Big Ten: Brandon Scherff
QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
RB: Tevin Coleman, Indiana
WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State
WR: DaeSean Hamilton, Penn State
OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OT: Jack Conklin, Michigan State
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State
G: Zac Epping, Minnesota
G: Pat Elflein, Ohio State
DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State
DE: Marcus Rush, Michigan State
DT: Anthony Zettel, Penn State
DT: Carl Davis, Iowa
LB: Mike Hull, Penn State
LB: Damien Wilson, Minnesota
LB: Derek Landisch, Wisconsin
CB: Desmond King, Iowa
CB: Eric Murray, Minnesota
S: Frankie Williams, Purdue
S: Michael Caputo, Wisconsin
PK: Brad Craddock, Maryland
P: Justin DuVernois, Illinois
KR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland
PR: De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska
Thoughts: The first thing you probably notice is an unconventional offense featuring three running backs and no tight ends. Sure, it's a little bit of a cheat, but how do you leave any of those three tailbacks off? Coleman, Gordon and Abdullah rank 1, 2 and 4 nationally in rushing yards. Though there are some excellent tight ends in the league -- Minnesota's Maxx Williams and Penn State's Jesse James come to mind -- we would rather reward the outstanding tailbacks. Heck, we probably could have gone four or five deep at that position, given how loaded it is right now. ... The toughest call came at cornerback, where you might be surprised by our choices. We love King's shutdown ability for the Hawkeyes, and Murray gets the slight nod over teammate Briean Boddy-Calhoun for the Gophers' excellent secondary. Michigan State's Trae Waynes might be the best player at the position in the league, but he has given up some big plays this season. Same goes for Maryland's Will Likely, who has been explosive at times and torched (see: West Virginia and Ohio State) at others. It's only midseason, remember; these choices could change by the end of the season. ... Speaking of surprised, the steady Rush makes the team over more heralded position mate Shilique Calhoun. It's a close call, but Rush has been consistently terrific so far this season. ... Some pretty fresh names at linebacker, especially after so many stars at the position departed after last season. Michigan's Jake Ryan just missed there. ... Two freshmen made the team in Hamilton and Pierson-El. Ohio State's J.T. Barrett is also pushing Cook for No. 1 status at quarterback.
The breakdown by team:
Michigan State: 5
Penn State: 3
Ohio State: 2
Yet through three weeks, Iowa's running game has ground to a halt. The team ranks 11th in the Big Ten at 131 rushing yards per game, and its 3.6 yards per rush is just 91st nationally. The Hawkeyes' leading rusher after three games is senior Mark Weisman, who has only 96 total yards. He finished with 975 a year ago.
So what's the issue? Blocking? Scheme? Running backs not making the right cuts?
"I don't know," Ferentz said Tuesday. "If I knew that, we'd probably be running the ball better."
Not exactly the most reassuring answer. But Ferentz also said that working in some new players on offense has taken time, and opposing teams are loading the box to defend against Iowa's running game.
"Maybe a little bit," center Austin Blythe told ESPN.com when asked about that latter point. "But at the same time, it shouldn't matter, as long as we block the guys we say we're going to block."
Blythe sees it as more of a matter of chemistry. Watching the film, he said, he can see a lack of cohesion on offense, as getting all 11 players to do the right thing has been a problem.
"I think we're just one detail away from being a really good running offense," he said. "We just have to get everybody on the same page."
The Hawkeyes weren't at full strength in last week's 20-17 loss to Iowa State. Scherff played despite having his knee scoped earlier in the week, and tailback Jordan Canzeri had only three carries in part because he got banged up on a kick return, Ferentz said
Iowa's running game would really be struggling if not for quarterback Jake Rudock's productivity there. Though almost all of his runs are on scrambles and not designed plays, Rudock is the team's second-leading rusher at 92 yards. Take away his stats and a couple successful reverses by receiver Tevaun Smith, and the Hawkeyes have only 265 rushing yards in three games.
"He's done a nice job of feeling the right time to do that at the appropriate time," Ferentz said of Rudock's scrambling. "He typically has a pretty good knowledge of where he needs to get for the first down."
Other Big Ten teams have struggled to get their traditional running games going, notably Penn State and Maryland. But they didn't have the expectations and pound-first philosophy of Iowa. Instead, it's this week's opponent that looks like a more traditional Big Ten team.
Pitt, under former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, is fourth in the FBS in rushing yards per game, while tailback James Conner leads the nation in rushing yards. Those are the kinds of numbers many expected the Hawkeyes to put up this season, but they're still trying to regain a dominance on the ground.
"That's going to be our big focus in practice this week," Blythe said.
If things don't improve, Iowa could find itself running low on wins.
There were injuries to discuss, the repeal of the NCAA sanctions at Penn State and much, much more during the two-hour whip around the conference. Get caught up on the highlights right here, right now.
"Obviously we got some great news yesterday, and we're ready to move forward." -- James Franklin only briefly mentioning the sanctions.— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) September 9, 2014
Kirk Ferentz said Brandon Scherff is day-to-day. Doesn't mention surgery. Says Drew Ott will be ready to go.— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) September 9, 2014
Hoke on reduced PSU sanctions: "Is it good for the Big Ten? Yes it is." Said you hate to see kids get punished for things they didn't do.— Josh Moyer (@ESPNJoshMoyer) September 9, 2014
Tim Beckman says every win for Illinois is a signature win. But mentions that only four Illini teams in last 25 years have started 3-0.— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) September 9, 2014
Kyle Flood: First impressions in life matter. And this is our opportunity to make a first impression in the Big Ten— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) September 9, 2014
Fitzgerald said Wildcats will rest quarterback Trevor Siemian but they expect him to practice next week and be ready for W. Illinois.— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) September 9, 2014
Jerry Kill joking that he didn't want to play his friend Gary Patterson and TCU. "But I'm not the boss, I'm the football coach."— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) September 9, 2014
Iowa TV station KCRG reported that Scherff underwent surgery on the knee Tuesday morning. On Twitter, reporter Scott Westerberg said Scherff told him he hoped to be back for the Sept. 20 game against Pitt but was confident he'd return in time for the start of Big Ten play.
But later on during the Big Ten coaches' teleconference, Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz wouldn't confirm or deny that report.
Asked specifically if Scherff had surgery, Ferentz said, "Brandon injured his knee Saturday, I guess that's pretty apparent. Outside of that, I don't have much to tell you. He got hurt, came back and he did a helluva job. He was stiff on Sunday, like you'd expect. We had a lot of guys sore and stiff. Right now, he's got an opportunity to play, so that's what we're focused on."
Ferentz is usually pretty forthcoming on injuries, but this week is a rivalry week as the Hawkeyes face Iowa State. So it's not too surprising he wouldn't say much about his best player.
If Scherff is out, that could put the Iowa offense in a bind. The team ranks just 11th in the Big Ten in rushing after two games, a surprising figure. And Iowa has had to scrape by both Northern Iowa and Ball State at home. Without Scherff, beating Iowa State and Pitt becomes a trickier challenge. Redshirt freshman Ike Boettger would step in at left tackle for Scherff.
Scherff isn't the only Hawkeye nursing some bumps and bruises this week. Defensive end Drew Ott, who was named the Big Ten defensive player of the week for his 13-tackle performance against Ball State, was reportedly hospitalized Monday morning after a scooter incident.
Ott, who wasn't wearing a helmet, was struck by a car while riding his scooter around campus, according to reports. Ferentz said he spoke to Ott on Tuesday morning, and all indications are that he's OK.
"As far as I know, he will be ready to go," Ferentz said.
It's a relief to hear that Ott avoided a potential serious injury. As for Scherff, we may have to wait to find out more.
While quarterbacks across the nation are putting up crazy numbers like pinball machines and spread offenses are letting wide receivers run wild and rack up yardage, that tradition-loving, old-school Big Ten appears downright antiquated with its continued emphasis on running backs carrying the load.
But look closer.
The evolution of offenses may not have done much to change the face of the most productive players in the conference. But when there are so many game-breakers in Big Ten backfields, there's really not much incentive to shift the focus away from them in the first place.
"This a running back-heavy league, and you need a good running back, an every-down back to get through the Big Ten," Minnesota senior David Cobb said. "And in this league, there's a good running back on every team."
The conference has never really been in short supply of rushers, but the ground game looks particularly fertile this season with so many talented tailbacks returning as the focal point on offense.
The conversation about the league's best typically revolves around Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, the top two returners in the league and the odds-on favorites to claim offensive player of the year honors while leading teams aiming for the conference title. They're also close friends who admit to some good-natured trash talk that comes from paying attention to the league's yardage leader board, but both know it might not be safe to just measure themselves against each other this fall.
Michigan State's Jeremy Langford somehow largely flew under the radar last season despite piling up more than 1,400 yards and leading the Big Ten in rushing touchdowns with 18.
Cobb will be getting no shortage of carries in Minnesota's power rushing attack, and indications out of training camp suggest he's even better than he was while gaining 1,202 yards as a junior.
Despite playing in a spread system, Indiana's Tevin Coleman offered a reminder of the importance of balancing out a passing attack with a productive rusher, with his explosiveness in averaging more than 7 yards per carry driving the point home. Josh Ferguson does the same for Illinois, complementing his 5.5 yards per carry with 50 receptions for 535 yards and 4 touchdowns as a target in the passing game. Iowa's Mark Weisman came up just short of the 1,000-yard milestone last year, but he's playing behind perhaps the best set of blockers in the conference this fall and should be poised to capitalize on those huge holes opened by left tackle Brandon Scherff and his buddies.
Even at schools with unsettled depth charts at the top there's little reason to panic. Carlos Hyde is gone at Ohio State, but it has a stable loaded with both veterans like Rod Smith and youngsters like presumptive starter Ezekiel Elliott poised to take over. Michigan struggled to move the football on the ground a year ago, but Derrick Green looks ready to live up to his billing as one of the top recruits in the 2013 class as he moves into a likely starting role.
And if all that depth makes winning the rushing crown a bit tougher this fall for Gordon or Abdullah, they certainly aren't worried about a little competition. In the Big Ten, that's long been a source of pride.
"Definitely, you can look at every team," Abdullah said. "You just go down the line, and the running back position in this league is really deep. It's going to be good competition for this year statistically. I feel like it gets overshadowed a little bit. You throw in T.J. Yeldon [at Alabama], [Georgia's Todd] Gurley, guys who play for those SEC teams or maybe the Pac-12 guys and we get overshadowed a little bit. But all we can do is show up to work every Saturday and prove our case."
Abdullah and Gordon are expected to build the strongest of them, and they may emerge as the Big Ten's best hopes for a Heisman Trophy now that Braxton Miller is out of the picture with a season-ending shoulder surgery.
But even if the Ohio State senior had been around this season, the quarterback might have had a hard time stealing some attention during what's shaping up as a callback to the league's tradition with one more Year of the Running Back.
"The Big Ten, we're known for running the ball, and when you can take pressure off the quarterback by giving the rock to the running back, that's a good feeling," Gordon said. "And we've got a lot of good running backs in the Big Ten -- it's not just me and Ameer.
"I think there are some other guys that need some praise as well. There are some good backs we have in this conference, and they'll be heard sooner or later."
There's still plenty of opportunities to make a little noise as a tailback in the Big Ten. And the league has a long list of guys ready to make some racket.
And here they are:
QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: Braxton Miller's injury opened up this spot on the first team. Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Indiana's Nate Sudfeld were potential choices here too, but Cook's Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl MVP finish earn him the nod.
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Well, sure. He could lead the nation in rushing, unless ...
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: ... Abdullah, his good friend, beats him to it. In a league blessed with great running backs, these two stand out the most.
WR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland: There is a lot of uncertainty in the Big Ten at receiver heading into 2014. This much is certain: If Diggs can stay healthy, he'll be one of the nation's best.
WR: Shane Wynn, Indiana: Wynn scored more touchdowns than any other Big Ten receiver the past season, and now he steps into a more featured role.
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan: Funchess might play wide receiver almost exclusively, in which case this should be viewed as a third wide receiver spot on the team. The matchup nightmare looks poised for a big season.
OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He might just be the best left tackle in college football in 2014. He's definitely got NFL scouts drooling.
OT: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: An enormous road grader at right tackle. Trying to shed him and catch Melvin Gordon is just not fair.
OG: Kaleb Johnson, Rutgers: He thought about leaving for the NFL after the past season but instead gave the Scarlet Knights a boost by returning. He has started 37 straight games.
OG: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: He could be the next rising star in Wisconsin's offensive lineman factory.
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: A second-team All-Big Ten pick the past season, the former high school wrestling champion has no let up in his game.
DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: He’s the returning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year and could become the conference’s defensive player of the year in 2014, unless ...
DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska: ... Gregory edges him out for the honor. The pass-rush specialist outpaced Calhoun in sacks (10.5) the past season, and Bo Pelini said Gregory has “only scratched the surface of what he’s going to be down the line.”
DT: Michael Bennett, Ohio State: He anchors the best defensive line in the conference and was named to the All-Big Ten’s second team last season.
DT: Carl Davis, Iowa: He still thinks Scherff would get the best of him if they squared off, but Athlon thought highly enough of Davis to make him a fourth-team preseason All-American.
LB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern: The quiet Ariguzo likes to let his play do the talking, and it chatted up a storm this past season -- to the tune of 106 tackles and four interceptions.
LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: He was a coin-flip from transferring to Pittsburgh during the sanctions, but now he’s the leader of this revamped defense.
LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan shocked onlookers last season by taking less than seven months to go from ACL surgery to playing in a Big Ten game. Hopes are higher now for the healthy redshirt senior, as he has registered a stop in the backfield in 25 of his past 30 games.
CB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: He’s taking over at Darqueze Dennard's boundary cornerback position, but he’s up for the challenge. He’s already on the watch lists for the Bednarik and Thorpe awards.
CB: Blake Countess, Michigan: He tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions (6) the past season -- despite battling lower abdominal pain most of the year.
S: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: The blue-collar DB started 21 straight games and was a Sports Illustrated All-American the past season.
S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: A smart and instinctive player, Campbell has been remarkably consistent for the Wildcats. He’s a three-time all-academic B1G player and has eight career interceptions.
K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State: As a freshman in 2013, he made 15 of his 16 field-goal attempts.
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State: An ESPN.com All-American in 2013, Sadler combines with Geiger to give the Spartans the best 1-2 kicking tandem in the league.
KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska: He led the Big Ten in return yardage the past season (averaging 26.5 yards per kick) and took one 99 yards for a touchdown at Penn State.
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa: He averaged 15.7 yards per return in 2013 and scored on two punt returns in the same game.
Selections by school:
Michigan State: 7
Ohio State: 1
Penn State: 1
It’s 1985 all over again. First, the Kansas City Royals win the World Series. And five weeks later, in a "Back to the Future" moment, Iowa hoists the Big Ten championship trophy, its first outright league title in 29 years.
And so the Hawkeyes -- yes, the Hawkeyes -- are headed to Pasadena, California, to play a national-semifinal game in the first College Football Playoff.
Iowa punches its ticket with a 13th win in as many games, 24-21 over Michigan State in Indianapolis.
Less than a month prior, the Hawkeyes hardly register on the national radar despite a 7-0 start. In the first release of the playoff committee’s ranking, Iowa checks in at No. 20.
No respect for coach Kirk Ferentz’s team, which started the season outside of the Top 25 in the AP poll.
But Iowa handles perennial Hawk-spoiler Northwestern handily on Nov. 1 in Iowa City as Jake Rudock and Mark Weisman lead the way with three touchdowns apiece.
Still, pundits point to 2009, when the Hawkeyes started 9-0 before two straight losses.
The committee bumps Iowa to No. 12 on Nov. 11 after a convincing win at Minnesota. Cornerback Desmond King continues on an All-America track with two pick-six interceptions of Mitch Leidner.
Two weeks later, Iowa, at 10-0, still sits eighth in the playoff poll as Wisconsin visits Kinnick Stadium. In the third quarter, with the Badgers leading 17-13, left tackle Brandon Scherff lines up at tight end and takes a toss from Jordan Canzeri, delivering a strike to Kevonte Martin-Manley for a 62-yard touchdown. Iowa wins 27-17.
It vaults two spots to sixth in the ratings before Nebraska visits for a post-Thanksgiving clash to settle the West Division. The Huskers, 10-1 with their only blemish at Michigan State, commit nine turnovers in an otherwise impressive performance. Iowa defensive end Drew Ott, from Trumbull, Nebraska, intercepts backup QB Ryker Fyfe midway through the fourth quarter. Iowa runs out the clock for a 31-20 win.
Scherff carries Rudock and Weisman off the field on his shoulders at the same time. The lineman is named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. He wins the Outland and Lombardi trophies and finishes third in the Heisman balloting en route to the No. 1 spot in the NFL draft.
Iowa jumps to third in the playoff poll before the meeting with MSU. Canzeri scores early on a screen play. Scherff wins the battle against Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Shilique Calhoun. Rudock connects with freshman receiver Derrick Willies to put Iowa up for good early in the fourth quarter.
Three weeks later, Iowa stages a gigantic party at Carver-Hawkeye Arena to serve as a sendoff before the Hawks, as the No. 2 team nationally, board two charter jets to Pasadena to face No. 3 Oklahoma in a rematch of the 2011 Insight Bowl.
Tom Brokaw and Ashton Kutcher meet the planes in California, where the party continues.
Remember what they said about this Iowa schedule before the season? A gift from the Big Ten.
Well, someone forgot to tell Northern Iowa. The Panthers block a 40-yard field goal attempt by Marshall Koehn in the final seconds, gaining a measure of revenge from five years ago when Iowa snuffed two UNI kicks at the end. This one ends with the same score, 17-16, as Northern Iowa grounds the Hawkeyes’ dreams of a magical season before it could take flight.
Two weeks later, Iowa State upsets Iowa at Kinnick. The Hawks’ new group of linebackers falters early and often. Rudock takes a step back from his sophomore season. Backs Weisman and Canzeri fight injuries.
Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld exposes holes in the Iowa secondary a couple of weeks later as the Hoosiers beat Iowa in a second straight meeting.
Maryland, Northwestern and Minnesota pile on. Iowa plays well in a win against Illinois but finishes flat with losses to Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Huskers’ Randy Gregory schools Scherff in the finale, recording 3.5 sacks as the Huskers clinch the West Division.
Iowa finishes with four wins for the second time in three years. AD Gary Barta extends Ferentz’s deal through 2030, a move denounced by Kutcher on Twitter to his 16 million followers. Iowa State wins nine games and steals QB recruit Ryan Boyle of West Des Moines. Scherff slips to the second round of the NFL draft.
What, you don’t even fully understand the ramifications of the decision last week by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors that grants power to the Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 to create policy on a wide range of legislative topics designed to enhance the student-athlete experience?
Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Coaches at many schools in the Power Five conferences appear to remain in the dark about what’s to come next year and beyond.
Really, most of us are waiting with curiosity. I talked to several Big Ten coaches about the subject last month in Chicago and came away unsure if they knew what was really afoot, beyond the primary talking points.
We know the cost-of-attendance topic -- basically a stipend for student-athletes at the Power Five schools -- is atop the agenda.
From there, it gets a bit murky. All of it, though, stands to positively impact the Big Ten, with its many rich athletic departments funded by football programs with giant stadiums and fruitful TV contracts.
Predictably, the cries have already begun that autonomy will simply serve as a tool for the power players to push their agenda.
Colleague Jeremy Crabtree wrote this week of a Big 12 recruiting coordinator who said he feared that the autonomy vote would open “Pandora’s box” for biggest schools to reshape rules in their favor.
Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen told me at Big Ten media days that he hoped autonomy would lead to official recruiting visits in the summer, currently off limits. But Andersen said more.
“Let’s just throw it out there,” he said. “I’ll be the guy to say it, that’s fine. Certain people don’t want recruiting trips to take place to the Big Ten in the summer -- certain conferences.”
Newsflash: He’s talking about the SEC. They’re all talking about the SEC. If they’re not talking about the SEC, they’re at least thinking about the SEC.
How long before a coach or administrator flat-out blames the SEC for all that could potentially go wrong with this first go-round of autonomy? It’ll happen before Oct. 1, when potential rule changes must be submitted for vote at the NCAA Convention in January.
And what are the chances that coach or administrator resides in the Big Ten?
Look, the SEC can’t change college football alone. The rules of autonomy require a 60 percent majority of the 80-member voting panel -- which includes 15 student-athletes -- and approval from three of the Power Five leagues, or a simple majority of the panel and approval from four of the five league.
So what the SEC wants, the SEC can’t get without help from other leagues.
Remember that if you hear someone from the Big Ten complain over the next six weeks about who’s running football. The vote last week ensures that the Big Ten and others in the Power Five are offered the same opportunity as that league down south to initiate and steer change.
Around the league ...
- Seriously, first-year offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier does not feel added pressure to fix Michigan’s offense?
- The BTN crew weighs in on Michigan State’s talent.
- Is everyone overlooking Penn State wideout DaeSean Hamilton?
- Ohio State’s walkout ‘backer.
- An Iowa perspective on Indiana.
- Rutgers’ new director of recruiting opens up about the 2015 class.
- Maryland will implement fullback Kenneth Goins into its 2014 plan.
- Northwestern’s Venric Mark aims to find a positive in his two-game suspension.
- Purdue safety Taylor Richards is suspended, too, and he’s far from absent.
- Minnesota’s secondary is coming of age.
- QB Wes Lunt continues to progress well in camp at Illinois.
- Iowa defensive end Drew Ott is a champion hay-bale thrower.
- The kindness of strangers toward his family has moved Wisconsin offensive guard Kyle Costigan.
- Assessing the Nebraska offense through one week of practice.
- This might have something to do with what got Michigan receiver Csont'e York suspended indefinitely.
- The gas leak that forced MSU to relocate its Tuesday practice has been fixed.
- Brandon Scherff returns a punt, because he’s Brandon Scherff.
- Here’s a real student-athlete.
As Adam pointed out on Monday, there seems to be a bit of recency bias at play, as many of the Big Ten's top seasons happened long ago. The two most recent selections came in 2000, with Purdue (Drew Brees) and Northwestern (Damien Anderson).
But there are some star players at Big Ten schools right now who might just put up the greatest season ever at their school. Let's look at some of the candidates to join the list the next time ESPN does The Season project in, like, oh, another 50 years:
Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: Can Miller eclipse two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin? Possibly. He's already won Big Ten offensive player of the year honors twice and could turn in a big finish to his career. A Heisman and a national title would certainly help his cause.
Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin: He already has some stiff competition at his own position in Badgers lore, as Ron Dayne edged out Montee Ball for the best Wisconsin season. Yet Gordon has the ability to rush for 2,000 yards and loads of big plays this season, which figures to be his last in Madison. He's a Heisman Trophy contender.
Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska: It would be hard for Abdullah or anyone to edge out Mike Rozier. But Abdullah, who led the Big Ten in rushing yards last season, is capable of a monster senior season, and he's already beloved for his leadership.
Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska: Gregory led the Big Ten in sacks with 10.5 in his first year in the FBS. He could have an Ndamukong Suh-like impact this year if everything breaks right.
Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State: Picture this: Hackenberg throwing for 4,000 yards and leading the Nittany Lions back to Big Ten and postseason glory. It's probably more likely to happen in 2015 or 2016 than this year, but Hackenberg has a great chance to go down as the best quarterback in Penn State history.
Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State: Imagine Calhoun using his nose for the ball to score multiple defensive touchdowns and create key turnovers all season en route to a College Football Playoff appearance. Kill, Shilique, kill?
Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland: The Terps' rather modest history means the bar is not too high for a "greatest season ever" year. Diggs could be the nation's top receiver if he stays healthy and continues to improve. Watch out, Randy White.
Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa: He's probably not going to edge out Nile Kinnick, but Kirk Ferentz says Scherff has the chance to go down as an all-time great for the Hawkeyes. Let's not forget to give offensive linemen some love.
Earlier today, we wrapped up our countdown of the Big Ten's Top 25 players entering the 2014 season. Not surprisingly, Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller topped the list as he aims for a third consecutive Big Ten offensive player of the year award.
Miller was a fairly easy choice at No. 1, but we debated several other players and where they should end up.
It's roundtable time, and our Big Ten reporter crew is set to break down the Top 25.
Which player did you struggle with the most to rank?
Brian Bennett: I'm not sure I properly ranked (or in some cases didn't rank) the Maryland Terrapins and Rutgers Scarlet Knights. It's tough because we haven't watched them that closely, while we know the ins and outs of players who competed in the Big Ten the past couple of years. I'm sure Stefon Diggs belongs, and Andre Monroe probably does, too. What about Tyler Kroft or Paul James or Darius Hamilton or Steve Longa or Deon Long? We'll know more about these guys' bona fides after they spend a year in the league.
Mitch Sherman: Venric Mark posed some problems for me. Coming back from a broken ankle that ruined his 2013 season, the Northwestern Wildcats running back is something of a forgotten man, especially amid an outstanding group of league backs. But Mark rushed for nearly 1,400 yards in 2012 and would have likely earned a spot higher than I gave him -- No. 16; 15th in the composite vote -- a year ago.
Which player(s) do you see making the biggest moves up the list for the postseason rankings?
Austin Ward: Now that he's the last one standing with the Indiana Hoosiers, quarterback Nate Sudfeld won't have to worry about sharing snaps or practice reps, and his numbers could skyrocket in that high-octane offense. Fairly or unfairly, though, if the defense doesn't lend a bigger hand to help earn Sudfeld some credit as a winner, he might not be able to climb all that much higher than No. 23.
Rittenberg: Two defensive players suiting up in the Mitten State jump out in Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan (No. 20) and Michigan State Spartans cornerback Trae Waynes (No. 19). Ryan showed in 2012 just how good he can be when healthy, recording four forced fumbles and 16 tackles for loss. Coaches around the Big Ten love Waynes, who steps into the top cover corner role with Darqueze Dennard departing. I also love Tevin Coleman's potential and could see the Indiana running back in our postseason top 10.
What does the Top 25 say about certain positions in the league?
Sherman: We probably overvalue quarterbacks. It's the most important position in football, yes, but I doubt five actually rate among the league’s top 23 players. Interestingly, with the quarterbacks and five running backs, we've still got just 13 offensive players in the top 25. Clearly, it's a strong year for Big Ten defensive ends. By December, at least one of those pass-rushers will belong among the league’s best four players.
Bennett: Defensive end is stacked. Nebraska Cornhuskers' Randy Gregory, MSU's Shilique Calhoun and Ohio State's Joey Bosa are studs, and the Minnesota Golden Gophers' Theiren Cockran and Ohio State's Noah Spence are also special. Also, where are all the offensive linemen in a league known for them? Other than Brandon Scherff, star tackles, guards and centers are MIA.
Ward: Playing quarterback might not be all that fun this season. Ohio State's defensive line might be among the best in the nation, but that's not the only team that will be able to generate a ferocious pass rush. There are seven defensive linemen listed in the preseason top 25, and there could easily have been a few more.
Who were the biggest snubs, either in ranking or those who didn't even make the Top 25?
Sherman: I'll go with two guys who didn't make the list -- Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell, on track to rewrite the school records at his position, and Rutgers' Longa, who collected 123 tackles as a redshirt freshman last year. If Longa played at an established league school, he would have made the Top 25. I voted Bell at No. 23, by the way, and Longa at No. 24.
Rittenberg: I ranked Illinois running back Josh Ferguson in my list and would have liked to see him in the group. He's incredibly versatile -- 50 receptions last season -- and explosive with the ball in his hands. I really like Waynes and think Minnesota defensive end Theiren Cockran could have been higher than No. 21.
Ward: Calling Doran Grant a snub might be a stretch coming off a season with three interceptions for Ohio State’s anemic pass defense, but I think the senior’s talent is overlooked and he’s primed for a breakout in the new system co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash has installed. Playing more aggressively with bump-and-run coverage suits Grant’s athleticism, and by the end of the year, I expect he'll be recognized among the Big Ten's best.
Bennett: Indiana receiver Shane Wynn scored more touchdowns than any other Big Ten player last season, and now he's the top option in the Hoosiers' high-octane passing attack. Fellow players pointed to Wynn as one of the league's best playmakers during media days, yet he didn't get his due here.
All week, we've been revealing our rankings of the Top 25 players in the Big Ten for 2014.
Now comes the moment you've been waiting for: the best of the best. Here are the top five players as we see them, based on past performance and potential for this season and as voted on by our crew of Big Ten reporters:
5. Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska Cornhuskers
Beast. That's the first word that comes to mind when you watch Gregory. He can match anyone in the country athletically, and he's got a motor that runs all day. Gregory led the Big Ten in sacks with 10.5 last season, and what's most impressive about that is that it was his first season of major college football. The potential for even greater things is there in 2014.
No. 4: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin Badgers
Few players cause you to hold your breath when they touch the ball more than the Badgers' junior tailback. He gobbles up turf with his long strides, and when he turns the corner on a defense, he's gone in a flash. Gordon averaged a ridiculous 7.8 yards per carry last season, and he could easily lead the nation in rushing in 2014.
No. 3: Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa Hawkeyes
Is there a stronger player in the Big Ten, or college football? After watching this, that seems doubtful. But Scherff, who played quarterback in high school, is more than just a hulk of muscles. He's nimble and physical, making him one of the best offensive tackles anywhere and the anchor of Iowa's plan of attack.
No. 2: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska Cornhuskers
Abdullah led the Big Ten in total rushing yards last season and has the most career 100-yard games among FBS players with 17. His 5-foot-9, 195-pound frame belies the toughness with which he runs, and he's also got the speed to blow by people. He's the heart and soul of Nebraska and one of the fiercest competitors around.
No. 1: Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State Buckeyes
Who else? Miller is the back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year who will try to make it three straight as a senior. There are holes to pick in his game -- he's not a pinpoint passer, he gets banged up a bit too much -- but he almost always finds a way to get the job done, especially in the clutch. The belt belongs to him until someone else snatches it.
ESPN.com has taken on the herculean task of ranking the top 100 players in college football entering the 2014 season. These are based on expected contributions for the 2014 season, regardless of position.
The list is being released in 20-player increments, and today we reach players ranked Nos. 40-31 and 30-21. Three Big Ten players appeared in this group, and here they are:
No. 34: Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
No. 23: Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa
No. 21: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
There can't be too much controversy with these picks -- maybe I would have moved one or two guys up a handful of spots, but that is it -- as this trio deservedly punched their ticket to the top 40.
They are all proven commodities who have shown they are among the best in the Big Ten. Abdullah finished second in the conference with 130 rushing yards per game, Bosa played even better than his 7.5 sacks indicated, and Scherff has catapulted up some analysts’ draft boards as the projected No. 1 overall pick in 2015. Sure, Bosa is the only guy who didn’t earn a spot on the All-Big Ten team last season -- but he was also a true freshman who started 10 games and led his team in quarterback hurries. He was named a freshman All-American by several publications.
Scherff acknowledged this week that he needs to improve on his pass-blocking, and that might be part of the reason he is not ranked in the top 15. (One scouting report said his "occasional missteps in pass-protection can be corrected with more experience.") It’s not that he is below-average in that department -- far from it -- but it’s clear he is best at, and prefers, the run game. “If a team can run the ball, why pass?” he asked Monday. That being said, I’m still big on Scherff. And if we had this same poll at the end of the season, I think Scherff would be the most likely out of these three to move up. He is easily the best offensive lineman in the conference, and more eyes should be on him this season after an incredible weightlifting video that went viral.
As for Abdullah, his spot might spark the most debate of these three. Some might prefer him to Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, but it’s pretty difficult to separate those two. I mean, there is not exactly a giant gulf between the player who rushed for 1,690 yards last season (Abdullah) and the one who rushed for 1,609 (Gordon). I’m fine with our panel picking Gordon over Abdullah, although some might feel differently.
So, overall, I think the rankings here are pretty solid. Nothing can ever be perfect when it comes to player rankings, and the accompanying opinions, but I think this segment is pretty darn close. The real controversy comes with the top 20 on Friday ...
This is my first Big Ten mailbag, but don't go easy on me. Let's get this started.
Josh Moyer: Good question, Jackie. It's a bit of a complicated issue, so let's kind of take it step by step here. First of all, there are two types of insurances built around players who are normally projected to go within the first three rounds: Loss-of-value insurance in case an injury -- maybe a torn ACL, for example -- causes a player to drop in the NFL draft, and then there's insurance that only covers a player in case he suffers a career-ending injury. Both insurances have really become common, and the NCAA's actually allowed this for about 25 years. The NCAA will even extend loans to players who want the insurance -- it's part of the Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Insurance Program, which helps out about 60 to 80 football players a year -- but, of course, there's a catch. The NCAA will only grant loans to players who want the career-ending insurance. Want the loss-of-value policy? Too bad. You'll have to get that yourself, and that'll cost five-figures.
Melvin Gordon wanted both policies, and they cost about $28,000, according to this article by Wisconsin State Journal's Tom Oates. That kind of money might be easy to come by for Johnny Football's family -- but not for most others. So Wisconsin paid for the policies out of the Student Opportunity Fund, and I applaud the move. I spoke to Wisconsin SID Brian Lucas this afternoon, and he acknowledged it's pretty rare for a university to pay for the insurance. (It is a first for Wisconsin, although Texas A&M has also done it.) But it's obviously within the rules. If anything, I think the NCAA should start offering and extending loans to cover both insurances. I can't see a good reason why it's not already doing that.
As for Gordon, maybe some critics might say this was an incentive for him to stay at Wisconsin another year -- even if Gordon disagrees with that assertion. Quite frankly, I don't care either way. With all the issues in the NCAA, there are worse problems than giving talented players an incentive to stay in school and finish their degrees.
@ESPN_BigTen who wins in a boxing match between Scherff and Carl Davis?— Logan Wiegmann (@loganwiegmann) July 30, 2014
Josh Moyer: Oh, come on. What kind of question is that? Of course, with that monstrous strength, it would be Brandon Scherff -- but I'll say he wins in a split decision. All joking aside, though, I spoke to both Iowa players Tuesday at Big Ten media days, and I posed a question about who'd win in a one-on-one battle -- but on the gridiron, not in the boxing ring. Since Scherff's on the outside at offensive tackle and Carl Davis is inside at defensive tackle, they haven't gone at it since they were freshmen. But Davis dug into the hypothetical. Here's what he told me: "I'd definitely give it to Scherff as a player right now. He's a great player. The stuff he does, he's really matured as a player in his development. He's strong as a house. ... He's the better player."
So, quite frankly, if Scherff is a good enough pick for Davis, then it's good enough for me.
Brian from Altoona, Pennsylvania, writes: Penn State's pick for a new AD doesn't make any sense. Why would they go after her with her academic record? Am I missing something or is Penn State crazy?
Josh Moyer: There's no doubt about it -- picking former Cal AD Sandy Barbour was definitely a bit of a head-scratcher. Northwestern's Jim Phillips would've been the slam-dunk hire if PSU could've pried him away, while Barbour's kind of the unexpected consolation prize. She ended her career as Cal AD at a low point after the football team finished with the worst graduation rate (44 percent) among the nation's 72 major programs. Cal! As in Cal-Berkeley! It's a great school, so those numbers were not acceptable.
Penn State president Eric Barron blamed those numbers on Cal's budget crisis. And he's not necessarily wrong, as that definitely contributed to it all. But Barbour waited too long to address the issue. On the positive side, Penn State should be an "easier" school to oversee since fundraising should be a little easier between the football team's past tradition and success. And, keep in mind, most people didn't like the Bill O'Brien hire, either, when it was first announced.
All that being said, if I were in Barbour's position, I think it'd be smart if her first act as AD was to invest money into something academic-related -- whether it's a new studying lounge, more tutors, whatever. Academics are her biggest criticism right now, and she could help shift the conversation with a move that benefits education. Plus, even if the move might put PSU in the red a bit, how many people have actually ever said, "Gee, I wish we didn't invest as much in academics."? Seems like a win-win move to me. She starts Aug. 18 -- so we'll see how it goes.
- A difference of opinion exists over which new division, East or West, most embodies Big Ten football.
- Ameer Abdullah, the featured speaker at the league's Kickoff Luncheon, is not your everyday college football player, writes Pat Forde. Abdullah illustrates the essence of the student-athlete.
- The NCAA should lift the bowl ban on Penn State, writes Dennis Dodd. Top takeaways from Chicago for Penn State.
- The revitalized Penn State-Rutgers rivalry won’t damage the friendship of coaches James Franklin and Kyle Flood. Purdue coach Darrell Hazell was a key figure in rebuilding the Rutgers program under Greg Schiano.
- Competition reins at Purdue in the preseason.
- Should Hazell and Illinois coach Tim Beckman feel the heat? Despite plenty of focus on the Illini’s unsettled quarterback spot, its defense may hold the key to success.
- Randy Edsall believes Maryland is ready to win now in the Big Ten. His coaching peers believe it, too. Terps receiver Stefon Diggs can relate to LeBron James.
- Ohio State players say their coach has changed his approach since arriving in Columbus 2 1/2 years ago. This OSU defensive line could resemble the 2006 group at Florida, says Urban Meyer.
- Nebraska plans to grind it out with a streamlined offensive playbook.
- Michigan coach Brady Hoke says De’Veon Smith will enter preseason camp with a slight edge over Derrick Green at running back. Before returning to national prominence, the Wolverines are working to first earn the respect of each other.
- How might Michigan State have finished last year in the College Football Playoff structure? No. 1, according to Mark Dantonio. The perception of MSU football is trending up.
- Indiana has plans to do more than just qualify for its second bowl game since 1993.
- Iowa’s Mark Weisman is a rock star. Or maybe just a rock. The summer of Scherff continues to gain momentum.
- Northwestern won’t budge in its hard-line stance on recruiting, even if it led to the loss of two elite prospects. The unionization topic won’t fade away for the Wildcats.
- A campus incident last year at Wisconsin has sparked discussion about regulating recruiting visits. A freshman looks set to play an important role on the Badgers’ stout offensive line.
- Minnesota coach Jerry Kill is fit to coach from the sidelines. Impact freshmen for the Gophers.
So on Tuesday morning, five offensive players and five defensive players offered their takes regarding those top athletes. We ran the offensive player results earlier on Tuesday, and up now are the results from the defense.
The full question: Besides you or players on your team, who's the best -- or most exciting -- defensive player in the Big Ten?
S Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: "I like watching Randy Gregory and the way he can tackle people. We got a lot of good players in this conference, so that's kind of tough to say. But I like his motor, I like the way he gets after people, and I like his excitement. I like guys that are out there having fun, and you can tell he has fun the way he plays."
DT Michael Bennett, Ohio State: "A lot of them left last year. Hmm ... I'd have to say Shilique Calhoun because he's the only other name I really know. He makes plays. Other than that, I watched his film and I wasn't really sure what the hype was -- but then, somehow, in our game he comes out with two forced fumbles and three sacks or something like that. So the guy is a playmaker and he gets the job done."
LB Mike Hull, Penn State: "That's tough. There's a lot of good players, but I really follow a lot of the linebackers. So I'd say Jake Ryan. He's a solid linebacker, makes good plays and has really good fundamentals. Just have respect for Michigan."
S Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: "It's tough to say ... but there's some defenses that stand out. Michigan State's defense always stands out. It's more of a concerted effort; their whole unit plays with a good energy that I like. I'll always be watching them during the season, and they'll always stand out to me. If we're watching Illinois' offense and they played Michigan State, they'll just kind of stand out as one of the best teams defensively."