Big Ten: Jeremy Langford
What’s not to like? The Spartans sputtered in the second half at Oregon after racing to a two-score lead. They were equally shut down for much of the second and third quarters at home against Ohio State and struggled to finish against Nebraska. But this was a good offensive unit, featuring the most consistent group of skill-position players in the league. QB Connor Cook improved statistically only a small amount over his sophomore season, but his leadership proved huge in the comeback win over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl. Tony Lippett on the edge was the best in the league. Jack Conklin and Jack Allen played at a high level, and MSU, as usual, fielded a powerful running game behind Jeremy Langford.
The standard here is so high. And while Michigan State led the nation in rushing defense while playing in a league of the best running backs nationally – in addition to a meeting with Oregon – don’t overlook that the Spartans struggled at times to defend the pass. Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond deserved their accolades in the secondary; Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush were a fearsome duo, but an element of dominance was missing in comparison to Pat Narduzzi’s 2013 unit. Michigan State faced arguably the nation’s three best offenses in the Ducks, Ohio State and Baylor, surrendering an average of 45 points. Against the rest of the schedule, the number was 14.4.
Special teams: B-
The Spartans weren’t great in any area of the kicking game, though nothing stood out as a liability. R.J. Shelton did a nice job on kickoff returns. Michael Geiger was usually reliable as a placekicker, though he missed a pair of field goals against Ohio State. Punter Mike Sadler, an All-American as a junior, fought the effects of a knee injury but remained solid. Rush’s late block of a Baylor field-goal attempt allowed the Spartans to complete their comeback win in the season finale.
Michigan State began 2014 with aspirations to reach the College Football Playoff after its Rose Bowl win to cap the previous season. And while it lost twice – to playoff finalists Oregon and Ohio State – credit Mark Dantonio and his staff for keeping the Spartans focused after the disappointment. Both times, MSU responded well. It performed well in areas that require coaching, ranking ninth nationally in defensive third-down conversion rate and among the national leaders in offensive red-zone efficiency.
Never take for granted an 11-win season – even at Michigan State, where the Spartans have enjoyed four in the past five years. As usual, it got solid leadership and improved from start to finish. Sure, MSU didn’t produce complete performances in its biggest games, but no team nationally, including Alabama, can claim a better two-loss resume.
Next on the list is the only team nationally to face both participants in the inaugural College Football Playoff national championship. Of course, we’re talking about the Michigan State Spartans.
Position to improve: Running back
Why running back could be a problem: Pretty obvious, isn’t it? The Spartans lose workhorse Jeremy Langford, who rushed for 40 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards over the past two seasons. Gone also is top backup Nick Hill, who gained 622 yards as a senior. Even with star QB Connor Cook and an experienced group of receivers -- minus Tony Lippett -- MSU values a strong running game. Experience is lacking.
How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): The Spartans have traditionally featured big-bodied backs. Next year looks no different. Delton Williams (6-foot-1, 228 pounds) returns as a junior after rushing for 316 yards and five scores. Gerald Holmes (6-0, 221) carried the football 15 times in his first year of action, and Madre London (6-1, 213) redshirted as a freshman out of Florida.
How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): The name to know is L.J. Scott, a 6-1, 217-pound prospect from Hubbard, Ohio, who committed to the Spartans in July over offers from Ohio State, Alabama and others. He ranks 93rd in the ESPN 300, seventh among running backs, and was named one of 10 instant-impact recruits for 2015 by ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill.
Early 2015 outlook: The spring will provide an important chance to impress for Williams, Holmes and London, all of whom were well regarded as recruits, though none on the level of Scott. The Spartans redshirt most freshmen, though Williams played in 2013. Can Scott see the field? Probably, but MSU would be well served to find a solid option as Langford’s replacement before August. The best guess to open the season in the backfield is Williams.
Anyone who tracked the Big Ten's summer buzz -- or reviewed the list of players attending preseason media days in Chicago -- noticed the league's surplus of standout running backs.
Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon had spurned the NFL, and a potential first-round draft selection, for a run at the Heisman Trophy and a national championship. Gordon's good friend Ameer Abdullah also was back for one final season at Nebraska, where he had been among the nation's most productive players. Indiana football might not have held your attention, but Tevin Coleman's 7.3 yards-per-carry average certainly did.
"In this league," Cobb told ESPN.com's Austin Ward in August, "there's a good running back on every team."
Turned out, Cobb was underselling himself and his fellow backs. Most Big Ten teams had great, if not elite, running backs.
The numbers back it up: 2014 was easily the best season for running backs in Big Ten history.
The league produced six 1,500-yard rushers -- no other conference had more than three (no other Power 5 league had more than two). According to research from the Big Ten office, until 2014 the league never had more than three 1,500-yard rushers in the same season. Although a 12-game regular season, a championship game and the College Football Playoff provide more opportunities, Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott was the only back who needed the extra contests to reach -- and ultimately far eclipse -- 1,500 yards.
According to ESPN Stats and Info, no FBS conference has had even five 1,500-yard rushers since at least 1996.
The Big Ten produced the nation's top three rushers in Gordon, Coleman and Elliott. It had all three finalists for the Doak Walker Award in Gordon (who won), Coleman and Abdullah. Gordon was a Heisman finalist and likely would have won the award in any other year, as Marcus Mariota's numbers were overwhelming. Coleman and Gordon were consensus All-Americans, and Elliott earned offensive MVP honors in both the Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl, and in the national championship game.
So much star power eclipsed the consistency of players such as Cobb and Langford, the emergence of Northwestern freshman Justin Jackson, the speed threat of Purdue's Akeem Hunt, or the versatility of Illinois' Josh Ferguson.
Go ahead. Try to find a more productive season at running back -- for any league -- in college football history.
But what stands out about the Year of the Big Ten Running Back was that it occurred in stanzas. Just when one star back broke from the pack, another would seize the spotlight.
Let's take a quick look back:
Act 1: Fear Ameer
Abdullah and Georgia's Todd Gurley were the nation's best backs in the first month of the season. The Nebraska senior opened with a 232-yard performance against Florida Atlantic, and finished September with consecutive 200-yard efforts against Miami and Illinois. Abdullah finished with just 54 rush yards against FCS McNeese State but delivered one of the season's most memorable plays -- a 58-yard run after catch through McNeese State defenders with 20 seconds left that secured a Cornhuskers win.
Although Coleman also had a strong start and other Big Ten backs had their moments, Abdullah put himself in the Heisman talk with 833 rush yards and eight touchdowns by the end of September.
Act 2: Melvin makes his move
It was a bizarre start for Gordon: a huge first half (plus one play) against LSU, followed by a mysterious absence, followed by a 17-carry, 38-yard clunker against Western Illinois. Goodbye, Heisman? Hardly.
Beginning with a 253-yard performance against Bowling Green, Gordon posted 10 consecutive games of 100 or more rush yards, five 200-yard performances and seven games with multiple rushing touchdowns. By the end of October, he had returned to the national awards races.
It's always hard to get noticed on a struggling team, but when a player consistently puts up numbers like Coleman, he commands attention. Coleman averaged at least 6.9 yards per carry in six of his first seven games, including 14.5 yards per rush in a 219-yard effort at Iowa. Although his 307-yard explosion at Rutgers was overshadowed by Gordon's record-setting day against Nebraska, he earned national respect by running for 228 yards and three touchdowns at Ohio State in a game that Indiana led in the third quarter.
Coleman averaged 197.3 rush yards in road games, barely trailing Gordon (198 ypg) for the national lead.
Act 4: What about the other guys?
Cobb and Langford lacked the flash of Gordon, Coleman or Abdullah, but their consistency, durability and production eventually became impossible to ignore. Cobb logged five performances of 145 rush yards or more and recorded 30 or more carries in four consecutive games. Langford started slowly but ended the season with 10 consecutive 100-yard rushing performances, a team record. He ended his career with 15 consecutive 100-yard performances in Big Ten games, the longest such streak for any FBS player in regular-season conference games since at least 1996.
Elliott also surfaced with 154 yards at Michigan State, the first of many big-stage performances he would deliver down the stretch.
Act 5: Gordon's Heisman move
Some felt Mariota had the Heisman locked up by early November. Gordon made them reconsider. After a ho-hum 205-yard effort at Purdue, Gordon gashed Nebraska for an NCAA-record 408 rush yards as snow fell at Camp Randall Stadium. His milestone, compiled in just three quarters, lasted just one week as Oklahoma's Samaje Perine broke the record, but Gordon made the Heisman a two-man race again. He followed up with 200 yards at Iowa and a workmanlike 151 against Minnesota as Wisconsin won the Big Ten West Division.
Gordon fell shy of the Heisman but won the Doak Walker Award and secured a place as one of the great -- and perhaps the greatest -- Wisconsin back.
Act 6: Riding the E Train to a championship
The Year of the Big Ten Back was supposed to end with Gordon, but Elliott provided a surprise addendum. It started with 220 rush yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries in Ohio State's 59-0 stomping of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Elliott then followed with 230 yards and two scores on 20 carries in the Playoff semifinal against Alabama at the Sugar Bowl, including a Crimson Tide-taming 85-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
He ended with an even better performance -- 246 rush yards and four touchdowns -- as "ZEEEEEKE!" cheers reverberated throughout AT&T Stadium in Ohio State's national title win against Oregon.
The final carry for a Big Ten back this season: Elliott's 1-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds to play, providing a fitting exclamation point.
Let's get to it.
No. 6: Ameer Abdullah, RB Nebraska
Abdullah won't soon be forgotten by Nebraska fans who have seen plenty of elite running backs over the decades. The heart and soul of Huskers football the past few years eclipsed 1,600 rushing yards for the second consecutive season, ranked fourth nationally in all-purpose yards (174.8 ypg) and had 22 total touchdowns, numbers that would have been even greater if not for a late-season knee sprain. Abdullah earned second-team AP All-America honors and was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award.
No. 7: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
For most of the season, it was the Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman and Ameer Abdullah show, with some cameos from David Cobb. No one mentioned Elliott, mostly because Buckeyes freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett kept stealing the show with his performances. But Elliott took center stage in Ohio State's championship run, earning offensive MVP honors in both the College Football Playoff semifinal and championship game. Cheers of "Zeeke!" echoed in Indianapolis, New Orleans and Arlington, Texas, as Elliott racked up 696 rush yards and eight touchdowns in the Big Ten championship and playoff games. He finished third nationally in rushing yards with 1,878.
No. 8: Anthony Zettel, DT, Penn State
The only non-running back in this portion of the player rankings earned his spot largely by making life miserable for opposing running backs. Zettel moved from end to tackle in the spring and emerged as an interior force, finishing second in the Big Ten in tackles for loss (17) and tied for fourth in sacks (8). He also tied for the team lead in interceptions (3). An exceptional athlete who supplements his football work with mixed martial arts training, Zettel is continuing Penn State's tradition of elite defensive tackles.
No. 9: David Cobb, RB, Minnesota
The 220-pound Texan put Minnesota's offense on his back for much of the season. Cobb set single-season team records for both carries (314) and rush yards (1,626), and logged seven 100-yard rushing performances. The second-team All-Big Ten selection had big performances against both Ohio State (145 yards) and Michigan (183 yards) and reached the end zone in each of his final six Big Ten games. Minnesota's offense lacked balance at times, but Cobb kept the chains moving.
No. 10: Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State
Langford might be the nation's most under-appreciated running back in the past two seasons. Constantly overshadowed by flashier players in the Big Ten and elsewhere, he has been remarkably consistent and productive, recording 10 100-yard rushing performances to give him a team-record 18 for his career. He also tied Michigan State's single-season rushing touchdowns record with 22. Like in 2013, Langford did much of his damage in Big Ten play, averaging 127.5 rush yards per game. In almost any other league, he's a first-team all-conference selection.
Michigan State has a program built to last, but Mark Dantonio's team still has some things to get done in the coming months.
1. Restock the "No Fly Zone:" The Spartans must replace cornerback Trae Waynes, who skipped his senior year to become a potential first- or second-round NFL draft pick, and safety Kurtis Drummond, who was named the Big Ten defensive back of the year. Even with those guys on the field in 2014, Michigan State's vaunted secondary had some issues this fall, particularly against its best opponents. Safety RJ Williamson and cornerback Darian Hicks return as starters, and Montae Nicholson seems likely to claim the other safety spot after starting there three times as a freshman. The other cornerback job will be up for grabs, with Demetrious Cox the likely front-runner. But there will be heavy competition this spring and summer.
2. Replace stars at RB, WR: Jeremy Langford and Tony Lippett were two of the best players at their respective positions in modern-day Michigan State history. Langford was a 100-yard per-game metronome and a workhorse tailback who ran for 2,944 yards and 40 touchdowns in the past two seasons combined. Lippett was the Big Ten's top receiver in 2014 with an 1,198-yard season -- and he started at cornerback late in the season, too. Replacing them will be a tall order, though the Spartans have plenty of options. Delton Williams is the most experienced returning running back and will get some competition from Madre London and others this spring. At receiver, Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings Jr. have made big plays in their career and have the potential for more. Young players will be thrown into the mix at both spots right away, too. Can any of them rise to the star level that Langford and Lippett achieved?
3. Find ways to slow Ducks, Bucks: As it did in 2014, Michigan State's 2015 season could really come down to two games: the Week 2 visit from Oregon and the Nov. 21 trip to Ohio State. Those two teams played for the national championship and were the only ones to beat the Spartans last season. But they did so handily, as Oregon won 46-27 and Ohio State rolled 49-37. With Pat Narduzzi gone to Pitt, new co-defensive coordinators Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel need to study every millisecond of film this offseason to find some type of way to put the brakes on those two high-flying offenses. That's much easier said than done, of course. But unless Michigan State wins at least one of those games, it will have no chance to reach the College Football Playoff. As always with a Dantonio team, it starts with defense.
Since the start of the 2013 season, Baylor ranks No. 1 in the nation in total offense. Michigan State ranks No. 1 in total defense since 2013. AT&T Stadium is in for one heck of a best vs. best battle on New Year's Day when the Bears and Spartans face off in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic on Thursday (12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
ESPN.com's Brian Bennett and Max Olson break down the matchup:
How Michigan State can control the game: Baylor is going to score and put up big plays; that's pretty much a given. Michigan State's defense got gashed by the two other high-octane offenses it played this year, Oregon and Ohio State, so it's unrealistic to think the Spartans will shut down this one. But Michigan State's best defense might be its own high-powered offense, which can give the Bears problems with the power running game behind Jeremy Langford and the arm of quarterback Connor Cook. Michigan State might have to beat Baylor at its own game by lighting up the scoreboard. -- Bennett
How Baylor can control the game: Michigan State should expect gunslinger Bryce Petty and his limitless number of speedy receivers to do some damage, sure. But Sparty coaches who've been prepping for a month know by now the Bears win in lots of ways. Devin Chafin (elbow) is back and gives Baylor a three-headed monster at running back. Those backs will pound and bruise to set up the air show. Three-and-outs are the key on D, and Baylor forced more this season than MSU did. -- Olson
Michigan State's X factor: Defensive end Shilique Calhoun is likely playing his final game in the green and white, as he's widely expected to go to the NFL. He got off to a little bit of a slow start and whiffed on an important would-be sack of Marcus Mariota in the Oregon loss. But he bounced back strong and finished with 6.5 sacks. The Spartans need him to harass Petty and throw off the timing of the Baylor offense. -- Bennett
Baylor's X factor: Motivation. Even when Art Briles was irate about being left out of the College Football Playoff, he was quick to point out he hasn't forgiven or forgotten last year. Baylor laid an egg at the Fiesta Bowl -- a 52-42 loss to UCF -- but gets a redo this week: another chance for the first 12-win season in school history. Can the Bears channel their anger from the CFP snub and let loose against an even better opponent? -- Olson
What a win would mean for Michigan State: The Spartans are 10-2 but lost the only two marquee matchups on their schedule. So beating Baylor and claiming a New Year's Six bowl would add further validation to this season and make this a highly successful follow-up to last year's Rose Bowl championship season. With Ohio State surging and Michigan feeling the buzz of the Jim Harbaugh hire, Mark Dantonio's team can remind everyone that there's still a Big Ten East Division superpower in East Lansing. -- Bennett
What a win would mean for Baylor: In addition to those aforementioned incentives, the Bears are looking for a proper send-off for Petty, Bryce Hager, Antwan Goodley and the seniors who helped build up this program into a national title contender. Spencer Drango and Shawn Oakman made a major statement this week in electing to pass up the NFL for another run at the playoff. Baylor can make its own statement Thursday that, for a third straight year, this will be the team to beat in the Big 12. -- Olson
Our final question of the week: What was your favorite Big Ten moment of the season?
Brian Bennett: Take a bow, Melvin
Josh Moyer: Penn State fans celebrating the end of the postseason ban
It wasn’t the most important Big Ten moment of the 2014 season, but it’s still one I’ve never quite seen before – and probably never will again. After the NCAA announced the elimination of the bowl ban, along with other sanction reductions, PSU fans spilled into the streets of downtown Happy Valley and celebrated as if they just knocked off the top team in the nation. Two years of anger and frustration gave way to unbridled joy. Thousands sprinted to different venues on campus and just chanted, screamed and sang. Some even crowd-surfed on mattresses at the last stop. I’ve seen big fan celebrations before, but never for something that happened off the field. It was quite a sight.
Mitch Sherman: Mark Dantonio's answer to the Michigan disrespect
The seeds were planted long before Oct. 25, but when Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden drove a stake into the turf at Spartan Stadium, Michigan State reached its boiling point. It's rare that we get to see the reserved Dantonio stick out his chest, but the Spartans punctuated a 35-11 win over U-M with a Jeremy Langford touchdown run in the final 30 seconds. That was a message in response not just to the pregame stake-planting but years of disrespect. "I felt like we needed to put a stake in them at that point," Dantonio said after the game, also referencing the "little brother stuff" that has long brewed in this series. It was a great subplot, of which Michigan coach Brady Hoke, fittingly, was "not fully aware."
Austin Ward: Anthony Schlegel's takedown of a fan on the field
Leaving the stands and running on the field is pointless, dumb and dangerous right from the start. In case anybody had overlooked that last part, Ohio State assistant and former linebacker Anthony Schlegel offered a reminder that would have made The Rock proud. After a student had the bright idea to step on the turf at the Horseshoe during a September game against Cincinnati, he compounded it by getting a bit too close to the Ohio State sideline, where Schlegel popped out to plant him in the ground with an unforgettable body slam. The lesson, as always, is to stay in the seats.
Dan Murphy: Michigan-Ohio State moment of sportsmanship
Maybe it's all this Christmas music that has me feeling sappy, but the moment that keeps coming to mind (other than Melvin Gordon's insane performance against Nebraska) was shortly after J.T. Barrett's season-ending injury against the Wolverines. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner made his way on to the field and offered some support to Barrett, who was still laid out on his back as trainers worked on his leg. At that point, it was the fourth quarter of a one-touchdown game between bitter rivals with a lot on the line -- a potential playoff berth for the Buckeyes and a last-ditch effort to save their coaching staff for the Wolverines. One of the worst moments of the year (Barrett's injury) was quickly followed by a great one. The quarterback's show of genuine solidarity was a reminder that these guys are human beings. Gardner fell short of expectations on the field this season, but it's far more appropriate that college football's lasting image of him will be that moment of sympathy.
Adam Rittenberg: Bust a move, Coach Kill
I'm tempted to go with Gordon in the snow against Nebraska, especially since I was there to witness history, but Jerry Kill gets my vote for his "old age" dance moves after Minnesota wins. Minnesota's rise under Kill has been one of the best Big Ten story lines in the past two seasons. Many wondered early in 2013 if Kill's coaching days soon would end because of his struggle with epilepsy, particularly seizures on game day. But the coach has his condition under control and continues to show why he's one of the best at getting the most out of his teams. You couldn't help but smile seeing Kill enjoy the wins by dancing in the locker room, surrounded by his joyous players. Those moments never get old.
Overview: Michigan State lost several big stars on defense but was still a top contender to repeat as the Big Ten champ this season. The Spartans evolved on offense and scored enough points (43.1 per game) to finish the regular season with 10 wins. Junior quarterback Connor Cook threw for 2,900 yards and 22 touchdowns and running back Jeremy Langford ran for 100-plus yards in nine straight games to provide a balanced attack. Michigan State’s schedule provided Mark Dantonio and his team with two great chances to gain respect as a national power. They lost them both. The Spartans held a lead over playoff-bound Oregon at halftime and another lead over No. 4 Ohio State late in the second quarter before the defense crumbled and allowed a combined 95 points in the team's only two losses in 2014. Their own playoff hopes were dashed after the loss to the Buckeyes in November, but they hammered their way to a 10-2 record and another shot at a top-five opponent against Baylor in the Cotton Bowl.
Offensive MVP: Senior wide receiver Tony Lippett gave Cook a reliable target all season. Lippett, voted the Big Ten’s top receiver this year, made 60 catches for 1,124 yards and 11 touchdowns. No other receiver for the Spartans had half as many catches as Lippett this season. He also ran for a 32-yard touchdown on his only official rushing attempt of the season and started the final game of the regular season at cornerback. He provided the big-play threat Michigan State needed in order to open up many other parts of their offense. Replacing Lippett will be one of the Spartans’ biggest challenges in 2015.
Defensive MVP: With headline-grabbing defensive end Shilique Calhoun off to a slow start, redshirt senior Marcus Rush provided the Spartans defense with the steady pass-rushing force it needed. Rush set a school record by making 51 career starts during the last four seasons. He had 36 tackles this season and a team-high seven sacks. His quiet consistency often goes unnoticed by everyone except his teammates and opposing quarterbacks, but it was enough this year for him to be considered this group's most valuable player.
A holding penalty eliminated what at first looked like a rushing touchdown for Spartans running back Jeremy Langford. Not long after, the Buckeyes wiped clean the rest of Michigan State’s lead and its chance at a second consecutive Big Ten title, making the holding call a pivotal play in the race for a conference championship.
Langford’s run would have given his Spartans a 28-14 lead with under four minutes to play in the second quarter and their second touchdown in less than 60 seconds. The drive, which started inside the red zone thanks to a fumbled kickoff, was a chance to dump a truckload of pressure on the Buckeyes and their rookie quarterback J.T. Barrett.
Instead, All-American center Jack Allen hooked his arm around an Ohio State defender and dragged him down to open the lane for Langford. It was a clear penalty, which set up a third-and-long Michigan State couldn’t convert. Michael Geiger missed a field goal on the following play, and the Spartans missed a great chance to push Ohio State’s back to the wall.
“All of the sudden momentum just flipped,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said following the game. “If we go in at 28-14 there's a different feel, there's a little bit more like, 'OK, we've got them.' But they hit two big plays in that three minutes. So you deal with it."
Barrett connected with Michael Thomas on the next play for a 79-yard, game-tying touchdown. He would throw another deep ball for another score before the end of the half to complete a 21-point swing in the final minutes of the second quarter. Ohio State took its touchdown lead into the locker room and never looked back en route to a 49-37 win.
If Michigan State doesn’t get caught for holding, it could have pressed the Buckeyes and perhaps taken a two-score lead into the second half. To push the hypothetical further, maybe Barrett doesn’t play as loose without those two late scores and perhaps the Spartans hang on to win. They would be the one-loss team playing an overmatched Wisconsin squad in Indianapolis. With their only loss coming on the road to No. 2 Oregon, perhaps the selection committee sees them as worthy of one of four playoff spots.
On the other side, Urban Meyer is pinned with his first regular-season conference loss in the Big Ten and his third year without a conference title. A second loss kills the Buckeyes' chance of a playoff berth. Meyer is suddenly human, and the perception of the league’s top two teams is flipped.
Instead, the referee threw a flag between Allen and left tackle Jack Conklin and potentially altered the Big Ten season.
"Who knows what could have happened,” Conklin said after the game, “if we could have come out and finished that drive.”
Blake Sims has been so good, and Amari Cooper is just about unstoppable, but I think the Buckeyes' only chance to slow Alabama's offense is to cut out its legs -- slow the ground game. Good luck against T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry. But Ohio State has to start somewhere, and that's as good a spot as any.
Mitch Sherman: I like lots about the hire. Riley is a seasoned coach who brings a new attitude to Nebraska. I think fans and players will embrace his style. But like anything new, it's impossible to judge completely until a body of work exists. If Nebraska gets over the hump as a program, wins a league title and plays consistently competitive football in big games, the change was worth it. If not, Nebraska made a mistake. As for Michigan, sure, it can get a decent coach. We're talking about Michigan. Just don't expect it to happen overnight. At this point, the pre-dead period recruiting time is essentially lost. The Wolverines might be waiting a few weeks -- more specifically, until the end of the NFL season.
@mitchsherman What's your take on the Riley hiring? Worth firing Bo for him? Will MI be able to get a decent coach?- David (@drhgeronimo) December 10, 2014
Mitch Sherman: Probably never. With the nine-game league schedule set to start in 2017, it just doesn't make sense, logistically, to lock in a set of games against teams from a specific Power-5 league. The Big Ten tried -- and failed -- to work an arrangement with the Pac-12. This just isn't like basketball, which has so much more room with which to work in the nonconference season. And the alternative can be better. With upcoming games such as Alabama-Wisconsin (2015), Northwestern-Stanford (2015-16), LSU-Wisconsin (2016), Michigan-Florida (2017), Ohio State-Oklahoma (2016-17), Nebraska-Oregon (2016-17) and Michigan State-Arizona State (2018-19), why focus on a rivalry with one single league? Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah, David Cobb, Jeremy Langford and possibly Tevin Coleman, there's a void in the category of great backs. Perhaps Paul James, who ran for 363 yards and seven touchdowns in four games, can fill it. He ought to recover from an ACL tear, suffered Sept. 20 against Navy, in plenty of time for his senior season. Not enough carries exist to please James in addition to Josh Hicks, Robert Martin, Desmon Peoples and Justin Goodwin. But the competition should be fierce in the spring and spill over to August as Rutgers looks for an offensive identity without quarterback Gary Nova. For a team that ranked 10th in the Big 12 in rushing, the ground game is a good place to expect big improvement.
@mitchsherman when will we see something like basketball's Acc/B10 challenge in football?- Joshua O'Connor (@JoshuaOConnor1) December 10, 2014
Joseph from Kennesaw, Georgia, writes: Regarding the Coach of the Year award, why do people dismiss winning huge at big programs and think it's so easy to do?
Dan Murphy: This was the most popular topic in today's mailbag, and understandably so. Ohio State fans are fired up that Urban Meyer missed out on the conference's coach of the year award despite replacing a Heisman contending quarterback by developing another and getting through his third consecutive Big Ten regular season without a conference loss. He's got a pretty good case.
The problem lies more with the vague criteria for the award than a grand conspiracy to hurt the Buckeyes. We often hear about coaches of the year doing "less with more." Coaching, though, entails so much more than calling the right plays on Saturday. Should the ability to recruit well be considered when judging the coach of the year? Should raising money and running a smooth program and graduating players? Those are all on a coach's job description after all. Part of the reason Ohio State has gone so long without winning the award is that it's hard to win more than once. When you're already established as a great coach, no one is surprised when you win. Perhaps the award should be renamed to the more accurate Big Ten Coach Who Positively Defied Expectations of the Year.
Caleb from Omaha writes: Now that both jobs are open, in your opinion, which job is more appealing right now to potential coaching candidates, Nebraska or Michigan?
Dan Murphy: Michigan has the bigger brand name and the bigger bank account. The athletic department has taken positive steps toward causing fewer problems for itself by getting rid of former athletic director Dave Brandon. Many see having an interim athletic director as a negative, but Michigan can also spin that the other way by telling its next coach he can have a seat at the table when they get around to picking the permanent guy. Who wouldn't want a say in picking their own boss? The one thing Nebraska has going for it is playing in the West Division. Facing Wisconsin every year isn't fun, but not dealing with Mark Dantonio and Urban Meyer on an annual basis is a major plus.
It's interesting that there is very little overlap among the speculative lists of candidates that have come out for the two jobs. It doesn't seem like these two schools will be competing for the same guy.
Dave from Marietta, Ohio, writes: Let's say Cardale picks up right where JT left off and leads OSU to a win in the Big 10 game. TCU, Baylor/KSU, FSU, Alabama, and UO win as well. Is OSU out?
Dan Murphy: That would be Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett for those of us not on a first-name basis with the Ohio State quarterbacks. To answer your question, even if Jones is a clone of Barrett on Saturday I think it will be hard for the Buckeyes to wiggle into a top spot without some upsets.
Alabama, Florida State and Oregon are in with a win. That leaves Ohio State and the two Big 12 teams to battle for the final spot. Baylor has a chance to pick up a quality win against Kansas State this weekend that should help them, and TCU is already ahead of Ohio State in the committee's mind. It will probably take a loss among those teams, and possibly two losses, for the playoffs to be a real possibility.
Jeremy Langford. 1) Join a team that doesn't have a well-balanced offense and the best receiver in the conference. 2) Play his senior season in just about any other year in the last two decades.
Langford does have the respect of coaches and others around the league. His streak of 100-yard rushing games hasn't gone unnoticed. He missed out on any all-conference awards because he had the unfortunate timing to play his final season during one of the best years for running backs in the history of the conference. He also is on a team that has to lean on him for production far less than schools such as Wisconsin with Melvin Gordon and Minnesota with David Cobb. Having a good quarterback hurt Langford in that respect, but it helped him win 10 games this season. He's probably OK with that trade.
@danmurphyespn Where are the Michigan private jets headed to today?— Nick Harbaugh (@Harbaugh81) December 3, 2014
Why do you ask, Mr. Harbaugh? Are you expecting a visit?
Just try to escape unscathed against Jeremy Langford at Michigan State on the road, in the snow against Minnesota’s David Cobb and then once again the next week against Indiana and Tevin Coleman.
“I mean we’ve seen a lot of good backs this year,” Ohio State linebacker Joshua Perry said. “Obviously [Gordon] is a Heisman front-runner, so he’s on a level of his own. But you can’t say that we haven’t been tested already with some of the running backs, some of the offensive lines we’ve seen this year.
“We’ve been really close to being a really, really sound, stout, smothering defense. It’s just those few bad plays.”
For the most part, the Buckeyes have had success at slowing down opponents on the ground, no matter how much talent is lining up in the backfield. But it hasn’t been able to do it for an entire game, and it only takes a couple breakdowns for guys like Langford, Cobb or Coleman to turn a pedestrian performance into an explosive one.
That has been a painful lesson for Ohio State at times this year. Langford extended his string of 100-yard games and gashed the Buckeyes for three touchdowns. Cobb followed up a week later with three scores of his own on the way to 145 yards. And after bottling up Coleman for a half against the Hoosiers, the Big Ten’s second-leading rusher exploded for touchdowns that covered 90 and 52 yards while piling up 228 on the ground -- and, of course, three total touchdowns.
Aside from the scores, the other common denominator in those games was the outcome. Ohio State won each of those meetings against the Big Ten’s best tailbacks, and it was aided in all of those victories by a passing defense that underwent a dramatic overhaul in the offseason and has produced more interceptions than any other team in the league this year.
In some ways, the Buckeyes may have lost just a bit up front stopping the rush in its commitment to improving the secondary this season, and against a suspect Wisconsin passing attack, it may be able to devote more attention to containing Gordon. But either way, Ohio State already has plenty of examples it can point to from the last month of how dangerous it can be to let down its guard even for a second.
“This is about to sound stupid -- we shut down the run, but [Coleman] is a really good back and he made some big plays,” defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “That last play, he had that 90-yarder, I don’t even know what happened there.
“I mean, I really feel like people aren’t going to understand this, but I feel like our defense is a complete defense. The only thing that kills us are these big plays and mental mistakes.”
Even with those slip-ups factored in, Ohio State still ranks No. 5 in the Big Ten in rushing defense. And in allowing an even 4 yards per carry, far more often than not the Buckeyes are making tailbacks grind to move the football.
But the only test that really matters is coming up against the most dangerous rusher in the nation with a conference crown on the line this weekend. And Gordon won’t hesitate to punish a defense that makes even just a couple mental errors over the course of a game.
“For years we’ve played very good run defense,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “When you do devote so much time to pass defense and actually think from the back end first, at times you’ll give up some rush yards. What we want to do is be flexible enough to do both. But this is as good of a rushing team as there is in the country, so we have to devote some more personnel to stopping the run.
“We have faced very good backs and given up some yards. But for the most part I have not been disappointed.”
One way or another, the Buckeyes have survived against the rest of the Big Ten batting order. All that’s left is to find a way to sit down the cleanup hitter.
For the most part, these selections seemed very dead on. It helped that there was not a lot of controversy over the top picks for many awards. But that's not to suggest that there weren't some interesting/debatable choices.
It's tough, quite frankly, to argue with many of these. J.T. Barrett is the obvious choice for quarterback of the year after his record-breaking season, and he will no doubt be the Big Ten freshman of the year on Tuesday night (He'd trade it all to be able to play Saturday, for sure). Similarly, Melvin Gordon deserved the running back of the year award and will be the league's offensive player of the year. There's also no doubt about Joey Bosa, Tony Lippett, Maxx Williams, Mike Hull or Brad Craddock for their honors.
I do wonder a bit about Iowa's Brandon Scherff as the offensive lineman of the year. He's a terrific player and a future first-round draft pick. But I didn't think he was dominant all year long and, at times, he got visibly beat (most notably in the Maryland game). Yet his reputation is very strong among coaches and he was an Outland Trophy finalist. I'm not so sure that others, like Michigan State's Jack Conklin and Ohio State's Taylor Decker, didn't have a better year.
Michigan State's Kurtis Drummond is a fine choice for defensive back of the year, though you could have just as easily gone with Maryland's Will Likely or Minnesota's Briean Boddy-Calhoun. As we've seen, though, coaches tend to favor seniors (remember Chris Borland over Ryan Shazier last year?). Ultimately, though, there's not a lot in these awards to get upset about.
These are, again, mostly strong and very defensible choices. But I do think there are a couple of highly debatable selections by the coaches (and no one here at ESPN.com voted on the media selections, so we're not patting ourselves on the back).
- Kenny Bell on the coaches' first team at wide receiver? I love Bell's game and think he's an even better person. But he finished eighth in the Big Ten in receiving yards and wasn't even in the Top 10 in receiving yards. Yes, he's a great blocker, but that's not enough to warrant his selection over Rutgers' Leonte Carroo, who had 1,043 receiving yards. The fact that he's only honorable mention by the coaches is an absolute joke, and I wouldn't blame Rutgers fans for being furious.
- And Illinois' Mike Dudek was arguably the best wide receiver in the league down the stretch, but he didn't make either first or second team by the coaches? Instead, the coaches went with Stefon Diggs and Devin Funchess on the second team, both of whom disappeared at key times. It's like the coaches based their picks more on pure talent and preseason reputation than actual production, which should be the gauge.
- Similarly -- and I swear I'm not picking on Nebraska here -- Randy Gregory is as special a player as it gets from a talent standpoint. But he had all kinds of trouble staying healthy, and the Huskers' defense was simply not good at all in the team's biggest games. I don't see him as a first-team performer based on his 2014 production. I'd rather go with a second tackle like Louis Trinca-Pasat or Carl Davis from Iowa or Maryland's Andre Monroe as a third defensive end. Those guys were consistent performers all season long.
- I would have voted Boddy-Calhoun over Doran Grant at cornerback, as the media did instead of the coaches, and I would have found a way to get Wisconsin safety Michael Caputo on the first team. He was such an anchor for the league's best defense.
- Michigan State finished 10-2 yet didn't have a player win a Big Ten player of the week award until this week when R.J. Shelton was co-special teams player of the week (an obvious bone thrown toward the Spartans' way, since Nebraska's De'Mornay Pierson-El was so special on punt returns). Michigan State did get several first- and second-teamers here, but running back Jeremy Langford couldn't make the first or second team despite his streak of 15 straight 100-yard games in Big Ten play. That tells you how deep this running back group was in the conference, as Langford is the most notable snub from both coaches and media. But Ameer Abdullah and David Cobb couldn't even make the first team, though they would in pretty much any other league in America.
- I'm struggling to come up with much else to criticize, which is unusual for these selections. So that tells me the league's coaches and media did a pretty good job. Stay tuned for tomorrow's major award announcement, where coach of the year is the only one really in doubt.
@ESPNJoshMoyer what's the rumor mill for Nebraska? Who coaches their bowl game?— Kitrick (@kitrick22) December 1, 2014
Josh Moyer: Associate head coach Barney Cotton -- the run-game coordinator who coaches the tight ends and helps out with the offensive line -- was named the interim guy, so he will coach the bowl game. Now for the $10,000 question: Who will be the next head coach? Well, since there will be no search firm, that decision is almost entirely up to athletic director Shawn Eichorst -- which makes it a bit more difficult to project. So all sorts of names have popped up, even Jim Tressel. (For the record, I'd find that incredibly surprising considering he is still under a show-cause penalty.) But one name that Eichorst will almost certainly consider is Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost, the former Nebraska quarterback. If Eichorst wants an offensive mind with Nebraska connections, Frost is the right fit. (He's also currently the Bovada favorite at 5/2.) If Eichorst wants more experience? Greg Schiano, Memphis' Justin Fuente, Colorado State's Jim McElwain or Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy could all potentially fit the bill. If Eichorst wants a little more experience and those university connections? A darkhorse candidate might just be Wyoming's Craig Bohl, who was born in Lincoln and graduated from Nebraska. There are still interviews to conduct and coaches to contact but, at this point, those are six names outside the Big Ten to keep an eye on.
Josh Moyer: A lot of craziness; unprecedented craziness. It's not going to happen, but I received this question so much I feel obligated to answer. Michigan State is out of it because it's not getting ranked ahead of the Big Ten champion -- and it's literally impossible for two Big Ten teams to make the playoff at this point. As for Wisconsin, even if it beats Ohio State, think about the domino effect you would need here. If Oregon loses to Arizona, how would Arizona not stay ahead of Wisconsin? The Ducks are ranked higher than Ohio State, and Arizona's currently ranked higher than Wisconsin. If Baylor loses to Kansas State, how would Kansas State not stay ahead of Wisconsin? Kansas State's only losses came against No. 15 Auburn and No. 5 TCU, while Wisconsin fell to unranked LSU and nuranked Northwestern. One SEC team should make the playoff, so that leaves just one spot after the Pac-12 and Big 12 teams from above. For Wisconsin to stand any kind of chance then, TCU would have to lose to 32-point underdog Iowa State and Georgia Tech would have to knock off Florida State ... while still somehow not jumping Wisconsin. In other words, Big Ten fans will just have to settle for a spot or two in the New Year's Six.
Jared Amundson writes: As much as it pains me to ask, would Wisconsin be sitting in position to make the playoffs going into this game against OSU if they had beat Northwestern? I still have nightmares about how Wisconsin lost to Northwestern! Josh Moyer: Well, Jared, you might want to close your eyes instead of reading this answer then -- because the Badgers would definitely be in great position if it weren't for that Northwestern game. I could see Wisconsin and Ohio State right next to each other at the 5-6 spots, right behind TCU. And chances are a quality win in the Big Ten title game would have nudged Wisconsin (or Ohio State) over the Big 12 champ. We're talking about a lot of "what ifs," of course, and it's not an exact science. But if that Northwestern game would have gone differently? The Badgers would be set up nicely at this point in the season, and their higher ranking could have helped Ohio State more, too.
@ESPNJoshMoyer what bowl game do u see PSU going to?— Dennis Kochis (@denk40) December 1, 2014
Josh Moyer: I hope you like New York because It's probably going to be the Pinstripe Bowl. We've projected that for quite a few weeks now. (Yes, even last week.) It's just a matter of whom Penn State's going to play. It looks as if Pitt is out of the equation because the ACC defines the Pinstripe as a Tier 1 bowl, and Pitt is in Tier II since it has six wins. Penn State's opponent in the Pinstripe could be any one of the following then: Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Louisville, N.C. State or Notre Dame. And the Irish just played in the Pinstripe last season, so it's not the likeliest opponent either.
Isaac from Steven's Point, Wis., writes: Let's say, hypothetically, that Michigan State was a member of the West Division. Who would be playing Ohio State for the championship? Josh Moyer: Basically, what you're asking is, "Who's better: Wisconsin or Michigan State?" It's close, very close, but I'm still going with Michigan State. It's not just me, either. We Big Ten bloggers collectively ranked MSU ahead of Wisconsin in the conference power rankings, and ESPN did the same in the national power rankings. The Badgers boast the better defense, but Michigan State has the better overall offense and averages nearly six points more a game. Melvin Gordon might just be the best player in the nation, but Michigan State's trio of Connor Cook, Jeremy Langford and Tony Lippett also means you can't focus on just one guy. It's nearly a toss-up, but give me the Spartans..