Big Ten: Charles Woodson

Grab a pencil and a notepad. There will be a short test.

Five questions. Open answer. And no cheating. Ready? OK, who is the best linebacker in college football history? How about defensive tackle? Defensive end? Cornerback? Safety?

Time’s up. (I told you it was short.) Take a look at your list, and chances are the Big Ten boasts the most selections. Realistically, it’s the only conference that can stake a claim at each position. No other conference can say the same -- especially without repeating teams.

Don't believe me? Let’s take a look through the answer key of the NCAA's best ever, and in honor of The Season -- which looked at the greatest individual season from a player at every FBS school -- we will take a look at the top season by a player at each position:

  • Linebacker: Dick Butkus, Illinois, 1964: Did you really rate another linebacker over Butkus? Because that will cost you a few points. Butkus has become the standard by which to judge all other linebacking greats, and it’s not even close. He finished third in the Heisman voting in 1964, but the AFCA still named him the player of the year. He was one of the most-feared tacklers in the game and carried that reputation over to the NFL. There were other great college 'backers -- Alabama’s Derrick Thomas, Texas’ Tommy Nobis, Penn’s Chuck Bednarik -- but none greater than the man who said his time at Illinois was “eat, sleep and drink football.”
  • [+] EnlargeBronko Nagurski
    AP PhotoFormer Minnesota Golden Gophers great Bronislaw "Bronko" Nagurski.
  • Defensive tackle: Bronko Nagurski, Minnesota, 1929: If you went with someone else -- Nebraska’s Rich Glover? Oklahoma’s Lee Roy Selmon? Penn State’s Mike Reid? -- there is obviously a chance the team is in the Big Ten now. Regardless, there are definitely a lot of good defensive tackles to pick here. But can you really pick against the guy whose trophy now goes to the best defensive player in the NCAA? Is there really anyone tougher? One unsubstantiated legend explains how Minnesota’s head coach stopped near a field to ask a man for directions, when the man -- Nagurski -- lifted up his iron plow with one hand to point. Then there was Nagurski's reaction when he leveled several players and smashed into a brick wall: "That last guy hit me awful hard." Nagurski is a college legend; he led the nation in rushing in 1929 as a fullback. But the lore of his toughness on defense still carries on.
  • Defensive end: Bubba Smith, Michigan State, 1966: You know you’re good when the popular fan chant is, "Kill, Bubba, Kill!" Smith belongs in the top two here, for sure, but you couldn’t be at all blamed for choosing Pitt’s Hugh Green. Smith’s numbers weren’t nearly as impressive as Green’s 53 career sacks, but it is possible nobody affected the flow of a game more than Smith. Teams constantly double- or triple-teamed him, or simply avoided his side altogether when it came to calling run plays. That kind of respect meant the Spartans allowed just 51.4 rushing yards a game when Smith was a senior. He helped them finish undefeated (9-0-1) that season and win part of the national title. He was taken No. 1 overall in the NFL draft a few months later.
  • Cornerback: Charles Woodson, Michigan, 1997: You want to go with Florida State’s Deion Sanders just to be contrary, don’t you? Well, that is not a bad pick. But it’s also hard to go against the only defensive player to win the Heisman -- especially considering he cruised past runner-up Peyton Manning in the vote. He gets definite bonus points for that. Woodson had eight interceptions that season and even grabbed one from Washington State’s Ryan Leaf in the Rose Bowl. Michigan went 12-0 and split the national title with Nebraska that season. There was no more versatile athlete in college football in 1997, and there wasn’t a more dangerous defensive back, either.
  • Safety: Jack Tatum, Ohio State, 1970: Move over, Ronnie Lott. Not only does Tatum belong in the conversation as one of college football’s greatest defensive backs, but he also should get some extra credit for his hard hits and "Assassin" nickname. He finished seventh in the 1970 Heisman voting, and his reputation for vicious hits once caused a writer to liken his bearing down on receivers to "the way a tractor-trailer might bear down on a squirrel on a rural highway." He was named the national defensive player of the year in 1970, and Jim Tressel, when he was the coach, even later termed the Buckeyes' hit of the week the "Jack Tatum Hit of the Week." His College Football Hall of Fame bio also reads "best remembered as one of the hardest hitters in all of football history." You can’t get much more official than that.

The Big Ten hasn’t dominated every decade with the top defensive players. But it does have a richer history and deeper tradition on its side, one that started more than a century ago when Michigan’s Adolph Schulz dropped back from the defensive line and gave birth to the idea of a "roving center," or linebacker. It has continued with countless Hall of Fame nominations, a conference-high four No. 1 overall defensive NFL draft picks and some of the best defensive names to ever play the game.

This isn’t just one man’s opinion. More than half of the starting defense on Sports Illustrated’s All-Century Team -- six of 11 players -- consisted of Big Ten athletes and no, that’s not including Nebraska's Glover. The Walter Camp Foundation’s All-Century Team also featured a Big Ten player at every defensive position. Even ABC’s list of the "25 Greatest Players in College Football" had more defensive players from the Big Ten than any other conference.

When it comes to quantity, maybe other conferences have the Big Ten beat on defense. But when it comes to quality and history? The Big Ten is still tops.
On Monday, ESPN revealed its choices for the greatest individual seasons in college football history.

We voted on several of these, including the best Big Ten seasons. As you can imagine, there were some difficult calls to make, especially at schools stuffed with rich traditions and legendary players. We didn't always agree.

Our Big Ten reporting crew offers thoughts on which decisions were the toughest for league schools.


Which school presents the toughest call on best individual seasons?


Discuss (Total votes: 5,151)

Brian Bennett: There were lots of tricky calls once you narrowed it down to two candidates for a certain school. For example, does the best season at Illinois belong to Red Grange or Dick Butkus? (You try telling Butkus it was Grange). Lorenzo White or Bubba Smith at Michigan State? Archie Griffin or Eddie George at Ohio State? We had to not only compare the numbers but also take into account the different eras.

For me, the hardest decision on an individual season involved Wisconsin. The consensus ended up being Ron Dayne's 1999 season in which he won the Heisman Trophy. But you could make a robust argument that Dayne's own 1996 campaign was better, as he ran for more yards and more touchdowns and had a higher yards-per-carry average as a freshman than he did as a senior. I've always thought the comparisons between Dayne and Montee Ball's 2011 season are fascinating. One day, I believe, people will look back on Ball's '11 season and wonder how a guy who tied the NCAA record with 39 touchdowns -- while running for 1,923 yards and averaging more yards per carry than Dayne did in 1999 -- not only failed to gain traction in the Heisman race but somehow didn't claim the Doak Walker Award (a grievous error that was thankfully remedied in 2012). Throw in Alan Ameche, who won the Heisman in 1954, and Pat Richter's 1962 season, and you have enough material to create decades of debate.

Mitch Sherman: My toughest call involved Nebraska, the school I've watched most closely for the past 20 years. Mike Rozier made the top 16 nationally, as selected by writers and editors, for his 1983 Heisman campaign. Rozier's statistics earn him a clear victory among all-time Huskers in the eyes of most. But not me. I saw in 1995 what stats cannot tell us about Tommie Frazier's senior season. He rushed for 604 yards and threw for 1,362 -- pedestrian numbers compared to many on this list, though he still finished second in the Heisman voting. Sure, he was surrounded by greatness, offensively and defensively, but perhaps only Tim Tebow since that 1995 season has matched Frazier's presence and overall impact on a team. Frazier was a field general in every sense imaginable. He inspired the players alongside him in the huddle. He founds reserves of determination for the biggest games, earning recognition often among the greatest quarterbacks to play the college game. I went with Rozier because his dominance was impossible to ignore, picking against Frazier -- an act that those 13 games in 1995 taught me was most unwise.

Austin Ward: The trump card is almost always up Archie Griffin's sleeve when it comes to debates about the greatest player in Ohio State history, but at least this once it didn't work. In a conversation about the top individual season a program has ever seen, being the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner finally wasn't a deal breaker -- and the Buckeyes have plenty of incredible performances to give Griffin a run for his money. Orlando Pace made people take notice of line play and count up pancakes, and it was tough for him to even crack the honorable-mention list. It's actually Eddie George who holds Ohio State's single-season rushing record with a staggering 1,927-yard campaign that included 24 touchdowns and a stiff-arm trophy of his own. David Boston's breakout seasons in 1997 and '98 are even more remarkable in hindsight, with the wide receiver rewriting the record books with a pair of seasons that are both nearly 300 yards better than anybody else in school history. On top of that, Ohio State has four other Heisman winners to consider along with three-time All-America Chic Harley. In the end, Griffin's seasons can't be fully measured by his statistics alone, since for starters he was sharing time in a loaded backfield. But his talent was undeniable when the football was in his hands, and even without his normal trump card Griffin still walked away a deserving winner.

Josh Moyer: For me, I might have spent the most time waffling back and forth with Michigan. Sure, Charles Woodson’s 1997 campaign was one for the ages. But could we really ignore a rich history that included Fielding Yost’s point-a-minute teams and severely underrated running back Willie Heston (1904)? Or Mr. Do-Everything in Tom Harmon (1940)? Or how about a quarterback (Bennie Friedman, 1925 or 1926) and wide receiver (Bennie Oosterbaan) who helped change the face of the game? Or, if we want to get a bit more recent, how’s Desmond Howard (1991) sound?

You could make a case for any of these players and, really, not be wrong. But I think the two who give Woodson the strongest push are Harmon and Heston. Harmon not only won the Heisman in 1940, but he was also the AP Male Athlete of the Year – meaning he had a better season than the likes of MLB’s Hank Greenberg (41 homers, 150 RBI). It didn’t hurt that Harmon could rush, pass, kick, punt and tackle. But my personal vote as the best Michigan season went to Heston. The NCAA could piece stats together from just 17 of his 36 career games and, just during that 1904 season, Heston averaged 12.7 yards per carry while rushing for 21 TDs. (And he was good at defense.) Knute Rockne once said Heston was a better runner than Red Grange. Plus, Michigan went 10-0 that season and outscored its opponents 567-22. So Michigan has a lot of quality players and great seasons -- which didn’t make this an easy task -- but after a lot of thinking I personally voted for Heston in 1904. Truthfully, though, you could’ve gone with a half-dozen others.

Big Ten roundtable: Impact freshmen

June, 6, 2014
With incoming freshmen set to report to their respective B1G teams later this month, we thought now would be a perfect time to take a closer look at the 2014 class.

Who'll end up as the most memorable player? And who'll see time right away? Adam Rittenberg, Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer joined Big Ten recruiting writer Tom VanHaaren in discussing the big questions surrounding the freshmen.

So let's get started ...

Based on talent, which freshman is too good to leave off the field?

[+] EnlargeJabrill Peppers
Miller Safrit/ESPNJabrill Peppers is the type of physical defensive back that Michigan's defense needs.
Bennett: First, let's start off with the caveat that college is a lot different from high school, and more goes into being successful at this level than pure physical gifts. That said, I have never heard anyone dispute the natural talent and football instincts of Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers. He was ESPN's No. 2 recruit in the Class of 2014 for a reason. The comparisons to Charles Woodson are already being made, and the corner spot is open with Blake Countess playing nickelback. Michigan needs to get more physical in its pass coverage and have more defensive playmakers in general. If Peppers fulfills even 80 percent of his hype, he'll be on the field early and often for Brady Hoke.

VanHaaren: Peppers is the first name that comes to mind. Michigan doesn't really have anyone like him on the roster. His combination of size and speed, which he displayed at a recent track meet by running a 10.52-second 100-meter dash, is something that Michigan needs in the defensive backfield. I just don't see a scenario where a healthy Peppers doesn't see the field in some capacity.

Moyer: Everyone should be familiar with Peppers, so let's forget about him for a minute. Someone whom Buckeyes fans already know -- and whom other B1G fans should familiarize themselves with -- is linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who was rated as the top inside linebacker recruit in the nation. He's already enrolled, he's already impressed Urban Meyer, and he's already a physically imposing athlete. At 240 pounds, he's bigger than all but one of OSU's 10 other linebackers. Almost every scouting report you read on the guy describes him as a "thumper," and Meyer said three months ago that there'll be no redshirt for McMillan. He should make an impact early on.

Based on need, which freshman is a lock to start from Day 1?

Bennett: I'll go with Purdue's Gelen Robinson. He's following in the footsteps, sort of, of his dad -- Boilers basketball legend Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson. The younger Robinson was Purdue's most celebrated recruit in this class, but not just because of that name. He's also an outstanding athlete who should force his way onto the field from Day 1. He'll likely play outside linebacker, which is a position of need for Darrell Hazell's team. Heck, they need players everywhere, but particularly difference-makers on defense. Robinson will get every opportunity.

Rittenberg: It's hard for true freshman offensive linemen to step in immediately, but keep an eye on Maryland's Damian Prince, the nation's No. 26 prospect in the 2014 class. The recent suspension of potential starter Moise Larose creates a need at tackle, and both Prince and Derwin Gray both have a chance to win starting jobs this summer. Wisconsin will play several of its freshman wide receivers, and I could easily see a guy like Dareian Watkins entering the starting lineup. And let's not forget about Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell. The Spartans lost a few pieces on the interior defensive line.

Moyer: Penn State wideout De'Andre Thompkins. In a normal year, he might be a redshirt candidate. He's incredibly athletic -- Bill O'Brien recruited him thinking he could be a two-way player and compete at nickelback -- but he's also a bit raw since he played mostly at running back in high school. He still needs to sharpen his routes but, between the scholarship reduction and the lack of experience at receiver this season, Thompkins will have to step up sooner rather than later. The early enrollee has already proven he's the fastest player on the roster, and he's taken reps as a return man. So he should play on Day 1, in some capacity.

When this freshman class graduates, who will be remembered as the best player?

Bennett: Peppers is the easy and safe choice here. Another possibility is Maryland's Prince. He's a mountain, and given the value of offensive tackles in the NFL, we could be hearing his name early in the 2017 or 2018 draft.

VanHaaren: It could very well be either Peppers or McMillan. It's tough to argue against those two just based off of talent and ability, and I would probably go with Peppers here. I saw him at the Under Armour All-America Game and coach Herm Edwards told me Peppers was the best high school prospect he had coached in the few years he had been coaching at the event. That's high praise for a former defensive back.

[+] EnlargeDamian Prince
Tom Hauck for Student SportsThe massive Damian Prince might be too good to keep out of Maryland's starting lineup.
Rittenberg: McDowell's recruiting melodrama gained a lot of attention, overshadowing how good a player he could be for MSU. Mark Dantonio isn't one to heap praise on freshmen but held a news conference specifically to discuss McDowell, saying, "Malik will be on the field for us, he's too big and fast [not to be], he can play inside or outside." I've been told McDowell's parents are on board with MSU now, and with the distractions behind him, he should become a star for an already elite defense.

What redshirt freshman should fans keep an eye on?

Bennett: I trust the player development program at Michigan State. Guys there just seem to get better and better throughout their careers, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive end Demetrius Cooper turned a lot of heads this spring and forced himself into the rotation, even with standout returning starters Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush ahead of him. Cooper was just a three-star recruit, according to ESPN, but the Spartans have made a living turning moderately-rated recruits into true college stars.

VanHaaren: I don't know if this is cheating or not because he's a sophomore, but I'm really interested to see what quarterback Wes Lunt does for Illinois. I put him here because he transferred and had to sit out the last season. I think he could be a big boost to that program if he can get things rolling offensively for the Illini.

Rittenberg: Iowa wide receiver Derrick Willies. Not only did he have a breakout spring for the Hawkeyes, but he's the type of receiver Iowa has lacked for a while: tall, fast and explosive. Iowa wants to ramp up the offensive tempo even more this season, which likely means the ball will be spread around more. Expect some big plays from Willies in his first game action.

Moyer: Minnesota running back Berkley Edwards. If it wasn't for an ankle injury early last season, he probably would've played. As it is, he'll definitely see the field this fall -- and he might see it quite a bit. Jerry Kill was asked earlier this spring if Edwards might get five to seven carries a game. "We'll see," Kill said, chuckling, to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "He might need more touches." Edwards is an exciting player who has a chance to break it anytime he touches the ball, and he could end up being an important change-of-pace back for the offense. Definitely worth watching.

Big Ten lunch links

May, 21, 2014
Only 99 days left.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

April, 11, 2014
Enjoy all the spring games this weekend. We'll recap each early next week.

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To the inbox ...

Ethan from Abbottstown, Pa., writes: While watching March Madness, I couldn't help but notice how full the stands were for semis and finals. One of the arguments against the college playoff was that fans wouldn't travel on short notice. Why? I never understood that argument. March Madness has been in play for more than 75 years and the less popular college basketball with smaller fan bases have been traveling to game sites for under a week's notice for years.

Adam Rittenberg: Ethan, the concern isn't so much that fans would travel to a national semifinal but whether they could travel to both a semifinal and the championship game the following week. Are Ohio State fans going to attend the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and then head back to Arlington, Texas, the following week for the championship game? Would Oregon fans make two potentially long trips back to back? The nice thing about basketball's Final Four is that both the semis and title game are at the same site. Remember, you're filling much larger stadiums for football, and you ideally don't want the title game to just feature a corporate crowd.


LoveLikeLacey from Chicago writes: What are your thoughts on how the backup QB situation will work out at MSU? There are a great deal of implications if either Damion Terry or Tyler O'Connor transfer, since Sparty didn't take a QB in the 2014 class. I realize Terry has a great skill set and might even see the field this year in certain packages, but O'Connor was fairly highly recruited himself and I believe he also has some skills.

Adam Rittenberg: Love the name, Lacey. It will be interesting to see how that competition unfolds. Before Connor Cook became Connor Cook, some folks criticized the staff for not giving O'Connor much of a chance to prove himself in games. O'Connor seemed to perform well in last week's jersey scrimmage (10-for-15 passing, 132 yards, TD), and he has created some separation with Terry since the start of the spring. It might be a case in which MSU uses Terry in different ways to keep him involved this year, but Cook still has two years left, so a true O'Connor-Terry competition might not take place until 2016. It's not ideal, and it could result in one player leaving.


A.J. from Madison, Wis., writes: Adam, I love how Gary Andersen tries to adapt his schemes to the personnel he has. What has been driving me nuts, however, is the continual position switching of players back and forth. I get that he wants to maximize the talent on the field, but doesn't it hurt the development of the players? If you want to get the best players at the positions, part of that is learning technique and scheme, which seems difficult to do if guys keep getting moved.

Adam Rittenberg: A.J., it could come back to hurt Andersen, and as he told me this week, the switches don't always work, but you never know if you don't try. The good thing is Andersen has a track record for moving players around on defense and making it work. He did it at Utah State, which typically has less talent than Wisconsin, and produced strong defenses. There's definitely a big emphasis on technique as well, but the coaches need to see how a player looks at a certain position before making their determination.


Bob from Virginia writes: I didn't think you were fair with your comments about Julie Hermann and the Star-Ledger's campaign against her, specifically Steve Politi. I'd like to see you tell her face to face that you actually believe she was glad those people lost their jobs. You know it's not true. Have some integrity and stand up for what's right, Adam, not for a has-been columnist who had more to do with his paper's demise than anything else. Here's a different point of view of what happened in that classroom: Last I heard it was a free country, and if Julie felt the way she did about a newspaper, she had a good reason for it.

Adam Rittenberg: Bob, whether or not she's actually glad to see the newspaper struggling, she should have been more careful with her comments. Stand up for what's right? How about showing some poise despite the pressure? That's what other Big Ten athletic directors do. I understand there are discretion policies about comments made in classroom settings at Rutgers, but the risk of something like this getting out outweighs the potential benefit (is there a benefit?) of making that comment.

I doubt you're the only Rutgers fan who feels this way, but I look at the bigger picture. Very few people are fired up about Rutgers in the Big Ten. A lot of Big Ten fans strongly believe Rutgers doesn't belong. The events of the past year at Rutgers only reinforce this perception. It's up to Hermann, with help from Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, to change the perception. This didn't help.


Mitch from Massachusetts writes: With Michigan's relatively new tradition of giving the numbers of great players from the past to current stars, do you see them ever giving out Charles Woodson's number 2? If so, who (besides Jabrill Peppers) has a shot of wearing it?

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting question, Mitch. Most of the legends Michigan is honoring played a long time ago, such as Tom Harmon (QB Devin Gardner wears his No. 98) or Bennie Oosterbaan (LB Jake Ryan wears his No. 47). I'm not sure how Michigan would feel about doing the same thing for a fairly recent player like Woodson, who is still active in the NFL. My sense is the program would rather wait and honor other players who might be lesser known by most younger fans. While Peppers could be a star, I'd be shocked if he received such an honor early in his career. Veteran CB Blake Countess would be a better bet.
At some point before Aug. 31, Ohio State safety Christian Bryant will compile a goals sheet for his senior season and hang it in his locker.

Bryant is still formulating the specifics, but he'll undoubtedly list items about interceptions, leadership and limiting big plays. He might write down something about big hits, although it's one area where he needs no reminders.

"If you love football," Bryant told, "you love the collisions."

[+] EnlargeChristian Bryant
Greg Bartram/US PresswireSafety Christian Bryant plans to provide more big plays for the Buckeyes this season, like this game-clinching interception against Cal last September.
Bryant loves football and wants to be at the top of his game in his final year as a Buckeye. He's entering his third season as a starter for a secondary that could be the strength of Ohio State's defense in 2013.

The 5-foot-10, 192-pound Cleveland native earned second-team All-Big Ten honors (coaches) in 2012, when he finished second on the squad in tackles (70) and added 12 pass breakups, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception. It's hard not to notice Bryant on the field, especially because of the hits he delivers. But he's still looking for the right blend of big plays and consistency.

"I'm trying to be known for more than just being a physical player," Bryant said. "A playmaker at all times, that's what I’m trying to be known as."

Bryant wants to make a variety of impact plays, not just big hits, and interceptions is at the top of his list. He boasts 21 career passes defended, including 13 last season, which tied him with Northwestern's Ibraheim Campbell for the most among Big Ten safeties (1.08 per game). But Bryant has only one career interception, a fourth-quarter pick against Cal last season that sealed a 35-28 Buckeyes win.

"I dropped probably three or four picks last year," Bryant said. "When I looked back on them, I should have made the plays. Those are things I'm looking forward to this season."

On the advice of former Buckeyes quarterback Troy Smith, Bryant makes sure to catch 50-100 footballs each day in spring practice. If a quarterback is available to throw, Bryant summons him. If not, it's the JUGS machine.

Other items on Bryant's offseason checklist include improved footwork and tackling technique, and doing a better job of reading the run-pass keys offensive linemen give away. He also studies NFL safeties like Charles Woodson, Ed Reed, Dashon Goldson and former Buckeye Donte Whitner.

The season is more than five months away, but Bryant gets a feel of what's to come by practicing against a dynamic Buckeyes offense led by Heisman Trophy contender Braxton Miller.

"It keeps you in shape," Bryant said. "Just the fast-paced offense, us just flying around to the ball, keeping leverage, forcing the ball back to our help. All that helps in the season, leveraging the football, running to the ball as a defense and eliminating big plays."

Bryant describes himself as "instinctive football player" and loves the defensive calls where he can roam the deep middle, read the quarterback's eyes and attack. But he also wants to be a more complete player and leader.

One of only four seniors on Ohio State's defense -- fellow starting safety C.J. Barnett is another -- Bryant hopes to be named a captain. This spring, he's trying to blend vocal leadership with on-field performance so younger players can follow him.

Although Bryant's goals list is still a work in progress, he's willing to share one item.

"To be one of the best secondary players in the country," he said. "That's what I'm shooting for."

Big Ten mailblog

November, 6, 2012
Election Day edition.

Peter from State College, Pa., writes: I was wondering if you could explain why Manti Te'o gets so much love from the media while Michael Mauti is left out to dry. Mauti is better in most statistical categories (except INT's) yet everyone feels Te'o is worthy of the Heisman. I just don't understand it.

Adam Rittenberg: There are several forces in play here that unfortunately work against Mauti. To seriously be considered for the Heisman as a defensive player, you need to be on a team either in the national title hunt or the league title hunt. Otherwise, a player simply won't generate enough attention and hype to resonate with the voters. Charles Woodson was on a Michigan team that won a national title. Ndamukong Suh was on a Nebraska team that was a second away from winning the Big 12. You then might ask, isn't this award supposed to be about the most outstanding player? Well, yes, but the Heisman is totally driven by hype. Te'o is on a team that everyone watches that has an undefeated record and has played several national showcase games and is led by its defense. Mauti is on a team that people haven't paid a ton of attention to after the first two weeks. People know Penn State is doing well, but the attention on the Lions doesn't come close to what Te'o is receiving. Also, Te'o has had signature performances in some of those national showcase games like Michigan and Oklahoma. Mauti was good against Ohio State, but his team lost the game and he didn't have a signature moment that grabs voters' attention. From a national perspective, no one cares what Mauti did against Illinois. I know that sounds harsh, but that's how the Heisman works. I'm a Heisman voter and I obviously pay much more attention to Mauti and think he's having an All-America-type season. But most people need more obviously evidence to seriously consider a defensive player from a 3-loss team that lacks many signature wins. That's just the way it goes.

Art from Boston writes: Thanks for your great work on the blog!Question about B1G bowl lineup and picking order: In your Indiana piece you said that BWW picks ahead of Gator (change from what you had thought). BWW site says they pick 3rd or 4th, but not which one for 2013. Gator has this on their site:Selection Process BIG TEN CONFERENCE: Gator Bowl will have the third selection after the BCS in the January 1, 2013 game. SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE: Gator Bowl will have the fifth selection in the SEC after the BCS selection.Trying to figure out which is correct, although as NU fan (Wildcats) hoping they can win out and get to either Cap 1 or Outback. Please let me know what you find out.

Adam Rittenberg: The Gator Bowl picks ahead of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl this season. The Big Ten confirmed this to me. The Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl is the fourth selection after the BCS pick (Rose), meaning it goes Capital One, Outback, Gator and then BW3. So if the Big Ten title game loser has a winning record, it cannot fall lower than the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, according to league rules. My point with Indiana is that the Hoosiers would fall under NCAA bowl selection policies if they were to lose the Big Ten title game and fall below .500. If that's the case, the Hoosiers would be sweating out the bowl selections.

Rich from Powell, Ohio, writes: Hey Adam. After reviewing Ohio States future schedule, I'm still surprised that Nebraska is off it the next few years. I would think that these two powerhouses would be a marquee game everytime they played. Not to mention, given both programs loyal fanbases, a ratings bonanza. What exactly is the Big Tens reasoning (if there is such a thing) here?

Adam Rittenberg: It's just a simple schedule rotation, Rich. Other than the protected rival, crossover opponents will rotate off of the schedule for two years -- across the board. We didn't have Michigan-Penn State or Michigan-Wisconsin the last two years. We won't have Ohio State-Nebraska the next two years. We didn't have a great rivalry like Wisconsin-Iowa in 2011 or 2012, but it returns in 2013. I get what you're saying about the appeal of the Nebraska-Ohio State game, and the Big Ten certainly will miss it the next two years. But that's the nature of an eight-game league schedule with only one protected crossover per team. Nebraska fans can look forward to facing Penn State every year, but other Leaders Division teams will come and go.

Seth from The United State of Iowa writes: If I understand the tiebreak rules right, Iowa just has to win two games and they play in Indy. I know it seems impossible, but two games? If I have learned anything, especially in collegiate sports, any team can win two games (assuming Northwestern loses another Legends game), so why you guys automatically counting them out? Don't count out the Hawkeyes.

Adam Rittenberg: Seth, not sure where you got your information, but it's lousy. Iowa needs to win out (that's three more wins), hope that both Nebraska and Michigan lose another game, and hope that Northwestern also loses another game. The head-to-head wins against Nebraska and Michigan only will mean something if those teams have three Big Ten losses, not two, as Iowa already has three conference defeats. Iowa would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker with Northwestern. Moreover, what has Iowa shown to lead you to believe it can beat teams like Michigan and Nebraska, much less Purdue? I'm still trying to figure out how Iowa beat Michigan State in East Lansing? This isn't a good Iowa team that failed to capitalize on a cake schedule. Maybe the Hawkeyes go 2-1 and squeak into a bowl, but I'd be stunned if they go 3-0. Most likely, Iowa stays home for the bowl season.

David from Perryville, Md., writes: Taylor Martinez just won his 4th B1G Offensive Player of the week award. Does this help him with becoming first team all B1G or does it go to Braxton Miller by default by now?

Adam Rittenberg: David, Miller would really have to struggle in the final two games not to be the first-team All-Big Ten quarterback. He hasn't had a truly bad game all season and has carried Ohio State to victory several times. Plus, he outplayed Martinez when Nebraska and Ohio State met on Oct. 6. The more intriguing debate could be Martinez versus Penn State's Matt McGloin for second-team All-Big Ten quarterback. They are the Big Ten's top two passers, and both have 18 touchdown strikes. Martinez has been a much bigger rushing threat, while McGloin has committed fewer turnovers. You can make a strong case for both, and the two signal-callers could be the two most improved players in the entire conference. The neat thing is that they'll both be on the field Saturday at Memorial Stadium. If Martinez outplays McGloin, I think he'll have the inside track for second-team All-Big Ten QB.

Wayne from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., writes: Adam:As a Northwestern fan, I'm conflicted!!! On the one hand, I'm rooting for a strong finish to the season and a push for a top-tier bowl game. The program visibility would be great, but I shudder at the idea of running into a good SEC team in, for instance, the Gator Bowl. I think we'd be hard pushed to win a tough matchup like that! On the other hand, I want us to break the bowl losing streak, and a little part of me wouldn't be unhappy with a tough loss (or two??? What's wrong with me????) and an easier bowl matchup so that we have a better chance to shed that last, lingering program negative.I know. It's crazy talk. What should I do? What's my better rooting interest?

Adam Rittenberg: Wayne, one thing about Northwestern's bowl losing streak is that the Wildcats haven't truly had a favorable bowl matchup. In fact, they've been fairly sizable underdogs most years, in part because of the Big Ten's challenging bowl lineup and the league's streak of multiple BCS entries. I don't think that will change this year. It's unlikely Northwestern will fall below the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and seems likeliest to go to BW3, Gator or (maybe) Outback. The projected opponents for those games almost certainly will be favored against Northwestern. Colleagues Brad Edwards and Mark Schlabach project South Carolina or Mississippi State to Gator and Oklahoma State and Texas Tech to Buffalo Wild Wings. Colleague David Ubben has TCU in the Wings Bowl. If it's an SEC team, I think Mississippi State is probably the most favorable matchup. With the Big 12, it's a little tougher because all those teams can score but few can play decent defense. Oklahoma State and TCU look like slightly weaker opponents, but the reality is Northwestern will have to elevate its game to end the bowl losing streak this season. The good news: few teams will benefit more from bowl practices than Northwestern, which is pretty young on both sides of the ball.

Ghost of Kevin Cosgrove from Parts Unknown writes: I see the projections have an Oregon State vs. Nebraska Rose Bowl game. If there is an Alabama vs. Oregon National Championship, what do you think of the chances of a Notre Dame vs. Nebraska Rose Bowl? If the Sugar Bowl takes LSU as their replacement team for losing Alabama to the National Title game, wouldn't a Notre Dame/Nebraska match-up be more attractive to the Rose Bowl than Oregon State in the mix?

Adam Rittenberg: Ghost, I definitely agree a Nebraska-Notre Dame matchup would have appeal, but the Rose Bowl has too much invested with its two league partners (Big Ten and Pac-12) to bypass an eligible Pac-12 team like Oregon State. While there would have to be some discussion given to Notre Dame and what the Irish could do for the game's marketability, I really would be stunned if the Rose Bowl didn't select Oregon State. The Rose took Illinois in 2007 rather than a Missouri team that had beaten the Illini in the season opener that year. I realize Missouri isn't Notre Dame, but I really don't think the Rose Bowl would go away from its traditional matchup.
Our daunting assignment for Monday was to identify the top five individual seasons by a Big Ten player in the past 50 years. It was not in any way easy.

There have been so many great players and great performances in this league that it seemed almost unfair to limit this list to just five. It's impossible not to omit some very, very worthy individual efforts.

But that was our task, and we did the best we could while trying to pick out the most memorable seasons and weighing team success into the formula as well. Please remember a couple key notes about this list. This is limited to the past 50 years, so legends such as Red Grange and Nile Kinnick were not eligible. We are including Nebraska, even though the Cornhuskers have only spent one year as a Big Ten members. Blame conference realignment and feel free to complain, but the Huskers are part of the family now and are going to be included in these kinds of historic lists. Deal with it.

OK, here we go, and we'll do this chronological order:

[+] EnlargeDick Butkus
AP PhotoDick Butkus (50) made 145 tackles and caused 10 fumbles in 1963, leading the Illini to a Big Ten title.
Dick Butkus, LB, Illinois, 1963: In many ways, Butkus is synonymous with the hard-nosed defensive style that has become the Big Ten's calling card. If you want a symbol for toughness, you couldn't do much better than him. He was named the player of the year in 1964 and finished third in the Heisman voting that year. But we're going with his 1963 season, in which he recorded a whopping 145 tackles, won Big Ten MVP honors and led the Illini to a Rose Bowl win over Washington. Little wonder that the award for the nation's best linebacker is named after him.

Archie Griffin, RB, Ohio State, 1974: Griffin remains the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner, and his first statue-worthy season was his best as a collegian. He ran for 1,620 yards and 12 touchdowns while averaging an eye-popping 6.9 yards per carry in an era of less offense. As he broke tackles left and right that season, Griffin earned the high praise of legend Woody Hayes, who called him the best football player he'd ever coached.

Mike Rozier, RB, Nebraska, 1983: The Cornhuskers' ground game was an unstoppable machine in '83, and Rozier was its engine. He averaged an amazing 7.8 yards per carry, a NCAA record for players with at least 214 attempts, and finished with 2,148 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns. He ran for more than 200 yards in each of his last four regular-season games. Would Nebraska have beaten Miami in the Orange Bowl had Rozier not injured his ankle in the second half? We'll never know, but we do know this was one of the top seasons of all time.

Charles Woodson, CB/WR/PR, Michigan, 1997: Woodson became the first primarily defensive player ever to win the Heisman Trophy with his extraordinary performance for the Wolverines, who won a share of the national title that season. He had eight interceptions even though teams steadfastly avoided throwing the ball to his side of the field. He also compiled 500 yards and three touchdowns as a receiver and punt returner, including his memorable score against Ohio State. Woodson had to be special to beat out Peyton Manning for the Heisman that year, and he sure was.

Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin, 2011: This may be controversial, since it happened so recently. But we firmly believe that when historians and fans look back on Ball's 2011 season, they will be astounded that he didn't win the Heisman or get more attention for what he accomplished. Ball led the nation in rushing yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry, matching the best mark that Heisman winner Ron Dayne ever put up during his Badgers career. He also scored 39 touchdowns, tying Barry Sanders FBS record. While a lot of people like to point out that Sanders played in fewer games, they conveniently neglect to mention that Ball had 37 fewer carries in 2011 than Sanders did in 1988. It was truly a historic season for Ball, and one of the best in Big Ten history.

Who's on your list for the top five seasons of the past 50 years in the Big Ten?

Big Ten lunchtime links

May, 18, 2012
It's Friday. Cool, cool, cool.
It's time.

If the Big Ten Champions Tournament accomplishes nothing else, at least it will let us try to settle a debate that has raged for 15 years. Bring on this long-overdue matchup of:

No. 2 seed Nebraska 1997 vs. No. 3 seed Michigan 1997


Who would win this semifinal matchup?


Discuss (Total votes: 837,231)

Curse the BCS all you want, but if that system were in place in 1997, there would have been no split-national title controversy. Of course, Michigan was the No. 1 team in the final Associated Press poll after beating No. 8 Washington State 21-16 in the Rose Bowl, while Nebraska was No. 1 in the coaches' poll following its 42-17 blowout of No. 3 Tennessee in the Orange Bowl. Legendary Huskers coach Tom Osborne announced his retirement before the bowl, which may have influenced his fellow coaches' votes.

So which team was more deserving? Nebraska averaged 46.7 points per game and won by an average margin of more than 30 points per game. The Huskers also needed a miracle against Missouri and edged Colorado by a field goal.

Michigan averaged 26.8 points per game and won by an average of more than 17 points per game. The Wolverines had close calls against Notre Dame, Iowa and Ohio State and had to hold on to win the Rose Bowl.

Common opponents: Michigan beat Colorado 27-3 and Baylor 38-3, both at home. Nebraska beat Colorado 27-24 and Baylor 49-21, both on the road.

Michigan had the better defense, Nebraska the better offense.

The computers favored Nebraska, but Michigan had been No. 1 all season.

Michigan had the Heisman Trophy winner in Charles Woodson. Nebraska had the Lombardi Award winner in Grant Wistrom and the Outland Trophy winner in Aaron Taylor.

So it's a tough debate, and it's a shame this game was never played on the field. But vote in our poll and decide a winner. Big Red fans always turn out in force, so Michigan fans will need to mobilize in support of their side as well.

Voting will close at 9 a.m. on Friday. And don't forget to drop me a line to break down this matchup and explain your vote. I'm sure there will be very strong opinions.
We've reached the third game of the first round in our Big Ten Champions Tournament, a fun little way to bring March Madness to the blog by pitting eight of the best Big Ten teams from the last 15 years.


Who would win this Round One matchup?


Discuss (Total votes: 8,048)

The 1997 co-national champion Nebraska Cornhuskers opened up their tournament run on Tuesday as the No. 2 seed. At No. 3 is the team that shared the title with them that year. Let's take a look at the matchup:

No. 3 seed 1997 Michigan vs. No. 6 seed 2005 Penn State

All these Wolverines did was go undefeated, win the Rose Bowl and finish No. 1 in the Associated Press poll. Yet they can't claim to be undisputed champions since Nebraska finished atop the coaches' poll.

This was Lloyd Carr's finest team and featured Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson, who became the first primarily defensive player to win the award. This wasn't an imposing offensive attack, though, as the team lacked a 1,000-yard rusher and did not have a receiver top 500 yards. But Brian Griese was solid at quarterback, and the Wolverines emerged unscathed against a regular-season schedule that included six ranked teams and three Top 10 opponents. The season concluded with a 21-16 win against Ryan Leaf and Washington State.

The 2005 Nittany Lions finished 11-1 and ranked No. 3. Their lone loss came at Michigan on the final play of the game. Stars included defensive end Tamba Hali, quarterback Michael Robinson, Bednarik and Butkus winner Paul Posluszny, and offensive lineman Levi Brown. They beat an average Florida State team in the Orange Bowl in a memorable triple-overtime thriller.

Now it's your turn to vote for the winner in this contest. If you want to break down this game and your reasons for voting the way you did, drop me a line, and the best responses will be posted with the result. Voting on this game will run through 9 a.m. ET Friday.
The preseason award watch lists wrap up today with the Walter Camp Award, given annually to the nation's top football player. Past Big Ten winners include Ohio State QB Troy Smith (2006), Penn State RB Larry Johnson (2002), Wisconsin RB Ron Dayne (1999) and Michigan CB Charles Woodson (1997). Twelve players from Big Ten teams, including three from Nebraska, have won the Walter Camp Award.

Five Big Ten players made the 2011 preseason watch list.

They are:
Not too many surprises here, as the list includes my top rated Big Ten defensive lineman, top rated running back and top three quarterbacks. Any snubs? Maybe Nebraska LB Lavonte David and Michigan State RB Edwin Baker, but nothing major.

The list will be trimmed to 10 semifinalists in mid November, and the winner will be announced Dec. 8 on ESPN's "SportsCenter."

You can find all of the watch lists here. recently finished a countdown of the Top 100 players in the NFL, as voted on by the current players in the league.



It's a fascinating list that's sure to stir a lot of debate. But since this is a Big Ten blog, we're going to concern ourselves with where the Top 100 went to college.

There are 13 former Big Ten players on the list, including No. 1: Tom Brady. (Note: We're counting Nebraska players as Big 12 products since the Cornhuskers in the NFL participated in that league. Same thing for Colorado and Utah, Miami and Virginia Tech, etc.). Here are the 13 who made the cut and how they ranked overall:

1. Tom Brady, QB, New England (Michigan)
9. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans (Purdue)
16. Charles Woodson, CB, Green Bay (Michigan)
28. Jake Long, OT, Miami (Michigan)
43. Joe Thomas, OT, Cleveland (Wisconsin)
47. Nick Mangold, C, New York Jets (Ohio State)
58. Brandon Lloyd, WR, Miami (Illinois)
63. Cameron Wake, LB, Miami (Penn State)
64. Tamba Hali, DE, Kansas City (Penn State)
76. Santonio Holmes, WR, New York Jets (Ohio State)
78. Dallas Clark, TE, Indianapolis (Iowa)
82. LaMarr Woodley, DE, Pittsburgh (Michigan)
97. Shaun Phillips, DE, San Diego (Purdue)

By school:

Michigan: 4
Ohio State: 2
Penn State: 2
Purdue: 2
Illinois: 1
Iowa: 1
Wisconsin: 1

(In case you're wondering, the two Nebraska players on the list are No. 51 Ndamukong Suh and No. 55 Carl Nicks)

Now let's see how the Top 100 stacks up by college conference:

Big East: 16
Big Ten: 13
ACC: 12
Pac-10: 11
Big 12: 7
Notre Dame: 1
Non-AQ/Small schools: 27

This just reinforces what I always said in my previous job: The best football is played in the Big East. Actually, that league greatly benefits from eight Miami Hurricanes who played their careers in the league before the program jumped ship to the ACC.

It's interesting that the Big Ten has the same amount of Top 100 players as the mighty SEC, no? I thought all the best talent was supposed to be in the SEC. Hmm. The ACC continues to underachieve despite all its talent, while the Big 12 has curiously low representation here (only five players outside of Nebraska).

I also find it fascinating that 27 percent of the supposed cream of the crop in pro football never played in an AQ conference -- Kent State, for example, has three players on the list, more than Alabama, Florida and LSU combined and more than every Big Ten school except Michigan. East Carolina and Central Florida have as many Top 100 players as Ohio State and Penn State. More evidence that recruiting stars don't always equal NFL success. (And indeed, the No. 1 player on the list had to fight tooth and nail to earn a starting job at Michigan).

If nothing else, it's fun fodder for debate.

B1G lunch links

April, 28, 2011
It's draft night! Should be a big one for the Big Ten.
For the first time in the 86-year history of the Chicago Tribune's Silver Football award, the honor is going to two Big Ten players.

Penn State senior quarterback Daryll Clark and Michigan senior defensive end Brandon Graham both win the Silver Football, awarded to the Big Ten's MVP every year since 1924. Big Ten coaches vote on the award -- coaches aren't allowed to vote for players on their teams -- and the voting ended with a historic tie at the top. Both Clark and Graham earned three first-place votes and one second-place vote, totaling seven points.

Wisconsin sophomore running back John Clay, the Big Ten's Offensive Player of the Year, was the third nominee for the award.

Clark becomes the first Penn State player to win the award since his mentor Michael Robinson in 2005.

Graham is the seventh defensive player to claim the Silver Football and the first since Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997.