Big Ten: Akeel Lynch
@ESPNJoshMoyer Wisconsin seems like a complete mess right now, do these PR blunders (Gordon/Stave) scream lack of control for GA?— #thedad (@lukemill) September 3, 2014
Josh Moyer: Lack of control? No. Lack of communication? Of planning? Of credibility? Yes, yes and yes. The thing to remember here is Gary Andersen was trying to protect his players - but he just did a miserable job at it. It's been a bad daytime soap opera the past few days: First, Melvin Gordon was not injured and then he was. Then, Joel Stave was injured and then he wasn't. The perception here isn't good, but it's perception. I don't buy that the controversy itself is going to impact the Badgers; I'm more concerned of the truth sandwiched between the controversy. And by that I mean, "When will Stave be OK?" It looks as if his problems are mental, so no wonder there's no timetable for his return. If Wisconsin is a mess on the field, it's not because Andersen lied to the media -- it's because the quarterback situation is a mess.
Josh Moyer: Brady Hoke would've liked to see more of a payoff than four stops in the backfield, but a more aggressive defense has really been the plan all along. Big-time players like DEs Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer are going to be on the field more this season -- as opposed to last year's constant rotation -- and we should continue to see a more aggressive secondary that presses a lot more often than 2013. Players are still getting accustomed to their new roles, but this has to be the year Michigan finds success. Nine starters return on defense so, if Greg Mattison is going to improve upon last year's rankings in scoring defense (No. 66), sacks (No. 66) and total defense (No. 41), it has to come now. In the short term, the Wolverines better tighten up the middle of their defensive line; Appalachian State had too much success there.
Timmy from Quimby, Iowa, writes: Michigan State is a 13-point underdog as of Tuesday morning. I understand that it's based on bets that are put on the game, but don't you think that's kind of big for a matchup of two top-10 teams?
Josh Moyer: Yes and no -- let me explain. Personally, I'm surprised the Ducks are favored by that much. But this also isn't the first time there's been a heavy favorite in a top-10 matchup. There is some precedent. In 2012, No. 2 Alabama played No. 8 Michigan and the Tide were favored by 11, for example. (Alabama won by 27.) Just last year, in Week 10, No. 3 Florida State was favored by 21 points over No. 7 Miami. (FSU also won by 27.) So, it does happen. Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford aren't as explosive as Oregon, obviously, but they can score. So 13 points does seem high to me -- but it's not like this is the first time a result like this has been predicted, either.
Josh Moyer: Slow your roll there, Eric. Akeel Lynch will almost certainly be the guy next year, but I think it's pretty premature to declare him the best back right now. He's a speedy player and a nice change of pace, but there's more to running back than just carrying the ball. Remember Curtis Dukes? Now, I'm not comparing Lynch to Dukes - but Lynch isn't as refined in other areas of his game as Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak are. Plus, with this offensive line, you can't pin the low rushing totals on either of those two. Lynch likely wouldn't have fared any better. I'm really high on Belton and think he might be one of the true sleeper running backs in the Big Ten, but it's difficult to find success when there are no holes. So, Lynch isn't the answer to the running game improving; the offensive line is.
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Penn State Nittany Lions.
2013 overall record: 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten)
Key returnees: Christian Hackenberg, QB; Bill Belton, RB; Zach Zwinak, RB; Donovan Smith, OT; Jesse James, TE; Deion Barnes, DE; C.J. Olaniyan, DE; Mike Hull, LB; Adrian Amos, S; Jordan Lucas, CB
Key losses: Allen Robinson, WR; John Urschel, G; Ty Howle, C; Adam Gress, OT; DaQuan Jones, DT; Glenn Carson, LB; Malcolm Willis, S
Instant impact newcomer: The easy pick is at wide receiver, where Penn State needs help following the departure of Allen Robinson. The team signed several talented receivers in February, and Chris Godwin could be the best of the bunch. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Godwin has the physical tools to contribute right away for PSU's offense. Also keep an eye on receivers De'Andre Thompkins and Saeed Blacknall.
Defense: DE: Deion Barnes, Jr., 6-4, 255; DE: C.J. Olaniyan, Sr., 6-3, 252; DT: Austin Johnson, Soph., 6-4, 313; DT: Anthony Zettel, Jr., 6-4, 274; LB: Brandon Bell, Soph., 6-1, 222; LB: Mike Hull, Sr., 6-0, 232; LB: Nyeem Wartman, Soph., 6-1, 236; CB: Jordan Lucas, Jr., 6-0, 198; CB: Trevor Williams, Jr., 6-1, 188; S: Adrian Amos, Sr., 6-0, 209; S: Ryan Keiser, Sr., 6-1, 208
Specialists: K: Sam Ficken, Sr., 6-2, 186; P: Chris Gulla, Fr., 6-0, 193
Biggest question mark: Can assistant coach Herb Hand work his magic with the offensive line? The Lions likely will start two converted defensive linemen, Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey, at the guard spots and a redshirt freshman (Andrew Nelson) at right tackle. Left tackle Donovan Smith will anchor the group and should contend for All-Big Ten honors, but Penn State is dangerously thin up front and can't afford to put Hackenberg in harm's way.
Most important game: Aug. 30 against UCF in Dublin (not the one in Ohio). There has been a lot of positive energy since James Franklin arrived in January, but the team remains somewhat of a mystery. Penn State could be a pleasant surprise or regress after the latest transition. It's important to start off well and build confidence in a setting where it matters. UCF isn't an easy draw as the Knights come off a Fiesta Bowl championship and bring back nine starters on defense. They were picked second in the American in the preseason media poll. This game really sets the tone for PSU.
Upset special: Nov. 29 against Michigan State. Unless the NCAA changes course on Penn State's ban, this will serve as the Lions' bowl game as they wrap up the season. Penn State has recorded very impressive wins against Wisconsin to finish each of the past two seasons, and Michigan State can expect the Lions' best shot at Beaver Stadium. A lot depends on PSU's health entering the game, but the Lions have a chance here.
Key stat: Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Florida State's Jameis Winston, the Heisman Trophy winner, were the only FBS freshman to record 14 passes of 40 yards or longer in 2013.
What they're wearing: A smiling Franklin said last month on ESPN, "I've always been a big fan of what Oregon has done, and my time at Maryland, so I think we're going to do something similar to that. We're not going to do anything gradual. We're just going to go right after it." A complete makeover seems unlikely at Penn State, which cherishes its traditional blue-and-white look but put players' names on jerseys in each of the past two seasons.
Team's top Twitter follows: No Big Ten coaching staff embraces social media quite like Franklin (@coachjfranklin) and his assistants. Be sure to follow offensive line coach Herb Hand (@CoachHand), running backs coach/special teams coordinator Charles Huff (@CoachHuff), defensive line coach Sean Spencer (@SpenceChaos) and others. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg tweets (@chackenberg1), and other good follows include cornerback Jordan Lucas (@_JLucas9), offensive lineman Miles Dieffenbach (@Curiousjorge65), defensive end Deion Barnes (@DBarnes_18) and running back Akeel Lynch (@ALynch_22). The official team handle (@PennStateFball) tweets some good stuff, and the recruiting staff has an account (@PSURecruits).
They said it: " Right now we have some challenges and issues that we need to overcome. So guys are going to have an opportunity to come in and impact the roster quickly." -- coach James Franklin
Stats & Info projections: 6.85 wins
Wise guys over/under: 7.5 wins
Big Ten blog projection: Eight wins. There are so many unknowns here, such as the team's health/depth and whether the postseason ban will be lifted. A few injuries to the wrong players, and Penn State could be staring at a losing season. But I like the starting 22 and think the defense will be improved under Bob Shoop's direction. The Lions don't play the top teams in the West division, and they get both Michigan State and Ohio State at home.
“One of the things I’ve always struggled with,” Franklin said, “is how do I answer your questions and give you the information that you need with also not talking directly to [Central Florida coach] George O’Leary? Because he’s watching right now.”
Franklin then stopped, turned his head toward the cameras and waved: “Hi, George!”
Here are some of those newsworthy highlights:
Focus not yet on season opener: Franklin spoke to the team Sunday night and told them that would be the last time they discuss Central Florida for at least two weeks. For now, it’s all Penn State.
“Our focus right now is on Penn State and becoming the best Penn State we can possibly be,” he said.
Faster team: Franklin didn’t feel comfortable talking about specific true freshmen since he hasn’t yet really had a chance to see them practice. But he did compliment the overall team speed -- and how the freshmen have really added to that.
“We’ve had five guys this spring on our team that ran a sub-4.5,” he said. “I think we got more than that right now with the guys that have developed on our team but, with just the incoming freshman class, we ended up having 11 guys that ran a sub-4.5. So that’s exciting.”
Early enrollee De'Andre Thompkins (receiver) ran the fastest 40-yard dash -- somewhere in the 4.4s -- in the spring. But Franklin believed that true freshman cornerback Grant Haley surpassed him this summer.
Tight end U? Allen Robinson caught 97 balls last season, and he’s on the Jacksonville Jaguars now. So, obviously, that lost production has to come from somewhere -- and Franklin believes a lot of that will come from the tight ends.
He said the freshman receivers are still a bit of a wild card because they are still adjusting to the college game. But those tight ends? It’s a different story.
"That’s where we have the most veteran players. That’s where we have the most experience and depth," he said. "I’m excited about those young [receivers], but that’s what it is right now. It’s excitement -- based on what they did in high school ..."
Three-headed running attack: Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak saw plenty of carries the past two seasons, but Franklin said it wouldn’t just be those two carrying the ball this season.
Expect some time from speedster Akeel Lynch, too.
“If you look across the country, you really need three running backs for a whole season to keep those guys healthy and fresh, and rotate them so you have a chance to dictate the terms of the game and force your will on your opponent in the fourth quarter,” Franklin said. “And to also do those things late in the season.”
Priorities: The Xs and the Os of football are obviously important -- but Franklin believes they might not be as important as one other key element, at least early in camp. He said camp will start out aggressive, and then he’ll play practice by ear.
"I think this staff moreso than most staffs I’ve been on, we spend a lot of time focused on chemistry and morale," he said. "I think chemistry and morale are as important, if not more important, than the Xs and the Os and the toughness. But those things are important as well."
Really, there's no other way to describe the 6-foot-7, 272-pound tight end. Coaches and teammates tried their best Saturday to brainstorm other fitting adjectives or ways to encapsulate the junior's ability. But, without fail, they kept returning to that same phrase.
"Jesse is just a freak of nature," fellow Penn State tight end Adam Breneman said. "I don't know how else to describe him."
Added strength coach Dwight Galt: "He's a freak. ... Athletically, talent-wise, there's not another tight end in the country better than him, for sure. He's got speed, he's got strength, he's got agility, he's got size. He's got everything."
The reps came so quickly, it was easy to lose count. Once finished, a Penn State trainer turned to James' spotter and asked about the final tally. Upon hearing the answer, he just shook his head and looked confused: "What? ... Twenty-seven?" James' teammates alternated between head-shaking and patting him on the shoulder.
Had James reached that number in any of the last 10 NFL combines, he would've placed within the top five at his position -- and he would've been at the very top in 2008 and 2011. Compared to the most recent combine, his 27 reps were two fewer than first-round offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and one more than first-round defensive tackle Dominique Easley.
"He'll surprise you every day. You never know what's coming with Jesse," Christian Hackenberg said. "It's actually interesting when you get out there with what he does, just how good he is and how fast he is and how strong he is."
It's not easy to overthrow James, who reportedly runs in the 4.6 range and stands as the second-tallest player on the 121-man roster. That might have something to do with his recent addition to the Mackey Award watch list. Of course, the fact he's Penn State's leading returnee with 25 catches and 333 yards doesn't hurt either.
Put simply, yes, the guy's a freak.
"To get a guy that big that does what he does, I haven't seen that," Galt said. "I've been really lucky. I had five tight ends in the NFL at one time, including Vernon Davis and Dan Gronkowski, Rob's brother, and I'll tell you what -- I'll put Jesse James up there with any of them. The kid is really that athletic and that good of a player."
Players spoke in such revered and hyperbolic fashion about James that, at times, it seemed as if they were discussing Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. Tailback Akeel Lynch just laughed when asked about what impressed him most about James and cautioned that it might not sound believable.
While most players dead lift with five or six plates and let out painful groans between each lift, Lynch said, Penn State's tight end takes it a step further. Lynch smiled, bent his knees and pantomimed lifting up and down with ease. "And he puts the max weight you can on a bar," Lynch said. "He's a freak. He's a good guy, but he's a freak."
On Saturday, James performed 12 reps on the dead lift at 495 pounds. And he promised before the event that he planned to take it easy since this was for charity. ("I won't put too much on today, but it'll be fun.") So what exactly is the max weight the junior can dead lift?
"I have no idea," he said matter-of-factly, with a slight shrug. "We haven't found it."
James is one of the last players who would exaggerate his talent. The aw-shucks kid from the small, blue-collar borough of Glassport, Pennsylvania, didn't mind dissecting Hackenberg's improvement or waxing poetic on how the freshman receivers were coming along. But it was as if his white T-shirt grew itchy whenever he was asked about himself.
"I'm not really the person to talk to about that," James said. "That's just how I was raised."
Added offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach: "That's the way he is. Modest guy, really good guy."
Humility might serve him well, but the Nittany Lions need someone to step up in a big to make up for more than 125 receptions of lost production from last season. (Allen Robinson, who caught 97 balls in 2013, is now in the NFL.) James is certainly a candidate to be that player, at least in the end zone, and expectations are soaring for the junior.
It's still to be determined how James' speed and strength will transfer over to the gridiron this season. But at least one thing is for certain.
"He's a freak," Dieffenbach said. "A freak of nature."
- Five ways Penn State can defy the odds against Ohio State this season. Akeel Lynch is ready for whenever his big opportunity might arrive.
- A Michigan quarterback commit made a big impression at a recruiting camp. There could be fireworks at the Big House for two games this year.
- A defensive end signee won't make it to Nebraska after all.
- A closer look at Virginia Tech from an Ohio State perspective.
- Iowa is looking for two new recruiting assistants.
- Indiana's backup quarterback job is wide open.
- Flozell Adams is going into the Michigan State Hall of Fame.
- Purdue's Rod Woodson is overdue to be inducted in the Indiana Football Hall of Fame.
- The Big Ten Network ranks the top quarterback-receiver duos in the league.
Indiana's offensive linemen are no exception. They don't seek out the spotlight. But it's time to recognize what they've been doing the past few years, because few seem to notice.
You might disagree, but I doubt you've actually paid attention to Indiana's line. Maybe because it's Indiana. Maybe it's because the Hoosiers run an up-tempo spread offense rather than a traditional, road-grading one that typically shines a brighter light on the five men up front. Whatever the reason, the Hoosiers line rarely gets much love.
But it's a huge reason why Indiana has had the Big Ten's No. 2 offense in each of the past two seasons. Despite two true freshman starters in 2012, Indiana led the Big Ten in fewest sacks allowed: one for every 31.8 pass attempts. Last season, the line overcame several major injuries -- IU started nine linemen and used seven different lineups -- and prevented sacks in six games. The offense averaged more than 300 pass yards and more than 200 rush yards for the first time in team history.
"When I came in with Coach [Kevin] Wilson, both of us having an offensive line background, we wanted to build a unit that has great flexibility, the ability to run the ball," Hoosiers offensive line coach Greg Frey told ESPN.com "Our goal, as it is with any offensive line, is to control the game. We’re going to pick up that third-and-1. If you need more time to throw, we're going to give you more time."
Strong offensive lines are normally stocked with veterans, but Indiana has excelled with youth. Five Hoosiers linemen have earned freshman All-Big Ten honors since 2011, including two in each of the past two seasons. Tackle Jason Spriggs and guard Dan Feeney both earned freshman All-America honors in 2012, when they set team freshman records by starting all 12 games.
Indiana lost Feeney to a foot injury days before the 2013 season and lost two other starters, Peyton Eckert and David Kaminski, to season-ending injuries in October. But others stepped up, players such as Collin Rahrig, a former walk-on who started 10 games at center, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Ralston Evans, who suffered a major knee injury before the 2011 season and appeared in only one game in 2012, started all 12 games at right tackle last season.
"When we were at Michigan, coaches came up and said, 'Who the hell is this right tackle you’ve got?'" Frey said. "I said, 'Don't tell me. Tell him he did a good job.' These guys work hard. There’s a good culture there."
Indiana returns 130 career offensive line starts, most in the Big Ten and third most in the FBS behind Appalachian State and UTSA. Frey, who previously coached lines at Michigan, West Virginia and South Florida, thinks this could be his deepest group.
It's a close group, too, one that spends a lot of time together off of the field. If a Bloomington restaurant offers a food special, the Hoosiers' linemen are quick to find it.
Frey doesn't change his expectations for the line in 2014. They've always been high.
"The ability to be a leader or a presence on the team, that part of it changes," he said. "There’s some credentials there, a little bit of background, some personal expectations.
"We have more voices there who are respected."
But will the group gain respect? It will take more than yards and points.
"They realize the more you’re winning in college football, the more people know about you," Frey said. "Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things, but you'd like to see the fruits of their labor be recognized. Everybody likes to be recognized a little bit.
"Hopefully as we go on, that will naturally happen."
Indiana's offensive line tops my list of the Big Ten's most underrated position groups. Here are four others ...
Minnesota's secondary: Jay Sawvel does an excellent job with Minnesota's back four. Fourth-round draft pick Brock Vereen will be tough to replace, but safety Cedric Thompson had a good spring and Eric Murray could become an elite cornerback this season. Derrick Wells adds a playmaking presence at corner and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who opened last season as a starting cornerback, returns from injury.
Penn State's running backs: Quarterback Christian Hackenberg grabs the headlines and justifiably so, but he'll need help in the backfield from a talented group of ball-carriers. How many people know Zach Zwinak has nearly 2,000 career rush yards? Bill Belton had an excellent spring and could be the offense's top playmaker, and junior Akeel Lynch has a nice speed-power mix.
Northwestern's receivers/tight ends: I've stumped for this group and while it hasn't quite blossomed, a two-quarterback system and a shift from a pass-heavy attack didn't help. Northwestern should be much more pass-heavy with Trevor Siemian as its sole signal caller. Christian Jones and Tony Jones are proven veterans, Rutgers transfer Myles Shuler fills a void in the slot and Kyle Prater is finally healthy. Tight end Dan Vitale is poised for a breakout season.
Maryland's linebackers: The Terps return three of four starters who combined for 233 tackles last season. Cole Farrand is a strong leader, and Matt Robinson provides a spark on the outside. Maryland will miss the disruptive Marcus Whitfield but returns five of its top six linebackers from 2013. If the group stays healthy -- a big if given Maryland's recent misfortune -- it could be very good.
As seniors, Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton are among the Nittany Lions' most experienced players. Zwinak has led the team in rushing the past two seasons, but Belton was widely regarded as the team's most improved player last fall. He finished his junior campaign with 803 rushing yards and edged Zwinak with 5.1 yards per carry.
Belton has earned a reputation as one of Penn State's hardest workers and, if you don't know his name yet, he's hoping you will by the end of this season. ESPN.com checked in with him earlier this week.
Bill Belton: I'm doing a lot of the same things, but I'm going two times harder than I did last season, just to improve on some things and take my game to the next level. I'm getting in the weight room, building more strength because, oftentimes, you hear things like, 'He's too small. He can't play all three downs.' So I've just been trying to build up my strength and conditioning at all times to help my team win and put my team in the best position.
You told me last season you save online articles where you receive criticism, that it gives you motivation. Is that where you got the "he's too small" stuff from?
BB: Yeah. I mean, I read stuff to see what people are saying. I see some crazy stuff out there, but it doesn't affect me whatsoever. Basically, I'm just coming to get the respect I deserve, be the best player I can, push myself and hold myself to a high standard -- and become one of those players that people talk about.
How is 2014 Bill Belton different from the 2013 or 2012 version?
BB: A better teammate, a more vocal person. Just being not only a good player but a great player that helps his teammates when they need it. Not just standing off and allowing things to happen but stepping up in situations and making sure everyone's on the same page and, basically, just being a model teammate and giving the younger guys someone to come to when they need advice.
So you're finding yourself talking to or mentoring younger running backs, like Akeel Lynch, a bit more this offseason?
BB: Not just him. A kid that I really see a lot of potential in is [wideout] DaeSean Hamilton. We've been doing two-a-days, running in the morning and working out later on with the team in the afternoon and doing work. So it's not only just the running backs, but it's the receivers and DBs and whoever needs help and wants to work to get better.
It's no secret there are some concerns with the offensive line since it basically returns one starter. It seems fair to say that your job will be a little harder. Has that changed your approach at all?
BB: All we got to do is keep working and we'll be just fine ... And, no, you just got to continue to prepare the way you were before. Like I said before, I've been working my behind off to be known throughout the Big Ten and throughout the country. That doesn't really change anything; it's going to work. We're happy; none of us are upset with what's going on. That's the hand we were dealt, and we want to continue to work and we're going to be good come Aug. 31.
Let's talk a little bit about your head coach, James Franklin. What are your impressions of him, and how does he compare to Bill O'Brien?
BB: Every guy is different; every head guy who comes here is different. They have ways they do things. Franklin came in, and he was a fiery guy. He instilled that competitive spirit throughout our team so, whatever we're doing, we're competing and trying to get better and take this team to where it has been before and just return it to that prominence in the Big Ten. O'Brien and Franklin, they have a relationship, so things they do are pretty similar.
Including interim guys, you've had five head coaches over your college career. That's unprecedented at Penn State. What kind of adjustment has that been, and is there any good that comes from having that many coaches?
BB: The good coming from it is, if you think about all the guys from our team, everyone wants to take the step to the next level. And we learned a lot of systems, and the systems we learned can help us at the next level. And with the coaching situation, it's just something we have to deal with. It's not something we asked for, but we had a chance to play under a few different guys and every time it was different. There was nothing, like, terrible to come out of it. It was just a learning experience.
One player who's been alongside you for the entire ride is Zwinak. What's your relationship like off the field, and what's it been like splitting carries with one another? Last season, you had 36 carries against Illinois and then seven the week after.
BB: We have a good relationship off the field. It's basically the same thing -- we're total opposites, but sometimes opposites get along. And that's what it's been like. We have fun with each other, and we compete with each other. But, at the end of the day, we both know we're going to need each other. I'm going to feed off him, and he's going to feed off me.
When one guy gets going, we support. It's not something like, 'I'm against you and you're against me.' At the end of the day, we're on the same team and we're all trying to accomplish the same thing.
Final question. Franklin likes the Wildcat. You were an all-state high school quarterback. So, I'm curious -- any chance we see you throwing the ball a little, or at least lining up at quarterback for a few plays?
BB: I don't know, I don't know. Maybe. I don't know. We'll just have to wait and see. [Laughs]
Now, we want your take on which guys will join that exclusive club. Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford, Minnesota's David Cobb, Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Zach Zwinak and Northwestern's Venric Mark all have had at least one 1,000-yard season in their careers.
- Mark Weisman, Iowa: The senior has gotten extremely close to 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons, finishing just 25 yards shy in 2013. He will have to share carries with Jordan Canzeri and others, but he could be running behind the Big Ten's top offensive line.
- Tevin Coleman, Indiana: Coleman was well on his way to 1,000 yards last year before he missed the final three games because of an ankle injury. The Hoosiers could lean on their running game a bit more this season as they look to replace three of their top four receiving targets from 2013.
- Corey Clement, Wisconsin: The Badgers have Gordon but have made a habit of producing more than one 1,000-yard rusher in the same backfield. Clement steps into a much bigger role this season after the graduation of James White and should see plenty of opportunities after a tantalizing freshman campaign.
- Paul James, Rutgers: James ran for 573 yards in the first four games last year before missing the next four games because of injury. With better health, he could make a major run at the 1K mark.
- Bill Belton, Penn State: The Nittany Lions have three excellent tailbacks with Zwinak, Belton and Akeel Lynch. But with some offensive line questions, it might be hard for any one of those backs to reach 1,000 yards. Belton, however, has often looked like the most physically gifted of the trio and appears to be a player on the rise.
We've already discussed the quarterbacks -- and will have much more on the way -- so the series begins with the running backs.
Illinois: The Illini are in a bit better shape here than they were the past two springs, as veterans Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young both return. Ferguson averaged 5.5 yards per carry and added 50 receptions for 535 yards as the primary playmaker for Illinois' revamped offense. Young added 376 yards on 93 carries. The Illini are looking for others behind the top two, and Dami Ayoola is back with the team after being dismissed in September for a rules violation.
Indiana: Tevin Coleman quietly put together a superb sophomore season and leads the Hoosiers' running backs in 2014. Coleman provides big-play ability after averaging 7.3 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns on only 131 attempts in 2013. Indiana loses Stephen Houston but brings back veteran D'Angelo Roberts, who will play behind Coleman. Younger players such as sophomore Laray Smith could get a look here.
Iowa: Not only did the Hawkeyes toss AIRBHG to the side and get through the season without any major injurie, but they bring back everyone for 2014. Senior Mark Weisman leads the contingent after rushing for 975 yards and eight touchdowns last fall. Jordan Canzeri came on strong late in the season and is showing no effects from his ACL tear in 2012. Veteran Damon Bullock also returns to the mix, and Iowa has talented younger backs such as LeShun Daniels Jr. at its disposal. Good situation here.
Maryland: The Terrapins wide receivers tend to get more attention, but the team also returns its top three running backs from 2013 in Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Jacquille Veii. Maryland also regains the services of Wes Brown, who finished second on the team in rushing as a freshman in 2012 before being suspended for all of last season. Joe Riddle is back in the fold as well. The group brings different strengths, from power (Brown) to speed (Veii) to a mixture of both (Ross, Reid).
Michigan: Sophomore Derrick Green enters the spring as the frontrunner to be Michigan's lead back, although coach Brady Hoke wants to ramp up competition everywhere. The Wolverines struggled to consistently run between the tackles, but the 240-pound Green could change things. Hoke also is excited about another sophomore, De'Veon Smith. Michigan moved Ross Douglas from cornerback to running back, and Justice Hayes and Wyatt Shallman also are in the mix. "We've got more depth," Hoke said.
Michigan State: Things look much more promising than they did last spring, when the Spartans ended the session with a linebacker (Riley Bullough) as their top back. Jeremy Langford emerged as a very solid option during the season, rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. He's back as the clear-cut starter, and Nick Hill also returns. It will be interesting to see if Gerald Holmes makes a push, or whether Delton Williams remains on offense.
Minnesota: Here's another team that finds itself in very good shape at running back entering the spring. David Cobb leads the group after rushing for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. Veterans Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr. are still around, and highly touted redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards will take the field after missing last fall because of knee and ankle injuries. Perhaps the best news will come in the summer as decorated recruit Jeff Jones arrives.
Nebraska: Notice a theme here? Nebraska is yet another Big Ten squad that can feel very good about its running backs entering the spring. Ameer Abdullah elected to bypass the NFL draft for one final season at Nebraska, where he led the Big Ten with 1,690 yards on 281 carries as a junior. Abdullah will contend for national awards in the fall. Imani Cross, who rushed for 10 touchdowns last year, is one of the nation's top backups. Terrell Newby and others add depth behind the top two.
Northwestern: Top back Venric Mark (ankle) will miss spring practice following surgery, and reserve Stephen Buckley (knee) also is rehabbing, but Northwestern has no reason to panic. Treyvon Green, who filled in well for Mark last season with 736 rushing yards, will get much of the work. Warren Long also is in the mix after appearing in seven games as a true freshman. Northwestern also loaded up at running back in recruiting to solidify the position for years to come.
Ohio State: This will be a position to watch in the spring as Ohio State must replace Carlos Hyde, who was nearly unstoppable during Big Ten play last fall. Veteran Jordan Hall also departs, and Rod Smith will be the veteran of the group despite only 83 career carries. The Buckeyes have some talented young backs, from Dontre Wilson, who saw significant playing time last fall, to Bri'onte Dunn, Ezekiel Elliott and Warren Ball. Keep an eye on Elliott, who averaged 8.7 yards per carry in limited work last season but could emerge this spring.
Penn State: If it feels like Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton have been competing for carries forever at Penn State, it's because they have. Zwinak and Belton have been part of Penn State's running back rotation for the past two seasons and enter another competition this spring with talented sophomore Akeel Lynch, who rushed for 358 yards on only 60 carries last season. It will be interesting to see how much Lynch can push Zwinak and Belton in the team's first spring under a new coaching staff. Penn State has depth issues at several positions, but running back isn't one of them.
Purdue: The Boilers finished 122nd nationally in rushing offense last season, so the fact all of their running backs return might not spark mass celebration. Senior Akeem Hunt leads the group after recording 123 of the team's 319 rushing attempts in 2013. Other veteransBrandon Cottom and Raheem Mostert also are back, along with younger ball-carries such as Dayln Dawkins and three backs -- Keyante Green, David Yancey and Keith Byars II -- who redshirted last fall and could have much bigger roles.
Rutgers: Here's yet another team that returns basically its entire stable of running backs for spring ball. Paul James is the name to watch, as he rushed for 573 yards in the first four games last season before suffering a leg injury. James' health is a concern for Rutgers, which could also turn to Justin Goodwin, who showed some flashes following James' injury. Savon Huggins, who entered last season as the starter before losing ground, is in the mix as he looks to re-establish himself on the depth chart.
Wisconsin: How many teams can lose a 1,400-yard rusher and still claim to have the best running back group in the Big Ten? James White is gone, but Wisconsin remains in very good shape in the backfield. Melvin Gordon bypassed the NFL draft for another year in Madison after rushing for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. Gordon should move into more of a featured role beginning this spring, although he'll be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 yards and seven touchdowns on only 67 carries. Jeff Lewis provides another option behind the top two.
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Phil from Vancouver, Wash., writes: Lets assume Ohio State runs the table and goes undefeated. If Wisconsin can win out and end up 10-1-0-1 (W-L-T-Screwed), where do you see them ending up for a bowl? With the BIG No. 5 in AQ leagues, I don't see them in the BCS.
Adam Rittenberg: It depends on so many factors, Phil. If Ohio State doesn't make the national title game and goes to the Rose Bowl, the chances of the Big Ten receiving an at-large BCS berth go down. If the Rose Bowl loses a Big Ten team to the national title game, it likely would look for a Big Ten replacement, as long as one is eligible. Would the Rose want Wisconsin for a fourth consecutive year? Tough to tell. There are also other conferences in play, and right now you'd have to expect the SEC and Pac-12 to each send two teams to BCS bowls. And as long as Clemson and Florida State don't both fall apart, both teams are likely BCS bowl bound as well. The advantage Wisconsin would have is a long win streak to end the season, as opposed to a possible loss in the league title game, which often is the kiss of death when it comes to at-large berths.
Ian from Tacoma, Wash., writes: Adam, I know there has been some talk from you and Brian recently in regard to conference perception and how it shapes top-25 rankings and the national championship picture, but I think this is becoming more of an issue than most folks realize. Why does Georgia scraping by a pretty lousy Tennessee team (that got slaughtered by Oregon) constitute a "tough road win" by the so-called experts, yet Ohio State's road win against top-15 Northwestern gets ignored? Even further, why does Ohio State get lambasted every week for their schedule, while Oregon gets constant media praise, despite having played a MISERABLE slate of games so far? Oregon is getting credit for games they haven't played yet, while Ohio State gets punished for games it hasn't played yet. I'm getting pretty frustrated with the inconsistency and hypocrisy in how teams are portrayed, simply because of the conference in which they compete.
Adam Rittenberg: Ian, I hear ya, and Ohio State should be getting more credit for finding ways to win against good teams despite making some mistakes along the way. Georgia's win at Tennessee was vastly overvalued because the Bulldogs had so many injuries. Tennessee is mediocre at best. The Oregon example is interesting, because while Virginia and Tennessee aren't any good, it looks like the Ducks at least tried to schedule major-conference teams. Those quick to criticize Ohio State for living in cupcake city probably don't realize Vanderbilt canceled this year's game in Columbus. Vandy is no Alabama, but the Commodores are comparable to Virginia and Tennessee right now. And it's not Ohio State's fault that Cal is going through transition. Could Ohio State have done a little more with scheduling? Perhaps. But the bigger problem for the Buckeyes is the Big Ten's lousy perception, something Georgia and Oregon don't have to worry about.
Dan from Watercooler writes: True or false: Bo [Pelini's] long-term outlook with the Huskers should be more based on what he does this and maybe next season, vs. what happened last season. Reasoning: Bo's defense last season had all sorts of seniors, effectively meaning he had a cap on what he could draw from them talent-wise. We've seen glimpses of what the defense is capable of (see: first half UCLA, parts of Illinois) and can see the talent there, but it needs time to build. Counterpoint: Last year's defense consisted largely of talent he developed; he should have been able to recognize gaps in the defense and find ways to correct them.I'd give him the benefit of a doubt and say, with the seemingly more athletic players he has coming up, he should be judged more on what happens from here.
Adam Rittenberg: A nice breakdown from the water cooler, Dan. Nebraska's defense might be both younger and more talented this season. Pelini has alluded to it throughout the offseason, and I already see signs of more difference-makers with the Huskers D, especially in the front seven. That said, Pelini shouldn't get a pass for the struggles on defense last season because he brought in all of those players. Although Nebraska's move to the Big Ten probably didn't help a defense that had been shaped for the Big 12, the breakdowns in big games were inexcusable. This year's defense has had and will continue to have some growing pains, but if the unit isn't better in November than now, it falls on Pelini and the staff.
Matt from Baltimore writes: I was looking at this map of AAU schools, and I was trying to guess where the next Big Ten expansion could be. Assuming that any schools in the ACC, SEC, or Pac-12 will stay put, it looks like the most appealing school from a state bordering a Big Ten state is Kansas (a distant second is Iowa State). What do you think the odds are of a Big Ten land grab into Big 12 territory in the near future?
Adam Rittenberg: Ah, Matt, we must be overdue for an expansion question. Keep in mind that the Big 12 also has a grant of rights agreement, just like the ACC does, which makes it very difficult for schools to leave the league. The Big 12 also has great leadership now with Bob Bowlsby as commissioner. Although Texas could still send things into flux, I'd be surprised if more Big 12 schools jumped ship. The one league the Big Ten could look to, believe it or not, is the SEC, which amazingly doesn't have a grant of rights agreement. Anyone else think Missouri is a much better fit in the Big Ten than the SEC? Still, Mizzou would be giving up a lot, and I don't think the Big Ten wants to expand West when it has talked so much about being bi-regional and trying to bring in the northeast corridor. Problem is, there aren't any great candidates on the East Coast.
Matt from Iowa writes: Who will be the last to surrender a rushing touchdown, Iowa or Michigan?
Adam Rittenberg: I'm going with Michigan, especially since Iowa is off this week and the Wolverines face a Penn State team that, while lagging in rushing offense, has 11 rushing touchdowns through the first five games. I have Akeel Lynch scoring the game-winning touchdown for Penn State on Saturday, so I think the Wolverines' run of zero rush touchdowns ends.
Mike from Minneapolis writes: Thoughts on the selection committee? As a Nebraska fan, I'm not all that thrilled to see that if they come into the playoff discussion Osborne/Alvarez will have to leave the room and their fate will be decided by a group of southerners.
Adam Rittenberg: I'm glad you asked, Mike, as I didn't get much chance to address this last weekend. While I understand your concern about Nebraska and the ties that both Tom Osborne and Barry Alvarez have to the school, I couldn't be happier with these choices to represent the Big Ten on the committee. They're both home runs: smart football men who have served as administrations and have thick enough skin to handle the job after coaching major programs for a long time. Alvarez was the overwhelming choice among sitting athletic directors to represent the Big Ten when we conducted a poll back in July, and it would have been a close race between Alvarez and Osborne if Osborne still served as Nebraska's AD. Big Ten fans should be really pleased with these two.
Jon from Columbus writes: Adam, Michigan has allowed seven offensive TDs in five games so far, and yet ... and yet ... you're calling for PSU to score 38 on them on Saturday? I just don't see your reasoning based on any sound football analysis. Listen, Penn State might beat Michigan this week. But if it happens, it very likely won't come in a fireworks-filled offensive shootout.
Adam Rittenberg: Jon, maybe the score prediction is a little high, but Michigan has faced only one decent offense (Notre Dame) through the first five games -- the other four are ranked 106th or worse nationally -- and hasn't done much defensively to stand out aside from allowing no rushing touchdowns. Tommy Rees made plays against Michigan's secondary but couldn't avoid the turnover. Christian Hackenberg has more natural ability than Rees and poses a bigger challenge for the Wolverines, who still don't have any standouts on defense (Jake Ryan comes back soon). This is a great chance for Michigan's defense to stand out against a good quarterback in a tough road setting. But I expect to see quite a few points scored at Beaver Stadium.
Let's get it started
INDIANA at MICHIGAN STATE
Brian Bennett: Ah, what can top the majesty of a trophy modeled after a spit receptacle? This is a fascinating game in terms of an offense versus defense showdown. I think Indiana can make some plays in its passing game, but Michigan State's improving offense, behind Connor Cook and a strong running game behind Jeremy Langford, makes the difference. Michigan State 28, Indiana 21
Adam Rittenberg: I love the matchup of strength (Michigan State's defense) versus strength (Indiana's offense) at Spartan Stadium. It'll be a mixed bag for Hoosiers quarterback Nate Sudfeld with two touchdown passes and two interceptions, but Michigan State once again contains the run game and gets a pick-six from Trae Waynes. The Spartans offense is gaining confidence at the right time, and wideout Macgarrett Kings adds two more touchdowns as Michigan State uses a big third quarter to win again. Michigan State 30, Indiana 20
NEBRASKA at PURDUE
Rittenberg: Taylor Martinez watches as Tommy Armstrong Jr. leads the offense to another big performance against a leaky Purdue defense. Armstrong fires a first-half touchdown pass and Ameer Abdullah goes for 130 yards and two scores. Boilers quarterback Danny Etling sparks his team to an early lead before Nebraska takes control in the second quarter. Nebraska 38, Purdue 21
Bennett: Nebraska hits the road for the first time, but there's nowhere you'd rather play right now in this league than West Lafayette, Ind., if you have to leave home. I agree that Abdullah will have a monster game, and the Huskers pick Etling off twice in a dominant effort. Nebraska 38, Purdue 14
NORTHWESTERN at WISCONSIN
Bennett: Is there any way this can end except in a close game and a tough loss for one of these teams? I say no, especially since these could be the second- and third-best teams in the league, in some order. Northwestern grabs an early 10-point lead, but Wisconsin comes back on a pair of Joel Stave touchdown passes to Jared Abbrederis. Wisconsin 33, Northwestern 30
Rittenberg: The Wildcats commit more defenders to the run in this one, but Melvin Gordon still breaks loose for two long touchdown runs. Wisconsin has some trouble with Northwestern's pass game, and the Wildcats record a special-teams touchdown from Venric Mark. But the Badgers surge in the fourth quarter behind Gordon, James White and a powerful offensive line as Northwestern's close-game heartbreak continues. Wisconsin 31, Northwestern 27
MICHIGAN at PENN STATE
Rittenberg: I'm going with the upset here as feisty Bill O'Brien lights a fire under his team, which plays a much better game under the lights before the home faithful. It's be a shootout, and both Christian Hackenberg and Devin Gardner eclipse 250 pass yards. But Gardner commits a turnover midway through the fourth quarter, and Penn State scores in the final minute on an Akeel Lynch run. Penn State 38, Michigan 35
Bennett: This should be a close one, as both teams have strengths but also some glaring issues. O'Brien commits to the run game early and Zach Zwinak scores two touchdowns, but Penn State's issues in the secondary are exposed by Gardner and Jeremy Gallon, and Gardner scoots in for the winning score with less than two minutes left. Michigan 28, Penn State 24.
That's how we see things playing out Saturday afternoon, but we're not done yet. It's time to hear from our guest picker. As a reminder, throughout the season we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please), hometown and a brief description why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.
This week's guest picker is Barry Uphoff from Palo Alto, Calif. Barry, the floor is yours
I should be your Big Ten guest picker of the week! Was born in Nebraska, have lived in Chicago and been in every stadium in the Big Ten to see a game -- Lincoln is of course my favorite. So why should I be the guest picker for the week? Living in Pac-12 land, especially Palo Alto, is tough! Anything I can do to spend more time on the Big Ten and less time hearing about the Pac-12, the better. If I have to see or hear about the dancing tree one more time, I am going to chop the tree down! Sincerely, George Washington.
(Editor's note: As a Berkeley, Calif., native, I can't stand the Tree, either. Adam)
Here are Barry's Week 7 picks
Michigan State 31, Indiana 21
Nebraska 35, Purdue 24
Wisconsin 35, Northwestern 28
Michigan 27, Penn State 24
Adam Rittenberg: 47-8
Brian Bennett: 47-8
Guest pickers: 42-13
We gave the Wolverines the benefit of the doubt after the Akron game and kept them at No. 2. After Saturday night's slopfest at Connecticut, we can no longer keep Michigan in the second slot. Northwestern looked lackluster for the second straight week but avoided the major scare Michigan has endured. Wisconsin, meanwhile, might be the league's second-best squad. We'll find out a lot about the Badgers this week in Columbus.
Minnesota and Iowa make nice moves this week, while Indiana takes a tumble.
As a reminder, we keep these rankings consistent with how we vote in the ESPN.com Top 25. Here's one final look at last week's power poll.
Let's get to the rundown ...
1. Ohio State (4-0, last week: 1): We'll finally get a gauge on these Buckeyes as they open Big Ten play Saturday night against Wisconsin, but the recent results have been encouraging. Braxton Miller's absence once again didn't faze Ohio State, which scored 34 points in the first quarter and received a nice boost from running back Carlos Hyde in his season debut. Backup signal-caller Kenny Guiton continued his surge with a school-record six touchdown passes. Miller likely returns this week, but the Buckeyes' offense clearly is more than just one man this season.
2. Northwestern (4-0, last week: 3): For whatever reason, Northwestern looks worse against weaker nonleague foes than seemingly stronger ones. The Wildcats had more positives against Cal and Syracuse than Western Michigan and Maine, although they were never in serious danger of losing in the past two weeks. Linebacker Damien Proby sparked a takeaway-driven defense Saturday. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian struggled but have two weeks to prepare for Ohio State, when running back Venric Mark is expected back.
3. Wisconsin (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten; last week: 4): Credit Gary Andersen's players for not letting last week's unfortunate ending linger as they opened Big Ten play against Purdue. Wisconsin went back to what it does best, overpowering opponents with the run game, as Melvin Gordon and James White combined for 292 rush yards and four touchdowns. The Badgers' defense bottled up Purdue, surrendering only 12 first downs, 45 rush yards and 180 total yards. You have to like how Wisconsin is performing before this week's showdown in Columbus.
4. Michigan (4-0, last week: 2): The Akron game could be forgivingly dismissed as a letdown. But when many of the same issues surface for the second straight week against a poor opponent, it's reason to be concerned. Michigan won't stay perfect much longer if quarterback Devin Gardner keeps turning over the ball (he leads the nation with 10 turnovers) and the offensive line endures periods of inconsistent play. Coach Brady Hoke and his staff have plenty of items to address this week before the Jug game against potentially undefeated Minnesota.
5. Nebraska (3-1, last week: 6): After a turbulent eight days, Bo Pelini wanted his players to have some fun in their final nonleague tuneup. The offense had plenty despite playing without top quarterback Taylor Martinez, eclipsing 300 pass yards and 300 rush yards. Reserve quarterbacks Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg III both performed well. The defense had a lot less fun, however, surrendering 465 yards in a performance that Pelini labeled its worst of the season. Nebraska has to get a handle on its defense this week before opening Big Ten play against Illinois.
6. Minnesota (4-0, last week: 7): Knock San Jose State if you must, but the Spartans provided the biggest test for Minnesota to date, and the Gophers passed it with flying colors. Minnesota showed the physical dominance coach Jerry Kill has been waiting for, piling up 353 rush yards and six touchdowns behind quarterback Mitch Leidner and running back David Cobb. Although San Jose State's David Fales showed why he's an NFL prospect, the Gophers continued to force turnovers. Minnesota hosts Iowa this week in a game that has more than bacon on the line.
7. Michigan State (3-1, last week: 5): The Spartans looked like the better team for much of Saturday's game at Notre Dame. But many of the same issues that surfaced in close losses last season -- stalled drives, dropped passes, not enough takeaways and missed field goals -- surfaced in a 17-13 setback. Coach Mark Dantonio and his players say this feels different, and that they can overcome their errors to make some noise in a wide-open Legends Division. The defense remains championship-level, but there are other issues to sort out, namely quarterback.
8. Penn State (3-1, last week: 8): Kent State's woeful offense turned out to be the perfect cure for a Nittany Lions defense that struggled mightily in a Week 3 loss to Central Florida. Safety Ryan Keiser and cornerback Jordan Lucas helped trigger Penn State's first shutout since 2010, as the Lions allowed only nine first downs and 190 total yards. The run game once again surged behind Akeel Lynch (123 rush yards) and others. Penn State's defense will face much greater tests when Big Ten play begins in two weeks.
9. Iowa (3-1, last week: 11): Kirk Ferentz's crew is clearly on the rise after its most complete performance in recent memory. Iowa received numerous contributions on offense, two punt return touchdowns from Kevonte Martin-Manley and a pick-six from B.J. Lowery -- all during a 38-point first half against Western Michigan. Lowery added another pick-six in the second half and stomped the Broncos. After a rough start to the season, Iowa has the momentum it needs heading into a pivotal Big Ten opener against Minnesota.
10. Illinois (2-1, last week: 10): The Illini sat back and watched the rest of the Big Ten in Week 4, enjoying the first of two open weeks. They'll have an excellent chance to improve to 3-1 this week against an 0-3 Miami (Ohio) squad that was shut out Saturday against Cincinnati and has scored just 21 points in its first three games. This is the perfect opportunity for Illinois' defense to rebound after getting gashed by Washington in Week 3. Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase tries to bounce back after completing just 9 of 25 pass attempts.
11. Indiana (2-2, last week: 9): Just when Indiana appears ready to turn a corner, it becomes Indiana again. For the second time in three games, Indiana limped out of the gate and fell behind, never finding a good offensive rhythm and struggling to stop Missouri's balanced attack. Missouri piled up 623 yards, a Memorial Stadium record for an Indiana opponent. The Hoosiers' defense remains far too vulnerable, and quarterback Nate Sudfeld struggled, throwing three interceptions. There's a lot to fix in the open week before Penn State comes to town.
12. Purdue (1-3, 0-1 Big Ten; last week: 12): Trips to Madison haven't been kind to the Boilers, and Saturday's proved to be no exception as Darrell Hazell's team took a step back after an encouraging performance against Notre Dame. When you can't run the ball or stop the run, you have no chance, and Purdue struggled mightily in both areas. Hazell admits Purdue must do some "soul searching" following a rough start, and things don't get any easier this week against Jordan Lynch and Northern Illinois.
- Canada native Akeel Lynch struggled with the death of his father at age 7, adjusted to the American lifestyle and is now a Penn State tailback brimming with potential. Who's the next PSU alum who should have his jersey retired? Mike Poorman weighs in and mentions the likes of W.T. Dunn and Wally Triplett.
- Teddy Greenstein looks into whether top jobs at Texas or USC could tempt Pat Fitzgerald into leaving Northwestern. Previewing the Western Michigan-Northwestern contest really comes down to the Wildcats' opponent just not being that good.
- Michigan wants to give Derrick Green more carries, but Fitz Toussaint is getting the job done. Here are four things to watch in the Akron-UM game Saturday.
- Cal is OSU's marquee nonconference game and, Bob Hunter writes, that means "it might be time to take down the marquee." Five Buckeyes could have their first breakout performances of their careers this weekend.
- DE Shilique Calhoun is a smiling, friendly person now -- but he wasn't always like that. The Michigan State sophomore was shaped by a middle-school bullying tragedy. The Spartans clearly have the overall advantage against Youngstown State, but the Penguins have the edge at a few positions.
- Last season's Nebraska-UCLA matchup was a disaster for the Cornhuskers, and Dick Chatelain reflects and tries to wrap his mind around the nature of missed tackles. Nebraska's freshman linebackers are ready for their first big test this season.
- Minnesota's passing offense hasn't exactly been dynamic these first two weeks, but don't expect a shift from the Gophers' run-first mentality. With the injury to Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick Williams should see a lot more touches against Western Illinois.
- Wisconsin center Dan Voltz lost his starting job following an injury, but he's still waiting patiently for another chance. Sophomore linebacker Joe Schobert should play a key role against Arizona State's fast-paced offense.
- Here are four key matchups to the Purdue-Notre Dame game. The Boilermakers' defensive line is solid and could pose problems for Notre Dame.
- Iowa State quarterback Sam Richardson and Iowa signal-caller Jake Rudock are both Florida natives and will meet in Iowa City on Saturday. The Hawkeyes' and Cyclones' coaches combine to make more than $10 million.
- Former linebacker Dick Butkus said he's gotten "kind of embarrassed" with the way his alma mater has played. A look at the most important players for Illinois this week.
- Indiana knows it has to solve its defensive problems if it wants to beat Bowling Green. Robby Howard thinks it's time to end the quarterback debate and that Nate Sudfeld should be the starter.
Let's dive in ...
BOWLING GREEN at INDIANA
Brian Bennett: Bowling Green has looked terrific in its first two games, while Indiana's defense was all but absent last week versus Navy. Different styles, but I think the Falcons seize on the Hoosiers' weaknesses. They kick a field goal late for my not-very-special upset special. ... Bowling Green 37, Indiana 34
Adam Rittenberg: I had Indiana beating Navy and losing this game entering the season, so naturally, I'm picking the Hoosiers to win after falling to Navy. The defense bounces back a little against a more conventional offense, and Nate Sudfeld consistently attacks downfield to Kofi Hughes and Shane Wynn. Sudfeld rallies IU in the fourth quarter and finds Ted Bolser for the game-winning touchdown. ... Indiana 38, Bowling Green 35
WESTERN ILLINOIS at MINNESOTA
Rittenberg: Can you wake me when Minnesota finally starts playing someone? Quarterback Philip Nelson adds two more rushing scores as the Gophers pull away early in the third quarter following a Ra'Shede Hageman forced fumble. Then we can look ahead to San Jose State. ... Minnesota 37, Western Illinois 17
Bennett: There's not much interesting about this game, except that we get to throw around the word "Leathernecks." It's a good week to get Mitch Leidner some experience. ... Minnesota 35, Western Illinois 13
UCLA at NEBRASKA
Bennett: I've gone back and forth on this all week, but in the end I worry that Nebraska's home-field advantage won't be enough to overcome its youth on defense. Brett Hundley amasses five total touchdowns, and the Huskers come up just short on their final drive. ... UCLA 38, Nebraska 34
Rittenberg: Nebraska's defense remains a big concern, especially against Hundley, but with no Johnathan Franklin, the early kickoff and a long trip, I expect UCLA to be a big sluggish. Martinez delivers a turnover-free performance in a big game and finds Quincy Enunwa for the game-winning touchdown pass in the final minute. ... Nebraska 35, UCLA 34
AKRON at MICHIGAN
Rittenberg: UCF's Blake Bortles abused Akron for big plays in Week 1. Devin Gardner, eat your heart out. The Gardner-Gallon connection cranks up again as Jeremy Gallon hauls in two more touchdowns. Fitzgerald Toussaint goes for 120 rush yards and a score as Michigan rolls. ... Michigan 45, Akron 17
Brian Bennett: Akron has won four games since the end of the 2009 season. Notre Dame hangover? Maybe, but it won't matter one bit. ... Michigan 48, Akron 10
YOUNGSTOWN STATE at MICHIGAN STATE
Bennett: Is Jim Tressel back coaching Youngstown State? Maybe then the Penguins would have a chance. The Spartans play Connor Cook and Damion Terry and get only two touchdown drives out of both of them. But the defense scores again. ... Michigan State 27, Youngstown State 3
Rittenberg: I'm tempted to go with the Penguins since Michigan State's offense is ice cold (be sure to tip your waitress). This will be close for three quarters, but Michigan State's Terry steps up late with a touchdown pass and a touchdown run (yes, two offensive touchdowns). Sadly, no touchdown for Bane this week. ... Michigan State 24, Youngstown State 10
IOWA at IOWA STATE
Rittenberg: Do I have to pick a winner here? Iowa took a step back last week in many ways, although the power run stepped up when the team needed a lift. This will be a sloppy game on both sides, but Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock, along with the offensive line, prove to be the difference in the fourth quarter. ... Iowa 19, Iowa State 17
Bennett: Kirk Ferentz really needs this game. Then again, so does Paul Rhoads after losing to Northern Iowa in the opener. I don't expect many fireworks, either, but the Cyclones are just a little more desperate and have the momentum in this series. They win it on an overtime field goal. ... Iowa State 16, Iowa 13
UCF at PENN STATE
Bennett: UCF is a trendy sleeper pick and has an experienced quarterback. But Penn State's defense is a major step up from Conference USA/American Athletic competition. It's close for a half, but Christian Hackenberg gets going in the third quarter with a pair of touchdown tosses to Allen Robinson, and Bill O'Brien tops George O'Leary. ... Penn State 27, UCF 17
Rittenberg: Tricky game for Bill O'Brien's crew, but I expect Penn State's defense to do enough against Blake Bortles and a talented UCF offense. UCF jumps out to an early lead, but Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch spark Penn State's rushing attack in the second half, each scoring a touchdown as the Lions prevail. ... Penn State 34, UCF 27
WASHINGTON vs. ILLINOIS (at Chicago)
Rittenberg: Washington is the more talented and experienced team, and a lot needs to go right for the Illini to pull off the upset. I see another fast start for Illinois against a Huskies team that struggles on the road and might be a little sleepy following a bye week. Nathan Scheelhaase throws two more touchdown passes, but Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins proves to be the difference with 120 receiving yards and a score. ... Washington 31, Illinois 21
Bennett: I'd like to pick the Illini here because it would be a great story. They certainly proved me wrong last week in a big way. I still think Washington is just a little too talented, though. Keith Price throws four touchdown passes, making him the best quarterback Soldier Field has seen in a while. (That one's for you, Adam.) ... Washington 37, Illinois 23
OHIO STATE at CALIFORNIA
Bennett: Cal played Northwestern pretty tough and then ... almost lost to Portland State? Inconsistency should be expected, I guess, with a freshman QB and a new coach. There are going to be a whole lot of big plays in this one, and I suspect Kenny Guiton will see the majority of the action. Big coming-out party for Dontre Wilson here. ... Ohio State 49, Cal 28
Rittenberg: Cal provides a nice test for Ohio State's young defense, but the presence of cornerback Bradley Roby should help hold one of the Bears' standout wide receivers (Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs) in check. Ohio State has too much at the line of scrimmage and will use its ground game of Jordan Hall, Rod Smith and Wilson to outlast the Bears. ... Ohio State 38, Cal 27
NOTRE DAME at PURDUE
Rittenberg: The Boilers have shown me nothing to suggest they can knock off a team like Notre Dame, which is pretty darn good despite last week's loss in Ann Arbor, Mich. Purdue starts strong but can't finish two early drives. The Irish then take over with their rushing attack, led by Amir Carlisle, and force two second-half takeaways. ... Notre Dame 38, Purdue 17
Bennett: Circle the wagons, Purdue. It's going to be a long couple months. ... Notre Dame 35, Purdue 7
WESTERN MICHIGAN at NORTHWESTERN
Bennett: Western Michigan just lost to Nicholls State. OK, then. Northwestern might not be quite as sharp after two big games, but it won't need to be. Kain Colter rushes for 100 yards and a pair of scores, and he and Trevor Siemian both get an early rest. ... Northwestern 38, Western Michigan 10
Rittenberg: Previous Northwestern teams might be ripe for a letdown, but not the 2013 squad. Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian deliver another strong performance, combining for five touchdowns (three pass, two rush), including two scoring passes to Christian Jones. The defense forces two more turnovers as the Wildcats cruse. ... Northwestern 41, Western Michigan 17
WISCONSIN at ARIZONA STATE
Rittenberg: I just don't like the matchup for the Badgers, even though they've been so impressive early on. Arizona State's strength (pass game) goes up against Wisconsin's weakness (secondary), and although the Badgers control the clock with their run game, the Sun Devils hit in too many big plays. Too much Taylor Kelly in this one. ... Arizona State 35, Wisconsin 28
Bennett: I think big Will Sutton will be a shock to the system to Wisconsin offensive linemen used to dealing with the UMass and Tennessee Tech lines of the world. The secondary also gets burned a few too many times. Joel Stave throws two interceptions to thwart a comeback attempt, and Big Ten teams stay thirsty in the desert. ... Arizona State 28, Wisconsin 20.
Wait, we're not done yet. It's time for our guest picker of the week. Oh, you haven't heard? Throughout the season, we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please) and hometown and a brief description why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.
We found this week's picker in the desert: Adam Fraser from Gilbert, Ariz.
The floor is yours:
I'm a lifelong Husker fan living in Arizona. I'm a season-ticket holder and couldn't make it back for the UCLA game. I just started a new career at Prudential and my boss played football for UCLA. I've followed your blog for years and constantly smash your predictions. Let me put it on record at least one week, the Huskers biggest week of the year!! Thanks Adam (do it for your fellow Adam).
Other Adam's picks ...
Bowling Green 42, Indiana 40
Minnesota 30, Western Illinois 20
Nebraska 41, UCLA 37
Michigan 45, Akron 6
Michigan State 20, Youngstown State 13
Iowa 20, Iowa State 16
Penn State 24, UCF 13
Washington 31, Illinois 30
Ohio State 30, California 28
Notre Dame 38, Purdue 14
Northwestern 48, Western Michigan 10
Arizona State 34, Wisconsin 20
Brian Bennett: 22-2
Adam Rittenberg: 21-3
Guest pickers: 18-6
- Video from Urban Meyer's Monday press conference, as well as notes previewing Cal and updates on players. The Buckeyes actually have more swag with Kenny Guiton in the huddle. Here's a video of what it would be like to be on the field at halftime. The "Are You Smarter than a Wolverine" was coincidence says the band director.
- The Wall Street Journal's podcast takes a look at whether Devin Gardner should wear No. 98. Michigan hopes to avoid a drop in energy from the Notre Dame game to the Akron game. AD Dave Brandon hopes to have a yearly night game in Michigan Stadium. Shawn Windsor says Gardner has been displayed NFL potential already this season.
- Teddy Greenstein takes a look at whether Pat Fitzgerald would ever leave NU. AND SB Nation looks at whether Fitzgerald is the hottest coaching candidate in 2013. Northwestern emphasizes "rips, strips and tips" on defense. The Wildcats must stay focused against a lesser opponent in Western Michigan this weekend.
- The Badgers impress Arizona State coach Todd Graham and other notes for the the Wisconsin-ASU matchup. The warm ups are over for Wisconsin as they head to Tempe. Wisconsin's defense is ready for the spread.
- Video and notes from Bo Pelini's Monday press conference. UCLA is coming to Nebraska and Pelini says the Cornhuskers owe them one. A photo of the Cornhuskers' black uniforms for this Saturday.
- A nice feature on Penn State RB Akeel Lynch, aka "The Big Maple." UCF's George O'Leary is Bill O'Brien's biggest mentor in the game, but that doesn't matter Saturday. If the Nittany Lions defeat UCF this weekend, they could likely start the season 5-0.
- Philip Nelson leads not only the Gophers on the ground, but the Big Ten as well. Minnesota-San Jose State will be played at 11 a.m. CT on Sept. 21. San Jose State has a bye week before Minnesota but it is not taking much of a break.
- MSU RB Nick Hill is a bright spot in a struggling offense. Youngstown State is excited for the chance to take down Michigan State. If the offense doesn't improve, MSU is risking its team chemistry, writes Terry Foster. Freshman RB RJ Shelton will also play some WR.
- The Illini's offense has come to life under Bill Cubit. Illinois picked up a few votes in the latest national polls. Video of Tim Beckman's press conference from Monday.
- IU looks to improve its run game, which has stats that coach Kevin Wilson describes as "horrible." Wilson and AD Fred Glass aren't on the same page about comments made about Navy. Video of Wilson's Monday press conference.
- Hawkeyes turn their focus to Iowa-Iowa State week. Iowa State says this game will be just as exciting even though there's not as much buzz as usual. Announcers John Walters and Gary Dolphin weigh in on the Iowa-Iowa State rivalry game this weekend.
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
Final Iowa 24 Pittsburgh 20 Final Eastern Michigan 14 11 Michigan State 73 Final Western Illinois 7 Northwestern 24 Final Southern Illinois 13 Purdue 35 Final Bowling Green 17 19 Wisconsin 68 Final Maryland 34 Syracuse 20 Final Utah 26 Michigan 10 Final Rutgers 31 Navy 24 Final Massachusetts 7 Penn State 48 Final San Jose State 7 Minnesota 24 Final Texas State 35 Illinois 42 Final Indiana 31 18 Missouri 27 Final Miami (FL) 31 24 Nebraska 41