Big Ten: Tim Beckman

Illinois quarterback Reilly O'Toole couldn’t stomach the bowl season last year.

He didn’t want to watch. He didn’t want to follow it. Most times he flipped to a game, he’d just think how Illinois could compete against that particular opponent.

It’s a completely different feeling this postseason. Two days away from their first bowl game since 2011, regret has been replaced with excitement and anticipation has taken the place of disappointment. O’Toole might even tune into a few more games this year.

[+] EnlargeBill Cubit, Reilly O'Toole
AP Photo/Bradley LeebReilly O'Toole and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit will take on Louisiana Tech in the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl on Friday.
“Being two years out of a bowl and being able to get back, this means everything,” O’Toole told ESPN.com. “That’s why you work hard in the offseason – for this.”

The road to Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl wasn’t an easy one for Illinois. Most outsiders wrote Illinois off after a 3-4 start that featured not-so-convincing wins over Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State. But coach Tim Beckman never stopped preaching bowl possibilities – and Illinois never stopped believing.

Illinois finished the season with surprise victories over Minnesota and Penn State, coupled with a victory over Northwestern. The Illini were an underdog in all three games.

"We've been through a lot of ups and downs this season, so right now we're just enjoying our time," linebacker Mason Monheim said. "We're definitely expecting to win, but we're also celebrating being here."

The bowl berth by Illinois could very well have saved Beckman’s job, although he deflected any such notion. Instead, Beckman focused on the future. He told his team to think about this bowl as if it’s the first game of the 2015 season.

He wants his team to enjoy this -- hence the "Ugly Christmas Sweater" contest on the flight to Dallas (winner: O'Toole) -- but he also wants this bowl to set the tone for the program. He wants this bowl berth to become the norm for Illinois, to be the first of many.

"You look at this program and you look at this game, it's a move forward," Beckman said. "Next year, we’ll have over 350 starts stepping on the football field. And I think next year’s potential is unlimited because we have so many players back."

Friday's game against Louisiana Tech at the Cotton Bowl stadium might not be the most prestigious bowl game, but players couldn’t help but use words such as “excited,” “blessed” and “grateful” to describe their time in Dallas. This is a start for Illinois; it’s a step in the right direction for Illinois after two seasons’ worth of struggles.

The 15 extra bowl practices should help this young team grow. Beckman said a bowl should make them even hungrier, and winning tends to lure more recruits. O’Toole, a senior, said he wants to help Illinois build for the future by winning this game. And Monheim – who also tended to steer clear of televised bowl games last season – called this long overdue.

“I’ve been here three years, and I’ve always heard about these bowl games and now I get to experience it,” Monheim said. “This is huge for us. We’re cherishing every moment.”
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There was already more than enough evidence proving the sharpness of Urban Meyer's eye for talent, but add one more perfect example to the Ohio State coach's file.

Tom Herman wasn't toiling away in total anonymity while at Iowa State and building his case as one of the hottest young coordinators in the nation, but he also wasn't so well known that it was obvious Meyer would have to pursue him when he was putting together his first Buckeyes coaching staff three seasons ago. In fact, there really was no previous relationship between the two of them at all.

But Herman shared a similar philosophy with Meyer and won him over quickly despite not popping up on many coaching hot lists. The same was true for current co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, when Meyer was in the market for an assistant on that side of the ball after last season.

With a coaching tree that has sprouted yet another branch -- Herman is officially taking over as Houston's coach -- and so many Meyer protégés scattered around the country, by now it should be no secret that Meyer is as successful at spotting what he wants in his coaches as he is recruiting top-shelf talent for them to work with on the field.

Filling Herman's shoes won't be easy, not after his wild success preparing four quarterbacks in the past two seasons -- thanks to a string of injuries that almost certainly would have crippled most attacks but barely slowed down the Buckeyes -- to operate the highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten. But when added to a list of former assistants -- like Dan Mullen, Charlie Strong, Steve Addazio, Doc Holliday, Tim Beckman and Gary Andersen -- who are now in charge of programs, the loss of Herman represents another chance for Meyer to add fresh ideas and continue evolving, rather than pose an insurmountable obstacle for title chances in 2015.

The hiring of Herman by the Cougars also offers a fantastic fit for both parties. Herman's ties to recruiting Texas, his knowledge of quarterback play and the spread offense, and his personality will be smash hits with fans and boosters of his new program. It's a victory for the Buckeyes in that they'll keep him around for as long as they're alive in the College Football Playoff.

So even though there's always uncertainty when a job this critical to a major program like Ohio State comes open, Meyer has earned the benefit of the doubt that he'll get his hire right, probably by nabbing an up-and-comer who wasn't widely considered an option when the process began. And given the somewhat unusual way Meyer operates with his offensive staff, he's already working from ahead because he doesn't have to also replace his invaluable offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner, who like Herman is destined to run his own program at some point in the near future.

"Like on offense right now, we have two coordinators -- Ed Warinner, Tom Herman -- and myself," Meyer said recently. "It’s not one guy calling plays, that’s not the way how we do business. At some places, that’s maybe how they do it.

"But we script each play, everybody is involved in the game plan and that’s the only way I’m going to have it. I don’t want that dictator in there, that’s not the way we do business."

Losing another coordinator, even the reigning Broyles Award winner as the best assistant in the nation, isn't going to run the Buckeyes out of business.

It's probably going to provide a major boost for Houston and it sets Herman on the path to prove himself and potentially land a bigger job down the road, while leaving Meyer to do a bit of professional recruiting again this offseason. In the end, the odds look good that everybody gets what they want.
The arrival of mid-December means it’s time to review the 2014 season. The Big Ten reporters will look back this week at each team in the league, starting with Illinois:

Overiew: The Illini opened on an uninspiring note with a pair of lackluster wins that forecasted the disaster of Sept. 13. The Week 3 trip to Washington further cemented the Big Ten’s nightmarish opening month. Illinois fell behind by 30 points early in the second quarter en route to a 44-19 loss that marked the only defeat of its nonconference season. Quarterback Wes Lunt missed a 45-14 loss with injury at Nebraska and went down with broken leg a week later as the Illini, at home, served up Purdue’s lone conference win of the past two seasons. That’s where it bottomed out, though. QB Reilly O'Toole directed a 28-24 upset win over Minnesota on Oct. 25. After losses at Ohio State and to Iowa, coach Tim Beckman’s job appeared in jeopardy. But a fourth-quarter comeback against Penn State – capped by a David Reisner game-winning field goal -- and an impressive offensive showing in the season finale at Northwestern pushed Illinois to 6-6. It’s bowl eligible for the first time in three years under Beckman, who earned a statement of support from the administration. Up next is a meeting with Louisiana Tech in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl on Dec. 26.

Offensive MVP: O’Toole, the senior with two career starts before this year, saved Illinois’ season in relief of Lunt. First, he engineered the win over Minnesota, the Illini’s lone victory in a seven-week period. O’Toole threw for 118 yards, forging a connection with freshman receiver Mike Dudek, a breakout star. O’Toole next replaced Lunt, who struggled after his return from injury, against Penn State, hitting 18 of 25 throws in the 16-14 win for 157 yards. O’Toole was efficient again in the Land of Lincoln rivalry game, a 47-33 win. In the wins over Minnesota, PSU and Northwestern, O’Toole finished 49 of 74 for 422 yards and five touchdowns. For the season, he also rushed for 261 yards.

Defensive MVP: With a nod to leading tackler Mason Monheim, the honor goes to senior Earnest Thomas III, who played the important STAR position in the Illinois’ scheme, a hybrid linebacker-safety. Thomas accumulated 9.5 tackles for loss, including a team-high 4.5 sacks. He had 55 tackles and forced a fumble with a fourth-down sack of Mitch Leidner to seal the Illinois win over Minnesota.

Big Ten morning links

December, 5, 2014
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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:

East Division
West Division
The Big Ten can't move its campuses closer to the top recruiting hotbeds. It won't stop caring about or investing in sports that don't make money. It won't compromise academic standards.

But there's one element the Big Ten can upgrade as it tries to improve its football fortunes: coaches. The resources are there, thanks to the Big Ten Network and other revenue streams. The demand is there from many fan bases.

It's time for the Big Ten to aim higher with the head coaches it courts and ultimately brings into the conference. That means looking beyond the MAC coach of the moment or the affordable coordinator. That means sparing absolutely no expense to lure top candidates.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsMichigan can't afford to hire a coach without top-notch credentials as it did with Brady Hoke.
Nebraska and now Michigan have the opportunity to reshape the quality of coaching in this conference. Both programs are viewed as great, if not elite, jobs. Both programs are dripping with tradition, fan support, facilities, and, well, just about everything else a coach could want. Both have gone far too long without competing for conference championships, much less national championships.

This is the time for both to start moving toward college football's upper crust again. The first step: bringing in the right leaders.

Some disagreed with Nebraska's decision Sunday to part with a coach (Bo Pelini) who had won nine or 10 games in each of his first seven seasons. But the move signals that Nebraska wants to be better than good, and is willing to take a big risk to reclaim elite status. A coach close to Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst told me Sunday that Eichorst is aiming for a big name to replace Pelini. Whether he lands him remains to be seen, but it's encouraging that Nebraska, without many obvious candidates, is thinking big.

Michigan faced a much easier decision with Brady Hoke, whose program had backslid since winning 11 games and a Sugar Bowl in his first season. Hoke checked a lot of boxes that Rich Rodriguez didn't in Ann Arbor, but his Michigan Man schtick quickly grew old once the wins stopped. Did Michigan settle for Hoke, a 47-50 coach prior to his arrival? Perhaps. It cannot settle this time. Interim athletic director Jim Hackett must start his search with prominent candidates who will listen.

If you want to be great, you have to commit to being great. Look at the Pac-12. Not only has every school made significant investments in facilities -- some Big Ten schools have done the same -- but the quality of coaching has skyrocketed in recent years.

Recent coaching additions include Jim Mora, Chris Petersen, Rich Rodriguez, Todd Graham and Mike Leach. Not every move is working out to perfection, but there are more proven winners in the Pac-12 than the Big Ten. Rodriguez, while struggling at Michigan, certainly belongs in the proven winner category after leading Arizona to the Pac-12 championship game in his third year.

Big Ten schools, meanwhile, too often take the bunny slope instead of the double black diamond when it comes to finding coaches. There have been plenty of practical hires but not enough brazen ones.

There are also some Big Ten programs seemingly satisfied with their place in the college football world.

Iowa fans should be furious right now. Their Hawkeyes managed to go 7-5 despite the most favorable schedule they'll ever have to the Big Ten championship game. Plus, their neighbors to the west sent a message that very good isn't good enough. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz, meanwhile, faces no internal pressure despite a top-10 salary, no top-10 finishes since 2009 and just one such finish in the past decade. Ferentz's compensation and a beautiful new facility suggest Iowa wants to be elite. But if that expectation were real, wouldn't there be more outcry?

Illinois' decision to retain Tim Beckman for a fourth year makes sense, as Beckman's team improved down the stretch to become bowl eligible. But another jump in wins is a must in 2015, perhaps a run for the West Division. If not, what message does it send to an already apathetic fan base?

Pat Fitzgerald should be feeling some pressure to make changes after consecutive 5-7 seasons. How can Northwestern raise its profile without some expectation, some tension, in and around the program?

Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Indiana's Kevin Wilson must make bowls in 2015 to keep their jobs. If not, what's the point?

I recently had lunch with a top coordinator from another conference and asked what he wants in his first head-coaching job. His answer: a place with unrealistic expectations.

How many Big Ten programs can say they do right now?

Coaches always talk about controlling the controllables. The Big Ten always will have certain factors working against it, but it can control who leads its programs. The league remains very appealing to top coaches.

It's time for an upgrade. Your moves, Nebraska and Michigan.

Make them bold ones.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

December, 1, 2014
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The 2014 Big Ten regular season is in the books. The league championship game arrives this season, and soon we’ll be looking forward to bowl games for 10 of the conference’s 14 teams. But first, let’s rewind a wild and wacky Week 14:

Team of the week: Illinois. Tim Beckman has gotten a lot of grief in his short tenure in Champaign, but he led the Illini to three Big Ten wins in their final five regular-season games. That was capped by Saturday’s dominant 47-33 victory at Northwestern that secured the program’s first bowl berth since 2011. It also ensured that Beckman will be back to coach the team next year.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsThe well-being of J.T. Barrett was on the mind of Michigan's Devin Gardner on Saturday.
Biggest play: J.T. Barrett’s injury may unfortunately be one of the biggest plays of the Big Ten’s season since it could affect Ohio State’s ability to get into the playoff. But with Barrett out and Michigan still hanging around, Ezekiel Elliott helped keep the Buckeyes alive for a playoff bid with a 44-yard touchdown run that finally broke the Wolverines’ back.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Gary Nova led the largest comeback in Rutgers’ history by throwing for 347 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions, in a wild 41-38 win over Maryland. It’s been an up and down year for Nova, but he helped his offensive coordinator, Ralph Friedgen, gain a measure of revenge on the Terrapins.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Wisconsin linebacker Marcus Trotter had arguably his finest game on Senior Day at Camp Randall Stadium, finishing with 14 tackles as the Badgers held Minnesota to just one score in the second half.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Nebraska’s De’Mornay Pierson-El fueled the Huskers’ comeback win at Iowa with two long punt returns, including an 80-yard touchdown that gave Nebraska its first lead. He averaged 44.7 yards on three returns. That’s pretty good.

Biggest hangover: Maryland had a chance to finish out a pretty strong 8-4 debut season in the Big Ten. Instead, the Terrapins -- who led Rutgers 35-10 in the final minute of the first half -- collapsed in epic fashion at home. Now, the other league newbie can lord this win over them for a full year.

Best gesture: When Barrett was being loaded onto a cart after his ankle injury, Michigan’s Devin Gardner came over to him console him. The classy move transcended this otherwise bitter rivalry.

“It was sort of like having a little brother get hurt," Gardner said. "I didn't like to see that at all, so I just let him know that I'm praying for him and told him to keep praying, and that everything will be alright."

Fun with numbers: Speaking of Pierson-El, his 589 punt return yards are 232 more than the next closest player in the FBS, and his nine returns of more than 20 yards are also the most in the country. … Rutgers’ Janarion Grant, whose 71-yard kickoff return to open the second half at Maryland led to a touchdown, leads the nation in total kickoff return yards with 910. … With two more sacks on Saturday, Ohio State’s Joey Bosa is just one away from breaking Vernon Gholston’s school record of 14. And Bosa has promised to do a backflip if he breaks the mark, which could come as early as this Saturday. … Barry Sanders Watch: Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon needs 368 yards in his final two games to break Sanders' single-season FBS rushing record of 2,628. ... Indiana’s Tevin Coleman became the fourth-fastest player to reach 2,000 yards in a season. … Michigan State has now won 10 straight Big Ten road games after beating Penn State 34-10. That’s the fourth-longest active conference road winning streak in the FBS.

Big Ten morning links

December, 1, 2014
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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.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 14

November, 30, 2014
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Lessons learned after the final week of the Big Ten’s regular season.

1. J.T. Barrett is as cool as they come: Ohio State’s star quarterback stepped into the limelight with an ultracalm demeanor this season, but his reaction to a season-ending and cringe-worthy broken ankle Saturday showed how unfazed he can be. Barrett showed little, if any, emotion while being carted off the field in the fourth quarter of a 42-28 win over Michigan. He shook hands with a few teammates and told them to go win the game, which they did. Can they keep winning with Barrett already ruled out for next weekend’s Big Ten title game? The offense will undoubtedly take a significant step backward without the Heisman contender. He ran for two touchdowns and threw for another before leaving the game Saturday. Ohio State has plenty of weapons to keep its offense rolling, but good luck finding another signal-caller who has the presence to step in like Barrett has done during his rookie season.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesMelvin Gordon ran for 151 yards and a score in Wisconsin's win over Minnesota.
 2. Wisconsin is your new Big Ten favorite: The Badgers' offense, led of course by Melvin Gordon, has been one of the hardest to stop in the country during the month of November. Gordon ran for 151 yards and a score in Wisconsin’s 34-24 win over Minnesota. The victory clinched a spot in the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State. Cardale Jones, Barrett’s replacement, has to face a stingy Badgers defense for his first career start. It won’t be easy for the sophomore to keep up with Wisconsin’s offense if Gordon keeps rolling. As impossible as it may have seemed after they lost to Northwestern on the first weekend in October, the 10-2 Wisconsin Badgers could be the favorite to win the conference championship.

3. The Spartan Dawgs haven’t fallen very far: Michigan State’s defense isn’t as dominant as the Rose Bowl-winning crew from a year ago. Ohio State made that much clear in early November. The 2014 unit can still dominate, though. Since giving up 49 points to the Buckeyes, Michigan State has allowed a total of 28 points in three games against Maryland, Rutgers and Penn State. Those three teams rushed for an average of 46 yards. None of those teams will be confused for an offensive juggernaut this season (although the Terps have shown flashes), but the Spartans can still make an average football team look hopeless when trying to reach the end zone.

4. Beckman, Pelini turn down the heat: Bo Pelini won’t be getting free meals in Lincoln this offseason, and the same goes for Tim Beckman in Champaign, but both coaches at least temporarily sidestepped the angry mobs with wins this weekend. Illinois hung 47 points on Northwestern to reach bowl eligibility for the first time in Beckman’s three years. His teams have gone from two to four to six wins, and he’s already promised eight in 2015. Pelini avoided the dreaded fourth loss with a comeback overtime win over Iowa on Friday. If the Cornhuskers can win whatever bowl game they play, they will finish with a 10-3 record, which is at least a small step forward.

5. Rutgers-Maryland has the makings of a Big Ten rivalry: The Big Ten might have built itself a new rivalry Saturday, and the league didn’t even need a patriotic trophy or pregame handshake shenanigans to do it. Rutgers completed the biggest comeback in school history to pick up its seventh win in its first year in the Big Ten. The two conference newcomers finish with identical 7-5 records and seem to be programs on similar footing. The Terps led 35-10 late in the first half at Byrd Stadium before Gary Nova stormed back with his 347 passing yards and four touchdowns. Now that’s how to develop some bad blood.

B1G early look: Setting up Week 14

November, 24, 2014
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Wisconsin Badgers, Paul Bunyan Axe Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsThe Gophers have their best chance in years to win back the Paul Bunyan Axe from the Badgers.
Just one weekend left in the regular season. For some teams, it will be the last time they play football until next Labor Day weekend. A few will be fighting just to play one more game this season. And, of course, it's rivalry time.

Here are five storylines to watch in Week 14:

1. A Bunyan-sized game: We know Ohio State will represent the East Division in the Big Ten title game. The Buckeyes' opponent will be determined on Saturday in Madison. In an excellent bit of scheduling prowess, Minnesota plays at Wisconsin with the West Division championship on the line. The Gophers are also looking to snap a 10-year losing streak in the Paul Bunyan Axe game, but this may be the best team they've had during that streak. Playing Wisconsin might help Ohio State's chances for the College Football Playoff more since the Buckeyes have already beaten Minnesota. This game is always physical and emotional, and it will have more riding on it than it has in years.

2. Brady Hoke's last stand? Michigan sits at 5-6, needing a win at Ohio State in order to reach a bowl game. Even that might not be enough to save Hoke's job, but it's his best Hail Mary option since beating the Buckeyes always carries weight. Problem is, the Wolverines are a massive underdog in Columbus, and their offense doesn't have enough playmakers to hang with the Buckeyes. It will take a miracle, and Ohio State doesn't figure to be distracted after a subpar performance against Indiana likely snapped the Buckeyes back into focus.

3. The Beckman Bowl? The Land of Lincoln game between Northwestern and Illinois has the potential for some serious fun. Both teams are one win away from bowl eligibility. Illinois might save Beckman's job with a win on the road over the Wildcats, while Northwestern would complete an improbable, bizarre season by reeling off three straight victories to make a bowl. Throw in the recent sniping about who is Chicago's Big Ten team, and this game shapes up as a whole lot more interesting than we had a right to expect.

4. Rivalries old and new: Not many people will pay attention the Old Oaken Bucket game between Purdue and Indiana, as neither will make a bowl, but it still means something in the Hoosier State. Michigan State and Penn State will play for one of the ugliest trophies in sports. More recent rivalries hold more intrigue. The Nebraska-Iowa Heroes Game won't be for a division title, but the Bo Pelini watch could be in full effect. Meanwhile, Rutgers and Maryland play for the first time as Big Ten members and could start a new rivalry on the East Coast.

5. The race for records: Melvin Gordon needs one yard to break Ron Dayne's Big Ten single-season rushing record, and he still has Barry Sanders in his sights. David Cobb could set Minnesota's school record for rushing, if he's healthy enough to play. Indiana's Tevin Coleman needs 94 yards to reach 2,000 for the season, which would give the Big Ten two 2,000-yard rushers in the same season for the first time ever. Ohio State's J.T. Barrett is six touchdown passes away from the Big Ten single-season record held by Drew Brees . And if Buckeyes teammate Joey Bosa can get three more sacks, he'll break the school season record. He has promised to do a backflip if he gets the record, so we should all root for that.

Big Ten morning links

November, 24, 2014
Nov 24
8:00
AM ET
One more weekend to go in the regular season. Some thoughts to begin your Thanksgiving week:

1. Next week, the Big Ten will hand out its individual trophies, as well as reveal the all-conference teams. And the media and coaches are going to have a hard time deciding on the coach of the year award.

On one hand, you have Urban Meyer, who has led a very young Ohio State team to a 10-1 record while developing freshman J.T. Barrett into a Heisman Trophy contender on the fly. Eventually, a Buckeyes coach has to win this thing again, right? It hasn't happened since Earle Bruce took home the hardware in 1979, and that's silly.

On the other hand, how do you overlook what Jerry Kill has done at Minnesota? He has the Gophers sitting at 8-3, with a chance to win the West Division by beating Wisconsin this week. It would be nearly impossible to ignore Kill for the award if Minnesota does win that game and forces a rematch with Ohio State in Indianapolis. The Gophers are 16-7 in their last 23 regular-season games and 9-4 in their last 13 Big Ten contests. Remarkable stuff, especially considering a lot of people thought Kill would not return to the sidelines after last year's health issues.

The 28-24 win at Nebraska may have been Kill's best one yet, and it shows the progress this program has made, Chip Scoggins writes.

2. Just think about how much better Minnesota's season would look if its only losses were at TCU and a close one at home vs. Ohio State. But, of course, the Gophers somehow stumbled at Illinois. That was undoubtedly the biggest win in the Tim Beckman era. But Beckman just might have a chance to top that.

Beating Penn State these days is no great achievement, considering the dilapidated state of the Nittany Lions' offense. Still, winning that game in Champaign on Saturday meant that Beckman has doubled his previous Big Ten win total this season and, more importantly, has the Illini in contention for a bowl. If they beat Northwestern this Saturday, the postseason awaits.

Can athletic director Mike Thomas really fire Beckman if he goes 6-6? Attendance remains a major issue, especially considering the embarrassing crowd that showed up to Memorial Stadium on Saturday -- less than 10,000 by most media estimates. But Beckman would have gone from two wins to four wins to six wins in three seasons. It's hard not to call that progress, even if it hasn't been pretty at times.

The ticking clock on Beckman's job has stopped for now, Mark Tupper writes.

3. You couldn't talk about Iowa this season without mentioning that dream schedule: No games against Michigan State, Ohio State Michigan or Penn State (though in hindsight, it would have been better to play those last two than Maryland). West Division rivals Wisconsin and Nebraska coming to Iowa City. A very manageable nonconference slate.

That schedule is a major reason why people were predicting as many as 10 or 11 wins for the Hawkeyes, who were a trendy pick to win the West. But Kirk Ferentz's team has been eliminated from the division race already, and if it doesn't beat a reeling Nebraska team on Black Friday, it will finish 7-5. Even an 8-4 record would feel underwhelming, given all the advantages that Iowa squandered.

The Hawkeyes gave a great effort against Wisconsin on Saturday, especially in the second half. You wonder if things would have been different had they played like that all season. Instead, there's no way to talk about this Iowa season without using the word disappointing.

Let's hit the links ...

West Division
East Division

And, finally ... "Dilly Bar Dan" received more attention and some nice hospitality in Lincoln.
You can question whether the Big Ten always competes at the same elite level as some other leagues. You can question, at times, some conference teams' all-out commitment to winning national championships in football.

But you can't question whether Big Ten head coaches are paid like the best of the best, at least at the top of the heap. USA Today has again done yeoman's work in compiling the salaries and compensation for every FBS head coach, and several Big Ten bosses remain among the most richly rewarded.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
AJ Mast/Icon SportswireMark Dantonio is the Big Ten's highest-paid coach at $5.6 million in total pay.
According to the database, the league has four of the top 10 highest-paid coaches in the FBS, though the names and rankings may surprise you a bit. Michigan State's Mark Dantonio surprisingly, checks in at No. 2 at more than $5.6 million in compensation, behind only his former boss, Alabama's Nick Saban.

It's important to note here that USA Today's methodology includes bonuses and other pay besides just salary. Dantonio received a $2 million longevity bonus that is being calculated into this list; his salary, which was bumped up after the Spartans won the Rose Bowl, is $3.64 million.

Ohio State's Urban Meyer checks in at No. 6 at just over $4.5 million, followed by Penn State's James Franklin (No. 8 overall at $4.3 million) and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz (No. 9, $4.075 million). Note that the figure for Franklin is based on a proposed financial term sheet released by the school, which declined to make Franklin's actual contract public.

Surprised not to see Michigan in the Top 10? Brady Hoke checks in at a relatively (key word) modest $2.85 million, good for only No. 30 in the FBS. Hoke ranked in the top 10 last year because of a large retention bonus he received. If the Wolverines make a coaching change and decide to land an established head coach, they could easily pay in the $3 million to $4 million range. Maybe more, if they could reel in a truly big fish like Les Miles or one of the Harbaughs.

The difference between the Big Ten and the SEC in salaries is much like the on-field rankings: depth. Twelve of the 14 SEC coaches are ranked in the Top 30 in salary and all 14 are ranked in the Top 34. Just six of the Big Ten coaches are in the top 30, which is one less than the Big 12 has. The SEC also boasts eight of the top 20 highest-paid coaches in the FBS, while half of the Big Ten's 14 coaches are ranked No. 41 or lower.

Here's how the rest of the Big Ten coaches stack up:

No. 24: Nebraska's Bo Pelini: $3.08 million
No. 39: Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald: $2.48 million
No. 41: Wisconsin's Gary Andersen: $2.29 million
No. 45: Minnesota's Jerry Kill: $2.1 million
No. 46: Purdue's Darrell Hazell: $2.09 million
No. 47: Maryland's Randy Edsall: $2.03 million
No. 52: Illinois' Tim Beckman: $1.95 million
No. 66: Indiana's Kevin Wilson: $1.3 million
No. 73: Rutgers' Kyle Flood: $987,000

Big Ten's second act worth watching

November, 17, 2014
Nov 17
12:00
PM ET
The great thing about the college football season is that until it ends, there is a chance to change the story. Players, coaches, teams and even leagues can have a second act.

The Big Ten's first act in 2014 was a tragedy or comedy -- probably both. It also was surprisingly short, lasting just two weeks. A face-plant in Week 2 elicited national mockery, confirmed the stereotypes and brought more bad vibes to a league that has had more than its share. Many cropped the Big Ten from the College Football Playoff picture after high-profile losses by Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan, coupled with three losses to Mid-American Conference foes.

Was it over for the Big Ten? Many said yes. And if the league is left out of the playoff -- translation: if Ohio State finishes with one loss (Week 2 against Virginia Tech) and still doesn't make it in -- it will trace back to that sorry Saturday.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesBig performances by players like Melvin Gordon and some exciting games have improved the perception of the Big Ten on the national stage.
But the curtain didn't come down on the Big Ten's season. The league still had time to change the narrative, and it's starting to happen.

The Big Ten's second act, not surprisingly, is a lot easier to watch. Nebraska fans are understandably flinging tomatoes, eggs and anything they can find at Bo Pelini after his team's latest big-game flop, but Saturday, overall, was really good for the Big Ten. So was the previous Saturday, as league heavyweights Ohio State and Michigan State played a high-scoring, visually appealing game on the national stage.

What has changed in the Big Ten?

Start with much-needed star power. The Big Ten hasn't had a Heisman Trophy winner since 2006, when Ohio State's Troy Smith claimed the award. Worse, the league has had just one Hesiman finalist since then (Wisconsin's Montee Ball in 2011).

Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon will be going to New York. That became clear as he took down record after record on a snowy Saturday in Madison, culminating with LaDainian Tomlinson's single-game FBS mark of 406 yards. Gordon finished with 408 yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries (16.3-yard average). He has 15 runs of 40 yards or longer, more than any other FBS team.

"I'm glad we never play him again!" one Big Ten coach text-messaged me Sunday.

It's a sentiment undoubtedly shared by others, but at least we can enjoy Gordon for several more games.

#GordontoGotham will happen, and if Gordon keeps dazzling, he could be the one holding the trophy Dec. 13.

Gordon might not be the only Big Ten player at the Heisman ceremony. Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett continues his rapid rise. He set Ohio State's single-game quarterback rushing record with 189 yards Saturday at Minnesota. Barrett is responsible for 38 touchdowns, eclipsing Braxton Miller's single-season record set last season.

Though Gordon has separated himself in the Big Ten's unparalleled running back group, three other players -- Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Minnesota's David Cobb and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah -- rank in the top 10 nationally in rushing. Coleman ran for 307 yards Saturday at Rutgers, a performance overshadowed by Gordon's, but deserving of major recognition.

There are also intriguing teams around the Big Ten. Ohio State is still very much in the playoff hunt. Michigan State is pushing for New Years Six consideration. Wisconsin overcame early season drama/losses to put itself in position for a third Big Ten championship appearance in four years. Minnesota continues to make strides. The West Division is far from settled, and if Iowa upsets Wisconsin at Kinnick Stadium, it will really get wild.

Penn State somewhat quietly became bowl-eligible Saturday with a win against Temple. Regardless of your opinion on the initial sanctions, it's nice to see these players rewarded, especially resilient seniors like linebacker Mike Hull. The Lions still have a lot to improve -- quarterback Christian Hackenberg's future will be a major offseason topic -- but their defense is superb and they will play into the postseason.

Big Ten newcomers Maryland and Rutgers also are going bowling, no small feat given the gloomy outlook (especially for Rutgers) and apathy surrounding their arrivals. Rutgers has overcome key injuries and a grinding schedule to reach six wins. Maryland finally has stayed relatively healthy and recorded notable wins against Iowa and Penn State, with Michigan up next.

Northwestern still needs work to reach bowl eligibility, but is there a wackier 4-6 team? Three of the Wildcats wins have come against Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Penn State, the latter two on the road. Northwestern has endured a rough 13 months, but the Notre Dame win -- how it happened, where it happened -- provides a boost.

It's not all warm and fuzzies in this league. Michigan could soon follow Florida in dumping its coach, and the situation involving defensive lineman Frank Clark appears extremely disturbing. Illinois coach Tim Beckman is on the ropes. Indiana, which beat SEC East-leading Missouri in September, remains winless in conference play.

Still, the Big Ten is doing enough good to keep fans in their seats, on the edge of them or even standing.

The second act is nearing its conclusion, and this time, no one is turning away.

Big Ten morning links

November, 17, 2014
Nov 17
8:00
AM ET
Good morning and welcome to the penultimate week of the Big Ten regular season. Some thoughts from the weekend:

1. Melvin Gordon's historic day stole all the headlines in Wisconsin's 59-24 demolishing of Nebraska, and rightly so. But the game also raised another important question: How many more times can the Cornhuskers get embarrassed in a big game under Bo Pelini?

It seems to happen at least once or twice a year, usually on the road (and Nebraska has given up 129 points in its last two games vs. Wisconsin). The type of meltdown we saw Saturday wasn't supposed to happen this year, as Pelini looked to have one of his best defenses in recent years. Yet the Huskers were getting steamrolled as if it were the 2012 Big Ten title game all over again.

Take it away, Tom Shatel:
"There are no more words. There are no more excuses. There’s only a Nebraska football program that can’t stop spinning its wheels, keeps driving itself into the same ditch.

Bo Pelini was supposed to be the tow truck. But seven years later, NU is still stuck, maybe more than ever. And it’s obvious Pelini doesn’t know how to get it out."

It's not much of a stretch to envision Nebraska winning its final two games (Minnesota this week, at Iowa on Black Friday) to finish 10-2. That's in no way a fireable offense. But another season will pass without a conference championship in Lincoln, and as Shatel writes, "the definition of insanity would be to do this another year and expect different results."

Pelini's program should be past this by now, Steven M. Sipple writes.

2. Ohio State’s offense has been nearly unstoppable for the past couple of months, save for a slog against Penn State’s remarkable defense. Urban Meyer’s attack has one potential Achilles’ heel, however: turnovers.

Minnesota was able to keep things close on Saturday in large part because of three Buckeyes giveaways, including two by Jalin Marshall. Ohio State also came close to digging itself a huge hole at Michigan State two weeks ago with two early turnovers.

Meyer said he doesn't bench players who make mistakes, but that the problem has to be fixed or eventually they stop playing.

"We're going to grind them, big time," he said Saturday. "I've got to evaluate that. You don't just keep going."

Ball security probably won’t be a major issue in the Buckeyes’ final two-regular season games, against Indiana and Michigan at home. But living dangerously like that could become a problem in the Big Ten championship game or in whatever postseason destination – a playoff semifinal, perhaps? – awaits them.

3. The Indiana-Rutgers game didn't garner much attention on Saturday, for obvious reasons. It also got overshadowed by Gordon's performance and the Northwestern upset of Notre Dame happening at the same time.

But the Scarlet Knights did win to become bowl-eligible, and they might have saved Kyle Flood's job for another year in the process, Steve Politi writes. With games remaining at Michigan State and at Maryland, Rutgers might not finish better than 6-6. Still, given the murderous schedule laid in front of the team in its first year of Big Ten play, getting to the postseason is still an accomplishment. And there are a few other Big Ten teams who would like to have six wins in the bank already.

East Division
West Division

And finally, here's how you celebrate when you lead Penn State back to a bowl, apparently.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 12

November, 14, 2014
Nov 14
10:00
AM ET
Bundle up if you're going to a Big Ten game this weekend. Temperatures could be in the 20s or lower in some places, and there's possibilities for snow. Remember: Layers.

If you're just watching the Week 12 games from someplace warm, then A) you're smart and B) here's what you need to know about today's lineup (all times ET):

Noon

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJ.T. Barrett and Ohio State can't afford to have a letdown against Minnesota on Saturday.
No. 8 Ohio State (8-1, 5-0 Big Ten) at No. 25 Minnesota (7-2, 4-1), ABC: Can the Golden Gophers pull off the big upset at home? The cold weather might help slow down the Buckeyes' surging offense, but Minnesota will have to play a nearly perfect game. Ohio State could be battling a letdown factor after the win at Michigan State, but it can't afford to get distracted given its place in the playoff chase.

Iowa (6-3, 3-1) at Illinois (4-5, 1-4), Big Ten Network: The maddeningly inconsistent Hawkeyes look to bounce back from that 51-14 thrashing in Minneapolis last week; remember, they can still win the Big Ten West by winning out and having the Gophers lose twice more. The Fighting Illini are just hoping to get closer to bowl eligibility and possibly preserving Tim Beckman's job. Having Wes Lunt back at quarterback this week should help.

Temple (5-4, 3-3 American) at Penn State (5-4, 2-4), ESPN2: The Owls will try to beat the Nittany Lions for the first time since 1941 and for the first time ever in State College. Penn State hopes to clinch bowl eligibility and use that get-out-of-jail card from the NCAA. Don't expect a lot of points from either side in this one.

3:30 p.m.

No. 16 Nebraska (8-1, 4-1) at No. 20 Wisconsin (7-2, 4-1), ABC: This is much more than Ameer Abdullah vs. Melvin Gordon, though that showdown between the two marquee backs could be great if Abdullah is healthy. The winner will remain in great shape in the West Division race, while the loser will need a lot of help. Wisconsin has the home-field advantage, but the Cornhuskers will be by far the best team the Badgers have played since the season-opening loss to LSU.

Northwestern (3-6, 2-4) at No. 18 Notre Dame (7-2), NBC: The Wildcats have been looking forward to this game for a long time, but they'd hoped to be in better shape for it. Northwestern has lost four straight and is averaging just 12.5 points per game in that span. The Fighting Irish aren't scheduled to play another Big Ten team until September 2016, when they'll face Michigan State.

Indiana (3-6, 0-5) at Rutgers (5-4, 1-4), BTN: This is the first-ever meeting between these two teams, and no one is exactly clamoring for it right now. The Hoosiers have lost five straight against Power 5 opponents since beating Missouri and have virtually no offense to speak of. Rutgers has lost three straight and was outscored by 94 points in that span but should clinch bowl eligibility here.

8 p.m.

No. 12 Michigan State (7-2, 4-1) at Maryland (6-3, 3-2), BTN: How will the Spartans respond to the Ohio State loss? Will they come out swinging or still be smarting over the loss of their playoff (and most likely Big Ten title) hopes? Maryland has enough big-play ability to make this interesting, even without Stefon Diggs.

Bye: Michigan, Purdue

Required reading

Week 12 predictions | Bold calls

Nineteen years later, Northwestern looks to shock Irish again

Melvin Gordon's Heisman moment

Ameer Abdullah gets another shot to beat the odds

Gophers dance into November relevancy

Explosive plays expose cracks in Michigan State's defense

Buckeyes trust Jalin Marshall to do it all

Indiana's Tevin Coleman defies the odds

Take Two: Big Ten's best defense

Awards race tracker

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