Big Ten: Will Campbell

Big Ten Tuesday mailblog

June, 10, 2014
Jun 10
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Questions, answers and Twitter. What could possibly be better on a Tuesday in June?

Let's begin ...

Virgel from Valdosta, Ga., writes: Adam, do you think that if this season ends the Tim Beckman era at Illinois, they would go after a high-profile coach on the bench right now, like a Mack Brown? Your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting thought, Virgel, as it's hard to know where athletic director Mike Thomas would turn. He has a track record of hiring MAC coaches -- Butch Jones, Brian Kelly, Beckman -- but I'd be shocked if he went that route again. Brown will be 62 in August, has a ton of money and likely a lengthy TV career ahead, so I'm not sure how much he would want to coach again. And if he did, for how long?

Illinois doesn't want to keep changing coaches. But thinking outside the box could be a good approach. Or Thomas could hire a guy like Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who is ready to lead a major-conference program.




Kyle from Hamilton, Ontario, writes: We all have heard how "weak" Iowa's schedule is. It has even been rumoured that they could be favoured in every game. Given the fact they don't play Ohio State, a scenario exists that they both could go undefeated. That could have happened in 2002 if Iowa didn't blow the lead against Iowa State that year. My question is this: If both Ohio State and Iowa go undefeated do both teams make the playoffs?

Adam Rittenberg: Man, I love that Canadian spelling. This would be a fascinating scenario, Kyle. A lot depends on what happens in other conferences and how the Big Ten performs in marquee nonleague games. But I don't think Iowa makes the playoff with a loss in the league championship game, primarily because of the seemingly soft regular-season schedule.

In this scenario, Ohio State would have a road win against a preseason top-10 team in Michigan State. The Buckeyes also play Virginia Tech in nonleague play. Will the Michigan home win help or hurt Ohio State? How much credit will Iowa get for beating Wisconsin and Nebraska at home? All these questions factor into the playoff decision. Ultimately, I doubt the Big Ten gets two teams into the initial playoff. Fairly or unfairly, the league will pay for its recent shortcomings. But Ohio State has a better chance as a one-loss team than Iowa.




Dave from Marietta, Ohio, writes: The Big Ten should've gone to North-South divisions instead of East-West. I'm not sure about the exact locations of the schools, but a North-South alignment could look something like this ... North -- Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Purdue, Iowa. South -- Maryland, Rutgers, Penn State, Ohio State, Indiana, Illinois, Nebraska.

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting idea, Dave, as this proposal appears to create more historical balance than the current East-West alignment. But if you look at the Big Ten's recent expansion, the idea is to live in a second region along the East Coast. It's not a northern expansion but an eastern one. Another factor to consider is geography. Nebraska would be a major outlier in the South division -- nearly an eight-hour drive from its closest division competitor (Illinois) and a loooong way from Ohio State, Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers. Would Husker fans care? Maybe, maybe not. They would get annual games with both Penn State and Ohio State.

I like how your proposal satisfies the Iowa-Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry triangle/dilemma, but it also would require at least one extra protected crossover, Ohio State-Michigan, which would reduce the overall schedule rotation for two of the league's marquee programs. I definitely see value in the North-South model, but East-West is here, at least for now.




[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Paul VernonOhio State's Braxton Miller is one of just two early enrollees to be Big Ten Freshman of the Year in the last seven years.
Dave from Columbus, Ohio, writes: I wondered if you've seen any data comparing early enrollees and players who enroll in the fall. Do early enrollees start sooner, play in more games, have better drafts or have better graduation rates than players who enroll in the summer/fall? My thought is if the player works hard enough to graduate high school early, maybe there's a bit of a better work ethic.

Adam Rittenberg: Good question, David, and there's not a great answer yet as this trend remains somewhat new. The number of early enrollees really spiked in the 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes. Not surprisingly, there is some evidence that early enrollees are contributing faster in their careers than those who arrive in the summer. We've seen examples in the Big Ten such as Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton, who earned a starting job as a true freshman. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller enrolled early and has started since the middle of his freshman season.

Then again, a 2009 ranking of top early enrollee groups Insider showed more misses (Tate Forcier, Kevin Newsome, Will Campbell) than hits (Gerald Hodges) in the Big Ten. Penn State had seven early enrollees in 2010 but only one, running back Silas Redd, became a star for the Lions.

Of the Big Ten's last seven Freshman of the Year recipients, just two -- Ohio State's Miller and Illinois' Arrelious Benn -- were early enrollees. So it's hard to draw clear conclusions.




Peter from Boston writes: Would be interested to hear your thoughts on a recent article by John U. Bacon about attendance issues at Michigan (Ivan Maisel referenced it in his latest 3-Point Stance). Personally, I think you could insert any major program in the country (including my alma mater Penn State) and write roughly the same article. ADs constantly point the finger at high-definition TV and other tech as the reason for slipping attendance, and it's definitely a factor, but Bacon makes some very good points about the in-game experience and costs of attending a game at a major university. What do you think?

Adam Rittenberg: There are some very valid points in Bacon's story, especially about rising ticket prices. As Ohio State AD Gene Smith recently told me, "The reality is a lot of our ticket pricing, some of us are at the top of the pyramid." And it seems like the branding push, especially in the Big Ten, is turning off some fans. Has the sport sold its soul in some ways? No doubt. Is branding too much of a priority in the Big Ten, which makes a lot of money but doesn't really win anything? There's a case to be made. ADs are devoting a lot of energy to improving the gameday experience, but two solutions are pretty simple: scheduling better opponents and charging less for tickets.

Michigan season preview

August, 19, 2013
8/19/13
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Can Michigan make the jump from the cusp to an actual Big Ten championship game? A look at the 2013 Wolverines:

MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

Coach: Brady Hoke (66-57, 19-7)

2012 record: 8-5

Key losses: QB/RB Denard Robinson; WR Roy Roundtree; RG Patrick Omameh; C Elliott Mealer; DE Craig Roh; DT Will Campbell; MLB Kenny Demens; CB J.T. Floyd; S Jordan Kovacs

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comCould running back Derrick Green be the key to Michigan's season? The touted freshman is expected to compete for the starting job right away.
Key returnees: QB Devin Gardner; RB Fitzgerald Toussaint; WR Jeremy Gallon; TE Devin Funchess; LT Taylor Lewan; RT Michael Schofield; DT Quinton Washington; DE Frank Clark; LB Jake Ryan (injured); LB Desmond Morgan; CB Blake Countess; CB Raymon Taylor; S Thomas Gordon

Newcomer to watch: There are a couple of freshmen who could see major snaps for Michigan, but the most notable is running back Derrick Green. He will push Toussaint for the starting job immediately and could end up as the featured back by the end of the season. The other two freshmen who could see major time are early enrollees: defensive back Dymonte Thomas and tight end Jake Butt. Neither will likely start, but both will be key reserves or used in subpackages.

Biggest games in 2013: Michigan had all of its key games on the road last season. This year, the Wolverines will have their two toughest games at home: Notre Dame on Sept. 7, and Ohio State on Nov. 30 in the regular-season closer. The Buckeyes, though, cap a difficult month for the Wolverines, who have trips to Michigan State on Nov. 2 and Northwestern on Nov. 16.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Who will run the ball? As the Wolverines complete their transition to a pro-style offense, they need a capable running back lining up behind quarterback Gardner. Considering the importance of play-action in what they will try to do offensively, they will need a back to gain yards to keep the whole offense balanced and a defense confused. The main candidates are Toussaint and Green, with freshman De'Veon Smith, redshirt freshman Drake Johnson and junior Thomas Rawls also pushing for time.

Forecast: Good. Like most teams that are near the end of a rebuilding phase, depth at certain positions is questionable, which means anything written here would be for naught if Gardner, Gallon or Lewan were injured for any length of time. Provided those three offensive stalwarts stay healthy, the Wolverines have a strong shot at making a run to the Big Ten championship game.

Michigan’s season could come down to whether it can beat Michigan State and Northwestern on the road. It is entirely possible that by the time the Wolverines and Buckeyes play in the regular-season finale that both will have wrapped up divisional titles and Big Ten title game trips. The best news for Michigan in all of this is how the schedule breaks down. After Notre Dame in Week 2, the Wolverines have only one real challenge -- at Penn State -- until November. This will allow a young offensive line to gain confidence and chemistry, and a young defensive line a chance to figure out how to beat Big Ten linemen.

A road win at any of those three places could lift Michigan into a different level, because one of the major issues with coach Brady Hoke has been his inability to win a game of any significance away from Michigan Stadium, where he has yet to lose.
2012 record: 8-5

2012 conference record: 6-2

Returning starters: Offense: 6; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 3

Top returners:

QB Devin Gardner, WR Jeremy Gallon, TE Devin Funchess, LT Taylor Lewan, RT Michael Schofield, DT Quinton Washington, LB Desmond Morgan, LB Jake Ryan, CB Raymon Taylor, S Thomas Gordon

Key losses

QB Denard Robinson, WR Roy Roundtree, OG Patrick Omameh, C Elliott Mealer, DE Craig Roh, DT William Campbell, LB Kenny Demens, CB J.T. Floyd, S Jordan Kovacs

2012 statistical leaders

Rushing: Denard Robinson (1,266 yards)

Passing: Denard Robinson (1,319 yards)

Receiving: Jeremy Gallon* (829 yards)

Tackles: Jake Ryan* (88)

Sacks: Jake Ryan* (4.0)

Interceptions: Thomas Gordon* and Raymon Taylor* (2)

Spring answers

1. Defensive line fine: Michigan had to replace a four-year starter in Craig Roh as well as defensive tackle Will Campbell up front. It doesn’t seem like it will be an issue. Michigan has a potential star in Frank Clark at rush end as well as depth at the position with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. Keith Heitzman, for now, seems to have locked up a spot at strong side end, but there is a lot of talent there, too. The Wolverines have depth at all four spots and while competitions will continue into the fall, Michigan should be able to rotate at defensive coordinator Greg Mattison’s leisure.

2. Devin Gardner’s progression: After the way he played toward the end of last season, there was not much doubt about Gardner as the starter, but Michigan’s coaches appear happy with his growth throughout the offseason. He has developed as a quarterback the way the coaching staff has liked, and this is even more critical because he is the only healthy scholarship quarterback until Shane Morris arrives next month. Gardner's teammates believe in him and he is setting up for a big year.

3. Tight end weapons: Michigan still doesn’t have great depth at tight end, but what the Wolverines do have is a young group of guys who will become big targets for Gardner as the position evolves into a more featured role. Devin Funchess could have a breakout sophomore season and Jake Butt has a similar skill set. A.J. Williams slimmed down as well, perhaps turning him into more than just an extra blocker.

Fall questions

1. Who runs the ball: Michigan was never going to be able to answer this question in the spring with Fitzgerald Toussaint coming off a broken leg and freshmen Derrick Green and Deveon Smith still not on campus. But none of the running backs who participated in spring made a lasting impression on the coaches, meaning if he is healthy, Toussaint will likely receive the first chance at winning the job in the fall.

2. Can Jake Ryan be replaced: Michigan seems confident with its grouping of Brennen Beyer and Cam Gordon at strongside linebacker, but part of what made Ryan Michigan’s best defender was his ability to instinctively be around the ball. Whether or not Beyer or Gordon can do that in games remains to be seen. If the combination of those two can approximate that, Michigan’s defense should be fine.

3. Can the interior of the line hold up: Michigan is replacing both of its guards and its center. While the combination of redshirt sophomore Jack Miller at center and redshirt freshmen Ben Braden and Kyle Kalis at guard has a ton of talent, none have taken a meaningful snap in a game before. How they mesh with returning tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, along with how they connect with each other on combination blocks on the inside, could determine not only Michigan’s running success this fall, but also how many games the Wolverines win in Brady Hoke’s third season.

WolverineNation links: Exit Interviews 

March, 1, 2013
3/01/13
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WolverineNation beat writer Michael Rothstein invites each departing Michigan player to sit down with him for one final interview about his career and future plans. Here's a list of the more interesting ones compiled so far:

Roy Roundtree Insider: The wide receiver discusses the statistical decline of his final two seasons, and his two biggest catches.

Elliott Mealer Insider: The guard opens up about a star-crossed career that saw him arrive at Michigan in the wake of an auto accident that killed his father and his girlfriend and left one of his brothers paralyzed.

Big Ten lunch links

February, 26, 2013
2/26/13
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One day away from spring ball in the Big Ten. Link time.

Big Ten lunch links

February, 21, 2013
2/21/13
12:00
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I don't wanna meet anything on Monday that I'm gonna eat on Friday.

Big Ten lunchtime links

February, 20, 2013
2/20/13
12:00
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One week until the first Big Ten spring practice.

B1G postseason position rankings: DL

February, 14, 2013
2/14/13
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Our postseason position rankings wrapped up the offensive side of the ball Wednesday with a look at the offensive line. Now it's time to switch to the other side of the ball. We'll stay in the trenches with our rankings for the defensive lines.

This was one of the stronger position groups for the league throughout the season. You can see how we ranked them in the preseason here. You need both star power and depth to rate high, especially on units like these.

Here we go ...

[+] EnlargeJohn Simon
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesOhio State defensive end John Simon tied for the Big Ten lead in sacks last season with nine.
1. Ohio State (Preseason ranking: 1): It took a while for this group to live up to expectations, but once it got going in the second half, you saw why the Buckeyes earned the No. 1 preseason ranking. Defensive end John Simon was named the Big Ten defensive player of the year. Run-plugging tackle Johnathan Hankins should be an early first-round draft pick in April. Nathan Williams shook off injuries to contribute in a big way down the stretch. Freshmen Noah Spence and, in particular, Adolphus Washington helped with the depth, though the starters played a lot of downs.

2. Penn State (Preseason: 4): The Nittany Lions made up for the loss of 2011 defensive player of the year Devon Still quite nicely. Jordan Hill was playing as well as any league defensive tackle at the end of the year. Deion Barnes won freshman of the year honors for his havoc-inducing work off the edge. Penn State also had solid depth behind the starters and led the league in sacks.

3. Michigan State (Preseason: 2): The Spartans fielded the best defense in the Big Ten and were the toughest team to run against, and the defensive line was a big reason why. There was always a feeling that the linemen, especially William Gholston, could have created a few more negative plays. But overall, the line was really strong, with more depth and balance than sheer superstar power.

4. Wisconsin (Preseason: 8): The Badgers lacked a dominant pass rusher but were very stout up front and hard to run against. Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer did an excellent job of controlling the middle of the line of scrimmage, while David Gilbert and Brendan Kelly cleaned things up on the outside.

5. Northwestern (Preseason: 10): The Wildcats were one of the pleasant surprises among league defensive lines. They had the third-best rushing defense in the league and ranked fifth in sacks. Tyler Scott had a breakout year at defensive end, while Brian Arnfelt was an underrated defensive tackle. Quentin Williams had a pick six in the bowl game victory.

6. Michigan (Preseason: 7): This was a perfectly solid defensive line but not one that often grabbed your attention. Will Campbell finally fulfilled most of his promise as a starting defensive tackle, and Craig Roh was predictably reliable as a senior. But this unit lacked a dynamic playmaker, which is evident in the Wolverines' decent but not outstanding sack and rush-defense numbers.

7. Minnesota (Preseason: 12): A recent sore spot for the Gophers turned into more of a strength in 2012. Ra'Shede Hageman put his huge body to great use at defensive tackle, while D.L. Wilhite got off to a great start and finished with nine sacks. Minnesota's defense also had to carry a heavy load down the stretch as the offense struggled to stay on the field.

8. Nebraska (Preseason: 6): The Huskers' defensive line had its moments, and end Eric Martin emerged as a fearsome pass-rusher. Baker Steinkuhler's late-season injury hurt as he was playing really well inside, and Cam Meredith did his best to hold his ground there. But the memory of Wisconsin completely flattening Nebraska in the Big Ten title game prevents me from ranking this group any higher.

9. Purdue (Preseason: 3): We expected much more out of this group, with talents like Kawann Short, Bruce Gaston and Ryan Russell. And perhaps we are unfairly judging their performance because the unit struggled with injuries throughout the year. Still, Purdue was steamrolled by teams like Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Oklahoma State and simply didn't get enough out of its front four on a consistent basis.

10. Illinois (Preseason: 5): If there was a strength for the 2012 Illini -- and after a 2-10 season, we're not sure there was one -- it had to be the defensive line. Yet like Purdue, we expected more from a group that included athletes like Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan, though they would have had to be superhuman to change their team's course.

11. Iowa (Preseason: 9): We feared for the Hawkeyes' youth in the preseason, but this group held together pretty well most of the year. The low ranking is in some ways a reflection of other teams playing better than expected. Yet Iowa's defensive line seemed to wear down late in the season, and the lack of any true studs was reflected in a Big Ten-worst 13 sacks in 12 games.

12. Indiana (Preseason: 11): The 2012 Hoosiers actually improved over 2011 on the defensive line but still finished last in the league in rush defense. Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr. gave Indiana something to work with in the middle as two of the defense's rare veterans. But as it showed in the crucial Wisconsin game, this group still has a long way to go.

Big Ten lunchtime links

January, 29, 2013
1/29/13
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There are two colors in my head.

Big Ten lunchtime links

January, 18, 2013
1/18/13
12:00
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Finally saw "Zero Dark Thirty" last night. Intense and awesome, though I still don't buy Andy from "Parks and Recreation" as a Navy SEAL.

Big Ten lunchtime links

January, 16, 2013
1/16/13
12:00
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Let me tell you a little story about acting. I was doing this Showtime movie, "Hot Ice" with Anne Archer, never once touched my per diem. I'd go to Craft Service, get some raw veggies, bacon, Cup-A-Soup ... baby, I got a stew going.
The college football postseason all-star games kick off in the next few weeks, so I thought it would be a good time to see who from the Big Ten is headed where. These games feature NFL draft hopefuls from around the sport, and we'll have full coverage of each contest, particularly the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

These rosters will be updated in the coming days, but here are lists of confirmed attendees.

SENIOR BOWL

When: Jan. 26 Where: Mobile, Ala.
EAST-WEST SHRINE GAME

When: Jan. 19
Where: St. Petersburg, Fla. NFLPA COLLEGIATE BOWL

When: Jan. 19
Where: Carson, Calif. RAYCOM COLLEGE FOOTBALL ALL-STAR CLASSIC

When: Jan. 19
Where: Montgomery, Ala. CASINO DEL SOL COLLEGE ALL-STAR GAME

When: Jan. 11
Where: Tucson, Ariz.

Season report card: Michigan

December, 21, 2012
12/21/12
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Final grades are in -- at least for each Big Ten team's regular season. We're handing out report cards on each team's offense, defense, special teams and overall performance in 2012.

Today's subject: the Michigan Wolverines.

Offense: B-minus

Michigan's offense went through several ups and downs this season. The Wolverines averaged a very respectable 30 points per game but ranked just 80th nationally in total offense. The attack fizzled in big games against Alabama, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Nebraska, but averaged 40 points against the likes of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern and Purdue. Denard Robinson ran for 1,166 yards, but was limited in the back half of the season by injuries. Devin Gardner put a charge into the passing game starting in November, rejuvenating the seasons of receivers like Roy Roundtree and Jeremy Gallon. The running backs, though, were a major disappointment, as Fitz Toussaint followed up his 1,000-yard season in 2011 with just 515 yards this season. Much of the blame for that belonged to an offensive line that largely underperformed outside of All-American Taylor Lewan. Michigan's offense could look unstoppable one week and wholly underwhelming the next -- or even from one half to the next, as the season finale showed.

Defense: A-minus

Though not as dominant on the defensive line as they were a year ago, the Wolverines still found ways to develop into a terrific unit. They finished second in the Big Ten in both points allowed and total defense, and were No. 11 and No. 16 nationally in those categories, respectively. Will Campbell finally lived up to his recruiting hype as a senior by becoming a very good run-stuffer. Jake Ryan was a monster at linebacker, constantly disrupting other teams' plans. The secondary overcame the early loss of Blake Countess to do a very good job against the pass and had a great leader in senior safety Jordan Kovacs. Michigan's defense was short on superstars but long on production. The only mark against it was that the defense benefited from playing some questionable Big Ten offenses like Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan State. Better attacks like Alabama, Air Force, Northwestern and Ohio State were able to exploit the Wolverines with speed on the perimeter.

Special teams: B-plus

Will Hagerup was named the Big Ten's punter of the year, and placekicker Brendan Gibbons had a strong year, booting the game-winner against Michigan State and the field goal against Northwestern to send the game into overtime. The Wolverines were average in the return game, where Dennis Norfleet looks like a possible future star. Michigan did rank last in the Big Ten in kickoff coverage, however.

Overall: B-minus

If we were using Brady Hoke's grading scale, we'd have to give Michigan an 'F' since he has said any season that doesn't end with a Big Ten title is a failure. The Wolverines once again fell short of hanging a league or even a division championship banner during their 8-4 campaign. It's tough to be too critical of a team whose losses were to the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 teams in the Associated Press poll (Notre Dame, Alabama and Ohio State) and Legends Division champ Nebraska. But as Hoke would say, this is Michigan, fergawdsake. The Wolverines are expected to not just play great teams, but win their fair share. Robinson's interception-festival cost them a shot at beating Notre Dame on the road, the lack of a strong backup plan when he got hurt killed any chance of winning at Nebraska, and some curious second-half playcalling contributed to the Ohio State loss. Michigan beat the teams it should have beaten and finally broke the losing streak against Michigan State, which was good. But you don't achieve greatness simply by being on the same field with great teams. You have to beat some. That's why a victory against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl would raise the overall grade for the Wolverines' season.

Previous report cards

Illinois
Indiana
Iowa

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 13

November, 21, 2012
11/21/12
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Ten items to track around the Big Ten on the final weekend of the regular season:

1. Bigger than The Game: Michigan defensive lineman Will Campbell told me this week that The Game never wavers in importance, whether Ohio State is 0-11 or 11-0. That's a good attitude for a player to have, but from the outside looking in, the Michigan-Ohio State game is much more appealing when there's a lot at stake for both teams. For the first time since 2007, that's the case. Ohio State aims for the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history. Michigan can hand the Buckeyes their first loss and possibly reach the Big Ten title game. This one should be fun. "It makes the game even bigger," Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby said.

2. Bo knows: Stunned by his team's performance in a 63-38 loss to Ohio State, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini sat in the visitors' media room at Ohio Stadium and said, "Like I just told the football team, we need to win out. We need to win out." Few thought it would happen, and even Pelini's faith had to be wavering a bit at that low point. But Nebraska has won five consecutive games, rallying for three of the victories, and need only beat slumping Iowa in the Heroes Game to punch its ticket to Indianapolis. The Huskers have ridden the roller coaster all season, but they'd need a serious derailment in Iowa City not to fulfill Pelini's pledge.

3. Senior day in State College: There might never be another senior day at Penn State quite like the one Saturday at Beaver Stadium. Penn State will recognize a class that kept the team together during a tumultuous summer that included severe NCAA sanctions being handed down and several key player departures. "There's no doubt," first-year coach Bill O'Brien said, "that they set the tone for the future of Penn State football." Unfortunately, Penn State will play without senior linebacker Michael Mauti, a top candidate for Big Ten defensive player of the year and the team's emotional leader. Mauti, who suffered a knee injury last week, will be recognized along with his classmates.

4. Spartans, Boilers face must-wins: Both Michigan State and Purdue entered the season with lofty goals, particularly the Spartans, pegged by many to win the Big Ten and reach the Rose Bowl for the first time in a quarter-century. Few expected MSU and Purdue to be fighting for bowl eligibility in Week 13, but that's exactly the case. Michigan State must win at Minnesota, and coach Mark Dantonio is confident, saying Tuesday, "When we win Saturday -- and I'll say when -- we'll be a 6-6 football team." Purdue, meanwhile, aims for its third straight win when it hosts rival Indiana in the Bucket game. Will a 6-6 season save fourth-year coach Danny Hope?

[+] EnlargeJim Tressel
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireJim Tressel, now a consultant for the Indianapolis Colts, will be part of Ohio State's celebration of its 2002 national-title team.
5. Tressel's return: Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel will return to Ohio Stadium on Saturday for a reunion of the school's 2002 national championship team. It marks Tressel's first major public appearance at Ohio State since resigning from his post on Memorial Day in 2011. It will be interesting to see how the Buckeyes faithful react to Tressel, whose actions helped land the team in hot water with the NCAA. On the flip side, Ohio State's program is arguably better off with Urban Meyer as coach. "Some people will embrace it, some people will not," athletic director Gene Smith told The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer. "Some people will feel it's awkward, some people will not. I'm not going to feel it's awkward because I'm realistic -- he was part of that team. And I know what he means to those players."

6. Their kind of town: Northwestern and Illinois both want to increase their clout in the Chicago area. Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats have been the more consistent program in the past decade and take an 8-3 record into Saturday's clash with the Illini at Ryan Field. With a win, Northwestern will match its highest victories total under Fitzgerald, who would tie Lynn "Pappy" Waldorf for the school's career coaching wins record (90). Illinois first-year coach Tim Beckman has emphasized the Northwestern rivalry from the moment he arrived. Perhaps his players will respond with a strong effort to end an otherwise miserable season.

7. Making their cases for awards: The Big Ten hands out all its awards next week, and races for offensive and defensive player of the year are still very much in doubt. Mauti's injury creates a potential opening in the defensive player of the year race, and a lot could depend on what happens in Columbus, as candidates such as Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan and Ohio State's tandem of John Simon and Ryan Shazier take the field. Other candidates, such as Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short, also are in action. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller remains the front-runner for offensive player of the year, but Nebraska's Taylor Martinez has been brilliant of late and could challenge Miller if he turns in a monster game at Iowa.

8. Boiler spoilers: Two weeks ago, Indiana was a home victory from putting itself in line to represent the Leaders Division in the Big Ten title game. The Hoosiers now know their season will end Saturday in West Lafayette, as they won't be going bowling for the fifth consecutive season. But Kevin Wilson's team still can reclaim The Bucket and prevent Purdue from making a bowl game. Wilson talked Tuesday about how the season doesn't feel like it's ending, and with so many young players, the future is promising. He downplayed the spoiler role, saying Tuesday, "It has nothing to do with what it does for them; it's about what it does for us. Winning is good for us. Winning builds us." Indiana has eight home games next season and should be in the mix for a bowl. A victory Saturday would be a nice boost before a crucial offseason.

9. Gray's day: Minnesota will recognize 15 seniors Saturday against Michigan State, and none has had a more unique career than MarQueis Gray. He arrived as a nationally heralded dual-threat quarterback recruit, played quarterback for a year, played primarily wide receiver for a year, started 10 games at quarterback in 2011 and opened this season as the top signal-caller but moved to wide receiver following an ankle injury. He will play primarily at receiver against the Spartans but had two rushing touchdowns last week and could see increased time in the backfield. Gray talked this week about "closing the chapter" on his Gophers career, and it'll be interesting to see how he performs in his final game at TCF Bank Stadium.

10. Denard and Devin: Michigan's Denard Robinson is healthy again, but how much quarterback he will play against Ohio State remains to be seen. Robinson's replacement, Devin Gardner, has been spectacular since returning to the quarterback role, accounting for 13 touchdowns in the past three games, including six last week against Iowa. Michigan started the Iowa game with Gardner at quarterback and Robinson at running back, and offensive coordinator Al Borges has the "creative juices" flowing as he crafts the game plan for Ohio State. Robinson and Gardner certainly give Michigan's offense a different look -- and some extra homework for Ohio State's improving defense.

Stakes for U-M, OSU enhance The Game

November, 19, 2012
11/19/12
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There may never be another Ohio State-Michigan clash as important as the 2006 version, when the teams entered The Game ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively.

The circumstances outside of the rivalry itself became less and less important during the Rich Rodriguez era at Michigan, as the Wolverines floundered around the .500 mark or below. Last year's game had significance for Michigan, aiming to end The Streak in The Game -- and help its cause for a BCS at-large berth. But Ohio State fell into the Michigan 2008-10 role -- a mediocre team finishing up a mediocre season.

When Ohio State hired Urban Meyer last November, the 2012 version of The Game suddenly became a lot more interesting. Both Ohio State and Michigan were projected to be strong, and the meeting could have bearing on the Rose Bowl race and, just maybe, the national title race.

Weeks later, Ohio State received a postseason ban for 2012. After Michigan started this season 2-2 -- Ohio State wasn't overly impressive in nonleague play, either -- The Game suddenly looked a lot less appetizing, aside from the whole bitter rivals thing.

Nearly two months later, the matchup couldn't be much more delicious.

Ohio State is 11-0, one win away from securing only the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history. And it has to beat Michigan to get there in what is guaranteed to be Ohio State's final game.

[+] EnlargeBradley Roby
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarOhio State will be counting on CB Bradley Roby to make more big plays on Saturday against Michigan.
Michigan remains alive for the Legends Division title and a chance to play for a spot in the Rose Bowl. The Wolverines need some help to get there, but they have to win at Ohio Stadium for the first time since 2000 to have any chance. Michigan also needs a signature win to keep alive its hopes for a BCS at-large berth.

And there is the whole ruining perfection thing.

"It makes the game even bigger," Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby said. "That team is going to definitely play harder, and they're going to play to ruin our season. What better would it be for them to give us the only loss we've had all year? ...

"We're going to be ready. It's going to be a showdown."

Michigan players had a slightly different view of the "Ohio" game. To them, it can never get bigger.

"It's the biggest rivalry in sports," Wolverines defensive tackle Will Campbell told ESPN.com. "If they were 0-11 and we weren't going for the Big Ten championship, it would still be huge."

Added Michigan center Elliott Mealer: "It's the game, it's a huge rivalry. I don't think there's any way to raise or lower the bar on the standards of this game. It's always important."

Campbell did acknowledge that winning in Columbus would be sweeter than last year's triumph at the Big House. Ohio State also is motivated by the 2011 outcome.

"Last year, we played horrible," Roby said. "We were 6-7, a lot of things were going wrong. We just wanted to come out this year and redeem ourselves. That's exactly what we're doing. We haven't lost a game yet."

Michigan will know by the time it takes the field Saturday whether or not it remains in the running for a Big Ten title. Nebraska can punch its ticket to the championship game by beating Iowa on Friday in Iowa City.

If the Huskers lose, Michigan can represent the Legends Division in Indianapolis. But don't expect the Wolverines to be huddled around a TV on Friday.

"From now until four or five o'clock Saturday, Ohio is the only thing on my mind," Campbell said. "Nothing else really matters."

Ohio State's Meyer had tried to downplay talk of an undefeated season before last Saturday's 21-14 overtime win against Wisconsin. But he gave the green light afterward, saying, "We can talk about it now."

Meyer also talked a bit about Michigan.

"This is all I knew growing up," he told ESPN.com. "Eight of my nine [assistant] coaches are from the state of Ohio. Our players understand this rivalry. It's the greatest rivalry in all of sports. We're honored to be part of it.

"We've got to find a way to go win it."

If they do, the Buckeyes will be 12-0. They'll reestablish their control in the series. And after taking down Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin, they'll leave no doubt about which team rules the Big Ten, even if they won't be playing in Indy or Pasadena.

"If we beat the best teams in the league, we have to be the best," Roby said. "We're going to take this game serious, study even harder, practice even harder and be ready Saturday."

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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
Friday, 1/2
Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12