Ohio State Buckeyes: Noah Spence

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer seemed to be guarding a secret, and it couldn’t be deciphered by reading between the lines.

The Ohio State coach joked about being a little bored by his spring game, expressed some frustration about the lack of offensive execution and stressed that there was plenty of work to do at a few key positions heading into the offseason.

But the truth about how good his third team at Ohio State might be was tucked away on the sidelines, leaving little to truly evaluate between them as the Gray beat the Scarlet 17-7 on Saturday at the Horseshoe. And based on the number of players he held out of the spring-closing scrimmage, it might be a safe bet that Meyer is actually feeling pretty good about what he has returning in the fall.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe spring game didn't say much about Urban Meyer's Buckeyes. And he seems fine with that.
“There were guys out there who will either never play or they’re not ready to play now,” Meyer said. “Like, [Ohio State sports information director] Jerry [Emig] hands me stats, I’m not sure what to do with these. I don’t care.

“... We all know what we saw out there. It’s not the Ohio State Buckeyes.”

Exhibition games rarely provide much of a reliable gauge for how good a team might truly be, and in the case of the Buckeyes, that might have been by design.

Braxton Miller was already on the shelf as he finishes up his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. Having the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year and a three-year starter at quarterback out of the equation obviously changes the complexion of the Ohio State offense. Cardale Jones was productive enough throughout camp to win the backup job, but his 14-of-31 passing performance Saturday was yet another reminder of the importance of having a healthy Miller to lead the attack.

Meyer indicated there was some uncertainty about his receiving corps after the spring game, but he had enough faith in Devin Smith and Dontre Wilson that he didn’t feel the need to press either of them into action over the weekend -- aside from a cameo appearance by the latter in a race against students at halftime.

And after watching what could be one of the most talented defensive lines in the country terrorize a rebuilding offensive line throughout camp over the last month, Meyer certainly didn’t need to see any more from Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett or Adolphus Washington to boost his confidence heading into the summer, adding to the list of starters who effectively were allowed to take the day off.

Cornerback Doran Grant was largely an observer as well, though he did make an appearance to win the halftime derby and became the “fastest student” on campus. Projected first-team guard Pat Elflein was a scratch, and presumptive starting running back Ezekiel Elliott only touched the football three times. Tight end Jeff Heuerman was on crutches after foot surgery, but he’ll be back in time for the conditioning program next month.

So while the game itself left little worth remembering aside from what appeared to be marked improvement and depth in the secondary and another handful of mesmerizing catches from Michael Thomas, there were actually clues littered around Ohio Stadium that Meyer is poised to unleash his most talented team since taking over the program in 2012 and rattling off 24 consecutive wins.

The trick was knowing where to look.

“[The spring game] was a chance to see some young guys [who] really haven’t played, and to be quite honest, I’m not sure how much they will play,” Meyer said. “This is a chance for a lot of guys in our program who work very hard, and to be able to get some guys play or catch a pass in Ohio Stadium or whatever, in the big picture it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s a great thrill for a lot of people.”

The real thrills, of course, don’t come for a few months. And based on the amount of players who didn’t get to actually step between the lines on Saturday, Meyer might not-so-secretly have plenty to be excited about by fall.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Spring weather has just now finally arrived for Ohio State, but its camp is already about to come to a close. Ahead of Saturday's exhibition game to wrap up the 15 workouts spread through March and April, the final look at things to watch will breakd own some intriguing matchups now that the official rosters have been unveiled.

[+] EnlargeDarryl Baldwin
AP Photo/David DurochikWith a tough matchup in Ohio State's spring game, Darryl Baldwin could prove he can lockdown the starting RT job.
Scarlet QB Cardale Jones vs. Gray secondary

  • The redshirt sophomore has strengthened his case to fill the backup role at quarterback behind Braxton Miller with strong practice performances throughout camp, but he's shown some signs of nerves at times during scrimmages and could benefit from a productive outing in a live setting in front of a big crowd. Urban Meyer typically focuses his attention and play-calling on the passing attack during spring games, and with the Gray having what appears to be the full starting secondary with Tyvis Powell and Cam Burrows at safety and Doran Grant, Armani Reeves and Gareon Conley at cornerback, Jones will be tested.
Gray LB Raekwon McMillan vs. Scarlet RB Ezekiel Elliott

  • The hype is only building for the touted early enrollee on defense, and McMillan might be the most closely watched player in the Horseshoe as he's thrown into a lineup that includes two projected starters next to him at the outside linebacker spots. The true freshman has impressed the coaching staff during the 14 workouts so far, looking the part physically and embracing the culture Meyer is working so hard to reestablish. Even if finishing camp with some solid work against Ohio State's front-runner at tailback and three first-team offensive linemen doesn't help McMillan reel in senior Curtis Grant on the depth chart, it could still bode well for his chances to help provide depth in the fall -- and start building even more buzz for next season.
Scarlet RT Darryl Baldwin vs. Gray DE Noah Spence

  • Tougher spring game assignments than what Baldwin will face on Saturday are hard to come by, and really, the redshirt senior isn't likely to take on many pass rushers better than Spence when the real season arrives. So if Baldwin can hold his own against one of the fastest, most tenacious players off the edge in the Big Ten this weekend, that would go a long way toward solidifying a starting job and easing some of the uncertainty still swirling around an offensive line that must replace four starters. The Scarlet line as a whole caught a bit of a break with the first-team defensive line being split up, but Spence still has Adolphus Washington alongside him and ready to wreak the kind of havoc that stole the show in last year's edition of the spring showcase.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Spring weather has just now finally arrived for Ohio State, but its camp is already about to come to a close. Ahead of Saturday's exhibition game to wrap up the 15 workouts spread through March and April, we're taking a look at players who have helped themselves and could put on a show over the weekend, switching over today to defense.

[+] EnlargeAdolphus Washington
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMoving inside will help both Adolphus Washington and the Buckeyes' defensive line.
LB Darron Lee

  • The sophomore might not have been one of the popular pre-spring picks to claim the third starting job at linebacker and help fill the void left by Ryan Shazier's early entry to the NFL draft, but Lee impressed the coaching staff enough during offseason workouts to earn the first crack at it when camp opened -- and he's done nothing since then to lose the spot. The Buckeyes have tweaked the lineup a bit with Joshua Perry moving over to weak-side linebacker in place of Shazier with Lee taking over on the strong side, and with Curtis Grant in the middle, that unit has shown some signs of getting Ohio State closer to the level it has come to expect on defense. Lee's versatile athleticism as a former high school quarterback and defensive back has blended well with the added strength he's put on at 225 pounds, and the Buckeyes have had little reason to explore other starting options heading into the spring game.
CB Gareon Conley

  • One of the more touted prospects at the position a year ago, coach Urban Meyer hasn't been shy about expressing some disappointment that Conley wasn't ready to contribute last season and ultimately redshirted. But his skills in coverage are starting to show up more regularly now, and he's pushing Armani Reeves hard for the second starting job opposite Doran Grant in Ohio State's more aggressive man-to-man defense. Even if Conley doesn't claim that gig, the Buckeyes are still likely going to have him heavily involved in the nickel and dime packages, and the rigors of playing more bump-and-run in the secondary will make having reliable, talented depth like he figures to provide invaluable. Assuming the offense again tries to stress the passing game in the closing scrimmage, Conley should have numerous chances to show his stuff on Saturday.
DT Adolphus Washington

  • Now a junior with some proven ability when it counts on his resume, Washington isn't exactly emerging out of nowhere. He's also previously had a breakout spring that ended with a prolific performance in the exhibition game that seemingly announced his arrival as a future star. But injuries and what appeared to be uncertainty about the best way to use Washington kept him from truly becoming the havoc-wreaking force the Buckeyes expected last season, and in some respects that made the 6-foot-4, 288-pounder a bit of an afterthought heading into camp. His move to defensive tackle, though, has provided the stability perhaps needed to allow him to flourish -- and when healthy, there's never been a need to question his physical tools. With Noah Spence and Joey Bosa on the edge and Michael Bennett returning on the inside, a rejuvenated Washington could be the piece that gives Ohio State one of the most relentless pass rushes in the nation.
The ultimate Big Ten road trip for the 2014 season is, sadly, over. It's back to the reality of travel budgets and some Saturdays on the couch. For those who weren't paying attention the past few weeks, Brian Bennett and I each picked a game to attend -- featuring at least one Big Ten team -- during each week of the 2014 season.

The full itinerary is below:

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
Week 5: Brian at Cincinnati-Ohio State; Adam at Minnesota-Michigan
Week 6: Adam at Nebraska-Michigan State; Brian at Nebraska-Michigan State
Week 7: Brian at Penn State-Michigan; Adam at Northwestern-Minnesota
Week 8: Adam at Iowa-Maryland; Brian at Nebraska-Northwestern
Week 9: Brian at Michigan-Michigan State; Adam at Ohio State-Penn State
Week 10: Adam at Northwestern-Iowa; Brian at Wisconsin-Rutgers
Week 11: Brian and Adam at Ohio State-Michigan State
Week 12: Adam and Brian at Nebraska-Wisconsin
Week 13: Brian and Adam at Wisconsin-Iowa
Week 14: Adam at Michigan-Ohio State; Brian at Nebraska-Iowa

You've seen our picks. Now it's time for yours.

Today's poll asks you to pick one game to attend during the 2014 season. It's a tall order, we know, as there are several good options. You can pick the biggest game for your favorite team if you'd like, but we'd also like you to think a little broader. Consider the locations, the timing, the game-day atmosphere, the culinary/beverage options and more.

It wasn't easy narrowing the options to five, but here goes ...
    SportsNation

    Which Big Ten game would you most like to attend?

    •  
      11%
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      15%
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      15%
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      29%
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      30%

    Discuss (Total votes: 9,215)

  • Wisconsin vs. LSU, Aug. 30 in Houston: If you like Texas barbecue, running backs and blockbuster season openers, this is the game for you. Wisconsin standout Melvin Gordon begins a potential Heisman Trophy campaign against a strong LSU defense at Reliant Stadium (soon to be NRG Stadium). The Badgers have a big chance to make a statement about their place in the Big Ten race and possibly the playoff picture.
  • Michigan State at Oregon, Sept. 6: The Big Ten has the biggest stadiums in college football, but Oregon probably has the loudest in Autzen Stadium. The Ducks also boast an excellent team led by quarterback Marcus Mariota. Michigan State's last trip to the West Coast was great one, and the Spartans can put themselves in the playoff mix with an upset win in Eugene. Also, sources tell me the Oregon dance team will be there.
  • Ohio State at Michigan State, Nov. 8: A rematch of the 2013 Big Ten championship game pairs the two preseason favorites in the East Division. The game features standout quarterbacks (Braxton Miller and Connor Cook) and pass rushers (Shilique Calhoun, Joey Bosa and Noah Spence). It also could kick off under the lights, despite being in November. Sparta will be rocking.
  • Nebraska at Wisconsin, Nov. 15:The West Division title could be on the line as the Huskers and Badgers meet at Camp Randall, site of Nebraska's league debut as a Big Ten member in 2011. Ameer Abdullah and the Huskers look for a much better result this time around. Abdullah will share the field with his good friend, Gordon, in a matchup of the league's top two running backs. Madison could be chilly, but it offers a lot to see, do, eat and drink.
  • Michigan at Ohio State, Nov. 29: The Game doesn't need much of a sales pitch, especially after last season's thriller in Ann Arbor. Miller plays his final home game and tries to finish with three consecutive wins against the Wolverines. Michigan aims for its first win in Columbus since 2000. It's a big year for Wolverines coach Brady Hoke, who could use another win against Michigan's archrival.

Time to vote.
Lord, we were born ramblin' men. And this is where we'd ramble in the fall without any of the limitations of the real world.

For those just joining us, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the 2014 season. This almost assuredly isn't our actual schedule because of travel budgets or editors' decisions. But we can pretend with this fantasy itinerary.

Here's the slate for Week 11:

Nov. 8

Iowa at Minnesota
Michigan at Northwestern
Ohio State at Michigan State
Wisconsin at Purdue

Open week: Illinois, Nebraska, Maryland, Rutgers

Brian Bennett's pick: Ohio State at Michigan State

If I could only attend one Big Ten game in 2014, this one would be it. (Dear editors: Please don't get any ideas from that last sentence.) The two preseason favorites in not just the East Division but the entire league go at it in a rematch of last year's league title game. And the last meeting between these two at Spartan Stadium, in 2012, was a close, hard-hitting affair.

I don't have much more to add to what's already been said except this: I'd beg, borrow and steal my way to East Lansing on Nov. 8.

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Ohio State at Michigan State

Careful, Bennett: You don't want to be watching the game from the Ingham County jail. Even though we both love the battle for the bacon taking place in Minneapolis, this is the easiest pick of the trip so far. How will Urban Meyer prepare Ohio State for a revenge game? Can Connor Cook replicate his late-game mastery of the Buckeyes defense? Which defensive end pairing -- Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush, or Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Noah Spence -- has the bigger day? There are so many storylines in a game that could decide the East Division champion and put a Big Ten team in position for the College Football Playoff.

As if the game needed more hype, don't be surprised if it kicks off under the lights, despite its November date. Good times in East Lansing. See you there.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
Week 5: Brian at Cincinnati-Ohio State; Adam at Minnesota-Michigan
Week 6: Adam at Nebraska-Michigan State; Brian at Nebraska-Michigan State
Week 7: Brian at Penn State-Michigan; Adam at Northwestern-Minnesota
Week 8: Adam at Iowa-Maryland; Brian at Nebraska-Northwestern
Week 9: Brian at Michigan-Michigan State; Adam at Ohio State-Penn State
Week 10: Adam at Northwestern-Iowa; Brian at Wisconsin-Rutgers
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive lines.

Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.

Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.

Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.

Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.

Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.

Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.

Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.

Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.

Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.

Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.

Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.

Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.

Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.

Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
Tags:

Ohio State Buckeyes, Illinois Fighting Illini, Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Indiana Hoosiers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Iowa Hawkeyes, Maryland Terrapins, Big Ten Conference, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Northwestern Wildcats, Purdue Boilermakers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Malik McDowell, joey bosa, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Adolphus Washington, Noah Spence, Tommy Schutt, Jamal Marcus, Joel Hale, Darius Latham, Deion Barnes, Louis Trinca-Pasat, Tyler Scott, Evan Panfil, Chris Carter, Bruce Gaston Jr., Ryan Isaac, Ryan Russell, Dave Aranda, Randy Gregory, Ra'Shede Hageman, Antoine White, Shilique Calhoun, Mark Scarpinato, Aaron Curry, Tim Kynard, Michael Rouse III, Carl Davis, Vincent Valentine, Sean McEvilly, Marcus Rush, DaQuan Jones, Nick Mangieri, Theiren Cockran, Avery Moss, Beau Allen, Greg McMullen, Teko Powell, Lawrence Thomas, Joe Keels, Anthony Zettel, Drew Ott, Tarow Barney, Tyler Hoover, Jihad Ward, David Kenney, Ralphael Green, Micajah Reynolds, Larry Johnson, Langston Newton, C.J. Olaniyan, Paul James, B1G spring positions 14, Alex Keith, Andre Monroe, Arthur Goldberg, Austin Teitsma, Cameron Botticelli, Chance Carter, Chikwe Obasih, Damon Knox, Darian Cooper, Darius Kilgo, David Milewski, Dawuane Smoot, Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson, Djwany Mera, Dominic Alvis, Greg Latta, Harold Legania, Houston Bates, Isaac Holmes, Jake Keefer, Jalani Phillips, James Adeyanju, James Kittredge, Jamil Merrell, Joe Fotu, Julian Pinnix-Odrick, Keith Bowers, Kemoko Turay, Konrad Zagzebski, Maliek Collins, Marcus Thompson, Max Chapman, Michael Amaefula, Nate Meier, Quinton Jefferson, Roman Braglio, Ryan Phillis, Ryan Watson, Scott Ekpe, Sebastian Joseph, Warren Herring, Zack Shaw

Ohio State spring predictions: No. 3

February, 26, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Preparations to end a two-game losing streak have already started for Ohio State, but the chance to make them with the pads on again after a two-month wait isn't over yet.

There's less than a week left on that wait for spring practice, and given the disappointing end to the 2013 season and the rigorous offseason conditioning program the Buckeyes have been going through, that time surely can't fly by quickly enough for the players. We've already looked at players facing critical springs and key position battles, and to count down these final few days before camp opens, we'll make a handful of predictions for what should happen in March and April as Ohio State reloads for another run at a title in the fall.

[+] EnlargeAdolphus Washington
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesAdolphus Washington made a splash in 2012 as a freshman, but injuries slowed him a bit as a sophomore.
No. 3: Adolphus Washington gets back in the mix

There wasn't anything wrong with the supplemental role Washington carved out as a sophomore, unless it was judged against the outsized expectations for him.

Physically gifted with natural strength at 6-foot-4 and 295 pounds and quickness seldom seen at that size, Washington was supposed to be ready for his star turn last fall, the other half of a deadly defensive bookend on the line with Noah Spence. Instead, slowed at times by injury and then replaced in the starting lineup, freshman Joey Bosa became the breakout star and Washington was forced to chip in on the fringes of the spotlight.

He did just that, and there is certainly no shame in producing 36 tackles, four tackles for a loss and a pair of sacks. But clearly there was more expected of Washington heading into the season after running roughshod through spring camp last year against Ohio State's respected veteran blockers, which made those contributions seem underwhelming thanks solely to the high bar he helped set for himself.

That was obviously offset by the emergence of Bosa, and the rising sophomore only figures to get better with another season under his belt. Aside from a two-game suspension to start the season, Spence isn't likely to be leaving his spot in the lineup, either, but that doesn't mean Washington can't expand on his role from 2013 and boost his entry in the box score next fall.

For one thing, Washington has the versatility to play inside or outside, and with his big frame, he has the ability to play at tackle and not give up anything against the run. With his pass-rushing skills, he is undoubtedly an asset in third-down situations while playing alongside both Bosa, Spence and Michael Bennett, a group that combined for 24.5 sacks last season and could cause a few nightmares for offensive coordinators next fall.

Even if Washington isn't able to lock down one spot in the starting lineup to call his own consistently, he's still a safe bet to make a more significant impact as a junior. And that effort starts in March.
Darqueze DennardMike Carter/USA TODAY SportsDarqueze Dennard fell just short of the top spot in the 2013 Big Ten final player countdown, but the Michigan State cornerback was one of six Spartans that made the cut, the most of any school.

Our postseason Top 25 player countdown concluded earlier today with a familiar name -- Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller -- at the top. What did you think of the rundown? Let us know here and here.

Let's dive into the rankings ...

BY TEAM

Michigan State: 6
Ohio State: 5
Wisconsin: 4
Nebraska: 2
Michigan: 2
Iowa: 2
Indiana: 1
Illinois: 1
Penn State: 1
Minnesota: 1

Northwestern and Purdue weren't represented on the list, although several players -- Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and kicker Jeff Budzien, along with Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen -- were considered.

BY POSITION

Linebacker: 5
Running back: 5
Wide receiver: 4
Quarterback: 3
Offensive tackle: 3
Defensive end: 2
Cornerback: 2
Defensive tackle: 1

The Big Ten remains a linebacker- and running back-driven league, just like we thought it would be entering the season. Wide receiver saw an improvement in 2013 as four players made the list, up from just one (Penn State's Allen Robinson) following the 2012 season. Cornerback is another spot that improved around the league. Although just two made the list, others such as Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Purdue's Allen and Michigan's Blake Countess wouldn't have been bad choices.

Center traditionally has been a strong position in the Big Ten but none made the cut this year (Ohio State's Corey Linsley came close). Safety continues to be a bit of a problem around the league. There are some good safeties but few great ones. That could change in 2014 as players such as Kurtis Drummond and Ibraheim Campbell return.

BY CLASS (eligibility)

Senior: 13
Junior: 8
Sophomore: 4

Of the nine juniors, five are returning for the 2014 season. Draft-eligible sophomores such as Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon also are returning.

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg was the only freshman (true or redshirt) seriously considered for the list.

RANKINGS HISTORY

Ten players also appeared in the 2012 postseason rankings. Here they are:

No. 1: Braxton Miller (No. 1 in 2012 rankings)
No. 2: Darqueze Dennard (No. 19 in 2012 rankings)
No. 3: Carlos Hyde (No. 21 in 2012 rankings)
No. 4: Ameer Abdullah (No. 20 in 2012 rankings)
No. 5: Ryan Shazier (No. 10 in 2012 rankings)
No. 6: Chris Borland (No. 13 in 2012 rankings)
No. 7: Allen Robinson (No. 11 in 2012 rankings)
No. 9: Taylor Lewan (No. 7 in 2012 rankings)
No. 14: Max Bullough (No. 15 in 2012 rankings)
No. 16: Bradley Roby (No. 16 in 2012 rankings)

Dennard, Hyde and Abdullah were the biggest risers from 2012, while Calhoun, who finished No. 8 after being unranked after his freshman year, made the biggest overall jump.

When it comes to the preseason Top 25, 14 players who made the list also appear in the postseason rankings. Dennard (preseason No. 10), Abdullah (preseason No. 13), Gordon (preseason No. 22) and Wisconsin running back James White preseason No. 23) are among the biggest risers, while Lewan (preseason No. 2), Bullough (preseason No. 7) and Roby (preseason No. 9) slipped a bit. Hyde would have made the preseason rankings, but we weren't sure of his status because of the night club incident.

FIVE THAT JUST MISSED THE CUT

[+] EnlargeIllinois' Jonathan Brown
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsJonathan Brown (45) was one of the top linebackers in the conference and just barely missed making the Top 25.
Illinois LB Jonathan Brown: Brown definitely was No. 26 on our list and certainly could have made the Top 25 rundown. The second-team All-Big Ten selection finished second in the league in tackles (119) and fourth in tackles per loss average (1.25 per game).

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: He had some typical freshman moments but finished the season extremely well and showed tremendous potential. Hackenberg earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors and passed for 2,955 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

Iowa LB Anthony Hitchens: Hitchens had an excellent senior season as part of the Big Ten's top linebacker corps. He finished sixth in the league in tackles per game and seventh in tackles for loss. He recorded two forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovered.

Penn State DT DaQuan Jones: Jones earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches and was a bright spot for a defense that struggled for much of the season. He had 56 tackles, including a team-high 11 tackles for loss, and three sacks.

Ohio State DE Noah Spence: Spence began to display his tremendous potential for a young Buckeyes defensive line, finishing second in the league in sacks (8) and sixth in tackles for loss (14.5). He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media and second-team honors from the coaches.

Best B1G games of 2013: No. 3

January, 31, 2014
Jan 31
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We're continuing our countdown of the top-10 games from the Big Ten in 2013. Remember that we're taking into account the stakes in the game, the excitement level, the quality of the performances and the atmosphere.

No. 3: Clemson 40, Ohio State 35, Jan. 3

How it went down: How would Ohio State respond after losing in the Big Ten title game and seeing its national title hopes go down the drain?

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsBraxton Miller's Buckeyes led Clemson in the second half of the Orange Bowl, but they wound up losing their second straight game.
Early on in the Discover Orange Bowl, the answer seemed to be: not well. Clemson opened up a 20-9 lead in the second quarter, taking advantage of a battered Buckeyes defense that was missing star cornerback Bradley Roby (knee injury) and top pass rusher Noah Spence (suspension).

Yet, even though the Tigers statistically dominated most of the first half, Braxton Miller put Ohio State up 22-20 at halftime with a 57-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Heuerman and then a 3-yard scoring run with 12 seconds left. The Buckeyes led 29-20 and had forced a punt from Clemson in the third quarter, but Corey "Philly" Brown fumbled away the return.

Then things really got wild. Clemson scored two touchdowns in less than two-and-a-half minutes to regain the lead, followed by another lead change on Miller's throwback pass to Carlos Hyde for a score. Tajh Boyd capped a tremendous night by throwing for the game-winning touchdown with 6:16 left, and the two teams traded interceptions on three straight possessions late.

It was a wild game full of huge plays and momentum swings, and Miller got beat up and battled through injuries. Ohio State showed that it wasn't quite national championship worthy, especially on defense. But the Buckeyes helped provide a thoroughly entertaining end to the BCS era.

Player(s) of the game: Boyd and Sammy Watkins share the honors, as they both fed off one another while feasting on the Buckeyes' defense. Watkins broke Orange Bowl and school receiving records with 16 catches for 227 yards and two touchdowns. Boyd went 31-of-40 for 378 yards through the air, ran for 127 yards and had six total touchdowns.

Stat of the game: The two teams combined for 1,003 yards of offense and 204 penalty yards.

They said it: "It's going to sting for a while, probably a long while because we didn't finish," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "It was right there."

More best games

  • No. 10: Ohio State 31, Wisconsin 24
  • No. 9: Michigan 41, Notre Dame 30
  • No. 8: Arizona State 32, Wisconsin 30
  • No. 7: Ohio State 40, Northwestern 30
  • No. 6: Penn State 43, Michigan 40, 4 OT
  • No. 5: Michigan State 34, Ohio State 24
  • No. 4: Nebraska 27, Northwestern 24
While Penn State searched for a coach in December 2011, Urban Meyer convinced several Penn State recruits to switch their pledges to Ohio State. Top defensive line prospects like Noah Spence and Tommy Schutt were among those who went from Blue and White to Scarlet and Gray.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesThe rivalry between Ohio State and Penn State could heat up if former PSU defensive line coach Larry Johnson joins Urban Meyer's staff.
Penn State hired a new coach on Saturday in James Franklin, but Meyer once again has used Penn State's situation to bolster Ohio State's defensive line.

Hours after longtime Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson announced he wouldn't remain in Happy Valley despite Franklin offering him an assistant position, Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel and ESPN's Joe Schad reported that Johnson was nearing an agreement to join Meyer's staff at Ohio State. The Buckeyes must replace Mike Vrabel, who has taken a post with the Houston Texans under, yep, former Penn State coach Bill O'Brien.

The coaching business is a small world, isn't it?

Ohio State hasn't confirmed the move, but the addition of Johnson would add to the next phase of the PSU-OSU rivalry. Like Meyer, Franklin comes to the Big Ten from the SEC and brings a similar type of aggressive recruiting approach. When Franklin talked Saturday about dominating the state of Pennsylvania and the region in recruiting, folks in Columbus took notice.

Now Ohio State is poised to replace an exceptional recruiter in Vrabel with another exceptional recruiter in Johnson, who brought top talent to Penn State throughout his 18 years as an assistant there. Johnson coached high school ball in Maryland and has strong connections to the area, which becomes even more important to the Big Ten with the University of Maryland officially joining the league on July 1.

The recruiting competition between Johnson and Franklin, once Maryland's coach-in-waiting, for top recruits in and near the Beltway will be fierce. Recruits from other areas like Thomas Holley, an ESPN 300 defensive lineman who committed to Penn State in October, could now be in play for Ohio State.

Johnson could have remained in Happy Valley and has been nothing but positive toward Franklin despite being passed over for the job for the second time in two years. As he told ESPN.com's Josh Moyer on Monday night, "Getting promoted isn't the issue to me. At the end of the day, it's giving Coach Franklin the chance to move forward."

It's also time for Johnson to tackle a new challenge. Ohio State could be shaking up the defensive play-calling duties after the unit's struggles in 2013, and Johnson would be a good candidate to assist Luke Fickell or take over. He turned down a chance to become Illinois' defensive coordinator after the 2008 season, and also said no to an opportunity at Maryland after the 2011 campaign. Joining Ohio State would make less sense if it's strictly a lateral move as a line coach, but if Johnson can move up both in pay and in responsibilities, he's making the right decision. Franklin is expected to bring defensive coordinator Bob Shoop from Vanderbilt to Penn State.

Penn State certainly will miss Johnson, who had plenty of support from current and former players to become the next Lions coach. Ohio State, meanwhile, needed another strong recruiter after losing both Vrabel and Everett Withers from its defensive staff. It certainly would get one in Johnson.

The Ohio State-Penn State rivalry has been ratcheted up a notch, both on the field and especially on the recruiting trail.

Best and worst of the Big Ten bowls

January, 10, 2014
Jan 10
10:00
AM ET
As we continue to wrap up the 2013 bowl season, let's take a look at some of the best and worst of the Big Ten's seven postseason games:

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesThe Buckeyes couldn't slow down Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd in the Discover Orange Bowl.
Best game: Michigan State's 24-20 win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO. The Orange Bowl was a wilder game with more huge momentum swings, but the Spartans won a classic, old-school slugfest. The context also included the 100th edition of the Rose Bowl -- and the last one before the College Football Playoff potentially changes everything -- and Michigan State's first Pasadena appearance since 1988. That adds up to make it the best game of the Big Ten's bunch.

Worst game: You have to wonder if the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl would have picked Michigan ahead of Nebraska had game organizers known that quarterback Devin Gardner wasn't going to play. Probably so, since the attendance was still very good. But the Wolverines were noncompetitive in the desert, needing a touchdown and two-point conversion with 1:15 left just to make the final score 31-14.

Best play: This one's an easy call. On third-and-long from its own 1-yard line, Nebraska opted to throw the ball against Georgia in the third quarter of the Gator Bowl. Tommy Armstrong Jr. found wide receiver Quincy Enunwa, and the result was a 99-yard touchdown pass, the longest play in Cornhuskers and Gator Bowl history.

Best surprise: Minnesota coach Jerry Kill left the press box at halftime of the Texas Bowl against Syracuse and coached the rest of the game from the sideline, something he hadn't done since Sept. 28. Having Kill back on the sidelines gave the Gophers a spark as they erased a halftime deficit, but Syracuse still went on to win the game.

Worst bowl week: Ohio State enjoyed an oceanside hotel at the Discover Orange Bowl, but the buildup to the game was no day at the beach. A stomach bug swirled through the team, leaving several players nauseous and vomiting for about 12 hours each. The school found out that defensive end Noah Spence would be suspended for the game against Clemson and the first two contests of 2014. And cornerback Bradley Roby couldn't recover from his knee injury. It's a wonder Ohio State came so close to winning the game with all that went wrong leading into it.

Worst early celebration: Iowa safety John Lowdermilk intercepted an LSU pass and ran it back 71 yards in the third quarter of the Outback Bowl. But just before he crossed the goal line, Lowdermilk -- who had no defenders around him -- casually dropped the ball out of his right hand. The play was ruled a fumble, and luckily Iowa went on to score the touchdown. But not before some embarrassment for Lowdermilk. “I don’t know what I was doing," he said. "I really regret it and apologize. If I’m lucky enough to get in that situation again, I’ll probably put two hands around the ball and go to the back of the end zone, just to make sure."

Worst late celebration: Michigan State players tried to give coach Mark Dantonio a Gatorade shower near the end of the Rose Bowl. But Dantonio skipped out of the way, and the players' effort was embarrassingly off mark. Dantonio had already shown that he's light on his feet this year with all his dancing to Rich Homie Quan. It's way past time we retire the Gatorade bath, anyway, and come up with something a little more clever.

[+] EnlargeGordon
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesRunning back Melvin Gordon had a big day for the Badgers vs. South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl.
Best poetic ending: Kyler Elsworth filled in for the suspended Max Bullough at middle linebacker for Michigan State. On Stanford's final offensive play, a fourth-and-1 run by fullback Ryan Hewitt, Elsworth launched himself over the pile and stuffed Hewitt. That the fifth-year senior and former walk-on earned Rose Bowl defensive MVP honors spoke volumes about the depth and team-first program Mark Dantonio has built.

Best overlooked achievement: Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and James White both ran for more than 100 yards in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina and set a FBS record in the process. They finished the season with a combined 3,053 rushing yards, surpassing the top total for a pair of teammates that Nevada’s Cody Fajardo and Stefphon Jefferson established with 3,004 yards in 2012. Gordon and White also were the first teammates to each rush for more than 1,400 yards in the same season. But the Badgers didn't feel much like celebrating as they dropped their fourth straight bowl game.

Wildest finish: The Orange Bowl had more endings than "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." The game looked like it was over when Braxton Miller fumbled on a big hit by Clemson's Bashaud Breeland with 3:12 left. But then the Tigers threw an interception on a questionable call three plays later. Miller then returned the favor with an interception of his own with 1:18 remaining. It was a fitting conclusion to a game that contained all kinds of wild momentum swings.

Worst clock management: This one goes to LSU, against Iowa. The Tigers took possession with 1:42 left, and even with Iowa holding one timeout, they should have been able to run out the clock. But with confusion on the sideline and at quarterback, LSU called its own timeout with eight seconds left and had to punt. When Les Miles and clocks are involved, things are never boring.
A man wearing a newsboy cap approached Kirk Cousins and offered congratulations to the former Michigan State quarterback, who held court with reporters in the Rose Bowl tunnel moments after the Spartans beat Stanford.

Jim Delany wasn't easy to spot in the headgear, and one could argue that the Big Ten commissioner wisely disguised himself on a day that hasn't been kind to his league in recent years. But for the first time in four years, and for just the second time in 14 years, Delany walked out of the Rose Bowl with a smile on his face.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook and Michigan State gave the Big Ten plenty to celebrate.
For Delany and the Big Ten, the Rose Bowl sits on a pedestal. And after just one Big Ten win in the previous 10 tries, Michigan State's 24-20 triumph in the game's 100th edition was cause for celebration. MSU's victory doesn't dull the pain of the Big Ten's second consecutive 2-5 bowl season, but it certainly helps to prevail in the most important postseason game on the biggest stage against the best opponent.

The Spartans won a team-record 13 games and completed the best season for a Big Ten team in recent memory, finishing No. 3 in the final polls. Nebraska provided the other bright spot, upsetting Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl thanks to a stingy red-zone defense and several standout performances from seniors.

Elsewhere, the Big Ten felt the familiar postseason sting of what might have been. The league easily could have had a better record in the Florida bowls, but Wisconsin and Ohio State had sloppy performances and Iowa's offense never got on track against LSU.

Wisconsin never punted in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina and had two 100-yard rushers in Melvin Gordon and James White, but the Badgers committed four turnovers and scored just 17 offensive points. A team that had been so solid through the first 11 games unraveled in the regular-season finale against Penn State and in the bowl, failing to capitalize on a great chance to build on a 17-13 third-quarter lead. Dave Aranda's defense was shredded for the second straight game as South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw accounted for five touchdowns (3 pass, 1 rush, 1 receiving). A decorated Wisconsin senior classes ended 0-4 in Jan. 1 bowls.

Ohio State also finished the season on a surprising losing streak, squandering two second-half leads in a 40-35 loss to Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. Like Wisconsin, the Buckeyes also were doomed by turnovers, particularly a muffed punt by Corey Brown in the third quarter with a nine-point lead. A depleted Ohio State defense couldn't stop Clemson's big-play receivers, the coaches once again avoided running back Carlos Hyde in crunch time, and a banged-up Braxton Miller committed turnovers on Ohio State's final two possessions.

Injuries and personnel issues were a theme throughout the Big Ten during the bowl season. Wisconsin and Iowa saw their starting quarterbacks hurt during games, while Michigan's top signal-caller, Devin Gardner, showed up in Arizona on crutches and didn't play in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Michigan State overcame the loss of starting middle linebacker and co-captain Max Bullough, as Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris filled in well. Ohio State played without top cornerback Bradley Roby (injury) and top pass-rusher Noah Spence (suspension).

A little more offense could have put Iowa and Minnesota over the top in their bowl games. Minnesota didn't reach the end zone for three quarters in the Texas Bowl, eventually falling 21-17 to a mediocre Syracuse team. Iowa's only touchdowns came on drives of 1 and 4 yards, as the Hawkeyes had just 11 first downs and 233 total yards against LSU.

It wouldn't have taken much for the Big Ten to post a winning record in the bowls. The league had only one non-competitive performance, coming from Michigan in the Wings Bowl, as the Wolverines ended a disappointing season on a down note. The defense never gave first-time starting quarterback Shane Morris much of a chance, allowing touchdowns on Kansas State's first three possessions. Morris held his own but Michigan didn't reach the end zone until the 58th minute in what proved to be the final game for beleaguered offensive coordinator Al Borges.

Nebraska started New Year's Day on a good note as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa triggered the win with a 99-yard touchdown reception, while defensive linemen Jason Ankrah, Randy Gregory and Thad Randle limited Georgia's offense. Michigan State capped the afternoon by rallying past Stanford behind a suffocating defense and quarterback Connor Cook, who collected another postseason MVP honor and his second straight 300-yard passing performance.

The Spartans boost hope for the future after another Big Ten postseason rife with missed opportunities. The league has another team capable of competing for a national championship.

The playoff arrives in 2014, along with a more palatable Big Ten bowl lineup and most likely more bowl-eligible teams. The Big Ten took a small step in the postseason after a historically bad 2012 campaign, but more progress must be made for the rest of college football to start tipping its cap.
It turns out that Bill O'Brien's departure from Penn State caused some collateral damage for Ohio State.

According to multiple reports, and as first reported by BuckeyeGrove.com, Buckeyes defensive line coach Mike Vrabel is leaving the team to take a job with the Houston Texans. O'Brien, of course, was named the new Texans coach last week.

[+] EnlargeMike Vrabel
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesThe loss of Mike Vrabel is a big one for Ohio State for many reasons.
Vrabel did really nice work at Ohio State the past three years in his first college coaching job. The defensive line was the main strength of the Buckeyes' defense the past two seasons, both with veterans like John Simon and Johnathan Hankins in 2012 and again this year with youngsters like Noah Spence and Joey Bosa.

He'll leave the program in great shape at the defensive line position, with Bosa, Spence, Michael Bennett and Jamal Marcus -- who had a strong performance in the Orange Bowl in place of the suspended Spence -- among a deep group returning for 2014. Where Vrabel's departure could really hurt is in recruiting.

He was named the 2012 ESPN.com recruiter of the year and was one of Urban Meyer's best closers on the recruiting trail. That is no surprise, since he has a strong personality and the credibility to back it up thanks to his success as a player with the New England Patriots. Flashing a Super Bowl ring never hurts in living rooms.

With Vrabel's NFL background, it's no surprise that he'd be attracted to a job at the next level, though he did seem pretty comfortable in the college game. Some Ohio State fans, unhappy with Luke Fickell's performance, wished he'd eventually be promoted to defensive coordinator in Columbus.

O'Brien certainly saw up close what Vrabel was able to do with his defensive line, and one of Vrabel's major recruiting wins was wooing Spence away from Penn State. Now O'Brien can return the favor to Ohio State, in a sense. O'Brien was an assistant with the Patriots when Vrabel was a player there.

Vrabel is the second defensive assistant to leave Ohio State this year, following co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Everett Withers, who left to become the head coach at James Madison. This offseason is the first time Meyer will have to replace assistants at Ohio State, as he asked each of his coaches to give him a two-year commitment.

But that's coaching. Good assistants leave for better jobs. This presents Meyer an opportunity to rework his defensive staff and make changes after that side of the ball collapsed late in the season. But Vrabel is not a guy he or Ohio State wanted to see go.

Big Ten lunchtime links

January, 8, 2014
Jan 8
12:00
PM ET
Only 35 days until pitchers and catchers report.
Now that the 2013 college football season is officially in the books (thank you, Florida State, for ending our SEC nightmare), it's natural to take an early look toward 2014.

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.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Clemons
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesBrandon Clemons and the Spartans are a likely favorite in the Big Ten East in 2014.
But Michigan State does lose several defensive stars, including Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis. The Spartans also will have to play in the same division, the East, as Ohio State. The Buckeyes check in at No. 9 in Schlabach's rankings, and colleague Travis Haney goes so far as to predict that Urban Meyer's team will make the College Football Playoff next year.

"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.

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