Big Ten: Blake Bortles

Comparing Hackenberg to past elite QBs

September, 19, 2014
9/19/14
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Christian Hackenberg has made just 15 starts, but there is no shortage of hype surrounding the Penn State quarterback: One AFC scout recently called him the top quarterback in college football, and The Sporting News asked months ago whether he would go No. 1 in the 2016 NFL draft.

So, right now, how does Hackenberg stack up with the top quarterbackss of past years?

To find out, we looked at the first 15 starts of the past five quarterbacks who were taken first at their position in the NFL draft. The lone exception was the 2011 draft, where we skipped over Cam Newton since he made starts in junior college and instead went with the second drafted quarterback.

So far, Hackenberg has thrown for more yards than any of those past quarterbacks -- 310-of-519 passing (59.7 percent) for 4,037 yards, 24 TDs and 15 INTs -- although he’s also received the least amount of run support.

Here’s a closer look at those past quarterbacks:


Sam Bradford, Oklahoma, started from 2007 to 2009

No. 1 overall NFL draft pick (2010) by St. Louis Rams

Bradford
Bradford
The stats (in first 15 starts): 254-of-363 passing (70 percent), 3,304 yards, 38 TDs, 8 INTs; 31 rushes for 7 yards and no TDs

The run-game support (in first 15 starts): Oklahoma averaged slightly more than 41 carries a game for 190 yards (4.6 ypc). The Sooners ran the ball on about 59 percent of their offensive plays.

The highlights (in first 15 starts): Bradford didn’t come into Oklahoma as a highly touted recruit, but he stepped up in a big way when he won the job as a redshirt freshman. In his first career game, against North Texas, he set a school record for most passing yards in a half by going 20-of-22 for 350 yards. He won the Big 12 championship as a redshirt freshman and broke the NCAA freshman record for passing TDs.


Jake Locker, Washington, started from 2007 to 2010

No. 8 overall NFL draft pick (2011) by Tennessee Titans

Locker
The stats (in first 15 starts): 200-of-412 passing (48.5 percent), 2,523 yards, 15 TDs, 15 INTs; 218 rushes for 1,149 yards and 16 TDs.

The run-game support (in first 15 starts): Washington averaged 40 carries a game for 175 yards (4.4 ypc), but Locker was a big reason for that. Including Locker’s runs, this offense ran the ball 56 percent of the time.

The highlights (in first 15 starts): He went 3-12 in his first 15 games, but he was named the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year in addition to making some freshman All-American teams. His best game, statistically, came against Arizona in 2007 when he passed for 336 yards, rushed for another 157 yards and scored four total TDs. An injury derailed his sophomore season during the 16th game of his career.


Andrew Luck, Stanford, started from 2009 to 2011

No. 1 overall NFL draft pick (2012) by Indianapolis Colts

Luck
The stats (in first 15 starts): 207-of-358 passing (57.8 percent), 3,249 yards, 23 TD, 4 INT; 74 rushes for 494 yards and 3 TDs

The run-game support (in first 15 starts): Stanford averaged 41 carries a game for 228 yards (5.5 ypc), although Stanford aired it out the more Luck progressed. This offense ran the ball 63 percent of the time in Luck’s first 15 games.

The highlights (in first 15 starts): In back-to-back weeks as a redshirt freshman, Luck helped knock off two top-15 teams -- No. 7 Oregon, 51-42, and No. 11 USC, 55-21. He threw four touchdown passes and no interceptions in those two games. But this was a run-first team; Luck threw more than 29 passes just four times in those first 15 games, and it was no coincidence that all four were losses since Stanford was trying to mount a comeback. He led the Pac-10 in pass efficiency as a redshirt freshman, but really made a name for himself in 2010.


EJ Manuel, Florida State, started from 2009 to 2012

No. 16 overall NFL draft pick (2013) by Buffalo Bills

Manuel
The stats (in first 15 starts): 260-of-380 passing (68 percent), 3,251 yards, 18 TDs, 14 INTs; 144 rushes for 441 yards and 6 TDs

The run-game support (in first 15 starts): Florida State averaged 35 carries a game for 150 yards (4.3 ypc). The Seminoles also ran the ball 56 percent of the time.

The highlights (in first 15 starts): Manuel’s first 15 starts came over the span of three seasons, but he always had a high completion percentage. He posted a 3-1 record as a redshirt freshman and was the Gator Bowl MVP. Against Maryland, to keep FSU bowl-eligible, he led a game-winning touchdown drive with 2:31 left. He also started two games as a redshirt sophomore and won the job as a redshirt junior, when he really burst onto the scene.


Blake Bortles, Central Florida, started from 2012 to 2013

No. 3 overall NFL draft pick (2014) by Jacksonville Jaguars

Bortles
The stats (in first 15 starts): 269-of-423 passing (63.5 percent), 3,373 yards, 28 TDs, 7 INTs; 93 rushes for 287 yards and 8 TDs

The run-game support (in first 15 starts): Central Florida averaged 38 carries a game for 180 yards (4.7 ypc). The Knights also ran the ball 56 percent of the time.

The highlights (in first 15 starts): He redshirted, then played in 10 games as a redshirt freshman -- but didn’t start until his redshirt sophomore season. The Knights fell in the Conference USA title game, but Bortles was still named to the all-conference team and earned MVP honors in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl.
Michigan will travel to Happy Valley on Saturday for its 17th meeting against Penn State. So, in preparation of the game, Michigan beat writer Chantel Jennings and Penn State beat writer Josh Moyer sat down to discuss four key questions surrounding the contest.

What's the X-factor for the Michigan-PSU game?

Jennings: Whether Michigan can get control early. If this is close going into the fourth quarter, I don’t like Michigan’s chances. It should come as no surprise -- especially with a young QB like Christian Hackenberg -- that Penn State gets better as the game goes on. The Nittany Lions have scored 21 first-quarter points but 65 fourth-quarter points. The crowd will be behind Hackenberg and his offense so if it comes down to a fourth-quarter stand from the Michigan D I just don’t see it happening.

Moyer: Turnovers. I know, I know -- they're an X-factor in every game. But bear with me here. Neither of these teams often finds itself on the right side of the turnover battle -- both are tied for 97th this season in turnover margin -- and they've both managed to win in spite of that. And it's a toss-up Saturday to see who'll take advantage. Michigan is turning the ball over, on average, a little bit more than twice a game. Only 17 FBS teams are worse. On the flip side, only a dozen teams in the FBS have forced fewer turnovers than Penn State. Something has to give. For either team to finish even plus one would be big.

Which player is the most important?

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesThe maddening inconsistency of Devin Gardner will play a major role on Saturday in State College.
Jennings: Michigan QB Devin Gardner. This could be a high-scoring game depending on how Michigan’s defense handles Hackenberg and whether Gardner is himself or just a shell of himself. If the Gardner who showed up against Akron and UConn is on the one who takes the field this Saturday, things could get ugly fast. Penn State isn’t the friendliest of environments, and we’ve seen how mistakes pile up on the road. The offense hinges on his performance and if Michigan wants to win, Gardner needs to take care of the ball and run this offense like he can.

Moyer: Gardner. The opponent's passing games have dictated a lot for PSU. Just look at their two losses: Blake Bortles was the key in the UCF-PSU game, and Indiana's passing game posted 336 yards. Gardner might not be a better passer than Bortles, but he's easily the best athlete under center that PSU has faced. If he escapes the pocket, Penn State is in trouble. If Gardner plays like he did against Akron and UConn, Penn State wins. If he plays like he did against Notre Dame and Minnesota, Penn State loses.

What's the matchup to watch?

Jennings: Penn State’s secondary against wide receiver Devin Funchess. After the Minnesota game, teams are going to key in on Funchess. Physically, I can’t really see many defensive backs in the country having the inherent advantage in this battle, but I think it’ll be very interesting to see how the sophomore handles the added pressure and coverage.

Moyer: DT DaQuan Jones vs. U-M interior. The 318-pound tackle is Penn State's most dominant defensive player, and the Wolverines' interior isn't exactly a strength. Graham Glasgow made his first start at center last week, and Jones has the ability to take over a game. He's second -- yes, second -- on the team in tackles with 30, and he leads PSU with two sacks and 6.5 stops in the backfield. If Penn State's defensive line gets a good push Saturday, or U-M's tailbacks have difficulty running up the middle, it'll almost certainly be due to Jones.

Which team has the advantage?

Jennings: If all things were equal and it just came down to each team playing to its potential, I’d say Michigan would have the advantage. However, the Wolverines have not played well on the road and Beaver Stadium is going to provide a huge challenge. Communication issues are going to pop up and considering this will be just the second start for this group as a unit on the offensive line -- and just the second start with Glasgow and Gardner together -- I have to believe mistakes will be made that will heavily favor Penn State.

Moyer: Michigan. The main issue surrounding the Wolverines seems to be which Gardner will show up. The main issue surrounding Penn State is ... well ... there's a lot more than one issue. That's the problem. There has been no No. 2 receiving threat, the running game has been inconsistent, the linebackers have looked lost at times, and the secondary remains a weakness. To me, that seems to be too many question marks against a ranked team. Inconsistent or not, the Wolverines have made the plays when they've needed to. The same cannot be said of Penn State. Could Penn State pull this one out? Absolutely. But it would most certainly be an upset.

PSU secondary not focusing on the past

October, 3, 2013
10/03/13
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Safety Adrian Amos didn't want to talk about Central Florida's passing attack on Wednesday.

Amos kept his chinstrap buckled after that 34-31 loss in mid-September, even during the singing of the alma mater. He didn't talk to the media then; few players were eager to say much after that loss.

But that game was in the past, Amos insisted. He wasn't thinking about UCF's passing game or the sting of walking to the locker room without tugging on the victory bell. Indiana is another team, another opportunity against a high-powered passing attack, and he said that's what his team is focusing on.

"We're just looking at Indiana as Indiana," he said. "We're just looking at Indiana based on what they do."

The cornerback-turned-safety couldn't be blamed for wanting to place his focus elsewhere, even if Indiana's passing offense is ranked higher than the Knights'. UCF quarterback Blake Bortles played nearly a perfect game against the PSU secondary by completing 20-of-27 passes for 288 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. He finished with a QBR of 96.7; a perfect score is 100.

Penn State players this week were continually peppered with questions about UCF because Indiana's passing offense might just be better -- at least it certainly is statistically. (Indiana boasts the nation's eighth-ranked passing offense, while UCF is No. 22.) Some wondered whether PSU's secondary was in for a repeat of the UCF game. Or if Penn State would fare better this time around.

Defensive tackle DaQuan Jones came the closest to addressing Central Florida this week, but even he wouldn't totally admit to reflecting on it.

"It's always in the back of my mind -- but, at the same time, it's not," Jones said. "We want to go out there and play our game the way it's supposed to be played, Penn State-style.

"They are two completely different offenses. Indiana is more fast paced, quick throw -- stuff like that. I learned from UCF that I have to pick my game up that much more."

The UCF game was a popular topic of conversation because it's the only above-average passing offense the Nittany Lions have faced so far. UCF is the lone top-40 passing offense PSU has gone against -- and that outcome was far from ideal.

Jones said Indiana would be the most up-tempo offense the defense sees all season. Head coach Bill O'Brien focused on the issue of space during a Tuesday press conference, mentioning the word six times and explaining how the Hoosiers tend to get the ball to their playmakers.

Because of that, tackling is more important than ever. Missed tackles can lead to big, explosive plays in space -- yet another issue in the loss to Central Florida.

"They're going to probably get the ball to their playmakers out in space," cornerback Jordan Lucas said, "And they're going to try to make us make tackles in space. That's what the game is going to be."

Indiana tight end Ted Bolser said he watched eight hours of film on PSU's defense last week and planned to watch another eight hours this week. Several PSU defenders said they prepared by practicing against a no-huddle scout team headed by walk-on D.J. Crook.

Clearly, something has to give here. The Hoosiers are out to show they can score big in the Big Ten, and PSU wants to make sure UCF was just a one-time mistake. Both want to start 1-0 in conference play.

"It's a challenge," Amos said. "I don't know whether it's going to be the toughest or not."

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 6

October, 3, 2013
10/03/13
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Ten items to track around Big Ten football in Week 6:

1. Will the real Devin Gardner please stand up: The Michigan quarterback has been an anomaly in the last three weeks. He exceeded expectations against Notre Dame, the toughest test so far this season, but struggled against two cupcake opponents. He competed 64 percent of his passes against the Irish; he went 11-of-23 against UConn. He threw four touchdowns to one interception against Notre Dame; he posted three picks against Akron. He's going up against a middle-of-the-road Minnesota defense Saturday, and no one's quite sure what Gardner is going to show up. Is he finished struggling against mediocre competition? Or is this just the new normal?

2. Sixteen tries, zero wins: Since 1993, Indiana has played Penn State 16 times. And, since 1993, the Hoosiers have beaten the Nittany Lions a grand total of … zero times. They've come close on six occasions -- losing by just one score -- but Indiana's hoping to reverse that trend this weekend. Redshirt senior Ted Bolser has watched his team fall to Penn State four times now, and he doesn't want to make it five. This will be the most up-tempo team PSU faces all season, and Indiana's hoping to catch the visitors off guard.

[+] EnlargeVenric Mark
Tony Ding/AP PhotoThe return of running back Venric Mark is a huge boost for Northwestern as it tries to upset No. 4 Ohio State on Saturday.
3. Venric Mark returns: The Wildcats' offense is about to get quite the boost, as Mark will return after sitting out the last three games with a leg injury. He rushed for more than 1,300 yards last season and he comes back at just the right time for Northwestern. He's a big part of the option attack, which just hasn't been the same without him. And he'll likely play a big role against the Buckeyes. It's great timing for Northwestern -- and terrible timing for OSU.

4. Epic defensive matchup: At the final whistle, the Michigan State-Iowa score might just end up looking like a baseball tally. The Spartans boast the nation's top-ranked defense, while Iowa isn't too far behind at No. 7. No other game so far this year has pitted two top-seven defenses against one another, and this should be an exciting one for fans who prefer low-scoring contests. The Spartans have come up with nine sacks and 24 tackles-for-loss in just four games, while Iowa ranks 12th in the country by forcing 11 turnovers.

5. Tailoring a game plan without Taylor Martinez: Martinez is still battling turf toe, and the Nebraska QB is questionable for Saturday's game against Illinois. If he can't go, offensive coordinator Tim Beck could opt to go with the same two-quarterback system he utilized against South Dakota State. That means redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. and fifth-year senior Ron Kellogg III would split reps. Martinez started 32 consecutive games before the streak ended two weeks ago, so neither backup is exactly a proven commodity. Martinez could still play but, if he doesn't, there'll be quite a few extra question marks for the Huskers on Saturday.

6. Can Nathan Scheelhaase keep up this pace?: The Illini have already surpassed last season's win total, and Scheelhaase has been a big reason for that. He leads the conference in passing yards (1,162) and quarterback rating (174.8). Plus, he's second in completion percentage (67.2), yards per attempt (9.5) and passing touchdowns (12). At this point, it certainly seems as if he belongs on the All-Big Ten team. And it'll be interesting to see if Scheelhaase's huge numbers can continue. He's going up against Nebraska's 105th-ranked passing defense this weekend.

7. Seventeen and counting Ohio State's 17-game winning streak is on the line against No. 16 Northwestern, and this matchup is once again the Big Ten game of the week. A convincing win here would help boost the Buckeyes' No. 4 ranking in the polls, while a Northwestern victory would help cement the Wildcats' status as a title contender. Pat Fitzgerald has been looking for his gritty team to take the next step, and this is the perfect opportunity. Urban Meyer, meanwhile, hopes to increase the nation's best winning streak and to pave the way to the national title game. Ohio State's the favorite, but no one's counting out the Wildcats.

8. Redeeming the secondary: OK, there are a few Big Ten teams that could fit under the title of "struggling secondary," but there's one team where that identity isn't quite clear yet -- Penn State. The Nittany Lions actually boast the No. 23 passing defense, BUT they were absolutely dominated by Blake Bortles and UCF. Indiana's eighth-ranked passing attack will be a tough test for the PSU secondary. And this will go a long way in determining whether UCF was an anomaly, or whether big passing numbers will be the new norm for Penn State's defense.

9. Forgetting the pig in favor of a jug: After starting out 4-0 and then losing the Floyd of Rosedale to Iowa, the Golden Gophers will get another chance at a trophy -- in the battle for the Little Brown Jug against Michigan. Of course, Minnesota has only won the trophy three times since 1968. Still, Jerry Kill keeps a replica of the trophy on his desk, and this would be a program-defining upset. The Gophers need one of those, as they have a difficult schedule coming up and a bowl berth certainly isn't guaranteed. Four of their next five opponents are Michigan, Northwestern, Nebraska and Penn State.

10. Bradley Roby trying to get back on track: He gave up a few big plays against Cal and then, against Wisconsin, Jared Abbrederis lit him up to the tune of 207 yards for the biggest game a Badgers receiver has had in a decade. Roby wasn't made available to the media this week, but his teammates voiced confidence in the preseason All-American. He is -- was? -- considered one of the nation's top cornerbacks, but that title might be in jeopardy. He's undoubtedly looking for a big play or two to help silence the doubters. Northwestern doesn't have the most high-powered passing attack so, if Roby struggles this weekend, those critics will only get louder.

Big Ten predictions: Week 4

September, 19, 2013
9/19/13
9:00
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Three weeks in and we're all square in the season standings. Get ready for a tightly contested race most of the way.

The Week 4 slate isn't nearly as appetizing as its predecessor, although there are a few sneaky good games on the docket. Big Ten play officially begins at Camp Randall Stadium and 11 league squads are in action (Illinois is off).

Let's begin …

SAN JOSE STATE at MINNESOTA

Brian Bennett: Mitch Leidner could start at quarterback for the Gophers as Philip Nelson is questionable with a hamstring injury. That's not good news against a San Jose State team led by a future NFL draft pick in David Fales. The Spartans are the best team Minnesota has played, and I say they pull off the road upset. … San Jose State 24, Minnesota 20


Adam Rittenberg: A tough one here as the Gophers haven't been tested and San Jose State's Fales could stress a secondary already down one starter (Briean Boddy-Calhoun). There's some uncertainty on offense at quarterback, but I like the fact the Gophers have a full stable of running backs. Minnesota racks up 200 rush yards and three touchdowns to survive with a win. … Minnesota 27, San Jose State 24

FLORIDA A&M at OHIO STATE

Adam Rittenberg: The scoreboard operator will be busy as Buckeyes backs Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde combine for six touchdowns. The quarterbacks don't have to do much in this one as Ohio State rolls on to 4-0. … Ohio State 59, Florida A&M 7

Brian Bennett: This is a ludicrous matchup. Buckeyes can name their score. … Ohio State 63, Florida A&M 10


WESTERN MICHIGAN at IOWA

Brian Bennett: Oh boy. We get to watch Western Michigan take on a Big Ten team for the third time in four weeks. The first two times didn't go well for the Broncos, and Mark Weisman will add to their misery with 150 yards rushing. … Iowa 35, Western Michigan 7


Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern ran roughshod on Western Michigan and Iowa will do the same. Coach Kirk Ferentz gives Weisman a bit of a breather and spreads the ball around, as both Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri reach the end zone. Iowa pulls away in the third quarter. … Iowa 31, Western Michigan 10

MAINE at NORTHWESTERN

Adam Rittenberg: Expect another vanilla offensive game plan from Northwestern as the coaches save the goods for Week 6 against Ohio State. Five different Wildcats rush for touchdowns, including true freshman Warren Long, in the team's final tune-up before Big Ten play. … Northwestern 48, Maine 13

Brian Bennett: Please don't feed the Black Bears! Ibraheim Campbell makes it six games in a row with a pick as the Wildcats roll. … Northwestern 45, Maine 17


MICHIGAN STATE at NOTRE DAME

Brian Bennett: The Spartans finally have a bit of confidence and stability at quarterback, but Connor Cook still has a ways to go and this is a tough road spot. The Irish jump out early on a special-teams touchdown and manage to hold on in a defensive struggle. … Notre Dame 17, Michigan State 10


Adam Rittenberg: Michigan State's renewed offense comes in with confidence and scores early. But reality begins to set in on the road, and the Spartans stall midway through the second quarter. The defense keeps it close as always, but Notre Dame rallies late behind Tommy Rees and his receivers. … Notre Dame 19, Michigan State 16

SOUTH DAKOTA STATE at NEBRASKA

Adam Rittenberg: The Huskers rest top quarterback Taylor Martinez (toe), and backups Ron Kellogg III and Tommy Armstrong both play and combine for three pass touchdowns. Imani Cross sparks the rushing attack in the second quarter and Nebraska fans can smile a little after a brutal eight-day stretch. … Nebraska 59, South Dakota State 14

Brian Bennett: The Jackrabbits are just what Nebraska needs right now. The Huskers get off to a sluggish start without a healthy Martinez, but Randy Gregory forces a fumble for a defensive score and the running game is too much for SDSU to handle. … Nebraska 38, South Dakota State 10


KENT STATE at PENN STATE

Brian Bennett: I think the Penn State defense comes out mad after last week's performance, and Kent State has had a tough time scoring so far this season. Zach Zwinak scores twice and the defense comes up with three turnovers. … Penn State 28, Kent State 10


Adam Rittenberg: Unless Blake Bortles secretly suits up for the Golden Flashes, Penn State should be OK in this one and takes control in the second quarter. Chalk up two more touchdown passes from Christian Hackenberg to Allen Robinson, and defensive end Deion Barnes finally shows up for the Lions. … Penn State 31, Kent State 20

PURDUE at WISCONSIN

Adam Rittenberg: No officiating blunders in this one as Wisconsin starts a bit slowly before getting Melvin Gordon and the run game going in the second half. Gordon records his first 20-carry performance and racks up 180 yards and two touchdowns. Purdue jumps out to an early lead but once again struggles in the fourth quarter. … Wisconsin 34, Purdue 21

Brian Bennett: Purdue hasn't been able to stop the Wisconsin running game the past couple of years, and it's no different in this one. Gordon and James White each eclipse 100 yards and the Badgers take out some frustration on the Boilermakers. ... … Wisconsin 42, Purdue 14


MICHIGAN at CONNECTICUT

Brian Bennett: The Wolverines haven't been quite the same team on the road as they have been at home for Brady Hoke, but Rentschler Field ain't exactly the Horseshoe. UConn doesn't have enough offensive talent to do much damage, and Devin Gardner bounces back with four total touchdowns and just one turnover. … Michigan 38, Connecticut 9


Adam Rittenberg: Last week's near disaster against Akron will heighten Michigan's focus. So, too, will a road game under the lights (even if it feels more like a home game). Gardner delivers a turnover-free performance, and Fitz Toussaint has a big game on the ground (130 rush yards, 2 TDs). … Michigan 35, Connecticut 17

MISSOURI at INDIANA

Adam Rittenberg: This should be the most entertaining game of the day, as both offenses will put up points. Maybe I'm buying into Indiana too much after last week's impressive performance, but I like what I saw from the defense, which does just enough against Mizzou and records a game-ending takeaway. Expect another balanced offensive performance as Tevin Coleman rushes for two more touchdowns. … Indiana 41, Missouri 37

Brian Bennett: I expect a wild shootout where the punters can probably chill out on the sidelines. Ultimately, I don't have enough faith in the Hoosiers’ defense and think James Franklin and Henry Josey will be too much to overcome. But take heart, Indiana fans: I've been wrong on your team each of the past two weeks. … Missouri 48, Indiana 42


You've heard from us. Now it's time to see what this week's guest picker has cooked up. 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) 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 felt a little sorry for this guy after what happened last week in Tempe, Ariz. Garret Olsen from Madison, Wis., the floor is yours:
I am a born-and-raised Wisconsin fan and 2010 University of Wisconsin Grad in complete shock this week. I'm in need of a win. I attended my first Badger football game with my grandparents when I was 5 years old and have attended many more Badger games over the years with them. I never missed a home game during my time as an undergrad and traveled to many of the B1G stadiums and followed the Badgers to Indy and Pasadena. Each week my former Mifflin Street college roommate and I have a friendly pick-off between us and I can proudly report that I have beaten him the last two years. The blog is a daily read for me and I would be honored to pick alongside you and Adam and I promise not to botch any last-second pick situations.

Here are Garret's Week 4 selections:

San Jose State 35, Minnesota 34
Ohio State 45, Florida A&M 7
Iowa 28, Western Michigan 14
Northwestern 55, Maine 10
Notre Dame 17, Michigan State 10
Nebraska 42, South Dakota State 21
Penn State 33, Kent State 24
Wisconsin 49, Purdue 17
Michigan 34, Connecticut 13
Missouri 42, Indiana 38

SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 31-5
Brian Bennett: 31-5
Guest pickers: 27-9

Big Ten picks rewind: Week 3

September, 17, 2013
9/17/13
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After mirroring picks in Week 2, we had several disagreements with the Week 3 selections. I fared better in those games and moved into a tie with Brian Bennett in the season standings, but both of us, like the league we cover, didn't exactly light things up.

WEEK 3/SEASON RECORD

Adam Rittenberg: 10-2, 31-5 (.861)
Brian Bennett: 9-3, 31-5 (.861)

Let's look back at the predictions made by each of us as well as guest picker Adam Fraser from Gilbert, Ariz.

Rewind time ...

Bowling Green at Indiana
  • Bennett's pick: Bowling Green 37, Indiana 34
  • Rittenberg's pick: Indiana 38, Bowling Green 35
  • Actual score: Indiana 42, Bowling Green 10
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both expected a much closer ballgame, but Indiana dominated for most of the way. Although Indiana got both Shane Wynn and Kofi Hughes involved in the pass game, wideout Cody Latimer had the breakout performance with six catches for 137 yards and a touchdown.
Western Illinois at Minnesota
  • Bennett's pick: Minnesota 35, Western Illinois 13
  • Rittenberg's pick: Minnesota 37, Western Illinois 17
  • Actual score: Minnesota 29, Western Illinois 12
  • 20-20 hindsight: We came fairly close on the score predictions, although it took a late burst from Minnesota to make things look more lopsided than they were. Brian must have known something when he wrote that it's a good week to get quarterback Mitch Leidner some experience. Leidner relieved the injured Philip Nelson, completed 7 of 8 pass attempts and rushed for 64 yards.
UCLA at Nebraska
  • Bennett's pick: UCLA 38, Nebraska 34
  • Rittenberg's pick: Nebraska 35, UCLA 34
  • Actual score: UCLA 41, Nebraska 21
  • 20-20 hindsight: UCLA held up its end of the score prediction, while Nebraska seemed to fold the tent in the third quarter. Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley had three touchdowns, two shy of Bennett's forecast. Nebraska wideout Quincy Enunwa had two scoring catches, but neither was the game winner, as I predicted.
Akron at Michigan
  • Bennett's pick: Michigan 48, Akron 10
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan 45, Akron 17
  • Actual score: Michigan 28, Akron 24
  • 20-20 hindsight: Like the Wolverines, we didn't get much right here other than the winning team. Quarterback Devin Gardner struggled, but threw two touchdown passes, but none to Jeremy Gallon. Fitz Toussaint rushed for 71 yards, 49 shy of my prediction.
Youngstown State at Michigan State
  • Bennett's pick: Michigan State 27, Youngstown State 3
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan State 24, Youngstown State 10
  • Actual score: Michigan State 55, Youngstown State 17
  • 20-20 hindsight: The Spartans surged past our score predictions before halftime and flexed some muscles we didn't know they had following a sluggish first two games. We both expected Damion Terry to make his collegiate debut, but Michigan State got more than enough from quarterback Connor Cook (202 pass yards, 4 TDs).
Iowa at Iowa State
  • Bennett's pick: Iowa State 16, Iowa 13
  • Rittenberg's pick: Iowa 19, Iowa State 17
  • Actual score: Iowa 27, Iowa State 21
  • 20-20 hindsight: Brian thought Iowa State was the more desperate team, but Iowa played like it and dominated for much of the contest. Like I thought, the Hawkeyes' rushing attack, led by Mark Weisman (35 carries, 145 yards), proved to be the difference in Ames.
UCF at Penn State
  • Bennett's pick: Penn State 27, UCF 17
  • Rittenberg's pick: Penn State 34, UCF 27
  • Actual score: UCF 34, Penn State 31
  • 20-20 hindsight: I came close on the score prediction and had the winner's correct total, but both of us expected more from Penn State's defense against UCF standout quarterback Blake Bortles. Lions receiver Allen Robinson had one touchdown catch, one short of Bennett's prediction. Penn State's Zach Zwinak (128 rush yards, 3 TDs) sparked the run game, as I thought he would, but it wasn't enough.
Washington vs. Illinois (at Chicago)
  • Bennett's pick: Washington 37, Illinois 23
  • Rittenberg's pick: Washington 31, Illinois 21
  • Actual score: Washington 34, Illinois 24
  • 20-20 hindsight: I had the right winner and victory margin, although Huskies tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins wasn't much of a factor, as running back Bishop Sankey (208 yards, 1 TD) carried the day. Illinois didn't get off to the fast start I predicted as it failed to convert scoring chances in the first half.
Ohio State at California
  • Bennett's pick: Ohio State 49, Cal 28
  • Rittenberg's pick: Ohio State 38, Cal 27
  • Actual score: Ohio State 52, Cal 34
  • 20-20 hindsight: A strong score prediction from Brian, who expected big plays and plenty of Kenny Guiton and got both. I pegged Jordan Hall and the Ohio State rushing attack for a big game against Cal's overmatched defense. Needless to say, they came through (332 yards, 3 TDs)
Notre Dame at Purdue
  • Bennett's pick: Notre Dame 35, Purdue 7
  • Rittenberg's pick: Notre Dame 38, Purdue 17
  • Actual score: Notre Dame 31, Purdue 24
  • 20-20 hindsight: Purdue exceeded both of our expectations by giving Notre Dame a tough test for three plus quarters. I correctly pegged the Boilers for a strong start, but Notre Dame's Amir Carlisle didn't do much (16 rush yards) and Notre Dame recorded only one key second-half takeaway, not two.
Western Michigan at Northwestern
  • Bennett's pick: Northwestern 38, Western Michigan 10
  • Rittenberg's pick: Northwestern 41, Western Michigan 17
  • Actual score: Northwestern 38, Western Michigan 17
  • 20-20 hindsight: One of our better score predictions for Week 3, as Northwestern wasn't dominant but pulled away from Western Michigan. Brian correctly predicted Kain Colter to run for 100 yards. Colter and fellow quarterback Trevor Siemian combined for only two touchdowns, three shy of my prediction, and wide receiver Christian Jones hauled in only one scoring pass, not two.
Wisconsin at Arizona State
  • Bennett's pick: Arizona State 28, Wisconsin 20
  • Rittenberg's pick: Arizona State 35, Wisconsin 28
  • Actual score: Arizona State 32, Wisconsin 30
  • 20-20 hindsight: Our score predictions weren't far off, and Sun Devils quarterback Taylor Kelly (352 pass yards) proved to be a difference maker as the game went along, like I thought he would. Wisconsin signal caller Joel Stave didn't throw an interception (Bennett had him for two). And no, neither of us predicted the officiating crew to have a costly brain cramp.

You've seen how we performed. Now it's time to check on our guest picker, Adam Fraser.

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

Adam matched Brian's mark of 9-3, although most of his score predictions left much to be desired. Some of his predicted nail-biters (Bowing Green-Indiana, Ohio State-Cal, Nebraska-UCLA) turned out to be blowouts, while games like Wisconsin-Arizona State and Akron-Michigan were much closer than the forecast. UCF and Penn State ended up in a high-scoring affair. Not bad overall, though.

Who's our next guest picker? Tell us why you should be the choice here and here.

Big Ten not changing anybody's mind

September, 15, 2013
9/15/13
3:38
AM ET
John Papuchis, Bo PeliniBruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsBo Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis watched their team crumble against UCLA.
CHICAGO -- A CBS camera followed Johnny Manziel's every move Saturday, tracking the Texas A&M quarterback from the magical to the mundane.

More than 750 media members converged on Kyle Field for a game that had been anticipated for months. This was another SEC Saturday, and no matter what happened in the Big Ten, the eyes of the nation would be on Alabama-A&M.

But the Big Ten had a chance to steal a glance, build some credibility and maybe change the narrative, not to mention a few minds. However, the league fell short in its one Saturday showcase of September.

Nothing to see here, folks. Same old story.

Michigan forgot to show up against an Akron team that had lost 27 consecutive road games. Nebraska decided to pack it in during the third quarter against UCLA. And Penn State's defense made a very good college quarterback (UCF's Blake Bortles) look like a Heisman Trophy candidate.
There was one Big Ten game that left everyone talking and tweeting well into Sunday morning, thanks to one of the more bizarre finishes you'll ever see. The clock ran out on Wisconsin after quarterback Joel Stave tried to center the ball deep in Arizona State territory. The officials, seemingly confused that Stave placed the ball on the ground rather than make an obvious kneeling motion, delayed in spotting the ball and time expired.

No one could believe it, even the victorious Sun Devils.

Wisconsin deserved a chance to win a big game on the road and salvage something for the Big Ten. Thanks to the inexcusable officiating blunder, the Badgers' 32-30 loss was a black mark on a mostly sour Saturday.

Make no mistake, Week 3 wasn't as bad as Week 2 of the 2012 season, when the Big Ten went 6-6, a virtual impossibility given the forgiving nature of nonconference schedules. After that sorry Saturday, league commissioner Jim Delany told the critics to swing away, acknowledging the Big Ten's status as a national pinata.

The Big Ten bashing will continue after this Saturday, although not as much as it did last season. But perhaps just as damaging, the league didn't give people a reason to pay attention. The Big Ten is still viewed as a has-been conference, not a right-now conference.

[+] EnlargeChristian Hackenberg
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsChristian Hackenberg and PSU were stunned at home by UCF.
Oh, there's Ohio State, which flexed its offensive muscles at Cal despite being without starting quarterback Braxton Miller. Michigan State's offense showed up, and so did Indiana's defense. Iowa ended its slide in the Cy-Hawk series and captured a win it absolutely had to have in mostly impressive fashion. Purdue gave Notre Dame a better game than expected before folding early in the fourth quarter. Illinois fought hard against a good Washington squad here at Soldier Field. Northwestern continues to look very good.

But nothing that happened Saturday boosted the Big Ten's poor perception.

Nebraska's fight for national relevancy continues to be sidetracked by complete collapses. After storming ahead to a 21-3 lead against a seemingly emotionally wounded UCLA team, the Huskers allowed the Bruins to score 38 unanswered points on Big Red's home field.

This is who you are, Huskers. Your Big Ten legacy can be summed up in a series of numbers: 48-17, 45-17, 30-13, 63-38, 70-31, 45-31 and 41-21. Those are the final scores of Huskers losses in nationally relevant games against Wisconsin (2011), Michigan (2011), South Carolina (2012 Capital One Bowl), Ohio State (2012), Wisconsin (2012 Big Ten championship game), Georgia (2013 Capital One Bowl) and UCLA (Saturday).

They're not stunning collapses because they happen so often. They're as much a part of Nebraska's identity as the Blackshirts, the balloons and the Tunnel Walk.

Coach Bo Pelini said his players looked like they'd seen a ghost as UCLA took over in the second half. Maybe they had just seen this movie so many times before.

While Nebraska continued to bring negative attention, Michigan brought unwanted attention. The Wolverines' game against Akron was off the radar in a slate that featured four matchups with the Pac-12, the Iowa-Iowa State rivalry and other superior pairings. Devin Gardner and his teammates were supposed to make quick work of Akron, which has won one game in each of the past three seasons.

Akron's best hope for an upset? Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who tortured Michigan during his tenure, is the school's vice president for student success. Maybe Michigan can chalk up Saturday's near-upset to The Curse of The Vest, as Akron's student-athletes had plenty of success at the Big House.

Michigan was a yard away from arguably the worst loss in program history. It wasn't Appalachian State, as the 2007 Mountaineers were miles better than the Toledo team Michigan lost to in 2008 or the current Akron squad. The 2008 Wolverines might have been the worst edition in school history. Michigan entered Saturday off an impressive win against Notre Dame. A letdown was possible? A letdown loss to Akron? Not a chance.

But it nearly happened.

"We almost lost to Akron," said Gardner, who committed four turnovers in the 28-24 win. "No disrespect to Akron, but we almost lost after coming out and having a great win last week in front of the whole world, and we come out and almost blow it. I definitely would have been sick if we [had lost]."

Michigan fans thankfully don't have to debate whether 2008 Toledo or 2013 Akron is a worse loss, but they do have to figure out what type of team they'll have the rest of the season after such a step backward.

Penn State can't help the Big Ten's ragged reputation in a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions. But the Lions could have taken care of business against UCF, a 10-win team in 2012.

However, a normally sound defense didn't come through, surrendering 507 yards and failing to get key second-half stops in a 34-31 loss. Get ready to hear a lot about how the sanctions are finally getting to Penn State.

Listen, it's not all gloom and doom for the Big Ten. There are some bright spots. If Ohio State goes on to win a national title, all the negative stuff washes away. That's how it works in college football.

This could turn out to be a better league than it was last season, when it set a historically low bar. We'll find out in late December and early January.

Until then, it'll be all SEC, all the time.

After another lost Saturday, the Big Ten still doesn't give the nation a reason to care.

PSU defense disappoints in loss to UCF

September, 14, 2013
9/14/13
11:15
PM ET
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Deion Barnes stared blankly ahead once the coaches shook hands near midfield. There was no changing the blinking lights on the scoreboard. Barnes hurriedly unbuckled his chin strap and headed to the tunnel.

The defensive end's stare told the story of the Nittany Lions' day. Barnes seemed angry, frustrated and in disbelief. Most of the fans were, too.

The Nittany Lions' defense was supposed to be the strong point of this team. The rush defense was supposed to be nearly impenetrable. (It had allowed just 1.8 yards a carry.) The secondary was supposed to be much improved. But against George O'Leary's Knights, these Nittany Lions allowed 507 yards -- including nearly 6 yards a carry.

Bill O'Brien called it a team loss, but it was clear it was the defense that disappointed.

"We knew what we had to do to stop them," defensive coordinator John Butler said between swigs of orange sports drink. "And, to be honest with you, we couldn't stop what we needed to stop."

Safety Adrian Amos didn't remove his helmet while fans swayed to the alma mater. He wasn't the only one. Neither Amos nor Barnes, staples of the interview room, stopped to chat with reporters after their first loss of the season.

Instead, Butler took center stage and tried his best to answer questions -- minutes after O'Brien tried to deflect most by reiterating that he'll watch the tape. Butler did, too, but he tried his best to explain just how PSU managed to allow 15 plays that went for 10 yards or more.

The defensive coordinator knew people would blame PSU's thud practices, in which no one is tackled to the ground, for the missed tackles. And he didn't try to dismiss that explanation, either.

"I think it's fair," Butler said. "But that's just a decision we have to make because when you only have 62 scholarship players, you've got to do your best to get what you have to the field. You don't want to take it to 57 because you're tackling in practice, and maybe two of those five players you lose are your best players.

"So I think we drill it, and I think we have to keep drilling it. And part of it's leverage and their athletes."

The defense had its chances to stop UCF and give the offense a chance at the comeback. In the final quarter, with PSU trailing by just a touchdown and with the students' deafening chants, Jordan Lucas was flagged for a pass-interference penalty on third-and-9. ("Shoot, I thought we had a stop," Lucas said.) Later on that same drive, on third-and-2, William Stanback rumbled ahead for the first down.

And then, on UCF's final drive, PSU allowed a 13-yard pass on second-and-9 to seal the game.

"Yeah, I feel like we should've won this game," defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said. "But, at the same time, we didn't. They were the better team today."

DE C.J. Olaniyan missed a critical stop in the backfield. CBs Trevor Williams and Lucas led the team with six tackles apiece. And PSU came up with no sacks and no quarterback hurries.

The problem with the defense was that there was more than just one problem. At one point, wideout-turned-cornerback Williams took the bench while safety Amos moved back to cornerback.

Blake Bortles completed nearly 75 percent of his passes, so PSU needed to do something. Still, it didn't work. Butler moved around personnel, tried different game plans, but nothing seemed to slow down UCF.

"We tried everything. That's the one thing I know I can say," Butler said. "We emptied the game plan. We tried to play man, we tried to play zone, we tried to play half-man, half-zone. They did a good job."

Christian Hackenberg and Allen Robinson showed they can hang tough in a shootout. The unit with the most question marks -- PSU's passing game -- played well.

O'Brien said he'll have more answers by Tuesday. So hopefully, for the Nittany Lions, they'll find some answers for their defense in time for the Big Ten season.

Big Ten Week 3 primer

September, 14, 2013
9/14/13
7:00
AM ET
Are you ready for Week 3 in the Big Ten? You had better be, as it's easily the best slate of nonconference games this season.

To get you ready for the big day -- and long night -- let's go through the vitals ...

Noon ET

Bowling Green at Indiana (ESPNU): After a disappointing loss to Navy, Indiana's challenge only gets tougher against Bowling Green, which has dominated its first two opponents. The Hoosiers' defense must tighten up against a more conventional offense led by running back Travis Greene. It will be interesting to see if Indiana coach Kevin Wilson actually uses Tre Roberson more at quarterback or sticks mainly with Nate Sudfeld.

Akron at No. 11 Michigan (Big Ten Network): Quarterback Devin Gardner tries to build on his five-touchdown performance against Notre Dame as the Wolverines face an Akron team that hasn't beaten an FBS opponent since 2010. Coach Brady Hoke wants to see a cleaner performance from his defense against the seemingly overmatched Zips.

Western Illinois at Minnesota (BTN): Yawn. The Gophers continue their march of cupcakes and should have little trouble improving to 3-0. Their main objective is sparking a passing attack that has produced just 226 yards in two games. Minnesota wide receiver Jamel Harbison returns from suspension.

No. 16 UCLA at No. 23 Nebraska (ABC): It's the biggest matchup on the Big Ten slate and one of the better quarterback pairings in the nation as UCLA's Brett Hundley leads his team against Taylor Martinez and the Huskers. Hundley torched Nebraska last year as UCLA piled up 653 yards in a 36-30 win. He doesn't have running back Johnathan Franklin by his side, however, and Huskers defensive end Randy Gregory looks to apply pressure. Martinez needs more signature wins to go along with his record-setting numbers, and this would be a big one. Both teams will wear helmet decals honoring Nick Pasquale, the UCLA wide receiver killed in an accident last weekend.

2 p.m. ET

Youngstown State at Michigan State (BTN): The Spartans' quarterback quandary continues, and it could be freshman Damion Terry's turn to try and get a troubled offense on track. Connor Cook will start under center, but fan favorite Terry might make his collegiate debut. Shilique Calhoun and Michigan State's lockdown defense faces a Youngstown State team averaging 47.5 points and 579 yards per game.

6 p.m. ET

Iowa at Iowa State (FOX Sports 1): It's only Sept. 14, but Iowa faces a virtual must-win against Iowa State, which has won the teams' past two meetings and owns a 5-2 record against Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes at Jack Trice Stadium. If the Hawkeyes fall Saturday, it's hard to see them reaching a bowl with a tough Big Ten schedule ahead. Iowa's best bet is to get Mark Weisman and the run game going against a Cyclones defense that allowed 228 yards on the ground in its season-opening loss to FCS Northern Iowa.

UCF at Penn State (BTN): Lions second-year coach Bill O'Brien faces off against his former boss and mentor George O'Leary in a sneaky good matchup in Happy Valley. Penn State's defense will be tested by UCF quarterback Blake Bortles, whom O'Brien expects to play in the NFL. Penn State freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg must limit mistakes against a dangerous Knights defense.

Washington vs. Illinois (BTN): A surprising start for Illinois could turn into much more if it knocks off an experienced and talented Washington squad in its "Chicago Homecoming" game. Washington star tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins returns from suspension and will be a load for Mason Monheim and the Illini defense. Illinois hopes to crank up its big-play offense early and often after recording 17 plays of 20 yards or more in the first two games, fifth most in the country.

7 p.m. ET

No. 4 Ohio State at California (FOX): Junior quarterback Braxton Miller (sprained knee) traveled to Berkeley but will be a game-time decision. If Miller can't go, backup Kenny Guiton will lead the offense against a leaky Cal defense that has surrendered 1,061 yards in its first two games. Golden Bears freshman quarterback Jared Goff, the nation's passing leader at 467.5 yards per game, will challenge cornerback Bradley Roby and the Ohio State secondary.

8 p.m. ET

No. 21 Notre Dame at Purdue (ABC): The Fighting Irish try to rebound from a frustrating loss to Michigan, while Purdue hopes to jump start the Darrell Hazell era after a poor start. A mismatch on paper, Purdue's spotty offensive line must contain Notre Dame star front men Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt. The Irish have captured the teams' past five meetings.

9 p.m. ET

Western Michigan at No. 17 Northwestern (BTN): Despite the continued absence of star running back Venric Mark, Northwestern's offense marches on after an impressive showing last week against Syracuse. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian combined to complete 22 of 24 passes in the first half of last week's game and face a Western Michigan team that fell last week to Nicholls State. Northwestern needs to tighten up defensively before Ohio State comes to town Oct. 5. Tonight would be a good time to start.

10:30 p.m. ET

No. 20 Wisconsin at Arizona State (ESPN): The last game of the day could be among the best, as two teams that have looked dominant against poor competition square off. Wisconsin's defense hasn't allowed a point but should be pushed by Arizona State's potent offense led by quarterback Taylor Kelly, who has 13 touchdown passes and no interceptions in his last four games. Wisconsin running backs James White, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement all have at least 250 rush yards and will try to control the clock and the tempo against a Sun Devils team that is 8-0 against the Big Ten at home.

WEATHER
  • Bloomington, Ind: Sunny, 64-70 degrees, winds at 4-5 mph
  • Ann Arbor, Mich.: Mostly sunny, 61-66 degrees, winds at 4-6 mph
  • Minneapolis: Mostly cloudy, showers possible late in game, 64-70 degrees, winds at 10-12 mph
  • Lincoln, Neb.: Partly cloudy with a 30 percent chance of rain, 67-75 degrees, winds at 16-19 mph
  • East Lansing, Mich.: Mostly sunny, 62-66 degrees, winds at 6-7 mph
  • Ames, Iowa: Partly to mostly cloudy, 66-72 degrees, winds at 13-16 mph
  • Chicago: Mostly sunny, 61-69 degrees, winds at 8-9 mph
  • Berkeley, Calif.: Mostly sunny, 61-68 degrees, winds at 12-15 mph
  • West Lafayette, Ind.: Mostly clear, 52-63 degrees, winds at 3-4 mph
  • Evanston, Ill.: Partly cloudy, 61-68 degrees, winds at 8 mph
  • Tempe, Ariz.: Clear skies, 91-97 degrees, winds at 4 mph

And, finally, check out some of our top posts from this week ...
Penn State defensive coordinator John Butler is so competitive and intense that a childhood friend wonders half-jokingly if a demon lives inside him.

Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, meanwhile, is California cool, an admittedly cerebral coach directing a scheme built on aggression.

[+] EnlargeJohn Butler
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsPenn State's John Butler is emotional, animated, competitive and his players feed off that.
Butler can't be missed on the Penn State sideline, a ball of energy whose animated style makes players feel like he's one of them. Aranda is more Zen-like, bringing a teacher's approach that connects with bright Badger defenders as he conveys messages without veins bulging from his neck.

Butler and his boss, Bill O'Brien, are near replicas, fiery Irishmen from hardboiled Eastern cities who share a relentless drive to succeed. Aranda and his boss, Gary Andersen, first met in Maui of all places. They both have backgrounds in defense but are, as Andersen puts it, "polar opposites."

The obvious differences between Butler and Aranda shouldn't overshadow the fact that both first-year Big Ten defensive coordinators are rising stars, rocketing up the coaching ladder. They're highly respected among their peers and viewed as likely future head coaches.

Both men also will be put to the test this week, as they lead defenses against two strong opponents -- No. 20 Wisconsin visits Arizona State and Penn State hosts UCF -- led by standout quarterbacks (ASU's Taylor Kelly, UCF's Blake Bortles).

"This is why you do it, man," Butler told ESPN.com. "As a competitor, when the competition improves, you better improve your game or you're going to get embarrassed."

Butler and Keith Conlin rarely were embarrassed as young athletes growing up just outside Philadelphia. In fact, they rarely lost at anything. Conlin and Butler met in first grade and played together on every team and in every sport.

They won titles in everything, thanks to Conlin, a self-described "mutant athlete" who went on to be an All-Big Ten offensive lineman at Penn State, and Butler, who eventually played football and basketball at Division III Catholic University. But they didn't win every game.

"Imagine the kid who would sulk and cry after games when you lose, but during the game was going to do whatever it took to win," Conlin said of Butler. "He wasn't the crybaby who lost and [said], 'I'm going to take my ball and go home.' He was literally mad because we lost. Losing is probably the worst thing he could possibly have in his world.

"It's almost like a demon he has, his drive and competitiveness."

It's also an asset that helped Butler rise from modest coaching origins -- Midwestern State, Texas State and Harvard -- to the Big Ten (Minnesota) in 2007, to the SEC (South Carolina) in 2011 and back to the Big Ten last year as Penn State's secondary coach and special teams coordinator. When defensive coordinator Ted Roof left for Georgia Tech in January, O'Brien immediately promoted Butler, who vaulted veteran Lions assistants Larry Johnson (defensive line) and Ron Vanderlinden (linebackers) for the role.

O'Brien's rationale: "He's just a coordinator, that's what he is. ... I knew if the coordinator job ever opened up, he would be the guy."

The transition was quick. Minutes after Roof informed the staff of his move, O'Brien walked into Butler's office.

"Billy said, 'This is the move I want to make,'" Butler recalled. "I told him, 'That's great. Let's move on.' I've prepared myself for this for a long time."

[+] EnlargeDave Aranda
AP Photo/David StlukaWisconsin's Dave Aranda and his network of connections have risen through the coaching ranks.
Preparation is at the core of Aranda's approach. He has his principles -- multiple fronts, varied blitzes, a focus on takeaways -- but constantly keeps his ears open.

If there's a new approach, Aranda, 37, wants to learn it, even if he never employs it in a practice or a game.

"Professional development for him is very important," Andersen said. "He's a great researcher, very detailed. He's always out there looking for new things. He's much better at that than I was as a coordinator. I probably got a little set in my ways.

"If he's in a city where there's a football program, it doesn't matter if it's NFL, Division I or Division II, he's going to see if he can learn something from somebody."

This summer, Aranda dropped in on the Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars, in addition to college teams like Ohio and Eastern Michigan.

"Outside of my family, about the only other people I talk to are other defensive coaches," Aranda said. "You try to get as many questions answered prior to having to answer them in games."

Andersen and Aranda first met at a high school camp in Maui. They both embraced what Andersen calls "the aggressive side of defense" -- capitalizing on blitz opportunities and gearing a scheme toward forcing turnovers. Aranda, like Butler, worked his way through the lower ranks (California Lutheran, Delta State, Southern Utah) before getting his big break at Hawaii.

Andersen watched Aranda's first coordinator stint -- Hawaii led the nation in takeaways in 2010 and finished 15th nationally in sacks the following year -- and in 2012 brought him to Utah State, essentially to replace himself as the defensive play-caller. Since Andersen made no other changes, Aranda took over a defensive staff as the only newcomer.

"There's no pretense," Aranda said. "I've always thought that it's not whose ideas that matter; it's just that it works."

After coordinating a Utah State defense that last season finished in the top 15 in points allowed, sacks, rushing yards allowed, pass efficiency and total yards allowed, Aranda received offers from two major-conference schools -- reportedly Cal and Texas Tech – but he chose to stay at Utah State. But that was before Andersen landed the Wisconsin job.
"A lot of people would say it was kind of crazy," Andersen said, "but he said no because he felt like that was where he needed to be. I respected that, so when we had the opportunity to come here, [bringing Aranda] was a slam dunk."

O'Brien and Butler didn't know each other well before O'Brien landed the Penn State job, but they had a mutual connection in strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, who had met O'Brien at Maryland and had attended high school with Butler and Conlin. O'Brien brought both Fitzgerald and Butler in from South Carolina.

After meeting O'Brien, Conlin wondered how Butler would mesh with his new boss.

"How [O'Brien] was emotionally so driven in everything he does, I was like, 'Man, they’re either going to be best friends or the most hated enemies of all time,'" Conlin said.

It turned out to be the former. Both men are in their early forties. O'Brien grew up north of Boston in Andover, Mass. Butler lived in Boston while working at Harvard and said the city's energy reminds him of Philly.

"He's a quick-minded guy, a hardworking guy," O'Brien said. "We believe in the same things football-wise."

Added Butler: "It ended up being an excellent match."

Butler's style clicked with Penn State's players, whose competitive spirit carried them through a summer of sanctions and a season with no bowl or championship possibilities. The Lions won eight of their final 10 games last fall and the secondary, labeled as the defense's weak link, held its own.

"He's pumped up, just like all of us," defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said. "He's just out there, all loud and running around. I love it."

Butler hasn't pumped the brakes on his approach, despite his increased responsibilities. Competitiveness is non-negotiable for his players, although he has learned over time that it takes on different forms.

"Whether you're overtly competitive, which maybe I am, as opposed to internally competitive, which a lot of other people are, that spirit shows through in all of our guys," he said.

Butler, 40, oversees two of the nation's most accomplished assistants in Johnson and Vanderlinden, the only two holdovers from Joe Paterno's staff. Despite the experience gap, the transition "came natural," Butler said, and Penn State has surrendered only 24 points, 22 first downs and 132 rush yards in its first two games.

Conlin, who has seen Butler's evolution and maturation firsthand, has no doubt his friend will eventually lead a program.

"I don't know when, I don't know where," Conlin said, "but I wouldn't want to be playing against him. There's going to be 11 guys out there who will cut your heart out to win that game."

Andersen also sees Aranda as a future head coach, but hopes to keep him for "a while." Like Butler, Aranda has had early success, as the Badgers have yet to allow a point in two games.

And like Butler, Aranda will be challenged Saturday. Arizona State ranked 14th nationally in scoring last season and put up 55 in its opener. Aranda faced the same Todd Graham offense in the 2010 Hawaii Bowl, when Graham's Tulsa team put up 62 points against Hawaii.

"I think about that a lot," he said. "So it’s exciting for me to get back in it and give it a go. It's a challenge, the stuff as a coach you look forward to."

Maybe Aranda and Butler aren't so different after all.

Big Ten predictions: Week 3

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
9:00
AM ET
After two relatively easy weeks of picking games, the challenge gets much tougher with a delicious slate of Week 3 games. Last week, our picks mirrored one another. There will be some disagreements this time around.

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

SEASON RECORDS


Brian Bennett: 22-2
Adam Rittenberg: 21-3
Guest pickers: 18-6

Quick previews for B1G noon games

September, 8, 2012
9/08/12
11:00
AM ET
Let's take a quick look at what's on tap in the Big ten in the three noon ET kickoffs ...

Penn State (0-1) at Virginia (1-0): The Nittany Lions hit the road in search of Bill O'Brien's first victory as coach and hope to avoid their first 0-2 start since 2001. Former walk-on Derek Day gets the start at running back for Penn State in place of the hobbled Bill Belton (ankle). The prognosis is a bit better for Penn State starting cornerback Stephon Morris (ankle). Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco, who grew up a Penn State fan, faces a Nittany Lions defense that has struggled in its past three games, stretching back to last season.

Central Florida (1-0) at No. 14 Ohio State (1-0): After racking up 56 points in a stress-free opener, Ohio State should face a much tougher test from Central Florida, which has had a top-15 defense in each of the past two seasons. The Knights also boast a talented young quarterback in Blake Bortles, who tossed three touchdown passes in a season-opening rout of Akron on the road. New Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer expects the game to be a "war," and it'll provide a good barometer for his squad's revamped offense. It's the teams' first meeting, and Ohio State tries to continue its streak of 58 consecutive home wins against unranked non-league foes.

New Hampshire (1-0) at Minnesota (1-0): The Gophers aim for their first 2-0 start since 2009 and try to end a two-game losing streak against FCS teams (lost to North Dakota State last year and South Dakota in 2010). Senior quarterback MarQueis Gray came alive in overtime against UNLV, but he'll need more efficient performances going forward, beginning today against the Wildcats. Minnesota's defense recorded three interceptions against UNLV and can match its total from all of last season with a pick against New Hampshire redshirt freshman Sean Goldrich, who threw for 193 yards and two touchdowns in last week's win against Holy Cross.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 2

September, 6, 2012
9/06/12
10:15
AM ET
Ten items to track Saturday as Week 2 of Big Ten action gets under way.

1. West Coast swing: The Big Ten-Pac-12 scheduling alliance fell apart this summer, but three matchups between the leagues are on tap Saturday. All three take place at Pac-12 stadiums, where Big Ten teams have struggled mightily, failing to win a game since 2007 and recording only three wins since 2001 (Nebraska was a member of the Big 12 when it spanked Washington in Seattle in 2010). Wisconsin, Nebraska and Illinois must handle long trips, time changes and tricky opponents to end the trend. Fortunately for Nebraska, quarterback Taylor Martinez and a group of his teammates will feel right at home at the Rose Bowl.

2. TerBush's turn: Despite being suspended for Purdue's season opener, quarterback Caleb TerBush earned the nod as the Boilers' starter for Saturday's game at No. 22 Notre Dame. Coach Danny Hope thinks TerBush gives the Boilers the best chance for a strong and steady start and pointed to the senior's ability to outplay both Robert Marve and Rob Henry in camp. Most Purdue fans didn't seem too thrilled with the decision, but TerBush, who started all 13 games last season, has a chance to prove them wrong and record a huge win for the program.

[+] EnlargeJames Vandenberg
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesIowa needs a more consistent performance Saturday from quarterback James Vandenberg.
3. Toussaint's return: Michigan needs to get off of the mat after being embarrassed in its opener against Alabama. The Wolverines will get a boost from running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, who returns from suspension to make his season debut against Air Force. Toussaint said he let the team and his family down following his drunken driving arrest and should have no shortage of motivation when he gets back on the field. Coach Brady Hoke likely will start Toussaint, who rushed for 1,041 yards and nine touchdowns last season, against the Falcons.

4. Hawks eye Cy: A huge empty trophy case greeted Iowa players in the middle of their locker room this week, as coach Kirk Ferentz reminded his team of what's at stake Saturday. Iowa has struggled in its trophy games of late, but it can regain one Saturday against in-state rival Iowa State. The Hawkeyes look for a stronger performance from senior quarterback James Vandenberg and a stingier defensive effort against Iowa State signal-caller Steele Jantz, who went nuts in last year's game.

5. Lions seek balance: After an emotion-charged opener in State College, Penn State hits the road Saturday against Virginia in search of its first win under coach Bill O'Brien. A key objective for Penn State is greater offensive balance after it had more than twice as many passes (48) as rushes (22) in last week's loss to Ohio. Only four FBS teams attempted fewer runs than the Lions, who likely will feature several backs at Virginia, possibly including true freshman Akeel Lynch, as top back Bill Belton deals with an ankle injury.

6. Wildcats' QB rotation: Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald says Kain Colter is his starting quarterback, but backup Trevor Siemian remains very much in the mix after leading the game-winning scoring drive last week at Syracuse. Colter, who gave way to Siemian on the decisive drive, has recovered from a left shoulder injury that slowed him late in the Syracuse game. But it will be interesting to see how Northwestern uses him and Siemian on Saturday night against Vanderbilt. Given Northwestern's defensive woes, it likely needs all the help it can get on offense to beat a talented Commodores team.

7. Maxwell, Gray look to rebound: Michigan State and Minnesota both recorded hard-fought wins in Week 1, but both need to see improvement from their quarterbacks on Saturday. Andrew Maxwell had three interceptions and no touchdowns in his first career start for the Spartans, who boast a championship-level defense and a championship-level running back in Le'Veon Bell but might not get there without solid quarterback play. Gray had a misleading stat line against UNLV and needs to show better accuracy on his passes, beginning this week against FCS New Hampshire.

8. Buckeyes battle test: Ohio State coach Urban Meyer expects Saturday's game against Central Florida to "be a war." While the Buckeyes are heavily favored, UCF should provide a much better test than Miami (Ohio) did last week, especially for the Buckeyes' defense. UCF is the preseason favorite in Conference USA's East Division and boasts a talented quarterback, sophomore Blake Bortles. Both squads are ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA violations, but they should provide an entertaining game in C-Bus.

9. Backups in spotlight: The injury bug took a toll on the Big Ten in Week 1, and several key players will or should be sidelined Saturday. We know Michigan cornerback Courtney Avery will step in for Blake Countess, who suffered a season-ending ACL tear against Alabama. Illinois quarterbacks Reilly O'Toole and Miles Osei took most of the snaps this week in practice as the team could play without starter Nathan Scheelhaase at Arizona State. Derek Day will get the first shot at running back for Penn State if Belton can't go, and a host of Nebraska backs, led by Ameer Abdullah, will carry the load if Rex Burkhead (knee) isn't ready for UCLA.

10. Hoosiers seek milestone: It's all about baby steps for Indiana's program, which can take another one Saturday at UMass. The Hoosiers are still seeking their first win against an FBS opponent under coach Kevin Wilson and can record one against the Minutemen, who are in their first season as an FBS member. An Indiana victory also would eclipse its victory total from all of last season. Expect Wilson to open up the offensive playbook a little more with quarterback Tre Roberson, who played well in the opener.
After a brief hiatus, the countdown of the Big Ten's most compelling nonconference games makes its (somewhat) triumphant return. We're not at the top 10 quite yet, but we're getting there.

In case you missed them, check out Nos. 48-35 and Nos. 34-21.

Let's get going ...

No. 20 -- Syracuse at Minnesota, Sept. 22: Syracuse is somewhat of a mystery team in the Big East, and Minnesota might fit the description as well in its second season under coach Jerry Kill. Both teams look for more balance on offense this season. Syracuse struggled in the run game (95th nationally), while Minnesota didn't generate much through the air (109th nationally).

No. 19 -- Temple at Penn State, Sept. 22: The Lions have won 29 consecutive games against Temple, although they needed a late touchdown last year in Philly to keep it going. Both teams have significant question marks as Penn State goes through a historic transition, while Temple was picked to finish last in the Big East, its new league.

No. 18 -- Boston College at Northwestern, Sept. 15: Both programs seem to be trending down a bit, although BC really seems to be on the decline after a 4-8 finish in 2011. Kain Colter led Northwestern to a win at Boston College last year in his first career start. The Eagles will face a more polished Colter this time around.

No. 17 -- Central Florida at Ohio State, Sept. 8: It has become the Banned Bowl as Central Florida on Tuesday joined Ohio State in postseason purgatory. Both teams should be much improved, though, and feature exciting young quarterbacks in Braxton Miller (Ohio State) and Blake Bortles (UCF).

No. 16 -- Iowa vs. Northern Illinois (at Chicago), Sept. 1: It's the season opener for both teams and takes place at an NFL venue (Soldier Field). Still, this matchup would have been more intriguing in 2010 or 2011 than this fall, as Northern Illinois is rebuilding a bit and Iowa faces some major questions as well at spots like running back and defensive line.

No. 15 -- Vanderbilt at Northwestern, Sept. 8: The inevitable Brain Bowl jokes will be made, but this should be a compelling Week 2 matchup under the lights at Ryan Field. Vanderbilt wants to follow Northwestern's model as an elite academic school that makes consistent bowl games. Second-year coach James Franklin has the 'Dores headed in the right direction. The game features a good quarterback matchup between Colter and Jordan Rodgers (Aaron's little brother).

No. 14 -- Air Force at Michigan, Sept. 8: This has trap game written all over it for the Wolverines. It falls after Michigan's blockbuster opener against Alabama at Jerry World and features an Air Force team with a tricky offense. Expect plenty of rushing yards with the Falcons and Denard Robinson on the same field.

No. 13 -- Southern Miss at Nebraska, Sept. 1: It likely won't make many lists of must-see openers, but Southern Miss-Nebraska could be a surprisingly good game. Southern Miss comes off of a Conference USA championship, while Nebraska begins its second go-round in the Big Ten. Both teams ranked in the top 20 nationally in rushing in 2011.

No. 12 -- Penn State at Virginia, Sept. 8: Penn State hits the road for the first time in the Bill O'Brien era and faces a Virginia team that could make some noise in the ACC's Coastal Division. A talented Lions defense must contend with Virginia's dual-threat weapon Perry Jones, who had 915 rush yards and 506 receiving yards in 2011.

No. 11 -- Wisconsin at Oregon State, Sept. 8: It'll be interesting to see how the Badgers and their new starting quarterback (most likely Danny O'Brien) fare in their first road game of the season. But Wisconsin won't need a heroic performance from its signal caller to beat a Beavers team picked to finish last in the Pac-12 North division. The Badgers crushed Oregon State 35-0 last year.

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