Big Ten: Aaron Hill

Thirty Big Ten players heard their names called during the 2014 NFL draft, but many others received phone calls immediately after the event. The undrafted free-agent carousel is spinning, and players from around the Big Ten are hopping aboard.

Unlike the draft, the UDFA list is somewhat fluid, and other players could get picked up later today or in the coming days. To reiterate: This is not the final list.

Here's what we know right now from various announcements and media reports:

  • LB Jonathan Brown, Arizona Cardinals
  • WR Ryan Lankford, Miami Dolphins
  • TE Evan Wilson, Dallas Cowboys
  • WR Steve Hull, New Orleans Saints
  • WR Spencer Harris, New Orleans Saints
Notes: Illini OT Corey Lewis, who battled knee injuries throughout his career, told Steve Greenberg that several teams are interested in him if he's cleared by doctors.

  • WR Kofi Hughes, Washington Redskins
  • RB Stephen Houston, New England Patriots
Notes: S Greg Heban and K Mitch Ewald have tryouts with the Chicago Bears.

  • LB James Morris, New England Patriots
  • OT Brett Van Sloten, Baltimore Ravens
  • G Conor Boffeli, Minnesota Vikings
  • WR Don Shumpert, Chicago Bears
  • LS Casey Kreiter, Dallas Cowboys
  • LB Marcus Whitfield, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • CB Isaac Goins, Miami Dolphins
  • LB Cam Gordon, New England Patriots
  • S Thomas Gordon, New York Giants
Notes: RB Fitzgerald Toussaint (Baltimore), DT Jibreel Black (Pittsburgh), LS Jareth Glanda (New Orleans) and DT Quinton Washington (Oakland) will have tryouts.

  • LB Denicos Allen, Carolina Panthers
  • S Isaiah Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals
  • T/G Dan France, Cincinnati Bengals
  • WR Bennie Fowler, Denver Broncos
  • LB Max Bullough, Houston Texans
  • DT Tyler Hoover, Indianapolis Colts
  • DT Micajah Reynolds, New Orleans Saints
  • OL Fou Fonoti, San Francisco 49ers
Notes: LB Kyler Elsworth has a tryout scheduled with Washington.

  • LB Aaron Hill, St. Louis Rams
  • QB Taylor Martinez, Philadelphia Eagles
  • OT Brent Qvale, New York Jets
  • CB Mohammed Seisay, Detroit Lions
  • DE Jason Ankrah, Houston Texans
  • C Cole Pensick, Kansas City Chiefs
  • OT Jeremiah Sirles, San Diego Chargers
Notes: CB Ciante Evans has yet to sign but will do so soon. DB Andrew Green has a tryout with the Miami Dolphins.

  • WR Kain Colter, Minnesota Vikings
  • K Jeff Budzien, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • WR Rashad Lawrence, Washington Redskins
  • DE Tyler Scott, Minnesota Vikings
  • S C.J. Barnett, New York Giants
  • K Drew Basil, Atlanta Falcons
  • WR Corey Brown, Carolina Panthers
  • G Andrew Norwell, Carolina Panthers
  • G Marcus Hall, Indianapolis Colts
  • WR Chris Fields, Washington Redskins
  • OT Garry Gilliam, Seattle Seahawks
  • LB Glenn Carson, Arizona Cardinals
  • S Malcolm Willis, San Diego Chargers
Notes: OT Adam Gress will have a tryout with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • DE Greg Latta, Denver Broncos
  • S Rob Henry, Oakland Raiders
  • G Devin Smith, San Diego Chargers
  • DT Bruce Gaston Jr., Arizona Cardinals
Notes: P Cody Webster will have a tryout with Pittsburgh.

  • WR Brandon Coleman, New Orleans Saints
  • WR Quron Pratt, Philadelphia Eagles
  • LB Jamal Merrell, Tennessee Titans
  • DE Marcus Thompson, Miami Dolphins
  • S Jeremy Deering, New England Patriots
Notes: According to Dan Duggan, DE Jamil Merrell (Bears) and G Antwan Lowery (Baltimore) will have tryouts.

  • G/T Ryan Groy, Chicago Bears
  • TE Jacob Pedersen Atlanta Falcons
  • TE Brian Wozniak, Atlanta Falcons
  • DE Ethan Hemer, Pittsburgh Steelers
Quick thoughts: Martinez's future as an NFL quarterback has been heavily scrutinized, but Chip Kelly's Eagles are a fascinating destination for him. Whether he plays quarterback or another position like safety, Kelly will explore ways to use Martinez's speed. ... The large Michigan State contingent is still a bit startling. The Spartans dominated the Big Ten, beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl, use pro-style systems on both sides of the ball and had just one player drafted. Bullough, Allen and Lewis all were multiple All-Big Ten selections but will have to continue their careers through the UDFA route. ... Colter certainly looked like a draft pick during Senior Bowl practices in January, but that was before his ankle surgery and his role in leading the unionization push at Northwestern. I tend to think the injury impacted his status more, but NFL teams have been known to shy away from so-called locker-room lawyers. ... Other Big Ten standouts like Jonathan Brown, Morris and Pedersen were surprisingly not drafted. Morris should be a great fit in New England. ... Coleman's decision to leave Rutgers early looks questionable now that he didn't get drafted.

Offseason to-do list: Minnesota

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
With the 2013 college football season now in the rearview mirror, we're taking an early peek at the months ahead by looking at three items each Big Ten team must address before the 2014 season.

Up next: the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

1. Decide on a quarterback: Minnesota rotated between sophomore Philip Nelson and redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner this past season. It appeared to be Nelson's team by the end of the regular season, but then Leidner played the majority of the snaps in the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Leidner is a little bit better runner while Nelson is a little bit better passer at this point, but neither has established himself as the clear-cut option. And while depth is always a good thing, the Gophers will be best served by identifying a true starter this spring. Redshirt freshman Chris Streveler could factor into the mix as well. The focus for each candidate in the coming weeks should simply be to get better, because Minnesota needs more out of the quarterback spot if it wants to take the next step. Which goes hand in hand with the next item ...

2. Get better at wide receiver: Minnesota's leading returning wide receiver next year will be Drew Wolitarsky, who had 15 catches for just 259 yards and one TD. The Gophers had one of the worst passing attacks in the country in 2013, and the lack of threats at the receiver position was a big reason why. The good news, if you're an optimist, is that Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones emerged as the top options late in the season, and both were true freshmen. They are talented and should improve as they mature. They also need more help there, whether it's from rising senior Isaac Fruechte, the oft-injured Jamel Harbison or an incoming recruit. Minnesota hasn't been able to stretch the field in the passing game for two years, and that must change.

3. Replace defensive stalwarts: While the majority of the roster returns, some very valuable defensive players will need to be replaced in 2014. That includes All-Big Ten defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, starting linebackers Aaron Hill and James Manuel and defensive back Brock Vereen, who was versatile enough to play both cornerback and safety as needed. There's no real substitute for Hageman's sheer athleticism, but the team is high on sophomore Scott Ekpe's potential. Minnesota has recruited well recently at linebacker and defensive back, so some in-house solutions should be ready. The Gophers' defense was very solid in 2013 and should stay that way if adequate replacements emerge.

More to-do lists

Big Ten reporters Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Seven Big Ten teams are going bowling. For some, it's more important than others. So Today's Take Two topic is: Which team stands to benefit the most from winning a bowl this year?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

I think the value of most bowl wins is often overrated. Sure, a national championship or a BCS victory is cherished forever. But most people forget quickly who won or lost a mid- or lower-tier postseason game, and I've seen little convincing evidence that winning one of those types of games has much of a carryover into the next season.

[+] EnlargeJerry Kill
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesJerry Kill and Minnesota would benefit on the recruiting trail by winning a bowl game.
With that caveat, I'm picking Minnesota as the team that has the most to gain from bowl season, even though it plays in the lowest-profile game (Texas Bowl) against the weakest opponent (Syracuse) of any Big Ten school this year. The Gophers in many ways have already had a storybook season by finishing 8-4, beating Nebraska and Penn State and winning four straight league games for the first time since 1973. A win over the Orange in Houston would, incredibly, be just Minnesota's second nine-win season in the past 108 seasons.

The Gophers haven't won a bowl game since the 2004 Music City Bowl (over Alabama; have times changed quickly, or what?). A postseason victory would be something Jerry Kill and his staff could use on the recruiting trail and plaster all over their media guides, football complex and other materials. While key seniors like Ra'Shede Hageman, Brock Vereen, Aaron Hill and Ed Olson depart, the vast majority of the roster returns next year, and the bowl game is an important experience for youngsters like Maxx Williams, Donovahn Jones and Drew Wolitarsky. Minnesota could even start the 2014 season in the Top 25 with a bowl win and all the players it returns.

On the flip side, a loss to a mediocre ACC team would represent a small step back. Getting to the Texas Bowl last year was a nice achievement for the Gophers. This year, they need to win it.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

Some good points on the Gophers, Brian, but this year will be a success for Kill's team, regardless of what happens in Houston. Three straight losses to end aren't great, but Minnesota still showed a lot by responding so well from Kill's midseason health-related absence, and the team brings back most of its key players for 2014.

I place a little more value on bowl wins, and I look for teams that have reached a crossroads of sorts after the regular season. I'd put Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa in a category of teams that can brand this season as a success no matter what happens in the postseason. Wisconsin certainly wants to end the season on a positive note, especially after the Senior Day loss and three straight Rose Bowl setbacks, but next year is sort of a reset for the Badgers with so many seniors -- and possibly a star underclassman in Melvin Gordon -- departing.

So that leaves Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska. I can make a case for each, but I'm going with Big Red. Nebraska has been through a roller coaster of a season, which ended with an ugly loss to Iowa and an uglier post-game news conference with coach Bo Pelini. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst affirmed his support for Pelini, and Nebraska is having some success on the recruiting trail. But this program could really use a bowl win against an SEC opponent to feel good heading into the offseason.

Nebraska brings back talent on both sides of the ball and could win a wide-open West Division in 2014. But the questions about Pelini's status won't go away if the erratic performances continue. Nebraska hasn't won a bowl game since the 2009 Holiday. A win in the Gator Bowl doesn't guarantee future success, but it allows Nebraska to move forward with some confidence.

Video: One Good Thing -- Big Ten LBs

November, 25, 2013

One good thing in the Big Ten from this past weekend: more outstanding linebacker play.

Badgers chopping their way to BCS bowl

November, 23, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS -- It's tradition in the Paul Bunyan's Axe series for the winning team to grab the axe and hunt down both goal posts for some pretend chopping.

That tradition hit a slight snag on Saturday night. After No. 19 Wisconsin downed No. 25 Minnesota 20-7, the Badgers rushed to the west end zone at TCF Bank Stadium and attacked one of the goal posts. When they carried the axe to the opposite end zone, however, they found the Gophers' players and coaches blocking their path.

Some heated words were exchanged. There was some shoving. Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said a security officer pointed a finger in his face and told his team to leave. The Badgers never got to that goal post.

"It's happened for as long as I've been alive, going to both goal posts," Wisconsin senior linebacker Chris Borland said. "They kind of crashed our party."

[+] EnlargeBeau Allen
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsBeau Allen and Wisconsin chopped down Minnesota and the Badgers' BCS bowl hopes are looking up.
For the most part, though, the Badgers simply laughed off the Minnesota blockade. And why not? Nobody has stopped them when it has mattered in nearly two months.

Wisconsin (9-2) has won six straight games since a 31-24 loss at Ohio State on Sept. 28, with all of those wins coming by at least 10 points. If this keeps up, it might prove difficult to keep Andersen's team from crashing the BCS party.

After three straight Rose Bowl trips, the Badgers are left hoping for an at-large bid since Ohio State clinched the Leaders Division spot in the Big Ten championship game on Saturday. They still need a sizable bump in the BCS standings, but perhaps a road win over a ranked team will provide that boost. Oregon's loss on Saturday might have also helped, as the Pac-12 might not get a second bid now.

Andersen has declined to campaign for his team. But they are doing the important work for him.

"When you have nine wins, you're very close to being a great football team," Andersen said. "I'm not so sure we're not a great team right now. If the season were over, I'd probably say they were a great team. But I don't want to tell them that yet."

Saturday's win was more of an efficient bloodletting than a showcase. The Gophers, who had won four straight Big Ten games behind some inspired play, went toe-to-toe with Wisconsin in the trenches early. Borland said it took some time to adjust to Minnesota's physical style, and the sub-zero wind chill didn't make the shoulder-pad slamming any more pleasant.

But after Minnesota grabbed a second-quarter lead on Aaron Hill's pick-six and then threatened again in Badgers territory, the Wisconsin defense clamped down. Brendan Kelly forced a fumble from quarterback Philip Nelson that Borland recovered, leading to an eventual touchdown. Another quick three-and-out defensive series set up a field goal for a 13-7 halftime lead.

Wisconsin caused a season-high three turnovers and limited Minnesota to just 185 total yards and 3.4 yards per play. For the third straight Big Ten game and the sixth time in 11 games overall, the Badgers defense did not allow an offensive touchdown.

"It's been fun to see this defense develop into what it is," Borland said.

The offense didn't do a whole lot after Joel Stave's third-quarter touchdown throw to Jared Abbrederis for the game's final points. But it says a lot that Wisconsin seemed disappointed with a 197-yard rushing effort.

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said earlier in the week that the Badgers had no weaknesses. That's not quite true, as special teams remain shaky. One of kicker Jack Russell's field goal tries took a dogleg left, and Andersen broke out a bizarre fourth-quarter fake-field goal play that lost 7 yards. He said he'd been holding on to that play for weeks, and that he would definitely scrap it now.

Everything else, however, has been going Wisconsin's way. Now it's a wait-and-see game with the BCS standings.

"I think this team has a lot of talent and deserves a little more recognition," defensive lineman Ethan Hemer said. "Hopefully, a win like this will put us in that spot."

On Saturday, the players were just happy to celebrate a 10th consecutive win over Minnesota, the longest by either side in the 123-year history of the rivalry. Borland hoisted freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton on his shoulders, and Shelton held up a whiteboard that read "10 straight." The many Badgers fans who made the trip chanted, "10 more years."

"Ten's a great number," Borland told "That's a decade of dominance."

The Badgers have been dominating everybody for nearly two months. It remains to be seen whether they can chop their way through the BCS road blocks.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 10

November, 4, 2013
We have true separation in the Big Ten, and not just with Ohio State at the No. 1 spot. Although the Buckeyes remain the league's kingpin, both Wisconsin and Michigan State also belong in the Big Ten's upper crust.

The big debate in these rankings concerns the No. 2 spot, which Wisconsin has occupied for several weeks. The Badgers handled Iowa on the road and delivered a salty defensive performance even without superstar linebacker Chris Borland. Michigan State smothered Michigan, complementing a dominant defense with timely passes from Connor Cook. Both teams have won at Iowa and at Illinois. Michigan State has the best win between the bunch but has played the easier schedule.

For now, we're keeping Wisconsin at No. 2. We realize we're in the minority there, but Wisconsin hasn't done much to move down since the Northwestern game. It's too bad the Badgers and Spartans can't play this season to decide the second spot.

Elsewhere, Nebraska avoids another drop thanks to its Hail Mary against sad-sack Northwestern. We debated whether to move Minnesota higher, and we will if the Gophers keep winning. Iowa falls down a few spots, and the bottom of the rankings remains unchanged.

Here's one last look at the Week 9 rankings.

Now, the new rundown ...

1. Ohio State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): Ross-Ade Stadium is no longer a graveyard for the Buckeyes, who buried Purdue in a matter of minutes Saturday. Ohio State scored 28 first-quarter points and 42 in the first half, as the tight ends got involved, quarterbacks Braxton Miller and Kenny Guiton both had jump-pass touchdowns and the defense blanked Purdue. Whether style points matter, Ohio State is finally getting them. The Buckeyes are off this week before visiting Illinois on Nov. 16.

2. Wisconsin (6-2, 4-1; last week: 2): The offense struggled and top defender Borland watched from the sideline with a hamstring injury, but Wisconsin found a way to beat Iowa. Marcus Trotter was fabulous filling in for Borland, as the Badgers' defense repeatedly turned Iowa away in plus territory. Running back James White came alive late as Wisconsin pulled away. The Badgers will need a stronger performance this week as they step out of league play against a good BYU squad.

3. Michigan State (8-1, 5-0; last week: 3): Not only did the Spartans reclaim their superiority against in-state rival Michigan, but they looked like a worthy competitor for Ohio State in a potential Big Ten championship game matchup. If Nebraska falls this week at Michigan, MSU would have a two-game lead on the rest of the division with three weeks to go. An elite defense had its best performance under Pat Narduzzi, as end Shilique Calhoun and linebackers Denicos Allen and Ed Davis combined for seven sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. Cook made some impressive throws as the Spartans pounded Michigan. They'll have some extra time to celebrate during an open week before visiting Nebraska on Nov. 16.

4. Nebraska (6-2, 3-1; last week: 7): One play makes all the difference between another Power Rankings drop for Big Red and a three-spot gain. Nebraska had defensive problems early and turnover problems late against Northwestern, but the Huskers never gave up and won a game on a Hail Mary to Jordan Westerkamp for the first time in team history. Credit running back Ameer Abdullah for keeping a potentially splintering team together. The young defense also shut down Northwestern's offense in the second half. Nebraska must beat Michigan on the road this week to stay in the Legends Division race.

5. Michigan (6-2, 2-2; last week: 4): That Notre Dame win feels like years ago as Michigan's warts were exposed in Saturday's loss at Michigan State. The Wolverines are either too young or simply not tough enough, as they were pushed around the field at Spartan Stadium. Michigan had a program-low rushing total (minus-48 yards) and couldn't protect quarterback Devin Gardner. The program's Big Ten championship drought almost certainly will reach nine years, and it's fair to question where things are really headed under third-year coach Brady Hoke. At least Michigan returns home, where it has never lost under Hoke, to face Nebraska this week.

6. Minnesota (7-2, 3-2; last week: 6): The Minnesota mojo continues, thanks in large part to an inexcusable crunch-time blunder by Indiana. Minnesota blew a 22-point third-quarter lead but rallied behind Philip Nelson, who established himself as the team's offensive leader with 298 pass yards and four touchdowns. It was a rough second half for the defense, but linebacker Aaron Hill came up with the decisive play late as the Gophers got out of Bloomington with their third consecutive league win. Minnesota is a factor in the Legends Division race but must keep winning this week against Penn State.

7. Iowa (5-4, 2-3; last week: 5): Sure, the Hawkeyes are improved this season, but some of the same maddening offensive traits remain, like being unable to finish drives. Iowa should have been up at halftime rather than down 7-6 to Wisconsin, and although quarterback Jake Rudock's injury impacted the game, the Hawkeyes' second-half struggles on offense are nothing new. The defense is good enough to get Iowa a few more wins, but can the offense start scoring? Iowa visits Purdue this week.

8. Penn State (5-3, 2-2; last week: 8): It isn't always pretty with Penn State, but the Lions don't quit, especially on their home field. Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg once again rallied his team from a late deficit and stepped up in overtime as Penn State avoided what would have been a bad loss to Illinois. Bill Belton established himself as the team's top running back with 201 yards and a touchdown. The defense remains far too vulnerable to big passing plays. Penn State will need to be better on both sides of the ball this week as it visits surging Minnesota.

9. Indiana (3-5, 1-3; last week: 9): Coach Kevin Wilson's crew doesn't quit, but the Hoosiers still don't know how to win. They were 9 yards away from completing a huge second-half comeback against Minnesota and moving a step closer to bowl eligibility. At worst, they were in position to send the game to overtime. Instead, everything fell apart on a dropped backward pass to Tevin Coleman, who had a big game (108 rush yards, TD). The quarterback race took another turn with Nate Sudfeld outplaying Tre Roberson, and the defense had a wildly inconsistent performance. Indiana hosts Illinois this week but will need a road win at Ohio State or Wisconsin to become bowl eligible.

10. Northwestern (4-5, 0-5; last week: 10): The former Cardiac Cats are only giving their fans heartache at this point as they've forgotten how to perform in the clutch. Northwestern had another golden opportunity for a road win, but let it slip away when it couldn't finish off Nebraska on either side of the ball, leading to the Hail Mary touchdown to Jordan Westerkamp. Injuries continue to mount in a snakebitten season for the Wildcats, who likely won't make a bowl. Northwestern has an off week to regroup before hosting Michigan on Nov. 16.

11. Illinois (3-5, 0-4; last week: 11): The Big Ten losing streak has reached 18 games, and arguably no defeat stung more than Saturday's at Penn State. Illinois wasted opportunities early, took the lead late and still couldn't hold on for a victory. Tim Beckman's team performed better than expected and can take some positives from its performance in Happy Valley, but there's still too much inconsistency on both sides of the ball, as the defense allowed 250 rush yards. Illinois visits Indiana this week.

12. Purdue (1-7, 0-4; last week: 12): The misery continues for Darrell Hazell's crew, which is on its way to its worst season since 1993 (1-10) and might be one of the worst squads in recent Big Ten memory. Young quarterback Danny Etling had another rough outing as Purdue never challenged Ohio State and had no answers for the Buckeyes' offense. Purdue has been shut out in consecutive games and has scored just 17 points in four Big Ten contests. The remaining schedule is a little more favorable, but Purdue has to show something positive by season's end.

Big Ten picks rewind: Week 2

September, 10, 2013
Week 2 in the Big Ten went mostly according to plan, although there were a few surprises (hello, Illini). The season standings don't change as Brian and I picked the same winners and both finished 10-2. Expect some shuffling this week as the matchups get much more interesting.


Brian Bennett: 10-2, 22-2 (.917)
Adam Rittenberg: 10-2, 21-3 (.875)

Let's look back at the predictions made by us and by guest picker Nick Schmit from West Des Moines, Iowa.

Rewind time …

Eastern Michigan at Penn State
  • Bennett's pick: Penn State 35, Eastern Michigan 9
  • Rittenberg's pick: Penn State 31, Eastern Michigan 10
  • Actual score: Penn State 45, Eastern Michigan 7
  • 20-20 hindsight: A pretty strong start as we both came relatively close on the final score. Penn State exceeded my rush yards prediction of 175, ending up with 251. Christian Hackenberg had only one passing touchdown, not three, as Brian had predicted, while Lions wideout Allen Robinson had the lone touchdown grab, not two.
Indiana State at Purdue
  • Bennett's pick: Purdue 45, Indiana State 17
  • Rittenberg's pick: Purdue 38, Indiana State 14
  • Actual score: Purdue 20, Indiana State 14
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both came close on Indiana State's score but expected much more from Purdue's offense against an FCS foe. Akeem Hunt had one return touchdown, one shy of my total touchdowns prediction for him. Boilers defensive tackle Bruce Gaston had a big game with two sacks, but not the forced fumble I had predicted.
Missouri State at Iowa
  • Bennett's pick: Iowa 31, Missouri State 13
  • Rittenberg's pick: Iowa 38, Missouri State 10
  • Actual score: Iowa 28, Missouri State 14
  • 20-20 hindsight: Not bad on the score predictions, especially Brian's. Iowa eclipsed Brian's forecast of 200 rush yards with 296. Quarterback Jake Rudock had two touchdowns, as I predicted, but they came on the ground, not through the air.
Tennessee Tech at Wisconsin
  • Bennett's pick: Wisconsin 56, Tennessee Tech 7
  • Rittenberg's pick: Wisconsin 63, Tennessee Tech 3
  • Actual score: Wisconsin 48, Tennessee Tech 0
  • 20-20 hindsight: Another predictable result, although neither of us is giving Dave Aranda's defense enough credit, as Wisconsin posted its second consecutive shutout. As I predicted, the Badgers sent running backs James White, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement into the end zone all afternoon. They combined for four rushing touchdowns.
South Florida at Michigan State
  • Bennett's pick: Michigan State 30, South Florida 10
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan State 34, South Florida 3
  • Actual score: Michigan State 21, South Florida 6
  • 20-20 hindsight: We clearly overestimated Michigan State's offense, which continues to sputter at an alarming rate. Three quarterbacks played for the Spartans, as Brian predicted, but none threw for touchdowns. Jeremy Langford made me look good with a touchdown run, but Riley Bullough didn't get there. And no, neither of us pegged defensive end Shilique Calhoun for two more scores.
Cincinnati at Illinois
  • Bennett's pick: Cincinnati 42, Illinois 27
  • Rittenberg's pick: Cincinnati 28, Illinois 17
  • Actual score: Illinois 45, Cincinnati 17
  • 20-20 hindsight: A big swing in a miss here as Nathan Scheelhaase and the Illini made us look really dumb (it's not that hard). At least I had Scheelhaase for a first-quarter touchdown pass to Josh Ferguson (48-yarder), and Brian had him eclipsing 300 pass yards (he finished with 312).
San Diego State at Ohio State
  • Bennett's pick: Ohio State 45, San Diego State 20
  • Rittenberg's pick: Ohio State 41, San Diego State 13
  • Actual score: Ohio State 42, San Diego State 7
  • 20-20 hindsight: I'll take a bow for the score prediction, although we both underestimated Ohio State's defense in Week 2 with cornerback Bradley Roby back in the fold. Roby didn't have an interception as Brian thought, as two other cornerbacks (Armani Reeves and Doran Grant) collected picks. Dontre Wilson scored his first touchdown as a Buckeye, making my prediction come true, but Braxton Miller went down early with a knee injury.
Southern Miss at Nebraska
  • Bennett's pick: Nebraska 49, Southern Miss 24
  • Rittenberg's pick: Nebraska 42, Southern Miss 17
  • Actual score: Nebraska 56, Southern Miss 13
  • 20-20 hindsight: A decent set of score predictions, although we both expected Nebraska to have more problems on defense. Taylor Martinez came two touchdowns shy of Brian's prediction (5), while Ameer Abdullah finished 86 yards and one touchdown shy of my forecast for him (200 yards, three touchdowns).
Navy at Indiana
  • Bennett's pick: Indiana 28, Navy 20
  • Rittenberg's pick: Indiana 34, Navy 23
  • Actual score: Navy 41, Indiana 35
  • 20-20 hindsight: Our faith in Indiana's supposedly improved defense cost both of us, as the Hoosiers' offseason prep for Navy's tricky offense didn't translate to the game field. Nate Sudfeld found Kofi Hughes for a touchdown pass, as Brian predicted, but it came in the second quarter, not the fourth. Hoosiers running back Tevin Coleman had only one touchdown run, not two.
Syracuse at Northwestern
  • Bennett's pick: Northwestern 31, Syracuse 23
  • Rittenberg's pick: Northwestern 28, Syracuse 20
  • Actual score: Northwestern 48, Syracuse 27
  • 20-20 hindsight: Our predictions likely would have been different if we knew Kain Colter had been cleared to play. Colter shredded Syracuse early on and Trevor Siemian fired three touchdown passes but only one to Dan Vitale, not two as I predicted. Northwestern had two fourth-quarter takeaways, but the game was already over by then.
Minnesota at New Mexico State
  • Bennett's pick: Minnesota 37, New Mexico State 20
  • Rittenberg's pick: Minnesota 34, New Mexico State 21
  • Actual score: Minnesota 44, New Mexico State 21
  • 20-20 hindsight: Neither of us pegged Aggie Vision to be such a delightful experience (Casa de Autos? Yes, please), as the game's outcome never was really in doubt. Brian correctly predicted Minnesota would score a defensive touchdown, as linebacker Aaron Hill returned a fumble 50 yards in the fourth quarter. I had Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson for two passing touchdowns, but his only score came on the ground.
Notre Dame at Michigan
  • Bennett's pick: Michigan 27, Notre Dame 24
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan 24, Notre Dame 21
  • Actual score: Michigan 41, Notre Dame 30
  • 20-20 hindsight: Both of us expected a lower-scoring game, although Brian's prediction of a Blake Countess interception against Tommy Rees in the fourth quarter turned out to be spot on. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner and wide receiver Jeremy Gallon connected for three touchdowns, not the two that both Brian and I forecast.

Finally, let's see how our guest picker performed …

Penn State 28, Eastern Michigan 13
Purdue 28, Indiana State 21
Iowa 34, Missouri State 10
Wisconsin 70, Tennessee Tech 3
Michigan State 35, South Florida 10
Cincinnati 31, Illinois 21
Ohio State 42, San Diego State 6
Nebraska 51, Southern Miss 17
Indiana 41, Navy 31
Northwestern 42, Syracuse 20
Minnesota 33, New Mexico State 21
Notre Dame 27, Michigan 24

Not bad overall, as Nick missed on the same two games we did, in addition to the Notre Dame-Michigan contest. He had strong score predictions like Ohio State-San Diego State, Nebraska-Southern Miss and Minnesota-New Mexico State. Nick underestimated Penn State's offense and, like most of us, overestimated Michigan State's ability to score points.

Who's next?

Minnesota season preview

August, 15, 2013
Minnesota hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 1967. Head coach Jerry Kill was 6 years old and most of the current fan base really can’t remember those “glory days.” Could it be another interesting year for the Gophers? Oh yeah sure, you betcha.


Coach: Jerry Kill (136-89 overall, 9-16 at Minnesota)

2012 record: 6-7 (2-6 Big Ten)

Key losses: QB MarQueis Gray, QB Max Shortell, WR A.J. Barker, WR Devin Crawford-Tufts, CB Michael Carter

[+] EnlargePhilip Nelson
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireMinnesota QB Philip Nelson has an experienced offensive line but needs to find some chemistry with his receivers in 2013.
Key returnees: QB Philip Nelson, OL, NT Ra’Shede Hageman, LB Aaron Hill, TE Drew Goodger

Newcomer to watch: Freshman QB/WR Donovahn Jones. He played both positions in high school, but Kill would likely use him as a wide receiver who has the ability to really stretch the field vertically for Nelson. At 6-foot-2, 189 pounds, he’s big enough to create tough matchups, but his athleticism and speed (4.69 in the 40) could give him the edge in a lot of those scenarios.

Biggest games in 2013: vs. Iowa (Sept. 28), vs. Nebraska (Oct. 26), vs. Penn State (Nov. 9), at Michigan State (Nov. 30)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Can Nelson run this offense? He spent last year getting redshirted, then not, then battling for the starting spot. Now, he’s the only Gophers signal-caller who has ever taken a college snap. If Minnesota has bowl dreams, they rest heavily on Nelson’s shoulders.

It doesn’t help Nelson that he really doesn’t have much established chemistry with any current receiver, however, the offensive line returns much of its experience, which will benefit the sophomore QB. At this point, it’s pretty much a toss-up. Nelson seems ready to lead the offense, but whether or not he’ll lead an offense that can actually make plays remains to be seen.

Forecast: The conference seems to be positioning itself, at least for this season, as a Big Two-Little Ten situation that dominated the conference for years. Michigan and Ohio State return plenty of experience and confidence -- and well, Minnesota just doesn’t.

However, the Gophers sit in that second tier of teams that could go either way. The home schedule provides plenty of interesting matchups for the Gophers to potentially pick up signature wins on their home turf. If they can take down Northwestern and/or Wisconsin in November, those could be wins that put Minnesota on the map for some bowl games. But in order to make those games worth anything, it will have to win the games earlier in this season, which hasn’t always been a strong point.

The offense is shaping up to be somewhat impressive, but there are also a lot of gaps at crucial positions. The individual skill of Hageman and a few other players could land them on some All-Big Ten teams, but there just isn’t enough talent to go around to really lift this team into the upper echelon of Big Ten football quite yet.

Q&A: Minnesota DC Tracy Claeys

July, 16, 2013
Last week, I caught up with Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys and wrote about the Gophers' linebacker situation. Claeys had other interesting things to say about the defense as a whole, and here they are in Q&A form:

What were your general thoughts on the defense coming out of spring practice?

Tracy Claeys: I think by far it was our best spring. I look forward to getting back with them in fall camp, and hopefully that carries over. I'd be disappointed if we don't play better than we did a year ago.

It appears as if more of your players pass the "look test" on that side of the ball, though that doesn't always translate into results. But you seem to have better athletes. Would you agree with that?

[+] EnlargeDerrick Wells
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsDerrick Wells will move to cornerback this season for the Gophers.
TC: Yeah, and I think that was the main thing. When you're the University of Minnesota, it takes developing some kids. We've taken some kids who were a little bit smaller but who could run. Now they've had a couple of years in the weight room, and they've put on some weight. So I think all that's going well. We felt like we needed to run better with the spread offenses and the hurry-up stuff people are doing. I do think we've improved athletically, and now having had a couple of years in the weight room, I think our size is getting better. We're still not where we need to be, but I think we can make up for a little bit of that size with the strength and toughness we've added.

How did Derrick Wells' transition from safety back to corner go?

TC: Good. I think that is his natural position. He played well at safety, but with his size that's something that will help us on the edge. He runs well enough to do it, and we have enough depth at safety that I think it balances everything out a lot better and gives us a chance to be consistent. I've been very pleased with the secondary and where we're at there.

You've got some taller guys in the defensive backfield. Is that part of your philosophy, or is it just how things have worked out?

TC: Well, you've got to be able to run -- that's the number one thing. And playing in the Big Ten with some of the running game things people are doing, you've got to have guys who can tackle. Then the receivers are getting bigger -- everybody is putting those bigger receivers out there. I don't think you'll ever see a defense go with 6-foot-4 corners out there, but at least if you have some 6-1 guys with some strength and some length to them, you've got a chance on some of those jump balls and things that offenses are throwing up.

We always look at athletic ability first. It's important to be able to run. We've been able to develop a few kids and put some size on them -- Derrick was only 155, 160 pounds when he got here and has really benefited from the weight room. You go back and wish you could have redshirted some of them. Derrick is going to be a senior next year and so is [safety] Cedric [Thompson]; we just weren't in a situation where we able to redshirt those kids, and really their bodies, you see them just now developing as they should. They really should be redshirt sophomores with three years to play, but that's part of the situation we were in. We feel we have great kids who have worked hard to get to where they are without redshirting.

I guess the flip side to that is, they've gotten a lot of experience.

TC: That's true, and that's part of why we changed about five years ago on secondary kids. We said, 'Hey, if they can help, we might as well play them.' Because there's a lot of space out there, and everybody is spreading the field. And then they get a lot more comfortable. Eric Murray, he's going to be the one this year at corner. We played him a little bit last year, and now he knows what it's like to go out in a big stadium and play in front of people. I think a lot of times [experience] does outweigh the benefit of redshirting as long as you can recruit and replace those kids.

How do you feel about the defensive end position going into the fall and your ability to rush the passer?

TC: Theiren Cockran continues to get bigger and had a good spring. Alex Keith is another guy I wish we could have redshirted, but he has good pass-rushing ability and has improved in the weight room. Michael [Amaefula] is coming back, and Ben Perry. So I feel really good about the defensive line. I feel the best about it since I've been here. I think we're going to have depth up there. I'm really looking forward to seeing those guys teeing it up on gameday.

It all seems to start with stopping the run in the Big Ten, and you guys have had your ups and downs there. How do you feel about your ability to do that this season?

TC: I think sometimes our front four has taken a little too much heat. Our first year, we didn't play well in the front four. Last year, we played awfully well there, and the kids continue to get better. Our run issues were another part besides just the front four. So I think we're getting closer to getting that corrected. We're better up front than what we were a year ago and we have more depth. And I still think that's where games are won or lost up front, especially when you can keep kids healthy and get them through the 11th or 12th game.

We haven't changed a lot scheme-wise and we're not going to change a lot, just make little adjustments here and there. They're getting more comfortable, and then the more comfortable you get, the quicker you get off the ball and the more plays you make.

You should have some good competition for playing time in the front seven when training camp opens next month. How do you think that will affect the overall development?

TC: It can help you, but you can also get some kids who are afraid of competition, make excuses and don't perform as well. When you start winning ball games is when you have kids who compete to play and don't make excuses. That's how we continue to improve as a football team. Right now, I think we've got kids who like to compete. One thing we've done since we've been here and where we've been before is, if you don't play well in the game, then the next week your spot is up for grabs. And we're going to play the people who most consistently work hard and give us the best chance to win each week. Plus, when you play as many kids as we play, then kids go through practice knowing they're going to have an opportunity to play in the game; it's just a matter of whether you take advantage of it or not. I think we do have a group of kids who like to compete and when you have competition, it keeps everybody on their toes.

You've got three experienced senior starters in Brock Vereen, Aaron Hill and Ra'Shede Hageman. Are they your obvious leaders, or have others emerged?

TC: You're as good as your seniors. I believe that. You've got to have playmakers on the field, and they don't always have to be seniors, but the better the leadership comes from seniors, the better football team you've got. What's good about those three is that they all work their butts off -- they don't take days off in the weight room or stuff like that. I think that's the main thing for a leader. You've got to be somebody who puts in the time to be successful, and all three of those kids have. And with that, they're developing other ones. Maybe sometimes younger kids don't always know how to work the best when they get here, but then they see those seniors working hard, it puts that work ethic in everybody.
Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys is matter of fact when talking about the state of the Gophers' linebacker position.

"I think everybody knows that's the one group we need better performance out of to keep developing as a defense," he told

Claeys might be able to get a strong performance out of his linebackers in 2013, but it won't be because of their experience. The position was the hardest hit by graduation and other factors in the offseason. Starters Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper completed their eligibility, as did backups Spencer Reeves and Ryan Grant. Florida transfer Brendan Beal gave up football after a string of injuries, and reserve Lamonte Edwards was recently dismissed from the team after an off-the-field incident.

[+] EnlargeAaron Hill
AP Photo/Jesse JohnsonAaron Hill will be Minnesota's most experienced returning linebacker.
That leaves Aaron Hill as the lone returning starter, and one of the only guys with any game experience. But while the linebacker group is wildly unproven right now, Claeys does have some options.

"The one thing we did show this spring is we have enough bodies there," he said. "It's just a matter of, can they do what we ask them to do, and can they be consistent?"

Junior college transfer Damien Wilson enrolled in January and could start at middle linebacker. Redshirt freshmen Jack Lynn and Nick Rallis -- Mike's younger brother -- also got a lot of reps this spring. Claeys said all three started to come on strong in the last couple of weeks of spring practice.

This summer brought a wave of new faces at the position, including junior college transfer De'Vondre Campbell, and true freshmen De'Niro Laster, Chris Wipson and Rayfield Dixon. Campbell was a late addition just before signing day, and the coaches were excited about his 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame.

"He's a good-looking kid," Claeys said. "He's got length and height and everything you want in a Big Ten linebacker. Hopefully, the other guys are getting him comfortable in what to do scheme-wise and things like that. Then in fall camp, we'll spend a lot of time with De'Vondre and those new guys."

Hill, who has been a solid if unspectacular player for the Gophers so far, has taken on added importance this summer. With the coaches unable to work directly with players until next month, Claeys is relying on his veteran senior to help get the new guys up to speed during voluntary workouts.

"I think we can make some jumps during the summer," Claeys said. "By getting De'Vondre and those guys comfortable with the base calls of our scheme, they may have a chance to help us. The more time our linebackers put in together, the better we'll be."

Claeys said every linebacker will get a chance to show what he can do during the first two weeks of fall practice, and then the Gophers will start paring things down. He likes the speed and athleticism Minnesota has brought into the program at that position. The question is whether the young players can overcome their inexperience.

"I think we've got a good mix there," he said. "But we're going to need some kids to help us and contribute who haven't played a lot."
2012 record: 6-7
2012 conference record: 2-6 (tied for fifth in Legends Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 10; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

QB Philip Nelson, RB Donnell Kirkwood, DT Ra'Shede Hageman, S Brock Vereen, DB Derrick Wells, LT Ed Olson, DE Michael Amaefula

Key losses

QB/WR MarQueis Gray, CB Michael Carter, CB Troy Stoudermire, DE D.L. Wilhite, LB Mike Rallis, LB Keanon Cooper

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Donnell Kirkwood* (926 yards)
Passing: Philip Nelson* (873 yards)
Receiving: A.J. Barker (577 yards)
Tackles: Troy Stoudermire (82)
Sacks: D.L. Wilhite (8.5)
Interceptions: Michael Carter (4)

Spring answers

1. Identity verified: The Gophers figured out who they wanted to be on offense and were able to start implementing that during bowl practice last December: a physical, run-first team. It worked in the Meineke Car Care Bowl and carried over into this spring, with an offensive line that's developing a nasty streak and two power backs in Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr. The Gophers will look to bring that hard-nosed approach into this fall.

2. Phil the one: Philip Nelson took over as the team's starting quarterback as a true freshman at midseason last year, but he wasn't guaranteed the starting job this offseason. Despite getting good competition from Mitch Leidner and Chris Streveler, Nelson played well enough this spring that head coach Jerry Kill says it's his spot to lose. Leidner also impressed at times and is a great athlete, so Minnesota has options at the position this year.

3. Turning the corner: The Gophers had to replace two standout seniors at cornerback in Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire. They feel good about at least one of those spots after Derrick Wells moved from safety to corner this offseason and handled the position nicely. Wells made some big plays at safety last year, and the hope is he can do the same at his new spot. There's not a lot of proven options at the other corner role, but three players who transferred from junior college last year are pushing for time, while the safety position has good depth and is led by Brock Vereen.

Fall questions

1. Linebacker holes: The Gophers lost most of their contributors at linebacker from last year, with Aaron Hill the only leftover starter. It's why they signed five linebackers in this year's recruiting class. Junior college transfer Damien Wilson lived up to advance billing, and Kill is expecting big things out of another incoming juco, De'Vondre Campbell. But anytime you're relying on newcomers and players arriving in the summer, nothing is for certain.

2. Downfield passing: The passing game was shaky at best for the Gophers in 2012, and things didn't exactly get better when leading receiver A.J. Barker transferred. Minnesota doesn't have anyone who eclipsed 375 receiving yards a year ago. Kill is hoping to see improvement from Derrick Engel, Isaac Fruechte, Devin Crawford-Tufts and a healthy Jamel Harbison. But those guys must prove they can make plays when it counts.

3. Rushing the passer: D.L. Wilhite and his team-leading 8.5 sacks from a year ago are gone. Defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman looked like a beast this spring, but no other returnee had more than two sacks a year ago. The Gophers need players who can get after the quarterback off the edge, and they're hoping Theiren Cockran, Michael Amaefula and Ben Perry make the same kind of strides Wilhite and Hageman did a year ago. But again, they have to prove it.
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill guided the team to a bowl game during his second season in Minneapolis despite some depth and injury problems in 2012. What's in store for Year 3 of the Kill era? I recently caught up with him to get his outlook for the Gophers' spring practice, which opens today.

How has the offseason gone for you guys so far?

Jerry Kill: Well, I think the bowl game, even though we lost, the kids played very hard and well. We got healthy, for one, before we went to the bowl, and we had a great month with our kids and a great experience. And coming into the offseason, I think there was a lot of confidence gained. All our kids' strength and testing numbers went up. I guess I can use Ra'Shede Hageman as an example, He benched 450 pounds, squatted well over 500 and cleaned 350, with a 38-inch vertical. So kids like that got a lot better.

We feel up front and on the defensive line, we've gotten stronger. I think we've added some depth to the defensive line, and secondary-wise, we played several freshmen in that game against Texas Tech. We've got the flexibility to play Derrick Wells at corner and safety. I think the biggest question mark we've got going in is, we lost five scholarship linebackers. It's like a year ago when we lost seven secondary players and kind of hit the jackpot in recruiting. Damien Wilson, a junior college transfer, has had a great spring, and I'm looking forward to seeing him on the field. The guys who need the reps this spring are James Manuel, Aaron Hill, Lamonte Edwards, and young men we redshirted named Jack Lynn and Nick Rallis. And then we've got four other kids coming when fall camp starts. Our secondary a year ago had a lot of questions and really played well. I think, this year, linebacker is where we need to step up on defense.

And then on offense, I feel we'll be a much better football team than we were a year ago because we get everybody back except for Brandon Green and Q [MarQueis Gray], really. So I think that unit will be much improved.

[+] EnlargeJerry Kill
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillJerry Kill begins his third season as head coach of the Gophers.
You showed off a good power running game in that bowl game. Is that what we should expect from your offense going forward?

JK: Yeah, that's what we were at Northern Illinois. We could run the power at you, but then we were athletic enough to turn and run the zone read with the quarterback. Both [Chandler] Harnisch and [Jordan] Lynch, when we needed to throw it, we completed it. But we still made our living on running the football. It was the first time, in the bowl game, that we had the same offensive line that we had at the beginning of the seaon. We had so many people get experience there. But that's what we want to be -- a team that gives you a lot of different looks, shifting and motion and different personnel grouping. But you've still got to be able to run the football, and certainly in the Big Ten.

Speaking of that offensive line, after a lot of injuries there last year, how is the position looking this spring?

JK: Well, we've got a lot of depth, no question. Eddie Olson, he won't go through the spring, but he had a good year a year ago. If we can get his foot healed up and done right, it kind of works out. He'll continue to get stronger. We redshirted Jonah Pirsig, who's a 6-foot-8, 6-9, 320 pound tackle, Ben Lauer, who's 6-7 and probably 305, and Isaac Hayes, who is a 6-2, 300-pound offensive guard. So those kids, I'm anxious to see them in the spring.

We've got Zac Epping, Jon Christenson and Caleb Bak -- in the weight room, he benched 350, squatted 550, so he's gotten stronger. Josh Campion is a strong kid; he benches well over 400 pounds. So the same guys who when I first got here were getting pushed around have gotten stronger. And then we've added these young kids that have come in. Marek Lenkiewicz is up to 290 pounds, Tommy Olson is healthy again and Brian Bobek, who transferred from Ohio State and had great credentials when he went to Ohio State, he's another one who's very physically strong. Then there's Foster Bush and Joe Bjorklund. They're all young kids, but they've gotten physically stronger.

When we got here, I think we had about seven or eight offensive linemen. So we've built it through walk-ons and kind of did it the hard way. But I feel good about that position, along with our tight ends, quarterbacks and receivers. Our defense improved tremendously from one year to the next. For us to be competitive in the Big Ten -- which I think we can be -- our offense has to take the steps our defense did a year ago. And I think we can.

Philip Nelson finished the season for you at quarterback and had a nice bowl game, but you also have some talented young guys there. Is it his job to lose this spring or a more open competition?

JK: We took the redshirt off Philip last year, and he did some good things and had some things he struggled with, as you'd expect for a freshman. He did some great things in the bowl game. When we go into camp, somebody is going to have to go in there and beat him out. But the thing that's good about that is the competition.

Mitch Leidner and Chris Streveler are great athletes who can play another position if needed, but they both want to play quarterback and they're very capable of giving someone a run for their money. I can tell you, our defense is very high on Leidner. Mitch is probably close to 6-5 and 230, and he is a 4.6, 4.65 guy [in the 40-yard dash]. And very strong. And then Streveler is quicker than that. He came in during the second semester, and I think he's the third-fastest guy on our team. When we had him in camp, he played receiver also.

So all three of those guys are great kids, students of the game, and the type of kids you want playing quarterback leadership-wise. We'll let it work out. Leidner and Streveler are the type of kids who would say, "Coach, if it helps the team if you move me, I'll do that." But in the spring we're going to let them compete and make sure we're solid at that position. If you look at last year, it was kind of a miracle we got to a bowl game, because we had three different quarterbacks and three different centers. Not many people can win doing that.

(Read full post)

Big Ten lunchtime links

February, 20, 2013
One week until the first Big Ten spring practice.

B1G postseason position rankings: LB

February, 19, 2013
It's time for another installment of our postseason position rankings, and today we're looking at one of the strongest groups in the Big Ten in 2012: the linebackers.

Just about every team boasted one standout linebacker last season, and many had multiple ones. That makes this list one of the tougher ones to date, and there's not a whole lot of separation between teams, especially in the middle. Star power matters, but depth is also important.

You can see how we ranked the linebackers entering the season here. Here's how we see things now:

1. Penn State (Preseason ranking: 2): We ranked the Nittany Lions second in the preseason, not knowing for sure how Michael Mauti would bounce back from his latest knee injury. Well, we picked him as our Big Ten defensive player of the year. Gerald Hodges was his usual brilliant self, especially when he switched into beast mode during league play. And the guy nobody talks about, Glenn Carson, also had a very solid season. Linebacker U., indeed.

2. Wisconsin (Preseason: 3): Mike Taylor and Chris Borland were so good and so consistent that we may have begun to take them for granted. Taylor collected 123 tackles, while Borland had 104, and the two combined for 25 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. The unsung member of the trio, Ethan Armstrong, added 93 stops. Once again, the linebackers were the strength of a very good Badgers defense.

3. Michigan State (Preseason: 1): Max Bullough was a first-team All-Big Ten performer who led the Spartans with 111 tackles. Denicos Allen didn't match his 2011 numbers but still managed 10 tackles for loss and three sacks. Sophomore Taiwan Jones surpassed Chris Norman late in the year to give the unit even more depth. This group may have lacked the truly huge, game-changing plays, but it's hard to ask for much more than what it provided all season.

4. Michigan (Preseason: 5): The Wolverines linebacking crew became the backbone of the defense in 2012. Jake Ryan turned into a star with his flair for the big play; he piled up 16 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles. Kenny Demens and Desmond Morgan were both solid, underrated players, and freshmen James Ross III and Joe Bolden helped give this group outstanding depth.

5. Northwestern (Preseason: 11): The Wildcats made the biggest jump from the preseason rankings, as all three starters (Damien Proby, David Nwabuisi and Chi Chi Ariguzo) collected at least 91 tackles. Ariguzo developed into a big-time playmaker, with 10.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and four fumble recoveries. Proby and Nwabuisi were almost criminally underrated.

6. Ohio State (Preseason: 4): The Buckeyes had the most interesting stories at linebacker. Ryan Shazier emerged as a destructive force of nature, especially in the second half of the season. Zach Boren switched from fullback to linebacker midseason and made a surprisingly smooth transition. Etienne Sabino broke his leg but came back to finish the year. Storm Klein returned from a suspension to contribute a little. There were some weak spots and shaky moments here, but Shazier's sheer strength helped hold this group together.

7. Iowa (Preseason: 8): Stats alone would tell you that the Hawkeyes had one of the best linebacking corps around. First-year starter Anthony Hitchens was one of the top tacklers in the nation with 124 stops, while James Morris (113) and Christian Kirksey (95) also ranked among the league leaders in that category. But tackle numbers alone don't tell the whole story, and Iowa lacked the kind of high-impact plays from its linebackers that teams above it on this list produced.

8. Nebraska (Preseason: 7): The Huskers had their issues on defense, but it was hard to fault the play of Will Compton, who led the team with 110 tackles and three fumble recoveries. Alonzo Whaley, Sean Fisher and David Santos ably filled out the rest of the group, but Nebraska had trouble finding the right combination of speed and experience at linebacker.

9. Minnesota: (Preseason: 10): The Gophers were young in a lot of spots but not at linebacker, where experienced veterans like Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper led the way. Aaron Hill rounded out what was a solid, if unspectacular, corps that helped Minnesota make great strides on defense.

10. Illinois (Preseason: 6): Injuries were one reason why Jonathan Brown didn't blossom into the superstar we expected to see. He had 9.5 tackles for loss but played in only nine games. It says something about both the Illini linebackers and the defense as a whole that true freshman Mason Monheim led the team with 86 tackles. He and fellow first-year player Mike Svetina at least give Illinois some reason for optimism.

11. Purdue (Preseason: 9): Dwayne Beckford was kicked off the team in August, and things didn't get a whole lot better from there. Will Lucas led the group with 66 tackles, but it was a sign of Purdue's problems at linebacker that converted quarterback Sean Robinson started here. Improving the linebacker play should be a top priority for new head coach Darrell Hazell.

12. Indiana (Preseason: 12): Junior-college import David Cooper stepped right in and made an immediate impact, recording 86 tackles and nine behind the line of scrimmage. But the Hoosiers struggled to find consistent play elsewhere at the position. It's no coincidence that Kevin Wilson's latest recruiting class includes several potential linebackers.
Michigan State's defense decided enough was enough. So did Le'Veon Bell.

Had the season been a massive disappointment? Check. Had the lack of a Big Ten home win surprised everyone? Check. Had the number of near misses been infuriating for all involved? Check.

But the Spartans weren't about to miss out on a bowl game. No way. A 6-6 season would be salvaged, end of discussion.

Michigan State's defenders and Bell made sure of it in a 26-10 victory against Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium. The Spartans (6-6, 3-5 Big Ten) ensured they'll be going bowling for the sixth consecutive season under head coach Mark Dantonio, while Minnesota (6-6, 2-6) also is headed to the postseason despite dropping its last two games.

Gophers coach Jerry Kill didn't return to the sideline for the second half. There's no definitive word whether Kill had another seizure, but we'll pass along any news as it comes in.

Michigan State's defense turned in its most dominant effort of the season, surrendering 96 total yards, four net rush yards, seven first downs and just three points. Minnesota's only touchdown came from linebacker Aaron Hill on a pick-six of Andrea Maxwell.

Pat Narduzzi's crew was fabulous.

Bell, meanwhile, continued to carry the Michigan State offense -- quite literally -- piling up a career-high 266 rush yards and a touchdown on 35 carries. He recorded his third 200-yard rushing effort of the season and his sixth game of more than 30 carries. As bad as Michigan State's offense has been, think of where it would be without Bell.

About the only other offensive contribution the Spartans got came on a deflected pass intended for Tony Lippett that Bennie Fowler caught and ran into the end zone late in the first half.

Kicker Dan Conroy also made an impact, tying his career high with four field goals (48 yards, 43 yards, 43 yards, 30 yards). Although Michigan State's struggles in plus territory continued, the team didn't need many points Saturday.

Minnesota's defense kept it in the game, and the Gophers recorded two interceptions against Maxwell. But Nelson appears to be hitting a wall, and he needed a lot more help from the run game than he received today. Fortunately, Minnesota will have bowl practices to improve, and we hope Kill is OK.

Michigan State didn't expect to be here, squeaking into a bowl. All three of the Spartans' Big Ten wins came on the road, which could bode well as they'll play their bowl game away from East Lansing.

The offense needs a lot of work between now and late December, when Michigan State likely faces a Big 12 team in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

But Dantonio has to be pleased his team found a way, thanks to Bell, Conroy and the defense.