Big Ten: Desmond King

Big Ten morning links

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
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I went to college with Brook Berringer. I did not know him well.

Berringer was 17 months older than me. The few times I interviewed him for the school newspaper, I thought he seemed much older than that, probably because he somehow stayed above the fray -- especially late in his career as a quarterback that happened to coincide with the most controversial and successful period in Nebraska football history.

Because of my own youth and lack of awareness, I failed at the time to recognize the impact of Berringer on people in Nebraska.

I saw him as just another guy with a good story. That is, until April 20, 1996, two days after Berringer died when the small plane he piloted crashed in a field north of Lincoln.

At Nebraska’s spring game, instead of celebrating consecutive national championships or another batch of Cornhuskers drafted into the NFL -- Berringer likely would have been among them -- the school and state mourned its fallen hero by playing a video tribute on the big screens.

Sports are often emotional. But not like that. That was not about sports. The stadium went completely silent. It remains the only time I’ve shed tears while sitting in a press box. I was far from alone.

The Big Ten Network documentary, “Unbeaten,” a 54-minute production on the life and death of Berringer, set to premier after the Nebraska-Northwestern game on Saturday, will similarly stir emotions for those who remember Berringer, and it will educate a generation of fans too young to have watched him play.

This fall marks the 20-year anniversary of his greatest football achievement, leading Nebraska to eight wins in place of injured star Tommie Frazier.

The documentary, directed by Matthew Engel and Kevin Shaw with Bill Friedman, BTN coordinating producer for original programming, hits all the right notes on Berringer.

It features no narration, only sound from a diverse lineup of former Berringer teammates and testimony from others, including Nebraska assistant Ron Brown, who recruited Berringer to Lincoln, and Kyle Orton, who has worn No. 18 since high school as a tribute to the QB.

An archived Berringer interview away from the field is particularly haunting. Forgotten audio from Keith Jackson lends important historical perspective.

“We wanted Brook to have a voice,” Engel said.

For Nebraska fans, the first half of the film largely serves as review of the 1994 and ’95 seasons, with impressive insight into the complicated dynamic of the Frazier-Berringer relationship. The final 25 minutes includes powerful reporting on the plane crash and its aftermath, poignant footage and a final sequence certain to move viewers like that April Saturday 18 years ago in Lincoln.

“He’s a guy who represents all that’s good about a college football player,” Friedman said. “He was a symbol of how Nebraskans want their football to be portrayed.”

Berringer’s impact is lasting, memorialized with a statue of the quarterback in uniform with his coach, Tom Osborne, that stands outside the entrance Nebraska’s athletic offices on the north side of Memorial Stadium.

Shaw said he visited Lincoln prior to documenting Berringer and saw the statue without knowing its significance. In learning about Berringer and remembering the statue, Shaw said, it was a “wow moment.”

“It was like, that’s that guy,” he said.

With “Unbeaten,” BTN succeeded in creating a film that will touch Nebraskans and teach others across the Big Ten about a quarterback who’s worth remembering for another 20 years and beyond.

Let’s go around the league:

East Division
West Division

ESPN's midseason All-Big Ten team

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
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The regular season is at its halfway point, so we're presenting our selections for the midseason All-Big Ten team.

Offense

QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
RB: Tevin Coleman, Indiana
WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State
WR: DaeSean Hamilton, Penn State
OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OT: Jack Conklin, Michigan State
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State
G: Zac Epping, Minnesota
G: Pat Elflein, Ohio State

Defense

DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State
DE: Marcus Rush, Michigan State
DT: Anthony Zettel, Penn State
DT: Carl Davis, Iowa
LB: Mike Hull, Penn State
LB: Damien Wilson, Minnesota
LB: Derek Landisch, Wisconsin
CB: Desmond King, Iowa
CB: Eric Murray, Minnesota
S: Frankie Williams, Purdue
S: Michael Caputo, Wisconsin

Special teams
PK: Brad Craddock, Maryland
P: Justin DuVernois, Illinois
KR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland
PR: De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska

Thoughts: The first thing you probably notice is an unconventional offense featuring three running backs and no tight ends. Sure, it's a little bit of a cheat, but how do you leave any of those three tailbacks off? Coleman, Gordon and Abdullah rank 1, 2 and 4 nationally in rushing yards. Though there are some excellent tight ends in the league -- Minnesota's Maxx Williams and Penn State's Jesse James come to mind -- we would rather reward the outstanding tailbacks. Heck, we probably could have gone four or five deep at that position, given how loaded it is right now. ... The toughest call came at cornerback, where you might be surprised by our choices. We love King's shutdown ability for the Hawkeyes, and Murray gets the slight nod over teammate Briean Boddy-Calhoun for the Gophers' excellent secondary. Michigan State's Trae Waynes might be the best player at the position in the league, but he has given up some big plays this season. Same goes for Maryland's Will Likely, who has been explosive at times and torched (see: West Virginia and Ohio State) at others. It's only midseason, remember; these choices could change by the end of the season. ... Speaking of surprised, the steady Rush makes the team over more heralded position mate Shilique Calhoun. It's a close call, but Rush has been consistently terrific so far this season. ... Some pretty fresh names at linebacker, especially after so many stars at the position departed after last season. Michigan's Jake Ryan just missed there. ... Two freshmen made the team in Hamilton and Pierson-El. Ohio State's J.T. Barrett is also pushing Cook for No. 1 status at quarterback.

The breakdown by team:

Michigan State: 5
Iowa: 3
Minnesota: 3
Penn State: 3
Wisconsin: 3
Maryland: 2
Nebraska: 2
Ohio State: 2
Illinois: 1
Indiana: 1
Purdue: 1
Michigan: 0
Northwestern: 0
Rutgers: 0

Best case/Worst case: Iowa

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
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Our best- and worst-case scenarios for every Big Ten team continue with a look at Iowa. As always, take this with a grain of salt. It's meant to inject humor into an examination of the potential highs and lows of 2014.

Best case

It’s 1985 all over again. First, the Kansas City Royals win the World Series. And five weeks later, in a "Back to the Future" moment, Iowa hoists the Big Ten championship trophy, its first outright league title in 29 years.

And so the Hawkeyes -- yes, the Hawkeyes -- are headed to Pasadena, California, to play a national-semifinal game in the first College Football Playoff.

Iowa punches its ticket with a 13th win in as many games, 24-21 over Michigan State in Indianapolis.

Less than a month prior, the Hawkeyes hardly register on the national radar despite a 7-0 start. In the first release of the playoff committee’s ranking, Iowa checks in at No. 20.

No respect for coach Kirk Ferentz’s team, which started the season outside of the Top 25 in the AP poll.

But Iowa handles perennial Hawk-spoiler Northwestern handily on Nov. 1 in Iowa City as Jake Rudock and Mark Weisman lead the way with three touchdowns apiece.

Still, pundits point to 2009, when the Hawkeyes started 9-0 before two straight losses.

The committee bumps Iowa to No. 12 on Nov. 11 after a convincing win at Minnesota. Cornerback Desmond King continues on an All-America track with two pick-six interceptions of Mitch Leidner.

Two weeks later, Iowa, at 10-0, still sits eighth in the playoff poll as Wisconsin visits Kinnick Stadium. In the third quarter, with the Badgers leading 17-13, left tackle Brandon Scherff lines up at tight end and takes a toss from Jordan Canzeri, delivering a strike to Kevonte Martin-Manley for a 62-yard touchdown. Iowa wins 27-17.

It vaults two spots to sixth in the ratings before Nebraska visits for a post-Thanksgiving clash to settle the West Division. The Huskers, 10-1 with their only blemish at Michigan State, commit nine turnovers in an otherwise impressive performance. Iowa defensive end Drew Ott, from Trumbull, Nebraska, intercepts backup QB Ryker Fyfe midway through the fourth quarter. Iowa runs out the clock for a 31-20 win.

Scherff carries Rudock and Weisman off the field on his shoulders at the same time. The lineman is named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. He wins the Outland and Lombardi trophies and finishes third in the Heisman balloting en route to the No. 1 spot in the NFL draft.

Iowa jumps to third in the playoff poll before the meeting with MSU. Canzeri scores early on a screen play. Scherff wins the battle against Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Shilique Calhoun. Rudock connects with freshman receiver Derrick Willies to put Iowa up for good early in the fourth quarter.

Three weeks later, Iowa stages a gigantic party at Carver-Hawkeye Arena to serve as a sendoff before the Hawks, as the No. 2 team nationally, board two charter jets to Pasadena to face No. 3 Oklahoma in a rematch of the 2011 Insight Bowl.

Tom Brokaw and Ashton Kutcher meet the planes in California, where the party continues.

Worst case

Remember what they said about this Iowa schedule before the season? A gift from the Big Ten.

Well, someone forgot to tell Northern Iowa. The Panthers block a 40-yard field goal attempt by Marshall Koehn in the final seconds, gaining a measure of revenge from five years ago when Iowa snuffed two UNI kicks at the end. This one ends with the same score, 17-16, as Northern Iowa grounds the Hawkeyes’ dreams of a magical season before it could take flight.

Two weeks later, Iowa State upsets Iowa at Kinnick. The Hawks’ new group of linebackers falters early and often. Rudock takes a step back from his sophomore season. Backs Weisman and Canzeri fight injuries.

Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld exposes holes in the Iowa secondary a couple of weeks later as the Hoosiers beat Iowa in a second straight meeting.

Maryland, Northwestern and Minnesota pile on. Iowa plays well in a win against Illinois but finishes flat with losses to Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Huskers’ Randy Gregory schools Scherff in the finale, recording 3.5 sacks as the Huskers clinch the West Division.

Iowa finishes with four wins for the second time in three years. AD Gary Barta extends Ferentz’s deal through 2030, a move denounced by Kutcher on Twitter to his 16 million followers. Iowa State wins nine games and steals QB recruit Ryan Boyle of West Des Moines. Scherff slips to the second round of the NFL draft.

Big Ten morning links

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
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Actual college football returns next week. Huzzah.

And players are likely celebrating as well, because training camps are winding to a close. Depth charts are also shaping up as well as teams move nearer toward preparing for Week 1. But some key jostling for jobs remains. Let's take inventory of a few of the more interesting position battles left in the Big Ten:
  • Wisconsin quarterback: By most accounts, incumbent starter Joel Stave has looked like the better option over Tanner McEvoy so far this month. At this point, I'd be surprised if Gary Andersen started McEvoy over the far more experienced Stave in the opener against LSU, though McEvoy could see some time in special packages. The Badgers have practiced some option, and that just doesn't seem like Stave's cup of tea, now does it? Where some battles stand for the Badgers.
  • Illinois quarterback: Tim Beckman has said he could name a starter on Wednesday. Most everyone expects it to be Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt. A big question, in my mind, is how the Illini can best use Aaron Bailey's talents.
  • Michigan State linebacker: Replacing Max Bullough and Denicos Allen isn't cut and dry, but it's not because of a lack of options. Riley Bullough and Jon Reschke are coming on strong and pushing Taiwan Jones and Darien Harris for playing time. Mark Dantonio described the situation on Saturday as "sort of a linebacker group by committee right now."
  • Iowa cornerback: It's a three-man scrum between Maurice Fleming, Sean Draper and Greg Mabin to see who starts opposite Desmond King. Mabin might have been set back by a minor injury. But Kirk Ferentz said the position is "up for grabs right now." Ferentz still has a lot of questions to answer.
  • Ohio State left guard: Darryl Baldwin seized the right tackle job, but there's far less clarity at left guard, a position that Urban Meyer has said concerns him. Doug Lesmerises breaks down the fight for playing time there and elsewhere on the Buckeyes.

Another major position battle should be cleared up on Monday, when Purdue is expected to name its starting quarterback. But that's one where Danny Etling has been a big front-runner all along.

On to the links:

Weekend scrimmages

1. Jabrill Peppers is going to play a lot, the offensive line still needs work and other observations from Nick Baumgardner on Michigan's open scrimmage before an estimated 25,000 fans.

2. Rutgers' Saturday scrimmage, dominated by the offense, provided answers to some key questions.

3. Wide receiver Deon Long was one of the stars of Maryland's open scrimmage.

4. Defense won the day at Michigan State's scrimmage.

5. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson sees improved depth on his team after the Hoosiers' latest scrimmage.

6. The running game was the main attraction in Purdue's scrimmage.

7. Northwestern held an open scrimmage, but hardly anyone of note participated.

West Division
East Division

Big Ten Wednesday mailblog

July, 16, 2014
Jul 16
5:00
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Coming at you on Hump Day. As a reminder, we're taking more of your Twitter questions for the mailblog, so keep sending them in! Find us on Twitter here.

What's on your mind?

Adam Rittenberg: Wisconsin would gain national respect. Sure, some would point to LSU's personnel losses and potential weaknesses on offense entering the season. But coach Les Miles never has lost an opener in nine years with the Tigers, and his teams have performed especially well in these types of games -- openers at neutral sites against other major-conference teams. Wisconsin has far more question marks than LSU entering this game, and a win would quiet a lot of the skeptics (including yours truly) and put the Badgers in serious contention for a playoff spot, especially with a favorable Big Ten schedule on tap. LSU essentially is the home team in Houston. The Tigers should be very tough on defense. The expectation is that they'll win. A Wisconsin win would and should turn heads.


Eric from Troy, Mich., writes: Everyone seems to be harping on Michigan's offense for the coming season, but I think their real issue is on defense, a topic that doesn't get seem to get a lot of coverage. MSU (my alma mater) and OSU both basically scored at will last year. The Wolverines had 8 games where an opponent scored more than 21 points, and three games where they gave up 40+. But forget all that and just focus on the fact that Akron, a middle-of-the-road MAC team, put up 24 on them! Is there anything to suggest that UofM's defense will be better this year? And if not, how can anyone seriously believe they are going to contend for anything important?

Adam Rittenberg: I agree not enough criticism/analysis is focused on Michigan's defense. The unit looked awful at the end of the season, surrendering 73 points and 946 yards in the final two games (losses to Ohio State and Kansas State). I thought young quarterback Shane Morris played decently in a tough situation in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, but the defense didn't give Michigan a chance against K-State. What can we expect this fall? Michigan shuffled its defensive staff responsibilities, which includes coordinator Greg Mattison directly overseeing the linebackers and the secondary being split between Curt Mallory and Roy Manning. I think Michigan will be better in the back seven. There's good experience at linebacker with Jake Ryan, James Ross III, Desmond Morgan and Joe Bolden. The depth in the secondary might not be quite as strong but I expect big things from cornerback Blake Countess. The key is finding difference-makers up front. Will Frank Clark become a bona fide star? What about Mario Ojemudia, Brennen Beyer and Taco Charlton? Who steps up at defensive tackle? I don't expect Michigan to be a bad defense in 2014, but the line will determine whether it's average, better than average or very good.


Adam Rittenberg: A lot would depend on how the Big Ten performs in nonleague play and whether a Big Ten team runs the table at 13-0. I've written repeatedly that an undefeated team from a major conference won't be left out. The question is whether a one-loss Big Ten team could get in with two SEC teams. I think if Michigan State plays Oregon close and then goes on to sweep the Big Ten for the second straight year, it could get in at 12-1. Could Ohio State or Iowa or Wisconsin or Nebraska? Depends on what happens elsewhere. In terms of other conferences being left out with two SEC playoff teams, the Big 12 would top my list. Oklahoma might be the only realistic playoff contender entering the season. Maybe Baylor, too, but the Bears must visit the Sooners. I don't think a Big 12 team can afford a regular-season loss and still make the top four. I also think the ACC would be in major trouble if Florida State stumbles. There aren't many other genuine candidates. I like the SEC and Pac-12 to get at least one playoff team this year.


Daniel from Robbinsville, N.J., writes: Why hasn't more attention been paid to the addition of Ralph Friedgen in evaluating Rutgers for the upcoming season? His resume as an Offensive Coordinator is overwhelming and he has plenty of returning talent to work with.

Adam Rittenberg: I really like the hire, Daniel. Friedgen's priority will be getting quarterback Gary Nova on track for his final season. Nova had a really nice start to the 2012 campaign but struggled down the stretch and for most of 2013. Friedgen's success is not only with the scheme but in managing quarterbacks like Boomer Esiason, Frank Reich, Shawn Jones and Joe Hamilton. Rutgers' offense returns almost entirely intact and features some exciting pieces like running back Paul James, wide receiver Leonte Carroo and tight end Tyler Kroft. The key is generating consistent production and more explosive plays. It will be tough with this schedule, but Friedgen is proven.



Adam Rittenberg: I really like King's skill set and potential, and he'll have every opportunity to become a shutdown corner. Iowa has had a really nice run of them with Amari Spievey, Shaun Prater, Micah Hyde and B.J. Lowery. King, the first true freshman corner to start for Iowa since 2002, could be among the best as he continues to develop. He'll be matched up against top opposing wideouts this fall. His first test comes Sept. 20 when he'll likely go against Pitt wideout Tyler Boyd, who had 1,174 receiving yards as a freshman last season. I'm also interested to see how he fares against Maryland's threats -- possibly Stefon Diggs -- when the Hawkeyes visit the Terrapins on Oct. 18. 
Summer's almost here, but we're still looking forward to the fall. With that in mind, we're looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Scherff
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsBrandon Scherff is the Big Ten's best offensive lineman and he powers Iowa's offense.
By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/stuck on a broken cruise ship, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. In our second installment, we turn to the Iowa Hawkeyes:

Brandon Scherff, LT, Sr.

This one's pretty much a no-brainer. While the Hawkeyes have some nice depth on their offensive line and are one of the best in the business at developing offensive linemen, Scherff should enter the season as the best lineman in the Big Ten. He's integral to the entire Iowa offense in protecting quarterback Jake Rudock and paving room in the running game. We saw how the offense slowed to a halt after Scherff got injured late in the 2012 season. The Hawkeyes would likely be able to weather his absence better this season, but they sure don't want to find out what life is like this year without the potential 2015 NFL first-round pick.

Desmond King, CB, Soph.

Here's another case where a choice for most indispensable is probably not among the best two players on the team. If we were simply going that route, defensive tackle Carl Davis would likely appear here. But Iowa has built depth along the defensive line, while King -- who excelled as a freshman in 2013 -- is a guy the Hawkeyes really can't afford to lose right now. There are some major question marks elsewhere in the secondary after the graduation of B.J. Lowery. Three relatively unproven players -- Maurice Fleming, Sean Draper and Greg Mabin -- are battling it out for the other starting corner spot. Though King is just a sophomore, he's clearly a star in the making and one of the few anchors right now for the defensive backfield.

Spring game recap: Iowa

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
2:30
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Optimism is building around an Iowa program with a very realistic chance to win the Big Ten West Division this season. On Saturday, the Hawkeyes wrapped up a fairly uneventful (in a good way) spring with their annual scrimmage at Kinnick Stadium. The offense beat the defense 46-31 before an announced crowd of 20,400 on a sunny afternoon. There were no official stats from the scrimmage, but our friends at The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette have you covered.

Check out more coverage here and here and here.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsKirk Ferentz saw some impressive performances from his offensive players in Iowa's spring game.
Star of the game: Redshirt freshman Derrick Willies capped a strong spring by dazzling the crowd with 142 receiving yards on five catches (unofficially), including a 42-yard touchdown from C.J. Beathard. The 6-foot-4 Willies, who had similar numbers in an earlier spring scrimmage, provides the explosive threat on the outside Iowa has lacked in recent seasons. Although the Hawkeyes return some experience at wideout, it's hard not to put Willies in the top rotation. "Today was his best day," coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Now we have to try and corral him because he will be the spring game sensation, but he really did some good things."

How it went down: Iowa is determined to have a faster, more diverse and more explosive offense in Greg Davis' third season as coordinator. The spring scrimmage provided a preview of potentially what's to come for the Hawkeyes. Jake Rudock is still the team's top quarterback and senior Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced receiver, but Willies and Beathard, who completed 21 of 39 passes for 349 yards and a touchdown, should be part of the plan.

Ferentz traditionally likes to stick with one quarterback, but it will be tough to keep Beathard off the field after some of the things he did this spring. Davis told ESPN.com earlier this spring that a package of plays is possible for Beathard, which Ferentz called "very realistic" on Saturday. The pass-heavy scrimmage didn't reveal much about the run game, but Iowa has plenty of options with Mark Weisman and Jordan Canzeri leading the way. Canzeri had a 16-yard touchdown in the scrimmage.

The secondary remains a work in progress, as Jordan Lomax is transitioning from cornerback to safety, and Iowa is evaluating cornerback options opposite Desmond King, who picked off Rudock in the scrimmage. The linebackers are also worth watching, although Quinton Alston has established himself as a strong leader in the middle. Iowa's defensive line should be the team's strongest group, as tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat recorded two "sacks" in the scrimmage.

"I think a lot of our positions right now won't get decided until well into August camp," Ferentz said of the defense.

Iowa exits the spring as a very solid team capable of taking another positive step this season. The quarterback situation is one to watch -- it's not a competition, but a something, as Marc Morehouse writes -- and several key starting spots will be at stake in camp.

Iowa spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
10:00
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The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we’re taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Iowa.

Three things we learned in the spring
Three questions for the fall
  • How will the secondary come together?: Cornerback Desmond King is a bona fide star after his breakout freshman season, but the Hawkeyes need to find a starter at free safety, where Jordan Lomax and Anthony Gair continue to compete. Opposite King, Maurice Fleming and Sean Draper are even, and John Lowdermilk is trying to maintain an edge on Nico Law at strong safety.
  • Who will take the lead at running back?: Iowa knows it can rely on senior Mark Weisman, but he’s fought injuries and likely can’t survive an entire season of pounding between the tackles. Junior Jordan Canzeri offers intriguing athleticism. The New Yorker rushed for 481 yards last season, including a 165-yard performance at Purdue.
  • Can the defensive line live up to its billing?: These guys are good, no doubt. Anchored by tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, both of whom started all 13 games a year ago, the Hawkeyes’ front four likely rates as the strength of the entire team. Juniors Drew Ott and Mike Hardy bring experience to the end spots. If this group improves like it did last season, look out.
One way too early prediction

Brandon Scherff will take home some hardware in December. He was denied a spot by the league’s media on the All-Big Ten first team as a junior. There will be no such worry in 2014. In fact, Scherff will vie for the Outland Trophy and earn a spot on All-America teams from his left tackle spot after opting to turn down a chance at the NFL this offseason.

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- No Big Ten coach takes the temperature of his team in spring practice quite like Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. No Big Ten coach has lived in as many different climates.

The dean of the league's coaches knows the sunniness that surrounds teams after redemptive seasons such as the ones the Hawkeyes had in 2001, 2008 or last fall, when Iowa improved its wins total by four. He also knows the polar vortex that exists, at least outside Iowa's football complex, after poor performances like the ones the team delivered in 2007 and 2012.

Ferentz also understands how quickly the weather changes, like it often does on spring afternoons in the Midwest.

So at a recent team meeting, Ferentz detoured from the typical spring minutia -- replacing seniors, creating depth, finding leaders, building identities -- and addressed a macro item: the preseason polls.

"He said we might be ranked," running back Jordan Canzeri told ESPN.com, "and even if we are, no one is to keep that in their head. There were several teams that were ranked and didn't get to go to a bowl game this past year. You never want to be cocky. Even if the stats show you're good, you still want to prepare as you would with any other team, so you don't get satisfied and complacent."

Iowa likely will be ranked when the preseason polls come out. The Hawkeyes appear in some way-too early versions. They return eight offensive starters, including left tackle Brandon Scherff, a preseason All-America candidate, along with three of four starting defensive linemen from a team that flipped its regular-season record in 2013.

The quarterback uncertainty that hovered over the program last spring, when no signal-caller had taken a snap in a game, is no longer there, as junior Jake Rudock has established himself. An unprecedented stretch of running back maladies has subsided as Iowa returns three veteran options (Mark Weisman, Canzeri and Damon Bullock) and two promising young players (LeShun Daniels Jr. and Barkley Hill). There's more explosiveness at wide receiver, and the defensive line, led by senior tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, looks more like the elite units Iowa produced for most of Ferentz's tenure.

[+] EnlargeCarl Davis
David Purdy/The Des Moines Register via USA TODAY SportsWith Carl Davis and others back, Iowa's defensive line should be the team's strongest unit.
"We are a more experienced unit, probably the most experienced unit on the team," defensive line coach Reese Morgan said.

There are enough internal reasons to indicate Iowa will take another step this season, but the biggest factors in the Hawkeyes favor are external. Their new division, the Big Ten West, lacks a clear-cut favorite or a flawless team. And their schedule is undoubtedly the most favorable in the league.

Not only does Iowa miss Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State from the East Division, but it hosts both Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Hawkeyes' toughest league road game should be a Nov. 8 visit to Minnesota.

"It's a pretty favorable schedule for us," wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said, "but every week is going to be a challenge. Nothing that happened last year really matters."

Davis looks forward to visiting Big Ten newcomer Maryland, but he had hoped to play more of the league's traditional powers. The only way Iowa sees Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan is in the Big Ten championship game.

"When the Big Ten started, those are the teams that dominated," Davis said. "You want to be able to play those teams and beat those teams. I really look forward to it.

"I definitely feel we're in contention for a Big Ten championship. Every team says it, but we're hungry."

Ferentz has seen Iowa go from good to great in 2002 and again in 2009. He also has seen the program fall short of expectations, as it did in 2006 and 2010.

The first step to building upon success, Ferentz said, is not taking it for granted. Take Iowa's group of linebackers, which loses three multiyear starters from last year's squad: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens.

"If we're waiting for Morris, Kirksey and Hitchens to give us 300 tackles, that ain't gonna happen," Ferentz said. "Two years ago, we had a disappointing season. Last year was a new year and this year was the flip record-wise, but it's a new year again. This team has to form its own identity, and it starts with our experienced players. We're going to need them to play their absolute best, which is what those seniors did last year."

Iowa's linebacker reset has been a top spring storyline. Quinton Alston has stepped into the lead role, earning high marks from teammates and coaches. Travis Perry and Reggie Spearman, who played as a 17-year-old freshman last fall and doesn't turn 18 until August, are likely starters alongside Alston.

The biggest challenge could be replacing Kirksey, a converted safety who brought defensive back speed to outside linebacker.

"Chris had a different skill set than the guys we have out there now," defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. "It's been a long time since we had a guy who could run that fast and still have the power and explosion to play in the box, too, or at least on the tight end. We have three or four guys we're trying to look at with that position."

Other uncertainties include the cornerback spot opposite dynamic sophomore Desmond King, free safety and the second-string offensive line, which coordinator Greg Davis lists as the unit's biggest concern.

Iowa players understand that their margin for error remains slim.

"The determining factor is going to be winning those close games," Martin-Manley said.

Iowa won several such contests in 2009, its last truly special season. The 2014 team also could reach rarefied air, but Hawkeyes won't get caught with their heads in the clouds.

"That's what we do here; we work hard," Davis said. "That's something you get used to the longer you're in this program. The grind becomes normal, and I feel like all our hard work will be able to pay off."
Last week, we took a look at five Big Ten offensive players to watch in 2014. Today, we turn to the defense.

We're limiting ourselves to five players on each side of the ball. We're looking for players who will take that next step into greatness, like Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun (who made this list a year ago). Players who earned first- or second-team All-Big Ten honors from either the coaches or the media were not eligible for this list. We're focusing instead on those who can make a big leap.

Away we go, in alphabetical order ...

[+] EnlargeVonn Bell
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesAfter a big first start in the Orange Bowl, things are looking bright for Ohio State's Vonn Bell (11).
Vonn Bell, S, Ohio State: We could have put Joey Bosa on this list, but that would have been too easy. Bell got his first start in the Discover Orange Bowl and showed off his playmaking ability with a spectacular interception of Clemson's Tajh Boyd near his own end zone. He probably should have played more as a true freshman but has a chance to really break out as a sophomore in a revamped Buckeyes secondary.

Desmond King, CB, Iowa: He played well this season as a rookie starter for the Hawkeyes and stood out in the Outback Bowl against LSU's pair of star receivers. In fact, the Tigers' Odell Beckham Jr. told the Des Moines Register that "I feel as if the sky is the limit for him."

Ifeadi Odenigbo, DE, Northwestern: He was one of the Wildcats' top-rated recruits ever when he signed in 2012, and Odenigbo made his first impact this year as a third-down pass-rushing specialist. He finished second on the team with 5.5 sacks. The redshirt sophomore should have more opportunities for playing time with Tyler Scott graduating, though Northwestern still has Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson at defensive end.

Vincent Valentine, DT, Nebraska: The future is bright for the Huskers' young defense, and we strongly considered linebacker Michael Rose, safety Corey Cooper and others here. But there aren't a lot of 325-pound defensive tackles with major upside floating around, and that's what Valentine is. He showed flashes during his redshirt freshman campaign and could develop into a force on that defensive line for Bo Pelini.

Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State: Waynes is hardly an unknown. He started as a sophomore in the Spartans' No-Fly Zone secondary and was honorable mention All-Big Ten. He still has room to get even better, though, and with Darqueze Dennard moving on to the NFL, he'll become the leader of the cornerbacks group. Heck, the way Michigan State has produced defensive studs, we could have made this entire list out of Spartans, as guys like Lawrence Thomas, Joel Heath, Ed Davis and Riley Bullough all have major potential.

Big Ten Monday chat wrap

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
5:15
PM ET
Since I'll be traveling to the Orange Bowl next week, today marked the final Big Ten Monday chat of the 2013 calendar year. Did we go out on top? I'll let you be the judge with this full transcript and some choice highlights:

Steve (Gaithersburg): The common belief, voiced by your own Adam Shefter, is that the reduction in the size of Bill O'Brien's buy out is an indication that he might jump ship. I think the opposite is true -- why would PSU agree to reduce the size of the buy out? What's in it for them? The best answer -- B O'B has agreed to NOT jump ship at least this year. What do you think of that logic?

Brian Bennett: Hmmm....maybe. Or maybe Penn State did it to help keep O'Brien happy. Remember that he was blindsided by the NCAA sanctions and certainly was a big fan of that. I think there's a very good chance he goes to the NFL. We shall see very soon.

Tom (Lincoln Park): So it's looking more and more like we're going to see Shane Morris' first start at Michigan. What's the level of PANIC going to be like in Ann Arbor if Morris struggles?

Brian Bennett: Panic? After his first career start, in what amounts to a mostly meaningless bowl game? Unless he looks just entirely incapable of being a QB, I don't see any reason to panic. Especially since Gardner is coming back next year. The Wolverines could very well struggle offensively in this game, however.

Faygo (Silver Spring, MD): Season's over, it's bowl time, you're headed for Florida and Adam is going to the 100th Rose Bowl. This old Spartan will treasure this season, of course, but off the top, what's your five favorite moments from this Big Ten season?

Brian Bennett: Oh, boy. Going to miss some. Nebraska's Hail Mary. The Game. Michigan State's celebration in Indy. Minnesota celebrating with Jerry Kill. Penn State rallying to beat Michigan. Not sure those are my top five, but there's five good ones.

Brett (Iowa City): Alright, let's talk Hawkeyes for a minute. From what you've seen with the younger talent on the team, how do you think the Iowa defense will measure up for the 2014 season after losing the triumvirate of linebackers and cornerback BJ Lowery?

Brian Bennett: It's a good question, and that won't be easy. The good news is that the defensive line stepped up in a major way this year and should be a strength in 2014. Desmond King looks like the next in a line of standout CBs. When I talked to the three senior LBs last week, they each told me the position would be in good shape with young guys like Reggie Spearman, Quinton Alston and Chad Gilson. But their experience will really be tough to replace. You'd also hope the Iowa offense takes another step forward with Rudock back.

Mike (Psu Class of 13) (NYC): What are some big name coaches Penn State will go after if B.O.B. leaves? Could they go after Narduzzi or maybe someone like Gruden, Cowher, or Dungey? Evenutally they will want to coach again I think.

Brian Bennett: David Jones had a really good piece on that this morning, and he listed Mike Munchak No. 1 on the list. Makes a lot of sense, since Munchak very nearly got the job two years ago. PSU would at least have to feel out Al Golden, but I'm not sure why he'd leave Miami now. Narduzzi would be a very interesting choice.

John (Louisville KY): Who do like to win the Big Ten next year?

Brian Bennett: Penn State volleyball? I haven't analyzed the schedules yet and we have to wait to see which big names go pro and which come back. I'm going to favor Ohio State among the top choices as long as Meyer is around. Michigan State should be really good. Wisconsin loses a lot but has a favorable schedule after the opener. Those jump to mind first.
Earlier today, we presented our All-Big Ten team. Now it's time to honor the top freshmen from 2013 with our Big Ten all-freshman team.

Here it is:

OFFENSE
QB: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (captain)
RB: Corey Clement, Wisconsin
WR: DeAngelo Yancey, Purdue
WR: Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska*
TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota*
TE: Jake Butt, Michigan
OL: Dan Voltz, Wisconsin*
OL: Ben Lauer, Minnesota*
OL: Jack Conklin, Michigan State*
OL: Jacob Bailey, Indiana*
OL: Kyle Kalis, Michigan*

DEFENSE
DL: Joey Bosa, Ohio State (captain)
DL: Austin Johnson, Penn State*
DL: Avery Moss, Nebraska*
DL: Willie Henry, Michigan*
LB: Michael Rose, Nebraska*
LB: Nyeem Wartman, Penn State*
LB: T.J. Simmons, Indiana
DB: Sojourn Shelton, Wisconsin
DB: Desmond King, Iowa
DB: Tyvis Powell, Ohio State*
DB: Matthew Harris, Northwestern

SPECIALISTS
K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State
P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State
All purpose: Dontre Wilson, Ohio State

* -- redshirt freshman

It was a pretty strong year for freshmen in the league, highlighted by Hackenberg and Bosa. Shelton was terrific as well. ... Tight end is a promising position for the future. Penn State's Adam Breneman just missed, but he looks like a future star. And Michigan State's Josiah Price had a big impact in the Big Ten title game. ... Nebraska's young defense could really turn into something special. We also considered defensive lineman Vincent Valentine and linebackers Jared Afalava, Nathan Gerry and Josh Banderas. ... It was also a good year for rookie QBs, as beyond Hackenberg there was Purdue's Danny Etling, Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong and Minnesota's Mitch Leidner. ... Ohio State's Wilson didn't have a true position, but he did a lot of things and was a good return man, so that's why he gets our all-purpose slot. ... Some others we considered included Penn State receiver Geno Lewis and linebacker Brandon Bell, Purdue offensive lineman Jason King and Indiana defensive lineman Ralphael Green.

Big Ten Week 10: Did you know?

November, 1, 2013
11/01/13
10:00
AM ET
A full slate of Big Ten games awaits on Saturday. Here’s a look at facts and figures to preview the opening week of November football in the league:
  • The short-yardage run game is clicking for Minnesota. And we’re talking very short yardage. The Gophers’ past eight touchdowns on the ground have covered 1 yard. Eleven of their 19 touchdowns this season were punched in from the 1, and 15 covered 5 yards or fewer. Minnesota rushed for just 14 touchdowns last year. The Gophers are 13-10 under coach Jerry Kill when they score a rushing TD and 2-8 when they don’t.
  • Indiana’s offense is doing its part in the program’s bid for a winning season. The Hoosiers have scored 28 or more points in eight consecutive games, a first at the school. They’ve passed for more than 300 yards six times season in seven games. Indiana receivers Cody Latimer, Shane Wynn, Kofi Hughes and tight end Ted Bolser have all surpassed 100 career receptions and 1,000 yards in the past four weeks. Indiana is the only team nationally and the first in the Big Ten since Northwestern in 2008 with four 100-1,000 players.
  • Despite scoring just three points last week against Michigan State, Illinois’ offense remains one of the most improved units nationally. From last season, the Illini have jumped more than 60 spots in the national rankings in passing efficiency, big plays (20 yards or more), first downs per game, passing yardage per game, turnovers lost and scoring offense. Illinois averages 400.7 yards of total offense, up 46 spots from last year, when it ranked 119th at 296.7 yards per game.
  • Penn State, under coach Bill O’Brien, has not lost consecutive games since it opened last season 0-2. Its Oct. 12 win over Michigan, 43-40 in four overtimes -- the longest game in Big Ten history -- prevented a two-game skid on the heels of a loss at Indiana. Penn State needs a win on Saturday over Illinois to prevent consecutive defeats in the wake of a 63-14 loss last week to Ohio State. O’Brien is 5-1 at PSU in games after a loss.
  • Senior Jeremy Gallon’s 369 yards on 14 catches last week against Indiana set Michigan and Big Ten records for receiving yardage in a game. It was the second-highest figure ever posted by an FBS receiver, and the 14 receptions were the second most at Michigan in one game. Gallon has recorded a reception in 33 straight games, with nine touchdown receptions over his past eight. He ranks second in the Big Ten in receiving yardage per game at 118.7.
  • A win for Michigan State on Saturday over Michigan would keep the Spartans in control of the Legends Division and mark their third consecutive victory over the Wolverines at Spartan Stadium, which has never happened in the 105-game series. Michigan is 19-12-2 against Michigan State in East Lansing, but under Brady Hoke, the Wolverines are 6-8 away from Michigan Stadium. A win for the Spartans would also be their fifth in six games over Michigan. That hasn’t happened since MSU won six of seven from 1956 to 1962.
  • No team in the Big Ten feels quite like Northwestern about October. The Wildcats went 0-3 to even their record at 4-4 as November arrives. This final month of the regular season has proven much more kind to Northwestern. It is 12-6 in November since 2008, with five victories over teams ranked in the top 20, including a 28-25 upset in Lincoln over No. 9 Nebraska in 2011. The Wildcats’ lone November loss a year ago came at Michigan in overtime.
  • Redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong, set to start for the fourth time this season on Saturday, has guided Nebraska to scores on 12 of 24 possessions in his previous three starts. Armstrong again replaces senior Taylor Martinez, out after he suffered a hip pointer last week in his return at Minnesota after a three-game absence because of a foot injury. A fourth start by Armstrong would mark the first time at Nebraska since 1998, when Bobby Newcombe and Eric Crouch split time, that two quarterbacks started more than three games in the same season.
  • Ohio State has remained unbeaten this year to extend its nation-leading winning streak to 20 games in large part because of its success at running the football. OSU, after a season-best 408-yard rushing effort against Penn State -- the first 400-yard day at the school since 1995 -- ranks second in the Big Ten and ninth nationally with a 295.6-yard rushing average. Senior Carlos Hyde has rushed for 464 yards and seven touchdowns in the past three games. Hyde and senior Jordan Hall have combined to rush for 1,038 yards and 15 touchdowns.
  • Purdue has taken Ohio State to overtime in the past two meetings, losing 29-22 a year ago at Ohio Stadium after a 26-23 victory by the Boilermakers in 2011 that marked the program’s second straight home win over the Buckeyes. Saturday appears to set up differently as Purdue starts one of the youngest teams nationally. Offensively, four true freshmen, including quarterback Danny Etling, and three redshirt freshmen have participated on the same play in the past two games.
  • Wisconsin needs one victory to become bowl eligible for the 12th consecutive season. Its run of 11 straight bowl appearances ranks as the longest in the Big Ten and ties the Badgers for the eighth-longest streak nationally. A win would also give Wisconsin an edge in the all-time series against Iowa. It is currently equal at 42-42-2. The Badgers have won six straight games that fall after a bye week, including a 35-6 win three weeks ago over Northwestern.
  • Iowa cornerback Desmond King is averaging 7.2 tackles in Big Ten games, according to the school, more than any other true freshman in the league. King, who has started seven of the Hawkeyes’ eight games, recorded a season-best 12 tackles at Ohio State on Oct. 19 and 11 against Michigan State on Oct. 5. King is the first true freshman to start in the Iowa secondary since Jovon Johnson in 2002. His third-down pass breakup last week against Northwestern negated a potential first down in overtime, helping lead to the Iowa win.
Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football:

1. Ohio State can win with style points: We knew the Buckeyes had it in them, but they hadn't put together a truly dominant performance in Big Ten play until Saturday night against Penn State. Ohio State produced the best first half in the Urban Meyer era, racking up 42 points, 414 yards, 20 first downs and two takeaways. Quarterback Braxton Miller is looking more like the guy we expected would contend for the Heisman Trophy before the season, displaying pinpoint accuracy with his passing and supplementing it with big runs. Running back Carlos Hyde remains a force, and the defense, while not dominant, is making enough plays in each game. Ohio State can't do anything about the league in which it plays. It can't add two or three good nonconference opponents to the schedule. But the Buckeyes can handle their business against unranked opponents and earn some style points from those who overlook them in the national championship discussion. Despite 20 straight wins, Ohio State still will need Alabama, Oregon and/or Florida State to start losing, and it also must continue to win with some flair. Saturday night marked a good step, as the Buckeyes solidified their place in the title talk. Ohio State can take another in the next two weeks against Purdue and Illinois.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Langford had his third consecutive 100-yard game as the Spartans stayed unbeaten in the Big Ten.
2. Michigan State has a leg up in the Legends: There is one team left in the Legends Division that has yet to suffer a conference loss. Hint: It wears green. Michigan State overcame some sloppy early play to blow away Illinois 42-3 on Saturday. The 7-1 Spartans have unquestionably benefited from a soft early Big Ten slate (Iowa, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois). There are some challenges ahead, beginning this week against Michigan at Spartan Stadium, but the remaining schedule isn't overly taxing. Michigan State's defense turned in its usual dominant performance in Champaign, including a goal-line stuff from its own 1-yard line. As for the offense? Well, the Spartans were able to pound the ball on the ground (admittedly, that's not too hard against Illinois) for nearly 270 yards, with Jeremy Langford going for 104 of those plus two touchdowns. Connor Cook made some first-half mistakes but also delivered on some key third-down throws and finished 15-of-16 for 208 yards and three touchdowns. He set a school record for completion percentage in a game. Most importantly, the offense gained some confidence heading into Michigan week. The big game in East Lansing will go a long way toward determining which Legends team winds up in Indianapolis.

3. Minnesota is one of the best stories in the Big Ten and the nation: How many teams could have withstood their coach taking a leave of absence in the middle of the season? The Gophers are not just surviving but thriving since Jerry Kill decided to focus on his epilepsy treatment. They followed up a win at Northwestern with Saturday's 34-23 upset of No. 25 Nebraska, fulfilling Kill's goal of getting a breakthrough Big Ten win this season. It marked Minnesota's first win against Nebraska since 1960. Acting coach Tracy Claeys has done a great job of guiding the team, while Kill -- who sat in the coaches' booth Saturday -- continues to provide an inspirational presence. Minnesota isn't overly blessed with top-notch talent, especially in the passing game, as it completed just eight attempts versus the Huskers. But the team is starting to do the two most important things in the Big Ten: run the ball and stop the run. The Gophers are bowl eligible for the second straight year and one of the best stories in college football.

4. More uncomfortable times await Nebraska, Northwestern: It wasn't long ago that the Nov. 2 game between Northwestern and Nebraska looked like a heavyweight showdown. Now it looks like a matchup of two desperate, flawed teams. The Huskers had been feasting on inferior competition since the UCLA loss and took a quick 10-0 lead at Minnesota. Then the wheels came off, and Nebraska's defense proved that it hasn't really gotten much better as the Gophers ran over and around the Blackshirts the rest of the day. Taylor Martinez was rusty, as you'd expect after a six-week layoff with a foot injury, and with the quarterback not able to run much, the offense was limited in its options. This has to qualify as one of the worst losses in the Bo Pelini era, and another week of uncomfortable questions is coming in Lincoln. Meanwhile, this is shaping up as a lost year for Northwestern, which fell to 0-4 since "GameDay" arrived in Evanston. The Wildcats got Kain Colter back and outrushed Iowa by nearly 100 yards but made too many mistakes in their 17-10 overtime loss. Two fumbles in Iowa territory -- the second coming late in the game, one play after a needless penalty pushed back a drive that had reached the Iowa 30 -- proved too much to overcome. Coach Pat Fitzgerald declined to call a timeout in the final couple of minutes in regulation to give his team a chance to win it. In a very brief postgame news conference, Fitzgerald said the wind at Kinnick Stadium was going to make it tough for Northwestern to kick a field goal, but it was still an oddly conservative choice. "We suck right now," was Colter's take on an offense that has gone into hibernation. Both Nebraska and Northwestern have all kinds of issues heading into next week.

5. Don't sleep on Iowa: The Hawkeyes are most likely going back to a bowl game this year, with five wins banked and a game remaining with Purdue. But just making the postseason might not be the limit for Iowa. Kirk Ferentz's team went toe to toe with Ohio State in Week 8 and followed it up with Saturday's win over Northwestern, a program that has given them trouble in recent years. Iowa's offense got shut down in the second half, but Jake Rudock made a great throw under heavy pressure to C.J. Fiedorowicz in overtime for the winning touchdown. The Hawkeyes' defense is playing at a high level and got standout games from linebackers Anthony Hitchens and James Morris and freshman cornerback Desmond King, among others. In addition, one of the best offensive lines in the league will give Iowa a chance in all of its remaining games; Wisconsin and Michigan still have to come to Kinnick Stadium, and Nebraska did not show it could stop a power running game on Saturday. Last year's 4-8 fiasco is firmly in the rearview mirror, and Iowa at the very least will be a major spoiler in the Legends race.

Big Ten lunchtime links

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
12:00
PM ET
Something about this weekend smells like a rose.

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