Big Ten: V'Angelo Bentley

The end has arrived in our weeklong snapshot look at every Big Ten program. For the past week, we've examined the coaching, win-loss trends, personnel, and recruiting of every team in the league.

The last school up is Illinois.

2014 record: 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten, fifth in West Division)

Three-year record: 12-25

Coaching situation: Coach Tim Beckman, in his third season last fall after presiding over a nice turnaround at Toledo, appeared in a tenuous November spot before the Illini beat Penn State and Northwestern to gain bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011 under Ron Zook. The school rewarded Beckman with a contract extension, and he followed by retooling the defensive staff with the hire of Mike Phair as co-coordinator from the Tampa Bay Bucs. Offensively, Bill Cubit has earned respect as an offensive innovator. Beckman remains in search of a tight ends coach to replace Tim Salem.

Roster situation: There are bright spots, but not enough to turn in Illinois into an overnight contender in the weaker of the Big Ten divisions. Start at receiver, where Mike Dudek returns after an excellent freshman season alongside Geronimo Allison and Malik Turner. Quarterback Wes Lunt, whose first season at the helm was disrupted by injuries then ineffectiveness, will be counted on for production in 2015, as will multi-talented back Josh Ferguson. Defensively, the Illini lose key players at every level in safety Zane Petty, linebacker Earnest Thomas II, and nose tackle Austin Teitsma. But linebacker Mason Monheim is back with All-Big Ten potential to lead a solid core that includes defensive end Jihad Ward, T.J. Neal at middle linebacker, cornerback V'Angelo Bentley, and safety Taylor Barton to anchor the back.

Recruiting situation: The Illini were excited with the results this year, despite a class ranking of No. 64 nationally that ranked last in the Big Ten. To suggest that Illinois’ recruiting is in poor shape, though, is not an accurate indication of the work accomplished by Alex Golesh in coordinating the Illini efforts. Illinois added nine early enrollees and scored big by keeping home ESPN 300 offensive tackle Gabe Megginson, who turned down the likes of Michigan State and Nebraska. But he was the only player in state’s top 12 this year signed by Illinois. That must improve. Quarterback Jimmy Fitzgerald, homegrown in Champaign, stands tall in the pocket, and the Illini hit important areas in California, Texas, Florida and Georgia. A year ago, its 66th-ranked class included Ward out of junior college and all three top returning receivers.

Trajectory: After the Heart of Dallas Bowl loss to Louisiana Tech, in which the Illini were outplayed from the start, a sense exists that Beckman has reached a crossroads. The Illini have improved from two wins to four to six under Beckman, and won three times as many league games last season as in his first two seasons. Illinois beat Minnesota last season and played Wisconsin close on the road, but it lost to Purdue in Champaign -- the Boilermakers’ only Big Ten win of the past two seasons. Fact is, though, the two November wins might have saved Beckman’s job. He’s yet to produce a winning mark after Ron Zook was fired for getting there three times in seven seasons, including a Rose Bowl appearance.

Six junior-college transfers are set compete for jobs, an illustration of the urgency in place. So does Illinois sink from here or rise to challenge the top group in the West? It gets Wisconsin and Nebraska at home next season after a manageable non-conference slate that includes a winnable game at North Carolina. To push the needle up, the Illini need more cohesiveness on defense and leadership from Lunt.

Season report card: Illinois

January, 26, 2015
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There's an empty spot on refrigerators -- or trash cans -- in football offices around the Big Ten. Coaches can't wait to display, or dispose of, their season report cards. So let's get in on with it.

This week, we're grading each Big Ten team in the following areas: offense, defense, special teams, coaching and overall. Our red pens are ready, and the Illinois Fighting Illini are up first.

Offense: B

Spurred by a pass attack ranked second in the Big Ten, the offense again carried Illinois for much of the season. Quarterback Wes Lunt shined early and Reilly O'Toole came up big late. Despite a spotty run game, Josh Ferguson had another productive season and wideout Mikey Dudek emerged as a budding star during Big Ten play.

Defense: D-plus

Yes, D-plus is a real grade, and it applies to an Illini defense that struggled for most of the season but came up big in a home upset of Minnesota, forcing three turnovers, including V'Angelo Bentley's scoop and score in the fourth quarter. Still, the run defense suffered as Illinois allowed nearly 240 rushing yards per game for the second straight season. Significant improvement is needed here.

Special teams: C-minus

It was a year of extremes for the Illini in the kicking game. Punter Justin DuVernois averaged 44 yards per punt, with 20 punts of 50 yards or longer. Bentley averaged 10.2 yards on punt returns. But kickers Taylor Zalewski and David Reisner struggled and the coverage teams had some issues. The overall performance cost special-teams coach Tim Salem his job.

Coaching: C

As an opposing Big Ten assistant recently told me, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is keeping Illinois' afloat. The veteran play-caller did a good job managing the offense this season. Coach Tim Beckman also deserves some credit for Illinois' late surge. Illinois won three of its final five games to make a bowl game.

Overall: C-

Illinois' victory total increased for the second consecutive season, and reaching a bowl game likely saved Beckman's job. It was a struggle to reach six wins, though, and the Illini struggled to compete against the better teams they faced. A good finish to the regular season and some returning offensive firepower provides hope for the future, but defense and special teams remain concerns.

Offseason to-do list: Illinois

January, 19, 2015
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The seemingly endless offseason is sadly upon us, so it's time for each Big Ten team to see what needs to be upgraded (yes, even you, Ohio State). During the next week or so we'll examine three items on each Big Ten team's to-do list before the 2015 season kicks off in September.

Illinois leads things off.

1. Establish a vision on defense: Tim Beckman's background is on defense, but his team has struggled to consistently stop anyone during his Illini tenure. Illinois has finished last in the Big Ten in rush defense in each of the past two seasons, allowing nearly 240 rush yards per game in both years. Beckman could hire a co-defensive coordinator to assist Tim Banks, who has been the sole coordinator since 2012. Whatever Beckman decides, his defense needs to have a clear vision and identity. There is some talent and experience there with players like Mason Monheim, Jihad Ward and V'Angelo Bentley, but a unit that can't stop the run in the Big Ten has no chance.

2. Get Wes Lunt healthy and on track: Lunt had 1,569 pass yards and 11 touchdowns in his first five games with the Illini, but he wasn't the same after returning from a broken leg. The sophomore quarterback had just one touchdown pass, struggled with his accuracy, and couldn't stretch the field in his final three appearances. It's important that Lunt gets back to 100 percent and re-establishes the rhythm he had in September. He's still the team's best quarterback option. Illinois' offense will be its strength with weapons like Mikey Dudek, Josh Ferguson, Geronimo Allison, and Malik Turner back in the fold. If Lunt recaptures his early form, the Illini will be tough to stop this fall.

3. Make special teams a strength: Beckman said the special teams units he inherited at Illinois were "as bad as there was in this country, probably." The improvement hasn't been sufficient, as he fired special teams coach Tim Salem after the season. Illinois needs to identify a reliable kicker -- David Reisner and Taylor Zalewski combined to go 9-for-17 on field-goal attempts in 2014 -- and replace standout punter Justin DuVernois. The Illini boast one of the Big Ten's top returners in Bentley, but coverage teams need to be upgraded. Illinois simply isn't good enough elsewhere to have the kicking game hold it back.

Weekend rewind: Big Ten

October, 27, 2014
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Rutgers and Maryland both got off to nice starts in their first season in the Big Ten. But reality is beginning to set in for both programs.

The Scarlet Knights beat Michigan and the Terrapins notched a solid victory over Iowa earlier this season. So both teams have been more than competitive and should go bowling. Yet hanging with the Big Ten's best teams in the league's toughest environments is another story entirely.

Rutgers fell to Nebraska 42-24 on Saturday in Lincoln, a week after losing 56-17 at Ohio State. Maryland got hammered by Wisconsin 52-7 in Madison and lost 52-24 earlier this season to Ohio State at home. The Terps were outgained by a total of 575 yards in those two blowout defeats, while the Scarlet Knights gave up 616 rushing yards to Ohio State and Nebraska.

Many Big Ten teams would suffer the same fates in those stadiums and against those opponents, so this is not really a knock on the newbies. It's just a reminder that while both Maryland and Rutgers are far from Big Ten bottom-feeders, they're not all that close to the cream of the crop, either. And both still have to play Michigan State.

[+] EnlargeDrew Meyer
Dan Sanger/Icon SportswireBadgers punter Drew Meyer tosses a pass during Saturday's Week 9 game against Maryland.
On to the Week 9 rewind:

Team of the week: Illinois. Like many others, we have given Tim Beckman a hard time. But he has always struck me as a decent guy who really cares about his players, and his joy for them was evident after the Illini upset Minnesota on Saturday. It was the program's first Big Ten home win since October 2011, incredibly. As bad as things have seemed in Champaign this season, especially after the home loss to Purdue, Illinois is still 4-4. A bowl game -- and another year for Beckman -- is still in play.

Biggest play: V'Angelo Bentley's 12-yard fumble return with 6:33 left provided the winning score for Illinois. It was sad to see David Cobb cough up such a big mistake since he's had an amazing season and has carried Minnesota's offense on his back, including on Saturday.

Coolest play: Never sleep on the punter. Well done, Wisconsin's Drew Meyer.

Worst play: Uh, not so well done, Devin Gardner.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Ameer Abdullah set a Nebraska record with 341 all-purpose yards. I think he blew up all the red balloons before the game, too. We're running out of superlatives for this guy.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Several Penn State defensive players were great, including Mike Hull and Anthony Zettel. But when the game was on the line in State College, guess who came through? No, don't just shrug. Take a bow, Joey Bosa.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Ohio State's Cameron Johnston averaged 45 yards on six punts and had four of them downed inside the 20, including a pair inside the Penn State 10-yard line in the fourth quarter.

Biggest faceplant: Minnesota was angling toward a 7-1 start and starting to gain some national respect before it lost to an Illinois team that had lost 24 of its previous 25 Big Ten games. For a second straight week, the Gophers fell behind early, and it's not a team built to play that way. With the closing foursome of Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska and at Wisconsin still left, Jerry Kill's team needs to regroup quickly or risk losing some serious steam.

Dumbest stake-plant: Well, duh. If you're keeping track, Michigan's ratio of wins to public apologies this season stands at 3-to-2. What a bizarre year in Ann Arbor.

Fun with numbers: Budget some extra time if you're going to Beaver Stadium for a league matchup. Five of Penn State's last seven Big Ten home games have gone into overtime. ... Michigan's fourth-quarter touchdown against Michigan State was its first versus the Spartans in 186:08 of game action, dating back to the fourth quarter of the 2011 game. ... Abdullah now ranks second in Big Ten history with 6,604 career all-purpose yards. He needs 825 more to break Ron Dayne's record, and with four more regular-season games plus a bowl (and a possible Big Ten title game) he should get there. ... Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon has five games with at least three rushing scores over the past two seasons, the most among all Power 5 conference players. His 15 touchdowns in his last five games ties Billy Marek (1974) for the school record for most scores in a five-game stretch.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 9

October, 26, 2014
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Honoring the best and brightest from an action-packed Saturday in the Big Ten.

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: Something of a forgotten man over the past couple weeks, Abdullah turned in a virtuoso performance in the Huskers' 42-24 win over Rutgers that should serve as a reminder that he belongs in the conversation about the nation’s best weapons. Abdullah racked up 225 yards on the ground and 26 more through the air, sparking another conference win with three trips to the end zone.

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: With just a little bit of help from an improved passing attack, the star running back was able to carve up Maryland on the ground and stake the Badgers to a big early lead with three touchdowns before halftime. He may have given up some statistical ground to his buddy Abdullah, but with Gordon rolling again, Wisconsin -- a 52-7 winner Saturday -- again looks like a threat to the Huskers in the West Division.

Illinois DB V’Angelo Bentley: The junior has had more impressive touchdowns in a career that has included scores in just about every way imaginable for a non-offensive player, but his relatively easy 12-yard fumble return might go down as the most memorable. After Minnesota running back David Cobb coughed up the football in the fourth quarter, Bentley’s heads-up play produced the game-winning points in Illinois' 28-24 victory -- just the second in the Big Ten for coach Tim Beckman.

Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford: The senior doesn’t usually get much publicity with so many high-profile rushers in the Big Ten, but Langford continues to chew up yardage and pile up touchdowns for the Spartans with or without the spotlight. He matched both Gordon and Abdullah with a hat trick of scores, leading Michigan State to yet another win over rival Michigan -- 35-11 --and keeping it in the thick of the race for the College Football Playoff.

Ohio State DE Joey Bosa: Penn State had a handful of worthy candidates for an award, but none of them added a game-winning play to the box score. The sophomore sensation was all over the field helping slow down the Nittany Lions on the ground, he put Christian Hackenberg under a barrage of pressure from start to finish and finished with 2.5 sacks. But it was his last play, a walk-off takedown in double overtime, that clinched a 31-24 win for the Buckeyes and earned him another weekly honor.
We've been previewing each position group in the Big Ten, and we've gone through every level of the offense and defense. But that's only two-thirds of the game. Don't forget special teams.

It can be hard to judge some of the new guys in the kicking game, as they often practice alone on separate fields and respond differently to pressure. So we'll give more weight to those who have already proved themselves in the league. Here's how we see the specialists shaping up:

Best of the best: Michigan State

Punter Mike Sadler is like an extension of the defense, so brilliant is he at pinning opponents near their own goal line (and he must be accounted for on trick plays). The vastly improved place-kicking game was a hidden reason for Michigan State's turnaround last year, and credit belongs to Michael Geiger, who missed only one field goal in 16 tries as a freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr., who was suspended this spring, finished third in the Big Ten in punt returns a year ago. The kickoff return game needs work, but all in all, the Spartans are in great shape whenever ball meets foot.

Next up: Maryland

Only four returning FBS players made more field goals last year than Brad Craddock, who went 21-for-25. William Likely was one of the ACC's best kickoff and punt returners as a freshman. Nathan Renfro had some shaky moments at punter but is entering his third year as a starter. The Terps enter the Big Ten armed with strong special teams. Ohio State should also be very, very good if an adequate replacement for placekicker Drew Basil is found.

Sleeper: Illinois

It wasn't that long ago that the Illini special teams were embarrassingly bad. But things are improving. V'Angelo Bentley led the league with a 15.8-yard average on punt returns last year. Place-kicker Taylor Zalewski has battled with inconsistency but did make a 54-yarder last year; he'll face some competition from Navy transfer David Reisner and Ryan Frain this summer. Veteran punter Justin DuVernois has been solid.

Problem for a contender: Wisconsin

The Badgers have had major issues on field goals the past couple of seasons. Jack Russell needs to provide more than just easy opportunities for my dog puns, or else he could be on a short leash (ahem). Drew Meyer returns at punter, but Wisconsin finished ninth in the Big Ten in net punting average last season. The good news is that Kenzel Doe is a top-flight return man. But if the overall kicking game doesn't improve, it could cost the team a win or two.
Few preseason prognosticators create as much excitement around their summer picks as Phil Steele.

The college football guru packs a tremendous amount of information and research into his preseason magazines. And Steele has released his choices for the 2014 All-Big Ten team, which you can find here.

[+] EnlargeStefon Diggs
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsMaryland receiver Stefon Diggs could make an immediate impact in the Big Ten.
Some thoughts on the selections:

Steele sees newcomers Maryland and Rutgers bringing some talent into the league quickly, as he has two Terrapins (wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long) and two Scarlet Knights (guard Kaleb Johnson and linebacker Steve Longa) on the first team. ... A mild surprise on the first team is Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones, who will attempt to take over the middle spot from Max Bullough this year. ... The first-team defensive line is absolutely loaded, with Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, and Ohio State's Michael Bennett and Joey Bosa. Iowa's Carl Davis and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran were relegated to second-team status. ... Speaking of the second team, Steele puts Northwestern wide receiver Kyle Prater there, apparently expecting big things at long last from the former USC transfer. ... Steele also has Ohio State's Dontre Wilson and Devin Smith breaking out as second-team All-Big Ten receivers. ... Penn State fans might be a bit miffed to see Christian Hackenberg as only the third-team quarterback. Michigan State's Connor Cook is Steele's choice for second-team QB, with Braxton Miller obviously No. 1. ... Michigan State leads the way with five players on Steele's first-team offense and defense. Ohio State has four, while Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan each have three.

Steele also has released his preseason All-America team, which includes some familiar Big Ten names. Here's a quick rundown:

First team:

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon

Ohio State DT Michael Bennett

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun

Second team:

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah

Iowa OT Brandon Scherff

Nebraska DE Randy Gregory

Ohio State DE Joey Bosa

Iowa PR Kevonte Martin-Manley

Third team:

Ohio State QB Braxton Miller

Maryland WR Stefon Diggs

Michigan WR Devin Funchess

Iowa DT Carl Davis

Michigan LB Jake Ryan

Michigan State CB Trae Waynes

Michigan State S Kurtis Drummond

Illinois PR V'Angelo Bentley

Indiana LS Matt Dooley

Fourth team:

Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford

Ohio State TE Jeff Heuerman

Wisconsin OT Rob Havenstein

Northwestern RB/KR Venric Mark

Illinois spring wrap

April, 28, 2014
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The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we’re taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Illinois.

Three things we learned in the spring

  • Maybe the Illini don’t need to rush at quarterback: The assumption heading into camp was that even with the coaching staff evaluating multiple quarterbacks, Wes Lunt was a lock to win the starting job. Maybe the transfer from Oklahoma State still has the inside track, but Reilly O'Toole shined in the spring game and he and Aaron Bailey have done enough to keep the battle going into August.
  • Concerns linger about who will catch those passes: Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit was quick to point out before practice even started that he was more worried about finding receivers than picking a guy to throw to them, and that issue hasn’t been entirely put to bed. Even after a spring game that featured productive outings for former walk-on Peter Bonahoom and Justin Hardee, Cubit still expressed concern about broken routes and drops from the unit.
  • The pass rush is showing signs of life: The bar is low to show improvement, but the Illini appear well on their way to adding some bite in the trenches and making more plays in the backfield. Collectively the defense racked up seven sacks in the spring game, led by a dynamic outing from Paul James III, who chipped in a pair of those sacks, added two more tackles for loss and also recovered a fumble.
Three questions for the fall

  • How will the secondary hold up?: V'Angelo Bentley provided a hint that better things are on the way with an 89-yard interception return in the spring game, but the Illini still need to prove they’ve overcome the youthful mistakes that popped up while allowing more than 480 yards per game overall a year ago. Coach Tim Beckman wasn’t thrilled with some deep shots the cornerbacks allowed as spring closed, and the defense will have to hold up its end of the bargain to get the program on track.
  • Will the offensive line improve?: The Illini might be serviceable enough to provide pass protection for Cubit’s attack, but unless the offensive line can start consistently getting some push up front for the tailbacks, there won’t be enough threat from the running game to keep talented defenses off balance. Spring games aren’t perfect barometers, but neither squad averaged more than 2.9 yards per attempt on the ground in the exhibition, a discouraging sign for a team that finished No. 10 in the conference in rushing last year.
  • Is there a new toughness to go with the new look?: The rebrand on the uniforms gives Illinois a sharp new look. Now it needs to prove those upgrades aren’t just superficial. The tests for the guys inside those jerseys come one after another on the road in the Big Ten, and the Illini will have to embrace the challenge of playing in hostile venues like Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio State if they're going to return to being contenders in the league again.
One way-too-early prediction

The Illini aren’t ready to compete with the powerhouses in the Big Ten, but assuming they can get three wins outside the league and defend Memorial Stadium against Purdue, the chance to earn a bowl bid could be well within reach heading into November. It may still come down to the final weekend of the regular season and a trip to Northwestern, but Illinois has the talent to get the job done and return the postseason.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. The series wraps up with the specialists.

Illinois:The Illini might not be exceptional in the kicking game, but they're in better shape than they were when coach Tim Beckman arrived. Punter Justin DuVernois returns after a solid junior season, while Taylor Zalewski looks for a bit more consistency in his second full season as the placekicker. Zalewski made 12 of 17 field-goal attempts last fall. The return game is the real plus, as V'Angelo Bentley provides a major threat, especially on punt returns.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana brings back a dynamic returner in Shane Wynn, who averaged 14 yards on punt run-backs despite limited work. Punter Erich Toth also is back for his third season as the starter. Toth placed 18 of 52 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. IU suffers a big loss at kicker as Mitch Ewald, the team's career field goals and field-goal percentage leader, departs. Aaron Del Grosso and Griffin Oakes will compete at kicker, and Jake Shake (shake and bake!) could enter the mix this summer.

Iowa: Here's another Big Ten team that looks very strong on returns, as Iowa boasts the Big Ten's most dynamic tandem in Kevonte Martin-Manley (punts) and Jordan Cotton (kickoffs). Martin-Manley had two punt-return touchdowns in 2013. Punter Connor Kornbrath ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in average, but placed 27 of 65 attempts inside the opponent's 20. Iowa loses kicker Mike Meyer, a four-year starter. Junior Marshall Koehn seems likely to step up, but could be pushed by incoming freshman Mick Ellis and others.

Maryland: Notice a theme so far? Most Big Ten teams are strong in the return game, and Maryland is no exception. If Stefon Diggs returns at full strength from his leg injury, he'll be a dangerous man with punts and kickoffs in his hands. Will Likely performed extremely well in Diggs' spot, averaging 26 yards on kickoff returns and 12.8 yards on punt returns. Maryland brings back an excellent kicker in Brad Craddock (21-for-25 on field goals last year), and punter Nathan Renfro enters his third season as the starter.

Michigan: Matt Wile has done a bit of everything for Michigan, but could settle into the starting placekicker role this fall. Wile handled kicking duties late last season and also served as Michigan's punter after Will Hagerup was suspended for the season. Hagerup, the Big Ten's punter of the year in 2012, will reclaim the role if he can avoid off-field problems that have surfaced throughout his career. Wile then could focus on kicking, as Kenny Allen is the only other option there. Michigan is still waiting for big things from kick returner Dennis Norfleet and must find someone to handle punts. Top recruit Jabrill Peppers could help.

Michigan State: Special teams once again should be a strength for MSU, which returns All-Big Ten punter Mike Sadler, a Ray Guy award semifinalist who will contend for All-America honors in 2014. Kicker Michael Geiger also is back after connecting on 15 of 16 field-goal attempts as a true freshman. Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Andre Sims Jr. both put up good numbers on punt returns. Michigan State had by far the fewest kick returns (18) in the Big Ten last year and will look for a boost from R.J. Shelton and others.

Minnesota: After an above-average year on special teams in 2013, Minnesota again should be good in the third phase. Punter Peter Mortell didn't get as many accolades as Sadler or Purdue's Cody Webster, but he had an excellent sophomore season, averaging 43.3 yards per attempt with 15 of 50 yards or longer. Marcus Jones is a major threat on returns after bringing back both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last fall. Redshirt freshman kickers Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte will compete as the Gophers lose Chris Hawthorne.

Nebraska: The Huskers are looking for some upgrades on special teams, particularly on punt returns, as Nebraska ranked 123rd in the FBS last fall. Primary returner Jordan Westerkamp is back, but he'll face some competition. Nebraska brings back punter Sam Foltz, who had a solid freshman season, averaging 41.6 yards per boot. Mauro Bondi is set to step in at kicker as Pat Smith departs. If Bondi struggles, incoming freshman Kris Brown could get a look this summer. Kenny Bell, who led the Big Ten in kick return average (26.5 yards per return), is back.

Northwestern: The Wildcats lose a huge piece in Jeff Budzien, named the Big Ten's top kicker in each of his final two seasons. Hunter Niswander can handle both kickoffs and punts but seems likely to slide into Budzien's spot. Northwestern's punting was a mess in 2013, ranking 118th nationally in net average (33.2 ypp). Brandon Williams departs and Chris Gradone or Niswander will take over. The big news is Northwestern brings back Venric Mark , an All-America punt returner in 2012. Primary kick returner Matt Harris is back after a solid freshman season.

Ohio State: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie. Indeed, the Aussie is back at punter as Cameron Johnston returns after an excellent debut season (I refuse to call a 21-year-old a freshman). Ohio State hopes for similar results from another first-year specialist in kicker Sean Nuernberger, an early enrollee expected to step in for the departing Drew Basil. Sophomore Dontre Wilson will continue to have a big role on returns after handling kickoffs last year. Ohio State must replace Corey Brown on punt returns and could look to redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall or true freshmen Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon.

Penn State: The kicking game continues to be an area of concern.Sam Ficken owns the team record for consecutive field goals (15) and started strong last season but ended with just 15 of 23 conversions, including four misses inside 40 yards. Penn State needs a new punter after losing Alex Butterworth, and will turn to Chris Gulla. Jesse Della Valle did a good job on punt returns, but Penn State needs a boost on kickoffs after finishing last in the league (19.1 yards per return). The Lions could stick with Geno Lewis or look for a newcomer such as De'Andre Thompkins to emerge. PSU also must shore up its coverage units.

Purdue: As if the Boilers didn't have enough to address on offense and defense, the kicking game needs attention. Punter Cody Webster finished his spectacular career with All-America honors, and the Boilers finished second nationally in net punting (41.7 yards per punt). Incoming freshman Austin McGehee will take over for Webster. Paul Griggs and Thomas Meadows continue to work at kicker, as Griggs made only 50 percent of his attempts (6 of 12) last season. The kick return game is strong with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert, but Purdue must replace punt returner Ricardo Allen. B.J. Knauf could be a good fit there.

Rutgers: The kicking game historically is a strength for Rutgers, which has a knack for blocking kicks and pulling off fakes. Rutgers loses a productive piece in punter Nick Marsh, who also handled kickoffs. The Scarlet Knights will turn to Joseph Roth as their replacement. Kicker Kyle Federico finished the season well, particularly in the Pinstripe Bowl, and returns for his junior season. Rutgers has a major weapon on returns in Janarion Grant, who brought back both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown during his freshman season.

Wisconsin: The kicking game has held back Wisconsin in the past, so it's definitely an area to watch during the offseason. Kicker Jack Russell converted 9 of 13 field-goal attempts after taking over for Kyle French. He'll try to hold off incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone. Andrew Endicott, who handled kickoffs last fall, also returns. Wisconsin is looking for more from punter Drew Meyer, who averaged just 38.6 yards per attempt in 2013. Top returner Kenzel Doe is back and should handle both punts and kickoffs, although Wisconsin could look to others for help, such as newcomers Serge Trezy and Natrell Jamerson.

More position breakdowns
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive backs.

Illinois: The secondary returns mostly intact from 2013, as Illinois returns starters at both cornerback spots (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence), as well as Zane Petty, who started the final seven games at free safety. Taylor Barton, who opened last season as a starting free safety, also is back. Building safety depth is important this spring as Illinois must replace Earnest Thomas III. Barton will compete with Jevaris Little and others for playing time. The depth is much better at corner as Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap both saw significant action as freshmen last fall.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana returns a lot in the defensive backfield but must improve after struggling to stop opponents in 2013. The Hoosiers also lose only one starter in safety Greg Heban, a mainstay during the past four seasons. There's a lot of experience at cornerback with returning starters Tim Bennett (senior) and Michael Hunter (junior), along with reserve Kenny Mullen (senior). Decorated recruit Rashard Fant, who redshirted in 2013, will compete for significant playing time. Senior safety Mark Murphy will lead the secondary, and sophomore Antonio Allen could fill the other safety spot when he returns from an ACL tear. Building depth here always is a priority at IU.

Iowa: The situation isn't as dramatic as the linebacker spot, but Iowa still must replace two productive players in cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller, who combined for six interceptions in 2013. Lowery is the more significant loss, as he had 19 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The good news is Desmond King looks like a budding star and he will move into the featured role Lowery occupied. Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and others will compete to start opposite King. Strong safety John Lowdermilk returns after a solid junior season. Lomax also could play free safety and will compete there with Anthony Gair and Nico Law, who both appeared in all 13 games last fall as reserves.

Maryland: The back four aims for better results on the injury front and on the field in 2013. Maryland returns both starters at safety in Sean Davis, the team's leading tackler with 102 last fall, and Anthony Nixon, but there should be competition behind them with A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel. The cornerback position is worth watching this spring as Dexter McDougle departs and Jeremiah Johnson remains limited by a toe injury. Will Likely has opened the spring as a starter, and Alvin Hill could rise up after recording 24 tackles last season.

Michigan: The secondary took a step back in 2013 and all jobs are open even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks -- Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor -- and some experience at safety. Jabrill Peppers, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will play a major role for the Wolverines this fall, whether it's at corner, safety or nickel. Junior Jarrod Wilson started the first seven games of last season at free safety, and Dymonte Thomas is a good candidate to start at one of the safety spots. Michigan should expect more from this group in 2014.

Michigan State: Will opposing offenses invade the No Fly Zone in 2014? Not if Michigan State can fill several spots, none bigger than Darqueze Dennard's at cornerback. Dennard, a unanimous All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, departs to the NFL, and junior Trae Waynes slides into the featured corner role after a promising sophomore season. The competition opposite Waynes heats up this spring as Ezra Robinson, Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun compete. Free safety Kurtis Drummond boasts 21 career starts and enters 2014 as one of the league's top safeties. RJ Williamson likely will fill Isaiah Lewis' spot at strong safety, and Demetrious Cox provides depth.

Minnesota: Like the Gophers' defensive line, the secondary loses a huge piece in Brock Vereen, who played both safety and cornerback last season. But there might be enough returning pieces to fill the void. Cornerback Eric Murray had a very solid first season as a starter, and Minnesota also brings back Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both of whom have starting experience. Leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson finished last season as the starting safeties, and both are back. Senior Grayson Levine provides some experience in a reserve safety role.

Nebraska: An important spring awaits new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who must identify new starters at cornerback, safety and nickel. The Huskers are replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who combined for eight interceptions, 18 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss in 2013. Safety Andrew Green, who made 10 starts in 2013, also leaves. The good news is cornerback Josh Mitchell had an excellent bowl game and will fill a starting spot. Leading tackler Corey Cooper also returns at safety. There's not much experience at corner other than Mitchell, and Daniel Davie, Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose and others will compete. Nebraska brings back more at safety with Harvey Jackson, who made three starts in 2013, and junior Charles Jackson.

Northwestern: That the Wildcats' secondary could be one of the team's biggest strengths seemed laughable three years ago, but it could be true this fall. All four starters return, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders (262 career tackles). The depth at cornerback looks strong as starters Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris return, along with Dwight White and Daniel Jones, who opened 2013 as a starter and is coming back from an ACL tear. Traveon Henry should start alongside Campbell, and there are some promising young safeties like Godwin Igwebuike.

Ohio State: Pass defense proved to be Ohio State's downfall in 2013, and the Buckeyes' secondary will be under the microscope this spring as new assistant Chris Ash steps in. Ohio State loses All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby and will lean more on Doran Grant, who started opposite Roby in 2013. Ash also expects big things from Tyvis Powell, who will start at one of the safety spots. Safety Vonn Bell finally logged significant playing time in the Orange Bowl and could become a permanent starter as a sophomore. Veteran Ron Tanner and Cam Burrows also are in the mix at safety. There should be good competition to start opposite Grant, as Armani Reeves tries to hold off redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple.

Penn State: After a season of moving parts and inconsistent plays, Penn State hopes for a more settled secondary. Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last season, will lead the group and brings plenty of experience. Jordan Lucas likely will start opposite Amos at cornerback after making strides toward the end of his sophomore season. PSU loses some leadership at safety with Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong departing and will lean on Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both of whom have starting experience. Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden provide depth at cornerback and safety, respectively.

Purdue: The rotation from 2013 returns almost completely intact, but Purdue loses a very big piece in cornerback Ricardo Allen, a four-year starter. Cornerback Frankie Williams enters his third year as a starter and will slide into Allen's featured role, while the competition for the other top corner spot will feature Antoine Lewis and Leroy Clark, among others. Purdue has plenty of experience at safety with Taylor Richards, who started every game in 2013, and Anthony Brown, who replaced the injured Landon Feichter and had 69 tackles. Feichter also is back from a broken leg.

Rutgers: This group is anxious to turn the page after a season filled with personnel issues and poor performance (Rutgers finished 120th nationally in pass defense). Senior safety Lorenzo Waters leads the group after recording 62 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013. Johnathan Aiken will try to start opposite Waters at free safety, although he'll be pushed by Delon Stephenson and Tejay Johnson, who started three games last fall. Gareef Glashen started six games last season and seems likely to retain one of the top cornerback spots. There will be competition at the other between Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, both of whom started games as true freshmen in 2013. The most intriguing player to watch is cornerback Ian Thomas, who returns to the team after quitting midway through last season, one that he began as a starter.

Wisconsin: The Badgers are relatively young at both secondary positions but boast far more experience at cornerback than safety. Junior Darius Hillary and sophomore Sojourn Shelton started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Peniel Jean adds even more experience at the position. Safety is much less settled as Dezmen Southward graduates, Michael Caputo shifts to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy returns to quarterback. Nate Hammon and Leo Musso both played in all 13 games last fall as reserves. Newcomers like Serge Trezy and Austin Hudson could compete for time when they arrive this summer.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Ian Thomas, Corey Cooper, Antoine Lewis, Mark Murphy, Jeremiah Johnson, Dezmen Southward, B.J. Lowery, Kurtis Drummond, Ibraheim Campbell, Peniel Jean, Doran Grant, Raymon Taylor, Tejay Johnson, Nick VanHoose, Blake Countess, Michael Hunter, Derrick Wells, Jordan Lomax, Kenny Mullen, Adrian Amos, Charles Jackson, Frankie Williams, Nate Hammon, Cedric Thompson, Tanner Miller, Dwight White, Harvey Jackson, Armani Reeves, Malik Golden, John Lowdermilk, Andrew Green, Darius Hillary, Traveon Henry, Daniel Jones, Demetrious Cox, Jermaine Edmonson, Ezra Robinson, Trevor Williams, Daniel Davie, Taylor Richards, Jarrod Wilson, RJ Williamson, Trae Waynes, Landon Feichter, Lorenzo Waters, Cam Burrows, Gareon Conley, Dymonte Thomas, Jesse Della Valle, Darius Mosely, Darian Hicks, Josh Mitchell, Eaton Spence, Antonio Allen, Zane Petty, Rashard Fant, Godwin Igwebuike, Sojourn Shelton, Nadir Barnwell, Matt Harris, Michael Caputo, Jonathan Rose, V'Angelo Bentley, Jevaris Little, Taylor Barton, Tyvis Powell, Arjen Colquhoun, Eric Murray, Sean Draper, Anthony Gair, Tim Bennett, Jabrill Peppers, Ryan Keiser, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Austin Hudson, Jaylen Dunlap, Charlton Warren, Serge Trezy, B1G spring positions 14, Sean Davis, Anthony Nixon, A.J. Hendy, Zach Dancel, Dexter McDougle, Will Likely, Alvin Hill, Antonio Johnson, Grayson Levine, Ron Tanner, Leroy Clark, Johnathan Aiken, Delon Stephenson, Gareef Glashen, Anthony Cioffi

Season report card: Illinois

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
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We're handing out grades to each Big Ten team for its regular-season performance on offense, defense, special teams and overall play. For Illinois (4-8, 1-7) this serves as a final grade, as there's no bowl game in sight. But at least the marks are higher than they were last year in Champaign.

Here you go, Illini:

Offense: B-plus

There's a reason Bill Cubit just got a two-year contract extension and a nice raise. In one year, he transformed what had been a moribund unit into a legitimate scoring attack.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesNathan Scheelhaase led the Big Ten in passing yards in 2013.
Cubit engineered a spread offense that averaged 29.7 points and over 426 yards per game. The Illini finished second in the league in passing yardage, and revived quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase led the Big Ten in passing yards by a wide margin with 3,272, to go along with 21 touchdowns. After injuries threatened to decimate the receiving corps, senior Steve Hull emerged late in the year to post huge stats in his final few games. The spread and quick passing game also covered some of the deficiencies of the offensive line, which did a much better job protecting Scheelhaase this season.

The running game was less successful, as Illinois finished just 10th in the league in rushing. But Josh Ferguson showed some big-time playmaking skills on his way to 779 yards and five touchdowns. For the most part, Illinois fielded a better-than-respectable offense for the majority of the season.

Defense: F

Thank goodness for Indiana. If not for the Hoosiers, Illinois would have had the worst defense in the Big Ten. It was still awful, yielding 481 yards and 35.4 points per game. The Illini had the worst rushing defense of any FBS AQ team in the country, giving up more than 238 yards per game on the ground. So, yeah, it was bad, especially in games like the 56-32 loss to Wisconsin, the 60-35 loss to Ohio State and the 52-35 loss to Indiana.

Linebacker Jonathan Brown was one of the few defensive standouts, with 119 total tackles and 15 tackles for loss. But Illinois just wasn't strong enough up front and couldn't slow down opposing passing games. Head coach Tim Beckman plans to keep the defensive staff intact, including coordinator Tim Banks, in hopes that a still very young unit will improve as it matures. He'd better be right about that.

Special teams: C

The kicking game was mostly a disaster in Beckman's first year, so it's notable that special teams improved to a mediocre level in 2013. V'Angelo Bentley helped solve some of the kick return woes that plagued the team the past couple of seasons. Justin DuVernois was solid at punter. Taylor Zalewski went 12-of-17 on field goals, though he did have a 54-yarder in the desperately-needed win over Purdue.

Overall: D-plus

Illinois definitely showed minor improvement in the second season under Beckman. The Illini doubled their win total, notched their first Big Ten victory after an embarrassing 20-game losing streak and at least fielded a competent, at times explosive, offense. But the defense actually got worse, and after a 3-1 start that included an upset of Cincinnati, Illinois finished 1-7. If the team makes one more play at Penn State and against Northwestern in the finale, the season not only looks much different but we're talking about a bowl game for Illinois. But the program just isn't there yet.

More report cards

Indiana
Northwestern
Ohio State
Nebraska
Penn State

Michigan
Minnesota

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 12

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
9:00
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Recognizing the best and the brightest around the Big Ten in week 12 …

Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said that Hyde made the difference for the Buckeyes in a 60-35 win. The senior rushed for four touchdowns and 246 yards on 24 carries and tallied another receiving touchdown (he had two catches totaling 26 yards). It was Hyde’s first 200-yard game of the season and more than double his previous season average of 117 yards per game.

Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons and holder Drew Dileo. Down three points with under 10 seconds remaining in regulation, the Michigan offense was sprinting off the field, the kicking team sprinting on the field and Dileo was sliding in to this holding position for Gibbons (yes, literally, sliding). Gibbons nailed a 44-yard field goal to send the game in to overtime, which the Wolverines eventually won after triple OT.

Wisconsin running backs. The Badgers accounted for 554 rushing yards against Indiana. James White (205 yards, 1 touchdown), Melvin Gordon (146 yards, 1 touchdown) and Corey Clement (108 yards, 2 touchdowns) became Wisconsin's third 100-yard rushing trio this season. Wisconsin tallied seven runs of 30 yards or more and White recorded a 93-yard touchdown run which set a program record for the longest run. The Badgers' 554 rush yards are the most by an FBS team this season.

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah. The Big Ten’s leading rusher had his seventh 100-yard game of the season (bringing his rushing total this season to 1,213) and he became the first running back to rush for more than 100 yards against the Spartans defense. He accounted for 123 yards on 22 carries and his one TD of the day was a 12-yard receiving touchdown (his only catch of the day). MSU came into the match up giving up just 43 rushing yards per game -- which Abdullah tripled.

Illinois DB V'Angelo Bentley. Coming into this weekend the Buckeyes had allowed just 1.5 yards per punt return and haven’t allowed any kind of a return on 92 percent of their punts. But with the Illini down 28-0 on Saturday Bentley managed to get past more than half of Ohio State’s punt coverage team and go 67 yards to the end zone. Not only did he become the first player to have success against this group, he also gave Illinois its first sign of life against the Buckeyes.

Honorable mention: Michigan State kicker Mike Sadler. With a six-point lead in the fourth quarter and the Spartans faced with a fourth-and-1 on the Cornhuskers 27 yard line, Mark Dantonio called for a fake field goal play. Sadler was supposed to go right, but the formation wasn’t quite what MSU expected, so instead of checking out of it and going for a field goal he rushed for three yards up the middle and a first down, setting up an MSU score.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It says a lot about the place Ohio State finds itself that a 25-point conference road victory, in which it scored 60 points, provides fodder for critics and detractors.

But that's the nature of college football in late November for an undefeated team. Politicking and nit-picking all play into a sport that chooses its championship game largely by way of popular opinion, creating a week-to-week beauty pageant.

Urban Meyer admitted after Saturday's 60-35 victory at Illinois that he and his team got a little too caught up in all the national title talk recently. Following a performance filled with warts, if not outright worry, Meyer wants the No. 3 Buckeyes to hop off that carousel.

"We need to make sure our focus is on just getting better each week instead of all the national stuff," Meyer said. "I think I'm learning a lesson. Just shut your mouth and quit worrying about this, quit worrying about that."

[+] EnlargeOhio State Touchdown
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsOhio State's Carlos Hyde crosses the goal line for the first of five touchdowns he scored Saturday at Illinois.
Meyer even suggested that he will restrict media access to his players in the next few weeks. Issues such as style points and schedule strength have dominated the discussion in recent weeks for Ohio State, and wide receiver Evan Spencer made waves last week by saying, albeit somewhat jokingly, that his team would "wipe the floor" with Alabama and Florida State. Linebacker Ryan Shazier said Saturday that "everybody was up in our heads" about the national title race during the Buckeyes' bye week.

Any distractions that might have caused didn't surface until well into Saturday's game. Ohio State, as it does just about every week, seized immediate control of the game, racing out to a 28-0 lead with 10:20 left in the first half. The Buckeyes have outscored opponents 63-0 in the first quarter in their past three games.

But the Illini -- who now own the nation's longest conference losing streak at 20 games, the second-worst streak in Big Ten history -- found a hole in the Buckeyes' most airtight unit this season: punt coverage. V'Angelo Bentley scored on a 67-yard punt return in the second quarter to give his team some life. Led by a gutsy effort from quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois sliced the lead to 14 early in the second half and trailed by only 12 with less than five minutes to play.

"When we got up big, everybody just kind of mellowed," Ohio State receiver Corey "Philly" Brown said. "We thought they would give up and they didn't. ...

"It was a big-time wake-up call."

Unlike the previous two games, the Buckeyes had to play their starters the whole way. Meyer had hoped to rest left tackle Jack Mewhort, who tweaked his knee in practice Wednesday, but he was forced to put Mewhort back in during the second half.

Ohio State couldn't exhale until Carlos Hyde ripped off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs in the final 4:03, and on a windy day that made passing a challenge, Meyer rode the running skills of quarterback Braxton Miller harder than he had all season. Miller finished with 184 yards on 16 carries.

But it was the defensive effort that proponents of teams such as Baylor and Stanford will harp on, as Ohio State gave up 420 yards and its highest point total of the season. Few will give the Buckeyes a pass for missing starting linebackers Joshua Perry and Curtis Grant or for losing starting defensive lineman Joey Bosa to a neck injury after he had rung up 2.5 sacks. Meyer called the defensive performance simply "not good enough."

"That is unacceptable from us," safety C.J. Barnett said. "Illinois is a good team with some great athletes, but at the same time, we expect more from ourselves."

Only in college football would a team that secured its 22nd consecutive victory with a 25-point road win be scrutinized and criticized. And make no mistake: The Buckeyes were not satisfied with their showing. The truth is that they're not going to the BCS title game unless Alabama or Florida State lose, and their best argument remains the long winning streak.

Just don't expect to hear much about that subject from the Ohio State camp in the coming days.

"There will be a lot more focus on Indiana this week," Barnett said, "instead of worrying about the big picture or what's in the future. We need to worry about the right here and now."
We've reflected on the first half of the Big Ten season, evaluated each team and looked ahead to what promises to be a more exciting second half.

As we put a bow on the first half, we're selecting a midseason All-Big Ten team. This list certainly isn't as significant as the postseason squad, but these players merit recognition for their performances during the first seven weeks of the season.

The envelope, please ...

OFFENSE

QB: Nathan Scheelhaase, Illinois
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: Ted Bolser, Indiana
C: Corey Linsley, Ohio State
OL: Spencer Long, Nebraska
OL: Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OL:
Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin
OL:
Jack Mewhort, Ohio State

DEFENSE

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
DT: DaQuan Jones, Penn State
DE: Tyler Scott, Northwestern
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State
LB: James Morris, Iowa
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska
DB: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern
DB: Blake Countess, Michigan


SPECIALISTS

K: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
KR: Marcus Jones, Minnesota
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa

We'll start with the quarterback spot, which has been underwhelming around most of the league, partly because of injury. It was a close call between Scheelhaase and Penn State true freshman Christian Hackenberg, but Scheelhaase gets a slight edge with more touchdown passes and fewer interceptions. We had another tough decision at the No. 2 running back spot between Abdullah and Iowa's Mark Weisman, who has been very productive so far. Ultimately, Abdullah has made more out of his carries and got the nod.

The Big Ten's depth at linebacker prompted us to go with a 3-4 defensive alignment for the midseason team. We had some debate for the lone defensive tackle spot between Jones, Ohio State's Michael Bennett and Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman, but went with Jones, the league's leader in tackles for loss (8.5). Linebacker is so deep that it was tough limiting the list to only four. We ultimately went with Morris over Illinois' Jonathan Brown because Morris has made more game-changing plays. Cornerback has been a deeper position than safety through the first half, so we went with three corners and only one safety.

Kick returner was another close call between Minnesota's Jones and Illinois' V'Angelo Bentley.
Two games in a four-week stretch isn't any football fan's idea of fun, but it's an unfortunate reality for supporters of Illinois and Nebraska.

The Illini are off this week for the second time already (they also didn't play in Week 4), and Nebraska has a bye next week after not playing in Week 5, along with five other Big Ten teams. The double bye has reared its ugly head this season around the FBS, creating unsatisfying Saturdays in the Big Ten and elsewhere.

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsTim Beckman's Fighting Illini are on their second bye week already.
This week's Big Ten schedule features only four games, just like the Week 5 slate.

In May, I took a close look at the double bye, which is in place both this season and next because of the extra week in the schedule. As league schedule czar Mark Rudner told me then, the fact that most of 2013 and 2014 schedules were completed before the Big Ten implemented a championship game and moved its regular season to after Thanksgiving forced the league to spread out 48 conference games across 10 weeks rather than nine. Things will be better in 2014 as there are more conference games (56) with Maryland and Rutgers joining the league. There's also additional flexibility with nonleague games, of which all but one were bunched up at the start of this season.

But right now, it stinks. October, on the whole, lacks many marquee Big Ten matchups to begin with, as the crossover schedule leaves much to be desired. The double-bye certainly doesn't help.

You know how I feel, and I think I know how you feel. What about the teams?

"Normally, I don't think I'd like it," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said, "but with the youth on our team, it's kind of what the doctor ordered for us. I think it'll help us get better, not just injury-wise, but giving us a chance to grow, especially on the defensive side of the ball. I like the way it's set up for us."

Injuries are the biggest reason why open weeks can be helpful for teams. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez injured his toe before the team's first open week, which allowed him to rest and allowed the coaches to prepare redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong for a bigger role.

Although Martinez is making progress and will play as soon as he can, possibly Saturday at Purdue, Pelini acknowledged that the upcoming bye week will play a role in how they proceed.

The second bye also allows Illinois to heal up. Coach Tim Beckman hopes to get defensive lineman Teko Powell back and others back in the mix. Powell could return for Illinois' Oct. 19 home game against Wisconsin.

Beckman hasn't dealt with two bye weeks so close together before in his career, and seems lukewarm about it.

"As a coach, you hate to get away from it because you're with a young football team and you want a young football team to stay in a schedule as much as possible," Beckman said.

Illinois players will use the week mainly for self-evaluation. Sophomore cornerback/returner V'Angelo Bentley, for example, will review the 237 plays he has logged through the first five games.

Pelini thinks the double bye would be tougher to deal with if he had an older team that needed less refining outside of the game setting.

"It adds another week for you, and sometimes you get into a rhythm and you don't like that bye week," Pelini said. "If you're a real veteran group, sometimes it's real hard to get them through not only one bye, but a second bye. But I don't think we're in that situation."

Pelini liked Nebraska's plan in the first open week and will repeat it after the Purdue game.

"I'm not in control of scheduling and having open weeks and that sort of thing," Beckman said. "So you live with it, you adapt with it, you make it positive. That's what we're doing."

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