Big Ten: Michigan State Spartans

Rod Oden still remembers pacing his kitchen more than a year ago, as he listened to Michigan State wideout Tony Lippett express his mounting frustration.

I haven’t done anything wrong. Why am I not playing? I’m at the point where I don’t even need to shower after games; I don’t even get the chance to go off.

[+] EnlargeTony Lippett
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsA change in Tony Lippett's confidence was sparked by a conversation he had with his high school coach.
 Oden listened intently in September of 2013 as he wandered “all throughout the house.” Neither Lippett nor Oden, his mentor and former high school coach, knew Lippett would be heralded as the Big Ten’s best just one season later. Or that his turnaround would be sparked not by the weight room, the field or the film room -- but by this very telephone call.

“He was reminding me I was one of the most dynamic players he ever coached and that I could go out and play this game at a high level, if I had the heart and desire,” Lippett said. “He told me to build a bridge with my coach out here, Coach [Terrence] Samuel, and do the things they wanted to see out of me day in and day out.”

At the time, Lippett had caught just four passes in his first four games. He officially received no starts during that stretch. So, at Oden's insistence, the introverted Lippett reached out to his position coach soon thereafter. They shared breakfast, and Samuel challenged him around the bye week: Go watch film on MSU greats Plaxico Burress and Charles Rogers; then go look at film of yourself.

Lippett said he was forced to “look in the mirror and stop looking at everybody else.” He sat in the film room and studied Burress’ arm extension, he stared at Rogers’ hips and feet, and he marveled at their vision. Then the cut-ups were replaced with a player similar in stature but who was slow in his transitions and didn’t get off the press nearly as well. It was him.

Lippett again phoned Oden to let him know he took his advice to heart and to update him on the film review.

“He said, ‘I got to work,’ ” Oden remembered. “I told him, ‘Work starts today.’ ”

The transformation was slow -- but immediate. Lippett would linger after practice to chat with his position coach. He’d sit closer to Samuel on the flights, as opposed to several rows back. He’d hit the film room harder, gazing at defensive backs’ feet and scribbling down notes.

With the help of Oden and Samuel, his confidence grew in lockstep with the offense’s improvement. He started in 10 games after that phone call. And, in the final six games of 2013, he accounted for at least 62 receiving yards in every contest and saved his best for the Rose Bowl, where he caught the game-winning touchdown.

Looking back, even Mark Dantonio didn’t need to pause long when asked when the transformation started.

“I do think it flipped on, it flipped right after the Notre Dame game,” Dantonio said earlier this month, alluding to September of last season. “He started catching the ball very well, and he’s such a confident player right now.”

That change might not have come without that phone call, or without Lippett’s relationship with Oden. The two still talk several times a week -- sometimes, Lippett will even phone during a Friday night halftime -- and Lippett still returns about a dozen times a year to train on mismatched barbells and an uneven track to chat in-person with his old coach.

They never seem to talk about how far he’s come -- but about how far he has to go. Even now, as Lippett leads the conference with 111.1 receiving yards per game and nine touchdowns, he’s not satisfied. He’ll acknowledge this is a good year but, in the same breath, he’ll wax poetic on how Alabama’s Amari Cooper has dominated.

But, every week since September of 2013, he’s also grown more determined that he can reach that level. He's more focused. And, above all, thanks to Oden, more confident.

“I feel like me playing confident is the biggest intangible I’ve improved upon because I’m still the same size, probably a little faster,” he said. “But heart and desire and confidence has risen in me a lot. And that’s what really shows.”

Big Ten morning links

October, 30, 2014
Oct 30
8:00
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A wild November is two days away. Buckle up.

1. Conversation starter: The College Football Playoff rankings are going to change, that much is certain. But as a starting point, the first-ever edition is pretty useful for gauging where the Big Ten sits and what it must do hitting the homestretch over the final month of the regular season. The heavy lifting mostly applies to Nebraska and Ohio State, and the spots those programs hold at Nos. 15 and 16 might have revealed more about the thinking of the selection committee than just about anything else on Tuesday. For starters, at this point, it's hard to argue that the Huskers didn't deserve the higher ranking since their lone loss was at Michigan State and they own a reasonably attractive win over Miami. The loss to Virginia Tech is currently weighing down the Buckeyes, and despite how hard-fought the victory was at Penn State against its stout defense, there isn't much else on the resume right now worth getting too excited over for the committee. But it's important to keep in mind that even with all those teams standing between Nebraska and Ohio State and a playoff berth, there is a lot of football left to play -- and if either of them can win out, it still seems likely that a one-loss Big Ten champ is going to climb enough rungs to get into the field. Only one of those teams can do it since they would face off in the conference title game, but the Big Ten as a league remains very much alive in the race for the national crown.

2. Bucking up: J.T. Barrett isn't completely healthy yet on his sprained knee, but the Ohio State quarterback made it clear after practice on Wednesday that he was on track to play on Saturday night against Illinois. Considering what's looming for the Buckeyes on Nov. 8 at Michigan State, though, it might be best for Urban Meyer to get him out of the game as early as possible to make sure he's in one piece for such a critical matchup with both the Big Ten and national-title implications. Like any week, nothing can be taken for granted, and Illinois has put together some decent game plans on defense and is coming off an upset win over Minnesota. But if the Illini do live up to their billing as the worst total defense in the league in the Horseshoe this weekend, Meyer would be wise not to leave Barrett on the field into the fourth quarter behind backup offensive linemen in an effort to get him extra reps like he did two weeks ago against Rutgers. The stakes are too high, and Michigan State is more than capable of beating the Buckeyes again even if they're at full strength.

3. Under-the-radar matchup: Basically from here on out, the West will have a matchup every week that could serve as an elimination game for the division title. The undercard for a heavyweight November starts with Northwestern visiting Iowa, which isn't exactly a showdown between leading contenders but will nevertheless leave one team in the race and essentially knock the other out. The Hawkeyes have had an extra week to address the issues that popped up in a loss at Maryland that cut down on their margin for error in the rough-and-tumble West. Playing at home will also be an advantage for Kirk Ferentz and his club. Northwestern has been something of a wildcard, though, and it already has gone on the road and come home with a surprising victory after taking apart Penn State in late September. The Wildcats do have two losses in the league already, and they don't have much going for them in a theoretical tiebreaker should they win out. But they're not all that different than the Hawkeyes at this point -- and the loser on Saturday will effectively be out of the race.

East Division
  • Jabrill Peppers has obviously not had the season anybody envisioned for Michigan, and Brady Hoke admitted the freshman is frustrated.
  • Mark Dantonio is only focused on taking care of business with Michigan State after the first rankings were unveiled.
  • Thanks to an injury to veteran safety Ryan Keiser, Penn State will take the redshirt off Troy Apke.
  • Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova took another step forward, but his status remains unclear for this week's game against Wisconsin.
  • Maryland started its preparation for Penn State in the summer by breaking down Vanderbilt film, looking for ways to get pressure on Christian Hackenberg.
  • J.T. Barrett left no doubt about his intentions this week for Ohio State.
  • Word continues to spread about Indiana running back Tevin Coleman.
West Division
  • Nebraska has received a boost for its offensive line off the bench.
  • Where does Minnesota's loss at Illinois rank among the most deflating for the program over the last 15 years?
  • Reilly O'Toole remembers vividly the noise at Ohio Stadium two seasons ago. The Illinois quarterback will actually have a chance to play in front of that crowd this time.
  • Wisconsin has already had success in the past recruiting New Jersey. Putting on a good show at Rutgers might open up a few more doors.
  • Iowa is fed up with poor tackling, and it has made cleaning it up a priority this week.
  • Statistically, Northwestern has plenty in common with Iowa.
  • Raheem Mostert is running down a record at Purdue.

Watch: B1G Show replay

October, 29, 2014
Oct 29
5:10
PM ET
Join Big Ten reporters Dan Murphy, Josh Moyer, Mitch Sherman and Austin Ward as they look around the conference heading into Week 10.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

October, 29, 2014
Oct 29
5:00
PM ET
It's a new era in college football, as the first playoff rankings have been released. And understandably, questions about those rankings and the playoffs dominate Wednesday's mailbag:

Brian Bennett: That's the key question, isn't it? I'm not so sure. It's impossible to answer without knowing what happens elsewhere, and the Big Ten needs other leagues to falter. That's why Thursday night's game between Florida State and Louisville is huge for the conference. If the Seminoles win, it's hard to see them losing this season. That would all but guarantee FSU a spot in the playoff, and I believe two SEC teams will make it (the committee showed its admiration for the SEC by ranking three teams from that league in the top four and four in the top six on Tuesday night). That leaves only one spot open, and the Big Ten would be competing with the Big 12 champ, the Pac-12 champ and possibly Notre Dame. At this point, I would say the Big Ten does not get in. But there is a lot of football left. Remember that at this time a year ago with the BCS, Michigan State was unranked. Brian Bennett: An excellent question. On the surface, it would seem like a one-loss Pac-12 champion Ducks team would help Michigan State's cause. But I as I wrote in the previous answer, there could be a lot of jockeying among one-loss teams for perhaps only one or two playoff spots. I actually think the Spartans are better off if Oregon loses another game (but just one) and goes on to win the Pac-12. Michigan State will still get credit for going to Eugene despite the loss, but the Pac-12 would be essentially out of the running. Heck, the coaches' poll already has Michigan State ranked ahead of Oregon. If only those guys watched some games ... Brian Bennett: It was a mild surprise seeing Nebraska ranked one spot ahead of Ohio State, but it was also completely understandable. The Huskers' résumé is just as good if not better than the Buckeyes', and their lone loss (at Michigan State) is infinitely better than Ohio State's loss at home to 4-4 Virginia Tech. This would probably be a good time to review bowl tie-ins and procedures in case the Big Ten champion does not get into the playoff. The league winner would then go to either the Cotton, Peach or Fiesta Bowl. Those bowl matchups will be decided by the playoff selection committee. The Big Ten champion is not eligible to play in the Orange Bowl, though that game could feature a Big Ten non-champion if it is ranked higher than SEC non-playoff teams or Notre Dame -- which seems unlikely given the glut of top 10 SEC teams. Nebraska almost certainly needs to win the conference to be ranked high enough to qualify for one of the marquee non-playoff bowls. I still think the Huskers are the best team in the West Division, though trips to Wisconsin and Iowa won't be easy. If Nebraska doesn't win the Big Ten, I would bet on the Bo Pelini's team ending up in the Holiday Bowl, because the league's new bowl guidelines are aimed at avoiding repeat destinations, and Big Red has gone to Florida three straight years. Kameron from Glen Ellyn, Ill. writes: I agree both Ameer Abdullah and Melvin Gordon are deserving of making it to NYC. I am biased as a Husker fan but Abdullah's blemish against MSU I feel is better than Gordon's against an inferior opponent like WIU where he had 38 yards. I would think voters would view that as worse than the MSU game for Abdullah. Your thoughts?

Brian Bennett: If you're going to have a bad day during a Heisman campaign, it's better to do it in a blowout game against a no-name opponent than to in a loss during your biggest game of the season on national TV. Gordon also was coming off a hip flexor injury against LSU when he had the subpar game against Western Illinois. Abdullah was not able to carry his team to victory or get much of anything going at Michigan State.

But let's acknowledge that we're splitting hairs here. Both players are having incredible seasons, and both are more than worthy of a trip to New York City as Heisman finalists. As is, for that matter, Indiana's Tevin Coleman. Recent history suggests, however, that it will be tough for more than one running back to make it there.
Champions are made in November. That's the same for individual award winners. But as we close the book on October in the Big Ten, several players have already built strong foundations for their awards push.

We're tracking the offensive and defensive player of the year races every week. And this week's bonus category is offensive lineman of the year.

Here we go:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah (five first-place votes): Abdullah had been overtaken in our poll by Melvin Gordon in recent weeks, but he's back on top after he broke the Nebraska record for all-purpose yards versus Rutgers. This race should last all year.

2. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon (one first-place vote): Gordon did nothing wrong in running for 122 yards and three scores against Maryland last week. It's just that his competition is steep.

3. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: He and the Hoosiers were off last week. He will try to keep his streak of 100-yard games going at Michigan on Saturday.

4 . Michigan State WR Tony Lippett: He had his fourth straight 100-yard day and sixth of the season against Michigan, while recording his Big Ten-best ninth touchdown catch.

5. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: The Buckeyes freshman didn't have his best day at Penn State. But battling through a knee injury and leading the team to two scores in overtime was very impressive.

Also receiving votes: Minnesota RB David Cobb

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa (six first-place votes): He came up with the walk-off sack at Penn State and won his first Big Ten defensive player of the week award. It likely won't be his last.

2. Penn State LB Mike Hull: Inexplicably left off the Butkus Award semifinalist list, Hull leads the Big Ten in tackles and was sensational against Penn State with 19 stops.

3. Nebraska DE Randy Gregory: Despite missing some time earlier this year, he still has 5.5 sacks and is a holy terror to block.

4. Iowa DE Drew Ott: With the Hawkeyes off, Ott fell out of the Big Ten sacks lead. But he still has seven in as many games

5. Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun: He was a little quiet early in the season, but the defending Big Ten defensive lineman of the year has come on strong of late and has six sacks on the season.

Also receiving votes: Penn State DT Anthony Zettel; Wisconsin LB Derek Landisch; Maryland CB William Likely.

Rimington–Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year

1. Michigan State LT Jack Conklin (six first-place votes): We unanimously agrees that the Spartans sophomore, who had no other Division I scholarship offers out of high school, is the Big Ten's best offensive lineman so far this year. What a great story.

2. Ohio State LT Taylor Decker: The Buckeyes' O-line has made great improvement since early in the season, and Decker is the anchor at left tackle. That's why he is somewhat surprisingly ahead of ...

3. Iowa LT Brandon Scherff: The Hawkeyes senior probably still will be an early first-round draft pick, and he made the ESPN midseason All-American team. But he and the Iowa line have been disappointing, especially last time out against Maryland.

Big Ten playoff tracker: Oct. 29

October, 29, 2014
Oct 29
9:00
AM ET
The College Football Playoff rankings are out, but they're hardly the last word. Teams have another five weeks to build their cases for inclusion in the four-team playoff. But they know where they stand now.

Three Big Ten teams remain in the playoff mix. Let's take a look at how things stand for them:

Michigan State

Record: 7-1 (4-0)

Rank: 8

Next big obstacle: Nov. 8 vs. Ohio State

Reason for optimism: The Spartans have won 14 straight games against Big Ten opponents, and their toughest remaining game -- against Ohio State on Nov. 8 -- will be in East Lansing. Plus, their lone loss of the season was at Oregon, which was understandable. They remain the favorites to win the Big Ten and could easily move up as others lose.

Cause for concern: This year's defense has been more susceptible to the big play than defense in recent seasons, and Mark Dantonio's team has yet to play its A-game against a good opponent for four full quarters. The margin of the Oregon loss -- 19 points -- is a black mark, and the Spartans could suffer from the Big Ten's weak perception.

Whom they’ll be rooting for this week: Michigan State wants Ohio State to beat Illinois so the matchup against the Buckeyes is a marquee one. The Spartans need Oregon to beat Stanford and continue winning. They would also benefit from a Florida State loss at Louisville, a Notre Dame loss to Navy and more chaos in the SEC West.

Nebraska

Record: 7-1 (3-1)

Rank:
15

Next big obstacle: Nov. 15 at Wisconsin

Reason for optimism: The Huskers are still lurking in the Big Ten race and could avenge their lone loss -- on the road by five points to Michigan State -- in the Big Ten championship game. They have an easier path to Indianapolis through the Big Ten West and have one of the nation's best players in running back Ameer Abdullah.

Cause for concern: Nebraska's best victory of the season came against a 5-3 Miami team, which just might not be good enough. The Huskers have been inconsistent at times and still have road tests at Wisconsin and Iowa. In their lone marquee game, they trailed Michigan State 27-3 in the fourth quarter before a furious comeback. They also don't have any ranked teams left on the schedule, though that could change if they make the Big Ten title game.

Whom they’ll be rooting for this week: Nebraska still needs a lot of help to move up 11 spots (at least). The Cornhuskers should definitely root for Florida State to lose and will want TCU to go down to West Virginia to weaken the case for both the ACC and Big 12 champ. Losses by Notre Dame, Oregon and chaos in the SEC West are needed. Nebraska also wants Wisconsin and Iowa to keep winning to make those games look more important and for Miami to finish strong.

Ohio State

Record: 6-1 (3-0)

Rank: 16

Next big obstacle: Nov. 8 at Michigan State

Reason for optimism: The Buckeyes have steadily improved since a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech, and quarterback J.T. Barrett has developed into a reliable playmaker. If the Buckeyes win in East Lansing in two weeks, they should have relatively smooth sailing to the Big Ten championship game. The selection committee will respect Urban Meyer's track record and Ohio State's talent.

Cause for concern: That loss to Virginia Tech -- by two touchdowns, at home -- could be hard to overcome, especially because the Hokies are just 4-4. Other than Michigan State, there's no real opportunity for a statement win. And the Buckeyes barely survived the past week at Penn State, which suggests their offensive improvement might have been built on the back of a weak schedule.

Whom they’ll be rooting for this week: The Buckeyes need all the same carnage Nebraska is hoping for, but at least they could get a significant boost by winning at Michigan State. They'll also want the Huskers to win out and hope to play them in Indianapolis.

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 9

October, 28, 2014
Oct 28
8:15
PM ET
Tuesday nights have become rather significant in college football with the release of the playoff selection committee's rankings. As a result, bowl projections also move to Tuesdays and will be released immediately after the committee's rundown.

Last week, we projected Maryland to the Holiday Bowl based on merit, while noting that the Terrapins would have to prove themselves again at Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin ended up mauling Maryland, so the Badgers move up the projections. Remember: the Big Ten is taking greater control over bowl pairings this season, so the teams that have earned it on the field, not necessarily those with the largest fan bases, will land in the higher-profile games.

We had a brief discussion about projecting Michigan State or Ohio State to the playoff, but a few more things need to break the Big Ten's way. There's a good chance the winner of the Nov. 8 showdown at Spartan Stadium moves up a rung, but we're not ready to pull the trigger.

We also discussed whether to project Illinois to its first bowl game under coach Tim Beckman after a big home win against Minnesota. The Illini only need two more wins, but we need to see a little more.

Maryland and Rutgers move down after losses. Penn State, meanwhile, actually moves up after taking Ohio State to the brink before falling in two overtimes.

Here are the latest projections:

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

Best of Week 10 Big Ten conference call

October, 28, 2014
Oct 28
3:29
PM ET
Questions were asked. Coaches had answers. Here are a few of the highlights from this week's Big Ten conference call.

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

The College Football Playoff selection committee will issue its first-ever set of rankings Tuesday night.

It's an exciting time for fans and the signal of a bold new beginning for the sport. Many will be glued to their TV sets for the unveiling of the Top 25.

But in terms of appointment viewing for the three Big Ten figures who have the most to gain or lose tonight, this show might as well be a rerun of "New Girl."

On Tuesday's Big Ten coaches' teleconference, I asked Nebraska's Bo Pelini, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio and Ohio State's Urban Meyer -- all of whom should see their teams ranked in the top 20 -- how much attention they'd pay to the rankings release. All three said they didn't even plan on watching the show.

"I think you'll notice it, but I think our focus has got to be on our next football game," said Dantonio, whose team has a bye this week before hosting Ohio State. "That will be where the challenge is. I think this is the starting point for everything from a media perspective. I'm really not quite sure how it will even work."

"I'm sure I'll hear about it, but I've got other things on my mind than what that vote is today," Pelini said. "It's not something that affects me."

"I'm sure I'll look at them tomorrow morning," Meyer said. "We're practicing and it's a heavy game plan night. So I know I won't watch it, though I'm aware it's going to happen."

Playoff talk has dominated college football since the end of last season. But even though there are two men with major Big Ten ties on the committee -- Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez and former Nebraska coach/athletic director Tom Osborne -- the coaches all said they were unfamiliar with how the process will work.

Pelini even said he's had no conversations with Osborne about the playoff selection in the past year. I asked him if he'd address the playoff rankings with his team.

"No," he said. "Other than to ignore them."

None of the coaches expected to learn much from the rankings, either, though the committee could tip its hand on which areas -- like strength of schedule, good wins vs. bad losses -- it prioritizes.

"I haven't followed it that much," Meyer said. "I don't know if it's much different than the old BCS system when the BCS rankings came out. The only thing I look at it as, it's four teams instead of two. I really don't understand the whole dynamics."

"I think it's just another poll," Dantonio said. "I'm sure they have their methodology. It will be interesting to watch as it goes through. [But] we need to try and live in the present."

Tonight's show should attract a lot of interested college football fans. But not so many Big Ten coaches, apparently.

"I didn't know the rankings were tonight and will not watch them," Penn State's James Franklin said. "But I am curious about how the whole thing will play out. I will follow it from a distance in my free time."

National links: Beware the big day 

October, 28, 2014
Oct 28
8:30
AM ET
Welcome to terrific Tuesday. Or terrible Tuesday. All depends on your perspective.

The College Football Playoff selection committee began deliberations on Monday in Grapevine, Texas. Tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET, Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long will unveil to a most curious audience the first-ever CFP rankings.

It's a historic time -- and surely chaotic.

Marc Tracy of the New York Times, in assessing the moment, writes that “historians will most likely date the end of the era of good feelings to 7:31.”

With that in mind, some advice for fans from the Big Ten to the SEC:

Big Ten morning links

October, 28, 2014
Oct 28
8:00
AM ET
You know the drill: Coffee first. Notes and observations here second. And links at the bottom third.

1. Iowa transfer?: It appears as if freshman wideout Derrick Willies might have played his last game for the Hawkeyes. He posted a cryptic message on his Instagram Monday night that read, "It's been real Iowa, things are just moving on to a different chapter in the story..." A Hawkeyes spokesman told the Des Moines Register that any roster updates would be addressed by coach Kirk Ferentz on Tuesday. Willies was not listed on the team's Monday depth chart.

2. Hoke domino effect: Brady Hoke says no one's talked to him about his job status, and that kind of uncertainty is not what you want to hear when it comes to recruiting. As a result, ESPN 300 DB Garrett Taylor decommitted from the Wolverines on Monday. And U-M will be lucky if he's the last recruit to decommit. Oft-given advice is for a player to commit to a school, not a coach, but it rarely seems to work out that way. Michigan is down to nine commitments right now.

3. No Nova?: Rutgers senior QB Gary Nova is listed as "questionable" for Saturday's game against Wisconsin, which means redshirt freshman Chris Laviano could be in line for his first career start. Laviano could push Nova for time, regardless, as he outplayed Nova in the Nebraska game and even led his team with 54 rushing yards. But I'm more in line with the thinking of NJ.com's Dan Duggan: If Nova is medically cleared, he should play. A one-game sample size isn't enough to vault Laviano over Nova, who's been pretty good this year. Nova still gives the Scarlet Knights their best chance to win.

East Division
  • The chance for pride in Michigan's season vanished on Saturday, writes the Detroit Free Press' Mark Snyder.
West Division

B1G early look: Setting up Week 10

October, 27, 2014
Oct 27
2:00
PM ET
Just one game short of a full schedule in the Big Ten as the calendar turns to November for Week 10. Michigan State and Minnesota are off, though not out of our minds. Here’s an early look at the best of the league’s storylines:

The College Football Playoff rankings are coming out. Cue the Big Ten cries and anger. The 12-member playoff committee is meeting in Dallas -- so exciting -- and set to release on Tuesday its first list of 25 teams, the top four of which will eventually create matchups for our New Year’s Day semifinals. Let me remove some of the suspense for you: The Big Ten is going to be on the outside looking in. Michigan State figures to fit into the top 10, with Ohio State and Nebraska among the top 20. If you have a short memory, here’s what happened on Sept. 6. It looms large in the lack of respect this league receives nationally. All is not lost, though, as SEC and Pac-12 and Big 12 teams continue to knock each other from the top. Six weeks remain for one of the Big Ten’s top three teams to climb toward the top. It could happen.

What will happen next at Michigan? Just when you thought the season couldn’t get any worse for Brady Hoke and his team, Saturday happened. Not the 35-11 loss at Michigan State. That was expected. And hey, the Wolverines rushed for 61 yards -- 109 better than a year ago. But before the game, Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden drove a stake through the turf at Spartan Stadium. Not a good idea. Later, the Michigan Daily, the U-M student newspaper, gave up on the game. Ouch. So have the fans, especially the students, given up on the Wolverines? It will be interesting to see what happens in the seats at the Big House on Saturday as Indiana visits.

The Rutgers quarterback situation. The Scarlet Knights ranked as the top feel good story in the first half of the Big Ten season. Commonly picked to finish last in the East Division and miss a bowl game, Rutgers raced to a 5-1 start behind a solid defense and revitalized quarterback Gary Nova. But on Saturday at Nebraska, Nova went down with a knee injury late in the the first half as Rutgers -- instructed by coach Kyle Flood -- aggressively tried to drive the entire field, down 21-7 with one minute to play. Redshirt freshman Chris Laviano took over as Nova missed the second half. His status is uncertain for Saturday at home against Wisconsin. The rest of this season for Rutgers goes as Nova goes. It could win two more games and even push the Badgers if Nova is healthy. Without Nova, a crash-and-burn scenario is possible. Don't book the bowl trip yet.

On Wisconsin. Just like that, the Badgers are back. Sure, that loss at Northwestern still stings. But Wisconsin looked like a re-energized group in dispatching Maryland 52-7 on Saturday. And now, it’s got trips to Rutgers and Purdue before a big game in Madison on Nov. 15 against Nebraska opens the crucial three-game finish. It’s all out there for Gary Andersen’s team. With Melvin Gordon running the football and the quarterback situation apparently resolved, the Badgers are rounding into the team that ought to strike fear into the rest of the West -- and might just serve as the division’s best shot to beat Michigan State or Ohio State in Indianapolis.

The Under the Radar Bowl in Iowa City. Iowa and Northwestern sat out in Week 9, giving our short memories just enough time to forget about them. Not long ago, the Hawkeyes and Wildcats were contenders in the West. Then Iowa lost at Maryland, and Northwestern fell apart in the second half against Nebraska. The winner of this game remains in the mix, especially if it’s Iowa, which visits vulnerable Minnesota next week and gets Wisconsin and Nebraska at home to finish. But beware of Northwestern. It has won six of the past nine games in this series.
video
Michigan State was getting casual.

The Spartans were winning Big Ten games, just as they had in 2013, but not with their standard precision and 60-minute focus. A near blown lead against Nebraska. Poor decisions from players and coaches against Purdue. A sloppy first half at Indiana.

Other than a fleeting moment against Nebraska -- when Huskers receiver Alonzo Moore nearly corralled a touchdown in the final minute -- the Spartans never looked like they actually might lose. But they didn't look right, either. They seemed to be losing their edge.

Well, it's back. MSU can thank in-state rival Michigan for restoring it just in time.

The decision by Wolverines players -- I believe coach Brady Hoke when he says he had no involvement -- to drive a stake into the field at Spartan Stadium before Saturday's game lit the fuse for MSU coach Mark Dantonio and his team. After all they had done since Mike Hart's "Little Brother" comment in 2007 -- a 5-1 mark against Michigan, a 63-24 record overall, an outright Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl championship, and another shared Big Ten title -- the Spartans were still being shown up on their home field.

Maybe Michigan's act was more about itself than its opponent. Pardon the pun, but the Wolverines' disintegrating season was at stake Saturday. Michigan's recent losses to MSU stem from inferior talent development, coaching and execution, but the Wolverines also haven't matched the Spartans' intensity. The staking was intended to stoke the Maize and Blue.

[+] EnlargeKurtis Drummond
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State -- with a little help from rival Michigan -- regained its edge on Saturday.
It had a stronger effect on the men in green, a bunch that feels disrespected, even when they aren't, and uses snubs, real or perceived, as fuel.

Despite a few errors, MSU bullied Michigan again. And with a chance to kneel on the ball or score another touchdown in the closing seconds, MSU left its starters in and rubbed Michigan's nose in the end zone dirt.

"Just felt like we needed to put a stake in them at that point," Dantonio said after the 35-11 win.

The line was vintage Dantonio: premeditated and purposeful, smart and succinct, delivered with the trademark scowl on the outside but probably a small smile within. He paused for effect, then moments later addressed "the little brother stuff, all the disrespect" in a candid post-game session with reporters.

"Throwing the stake down in our back yard out here and coming out there like they're all that," he said. "It got shoved up ..."

Dantonio trailed off, but he made his point. We all know exactly where it got shoved.

Some teams are at their best when calm and cool. Dantonio and the Spartans are at their best when PO'd. Michigan's stake-and-shake sharpened Michigan State's focus.

The Spartans were supposed to beat Michigan. They have superior talent and coaching. But another watered-down win would have left an empty feeling before a two-week prep for the Ohio State showdown.

Instead, they recorded their most lopsided win against Michigan since 1967.

"We had enough emotion to carry us, but we also need to stay fresh and always need to bring our emotions to a football game," Dantonio said Sunday night. "That's sort of been a trademark of who we've become."

They had veered from their trademarks early in Big Ten play. Too many technical breakdowns on defense, too many risky throws by Connor Cook and even a poorly timed and executed fake punt attempt by Dantonio. And a casual attitude.

While MSU hiccuped, Ohio State had been punishing its opponents behind blossoming quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Nov. 8 narrative subtly shifted. An Ohio State win in Spartan Stadium, where the home side hasn't lost since 2012, began to look more plausible.

Then Saturday happened. The Spartans regained their swagger. Ohio State squandered a 17-0 halftime lead at Penn State and was extremely fortunate to win in two overtimes. Some who might have been leaning OSU might now be leaning MSU.

The Spartans shouldn't expect Ohio State to pull a similar pre-game stunt Nov. 8, nor should they expect the emotion from Saturday to carry them through the next 12 days. But the Michigan game reminded the Spartans of who they are and how they must play as the stakes get much, much higher.

"November ... defines you," Dantonio said Sunday. "We've got an off week, so we should be able to get fresh emotionally and fresh physically and have some additional time to work on Ohio State.

"There will be no excuses. We'll be ready to play."

Remember when MSU used to pull silly stunts like Michigan did? It used to be a silly program with a silly coach.

MSU is now an elite program with an elite coach. But this Spartans team hadn't looked elite until Saturday.

They needed a spark. Linebacker Joe Bolden and his Michigan teammates provided it.

MSU now can get back to its high-stakes mission: winning another championship.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

October, 27, 2014
Oct 27
10:00
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Rutgers and Maryland both got off to nice starts in their first season in the Big Ten. But reality is beginning to set in for both programs.

The Scarlet Knights beat Michigan and the Terrapins notched a solid victory over Iowa earlier this season. So both teams have been more than competitive and should go bowling. Yet hanging with the Big Ten's best teams in the league's toughest environments is another story entirely.

Rutgers fell to Nebraska 42-24 on Saturday in Lincoln, a week after losing 56-17 at Ohio State. Maryland got hammered by Wisconsin 52-7 in Madison and lost 52-24 earlier this season to Ohio State at home. The Terps were outgained by a total of 575 yards in those two blowout defeats, while the Scarlet Knights gave up 616 rushing yards to Ohio State and Nebraska.

Many Big Ten teams would suffer the same fates in those stadiums and against those opponents, so this is not really a knock on the newbies. It's just a reminder that while both Maryland and Rutgers are far from Big Ten bottom-feeders, they're not all that close to the cream of the crop, either. And both still have to play Michigan State.

[+] EnlargeDrew Meyer
Dan Sanger/Icon SportswireBadgers punter Drew Meyer tosses a pass during Saturday's Week 9 game against Maryland.
On to the Week 9 rewind:

Team of the week: Illinois. Like many others, we have given Tim Beckman a hard time. But he has always struck me as a decent guy who really cares about his players, and his joy for them was evident after the Illini upset Minnesota on Saturday. It was the program's first Big Ten home win since October 2011, incredibly. As bad as things have seemed in Champaign this season, especially after the home loss to Purdue, Illinois is still 4-4. A bowl game -- and another year for Beckman -- is still in play.

Biggest play: V'Angelo Bentley's 12-yard fumble return with 6:33 left provided the winning score for Illinois. It was sad to see David Cobb cough up such a big mistake since he's had an amazing season and has carried Minnesota's offense on his back, including on Saturday.

Coolest play: Never sleep on the punter. Well done, Wisconsin's Drew Meyer.

Worst play: Uh, not so well done, Devin Gardner.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Ameer Abdullah set a Nebraska record with 341 all-purpose yards. I think he blew up all the red balloons before the game, too. We're running out of superlatives for this guy.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Several Penn State defensive players were great, including Mike Hull and Anthony Zettel. But when the game was on the line in State College, guess who came through? No, don't just shrug. Take a bow, Joey Bosa.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Ohio State's Cameron Johnston averaged 45 yards on six punts and had four of them downed inside the 20, including a pair inside the Penn State 10-yard line in the fourth quarter.

Biggest faceplant: Minnesota was angling toward a 7-1 start and starting to gain some national respect before it lost to an Illinois team that had lost 24 of its previous 25 Big Ten games. For a second straight week, the Gophers fell behind early, and it's not a team built to play that way. With the closing foursome of Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska and at Wisconsin still left, Jerry Kill's team needs to regroup quickly or risk losing some serious steam.

Dumbest stake-plant: Well, duh. If you're keeping track, Michigan's ratio of wins to public apologies this season stands at 3-to-2. What a bizarre year in Ann Arbor.

Fun with numbers: Budget some extra time if you're going to Beaver Stadium for a league matchup. Five of Penn State's last seven Big Ten home games have gone into overtime. ... Michigan's fourth-quarter touchdown against Michigan State was its first versus the Spartans in 186:08 of game action, dating back to the fourth quarter of the 2011 game. ... Abdullah now ranks second in Big Ten history with 6,604 career all-purpose yards. He needs 825 more to break Ron Dayne's record, and with four more regular-season games plus a bowl (and a possible Big Ten title game) he should get there. ... Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon has five games with at least three rushing scores over the past two seasons, the most among all Power 5 conference players. His 15 touchdowns in his last five games ties Billy Marek (1974) for the school record for most scores in a five-game stretch.

Big Ten morning links

October, 27, 2014
Oct 27
8:00
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Does the Big Ten have a credibility problem with its officiating?

We're just two years removed from a very poor year by the league officials. And on Saturday night, the crew working the Ohio State-Penn State game was involved with several head-scratching -- and at times, just plain botched -- calls. "Clownish" is how PennLive.com's David Jones described the refereeing in State College, and it's hard to argue against that wording.

For years, fans have long accused the league of protecting its brand-name teams and have theorized that those schools get the benefit of the whistle. That's a bit too much tinfoil-on-the-head, conspiracy-mongering for me. After all, Michigan lost at Rutgers earlier this season in part because of a bad call on a Wolverines' pass that should have been ruled a completion.

But it's also true Ohio State got some breaks in its overtime win Saturday, most notably on the interception by Vonn Bell that actually hit the ground and on a field goal that came clearly after the play clock had expired. James Franklin had to hold himself back from saying what he really thought about those calls.

ESPN.com asked the league to clarify what happened on the Bell interception, after the officials told a pool reporter Saturday night that there were technical difficulties on the replay. The Big Ten's response:
"[T]he video feed to the replay booth was tested and confirmed on Friday and prior to the game on Saturday, but at the start of the game, the booth was no longer receiving all available feeds. The technician in the booth followed procedure by contacting the production truck, which immediately began working on the issue. Due to these technical difficulties, only one isolated shot from the overhead camera was available and the view did not provide sufficient information to reverse the call. As a result, the play stood as called. The production truck rectified the technical issues shortly thereafter, and the replay booth had access to multiple feeds for the remainder of the game."

And the league office also responded about the no delay-of-game penalty before that field goal:
"In this case, a breakdown in officiating mechanics occurred and the crew failed to properly monitor the play clock. There is flexibility for a slight delay between the play clock and the snap of the ball, but in this case, the timing far exceeded the tolerance for normal play clock procedures. The proper ruling should have been a five-yard penalty for delay of game. This is not a reviewable play."

It's good that the Big Ten provided some explanations here and that the league admitted a failure on the missed delay-of-game. That may not be enough for some fans who find it convenient those breakdowns happened to help one of the conference's remaining playoff contenders.

I don't believe there's a conspiracy in play. But I do believe the Big Ten needs to continue to demand better from its officiating, because it was far from acceptable on Saturday night.

East Division
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Finally: RIP, Oscar Taveras. Incredibly sad.

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