Big Ten: David Cobb

Spring game preview: Minnesota

April, 11, 2014
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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. Next up: Minnesota.

When: 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday

Where: TCF Bank Stadium

Admission: Free. Gates open at 1:30 p.m. ET. There will be a Gopher football alumni football game from 2-3 p.m. ET, and former players will sign autographs in the west plaza after the game.

TV: Streamed live on BTN2Go.com. The game will be also shown Sunday at 6:30 p.m. on Big Ten Network.

Weather forecast: Mostly cloudy, with a high near 67. Chance of precipitation is 70 percent, though most of the rain is predicted for the morning.

What to watch for: One of the Gophers' biggest goals for this offseason was to develop more playmakers, especially in the passing game. So it would be very encouraging to see the offense come up with some explosive plays during the spring game.

Mitch Leidner has established himself as the clear No. 1 quarterback, and the team is hoping young receivers Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones continue to make strides, along with a deep crew at tight end (Maxx Williams is out with a knee injury). The Gophers could also use a few more home runs in their rushing attack, and perhaps redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards, who broke off a 50-yard scoring run in last week's scrimmage, can provide that. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover knows he can still pound the ball with veteran backs David Cobb and Donnell Kirkwood, plus Leidner. Top recruit Jeff Jones is also on the way.

If Minnesota's offense can move the ball effectively against its own defense, that's a reason for optimism. Despite losing star defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and defensive back Brock Vereen, coordinator Tracy Claeys can call on a pretty experienced crew. Claeys would like to see a leap forward from his linebacker group, which lost seniors Aaron Hill and James Manuel but returns guys like Damien Wilson, De'Vondre Campbell and Jack Lynn who saw action last season. Replacing Hageman will probably require a group effort, but the coaching staff likes the potential of Scott Ekpe and Cameron Botticelli inside.

All in all, the team probably has fewer question marks going into this spring game than any previous ones under Jerry Kill. That's why hopes are high in Minneapolis.
The best offenses are usually the ones with the best triple threats: a big-time quarterback, an elite running back and a go-to wide receiver.

So which Big Ten offenses have the most intimidating three-headed monsters on offense for 2014? Glad you asked. We're going to look at each team's top triple-threat combo and rank them in their divisions. First up: the Big Ten West.

1. Nebraska

QB Tommy Armstrong Jr., RB Ameer Abdullah, WR Kenny Bell

The skinny: Yes, Armstrong still has a lot to prove as a full-time starting quarterback. But the Huskers have one of the best running backs in the country in Abdullah and a proven wideout in Bell. As you'll see, not every team in the division has that luxury. If Armstrong can simply be steady, the Nebraska offense should produce at a high level.

2. Wisconsin

QB Joel Stave, RB Melvin Gordon, RB Corey Clement

The skinny: Who emerges as the Badgers' top wide receiver is anyone's guess after the departure of Jared Abbrederis. But Wisconsin has shown the ability to pile up yards simply by running the ball, and the duo of Gordon and Clement has the potential to be really special if Clement makes the expected leap. Stave, however, needs to find more consistency -- assuming he even retains the starting job this season.

3. Northwestern

QB Trevor Siemian, RB Venric Mark, WR Christian Jones

The skinny: The Wildcats have a chance to improve this standing if Mark is fully recovered from last season's injuries and if Siemian continues to develop as a passer. But they lack a true No. 1 wideout -- Jones had 54 catches for 688 yards and four touchdowns, while Tony Jones caught 55 balls for 630 yards last season.

4. Iowa

QB Jake Rudock, RB Mark Weisman, WR Kevonte Martin-Manley

The skinny: Rudock completed 59 percent of his passes as a first-year starter and faces a bit of competition this spring from C.J. Beathard. The strength of the Hawkeyes' offense remains their running game, led by Weisman. Iowa needs more from its receivers, as the senior Martin-Manley led the team with just 388 receiving yards last season. Perhaps Damond Powell or Tevaun Smith can add some sizzle to the passing game.

5. Illinois

QB Wes Lunt, RB Josh Ferguson, WR Martize Barr

The skinny: We trust offensive coordinator Bill Cubit to put together a potent attack this fall and probably make this ranking look way too low. But there are a lot of uncertainties right now, as Oklahoma State transfer Lunt hasn't even officially won the starting job and Barr is the top returning receiver despite posting just 246 receiving yards last season.

6. Minnesota

QB Mitch Leidner, RB David Cobb, TE Maxx Williams

The skinny: Scoring in bunches wasn't exactly the Gophers' calling card last season. On the plus side, they do return a 1,200-yard back in Cobb, who will be joined by Donnell Kirkwood (926 yards in 2012) and incoming top recruit Jeff Jones to form a deep backfield. But the passing game was one of the least productive in the FBS last season and needs major steps forward from Leidner and young receivers like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones.

7. Purdue

QB Danny Etling, RB Akeem Hunt, WR DeAngelo Yancey

The skinny: The Boilers averaged a putrid 14.9 ppg last season, though the potential for better things is there with true sophomores Etling and Yancey. The running game simply has to get better, however, as Hunt led the team with just 464 yards on the ground in 2013.
Borrowing an idea from our friends at the ACC blog, we're taking a look at some of the Big Ten's top rivalries and whether recent trends will continue or change during the 2014 season. The Big Ten has no shortage of rivalries, but we've identified several that have been rather one-sided in the last few seasons.

First up, two teams who play for a giant axe: Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Series: First meeting in 1890. Minnesota leads 58-57-8; Wisconsin leads 39-24-3 since Paul Bunyan's Axe was introduced in 1948.

Last meeting: Wisconsin beat Minnesota 20-7 on Nov. 23, 2013, at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis

The streak: Wisconsin has won the past 10 meetings, dating back to 2004. It's the longest win streak for either team in the series. Minnesota's last win was a 37-34 triumph in 2003 at the Metrodome. The Badgers have claimed 17 of the past 19 meetings.

Next meeting: Minnesota visits Wisconsin on Nov. 29

The skinny: The gap between the longtime rivals seems to be closing a bit as coach Jerry Kill has guided Minnesota to consecutive bowl appearances and a historic Big Ten win streak last season. Wisconsin isn't on the decline by any means, although the Badgers are replacing a lot of key pieces right now, including linebacker Chris Borland, the 2013 Big Ten defensive player of the year, and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis. Both teams have some competition at quarterback this spring, although it would be a surprise if Mitch Leidner doesn't get the nod at Minnesota. Joel Stave is by far Wisconsin's most experienced signal-caller, but he'll be pushed by Bart Houston and possibly Tanner McEvoy. Both teams also are reloading a bit in the defensive front seven, especially Wisconsin.

SportsNation

Will Minnesota beat Wisconsin this season?

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Discuss (Total votes: 3,308)

Minnesota is looking more like Wisconsin under Kill, using an offense built around the power run. Both teams should be very strong at running back, as Wisconsin returns Heisman Trophy candidate Melvin Gordon and promising sophomore Corey Clement, while Minnesota should have four good ball-carrying options, including David Cobb, a 1,200-yard rusher in 2013 and decorated freshman Jeff Jones. The Badgers benefit from a favorable Big Ten schedule that doesn't include Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State. They could be playing for a West Division title when Minnesota visits Camp Randall Stadium. The Gophers, meanwhile, are fed up with their continued struggles in the series, as we saw in last season's chop-stop attempt at TCF Bank Stadium.

The (very early) prediction: We'll see another competitive game, but Minnesota's wait to end the streak will last another year. The Badgers will have more to play for, home-field advantage and the memory of last senior's senior day stinker in their minds. Both teams will run the ball well, but Gordon has a big day and scores the game-winning touchdown in the closing minutes in what likely will be his final home game as a Badger.
After four weeks of scouring the nation -- and, in Brian's case, the world -- for top games, our ultimate Big Ten road trip has reached the start of league play, at least for most teams. We'll likely be spending more time in our cars the next few months, but we don't mind.

For those just joining in, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the 2014 season. We aren't tied down by a travel budget or nagging editors. If we want to attend a game -- depending on matchup, location, culinary offerings or any other factors -- we can go.

Here are the Week 5 offerings around the league, as all 14 teams are in action:

Sept. 27

Maryland at Indiana
Minnesota at Michigan
Wyoming at Michigan State
Cincinnati at Ohio State
Northwestern at Penn State
Tulane at Rutgers
Illinois at Nebraska
Iowa at Purdue
South Florida at Wisconsin

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Minnesota at Michigan

For a week where every team is in action, Week 5 is a bit underwhelming. Of the five league games, I'm choosing between Minnesota-Michigan and Northwestern-Penn State, but the Jug game gets my vote. Sure, this series hasn't been very competitive, as Michigan has won six straight against Minnesota and 22 of the past 23 meetings. Michigan has been particularly dominant at the Big House. After Minnesota pulled off an upset in 2005, Michigan has claimed the past three meetings in Ann Arbor by a combined score of 134-23.

So why head to Michigan? Minnesota is an improving program under Jerry Kill that made significant strides after last season's loss at Michigan, winning four of its final six league contests. The next step for the Gophers is to perform better in rivalry games like this one. I'm interested to see if Mitch Leidner is a different quarterback, if he's getting more help from his receivers and if incoming freshman Jeff Jones is contributing at running back alongside David Cobb. Speaking of young running backs, will this be a breakout year for Michigan's Derrick Green? The sophomore will need help from a besieged offensive line that must develop during the spring and summer.

Both defenses are going through a bit of a makeover. Michigan has much of the same personnel but shuffled its linebacker responsibilities, as senior Jake Ryan moves to the middle. Minnesota has been a very solid defense under Tracy Claeys but must replace its biggest piece up front (Ra'Shede Hageman) and in the secondary (Brock Vereen). Perhaps this turns into another easy win for Michigan, which needs a good start to Big Ten play, but I'm interested to see if Minnesota will keep moving in the right direction under Kill. Plus, I haven't seen the Gophers in person since the 2009 season.

Brian Bennett's pick: Cincinnati at Ohio State

It seems odd in a week with several Big Ten games to pick a nonconference matchup. But after logging a whole lot of mileage in the first four weeks, I'm happy to stay a bit closer to home. And this is also a good time to get a look at the Buckeyes, whom I've passed over so far despite a couple of interesting early tilts (Navy in Baltimore in Week 1, Virginia Tech in Week 2).

Also, I'm a sucker for these kinds of in-state games. Cincinnati has always lived in Ohio State's shadow, and Urban Meyer's alma mater would love nothing more than to pull off its first win over the Buckeyes since 1897. The Bearcats' program has been very solid for several years now, and it returns most of the production from a nine-win season in 2013. The offseason focus will be at quarterback, where Notre Dame transfer and one-time Indiana commit Gunner Kiel could start. (And choosing this game gives me an excuse to mention Munchie Legaux, who is battling back from a gruesome leg injury.)

But mostly, this game is about taking the temperature of the Buckeyes, who will be challenged much more in the nonconference schedule this fall than they were in the past two seasons combined. We should learn a lot from the Virginia Tech game, and I'm curious to see how the defense bounces back from a rough finish to '13 without stars Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby. How will the revamped offensive line perform, and can anyone match Carlos Hyde's impact in the running game? Plus, if I get a chance to watch Braxton Miller play, I'm usually going to take it. Ohio State could be hovering in or near the top five if it is undefeated going into this game, and that demands an in-person visit.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 26, 2014
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Spring practice is off and running in the Big Ten, as Michigan took the field Tuesday and Northwestern followed on Wednesday. We're taking snapshots of where each team stands at each position group.

We've already discussed the quarterbacks -- and will have much more on the way -- so the series begins with the running backs.

Illinois: The Illini are in a bit better shape here than they were the past two springs, as veterans Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young both return. Ferguson averaged 5.5 yards per carry and added 50 receptions for 535 yards as the primary playmaker for Illinois' revamped offense. Young added 376 yards on 93 carries. The Illini are looking for others behind the top two, and Dami Ayoola is back with the team after being dismissed in September for a rules violation.

Indiana: Tevin Coleman quietly put together a superb sophomore season and leads the Hoosiers' running backs in 2014. Coleman provides big-play ability after averaging 7.3 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns on only 131 attempts in 2013. Indiana loses Stephen Houston but brings back veteran D'Angelo Roberts, who will play behind Coleman. Younger players such as sophomore Laray Smith could get a look here.

Iowa: Not only did the Hawkeyes toss AIRBHG to the side and get through the season without any major injurie, but they bring back everyone for 2014. Senior Mark Weisman leads the contingent after rushing for 975 yards and eight touchdowns last fall. Jordan Canzeri came on strong late in the season and is showing no effects from his ACL tear in 2012. Veteran Damon Bullock also returns to the mix, and Iowa has talented younger backs such as LeShun Daniels Jr. at its disposal. Good situation here.

Maryland: The Terrapins wide receivers tend to get more attention, but the team also returns its top three running backs from 2013 in Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Jacquille Veii. Maryland also regains the services of Wes Brown, who finished second on the team in rushing as a freshman in 2012 before being suspended for all of last season. Joe Riddle is back in the fold as well. The group brings different strengths, from power (Brown) to speed (Veii) to a mixture of both (Ross, Reid).

Michigan: Sophomore Derrick Green enters the spring as the frontrunner to be Michigan's lead back, although coach Brady Hoke wants to ramp up competition everywhere. The Wolverines struggled to consistently run between the tackles, but the 240-pound Green could change things. Hoke also is excited about another sophomore, De'Veon Smith. Michigan moved Ross Douglas from cornerback to running back, and Justice Hayes and Wyatt Shallman also are in the mix. "We've got more depth," Hoke said.

Michigan State: Things look much more promising than they did last spring, when the Spartans ended the session with a linebacker (Riley Bullough) as their top back. Jeremy Langford emerged as a very solid option during the season, rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. He's back as the clear-cut starter, and Nick Hill also returns. It will be interesting to see if Gerald Holmes makes a push, or whether Delton Williams remains on offense.

Minnesota: Here's another team that finds itself in very good shape at running back entering the spring. David Cobb leads the group after rushing for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. Veterans Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr. are still around, and highly touted redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards will take the field after missing last fall because of knee and ankle injuries. Perhaps the best news will come in the summer as decorated recruit Jeff Jones arrives.

Nebraska: Notice a theme here? Nebraska is yet another Big Ten squad that can feel very good about its running backs entering the spring. Ameer Abdullah elected to bypass the NFL draft for one final season at Nebraska, where he led the Big Ten with 1,690 yards on 281 carries as a junior. Abdullah will contend for national awards in the fall. Imani Cross, who rushed for 10 touchdowns last year, is one of the nation's top backups. Terrell Newby and others add depth behind the top two.

Northwestern: Top back Venric Mark (ankle) will miss spring practice following surgery, and reserve Stephen Buckley (knee) also is rehabbing, but Northwestern has no reason to panic. Treyvon Green, who filled in well for Mark last season with 736 rushing yards, will get much of the work. Warren Long also is in the mix after appearing in seven games as a true freshman. Northwestern also loaded up at running back in recruiting to solidify the position for years to come.

Ohio State: This will be a position to watch in the spring as Ohio State must replace Carlos Hyde, who was nearly unstoppable during Big Ten play last fall. Veteran Jordan Hall also departs, and Rod Smith will be the veteran of the group despite only 83 career carries. The Buckeyes have some talented young backs, from Dontre Wilson, who saw significant playing time last fall, to Bri'onte Dunn, Ezekiel Elliott and Warren Ball. Keep an eye on Elliott, who averaged 8.7 yards per carry in limited work last season but could emerge this spring.

Penn State: If it feels like Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton have been competing for carries forever at Penn State, it's because they have. Zwinak and Belton have been part of Penn State's running back rotation for the past two seasons and enter another competition this spring with talented sophomore Akeel Lynch, who rushed for 358 yards on only 60 carries last season. It will be interesting to see how much Lynch can push Zwinak and Belton in the team's first spring under a new coaching staff. Penn State has depth issues at several positions, but running back isn't one of them.

Purdue: The Boilers finished 122nd nationally in rushing offense last season, so the fact all of their running backs return might not spark mass celebration. Senior Akeem Hunt leads the group after recording 123 of the team's 319 rushing attempts in 2013. Other veteransBrandon Cottom and Raheem Mostert also are back, along with younger ball-carries such as Dayln Dawkins and three backs -- Keyante Green, David Yancey and Keith Byars II -- who redshirted last fall and could have much bigger roles.

Rutgers: Here's yet another team that returns basically its entire stable of running backs for spring ball. Paul James is the name to watch, as he rushed for 573 yards in the first four games last season before suffering a leg injury. James' health is a concern for Rutgers, which could also turn to Justin Goodwin, who showed some flashes following James' injury. Savon Huggins, who entered last season as the starter before losing ground, is in the mix as he looks to re-establish himself on the depth chart.

Wisconsin: How many teams can lose a 1,400-yard rusher and still claim to have the best running back group in the Big Ten? James White is gone, but Wisconsin remains in very good shape in the backfield. Melvin Gordon bypassed the NFL draft for another year in Madison after rushing for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. Gordon should move into more of a featured role beginning this spring, although he'll be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 yards and seven touchdowns on only 67 carries. Jeff Lewis provides another option behind the top two.
Earlier today, we listed 10 incoming Big Ten recruits -- five here and five here -- who we think could make an immediate impact during the 2014 season. Part of this is based on talent and part on position need, as projecting how first-year players perform can be somewhat of a crapshoot.

You've heard from us. Now it's time for you to pick the player most likely to impact his team this season.

Here are the choices:

SportsNation

Which incoming Big Ten recruit will make the biggest impact in 2014?

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Discuss (Total votes: 6,447)

Chris Godwin, WR, Penn State: Godwin and other incoming wideouts have a chance to contribute right away, as Penn State brings back only one receiver (Geno Lewis) who had more than 15 receptions in 2013. Has good size and strength to transition to the college level.

Jeff Jones, RB, Minnesota: Has a proven player in front of him in 1,200-yard rusher David Cobb, but Jones is the most decorated recruit of the Jerry Kill era and adds another weapon to an offense that needs more of them.

Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State: The top-ranked inside linebacker in the 2014 class (No. 13 overall), he plays a position of significant need for the Buckeyes, who lose All-American Ryan Shazier.

Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan: Highest-rated Big Ten player in the 2014 class (No. 2 overall by ESPN RecruitingNation). Could contribute on both sides of the ball as well as on special teams, and brings a playmaking presence to the Wolverines secondary.

Damian Prince, OT, Maryland: True freshmen rarely make an impact on the offensive line, but Prince isn't an ordinary freshman. Highest-rated offensive line recruit in the Big Ten -- No. 26 overall in the 2014 class -- and could help a Maryland offense transitioning to a more physical league.

Those are the choices. Time to vote.

B1G's top impact true freshmen

February, 13, 2014
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The Big Ten's 2014 recruiting classes are signed and sealed -- for the most part, at least. The next question many of you ask is which incoming freshmen or junior-college players will make the biggest immediate impact for the 2014 season.

It's always a bit tricky projecting which recruits will make a big splash right away, as some will fall in line behind veteran players while others might be forced into big roles because of depth issues. Talent certainly plays a role on who sees the field the earliest, and so does need.

Here are five players (in alphabetical order) who I expect to see early and often in 2014. Note: Malik McDowell would have made the list, but the possibility (albeit slim) that he signs with Florida State prevents it.

Chris Godwin, WR, Penn State: The Lions have a dynamic quarterback in Christian Hackenberg, but wide receiver suddenly is a major need after Allen Robinson, the two-time Big Ten wide receiver of the year, entered the NFL draft. Robinson recorded 97 receptions last season, and no other Lions player had more than 28. The good news is Penn State loaded up at receiver in the 2014 class, and Godwin should be in the mix for major playing time right away. The 6-foot-2, 203-pound Godwin has a physical style that should help him transition to the college game.

[+] EnlargeJeff Jones
Tom Hauck/ESPNESPN 300 running back Jeff Jones has the potential to be an immediate contributor at Minnesota.
Jeff Jones, RB, Minnesota: The Gophers return a 1,200-yard rusher in David Cobb, so the need for Jones might not be overly pressing. But Jones' surge both during his senior season and afterward, when he claimed MVP honors at the Under Armour All-America Game, boost his chances of making a splash right away. Minnesota established itself as a run-first team in 2013, and the uncertainty at the quarterback position could push the Gophers even more toward the ground game this fall. The 6-foot, 198-pound Jones is the most decorated recruit of the Jerry Kill era and provides a spark to an offense that needs more dynamic components.

Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State: Here's a case of a supremely talented player -- ESPN RecruitingNation rates McMillan as the nation's top linebacker and No. 13 overall player -- who plays a position of extreme need. Ohio State has had depth issues at linebacker throughout Urban Meyer's tenure and loses All-American Ryan Shazier, who led the team in tackles (143), tackles for loss (22.5) and forced fumbles (4) last season. The departure of Mike Mitchell, a top linebacker recruit in the 2013 class, underscores the need for capable 'backers. The 6-2, 249-pound McMillan looks the part and should be able to help right away as a between-the-tackles run defender.

Jabrill Peppers, CB, Michigan: Brady Hoke has brought in other decorated recruits at Michigan, but Peppers has that can't-miss, no-doubt quality about him. Michigan will get this guy on the field right away, if not as a full-time starter in the secondary then on special teams, where he could be an explosive returner. The 6-1, 205-pound Peppers also could moonlight on offense after rushing for 43 touchdowns during his prep career. The nation's No. 2 overall recruit, according to ESPN RecruitingNation, Peppers brings the skills and playmaking ability to boost a defense took a step backward against the pass in 2013.

Jihad Ward, DT, Illinois: There's no secret why Illinois brought in five junior-college players in the 2014 class, as the upcoming season is pivotal for coach Tim Beckman. Repairing the nation's 110th-ranked defense is the top priority, and Ward should be able to help up front. The 6-6, 285-pound Ward is a big body in the middle who recorded 10 sacks in his junior college career. There are ample opportunities along the line after Illinois struggled so much against the run (116th nationally), and the Illini need Ward and the other jucos to be as good as advertised.

We'll have five more potential instant-impact players later today.
National Signing Day is just hours away. It will be a formality for some Big Ten teams, who simply must wait for written proof of the pledges they've known about for weeks or months. But there's always a bit of drama in the league, whether it's an uncommitted prospect announcing his choice publicly for the first time, a recruit flipping from one team to another at the last minute, or a player sticking with his initial choice despite increased attention.

Today's Take Two topic is: What will be the biggest announcement/decision in the Big Ten on signing day 2014?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

There are several options here, but the Malik McDowell situation, which I wrote about earlier on Tuesday, will get my attention on Wednesday morning. Here you have a hulking defensive lineman from Southfield, Mich., the top uncommitted prospect in the Midwest according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, choosing among four schools, three of them rival programs in the Big Ten (Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State). Michigan State appeared to have the edge for McDowell, but his mother doesn't want him to go there, telling the Detroit Free Press that she had a "bad experience" in East Lansing. She didn't specify what it was.

McDowell's parents are both concerned about the social life and potential distractions their son could face at MSU, and McDowell's father wants him to leave the state entirely to play his college ball. Parents usually want their kids to be close, but here you have parents who would be fine if their son went more than 800 miles away to play for defending national champion Florida State. Interesting.

Malik himself has said only positive things about the programs, particularly Michigan State, where he likes the coaching staff and the atmosphere both on the team and on the campus. Are we headed for another Alex Collins situation? Probably not, but it will be interesting to see how much pull McDowell's parents have on where he ends up. It would be a blow for the Big Ten to lose such a decorated player to Florida State, and McDowell would be a nice addition for Michigan State, Ohio State or Michigan.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

McDowell's decision might draw better ratings than the Super Bowl in Michigan and Ohio. And Jamarco Jones' call between Ohio State and Michigan State, should it come down to Wednesday, also could provide high drama.

But let's face it: Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan are still going to have plenty of talent regardless of a late commitment or two. That's why I think the biggest decision could involve Jeff Jones and Minnesota.

Jones, who plays at Minneapolis Washburn and is ranked the No. 12 running back and No. 137 overall in the ESPN 300, committed to the Gophers over a year ago. He has had many other suitors, including Florida and Michigan. It was a great sign for Minnesota that Jones decided against visiting Gainesville or Ann Arbor, though that doesn't rule out him flipping on signing day.

Jerry Kill and his staff need to keep as many blue-chip prospects home as possible, something that has eluded the program in the recent past. While Minnesota is in good shape at running back with 1,000-yard back David Cobb returning in '14, keeping Jones on board is important for keeping the momentum the team gained in last year's eight-win season. Losing Jones would be tough to swallow for the Gophers.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

January, 31, 2014
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Wishing you a great weekend. I'll be hooping it up Saturday in Madison.

Don't forget: Twitter.

B1G in Memphis writes: I agree in principle with Kain Colter's call for the organization of student athletes if it seeks to prevent injuries or compensate student athletes for injuries sustained in their college careers. However, the concept of paying student athletes that many have suggested seems unreasonable to me. You couldn't just pay the revenue sports players, because that would be discriminatory to female athletes (Title IX, anyone?). And if you paid all athletes, athletic departments would have an incentive to eliminate non-revenue sports.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter before game
Adam Rittenberg/ESPN.comNorthwestern QB Kain Colter's attempts to unionize players might have good intentions, but seems like it will face many obstacles.
Adam Rittenberg: Some really good points, B1G. I have a hard time seeing how anything changes without adhering to Title IX. My understanding is if the value of athletic scholarships increase, as the Big Ten and other major conferences have wanted for years, it would apply to all full-scholarship athletes to meet Title IX standards. Colter made it clear that money isn't the top priority in all of this -- long-term medical expenses are -- and if there are some additional protections athletes can receive, that's a good thing.

Chase from Detroit writes: Adam, I think the other side to the this Brendan Gibbons story is missing here. The program and university definitely need to answer questions about when Gibbons' separation from the university was official, how the information should have been released, and why the investigation took so long. But let's not forget the fact that Gibbons was investigated by the police and faces no legal charges. How is his situation any different from Jameis Winston from FSU, Keith Appling and Adreian Payne from MSU, or Prince Shembo from ND? All of these guys were involved in serious sexual assault investigations, but there was never enough evidence or cooperation to face legal charges like Gibbons. Shouldn't Michigan also be commended for taking a hard-line stance even where there were no legal charges?

Adam Rittenberg: Chase, while Michigan seems to have its policy correct now, we don't know the full story of how the university responded to the initial allegations. Did the alleged victim feel the university responded swiftly and appropriately in her case? It's unfortunate that an incident in 2009 only has repercussions four years later, essentially after Gibbons' playing career. But it does seem like Michigan will approach these situations correctly going forward. I don't think that calls for a ton of praise, though.


Nathan from Burlington, Vt., writes: Adam, I'm a die-hard Rutgers fan. This year was pretty disappointing for us. I expect us to have a .500 record our first year in the B1G but have high hopes for 2015. We have a great recruiting class coming in. Do you think we have a shot at being a top team in 2-3 years in the B1G?

Adam Rittenberg: Nathan, you mention the recruiting class, and that's what it will take for Rutgers to rise up in the Big Ten, particularly in a tough division like the East. Rutgers will have to lock down its borders and keep the best in-state players at home, which is no easy task given how many Big Ten programs recruit in the Garden State. I also think Rutgers must make strong financial investments in its program, including the coaching staff, to keep pace with the deep-pocketed Big Ten. Should be interesting.


Rob from Chicago writes: What questions must Michigan answer? The timing of the incident is known. The timing of when it was reported to the school is known. The expulsion came at the end of the school's investigation and its own determinations. No criminal charges were ever filed, and there is not an ongoing investigation by the police. (A fact dropped from your attack piece.) Without criminal charges, its akin to the Jameis Winston case. There was no suspension there. Maybe ask MSU the tough questions about [Max] Bullough? ... If we are going to ask tough questions, ask that one as well.

Adam Rittenberg: Yes, Rob, it's always about what the other school did in its case, never about yours. The glee that certain fan bases take about the troubles of rival teams really bothers me, but whatever. The question here is when Michigan's athletic department and Brady Hoke knew about two things: the initial letter stating the school had determined Gibbons engaged in unwanted sexual conduct, and when the school had decided to suspend Gibbons. If Michigan knew all of this in November and still let Gibbons play at Iowa, that's a problem in my view -- if not a legal/official one, a moral one.


Drew from Kennebunk, Maine, writes: What does Indiana have to do to fix its defense, which has been last in the Big Ten the last three years running, and one of the worst in the nation. They hired a new DC recently, but is coaching the issue here, or something else? Is it more of a lack of talented defensive players, rather than coaching?

Adam Rittenberg: Love Kennebunk and that entire area, Drew. Talent certainly is the biggest factor when it comes to IU's defense, and Indiana played a bunch of freshmen in Kevin Wilson's first two seasons. New coordinator Brian Knorr will inherit a group with a lot of starting experience. IU will never have the best defensive talent in the Big Ten, but with improved recruiting and a good scheme, the defense can rise to a respectable level, which might be enough because the offense is so strong. If Indiana has a mediocre defense last season, it probably wins seven games.


Max Wittek from Los Angeles writes: Hey Adam, I'm an unrestricted free agent eligible to play immediately after graduation this spring. What are the chances of me continuing the QB transfer tradition in Madison? If the Badgers pursue me, am I Danny O'Brien or will I be Russell Wilson? How's the weather compared to LA?

Adam Rittenberg: Weather is awesome, Max. Just like L.A. I'd be a little surprised if you ended up in Madison, especially since Wisconsin has several younger quarterbacks it's looking to develop. Bart Houston is only a redshirt sophomore, and Joel Stave still has two seasons of eligibility left and a lot of experience under his belt. I don't know if the desperation is the same as it was when Wilson and O'Brien came to Madison.


Matt from Plymouth, Minn., writes: With Jeff Jones canceling his visits to Florida and Michigan, it's looking more and more like he will end up a Gopher after all. How big is this going to be for Jerry Kill and the Gopher program if they end up with this year's top in state player?

Adam Rittenberg: It's huge, Matt. Minnesota has lost many of its top in-state prospects to other programs over the years. There are a limited amount of great players in the state, so to be able to keep one at home is really significant. Jones is a guy who could step in right away and help David Cobb in the run game.

Big Ten bowl picks rewind

January, 6, 2014
Jan 6
1:00
PM ET
I won the regular season picks contest by a mere one game. Adam Rittenberg tied up the overall race by correctly picking Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game.

That meant we were all tied up at 80-17 heading into the bowls. The postseason is where heroes are made. And I am the greatest hero in American history.

Or something like that, as I simply crushed Rittenberg in the bowls. I went 4-3, which is not exactly glittering. But Adam somehow managed to finish even worse than the Big Ten's actual record, going a dismal 1-6. Let's see how we got there with this picks rewind:

Texas Bowl: Minnesota vs. Syracuse

Bennett's pick: Minnesota 24, Syracuse 20

Rittenberg's pick: Minnesota 27, Syracuse 17

Actual score: Syracuse 21, Minnesota 17

20/20 hindsight: We weren't far off from the score, but we both expected more from the Gophers. (If Drew Wolitarsky hauls in that very catchable Hail Mary, by the way, I would have almost nailed the outcome. Alas). We both wrongly pegged David Cobb for 100 yards, vastly underestimating a Syracuse run D that didn't allow a 100-yard rusher all year. And Adam's vision of major strides made by the Minnesota passing game was a wee bit off the mark.

Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl: Michigan vs. Kansas State

Rittenberg's pick: Kansas State 24, Michigan 20

Bennett's pick: Kansas State 21, Michigan 17

Actual score: Kansas State 31, Michigan 14

20/20 hindsight: We both liked the Wildcats after learning that Devin Gardner wouldn't play, but neither of us saw this being as lopsided as it was in favor of K-State. Adam forecast two touchdowns for Tyler Lockett, who wound up exceeding that with three. My claim that the Michigan defense would play better than it did against Ohio State was technically true, I guess, but it still wasn't very pretty at all for the Wolverines.

TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl: Nebraska vs. Georgia


Bennett's pick: Georgia 31, Nebraska 23

Rittenberg's pick: Georgia 34, Nebraska 27

Actual score: Nebraska 24, Georgia 19

20/20 hindsight: We came close on Nebraska's final score but didn't give the Huskers nearly enough credit. My prediction of 130 yards for Ameer Abdullah nearly came to pass as he finished with 122. But both of us thought Todd Gurley would gash the Huskers, and he was held to just 86 rushing yards.

Outback Bowl: Iowa vs. LSU

Rittenberg's pick: Iowa 20, LSU 17

Bennett's pick: LSU 24, Iowa 20

Actual score: LSU 21, Iowa 14

20/20 hindsight: Again, we were in range of the right scores, but Iowa was able to muster only two touchdowns, one of them coming late. Adam thought Jake Rudock would throw the game-winning score, but he left early with an injury. I predicted a game-winner from Jeremy Hill, who did score two TDs and salted it away with a touchdown with 2:02 left.

Capital One Bowl: Wisconsin vs. South Carolina

Bennett's pick: Wisconsin 20, South Carolina 17

Rittenberg's pick: Wisconsin 24, South Carolina 21

Actual score: South Carolina 34, Wisconsin 24

20/20 hindsight: Adam got the Badgers' score right, but otherwise it was a big swing and a miss for both of us. We thought Wisconsin's defense would have a much better time than it did, but Connor Shaw had different ideas. Melvin Gordon and James White did have strong outings, as we predicted, by each rushing for more than 100 yards. But we thought Wisconsin could win the turnover battle, and it lost 4-2 in that key area.

Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO: Michigan State vs. Stanford

Rittenberg's pick: Stanford 21, Michigan State 17

Bennett's pick: Michigan State 17, Stanford 16

Actual score: Michigan State 24, Stanford 20

20/20 hindsight: The BCS games were where my picks really shined. I said Connor Cook would play very well and throw two touchdowns, which he did en route to MVP honors. (Though Cook exceeded my expectations by throwing for a career-high 332 yards). Adam saw two interceptions for Cook, who threw one and was probably lucky not to have had another one (or two). I called the Spartans a team of destiny, and they certainly looked like one.

Discover Orange Bowl: Ohio State vs. Clemson

Bennett's pick: Clemson 38, Ohio State 35

Rittenberg's pick: Ohio State 41, Clemson 38

Actual score: Clemson 40, Ohio State 35

20/20 hindsight: The final pick of the year turned out to be one of my best ones of the year. Both of us figured it would be a shootout, which didn't take a genius to see. I said Clemson's Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins would be too much to handle, and they sure were. Adam's prediction of a big fourth quarter for Carlos Hyde didn't really take shape, though Hyde did catch a touchdown pass early in the final period. I will crow about this one for a while.

SEASON RECORDS

Bennett: 84-20
Rittenberg:
81-23

Gophers' Cobb eager for Texas two-step

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
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Minnesota has returned to the Texas Bowl for the second time in as many years. No one enjoys this development more than David Cobb.

The Gophers’ junior running back is from Killeen, Texas, about a three-hour drive from Reliant Stadium in Houston, where Minnesota will play Syracuse on Friday evening. Cobb expects at least 40 friends and family to attend the game and cheer on him and his cousin, Gophers inside linebacker Damien Wilson.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cobb
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY SportsMinnesota RB David Cobb, who's from Killeen, Texas, is anxious to perform for family and friends in the Texas Bowl, especially after not playing in last year's game with a big group of supporters in attendance.
He also knows his supporters should have a lot more invested this time around. Last year’s Texas Bowl provided a family reunion for Cobb and his older brother, Daniel, a defensive back for Texas Tech. But neither made an appearance in the game.

“When you’re in front of your family and friends you’re your hometown and you’re not playing … I don’t want to say it’s embarrassing, but it kind of is,” Cobb told ESPN.com this week.

On the plus side, that embarrassment helped fuel Cobb’s breakout 2013 season.

He had only one carry last season, during garbage time against Iowa. Minnesota returned Donnell Kirkwood, who led the team with 926 rushing yards in 2012, and Rodrick Williams Jr. They both powered the ground attack against Texas Tech in last year’s bowl loss. But Cobb entered the offseason determined not to get buried on the depth chart again.

“The biggest thing is when you see the articles and write-ups and they’re talking about so many other guys,” he said. “As a competitor, it gets to you. It makes me want to work that much harder and be that much hungrier. It’s like people forgot about you.”

That’s no longer the case. One of the most surprising players in the Big Ten this season, Cobb has rushed for 1,111 yards, placing his sixth among league backs. He is the first Minnesota player to run for 1,000 yards since Amir Pinnix in 2006, and his six 100-yard rushing games this season are the most since Laurence Maroney did it in 2005.

Minnesota running backs coach Brian Anderson gave Cobb a pep talk after the bowl, telling him that an opportunity would come if he worked on his game. Anderson saw a much higher level of focus and attention to detail from the 5-foot-11, 225-pounder during the offseason, beginning in spring practice. The other skills had always been there.

“He came on campus as a freshman and busted long runs during our scrimmages in camp,” Anderson said. “But then he would fumble, or he’d miss a block in pass protection or go the wrong way. It was the ooh-ahh thing. You’d say, ‘He’s got all this,’ but then three plays later it’s like he doesn’t know what’s going on.”

Things snapped into place for Cobb in the preseason, but he still faced a crowded backfield picture. He, Kirkwood and Williams all played well in the first four games of the season. After that, Anderson said he told the group that he needed someone to grab control of the position and separate himself.

Cobb took that to heart, and he caught a break when Kirkwood suffered a minor injury and Williams ran into a disciplinary problem. Assuming the featured back role against Northwestern on Oct. 19, he finished that game with 103 yards on 20 carries. That was the start of four straight 100-yard games for him, and not coincidentally, the Gophers won all of them for their first four-game Big Ten winning streak in 40 years. He ended the year with 101 hard-fought yards against Michigan State’s No. 1 nationally-ranked rush defense.

Cobb stands out as one of the success stories from Jerry Kill’s first signing class at Minnesota, and he basically wound up in the Gophers’ laps.

Rated a three-star recruit out of high school by ESPN.com, Cobb received interest from schools like Stanford, Oklahoma State and Houston. But most suitors wanted him to play defense, and he found himself with few firm offers he liked when signing day rolled around in 2011. Cobb said he was "starting to panic a bit" and then remembered that Minnesota had shown some interest earlier in the process. So he called up then-Gophers running backs coach Thomas Hammock -- who now holds the same job at Wisconsin -- on the morning of signing day and asked if he could come and visit. Two weeks later, he was a Gopher.

“I really wasn’t familiar with Minnesota at all,” he said. “All I knew is that they told me it would be cold. And it was cold.”

With a new staff in place, Minnesota was willing to take some swings on players in that first class and liked Cobb’s pure ability.

“You saw on the video tape the things that you’re seeing now,” Anderson said. “Vision, power, burst through the hole. He packs a punch when he runs. He’s a hard guy to handle one-on-one.”

The Gophers, who never developed much of a passing game this season, will likely need another strong performance from Cobb to beat Syracuse. One of the Orange’s strengths is stopping the run, as they ranked No. 26 in the FBS in allowing just 138 yards per game on the ground this season.

But Cobb likes the way his offensive line has opened up holes for him all season long. And he’s excited to show what he can do this time around in the Texas Bowl.

“You have to say no more,” he said. “Friends, family, the opportunity to come down to Texas again. I don’t need any extra motivation. I’m ready to go right now.”

Big Ten early bowl predictions

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
10:00
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Big Ten bowl season is right around the corner, as Minnesota and Michigan will be in action Friday night and Saturday night, respectively. It's time to make some predictions.

Brian won the regular-season predictions contest by one game and benefited with a free meal at Harry and Izzy's in Indianapolis. But Adam correctly pegged Michigan State to beat Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game. So the overall race is all square entering the postseason.

We'll have another set of predictions for the final five bowls featuring Big Ten teams next week.

Let's get started ...

TEXAS BOWL
Minnesota vs. Syracuse; 6 p.m. ET Friday; Houston


Brian Bennett's pick: Simply put, the Gophers need to win this game against a mediocre Orange team that has already lost to Penn State and Northwestern this season. Syracuse's run defense is one of its strengths, so expect a physical and possibly at times ugly game. But Minnesota's offensive line was good enough to power the run game against most teams in the Big Ten and will do so again in this one. David Cobb will enjoy his second bowl trip to Texas a lot more than last year as he runs for 105 yards and two scores. Syracuse mounts a rally late, but a Ra'Shede Hageman sacks ends things in Houston. ... Minnesota 24, Syracuse 20


Adam Rittenberg's pick: Of all the Big Ten bowl matchups, this is the most favorable. Although Syracuse has some decent wins (Maryland, Tulane, Boston College) and overcame a sour start to the season, the Orange have struggled offensively and will be without safety Durell Eskridge, their leading tackler, in the bowl. Minnesota's defense has been very consistent since the Michigan's loss and should keep Syracuse out of the end zone.

We saw significant improvement from Minnesota's offensive line before last year's Texas Bowl, as the Gophers eclipsed 200 rush yards against Texas Tech. I expect to see similar strides from quarterback Philip Nelson and the pass attack, as Minnesota gets young pass-catchers Maxx Williams, Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones involved early. Texas native Cobb records another 100 yards on the ground and Minnesota ends a solid season with a fairly comfortable bowl win. ... Minnesota 27, Syracuse 17

BUFFALO WILD WINGS BOWL
Michigan vs. Kansas State; 10:15 p.m. ET Saturday; Tempe, Ariz.

Rittenberg's pick: Kansas State comes in as the hotter team after winning five of its final six games, although just one against a team with a winning record (Texas Tech). Michigan undoubtedly struggled down the stretch but turned in an encouraging performance on offense in The Game against Ohio State. The big factor here is the Wolverines' quarterback situation as starter Devin Gardner continues to battle turf toe on his left foot. Freshman Shane Morris has barely played this season, and though he has worked with the starting offense during bowl prep, the game is a bigger stage. Michigan gets a decent performance from its offensive line and run game, but it doesn't translate to enough points as Kansas State outlasts the Wolverines thanks to two touchdowns from receiver/returner Tyler Lockett ... Kansas State 24, Michigan 20

Bennett's pick: If Gardner were healthy, Michigan would be my pick. But seeing him exit the team plane on crutches and the likelihood that Morris makes his first career start means the Wolverines could seriously struggle on offense. Kansas State is in much better shape at quarterback with its tandem of Jake Waters and Daniel Sams. I expect Michigan's defense to play better than it did against Ohio State; Taylor Lewan should slow down Wildcats sack artist Ryan Mueller, and Blake Countess can help neutralize Lockett. But the Wolverines lost four of their last five for a reason, and with a unsteady quarterback situation, I can't pick them here. ... Kansas State 21, Michigan 17.


SEASON RECORDS

Bennett: 80-17
Rittenberg: 80-17

Season report card: Minnesota

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
1:30
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The red pens are out and we're handing out final grades for each Big Ten team's regular season. Teams earn marks for offense, defense, special teams and overall play.

Step up and get your grades, Minnesota.

Offense: C-minus

The Gophers ranked just 10th in the Big Ten in scoring (26.4 ppg) and 11th in total offense. Their passing attack was the worst in the league and one of the least productive in the nation. The team juggled quarterbacks during the first half of the season, flipping between Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner, both of whom proved better runners than passers most of the time. Receiver was once again a sore spot for Minnesota, particularly after Derrick Engel hurt his knee in November. Freshmen Maxx Williams, Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise but also showed they were freshmen. An inability to move the ball through the air effectively killed the team's chances of winning its final two games against Wisconsin and Michigan State.

That's the bad news. The good news is that the Gophers definitely had an offensive identity. They became the physical, run-first team that they previewed in the Texas Bowl last season. Junior David Cobb came out of nowhere to rush for 1,111 yards, sixth most in the Big Ten. Minnesota's offensive line paved the way for 200 rushing yards per game. Though limited in options, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover maximized his strengths by pounding the ball on the ground and controlling the clock.

The offense was at its best against Nebraska and Indiana, when Minnesota scored a combined 76 points in those two games. But the lack of a legitimate passing game remains a concern going forward.

Defense: B

Minnesota had one of the more underrated defenses in the Big Ten. Opponents managed just 22.3 points per game. The defense struggled early in league play against Iowa and Michigan but got much better as the season went on. In the final three games, Minnesota held Penn State to 10 points, Wisconsin to 20 and Michigan State to 14 -- all well below those teams' averages.

Ra'Shede Hageman developed into the star many expected at defensive tackle. The attention he commanded up the middle cleared the way for Theiren Cockran to register 7.5 sacks, second best in the league. The secondary was a strength again, thanks to the play of Brock Vereen, Eric Murray and, when healthy, Derrick Wells. That Tracy Claeys managed to keep this defense above average while also serving as interim head coach was an impressive feat.

Special teams: B-plus

Minnesota was mostly better than league average on special teams. The Gophers ranked fourth on kickoff returns, fifth in punt returns, seventh in punting and fifth in kickoff coverage. Peter Mortell finished third in punting average, while Marcus Jones was third in kickoff returns. Chris Hawthorne was the Big Ten special teams player of the week after making a pair of field goals against Nebraska.

Overall: A

While the individual categories might not necessarily add up to an A, Minnesota was a perfect example of a collective whole ending up greater than its parts. The season could have easily come apart after head coach Jerry Kill took his leave of absence to deal with epilepsy after missing the Michigan game. Instead, the team bonded together and won its next four Big Ten games, something that hadn't happened in the previous 40 years. Kill talked about needing to need a notch a signature league victory this season, and the Gophers responded by beating Nebraska and Penn State. The team even entered the Top 25 in November after reaching 8-2. Losing the last two games was a minor bummer, but few people expected Minnesota to win eight games this season, especially given Kill's situation. The efforts and achievements this season deserve an A.
More than once this season I watched a Michigan State receiver make a great catch or a long run and thought: poor Andrew Maxwell.

Although quarterback Connor Cook deserves a lot of credit for MSU's offensive turnaround, he undoubtedly benefited from a wide receiver corps that cleaned up its act. Maxwell consistently fell victim to dropped passes, part of the reason why he completed just 52.5 percent of his attempts in 2012.

Here's a list of the Big Ten's most improved position groups this year:

Michigan State wide receivers: They were hard to watch in 2012, and their repeated drops proved costly for a team that lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points. The overall numbers aren't much different in the two seasons, but Michigan State's wideouts all did a much better job of eliminating drops and making plays. Macgarrett Kings emerged as a threat and is tied with Tony Lippett for the team lead in receptions (39), while Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery emerged as big-play threats, averaging 15.4 and 16.4 yards per reception, respectively.

Minnesota offensive line: After an injury plagued 2012 regular season, the line made strides in the Texas Bowl and continued the momentum this fall. Minnesota improved its rushing average by 49 yards per game and racked up nine more rushing touchdowns. David Cobb eclipsed 100 rushing yards in five of his final six games, putting up 101 yards against Michigan State, the nation's top rush defense. Minnesota also tied for fourth in the league in fewest sacks allowed (21). A program that once churned out great offensive lines each year is getting back to its roots.

Iowa defensive line: Like Minnesota's offensive line, Iowa has a great tradition along the defensive front but endured some down years after an incredible run of NFL draft picks. The Hawkeyes' defensive line got back on track this season, and coach Kirk Ferentz labeled the line as the team's most improved unit. Drew Ott and Carl Davis emerged and Iowa improved to seventh nationally in total defense, 11th in scoring defense and 17th against the run.

Ohio State wide receivers: Urban Meyer blasted the group during spring practice last year and wasn't overly impressed with the results during the 2012 season. Only one receiver (Corey Brown) recorded more than 30 receptions and only two (Brown and Devin Smith) had multiple touchdown catches. Brown and Smith combined for 97 receptions and 18 touchdowns this season, and Chris Fields had six scores. Along with tight end Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State's passing game looked more efficient for much of the fall.

Illinois quarterbacks: I could pick almost every position group on offense for the Illini, who transformed under first-year coordinator Bill Cubit. But Nathan Scheelhaase's development truly stood out, as the senior led the Big Ten in passing by a wide margin with 3,272 yards, more than double his total from 2012. Scheelhaase completed two-thirds of his attempts and consistently stretched the field as Illinois finished 22nd nationally in pass offense.

Indiana running backs: The Hoosiers emphasized the run game during the offseason and saw the desired results during games. After finishing 10th in the league in rushing in 2012, Indiana improved to fourth, averaging more than 200 yards per game. Tevin Coleman emerged as a big-play threat and averaged 106.4 rush yards per game and a whopping 7.3 yards per carry. Teammate Stephen Houston wasn't too shabby, either, averaging 6.7 yards per carry.

B1G bowl opponent primer: Syracuse

December, 10, 2013
12/10/13
5:00
PM ET
Taking a page from our friends at the Pac-12 blog, we're taking a closer look at each of the Big Ten's bowl opponents. We'll get things started with the Texas Bowl, where Minnesota takes on Syracuse, and we'll have two primers each day the rest of the week.

Let's begin ...

TEXAS BOWL
Minnesota (8-4) vs. Syracuse (6-6)
Houston, 6 p.m. ET, Dec. 27, ESPN


Syracuse Orange

Coach: Scott Shafer (6-6, 1st year)
Combined opponents' record: 79-65 (seven bowl-bound teams)
Common opponents: Penn State (lost 23-17; Minnesota won 24-10); Northwestern (lost 48-27; Minnesota won 20-17)
Best wins: Tulane, Boston College
Worst loss: Northwestern
Record vs. Minnesota: 1-3 (last meeting: 2012)
Top passer: Terrel Hunt (1,450 yards, 10 TDs, 8 INTs)
Top rusher: Jerome Smith (840 yards, 11 TDs)
Top defenders: Durell Eskridge (78 tackles, 4 INTs, 1 forced fumble); Marquis Spruill (62 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss); Cameron Lynch (61 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 2 INTs); Jay Bromley (9 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss)

What to know: The Orange had an up-and-down season under their new coach, looking awful in a Week 2 loss at Northwestern, only to rebound with some strong defensive performances in ACC play. There were some ugly losses along the way against ACC heavyweights Florida State and Clemson, as well as some nail-biters against Pitt (loss), Penn State (loss) and Boston College (win). The offense struggled, to put it nicely, ranking 98th nationally in scoring and 108th in pass efficiency. Hunt replaced the struggling Drew Allen as the starting quarterback in September and brings mobility to the pocket. The bottom line is that Minnesota's defense, its stronger unit, should be able to contain Syracuse (the Gophers beat the Orange 17-10 last year in Minneapolis). Minnesota will be tested more by a Syracuse defense featuring a standout pass rusher in Bromley and a playmaker in the secondary in Eskridge. Both are third-team All-ACC selections. Shafer's background is on the defensive side.

Key matchup: Minnesota's offensive line against Bromley and the Syracuse defensive front seven. The Orange can get into the backfield -- they're tied for 19th nationally in tackles for loss (7.3 per game) -- and sack the quarterback (2.75 sacks per game, tied for 22nd). Minnesota's passing issues are well documented, and if the Gophers are behind the chains and have to throw the ball, they'll be in trouble. The offensive line took a significant step forward in last year's Texas Bowl and needs another strong performance to spark underrated running back David Cobb, who finished the regular season with 1,111 yards and seven touchdowns on 219 carries.

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