Big Ten: Trent Richardson

Big Ten Friday mailblog

August, 31, 2012
8/31/12
4:30
PM ET
Enjoy the games tonight and tomorrow. I know I will.

Joe from Saline, Mich., writes: Before we can label the Wolverines as "back" don't they have to start beating the upper end B1G teams? Over the past 4 years they have gone 2-13 against MSU, OSU, PSU, Wisconsin and Iowa.

Adam Rittenberg: Joe, you're right that Michigan needs to record some key wins against the Big Ten's best. That said, a win against the defending national champion at a neutral site would show Michigan once again belongs among the nation's elite. No Big Ten program has done what Alabama has under Nick Saban in recent years, so you could argue a win Saturday night would be bigger than any win Michigan could record against a Big Ten power this season. It wouldn't mean much if the Wolverines fell apart in conference play, but that seems unlikely. Bottom line: Michigan needs to end the losing streaks against Michigan State and Iowa, and record a win against a quality Ohio State team (last year's squad wasn't). But beating Alabama would be huge for Brady Hoke and his program.

Zach from Ames, Iowa, writes: Adam, Nebraska is optimistic about the defense returning to prominence this fall. I have agreed to a certain degree because the depth is better, except when I read that Ciante Evans is a budding star out of Lincoln, I begin to get a little skeptical. Evans was a huge weakness in the secondary last year, especially in games against Fresno St, Washington, Ohio St and Northwestern. So much so that they converted Corey Cooper and Stanley Jean-Baptiste from safety and wide receiver at one point. Is Nebraska that desperate for star power that were banking on Evans to blossom into the next Prince Amukamara or Alfonso Dennard? Say it ain't so.

Adam Rittenberg: Zach, while I understand your concern about Evans, who entered last season with some hype and didn't back it up, I wouldn't write him off, either. He seems to have taken accountability during the offseason and improved his play during spring practice and into fall camp. Players can make strides after a tough season, and Evans, by most accounts, has a better understanding of the defense and the nickel position. I don't think Nebraska needs Evans to be Amukamara or Dennard. While it'd be nice if a superstar cornerback or two emerged, the secondary's overall depth should be strong enough this season. I don't see the excitement about Evans as a cause for panic.

FFXLion from Washington D.C., writes: Glad that the season is finally upon us. You and Brian did pre-season predictions for the B1G. For fun, my 13 year old son did predictions, which I shared in the comments on the blog. He was high on the Legends Division and couldn't really separate UM, MSU and Nebraska (in his mind, at least), so he predicted a 3-way tie among these teams at 7-1 in conference. While you could debate whether this is plausible, it did generate a lot of discussions about 3-way tiebreakers, and it would seem that this particular hypothetical tie would be broken by BCS standings. My question to you: If these teams end up tied this way, who do you think is MOST likely to get to the CCG, and why? And, who do you think would be least likely?

Adam Rittenberg: FFX, the final BCS standings no longer play nearly as big a factor in the Big Ten's tiebreaker system. We went over this on the blog last year, but it's always good to rehash.
  • If three teams finished tied atop a division, you first look at their records against each other
  • If one team defeated the two others, it would go to Indy as the division winner
  • The next tiebreaker is records within the division. So if two teams had a division loss and the other had a loss outside the division, the one with the loss outside the division would go
  • The next tiebreaker is records against the next best team in the division (fourth place)

You have to go way down the tiebreaker list before the final BCS standings come into play. Bottom line: it's a lot easier to break ties now within divisions because all the teams play each another.

Paul from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: Hey Adam, ESPN's recent focus on the Heisman helped me remember a major question I had last year. As a Buckeye fan, how did Montee(ay) Ball NOT win the Heisman last year? I understand that Wisconsin did not win the NC, and maybe they didn't have as tough a schedule as others, but come on! It's not like he was playing in the MAC? This is the Big Ten! Who did RG3 play? Did they win the NC? Seriously think about this, what did Ball have to do in order to win it? He had the 2nd greatest RB season EVER! There can't be more of an obvious prejudice against the Big Ten or a more overlooked player EVER. What's "their" argument? Please, tell me.

Adam Rittenberg: Paul, some good points. As Brian Bennett has pointed out several times, Ball's 2011 season likely will gain more appreciation in time than it did when it actually happened. His numbers are insane, and he recorded them in a power conference. Several factors worked against him, some of which illustrate problems with the Heisman race. Wisconsin promoting quarterback Russell Wilson for the Heisman -- and justifiably so -- before Ball didn't help Ball's cause. You also had another running back in Trent Richardson who played for a team (Alabama) and in a league (SEC) more highly regarded Wisconsin and the Big Ten. Griffin was a more familiar name nationally than Ball, and while you can argue the Big 12 was meh, most folks would say the same about the Big Ten in 2011. I think Griffin deserved the Heisman and voted for him, but Ball should have gained more serious consideration for the award and finished higher in the final voting. It also would have helped if Wisconsin had stayed in the national title picture longer. And yes, scheduling plays a role. Ball would have benefited from a big performance against another elite team from a top conference in September.

Mark from Wilmette, Ill., writes: How many mailbags do I have to read before there's a question about my beloved Northwestern Wildcats? Here's one for you: what are the chances NU exceeds expectations this season? With a defense that can't be any worse than last year, and an offense led by the dynamic Kain Colter, I think we could win 8 games this season. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Ask and you shall receive, Mark. The two big question marks for Northwestern are the secondary and the offensive line. One has been historically bad; the other looks a little shaky entering the season. If both units are above average, Northwestern has a chance to win eight or more games, especially if it capitalizes on what should be a favorable opening schedule. The Wildcats can't get shredded by every quarterback they face. Part of that is having a better pass rush than in 2011, when Northwestern rarely generated any pressure. But another part is having more athletes and playmakers in the secondary. Colter is a stud and could turn out be the best fit Northwestern has had at the helm of its spread offense. But the Wildcats also need to run the ball and get more contributions from the running back position, which has been a weakness under Pat Fitzgerald. The line needs to perform like it did in last year's Nebraska game more often. If it does, Northwestern can surprise some folks in the Legends Division.

Michael from Ann Arbor, Mich., writes: In your latest article you said that Michigan has had a historical bad defense... I couldn't disagree more. I think the backbone of Michigans national prominence in the last 20 years (barring the last 5 or so) has been their defense. Can you please explain your position with some concrete stats. Without a further explanation, I have no choice but to disagree with you which is frustrating because I have enjoyed and trusted your writing for a long time.Sincerely-A proud Michigan fan

Adam Rittenberg: Michael, I think you misread that statement. I wrote that Michigan had a historically bad defense from 2008-10 under Rich Rodriguez. Do you really need me to rehash those painful stats? Here's one: Michigan finished 110th in total defense in 2010, allowing more than 450 yards per game. That's historically bad for U-M. Of course, the program's history is steeped in great defenses. But that particular period saw a major decline. Fortunately, Hoke and his staff have things on the right track again.

Nathan from East Lansing, Mich., writes: Adam, for weeks I've been reading comments and questions from other readers about their disappointment in MSU being ranked so highly among you and Brian and other outlets picking them to win the division and possible Rose Bowl Berth because of the fact that they lost so much on offense. While I agree that starting three brand new receivers with little to no game experience is a little unorthodox and rarely happens, EVERY team in the country starts a new QB every 2-3 years with them also having little to no game experience. Why is the fact that Andrew Maxwell is a new starter causing such a huge fuss among people? Even if it's clear that he is further along than Cousins was at this point and could possibly be better by being in the program for four years now?

Adam Rittenberg: Nathan, you make a good point about the nature of college football and the quarterback transitions we see every 2-3 years at virtually every program. I think folks who don't know Maxwell's background assume he's going to fall apart on Friday night, which, in fairness, he might. But he's not a true freshman who has never stepped on a field with Big Ten defenders. He practices against a very good defense in East Lansing, and he has prepared for this moment for more than two years. I don't think you can say he's further along than Cousins was at this point until you see him play an entire game, but the Boise State matchup will provide a great gauge of his progress.

Dan from Omaha writes: Not sure I agree with your choice on who has the most to lose. Really, I'm not sure Penn State has much to lose...given their situation, I feel most would be sympathetic for at least this season, given the player turnover, the events that have taken place over the last several months, a new head coach, and Ohio being a generally solid team. I almost feel like Michigan could have the most to lose, and not just for themselves but for the conference as a whole. Getting blown out by Alabama could not only be demoralizing for the Wolverines, it could further a generally negative perception of the conference in terms of strength. Playing close or winning the game would provide a huge jolt to their own players' confidence, as well as give the conference a much needed shot in the arm in terms of perceived strength. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Dan, some good points. You might have missed it in the lead-in, but Brian and I both feel Michigan State has the most to lose in Week 1. The Spartans get a new-look Boise State team in their house, and send an elite defense against a first-time starting quarterback. They have to get that win. We framed the question as, "besides Michigan State, who has the most to lose?" Michigan is an interesting option, and I agree that a blowout loss would do some damage for the Wolverines and certainly for the Big Ten. But the Wolverines are still building their program in Year 2 of the Brady Hoke era. No one expects them to beat Alabama, and a loss, even of the blowout variety, wouldn't be the end of the world. They still have opportunities to make strides against Notre Dame, MSU, Nebraska, Ohio State, etc. I don't think there would be the doom-and-gloom in Ann Arbor after a blowout loss like there would be in State College after a game Penn State is supposed to win and needs to win after such a tough offseason.

John from Johnson City, Tenn., writes: Your Purdue best/worst case scenarios were spot on except for two things: 1) Your missing 3 ACL tears and 2) Purdue athletes only seem to get arrested at poorly named Where Else?

Adam Rittenberg: I still have a soft spot for Harry's, but the track record at Where Else? suggests that's where bad things happen for the Boilers. You're right about including the ACLs (although I hope that trend ends at Purdue). Maybe there's an APPACLHG (Angry Purdue Player ACL Hating God) lurking around West Lafayette. He must be stopped.

Big Ten mailblog

December, 6, 2011
12/06/11
3:30
PM ET
Let's do this.

Mike from Cincinnati writes: Adam, Big fan of the blog. I know that today is a busy day with everything that went on this weekend. However, I have to say that I was a little surprised that you didn't mention anything about the passing of Joe Daniels. I know it's been a busy few days, but I think everyone can agree that Coach Daniels was not only a great coach, but a great man as well. His battle with cancer was well noted, but it is a sad day for Buckeye Nation.

Adam Rittenberg: Mike, thanks for the note, and my apologies for not posting something sooner on Coach Daniels' passing. Very sad to hear about it. He meant a great deal to Ohio State's program and had an impressive coaching career. I would encourage all Big Ten fans to consider making a donation to Uplifting Athletes, an organization that helps raise funds and awareness to fight rare diseases such as kidney cancer, which Daniels fought courageously until his death.


Brian from Storm Lake, Iowa, writes: What do you think of Bo Pelini's chances are that he will land Mike Stoop's in as DC?

Adam Rittenberg: Stoops is in high demand as a defensive coordinator, and he'll have his pick of top programs to join in that role. He'd clearly rather have another head-coaching position, and some jobs are still out there. If Stoops goes the coordinator route, Nebraska should have a good shot because of Pelini's friendship with the Stoops family. That connection likely would need to be the deciding factor if Stoops is to join the Huskers' staff.


Andrew from Cleveland writes: Hey Adam, I wasn't sure who I should make this comment to, but I guess I'll go with the old vet. Did you notice that Michigan is the only team in the nation to have played 10 bowl teams? Not only that, but 11 of the teams we played were bowl eligible. I know that being a bowl team doesn't mean the same thing as before, but I think it shows consistency to be able to go through that many solid teams and end the season with only two losses.

Adam Rittenberg: I'm the Big Ten blog vet, but Bennett is MUCH older, trust me. Good point about Michigan's schedule. The Wolverines beat only one team (Nebraska) that appears in the final BCS standings but also recorded some decent wins (Notre Dame, San Diego State). Still, as you note, being bowl eligible isn't really that impressive any more. Six of Michigan's wins came against teams that had six or seven wins. It would have been nice to see Michigan face two of the better Leaders Division teams in Wisconsin and Penn State.


Neal from Atlanta writes: Northwestern is Playing Texas A&M in Texas. Purdue is Playing W. Michigan in Michigan. Illinois is playing UCLA in California. Penn State is playing Houston in Texas. Ohio State is playing Florida in Florida. And Nebraska and Michigan State are playing SEC teams in the Southeast. Iowa is the only non-BCS Big 10 team playing on a neutral fieldDon't you think it is more than a little disadvantageous to the Big 10, a conference trying to regain some respect, to be playing almost all of their opponents in their home states?

Adam Rittenberg: Sure, Neal, but what can you do? No one wants to play bowl games in Big Ten territory outside of the indoor facilities like Detroit's Ford Field. Most bowl games are affiliated with at least one conference that has teams near to its location. Would it make a difference to play the ACC in Florida? Or an SEC West team in the Cotton Bowl? This is just the way it is. The Big Ten could add some more bowl games against teams from non-AQ conferences, but that's not commissioner Jim Delany's style. He wants to play the best teams in the best leagues in the biggest games. The result is an incredibly difficult bowl lineup. It's why a .500 record for the Big Ten in bowls is like the ACC going 7-3.


Scott from Williamsport, Pa., writes: Adam, We PSU fans are a little less than thrilled with our bowl selection. Why did the conference not fight harder for one of its better teams? PSU has to bring in as much revenue to the conference as any of the other teams. Makes us wonder if the ACC would treat us better, they have more teams we would like to play anyway.

Adam Rittenberg: Scott, you make some good points, and Penn State's players deserved a better bowl after having nothing to do with the sex-abuse scandal. It's a tough situation but not a surprising one. But you have to look at this from the Big Ten's point of view, too. The league has valuable relationships with these bowls and their corporate sponsors. You also have an unprecedented situation at Penn State that will drag on for a while and bring negative publicity to the bowl game (again, not the players' fault). You had the Insight Bowl group that had dealt with its own negative-publicity situation in the past year. You had the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas not wanting to pair two teams (Penn State and Texas A&M) without permanent head coaches. Could the Big Ten have done more? Sure. But the league has bigger interests than Penn State -- again hard for Penn State fans to hear, but true -- and creating tension with its bowl partners might not be the smartest way to go. Again, I'm not saying it's right, but you have to look at it from both sides. Would the ACC have done more? We'll never know.


DaReganOnDaTrack from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: I love you guys. And I love where both of you had Michigan State: in the the top 13 at least. Im a die hard spartan fan and was in Lucas Oil. Seeing the ref throw the flag nearly brought tears to my eyes. Toughest Spartan loss since the the 07 michigan loss. I understand why Michigan State is not in BCS bowl. Its a business and its about money. But shouldn't they get the rankings right? Michigan State dropped 4 spots losing to the best team in the B1G by 3 points. Yeah, wisconsin was a 2 loss team. But one of their losses came to Michigan State!!!! In addition, how the heck is michigan 13, four spots better than MSU?!?!?! We have the same number of wins, plus the head to head and a tougher schedule!!! Im not complaining about the BCS bowl picks, Im complaining about what goes in to the ranking formula. Michigan State should not be four spots behind a team they beat and have the same number of wins, not to mention AFTER THEY LOSE A THE B1G TEN CHAMPIONSHIP BY THREE POINTS!!!! This needs to be fixed for all Conference Championship losers!!!

Adam Rittenberg: We love you, too, Regan. I think you have the right perspective on the whole BCS bowl selection/BCS standings situation. BCS at-large berths are based on brand name, fan base and other factors that have little to do with on-field performance. The Sugar Bowl is a business that made what it believes is a smart business decision by inviting Michigan. Hard to argue it from a business perspective. My bigger issue, like yours, is with the final BCS standings and the final coaches' poll. You can argue Michigan and Michigan State are evenly matched teams. Michigan State was one spot ahead of Michigan on both mine and Bennett's latest ESPN.com power rankings ballots. But to see the gap between the two schools on some of the coaches' final Top 25 ballots is ridiculous -- looking at you, Nick Saban, Les Miles and Bret Bielema. These teams shouldn't be six or eight spots apart. Michigan State should be higher than No. 17 in the final BCS standings.


Ted from Iron River, Mich., writes: Hey Adam; simple question for you. How does Russell Wilson miss out as one of the five candidates for the Heisman? Why couldn't you make the case for two players from one team, on that great offense, making the list? I think the two losses that supposedly tarnished his Heisman status, is easily restored given what he did in UW's final games, especially the B1G Championship. Thanks.

Adam Rittenberg: Ted, it's strange how Wilson fell so quickly out of the Heisman race. Even in Wisconsin's two losses, he rallied the team in the fourth quarter. It's not his fault the defense can't knock down a pass. To be fair, he wasn't nearly as sharp on the road this season than he was at Camp Randall Stadium, but he didn't bomb like some other Heisman candidates. The guy had one of the best statistical seasons in Big Ten history, much like Montee Ball did. But it's very hard for a team to send two players to New York that isn't competing for a national title. Also, it's hard to argue Wilson had a better season than Robert Griffin III or Andrew Luck, the two quarterbacks invited to New York. The case for Ball being better than Trent Richardson as the nation's best running back is a little stronger.

My Heisman Trophy ballot has changed every week for the last couple of months.

I'm not surprised there are more than three players going to the trophy presentation.

Five players were invited to New York for Saturday night's Heisman Trophy presentation -- quarterbacks Andrew Luck of Stanford and Robert Griffin III of Baylor, tailbacks Montee Ball of Wisconsin and Trent Richardson of Alabama and cornerback Tyrann Mathieu of LSU.

It's a shame the Heisman Trust didn't have room for three more quarterbacks because Houston's Case Keenum, USC's Matt Barkley and Boise State's Kellen Moore were just as deserving.

With five finalists going to New York, it figures to be one of the closer votes in recent Heisman Trophy history.

The closest vote in Heisman Trophy history came just two years ago, when Alabama tailback Mark Ingram edged Stanford's Toby Gerhart by only 28 points. Ingram received 227 first-place votes, Gerhart got 222 and Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, the second runner-up, received 203.

Given the number of finalists and their geographical regions, we could have another really close finish on Saturday night.

Luck, the runner-up to Auburn's Cam Newton last season, entered the 2011 season as the Heisman Trophy favorite. His performance didn't slip much this season, as he completed 70 percent of his passes for 3,170 yards with 35 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

I still feel Luck might be the most valuable player on any team in the country. Without him, there's no way the Cardinal is ranked No. 4 in the country and playing No. 3 Oklahoma State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Luck has done more with less, as Stanford lacks the game-changing playmakers that other teams have.

But Luck might still be the second-best quarterback in New York. Griffin, who is widely known as RG3, completed 72.4 percent of his passes for 3,998 yards with 36 touchdowns and six interceptions. He also ran for 644 yards with nine touchdowns.

Without him, the Bears wouldn't have beaten TCU, Oklahoma and Texas. Griffin's one drawback: He had a late interception that sealed the Bears' fate in a 36-35 loss at Kansas State on Oct. 1 and threw two picks in a 59-24 loss at Oklahoma State on Oct. 29. But with everything else RG3 has done this season, it's easy to give him a mulligan for the miscues.

LSU defense
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesRunning back Trent Richardson has been at his best in Alabama's biggest games.
I still believe Richardson is the best player in the country. He looked like the best player on the field in No. 2 Alabama's 9-6 loss in overtime to No. 1 LSU on Nov. 5. He had 89 rushing yards and 80 receiving yards in a game where every yard mattered. He finished the season with 1,583 yards with 20 touchdown runs and three touchdown catches. He's also Mr. Dependable, not losing a fumble in his past 520 touches and only once in 614 career touches.

Ball has been a scoring machine for the No. 10 Badgers this season, running for 1,759 yards with 32 touchdown runs and six touchdown receptions. His 38 total touchdowns are one shy of matching former Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season record of 39 set in 11 games in 1988. Ball's production helped lead the Badgers to a Jan. 2 date against Oregon in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO.

Mathieu fell off my ballot after he was suspended from playing in the Tigers' 45-10 victory over Auburn on Oct. 22 for smoking synthetic marijuana. But his big plays helped the Tigers overcome deficits in each of their last two victories, over Arkansas and Georgia in the SEC championship game.

Mathieu -- aka the "Honey Badger" -- is the best player on the top-ranked team. He leads the Tigers with 70 tackles and has forced six fumbles and recovered five. He also is the most dynamic punt returner I've seen since Florida State's Deion Sanders. Mathieu has scored four touchdowns -- two on fumble returns and two on punt returns.

To penalize Mathieu for one foolish mistake wouldn't have been right. After all, Newton was briefly ruled ineligible at Auburn last season and 2010 Heisman Trophy finalist LaMichael James of Oregon was suspended from playing in last season's opener.

History at stake for Heisman hopefuls

December, 5, 2011
12/05/11
7:53
PM ET

On Monday the five finalists invited to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony were revealed. This year has featured one of the most interesting races for the Heisman as no one player has stood from the rest.

Here's a look at what a Heisman Trophy win -- or loss -- would mean to these players and their respective schools.

Trent Richardson, Alabama
Two seasons ago Trent Richardson was a part of a National Championship team with a Heisman Trophy winner, when running back Mark Ingram became Alabama's first winner. Richardson has nearly identical numbers to Ingram this season, and has already totaled 23 touchdowns compared to Ingram's 20 TD's.

If Richardson were to win the award it would put him and Ingram in some rare company. In the history of the Heisman Trophy only three times have two different players playing the same position at the same school won the award in a span of three seasons. It last happened when USC QB Matt Leinart won it in 2004 after Carson Palmer had taken home the award in 2002.

Andrew Luck, Stanford
Luck is listed second here as he finished second for the Heisman last season and Stanford has actually had the Heisman runner-up in each of the past two seasons (Toby Gerhart, 2009).

If Luck wins he would be the second player in Stanford history to win the award (Jim Plunkett, 1970) and join 1981 Herschel Walker as the only Heisman runner-ups to win the award the next season.

If Luck finishes second, Stanford would set a record. No school has ever had a Heisman runner-up in three consecutive seasons.

Montee Ball, Wisconsin
Montee Ball earned his invite thanks to his impressive numbers. Ball needs one touchdown in the Rose Bowl to tie Barry Sanders' FBS record for touchdowns in a season (39). Sanders won the Heimsan trophy during that 1988 season.

Ball's 38 touchdowns are the most by a Big Ten player since Eddie George had 25 in his Heisman Trophy winning 1995 season.

Robert Griffin III, Baylor
RGIII finished off a great regular season in which he threw 36 touchdowns compared to only six interceptions, while also leading Baylor to nine wins, its most since the 1986 season.

Griffin's invite is an accomplishment in its own considering he plays for Baylor. The Bears have only had one player finish in the top five of the Heisman vote in school history. In 1963 Don Trull finished fourth.

If Baylor's Robert Griffin III wins the Heisman Trophy this year, he will be just the third player since the BCS was established in 1998 to win the Heisman without his team playing in a BCS bowl game.

Tyrann Mathieu, LSU
The Honey Badger will take the trip to New York looking to join Charles Woodson as the only defensive backs to win the Heisman trophy.

Despite being a defensive player, recent history is on Mathieu's side to take home the award. Since 2003, seven of the past eight Heisman Trophy winners have come from the team at number one in the BCS standings entering the National Championship Game.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

December, 2, 2011
12/02/11
4:00
PM ET
Championship game around the corner. Let's do this.

Alden from Chicago writes: Adam, Do you see potential for a budding rivalry between Michigan State and Wisconsin? As a huge Michigan State fan, I'm starting to feel it a bit. I see it possibly as a third obviously behind Michigan and Notre Dame. But perhaps it'd be more from Wisconsin fans at this point. Things are kind of building between the programs and we've clashed on several occasions. In recent history: Michigan State beats Wisconsin in 2010, but Wisconsin finishes ahead of Michigan State in the BCS and steals the Rose Bowl berth. Michigan State beats Wisconsin on a game ending (rocket) pass for a touchdown. Now, the rematch game in the first B1G Championship, and if this is as tough and close a game as we all expect, I can see some real animosity between the schools over it. If Michigan State loses and falls all the way down to the Outback bowl, I'll hate Wisconsin for beating us just as much as I'll hate Michigan for getting a BCS spot ahead of us. If Michigan State wins, I would expect them to hate us for stealing what was supposed to be their special season. Especially after Russell Wilson was draft... I mean, went to Wisconsin after his time at NC State. Countning down the hours to kickoff!!!

Adam Rittenberg: Bring it, Alden! Love the new rivalries that are building in the Big Ten, and Wisconsin-Michigan State certainly fits into the category. Michigan State always will hate Michigan, and Notre Dame is a great rivalry, but to have another true rival within the Big Ten would benefit the Spartans, who won't ever be Michigan's No. 1 rival. Wisconsin, meanwhile, has the rivalry with Minnesota, but the Gophers' struggles have taken the edge off of the game in my view. The Badgers have a more competitive rivalry with Iowa, but Michigan State certainly has to be rising to that level after the close games between Mark Dantonio and Bret Bielema.

Dan from Omaha writes: Can you imagine Bo Pelini and Mike Stoops on the same sideline?!? Refs will be bringing earplugs to every game! In all seriousness, I like the idea of Stoops, but if not him, who else would you potentially see filling this position?

Adam Rittenberg: It would be rather awesome, Dan. Most intense sideline in America, at least when the defense is on the field. Bo should make a play for Stoops, but it will be interesting to see who else he pursues to fill his big brother's shoes. Would Pelini try to get Mike Ekeler back? Ekeler left for a co-coordinator post at Indiana, and the Hoosiers' defense really struggled this year (110th nationally), but he did a nice job as a position coach with the Huskers and seems like a coach on the rise. There also could be some very good defensive coaches available from Penn State (Tom Bradley, Larry Johnson, Ron Vanderlinden) or Ohio State (Jim Heacock).

A-Duke from Waterloo, Wis., writes: Based on what metrics is Trent Richardson having a better year than Montee Ball?

Adam Rittenberg: Really none, Duke. Richardson's receiving numbers are a bit better than Ball's. But the eye test comes into play when voters are evaluating both backs, and Richardson plays in a league viewed as better than the Big Ten. His performance against LSU, even in a losing effort, strengthened his case immensely for the Heisman. But it would be a travesty if Ball didn't at least get an invitation to New York. He'll be on my Heisman ballot. Where he is depends a lot on how he performs Saturday night.

David from Wilmette, Ill., writes: Adam, with the bowl selection coming up shouldn't the NCAA rule on the OSU sanctions before the selections so that if they do a bowl ban for this year it will not mess up the fans travel plans as well as negativity impact the Bowl the Buckeyes are chosen to? If they do not rule until after is that a sign of no bowl ban?

Adam Rittenberg: Good question, David. With the process taking so long, it appears any bowl ban handed down would apply to future seasons rather than this one. Ohio State has said all along it doesn't expect a bowl ban, but you can bet the Buckeyes would rather accept one for this year than in future seasons. I can't imagine the NCAA would hand down a bowl ban for this season after Sunday's selections for the reasons you outline.

John from Pasadena, Md., writes: I thought only 2 teams from any one conference can be eligible to play in BCS bowl games? If Georgia beats LSU, they win the automatic berth from the SEC. How could Alabama and LSU still play for a national title in this case?

Adam Rittenberg: John, first of all, I didn't know there was a Pasadena in Maryland. Think I'd rather spend New Year's Day at the other one, but thanks for your note. Here's the deal: if LSU and Alabama finish 1-2 in the final BCS standings, no matter what LSU does Saturday, those two teams go to the title game. Georgia would gain the SEC's automatic berth to the Sugar Bowl, but LSU and Alabama would head to the championship if they're 1-2 in the BCS standings.

Jason from Dallas writes: Illinois, Texas A&M, Ohio State and others have realized that 6-6 is not acceptable (despite bowl bids) and have fired their coaches. Any chance Purdue does the right thing and fires Danny Hope and goes after Purdue Alumn Kevin Sumlin? Purdue at 6-6, not having beat anyone with a winning record, should not be acceptable either, even if they get to go to a bowl.

Adam Rittenberg: Jason, I'm stunned you're writing to me rather than gearing up to see the Boilers play in your home city, as they're looking likely for the TicketCity Bowl. Listen, I understand your frustration about Hope, and you're not alone. But the team did take a step forward this year, albeit a small step, and became bowl eligible for the first time since 2007. This is a team that also lost its starting quarterback (Rob Henry) weeks before the opener. Purdue fans should expect more and Hope will need to produce next year, but this isn't the time to make a change. Hope has had no luck on the injury front and has only been in this position for three seasons. As for Sumlin, while he's an alum, I'd be surprised if he chose Purdue over some of the other options he'll have.

Jim from Cape Giradeau, Mo., writes: Adam, I can't believe that coverage of Saturday's game hasn't included one of the most obvious storylines -- Keshawn Martin is kryptonite to the Badgers. Jet sweep/double reverse -- touchdown; drag route over the middle -- touchdown; punt return -- touchdown; 85 yard pass -- touchdown. Maybe you could correct me if I missed a few. I expect the national media to be unawares, but I thought you would have been all over this. Please comment.

Adam Rittenberg: Jim, I touched on this a bit with discussing how Wisconsin has to avoid a special teams breakdown (citing Martin's TD return from last year), but you bring up a great point about how much No. 82 has tormented the Badgers. He's one of the fastest and most dangerous offensive weapons in the Big Ten, and Wisconsin has to make sure Martin doesn't enter the open field. Almost impossible to catch him. Wisconsin ranks 58th nationally in punt return yards defense (7.63 ypr).

Herky from Kansas City, Mo., writes: Adam, If you take out the 2009 season which appears to be a flash in the pan, Kirk Ferentz is a very average 36-27 overall. If you take into a consideration a generally fluffy non-conference schedule each year, then I'm sure he's closer to .500 in the last 6 years or so. Before Urban Meyer joined the league, Kirk was the highest paid coach in the B1G. Is his seat getting warmer and warmer by the year? As a Hawks fan I love Kirk as a coach, but I also love being nationally relevant and beating teams that we should beat. Is Kirk's Iowa career winding down or is he safe for awhile given the amount of support he has from Hawkeye faithful? Can he get us over the hump to be a B1G contender every year?

Adam Rittenberg: Herky, you're overlooking the stretch from 2002-04, when Ferentz's Iowa's teams averaged 10.3 wins. But I totally see your point, and you're not the only Iowa fan who feels this way. A lot of people struggle to see why Iowa pays its coach like a top 10 program but doesn't get the top 10 results on the field that often. I've supported Ferentz and his salary, as I think Iowa could become like Washington State (Mike Price) or North Carolina (Mack Brown) if it doesn't pay its coach top dollar. But Iowa fans also deserve more 9- or 10-win seasons than they're getting. Does Ferentz wield too much power at that university? Probably. Has he upgraded the program? Without a doubt. But there should be more pressure to produce because a lot of coaches could win 6-8 games a year at Iowa for less money.

Adam from Atlanta writes: Hey Adam,Quick question PSU stated they want the next coach to be a man of integrity...how about Mike Sherman? He turned A&M around and had a top 10 recruiting class coming in...plus he has some ties to the Midwest coaching in Green Bay.

Adam Rittenberg: Sherman hasn't coached college football in the Midwest for a very long time -- he was a GA at Pitt and also coached at Holy Cross. No direct ties to Penn State. I wasn't very excited when Texas A&M hired Sherman, and while I agree with others that he got a raw deal in College Station, his team really didn't impress this season after all the hype. He certainly is an accomplished coach, but I don't see this happening. We'll see.
Five items to track Saturday night in the inaugural Big Ten championship game between No. 13 Michigan State and No. 15 Wisconsin.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Andrew Weber/US PresswireMichigan State coach Mark Dantonio might have some tricks up his sleeve in the Big Ten Championship game.
1. Third-down efficiency: Arguably no statistic has played a bigger role in Michigan State's past two victories against Wisconsin. Michigan State converted 50 percent of its third-down opportunities in each game -- 9 of 18 in 2010, 8 of 16 this year -- to repeatedly extend drives and put up points. The Spartans converted 8 of 13 third-down opportunities last Saturday at Northwestern but only rank No. 82 nationally on the season (38.5 percent). Wisconsin, meanwhile, leads the nation in third-down conversions (55.2 percent) and ranks 32nd in third-down defense (36.4 percent). "They're very good at converting third downs," Badgers defensive tackle Patrick Butrym said. "We need to come up with a good plan."

2. The R-word: For Michigan State, it's about respect, or lack thereof. Spartans players have been candid about the lack of respect they've received all season despite their success. "Every game we go into, we're the underdog," senior safety Trenton Robinson said. "Everybody says Michigan State is going to lose by this amount." Count the Vegas odds makers in that group, but Michigan State has used the outside view as fuel during its impressive season. Wisconsin, meanwhile, is downplaying another R-word -- revenge. Although Michigan State won the first meeting, Badgers players began stiff-arming the revenge story line immediately after last Saturday's win. They need to play with composure, especially since Michigan State drew no penalties in the teams' first meeting.

3. Neutral-site factor: The Big Ten has never had a title game before, and it will be interesting to see the atmosphere and how it impacts the game. Michigan State fans seem a bit more geared up than their Wisconsin counterparts, and the Spartans-Badgers fan split should be interesting. Will the game be a sellout? Should be close if it's not. Wisconsin hasn't been the same team outside Madison this season, but the Badgers won't be playing in a true road environment. Michigan State performed very well in its last two road games. The Spartans are the more tested team outside their own building this season. Wisconsin's best road/neutral-site win came against Northern Illinois, while Michigan State has beaten Iowa, Northwestern and Ohio State.

4. Special teams and The Gambler: Michigan State has held a decided edge in the kicking game in each of the past two meetings with Wisconsin. Keshawn Martin had a punt return for a touchdown in 2010, and the Spartans blocked a punt for a touchdown Oct. 22 to cap a huge second quarter. Wisconsin has had punts blocked in each of its two losses, and the Badgers can't let the dangerous Martin get free in the open field. Also, keep an eye on Spartans coach Mark Dantonio, who has shown he isn't afraid to call a trick play at key moments, particularly in the kicking game. Special teams is an area where Michigan State can capitalize.

5. MoneyBall's quest: Top Heisman Trophy candidates Trent Richardson and Andrew Luck aren't playing games Saturday, so Wisconsin running back Montee Ball gets one final big-stage opportunity to show why he's one of the nation's best players. Ball is five touchdowns shy of Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season record (39) and has scored at least twice in every game this season (seven games of three or more scores). Ball had 115 rush yards and a touchdown against Michigan State on Oct. 22 but missed some time after taking a shot to the head. Wisconsin's offense wasn't the same with Ball on the sideline. The Badgers will need Ball on the field for 60 minutes Saturday night, while Michigan State's defense must contain No. 28.

Big Ten picks rewind: Week 10

November, 8, 2011
11/08/11
10:00
AM ET
Both Big Ten bloggers went all chalk in our Week 10 predictions, but Saturday brought a few surprises. Neither of us pegged Iowa to beat Michigan or Northwestern to record the best road win in the Big Ten to date against Nebraska in Lincoln. As a result, we both finished with 3-2 marks in league games. Our score predictions weren't much better. Ugh.

Thanks to the bonus pick, I move ahead in the overall standings, although there's a long way to go.

To recap:

WEEK 10

Adam Rittenberg: 4-2

Brian Bennett: 3-3

SEASON RECORDS

Rittenberg: 59-20 (.747)

Bennett: 58-21 (.734)

Rewind time ...

Minnesota at Michigan State
  • Bennett's pick: Michigan State 31, Minnesota 3
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan State 34, Minnesota 10
  • Actual score: Michigan State 31, Minnesota 24
  • 20-20 hindsight: Bennett nailed Michigan State's score and I wasn't too far off, but we didn't give the resurgent Gophers nearly enough credit in this one. Minnesota QB MarQueis Gray was the one making life miserable for Michigan State's defense, not the other way around, as Bennett predicted. MSU's Kirk Cousins threw two touchdowns, as I forecast, but not to B.J. Cunningham.
Indiana at Ohio State
  • Bennett's pick: Ohio State 41, Indiana 10
  • Rittenberg's pick: Ohio State 37, Indiana 6
  • Actual score: Ohio State 34, Indiana 20
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both again underestimated the underdog on the road, as Indiana moved the ball well on Ohio State's defense for most of the game. Dan Herron and Braxton Miller ran wild on Indiana, as I predicted, and they got help from a third 100-yard rusher in Carlos Hyde. Bennett correctly pegged another big game for Ohio State star DL John Simon.
Michigan at Iowa
  • Bennett's pick: Michigan 35, Iowa 27
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan 35, Iowa 31
  • Actual score: Iowa 24, Michigan 16
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both expected more points at Kinnick Stadium, as both defenses played fairly well, allowing fewer than 325 yards to the opponent. Neither of us pegged Iowa RB Marcus Coker for another big game -- maybe we'll learn our lesson -- and while Michigan made a late rally after falling behind at halftime, as I predicted, it wasn't enough.
Northwestern at Nebraska
  • Bennett's pick: Nebraska 45, Northwestern 24
  • Rittenberg's pick: Nebraska 42, Northwestern 20
  • Actual score: Northwestern 28, Nebraska 25
  • 20-20 hindsight: Neither of us had much faith in Northwestern's defense, which surprised everyone by holding Nebraska to a season-low 122 rushing yards. Taylor Martinez actually hurt Northwestern with his arm, but Northwestern controlled the line of scrimmage and attacked Nebraska in its soft middle to pull off the upset.
Purdue at Wiscosnin
  • Bennett's pick: Wisconsin 38, Purdue 17
  • Rittenberg's pick: Wisconsin 41, Purdue 14
  • Actual score: Wisconsin 62, Purdue 17
  • 20-20 hindsight: Bennett nailed Purdue's score, but neither of us fully accounted for the damage Wisconsin's offense does on its home field. Bennett correctly pegged three touchdown runs for his fantasy team star Montee Ball, although neither of us saw "Moneyball" racking up 223 yards. I correctly predicted two passing touchdowns and one rushing score for Russell Wilson as well as a rushing TD for James White.
Bonus pick: LSU at Alabama
  • Bennett's pick: Alabama 21, LSU 17
  • Rittenberg's pick: LSU 17, Alabama 14
  • Actual score: LSU 9, Alabama 6 (OT)
  • 20-20 hindsight: I nailed the winner and the margin of victory, while Bennett hardly looked like a true southerner with his prediction. We both correctly pegged Heisman candidate Trent Richardson for a big game (89 rush yards, 80 receiving yards), but the Tigers once again weathered the storm on the road and emerged with the victory.
We're all square in predictions through the first nine weeks. Will anything change in Week 10?

The lineup of games isn't too exciting and features four games with heavy home favorites (Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio State and Michigan State). The one truly intriguing matchup, barring a surprise, takes place in Iowa City as No. 15 Michigan visits an Iowa team that hasn't lost at home this season.

Let's get picky ...

MINNESOTA at NO. 17 MICHIGAN STATE

Brian Bennett: It was great to see the Gophers go hog wild and get their moment last week. That moment won't last against a Spartans team that plays at a different level at home. Jerel Worthy and William Gholston make life miserable for MarQueis Gray. ... Michigan State 31, Minnesota 3

Adam Rittenberg: The Spartans get their groove back in East Lansing, and an offense that simply didn't show up in Lincoln takes advantage of Minnesota's secondary. Kirk Cousins and B.J. Cunningham connect for two touchdown passes as Michigan State starts a bit slowly before opening things up in the second and third quarters. ... Michigan State 34, Minnesota 10

INDIANA at OHIO STATE

Adam Rittenberg: This is the perfect opportunity for Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes' offense to build off of a strong finish to the Wisconsin game. Miller and Dan Herron run wild on a young and overmatched Indiana defense. While the Hoosiers are running the ball well, Ohio State's defensive line is playing at another level right now. ... Ohio State 37, Indiana 6

Brian Bennett: Indiana has allowed at least 41 points in its last four Big ten games, and opponents are averaging more than 50 a game in that span. Yikes. The Hoosiers' lone attribute right now is their offense, but John Simon and the Silver Bullets shut that down. ... Ohio State 41, Indiana 10

NO. 15 MICHIGAN at IOWA

Brian Bennett: Big Ten teams have had trouble on the road all season, and the Hawkeyes are a much better team at Kinnick. But I just can't pick a team that just got beat at Minnesota and has way too many defensive issues right now. Iowa's James Vandenberg makes it interesting, but too much Denard Robinson keeps Michigan in the Legends hunt. ... Michigan 35, Iowa 27

Adam Rittenberg: This is a tricky one as Iowa will be motivated to atone for last week's shocking defeat and maintain its unbeaten record at home. Michigan is a bit banged up right now, but the Wolverines have the better defense and an offense that will make enough big plays to overcome its mistakes. Iowa leads at halftime, but Michigan, as it has much of the season, comes on strong in the second half behind the run game. ... Michigan 35, Iowa 31

NORTHWESTERN at NO. 10 NEBRASKA

Adam Rittenberg: Nebraska is on a roll, and the Huskers offense should run all over a Northwestern defense that can't stop anybody. Northwestern will move the ball in this game, as it has all season, but the Huskers will limit points and get plenty of their own from Rex Burkhead and Taylor Martinez. ... Nebraska 42, Northwestern 20

Brian Bennett: Northwestern is allowing 38 points per game in Big Ten play, and while Nebraska won't exploit its pass defense as much as others have, the Huskers will still score at will. The Blackshirts will have a little tougher time than they did against Michigan State's predictable attack, but Alfonzo Dennard slows down Jeremy Ebert and gets a pick six. ... Nebraska 45, Northwestern 24

PURDUE at NO. 20 WISCONSIN

Brian Bennett: Caleb TerBush hits Justin Siller on a 60-yard pass with one second left as the Boilers ... Nah. Wisconsin might suffer a bit of a hangover from the previous two gut-wrenching losses, but they'll still mash Purdue at home with another three touchdowns from Montee Ball. ... Wisconsin 38, Purdue 17

Adam Rittenberg: I agree Wisconsin might be a little off its game early on, but soon enough the Badgers will look around and realize where they are. Wisconsin's dominance on its home field continues, and Camp Randall Stadium continues to be a house of horrors for the Indiana schools. Russell Wilson records three touchdowns (2 pass, 1 rush) and James White reaches the end zone once. ... Wisconsin 41, Purdue 14

Bonus pick alert! You might have heard a thing or two about this game ...

NO. 1 LSU at NO. 2 ALABAMA

Adam Rittenberg: Most folks seem to be picking Bama at home, and I get it. The Tide linebackers are out of this world, and Trent Richardson is a beast. But LSU has repeatedly impressed me, not just with its play and its across-the-board talent, but with its ability to overcome adversity time and again. The Tigers once again will be in a tough spot Saturday, but I like The Hat and his crew to come out of T-Town with a win. ... LSU 17, Alabama 14

Brian Bennett: Adam, you won't get served at Dreamland with a prediction like that. I get the feeling LSU is a bit better overall, and you never bet against The Hat. But home field is just enough of an advantage between two extremely good teams. Richardson makes his Heisman statement, and Penn State enjoys the BCS bump as Alabama escapes. Let the rematch debate begin. ... Alabama 21, LSU 17

SEASON RECORDS

Bennett: 55-18 (.753)

Rittenberg: 55-18 (.753)

Big Ten picks rewind: Week 2

September, 13, 2011
9/13/11
9:30
AM ET
The Big Ten took a bit of a beating in Week 2, and so did the Big Ten bloggers.

Not surprisingly, Bennett continues to look like the smarter blogger, as his 9-3 record topped me at 8-4. It's not much of a win to savor.

First, a check of the standings:

WEEK 2

Adam Rittenberg: 8-4

Brian Bennett: 9-3

SEASON

Rittenberg: 17-7 (.708)

Bennett: 19-5 (.792)

Now let's look back at those predictions ...

Iowa at Iowa State
  • Bennett's pick: Iowa 24, Iowa State 9
  • Rittenberg's pick: Iowa 27, Iowa State 13
  • Actual score: Iowa State 44, Iowa 41 (3 OT)
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both had too much faith in Iowa's new-look defense and too little faith in Iowa State quarterback Steele Jantz, who boasts a great name and plenty of game, too. Marcus Coker fell one rushing touchdown short of my prediction and racked up 140 rush yards but lost another fumble.
Florida Atlantic at Michigan State
  • Bennett's pick: Michigan State 35, Florida Atlantic 7
  • Rittenberg's pick: Michigan State 33, Florida Atlantic 10
  • Actual score: Michigan State 44, Florida Atlantic 0
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both predicted a strong performance from Michigan State on the ground, but neither of us forecast such a dominating defensive effort. The Spartans allowed no points, one first down and just 48 total yards against the Owls, who had the ball for just 17:34.
Toledo at Ohio State
  • Bennett's pick: Ohio State 28, Toledo 10
  • Rittenberg's pick: Ohio State 31, Toledo 13
  • Actual score: Ohio State 27, Toledo 22
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both underestimated a solid Toledo squad, and perhaps the Buckeyes did, too. Ohio State's defense faced some hurdles against the Rockets, while Buckeyes running back Carlos Hyde made me look somewhat smart with two rushing touchdowns.
Oregon State at Wisconsin
  • Bennett's pick: Wisconsin 42, Oregon State 20
  • Rittenberg's pick: Wisconsin 35, Oregon State 13
  • Actual score: Wisconsin 35, Oregon State 0
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both did well on the Wisconsin score, but we figured Oregon State would do more on offense. The Badgers' defense dominated play, while Montee Ball fulfilled Bennett's prediction with another solid performance (118 rush yards, 2 touchdowns).
South Dakota State at Illinois
  • Bennett's pick: Illinois 44, South Dakota State 7
  • Rittenberg's pick: Illinois 40, South Dakota State 12
  • Actual score: Illinois 56, South Dakota State 3
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both envisioned another big day for the Illinois offense, although neither of us pegged running back Troy Pollard to be a key contributor. Illinois' defensive performance was a bit better than both of us expected.
Eastern Illinois at Northwestern
  • Bennett's pick: Northwestern 31, Eastern Illinois 13
  • Rittenberg's pick: Northwestern 38, Eastern Illinois 10
  • Actual score: Northwestern 42, Eastern Illinois 21
  • 20-20 hindsight: Our score predictions would have looked a lot better had Northwestern kept EIU out of the end zone in the final minute. As I thought, Northwestern emphasized the run game again and finished with 320 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
New Mexico State at Minnesota
  • Bennett's pick: Minnesota 35, New Mexico State 14
  • Rittenberg's pick: Minnesota 31, New Mexico State 13
  • Actual score: New Mexico State 28, Minnesota 21
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both totally whiffed here. Although I cited a potential letdown from the USC game in my prediction, we both expected the Gophers to roll against what looked like a lousy New Mexico State team. Fail.
Alabama at Penn State
  • Bennett's pick: Alabama 24, Penn State 12
  • Rittenberg's pick: Alabama 19, Penn State 13
  • Actual score: Alabama 27, Penn State 11
  • 20-20 hindsight: Finally, an impressive score prediction, courtesy of Mr. Bennett. My lack of faith in Penn State's quarterbacks revealed itself, and as I thought, Alabama running back Trent Richardson came on strong late in the game.
Purdue at Rice
  • Bennett's pick: Purdue 19, Rice 16
  • Rittenberg's pick: Purdue 26, Rice 18
  • Actual score: Rice 24, Purdue 22
  • 20-20 hindsight: Neither of us were overly confident in the Boilers, and Bennett correctly put them on upset alert. We didn't give enough credence to the karma factor, as a Purdue team that escaped its opener against Middle Tennessee lost in heart-breaking fashion as Rice blocked a short field-goal attempt by standout kicker Carson Wiggs on the final play.
Virginia at Indiana
  • Bennett's pick: Virginia 34, Indiana 23
  • Rittenberg's pick: Virginia 27, Indiana 17
  • Actual score: Virginia 34, Indiana 31
  • 20-20 hindsight: Bennett nailed Virginia's points total and I wasn't too far off, but neither of us envisioned Indiana squandering an 8-point lead in the final minutes. The Hoosiers did produce a better performance in the opener, as we thought, although their number of big plays on defense came as a surprise.
Fresno State at Nebraska
  • Bennett's pick: Nebraska 31, Fresno State 10
  • Rittenberg's pick: Nebraska 33, Fresno State 14
  • Actual score: Nebraska 42, Fresno State 29
  • 20-20 hindsight: We both picked the Huskers, but neither of us thought Fresno State would gash the Blackshirts as much as it did. Rex Burkhead had two rushing touchdowns but not the big day I envisioned, while Fresno State surprisingly looked like a giant killer for a portion of the game.
Notre Dame at Michigan
  • Bennett's pick: Michigan 31, Notre Dame 30
  • Rittenberg's pick: Notre Dame 24, Michigan 21
  • Actual score: Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31
  • 20-20 hindsight: Bennett looks like the genius here, as he predicted "crazy things happen in this game" and "Denard Robinson pulls off more heroics." I couldn't have written it better myself. I wish I had. Damn.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State's defense has come out of the locker room with the right response.

The Lions have forced two three-and-outs, giving the offense excellent field position. I'm impressed with the Penn State front seven, which has bottled up Alabama's star running back Trent Richardson aside from a 22-yard run in the first half.

The defense is keeping the game somewhat within reach, but it's hard to have much faith in the offense. Rob Bolden has been a mixed bag, and he's not getting much help from his receivers today. Penn State has gone back to Matthew McGloin at quarterback, but someone needs to make a play in a hurry.

Alabama leads 17-3 with 10:30 left in the third quarter.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

September, 9, 2011
9/09/11
3:30
PM ET
Enjoy the games this weekend! Let's get to those emails.

Jason from Seattle writes: Hey Adam, love the blog, keep up the good work. Do you think the Michigan game being called early is a disadvantage for them going forward? It seems like in the first game of the season, even against an over-matched opponent, every snap is important to work out the kinks, get younger guys real game experience, etc. Do you think them only playing ~70% of a game puts them behind the curve?

Adam Rittenberg: You know, Jason, I was thinking about this after last week's game. Michigan certainly wouldn't have benefited from having to play after a long lightning delay, as the injury risk for players would have spiked. They definitely made the right call to end the game. And it seemed like Michigan had the game well in hand. I don't know how much Denard Robinson and the other starters would have played in the fourth quarter. You always like being able to finish the game as a team, particularly in the opener, but it's not as if Robinson hasn't been in a crunch-time situation before. I don't think it will have too much of an effect Saturday night.


Josh from Aurora, Ill., writes: I am asking you to be a voice of reason in the Notre Dame to the Big 10 conversation. It's referred to as a home run but I believe the end result will be anything but. There's a huge cultural divide present. Notre Dame strongly values their independence and would view joining a conference as doing them a favor by joining. The Big 10 values treating all schools on an equal footing. This goes way beyond public versus private school - it's the mindset of the institution. This may add some TV sets, but it's not a good fit. I beg you to please re-think your logic on this.

Adam Rittenberg: Josh, I agree about Notre Dame treasuring its independence, and it would extremely hard for Fighting Irish fans to accept seeing their team in a conference. But the reality is Notre Dame no longer carries the glitz it once did, no matter how much undeserved hype it continues to receive. Why should this program get better BCS access than Boise State or TCU? But the landscape could change to a point where Notre Dame must join a league in football, and the Big Ten still makes the most sense. There are also advantages to Big Ten membership for Notre Dame, mainly increased exposure for its Olympic sports programs through the Big Ten Network. Notre Dame values all of its sports teams like few other institutions, and those squads really can benefit.


ACKC from Las Vegas writes: Any thoughts on Brett Maher's debut? He replaced the most accurate kicker in NCAA history and all he did was go 4/4 with two of them being for 48 and 50 yards.Expanding on that - what other schools have the type of kickers that Nebraska has produced. Both Browns (unrelated) from the 90's went on to play on Sunday's and then Henery. Can there be such a thing as Kicker U? (I recall the 80's when PSU was known as Linebacker U).

Adam Rittenberg: I watched most of Nebraska's opener Thursday and was really impressed with Maher. He looked totally under control and showcased a strong leg despite some wind in the stadium. I'm also impressed the Huskers have produced back-to-back specialists who seem to be able to do it all (field goals, punts). It's definitely a haven for outstanding specialists. We'll have to see how Maher performs in pressure situations when Big Ten play begins, but so far, so good.


Tim from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Hey Adam, love the blog since Wisconsin is now considered an elite big ten team shouldn't they start scheduling top tier teams from other conferences? Ohio State has scheduled Texas, USC and Miami although Miami hasn't turned out to be good and in the future schedule has Oklahoma, Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia Tech scheduled in the future. While Wisconsin only has Virginia Tech. Michigan plays Notre Dame, and Alabama next year and so does Penn State. I don't see Wisconsin putting up 50 points on UNLV and a weak Oregon State next week being very helpful for the B1G's image.

Adam Rittenberg: I wish more Big Ten teams would adopt Ohio State's scheduling philosophy, and Wisconsin fans have wanted to see the nonconference schedule upgraded for a long time now. I wouldn't knock Wisconsin for playing teams like Oregon State and Arizona State, which have had success in the past. The Badgers must visit Corvallis next year, which could be a tough game. But your point is a good one. The Big Ten is helped when its elite teams beat elite teams from other power conferences. Wisconsin should step up more than it has in the past.


Jon from Chicago writes: Do you think Virginia Tech could be a good Big Ten expansion target?1. Good academics...they would be middle of the pack in the big ten.2. "Moves the dial" nationally?They have consistently made BCS and other top tier bowls in recent years and have good media coverage.3. Relevant in the DC (#9 nationally) tv market...this may be a stretch.4. Great recruiting base..They can open the Big Ten brand to the Southeast in new ways.I'm not sure about the culture in Blacksburg or if they would be receptive to the Big Ten, however, they seem like a fun fanbase that could fit in with the best in the Big Ten. Thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Virginia Tech is an interesting candidate. Somewhat similar to Oklahoma in that the football program's strength makes it extremely appealing. Like Oklahoma, Va Tech isn't an AAU member but is a solid academic institution. Oklahoma moves the needle more nationally because the Sooners actually win BCS bowls, but if you were looking to the ACC, you could do worse than Virginia Tech. I do wonder how the school and its fans would fit culturally in the Big Ten. A lot of folks see Va Tech as a better fit for the SEC.


Nick H. from Champaign, Ill., writes: Hey Adam,It seems to me that all the expansion talk regarding the Big Ten is focused on taking teams from the Big 12 or Big East. What about the SEC? Of course Florida or LSU would not be an option, but what about Kentucky or Vanderbilt? With Texas A&M joining, the league is at 13 teams. Vanderbilt is an AAU school that has no real chance to win the SEC anytime soon, and Kentucky is one of the few schools in the nation where its basketball team is enough of a powerhouse that it could be a valuable edition. While the New York market would be nice, neither Rutgers or Syracuse seems to bring as much to the table as an SEC school.

Adam Rittenberg: We discussed Kentucky as a potential expansion candidate the first time around, and I'm sure someone threw Vanderbilt out there, too. I don't know how much those schools add, though, because football and location are the two biggest factors in any further expansion. Neither school moves the needle in football, and while the Nashville market is nice, Tennessee still owns the state. If the Big Ten wants to add schools in this category, it might as well look to the bigger markets.


Mike from Allentown, Pa., writes: Hey Adam and Brian,Due to the weather conditions that have been going on in the state of Pennsylvania, i.e. constant rain/flooding throughout the Eastern/Central part of the state, couldn't this work to Penn State's advantage Saturday? Or, am I being too much of a homer? I think we have better depth at RB, but we do not have the best RB, in this game. The rain would be a huge damper on the passing games on both sides, since both QB situations are shaky at best. I'm not sold that Trent Richardson could carry the ball 40 times, and still be effective at carries 35-40, or that their backups would provide him enough of a breather. Whereas, I feel the combo of Redd, Beachum, Dukes, Suhey, Zordich, and Green, could cancel Trent out. I know Alabama's defense is very good, but I was wondering what your thoughts were on the game should the weather suggest it to be a battle on the ground? Is a 7-3 outcome (going either way) really not possible in the event that there is a downpour in State College? I think the worse the weather, the better it plays into the hands of a Penn State update, your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: I agree bad weather probably favors Penn State, which is used to rain and less than ideal conditions in Happy Valley. Anything to slow down that Alabama defense, right? Penn State needs to make this a low-scoring game and force more mistakes from the unproven Alabama quarterbacks. If Trent Richardson goes off again, the Lions have no chance. Penn State also needs its run game to help out the quarterbacks, and the Lions' oft-criticized offensive line needs to play an excellent game. While slick conditions could help Penn State, I doubt the weather will be the deciding factor Saturday.
Linebacker Michael Mauti called the performance "kind of embarrassing."

Left tackle Quinn Barham admitted some younger players were intimidated at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

But Penn State vows Saturday's game against Alabama will be different because this year's Nittany Lions team is different.

"We're more comfortable, we're more confident and we actually know what we're getting into," Barham said.

Saturday's date with No. 3 Alabama will, if nothing else, be an excellent barometer for No. 23 Penn State. The Lions remain somewhat of a mystery right now -- a team talented enough to compete for a Big Ten title but potentially flawed enough to finish 7-6 again.

Joe Paterno didn't give his team much of a chance last year in Tuscaloosa, and Penn State fell 24-3 in a game where the score could have been worse. While Paterno is keenly aware of the challenge awaiting Saturday, he's more optimistic.

"This is a better team than we had last year," Paterno said. "Whether it's good enough, we'll see. But they've worked. And I think we've done a little bit better job coaching. I know we've asked more of them and they have responded."

Will the Lions' response translate into a signature win?

Here are three keys for Penn State to take down the Tide.

1) Don't waste scoring chances

[+] EnlargeCourtney Upshaw
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireCourtney Upshaw and the Tide defense are stingy, so the Lions must capitalize on scoring opportunities.
Alabama boasts what many regard as the best defense in the country, and for good reason. The Tide return 10 starters, led by standouts such as safety Mark Barron and linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw.

Penn State likely won't have too many scoring opportunities Saturday, and the Lions must be more efficient than they were a year ago.

They reached Alabama's red zone on two of their first three possessions but committed turnovers both times. They moved the ball well on their first drive of the second half before quarterback Rob Bolden threw another interception in the Tide red zone.

Penn State had three sustained drives -- 10 plays, 56 yards; seven plays, 68 yards; and 11 plays, 44 yards -- and ended up with nada.

"When you're facing a team of Alabama's caliber, you can't afford to put drives together and turn it over, especially when you're down in their red zone and trying to put some points on the board," Lions receiver Derek Moye said.

Added Barham: "We shot ourselves in the foot."

2) Make Alabama's young QBs win the game


The intimidation factor works both ways, and as Bolden did last September in Tuscaloosa, Alabama's quarterback will be making his first career road start Saturday at a raucous Beaver Stadium.

"We've got the best fans in the county and the loudest for sure," Mauti said. "That Alabama offense is going to have a tough time hearing. I know on defense, I’m yelling at the guy next to me and I can't hear them. They’ve never been to Beaver Stadium before, and it'll be a challenge for them."

Whether it's AJ McCarron or Phillip Sims, Penn State must find ways to rattle the Tide signal-caller and put the burden on him to make big plays. Like Alabama, Penn State's strength is its defense, particularly a deep and talented group of linebackers and defensive backs.

Alabama will try to help its inexperienced quarterback by sparking star tailback Trent Richardson, who ran for 144 yards and a touchdown against Penn State last year. If Richardson gets going Saturday, Penn State can pretty much forget about winning the game.

The Lions might need their defense to generate offense, and the presence of players like linebacker Gerald Hodges, who broke his leg on the opening kickoff last year against Bama, could loom large.

"He brings a different type of intensity to our defense," Mauti said. "He flies around, and it’s just an energy he brings. ... He's fast, he’s physical and he's a playmaker for us."

3) Get clutch plays from Bolden and McGloin

[+] EnlargePenn State's Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe play of QBs Matt McGloin (11) or Rob Bolden (1) are likely key to Penn's upset chances.
Paterno remains in quarterback-protection mode, once again not naming a starter and trying to deflect as much attention as he can from Bolden and Matt McGloin.

"The whole team's got to play solid," he said. "I wouldn't put it all on the quarterback."

But to win a game like this against an opponent like Alabama, teams typically need their quarterbacks to step up in big moments.

Bolden and McGloin will need protection from an offensive line that surrendered three sacks last week to FCS Indiana State, prompting former Penn State QB Daryll Clark to tweet: "Mannnnnnn... Qbs are getting hit way tooooo much this game #gottacleanitup." Barham graded the line's performance at a "B, B-minus."

The quarterbacks also need help from the run game, as Silas Redd and Brandon Beachum face an Alabama defense that finished 10th nationally against the rush in 2010 (110.2 ypg allowed).

But in a low-scoring, possibly low-possession game -- the type Penn State should hope for Saturday -- clutch quarterback play often makes the difference.

"They understand the offense, they understand what they have to do, what their role will be," Paterno said of Bolden and McGloin. "Just go in there and play our game. Don't do stupid things, protect the ball, try to keep it when we do get it, make a couple plays in the clutch, make a couple of third-down throws.

"Literally every tough game you're in, that's how you win 'em."

Paterno has been through more than a few, and another arrives Saturday afternoon.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 2

September, 8, 2011
9/08/11
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Week 2 is just around the corner, and it brings us a few more appealing matchups around the Big Ten.

Here are 10 items to track during a 12-pack of games Saturday.

1. The Big House in prime time: Michigan has played 520 games at Michigan Stadium, but none has kicked off at night. History will be made Saturday at the Big House as Michigan takes on Notre Dame under the lights. It should be an electric atmosphere at Stadium and Main as more than 110,000 fans will watch two of the game's iconic programs, who will honor the occasion with retro uniforms. Trust me, they're better than Maryland's.

[+] EnlargeMichigan Stadium
AP Photo/Tony DingMichigan Stadium will host its first night kickoff in its more than 80-year history.
2. Opportunity knocks for Nits: Penn State wants to be viewed as a legitimate Big Ten title contender and a team that belongs among the nation's elite. There's no better opportunity to make a statement than Saturday's game against No. 3 Alabama. Penn State hasn't beaten a top-5 team in the Associated Press poll since crushing Arizona in the 1999 season opener. An upset of Alabama would put the Penn State program -- and not just its iconic coach Joe Paterno -- in the national spotlight.

3. Coker tries to rebound: Iowa running back Marcus Coker entered the season with a lot of hype but fumbled twice in the season opener, earning him a trip to the bench. Coach Kirk Ferentz remains confident in the sophomore and was pleased Coker didn't use the lousy weather conditions as an excuse. Coker gets a great chance to redeem himself on the road against in-state rival Iowa State, which last week surrendered 204 rush yards to FCS Northern Iowa.

4. Bauserman's building blocks: Joe Bauserman took a step toward securing Ohio State's starting quarterback spot in the opener, completing 12 of 16 pass attempts with three touchdown strikes to tight end Jake Stoneburner. Although freshman Braxton Miller remains very much in the mix and should see time Saturday against Toledo, another strong performance from Bauserman should establish the senior as the team's top option before a Week 3 trip to Miami.

5. Linebacker U. vs. Trent Richardson: Penn State will lean heavily on its defense, and particularly its linebackers, as it aims for the upset against Alabama. Linebacker U appears to be back as the Lions boast excellent depth in the defensive midsection with Michael Mauti, Nate Stupar, Glenn Carson, Khairi Fortt, Mike Hull and Gerald Hodges, who got hurt last year in Tuscaloosa but could be a difference-maker Saturday. The linebackers must contain one of the nation's top running backs in Heisman Trophy candidate Trent Richardson.

6. Huskers' offense under the gun: Nebraska scored 40 points in its opener but left plenty of questions on the offensive side. Coordinator Tim Beck is looking for fewer mental mistakes and better execution Saturday night against a Fresno State team that surrendered 36 points and 417 yards to Cal last week. Quarterback Taylor Martinez must show greater accuracy as a passer, while an offensive line dealing with youth and injuries needs to show it can control the line of scrimmage before the competition level gets tougher.

7. Gophers, Hoosiers look for first wins: Minnesota and Indiana were the only Big Ten teams to lose last week, although the teams came away feeling differently about their performances. The Gophers never quit at USC and nearly stunned the Trojans. They return home to TCF Bank Stadium and look for a strong effort against a New Mexico State squad that lost its opener 44-24 to Ohio. Indiana faces a much tougher challenge in Virginia and looks for better play up front on both sides of the ball, not to mention more enthusiasm, as it makes its home debut at Memorial Stadium.

8. The Denard Show, Act II: Quarterback Denard Robinson carried Michigan to a dramatic victory last year with a record-setting performance at Notre Dame Stadium. Can "Shoelace" replicate his heroics Saturday night against the Irish? He'll face what looks like a stronger Notre Dame defense, and he's still transitioning to a new offensive system. But Robinson also works behind a strong offensive line and finally appears to have some help at running back with Fitzgerald Toussaint and Michael Shaw. It will be interesting to see if Notre Dame can contain a Michigan quarterback after being flummoxed by Robinson and Tate Forcier the past two seasons.

9. Backup QBs try to maintain winning ways: Northwestern's Kain Colter and Purdue's Caleb TerBush both recorded victories in their first career starts at quarterback last week. Colter, filling in for the still-rehabbing Dan Persa, showed improved passing skills to complement his running ability against Boston College. He needs to limit hits and build more confidence against FCS Eastern Illinois. TerBush made big throws in clutch situations against Middle Tennessee but must limit mistakes on the road at Rice. Purdue's Robert Marve also could return to the field.

10. Receiving orders: Week 1 was huge for Big Ten wideouts, as five players eclipsed 100 receiving yards in the opening games. Illinois continues to look for big things from A.J. Jenkins and Darius Millines this week against South Dakota State. Michigan State's B.J. Cunningham needs one catch to become the team's all-time receptions leader. Other receivers like Iowa's Marvin McNutt and Indiana's Damarlo Belcher try to build on impressive opening performances.

Big Ten predictions: Week 2

September, 8, 2011
9/08/11
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The Big Ten is stepping up its game in Week 2, and we hope to do the same. After mediocre results the opening weekend, we're both shooting for perfection, or something like it.

The slate features some tricky games, a potential upset special or two, and a handful of gimmes.

Let's get picky.

IOWA at IOWA STATE

Brian Bennett: The Cyclones have barely scratched the scoreboard recently against Iowa, and I liked the way the Hawkeyes defensive line played in the opener. Feel free to sigh, Hawks ... Iowa 24, Iowa State 9

Adam Rittenberg: He's the resident comedian, folks. Be sure and tip your waitress. Speaking of tips, here's one: Go with Marcus Coker on your fantasy team. Oh, wait, I already have him. Coker rebounds with 3 touchdowns as the Hawkeyes roll. ... Iowa 27, Iowa State 13

FLORIDA ATLANTIC at NO. 17 MICHIGAN STATE

Adam Rittenberg: The Spartans have a cleaner start, limit silly penalties and rack up a bunch of rushing yards against Howard Schnellenberger's crew. B.J. Cunningham gets the receptions record in the first quarter. ... Michigan State 33, Florida Atlantic 10

Brian Bennett: Pipe down. Michigan State's offensive line shows some improvement, and the Spartans will roll into South Bend next week at 2-0. ... Michigan State 35, Florida Atlantic 7

TOLEDO at NO. 15 OHIO STATE

Brian Bennett: The Rockets pose far more of a threat than Akron, and they might catch Ohio State peeking ahead to Miami. Still, the Buckeyes defense is too much despite some offensive struggles ... Ohio State 28, Toledo 10

Adam Rittenberg: I agree, the Buckeyes can't space out against the Rockets (I know, lame), who have a good coach (Tim Beckman) and provide a much better test for Ohio State's defense. Still, I see another big game for Carlos Hyde and the Ohio State running backs ... Ohio State 31, Toledo 13

OREGON STATE at NO. 8 WISCONSIN

Adam Rittenberg: The Beavers rarely fare well in early season big games, and you have to wonder about their confidence level after the Sac State debacle. Wisconsin's defense is hungry and makes a statement. ... Wisconsin 35, Oregon State 13

Brian Bennett: I could see the Badgers taking this one too lightly with that Sacramento State score fresh in their minds. But Montee Ball and James White still run wild. ... Wisconsin 42, Oregon State 20

SOUTH DAKOTA STATE at ILLINOIS

Brian Bennett: I like South Dakota State's nickname: Jackrabbits. That's about all I like about them. Illini roll behind another big passing day from Nathan Scheelhaase ... Illinois 44, SDSU 7

Adam Rittenberg: Fear the bunnies. They nearly knocked off Minnesota in 2009. But Illinois avoids the same fate as Scheelhaase steps up more in the run game and gets help from Jason Ford. ... Illinois 40, SDSU 12

EASTERN ILLINOIS at NORTHWESTERN

Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern's offensive line builds off of a strong opening performance and gets the run game going against overmatched Eastern Illinois, while Dan Persa sits again. ... Northwestern 38, EIU 10

Brian Bennett: No Persa, no problem -- at least for another week. ... Northwestern 31, EIU 13

NEW MEXICO STATE at MINNESOTA

Brian Bennett: The Aggies are bad. Real bad. Perfect opponent for Jerry Kill's debut, as Troy Stoudermire sets Big Ten return record ... Minnesota 35, NMSU 14

Adam Rittenberg: You worry a bit about a letdown as Minnesota has been hearing how impressive they looked in the opener at USC. The Gophers start off a little slowly before MarQueis Gray and the offense surge against the Aggies. ... Minnesota 31, NMSU 13

NO. 3 ALABAMA at NO. 23 PENN STATE

Adam Rittenberg: OK, time to get serious. Penn State's defense keeps the Lions in this one, but I don't have enough faith in either Nittany Lions quarterback to predict an upset. Trent Richardson has a big fourth quarter as Alabama squeaks out a win. ... Alabama 19, Penn State 13

Brian Bennett: It sure would be great for the Big Ten if Penn State could pull this one off. Alabama's quarterback situation is a little shaky, too. But the Tide's defense is just too good against a Penn State offensive line that wasn't overly impressive against Indiana State. ... Alabama 24, Penn State 12

PURDUE at RICE

Brian Bennett: I'm putting Purdue on upset alert for the second straight week against a team that battled Texas pretty well for three quarters. For the second straight week, the Boilers eke one out, this time on a late Ralph Bolden touchdown. ... Purdue 19, Rice 16

Adam Rittenberg: Purdue has a lot to fix on both sides of the ball, but Rice doesn't seem like a team that can capitalize, even at home. Caleb TerBush builds on his late-game heroics and the defense makes enough plays to improve to 2-0. ... Purdue 26, Rice 18

VIRGINIA at INDIANA

Adam Rittenberg: Thing is, Indiana didn't look that shaky on offense in the opener. But getting pushed around by Ball State at the line of scrimmage is inexcusable. IU gets a better effort, but it's still not enough. ... Virginia 27, Indiana 17

Brian Bennett: Agree with you on all counts but think there will be more points scored, especially after the Hoosiers gave up 27 to Ball State. ... Virginia 34, Indiana 23

FRESNO STATE at NO. 10 NEBRASKA

Brian Bennett: Bo Pelini didn't sound too excited about the Cornhuskers' 40-7 opening win over Chattanooga (not that he ever sounds that excited). Nebraska has a few more hiccups on offense but shuts down the Bulldogs on defense. ... Nebraska 31, Fresno State 10

Adam Rittenberg: I agree it'll take some more time for Tim Beck's offense to click. But Fresno disappointed me in Week 1, and Pat Hill's crew isn't nearly the giant killer it once was. Rex Burkhead has a big night. ... Nebraska 33, Fresno State 14

NOTRE DAME at MICHIGAN

Adam Rittenberg: Either Notre Dame implodes or the Irish come together behind Tommy Rees and a defense that actually looks better. Call me crazy, but I think the Irish bounce back. ... Notre Dame 24, Michigan 21

Brian Bennett: Notre Dame is better than it showed against South Florida and would have won if not for a slew of turnovers. Crazy things happen in this game. But Michigan just seems to have the Irish's number, and that atmosphere will help immensely as Denard Robinson pulls off more heroics. ... Michigan 31, Notre Dame 30

Season records

Bennett: 10-2 (.833)

Rittenberg: 9-3 (.750)
Let's take a quick look at the featured non-BCS bowl of New Year's Day, as co-Big Ten champion Michigan State takes on defending national champion Alabama.

WHO TO WATCH: Michigan State linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon. Few linebacker tandems in Big Ten history have been as productive as Jones and Gordon, who have combined for 784 career tackles. The pair will be tested by Alabama standout running backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. Michigan State needs sound tackling and good angles from Nos. 53 and 43 to contain the Tide ground game.

WHAT TO WATCH: The Spartans' improved secondary against Alabama's receivers. Arguably no position group in the Big Ten made a bigger one-year turnaround than Michigan State's secondary, which helped the Spartans tie for 11th nationally in interceptions with 17. Michigan State's defensive backs will be tested by Alabama star wideout Julio Jones and solid No. 2 option Marquis Maze. Big plays from the secondary have fueled the Spartans' success this season, and Michigan State needs more of them in the bowl game.

WHY TO WATCH: There are plenty of reasons, including Alabama coach Nick Saban going up against his former team and his former assistant in Mark Dantonio. As Dantonio told me earlier this week, this is the chance for Michigan State to "measure up" to an elite opponent after getting snubbed from a BCS bowl. The Spartans have upgraded their program in recent years, but they're 0-3 in bowl games under Dantonio. This game provides an excellent opportunity to cap a special season.

PREDICTION: Alabama 27, Michigan State 23. I'm curious to see how motivated Alabama will be for the game, but the Tide still boast a bunch of talent on both sides of the ball. Michigan State will be ready and certainly could pull off the win, but Alabama's offense boasts too many weapons. It'll be close and entertaining, but Saban and the Tide win.

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