Chicago Colleges: Minnesota Gophers
But perhaps the most important prediction -- and the one that could cause some more debate -- involves the bowl games. Instead of giving our individual picks for this, we combined our thoughts and butted heads to form a consensus.
We predicted that 10 of the Big Ten's 14 teams will make bowls this season, which isn't too shabby for the conference considering Penn State is still facing a postseason ban. So only Illinois, Purdue and Rutgers were left out in the cold.
Without further ado, here are our Big Ten bowl picks:
College Football Playoff semifinal: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton: Ohio State
Capital One: Iowa
National University Holiday Bowl: Wisconsin
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Michigan
San Francisco: Northwestern
New Era Pinstripe: Maryland
Quick Lane: Minnesota
Heart of Dallas: Indiana
Josh Moyer: Hmmm ... it's a bit tricky this week since only three of 14 games don't feature huge double-digit favorites (Rutgers-Washington State, UCF-Penn State, Wisconsin-LSU). Out of those three, though, I like Wisconsin the most as an upset pick. LSU has a new quarterback and running back and its run defense shows a few cracks. The Tigers ranked 94th in the nation last season in stopping ball carriers behind the line and were No. 35 in run defense. And you know what happens when Melvin Gordon finds room on the outside (hint: touchdown). Wisconsin has fared well against better run defenses, so they should be able to keep the ball moving Saturday. We'll see if that's enough.
@ESPNJoshMoyer upset alert week 1 in the big ten?— Matt Finnigan (@Finnarious) August 26, 2014
Josh Moyer: After a sub-par freshman campaign, it sure looks as if Derrick Green is on pace to be Michigan's feature back. Brady Hoke named him the starter, although he added that De'Veon Smith will be "1A." But if you look at how Doug Nussmeier and Brady Hoke have approached running backs since 2010, the top guy has always received at least twice as many carries as the backup. (One exception: Alabama's Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon split carries in 2012 but combined for 66.5 percent of team carries.) Green had 27 percent body fat last year and naturally looked sluggish; he's at 9 percent right now. He'll be better. As for Jabrill Peppers, count me among the believers. Devin Gardner said recently that Peppers and Devin Funchess are the best athletes on the team. That's big praise. So sure, Peppers has generated a lot of hype -- but I think he'll live up to it.
Josh Moyer: In our season predictions this morning, I was the only Big Ten reporter to pick Minnesota to win fewer than six games. Everyone else said six or seven. I'll admit I waffled slightly between choosing five and six wins, but the Minnesota passing game -- or lack thereof -- really concerns me. The Gophers ranked No. 105 in the nation last season in total offense and, without a playmaker like Ra'Shede Hageman on defense, I'm not yet sold on the defense being as good as last year. In some ways, last season's 8-5 record was a best-case scenario -- especially with surprising wins against Penn State and Nebraska, and close wins against Norhtwestern and Indiana. When I look at this season's schedule, I see seven losses: at TCU, at Michigan, Northwestern, Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska, and at Wisconsin. Northwestern was the toss-up for me but, as it stands, I see the Wildcats winning a close one.
@ESPNJoshMoyer why so down on the Gophers? 5-7 (2-6) seems low. Not saying they are winning 9+, but no bowl? Really?— Darren Michael (@HaloKitty343) August 27, 2014
Josh Moyer: It's the biggest question mark on the team, and I think it's going to be the determining factor in whether Penn State finds success. I picked the Nittany Lions to win seven games and, honestly, I think that's even slightly optimistic with this line. (Two players who were defensive tackles in February are now starting inside as offensive guards, and absent is basically any quality depth.) This offense has for which to be excited: Christian Hackenberg, two terrific running backs, my pick for B1G tight end of the year and a plethora of talented young wideouts. The only thing that's missing is a solid O-line -- and all the talent in the world doesn't mean anything if Hackenberg and Co. can't find time. If last season's O-line returned, I might even pick Penn State to win 10 games. The potential is there, but the offensive line is going to act as the cap.
@ESPNJoshMoyer How big of a concern is the Penn State O-line?— Sean Banks (@seanbanks3) August 27, 2014
Here's the mailbag for Wednesday. Send more questions here for later this week.
Mitch Sherman: Iowa fans value stability. They've got it in Kirk Ferentz, entering his 16th season. He trails only Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer for longevity among major-conference coaches. Of course, with stability can come complacency. And the Hawkeyes got a dose of it two years ago. Last fall, though, produced positive vibes in Iowa City, with the promise of an even better season to follow.
Ferentz earned just less than $4 million last year, a figure that places him among the nation's elite. Iowa is 27-24 since its 2009 Orange Bowl season, so yes, fans ought to demand more bang for the buck. Thing is, from my view just to the west, I didn't sense more than moderate unrest even after the 2012 debacle.
Iowa fans understand the economics in play here. They like Ferentz as the face of the program. And expectations in Iowa City may never match those in place at Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska. All told, the Hawkeyes know what they have in their coach and generally like it. In this case, stability pays.
Mitch Sherman: The answer is multi-faceted. First, consider that Wisconsin is just one year removed from three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances. With a tip of the cap to Michigan State, the Badgers maximize talent more efficiently than any Big Ten team.
So look at this group, with a suspect front seven on defense, the underwhelming Joel Stave at quarterback and a questionable group of receivers. You may see a mediocre club. Others see a team set up to make a run at the College Football Playoff. That's the Wisconsin way.
There's also Melvin Gordon, who led the nation in per-carry rushing average in each of the past two seasons. He's back to run behind a stout offensive line. Finally, check out the schedule. Yeah, LSU awaits in the opener, but there's no better time to get the young Tigers. The Badgers face Nebraska at Camp Randall and play Rutgers and Maryland from the East Division.
Mitch Sherman: Only two coaches qualify as realistic possibilities, Brady Hoke and Bo Pelini. Either could land himself in trouble with a poor season, though isn't that always the case at Michigan and Nebraska?
In his fourth season, Hoke needs to rebound from a difficult six-game finish to last season. It began with a 24-3 drubbing at Michigan State and ended with a 31-14 loss to Kansas State. In between, the Wolverines lost at home to Nebraska and Iowa. Though all the pieces don't appear in place, it's time for Michigan to reverse the trajectory on display the past three years.
For Pelini, the story is different. His record, 58-24 in six years, stands up nationally. But the lack of a conference championship -- it's been since 1999 -- is a burden that has long troubled Nebraska fans. The Hail Mary escape against Northwestern last year may have saved the Huskers and their coach from a disastrous finishing stretch. Good fortune won't always be on their side.
Who'll end up as the most memorable player? And who'll see time right away? Adam Rittenberg, Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer joined Big Ten recruiting writer Tom VanHaaren in discussing the big questions surrounding the freshmen.
So let's get started ...
Based on talent, which freshman is too good to leave off the field?
VanHaaren: Peppers is the first name that comes to mind. Michigan doesn't really have anyone like him on the roster. His combination of size and speed, which he displayed at a recent track meet by running a 10.52-second 100-meter dash, is something that Michigan needs in the defensive backfield. I just don't see a scenario where a healthy Peppers doesn't see the field in some capacity.
Moyer: Everyone should be familiar with Peppers, so let's forget about him for a minute. Someone whom Buckeyes fans already know -- and whom other B1G fans should familiarize themselves with -- is linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who was rated as the top inside linebacker recruit in the nation. He's already enrolled, he's already impressed Urban Meyer, and he's already a physically imposing athlete. At 240 pounds, he's bigger than all but one of OSU's 10 other linebackers. Almost every scouting report you read on the guy describes him as a "thumper," and Meyer said three months ago that there'll be no redshirt for McMillan. He should make an impact early on.
Based on need, which freshman is a lock to start from Day 1?
Bennett: I'll go with Purdue's Gelen Robinson. He's following in the footsteps, sort of, of his dad -- Boilers basketball legend Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson. The younger Robinson was Purdue's most celebrated recruit in this class, but not just because of that name. He's also an outstanding athlete who should force his way onto the field from Day 1. He'll likely play outside linebacker, which is a position of need for Darrell Hazell's team. Heck, they need players everywhere, but particularly difference-makers on defense. Robinson will get every opportunity.
Rittenberg: It's hard for true freshman offensive linemen to step in immediately, but keep an eye on Maryland's Damian Prince, the nation's No. 26 prospect in the 2014 class. The recent suspension of potential starter Moise Larose creates a need at tackle, and both Prince and Derwin Gray both have a chance to win starting jobs this summer. Wisconsin will play several of its freshman wide receivers, and I could easily see a guy like Dareian Watkins entering the starting lineup. And let's not forget about Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell. The Spartans lost a few pieces on the interior defensive line.
Moyer: Penn State wideout De'Andre Thompkins. In a normal year, he might be a redshirt candidate. He's incredibly athletic -- Bill O'Brien recruited him thinking he could be a two-way player and compete at nickelback -- but he's also a bit raw since he played mostly at running back in high school. He still needs to sharpen his routes but, between the scholarship reduction and the lack of experience at receiver this season, Thompkins will have to step up sooner rather than later. The early enrollee has already proven he's the fastest player on the roster, and he's taken reps as a return man. So he should play on Day 1, in some capacity.
When this freshman class graduates, who will be remembered as the best player?
Bennett: Peppers is the easy and safe choice here. Another possibility is Maryland's Prince. He's a mountain, and given the value of offensive tackles in the NFL, we could be hearing his name early in the 2017 or 2018 draft.
VanHaaren: It could very well be either Peppers or McMillan. It's tough to argue against those two just based off of talent and ability, and I would probably go with Peppers here. I saw him at the Under Armour All-America Game and coach Herm Edwards told me Peppers was the best high school prospect he had coached in the few years he had been coaching at the event. That's high praise for a former defensive back.
What redshirt freshman should fans keep an eye on?
Bennett: I trust the player development program at Michigan State. Guys there just seem to get better and better throughout their careers, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive end Demetrius Cooper turned a lot of heads this spring and forced himself into the rotation, even with standout returning starters Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush ahead of him. Cooper was just a three-star recruit, according to ESPN, but the Spartans have made a living turning moderately-rated recruits into true college stars.
VanHaaren: I don't know if this is cheating or not because he's a sophomore, but I'm really interested to see what quarterback Wes Lunt does for Illinois. I put him here because he transferred and had to sit out the last season. I think he could be a big boost to that program if he can get things rolling offensively for the Illini.
Rittenberg: Iowa wide receiver Derrick Willies. Not only did he have a breakout spring for the Hawkeyes, but he's the type of receiver Iowa has lacked for a while: tall, fast and explosive. Iowa wants to ramp up the offensive tempo even more this season, which likely means the ball will be spread around more. Expect some big plays from Willies in his first game action.
Moyer: Minnesota running back Berkley Edwards. If it wasn't for an ankle injury early last season, he probably would've played. As it is, he'll definitely see the field this fall -- and he might see it quite a bit. Jerry Kill was asked earlier this spring if Edwards might get five to seven carries a game. "We'll see," Kill said, chuckling, to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "He might need more touches." Edwards is an exciting player who has a chance to break it anytime he touches the ball, and he could end up being an important change-of-pace back for the offense. Definitely worth watching.
Still, the 1,000-yard rushing mark is no small feat, and it's a good gauge for assessing players, teams and leagues. The Big Ten had seven 1,000-yard rushers in 2013, one fewer than it had in 2012.
We begin a series of statistical projections for the 2014 season with 1,000 rush yards, and our analysis begins with the five men who got there last fall and who return to their teams this year.
Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin (1,609 yards): Gordon surged out of the gate with 140 rush yards or more in each of his first four games last season, as he topped the FBS rushing chart. Despite sharing time with fellow 1,000-yard back James White and never logging more than 22 carries, Gordon had eight games with at least 140 rush yards and averaged 7.8 yards per carry. He's arguably the nation's top big-play ball-carrying threat and should easily eclipse 1,000 rush yards as he steps into a bigger role.
Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State (1,422): It's impossible to quietly rush for 1,400 yards in a season, but Langford slipped under the radar as his teammates on defense and at quarterback received more attention. Still, his consistency should not be overlooked: He set a team record with eight consecutive 100-yard rushing performances and led the Big Ten with 18 rushing touchdowns. He did much of his damage late in games. Although Langford likely won't get 292 carries again, he should easily get to 1,000 rush yards.
David Cobb, RB, Minnesota (1,202) Arguably no Gophers player benefited more from the team's commitment to the power run on offense. Cobb logged 237 carries -- second in the Big Ten behind Langford and Abdullah -- and had five 100-yard rushing performances, the most by a Minnesota player since Marion Barber III in 2003. Cobb did much of his damage in Big Ten play, recording four consecutive 100-yard rushing performances. Another 1,000-yard season is possible, but Cobb faces arguably more competition than any back on this list and will have to keep progressing.
Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State (1,068): Miller is poised to finish his career as one of the Big Ten's most productive offensive players. The league's reigning two-time offensive player of the year needs just 842 rush yards to move into second place on the Big Ten's all-time quarterback rushing list. More impressive, he needs 715 yards to claim second place on Ohio State's all-time rushing list (all players). Miller certainly is capable of a third 1,000-yard season, but a revamped line and his goal of improving as a passer could make it challenging.
Now let's take a look at eight other players who could challenge that 1,000-yard mark in 2013, in order of likelihood:
Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana (958 rush yards in 2013): Coleman finished ahead of Langford, Cobb and Miller in rushing average (106.4 ypg) and easily would have reached four digits had he played in more than nine games. A big-play threat who averaged a Gordon-like 7.3 yards per carry last season, Coleman should have no trouble surging past 1,000 yards this season.
Zach Zwinak, RB, Penn State (989): Some would argue Zwinak isn't the best running back on his team (Bill Belton), but the fact remains he reached 1,000 yards in 2012 and nearly got there last season. The carries balanced between Zwinak and Belton could make it tougher for either back to reach the milestone, and the offensive line is a concern.
Paul James, RB, Rutgers (881): Know the name, Big Ten fans. James rushed for 881 yards on only 156 carries last season. His rushing total through the first four games (573 yards) trailed only Gordon for the FBS lead. Health is a concern here, but if James stays on the field, a 1,000-yard season is easily within reach.
Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern: Projecting Mark is tricky as he rushed for 1,371 yards in 2012 but missed most of last season with injuries and remains prone to more health issues. He's an excellent candidate to gash defenses for big yards if he remains on the field, and he should play behind an improved offensive line.
Josh Ferguson, RB, Illinois (779): It all comes down to opportunities for Ferguson, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season but also finished second on the team in receptions with 50. A true big-play threat, Ferguson is capable of getting to 1,000 yards but likely needs at least 25 more carries.
Bill Belton, RB, Penn State (803): Like Zwinak, Belton faces some challenges: sharing carries and playing behind a potentially leaky line. But he has shown superstar potential at times and turned in a strong spring for the new coaching staff.
Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin (547): Like Gordon, Clement makes the most of his opportunities. He averaged 8.2 yards per carry as a freshman, and while he's Gordon's backup now, he could become a 1A player by midseason. Gordon and White set an NCAA record for single-season rush yards by teammates. Gordon and Clement could challenge it.
Who do you think reaches 1,000 rush yards this fall? Let us know.
- A new home in the Ohio State football strength program helps a former ex-Buckeye wrestler overcome a devastating loss. Athlon Sports places the Buckeyes at No. 3 in its preseason rankings.
- Former Penn State linebacker Shane Conlan and ex-Purdue defensive tackle Dave Butz are elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. No luck this year for a trio of former Michigan hopefuls, a pair from Illinois, Eric Crouch or Trev Alberts of Nebraska and Jim Tressel.
- Penn State will practice on Sundays next fall.
- Jay Paterno criticizes today’s media culture in a speech at a Pennsylvania high school.
- Oregon QB Jake Rodrigues is looking at Michigan, among other potential landing spots.
- Incoming freshman running back Rob Martin of Rutgers has a fan in Lesean McCoy.
- Purdue president Mitch Daniels supports the Pac-12 ideas on NCAA reform.
- A top prospect in Michigan is training this offseason with ex-Purdue safety Stu Schweigert.
- A look at key offensive targets for MSU.
- Jerry Kill says the Gophers won’t beg recruits to attend Minnesota.
Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop can still remember sifting through thick stacks of manila recruiting folders in the mid-90s and reaching for a shelf of VHS tapes hanging above his desk.
There were no real recruiting support staffs to speak of. He'd pop a recruit's game tape into a VCR and then ready himself with a notepad. Fast forward, fast forward. There's the recruit. Fast forward, fast forward.
As technology has evolved, so has recruiting -- and recruiting budgets. In just the past six seasons, according to a recent analysis from "Outside the Lines," recruiting budgets encompassing all sports have increased at 13 of 14 Big Ten schools and risen by at least 30 percent at eight of those. Higher gas prices, increased postage and other variables have undoubtedly played a role but several coaches and athletic directors also stressed how bigger staffs -- a result of newer technology -- have inflated those numbers.
At Penn State, Shoop can now rely on two full-time staff members, two graduate assistants and a team of 30 students/interns to help with recruiting. At Northwestern, the recruiting staff has tripled in just the last six to eight years. And, at Ohio State, one full-time position was recently added, in part, to help with recruiting presentations.
"Our technology has increased quite a bit," OSU athletic director Gene Smith said. "That's a big number for us."
That technology, such as online game film, has placed a bigger focus on immediacy. In an age where a top prospect's highlights can be filmed today and broken down by college coaches tomorrow, staffs can no longer wait until the offseason to evaluate players. And they can't drop everything on a Friday night in October, either, to give up game plan tweaks in favor of digesting film from a high school junior.
"Your coaches are doing this thing in the football season called coaching," said Chris Bowers, Northwestern's director of player personnel. "The time allocation a position coach would spend in March, he's not going to allocate that same amount of time in December or October. He can't. So, yes, there's been an increase in staff for sure.
"I would say at most universities -- I can't speak for everyone -- the recruiting staff is probably two to three times bigger than it was in '06."
In September of 2012, the Wildcats were able to jump early on the Clayton Thorson bandwagon because of that extra staff and technology. The ESPN 300 quarterback, who signed with Northwestern in February, hadn't started under center prior to 2012.
So, when he was due in Evanston, Ill., for a Saturday night game, Bowers noticed his high school coach uploaded his film to the Hudl website that Friday evening. Bowers contacted a GA, requested he cut-up some highlights -- and then forwarded the finished product to the coaching staff. Thorson received an offer that Saturday, partially based on something that was filmed less than 24 hours before.
And if this had all happened just a few years before, then how long would it have taken to make that same judgment call? Months?
""Yes!" Bowers said. "… Even if you were an aggressive recruiting staff, the high school coaches would still need to bring you a DVD or mail it to you -- and they might not do it until the end of the season."
You're investing to recruit good people." -- Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop
Nationally, recruiting budgets have risen across the board, so it's hardly limited to the Big Ten. Still, the conference seems to be outpacing the competition. Between 2008 and 2012, Big Ten teams placed within the top-10 nationally in recruiting spending on just five occasions. In 2013, four conference teams (Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska, Penn State) placed within the top 10 -- and Illinois wasn't far behind at No. 12.
But coaches and athletic directors were slow to label last season a turning point. After all, it's not as if the staffs had all doubled overnight. Instead, they cautioned, there were other variables that needed to be taken into account. At Wisconsin, for example, the budget is artificially low because the Badgers are provided a private plane and don't need to charter flights as much. At Iowa, a booster donation wasn't included in the recruiting numbers until a few years ago -- which could account for part of the jump. And at Minnesota, due to the campus location, increased flight and hotel expenses impacted the budget more than schools elsewhere.
"We can't drive as much as others," Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague added. "So we've got to keep building the budget and being aggressive."
Regardless, the trend of spending more on recruiting each season appears to be a difficult one to stop. Whether it's an increased staff or costs elsewhere, few universities take a step back in spending.
But, on the bright side, it could be worse -- at least the era of "Be kind; please rewind" is long gone.
"That required a significant amount of manpower hours," Shoop said with a laugh. "And in some ways, now, it's a pro model. It's not like you have an entire scouting department, but I'm sure we're getting closer to that model now than ever before now, as far as people whose sole responsibility is player evaluation. ... It's incredible how the process has accelerated."
ESPN's Paula Lavigne took a look today at the booming revenues in college athletics and how money and profits are still pouring in despite rising coaches' salaries and travel expenses. Lavigne reports that total revenue from FBS programs comes in at around $8 billion and that operating revenues have increased about 32 percent from 2007-2008 to 2012-13 (oh, for that kind of return on your 401k, huh?).
In one of the least surprising developments ever, the Big Ten had several schools among the top revenue-producing teams identified from the study. This handy-dandy graphic shows it all in easy-to-digest detail. Among some of the more interesting findings:
Wisconsin was No. 2 nationally among public schools in both revenue generated in 2012-13 ($149 million) and expenses ($146.7 million), behind only behemoth Texas in both categories. More than half of the Badgers' revenue came from areas other than football and men's basketball, which includes donations, conference payouts and other sports. Michigan was No. 4 in revenue ($143.5 million) and No. 3 in expenses ($131 million), while Ohio State was fifth in both revenue ($140 million) and expenses ($116 million). Penn State ($111 million) and Iowa ($107 million) both cracked the top 10 in expenses.
Ohio State had the nation's largest reported surplus in 2012-13 at $24 million, but that does not include $16.6 million in debt service owed for renovations at Ohio Stadium and other projects. Michigan had a surplus of $12.2 million, which ranked seventh. The Wolverines also generated more money from road games ($5.5 million) and spent more on travel (over $9.6 million) than any other school. The reporting period includes the school's trip to play Alabama in Cowboys Stadium in the 2012 season opener.
Ohio State ($28.5 million) spent more on its coaches than any other school, while Penn State ($20 million) was fifth. The Big Ten also had the top three and four of the top five schools who spent the most on visiting teams: Ohio State (nearly $8 million), Minnesota ($4.8 million), Wisconsin ($3.9 million) and Michigan State ($3.65 million). No wonder the Big Ten went to nine conference games.
This fascinating database shows that Wisconsin got more money from contributions and donations (a whopping $58.9 million) than any FBS school in 2012-13. Michigan, meanwhile, is killing it in licensing, royalties and sponsorships, raking in more than $22 million, or more than every school in the land besides Texas.
There is big, big money in college sports, and the Big Ten is at the forefront of all it.
- Braxton Miller aims to get better in the meeting room.
- Fitz Toussaint and Thomas Gordon ran well at Michigan’s pro day. New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is connecting with recruits.
- Nebraska linebacker Trevor Roach is re-emerging as a leader, while senior guard Jake Cotton steps into a new role on the offensive line.
- Darqueze Dennard is out to be Michigan State’s first first-rounder in more than a decade:
- What to expect from the first spring practice of the James Franklin era at Penn State. Keys for a successful spring.
- Rutgers offers fans an opportunity to buy tickets in three-game mini-plans for its inaugural season in the Big Ten.
- A first look at Maryland uniforms that include the Big Ten logo. More trouble for Terps running back Wes Brown.
- Offensive tackle J.J. Prince learned from his first year as a contributor at Purdue.
- True freshman Michael Deiter is working with the No. 1 offensive line in his first semester at Wisconsin.
- Minnesota's battle at right tackle heats up with the emergence of Jonah Pirsig.
- Illinois gets creative with its offseason competitions.
- A breakdown of the Iowa wide receivers.
Here is a look at what happened within the Big Ten this past week.
- Michigan State can impress off the field, too. The Spartans break down some of their dance moves after they were caught on camera celebrating the win over Nebraska.
- Brady Hoke defended his decision after coming up short on a late gamble last week before Michigan ultimately won its game vs. Northwestern.
- The run of success Minnesota has been on lately is building buzz from alumni, which could help sustain the program into the future.
- Wisconsin is dealing with some health concerns at center, which could be a problem as its offensive line tries to slow down Minnesota "freak" Ra'Shede Hageman.
- Senior day for Ohio State will provide an opportunity to pay tribute to an invaluable group of four veterans on the offensive line. It's also a reminder that it will soon have to replace them all.
- Once a "gangly gazelle," Sam Burtch has filled out his frame and is becoming an impact receiver for Nebraska.
- Iowa still has memories of what Devin Gardner did to its defense last season, and it has made an emphasis on avoiding a repeat performance against Michigan on Saturday.
- Indiana has been at its worst on the road and in bad weather, which might not be the best formula for visiting Ohio State late in the year.
- Pat Zerbe's dream to play at Penn State came true, and he will put the finishing touches on his career at home this weekend.
- Tim Beckman's back is to the wall, and there's already talk that the Illinois coach may need to beat Purdue to save his job.
Here they are ...
- Michigan State at Northwestern, ESPN
- Michigan at Iowa, Big Ten Network
- Illinois at Purdue, Big Ten Network
- Wisconsin at Minnesota, ESPN
- Indiana at Ohio State, ABC regional (ESPN2 in outer markets)
- Nebraska at Penn State, Big Ten Network
1. The long October is over. Has it really been five weeks since Ohio State and Wisconsin played? In some ways, it feels like 10. The Big Ten's October schedule was downright scary -- and not in a Happy Halloween kind of way. Well, the league slate turns interesting again this week as No. 21 Michigan visits No. 22 Michigan State and No. 24 Wisconsin visits resurgent Iowa. Even Minnesota's visit to Indiana holds some intrigue. So long to mismatches like Ohio State-Purdue. That's this week, too? OK, they can't all look good.
3. Let's go bowling. Friday is Nov. 1, so it's OK to discuss bowl lineups. Taking a peak at the Big Ten, Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Minnesota are bowl eligible. Wisconsin or Iowa will join the mix Saturday, as can Nebraska with a victory over Northwestern. As for the Wildcats, after going 0 for October, it will be getting late in their bid to get back to the postseason without a victory in Lincoln. Indiana has some serious work to do, and Illinois ... the Illini just need to win for the first time in 18 Big Ten games.
4. That's offensive. Five Big Ten teams rank among the top 16 nationally in scoring. Thirty-six times this year, a Big Ten team has scored 40 or more points -- already up from 27 times all of last season. This week, two of the league's best offensive units face stern tests. Notably, Michigan, which averages 42.4 points, faces a Michigan State defense that allows only 12.3 points, third nationally. Wisconsin, averaging 39.9, visits Iowa and its 12th-ranked scoring defense, giving up 18.1. What will give? Answer that, and you've got your story of the weekend.
5. Braxton Miller needs to do something for an encore. The Ohio State quarterback is playing the best football of his career after a super-efficient effort last week in the Buckeyes' stomping of Penn State. Miller accounted for 320 yards and five touchdowns on only 35 total-offense attempts in less than three quarters. Up next, Purdue. You've got to wonder when the Boiler D caves, getting no help from the dismal Purdue offense. Maybe it's this week against an Ohio State juggernaut that's scoring 47.3 points per game.
6. Nebraska is searching for defensive answers. The Huskers expected growing pains with this defense, but they did not expect to be remain so unsettled in the 10th week of the season. Particularly at linebacker, Nebraska has developed little consistency. This week, apparently, freshmen Josh Banderas and Michael Rose return as starters. Coach Bo Pelini stripped the top-unit players of their Blackshirt practice jerseys. Juggling personnel won't work, though, if the Huskers can't develop a more physical presence.
7. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill is moving toward a return. Kill, since taking a medical leave of absence following his fifth game-day seizure on Oct. 5, has resumed more coaching responsibilities over the past two weeks. He watched from the press box as the Gophers beat Northwestern, and coached a bit from the booth in Minnesota's upset win over Nebraska. On the road against Indiana on Saturday, Kill plans to do more of the coaching, though he continues to leave control of the sideline to Tracy Claeys, acting head coach and defensive coordinator.
8. Big test for Iowa. It's time to find out if the Hawkeyes are just a nice story, with their competitive play against Michigan State and Ohio State, followed by an overtime win over Northwestern, or if coach Kirk Ferentz's club is going to make some real noise this fall. Wisconsin presents a stiff challenge, but Iowa's solid rush defense and physical offensive play might make this a good matchup for the Hawkeyes. The schedule sets up well this month for Iowa to turn into perhaps the Big Ten's biggest surprise.
9. Penn State needs to find a fast defensive fix. The past two losses have turned ugly for the Nittany Lions, who surrendered more points to Ohio State last week than in any game since the 19th century. In its other October games, PSU allowed 84 points, splitting with Michigan and Indiana. All of it has led to scrutiny of defensive coordinator John Butler, defended adamantly this week by coach Bill O'Brien. The Nittany Lions get some relief Saturday against Illinois. Butler shifted a few bodies in the secondary, but he can only work with the talent on hand, and it's not great after key losses to graduation and low numbers because of probation.
10. Michigan is trying to shake its road woes. Even with that forgettable escape at Connecticut in September, Michigan remains just 6-8 away from the Big House under coach Brady Hoke. He's 19-0 at home, but that won't do any good on Saturday in East Lansing, where Michigan State sacked Michigan quarterbacks seven times in a 28-14 win two years ago. The Wolverines said this week they embrace the hostile environments at their rivals' stadiums. Numbers tell a different story.
- Melvin Gordon isn't the only tailback to watch for Wisconsin. As a team, the Badgers are setting some precedent here with their success on the ground. They're currently averaging a national-best 7.07 yards per rush, which is the third-highest average -- through six games -- in the last decade. Only 2011 Oregon (7.24) and 2008 UL-Lafayette (7.55) have fared better.
- Northwestern is hoping to get back on track following back-to-back losses. But what's the big reason for those losses? Take a look at the points per drive. The Wildcats scored 2.6 points per drive in the first four games. In the last two, that number decreased to 1.2. More than one-third of their drives against Ohio State and Wisconsin also resulted in a three-and-out. The defense isn't a strength, but the offense needs to do better for Northwestern to rebound.
- If the Golden Gophers win and climb to 5-2, this would be their best start since the 2008 season, when they sat at 7-1 and found themselves at No. 20 in the AP poll. Back in 2008, though, Northwestern closed the chapter on Minnesota's success. The Wildcats beat the Gophers, and Minnesota then dropped five straight games to finish the year at 7-6.
- Braxton Miller has been absolutely key for the Buckeyes ever since he took over in 2011, and his success has also dictated OSU's success in large part. Ohio State is 13-1 when Miller reaches the 200-yard mark in total yards. When he is held to less than 200 yards? The Buckeyes are 7-5.
- We knew the Hawkeyes' defense was good -- they're No. 9 nationally in total defense -- but their red-zone defense has been just ridiculous. Opponents are scoring touchdowns on just 11.1 percent of their red zone trips, the best margin in the nation. By far. Oregon is second at 33.3 percent. Iowa's percentage is the best for an FBS team through six games in ... let's see here ... the last 10 years.
- Michigan has several streaks to keep an eye on this week. Wideout Jeremy Gallon has posted a reception in 32 straight games, the defense hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in seven straight games, and linebacker Desmond Morgan has recorded at least four tackles in 21 straight regular-season games.
- Illinois' Josh Ferguson probably isn't the first name that jumps to mind when thinking about versatile running backs. But he currently leads the nation in receiving yards by a tailback with 344 yards on 20 receptions.
- True freshman quarterback Danny Etling is the starter for Purdue now -- but he's hardly the only freshman to get playing time. The Boilermakers started six freshmen on offense alone last week, 17 freshmen earned playing time, and 34 of Purdue's 70 players on the travel roster are underclassmen. The Boilermakers don't have much to celebrate right now, but they're certainly young.
- Offenses don't stay on the field long when they're playing Michigan State. The Spartans boast the nation's top defense, statistically, when it comes to yards allowed -- but there's a much more interesting stat behind that one. Mark Dantonio's squad has forced opponents to three-and-outs on 40 of 82 possessions, which is also the nation's best. Teams are averaging 6.7 three-and-outs per game when they're forced to go up against Michigan State.
- The Hoosiers' up-tempo offense is setting all sorts of records this season. Here's just a few notable records and stats: Indiana has scored 28 points in a program-best seven straight games; IU's school record of seven 300-yard passing games ended last week; Ted Bolser leads the nation's tight ends with five TDs; and 20 of the Hoosiers' 60 scoring drives have taken five or fewer plays.
2. Big injuries at Northwestern: The Wildcats' read-option could be in trouble Saturday. Both quarterback Kain Colter and tailback Venric Mark are nursing injuries, and they're both listed as questionable. Even if they do return, neither will be at 100 percent -- and both are crucial to a team that's been forced to rely on a high-scoring offense to win.
3. Different head coach, different starting quarterback: A lot has changed for Minnesota in the past few weeks. In Week 1, it looked as if Philip Nelson was the quarterback of the future and head coach Jerry Kill would lead this team to continued improvement. Now? Well, Mitch Leidner has been promoted to starting quarterback, while Kill has taken a leave of absence due to seizures. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will take over for Kill on Saturday, and Claeys will be coaching from the sideline -- he usually coaches from the press box -- against Northwestern. Claeys still plans to call the defensive plays, so he'll have to spend some time committing those play calls to memory. He won't have those charts in front of him anymore.
4. Michigan's response: The Wolverines suffered a heartbreaker in Happy Valley, as they couldn't put the game away despite several chances. They're now set to face the team, Indiana, that bounced the Nittany Lions. Michigan may have five wins already on the season, but it's been extremely shaky. A convincing win against the Hoosiers -- and their Big Ten-best passing attack -- could go a long way in showing this team is still a contender. And, of course, that all starts with Devin Gardner.
5. Inexperience no problem for this defensive line: The Buckeyes had to rebuild their defensive line from scratch this season as no starters returned, but these young players have stepped up in a big way. They slowed down Wisconsin's running attack and have contributed to the sixth-best run defense in the nation. True freshman DE Joey Bosa is listed as the starter against Iowa this week, and he already has four tackles for loss and a touchdown listed next to his name. Mark Weisman and the Hawkeyes will face a stiff test Saturday.
7. Spartans' offense in the midst of a turnaround: Early on, it seemed as if Michigan State's offense would be a liability all season. After all, in the first two games, the defense scored more touchdowns while Mark Dantonio couldn't settle on a quarterback. But Connor Cook has since taken over and the running game has taken off. Cook's QBR has taken a step up each week against the FBS, from 17.1 to 27.8 to 68.1 and, last Saturday, to 83.1. Jeremy Langford is also starting to make a name for himself, with four touchdowns this past week. The Spartans are trending upward, and they might be difficult to stop. It won't be easy for Purdue.
8. MGIII might be unstoppable the rest of the way: Yes, the Buckeyes limited Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon to 74 yards on 15 carries -- but he'll face just one more top-10 defense the rest of the regular season. He's third in the FBS with 870 rushing yards, ranks second nationally in yards per carry (9.7) among tailbacks and is 10th in the nation in rushing touchdowns (8). He's one of the most exciting players in the Big Ten, and every team going forward will likely struggle stopping him. His next opponent, Illinois, is allowing nearly 200 rushing yards a game.
9. Can Purdue do anything right? Nothing's been easy for Darrell Hazell's Boilermakers. They just scooted past FCS team Indiana State 20-14, and four of their five losses were decided by 31 points or more. Purdue's future hopes are pinned to true freshman quarterback Danny Etling. But, for now, there's no guarantee that Purdue will escape the 2013 season with another win. It's ranked No. 118 in scoring offense and, in scoring defense, it's ranked No. 114. At this point, Purdue would just be fortunate to hang in tough against Michigan State.
10. Home of inconsistent quarterbacks and good defenses: Welcome to the Big Ten! The conference boasts three teams (Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin) that are nationally ranked in the top 10 in total defense, and three more (Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State) that are within the top 20. Still, the passing offenses haven't exactly taken off as planned. The Big Ten's top QBs entering this season -- arguably Taylor Martinez, Gardner and Miller -- have either missed time due to injury or have been on the receiving end of some quarterback controversy.
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
Final 21 Texas A&M 52 9 South Carolina 28 Final Boise State 13 18 Ole Miss 35 Final Weber State 14 19 Arizona State 45
Final 1 Florida State 37 Oklahoma State 31 Final West Virginia 23 2 Alabama 33 Final South Dakota 13 3 Oregon 62 Final Louisiana Tech 16 4 Oklahoma 48 Final 5 Ohio State 34 Navy 17 Final Arkansas 21 6 Auburn 45 Final 7 UCLA 28 Virginia 20 Final UC Davis 0 11 Stanford 45 Final 16 Clemson 21 12 Georgia 45 Final 14 Wisconsin 24 13 LSU 28 Final Fresno State 13 15 USC 52 Final Rice 17 17 Notre Dame 48 Final Stephen F. Austin 16 20 Kansas State 55 Final Florida Atlantic 7 22 Nebraska 55 Final Liberty 29 23 North Carolina 56 Final South Dakota State 18 24 Missouri 38 Final 25 Washington 17 Hawaii 16