Big Ten: Aaron Burbridge

Wide receiver has been a bit of an albatross for the Big Ten, although last season brought a mini renaissance with four 1,000-yard receivers and another (Illinois' Steve Hull) who nearly got there (993 yards). The bad news is all five of those players depart, leaving question marks on the perimeter. There are more certainties at tight end as players such as Ohio State's Jeff Heuerman, Rutgers' Tyler Kroft, Minnesota's Maxx Williams, Northwestern's Dan Vitale and Penn State's trio of Kyle Carter, Jesse James and Adam Breneman all return. Whether you believe Michigan's Devin Funchess is a wide receiver or a tight end, he's back, too. And he's really good.

Our position previews continue with the wide receiver/tight end group.

Best of the best: Maryland

The Big Ten rookies face some challenges in their new conference, but the Terrapins bring a talented and extremely deep group of receivers. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long lead the way as both men return from broken legs that shortened promising 2013 seasons. Levern Jacobs, Nigel King and Amba Etta-Tawo all did nice jobs last season, as each eclipsed 30 receptions. The return of Marcus Leak, who showed the ability to stretch the field in 2012 before missing last season, provides yet another option for senior quarterback C.J. Brown. Wide receiver undoubtedly will be Maryland's strength entering the season, and in terms of depth, no other Big Ten squad comes close. The Terps need a tight end to emerge after losing Dave Stinebaugh.

Next up: Michigan State

I considered several teams here -- Nebraska, Ohio State, Northwestern, Michigan, Indiana, Penn State, even Iowa -- but few programs are bringing back more than three reliable options in the passing game. Michigan State, a laughingstock at receiver in 2012, bounced back nicely last season as the offense stabilized behind quarterback Connor Cook. The Spartans had six receivers or tight ends finish with 17 or more receptions and six players with multiple touchdown receptions in 2013. Five of those players are back as only wide receiver Bennie Fowler, MSU's leader in receiving yards (622) and receiving touchdowns (6), departs. Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings lead the group after combining for 87 receptions last year. Aaron Burbridge and Keith Mumphery also return along with tight end Josiah Price, who emerged late last fall. DeAnthony Arnett finally could be ready to contribute. Good depth here.

Sleeper: Northwestern

We've been high on this group for years but the production hasn't been there on a consistent basis. A two-quarterback system and a primary signal-caller (Kain Colter) best suited to run the option made it tough for the wide receivers and tight ends to truly blossom. Things should change this year with a single quarterback (Trevor Siemian) and an offense that should have much more of a passing lean. Christian Jones and Tony Jones are both proven receivers whose numbers should climb this fall. Like MSU's Arnett, Prater also could be on the verge of big things several years after transferring in, and Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler fills the all-important slot role. Tight end Dan Vitale has 62 receptions in his first two seasons and could be a star this fall.

Problem for a contender: Wisconsin

The Badgers barely had enough wide receivers to get through practices this spring, but they'll need a significant boost on the perimeter when the season kicks off. Gone are top wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and top tight end Jacob Pedersen, who accounted for 63.7 percent of the team's receiving yards in 2013. Factor in the loss of running back James White (39 receptions for 300 yards last season), and Wisconsin returns only one player, Jordan Fredrick, with 10 or more receptions last season and none with more than 150 receiving yards. The Badgers need a lot of help here: Fredrick and Alex Erickson to develop, Kenzel Doe to build on a good spring, Robert Wheelwright to stay healthy and blossom and several incoming freshmen -- keep an eye on Krenwick Sanders -- to contribute immediately. Veteran Sam Arneson likely steps into the top tight end role.
Big Ten receivers undoubtedly took a step forward last season after struggling mightily the year before. Will the group continue to improve or backslide after losing standouts such as Allen Robinson, the back-to-back Big Ten receiver of the year, Jared Abbrederis, Jeremy Gallon and Cody Latimer?

The 1,000-yard mark means more to wide receivers than rushers, especially in the Big Ten. Four players reached the milestone in 2013 after just one (Robinson) in 2012. The Big Ten had four 1,000-yard receivers in 2011 but none in 2010 and just one (Purdue's Keith Smith) in 2009. So this category can be tricky to forecast.

Although no Big Ten returning player had more than 800 receiving yards in 2013, the league boasts several potential breakout stars. Your task today: Select the Big Ten player most likely to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards this fall.

The candidates ...

SportsNation

Which Big Ten player is most likely to reach 1,000 receiving yards this season?

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Discuss (Total votes: 6,552)

Kenny Bell, Nebraska, senior: The 'fro, tragically, is no mo' after Bell lost a bet to his friend, Northern Colorado defensive lineman Devontae Chapple. But perhaps less hair will mean more production after Bell's receiving yards went from 863 in 2012 to 577 last year. Nebraska never has had a 1,000-yard receiver, and quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. has much to prove as a passer, but Bell is one of the nation's most experienced wideouts.

Stefon Diggs, Maryland, junior: Big Ten fans who haven't seen Diggs are in for a treat, at least when he's not facing their favorite team. An ESPN 150 recruit who picked Maryland over Ohio State and others, Diggs finished eighth nationally in all-purpose yards (174.2) as a true freshman. He averaged 17.3 yards per reception through Maryland's first seven contests last season before suffering a broken leg. Diggs should be fine for the season and can put up huge numbers with his big-play ability. Maryland's depth at receiver -- Deon Long also returns from a broken leg -- could make it tough for Diggs to get to 1,000 yards.

Devin Funchess, Michigan, junior: Funchess is listed as a tight end and won the Big Ten's tight end of the year award last fall, but he plays like a bigger receiver at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds. He has averaged 15.5 yards per reception in his first two seasons with 11 touchdowns, setting a team record for receiving yards by a tight end with 748 last fall. Funchess becomes quarterback Devin Gardner's favorite target as Gallon departs. Michigan needs its receivers to step up, but Funchess could threaten 1,000 yards this year.

Shane Wynn, Indiana, senior: Like Bell, Wynn saw a slight production drop from 2012, when he led Indiana with 68 receptions, to last season, when he had 46 but still put up about the same yardage. But the departures of Latimer and tight end Ted Bolser, both selected in the NFL draft, along with Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson leave Wynn as undoubtedly Indiana's No. 1 passing target. Quarterbacks Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson will be looking for Wynn a lot this fall, and his numbers could surge in a productive IU offense.

And, finally ...

Mystery man: Don't like any of these candidate to reach 1,000 receiving yards? This is the spot for you. Maybe Rutgers' Leonte Carroo complements his touchdowns with bigger yards totals this fall. One of the Northwestern Joneses (Christian or Tony) might reach 1,000 yards in a more pass-driven offense. Geno Lewis could follow Robinson's path at Penn State. Maybe Ohio State's Devin Smith gets there. Will one of Michigan State's receivers -- Tony Lippett, Macgarrett Kings, Aaron Burbridge, Keith Mumphery -- separate from the pack? Maybe one of the spring standouts -- Iowa's Derrick Willies, Illinois' Geronimo Allison or Mikey Dudek, Michigan's Freddy Canteen -- has a true breakout season.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- For nearly a season and a half, Michigan State leaned hard on its defense to try to win games while the offense sputtered.

That pattern finally changed midway through last season, as Connor Cook settled the quarterback position, Jeremy Langford developed into a star at running back and the receivers started making tough catches. Heading into 2014, a new paradigm could be in play. The offense returns the vast majority of its production while the defense must replace stalwarts such as Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis.

Nobody is expecting the Spartans defense to fall off a cliff, especially with Pat Narduzzi back at coordinator and plenty of fresh talent ready to step forward. But if that side needs time to find its footing early in the season, things could be OK.

"Our defense has obviously been very, very strong," offensive coordinator Dave Warner said. "But as an offense, we want to be able to carry this football team if need be. And do it right from start, rather than wait until four or five games into the season to get it figured out."

Michigan State isn't suddenly going to turn into Baylor or Oregon -- "I still think you've got to play well on defense to win championships," head coach Mark Dantonio says -- but there's reason to believe that an offense that averaged a respectable 29.8 points per game during Big Ten play could continue moving forward.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesWith Jeremy Langford and several key players returning on the Michigan State offense, the defense doesn't have to carry the Spartans anymore.
Cook is back and should ride a wave of confidence following his MVP turns in the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl games. The Spartans did lose Bennie Fowler, who led all receivers with 622 yards and six touchdowns, but they return every other pass-catcher of note and expect bigger things out of guys such as Aaron Burbridge and R.J. Shelton, as well as DeAnthony Arnett. Langford, who ran for 1,422 yards and scored a Big Ten-best 19 total touchdowns, added about five pounds of muscle this offseason.

"I think it helps with my durability," he said. "I can take a hit and bounce off a couple tackles. I still feel fast, and I feel stronger now."

Michigan State was young at tight end last season and didn't utilize that position a lot, though Josiah Price made a crucial touchdown catch against Ohio State in the league title game. Tight end could become a strength this year with Price back and spring head-turner Jamal Lyles, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound potential difference-maker.

"We're better right now at tight end than we were at any time last year," Warner said.

Warner also wants to find ways to use tailbacks Nick Hill, Gerald Holmes and Delton Williams. And don't forget quarterback Damion Terry, whose athleticism could lead to several possibilities.

"We're experimenting a little bit right now," Cook said. "I feel like some new things will be added to our arsenal on offense."

The biggest question marks for the Spartans on offense are on the line, where they must replace three senior starters (Blake Treadwell, Dan France and Fou Fonoti) from what might have been the best O-line in Dantonio's tenure. The line doesn't have as much depth this spring as the coaching staff would like, but veterans Travis Jackson, Jack Conklin and Jack Allen provide a nice starting point. Donavon Clark and Connor Kruse have played a lot as backups, and Kodi Kieler is expected to make a move up the depth chart.

"We need to get that offensive line back in working order," co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said.

Overall, though, Michigan State feels good about the state of its offense. So good that maybe the defense can lean on it for a change, if needed.

"Last year, we got off to a horrible start and didn't really get going until Week 5," Cook said. "We don't want to have that happen ever again. With the offense we have and what we proved last year, we want to get off to a hot start and get the rock rolling early. That's what everyone on our team offensively has in mind."

Big Ten lunch links

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
12:00
PM ET
Have a great weekend, everybody, and enjoy all the spring games. Looks like some nice weather out there.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. The wide receivers and tight ends are up next.

Illinois: The Illini are looking for more from this group after losing top target Steve Hull, who exploded late in the season to finish just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. While running back Josh Ferguson (50 catches in 2013) will continue to contribute, Illinois could use a boost from Martize Barr, who arrived with high expectations but only had 26 receptions last fall. Another junior-college transfer, Geronimo Allison, could make an impact beginning this spring, but there's some mystery at wideout. Illinois looks more solid at tight end with seniors Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.

Indiana: Despite the somewhat surprising early departure of All-Big Ten selection Cody Latimer, Indiana should be fine here. Shane Wynn is the veteran of the group after recording 633 receiving yards on 46 catches last season. Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson also depart, so Indiana will be leaning more on Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree. The Hoosiers have high hopes for early enrollee Dominique Booth, a decorated recruit who could fill Latimer's spot on the outside. Productive tight end Ted Bolser departs and several players will compete, including early enrollee Jordan Fuchs.

Iowa: Almost all the wide receivers are back from a group in which none eclipsed more than 400 receiving yards in 2013. Balance is nice, but separation could be nicer for the Hawkeyes this spring. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced wideout and has 122 career receptions. Tevaun Smith also returns, and Iowa fans are excited about big-play threat Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards on only 12 receptions last season. Iowa loses its top red-zone target in tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and will need Jake Duzey to deliver more Ohio State-like performances.

Maryland: When the Terrapins get healthy, they might have the Big Ten's best wide receiving corps. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom sustained broken legs against Wake Forest last season, have the ability to stretch the field as both averaged more than 15 yards per reception before the injuries struck. Leading receiver Levern Jacobs also returns, alongside junior Nigel King and sophomore Amba Etta-Tawo, who averaged more than 16 yards per catch in 2013. Marcus Leak, who started seven games in 2012, rejoins the team after a year away. The Terps are unproven at tight end after losing Dave Stinebaugh.

Michigan: There's a reason why some Michigan fans want Devin Gardner to return to wide receiver for his final season. The Wolverines are thin on the perimeter after losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Redshirt sophomores Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are both candidates to start, and Dennis Norfleet could be the answer in the slot. But there's plenty of opportunity for younger players like Drake Harris, an early enrollee. Michigan's best pass-catching option, Devin Funchess, is listed as a tight end but plays more like a receiver. The Wolverines will be without their second-string tight end, Jake Butt, who suffered an ACL tear in winter conditioning.

Michigan State: Remember all the justified angst about this group a year ago? It has pretty much gone away as the Spartans wideouts rebounded nicely in 2013. Bennie Fowler departs, but MSU brings back its top two receivers in Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, who showed explosiveness down the stretch last fall. Aaron Burbridge had a bit of a sophomore slump but provides another option alongside veteran Keith Mumphery, who averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2013. Josiah Price leads the tight end group after a solid freshman season.

Minnesota: Here's a group to watch during spring practice, particularly the wide receivers. Minnesota has proven it can run the ball and defend under Jerry Kill, but the passing game was putrid in 2013, ranking last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally. Youth is partly to blame, and while the Gophers still lack experience, they can expect more from promising players like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. Senior Isaac Fruechte provides a veteran presence. Minnesota looks solid at tight end with sophomore Maxx Williams, the team's receiving yards leader (417) in 2013.

Nebraska: The Huskers lose a significant piece in Quincy Enunwa, who led the team in receiving yards (753) and had three times as many receiving touchdowns (12) as anyone else in 2013. Kenny Bell is set to recapture the No. 1 receiver role, which he had in 2012, and comes off of a 52-catch season as a junior. Nebraska must build around Bell this spring with players like the mustachioed Jordan Westerkamp, who had 20 catches as a freshman, including a rather memorable one to beat Northwestern. Will Jamal Turner turn the corner this offseason? Juniors Sam Burtch and Taariq Allen also return. Cethan Carter started six games at tight end last fall and should take over the top spot there as Jake Long departs.

Northwestern: The passing game fell short of expectations in 2013, but there's reason for optimism as Northwestern returns its top three pass-catchers in Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. The two Joneses (no relation), who combined for 109 catches in 2013, lead the receiving corps along with junior Cameron Dickerson. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler provides a playmaking spark, possibly at slot receiver. Vitale, who had a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, has All-Big Ten potential at the superback (tight end) spot. Although Northwestern rarely plays true freshmen, superback Garrett Dickerson, Cameron's brother, could see the field right away.

Ohio State: A group that drew heavy criticism from coach Urban Meyer two springs ago is stockpiling talent. Devin Smith is the familiar name, a big-play senior who has started each of the past two seasons and boasts 18 career touchdowns. Ohio State must replace top wideout Corey Brown and will look for more from Evan Spencer. Michael Thomas has stood out in practices but must translate his performance to games. This could be a breakout year for H-back Dontre Wilson, who averaged nine yards per touch as a freshman. Buckeyes fans are eager to see redshirt freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark, and incoming players like Johnnie Dixon could make a splash right away. Ohio State returns an elite tight end in Jeff Heuerman.

Penn State: The Lions have very different depth situations at receiver and tight end. They're looking for contributors on the perimeter after losing Allen Robinson, the Big Ten's top wide receiver the past two seasons, who accounted for 46 percent of the team's receiving production in 2013. Brandon Felder also departs, leaving Geno Lewis as the likeliest candidate to move into a featured role. Richy Anderson also returns, but there will be plenty of competition/opportunity at receiver, a position new coach James Franklin targeted in recruiting with players like Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Things are much more stable at tight end as the Lions return three talented players in Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman.

Purdue: If you're looking for hope at Purdue, these spots aren't bad places to start. There are several promising young players like receiver DeAngelo Yancey, who recorded a team-leading 546 receiving yards as a freshman. Cameron Posey also had a decent freshman year (26 catches, 297 yards), and Danny Anthrop averaged 18.4 yards as a sophomore. A full offseason with quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby should help the group. Tight end also should be a strength as Justin Sinz, who led Purdue with 41 catches last season, is back along with Gabe Holmes, who returns after missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury.

Rutgers: The good news is tight end Tyler Kroft returns after leading Rutgers in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last season. Kroft will immediately contend for All-Big Ten honors. Things are murkier at wide receiver, where top contributors Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt both depart. Leonte Carroo took a nice step as a sophomore, averaging 17.1 yards per catch and enters the spring as the frontrunner to become the team's No. 1 wideout. Ruhann Peele is another promising young receiver for the Scarlet Knights, who boast size with Carlton Agudosi (6-foot-6) and Andre Patton (6-4).

Wisconsin: The quarterback competition will gain more attention this spring, but Wisconsin's receiver/tight end situation could be more critical. The Badgers lose Jared Abbrederis, their only major threat at receiver the past two seasons, as well as top tight end Jacob Pedersen. Players like Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe must translate their experience into greater production, and Wisconsin will look for more from young receivers like Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright. Help is on the way as Wisconsin signed five receivers in the 2014 class, but wideout definitely is a position of concern right now. Sam Arneson is the logical candidate to step in for Pedersen, but there should be competition as the Badgers lose a lot at the position.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Football Recruiting, Maryland Terrapins, Jacob Pedersen, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Devin Smith, Tony Jones, Tony Lippett, Corey Brown, Jeremy Gallon, Duwyce Wilson, Keith Mumphery, Justin Sinz, Kevonte Martin-Manley, Evan Spencer, Gabe Holmes, Kofi Hughes, Jared Abbrederis, Kyle Carter, Nick Stoner, Jordan Fredrick, Sam Arneson, Matt LaCosse, Ted Bolser, Steve Hull, Kenzel Doe, Christian Jones, Jamal Turner, Shane Wynn, Josh Ferguson, Kenny Bell, Devin Funchess, Josiah Price, Cody Latimer, Drew Dileo, Quincy Enunwa, Stefon Diggs, Jordan Westerkamp, Aaron Burbridge, Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, Jesse James, MacGarrett Kings, Austin Appleby, Michael Thomas, Adam Breneman, Tevaun Smith, Isaiah Roundtree, Isaac Fruechte, Drake Harris, Cameron Dickerson, Dominique Booth, Jalin Marshall, Jake Duzey, Danny Etling, Allen Robinson, Dan Vitale, Danny Anthrop, Martize Barr, Damond Powell, Dontre Wilson, James Clark, Robert Wheelwright, Donovahn Jones, Drew Wolitarsky, Taariq Allen, Richy Anderson, Sam Burtch, Chris Godwin, Garrett Dickerson, Johnnie Dixon, Saeed Blacknall, Alex Erickson, Maxx Williams, Geronimo Allison, Cethan Carter, Cameron Posey, DeAngelo Yancey, Geno Lewis, Brandon Felder, Brandon Coleman, B1G spring positions 14, Jordan Fuchs, Miles Shuler, Levern Jacobs, Nigel King, Amba Etta-Tawo, Dave Stinebaugh, Marcus Leak, Tyler Kroft, Quron Pratt, Leonte Carroo, Ruhann Peele, Carlton Agudosi, Andre Patton

PASADENA, Calif. -- No one would dispute that Michigan State's defense is the primary reason for the program's ascent. Especially after Wednesday's performance in the Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsWith many weapons returning, Michigan State should be able to rely on Connor Cook and the offense more in 2014.
The Spartan Dawgs showed they can be great even without a great player in Max Bullough, and stifled Stanford's power run game for the final three quarters of a 24-20 win. The fourth-down stop of fullback Ryan Hewitt, where a swarm of MSU defenders leaped over the pile, typified why Michigan State has gone from good to great.

But if you're searching for why MSU could keep the momentum going in the 2014 season, take a look at the other side of the ball. Michigan State's offense, which went from dysfunctional in September to efficient and, at times, explosive, could fuel the team this fall.

The Spartans return virtually all of their skill players, including quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and wide receivers Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphery, Macgarrett Kings and Aaron Burbridge. Bennie Fowler likely would earn a sixth year of eligibility -- he missed the entire 2009 season and part of 2011 with injuries -- if he wants one.

The tight end group, used more late in the season, returns completely intact. Fullback Trevon Pendleton, who had a touchdown catch in the Rose Bowl, is only a sophomore.

"It's been a long journey, and seems like a long time ago that we were being asked that question about what's wrong with our offense," co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said last week. "It's been a process without a doubt, and it seemed like it took a long time, but it was a necessary process, and we're still not a finished product by any means now because I think we can continue to grow and get better."

MSU showed against Stanford that it can win big games by throwing the ball, as Cook repeatedly attacked the seams of the Cardinal defense to players like Kings and Lippett.

"They were very vulnerable," Kings told ESPN.com on the field afterward. "We weren't looking to attack it, but as the game went on, that's what was open so we just took it. I caught a couple over the middle … Guys were sagging off, sometimes they play regular Cover 2. It's all about reading coverages on the run and making plays."

A receiving corps that struggled to simply catch the ball, much less make plays, in 2012 went through a dramatic transformation when Cook took control. Cook will enter 2014 as one of the Big Ten's top quarterbacks after recording his first two career 300-yard passing performances in the league title game and the Rose Bowl.

Dual threat Damion Terry likely will enter the mix in some form in 2014. Perhaps MSU incorporates a package of plays for Terry, who redshirted this season after nearly playing in September.

It will be important to build depth behind Langford, a solid back but one who could platoon with a guy like Delton Williams, if Williams remains on offense.

MSU loses three fifth-year seniors along the offensive line, including co-captain Blake Treadwell, but the line subtly took a major step in 2013. This had been the unit holding back MSU from reaching levels like Wisconsin, Iowa and others had. The line seemed to turn a corner and can build behind players like Travis Jackson, Jack Allen and Jack Conklin, a redshirt freshman who started the final 10 games at left tackle.

The defense loses much more -- six starters, including standouts like Bullough, All-America cornerback Darqueze Dennard, linebacker Denicos Allen and safety Isaiah Lewis. MSU certainly can reload but might not be quite as elite as this year's unit.

The Spartans likely will lean more on their offense in 2014. And they should.

Michigan State season preview

August, 16, 2013
8/16/13
10:30
AM ET
If the old adage “defense wins championships” always held true, then Michigan State would be a top team in most preseason polls. But they'll still have to play offense, and it might not be a good thing that the Spartans' success this season will hinge on how the unit moves the ball.

MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS

Coach Mark Dantonio (69-45 overall, 51-28 at Michigan State)

2012 record: 7-6 overall, 3-5 Big Ten

Key losses: DE William Gholston, RB Le’Veon Bell, RB Larry Caper, TE Dion Sims, DB Johnny Adams, LB Chris Norman, K Dan Conroy

[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Andrew Maxwell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireWill Andrew Maxwell be able to hold off Connor Cook and lead the Spartans?
Key returnees: QB Andrew Maxwell, WR Keith Mumphery, WR Bennie Fowler, WR Tony Lippett, WR Aaron Burbridge, RB Riley Bullough, OL Travis Jackson, CB Darqueze Dennard, LB Max Bullough, LB Denicos Allen

Newcomer to watch: Running back Riley Bullough. The redshirt freshman converted linebacker can be considered a true newcomer because this is his first season at the position. The Spartans are looking for someone to step into the big shoes Bell left, and Bullough has seemed to rise to the occasion throughout fall camp.

Biggest games in 2013: at Notre Dame (Sept. 21), at Iowa (Oct. 5), vs. Michigan (Nov. 2), at Nebraska (Nov. 16), at Northwestern (Nov. 23)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Will the offense really be able to get it going? Maxwell remains the biggest question mark. Dantonio pulled Maxwell during the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl last season and put in Connor Cook. The same could happen this season as the two battle it out trying to find consistency in the offense and chemistry with wide receivers. Bullough should help, but neither he nor junior Nick Hill has ever been a featured back in an offense. Running back by committee could be the Spartans’ best bet.

Forecast: The Spartan defense will be stout, even without Gholston. It returns most starters and Max Bullough is ready to lead. It’s the offense that will struggle to find its identity, which happens to most teams when they don’t have a starting quarterback who has consistently proven himself. This season, Michigan State might head into the fall with that part still unanswered. The Spartans return multiple wide receiver threats, so Maxwell should have some kind of chemistry there, but how long his leash will be remains to be seen, and Cook could be thrown into the fire relatively quickly.

The schedule does set up the Spartans to play their best football later in the season. The front half of their conference schedule isn’t too bad. The Spartans should be better than the Hawkeyes, but playing at Iowa is never easy. Indiana and Purdue at home, as well as a road game against Illinois, should provide ample confidence building as the Spartans face a tougher three-game stretch in November. They’ll host in-state rival Michigan before hitting the road for Nebraska and Northwestern, which could be a true contest this season, unlike in most. Minnesota at home should be a fine way to close out, especially considering that will be the week that fellow Legends team Michigan faces a tough competitor in Ohio State, possibly with both teams vying for a spot in the Big Ten championship game the following weekend.

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

August, 13, 2013
8/13/13
5:00
PM ET
Let's open the inbox. Remember, follow us on Twitter.

Michael from Lincoln, Neb., writes: Adam, if you had to pick a team from the BIG other than Ohio State who could compete for a national title this season, who would it be? I realize OSU is the strongest option, but hopefully there might be another team (or teams) who you could make an argument for without using too many supporting statements that start with "if" or "with a little luck".

Adam Rittenberg: Michael, the other team would be your hometown Nebraska Cornhuskers, but it's hard for me to make a case for a national title run without some qualifying statements. There are too many question marks on defense, and I don't think Nebraska's wild/erratic style -- lots of points, lots of turnovers -- translates into championships of any kind. So "if" Nebraska cuts down significantly on the fumbles and uses the first two months of the season to mature on defense, it has a chance to run the table during the regular season. The defense will need to overcome inexperience with greater talent and overall depth.

The big plus for Nebraska is a schedule that lends itself to a young team maturing. UCLA might be the only team that can outscore the Huskers in the first seven games. Nebraska's season comes down to November, and if the Huskers can win at the Big House and Beaver Stadium, a 12-0 mark is possible. The Huskers then would have to beat the Leaders champ, most likely Ohio State, in Indy. Nebraska doesn't look like a national title contender, but the schedule could help Big Red along the way to a potential surprise run.

Sly from Kansas City, Mo., writes: Hey Adam -- I had a question about bye weeks. Assuming a bye week is positive (an arguable assumption), which three B1G teams would you say are most fortunate, and which three were most screwed (e.g., ones that have more high-level opponents coming off bye weeks)?

Adam Rittenberg: Sly, my view is that bye weeks are typically overvalued. There really isn't much correlation to wins after open weeks. It actually has been more of a detriment in some seasons for Big Ten squads. Bye weeks undoubtedly help when key injuries surface, as players have an extra week to recover. This season features the double bye, so Big Ten teams will have two open Saturdays. I tend to like some spacing between off weeks and to have one around Nov. 1.

Let's break it down ...

Favorable

Michigan State: The Spartans get one open week after completing non-league play with Notre Dame, before opening the Big Ten season with Iowa. The other open week follows the always emotion-charged rivalry game against Michigan. The Spartans have two weeks to prepare before road games against Nebraska and Northwestern.

Indiana: Like MSU, Indiana gets its first bye after non-league play is complete, giving Kevin Wilson's crew two weeks to prepare for the Big Ten opener against Penn State. The second off week comes following consecutive road games against Michigan and Michigan State, a time when IU likely needs time to heal.

Northwestern: The Wildcats also get their first bye following the completion of non-league play. They'll have two weeks to prepare for a huge home showdown against Ohio State on Oct. 5. The second open week comes in the middle of the November grind, following a road trip to Nebraska and before key division home games against Michigan and Michigan State. It should provide a nice breather.

Unfavorable

Nebraska: Both open weeks come during a four-week span in Nebraska's easy part of the schedule (late Sept./early Oct.). The Huskers would be better served to have an off week during their November grind, when they play Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State.

Penn State: Like Nebraska, Penn State gets both of its open weeks really early in the season (Weeks 5 and 8). Attrition could be a factor for a Lions team playing with reduced scholarships, and PSU really could have benefited from an off week during November, when it faces Nebraska and Wisconsin.

Illinois: Sense a pattern here? Illinois will have two open weeks before it plays two Big Ten games. That means Tim Beckman's shaky crew must go through the meat of the conference schedule without a break.

Will from Hoboken, N.J., writes: Hey Adam -- heading into this season, I am getting this mentality that the B1G is in a down year. Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Iowa all have to get over their own humps to see how "good" they are. Ohio State's schedule is a little weak this season. I can't help but have a "I hope they put up a good fight" mentality about Penn State, as their scholarship reduction takes effect this season. Northwestern is a classic underdog story and I'll be rooting for them to do well and am excited to see them potentially beat some of the powerhouse teams. I love B1G football and am an alumnus of a B1G school, but am I delusional about this upcoming season?

Adam Rittenberg: Will, I agree there are some significant question marks throughout most of the league, but it's hard to say this is a down year after 2012, which was pretty disastrous for the Big Ten aside from Ohio State's 12-0 run, and even that came under the cloud of NCAA sanctions. The Big Ten had an 8-5 champion in Wisconsin and two of its best teams (Ohio State and Penn State) were barred from postseason play. It totally flopped in non-league play -- aside from Northwestern and Ohio State -- and didn't do much in the bowls. Can't get more “down” than 2012.

While I don't think the Big Ten will unseat the SEC this season, there's a decent chance the league improves on its performance from 2012. Teams like Michigan and Michigan State certainly could win more games, and both Ohio State and Nebraska could enter November undefeated and very much in the national discussion. Indiana and Minnesota both have a chance to improve in Year 3 under their respective coaches, and remember that Wisconsin returns 25 seniors on a team that knows how to win Big Ten titles. Sure, there's transition in Madison, but former coach Bret Bielema had been pointing to 2013 as a breakthrough year even before the 2012 season.

Carmen Ohio from Madison, Wis., writes: Do you think it looks better to schedule an elite team from what is currently called a non-AQ conference, or a team from the lower tier of a power conference? For example, last season only Michigan and Wisconsin played two non-conference teams that ended the year in the top-20, but people constantly use Bucky as an example of weak scheduling. Do you think that this perception was due to the fact it was non-traditional powers Utah State and Oregon State? Would it have resonated louder to have scheduled Kentucky, Virginia, Colorado and Kansas?

Adam Rittenberg: Good question, Carmen, and it speaks to the trickiness of non-league scheduling, which is typically done so far in advance that, in many cases, it's a total crapshoot as to how good/bad the teams turn out to be. Wisconsin plays Alabama to open the 2015 season. It's pretty safe to assume the Tide will be very good. Utah State, meanwhile, likely turned out to be a lot better than when Wisconsin scheduled the Aggies, typically an FBS bottom-feeder. Wisconsin deserves credit for its 2013 nonconference schedule (Arizona State, BYU), as well as its much more aggressive approach in the future. But it's important to put things into context when evaluating schedules. When Ohio State scheduled Cal, the Bears were a top-20 program. Now they're rebuilding. That's the way it goes. It's important to evaluate nonconference scheduling approaches -- over a longer span -- rather than schedules in an individual season.

Taylor from Baltimore writes: I've been wondering what is the status of Monty Madaris? He was the best WR recruit for MSU that year coming out of high school, according to ESPN. I know he battled injury, but I wasn't under the impression that it was career ending. He's still listed on the roster, which needs as many playmakers as it can get at that position. Will he ever play a down at MSU? Has he been progressing similarly to the way Burbridge and Fowler have improved this offseason?

Adam Rittenberg: I haven't heard much about Madaris so far in camp, other than that he's in the morass of Spartan wideouts hoping to break through this season. Madaris and Macgarrett Kings Jr. are often mentioned together as two talented young wideouts who could step up, much like Aaron Burbridge did in the second half of the 2012 season. Madaris had a high ankle sprain that limited him last summer and eventually led to a redshirt. We know Michigan State needs help there, but there hasn't been much, at least to this point, about Madaris emerging.

Herky's My Hero from Okoboji, Iowa, writes: Hey Adam, just a thought on Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa Hawkeyes. A lot of people are calling for KF's head if he has a bad season. Sure he has had a few bad years, but I think we are underestimating his long tenure at Iowa and the potential attributes of being the Grandad of coaches in the Bigten. What if he takes on the stigma that Paterno had at Penn State? Sure it is ways down the line, but isn't it possible for him to coach at Iowa for another 20+ years? In comparison, Paterno had a few bad stretches, for example from 2000-2004 Paterno was 26-33 overall and 16 -24 in the Big Ten. That's a horrendous stretch, but he still was a great coach. I say we lighten up on KF and realize that he could become a coaching legend among the Big ten and college football. Overall KF is 100-74 and 59-52 in the big ten, with two Big Ten championships, a plethora of solid NFL players, and some great bowl wins. Such coaching stability is unprecedented in today's NCAA and could easily become our biggest recruiting attribute.

Adam Rittenberg: Everyone who evaluates Ferentz's entire tenure objectively would conclude that he has had a very successful tenure at Iowa and boosted the program's regional and national profile. You make some really good points about the need to be patient and ride out the ups and downs rather than changing coaches every 3-6 years after the first sign of trouble. I actually talked recently with Ferentz about this, and he touched on the value of longevity at a program like Iowa.

"In Iowa, people understand that sometimes the best answer is finding solutions and working on those solutions, rather than worrying about making people walk the plank," he said. "That's a direct opposite of the way our society's going right now, which is one of the reasons I love working at Iowa. I think they get that."

I also asked him about keeping the message fresh after a stretch where Iowa clearly has lost momentum.

"If you change jobs every six years, you don't have to worry about freshness. There have been some really good coaches who have had a track record of staying somewhere typically 5-7 years, and maybe part of the motivation there is so their message doesn't get stale. Because that definitely can happen and does happen. So if you choose not to be a vagabond or an opportunist, or you choose to stay somewhere, then yeah, you constantly have to evaluate how you present, how you market, how you package, whatever term you want to use. But I also believe the things that were good two years ago were good 10 years ago, they were good 30 years ago. And if you go the other direction, they'll still be good two years from now, 10 years from now or 30 years from now. That doesn't change."

All that said, like any coach, he needs to be held accountable, especially because of the big money he's making. It's important Iowa takes a step in a positive direction this fall.

Matt from Ypsilanti, Mich., writes: The Big Ten has had its struggles in the nonconference recently. What do you expect to see from the conference in this season’s non-league games? Does the B1G have enough high-profile games to change its "down" perception before conference play starts?

Adam Rittenberg: Your second question really is the key one, Matt. Are there enough big-deal nonconference games to boost perception? The answer is, unfortunately, no. If the Big Ten beats up on Notre Dame, the story will be more about Notre Dame going downhill after a nightmarish offseason than the Big Ten being on the upswing. Wins against Pac-12 teams like Arizona State (Wisconsin visits there in Week 3) or UCLA (Nebraska hosts the Bruins in Week 3) could help a little, but there aren't enough games with the SEC on the docket (thanks, Vanderbilt) and not enough games against preseason top 15 opponents. The non-league schedule could hurt the Big Ten, but I don't know it can really help the league's perception.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 12, 2013
8/12/13
12:00
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If that's true, if you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.
Another day, another preseason watch list. This time, we've got the Biletnikoff Award, which goes to the top receiver in college football. More than 70 players were named to the list, including defending winner Marqise Lee of USC.

Eight Big Ten receivers made the list. They are:
Robinson is obviously the headliner here after running away with the Big Ten receiver of the year award last year. I'm surprised to see Burbridge on the list; while he had a nice freshman year, he ended up with just 364 yards receiving, and it's hard to picture a Michigan State receiver contending for this award this season. The last Big Ten player to win this award was Michigan's Braylon Edwards in 2004.
We've taken a look at the potential 1,000-yard rushers and 3,000-yard passers in the Big Ten this season. That leaves just one major statistical milestone on the offensive side of the ball: the 1,000-yard receivers.

Wide receiver wasn't the strongest position group in the league in 2012, and just one player reached quadruple digits a year ago: Penn State's Allen Robinson, who finished with 1,013. Robinson is still only a junior, so he's the best bet to do it again this year, though he'll be catching passes from an inexperienced quarterback to start the season.

Who else might join Robinson in that 1k club? Let's take a look at some candidates in order of likelihood:

1. Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin (837 receiving yards in 2012): Abbrederis posted 933 receiving yards in 2011 and still had good numbers last year despite being banged up early in the season, having little help elsewhere in the wideout corps and dealing with three different starting quarterbacks. Wisconsin should be stronger in the passing game this year, and Abbrederis will once again be the top target whenever the Badgers look to throw downfield.

2. Kenny Bell, Nebraska (863): Bell really wants to be the first 1,000-yard receiver in Huskers history, and he was on pace for a while last year before slowing down in the final weeks. He's got all the talent to achieve the milestone, but Nebraska will have to throw the ball a little more for it to happen.

3. Cody Latimer, Indiana (805): The Hoosiers are as deep at wideout as any Big Ten team, so that may make it harder for any one guy -- whether it's Latimer, Kofi Hughes, Shane Wynn, etc. -- to get to 1,000. But Latimer has the best hands of the group and could do enough to make it, especially if the Hoosiers can reach a bowl game.

4. Jeremy Gallon, Michigan (829): The Wolverines' passing game took off last year once Devin Gardner became the full-time quarterback, and having in there for a whole season should really help Gallon. He's not a big guy in stature, but he makes big plays. Gallon could be targeted even more with Roy Roundtree no longer around.

5. Corey Brown, Ohio State (669): Brown looked like little more than a possession receiver early last season but became more of a playmaker as the season wore on. The Buckeyes will look to greatly improve the passing game this year, and Brown figured to be the biggest beneficiary of that.

Others to watch: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa; Aaron Burbridge, Michigan State; Devin Smith, Ohio State; Kyle Carter, Penn State; Christian Jones, Northwestern

Big Ten Monday mailbag

May, 6, 2013
5/06/13
5:00
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More Monday mail musings:

Fake Harry Husker from Tom Osborne Field writes: You do not know how much I want to fire off an angry email about how the Huskers got snubbed by ESPN/ABC and the prime time TV schedule next fall. I really want to rant about the negative bias from your network regarding the Huskers. But then I take a deep breath & face the cold hard truth that my team really is not that good (and has not been good for what, a decade or more). This is very, very hard for Husker fans but our team is super mediocre. Middle of the pack team prone to major defense lapses, turnovers, and drive killing penalties. That is the Husker reality. So pardon our rants as Husker fans. We need to vent and you, Adam, and ESPN will probably catch some misguided anger in the summer.

Brian Bennett: Nebraska won't be playing any prime-time games on the ESPN/ABC family of networks this year, but as Adam wrote in an earlier post, the Huskers will play night games against Wyoming and Southern Miss on the Big Ten Network. The Nov. 9 game at Michigan would make for a logical prime-time game, but the Wolverines are already playing a night game against Notre Dame this season and aren't ready to make that a more frequent occurrence. I'm a little surprised there wasn't more interest in the Huskers for night games, and remember that Nebraska played Wisconsin and Ohio State under the lights last season. Say this about Big Red: win or lose, they're rarely boring.




Decker B. from Hastings, Neb., writes: Brian, being a Spartan fan amongst a sea of red I know how it feels to have mediocre at best quarterback. (Cough, Cough Martinez) Coming into last season I was optimistic about Andrew Maxwell. Both Coach D and Captain Kirk said he had the skills/smarts to EVENTUALLY be as good, if not better, than Cousins. Obviously it was his first season at the helm and our receivers couldn't catch water if they fell in the ocean, but I just didn't see it from Andrew. I want to have faith in him but every time he drops back I catch myself holding my breath. Maybe I'm blind to his improvement, but I just didn't see much. From the way things went in the Green and White game, things haven't very much improved. So help me out here, is there any hope at the Quarterback position this year? Might we see a rotation of different guys? I know quite a few people are pretty high on Damion Terry, but he is a Freshman. As a sub point, if someone does step up do you think Mumphery, Fowler, and Burbridge will take care of business?

Brian Bennett: Decker, I expected better things out of Maxwell last year, and I wonder how much the dropped balls and poor pass protection contributed to perhaps eroding his confidence. No doubt Maxwell had his own troubles, including a lack of touch on some of his throws. He's a very smart and poised guy who's never going to stop working, but I have my doubts after last year and this spring. I would not be surprised to see Connor Cook start, simply because he can make some things happen on the move and seems to give the offense a spark, even if he might gamble a little too much at times. I see Terry as a change-of-pace guy at best since he is a true freshman, but we won't really know until he gets on campus. The receivers absolutely need to step up, and I think Aaron Burbridge is a guy who could break out in a big way this year. Again, mere competence and mediocrity is all Michigan State needs from its offense in order to contend in the Legends Division.




Griffin from West Bend, Wis., writes: Why don't the Badgers get the respect they deserve? They are never associated with the powerhouse teams of the Big Ten. I understand they do not have as much history as Nebraska and Ohio State but they are loaded with talent and will be for years to come. People ignore how close they were to winning against three great teams in the Rose Bowl.

Brian Bennett: I think Wisconsin gets respect in Big Ten circles, and the recent re-alignment shows that the league views the Badgers as an upper-tier program that can be a power in the West. As far as national perception, I think the last part of your question is key. Wisconsin came close to winning against three great teams, but it didn't get the job done. Close doesn't cut it when you want to be seen as a national power. Last year was a strange year, but the Badgers had some unbelievable talent in 2010 and 2011 and just missed out on a couple of opportunities to have truly legendary seasons.




Rob from New York, N.Y., writes: Brian, I know the reasons why schools are doing it, but I just wanted to note that I am terribly against neutral site games. The biggest reasons why are: students can't afford to go to the games and there's nothing "collegiate" about these games anyway. On a very practical level, students just cannot afford to travel to someplace like Texas for a non-conference game AND a bowl game. My fellow alumni barely are able to do that and we get paychecks. So this is really just about making money off the alumni and general fans. But more problematic, I think, is that college football stadiums are such a big part of the charm of this sport. I would love to see my school, Wisconsin, play AT Alabama instead of Cowboys Stadium. I wouldn't care if we got embarrassed 50-0 and if Adam wrote another article about the B1G's reputation being harmed; it's about playing there in a place with tradition and seeing how they do it. I remember a few great non-conference college football games, such as Ohio State and USC's home and home. The reason why I remember those games and not a single Chik-fil-a kickoff is because both teams marched into unfamiliar territory that is loaded with tradition. And I'd actually go to those true road games! Wisconsin AT Alabama, I'd go in a heartbeat. Wisconsin vs. Alabama in Texas, whatever.

Brian Bennett: You make some excellent points, Rob, and none better than the argument that college football's best attribute is the campus environment. The difference between a college gameday and an NFL one is night and day in most instances. However, some of these major nonconference matchups might not happen without neutral site games. Teams with large home stadiums don't want to give up revenue by playing on the road, so getting a 50-50 split at some huge NFL field is a way to offset those losses. (And we've seen that many SEC teams, for example, don't have much interest in coming north for a true road game). I'd hate to see college football lose its charm and for games to become basically made-for-TV productions, as many minor bowl games already have. But if we're talking about just one game on the schedule and a very attractive matchup that might otherwise not exist, I'm OK with the sacrifices that must be made for it.




Luke B. from Jesup, Iowa, writes: OK, so all we've heard for the past year is that no one touches tOSU in 2013, and Michigan and Nebraska are close seconds. So, what if -- gasp -- everyone's wrong and any or all of the these teams don't pan out? In my small mind, Nebraska has most to lose. Big Red fans have basically anointed themselves the kings of their division without the season even starting. Frankly, with that schedule, they should be at very least a 1-loss team come December. But what if they extend their 4-loss season streak to 6? Does the world end?

Brian Bennett: Of course we will all be wrong about at least one team and probably more. If I recall, there were a couple of bloggers who were touting Michigan State as the Big Ten champs this time a year ago. I don't remember their names, though. Who thought Northwestern would win 10 games last year, or that Iowa would go 4-8, or that Wisconsin would be 7-5 yet win the league title? This is why we watch the actual games instead of just making predictions. As to Nebraska, I don't agree that the Huskers ought to be a one-loss team or better by December; the UCLA game is a potentially difficult one, and Bo Pelini's team also has to go to Michigan as well as play Northwestern and Michigan State at home and Penn State on the road in November. Nebraska should be no worse than 7-1 going into November, however. Another four-loss season by Pelini wouldn't be the end of the world unless one of those defeats came against aliens with possession of Earth on the line. But I do think the pressure would continue to mount on Pelini with another 9-4 type year, and that 2014 could become a make-or-break type season. Sooner or later, and most likely sooner, he has to deliver a conference title at the very least.




Drew from Beavercreek, Ohio, writes: With Penn State scratched, what odds would you place on them if eligible?

Brian Bennett: If Penn State were able to win my Big Ten horse race scenario, I'd put the odds at 20-1. The Leaders Division isn't quite as deep as the Legends, so that helps the Nittany Lions' cause. However, Penn State has to play on the road against top Leaders contenders Wisconsin and Ohio State, not to mention crossover games against Michigan and Nebraska. Throw in question marks at quarterback and depth concerns, and that makes the Lions the clear No. 3 choice in the Leaders for me. However, Bill O'Brien could end up being like a D. Wayne Lukas or a Calvin Borel -- you never want to let one of their horses go off at a high price without throwing a couple of bucks on it. (By the way, I doubled down on Orb in my Derby Party pool this year, so maybe my prognosticating skills are on the rise).




Steve from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Hey Brian! Love the blog, proud that you guys keep this thing going in the dullest of months (for CFB). My question is when will the recruits that were not early enrollees enroll so we can start hearing about those impact freshman?

Brian Bennett: Steve, some of those freshmen will start arriving soon for summer school and get going in voluntary workouts, while others won't report until around Aug. 1. Some of the big ones to watch for include Michigan RB Derrick Green, Ohio State athletes Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall and, of course, Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg.




E. Gorden Gee from The Great State of Ohio writes: Love the blog. Don't know why you don't mention me more often. I am much more entertaining interview than Delany. Why all the crying over the parity cross over scheduling? Haven't you guys heard? The OSU can not be playing the little Sisters of the Poor. A lot of necks will be on the line if The OSU is not in the national playoffs every year. In order to do that we need the strongest Strength of Schedule The Big Ten can muster up. We will have enough patty cakes in our own new Eastern Division. We don't need to go play in unfilled 60,000 seat stadiums west of here. As far as the number of home games each season: The Bow Tie Says: "Those that fill up their stadiums every game with more than 100,000 every game ought to get more home games. Why waste our talents and play in cow pastures west of here. We can resell tickets for thousands of dollars in the Buckeye State. Hey it really is all about money. ( Have you checked out my salary lately?)."

Brian Bennett: I'm 99.9 percent positive this isn't the real Gee, but with the Bow Tie, you never know.
2012 record: 7-6
2012 conference record: 3-5 (fourth in Legends division)
Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

LB Max Bullough, CB Darqueze Dennard, LB Denicos Allen, S Isaiah Lewis, DE Marcus Rush, QB Andrew Maxwell, LT Fou Fonoti, C Travis Jackson, WR Aaron Burbridge

Key losses

DE William Gholston, DT Anthony Rashad White, CB Johnny Adams, RB Le'Veon Bell, TE Dion Sims, G Chris McDonald, K Dan Conroy

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Le'Veon Bell (1,793 yards)
Passing: Andrew Maxwell* (2,606 yards)
Receiving: Bennie Fowler* (524 yards)
Tackles: Max Bullough* (111)
Sacks: William Gholston (4.5)
Interceptions: Darqueze Dennard* and Johnny Adams (3)

Spring answers

1. Waynes, Calhoun secure spots: The Spartan Dawgs just keep on rolling. Michigan State's defense didn't have too many major questions entering the spring, but it needed an end to replace William Gholston and a cornerback to play opposite Darqueze Dennard. It found both. Shilique Calhoun, who had a mini-breakout game in the bowl against TCU, secured a starting spot at defensive end. Trae Waynes and fellow sophomore Arjen Colquhoun logged most of the snaps at cornerback as Dennard recovered from hernia surgery, and Waynes did enough to land the No. 1 job.

2. Life of Riley: Riley Bullough opened the spring backing up his big brother Max at middle linebacker. He ended the session as a bulldozing running back, a spot where Michigan State is looking for answers after losing national carries leader Le'Veon Bell to the NFL draft. No other running back distinguished himself in practice, so the coaches moved Riley Bullough to the position, and he did some impressive things. Bullough was Michigan State's leading rusher (46 yards) in the spring game. Although he could move back to linebacker, he gives the Spartans another option in the offensive backfield.

3. Burbridge continues to emerge: The Spartans are searching for offensive playmakers and appear to have found one in sophomore wide receiver Aaron Burbridge. He moved into the starting lineup midway through the 2012 season and provided a bright spot for the struggling receiving corps. Burbridge benefited from a full offseason in the program and capped the spring with a five-catch, 113-yard performance in the Green-White Game. He could emerge as Michigan State's No. 1 receiver and/or push veterans Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback quandary: Michigan State is still looking for the man to lead its offense in 2013. Senior Andrew Maxwell started all 13 games last season, and although he did some good things in practices, he didn't separate himself and looked a bit shaky in the spring game. Connor Cook answered the coaches' challenge to improvise when plays broke down, and he'll continue to push Maxwell when fall camp begins. Redshirt freshman Tyler O'Connor and incoming recruit Damion Terry also could be in the mix.

2. Third linebacker: The Spartans boast one of the nation's top linebacker tandems in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, both of whom enter their third season as starters. Who will line up next to them this fall? It could be Taiwan Jones, who capped the spring with 11 tackles in the Green-White Game. But Jairus Jones, who moved from safety to outside linebacker this spring, is very much in the mix and drew praise from the coaching staff and teammates. Jones made a good transition to linebacker and helps an already strong position group.

3. Man on the run: Riley Bullough's emergence adds a new twist to the running back competition, but nothing is settled entering fall camp. Nick Hill and Jeremy Langford took most of the reps with the first-team offense this spring but didn't separate themselves, and Hill underwent sports hernia surgery last week. The coaches also want to see how incoming freshmen Gerald Holmes, R.J. Shelton and Delton Williams perform when they arrive this summer. Although Michigan State typically has one featured back, it could use more of a committee system this season. But there are definitely questions in the offensive backfield.

Spring game recap: Michigan State

April, 22, 2013
4/22/13
10:30
AM ET
We wrap up our look at the weekend spring games in the Big Ten with a review of Michigan State's Green-White game. A crowd of about 22,500 watched the White beat the Green 24-17.

Find coverage of the game here, here, here and here.

Star of the game: Receiver Aaron Burbridge had five catches for 113 yards.

How it went down: Sometimes we learn brand new things in spring games. Other times, they merely serve to reinforce our preexisting notions.

Michigan State's scrimmage certainly falls in the latter camp. Stop us if you've heard this one before: the Spartans' defense looks incredibly strong, while the team's offense -- especially its passing game -- is shaky at best. No, really.

Two of the game's five touchdowns were scored by the defense -- a 25-yard interception return by Chris Laneaux and a 41-yard fumble return by Kyler Elsworth. The quarterback competition, meanwhile, hardly cleared itself up.

Incumbent starter Andrew Maxwell completed 9-of-20 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown, the game-winner to A.J. Troup. He was also victimized by a few dropped balls by receivers, which was a recurring problem last season. Connor Cook threw for 217 yards and a score but also went just 10-of-26. Tyler O'Connor was picked off twice.

As he did in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, Cook showed a better ability to make plays on the move than Maxwell. After the game, though, head coach Mark Dantonio said Maxwell would enter fall camp as the No. 1 quarterback "based on knowledge and consistency in terms of performance."

"[But] I think Connor Cook pushes him," Dantonio said, "and quite frankly if Cook doesn't make mistakes that can be easily omitted, he's right there. Because I think he throws the ball and moves well in the pocket."

Burbridge proved himself as Michigan State's top receiver, while Troup, a walk-on, showed he could make some plays by taking a short Maxwell pass 46 yards for a score. DeAnthony Arnett added a 22-yard touchdown catch.

Riley Bullough, who was moved from linebacker to running back near the end of spring practice, led all rushers with 48 yards on 11 carries, though he did have a fumble that Elsworth returned for a score. He showed that could at least help the offense, though Michigan State still anxiously awaits the arrival of three freshmen this summer who will try to seize the starting tailback job.

The highlight of the day for the offense was when Bullough completed a pass to older brother Max Bullough, who was moonlighting at tight end from his usual middle linebacker spot.

"I think they [the defense] prepared for that exactly zero times," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said.

But the defense didn't have a lot of trouble on a day when the two offenses combined for just 91 rushing yards on 32 attempts and misfired on 31 of 54 pass attempts. You can say the offense needs a ton of work -- and it does -- but don't forget that the Spartans had to face their own defense, which once again looks like potentially the best in the Big Ten.

"I feel stronger about our defense this year than I did last year going into the season,” Dantonio said.

Michigan State also picked up two commitments after the game: offensive lineman Brian Allen, who's the younger brother of current Spartans lineman Jack Allen, and defensive tackle Enoch Smith Jr.
Brian and I on Wednesday debated which struggling unit from the 2012 season -- Illinois' offense, Indiana's defense, Iowa's offense, Michigan State's offense or Nebraska's defense -- would take the biggest step forward this fall. I went with the MSU offense, while Brian picked Nebraska's D. Now it's time for you to weigh in with your vote.

We want you making an educated choice, so here's a quick look at each unit.

Illinois offense

National rankings from 2012: 119th in total offense, 119th in scoring, 107th in passing, 97th in rushing

Case for improvement: It can't get much worse, right? Illinois brings in an experienced playcaller in Bill Cubit, boasts a three-year starter at quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase and two capable running backs in Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young. Junior-college arrivals like receiver Martize Barr drew good reviews this spring.

Case for status quo: It's the third offensive system in as many years and Scheelhaase's head has to be swimming a bit. Wide receiver is a major question mark, and the offensive line loses two veterans from a group that underperformed in 2012.

Indiana's defense

SportsNation

Which struggling unit in 2012 will make the biggest step forward in 2013?

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    5%
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    7%
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    21%
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    19%
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    48%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,393)

National rankings from 2012: 103rd in total defense, 101st in scoring defense, 116th in rushing defense, 98th in pass efficiency defense

Case for improvement: Nine starters return and Indiana brings in its best defensive recruiting haul in recent memory. Incoming recruits like Darius Latham could make an immediate impact. There's good leadership in the back end with Greg Heban and Mark Murphy, and David Cooper should be a solid contributor at linebacker.

Case for status quo: Indiana has been bad to dreadful on defense for the better part of the past two decades. It's debatable whether the Hoosiers have enough proven depth to consistently slow down Big Ten offenses. IU also loses its top two linemen -- Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr. -- from a unit that struggled mightily to stop the run.

Iowa's offense

National rankings from 2012: 114th in total offense, 111th in scoring, 101st in rushing, 99th in passing

Case for improvement: The Hawkeyes are more accustomed to coordinator Greg Davis' system and return a strong stable of running backs headlined by Mark Weisman. The offensive line could be a strength as Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal return from injuries. Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz has the skills to be a superstar.

Case for status quo: Iowa lacks a quarterback who has taken a snap in an FBS game. Davis' system has clicked in the past, but the coach drew heavy criticism at the end of his Texas tenure and did little to help his cause in 2012. Wide receiver is a major question mark. And while the running back group looks strong, AIRBHG is lurking.

Michigan State's offense

National rankings from 2012: 95th in total offense, 108th in scoring, 75th in rushing, 85th in passing

Case for improvement: The offensive line returns seven players with starting experience and gets tackle Fou Fonoti back from injury. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell enters his second year as the starter, and promising young receiver Aaron Burbridge has experience under his belt. There are also more options at quarterback with Connor Cook, Tyler O'Connor and incoming freshman Damion Terry.

Case for status quo: Michigan State loses its top two weapons -- running back Le'Veon Bell and tight end Dion Sims -- from an uninspiring unit. Although the team has a new offensive playcaller in Dave Warner, he comes from the existing staff and will keep the same structure in place. Running back and tight end are significant concerns.

Nebraska's defense

National rankings in 2012: 35th in total defense, 58th in scoring defense, 90th in rushing defense, ninth in pass efficiency defense

Case for improvement: Bo Pelini hasn't forgotten how to coach defense, and while the Huskers will be younger at some spots, they also could be better. The secondary returns Ciante Evans and several other potentially dynamic players. Jason Ankrah is embracing a leadership role on the line, while linebacker David Santos gained valuable experience last fall.

Case for status quo: Ankrah and defensive tackle Thad Randle are the only returning starters in the front seven from a defense that struggled to stop the run for much of the season. Nebraska has lacked a difference-maker along the defensive line since moving to the Big Ten. As Brian wrote this week, Santos, a redshirt sophomore with one career start, is already considered a veteran on the unit.

Now it's time to vote. Make yours count.

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