Big Ten: Pat Narduzzi

Big Ten morning links

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
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Good morning, sports fans. You've got one week to finish your Christmas shopping, and if you haven't started picking out Hannukah gifts yet you're already behind. Might we suggest some lovely morning links?

1. Today's the day when Wisconsin can make its reunion with Paul Chryst official. Chryst told his players at Pittsburgh that he planned to meet with the Badger brass. His move might leave room for another domino to fall among Big Ten coaches. The chain reaction that started with Bo Pelini's firing at Nebraska could wind up affecting Michigan State as well. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is one of many potential candidates that make sense for the opening at Pitt. Narduzzi danced around questions about his contact with other schools this week. Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio knows it's a matter of time before he loses the talented coordinator, and this might finally be the year.

2. At least Dantonio knows he won't be losing his quarterback this offseason. Redshirt junior Connor Cook said he would return for his final year of eligibility in 2015. Cook said he has “unfinished business” to attend to at the college level. The 6-foot-4 Cook won't have star receiver Tony Lippett to help him fill out his résumé next fall, but he could be helping his draft stock by sticking around. Heisman winners Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston would likely have been selected before Cook in this year's draft. Next year's class is a little less daunting.

3. The Associated Press released its All-America teams Tuesday and 14 Big Ten players were mentioned on the top three units. Four players -- Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman, Brandon Scherff and Joey Bosa -- made the first team. There are always tough calls and offended feelings when trying to narrow down a pool of thousands of players to the very best at each position, but the Big Ten shouldn't feel slighted by any of the picks this season. It would be a tough sell to say any others were undeservedly left off the list.

Now, on to the links…

East Division
West Division

Big Ten morning links

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
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Miss college football? Bowl games begin this weekend. Giddy up.

1. Wisconsin can't officially offer its vacant head coaching job to anyone until Wednesday, but all signs still point to Paul Chryst being the guy despite chatter about him being interested in staying at Pitt and athletic director Barry Alvarez talking to Greg Schiano.

The focus now is on hiring assistants, and Jeff Potrykus writes that keeping defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is a possibility. If so, that would be a major coup, as Aranda is one of the brightest young defensive minds in the game and is loyal to Gary Andersen. Potrykus also reports that former Wisconsin assistant Joe Rudolph could return to Madison along with Chryst.

2. The Michigan search continues, and the longer this goes on the more you have to think the Wolverines must believe they have a shot at Jim Harbaugh. There's a potential interesting twist to this saga, however, as there are reports the Miami Dolphins could fire coach Joe Philbin and take a run at Harbaugh.

Of course, the Dolphins are owned by Stephen Ross, who is arguably Michigan's most well-known booster. He would naturally be involved in putting together a lucrative package to bring Harbaugh to Ann Arbor. I can't imagine Ross would trap door his alma mater in order to bring Harbaugh to Miami, so if there's more to this pursuit than it indicates that Harbaugh truly is interested in leaving the NFL ranks right now.

3. The Columbus Dispatch's Bill Rabinowitz reports that the Ohio State parents association has written a letter to the Big Ten asking for financial assistance to travel to the Buckeyes' semifinal game against Alabama in New Orleans.

Each family can be reimbursed $800 out of the school's student-assistance fund, but that's still not enough to cover all the travel costs. And things only get more expensive if Ohio State wins and moves on to the national title game in Texas.

Star defensive tackle Michael Bennett's mother, Connie, called it "reprehensible" that players' families aren't helped more when it comes to traveling to watch their sons play.

"They're making hand-over-fist dollars on our guys, the guys take all of the risk for the entertainment dollars and they ignore their families altogether," she said, according to Dispatch story.

The playoff is a great thing for the sport, but how fans and especially families were going to be able to get to those games has always been a major unanswered question. Neither the Big Ten nor NCAA can change that right now, but given the new autonomy measures the Power 5 conferences have been granted, this needs to become a priority. The playoff will generate an enormous pile of money, and a small part of that should go toward making sure participating players' parents are in the stands.

West Division
East Division

Big Ten morning links

December, 5, 2014
Dec 5
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Too bad it's such a quiet week in the Big Ten.

Check that.

Let’s get ready for a weekend like college football has never seen by hitting the three stories burning hottest in the league.

First up, Nebraska hired a coach. Mike Riley flew into Lincoln on Thursday night and headed straight to a meeting with the Cornhuskers. The former Oregon State coach will introduce himself to the state of Nebraska on Friday morning with a press conference at Memorial Stadium.

If Riley has any doubt about the level of obsession in his new position, he won’t after going through the ringer of obligations in his first full day on the job. I realize he coached in the NFL for three seasons. But he coached in San Diego, where, if fans get disinterested in the Chargers, they head to the beach of the golf course. If they lose interest in Nebraska, it’s statewide emergency.

Lost in the news on Thursday: How did Nebraska Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst keep everyone in the dark? Riley’s name never surfaced among the dozens of coaches in mainstream speculation for the Nebraska job this week, perhaps because he was 5-7 this season and 61 years old.

The recent whereabouts of Eichorst also remain a mystery. Either he conducted the entire search from the depths of his office or he ought to think about moonlighting as a Homeland Security operative.

A few opinions:
  • Eichorst is taking a risk with Riley, writes Dirk Chatelain, but it’s one that illustrates the AD’s apparent lack of a big ego.
  • Lee Barfknecht writes of the widespread respect Riley has earned among peers and how his skill at developing quarterbacks could hold the key in the coach’s bid to elevate Nebraska.
  • According to George Schroeder, Riley is a great fit at Nebraska. Writes Schroeder: "He's unlikely to be overwhelmed by the expectations or surprised by the obstacles." A rare combination, indeed, that perhaps offers insight into the nature of Eichorst's outside-the-box hire.
  • The Lincoln Journal Star compiles more reaction from media and current and former Nebraska players.
  • And after some Nebraskans wondered about the star power of their new coach, it’s worth taking this advice: Just chill.
Not much news out of Michigan on first full day of its coaching search. Interim AD Jim Hackett seems intent to take his time. Unless, that is, a slam-dunk candidate is ready to say yes.

Maybe Les Miles is that slam dunk. Or maybe not. A pair of Louisiana writers provide contrasting opinions: Scott Rabalais tells Miles that the time is right for him to go back to U-M, while Jeff Duncan writes that Miles would be foolish to leave.

Or is Greg Schiano the most realistic of the high-profile candidates?

Regardless, this is a critical hire for Michigan, where fresh starts are getting old. Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, no doubt, agrees. He’s not happy with the firing of Brady Hoke and has no interest in the job in Ann Arbor.

Meanwhile, Hoke lands on a list of potential candidates at Colorado State.

Back on the field, Wisconsin and Ohio State battled different kinds of adversity this season to earn trips to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game.

Don't expect the Buckeyes to hold back on offense because of its quarterback issues. And amid all the talk of Cardale Jones' steep learning curve as he replaces injured J.T. Barrett, the Ohio State defense faces a huge challenge on Saturday. The reason? Melvin Gordon, of course.

The Badgers have concerns with the depth on the offensive line, to the point that Gary Andersen would consider removing the redshirt from freshman Michael Deiter in this 13th game of the season.

On the other side of the ball, Wisconsin's No. 2-ranked defense is again an underappreciated collection of talent.

Looking for predictions? The Cleveland.com writers deliver in their weekly outrageous fashion. And they're bullish on the Buckeyes.

Finally, if Ohio State beats Wisconsin and Michigan State remains ahead of Mississippi State in the playoff rankings, the Big Ten looks set to leave one of its eight-bowl eligible teams at home this postseason. Here's an explanation.

Around the rest of the league:

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West Division

Big Ten morning links

December, 1, 2014
Dec 1
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Barely an hour removed from a huge rivalry victory, the mixed emotions were playing out on the faces of Ohio State players as they streamed in to meet the media.

A teammate, a beloved brother, was only missing at that point, but it seemed difficult for some Buckeyes to smile too much or bask in the victory too long knowing that Kosta Karageorge still had not been found. His body was discovered on Sunday, but his tragic loss will only bring a different set of emotions for the Buckeyes to deal with in the coming days.

Perhaps nobody summed up the matter better than junior Taylor Decker, a friend of Karageorge's before the latter joined Ohio State as a walk-defensive lineman. And while his message that life and death matters are "a lot bigger than football" is simple, it's yet another reminder of the importance of maintaining perspective when it comes to the games we all love and the athletes that play them.

So before diving into championship week and the coaching carousel, the Big Ten reporters send their deepest condolences to the Karageorge family and all his friends.

***

1. Pelini's fond farewell? In the end, maybe Bo Pelini got exactly what he wanted after essentially daring Nebraska to fire him on multiple occasions. Confident in his record with the program over the last seven years and with all those nine-win seasons to point to when other jobs open up around the country, Pelini always seemed to know there would be options for him if the Huskers became too disenchanted with the consistency he was providing them -- even if it was coming up just short of being elite or winning championships. There has been obvious unease between the two parties over the last couple seasons, so while the discussion about who Shawn Eichorst will hire will justifiably dominate the conversation in the coming days, Pelini’s next move could be equally interesting to follow. To be clear, he is anything but a failed coach, even if he was just fired. And as he appears to have believed all along, there will be another opportunity for him soon.

2. Next domino: Whether or not the Nebraska move came as a surprise, the fact that it acted first in the coaching silly season definitely was a shocker. That probably doesn’t mean Michigan is having second thoughts about parting ways with Brady Hoke, though, especially after rival Ohio State had the pleasure of putting the finishing touches on a 5-7 season that was seemingly as much of a disaster off the field as on it. Making the announcement on Sunday as Nebraska did or perhaps pulling the trigger today won’t make that much difference since the Wolverines have almost certainly been reaching out to candidates behind the scenes for weeks to prepare for the inevitable, but it should be their turn to step in front of the cameras and microphones and pick apart Hoke’s tenure and look to the future soon.

3. On the field: There is still a game to be played in the Big Ten, of course, and it’s a pretty critical one even if it’s currently being somewhat overshadowed by coaching changes -- or the lack thereof at Illinois. The fractured ankle suffered by Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett takes a little of the shine off a matchup that was going to prominently feature the league’s two best offensive players in a primetime showdown with both conference and national-title implications, but both coaches were quick to offer reminders during Sunday’s teleconference that the game was always going to be decided by more than Barrett and Melvin Gordon. That might be easier for Gary Andersen to say right now since the Badgers still have their star, but Urban Meyer is already working to build a convincing case that the Buckeyes will be fine with Cardale Jones taking the snaps. The biggest reason: Jones will be walking into a much more experienced huddle than Barrett did to start the season, and that supporting cast should ease his transition. Obviously it’s his job to instill confidence in his team and make sure that Jones and the rest of the Buckeyes are ready to go regardless of the circumstances, but his message does make sense with the likes of Jalin Marshall, Ezekiel Elliott, Michael Thomas and more all proven playmakers at this stage of the season.

East Division
  • Michigan players stood up for Brady Hoke after the loss to Ohio State on Saturday.
  • If Pat Narduzzi is a candidate at Nebraska, Mark Dantonio hasn't been made aware of it yet.
  • Can Cardale Jones take over the Ohio State offense as seamlessly as J.T. Barrett did earlier this season?
  • A closer look at a brilliant game-clinching play that was a decade in the making for Rutgers.
  • Ralph Friedgen was honored by Maryland as he returned with the visiting team Saturday, and he went home with a victory.
  • Penn State didn't end the regular season the way it wanted to, but there were some improvements to take note of heading into bowl preparations.
  • Closing the season with a dramatic finish to claim the Old Oaken Bucket brightened up a disappointing campaign for Indiana.
West Division
  • Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst wants to compete for championships, a point he made clear during his public evaluation of Bo Pelini.
  • Wisconsin bounced back from its upset loss to Northwestern and has a chance to add to its "storybook ending."
  • There aren't many high marks for Northwestern after losing to Illinois and failing to make a bowl game.
  • After earning a postseason appearance, Illinois coach Tim Beckman will return for another year.
  • Iowa athletic director Gary Barta indicated there have been no discussions about shaking up the coaching staff.
  • After leaning so heavily on being disciplined all season, Minnesota made too many mistakes with the division title on the line against Wisconsin.
  • Purdue played some decent defense, but its offense was once again an issue in a conference loss.
Michigan State was only a few minutes from taking a touchdown lead over Ohio State into halftime last Saturday night when the big-play bug struck again. And again.

With 3:19 left in the second quarter, Buckeye receiver Michael Thomas shook free of a tackler near the 30-yard line and took J.T. Barrett’s slant pass 79 yards for a game-tying touchdown. It was the longest play a Michigan State defense has allowed since the end of the 2011 season. Two minutes and five players later, Barrett struck again. This time it was Devin Smith sneaking behind the Spartan secondary for a 44-yard touchdown pass. The late 14-point swing gave the Buckeyes a lead from which they never looked back.

[+] EnlargeDevin Smith/Darian Hicks,
AP Photo/Al GoldisDarian Hicks and the Spartans' defense have struggled with allowing the big plays this season.
 “Big plays lead to momentum shifts, and that’s why we have to do a better job of eliminating them,” Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond said after the game. “That’s something we harp on every week and throughout camp, explosive plays.”

Explosive plays are the reason Ohio State jumped to No. 8 in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings after the 49-37 win, and the reason why Michigan State will be fighting for bowl game scraps during the final three weeks of the regular season. Five times the Buckeyes ran plays that picked up 40-plus yards in East Lansing last weekend. All five of them (which accounted for 268 of Ohio State’s 568 offensive yards) occurred on drives that ended in touchdowns.

Wins helped cover the cracks in Michigan State’s proud defense earlier this season, but broken plays have been an issue throughout the year. Opponents have gained 40 or more yards on a single play 17 times against Michigan State in 2014. Only eight teams in the FBS have allowed more.

Giving up the long ball is a major change for a team that has built its recent success on an air-tight defense that avoids the mistakes that so often lead to losses. It’s a problem that threatens the defensive philosophy that has been largely responsible for Michigan State’s climb to a conference powerhouse.

“I don’t know,” said cornerback Darian Hicks, who got turned around in man coverage on Thomas’ 79-yard score. “We have new starters here. Obviously our team is not the same as last year.”

Last year’s Rose Bowl champions used an aggressive, suffocating defense to carry its fledgling offense early in the year. Head coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi use a run-stuffing system based on frequently leaving its defensive backs on an island against opposing receivers. It’s a gamble, but the Spartans typically tip the odds in their favor with superior, well-trained athletes.

Four starters are gone from 2013’s stacked deck in the back seven. They include the Jim Thorpe Award winner at cornerback, two third-team All-Americans at linebacker and a first team All-Big Ten pick at safety. Their replacements have held their own for the most part this season, but against Michigan State’s two toughest opponents (Oregon and Ohio State), the defense surrendered 95 points. When the other team has playmakers that can match Michigan State’s athleticism, the Spartans have been burned this fall.

Narduzzi said he tried to keep his defensive backs out of one-on-one battles more often against the Buckeyes, but he didn’t want to abandon the principles that have made his defense so successful.

“Our kids have confidence in what we do,” he said. “... My thing is man, but we do play a lot of zone. [Ohio State did] a good job, and we weren't getting reroutes. They did a nice job. You have also got to get enough guys up there to stop the run. It's a fine line.”

Michigan State has leaned more on its offense this fall to hit some big plays of its own. The style change means that, at times, the defense spends more time on the field than in past years and gets stuck in more difficult position. The offense continued its prolific output with 37 points against the Buckeyes, but the players on that side of the ball didn’t feel like they did enough either.

“We put up 500 yards of offense, but when it comes down to it, we have to score more points than the other team,” tackle Jack Conklin said. “No matter where the defense is or how well they’re doing, they held us in games last year and this year at certain times. We need to step up to help them out, and we fell short.”

One loss to one of the country’s top teams is no reason to rethink the risk-reward benefits of Michigan State’s defense. That approach has been the foundation with which the Spartans won 20 of their past 23 games.

The loss and the big plays that brought it on are a reminder, though, if not a warning. As Michigan State continues to evolve, Dantonio and Narduzzi must recruit and develop the very best in the secondary if they want to continue the same defensive approach. The Spartan defense has to find a way to stop elite playmakers and beat the types of teams that help you grow from a perennial Big Ten power to a national championship contender.

Big Ten morning links

November, 7, 2014
Nov 7
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Your attention span is short on the Friday before a huge football weekend, so let’s get in and get out quickly with a final take on the three Big Ten games most likely to impact the league title race.

In East Lansing, Ohio State’s defense is likely the unit most overlooked in the marquee matchup of the Big Ten regular season. Most of the talk in advance of Saturday focuses on the offenses led by Connor Cook and J.T. Barrett. And no one can really look past the Pat Narduzzi-directed Michigan State group. But what about the Buckeyes on defense? It might hold the key to victory for Ohio State, and it’s a revamped bunch under first-year co-coordinator Chris Ash. Cornerback Doran Grant says that the Buckeyes’ defensive showing last year against MSU in a 34-24 loss won’t factor on Saturday. But it should. Ohio State ought to draw energy from it. The best defense is often fueled by emotion. OSU can use recent history to its advantage. Just don't ask Brady Hoke who's got the edge.

Speaking of defense, the group at Wisconsin is better than the sum of its parts. Safety Michael Caputo and linebacker Derek Landisch figure to contend for Big Ten postseason honors, though neither looks like a top candidate for Big Ten defensive player of the year. How, then, to explain the Badgers’ ranking as the No. 1 defense nationally in points and yards allowed? It’s about a selfless approach, epitomized best perhaps by safety Peniel Jean. The Badgers haven’t played a great schedule, but they dismantled decent foes in Maryland and Rutgers the past two weeks. We’ll see this week at Purdue if the Badgers open their critical three-game final stretch with more momentum -- thanks to that defense -- than any other contender in the West.

You want answers? You’ll get answers about Iowa. The Hawkeyes looked downright dangerous last week against Northwestern. And really, it’s been a three-game surge for Iowa on offense, interrupted by an off week and hidden somewhat behind an ugly defensive showing at Maryland on Oct. 18. But last week, wow, it all came together, even the big plays in the passing game. The Hawkeyes have had this in them all season, with receivers Tevaun Smith, Kevonte Martin-Manley and Damond Powell all capable of stretching a defense. But Minnesota leads the Big Ten and ranks fifth nationally in allowing 5.6 yards per pass attempt. If Jake Rudock can throw over the top of the Golden Gophers in the cold, Iowa will roll.

Around the rest of the league:

East Division
West Division
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Our crew of Big Ten reporters will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They'll have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

The Michigan-Michigan State series resumes on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), and the Spartans have been dominant of late in winning five of the past six meetings. But will it continue? Today's Take Two topic is: Which program will be in better shape five years from now?

Take 1: Brian Bennett

The real answer here is we have no idea. Things can change quickly in college sports, and nothing is guaranteed. Just look at Florida and Texas.

It's particularly hard to predict with any accuracy what Michigan will look like in the future, because we don't know who will be the coaching the Wolverines in five months, much less years. Of course, the Maize and Blue have all the resources to bounce back quickly, assuming they hire the right man. But they've missed on that two times in a row now, right?

That's why I'll pick Michigan State. Rivalries tend to go in cycles, and the Spartans' ownership of their in-state opponent likely won't continue at this rate. But stability has been a key to the success of Mark Dantonio in East Lansing, as so many of his coaches have been with him since the beginning. That probably won't stay the case -- Pat Narduzzi has to get a head-coaching gig this winter, and he is likely to take some other Spartans assistants with him when he does -- but Dantonio will keep sticking with what works.

He just coached his 100th game with Michigan State and is only 58. Dantonio figures to still be leading the Spartans five years from now, and the program continues to get better in all areas. Even if Michigan finally maximizes its potential, Michigan State isn't going away. I'll stick with the sure thing.

Take 2: Dan Murphy

Five years is a long time in the cyclical world of college football. As far ahead as Michigan State currently sits in just about every metric of a successful program, there's no reason to believe Michigan can't catch up and possibly pass the Spartans in the future.

There's a good chance Michigan is closing in on a clean slate with its athletic department leadership. Strong relationships between the head coach, athletic director and the university's big wigs is an essential part of creating a consistent winner on the football field. If things in Ann Arbor continue down this current path, the Wolverines will get a chance to start building those bounds from scratch before the 2015 season.

The resources -- money, facility, support and athletic talent -- have always tilted toward Michigan in this rivalry. The ingredients for a better product are there, Michigan just hasn't been able to put them together during the past couple years.

Meanwhile, in East Lansing, Dantonio is battling the high expectations and attrition that come with success. His coaching staff has remained largely intact during the Spartans' rise, but that can't continue forever.

Five years from now, Dantonio will be a 63-year-old coach that might be dealing with a new staff for the first time in a long time. It's not a foregone conclusion that the Goliath he's built will shrink, but history certainly points to the possibility that Michigan will be in a good spot to catch up, which is probably a good thing for Wolverines' fans to keep reminding themselves as this season's meeting plays out on Saturday.
You can take much of what we predicted in the preseason and throw it in the trash. Please. (Rutgers at 4-8 and Michigan at 8-4? Bad, Brian, bad).

But one idea we had about the Big Ten in the offseason seems to be playing out just as it was forecast: Michigan State and Ohio State are the best two teams in the league, and there's a noticeable dropoff after that.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Rush
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan State's defense can smother opposing offenses like it did for three quarters against Nebraska.
That didn't necessarily look like the case in early September, certainly not after Ohio State lost 35-21 at home to Virginia Tech. That result in hindsight wasn't all that surprising, as quarterback J.T. Barrett played just his second game in the wake of Braxton Miller's August shoulder shutdown and had trouble reading the Hokies defense.

Just look what has happened since. In the past three games, Ohio State has scored at least 50 points in each while outscoring its opponents 168-52. Barrett's improvement is happening at warp speed. In those same three games, he has completed 75 percent of his passes for 909 yards and 14 touchdowns, with just one interception. He also added 156 rushing yards and a score.

Sure, the defenses at Kent State and Cincinnati are deplorable, and Maryland showed itself susceptible to the big play earlier this season against West Virginia. Yet many thought the Terps were feisty enough to keep things close at home Saturday, and the Buckeyes simply crushed them.

Even if Miller had played this season, I always thought Ohio State would have a large learning curve based on the youth of his surrounding cast. Now, skill players like Michael Thomas and Ezekiel Elliott and the rebuilt offensive line are all coming on strong alongside Barrett, making the Buckeyes one of the scariest teams in the Big Ten's second half.

Can Urban Meyer's team, which is ranked No. 15 in both major polls this week, even work itself back into College Football Playoff contention? It depends on whether the selection committee can forgive that early loss and issue a pass because of the Miller injury. If this were the basketball tournament, the committee would take the injury into account and focus more on how the team finished. But no one is really sure how the new football selection committee will weigh things.

Ohio State only has one marquee game left on its schedule, and that's the Nov. 8 showdown at Michigan State. Just as we thought in the preseason, that should be epic.

The Spartans haven't played to their full potential for a whole game yet, but if they ever get to that level, they could prove unstoppable. They nearly did so against Nebraska, building a 27-3 lead after three quarters. When Michigan State's defense is smothering every passing route and squashing the run as it did much of Saturday night -- the Cornhuskers had their lowest rushing output since 2007, and Ameer Abdullah was neutralized for the first time in a couple years -- it must seem to opposing offenses like Pat Narduzzi is putting 12 or 13 players on the field.

But the MSU offense hasn't yet been able to take over the end game by pounding the ball on the ground the way it did so many times last season. That's a big reason why the Spartans had to hold on for dear life as Nebraska mounted a stunning fourth-quarter comeback and nearly stole the win on the road.

"It's pretty unacceptable how we played," quarterback Connor Cook said afterward, and it's telling that a win over a previously 5-0, No. 19-ranked team felt substandard to Michigan State. "We'll use this as motivation, because we never want to perform like this ever again."

In peak form, the Spartans and Buckeyes are just a notch above everyone else in the Big Ten. Nebraska can occasionally rise to that level but remains far too inconsistent and sloppy with the ball. Wisconsin and Minnesota can't generate a passing game, Penn State can't block well enough for its stellar quarterback and Iowa just isn't explosive enough. When Northwestern leads the West Division after losing at home to both Cal and Northern Illinois, you know there's a lack of great teams in the league.

The Big Ten's long shot playoff hopes still rest in East Lansing and Columbus. Both teams should enter that Nov. 8 game with just one loss. Michigan State spends the next two weeks in the Hoosier State against Purdue and Indiana before hosting struggling Michigan in a game that could wind up a bloodbath -- unless, for maybe the first time ever, the Spartans find themselves actually looking past the Wolverines. Ohio State has tougher tests, with a visit from 5-1 Rutgers after this week's bye, followed by a potentially tricky trip to Penn State. But the Buckeyes' athleticism should push them through both games, and the Nov. 1 home game against the walking dead Illinois defense offers the chance to break that school record for offense for real this time.

So we're back to where we started this season and, really, where we were last December. Michigan State and Ohio State are clearly the league's top two teams. Even dummies like us can see that.
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EAST LANSING, Mich. -- It wasn’t joy that No. 10 Michigan State felt after notching the biggest win of its young season on Saturday night. Not frustration exactly, either.

No, the looks on the faces of the Spartans’ players and coaches approached something else following their 27-22 victory over No. 19 Nebraska. They resembled confusion.

Just about anyone who watched the game from start to finish could relate. Michigan State thoroughly dominated Nebraska for three-plus quarters, leading 27-3 with 13 minutes left to play. Yet it took Trae Waynes' interception with 30 seconds left at his own 15 to stave off the Cornhuskers’ furious rally.

[+] EnlargeTrae Waynes
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan State's celebration after Trae Waynes' clinching interception was more relief than anything else, as Michigan State came close to coughing up a 24-point lead.
“It’s uncharacteristic of us when we do get a lead like that to let people back in,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “That does not happen. But it happened, so we’ve got to deal with it and learn from that.”

In a weekend when carnage enveloped many of the top-ranked teams in college football, the Spartans emerged from the rubble in great shape simply by surviving. By downing the last unbeaten team left in the Big Ten, they also reasserted their dominance in the conference -- that’s 11 straight league wins, dating back to 2012 -- and kept their hopes for the College Football Playoff flickering.

Yet they also missed their chance to deliver an emphatic statement, one that maybe could have rinsed away more of the stink from a 46-27 loss at Oregon in Week 2. After a Tony Lippett 32-yard reverse for a touchdown in the third quarter built that 24-point lead, many in green thought that statement was already crafted, including the students who fled for the exits. Even some players thought it was over.

“I was kind of like, ‘This is pretty much in the bag,’” quarterback Connor Cook said. “We need to learn to not get too comfortable when we get a lead.”

At least there was a good reason for the overconfidence. For 47 minutes, the Spartans’ defense turned a powerful Nebraska offense into putty. The Huskers came into Saturday night averaging 354.8 yards rushing yards per game, second-best in the FBS, and their Heisman Trophy candidate tailback, Ameer Abdullah, had barreled through everyone while leading the country in rushing.

But Nebraska managed just 85 total yards and no points in the first half against Pat Narduzzi’s defense, and Abdullah’s Heisman campaign likely evaporated into the chilly October sky. Abdullah would finish with just 45 rushing yards on 24 carries, his lowest output since the infamous 70-31 Big Ten championship game loss to Wisconsin in 2012. His longest run of the night was just 9 yards. Forget the "No Fly Zone": Spartan Stadium was "Nowhere to Run."

The Michigan State defense, which had broken down late at Oregon and allowed some atypical explosive plays against three September tomato cans, finally began to round into its punishing form of the past few seasons. The Spartans never could quite deliver the final knockout punch in the second half, though.

“Our defense took like 10 steps forward,” said Cook, who completed just 11 of his 29 pass attempts for 234 yards. “But our offense took a step back.”

And that gave Nebraska the opening to nearly pull off the stunning comeback. Despite losing top receiver Kenny Bell to an injury in the first half, an ineffective Abdullah and a quarterback in Tommy Armstrong who got knocked around all night, the Huskers finally got off the mat to score a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns on offense. Then De'Mornay Pierson-El’s 62-yard punt return for a score with 3:22 left frayed nerves even further.

Alonzo Moore nearly hauled in a one-handed touchdown catch the play before Waynes picked off his second pass of the game to end things and continued Nebraska’s futility in marquee road games.

“I said [before the last Nebraska drive], ‘How are we going to make our mark?’” Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. “‘How are we going to be known?’”

Last year’s Rose Bowl champion Spartans were known for forcefully closing out games behind their running game, as they won every league contest by double digits. This year’s team hasn’t located that killer instinct just yet.

“We know we have great potential to have a really good team, and it’s just something we have to do through finishing,” offensive lineman Travis Jackson said. “We’re just trying to make our identity as we go through the Big Ten.”

Unfortunately, Michigan State will probably need to win by wide margins in conference play to convince a skeptical public -- and perhaps the selection committee -- that a Big Ten team deserves a playoff spot. The Week 6 chaos helped the Spartans’ cause, but they have to overcome an early loss and the lack of any more signature games before the Nov. 8 showdown versus rapidly improving Ohio State.

This team showed how good it could be during stretches of the Oregon game and for a much longer period on Saturday night.

“If we play like that for 60 minutes, we’re going to be a tough team to mess with,” safety Kurtis Drummond.

It was the last 13 minutes that caused all the confusion.

“I’m just glad I’m not sitting here talking about how it slipped away,” Dantonio said. “Somehow, some way, we finished it.”

In this wacky weekend of college football, just surviving was enough for now. But Michigan State can restore some order to the process if it can tap its full potential the rest of the way.
Shilique Calhoun, Ameer AbdullahUSA TODAY Sports, Getty ImagesMichigan State's Shilique Calhoun, right, and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah will play key roles Saturday.

The conference game of the year so far in the Big Ten arrives on Saturday night as No. 19 Nebraska, the league’s lone unbeaten, visits 10th-ranked Michigan State (8 ET, ABC).

The Huskers and Spartans met as division rivals each of the past three years -- with Nebraska winning two, including a comeback victory at Spartan Stadium two years ago. Last season, MSU beat the Huskers 41-28 in Lincoln.

They are on opposite sides of the Big Ten now and could meet again in the league title game. ESPN.com Big Ten reporters Mitch Sherman and Brian Bennett break down the matchup:

Sherman: The marquee matchup in this game for the past two seasons involved Nebraska’s offense against the highly rated Michigan State defense. Those dynamics might have shifted this year, and we will get to that, but first, let’s look at what happens when the visiting team possesses the football. Nebraska has committed more to the running game over the past two weeks than at any time under fourth-year offensive coordinator Tim Beck. The Huskers kept it on the ground 124 times against Miami and Illinois, gaining more than 800 yards. They have been efficient and controlled tempo when the run game gets going. MSU, of course, presents a different challenge as a team that prides itself of committing resources to stop the run. Is Nebraska playing right into the Spartans’ hands if it tries to force its will early with the ground game?

Bennett: I don't think so, Mitch. This isn't the same Michigan State defense we've seen the past few seasons, at least not yet. The Spartans have already given up a bunch of big plays early this season, which was to be expected after they replaced six starters from a year ago. Coach Mark Dantonio came out and said, "Our defense is not broke" this week. Now, the defensive breakdowns have mostly come on passing plays, as the Spartans are allowing fewer than 80 yards per game on the ground. But Nebraska has had success running the ball against Pat Narduzzi's defense in the past, running for 182 yards as a team last season and producing four 100-yard rushers in the three Big Ten meetings between these clubs. The Huskers' physicality on the edge with their receivers helps them run the ball well against this scheme, and Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah looks like he refuses to be stopped this season.

Sherman: Abdullah is the elite offensive talent in this game, no doubt, but I think, outside the state of Michigan, the college football public isn’t paying enough attention to Connor Cook. He showed great poise in Lincoln last season, converting eight third downs through the air. And Cook is a lot better this season. Nebraska will try to bring heat against the junior quarterback. How much pressure has he faced this season, and do you trust his ability to extend plays and avoid mistakes if forced to throw?

Bennett: I really have no worries about Cook. He has proved himself in big games, including last season's Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl, and aside from a couple of poor throws, he was very good against Oregon. He will be fine, and Michigan State's receivers continue to be underrated. The guy I wonder about is the other quarterback, Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong Jr. He has been decent, but far from great this season, and now he will face a defense that can throw a lot of different looks and blitzes at you. Can he avoid the turnover bug that has so plagued the Huskers in these types of matchups? That is a huge key.

Sherman: With Armstrong, it’s a week-to-week situation -- sometimes even more fluid. He struggled to complete a pass in the first half last week against Illinois, then performed much better when Nebraska grabbed a big lead. Armstrong’s running is much improved this season, but his consistency must improve. If he is off his game as a passer on Saturday, Nebraska won’t have much success offensively. MSU defensive end Shilique Calhoun could play a role in rattling Armstrong. Calhoun and his Nebraska counterpart Randy Gregory are both first-round talents. Who is likely to make a bigger impact?

Bennett:
Gregory has been a beast since coming back from injury, and the matchup between him and MSU tackle Jack Conklin will be a great one. Calhoun hasn't yet had quite the impact we thought he would make this season, but Bane can always rise to the occasion (he had a key forced fumble last season in Lincoln). I think Gregory will be the bigger factor, but he will need to be especially good, because the Spartans have more defensive playmakers surrounding their star defensive end than Nebraska does.

Big Ten mailbag

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
5:00
PM ET
The weekend is finally here. We're 19 hours away from the first Big Ten games getting started, it's time to ease into full football mode by dipping a toe into a Friday evening mailbag:

Adam from the Army writes: In the BCS Era there was only one team (Auburn 2004) in a Power Five conference that went undefeated and left out of a National Championship Game. So is it safe to say that any undefeated Power Five conference champion will make it into the College Football Playoff? Barring all 5 going undefeated?

Dan Murphy: I can’t imagine a scenario in which an undefeated Power Five team would miss the playoffs. Since the end of WWII, there has never been a time when every major conference had an undefeated champion. It’s possible, but highly unlikely the selection committee runs into that problem. In my opinion, it should be hard to keep any undefeated team (regardless of conference affiliation) out of the national championship contention now that there is room for four teams. Will the Big Ten have an undefeated conference champ this year to fill that role? I highly doubt it.




Alex from York, Neb., writes: I told myself I would never irrationally drink the Kool-Aid, but I've gone and done it... I look at the schedule for Nebraska, and every single game looks very winnable. …How much of a chance are you guys at The Blog giving Nebraska of running the table and representing the Big 10 in the first CFP?

Dan Murphy: Gave this away in the last answer, but not much of a chance. Playing at Michigan State and at Wisconsin are the two big hurdles. The schedule is manageable otherwise, but playing a full season without one off day is difficult for any team. The Huskers have yet to show they're dominant enough to beat a decent Big Ten program on a day when things just aren’t clicking. You can get past McNeese State in those scenarios, but another one of those games would be trouble.




Colton from East Lansing, Mich., asks: Do you think the MSU vs. Nebraska game is the most important B1G game of the season?

Dan Murphy: Only if Nebraska wins. If the Huskers find a way to beat Sparty on the road Alex’s question from above becomes a much better possibility. If Michigan State wins, its Nov. 8 meeting with Ohio State catapults to the top of the conference games this season. If Penn State can keeps its momentum going, the Lions finish their season by hosting Michigan State on the final Saturday of November. No matter what happens it looks like the road to the top of the league goes through Mark Dantonio’s team this year.
Dan Murphy: I was actually talking about that scenario with a colleague a few days ago. First of all, let me start by saying I don’t agree with the idea that Hoke is already done at Michigan. It’s too early in the season to write anyone off. But ... if Michigan is looking for a new coach next season, signing one of the Harbaugh brothers will be tough. Both figure to be in playoff contention in December, and Michigan can’t afford to wait until the NFL wraps up around national signing day to make a hire. The Wolverines would need to make a big splash with a new hire. Snatching one of the country’s top coordinators from a hated in-state rival is certainly splash-worthy. Don't know if Narduzzi would be interested (he's in line to take over for the 58-year-old Dantonio in East Lansing if he wants to wait), but what a fun layer that would add to those annual meetings if Narduzzi became a Michigan man.




P-Dub from Seattles writes: How about the fact that nearly 10 percent of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL are from Michigan State! Add in Brees, Brady, and Wilson, and nearly 20 percent of starting QB's are from the B1G. Who says we ain't got no quarterback talent!?

Dan Murphy: How about those Big Ten quarterbacks, indeed. A quarter of the NFL (eight teams) has started a former Big Ten player under center in at least one game this season. Speaking in generalities, the conference has held firm in its pro-style approach to offense while college football trends toward a dominant spread look during the past decade. That’s produced a string of quarterbacks like the Michigan State group who are comfortable in NFL offenses. Almost all of them started their careers as backups, but have been able to fill starting roles adequately when opportunities arise.

The current Big Ten features a handful of NFL hopefuls at quarterback -- Connor Cook, Christian Hackenberg and Braxton Miller chief among them. The question, for Hackenberg and Cook at least, is if the NFL will evolve away from the traditional quarterback like college football has and leave them out of their element in the future.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
5:00
PM ET
No surprise, but one topic has dominated the conversation in the Big Ten -- and predictably generated the most questions in the mailbag. But Braxton Miller's shoulder injury isn't the only thing worth discussion in the league, particularly with training camps winding down and everybody making the final push ahead of the season openers.

Austin Ward: There's no doubt Ohio State could be facing one of the more interesting quarterback situations in recent memory if Miller completely heals and sticks with his pronounced intentions of returning after a redshirt season. First things first, J.T. Barrett (or Cardale Jones) will have plenty to do to prove they are capable of replacing the void left by a two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. But I don't think the Buckeyes will look at it as putting off the future for another year as much as embracing the window to win a championship and making the most of it that year. A fully healthy Miller is among the most valuable players in college football, and if he elects to return, he would be playing behind a veteran offensive line, handing off to a deep, experienced group of tailbacks and throwing to a crop of receivers that have been among coach Urban Meyer's top priorities in recruiting -- with what could be a nasty defense on the other side of the ball for Ohio State. Titles are hard to win, and it's difficult at this point to envision any scenario where the Buckeyes wouldn't want Miller to chase it.

Austin Ward: There is an element of truth to that, but Ohio State was already trying to shift Miller away from carrying the entire load for the offense and becoming more of a distributor heading into his senior season. Now the Buckeyes just figure to be installing a guy for whom that sort of role comes more naturally. Miller was supposed to be more dangerous this season because of all those weapons around him, and while his ability to elude pressure and scramble for extra yards is invaluable, Barrett may not need to do that as often if he gets the ball out as quickly as the coaching staff has indicated he can. He'll also have the benefit of all that added talent at the skill positions, which could put him in great position to hit the ground running leading the attack for the Buckeyes.

Austin Ward: Hey, why not three? Typically, I still lean toward the school of thought that rolling with one quarterback is the way to go, but there are always exceptions. As Florida proved under Urban Meyer with Chris Leak and Tim Tebow, if the two guys provide different sets of skills and don't let ego get in the way, that approach can work. I don't doubt at all that a former Meyer assistant would be aware of the potential benefits and have an idea how to manage the rotation, and Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy each do bring something unique to the table for the Badgers. If the two of them are truly as neck-and-neck as it has often sounded, I don't think it's a stretch to see a rotation working at Wisconsin -- particularly since either guy will have Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement around to make their lives easier.

Austin Ward: As long as Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi are around, it's safe to assume the Spartans will continue to make the defense their top emphasis. They proved a year ago that the scheme, attitude and work ethic of the Michigan State program is more valuable than the individual talent, and there's no reason to think that won't continue even as they replace some valuable veteran contributors. However, it won't hurt them at all to have a more dangerous offense to complement that unit, and it's reasonable to expect big strides will be made now that Connor Cook has nearly a full season of experience and an entire offseason as the No. 1 guy at quarterback under his belt. If already proven running back Jeremy Langford and Michigan State's group of receivers can make similar strides as Cook did even just within last season, the Spartans might start being known as a team that can hurt opponents offensively -- while still wreaking havoc with their defense. 

Big Ten morning links

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
8:00
AM ET
Tis the season to name starting quarterbacks, not to lose them.

News of Braxton Miller's season-ending injury at Ohio State is dominating the headlines. But the Buckeyes won't be the last Big Ten team this year to go in search of an alternate plan at QB. Last year, 10 of the current 14 teams in the league used at least two starters at the position.

Here's a ranking of Big Ten teams most equipped to handle an injury to their top quarterback:
  1. Wisconsin: Junior Joel Stave and senior Tanner McEvoy remain locked in a race for the job, and both are likely to play. Stave, who has started 19 games, remains the favorite, though McEvoy, a safety last year, adds a running threat for the Badgers.
  2. Maryland: Junior Caleb Rowe, the backup to sixth-year senior C.J. Brown, has a strong arm and four games of starting experience from last October. Rowe improved during that month and regularly gets time in practice with the first-team offense.
  3. Iowa: Sophomore C.J. Beathard played meaningful snaps alongside Jake Rudock a year ago. Beathard will get opportunities again. And if the Hawkeyes need him full time, it's far from a disaster.
  4. Illinois: Transfer Wes Lunt appears in control of the race, with the Illini set to name a starter on Wednesday. Senior Reilly O'Toole has shown a capable arm, and sophomore Aaron Bailey has good size and running ability.
  5. Michigan: Devin Gardner missed the bowl game last year, giving the Wolverines a glimpse of Shane Morris. That experience in a 31-14 loss to Kansas State aided Morris in getting prepared for his sophomore season.
  6. Purdue: Returning starter Danny Etling won a legitimate competition this week over fellow sophomore Austin Appleby, who expects to keep pushing. If the Boilermakers need to use their depth, another to watch is touted freshman David Blough, on track now to redshirt.
  7. Ohio State: It's time to find out. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett is known for his steady hand, accuracy and decent athleticism. Sophomore Cardale Jones, next in line, is a big body who could be used more than Barrett as a running threat.
  8. Michigan State: Sophomore Tyler O'Connor and redshirt freshman Damion Terry have conducted a spirited battle this month, with O'Connor remaining ahead in the race to back up Connor Cook. If a replacement is needed, both options would likely receive consideration.
  9. Nebraska: Behind Tommy Armstrong Jr., who started seven games as a replacement a year ago, the Huskers have no experience. Sophomore walk-on Ryker Fyfe owns the edge over redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton, a former elite recruit.
  10. Penn State: Newcomers Michael O'Connor and Trace McSorley have adjusted well to life behind Christian Hackenberg. O'Connor is bigger and practiced with the Nittany Lions in the spring, so he's probably the first option if a backup is needed.
  11. Northwestern: Unlike a year ago, Trevor Siemian is the clear starter. Behind him, junior Zack Oliver and redshirt freshman Matt Alviti have waged a competition. Alviti brings a dual-theat similar in the mold of ex-Wildcat Kain Colter.
  12. Minnesota: Redshirt freshman Chris Streveler has emerged as the top backup to Mitch Leidner. The Gophers tinkered with Streveler at receiver last year before the transfer of Philip Nelson, so athleticism is a plus. But Streveler's inexperience is a concern.
  13. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights need Gary Nova and his vast experience in this transition to the Big Ten. Backups Mike Bimonte, a junior, and freshman Chris Laviano possess good size, but neither QB has played a down in college.
  14. Indiana: The Hoosiers have no experience behind incumbent Nate Sudfeld. Walk-on sophomore Nate Boudreau has taken most of the snaps at No. 2, though true freshmen Zander Diamont or Danny Cameron might be given a closer look if Sudfeld misses time.
Around the league ...

East Division
West Division
And finally . . .
Our best- and worst-case series continues its school-by-school journey through the Big Ten.

Remember, these are not predictions. They outline potential peaks and valleys and give us an opportunity, before we get down to the business of the season, to have a little fun. Don't take these too seriously (although many of you will).

Up next is a team that couldn't have envisioned a much better case than what happened last season: the Michigan State Spartans.

Best case

Sparty on! This time, all the way to JerryWorld. Michigan State continues its remarkable ascent under Mark Dantonio and reaches college football's apex.

The run begins in Week 2 at deafening Autzen Stadium, which quickly grows silent as the Spartan Dawgs make fois gras out of the home team. Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond both intercept Marcus Mariota in the first half, and Connor Cook is the best quarterback on the field, shredding Oregon's defense for three touchdown passes. Sparty steals The Duck's motorcycle and pops wheelies around the field afterward.

Four weeks later, MSU opens Big Ten play the way it left off in 2013: With a double-digit win. The defense holds Ameer Abdullah to 27 rush yards on 27 carries and Jack Conklin makes sure Randy Gregory gets nowhere near Cook. Punter Mike Sadler scores on a fake punt that Dantonio nicknames "Cat in the Hat," while sneering at Bo Pelini.

Three weeks later, the Spartans are back at home to face rival Michigan, which brings a 7-0 record to East Lansing. The Wolverines leave at 7-1, blown out yet again by Dantonio's crew, which once again holds Michigan to a negative rushing total. Malik McDowell records three sacks. Brady Hoke ends the game wearing long sleeves and a headset.

In the much-anticipated rematch against Ohio State under the lights, MSU delivers another gem. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi coaches the entire game from the sideline as the Spartans sack Braxton Miller six times. It's a big night for MSU's Ohioans: Cook, Marcus Rush, Drummond in a 24-13 win. Afterward, Urban Meyer finds a few cold pizzas at his locker.

MSU goes on to beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, as Sadler executes a textbook flop in crunch time, drawing a penalty on Wisconsin and allowing the Spartans to run out the clock. It's a perfect regular season and offensive lineman Travis Jackson leads the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd in the "Yes! Yes!" chant.

The Spartans return to the Rose Bowl and beat Florida State before advancing to face Alabama in the national title game. It's Dantonio versus Nick Saban, his old boss at MSU. Cook rallies the offense in the closing minutes and the Spartans win 21-20. The national title is theirs.

Dantonio signs a lifetime contract. Narduzzi turns down three Big Ten head-coaching jobs to remain at MSU. Michigan drops its final five games. Cook and Shilique Calhoun return for their senior seasons.

Worst case

Same old Spartans? That phrase should be retired, but Michigan State once again crumbles under the weight of expectations.

Things go badly in Eugene as Oregon easily covers the spread and shreds Michigan State's defense. The concerns about losing Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen are magnified as Mariota completes 23 of 25 passes for 385 yards and four touchdowns. The Duck runs over Sparty's foot.

Nebraska pulls off its second straight win at Spartan Stadium, thanks again to a controversial penalty call, this time on Waynes. The Huskers snuff out a Spartans fake and cash in for six, and Abdullah scores the game-winning touchdown in the final minute.

After a narrow win at Purdue, Michigan State falls behind early at Indiana, like it did in 2012. This time, the Spartans can't rally as a Cook interception seals a shocking loss. The pain worsens the following week as undefeated Michigan beats up the Spartans at the line of scrimmage, drawing four unnecessary roughness penalties in a 10-point win. A skywriter spells "Big Blue, still Big Bro" above Spartan Stadium.

The misery continues the following week as Miller dissects a defense that looks nothing like its typical form. Meyer slams on the gas in the fourth quarter and Ohio State wins by 17. Cook throws three picks.

After two less-than impressive wins against the Big Ten newcomers, MSU flat-lines in Happy Valley, falling 17-3 to Penn State. That same day, Ohio State and Michigan meet at Ohio Stadium in a matchup of the only remaining major-conference undefeated teams.

At 6-6, Michigan State heads to the Dallas area for a bowl game and falls to Marshall. Narduzzi turns down head-coaching jobs in the SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12 for the gig at Rutgers, ensuring he'll face MSU every season in the East Division.

Calhoun goes pro. McDowell transfers. Ohio State and Michigan both make the college football playoff. My downstairs neighbor, Tim, burns all his Spartans gear. Wrestler Daniel Bryan sues Jackson for copyright. Michigan students shave off Sparty's eyebrows.

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC 

Previewing the 2014 season for the Michigan State Spartans.

2013 overall record: 13-1 (8-0 Big Ten)

Key returnees: Connor Cook, QB; Jeremy Langford, RB; Tony Lippett, WR; Jack Allen, C; Jack Conklin, OT; Shilique Calhoun, DE; Marcus Rush, DE; Taiwan Jones, LB; Trae Waynes, CB; Kurtis Drummond, S; Mike Sadler, P.

Key losses: Darqueze Dennard, CB; Max Bullough, LB; Denicos Allen, LB; Isaiah Lewis, S; Blake Treadwell, G; Fou Fonoti, OT; Bennie Fowler, WR.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesConnor Cook passed for 2,755 yards with 22 touchdowns and just 6 interceptions last season.
Instant impact newcomer: Malik McDowell's bizarre recruitment gained regional and national attention as his parents initially opposed him signing with Michigan State. But there's a reason why the Spartans wanted him so much, and he has the physical tools to contribute right away on the interior line, where MSU is replacing two starters. Along with redshirt freshman defensive end Demetrius Cooper, the 6-6, 286-pound McDowell should enter the rotation up front and occupy a significant role.

Projected starters

Offense: QB: Connor Cook, Jr., 6-4, 218; RB: Jeremy Langford, Sr., 6-1, 208; WR: Tony Lippett, Sr., 6-3, 185; WR: Keith Mumphery, Sr., 6-1, 211; WR: Macgarrett Kings, Jr., 5-10, 186; TE: Josiah Price, So., 6-4, 251; OT: Jack Conklin, So., 6-6, 303; OT: Donavon Clark, Jr., 6-4, 306; G: Travis Jackson, Sr., 6-4, 291; G: Connor Kruse, Sr., 6-5, 325; C: Jack Allen, Jr., 6-2, 299.

Defense: DE: Shilique Calhoun, Jr., 6-5, 256; DE: Marcus Rush, Sr., 6-3, 251; DT: Joel Heath, Jr., 6-6, 285; NT: Damon Knox, Jr., 6-5, 280; LB: Darien Harris, Jr., 6-0, 231; LB: Taiwan Jones, Sr., 6-3, 252; LB: Ed Davis, Jr., 6-3, 242; CB: Trae Waynes, Jr., 6-1, 182; CB: Darian Hicks, So., 5-10, 180; FS: Kurtis Drummond, Sr., 6-1, 202; SS: RJ Williamson, Jr., 6-0, 214.

Specialists: P: Mike Sadler, Sr., 6-0, 175; K: Michael Geiger, So., 5-8, 189.

Biggest question mark: Michigan State has been a national top-six defense in each of the past three years, but many expect the unit to backslide after losing national standouts such as Dennard and Bullough. The Spartan Dawgs are out to prove that they can maintain an elite standard despite filling gaps at several key positions, namely linebacker. The offensive line also will be in the spotlight as three starters depart.

Most important game: Nov. 8 against Ohio State. A lot will happen between now and then, but the Spartans and Buckeyes are the Big Ten frontrunners and their early November clash -- under the lights, by the way -- should be the game of the year in the league. Ohio State prevailed by a point two years ago at Spartan Stadium, but Michigan State rallied for a win in the 2013 Big Ten championship. The matchup features two excellent defensive lines and pits the league's most accomplished quarterback (Braxton Miller) against its hottest signal caller (Cook).

Upset special: Sept. 6 at Oregon. Yes, this would qualify as an upset and a fairly major one, according to the odds makers. But Michigan State showed in the Rose Bowl that it could handle the Pac-12's best. Oregon's offense poses a bigger challenge, and a somewhat new-look Spartans defense must limit big plays. But expect coordinator Pat Narduzzi to have a great plan, and an improved MSU offense could keep pace with the Ducks on the scoreboard.

Key stat: Michigan State is one of two FBS teams (Florida State) to finish in the top three nationally in pass efficiency defense in each of the past two seasons.

What they're wearing: Michigan State displayed several uniform models in its football building this spring, including the all-green look it sported at the Rose Bowl, an all-white look with a sleek chrome helmet and the green-and-black, Baylor-ish getup, similar to the unis worn against Michigan in 2011. The team also featured a green-white combination with green pants and a white jersey.

Take a look at this and this.

Team's top Twitter follows: Coach Mark Dantonio (@DantonioMark) doesn't tweet much but drops a gem from time to time. Several players are excellent tweeters, but none tops the wit of the punter, Mike Sadler (@Sadler_3). Also check out quarterback Connor Cook (@Connor_Cook03), defensive end Shilique Calhoun (@Shilique89) and safety Kurtis Drummond (@K_Drummond27). The team's official handle (@MSU_Football) is a good follow, and everybody loves Sparty (@TheRealSparty).

They said it: "We're going to dream big. What's been established is that we have been to the Rose Bowl and we won the Rose Bowl and we won the Big Ten Championship. What we can do beyond that remains to be seen, and you always want to dream big and you always want to go farther than you did before." -- coach Mark Dantonio

Stats & Information projection: 7.79 wins

Wise guys over/under: 9½ wins

Big Ten blog projection: Ten wins. MSU is no one-year wonder and will contend for another Big Ten championship and possibly a spot in the college football playoff. The losses on defense, while important, are being overblown and the offense should be better, perhaps much better, with Cook at the helm again. It's tough to see the Spartans beating Oregon on the road and the Big Ten schedule isn't easy, although most of their toughest games take place at Spartan Stadium, where MSU is 38-11 under Dantonio.

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