Wisconsin remains in very good shape in the backfield. Melvin Gordon bypassed the NFL draft for another year in Madison after rushing for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. Gordon should move into more of a featured role beginning this spring, although he'll be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 yards and seven touchdowns on only 67 carries. Jeff Lewis provides another option behind the top two.

Big Ten predictions: Week 13

November, 21, 2013
11/21/13
9:00
AM ET
The predictions race is all square, and Week 13 brings a full slate of Big Ten action, as every team will be on the field Saturday afternoon.

Will Brian Bennett inch back in front, or will Adam Rittenberg gain the edge entering the final week? Loser buys dinner in Indy.

Let's begin …

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

SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 68-14
Adam Rittenberg: 68-14
Guest pickers: 65-19

Big Ten lunch links

November, 4, 2013
11/04/13
12:00
PM ET
Let's take a quick spin around the league …

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

October, 30, 2013
10/30/13
5:00
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Craig from Braintree, Mass., writes: You used the term "signature win" for the the Gophers. How do we know if that win over Nebraska was a signature win? We don't know if it was until the program changes levels. If the Gophers lose their remaining games this year, will it be a signature win? If they finish in the top 25 this year but don't make a bowl game next year, was it really a signature win? It comes down to 'what is a "signature win"' (sort of like what is an MVP).

Brian Bennett: Don't overthink this one, Craig. Beating Nebraska -- for the first time since 1960, no less -- is absolutely a signature win for this coaching staff at Minnesota. Here's what Jerry Kill said this summer:

"We play three or four rival games. We need to get one of those, maybe do it with a [last-minute] field goal. Everywhere I've been, we've had kind of a signature game where it flipped and we really got going for the program. ... That's where we're at in Minnesota right now. We need to find one of those."

Remember that the Gophers' Big Ten wins in the Kill era before last week were against a mediocre Iowa team, Purdue and Illinois (twice). Whether Nebraska turns out to be a great team this year is besides the point, because the Huskers are a marquee name. And Minnesota didn't even need to win on a late field goal, as it beat Nebraska by double-digits.


Husker from Wayzata writes: Saw your response about Bo Pelini in the Take Two. Agree with most of it, but worst/most deflating loss of his tenure is still 2009 at home to Iowa State. Personally, I'd classify the performance against MN as the very predictable overlooking an opponent and not taking a game seriously coming off of a longer layoff. Think 2008 Colorado/2009 Texas Tech/2010 Texas/2012 Northwestern.

Brian Bennett: The Iowa State loss was truly a bad one and the first one I thought of over the weekend. But that Nebraska team also finished with 10 wins and nearly beat Texas in the Big 12 title game (Iowa State went on to finish 7-6 and, ironically, beat Minnesota in a bowl). In other words, the 2009 loss was a key setback but not a crippling one for a very good Huskers team. The Minnesota loss feels like it could be a turning point in Pelini's tenure, unless Nebraska can come up with a strong November showing. We shall see.

Alex from Harrisburg, Pa., writes: How concerned should we be with PSU's defense moving forward? And I mean not just for this season but the duration of Bill O'Brien's tenure. I was concerned when Bill was hired that this was clearly an offensive hiring and was not too excited about Ted Roof, but at least last season's defense performed admirably. While I'm not against having a more exciting and competent offense, I feel that Penn State had always had a basis on defense (which is why we're known as Linebacker U). Looking at this season and even with the recruiting focus it is clear that there is a focus on the offensive side of the football. What are your thoughts?

Brian Bennett: It's an interesting question, and one you always have to wonder about when an offensive-minded guy is the head coach. I also believe the scholarship situation is a real problem here. I think it's easier to build an offense without tremendous depth, since one or two stars at key positions can make a big difference, than it is on defense, especially in today's offense-first world. (Ask Kevin Wilson at Indiana how that's going). It's pretty obvious to me that Penn State is light on speed and difference-makers on defense and really misses the outstanding group of seniors it had on that side of the ball last year.

With all that said, it's still shocking to see the Nittany Lions give up 147 points in three games, even if it came against three of the best offensive teams in the Big Ten. I'm not terribly worried about the long-term defensive prognosis under O'Brien, because he's a smart enough coach to figure that out once he gets to play with a full deck. But in the short term while the sanctions are still being felt, defense could remain an issue.

Mark from Arizona writes: Where has Mark Weisman been in the 2nd halves lately? Against Ohio State, he dominated the rushing game. Because of that, Iowa dominated the clock. Because of that, the Buckeyes offense couldnt get in sync. Then the 2nd half comes and Weisman disappears and Iowa starts throwing the ball. They fixed what was working in the first half and lost the 2nd half. If they kept pounding away like they did, I think Iowa would have won the game. Then comes Northwestern. Same thing. Iowa ran Weisman in the first, dominated in all phases, and then did the disappearing act with him and nearly lost. This is poor coaching.

Brian Bennett: I don't think it's poor coaching as much as it is game situations and adjustments by the other teams.

Let's look at the Ohio State game. Iowa had only two possessions in the third quarter. On its first one, Weisman opened the drive with a 12-yard run and then had a four-yard carry. But two plays later, the Buckeyes stuffed Damon Bullock on first down. When it's second-and-nine, that's a passing down. Unfortunately for the Hawkeyes, they threw two straight incompletions and had to punt.

The following drive began with a holding penalty, and then Jake Rudock threw an 85-yard touchdown pass to Jake Duzey. I think you'd agree that was a good play call. Weisman did not get a carry in the fourth quarter, but Iowa trailed by a touchdown on the road and probably felt it needed to make something happen in the passing game.

In the Northwestern game, the Hawkeyes' best drive of the game came on its first possession, similar to the week before. Weisman ran for 32 yards on that drive, and Iowa scored a touchdown. But Northwestern shut the running game down after that; Iowa would not reach the end zone again until overtime; in fact, after rushing for 68 yards on the opening drive, the Hawkeyes would finish with just 136 rushing yards.

I would like to see Iowa stick with Weisman a little longer, because he tends to wear down opponents late in games. But it's hard to run when opponents are loading the box or if you're trailing in a game that doesn't feature many possessions.

John from Northern Michigan writes: Compare and contrast the last games played by Wisconsin and Sparty, the entire games. Oh, just happens to be common opponent. Too bad that isn't a protected rivalry.

Brian Bennett: Michigan State beat Illinois 42-3, one week after Wisconsin won in Champaign by a 56-32 margin. I'm not sure how instructive the comparative scoring is here. The Spartans led only 7-3 late in the first half before completely taking over, while the Badgers were up 42-17 at one point and probably could have scored 70 if they really wanted. They also didn't have their best defensive player, Chris Borland, for most of the game. What those two outcomes told me was that Illinois is simply overmatched against the best teams in the conference. Wisconsin's a little stronger offensively, while Michigan State is better defensively. I have both those teams ranked No.s 2 and 3 in the Big Ten right now. I would love to see them play this year, but barring a completely unexpected Ohio State meltdown, it's not going to happen.

Tommy from Savannah, Ga., writes: Brian, I can't help but wonder what the impact would have been if Vanderbilt wouldn't have pulled out of this year's game with Ohio State. Let's imagine Ohio State beats the Commodores by two touchdowns. Would this have had any effect on their perceived strength of schedule?

Brian Bennett: My answer: not much. Vanderbilt is 4-4 overall and 1-4 in the SEC, with its best victory coming over an injury-ravaged Georgia. Beating the Commodores would have helped Ohio State's strength of schedule a little, but it wouldn't have added much to the Buckeyes' case. They would still be behind Alabama, Oregon and Florida State in the pecking order. I'm not sure there are many teams out there Ohio State could have scheduled on short notice that would have changed that.

T.J. from Ashland, Wis., writes: Hey Brian, just wanted to let you know that I enjoy your Blog and have always enjoyed your wit, more this year than any other year I can remember...because...NO ONE ELSE IS TALKING ABOUT THE B1G!!! I've caught three different college football shows on ESPN, and not once was any B1G team mentioned. Outside of the BTN, do you remember a year like this, where it's obvious that there is zero interest in the B1G? Concerns? How long could this continue?

Brian Bennett: Well, it's not terribly different than last year, and at least this season the Big Ten has a legitimate national title contender since Ohio State is eligible for postseason. But the Buckeyes' status is pretty static, and nobody else is making any noise in the BCS picture right now, which means that the league is fairly irrelevant on the national scene. Same goes in many ways for the Big 12, which has Baylor but not a whole lot else. It also means there aren't many games that create a buzz across the country. For example, the Michigan-Michigan State game this weekend has all the makings of a classic. But when it's No. 21 vs. No. 22, it just doesn't get people talking as much.

This is a problem, and it's why we have written and said on numerous occasions that the Big Ten needs to develop depth at the top of the league beyond Ohio State. When an SEC team has a bad season, the conference usually has several others who can pick up the slack. The Big Ten needs somebody else, whether it's Michigan State, Michigan or Wisconsin, to go on a run and give the league another prominent team besides the Buckeyes.

Vincent R. from Columbus, Ohio, writes: After watching Braxton Miller against Penn State, I saw something in him that I saw in a player most Ohio State fans will remember: Troy Smith. As Braxton was squirming his way out of potential sack after potential sack, I began to see the drive in Braxton that I hadn't seen out of an Ohio State offensive player since the last Heisman Trophy winner. To top that off, after making these great dodges in the pocket, he had the presence in mind, just like Smith, to look down field and see the open man. Bearing this in mind, that Braxton looks as good now as Smith did his senior year, could Braxton Miller win the Heisman next year?

Brian Bennett: It would be interesting to see where Miller would be in this season's Heisman race had he not gotten hurt early. He'd probably be behind Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston, but maybe not too far behind. Miller has been terrific in Big Ten play, and he has his completion rate up to over 70 percent. Assuming he returns for his senior year, which at this point looks like the right call, he'll be a leading Heisman contender in 2014. The reason to exercise caution on that, however, is the fact that the Buckeyes will lose four senior starting offensive linemen. There's also a better-than-decent chance that Miller could have a new offensive coordinator, since Tom Herman should be a hot name in the offseason for head coaching gigs.

Jim K. from New Cumberland, Pa., writes: Brian, seriously you think that PSU is going to put up 48 points on Ohio State,. NO way! I agree Ohio State's defense is not as good as usual but they won't give up that at the 'Shoe.

Brian Bennett: I have run some readers' terrible Friday predictions the following week in the mailbag this year. So it's only fair for me to include an email about my own awful score call in the Penn State-Ohio State game. At least I got the winning team right, which is all that matters in my contest with Adam for a St. Elmo's dinner.
Some items to keep your eye on this weekend in Big Ten action:

1. Whether Taylor Martinez plays: The Nebraska quarterback returned to practice this week after being out more than a month with a turf toe injury. Bo Pelini said Martinez looked good in Sunday’s practice but whether that translates into getting game snaps Saturday at Minnesota remains to be seen. With Martinez out, senior Ron Kellogg III has stepped in and played well. The Cornhuskers have picked up three consecutive wins since the UCLA loss, but they definitely aren’t the same team without Martinez calling the shots. Nebraska has a favorable schedule to run the table in conference play, but the Cornhuskers will have to make sure they don’t slip up anywhere, and those kind of slip-ups seem much more probable with Martinez on the sideline. If he’s 100 percent, he should play this weekend, so it’ll be interesting to see if and how he takes the field.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State's Jeremy Langford scored four touchdowns against Indiana.
2. Opportunities for big nights: There are a few matchups this weekend that provide interesting pairings and could produce big nights for a few individuals. Michigan State faces Illinois, the second-worst rushing defense in the Big Ten. Of late, MSU running back Jeremy Langford has really come into his own (two consecutive 100-yard games). Northwestern has the No. 9 rushing defense in the Big Ten, and Iowa running back Mark Weisman -- who has had a few disappointing games in a row but is looking for a chance to rebound -- will have the opportunity to face a defense that he could tear apart. But it’s not just Weisman who could have a big night. Northwestern also has the No. 11 pass defense in the Big Ten, so QB Jake Rudock could look to take shots of his own downfield.

3. Young QBs with road trips: Michigan State redshirt sophomore Connor Cook and Penn State freshman Christian Hackenberg are two years apart, but they’re both in their first full seasons of commanding their offenses. This weekend, the two will look for big wins on the road. Cook has gone 1-1 in the Spartans’ road games (lost at Notre Dame, won at Iowa), while Hackenberg’s task in Columbus will be a bit more difficult. The true freshman has never played in an environment quite like The Horseshoe. Penn State’s only road game this season was three weeks ago at Indiana. This weekend, he’ll be thrown into a very hostile environment. He’ll have the chance to see and feel what every opposing QB has to go through when they come to Beaver Stadium.

4. Northwestern looking to pick up its first Big Ten win: Did anyone bet on the Wildcats going through the first month of their conference schedule without a single win? Bueller? Bueller? It has definitely been a surprise to see how flat the Wildcats have fallen after their Big Ten opening loss to Ohio State. The way in which they lost to Wisconsin and the fact they lost to Minnesota came as big shocks and so now, a month after the conference season began, we’re still waiting on the Wildcats to pick up that elusive first win. They’ll play at Iowa, which is a difficult environment as the fans are basically on top of the players. But the Buckeyes took care of business against Iowa last weekend, so if Northwestern can replicate that kind of play (or the play the Cats had against Ohio State), we might see a mark in the W column.

5. Relapse or improvements -- it could go either way for some teams: Northwestern isn’t the only team that wants to improve on its most recent performance(s). Add the Buckeyes and Michigan State to that list as well. Ohio State trailed Iowa at the half last weekend in Columbus. The Buckeyes offense got off to a bit of a slow start as it scored only 10 first-half points, and Carlos Hyde rushed for just 43 yards. Michigan State suffered similar issues but worse. The defense scored its fifth touchdown of the season, but the Spartans offense didn’t score until the fourth quarter and it was on a trick play. Michigan State heads to Illinois. The Illini are giving up more than 32 points per game and are winless in Big Ten play. So it’ll be interesting to see how the Spartans, Buckeyes and Wildcats respond after performances that were less than inspiring.

6. Minnesota picking up momentum ... sort of: It’s hard to say the Gophers are starting to put it together since their win against Northwestern came when the Cats were missing running back Venric Mark and quarterback Kain Colter. But it was a road win that brought Minnesota quite a bit of confidence. This weekend, they’ll welcome Nebraska to Minneapolis. The Cornhuskers might be without their QB, which would obviously benefit the Gophers defense and be another situation that could produce a “they won, but ...” situation.

Big Ten predictions: Week 9

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
9:00
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Who are these guys? We're the real American pickers, and we're sifting through the Big Ten rubble to make our selections for Week 9. Thankfully, this is the final Saturday with a measly four games on the docket, as all 12 teams will be in action Nov. 2.

Adam clings to a one-game lead in the season standings, as the race for a dinner at St. Elmo in Indianapolis remains at steak. Our Week 8 picks mirrored one another. Will it be the same in Week 9?

Let's get started …

NEBRASKA at MINNESOTA


Brian Bennett: This is a good spot to bring back Taylor Martinez, so he can shake off some rust before the telling November stretch begins. I think Nebraska will still want to be a bit careful with its quarterback, however, and not risk any further harm to his turf toe. So Martinez doesn't run much but throws a pair of touchdowns to Quincy Enunwa, and the improving Huskers defense has a strong showing against a rather one-dimensional Minnesota attack. … Nebraska 28, Minnesota 16


Adam Rittenberg: A healthy Martinez makes the difference for the Huskers as the senior quarterback breaks off a long touchdown run in the first quarter and finishes with three combined scores. Philip Nelson rallies Minnesota in the second quarter with touchdown passes to Maxx Williams and Derrick Engel, but the Huskers' offense proves to be too much in the second half as Ameer Abdullah records another 100-yard game. … Nebraska 35, Minnesota 24

NORTHWESTERN at IOWA


Adam Rittenberg: Iowa has played better than its record shows, while Northwestern is in a major tailspin. So why am I picking Northwestern? Kain Colter's likely return gives Northwestern the ingredients it has been missing on offense the past two weeks. Colter will convert key third downs like he did last year against Iowa, and while the Hawkeyes take an early lead behind Mark Weisman's rushing and their tight-end play, Northwestern finds its offense again in the second half and rallies for a win at Kinnick. … Northwestern 31, Iowa 28

Brian Bennett: I've picked against Iowa a lot this season, with some successes (Northern Illinois, Michigan State) and some failures (Iowa State, Minnesota). I might give Hawkeyes fans a complex if I pick against them at home against a team that's 0-3 in the Big Ten. I'm still tempted to go with Northwestern because of the Wildcats' recent success against Iowa and the return of Colter. But I also really liked the way the Hawkeyes played at Ohio State on offense and think they can keep it up by using those big tight ends. It's going to be a close one, but Mike Meyer hits the game-winner with 90 seconds to go. … Iowa 27, Northwestern 24


MICHIGAN STATE at ILLINOIS


Brian Bennett: The Illini are at home, and Michigan State might get caught peeking toward Michigan. But the Illinois defense is really struggling right now, too much so to foresee an upset here. I think Connor Cook will get back on track a bit with 200 yards passing and a TD, and the Michigan State defense will force three turnovers against Nathan Scheelhaase & Co., including another one for a score. … Michigan State 24, Illinois 12


Adam Rittenberg: This could be a trap game for the Spartans before next week's home showdown against rival Michigan, but I think Michigan State's offense received its wakeup call against Purdue. Illinois' struggles against the run continue as Jeremy Langford goes for 120 yards and two touchdowns. The Illini strike first with a long scoring pass to Ryan Lankford and move the ball well at times, but Michigan State clamps down and records another defensive touchdown in the third quarter. … Michigan State 27, Illinois 16

PENN STATE at OHIO STATE


Adam Rittenberg: Get ready for another fun one at the Horseshoe, as both offenses can put up points and stretch the field. Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg looks nothing like a freshman in the first half with two touchdown passes before showing his youth late in the game, as he's picked off by Buckeyes cornerback Bradley Roby. As we've seen in the past few games, Ohio State's offensive line takes control in the second half. Carlos Hyde goes for 120 yards and a score as the Buckeyes use a big fourth quarter to win. … Ohio State 38, Penn State 28

Brian Bennett: Yeah, I think this has a chance to be a wild one. So wild that I'm calling for … overtime. With a week off to prepare, I expect Bill O'Brien to throw the kitchen sink at the Buckeyes' defense, and for Hackenberg to hook up with Allen Robinson for three scores. Ohio State mounts its patented comeback, ties the score on a Braxton Miller heave to Corey Brown, and wins it on a Hyde run in the second OT. … Ohio State 51, Penn State 48


That's how we see things playing out on Saturday. Now it's time to hear from 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), 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 picker is Nick Galea from Normal, Ill. What'cha got, Nick?
Hey guys, I should be the guest picker because my life revolves around Big Ten football. I currently hold two degrees from Big Ten schools (MSU undergrad/Illinois law), and I've watched Big Ten football in 7 different venues in my life. This week is of special significance to me, as my two alma maters square off in Champaign. I'd love to have a prediction on the line while I'm in Memorial Stadium watching Nate Scheelhaase test the league's No. 1 defense. Thanks!

Here are Nick's Week 9 picks ...

Nebraska 38, Minnesota 24
Iowa 28, Northwestern 27
Michigan State 27, Illinois 10
Ohio State 45, Penn State 38

SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 55-9
Brian Bennett: 54-10
Guest pickers: 49-15
We've reflected on the first half of the Big Ten season, evaluated each team and looked ahead to what promises to be a more exciting second half.

As we put a bow on the first half, we're selecting a midseason All-Big Ten team. This list certainly isn't as significant as the postseason squad, but these players merit recognition for their performances during the first seven weeks of the season.

The envelope, please ...

OFFENSE

QB: Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: Ted Bolser, Indiana
C: Corey Linsley, Ohio State
OL: Spencer Long, Nebraska
OL: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OL:
Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin
OL:
Jack Mewhort, Ohio State

DEFENSE

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
DT: DaQuan Jones, Penn State
DE: Tyler Scott, Northwestern
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB: James Morris, Iowa
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska
DB: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
DB: Blake Countess, Michigan


SPECIALISTS

K: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Marcus Jones, Minnesota
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa

We'll start with the quarterback spot, which has been underwhelming around most of the league, partly because of injury. It was a close call between Scheelhaase and Penn State true freshman Christian Hackenberg, but Scheelhaase gets a slight edge with more touchdown passes and fewer interceptions. We had another tough decision at the No. 2 running back spot between Abdullah and Iowa's Mark Weisman, who has been very productive so far. Ultimately, Abdullah has made more out of his carries and got the nod.

The Big Ten's depth at linebacker prompted us to go with a 3-4 defensive alignment for the midseason team. We had some debate for the lone defensive tackle spot between Jones, Ohio State's Michael Bennett and Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman, but went with Jones, the league's leader in tackles for loss (8.5). Linebacker is so deep that it was tough limiting the list to only four. We ultimately went with Morris over Illinois' Jonathan Brown because Morris has made more game-changing plays. Cornerback has been a deeper position than safety through the first half, so we went with three corners and only one safety.

Kick returner was another close call between Minnesota's Jones and Illinois' V'Angelo Bentley.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 8

October, 17, 2013
10/17/13
10:15
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Ten things to keep your eyes on in the five Big Ten games on Saturday:

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCan Braxton Miller and Ohio State's high-powered offense move the ball against Michigan State's stingy defense?
1. Can Iowa's defense slow down Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes? The Hawkeyes boast a solid group of linebackers, and the Hawkeyes are ranked ninth in the country in total defense and 12th in scoring defense. Still, they haven't faced an offense anywhere close in talent to Ohio State, and it'll be interesting to see how Kirk Ferentz's squad matches up. For Ohio State, it hasn't mattered who's lined up under center or in the backfield. The Buckeyes have posted at least 31 points in every game -- and 40 points in five out of six. Iowa hasn't allowed more than 30 points all season. Something has to give.

2. Big injuries at Northwestern: The Wildcats' read-option could be in trouble Saturday. Both quarterback Kain Colter and tailback Venric Mark are nursing injuries, and they're both listed as questionable. Even if they do return, neither will be at 100 percent -- and both are crucial to a team that's been forced to rely on a high-scoring offense to win.

3. Different head coach, different starting quarterback: A lot has changed for Minnesota in the past few weeks. In Week 1, it looked as if Philip Nelson was the quarterback of the future and head coach Jerry Kill would lead this team to continued improvement. Now? Well, Mitch Leidner has been promoted to starting quarterback, while Kill has taken a leave of absence due to seizures. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will take over for Kill on Saturday, and Claeys will be coaching from the sideline -- he usually coaches from the press box -- against Northwestern. Claeys still plans to call the defensive plays, so he'll have to spend some time committing those play calls to memory. He won't have those charts in front of him anymore.

4. Michigan's response: The Wolverines suffered a heartbreaker in Happy Valley, as they couldn't put the game away despite several chances. They're now set to face the team, Indiana, that bounced the Nittany Lions. Michigan may have five wins already on the season, but it's been extremely shaky. A convincing win against the Hoosiers -- and their Big Ten-best passing attack -- could go a long way in showing this team is still a contender. And, of course, that all starts with Devin Gardner.

5. Inexperience no problem for this defensive line: The Buckeyes had to rebuild their defensive line from scratch this season as no starters returned, but these young players have stepped up in a big way. They slowed down Wisconsin's running attack and have contributed to the sixth-best run defense in the nation. True freshman DE Joey Bosa is listed as the starter against Iowa this week, and he already has four tackles for loss and a touchdown listed next to his name. Mark Weisman and the Hawkeyes will face a stiff test Saturday.

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Keith Gillett/Icon SMIIllinois coach Tim Beckman says the players believe and are no longer saying "Can we do it" but instead are now saying "When we do it."
6. Illini still riding a conference-worst streak: Illinois has dropped 15 straight Big Ten games, which means it last won a conference game on Oct. 8, 2011, against Indiana. Illinois plays Purdue on Nov. 23 but, before then, there will be no easy victories. The Illini will play Wisconsin this weekend, followed by Michigan State, Penn State, Indiana and Ohio State. Luckily for Tim Beckman's crew, it's still nowhere close to the Big Ten record for the worst conference losing streak. That unfortunate record-holder would be Northwestern, which lost 38 straight Big Ten games between 1978 and 1982.

7. Spartans' offense in the midst of a turnaround: Early on, it seemed as if Michigan State's offense would be a liability all season. After all, in the first two games, the defense scored more touchdowns while Mark Dantonio couldn't settle on a quarterback. But Connor Cook has since taken over and the running game has taken off. Cook's QBR has taken a step up each week against the FBS, from 17.1 to 27.8 to 68.1 and, last Saturday, to 83.1. Jeremy Langford is also starting to make a name for himself, with four touchdowns this past week. The Spartans are trending upward, and they might be difficult to stop. It won't be easy for Purdue.

8. MGIII might be unstoppable the rest of the way: Yes, the Buckeyes limited Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon to 74 yards on 15 carries -- but he'll face just one more top-10 defense the rest of the regular season. He's third in the FBS with 870 rushing yards, ranks second nationally in yards per carry (9.7) among tailbacks and is 10th in the nation in rushing touchdowns (8). He's one of the most exciting players in the Big Ten, and every team going forward will likely struggle stopping him. His next opponent, Illinois, is allowing nearly 200 rushing yards a game.

9. Can Purdue do anything right? Nothing's been easy for Darrell Hazell's Boilermakers. They just scooted past FCS team Indiana State 20-14, and four of their five losses were decided by 31 points or more. Purdue's future hopes are pinned to true freshman quarterback Danny Etling. But, for now, there's no guarantee that Purdue will escape the 2013 season with another win. It's ranked No. 118 in scoring offense and, in scoring defense, it's ranked No. 114. At this point, Purdue would just be fortunate to hang in tough against Michigan State.

10. Home of inconsistent quarterbacks and good defenses: Welcome to the Big Ten! The conference boasts three teams (Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin) that are nationally ranked in the top 10 in total defense, and three more (Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State) that are within the top 20. Still, the passing offenses haven't exactly taken off as planned. The Big Ten's top QBs entering this season -- arguably Taylor Martinez, Gardner and Miller -- have either missed time due to injury or have been on the receiving end of some quarterback controversy.

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 16, 2013
10/16/13
12:00
PM ET
One more win, and it's on to the World Series.
Ohio State still sits atop the Power Rankings, but there has been a significant shake-up after the Buckeyes.

Wisconsin's impressive victory against lifeless Northwestern vaults the Badgers to No. 2, as we consider Gary Andersen's team the closest to Ohio State at this point in the season. Northwestern takes a significant tumble, and Michigan also falls after failing to pull off another escape against Penn State. Nebraska and Michigan State are taking care of business against weak competition, which helps both teams now but won't mean much when the schedule gets tougher in November.

Penn State makes a move in a positive direction following its dramatic win against Michigan in four overtimes. The bottom of the rankings holds steady as most teams were off.

Here's one last look at the Week 6 rankings.

Week 7 rankings in three, two, one …

1. Ohio State (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): After two hard-fought victories to open Big Ten play, the unbeaten Buckeyes had a well-deserved week off. Their young defensive front seven is starting to blossom, which should help against Iowa's power run game on Saturday at The Shoe. Running back Carlos Hyde takes aim at an Iowa defense that has yet to allow a rushing touchdown. Ohio State is halfway to another perfect regular season.

2. Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1; last week: 3): The Badgers looked refreshed, recharged and exceptionally prepared for Northwestern following their open week. Wisconsin's defense completely flustered Northwestern, particularly on third down, where the Wildcats typically excel. Melvin Gordon did his thing and Wisconsin moved the ball despite playing without top receiver Jared Abbrederis for most of the game. The schedule is favorable the rest of the way and a 10-2 mark is hardly out of the question. Wisconsin visits Illinois this week.

3. Nebraska (5-1, 2-0; last week: 5): Credit Nebraska for handling its business against inferior competition and not even flirting with a loss for the second consecutive Big Ten game. The defense once again took a step forward as one-time Purdue recruit Randy Gregory had two tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. Backup quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. struggled, but he had plenty of help from the run game, led by Ameer Abdullah (126 rush yards, 1 TD). The Huskers once again are off this week, which should allow top signal-caller Taylor Martinez to heal from his toe injury.

4. Michigan State (5-1, 2-0; last week: 6): Defense always will be the Spartans' bread and butter, but Michigan State is capable of winning games with its offense. Sure, Indiana's defense isn't a great barometer, but Spartans fans have to be encouraged by quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and a unit that seems to be gaining more confidence by the week. Like Nebraska, Michigan State is handling its business during a favorable stretch of the schedule, which continues this week against flailing Purdue.

5. Michigan (5-1, 1-1; last week: 2): The Wolverines twice had flirted with losing in their first five games, only to find a way to pull through. They nearly pulled off another escape at Penn State after a strong second half, but breakdowns in all three phases led to a crushing loss in four overtimes. The defense broke down at the end of regulation, the offense couldn't find the end zone in overtime and the normally reliable Brendan Gibbons missed three attempts (one was blocked). Michigan will need to grow up in a hurry to challenge for the Legends Division title.

6. Northwestern (4-2, 0-2; last week: 2): It's a four-spot drop for the Wildcats, and that might be kind after the egg they laid Saturday in Madison. Northwestern clearly had a hangover from the Ohio State game, although there are some troubling trends on offense, namely the inability to covert manageable third downs, which has been a hallmark of past Wildcats teams. The injuries are piling up for Pat Fitzgerald's crew, as Venric Mark (ankle) barely played and Kain Colter (ankle) didn't do much at quarterback. Northwestern really needs to get well this week against Minnesota.

7. Penn State (4-2, 1-1; last week: 9): What do we make of Bill O'Brien's Lions? A week after Penn State's first loss to Indiana -- by 20 points, no less -- the Lions rebounded to outlast Michigan 43-40 in a four-overtime thriller. O'Brien played to win while Michigan's coaches went conservative, and freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg rebounded from some mistakes to lead the game-tying touchdown drive at the end of regulation. This Penn State team isn't as good as its predecessor, but it exhibits the same type of resilience and toughness. Penn State gets a well-deserved week off before heading to Ohio State.

8. Iowa (4-2, 1-1; last week: 7): The open week arrived at a good time for Iowa, which came out of the Michigan State loss with several injuries, although none of the long-term variety. The Hawkeyes need to reboot Mark Weisman and the run game after being shut down by the Spartans. Iowa's defense faces its first major test of the season in Ohio State, which will try to stretch the field. The Hawkeyes last won in Columbus in 1991.

9. Indiana (3-3, 1-1; last week: 8): The inconsistency that has plagued Indiana through the first half of the season showed up Saturday against Michigan State. The offense had more success against Michigan State's venerated defense than most opponents but still left points on the field. Indiana's defense, meanwhile, took a step back as the Spartans had success both on the ground and through the air. The Hoosiers' quarterback situation took another turn as Tre Roberson outperformed Nate Sudfeld. IU heads back to the Mitten State this week to face Michigan.

10. Illinois (3-2, 0-1; last week: 10): The Illini didn't play for the second time in four weeks after struggling on both sides of the ball at Nebraska. If Tim Beckman's squad intends to go bowling, it might need a home upset victory in the next two weeks as it hosts Wisconsin and then Michigan State. Illinois hopes to get defensive lineman Teko Powell back from injury before facing the dominant Wisconsin rush attack. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase must rebound after completing only 50 percent of his passes against Nebraska.

11. Minnesota (4-2, 0-2; last week: 11): Adversity continues for the Gophers as head coach Jerry Kill has taken a leave of absence as he tries to get his epilepsy under control. Although Minnesota assistants and players know how to adjust without Kill, it doesn't make the situation much easier. The big on-field concern for the Gophers is the schedule, which doesn't get any easier this week against Northwestern. The Gophers are still looking for more explosiveness on offense.

12. Purdue (1-5, 0-2; last week: 12): There will be better days ahead for Danny Etling and the Boilers, but it's very ugly right now. Purdue never challenged Nebraska at Ross-Ade Stadium, and the Boilers' problems on offense clearly go beyond the quarterback position as Etling couldn't get much going. Purdue didn't cross midfield until the fourth quarter. The defense had no answers for Nebraska, which piled up 435 yards. This is a really bad football team, folks, and things don't get easier with Michigan State and Ohio State to follow.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 7

October, 9, 2013
10/09/13
1:00
PM ET
Conference play is in full swing, so it's time once again to gauge where players stand in the individual Big Ten awards races. Remember, there's still plenty of time left, and these will fluctuate quite a bit until we get deep into the season:

Graham–George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon (LW: 2): Gordon was off last week but moves back into the top spot after Mark Weisman was shut down by Michigan State. Gordon still leads the Big Ten in rushing but will have to prove he's healthy against Northwestern this week.

2. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah (LW: Not ranked): Abdullah makes a big jump after his huge game against Illinois. He's second in the league in rushing behind Gordon and leads the Big Ten in all-purpose yards.

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerPenn State receiver Allen Robinson caught a career-best 12 passes against Indiana.
3. Penn State WR Allen Robinson (LW: NR): The Nittany Lions lost to Indiana last week, but Robinson was spectacular in grabbing a career-best 12 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns. He's on pace to gain close to 1,500 yards receiving.

4. Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis (LW: 5): Abbrederis was also off last week but is right there with Robinson in the race for the league's Richter–Howard Receiver of the Year award.

5. Indiana QB Nate Sudfeld (LW: NR): Sudfeld helms the league's best passing attack and tops the Big Ten with 1,467 passing yards, to go along with 13 touchdowns. That puts him on pace for a 3,500-yard season.

Dropped out: Iowa RB Mark Weisman, Ohio State QB Braxton Miller, Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase

Waiting room: Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde

Nagurski–Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Wisconsin LB Chris Borland (LW: 1): He was off last week, but Borland still holds the belt for how he played the first five weeks. He's got a big challenge this week with Northwestern's versatile offense.

2. Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier (LW: 2): Although the Buckeyes were shaky defensively at Northwestern last week, Shazier came up with another 10 tackles and was right there on the punt block that Bradley Roby grabbed for a touchdown. He leads the Big Ten with eight tackles for loss.

3. Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard (LW: NR): Dennard showed what he could do when he's not being called for ticky-tack pass interference penalties, grabbing two interceptions against Iowa. He's our representative this week from the the ridiculous Spartan Dawgs, who lead the nation in total defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense.

4. Nebraska CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste (LW: NR): It's hard to imagine any Cornhuskers player winning defensive player of the year honors because of the perception/performance of that overall unit. But Jean-Baptiste is having quite the year. He -- along with Michigan's Blake Countess -- is tied for the national lead in interceptions (four). He's also second in the Big Ten in passes defended (10).

5. Northwestern DE Tyler Scott (LW: NR): Though Northwestern lost the game, it didn't surrender an offensive touchdown in the first half to Ohio State. Scott forced and recovered a fumble, and he leads the Big Ten in sacks with four.

Dropped out: Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun, Penn State DT DaQuan Jones, Iowa LB James Morris

Bakken–Andersen Kicker of the Year

1. Northwestern's Jeff Budzien: Last year's co-winner of this award, Budzien is 9-for-11 on field goals this year and nailed all three of his attempts versus Ohio State. He's perfect inside 40 yards in 2013.

2, Penn State's Sam Ficken: He continues to author a tremendous comeback story. Ficken is 8-of-10 this year, which includes a 54-yarder. One of his two misses was a Hail Mary attempt from 57 yards. He has become a reliable weapon for Bill O'Brien.

Waiting room: Iowa's Mike Meyer, Michigan's Brendan Gibbons, Michigan State's Michael Geiger

Big Ten picks rewind: Week 6

October, 8, 2013
10/08/13
10:00
AM ET
The halfway point of the season is nearly here, and the predictions race is all even after Brian claimed Week 6 with a 4-1 mark. Adam avoided a losing mark after Ohio State rallied in Evanston. Let's look at how things stand.

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.
Illinois at Nebraska
  • 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.
Michigan State at Iowa

  • 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.
Minnesota at Michigan

  • 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.
Ohio State at Northwestern

  • 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.

 



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