Big Ten: Paul Chryst

This week, we're taking a look at one position that was a problem for each Big Ten team in 2014 and how they might fix it in 2015. Next up is Wisconsin.

Problem position: Wide receiver

Why wide receiver was a problem in 2014: We all know that Wisconsin's passing game wasn't very good in 2014, and the quarterback position was an area of trouble at times. But the lack of upper-echelon talent at wide receiver was even more glaring the season after Jared Abbrederis departed. The Badgers ranked just 12th in the Big Ten in passing offense, and averaged a pedestrian 11.6 yards per reception. Former walk-on Alex Erickson led the team with 55 catches for 772 yards, and the next most productive receiver was senior slot man Kenzel Doe, who had 17 catches for 197 yards. Tight end Sam Arneson, who was a big pass-catching weapon, has graduated.

How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Erickson will be back, and should remain the No. 1 option. Wisconsin will hope to get more out of Jordan Fredrick, who had 13 catches last season, and the disappointing duo of Reggie Love and Robert Wheelwright. Love scored on a 45-yard end around in the opener against LSU, then did almost nothing the rest of the season. Wheelwright's touchdown catch in the season finale against Minnesota was somehow his only reception of the year. A trio of rising sophomores -- George Rushing, Natrell Jamerson and Krenwick Sanders -- will be asked to contribute more, with Rushing looking like the most promising of the group.

How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): Not much, at least so far. Wisconsin has only one receiver committed in this year's class, and that's Andrew James from Fort Lauderdale, Florid. He's a three-star prospect, according to ESPN Recruiting.

Early 2015 outlook: One of the main priorities for new head coach Paul Chryst is developing the passing game, including the quarterbacks and receivers. Still, Wisconsin is unlikely to become Wide Receiver U any time soon. This is still an offense that will rely heavily on the run game and use its tight ends (Troy Fumagalli should step in for Arneson in '15) and tailbacks as receiving options. Yet the Badgers receivers are often open because opposing defenses pay so much attention to the run game, so they need to be much better than they were last season. If even one or two wideouts can step up to help Erickson, that would go a long way toward improving the entire offense.

Big Ten morning links

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
Good morning. Only 24 days until pitchers and catchers report. But we get you caught up on Big Ten news reports every day ...

1. It has been the year of the Big Ten running back, so was it any surprise that two of them shined in Saturday's Senior Bowl?

Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah won game MVP honors while leading the North to victory. Abdullah had 73 rushing yards and added another 40 receiving yards while showing NFL teams that the only measurable that matters with him is the size of his heart. I still wish Abdullah would have stayed healthy all season, because I think he could have joined Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman by making a run at 2,000 yards.

Minnesota's David Cobb was another Big Ten back who had a special season, and he produced 69 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries at the Senior Bowl. Cobb may not have the breakaway speed of other NFL running back hopefuls, but he is one tough dude to tackle.

Of course, the Senior Bowl is as much about the practices as it is the game itself. Our Todd McShay says Iowa defensive tackle Carl Davis is among 10 players who helped themselves the most in Mobile. Davis was named the outstanding practice player of the week by Senior Bowl officials. He could have solidified his spot as a first-rounder.

Other Big Ten alumni who gained notice at the Senior Bowl included a pair of tackles in Wisconsin's Rob Havenstein and Penn State's Donovan Smith.

2. How cool was Ohio State's national championship celebration on Saturday morning? I also love that the Buckeyes held the event during a key recruiting weekend. What prospect wouldn't be excited about seeing 45,000 fans turn out to the Horseshoe or be impressed by the national championship trophies on display?

Urban Meyer is already one of the greatest closers ever on the recruiting trail, and now he's got even more to sell. Ohio State picked up two players for their future classes on Sunday, including a blue-chip tight end.

3. Of course, the big "news" from Columbus during the celebration was Braxton Miller telling the fans "we've got another more year to do it [again]." That was hardly a definitive answer on the senior quarterback's future, and he was unlikely to announce a transfer in that atmosphere. But it is the most we've heard yet from Miller himself about his plans.

What Saturday might have shown Miller is that while he could transfer somewhere else and start right away next season, he'll probably never be as loved as he is by his home-state fans. Perhaps all of Meyer's talk about the unselfishness on this year's Buckeyes -- including the great story about walk-on Nik Sarac declining a scholarship so a player more in need could take it -- will convince Miller to come back and sacrifice some playing time or even change positions to make another championship run.

Who knows, really? The tug of home and the Buckeyes will be strong on Miller. But this saga is far from over.

Elsewhere in Big Ten country ...

East Division
West Division

Offseason to-do list: Wisconsin

January, 23, 2015
Jan 23
Like it or not, the offseason is here, and we're examining what each Big Ten team must address before the 2015 campaign kicks off in September. The series concludes today with the Wisconsin Badgers, who will have their third coach in four seasons as Paul Chryst takes command.

1. Improve the quarterback spot: Wisconsin keeps winning without elite quarterback play, but if the program ever wants to take that next step, it must improve at the most important position. Enter Chryst, who took Scott Tolzien from average to good and Russell Wilson from very good to elite during his tenure as Wisconsin's offensive coordinator. Chryst's next project appears to be Joel Stave, who boasts a 20-6 career record as Wisconsin's starter and a 139.7 career passer rating, but has frustrated fans with interceptions and inconsistency (9 touchdowns, 10 interceptions in 2014). Both Stave and Bart Houston -- an afterthought during Gary Andersen's tenure -- should benefit from Chryst's presence. Redshirt freshman D.J. Gillins is an intriguing prospect, and heralded recruit Austin Kafentzis is already on campus.

2. Build depth at wide receiver: Stave didn't have much to work with on the perimeter last season, as wide receiver depth remained a major problem for the Badgers (despite standouts Jared Abbrederis and Nick Toon, wideout has been an issue since Henry Mason stepped away from coaching after suffering a serious injury in 2007). Other than Alex Erickson, a nice surprise last fall with 55 receptions, the receiver group is filled with question marks. Reggie Love and Rob Wheelwright aren't new names to Wisconsin fans, but both must produce more after disappointing performances last fall. The Badgers also need younger wideouts like George Rushing to emerge. Chryst's yet-to-be-named receivers coach has a lot of work ahead.

3. Maintain momentum on defense: Chryst's retention of defensive coordinator Dave Aranda might have been the most significant coaching move (non-head coach) of the offseason in the Big Ten. Aranda's innovative, speed-oriented, disguise-heavy, 3-4 scheme has elevated Wisconsin's defense, which last fall ranked in the top four nationally in yards allowed, first downs allowed and third-down conversion rate. The Badgers must replace key pieces at inside linebacker and defensive line, but they return a lot in the secondary and promising players like Vince Biegel. Aranda will be working with a new head coach and a new defensive staff, so it's vital that there are no philosophical hiccups and Wisconsin can keep the arrow pointed up.

Big Ten morning links

January, 23, 2015
Jan 23
Wrapping up the first full week since August without college football. Just 30 more weeks until the games start again:

Oregon State coach Gary Andersen confirmed, in an interview with Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports, that he left Wisconsin last month in large part over frustration with the school's admission standards.

No surprise there, though it was interesting to read Andersen's explanation and the matter-of-fact nature with which he -- and Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez -- spoke about the situation.

"I don't expect anybody to understand it," Andersen told Dodd in reference to making the move to Oregon State. "I don't expect any one person to look at me and say, 'I get it.' But I get it."

Alvarez offered no apologies or even a suggestion that Wisconsin would relax its standards.

Sounds like Andersen and Alvarez were at odds to stay over admissions. The blowout loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game likely provided the push Andersen needed to act sooner rather than later. And Oregon State, after Mike Riley's move to Nebraska, found itself in the right place at the right time to land the coach.

As a result of Riley's decision to leave Corvallis, Andersen, Paul Chryst at Wisconsin and Pat Narduzzi at Pittsburgh all landed in positions to better succeed on their terms ...

The quarterback situation at Michigan is tenuous, with little experience of note among the four quarterbacks on the roster. In fact, Shane Morris, the most experienced of the bunch, is known best for his place at the center of a controversy last September as he returned to play against Minnesota after suffering a concussion.

It appears that Jim Harbaugh is interested in adding another QB to the mix. The new U-M coach, according to reports, visited 6-foot-7 signal caller Zach Gentry in Albuqerque, New Mexico, this week, and Gentry looks set to set visit Ann Arbor this weekend.

Gentry, rated 118th in the ESPN 300, has been committed to Texas since May. (Texas, for what it's worth, is trying at the same time to flip No. 1-rated QB Kyler Murray from his pledge to Texas A&M.)

As for Gentry, it makes great sense for him to consider Michigan. Harbaugh's work with Andrew Luck at Stanford speaks for itself. The coach, a successful QB at the college and NFL level, will be a recruiting force with the nation's top quarterbacks for as long as he remains at Michigan. Meanwhile, Texas represents much more of a crapshoot for Gentry ...

As you may have heard, this happened over the past couple days at Pitt and Penn State.

Fun stuff. In spite of the prevalence of mediocre teams in the state of Pennsylvania, it's great to see the old rivals sparring on social media. Nothing brings out the feistiness in college coaches quite like recruiting, by the way.

Let's allow this episode to mark the start of an unofficial countdown to the renewal of the PSU-Pitt rivalry. They'll play for the first time in 16 years in September 2016 at Heinz Field, then in 2017 at Beaver Stadium, followed by a repeat of the home-and-home arrangement in 2018 and 2019.

The arrival of Narduzzi at Pitt comes at the right time for this. He is, of course, familiar with the Nittany Lions as former defensive coordinator at Michigan State. And with excitement on the rise at both schools, no better time exists than now for a little stoking of the flames.

And how about Herb Hand, the Penn State offensive line coach, with a barrage of Twitter barbs? We won't make more than a quick reference to the 44 sacks for which his position group was largely responsible in 2014. You can bet Pitt fans will take note -- now and for the next 19 months.

Around the rest of the league:

Big Ten morning links

January, 22, 2015
Jan 22
I took a few days off shortly after the national title game for a mini-vacation, so that helped delay my football withdrawal. But now reality is starting to settle in: we won't have any more college football games for a long, bleak eight months.

Yet when the 2015 season finally does kick off over Labor Day weekend, we will be immediately welcomed back with a slate of fascinating games. Last year, we had the delicious Wisconsin-LSU opener to look forward to, along with some minor curiosities like Rutgers-Washington State, Penn State-UCF in Ireland and Ohio State-Navy. This year's opening slate will be even better.

It will all begin with an absolute blockbuster of a Thursday night. TCU will play at Minnesota in what looks like the biggest nonconference game of the Jerry Kill era. Our Mark Schlabach ranked the Horned Frogs No. 1 in his way-too-early 2015 Top 25 (and, no, I have no idea why he didn't put Ohio State at No. 1, either). At the very least, TCU figures to be a Top 5 team when it comes to TCF Bank Stadium, offering the Gophers a chance to make a major early statement.

That same night, we get the debut of Jim Harbaugh as head coach of Michigan, which will play its first-ever Thursday night game at Utah. The Utes have beaten the Wolverines the past two times they played them, including last September, and opening at Rice-Eccles Stadium won't be easy. But everyone will want to see Harbaugh on the Maize and Blue sidelines for the first time.

Those games set the table for a strong Saturday which includes Wisconsin and new head coach Paul Chryst going up against Alabama at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Badgers will be heavy underdogs, but Ohio State showed it's possible for a Big Ten team to bully big, bad 'Bama. We'll also get Mike Riley's first game as Nebraska head coach in an intriguing matchup against BYU and Northwestern seeking a rebound season that will begin by hosting Stanford.

The icing on the cake arrives on Labor Day night, as the defending champion Buckeyes go on the road to Virginia Tech. The Hokies were the only team to beat Ohio State in 2014, and Lane Stadium should be total pandemonium for this one.

The Big Ten changed the narrative and greatly bolstered its reputation during bowl season. The league will get a chance to continue that momentum right away in the 2015 season, even if it feels a million miles away at this point. ...

Speaking of scheduling, Michigan State added BYU to its future schedules for 2016 and 2020 on Wednesday. The Cougars replaced Eastern Michigan on the schedule for the Spartans, which is a win for everybody. Athletic director Mark Hollis has been committed to scheduling at least one strong nonconference opponent per year, and Oregon comes to East Lansing in Week 2 of 2015 to complete a home-and-home.

Future Spartans' nonconference schedules in 2016 and beyond (the dawn of the nine-game Big Ten slate) will include Notre Dame (2016 and '17), Arizona State (2018, '19), Miami (2020, '21) and Boise State (2022, '23), along with BYU. That's smart, aggressive scheduling in the playoff era, and in the years when Michigan State plays both BYU and Notre Dame in addition to nine Big Ten contests, it will have to be ready for a season-long grind.

Elsewhere in the Big Ten:
Wisconsin recently sent a recruiting mailer to 2016 prospect Jake Heinrich to show coach Paul Chryst’s past coaching stops. The only problem is that the mailer identifies Chryst as the head coach and offensive coordinator at Penn State from 2012-14, instead of Pittsburgh.

Paul ChrystTom VanHaaren/ESPN
Chryst spent the past three seasons as the head man at Pitt -- and the mistake won’t impact Heinrich’s recruitment -- but it might turn a few heads in the state of Pennsylvania.

Heinrich laughed at the mistake and said the staff also sent him a mailer with the defensive coordinator’s resume with no errors. But it does seem hard to believe that the flyer was made specifically for Heinrich. In other words, there might be a few confused Wisconsin recruits out there today.

Big Ten morning links

January, 16, 2015
Jan 16
Subbing in on morning links duty. It's a big stage, but I'm ready. My friends call me Cardale.

1. Speaking of Cardale Jones, he's coming back to Ohio State, a decision that surprised many because of the way he announced his decision (with a big to-do at Ginn Academy, his high school in Cleveland). The Buckeyes quarterback joked, "I don't know why you guys made such a big deal." Us? Us?!?! Jones' decision sparked a swarm of opinions, from the positive to the skeptical. Doug Lesmerises puts it best in this excellent in-depth piece: "Jones and Ginn Academy are more than a news conference."

After proving his on-field mettle in three huge games for the Buckeyes, Jones showed how much he had matured Thursday, sincerely talking about his desire to get an education and set an example for other underprivileged kids from Cleveland. Sure, the news conference was unusual, but it provided great exposure for Ginn Academy and the good things that happen there.

Time will tell if Jones made the right call for his pro football future. His draft stock might never be higher. He might not retain the starting job next season, although he has a major advantage right now as Ohio State's only healthy option. Still, he seemed like a man at peace with his decision. Jones is on the right track, both in football and in life. And as college football fans, you should be thrilled he's sticking around for another season.

2. The NCAA's methods for getting Penn State to sign a consent decree in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal are facing more scrutiny. A USA Today investigation finds that NCAA president Mark Emmert had virtually no support to impose the so-called death penalty on Penn State, a threat then-PSU president Rodney Erickson said was made. Emmert appears to have been bluffing.

This is more good news for those challenging the NCAA for imposing the historic sanctions against Penn State (and Penn State officials for accepting them). Momentum seems to be building for a settlement in the lawsuit filed by two state officials against the NCAA and Penn State, as a trial date looms Feb. 17. How will the summer of 2011 be remembered? As more facts are revealed, the narrative is changing.

3. Graham Couch makes some good points in his guide for Big Ten fans to counter SEC snobbery. It's important for fans to understand the philosophical differences in the ways leagues are run. Big Ten fans should be proud of the league's broad-based philosophy and the opportunities it offers to so many athletes, while also demanding market-value investment in football, which is certainly possible.

This league can be good in a lot of sports without shortchanging its football fans.

Elsewhere ...

West Division
East Division


Big Ten morning links

January, 15, 2015
Jan 15
Good morning, fans of the conference that's home to the national champs. That's fun to say.

1. Iowa's Kirk Ferentz held an unusual, mid-January news conference on Wednesday because "it was just my sense that we needed to talk." Ferentz understands the negativity around the program after a very disappointing season, and he vowed to do something about it.

His proposed repairs might not be exactly what Hawkeyes fans want, as Ferentz doubled down on his team's offensive scheme and pledged to keep his staff intact (though some roles could change). Instead, Ferentz promised to get more active personally in the film room, something he said suffered a bit as he worked to raise funds for Iowa's facilities upgrade.

This was basically Ferentz saying he planned to roll up his sleeves and get to work, quite possibly armed with a new starting quarterback in C.J. Beathard. There's still not really much outside pressure on the man going into his 17th season as the head Hawkeye because of his massive contract. But it's good to know that the competitive fire still burns inside Ferentz and that he recognizes that things have to get better.

Everything is on the table for Ferentz and Iowa this offseason.

2. Nebraska added a big recruit on Wednesday, both literally and figuratively. Offensive lineman Jalin Barnett (from Lawton, Okla.) is 300 pounds and wears size 18 shoes, which must be a problem at the bowling alley. He's also ranked No. 43 in the ESPN 300 and had offers from all kinds of major schools, including his home-state Sooners, so it's quite the coup for new coach Mike Riley and his staff. My big question on the Riley hire was whether he would have the national recruiting presence necessary to succeed at Nebraska. It's too early to say one way or another, but Barnett's commitment is a great sign for Huskers fans.

3. Missed this from earlier in the week, but Minnesota's governor wants to ban all football kickoffs that happen before noon local time. Neither the governor nor Big Ten member schools have any say in this, of course, because kickoff times are dictated by TV. And the league is richly rewarded by its TV partners, so it has to take the good and the bad.

Still, he's on to something, because 11 a.m. is simply too early for a football game and much, much too early for a proper tailgate. The Big Ten loves its noon ET window on Saturdays, but as the league grows its presence to the East, it would be nice if the conference and its TV partners could throw the schools in the Central Time Zone a bone by letting them have more later start times.

West Division
East Division
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill smiled one of those you-gotta-be-kidding-me smiles.

It was the morning after Ohio State had reclaimed college football's throne, winning its first national title -- and the Big Ten's first -- since the 2002 season. Urban Meyer had led Ohio State back to the top in just his third season. Naturally, the conversation turned to the future and what the Buckeyes' championship meant for the rest of the Big Ten.

Did Ohio State raise the bar?

"They've raised the bar for a long time," Kill said, chuckling. "And Urban's raised the bar. Just look at their players."

Ohio State has been the Big Ten's pace-setter for the past 15 years. And fairly or unfairly, the Buckeyes bore the brunt of the blame for the league's big-stage struggles after consecutive double-digit losses in the BCS title game following the 2006 and 2007 seasons. The Big Ten then entered arguably the darkest period in its history, struggling both on the field and off of it.

Which team would ultimately begin the reputation repair? Ohio State, of course. The Buckeyes were the only Big Ten team to even reach the title game during the BCS era (Nebraska was in the Big 12 when it got there after the 2001 season). Ohio State won six BCS bowl games (one later vacated); the other current Big Ten teams combined for seven BCS bowl wins (one vacated by Penn State).

Other Big Ten teams have come close to the title game. Michigan State was a few bad calls away from an undefeated regular season in 2013. Penn State appeared to be on its way in 2008, and Iowa entered the national discussion the following year. Still, Ohio State has been the only Big Ten program to reach the mountaintop. And the Buckeyes could stay there in 2015 as they return a team loaded with star power on both sides of the ball.

But they can't be alone in the playoff push.

Longtime Big Ten blog readers know my fundamental theory about the league, but it's worth restating, even in the wake of an image-boosting championship and a strong bowl performance. The Big Ten ultimately needs multiple national title contenders every year to be regarded as an elite conference. It's what stood out about the SEC's historic run: four different teams won national championships. The SEC isn't just Alabama. The Pac-12 isn't just Oregon.

Ohio State should be in the playoff mix every year that Meyer coaches. Will the Buckeyes have company?

Michigan State is clearly the next program to watch. The Spartans have recorded consecutive top-5 finishes with major bowl wins (2014 Rose, 2015 Cotton). They finished in the top 10 in the major bowls in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1965-66.

Quarterback Connor Cook returns for his senior season and could cement himself as the best signal-caller in team history. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun also will be back to anchor a strong front four. Although MSU loses talented defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, it maintains continuity by promoting longtime assistants Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett to co-coordinator roles.

It also has a nationally elite coach in Mark Dantonio.

"We're just not that far away," Dantonio said on the Big Ten Network while attending the national title game. "A lot of teams are like that. Not that far away. If you look a little bit further into the future, you can dream big and great things can happen. That's where our football team is. I think we're in the conversation."

Who else from the Big Ten could enter that discussion?

Wisconsin isn't far away. The Badgers bring in elite talent at positions like running back and offensive line. They have a terrific defensive coordinator in Dave Aranda, who will remain on staff with new coach Paul Chryst. Wisconsin must make upgrades at quarterback, wide receiver and defensive back. Chryst's presence will help the quarterbacks, and the return of assistant Joe Rudolph should help recruiting.

Penn State has fewer recruiting challenges than Wisconsin and will bring in elite talent under coach James Franklin. The defense is in good shape under the watch of coordinator Bob Shoop. The offense will improve as line depth improves. Penn State has some big steps to take, but no team other than Virginia Tech pushed Ohio State more than the Lions. Things are on the upswing in Happy Valley.

Since 2006, Michigan has looked nothing like a playoff team. Jim Harbaugh could change that at a place that always has the potential to be great. There's debate among opposing coaches about how much talent is already in the program, but Harbaugh's ability to develop current players will be fascinating. You know he and his assistants will flourish in recruiting.

Like Michigan, Nebraska has the resources and tradition to be elite. Like Wisconsin, Nebraska also has some inherent recruiting challenges. Mike Riley's approaches with both player development and recruiting will be worth watching. The glory days of the mid-1990s likely are never coming back, but Nebraska should be a periodic CFP contender.

Iowa has shown the capability to be elite under Kirk Ferentz, but the program is trending down. Ferentz could course-correct -- he has done so before -- and make Iowa a periodic contender, but not an annual one.

It's up to these teams to ensure the Big Ten's title hopes aren't always placed in the Buckeye basket. The league could have a surprise riser in some seasons -- perhaps Minnesota, where Kill has done well -- but can't expect one annually.

Bottom line: The Big Ten has enough capable options to become more than a one-horse race.

"Top to bottom, we have some work to do in our conference," Meyer said Tuesday, "but it's moving."

Coaches like to talk about getting population to the football. The Big Ten wants population in the playoff discussion.

Ohio State could use some company at the summit.

"Hopefully," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said, "it will be an incredible motivator for everybody in our league."

Big Ten morning links

January, 12, 2015
Jan 12
Seriously, what else is left to say? The big day is here. Mere hours remain until the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T.

Oregon and Ohio State take the field in North Texas at 8:30 p.m. ET. (And don’t forget, ESPN offers 12 ways to watch.)

In the meantime, here’s a rundown of some last-minute gameday banter:

The end of the college season always comes with a touch of sadness because of the reality that we must wait nearly seven months before practice opens in August. This year, I’ll miss the outrageous predictions of the writers nearly as much as the games -- well, maybe not, but I’ll miss them nonetheless.

According to the latest fearless forecast, the Buckeyes will block a punt, force two Marcus Mariota interceptions and get 300 yards rushing from Ezekiel Elliott. I’ll go on record and declare, if all of that happens, the Buckeyes will need an extra seat for this on the return flight to Columbus.

Before this 15th game of the season for Ohio State, I’ll join the party and predict, outrageous as it may appear, that OSU will stop an Oregon goal-to-go situation on Monday night.

Maybe it’ll force a field goal or get a turnover. I’m not going to venture a guess how it happens. But Ohio State will one time keep the Ducks out of the end zone after Mariota peers over the line of scrimmage on first-and-goal.

It’s outrageous, because the Buckeyes have not stopped one such situation this season. I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: OSU foes are 21 for 21 in scoring touchdowns after securing a first down at the 10-yard line or closer to the goal line. Ohio State is the only team among 128 in the FBS to allow a touchdown each time.

The streak ends Monday night.

Upon closer inspection, the Buckeyes own the edge over Oregon in seven of 10 matchup categories, finds Paul Myerberg of USA Today.

I don’t take issue with any of his conclusions, other than perhaps that Ohio State’s running backs deserve the check mark over Oregon, too, after Elliott’s performances against Wisconsin and Alabama.

And I think Ohio State could get the nod at linebacker because of the rise of Darron Lee and strong play of Curtis Grant.

Really, you could pick the Buckeyes in every category but quarterback. That Oregon remains a decisive favorite speaks to the massive value of Mariota and the QB position in general.

Speaking of Ohio State linebackers, keep an eye Monday night on Raekwon McMillan. Yes, he’s a freshman backup who played sparingly in the Sugar Bowl. But McMillan is a five-star talent.

It may happen on special teams if the Ohio State defensive coaches aren’t comfortable to remove Grant against an opponent that will make them pay for even a small mistake. But if given the chance, McMillan is athletically equipped to make a game-changing play on this stage.

More on the title game:

And finally out of the Buckeyes' camp, former Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck is set to fill Tom Herman's spot on the Ohio State staff after the title game.

Some Nebraska fans are scratching their heads at this hire. Beck was a scapegoat in Lincoln for presiding over an offense since 2011 that often appeared to lack an identity. But how much was Beck held back by ex-Nebraska coach Bo Pelini? Possibly, a lot, if Beck's game plan in the Holiday Bowl -- after Pelini had been fired -- provided a glimpse of the offense he wanted to run. Nebraska accumulated 525 yards in the 45-42 loss to USC.

Beck ought to thrive with the Ohio State quarterbacks. (Who wouldn't?) He's a dynamic recruiter with ties to his native Ohio, plus Texas and other areas. And paired with Meyer, an offensive-minded coach, Beck, at 48 may finally find himself on the fast track to a head-coaching job.

Around the rest of the league:
When the coaching carousel stops and all the moves and non-moves are assessed, Penn State's retention of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop could be overlooked.

There have been bigger moves nationally and in the Big Ten, none more so than Michigan's hiring of Jim Harbaugh to lead its struggling program. There have been more notable assistant transactions, such as Oklahoma dumping offensive coordinators Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell. Shoop, appearing Thursday on Pittsburgh's TribLive Radio, even said his brief flirtation with LSU was "a little blown out of proportion. When it ultimately came down to it, it really wasn't much of a decision."

But make no mistake: this is a big deal, not just for Penn State but for the Big Ten. Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman reported that Shoop will receive a new three-year contract from Penn State valued at around $1 million annually.

Shoop isn't the first Big Ten coordinator to make that kind of money -- Michigan State made a similar commitment to then-defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi last February. But the move shows that Penn State can step up in a competitive market to keep a top aide for James Franklin, a head coach it brought in for more than $4 million per year.

Until recently, Penn State hadn't been known as a place that shelled out big bucks for coaches. Joe Paterno obviously had a lot to do with it, as his salary, even in his final years, was well below that of less-accomplished coaches. But the Shoop raise, following Franklin's contract and a raise for former coach Bill O'Brien in 2013, underscores that Penn State has caught up.

So has the Big Ten.

The league adjusted slower to the salary surge than others. In 2010, the league had no assistants among the top 10 in salary and just one in the top 30. The SEC, at the time, had 14 assistants among the top 30 earners.

Michigan began the shift when it brought in defensive coordinator Greg Mattison for $750,000. Ohio State and others followed with stronger commitments. But Bret Bielema cited assistant pay at Wisconsin as one of the reasons he left for Arkansas in 2012. Moves like this and this suggested that Big Ten teams were vulnerable to losing top assistants for seemingly lateral moves.

The SEC's reign atop college football infuriated Big Ten fans, especially as the Big Ten was repeatedly dragged through the mud. But the SEC also raised the bar for investment in the sport.

When the Pac-12 coaches visited ESPN headquarters in July, each one of them mentioned the league-wide investment in facilities, coaches' salaries and other areas. That's the SEC effect.

ACC schools Clemson and now Louisville are paying top dollar for top assistants (Clemson has done so for years).

The Big Ten had even more resources to sink into football. In October 2013, I wrote about the disconnect between Big Ten revenue and Big Ten on-field results.

"I think we spend enough to be successful," league commissioner Jim Delany told me at the time. "Our coaches are good. We have 85 scholarships. Spending more money in football doesn't necessarily mean it's better."

But spending more money on the right coaches is a big step toward improvement. Urban Meyer, arguably the nation's best head coach at hiring assistants, has the resources to do so. Michigan State not only took care of Mark Dantonio after the Rose Bowl, amid interest from Texas and others, but boosted salaries for Dantonio's loyal staff.

Michigan, an athletic program flush with cash, spent a lot on Harbaugh, a potential program savior, and provided assurances that he can hire elite assistants. The process already has begun with D.J. Durkin, the former Florida defensive coordinator, who takes the same post at Michigan. Harbaugh is assembling a strong staff from both the college and pro ranks.

Penn State committed to Shoop before things got more serious with LSU. Like Penn State, the Tigers boast tremendous tradition on defense and regularly churn out top NFL prospects. Top defensive coordinators are in demand around the SEC, which is throwing around insane salaries for them. Shoop could have stepped into a great situation in Baton Rouge. Instead, he chose to remain in what he considers a great situation at Penn State.

Although the Big Ten is losing two of its top assistants, Narduzzi and Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, both men left for solid head-coaching positions. It would have been much worse if they had taken coordinator jobs in other leagues simply because of the money.

Shoop isn't the only rising-star defensive coordinator the Big Ten should retain in 2015. Dave Aranda, who has elevated Wisconsin's defense in two years with his creative scheme, will remain in his post with new coach Paul Chryst. Aranda deserves a nice raise, so it will be interesting to see what Wisconsin does for him.

The silly season isn't over and there will be other assistant coaching transactions in the Big Ten. But the Shoop retention and moves like it show that the Big Ten is serious about its coaches.

Again, the league can't move its campuses to the South or scrap its athletic philosophy or academic standards. But the money is there, and it has been there, and the right investments are being made.

Big Ten morning links

January, 9, 2015
Jan 9
Hiring new coaches is hard. Changes in college football are always a gamble, and often don’t work out well for the man rolling the dice.

According to an ongoing series in the Omaha World-Herald, there have been 146 coaches hired by Power 5 schools since 2001. Less than half of them put together a better winning percentage than their predecessor. Thursday they released an in-depth look at all the Big Ten coaching changes during that time frame.

There are dozens of variables outside of a new coach’s control that determine how successful he and his staff will be at a school. It’s almost impossible to predict what forces will shape their tenure. That’s why it’s so important to hold on for dear life when you find a combination that works. A handful of Big Ten schools have stepped up financially during a busy offseason to try to compete successful staffs in place or usher in a new group in hope of change. On Thursday, Penn State made a big statement in opening the piggy bank to keep defensive coordinator Bob Shoop from jumping to the SEC.

Other schools that stepped up the coaching roulette wheel last month are starting to plug the holes they opened with change. Nebraska is almost done filling out Mike Riley’s new staff. Michigan officially announced its new defensive coordinator. Michigan State filled its only vacancy on defense. Wisconsin added some familiar faces. And Illinois fired two of its assistants in hopes of sparking some change.

‘Tis the season for change. If history holds, more of those moves will fail than succeed, but fans of the Big Ten conference should be happy to see their schools bucking up to find solutions or hang on to them.

Speaking of coaches, no one in the country has made a more impactful hire in the past five years that Ohio State bringing in Urban Meyer. With the Buckeyes only a few days away from competing for a national championship, many believe Meyer deserves the title of the best coach in the country. A win over Oregon on Monday would lock up that spot, according to FOX Sports’ Stewart Mandel. Chuck Culpepper of the Washington Post writes that Meyer has claimed that title mostly because of the confidence he inspires in his players.

In other Buckeye news:
And now on to the rest of the Big Ten links:

Big Ten morning links

January, 8, 2015
Jan 8
In four days, Ohio State aims to bring a national championship to the Big Ten for the first time in 12 years. So, with respect to all else that’s happening in the league this week, sorry, it can wait.

There’s a lot clanging around my head this morning about the Buckeyes’ Monday meeting with Oregon in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T.

Here’s a sampling:

Ohio State players and coaches appear confident in their preparation for the Ducks and ready to embrace the role of underdog. And why not? It’s worked well for the Buckeyes in their past two games.

Ohio State players had a few thoughts on the situation. Said safety Tyvis Powell:

“Yeah, well, what is new? We’ve still got a lot to prove. As you can see, we still don’t get the respect that we deserve. I’ve seen some things on the Internet where like 66 percent of the world is picking Oregon. I understand why. Everybody sees Oregon and they’re like, ‘Oh, wow.’

“But it’s just motivation to come out here and make sure we get the job done on Jan. 12.”

Ohio State, 5-0 as an underdog under Urban Meyer, doesn’t need extra motivation against Oregon. But if the Buckeyes can find it by playing the lack-of-respect card, well, good for them. It’s not a viable long-term strategy at a powerhouse program like Ohio State. Until Monday night, though, run with it.

If you’re not impressed by Meyer’s 37-3 record at Ohio State or the two national championships he won at Florida, reassess the criteria you use to evaluate sports. Or life in general.

Meyer continued to wow me Wednesday with his comments when asked about the challenges the Buckeyes face to get up for a 15th game of the season. I’ve met many a college coach who would scoff at the suggestion that his team might be ripe for a letdown with the national title at stake.

Not Meyer. This topic offers a window into his world. He considers every detail and prepares for all scenarios. And I think he’s right to worry about a flat performance -- strange as it sounds -- against Oregon.

As Meyer said, this is new territory. No team in FBS history has played a second postseason game. It’s impossible to know how the players will handle the moment.

A comforting thought for Ohio State: There’s likely no coach better prepared to deal with the uncertainty of the title-game dynamics than Meyer.

A good breakdown here from Fox Sports analyst Coy Wire on five Buckeyes who can beat Oregon. Most intriguing to me is the final pair listed -- co-defensive coordinators Luke Fickell and Chris Ash.

They devised a whale of a game plan last week to help beat Alabama. And against the Ducks, Fickell and Ash will have to be even better. Get ready for the chess match on tap between three of the top young coaching minds in the game as Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost matches wits with the Ohio State defensive coordinators.

Fickell and Ash are both 41. Frost turned 40 this week. Big things are in their futures. For now, they take center stage in the first playoff championship.

A statistical oddity to watch in this matchup: Ohio State, despite its solid defensive numbers, ranks dead last nationally in goal-to-go efficiency rate; its opponents have scored 21 touchdowns in 21 goal-to-go opportunities. Oregon, interestingly, ranks 82nd nationally in goal-to-go offensive efficiency with 30 touchdowns in 42 chances.

Poor performance in this area has done little to slow the Buckeyes on defense or Oregon’s offense. Perhaps, in this biggest of big games, it will emerge as a factor.

More on Ohio State:
And elsewhere in the Big Ten:

Big Ten morning links

January, 6, 2015
Jan 6
The list of surprise contributors on Ohio State’s run to a potential national title just keeps growing.

Does Urban Meyer have any more aces up his sleeve for Oregon in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T?

Steve Miller became the latest stunner after the defensive end returned an interception for a touchdown in the win over Alabama, which came shortly after wide receiver Evan Spencer put his name down under two separate categories with unexpected depth -- “unlikely hero” and “passer with a touchdown.” Given the amount of players the Buckeyes have trusted in big moments and had deliver, maybe it’s time to start giving them more credit for depth than they’ve been receiving.

There has been no questioning the impact Meyer has had as a recruiter, but typically the conversation about Ohio State’s legitimacy as a contender compared to, for example, an SEC program came down to the fact that it wasn’t fully stocked and reloaded at every position. And maybe there’s some truth to that at a position such as linebacker or the second-team offensive line.

But every time the Buckeyes have needed somebody to step up and fill a void this season, it has happened -- and not just at quarterback. There was a seamless transition from Dontre Wilson to Jalin Marshall at H-back in November. Miller and Rashad Frazier had already been serviceable at defensive end in place of Noah Spence before Miller's score in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. After Rod Smith was dismissed, the Buckeyes still had Curtis Samuel ready in reserve.

So who else is ready to make a splash when Ohio State has to have it? One potential option: Freshman linebacker Raekwon McMillan's name was nowhere to be found in the box score against Alabama, and the Buckeyes may need all hands on deck against Oregon’s offense.

More national championship chatter
Leaving the Valley: With another Penn State player bypassing eligibility and jumping to the NFL Draft, it might be time now to wonder just a bit about what exactly is causing Jesse James, Deion Barnes and Donovan Smith to take early exits from the program. Players always have different motivations, and coaches certainly do as well, so perhaps any sort of speculation is unfair and maybe it’s merely a coincidence that the Nittany Lions are losing three players who aren't early round slam dunks -- with neither Barnes nor Smith even have draft grades from at this point. That made it surprising when they made themselves available for selection, though James might make more sense because he's regarded higher as a prospect. But whether or not they become pros next spring, this certainly looks like a negative at this point from the outside looking in at the program, if for no other reason than an already thin roster is losing experienced veterans.

Around the Big Ten
Most see New Year's Day as a new beginning, a clean slate, a time where the present decleats the past like Tony Lippett decleated poor Chris Callahan in the Cotton Bowl (it's OK, the Baylor kicker is alive). Big Ten fans are no different, but for them, New Year's Day had become Groundhog Day -- and not in a good way.

Remember when Bill Murray, in the 1993 movie "Groundhog Day," kept finding creative ways to kill himself because he knew he'd have another chance in the morning? My favorite: when Phil (the man) kidnaps Phil (the groundhog) in a pickup truck and drives into a quarry. The day's master of ceremonies, Buster, tells the cop who's trying to stop him: "If you gotta shoot, aim high. I don't wanna hit the groundhog."

Words to live by.

[+] EnlargeOhio State celebration
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesOhio State's victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl capped a banner New Year's Day for the Big Ten.
As Phil (the man) said: "I've killed myself so many times, I don't even exist anymore."

That had been the Big Ten on New Year's Day -- different and occasionally entertaining methods of failure ending with the same morbid result, followed by the familiar onslaught of national criticism. If Big Ten fans wanted to spend Jan. 1 away from televisions, computers, cell phones and stadiums just to escape the inevitable, who could blame them?

New Year's Day 2011 is one that will live in Big Ten infamy, as the league went 0-5 in bowls. Things didn't improve much, as the Big Ten went 4-10 on the next three New Year's days. (The 2012 games were played on Jan. 2 because of the NFL playoffs.)

Most Big Ten fans can't stand the way the league clusters most of its major bowl games on New Year's Day -- except for the Rose Bowl, of course. Their complaint makes sense, as it's hard to track all of the teams at once. The method becomes more maddening when every Big Ten team loses, turning New Year's Day into a national showcase of Big Ten ineptitude.

The conference appeared headed toward another New Year's downer last week. Wisconsin saw a late lead disappear against Auburn, Michigan State was getting pummeled by Baylor and Minnesota couldn't get out of its own way against Missouri. Ohio State was playing Alabama in a College Football Playoff semifinal that night at the Allstate Sugar Bowl, but the Buckeyes, starting a third-string quarterback against the mighty Tide defense, were a long shot to advance.

Another Big Ten New Year's oh-fer seemed imminent, complete with another reminder from the SEC that the Big Ten wasn't up to snuff with the top conferences. It's OK if you stopped watching.

But then quarterback Joel Stave got hot and Wisconsin sent the Outback Bowl to overtime, where it prevailed 34-31. Michigan State mounted one of the wildest comebacks in bowl history, erasing a 20-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 42-41.

Hours later, Ohio State beat Bama, piling up 42 points and 537 yards in a definitive victory that, despite ending just after midnight ET, still counts as part of the Big Ten's New Year's haul.

And what a haul it was. New Year's Day 2015 marked the Big Ten's best day in 4,382 days -- specifically, since Jan. 3, 2003, when Ohio State beat Miami to win the league's most recent national championship and its only title in the BCS era. The logjam of games fans gripe about suddenly wasn't so annoying.

Ohio State's victory carried the day because of who it came against and where it took place. Ultimately, the Big Ten needs a team to win a national title, but the Buckeyes' win against what most consider the nation's premier program in SEC territory will reverberate, regardless of what they do against Oregon a week from now.

Fairly or not, Wisconsin had become the epitome of Big Ten big-game futility in recent years. The Badgers dropped three straight Rose Bowls and last year's Capital One Bowl. They blew a big lead against LSU in this season's opener, and with an assist from Pac-12 officials, stumbled last fall at Arizona State. Badgers fans had seen the movie before, the one with underwhelming quarterback play and not quite enough speed, and braced for the familiar ending. But this time, Wisconsin came through to beat a talented Auburn squad.

A 10-win season -- Michigan State's fourth in the past five seasons -- is nothing to sneeze at, but the Spartans needed a signature victory to stamp the 2014 campaign as another success. They fell short of their preseason goals but recorded their team-record fourth consecutive bowl win. Now that Jim Harbaugh is at Michigan, you'll hear a lot about how the Big Two -- Michigan and Ohio State -- will lord over the league again. It's a lazy theory. Mark Dantonio and his Spartans aren't going anywhere, as the bowl win reminded everyone.

New Year's Day gave the league something it rarely has this time of year: momentum. The national media will never toast the Big Ten the way it does the SEC, but credit is being doled out, even from some reluctant sources.

There's also talk about the Big Ten's bright future, and rightfully so.

Regardless of what happens Jan. 12 at Jerry World, Ohio State should have a better team this coming season. Love him or hate him, Urban Meyer is the best thing that happened to the Big Ten.

Michigan State returns quarterback Connor Cook, a proven winner, and several other key pieces. Wisconsin rolls on with a new coach (Paul Chryst) who can fix an old problem (inconsistent quarterback play). Michigan hired the perfect coach to fast-track its comeback. Penn State, another Big Ten bowl winner, will improve as James Franklin injects more talent and depth into the roster.

Despite its bowl loss, Minnesota is ascending under Jerry Kill. If new Nebraska coach Mike Riley maximizes the talent on his roster, the Big Ten will have another team in the national discussion. The Big Ten's much-panned new additions, Rutgers and Maryland, don't look so bad after Year 1. Even Indiana got some good news on New Year's Day, as UAB standout running back Jordan Howard announced he would transfer to IU.

Groundhog Day is over for the Big Ten and its fans.

After seemingly a decade of cold, harsh, unrelenting winter, the sun is out in the heartland.