Chicago Colleges: Northwestern Wildcats

Big Ten morning links

February, 24, 2015
Feb 24
8:00
AM CT
Spring football starts Tuesday at Michigan, where temperatures are forecast to dip below zero each of the next three nights.

Why do I feel like everyone on Twitter is talking to Jim Harbaugh these days?



The Wolverines will be warm and cozy at practice inside Al Glick Field House. Northwestern also starts this week. Maryland, Minnesota and Nebraska open drills next week, which makes now as good a time as any to review staff openings around the Big Ten.

Presumably, all 14 programs will get back to full strength for spring practice. For now, four teams remain down a man.

Since we last took a divisional look at offseason changes in the East and the West, Nebraska and Wisconsin lost assistant coaches, and Purdue hired Terry Malone over the weekend to coach tight ends.

Malone made it to a 6 a.m. workout Monday with the Boilermakers.

He is an intriguing hire for Purdue. Most recently the tight ends coach of the New Orleans Saints, where he was instrumental in the development of 2013 first-team All-Pro pick Jimmy Graham, Malone coordinated Michigan's offense from 2002-05 and also worked under Lloyd Carr as offensive line coach.

Michigan won five league crowns in Malone's nine seasons. He brings an NFL pedigree and a history of success in the Big Ten. Pretty good place to start for the Boilermakers, who have won one Big Ten game in two seasons under coach Darrell Hazell.

Here's a rundown of the programs with open positions:

Nebraska needs a secondary coach to replace Charlton Warren, who left after signing day for North Carolina. Several reports have indicated the Cornhuskers are close to an agreement with Brian Stewart, who left Maryland as defensive coordinator last week in what the Terrapins termed a mutual parting.

If it is Stewart, the move makes sense for coach Mike Riley, who generally hires coaches that he or his assistants know. Stewart served a solid stint in 2007-08 with the Dallas Cowboys as defensive coordinator. Also on that Dallas staff was Bruce Read, Nebraska's special teams coach and a longtime Riley assistant.

Stewart is also a San Diego native and coached the secondary for the Chargers before his stint in Dallas; Riley, former head coach of the Chargers, and his staff have numerous San Diego ties.

Of little relevance, Stewart, as the Cowboys coordinator, succeeded Mike Zimmer, who -- after the 2003 season -- interviewed for the Nebraska head-coaching job. It went to Bill Callahan, who spent 2012-14 with the Cowboys.

And of minor relevance, Stewart would be the only full-time member of the Nebraska staff to coach a game at Memorial Stadium. He spent three seasons at Missouri, losing to the Huskers in 1996 and 2000 in Lincoln and in 1999 at Mizzou.

Illinois still has an opening after the January firing of two assistant coaches. The spot yet to be filled was vacated by special teams coach Tim Salem, though coach Tim Beckman might hire for a different position. Beckman said recently that he had interviewed internal candidates and likely would assign Alex Golesh, the Fighting Illini recruiting coordinator who worked last season with running backs and tight ends, to handle a heavy load on special teams next season.

Maryland needs an assistant to replace Stewart. Inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski was promoted to defensive coordinator.

Wisconsin must hire a running backs coach to replace Thomas Brown, who left for alma mater, Georgia. John Settle, who coached the position for the Badgers from 2006-10 and for Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst at Pittsburgh last season, has been mentioned in reports as a candidate.

Let's get to the links:

Big Ten morning links

February, 13, 2015
Feb 13
8:00
AM CT
Credit Kirk Ferentz for trying. Is it enough, though?

The Iowa coach, in preparation for his 17th season, announced changes Thursday to his staff assignments. Not coaching changes, but hey, something is better than nothing, right?

To summarize, LeVar Woods, formerly the linebackers coach, will take over the tight ends. Brian Ferentz is now the run game coordinator in addition to his responsibilities as offensive line coach. And Seth Wallace, who assisted with the defensive line last year, now coaches the nickels and cornerbacks.

Change does not come easily at Iowa, where the head coach's release of a postseason depth chart, in a departure from previous seasons, raised brows last month.

Iowa's offense needs an infusion of energy. Maybe quarterback C.J. Beathard can provide it. But the elder Ferentz is wise not to rely entirely on that. He's banking also on Woods, a linebacker on Ferentz's first two teams who did nice work on the defensive side, and the coach's son in an increased role.

Marc Morehouse of the Cedar Rapids Gazette suggests that the new job description for Brian Ferentz rates as the most interesting of the changes. But what will the younger Ferentz do as run game coordinator? Certainly, he's not about to supercede offensive coordinator Greg Davis, who has his hands full with quarterbacks Beathard and Jake Rudock.

Fact is, though, Iowa's quarterbacks -- and its defense -- would benefit most from a dynamic running game. The Hawkeyes' 4.12 yards per rush in 2014 ranked 10th in the Big Ten. It lacked explosiveness.

Brian Ferentz has extended Iowa's notable tradition of producing solid offensive linemen. If his work translates to the run game at large, maybe he can help get his dad back on the right track.

Nothing official out of Piscataway, New Jersey, yet on the potential hire of business consultant Jeff Towers as Rutgers' recruiting coordinator, but Stewart Mandel of FoxSports.com is offering praise for coach Kyle Flood.

Mandel likens Towers, who has no known experience in football, and other similar hires at major programs to general managers at the pro level -- without the ability to trade or draft players, of course. (Don't get any ideas.)

Much remains unknown about the specifics of Towers' business experience. The only details uncovered came from his LinkedIn profile. Regardless, if Flood makes this move, clearly he believes in Towers to bring a new type of leadership to the business side of the Rutgers program.

College football programs are built like corporations today. Nearly every major program employs an operations director, the most effective of whom possess freedom in making decisions on non-coaching matters. So why not have a GM-like figure to run the personnel department, otherwise known as recruiting operations?

The size and structure of these staffs loom as a possible issue for the Power 5 conferences to debate. Even so, unless major restrictions are imposed -- unexpected in this age of autonomy -- hires like Towers will soon be viewed as standard practice.

Let's get to the links:

East Division
West Division

Position battles: Northwestern Wildcats

February, 12, 2015
Feb 12
3:00
PM CT
The long wait until football returns is only beginning, but spring practice is at least another day closer. To help pass the time until Big Ten teams are back in pads, we're looking around the entire league at key position battles that could help sort out the race for a championship by the time fall eventually arrives.

Next in line: Northwestern.

1. Quarterback: The race to take the reins of the offense from Trevor Siemian may have actually started at the end of last season, and Northwestern got a glimpse at what Zack Oliver could offer as a starter. But expect all the options to open camp with a blank slate in what could be a three-man competition for the job, with Oliver, sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson all jockeying for the position. If the Wildcats are going to bounce back and be a factor in the West Division next season, identifying the right leader for the attack has to be at the top of the priority list.

2. Outside linebacker: The Wildcats are losing veterans at both outside positions at the second level and will need to replace Chi Chi Ariguzo and Jimmy Hall. Ariguzo led the team in tackles during his senior campaign, and his sidekick on the other side chipped in 58 tackles while intercepting two passes, forcing a fumble and recovering three more. Senior Drew Smith has experience already and should give the Wildcats a jump on filling one hole given his ability to line up on either side, but that still leaves a big pair of shoes to fill on the other side of Anthony Walker.

3. Center: Nobody at Northwestern ever took for granted the stability Brandon Vitabile provided in the middle of the offensive line, and it was certainly a luxury to be able to count on him for so long up front. Now the Wildcats will have to find somebody to replace everything he provided while anchoring that unit and starting every offensive play, and their appreciation for Vitabile might actually increase heading into spring practice without him. Backup Hayden Baker is gone as well, so one way or another Pat Fitzgerald is looking at some inexperience at such a crucial position.

Illini try to make a sweet home in Chicago

February, 9, 2015
Feb 9
3:45
PM CT
There's no doubt that Chicago is ground zero in the Illinois-Northwestern rivalry.

The Wildcats have branded themselves as "Chicago's Big Ten team," while the Illini have counted with the slogan, "Illinois. Our State. Our Team."

Well, now Chicago really will be home to the football rivalry between the schools and a more permanent home base for Illinois, or so the school hopes. That's because on Monday afternoon, the Illini announced that they will be playing their season finales against Northwestern at Soldier Field this year, in 2017 and in 2019. All three games will be played over Thanksgiving weekend.

[+] EnlargeIllinois football
Mike Granse/USA TODAY SportsIllinois played before a disappointing crowd in its home finale versus Penn State in 2014.
The move is an interesting one for a lot of reasons. Illinois is in some ways giving up a home-field advantage for its biggest Big Ten rivalry game -- Northwestern's campus is located just 15 miles from Soldier Field, after all. But the Illini have struggled to draw crowds in late November, especially with students on break for the Thanksgiving holiday. Last year's home finale against Penn State -- played the Saturday before turkey day -- attracted less than 10,000 fans, according to media reports.

The school says it has more than 140,000 alumni in the Chicagoland area and expects about 10,000 students to be in the vicinity during Thanksgiving weekend. It's still up to the football team to get people excited about coming to games, and fans have yet to fully embrace the Tim Beckman era even after last year's squad finished strong to reach a bowl. But the Illini hope to make the Soldier Field game an event with activities planned for fans and alumni around the contest.

To no one's surprise, there's a financial element in play, too. Illinois says it made $946,019 per home game in the 2014 season, a number that was brought down by the Penn State game, which netted just over $812,000. The Illini say they earned more than $1.96 million from its most recent game at Soldier Field, a 2013 loss to Washington.

That's all well and good -- unless you're one of the hardy souls who have faithfully supported Illinois at home games in Champaign and don't live particularly close to Chicago. The move affects this year's season-ticket holders, since their package now includes one fewer home contest. The school says that season tickets will have a lower price tag, reflecting that there are six home games instead of seven, and that season-ticket holders will have a chance to buy seats to the Soldier Field game at an exclusive, discounted rate. (This Q&A provides more insight).

Some fans could be negatively affected. But let's face it: the Illini haven't exactly been turning people away from home games. Their average home attendance in 2014 (53,397) ranked 12th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten, ahead of only Northwestern and Purdue. The program is right to try and do whatever it can to inspire some interest and enthusiasm and to do it in the city that's most vital for its exposure and recruiting.

There are a few other Big Ten teams who could use nearby NFL stadiums on occasion to generate interest, such as Rutgers (MetLife Stadium), Maryland (FedEx Field) and Indiana and Purdue (Lucas Oil Stadium). Heck, the most attention a Northwestern-Illinois football game has probably ever received was the 2010 game at Wrigley Field, even if that turned into something of a farce with the playing conditions.

There's a lot of upside here for Illinois. And if you're Northwestern, you have to be bending over backwards to accommodate this move, as a rivalry road game is now just a short train ride away in three of the next five years. You can bet the Wildcats will try to get their fans to flood Soldier Field and make it no less than a neutral-site atmosphere.

It will be fun to see the purple-clad Northwestern fans jostling it out with the orange-and-blue Illini backers in the stands. With today's announcement, Illinois raised the stakes in the claim to Chicago. It's appropriate that the two schools will vie for on-field supremacy in the city proper this fall and in years to come.
No drama. Pat Fitzgerald wants as little of it as possible on national signing day. Northwestern's recent recruiting cycles follow a familiar pattern: the Wildcats load up early on commitments, pick up a few more later in the process and have few, if any, surprises on the first Wednesday of February.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesOf the 20 players in the Wildcats' 2015 class, Pat Fitzgerald has recruited nine at WR and DB.
Although Northwestern had a few recruits head elsewhere late in the process, it finalized a diverse class Wednesday featuring 20 prospects from 11 states. The Wildcats went heavy on perimeter players with five wide receivers and four defensive backs.

ESPN.com caught up with Fitzgerald to discuss the class.

Was it another no-drama signing day? How would you describe finishing off this class?

Pat Fitzgerald: It was a perfect job by our staff. We had 14 guys verbally committed prior to their senior years, which has become par for the course for us. We had to make some additions late in the process, six guys during their senior year. It's a great group of guys, a great group of families.

What positions were the biggest needs in this class?

PF: Like everyone, you look at your needs not only for this year but next year's class of guys who will move out. We felt we had to get some competition on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Added six guys who I feel are going to do that. And our skill positions, especially at wide receiver and DB, to add nine guys who can really run, good size, physical DBs.

Guys seem to play earlier at the perimeter spots. What impact do you see the new guys making at those positions?

PF: Singling one guy out would be a little premature. Charlie Fessler's a wide receiver who's a big, tall, athletic kid. Same thing with Cameron Green from here in Chicago, a tall, athletic wide receiver. And then in the slot we added two dynamic guys. Flynn Nagel is a Julian Edelman-type guy, 94 catches in his senior year. And Jelani Roberts is as fast a kid as we'll have in our program. He has the fastest 40-yard dash that I've timed at our camp that we've ended up signing. As an average, we had him at 4.3 flat. He just ran the 10th fastest 55-meter dash in high school in the country. He can really fly. In the secondary, that group is very talented, so it should add instant competition.

You also picked up several linebackers. What is your assessment of players such as Nathan Fox and Simba Short?

PF: Fox, [Tommy] Vitale and Short are three thick, big, physical, athletic guys. We've looked at guys at linebacker who played in space and have played multiple positions throughout their high school careers. These three guys are similar to that, but they're a little bit bigger and still have that athleticism. With the Big Ten West, you have to be able to stop the run, first and foremost. We really like the additions of these three.

You've redshirted a lot of players in the past. Is that still the message or do you point to Justin Jackson and other freshmen who played a lot?

PF: Philosophically, we've redshirted guys because the young men have redshirted themselves. I haven't really changed what I've told any kid. The No. 1 thing you do after you sign is you have to prepare yourself mentally, physically and emotionally to come here and staff. If you don't do that, you're going to redshirt yourself. I'm not going to have to make a decision. Each year, we've had from 4-10 guys who, two weeks into training camp, we feel like have an opportunity to play. But our staff have to evaluate whether those kids are going to play their position or just play in the kicking game. From a philosophy standpoint, I would prefer not to use a freshman year in the kicking game alone. Every coach has a different approach. I've gotten that reputation that we redshirt a lot of our guys. We don't necessarily do it as a staff. The young man does it to himself first and then if they get to a point where they're close to playing, I just don't believe in wasting a kid's year in the kicking game.

You always recruit nationally and this year saw a wide net -- Maryland, Georgia, California. Are there new areas coming up or the same target spots?

PF: Yeah, 11 states in the class. We're always going to start and end here in Chicago, and to have 25 percent of the class from where we need to win is always going to be important. But we're a national university and to add a couple young men from Maryland, now having that footprint of the league expand; to get down in Georgia and get two DBs and recruit speed and athleticism; and the areas that we always have success because of the academic brand and the Northwestern brand of football -- Texas, California and Ohio -- are always going to be areas we should be strong in.

There are a lot of decommitments now and you saw some of it. Is that just the landscape or you guys struggling the past two years?

PF: I don't think it had anything to do with us on the field. When kids watch us play a couple years ago when we started relationships, we won 10 games and you could argue we could have won some more or lost some. In the last two years, we're a handful of finishes away from me not being a D-minus head coach. That's football. It has more to do with the way the process is. The guys that fit, you have to recruit all the way to signing day. That's just the way it is.

Do I wish it was like other sports, that when you commit other schools stop recruiting kids? That's just not the case. It would be naive to say that. We go about our business a certain way and we've had things happen in the process. I wish those kids the best of luck. I appreciate their families allowing us to be part of the process. It's not the ones you don't get. It's the ones you get. We're fired up about the 20 guys we have.

Big Ten mailbag

February, 2, 2015
Feb 2
4:00
PM CT
So let's see ... since the last time I dipped into ye olde mailbag, the calendar flipped to 2015, the Big Ten became home to the national champions and two Big Ten quarterbacks played in a Super Bowl.

Yeah, it's been a long time. Way too long, actually. So before another big event takes place -- the sugar high of signing day draws near -- I just had to answer some of your questions.

Brian Bennett: Two similar questions here from Patrick and John, and they're good ones. Without question, Ohio State's national championship -- as well as strong performances by other Big Ten teams in the postseason, most notably Michigan State and Wisconsin -- has completely flipped the script on the Big Ten narrative.

Thank goodness for that. Not because I have any rooting interest in the league's success or failure, but because the whole notion that the conference was miles away from the SEC and other conferences was exaggerated to begin with and became incredibly tiresome the past few years. The best counterargument to such claims is always: "Scoreboard!" Finally, the Big Ten can say that. And after witnessing Buckeyes players run away from Alabama and Oregon defenders, the "Big Ten speed" jokes officially must be retired for at least the next eight months.

Ohio State should start the 2015 season off as No. 1, and Michigan State will be a top 10 team again. You can't put a price tag on that value. The Buckeyes' title bought credibility not just for themselves but for the entire league. If anyone can defeat Urban Meyer's team in 2015, it will gain a huge boost for beating the defending national champs. Similarly, Ohio State will get the benefit of the doubt if it is involved in a comparison of one-loss teams at the end of the season. While the selection committee is charged with reviewing the current season's results only, members would be hard pressed to leave out the defending champs if résumés are mostly equal otherwise.

"The Big Ten is back" theme will likely be as overstated this offseason as "The Big Ten is dead" story line was in previous years. Still, this one is a lot more enjoyable, and it's up to the league to build upon hard-fought success.

Alex from Kenosha, Wis., writes: With Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman, and Ameer Abdullah gone to the NFL, who is going to be the next big back in the Big Ten?

Brian Bennett: The three guys you mentioned were phenomenal, but don't forget about Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Minnesota's David Cobb. That's five of the top 19 rushers in the FBS, so a ton of talent is leaving at the tailback position.

Yet the Big Ten often easily replenishes its running backs, and the next big back is one who already announced himself as a superstar in early 2015: Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott. The offensive MVP of both the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the national title game is an early Heisman Trophy contender (not to mention an obvious future eight-minute abs pitchman). The only question about Elliott's production in '15 is whether Ohio State will have enough touches to go around with its abundance of playmakers.

Add Corey Clement to the list of budding stars, as he'll move to the front of Wisconsin's assembly line of stud tailbacks. Clement ran for 949 yards -- 10th best in the Big Ten -- despite backing up a guy who ran for the second-most yards ever in an FBS season. Amazing.

Northwestern's Justin Jackson deserves mention, too. Despite a mediocre yards per carry average (4.8), he racked up 1,187 rushing yards in 12 games as a true freshman. That was impressive.

Brian Bennett: Speaking of running back talent, I think that's the position where the Scarlet Knights could shine in 2015. Paul James was headed toward an excellent campaign before he was lost for the year to injury for a second straight season. No Rutgers player ran for more than 447 yards all season. But freshman Josh Hicks erupted for 202 yards in the Quick Lane Bowl, while fellow freshman Robert Martin delivered an even 100 yards in the same game. Throw in Desmon Peoples and hopefully a healthy return by James, and Rutgers could be pretty loaded in the backfield next season.

Brian Bennett: That's a question best answered three or four years from now. The one concern I had about Nebraska's hiring of Riley was whether he would be able to recruit nationally, something that's necessary for the Huskers to succeed. Riley ran more of a developmental program at Oregon State, though the Beavers don't have anywhere near the resources that Nebraska boasts.

That said, I've been pretty impressed thus far with Riley and his staff. Hanging on to DaiShon Neal despite a late (and reportedly botched) push from Michigan was big, and the Huskers have attacked specific areas of need in this class. What I've really liked is how enthusiastically Riley and his staff have embraced the recruiting efforts, for instance keying fans in to where they're traveling to visit prospects on Twitter. Bo Pelini and his staff never seemed to enjoy the showmanship aspect of recruiting, but I think you need to draw attention to yourself at a place like Nebraska, which is not surrounded by a built-in talent base. Riley's approach offers encouragement for the future.


Steven from Chicago writes: What will it take for Paul Chryst to get the Badgers some top 20 recruiting classes? Does it even matter with the way Wisconsin develops its players so well?

Brian Bennett: Wisconsin is ranked 29th right now by ESPN Recruiting, though some recent defections may hurt. The Badgers finished 34th in 2013 and 33rd in 2013. The difference between that and a top-20 class is fairly negligible, in my view. Wisconsin is likely never going to have a top 10-type class because it simply cannot profit from a lot of homegrown, blue-chip talent.

But as you mentioned, few schools do as good a job in developing talent as the Badgers do. The program's recent history is full of walk-ons or no-name recruits turning into stars in Madison, and Wisconsin knows exactly what type of player it wants for a system that has changed little in two decades. Chryst will need to improve the recruiting at certain positions, especially wide receiver and quarterback. I've never quite understood why more receivers wouldn't want to play for the Badgers, since they're almost always wide open on play-action calls. Still, Chryst has shown he can mold offensive talent, so I'm never going to be too worried about the star rankings of Wisconsin's classes.

Big Ten morning links

January, 30, 2015
Jan 30
9:00
AM CT
Because it’s Friday before the Super Bowl and you’ve likely not spent enough time thinking about the big game in Arizona, let’s look at it from a Big Ten perspective.

These fascinating maps published by Athlon Sports, which detail the colleges and high schools of every player on the New England and Seattle active and injured-reserve rosters -- be sure to set aside some time to study them -- got me in the mood.

Tom Brady and Russell Wilson give the Big Ten its first-ever pair of starting quarterbacks in a Super Bowl. But that’s old news.

Between bites of chicken wings and nacho dip, impress with your friends with these nuggets:

The state of Illinois produced six Patriots and two Seahawks. Of the eight Illinoisans (more than from any state other than California, Texas and Florida), five played at Big Ten schools.

Who got away? New England reserve quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who played at Eastern Illinois; New England defensive end Zach Moore of Division II Concordia (Minnesota); and linebacker Darius Fleming of the Patriots, who played at Notre Dame.

The Super Bowl features four Seahawks and two Patriots who played at Wisconsin -- headlined, of course, by Wilson. The six ex-Badgers are the most from any college. Two are on injured reserve.

Michigan and Big Ten newbie Rutgers are among seven schools that placed four players in Super Bowl XLIX. That prestigious list also includes Alabama, Oregon, UCLA, Stanford and Texas A&M. Another six programs are represented Sunday by three players, including Illinois and Purdue. The others? LSU, TCU, USC and California.

Kent State, Memphis and Louisiana Tech placed two players apiece in the Super Bowl, more than Ohio State, which sends only New England safety Nate Ebner. But Seattle coach Pete Carroll coached the Buckeyes’ secondary under Earle Bruce in 1979, 15 years before his first head-coaching gig.

Other than Brady and Wilson, probable starters Sunday from the Big Ten are New England defensive end Rob Ninkovich (Purdue), New England safety Devin McCourty (Rutgers) and Seattle defensive end Cliff Avril (Purdue).

Both of Rob Gronkowski's backups played in the Big Ten -- Michael Hoomanawanui at Illinois and Tim Wright at Rutgers. Keep an eye on the tight-end duo. Hoomanawanui factored in the Patriots’ creative alignments against Baltimore in the AFC divisional round, lining up as an eligible receiver at tackle. Wright caught six touchdown passes in the regular season.

Based on their history, the Patriots will probably get creative near the goal line. In their two most recent Super Bowl wins, former Ohio State linebacker Mike Vrabel caught touchdowns from Brady.

On to the links:

Year of the Big Ten back lives up to hype

January, 23, 2015
Jan 23
8:30
AM CT
They didn't sneak up on us.

Anyone who tracked the Big Ten's summer buzz -- or reviewed the list of players attending preseason media days in Chicago -- noticed the league's surplus of standout running backs.

Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon had spurned the NFL, and a potential first-round draft selection, for a run at the Heisman Trophy and a national championship. Gordon's good friend Ameer Abdullah also was back for one final season at Nebraska, where he had been among the nation's most productive players. Indiana football might not hold your attention, but Tevin Coleman's 7.3 yards-per-carry average certainly does.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsIn many years, Doak Walker Award winner Melvin Gordon would have taken home the Heisman Trophy.
Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Minnesota's David Cobb had been workhorses in 2013 -- combining for 529 carries -- and were back for more. Almost every team had a player capable of logging 1,000 rush yards.

"In this league," Cobb told ESPN.com's Austin Ward in August, "there's a good running back on every team."

Turned out, Cobb was underselling himself and his fellow backs. Most Big Ten teams had great, if not elite, running backs.

The numbers back it up: 2014 was easily the best season for running backs in Big Ten history.

The league produced six 1,500-yard rushers -- no other conference had more than three (no other Power 5 league had more than two). According to research from the Big Ten office, until 2014 the league never had more than three 1,500-yard rushers in the same season. Although a 12-game regular season, a championship game and the College Football Playoff provide more opportunities, Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott was the only back who needed the extra contests to reach -- and ultimately far eclipse -- 1,500 yards.

According to ESPN Stats and Info, no FBS conference has had even five 1,500-yard rushers since at least 1996.

The Big Ten produced the nation's top three rushers in Gordon, Coleman and Elliott. It had all three finalists for the Doak Walker Award in Gordon (who won), Coleman and Abdullah. Gordon was a Heisman finalist and likely would have won the award in any other year, as Marcus Mariota's numbers were overwhelming. Coleman and Gordon were consensus All-Americans, and Elliott earned offensive MVP honors in both the Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl, and in the national championship game.

So much star power eclipsed the consistency of players such as Cobb and Langford, the emergence of Northwestern freshman Justin Jackson, the speed threat of Purdue's Akeem Hunt, or the versatility of Illinois' Josh Ferguson.

Go ahead. Try to find a more productive season at running back -- for any league -- in college football history.

But what stands out about the Year of the Big Ten Running Back was that it occurred in stanzas. Just when one star back broke from the pack, another would seize the spotlight.

Let's take a quick look back:

Act 1: Fear Ameer

Abdullah and Georgia's Todd Gurley were the nation's best backs in the first month of the season. The Nebraska senior opened with a 232-yard performance against Florida Atlantic, and finished September with consecutive 200-yard efforts against Miami and Illinois. Abdullah finished with just 54 rush yards against FCS McNeese State but delivered one of the season's most memorable plays -- a 58-yard run after catch through McNeese State defenders with 20 seconds left that secured a Cornhuskers win.

Although Coleman also had a strong start and other Big Ten backs had their moments, Abdullah put himself in the Heisman talk with 833 rush yards and eight touchdowns by the end of September.

Act 2: Melvin makes his move

It was a bizarre start for Gordon: a huge first half (plus one play) against LSU, followed by a mysterious absence, followed by a 17-carry, 38-yard clunker against Western Illinois. Goodbye, Heisman? Hardly.

Beginning with a 253-yard performance against Bowling Green, Gordon posted 10 consecutive games of 100 or more rush yards, five 200-yard performances and seven games with multiple rushing touchdowns. By the end of October, he had returned to the national awards races.

[+] EnlargeTevin Coleman
AP Photo/Darron CummingsTevin Coleman's monster performances were hard to miss, even if Indiana was otherwise struggling.
Act 3: Coleman gets his due

It's always hard to get noticed on a struggling team, but when a player consistently puts up numbers like Coleman, he commands attention. Coleman averaged at least 6.9 yards per carry in six of his first seven games, including 14.5 yards per rush in a 219-yard effort at Iowa. Although his 307-yard explosion at Rutgers was overshadowed by Gordon's record-setting day against Nebraska, he earned national respect by running for 228 yards and three touchdowns at Ohio State in a game that Indiana led in the third quarter.

Coleman averaged 197.3 rush yards in road games, barely trailing Gordon (198 ypg) for the national lead.

Act 4: What about the other guys?

Cobb and Langford lacked the flash of Gordon, Coleman or Abdullah, but their consistency, durability and production eventually became impossible to ignore. Cobb logged five performances of 145 rush yards or more and recorded 30 or more carries in four consecutive games. Langford started slowly but ended the season with 10 consecutive 100-yard rushing performances, a team record. He ended his career with 15 consecutive 100-yard performances in Big Ten games, the longest such streak for any FBS player in regular-season conference games since at least 1996.

Elliott also surfaced with 154 yards at Michigan State, the first of many big-stage performances he would deliver down the stretch.

Act 5: Gordon's Heisman move

Some felt Mariota had the Heisman locked up by early November. Gordon made them reconsider. After a ho-hum 205-yard effort at Purdue, Gordon gashed Nebraska for an NCAA-record 408 rush yards as snow fell at Camp Randall Stadium. His milestone, compiled in just three quarters, lasted just one week as Oklahoma's Samaje Perine broke the record, but Gordon made the Heisman a two-man race again. He followed up with 200 yards at Iowa and a workmanlike 151 against Minnesota as Wisconsin won the Big Ten West Division.

Gordon fell shy of the Heisman but won the Doak Walker Award and secured a place as one of the great -- and perhaps the greatest -- Wisconsin back.

Act 6: Riding the E Train to a championship

The Year of the Big Ten Back was supposed to end with Gordon, but Elliott provided a surprise addendum. It started with 220 rush yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries in Ohio State's 59-0 stomping of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Elliott then followed with 230 yards and two scores on 20 carries in the Playoff semifinal against Alabama at the Sugar Bowl, including a Crimson Tide-taming 85-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

He ended with an even better performance -- 246 rush yards and four touchdowns -- as "ZEEEEEKE!" cheers reverberated throughout AT&T Stadium in Ohio State's national title win against Oregon.

The final carry for a Big Ten back this season: Elliott's 1-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds to play, providing a fitting exclamation point.

Big Ten morning links

January, 21, 2015
Jan 21
8:00
AM CT
Tuesday brought an end to questions about the final spots on the coaching staffs at Michigan and Nebraska.

Both are now full, though at Michigan, the addition of Mike Zordich as secondary coach and Jay Harbaugh as tight ends coach came as no surprise. Nebraska, more than two weeks after Mike Riley unveiled additions to bring his staff to eight, tabbed a receivers coach, Keith Williams, from Tulane.

An official announcement is forthcoming after Williams, 42, spent time Tuesday in Lincoln.



The highlight of the Jay Harbaugh hire came as the head coach’s 25-year-old son revealed that his dad once poured Gatorade on his cereal.

Excuse me, what? Way to set the bar high on your first official day, Jay; we’ll definitely expect more where that came from that in future interviews.

Fact is, Jim Harbaugh could have hired daughters Grace, Addie or Katie, ages 14, 6, and 4, respectively, to fill a spot on this staff, and Michigan fans would have leapt with joy. Such is their level of excitement with Harbaugh, as it should be.

And that’s no knock against Jay, 25, who worked for his uncle, John, the past three seasons as an offensive quality control coach for the Baltimore Ravens. The young Harbaugh looks like a fine pick, especially paired with Jedd Fisch and Tyrone Wheatley on the offensive side and veteran special teams coordinator John Baxter.

If Jay brings a fraction of his father’s enthusiasm, he’ll be a big hit on the recruiting trail.

Back to Jay Harbaugh. It’s interesting that he worked on Riley’s staff at Oregon State as an undergraduate assistant for four years. Not surprising, though, that Jim’s son got his foot in the door with Riley.

The Riley-Harbaugh connections run deep. New Nebraska running backs coach Reggie Davis came to Riley from Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers.

And oh, yes, Harbaugh played on Riley’s San Diego Chargers in 1999 and 2000.

When Nebraska and Michigan meet again in 2018 -- if both coaches last that long and they don’t meet first in a Big Ten title game -- it’s going to feel a little like a family reunion.

Around the rest of the Big Ten:

East Division
West Division

Big Ten morning links

December, 19, 2014
12/19/14
7:00
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Bowl season is a tricky time for coaches to motivate players.

“You can grind guys up if you occupy them too much mentally,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said this week.

Read more from Fitzgerald and others Friday on ESPN.com about motivation in bowl season. His Wildcats, sitting home this month, would trade places with any of the 10 Big Ten bowl teams. And with that wonderful time of year to start on Saturday -- the first Big Ten bowl game is still a week away -- it makes sense to look at the factors motivating conference teams.

Here’s a ranking of Big Ten teams with the most for which to play in the postseason:

Ohio State (Allstate Sugar Bowl, vs. Alabama, Jan. 1): A clear leader in this category as the Big Ten representative in the College Football Playoff, the Buckeyes carry the weight of the league on their shoulders. What else is new? Ohio State is flagship program of the Big Ten under Urban Meyer, who had a lot to say Thursday about his team's daunting task against the Crimson Tide.

Michigan State (Goodyear Cotton Bowl, vs. Baylor, Jan. 1): The Spartans lost to a pair of playoff teams, yet they're largely forgotten nationally. A business trip to Texas to face Baylor, the next best thing to a playoff opponent, offers a chance for MSU to finish on a high note nearly equal last year's Rose Bowl win.

Minnesota (Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, vs. Missouri, Jan. 1): A victory in Orlando would give the Golden Gophers a nine-win season for the first time since 2003 and the second time in more than a century, and it would represent the school's best two-year run in over 50 years. It won't come easy against the two-time SEC East champ. The Gophers must run the ball effectively, their bread and butter, now and in the future.

Penn State (New Era Pinstripe Bowl, vs. Boston College, Dec. 27): The Nittany Lions, exposed in the second half of this season for a lack of overall talent, can end on a high note in this much-awaited return to the postseason after a two-year bowl ban. A visit to New York against a regional recruiting rival heightens the stakes.

Rutgers (Quick Lane Bowl, vs. North Carolina, Dec. 26): The Scarlet Knights exceeded expectations to make it this far. After an inspiring comeback win over fellow Big Ten newcomer Maryland to close the regular season, confidence is high, though the uncertain injury status of star receiver Leonte Carroo threatens to put a damper on the excitement around this bowl trip.

Wisconsin (Outback Bowl, vs. Auburn, Jan. 1): Motivated by the embarrassment of a 59-point loss in the Big Ten title game, the Badgers got knocked down another step by the surprise departure of Gary Andersen. But the return of Paul Chryst has boosted the spirits of players, who will look to impress their new coach as he observes in Tampa. Against Auburn's multi-faceted offense, Wisconsin must use everything at its disposal, including QB Tanner McEvoy on the defensive side.

Nebraska (National University Holiday Bowl, vs. USC, Dec. 27): The Cornhuskers are also playing to catch the eye of a new coach, as Mike Riley figures to watch closely. Riley's new staff will start fresh though, so what happens in San Diego stays in San Diego. Still, Nebraska players, amid a dramatic exit from their former coach that has sparked more debate, want to provide a fond farewell for their old staff of assistant coaches.

Illinois (Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, vs. Louisiana Tech, Dec. 26): With victories over Penn State and Northwestern to get bowl eligible, Illinois has won simply by making it this far. No marquee opponent awaits, and Dallas isn't exactly a winter paradise, though maybe the man of the hour, QB Reilly O'Toole, can rally the Fighting Illini once again.

Maryland (Foster Farms Bowl, vs. Stanford, Dec. 30): Did the Terrapins run out of gas in the second half against Rutgers? It was a long season, packed with several highlights, in Maryland's first season of Big Ten play. But a visit to face Stanford, which is coming off four consecutive major bowls, near its home turf, looks like another significant challenge for Randy Edsall's team.

Iowa (TaxSlayer Bowl, vs. Tennesssee, Jan. 2): The Hawkeyes need someone to step up, a habitual practice in the postseason, or they face a dull ending to a disappointing season that set up well in Iowa City.

Around the rest of the league:

Northwestern Wildcats season review

December, 17, 2014
12/17/14
1:00
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Our week-long review of the 2014 season for each Big Ten program rolls on with the Northwestern Wildcats.

Overview: No team in the Big Ten had as many zeniths and nadirs as Northwestern during the 2014 season. The Wildcats beat two ranked opponents and still managed to miss a bowl game. The season got off to an embarrassing start when the offense, in a 24-7 win, was outgained by Western Illinois after losses to Cal and Northern Illinois. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald challenged his players' toughness and got a three-game winning streak, capped by knocking off West Division champ Wisconsin. Fitzgerald's team also upset heavily-favored Notre Dame in South Bend with an entertaining 43-40 overtime victory. In between those wins, Northwestern's offense failed to reach 20 points in any of its four consecutive losses to Big Ten opponents. Some talented freshmen on both sides of the ball provided reasons for optimism, but the season ended on another low note by losing to in-state rival Illinois with a bowl trip on the line for both teams.

Offensive MVP: Of the group of rookies who stepped into big roles this season in Evanston, Illinois, running back Justin Jackson was easily the most impressive. Jackson became the second freshman at Northwestern to top 1,000 yards and finished the season with 1,187 and a team-high 10 touchdowns. He also led the offense in putting up 43 points at Notre Dame. His 149 rushing yards in that game were the most the Irish gave up to any player this season.

Defensive MVP: Safety and co-captain Ibraheim Campbell coordinated the Wildcats' secondary in his fourth and final season as a starter. His three interceptions this season brought his career total to 11, which is third all-time at Northwestern. He also tied for the Big Ten lead in forced fumbles this year with four. One of those gave the offense a chance to tie Notre Dame in the final 90 seconds of the fourth quarter. He ended the season with 54 tackles despite missing four games due to an injury in the middle of the season. The Wildcats went 1-3 during that stretch.

ESPN's Big Ten all-freshman team

December, 15, 2014
12/15/14
9:00
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The Big Ten doesn't put out an all-freshman team. But we do. Here are our picks for the top first-year players in the league in 2014:

Offense

QB: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: Well, duh.

RB: Justin Jackson, Northwestern: In the year of the running back in the Big Ten, Jackson somewhat quietly produced 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns as a true freshman.

RB: Curtis Samuel, Ohio State: He added to the Buckeyes' ridiculous array of skill players, running for 386 yards and six scores. Looks like a future star.

WR: Mike Dudek, Illinois: In another season, one in which a guy like Barrett doesn't put up mind-boggling stats, Dudek would have been the freshman of the year in the league. He should surpass 1,000 yards receiving in the Fighting Illini's bowl game.

WR: DaeSean Hamilton, Penn State: Though the Nittany Lions' offense struggled, Hamilton caught more passes (75) than any other Big Ten player and finished with 848 yards in the regular season.

WR/RB: Jalin Marshall, Ohio State: A versatile, speedy weapon who could come out of the backfield or fly into it, Marshall scored seven touchdowns on offense and one on punt returns. He's also the team's backup quarterback right now.

OL: Mason Cole, Michigan: The first Wolverine ever to start the opener at left tackle as a true freshman, Cole stayed there all season and showed a lot of promise with his excellent footwork and instincts.

OL: Brian Allen, Michigan State: The true freshman and brother of All-Big Ten center Jack Allen appeared in all 12 games, with one start at left guard.

OL: Billy Price, Ohio State: The redshirt freshman has started all 13 games as a guard for the Buckeyes.

OL: Andrew Nelson, Penn State: The Nittany Lions had their issues on the offensive line, but Nelson started every game at tackle -- including twice at left tackle -- and has a bright future.

OL: Christian DiLauro, Illinois: He filled in as the starting right tackle in the second half of the season for the Illini and helped them rally their way to a bowl game.

Defense

DL: Kemoko Turay, Rutgers: After a torrid start, the pass rushing specialist finished with 7.5 sacks. He also blocked a field goal against Michigan to preserve that victory.

DL: Malik McDowell, Michigan State: The blue-chip recruit whose signing day saga made headlines showed his talent by playing in all 12 games and recording 3.5 tackles for loss.

DL: Steven Richardson, Minnesota: Thrust into a starting role after the first week because of injuries, the true freshman more than held his own by finishing with 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.

LB: Darron Lee, Ohio State: After taking a medical redshirt last year, Lee emerged as one of the Buckeyes' top defensive playmakers, recording 66 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and a pair of fumble recoveries, one of which he scored on.

LB: Ja'Whan Bentley, Purdue: The Boilermakers' linebacker position has been a problem for the past few years, but Bentley is part of the solution. He was Purdue's second-leading tackler on the season with 76 stops, adding an interception and three fumble recoveries.

LB: Anthony Walker, Northwestern: In his first start against Penn State, Walker returned an interception 49 yards for a touchdown. He also had a pick in the win at Notre Dame and led the Wildcats with nine tackles for loss.

LB: Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State: Playing mostly in a reserve role, McMillan had an immediate impact on the Buckeyes. The former stud recruit recorded 50 tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception.

DB: Eli Apple, Ohio State: It's scary how many star freshmen the Buckeyes have. Apple is another, as he had 41 tackles, including 5.5 for loss, and a pair of interceptions.

DB: Montae Nicholson, Michigan State: The true freshman played in every game and had three starts in the Spartans' "No Fly Zone." He had 30 tackles and a pair of fumble recoveries.

DB: Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern: He made waves in the Wildcats' upset win over Wisconsin by grabbing three interceptions. He started five times at safety and finished with 51 tackles.

DB: Marcus Allen, Penn State: He started Penn State's final six games at safety after Ryan Keiser got hurt, and the Nittany Lions' defense didn't miss a beat. He was third on the team in tackles with 52.

Specialists

K: Rafael Gaglianone, Wisconsin: The effusive Brazilian with the strong leg went 17-for-20 on field goals, including 2-of-3 from beyond 50 yards.

P: Daniel Pasquariello, Penn State: His 37.7-yards per punt average was nothing to write home about -- except the Australian probably does write home a lot. He improved down the stretch to solidify the Nittany Lions' punt team.

Returner: De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska: He was third in the FBS in punt-return average (17.8) and scored three touchdowns, including a memorable one in the comeback win at Iowa.

Big Ten morning links

December, 12, 2014
12/12/14
8:00
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Wisconsin survived its first full day since way back in 2012 without a head coach, though the search to replace Gary Andersen -- set to to be introduced Friday at Oregon State -- appears set end quickly.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported Thursday night that the school is prepared to hire Pitt coach Paul Chryst, a former UW quarterback and offensive coordinator.

It’s a delicate situation, of course, for the Badgers, the uprooted assistant coaches and their families -- not to be taken lightly. But perhaps the most interesting byproduct of Andersen’s unexpected departure is the news that Barry Alvarez will coach Wisconsin in its bowl game. Again.

Alvarez, the 67-year-old athletic director and Hall of Fame former coach of 16 years in Madison, led the Badgers in the 2013 Rose Bowl, a six-point loss to Stanford, after Bret Bielema bolted to Arkansas.

Alvarez ought to just coach the Badgers in every bowl game. In fact, other legends should follow suit and rejoin their former programs on the sideline in the postseason. Surely, the NCAA would allow a special 10th coach. If not, just make them interns.

Let’s bring back Bobby Bowden, Lou Holtz, Mack Brown (too soon?), Don Nehlen, Lavell Edwards, Hayden Fry, Barry Switzer and, if Indiana can get to six wins, Bill Mallory.

Yes, I’m joking. Slightly more serious about this, though: Nebraska has an opening on its staff for the Holiday Bowl. How about Tom Osborne? If Alvarez can go from the College Football Playoff selection committee to the sideline, why not Osborne?

Yeah, he’s 77, served three stints in Congress, lost a gubernatorial primary in Nebraska -- did that really happen? -- and spent five years as athletic director since coaching his last game, a resounding win over Peyton Manning and Tennessee in the 1998 Orange Bowl.

But Osborne has perhaps never watched more college football than in this season. He must have some ideas on how the Huskers could surprise USC. One more fumblerooski up his sleeve.

What an experience it would be for Barney Cotton, long loyal to Nebraska, to have the ex-coach at his side. Cotton played under Osborne from 1975-78, then sent his three sons to Nebraska. It could also be a meaningful sendoff for Ron Brown, the Nebraska running backs coach who worked alongside Osborne in the legendary coach’s final 11 seasons.

Might help a bit with ticket sales, too, and inject a little spice into a game that means a great deal to several Huskers who want to honor their former coach, Bo Pelini, but realistically, little to the forward movement of the program.

Alvarez played linebacker for Bob Devaney on Nebraska teams of the 1960s that included Osborne as an offensive assistant. If Barry can do it, so can Tom.

Alas, it’s unrealistic. Osborne would likely never thrust himself into the spotlight in such a way. But just let me dream.

Thursday in Lake Buena Vista, Florida...

Lots of hardware

What a night on the Disney Boardwalk at the College Football Awards Show. The Big Ten had a good showing, as Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff won the Outland Trophy, presented to the nation's top interior lineman; Maryland's Brad Craddock took home the Lou Groza Award as the top place-kicker; and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon beat finalists Tevin Coleman of Indiana and Ameer Abdullah of Nebraska for the Doak Walker Award, given to the best running back.

Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright won the Bednarik Award, given to the best defensive player. Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa was among the finalists.

Also, Nebraska wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp won a vote for college football's play of the year for his behind-the-back catch in the season opener.

Around the league:

West Division
  • As expected, Gordon plans to leave after this season for the NFL.
  • Some confusion exists over Iowa's starting quarterback for the TaxSlayer Bowl.
  • A meeting with Missouri in the Citrus Bowl is a "big step" for Minnesota, according to coach Jerry Kill.
  • One of Purdue's recent football brings a French flavor, by way of a California junior college.
  • Northwestern needs to make changes, writes Teddy Greenstein, but will it happen?
  • The competition continues at Illinois during bowl practices.
East Division
  • Urban Meyer and Nick Saban have already met once in a playoff. They sat side by side Thursday and recalled the 2009 SEC championship game.
  • No surprise that Michigan wide receiver Devin Funchess did not meet his own expectations this year.
  • The explanation of playoff committee chair Jeff Long on Mississippi State's final-week jump over Michigan State does not erase flaws in the process, writes Graham Couch.
  • Indiana lands UAB receiver Marqui Hawkins but misses a juco QB target.
  • Freshman quarterback Michael O'Connor is leaving Penn State.
  • Maryland coach Randy Edsall, in San Francisco on Thursday, to discuss the Terps' matchup with Stanford, says receiver Stefon Diggs will play in the Foster Farms Bowl.
  • The salary pool for Rutgers' assistant coaches ranks eighth in the Big Ten.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 15

December, 7, 2014
12/07/14
10:00
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Big Ten bowl projections: Week 15

December, 7, 2014
12/07/14
2:43
AM CT
Thought bowl projections were over? So did we. But we've got one more edition for you, hours before the selections become official. What fun for all.

As ESPN.com first reported this week, the Big Ten could have a bowl-eligible team miss a bowl. If a Big Ten team goes to the Capital One Orange Bowl, the league won't have a participant in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. And if only one other Big Ten team reaches a New Year's Six bowl, it will leave eight eligible teams for only seven spots. Since there are more bowl-eligible teams than spots, and all spots are contracted, there are no at-large selections this year.

Got all that?

Michigan State is virtually assured of an Orange Bowl berth, following Alabama's win against Missouri in the SEC championship. At No. 8, the Spartans should remain ahead of No. 10 Mississippi State in Sunday's rankings -- neither team played this week -- and therefore be the highest ranked non-champion from the Big Ten or SEC.

Big Ten champion Ohio State is the only other league squad heading for the big bowls -- either a Playoff semifinal or a New Year's Six game. After the Buckeyes' 59-0 spanking of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship, we project Urban Meyer's squad to the Playoff. Boom.

That means one eligible Big Ten team is out of the bowls. Although Penn State and Illinois both are 6-6 and the Fighting Illini beat the Nittany Lions, there's no way PSU misses a bowl after being banned the past two years. Illinois, unfortunately, is the odd team out.

Wisconsin's horrific performance in the Big Ten title game drops the Badgers down to the Holiday Bowl, which really, really wants Gary Andersen's team. Minnesota heads to the Outback Bowl, while Nebraska likely would go to the Music City Bowl to avoid a repeat in Jacksonville.

Penn State in the Pinstripe has been a likelihood for weeks, and we have Rutgers going to Detroit and Maryland to Dallas.

Here are our final, final Big Ten bowl projections for the season:

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual or Allstate Sugar Bowl): Ohio State
Capital One Orange: Michigan State
Outback: Minnesota
National University Holiday: Wisconsin
TaxSlayer Bowl/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Nebraska
Foster Farms: Iowa
New Era Pinstripe: Penn State
Quick Lane: Rutgers
Zaxby's Heart of Dallas: Maryland

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