Big Ten: Ethan Hemer

Thirty Big Ten players heard their names called during the 2014 NFL draft, but many others received phone calls immediately after the event. The undrafted free-agent carousel is spinning, and players from around the Big Ten are hopping aboard.

Unlike the draft, the UDFA list is somewhat fluid, and other players could get picked up later today or in the coming days. To reiterate: This is not the final list.

Here's what we know right now from various announcements and media reports:

ILLINOIS
  • LB Jonathan Brown, Arizona Cardinals
  • WR Ryan Lankford, Miami Dolphins
  • TE Evan Wilson, Dallas Cowboys
  • WR Steve Hull, New Orleans Saints
  • WR Spencer Harris, New Orleans Saints
Notes: Illini OT Corey Lewis, who battled knee injuries throughout his career, told Steve Greenberg that several teams are interested in him if he's cleared by doctors.

INDIANA
  • WR Kofi Hughes, Washington Redskins
  • RB Stephen Houston, New England Patriots
Notes: S Greg Heban and K Mitch Ewald have tryouts with the Chicago Bears.

IOWA
  • LB James Morris, New England Patriots
  • OT Brett Van Sloten, Baltimore Ravens
  • G Conor Boffeli, Minnesota Vikings
  • WR Don Shumpert, Chicago Bears
  • LS Casey Kreiter, Dallas Cowboys
MARYLAND
  • LB Marcus Whitfield, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • CB Isaac Goins, Miami Dolphins
MICHIGAN
  • LB Cam Gordon, New England Patriots
  • S Thomas Gordon, New York Giants
Notes: RB Fitzgerald Toussaint (Baltimore), DT Jibreel Black (Pittsburgh), LS Jareth Glanda (New Orleans) and DT Quinton Washington (Oakland) will have tryouts.


MICHIGAN STATE
  • LB Denicos Allen, Carolina Panthers
  • S Isaiah Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals
  • T/G Dan France, Cincinnati Bengals
  • WR Bennie Fowler, Denver Broncos
  • LB Max Bullough, Houston Texans
  • DT Tyler Hoover, Indianapolis Colts
  • DT Micajah Reynolds, New Orleans Saints
  • OL Fou Fonoti, San Francisco 49ers
Notes: LB Kyler Elsworth has a tryout scheduled with Washington.

MINNESOTA
  • LB Aaron Hill, St. Louis Rams
NEBRASKA
  • QB Taylor Martinez, Philadelphia Eagles
  • OT Brent Qvale, New York Jets
  • CB Mohammed Seisay, Detroit Lions
  • DE Jason Ankrah, Houston Texans
  • C Cole Pensick, Kansas City Chiefs
  • OT Jeremiah Sirles, San Diego Chargers
Notes: CB Ciante Evans has yet to sign but will do so soon. DB Andrew Green has a tryout with the Miami Dolphins.

NORTHWESTERN
  • WR Kain Colter, Minnesota Vikings
  • K Jeff Budzien, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • WR Rashad Lawrence, Washington Redskins
  • DE Tyler Scott, Minnesota Vikings
OHIO STATE
  • S C.J. Barnett, New York Giants
  • K Drew Basil, Atlanta Falcons
  • WR Corey Brown, Carolina Panthers
  • G Andrew Norwell, Carolina Panthers
  • G Marcus Hall, Indianapolis Colts
  • WR Chris Fields, Washington Redskins
PENN STATE
  • OT Garry Gilliam, Seattle Seahawks
  • LB Glenn Carson, Arizona Cardinals
  • S Malcolm Willis, San Diego Chargers
Notes: OT Adam Gress will have a tryout with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

PURDUE
  • DE Greg Latta, Denver Broncos
  • S Rob Henry, Oakland Raiders
  • G Devin Smith, San Diego Chargers
  • DT Bruce Gaston Jr., Arizona Cardinals
Notes: P Cody Webster will have a tryout with Pittsburgh.

RUTGERS
  • WR Brandon Coleman, New Orleans Saints
  • WR Quron Pratt, Philadelphia Eagles
  • LB Jamal Merrell, Tennessee Titans
  • DE Marcus Thompson, Miami Dolphins
  • S Jeremy Deering, New England Patriots
Notes: According to Dan Duggan, DE Jamil Merrell (Bears) and G Antwan Lowery (Baltimore) will have tryouts.

WISCONSIN
  • G/T Ryan Groy, Chicago Bears
  • TE Jacob Pedersen Atlanta Falcons
  • TE Brian Wozniak, Atlanta Falcons
  • DE Ethan Hemer, Pittsburgh Steelers
Quick thoughts: Martinez's future as an NFL quarterback has been heavily scrutinized, but Chip Kelly's Eagles are a fascinating destination for him. Whether he plays quarterback or another position like safety, Kelly will explore ways to use Martinez's speed. ... The large Michigan State contingent is still a bit startling. The Spartans dominated the Big Ten, beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl, use pro-style systems on both sides of the ball and had just one player drafted. Bullough, Allen and Lewis all were multiple All-Big Ten selections but will have to continue their careers through the UDFA route. ... Colter certainly looked like a draft pick during Senior Bowl practices in January, but that was before his ankle surgery and his role in leading the unionization push at Northwestern. I tend to think the injury impacted his status more, but NFL teams have been known to shy away from so-called locker-room lawyers. ... Other Big Ten standouts like Jonathan Brown, Morris and Pedersen were surprisingly not drafted. Morris should be a great fit in New England. ... Coleman's decision to leave Rutgers early looks questionable now that he didn't get drafted.
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.

Badgers chopping their way to BCS bowl

November, 23, 2013
11/23/13
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MINNEAPOLIS -- It's tradition in the Paul Bunyan's Axe series for the winning team to grab the axe and hunt down both goal posts for some pretend chopping.

That tradition hit a slight snag on Saturday night. After No. 19 Wisconsin downed No. 25 Minnesota 20-7, the Badgers rushed to the west end zone at TCF Bank Stadium and attacked one of the goal posts. When they carried the axe to the opposite end zone, however, they found the Gophers' players and coaches blocking their path.

Some heated words were exchanged. There was some shoving. Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said a security officer pointed a finger in his face and told his team to leave. The Badgers never got to that goal post.

"It's happened for as long as I've been alive, going to both goal posts," Wisconsin senior linebacker Chris Borland said. "They kind of crashed our party."

[+] EnlargeBeau Allen
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsBeau Allen and Wisconsin chopped down Minnesota and the Badgers' BCS bowl hopes are looking up.
For the most part, though, the Badgers simply laughed off the Minnesota blockade. And why not? Nobody has stopped them when it has mattered in nearly two months.

Wisconsin (9-2) has won six straight games since a 31-24 loss at Ohio State on Sept. 28, with all of those wins coming by at least 10 points. If this keeps up, it might prove difficult to keep Andersen's team from crashing the BCS party.

After three straight Rose Bowl trips, the Badgers are left hoping for an at-large bid since Ohio State clinched the Leaders Division spot in the Big Ten championship game on Saturday. They still need a sizable bump in the BCS standings, but perhaps a road win over a ranked team will provide that boost. Oregon's loss on Saturday might have also helped, as the Pac-12 might not get a second bid now.

Andersen has declined to campaign for his team. But they are doing the important work for him.

"When you have nine wins, you're very close to being a great football team," Andersen said. "I'm not so sure we're not a great team right now. If the season were over, I'd probably say they were a great team. But I don't want to tell them that yet."

Saturday's win was more of an efficient bloodletting than a showcase. The Gophers, who had won four straight Big Ten games behind some inspired play, went toe-to-toe with Wisconsin in the trenches early. Borland said it took some time to adjust to Minnesota's physical style, and the sub-zero wind chill didn't make the shoulder-pad slamming any more pleasant.

But after Minnesota grabbed a second-quarter lead on Aaron Hill's pick-six and then threatened again in Badgers territory, the Wisconsin defense clamped down. Brendan Kelly forced a fumble from quarterback Philip Nelson that Borland recovered, leading to an eventual touchdown. Another quick three-and-out defensive series set up a field goal for a 13-7 halftime lead.

Wisconsin caused a season-high three turnovers and limited Minnesota to just 185 total yards and 3.4 yards per play. For the third straight Big Ten game and the sixth time in 11 games overall, the Badgers defense did not allow an offensive touchdown.

"It's been fun to see this defense develop into what it is," Borland said.

The offense didn't do a whole lot after Joel Stave's third-quarter touchdown throw to Jared Abbrederis for the game's final points. But it says a lot that Wisconsin seemed disappointed with a 197-yard rushing effort.

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said earlier in the week that the Badgers had no weaknesses. That's not quite true, as special teams remain shaky. One of kicker Jack Russell's field goal tries took a dogleg left, and Andersen broke out a bizarre fourth-quarter fake-field goal play that lost 7 yards. He said he'd been holding on to that play for weeks, and that he would definitely scrap it now.

Everything else, however, has been going Wisconsin's way. Now it's a wait-and-see game with the BCS standings.

"I think this team has a lot of talent and deserves a little more recognition," defensive lineman Ethan Hemer said. "Hopefully, a win like this will put us in that spot."

On Saturday, the players were just happy to celebrate a 10th consecutive win over Minnesota, the longest by either side in the 123-year history of the rivalry. Borland hoisted freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton on his shoulders, and Shelton held up a whiteboard that read "10 straight." The many Badgers fans who made the trip chanted, "10 more years."

"Ten's a great number," Borland told ESPN.com. "That's a decade of dominance."

The Badgers have been dominating everybody for nearly two months. It remains to be seen whether they can chop their way through the BCS road blocks.

Video: One Good Thing -- Wisconsin's D

November, 18, 2013
11/18/13
2:00
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ESPN Big Ten reporter Brian Bennett said Wisconsin's defense stepped up to the challenge against Indiana on Saturday.

Q&A: Wisconsin NT Beau Allen

November, 1, 2013
11/01/13
2:00
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Jet-sweeping running back Melvin Gordon and the Wisconsin offense have garnered most of the attention so far this season, but some good things are happening on the defensive side as well. New head coach Gary Andersen and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda employ a multifaceted, 3-4 scheme that has helped Wisconsin rank sixth nationally in both points allowed (15.9 ppg) and yards allowed (285 ypg). Among the players adjusting to new roles and responsibilities is senior nose tackle Beau Allen, who will try to slow down Iowa's power run game Saturday as Wisconsin and Iowa renew their rivalry for the first time since 2010.

ESPN.com caught up with Allen this week to discuss the season, the matchup and, of course, Halloween.

What does Beau Allen do on a bye week?

Beau Allen: Absolutely nothing. I went home (to Minnetonka, Minn.) actually for the weekend because it was my mom's birthday. My dad's birthday is actually on Halloween. I watched a lot of football and ate a lot of football. It was glorious.

Do you have a Halloween costume picked out?

[+] EnlargeMiley Cyrus
AP Photo/Evan Agostini/InvisionCan't imagine a 300-pound male version of Miley Cyrus? Well, if Beau Allen had his way, that's what he'd be for Halloween.
Allen: This year? No. I was thinking about doing some crazy things, maybe being a bearded lady, or I was going to be Miley Cyrus, but I'm actually not going to go trick-or-treating this year, which is kind of too bad. But if I was, I'd probably be one of those two.

Is it just too close to a game?

Allen: Yeah, just too close to a game. I've got a lot of schoolwork to do, and I'm actually going to see a movie, "Ender's Game" comes out, and I'm pretty fired up about that, because that was my favorite book.

So if you guys get a win on Saturday against Iowa, will you do a late Halloween celebration?

Allen: Yeah, probably. To be honest, I'll probably head over to the store and buy all the discounted candy. I'm trying to be frugal.

You haven't faced Iowa since your freshman year. What are you looking forward to going against the Hawkeyes again?

Allen: Obviously, it's a trophy game, and we've held the trophy the past couple years, so that's a big thing. But me personally, I'm excited because it's Big Ten football. They're a smashmouth team, they run the ball a lot, they've got powerful running backs and a good offensive line, so it's definitely a good challenge for our D-line. It's something we've been excited about.

Does Iowa remind you of your team a bit, going against your offense in practice?

Allen: Yeah, definitely. The way they run the zone is a little different, but just the philosophy of wanting to pound the ball, and then hitting the tight ends on boot and play-action and stuff like that, is definitely very similar.

Did they recruit you at all?

Allen: Yeah, I was recruited by [former Iowa defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski], who's at Nebraska now. They've had some talented D-linemen in the past. They were probably in my last four or five schools.

What put Wisconsin over the top?

Allen: I've had a lot of family connections here over the years, and I really liked the business school and the academics that I'm in right now. And just the atmosphere on game day. I felt really at home with the players.

[+] EnlargeBeau Allen
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinBeau Allen and the Wisconsin defense has been celebrating a lot this season, as they are in the top 20 of scoring and overall defense.
You've had two months to play in this defense. What have you learned about the scheme, and how comfortable are you in what they're asking you to do?

Allen: I feel great with that. I love it our scheme. One thing I really like that is a little different from what we've done in the past is we have a lot of different personnel groupings. Coach Aranda does a great job of getting our personnel to match up with what the opposing offense likes to do. On game day, we'll have anywhere from five to eight different personnel groups. That puts the best players on our defense in the best positions to win. So I like that a lot.

Are there certain guys you're playing alongside now who you never did before?

Allen: So in one of our peso groups, where I'm an end, I'm playing next to a stand-up linebacker, like Joe Schobert or Vince Biegel, where I haven't played with them before. But then I'm still playing with a lot of guys I've played with in the past, like Brendan Kelly, Ethan Hemer, Tyler Dippel, Pat Muldoon, so it's a good combination of some new faces and some familiar ones.

Does what they're asking you to do change depending on the personnel grouping?

Allen: For most of the time when I'm lined up in base at nose guard, I've got my job role cut out for me, which is occupy blockers and try to keep our linebackers free. But then when we get into passing downs and stuff like that, sometimes they'll put me out into a pass rush role, which is kind of nice and refreshing for me.

Do you have any pass-rush moves you've been saving for this game?

Allen: Well, I don't want to tell you because the word might get out. But I've been saving up a spin move. I used it against Northwestern. Some people are surprised when big men hit spin moves, so been saving that bad boy.

Have you named it?

Allen: No, I haven't. Maybe I should. Got anything good? I'll work on that. Maybe the hair tornado or something like that.

You mentioned the Iowa running backs and Mark Weisman is a big guy. What will be the key to slowing him down?

Allen: I love playing bigger running backs like that. It's just getting back to tackling fundamentals. You can't really arm-tackle guys like that, especially me, if I'm on a blocker, I can't just try to reach out or he'll probably rip my arm off. You can't just expect to bring him down just by hitting him. You've got to wrap him up and get your defenders to rally and pursue the ball.

What are the keys to finishing the season strong, and what are the goals for your team? You need some help to get to the Big Ten championship.

Allen: Some of us are a little upset because we feel like we're not getting the recognition we deserve, but we can't think of it that way. We've got to practice every day the right way and play every game the right way and not try to look ahead to the end of the year. Just focus on the small daily things, and if we do that, we'll get to where we want to be at the end of the year.

Were you surprised when Wisconsin wasn't in the initial BCS standings? Has it been hard to get recognition?

Allen: Yeah, but if we just take care of our business and practice and play the way we know that we can, that will all sort itself out.
We're taking a page from our friends at the ACC blog and examining whether certain Big Ten teams will be contenders or pretenders in the 2013 season. The series does not include Ohio State, Michigan or Nebraska, three teams that, in our view, have earned the "contender" label entering the fall. For each team, we'll make a case for why they're contenders and pretenders and provide our final verdict. We invite you to vote on whether a team is a contender or a pretender or send us your thoughts for mailbags here and here.

Next up are the Wisconsin Badgers.

SportsNation

What do you expect out of Wisconsin in 2013?

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Discuss (Total votes: 5,137)

Why they're contenders: Badgers fans may find it insulting that we're even including their team in the series. After all, Wisconsin has been to three straight Rose Bowls, so shouldn't the Badgers automatically be considered a contender? The talent is definitely there in Madison for another run toward Pasadena. Fifteen starters from last year's team are back, and former head coach Bret Bielema said he thought the 2013 team might be his best -- before he fled to Arkansas, of course. Montee Ball is gone, but the running game remains in very capable hands with James White and Melvin Gordon. For once, Wisconsin doesn't have to worry about quarterback depth. Linebacker Chris Borland is one of the best players in the Big Ten, and the defensive line is very underrated with guys like Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer making it tough for opposing run games. New head coach Gary Andersen is a proven winner, and he might be able to avoid some of the late-game questionable decision-making that fans lamented about when Bielema wore the headset. The Badgers continue to churn out impressive offensive lines, and few teams want to play at Camp Randall Stadium. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's crossover opponents from the Legends Division -- Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota -- don't exactly inspire fear.

Why they're pretenders: The biggest question for the Badgers really revolves around whether they can topple Ohio State. The Buckeyes won in Madison last year on their way to a 12-0 season, and Wisconsin will have to go to Columbus this year. Lose that game on the road, and it will be an uphill battle to get back to the Big Ten championship game for a third straight year. Don't overlook the transition factor, either. While Andersen looks like a terrific hire, it's usually not easy for first-year coaches, especially those who try to change things at programs that have been successful. Wisconsin will also be moving to some 3-4 looks on defense; we'll see if the personnel is right for that move. There are also major holes to fill in the secondary, and the offense still needs someone besides Jared Abbrederis to develop into a consistent pass-catcher. Competition at quarterback is great, but neither Joel Stave nor Curt Phillips has shown that he can take over a game with his arm. And don't forget that while the Badgers did play in the Rose Bowl last year, they also finished just 8-6 and needed some fortunate circumstances to get there.

Final verdict: The Ohio State matchup will be tough, but you can't base an entire season outlook on one game. The rest of the schedule is actually quite manageable, with the only other Big Ten road games coming against Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. Not playing Michigan, Michigan State or Nebraska is a huge advantage. This team still has plenty of talent and a winner's mentality. Don't write off the Badgers' chances of finishing ahead of the Buckeyes in the Leaders Division. They're a contender.

Spring game preview: Wisconsin

April, 19, 2013
4/19/13
11:00
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Want to see what Gary Andersen's first Wisconsin team will look like? You can get a sneak peek when the Badgers hold their annual spring game Saturday. Here's the latest in our series of previews of the Big Ten spring games:

When: Saturday, 5 p.m. ET

Where: Camp Randall Stadium

Admission: $5, with proceeds benefiting the Wisconsin pharmacy school.

TV: Live on Big Ten Network

Weather forecast: Partly cloudy, with a high of 48 degrees.

What to watch for: The game will pit the offense (White) vs. the defense (Cardinal) and will consist of normal clock rules in the first half and two 10-minute quarters with a running clock in the second half, except for the final two minutes. In addition to normal scoring rules, the offense will get two points for a run of 15 or more yards or a pass of 20 or more yards, and one point for each first down. The defense will get five points for a turnover, three points for a three-and-out and two points for a stopped drive, sack or tackle for loss.

Andersen is holding out linebacker Chris Borland, defensive end Ethan Hemer, safety Dezmen Southward, running back James White, offensive lineman Ryan Groy and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis for precautionary reasons. Defensive tackle Beau Allen and defensive end Brendan Kelly won't play because of injuries.

Of course, most eyes will be on the quarterback battle, as Curt Phillips and Joel Stave have been locked in a competition for the starting job all spring. Bart Houston and Danny O'Brien should also take some snaps.

Fans will also be curious to see the new defensive scheme and what the Badgers look like in a 3-4 alignment. Expect the defensive game plan to be pretty basic as in most spring games, however. Also keep an eye on the secondary, whose lone returning starter from last year (Southward) won't play in the game. Who else will step up there?

With White on the sidelines, tailback Melvin Gordon could shine. I'd wager that he rips off at least one big run. This should also be a good test for the Wisconsin receivers without Abbrederis in the lineup, as he was the only consistent wideout on the team last season.

The Badgers will also mix in some goofiness in their spring game. Students have been encouraged to submit dance videos via Twitter to @BadgerFootball for a chance to take part in a dance-off with a current Badgers player during the game. Two students will also be chosen to take part in a punt-catching competition. Season tickets will be on the line in both competitions.
Wisconsin will be without one of its best pass-rushers this season, as the school announced Friday that senior defensive end David Gilbert was giving up football because of recurring foot injuries.

Gilbert missed most of the 2011 season because of problems with his right foot and was sitting out spring practice this year as he recovered from surgery to repair ligaments in the same foot.

[+] EnlargeDavid Gilbert
AP Photo/David StlukaWhen healthy, David Gilbert was one of the Badgers' most dangerous pass-rushers.
“This was a difficult decision for me. but I have had multiple injuries and surgeries on my foot and feel that no longer playing at UW is the best decision for me,” Gilbert said in a statement released by the school. “I have been dealing with pain in my foot since the injury first occurred, and I just need to give it time to fully heal.

Gilbert led all Badgers defensive linemen with 42 tackles last year and finished second on the team with 9.5 tackles for loss. He was fourth on the team in sacks with four and also caused three fumbles, including one in the Big Ten championship game.

The plan was to have the 6-foot-4, 247-pound Gilbert line up at outside linebacker when Wisconsin went to its 3-4 scheme this fall. He was viewed as maybe the best pure pass-rusher on the team when healthy.

“David’s decision was part of an on-going discussion we have had for a number of weeks,” head coach Gary Andersen said in a statement. “I would have loved the opportunity to coach David, but we always want to do what’s in the best interests of the young man. He needs a year to recover from his injuries and focus on graduating. It is always tough when a young man’s college career comes to an end due to an injury but David knows we are here to support him in any way necessary.”

Gilbert is probably best remembered by casual fans for making critical comments about Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez before last year's regular-season meeting in Lincoln. Those comments earned him a spot on the bench at the start of the game. But he also had a sack and a forced fumble in that loss to the Huskers and played well in the rematch for the Big Ten title.

Wisconsin's defensive line still has depth and experience, as it returns starting tackles Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, as well as Pat Muldoon, Tyler Dippel, Warren Herring and Bryce Gilbert. Redshirt freshman Vince Biegel has been playing outside linebacker with the first string this spring.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

March, 22, 2013
3/22/13
4:30
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Happy hoopin' ...

John H. from Omaha writes: Adam, You have been hanging around Michigan and OSU too much, their preferences have become yours. The East-West alignment is the Big XII North all over again. Everyone is bending over to kiss Michigan and OSU's behind. This is clearly their league. I never thought I would say this, but I would rather be in the Big XII round robin than face this Hypocrisy. Michigan needs to be in the West. Let OSU-Michigan be the cross over. Michigan State in the West is not good enough. At a minimum let Nebraska play Penn State every year. Penn State can balance OSU, O'brien is awesome. We need a blue blood with Nebraska in the West. I refuse to watch Nebraska play Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana every year. What a joke. I'll find something else to do, watch more pro ball.

Adam Rittenberg: Josh, you're just now realizing a part of Big Ten culture that upsets a lot of fan bases in the league. Ohio State and Michigan, to a large degree, drive the bus in the Big Ten. More specifically, The Game drives the bus. The league bases a lot of decisions around those teams and that game. That said, the Big Ten made it clear that its expansion to the East is all about demographics and markets. It should come as no surprise that the league wants to showcase its two biggest programs in the new East Coast markets as much as possible. Putting Ohio State and Michigan in the same division also eliminates the possibility of a rematch in the title game a week after The Game. From the league perspective, this is a good thing.

I supported the initial division alignment to split the four big brands, but many, many fans -- not just Ohio State and Michigan fans -- complained about the large gaps between matchups and the impact on geographical rivalries. The proposed alignment solves a lot of those issues. While I understand the concerns about competitive balance, you can't have it all, and things change over time. I'd argue Nebraska's program is closer to Wisconsin and Penn State than Ohio State. I also disagree with you that Penn State can "match" Ohio State. The Ohio State program is at a higher level. I also think you'll be seeing Nebraska against Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State as much as possible in the new rotation. There will be more conference games (9), and the idea with eliminating crossovers is to have a better overall rotation.




Marcus from DePauw, Ind., writes: As a completely biased observer, I would vote for just about anyone other than Barry Alvarez as a rep on the playoff selection committee. He's shown a penchant for self-promotion and theatrics (breaking news from Big 10 meetings prior to official announcements) and isn't very well respected south of Milwaukee. Give me Osborne any day. Alternately, I'd look at former coaches/ADs that may have moved on to jobs in other conferences. Give me a Frank Solich, Lllllloyd Carr, or (yes) Jim Tressel. Or maybe Mark Hollis. Anyone but Alvarez...

Adam Rittenberg: I don't know if Alvarez's comments to his athletic board -- where all the Big Ten news leaks have come from -- qualify as self-promotion and theatrics. No one will deny Barry has an ego, which he showed during his news conference announcing the recent football coach search ("I won't use a search committee. Most search committees use me"). But he has extensive experience both as a football coach and as an athletic director. He also has been involved with BCS governance, and he has respect from commissioners, ADs and presidents. I agree that Tom Osborne would be a great choice, and he was my top pick to represent the Big Ten. I also like the idea of other sitting ADs like Michigan State's Mark Hollis, who served on this year's NCAA basketball tournament selection committee. Ohio State's Gene Smith also has an interesting background as a Big Ten AD who also ran departments in the Big 12 (Iowa State), the Pac-12 (Arizona State) and the MAC (Eastern Michigan).




Mike from Chicago writes: While I am happy to see B1G teams play the SEC in the regular season, I hardly think scheduling games in Dallas is a neutral site. It might as well be in Alabama's back yard. In fact, when has an SEC team played a B1G team north of the Mason-Dixon line ever??? These are really home games for the SEC as are most of the bowl games. I went to the LSU-OSU title game in New Orleans in 2007. OSU fans were desparate for tickets they couldn't get while the venue was sold out to 80% LSU fans. Let's see if results change when the "neutral" site is Chicago or Detroit or Cincinnati?

Adam Rittenberg: Mike, this is a very fair point about the locations of these neutral-site games. The two venues that have hosted most of the season-opening, blockbuster-type games -- Cowboys Stadium near Dallas and the Georgia Dome in Atlanta -- are located in SEC/Big 12/ACC country. The Kickoff Classic took place at what is now MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., from 1983-2002, but it's no more. FedEx Field in Landover, Md., could be a good option for these games. I think the venue has to want to host these games, and having a capacity like Cowboys Stadium -- or FedEx Field -- certainly doesn't hurt. I can't see Soldier Field in Chicago bidding for these types of games, but you never know. Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis would be a great spot, but the desire has to be there to make it happen. I agree that it would be nice if these games had a more genuine neutral-site feel.




Levi from Chicago writes: Adam, Any chance you could provide a detailed position by position breakdown of how "Mr. Andersen" plans to take the Badger's D from a 4-3 to a 3-4? I've caught bits and pieces, but it would be nice to have ideal player sizes, potential candidates, etc.

Adam Rittenberg: Absolutely, Levi. The big change is they're taking their smaller defensive ends like David Gilbert (6-foot-4, 247 pounds) and Brendan Kelly (6-6, 250) and moving them to outside linebacker while having them maintain a pass-rushing emphasis. They'll basically be rush ends. As defensive coordinator Dave Aranda told me, "If you want to look at it from a formational perspective, then it's a 3-4. But if you look at it from a personnel perspective, then it's a 5-2."

Wisconsin will use two bigger defensive ends and a nose tackle, which is another change. Beau Allen (6-3, 330), for example, moves from an inside tackle who would shade to one side in the previous system, to a zero-technique. Aside from Allen, who played some zero-technique in high school, there aren't too many other obvious nose tackles on the roster, but there are some obvious down linemen like Ethan Hemer (6-6, 296), Bryce Gilbert (6-1, 307) and Warren Herring (6-3, 286). "This defense allows you to be multiple, it allows you to change up who the fourth rusher is and not be a standard 4-man rush outfit," Aranda said. "It could be the fourth [lineman], it could be a corner, it could be a safety, it could be an inside backer, it could be an outside backer. ... You've got more options."




John from Cincinnati writes: Count this OSU graduate as someone who would have no problem with the BIG or Ohio State de-emphasizing varsity sports. National Championships have always been a nice bump for the ego (no one can ever take away that night in the desert), but I honestly think that all things being equal I could be just as happy competing for conference championships. I believe Ohio Stadium would still be packed on Saturdays and alums around the country would still tune in. In a perfect world, I would love to see the Rose Bowl remain a part of the equation, but as long as we are playing our usual foes, I would have no regrets bowing out of the arms race.

Adam Rittenberg: John, I appreciate the perspective. I can guarantee you're in the minority of Ohio State fans with this view, and I'm sure it's similar among most or all of the other Big Ten fan bases. But it's interesting and a little refreshing to read this from you. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany sometimes makes head-scratching comments, but he reiterated his stance on what he thinks the league would do if pay-for-play came about after being pushed by SI.com's Andy Staples. I don't see it happening, though, and I disagree that Ohio Stadium would be packed for a Division III-style program. Maybe I'm wrong. But thanks for writing in.




Stephanie from Denver writes: Adam, I know you said that everything is cyclical in terms of strength, in relation to the proposed new divisions. But if you look at records since Penn State joined in the 90s, the Big Ten overloaded the East division. That's 20 years of data, Adam, which is not cyclical. Should the Big Ten think about competitive balance and shift at least one school west? Thanks.

Adam Rittenberg: Stephanie, those are fair points, and even though my proposal didn't include Michigan State in the West, I would have no trouble with putting the Spartans there. As I mentioned in the divisions post, the discussions are still ongoing and things could change. But Michigan State wasn't on the table to move West three weeks ago, and when I checked again last week, the discussion boiled down to Purdue or Indiana. Barry Alvarez wrote in Varsity Magazine that the athletic directors are close to making a recommendation to the presidents, so something big would have to shift in the next week or two. It could happen, but I wouldn't bet on it.




Mike from Monmouth, Ill., writes: Hi Adam, I am not sure if you did the counting for a cyclical schedule with three crossover games and a protected rivalry between Indiana and Purdue. Except for Indiana and Purdue, each team would play everyone else in the other division eight times during the eighteen years it would take the schedule to cycle. In that same timespan, Indiana and Purdue would play each other every year and their cross-divisional opponents only six times. Of course, further conference expansion probably will occur well before one cycle could be completed.

Adam Rittenberg: Mike, thanks for sharing this, because it's a point I wanted to raise earlier. The Big Ten athletic directors are concerned about the fact Indiana and Purdue wouldn't have the same cross-division rotation because of their crossover game. But you have to protect the Bucket game every year because it's the most important game for both programs. Ultimately, the Big Ten could live without having Purdue-Michigan State or Indiana-Minnesota as much as the other games. It's not ideal, but you can't do much about it because 10 league games doesn't appear realistic right now. As you point out, the likelihood of further Big Ten expansion and more division alignment (four-team pods?) could make a lot of this discussion moot.

B1G postseason position rankings: DL

February, 14, 2013
2/14/13
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Our postseason position rankings wrapped up the offensive side of the ball Wednesday with a look at the offensive line. Now it's time to switch to the other side of the ball. We'll stay in the trenches with our rankings for the defensive lines.

This was one of the stronger position groups for the league throughout the season. You can see how we ranked them in the preseason here. You need both star power and depth to rate high, especially on units like these.

Here we go ...

[+] EnlargeJohn Simon
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesOhio State defensive end John Simon tied for the Big Ten lead in sacks last season with nine.
1. Ohio State (Preseason ranking: 1): It took a while for this group to live up to expectations, but once it got going in the second half, you saw why the Buckeyes earned the No. 1 preseason ranking. Defensive end John Simon was named the Big Ten defensive player of the year. Run-plugging tackle Johnathan Hankins should be an early first-round draft pick in April. Nathan Williams shook off injuries to contribute in a big way down the stretch. Freshmen Noah Spence and, in particular, Adolphus Washington helped with the depth, though the starters played a lot of downs.

2. Penn State (Preseason: 4): The Nittany Lions made up for the loss of 2011 defensive player of the year Devon Still quite nicely. Jordan Hill was playing as well as any league defensive tackle at the end of the year. Deion Barnes won freshman of the year honors for his havoc-inducing work off the edge. Penn State also had solid depth behind the starters and led the league in sacks.

3. Michigan State (Preseason: 2): The Spartans fielded the best defense in the Big Ten and were the toughest team to run against, and the defensive line was a big reason why. There was always a feeling that the linemen, especially William Gholston, could have created a few more negative plays. But overall, the line was really strong, with more depth and balance than sheer superstar power.

4. Wisconsin (Preseason: 8): The Badgers lacked a dominant pass rusher but were very stout up front and hard to run against. Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer did an excellent job of controlling the middle of the line of scrimmage, while David Gilbert and Brendan Kelly cleaned things up on the outside.

5. Northwestern (Preseason: 10): The Wildcats were one of the pleasant surprises among league defensive lines. They had the third-best rushing defense in the league and ranked fifth in sacks. Tyler Scott had a breakout year at defensive end, while Brian Arnfelt was an underrated defensive tackle. Quentin Williams had a pick six in the bowl game victory.

6. Michigan (Preseason: 7): This was a perfectly solid defensive line but not one that often grabbed your attention. Will Campbell finally fulfilled most of his promise as a starting defensive tackle, and Craig Roh was predictably reliable as a senior. But this unit lacked a dynamic playmaker, which is evident in the Wolverines' decent but not outstanding sack and rush-defense numbers.

7. Minnesota (Preseason: 12): A recent sore spot for the Gophers turned into more of a strength in 2012. Ra'Shede Hageman put his huge body to great use at defensive tackle, while D.L. Wilhite got off to a great start and finished with nine sacks. Minnesota's defense also had to carry a heavy load down the stretch as the offense struggled to stay on the field.

8. Nebraska (Preseason: 6): The Huskers' defensive line had its moments, and end Eric Martin emerged as a fearsome pass-rusher. Baker Steinkuhler's late-season injury hurt as he was playing really well inside, and Cam Meredith did his best to hold his ground there. But the memory of Wisconsin completely flattening Nebraska in the Big Ten title game prevents me from ranking this group any higher.

9. Purdue (Preseason: 3): We expected much more out of this group, with talents like Kawann Short, Bruce Gaston and Ryan Russell. And perhaps we are unfairly judging their performance because the unit struggled with injuries throughout the year. Still, Purdue was steamrolled by teams like Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Oklahoma State and simply didn't get enough out of its front four on a consistent basis.

10. Illinois (Preseason: 5): If there was a strength for the 2012 Illini -- and after a 2-10 season, we're not sure there was one -- it had to be the defensive line. Yet like Purdue, we expected more from a group that included athletes like Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan, though they would have had to be superhuman to change their team's course.

11. Iowa (Preseason: 9): We feared for the Hawkeyes' youth in the preseason, but this group held together pretty well most of the year. The low ranking is in some ways a reflection of other teams playing better than expected. Yet Iowa's defensive line seemed to wear down late in the season, and the lack of any true studs was reflected in a Big Ten-worst 13 sacks in 12 games.

12. Indiana (Preseason: 11): The 2012 Hoosiers actually improved over 2011 on the defensive line but still finished last in the league in rush defense. Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr. gave Indiana something to work with in the middle as two of the defense's rare veterans. But as it showed in the crucial Wisconsin game, this group still has a long way to go.

Big Ten lunchtime links

January, 28, 2013
1/28/13
12:00
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What a master class in acting, Mr. Stevens.

We've become so accustomed to seeing Wisconsin blow out opponents, even excellent ones, at Camp Randall Stadium that many of us assumed the opener against Football Championship Subdivision opponent Northern Iowa would be a laugher.

But the Badgers weren't laughing in the fourth quarter Saturday. They were sweating. Big time.

The surprisingly game Panthers trailed just 26-21 and had the ball on the Wisconsin 41 late in the game. But a fourth-and-1 pass play was tipped away by Ethan Hemer, and the Badgers were able to run out the clock and survive.

It was a head-scratching result, especially since Northern Iowa didn't score during the first half. But the Badgers' defense gave up some big plays late, including a 55-yard touchdown pass and a 31-yard scoring strike on a fourth down that shaved the lead to five.

And while Danny O'Brien had a very efficient debut at quarterback (19-for-23, 219 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions), the Wisconsin offense lacked its normal explosiveness. Montee Ball ran for 120 yards and scored a touchdown for the 21st straight game. But he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry, and the Badgers had 168 rushing yards as a team. Credit Northern Iowa's defense, but against a lot of opponents at home, especially FCS ones, you'd expect something like double that number on the ground for Bret Bielema's club.

Remember, though, that this team lost virtually its entire offensive coaching staff and replaced two All-Americans on the offensive line. There might be more of an adjustment period here than some wanted to believe.

The defense, after a strong first half, reverted to its troubling tendency of giving up big plays in the second half. Although Northern Iowa couldn't run the ball at all, quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen threw for 265 yards and three touchdowns, and Wisconsin did not cause any turnovers. The Panthers are a very good FCS team, but the Badgers usually bludgeon anyone who dares come into Madison.

Maybe this team won't have such an easy time this season. Wisconsin clearly has some things to clean up before going to Oregon State next week.
With media days in our rearview mirror, we jump back into our preseason Big Ten position rankings. Last week we unveiled our rankings for individual defensive linemen. Now it's time to look at the defensive line units as a whole.

Remember, these rankings are based heavily on last year's performance and who returns to the fold, with potential considered as well. Let's get to the guys up front who make the entire defense go.

[+] EnlargeJohn Simon
Phil Sears/US PresswireJohn Simon leads one of the Big Ten's best defensive fronts.
1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a chance to field one of the top defensive lines in the country. John Simon is a beast, while Johnathan Hankins has as much potential to dominate his position as any Big Ten player. Nathan Williams could be a big contributor coming back from knee surgery. This group is already really deep, and with standout freshmen like Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Se'Von Pittman coming in, it could be scary good.

2. Michigan State: The Spartans will rival Ohio State for the league's top defensive front. You know all about end William Gholston and his unlimited potential. Marcus Rush gets overshadowed at the other end spot, but he put up an outstanding freshmen season. Anthony Rashad White should be an anchor inside. The big question is who replaces Jerel Worthy, but the team is flush with candidates. This is another very deep defensive line.

3. Purdue: Don't be surprised by this high ranking. Kawann Short might be the top defensive lineman in the league, and is poised for a monster senior season. Bruce Gaston gives him a veteran running mate. Defensive end Ryan Russell is coming on and might be due for a major breakout this season. This should be the strength of Danny Hope's defense.

4. Penn State: Devon Still is gone, but the Nittany Lions should continue to be strong up front. Jordan Hill looks to follow Still's lead and become a superstar as a senior. Sean Stanley is a speedy rusher off the edge, and Pete Massaro returns from a knee injury. DaQuan Jones and Deion Barnes could become bigger contributors.

5. Illinois: Star power lifts the Illini to this high ranking, as defensive end Michael Buchanan and tackle Akeem Spence should be among the very best at their positions in the league. It's just a matter of finding out how the others -- like end Justin Staples and tackle Glenn Foster -- raise their games around them to help make up for the loss of sack master Whitney Mercilus.

6. Nebraska: Too low for the Huskers? Perhaps. They do bring back several veterans, like Cam Meredith, Chase Rome and Baker Steinkuhler, while expecting more from Eric Martin. Still, this group did not dominate enough for my taste last season, and seems to lack the one true pass-rushing stud. But Nebraska has the potential to have a very stout line.

7. Michigan: It's probably wrong to doubt a line overseen by Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison. Yet this unit lost three starters from a year ago, including stars Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen. A lot depends on how Will Campbell performs as a senior, and whether Craig Roh can take his game to the next level. There isn't much experience at all behind the starters.

8. Wisconsin: Can David Gilbert stay healthy and emerge as a fearsome pass-rusher? That's the key to the Badgers' defensive line, without a doubt. Tackles Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer are rock solid, though the loss of Jordan Kohout hurts the depth inside. Brendan Kelly should be good against the run. But Wisconsin needs a fast player on the perimeter, and that's where Gilbert comes in.

9. Iowa: This is a frighteningly young and inexperienced group heading into the season for Iowa, though that doesn't mean it lacks talent. Steve Bigach is the closest thing to a seasoned veteran. The Hawkeyes will need a lot of players to raise their performance, including Dominic Alvis and Carl Davis.

10. Northwestern: This has been a trouble spot for the Wildcats, and could be again in 2012 with the loss of both starting tackles. Tyler Scott and Quetin Williams are back at end, and expectations are high for redshirt freshman Deonte Gibson. Can Will Hampton and Brian Arnfeldt hold the fort down inside the tackles?

11. Indiana: Defensive line is one of the few places where the Hoosiers have experienced veterans. Seniors Adam Replogle and Larry Black lead the way at tackle. Bobby Richardson and Ryan Phillis showed some things as freshmen pass-rushers last season. Still, this group must play better overall.

12. Minnesota: The Gophers have had trouble putting consistent pressure on quarterbacks for the past couple of seasons, and now they're replacing both interior linemen. Jerry Kill has talked highly of 6-foot-6, 300-pound junior Ra'Shede Hageman's offseason, and Roland Johnson comes over from junior college to help out. D.L. Wilhite and Ben Perry will bring speed, but not much bulk to the defensive end spots.

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

June, 21, 2012
6/21/12
5:00
PM ET
I'm getting married in a little over a week. No wonder she looks so sad.

But it's happy time. Mailbag time.

A. S. P. from Boynton Beach, Fla., writes: Conventional wisdom has it that now with Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke in place, Big Ten football will return to an Ohio State-Michigan two-step in the coming seasons. That would return Wisconsin and the Spartans to the pack, after a moment in the sunlight. Granted this is a gross generalization, but what are your thoughts on the next five years in Big Ten football?

Brian Bennett: I think the next five years will be incredibly exciting, and I can't wait to watch and cover them. You're fooling yourself if you don't think Michigan and Ohio State are going to be really, really good -- as in, national championship contention good. But Michigan State and Wisconsin aren't going to roll over, either. And don't forget about Penn State and Nebraska, not to mention everybody else. This has a chance to be a very deep league filled with outstanding teams that all appear to be on an uptick right now. Combine that with the new playoff system that will make it likely that a Big Ten team gets in the Final Four most years, and this could be one of the most exciting eras ever of Big Ten football.


Eric from Arizona writes: Greetings from Northern Arizona! You've stated Michigan State's BCS chances as "a definite." You and Adam have agreed that MSU is the favorite as of now to go to the Rose Bowl. In the case Michigan or Nebraska get to the B1G championship instead, what are MSU's realistic chances, given the schedule and the team they are fielding in 2012, of reaching either the Sugar, Orange or Fiesta Bowls in January? If the Rose Bowl didn't work out, I would love to drive 2 hours to see Sparty in person in Glendale...

Brian Bennett: Michigan State is probably better off finishing second in the Legends Division than making it to Indianapolis and losing the title game for BCS purposes, since history has shown that championship game losers have a tough go of it. Michigan was a perfect example of this. While naturally a lot depends on what other teams across the country do, the Spartans might well have to be 11-1, with their lone loss to an undefeated (in conference play) Legends champ. A 10-2 Michigan State team would have a tough time ranking high enough in the BCS standings to guarantee a berth, and then it becomes a beauty contest. Remember that Michigan finished just 13th in the final BCS standings but had enough cache with its name brand to get selected for the Sugar Bowl. As painful as it is to hear, Spartans fans, Michigan State might not carry the same weight. That's why winning the Big Ten championship game, or somehow getting there undefeated, remains the best bet.


Drew from Milwaukee writes: Nice article on Michigan State's rise to national prominence, Brian. The obvious program in the B1G to compare MSU against over the last few years has been the Wisconsin Badgers - a program that I feel has broken into the national consciousness a lot more than the Spartans have despite nearly identical results on the field of play. I've got a four point theory to explain the difference that I'd like to get your take on. 1) Playing in back to back Rose Bowls, the most timeless tradition in CFB, 2) more nationally elite players, particularly on offense (Tolzien, Clay, Kendricks, Ball, Wilson etc.), 3) game day atmosphere. I seriously think that a lot of people fell in love with Madison when the Badgers beat #1 Ohio State back in 2010, and 4) Bret Bielema, a polarizing figure who is very media savvy. While I think inside baseball folks know that Michigan State is a top program nationally right now, the lack of the aforementioned is holding them back from making the big time. What do you think?

Brian Bennett: You make some very good points, Drew, and I think your first one is the really important one. Unlike Michigan State, Wisconsin has played in back-to-back Rose Bowls, and there's simply no substitute for making it to the sport's biggest games when you're talking about national relevance. Though the Badgers lost the past two years in Pasadena, they still have those three wins from 1992-2000 under their belts, while the Spartans haven't played in a Rose Bowl since 1988 and haven't played in a BCS bowl during the BCS era. Bielema is also a master at promoting his program and his players, while Mark Dantonio has a more low-key public persona. There's no question, though, that Michigan State needs to make a splash on the BCS stage to get to the next level.


A.J. from Madison writes: I disagree that Wisconsin's biggest need for improvement is its wide receivers. I won't disagree that they are the most inexperienced group by far, but I think the D-line needs to step up most, as the pass-rush was very poor last year. Look back to 2010, not a single wide receiver topped 500 yards receiving, and the Badgers still made it to the Rose Bowl. It's just not as big of focal point in the offense.

Brian Bennett: I agree with you that Wisconsin needs to improve its pass rush, A.J. I'm just skeptical of how much improvement that unit can make during the summer. I thought Ethan Hemer, Beau Allen and Brendan Kelly all had good springs, and the Badgers look like they will be fine up the middle. They still need a consistent pass rusher off the edge who can disrupt plays, and they're hoping David Gilbert can be that guy. Gilbert does need a home run summer, but the Badgers would settle for just him getting back fully healthy from a foot injury -- so maybe more like a solid double to the gap. I don't know that there are many other guys with those skills on the current roster. Wisconsin's receivers might not hold the key to the season, but they have a lot of athleticism and potential. And in my view, they have a lot more room to grow in a short amount of time.


Bryan from Denver writes: Best conference for uniforms, traditions and stadiums in the country? I'm a Big 12 fan, but really believe these distinctions belong to the Big Ten, though we are close.

Brian Bennett: I couldn't agree more, Bryan, especially with the addition of Nebraska. As you'll be able to tell later this summer when Adam and I unveil our Big Ten stadium rankings, no other league can really compare to the amount of venerable, history-laden stadiums. Same goes for uniforms, traditions and longstanding rivalries. The key for the Big Ten is that it can't simply rely on its tradition. The league has to get back to competing for and winning national championships, because teenagers aren't that interested in history class.


Steven from Baltimore writes: I have a question about the B1G's representation on the BCS oversight committee. While I respect Harvey Perlman's opinions and leadership, do you think he's a good representative for the B1G at this time? We've heard from Nebraska representatives multiple times how they still don't quite "get" some things about Big Ten culture, like the Rose Bowl. As a Badger fan, I feel like my New Year's home is in Pasadena and I'm quite concerned about the Rose's future (especially with this rotating semifinal talk).

Brian Bennett: While I disagree with Perlman's stance that the status quo or a plus-one would be better for college football, the Nebraska chancellor is rightly held in high regard among his peers on these issues. He has served as chairman of the Division I board of directors and the BCS presidential oversight committee and is as knowledgeable as any university leader out there. I have no doubt that Perlman is representing not just his own views but those of the entire Big Ten during this process. Like it or not, a whole bunch of Big Ten leaders agree with him that a four-team playoff is unnecessary.


Kevin from Ann Arbor writes: Hey Brian, did you notice that the SEC's rise to (mythical) dominance did occur until after the complex strength of schedule component had been removed? Coincidence? I don't think so. The simple fact remains that the SEC has always been a top heavy league and a few instances aside, the league has been averse to stronger out of conference schedule.

Brian Bennett: I wish it were that simple, Kevin, because then we could find a way to end this stranglehold. But I'm afraid it's not true. LSU played one of the toughest nonconference schedules you'll ever find last year, beating two teams that won BCS bowls (Oregon and West Virginia) away from home. Alabama went on the road and handled Penn State. While some SEC teams have definitely scheduled softly and have been highly reticent to leave their comfort areas (hello, Florida), the ultimate proof is in the national championship games. No computer or poll matters then, and SEC teams have continually beat the best the rest of the country has to offer.


Kyle R. from Salt Lake City writes: Love the blog! It's awesome reading different sides to everyone's thoughts and arguments for every topic brought up, and you guys do a great job with sharing the spotlight for each team. My wife and I are trying to have a baby (hopefully twins) but what do you think of the name, Maize? Yes, I am a big Michigan fan! :) It's been our life long dream to go to the BIG HOUSE, so hopefully with a boy named Maize we can eventually all go there.

Brian Bennett: I love it, Kyle. Maize actually seems like a pretty cool name. If you have twins, you could name the other one Blue. Of course, he'd have to deal with a lot of this.

Wisconsin spring wrap

May, 11, 2012
5/11/12
6:00
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2011 record: 11-3

2011 conference record: 6-2 (Big Ten champions)

Returning starters:

Offense: 5; Defense: 6; kicker/punter: 0

Top returners:

RB Montee Ball, LT Ricky Wagner, OL Travis Frederick, WR Jared Abbrederis, RB James White, TE Jacob Pedersen, LB Chris Borland, LB Mike Taylor, CB Marcus Cromartie

Key losses:

QB Russell Wilson, OG Kevin Zeitler, C Peter Konz, WR Nick Toon, DT Patrick Butrym, S Aaron Henry, CB Antonio Fenelus

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Montee Ball* (1,923 yards)

Passing: Russell Wilson (3,175 yards)

Receiving: Jared Abbrederis* (933 yards)

Tackles: Mike Taylor* (150)

Sacks: Beau Allen* (4)

Interceptions: Shelton Johnson*, Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus (4)

Spring answers

1. Keep on running: The Badgers are enjoying the luxury of returning last year's Heisman finalist and record-breaking running back Montee Ball, who somehow managed to look a step faster this spring. They also still have the very capable James White, who produced 713 rushing yards a year ago. And while both sat out the spring game -- Ball as a precaution, White with a minor injury -- redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon stepped in and showed he could be the next star tailback in Madison. The Badgers can always run the ball, and this year could be a special season for the ground game.

2. Secondary matters: All-conference performers Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus are gone from the secondary, but Wisconsin was feeling good about its defensive backs this spring. Head coach Bret Bielema said Dezmen Southward and Shelton Johnson could be the best safety duo he's had during his tenure. Devin Smith is coming back from a foot injury and should fare well as a fifth-year senior starting cornerback. With fifth-year senior Marcus Cromartie also returning at corner, this is an experienced group that is looking to atone for a couple of late breakdowns last season.

3. Strong in the middle: Despite a few snapping problems in a late spring scrimmage, Travis Frederick looked good in replacing star center Peter Konz this spring. Ryan Groy appears ready to become an all-conference type player at left guard. Across from them lies the strength of the defensive line, with Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer and the developing Warren Herring looming as potentially disruptive defensive tackles. If football is won in the middle of the trenches, then Wisconsin is well set up to defend its Big Ten title.

Fall questions

1. O'Brien to the rescue: The Badgers' passing game had its share of struggles this spring, with only Joe Brennan and walk-on redshirt freshman Joel Stave healthy at quarterback. Stave moved ahead of Brennan by the end of spring, but neither showed great consistency. Of course, Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien is on the way, hoping to replicate the success of Russell Wilson. That's far from guaranteed, though, and O'Brien will have to play more like he did as a freshman for the Terps than as a sophomore to make Wisconsin's passing game a true threat.

2. Who else at receiver? Abbrederis missed the spring with a foot injury, giving the coaching staff a long look at the possible contenders to complement him in the receiving corps. It was a very young and inexperienced group that had its ups and downs. Players like Marquis Mason and Chase Hammond have good size and ability but need to learn how to compete every down. Isaiah Williams showed some potential late in the spring. Having good tight ends and excellent pass-catchers out of the backfield should help, but the receiving group remains very much a work in progress.

3. Living on the edge: Wisconsin's defensive line was stout in the middle this spring but lacked a dynamic pass rusher on the edge. The coaching staff hopes that junior David Gilbert can fill that role, but he was out all spring with a foot injury that cut his 2011 season short. If Gilbert isn't all the way healthy or falls short of expectations, there aren't a lot of other candidates. The Badgers' defense is going to be solid with an experienced secondary and two stars at linebacker in Mike Taylor and Chris Borland, but it only reaches the elite level if someone can consistently get to the quarterback.

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