Big Ten: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Big Ten mailbag

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
5:00
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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. 

Weekend Rewind: Big Ten

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
10:00
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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
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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
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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
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Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
9:00
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Recognizing the best and the brightest from Week 5 in the Big Ten:
  • Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: After a sluggish first half by Gordon and the entire Badgers offense, the junior tailback finally got going in a big way. He finished with 181 yards -- 131 of them coming in the second half -- and two touchdowns on a career-high 32 carries in Wisconsin's 27-10 win over South Florida.
  • Northwestern LB Anthony Walker: He led all Wildcats defenders with eight tackles, and his 49-yard pick six in the second half helped break the game open in Northwestern's stunning 29-6 win at Penn State. Pat Fitzgerald's defense held the Nittany Lions to just 266 total yards and no touchdowns.
  • Minnesota RB David Cobb: The Gophers workhorse ran for 183 yards on 32 carries and had three catches for 50 yards as Minnesota beat Michigan 30-14 to regain the Little Brown Jug. Cobb outgained the Wolverines' entire offense (171 yards) by himself.
  • Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: The redshirt freshman is growing up quickly as the Buckeyes' leader. In Ohio State's 50-28 win over Cincinnati, Barrett completed 26-of-36 passes for 330 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions. He also ran for 79 yards on 14 carries. He finished just three yards shy of Art Schlichter's single-game school record for total offense.
  • Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: If it seems like Abdullah appears here every week, well, that's just how well he has played this season. He did almost all of his damage against Illinois in the first half and finished with 208 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries in the 45-14 victory. Abdullah has eclipsed 200 yards three times already this year and is on pace for a 2,000-yard season.
Five lessons from an interesting Saturday in the Big Ten:

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook and Michigan State's offense rolled again in a win over Wyoming on Saturday.
1. Offenses surging in East Lansing and Columbus: OK, so the opposing defenses haven't exactly been stout. Still, it's hard not to notice the huge offensive numbers Michigan State and Ohio State are putting up. The Spartans scored 56 points in a win against Wyoming on Saturday, a week after posting 73 against Eastern Michigan. They're averaging 50.3 points per game for the season, which is ridiculous when you consider the state of the MSU offense a year ago. Connor Cook is in complete command of the game plan, and Jeremy Langford had his first 100-yard day of the season. "We have never exploded like this out of the gate with our offense," head coach Mark Dantonio said. Meanwhile, Ohio State has bounced back nicely after predictably struggling early with a new quarterback and revamped offensive line. The Buckeyes briefly set a school record for total yards against Cincinnati before losing 20 yards on the penultimate play; still, they finished with 710 yards and a school record 45 (!) first downs in a 50-28 victory. Quarterback J.T. Barrett, who threw for 330 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions, is growing up quickly, and Ezekiel Elliott shows signs of becoming a star tailback. That's 116 points in the past two weeks for Urban Meyer's team. The competition will improve very soon, but both teams could pull away from the pack in the East Division if their offenses build off these performances.

2. Defenses carrying Wisconsin, Iowa: Things are going the other way in Madison and Iowa City. Other than the past week's shredding of Bowling Green, Wisconsin has yet to play an impressive, full game offensively. The Badgers had only three points at halftime against South Florida before they finally got on track in the second half of a 27-10 win. But Wisconsin's defense has been stout all season. Gary Andersen's team is the only FBS squad yet to give up a red zone touchdown this season, and the defense forced two turnovers against the Bulls. Iowa fans found out Saturday that C.J. Beathard isn't going to single-handedly transform an at times frustrating offense. But the Hawkeyes' D held Purdue without an offensive touchdown and allowed only 156 total yards -- and only 82 in the final three quarters -- in a 24-10 road win. If the offenses ever get revved up, both Wisconsin and Iowa will be very dangerous. Right now, at least, both are winning with defense.

3. Minnesota and Maryland are stealth contenders: Neither the Gophers nor the Terrapins generated much buzz this preseason as possible division contenders -- understandably so, given their recent histories. But both will at the very least be factors in the race to Indianapolis. Maryland is a play or two against West Virginia from being 5-0 and has shown explosive playmaking ability on both sides of the ball. Even with quarterback C.J. Brown injured in the first half at Indiana, Randy Edsall's team kept rolling behind Caleb Rowe in an easy 37-15 win -- the Terps' second straight, double-digit road victory. Minnesota thoroughly dominated Michigan in the Big House 30-14 and -- in a refreshing change -- displayed at least some competency in the running game. With their defense and the running of David Cobb, the Gophers can make some noise in the West despite a challenging final four games (Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska, at Wisconsin). Meanwhile, Maryland could have a big say in the East as division powers Michigan State and Ohio State (next week) have to go to College Park.

4. Bill comes due for Penn State's issues: It's never been any secret the Nittany Lions had serious deficiencies on their offensive line and, consequently, in the running game. James Franklin and his staff did a great job covering those in the first four games, all Penn State wins. But it's hard to win with those weaknesses in Big Ten play, and Northwestern -- despite its own problems of late -- exploited them in a big way during Saturday's stunning 29-6 win at Beaver Stadium. Penn State ran for only 50 total yards, and Christian Hackenberg was sacked four times while being pressured all game. Hackenberg had one of the worst games of his short career, but it was unreasonable to expect him to carry the entire offense the entire season. The Nittany Lions' problems aren't easy to fix, but at least they have a bye week coming up to search for answers.

5. Ameer Abdullah deserves to be a leading Heisman contender: Nebraska's senior running back is putting together a potential season for the ages. Against Illinois, he ran for 208 yards and three touchdowns while barely playing in the second half of a 45-14 win. That's the third 200-plus yard game for Abdullah this season, and he's on pace for 2,000 yards. The Cornhuskers are the lone remaining unbeaten Big Ten team, and they wouldn't be if not for their leader. Abdullah gets a spotlight opportunity next week at Michigan State, but he deserves all the Heisman love you can throw at him right now.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 5

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27
8:00
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After a banner Saturday a week ago, what does the Big Ten have planned for an encore? It can't win as many games as it did last week since conference play is set to kick off with five matchups inside the league. But there are still a handful of opportunities on the table that can bolster the Big Ten reputation -- and, in one case, a chance to right the ship after a disastrous performance last week.

The fun is set to really begin now. Here's the full rundown of the day (all times Eastern):

Noon games

South Florida (2-2) at No. 19 Wisconsin (2-1), ESPNU: The Badgers and star running back Melvin Gordon roared to life last week, and they've got a chance to continue building momentum heading into Big Ten play. If Gordon keeps up the eye-popping yards per carry he posted in the win over Bowling Green, he could be right back in the Heisman Trophy conversation after a slow start.

Tulane (1-3) at Rutgers (3-1), ESPNEWS: The Scarlet Knights have a chance to run the table outside of the Big Ten, which would be pretty useful in helping them qualify for a bowl game in their first year in the league. The loss of running back Paul James to a season-ending injury is a big blow, but he probably won't be missed against the Green Wave.

Iowa (3-1) at Purdue (2-2), BTN: The Hawkeyes might not technically have a quarterback controversy, but they were clearly energized last week when C.J. Beathard came in to relieve an injured Jake Rudock. If Rudock is healthy, Iowa might play both of them against the Boilermakers, who haven't won a conference game since the last week of the 2012 regular season.

Wyoming (3-1) at No. 9 Michigan State (2-1), ESPN2: The Cowboys have been impressive under new coach Craig Bohl, even trading a few early punches with Oregon before getting blown out. Michigan State stood toe-to-toe into the second half with the Ducks and look like the most talented team in the Big Ten, which is clearly a significant advantage over the Pokes.

Northwestern (1-2) at Penn State (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten), BTN: After struggling in a pair of losses before a bye week, the Wildcats didn't look much better in an ugly win over Western Illinois. That doesn't bode well for a trip to Penn State, which is brimming with confidence and in position to build on its fast start in the East Division.

Maryland (3-1) at Indiana (2-1), 1:30 p.m., BTN: Despite a loss for each team, both the Terrapins and Hoosiers have been pleasant surprises during the season's first month. Indiana bounced back with an impressive defensive outing to upset Missouri on the road, and that unit will be put to the test by a Maryland attack loaded with playmakers.

Mid-afternoon game

Minnesota (3-1) at Michigan (2-2), 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2 mirror: Brady Hoke's seat is warm enough as it is, but it would be scorching if the Gophers come into the Big House and leave with the Little Brown Jug. Minnesota's defense is capable of making Michigan's turnover woes worse, and no matter who plays quarterback for the Gophers, the running game is a handful.

Night games

Cincinnati (2-0) at No. 22 Ohio State (2-1), 6 p.m., BTN: The Buckeyes used their bye week to gear up for Cincinnati quarterback Gunner Kiel and his lethal receiving corps, which will provide the first real test for a revamped secondary. After already dropping one game outside of the Big Ten, Ohio State can't afford to lose a second if it's going to climb back into the playoff picture.

Illinois (3-1) at No. 21 Nebraska (4-0), 9 p.m., BTN: For whatever it's worth, the pollsters still aren't showing much love to the Huskers. But as long as they keep winning, they're going to be tough for the selection committee to ignore. Wes Lunt and a high-flying Illinois offense are entertaining to watch, and with Ameer Abdullah lining up against a suspect defense, this prime-time matchup should feature plenty of fireworks.

Required reading

Week 5 predictions

Tracking our B1G fantasy teams

Take Two: Is Michigan or Florida in better shape for a turnaround?

"Wow moments" arriving for Ohio State's Michael Thomas

Indiana defense more confident than ever

C.J. Beathard ready when the call comes

Uncertainty not an issue for Minnesota QBs

The Miracle at Michigan: 20 years later

Cincinnati knows Ohio State game is huge

Big Ten awards race tracker

B1G 1/4 season review: Bold Predictions | Surprise player | Surprise team

For Tanner McEvoy, actions louder than words

True test coming for revamped Ohio State defense

B1G running backs deserve place in Heisman race

Planning for success: Indiana

No easy fix coming for Michigan offense

Take Two: B1G's best receiving tandem

Penn State, Northwestern very far apart

Big Ten morning links

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
8:00
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Week 5 in the Big Ten is nearly upon us, with five conference matchups to digest. As the preparation comes to a close, here’s a peek inside my mind in advance of Saturday.

If it looks like a quarterback controversy, and it sounds like a quarterback controversy . . . Look, coaches would often rather talk about injuries -- and they hate to talk about injuries -- than an uncertain situation at quarterback. But that’s just what Brady Hoke and Kirk Ferentz face this week. Based on recent play of the Michigan offense, neither Shane Morris nor Devin Gardner appear likely to resurrect the Wolverines. But Hoke and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, as a visit nears from Minnesota, continue to keep their strategy under wraps. At Iowa, Jake Rudock has a leg injury. C.J. Beathard has a live arm, showcased in the second half last week as he led the Hawkeyes back on the road to beat Pittsburgh. So what you do? My suggestion: Give the backups a shot. Morris might provide a spark at the Big House. As for Iowa, it should win at Purdue with either guy. The Hawkeyes know what they’ve got in Rudock. Beathard has never started a game. Let's see what he can do.

What Big Ten team most needs a win on Saturday? This made for a fun discussion last week as Iowa, Northwestern, Maryland and Rutgers faced important bounce-back opportunities. They all won, as did Indiana, which didn’t even receive much consideration in this discussion before its trip to Missouri. I chose Michigan last week as the team most in need of a win. And you know what happened against Utah. Well, this week, I’m eliminating U-M as a candidate here, because I think a victory over Minnesota simply delays the inevitable crash and burn. Wisconsin, Michigan State, Nebraska and Ohio State also don’t get a chance in this category; as favorites of more than two touchdowns, their situations are clear. Same goes for Rutgers, which ought to roll against Tulane. I’m going with Indiana, amazingly. The Hoosiers face a tough test at home against Maryland in what looks like an entertaining matchup. After the win at Mizzou, IU needs to validate its legitimacy as a bowl contender and continue to distance itself from the loss to Bowling Green.

Setting the table. Don’t look now, but if things go according to form in Lincoln and East Lansing on Saturday, there's a big one on tap next week at Spartan Stadium. A visit from the undefeated Cornhuskers would rank Nebraska-Michigan State as the marquee early-season conference game in the league and likely the best intra-division matchup of the season -- if not the game of the year in the Big Ten. Nationally, next week isn’t exactly the best day in college football history, but it’s pretty good, with Alabama-Ole Miss, Arizona State-USC, Texas A&M-Mississippi State, Stanford-Notre Dame and LSU-Auburn. The Huskers and Spartans can give the Big Ten a seat at the table.

Around the league:

East Division
West Division
There may be uncertainty at quarterback for Minnesota, but it's only temporary.

The Gophers aren't short on confidence in backup Chris Streveler, who they've already seen win a game as the starter, piling up rushing yards and showing more than a few similarities to starter Mitch Leidner in the process.

But whenever Leidner is healthy, coach Jerry Kill has made it quite clear that his pecking order won't change -- and he'll get no argument from Streveler.

[+] EnlargeChris Streveler
Andy Clayton-King/AP PhotoChris Streveler, who ran for 161 yards against San Jose State, could see more action as the Gophers' starting quarterback.
"Quarterback controversy? There's no positive in something like that for a team in a season like this," Streveler told ESPN.com. "Mitch has done a great job, great guy, great quarterback, great leader, so that's why it's easy to stand behind him.

"All the guys stand behind him, and if he's ready to go, he's going to lead us. But if he can't go, then I'm going to step in there and do the best job I can."

The Gophers have needed Streveler to come off the bench a couple times already this season with Leidner dealing with turf toe and a knee issue, including those same injuries forcing him to the sideline for all of last week's 24-7 win against San Jose State.

That opened the door for Streveler to make his first start, and while the passing attack was almost nonexistent with just one completion in seven attempts, the rushing game didn't miss a beat as the redshirt freshman racked up 161 yards and a touchdown to claim his first victory.

That outing could have been the beginning of a case to compete for the first-team job if he wanted to campaign, but the selfless Streveler has unfailingly deferred to Leidner despite impressing with his chance to run the offense last weekend. And either way, the Gophers figure to need him given the uncertainty swirling around Leidner's health, which could easily keep him out of action again this week for a critical Big Ten opener at Michigan.

"[Last week] doesn't change anything," Kill said. "First of all, we've got to get Mitch healthy, and right now that's not the case. Chris has done a great job, and I'm sure he'll have a strong preparation for this week and we'll go from there.

"They're both very similar quarterbacks, and there's not a lot we change for either one. ...It's a great situation for us to be in."

The scenario would be even more appealing if both quarterbacks were at full strength, but having a reliable, trustworthy backup capable of picking up where the starter left off is invaluable for the Gophers, particularly because of their similar skill sets.

Neither quarterback is going to light up defenses through the air, and Minnesota barely even tried to pass with Streveler under center against San Jose State. But first and foremost, Minnesota's strength is rushing the football, and Streveler shined with his playmaking ability in the zone-read and zone-power schemes while averaging nearly 9 yards per carry.

That doesn't mean he can't use his arm, and the Gophers are quick to point out there won't be many victories in conference play that include just one completed pass. But there is a belief they can keep winning games even if Leidner isn't able to quickly reclaim the starting position that's waiting for him.

And just like the depth chart, Streveler is on the same page there as well.

"It just feels good to get the win, to be honest, but it isn't a one-man effort out there," Streveler said. "Gosh, my teammates helped me out so much, the offensive line played great, [running back David] Cobb had a monster game, so I was just happy to get the 'W.'

"I don't even know if I'm going into this week as the starter. But nothing really changes for me mentally or preparation-wise. If I am starting, running with the 1s this week in practice, the only difference is reps with the No. 1 huddle. But if not, I'll be in with the No. 2 huddle and taking some mental reps. Either way, I'll be ready to go."

And whenever Leidner comes back, the Gophers will have an even more experienced backup on their hands and no threat of him stirring up a controversy.

Watch: B1G live chat

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
1:28
PM ET
Join Big Ten reporters Josh Moyer, Dan Murphy, Mitch Sherman and Austin Ward as they look around the conference heading into Week 5, including Michigan's future, a look at the Big Ten's playoff hopes and some intriguing Saturday matchups.

Big Ten Week 5 predictions

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
9:00
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Can Michigan bounce back? Can Indiana build off last week's big upset win over Missouri? Our experts make their Week 5 picks.

 

Why Maryland will win: Our best chance for an offensive shootout in the conference this weekend will be in Bloomington. Indiana's up-tempo offense took down reigning SEC East champ Missouri last weekend. Maryland has the firepower to keep pace. Quarterback C.J. Brown has gotten consistently stronger in the passing game over the past few weeks and has a handful of big-play targets surrounding him. The Terps sounded geeked to make their Big Ten debut during the week of preparation, which should help them outlast Indiana in a close one. Maryland 38, Indiana 33 -- Dan Murphy

Why Indiana will win: Because these Hoosiers are different. They're not going to disappoint their fans, as is customary for IU football. They're not going to follow a big win with a deflating loss before a home crowd itching for something about which to get excited. These Hoosiers are different because of running back Tevin Coleman, the do-it-all junior who might rank as the most underrated player in college football. Indiana has momentum after its road upset at Missouri and motivation to continue to prove that a loss two weeks ago at Bowling Green was an aberration -- that this is a team ready to play in the postseason. And if all that isn't enough, the Hoosiers aren't playing Michigan State; they're simply good enough to outscore Maryland. Indiana 35, Maryland 27 -- Mitch Sherman

 

Why Minnesota will win: Michigan's generosity with the football has been well documented, and it doesn't even seem to matter who plays quarterback as those woes continued even after Devin Gardner was removed from last week's loss to Utah. On the flip side, only one team in the nation has more takeaways than Minnesota's defense, and that combination doesn't seem like a great recipe for the Wolverines to hold on to the Little Brown Jug. The Gophers have had their own problems protecting the football, but a powerful rushing attack and stout defense should put them in position to make Brady Hoke's life even more difficult. Minnesota 20, Michigan 13 -- Austin Ward

Why Michigan will win: The season is really on the line for the Wolverines and coach Brady Hoke. If U-M loses, a bowl berth suddenly seems unlikely and Hoke's seat would be hotter than ever with some tough games remaining in a competitive East Division (Penn State, Michigan State, Ohio State). I don't think Michigan is done yet, and the Wolverines seem to always find a way to beat Minnesota, even with their weaker teams (see: 2008). Michigan's defense matches up well against a one-dimensional Gophers offense. Minnesota's ability to take the ball away scares me, but I think Michigan grinds out a win in a low-scoring game to keep Hoke alive. Michigan 13, Minnesota 10 -- Adam Rittenberg

Unanimous selections

Michigan State over Wyoming 42-6: A tuneup for the Spartans, who host Nebraska next week. The Cowboys have fared well this year without scoring many points. They won't score many in East Lansing, either, though it comes with a less favorable outcome.

Ohio State over Cincinnati 45-17: The Buckeyes, off a bye week, continue to take steps forward by stopping Cincinnati QB Gunner Kiel, who has thrown 10 touchdowns in two games. Ohio State puts up a big rushing number.

Penn State over Northwestern 24-10: The Nittany Lions continue to get it done with defense -- especially up front, where breakout senior tackle Anthony Zettel makes life miserable for the punchless Wildcats, who average 4.54 yards per play, 116th nationally.

Nebraska over Illinois 48-24: The Huskers avoid a letdown, between big games against Miami and Michigan State, behind strong performances again from running back Ameer Abdullah and QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. as another slow start dooms the Illini.

Iowa over Purdue 28-20: More signs of improvement from the Boilermakers, but for a second straight week, QB C.J. Beathard rallies the Hawkeyes in the second half as Iowa starts to find an identity by getting its talented cast of receivers more involved.

Wisconsin over USF 56-14: That big soft spot in the schedule allows for another easy win as the Badgers run wild again. More important, QB Tanner McEvoy enjoys a solid game, and the Wisconsin defense surges forward, hinting at the capabilities of this team in a few weeks.

Rutgers over Tulane 37-17: The Scarlet Knights get a week before Big Ten play resumes to devise a way to replace injured running back Paul James. Against the Green Wave, who struggle to stop the run, Justin Goodwin and Desmon Peoples fill in nicely.

Our records:

Adam Rittenberg: 40-10 (80 percent)
Mitch Sherman: 40-10 (80)
Brian Bennett: 39-11 (78)
Austin Ward: 39-11 (78)
Josh Moyer: 36-14 (72)
Dan Murphy: 9-4 (69)

Big Ten morning links

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
8:00
AM ET
With every team in action for just the second weekend this season, there's plenty to get to in the links this morning. Before diving into that, three thoughts on hot topics in the Big Ten as an important Saturday draws closer.

1. What's the secret?: Chalk it up as gamesmanship or protecting the offensive plan, but there's really no reason for Brady Hoke to be trying to hide his starting quarterback at this point. For one thing, Minnesota coach Jerry Kill has already made it clear that he won't waste time preparing for a "ghost," which means he's already gearing his team up for Devin Gardner. Considering Gardner's multipurpose abilities, it would seem far easier for the Gophers to adjust to Shane Morris if the Wolverines elect to start him, so there doesn't seem to be much gained there. And from a Michigan standpoint, if Hoke is sticking by Gardner, wouldn't he be better served with a public vote of confidence from his coach instead of leaving open the debate about which option is really best to lead the attack? Hoke surely has enough to worry about at this point elsewhere, and he's never seemed all that concerned about public perception when it comes to his news conferences. But it's hard to think guarding a secret about his starting quarterback is worth the effort, and there's a chance it might actually be doing damage.

2. Sneaky-good game of the weekend: Before the season started, it was easy to overlook the matchup. Even now with both teams bringing a loss into the weekend, it might still not stand out as worth watching. But Maryland visiting Indiana for the Big Ten opener for both promises to be entertaining, and it may also have the benefit of being a worthwhile win for the victor down the road. The Hoosiers put themselves back on track for a possible bowl bid with their win at Missouri last weekend, and the Terrapins have emerged as something of a dark horse threat in the East Division with their only loss coming in a shootout against a tough West Virginia squad. There's much more on the line than might have been guessed before the season when it just looked like the conference debut for Maryland, and it certainly will be worth watching on Saturday afternoon.

3. Buckeyes scrambling to replace Spence: Ohio State already had to rely on Steve Miller to fill the void at defensive end left by Noah Spence's suspension before his second failed drug test, so it hasn't had to come up with a new solution since a second failed drug test made it unlikely they would ever get the All-Big Ten pass-rusher back on the field. But what would happen now if Miller goes down or the Buckeyes need to expand the rotation back to eight or nine guys up front as they originally planned? It's possible Adolphus Washington might again be forced to move back outside after seemingly finding a spot to settle once and for all on the interior, and Urban Meyer admitted there have been discussions about making that adjustment. But he indicated it won't happen this week, which could put freshmen Tyquan Lewis and Jalyn Holmes in line for action against Cincinnati. That definitely wasn't what Ohio State had in mind before the season when the line was touted as perhaps the nation's best unit, but that's now the reality of its situation.

East Division
West Division
  • From trash talk to cheap shots, Nebraska's Randy Gregory is getting plenty of attention this season.
  • Purdue has already doubled its win total from last season and Darrell Hazell believes things are pointing in the right direction.
  • Minnesota isn't planning to win any Big Ten games with just 7 passing yards. In the past, the Gophers have actually won with less.
  • A look at everything that goes into handling a weather delay like Illinois had last weekend.
  • Fullbacks may be falling by the wayside nationally, but the position is still alive and well at Iowa.
  • Northwestern has the speakers blaring at practice and is ready to hit the road to take on Penn State.
  • Blitzing is all about effort, and that's no problem for Wisconsin's Derek Landisch.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 4

September, 24, 2014
Sep 24
3:00
PM ET
A few teams have already played a third of the season. The nonconference action is winding down. Big Ten play is about to really kick off in earnest this weekend -- and the battles for individual awards are starting to come into better focus.

There is still plenty of football to be played and more than enough opportunities to shake up the ballots. But our Big Ten reporters are voting weekly on the races to take the pulse of the races, with players receiving five points for a first-place vote, four for a second-place nod, etc. Also, we try hard to base these standings on 2014 season results only, not any preconceived notions or a player's previous track record.

Here's where it stands after Week 4:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah (six first-place votes): Another prolific performance in a win for the unbeaten Huskers and another unanimous selection as the top offensive player in the league. Abdullah has set the bar high in the early going and could be tough to chase down if Nebraska keeps rolling.

2. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: Still something of an unknown nationally, Coleman helped get his name out last weekend in the upset at Missouri. He's actually averaging more rushing yards per game than Abdullah.

3. Michigan State QB Connor Cook: Fresh off a bye, Cook was able to take even more time off after carving up Eastern Michigan early and and then calling it a day after six attempts last weekend. He's completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and is clearly building on his strong finish to last season.

4. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: One of the preseason favorites has finally arrived in the rankings after a slow start. Gordon made up for some lost time with a ridiculous outing against Bowling Green, steamrolling to 5 touchdowns and 253 yards on just 13 carries.

5. Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: Massachusetts didn't pose much of a threat to the Nittany Lions, and the sophomore didn't need to do much to secure another victory. He still leads the Big Ten in passing yardage, but he has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns at this point.

Also receiving votes: Minnesota RB David Cobb and Michigan State WR Tony Lippett.

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Penn State DT Anthony Zettel (six first-place votes): The clear-cut leader for the second week in a row, the defensive tackle continues to lead the league in tackles for loss. His emergence has been invaluable during the perfect start for the Nittany Lions.

2. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa: The Buckeyes were off this week, but that didn't hurt the pass-rushing dynamo any in the rankings. Bosa isn't likely to get his sidekick Noah Spence back any time soon, so his production will be even more critical moving forward for Ohio State.

T-3. Maryland CB Will Likely: The talented defensive back is breaking up at least one pass per game, and he's already nabbed a pair of interceptions and returned one for a touchdown. Even better for the Terrapins, he's a willing tackler averaging nearly 7 takedowns from his spot in the secondary.

T-3. Minnesota LB Damien Wilson: The senior sits on top of the tackling leader board after four games having already piled up 44 of them. The Gophers could use another solid outing as they head to Michigan with a chance to claim the Little Brown Jug.

5. Rutgers DE Kemoko Turay: The defensive race has been relatively wide open and full of surprising names, perhaps none as head-turning as Turay. Through four games, the freshman's four sacks are tied for the league lead.

Also receiving votes: Michigan LB Jake Ryan, Iowa DE Drew Ott and Wisconsin LB Joe Schobert.

Conference call: Best of the Big Ten

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
3:00
PM ET
Another week, another Big Ten coaches' teleconference, and we offer up some of the highlights.

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

 

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