Big Ten: Michigan State Spartans

Wide receivers Kyle Prater and DeAnthony Arnett never expected to run routes like these.

Both players emerged from high school as top-60 recruits. Prater was the No. 9 wideout in the 2010 class according to ESPN Recruiting Nation; Arnett was the No. 9 wideout in the 2011 class. Both grew up in the Midwest but both elected to play for famous, faraway programs -- Prater at USC, Arnett at Tennessee -- that had produced great wide receivers over the years.

Then, in January 2012, both elected to transfer closer to home. Arnett, from Saginaw, Mich., transferred to Michigan State to be near his father, William, awaiting a kidney transplant. Prater, from Maywood, Ill., transferred to Northwestern and also cited family reasons, although he hasn't gone into detail.

[+] EnlargePrater
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern WR Kyle Prater feels that he's finally past the annoying injuries that have hamstrung his career to date.
Both fanbases celebrated the arrivals. The good vibes continued when the NCAA ruled that both Arnett and Prater could play immediately because of the circumstances that sparked their transfers. Each had three years of eligibility left.

Although their situations weren't ideal, both wideouts appeared to be back on track.

But they had more detours ahead. They have combined for only 23 receptions and no touchdowns the past two seasons. Prater dealt with a "plethora" of lower-body injuries that limited his effectiveness. Arnett took longer than expected to adjust to the offense and slipped down the depth chart as other receivers emerged.

Fans didn't forget them, but the buzz that existed when they arrived practically disappeared.

Prater and Arnett are still around and, after strong performances during spring practice, both could finally make the impact many expected two years ago.

"I'm looking forward to great things happening this year," Prater told ESPN.com. "I can honestly say I feel like I'm back, and I’m ready to go."

Added Arnett: "I had a big spring, so I’m continuing to build on that."

Both receivers drew high marks from their coaches during the spring, as they put themselves in the two-deep heading into the summer.

Prater's chief challenge was making it through the 15 practices intact, which he did. Despite a 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame, Prater hasn't been structurally sound during his college career. Injuries limited him at USC, where he had only one catch in two seasons, and have continued at Northwestern, where he recorded 10 receptions in 2012 and nine last season.

"You could not put together a worse script from an injury standpoint for a person," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "It's been such a bad deal for him."

Prater hasn't had one single major injury, but several issues "built up to a degree where I couldn't perform where I wanted to." He thinks many of the issues could have been prevented with the right stretching or training regimen.

When Northwestern's training room opens at the ungodly time of 5:45 a.m., he's often the first one through the door. He has improved his flexibility and tried to lower his hips to create more explosion out of breaks.

"It's just being proactive," he said. "Like if it’s a hamstring, I'm going to do the things to not have [an injury], strengthening my glutes, all the areas around there."

[+] EnlargeDeAnthony Arnett
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State WR DeAnthony Arnett hopes to build on a strong spring to have a big 2014 season.
Arnett also has worked on his body, adding 18 pounds last season, when he appeared in just one game -- the opener against Western Michigan -- and had only one reception. But his challenge has been grasping the system and competing for time in a Michigan State receiving corps that improved significantly after the 2012 season. Dantonio said late in the 2012 season that he wished he had redshirted Arnett, who played as a true freshman at Tennessee and had 24 receptions.

This spring, Dantonio called Arnett the team's "most pleasant surprise" and noted his consistency, aggressiveness and run-after-catch ability. The suspension of Macgarrett Kings created more opportunities for Arnett, who had five receptions for 63 years during a mid-spring scrimmage.

"It's given me a chance to, I don't know, re-state myself," Arnett said. "I feel more comfortable knowing everything, knowing all the positions, about where to go on the field. Now it's making plays."

Arnett is more relaxed, and his time on the sideline last season, while not what he hoped, allowed him to absorb the playbook. After a diet of pasta, steak, rice and iron -- the kind you find in the weight room -- Arnett expects to play this season between 190-195 pounds.

"I don't think just because I haven't been playing, the expectations should be lower," he said. "I want them to be high. I want to be in the situation where there's a lot of pressure on me to produce."

Fitzgerald called Prater "outstanding" this spring, and Prater thinks he surprised the coaches with his play. His next goal: silencing his doubters when the season begins.

"There's always a lot of naysayers, lot of people felt I didn't have it," he said. "They thought I wasn't there anymore, but I never stopped believing."

There were days when Prater wondered about all the injuries, why they kept happening, and whether he had a future in football. He admits the accolades he had coming out of high school overwhelmed him.

The last few years have brought growth and perspective.

"I look at the game as far as being more appreciative, having fun and being blessed that I'm out there," Prater said. "My whole career has been overcoming adversity. It shows a true test of my will that [I can] talk to you today and say I'm still here. I'm very confident in my ability to play. Everything I've been through has made me who I am now.

"This is the best I've ever felt, and I look forward to great things."

There are no guarantees for either Prater or Arnett this season, as both play on teams with multiple returning starters at receiver.

But if called upon, they'll be ready to finish their roundabout routes the right way.

Big Ten lunchtime links

May, 8, 2014
May 8
12:55
PM ET
Good things come to those who wait ...

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

May, 7, 2014
May 7
5:00
PM ET
By the time you read this, I'll be somewhere over the Atlantic. (Where are the best Big Ten bars in Italy?). But before my Euro trip, I had time to answer your postcards ... er, emails:

Rob from New York writes: Brian, a lot of the Big Ten rivalry games aren't really rivalries anymore (or maybe ever). Not sure anyone is really getting up for the Illibuck, Governor's Victory Bell or the Old Brass Spittoon, not to mention lesser games like the Land Grant or Little Brown Jug. In your opinion, which games (A) deserve to be recognized rivalry games, (B) deserve to be trophy games, and (C) which ones should be retired and/or have their trophies burned to the ground? (Hint: the unanimous ugliest of them all.) My vote goes to Wisconsin/Michigan State becoming a rivalry AND trophy game, with a brass penalty flag as the trophy, since the series is littered with controversial calls and Michigan State fans whining about them (yeah, I'm biased). A non-trophy rivalry game could be Indiana and Michigan State, since it's not really a rivalry anymore. And a rivalry game that needs to die is Minnesota and Penn State (honestly, would anyone notice?).

Brian Bennett: Rob, Adam and I did a full assessment of the state of the Big Ten rivalries last year as the conference was working on realigning the division. You can find that post here. There's a difference between rivalries and trophy games. You can hand out a trophy for any game, but rivalries reveal themselves. For example, Wisconsin and Michigan State had grown into a rivalry without a trophy, while hardly anybody thinks the Old Brass Spittoon game is an actual rivalry. Alas, the Badgers and Spartans will be in different divisions now, didn't play last year and won't meet in 2014 or '15, so it's going to be hard to keep that going as a rivalry. I like the trophies, because many of them are goofy and fun and have some interesting history. But it will be worth tracking how the new division alignment and expansion affect actual rivalries.




 

Ben from Omaha writes: OK, I'm going to do my best to not be a homer here, but I'm a little shocked Nebraska isn't a favorite over Wisconsin in the West Division. Nebraska returns almost all of its D and as long as Tommy Armstrong just plays consistently and doesn't turn it over, our offense will be great again. Wisconsin, on the other hand, loses a ton of its D and O, and its only returning contributors are Joel Stave and Melvin Gordon. I get that Nebraska can be tough to trust, but I'd still take them based off returning players. Am I being a homer here or am I on to something?

Brian Bennett: First, Ben, I'd have to ask where you're getting the idea that there's a favorite in the West. I think the division is pretty wide open, and it's only early May. Colleagues Mark Schlabach and Brian Fremeau do have Wisconsin ranked higher than Nebraska right now, but I don't believe there's any real consensus. I am higher on the Huskers than the Badgers, because I think Gary Andersen's team has too many question marks. But the schedule is a real factor here. Wisconsin and Iowa have much easier roads to Indianapolis than does Nebraska, which has to go to Michigan State as one of its crossovers and plays the Badgers and Hawkeyes on the road. I think sometimes we overrate schedules in the preseason, though.




 

MonsterHunter via Twitter writes: Did the Big Ten do any due diligence about Rutgers before handing them their Golden Ticket? Strictly amateur hour in N.J.

Brian Bennett: Rutgers can't seem to get out of its own way when it comes to bad PR. moves, the latest being the flap over the Eric LeGrand speech. I don't think the LeGrand incident is that big of a deal in its own right, but it adds to the string of poor decisions and tin-eared communication skills of the administration. The school has a lot of different political factions tugging it in many directions, so it can often be hard to get everybody on the same page. But for the sake of the Scarlet Knights and the Big Ten, Rutgers really needs to get its house in order and stop creating controversy. Playing good football would make a lot of this stuff go away.




 

Alex from York, Neb., writes: Hi, Brian. My question is why do I get the feeling from the media that the Nebraska QB battle has already been won? It's only spring. I know Tommy Armstrong is the incumbent starter but that's no reason to end a position battle. Tommy is going to look better in practices because he's been around longer, but in the spring game, the closest to a real game situation we've seen so far, Johnny Stanton and ever Ryker Fyfe looked much better than TAJR. I'm not saying he won't win the battle, but why do people seem to think the battle is over already?

Brian Bennett: Armstrong has such an experience edge that I think he would have had to do something to lose the job this offseason. And by all accounts, he played well and took on a bigger leadership role this spring. I don't put much stock in spring game performances. Armstrong can't rest on his laurels, and if he doesn't play well early this season, he has a chance to get passed by. But I'd be really surprised if he weren't the starter in September.




 

Kevin from Fairfax writes: Seriously, someone has Michigan ranked in the top 25? Michigan is going to be lucky to break .500 this year. As for Sparty, they were one of the two best teams in the country last year, while the defense might take a half step back, the offense should help. Right now there are five Big Ten teams that deserve to be ranked: Michigan State, Ohio State, a Penn State team that was far closer to an 11-win team than most admit, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

Brian Bennett: I don't quite get ranking Michigan either, though the Wolverines clearly have some talent if they can figure things out. But based on what we saw last year and given some of the issues on the offensive line, this is a team that will have to show me something before I consider it as a Top 25-caliber club. I disagree with you about Penn State. While the Nittany Lions definitely have some upper-echelon players and a pretty good schedule, there are depth questions and an offensive line that might be even more problematic than the one in Ann Arbor. With a new staff in place, this is another show-me team (and I'd like you to show me how a team that lost by double digits to Indiana and Minnesota and by 49 points to Ohio State was almost an 11-win team). The five teams I think should be ranked are, in order, Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin.

That's it for me and the mailbag for a bit as it's vacation time. Arrivederci!

Big Ten's lunch links

May, 7, 2014
May 7
12:00
PM ET
Spring, is that you at last? Feel free to stick around a while.
Everybody is a draftnik this week, and we're putting our own Big Ten spin on things. Rather than looking at the players leaving the league -- don't worry, we'll do that, too -- we're speculating on how a draft within the conference would play out.

To recap: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (incoming recruits are not). The teams will pick in reverse order of regular-season finish last year. Picks are based on factors like position need, remaining eligibility, scheme, previous players lost in the draft.

Check out the first half of the first round here. It gets a bit messy with teams swiping each other's top players, but that makes it fun.

Now, for the final seven picks ...

Pick No. 8: Penn State

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook's Rose Bowl-winning resume makes him a popular choice in the second half of the first round of the Big Ten draft.
Adam Rittenberg says the Lions select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook

The offensive line is Penn State's shakiest position group, but Christian Hackenberg (selected No. 5 by Rutgers) leaves a massive hole at quarterback. Cook, a pro-style signal-caller with a big arm and more experience than Hackenberg, makes a lot of sense as he fits the system and comes off top performances in the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl.

Brian Bennett says the Lions select ... Ohio State OT Taylor Decker

Penn State does need help on the offensive line, but it can afford to be patient. Decker was playing as well as any Ohio State offensive lineman late last season, when he was only a redshirt freshman. He can come to State College and offer help now and for the next three years, seeing the Lions through probation.

Pick No. 9: Minnesota

Rittenberg says the Gophers select ... Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Minnesota loses some star power on defense, but I expect coordinator Tracy Claeys to produce a solid unit. The bigger issue is boosting a pass offense that ranked 115th nationally last season. Diggs comes off an injury-shortened season, but he's an explosive playmaker with 88 career receptions and two years of eligibility left. He would complement promising young wideouts like Drew Wolitarsky.

Bennett says the Gophers select ... Nebraska WR Kenny Bell

The Gophers might just be a downfield receiving threat away from being actual division contenders. Bell is a senior but offers two things Jerry Kill wants: leadership and toughness as a blocker. Bell would also deliver some explosiveness while guiding Minnesota's young wideouts along.

Pick No. 10: Iowa

Rittenberg says the Hawkeyes select ... Indiana LT Jason Spriggs

Brandon Scherff (selected No. 1 by Purdue) is a major loss for Iowa, which now needs a replacement to anchor its offensive line. Spriggs might not be as big a name as Scherff, but he has quietly started the first 24 games of his college career and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors the past two seasons. He also has two years of eligibility left.

Bennett says the Hawkeyes select ... Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

True, Iowa has about 37 tailbacks right now. But the pure speed and playmaking ability of Gordon is tough to pass up here, especially for an offense seeking more home-run plays. Plus, he originally committed to the Hawkeyes, so this is a way for them to finally get Gordon in black and gold.

Pick No. 11: Nebraska

Rittenberg says the Huskers select ... Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Running back Ameer Abdullah (selected No. 6 by Maryland) is a significant loss, but the Huskers have good depth behind him. They need a replacement for All-Big Ten end Randy Gregory (selected No. 4 by Indiana), and Bosa, who ended his freshman season in beast mode, is an easy choice. He should keep the expectations high for the Huskers' defensive front seven. And he has at least two seasons left.

[+] EnlargeDevin Funches
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsDevin Funchess would give Nebraska an athletic, versatile playmaker in the passing game.
Bennett says the Huskers select ... Michigan WR/TE Devin Funchess

Nebraska doesn't seem to have a lot of gaping holes but could use a playmaker in the passing game after losing Bell (selected No. 9 by Minnesota). Funchess would make a nice safety valve for Tommy Armstrong and is a destroyer of red zone defenses. Tim Beck lobbies hard for this pick and would get two years to deploy Funchess in a variety of ways.

Pick No. 12: Wisconsin

Rittenberg says the Badgers select ... Ohio State DL Michael Bennett

Like Nebraska, Wisconsin has lost an elite running back (Melvin Gordon, selected No. 7 by Michigan), and like the Huskers, the Badgers have enough to get by without him. Wisconsin has an even bigger need to upgrade its defensive front seven after losing six starters to graduation. Bennett, a junior who could play either line spot and had seven sacks last season, is a really good fit for Wisconsin.

Bennett says the Badgers select ... Michigan State QB Connor Cook

The passing game remains a sore spot for Wisconsin, and no clear starter under center emerged this spring. Cook knows how to run a pro-style offense and would have two years left in Madison.

Pick No. 13: Ohio State

Rittenberg says the Buckeyes select ... Michigan QB Devin Gardner

Well, this should be interesting. Ohio State needs a quarterback after losing Braxton Miller to Northwestern (pick No. 3), and there aren't too many proven options out there. The Buckeyes likely can get by with a one-year player to allow younger guys to develop. Gardner is a good fit in a true spread offense, and he showed at times last year that he can put up huge numbers.

Bennett says the Buckeyes select ... Indiana QB Tre Roberson

I had Rutgers snagging Miller earlier in the first round. Roberson might be the closest facsimile to Miller in the league right now, a guy with good wheels who can also sling it around the field. He has plenty of game experience and two years of eligibility left.

Pick No. 14: Michigan State

Rittenberg says the Spartans select ... Iowa QB Jake Rudock

OK, the quarterback swapping is getting a little silly, but Michigan State needs one after losing Cook (selected No. 8 by Penn State), and Rudock brings experience to the Spartans backfield. Rudock comes from a pro-style system at Iowa and should take another step this season. Plus, he has two years of eligibility left.

Bennett says the Spartans select ... Ohio State S Vonn Bell

You can't convince me that Mark Dantonio wouldn't go defense first in a draft like this. And I think the prospect of a stud defensive back would prove too hard for him to resist. Bell showed real promise in his brief exposure last year with the Buckeyes and has three years left to help fortify the No-Fly Zone.
Last week, Brian Bennett explained why he believes Ohio State's defensive line is the Big Ten's top position group coming out of spring practice. The Buckeyes return an excellent mix of depth and talent as players like Michael Bennett, Noah Spence, Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington all are back.

Not surprisingly, Bennett's post generated some spirited responses from fan bases who believe different position groups merit top billing. Well, here's your chance to show what you think.

Today's poll question is simple: What is the Big Ten's top position group coming out of spring ball?

SportsNation

What is the Big Ten's strongest position group coming out of the spring?

  •  
    22%
  •  
    38%
  •  
    26%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,299)

The candidates ...

Michigan State's defensive line: Defensive end Shilique Calhoun became a superstar in 2013, leading the Big Ten in forced fumbles and recording 7.5 sacks. Underrated senior Marcus Rush returns opposite Calhoun, and there's good depth with Lawrence Thomas and Demetrius Cooper, who stood out in the spring game. There are more questions inside but Joel Heath looked promising this spring.

Nebraska's running backs: All-America candidate Ameer Abdullah leads an impressive group after rushing for 1,690 yards and nine touchdowns during a spectacular junior season. The Huskers boast experience with Imani Cross, who has 17 career touchdowns, along with talented younger players like Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor.

Ohio State's defensive line: The Buckeyes return three of the Big Ten's top six sack masters from 2013 in Spence, Bosa and Bennett. They have speed on the edge and athleticism inside, and they can plug in some space eaters like Tommy Schutt and Chris Carter.

Wisconsin's running backs: A year after producing the top single-season rushing tandem in FBS history -- Melvin Gordon and James White -- Wisconsin has another talented pair in Gordon and Corey Clement. Gordon, a Heisman Trophy candidate entering his redshirt junior season, rushed for 1,609 yards and averaged 7.8 yards per carry last fall. Clement looked great in limited work, and recruit Taiwan Deal enters the mix this fall.
With spring practice officially behind us, we're taking a look at each Big Ten team and identifying a player who announced himself as a potential key performer this fall.

These are guys who haven't played big roles yet but showed enough during the 15 spring practices -- not just some fluky, spring-game performance against backups -- to factor heavily into their team's plans.

[+] EnlargeDemetrius Cooper
Raj Mehta/USA TODAY SportsDemetrius Cooper has some talented players ahead of him on the depth chart, but he could be a real force on the Spartans' D-line.
Our series turns next to the defending champion Big Ten champion Michigan State Spartans.

Spring breakout player: DE Demetrius Cooper

The sound you hear is the collective sigh of the Big Ten offensive coordinators, who are saying, "Oh, great. Another Michigan State defensive playmaker."

The Spartans have been pumping them out like a nearby Detroit factory line recently, and Cooper is the latest model. The 240-pound redshirt freshman turned heads all spring and then was a hurricane of disruption in the team's spring game. Coach Mark Dantonio has already compared him to reigning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year Shilique Calhoun -- or at least when Calhoun was a freshman who flashed his talent on occasion.

The big question is where Cooper will find playing time, as Michigan State already has the best pair of veteran defensive ends in the league in Calhoun and senior Marcus Rush, not to mention the still-unfulfilled-but-tantalizing potential of Lawrence Thomas. Spartans coaches said after the spring game that Cooper could be used in third down pass-rushing situations, which would make sense for a young player who hasn't learned all the intricacies of the game yet.

The offense also found a potential breakout player in tight end Jamal Lyles, a former defensive end who made the switch to offense and could present matchup nightmares. Lyles could have an easier path to playing time than Cooper. But when betting on breakout players for Michigan State, it's usually wise to look toward their defensive assembly line first.
So there's this little event called the NFL draft that begins Thursday night in New York. First you've heard of it? Don't fret. There has been virtually no buildup.

Like every year, we'll recap the Big Ten's draft performance, but we're admittedly more focused on the players still in the conference. That's why we're bringing back our version of a mock draft, where we select current Big Ten players to help current Big Ten teams. We did this last year and it was a lot of fun.

Here's how it works: All current Big Ten players are eligible to be drafted (incoming recruits are not). The teams will pick in reverse order of regular season finish last year, just like the NFL. Big Ten newcomers Rutgers and Maryland will pick based on their 2013 records in other leagues, so they will select fifth and sixth, respectively.

We're also making picks based on several factors. It's not simply about selecting the best overall player. What does a team need based on its personnel and schemes? Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller might not be the best fit for a non-spread offense. Also, eligibility matters as some teams might want to build for the future and make a real push in 2015 or 2016 rather than this fall.

Things get a bit messy as once a player gets drafted, it creates a hole on his former team. But that's all part of the draft debate.

Our first seven first-round picks are below. We'll finish up the first round a little later.

Pick No. 1: Purdue

Adam Rittenberg says the Boilers select ... Iowa LT Brandon Scherff

[+] EnlargeBrandon Scherff
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsBrandon Scherff is one of the Big Ten's best linemen and would be a great fit for a lot of teams.
Purdue's priority is line play, and while both fronts need help, I like the potential more on defense. The offensive line must improve significantly for Purdue to have any chance this fall, and it's why the Boilers need Scherff, a first-team All-Big Ten selection who could have been a first round draft pick if he had declared. Even though Scherff is a senior, he makes Purdue better immediately.

Brian Bennett says the Boilers select ... Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Let's face it: Purdue is in a major rebuilding effort and won't be contending any time soon. So eligibility matters here. Bosa is a true sophomore who could offer the Boilermakers three more years of high-end production and the big-time pass rush the Boilermakers haven't had in a while. I say a defensive end goes first in both the NFL (Jadeveon Clowney) and imaginary Big Ten drafts.

Pick No. 2: Illinois

Rittenberg says the Illini select ... Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

I thought about Braxton Miller as Illinois needs a quarterback, but I have enough faith in coordinator Bill Cubit to find the answers. Illinois' defense was the big problem in 2013, especially the line. Calhoun, a junior, provides a significant playmaking presence after recording 7.5 sacks, a league-high four forced fumbles and 14 tackles for loss last fall.

Bennett says the Illini select ... Calhoun

As bad as the Illini were against the run last year, they could probably use a defensive tackle even more. But since I don't see a lot of surefire, dominant run-stuffers in the league right now, Calhoun is a solid pick here for a defense-hungry team. Tim Beckman is in win-now mode, so eligibility isn't as big of a factor here.

Pick No. 3: Northwestern

Rittenberg says the Wildcats select ... Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

I thought about going offensive line here, as Northwestern really struggled up front in 2013. But Miller is simply too good a fit for a spread offense that needs a major jolt after finishing 10th in the Big Ten in scoring (26.2 ppg). The return of running back Venric Mark plays a role here, too, as the Miller-Mark speed combination would be extremely tough to stop.

Bennett says the Wildcats select ... Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg

Sure, Miller is probably a better fit for Northwestern's preferred offensive style than Hackenberg, but I just can't see Hackenberg -- who has three years of eligibility left after an outstanding freshman season -- falling lower than third in this draft. Mick McCall would be more than happy to build his offense around this young stud.

Pick No. 4: Indiana

Rittenberg says the Hoosiers select ... Nebraska DE Randy Gregory

Gregory nearly began his college career in the Hoosier State at Purdue before heading to a junior college and then to Nebraska, where he dazzled in his first season, recording 19 tackles for loss, a league-high 10.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hurries. It's no secret Indiana needs stars on defense, especially up front.

Bennett says the Hoosiers select ... Gregory

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Nabil K. Mark/Centre Daily Times/Getty ImagesChristian Hackenberg doesn't fit the offensive style of all the Big Ten teams, but his future might be the brightest of all the league's QBs.
As much as Kevin Wilson loves offense and quarterbacks, I could see him being tempted by Miller (or even somehow trading up to get Hackenberg). But he knows as well as anyone that Indiana is desperate for playmakers on defense. Gregory would fit in extremely well in the Hoosiers' new 3-4 and might be enough to get them over the hump and into a bowl game immediately.

Pick No. 5: Rutgers

Rittenberg says the Scarlet Knights select ... Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg

I considered going defensive line here as Rutgers needs to bulk up there, but a difference-maker at quarterback takes precedence. Hackenberg looks like a future NFL player and has three seasons of eligibility remaining, which would be huge for a Rutgers program transitioning to the Big Ten.

Bennett says the Scarlet Knights select ... Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

Though Miller only has one year of eligibility left, snagging him at No. 5 for a team with major quarterback issues is a coup for the Scarlet Knights. Kyle Flood might need to reach a bowl game to feel safe about his job in 2015, so why not roll with the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year?

Pick No. 6: Maryland

Rittenberg says the Terrapins select ... Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Yes, I know Maryland returns a lot of options at running back, but none brings Abdullah's consistency, production and leadership. He'll stay on the field for a unit ravaged by injury and bring the toughness for a program transitioning to a physical league.

Bennett says the Terrapins select ... Michigan State CB Trae Waynes

The Terps are pretty solid on offense, assuming everyone comes back healthy. Will Likely had an impressive spring at one cornerback spot, but the other starting job is up for grabs. Waynes could instantly solidify that secondary and the junior could potentially lock down one side of the field for two years for Randy Edsall.

Pick No. 7: Michigan

Rittenberg says the Wolverines select ... Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

Offensive line would be my preference here but there isn't a guaranteed difference-maker available. Fortunately, Gordon doesn't need much room to do some special things with the ball in his hands. He gives Michigan's shaky run game a true big-play threat, and the combination of Gordon and Derrick Green could turn out very well.

Bennett says the Wolverines select ... Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff

Brady Hoke would run to the podium to turn in this pick if Scherff was still on the board. He only has one year of eligibility left, but the Hawkeyes' left tackle could add much-needed stability and leadership to a Wolverines offensive line with all kinds of question marks.
With spring practice done throughout the land, colleague Mark Schlabach checks in with his latest preseason Top 25.

There was some notable movement among the Big Ten contingent, including a new league team joining the ranks of the ranked. Michigan State, which checked in at No. 4 in the pre-spring rankings, is now No. 6. While Schlabach offers no explanation for the drop, it appears it's more about other teams moving up in his mind than the Spartans falling off.

Ohio State maintains its previous spot at No. 7, while Schlabach has Wisconsin as the third-highest-ranked Big Ten team. The Badgers, though, fell one spot from No. 14 to No. 15.

Iowa climbs one spot from No. 19 to No. 18, while Nebraska moves into the rankings for the first time at No. 24.

"Coach Bo Pelini's love-hate affair with the Big Red Nation seems to be warm and fuzzy again," Schlabach writes.

Michigan dropped from No. 21 to No. 25 in the new rankings, rounding out the Big Ten contingent.

I haven't been nearly as high on Wisconsin as Schlabach this preseason, as the Badgers just seem to have too many question marks right now (although the schedule beyond the opener is friendly). I thought Nebraska should have been ranked all along and am glad to see the Huskers break in. I'm still not sold on Michigan being a Top 25 team and don't think the Wolverines did much last season to merit a preseason ranking.

If you want another perspective on a preseason Top 25, Football Outsiders' Brian Fremeau also offers his rankings Monday. It's an Insider post, so I won't give too much away, but Fremeau is not quite as high on the Spartans as Schlabach. In fact, Fremeau has a different team winning the Big Ten East Division and has Nebraska lower than many Huskers would like to see in his preseason Big Ten predictions piece.

Long way to go before the start of the season, but with no actual football happening right now, it's fun having some preseason rankings to debate.
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett occasionally will give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

The NFL draft takes place this week (you may have heard a little bit about it). We're going to take a look at a few questions surrounding the Big Ten's draft class this week. We begin with Today's Take Two topic: Who is the best future pro out of the Big Ten's 2014 NFL draft prospects?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergMichigan State CB Darqueze Dennard comes from a system that showcased his ability to play on an island and make an impact.
Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan will very likely be the first Big Ten player drafted, and thanks to his talent and the position he plays, he could be looking at a long NFL career. But the first guy I would draft from the league is Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. I say this with a bit of hesitation, since the drafting of cornerbacks has proved to be a volatile proposition over the years. It's not always easy to project how corners will adjust to the next level, when they will face much better receivers and quarterbacks who are much more able to pinpoint their passes than at the college level. You could make the case that Dennard didn't face a wealth of NFL talent at wideout playing in the Big Ten the past few years (though I'd counter that this year's draft crop of Big Ten receivers is actually pretty strong).

There are a couple of reasons why I think Dennard will quickly adapt to the next level, however. One is the system he played in at Michigan State. Head coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi like to put their cornerbacks on an island a whole lot, and Dennard showed a tremendous ability both to be physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage and to cover them one-on-one in space. I also think he has great instincts for the game and is a very coachable player. The NFL has evolved into a pass-first league, and while the rules favor offenses, having a shutdown cornerback is an enormous luxury. I think Dennard can be just that.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

[+] EnlargeRa'Shede Hageman
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman is flying under the radar now, but he has to potential to make a name for himself in the NFL.
I definitely considered both Lewan and Dennard, two players with the potential for long and successful pro careers. But I wonder if Dennard will reach the upper echelon of NFL corners -- the Richard Shermans, Patrick Petersons, Joe Hadens, Darrelle Revises -- or simply be a very good pro. It's a bit surprising he's not projected higher in the first round, as I thought he had top 10 potential after earning consensus All-America honors and the Jim Thorpe Award as a senior. It would have been nice to see Dennard face Penn State's Allen Robinson or Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis last season. We'll see how it turns out for him.

When it comes to the draft, I always look for guys with unique skills who haven't come close to their ceiling yet. Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman is one of those guys. Hageman doesn't look like a normal defensive tackle. He's long and lean but still powerful. He can affect games not just by taking up space or overpowering interior linemen, but by knocking down passes. Hageman was quiet early in his career as he needed to mature both physically and mentally and settle into the defensive tackle role. We saw what he could do last season as a more polished player, as he led Minnesota in tackles for loss (13) and ranked second in pass breakups (8). His pre-draft performance illustrates a player who continues to climb, not plateau, in his development.

Hageman needs to be in the right place with the right coaches, but his potential for elite play could be higher than that of any other Big Ten player in the draft. There are safer picks here like Lewan, Dennard and Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, but I'm going with the guy who is still nowhere near what he could be at the next level.
The calendar now reads May (happy Cinco de Mayo to you, too) and it's a good time to check the recruiting scorecard for the 2015 class. Thirteen of the Big Ten's 14 squads are on the board -- Minnesota is still waiting for its first verbal pledge -- and several teams are filling up fast.

The James Franklin effect continues to boost Penn State, which not only has the most verbal commitments (13) in the Big Ten -- the second-most in the FBS behind Alabama -- but also the most ESPN 300 prospects (six). Nebraska also is in double digits for 2015 recruits, and Northwestern and Iowa also are off to quick starts.

Remember, February is a long way away and many things can and will change between now and national signing day, but here's where Big Ten teams stand right now:

PENN STATE
2015 verbal commitments: 13
ESPN 300 prospects: 6
Highest-rated recruit (according to ESPN Recruiting Nation): Offensive tackle Ryan Bates
Spotlight: PSU has added to its defensive line in recent weeks with a pair of defensive tackles from Maryland. Adam McLean, an ESPN 300 prospect, committed during Blue-White Weekend. Then, after a relatively quiet three weeks, Penn State added Jonathan Holland on Saturday. Holland has good size at 6-foot-5, and at 225 pounds could fill out some more.

NEBRASKA
2015 verbal commitments: 10
ESPN 300 prospects: 2
Highest-rated recruit: Cornerback Eric Lee
Spotlight: The Huskers had a nice surge toward the end of spring practice, picking up four verbal commitments, including one from quarterback Kevin Dillman. An ESPN 300 prospect, Dillman is a native of Sweden who started his high school career in California and will finish it in Texas. An intriguing prospect, to say the least.

NORTHWESTERN
2015 verbal commitments: 9
ESPN 300 prospects: 0
Highest-rated recruit: Athlete David Dowell
Spotlight: Northwestern picked up eight of its nine commits during a five-day stretch last month (April 11-15). The surge included the Dowell twins, David and Andrew, a running back. David played both cornerback and wide receiver for Saint Edward High School in Lakewood, Ohio. He'll likely suit up in the secondary at Northwestern.

IOWA
2015 verbal commitments: 8
ESPN 300 prospects: 1
Highest-rated recruit: Athlete Drew Cook
Spotlight: After adding four recruits in March, Iowa has been fairly quiet, other than picking up a familiar name in Brady Reiff. The younger brother of former Hawkeye star offensive tackle Riley Reiff committed in late April. Brady is a defensive end at Parkston (S.D.) High School. Riley also came to Iowa as a defensive end before switching to offense.

RUTGERS
2015 verbal commitments: 7
ESPN 300 prospects: 0
Highest-rated recruit: Quarterback Michael Dare
Spotlight: The Scarlet Knights had a nice surge of commits toward the end of spring ball, including running back Charles Snorweah. Born in Liberia, Snorweah boasts good speed and has played both running back and fullback during his high school career.

MICHIGAN
2015 verbal commitments: 5
ESPN 300 prospects: 3
Highest-rated recruit: Cornerback Garrett Taylor
Spotlight: After losing two coveted recruits in the winter, Michigan picked up a key player in Taylor, the nation's No. 10 cornerback prospect. Taylor is the latest top prospect from Virginia to go blue, joining running back Derrick Green (2013 class) and quarterback Wilton Speight (2014 class).

WISCONSIN
2015 verbal commitments: 4
ESPN 300 prospects: 0
Highest-rated recruit: Quarterback Austin Kafentzis
Spotlight: The Badgers traditionally have done a good job of securing their borders with top offensive line recruits, and they continued the trend with Jon Dietzen. A native of Seymour, Wis., Dietzen had offers from Nebraska, Miami and Michigan State but opted to stick with his home-state school.

MICHIGAN STATE
2015 verbal commitments: 4
ESPN 300 prospects: 2
Highest-rated recruit: Offensive tackle Kyonta Stallworth
Spotlight: The Spartans added only one recruit during spring ball but potentially a key piece in quarterback Brian Lewerke from Phoenix. Rated as the No. 9 pocket passer in the 2015 class, Lewerke picked MSU over several Pac-12 schools, Louisville, Florida and others. He's the second quarterback recruit to pick the Spartans, joining Jayru Campbell, who last week reached a plea deal after being charged with assaulting a school security officer.

ILLINOIS
2015 verbal commitments: 3
ESPN 300 prospects: 1
Highest-rated recruit: Offensive tackle Gabe Megginson
Spotlight: Megginson is a big get for coach Tim Beckman, who needs to attract more of the state's best players. Rated as the nation's No. 20 tackle prospect, Megginson had several Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12 offers. Illinois' first three 2015 recruits are from the state, a good early sign for the embattled Beckman.

OHIO STATE
2015 verbal commitments: 2
ESPN 300 prospects: 2
Highest-rated recruit: Athlete Eric Glover-Williams
Spotlight: The class is off to a bit of a slow start, and Glover-Williams' status remains shaky because of some off-field issues. But Ohio State hasn't been a fast starter under coach Urban Meyer and still brings in top classes when all is said and done. Safety Ben Edwards changed his commitment last month from Ohio State to Auburn.

MARYLAND
2015 verbal commitments: 1
ESPN 300 prospects: 0
Highest-rated recruit: Offensive tackle E.J. Donahue
Spotlight: Donahue remains the only 2015 prospect on Maryland's board, but the team picked up a nice addition for its secondary in junior-college cornerback Denzel Conyers, who signed with the Terrapins after visiting last month. Conyers boasts nice size at 6-3 and 200 pounds. The Florida native played last season for Butte College in California. He's expected to enroll in June and contribute this season.

PURDUE
2015 verbal commitments: 1
ESPN 300 prospects: 0
Spotlight: Quarterback Elijah Sindelar committed in February and remains the only player on Purdue's 2015 board. Sindelar, a native of Princeton, Ky., is the nation's No. 14 pocket passer. He continues the trend of nice quarterback pickups for coach Darrell Hazell.

INDIANA
2015 verbal commitments: 1
ESPN 300 prospects: 0
Spotlight: Indiana didn't have to wait quite as long for its first recruit as it did in 2013 as offensive lineman Simon Stepaniak picked the Hoosiers this past weekend. A native of Hamilton, Ohio, Stepaniak had several Big Ten offers but picked an IU team that quietly has produced terrific offensive lines under coach Greg Frey.

Big Ten's lunch links

May, 5, 2014
May 5
12:00
PM ET
Fantastic Derby weekend here. If you've never been, you're doing life wrong.

Big Ten lunch links

May, 2, 2014
May 2
12:00
PM ET
Read up and enjoy the weekend.
  • It's May, and you know what that means. Time to forecast the football season. Matt Charboneau of the Detroit News breaks it down, game by game, for Michigan State. And the same for Michigan, courtesy of Angelique S. Chengelis.
  • The Spartans made an impact on heralded prospect Jashon Cornell at the spring game last week.
  • The Wolverines, meanwhile, have work to accomplish this summer on the offensive line.
  • James Franklin heads out to meet the fans at Penn State as the Vanderbilt rape case continues to hang over the coach, who reiterated on Thursday that he has cooperated fully in the investigation.
  • A breakdown of the perks offered to Penn State student-athletes as NCAA reform looms.
  • Rutgers’ first run through the Big Ten lines up as the toughest in the league, based on 2013 records.
  • Sporting News writer Matt Hayes ranks every football coach in the FBS, placing Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio among the top 10. But Bret Bielema over Gary Andersen?
  • Tom Osborne rushed to defend Turner Gill, who took responsibility for Nebraska's 1984 Orange Bowl loss during an interview for an upcoming ESPN production.
  • Ohio State is set for its best showing in the NFL draft in several years.
  • And finally, more from Nick Saban’s recent visit to Ohio, where the Alabama coach made headlines for praising the Big Ten.


All the debate about future conference schedule models got me thinking about the upcoming season -- it's May, what else is there to think about? -- and the Big Ten's division crossover matchups. The eight-game league schedule remains in place for both 2014 and 2015, and with the league expanding to 14 teams, it means each squad will play only two teams in the other division -- one at home and one on the road.

Hardly ideal, but what can you do.

(This is the point where I reiterate that the SEC's future schedule model will remain like this for the foreseeable future. You're in the same league but you'll barely play one another, yet play Coastal Carolina in mid-November instead? Don't get it.)

OK, back to B1G business. Before ranking the crossover schedules based on degree of difficulty, let's check out what they are for each league squad.

[+] EnlargeNebraska vs Minnesota
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota has been much-improved, but will face both Michigan and Ohio State as crossover games.
EAST DIVISION

Indiana: Iowa (road, Oct. 11); Purdue (home/protected, Nov. 29)
Maryland: Iowa (home, Oct. 18); Wisconsin (road, Oct. 25)
Michigan: Minnesota (home, Sept. 27); Northwestern (road, Nov. 8)
Michigan State: Nebraska (home, Oct. 4); Purdue (road, Oct. 11)
Ohio State: Illinois (home, Nov. 1); Minnesota (road, Nov. 15)
Penn State: Northwestern (home, Sept. 27); Illinois (road, Nov. 22)
Rutgers: Nebraska (road, Oct. 25); Wisconsin (home, Nov. 2)

WEST DIVISION

Illinois: Ohio State (road, Nov. 1); Penn State (home, Nov. 22)
Iowa: Indiana (home, Oct. 11); Maryland (road, Oct. 18)
Minnesota: Michigan (road, Sept. 27); Ohio State (home (Nov. 15)
Nebraska: Michigan State (road, Oct. 4); Rutgers (home, Oct. 25)
Northwestern: Penn State (road, Sept. 27); Michigan (home, Nov. 8)
Purdue: Michigan State (home, Oct. 11); Indiana (road/protected, Nov. 29)
Wisconsin: Maryland (home, Oct. 25); Rutgers (road, Nov. 2)

It's interesting that five teams -- Maryland, Michigan State, Rutgers, Iowa and Wisconsin -- all will play their crossover games in back-to-back weeks. Penn State, meanwhile, will go nearly two months between its first crossover contest and the second.

OK, now for the moment you've waited for: my rankings of the crossover schedules. I factored in quality of opponent (using 2013 performance and future projections), sites and dates.

These go from toughest to easiest. Many of the top crossover games don't appear this year, and there's a fairly sizable drop-off in difficulty after the first three teams.

1. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights get thrown into the deep end right away, first with their East Division schedule but also with crossover games against two of the three likely frontrunners in the West. Nebraska is typically very tough at home, and Rutgers must come right back and play a powerful Wisconsin the following week.

2. Minnesota: I considered Minnesota for the top spot, especially given its historic struggles against Michigan, but the Gophers should be in the game in Ann Arbor and get Ohio State on their home field in mid-November, when the weather should favor the home team.

3. Maryland: Like fellow Big Ten newcomer Rutgers, Maryland faces two of the top West Division contenders this fall. Although the Terps host Iowa and face a Wisconsin team filled with questions, they'll be underdogs in both matchups.

4. Illinois: Road night games at Ohio State are rarely fun for the visitor, and Illinois' Nov. 1 trip could be a painful one. The Illini also host Penn State, which is somewhat of a wild card but a team capable of doing some damage if it stays healthy.

5. Northwestern: Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald has yet to beat Penn State in four tries, and opening Big Ten play at Beaver Stadium is never easy. Northwestern easily could have won its last two against Michigan but has struggled to make plays in crunch time against the Wolverines.

6. Purdue: I'm guessing the Boilers would rather flip the sites of these matchups as they'll be major underdogs against MSU no matter where the game is played. A second consecutive visit to Indiana isn't much fun, either, especially since the Hoosiers should have their wide receiver situation worked out.

[+] EnlargeMacgarrett Kings Jr.
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallReigning conference champ Michigan State gets most of the Big Ten's heavyweights at home next season.
7. Nebraska: Bo Pelini's team has one extremely challenging crossover game and one that should be relatively benign. Nebraska won in its last trip to Spartan Stadium, but it will be tough to do so again. The Huskers should take care of Rutgers at home.

8. Michigan: Wolverines fans likely will mark both games as wins given the histories of both series. But Minnesota is an improving program under Jerry Kill, and Michigan was extremely fortunate to beat Northwestern in each of the past two seasons.

9. Indiana: The Hoosiers get a tough road game and a rivalry game at home. IU has two potentially tough road games (Bowling Green and Missouri) before heading to Iowa City, which should help it. The Hoosiers should be favored against Purdue in the Bucket game.

10. Michigan State: The Nebraska game marks the first of three premier home showdowns in Big Ten play for the Spartans (Michigan and Ohio State are the others). Mark Dantonio's team gets a favorable road crossover draw in Purdue, despite the Spartans' struggles with the Boilers last year.

11. Penn State: Both Lions crossover opponents failed to make bowls last season, but both could be improved. Penn State had to rally from double-digit, second-half deficits in its last two home meetings against Northwestern. If Illinois is fighting for a bowl spot -- and Tim Beckman's job -- the late November trip could be tough.

12. Ohio State: The matchups really favor the Buckeyes in both contests. Ohio State shouldn't have trouble with Illinois at Ohio Stadium under the lights, and while Minnesota is on the rise, the Buckeyes have too much firepower.

13. Iowa: Desmond King and the Hawkeyes secondary will be tested by both crossover opponents, but Iowa should come out of both games with victories. Iowa shouldn't look past Indiana and the Maryland trip could be tricky, but the Hawkeyes avoid the big boys in the East.

14. Wisconsin: Maybe the Big Ten newbies prove me wrong, but transitioning to a new league can be tough. Wisconsin gets what I believe to be the tougher of the two squads, Maryland, at Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers run game should be able to overpower Rutgers on the road.
The economy in most sectors these days has flattened out, at best. But it's good to be in the business of college sports.

ESPN's Paula Lavigne took a look today at the booming revenues in college athletics and how money and profits are still pouring in despite rising coaches' salaries and travel expenses. Lavigne reports that total revenue from FBS programs comes in at around $8 billion and that operating revenues have increased about 32 percent from 2007-2008 to 2012-13 (oh, for that kind of return on your 401k, huh?).

In one of the least surprising developments ever, the Big Ten had several schools among the top revenue-producing teams identified from the study. This handy-dandy graphic shows it all in easy-to-digest detail. Among some of the more interesting findings:

Wisconsin was No. 2 nationally among public schools in both revenue generated in 2012-13 ($149 million) and expenses ($146.7 million), behind only behemoth Texas in both categories. More than half of the Badgers' revenue came from areas other than football and men's basketball, which includes donations, conference payouts and other sports. Michigan was No. 4 in revenue ($143.5 million) and No. 3 in expenses ($131 million), while Ohio State was fifth in both revenue ($140 million) and expenses ($116 million). Penn State ($111 million) and Iowa ($107 million) both cracked the top 10 in expenses.

Ohio State had the nation's largest reported surplus in 2012-13 at $24 million, but that does not include $16.6 million in debt service owed for renovations at Ohio Stadium and other projects. Michigan had a surplus of $12.2 million, which ranked seventh. The Wolverines also generated more money from road games ($5.5 million) and spent more on travel (over $9.6 million) than any other school. The reporting period includes the school's trip to play Alabama in Cowboys Stadium in the 2012 season opener.

Ohio State ($28.5 million) spent more on its coaches than any other school, while Penn State ($20 million) was fifth. The Big Ten also had the top three and four of the top five schools who spent the most on visiting teams: Ohio State (nearly $8 million), Minnesota ($4.8 million), Wisconsin ($3.9 million) and Michigan State ($3.65 million). No wonder the Big Ten went to nine conference games.

This fascinating database shows that Wisconsin got more money from contributions and donations (a whopping $58.9 million) than any FBS school in 2012-13. Michigan, meanwhile, is killing it in licensing, royalties and sponsorships, raking in more than $22 million, or more than every school in the land besides Texas.

There is big, big money in college sports, and the Big Ten is at the forefront of all it.

SPONSORED HEADLINES