Big Ten: Cameron Johnston

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The championship trophy had barely been in Urban Meyer's possession for a day when the first seeds were planted for defending it.

If the Ohio State coach is tougher on his team after a win, imagine what it will be like for it after rolling through the College Football Playoff and claiming a national title.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsLimiting big plays on defense will likely be a focus for Urban Meyer during spring practice.
"The Chase" banner in the practice complex has already been replaced by "The Grind" on campus, offering the first hint of how Meyer plans to fight off complacency for a roster that returns the majority of its key contributors from last season and will head into this year as a favorite to win it all again. But slogans aside, even after claiming the national crown Meyer still has plenty of evidence he can point to that the Buckeyes still have room to grow as they hit the practice field on Tuesday, which should only help him get their attention for the upcoming 15 workouts.

In some instances, he might have to nitpick to find some flaws with the champs. But Meyer figures to start with these areas as he looks to strengthen the Buckeyes ahead of their title defense and shore up any relative weaknesses.

1. Cut down on turnovers: Just about the only team slowing down Meyer's high-powered offense late in the season was Ohio State itself. And while occasional carelessness with the football obviously didn't cost the Buckeyes any victories down the stretch, it certainly made life more difficult than it needed to be.

Signature victories over Michigan State, Alabama and Oregon all seemed to follow similar scripts with the Buckeyes struggling at times to protect the football, either keeping the score close or digging them a hole to climb out of even while racking up yardage and looking like the more dangerous team. Particularly in the title-clinching win over the Ducks, it's somewhat scary to think what Ohio State might have been capable of doing without handing over four turnovers.

The Buckeyes finished the season with 26 turnovers, the highest total in the Big Ten. Playing three extra games certainly helped inflate that number, but with 14 lost fumbles, Ohio State was effectively coughing up one possession a game thanks to its lack of ball security. Expect that to be an emphasis for Meyer.

2. Limit explosive plays: The pass defense improved dramatically, effort was never an issue and the Buckeyes were much more fundamentally sound as tacklers as the Silver Bullets returned to the kind of level the program expects. But there were still a few too many mental lapses that resulted in huge gains or long touchdowns, and that might be the last thing on the checklist left to keep Ohio State firmly among the defensive elite nationally.

Whether it was Indiana's Tevin Coleman dashing 90 yards for a score or Cincinnati unleashing a deep bomb for an 83-yard touchdown, when the Buckeyes let their guard down they were susceptible to plays that could change the game. Typically Ohio State could rely on its offense to answer those quick strikes, but it was chunks of yardage allowed on two or three plays -- not problems down-in and down-out -- that left the unit ranked No. 5 against the rush and No. 6 versus the pass in the Big Ten.

3. Something special: There were certainly highlights in the kicking game, starting with the incredible coverage unit that flew down the field on every kickoff and fired up the sideline with its knack for pinning opponents deep. But aside from that group, a streak of lightning from Jalin Marshall with his punt-return touchdown against Indiana and the wizardry of punter Cameron Johnston, the Buckeyes still left some areas with room to improve in the third phase.

Considering how much pride Meyer takes in his special-teams units, that probably doesn't sit well with him heading into his fourth season with the program.

For starters, he would surely like to generate the same excitement when opponents are kicking off to the Buckeyes, and averaging just less than 23 yards per return without a touchdown surely doesn't meet his standard. That could open up a competition to more than just Marshall or Dontre Wilson. Ohio State could use more consistency from kicker Sean Nuernberger as well after the rising sophomore made just 13 of his 20 field goal attempts last season.

Season report card: Ohio State

January, 29, 2015
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Grades are past due for the 2014 season, and we're passing out report cards for each Big Ten team, evaluating offense, defense, special teams, coaches and the overall performance.

Up next is an Ohio State team that earned its highest marks after the calendar flipped to 2015.

Offense: A

It will go down as arguably the most memorable offense in Ohio State history, especially when considering the adversity it overcame. The Buckeyes lost two Heisman Trophy candidates at quarterback -- Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett -- and still led the Big Ten in scoring (44.8 ppg) and total offense (511.6 ypg). Barrett was brilliant in relief of Miller, finishing fifth in Heisman Trophy voting. Cardale Jones picked up the flag after Barrett's ankle injury and sparkled in his first three starts, all in the postseason. So many others stepped up, from running back Ezekiel Elliott to wideout Devin Smith to a reworked offensive line. Just an incredible performance.

Defense: A-

The Buckeyes started to look like themselves again after a poor finish to the 2013 season. Big Ten defensive player of the year Joey Bosa and All-America tackle Michael Bennett triggered a pressuring unit, which led the league in both sacks (45) and tackles for loss (110). A secondary that was Ohio State's biggest weakness the previous year proved to be a strength as the four starters combined for 18 interceptions. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee sparked an undermanned linebacking corps in the postseason. After some hiccups in the regular season, especially against elite running backs, Ohio State's defense played its best in the biggest games, blanking Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and holding both Alabama and Oregon in check during the playoff run.

Special teams: B+

After a very rocky start in a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech, Ohio State's kicking game stabilized later in the season. Cameron Johnston worked his rugby-style magic, as the Buckeyes led the Big Ten and ranked sixth nationally in net punting (41.8-yard average). Kicker Sean Nuernberger connected on just 13 of 20 field goal attempts and struggled from distance (5-for-10 beyond 40 yards). Jalin Marshall sparked Ohio State's punt return unit, finishing second in the Big Ten (11.8 ypr). The Buckeyes excelled on kickoff coverage and were solid on punt coverage.

Coaching: A

College football historians will be hard pressed to identify a better overall coaching job than the one Ohio State's staff delivered in 2014. The Buckeyes won a national championship with a third-string quarterback and took down the sport's top two teams in fairly dominant fashion (Oregon more so than Alabama). Offensive coordinator Tom Herman showed he's masterful not only at calling plays but developing quarterbacks. Ed Warinner showed again why he's the nation's best offensive line coach, developing a revamped unit into a major strength. Meyer's hiring of defensive assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson also paid off as the unit took important steps.

Overall: A

There's a reason why the final exam counts for such a high percentage of a team's overall grade. Ohio State struggled early but aced every test down the stretch, culminating with a 42-20 win against Oregon at the first College Football Playoff national championship game at AT&T Stadium. The playoff system allowed the Buckeyes to evolve and peak at the right time. They cemented themselves as the nation's best team on the biggest stage, winning their first national championship since 2002.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

November, 24, 2014
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Time has somehow almost completely run out on the regular season, which can only mean one thing.

The Big Ten has actually been pretty fun this season after all.

The calendar has flown by, particularly since those rough couple weeks at the end of August and start of September, but this last weekend offered yet another reminder of why the conference has been so enjoyable for the most part and almost universally underrated for what it has brought to the table nationally.

[+] EnlargeJalin Marshall
Jason Mowry/Icon SportswireOhio State's Jalin Marshall scored four consecutive second-half touchdowns Saturday to lead the Buckeyes to a come-from-behind win over Indiana.
The West Division round-robin tournament was compelling theater, and it will now include a play-in game to the Big Ten championship between Wisconsin and Minnesota on the last Saturday of the regular season after both teams pulled out gutty wins on the road this weekend.

There continues to be a legitimate threat to not only qualify for the College Football Playoff, but -- with Ohio State continuing its resurgence from the early loss to Virginia Tech -- perhaps Urban Meyer’s team has become one that nobody would want to face in the postseason. And look out if the Buckeyes could cut down on the turnovers, because that’s about the only thing keeping some of the scores close recently.

Meanwhile, a handful of Big Ten Heisman Trophy candidates are making cases to appear in New York City, with Melvin Gordon again shining down the stretch, J.T. Barrett accounting for four more touchdowns and Tevin Coleman submitting one more eye-catching performance for an Indiana team that has no other credible weapon aside from the dynamic running back.

There have been some low points, sure. But take a moment before the end of the regular season sneaks up on Saturday to appreciate what the Big Ten has provided this season -- before football is gone again for the interminable offseason.

Team of the week: After a 28-24 win at Nebraska, Minnesota is halfway through the closing two-week gauntlet on the road with the West Division title on the line, and its dreams of winning the West and setting up a rematch with Ohio State remain intact. The Gophers even stared down a little extra adversity with running back David Cobb getting injured, but that wasn’t enough to slow down a program that has proved several times this season that it has capable backups ready and waiting for a chance to step in and contribute to a victory.

Biggest play: A hard-nosed, opportunistic defense has been the true calling card for the Gophers this season, and the defense solidified its reputation when Briean Boddy-Calhoun ripped the ball away from Nebraska’s De'Mornay Pierson-El at the 2-yard line with just more than a minute left. The turnover was absolutely critical for Minnesota, and it set the stage for one of the biggest Axe games ever against Wisconsin next weekend.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): After coughing up a pair of fumbles the week before and then becoming the target of social-media scorn, Jalin Marshall left no doubt about why Meyer and the Buckeyes were standing so firmly in his corner. Starting with an electrifying punt return, the redshirt freshman almost single-handedly saved Ohio State’s season with four consecutive second-half touchdowns -- and one of his three scoring catches literally only required one hand.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Essentially an afterthought as recently as two weeks ago, Northwestern has charged back into postseason consideration with consecutive wins, the latest spurred by another veteran effort from a freshman linebacker. Anthony Walker helped pin down Purdue with sideline-to-sideline work that included nine tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. The Wildcats face a bowl-or-bust battle with Illinois on Saturday.

Big Man on Campus (Special Teams): Marshall’s game-changing punt return makes him a worthy candidate, but Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston had previously pinned Indiana on its 1-yard line to help set up the situation, and he was invaluable in a game that didn’t include Ohio State’s best offensive or defensive efforts this season. Johnston was called on five times in all Saturday, averaging nearly 50 yards per punt with three of them downed inside the 20-yard line.

Biggest face-plant: There’s no question it would have been asking a lot for Rutgers to go on the road and upset a fired-up Michigan State squad on Senior Day, but the first-year Big Ten member once again was completely steamrolled when it stepped on the field with one of the league’s best in a 45-3 laugher. The Scarlet Knights deserve credit for earning bowl eligibility this season, but lopsided losses to Ohio State (56-17), Nebraska (42-24), Wisconsin (37-0) and now Michigan State show how far they have to go still.

Facts and numbers to know: Barrett added Ohio State’s single-season records for both total offense (3,507 yards) and passing touchdowns (33) to his growing collection. ... In the losing effort, Coleman established a new record for Indiana by pushing his season total to 1,906 rushing yards. His 90-yard touchdown was the longest for the Hoosiers since 1912. ... Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford rushed for 100 yards or more for the 15th consecutive game against a Big Ten opponent, the longest streak by an FBS player in the last 10 seasons.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- After flirting with disaster and letting an upset alert pop up at the Horseshoe, No. 6 Ohio State snapped out of a turnover-induced funk to knock off Indiana.

The Buckeyes clinched a division title, earned a berth to the Big Ten title game and kept themselves in the College Football Playoff picture with a 42-27 win Saturday afternoon. But those positives aren’t likely to be mentioned much by coach Urban Meyer moving forward, and he has plenty of teaching points at his disposal heading into the regular-season finale.

How the game was won: Ohio State had turnover problems on offense and was gashed for a long touchdown by Indiana’s Tevin Coleman on defense, but decisively winning the battle on special teams was enough to pull out another win. The Buckeyes flipped field position with more impressive punting from Cameron Johnston, and they took a lead it wouldn’t relinquish thanks to a punt return for a touchdown that saved an otherwise shaky outing overall.

Game ball goes to: Jalin Marshall. Criticized for a pair of costly fumbles a week ago, the redshirt freshman wide receiver offered a strong reminder why Ohio State stood firmly behind him when he busted a 54-yard punt return for a touchdown when the team was trailing, and then extended the lead with three more scores through the air after that during a second-half, one-man blitzkrieg. He is an invaluable weapon for the Buckeyes when he hangs on to the football.

What it means: The Buckeyes have developed a troubling habit of turning the football over on offense, but they are still scoring points in bunches and are officially the East Division champion. They will play again for the Big Ten title in two weeks. There is no question, though, Meyer will be working overtime to fix the ball-security issues that have popped up lately.

Playoff implication: Maybe there weren’t many of those mythical style points to be found, but Ohio State got the only thing that really counts with a victory to keep itself solidly in the mix for one of the four spots in the College Football Playoff. The first and only priority for the Buckeyes at this point is to keep winning -- ugly or not.

What's next: A trip to Indianapolis to play for the Big Ten championship is clinched, but the first order of business for Ohio State is The Game. With Michigan coming to Ohio Stadium next Saturday, there doesn’t seem to be much risk of the Buckeyes looking ahead with bragging rights at stake against their hated rival.

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 12

November, 19, 2014
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In just a couple of weeks, the Big Ten will announce its individual award winners for 2014. We've been giving you the scoop on those races all season long, and it's time again to see who leads for the top offensive and defensive honors. Plus, this week we look at the chase for the punter of the year award. Hey, punters need love, too!

Here we go:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon (six first-place votes): Well, yeah. After his 408-yard performance last week, Gordon has solidified his grip here. He's on pace to do things that only one or two FBS running backs have ever done, like finish with 2,000 yards and 30 TDs.

2. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: He's coming on strong and is a bona fide Heisman contender now. In another year, Barrett would be running away with this award. If Gordon falters in the next two weeks, maybe he can sneak in.

3. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: Speaking of "in any other year ..." Coleman is No. 2 nationally in rushing yards (1,678) and put up 307 at nearly the same time Gordon was doing his thing. Phenomenal player on a crummy team.

4. Minnesota RB David Cobb: If you still had any doubts about Cobb, he answered them with a 145-yard, three-touchdown performance against Ohio State. He should break Minnesota's single-season rushing record.

5. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: We hate to see Abdullah finish this way. He clearly wasn't himself against Wisconsin, running for just 69 yards on 18 carries. Hopefully he'll get healthier and end his illustrious career on a high note.

Also receiving votes: Michigan State WR Tony Lippett

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa (six first-place votes): Ho hum, just 1.5 sacks against Minnesota. He's got 11.5 sacks in 10 games, or more than any Big Ten player managed in either of the past two full seasons.

2. Penn State LB Mike Hull: The Nittany Lions rank third nationally in total defense, and Hull -- the Big Ten's top tackler -- is a big reason why.

3. Penn State DT Anthony Zettel: Did we mention how good Penn State's D has been? Zettel has been the anchor up front all year long. He's got 11 tackles for loss, which is a big number for an interior lineman.

T-4: Michigan LB Jake Ryan: There haven't been many bright spots for Michigan all season, but Ryan (90 tackles, 13 for loss) has been a beacon of hope.

T-4: Wisconsin LB Vince Biegel: It's hard to pick just one of the Badgers' outstanding quartet of linebackers. But Biegel might be the most versatile, and he's second in the league in TFLs with 14.

Also receiving votes: Iowa DE Drew Ott

Eddleman-Fields Punter of the Year

1. Minnesota's Peter Mortell (six first-place votes): Mortell was brilliant against Ohio State, consistently flipping field position. He leads the league with a 45.4-yard average.

2. Illinois' Justin DuVernois: He's right behind Mortell with a 44.9-yard average, including a league-best 74-yarder. Illinois also leads the Big Ten in net punting

Also receiving votes: Ohio State's Cam Johnston

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

October, 27, 2014
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Rutgers and Maryland both got off to nice starts in their first season in the Big Ten. But reality is beginning to set in for both programs.

The Scarlet Knights beat Michigan and the Terrapins notched a solid victory over Iowa earlier this season. So both teams have been more than competitive and should go bowling. Yet hanging with the Big Ten's best teams in the league's toughest environments is another story entirely.

Rutgers fell to Nebraska 42-24 on Saturday in Lincoln, a week after losing 56-17 at Ohio State. Maryland got hammered by Wisconsin 52-7 in Madison and lost 52-24 earlier this season to Ohio State at home. The Terps were outgained by a total of 575 yards in those two blowout defeats, while the Scarlet Knights gave up 616 rushing yards to Ohio State and Nebraska.

Many Big Ten teams would suffer the same fates in those stadiums and against those opponents, so this is not really a knock on the newbies. It's just a reminder that while both Maryland and Rutgers are far from Big Ten bottom-feeders, they're not all that close to the cream of the crop, either. And both still have to play Michigan State.

[+] EnlargeDrew Meyer
Dan Sanger/Icon SportswireBadgers punter Drew Meyer tosses a pass during Saturday's Week 9 game against Maryland.
On to the Week 9 rewind:

Team of the week: Illinois. Like many others, we have given Tim Beckman a hard time. But he has always struck me as a decent guy who really cares about his players, and his joy for them was evident after the Illini upset Minnesota on Saturday. It was the program's first Big Ten home win since October 2011, incredibly. As bad as things have seemed in Champaign this season, especially after the home loss to Purdue, Illinois is still 4-4. A bowl game -- and another year for Beckman -- is still in play.

Biggest play: V'Angelo Bentley's 12-yard fumble return with 6:33 left provided the winning score for Illinois. It was sad to see David Cobb cough up such a big mistake since he's had an amazing season and has carried Minnesota's offense on his back, including on Saturday.

Coolest play: Never sleep on the punter. Well done, Wisconsin's Drew Meyer.

Worst play: Uh, not so well done, Devin Gardner.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Ameer Abdullah set a Nebraska record with 341 all-purpose yards. I think he blew up all the red balloons before the game, too. We're running out of superlatives for this guy.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Several Penn State defensive players were great, including Mike Hull and Anthony Zettel. But when the game was on the line in State College, guess who came through? No, don't just shrug. Take a bow, Joey Bosa.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Ohio State's Cameron Johnston averaged 45 yards on six punts and had four of them downed inside the 20, including a pair inside the Penn State 10-yard line in the fourth quarter.

Biggest faceplant: Minnesota was angling toward a 7-1 start and starting to gain some national respect before it lost to an Illinois team that had lost 24 of its previous 25 Big Ten games. For a second straight week, the Gophers fell behind early, and it's not a team built to play that way. With the closing foursome of Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska and at Wisconsin still left, Jerry Kill's team needs to regroup quickly or risk losing some serious steam.

Dumbest stake-plant: Well, duh. If you're keeping track, Michigan's ratio of wins to public apologies this season stands at 3-to-2. What a bizarre year in Ann Arbor.

Fun with numbers: Budget some extra time if you're going to Beaver Stadium for a league matchup. Five of Penn State's last seven Big Ten home games have gone into overtime. ... Michigan's fourth-quarter touchdown against Michigan State was its first versus the Spartans in 186:08 of game action, dating back to the fourth quarter of the 2011 game. ... Abdullah now ranks second in Big Ten history with 6,604 career all-purpose yards. He needs 825 more to break Ron Dayne's record, and with four more regular-season games plus a bowl (and a possible Big Ten title game) he should get there. ... Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon has five games with at least three rushing scores over the past two seasons, the most among all Power 5 conference players. His 15 touchdowns in his last five games ties Billy Marek (1974) for the school record for most scores in a five-game stretch.
Dantonio/MeyerUSA TODAY SportsUrban Meyer and OSU might be the Big Ten favorite, but don't forget about Mark Dantonio and MSU.
Let's get this out of the way first. I don't begrudge anyone for listing Ohio State as the 2014 Big Ten favorite.

The Buckeyes are 16-0 in regular-season Big Ten games under coach Urban Meyer, and 24-0 in the regular season overall the past two seasons. Despite Wisconsin's surge in 2010 and 2011 and Penn State's in 2005 and 2008, Ohio State has carried the Big Ten banner since winning the league's last national title in 2002. Other than the 2011 season, when the program lost its coach and its quarterback late in the spring, Ohio State has been the team to beat in this league.

What bothers me is the tone about the Buckeyes and this season's Big Ten title race. I've been on several radio shows in recent weeks that have presented the conference as one where Ohio State is 50 yards ahead and everyone else is trying to catch up. Some playoff projections list Ohio State as the Big Ten's only candidate. Bovada's futures list Ohio State with 1/1 odds to win the Big Ten and 2/5 odds to win the East Division. That is an overwhelming endorsement for Meyer's crew.

I'm used to the Big Ten being framed in this way. In other seasons, it has made complete sense. It doesn't make sense entering the 2014 campaign.

The Big Ten conversation can start with Ohio State, but it also must include Michigan State, the team that outclassed Ohio State in the 2013 Big Ten championship game and went on to win the Rose Bowl against Stanford. The Spartans have earned a spot in the conversation.

Several other teams could catch, and possibly overtake, the Buckeyes and Spartans by early December, but right now, it's a two-team discussion.

So why are the Buckeyes dominating so much of the preseason chatter?

It takes a long time to change perception in college football, and the default perception in the Big Ten goes like this: Ohio State, canyon, everyone else. Michigan State last season was the Big Ten's most dominant team in recent memory -- the Spartans beat all nine of their league opponents by 10 points or more -- but the sense is MSU cannot sustain such excellence.

And why not? Well, the Spartans lost some key pieces from the league's top defense, including All-America cornerback Darqueze Dennard and linebacker Max Bullough.

But so did Ohio State. The Buckeyes actually lose more of their core: four starting offensive linemen, running back Carlos Hyde, linebacker Ryan Shazier, cornerback Bradley Roby.

Both teams say goodbye to quality offensive linemen but bring back proven quarterbacks in Braxton Miller (Ohio State) and Connor Cook (Michigan State). The Buckeyes likely have the single best position group between the teams -- and possibly in the entire Big Ten -- with their defensive line, but MSU's defense, with a multiyear stretch of elite performance, looks more complete. The Spartans, who lose only one key skill player on offense -- wide receiver Bennie Fowler -- seem to have fewer question marks on that side of the ball.

Both coaching staffs are excellent. Meyer added two quality defensive assistants this winter in Larry Johnson and Chris Ash. Michigan State retained arguably the nation's top defensive assistant in coordinator Pat Narduzzi.

Both teams should thrive on special teams with standout punters Mike Sadler (MSU) and Cameron Johnston (OSU).

I guess I'm trying to figure out where a significant gap exists between Ohio State and Michigan State. I understand the risk of basing too much on a previous season. MSU has to rise up again. But it's not like the Spartans are a one-year marvel. They have averaged 10.5 wins over the past four seasons.

Maybe the perceived gap is based on talent and recruiting. Ohio State has advantages in those areas and a roster that now includes several classes of Meyer recruits. But MSU also has made upgrades in the quality of players it brings in, and its ability to develop players can't be questioned at this point.

If you can make a case why Ohio State is well ahead of Michigan State and the rest of the Big Ten, be my guest. But don't base it on Ohio State being Ohio State and Michigan State being Michigan State. That type of lazy, it-is-how-it-is-because-it-always-has-been thinking enters too many college football conversations.

Ohio State could storm through the Big Ten en route to its first recognized league title since 2009. But the Buckeyes don't look like world-beaters on paper. They have significant questions (offensive line, linebacker, secondary, running back) and likely must get through East Lansing on Nov. 8 to return to Indianapolis.

They aren't entitled to the pedestal they have occupied in the past.

Go ahead and list the Buckeyes as your favorite. I might, too. But this year's Big Ten preseason buzz involves two teams, not one.
If the preseason All-America teams are any indication, the Big Ten will have a very good year in the offensive backfield -- both carrying the ball out of it and penetrating it.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon has averaged a gaudy 8.1 yards per rushing attempt during his career.
Running back and defensive line appear to be the league's two strongest position groups -- possibly by a wide margin -- entering the 2014 season. Athlon on Monday came out with its preseason All-America teams, following up Phil Steele, who released his last week. Three Big Ten players made Athlon's first team: Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett and Michigan State punter Mike Sadler. Four other defensive linemen -- Nebraska's Randy Gregory (second team), Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun (second team), Ohio State's Joey Bosa (fourth team) and Iowa's Carl Davis (fourth team) -- made one of the remaining three teams, and two other running backs -- Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (second team) and Michigan State's Jeremy Langford (fourth team) -- also appear.

Steele had Bennett and Calhoun on his first team, Gregory and Bosa on his second team and Davis on his third team. Like Athlon, he lists Gordon as a first-team running back and Abdullah on the second team. It's interesting to see Calhoun getting a bit more love than Gregory, even though Gregory led the Big Ten in sacks and is projected as a higher draft pick.

Not sure about you, but I can't wait for Calhoun and Gregory to share the field Oct. 4 at Spartan Stadium, or for longtime friends Gordon and Abdullah to match up on Nov. 15 at Camp Randall Stadium. Both matchups should be fun to watch all season.

It's not unusual for defensive line and running back to headline the Big Ten. Both positions historically are strong in the league, especially defensive line. A potential concern is that only one quarterback -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller -- and zero wide receivers make any of Athlon's teams. Steele has two Big Ten wideouts, Maryland's Stefon Diggs and Michigan's Devin Funchess (has played tight end but listed as a receiver), on his third team. Still, it's clear these are two positions where the Big Ten continues to need upgrades.

Other Athlon preseason All-America selections include: Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff (second team), Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman (third team), Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond (third team), Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston (third team), Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan (fourth team), Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes (fourth team) and Northwestern punt returner Venric Mark (fourth team).

The Big Ten is tied with the Pac-12 for third among overall Athlon All-America selections with 18, trailing both the ACC (27) and SEC (26).
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. The series wraps up with the specialists.

Illinois:The Illini might not be exceptional in the kicking game, but they're in better shape than they were when coach Tim Beckman arrived. Punter Justin DuVernois returns after a solid junior season, while Taylor Zalewski looks for a bit more consistency in his second full season as the placekicker. Zalewski made 12 of 17 field-goal attempts last fall. The return game is the real plus, as V'Angelo Bentley provides a major threat, especially on punt returns.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana brings back a dynamic returner in Shane Wynn, who averaged 14 yards on punt run-backs despite limited work. Punter Erich Toth also is back for his third season as the starter. Toth placed 18 of 52 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. IU suffers a big loss at kicker as Mitch Ewald, the team's career field goals and field-goal percentage leader, departs. Aaron Del Grosso and Griffin Oakes will compete at kicker, and Jake Shake (shake and bake!) could enter the mix this summer.

Iowa: Here's another Big Ten team that looks very strong on returns, as Iowa boasts the Big Ten's most dynamic tandem in Kevonte Martin-Manley (punts) and Jordan Cotton (kickoffs). Martin-Manley had two punt-return touchdowns in 2013. Punter Connor Kornbrath ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in average, but placed 27 of 65 attempts inside the opponent's 20. Iowa loses kicker Mike Meyer, a four-year starter. Junior Marshall Koehn seems likely to step up, but could be pushed by incoming freshman Mick Ellis and others.

Maryland: Notice a theme so far? Most Big Ten teams are strong in the return game, and Maryland is no exception. If Stefon Diggs returns at full strength from his leg injury, he'll be a dangerous man with punts and kickoffs in his hands. Will Likely performed extremely well in Diggs' spot, averaging 26 yards on kickoff returns and 12.8 yards on punt returns. Maryland brings back an excellent kicker in Brad Craddock (21-for-25 on field goals last year), and punter Nathan Renfro enters his third season as the starter.

Michigan: Matt Wile has done a bit of everything for Michigan, but could settle into the starting placekicker role this fall. Wile handled kicking duties late last season and also served as Michigan's punter after Will Hagerup was suspended for the season. Hagerup, the Big Ten's punter of the year in 2012, will reclaim the role if he can avoid off-field problems that have surfaced throughout his career. Wile then could focus on kicking, as Kenny Allen is the only other option there. Michigan is still waiting for big things from kick returner Dennis Norfleet and must find someone to handle punts. Top recruit Jabrill Peppers could help.

Michigan State: Special teams once again should be a strength for MSU, which returns All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler, a Ray Guy award semifinalist who will contend for All-America honors in 2014. Kicker Michael Geiger also is back after connecting on 15 of 16 field-goal attempts as a true freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Andre Sims Jr. both put up good numbers on punt returns. Michigan State had by far the fewest kick returns (18) in the Big Ten last year and will look for a boost from R.J. Shelton and others.

Minnesota: After an above-average year on special teams in 2013, Minnesota again should be good in the third phase. Punter Peter Mortell didn't get as many accolades as Sadler or Purdue's Cody Webster, but he had an excellent sophomore season, averaging 43.3 yards per attempt with 15 of 50 yards or longer. Marcus Jones is a major threat on returns after bringing back both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last fall. Redshirt freshman kickers Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte will compete as the Gophers lose Chris Hawthorne.

Nebraska: The Huskers are looking for some upgrades on special teams, particularly on punt returns, as Nebraska ranked 123rd in the FBS last fall. Primary returner Jordan Westerkamp is back, but he'll face some competition. Nebraska brings back punter Sam Foltz, who had a solid freshman season, averaging 41.6 yards per boot. Mauro Bondi is set to step in at kicker as Pat Smith departs. If Bondi struggles, incoming freshman Kris Brown could get a look this summer. Kenny Bell, who led the Big Ten in kick return average (26.5 yards per return), is back.

Northwestern: The Wildcats lose a huge piece in Jeff Budzien, named the Big Ten's top kicker in each of his final two seasons. Hunter Niswander can handle both kickoffs and punts but seems likely to slide into Budzien's spot. Northwestern's punting was a mess in 2013, ranking 118th nationally in net average (33.2 ypp). Brandon Williams departs and Chris Gradone or Niswander will take over. The big news is Northwestern brings back Venric Mark , an All-America punt returner in 2012. Primary kick returner Matt Harris is back after a solid freshman season.

Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Indeed, the Aussie is back at punter as Cameron Johnston returns after an excellent debut season (I refuse to call a 21-year-old a freshman). Ohio State hopes for similar results from another first-year specialist in kicker Sean Nuernberger, an early enrollee expected to step in for the departing Drew Basil. Sophomore Dontre Wilson will continue to have a big role on returns after handling kickoffs last year. Ohio State must replace Corey Brown on punt returns and could look to redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall or true freshmen Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon.

Penn State: The kicking game continues to be an area of concern.Sam Ficken owns the team record for consecutive field goals (15) and started strong last season but ended with just 15 of 23 conversions, including four misses inside 40 yards. Penn State needs a new punter after losing Alex Butterworth, and will turn to Chris Gulla. Jesse Della Valle did a good job on punt returns, but Penn State needs a boost on kickoffs after finishing last in the league (19.1 yards per return). The Lions could stick with Geno Lewis or look for a newcomer such as De'Andre Thompkins to emerge. PSU also must shore up its coverage units.

Purdue: As if the Boilers didn't have enough to address on offense and defense, the kicking game needs attention. Punter Cody Webster finished his spectacular career with All-America honors, and the Boilers finished second nationally in net punting (41.7 yards per punt). Incoming freshman Austin McGehee will take over for Webster. Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows continue to work at kicker, as Griggs made only 50 percent of his attempts (6 of 12) last season. The kick return game is strong with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, but Purdue must replace punt returner Ricardo Allen. B.J. Knauf could be a good fit there.

Rutgers: The kicking game historically is a strength for Rutgers, which has a knack for blocking kicks and pulling off fakes. Rutgers loses a productive piece in punter Nick Marsh, who also handled kickoffs. The Scarlet Knights will turn to Joseph Roth as their replacement. Kicker Kyle Federico finished the season well, particularly in the Pinstripe Bowl, and returns for his junior season. Rutgers has a major weapon on returns in Janarion Grant, who brought back both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown during his freshman season.

Wisconsin: The kicking game has held back Wisconsin in the past, so it's definitely an area to watch during the offseason. Kicker Jack Russell converted 9 of 13 field-goal attempts after taking over for Kyle French. He'll try to hold off incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone. Andrew Endicott, who handled kickoffs last fall, also returns. Wisconsin is looking for more from punter Drew Meyer, who averaged just 38.6 yards per attempt in 2013. Top returner Kenzel Doe is back and should handle both punts and kickoffs, although Wisconsin could look to others for help, such as newcomers Serge Trezy and Natrell Jamerson.

More position breakdowns

Big Ten all-bowl team

January, 9, 2014
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The Big Ten went 2-5 in bowl games for the second consecutive season, but there were notable performances around the league, even in losing efforts.

Here's a look at ESPN.com's Big Ten all-bowl squad:

OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook threw for 332 yards and two TDs to lead the Spartans to a Rose Bowl win over Stanford.
QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: He followed his first career 300-yard passing performance in the Big Ten championship with his second in the Rose Bowl against Stanford. Cook overcame an ugly pick-six to pass for a career-high 332 yards and two touchdowns on 22 of 36 attempts. He earned offensive player of the game honors.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: The Badgers featured Gordon, who will return next year, in the Capital One Bowl and received good production, as the sophomore rushed for 143 yards on 25 carries. His fumble in the closing minutes allowed South Carolina to run out the clock, but he showed his typical explosiveness as well as durability that should help him in the 2014 season.

RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: Abdullah ended a tremendous junior season with his 11th 100-yard rushing performance as Nebraska upset Georgia in the Gator Bowl. He finished with 122 rush yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.

WR: Quincy Enunwa, Nebraska: Enunwa ended his Huskers career with his best performance, recording a career-high 129 receiving yards and two touchdowns, including a 99-yarder in the third quarter that proved to be the winner. He broke Nebraska's single-season record with 12 touchdowns and earned bowl MVP honors.

WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State: MSU leaned on its passing game to open up the deep middle, and Lippett repeatedly attacked Stanford's vulnerable secondary. He had five receptions for a career-high 94 yards, and his 25-yard touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter ended up being the winner. His five receptions marked the most by a Spartans receiver in a Rose Bowl.

TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota: The Gophers' offense wasn't pretty in a disappointing Texas Bowl loss to Syracuse, but Williams again provided a bright spot in a mostly meek passing attack. The freshman led Minnesota with five receptions for 76 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

C: Cole Pensick, Nebraska: Pensick returned to the center spot after playing several games at guard and helped Nebraska to a win. Georgia had only one sack, and the Huskers rushed for 144 yards.

OL: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: Costigan and his fellow linemen held up well against Jadeveon Clowney and Co., as the Badgers racked up 293 rush yards on 43 attempts.

OL: Blake Treadwell, Michigan State: The Spartans' co-captain graded out well in the Rose Bowl as MSU had success moving the ball against a strong Stanford defense.

OL: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: Like Costigan, Havenstein helped Gordon and James White both eclipse 100 rushing yards against South Carolina, which recorded only one sack in the game.

OL: Jack Allen, Michigan State: Allen was among three Spartans linemen not to allow a sack and aided an offense that racked up 21 first downs and 24 points against Stanford.

DEFENSE

DE: Jason Ankrah, Nebraska: Another Husker who shined in his final college game, Ankrah recorded two sacks, a forced fumble and two quarterback hurries as the line applied good pressure on Georgia backup quarterback Hutson Mason. It marked the first multi-sack performance of Ankrah's career.

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesOhio State's Joey Bosa made plenty of big hits in the Orange Bowl, including this one on Clemson's Tajh Boyd that resulted in a safety after Boyd was called for intentional grounding.
DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State: If you're looking for reasons to feel optimistic about Ohio State's beleaguered defense, Bosa certainly provides a big one. The freshman made his presence known in the Orange Bowl despite an ankle injury, combining with linebacker Joshua Perry to force a first-quarter safety. He finished with five tackles, including a sack.

DT: Micajah Reynolds, Michigan State: The 307-pound Reynolds clogged the middle and helped Michigan State shut down Stanford's running attack for the final three quarters of the Rose Bowl. He recorded a team-high two tackles for loss and finished with four solo tackles in his final college game.

DT: Thad Randle, Nebraska: Like several Huskers on this list, Randle saved arguably his best performance for his final game. He recorded eight tackles as Nebraska held Georgia to 2.2 yards per rush and only 12 points on six trips inside the red zone.

LB: Kyler Elsworth, Michigan State: Thanks to Elsworth, Max Bullough's absence had little bearing on the Spartans' defense, which limited Stanford to 13 offensive points. Elsworth recorded 1.5 tackles for loss and was the first man in on the decisive fourth-down stop of Stanford's Ryan Hewitt. He earned Rose Bowl defensive player of the game honors.

LB: James Morris, Iowa: Morris ended an excellent senior season with 2.5 tackles for loss, including two sacks, as the defense kept Iowa alive for much of the Outback Bowl against LSU. He finished the season with a team-high eight sacks and eclipsed 400 career tackles.

LB: Denicos Allen, Michigan State: Allen also stepped up in Bullough's absence and sparked Michigan State with 1.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. He helped Michigan State hold Stanford to only three offensive points in the final three quarters.

CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State: You didn't hear Dennard's name called much during the Rose Bowl because he shut down Stanford's Ty Montgomery and one side of the field. He finished with a tackle for loss and made sure Stanford didn't attack the No Fly Zone in his final game.

CB: Josh Mitchell, Nebraska: Mitchell made two plays to set up Nebraska touchdowns against Georgia: a second-quarter fumble recovery and a third-quarter interception on the first series of the second half. He hadn't had a takeaway all season before the bowl but stepped up at the right time.

S: John Lowdermilk, Iowa: He gave Iowa new life in the third quarter of the Outback Bowl with a 71-yard interception return. It should have been a touchdown, as Lowdermilk dropped the ball short of the goal line, but Iowa scored three plays later to cut LSU's lead in half. Not a bad time for Lowdermilk's first career interception.

S: Cedric Thompson, Minnesota: Thompson recorded a career-high 14 tackles in the Texas Bowl as Minnesota held Syracuse to only 188 pass yards. He also recovered a fumble in Gophers territory in the first quarter as the defense kept Minnesota in the game.

SPECIAL TEAMS

P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie (Oi Oi Oi). Ohio State's Australian import ended a tremendous debut season with a big performance in the Orange Bowl. He averaged 48.2 yards on five punts, with a long of 63 yards, and placed three punts inside Clemson's 20-yard line, including one downed at the Tigers' 1 that set up an Ohio State safety. There were a lot of good choices here (MSU's Mike Sadler and Minnesota's Peter Mortell also were terrific), which says something about the Big Ten's bowl showing.

K: Matt Wile, Michigan: Not many great choices here, but Wile was the only Big Ten kicker to convert multiple field-goal attempts in a bowl. Wile did a nice job filling in for starter Brendan Gibbons in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and also handled punts and kickoffs.

Returner: Kenzel Doe, Wisconsin: Doe kept Wisconsin's hopes alive in the Capital One Bowl with a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown after the Badgers had fallen behind by 10 points. It marked Wisconsin's first kickoff return touchdown in a bowl game and its first since David Gilreath's 97-yard runback on the opening play of the Badgers' win against No. 1 Ohio State in 2010.

Season report card: Ohio State

December, 20, 2013
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Final exams are either ongoing or all wrapped up around the Big Ten. We're passing out grades, too, for each team's regular-season performance.

Each team receives a grade for offense, defense, special teams and overall play.

Up next: The No. 7 Buckeyes.

Offense: A-

[+] EnlargeHyde/Miller
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesCarlos Hyde and Braxton Miller proved to be nearly unstoppable in the running game.
A somewhat sloppy final exam brought down the overall grade, but it's hard to find fault with the most prolific scoring attack in the Big Ten and one of the most explosive offenses Ohio State has ever had in its decorated history. The rushing game was close to unstoppable, clear strides were evident when the football was in the air and the offensive line proved itself to be one of the best units in the country as the Buckeyes rolled their way to more than 46 points per game.

For all the talk about trying to balance out the spread offense this season, though, the Buckeyes weren't quite able to trust the passing game when it mattered most against the best defense they faced all year. Michigan State made them pay in the Big Ten title game as Braxton Miller struggled with his accuracy and his receivers put a few catchable throws on the ground, making rushing lanes harder to come by down the stretch and ultimately building to a failed fourth-down rush with a chance to play for the crystal football hanging in the balance.

But, obviously, the Buckeyes had 12 wins on the resume before that, and Carlos Hyde's wildly productive senior season finally gave Urban Meyer a 1,000-yard running back. Despite missing three games due to suspension to open the year, Hyde still led the Big Ten in rushing yardage during league play and finished with 1,408 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground as the Buckeyes bullied through the regular season thanks to his terrifying partnership with Miller in the backfield.

Defense: B-

At their best and fully healthy, the Buckeyes appeared to be on their way to living up to the high standards of the Silver Bullets and ranking among the nation's best defenses with a developing front, a game-changing linebacker and a veteran secondary filled with playmakers. Without the full complement of starters and against some solid offensive game plans, the Buckeyes at times looked completely lost and were exposed in the back end, particularly late in the season as injuries revealed the lack of depth at critical positions.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJoey Bosa and the Buckeyes will try to shut down the Crimson Tide's rushing attack.
The good certainly outweighed the bad for Ohio State, as it showed a knack for regrouping and making critical adjustments after some shaky starts, notably against Iowa and Northwestern. Ryan Shazier came up short in his bid for a couple of individual trophies, but the junior linebacker sent his NFL stock soaring with another stats-stuffing season that was downright spectacular at times. After needing to replace the entire defensive line, Noah Spence, Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett all proved more than capable of wreaking havoc in the offensive backfield and will return next season.

But much, much more was expected of the secondary with Bradley Roby returning for at cornerback to team with senior safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett. The loss of Bryant in September to a fractured ankle was a blow the Buckeyes were never able to truly recover from, and finishing No. 11 in the Big Ten in pass defense is never going to be acceptable at a program with so much defensive pride. Those issues were balanced out by a stout rush defense and an opportunistic unit. While there are certainly programs that would be happy with a grade like this on defense, Ohio State isn't one of them.

Special teams: B+

Freshman Cameron Johnston turned out to be an invaluable recruiting pickup late in the game a year ago, bursting on the scene with his powerful leg and a unique ability to dial it back when needed to switch field position. A coverage unit stocked with starters willing to lend a hand in the kicking game certainly didn't hurt, either.

The Buckeyes also made life miserable on opposing punters, a calling card of an Urban Meyer team, with Roby blocking a pair and Doran Grant throwing in another. Drew Basil was solid kicking the football, though Ohio State didn't call on the senior all that much has he attempted just 10 field goals, making nine.

There was a spark missing on kickoff and punt return, which will no doubt frustrate Meyer heading into next season. Dontre Wilson broke a 51-yard kickoff return and Philly Brown had a long of 65, but neither was able to break a touchdown.

Overall: A-

Everything was set up for the Buckeyes to make a run at the national championship, and despite all the hand-wringing about the BCS standings and OSU's schedule, all the dominoes had fallen into place ahead of the conference title game. And while that loss to the Spartans left them one game short of playing for the national crown, the Buckeyes still won 12 and are headed to the Discover Orange Bowl, which is a respectable consolation prize in what should again go down as a successful season.
There's only one game on tap this week, but it's a very big one. Let's take a look at five things to watch in Saturday night's Big Ten championship game between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 10 Michigan State:

1. Something's gotta give: The nation's No. 1 defense in Michigan State goes up against the nation's No. 3 scoring offense in Ohio State. But has either unit really been tested? The Spartan Dawgs have been pretty special, but they've yet to face an offense ranked in the top 50 in yards. Ohio State's attack also looks the part, and the Buckeyes have faced two top-10 defenses (Wisconsin, Iowa), but no others in the top 35. Behind running back Carlos Hyde and quarterback Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes lead the nation in yards per rush (7.1) and runs of 10 yards or longer (130). Michigan State leads the nation in fewest rush yards allowed (64.4 per game), fewest yards per rush (2.2) and fewest rushes of 10 or more yards (19). Who will gain the edge at the line of scrimmage?

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCan Braxton Miller and Ohio State's high-powered offense move the ball against Michigan State's stingy defense?
2. Buckeyes back on the big stage: It has been a while since Ohio State played a game of this significance on a stage as big as Lucas Oil Stadium. Miller has been brilliant the past two seasons, but he has yet to play in the postseason with a spot in the national championship on the line. Nebraska came into last year's title game tight and it showed in a disastrous performance against Wisconsin, which played loose and ran the Huskers up and down the field. Although no one expects Ohio State to lay an egg, Michigan State has been here before, and the Spartans are likely heading to the Rose Bowl no matter what happens in the game. MSU is the first top-15 team Ohio State will play since its win streak began under Meyer. Are Miller and the Buckeyes ready for the challenge?

3. Shutdown showcase: The title game features two of the nation's elite cornerbacks in Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Ohio State's Bradley Roby. Both have the ability to shut down a side of the field and make game-changing plays if quarterbacks dare to throw their way. Dennard, a likely first-round draft pick, will press Ohio State's receivers and try to eliminate the deep passing game. Roby is playing his best football and can be a difference-maker not only on defense but on special teams. Dennard has four interceptions and a forced fumble in an All-American-caliber senior season, while Roby has a pick-six, a fumble return for a touchdown, and a blocked punt and recovery for a touchdown.

4. Cook's big moment: Asked to make a brief opening statement on a media teleconference earlier this week, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said, "Hello, I'm Connor Cook." The Spartans sophomore will introduce himself to the nation Saturday night and can make a strong statement about himself and the MSU offense. No one pegged Cook to be in this position before the season, but he has taken control in Big Ten play, passing for 1,708 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions in eight league contests. Cook said that after Ohio State's defensive struggles, "you're licking your chops" about Saturday's game. He hasn't played in a game this big, but he doesn't lack confidence. It will be interesting to see how he fares.

5. Special attention: Michigan State's first appearance in the Big Ten title game came down to a special-teams play, and it didn't end well for the Spartans as Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman. Don't be surprised if the kicking game once again plays a big role in determining Saturday's winner. Both teams have excellent punters (MSU's Mike Sadler, OSU's Cameron Johnston), and Roby has been a special-teams star with three blocked punts and two recoveries for touchdowns. Kickers Michael Geiger (MSU) and Drew Basil (OSU) both have shown good accuracy on field goals with limited opportunities. Lewis' performance as he returns home to Indianapolis also is worth monitoring.
You've had a chance to check out the 2013 All-Big Ten teams and individual award winners. The four major award winners -- Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Freshman of the Year -- will be unveiled Tuesday.

Let's dive into today's selections ...

INDIVIDUAL AWARDS

The overall list isn't bad, although some of the selections certainly are debatable.
  • Ohio State's Carlos Hyde takes home the Ameche-Dayne Running Back of the Year award after bulldozing the competition in Big Ten play (1,249 rush yards, 14 touchdowns). Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah has a strong case for the honor after his consistent success, eclipsing 100 rush yards in 10 of 12 games. But Hyde certainly finished on a stronger note with 226 rush yards against Michigan, the most ever for an Ohio State player in The Game. He was unstoppable in the most important games.
  • Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan claims Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year honors for the second consecutive season. Lewan had a very good season, and a great season, if you believe Wolverines coach Brady Hoke. But he anchored a line that struggled for much of Big Ten play. Ohio State tackle Jack Mewhort probably has a case here, as he led the league's best front five.
  • Wisconsin's Chris Borland gets the nod for Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year, ahead of fellow standouts like Ohio State's Ryan Shazier, Michigan State's Max Bullough and Iowa's James Morris. Borland did it all in his four seasons as a Badger, constantly swarming to the ball and making plays. But he missed some time with a hamstring injury this season, and Shazier's overall numbers are more impressive. It will be interesting to see who wins Defensive Player of the Year honors. There are so many great linebackers in this league.
  • Purdue's Cody Webster won Eddleman-Fields Punter of the Year ahead of Michigan State's Mike Sadler, Ohio State's Cameron Johnston and others. Webster is the Big Ten's only finalist for the Ray Guy Award, but Sadler should have been on there as well. It's a really close call between Webster and Sadler, who successfully executed two fakes and played for a much better team.
  • Four players are repeat winners from 2012: Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson, Lewan and Northwestern kicker Jeff Budzien.
ALL-BIG TEN TEAMS

Overall, these looked a little better than the 2012 version, which contained several glaring problems in our view. The coaches' team continues to surprise us (not in a good way) with six defensive backs and two punters because of ties in the voting, and no Mewhort on the first team is hard to believe. But this was a slight step up.

(By the way, the Big Ten still doesn't have either of us vote for the media team, so direct your blame elsewhere).
  • Lewan, Mewhort and Iowa's Brandon Scherff all are terrific tackles, but we would have gone with Mewhort and Lewan on the first team, which the coaches did not.
  • Although Michigan's Devin Funchess claimed Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year honors, the coaches went with Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz as their first-team tight end. We can debate whether Funchess actually is a tight end or not, but his receiving numbers (47 catches, 727 yards, six touchdowns) are way better than Fiedorowicz's (26 catches, 253 yards, six TDs).
  • The coaches had six first-team defensive backs but didn't find room for Michigan's Blake Countess, who tied for the league lead in interceptions, or Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who had four picks and 11 pass breakups. Maybe only one Michigan State safety (our pick would be Kurtis Drummond) should be there.
  • Michigan wide receiver Jeremy Gallon had some huge performances, but he probably belongs on the second team behind Penn State's Robinson and Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis, who were more consistent as the season went along. The coaches went with Ohio State's Corey Brown as their other second-team wideout, while the media went with Indiana's Cody Latimer. We like Latimer there.
  • One player the coaches and media differed on is Minnesota safety Brock Vereen, a first-team selection by the coaches but just an honorable mention selection by the media. He probably belongs right in between, on the second team, after leading a stout Gophers defense.
  • Another big difference between the coaches and media involved Iowa's B.J. Lowery. The media voted him as a first-team defensive back, while the coaches did not have Lowery among their eight choices on the first and second teams. Lowery is a nice player, but we're scratching our heads a bit as to why he was a first-team pick by the media.
  • Both Wisconsin back, Melvin Gordon and James White, made the second team. It says a lot about the depth at running back this year that Michigan State's Jeremy Langford, who ran for 1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns, couldn't crack the first or second teams.
  • We sure wish the league had a process for breaking ties on the coaches' team. Six defensive backs and two punters? That's just strange, though we'd like to see that two-punter formation in real life.
  • Connor Cook or Nathan Scheelhaase as the second-team quarterback? The coaches and media split on that. Scheelhaase has the better numbers, but Cook won all eight Big Ten starts. No wonder that latter fact probably impressed the coaches more.
  • The major awards -- offensive and defensive players of the year, freshman of the year and coach of the year -- will be announced on Tuesday.

OSU sticks to what works on ground

October, 7, 2013
10/07/13
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The cupboard is fully stocked, and Ohio State could put together a recipe with as many ingredients as it wants and shoot for something exotic.

But when it comes time to actually prepare the meal that gets the job done, simplicity and proven success has a way of looking more appealing. And the Buckeyes are in no hurry to mess with what works.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde, Dean Lowry, Ibraheim Campbell
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastCarlos Hyde has picked up right where he left off from last season.
Sprinkling in some Jordan Hall when he's healthy might provide the potential for danger on the perimeter in the option game and he can be a threat as a receiver out of the backfield. A pinch of Dontre Wilson's explosive speed can go a long way in a hurry, and his bright future certainly makes Ohio State want to start getting him involved.

But the meat and potatoes for the Buckeyes remain the same as they were a year ago, and there hasn't been any reason for them to try anything different when Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller are both on hand to shoulder the load for the rushing game. And as hungry as No. 4 Ohio State is for a national title, it's becoming increasingly clear that feeding those two as much as it possibly can remains the most fulfilling option heading into the second half of the season.

"[Hyde] is the horse right now, and I think he's a great player," Urban Meyer said after his 18th consecutive victory as the Buckeyes' coach on Saturday night. "It shows you how much I trust the kid to be able to do that. It was kind of him and Braxton Miller just trying to run that clock out."

The Buckeyes are obviously using the terrific running tandem to do more than kill off games down the stretch, and their workload in the 40-30 victory over Northwestern on Saturday made quite clear how integral the partnership between the bruising tailback and the versatile quarterback still is despite the extra talent around them this season.

Hyde was given the ball 26 times on the ground against the Wildcats, getting a steady diet of power rushes on the interior on the way to 168 yards and three touchdowns in a performance that gradually wore down a defense that tired of trying to bring down the 235-pound bruiser. Miller complemented that with 17 rushing attempts of his own, perhaps failing to deliver the kind of game-breaking runs he's known for, but providing 4 yards per carry anyway to keep the chains moving and the defense from keying on Hyde.

Excluding a rush for punter Cameron Johnston on a botched fake, that combination accounted for every carry but four for the Buckeyes a week after Miller and Hyde combined for all but three carries in a victory over Wisconsin. So while the offense has shown clear signs of improvement in the passing game, spreading around touches to receivers and tight ends a bit more often since Hyde's suspension ended and Miller's knee sprain healed, the basic formula on the ground remains almost identical to the one that produced an undefeated record last year.

And with it working just the same way against consecutive ranked opponents over the last two weeks, there doesn't appear to be any reason to make things more complicated.

"Coach [Meyer] told me [at halftime] that we were going to start riding me," Hyde said. "I get excited when they tell me that.

"I wanted it bad, and I like when games come down to the fourth quarter and coach will put the ball in my hands. He started off in the beginning of the game putting the ball in my hands. I was just trying to catch a rhythm, and I caught a rhythm."

Collectively the Buckeyes are back in an familiar pattern with their ground game, putting the football in the hands of their two best offensive players and keeping it there as much as possible.

A little variety might spice things up every now and then. But the Buckeyes obviously haven't grown tired of tasting success.

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 2, 2013
10/02/13
12:00
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We're driving Cadillacs in our dreams.

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