Big Ten: Northwestern Wildcats

Is there anything better than Big Ten football in the fall?

We think not, which is why we're dreaming of our ultimate Big Ten road trip in 2015. In case you've missed the previous installments, we've been giving our picks for which game we would attend each week if money and editorial decisions were no object. We can each pick only one game per week.

Time to look at Week 8:

Saturday, Oct. 24

Wisconsin at Illinois
Penn State vs. Maryland
Indiana at Michigan State
Northwestern at Nebraska
Ohio State at Rutgers

Byes: Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota Purdue

Austin Ward's pick: Northwestern at Nebraska

By this point there should already be an understanding of where these programs stack up in the West Division, and there probably won’t be huge stakes in the race unless the Wildcats have truly recovered from their recent rough patches and found some consistency on offense. But if the Huskers are going to be a factor, this is a matchup at home it can’t afford to overlook. And for Pat Fitzgerald, taking his team into a tough place to win and pulling out a victory would have value not only in climbing back up in the standings and potentially into the postseason again, but it might have a long-term impact establishing the Wildcats as a threat again.

Mitch Sherman's pick: Ohio State at Rutgers

I’m off the High Points Solutions Stadium, because it’s the closest Ezekiel Elliott or any of Ohio State quarterbacks will get to New York City until December. Maybe Urban Meyer can steer the team bus through Times Square to offer extra motivation for the Buckeyes’ Heisman candidates. Really, this is not a great week of matchups in the Big Ten, and OSU squashed Rutgers 56-17 a year ago. I’m not expecting a compelling game, but I want to see the atmosphere for this in Piscataway, and I’m wondering if Rutgers cast of running backs can penetrate the Ohio State defense. Probably not, but hey, a stopover in New York beckons.

Brian Bennett's pick: Penn State vs. Maryland

"Let the rivalry begin." Those were Randy Edsall's words when Maryland pulled off the historic win in State College last year. Don't think Penn State has forgotten that -- or that the Terps refused to shake hands before the game. This might just be turning into a heated new rivalry in the Big Ten, and with this game being in Baltimore at M&T Bank Stadium, I'd expect some Nittany Lions fans to make it closer to a neutral site. Save me a crab cake, and I'll see you there.

Josh Moyer's pick: Penn State vs. Maryland

Our choices are thin in Week 8, so I'm going with a matchup that could wind up blossoming into a nice rivalry. Call it what you will right now, but this game is sure to be an interesting one after last season's no-handshake escapade (and don't forget about the pregame scuffle either). The Nittany Lions tried to downplay how they felt after the Terps' 20-19 win, but it's clear they weren't fans of the move. Outside of the theatrics, this could be another close contest -- or at least has less blowout potential than the other games.

Previous trippin'

Week 1: Bennett and Murphy at Ohio State-Virginia Tech; Ward at Michigan-Utah; Moyer at Wisconsin-Alabama
Week 2: Unanimous: Oregon at Michigan State
Week 3: Sherman and Murphy at Rutgers-Penn State, Bennett and Ward at Nebraska-Miami
Week 4: Bennett and Ward at Maryland-West Virginia, Sherman and Moyer at BYU-Michigan
Week 5: Unanimous: Iowa at Wisconsin
Week 6: Unanimous: Nebraska at Wisconsin
Week 7: Moyer and Ward at Penn State-Ohio State, Murphy at Michigan State-Michigan, Sherman at Nebraska-Minnesota

Big Ten morning links

March, 25, 2015
Mar 25
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Urban Meyer makes news when he thinks about the quarterback decision that he faces before next season. He actually talked about it Tuesday.

Meyer said the dilemma has started to "eat away" at him.

In this report by Tim May of the Columbus Dispatch, Meyer praised the Ohio State quarterbacks for their positive attitude in spring practice, specifically mentioning a compliment offered by Braxton Miller to Cardale Jones. Miller and J.T. Barrett talked a little football at practice, he said.

These are insignificant details, though they remain fascinating in the context of the OSU QB race, especially when offered by Meyer. The battle won't actually hit its stride until August of course, when all three accomplished players presumably will enter preseason camp in good health.

Meyer said Tuesday that he was moved to feel this way about the quarterbacks because he has "such great respect for all three guys."

He also offered a dose of reality. "The negative: Two people are going to have to watch."

This storyline has already taken on a life of its own. It's in danger of spinning out of control at some point before August, at least in the uncontrolled environment away from the Ohio State campus. Twelve practices remain for the Buckeyes this spring -- more time for the media and fans to anticipate and overanalyze every minor twist.

And if Meyer is already feeling a burden now, imagine how he'll feel in August.

Let's get to the links:

Big Ten morning links

March, 19, 2015
Mar 19
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Here in the throes of March Madness, football takes a temporary backseat, especially for the Big Ten schools involved in the NCAA tournament.

(In 30 seconds, name the league’s seven men’s basketball teams vying for the big prize. Scroll down for the answer.)

They’re still talking football in Iowa, even as the state’s three basketball programs compete in the tournament. The cost of football recruiting, to be more exact.

The Des Moines Register examined recruiting costs associated with campus visits and coaches’ travel, finding that Iowa nearly doubled its spending over a five-year period that ended in 2013. The 98.7-percent increase ranked second in the Big Ten to Penn State over that same time.

Interestingly, the Hawkeyes still trailed rival Iowa State by more than $100,000 on recruiting expenditures in 2013, and spent 35 percent less than ISU over the five years.

Of the spending increase, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz told the Register: "It’s really a national trend. I think everybody’s being a little more aggressive than they used to be."

It’s a good sign for Iowa that it’s trying to keep pace. The Hawkeyes and Ferentz, entering his 17th season, are too often slow to adjust at times. Over the five years of gathered data, Iowa ranks 10th in the Big Ten in total spending on recruiting.

To reverse its current trajectory on the field, Iowa would be well served to rank higher than 10th over the next five years.

Here’s the full list of schools nationally, as compiled by USA Today. Just wondering, but how did Auburn spend nearly $1.4 million on recruiting in 2013 when more than 80 percent of its signees in 2013 and 2014 lived within the SEC footprint?

A final aside on recruiting expenses: Though they offer an excellent window into these programs, be careful about comparisons.

Air travel, the most significant recruiting expense, is classified by programs in different ways. Some schools own planes, jetting coaches from coast to coast; others receive donated private air time; others rely solely on commercial travel.

And here is your answer to the above question: Ohio State and Purdue play Thursday. Michigan State, Indiana, Maryland, Iowa, and Wisconsin take the court Friday. Enjoy the basketball.

Let's go around the rest of the league:

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Alarm bells started ringing in the Nicolet Football Center early Monday afternoon, with an automated voice informing all inside to evacuate because of a fire emergency.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff calmly walked outside, where they spent a few minutes in the shockingly warm, not-quite-spring air. After the ringing stopped, the coaches returned and continued to dissect film of Saturday's practice.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarSo far, spring practice has been standard operating procedure for Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats.

If a false alarm during a week where no practices are being run is the biggest distraction of Northwestern's spring session, Fitzgerald will gladly take it. A year ago, Northwestern found itself in the national spotlight, not because of the team's on-field potential, but because of the unionization debate initiated by former quarterback Kain Colter. Fitzgerald testified at a National Labor Relations Board hearing in Chicago just before spring practice kicked off. The Wildcats faced union questions after every practice. The attention remained as they voted shortly after spring ball whether to unionize.

It was a historic period in the program's history. It also was a wholly unproductive one.

"Every coach in the country, regardless of if it's college football or Major League Baseball or the NBA or NHL, you talk about eliminating distractions, and we had a big one last year," Fitzgerald said. "It's not an excuse. It was just a reality. We dealt with it, we worked through it. It's in no way, shape or form an excuse. We're not going to accept that. But it definitely was a factor."

Fitzgerald admits Northwestern was "behind" entering preseason camp. Coupled with a surge in injuries and the preseason losses of two All-Big Ten players, Northwestern stumbled to an 0-2 start, never fully recovered and finished 5-7 for the second straight year.

There are no guarantees Northwestern course-corrects this spring. It has to find a quarterback, build more explosiveness on offense and establish greater toughness along both lines. There are injury limitations, especially at defensive tackle.

But so far spring practice has been standard operating procedure for the Wildcats.

"It's great having some normalcy," Fitzgerald said. "I'm most happy for the young men and for the staff. To really just focus on the process of building a foundation of what we're trying to do, instead of dealing with an outside distraction, has been positive to this point."

An unobstructed path to the coming season should heighten the urgency for everyone associated with Northwestern football. Although the program doesn't resemble the national joke it was in the 1970s and 1980s, it still suffers from that default perception when things go poorly. Fitzgerald built Northwestern into a consistent bowl participant and, eventually, a bowl champion and a 10-win team in 2012. But three consecutive bowl-less seasons will lead many to wonder whether the Wildcats will ever turn the corner.

Fitzgerald kept his entire staff in place despite consecutive losing seasons, which says something about the power he wields and also about the place where he coaches. Most FBS coaches wouldn't have a choice but to make changes after two subpar years (or, in Bob Stoops' case, just one). Some Northwestern fans called for firings, but the scrutiny here doesn't come close to that surrounding most Power 5 programs.

"We've won a lot of games, and I'm very proud of the job our staff has done," Fitzgerald said. "We're very disappointed we haven't had three 10-win seasons. We're just like the guys, champing at the bit, have a good sense of urgency."

Offensive coordinator Mick McCall sums up the difference between this spring and last spring this way: "We're able to coach 'em."

"It's hard to coach your guys when you're trying to make sure, 'Oh, hey, by the way, this other thing's going on,'" McCall continued. "We didn't need that. If anybody in the country had to do that, they were going to struggle with ways to do it.

"We're not holding anything back. We're coaching the heck out of them."

Last fall, Fitzgerald often cited maturity issues on the team. The injury wave forced many young players into action, and though some enjoyed brief success -- freshmen defenders Anthony Walker and Godwin Igwebuike received weekly honors from the Big Ten -- there was little consistency.

McCall likes how players have responded through the first nine spring workouts. Fitzgerald added, "I think we're growing up."

Northwestern is a normal team going through a normal offseason, striving to regain what had been normal results under Fitzgerald (7-9 wins and a bowl appearance). It's a program that, quite frankly, needs more internal tension/pressure to get back to where it was in 2012, especially in the Big Ten's weaker division (West).

The Wildcats need a strong finish to spring ball. They need an even more productive preseason camp, when several injured linemen return.

"We're right there in a lot of games," Fitzgerald said. "We've got to find a way to win."

They'll attempt to do so with nothing obstructing their way.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Historically, the Big Ten hasn’t been a great passing conference.

How bad has it been? Well, when it comes to producing 2,500-yard passers, we crunched the numbers and found that no Power 5 conference has had fewer -- either in 2014 or over the past five seasons -- than the ground-and-pound conference.

Over the past five years, there has been a wide gulf between the B1G and everybody else. Even when you take all the B1G realignment into account, a B1G team produces a 2,500-yard quarterback at less than a 40 percent clip. Compare that to the Pac-12 (68.3 percent) or even the SEC (48.6 percent), and it’s not too pretty.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarChristian Hackenberg leads a group of Big Ten QBs expected to surpass 2,500 passing yards in 2015.

But it’s not all doom-and-gloom for the Big Ten. This season should put an end -- at least temporarily -- to those poor passing numbers. Three returning Big Ten signal-callers reached the milestone last season and are near-locks to surpass 2,500 yards again: Michigan State’s Connor Cook, Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg, and Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong.

Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett also surpassed 2,500 yards in 2014, although there is no telling what his numbers might be with a crowded race under center. Still, boasting three NFL-caliber quarterbacks on the same roster should merit some extra credit.

On top of those four returners, healthy quarterbacks like Nate Sudfeld and Wes Lunt have great opportunities for 2,500 yards, and Iowa was just 64 yards shy last season after C.J. Beathard split time with Jake Rudock. With Rudock seeking a transfer, that passing mark seems more attainable this season. Maryland also would have achieved the feat last season if C.J. Brown had remained healthy, so Caleb Rowe could very well end the Terps’ seven-year drought this season.

Other teams need to settle on their quarterbacks first. And no one is expecting Wisconsin or Minnesota to become pass-first teams overnight. But trends like this tend to happen in cycles, and it looks as if the Big Ten is finally on an upswing in 2015.

It’s basically the opposite message from last week, with the 1,000-yard rushing club. The Big Ten had a great 2014, and it likely won’t equal that rushing performance again in 2015. With passing, it saw only five of 14 starting quarterbacks surpass 2,500 yards last season -- again, the worst among the Power 5, by far -- but it would be a huge surprise if it didn’t improve upon that number.

Now, our most recent chart doesn’t necessarily measure passing success. Two- and three-quarterback systems, signal-caller battles and injured players tend to blur those numbers, but this should be a memorable year for the B1G through the air. If Purdue, Michigan, Northwestern or Rutgers can settle on a starter and get off to a quick start, it could be even better.

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern fans could count on several things during the first seven years of Pat Fitzgerald's tenure: wildly entertaining, down-to-the-wire games; defenses that bent, sometimes broke but also made plays; bowl games (at least after the first two years); and standout quarterback play.

From 2007-12, the quarterback position undoubtedly was a strength for the Wildcats. C.J. Bacher, Mike Kafka, Dan Persa and Kain Colter all were among the Big Ten's more productive and dynamic signal-callers. In 2012, Northwestern deftly managed a two-quarterback system with Colter and Trevor Siemian, winning 10 games and ending its 64-year bowl losing streak.

But the quarterback spot has backslid the past two seasons and, not surprisingly, so have the Wildcats following consecutive 5-7 campaigns. It's unfair to place most of the blame on the signal-callers, who dealt with injuries, drop-prone receivers and inconsistent lines. Yet, the Wildcats didn't have a quarterback ranked among the Big Ten's top 10 most efficient passers.

[+] EnlargeMatt Alviti
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsMatt Alviti is using his athleticism and leadership skills in Northwestern's quarterback battle this spring.
Northwestern must upgrade the most important position on the field in 2015. But first, it must find a quarterback. Spring practice has brought a wide-open competition between senior Zack Oliver, sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson. Midway through, no leader has emerged and the candidates are taking equal reps with different personnel groups, operating the base offense.

"I wish [the decision] could be right now, but it's not going to be that way," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "We've got to go through this, just to see how they grow. We'll get them in some situational stuff as time goes on.

"They all have some good things they've done, some spurts they go through and then something [bad] will happen. It's more about how they respond to certain things."

Oliver's selling point is experience. He backed up Siemian and Colter the past two seasons and has 61 career pass attempts in 12 games. He's a big man (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) with a big arm, but has yet to prove himself in sustained game action.

Oliver started in place of the injured Siemian in the 2014 regular-season finale against Illinois, a game Northwestern needed to win to go bowling. Things didn't go well: Oliver committed five turnovers (three interceptions, two lost fumbles) in a 47-33 loss.

"It's not on a loop in my room over and over again, but I did watch it," Oliver said. "I will continue to watch it any time I'm feeling unsure of myself."

Wouldn't the Illinois tape make Oliver feel less sure?

"I don't want go look at my highlight tape from high school," Oliver said. "I'll go and see what I messed up on, what I did right and then use that for spring football to get better."

Oliver is the dues-paying fifth-year senior who has waited for this moment -- "I've put in my time here," he said -- but he still might not be the answer. Some expect it to be Alviti, who wears the same number as Persa (7) and boasts a similar build and skill set.

Listed at 6-foot, Alviti is the best athlete of the three and delivers escapability Northwestern typically requires of its quarterbacks but lacked last year with Siemian. Alviti also brings a strong personality to the huddle, which Northwestern might need after two lackluster seasons. A member of Northwestern's leadership council, Alviti thinks he can direct others despite his limited playing experience.

"We haven't had great leadership the last two years," Alviti said, echoing a statement he made last spring. "That all starts with our quarterbacks and guys who are leaders on offense. We need to demand more from the rest of the team. Whether it's yelling at a guy or just being able to talk to him, that all comes with building great relationships off the field."

Thorson, perhaps more than any candidate, looks like a Big Ten quarterback. He boasts good size at 6-4 and 210 pounds and has a strong arm, which he showed off at a recent practice with a perfectly placed deep ball to Miles Shuler. Thorson seems comfortable in the pocket but also has mobility, which McCall says is "huge" to push Northwestern's offense.

McCall said of Thorson and Alviti, "It'd be interesting to put them in a race."

Thorson comes from good gridiron stock. His father Chad played linebacker for the New York Giants. His brother Luke is a senior wide receiver at Division III Wheaton College, where Chad played. Another brother, Hunter, played tight end at Wheaton.

"Both were 6-7, so big targets," Clayton Thorson said of his brothers. "We would go out to the practice field a lot -- it was right across the street from us, actually -- and we'd go play there, go play with [former Hawaii and Ohio State quarterback] Taylor Graham. It was awesome."

The coaches are clamoring for clarity, but little has emerged between the patient senior, the spunky sophomore and the virtuoso freshman. Maybe it's not a bad thing.

As Northwestern tries to regain its footing both in wins and in quarterback play, it can't afford to get this decision wrong.
Last season was undoubtedly the "Year of the Running Back" in the Big Ten.

We've talked about it ad nauseam around here, but in case you need a refresher course, the league featured such star tailbacks as Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb, Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Northwestern's Justin Jackson. When you have two 2,000-yard rushers and five others go over 1,100 yards -- including the offensive MVP of two playoff games -- then there's no debate which position is the strongest.

The running back position isn't going to drop off a cliff this year, either, as Elliott and Jackson return and new stars like Wisconsin's Corey Clement will emerge. But 2015 is going to be the "Year of the Quarterback" in the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook has a 23-3 record as a starter at Michigan State.
That might sound silly, just based on recent history. Elite quarterback play in this league has been hard to find at times in the past few years, and the conference has not produced a first-round NFL draft pick at quarterback since Penn State's Kerry Collins in 1995. That streak won't end with this spring's draft, either.

But the drought almost certainly will change with the 2016 draft. In fact, there's a good chance the Big Ten will have multiple quarterbacks taken in the first round next year -- and we're not just talking about all of Ohio State's guys.

The Buckeyes are a great place to start in this discussion, as one of their three candidates for this year's starting job -- Cardale Jones, Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett -- instantly will become a Heisman Trophy front-runner the second he earns the gig. Assuming all three stick around until the fall, that will be a continuing topic of conversation and curiosity in Columbus and beyond.

There's zero quarterback controversy in East Lansing, as Connor Cook decided to return to Michigan State for his senior year. He's got a 23-3 record as a starter (and is 16-1 in Big Ten games) and already has led the team to victories in the Rose and Cotton bowls. If Cook can shore up some of his footwork and decision-making, he could be the first quarterback off the board next year ... unless, that is, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg comes out as a junior.

Hackenberg had major struggles last season as a sophomore, owing a lot to an offensive line held together with spit and string. But his natural talent is undeniable, and he reminded everybody of that by throwing for 350 yards and four touchdowns against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. With better protection and more experience at receiver, Hackenberg could bounce back in a big way in 2015.

There aren't as many household names under center at other Big Ten campuses. But Indiana's Nate Sudfeld has long been viewed as a pro prospect. His 2014 season was cut short by a shoulder injury, and he should be fully healed by the start of 2015. Illinois' Wes Lunt also was hampered by injuries last year, but when he was healthy, he threw for at least 266 yards four times. Both Sudfeld and Lunt are listed at 6-foot-5 and have the classic quarterback builds.

Tommy Armstrong Jr. has the perfect last name for a quarterback and could take the next step in his development as a junior for Nebraska. He'll play in a more passer-friendly offense under Mike Riley, and Armstrong gave a hint of his potential with a 381-yard, three-touchdown showing against USC in the Holiday Bowl.

Questions abound at other places, like Wisconsin, Rutgers, Purdue, Northwestern and Michigan. But each team has talented options that could be unlocked. Mitch Leidner moves into his third year of starting for Minnesota and had one of his better games in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. C.J. Beathard appears to be the man moving forward for Iowa, and his big arm and fearlessness gave the offense a spark last year.

The Big Ten looks like it's on an upswing, especially after a strong showing in the postseason. Improved quarterback play is a big reason why. This will be the best crop of signal-callers throughout the league in a long time, which is why 2015 will be the Year of the Quarterback.

Big Ten morning links

March, 11, 2015
Mar 11
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The Big Ten men's basketball tournament begins today. Remember when one of these things didn't take five days to complete?

1. The defending national champions opened spring ball on Tuesday. While everybody was understandably talking about the quarterback "battle" on the first day -- it's not much of a battle right now, of course, with J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller recovering from injuries -- that's more or less a sideshow.

Sure, it's going to be utterly fascinating to see whether Cardale Jones can hold off the previous starters for the job. In the long run, however, it won't matter if Jones, Barrett, Miller or even Stephen Collier or Stephen Colbert starts for the Buckeyes. Quarterback is really the least of Urban Meyer's concerns.

He doesn't actually have many on this loaded roster. Yet if there's anything that could hold back Ohio State from making a repeat trip to the College Football Playoff, it's the defensive line. That might sound funny, since we were singing the praises of that unit as a dominant one all last year. But the Buckeyes had very little depth on the line last year and lost senior All-America tackle Michael Bennett, as well as senior defensive end Steve Miller.

Incoming freshman defensive end Dre'Mont Jones, whom we'd tabbed as one of five instant impact signees in the Big Ten last month, may not be able to contribute at all this year because of a recent knee injury.

It's going to be extremely important that holdover players like Michael Hill, Tyquan Lewis, Donovan Munger and Jalyn Holmes make a difference to keep this defensive line playing at a high level. And it's telling that none of them made much of a dent on the team last year even though Meyer isn't afraid to play rookies.

"I'm very disappointed in the young defensive linemen we brought in here," Meyer said, according to Cleveland.com. "Not with what kind of people they are, just with performance."

Spring practice is just beginning in Columbus and the pads haven't even come on, so there's no good way to tell yet if some of those players have made improvement. But watching for that will be more critical to Ohio State's 2015 prospects than whatever happens with the quarterbacks.

2. Student attendance is an issue for several Big Ten schools and one Adam Rittenberg addressed in the blog a year ago. Recently, Iowa and Michigan lowered prices on their student season tickets in part to lure students back in.

The Cedar Rapids Gazette's Marc Morehouse has a look at student ticket prices throughout the league and how Iowa compares. After Michigan's reduction, Ohio State tops the conference at $272 for student season tickets, while Penn State is second at $218. Supply and demand appear to be at work here, as those two schools have the largest and most energetic student sections in the Big Ten.

Six other schools have remaining ticket packages that top $100 for the season. Maybe I'm old (check that: I am really old) but I don't remember having that kind of extra spending money lying around when I was a college student. Maybe we shouldn't criticize student for not turning out at some of these places but applaud the ones who make the effort and pay the expense to do so. Just a thought.

Around the league:

Big Ten morning links

March, 6, 2015
Mar 6
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The well-documented Melvin Gordon-Ameer Abdullah rivalry, which pre-dates their years in college, was effectively extinguished on Nov. 15.

Remember that day?

Nebraska players and their fans prefer to forget it. Gordon rushed for 408 yards, then an FBS record, as Wisconsin stomped the Cornhuskers 59-24. That performance propelled him to a runner-up finish in the Heisman Trophy balloting

On one good leg on that snowy afternoon in Madison, Abdullah mustered 69 yards on the ground in a performance representative of the anticlimactic finish to his record-setting career.

They met again at the NFL combine last month in Indianapolis, where both backs performed well enough to claim victory. The bigger Gordon ran a faster 40-yard dash (4.52 to 4.60), though Abdullah walked away with the best marks among an accomplished group at their position in the vertical leap, broad jump, three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle.

Abdullah appeared to improve his 40 time -- pending official results -- Thursday at Nebraska’s pro day.

When it was over, Abdullah, typically reserved, did not mince words. He said he believes he’s the best running back in this draft class. Gordon included.

“I’m not real worried about Melvin,” Abdullah said. “He has his own agenda. I have my own agenda.”

But Abdullah, training this spring in Dallas, said more.

“I don’t know what he’s doing," Abdullah said. "He doesn’t know what I’m doing. Obviously, we want to compete, but it’s more of a mental edge than anything. When you’re working and you’re tired, I say, ‘Well, Melvin’s still working harder than me, so I’ve gotta go harder.’”

Clearly they remain linked, a salivating thought for fans of Big Ten football, anxious to watch continued competition between the talented duo play out on a new stage.

Analysts rate Gordon as the better prospect, and how can you argue with 2,587 yards -- a career figure for many that Gordon accumulated in merely 13 games last fall?

But here’s what I know about Abdullah: He’s at his most dangerous as an underdog.

The large chip on his shoulder that Abdullah carried to Nebraska out of high school in Alabama, where SEC schools declined to recruit him as a running back, fueled his journey to become the first three-time 1,000-yard rusher in Huskers history.

The chip is back. I’ve rarely, if ever, heard Abdullah speak with more conviction than Thursday after his workout.

“Whatever team that takes me,” Abdullah said, “I’m going to be in shape and ready to go when I get there.”

Whether he knows it or not, Gordon is providing a bit of fuel for Abdullah’s drive toward the draft.

Around the rest of the Big Ten:
The opening of spring practice around the Big Ten brings competition to each of the league’s 14 programs. Departing top players and the maturation of others lead to fights for practice reps that will help shape depth charts and summer conversation topics.

At Ohio State, the nation’s most prominent position battle looks set to be waged at quarterback upon the return from injury of Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett. This spring, the spotlight belongs to Cardale Jones.

So which position battles require close attention over the next few weeks?

Michigan quarterbacks: It’s wide-open, with junior Shane Morris, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight and true freshman Alex Malzone auditioning for Jim Harbaugh and coordinator Tim Drevno. Speight owns a size advantage. Morris has played in parts of the past two seasons, but was ineffective in place of Devin Gardner. The spring serves only as an appetizer in this race, which figures to extend to August, when freshman Zach Gentry joins the fun.

Minnesota running backs: David Cobb meant so much to the Gophers over the past two seasons as they rolled to 16 wins. Minnesota likely can’t replace his production with one back, though redshirt freshman Jeff Jones -- a homegrown, elite recruit from the Class of 2013 -- looks physically equipped to give it a shot. Senior Rodrick Williams Jr. (who showed flashes late in the year), sophomore Berkley Edwards and redshirt freshman Rodney Smith will likely also factor in the battle for the top job.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Beathard
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsJunior C.J. Beathard is in a battle with senior Jake Rudock to quarterback the Hawkeyes.
Iowa quarterbacks: Junior C.J. Beathard dodged rumors of a transfer in December and senior Jake Rudock did the same recently. Both remain in Iowa City, ready to resume the battle that ended in a bowl defeat against Tennessee with Beathard in charge of the offense. Soon after, the Hawkeyes placed him atop the depth chart. But any edge over Rudock, a 25-game starter over the past two seasons, is small and could disappear quickly this spring.

Ohio State cornerbacks: Opposite Eli Apple, the Buckeyes must replace Doran Grant. It’s no easy task, considering Grant’s value to the Ohio State defense during its national title run. But sophomores Gareon Conley and Damon Webb look up to the task. Conley played considerably more last season after a redshirt year that followed his arrival in Columbus as the No. 1 prospect in Ohio in 2013. Webb, the top prospect out of Michigan a year later, figures to make a jump after limited action last year.

Penn State offensive tackles: The urgency here outweighs the options, and the Nittany Lions have plenty of candidates to replace Donovan Smith, gone early to the NFL. Andrew Nelson started as a freshman at right tackle and may take over on the left side. Opposite Nelson, the race is on, with redshirt freshmen Noah Beh, Brendan Brosnan, Chance Sorrell and Chasz Wright set to enter the mix. Newcomer Paris Palmer, a junior, may be the man to beat, though. True freshman Sterling Jenkins joined the program in January.

Purdue quarterbacks: Juniors Austin Appleby and Danny Etling bring considerable starting experience into the spring. Redshirt freshman David Blough, who came to Purdue with credentials equally as impressive as the other two, has yet to take a collegiate snap. But for the Boilermakers, who’ve won just one Big Ten game behind the elder quarterbacks over the past two seasons, it’s all hands on deck.

Nebraska I-backs: This is a legitimate four-man race to replace three-time 1,000-yard rusher Ameer Abdullah. Senior Imani Cross has the size and experience, with 22 career touchdowns. Junior Terrell Newby is a quicker option with skills perhaps well suited to Mike Riley’s offense. Sophomore Adam Taylor offers an impressive mix of power and speed but missed last season with a knee injury. Redshirt freshman Mikale Wilbon showed promise last year in scout-team duty.

Michigan safeties: The Wolverines have a lot back at safety, including surefire starter Jarrod Wilson. But competition for the other spot may grow fierce between the likes of senior Jeremy Clark and juniors Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas. Most intriguing, Jabrill Peppers, after injuries shortened his much-hyped true freshman season, has taken spring snaps at safety. Michigan coaches continue to audition defensive backs, so it may take much of the spring to sort out who is vying for specific spots.

Rutgers running backs: If healthy, rising senior Paul James has earned the top spot. But James needed knee surgery last fall and has battled other injuries. He’s out this spring, leaving a glut of young backs to fight for time. Sophomore Robert Martin finished last season on a strong note, but not as well as classmate Josh Hicks, who gashed North Carolina for 202 yards in the Quick Lane Bowl. Juniors Justin Goodwin and Desmon Peoples, who led the Scarlet Knights in rushing last season, add flavor to this competition.

Northwestern quarterbacks: Senior Zack Oliver is the man with the most experience as the Wildcats prepare to replace Trevor Siemian. But Oliver’s late-season turnover trouble helped open this race up for sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson. Each of the three brings a different set of skills, so a decision would help simplify matters as the season nears.

Big Ten morning links

March, 4, 2015
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Cost-of-attendance stipends were one of the first major reforms Power 5 conferences pushed through the NCAA as a result of autonomy. Pretty much everybody agreed that closing the gap between what a scholarship pays for and the actual cost of going to a university -- including things like living expenses -- was a smart way to give some assistance to players.

But like so many other issues in college sports, those stipends may also carry unintended consequences. Because the amount each school offers can be very different, some people are afraid it will become a recruiting incentive.

PennLive.com's David Jones covered this situation well on Tuesday. Based on current cost-of-attendance data, as determined by university financial aid departments, Penn State will offer the highest cost-of-attendance stipend in the Big Ten when it goes into effect next school year, at $4,788 per year per athlete. The next highest would be Wisconsin at $4,265.

Compare that to Michigan State, which would offer $1,872 per year, or Michigan at $2,054. OK, you might say, that's only a difference of about $2,000 or $3,000, so why would a recruit choose a school based on that? But add that figure up over the four or five years of a player's career, and you're talking about a difference of maybe $15,000. That's not exactly peanuts.

Some coaches are worried about how this is all going to play out.

"To me, it's going to get into being like free agency in college," Maryland coach Randy Edsall told me on signing day. "What we've heard is that some schools might have a cost of attendance of up to $6,000. Now, will kids opt to go where they can get more money? Have we opened up a can of worms, where now it becomes, 'How much money can I get at this school, compared to the other one?'"

The stipends haven't gone into effect yet and are still so new that it's hard to say for sure what will happen. But Penn State's James Franklin, who looks for every edge he can find in recruiting, has said he would use cost of attendance as a selling point.

"I know people were already selling that this year," Edsall said. "It's going to be bigger as we move forward."

The disparity in the stipend amounts isn't going to change, because those numbers are based on individual schools' tuition costs and other factors. Power 5 conference leaders have always known that the figures would vary from program to program.

But were they actually ready for this measure -- however well-intentioned -- to become a recruiting tool? We'll probably find out the first time a team loses a player who chose to go with a rival because of its higher stipend. Just another reminder that almost every change in college sports leads to another issue.

Around the league ...

Big Ten morning links

March, 3, 2015
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Minnesota opens spring practice Tuesday without a quarterback problem. Mitch Leidner, though far from prolific, brings 16 games of starting experience, a level of efficiency and style of play to the position that fits the Gophers well.

The same cannot be said of at least five teams in the Big Ten this spring.

Ohio State -- clearly not on any quarterback-deprived list -- and Michigan made this rundown by Ben Kercheval of Bleacher Report on the top QB battles of spring. It includes predicted post-spring leaders at the position.

Michigan practice is already underway, though on break this week.

Maryland and Nebraska get started before the end of the week in addition to Minnesota. The Terrapins, while likely set with Caleb Rowe, who's expected back from knee surgery in plenty of time for fall camp, are splitting time between Shane Cockerille and Perry Hills in the spring.

Let's take a look at the best Big Ten spring QB battles, sans Ohio State, where it won't get all that interesting until closer to summer:

Michigan candidates: Shane Morris (junior next season), Wilton Speight (redshirt freshman) and Alex Malzone (true freshman)

Predicted post-spring leader: Morris, simply because of his experience. But this race will extend into the spring, when true freshman Zach Gentry joins the mix. And don't go to sleep on a summer surprise.

Iowa candidates: Jake Rudock (senior), C.J. Beathard (junior)

Predicted post-spring leader: Beathard. He'll get the benefit of the doubt this spring -- treatment to which Rudock has grown accustomed over the past two years -- after the Hawkeyes placed the junior atop the depth chart in January.

Rutgers candidates: Chris Laviano (sophomore), Hayden Rettig (sophomore), Giovanni Rescigno (redshirt freshman)

Predicted post-spring leader: Rettig. He's got an upside that the other two can't match, and with a season to acclimate after his transfer from LSU, look for Rettig to emerge this spring as one of the league's top newcomers.

Northwestern candidates: Zack Oliver (senior), Matt Alviti (sophomore), Clayton Thorson (redshirt freshman)

Predicted post-spring leader: Oliver, who's tall and strong and maybe a bit underappreciated this spring because of his turnover-prone play to finish last season. He'll enjoy a nice spring, but the battle will continue in August, and don't count out Thorson.

Purdue candidates: Austin Appleby (junior), Danny Etling (junior), David Blough (redshirt freshman)

Predicted post-spring leader: Appleby, in perhaps the league's toughest spring call. He faded in November, and both competitors will apply pressure in the spring. But Appleby will draw strength from his best moments of 2014.

Around the rest of the league:
Spring is springing in the Big Ten. Michigan and Northwestern have already hit the practice field, Minnesota, Maryland and Nebraska join them this week and the rest will follow soon.

With spring in the air, we've got some burning questions about the league during this season of practice and hope:

1. Who's going to win the Ohio State quarterback race? This is a question destined to not return an answer this spring. That's because only Cardale Jones will be healthy enough to go through full spring drills. J.T. Barrett will do some light seven-on-seven stuff as he recovers from a broken ankle, while Braxton Miller won't be cleared to throw with his medically repaired shoulder until at least May. So Jones has a chance to gain an early edge in perhaps the most interesting quarterback battle of all time. Can he seize it?

2. How quickly does Jim Harbaugh remake Michigan's culture? Expecting an overnight turnaround in Ann Arbor is unfair and unrealistic, even with Harbaugh's sterling track record. The Wolverines need to find answers at quarterback, running back and receiver, but the more pressing issue is simply developing more toughness than they showed throughout much of the Brady Hoke era. How quickly Michigan adapts to Harbaugh's ways will determine how fast this rebuilding effort will go, and Harbaugh let the message be known last week.

3. What will Nebraska look like under Mike Riley? Huskers athletic director Shawn Eichorst surprised the college football world by hiring Riley away from Oregon State. Riley couldn't possibly be more different, personality-wise, from previous Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. But what does that mean in how Big Red looks on the field? Riley has been known for running a pro-style offense, though he says he'll design the offense around the strength of his players. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. will need to fend off challenges to his job this spring. The Huskers seemed to take on the volatile traits of Pelini during his tenure; can they now mirror Riley's straight-forward, low-key approach?

4. Who'll win the quarterback job at Iowa, Northwestern, Rutgers and Purdue? Who starts under center will be the dominant story line at all four places this spring. At Iowa, head coach Kirk Ferentz will let C.J. Beathard battle incumbent two-year starter Jake Rudock. Northwestern has a three-man scrum, with Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson fighting to replace Trevor Siemien. Chris Laviano and LSU transfer Hayden Rettig are the main candidates to succeed Gary Nova at Rutgers. And Purdue will open things up once again between Austin Appleby, Danny Etling and David Blough. These competitions could all last until fall camp but will be heavily scrutinized in March and April.

5. How does Michigan State replace its stars? Under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have usually just moved on to the next guy when a star leaves. But Michigan State, which could be ranked in the top 10 in the preseason, still has to replace some of the most productive players in recent program history, including running back Jeremy Langford, receiver Tony Lippett, cornerback Trae Waynes, defensive end Marcus Rush and safety Kurtis Drummond. We'll get to see this spring just how well those holes can be filled.

6. Can Penn State fix its offensive line? Christian Hackenberg's bruises from last year might just now be healing, as the Nittany Lions' offensive line was one of the worst in the country in 2014. The best player on that line, left tackle Donovan Smith, left for the NFL, and starting guard Miles Dieffenbach also is gone. Yet there's hope for improvement, thanks to incoming juice transfer Paris Palmer, true freshman Sterling Jenkins and some young players who redshirted. Penn State must begin to find the right mix and build cohesion there this spring.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesJoel Stave will be fighting for the top spot as Wisconsin looks for a starting quarterback.
7. Can Paul Chryst work magic at the quarterback position for Wisconsin? The Badgers have been a consistent Big Ten title contender for the past several years, but the quarterback position has been lacking since Russell Wilson completed his one year in Madison. New head coach/old offensive coordinator Chryst could help rectify that situation, whether it's by building on the skills of veteran Joel Stave or going young with a fresh face such as D.J. Gillins or Austin Kafentzis. Wisconsin will need much better play at that position before opening 2015 against Alabama.

8. Does Minnesota have any receivers? Jerry Kill and his staff think they can improve one of the biggest problem positions in recent years for the Gophers. Redshirt freshmen Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland Jr. and Desmond Gant are full of promise. They need to start fulfilling it this spring, because the security blanket of tight end Maxx Williams is gone.
9. Can changes help the defenses at Illinois and Maryland? If the Illini are going to build some momentum after last season's bowl appearance, their leaky defense must improve. Tim Beckman hired former NFL assistant Mike Phair as co-defensive coordinator this offseason, and job No. 1 is figuring out a way to stop the run, which Illinois hasn't been able to do for a few years. Maryland parted ways with defensive coordinator Brian Stewart a little more than a year after giving him a contract extension and elevated inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski to the role. The Terps will also switch to a 4-3 base and hope to right a defense that rarely dominated in 2014.

10. Where's the next wave of running back stars? Last season saw an unprecedented amount of production from elite running backs, including Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb and Langford. All of those guys are gone, but budding superstars such as Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Wisconsin's Corey Clement and Northwestern's Justin Jackson remain. In a league that churns out tailback talent, plenty of new names are sure to emerge as well.
The Big Ten is exploring the idea of a "year of readiness" for freshmen. Perhaps the league should consult with Northwestern's Justin Jackson.

He arrived in Evanston last summer and immediately had to adjust to the school's rigid academics, familiarize himself with a slew of new teammates, and absorb the Wildcats' playbook. Any thoughts he might be eased into a role were dismissed early in preseason camp, when starting running back Venric Mark decided to transfer.

"I do see where they're coming from, because it's really tough [as a true freshman]," Jackson said. "But I also see the downside of it. You have a lot of guys who may be the best at their position, and if they can't play, it would really hurt their football team."

[+] EnlargeJustin Jackson
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesNorthwestern's Justin Jackson had six 100-yard performances as a freshman last season.
Imagine where Northwestern would have been last season without an eligible Jackson. He led the team in rushing in all 12 games and had six 100-yard performances. He was one of seven Big Ten backs to run for at least 1,000 yards, and he begins 2015 as the second-leading returning rusher in the conference, behind only Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott. He was easily the best offensive player on a 5-7 team.

Jackson did all that without a full offseason to train, something he's getting now as the Wildcats opened spring practice on Wednesday.

"I feel so much better," he said. "Some of the guys who were injured last year but are the same year as me had their first practice this week, and I was like, 'That was me last year in the fall.' It was crazy out there. Now I'm much more comfortable, I know the playbook a lot better and I can help the other guys."

Jackson, who was listed at 185 pounds last season, says he's put on about 10 pounds this winter. He hopes that helps him get ready for another potentially heavy workload, after he had 245 carries in 2014.

But rather than hit a freshman wall, he seemed to get stronger as the season went on. He ran for at least 130 yards in each of his final three games, including a memorable 149-yard day in the overtime upset win at Notre Dame.

The great news for Northwestern is that Jackson is not remotely satisfied with his impressive first year. In addition to the extra weight, he's worked hard on his flexibility and explosiveness after ripping off only two 40-plus yard runs last season.

"I had a lot of those runs that were right there, where it would be 15, 17 yards and I was close to breaking them," he said. "I'll never be the best at it, because I'm not Venric Mark. I'm not a 4.3 [40-yard dash]-type dude. But I can try to improve my speed and my strength so I can break out of tackles and be that guy. You don't have to have 4.3, 4.4 speed to break long runs. You just have to be smart about it and use what you have to your advantage."

Jackson's main advantages thus far have included his vision and how hard he runs. Plus his dedication to getting better through study. "Whenever I'm bored," he says, "I just pop on the film."

It's that kind of attitude that ensured Jackson was more than ready as a true freshman.

"I think that would be a tough sell," he said of the freshman ineligibility idea, "because a lot of freshmen right now are coming in more prepared to play. It's tough, but if you have great teammates and a great support system, you can definitely do it."

Not every freshman can be as good as Jackson, of course. But we're very curious to see how good he can be as a sophomore.

Big Ten morning links

February, 27, 2015
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The best quote from the first week of spring practice at Michigan, surprisingly, came from someone other than Jim Harbaugh.

Of course, it was about Harbaugh.

“He’s the smartest man I’ve ever been around,” U-M offensive coordinator Tim Drevo told reporters Thursday night after the Wolverines’ second practice of the spring.

What, not the smartest man in the world?

It should be noted that Drevno, 45, worked with Harbaugh at Stanford from 2007 to 2010. If you take him at his word on Harbaugh, it’s safe to assume Drevno didn’t get out and about much on the Stanford campus, which is full of its share of smart people.

Otherwise, in this opening week, Drevo said he likes what he’s seen from Michigan, which returns its entire offensive line.

Drevno, who will call plays next season and coaches the line, told the Detroit News:

“There’s something special in there. Are we there yet? No. It’s Day 2, but there’s something special in there, and I’m excited about it.”

Ah, the optimism of spring.

Some intriguing data and excellent analysis here by Joseph Juan of numberFire on the NFL combine results of Melvin Gordon.

According to the numbers, the former Wisconsin All-American compares favorably to many of the great running backs of this generation.

Juan’s findings:
Gordon seems to possess a rare combination of size, speed and power that combined with his instincts and vision could make him a very formidable NFL running back. ... As a testament to the rarity of Gordon’s collection of skills, no other NFL running back for which we have combine data from the past 15 years falls within the ranges I set forth for (build, speed, power and explosiveness.)

The writer finds, in conclusion, that Gordon “appears that he’s primed for a breakout rookie season.”

Full disclaimer: While I enjoy the NFL draft, I’m not sold on the predictive ability of the combine, pro days or individual workouts. I think a player’s body of work in college serves as the best indicator of his NFL potential -- and Gordon couldn’t have done much better in that category.

Stats and measurements can be interpreted to make just about any argument. Nevertheless, the numberFire breakdown of Gordon is solid.

I agree that he’s got a chance to join the backs to whom he’s compared in this article. But the organization that drafts him in May likely ranks as the top factor in determining his shot to make a rookie splash.

A Friday trip around the rest of the Big Ten:

And finally, from Wisconsin, this is, well, it's something. Have a good weekend.

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