Penn State Nittany Lions: Andrew Maxwell

Big Ten lunch links

March, 14, 2014
Mar 14
12:00
PM ET
Big Ten fans: Please consider a donation to help former Northwestern player Nathan Shanks, an Illinois state trooper involved in a major auto accident while on duty earlier this month. Shanks suffered severe burns and several fractured bones and has significant medical expenses.

To the links ...

Grading our over-under predictions

December, 10, 2013
12/10/13
1:30
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In the preseason, we took a stab at picking the over-under regular-season win totals for each Big Ten team. We used the baselines established by oddsmakers in Vegas.

Now, it's time to see how we fared -- and find out which of us was smarter in August.

Illinois

Over-under: 3.5
Actual wins: 4
Brian's pick: Under
Adam's pick: Under
20/20 hindsight: We both had the Illini finishing 3-9; the preseason over-under number was a good one. Illinois' blowout win over Cincinnati remains one of the more surprising results of the season, but the Illini also came close to beating Penn State, Indiana and Northwestern.

Indiana

Over-under: 5.5
Actual wins: 5
Brian's pick: Over
Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight: Vegas got us again. Both of us were bullish on the Hoosiers making a bowl game this year. Home losses to Navy and Minnesota were killers.

Iowa

Over-under: 5.5
Actual wins: 8
Brian's pick: Under
Adam's pick: Under
20/20 hindsight: Like most people, we underestimated the Hawkeyes this year. By a lot.

Michigan


Over-under: 8.5
Actual wins: 7
Brian's pick: Over
Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight: So, um, yeah. This isn't going too well for us.

Michigan State

[+] EnlargePhilip Nelson
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesThe Big Ten bloggers correctly predicted a bowl-bound season for Philip Nelson and the Gophers.
Over-under: 8.5 Actual wins: 11 Brian's pick: Under Adam's pick: Over 20/20 hindsight: Finally, somebody gets one right, and it's Adam. I had Michigan State at 8-4. Adam had the Spartans at 9-3. We both underestimated them.

Minnesota

Over-under: 6.5
Actual wins: 8
Brian's pick: Over
Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight: And I'm on the board. Finally. But 8-4 still surprised us.

Nebraska

Over-under: 9.5 Actual wins: 8 Brian's pick: Over Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight:
I said in my prediction that it wouldn't shock me if Nebraska went 8-4, which they did. Adam called the over "a fairly easy call."

Northwestern

Over-under: 8.5
Actual wins: 5
Brian's pick: Under
Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight: Neither of us thought the Wildcats would miss a bowl game, but I had them falling short of expectations because of the schedule.

Ohio State

Over-under: 11 Actual wins: 12 Brian's pick: Push
Adam's pick: Push 20/20 hindsight: Though we both figured Ohio State would be dominant, we just thought it would be too hard to go undefeated again. It wasn't -- at least until the Big Ten title game.

Penn State

Over-under: 8 Actual wins: 7
Brian's pick:
Push Adam's pick: Push 20/20 hindsight: Another whiff. I even mentioned a possible 6-0 start for Penn State. At least the Nittany Lions beat Wisconsin to get closer to the preseason number.

Purdue

Over-under: 5.5 Actual wins: 1 Brian's pick: Under Adam's pick: Under 20/20 hindsight: Guess it's safe to say the Boilermakers fell way short of expectations in Darrell Hazell's first year, though we both expected some struggles.

Wisconsin

Over-under: 9 Actual wins: 9 Brian's pick: Push Adam's pick: Under 20/20 hindsight: Once again, the wiseguys were right on the number, and so was I, as I predicted a 9-3 season with losses to Arizona State, Ohio State and one other Big Ten team. Blind squirrel, meet nut.

Final results

Brian: 4-8
Adam:
3-9

I won but take no pride in those picks. The lesson here, as always: Don't mess with Vegas.

We also took a stab at some random over-unders of our own in the preseason. Let's take a look at how those turned out:

Michigan State starting QBs

Over-under: 2
Actual: 2
Brian's pick: Over
Adam's pick: Under
20/20 hindsight: The Spartans played three quarterbacks early and very nearly went with a fourth in Damion Terry. But only Andrew Maxwell and Connor Cook started.

Taylor Martinez touchdowns + turnovers

Over-under: 50
Actual: 13
Brian's pick: Under
Adam's pick: Under
20/20 hindsight: This one became a lock because of Martinez's injuries. He finished with 10 touchdowns, two interceptions and a lost fumble. We'll never know what a healthy T-Magic could have done his senior season, and that's a shame.

Big Ten players ejected for targeting

Over-under: 2.5
Actual: 5
Brian's pick: Under
Adam's pick: Over
20/20 hindsight:
It took a while for the league to have its first player ejected, but then the new rule showed its impact. For the record, the five players ejected were Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Ohio State's Bradley Roby, Indiana's David Kenney, Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis and Purdue's Landon Feichter.

Braxton Miller rushing attempts

Over-under: 188 Actual: 131 Brian's pick: Over Adam's pick: Over 20/20 hindsight: Another category where an injury affected things. Miller would have gotten close and possibly reached our over-under if he didn't miss three games with a knee injury.

Chris Borland takeaways

Over-under: 7.5 Actual: 3 Brian's pick: Under Adam's pick: Over 20/20 hindsight: Borland wasn't as active on the turnover front as Adam thought, but he still wound up as the Big Ten defensive player of the year.

Indiana defensive points allowed

Over-under: 29 ppg Actual: 38.8 ppg Brian's pick: Over Adam's pick: Over 20/20 hindsight: And this is why the Hoosiers didn't make a bowl.

Devin Gardner's rushing totals

Over-under: 400 yards and 10 touchdowns Actual: 483 and 11 Brian's pick: Over
Adam's pick: Under
20/20 hindsight: Thanks to a whole lot of sack yardage, Gardner came very close to our preseason baselines.

Iowa AIRBHG strikes

Over-under: 2
Actual: 0 20/20 hindsight: The Iowa running back curse was thankfully lifted this year. Afraid to say anything more for fear of jinxing it.

Totals

Brian: 4-4
Adam: 5-3

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 4

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
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The constant talk about the Big Ten's national perception and performance against other conferences can get a bit tiresome.

But there's also no denying that the league has an image problem that stems from a lack of noteworthy wins. And with nonconference play all but wrapped up (three nonleague games remain -- Illinois versus Miami (Ohio) and Purdue versus Northern Illinois this week, and BYU at Wisconsin in November), we can make a few judgments.

[+] EnlargeKevonte Martin-Manley
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley returned two punts for touchdowns in the Hawkeyes' rout of Western Michigan.
The good news is that there weren't many total embarrassments, though Michigan certainly flirted with a couple the past two weeks. The not-so-good news: The Big Ten finished an underwhelming 9-8 against BCS AQ teams. That record is even less impressive when you consider the caliber of the competition.

The best win remains Michigan's Week 2 triumph over Notre Dame, which is the conference's only victory over a ranked opponent for now. Other BCS AQ scalps include California (twice), Cincinnati, Connecticut, Iowa State, South Florida and Syracuse (twice). The losses were to Arizona State (allegedly), Cincinnati, Notre Dame (twice), Missouri, UCF, UCLA and Washington.

The Big Ten went 3-2 against the AAC, 2-0 against the ACC (Syracuse), 1-0 against the Big 12 (Iowa State), 2-3 against the Pac-12, 0-1 against the SEC (Missouri) and 1-2 against Notre Dame. As you can tell, the league didn't exactly play the cream of the crop in the ACC, Big 12 or SEC. The Big Ten's slate was low on marquee games, and the conference didn't win any of the ones that were there, save for going 1-for-3 against what looks like a decent but not great Notre Dame team.

Luckily, conference play is almost here, and that will consume us for the next couple of months. But if the Big Ten wants to earn more respect nationally, it will have to wait until bowl season for another shot.

Take that and rewind it back ...

Team(s) of the week: It's a tie between Iowa and Minnesota. The Hawkeyes beat Western Michigan 59-3 in their most complete performance in ages, while the Gophers dismantled San Jose State and its NFL-caliber quarterback 43-24. Bring on Floyd of Rosedale!

Worst hangover: Michigan State hoped that maybe, just maybe, it had found a solution to its passing game woes when Connor Cook and the offense rolled against Youngstown State two weeks ago. Instead, the Spartans' passing game looked just as bad as last year in a 17-13 loss at Notre Dame. And the quarterback controversy is not even over, as coach Mark Dantonio strangely went with Andrew Maxwell on Michigan State's final possession -- which unfolded just as you would have expected, with three incomplete passes, two penalties and a Maxwell scramble that came up far short of the first-down marker on fourth-and-long.

The Spartans also killed the small momentum they had going in the second half by calling for a halfback pass from R.J. Shelton, who threw an interception into tight coverage. Apparently, Michigan State failed to learn from its rival last year, but how about everyone in the Big Ten agree not to call halfback passes in South Bend for a while? Dantonio said he made the Shelton pass call, and he likes to name his trick plays after kids' movies. Call that one "The NeverEnding Story," because that's what MSU's offensive disaster has become.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner made his first career start in place of the injured Philip Nelson, and he didn't disappoint. Leidner ran for 151 yards and four touchdowns against San Jose State. The 6-foot-4, 233-pounder showed off some speed when going around the edge and lots of toughness as he continually pushed forward for more yards after first contact.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Iowa cornerback B.J. Lowery had a pair of pick-sixes against Western Michigan.

Big Man on Campus (Special Teams): This one's an easy call: Iowa's Kevonte Martin-Manley returned a pair of punts for touchdowns in the second quarter, piling up 184 total punt return yards. He became the third Big Ten player to have two punt return touchdowns in the same game and the first since 1983 (Ohio State’s Garcia Lane).

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Information): Your new Big Ten leader in Total QBR: Ohio State's Kenny Guiton, who's No. 10 nationally with an 86.7 rating (based on a 100-point scale). A fan asked on Twitter on Saturday night whether the Buckeyes' Guiton and Braxton Miller might be the best two quarterbacks in the league. A strong case could be made for that. ... Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon leads the nation in rushing with 624 yards. What's crazy is that the No. 2 rusher, Rutgers' Paul James, trails Gordon by 51 yards and has 25 more carries on the season. Gordon is still averaging just over 13 rushes per game. ... Michigan State in a nutshell: The Spartans rank third nationally in total expected points added by the defense at 74.32; the offense, meanwhile, has contributed negative-six expected points added. ... Four Big Ten teams (Wisconsin, Ohio State, Minnesota and Nebraska) rank among the top five in the FBS in rushing yards. Five league teams (Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Northwestern and Ohio State) rank in the top 10 in number of total rush attempts, with the Hawkeyes leading the way at 218 (third nationally). ... Problem not solved: Nebraska has fumbled eight times this year, more than every team except Idaho. The only good news is that the Huskers have lost only four of them. ... Penn State's defense has allowed only 12.8 first downs per game, ranking fourth in the FBS, just behind Michigan State. ... An overlooked part of Minnesota's early success: Gophers opponents have started their possessions inside their own 25-yard line after a kickoff 17 times this season, the most in the nation. Thank kicker Chris Hawthorne and the coverage unit for that. By comparison, Michigan's opponents have started a drive after a kickoff inside their 25-yard line just five times this season.

Stern discipline: Five days after the Pac-12 reprimanded the officials who botched the ending of the Wisconsin-Arizona State game and promised "additional sanctions" for that crew, the same group worked the Utah-BYU game on Saturday night. Yep, that's some punishment, having those officials call an intense in-state rivalry featuring a Pac-12 team on the road. BYU fans didn't like the calls that went against their team in the 20-13 Utes win and pelted the officials with trash after they left the field. That was deplorable by those fans, but as far as we can tell, it was the only real punishment those refs received. The Pac-12 refs aren't the only ones who mess up, though. That was a Big Ten unit hosing Michigan State on those pass interference calls at Notre Dame.

Strangest moment(s): San Jose State's Harrison Waid tried to get revenge for battered punters everywhere after he got pancaked on a block by Minnesota's Derrick Wells. Waid hopped up and tried to go after Wells. Alas, that's a battle a punter will never win, and he got ejected from the game. Yes, a punter was kicked out for fighting.

Meanwhile in Columbus ... as if Ohio State needed any extra help against Florida A&M, running back Jordan Hall used umpire Jim Krogstad as a blocker and then a bowling pin on his way to a touchdown. Maybe FAMU could let Krogstad wet his beak on some of the $900,000 Ohio State paid the school for that 76-0 steamrolling.

Say what?: Remember when Penn State coach Bill O'Brien called his team a bunch of "fighters" on national TV at the end of last year's Wisconsin finale, but several people thought he said a different "F" word? Well, O'Brien appeared to almost use another "F" word during his postgame news conference Saturday before catching himself. O'Brien was then asked if he was going to say "fighters" again. "We do have a bunch of fighters," he said. "I don't know anyone who debates me on that. It's like my mom -- she still doesn't believe I said 'fighters.' Do I look like the type of guy who swears?"

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 3

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
10:15
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Ten items to track around Big Ten football in Week 3:

1. Illinois' Chicago Homecoming: The Fighting Illini hope to capture some interest in the Windy City, as they'll be playing at Soldier Field for the first time since 1994. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said back in 2011 that he hoped the university would become the "king of Chicago," and while that won't be decided with a win or loss Saturday, a victory could help the Illini take that first step. They'll be playing No. 19 Washington and could start the season 3-0 with the upset -- already surpassing their two-win total from just a year ago. Nothing helps build up fan support quite like winning.

2. Best in the nation, worst in the nation: OK, the good news first -- the Nittany Lions are a perfect 4-for-4 on fourth downs, the best rate in the country. The problem? They've converted just two third-down attempts ... in 26 tries. That happens to be the worst rate in the country. PSU has been able to overcome that handicap with some long gains, but Central Florida's defense is built to prevent those. So, something will have to give in Happy Valley this weekend if PSU wants to remain undefeated.

3. No more cupcakes for Wisconsin: The Badgers got their fill of overmatched opponents in the first two weeks by outscoring UMass and Tennessee Tech by a combined score of 93-0. Saturday night will be the first true test for Wisconsin as it takes on a good Arizona State team on the road. Can Wisky adjust, and can the running game continue to shine? Stay tuned.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDevin Gardner opened the season on the edges of Heisman conversations. That has changed.
4. Devin Gardner's increasing Heisman stock: During the offseason, Gardner was a 40-to-1 long shot to win the Heisman. Then, as the season neared, he shot up to 25-to-1. Now, after his performance against Notre Dame? 14-to-1, according to Bovada. He's making Michigan fans and Big Ten gamblers pretty happy so far, and at this pace, he just might usurp Braxton Miller as the B1G favorite. He's contributing close to 300 yards per game and already has five passing TDs and three rushing scores to his name.

5. As the Spartans' QB carousel turns: Connor Cook will start again Saturday against Youngstown State, while true freshman Damion Terry appears to be the backup. That means Week 1 starter Andrew Maxwell could be riding the bench, alongside Tyler O'Connor, who saw action last week. It's definitely the most unique quarterback situation among teams hovering near the top 25, and Mark Dantonio is hoping to find something that works. Cook can run, and that's a plus, but the offense is still trying to find an identity outside of "three-and-out."

6. Braxton vs. sprained MCL: Ohio State's dual-threat quarterback remains a game-time decision against Cal, and Urban Meyer might be forced to start Kenny Guiton. Even if Miller can go, it will be interesting to see just how much the sprain affects him. He could have some stiffness Saturday, and that obviously could impact a quarterback who ran for more than 1,200 yards in 2012. It goes without saying that Miller plays a critical role in the OSU offense, so anything that affects Miller will affect this team in a big way.

7. Defensive vengeance: 653. Nebraska fans know what the number means. It's the number of yards the Huskers surrendered to UCLA last season, the second-most yards a Nebraska defense ever gave up. (UCLA won 36-30.) Now, with No. 16 UCLA headed to Lincoln, Neb., it's the Huskers' chance for some payback. "They're coming into our house, and we owe them," Bo Pelini told his players. This should be a good measuring stick for Nebraska's defense and should show how far it has come since last season ... if it has come anywhere at all.

8. Must-win for Kirk Ferentz. The Iowa State Cyclones have knocked off Ferentz's squad by a field goal in the past two meetings, and Iowa can ill afford a repeat here. The Hawkeyes opened the season with a loss to Northern Illinois, and a loss to their in-state rival would be devastating for a program that fans worry already might be on the decline. This is a statement game for Ferentz and his Hawkeyes.

9. Ball-hawking secondary. Quick, what college football team leads the nation in interceptions? If you said Northwestern, congratulations. This Wildcats defense has evolved into an opportunistic one and already has come up with seven picks in just two games. (It's tied with Tennessee, which also has seven.) Last season, three Big Ten teams -- Indiana, Michigan, Illinois -- finished their seasons with just seven total picks. Northwestern has an easy matchup this week against Western Michigan and could pad its leading number.

10. Erasing the question marks: Taylor Martinez is one of the most decorated quarterbacks in Nebraska history. He owns school records for passing yards, touchdowns and total offense. He's a Davey O'Brien Award candidate, and he is arguably the best passer in the Big Ten. BUT, he has been knocked for turnovers and the inability to win big games. Martinez can change that narrative and answer those question marks by beating No. 16 UCLA this weekend. This is his final season and last chance to prove he's able to win those important games -- and Saturday's is undoubtedly important.
Every Sunday around this time, we'll recap five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

Pencils ready? Class is in session ...

Freshman Christian Hackenberg had some big mistakes but showed poise in Penn State's win.
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesFreshman Christian Hackenberg completed 22 of 31 passes for 278 yards in Penn State's win over Syracuse.
1. Big Ten quarterback mysteries partially solved: Week 1 provided some clues about the Big Ten's cloudy quarterback picture, but a few mysteries remain. True freshman Christian Hackenberg looks like the long-term answer at Penn State. Although he had a few shaky moments, Hackenberg completed 22 of 31 passes for 278 yards and showcased a big-time arm on a 54-yard touchdown strike to Eugene Lewis early in the fourth quarter of the Lions' win against Syracuse. Joel Stave got the start for Wisconsin and re-established himself with a mostly solid performance against Massachusetts, twice finding top receiver Jared Abbrederis for touchdowns. Jake Rudock's collegiate debut ended with a costly interception, but the Iowa sophomore showed some positive signs against Northern Illinois, passing for 256 yards. Iowa has something to build on with Rudock. Indiana might lack a definitive starter, but the Hoosiers have multiple options with Tre Roberson, Nate Sudfeld and Cam Coffman. Sudfeld, who played most of the opener and fired four touchdown passes, may end up being the answer for IU. Things are much shaker for Michigan State and Purdue, as both teams struggled at the quarterback spot in their openers. The Spartans likely will continue to play multiple signal-callers, while Rob Henry's starting spot at Purdue could be in jeopardy if he doesn't take better care of the ball.

2. Michigan, Illinois and Iowa can see clearly now on offense: After two years of running the Denard offense, Michigan displayed a system more suited to coordinator Al Borges' long-term vision. The result was a 59-point, 463-yard explosion against Central Michigan, in which just about everybody contributed. Michigan's vertical passing game is much more of a factor with Devin Gardner at quarterback, and the Wolverines ran the ball well with multiple backs. Illinois and Iowa lived in the dark on offense for much of the 2012 season, finishing 119th and 114th, respectively, in yards per game. Both the Fighting Illini and Hawkeyes looked more comfortable with their offensive identities in the openers. Illinois senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase threw for 340 first-half yards en route to a career-high 416 against Southern Illinois. Despite a crunch-time interception, Iowa's Rudock played with better rhythm in his first career start than veteran James Vandenberg did all of last season. The Hawkeyes are far from a juggernaut but eclipsed 300 yards in the first half against Northern Illinois and scored two touchdowns, more than they had in the first two games of last season. Now if only Greg Davis would get rid of the bubble screen ...

3. Michigan State, Nebraska haven't fixed their issues: First, the good news: We've only played one week, and Michigan State and Nebraska are each 1-0. The Spartan Dawgs defense is as good as advertised, perhaps even a little bit better, while the Nebraska offense remains explosive. Now, the bad news: The problems that plagued both teams last season and were supposedly addressed in the offseason remain glaring, neon-blinking red flags. The Spartans' offense struggled up front against an inferior opponent in Western Michigan, couldn't create separation at wide receiver and never consistently moved the football. Quarterbacks Andrew Maxwell and Connor Cook combined to complete 17 passes for 116 yards, continuing a troubling trend of a condensed passing game. Although Jeremy Langford (94 rush yards) was a bright spot at times, he also fumbled in the red zone. Michigan State can't expect to win more games by having its defense outscore its offense. The opposite is true at Nebraska, which rebuilt its defense in the offseason with supposedly more athletic players. We totally expected the new Blackshirts to need a few games to find their sea legs, but we did not foresee Wyoming putting up 602 yards of offense and nearly winning in Memorial Stadium. That's reminiscent of the Huskers' defensive disasters last season, only worse because it came at home against a mediocre WAC team. Right now, the same songs are playing in East Lansing and Lincoln, and someone better change the channel.

4. Ohio State can't lose focus despite weak schedule: Let's face it: Ohio State shouldn't have too much to worry about until Wisconsin comes to The Shoe on Sept. 28. But the Buckeyes are far from a perfect team, and they need to use each week as an opportunity to develop, especially on defense. Ohio State built a 23-0 lead against Buffalo in less than a quarter Saturday, but the concentration level seemed to waver a bit from then on. The Bulls began moving the ball, Braxton Miller threw a pick-six and there was a decent amount of sloppiness in the middle of the game. Ohio State might have had a perfect record in 2012, but it was far from a perfect team and remains that way now. Turnovers and penalties -- the Buckeyes had nine of them -- will get you beat against better competition. Ohio State would benefit from a true test during nonleague play, but unless San Diego State or Cal surprisingly provides one, it won't come until the Big Ten opener against the Badgers. Urban Meyer and his staff must stress the details in all three phases the next few weeks. Talent isn't the issue for Ohio State, but a lack of focus could prove costly down the road.

5. Honeymoon is over for Hazell, continues for Andersen: Purdue was a solid underdog on the road at Cincinnati, but few expected the nightmarish result that occurred. Down just 14-7 at halftime, the Boilermakers imploded in an ugly 42-7 loss that was as bad as anything from the Danny Hope era. Purdue had four turnovers and was so inept that quarterback Rob Henry tweeted an apology to "all my family, teammates, friends and fans. My performance today was unacceptable. Never played that bad in my life." The schedule provides a break next week with Indiana State, but then the Boilers have six straight tough games. First-year coach Darrell Hazell has a lot of work to do to keep the offseason optimism going. There's no such problem yet for Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen. It seemed like not much had changed in Madison as the Badgers beat UMass 45-0 and rushed for 393 yards. Of course, Andersen had a much easier opponent for his debut and gets Tennessee Tech next week. His first real challenge will come in Week 3 at Arizona State. But Wisconsin clearly is in a lot better shape than Purdue right now.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 29, 2013
8/29/13
12:00
PM ET
Finally, live football is back in our lives. Good riddance, offseason.
  • Jerry Kill believes Minnesota is on track and has a better team heading into his third season. Sid Hartman writes that the Gophers are likely to start the season on a winning streak that could stretch into October.
  • With Indiana gearing up for a run to a bowl game, David Woods looks at three reasons why it will be playing in the postseason -- and three why it won't. Preparing for opponents like Indiana State with a new coaching staff provides a challenge during opening week, and it drives Kevin Wilson crazy (subscription required).
  • Andrew Maxwell used his spring break to get far away from Michigan State, and his ability to lead showed up during a trip to Africa with four of his teammates. Right tackle Fou Fonoti is expected to be available, but the Spartans might play it safe on Friday night.
  • James White is the starter, but Wisconsin is planning to split the load between him and two more tailbacks to keep them fresh. Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis will return punts again, and Gary Andersen talks about his quarterback situation.
  • After waiting a year for his turn, Michigan's likely starting fullback was awarded a scholarship on an emotional day for Joe Kerridge. With Amara Darboh out at receiver, Brady Hoke has turned his attention to "the three J's" to fill the void.
  • The blackshirts came out early by Bo Pelini's standards, with the Nebraska coach awarding seven of them on Wednesday leading up to the season opener. With a deep backfield, the Huskers can afford to redshirt newcomer Adam Taylor. Nebraska wants to mix up the tempo, and the offensive line is ready for whatever pace is necessary.
  • Illinois has made some changes in year two under Tim Beckman, and Matt Daniels breaks down five things to know before kickoff. Mark Tupper identified the best players on the roster, the handful that must step up and young players to keep an eye on.
  • Patience will be key for Iowa as it tries to slow down Northern Illinois and its dangerous read-option rushing attack. Mike Hlas shares some of his favorite memories of Hayden Fry. Iowa is urging its fans to prepare for the heat.
  • The wait is almost over, and Northwestern can't wait to get on the field. Updates from a late evening on the practice field as the Wildcats prepare their bodies for the trip out west.
  • Middle linebacker Joe Gilliam is back on the practice field just in time to start the season for Purdue. Trevor Foy didn't really think about playing guard heading into training camp, but the veteran is settling in nicely at the position.
  • Penn State running back Zach Zwinak doesn't care for non-contact jerseys. Bob Flounders highlights four keys for a win over Syracuse.
  • The cost of going undefeated -- expectations are now even higher for Ohio State and Urban Meyer. Backup quarterbacks don't usually win many votes for captaincy, but Kenny Guiton bucked that trend and is penning a memorable story with the Buckeyes.

The games are finally here, and every Thursday during the season at this time, we'll bring you 10 items to track around the Big Ten.

Let's get to it …


1. Quarterback mysteries solved: We might not get all the answers in Week 1 about the Big Ten's many quarterback competitions, but a few clues should emerge. Three Big Ten teams -- Wisconsin, Penn State and Indiana -- have yet to announce starting quarterbacks heading into the openers. Expect sophomore Joel Stave to lead the Badgers and freshman Christian Hackenberg to take the first snap for Penn State. Indiana's quarterback race has been extremely even, and coach Kevin Wilson isn't afraid to let the starter decision go down to the wire.

2. Coaching debuts: Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Wisconsin's Gary Andersen both have enjoyed honeymoon periods at their respective schools, but they both know the mood can change once the games begin. Hazell faces an uphill climb as Purdue plays the Big Ten's toughest schedule, beginning Saturday on the road against a Cincinnati team that won 10 games last season. Andersen embarks on the unique challenge of blending his philosophy with a veteran team that has won the past three Big Ten championships. Wisconsin will have no trouble with Massachusetts, but keep an eye on how the Badgers' new 3-4 defense performs.

[+] EnlargeJordan Lynch
AP Photo/Alan DiazIowa again starts the season facing Northern Illinois and QB Jordan Lynch.
3. Pivotal game at Kinnick: Iowa's victory in the 2012 opener against a Northern Illinois team that went on to the Orange Bowl proved to be one of few highlights in a highly disappointing season. The Hawkeyes once again kick things off against an NIU squad led by Heisman Trophy candidate Jordan Lynch, who wants to avenge last year's setback. It's hard to call a season opener a must-win, but Iowa needs to generate some positive momentum early before a very challenging Big Ten schedule.

4. Speed trap in Berkeley: Still glowing from a 10-win season in 2012, Northwestern faces several unique challenges in its opener Saturday night at Cal. The Wildcats must contain the "Bear Raid" offense orchestrated by new Cal coach Sonny Dykes. The Bears are a mystery team with a ton of youth led by a freshman quarterback (Jared Goff). Northwestern also must contend with a late kickoff and moved its practices this week from the afternoon to the evening. The Wildcats are even taking naps to prepare.

5. Dontre's inferno: Aside from Christian Hackenberg, no Big Ten incoming freshman has generated more buzz in camp than Ohio State's multipurpose speedster Dontre Wilson. The onetime Oregon commit could be a transformative player for Urban Meyer's offense, filling the so-called Percy position at wide receiver/running back. Wilson should get some opportunities for explosive plays as Ohio State opens the season Saturday against Buffalo.

6. Juco hello: The Big Ten doesn't bring in as many junior college transfers as other leagues, but several juco arrivals could be impact players this season. Nebraska fans are anxious to see if Randy Gregory can be the pass -rushing force they've been waiting for. Wisconsin's Tanner McEvoy fell out of the mix at quarterback but will see time at other positions like wide receiver. Illinois wide receiver Martize Barr provides a much-needed weapon in the pass game for Nathan Scheelhaase. Minnesota linebackers Damien Wilson and De'Vondre Campbell could solidify the defensive midsection. It'll also be interesting whether quarterback Tyler Ferguson logs some field time for Penn State.

7. Oh, Henry: Purdue senior Rob Henry will make his first start at quarterback since the 2010 season (yes, you read that right) on Saturday against Cincinnati. An ACL injury sustained in late August prevented Henry from starting in 2011, and the versatile Boiler wore several hats for the offense in 2012. After beating out Danny Etling and Austin Appleby in camp, Henry guides coordinator John Shoop's pro-style offense into Nippert Stadium, where Purdue aims for a win that would provide "instant gratification," according to Hazell.

8. To the Max: Senior Andrew Maxwell emerged from Michigan State's quarterback morass to claim the starting job, at least for now. But after struggling for much of his first season as the starter, Maxwell needs a strong start Friday night against Western Michigan. Head coach Mark Dantonio is committed to playing multiple quarterbacks early in the season, so Connor Cook should see time against the Broncos. Maxwell must prove he's the top option by showing better command and rhythm with his oft-criticized receiving corps.

9. Let's be Frank: Few Michigan players not named Devin Gardner have generated more positive ink in the offseason than defensive end Frank Clark. The 6-foot-2, 273-pound junior had a strong finish to the 2012 season and could be the pass-rusher Michigan needs to turn a corner defensively this fall. Then again, we've seen certain Michigan defenders hyped up (cough, Will Campbell, cough) and never do much. It'll be interesting to see if Clark sets the tone for a big year Saturday against Central Michigan.

10. APB for playmakers: Other than Penn State and Iowa, the Big Ten actually returns a decent amount of experience at quarterback for the 2013 season. But the league lacks offensive playmakers, especially at wide receiver. Teams like Ohio State, Minnesota, Michigan State and Illinois are hoping to surround their quarterbacks with more options. It will be interesting to see who establishes himself in Week 1 as a go-to option.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
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Happy football eve!

Most to prove in the Big Ten

August, 28, 2013
8/28/13
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Every season, each Big Ten player, coach and team sets out to prove something. Maybe it's to prove last season was just a hiccup or that this season is the start of something special.

Whatever it is, some naturally have more to prove than others. So here's a look at 10 players, units and coaches in the Big Ten who have the most to prove:

[+] EnlargeAndrew Maxwell
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesAndrew Maxwell could be on a short leash in East Lansing, so he has plenty to prove.
1. Michigan State QB Andrew Maxwell. Despite starting every game last season, Maxwell was just named the 2013 starter on Tuesday. So it's not exactly a stretch to think he's on a short leash. Connor Cook will get some playing time Friday, Tyler O'Connor is "in the mix" and true freshman Damion Terry wowed the staff in a recent scrimmage. If Maxwell doesn't quickly prove he's the right man for the job, he'll be watching the right man from the bench.

2. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz/offensive coordinator Greg Davis. Are Ferentz's best years behind him? And was last year's passing offense the start of a trend for Davis? The Hawkeyes finished last season at 4-8, their worst record since 2000, and finished with the nation's No. 114 offense. There are plenty of questions surrounding both of these coaches right now, and quieting them would certainly go a long way in proving Iowa's winning tradition isn't gone for good.

3. Penn State special teams. The Nittany Lions ranked near the bottom statistically in nearly every special teams category in the Big Ten last year. They were tied for ninth in field goal percentage, 11th in punting average, last in kick return average and ninth in punt return average. Sam Ficken rebounded in the second half of the season after missing four field goals against Virginia, but he was sporadic again in the Blue-White Game. Alex Butterworth's hang time also needs to improve.

4. Purdue coach Darrell Hazell. He guided Kent State to an impressive 11-3 record last season, became the Mid-American Conference coach of the year and nearly earned a berth in the Rose Bowl. But that was the MAC and this is the Big Ten. There's a big difference, and he wants to show fans of the gold and black that kind of success can carry over.

5. Michigan QB Devin Gardner. He has big shoes to fill when it comes to replacing Denard Robinson, but expectations are already soaring for the player who has started just four career games at quarterback. Some sporting books have increased Gardner's odds at the Heisman to 25-to-1, which means increased confidence, and Michigan is expected to compete with Ohio State for the conference title this season. That's a lot of pressure and, by default, means Gardner has a lot to prove.

6. Wisconsin front seven. New coach Gary Andersen is hoping the new 3-4 defense can create some headaches for opposing offenses, and the front seven here are trying to show they're quick studies. Wisconsin will have to rely on these seven to win, and their adjustment to the new scheme will have a direct impact on the number of marks in the "W" column.

7. Ohio State defensive line. Having four new starters tends to mean there are question marks, and this young group will have to answer them. Noah Spence came in as the nation's No. 4 recruit back in 2012, and reports all seem to conclude he's living up to the hype. Depth here isn't great and neither is experience, but talent and health are the main things that matter.

8. Nebraska defense. There's no problem on the offensive side of the ball with players such as Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah, but defense is what's preventing this team from being great. The Huskers' run defense ranked 90th in the nation last season -- allowing 653 yards, 498 yards, 640 yards and 589 yards in their four losses -- and they could be even worse this year. Three new linebackers will take the field, and Nebraska lost two of its top pass-rushers. A lot to prove? You bet.

9. Michigan RB Fitzgerald Toussaint. There's no way around it. You have to use the term "disappointment" when referring to Toussaint's 2012 season. Coming off a breakout 1,000-yard campaign in 2011, he struggled last season, averaging just four yards a carry and running inconsistently before breaking his leg against Iowa. He wants to show that 2012 was an aberration.

10. Badgers' receivers outside of Jared Abbrederis. If you're having difficulty naming a Wisconsin receiver other than Abbrederis, don't feel bad. Abbrederis caught 49 balls last season -- more than all of the other Wisconsin wideouts combined (48). Jordan Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Kenzel Doe will need to step up to make sure secondaries don't just focus on the fifth-year senior.

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

August, 22, 2013
8/22/13
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We are one week from kickoff, people. One week! Remember to breathe.

And if you're not following us on Twitter, get to it. We're going to have a lot of great updates on there throughout the season, especially on game days. More than 86,000 followers can't be wrong.

Now back to the old-school way of communicating -- by email.




Ryan W. from West Michigan writes: With all the talk about the Big Ten's perception, tell me why I should even care? Outside of the new playoff committee starting next year, who cares what other people outside of the B1G think? I mean, if us fans enjoy the product on the field, I couldn't care less what someone in Oregon or Florida thinks about my favorite team and conference.

Brian Bennett: Ryan, if you want to go all Midwest isolationism, have at it. There's something to be said for just following your favorite team and caring primarily about winning the Big Ten. The success of the Big Ten Network validates this. The flip side is, if you want to take that approach, you can't complain about where your team is ranked in the polls, when it is snubbed for a spot in the four-team playoff or when the media incessantly cover the SEC. Perception can also play a large role in recruiting, as some top prospects want to go where they think they have the best chance for a national championship and national exposure. The nature of college football's postseason and the different schedules each team plays has made perception of conferences important in the big picture. But if you like focusing on the small picture, so be it.




Tom from Marion, Iowa, writes: Help me out, fellow Redbird fan. I just don't get it! Well I do get it... the SEC is King. But, in the BCS era, the Big 12 has been in the BCS title game seven times, won two lost five; ACC, Big East, B1G and Pac-12 three times, all with one title; ND o for 1. All I hear is how much the BIG stinks. Where's the hate for the others? Specifically the Big 12; they've lost five out of seven? That's what I don't get.

Brian Bennett: Huge stretch coming up for the birds on the bat. Anyway, I think there are a few things at play here in terms of the Big Ten's reputation. One is the power of the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mentality. The Big Ten hasn't had a team play for the national title since the 2006 season, and that's an eternity in our Instagram society. Also, the last two times the league played on that stage, Ohio State got blown out in consecutive years by SEC teams, beginning the whole SEC-speed-trumps-Big-Ten-narrative. Another problem is that the Buckeyes are the only conference team to play for a title, whereas leagues such as the Big 12 (Texas and Oklahoma) and Pac-12 have (USC and Oregon) have had more than one team in the BCS championship game and others right on the cusp of it (Oklahoma State, Stanford). Finally, the Big Ten has not performed well in the past couple of years against the SEC in bowl games or in its nonconference games in general, and its Rose Bowl record in the past decade-plus is abysmal.

Other conferences, as you mention, have had their own failures, and you could argue that Oklahoma has fared just as poorly, if not worse, on the big stage as Ohio State. Why they have escaped the vitriol seemingly directed at the Big Ten is not entirely clear, but some moves by the league that have been viewed as pompous -- ahem, Legends and Leaders -- surely played a role.




Darrin from Reedsburg, Wis., writes: It appears Tanner McEvoy is going to be third on the QB depth chart at best. Any chance of seeing him at wide receiver this year?

Brian Bennett: Darrin, McEvoy worked out at receiver during practice this week. Though he was rather adamant about not playing receiver when I asked him about it earlier this month, it makes sense for both him and the team. McEvoy is an excellent athlete who is 6-foot-6, and he played receiver in high school until his senior year. Wisconsin is also very thin at wideout beyond Jared Abbrederis. This could be a situation like Devin Gardner at Michigan, where McEvoy sacrifices for the team for a while before eventually working his way back to quarterback.




Brian from Portland, Ore., writes: Hey Brian -- cool name! Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said that he has the two best tight ends in the nation in Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett. To which, I would respond, "Uh, who?" Who's your pick for the top TE in the B1G this year? My bet is on someone wearing blue and white.

Brian Bennett: As far as tight end groups go, it's hard to beat Penn State. Bill O'Brien seemingly has about a dozen options there, led by Kyle Carter and Jesse James. I'm also excited to see true freshman Adam Breneman -- the nation's No. 1 tight end recruit last year -- in action this season. The Nittany Lions aren't the only ones blessed with outstanding tight ends, however. Jacob Pedersen is a proven weapon for Wisconsin. Devin Funchess could have a huge year at Michigan. Ted Bolser is a big-time receiving threat for Indiana, and Iowa's's C.J. Fiedorowicz has a boatload of ability. I even left out a few really good ones. Tight end should once again be a position of strength in the Big Ten.




Mike from Macungie, Pa., writes: Someone posed a question about Allen Robinson (I think) being in the running for a Heisman. My question isn't that we do/don't have a Heisman contender, but do you think the sanctions would put a contender from Penn State at a disadvantage? Let's say (and this is a HUGE hypothetical) Allen Robinson has as good of a year, or a better year, than last season. If he's in the top three for the Heisman, do you think the voters would take into account the sanctions against Penn State in possibly not voting for him? Matt Barkley came close two years ago, and you could argue similar circumstances.

Brian Bennett: It's an interesting question. I don't think probation necessarily hurts a Penn State player's chances of winning the Heisman. Sure, some voters might hold it against a Nittany Lions star, but think about what a great story it would be if a player had a tremendous year and led the team to a 12-0 regular season. That narrative would carry a lot of weight. And remember, Heisman voting is done before the bowls. A Penn State player would potentially be hurt by the lack of a conference championship game, as his season would end a week earlier than some other candidates. The bigger question is, of course, whether the Lions will have enough depth to go 11-1 or 12-0, which is likely a requirement for one of their players to get in the mix. And no matter how good Robinson is, receivers have almost no chance of winning the Heisman. If this guy couldn't do it in 2003, or this guy in 2007 with those ridiculous numbers, forget about it.




Shifty from O'Fallon, Ill., writes: I've seen plenty of references (to include yours in the mailbag Monday), about what Bill O'Brien can do with Christian Hackenberg based on how he transformed Matt McGloin. I think they'll likely be great together, but I think everyone underplays how important McGloin's B1G experience was to his breakout season. It's not like McGloin was a 18-year-old walk-on. Dont you think we need to pump the brakes a little before we decide the only thing between Hack and Todd Blackledge is four weeks with BO'B?

Brian Bennett: Shifty, huh? Remind me not to enter into a real estate deal with you. Anyway, I agree that they hype is probably getting a little out of control for Hackenberg, since he's only a true freshman. But that's what happens when you're the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the nation. I don't think anyone is suggesting that he will put up McGloin's numbers from last year (3,266 yards, 24 touchdowns) right away. McGloin, as you mentioned, had a lot of experience. But as much as I loved watching McGloin's bust out last year, let's not forget that A) he really struggled at times before O'Brien came along; and B) he never had the biggest arm. Hackenberg simply has better physical tools. Does that mean he'll grasp the system and play with McGloin's moxie this year, or ever during his career? Not necessarily. But when you combine his pure skills, O'Brien's quarterback acumen and an offense loaded with receiving targets, the outlook is pretty bright for Hackenberg.




Enrique from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: Brian, put yourself in Mark Dantonio's shoes. Damion Terry has performed admirably the first two fall scrimmages. Your other quarterbacks have been lackluster, failing to make big plays. Meanwhile, your exciting true freshman is 14 of 21, for 341 yards in the air, 40 on the ground, with four touchdowns and no interceptions, and much of that has come against the first-team defense. If (yay, hypotheticals!) Terry can continue to perform this well in the fall practices, would you, the head coach, go with the young upstart? You might not get a better chance than this year to make it to the Rose Bowl after a prolonged absence. Or do you redshirt him and prep him for next year?

Brian Bennett: Next question.

Oh, sorry. I got a little too into my Dantonio role-playing. First all, let's acknowledge that Dantonio and his offensive coaches know a heck of a lot more about who's playing well in practice and who understands the system than you and I can glean from some reports and limited practice viewing. And let's not anoint a true freshman based on one glowing scrimmage performance. But I do believe Michigan State should play Terry this season, especially in the first few games, so he could redshirt if he were to get hurt. I'll be surprised if Andrew Maxwell is not the starter vs. Western Michigan next Friday, but I think Dantonio should give Terry snaps in some special packages just to see what the kid can do. He is the future, and the future is now for the Spartans. They have an elite defense and a favorable schedule, so they need to go for it this year. The last thing the team needs is a quarterback who is going to make a bunch of mistakes, and there is a serious risk of that with Terry. But he can likely be very effective in certain situations and in a handful of plays per game, giving Michigan State a much-needed different look on offense.

That's me in Dantonio's shoes, anyway. (So where's the tread?).

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 16, 2013
8/16/13
12:00
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Second-to-last weekend without real football. Enjoy.

100-days checklist: Big Ten

May, 21, 2013
5/21/13
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Good news: We are just 100 days away from the start of college football.

To mark the occasion, we're pulling out a checklist today of things that Big Ten teams need to accomplish between now and the start of the season. It's not quite "The Final Countdown" (cue GOB Bluth), but we are inching ever so close to kickoff. Here's what needs to happen in the next 100 days:

1. Identify a starting quarterback at Iowa, Indiana, Michigan State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin: It seems as if there are an unusually high number of Big Ten teams who don't know for sure who their starting quarterbacks will be in the fall. (You could also add Illinois and Minnesota to this list, though it appears likely that Nathan Scheelhaase and Philip Nelson, respectively, would have to lose the job in the summer.) Iowa had a three-man race this spring that will probably come down to Jake Rudock and Cody Sokol in training camp. There's very little separation between Cameron Coffman, Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson at Indiana. Connor Cook continues to breathe down the neck of incumbent Andrew Maxwell at Michigan State. Tyler Ferguson claimed the starting job at Penn State during the spring, prompting Steven Bench to transfer, but highly touted recruit Christian Hackenberg will push for immediate time. Purdue will likely decide between senior Rob Henry and true freshman Danny Etling. Joel Stave and Curt Phillips separated themselves from the Wisconsin QB derby this spring, while incoming junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy could expand the race this summer. All these situations should work themselves out in August, but no team wants to be dealing with an unsettled quarterback competition once the season starts.

2. Solidify the defensive front sevens at Nebraska and Ohio State: The Huskers and Buckeyes stand out as two of the top Big Ten contenders in 2013, but both have serious questions at defensive line and linebacker. The issue is more dire at Nebraska, which struggled there last year and is replacing all but one starter from 2012. Summer arrivals, including junior college star Randy Gregory, could make an immediate impact, and players coming back from injury such as linebacker Zaire Anderson and defensive tackle Thad Randle will need to play up to potential. Ohio State is less concerned about its defense after the spring performance of defensive ends Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, but linebacker Ryan Shazier is still the only returning starter in the front seven. Curtis Grant must finally live up to his talent to provide help to Shazier, and someone must assume John Simon's leadership role.

3. Locate the next great receivers: A few Big Ten teams, such as Nebraska, Penn State and Indiana, don't have to worry too much about who will catch the ball this year. But just about everybody else needs to find playmakers in the passing game. The top of that list includes Iowa, which couldn't generate a downfield passing attack last year; Illinois, which needs receivers to make new coordinator Bill Cubit's spread system work; Michigan State, whose young wideouts must improve on last year's shaky performance; Minnesota, which doesn't have many proven weapons to surround Nelson; and Wisconsin, which still must find a complement to Jared Abbrederis. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is hoping some incoming freshmen augment a very thin receiver group, while Michigan needs to replace the production of Junior Hemingway and Roy Roundtree. Purdue and Northwestern have lots of speedy options but could use the emergence of a true No. 1 target. Receiver was a weak spot as a whole in the Big Ten in 2012, and hopefully some players will improve through offseason voluntary passing drills.

4. Strengthen the running game at Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and elsewhere: It's a cliché to say that you have to run the ball to win, but in the case of the Big Ten, that's always been true. That's why it's so vital for the Wolverines and Spartans -- who both expect to contend in the Legends Division -- to find answers in their rushing attacks. Michigan is replacing its entire starting interior offensive line after struggling to get a running game going outside of Denard Robinson last year. Fitz Toussaint is hoping to bounce back from a disappointing season and a leg injury, while hotshot freshman Derrick Green could get lots of carries right away. Michigan State's efforts to replace workhorse extraordinaire Le'Veon Bell this spring ended up with converted linebacker Riley Bullough emerging as the top back in a mediocre field. Three incoming freshmen will compete for time right away this summer. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson put a heavy emphasis on the running game this spring, hoping for more balance after his team led the league in passing and finished last in rushing last season. Iowa has depth for once at running back but needs to stay healthy there, as the ground game is the key to the Hawkeyes' entire offensive philosophy. Nebraska also can't afford injuries, as Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross are the lone backs with any experience. Illinois averaged just 3.5 yards per carry as a team last year, a number that must improve. And while Purdue loved what it saw from Akeem Hunt this spring, he still must prove he can be an every-down back after attempting only 42 carries last season.

5. Mesh with new coaches: Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Purdue's Darrell Hazell are the fresh faces among head coaches in the league, and while they did a great job of connecting with their players this spring, they still need to get their new systems fully in place. The Badgers will be using some new, 3-4 looks on defense, while Hazell wants a more physical and disciplined team than we've seen from the Boilermakers of late. Michigan State has a new offensive playcaller in Dave Warner, while Cubit was one of many staff changes at Illinois. Penn State's John Butler takes over from Ted Roof as the Lions' defensive coordinator. With only 15 spring practices so far to implement their styles, those new coaches have had to rely on a lot of classroom time and players learning on their own. That will have to continue this summer during voluntary workouts and then will intensify when preseason practice begins. For new coaches, it's a race against the calendar -- and the calendar says there are only 100 days until kickoff.
Way back in the heady days of the 2012 preseason, we ranked every Big Ten position group from No. 1 through 12. We had to base our thoughts on previous performance and a lot of projections in August.

We're going back now and issuing a final, postseason ranking for each position group, and these will be far less subjective now because we have an actual full season's worth of data on hand.

Quarterbacks, naturally, are up first. (Those guys hog all the glory). You can take a look back and see how we ranked this group in the preseason here. Depth is an important factor in these position rankings, but having a standout main guy under center (or in the shotgun) is the most overriding concern with this group.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteThanks to consistent play by QB Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes finished the 2012 season unbeaten.
1. Ohio State (Preseason rank: 5): We figured Braxton Miller would improve greatly in his second year of starting and in Urban Meyer's system. We didn't know he'd become the Big Ten offensive player of the year or finish fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. While he didn't always throw the ball with precision, Miller made all the big plays and led his team to a 12-0 record. The biggest preseason worry was what would happen if he got hurt. Kenny Guiton answered that in the Purdue comeback.

2. Penn State (Preseason: 12): The Nittany Lions were dead last in our preseason rankings, and with good reason considering their past performances at the position. But I did write at the time: "Call me an optimist, but I believe Matt McGloin will be more effective at quarterback now that he's got a more modern offensive system and peace of mind that he's the starter." Uh, yeah. McGloin led the Big Ten in passing yards (3,266) and passing touchdowns (24) while throwing only five interceptions. And he stayed healthy, keeping Penn State's youthful backups from getting exposed.

3. Nebraska (Preseason: 3): Taylor Martinez led the Big Ten in total offense and completed a career-best 62 percent of his passes. When he was good, he was as good as there was in the league. But he still struggled with turnovers in key games, including 12 interceptions and numerous fumbles. If he can eliminate the mistakes, the sky's the limit.

4. Michigan (Preseason: 2): The Wolverines are a hard to team to peg in these rankings. Do we rank them based on Denard Robinson's poor showings in big games against Alabama and Notre Dame? Do we rank them based on Devin Gardner's strong finish to the season, when he was as productive as any Big Ten QB? How much do we factor in the team's lack of a solid backup plan in the Nebraska loss when Robinson got hurt early? You have to weigh the good with the bad, which makes this spot feel about right.

5. Northwestern (Preseason: 9): Starting quarterback Kain Colter threw for 872 yards, which was nearly 450 yards less than nominal backup Trevor Siemian. But Colter also rushed for 894 yards and kept defenses off balance with his versatility. Meanwhile, the Wildcats could use Siemian when they needed to stretch the field. The next step for Northwestern is developing a more consistent downfield passing attack.

6. Indiana (Preseason: 11): Who would have guessed in the preseason that the Hoosiers would actually exhibit the best depth at quarterback? After starter Tre Roberson went down in Week 2, Indiana was able to plug in juco transfer Cameron Coffman and true freshman Nate Sudfeld to sustain the league's top passing offense. The three combined to throw for more than 3,700 yards. Coffman got the bulk of the work but needed a better touchdown-to-interception ration than his 15-to-11 mark.

7. Purdue (Preseason: 1): We overrated the Boilermakers' depth in the preseason. It turned out that only one of the trio of former starters performed at a high level, and Robert Marve didn't play enough because of a torn ACL and Danny Hope's misguided insistence on sticking with Caleb TerBush. Purdue actually led the Big Ten in passing touchdowns (30) and finished third in passing yards, but much of that was because the team often had to throw the ball a lot after falling way behind. This ranking could have been higher with a full season of Marve.

8. Wisconsin (Preseason: 8): Danny O'Brien quickly showed that he was not the next Russell Wilson, but luckily the Badgers had some depth. Redshirt freshman Joel Stave showed major promise before his season was derailed by a broken collarbone, and Curt Phillips turned in a nice comeback story by managing the team well down the stretch. Still, Wisconsin ranked last in the Big Ten in passing yards.

9. Michigan State (Preseason: 10): It was not exactly a season to remember for first-year starter Andrew Maxwell, who was benched late in the Spartans' bowl game. But for all his struggles, Maxwell still finished No. 4 in the league in passing and had some nice games in the middle of the year.

10. Minnesota (Preseason: 6): What could MarQueis Gray have done if he hadn't hurt his ankle, prompting an eventual move to receiver? True freshman Philip Nelson took over the reins midseason and broke out with a huge first half against Purdue. However, he failed to throw for more than 80 yards in the team's final three regular season games. Nelson led the team with just 873 passing yards on the season, and the Gophers threw 15 interceptions.

11. Iowa (Preseason: 4): Nobody took a bigger tumble than the Hawkeyes, as James Vandenberg went from a 3,000-yard passer as a junior to often looking lost as a senior. He completed only 57.3 percent of his passes and tossed only seven touchdowns, with eight interceptions, and Iowa showed almost no ability to go vertical. And no other Hawkeye attempted a pass all season.

12. Illinois (Preseason: 7): The Illini had experience at the position with Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole, but they were both part of a wildly dysfunctional offense. Illinois was next-to-last in passing yards in the Big Ten and also had just 11 touchdown passes versus 14 interceptions. In fairness, both QBs were often running for their lives and had very little help.
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

1. The Ineligibles overachieved under great coaches: We won't see Ohio State or Penn State until next fall, but both teams went out on positive notes to end seasons in which they overachieved. Aside from die-hard Buckeyes believers, who expected Ohio State to go 12-0 and record just the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history? Even fewer people expected Penn State to go 8-4 after a tumultuous offseason that featured the exodus of running back Silas Redd and other key players. And when the Lions started 0-2, most folks wrote them off. But Bill O'Brien and his team never lost faith and surged through most of the Big Ten season. It was fitting that kicker Sam Ficken, whose struggles at Virginia led to Penn State's loss, had the game-winning field goal Saturday as the Lions beat Wisconsin in overtime. O'Brien exceeded all expectations in his first season as a head coach, recording the most wins ever by a first-year Lions boss. Will he be Big Ten Coach of the Year? The only other worthy candidate is Urban Meyer, who took a seven-loss Buckeyes team with significant depth issues and transformed it into one of the nation's best.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
Evan Habeeb/US PresswireBill O'Brien faced tough questions from prospective recruits, but the Penn State coach and his staff kept a top-25 recruiting class together.
2. Michigan isn't really back: Sure, the Wolverines have dug themselves out from the Rich Rodriguez-created crater, and they had a charmed season end in a Sugar Bowl title last season. But in terms of beating really good teams, the ones that signify Michigan once again has a place among the nation's elite, Brady Hoke's crew is still looking for a breakthrough. Michigan won a respectable eight games, but its four losses in the regular season -- Alabama, Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State -- came against the best four teams it played. The Wolverines were extremely fortunate to beat a good Northwestern team and a mediocre Michigan State squad on their home field. While it was nice to end the losing streak against Ohio State last season, Michigan beat the worst Buckeyes team we've seen in more than a decade. The offense still seems hamstrung in some ways by the Denard Robinson era, though the emergence of Devin Gardner is promising for the future. There are signs Michigan is close, and the renaissance on defense under Hoke and Greg Mattison can't be denied. But it'll take a bit longer for Michigan to truly claim it is back, although a Jan. 1 bowl victory against an SEC foe would help.

3. Rex Burkhead still can make an impact: This hasn't been the season the Nebraska senior running back envisioned, but he can still play a major role in how it turns out for Big Red. Burkhead returned to the field in the second half Friday against Iowa after Nebraska's offense stumbled and fell behind 7-3. In his first appearance since Oct. 20, Burkhead racked up 69 yards and Nebraska's only touchdown on 16 carries. He might not be 100 percent, but he showed the skills that make him beloved in the Cornhusker State, particularly on a grinding 9-yard run to pick up a first down after Nebraska was pinned inside its own 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Nebraska had hoped to get through the Iowa game without Burkhead, but when the team needed him, he delivered. He likely will play a bigger role this week against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Burkhead had 86 rush yards against the Badgers in the Big Ten opener, the only full game he has played this season. He could be the boost Nebraska needs to win its first league title since 1999 and possibly win the Rose Bowl, too.

4. Danny Hope's players didn't quit on him: Many Purdue fans have seen enough of fourth-year coach Danny Hope, but Hope has plenty of allies in his locker room. The Boilers easily could have quit after dropping their first five Big Ten games -- four blowouts (three at home) plus the heartbreaker at Ohio State. Some teams projected to do much more would have gone in the tank. But Purdue rallied behind Hope and gutsy quarterback Robert Marve, who played despite a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and won its final three games to secure a bowl berth. The product rarely looked pretty, and even Saturday's Bucket game against Indiana featured some bang-your-head-against-the-wall moments. But Purdue's players never stopped fighting and will head somewhere warm for the holidays. Whether Hope joins them remains to be seen, but he deserves some credit for keeping the team afloat during such a difficult stretch.

5. Bowl practices will be crucial for Big Ten teams: We don't know the bowl matchups yet, but they will be daunting for the Big Ten, which will be without two of its best teams (Ohio State and Penn State) in the postseason. For the league to avoid another bad bowl performance, several teams must take significant steps during bowl practices. Michigan State has the defense and the running back (Le'Veon Bell) to win its bowl game, but it needs quarterback Andrew Maxwell and a young receiving corps to develop. Coach Mark Dantonio hinted this week that his offense needed an update to keep up with the times. Maybe that can start next month in earnest. Minnesota has to get healthy and re-establish its offensive identity behind true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson, who will benefit from the 15 practices. Wisconsin also will have a chance to iron out its offensive issues, while a young Northwestern team that made major strides this fall must make another before facing what should be a heavily favored SEC foe in Florida. Michigan also gets some extra time to figure out its vision on offense with Gardner and Robinson.
Matt McGloin, Braxton Miller and Joel StaveUS PresswireThe recent performances by (L to R) Penn State's Matt McGloin, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Wisconsin's Joel Stave give the Big Ten some hope for improved quarterback play.
Of the many theories to explain the Big Ten's collective struggles this season, the one about the league's dearth of elite quarterbacks certainly rings true.

Through eight weeks, the Big Ten has just one quarterback ranked among the nation's top 30 in pass efficiency (Nebraska's Taylor Martinez at No. 15). The league has just one quarterback in the nation's top 30 in completions per game (Penn State's Matt McGloin at No. 19). The league has zero quarterbacks ranked in the nation's top 30 in total passing yards.

As former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce told me last month, "A team can't get cut short at that position. I don't know whether the evaluation of the quarterbacks has been wrong, or they had injuries or whatever, but the quarterback position is down in the Big Ten. There's no doubt about that."

Bruce is right. There's no doubt. But there's also hope on the horizon for a league that hasn't had a quarterback selected in the first round of the NFL draft since 1995 (Penn State's Kerry Collins).

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