Penn State Nittany Lions: Jake Ryan

Few preseason prognosticators create as much excitement around their summer picks as Phil Steele.

The college football guru packs a tremendous amount of information and research into his preseason magazines. And Steele has released his choices for the 2014 All-Big Ten team, which you can find here.

[+] EnlargeStefon Diggs
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsMaryland receiver Stefon Diggs could make an immediate impact in the Big Ten.
Some thoughts on the selections:

Steele sees newcomers Maryland and Rutgers bringing some talent into the league quickly, as he has two Terrapins (wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long) and two Scarlet Knights (guard Kaleb Johnson and linebacker Steve Longa) on the first team. ... A mild surprise on the first team is Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones, who will attempt to take over the middle spot from Max Bullough this year. ... The first-team defensive line is absolutely loaded, with Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, and Ohio State's Michael Bennett and Joey Bosa. Iowa's Carl Davis and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran were relegated to second-team status. ... Speaking of the second team, Steele puts Northwestern wide receiver Kyle Prater there, apparently expecting big things at long last from the former USC transfer. ... Steele also has Ohio State's Dontre Wilson and Devin Smith breaking out as second-team All-Big Ten receivers. ... Penn State fans might be a bit miffed to see Christian Hackenberg as only the third-team quarterback. Michigan State's Connor Cook is Steele's choice for second-team QB, with Braxton Miller obviously No. 1. ... Michigan State leads the way with five players on Steele's first-team offense and defense. Ohio State has four, while Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan each have three.

Steele also has released his preseason All-America team, which includes some familiar Big Ten names. Here's a quick rundown:

First team:

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

Ohio State DT Michael Bennett

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

Second team:

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Iowa OT Brandon Scherff

Nebraska DE Randy Gregory

Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Iowa PR Kevonte Martin-Manley

Third team:

Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Michigan WR Devin Funchess

Iowa DT Carl Davis

Michigan LB Jake Ryan

Michigan State CB Trae Waynes

Michigan State S Kurtis Drummond

Illinois PR V'Angelo Bentley

Indiana LS Matt Dooley

Fourth team:

Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford

Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman

Wisconsin OT Rob Havenstein

Northwestern RB/KR Venric Mark

Big Ten's lunch links

June, 4, 2014
Jun 4
12:00
PM ET
Happy hump day.
Last week, we took a look at some notable offensive milestones -- 3,000 yards passing, 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving -- and which players in the Big Ten were most likely to reach them. Now, let's turn to the defensive side of the ball and examine which players might get to another impressive plateau: 10 sacks.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsOhio State's Joey Bosa is poised to become one of the Big Ten's fiercest pass rushers.
In light of those quadruple-digit offensive numbers, 10 might seem like a modest goal for sacks. But only one Big Ten player made it there last season -- Nebraska's Randy Gregory, whom we correctly pegged as a possibility last summer -- and none did in 2012. Only 20 players in the FBS finished in double digits in sacks last season. So it's not easy.

But there are a handful of players in the league who have the ability and opportunity to register 10 or more sacks in 2014. They are:

  • Randy Gregory, Nebraska (10.5 sacks in 2013): The physically imposing Huskers defensive end could cause even more damage now that he has a full season of FBS competition under his belt. There's a reason some are projecting him as top-10 NFL draft pick next spring.
  • Joey Bosa, Ohio State (7.5): Bosa burst onto the scene as a true freshman, finishing with 7.5 sacks. His freakish combination of strength and speed could help him achieve true superstar status as a sophomore. Also watch out for Buckeyes teammate Noah Spence, who had eight sacks a year ago but will miss the first two games of the year because of a suspension. It will be extremely difficult for opponents to double-team the two defensive ends once Spence comes back.
  • Andre Monroe, Maryland (9.5): We have to rank the Terps senior this high because he very nearly recorded 10 sacks last season in the ACC. The self-proclaimed fireball aims to burn Big Ten offensive lines this fall.
  • Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State (7.5): The Big Ten's defensive lineman of the year became known for his early season scoring prowess and was a fearsome pass rusher. But despite having a great year over 14 games, he still finished well shy of 10 sacks. Shows you how hard it is to get there.
  • Theiren Cockran, Minnesota (7.5): Somewhat quietly, Cockran was one of the leading sack artists in the league a year ago. He's long and quick off the edge. He won't have Ra'Shede Hageman inside to take away attention, but Cockran has shown that he can do damage by himself.
  • C.J. Olaniyan, Penn State (5): It's hard to block the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Nittany Lions senior, who led the team in quarterback takedowns a year ago. Of course, we also have to mention Deion Barnes, who had six sacks in 2012 en route to Big Ten freshman of the year honors but slipped to just two in a disappointing 2013. Can Barnes bounce back?
  • Frank Clark, Michigan (4.5): Clark didn't quite have the monster breakout year some predicted for him in 2013, but he was very solid with 12 tackles for loss. He's got enough skill and experience to improve those numbers for a Wolverines defense that aims to pressure opposing passers a lot more this year. Perhaps a healthy Jake Ryan, who had 4.5 sacks in 2012 but none in an injury-shortened season last fall, also could make some noise in this category.

 
Spring practice in the Big Ten has sadly come to an end, and we're both back home after some trips around the conference. Wednesday, we shared out thoughts on the Big Ten's West Division, and now it's time to turn our focus to the beast known as the East.

Brian dropped in on Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana, and Adam stopped by Penn State.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's begin with your trip to the Mitten State. You made your first stop in Ann Arbor, where Michigan was wrapping up its first spring with new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Michigan's top priority is the offense and fixing the line. What did you gather about the unit, and how are the changes on the defense -- player positions and coaching roles -- working out?

[+] EnlargeDoug Nussmeier
AP Photo/Tony DingNew OC Doug Nussmeier's top priority is fixing Michigan's offensive line.
Brian Bennett: Things definitely seem a lot smoother on defense. Jake Ryan adopted quickly to playing middle linebacker, and James Ross III is talented enough to play anywhere. Mark Smith picked a good time to take over the defensive line, as he'll have a pair of senior ends in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer and some nice young talent to work with in Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry, etc. Throw Jabrill Peppers into the mix in the back end this summer, and this has a chance to be a very solid defense.

It's just a matter of whether the offense can keep up. The Wolverines are very young on that side of the ball, and the line is full of redshirt freshmen and sophomores right now. Mason Cole enrolled in January and was starting at left tackle in spring ball, which said a lot about the state of the position. Michigan's season likely depends on whether that O-line can come together and raise its collective level of play. There are some good-looking athletes at receiver and running back, but not many of them are proven. Many big questions remain in Ann Arbor.

AR: There are fewer questions at Michigan State. How did the defending Big Ten/Rose Bowl champs seem to be handling their success? And how are they replacing defensive standouts such as cornerback Darqueze Dennard?

BB: Several players told me they were sick of talking about the Rose Bowl, which is a good sign. I saw a team that could definitely repeat as Big Ten champions. The offense brings back most of its major pieces and will add new weapons suchas tight end Jamal Lyles and quarterback/athlete Damion Terry. The early-season scoring droughts of years past should not happen again this fall.

No doubt Pat Narduzzi's crew lost a lot -- four All-Big Ten defenders, plus both starting defensive tackles. Michigan State has a big experience gap to make up, especially at linebacker. But this is a program that just seems to reload on defense now and has recruited so well to its system. Guys like defensive tackle Joel Heath, defensive end Demetrius Cooper and safety Jalyn Powell all came on strong this spring. Three of the corners vying to replace Dennard had interceptions in the spring game. I have supreme confidence that Narduzzi will have this defense dominating again in 2014.

AR: Ohio State's defense has many more question marks after a rough 2013 campaign. The line should be terrific but how did the back seven look during your trip to Columbus? And how are new assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson fitting into the mix? What else stood out about the Buckeyes?

BB: In my eyes, this is one of the most intriguing teams anywhere. The Buckeyes are almost frightfully young on offense outside of Braxton Miller and are breaking in lots of new players at linebacker and in the secondary. Yet they also have some impressive looking athletes and more overall explosiveness than the previous two seasons under Urban Meyer. Ash is installing a quarters coverage look, but maybe even more important is the fact that the safeties can really run and cover now. The revamped offensive line is a big question mark, as is the inexperience at receiver and the linebacker spot. But when you see young guys like linebacker Raekwon McMillan and tailback Curtis Samuel running around, you realize there aren't a lot of Big Ten teams that look like the Buckeyes.

Adam, you made it up to State College to check in on Penn State and new coach James Franklin. What's the vibe like up there?

AR: Electric. The charismatic staff has quickly formed bonds with the players, some of whom knew Franklin from the recruiting process. The defense should be better under Bob Shoop's leadership, as long as the starters stay healthy. There's decent depth up front and safety Adrian Amos and cornerback Jordan Lucas anchor the secondary. Linebacker Mike Hull is embracing his role as the unit's leader. Christian Hackenberg can really spin the ball -- very impressive. But can PSU protect him? No Big Ten team, including Ohio State, has bigger issues along the offensive line. Running back Bill Belton looked great, and I like the depth at tight end. Franklin is realistic about the depth issues and knows his team can't afford many more injuries.

You also visited Indiana this spring. How did the Hoosiers look, especially on defense with new coordinator Brian Knorr?

BB: You know the drill. Indiana could make some real noise if it could actually, you know, stop anybody. Knorr has them playing a 3-4, and hey have some major beef inside with the defensive tackles in 325-pounders Darius Latham and Ralph Green III. Ten starters are back and some promising recruits are on the way, so there's more depth on defense than before. But it's still a major construction project, and the offense might lose a little of its big-play ability as it tries to replace three of its top four receivers from a season ago.

OK, lightning-round finish. I still see Michigan State and Ohio State as the heavy favorites here, with Penn State a dark horse if its O-line issues can be solved. What about you?

AR: MSU is the team to beat because of the quarterback and the track record on defense. Ohio State definitely is in that mix, too. Michigan remains young at spots but could contend with a serviceable run game. Offensive line is a huge issue in this division. Sleeper-wise, I wouldn't count out Penn State, Indiana or Maryland, which could be dynamic on offense if it finally stays healthy.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.

Big Ten lunchtime links

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
12:00
PM ET
Cold, cold, go away.

Big Ten lunch links

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
12:00
PM ET
A gold medal-winning version of the links.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
5:00
PM ET
What you gobblin' about, turkeys?

Daniel from Enemy Territory, Ohio, writes: Brian, what can Michigan do (short of a miracle or swapping teams with say, Alabama) to pull off the major upset against OSU this week?

Brian Bennett: Well, the Wolverines should be praying the rosary and searching for a Zoltar Speaks machine. That's still their best bet in a game in which they are -- and should be -- heavy underdogs.

[+] EnlargeJake Ryan
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJake Ryan must play well if the Wolverines are going to hang around with the Buckeyes.
The good news, if there is any, is that Michigan is at home, and the team really has nothing to lose. So if the game is close in the second half, the pressure will be all on Ohio State. The Wolverines will have to find a way to create turnovers and then do something with them -- remember, they were plus-three in turnovers last week at Iowa to no avail. They've got to short-circuit that Ohio State offense somehow. Maybe Jake Ryan has the game of his life. And on offense, Michigan should throw something at the Buckeyes that they haven't seen on film all season. Forget the running game, which hasn't worked all season and won't work this week. Line up with four- and five-wide, run the hurry up and try to get something going in the passing game, which is still probably the best way to exploit the Ohio State D. If Al Borges is going down, why not in a blaze of glory?

But in all likelihood, it will be a blaze of gory for the Maize and Blue.

John from Au Gres, Mich., writes: Are you on board with the idea that MSU can pass Wiscy with a more impressive victory of Minny this weekend? Be prepared, I have a feeling the Spartans play for style points, which is out of character. However, we are still stuck with the BCS, and perception matters. Coach D has already said he thinks the Spartans are playing for a BCS bid this weekend.

Brian Bennett: I assume you mean in our power rankings and on my own personal ballot, since Michigan State is already ahead of Wisconsin where it actually matters. And sure, I'm on board. I'll be in East Lansing on Saturday and am greatly looking forward to seeing the Spartans in person. I already think this is a fantastic team that can play with any team in the country. My only reservation about the Spartans, and it's a slight one, is that the schedule has been highly favorable.

But I just saw Wisconsin play Minnesota last week so should have a great comparison this week. I've said all along that this is basically a flip-a-coin, 2A and 2B situation. I'm totally willing to switch the teams based on what we see this weekend.

Bob Noble from Grand Ledge, Mich., writes: What am I missing? You continue to have Ryan Shazier and Chris Borland rated 1 and 2, respectively as Big Ten defensive POY, while Darqueze Dennard is at No. 3. Which one of the three is a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Award as the NATIONAL Defensive POY? Oh yeah, that would be Dennard of MSU. So how is DD lower on the list of Big Ten POY when the two players listed above him aren't even being considered for NATIONAL POY?

Brian Bennett: First of all, nobody loves Dennard as a player more than me. If he doesn't win the Thorpe Award or make first-team All-America, I'll scream. He is absolutely tremendous and deserving of any honor you want to give him.

Secondly, let's not put a whole lot of stock in whom one award names as its finalists. There are approximately 1.2 million college football postseason awards, and as we've seen over and over again, the voting for those can often turn out inexplicable and wacky.

Finally, while all three are great players, I have Shazier and Borland rated a little higher because I think a linebacker makes a little more overall impact on a defense than a cornerback. And while Dennard has other stars around him such as Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Shilique Calhoun, Borland and Shazier are the unquestioned focal points of their defense.

Paul W. from Dodge City writes: Do you think if Nebraska was 10-1 or 11-0 right Ameer Abdullah would be in the Heisman hunt? I know that he has a lower touchdown total than other running backs but a good game Friday and he could surpass Mark Ingram's rushing total from his Heisman season.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
AP Photo/Nati HarnikAmeer Abdullah has topped 100 rushing yards in 10 of Nebraska's 11 games. The Huskers' only loss came when he didn't reach the century mark.
Brian Bennett: I think you're on to something. Nebraska in a lot of ways has really been out of the national spotlight since the UCLA loss. A lot of people around the country probably don't realize exactly what Abdullah has done, or how he has done it through a spate of injuries around him. Abdullah also hasn't had nearly as many carries as the three Doak Walker finalists have gotten this year. He'll have to settle for likely winning the Big Ten running back of the year award, and, possibly, offensive player of the year.

Ethan from Abbottstown, Pa., writes: The PSU special teams has been awful this year, and it is one of the major impacts of the sanctions. Do you attribute this special teams downfall to the fact the former only special teams specialists are now being used to fill out the offense and defense? Or the fact that PSU must now recruit only must-need positions and not players who could find a home on kickoff and kick return?

Brian Bennett: Special teams have been a problem, really, in both seasons so far for Bill O'Brien. But they have been particularly glaring of late. The sanctions certainly have played a role; it's hard not to notice that Anthony Fera, who transferred from Penn State after the NCAA free pass, is a Lou Groza Award finalist. O'Brien is also forced to play some walk-ons in key spots in the kicking game.

But I don't think you can blame all the problems on scholarship reductions. Coaching still has to enter the equation, and there have been some obvious breakdowns in coverage and returns. And Penn State's special teams weren't very good last year when the scholarship numbers were much higher. So while I continue to believe the sanctions will have an impact on special teams in the near future, I also think the Nittany Lions can do a better job than they have of working around those depth issues in the kicking game.

John from Lima, Ohio, writes: As a Buckeye fan it has been very frustrating to hear all year how bad their schedule is and that being the sole reason they should be held out of the title game, never mind how good they actually are. Especially when you see a team like Clemson sneaking back up the rankings when they have zero wins against currently ranked FBS teams, all their FBS wins are against teams with at least four losses, and they played not one, but TWO FCS teams this season. So while OSU's schedule might not be murderer's row this year, why does the media single them out when other teams have the same issues?

Brian Bennett: Let's not kid ourselves: the negative perception of the Big Ten is weighing down Ohio State. And the Buckeyes are also paying a price for losing by double digits in two BCS title games in the previous decade, which is ridiculous. I also believe not playing in a bowl game last year hurt Ohio State. Clemson got a significant perception bump last year by beating LSU in a bowl game, allowing the Tigers to start out high in the polls. Then they began the year by beating a Georgia team that was ranked in the top 5. That has been enough to keep Clemson ranked high, even though Georgia has since fallen apart because injuries. Ohio State has nothing out of conference to hang its hat on from the past two years.

Pat from Iowa writes: Who would you consider the biggest surprise team this year for good or for worse? Northwestern's down spiral, Minnesota's amazing year, or perhaps a great Iowa rebound year? Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: The biggest positive surprise has been Minnesota. No one thought the Gophers would be 8-3 at this point, especially after Jerry Kill took his leave of absence in the middle of the season. That's been an unbelievable story. Northwestern has to be the biggest negative surprise. This was a Top 20 team earlier in the year that most people thought could contend in the Legends Division. If the Wildcats don't beat Illinois, they'll end up 0-8 in the Big Ten. Unreal. No. 2 on both my lists would be Iowa on the positive side and Michigan on the negative.

Martyn from Cuenca, Ecuador, writes: I read the Big Ten blog religiously. Moved from Madison to Ecuador this year. Miss the atmosphere at Camp Randall & the Kohl Center. On your recent blog about Big Ten linebackers you mentioned Borland's 14 forced fumbles tying the B1G record. I believe it is the FBS record? I will prepare myself to apply to be a guest predictor next year. I catch a few broadcasts on my computer. Keeps my Badger jones in check. A little early, but Happy Holidays.

Brian Bennett: Vaya con Dios, Martyn. Do they have cheese curds in Ecuador? There was a little confusion in regards to Borland's record. He came into the year needing one to tie the FBS record. But Buffalo's Khalil Mack had three forced fumbles in his last game to set the new FBS career mark of 16. Borland is now tied for second and tied for the Big Ten career mark with Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan.

One last note: Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

October, 16, 2013
10/16/13
5:00
PM ET
It's mail time. I'll warn you in advance, it's going to get weird at the end.

Jason from Columbus writes: Brian, Iowa is the only FBS team in the country that has not allowed a rushing touchdown in the country this season. Ohio State is 12th in the country with 17 rushing touchdowns in only 6 games. Who comes out on top this weekend, Iowa's rush defense or Carlos Hyde, Dontre Wilson, Jordan Hall, and the rest of the Buckeyes who can run through a defense?

Brian Bennett: Good question. Urban Meyer is so impressed with Iowa's front seven that he mentioned them in the same sentence as Alabama this week. Not sure I'd go that far, but the improvement of the Hawkeyes' defense up front has been one of the pleasant surprises this season. However, as you mentioned, Ohio State has a great running game. And that all starts with what has been the best offensive line in the Big Ten for the past two years. The Buckeyes' blockers are big, physical and smart, and they pave the way for the speed of Hall, Wilson and Braxton Miller as well as the power of Hyde. That's going to be tough for any defense to stop, including one playing as well against the run as Iowa.

The bigger concern I'd have if I were Kirk Ferentz and Phil Parker is Miller taking shots down the field. Ohio State is not a consistently good passing team but does connect at times on the deep ball, and the Hawkeyes are more vulnerable on the back end.

David K. from Oxnard, Calif., writes: First off, I'm biased: I've been a Badger football fan since November 1962, when I attended the UW-Minnesota game, which the Badgers won with a great comeback, led by Ron Vanderkelen and Pat Richter. And I attended the UW, off and on, from 1966 to 1974. Biases admitted, why the heck isn't Melvin Gordon even being mentioned in the discussions regarding the 2013 Heisman Trophy? He's the 3rd-leading rusher in the BCS division with a 9.7 YPC average. Every time he touches the football, everybody holds their breath. I mean, c'mon, guys, what does he have to do? Leap tall buildings in a single bound?

Brian Bennett: I love watching Gordon, and we named him our midseason offensive player of the year as well as an ESPN.com first half All-American. So he's on the radar for the Heisman, but there are a few things really working against him. One is that Wisconsin has two losses. For better or worse, the Heisman usually goes to players on national title contenders, although Robert Griffin III and Tim Tebow both won it on teams with multiple losses. Another problem is that in the Badgers' signature game, at Ohio State in primetime, Gordon has his lowest output of the season and got injured to boot. Wisconsin simply doesn't have any marquee games left on the schedule, so he won't get the opportunity to make up for it. Gordon would have to put up insane numbers to get back in the conversation. He is, of course, capable of doing just that.

Alex H. from Bloomington, Ill., writes: Watching that Michigan-PSU game was a bummer, I will not lie. Can we not act like the sky is falling for a moment? The defense played opportunistic despite that last-minute 4th quarter drive, and even on those throws coverage wasn't bad. I was impressed with Gardner's 2nd half. The biggest concern is Lewan out, the run game stalling. This loss doesn't hinder there Big Ten championship goals as they still play Neb, NU, MSU in November. I'd still put them near the top of the Legends, am I being too optimistic in thinking Indy?

Brian Bennett: Michigan certainly can still win the Legends Division. But the Wolverines are going to have to fix some major problems first. You mentioned the running game, and it is abysmal. It's going to be hard to win those big games in November if Michigan cannot effectively run the ball. The turnovers by Gardner are of course another massive problem. The defense, meanwhile, has been decent but not overpowering, though Jake Ryan's return should help. As I've written and asked, what exactly is the strength of this Michigan team? I can't seem to find one. And so it's hard to envision a team like putting together a long winning streak, especially once the schedule toughens up in November.

John K. from Austin, Texas, writes: You and Adam noted that Brady Hoke "played for the safe field goal instead of going for the touchdown in overtime" as if that is a bad thing. Now, I can understand if he was just going for the tie, but each time it was for the win. He has a good kick (or at least at that point no reason not to believe that). With a good kicker and 42 yards for the win... I'm taking that every day of the week!

Brian Bennett: To be clear, I'm not saying Hoke should have been going for it on fourth down when all he needed was a field goal to win. I have a major problem with the playcalling on first and second down, when Michigan gained two total yards after Sam Ficken missed a field goal in the first overtime. I know Brendan Gibbons has been a very good kicker, but a 40-yard field goal on the road in overtime is by no means a sure bet for most college kickers. And then you run the risk of having it blocked, which is exactly what happened.

It's only fair to also point out that Michigan did throw a pass in the third overtime after Allen Robinson's fumble, and it gained nine yards. But then on third and one, I hated the call to have Fitzgerald Toussaint run it when Michigan's running game had been terrible all game.

We saw the same thing late in the fourth quarter, when Michigan had the ball at Penn State's 28-yard line with 3:10 left, leading by seven. The next three plays were Toussaint runs, which ended up losing two yards, plus a delay of game penalty, to take the Wolverines out of field-goal range.

I understand playing it safe with the lead on the road, but Toussaint had 27 rushes for 27 yards in last week's game. Why would you go to that well 27 times when it clearly isn't working, especially when the game is on the line? You might as well just kneel. And how many times over the years have we seen teams stop being aggressive and then lose?

Sam from East Lansing writes: First time, long time. Brian, as we progress through the season and my Spartan offense has appeared to return to average (very, very average), I have a scenario question for you. If a Legend' team plays an undefeated Ohio State team in the B1G Championship and loses, possibly putting the Buckeyes in the National Championship, does that mean the loser of B1G Championship game is put in the Rose Bowl automatically or would the bowl committee go back and look at win-loss records, including the B1G Championship lose? Should Legends contender teams who miss Ohio State on the schedule (ie. Michigan State, Nebraska) be rooting for Ohio State to go undefeated? Thoughts of Michigan 2012 Sugar Bowl mishap are dancing in my head. Please calm them.

Brian Bennett: Not sure you'll like my answer, Sam. If Ohio State goes to the BCS title game, then the Rose Bowl is free to choose any team that qualifies in the BCS standings as its replacement pick. That means the Rose could go outside the Big Ten for its choice, but with this being the 100th edition of the game and the last one before the playoff could disrupt things, I think the Rose Bowl will make every attempt to stage a classic Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup.

The problem is that, historically, losers of conference championship games don't get selected for at-large spots. Bowls prefer teams who are riding winning streaks rather than ones coming off a loss. And Michigan State's issue could be a lack of signature wins. A team like Wisconsin, should it go 10-2, or a Legends runner-up like Nebraska or Michigan could leapfrog the Big Ten runner-up in such a scenario.

As an aside, I know Michigan State is dying to get back to the Rose Bowl. If the Spartans lost to Ohio State in the championship game but still got picked for the Rose, would it feel ... earned? Or does just getting to the Rose Bowl any way possible enough?

Glenn from Florida writes: Brian, aside from your's, Adam's, and all of ESPN's love for OSU, how can you justify the PSU-Michigan game as not the best and biggest game?

Brian Bennett: I guess you're talking about our choice of Ohio State-Northwestern as the top game of the first half. You know, just because games go to multiple overtimes does not mean they're great. Michigan-Penn State was very sloppy, and some of the continued failures in overtime was ugly to watch. Northwestern-Ohio State was a far better game aesthetically, in my opinion.

Barry M. from Sheboygan, Wis., writes: I'm guessing we will not see any Purdue players on [your fantasy teams] this season. You could make it interesting and add a rule that you must take a player from each team for at least one week during the season.

Brian Bennett: It's nothing personal, Barry, it's just that I want to beat Adam much more than I want to have every school represented on my fantasy team. This isn't the baseball all-star game. Purdue does not have a player in the top 10 in rushing or passing and is starting a true freshman quarterback. There's just not much to choose from. But I'll make you this promise, Barry. If I have either wrapped up the championship or am out of it in the final week, I will pick up a Boilermaker for my team. Even if it's just the kickers.

Bart from Waverly, Neb., writes: I see how you and Adam both voted Wisconsin in the 17-18 spot. My question is, how do you justify ranking them that high when they have two losses? Granted, one was to OSU, but the other was to a (currently) unranked ASU. I am just curious as the Huskers have had their defensive troubles, but our single loss was to a top-10 team in UCLA, and only Adam was generous enough to include Big Red in his rankings.

Brian Bennett: I've heard from a few Huskers fans who are miffed that I didn't rank Nebraska, and many of them try to use the loss to UCLA as some sort of justification. Sorry, but you don't get credit just for playing a highly-ranked team, especially if you lose to said team by 20 points at home while looking terrible in the second half. Nebraska just hasn't beaten anyone with a pulse. I won't rank the Huskers until they do, and if that happens, they'll climb up my ballot quickly.

It's a much different story for Wisconsin, whose two losses were on the road to very good teams, and one of those defeats was a direct result of some of the worst officiating incompetency I've ever seen. The Badgers played Ohio State, clearly the best team in the league, to within a touchdown on the road and smashed what was a Top 20 Northwestern team. There's no doubt in my mind that Wisconsin deserves a Top 20 ranking.

Tim P. from Port Washington, Wis., writes: It is maddening to me to keep hearing about Michigan's "winged" helmets. The markings on a wolverine are the alleged "wings" on its head and stripes down the rest of its body. The Michigan helmet is thus simply a representation of the markings on the wolverine animal. Of course, the Michigan athletic department gets away with calling these helmets "winged" because few, if any, Michiganders have ever actually seen a wolverine. Wolverines are not indigenous to Michigan as their habitat is prmarily alpine tundra and mountain forests; environments which are found only in North America in Canada and the Western U.S. It is estimated there are only 250 to 300 wolverines still living and they are found in Western Montana, Idaho and Eastern Washington and Oregon. So I don't know who started this myth that the Michigan helmets are "winged" but I am sick and tired of hearing about it.

Brian Bennett: OK, then. It appears we've reached the bizarre part of the mailbag. Proceed with caution...

SSG Smith, Justin from Ft Campbell Ky writes: Hey Brian, I am not by any means the most knowledgeable NCAA Football fan out there. I say this to humble my self before I ask this question. Were you bullied by a Nebraska fan as a child (or young adult)? ... How do you give so many teams the advantage over Nebraska. Your Biased is unprofessional and your over all hate for the Huskers is blinding. Why do you blog for the Big Ten without being biased?

Brian Bennett: Ho, boy. Yep, I hate Nebraska so much that I picked the Huskers to win the Legends Division in the preseason. And I picked them to win the Big Ten title game last year. What a hater! Justin also included in his email the records of the teams Nebraska has beaten this year, as if that somehow helped his case. But he did admit right up front that he wasn't knowledgeable, so I can forgive.

John F. from Mansfield, Ohio, writes: IF you represent the BIG, you should parlay this into BIG votes, I constantly watch "How You VOTED" and ALL I see is YOUR votes for the SEC not the BIG ... YOU cannot say you are BIG representatives, and continue to give other conferences your votes....... this makes you 2-faced and opinionated as well, that's great for people who choose to pencil whip a conference for being the best in the nation... It is press writers who have a vote that are destroying the BIG .......... NOT THE PLAYERS

Brian Bennett: I only included about half of John's email, which if there were any justice would have been cobbled together by random letters from magazines. I guess the ESPN.com power rankings ballots that Adam and I submit each week are what's holding the Big Ten back. Sure, makes sense. Also, covering a league as a reporter and "representing" a conference are two very different things. Until the Big Ten starts signing my checks, I'll report, write and vote with my conscience, thanks.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 7

October, 10, 2013
10/10/13
10:15
AM ET
Ten things to keep your eyes on in the four Big Ten games on Saturday:

1. Strength vs. strength for the Spittoon: The Indiana-Michigan State game might not be the most-hyped matchup of the weekend, but if you like irresistible force/immovable object conflicts, this one's for you. The Spartans lead the FBS in total defense, rush defense and passing efficiency defense. The Hoosiers, meanwhile, are ninth nationally in total offense, 10th in passing yards and 11th in scoring. Indiana scored the first 17 points of the game last year in Bloomington before falling 31-27. This year's Old Brass Spittoon winner will go to the team that better parlays its strengths and its corresponding weaknesses (Michigan State's defense, Indiana's offense).

2. Inexperienced travelers: Both Indiana and Nebraska have had comfortable early-season schedules, as each has played its first five games at home. Both teams go on the road for the first time this week, with the Hoosiers in East Lansing and Nebraska visiting Purdue. Bo Pelini said the schedule worked out well for his young defense to gain some less stressful experience, but he still will be leaning on youthful players both on defense and at quarterback with redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said his team uses a lot of hand signals on offense, so he's not too worried about crowd noise. Michigan also gets easily its toughest road test at Penn State, which should be a much more intimidating atmosphere than UConn's Rentschler Field.

3. Heartbreak Hotel, aka Camp Randall Stadium: No team has suffered more gut-wrenching close losses in the past 2½ years than Wisconsin. But at least Northwestern can relate. Both teams might be playing for national titles if the NCAA shortened games to 55 minutes. On Saturday, Team 5:03 travels to the team that has yielded more Hail Marys than the pope's rosary beads. Both the Wildcats and Badgers are also coming off tough losses to Ohio State, with Wisconsin having two weeks to lick its wounds. The winner can still dream about a BCS bowl. The loser will be in serious catch-up mode. Is there any way it can end except on a key play in the final minute?

4. Northwestern's run defense vs. Wisconsin's rushing attack: The Wildcats had trouble stopping Ohio State's offensive line and bulldozing back Carlos Hyde as the Buckeyes racked up 248 rushing yards in last week's 40-30 win. Northwestern players and coaches say it was more a matter of tackling and execution than a size and strength issue. They will have to do a much better job this week against Wisconsin, which is averaging 300 rushing yards per game. By all accounts, star tailback Melvin Gordon's left knee is fine after he injured it against Ohio State two weeks ago, and James White ran for 134 yards the last time these two teams played, in 2010 (yes, he's been around a long time). The Badgers ran for 329 yards in that last meeting three years ago. The teams have changed, but Wisconsin's approach hasn't. Northwestern had better hope its run defense has improved.

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerPenn State wideout Allen Robinson has 38 catches for 621 yards this season, with five touchdowns.
5. Penn State's response: Bill O'Brien has been jovial in many of his news conferences this year, but he was clearly not a happy man on Tuesday. O'Brien was terse in his answers with the media and basically refused to address anything regarding the Indiana loss or the team's scholarship situation. It's understandable why he wouldn't want to relive the program's first-ever loss to the Hoosiers or dwell on problems, because he needs his team focused on 5-0 Michigan, which comes to Beaver Stadium for a 5 p.m. game. The game is sold out and will be a White Out, though the enthusiasm from the fans might be a little less than before last week's loss. It remains to be seen whether the team will match O'Brien's feistiness and come out with a much better effort this Saturday.

6. Allen Robinson vs. Blake Countess: Penn State's Robinson is the reigning Big Ten receiver of the year and is gunning for another trophy after his 12-catch, 173-yard day against Indiana last week. Michigan's top job on defense is to find a way to stop him, and that's where cornerback Countess should come in. Countess has four interceptions this year, tying him for the national lead. The Wolverines likely will need more than just Countess to slow down Robinson, and Penn State continues to search for a complementary weapon in the passing game for quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

7. Ryan's return? Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan has been itching to return from the torn ACL he suffered in the spring, and he has been medically cleared to play on Saturday in State College. Coach Brady Hoke appears hesitant to put his star back in there, fearing the risk of further injury. Hoke said Wednesday that Ryan has practiced as a backup. The Wolverines' defense has been light on big-play ability, which Ryan brings to the table in spades. Getting him back would provide a physical and emotional boost for Michigan.

8. Etling's big day: In what has been a sorry season so far for Purdue, at least quarterback Danny Etling provides reason for optimism. After making his college debut two weeks ago against Northern Illinois, the freshman gets his first start Saturday vs. Nebraska. Head coach Darrell Hazell says Etling's strong arm opens the whole field for the Boilermakers' passing game, and he hinted at offensive changes made during the bye week to suit Etling's skills. Nebraska's defense did a good job slowing down Illinois' passing attack last week but still has vulnerabilities. Etling had better watch out for cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who -- like Countess -- has four interceptions this season.

9. Two steps forward for Spartans' passing game? Michigan State had its most encouraging offensive performance of the season in last week's 26-14 win at Iowa. Quarterback Connor Cook made good decisions en route to a 277-yard day, and even better for the offense, receivers Bennie Fowler and Macgarrett Kings Jr. showed off excellent playmaking ability. While not exactly an Oregon-esque outburst, last week's offensive showing was the kind the Spartans and their fans had been waiting to see for more than a year. The key will be whether that is a repeatable performance, especially this week against a below-average Indiana defense.

10. Well, hello again (and for the first time): One of the most aggravating byproducts of conference expansion is the gap between games for some high-profile programs. Michigan hasn't played Penn State since 2010, while Northwestern and Wisconsin also haven't met in three years despite the short distance between the two schools. That's why it's good to see those two games on the schedule this weekend. With the new division alignment starting in 2014, the Wolverines and Nittany Lions will be paired in the East, while the Wildcats and Badgers will be in the West. Perhaps this will be the start of some renewed rivalry tensions in both series. Meanwhile, Nebraska plays Purdue for the first time as a Big Ten member. The schools have only played twice before and not since 1958 in West Lafayette. Scouting takes on added importance in all three of those games, as these teams have few players and coaches who have ever faced one another on the field.

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 8, 2013
10/08/13
12:00
PM ET
The Bro Code has been around for centuries. Nay, whatever's more than centuries.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

October, 4, 2013
10/04/13
4:00
PM ET
Finishing out the week before an exciting slate of Big Ten games. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter, especially on Saturdays.

Let's get to that mail ...

Mikey from Seattle writes: Great piece on B1G football revenue not translating to championships. I don't disagree with Dave Brandon's comment that football success is driven by things like tradition, culture, momentum, luck, recruiting, and consistency. However, if you look at all BCS National Champs, all but one (Oklahoma in 2000) come from traditional high school "hotbeds" -- Southeast, Texas, California, Ohio. (Note: most of the losing teams come from these areas, too.) So why doesn't the B1G use its significant revenue and resources to develop THE best youth/HS football programs in the country? While B1G can't influence demographic trends, it seems like it would be in their best long-term interests, increase athletic revenues, decrease escalating recruiting expenses, elevate conference perception to invest in their cash cow while giving back to their communities.

Adam Rittenberg: Some interesting thoughts, Mikey. Keep in mind that the Big Ten distributes almost all of its revenue to the schools, which all would have to be on board with such a program to make it work. Most of these schools have athletic departments that are losing money or receiving subsidies, so it would be hard for them to part with revenue just for the off chance that it boosts one sport (football). I also wonder how much a college athletic conference could affect the way high school/youth programs do things in an entire region of the country. Would we see more spring football programs? More 7-on-7 football like there is in Texas and Florida? I think the better investment is for recruiting the South and Southeast. Big Ten schools must devote more of their recruiting budget toward those areas of the country and hire and pay assistants who can pluck some good players from states such as Georgia, Texas and Florida year after year.


Jim from New Jersey writes: I do not say this is the only difference between the Big Ten and the SEC, but someone needs to be brave enough to say it in the press and no one does! The quality and type of kid that goes to an SEC school is not the same quality of a Big Ten kid academically. Bottom line. The SEC schools have much looser admission programs and standards and the kids are not the same. Bottom line, the Big Ten chooses to not take the same type of player. If the Big Ten wants a crystal ball, they need to lower admission standards.

Adam Rittenberg: Jim, I've alluded to this before, and I agree that on the whole, Big Ten schools have tougher admissions standards for football players than SEC schools. But there are enough elite athletes with strong academic profiles to win at the national level. Look at what Stanford has done and continues to do. A lot of the SEC's top players had Big Ten offers, so they would have been admitted to Big Ten schools but chose to go elsewhere. Big Ten fans often cite admission standards and oversigning as two big differences between the Big Ten and the SEC. I agree they're factors, but the Big Ten's larger issue, in my view, is more strategic. Big Ten schools must continually examine where they're investing time and energy in recruiting and how they're branding themselves to recruits.


Megan from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Hi Adam, love the work that you and Brian do! You have helped me discover what I want to do when I go to college. Anyway, I was wondering if you think Braxton Miller will be coming back for his senior year or not? Since his injury has him out of the Heisman talk (for now), do you think that will play a part of his decision?

Adam Rittenberg: Thanks, Megan. Is it too late to talk you out of it? Kidding, kidding. I expect Miller to return next season and continue to develop his game. Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman told me this summer that Miller likely won't reach his full potential until the 2014 season, as he continues to evolve as a passer and as a decision-maker. He's not considered a top NFL draft prospect at quarterback right now, but he could become one depending on how he improves. Unless you're a clear first-round pick or play a position like running back with a short shelf-life because of injury risk, you probably should stay in school. I believe Miller will.


Ryan from Crooksville, Ohio, writes: All right, of all the things people could criticize the last few weeks about Michigan, why is it that the worst criticisms are about the defense? I mean, honestly, if our quarterback wasn't giving away seven points a game (and that's just the points the other teams got directly from him) and setting the opponents up in great field position a lot, Michigan's points allowed would conceivably be a lot less than they are. I honestly don't understand why the defense is taking as much heat as some people are giving it. They make key stops when they need to and they seem to play better red-zone defense than any other team I've seen this year. And as a Wolverines fan living in Buckeye country, I have to hear it more than most. Hoping to get your thoughts on it.

Adam Rittenberg: Ryan, I guess we've been reading/hearing different things about Michigan, because Devin Gardner's turnover issues have been the top story line about the Wolverines the past two weeks. Every radio show I've been on has asked what's wrong with No. 7/98 and whether he can reclaim the form he showed against Notre Dame. Michigan's defense has been OK -- not great, but adequate -- and hardly the team's biggest issue. I'm a little concerned about the lack of star power on the Wolverines' defense. Who will be the reliable playmakers game in and game out? Linebacker Jake Ryan could be that guy when he returns from injury later this month.


Doc from Phoenix writes: Adam, as an unapologetic Huskers fan and forever the optimist, I am curious about your current best-case scenario for Nebraska the rest of the way out. I see the best case for the Huskers as running the regular season table (despite some shaky defensive performances) and losing to OSU in the Big Ten championship. If that scenario plays out, do you see Nebraska getting an at-large bid to a BCS bowl? Whether or not OSU makes the National Championship game, Nebraska would be 11-2 with their only losses being to Ohio State and UCLA (a potential top-10 team). I could see the Rose Bowl reaching for Nebraska if Ohio State made the National Championship game to keep the Big Ten presence in the game, but I have doubt if other BCS bowl would feel the same way with the national perception of the Nebraska program being down of late. Given the reaching "best-case scenario," where would you put the Huskers come December/January?

Adam Rittenberg: Doc, while I could see Nebraska running the table, I highly doubt it. The Huskers crumbled against the only really good team they've faced so far, and their November schedule features Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and a clearly improved Iowa team on Black Friday. While I expect Nebraska to beat Illinois on Saturday, Purdue next week and Minnesota on Oct. 26, the Huskers will have to elevate their play consistently in November for one of the more brutal stretches any Big Ten team will face. Can they win out? Sure. But I don't see it. If the scenario plays out as you present it, a lot would depend on if there are other Big Ten teams eligible for BCS at-large selection. We've seen in the past that the league title game loser often is in a worse sport for at-large selection than a team that finishes the season, say, 10-2 on a roll.


Rob from Morristown, N.J., writes: Adam, is Michigan State's defense REALLY as good as you and Brian make them out to be on a weekly basis (in every one one of your blog posts that mentions MSU, you talk about their stellar defense). Is it possible that their very good defensive numbers are due to the fact that they have played an FCS team, two of the worst offensive FBS teams in the country in USF and Western Michigan (ranked Nos. 121 and 122 in scoring offense, respectively) and a ND team starting a senior QB who lost the starting job to a freshman last season and lost their top two rushers off last year's BCS team? Maybe the "hype" is based off of last year's squad and is not necessarily indicative of this year's defense? I admit I have not watched much MSU football, but I think there is a good chance we realize the MSU defense isn't actually THAT good once they start playing some of the better offensive B1G teams. Your witness...

Adam Rittenberg: Rob, you make a lot of fair points here. Michigan State has faced some of the weaker offensive teams in the country. But to this point, the Spartans can only be evaluated on who they face, and they're showing the suffocating play we've grown accustomed to from that unit. If this defense hadn't been among the nation's elite the past two seasons, we're probably not having this discussion. So yes, past performance plays a role because Michigan State has established a culture of elite defense that appears, albeit against weak competition, to be continuing this season. Context is important here, but I also should be careful not to overvalue Michigan State's defense until it faces better offense. But I really like the personnel and the coaching the Spartans have on that side of the ball. We'll certainly learn more in the coming weeks.


Chris from Middleton, Wis., writes: Adam, which do you believe in when it comes to Wisconsin losing close games and their continued battle to go from good to great? 1) It shows how difficult it is to compete with the likes of Michigan and Ohio State's established programs. 2) Wisconsin is more closely scrutinized for penalties thus their success is handcuffed. 3) The gods are critical of football in general at Wisconsin. 4) Wisconsin players are overachievers that have reached their own personal mountain top. 5) If Wisconsin played ASU and Ohio State at home this year, they would be headed for the national championship game.

Adam Rittenberg: Is there an option 6? If so, I would go with Wisconsin being a team not built to play from behind. The Badgers are a methodical, power-driven offense focused on the run game. They bleed clock and their opponents' will by pounding away with huge offensive linemen and talented ball carriers. But they're not a team that runs the two-minute drill well. They don't have enough at receiver -- a problem for several years. The Arizona State game was an odd and unfortunate case because the officials totally botched the call at the end. The football gods aren't out to get Wisconsin, and the Badgers have shown they can win big games. But they're a team better off grabbing the lead and holding on than mounting a late comeback.


Andrew from Hilldale, Mich., writes: Recently there was an ESPN video posted on the blog suggesting that Ohio State's rep has been hurt by weak conference competition. One of the analysts also argued that OSU has beaten up the B1G only to get "slaughtered" in big games against faster nonconference opponents. Is that really a fair argument considering that the last two big bowl games they played -- the Rose Bowl against a very fast Oregon and forfeited Sugar Bowl against the SEC's very own Arkansas -- were solid wins on the field. It seems to me that, since the 2011 Sugar Bowl, they haven't really played any big nonconference games, and certainly none that would count as slaughters.

Adam Rittenberg: Unfortunately, Ohio State still gets painted as a bad big-game team because of the losses to Florida and LSU in the 2007 and 2008 BCS championship games. It's a lazy argument, quite frankly, because those games occurred more than half a decade ago, which is an eternity in college football. If you want to argue that Ohio State won't get into the national title game because the Big Ten is so weak, that's fine. The Big Ten has done little to change its national perception this season. But don't blame it on games that happened so long ago, just because you weren't entertained for the national championship. Vacated wins or not, Ohio State has won its past two big games, as you point out. And I expect the Buckeyes to be a better team than they are now when early January rolls around. Whether they make it to Pasadena for the big one remains to be seen.


Joe from Central PA writes: Hi, Adam. I'm a big PSU fan and although I didn't blame Silas Redd one bit for the decision he made to transfer, you have to wonder if he's second-guessing that now. If he was looking for a pro football career, I would think B'OB was more the coach to help him with that. It's a shame ... all of it really because I believe Silas is a nice/good kid. I really do hope he makes it to the NFL if that is what he wants to do.

Adam Rittenberg: Joe, I couldn't agree more about Silas being a really nice guy, and I still expect him to go on and have a good NFL career. But you have to wonder whether he'd be better off at Penn State, working in O'Brien's pro-style offense. Look at what Penn State has done with a running back like Zach Zwinak, who isn't as naturally gifted as Redd. From a coaching standpoint, he definitely took a step back by leaving Penn State for USC. Then again, it's hard to blame a guy for going to a team that entered the 2012 season with national title aspirations.


John from New York writes: Do you think that the reason that Venric Mark has been out these last three weeks relates solely to his injury? Pat Fitzgerald has seemed a little shifty when discussing Mark's status, including an assertion that Mark was "day-to-day" about one hour before the kickoff against Maine. I can see Fitzgerald wanting to spring Mark on OSU, depriving them of video of Mark from this season.

Adam Rittenberg: John, Mark never was going to play against Maine, although he probably could have. Northwestern wanted to get his hamstring issue as close to 100 percent as possible before the Big Ten season kicked off against Ohio State. Once the Wildcats got through the Syracuse game, they really didn't need Mark to go 4-0, although it would have been nice for him and Kain Colter to get some more game reps together. It will be interesting to see how much the Colter-Mark zone read game can boost Northwestern's offense against the Buckeyes.

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 1, 2013
10/01/13
12:00
PM ET
The baseball postseason starts today. Who ya got? (Hint: birds on a bat).

Big Ten lunchtime links

September, 25, 2013
9/25/13
12:00
PM ET
Wacha Wacha Wacha.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

September, 20, 2013
9/20/13
4:30
PM ET
Week 4 is hours away. Follow us throughout the day on the blog for all your Big Ten coverage needs.

Don't forget: Twitter.

To the inbox ...

Mike K. from Boston writes: The list of host cities that ESPN reported as bidding for the 2016 and 2017 national championship games not so conspicuously was missing any Midwest representation. The B1G already is at a disadvantage with the decision to use bowl sites for the semifinals. There are plenty of viable Midwest host cities with indoor stadiums (Detroit, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Minneapolis). What gives?

Adam Rittenberg: Mike, I couldn't agree more, but we knew this was probably coming, at least for the first set of title games not played at existing bowl sites. Several of those indoor venues expressed interest in hosting the title game when I reached out to them this spring, but some of the organizing groups are focused more on bidding for other events, including Super Bowls. Indianapolis would be the most realistic possibility in Big Ten territory because of its tremendous track record of hosting major sporting events. But Indiana Sports Corp, which brings the events to Naptown, has said it won't bid on the initial set of college football title games. Colleague Brett McMurphy has reported Minneapolis could bid on the game. It would be a shame to have a national championship never take place in the Midwest, especially since there are some excellent indoor venues here.


Tim from Niamey, Niger, writes:Living where I do, I miss a lot, but last weekend it was certainly fun to read about Ohio State's backup QB doing what he did. Then I read all about how OSU needs to be starting Kenny Guiton over Braxton Miller? really? He played the 120 worst defense in the nation. Not exactly a difficult task when you have the running game OSU has. He did still make some very good throws and I think OSU is blessed to have two really good QBs. I am glad that our backup takes his role seriously to be prepared to go in and not miss a beat, but before we lift him high on this pedestal, let's not forget who he played against.

Adam Rittenberg: Tim, I couldn't agree more. Kenny Guiton deserves all the credit he's getting right now, and it's great to see how he has developed after being an extremely late addition to the Buckeyes' 2009 recruiting class. But I also don't understand the talk about Guiton replacing Miller after Miller returns from his knee injury. Another email I received suggested that Miller should redshirt the season. C'mon, people. I know Urban Meyer and his coaching staff understand what they have in Miller, and so do most Ohio State fans. He's an elite athlete and can be a better passer than he has shown. When the competition gets tougher, which it soon will, you want No. 5 in there. This all speaks to the fact that Ohio State has way more weapons on offense than it did last season, when Miller carried the unit for much of the season.


Mitch from East Lansing, Mich., writes: College football fans know that the B1G isn't exactly in the best shape right now. But you should realize that media members like you, who write full, front-page articles explaining how terrible the B1G is, aren't doing anyone any favors. There are still a lot of good teams in B1G who are either in the top 25 or close to it. Also the B1G is still very popular all over the country thanks to the huge alumni groups. Maybe if people actually stopped continuously saying that the B1G is so bad, then maybe the national perception wouldn't be so bad.

Adam Rittenberg: Sorry, Mitch, national perception doesn't work that way. It baffles me how six seasons into this gig, I'm still expected by some fans to "promote" the Big Ten or tell you how great it is. That's not my job. Perception is about performance, and the Big Ten for the most part hasn't performed well against other conferences in recent years, whether it's in regular-season games or bowls. Last Saturday provided an opportunity for the Big Ten to show it had turned a corner after a historically poor season. Instead, the league provided much of the same underwhelming results, and it would have been worse if Michigan had lost to Akron. When the Big Ten performs better on the field, its perception will improve and you'll see fewer columns like the one I wrote last week.


Thomas from State College, Pa., writes: Adam, I know it is WAY too early, but Penn State is looking like it will take home back-to-back freshman of the year awards. This can only help Bill O'Brien in recruiting, right? If this is the case, how long does it take for PSU to contend for the B1G title once the sanctions are over (IF BO'B stays?)

Adam Rittenberg: Thomas, it can't hurt. Wisconsin had back-to-back Big Ten freshmen of the year -- linebacker Chris Borland in 2009, running back James White in 2010 -- and Penn State certainly could do the same if quarterback Christian Hackenberg keeps it up. O'Brien can sell an NFL-style offense to recruits, as well as a chance to see the field early because of the roster situation. If you're an elite recruit, you could claim a starting role faster at Penn State than other programs because there are fewer players ahead of you. It's hard to project three or four years down the road, and I'm interested to see how the sanctions will impact Penn State the rest of this season and next, but I doubt it will take O'Brien long to put together a contender once the Lions are eligible again.


Not an ASU/Pac-12 Officiating Question from Madison, Wis., writes: Hey Adam, I know you and Brian have been swamped with Wisconsin-ASU questions, comments, and rants this week, but I have a different Badger question for you. Do you think that the Wisconsin loss* to ASU is a blessing in disguise? Let's be realistic here (which may be a little too much to ask from college football fans). My Badgers had no chance at a BCS title this season, so the best thing we could hope for is a Rose Bowl victory. I know that Ohio State is deservingly the favorite to win the Leaders Division, but in your opinion does what happened in Tempe give the Badgers a chip on their shoulder and a little extra edge to take with them into Columbus? I realize we have Purdue between now and then, but my thought is that the ASU game may have sparked a fire and awoken a monster from inside Camp Randall. Is this a legitimate thought? Or is it a delusional coping mechanism I'm using because drinking the wells of New Glarus dry has done little to ease the pain of last Saturday.

Adam Rittenberg: It's never a blessing to lose, especially the way Wisconsin did at Arizona State, but you're probably correct that the Badgers' realistic ceiling this season is another Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance. The benefit of playing a game like Wisconsin did -- win or lose -- is the experience gained in traveling to a hostile environment and pushing a good opponent to the end of the game. Wisconsin won't be intimidated at Ohio Stadium, even though the Buckeyes are better than Arizona State. Wisconsin is a veteran team that has won some tough road games in the past, and players can draw on their experience in the desert, even though it didn't end well. We knew Wisconsin would be the older team in this matchup before the season, but the Badgers also have faced more adversity than Ohio State. It could help them as they attempt to pull off what would be considered a fairly big upset.


James from Wichita, Kan., writes:In regard to the Huskers, do you think the team could use this latest situation as a rallying cry for the rest of the season? Simplifying the offense should help, and by the time Northwestern rolls to town, the defense will have another month under their belt. We have seen how this team plays when there is an us-against-the-world mentality; maybe they can use this as fuel to power through conference play to finish the season 11-1 or 10-2. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: That's what they have to do, James. Nebraska knew going into the season that November would be the make-or-break month, and it still is. Although Illinois and Minnesota could be tricky games next month, Nebraska enters a favorable stretch featuring two open weeks and no ranked opponents. This is definitely a time to regroup and clean up the problems on both sides of the ball. Nebraska needs Taylor Martinez to get healthy, and the defense must grow up a bit, especially up front. My concern is that the competition level goes up so much in November and stays there. Will Nebraska be ready? I have my doubts.


Chris P. from Clemson, S.C., writes: Is it possible that Michigan struggling against Akron improves their long-term outlook for the season? Of course, there are many red flags raised, but a positive is that this teaches them that not preparing can have dire consequences, no matter who they are playing. Now they will prepare fully for games against Minnesota and Iowa, whereas they may have brushed them off had they not learned their lesson this past weekend. I think barely beating Akron decreases their chance of a major upset later in the season.

Adam Rittenberg: Chris, you echo the hope of many Michigan fans after watching that debacle last week. Brian and I actually discussed this point, and he tends to think Michigan had its letdown game and should be OK going forward. And he/you might be right. I tend to think that Michigan, like a lot of younger teams, will have some great performances and some lackluster ones, looking at times like a team that might win a championship this year and, at other times, one that's a year or two away. There were too many problems in the Akron game to write it off as a one-time letdown. Michigan's defense has yet to impress, especially up front, and while linebacker Jake Ryan will provide a big boost when he returns, I wonder if the Wolverines have enough impact players on that side of the ball.

On offense, the turnovers are adding up for Devin Gardner, who has to improve his decision-making when the competition improves. And here's another troubling nugget from ESPN Stats & Information: "The Wolverines have had 34 rushing plays of zero or negative yards, the second-most among BCS automatic-qualifying schools. Michigan also has zero broken tackles on rushing plays this year, the only team in the Big Ten without one, and just 128 rush yards after contact, second-fewest among Big Ten teams."

Maybe Michigan had its hiccup game, but I can't dismiss some other issues with the Wolverines, a team that could win a Big Ten title this year but also one that could lose several games down the stretch.


Dan from Los Angeles writes: Please, I beg you, don't taunt AIRBHG. He is an angry, petty, vengeful deity.

Keith from Reverence, Iowa, writes: Adam,I enjoyed your article about Iowa's Mark Weisman, save one line where you tempted the AIRBHG. Know this: no mortal running back has escaped the AIRBHG (Shonn Greene is the exception; he was Herculean, and able to battle back to return and prove the follies of the AIRBHG). If the AIRBHG shows his wrath, I hold you entirely responsible retroactive to 9/17/13, at 5:30 ET.

Adam Rittenberg: Yikes. I should know better. The AIRBHG has seemed to be preoccupied lately, building His brand on social media and the like. At some point, He will be defeated, and I think it'll be this year. But I realize the perils of challenging Him, and for that, I am truly sorry.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

ESPN Films Presents: Nixon's National Champs - Nixon vs. Paterno
In 1969, Joe Paterno thought a National Championship was on the horizon, but President Richard Nixon was standing in his way. Nixon's National Champs premieres Sunday December 28th at 10:30pm ET on ESPN.
VIDEO PLAYLIST video

BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Wednesday, 12/24
Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12