Chicago Colleges: Dion Sims

Unless you've been living in a world without ESPN, the Internet or sports talk radio, you're well aware that the NFL draft begins Thursday night.

What will the weekend hold for Big Ten products? Who will be the top pick from the league? Which players should be garnering more buzz? Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett try to answer those questions and more in this blog debate:

Brian Bennett: Adam, another NFL draft is nearly upon us. What better way to spend 96 hours of a spring weekend than listening to analysts describe a player's upside? At least we won't have to read any more 2013 mock drafts after Thursday afternoon.

But let's get down to Big Ten business. According to our colleagues with the good hair -- Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay -- the league very well might not produce a first-round pick for the first time since the AFL-NFL merger. Last year, the first Big Ten player taken was all the way down at No. 23. What's going on here? Is there that big of a talent shortage in the conference, or is this just a blip? And do you think any Big Ten players hear their names called on Thursday night?

[+] EnlargeKawann Short
AP Photo/Michael ConroyKawann Short's versatility could make him too attractive for NFL teams to pass up in the draft's first round.
Adam Rittenberg: I think we can match them follicle for follicle, don't you? The Big Ten's draft downturn has been a trend for a number of years. First, the league was falling out of the top 10 consistently. Then, it started to only see selections in the final 10-12 picks. Now it might fall out of the first round entirely. So, yes, there is a talent shortage at the very highest levels and especially at certain positions. The three we've written about most often are quarterback (last first round pick: Kerry Collins), cornerback and wide receiver. I still think the Big Ten produces a wealth of great linemen on both sides of the ball, as well as its share of quality running backs. But the running back position isn't valued nearly as high in the first round as cornerback and quarterback.

I thought the Big Ten still would have a first-round pick even after Michigan LT Taylor Lewan announced he would return in 2012. But now I'm not so sure. Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Purdue DT Kawann Short both could hear their names called, but it's far from a guarantee.

What do you think this year's draft says about the state of the Big Ten?

Brian Bennett: I think you hit on several of the reasons, and I'd add in the population and demographic shifts as another. Of course, if Lewan came out as expected, he'd probably be a top-15 pick. And if the NFL were to do last year's draft over, I'm pretty sure Russell Wilson would go in the first round, right?

Still, the downturn in top-level NFL talent, at least from a draft perspective, has to trouble the conference and offers a possible explanation as to why the Big Ten has struggled on the big stage of late. I believe that the way Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke are recruiting will mean more elite players will be entering the pros in the near future, but we shall see.

Let's talk about this year's prospects. Who do you think will be the first Big Ten player selected this weekend? And which Big Ten product do you think should be the first one taken?

Adam Rittenberg: As much as I'd love to see Wisconsin RB Montee Ball work his way into the first round, I think the first pick will be either Short or Hankins. Both are potentially great NFL defensive linemen, but I think Short has a little more versatility to his game and can be an effective pass-rusher in addition to his run-stuffing duties. Short wasn't healthy for a chunk of last season, which led to some erratic play, but he has the ability to dominate inside. So does Hankins, but he's more of a space-eater than a difference-maker on the pass rush. I think Short should be the first Big Ten player taken, and I think he will be.

You mention Wilson, who was arguably the biggest steal of the 2012 draft. Which Big Ten player will fill that role this year? Who are the value picks out there from the league?

Brian Bennett: Wilson slipped in last year's draft because of concerns over his height. And I think there may be a similar thing going on with Ohio State's John Simon. He's viewed as a tweener because he's only 6-foot-1, but there's no questioning Simon's motor, heart or leadership. As long as he can stay healthy, he'll be a productive player for a long time in the NFL.

Penn State's Jordan Hill is another guy who's shorter than the prototype for a defensive lineman but who also makes up for it with his performance and drive. I also believe Nebraska's Rex Burkhead is being undervalued, though running backs aren't the commodities they once were at the next level. A knee injury hurt Burkhead's stock, but he showed at the combine what kind of athlete he is. And I think Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams, who was looked at as a first-round draft pick not that long ago, could be had at a good price this weekend.

Which players do you think are being undervalued? And what do you see as the draft fate for Michigan's Denard Robinson?

[+] EnlargeBurkhead
Andrew Weber/US PresswireRex Burkhead showed during pre-draft workouts that he's recovered from a 2012 knee injury.
Adam Rittenberg: You bring up some really interesting names, BB, especially Burkhead, who, if healthy and in the right system, could be a very valuable NFL player. Simon is another guy who needs to be in the right system and must overcome measurables that aren't ideal for the NFL at defensive end or outside linebacker. I wouldn't forget the group of Illinois defensive linemen -- Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster, who wowed the scouts during pro day in Champaign. It's easy to dismiss them because they played on a terrible team, but all three have been on the NFL radar for some time -- especially Spence and Buchanan -- and have the talent to succeed at the pro level.

Ohio State tackle Reid Fragel is another guy who could be a great value, although his stock seems to be rising quickly. He started his career as a tight end but really thrived last year at the tackle spot.

Robinson will be one of the weekend's top story lines. He's clearly a work in progress as a receiver, but you can't teach that speed and explosiveness. Robinson is a risk-reward guy, but I'd be surprised if he's still on the board midway through the third round.

The Big Ten sends a fairly small contingent of underclassmen to this year's draft. How do you think those players pan out?

Brian Bennett: Michigan State has three of 'em in Le'Veon Bell, Dion Sims and William Gholston. I think there's a chance that some team reaches for Bell in the first round, and he's got the body to be a very good NFL running back for a long time. Sims also presents an intriguing option for teams, especially with the increased use of tight ends in the pro passing game. Despite Gholston's impressive physical traits, he didn't test that well in Indianapolis and had a questionable motor in college. Teams could shy away from him.

You mentioned Spence from Illinois, a guy whose stock seemed to climb as he showed some great strength in workouts. Hankins will be a second-rounder at worst. Then there's Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, who posted a slow sprint time at the combine. But how many times do centers need to sprint? I still think he'll be a good player, and one who shouldn't fall past the second round.

This is getting to be as long as the draft itself, so we should probably start wrapping things up. Any final thoughts on the Big Ten's outlook this weekend?

Adam Rittenberg: The big story lines for me, other than whether the Big Ten has a player drafted in the first round, are where running backs like Ball, Bell and Burkhead land, the Denard Watch, how the underclassmen fare and where the potential sleepers we outlined above end up. This won't be a transformative draft for the Big Ten because it lacks elite prospects at the positions we mentioned earlier, especially cornerback and quarterback. But there are always a few surprises along the way. As a Chicago Bears fan, I'm always interested to see if a Big Ten player ends up at Halas Hall.

What Big Ten story lines intrigue you heading into the draft?

Brian Bennett: You mentioned most of the big ones. I'll also be interested to see if any team takes a chance on Penn State's Michael Mauti and whether Iowa's James Vandenberg gets drafted after a disappointing senior year. I predict the Big Ten keeps its first-round streak alive -- barely -- and that Robinson stays in Michigan when the Detroit Lions draft him in the fourth round.

And then we can all put the 2013 NFL draft to bed -- and start studying those 2014 mock drafts.

Early Big Ten power rankings for 2013

January, 8, 2013
1/08/13
10:15
AM CT
The 2012 college football season is barely on ice and we're already heating up for the 2013 campaign with a way-too-early version of the Big Ten power rankings. This is a snapshot of how the league looks at this point in time, not knowing all the personnel/coaching changes that will be in place for next season. As a reminder, these can and will change during the next eight months.

Ohio State is on top, and quite frankly, the Buckeyes are head and shoulders above the rest of the league. Other teams such as Northwestern, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan certainly belong in the league's lead pack, while Michigan State and Penn State both have talent as well as question marks. We don't see a whole lot separating Nos. 2-6.

Here we go ...

1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes made the most of their sanctioned season, running the table to post just the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history. Urban Meyer's crew now takes aim at a Big Ten title and perhaps even a national title, its first since 2002. Junior quarterback Braxton Miller leads a potentially explosive offense, but Ohio State needs its young defenders to grow up in a hurry as there are depth and experience questions on that side of the ball.

2. Northwestern: The Wildcats won 10 games in 2012 with a young team most projected to win no more than seven. Northwestern returns a very strong nucleus, led by running back Venric Mark and quarterback Kain Colter, and loses only a few key seniors. Most of the Wildcats' talent can be found in their younger classes. The schedule gets tougher in 2013 -- Northwestern opens Big Ten play with Ohio State and Wisconsin -- but the Wildcats should be a major factor in the Legends Division if they can shore up their offensive line and continue to make strides on defense.

3. Nebraska: There's no doubt Nebraska will have one of the nation’s top offenses in 2013. Fourth-year starter Taylor Martinez returns at quarterback and has the Big Ten's largest arsenal of weapons at his disposal. The big concerns are on defense after Nebraska hemorrhaged points and yards in its four losses this past season and loses a group of seniors. Bo Pelini needs to get his defense back on track and hope the offense can limit turnovers, a huge problem throughout this season.

4. Wisconsin: Gary Andersen hardly inherits a bare cupboard in Madison. His predecessor, Bret Bielema, actually pointed to the 2013 team as potentially his best with the Badgers. The coaching transition could create some speed bumps, but Wisconsin returns two dynamic running backs in James White and Melvin Gordon, multiple quarterbacks with experience and a good defensive front seven led by Chris Borland. There are concerns in the secondary (three starters gone) and at wide receiver (not enough playmakers), but Wisconsin should push Ohio State in the Leaders Division.

5. Michigan: The Denard Robinson era is over and Michigan needs offensive playmakers to replace its record-setting quarterback and surround new signal-caller Devin Gardner. A bigger concern, though, is an offensive line that struggled at times in 2012 and must replace most of its starting lineup. Coach Brady Hoke should see some of his strong early recruiting efforts pay off in Year 3, although Michigan might not have the depth to challenge for a league title until 2014. Linebacker Jake Ryan leads a defense that has improved the past two seasons but must measure up to elite competition.

6. Michigan State: Pat Narduzzi's defense should once again be one of the nation's best, especially with All-Big Ten standout Max Bullough once again leading the unit at middle linebacker. But the NFL departures of Le'Veon Bell and Dion Sims could hamper an offense that had no other consistent weapons in 2012. The schedule definitely favors MSU, but how will the Spartans score points? MSU's quarterback competition between Connor Cook and Andrew Maxwell will be one of the top storylines of spring practice.

7. Penn State: Bill O'Brien had a lot to do with Penn State's success in 2012, but so did a senior class featuring several NFL players on defense who certainly will be missed. O'Brien's next challenge is developing a capable quarterback, whether it's Steven Bench, junior college arrival Tyler Ferguson or, just maybe, heralded incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg. Penn State could feel the sting of the sanctions more from a depth standpoint in 2013, but O'Brien's Lions have defied the odds so far.

8. Minnesota: The Gophers doubled their win total in Jerry Kill’s second season, and Kill's track record at previous stops suggests another boost could be on the way in Year 3. Quarterback Philip Nelson looked good in the bowl game after some late-season struggles, but Minnesota still needs more weapons to develop around him as well as continued progress from the offensive line. Senior defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman leads a unit looking to fill gaps at linebacker and cornerback.

9. Indiana: The arrow is pointed up in Bloomington despite a poor finish to the regular season, and with eight home games on the slate in 2013, Indiana should expect to go bowling. Third-year coach Kevin Wilson has three quarterbacks with experience -- Tre Roberson, Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld -- at his disposal, as well as other weapons such as running back Stephen Houston and receiver Cody Latimer. IU's defense once again is a major question mark, but recruiting efforts have picked up on that side of the ball.

10. Purdue: If the Heart of Dallas Bowl was any indication, new Boilers coach Darrell Hazell has a lot of work ahead in Year 1. Purdue loses its top two quarterbacks (Robert Marve and Caleb TerBush), its top defender in Kawann Short and other key contributors on both sides of the ball. Hazell's predecessor, Danny Hope, signed a bunch of quarterbacks in his recent recruiting classes, and it will be interesting to see who rises to the top. Hazell should be able to clean up some of Purdue's sloppy play, but the Boilers have quite a few question marks after a disappointing 2012 campaign.

11. Iowa: After taking a significant step back in 2012, Iowa might have a tough time turning things around in a loaded Legends Division in 2013. The Hawkeyes welcome in a new quarterback (Jake Rudock) and need playmakers to emerge around him to generate much better results in Year 2 under coordinator Greg Davis. The defensive front seven could be solid as Iowa boasts a strong linebacking corps, but the Hawkeyes must plug a few holes in the secondary and get back to their traditionally stout play on D.

12. Illinois: Coach Tim Beckman needs to show significant signs of progress in Year 2 after a disastrous first season, and he might not have the personnel to do so. The Illini once again lose several defenders to the NFL draft and need to fill holes along the defensive line and in the secondary. Their bigger concerns are on the offensive side, as they had fewer playmakers than any Big Ten team in 2012. Veteran quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase returns, but Illinois needs a much better plan on offense and the personnel to get things done. An influx of junior college players must step up in a make-or-break year for Beckman.

Final Big Ten power rankings for 2012

January, 8, 2013
1/08/13
10:13
AM CT
Alabama and Notre Dame put a bow on the 2012 college football season Monday night. Most of the Big Ten would just as soon douse it with gasoline and light a match.

But before a largely forgettable 2012 Big Ten season goes up in flames, let's take one final look at the power rankings following the bowls. Ohio State not surprisingly remains on top, and the bottom three teams stay the same as well. There's a bit of shuffling among the seven bowl teams after varying performances. As has been the case most of the season, very little separates Nos. 2-6.

Here's a look at the pre-bowl power rankings.

Let's get to it ...

1. Ohio State (12-0; previously: 1): The Buckeyes will occupy this spot until they lose a game, which might be a while under coach Urban Meyer. After recording just the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history, Ohio State sets its sights on even bigger goals as it emerges from NCAA sanctions. The Buckeyes showed major strides on offense behind sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller and improved on both lines as the season went on. Meyer exceeded most expectations in Year 1, but they'll be much higher in 2013.

2. Northwestern (10-3; previously: 5): Pat Fitzgerald's team moves up three spots after claiming its first bowl victory in 64 years. There was surprisingly little drama as Northwestern capitalized on Mississippi State's errors and won the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl by two touchdowns. The Wildcats recorded just the third 10-win season in team history and easily could have won another game or two despite a young roster. Things are headed in the right direction in Evanston.

3. Michigan (8-5; previously: 2): The Wolverines were one defensive stop away from recording the most impressive win in the Big Ten's bowl season and in the Brady Hoke era. They paced a very talented South Carolina team in the Outback Bowl and received big performances from wideout Jeremy Gallon, running back Denard Robinson and quarterback Devin Gardner. Unfortunately for Michigan, an elite pass defense couldn't get it done in the end. Four of Michigan's five losses came against top-10 teams, but an 8-5 record isn't what Hoke or his players had in mind this fall.

4. Penn State (8-4; previously: 3): Penn State and Michigan are similar in that both teams have "good" losses on their résumés (Michigan a few more than Penn State). Both teams rallied to beat Northwestern at home, while Penn State has another quality win against Wisconsin. The Lions and Wolverines didn't play one another, and we'll never know how Penn State would have fared against a team like South Carolina. Michigan gets the slight edge here, but Penn State had a terrific season behind a dramatically improved offense and a defense led by senior stars Michael Mauti, Jordan Hill and Gerald Hodges.

5. Nebraska (10-4; previously: 4): The Huskers beat the three teams ahead of them in the rankings, but the power rankings place more weight on recent results, and Nebraska finished the season with a thud. Bo Pelini's team surrendered 105 points in its last two games -- losses to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game and to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. Nebraska showed it could move the ball and score against anyone, despite being turnover-prone. But the defense was abysmal in the four losses and raises serious concerns for Pelini's program going forward.

6. Wisconsin (8-6; previously: 6): The Barry Alvarez-led Badgers showed they could hang with Stanford, but they couldn't take advantage of the unique opportunity to play in the Rose Bowl despite finishing third in the Leaders Division. The inconsistent offensive execution that plagued Wisconsin throughout the season surfaced once again against a tough and talented Stanford defense. Wisconsin just didn't have enough firepower to get over the hump, which was really the story of its season.

7. Michigan State (7-6; previously: 7): A come-from-behind win against TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl takes the sting off of a season that didn't go according to plan for Michigan State. The Spartans leaned on their defense and received just enough offense from backup quarterback Connor Cook and Co. to get past a young Horned Frogs team in Tempe, Ariz. Michigan State posted its second straight bowl win under coach Mark Dantonio and said goodbye to three juniors -- running back Le'Veon Bell, tight end Dion Sims and defensive end William Gholston -- in the days following the game.

8. Minnesota (6-7; previously: 9): Minnesota appeared poised to give the Big Ten a surprising 1-0 start to the bowl season. The Gophers made strides on offense between the end of the regular season and the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, as young quarterback Philip Nelson and the offensive line looked a lot better against Texas Tech. But Minnesota still doesn't know how to finish and suffered breakdowns down the stretch in a tough loss to the Red Raiders. The team still doubled its win total in Jerry Kill's second season and could make some noise in a tough Legends Division next fall.

9. Purdue (6-7; previously: 8): The Boilers and Minnesota swap places after Minnesota performed much better in its bowl game than Purdue did. A mismatch on paper turned into a total whitewash on the field as Oklahoma State, which had no business being in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, outclassed Purdue from the get-go. Purdue's once-promising season ended with a thud as a veteran-laden Boilers team that kept pace with both Notre Dame and Ohio State struggled mightily against most of the good to great teams it faced this season.

10. Indiana (4-8; previously: 10): After going 1-11 in Kevin Wilson's first year, Indiana could only get better and took some important steps this season. The Hoosiers showed they can score points on just about every defense in the Big Ten, and their group of skill players is among the league's best. IU's defense still isn't at a Big Ten level and improving the talent and depth on that side of the ball is the chief challenge for Wilson and his staff entering the 2013 season.

11. Iowa (4-8; previously: 11): A bowl appearance looked like a guarantee for Iowa before the season as the schedule set up favorably for eight or more wins. But the offense took a giant step backward, and injuries hurt the unit throughout the season. Iowa's defense kept it in quite a few games but also let down against better offenses like Northwestern and Michigan. The Hawkeyes will look for more cohesion on offense and more playmakers to emerge. The Legends Division only seems to be getting tougher.

12. Illinois (2-10; previously: 12): No team and no coach wants to turn the page on 2012 more than Illinois and Tim Beckman. Almost nothing went right in Beckman's first season, as the offense stalled and the defense struggled against spread offenses. The Illini dropped all eight of their Big Ten contests and lost by fewer than 14 points just once. Perhaps new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit can get the offense on track. The defense, meanwhile, must fill holes up front and in the secondary. At least Illinois gets a fresh start in 2013.

Odd choices litter All-Big Ten teams

November, 26, 2012
11/26/12
8:04
PM CT
Some of the choices for the All-Big Ten teams and individual award winners are real head scratchers.

Let's start with the coaches' team. Braxton Miller is named the quarterback of the year in the league, but he's only the second-team quarterback on the coaches' selections? Uh, what? No offense to Taylor Martinez, who had a terrific year, but Miller was simply better all season long.

That's not even the biggest stunner involving an Ohio State player. Buckeyes linebacker Ryan Shazier did not make the first team, falling behind Michigan State's Max Bullough and Wisconsin's Chris Borland (Penn State's Michael Mauti is an understandable lock). There was talk of Shazier for Big Ten defensive player of the year after the way he blazed through the second half of the season. But that looks less likely now. (Unless the coaches want to engage in some serious trolling by naming Miller the offensive player of the year and Shazier defensive player of the year as second-teamers). Also bizarre: the coaches did not select Michigan's Jake Ryan for a first- or second-team spot. Ryan is undoubtedly one of the Big Ten's top four linebackers.

I'm also confused by the defensive back selections. Micah Hyde as the defensive back of the year? I really like the Iowa senior, but I sure thought Ohio State's Bradley Roby had the better season, along with Nebraska's Ciante Evans, the latter of whom somehow didn't make the first or second team by either the coaches or the media, even though Bo Pelini has said Evans is easily his best cornerback. But, you know, the Huskers only rank No. 2 nationally in pass coverage, so what does he know?. And while Johnny Adams has a boatload of talent, he had a disappointing year for Michigan State and didn't deserve first-team recognition this year, in my opinion.

I was also surprised not to see Ohio State's Jack Mewhort on the first or second team by the coaches (he was second team by the media). I thought the Buckeyes' left tackle was clearly one of the league's top offensive linemen all year long, especially since Wisconsin's Ricky Wagner (a first-teamer from both coaches and media) struggled early along with the entire Badgers line and missed a couple of games with an injury.

Jacob Pedersen as the tight end of the year also is baffling. Wisconsin coaches and Pedersen talked openly about how he was struggling to adjust to the No. 1 tight end role for the first half of the season, and he didn't really have a great game until the Purdue game. I thought Michigan State's Dion Sims and Penn State's Kyle Carter each had better years.

The media (not including Adam or I, who don't get to vote) did a better job overall, picking Miller as the first team quarterback, Shazier on the first team and at least putting Mewhort and Ryan on the second team. But again, the media whiffed on Evans for both first and second team honors. I also thought Nebraska's Kenny Bell deserved a first-team spot over Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis, who hasn't had a big game since the first week of October. Bell's blocking puts him over the top, for me. How Wisconsin, which struggled to score points against good opponents all year long, got four players on the media's first-team offense is a mystery to me.

Debating the 2012 All-Big Ten teams

November, 26, 2012
11/26/12
1:40
PM CT
The 2012 All-Big Ten teams and individual award winners will be revealed at 7 p.m. ET tonight on the Big Ten Network. We'll post the full lists shortly thereafter as well as reaction.

The four major awards -- Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Freshman of the Year -- will be revealed Tuesday night. We will have our official blog endorsements for each of these throughout Tuesday, so be sure to check in.

To clarify, we don't have official votes for All-Big Ten (not like we cover the league closer than anyone year-round or anything, but we're not bitter), but we will reveal our own all-conference team at a later date.

For now, we're going to give our opinions on some of the key debates surrounding this year's all-conference team.

1. The Big Ten has three elite running backs -- Wisconsin's Montee Ball, Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell and Northwestern's Venric Mark -- and only two spots on the first-team All-Big Ten team. Who makes it and who doesn't?

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell, Etienne Sabino
Mike Carter/US PRESSWIRELe'Veon Bell was the workhorse for the Michigan State offense this season.
Brian Bennett: This is an extremely difficult decision. I was prepared to go with Ball and Mark before Bell put up his huge, 266-yard performance against Minnesota last week. Someone very deserving is going to get left off this list, and in my book that is Mark. It's hard to ignore Bell, who's leading the Big Ten and is No. 3 nationally in rushing while carrying it a ridiculous 29 times per game. The Spartans might have only won a couple of games without him. And Ball turned it up big time in conference play, leading his team to the Big Ten title game. So I'll take those two guys, with sincere apologies to Mark, who had a wonderful season in his own right.

Adam Rittenberg: All three of these players were so valuable to their respective offenses. Ball struggled early but came on strong during Big Ten play and set the NCAA's all-time touchdowns mark. Bell is arguably the nation's top workhorse back, racking up an insane 350 carries. And yet neither impacted games quite as much as Mark, who broke off more long runs and also was brilliant on returns. He transformed a Northwestern offense that had been reliant on the pass for years and had no dynamic run threat. It's really a shame the All-Big Ten team doesn't have a return specialist, as that would be a way to get all three men on the first team. I have no issue with Ball and Bell, but it's a little hard to ignore the running back for the best team of the three. While it's tough not to have Bell on the first team, I'm going to go with Ball and Mark here.

2. Arguably no Big Ten position has more elite players than linebacker. The first-team All-Big Ten squad includes only three selections. Who makes the cut?

Adam Rittenberg: While I'd love to officially vote for All-Big Ten, this position group would drive me nuts because there are so many good choices. Penn State's Michael Mauti and Ohio State's Ryan Shazier have to be there. They're the two leading candidates for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Mauti triggered Penn State's effort on defense, while Shazier put up insane numbers in Big Ten games (15 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 1 interception, 8 pass breakups, 2 forced fumbles). The big decision is the third linebacker -- we'll likely have four LBs on our All-Big Ten squad. It's between Michigan's Jake Ryan and Wisconsin's Mike Taylor for me, and I'm going to go with Ryan, who made a few more impact plays during the Big Ten season (5 forced fumbles, 13 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks). Taylor, Michigan State's Max Bullough and Penn State's Gerald Hodges also were terrific, but I'm happy with these three.

Brian Bennett: I'm in agreement here. No two defensive players were more valuable to their teams than Mauti and Shazier. In addition to their great performances, Shazier held a thin linebacking corps together, while Mauti helped an entire program stay together. And Ryan simply made more impact plays at crucial times than the other outstanding linebackers who are All-Big Ten candidates. It seemed like every time you looked up during a Michigan game, the guy with the flowing blond locks was creating havoc. Linebacker was a major strength in the league, and even picking a second team here between Taylor, Bullough, Hodges and Chris Borland is no easy task.

3. Ohio State's Braxton Miller is a likely Heisman Trophy finalist and the leading candidate for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. It would be a surprise if he isn't the first-team All-Big Ten quarterback. Who should be the second-team QB, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez or Penn State's Matt McGloin?

Brian Bennett: Take nothing away from McGloin, who led the Big Ten with 3,271 passing yards and 24 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Just an amazing year for the fifth-year senior, who would win the most improved player award if the league had such a thing. The choice here, though, is Martinez. Yes, he still gets a little careless with the ball sometimes. But he was in complete command of the Big Ten's best offense, carrying it after star running back Rex Burkhead went down. He improved greatly as a passer, completing 63.3 percent of his throws while compiling nearly 2,500 passing yards and 21 touchdowns. He also averaged 5.4 yards per carry in conference play and finished No. 1 in the league in total offense. His ability to lead Nebraska on wild comebacks and get the Cornhuskers into the Big Ten title game can't be overlooked.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesTaylor Martinez led Nebraska to the Big Ten title game.
Adam Rittenberg: Yep, agree with you on this one. Both players are vastly improved from 2011 -- McGloin more so than Martinez -- but Martinez's running ability really sets him apart in my mind. He had 833 rush yards and eight touchdowns, spurring a ground attack that didn't have Burkhead for most of the season. Like his Nebraska team, Martinez got sloppy at times and played really poorly in the loss to Ohio State. But you can't discount what he did in all of those comebacks, which turned out to be Nebraska's hallmark in reaching the Big Ten championship game. I absolutely love what McGloin did this season in Bill O'Brien's NFL-style offense, leading the league in pass yards and pass touchdowns and setting team records in the process. There'd be no major outcry here if he appears on the second-team All-Big Ten squad ahead of Martinez. But if I had to choose, I'd go with Martinez.

4. Cornerback has been a bit of a pleasant surprise this year in the Big Ten. The All-Big Ten team only designates four "defensive backs," so conceivably four corners could make it. Which Big Ten corners deserve to be on the first team this season?

Brian Bennett: Ohio State's Bradley Roby is the no-brainer here. The redshirt sophomore developed into arguably the best cover corner in the league this year and is a lock for one of the first-team All-Big Ten spots. My second choice would be Nebraska's Ciante Evans. Though Evans plays nickel, the Huskers ask a lot out of nickelbacks in their scheme, and Evans was their best coverage guy for the nation's No. 2-ranked pass defense. I'd prefer to have two corners and two safeties on the team, but if we went with three cornerbacks, I'd probably turn next to Purdue's Josh Johnson, who eclipsed Ricardo Allen as his team's best defensive back this year.

Adam Rittenberg: There's no doubt cornerback is a stronger group than safety this season. I'm going to go with three first-team All-Big Ten corners, starting with Ohio State's Roby. The sophomore has been the best defensive back in the league this season, tying for second nationally in passes defended with 19, recording two interceptions and scoring three touchdowns. The play he made at Wisconsin covering two different players in the end zone was one of the best I've seen in recent years. I also like Evans as a first-team selection, as he made a bunch of plays for the league's top pass defense. My third choice comes down to Johnson and Minnesota's Michael Carter. I love what Johnson did, but Carter was more noticeable during Big Ten play and seemed to blossom at the end of his career. I'd go with Johnson and Northwestern's Nick VanHoose on the second team.

5. All of the position awards will be passed out tonight. Let's dissect two of them: the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year and the Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the Year. Who wins?

Adam Rittenberg: Ah, two goodies. The tight end award comes down to two players who missed portions of the season with injuries: Penn State's Kyle Carter and Michigan State's Dion Sims. Both produced at a high rate, with Carter recording 36 receptions for 453 yards and two touchdowns, while Sims, Michigan's only reliable pass-catching threat, recorded 33 receptions for 451 yards and two scores. Man, that's close, but Carter gets the nod from me. He gave Penn State such a boost on offense. The defensive lineman award comes down to Ohio State defensive end John Simon and Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill. Both are sure-fire first-team All-Big Ten selections, but I'm going with Simon, who led the Big Ten in sacks (9) and ranked third in tackles for loss (14.5). He would have had a big final game, like Hill did, had he been healthy.

Brian Bennett: Can I combine all the Penn State tight ends into one? Call them Kyle James Lehman, and then you'd really have something. It is another razor-thin call, but I'll take Michigan State's Sims. He played two fewer games than Carter, but remember that Sims played through injuries at times this year and wasn't always 100 percent. When he was healthy, he was the best big-play threat at tight end in the league and the Spartans' only real go-to guy in the passing game. He's a physical specimen unlike any other Big Ten tight end. As for defensive linemen, you named the probable two leading contenders. I'd also throw Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins in there, as he was a dominant run-stuffer. But I'm with you on Simon. He not only put up some great stats, but he played through a lot of pain this year and was unquestionably the emotional leader for the 12-0 Buckeyes.

Big Ten predictions: Week 13

November, 21, 2012
11/21/12
9:00
AM CT
After a historic week off the field, the Big Ten steps between the lines Friday and Saturday for the final time in this regular season. All 12 teams are in action, and several rivalry games are on tap, highlighted by The Game between Michigan and Ohio State.

As for the blogger predictions race, Brian Bennett is sort of like his old league, the Big East. On life support. He's six games behind Adam Rittenberg with only one week to go.

Let's get to the predictions ...

Friday

No. 14 NEBRASKA at IOWA

Brian Bennett: Iowa needs a hero and will be holding out for one until the end of the night. Not happening. Nebraska is on a roll right now, and will push around a Hawkeyes team that has little to play for and no ability to keep up with the Huskers on the scoreboard. Taylor Martinez puts up one last argument for Big Ten offensive player of the year honors with 100 yards rushing and 200 yards passing as Nebraska punches its ticket to Indy. ... Nebraska 38, Iowa 17

Adam Rittenberg: As you wrote last week, there's no stopping the Huskers now. Bo Pelini's team knows what it needs to do, and everyone has taken care of business against Iowa's flat-lining defense in recent weeks. Martinez continues his major awards push with four total touchdowns (three passing, one rushing), and RB Ameer Abdullah adds a long scoring run as Nebraska leads throughout and earns the right to represent the Legends Division at the championship game. ... Nebraska 35, Iowa 10

Saturday

No. 19 MICHIGAN at OHIO STATE

Adam Rittenberg: The Game has become a lot more interesting for two reasons -- Devin Gardner's emergence at QB for Michigan, and Ohio State's progress on the defensive side. Gardner will make some plays and get Michigan out to an early lead on a scoring pass to Roy Roundtree, but Ohio State will respond behind RB Carlos Hyde, who will get the ball more (as Urban Meyer said he would) and finish with 120 rushing yards and two scores. The Game lives up to its billing and goes down to the wire. Braxton Miller scores the game-winning touchdown with 25 seconds left. ... Ohio State 24, Michigan 21

Brian Bennett: Meyer said Tuesday he would open up the offense after getting conservative at Wisconsin. Combine that with Gardner and Denard Robinson on the other side, and I think we're in for a shootout. I could see either side winning, but after 11 straight wins, how can you pick against the Buckeyes? Miller wills them to another victory, finishing with 375 total yards and four touchdowns. ... Ohio State 35, Michigan 31

ILLINOIS at NORTHWESTERN

Brian Bennett: Both schools want to be known as Chicago's team. Unfortunately for Illinois, it has become the Cubs of the Big Ten. The Illini have given us no reason to think they will win a Big Ten game since the middle of last season, and that's not going to change in the finale against Northwestern. The Wildcats' defense steals the show here, holding Illinois without a touchdown in a low-scoring win. ... Northwestern 21, Illinois 9

Adam Rittenberg: Tim Beckman's squad will fight hard for a quarter or so, but if Northwestern's backfield of QB Kain Colter and RB Venric Mark is healthy, the Illini are in trouble. Mark breaks free for a long scoring run, and Northwestern pulls away early in the third quarter. The Wildcats record another defensive touchdown and end their mini slide against the Illini, who finish 2-10. ... Northwestern 27, Illinois 13

INDIANA at PURDUE

Adam Rittenberg: Purdue clearly has more to play for, but I kind of like Indiana to play Boiler Spoiler. Cameron Coffman rallies the Hoosiers with three second-half touchdown passes, and while Purdue gets good performances from QB Robert Marve and WR Antavian Edison, a fourth-quarter turnover allows the Hoosiers to win The Bucket in Ross-Ade Stadium and end Purdue's season. ... Indiana 31, Purdue 28

Brian Bennett: I agree this one will be close, but I think Purdue is hungry to get back to a bowl and atone for a terrible 0-5 start to Big Ten play. The Boilers have found a spark since Marve became the starting QB, and their defense has gotten healthier. Marve throws three TDs, and Josh Johnson picks off two passes as the Boilers hold on. ... Purdue 28, Indiana 27

MICHIGAN STATE at MINNESOTA

Brian Bennett: Really tempted to pick Minnesota here, but the Gophers are banged up on both sides of the ball. Assuming Michigan State comes to play, the Spartans' physical style will take its toll. Minnesota jumps ahead early, but the Spartans mount a comeback in the second half and go ahead for good on an Andrew Maxwell TD pass to Dion Sims. Michigan State -- finally -- wins a close game to go bowling. ... Michigan State 24, Minnesota 17

Adam Rittenberg: Like you, it wouldn't shock me to see Minnesota win, but the injuries combined with a young quarterback facing a ferocious defense prove to be too much. The Spartans have their typical red zone stalls in the first half but come alive following a pick-six by CB Darqueze Dennard. Michigan State takes a second-half lead, and holds on behind Le'Veon Bell and the run game to squeak into a bowl. ... Michigan State 20, Minnesota 16

WISCONSIN at PENN STATE

Adam Rittenberg: Penn State will have the emotional edge on senior day, but how well has that worked out for the Lions this season? It didn't help against Ohio in the opener or Ohio State under the lights in an electric atmosphere. Even an emotionally charged game at Nebraska didn't go the Lions' way (thanks in part to the replay crew). Penn State takes its customary early lead, but Wisconsin chips away behind two touchdowns from Montee Ball and moves ahead in the fourth quarter. However, the Lions have one final push, and senior QB Matt McGloin sneaks into the end zone with 10 seconds left and does the discount double check move as Penn State prevails. ... Penn State 21, Wisconsin 20

Brian Bennett: It should be an emotional day for Penn State's seniors, who will be remembered by Nittany Lions fans for a long time. I don't see how Wisconsin, coming off an overtime loss to Ohio State and knowing the Big Ten title game is next week, can possibly match Penn State's energy. The Badgers come out flat against the hot-starting home team and never catch up. Ball gets the touchdowns record, but it's not enough as McGloin and Allen Robinson continue their assault on the Penn State record books. ... Penn State 24, Wisconsin 14

Season records

Adam Rittenberg: 71-19 (.789)

Brian Bennett: 65-25 (.722)

Northwestern slips past Michigan State

November, 17, 2012
11/17/12
3:12
PM CT
Was there any question that the Northwestern-Michigan State game would come down to the wire?

The Wildcats and Spartans specialize in playing heart-burners every week. When it inevitably happened, though, Michigan State's complete inability to win a game -- especially at home -- proved much more powerful than Northwestern's tendency to blow leads.

The Wildcats (8-3) now are likely looking at a nine-win season after winning 23-20 in East Lansing. It was an impressive win made more impressive by the fact that star running back Venric Mark was limited by an injury and did not play the entire second half, while quarterback Kain Colter did not play much in the fourth quarter as he was dealing with injuries. But Northwestern, which was outgained 419-303, found a way to get the job done.

Or you could say the Spartans found a way to give it away, as they committed four turnovers, including a fumble inside Northwestern's 1 in the first half, and an Andrew Maxwell interception that turned into a 43-yard David Nwabuisi touchdown early in the second half. The Wildcats did not commit a single turnover.

Despite that discrepancy, the Spartans had several chances. I liked that, when Northwestern took over deep in its own territory with 2:46 left, Pat Fitzgerald did not get conservative. The Wildcats, behind Trevor Siemian, called some pass plays, and they got a first down on a pass interference on Johnny Adams. They ended up moving the ball near midfield and burning Michigan State's timeouts before punting.

That put pressure on the Michigan State offense, which as usual couldn't rise to the occasion. The Spartans' possession ended fittingly, with an incomplete pass to Dion Sims that could have been ruled a fumble. Dropped balls and turnovers have been the story all year for the Michigan State passing game, and even though Sims had a great game (five catches, 102 yards), he was not immune.

Northwestern's defense did play pretty well, though, and stuffed Michigan State on one goal line stand as Le'Veon Bell could not find any running room. Bell finished with 133 yards, but had to work hard for them on 33 carries.

Siemian did well in relief of Colter, throwing for 165 yards and leading the Wildcats on some good drives. The Wildcats had only one offensive touchdown, ran for only 57 yards and gave up a safety. But again, somehow, they found a way to win.

It's the same old story for Michigan State, which unbelievably went 0-4 in Big Ten play at home this season. The Spartans now have to win at Minnesota next week just to go bowling. Even if they do, very few Spartans fans would be excited about following this team to a postseason destination. It's been a disaster of a season for Mark Dantonio's team, whose past five losses have come by a total of 13 points.

Northwestern has to go down as one of the surprise teams in the Big Ten, and only needs to beat Illinois at home to finish 9-3. The Gator Bowl looks likely for the Wildcats.

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