Ohio State Buckeyes: Travis Howard
FIRST DOWN: Defensive tackles
Schutt wasn't listed as a starter on the depth chart for the opener, but the sophomore impressed in limited action last season and had turned in a productive training camp before the injury bug bit him again on Monday. The Buckeyes know what life is like without Schutt after ankle issues limited him throughout spring, but for a unit that is replacing all four starters, having everybody healthy and ready to contribute was obviously important.
Ohio State has no shortage of confidence in Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington at end, but in some respects Joel Hale and Michael Bennett are still unknown quantities despite having been in the program for a couple years. Now with Schutt out and Farris moving to fill the void, the pressure is ramped up for a newcomer such as Michael Hill or sophomore Chris Carter.
SECOND DOWN: Freshmen skill players
The Buckeyes have no shortage of pieces returning from the Big Ten's best offense a season ago, but it's the fresh additions that figure to allow Urban Meyer to truly unleash his spread attack this fall.
They still have to prove themselves in a game though, and Dontre Wilson, Ezekiel Elliott and Jalin Marshall are all likely to touch the ball a few times as the Buckeyes evaluate what they have in what is shaping up to be an offensive class capable of making an early impact.
Wilson, in particular, could get his hands on the football right away with Ohio State trotting him out to return kickoffs. His electric speed could be put on display early, but the Buckeyes will really be watching him closely in the H-back role as they try to add more diversity to the playbook.
THIRD DOWN: Cornerbacks
The starting job Armani Reeves is filling this week is only temporary, and the sophomore is well aware of that. But he's got a huge opportunity to impress with Bradley Roby sitting out his one-game suspension, and potentially down the road it might help him make a push for the other first-team job at cornerback.
Doran Grant has something to prove himself after playing minimally in reserve of Roby and Travis Howard a year ago, so the junior bears monitoring as well as he transitions into the starting lineup. There hasn't been any question about the pecking order since spring -- with Roby and Grant leading the way for a talented, deep secondary -- but only one career start separates Grant from Reeves. Both would benefit from making a strong first impression against the Bulls.
FOURTH DOWN: Braxton Miller's arm
The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive for the junior's development as a passer, and he publicly lobbied after practice to air the ball out at least 25 times -- then joked that he would call his own plays to get to 30.
If Miller is eager to show off the improvements he's made mechanically both in terms of accuracy and his footwork, the Buckeyes would certainly like to get a gauge of how far he's come in a meaningful setting as well.
There's been little doubt since a productive spring game that Miller is sharper and more confident delivering the football, and he's only had more time to fine tune his arm since then. The Buckeyes were far from a balanced offense last season, rushing twice as often as they passed, with Miller's skills as a runner helping drive up the margin.
But if his arm has managed to make up some ground with his feet, the offense could be unpredictable with what it could do on any down, making it a nightmare to try to defend.
Ohio State 10: Post-spring power rankings, 6-10
- Last ranking: None
- Last No. 6: DE John Simon
- Spring movement: The sophomore isn't yet a proven commodity on a game-by-basis in the Big Ten, but he's stepping into big shoes and looks more than capable of putting his own footprints all over the league in his first season as a starter. Washington closed his camp with a flourish thanks to four sacks in the exhibition game in Cincinnati, but it was actually his sack and forced fumble in the win over Michigan last fall that really started to build the buzz for the physical, nimble big man on the edge. The Buckeyes are counting on him to deliver on some expectations that are pretty high heading into summer.
- Key stat: Washington was largely limited to a supporting role during his first year on campus, but he made the most of his chances by chipping in three sacks off the bench -- turning them into a combined loss of 27 yards for opponents.
- Last ranking: No. 5
- Last No. 7: FB/LB Zach Boren
- Spring movement: The Buckeyes have plenty of new faces coming in to lend a hand in the passing game, but Brown will again be the guy Braxton Miller looks for first after the two hooked up 60 times last fall. The big difference for Brown as a senior, though, figures to be how much more he can do with the football once he gets it. Urban Meyer gave the receiver a hard time early last season for his inability to make a defender miss, but that steadily improved throughout the season and doesn't look like it will be a factor again moving forward based on his agility and decisive cuts in camp.
- Key stat: He definitely kept the chains moving, but among the Buckeyes who finished with double-digit receptions last fall, Brown ranked last in that group of four in terms of yards per catch at 11.1 yards. As that total goes up, so will the point total for Ohio State.
- Last ranking: None
- Last No. 8: DT Johnathan Hankins
- Spring movement: The Buckeyes only had a glimpse at what the freakishly fast Spence could do as a freshman, but that was enough for them to feel good about plugging him in as a starter on the first day of spring camp. By the end of it, the defensive staff had even less reason to worry after the sophomore flashed his athleticism with three sacks in the spring game -- a performance that defensive line coach Mike Vrabel indicated wasn't even his best during camp. Ohio State appears locked and loaded on both edges, and it needs both Spence and Washington to live up to the hype for a completely rebuilt defensive line.
- Key stat: The Buckeyes had no shortage of guys contribute at least one sack, but among the linemen, Washington actually finished second in that group with just three quarterback takedowns -- well behind Simon's nine. Spence offered up one as a freshman, but that number should improve dramatically and help the Buckeyes find a tandem capable of balancing the pass rush on both sides.
- Last ranking: No. 9
- Spring movement: The experience on defense is stockpiled in the secondary, and no voice figures to carry as easily to the front as that of the senior safety. Bryant has made plenty of noise in the past with his vicious hits and a couple notable penalty flags, but there were few players more steady from the start of the undefeated season to the end of it as the ball hawk in the back end. The challenge for Bryant as he takes the next step is turning a few more of his passes defended into interceptions, and off the field he's embracing the fact that the pressure to mold a young defense is partially falling on his shoulders.
- Key stat: Bryant did his part to create some turnovers with two forced fumbles, a recovery and an interception. But it's the last number where the Buckeyes see the most room for improvement. He broke up 12 passes in 2012 but only kept his hands on one.
- Last ranking: None
- Last No. 10: CB Travis Howard
- Spring movement: Bennett won't be approaching his position on the interior the same way his predecessor did, for obvious reasons. But what the junior might lack in size compared to big Johnathan Hankins, he can make up for with technique and speed on the interior. The Buckeyes aren't expecting that change in style to be an issue, and after Bennett was able to stay healthy throughout the spring, that potential doubt about him might be erased as well.
- Key stat: A nagging groin injury limited Bennett to just eight games, and even when he was on the field, his workload was lighter than expected for somebody who entered the year as a potential starter. The Buckeyes will need a full season from Bennett, and definitely could use more than the 11 tackles he contributed as a sophomore.
- Who's back: Bradley Roby took his time weighing his options, so Ohio State had no choice but to wait and see if it was replacing both members of a talented twosome or just half of it. Eventually it got the good news it had been hoping for and largely expecting, with Roby ultimately deciding to stick around and build on a banner season as a redshirt sophomore. With or without him heading into 2013, the Buckeyes had been loading up on the recruiting trail and signed what appears to be the best crop of defensive backs in the country, and with Travis Howard moving on to the next level, they could see some action opposite Roby pretty quickly. But there is one other returner who could block the path to the starting lineup after Doran Grant impressed when called upon last fall and could be even better heading into his junior campaign.
- New faces: The Buckeyes will no shortage of talented cover guys to sort through in the freshman class, and two of them are already on campus to give the coaching staff an advance look at what they can do. Eli Apple was the crown jewel in RecruitingNation's third-rated classl, and he could make himself a factor for playing time right away thanks to the extra reps and head start he'll be afforded in spring practice. The same is true for Cam Burrows, the ninth-ranked cornerback in the nation coming out of high school and another option who could potentially fill a short-term and long-term void for the Buckeyes.
- Projected spring depth chart: Roby is locked in at one cornerback spot, and Grant should have the edge when the Buckeyes report to work next week thanks to his experience and knowledge of the defense. But Apple and Burrows have the physical tools to push for first-team reps, and rising sophomore Armani Reeves also caught the eye of the coaching staff last fall with his contributions on special teams.
- Numbers game: No secondary in the Big Ten was more opportunistic than Ohio State's, which tied for the conference lead with 14 interceptions and made quarterbacks think twice about testing its defensive backs all year long. But half of those picks belonged to players who won't be back this spring, led by Howard and his conference-leading four interceptions and two more from safety Orhian Johnson. If Roby is able to turn a handful of his head-turning 17 passes broken up into interceptions, though, the Buckeyes could offset those losses somewhat easily.
After making a positive impression during his first season as an assistant coach leading the cornerbacks, Coombs added some additional responsibilities on Friday with a promotion to become the program's special teams coordinator.
Coombs will continue to work with the cornerbacks as well, but the extra title qualifies as a promotion for the veteran coach following a productive first season working under coach Urban Meyer.
"Kerry Coombs is an excellent coach who has a great deal of experience and expertise with special teams," Meyer said in a release. "He is an outstanding teacher, an excellent motivator and he has a true passion for special teams."
The work for the 2013 season is already underway for Ohio State with the strength program in full swing, but the first moves that started shaping the potential encore effort from a perfect campaign began almost two months ago. BuckeyeNation is counting down the five biggest early developments for the team since last season ended and how they will impact the Buckeyes moving forward.
No. 2: Bradley Roby decides to stick around
- Development: The combination of a previous redshirt season and a breakout campaign as a sophomore gave Roby something to think about. After more than a month of deliberations, the rising star at cornerback eventually decided that a chance to compete for a championship and boost his stock even more was enough to put his professional dreams on hold for another year. The lightning-fast playmaker had started thinking about parlaying his huge season and the ability to declare for the draft after spending three years with Ohio State into a potential move even before the program had clinched a perfect record, having conversations with the coaching staff about the possibles pros and cons while continuing to play at a high level in the secondary. But he made clear from the start that the opportunity to make a run at a title with the Buckeyes would tempt him, and Roby ultimately couldn't walk away from it.
CAREER INTERCEPTION RETURNS FOR TOUCHDOWNS
- Who owns it: There's a tie at the top between seven players, but Malcolm Jenkins was the last Ohio State defender to turn a couple interceptions into touchdowns. Nobody has ever done it three times for the Buckeyes, despite the long list of productive, elite defensive backs who have come through the program. There's a cornerback still on the roster who has made it well known he wants to be included on that conversation, and he's halfway to tying Jenkins and Co.[+] EnlargeAndrew Weber/US PresswireCornerback Bradley Roby is returning to OSU for his junior season with an eye on turning some of his pass breakups into interceptions.
- Who wants it: Bradley Roby isn't really returning to set records, but he certainly had an eye on his legacy when he decided to return for his redshirt junior campaign after flirting with the idea of leaving for the NFL draft. The dynamic playmaker turned in one of the best coverage seasons in the country in helping the Buckeyes go undefeated, but he can still boost his professional stock. He hasn't yet had a chance to play for the championship he craves and will be a hungry player heading into the offseason.
- Relevant number: If the discussion included fumble returns or trips to the end zone, Roby's knack for putting points on the board from multiple spots on the field already makes him one of the most versatile scorers the Buckeyes have had in a while. Along with his interception return against Nebraska that leaves him just one short of tying that career mark for Ohio State. As a sophomore Roby tacked on two more touchdowns on special teams -- pouncing on an errant snap for a score and recovering a blocked punt for another.
- Offseason checklist: Urban Meyer threw down the challenge for Roby to compete on every snap and fight off complacency during training camp last season, and he answered the bell by making a point to establish his dominance regardless of any perceived talent disparity throughout the year. The next step is continuing to improve technically and building himself into a more consistent fundamental player in coverage. Roby's athleticism allows for him to erase most of his mistakes, using his incredible accelerating and closing speed to disrupt passes even on the rare occasion he gets beat. But if he cuts down on just that relatively small number, all those breakups he racked up last season could turn into picks.
- Attainable goal: Opponents couldn't just avoid Roby last season with Travis Howard raising his level of play and making either side of the field dangerous for quarterbacks, and part of the formula for Roby to tie or break the scoring record will depend on the amount of chances he gets to make a play on the football. One thing he can control, though, is making sure he stays focused as a student of the game, searching out tendencies and weaknesses of both the receivers and passers he'll face each week -- something he's already done, with the results to prove it against Nebraska last year.
According to the Columbus Dispatch on Saturday night, the dynamic athlete is returning to the Buckeyes for one more season after flirting with a potential jump to the NFL after breaking out as a redshirt sophomore and becoming one of the most productive cornerbacks in the country.
After breaking up 19 passes to lead the Big Ten despite missing a game due to a nagging shoulder surgery, Roby was integral in the second-half defensive surge that helped Ohio State finish off its unbeaten season and boosted his own stock as a potential professional in the process. Eligible to leave the program early after redshirting during his first year on campus, Roby admitted having conversations with the coaching staff about his options well before the season was over.
But after spending more than a month deliberating after helping the Buckeyes finish off a perfect season with a win over rival Michigan, Roby ultimately made the choice that was largely expected since he talked openly about his desire to compete for a national title now that the program's postseason sanctions are in the rearview mirror. And he'll also have another full year to impress the scouts who have already taken notice of him by now.
- Who: Inconsistent heading into his last season with the Buckeyes, Travis Howard turned in his most productive campaign from start to finish and formed one of the best partnerships in the country at cornerback opposite Bradley Roby. Howard wasn't perfect by any stretch and dealt with injuries throughout the season, but his experience and knack for big plays will be tough to replace.
- By the numbers: While Roby received the majority of the attention and accolades for his eye-popping number of passes defended, it was Howard who actually led the Buckeyes and the Big Ten in interceptions on the way to a perfect record.The senior also blocked a punt that led to a touchdown and recovered a fumble, giving Ohio State the kind of takeaway help it had emphasized heading into the year.
- Job description: Assuming Roby elects to return, the Buckeyes are going to need to find a complementary piece to put on the other side of the field -- one who will likely face more throws his way than the average cornerback with teams likely to take their chances avoiding Roby, a potential first-round NFL pick down the road. Ohio State was at its best defensively late in the season when it dialed up its pressure packages and played more man coverage in the back end, trusting Roby and Howard to regularly come out on top in their matchups. The next starter will have to be capable of doing the same thing.
- Top candidate: The Buckeyes have already had a chance to get a look at what Doran Grant can do in live action, and the early returns were positive for the rising junior. Inserted for an entire game with Roby injured against UAB in September, Grant stuffed the stats sheet in virtually every column with seven tackles, a sack, a fumble recovery and an interception that helped the Buckeyes overcome a sluggish performance on offense and finish up its nonconference slate unbeaten. Grant should have the first crack at getting back in the starting lineup on a full-time basis.
- One to watch: Ohio State is putting together perhaps the best collection of secondary talent in the entire nation as it works on the 2013 recruiting class, but there are already some guys on campus that could make a push for more playing time after spending time on special teams as true freshmen. Armani Reeves impressed with his athleticism and work ethic during his first season with the program, and he could benefit from a big offseason.
- Most valuable player: Roles on special teams just aren't handed out under Urban Meyer, though that doesn't change the fact they're valuable proving grounds for players looking to make an impression, as the Ohio State coach is so heavily involved with the kicking game. It also doesn't just apply to younger players, since it was junior Corey "Philly" Brown's explosive contributions on punt return that seemingly helped his role on offense expand as the season progressed and the Buckeyes gained even more confidence in his ability to make something happen with the football in his hands. Meyer had been somewhat critical of Brown's ability to make defenders miss early in the season, but his 76-yard punt return against Nebraska helped seal a blowout victory and signaled that the wide receiver was turning a corner as a playmaker.
- Most valuable player: Christian Bryant might have been underrated for the contributions he made at safety, somewhat quietly going about his business and offering a reliable presence in the backend. Travis Howard played the finest, most consistent football of his career and tied for the Big Ten lead with four interceptions. But it was redshirt sophomore Bradley Roby who was the indispensable member of the secondary, transforming himself from a talented but easily distracted cover guy into an elite competitor over the last 12 months -- and developing into a potential high-round draft pick in the process.
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The Buckeyes might also have a few snubs to complain about as well.
The only unbeaten team in the league had plenty of players earn recognition, though there were a few selections that were a bit puzzling. Did the coaches and the media get it right?
Here's a quick rundown:
Coaches' first-team picks
- Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins
- Defensive end John Simon (Defensive Lineman of the Year)
- Cornerback Bradley Roby
- Quarterback Braxton Miller (Quarterback of the Year)
- Running back Carlos Hyde
- Wide receiver Corey "Philly" Brown
- Linebacker Ryan Shazier
- Safety Christian Bryant
Media first-team picks
- Quarterback Braxton Miller
- Left guard Andrew Norwell
- Defensive end John Simon
- Linebacker Ryan Shazier
- Cornerback Travis Howard
- Cornerback Bradley Roby
- Running back Carlos Hyde
- Left tackle Jack Mewhort
- Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins
Ohio State and its backers are relegated to just watching other teams from here on out and hoping to get recognized. The good news is, they shouldn't have to worry about that this time next year.
While the Buckeyes' 12-0 season won't end with a BCS national title shot, it does set up next year's team for a run at the crystal football. Urban Meyer's first year couldn't have gone any better, and Ohio State will almost certainly start next season in the Top 5 and possibly the Top 3.
"This sets the standard pretty high," senior tight end/receiver Jake Stoneburner said. "I don't think anyone really expected coach Meyer to come in and turn it around like he did. But for anyone who wants to be a Buckeye or is a Buckeye right now, there's no better place to be."
Ohio State went from a team that Meyer said repeatedly had a lot of holes during the first half of the season to one that had no holes in its résumé. That should frighten the rest of the Big Ten, as Meyer inherited a 6-7 team full of guys he didn't recruit, many of whom didn't really fit his offensive system, and he was still able to go undefeated. What will he do once he starts bringing in game-breaking receivers and running backs who can go the distance?
Even though Meyer said Monday that this team's passing game "is not even in the same hemisphere as what we want," the Buckeyes still led the Big Ten in scoring at 37.2 points per game. And that offense loses only two starters, Stoneburner and right tackle Reid Fragel, while hoping senior running back Jordan Hall gets a medical redshirt. Meyer said after Saturday's win over Michigan that Carlos Hyde has progressed into one of the top running backs in the country. Sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller is a possible Heisman Trophy finalist who still needs to make tremendous strides in his passing accuracy and pocket awareness.
"I don't see the ceiling yet," Meyer said. "He's got that much further to go."
The 2013 Buckeyes will be the heavy Big Ten favorites and their schedule is once again very manageable. They play Buffalo, San Diego State and Florida A&M at home, with only California on the road in the nonconference slate. In league play, they trade Nebraska and Michigan State for Northwestern and Iowa as non-protected crossover opponents from the Legends Division.
That doesn't mean next year's team doesn't have some major areas of concern. The defense could lose its entire front four if junior tackle Johnathan Hankins leaves early for the NFL as expected. Cornerback Bradley Roby, a redshirt sophomore, will have a decision to make on his future. If he goes pro, that would mean both starting corners are gone, since Travis Howard is a senior. And three of the team's top four linebackers -- Etienne Sabino, Zach Boren and Storm Klein -- have used up their eligibility.
"The linebackers, we've got to get that right," Meyer said. "That's the weakest area of our team right now."
Ohio State will be starting a bunch of young players on defense and will need its offensive line to stay healthy again because there is not much depth. But intangibles, not talent, might be the biggest question mark.
Meyer said he wasn't sure the senior class was entirely on board with him until an emotional meeting before the Sept. 29 Michigan State game. He raves about that group's "complete selflessness" which he said might be the best of any team he's been around. He pointed to defensive end John Simon playing through severe shoulder pain, Boren switching from fullback to linebacker midseason and Sabino rushing back from a broken leg to contribute as key examples. Meyer said he will have a wall in the team's training facility dedicated to this year's team, complete with video highlights that feature the team's unselfish nature.
There's no guarantee that next year's team will repeat that. Meyer also worries about the complacency that success can bring. He said he'll try to find ways to motivate the players in the offseason, including using the fact that a bowl game was taken away from them in 2012.
"We've got to make sure that doesn't take place," he said. "We need an angry team next year. If we have to manufacture that, we will. We're going to try to push the right buttons to get an angry team. If they're not angry, [if they're] complacent this team's as good as dirt, just like any team."
This year's team was good enough to go undefeated, something Meyer never accomplished at Florida despite winning two national titles there. It's scary to think how good the Buckeyes can be in the future after the first year he had in Columbus. Buckeyes fans might not have to concern themselves too much with what other teams are doing in late November.
Ohio State also had only one final game to make a move in the weekly power ratings.
No surprise, the top spots stayed the same as the Buckeyes polished off their perfect season, getting big-time passing plays from Braxton Miller, another impressive outing from Ryan Shazier and more hard running from Carlos Hyde.
But the defensive effort in the second half as Ohio State shut down rival Michigan in a 26-21 decision on Saturday at Ohio Stadium allowed for some tinkering after that, and for now, the latest edition of the Ohio State 10 will have to stand for a while.
No. 1: QB Braxton Miller
- Last week: No. 1
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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.
A tight end made a transition to right tackle, struggled early and became one of the most important blockers on the team. A fullback moved over to defense in the middle of the season and became a starting linebacker after three days of practice.
A cornerback overcame an up-and-down career to lead the team in interceptions, much like a linebacker who took his time developing finally emerged as a marquee playmaker. A defensive end battled back from microfracture surgery and played almost the entire season. A two-time captain is playing at perhaps the highest level of his career and reaching rarified air in school history.
The Buckeyes have special stories all over the place, and of course, they've all added up to something pretty magical in the win column as well. Their collective tale won't exactly be cheapened if it doesn't end with a victory in the blood feud with Michigan on Saturday at Ohio Stadium, but the coach who has only been with them for one season would clearly prefer to help write a happy ending.
"What they’ve done, I know this is a very proud tradition here at Ohio State, but what they’ve done -- I want to do the best I can that they can find a way to win this game," Urban Meyer said. "And they could go down in the history books as one of the greatest senior classes of all time."
First things first, the Buckeyes have one more major hurdle ahead of them in the bid for a perfect season. But heading into the last game in the careers of those seniors, three of them have stood out this year as perhaps under-appreciated for what they've offered compared to some higher-profile veterans.
- Position: Defensive end
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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
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