Big Ten: Mark Weisman

Big Ten Monday mailbag

June, 9, 2014
Jun 9
4:30
PM ET
Mondays stink. Except when it's mailbag time. Which it is right now. Go.

Mitchell C. from Parts Unknown writes: How confident should Ohio State be coming into the third year with Urban Meyer and five new starters on defense and six new starters on offense? And will new RB Ezekiel Elliott be like Carlos Hyde and live up to the (production) he left behind?

Brian Bennett: Those are good questions, and they are why I find the 2014 Buckeyes to be one of the most fascinating teams in the Big Ten and the nation. A lot of people assume that Ohio State won't drop off at all from the first two seasons under Meyer, but the team is dealing with a lot of turnover and counting on numerous young players to step forward. Yet there is serious reason for optimism. For one, those young players are incredibly talented and athletic, which can help make up for a lot of mistakes. The coaching staff is also a proven commodity. For example, while the offensive line replaces four starters, position coach Ed Warriner faced similar questions two years ago and quickly turned that unit into the best offensive line in the Big Ten for two years running. Elliott might not match Hyde's numbers, both because Hyde put up huge stats and because Ohio State is likely to spread the ball out a bit more than it did in 2013. But he's another prime example of the immense potential on hand.

With all that talent and coaching, the Buckeyes should feel optimistic about 2014. Unless Braxton Miller gets hurt. Then all bets are off.


Christopher from Middleton, Wis., writes: I was reading your take on the Athlon Big Ten predictions, and I have to tell you that your take on Wisconsin's QB situation is a bit off the mark but is similar to what I am reading from other Big Ten predictors. Joel Stave is playing his third year. In 2012, his QB rating was 148.3, and his stats were comparable to Devin Gardner. In 2013, Stave was fourth in the Big Ten in QB rating at 138.1. Statistically, he was ranked sixth in the B1G because Wisconsin ran the ball (so well). With the above in mind how can QB be a major concern? Keep in mind that Wisconsin has basically its entire offensive line back and should be deeper and healthier, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement should challenge if not beat the rushing record set by James White and Gordon. The issue at Wisconsin is not that the QB position is weak but that it has lots of competition. Stave does have his weaknesses and I hope he overcomes them or is beat out by Tanner McEvoy, but the QB position should not be a concern.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
David Manning/USA TODAY SportsA more consistent Joel Stave would go a long way toward bolstering Wisconsin's Big Ten hopes.
Brian Bennett: One thing we can agree on about Stave is his experience should help him. Last year was his first as a full-season starter after he got knocked out early in 2012 because of an injury. And when Stave is on, he shows good arm strength and decision-making. Unfortunately, what we saw from Stave on the field last year didn't always line up with some of the stats you mentioned. Several times he misfired on completely wide-open receivers down the field as defenses keyed on that running game. (What would Jared Abbrederis' numbers have looked like had Stave hit him in stride all those times he had gotten behind defenders?).

Stave played poorly in the upset loss to Penn State to end the year and against South Carolina, causing Gary Andersen to say the team needed better play from its quarterback position. There's a reason the Badgers opened up the quarterback competition this spring despite having a veteran starter. And Stave's shoulder injury is worrisome.

Maybe Stave gets healthy and builds upon his experience. Or maybe McEvoy steps in and plays well. But you're talking about one guy who has yet to put it all together and another who has never done it at this level. That's why there are legitimate reasons for concern at the quarterback spot in Madison, before we even get to the pressing issue of who is going to catch the ball for Wisconsin. That's a big reason why I'm a little surprised by all the rosy preseason projections for the Badgers.


DJ from Minneapolis writes: I have to slightly disagree with you about Minnesota not seeing a benefit to an early signing period. As Brady Hoke mentioned, they might have to start allowing earlier or summer visits which would be a big boon to Minnesota. It would show all of the recruits in the South that it isn't actually minus-40 degrees 365 days a year here like a lot of people make it out to be.

Brian Bennett: DJ, I think you might be conflating two different issues here. As I mentioned in my early signing day piece, schools that are farther away from major talent bases (i.e., Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, etc.) wouldn't see as much benefit with an early signing period without the corresponding move of allowing for earlier official visits. (Adam did a great job of exploring that issue in this post). Right now, prospects can't take official visits (i.e., have their trips paid for by the school) until the start of their senior year in high school. It's difficult and expensive for many prospects, especially ones who live in the South and in other far-flung locales, to visit northern schools like Minnesota on their own dime. They can often take unofficial trips to schools closer to their hometown with far less hassle, however.

That's why, if there's an early signing period -- especially one in the summer before a prospect's senior year as the ACC has proposed -- kids could be inking their national letters of intent before ever getting on a plane to Minneapolis. The Gophers would stand to gain if prospects could receive a paid trip to their campus in the spring and summer, when it's a great time to be in the Twin Cities. Those earlier visits, then, loom as even more important for a school like Minnesota than an early signing period would be.


Spencer from Lincoln, Neb., writes: On your piece about impact freshmen, I noticed you left off Tanner Farmer. My question is: Why? The kid is a beast of a specimen. Athletic. Big. He is your typical Midwest hard-working player. He even benches 500 pounds! Name another one of your impact freshmen you chose that can do that.

Brian Bennett: Spencer, I am very intrigued by Farmer and think he can end up being a cult hero to Nebraska fans. We didn't have time or space in that post to mention every promising freshman in the league, though, and it's much tougher for a first-year player out of high school to make a big impact on the offensive line than it is for just about any other position, save perhaps defensive tackle. Farmer could be an exception. We shall see.


Joel L. from Tuscola, Ill., writes: In regards to Tim Beckman's job status: I think from the perspective of a huge Illinois fan the situation is actually going to be very difficult for Mike Thomas. I will say before I start here if we win 4 games or less I think Thomas' hands are tied and he will have to let Beckman go because the attendance will be dismal and it will probably affect season ticket sales the next year. If I had to guess, we will most likely end up with five wins this season. That will cause a major predicament for Thomas because Beckman's recruiting class next year is actually going to be very solid, especially with offensive talent that Bill Cubit (who is the mastermind of the offense) will be able to use immediately. That is where the problem will lay for Thomas, because Beckman really could turn this around in year 4, but Illinois fans are ruthless and if we do not make a bowl game this year people will go absolutely nuts if he is retained.

Brian Bennett: Some good points here, Joel, and I agree that five wins is kind of the fulcrum for Beckman in 2014. If that happens, I think a lot will depend on how that 5-7 season went down. Were the Illini highly competitive in their Big Ten games, especially against the best the league has to offer? Did young players show obvious development and improvement? Were fans responding in a positive way? You're right that Beckman could have his best and most experienced roster in 2015, and Thomas might be able to bank on that. However, three years without a bowl and a potential devastating hit to attendance and season-ticket sales might be too much to overcome.


Pat from Iowa City writes: Is it safe to say that AIRBHG is gone for good?

Brian Bennett: Oh, Pat, how dare you tempt the curse! You might have just woken that evil spirit from its peaceful slumber in that great cornfield in the sky. We apologize in advance to Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri, Damon Bullock, et al. Pay no heed to Pat's question, AIRBHG. We kneel and offer you this bushel of corn as a humble token of our appreciation for your recent mercy.
On Wednesday, we outlined some of the possible 1,000-yard rushers in the Big Ten for the 2014 season.

Now, we want your take on which guys will join that exclusive club. Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Michigan State's Jeremy Langford, Minnesota's David Cobb, Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Zach Zwinak and Northwestern's Venric Mark all have had at least one 1,000-yard season in their careers.

SportsNation

Which of these players is most likely to rush for 1,000 yards in 2014?

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    30%
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    8%
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    33%
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    11%
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    18%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,517)

Which of these five players is most likely to get there this season?
  • Mark Weisman, Iowa: The senior has gotten extremely close to 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons, finishing just 25 yards shy in 2013. He will have to share carries with Jordan Canzeri and others, but he could be running behind the Big Ten's top offensive line.
  • Tevin Coleman, Indiana: Coleman was well on his way to 1,000 yards last year before he missed the final three games because of an ankle injury. The Hoosiers could lean on their running game a bit more this season as they look to replace three of their top four receiving targets from 2013.
  • Corey Clement, Wisconsin: The Badgers have Gordon but have made a habit of producing more than one 1,000-yard rusher in the same backfield. Clement steps into a much bigger role this season after the graduation of James White and should see plenty of opportunities after a tantalizing freshman campaign.
  • Paul James, Rutgers: James ran for 573 yards in the first four games last year before missing the next four games because of injury. With better health, he could make a major run at the 1K mark.
  • Bill Belton, Penn State: The Nittany Lions have three excellent tailbacks with Zwinak, Belton and Akeel Lynch. But with some offensive line questions, it might be hard for any one of those backs to reach 1,000 yards. Belton, however, has often looked like the most physically gifted of the trio and appears to be a player on the rise.
Two years ago, Iowa had a simple goal with its running backs: just get somebody on the field.

An unusual stretch of misfortune -- handed down by AIRBHG or some other dastardly entity -- had crippled Iowa's once-formidable running back room. So when a 240-pound sledgehammer named Mark Weisman essentially came out of nowhere and grabbed the football, Iowa simply jumped on his back for as long as it could. Weisman recorded 98 carries during a four-game stretch from mid-September to mid-October in 2012. He opened the 2013 season with 85 carries in Iowa's first three games.

[+] EnlargeJordan Canzeri
AP Photo/Michael ConroyJordan Canzeri ranked third in carries for the Hawkeyes but first in average yards per carry (6.5).
If Weisman records a similar workload early this season, something has gone very wrong for the Hawkeyes. One of the many luxuries Iowa enjoys entering the 2014 campaign -- along with a favorable schedule, a stable quarterback situation and solid line play on both sides of the ball -- is depth at running back. Jordan Canzeri and Damon Bullock might not be known names around the Big Ten, but both have started games and add to Iowa's backfield mix.

Weisman likely will enter the season as Iowa's lead ball-carrier, but his workload should be much more manageable. The goal is to keep all the backs fresh for the stretch run, which includes late November home games against West Division challengers Wisconsin and Nebraska.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to use everybody in a smart way," coach Kirk Ferentz told ESPN.com. "It's a good mix for us."

Although Weisman looks and at times performs like a workhorse back, he has a point of diminishing returns. In 2012, he recorded 673 yards and eight touchdowns during the 98-carry stretch between Sept. 15 and Oct. 13, but he suffered an ankle injury in the final game against Michigan State. He had just 14 carries the next two contests before sitting out two weeks to heal.

Weisman had 100 yards or more in four of Iowa's first five games last fall, while accumulating 119 carries in the process. But another foot injury, also against Michigan State, limited him both in practices and in games for about a month. He had no more than 13 carries in the five games between Oct. 5 and Nov. 9.

"We've kind of seen it for two years," offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. "As the season goes on and his carries begin to mount, there comes a point where he's not quite as effective as he was early. Though Mark would never say a word, I’ve got to think his body's getting beaten up."

Canzeri's emergence late last season suggests a better carries balance for Iowa's backs. As Weisman healed, Canzeri had 332 yards on only 43 carries in Iowa's final four regular-season contests, averaging 7.7 yards per carry. He produced runs of 43 yards against Wisconsin and 37 yards against Nebraska and contributed as a receiver in wins against both Nebraska and Michigan.

Iowa improved from 101st nationally in rushing in 2012 to 50th last year.

Two springs ago, Canzeri had positioned himself as Iowa's likely starter before tearing his ACL. Despite a quick recovery, he sat out the 2012 season and worked on pass protection, among other things.

"I just knew it was a time to get stronger, get faster and get better," Canzeri said. "It was fortunate that it was during the 4-8 season that no one really wants to think about. Before I was confident, but I was smaller and my speed was my main attribute. Now I've gained another year and gotten stronger and more mature and have built into a more complete football player."

Ferentz looks at Canzeri differently than he did a year ago, expressing "total confidence" in the junior to contribute significantly. Bullock actually has more career carries (263) than Canzeri but likely will be used as a third-down back because of his strong pass-blocking and pass-catching skills (39 career receptions).

Each back has his own style, as Ferentz notes, but their differences aren't as stark as they were two springs ago. Sophomore LeShun Daniels, at 215 pounds, adds another power option, and Ferentz said the team's depth at fullback with Adam Cox and Macon Plewa is the best it has been in his tenure.

"Whoever's out there can do all those same things," Canzeri said, "which is good because when the person who has the hot hand is getting tired, the next person that comes in isn't just filling in but someone who can get the job done just as well.

"It's really cool to see."

It should lead to a fresher and faster group of backs, especially when Iowa needs them most.
Most would agree New Year's Day bowl games don't mean what they used to. You could say the same thing about rushing for 1,000 yards. There are more games and more plays in the sport today, and it's hardly uncommon for a player to reach four digits on the ground, as 51 FBS players got there in 2013.

Still, the 1,000-yard rushing mark is no small feat, and it's a good gauge for assessing players, teams and leagues. The Big Ten had seven 1,000-yard rushers in 2013, one fewer than it had in 2012.

We begin a series of statistical projections for the 2014 season with 1,000 rush yards, and our analysis begins with the five men who got there last fall and who return to their teams this year.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsNebraska's Ameer Abdullah is looking to post his third season of rushing for over 1,000 yards.
Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska (1,690 rush yards in 2013): Abdullah was one of the most consistent backs in the country last fall, eclipsing 100 rush yards in 11 of 13 games, including a streak of eight consecutive 100-yard performances. He will try to become the first Husker with three seasons of 1,000 rush yards or more. Although it might be tough for Abdullah to match last year's overall rushing numbers, barring injury, he should have little trouble reaching the 1,000-yard mark.

Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin (1,609 yards): Gordon surged out of the gate with 140 rush yards or more in each of his first four games last season, as he topped the FBS rushing chart. Despite sharing time with fellow 1,000-yard back James White and never logging more than 22 carries, Gordon had eight games with at least 140 rush yards and averaged 7.8 yards per carry. He's arguably the nation's top big-play ball-carrying threat and should easily eclipse 1,000 rush yards as he steps into a bigger role.

Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State (1,422): It's impossible to quietly rush for 1,400 yards in a season, but Langford slipped under the radar as his teammates on defense and at quarterback received more attention. Still, his consistency should not be overlooked: He set a team record with eight consecutive 100-yard rushing performances and led the Big Ten with 18 rushing touchdowns. He did much of his damage late in games. Although Langford likely won't get 292 carries again, he should easily get to 1,000 rush yards.

David Cobb, RB, Minnesota (1,202) Arguably no Gophers player benefited more from the team's commitment to the power run on offense. Cobb logged 237 carries -- second in the Big Ten behind Langford and Abdullah -- and had five 100-yard rushing performances, the most by a Minnesota player since Marion Barber III in 2003. Cobb did much of his damage in Big Ten play, recording four consecutive 100-yard rushing performances. Another 1,000-yard season is possible, but Cobb faces arguably more competition than any back on this list and will have to keep progressing.

Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State (1,068): Miller is poised to finish his career as one of the Big Ten's most productive offensive players. The league's reigning two-time offensive player of the year needs just 842 rush yards to move into second place on the Big Ten's all-time quarterback rushing list. More impressive, he needs 715 yards to claim second place on Ohio State's all-time rushing list (all players). Miller certainly is capable of a third 1,000-yard season, but a revamped line and his goal of improving as a passer could make it challenging.

Now let's take a look at eight other players who could challenge that 1,000-yard mark in 2013, in order of likelihood:

Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana (958 rush yards in 2013): Coleman finished ahead of Langford, Cobb and Miller in rushing average (106.4 ypg) and easily would have reached four digits had he played in more than nine games. A big-play threat who averaged a Gordon-like 7.3 yards per carry last season, Coleman should have no trouble surging past 1,000 yards this season.

[+] EnlargeMark Weisman
David Purdy/Getty ImagesIowa's Mark Weisman has just missed 1,000 yards in the past two years, but this could be the season he tops that magic number.
Mark Weisman, RB, Iowa (975): Weisman has been close to 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons and should get there as a senior. He will be sharing carries with Jordan Canzeri and others, and Iowa likely will balance out Weisman's touches a bit more. But if Weisman can break off a few more big runs behind a good offensive line, he'll get to 1,000.

Zach Zwinak, RB, Penn State (989): Some would argue Zwinak isn't the best running back on his team (Bill Belton), but the fact remains he reached 1,000 yards in 2012 and nearly got there last season. The carries balanced between Zwinak and Belton could make it tougher for either back to reach the milestone, and the offensive line is a concern.

Paul James, RB, Rutgers (881): Know the name, Big Ten fans. James rushed for 881 yards on only 156 carries last season. His rushing total through the first four games (573 yards) trailed only Gordon for the FBS lead. Health is a concern here, but if James stays on the field, a 1,000-yard season is easily within reach.

Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern: Projecting Mark is tricky as he rushed for 1,371 yards in 2012 but missed most of last season with injuries and remains prone to more health issues. He's an excellent candidate to gash defenses for big yards if he remains on the field, and he should play behind an improved offensive line.

Josh Ferguson, RB, Illinois (779): It all comes down to opportunities for Ferguson, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season but also finished second on the team in receptions with 50. A true big-play threat, Ferguson is capable of getting to 1,000 yards but likely needs at least 25 more carries.

Bill Belton, RB, Penn State (803): Like Zwinak, Belton faces some challenges: sharing carries and playing behind a potentially leaky line. But he has shown superstar potential at times and turned in a strong spring for the new coaching staff.

Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin (547): Like Gordon, Clement makes the most of his opportunities. He averaged 8.2 yards per carry as a freshman, and while he's Gordon's backup now, he could become a 1A player by midseason. Gordon and White set an NCAA record for single-season rush yards by teammates. Gordon and Clement could challenge it.

Who do you think reaches 1,000 rush yards this fall? Let us know.

Iowa spring wrap

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

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

Brandon Scherff will take home some hardware in December. He was denied a spot by the league’s media on the All-Big Ten first team as a junior. There will be no such worry in 2014. In fact, Scherff will vie for the Outland Trophy and earn a spot on All-America teams from his left tackle spot after opting to turn down a chance at the NFL this offseason.
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IOWA CITY, Iowa -- No Big Ten coach takes the temperature of his team in spring practice quite like Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. No Big Ten coach has lived in as many different climates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iowa players understand that their margin for error remains slim.

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

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

"That's what we do here; we work hard," Davis said. "That's something you get used to the longer you're in this program. The grind becomes normal, and I feel like all our hard work will be able to pay off."
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The tempo trend sweeping through college football has, for the most part, skipped over the Iowa Hawkeyes.

While teams such as Oregon and Baylor operate at a breakneck pace, Iowa continues to shape its offense around power and play-action, ball control and sustained drives. Huddling is still encouraged.

In 2012, the Hawkeyes ran fewer offensive plays than any Big Ten team. In 2011, an Indiana team that played 12 games ran more plays (870) than an Iowa team that played 13 (866). In 2010, Iowa ran 136 fewer plays than Big Ten-leader Northwestern in the same number of games.

But a shift began taking place last season. Iowa eclipsed 900 plays in 13 games. The offense ramped up the tempo late against LSU in the Outback Bowl, leading some to question whether the Tigers were faking injuries to slow down the Hawkeyes. Process that for a minute: LSU's defense trying to slow down Iowa's offense.

[+] EnlargeJake Rudock
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltJake Rudock and Iowa are joining the trend toward a faster tempo on offense.
But tempo at Iowa is here to stay. In fact, it's getting ramped up even more this spring.

"We would like to be able to play fast with any group, be it two backs, two tight ends, three tight ends, three wide receivers," offensive coordinator Greg Davis told ESPN.com. "We played at a faster tempo last year than the year before, and we're playing at a faster tempo this spring than last year."

Iowa isn't going to turn into Auburn by Aug. 30. That's not Davis' intent. He recognizes the perils of pushing the tempo. At times, he wants his quarterbacks to have enough time to survey the defense before the ball is snapped.

More than anything, however, he wants defenses to be unsure about Iowa's pace.

"We're just trying to kick it up another notch," tackle Brandon Scherff said. "Once we get used to it, it'll be a good advantage for us."

Davis' ultimate goal is more explosion plays. Iowa averaged only 5.3 yards per play and 6.8 yards per pass play last season, ranking 10th in the league in both categories. There were some flashes, such as Tevaun Smith's spectacular catch and run for a 55-yard touchdown against Michigan.

But the Hawkeyes need more and could have the personnel to get it done. There are more options at receiver with veteran Kevonte Martin-Manley, Smith and Jacob Hillyer, along with Damond Powell, who averaged 24.3 yards per reception in limited action in 2013. Several redshirt freshmen are emerging this spring, including 6-foot-4, 210-pound Derrick Willies.

"If you don't have explosive plays, it's tougher to get the win at the end of the day," quarterback Jake Rudock said. "Every team needs to have those, whether it's running or whether it's passing."

Although running back will be a strength -- bruiser Mark Weisman returns alongside Jordan Canzeri, Damon Bullock and exciting sophomores LeShun Daniels and Barkley Hill -- the pass game should be enhanced this fall. Iowa returns two quarterbacks with game experience (Rudock and C.J. Beathard), depth at receiver and tight ends Jake Duzey and Ray Hamilton. Iowa will miss tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz's blocking, but Duzey is a superior athlete with a higher ceiling as a pass-catcher, as he showed with 138 receiving yards against Ohio State last fall.

"The ball's going to be in our hands more. I feel like they're going to call our number," Martin-Manley said. "A few more plays downfield, and we've also been adding new plays to get us open and use the tools we have at receiver."

After starting every game last season, Rudock has done nothing to harm his standing this spring, showing greater comfort with the scheme, the signals and a leadership position. But that coaches also like Beathard, who should have a role even if Rudock tightens his grip on the starting spot.

"He has a little more lateral quickness than Jake," Davis said, "so the discussion [among coaches] could carve out a package for him, a little more zone-read. At the same time, he can really spin the football."

The skill position depth is there, especially if the receivers keep making strides. Scherff's return to the line is huge, and Davis likes the starting five, which includes veterans Austin Blythe, Jordan Walsh and Andrew Donnal. Sean Welsh has emerged this spring as the starting left guard.

Line depth is a significant concern, Davis said, but beyond that there's a lot to like about an offense that will operate faster and should put more points on the board.

"The first year, new system, last year, new quarterback," Davis said. "We have more than we have in the past. I feel better about this spring than I have in any spring. We have the opportunity to be the best offense we've been in the three years I've been here."

Big Ten lunch links

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
12:00
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Sure looked like Eddie Johnson was onside to me. I'll count it as another rivalry win.
  • Ohio State offensive line coach Ed Warinner joined in the tradition of poking fun at a rival during a fundraising event with fans. Should anybody be offended by his canned jokes?
  • Michigan coach Brady Hoke responded to Warinner's comments with a bit of humor of his own.
  • Mark Dantonio doesn't usually hold press conferences to talk about one player, but the recruitment of Malik McDowell called for some discussion of how it all went down for Michigan State.
  • Penn State tight end Adam Breneman will be on the shelf for the rest of spring practice thanks to a bone bruise in his knee.
  • Nebraska wide receiver Sam Burtch is a no-nonsense guy, and his businesslike approach could be a boost for the offense this fall.
  • Mark Weisman saw plenty of room to grow after reviewing every carry from last season, and the Iowa running back might need to improve to keep getting most of the carries in a crowded backfield.
  • Purdue tailback Raheem Mostert's speed isn't up for debate based on his times on the track. The next thing he has to do is prove he can be physical on the football field.
  • Illinois is looking for more team speed on defense, and the early returns from spring practice suggest the unit might be getting faster.
  • Yet another Big Ten tight end is currently stuck on the sideline during spring practice, and like the others, Tyler Kroft is trying to make the most of it.
  • Deon Long is now "90 percent" healthy, but he's well on the way to getting back and helping Maryland at wide receiver.
The best offenses are usually the ones with the best triple threats: a big-time quarterback, an elite running back and a go-to wide receiver.

So which Big Ten offenses have the most intimidating three-headed monsters on offense for 2014? Glad you asked. We're going to look at each team's top triple-threat combo and rank them in their divisions. First up: the Big Ten West.

1. Nebraska

QB Tommy Armstrong Jr., RB Ameer Abdullah, WR Kenny Bell

The skinny: Yes, Armstrong still has a lot to prove as a full-time starting quarterback. But the Huskers have one of the best running backs in the country in Abdullah and a proven wideout in Bell. As you'll see, not every team in the division has that luxury. If Armstrong can simply be steady, the Nebraska offense should produce at a high level.

2. Wisconsin

QB Joel Stave, RB Melvin Gordon, RB Corey Clement

The skinny: Who emerges as the Badgers' top wide receiver is anyone's guess after the departure of Jared Abbrederis. But Wisconsin has shown the ability to pile up yards simply by running the ball, and the duo of Gordon and Clement has the potential to be really special if Clement makes the expected leap. Stave, however, needs to find more consistency -- assuming he even retains the starting job this season.

3. Northwestern

QB Trevor Siemian, RB Venric Mark, WR Christian Jones

The skinny: The Wildcats have a chance to improve this standing if Mark is fully recovered from last season's injuries and if Siemian continues to develop as a passer. But they lack a true No. 1 wideout -- Jones had 54 catches for 688 yards and four touchdowns, while Tony Jones caught 55 balls for 630 yards last season.

4. Iowa

QB Jake Rudock, RB Mark Weisman, WR Kevonte Martin-Manley

The skinny: Rudock completed 59 percent of his passes as a first-year starter and faces a bit of competition this spring from C.J. Beathard. The strength of the Hawkeyes' offense remains their running game, led by Weisman. Iowa needs more from its receivers, as the senior Martin-Manley led the team with just 388 receiving yards last season. Perhaps Damond Powell or Tevaun Smith can add some sizzle to the passing game.

5. Illinois

QB Wes Lunt, RB Josh Ferguson, WR Martize Barr

The skinny: We trust offensive coordinator Bill Cubit to put together a potent attack this fall and probably make this ranking look way too low. But there are a lot of uncertainties right now, as Oklahoma State transfer Lunt hasn't even officially won the starting job and Barr is the top returning receiver despite posting just 246 receiving yards last season.

6. Minnesota

QB Mitch Leidner, RB David Cobb, TE Maxx Williams

The skinny: Scoring in bunches wasn't exactly the Gophers' calling card last season. On the plus side, they do return a 1,200-yard back in Cobb, who will be joined by Donnell Kirkwood (926 yards in 2012) and incoming top recruit Jeff Jones to form a deep backfield. But the passing game was one of the least productive in the FBS last season and needs major steps forward from Leidner and young receivers like Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones.

7. Purdue

QB Danny Etling, RB Akeem Hunt, WR DeAngelo Yancey

The skinny: The Boilers averaged a putrid 14.9 ppg last season, though the potential for better things is there with true sophomores Etling and Yancey. The running game simply has to get better, however, as Hunt led the team with just 464 yards on the ground in 2013.
We're very nearly to the end of our ultimate Big Ten road trip, and hopefully by this point we've seen many great games. We also hope to see some championship-deciding contests in the final couple of weeks.

For those just joining us, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the 2014 season. This almost assuredly isn't our actual schedule because of travel budgets or editors' decisions. But we can pretend with this fantasy itinerary.

Let's check out the Week 13 slate:

Nov. 22


Indiana at Ohio State
Maryland at Michigan
Minnesota at Nebraska
Northwestern at Purdue
Penn State at Illinois
Rutgers at Michigan State
Wisconsin at Iowa

Brian Bennett's pick: Wisconsin at Iowa

Finally, a week with a full slate of league games, as it should be at this point in the season. I haven't seen Iowa on this trip all season, which says everything about the Hawkeyes' extremely advantageous, back-loaded schedule. Kirk Ferentz's team could, in theory, be favored in its first 10 games. That means Iowa should be a major factor in the West Division race with two weeks to left to go.

And the good news gets better, as both Wisconsin and Nebraska come to Kinnick Stadium in the final two weeks. It's great to see the Heartland Trophy series resume as an annual event, though the Hawkeyes have to protect their turf after losing the last two meetings in Iowa City (2010 and 2013). These are two teams that value the running game, strong offensive line play and defense as core values, so you can expect a physical battle in the trenches. Iowa might have the best offensive lineman in the Big Ten this season in Brandon Scherff, while Wisconsin's running back tandem of Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement should be special.

The West title could well be on the line in this game. Sadly, I've yet to visit Kinnick Stadium in this job despite my best lobbying efforts. It's way past time to rectify that, and it might be time for Iowa to prove itself in Week 13.

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Wisconsin at Iowa

At this point in the season, it comes down more to matchup quality than destination, how much I've seen a certain team or culinary/beverage options. OK, well maybe the last item is still a priority. It's between Wisconsin-Iowa and Minnesota-Nebraska for me, as both games could impact the West Division title race. My concern with the Golden Gophers is whether their tough schedule will remove them from the race. Minnesota already has visited Michigan and played both Ohio State and Iowa at home. Wisconsin and Iowa, meanwhile, avoid all the big boys from the East Division and could be bringing in sparkling records to this contest.

Iowa finishes the season with home games against both Wisconsin and Nebraska, so the Hawkeyes must defend Kinnick Stadium, which has been a problem against the Badgers in recent seasons. Gordon, a one-time Iowa commit, goes against a Hawkeyes defense replacing its standout linebacking corps but bringing back some strong pieces up front. Iowa paid the price for failing to reach the end zone in last year's game against Wisconsin. It will be interesting to see if Mark Weisman and Co. can break through against a new-look Badgers front seven.

This is the most balanced long-term rivalry in college football, and it helps to have both teams back in the same division. Another trip to Kinnick? Yes, please.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
Week 5: Brian at Cincinnati-Ohio State; Adam at Minnesota-Michigan
Week 6: Adam at Nebraska-Michigan State; Brian at Nebraska-Michigan State
Week 7: Brian at Penn State-Michigan; Adam at Northwestern-Minnesota
Week 8: Adam at Iowa-Maryland; Brian at Nebraska-Northwestern
Week 9: Brian at Michigan-Michigan State; Adam at Ohio State-Penn State
Week 10: Adam at Northwestern-Iowa; Brian at Wisconsin-Rutgers
Week 11: Brian and Adam at Ohio State-Michigan State
Week 12: Adam and Brian at Nebraska-Wisconsin
The road trip has reached the home stretch with the month of November and Big Ten division races (hopefully) heating up. By now, we've logged thousands of miles, spend thousands of dollars and likely gained a few pounds, thanks to the culinary and beverage establishments we've frequented along the way.

For those just joining us (and really, where have you been?), we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the 2014 season. We aren't tied down by a travel budget or nagging editors. If we want to attend a game -- depending on matchup, location, culinary offerings or any other factors -- we can go.

Let's check out the options for Week 10:

Nov. 1

Indiana at Michigan
Maryland at Penn State
Illinois at Ohio State
Wisconsin at Rutgers
Northwestern at Iowa
Purdue at Nebraska

Open week: Michigan State, Minnesota

Brian Bennett's pick: Wisconsin at Rutgers

Not the best slate of games to choose from here, at least on paper. So I'll take the opportunity to go visit one of the newest Big Ten members and to see Wisconsin for the first time all season.

This game has blowout potential; remember how rudely the Badgers welcomed Nebraska to the Big Ten and how easily they often dispatch lesser opponents. But Rutgers' defense has been pretty solid over the years, so I'm interested to see how the Scarlet Knights handle that massive Wisconsin offensive line and the running game led by Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement. Few teams pound you like the Badgers, and it will certainly be an eye-opener for Rutgers.

Of course, coach Kyle Flood's team will simply have to hope to be in one piece by this point in the season, after playing Penn State on Sept. 13, Michigan on Oct. 4, Ohio State on Oct. 18 and Nebraska on Oct. 25. Welcome to the league, fellas.

By comparison, Wisconsin will have had it relatively easy in league play to this point and should be set up well for the showdowns against Nebraska and Iowa later in November. I'm sure I will pick at least one of those games to attend, if not both. For now, I'll enjoy returning to my Big East roots and having some fun in north Jersey. Maybe I'll even tempt fate and my cholesterol count with a fat sandwich.

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Northwestern at Iowa

November begins with a yawn as the Big Ten slate features no must-see matchups (again, blame the double-bye). Although Indiana and Michigan could set some more scoring records at the Big House, I'm going to head west to Iowa City for my first game at Kinnick Stadium since 2011. It's always one of my favorite Big Ten venues, and Iowa fans should be geared up for an opponent they'll never admit is a rival but one that gets under their skin.

Despite losses in two of the past three seasons, Northwestern has won six of the teams' last nine meetings. Iowa lost three straight home games to Northwestern before winning the last two, including a 17-10 overtime triumph last October. This is typically a close matchup and should be again as both teams return many of their core pieces from 2013.

Both defenses played really well last season, and it will be interesting to see if the offenses do more this time around. Northwestern likely will pass more with Trevor Siemian at quarterback, while Iowa will counter with a good group of running backs and a powerful line led by tackle Brandon Scherff. Iowa's new-look linebacking corps should be settled in as they go against Northwestern star running back Venric Mark, who missed last year's contest. Northwestern's defensive line will have to hold up against Mark Weisman and the Hawkeye ball carriers.

This is a big game for both teams and could factor into the West Division race. Kinnick, I've missed you. Save me a turkey leg.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
Week 5: Brian at Cincinnati-Ohio State; Adam at Minnesota-Michigan
Week 6: Adam at Nebraska-Michigan State; Brian at Nebraska-Michigan State
Week 7: Brian at Penn State-Michigan; Adam at Northwestern-Minnesota
Week 8: Adam at Iowa-Maryland; Brian at Nebraska-Northwestern
Week 9: Brian at Michigan-Michigan State; Adam at Ohio State-Penn State
For those just joining in, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the 2014 season. We aren't tied down by a travel budget or nagging editors. If we want to attend a game -- depending on matchup, location, culinary offerings or any other factors -- we can go.

Here are the choices for Week 8:

Oct. 18

Iowa at Maryland
Michigan State at Indiana
Nebraska at Northwestern
Purdue at Minnesota
Rutgers at Ohio State

Open date: Illinois, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin

Brian Bennett's pick: Nebraska at Northwestern

Making this pick means I will have seen Nebraska three times in five weeks, which wasn't really my intention going in. But it would also be my first Northwestern game of the year and my first-ever visit to Ryan Field. And in a potentially pretty weak slate of games, I'm grabbing the matchup that has produced three memorable contests in the past three seasons.

We had the Wildcats' surprise win in Lincoln in 2011, followed by the magical Taylor Martinez-led Huskers comeback in 2012, capped off by the Ron Kellogg III -Jordan Westerkamp Hail Mary miracle last year. Maybe it's that both schools go by the initials NU, or maybe it's because both are so unpredictable at the end of games. Whatever the reason, they usually end up creating something special.

That could be the case again this year. Don't sleep on Northwestern, which is bound to have better luck and health than it did during the miserable 2013 season. The Wildcats' offense has given Nebraska problems in the past. While we could likely see another sea of Big Red in the stands, it's still a tough road game for the Huskers and a potentially pivotal contest in the West Division race. Plus, Ameer Abdullah and Venric Mark will be on the same field, and there's nothing wrong with that. I'll even look for the Rittenberg statue in Evanston.

Adam Rittenberg's pick: Iowa at Maryland

The statue is nestled between two of the town's finest dumpsters. It's a favorite spot for inebriated students or townsfolk who can't make it to the bathroom. You'll love it.

Damn you, double-bye! Another October with very few must-see matchups. Brian is right about the entertainment value that Northwestern and Nebraska bring when they match up. I could regret my decision, but I'm looking to rack up a few more airline points and check out two teams I've yet to see, including a Big Ten newcomer in Maryland.

Most expect Maryland to struggle in its new league, particularly in the East Division, but I see some reasons for optimism with the Terps. They return a veteran quarterback in C.J. Brown, a talented receiving corps highlighted by Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, and some solid pieces on defense like end Andre Monroe. If Maryland can stay healthy -- a big if after the past two seasons -- it could surprise some people. Iowa made significant strides last season and will set its sights on the West Division title. The Hawkeyes return running back Mark Weisman, tackle Brandon Scherff and most of their offense, along with a much-improved defensive line. They also have arguably the softest schedule in the division.

Iowa easily could come into this game with a perfect record, raising the stakes for Kirk Ferentz's crew. Maryland has a much tougher slate and must play well at home to get back to the postseason. I covered a game at Byrd Stadium a decade ago, so it's a good time to go back and check out the scene. Having quite a few friends who live in Washington D.C. makes the decision easier. I'll be sure to rub Testudo's nose and ask for good luck in the predictions race. You cleaned me out last year.

Road trip itinerary

Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
Week 5: Brian at Cincinnati-Ohio State; Adam at Minnesota-Michigan
Week 6: Adam at Nebraska-Michigan State; Brian at Nebraska-Michigan State
Week 7: Brian at Penn State-Michigan; Adam at Northwestern-Minnesota

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
1:00
PM ET
Spring practice is off and running in the Big Ten, as Michigan took the field Tuesday and Northwestern followed on Wednesday. We're taking snapshots of where each team stands at each position group.

We've already discussed the quarterbacks -- and will have much more on the way -- so the series begins with the running backs.

Illinois: The Illini are in a bit better shape here than they were the past two springs, as veterans Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young both return. Ferguson averaged 5.5 yards per carry and added 50 receptions for 535 yards as the primary playmaker for Illinois' revamped offense. Young added 376 yards on 93 carries. The Illini are looking for others behind the top two, and Dami Ayoola is back with the team after being dismissed in September for a rules violation.

Indiana: Tevin Coleman quietly put together a superb sophomore season and leads the Hoosiers' running backs in 2014. Coleman provides big-play ability after averaging 7.3 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns on only 131 attempts in 2013. Indiana loses Stephen Houston but brings back veteran D'Angelo Roberts, who will play behind Coleman. Younger players such as sophomore Laray Smith could get a look here.

Iowa: Not only did the Hawkeyes toss AIRBHG to the side and get through the season without any major injurie, but they bring back everyone for 2014. Senior Mark Weisman leads the contingent after rushing for 975 yards and eight touchdowns last fall. Jordan Canzeri came on strong late in the season and is showing no effects from his ACL tear in 2012. Veteran Damon Bullock also returns to the mix, and Iowa has talented younger backs such as LeShun Daniels Jr. at its disposal. Good situation here.

Maryland: The Terrapins wide receivers tend to get more attention, but the team also returns its top three running backs from 2013 in Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Jacquille Veii. Maryland also regains the services of Wes Brown, who finished second on the team in rushing as a freshman in 2012 before being suspended for all of last season. Joe Riddle is back in the fold as well. The group brings different strengths, from power (Brown) to speed (Veii) to a mixture of both (Ross, Reid).

Michigan: Sophomore Derrick Green enters the spring as the frontrunner to be Michigan's lead back, although coach Brady Hoke wants to ramp up competition everywhere. The Wolverines struggled to consistently run between the tackles, but the 240-pound Green could change things. Hoke also is excited about another sophomore, De'Veon Smith. Michigan moved Ross Douglas from cornerback to running back, and Justice Hayes and Wyatt Shallman also are in the mix. "We've got more depth," Hoke said.

Michigan State: Things look much more promising than they did last spring, when the Spartans ended the session with a linebacker (Riley Bullough) as their top back. Jeremy Langford emerged as a very solid option during the season, rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. He's back as the clear-cut starter, and Nick Hill also returns. It will be interesting to see if Gerald Holmes makes a push, or whether Delton Williams remains on offense.

Minnesota: Here's another team that finds itself in very good shape at running back entering the spring. David Cobb leads the group after rushing for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. Veterans Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr. are still around, and highly touted redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards will take the field after missing last fall because of knee and ankle injuries. Perhaps the best news will come in the summer as decorated recruit Jeff Jones arrives.

Nebraska: Notice a theme here? Nebraska is yet another Big Ten squad that can feel very good about its running backs entering the spring. Ameer Abdullah elected to bypass the NFL draft for one final season at Nebraska, where he led the Big Ten with 1,690 yards on 281 carries as a junior. Abdullah will contend for national awards in the fall. Imani Cross, who rushed for 10 touchdowns last year, is one of the nation's top backups. Terrell Newby and others add depth behind the top two.

Northwestern: Top back Venric Mark (ankle) will miss spring practice following surgery, and reserve Stephen Buckley (knee) also is rehabbing, but Northwestern has no reason to panic. Treyvon Green, who filled in well for Mark last season with 736 rushing yards, will get much of the work. Warren Long also is in the mix after appearing in seven games as a true freshman. Northwestern also loaded up at running back in recruiting to solidify the position for years to come.

Ohio State: This will be a position to watch in the spring as Ohio State must replace Carlos Hyde, who was nearly unstoppable during Big Ten play last fall. Veteran Jordan Hall also departs, and Rod Smith will be the veteran of the group despite only 83 career carries. The Buckeyes have some talented young backs, from Dontre Wilson, who saw significant playing time last fall, to Bri'onte Dunn, Ezekiel Elliott and Warren Ball. Keep an eye on Elliott, who averaged 8.7 yards per carry in limited work last season but could emerge this spring.

Penn State: If it feels like Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton have been competing for carries forever at Penn State, it's because they have. Zwinak and Belton have been part of Penn State's running back rotation for the past two seasons and enter another competition this spring with talented sophomore Akeel Lynch, who rushed for 358 yards on only 60 carries last season. It will be interesting to see how much Lynch can push Zwinak and Belton in the team's first spring under a new coaching staff. Penn State has depth issues at several positions, but running back isn't one of them.

Purdue: The Boilers finished 122nd nationally in rushing offense last season, so the fact all of their running backs return might not spark mass celebration. Senior Akeem Hunt leads the group after recording 123 of the team's 319 rushing attempts in 2013. Other veteransBrandon Cottom and Raheem Mostert also are back, along with younger ball-carries such as Dayln Dawkins and three backs -- Keyante Green, David Yancey and Keith Byars II -- who redshirted last fall and could have much bigger roles.

Rutgers: Here's yet another team that returns basically its entire stable of running backs for spring ball. Paul James is the name to watch, as he rushed for 573 yards in the first four games last season before suffering a leg injury. James' health is a concern for Rutgers, which could also turn to Justin Goodwin, who showed some flashes following James' injury. Savon Huggins, who entered last season as the starter before losing ground, is in the mix as he looks to re-establish himself on the depth chart.

Wisconsin: How many teams can lose a 1,400-yard rusher and still claim to have the best running back group in the Big Ten? James White is gone, but Wisconsin remains in very good shape in the backfield. Melvin Gordon bypassed the NFL draft for another year in Madison after rushing for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. Gordon should move into more of a featured role beginning this spring, although he'll be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 yards and seven touchdowns on only 67 carries. Jeff Lewis provides another option behind the top two.

Offseason to-do list: Iowa

January, 10, 2014
Jan 10
2:30
PM ET
The interminable offseason is upon us, and we're taking a look at three things each Big Ten team must do in the coming months before the games begin again in late August.

Up next: the Iowa Hawkeyes.

1. Locate linebackers: The good news is Iowa historically finds them, but the Hawkeyes are replacing an exceptional group in James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. The three combined for 322 tackles, 25.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, six interceptions and four fumble recoveries last season. Iowa's linebackers were the biggest reason for the upgrade on defense, and it will be very important to see development from younger players like Travis Perry and Reggie Spearman.

2. Create more explosion plays: Iowa's offense established more of an identity in Year 2 under coordinator Greg Davis, but as Davis noted last month, "We have a hard time creating the big run, the big throw." Iowa averaged just 5.3 yards per play in 2013, which ranked 10th in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes lose only one offensive skill-position starter (tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz) and must do a better job maximizing players like Damond Powell, who averaged 24.2 yards per reception and ranked fourth on the team in receiving despite limited work.

3. Improve in red zone, short yardage: It's tough to explain how an Iowa team with a big, physical offensive line and a powerful running back in Mark Weisman struggles so much to grind out the tough yards. Iowa scored only 27 touchdowns on 53 trips inside the red zone in 2013, and ranked last in the league in fourth-down conversions (5-of-17). Predictable play calls could be to blame, but Iowa should improve in this area as all the running backs return along with three starting linemen, led by left tackle Brandon Scherff.

More to-do lists

Outback Bowl preview

January, 1, 2014
Jan 1
9:30
AM ET
Iowa (8-4) and No. 16 LSU (9-3) will meet Wednesday for the first time since the Hawkeyes shocked LSU with a last-second touchdown to win the 2005 Capital One Bowl in Nick Saban's final game as the Tigers' coach. Here are a few players and matchups to watch for in their rematch nine years later at the Outback Bowl (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Who to watch: This will likely be the last time we see LSU's exciting offense in its current form. We already know resurgent senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger is out with a knee injury, and it's highly possible that some of the Tigers' most impressive offensive players could make the leap for the NFL after the Outback Bowl. Receivers Jarvis Landry (75 catches, 1,172 yards, 10 TDs) and Odell Beckham (57-1,117, 8 TDs), running back Jeremy Hill (1,185 yards, 14 TDs) and offensive tackle La'El Collins (plus defensive linemen Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson) could follow the lead of the 11 Tigers who jumped to the pros last year before exhausting their college eligibility. On the Iowa side, the defense leads the way – we'll discuss that group in a moment – along with a run-heavy offense. Mark Weisman leads the team with 937 rushing yards and seven TDs, and the rushing attack is led by All-Big Ten offensive lineman Brandon Scherff, with Florida native Jake Rudock (2,281 passing yards, 18 TDs, 12 INTs) at the trigger.

What to watch: The most intriguing matchup of the day is probably LSU freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings against Iowa's stout defense. Jennings did a great job in taking over for an injured Mettenberger against Arkansas in LSU's comeback win, but Iowa presents a different challenge. Led by senior linebackers James Morris (98 tackles, 14.5 TFL, five sacks), Christian Kirksey (97 tackles) and Anthony Hitchens (102 tackles, 13 TFL), Iowa has arguably its best defense since Kirk Ferentz became the Hawkeyes' coach. They are No. 7 nationally in total defense (303.2 yards per game) and No. 11 in scoring defense (18.8 points per game). Jennings obviously has some talented weapons at his disposal, but he's a rookie starter and that can be a scary proposition.

Why to watch: Aside from the classic offense-versus-defense matchup, we could also see Les Miles' LSU program establish a team standard for consistency. The Tigers can win 10 games for the fourth consecutive season, which would be a school record. LSU has done it in three consecutive seasons twice: 2005-07 and the current streak. On the other sideline, Iowa can complete a surprising bounce-back season with a victory over one of the nation's elite programs. The Hawkeyes are 0-4 against ranked opponents this season, but with a victory, could finish as a ranked team a year after going 4-8.

Prediction: LSU 28, Iowa 21. Despite Jennings' youth, Las Vegas still favors LSU by 7.5 points at most sites. That's largely because the Tigers simply have more offensive firepower than the Hawkeyes. Iowa's defense is good enough to make LSU sweat, but the Tigers have too many weapons to remain quiet for long.

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