Big Ten: Donovahn Jones

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It's well known that Minnesota needs to make major improvements in its passing game this fall and that the Gophers' young receivers need to develop. Luckily, they had a chance to learn from one of the best in the business this summer.

NFL star wideout Larry Fitzgerald used Minnesota's facilities to train this offseason, as he has done for the past several years. The Arizona Cardinals' Pro Bowler was born and raised in Minneapolis and continues to call the area home.

Though he played at Pitt and not his home-state school, Fitzgerald has become an honorary Gopher. He first approached former Minnesota coach Tim Brewster about working out on campus about seven years ago.

"It's been a dream come true for me," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com.

Fitzgerald began working out with other Minnesota natives in the NFL, like tight end John Carlson and receiver Eric Decker. Over the years, he has expanded his crew by inviting more players to join him. Among the pro receivers who showed up in Minneapolis this summer were the Kansas City Chiefs' Dwayne Bowe, the Washington Redskins' Andre Roberts and Tiquan Underwood of the Carolina Panthers. Fitzgerald decided they needed an NFL quarterback to throw to them, so he called up Ryan Mallett of the New England Patriots.

"He’s created his own team," Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. "It’s kind of like the Larry Fitzgerald school. I think it’s neat that he does that, and that he happens to do it at our school."

Opening up their facilities to Fitzgerald and friends also brings benefits to the Gophers.

Sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner spent time this summer throwing alongside Mallett. Like the one-time Michigan Wolverines and current Tom Brady backup, Leidner is a tall quarterback with a big arm, but he needs work on the finer points of the position. Leidner said he learned a lot from Mallett and that the two watched film together deep into the night this summer.

"We hung out a lot and went and watched film. Everything," Mallett told ESPN.com. "[Leidner] has a live arm. He's one to look out for.

"He's still young, but he's smart, he studies the game and he loves the game."

 
Leidner also got to throw to Fitzgerald and the other NFL receivers, which he called an invaluable experience. Young Gophers wideouts like sophomore Donovahn Jones also rushed out to the practice fields to catch balls next to the stars.

"It was just a good experience to see how NFL receivers work and see how they run their routes," Jones said. "Larry taught me a few key pointers to help me get more separation in my routes. That will help me."

Minnesota defensive backs Cedric Thompson, Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray got to try to cover Fitzgerald & Co. a couple of times this summer.

"You could tell they’re professionals," Thompson said. "They’re running 18-yard digs, and in college, you usually only run 12-yard digs. But their 18-yard digs look like 12-yard digs because they’re so fast. It’s amazing. It’s another level.

Fitzgerald is there to get himself ready for the grind of an NFL season. But the potential future Hall of Famer, who turns 31 at the end of this month, also takes time to mentor the college guys.

"I like to think I have a positive influence," he said. "I remember when I was 18, 19, 20 years old, and my thought process was completely different than it is now.

"If they have questions for me, I try to answer them honestly. And they’ve all got my number if they want to talk to me during the season."

Though Fitzgerald didn't attend Minnesota, he has built close relationships with the program and follows the progress of the football team. He said he has great respect for Kill, whom he called "a tremendous man." He played golf with Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino this summer. He says he calls strength coach Eric Klein and assistant Chad Pearson throughout the year to catch up.

The Cardinals play an exhibition game against the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, and Fitzgerald said he's looking forward to reconnecting with everyone from the school.

The Gophers will welcome him back every summer for more training that benefits both him and their players.

"It certainly ain’t hurting any when people know Larry is doing his thing on our campus," Kill said.
The countdown to Big Ten media days, July 28-29 in Chicago, is certainly under way. We're excited, you're excited, the players and coaches are excited. To get you ready, we're running through three questions facing each Big Ten team and the potential answers we could hear at the Hilton Chicago.

Minnesota is up next. The Gophers improved their win total from six to eight in 2013 and bring back some good pieces on both sides of the ball. Coach Jerry Kill will be in Chicago along with quarterback Mitch Leidner, running back David Cobb and safety Cedric Thompson.

1. How can the passing game improve?

Minnesota has returned to its power-run roots under Kill, finishing second in the Big Ten in rushing attempts (586) and fourth in rushing yards (2,538) last season. The Gophers bring back a good group of backs, led by 1,200-yard rusher Cobb, as well as four starting offensive linemen from 2013. But there needs to be more balance in the passing game after Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally last fall. It's Leidner's show at quarterback, but he must improve his accuracy and his production. The Gophers are expecting jumps from young wideouts Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones, as well as continued development from tight end Maxx Williams, who led the team with 417 receiving yards in 2013.

2. What are realistic expectations for the defense?

After producing no NFL draft picks in 2011, 2012 or 2013, Minnesota's defense had two players drafted in the first four rounds in May -- defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and safety Brock Vereen. Both were unique players -- Hageman with his size, Vereen with his versatility -- who leave big shoes to fill. But coordinator Tracy Claeys thinks the unit can be better with improved overall depth. So, who provides the star power? Defensive end Theiren Cockran, who quietly led the Big Ten in forced fumbles (four) and finished third in sacks (7.5), will anchor the line. Claeys pegs Damien Wilson to lead from the linebacker spot, and the secondary has good depth at cornerback. Thompson had a great spring at safety. If Minnesota plans to match or exceed last year's success, the defense must keep progressing.

3. How is Kill's health, and what will his role be this fall?

It's not the topic Kill and his players want to focus on in Chicago, but it remains relevant until Kill gets through an entire season without any major health scares. He has worked extremely hard with his doctors to get his epilepsy under control, and he said this spring that he plans to coach from the sideline, where he spent the second half of the Texas Bowl before working mostly from the press box in 2013. We know Kill's coaching staff, led by Claeys, is more than capable of filling in if he has to step away. But Minnesota obviously doesn't want any distractions as it aims to challenge for the West Division despite a challenging schedule.
Quarterback competitions dominated the Big Ten landscape this spring, but one race we expected to continue after the 2013 season never really got started. Philip Nelson's surprising decision to transfer from Minnesota put Mitch Leidner in the spotlight this spring as the Golden Gophers' top signal-caller. Leidner, who split time with Nelson last season, received the coaches' blessing before spring ball and solidified his position atop the depth chart.

Minnesota has churned out strong defenses under coach Jerry Kill, and the run game should be a major strength this season. But can the Gophers throw the ball after finishing 115th nationally in passing last year? That question falls mainly on Leidner, whose athleticism is obvious, but he must grow into a complete quarterback.

ESPN.com checked in with Leidner earlier this week.

How did the spring go for you personally?

Mitch Leidner: I thought it went really well. The spring game didn't end the way I wanted it to, but looking back at all the practices and going over some of the new stuff, I really like what we're doing. It gets me excited for next season. What we've been doing now with workouts and some throwing, it's a good start for the summer.

[+] EnlargeNebraska vs Minnesota
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMitch Leidner took the reins as Minnesota's unquestioned first-string quarterback this spring and ran with it.
How was this spring different for you than the last one?

ML: It was more of a leadership role. I felt like an older guy on the team, which is what we were looking for. It was good to help out some of the younger quarterbacks and trying to help them caught up, and building chemistry with that [first-team] huddle, being in there all the time. I bring a lot of juice and passion to the game, and I think the guys love that. I've always been like that. I always wanted to play college football and worked extremely hard at it.

How do you see the offense evolving this season?

ML: In terms of our running backs, all those guys are playing well. And our O-line, most of those guys are coming back. In terms of receivers, I'm really excited because they played well throughout the spring and we have a couple of young guys coming in here in the summertime. At running back, David Cobb and Berkley Edwards and Rodrick Williams all stood out. [Donnell] Kirkwood's playing well, too. He had a little bit of a hernia, so he got all fixed up. There's some competition now. Berkley's a really explosive player. He's fun to watch.

I know fans were hoping to see Edwards last year. What was it like being around him this spring?

ML: It was good. You like having him in your huddle because every time you give him the ball, I know there's a chance he's going to bust one.

What did you and the receivers work on to improve the passing game?

ML: The biggest thing is throwing it out of their breaks. Every ball that we're throwing is thrown before they're even breaking on it. We can get a really good feel of our timing. The talent's there. We just have to get on the same page a little bit more.

Was there anything mechanically you worked on?

ML: I've been working on a lot of different hip things, getting my hips into my throws more. I've seen a lot of changes in the way I throw a ball from last season until now. Continuing to work on that has helped me get more juice behind my throws. I've been an over-the-top thrower. Now it's more bringing my hips through like a punch. Some of the workouts I've been doing with bands have helped me develop into it easily.

What stood out to you about the wide receivers this spring?

ML: It was good for a couple of the younger guys. Donovahn Jones hadn't had a spring ball and even during fall camp last year, he was playing quarterback most of the time. He eventually got moved to receiver and really had never played receiver before. A couple other younger guys like Eric Carter stepped up, and KJ [Maye] played well, too.

What are the main goals for the offense?

ML: We want to put up a lot of points every game. We want to be explosive, make big plays. It's really exciting to be part of the Gopher offense right now.

Lastly, any chance we see the return of the 'stache this year?

ML: I don't know, we'll see what happens. Maybe I'll mix it up a little bit.

Minnesota spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
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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 Minnesota.

Three things we learned in the spring
  • Mitch Leidner is the man in Minneapolis: Once Philip Nelson transferred to Rutgers, it seemed as if Leidner was a lock to become the starter. Sure enough, he held off Chris Streveler this spring and cemented his status as the Gophers' No. 1 QB. And he's quickly become "the undisputed leader of the offense."
  • Plenty to be happy about with the ground game: Redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards impressed during the spring game and flashed breakaway speed, and Rodrick Williams is playing as if he has something to prove after losing his job last season to David Cobb. With an experienced offensive line returning, this rushing attack has even more going for it this season.
  • Defense is strong -- again: Despite the departures of Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys still has a lot to work with. There's no shortage of healthy cornerbacks this year, and big things are again expected out of linebacker Damien Wilson and defensive end Theiren Cockran. During the spring game, the defense kept the offense out of the end zone for the first five drives.
Three questions for the fall
  • How much will Minnesota pass?: Leidner has reportedly improved his accuracy and timing, but it's still unknown just how much the Gophers will rely on his right arm. He threw 78 passes last season compared to 102 rushes, and there are questions as to how one-dimensional this offense might be.
  • New corps of linebackers: Wilson is the leader of the defense, but Minnesota still has two other starting spots to fill. De'Vondre Campbell appears to be one, but the other spot (perhaps filled by Jack Lynn) is not yet totally settled. There's also quite a bit of depth here this season, so the second team could have a lot of different looks.
  • Developing offensive playmakers at wideout: This was an emphasis of the Gophers this spring, but there's still no check mark next to this on Jerry Kill's to-do list. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones both return and could give the Gophers a shot at some big plays, but they'll have to continue to progress. They combined for 416 yards last fall.
One way-too-early prediction

The tight ends will become an even more valuable weapon for Minnesota's offense. Maxx Williams was the leading receiver last season, but he shouldn't be the only tight end to make an impact. Eleven tight ends are listed on the roster, including 6-foot-10 Nate Wozniak, who seems like an intriguing red-zone target. There's also returnees Drew Goodger and Lincoln Plsek, along with Duke Anyanwu, who is finally healthy. Expect at least one of them to step up.

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.
In the history of California high school football, no player has ever caught more passes for more yards than current Minnesota sophomore Drew Wolitarsky.

Think about that for a second. These aren't high school records in Alaska or Wyoming. They're from one of the most populous, talent-rich states in the country. Wolitarsky broke the records held by Baltimore Ravens wideout Steve Smith, who could be heading to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

[+] EnlargeDrew Wolitarsky
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWith four catches for 94 yards and a touchdown, Minnesota's Drew Wolitarsky had a breakout game in the Texas Bowl vs. Syracuse.
So ... still think the Gophers lack talent at wide receiver? Of course, high school is high school, and Wolitarsky understands that.

"After high school, those records meant a lot to me," he told ESPN.com. "But once I got to college, it's time to forget about that and make a name for yourself at the next level. No one is really going to remember you from high school. They're going to say, 'Oh, that guy played really well in college and in the NFL.'"

He's working on becoming known for his performance in college, and the passing-game starved Gophers are counting on Wolitarsky taking the next step this season.

They threw him into the fire as a freshman last season, when Wolitarsky made four starts and caught 15 passes for 259 yards. That makes him Minnesota's leading returning wideout, just ahead of Donovahn Jones, another guy who played as a freshman in 2013. The youth at receiver and rotating door under center contributed to the team's passing problems last season, but Wolitarsky has seen improvement this spring with quarterback Mitch Leidner taking charge.

"We have a consistent quarterback now, one who we know is going to be the guy," he said. "So during the offseason, when we got together to throw with him and run all the routes, we didn't have to keep switching, keep wondering who was going to be the guy or who we should get closest with."

Wolitarsky didn't have to worry about those things in at Canyon High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., where he starred for four years and maintained tight relationships with his quarterbacks. He finished with a record 281 catches and 5,148 yards in his career, and his 52 touchdowns are second-most in state history.

Despite those gaudy numbers, Wolitarsky's best in-state offers were from San Jose State and San Diego State. Arizona also recruited him. But few big-name programs came calling.

"It was a rough time at one point," he said. "I was pretty angry, pretty bitter. I don't really care any more because I chose a great school and am really happy with my choice. But it was frustrating."

Recruiting service scouting reports on Wolitarsky knocked him for his lack of top-end speed. Called him a possession receiver. He has heard it all before.

"A lot of people don't understand that being a receiver is not all about speed," he said. "If you can get open, you can play the position."

Minnesota doesn't dip its toes in California recruiting very often, but needed receivers and went hard after Wolitarsky. He said he fell in love with the campus and the city on his visit and that he liked the idea of trying to build something special under Jerry Kill's coaching staff.

A lot of people don't understand that being a receiver is not all about speed. If you can get open, you can play the position.

Minnesota wideout Drew Wolitarsky, who didn't receive many big-time offers out of high school.
Still, though Wolitarsky joked that he has "some Canadian blood" in him, adjusting to the harsh Minneapolis winters hasn't been easy on the Southern California native. He said he never even bothered to check the weather report back home, where it's almost always sunny. Now he does so every day.

"Having to wake up and put on three layers of clothes is a lot different," he said. "I'm used to putting on shorts and a T-shirt and being good for the whole day."

Last season proved to be an adjustment on the field, too, especially when going up against fast, physical cornerbacks such as Michigan State's in the season finale. But Wolitarsky, who at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds isn't easily bumped off his routes, gradually became more and more confident. In the Texas Bowl loss to Syracuse, he set career-bests with four catches for 94 yards and his first touchdown.

Ironically, though, for a guy who caught so many passes in high school, Wolitarsky's best-known play right now is a ball he didn't grab. Leidner threw a Hail Mary to the end zone in the waning seconds, and the potential game-winning touchdown bounced off Wolitarsky's hands.

"I try not to think about that," he said. "But a lot of people ask me about it. I just tell them, I couldn't see it. The DB was right over me. I couldn't see [the ball] coming in, but I just felt it hit my hands. And I was like, 'That's going to look bad on the big screen.' And then I looked and was like, 'Oh, gosh.'"

That's OK. Given his track record and ability, Wolitarsky will likely make many more big catches before his college career is over.
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.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. The wide receivers and tight ends are up next.

Illinois: The Illini are looking for more from this group after losing top target Steve Hull, who exploded late in the season to finish just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. While running back Josh Ferguson (50 catches in 2013) will continue to contribute, Illinois could use a boost from Martize Barr, who arrived with high expectations but only had 26 receptions last fall. Another junior-college transfer, Geronimo Allison, could make an impact beginning this spring, but there's some mystery at wideout. Illinois looks more solid at tight end with seniors Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.

Indiana: Despite the somewhat surprising early departure of All-Big Ten selection Cody Latimer, Indiana should be fine here. Shane Wynn is the veteran of the group after recording 633 receiving yards on 46 catches last season. Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson also depart, so Indiana will be leaning more on Nick Stoner and Isaiah Roundtree. The Hoosiers have high hopes for early enrollee Dominique Booth, a decorated recruit who could fill Latimer's spot on the outside. Productive tight end Ted Bolser departs and several players will compete, including early enrollee Jordan Fuchs.

Iowa: Almost all the wide receivers are back from a group in which none eclipsed more than 400 receiving yards in 2013. Balance is nice, but separation could be nicer for the Hawkeyes this spring. Kevonte Martin-Manley is the most experienced wideout and has 122 career receptions. Tevaun Smith also returns, and Iowa fans are excited about big-play threat Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards on only 12 receptions last season. Iowa loses its top red-zone target in tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and will need Jake Duzey to deliver more Ohio State-like performances.

Maryland: When the Terrapins get healthy, they might have the Big Ten's best wide receiving corps. Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom sustained broken legs against Wake Forest last season, have the ability to stretch the field as both averaged more than 15 yards per reception before the injuries struck. Leading receiver Levern Jacobs also returns, alongside junior Nigel King and sophomore Amba Etta-Tawo, who averaged more than 16 yards per catch in 2013. Marcus Leak, who started seven games in 2012, rejoins the team after a year away. The Terps are unproven at tight end after losing Dave Stinebaugh.

Michigan: There's a reason why some Michigan fans want Devin Gardner to return to wide receiver for his final season. The Wolverines are thin on the perimeter after losing Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo. Redshirt sophomores Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh are both candidates to start, and Dennis Norfleet could be the answer in the slot. But there's plenty of opportunity for younger players like Drake Harris, an early enrollee. Michigan's best pass-catching option, Devin Funchess, is listed as a tight end but plays more like a receiver. The Wolverines will be without their second-string tight end, Jake Butt, who suffered an ACL tear in winter conditioning.

Michigan State: Remember all the justified angst about this group a year ago? It has pretty much gone away as the Spartans wideouts rebounded nicely in 2013. Bennie Fowler departs, but MSU brings back its top two receivers in Tony Lippett and Macgarrett Kings, who showed explosiveness down the stretch last fall. Aaron Burbridge had a bit of a sophomore slump but provides another option alongside veteran Keith Mumphery, who averaged 16.6 yards per catch in 2013. Josiah Price leads the tight end group after a solid freshman season.

Minnesota: Here's a group to watch during spring practice, particularly the wide receivers. Minnesota has proven it can run the ball and defend under Jerry Kill, but the passing game was putrid in 2013, ranking last in the Big Ten and 115th nationally. Youth is partly to blame, and while the Gophers still lack experience, they can expect more from promising players like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. Senior Isaac Fruechte provides a veteran presence. Minnesota looks solid at tight end with sophomore Maxx Williams, the team's receiving yards leader (417) in 2013.

Nebraska: The Huskers lose a significant piece in Quincy Enunwa, who led the team in receiving yards (753) and had three times as many receiving touchdowns (12) as anyone else in 2013. Kenny Bell is set to recapture the No. 1 receiver role, which he had in 2012, and comes off of a 52-catch season as a junior. Nebraska must build around Bell this spring with players like the mustachioed Jordan Westerkamp, who had 20 catches as a freshman, including a rather memorable one to beat Northwestern. Will Jamal Turner turn the corner this offseason? Juniors Sam Burtch and Taariq Allen also return. Cethan Carter started six games at tight end last fall and should take over the top spot there as Jake Long departs.

Northwestern: The passing game fell short of expectations in 2013, but there's reason for optimism as Northwestern returns its top three pass-catchers in Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Dan Vitale. The two Joneses (no relation), who combined for 109 catches in 2013, lead the receiving corps along with junior Cameron Dickerson. Speedy Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler provides a playmaking spark, possibly at slot receiver. Vitale, who had a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, has All-Big Ten potential at the superback (tight end) spot. Although Northwestern rarely plays true freshmen, superback Garrett Dickerson, Cameron's brother, could see the field right away.

Ohio State: A group that drew heavy criticism from coach Urban Meyer two springs ago is stockpiling talent. Devin Smith is the familiar name, a big-play senior who has started each of the past two seasons and boasts 18 career touchdowns. Ohio State must replace top wideout Corey Brown and will look for more from Evan Spencer. Michael Thomas has stood out in practices but must translate his performance to games. This could be a breakout year for H-back Dontre Wilson, who averaged nine yards per touch as a freshman. Buckeyes fans are eager to see redshirt freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark, and incoming players like Johnnie Dixon could make a splash right away. Ohio State returns an elite tight end in Jeff Heuerman.

Penn State: The Lions have very different depth situations at receiver and tight end. They're looking for contributors on the perimeter after losing Allen Robinson, the Big Ten's top wide receiver the past two seasons, who accounted for 46 percent of the team's receiving production in 2013. Brandon Felder also departs, leaving Geno Lewis as the likeliest candidate to move into a featured role. Richy Anderson also returns, but there will be plenty of competition/opportunity at receiver, a position new coach James Franklin targeted in recruiting with players like Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. Things are much more stable at tight end as the Lions return three talented players in Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman.

Purdue: If you're looking for hope at Purdue, these spots aren't bad places to start. There are several promising young players like receiver DeAngelo Yancey, who recorded a team-leading 546 receiving yards as a freshman. Cameron Posey also had a decent freshman year (26 catches, 297 yards), and Danny Anthrop averaged 18.4 yards as a sophomore. A full offseason with quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby should help the group. Tight end also should be a strength as Justin Sinz, who led Purdue with 41 catches last season, is back along with Gabe Holmes, who returns after missing most of 2013 with a wrist injury.

Rutgers: The good news is tight end Tyler Kroft returns after leading Rutgers in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last season. Kroft will immediately contend for All-Big Ten honors. Things are murkier at wide receiver, where top contributors Brandon Coleman and Quron Pratt both depart. Leonte Carroo took a nice step as a sophomore, averaging 17.1 yards per catch and enters the spring as the frontrunner to become the team's No. 1 wideout. Ruhann Peele is another promising young receiver for the Scarlet Knights, who boast size with Carlton Agudosi (6-foot-6) and Andre Patton (6-4).

Wisconsin: The quarterback competition will gain more attention this spring, but Wisconsin's receiver/tight end situation could be more critical. The Badgers lose Jared Abbrederis, their only major threat at receiver the past two seasons, as well as top tight end Jacob Pedersen. Players like Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe must translate their experience into greater production, and Wisconsin will look for more from young receivers like Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright. Help is on the way as Wisconsin signed five receivers in the 2014 class, but wideout definitely is a position of concern right now. Sam Arneson is the logical candidate to step in for Pedersen, but there should be competition as the Badgers lose a lot at the position.
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Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.
Now that the 2013 season is merely a memory, it's time to start looking toward 2014 and identifying some potential breakout performers.

Options are plentiful, but we are limiting ourselves to five on each side of the ball. We're looking for players who will take that next step into greatness, like Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Minnesota's David Cobb did in 2013. As such, 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.

Let's kick it off, while going in alphabetical order:

Adam Breneman, TE, Penn State: ESPN rated Breneman the No. 1 tight end coming out of high school last year, so the talent is obviously there. The 6-foot-4, 235-pounder got off to a slow start in 2013 after recovering from a knee injury, but he finished strong with touchdown catches in each of Penn State's last three games. The tight end group will be crowded again in State College, but Breneman should give Christian Hackenberg a prime target.

Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin: When trying to find new stars, it's always smart to look toward the Badgers backfield. Clement made a strong impression as a true freshman, running for 547 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 8.2 yards per carry. Most of his work came in garbage time, as he was behind James White and Melvin Gordon. Now that White is graduating, Clement should see a much bigger role alongside Gordon, and Wisconsin has shown it has plenty of carries to hand to two backs.

Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State: Someone has to replace Carlos Hyde's production in the Ohio State running game, and Elliott seems like a logical choice. He ran for 262 yards as a freshman, including a 162-yard game vs. Florida A&M. The Buckeyes also have Dontre Wilson, Rod Smith, Warren Ball and Brionte Dunn, but Wilson might be too small to be an every-down back, and Elliott got more carries than the other three combined in 2013.

Donovahn Jones, WR, Minnesota: The Gophers desperately need some playmakers to emerge on offense, and perhaps Jones will be that guy. The Georgia native turned down SEC offers to come to Minnesota, where he was promised a chance to play quarterback. Instead, he moved to receiver as a true freshman and showed flashes of his athleticism. He still needs to learn the finer points of the position, but at 6-foot-3 with good speed, he has all the tools the Gophers need

MacGarrett Kings Jr., WR, Michigan State: The Spartans' wide receivers took a big leap forward as a group in 2013, and with Connor Cook and the passing game coming on strong, it might be time for one of them to become a star. Kings is a strong candidate after catching 43 balls for 513 yards and three touchdowns as a sophomore. He can also make things happen on punt returns.

Offseason to-do list: Minnesota

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
10:30
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With the 2013 college football season now in the rearview mirror, we're taking an early peek at the months ahead by looking at three items each Big Ten team must address before the 2014 season.

Up next: the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

1. Decide on a quarterback: Minnesota rotated between sophomore Philip Nelson and redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner this past season. It appeared to be Nelson's team by the end of the regular season, but then Leidner played the majority of the snaps in the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Leidner is a little bit better runner while Nelson is a little bit better passer at this point, but neither has established himself as the clear-cut option. And while depth is always a good thing, the Gophers will be best served by identifying a true starter this spring. Redshirt freshman Chris Streveler could factor into the mix as well. The focus for each candidate in the coming weeks should simply be to get better, because Minnesota needs more out of the quarterback spot if it wants to take the next step. Which goes hand in hand with the next item ...

2. Get better at wide receiver: Minnesota's leading returning wide receiver next year will be Drew Wolitarsky, who had 15 catches for just 259 yards and one TD. The Gophers had one of the worst passing attacks in the country in 2013, and the lack of threats at the receiver position was a big reason why. The good news, if you're an optimist, is that Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones emerged as the top options late in the season, and both were true freshmen. They are talented and should improve as they mature. They also need more help there, whether it's from rising senior Isaac Fruechte, the oft-injured Jamel Harbison or an incoming recruit. Minnesota hasn't been able to stretch the field in the passing game for two years, and that must change.

3. Replace defensive stalwarts: While the majority of the roster returns, some very valuable defensive players will need to be replaced in 2014. That includes All-Big Ten defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, starting linebackers Aaron Hill and James Manuel and defensive back Brock Vereen, who was versatile enough to play both cornerback and safety as needed. There's no real substitute for Hageman's sheer athleticism, but the team is high on sophomore Scott Ekpe's potential. Minnesota has recruited well recently at linebacker and defensive back, so some in-house solutions should be ready. The Gophers' defense was very solid in 2013 and should stay that way if adequate replacements emerge.

More to-do lists

Indiana
Wisconsin

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
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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.
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Coaches always harp on the importance of the 15 bowl practices, not just for the development of their young players but the entire team. Although the Big Ten went 2-5 in bowls last season, teams such as Minnesota and Michigan made strides even in losing efforts.

Today's Take Two topic is: Which of the Big Ten's seven bowl teams -- Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska and Minnesota -- will make the most improvement before kickoff?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

To me, this comes down to teams with weaknesses that can be fixed in several weeks of practices and those who are what they are with certain elements. Ohio State's pass defense, for example, is what it is and likely will be exposed by Clemson's ridiculously good wide receivers. I feel the same way about Wisconsin's passing game, although Jared Abbrederis could have a big performance in his final collegiate game. Michigan's offensive line looked better against Ohio State, partially because of the scheme, and should progress with some added practice time. My concern there, however, is the health of quarterback Devin Gardner. So I'm hesitant to go with the Wolverines.

My pick here is Minnesota, mainly because we saw the way the Gophers improve on offense between the end of the regular season and last year's Texas Bowl. The offensive line stepped up as Minnesota piled up 222 rush yards and 31 points. The group carried that over into this season, and Minnesota ranks fifth in the Big Ten in rushing at 200.9 yards per game. Minnesota needs to see the same type of progress from its passing game before returning to the Texas Bowl to face Syracuse on Dec. 27. I think it can happen. Quarterback Philip Nelson has a chance to get healthy and improve his chemistry with promising young wide receivers Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones. It'll be tough without top wideout Derrick Engel, but I expect a strong offensive showing from Minnesota in Houston and a double-digit win.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

I'm with you on Michigan, which would likely be my pick if we knew with more confidence how healthy Gardner would be. But good health is a reason I'll go with Nebraska.

The Huskers were a seriously beat-up team by the second half of the season, and their offensive line was being held together by spit and string because of so many injuries. I think that greatly contributed to Nebraska's poor performance in the finale against Iowa (though the Hawkeyes had an awful lot to do with that as well). The break between the regular season and the bowl game has already helped many of those players heal up, including quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., who was hobbled by an ankle problem. The offensive line should be as close to full strength as it has been in a long time.

And don't forget how many young players and first-time starters Bo Pelini played on defense this year, including several freshmen in the front seven. Extra bowl practices should prove very beneficial for them, and this is a defense I think has a chance to be special in the next year or two. The players also shouldn't be worrying about the status of their head coach as some undoubtedly were in November.

Add all that up, and I expect the Cornhuskers to look much better than they did while limping to the regular-season finish line. Whether that's good enough to beat Georgia remains to be seen.
Big Ten reporters Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

Seven Big Ten teams are going bowling. For some, it's more important than others. So Today's Take Two topic is: Which team stands to benefit the most from winning a bowl this year?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

I think the value of most bowl wins is often overrated. Sure, a national championship or a BCS victory is cherished forever. But most people forget quickly who won or lost a mid- or lower-tier postseason game, and I've seen little convincing evidence that winning one of those types of games has much of a carryover into the next season.

[+] EnlargeJerry Kill
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesJerry Kill and Minnesota would benefit on the recruiting trail by winning a bowl game.
With that caveat, I'm picking Minnesota as the team that has the most to gain from bowl season, even though it plays in the lowest-profile game (Texas Bowl) against the weakest opponent (Syracuse) of any Big Ten school this year. The Gophers in many ways have already had a storybook season by finishing 8-4, beating Nebraska and Penn State and winning four straight league games for the first time since 1973. A win over the Orange in Houston would, incredibly, be just Minnesota's second nine-win season in the past 108 seasons.

The Gophers haven't won a bowl game since the 2004 Music City Bowl (over Alabama; have times changed quickly, or what?). A postseason victory would be something Jerry Kill and his staff could use on the recruiting trail and plaster all over their media guides, football complex and other materials. While key seniors like Ra'Shede Hageman, Brock Vereen, Aaron Hill and Ed Olson depart, the vast majority of the roster returns next year, and the bowl game is an important experience for youngsters like Maxx Williams, Donovahn Jones and Drew Wolitarsky. Minnesota could even start the 2014 season in the Top 25 with a bowl win and all the players it returns.

On the flip side, a loss to a mediocre ACC team would represent a small step back. Getting to the Texas Bowl last year was a nice achievement for the Gophers. This year, they need to win it.

Take 2: Adam Rittenberg

Some good points on the Gophers, Brian, but this year will be a success for Kill's team, regardless of what happens in Houston. Three straight losses to end aren't great, but Minnesota still showed a lot by responding so well from Kill's midseason health-related absence, and the team brings back most of its key players for 2014.

I place a little more value on bowl wins, and I look for teams that have reached a crossroads of sorts after the regular season. I'd put Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa in a category of teams that can brand this season as a success no matter what happens in the postseason. Wisconsin certainly wants to end the season on a positive note, especially after the Senior Day loss and three straight Rose Bowl setbacks, but next year is sort of a reset for the Badgers with so many seniors -- and possibly a star underclassman in Melvin Gordon -- departing.

So that leaves Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska. I can make a case for each, but I'm going with Big Red. Nebraska has been through a roller coaster of a season, which ended with an ugly loss to Iowa and an uglier post-game news conference with coach Bo Pelini. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst affirmed his support for Pelini, and Nebraska is having some success on the recruiting trail. But this program could really use a bowl win against an SEC opponent to feel good heading into the offseason.

Nebraska brings back talent on both sides of the ball and could win a wide-open West Division in 2014. But the questions about Pelini's status won't go away if the erratic performances continue. Nebraska hasn't won a bowl game since the 2009 Holiday. A win in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl doesn't guarantee future success, but it allows Nebraska to move forward with some confidence.

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