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Ameer Abdullah's knee as much as its overall body of work getting slightly dinged by Michigan State's loss. That easily could be overcome with a win over a ranked Wisconsin team on the road, and if nothing else, the committee has proven to be more flexible than perhaps poll voters were in the past.
@AWardESPN Can OSU or Nebraska make the playoff if either of them lose another game before a B1G Championship showdown?- Andrew Harken (@fizxphrique) November 14, 2014
Austin Ward: Play that broken record again, man! Without referring again to my chart-topping hit about a one-loss Big Ten champ, I think it's pretty clear at this point that a loss by Florida State is what every team outside of the current top four is secretly hoping for, because there probably wouldn't be any chance of the Seminoles bouncing back into contention once they falter. Maybe I'm in the minority here as well, but I don't actually think there's that great of a chance for two Big 12 teams to qualify at this point, because I think TCU might have hit its ceiling. The Horned Frogs can still impress by passing the eye test, but with only Iowa State, Kansas and Texas left, their heavy lifting is essentially done. Ohio State has two ranked opponents left (assuming Nebraska or Wisconsin win the West without losing again), and Nebraska should have at least two as well (with the Buckeyes wrapping up the East). That doesn't mean I'm suggesting either should definitely pass TCU or Baylor, but based on the current rankings, the committee is valuing the depth of the Big Ten more than the Big 12 and there is still more room to grow in the former than the latter.
@AWardESPN if Florida state stumbles on Saturday, do the buckeyes control their destiny for playoffs? Might 2 Big12 teams get ahead of them?- Dan Gregorich (@somewhitepunk) November 14, 2014
Austin Ward: Forget the future. J.T. Barrett is a Heisman Trophy candidate right now. The redshirt freshman probably hasn't done enough to be considered a legitimate threat to win the most coveted award in college football, but he's certainly playing himself into an invitation for the ceremony. He has been a revelation for Ohio State, and that is making for an incredibly intriguing offseason storyline. The key to that question at the moment is that it's going to be quite some time before Braxton Miller is actually healthy again. At a minimum, he's going to miss another spring camp, and it could be late-summer before he's really cleared to throw and go full speed again. That might make it a significant challenge to reclaim his job, but it might also limit Miller's options elsewhere. The best-case scenario, which Urban Meyer has already alluded to, is a competition between guys who probably will have combined to win top quarterback honors in the Big Ten three years running.
@AWardESPN with Barrett's emergence as a future Heisman-candidate QB, what do you see happening when Braxton is healthy again?- Shane (@wattheheckmann) November 14, 2014
Austin Ward: As always, these projections are subject to change. In fact, these games definitely won't be the same when the bowls are actually announced. But based on the work all the various conference reporters have done to date, check out these opportunities for the Big Ten to test itself outside of the league on big stages: Michigan State vs. LSU (Citrus), Wisconsin vs. Georgia (Outback) and Nebraska vs. USC (Holiday). That's not to mention what could happen with the Buckeyes, who wouldn't be in the playoff as of this moment but could meet a team like Ole Miss or Arizona State in a New Year's Six bowl.
@AWardESPN Given the current rankings in CFP and BIG bowl games, What are the best matchups for BIG teams going bowling?- Brandon (@Brandonwhisky) November 14, 2014
2015 nonconference opponents: Western Michigan, Oregon, Air Force, Central Michigan
Breakdown: Air Force is a definite step above a paycheck opponent and Western Michigan is rising in the MAC, but the Spartans’ claims to a strong schedule in 2015 begin and end with Oregon. One loss to a great team doesn't appear to be as much of a bargaining chip as a couple wins against good teams in the eyes of the committee, so Michigan State will have to win to make it worth its while. The Ducks will travel to East Lansing this time, and a victory for the home team would be just about as valuable a nonconference feather as any team could stick in its cap.
2015 nonconference opponents: Utah, Oregon State, UNLV, BYU
Breakdown: The “Champions of the West” are trying to prove it in 2015 with their manifest destiny non-Big Ten slate. Two games against Power 5 opponents is more than most can claim. Beating UNLV won’t turn any heads, but BYU could prove to be a good measuring stick for next year’s Wolverines. Michigan could help the perception of Big Ten’s depth by knocking off on or two of the Pac-12 teams next season.
2015 nonconference opponents: BYU, South Alabama, Miami, Southern Miss
Breakdown: The Cornhuskers gave themselves a couple of cupcakes in South Alabama. in its third year of FBS competition, and Southern Miss, which has won four total games in the past three years (including 2014 season). Opening the season with BYU is a respectable challenge, and Nebraska does travel to Miami for the second half of a home-and-home series. It will need the Hurricanes to continue their rise in the ACC in order to have any real credibility when nailing pelts to the wall at the end of the year.
2015 nonconference opponents: Virginia Tech, Hawaii, Northern Iliinois, Western Michigan
Breakdown: Ohio State gets its chance to redeem its loss to the Hokies in Blacksburg on a Monday night. The Buckeyes might have the most balanced nonconference schedule in the Big Ten. With two MAC teams that should be among their conference’s best next season, the only true walk-over opponent next year is a struggling Hawaii program that will be far from home. A few matchups with Power 5 teams have fallen through, but the schedule Ohio State put together doesn't give it any chance to separate from the pack before it gets to Big Ten play.
2015 nonconference opponents: Temple, Buffalo, San Diego State, Army
Breakdown: The Nittany Lions aren’t likely to be jockeying for a playoff berth in 2015, which is good because they don’t have the schedule to prove they belong. San Diego State is the toughest team Penn State will see outside the conference next year. At this point, a regular meeting with Pittsburgh starting in 2016 is the only nonconference Power 5 opponent Penn State has locked between now and 2020. The Lions likely scheduled light to ease their way back into the mix following NCAA sanctions, but they'll need to up their game if they want to help their playoff résumé this decade.
2015 nonconference opponents: Alabama, Miami (Ohio), Troy, Hawaii
Breakdown: For the second straight year Wisconsin starts its 2015 season by playing an SEC powerhouse below the Mason-Dixon Line. This season the Badgers played LSU in Houston. Next is mighty Alabama at Jerry World, and the Badgers start the 2016 with a game against LSU at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Barry Alvarez, a member of the playoff selection committee, is putting his Badgers in position to gain a lot of respect from his fellow committee members. The rest of the nonconference slate is nothing special, but a win against the Tide would be more than enough to put them in a good position.
Fan talk: Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has a few concerns about the fan reaction around East Lansing to Ohio State’s victory over MSU last week. Dantonio offered a little pep talk for fans of the Spartans Thursday night during his radio show, saying, “We can still have the best team in the Big Ten Conference just by winning out and winning our bowl game and being the highest ranked.” That’s an interesting spin. Michigan State, barring a meltdown this month by the Buckeyes, is not going to win the league. And it’s not going to be remembered as the Big Ten’s best in 2014. But hey, it says something about how far Michigan State has come that anything less than a championship is considered a disappointment. And if anyone at MSU is struggling to move on, they’ve got company Saturday as the Spartans visit Maryland. Seems the Terps are just now moving past the craziness of their victory two weeks ago over Penn State. Should make for an interesting matchup in College Park -- assuming enough players from both teams are in the right frame of mind.
Moving up: Tom Dienhart of the Big Ten Network is buying J.T. Barrett as the MVP of the Big Ten after the freshman quarterback dissected Michigan State last week on the road in the league’s regular-season game of the year. And I agree. I cast the lone first-place vote in our weekly awards tracker for Barrett as offensive player of the year, disagreeing with popular choice Melvin Gordon. It’s not that I think Barrett is better than the senior Gordon -- not yet, at least -- but his impact as a quarterback is more significant. What’s the difference for the Buckeyes between the team that lost to Virginia Tech on Sept. 13 and the group that looks as dangerous today as any outfit nationally? Primarily, it’s the development and maturation of Barrett. His stats are nice, but Barrett’s impact goes beyond the numbers. He’s leading the Buckeyes like only a quarterback can do, and if he keeps it up, I suspect the others will come around to my way of thinking in the player of the year race.
No update: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini continued to play it coy on the status of I-back Ameer Abdullah after the Huskers’ final practice of the week in Lincoln on Thursday. And why not? No reason exists for Pelini, who surely knows more than he's saying about Abdullah's left knee -- injured Nov. 1 in the Huskers' win over Purdue -- to offer any information to Wisconsin. Pelini, asked about Abdullah on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, has responded with a series of polite but brief answers. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck and Abdullah's teammates said little more in interviews this week. And in assessing what any of them did say, it's impossible to know what to believe. Looks like we'll all have to wait until the first quarter on Saturday to see for ourselves.
Around the rest of the league:
- Rutgers will try to take advantage of Indiana’s inexperience at quarterback, but the Scarlet Knights know that Tevin Coleman presents a big test.
- Interesting stuff from the Cleveland.com writers in their outrageous predictions on Ohio State.
- A review of the week that was for Michigan President Mark Schlissel. (Hint: It wasn't too good.)
- Here's a prediction on Penn State-Temple as both teams fight for bowl eligibility.
- The September loss to TCU may have helped Minnesota get ready for Ohio State.
- Iowa receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley is chasing a notable record.
- It’s getting late this season at Illinois.
- Purdue safety Frankie Williams looks set to return next week against Northwestern.
- A look back at Northwestern’s 1995 upset of Notre Dame.
- Has Wisconsin overtaken USC as the top collegiate producer of running backs?
- Nebraska defensive backs vow not to get “lulled to sleep” by the threats of the Wisconsin passing attack.
HARRISBURG, Pa. -- A newly disclosed email from the NCAA's top lawyer documents just how close Penn State came to having its football program shut down due to the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal.
It says the school's "cooperation and transparency" saved the program.
The email from lawyer Donald Remy to a school attorney was attached to a court filing Thursday, as the NCAA battles with two Pennsylvania officials over penalties that were imposed on Penn State.
The email establishes that on July 17, 2012, six days before the Penn State sanctions were announced, a majority on the NCAA executive committee favored the "death penalty," shutting down the football program.
The school was instead fined $60 million, banned from bowl games for four years, stripped of 112 wins and lost some football scholarships.
Why Wisconsin will win: Abdullah is questionable for Saturday's game after spraining his MCL two weeks ago. Even if he plays at full strength, which doesn't seem likely for the senior this weekend, Abdullah struggled the last time he faced a top-notch defensive front. Wisconsin ranks No. 5 nationally in rushing defense. The Badgers' offense is averaging more than 40 points per game during its current four-game winning streak. Wisconsin's passing game showed a glimmer of existence in last week's 34-16 win over Purdue. And of course the Badgers still have Melvin Gordon, now the country's leading rusher. He gets the better of this battle with Abdullah and so do the Badgers. ... Wisconsin 36, Nebraska 28. -- Dan Murphy
Why Illinois will win: Quarterback Wes Lunt, the Big Ten’s most productive passer, returns for the Illini, who played respectably without him and figure to get a big boost from the presence of their offensive leader. Iowa, meanwhile, is spiraling after that embarrassment last week at Minnesota. And realistically, what’s left for the Hawkeyes, who are already bowl eligible and must win out -- and get help from the Gophers -- to take the West? If Iowa is to stage an uprising, that seems more likely in the final two weeks at home against Wisconsin or Nebraska. Meanwhile, Illinois has plenty for which to play, needing two wins in its manageable three-game finish to get to .500 and perhaps save the program from a tumultuous offseason. ... Illinois 31, Iowa 21. -- Mitch Sherman
Why Iowa will win: No Big Ten team is more frustratingly inconsistent than the Hawkeyes, but after last weekend’s blowout loss, maybe they’ve finally purged all the poor performances from their system in time for the stretch run. At a minimum, Jake Rudock and the Iowa offense figure to put up points against a hapless Illinois defense that is allowing nearly 37 points per game. And even with Lunt back running the attack for the Illini, the Hawkeyes should be able to generate enough pressure with Drew Ott leading the charge up front. Obviously everything doesn’t always work out as planned for Iowa, but it should this weekend. ... Iowa 31, Illinois 20. -- Austin Ward
Ohio State 38, Minnesota 17: Maybe the cold weather can slow down the Buckeyes and an offense that is once again rolling at a record-setting pace. The Gophers have a hard-nosed, disciplined defense at their disposal as well, but Ohio State simply has too many weapons and too much momentum.
Rutgers 20, Indiana 10: The Hoosiers are a mess on offense, and there doesn’t seem to be anything Tevin Coleman can do about it at this point without any help at all from the passing attack. Rutgers had an extra week to prepare, gets to play at home and is plenty motivated with bowl eligibility dangling in front of it -- not a good setup for Indiana.
Michigan State 38, Maryland 17: An angry group of Spartans will be looking to take out some frustration this weekend, and unfortunately for the Terrapins, they happen to sit in the post-Nov. 8 spot on the schedule. Even worse for Maryland, it won’t have Stefon Diggs on hand to try to hit some big plays and keep pace with the Spartans.
Penn State 13, Temple 7: Considering all the expectations heaped on quarterback Christian Hackenberg ahead of his sophomore season, it still seems odd that it’s an elite defense carrying the Nittany Lions. The Owls can do some damage on that side of the ball also, but they’ll struggle mightily to move the chains on offense.
Notre Dame 27, Northwestern 13: The Wildcats aren’t playing for much more than pride after their 2-point conversion debacle last week. They aren’t officially out of contention for the postseason yet, but the Irish should take care of that.
1. Mitch Sherman: 73-18 (.802)
2. Austin Ward: 72-19 (.791)
3. Brian Bennett: 71-20 (.780)
4. Dan Murphy: 41-13 (.759)
5. Adam Rittenberg: 69-22 (.758)
6. Josh Moyer: 68-23 (.747)
1. B1G and not bad: Those early-season debacles outside of the league were supposed to be the death knell for the Big Ten, and they certainly generated a lot of punchlines. But in case anybody hasn’t noticed, the conference is actually a lot more highly thought of by the selection committee than it might be getting credit for, with only the SEC boasting more teams in the current Top 25 than the Big Ten’s five. There are some caveats that must be mentioned, starting with the number of teams still blocking the path of No. 8 Ohio State to the four-team field. And Minnesota might not be long for its spot at No. 25 if it can’t beat the Buckeyes on Saturday. But it’s worth noting that the Big Ten schedule might not actually be a drag on a potential one-loss league champ, because as it stands right now the résumés of Ohio State and Nebraska would both be boosted down the stretch by multiple matchups with ranked opponents in a league that seems to have overcome its rough start.
2. Under-the-radar matchup: The schedule this weekend is well stocked with intrigue, which should probably be enjoyed because Nov. 22 is looking pretty barren. But before worrying about that, Saturday presents a clear heavyweight battle in the West between Nebraska and Wisconsin, with a solid undercard between Ohio State and Minnesota. But while those games are stealing the spotlight, Michigan State’s visit to Maryland should be worth monitoring as well and could be meaningful in sorting out the final pecking order in the East and when bowl bids are handed out. The Terrapins have had some ups and downs in their first season in the Big Ten, but if they can overcome the fired-up, frustrated Spartans on Saturday, they could actually pull ahead into second place in the division with a head-to-head tiebreaker. Maybe that doesn’t mean all that much in the grand scheme of things, but it could be a useful recruiting tool for Randy Edsall down the line.
3. Michigan meltdown: If nothing else, the Wolverines can claim the national lead in public apologies this season. And the mess at Michigan this season isn’t just limited to on-field issues or even the athletic department, with president Mark Schlissel the latest to stick his foot in his mouth and seek forgiveness. Given everything that has gone wrong with the Wolverines this season, it’s getting to the point where nothing can really come as a surprise anymore and missteps barely even cause people to bat an eye. But that’s still pretty remarkable considering the history, tradition and reputation of that university on the field and in the classroom, and it’s fair to wonder if perhaps that might have an impact on the likely coaching search the program will be starting after the season. The problems don’t seem to be limited to just the football team, and maybe that will give a high-profile candidate a reason to pause if the Wolverines come calling.
- Michigan has not ruled out a possible return this season for running back Derrick Green.
- Michigan State was "handled" up front and not consistent enough on its defensive line last weekend, and it's aiming to get that cleaned up against Maryland.
- Rutgers right tackle Taj Alexander has seen the value of being part of a rotation as a younger player, so he can't complain about being in one again as a veteran.
- The "blackout" at Maryland will extend to the uniforms for the prime-time matchup with Michigan State.
- Ohio State H-back Dontre Wilson could be back in time for a bowl game.
- The future of Penn State's depth chart at quarterback.
- The conversations about Indiana all revolve around quarterbacks.
- What if Ameer Abdullah isn't 100 percent for Nebraska? Terrell Newby will be ready for a heavy workload if needed.
- Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon began his friendship with Abdullah over breakfasts at Denny's.
- The return of Wes Lunt could be a significant boost for Illinois at quarterback, and it may be an issue for Iowa.
- Like just about every part of the Iowa roster, the linebackers have been inconsistent from week to week. Quinton Alston is looking for more discipline on Saturday.
- Danny Anthrop was having his best season with Purdue before his ACL injury ended it, but the junior receiver is already focusing on getting healthy for next year now.
- An insightful look at the state of Northwestern from the perspective of a former player.
- Minnesota is gearing up for the cold weather with outdoor practices.
We've been tracking the offensive and defensive player of the year award chase all year long. For a first time in a while, neither award has a unanimous leader this week. A lot can change in the final few weeks. We're also cycling back to see where the coach of the year race stands this week.
Here we go:
Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year
2. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett (one first-place vote): The kid is coming on strong. After a huge performance in the win at Michigan State, Barrett has to be considered a top candidate for this award, if not the Heisman. He's No. 2 nationally in passer efficiency.
3. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: Will Abdullah (MCL sprain) be fully healthy this week at Wisconsin? That's the big question for both the Huskers and for his award chances.
4. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: The burden of trying to carry the entire offense finally caught up to Coleman, who was held under 100 yards for the first time all season vs. Penn State. Put him in the same situation as Gordon or Abdullah, and who knows what he'd be accomplishing.
5. Michigan State WR Tony Lippett: A subpar (for him) game against Ohio State doesn't diminish the fact he has been the best wideout in the league all year long.
Also receiving votes: Minnesota RB David Cobb
Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year
1. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa (five first-place votes): Bosa was pretty well contained by Michigan State's offensive line, but his season-long body of work speaks for itself.
2. Penn State LB Mike Hull (one first-place vote): Hull helped contain Coleman and Indiana, as Penn State's defense did not allow an offensive touchdown in a win over the Hoosiers. He's averaging 11 tackles per game.
3. Penn State DT Anthony Zettel: Zettel has been just as valuable as Hull on that Nittany Lions defense, which looks even better for having held Ohio State to just 17 points in regulation.
4. Michigan LB Jake Ryan: He was all over the field in Michigan's win at Northwestern and now has 13 tackles for loss on the season.
5. Nebraska DE Randy Gregory: His spotlight opportunity arrives on Saturday, as the Huskers defense attempts to slow down Melvin Gordon.
Also receiving votes: Wisconsin LB Derek Landisch; Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun; Maryland DE Andre Monroe
Dave McClain/Hayes-Schembechler Coach of the Year
1. Ohio State's Urban Meyer: What he has done with a very young roster and a first-time starting quarterback, especially since the Virginia Tech game, is amazing. But can a Buckeyes coach actually win this award? Jim Tressel never did, and Meyer couldn't claim it despite winning his first 24 games over two seasons.
2. Minnesota's Jerry Kill: The Gophers are 7-2 and in prime position in the West Division. They play Ohio State this weekend, and an upset would put Kill in the driver's seat for this award.
Wednesday's topic: What team has the conference's best defense? At this point, the answer certainly seems to be either Penn State or Wisconsin. So who has the leg up?
Take 1: Josh Moyer
We can both agree these defenses are among the best in the country but, however you want to weigh these two, I feel as if Penn State has to come out on top. The Nittany Lions’ defense is out on an island in Happy Valley -- surrounded by an ocean of struggles, with the No. 109 total offense on one side and the No. 111 punting game on the other -- so it has to work a little harder to put up the same numbers as Wisconsin. It’s dealing with shorter fields and more offensive plays, but it still comes out on top in just about every statistical category.
Penn State boasts the better rush defense, I think that much is beyond debate. Offenses have run the ball against PSU 16 more times than Wisconsin, but the Badgers have allowed 79 more yards. And Penn State just broke Tevin Coleman’s streak of 100-yard rushing games, so I won’t harp on this point.
So let’s move on to pass defense. Yes, Wisconsin is ranked ahead of Penn State here; it’s No. 3 in the nation, while PSU is No. 13. But passing yards per game is just a little misleading since the Nittany Lions’ defense has been faced with 40 more pass plays than Wisconsin. So, of course, they’ve allowed a few more yards. But PSU has still allowed fewer passing TDs, fewer passing yards per attempt and fewer passing yards per completion. In other words, if offenses threw against each defense the same amount, Penn State would come out on top every time.
It’s not just limiting yards that makes Penn State’s defense so impressive either. It has put this entire team on its back; it’s the reason these Lions have won five games. In six Big Ten games, the defense has allowed just nine touchdowns in regulation -- and only two TD drives have gone longer than 60 yards. In Wisconsin’s five conference games, the defense has allowed eight TDs in regulation -- and four TD drives have gone longer than 60 yards. On average, regarding those TD drives, Penn State’s opponents started 10 yards closer to the end zone compared to Wisconsin’s.
Penn State boasts the top linebacker in the conference (Mike Hull), the top defensive tackle in the Big Ten (Anthony Zettel) and, arguably, the best defensive coordinator (Bob Shoop). Plus, its defense has actually been tested -- since Wisconsin hasn't once faced a Power Five team with a top-60 offense, and PSU nearly upset Ohio State. So, when you combine all of that, I think it’s obvious: Penn State boasts the best defense.
Take 2: Adam Rittenberg
There's no doubt these are two outstanding units led by two underrated coordinators in Shoop and Wisconsin's Dave Aranda, who are good friends who trade ideas in the offseason. Both are among the more creative defensive play-callers in the country, and both have taken over units with significant question marks and made them much, much better.
Penn State might have more star power and superior numbers in certain categories, but Wisconsin is my pick for its overall team performance. There's no weakness in this unit, which is amazing as only three starters returned from 2013 and the Badgers lost linebacker Chris Borland, the Big Ten's defensive player of the year. Aranda has done one of the best coaching jobs in the country, as has Shoop.
I look at common opponents, and Wisconsin has been superior. The Badgers shut out Rutgers (Penn State allowed 10 points), held Maryland to seven points (Penn State allowed 20) and gave up 20 to Northwestern (Penn State allowed 22 offensive points to the Wildcats). These aren't huge differences, but we're talking about two very good, very even defenses here.
You outline Penn State's offensive struggles, which are significant and have put the defense in tough situations. Wisconsin has had its own offensive issues, especially early on as the quarterback situation was a real mess. The Badgers lead the nation in fewest yards allowed (251.1), fewest first downs allowed (118) and goal-to-go efficiency (37.5 percent touchdowns on goal-to-go attempts).
Wisconsin also has limited 72.9 percent of opponents’ drives to six plays or fewer, the best mark in the FBS. Only Ole Miss' Landshark defense has done so on at least 70 percent of opponents' possessions.
Penn State's defense might jump out more because of players such as Zettel and Hull, but Wisconsin just locks you down every time you step on the field. The Badgers also are receiving tremendous production from players like linebacker Derek Landisch and safety Michael Caputo.
I agree the Badgers need to prove more, beginning Saturday against Nebraska's offense, by far the best unit they've faced. But I'm continually impressed with Aranda's group and give Wisconsin a slight edge over Penn State.