Ohio State Buckeyes: Roy Roundtree
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Hello from the Horseshoe, where one of the best rivalries in sports is about to kick off with some extra meaning.
Nebraska's win against Iowa took a little bit of drama away from the proceedings, as Michigan now cannot make the Big Ten title game. In another situation, you might wonder how that would affect a team's motivation. But not this one. The records don't really matter in The Game.
But one record does matter to Ohio State: 12-0. The Buckeyes are one win away from perfection, and while they can't go bowling, finishing up the season with a victory against the Wolverines would be better than just about any bowl victory.
We've got some perfect Big Ten late November weather here, with temperatures in the low 30s and a light snow. The snow isn't sticking, so it shouldn't have too much impact on the game, except maybe adding some moisture to challenge ball carriers. I still expect Brady Hoke to come out in short sleeves.
It just doesn't get much better than this rivalry. Some Michigan fans already fired the first shot by writing "Beat Ohio" and a giant "M" in chalk on the south stadium wall this morning.
A key question looming over this game is the health of John Simon. Reports surfaced Friday that Ohio State's star defensive end is injured and might not play. We have confirmed that Simon is a game-time decision with a knee issue. It's hard to imagine the senior not trying to go on senior day if there's any way his body can be held together. But if he's missing or at far less than 100 percent, that's a big loss for a Buckeyes defense going against an explosive Michigan attack led by Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson.
Both teams have had some trouble stopping spread offenses and containing the perimeter on defense this season. Both offenses will look to exploit that weakness. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller has been a little more cautious with his running style since suffering an injury against Purdue, trying to stay healthy for the rest of the season. But there is no more season to worry about after today, and the Michigan game is where Buckeyes players build their legacies, so I'd expect the sophomore star to play with abandon this afternoon.
But will Miller be able to throw effectively against a Michigan team that leads the nation in defending the pass? The Wolverines have not allowed anybody to pass for 200 yards this season.
Speaking of passing games, Michigan's has gotten a lot better since Gardner took over the quarterback job. But receivers Jeremy Gallon and Roy Roundtree will face a good challenge today, going up against certain first-team All-Big Ten selection Bradley Roby and teammate Travis Howard. The Buckeyes' cornerbacks have been ball-hawks, and should give Gardner more of a test than Minnesota, Northwestern and Iowa did.
There are great matchups all over the field, as you'd expect, and another great one on the sidelines between Hoke and Urban Meyer. Can't wait to get this one started.
1. A Wisconsin-Nebraska title game looks very likely: Wisconsin and Nebraska opened the Big Ten season under the lights in Lincoln on Sept. 29. The Badgers and Huskers probably will close out the conference season Dec. 1 in Indianapolis. Wisconsin punched its ticket for the Big Ten title game Saturday by crushing Indiana 62-14. Montee Ball and the Badgers rushed for a team-record 564 yards -- the highest total in Big Ten play since 1975 -- and completed a rough road back to Indy with a very easy final leg. Nebraska and Michigan remain tied atop the Legends division, but the Huskers hold the head-to-head tiebreaker and took a big step toward Lucas Oil Stadium with another come-from-behind victory Saturday against Penn State. Nebraska once again overcame mistakes and turned in a big second half to remain perfect at home this season. If the Huskers take care of Minnesota at home and Iowa on the road, they'll head to Indianapolis, regardless of what Michigan does in its final two games. These two teams provided plenty of excitement in their first meeting, and it looks as though they'll be reuniting in three weeks.
The wide receivers and tight ends.
Ward: Urban Meyer didn’t sugarcoat his assessments in the spring, and those words have surely been ringing in the ears of the targets in the passing game all summer.
Maybe the new Ohio State coach was simply trying to send a message to the receivers about how important they are in the spread offense. Perhaps Meyer is truly concerned about the talent he’s inherited at those skill positions -- or maybe it’s a combination of the two.
Regardless, after posting some of the worst receiving numbers in the country last season, the Buckeyes are counting on more from the passing game and the group already on campus is going to be responsible for the improvement.
Devin Smith and Evan Spencer both have the ability to produce on the perimeter, and Corey “Philly” Brown has emerged as a viable candidate in the hybrid pivot position thanks to his speed and elusiveness. All of them earned a starting spot coming out of spring practice, but the player that perhaps excited the most for the Buckeyes during camp was Michael Thomas. The true freshman pulled down 12 catches in the spring game -- only two fewer than the highest total anybody posted for the entire 2011 season.
But the guy who might really help the offense and quarterback Braxton Miller take off is tight end Jake Stoneburner, an invaluable security blanket with a knack for turning his catches into points. Of the senior’s 14 catches last season, half of them went for touchdowns.
Rothstein: The biggest question for Michigan this season, offensively or defensively, is who is going to catch the ball consistently for the Wolverines. The coaches have preached having confidence in fifth-year senior Roy Roundtree and junior Jeremy Gallon, but neither has the size the graduated Junior Hemingway did.
Both have had productive seasons in the past -- Roundtree caught 72 passes for 935 yards as a sophomore in 2011 and Gallon had 31 catches for 453 yards last season -- but neither has shown great consistency.
Otherwise, Michigan is staring at a bunch of unknowns. Receivers Drew Dileo, Jerald Robinson and Jeremy Jackson have shown promise, but hardly ever in game situations. Incoming freshmen Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson both have the size and speed potential offensive coordinator Al Borges desires, but no experience.
Tight end, where Kevin Koger was a reliable option the past three seasons, is an even bigger question. The tight ends on the roster combine for two career catches, 28 yards and even less experience.
Fifth-year senior Brandon Moore -- once a highly-touted recruit -- is the likely starter here but otherwise the Wolverines are looking at two freshmen, Devin Funchess and A.J. Williams, and a fifth-year senior walk-on, Mike Kwiatkowski, to fill the role.
As good as Michigan’s run game may be, its receivers and tight ends could stall the offense unless they are able to identify consistent producers.
It's go time.
1. Northwestern: We didn't rank a single Wildcat in our top 10 individual receivers or tight ends, yet we have the group No. 1. Have we lost our minds? Well, maybe. But we really like the depth of this group, even with star Jeremy Ebert off to the pros. Demetrius Fields, Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Venric Mark are all very good, and if Kyle Prater gets eligible this might be the deepest receiving corps in the league. The drawback is the lack of an experienced tight end to take over for Drake Dunsmore, but that's less important in a spread offense.
3. Wisconsin: Bonus points here for star power, as receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen enter the season as the top-rated players at their respective position. There are a lot of other question marks at receiver, though the Badgers have a large cast of candidates. And they're loaded at tight end.
4. Iowa: Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley form one of the best returning receiving tandems in the Big Ten. C.J. Fiedorowicz could become a star at tight end. Marvin McNutt is gone, but James Vandenberg should still have plenty of targets.
5. Purdue: The Boilers bring back three of their top four pass-catchers from a year ago, led by Antavian Edison. They need to stretch the field more, and perhaps star kick returner Raheem Mostert can add more playmaking ability to the group. They have a deep group of tight ends that could be one of the strengths of the offense.
6. Michigan: Junior Hemingway is gone, but the Wolverines are hopeful Roy Roundtree can fill his role. Jeremy Gallon is tiny but manages to make big plays. Michigan will need a third receiver to emerge and for someone to take over for Kevin Koger at tight end. Brandon Moore is the top candidate for that.
7. Penn State: Justin Brown gives the Nittany Lions a solid top option, but the loss of Curtis Drake and Devon Smith hurt the depth. Penn State's tight ends have mostly been anonymous, but that -- along with overall passing game production -- should change with the new staff.
8. Indiana: There's talent here, if the Hoosiers can harness it. Kofi Hughes can be one of the league's top receivers and is complemented by Duwyce Wilson, Cody Latimer and the diminutive Shane Wynn. Ted Bolser had a nice spring and looks ready to be very productive at tight end.
9. Ohio State: By now, you know the stat. No Buckeye had more than 14 catches last year. No matter how many times you hear it, it's still a little hard to believe. At least Ohio State has talented players to work with in guys like Corey Brown, Devin Smith and freshman Michael Thomas. And Jake Stoneburner could thrive under Urban Meyer at tight end. Expect the group's numbers to soar.
10. Illinois: It was almost A.J. Jenkins or bust for the Illini receivers last year. They'll need to find new playmakers in the spread offense. Darius Millines has to step up, along with Spencer Harris. Jon Davis had a promising freshman year at tight end.
11. Michigan State: The Spartans lost their top three receivers and their starting tight end, so no wonder they're so low on this list. The addition of Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett helps, and Andre Sims Jr. and Keith Mumphery had good springs. Still, playing time here is wide open, and true freshmen will get a chance to contribute. Dion Sims has as much physical talent as any Big Ten tight end.
12. Minnesota: Quick, name a Minnesota receiver. If you're not a Gophers fan, you probably are still thinking. This is a group of largely unknown guys who'll have to raise their profile this fall. Brandon Green, Malcolm Moulton and Devin Crawford-Tufts are the leading returning receivers. Transfer Isaac Fruechte and some youngsters will be counted on to contribute. Senior John Rabe brings experience to the tight end spot.
The lack of returning league stars at wideout is illustrated by the release today of the Biletnikoff Award preseason watch list. Just four Big Ten players were named to the list for the award, which goes to the nation's top receiver. They are:
Abbrederis, Davis and Roundtree all make sense. Abbrederis is the league's leading returning receiver, while Davis had 50 catches last year and figures to be James Vandenberg's top target. Roundtree didn't have big numbers in 2011 but did produce nice stats in 2010 and will be the Wolverines' No. 1 receiver this season. Brown is a surprise selection. He's a talented guy, but the junior had only 14 catches for 205 yards last season. Ohio State's wideouts as a whole should improve under Urban Meyer's new offense, but it's a major leap to think any of them will be Biletnikoff candidates in 2012.