Big Ten: Dave Aranda

The SEC and ACC have already held their media days, the Big 12 is wrapping up, and the Pac-12 is on deck. Don't worry, the Big Ten gets its day(s) in the sun next week.

To get you more than ready, we've been looking at three questions each team will likely face at the Hilton Chicago. We wrap up our series now with the Wisconsin Badgers, who will have running back Melvin Gordon, offensive tackle Rob Havenstein and defensive lineman Warren Herring to the festivities along with coach Gary Andersen.

1. How will the passing game come together?

The spring featured an intriguing competition at quarterback between last year's starting safety, Tanner McEvoy, and incumbent starter Joel Stave, who was recovering from a shoulder injury. McEvoy, who has never thrown a pass in an FBS game, could win the job with a strong fall camp. An even bigger question might be who will catch the throws from either guy, as Jared Abbrederis' graduation leaves a major void at wide receiver. The Badgers have few proven options there, and the recent departures of a pair of incoming freshmen wideouts didn't help. We know Wisconsin will be able to run the ball well once again. But can the passing game make enough strides for this team to be a serious Big Ten contender?

2. Who steps forward in the defensive front seven?

Dave Aranda's defense must replace all three starting defensive linemen from 2013 and three of its four starting linebackers. The lone returning starter from the front seven is Derek Landisch, who had 33 tackles last season. So, yeah, this is a formidable retooling project, with veteran stalwarts such as Chris Borland, Beau Allen and Brendan Kelly no longer around. There is still a lot for Aranda to build around in guys such as Herring, who has played a lot of snaps, and linebackers Vince Biegel and Marcus Trotter. But how quickly the defense can mesh together and play as well as an often underrated group from last season remains a question.

3. How big is the LSU game?


The first two questions above need to be answered quickly, because Wisconsin opens the season against LSU in Houston. It's one of the biggest regular-season games in years for the Badgers, who will quickly put themselves in the spotlight if they can beat the Tigers. The rest of their schedule is such that a 9-0 start before hosting Nebraska on Nov. 15 suddenly becomes a real possibility with an opening win, and the College Football Playoff would be an attainable goal. The challenge, however, is steep. It will be interesting to hear how much Andersen and his players have been thinking about and preparing for this game all spring and summer long. Having LSU on the schedule should certainly have added a little more urgency to offseason workouts.
Melvin Gordon passed up the NFL draft, where he likely would have been the first running back selected, in order to lead Wisconsin to the first College Football Playoff.

It's an admirable pursuit and one that endears Gordon to Badgers fans even more than his electrifying runs. But is Wisconsin really a playoff candidate? Not now. Honestly, the Badgers aren't that close at this point.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesMelvin Gordon and the run game are proven commodities, but the Badgers have questions at QB and on defense.
The playoff candidate lists are coming out seemingly every day, and most of them include Wisconsin. Fox's list of 20 playoff contenders includes Wisconsin at No. 8. The Badgers also appear in ESPN.com's list of 16 playoff contenders. Wisconsin makes the preseason top 15 for all five of these publications.

Am I missing something? Wisconsin returns just nine starters from the 2013 team, which went 9-4. Only Utah State -- ironically, Badgers coach Gary Andersen's former squad -- returns fewer starters than the Badgers. Wisconsin has quarterback issues, wide receiver issues and defensive star-power issues. It spent the spring practicing with four or five healthy wideouts and shifting around almost every player on defense. Its only experienced quarterback, Joel Stave, is battling a throwing shoulder injury and coming off a shaky season. Its potential starting signal-caller, Tanner McEvoy, played safety and wide receiver for the team last season. Its potential defensive leader, linebacker Derek Landisch, has three career starts.

What exactly about this team screams playoff contender or preseason top 15? It's easy to buy into Gordon, a bona fide national star after rushing for 1,609 yards on only 206 carries in 2013. His backup, Corey Clement, is pretty darn good, too. And the offensive line could resemble the dominant units Wisconsin is known for, although the group also dealt with injuries this spring.

History also helps Wisconsin and shouldn't be dismissed. This has been one of the more consistent programs in the country, averaging 9.6 wins per season during the past decade. It's a pretty good bet that in most seasons Wisconsin will be, well, pretty good.

And then there's the schedule, the single biggest reason fueling the Wisconsin playoff hype (either that, or folks simply aren't doing their homework on the roster). After the big-event opener against LSU in Houston, the Badgers face the following teams: Western Illinois, Bowling Green, South Florida, Northwestern, Illinois, Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue. All should be wins (Northwestern might be tricky, as Wisconsin hasn't won at Ryan Field since 1999). Wisconsin finishes with Nebraska (home), Iowa (road) and Minnesota (home), but doesn't play any of the big four in the East Division -- Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State.

Everyone agrees it's an extremely favorable slate. Here's the thing: Wisconsin has had good running backs before. It has received some breaks in the schedule. And it never finished in the top four of the final BCS standings, despite teams that entered the season with far more answers than this one.

Could the Badgers make the field of four? If they upset LSU in the opener, it's certainly possible. But people shouldn't discount who this team has lost: five NFL draft picks -- linebacker Chris Borland, wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, running back James White, safety Dezmen Southward and defensive tackle Beau Allen -- along with key complementary pieces such as tight end Jacob Pedersen, offensive lineman Ryan Groy and defensive end Brendan Kelly.

I really like Andersen. I like his staff, too, especially defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. But they have a ton of work to do and questions to answer before the opener Aug. 30 in Houston.

As I've written before, this feels more like their first season in Madison than their second. Wisconsin could evolve into a playoff contender. It is not one at this point.
Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton doesn't talk like a freshman or act like a freshman. Last season, he often didn't play like a freshman, recording four interceptions, three more than any other Badger, and a team-high seven pass breakups.

One of two early enrollees in Wisconsin's 2013 recruiting class, Shelton displays an uncommon maturity. Most players his age at a position known for bravado would beam about four interceptions in their first college season. Shelton thinks he should have had eight.

[+] EnlargeSojourn Shelton
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIAfter a freshman season with four interceptions, defensive back Sojourn Shelton is taking on a leadership role for the Badgers.
Most Wisconsin fans can't bear to watch last season's game at Ohio State because of the what-ifs in a 31-24 loss. Arguably no play brought more pain than a dropped interception by Shelton just before halftime. On the next play, Ohio State fired a 40-yard touchdown pass with one second left on the clock.

Shelton watches that play a lot. He also watches Wisconsin's regular-season finale against Penn State, a stunning home loss in which the Badgers surrendered 339 pass yards, four touchdowns and their three longest plays allowed all season.

"I watch the bad games, honestly," Shelton told ESPN.com this spring. "You talk to my coaches and they'll tell you I'm probably my worst critic. When I look back, I definitely see the opportunities that I had. Everybody brings up Ohio State. There's a couple other plays that, instead of PBUs, I could turn them into interceptions.

"But the best part about it is it gives me something else to push forward to this year."

Shelton's approach is exactly what coaches want from players who had success as freshmen. But just to make sure, Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen met with the 5-foot-9, 172-pound cornerback about a week into spring practice, just before Shelton and his teammates left for spring break.

I don't want to see a sophomore slump, Andersen told Shelton.

The directive probably had more to do with Andersen than Shelton.

"I'm paranoid when it comes to stuff like that," Andersen admitted. "So I bring it up and we talk about it and I did not see it, which was a great thing. To his credit, he kept on going. He's got high expectations for himself, and he handles them in the right way."

After Wisconsin lost seven defensive starters from 2013, including three players selected in the NFL draft -- safety Dezmen Southward, linebacker Chris Borland and nose guard Beau Allen -- the coaches spent the spring shifting players from position to position. The goal: to upgrade the unit's speed. Two of the only players who stayed put were the cornerbacks: Shelton and junior Darius Hillary.

Shelton spent the session sharpening his game. He worked on 50-50 balls, an area opponents with tall receivers could try to exploit because of Shelton's frame, and improved his pre-snap recognition with wide receiver splits, potential coverage changes and more.

"I give credit to [cornerbacks coach] Ben Strickland," defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said. "Ben's a stickler for details and Sojourn's been brought up that way and doesn't know anything different. He's searching for those little details that can put him over the top.

"He's not one to rest on his laurels."

Junior safety Mike Caputo sees Shelton as a veteran and a leader, noting that age isn't as big a factor as experience, of which Shelton received plenty in 2013. With Borland and others no longer around, the Badgers defense needs some new voices.

Shelton, who started 12 games in 2013, is happy to speak up.

"Coach always talks about playing with juice and swagger and when you make a play, be excited about it," he said. "That's one of my strengths. People don't understand how hard it is to play corner in college football against so many good receivers. You have to play with the confidence that you can go out there and shut these guys down.

"It is difficult, but at the same time, that's what makes it fun."

Many talented young players struggle to grow up. Shelton embraces his accelerated evolution at Wisconsin.

He sets high standards for himself, both in the immediate and the long term.

"I want to be the best corner in the Big Ten," he said. "It's something I’m pursuing. If I continue to move forward and that becomes the role, I'll be excited to take it on."

Spring game preview: Wisconsin

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
11:00
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Ten league squads wrap up spring practice this weekend, and we're taking a look at each spring game or scrimmage. Up next: the Wisconsin Badgers.

When: 4 p.m. ET Saturday

Where: Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis.

Admission: Tickets are $5 and will benefit Wisconsin's School of Education. Children under 2 admitted free.

TV: Big Ten Network (live)

Weather forecast: Cloudy with a chance of showers, high of 62 degrees, winds at 10-15 mph

What to watch for: Coach Gary Andersen said the Badgers will use thud tackling for the first half of the scrimmage with the first-team offense against the first-team defense, the second-team offense against the second-team defense and so on. Top running backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement, who have had very limited contact most of the spring, will participate in this section. After a halftime break, the Badgers will have a full-tackle scrimmage with a scoring system, putting the first-team offense against the second-team defense and the first-string defense against the second-team offense.

Gordon and Clement will sit out the second half, and right tackle Rob Havenstein won't play much. "But everybody else is going to go," Andersen said. "They need to play."

Quarterback Joel Stave will not play because of a lingering shoulder injury, so Tanner McEvoy has a chance to end the spring on a positive note before the competition with Stave really heats up this summer. Signal callers Bart Houston and D.J. Gillins also should get some work. Wisconsin is very thin at wide receiver because of injuries and the pass game struggled in last week's scrimmage, so it will be interesting to see if anyone can get anything going. Senior Kenzel Doe has stepped forward this spring at the slot position.

The spring game also gives fans a chance to see a new-look defense that has featured plenty of position changes this spring. Coordinator Dave Aranda wants more speed on the field and has been impressed with young players like ends Chikwe Obasih and Alec James. Freshman Austin Hudson also has seen plenty of work at safety, and junior cornerback Devin Gaulden is making the most of his opportunity after a long road back from knee injuries.

Several projected offensive line starters are sidelined but fans can check out freshman Michael Deiter, a mid-year enrollee who has been working as the first-string center.

Unlike last year's senior-laden team, Wisconsin is very much a work in progress, and the spring game offers some good subplots.
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin's defense appeared to offer a series of new looks, pressures and personnel groupings in coach Gary Andersen's first season.

Turns out, the reveal is just beginning.

Although the Badgers in 2013 showcased certain elements they hadn't under the previous coaching staff, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who inherited a strong and dominant line, catered his scheme to the players' power. The front seven is almost completely new this spring, which has brought different emphasis points, namely speed and versatility.

[+] EnlargeSojourn Shelton
Patrick S Blood/Icon SMICB Sojourn Shelton is one of the few Badgers on defense not switching positions this spring.
The Badgers' 2014 defense will more closely resemble the units Aranda and Andersen directed at Utah State than last year's at Wisconsin.

"When you look at the people we've got, they're best when they're in space and on the move," Aranda told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "So we've moved some of the linebackers to defensive end, we've moved some of the safeties to linebacker, some of the defensive ends to nose [tackle]. Everyone's kind of moved down a spot to try to maximize speed."

Michael Caputo, who started at safety last season, moved to linebacker earlier this spring and then back to the safety spot. Michael Trotter moved from safety to join his twin brother, Marcus, as an inside linebacker. Promising redshirt freshman Alec James shifted from outside linebacker to defensive end. Joe Schobert has worked at both inside and outside linebacker, and Leon Jacobs moved from the outside to the inside. Vonte Jackson, whose recurring knee injuries have prevented him from entering the mix at running back, will get a shot at safety.

Aranda used Schobert and Ethan Armstrong in versatile roles last season, but most players stayed in one spot. He now has "an abundance" of players with flexibility.

"We wanted to see how guys fit in other places, and then they decided to move a couple guys around more," Caputo said.

Other than a few exceptions -- top cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary are staying put -- the coaches are shuffling players through different positions to see who best fits. For the most part, it's working.

"We're famous for taking guys and moving them to a different spot," Andersen said. "That has been invaluable in my career. Does it always work? No. But you never know if you don't try it. That's what you do as a coach.

"There is no free agency. It's college football."

Wisconsin hasn't abandoned the power element and boasts some size up front with Warren Herring, Konrad Zagzebski and others. Aranda likes practicing against the Badgers offense, which boasts a massive line and has always excelled at the power game, while incorporating a few more spread elements than in the past.

"There's a tendency to want to get big and strong, and we are that," Aranda said. "But to win some of the games we want to win and can win, and take that next step, being as fast as we can and as athletic as we can would be the goal.

"If you can have your cake and eat it, too, let's try it."

Big Ten lunchtime links

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
12:00
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Happy Patriot League tournament final day.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive lines.

Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.

Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.

Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.

Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.

Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.

Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.

Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.

Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.

Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.

Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.

Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.

Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.

Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.

Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, C.J. Olaniyan, Ryan Phillis, Louis Trinca-Pasat, DaQuan Jones, Konrad Zagzebski, Tyler Hoover, Larry Johnson, Micajah Reynolds, Warren Herring, Aaron Curry, Ra\'Shede Hageman, Harold Legania, Beau Allen, Austin Teitsma, Ryan Russell, Marcus Rush, Sean McEvilly, Lawrence Thomas, Dominic Alvis, Deion Barnes, Chance Carter, Max Chapman, Zack Shaw, Bruce Gaston Jr., Shilique Calhoun, Deonte Gibson, Michael Amaefula, Damon Knox, Darian Cooper, Jalani Phillips, Joel Hale, Jake Keefer, Anthony Zettel, Houston Bates, Tyler Scott, Carl Davis, Noah Spence, Nick Mangieri, Greg McMullen, Arthur Goldberg, Randy Gregory, Ryan Isaac, Tommy Schutt, Adolphus Washington, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Vincent Valentine, Jamal Marcus, Teko Powell, Greg Latta, Ryan Watson, James Kittredge, Tim Kynard, Mark Scarpinato, Chris Carter, Ralphael Green, Chikwe Obasih, Malik McDowell, David Kenney, Dawuane Smoot, Darius Latham, Nate Meier, Dean Lowry, Joey Bosa, Dave Aranda, Evan Panfil, Cameron Botticelli, Theiren Cockran, Avery Moss, Michael Rouse III, Drew Ott, Scott Ekpe, Antoine White, Alex Keith, Paul James, Joe Keels, Tarow Barney, Jihad Ward, Maliek Collins, Langston Newton, Joe Fotu, Andre Monroe, B1G spring positions 14, Quinton Jefferson, Keith Bowers, Darius Kilgo, Roman Braglio, Marcus Thompson, Isaac Holmes, Jamil Merrell, Djwany Mera, David Milewski, Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay, Julian Pinnix-Odrick, James Adeyanju

Season wrap: Wisconsin

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
5:30
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Wisconsin had a new coach, the same group of core players and a similar, close-but-no-glory result in 2013. The start of the Gary Andersen era was marked by three things: an officiating debacle at the end of a game at Arizona State, an impressive midseason surge and a poor finish with losses to Penn State and South Carolina.

The coaching transition went smoothly, and the Badgers displayed many of their signature traits, such as a dynamic run offense with two premier backs in Melvin Gordon and James White. Senior linebacker Chris Borland led a defense that ran a complex, pressuring scheme under coordinator Dave Aranda. After a 3-2 start, the Badgers won six consecutive games by double digits and rose to No. 15 in the BCS standings, but poor performances in their final two games put a damper on the season. The kicking game and quarterback play continued to be inconsistent.

Offensive MVP: Running back James White. Gordon had bigger numbers and flashier plays, but White proved to be the more reliable option during the meat of the Big Ten season. He rushed for 808 yards and nine touchdowns and added 18 receptions during Wisconsin's six-game winning streak.

Defensive MVP: Linebacker Chris Borland. An easy choice here, Borland won Big Ten defensive player of the year honors after capping a brilliant career with a superb senior season. He had 112 tackles, nearly double the total of any other Badgers player, and recorded 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries and six 6 hurries. He set a Big Ten record with 15 career forced fumbles.

Best moment: It nearly became an ugly moment at TCF Bank Stadium, but Wisconsin beat rival Minnesota for a record 10th consecutive time Nov. 23 in a matchup of ranked teams on a frigid day in Minneapolis. Borland triggered a stifling defensive performance with a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, and White had another 100-yard rushing performance as Wisconsin retained Paul Bunyan's Axe.

Worst moment: Few will forget the desert debacle on Sept. 14 in Tempe, Ariz. Trailing Arizona State 32-30, Wisconsin drove downfield for the possible game-winning score, but after an awkward (but legal) kneel-down by quarterback Joel Stave, Pac-12 officials failed to remove an Arizona State defender from the ball and spot it in time so Stave could spike it and set up a field-goal attempt. The clock ran out, Wisconsin coaches and players went ballistic and the Badgers suffered their first loss.
A man wearing a newsboy cap approached Kirk Cousins and offered congratulations to the former Michigan State quarterback, who held court with reporters in the Rose Bowl tunnel moments after the Spartans beat Stanford.

Jim Delany wasn't easy to spot in the headgear, and one could argue that the Big Ten commissioner wisely disguised himself on a day that hasn't been kind to his league in recent years. But for the first time in four years, and for just the second time in 14 years, Delany walked out of the Rose Bowl with a smile on his face.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook and Michigan State gave the Big Ten plenty to celebrate.
For Delany and the Big Ten, the Rose Bowl sits on a pedestal. And after just one Big Ten win in the previous 10 tries, Michigan State's 24-20 triumph in the game's 100th edition was cause for celebration. MSU's victory doesn't dull the pain of the Big Ten's second consecutive 2-5 bowl season, but it certainly helps to prevail in the most important postseason game on the biggest stage against the best opponent.

The Spartans won a team-record 13 games and completed the best season for a Big Ten team in recent memory, finishing No. 3 in the final polls. Nebraska provided the other bright spot, upsetting Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl thanks to a stingy red-zone defense and several standout performances from seniors.

Elsewhere, the Big Ten felt the familiar postseason sting of what might have been. The league easily could have had a better record in the Florida bowls, but Wisconsin and Ohio State had sloppy performances and Iowa's offense never got on track against LSU.

Wisconsin never punted in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina and had two 100-yard rushers in Melvin Gordon and James White, but the Badgers committed four turnovers and scored just 17 offensive points. A team that had been so solid through the first 11 games unraveled in the regular-season finale against Penn State and in the bowl, failing to capitalize on a great chance to build on a 17-13 third-quarter lead. Dave Aranda's defense was shredded for the second straight game as South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw accounted for five touchdowns (3 pass, 1 rush, 1 receiving). A decorated Wisconsin senior classes ended 0-4 in Jan. 1 bowls.

Ohio State also finished the season on a surprising losing streak, squandering two second-half leads in a 40-35 loss to Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. Like Wisconsin, the Buckeyes also were doomed by turnovers, particularly a muffed punt by Corey Brown in the third quarter with a nine-point lead. A depleted Ohio State defense couldn't stop Clemson's big-play receivers, the coaches once again avoided running back Carlos Hyde in crunch time, and a banged-up Braxton Miller committed turnovers on Ohio State's final two possessions.

Injuries and personnel issues were a theme throughout the Big Ten during the bowl season. Wisconsin and Iowa saw their starting quarterbacks hurt during games, while Michigan's top signal-caller, Devin Gardner, showed up in Arizona on crutches and didn't play in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Michigan State overcame the loss of starting middle linebacker and co-captain Max Bullough, as Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris filled in well. Ohio State played without top cornerback Bradley Roby (injury) and top pass-rusher Noah Spence (suspension).

A little more offense could have put Iowa and Minnesota over the top in their bowl games. Minnesota didn't reach the end zone for three quarters in the Texas Bowl, eventually falling 21-17 to a mediocre Syracuse team. Iowa's only touchdowns came on drives of 1 and 4 yards, as the Hawkeyes had just 11 first downs and 233 total yards against LSU.

It wouldn't have taken much for the Big Ten to post a winning record in the bowls. The league had only one non-competitive performance, coming from Michigan in the Wings Bowl, as the Wolverines ended a disappointing season on a down note. The defense never gave first-time starting quarterback Shane Morris much of a chance, allowing touchdowns on Kansas State's first three possessions. Morris held his own but Michigan didn't reach the end zone until the 58th minute in what proved to be the final game for beleaguered offensive coordinator Al Borges.

Nebraska started New Year's Day on a good note as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa triggered the win with a 99-yard touchdown reception, while defensive linemen Jason Ankrah, Randy Gregory and Thad Randle limited Georgia's offense. Michigan State capped the afternoon by rallying past Stanford behind a suffocating defense and quarterback Connor Cook, who collected another postseason MVP honor and his second straight 300-yard passing performance.

The Spartans boost hope for the future after another Big Ten postseason rife with missed opportunities. The league has another team capable of competing for a national championship.

The playoff arrives in 2014, along with a more palatable Big Ten bowl lineup and most likely more bowl-eligible teams. The Big Ten took a small step in the postseason after a historically bad 2012 campaign, but more progress must be made for the rest of college football to start tipping its cap.
The 2013 college football season sadly is over, and the seemingly interminable offseason is upon us. To get started on the lonely months ahead, we're taking a look at three items each Big Ten team must address before the 2014 season kicks off in August.

Wisconsin is up next.

1. Settle on a quarterback: What would the offseason be without a quarterback competition at Wisconsin? Although Joel Stave started every game in the 2013 season and has two more years of eligibility, he won't simply be handed the top job. Stave, who left the Capital One Bowl with a right shoulder injury, will be pushed by Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and early enrollee D.J. Gillins. Quarterback play has limited Wisconsin in each of the past two seasons, and it seems like coach Gary Andersen and his staff want a different type of quarterback (more mobility).

2. Find help at receiver: No position has less depth for Wisconsin, which loses standout Jared Abbrederis to graduation. Abbrederis led the team with 78 receptions this fall, and no other wide receiver had more than 12 catches. No returning receiver had more than 10 receptions in 2013, and Wisconsin loses reliable pass catchers at both tight end (Jacob Pedersen) and running back (James White). This is a fairly desperate situation, and the Badgers need young players such as Robert Wheelwright to blossom in a hurry.

3. Bolster the defensive front: Talented defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has some work ahead as Wisconsin loses five senior linemen along with linebacker Chris Borland, the Big Ten's defensive player of the year. The Badgers struggled to generate pressure in their final two games, losses to Penn State and South Carolina, and haven't been the same up front since losing All-American J.J. Watt. The development of the defensive ends and outside linebackers such as Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert will be critical for UW.

More to-do lists

Season report card: Wisconsin

December, 30, 2013
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New Year's Day and the circus of Big Ten bowls is almost here. But first, we're handing out grades for each Big Ten team's regular-season performance on offense, defense, special teams and overall showing.

Up next: the Wisconsin Badgers.

Offense: A-minus

Despite a new coaching staff, the Badgers looked awfully familiar on offense in 2013. New coordinator Andy Ludwig wisely stuck to the program's bread-and-butter running game, with outstanding results. Led by James White and Melvin Gordon -- both of whom ran for more than 1,300 yards -- Wisconsin had one of the top rushing attacks in the nation while averaging 283 yards per game on the ground. Ludwig's crew ranked third in the Big Ten in scoring at 35.8 points per game and reached at least 30 points seven times.

Bouncing back from an injury-plagued 2012, Jared Abbrederis re-established himself as one of the league's top wide receivers, with 1,051 yards and seven touchdowns. Jacob Pedersen was also a top-notch tight end. The only knock on the offense remained the passing game. While Joel Stave completed 61.6 percent of his passes and threw for 20 touchdowns, he also struggled to connect at times with wide-open receivers. The lack of consistent wide receivers outside of Abbrederis also was a problem.

Defense: A

[+] EnlargeChris Borland
Dan Sanger/Icon SMIChris Borland anchored Wisconsin's defense, earning Big Ten defensive player of the year honors.
The switch to a predominantly 3-4 defensive alignment caused little disruption for a senior-laden front seven, and first-year coordinator Dave Aranda oversaw one of the league's top units. Wisconsin allowed just 14.8 points and 294 yards per game, ranking second in the league to Michigan State in both categories. Opponents ran for just 101 yards per game against the Badgers.

Linebacker Chris Borland took home the Big Ten defensive player of the year trophy, and Wisconsin stayed strong even when he missed a couple of games with a hamstring injury during league play. The secondary entered the year as a major concern but allayed those fears with a solid performance, getting help from true freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton and converted quarterback Tanner McEvoy at safety. The defense was tremendous just about all season, which made the breakdowns against Penn State in the season finale all the more puzzling.

Special teams: C-minus

Field goals were once again an adventure for the Badgers, and a lack of confidence in Kyle French's leg might have cost the team in its controversial loss to Arizona State. Jack Russell (woof!) replaced French late in the season and provided more stability to the kicking game. But Wisconsin was still below league average in kickoff and punt returns and punting.

Overall: B-plus

A nine-win season is nothing to scoff at, and Wisconsin already has increased its win total from 2012. It looks even better when you factor in the officiating fiasco that cost the Badgers a possible win at Arizona State. But the loss to Penn State at home on Senior Day left a tarnish on an otherwise excellent season. Wisconsin could have finished 10-2 and in position for a BCS at-large bid, although Michigan State's win in the Big Ten championship game a week later rendered that point moot. A weak nonconference schedule and advantageous cross-division slate (no Michigan State, Nebraska or Michigan) also helped. Still, first-year head coach Gary Andersen managed to keep the program operating at a high level. Beating South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl to get to 10 wins certainly would push this grade to an A for the season.

More report cards

Indiana
Northwestern
Ohio State
Nebraska
Penn State

Michigan
Minnesota
Illinois
Purdue
Iowa

Big Ten lunch links

December, 16, 2013
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Big Ten bowl season is less than two weeks away.

A look at the B1G assistant salaries

December, 12, 2013
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USA Today has released its annual database of assistant coach salaries throughout college football so let's see how the Big Ten aides stack up. Ten of the 12 Big Ten schools report coaches' salaries (Northwestern and Penn State do not).

Once again, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison leads Big Ten assistants in pay at $851,400, which ranks fourth nationally behind million-dollar coordinators Chad Morris of Clemson, Kirby Smart of Alabama and John Chavis of LSU.

Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges is the only other Big Ten assistant in the top 10 nationally in total pay ($709,300). Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck ($700,000) is next, followed by Ohio State defensive coordinators Luke Fickell ($610,000) and Everett Withers ($585,000), Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi ($558,908) and Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman ($555,000).

On the whole, the Big Ten has fewer assistants making top-20 salaries than the SEC. There's also a decent drop-off in salary after Herman, as no others make more than $500,000 (Wisconsin coordinators Dave Aranda and Andy Ludwig both make $480,000).

Here are the highest-paid assistants for the 10 Big Ten squads reporting salary:

Michigan: Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison ($851,400)
Nebraska: Offensive coordinator Tim Beck ($700,000)
Ohio State: Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell ($610,000)
Michigan State: Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi ($558,908)
Wisconsin: Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig ($480,000)
Purdue: Offensive coordinator John Shoop ($400,000)
Illinois: Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and defensive coordinator Tim Banks ($400,000)
Indiana: Offensive coordinator Seth Littrell ($356,500)
Minnesota: Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys ($346,800)
Iowa: Defensive coordinator Phil Parker ($325,500)

Claeys clearly is the best value in the league, as he served as Minnesota's acting head coach during Jerry Kill's health-related absence and remained as the main sideline coach even after Kill returned to duty. Iowa's Parker, along with OC Greg Davis ($325,000) also earned their keep and then some as the Hawkeyes flipped their record from 4-8 to 8-4.

Some Michigan fans will scoff at Borges' salary after the Wolverines offense struggled for much of Big Ten play. Fickell, Shoop and Banks also directed units that had forgettable seasons.

One thing to keep in mind when some of these assistants are mentioned for head-coaching jobs is the pay cuts they'd likely take to lead teams in smaller conferences.

In terms of total staff pay, Ohio State leads the Big Ten and ranks sixth nationally at $3,474,504, trailing LSU, Alabama, Clemson, Texas and Auburn. Michigan comes in next at $3,072,000, which ranks 14th nationally.

Bret Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas in part because he had lost so many assistants in his final two years in Madison. Bielema's staff at Arkansas ranks 10th nationally in total staff pay ($3,233,000), while Gary Andersen's staff at Wisconsin ranks 28th ($2,495,000)

Here are the Big Ten teams sorted by total staff pay:

Ohio State: $3,474,504
Michigan: $3,072,000
Nebraska: $2,648,500
Wisconsin: $2,495,000
Michigan State: $2,410,483
Iowa: $2,367,500
Minnesota: $2,152,350
Indiana: $2,074,780
Illinois: $2,066,400
Purdue: $2,010,000

We can have an endless about debate whether college football coaches make too much money in general, but these numbers remain problematic for the Big Ten in my view. Only two teams are truly paying top dollar for their staffs, and some groups are undervalued.

Michigan State's staff obviously jumps out after the Spartans just won the Big Ten championship. MSU co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner ($280,800) and Jim Bollman ($262,000) are among the lowest-paid coordinators in the league, as several position coaches make more than them. Athletic director Mark Hollis said last week that raises are coming for head coach Mark Dantonio and his assistants.

Minnesota's staff also deserves a nice bump after handling such a tough situation this season. I also wonder whether Iowa's coordinators get a raise, especially considering what head coach Kirk Ferentz makes.

Purdue's Marcus Freeman and Jafar Williams are the Big Ten's lowest-paid assistants at $120,000. Only one SEC assistant, Kentucky's Derrick Ansley, makes less than $140,000.

Big Ten lunchtime links

November, 22, 2013
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Winter's cold is too much to handle.

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 12

November, 17, 2013
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Lessons learned from the weekend that was in the Big Ten:

[+] EnlargeOhio State Touchdown
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsTailback Carlos Hyde rushed for 246 rushing yards and scored five touchdowns in the Buckeyes' win over Illinois.
1. Michigan State vs. Ohio State is happening, so get ready: The Big Ten championship game is not signed, sealed and delivered yet. But it would take some major chaos for that game not to feature Michigan State and Ohio State. The Spartans clinched at least a tie for the Legends Division title with their 41-28 win at Nebraska. All they need is to win one of their final two games -- at Northwestern and versus Minnesota -- or have Minnesota lose next week against Wisconsin in order to punch their ticket to Indianapolis. Coach Mark Dantonio's team has come too far to slip up two straight weeks. Ohio State needs one more win to clinch the Leaders spot in the title game because of its head-to-head win over Wisconsin, and the Buckeyes will be favored by multiple scores next week at home against Indiana. This is the matchup that the Big Ten should want -- Michigan State will be in the top 15 and possibly the edge of the top 10 if it wins out, and the Spartans' outstanding defense will test Ohio State's high-scoring offense. It hasn't been the most exciting Big Ten regular season, but things are setting up for a fantastic finish at Lucas Oil Stadium.

2. Wisconsin's defense deserves more notice: Indiana came into Saturday's game averaging 43.1 points and 527 yards. Whatever you think of the Hoosiers, their offense is legitimately explosive. Wisconsin completely defused that attack in a 51-3 win, shutting out Indiana in the first half while allowing 224 yards and a lone third-quarter field goal. The Hoosiers had scored in every quarter but three this year and hadn't been blanked in a half since September of last season. The point is that the Badgers' defense is outstanding, yet like the team as a whole, remains underrated. Everyone will notice how Wisconsin ran all over IU for 554 yards, second most in school history, but that pretty much happens every year in the Indiana game. The Badgers D is led by experienced players up front like Chris Borland, Beau Allen and Brendan Kelly and is getting terrific play from less experienced guys like Sojourn Shelton and Tanner McEvoy on the back end. Don't forget that Ohio State turned in its lowest point total of the season (31) against Dave Aranda's defense. This is a complete team, even if the the voters in the major polls still somehow fail to recognize it.

3. Don't tell Michigan this season is over: We could have understood if Michigan would have mailed in the end of Saturday's Northwestern game. The Wolverines have been beaten up by opponents and piled on by fans and critics for their lackluster offensive performances. Their Big Ten title hopes are dead, and in coach Brady Hoke's own view, that means the season is a failure already. In the rain in Evanston, they found themselves down 9-6 in the closing moments of an ugly game. But Michigan pulled off a truly incredible effort to set up Brendan Gibbons' field goal at the very end of regulation, then ground its way through a triple-overtime win. Quarterback Devin Gardner, who has been battered and bruised countless times, appropriately scored the winning touchdown and two-point conversion. The Wolverines looked in serious danger of losing out for a 6-6 campaign before Saturday's gritty comeback. While wins at Iowa and against Ohio State the next two weeks won't be easy to come by, Michigan proved that it will not fold up shop. As for Northwestern, you can't fault the effort. But the Wildcats have now lost in just about every terrible way imaginable, including twice in overtime and on a Hail Mary. It's just one of those years for coach Pat Fitzgerald's crew.

[+] EnlargeGlenn Carson
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsLinebacker Glenn Carson and the Nittany Lions gave up just 264 yards to Purdue in the win.
4. It's wait 'til next year -- again -- for Illinois and Indiana: The best thing you can say about Illinois is that it has shown a lot of fight this year -- even if that sometimes means near fisticuffs between coach Tim Beckman and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. The Illini did not give up after falling behind Ohio State 28-0 and 35-7 on Saturday, battling back to keep it a two-score game throughout most of the second half. But like the games against Penn State and Indiana, the team simply couldn't finish the job. And so any slight bowl hopes were officially extinguished for Illinois, which now owns the nation's longest conference losing streak -- and second-longest in the long history of the Big Ten -- at 20 games. If Beckman can't lead the team to a win over hapless Purdue next week, he might not get a chance to finish his job, either. Indiana entered the year with high hopes for a bowl. The Hoosiers can still technically get to six wins, but that would require a win next week in Columbus over Ohio State. If you believe that will happen, you are either incredibly optimistic or completely untethered from reality. Coach Kevin Wilson's team has made strides this season on offense and in the running game despite Saturday's showing in Madison, but the defense has failed to grow at all and has some historically inept performances this season. The Hoosiers' status won't change until that side of the ball develops any competency. So it's back to the drawing board for both programs, and they'll have all of December to rethink things.

5. Freshmen making strides at Penn State, Purdue: If you didn't watch Penn State's win over Purdue, we don't blame you. Neither team is going anywhere this season. But the game did provide some hope for the future, thanks to the play of true freshmen on both sides. Purdue quarterback Danny Etling took a step forward with the best start of his career, throwing for 223 yards and a touchdown. Both he and Penn State freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg finished with similar stat lines. And their first-year targets fared pretty well, too. DeAngelo Yancey was Purdue's leading receiver, with four catches for 83 yards, and Nittany Lions tight end Adam Breneman caught the first TD pass of his career. Both teams are looking forward for different reasons, and the play of their youngsters gave them some reasons for hope.

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