Big Ten: Michigan State Spartans

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

October, 1, 2014
Oct 1
5:00
PM ET
We haven't corresponded in far too long. Let's catch up, shall we?

Brian Bennett: I'm going to East Lansing this weekend and simply cannot wait. This game should be terrific, especially since Nebraska has had more offensive success against Michigan State's defense than anyone else in the Big Ten. The Huskers have a real shot on Saturday night, and I'm expecting a thriller.

In some ways, it could be the biggest game of the year in the conference, because the loser is basically out of the running for the College Football Playoff. But I always think division games are bigger. Whichever team loses this weekend could still get to Indianapolis (perhaps to force a rematch). The Ohio State game may still loom larger for Michigan State because of the division stakes, just as Wisconsin (and possibly Iowa and Minnesota) will for Nebraska. But there might not be a better Big Ten matchup all year then the one on deck at Spartan Stadium.



Brian Bennett: Well, you don't have to look too far back to find successful two-QB systems in the Big Ten. Northwestern pulled it off during a 10-win season in 2012, while Indiana successfully juggled Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson last year.

So it can work, though in those examples, the two quarterbacks offered different skill sets. C.J. Beathard and Jake Rudock aren't all that dissimilar, though Beathard seems to throw a better deep ball and Rudock is a better scrambler. This will likely be more of a ride-the-hot-hand situation than a strict platoon. That has higher potential to be divisive, but at this point, neither quarterback has really separated himself with consistent play.



Brian Bennett: I'm not sure who said Michigan was a year away, and in fact, I was always skeptical of the Wolverines this year. Still, it's Brady Hoke's fourth year and his roster should be full of his recruits by now. He can make excuses for being young all he wants, and yes, the offensive line is still fairly inexperienced. But look at Ohio State and how many first-year and second-year players are making key contributions.

The biggest knock on Hoke, in my mind, is the lack of player development in Ann Arbor. (Our Tom VanHaaren did a nice job of detailing that here.) The only two players Hoke has recruited who have made an All-Big Ten team are Blake Countess and Devin Funchess, who were both second-team selections in 2013, and outside of Funchess, none would make an All-Big Ten team if the season ended today. That's way too low of a number for Michigan.




Disrespected Husker Fan from Lincoln writes: Can you explain the reasoning for everybody keeping Nebraska so low in the polls despite their undefeated record? McNeese State would beat Kansas by two touchdowns.

Brian Bennett: I'm not sure comparing yourself to Kansas is the best way to earn respect. While it would be foolish to get hung up on meaningless polls, I do think Nebraska is ranked curiously low right now at 5-0. That's because, in my opinion, of two factors: 1. People still remember that close call with McNeese State (a team, by the way, that is ranked No. 5 in the FCS); and 2. Voters still have a healthy distrust for the Cornhuskers because of their stumbles in big games the past few years.

There's no reason to fret about it, however. If Nebraska manages to win this weekend, it will make a huge leap in the polls. More importantly, the committee will have to consider a 6-0 Huskers team very seriously. An unbeaten Big Ten champion would almost certainly get into the playoff.



Brian Bennett: If Indiana's recent pattern continues, the Hoosiers probably will lose to North Texas and then beat Iowa. The win at Missouri stands as the most inexplicable result in the Big Ten thus far. Obviously, beating the Mean Green this week is crucial for Kevin Wilson's team, which then must find three more victories in Big Ten play. Indiana will be favored to beat Purdue at home in the finale, so there's one. The other three best options appear to be at reeling Michigan on Nov. 1, at home against Penn State (whom the Hoosiers beat last year in Bloomington) on Nov. 8 and at Rutgers on Nov. 15.

But until Wilson's team can find some consistency from week to week on both sides of the ball, I'll believe it when I see it.

 
October has arrived, which means Big Ten conference play is in full swing. And that's when the best players step up.

Expect the races for individual awards to be fully shaped in the next few weeks. But we're keeping track of where they stand on a week-to-week basis. We've been looking at the offensive and defensive player of the year races since the start of the season, and with more data in the books, we'll be adding a bonus category from here on out.

Away we go ...

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesNebraska running back Ameer Abdullah has been the best offensive player in the Big Ten so far this season.
1. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah (six first-place votes): Abdullah had another 200-yard day against Illinois as his fantastic season continues. He has run for more than 100 yards in each of the last two years against this week's opponent, Michigan State.

2. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: The Hoosiers are incredibly inconsistent, but Coleman is not. He leads the FBS in rushing at 172.8 yards per game.

3. Michigan State QB Connor Cook: He was able to hit the showers early again against Wyoming, but Cook leads the Big Ten and is No. 3 nationally in pass efficiency while completing better than 69 percent of his throws.

4. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: After a slow first half against South Florida, Gordon came out firing in the second half for another big performance. He's on pace for more than 1,900 yards this season.

5. Minnesota RB David Cobb: Our panel all agreed on the top five offensive candidates right now, though in different orders. Cobb has a strong argument for player of the year consideration because he's basically carrying the Gophers' offense. His 124 carries are the most in the FBS, and he's making the most of them.

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa (five first-place votes): Bosa takes over first place this week thanks to his playmaking ways. He has forced three fumbles this season, all of which have led to Buckeyes touchdowns.

2. Maryland CB William Likely (one first-place vote): Likely may not be very tall, but he makes big plays. He leads the Big Ten in interceptions with three, including a pick-six.

3. Penn State DT Anthony Zettel: The Nittany Lions interior disruptor drops a couple spots after his team lost to Northwestern. But he's still having a heck of a season, with seven tackles for loss.

4. Nebraska DE Randy Gregory: Welcome back, Mr. Gregory. He was all over the field against Illinois, and after missing some time with injury he now leads the league in sacks per game.

5. Wisconsin LB Derek Landisch: He leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss per game, and Badgers coach Gary Andersen said Tuesday that Landisch has been the best player on what is the best statistical defense in the conference right now.

Also receiving votes: Minnesota LB Damien Wilson; Minnesota CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun; Penn State LB Mike Hull; Iowa DE Drew Ott

Thompson–Randle El Freshman of the Year

1. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett (three first-place votes): Braxton who? OK, let's not go that far. But guess who leads the Big Ten in total offense? It's the Buckeyes redshirt freshman, who just keeps getting better.

2. Penn State WR DaeSean Hamilton (three first-place votes): There were questions about who would catch the ball for the Nittany Lions this season, and Hamilton has provided a nice answer. The redshirt freshman leads the conference in total receiving yards (502) and receptions (36) and is well on pace for a 1,000-yard season.

3. Rutgers DE Kemoko Turay: He's basically a pass-rushing specialist, but his specialty sure is, uh, special. Turay has five sacks already this season, tops in the Big Ten and more than all but seven players in the FBS.
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- You’ve heard it all before about Nebraska, the program that wants more than any other in the country to reclaim a lost identity.

You’ve heard about how the Cornhuskers have not defeated a top-10 team on the road since 1997.

You’ve heard about how now is the moment, about how the chance sits front and center to make a statement.

Yet every time over the past decade-plus, that moment ended in disappointment -- against USC, Texas, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, UCLA, even Michigan State last year in Lincoln.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesAmeer Abdullah has three 200-yard rushing games this season.
When Nebraska beat the Badgers, Ohio State and Michigan in recent years, none was ranked higher than 20th. Georgia, last year in the Gator Bowl, was rated No. 23. The wins felt good, sure, but did little to distinguish Nebraska as a real contender.

Opportunity is here again as the Huskers visit No. 10 Michigan State on Saturday night (8 ET, ABC), one win from a 6-0 start for the first time since 2001. With a victory, Nebraska, barring a big upset, would go to Wisconsin on Nov. 15 at 9-0 as a legitimate player in the race for the College Football Playoff.

“We all understand what’s at stake,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said.

The Huskers’ 5-0 start has been met nationally with a collective eye roll. There’s the mediocre competition, the ugly Big Ten reputation, the four-loss-a-year history of coach Bo Pelini and, well, this program’s penchant to fall flat in moments like the one before it on Saturday.

Theories abound in Nebraska on what makes it different this year. The Huskers on defense are solid up front. They’re committed to the running game. The leadership is improved.

Here’s what I know is different: At nearly every key moment on Saturday night in East Lansing, with apologies to the Big Ten’s top QB, Connor Cook, the best player on the field will be wearing a Nebraska uniform. That matters.

I-back Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Randy Gregory give the Huskers a chance. In Abdullah and Gregory, Nebraska has arguably the best offensive and defensive players in the Big Ten.

They demand attention from the Spartans. Both are extraordinary talents, though somewhat unintroduced to the nation, which doesn’t believe that it wants to invest again in Nebraska football.

They offer reason to believe. Abdullah and Gregory change games in ways not seen at Nebraska since Eric Crouch and Ndamukong Suh, one of whom won the Heisman Trophy and the other who came close as a defensive tackle.

Nebraska had a special talent in former quarterback Taylor Martinez. When healthy, he was just as electric as Abdullah. But Abdullah, a rare two-time captain, inspires hope among teammates like so few players.

And old coaching axiom says when a team’s best player is also its hardest working, you’ve got something special. That is Abdullah defined. He carried Nebraska to victory against Miami and thwarted a major upset against McNeese State with perhaps the most incredible individual effort in college football this season.

Abdullah leads the nation in rushing this fall with 833 yards through five games, on pace to break the career mark of Mike Rozier, long considered unattainable. Behind Abdullah, Nebraska has carved an identity for its offense: In the past two games, the Huskers have rushed the football 124 times, tops nationally, for 801 yards.

On Abdullah, Pelini cautions that it’s the beginning of October.

“I don’t know how it’s going to go,” the coach said, “but I can tell you one thing. Right now, he is playing at an extremely high level.”

Gregory is an even more unusual specimen. After missing the first two games with a knee injury, he eased into action at Fresno State on Sept. 6, then exploded with 4.5 sacks in the past two games.

But his impact far exceeds the numbers. Gregory baffled Illinois last week by lining up at multiple spots among the front seven.

“By moving him around,” fellow defensive end Greg McMullen said, “it only adds more attention.”

Offensive linemen search for him before every snap. Imagine the mindset of a quarterback.

“He’s a missile going through there,” Papuchis said. “He reads people. He reads it fast and hits it hard.”

At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, he runs more like a safety than a lineman. After Nate Gerry's third-quarter interception against Illinois, in fact, Gregory delivered a devastating block 20 yards down field of Illini receiver Malik Turner.

The Huskers will continue to use Gregory in creative ways.

Until Nebraska breaks through in a game like this, reasons exist to doubt it. Abdullah and Gregory offer hope that it ends differently this time.

Conference call: Best of the Big Ten

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
4:00
PM ET
Brady Hoke's call was a focus this week, as he spoke for the first time since the 12:52 a.m. Tuesday news release regarding student-athlete welfare. We offered a brief overview there but, as always, we included highlights throughout the conference.

By the way, if you’re not following us, what are you waiting for? Follow along at @ESPNRittenberg, @BennettESPN, @ESPNJoshMoyer, @DanMurphyESPN, @MitchSherman and @AWardESPN.

Week 6 playoff implications

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
9:30
AM ET
Claim your spot on the couch now. Reserve your table at your favorite sports bar. Buy another TV. Do whatever you gotta do to make sure you don't miss a snap Saturday because this is going to be a good one.

College football has been a well-kept secret so far, as it has been hiding the true identities of teams. Not this week. It's time to play or go home. There are six games between ranked teams. Of the 17 undefeated teams remaining, eight play against each other this week. It's the most relevant weekend the sport has had in regard to the new College Football Playoff.

Here are the games you can't miss, ranked from least to most likely to affect the playoff:

No. 14 Stanford at No. 9 Notre Dame -- Stanford already has one loss, and this is the second straight road trip for the Cardinal. If Stanford loses again, its playoff hopes will be in serious jeopardy but not over, given that it could still win the conference. This game should reveal more about Notre Dame's place in the playoff, as it will be the first ranked opponent for the Irish.

No. 4 Oklahoma at No. 25 TCU -- ESPN's Football Power Index gives Oklahoma a 64 percent chance to win and predicts this to be Oklahoma's hardest remaining game -- slightly more difficult than Nov. 8 against Baylor. If the Sooners can't handle TCU, they'll be on the outside looking in.

No. 15 LSU at No. 5 Auburn -- LSU gave Auburn its only regular-season loss the past year, but LSU has already lost to Mississippi State, which put the Tigers behind in the SEC West race. Considering the rest of LSU's schedule -- and the hole it's already in -- this is a must-win. For Auburn, this is a chance to erase some doubts and make a push from the bubble into the top four.

No. 6 Texas A&M at No. 12 Mississippi State -- Two terrific quarterbacks will be on display in the Aggies' Kenny Hill and the Bulldogs' Dak Prescott, who both rank in the top 10 in total QBR. A&M's stock dropped a bit this past week after it needed overtime to beat Arkansas, but it could be a top-four team if it can survive the state of Mississippi the next two weeks.

No. 3 Alabama at No. 11 Ole Miss -- This is the most interesting matchup of the day. Alabama ranks third in offensive efficiency, and Ole Miss ranks second in defensive efficiency. Neither team has played a ranked opponent, so there is still some margin for error, but the Tide have a chance to separate from the crowded West.

No. 19 Nebraska at No. 10 Michigan State -- Surprise. The game with the biggest playoff implications is not in the SEC West. This Big Ten matchup could knock Sparty out of the playoff entirely. It's one thing to lose to Oregon; it's another to try to make the four-team playoff with two losses and your best win coming over Nebraska in the Big Ten title game. Conversely, a win in East Lansing could vault the Huskers into the playoff conversation. They're the only undefeated team left in the Big Ten, and the toughest game left on their schedule is against No. 17 Wisconsin. If Nebraska pulls off the upset, it's time to take it seriously as a playoff team.

Planning for success: Nebraska

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
9:00
AM ET
LINCOLN, Neb. – The context on Monday included no mention of Michigan State, as Nebraska coach Bo Pelini referenced a quote by John Wooden on the fine line between winning and losing.

Said the famous former UCLA basketball coach:

The close games are usually lost, rather than won. What I mean by that is most games are won because of the opponent making mistakes during crucial moments."
[+] EnlargeMichigan State
AP Photo/Nati HarnikMichigan State was clearly better than Nebraska last season, but the Cornhuskers' five turnovers definitely were a contributing factor in their loss.
Imply as you wish.

Last November in Lincoln, Michigan State beat the Cornhuskers 41-28 as the Pelini’s team committed five turnovers, all in Nebraska territory, including three that were essentially unforced. The Spartans beat Nebraska for the first time in eight tries en route to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl victory.

“What happened, happened,” Pelini said. “You can look at it two ways. You can look at it and say we gave it to them. (Or) you can look at it from their standpoint that they took it.”

Pelini chooses the latter. To suggest otherwise, he said, is “kind of a cop out to a certain extent.”

“That’s not giving Michigan State credit," he said. "They won the football game and we lost, no matter how it happened.”

Turnovers stung Nebraska throughout the 2013 season. It committed 29 in 13 games and finished minus-11 for the season, No. 119 nationally. Things are better this season. The Huskers are plus-1 through five games, all victories; they’ve lost the football six times and taken it away seven times.

Clearly, then, doesn't ball security loom large in 19th-ranked Nebraska’s plan for success on Saturday night as it visits No. 10 MSU? Simply holding on to the football?

Or, as Wooden would have advised, don’t lose the game while trying to win it.

Offensive coordinator Tim Beck echoed such thoughts in talking to his players about Nebraska’s 45-14 win on Saturday over Illinois in the Big Ten opener for both teams. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. mentioned that the Huskers committed turnovers the only times they didn't score against the Fighting Illini.

That's not entirely accurate. The Huskers, in fact, punted three times in the second half. But you get the point.

“When we take care of the of the football,” Armstrong said, “we can do anything.”

Nebraska’s turnovers last season against Michigan State led to 24 Spartans points. All five were committed by freshmen handled the football -- including Armstrong, who fumbled a snap and threw an interception. That game remains as Nebraska’s only defeat in Armstrong's 13 career starts.

Expect the game plan for Saturday to include a heavy dose of senior I-back Ameer Abdullah, who leads the nation with 833 rushing yards. Armstrong is also more seasoned this time around. He leads the Big Ten and ranks sixth nationally in yards per completion, and his 420 rushing yards are fourth nationally among quarterbacks.

Nebraska can live with adversity on Saturday, as long as it’s not self-inflicted.

“If somebody makes a play on you, they make a play,” Pelini said. “You’ve got to make them earn it. That’s what you’ve got to constantly fight against, is being your own worst enemy.”

Big Ten morning links

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
8:00
AM ET
It's Week 6 already, so we have some catching up to do. Here are some notes and observations before we get to the links:

1. Michigan recruiting backlash. With all the Brady Hoke talk and the loss to Minnesota, you knew it was only a matter of time before something like this happened. Michigan commit and ESPN 300 tight end Chris Clark tweeted Sunday -- since deleted -- that if Hoke is fired then “that changes everything.” He likely just said what other recruits are thinking, and it'd be na´ve to think opposing coaches aren't going to exacerbate the situation by trying to use Hoke's lack of job security against Michigan. Recruiting could wind up being an uphill battle the rest of the season, despite the Wolverines' No. 19 ranking. They currently have 11 commits, and Clark is the highest-rated one.

2. Offensive line woes. Penn State offensive line coach Herb Hand has taken up the practice this season of tweeting out highlights of his Nittany Lions on Sundays. He doesn't do it every week, but he does it most of the time. Needless to say, he skipped the exercise this weekend -- but it's difficult to blame him. There were few highlights Saturday against Northwestern, and the clip of his linemen that most stuck out involved one of his offensive guards inadvertently blocking a teammate. Hand is a good coach, but he doesn't have depth or experience to work with here. He took the blame for Saturday's disastrous performance, but it's clearly not his fault. This is a young offensive line and, quite frankly, it just doesn't have much talent right now.

3. David Cobb's importance cannot be understated. The Minnesota running back has accounted for slightly more than 47 percent of the Gophers' offense. Not just rushing offense, mind you -- entire offense. That means he's a bigger part of the offense than Ameer Abdullah at Nebraska, Melvin Gordon at Wisconsin and Tevin Coleman at Indiana. Cobb has 722 rushing yards (5.8 ypc) and four TDs so far this season. He's worth watching.

Now, on to the links:

East Division
West Division

Big Ten mailbag

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
5:00
PM ET
After a bit of an extended break from the mailbag, it's time for what I hope is a long-awaited return to the format. Even if it isn't, I'm here anyway. Thanks for all the questions this week as the conference season heats up and the Big Ten race really starts to take shape.

Let's dive in.

Austin Ward: While the rest of the nation seems intent on installing the spread and airing the football out, there's really no reason for the Big Ten to stray from its traditional reliance on running backs to carry the load this season because it is absolutely loaded at that position from top to bottom, with Ameer Abdullah, Melvin Gordon and David Cobb. It's not just those three tailbacks that make for such an impressive stable, because that doesn't include Indiana's Tevin Coleman or Michigan State's Jeremy Langford, just for starters. As for some historical perspective, I think it's probably the best group at the top since 2002 when Larry Johnson led the league in yardage at Penn State with Wisconsin's Anthony Davis behind him and Maurice Clarett making his splash at Ohio State. But even then, I don't think there was nearly as much depth in the league at tailback as there is now.

Austin Ward: It's taken some time for Randy Gregory to get rolling, but now that he appears to be setting in, opposing quarterbacks better get used to seeing him in the backfield. After dealing with a knee injury that slowed him down early, Gregory has 4.5 sacks in the past two games, and Nebraska will definitely need him to make an impact against a Michigan State offense that is gaining confidence every week. Shilique Calhoun hasn't yet had his true breakout game with just 2 sacks at this point, although he was probably only really needed in the loss at Oregon. Taking nothing away from Gregory, I anticipate Calhoun will be highly motivated to deliver against Nebraska to keep his team in the playoff chase -- and to put himself back in contention for defensive player of the year.

Austin Ward: The Ohio State coaching staff was still referencing the unique defensive scheme the Hokies threw at them in Week 2 as recently as this afternoon. But as recent opponents have tried to duplicate that game plan, the Buckeyes have two critical things working in their favor now -- "Bear-beater" plays they've installed and a quarterback and offensive line with more experience to operate them and adjust on the field. It seemed pretty clear the schedule wasn't going to work in Ohio State's favor with the offense opening with tough, well-coached opponents such as Navy and Virginia Tech instead of easing in new faces with warmups such as Kent State and, to a lesser extent, Cincinnati. With J.T. Barrett and his group of blockers showing signs of significant progress every week, it's fair to wonder if things would be different if the Hokies had been on the schedule last week, and my guess is they would have been. I also don't think a few of those fluky plays Michael Brewer pulled off at quarterback would have gone Virginia Tech's way again, but in the end it doesn't matter. The loss isn't going away, and if Ohio State continues to build and improve each week, it could still wind up back in the playoff mix.

Austin Ward: This is a tricky one, because it would seem logical having an undefeated team as long as possible would be best for the Big Ten. But in this instance, maybe it wouldn't be if the Spartans suddenly found themselves out of contention for the four-team field with a second loss in the first weekend in October. The general consensus is the Spartans are the most talented team in the conference, and they could still win the league, even with a loss to the Huskers. But they almost certainly wouldn't be in the College Football Playoff. Nebraska, too, could go on to win the league without a perfect regular season, and there's a chance that if it was a one-loss league champ with it's only defeat coming on the road against Michigan State, it could make a case that it deserved a crack at the national championship as well. So, in this case, it may actually be better in the long run for the Big Ten if the Spartans defend their home turf on Saturday, potentially leaving two teams alive for the national championship instead of eliminating one for good. 

FauxPelini meets Spartans P Mike Sadler

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
3:30
PM ET
What do you get when you mix @FauxPelini and Michigan State punter Mike Sadler (aka @Sadler_3) days before the 19th-ranked Cornhuskers visit the 10th-ranked Spartans in a game with huge Big Ten title and College Football Playoff implications?

The beginning of a beautiful Twitter friendship ...

B1G early look: Setting up Week 6

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
2:00
PM ET
Is it almost Saturday yet?

Five Big Ten games are on tap this weekend, in addition to Indiana taking on North Texas. Plenty of entertainment and intrigue await, so let's get to it.

Five things to watch in Week 6

1. Top-two B1G teams square off. Michigan State is still widely regarded as the best team in the conference, but Nebraska is the last remaining undefeated team. So, regardless of the winner, this game should determine a lot. If Michigan State wins, there's no more question about the best Big Ten team. If Nebraska comes away with the victory, it should launch itself into the College Football Playoff discussion. This game also has the potential to provide a preview of the Big Ten title game; a lot is on the line here.

2. "Hot-Seat Watch: Brady Hoke" continues. Will he be fired by midseason? Can the Wolverines finally bounce back? Can a U-M quarterback actually turn in a good performance? Plenty of questions are swirling around this program, and there aren't a lot of answers right now. Michigan is even a four-point underdog to Rutgers -- which really shows just how far the Wolverines have fallen. Hoke is still clinging on to hope, as he said Saturday this team is still capable of winning the Big Ten title. But that optimism won't stick if it loses another B1G game. Another loss, and the "Fire Hoke" chatter will only magnify. It looks as if he's already gone -- but another loss could move up that timetable.

3. Maryland and Rutgers' surprising starts. Both teams are just one play away from perfect 5-0 records. Instead, they've had to settle for surprising 4-1 starts. After a bad game against Penn State, Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova has appeared to put it behind him. And a close loss to West Virginia hasn't slowed down the Terrapins' offense. Big Ten fans weren't quite sure what to make of these additions before the season, but both teams have proved their mettle so far. If Maryland can somehow knock off Ohio State, it instantly throws its hat into the Big Ten title race. If Rutgers can beat a reeling Michigan, it's all but assured of a bowl game.

4. Heisman hype. If Nebraska tailback Ameer Abdullah isn't trending upward on your Heisman list then you're doing it wrong. His least-impressive game (McNeese State) still led to his most-impressive play, and he's on pace for more than 2,100 rushing yards. He looked good again this past week, when he rushed for 196 yards by halftime. Wisconsin tailback Melvin Gordon is also back on track after running for 434 yards and seven touchdowns in just the last two weeks. Oh, and let's not forget about Indiana's Tevin Coleman. He won't be invited to the ceremony, and his team isn't on the same level as Nebraska or Wisconsin. But he's showing he deserves to be in the same conversation as those two other running backs. He actually leads the conference -- yes, even over Abdullah and Gordon -- in rushing yards per game (172.75).

5. Is Northwestern finally back? The Wildcats' 29-6 win over Penn State was their largest margin of victory since 2012, and it was their best win in at least a full calendar year. Players said they lacked focus those first two weeks but that everything's changed now. One game doesn't signify a trend, but another win should certainly have the Wildcats feeling better about themselves. A victory won't come easy against Wisconsin, but it'd be a huge statement if it actually happened. In a weak Big Ten, the Wildcats could still end up as a bowl-eligible team.
Welcome to the Big Ten time machine. Watch your step and hop aboard. Sorry, Mr. Slive, no standby today. Every seat is taken.

Passenger Delany in seat 1A, please stop ringing your call button. I told you we can't go back to Nov. 18, 2006. Yes, yes, I realize that is when the Big Ten sat atop the college football world with its two most recognizable programs ranked 1 and 2. I know you would give it all up -- the money, BTN's success, the expansion moves -- to relive that magical day in Columbus. Not happening, pal. Here is another bag of peanuts.

Our destination is the more recent past, although for some it feels like a long time ago. We are rewinding exactly one year to Sept. 29, 2013. Here we go!

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke, Mark Dantonio
AP Photo/Paul SancyaMichigan coach Brady Hoke, left, and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio have seen their programs head in different directions since last September.
Meet the Michigan State Spartans. They are 3-1 and unranked after a 17-13 loss to Notre Dame. The defeat reaffirmed that the offense, which sputtered throughout 2012, isn't getting better. Quarterback Connor Cook, replaced late in the Notre Dame game, tells reporters, "I would have wished that the coaches had faith in me to keep me in there." The Spartans are preparing for their Big Ten opener at Iowa, and few expect much to change with the quarterback situation or the passing game.

Now meet the Michigan Wolverines. They are 4-0 and ranked No. 19. They have just had two shaky wins against inferior opponents (Akron and Connecticut), but they previously beat Notre Dame 41-30 behind quarterback Devin Gardner, who put up the ninth-best single-game yards total (376) in team history. They are a rising program under third-year coach Brady Hoke with tremendous momentum on the recruiting trail. The growing feeling is that the Big Ten soon will revert to the Big Two (Ohio State and Michigan) and everyone else.

Speaking of those Buckeyes, they have yet to lose a game under second-year coach Urban Meyer. Yesterday, quarterback Braxton Miller returned from injury to spark Ohio State to a 31-24 win against Wisconsin. The fourth-ranked Buckeyes are loaded at quarterback with Miller and beloved backup Kenny Guiton. Their first Big Ten title since 2009 seems likely, and they could be headed for the BCS title game.

And here we have Maryland and Rutgers. They are still nine months away from becoming official Big Ten members, but most Big Ten fans wish their arrival date could be pushed to, you know, never. Maryland is 4-0 and ranked No. 25 and Rutgers is 3-1 after a win against Bret Bielema's Arkansas Razorbacks, but few expect either team to truly boost the Big Ten. Legends and Leaders had a stronger approval rating than these two.

OK, now we're heading back to the present. Aaaand ... we're back.

It's only been a year, but the Big Ten landscape has dramatically shifted, particularly in the state of Michigan.

Since Sept. 29, 2013, Michigan State is 13-1 with a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl championship. The Spartans have outscored their opponents 497-223. Cook has thrown 26 touchdowns against eight interceptions. MSU's lone loss came in a place (Oregon's Autzen Stadium) where most suffer the same fate. Mark Dantonio is considered one of the nation's premier coaches, and his team remains alive for the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Fifty miles away, the Michigan program is in utter disarray. The Wolverines are 2-3. They ended the Notre Dame series by suffering their first shutout since 1984. They failed to score an offensive touchdown against Utah. They suffered their largest home loss to Minnesota (30-14) since 1962. Hoke has lost eight of his past 11 games but said after the Minnesota game that he still thinks Michigan can win the Big Ten. Um ...

(Just a reminder: there's no smoking of anything in the Big Ten time machine.)

If losing isn't bad enough, Hoke faces more heat for leaving quarterback Shane Morris in the game despite Morris wobbling after absorbing a helmet-to-helmet hit. Perhaps the only Michigan employee less popular than Hoke right now is his boss, athletic director Dave Brandon, whose department was mocked following last week's Coca-Cola/free tickets fiasco.

Things aren't nearly as bleak in Columbus, but Ohio State isn't the juggernaut it was a year ago. The Buckeyes haven't beaten a Power 5 team since Michigan in The Game last November. Miller is out for the season with a shoulder injury. The secondary remains vulnerable. Young quarterback J.T. Barrett is improving, but struggled against the only top-90 defense he has faced so far (Virginia Tech).

Maryland and Rutgers, meanwhile, are a combined 8-2, each with a 3-point loss as the lone setback. The Terrapins lead the East Division, and Rutgers looks much improved on both sides of the ball. The Big Ten hasn't had many bright spots this season, but Maryland and Rutgers are two of them.

"College football," Dantonio said, "is such a changing landscape."

Expect the unexpected, especially in the Big Ten. The past year in this league shows that the only guarantee is that the future won't resemble the present.

Perhaps there is hope for Michigan. Michigan State, meanwhile, can't get complacent. No one knows what the coming weeks will bring.

"We still have things to prove," Dantonio said. "Our reputation right now is built off of last year's success. It starts here.

"We have to play in the present."

Weekend Rewind: Big Ten

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
10:00
AM ET
Time for some clarity in the Big Ten.

Pretenders and contenders will be more easily defined at the open of October than during the mayhem of the early weeks, when next to nothing went right for the Big Ten. Even just last week, confusion reigned after the league went 12-1 with four wins over Power 5 foes.

Well, Saturday was more down to Earth. Week 5 offered a better look at the Big Ten’s true colors than we’ve seen at any time this season.

The verdict: The talent on display in offensive outbursts on Saturday can take Michigan State and Ohio State far in this league. Wisconsin and Iowa might have to win ugly all year. Penn State is not as good as it looked through four games; Northwestern is better than it appeared through three.

Indiana still isn’t consistent enough to pencil into a bowl game. Minnesota and Maryland should not be overlooked.

And Nebraska, the league’s lone unbeaten, gets its chance this week to prove it belongs in the national conversation with MSU and OSU. The Huskers visit Spartan Stadium on Saturday.

We’ll get to that soon enough. First, let’s rewind.

[+] EnlargeLittle Brown Jug
Leon Halip/Getty ImaesMinnesota throttled Michigan in the Big House to claim the Little Brown Jug for just the second time since 1987.
Team of the week: How can it be any group other than Minnesota? As I was reminded in the wake of the Gophers’ 30-14 throttling of Michigan at the Big House, even my preseason best-case scenario for Minnesota did not include a win over the Wolverines. Clearly, I forgot to account for the possibility of a full-blown Michigan meltdown. But that’s not what led to the Gophers’ second win in the past 24 years of this series; Minnesota earned this. David Cobb rushed for 183 yards against a defense that entered the game ninth nationally against the run. Minnesota held Michigan to 171 yards. Fans greeted the Gophers upon their return to the Twin Cities. Apparently, they all wanted a look at the Little Brown Jug. Enjoy it, Minnesota.

Biggest play: Down 20-10 to Wisconsin, South Florida QB Mike White hit Kennard Swanson for a 52-yard gain that looked set to get the Bulls in position for a touchdown that could cut the Badgers’ lead to three points. But a lunging hit by Wisconsin freshman Lubern Figaro jarred the football loose from Swanson. Linebacker Vince Biegel recovered at the 10-yard line, and Wisconsin drove 90 yards in 18 plays for the backbreaking score. Without that turnover, it might have ended differently.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova fired four touchdowns in the Scarlet Knights’ 31-6 win over Tulane. Nova was notably efficient in the first half, hitting 9 of 9 throws for 195 yards and three scores. In the process, he moved his career total to 61 touchdown passes, passing Mike Teel for the school record.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory is officially back. The intimidating junior, who missed the Huskers’ first two games with a knee injury, recorded 2.5 sacks among his seven tackles and three quarterback hurries in a 45-14 Nebraska thumping of Illinois. Gregory looks more dangerous than ever, often lining up at the second level as a linebacker hybrid. He even delivered a devastating block on Nate Gerry’s 53-yard interception return.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Maryland place-kicker Brad Craddock connected on three field goals, including two from 48 yards in the Terrapins’ 37-15 win over Indiana, to stay perfect for the season on 10 attempts.

Biggest faceplant: Aside from Michigan -- no repeat winners -- it’s Indiana. What happened to the Hoosiers? They followed the groundbreaking win at Mizzou by failing to show at home as Maryland looked solid in its inaugural league game. So much for the Hoosiers' triple threat on offense. The Terps’ quarterback duo of C.J. Brown and Caleb Rowe teamed with receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long to steal the show.

Facts and numbers to know: Michigan ranks last nationally in turnover margin at minus-12 and 90th in offensive efficiency, according to ESPN Stats and Info. ... Nebraska I-back Ameer Abdullah rushed for 208 yards, moving his nation-leading season total to 833 yards. The Huskers, as a team, rushed for 458 yards against Illinois, totaling 190 on the ground, with no passing yards, in the first quarter. ... Rutgers has recorded 21 sacks in five games. ... Wisconsin remains the only team nationally not to surrender a red-zone touchdown. ... Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz earned his 65th conference victory to tie former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez for 10th all time. ... Ohio State’s 710 yards of offense against Cincinnati came within 8 yards of the school record and marked its highest output since totaling 715 against Utah in 1986. ... Michigan State has scored 174 points in three home games and 50 in back-to-back games for the first time since 1978. ... Northwestern held Penn State to 18 rushing yards in the first three quarters of its 29-6 win.

Big Ten morning links

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
8:00
AM ET
Things are bad enough for Brady Hoke and Michigan just given the performance of the team. On top of the Wolverines' struggles, Hoke has faced heavy criticism for how he handled the injury to quarterback Shane Morris in Saturday's loss to Minnesota.

[+] EnlargeMichigan's Brady Hoke
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsBrady Hoke had no real reason to leave Shane Morris in against Minnesota.
Some fans and pundits called for Hoke to be fired now for leaving an obviously badly limping and potentially seriously injured Morris in the game too long, and then for putting him back in the game for one snap after Devin Gardner lost his helmet. MGoBlog wrote this scathing piece accusing Hoke of disregarding player safety, especially given his policy of not discussing injuries.

Some of the critics, I thought, went too far in saying that Morris was obviously concussed after he got hit by Minnesota's Theiren Cockran. Morris was having trouble standing after that hit, for sure, but I'm not comfortable in making that kind of medical evaluation from afar. No one but the team's medical staff and Morris really know the severity of his injuries. It certainly didn't help appearances that Morris was carted off the field after the game.

On Sunday, Michigan issued a statement from Hoke on the Morris situation. In it, Hoke says his quarterback was removed from the game after "further aggravating an injury to his leg that he sustained earlier in the contest. He was evaluated by our experienced athletic trainers and team physicians, and we're confident proper medical decisions were made." The statement went on to say the team trainers and physicians are solely responsible for determining a player's physical ability to play and that "our coaches have no influence or authority to make determinations if or when an injured player returns to competition."

In no way do I think Hoke would willfully ignore a player's personal safety. But the part in the statement about coaches deciding a player's availability strikes a false note. Any one watching the game could see that Morris was not physically right, and leaving him in the game subjected him to potential further injury. And here's the thing: There was no real reason to have him in there playing hurt. Morris was not effective at all in the game, Michigan had no real chance to mount a meaningful comeback and the veteran Gardner was ready. In fact, Gardner immediately brought a small spark to what had been a listless offense (which only reinforced the notion that the Wolverines' best offensive option is still spreading the ball out and taking advantage of Gardner's mobility.). Surely Russell Bellomy could have come in for the handoff after Gardner lost his helmet.

Hoke's vague answers Saturday night about not seeing Morris look wobbly on the field did not help the image many fans already have of a guy who does not wear a headset on the sidelines. Fairly or unfairly (and it's far more likely the latter), Hoke is looking more and more like someone who is not on top of all the details in his program. Add that to the more obvious on-field problems and it's hard to see how he'll remain the head coach in Ann Arbor much longer.

Michigan's problems all lie at Hoke's feet, Shawn Windsor writes. It's time for Hoke to go, George Schroeder says.

More links ...

East Division
West Division

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
8:00
PM ET
How far will Michigan fall?

We'll find out during the next two months, but for now, the Wolverines have fallen out of the bowl projections. Brady Hoke's team sits at 2-3, and the offense has shown no signs of a turnaround. It's hard to envision Michigan winning one Big Ten game right now, much less the four it will need in its final seven to qualify for a bowl berth.

Indiana also falls out of the projections after a 37-15 home loss to Maryland. After seemingly turning a corner the week before at Missouri, the Hoosiers struggled to build on the victory as a normally potent offense did next to nothing against the Terrapins. Kevin Wilson's team has the talent to go bowling but must show it can handle success better going forward.

Penn State tumbles a bit in the projections after being exposed in a 29-6 home loss to Northwestern. We're not quite ready to put Northwestern back in the projections, but another big win would change that.

Nebraska and Maryland are among this week's risers. We still have both Michigan State and Ohio State heading to top bowls. Minnesota is another team to watch as the Gophers try to build on a strong performance at the Big House.

Without further ado ...

Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton/Fiesta/Orange: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton/Fiesta/Orange: Ohio State
Capital One: Nebraska
Outback: Wisconsin
National University Holiday: Iowa
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Maryland
San Francisco: Penn State
New Era Pinstripe: Rutgers
Quick Lane: Minnesota
Heart of Dallas: Indiana

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
2:00
PM ET

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