Big Ten: Keith Mumphery

Spring football is already peeking around the corner, but the Big Ten blog just doesn't have the patience to wait for teams to get back on the practice field. To help pass the time, we're looking across the league at the top position battles that could help shape the season by September and some candidates to take over those jobs.

Next up: Michigan State.

1. Running back: With the frighteningly consistent production of Jeremy Langford now gone, the Spartans have a big hole to fill to keep their high-scoring offense rolling in the fall. There's no shortage of options on the roster to carry the load, starting with Delton Williams. The junior figures to have the first crack at the gig, but redshirt freshman Madre London and sophomore Gerald Holmes could apply pressure and develop into appealing options for coach Mark Dantonio. This might even be a derby that extends into training camp in August, when touted recruit LJ Scott arrives and throws his name in the hat. The Spartans know how valuable a workhorse like Langford was for the offense, and they'll be paying close attention to his potential replacements.

2. Wide receiver: There's no way to understate the importance of Connor Cook's decision to return to the program for another season, but keeping the passing attack at a high level won't be solely up to him. The Spartans are going to have to bring along new targets after losing Tony Lippett and Keith Mumphery after last season. While Cook might help ease the transition with his arm strength and accuracy, he can't run the routes for the fresh faces on the perimeter. Macgarrett Kings and Aaron Burbridge offer experience and have proven they can be legitimate weapons for the Spartans, but are they ready to be primary, go-to options for Cook? Spring should provide answers about them and perhaps R.J. Shelton or AJ Troup, a walk-on who chipped in seven catches and a pair of touchdowns last fall.

3. Cornerback: The Spartans have earned the benefit of the doubt with their system in the secondary, the eye for talent in the back end and the ability to develop players when they arrive on campus, so there's not much reason to worry about a decline with another couple veterans heading out the door. But Dantonio is going to need to identify playmakers to shut down opposing passing games without Trae Waynes around to lead that effort. Can a versatile defender like Demetrious Cox be an option at cornerback down the road? Is Darian Hicks ready for a full-time role for a unit that has recently established a tradition of being among the best in the nation every year? The Spartans are going to find out soon enough.
Big Ten receivers undoubtedly took a step forward last season after struggling mightily the year before. Will the group continue to improve or backslide after losing standouts such as Allen Robinson, the back-to-back Big Ten receiver of the year, Jared Abbrederis, Jeremy Gallon and Cody Latimer?

The 1,000-yard mark means more to wide receivers than rushers, especially in the Big Ten. Four players reached the milestone in 2013 after just one (Robinson) in 2012. The Big Ten had four 1,000-yard receivers in 2011 but none in 2010 and just one (Purdue's Keith Smith) in 2009. So this category can be tricky to forecast.

Although no Big Ten returning player had more than 800 receiving yards in 2013, the league boasts several potential breakout stars. Your task today: Select the Big Ten player most likely to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards this fall.

The candidates ...

SportsNation

Which Big Ten player is most likely to reach 1,000 receiving yards this season?

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    32%
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    11%
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    21%
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    5%
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    31%

Discuss (Total votes: 6,552)

Kenny Bell, Nebraska, senior: The 'fro, tragically, is no mo' after Bell lost a bet to his friend, Northern Colorado defensive lineman Devontae Chapple. But perhaps less hair will mean more production after Bell's receiving yards went from 863 in 2012 to 577 last year. Nebraska never has had a 1,000-yard receiver, and quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. has much to prove as a passer, but Bell is one of the nation's most experienced wideouts.

Stefon Diggs, Maryland, junior: Big Ten fans who haven't seen Diggs are in for a treat, at least when he's not facing their favorite team. An ESPN 150 recruit who picked Maryland over Ohio State and others, Diggs finished eighth nationally in all-purpose yards (174.2) as a true freshman. He averaged 17.3 yards per reception through Maryland's first seven contests last season before suffering a broken leg. Diggs should be fine for the season and can put up huge numbers with his big-play ability. Maryland's depth at receiver -- Deon Long also returns from a broken leg -- could make it tough for Diggs to get to 1,000 yards.

Devin Funchess, Michigan, junior: Funchess is listed as a tight end and won the Big Ten's tight end of the year award last fall, but he plays like a bigger receiver at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds. He has averaged 15.5 yards per reception in his first two seasons with 11 touchdowns, setting a team record for receiving yards by a tight end with 748 last fall. Funchess becomes quarterback Devin Gardner's favorite target as Gallon departs. Michigan needs its receivers to step up, but Funchess could threaten 1,000 yards this year.

Shane Wynn, Indiana, senior: Like Bell, Wynn saw a slight production drop from 2012, when he led Indiana with 68 receptions, to last season, when he had 46 but still put up about the same yardage. But the departures of Latimer and tight end Ted Bolser, both selected in the NFL draft, along with Kofi Hughes and Duwyce Wilson leave Wynn as undoubtedly Indiana's No. 1 passing target. Quarterbacks Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson will be looking for Wynn a lot this fall, and his numbers could surge in a productive IU offense.

And, finally ...

Mystery man: Don't like any of these candidate to reach 1,000 receiving yards? This is the spot for you. Maybe Rutgers' Leonte Carroo complements his touchdowns with bigger yards totals this fall. One of the Northwestern Joneses (Christian or Tony) might reach 1,000 yards in a more pass-driven offense. Geno Lewis could follow Robinson's path at Penn State. Maybe Ohio State's Devin Smith gets there. Will one of Michigan State's receivers -- Tony Lippett, Macgarrett Kings, Aaron Burbridge, Keith Mumphery -- separate from the pack? Maybe one of the spring standouts -- Iowa's Derrick Willies, Illinois' Geronimo Allison or Mikey Dudek, Michigan's Freddy Canteen -- has a true breakout season.

B1G spring position breakdown: WR/TE

February, 27, 2014
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We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. The wide receivers and tight ends are up next.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Football Recruiting, Maryland Terrapins, Jacob Pedersen, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Devin Smith, Tony Jones, Tony Lippett, Corey Brown, Jeremy Gallon, Duwyce Wilson, Keith Mumphery, Justin Sinz, Kevonte Martin-Manley, Evan Spencer, Gabe Holmes, Kofi Hughes, Jared Abbrederis, Kyle Carter, Nick Stoner, Jordan Fredrick, Sam Arneson, Matt LaCosse, Ted Bolser, Steve Hull, Kenzel Doe, Christian Jones, Jamal Turner, Shane Wynn, Josh Ferguson, Kenny Bell, Devin Funchess, Josiah Price, Cody Latimer, Drew Dileo, Quincy Enunwa, Stefon Diggs, Jordan Westerkamp, Aaron Burbridge, Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, Jesse James, MacGarrett Kings, Austin Appleby, Michael Thomas, Adam Breneman, Tevaun Smith, Isaiah Roundtree, Isaac Fruechte, Drake Harris, Cameron Dickerson, Dominique Booth, Jalin Marshall, Jake Duzey, Danny Etling, Allen Robinson, Dan Vitale, Danny Anthrop, Martize Barr, Damond Powell, Dontre Wilson, James Clark, Robert Wheelwright, Donovahn Jones, Drew Wolitarsky, Taariq Allen, Richy Anderson, Sam Burtch, Chris Godwin, Garrett Dickerson, Johnnie Dixon, Saeed Blacknall, Alex Erickson, Maxx Williams, Geronimo Allison, Cethan Carter, Cameron Posey, DeAngelo Yancey, Geno Lewis, Brandon Felder, Brandon Coleman, B1G spring positions 14, Jordan Fuchs, Miles Shuler, Levern Jacobs, Nigel King, Amba Etta-Tawo, Dave Stinebaugh, Marcus Leak, Tyler Kroft, Quron Pratt, Leonte Carroo, Ruhann Peele, Carlton Agudosi, Andre Patton

PASADENA, Calif. -- No one would dispute that Michigan State's defense is the primary reason for the program's ascent. Especially after Wednesday's performance in the Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsWith many weapons returning, Michigan State should be able to rely on Connor Cook and the offense more in 2014.
The Spartan Dawgs showed they can be great even without a great player in Max Bullough, and stifled Stanford's power run game for the final three quarters of a 24-20 win. The fourth-down stop of fullback Ryan Hewitt, where a swarm of MSU defenders leaped over the pile, typified why Michigan State has gone from good to great.

But if you're searching for why MSU could keep the momentum going in the 2014 season, take a look at the other side of the ball. Michigan State's offense, which went from dysfunctional in September to efficient and, at times, explosive, could fuel the team this fall.

The Spartans return virtually all of their skill players, including quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and wide receivers Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphery, Macgarrett Kings and Aaron Burbridge. Bennie Fowler likely would earn a sixth year of eligibility -- he missed the entire 2009 season and part of 2011 with injuries -- if he wants one.

The tight end group, used more late in the season, returns completely intact. Fullback Trevon Pendleton, who had a touchdown catch in the Rose Bowl, is only a sophomore.

"It's been a long journey, and seems like a long time ago that we were being asked that question about what's wrong with our offense," co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said last week. "It's been a process without a doubt, and it seemed like it took a long time, but it was a necessary process, and we're still not a finished product by any means now because I think we can continue to grow and get better."

MSU showed against Stanford that it can win big games by throwing the ball, as Cook repeatedly attacked the seams of the Cardinal defense to players like Kings and Lippett.

"They were very vulnerable," Kings told ESPN.com on the field afterward. "We weren't looking to attack it, but as the game went on, that's what was open so we just took it. I caught a couple over the middle … Guys were sagging off, sometimes they play regular Cover 2. It's all about reading coverages on the run and making plays."

A receiving corps that struggled to simply catch the ball, much less make plays, in 2012 went through a dramatic transformation when Cook took control. Cook will enter 2014 as one of the Big Ten's top quarterbacks after recording his first two career 300-yard passing performances in the league title game and the Rose Bowl.

Dual threat Damion Terry likely will enter the mix in some form in 2014. Perhaps MSU incorporates a package of plays for Terry, who redshirted this season after nearly playing in September.

It will be important to build depth behind Langford, a solid back but one who could platoon with a guy like Delton Williams, if Williams remains on offense.

MSU loses three fifth-year seniors along the offensive line, including co-captain Blake Treadwell, but the line subtly took a major step in 2013. This had been the unit holding back MSU from reaching levels like Wisconsin, Iowa and others had. The line seemed to turn a corner and can build behind players like Travis Jackson, Jack Allen and Jack Conklin, a redshirt freshman who started the final 10 games at left tackle.

The defense loses much more -- six starters, including standouts like Bullough, All-America cornerback Darqueze Dennard, linebacker Denicos Allen and safety Isaiah Lewis. MSU certainly can reload but might not be quite as elite as this year's unit.

The Spartans likely will lean more on their offense in 2014. And they should.
The 100th edition of the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO kicks off later today. Here's a look at 10 reasons why No. 4 Michigan State could beat No. 5 Stanford in Pasadena.

[+] EnlargeShilique Calhoun
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State will send Shilique Calhoun, and many other defenders, at Stanford's offense.
1. MSU can match Stanford's physicality: Stanford's only two losses this season came against teams with big, physical players, especially up front. The Cardinal can simply overpower most of their Pac-12 foes, but Michigan State can match them along the line of scrimmage. Even without middle linebacker Max Bullough, the Spartans defense should be able to contain a traditional offense like Stanford's. Spread teams give the "Spartan Dawgs" slightly more trouble, but Stanford isn't one of them.

2. The kicking game: No one is talking enough about MSU's edge in special teams. Stanford's Ty Montgomery is an exceptional return man, but Michigan State has arguably the nation's best punter in Mike Sadler and a superior kicker in Michael Geiger, who has connected on 14 of 15 field-goal attempts. MSU also has been brilliant in executing special-teams fakes and has had nearly a month to brainstorm some for the bowl.

3. Shilique Calhoun: Michigan State's improved pass rush has made an already elite defense even better this season, and Calhoun is the biggest reason why. He has 7.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss and can pressure Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan in obvious passing situations. Calhoun will be challenged by Stanford mammoth left tackle Andrus Peat in what should be one of the game's best individual matchups.

4. Big-play receivers: This item would have been laughed at a year ago, but MSU's receiving corps turned things around early this season. Players such as Bennie Fowler, Keith Mumphery, Tony Lippett and Macgarett Kings can stretch defenses, and the group has repeatedly helped out quarterback Connor Cook with tough catches. Coordinator Dave Warner said the upgrade at receiver play has been the biggest difference with this year's offense.

5. No-fly zone: MSU undoubtedly will miss Bullough's run-stopping ability, but it has the luxury of committing more defenders to the run than most teams, especially against offenses like Stanford's. Cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes are talented enough to be left on their own against a Stanford team that features only one player (Montgomery) with more than 27 receptions. Dennard also could help against the rush.

6. The magic man: There's no doubt Cook has had the magic touch during Michigan State's nine-game win streak, making tough throws into traffic and on the move. He has gotten away with mistakes, some of which have turned into big plays for the Spartans. Will the magic run out against Stanford? It's possible, but Cook had his first career 300-yard passing performance in the Big Ten championship. The bigger the stage, the better he seems to play.

7. Sparta West: Big Ten fans love to complain that the league's bowl games are essentially road games. Well, the Rose Bowl will feel like Spartan Stadium as Michigan State fans have traveled here in large numbers. At least half of the stadium will be green, and MSU should feed off of the crowd after going 7-0 at home this season. The ideal weather conditions likely favor Stanford, but the overall environment gives MSU an edge.

8. Langford in the fourth quarter: Michigan State has won its past nine games by double digits and often finishes off its opponents with strong fourth quarters. The Spartans have outscored their opponents 105-27 in the final 15 minutes this season, and running back Jeremy Langford has delivered several long scoring runs down the stretch. Stanford has been outscored 85-82 in the fourth quarter this fall.

9. Extra prep time for coaches: This could be an edge for both teams as both coaching staffs are excellent, but Mark Dantonio and his assistants have been excellent in their preparation throughout the season. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has had ample time to study Stanford's offense and its line combinations, and the offense could incorporate some new wrinkles in the pass game. Definitely expect a PG-named fake or two from Dantonio.

10. Sparty: Michigan State has the coolest non-live-animal mascot in the country in Sparty, a chiseled warrior with a glare that intimidates anyone he encounters. Stanford's mascot looks like a 6-year-old's art project, with big googly eyes and a stupid grin on its face. Sparty will crush the tree and inspire Michigan State's players to do the same to Stanford. And yes, I grew up in Berkeley, Calif.
More than once this season I watched a Michigan State receiver make a great catch or a long run and thought: poor Andrew Maxwell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indiana running backs: The Hoosiers emphasized the run game during the offseason and saw the desired results during games. After finishing 10th in the league in rushing in 2012, Indiana improved to fourth, averaging more than 200 yards per game. Tevin Coleman emerged as a big-play threat and averaged 106.4 rush yards per game and a whopping 7.3 yards per carry. Teammate Stephen Houston wasn't too shabby, either, averaging 6.7 yards per carry.
Brian won the regular-season predictions contest and made me a poorer man Friday night at Harry and Izzy's in Indianapolis (at least he ordered pork chops, not steak). But when it came to the title game forecast, just call me Nostra-Rittenberg, as I correctly pegged Michigan State to upset Ohio State in the Big Ten championship.

Here's a look at our predictions from last week and those of former players Dan "Boom" Herron (Ohio State) and Jason Strayhorn (Michigan State).

Let's rewind …

Ohio State vs. Michigan State

Bennett's pick: Ohio State 27, Michigan State 24

Rittenberg's pick: Michigan State 30, Ohio State 28

Actual score: Michigan State 34, Ohio State 24

20-20 hindsight: Both of us were in the ballpark with the score predictions, and I would have nailed Michigan State's if the Spartans had settled for a field goal rather than a touchdown in the closing minutes (darn you, Jeremy Langford). Brian correctly predicted that Ohio State would have its lowest points total of the season and struggle against Michigan State's "No Fly Zone" secondary. He also had Michigan State starting fast behind quarterback Connor Cook, who turned out to be the game's MVP. But his forecast of a big fourth quarter for Ohio State fell short, as Michigan State held Braxton Miller in check and surrendered only 25 yards in the final 15 minutes.

I expressed some concern that Ohio State, making its Big Ten title game debut and facing its toughest opponent in years, could be a bit shaky, which turned out to be true as Michigan State jumped ahead 17-0. Then again, I predicted Ohio State would take an early lead and Michigan State would force two turnovers, neither of which turned out to be true. I correctly pegged Spartans wideout Keith Mumphery for a touchdown catch, but his teammate Bennie Fowler didn't get one. Miller's go-ahead touchdown run came in the third quarter, not the fourth, and Michigan State didn't need a game-winning field goal in the end.

Now for our guest forecasters …

While "Boom" Herron's prediction of a 31-17 Ohio State win went bust, Strayhorn correctly picked his Spartans to prevail and came just 34 yards shy of nailing Cook's career-high passing total. Michigan State's perceived weakness, the pass game, turned out to be stronger than Ohio State's (pass defense).

The next set of predictions will come your way before bowl season kicks off.
Dinner is on Adam in Indianapolis on Friday night, thanks to Brian's nailbiter of a win in the regular-season picks contest. But we all know the main course arrives Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.

We've got a bona fide heavyweight tilt in the Big Ten championship game, with national title implications at stake. It's time to crown a champion, and we need to be in championship form with these predictions ...

No. 10 MICHIGAN STATE (11-1, 8-0) versus No. 2 OHIO STATE (12-0, 8-0)

Brian Bennett: What a matchup this is, with the unstoppable force that is the Buckeyes' offense colliding with the immovable object of the Spartans' defense. I expect Ohio State to put up its lowest point total of the season as the "No-Fly Zone" led by Darqueze Dennard keeps the Buckeyes' air attack mostly grounded. And I expect the Spartans to make some plays on offense with Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford as they exploit some of the weaknesses of Urban Meyer's defense.

To me, this game comes down to one guy: Braxton Miller. He always seems to rise to the occasion in big spots, and this is the biggest game of his career. As good as Michigan State's defense is, it will have a hard time containing Miller and Carlos Hyde for 60 minutes, and Miller can flummox the best of defenses with his open-field running ability.

The Spartans take the lead into halftime as Cook is sharp early on, but Miller gets loose for a 60-yard touchdown run in the third quarter to give Ohio State the lead. Then he and Hyde grind out first downs in the fourth quarter to protect it. Still, both teams can bite down on some roses, because they're both headed to Pasadena. ... Ohio State 27, Michigan State 24

Adam Rittenberg: This is the matchup we've been waiting to see, and I can't wait for kickoff Saturday night. As I often do, I've changed my mind several times during the week. Michigan State should handle Ohio State's offense better than any defense has all season. Then again, Big Ten championship games are high scoring since teams no longer have to deal with the weather. Cook has never been on a stage like this and could show his inexperience. Then again, he has answered every challenge to date. And Miller hasn't played in a game of this magnitude, either.

I keep thinking back to last year's title game, where Nebraska came in as a favorite but clearly looked intimidated by the setting and the stakes. Wisconsin was the much looser team, played like it and spanked the Huskers. These are two different teams -- I think Michigan State will be the looser one, as the Spartans are likely headed to the Rose Bowl either way. Ohio State finally has the national title game in its sights. How will the Buckeyes hold up against the best team they've faced since 2011?

Ohio State jumps ahead early, as it almost always does, but the Spartans settle down and force two turnovers midway through the game. Cook attacks the secondary with the play-action and fires touchdown passes to Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery. Miller puts Ohio State in front midway through the fourth quarter with a touchdown run, but the Spartans answer behind Cook and Jeremy Langford, who finds some running room late. Michigan State ends this title game on the right side of a special-teams play, as Michael Geiger kicks his third field goal for the win. And the SEC rejoices. ... Michigan State 30, Ohio State 28

As you probably know, we've selected a guest picker each week this season to compete with us. For a game this big, we thought we needed to do something special. So we reached out to a couple of celebrity guest pickers from each side who have ties to Indianapolis as well.

First up is former Ohio State running back Daniel "Boom" Herron, who's now with the Indianapolis Colts. Herron picks the Buckeyes to win 31-17, saying, "I have confidence in my team and coaching staff. I haven't really watched [Michigan State], but I don't think they can stop our offense, and our defense will get the job done."

Our second guest picker is former Michigan State center Jason Strayhorn, an Indianapolis native who's now an analyst for the Spartans' radio network. Strayhorn says, "I think the game will come down to not only red zone defense, but also whose weakness is stronger: Michigan State's passing game versus Ohio State's pass defense. I say Connor Cook throws for 270 yards and Michigan State wins 28-24. I say that because that was the score we had when we went to Columbus and beat the No. 1 ranked Buckeyes in 1998."

Thanks to Boom and Jason for their picks. We'll find out who's right Saturday night.

SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 80-16
Adam Rittenberg: 79-17
Guest pickers: 75-21

Wins reveal soft sides of OSU, Spartans

November, 16, 2013
11/16/13
11:52
PM ET


LINCOLN, Neb. -- Michigan State all but punched its ticket to the Big Ten championship game on Saturday, defeating Nebraska 41-28 in opportunistic and efficient fashion here at Memorial Stadium.

Barring chaos over the next two weeks, the Spartans are set to face Ohio State on Dec. 7. The matchup may well pit MSU at 11-1 and the Buckeyes at 12-0.

Forgive us, though, for wondering, after Saturday, about exactly what we’ll see in Indianapolis -- a heavyweight battle worthy of national-title implications or a pillow fight representative of the Big Ten’s overall strength?

[+] EnlargeMichigan State
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesJeremy Langford and Michigan State ran past Nebraska, but are the Spartans good enough to top Ohio State and change perceptions about the Big Ten?
Both of the league’s title contenders showed their soft sides in Week 12.

The third-ranked Buckeyes lost focus as Ilinois, en route to a 20th straight Big Ten loss, played Urban Meyer’s team nearly even over the final three quarters in a 60-35 Ohio State win.

And here in Lincoln, No. 16 Michigan State, for all the buzz over its top-ranked defense, looked ordinary against Nebraska’s MASH unit of an offense. The Huskers averaged 5.7 yards per rush and outgained MSU 392-361.

Nebraska committed five turnovers, including three inside its own 25-yard line.

Credit Michigan State for taking what was there, but the Huskers were plenty generous, handing two of their four fumbles to MSU without so much as taking a hit. And Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw his lone interception straight to safety Kurtis Drummond, ending Nebraska’s second possession of the afternoon just like its first -- with an unforced error on the third play.

“You’re not always going to get opportunities to get the ball like we did today,” Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough said. “We know that, but hey, if they’re there, we’re going to take them.

“We’re not going to apologize for it either way.”

Armstrong, Nebraska’s freshman quarterback in his sixth career start, worked behind an offensive line with four of five guys playing positions they hadn’t started at this year until last week. The one starter at his normal spot, right tackle Jeremiah Sirles, missed the second half because of a knee injury suffered a week ago.

When the Huskers tried to avoid trouble before halftime and get to the locker room trailing by six points despite a minus-3 turnover margin, Armstrong fumbled. When they seized momentum in the second half but needed room to operate after Michigan State’s Mike Sadler dropped a punt on the 1-yard line, Armstrong fumbled again.

“We were our own worst enemy,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said.

As Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said, it’s “almost impossible” to win like that.

The Spartans did some good stuff, too. They converted 11 of 21 third downs, including a 27-yard dagger of a touchdown pass from Connor Cook to Keith Mumphery on third-and-13 with less than eight minutes to play.

Four plays earlier, Michigan State had executed a gutsy fake field goal as Sadler, the punter and holder, rumbled for 3 yards on fourth-and-1 with the Spartans up 27-21.

Michigan State calls it the Charlie Brown play, named for the famous gag that Lucy pulls on her little brother’s best friend in the cartoon strip. The Huskers were equally fooled, which is great for Michigan State, but what does it really tell us about the Spartans?

“We can sit here and talk about how they gashed us in the run game or they made a few plays, but we won,” Bullough said. “And that’s the difference between being 7-6 and competing for that championship at the end of the year.”

The Spartans need not apologize. They capitalized on Nebraska errors on Saturday like a good team ought to do.

But the MSU hallmark, its defense, did not perform in Lincoln as advertised.

Can they serve as an accurate gauge of greatness for Ohio State, trying to swim upstream toward a berth in the BCS championship game? And are the Buckeyes even deserving of consideration over the other title contenders after feasting on the bottom of the Big Ten since the first week of October?

This Big Ten season started with a flash of hope seven weeks ago as OSU beat Wisconsin by a touchdown in a thriller at the Horseshoe.

Since then, the dust has settled on a conference season void of much intrigue outside of Big Ten borders.

Atop both divisions, the events of Saturday did little to revive hope of a Big Ten renaissance.

Michigan State season preview

August, 16, 2013
8/16/13
10:30
AM ET
If the old adage “defense wins championships” always held true, then Michigan State would be a top team in most preseason polls. But they'll still have to play offense, and it might not be a good thing that the Spartans' success this season will hinge on how the unit moves the ball.

MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS

Coach Mark Dantonio (69-45 overall, 51-28 at Michigan State)

2012 record: 7-6 overall, 3-5 Big Ten

Key losses: DE William Gholston, RB Le’Veon Bell, RB Larry Caper, TE Dion Sims, DB Johnny Adams, LB Chris Norman, K Dan Conroy

[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Andrew Maxwell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireWill Andrew Maxwell be able to hold off Connor Cook and lead the Spartans?
Key returnees: QB Andrew Maxwell, WR Keith Mumphery, WR Bennie Fowler, WR Tony Lippett, WR Aaron Burbridge, RB Riley Bullough, OL Travis Jackson, CB Darqueze Dennard, LB Max Bullough, LB Denicos Allen

Newcomer to watch: Running back Riley Bullough. The redshirt freshman converted linebacker can be considered a true newcomer because this is his first season at the position. The Spartans are looking for someone to step into the big shoes Bell left, and Bullough has seemed to rise to the occasion throughout fall camp.

Biggest games in 2013: at Notre Dame (Sept. 21), at Iowa (Oct. 5), vs. Michigan (Nov. 2), at Nebraska (Nov. 16), at Northwestern (Nov. 23)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Will the offense really be able to get it going? Maxwell remains the biggest question mark. Dantonio pulled Maxwell during the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl last season and put in Connor Cook. The same could happen this season as the two battle it out trying to find consistency in the offense and chemistry with wide receivers. Bullough should help, but neither he nor junior Nick Hill has ever been a featured back in an offense. Running back by committee could be the Spartans’ best bet.

Forecast: The Spartan defense will be stout, even without Gholston. It returns most starters and Max Bullough is ready to lead. It’s the offense that will struggle to find its identity, which happens to most teams when they don’t have a starting quarterback who has consistently proven himself. This season, Michigan State might head into the fall with that part still unanswered. The Spartans return multiple wide receiver threats, so Maxwell should have some kind of chemistry there, but how long his leash will be remains to be seen, and Cook could be thrown into the fire relatively quickly.

The schedule does set up the Spartans to play their best football later in the season. The front half of their conference schedule isn’t too bad. The Spartans should be better than the Hawkeyes, but playing at Iowa is never easy. Indiana and Purdue at home, as well as a road game against Illinois, should provide ample confidence building as the Spartans face a tougher three-game stretch in November. They’ll host in-state rival Michigan before hitting the road for Nebraska and Northwestern, which could be a true contest this season, unlike in most. Minnesota at home should be a fine way to close out, especially considering that will be the week that fellow Legends team Michigan faces a tough competitor in Ohio State, possibly with both teams vying for a spot in the Big Ten championship game the following weekend.
2012 record: 7-6
2012 conference record: 3-5 (fourth in Legends division)
Returning starters: Offense: 8; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

LB Max Bullough, CB Darqueze Dennard, LB Denicos Allen, S Isaiah Lewis, DE Marcus Rush, QB Andrew Maxwell, LT Fou Fonoti, C Travis Jackson, WR Aaron Burbridge

Key losses

DE William Gholston, DT Anthony Rashad White, CB Johnny Adams, RB Le'Veon Bell, TE Dion Sims, G Chris McDonald, K Dan Conroy

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Le'Veon Bell (1,793 yards)
Passing: Andrew Maxwell* (2,606 yards)
Receiving: Bennie Fowler* (524 yards)
Tackles: Max Bullough* (111)
Sacks: William Gholston (4.5)
Interceptions: Darqueze Dennard* and Johnny Adams (3)

Spring answers

1. Waynes, Calhoun secure spots: The Spartan Dawgs just keep on rolling. Michigan State's defense didn't have too many major questions entering the spring, but it needed an end to replace William Gholston and a cornerback to play opposite Darqueze Dennard. It found both. Shilique Calhoun, who had a mini-breakout game in the bowl against TCU, secured a starting spot at defensive end. Trae Waynes and fellow sophomore Arjen Colquhoun logged most of the snaps at cornerback as Dennard recovered from hernia surgery, and Waynes did enough to land the No. 1 job.

2. Life of Riley: Riley Bullough opened the spring backing up his big brother Max at middle linebacker. He ended the session as a bulldozing running back, a spot where Michigan State is looking for answers after losing national carries leader Le'Veon Bell to the NFL draft. No other running back distinguished himself in practice, so the coaches moved Riley Bullough to the position, and he did some impressive things. Bullough was Michigan State's leading rusher (46 yards) in the spring game. Although he could move back to linebacker, he gives the Spartans another option in the offensive backfield.

3. Burbridge continues to emerge: The Spartans are searching for offensive playmakers and appear to have found one in sophomore wide receiver Aaron Burbridge. He moved into the starting lineup midway through the 2012 season and provided a bright spot for the struggling receiving corps. Burbridge benefited from a full offseason in the program and capped the spring with a five-catch, 113-yard performance in the Green-White Game. He could emerge as Michigan State's No. 1 receiver and/or push veterans Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback quandary: Michigan State is still looking for the man to lead its offense in 2013. Senior Andrew Maxwell started all 13 games last season, and although he did some good things in practices, he didn't separate himself and looked a bit shaky in the spring game. Connor Cook answered the coaches' challenge to improvise when plays broke down, and he'll continue to push Maxwell when fall camp begins. Redshirt freshman Tyler O'Connor and incoming recruit Damion Terry also could be in the mix.

2. Third linebacker: The Spartans boast one of the nation's top linebacker tandems in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, both of whom enter their third season as starters. Who will line up next to them this fall? It could be Taiwan Jones, who capped the spring with 11 tackles in the Green-White Game. But Jairus Jones, who moved from safety to outside linebacker this spring, is very much in the mix and drew praise from the coaching staff and teammates. Jones made a good transition to linebacker and helps an already strong position group.

3. Man on the run: Riley Bullough's emergence adds a new twist to the running back competition, but nothing is settled entering fall camp. Nick Hill and Jeremy Langford took most of the reps with the first-team offense this spring but didn't separate themselves, and Hill underwent sports hernia surgery last week. The coaches also want to see how incoming freshmen Gerald Holmes, R.J. Shelton and Delton Williams perform when they arrive this summer. Although Michigan State typically has one featured back, it could use more of a committee system this season. But there are definitely questions in the offensive backfield.
We're previewing the three-pack of spring games taking place Saturday afternoon around the Big Ten. You've already seen what Wisconsin and Penn State have on tap.

It's time to check in on the annual Green-White Game at Michigan State.

When: Saturday, 2:35 p.m. ET

Where: Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich.

Admission: Free. Parking is free in n Lots 79, 62W, 63E/W, 67, 56, 39/40, 41; Ramps 2 and 5; Lot 62E has been reserved for disabled parking. Stadium gates (B, C, J and K) open at 1 p.m. ET.

TV: Big Ten Network (live) and BTN2go.com

Weather: Partly cloudy, 42-44 degrees, winds at 13-14 mph

What to watch for: The Spartans are a team with a multitude of questions on offense and very few on defense, so fans will spend most of Saturday studying one side of the ball. Although the quarterbacks won't be live like they have been in other spring scrimmages, Saturday marks the final chance for Andrew Maxwell, Connor Cook and Tyler O'Connor to impress the coaches before fall camp.

Michigan State's seniors drafted teams for the spring game earlier this week. Maxwell will play for the White squad, Cook will quarterback the Green team and O'Connor will take snaps for both sides.

[+] EnlargeMax Bullough
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsMax Bullough, above, was an All-Big Ten linebacker for Michigan State last season, but his younger brother Riley might be worth keeping an eye on in the Spartans' spring game.
Keep an eye on Riley Bullough, the younger brother of Spartans All-Big Ten linebacker Max Bullough. Riley began the spring as Max's backup at middle linebacker but recently moved to running back, where the Spartans have a pressing need after losing Le'Veon Bell. He appears to have made a strong impression, as Max drafted Riley with the first pick of the spring game draft, saying it had little to do with bloodlines.

"I picked him because he's earned it -- nothing to do with being my brother," Max Bullough said. "He's definitely earned it. He's a guy that, he's picked up the offense very quickly. He's run downhill, he's made plays where other guys haven't, and we want him on our team."

Running backs Nick Hill and Jeremy Langford, who started the spring taking most of the first-team reps, will play for Green and White, respectively.

The Spartans' wide receivers took a lot of criticism last season for dropped passes, and it will be interesting to see who steps up in the scrimmage. Bennie Fowler and Aaron Burbridge will play for the Green squad, while Keith Mumphery, the first wideout drafted, will suit up for the White along with AJ Troup, who was picked ahead of Tony Lippett.

It might be tough to get a good read on the offensive line as the projected starters have been split up (more White than Green).

There's less intrigue with a defense that once again should be among the nation's elite, but fans should watch defensive end Shilique Calhoun and cornerback Trae Waynes, two players who coach Mark Dantonio said secured starting jobs with their play this spring. Lawrence Thomas, the first underclassman defensive tackle selected in the draft, is another interesting player who could take on a bigger role this fall.

The White team appears to have the edge in personnel, but we'll see how things play out Saturday afternoon.

Big Ten lunchtime links

April, 15, 2013
4/15/13
12:00
PM ET
Happy tax day.
 
In anticipation of spring practice kicking off Tuesday, Michigan State on Monday released its depth chart for the session, while head coach Mark Dantonio addressed the media.

Here are some notes:
  • Three players will miss spring ball after offseason surgeries, including two projected starters in linebacker Denicos Allen and offensive lineman Jack Allen. Top cornerback Darqueze Dennard also is banged up but should return to the field for the final two weeks of practice, Dantonio said.
  • The depth chart reflects several changes along the offensive line. Dan France, who has started 24 games at left tackle the past two seasons, is listed as the starter at right guard. Fou Fonoti, who opened the 2012 season as the starting left tackle before suffering a season-ending foot injury in September, is listed as the No. 1 left tackle, while Skyler Burkland is the top right tackle. Fonoti and top center Travis Jackson both are 100 percent following leg injuries, which could be a major boost for the line. Blake Treadwell is listed as the starting left guard, but Allen could fill that spot when he returns from injury.
  • Michigan State also moved safety Jairus Jones to outside linebacker, where he's listed as the backup to Taiwan Jones. Dantonio said injury issues at linebacker spurred the move and that Jones can switch back to safety, but the Spartans have excellent safety depth with starters Isaiah Lewis and Kurtis Drummond, reserves RJ Williamson and Demetrious Cox and others. Dennard's injury means two largely unproven players, sophomores Trae Waynes and Arjen Colquhoun, open the spring as the team's top cornerbacks. But Dantonio on Monday sounded very excited about the team's young defensive backs.
  • Dantonio said the quarterbacks all will take contact during scrimmages, a move you don't see often in the spring. The coach didn't say whether the quarterbacks would evenly split repetitions, but they all will compete against the No. 1 defense. As expected, Andrew Maxwell is listed as the No. 1 quarterback, followed by Connor Cook and Tyler O'Connor.
  • Michigan State's defensive staff visited LSU earlier this spring. Both teams finished in the top 10 nationally in defense in 2012. Dantonio hopes the offensive staff can do a similar visit after spring ball (the offseason shuffle made it difficult to do so before).
  • Nick Hill is the team's top running back, followed by junior Jeremy Langford and redshirt freshman Nick Tompkins. Bennie Fowler led the team in receiving yards last season (524), but he's listed on the depth chart as a backup to Keith Mumphery. Aaron Burbridge and Tony Lippett are listed as the other No. 1 receivers, and Dantonio said Monty Madaris will be in the mix at wideout as well.
  • Lawrence Thomas started three games at fullback last season but appears as a backup defensive tackle behind Tyler Hoover on the depth chart. Dantonio told ESPN.com last week that Thomas could move back to offense if needed.
  • Linebacker/fullback TyQuan Hammock is finished with his career and soon will graduate, while guard Nate Klatt will take a medical hardship/disqualification because of several concussions.
  • Dantonio singled out redshirt freshmen linebackers Riley Bullough and Jamal Lyles as players to watch this spring.
I thought it would be fun to borrow an idea from our friends at the SEC blog -- they're on our good side after this post -- and look at which Big Ten offenses return the best triumvirates (quarterback, running back, receiver) on offense.

It turned out to be quite challenging. And a little depressing.

No Big Ten squad brings back a 2,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher (running back) and a 1,000-yard receiver from 2012. After all, Penn State's Allen Robinson was the lone Big Ten pass-catcher to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards in 2011. Although the Lions return Zach Zwinak, who finished with exactly 1,000 rush yards, they lose 3,200-yard passer Matt McGloin.

The benchmark seems to be 2,000 pass yards, 900 rush yards and 600 receiving yards. Two teams qualify here, and they would have met in the Big Ten title game if one hadn't been on postseason probation.

Here are the Big Ten's top three offensive triumvirates ...

1. NEBRASKA
2. OHIO STATE
  • QB Braxton Miller* -- 2,039 pass yards, 15 touchdowns, six interceptions
  • RB Carlos Hyde -- 970 rush yards and 16 touchdowns
  • WR Corey Brown -- 669 receiving yards and three touchdowns
3. INDIANA
*-Miller led Ohio State in rushing with 1,271 yards.

Why are only three teams listed? Because no other Big Ten offenses merit mentions. They're either losing key pieces or looking for much more production from the pieces they have.

Northwestern brings back a 1,300-yard rusher in Venric Mark but lacks the passing and receiving components. Despite losing Montee Ball, Wisconsin brings back two talented running backs (James White and Melvin Gordon) and a solid receiver (Jared Abbrederis), but none of its three quarterbacks eclipsed 1,200 pass yards in 2012.

Penn State has the receiver and the rusher, but its leading returning passer (Steven Bench) had 12 yards in 2012. James Vandenberg was the only Iowa Hawkeye to attempt a pass in 2012, and he's gone. Purdue loses its top passer (Robert Marve), top rusher (Akeem Shavers) and top receiver (Antavian Edison).

Michigan likely would have had two-thirds of the equation if Devin Gardner had played quarterback all season, but the Wolverines lose their only consistent rushing threat in Denard Robinson. Speaking of rushers, Le'Veon Bell leaves a huge void (1,793 yards) at Michigan State, which brings back 2,500-yard passer Andrew Maxwell and two 500-yard receivers (Keith Mumphery and Bennie Fowler).

Personnel losses are part of college football, but the limited list of Big Ten "triumvirates" illustrates how many teams are returning proven pieces on offense. The quarterback and receiver positions are particularly lacking.

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