Big Ten: Travis Howard

Only 22 Big Ten players heard their names called during the 2013 NFL draft, the league's lowest total in nearly two decades (it had 21 draftees in 1994).

But as soon as the draft ended Saturday, the free-agent signings began. And there were plenty around the Big Ten from all 12 squads.

Here's our first look list of free-agent signings or team tryouts from the conference. As a reminder, this is not a final list, and we'll have updates later on either here on the blog or on Twitter.

Here we go ...

ILLINOIS

C Graham Pocic, Houston Texans
DE Justin Staples, Cleveland Browns
DE Glenn Foster, New Orleans Saints

INDIANA

C Will Matte, Kansas City Chiefs (tryout)
DE Larry Black Jr., Cincinnati Bengals
DT Adam Replogle, Atlanta Falcons

IOWA

WR Keenan Davis, Cleveland Browns
OL Matt Tobin, Philadelphia Eagles
QB James Vandenberg, Minnesota Vikings

MICHIGAN

WR Roy Roundtree, Cincinnati Bengals
S Jordan Kovacs, Miami Dolphins
LB Kenny Demens, Arizona Cardinals
DE Craig Roh, Carolina Panthers
OL Elliott Mealer, New Orleans Saints
OL Patrick Omameh, San Francisco 49ers
OL Ricky Barnum, Washington Redskins
LB Brandin Hawthorne, St. Louis Rams
(WR Darryl Stonum, dismissed before the 2012 season, signed with the Kansas City Chiefs)

MICHIGAN STATE

CB Johnny Adams, Houston Texans
DT Anthony Rashad White, Pittsburgh Steelers
OL Chris McDonald, New England Patriots

MINNESOTA

CB Troy Stoudermire, Cincinnati Bengals
TE MarQueis Gray, San Francisco 49ers
CB Michael Carter, Minnesota Vikings

NEBRASKA

DE Eric Martin, New Orleans Saints
LB Will Compton, Washington Redskins
TE Ben Cotton, San Diego Chargers
TE/FB Kyler Reed, Jacksonville Jaguars
K Brett Maher, New York Jets
DE Cameron Meredith, Oakland Raiders

NORTHWESTERN

OL Patrick Ward, Miami Dolphins
DL Brian Arnfelt, Pittsburgh Steelers
LB David Nwabuisi, Carolina Panthers (tryout)
WR Demetrius Fields, Chicago Bears (tryout)

OHIO STATE

CB Travis Howard, Houston Texans
S Orhian Johnson, Houston Texans
FB Zach Boren, Houston Texans
TE Jake Stoneburner, Green Bay Packers
DE Nathan Williams, Minnesota Vikings
DL Garrett Goebel, St. Louis Rams
LB Etienne Sabino, New York Giants

PENN STATE

OL Mike Farrell, Pittsburgh Steelers
CB Stephon Morris, New England Patriots
OL Matt Stankiewitch, New England Patriots
FB Michael Zordich, Carolina Panthers

PURDUE

CB Josh Johnson, San Diego Chargers
QB Robert Marve, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
RB Akeem Shavers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

WISCONSIN

CB Marcus Cromartie, San Diego Chargers
CB Devin Smith, Dallas Cowboys
S Shelton Johnson, Oakland Raiders

Spring previews: Leaders Division

February, 28, 2013
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Spring practice is under way in the Big Ten, so let's take a look at what's on tap for the six teams in the Leaders Division.

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:

1. Coaching staff makeover: Illinois players are used to coaching changes, and Tim Beckman's staff received a significant overhaul during the winter as five assistants departed the program (four voluntarily). The biggest change comes at offensive coordinator, as former Western Michigan head coach Bill Cubit takes over. Cubit has to implement his system and identify more playmakers with a unit that finished last in the Big Ten in both scoring and total offense last season.

2. Lines in limbo: The Illini not only lost significant pieces on both the offensive and defensive lines, but they have new position coaches at both spots as well. Defensive line has been Illinois' strongest spot, but the team must replace two future NFLers in Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence. Glenn Foster is also gone, so the front four will have a very different look. The offensive line struggled mightily in 2012 and needs young players such as Michael Heitz and Ted Karras to take steps this spring.

3. Getting healthy: Illinois lost so many starters to injury in 2012 that it became difficult to get an accurate gauge on what Beckman could do with a healthy roster. Although linebacker Jonathan Brown and receiver Darius Millines will be limited this spring, the rest of the team is ready to go and Illinois added several potential big contributors from the junior college ranks. If Illinois has any chance of taking a major step in 2013, its best players must stay on the field this spring and allow the coaches a chance to evaluate and scheme for the season.

INDIANA

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Quarterback cluster: While some Big Ten teams (Penn State, Purdue) have hardly any experience at quarterback, Indiana has three signal-callers who have logged significant field time. Tre Roberson, who started the 2012 season before suffering a broken leg in Week 2, returns this spring, and it will be interesting to see how he looks and whether he outperforms Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld. Coffman started the final 10 games last fall and passed for 2,734 yards and 15 touchdowns, while Sudfield added 632 passing yards and seven TDs. Indiana's quarterback depth is a good problem to have, but it would be good to see some separation this spring.

2. Defensive leadership: Fielding a Big Ten-level defense remains Indiana's top priority, and the Hoosiers need leaders to develop this spring. Top linemen Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr. depart, and Indiana needs to build depth up front after allowing a league-worst 231.3 rush yards per game in 2012. Linebacker is another spot IU must upgrade, and David Cooper should be ready to take the reins after recording 86 tackles in 12 starts a year ago. Like Illinois, Indiana also welcomes several junior college defenders, including tackle Jordan Heiderman.

3. Secondary surge: All the question marks in Indiana's defensive front seven make it even more important for the secondary to make strides this spring. The Hoosiers have no shortage of experience in the back four with players such as Greg Heban, Mark Murphy, Brian Williams (12 starts last season) and Antonio Marshall (started final seven games). There's potential for the secondary to be a strength for IU in 2013, but the group must make more plays after recording a league-low seven interceptions last fall.

OHIO STATE

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 13 (at Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati)

What to watch:

1. Taking a pass: The highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten returns every starter but two, and all that experience, talent and familiarity with the spread attack heading into Urban Meyer's second season with the Buckeyes figures to make them even more dangerous. The key will be how much more efficient Braxton Miller can become as a passer.

2. Getting defensive: For all the pieces the offense retains, the defense is a completely different story heading into spring camp. The Buckeyes have to replace the entire defensive line after losing three seniors and junior Johnathan Hankins to the draft, two starting linebackers are gone and the graduation of cornerback Travis Howard leaves an additional hole in the safety. There will be no shortage of competition for first-team reps.

3. Looking for leaders: Meyer and the senior class that has since departed quickly forged a deep bond, and he has gone out of his way to praise those players' leadership as integral in the unbeaten season that started his tenure with the Buckeyes. Now he needs a new wave of emotional speakers and relentless workers to take the torch from the likes of John Simon and Zach Boren, and Meyer will be making a point to identify his best candidates over the 15 workouts leading into the summer.

-- Austin Ward, BuckeyeNation

PENN STATE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. Quarterback competition: With the departure of fifth-year senior Matt McGloin, quarterback is now the biggest question mark on this team. Sophomore Steven Bench has a head start and will compete against juco early enrollee Tyler Ferguson. Christian Hackenberg won't join the team until summer. Can this no-huddle offense be as effective?

2. Replacing LBs Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges: Mike Hull, who usually played inside, will have to make some adjustments as one of the expected replacements for the All-Big Ten linebacker tandem. The other spot is up for grabs, and fans should expect to see a battle between Ben Kline and Nyeem Wartman.

3. New faces at WR, TE: Redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis, the headliner of PSU's 2012 class, could challenge Brandon Moseby-Felder as the No. 2 WR target. Adam Breneman, the No. 1 tight end recruit in the country, is also hoping to be recovered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in time for the Blue-White Game. Both could be stars down the road for PSU.

-- Josh Moyer, NittanyNation

PURDUE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Behind these Hazell eyes: Yes, I'll justifiably take the abuse for the Kelly Clarkson reference, but new Purdue coach Darrell Hazell has his first chance to evaluate his team on the field this spring. Hazell brings a completely new coaching staff and a new approach to Purdue, which fell short of expectations in 2012 and has significant questions on both sides of the ball. He seems to be getting good buy-in from the players so far, but it'll be interesting to see how things progress during the 15 workouts this spring.

2. Quarterback race: If you like mysteries, you'll enjoy Purdue's quarterback competition this spring. The combination of a new coaching staff and unproven but talented candidates makes the race virtually impossible to predict. Hazell and new offensive coordinator John Shoop will study redshirt freshman Austin Appleby, who could have a slight edge to win the job, along with redshirt freshman Bilal Marshall and early enrollee Danny Etling, a decorated recruit. Don't forget about Rob Henry, who started in 2010 and would have been the top quarterback in 2011 if not for an ACL injury weeks before the season.

3. Short stopper: Purdue has to find a replacement for standout defensive tackle Kawann Short, the centerpiece of the defensive line the past few seasons. Bruce Gaston Jr. will continue to occupy the other top tackle spot, but there will be plenty of competition to join him in the starting lineup. Purdue's defensive line underachieved in 2012, and while Gaston and ends Ryan Russell and Ryan Isaac all return, the Boilers will really miss Short's production if they don't build more depth up the middle.

WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 9

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. New era dawns: Consistency is the norm at Wisconsin, but players will have to adjust to a dramatically different coaching staff for the second consecutive season. This time, it includes a new leading man in Gary Andersen, who gets his first chance to work with the players on the practice field. Andersen doesn't plan to overhaul the schemes, but he and his coaches will put their spin on things and see what works. He'll also bring a different personality to practice but one that athletic director Barry Alvarez thinks will fit the program's culture.

2. Intrigue at quarterback: Arguably no team in America has a more interesting quarterback race than the Badgers do this spring. They have three players with starting experience -- Joel Stave, Curt Phillips and Danny O'Brien -- plus a talented redshirt freshman (Bart Houston) who arrived as a decorated recruit and a junior college addition (Tanner McEvoy) brought in by the new coaches. Add in a new system under coordinator Andy Ludwig, and it's anyone's guess who will separate himself this spring. Be sure to tune in.

3. Secondary in the spotlight: The Badgers lose three of four starters in the secondary from the 2012 squad, including top cornerbacks Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie. The new staff is aware of the numbers issue and signed junior college All-American Donnell Vercher earlier this month. Other players who will compete for starting spots include cornerbacks Darius Hillary and Peniel Jean and safeties Michael Trotter and Michael Caputo. Wisconsin hopes to have some answers in the back four by the end of the spring.

B1G postseason position rankings: DB

February, 21, 2013
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Our postseason position rankings are getting close to wrapping up, but first let's put a bow on the defensive side of the ball with a look at the defensive backs.

Star power matters, but depth is also important. The secondary wasn't a particularly standout group for the Big Ten in 2012, though there were some elite players in the back end of the league's defenses. You can see how we ranked the DB groups in the preseason here. And here's how we see it now:

1. Michigan State (Preseason ranking: 1): So maybe Johnny Adams didn't have quite the season we expected out of him, but he was still easily one of the best cornerbacks in the league. And Darqueze Dennard reached an elite level, arguably turning in a better year than Adams at the other cornerback spot. Isaiah Lewis remained one of the top safeties in the league. The Spartans finished third nationally in pass efficiency defense, and their secondary was also stout in run support and on the occasional blitz.

2. Ohio State (Preseason: 2): Teams could pass on the Buckeyes, especially early, as they ended up ranked just 11th in the league in passing yards allowed. But Bradley Roby had an All-American year at cornerback, and Travis Howard grabbed four interceptions while improving over the course of the fall. While Ohio State's safeties sometimes went for the big hit instead of making the safe play, this group had star power and played great when it mattered.

3. Nebraska (Preseason: 4): The numbers would suggest a higher ranking, as the Cornhuskers finished fourth nationally in passing yards allowed and ninth in pass efficiency defense. Yet we can't forget some of the secondary's problems in open-field tackling and helping against the run in big games, or how Aaron Murray and Georgia dissected it in the Capital One Bowl. Still, this group -- led by P.J. Smith, Daimion Stafford and Ciante Evans -- was deep and clearly comprised the strength of Nebraska's defense.

[+] EnlargeMichael Carter
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsGophers defensive back Michael Carter had a breakout game in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, recording seven tackles and two INTs.
4. Minnesota (Preseason: 10): The biggest climber on our board, the Gophers made a major improvement in their secondary thanks to the breakout year by Michael Carter and the return of Troy Stoudermire at the other corner spot. Derrick Wells also made a major impact at safety as Minnesota went from having one of the worst pass defenses in the country in 2011 to the No. 23 pass efficiency defense in 2012.

5. Michigan (Preseason: 3): The Wolverines lost Blake Countess in the first half of the opener and didn't have anyone make first- or second-team All-Big Ten from its secondary. Still, this group had two sturdy seniors in safety Jordan Kovacs and cornerback J.T. Floyd and finished second in the league in pass defense. Those numbers may be a bit skewed by the fact that Michigan didn't face many high-powered passing teams, but this group held its own.

6. Wisconsin (Preseason: 7): The late-game breakdowns by the secondary in 2011 were a distant memory as the Badgers were solid all the way around at defensive back in 2012. They finished third in the league in pass efficiency defense. Getting Devin Smith back at corner really helped, as did the marked improvement of Marcus Cromartie. Safeties Dezmen Southward and Shelton Johnson also had good years. The bad news for Wisconsin is that only Southward returns from that veteran group.

7. Penn State (Preseason: 9): The defensive backfield was the big question mark on the Nittany Lions' defense heading into the season with four new starters. But despite a lack of experienced depth, the starting group of Stephon Morris, Adrian Amos, Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong prevented Penn State from experiencing a drop-off at DB, allowing just 15 touchdown passes in 12 games.

8. Purdue (Preseason: 5): A secondary with two cornerbacks as talented as Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson should not be ranked this low. But the Boilermakers simply got burned too much in big games to be ranked much higher than this. They did tie for the league lead with 14 interceptions, paced by Landon Feichter's four picks.

9. Northwestern (Preseason: 11): The Wildcats' secondary was much, much better when cornerback Nick VanHoose was healthy, and Ibraheim Campbell had a terrific year at safety. This group showed its potential early in the season and in the bowl win over Mississippi State. But the late-game breakdowns, particularly against Michigan (the Roy Roundtree catch) and Nebraska, prevent a higher ranking.

10. Iowa (Preseason: 8): Micah Hyde was named the Big Ten defensive back of the year. This really happened. I looked it up again to make sure. Not that Hyde had a bad season. He just didn't really stand out nearly as much as guys like Dennard, Carter or Roby. Hyde and fellow cornerback B.J. Lowery formed a good tandem, but safety play was shaky for the Hawkeyes and offenses torched them down the stretch. Iowa allowed opponents a league-worst 63.5 completion percentage.

11. Illinois (Preseason: 6): Terry Hawthorne remained an underrated cornerback who should hear his name called in the April NFL draft. Outside of that, it's hard to find many positives for the Illini secondary, as the team finished last in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense and didn't have much else to hang its hat on.

12. Indiana (Preseason: 12): The Hoosiers had hopes of making strides in the secondary with returning starters Lawrence Barnett, Greg Heban and Mark Murphy. But Indiana gave up more touchdown passes (23) than any other league team while only intercepting seven passes. While not all of the pass defense problems can be blamed on the secondary, of course, it's clear this team still lacks high-impact players in the back end.

Buckeyes set foundation for future

November, 26, 2012
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Ohio StateKirk Irwin/Getty ImagesCoach Urban Meyer and his undefeated 2012 Buckeyes could have an even brighter future ahead.
I ventured out to a couple of places in Columbus on Saturday night to watch the USC-Notre Dame game. Plenty of Ohio State fans were cheering for the Trojans, hoping that their Buckeyes would end up as the only undefeated team in the country. After the Irish won, one well-lubricated fan kept yelling, "Congratulations on being the second-best team in the country."

Ohio State and its backers are relegated to just watching other teams from here on out and hoping to get recognized. The good news is, they shouldn't have to worry about that this time next year.

While the Buckeyes' 12-0 season won't end with a BCS national title shot, it does set up next year's team for a run at the crystal football. Urban Meyer's first year couldn't have gone any better, and Ohio State will almost certainly start next season in the Top 5 and possibly the Top 3.

"This sets the standard pretty high," senior tight end/receiver Jake Stoneburner said. "I don't think anyone really expected coach Meyer to come in and turn it around like he did. But for anyone who wants to be a Buckeye or is a Buckeye right now, there's no better place to be."

Ohio State went from a team that Meyer said repeatedly had a lot of holes during the first half of the season to one that had no holes in its résumé. That should frighten the rest of the Big Ten, as Meyer inherited a 6-7 team full of guys he didn't recruit, many of whom didn't really fit his offensive system, and he was still able to go undefeated. What will he do once he starts bringing in game-breaking receivers and running backs who can go the distance?

Even though Meyer said Monday that this team's passing game "is not even in the same hemisphere as what we want," the Buckeyes still led the Big Ten in scoring at 37.2 points per game. And that offense loses only two starters, Stoneburner and right tackle Reid Fragel, while hoping senior running back Jordan Hall gets a medical redshirt. Meyer said after Saturday's win over Michigan that Carlos Hyde has progressed into one of the top running backs in the country. Sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller is a possible Heisman Trophy finalist who still needs to make tremendous strides in his passing accuracy and pocket awareness.

"I don't see the ceiling yet," Meyer said. "He's got that much further to go."

The 2013 Buckeyes will be the heavy Big Ten favorites and their schedule is once again very manageable. They play Buffalo, San Diego State and Florida A&M at home, with only California on the road in the nonconference slate. In league play, they trade Nebraska and Michigan State for Northwestern and Iowa as non-protected crossover opponents from the Legends Division.

That doesn't mean next year's team doesn't have some major areas of concern. The defense could lose its entire front four if junior tackle Johnathan Hankins leaves early for the NFL as expected. Cornerback Bradley Roby, a redshirt sophomore, will have a decision to make on his future. If he goes pro, that would mean both starting corners are gone, since Travis Howard is a senior. And three of the team's top four linebackers -- Etienne Sabino, Zach Boren and Storm Klein -- have used up their eligibility.

"The linebackers, we've got to get that right," Meyer said. "That's the weakest area of our team right now."

Ohio State will be starting a bunch of young players on defense and will need its offensive line to stay healthy again because there is not much depth. But intangibles, not talent, might be the biggest question mark.

Meyer said he wasn't sure the senior class was entirely on board with him until an emotional meeting before the Sept. 29 Michigan State game. He raves about that group's "complete selflessness" which he said might be the best of any team he's been around. He pointed to defensive end John Simon playing through severe shoulder pain, Boren switching from fullback to linebacker midseason and Sabino rushing back from a broken leg to contribute as key examples. Meyer said he will have a wall in the team's training facility dedicated to this year's team, complete with video highlights that feature the team's unselfish nature.

There's no guarantee that next year's team will repeat that. Meyer also worries about the complacency that success can bring. He said he'll try to find ways to motivate the players in the offseason, including using the fact that a bowl game was taken away from them in 2012.

"We've got to make sure that doesn't take place," he said. "We need an angry team next year. If we have to manufacture that, we will. We're going to try to push the right buttons to get an angry team. If they're not angry, [if they're] complacent this team's as good as dirt, just like any team."

This year's team was good enough to go undefeated, something Meyer never accomplished at Florida despite winning two national titles there. It's scary to think how good the Buckeyes can be in the future after the first year he had in Columbus. Buckeyes fans might not have to concern themselves too much with what other teams are doing in late November.

Michigan-Ohio State pregame ponderables

November, 24, 2012
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Hello from the Horseshoe, where one of the best rivalries in sports is about to kick off with some extra meaning.

Nebraska's win against Iowa took a little bit of drama away from the proceedings, as Michigan now cannot make the Big Ten title game. In another situation, you might wonder how that would affect a team's motivation. But not this one. The records don't really matter in The Game.

But one record does matter to Ohio State: 12-0. The Buckeyes are one win away from perfection, and while they can't go bowling, finishing up the season with a victory against the Wolverines would be better than just about any bowl victory.

We've got some perfect Big Ten late November weather here, with temperatures in the low 30s and a light snow. The snow isn't sticking, so it shouldn't have too much impact on the game, except maybe adding some moisture to challenge ball carriers. I still expect Brady Hoke to come out in short sleeves.

It just doesn't get much better than this rivalry. Some Michigan fans already fired the first shot by writing "Beat Ohio" and a giant "M" in chalk on the south stadium wall this morning.

A key question looming over this game is the health of John Simon. Reports surfaced Friday that Ohio State's star defensive end is injured and might not play. We have confirmed that Simon is a game-time decision with a knee issue. It's hard to imagine the senior not trying to go on senior day if there's any way his body can be held together. But if he's missing or at far less than 100 percent, that's a big loss for a Buckeyes defense going against an explosive Michigan attack led by Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson.

Both teams have had some trouble stopping spread offenses and containing the perimeter on defense this season. Both offenses will look to exploit that weakness. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller has been a little more cautious with his running style since suffering an injury against Purdue, trying to stay healthy for the rest of the season. But there is no more season to worry about after today, and the Michigan game is where Buckeyes players build their legacies, so I'd expect the sophomore star to play with abandon this afternoon.

But will Miller be able to throw effectively against a Michigan team that leads the nation in defending the pass? The Wolverines have not allowed anybody to pass for 200 yards this season.

Speaking of passing games, Michigan's has gotten a lot better since Gardner took over the quarterback job. But receivers Jeremy Gallon and Roy Roundtree will face a good challenge today, going up against certain first-team All-Big Ten selection Bradley Roby and teammate Travis Howard. The Buckeyes' cornerbacks have been ball-hawks, and should give Gardner more of a test than Minnesota, Northwestern and Iowa did.

There are great matchups all over the field, as you'd expect, and another great one on the sidelines between Hoke and Urban Meyer. Can't wait to get this one started.

Big Ten lunchtime links

November, 15, 2012
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Puppy ... in a cup ...
 

Big Ten predictions: Week 12

November, 15, 2012
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It's the home stretch of Big Ten play, and Adam Rittenberg already has the champagne on ice. Rittenberg holds a commanding five-game lead against Brian Bennett, who seems likely to suffer the same fate as his beloved St. Louis Cardinals this fall.

There's still time for Bennett to catch up, but he needs to make a major push beginning this week. Fortunately, the Big Ten has a full slate of games, as every team is in action.

Let's get picky ...

NORTHWESTERN at MICHIGAN STATE

Brian Bennett: Both teams have struggled to finish games in the fourth quarter, so which one will do so this week? Northwestern matches up well with the Spartans in a lot of ways, but I just have a hard time believing Michigan State will go winless at home in Big Ten play. The Spartans' outstanding run defense will slow down Kain Colter and Venric Mark, holding them both under 100 yards. Le'Veon Bell scores two touchdowns in perhaps his home finale, including the game winner in the final 90 seconds. ... Michigan State 21, Northwestern 20

Adam Rittenberg: Someone has to finish, and I think it'll be Northwestern. This is a good matchup for the Wildcats, who have moved the ball on just about everyone, including Michigan's stout defense, and do much better against teams with good run games and shaky pass attacks. Mark records 110 rush yards and two touchdowns and S Ibraheim Campbell records an interception down the stretch as Northwestern wards off another late collapse. Michigan State fights hard on senior day, but it's the same old story. ... Northwestern 20, Michigan State 17

IOWA at No. 21 MICHIGAN

Adam Rittenberg: All signs point to a big Michigan win, and like a good driver, I obey the signs. Iowa is a mess right now, and the Hawkeyes don't match up well against Michigan on either side of the ball. Yes, Iowa has a three-game win streak in the series, but that will fuel Michigan's seniors more in their final home game. QB Devin Gardner fires three touchdown passes and racks up 275 pass yards, and Jordan Kovacs records two sacks of James Vandenberg as the Wolverines march on to "Ohio." ... Michigan 38, Iowa 17

Brian Bennett: The Hawkeyes have beaten Michigan three straight times, but they couldn't do much of anything right in the past few weeks. I don't like the way Iowa is trending, and it is going to have a hard time scoring on Michigan's defense. I like Gardner to have a big game here and Denard Robinson to line up at least once at a different position. Big blowout in the season finale at the Big House. ... Michigan 38, Iowa 10

INDIANA at PENN STATE

Brian Bennett: Both teams are dealing with different types of hangovers. One thinks it has been worked over by the refs, while the other knows it was worked over by Wisconsin. I see Indiana bouncing back a bit with a better offensive performance. The Nittany Lions get out to a two-touchdown lead, but Cameron Coffman brings the Hoosiers back in the third quarter with a couple of scoring drives. Ultimately, the Lions win it on a Zach Zwinak touchdown run and a key interception from Adrian Amos. ... Penn State 31, Indiana 23

Adam Rittenberg: It's been a long season and I need some ZZs, as in Zach Zwinak touchdowns. Zwinak goes for 130 rush yards and three scores as Penn State capitalizes on the woeful Hoosiers rushing defense. I also see the Hoosiers hanging in there for a while and getting touchdown receptions from Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes. But Michael Mauti and the Penn State defense buckle down in the second half and the Lions prevail. ... Penn State 34, Indiana 23

MINNESOTA at No. 14 NEBRASKA

Adam Rittenberg: Nebraska has had letdown games at home under Bo Pelini, and this would qualify following a grueling stretch against Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. But the Huskers can taste a Big Ten title, and they'll respond well against a Gophers team that should play loose after getting bowl-eligible. Minnesota jumps ahead behind a Donnell Kirkwood touchdown run, but the Huskers are once again too much in the second half as RB Ameer Abdullah and QB Taylor Martinez combine for 225 rush yards and four touchdowns. ... Nebraska 33, Minnesota 20

Brian Bennett: Here's the biggest upset pick of the week -- Nebraska won't need a second-half comeback. The Legends Division title is too close now for the Huskers to mess up, and they will overwhelm the Gophers on senior day. Martinez and Abdullah both eclipse 100 yards on the ground, and Rex Burkhead gets a ceremonial carry in his final game at Memorial Stadium. ... Nebraska 37, Minnesota 16

OHIO STATE at WISCONSIN

Brian Bennett: The Badgers looked ridiculously good last week in rushing for 564 yards at Indiana, but the Buckeyes are not the Hoosiers. They will bring safeties down into the box and make Curt Phillips beat them over the top. He'll find Jared Abbrederis a couple of times for big plays but will also get picked off by Travis Howard and Bradley Roby. Meanwhile, Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde have fresh legs after the bye week and combine for four touchdowns. ... Ohio State 28, Wisconsin 25

Adam Rittenberg: I seriously considered picking Wisconsin, perhaps putting some faith in the Vegas oddsmakers, who favored the Badgers. But the Buckeyes twice have burned me when I've lost faith in them. This time, it won't happen. Both Miller and Wisconsin RB Montee Ball turn in big performances, and Ball sets the NCAA career touchdowns record with his second score in the third quarter. But it'll be too much Miller in the fourth quarter, and for the second consecutive year he finds Devin Smith for the game-winning touchdown to beat the Badgers. ... Ohio State 31, Wisconsin 28

PURDUE at ILLINOIS

Adam Rittenberg: I don't know if I've correctly picked a Purdue game in Big Ten play, but the bad luck can't last forever. Illinois will show some life offensively in the first quarter, scoring on a Donovonn Young run. But Purdue settles down behind QB Robert Marve, who fires two more touchdown passes and avoids a turnover. The Boilers take their first lead midway through the second quarter and never look back, scoring a special-teams touchdown in the second half. Illinois' misery continues. ... Purdue 27, Illinois 14

Brian Bennett: Believing Purdue can win two straight games is a dangerous activity. But I'd rather have an inconsistent team capable of playing well than a reliably bad one like Illinois. The Illini have shown some faint signs of competitiveness the past two weeks but still have major problems on the offensive line, which Kawann Short will exploit for three sacks. The Purdue defense scores a touchdown, and Akeem Shavers runs for two more. ... Purdue 24, Illinois 14

Season records

Adam Rittenberg: 65-19 (.773)

Brian Bennett: 60-24 (.714)
We had a very scary Halloween edition of the Big Ten chat today. I went as Jared from Subway. If only I had his millions.

Anyway, if you missed the fun, check out the full transcript.

Some highlights:
Larry from Skokie, Ill.: How many Bowl games do you foresee the Big Ten in, given the fact we have two ineligible teams playing this year?

Adam Rittenberg: Larry, I'd expect six and possibly seven bowl teams from the Big Ten. Either Michigan or Minnesota will get there Saturday, and I expect both to be bowl-eligible. Between Iowa, Purdue and Indiana, I expect at least one and possibly two to become bowl-eligible. Three teams -- Northwestern, Nebraska and Wisconsin -- are already there.

Hank from Washington, D.C.: Does Michigan win if Denard doesn't get injured against Nebraska? I think it would've been a much closer game. I wasn't impressed with Nebraska.

Adam Rittenberg: Hank, it's a toss-up if Denard stays in the game. Nebraska was playing a little bit better, but Michigan's defense had limited damage, and the offense had a first-and-goal when Denard left the field. A touchdown there, and the game changes. It's hard to say how the second half would have played out, but Michigan's defense wouldn't have been on the field nearly as long, and Michigan wouldn't have lost by two TDs.

GS from Chicago: What is it with Northwestern in the fourth quarter? They seemed poised to throw away another lead on Saturday against Iowa, but managed to hang on. Is this a coaching issue? Fitzgerald is, undoubtedly, a great leader and recruiter for NU, but do you think he has the tactical expertise to back it up?

Adam Rittenberg: It has been a problem for years, GS. As good as Northwestern has been in close games, the Wildcats seem to struggle with big leads and in putting away teams. Fitz is a conservative coach to the core, and he often tries to win by having the other team make more mistakes. Another reason is that Northwestern's up-tempo offense has to slow things down with a lead to kill time. Last week, you saw an inexcusable error -- bad snap on first-and-goal -- prevent a score that would have put Iowa away. I've talked with a lot of Northwestern players about finding the killer instinct. They know it's an issue, but they just seem more comfortable in close games.

Jay from MN: Adam, your pal Bennett pretty much laughed at the idea of Michael Carter being 1st team big ten. What are your thoughts? He's among the conference leaders in pass breakups and is asked to play a lot of single coverage since Minnesota struggles to stop the run. He has more than held his own in that scenario and has been a lockdown corner at times. Him and Roby seem to be the two logical choices to make the first team.

Adam Rittenberg: Oh, that Bennett. He's a barrel of laughs. I think besides Roby, no Big Ten cornerback is a lock for first-team All-Big Ten. Carter is definitely stepping up his game in recent weeks for a very good pass defense. He's in the mix, in my view. I'd put Northwestern's Nick VanHoose, Wisconsin's Devin Smith, Purdue's Josh Johnson and Ohio State's Travis Howard in that mix, too. Howard, while putting up some nice numbers, seems to get beat too much.

Greg from Dayton: Michigan was a preseason top-ten team and was in the top three recruiting nationally. What factors have led to their underachieving this season and will this hurt them on signing day in February?

Adam Rittenberg: Greg, you kind of make my point for me. Top three recruiting nationally doesn't equal great team this season. Michigan's roster isn't exactly set up to succeed in 2012. It's going to be a very, very good roster in 2014. The Wolverines were vastly overrated entering the season. We all know that now. But the preseason ranking and the recruiting ranking are separate issues. Michigan doesn't have enough depth and enough elite veteran players to be a truly great team this season. But that will change in the future, in large part because of, yep, the recruiting.

Thanks again for the questions, and my apologies to those whose questions weren't answered. Let's do it again next week.

Midseason report: Ohio State

October, 16, 2012
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OHIO STATE

Record: 7-0 (3-0 Big Ten)

Ohio State can't tackle. It has endured multiple special teams breakdowns. It recently moved starting fullback Zach Boren to linebacker to a depth-starved position (he proceeded to lead the team in tackles against Indiana). It has endured multiple key injuries, particularly on the defensive side. Dropped passes have been an issue, too.

So what's the Buckeyes' record a little past the halfway point of Urban Meyer's first season? It's perfect. Few would argue that Ohio State has been the Big Ten's best team so far this fall.

If this is what Meyer can do with a flawed team in his first season, think about what he'll accomplish in the coming seasons at Ohio State.

The biggest reason for Ohio State's unblemished record is sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller. No Big Ten player -- and perhaps no player nationally -- has meant more to his team's success than Miller has to the Buckeyes. Although many pegged Miller to thrive in Meyer's spread offense, his first-year progress has exceeded all expectations. Through seven games, he has 1,271 pass yards, 912 rush yards and 20 touchdowns (11 pass, 9 rush), putting himself very much on the Heisman Trophy radar. The offense has had other bright spots -- running back Carlos Hyde, big-play receiver Devin Smith, a surging line -- and is well ahead of schedule as a unit, putting up 115 points the past two weeks.

Ohio State might have the offensive firepower to run the table in a weak Big Ten, but fixing the defense is the top priority for Meyer and his staff. Despite boasting several playmakers -- cornerbacks Bradley Roby and Travis Howard, linebacker Ryan Shazier, linemen John Simon and Johnathan Hankins -- the Buckeyes need to get back to their roots on that side of the ball.

Offensive MVP: QB Braxton Miller. The most obvious choice we'll make in any of the midseason team capsules. Ohio State wouldn't be undefeated without Miller and likely would have multiple losses on its résumé. He has been unstoppable as a runner and better-than-expected as a passer, completing 60.4 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. He has five 100-yard rushing performances and five games with at least 300 yards of total offense. He needs 88 yards to become the first Ohio State quarterback to record 1,000 rush yards in a season.

Defensive MVP: CB Bradley Roby. The Silver Bullets aren't performing at their usual standard, but Roby has been one of the Big Ten's most dynamic defenders in the first seven games. He's tied for the national lead in passes defended with 14, five more than any other Big Ten player, and recorded two interceptions in an Oct. 6 win against Nebraska, including a pick-six in the first quarter. Roby also had a punt block against Michigan State, a recovery of a punt block for a touchdown against Indiana and 33 tackles (2 for loss). Shazier and Simon also merit mentions.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer doesn't have to worry about cornerback Bradley Roby this week.

No player on the Buckeyes roster is more geared up for Saturday's game than Roby, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound sophomore from Suwanee, Ga. While most Buckeyes are highlighting games against Michigan State, Wisconsin and, of course, Michigan, Roby has targeted the Cal game for months.

The reason: he'll be tested in a big way by Cal's All-America wide receiver Keenan Allen. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Bears star is a leading candidate for the Biletnikoff Award, and he comes in at No. 16 on Mel Kiper's Big Board for the 2013 NFL draft (No. 2 receiver overall).

"This is definitely a game that has been marked on my calendar," Roby told ESPN.com. "I've been watching film on him for a while. He's a bigger receiver. He's about 6-3. He has good athleticism. It's something I'm looking forward to. I mean, it’s the best versus the best, so we're going to see who comes out on top."

[+] EnlargeBradley Roby
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesBradley Roby will face one of the nation's top receivers in Keenan Allen on Saturday.
Roby isn't short on speed or swagger, two qualities that benefit him as a cornerback. After redshirting in 2010, he claimed a starting job last season and led Ohio State in both interceptions (3) and passes defended (9). As the boundary corner, Roby is almost always matched up against the opponent's top receiver and last year went toe to toe with four NFL draft picks, including first-rounder A.J. Jenkins from Illinois.

Cal's Allen definitely gets his attention. His biggest challenge comes when there isn't one across the line of scrimmage.

"He gets bored," Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. "That's one of the things I got after him about in the spring and even in the summer. I've coached Joe Haden and some other great corners, and those guys never got bored. The ultimate competitors are guys that it doesn't matter who you're playing or what the coverage scheme is, you compete at all times. He's still fighting through that."

Roby admits it's not easy. He wants to push himself, and it helps to go against great players. Last fall, he made sure he went against Buckeyes wide receiver DeVier Posey in practice as much as possible. Posey, suspended for most of the season, was "one of the best receivers in the country," according to Roby. The NFL evaluators agreed as Posey, despite playing in just three games, went in the third round of April's draft -- the second Big Ten wideout selected (behind Jenkins) and the 10th overall.

Ohio State is lacking at the receiver position right now, and when asked this spring who he seeks out in practices, Roby acknowledged, "Nobody, really." He enjoys going against Corey Brown, but Brown mostly plays the slot position in Meyer's offense, so they aren't matched up.

"It's something I had trouble with for a while," he said. "It just comes down to, if I want to be the player I want to be, I have to be on my A-game at all times. I can't really get bored out there. I can't worry about what skill the receiver is. Even if he's not that good, I still have to dominate him and beat him like I'm supposed to. That's all it is.

"I've had to stay ready and stay on my A-game at all times, so when games like this come around, I'm still ready, and I'm already at the level I’ve been wanting to play at."

Roby's quest for straight As is paying off so far this season. He earned defensive player of the game honors for his effort in Ohio State's opener against Miami (Ohio), making plays on 25 of 30 opportunities, according to Meyer.

Roby leads the team with four pass breakups and has a fumble recovery. He has yet to record his first interception, while fellow corner Travis Howard already has three, a fact he hasn't hesitated to point out.

"He's talking trash, but it doesn't bother me at all," said Roby, who himself dabbles in trash talk, especially on Saturdays. "I'm happy for him. I hope he continues in that. This is just Game 3 coming up, so I feel like I've got something in store."

Roby certainly has the talent to affect games. He twice ran the 40-yard dash in 4.31 seconds this summer.

"Really blessed, really talented and fast," Meyer said. "I think he's our fastest player."

Roby doesn't dispute the label, while acknowledging Brown isn't far behind and could pace him in a slightly longer race, like 60 yards (It'd be close," Roby said).

Having top-end speed is nice, but Roby is more focused on consistency and mastering the cornerback spot. He spent much of the offseason working on his off-man coverage, which often separates the great athletes who play corner from those who can do it at the NFL level.

"I've gotten more comfortable doing it," he said.

Roby undoubtedly will be in his comfort zone Saturday against Allen.

"This ought to be no challenge as far as getting him motivated," Meyer said, "because [he's] facing potentially the best receiver he'll face all year."

Big Ten awards race tracker: Week 3

September, 10, 2012
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Now that two games are in the books, it's time to begin our weekly look at how the two major player of the year awards (along with some other honors) are shaping up. Yes, it's ridiculously early, but it's never too early to see where things stand.

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State: Miller currently leads the conference in rushing (302 yards) and total offense and has had very little help. He's completing 67 percent of his passes and is averaging 6.9 yards per carry. Can he keep this up?

2. Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State: Bell had arguably the single most impressive performance of the season with his 210-yards rushing, 50-touch, one Superman hurdle game against Boise State. He's the league's top running back and the best offensive player on the Big Ten's best team right now.

3. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan: Robinson struggled against Alabama, which wasn't unexpected against that defense. He showed how dangerous he is with a 426-yard, four-touchdown day against Air Force. A great Big Ten season could lead him to the title.

4. Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska: Despite some problems in the UCLA loss, Martinez has improved his passing and will clearly be leaned on heavily in the Huskers' high-scoring offense. He leads the conference in passing yards, which is a stat you probably wouldn't have believed in the preseason.

5. MarQueis Gray, QB, Minnesota: Believe it or not, Gray leads the conference in passing efficiency, and he's fourth in total offense. He'll have to prove it against much better defenses, but with Montee Ball averaging less than 100 yards per game, the door is open for some other candidates right now.

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: Short is tied for the league lead in sacks with three and was dominant against Notre Dame. He should be in the thick of this race all year.

2. Johnny Adams, CB, Michigan State: Though he gave up one long pass against Boise State, Adams has mostly been brilliant thus far and has forced opposing offenses to avoid his side of the field.

3. William Gholston, DE, Michigan State: Gholston has only one sack and somehow failed to register a tackle against Boise State. But he's been very active and will be a factor in this race all year while helping lead the league's top defense.

4. Travis Howard, CB, Ohio State: Howard is currently tied for the national lead with three interceptions, and while some of that is certainly being in the right place at the right time, he will be hard to ignore if he keeps up that absurd pace.

Thompson-Randle El Freshman of the Year

1. Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State: The redshirt freshman was touted as a strong pass-rusher and has thus far lived up to that billing with three sacks, tying him for the league lead.

2. Noah Spence, DE, Ohio State: The highly-touted true freshman has gotten a lot of early playing time for the Buckeyes, recording a sack and a pass break-up. He's only going to get better.

3. Joe Bolden, LB, Michigan: The Wolverines are playing a lot of true freshmen right now, and Bolden has become an important part of the defense. He was on the field in the fourth quarter when Michigan was clinging to a six-point lead over Air Force and has 11 tackles on the year.

Big Ten lunch links

August, 30, 2012
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At last, the season is here, and not a moment too soon. You ready?

Big Ten lunch links

August, 28, 2012
8/28/12
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Be sure and send in your questions for today's mailblog. Or, if you want to respond via Twitter, have at it.

Onto the links ...
It's Depth Chart Monday around the Big Ten as most teams revealed new or updated depth charts for their upcoming season openers. Indiana and Iowa released depth charts last week, while Nebraska's won't come out until later this week. A few more teams unveil new or updated depth charts Tuesday, and we'll break down those as they file in.

While we won't break down the depth charts each week of the season, the first installments always carry a bit more weight as players have jockeyed for position during camp.

Here are some notes and thoughts from what we learned today:

MICHIGAN

Depth chart (page 13)
  • Suspended players Fitz Toussaint and Frank Clark both are listed -- Toussaint is the starting running back, Clark as a backup weakside defensive end -- but their status for the opener against Alabama is yet to be determined. Coach Brady Hoke will make a decision soon. While it seems highly unlikely Clark will play, Toussaint's status will be a big story this week.
  • Roy Roundtree is listed as a starter at receiver despite missing a chunk of camp following knee surgery. Although Michigan has some decent other options at wideout, it really needs "Tree" on the field at JerryWorld. Speaking of receivers, backup quarterback Devin Gardner is listed as a third-string receiver and should see a bit of work there against the Crimson Tide.
  • Depth is a bit of a concern for Michigan entering the season, and it's the main reason why the Wolverines list 12 true freshman on the depth chart, four in backup roles. Expect freshmen like linebacker Joe Bolden and safety Jarrod Wilson to see plenty of field time.
  • As for position battles, Quinton Washington claimed a starting defensive tackle spot, moving Jibreel Black back to the end position. Will Hagerup and Matt Wile are listed as co-starters at punter, but Hagerup will get the starting nod against Alabama.
OHIO STATE

Depth chart
  • Regarding position battles, Reid Fragel, a converted tight end, claimed the starting right tackle spot ahead of freshman Taylor Decker. Travis Howard maintained his starting cornerback spot ahead of Doran Grant. The team's starting wide receivers entering the fall are Corey Brown, Devin Smith and Jake Stoneburner, a converted tight end. Ohio State's only unsettled position is tight end, where freshman Nick Vannett and sophomore Jeff Heuerman are listed as co-starters.
  • Like Michigan, Ohio State will have plenty of youth on the field this fall. Coach Urban Meyer lists 13 freshmen on the depth chart, including highly touted defensive linemen Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, spring game star Michael Thomas at backup receiver and backup middle linebacker Camren Williams. The Buckeyes have three freshmen listed as backup offensive linemen, underscoring the depth issues there.
  • With projected starting running back Jordan Hall (foot) out at least a week, Ohio State will start Carlos Hyde at running back. Freshman Bri'onte Dunn will back up Hyde.
WISCONSIN

Depth chart (page 13)
  • The Badgers put out a depth chart last week but made a few changes, including junior Zac Matthias and sophomore Kyle Costigan being listed as co-starters at right guard. Costigan had been listed as the starter, but Matthias made a push late in camp.
  • Backup cornerback Peniel Jean will miss four to six weeks after fracturing his foot last week in practice and undergoing surgery. Redshirt freshman Darius Hillary moves into the No. 2 role behind Devin Smith and likely will be the team's primary nickel back.
  • Sophomore Kyle French is listed as the starter for both field goals and kickoffs (he only occupied the kickoffs role last week). Coach Bret Bielema said freshman Jack Russell (great name) also will see time as a kicker in Saturday's opener against Northern Iowa.
PENN STATE

Depth chart
ILLINOIS

Depth chart
  • Safeties Steve Hull and Supo Sanni, the projected starters, aren't listed on the two-deep. Earnest Thomas and Pat Nixon-Youman are listed in their places. Both Hull and Sanni are week-to-week with injuries. Coach Tim Beckman said both would practice this week and likely will be game-time decisions.
  • Illinois shuffled its offensive linemen between positions throughout camp, and there could be more changes before game day. But ... Graham Pocic is listed as the starting center after playing mostly guard in camp. Pocic has started the past 26 games at center. Redshirt freshman Ted Karras, who has recovered from a foot injury, is listed as the starting right guard.
  • Tim Kynard will start at defensive end in place of Justin Staples, who will serve a one-game suspension against Western Michigan. Offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic also won't play Saturday for undisclosed reasons.
  • Illinois lists co-starters at both running back (Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson) and tight end (Jon Davis and Eddie Viliunas). Both Young and Ferguson should get plenty of carries against Western Michigan.
NORTHWESTERN

Depth chart (Page 7)
  • After a strong camp, Venric Mark will start at running back for Northwestern. The 5-foot-8, 175-pound Mark, who came to Northwestern as a return specialist, moved from wide receiver after the season. Mike Trumpy, who comes off of ACL surgery, is the backup, and Northwestern likely will spread the carries around. Treyvon Green has recovered from a scary neck injury midway through camp and will play at Syracuse.
  • USC transfer Kyle Prater is listed as a backup receiver. Northwestern will start Demetrius Fields, Christian Jones, Rashad Lawrence and Tony Jones at receiver against the Orange. Prater saw some time with the first-team offense in camp and will be part of the rotation, but he still seems to be lacking a step as he gets back into game shape.
  • The Wildcats have no unsettled starting spots, and while there are a number of young players on the depth chart, only two true freshmen, defensive end Dean Lowry and superback Dan Vitale, made the two-deep. Heralded incoming freshman defender Ifeadi Odenigbo likely will redshirt and isn't listed on the depth chart.
PURDUE

Depth chart (Page 6)
  • The Boilers have four unsettled starting spots, three on the offensive side. Juniors Kevin Pamphile and Justin Kitchens are battling at the left tackle spot, while juniors Devin Smith and Cody Davis are co-starters at right guard. Junior Gabe Holmes and fifth-year senior Crosby Wright are still competing for the top tight end spot. The lone unsettled spot on defense is at end opposite Ryan Russell, as Ryan Isaac and Jalani Phillips continue to compete.
  • No surprises in the starting backfield as Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve and Rob Henry are listed at quarterback in that order. It'll be interesting to see how Purdue uses Henry this year. It doesn't make much sense to waste his talents on the bench. No Ralph Bolden on the depth chart as the senior running back is still working his way back from the knee injury. The Akeems (Shavers and Hunt) will carry the rock against Eastern Kentucky.
  • The placekicking spot is also up in the air with three players -- Sam McCartney, Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows -- in the mix to replace standout Carson Wiggs.

More depth chart fun comes your way Tuesday, so be sure and check in.
We're nearing the end of our Big Ten position rankings, and it's time to finish up the defense rundowns with a look at the secondaries. Let's start off with the unit rankings.

As a reminder, we're basing these mostly on last year's performance and who returns, along with potential for the 2012 season.

The top four groups could be very good, while the next five have question marks but potential. Even the bottom three groups have realistic opportunities to make strides this fall.

Let's get rolling ...

[+] EnlargeJohnny Adams
Bruce Thorson/US PresswireJohnny Adams should help make Michigan State tough to beat through the air in 2012.
1. Michigan State: The Big Ten's most formidable defense once again should be very strong in the back four. Although All-Big Ten safety Trenton Robinson departs, Michigan State returns its other three starters, led by standout cornerback Johnny Adams. Some project Adams as a potential first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. Safety Isaiah Lewis could have a breakout season, and the Spartans have recruited well here to build good depth.

2. Ohio State: The defensive line has bigger names and more hype, but the secondary might turn out to be Ohio State's best unit in 2012. The Buckeyes bring back all four starters, including arguably the league's top cornerback tandem in Bradley Roby and Travis Howard. Expect Roby to take another big step as a sophomore. Hard-hitting safeties C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant return, and Ohio State can go two- or three-deep at most positions.

3. Michigan: This group has come a very long way from the Rich Rodriguez era and should be the strength of Michigan's defense in 2012. Safety Jordan Kovacs is an excellent leader who blossomed in Greg Mattison's system last fall. The Wolverines also boast a promising cornerback tandem in J.T. Floyd and Blake Countess, and have good overall depth at both corner and safety.

4. Nebraska: While the Huskers lose the Big Ten's top defensive back in Alfonzo Dennard, they should have greater overall depth and the potential for new stars to emerge. Hard-hitting safety Daimion Stafford leads the group, and P.J. Smith provides a veteran presence at the other safety spot. Nebraska is loaded with options at cornerback, including the improved Andrew Green and juco arrival Mohamed Seisay. New assistant Terry Joseph should get a lot out of this group.

5. Purdue: The rankings already have mentioned some good cornerback tandems, and Purdue adds another in Ricardo Allen and Josh Johnson. They've combined for 48 career starts, and Allen has led the team with three interceptions in each of the past two seasons. Max Charlot returns at safety after recording 41 tackles in 2011, but there are some question marks around him.

6. Illinois: Terry Hawthorne rarely gets mentioned as one of the Big Ten's top defensive backs, but he should. The senior has been a natural playmaker throughout his career and will lead Illinois' secondary in 2012. Senior Justin Green brings experience to the other corner spot. Although the Illini return both of their starting safeties -- Steve Hull and Supo Sanni -- they need more consistency from that position this fall.

7. Wisconsin: The Badgers lose a key player at both cornerback (Antonio Fenelus) and safety (Aaron Henry), but they have a chance to improve upon last year's performance and rise up these rankings. They'll undoubtedly benefit from the return of cornerback Devin Smith from injury. Head coach Bret Bielema doesn't downplay what Smith's absence meant last season. The Badgers need more consistency out of projected starters Dezmen Southward and Marcus Cromartie.

8. Iowa: The Hawkeyes have a nice piece to build around in playmaking senior cornerback Micah Hyde, but they'll need more after a so-so season in 2011. Tanner Miller returns as a starter at safety, and hopes are high for junior B.J. Lowery at the other corner spot. Iowa's depth looks better at corner than it does at safety.

9. Penn State: Most see the secondary as Penn State's weak link, to which Malcolm Willis and Stephon Morris say, "Bring it on." Still, the Lions have questions to address after losing all four starters from the 2011 team. Morris, Willis and sophomore Adrian Amos all have been in the fire a bit, but Penn State needs them to take steps and remain on the field. Depth is a significant concern after the offseason departures of Curtis Drake and Derrick Thomas.

10. Minnesota: This is a bit of a projection pick, but I like Minnesota's potential to take a step forward in the secondary this fall. The biggest reason for optimism is cornerback Troy Stoudermire, who returns for a fifth year after missing most of last season with a foot injury. Stoudermire was on track for a big year before the injury. Cornerback Michael Carter had a strong spring and could finally reach his potential. The bigger concerns here come at the safety spots.

11. Northwestern: Three starters depart from a secondary that struggled to stop anyone and endured major communication breakdowns far too often in 2011. Northwestern is younger in the back four, but it also could be more talented this season. Sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell comes off of a 100-tackle season, and cornerback Nick VanHoose impressed during the spring. A few veterans return, but the coaches can't be afraid to go with the youth movement here.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers finished eighth in the Big Ten in pass defense last fall, but only because teams had their way with IU on the ground. Indiana surrendered a league-high 26 pass touchdowns and only recorded five interceptions. There's hope, though, as the Hoosiers return three starters, including top cover man Lawrence Barnett. If Mark Murphy and Greg Heban make strides, and some newcomers help right away, Indiana could be decent in the back four.

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