Big Ten: Michigan State Spartans

Big Ten morning links

December, 31, 2014
Enjoy the links -- and, from the Big Ten blog, enjoy New Year’s Eve!

1. SEC, Big 12 trash-talking the B1G: The conference seems to be getting it from every side this week, from both a Baylor defender and an Auburn running back. Bears defensive end Shawn Oakman told one TV station, “We don’t watch any Big Ten football. Why? It’s not interesting.” That obviously didn’t sit well with Michigan State. Quarterback Connor Cook replied, “He’ll see what Big Ten football is all about come Thursday.”

Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne also said he could rush for 2,000 yards in the Big Ten. “I still would’ve (liked to play) Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue, I mean it would’ve been great,” Artis-Payne said. He did face harder defenses than Melvin Gordon did this year, but both teams played LSU -- with Gordon finishing with 16 carries for 140 yards (8.8 ypc), compared to Artis-Payne’s 24 carries and 126 yards (5.3 ypc). The two were friendly at a bowling competition and Gordon didn’t seem bothered by the comments … but I imagine some Big Ten fans aren’t overly enamored. Artis-Payne boasts 1,482 rushing yards this season compared to Gordon's 2,336.

2. Just how badly U-M needed Jim Harbaugh: OK, it's no secret that Michigan needed a change. But the ESPN analytics staff tried to measure just what kind of decline the Wolverines were going through and the numbers -- specifically the strength of record (SOR), which looks at how hard it is to achieve a record given the schedule -- is pretty surprising. Under Brady Hoke, Michigan’s SOR got worse by at least 14 spots every season. It was 14th in 2011, 29th in 2012, 51st in 2013 and 71st in 2014. (This past season, Michigan was ranked 54th in SOR among the 65 Power 5 teams.)

Michigan’s offensive efficiency under Hoke followed a similar nosedive -- from 16th to 27th to 50th to 87th. In other words, the Harbaugh hire couldn’t have come soon enough for Michigan.

3. Declaring early: We already addressed Randy Gregory and his decision to enter the NFL draft. But two more Big Ten players also decided to follow suit Tuesday -- Rutgers tight end Tyler Kroft and Penn State defensive end Deion Barnes.

Kroft is listed as the No. 5 tight end in this draft, by’s Mel Kiper, and is 12 credits shy of graduating. Barnes is not listed as one of the top 10 DEs but graduated earlier this month. Kroft’s production fell this season with the emergence of Leonte Carroo, but he was still definitely valuable -- especially when it came to blocking. Barnes bounced back from a sophomore slump, and his departure hurts a PSU defensive line that now loses both ends.

Now, on to the links ...

East Division
West Division
  • Iowa right tackle Andrew Donnal may be playing under the shadow of left tackle Brandon Scherff, but Donnal could also have a bright NFL future.
  • Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner is his own worst critic, so he’s simply ignored any jabs on social media.

Big Ten morning links

December, 30, 2014
A major announcement AND a B1G bowl game? What's not to like?

1. Jim Harbaugh to be announced as U-M coach at noon: After all the reports, rumors and confirmations, we're finally just hours away from the Harbaugh addition becoming 100 percent official. It's bound to be a memorable day for the Wolverines -- but also for the Big Ten.

Another nationally relevant program can only mean good news for the conference with the perception problem. Harbaugh has made a winner out of every team he's been with, and the NFL-to-college move seemed to work out just fine for Pete Carroll and Nick Saban. USC finished 5-7 in 2000, Carroll took over in 2001, and he won an AP national championship in 2003. Alabama finished 6-7 in 2006, Saban took over in 2007, and he won a national championship in 2009. If anyone can restore Michigan, it's Harbaugh.

2. UAB running back to replace Coleman?: It came as no surprise Tevin Coleman has declared early for the NFL draft, but Indiana might soon find a pretty competent replacement. UAB sophomore Jordan Howard, the nation's No. 9 rushing leader, has whittled his list of potential transfer spots down to just two schools -- Indiana and Vanderbilt. Because UAB shuttered its program, he'll be eligible to play immediately.

He told me Monday night he planned to decide "sometime this week" -- and he's been operating under the assumption -- at least the past few weeks -- that Coleman would declare early. Indiana may be far from home, but fellow UAB wideout Marqui Hawkins has already committed to the Hoosiers. And Howard previously said he has some family in Fort Wayne, Indiana. If Howard picks the Hoosiers, it would be a huge "get" for the school. Stay tuned. ...

3. B1G bowl expectations: I'm sure you haven't yet forgotten that the Big Ten wasn't favored in a single one of its 10 bowl games. But is winning one bowl here really exceeding expectations? Well ... no. ESPN Stats & Information crunched the numbers right before bowl season and based on the FPI -- keep in mind the B1G was a slight underdog in quite a few games -- it was able to project the number of wins each conference should finish with.

The Big Ten was expected to finish fourth -- behind the SEC, Pac-12 and ACC -- with 3.6 wins. So, basically, anything four wins or over would be exceeding expectations. The B1G has fared pretty well so far, too: It's 2-2 at this point, with Penn State narrowly defeating Boston College (31-30 OT) and Rutgers pummeling North Carolina (40-21). The B1G's toughest matchup, based on the point spread, is Tuesday night's Maryland-Stanford game. The Cardinal are favored by two touchdowns.

Now, on to the links ...

East Division

  • If Ohio State played Alabama earlier this season, OSU OL Taylor Decker acknowledged, his offensive line would've gotten embarrassed – but this is no longer the same team.
  • Rutgers senior RB Savon Huggins, once the No. 28 overall recruit in the nation, will transfer elsewhere: “Basically, I just wanted a new start.”

West Division

Michigan State braces for Baylor's speed

December, 29, 2014
Baylor’s offense is fast to the naked eye. Michigan State players could see that the first time they turned on the film, but the lethal levels of speed didn’t totally sink in until the Spartans’ defense saw the data spelled out on paper.

In mid-December, on the first day of bowl practice dedicated completely to Baylor prep, outgoing defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi showed his players a list of some of the most high-powered offenses in college football and how much time each took between plays. Baylor likes to snap the ball within 15 seconds of the previous play ending. Most of the time, they land between 10 and 17 seconds. That’s at least five ticks faster than where Narduzzi clocked the likes of Ohio State and Oregon.

“I was just looking at that like, ‘Dang, I thought Oregon was fast,’” said junior linebacker Ed Davis. “When we looked at the game film for Baylor again, we could see the chains weren’t even set up before they were running the next play.”

[+] EnlargeDevin Smith
AP Photo/Al GoldisMichigan State's defense struggled against the up-tempo attacks of Ohio State and Oregon this season, but remains confident it can slow Baylor.
Michigan State built itself into a top 10 program on the strength of its consistently dominant defense. This season, in its two biggest tests that unit fell short against fast-paced, cutting edge offenses. Oregon and Ohio State combined to score 95 points on the Spartans in their only losses of the season.

The chance to slow down Baylor -- the highest scoring team in the country -- in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic this week is a chance at redemption.

“This is the fastest team we’ve seen,” Narduzzi said. “We’re practicing at warp speed right now, even in individual drills, so that our kids will be conditioned for it.”

Narduzzi, who will take over as Pitt’s head coach after Thursday’s game, said he felt bad for his defensive players while walking off the practice the field the first day they prepped for Baylor’s tempo. The players agreed that it was one of the more taxing days they could remember.

The defense learned some lessons about defending at a fast-forward pace during its trip to Oregon in September, but didn’t dramatically change the way it is preparing this time around. The emphasis for most players was on making sure they were in good shape. That included the offense, which had the unwelcome task of mimicking Baylor’s speed during the last couple weeks of practice to get their teammates ready.

“Being fat, it’s not fun,” All-American center Jack Allen said. “I was pretty dehydrated after practice.”

Safety Kurtis Drummond said he could see Baylor’s speed wearing on its past opponents as he watched film. The Bears ran 24 plays this season that went for at least 40 yards. They do it, in part, by setting up their runs to look like passes and passes to look like runs. They also do it, Drummond said, by capitalizing on the mistakes of exhausted opponents.

That’s bad news for the Spartans, who were tripped up by big plays on several occasions this season. They allowed 18 plays of 40-plus yards, which is more than 101 other FBS teams. Drummond said it’s not so much the speed of individual players that makes Baylor dangerous, but the way it tests a defense mentally. The breakneck pace doesn’t allow anyone time to catch his breath.

“If you turn on any film late in the game, or if you turn on the end of a long drive, you see how that defense starts to wear down,” Drummond said about Baylor’s opponents. “People are playing with different techniques and different leverages. It’s obvious when you look at the film.”

Michigan State knows it won’t be able to slow the tempo of the Baylor attack, so its best options are to get ready to run with them and to keep them off the field as much as possible. Defensive players checked in with each other during their week away from practice this month to make sure everyone was running sprints and staying in shape. The other key, Drummond said, is forcing three-and-outs. It’s hard to get tired when you’re only on the field for a few plays before heading to the sideline.

Narduzzi usually prefers to keep his best players on the field as much as possible. Defensive ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush rarely rotated out of the lineup in big games this season. The coach said he would likely have to work in other defensive linemen more frequently against Baylor to make sure his starters stay fresh.

As daunting as the task ahead of them is, and as painful as practice has been this month, the Spartans defense left for Dallas excited for the challenge. Surrendering 46 and 49 points to the Ducks and Buckeyes did not sit will in East Lansing. Most players see this as their chance to prove the defense that propelled them into college football’s elite is capable of hanging with the best.
Michigan State won’t easily replace Pat Narduzzi. Which is not the same as saying Spartans aren’t prepared to do just that.

Mark Dantonio’s longtime defensive coordinator was long overdue for a head coaching job. Narduzzi won the 2013 Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach, and his defenses in East Lansing reflected his personality: aggressive, fearless and highly successful.

Michigan State ranked No. 2 in the FBS in total defense in 2013 after finishing No. 4 in 2012 and No. 6 in 2011. This season, the Spartans are No. 7 nationally in total defense, which is really impressive when you consider that they faced two playoff teams with powerful offenses in Oregon and Ohio State. Narduzzi’s defense faces another severe test on Jan. 1 against Baylor, which could serve as his final masterpiece for Michigan State if he can find a way to slow down the Bears’ high-tempo attack.

[+] EnlargePat Narduzzi
AP Photo/Al GoldisMichigan State's defense, led by Pat Narduzzi, has been among the nation's elite the past four seasons.
He will be a great fit in Pittsburgh, a blue-collar town not all that far from where Narduzzi grew up: Youngstown, Ohio. An opportunity like this should have come along a lot sooner for him, but in recent years there has been a tilt toward more offensive-minded hires and away from coordinators with no head coaching experience. Narduzzi could have had the UConn job last year, but wisely pulled out of consideration for what looks like a bad situation at a non-Power 5 league program. You wonder if some Big Ten teams might eventually regret not pulling the trigger on Narduzzi; he would certainly have been in play at Illinois, for example, if Tim Beckman didn’t survive this season.

Many Spartans fans hoped Narduzzi would eventually succeed Dantonio at Michigan State. The school did everything it could to keep him happy, making him the highest-paid assistant in the Big Ten this season (at a shade over $900,000) and naming him assistant head coach. But Dantonio, who turns 59 in March, doesn’t figure to slow down for several more years. It’s unrealistic to expect Narduzzi, who has spent the past decade working under Dantonio, would continue to wait for his day to come in East Lansing. There aren't many Bud Fosters in this world.

The Spartan Dawgs defense often reflected Narduzzi’s energy and passion, and that was never more apparent than in the 2013 Big Ten championship game against Ohio State. The Buckeyes were making a huge charge, having scored 24 straight points in the second and third quarters to take the lead. Dantonio asked for Narduzzi to come down to the field late in the third quarter, sensing his defense needed some inspiration; the Buckeyes would not score again.

It was Narduzzi who convinced Dantonio to play a high-risk, high-reward defensive scheme that often places its defensive backs in single coverage and blitzes out of multiple angles. So it won’t be an easy task to replace all that he brought to the program.

But Dantonio has known for a few years that Narduzzi would be moving on, and was lucky to hold on for him as long as he did.

"I’ve continually said it's going to happen at some point in time," Dantonio said this month. "When that point in time happens, we've had this happen enough for us that we'll be prepared."

Actually, Dantonio’s staff continuity is extremely rare in today’s college football. As such, he is extremely likely to promote from within to replace Narduzzi, and he has strong candidates who know the system and scheme inside out.

Secondary coach Harlon Barnett, who oversaw the team’s famed "No Fly Zone," appears ready to become a coordinator. Linebackers coach Mike Tressel could also be elevated, perhaps in a co-coordinator situation like Michigan State has on offense with Dave Warner and Jim Bollman. Both Barnett and Tressel have worked with Dantonio since 2004 at Cincinnati, just like Narduzzi did. So there would be no pressing need to change much from an X’s and O’s perspective. Of course, it’s also very likely that Narduzzi would try to bring one or both guys with him to Pittsburgh, quite possibly as his own defensive coordinator.

We’ll miss having Narduzzi and his often brutally honest assessments in the Big Ten. But maybe he can ride the Pitt boomerang back to Michigan State, much as Paul Chryst did at Wisconsin.

Like Chryst and Ohio State’s Tom Herman -- the 2014 Broyles Award winner who recently accepted the Houston job -- Narduzzi needs to establish a track record as a head coach somewhere before being considered for major openings. And who knows? Maybe he’ll provide the long-term stability Pitt is desperate to have.

For sure, Narduzzi leaves a legacy at Michigan State that won’t easily be replaced. But at least the Spartans have been bracing for this day for quite some time.

Roundtable: Favorite B1G moment

December, 19, 2014
Every day this week, before the bowl season kicks off, our Big Ten panel of experts weighed in on different topics related to the regular season.

Our final question of the week: What was your favorite Big Ten moment of the season?

Brian Bennett: Take a bow, Melvin

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
AP Photo/Morry GashNeither sleet nor snow could stop Melvin Gordon against Nebraska.
If there's one moment that I'll forever remember from the 2014 Big Ten season, it happened at Camp Randall Stadium on Nov. 15. That was the day Melvin Gordon went off the hinges, running for a then-record 408 yards vs. Nebraska. He averaged a ludicrous 16.3 yards per carry and scored four touchdowns in the most unstoppable individual performance you're ever likely to see. Best of all, Gordon capped his day with a 26-yard touchdown run that gave him the record on the final play of the third quarter. Snow had begun to fall, and Gordon sealed the record with a little bow in the back of the end zone. His record somehow lasted only one week, but the memories will persevere forever.

Josh Moyer: Penn State fans celebrating the end of the postseason ban

It wasn’t the most important Big Ten moment of the 2014 season, but it’s still one I’ve never quite seen before – and probably never will again. After the NCAA announced the elimination of the bowl ban, along with other sanction reductions, PSU fans spilled into the streets of downtown Happy Valley and celebrated as if they just knocked off the top team in the nation. Two years of anger and frustration gave way to unbridled joy. Thousands sprinted to different venues on campus and just chanted, screamed and sang. Some even crowd-surfed on mattresses at the last stop. I’ve seen big fan celebrations before, but never for something that happened off the field. It was quite a sight.

Mitch Sherman: Mark Dantonio's answer to the Michigan disrespect

The seeds were planted long before Oct. 25, but when Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden drove a stake into the turf at Spartan Stadium, Michigan State reached its boiling point. It's rare that we get to see the reserved Dantonio stick out his chest, but the Spartans punctuated a 35-11 win over U-M with a Jeremy Langford touchdown run in the final 30 seconds. That was a message in response not just to the pregame stake-planting but years of disrespect. "I felt like we needed to put a stake in them at that point," Dantonio said after the game, also referencing the "little brother stuff" that has long brewed in this series. It was a great subplot, of which Michigan coach Brady Hoke, fittingly, was "not fully aware."

Austin Ward: Anthony Schlegel's takedown of a fan on the field

Leaving the stands and running on the field is pointless, dumb and dangerous right from the start. In case anybody had overlooked that last part, Ohio State assistant and former linebacker Anthony Schlegel offered a reminder that would have made The Rock proud. After a student had the bright idea to step on the turf at the Horseshoe during a September game against Cincinnati, he compounded it by getting a bit too close to the Ohio State sideline, where Schlegel popped out to plant him in the ground with an unforgettable body slam. The lesson, as always, is to stay in the seats.

Dan Murphy: Michigan-Ohio State moment of sportsmanship

Maybe it's all this Christmas music that has me feeling sappy, but the moment that keeps coming to mind (other than Melvin Gordon's insane performance against Nebraska) was shortly after J.T. Barrett's season-ending injury against the Wolverines. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner made his way on to the field and offered some support to Barrett, who was still laid out on his back as trainers worked on his leg. At that point, it was the fourth quarter of a one-touchdown game between bitter rivals with a lot on the line -- a potential playoff berth for the Buckeyes and a last-ditch effort to save their coaching staff for the Wolverines. One of the worst moments of the year (Barrett's injury) was quickly followed by a great one. The quarterback's show of genuine solidarity was a reminder that these guys are human beings. Gardner fell short of expectations on the field this season, but it's far more appropriate that college football's lasting image of him will be that moment of sympathy.

Adam Rittenberg: Bust a move, Coach Kill

I'm tempted to go with Gordon in the snow against Nebraska, especially since I was there to witness history, but Jerry Kill gets my vote for his "old age" dance moves after Minnesota wins. Minnesota's rise under Kill has been one of the best Big Ten story lines in the past two seasons. Many wondered early in 2013 if Kill's coaching days soon would end because of his struggle with epilepsy, particularly seizures on game day. But the coach has his condition under control and continues to show why he's one of the best at getting the most out of his teams. You couldn't help but smile seeing Kill enjoy the wins by dancing in the locker room, surrounded by his joyous players. Those moments never get old.

Big Ten bowl predictions

December, 19, 2014
The song is right: Bowl season is the most wonderful time of the year. Bowl season will also determine the overall champion of the season picks. Austin Ward leads the way right now, but it's still a wide-open race.


Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl

Why Illinois will win: There has been a noticeable change in the Illini down the stretch, and Tim Beckman’s players appeared to have fully bought in to his message as they fought back to qualify for a bowl game. Across the board, this looks like the most favorable matchup for any Big Ten team, and with a motivated team playing its best football when it mattered most, expect Illinois to come away with a trophy. Illinois 31, Louisiana Tech 24. -- Austin Ward

Why Louisiana Tech will win: I suppose I should believe more in Illinois after it finished the season strong, and Louisiana Tech has some bad losses on its schedule (Northwestern State and Old Dominion … oy). But I still have a wait-and-see attitude with this Illini defense, and the one thing the Bulldogs can do is score points. They averaged 37.5 points per game this season, and I think they'll win a shootout against a group of players not accustomed to the bowl stage. Louisiana Tech 38, Illinois 35. -- Brian Bennett


Quick Lane Bowl

Why Rutgers will win: Rutgers has already played four of the nation's top 10 defenses and a half-dozen of the top 25 rushing attacks. So, even with dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams, North Carolina isn'’t going to throw anything at Rutgers it hasn’t already seen. The Tar Heels have one of the worst defenses in the country -- only 10 have allowed more yards -- so Rutgers shouldn’t have a problem scoring. The issue here is Rutgers' defense, but, again, Rutgers has fared OK there against middle-of-the-road teams, and that's exactly what UNC is.
Rutgers 38, North Carolina 31. -- Josh Moyer


New Era Pinstripe Bowl

Why Boston College will win: It's fitting this bowl is played in Yankee Stadium because the final score might look like it belongs to a baseball game. Both teams have top-five rushing defenses and middling offensive production. Boston College quarterback Tyler Murphy, a former Florida Gator who transferred before this season, has been the X factor this season that helped BC beat USC and stick within a field goal of Florida State. Murphy does most of his damage on the ground, and that plays in Penn State's favor. But if he can break one or two big plays, that should be enough for a close win. Boston College 10, Penn State 6. -- Dan Murphy

Why Penn State will win: Let’s be honest: The Nittany Lions offense is lousy, and the special teams (outside of Sam Ficken) are almost just as bad. But I'm going with Penn State for the same reason it made a bowl game in the first place: defense. Only four teams in the FBS threw for fewer yards than Boston College, and no team defended the run better than Penn State. That works right into the strengths of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. Plus, the Nittany Lions will be motivated in their first bowl appearance since 2011. Underestimate this team at your own peril; it ended the plast two seasons with even bigger upsets.
Penn State 16, Boston College 13. -- Josh Moyer


National University Holiday Bowl

Why USC will win: Because the Trojans have more offensive firepower than any team to face Nebraska this season -- and the Huskers have surrendered 475 yards per game to Miami, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Minnesota. USC, with quarterback Cody Kessler, running back Buck Allen and receiver Nelson Agholor, will torment a Nebraska team that might feel a bit lost without deposed coach Bo Pelini. The Huskers, organizationally, figure to struggle after a tumultuous month. They're stuck in turmoil as USC looks to build off a strong finish to the regular season in a win over Notre Dame. USC 38, Nebraska 24. -- Mitch Sherman


Foster Farms Bowl

Why Stanford will win: This is a virtual home game for the Cardinal in nearby Santa Clara, California, while the Terrapins have to travel all the way across the country. Stanford struggled earlier in the season but seemed to find its footing late, beating UCLA by 21 points in the regular-season finale. Maryland has been unpredictable most of the season and has enough big-play ability to pull off an upset. But it's a tall order. Stanford 24, Maryland 17. -- Brian Bennett


Outback Bowl

Why Wisconsin will win: It's been a topsy-turvy three weeks for the Badgers, between losing 59-0 in the Big Ten title game and then losing their head coach, but this group isn't one to just lie down, and I can't envision Melvin Gordon taking it easy in the last game of his college career. How you view this game is basically a reflection of how you view that Big Ten championship -- and I see that as an anomaly. It won't happen again against Auburn. I still think Wisconsin has a great defense. I still think this offensive line can overpower Auburn. And I still think these players want to win one for Barry Alvarez. Auburn has an average defense and a great offense, but the Badgers win a close one in the end. Wisconsin 31, Auburn 28. -- Josh Moyer

Why Auburn will win: You can bet Auburn coach Gus Malzahn watched the Big Ten championship game with a big smile on his face. Ohio State had its way with Wisconsin's supposedly elite defense despite using a quarterback making his first career start with only one week to prepare. Auburn has as much, or more, offensive talent and speed as Ohio State, and it has a veteran quarterback in Nick Marshall. The Tigers' shaky defense could struggle with Gordon, Wisconsin's All-America running back, but it should be able to outscore the Badgers. Wisconsin can't match up with Sammie Coates in the back end and could struggle with Marshall and Cameron Artis-Payne on the perimeter. Auburn 35, Wisconsin 24. -- Adam Rittenberg


Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic

Why Michigan State will win: The fearsome Spartans defense has already allowed more than 40 points twice this season. There's a decent chance it will happen a third time against Baylor, the country's No. 1 offense, but Michigan State is no slouch on offense, either, and should be able to keep pace. While Baylor uses a breakneck tempo to get its advantage, the Spartans rely more on their instinct to grind opponents down. If Michigan State can control the pace of the game and get a couple of stops, it should be able to avoid falling to 0-3 against top-10 opponents this season. Michigan State 45, Baylor 42. -- Dan Murphy

Why Baylor will win: Michigan State faced two ranked teams this season and lost both games in unflattering fashion. Oregon and Ohio State hung 46 and 49 points, respectively, on the Spartans as Michigan State's offense just couldn't keep up. The problem for Mark Dantonio's squad? Baylor’s offense is even better. The Bears are ranked No. 1 in the country in scoring and yards, so the "No-Fly Zone" could have as much a hard time stopping Bryce Petty as it did Marcus Mariota. The Spartans are a good team, but I just don't like this matchup for them. MSU starts off strong but Baylor pulls away in the second half.
Baylor 45, Michigan State 35. -- Josh Moyer


Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl

Why Minnesota will win: The SEC East champions were already given fits by a Big Ten team, and Indiana won only a single conference game after knocking off Missouri on the road. Minnesota, with its power rushing attack, aggressive defense and solid leadership from the coaching staff, was better than the Hoosiers in virtually every way this season. Plus, it will be fired up to end the season on a high note with a fan base excited for the destination. The Gophers claim more hardware here. Minnesota 27, Missouri 20. -- Austin Ward


Why Missouri will win: All the Gophers have to do is follow Indiana's game plan from the Hoosiers' 31-27 upset in Columbia, Missouri, back in September, right? It might not be that easy. While the Tigers benefited from playing in the terrible SEC East, Missouri did improve as the season went along and has a strong rush defense that allowed just 3.5 yards per carry. That means Mitch Leidner will likely have to make some plays -- and avoid the fierce pass rush of Shane Ray. Minnesota has an excellent shot here, but I like Missouri in a close one.
Missouri 27, Minnesota 24. -- Brian Bennett


Taxslayer Bowl

Why Tennessee will win: Bowl games are often about motivation and momentum, and Tennessee trumps Iowa in both areas. The Vols are that incredibly young, talented team that should benefit more than most from bowl practices and the chance to punctuate this season before a 2015 campaign that will carry much higher expectations. Iowa has a good track record in bowls but comes in on a down note after a very disappointing regular season. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs sparked Tennessee down the stretch and should give Iowa's defense trouble. Tennessee's defense should pressure Iowa's quarterbacks into mistakes.
Tennessee 24, Iowa 17. -- Adam Rittenberg


Allstate Sugar Bowl

Why Ohio State will win: Urban Meyer doesn't need to call on his psychological tricks for an underdog team all that often, though the Ohio State coach did already have a couple occasions to do so this year. Look at what happened to Michigan State and Wisconsin when the Buckeyes felt slighted and Meyer pushed their buttons to bring out their best. Certainly, No. 1 Alabama is the ultimate test and is favored for a reason, but Ohio State has the personnel to match up with the SEC champions, and the Buckeyes have one more chance to shock everyone in what has been already been a stunning season. Ohio State 31, Alabama 30. -- Austin Ward

Why Alabama will win: Have you watched the Crimson Tide? They have the best talent nationally and possibly the best coaching. Ohio State is not too bad itself, with a young and fast-improving stable under Meyer, but Alabama is several steps ahead and tested against a daunting schedule in the SEC West. If it boils down to playmakers, the Buckeyes will be at a disadvantage for the first time this season -- perhaps a big disadvantage. Ohio State simply can't match Blake Sims, Amari Cooper and the Bama backs with a third-string quarterback in Cardale Jones and weapons elsewhere whose athleticism won't surprise the Alabama defense.
Alabama 31, Ohio State 17. -- Mitch Sherman

Our records:
1. Austin Ward: 88-25 (.779)
T-2. Brian Bennett: 85-28 (.752)
T-2. Mitch Sherman: 85-28 (.752)
4. Dan Murphy: 57-19 (.750)
5. Adam Rittenberg: 83-30 (.735)
6. Josh Moyer: 82-31 (.726)

Big Ten morning links

December, 19, 2014
Bowl season is a tricky time for coaches to motivate players.

“You can grind guys up if you occupy them too much mentally,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said this week.

Read more from Fitzgerald and others Friday on about motivation in bowl season. His Wildcats, sitting home this month, would trade places with any of the 10 Big Ten bowl teams. And with that wonderful time of year to start on Saturday -- the first Big Ten bowl game is still a week away -- it makes sense to look at the factors motivating conference teams.

Here’s a ranking of Big Ten teams with the most for which to play in the postseason:

Ohio State (Allstate Sugar Bowl, vs. Alabama, Jan. 1): A clear leader in this category as the Big Ten representative in the College Football Playoff, the Buckeyes carry the weight of the league on their shoulders. What else is new? Ohio State is flagship program of the Big Ten under Urban Meyer, who had a lot to say Thursday about his team's daunting task against the Crimson Tide.

Michigan State (Goodyear Cotton Bowl, vs. Baylor, Jan. 1): The Spartans lost to a pair of playoff teams, yet they're largely forgotten nationally. A business trip to Texas to face Baylor, the next best thing to a playoff opponent, offers a chance for MSU to finish on a high note nearly equal last year's Rose Bowl win.

Minnesota (Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, vs. Missouri, Jan. 1): A victory in Orlando would give the Golden Gophers a nine-win season for the first time since 2003 and the second time in more than a century, and it would represent the school's best two-year run in over 50 years. It won't come easy against the two-time SEC East champ. The Gophers must run the ball effectively, their bread and butter, now and in the future.

Penn State (New Era Pinstripe Bowl, vs. Boston College, Dec. 27): The Nittany Lions, exposed in the second half of this season for a lack of overall talent, can end on a high note in this much-awaited return to the postseason after a two-year bowl ban. A visit to New York against a regional recruiting rival heightens the stakes.

Rutgers (Quick Lane Bowl, vs. North Carolina, Dec. 26): The Scarlet Knights exceeded expectations to make it this far. After an inspiring comeback win over fellow Big Ten newcomer Maryland to close the regular season, confidence is high, though the uncertain injury status of star receiver Leonte Carroo threatens to put a damper on the excitement around this bowl trip.

Wisconsin (Outback Bowl, vs. Auburn, Jan. 1): Motivated by the embarrassment of a 59-point loss in the Big Ten title game, the Badgers got knocked down another step by the surprise departure of Gary Andersen. But the return of Paul Chryst has boosted the spirits of players, who will look to impress their new coach as he observes in Tampa. Against Auburn's multi-faceted offense, Wisconsin must use everything at its disposal, including QB Tanner McEvoy on the defensive side.

Nebraska (National University Holiday Bowl, vs. USC, Dec. 27): The Cornhuskers are also playing to catch the eye of a new coach, as Mike Riley figures to watch closely. Riley's new staff will start fresh though, so what happens in San Diego stays in San Diego. Still, Nebraska players, amid a dramatic exit from their former coach that has sparked more debate, want to provide a fond farewell for their old staff of assistant coaches.

Illinois (Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, vs. Louisiana Tech, Dec. 26): With victories over Penn State and Northwestern to get bowl eligible, Illinois has won simply by making it this far. No marquee opponent awaits, and Dallas isn't exactly a winter paradise, though maybe the man of the hour, QB Reilly O'Toole, can rally the Fighting Illini once again.

Maryland (Foster Farms Bowl, vs. Stanford, Dec. 30): Did the Terrapins run out of gas in the second half against Rutgers? It was a long season, packed with several highlights, in Maryland's first season of Big Ten play. But a visit to face Stanford, which is coming off four consecutive major bowls, near its home turf, looks like another significant challenge for Randy Edsall's team.

Iowa (TaxSlayer Bowl, vs. Tennesssee, Jan. 2): The Hawkeyes need someone to step up, a habitual practice in the postseason, or they face a dull ending to a disappointing season that set up well in Iowa City.

Around the rest of the league:

Big Ten morning links

December, 18, 2014
Live football has almost returned. Until it arrives again, take a few spins on the coaching carousel.

The Wisconsin Way: Continuity should be back at Wisconsin, and the program made it clear that it won’t be compromising anything it proudly stands for to keep it. By sticking inside the family on Wednesday and officially bringing Paul Chryst back home, the Badgers have somebody who knows exactly what the job entails and a coach who almost certainly won’t be making a lateral move at any point in the future. Maybe the Badgers will start spending more money on assistants down the road, so there’s some flexibility there in regards to an issue that turned off Bret Bielema. But in terms of knowing the kind of recruits it can expect to land and clearly laying out the academic requirements moving forward, not to mention bringing in an existing relationship with the university and the boss, Chryst couldn’t be any better suited to provide stability for Wisconsin after a rough stretch of losing Bielema and then Gary Andersen after two short years.

Down to one: Wisconsin moving quickly leaves only Michigan active on the job market, and while there’s no telling when that search will end, it is effectively the only one that still has a chance of connecting on a true home-run hire. No offense to Chryst or new Nebraska coach Mike Riley, because those were smart, sensible hires that made perfect sense for each program -- but they certainly don’t qualify as splashy or scream that championships are on the way. If Les Miles is definitively out of the picture, it really seems as though Jim Harbaugh is going to have to come through for the Wolverines once his commitments to San Francisco are over at the end of the NFL season. And it seems like Michigan is fully committed to doing whatever it takes to deliver him. Maybe there’s another huge name secretly looming out there for Michigan, but if there was, wouldn’t there have been some indication of that by now? The Big Ten is down to one job, and there really only seems to be one guy who should claim it.

Coordinator corner: Just below those headline vacancies leading Big Ten programs, the chance to replace Tom Herman as Ohio State’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator will be up there as a highly-coveted position this offseason as the coaching carousel spins. The odds are strong that Ed Warinner will receive something of a promotion from his co-coordinator duties and take on more responsibility as a play-caller, though he was already somewhat active in that regard in his current role. Warinner not only deserves a raise for the incredible job he’s done with the Ohio State offensive line, he has earned more credit than he currently receives for that work, which is perhaps why he hasn’t landed an opportunity to lead his own program yet despite a couple interviews over the last two years. The Buckeyes are actually fortunate that they don’t have to replace both Herman and Warinner simultaneously, but either way there will be no shortage of candidates lining up for the shot to potentially work with J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller at quarterback.

East Division
West Division

Top sleeper commits: Big Ten 

December, 17, 2014
Five-star and ESPN 300 prospects create the most buzz, but with more than a hundred FBS programs competing for talent it takes more than just those top-rated prospects to have success. Rosters are built largely with prospects who enter college with little fanfare, but their development and contributions are key. Every year we see prospects who flew under the radar but developed into some of their conference's top players.

Throughout our evaluations we come across many players who show promise and are great additions based on their upside for development and/or scheme fit.

Here are five commitments in the Big Ten who we feel are unheralded but additions worth keeping an eye on:

Michigan State's Connor Cook says he’s coming back for “unfinished business.”

There is plenty left for the Spartans quarterback to accomplish in his final year of eligibility.

Considered the conference’s top quarterback in September, Cook was largely overshadowed this season by the rise of J.T Barrett at Ohio State despite an impressive first full season as Michigan State’s starter. He’ll have a trio of Buckeyes quarterbacks to contend with again next fall, but likely a bigger chance to shine. That's at least part of the pull that helped him to decide to pass up a spot in the NFL draft for one more year in East Lansing.

Cook’s decision to return, which he confirmed Tuesday afternoon, provides an important anchor of consistency for a Michigan State offense that will lose a large portion of its production when the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic ends. Cook will be without his top target in the passing game and his top two running backs when the team reconvenes.

Two-thirds (43 out of 64) of the team’s touchdowns this season were scored by players who won’t be back next fall. Current sophomores like tight end Josiah Price and running back Delton Williams are able-bodied replacements, but the next edition of Michigan State’s offense will be highly dependent on Cook to make sure his younger teammates get up to speed.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan State quarterback Connor Cook will have to shoulder an even heavier offensive burden next season.
Cook played an underrated role in one of the Big Ten’s biggest turnarounds during the 2014 season. He orchestrated an offense that increased its scoring average by two touchdowns from a season ago, jumping 56 spots, from No. 63 to No. 7, in the national rankings for points per game (43.1). With a defense that took a step backward from its previous dominant state, the Spartans wouldn’t have had another season with double-digit wins without that offensive improvement.

Cook’s 2,900 passing yards were the most of any quarterback in the conference, which is made more impressive when you consider he plays in an offense that still runs the ball far more frequently than it passes. He finished second to Barrett in the Big Ten in touchdown throws (22) and passer rating (152.4).

If not for Barrett’s sensational rookie season, Cook would have been a shoo-in for the Big Ten’s quarterback of the year and probably mentioned as a finalist for a couple of national awards. If not for Barrett’s sensational day against the Spartans in a 49-37 Buckeyes win, Cook and his team might have had an argument for a spot in the College Football Playoff. That brings us back to the “unfinished business.”

Cook knows he’ll need to be better next season to reach the goals he missed this year. He said he plans to improve his ability to run and use his running backs as safety valves in the passing game more often next season. He said he watches Aaron Rodgers from the Green Bay Packers and tries to emulate the Pro Bowler as much as possible.

“[I’m] not trying to be a dual-threat quarterback by any means, but if I have to get 4 or 5 yards just be more of a threat with my feet,” he said.

Catching Barrett (or whoever wins the Ohio State starting job) won’t be easy. The Buckeyes’ quarterback will be an early favorite for the conference’s individual accolades. Cook will have to make big strides to keep pace. More importantly, he’ll have to have an expanded role as a leader of the offense and Michigan State’s team if it is going to close the gap on Ohio State. That’s the unfinished business that cemented Cook’s return to East Lansing for a final season.

Michigan State Spartans season review

December, 16, 2014
Next up in our week of 2014 season reviews for all Big Ten teams are the Michigan State Spartans.

Overview: Michigan State lost several big stars on defense but was still a top contender to repeat as the Big Ten champ this season. The Spartans evolved on offense and scored enough points (43.1 per game) to finish the regular season with 10 wins. Junior quarterback Connor Cook threw for 2,900 yards and 22 touchdowns and running back Jeremy Langford ran for 100-plus yards in nine straight games to provide a balanced attack. Michigan State’s schedule provided Mark Dantonio and his team with two great chances to gain respect as a national power. They lost them both. The Spartans held a lead over playoff-bound Oregon at halftime and another lead over No. 4 Ohio State late in the second quarter before the defense crumbled and allowed a combined 95 points in the team's only two losses in 2014. Their own playoff hopes were dashed after the loss to the Buckeyes in November, but they hammered their way to a 10-2 record and another shot at a top-five opponent against Baylor in the Cotton Bowl.

Offensive MVP: Senior wide receiver Tony Lippett gave Cook a reliable target all season. Lippett, voted the Big Ten’s top receiver this year, made 60 catches for 1,124 yards and 11 touchdowns. No other receiver for the Spartans had half as many catches as Lippett this season. He also ran for a 32-yard touchdown on his only official rushing attempt of the season and started the final game of the regular season at cornerback. He provided the big-play threat Michigan State needed in order to open up many other parts of their offense. Replacing Lippett will be one of the Spartans’ biggest challenges in 2015.

Defensive MVP: With headline-grabbing defensive end Shilique Calhoun off to a slow start, redshirt senior Marcus Rush provided the Spartans defense with the steady pass-rushing force it needed. Rush set a school record by making 51 career starts during the last four seasons. He had 36 tackles this season and a team-high seven sacks. His quiet consistency often goes unnoticed by everyone except his teammates and opposing quarterbacks, but it was enough this year for him to be considered this group's most valuable player.

Play that changed the Big Ten race

December, 16, 2014
Michigan State was in the driver’s seat. For a few brief moments the scoreboard at Spartan Stadium showed the home team with a two-touchdown lead over East Division rival Ohio State late in the first half.

A holding penalty eliminated what at first looked like a rushing touchdown for Spartans running back Jeremy Langford. Not long after, the Buckeyes wiped clean the rest of Michigan State’s lead and its chance at a second consecutive Big Ten title, making the holding call a pivotal play in the race for a conference championship.

Langford’s run would have given his Spartans a 28-14 lead with under four minutes to play in the second quarter and their second touchdown in less than 60 seconds. The drive, which started inside the red zone thanks to a fumbled kickoff, was a chance to dump a truckload of pressure on the Buckeyes and their rookie quarterback J.T. Barrett.

Instead, All-American center Jack Allen hooked his arm around an Ohio State defender and dragged him down to open the lane for Langford. It was a clear penalty, which set up a third-and-long Michigan State couldn’t convert. Michael Geiger missed a field goal on the following play, and the Spartans missed a great chance to push Ohio State’s back to the wall.


“All of the sudden momentum just flipped,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said following the game. “If we go in at 28-14 there's a different feel, there's a little bit more like, 'OK, we've got them.' But they hit two big plays in that three minutes. So you deal with it."

Barrett connected with Michael Thomas on the next play for a 79-yard, game-tying touchdown. He would throw another deep ball for another score before the end of the half to complete a 21-point swing in the final minutes of the second quarter. Ohio State took its touchdown lead into the locker room and never looked back en route to a 49-37 win.

If Michigan State doesn’t get caught for holding, it could have pressed the Buckeyes and perhaps taken a two-score lead into the second half. To push the hypothetical further, maybe Barrett doesn’t play as loose without those two late scores and perhaps the Spartans hang on to win. They would be the one-loss team playing an overmatched Wisconsin squad in Indianapolis. With their only loss coming on the road to No. 2 Oregon, perhaps the selection committee sees them as worthy of one of four playoff spots.

On the other side, Urban Meyer is pinned with his first regular-season conference loss in the Big Ten and his third year without a conference title. A second loss kills the Buckeyes' chance of a playoff berth. Meyer is suddenly human, and the perception of the league’s top two teams is flipped.

Instead, the referee threw a flag between Allen and left tackle Jack Conklin and potentially altered the Big Ten season.

"Who knows what could have happened,” Conklin said after the game, “if we could have come out and finished that drive.”

Weekend recruiting wrap: Big Ten 

December, 16, 2014
We are almost in the home stretch on our way to signing day, so coaches are pushing it into overdrive to finish out their recruiting classes.

Here is a look at the latest news on the recruiting trail within the Big Ten.

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Big Ten morning links

December, 16, 2014
Good morning, Big Ten fans. Only four more days until college football résumés ...

1. Ohio State OC Tom Herman a good fit for Houston: He's currently in negotiations with Houston to be its next head coach, according to The Associated Press. And, if the Cougars sign him in the end, they're getting a good one. He worked a lot of magic with Ohio State's quarterback situation, and Houston could use a little of that after sophomore John O'Korn took a step back and lost his job after a terrific freshman campaign. Herman would have two young quarterbacks to work with -- O'Korn and Greg Ward Jr. -- and he'd inherit a talented team that simply underperformed this season. Herman has proven enough; he's undoubtedly ready to move up the ranks. Ohio State fans should be sad to see him go but, at the age of 39, you knew he couldn't stay around forever. As the winner of the Broyles Award, which goes to the nation's top assistant, he was just too talented stay a coordinator much longer.

2. Indiana one of two leading schools for UAB running back: In case you need to catch up here, UAB running back Jordan Howard is looking for a new home after his program folded. And he's quite the coveted sophomore, considering he's No. 7 nationally with 1,587 rushing yards. As's Jeremy Crabtree reported, Howard has Indiana and Notre Dame leading the way right now. He visited both schools, has no other visits planned and wants to decide where to transfer within about the next three weeks. In other words, it sure looks as if Howard is down to the Irish and the Hoosiers.

It's a bit of a surprise the Alabama native is looking to move up North, but it could work out well for Indiana. Tevin Coleman is expected to declare early for the NFL draft, and the Hoosiers are looking for a replacement. Playing time is something IU could offer, and it doesn't hurt that UAB wideout Marqui Hawkins already chose Indiana. Plus, as Howard told me a little over a week ago, he has some family in the Fort Wayne, Indina, area. If IU can reel him in, he would instantly become one of the most intriguing Big Ten running backs of the 2015 season. He's definitely a player you should be keeping an eye on.

3. $12 million worth of football building renovations at Penn State: OK, so $12 million isn't nearly as much of a head-turner as Maryland's $155 million facility. But we're talking about strictly football here, and $8 million is dedicated to just “branding and graphic upgrades.” As reported, one of the plans is to integrate video, sound and lighting to “create a ‘Wow' factor in all areas of the building.” Among the renovations? An “experience room,” which is supposed to immerse recruits into a digital, first-person view of game day. Digital locker room name plates are among the suggested concepts, as this renovation is trying to take PSU more into the 21st century. The funds aren't as much as other B1G schools' recent renovations, but PSU doesn't need to alter as much, either. The facilities are already pretty good.

East Division
  • The departure of offensive coordinator Tom Herman won't derail Ohio State, writes The Columbus Dispatch's Rob Oller.
  • Five quick talking points on Michigan State, from Baylor fans buying up MSU's Cotton Bowl tickets to the next career move for defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi.
  • Rutgers freshman CB Dre Boggs has played in nine games already this season, but he has higher expectations for himself.
West Division
  • Paul Chryst, who's poised to succeed Gary Andersen at Wisconsin, declined to say Monday that he'll remain with Pitt.

ESPN's Big Ten all-freshman team

December, 15, 2014
The Big Ten doesn't put out an all-freshman team. But we do. Here are our picks for the top first-year players in the league in 2014:


QB: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: Well, duh.

RB: Justin Jackson, Northwestern: In the year of the running back in the Big Ten, Jackson somewhat quietly produced 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns as a true freshman.

RB: Curtis Samuel, Ohio State: He added to the Buckeyes' ridiculous array of skill players, running for 386 yards and six scores. Looks like a future star.

WR: Mike Dudek, Illinois: In another season, one in which a guy like Barrett doesn't put up mind-boggling stats, Dudek would have been the freshman of the year in the league. He should surpass 1,000 yards receiving in the Fighting Illini's bowl game.

WR: DaeSean Hamilton, Penn State: Though the Nittany Lions' offense struggled, Hamilton caught more passes (75) than any other Big Ten player and finished with 848 yards in the regular season.

WR/RB: Jalin Marshall, Ohio State: A versatile, speedy weapon who could come out of the backfield or fly into it, Marshall scored seven touchdowns on offense and one on punt returns. He's also the team's backup quarterback right now.

OL: Mason Cole, Michigan: The first Wolverine ever to start the opener at left tackle as a true freshman, Cole stayed there all season and showed a lot of promise with his excellent footwork and instincts.

OL: Brian Allen, Michigan State: The true freshman and brother of All-Big Ten center Jack Allen appeared in all 12 games, with one start at left guard.

OL: Billy Price, Ohio State: The redshirt freshman has started all 13 games as a guard for the Buckeyes.

OL: Andrew Nelson, Penn State: The Nittany Lions had their issues on the offensive line, but Nelson started every game at tackle -- including twice at left tackle -- and has a bright future.

OL: Christian DiLauro, Illinois: He filled in as the starting right tackle in the second half of the season for the Illini and helped them rally their way to a bowl game.


DL: Kemoko Turay, Rutgers: After a torrid start, the pass rushing specialist finished with 7.5 sacks. He also blocked a field goal against Michigan to preserve that victory.

DL: Malik McDowell, Michigan State: The blue-chip recruit whose signing day saga made headlines showed his talent by playing in all 12 games and recording 3.5 tackles for loss.

DL: Steven Richardson, Minnesota: Thrust into a starting role after the first week because of injuries, the true freshman more than held his own by finishing with 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.

LB: Darron Lee, Ohio State: After taking a medical redshirt last year, Lee emerged as one of the Buckeyes' top defensive playmakers, recording 66 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and a pair of fumble recoveries, one of which he scored on.

LB: Ja'Whan Bentley, Purdue: The Boilermakers' linebacker position has been a problem for the past few years, but Bentley is part of the solution. He was Purdue's second-leading tackler on the season with 76 stops, adding an interception and three fumble recoveries.

LB: Anthony Walker, Northwestern: In his first start against Penn State, Walker returned an interception 49 yards for a touchdown. He also had a pick in the win at Notre Dame and led the Wildcats with nine tackles for loss.

LB: Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State: Playing mostly in a reserve role, McMillan had an immediate impact on the Buckeyes. The former stud recruit recorded 50 tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception.

DB: Eli Apple, Ohio State: It's scary how many star freshmen the Buckeyes have. Apple is another, as he had 41 tackles, including 5.5 for loss, and a pair of interceptions.

DB: Montae Nicholson, Michigan State: The true freshman played in every game and had three starts in the Spartans' "No Fly Zone." He had 30 tackles and a pair of fumble recoveries.

DB: Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern: He made waves in the Wildcats' upset win over Wisconsin by grabbing three interceptions. He started five times at safety and finished with 51 tackles.

DB: Marcus Allen, Penn State: He started Penn State's final six games at safety after Ryan Keiser got hurt, and the Nittany Lions' defense didn't miss a beat. He was third on the team in tackles with 52.


K: Rafael Gaglianone, Wisconsin: The effusive Brazilian with the strong leg went 17-for-20 on field goals, including 2-of-3 from beyond 50 yards.

P: Daniel Pasquariello, Penn State: His 37.7-yards per punt average was nothing to write home about -- except the Australian probably does write home a lot. He improved down the stretch to solidify the Nittany Lions' punt team.

Returner: De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska: He was third in the FBS in punt-return average (17.8) and scored three touchdowns, including a memorable one in the comeback win at Iowa.