Chicago Colleges: Greg Davis

Big Ten morning links

October, 10, 2014
10/10/14
7:00
AM CT
The past two months brought bad news piled on top of bad news for Big Ten quarterbacks -- from Braxton Miller's season-ending right-shoulder injury in August to Wes Lunt's fractured left leg last week.

In between, Michigan's Shane Morris found himself embroiled in a head-injury controversy that dominated headlines; Joel Stave of Wisconsin got the yips, and Minnesota won a game while completing one pass for 7 yards.

Since early August, eight of 14 Big Ten teams have endured a prolonged change -- temporary or permanent -- at quarterback, because of injury or poor play. Only Nate Sudfeld, Gary Nova, Trevor Siemian, Connor Cook, Christian Hackenberg and Tommy Armstrong Jr. have avoided time on the bench.

The schedule for Week 7 looks a little, well, weak. So in lieu of dissecting these five games, here's a rundown of the three most unsettled QB situations -- in order of messiness -- among teams set to play on Saturday:

3. Iowa: Junior Jake Rudock is back and set to start against Indiana after missing the Hawkeyes' Sept. 27 win at Purdue with a leg injury. But sophomore C.J. Beathard will also play. Offensive coordinator Greg Davis said last week he would rotate the quarterbacks, deciding by “feel." That's a recipe for disaster. Iowa needs a quarterback. One quarterback. Problem is, the Rudock-led offense has been mundane, while the long-locked Beathard offers a big-play threat but consistency problems.

2. Illinois: Without Lunt for four to six weeks, the Illini look to senior Reilly O'Toole and sophomore Aaron Bailey. Or perhaps both. O'Toole started in place of Lunt against Nebraska and played in relief last week, completing 26 of 52 passes for 379 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions while being sacked five times. Bailey has not played this year after getting into nine games as a true freshman last year. To redshirt or not to redshirt, that is the question on Bailey. At this point, hopes for a winning season in Champaign are growing dim. Is it really worth using Bailey if he's not the clear-cut starter?

1. Wisconsin: Well, this is quite an ordeal after the junior Stave came off the bench last week at Northwestern for his first action of the season and tossed three interceptions, compiling a lowly 18.5 QBR index on 19 throws. Senior Tanner McEvoy has yet to settle into a groove, though, committing nine turnovers in 4 games. Both are set to play against Illinois. Stave looks to give the Badgers a better shot in November if he can make strides this month. Compounding matters, McEvoy may also play receiver -- not what Wisconsin needs, more confusion.

With that, let's go around the league:

East Division
  • Taiwan Jones and the Michigan State linebackers respond to the doubters.
  • Penn State offensive line coach Herb Hand sees improvement among his players.
  • Michigan coach Brady Hoke says he's a "ton of positives" have come as a result of his team's recent struggles.
  • What kind of grade does the Ohio State offense deserve?
  • Indiana running back Tevin Coleman, born to Liberian emigrants, has been overcoming obstacles since birth.
  • Rutgers' president speaks out on the football team's success in a presentation to the university's leadership.
  • Numbers to know from the first half of the season at Maryland.
West Division
  • Injured linebacker Sean Robinson may consider playing with a torn ACL for Purdue.
  • Nebraska's offensive game plan was not the problem against Michigan State, coach Bo Pelini said.
  • Why are Minnesota and Northwestern vying for a spot atop the division? They both capitalize on turnovers.
  • Punter Chris Gradone is Northwestern's secret weapon.
  • Reasons exist to believe in Iowa, writes Marc Morehouse, and there are reasons not to believe.

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 14

December, 1, 2013
12/01/13
10:00
AM CT
Five lessons from the final weekend of Big Ten regular-season play:

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Tony DingQB Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes weren't perfect vs. Michigan but they survived in Ann Arbor.
1. Ohio State is imperfect, but a perfect record might be good enough: There they are, the team America loves to hate, on the doorstep of the national championship game. Ohio State didn't look like the No. 2 team in America during its one-point win against unranked Michigan, allowing 41 points, 31 first downs and 603 total yards to an inspired Wolverines team that managed just 158 yards the week before against Iowa. But Ohio State handled its first brush with adversity in six weeks, as running back Carlos Hyde bulldozed his way to 226 rushing yards and Tyvis Powell snuffed out Michigan's potential game-winning two-point conversion attempt with 32 seconds to play. The Buckeyes walked out of the Big House with a win, which is more than Alabama could say at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Alabama's loss should move Ohio State up to No. 2 in tonight's BCS standings, although Auburn is now a threat to leapfrog the Scarlet and Gray. This is an imperfect, perfect Ohio State team, which might be headed to play for a crystal football if it can get past Michigan State in the Big Ten championship.

2. It's Michigan State or bust for a second BCS bid: There's no good way to explain Wisconsin's 31-24 loss to Penn State at home on Saturday. The Badgers had been so sound on both sides of the ball all season long, and so dominant the past two months. But Wisconsin made uncharacteristic mistakes all game against a Penn State team that delivered by far its best road performance of the season. Whatever the reason for that stink bomb from Gary Andersen's team, it removed all doubt about a fourth straight BCS game for the Badgers, and it left Michigan State as the clear No. 2 team in the Big Ten. The Spartans weren't especially impressive in a 14-3 win over Minnesota, but an 11-1 season should get the Spartans in the top 10 of the BCS standings tonight. Michigan State can erase all doubt by beating Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, sending the Buckeyes to an at-large spot in the process. If not, the Spartans no longer have to worry about competition from within their own league for a BCS at-large spot. Saturday was a very good day to be a Spartan, and a very bad one to be a Badger.

3. You can't kill the Hawkeyes: Just when it seems safe to write off the Iowa Hawkeyes and Kirk Ferentz, the Big Ten's longest-tenured coach, they rise again. Iowa smacked Nebraska 38-17 in Lincoln to record a statement victory and flip its 2012 record from 4-8 to 8-4. It looks like there will be a third act in Iowa under Ferentz, who oversaw strong stretches from 2002 to '04 and 2008 to '09. Picked by many (cough, cough) to finish last in the Legends Division, Iowa ended up finishing second with a 4-1 mark in division play. James Morris and his fellow senior linebackers have sparked a defensive resurgence, and the offense has found its identity in Year 2 under coordinator Greg Davis. Iowa's four losses all came against teams ranked in the top 20. The talk about Ferentz's hefty salary and whether he's worth all that dough will never go away, but he has successfully facilitated another turnaround at Iowa, which should end up in a decent bowl game. Unlike many of its Big Ten brethren, Iowa typically shines in the postseason, going 6-4 in bowls under Ferentz.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Green
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMichigan tailback Derrick Green rushed for 47 yards in the loss to Ohio State.
4. Minnesota is a passing game away from being a real contender: The Gophers lost their last two games of the regular season but earned respect for how they played against Wisconsin and Michigan State. The Badgers came away talking about how they needed to match Minnesota's physicality, which was something that hadn't been said in a long time. At Michigan State on Saturday, the Gophers became just the second team to rush for more than 100 yards against the Spartans this season, and they held an improving MSU offense to just two scoring drives. Yet Minnesota won't be a true Big Ten contender until it develops a passing game. Bad things tend to happen when the offense is forced to throw, like when Philip Nelson threw two interceptions (and should have had a third) or when Mitch Leidner was sacked for a fumble in the red zone on Saturday. The two quarterbacks combined for just nine completions in 25 attempts in East Lansing. Receiving targets Donovahn Jones, Drew Wolitarsky and Maxx Williams all have promising ability, but all are freshmen who are getting baptized by fire right now. If Minnesota can maintain its gains on defense and in the trenches while becoming competent in the passing game, it will be hard to handle next season.

5. Indiana missed a big opportunity this year: It's hard not to look at Indiana's score against Purdue in the Old Oaken Bucket Game and wonder how this team is staying home for the holidays. The Hoosiers had one of the most explosive offenses in all of the BCS -- except when they played Wisconsin and Ohio State -- and eight home games. Yet they finished 5-7 and still have just one bowl appearance under their belt since 1993. All they had to do was beat Navy at home or not mess up the ending of the game against Minnesota and they would have gotten to six wins. Of course, it's easy to pinpoint the reason why Indiana did not get there: an atrocious defense that has not made nearly enough strides in Kevin Wilson's three years. The Hoosiers should be potent on offense again next year, with quarterbacks Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld, running back Tevin Coleman and receivers Cody Latimer and Shane Wynn still owning eligibility. But if Wilson doesn't make major changes on defense, it might not matter -- again.

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.

Examining Big Ten assistant coach salaries

December, 20, 2012
12/20/12
2:01
PM CT
Paying top dollar for assistant coaches has become an issue in the Big Ten lately. Bret Bielema cited his inability to pay and retain assistants at Wisconsin as a major reason why he left for Arkansas. Purdue made a bigger commitment to its overall staff salary when it hired Darrell Hazell to replace Danny Hope.

How do the Big Ten teams stack up when it comes to salaries for assistants? Luckily, USA Today has just compiled a database looking at what every FBS program pays its staffs. The study found that the average major college football assistant now makes $200,000 per year, a number that is on the rise. According to USA Today, pay for assistants rose 10 percent from last year and is up 29 percent from 2009, the latter of which is higher than the increase in salary for head coaches during that time period.

Here is what Big Ten teams spent on their staffs in 2012, not including the head coach (Note: Because Northwestern and Penn State are not subject to the same state open-records laws as other schools, their information was not available):
  • Ohio State: $3.29 million
  • Michigan: $2.93 million
  • Illinois: $2.3 million
  • Michigan State $2.2 million
  • Nebraska: $2.15 million
  • Iowa: $2.1 million
  • Minnesota: $2.1 million
  • Indiana: $2 million
  • Wisconsin $1.77 million
  • Purdue: $1.61 million

As you can see, Wisconsin was near the bottom of the pack in the Big Ten. Purdue has given Hazell a pool of $2.1 million for assistant coaches, which would put the Boilermakers right about the average for league schools. Ohio State and Michigan are the two richest schools and have not surprisingly made the biggest commitment to salaries. When you add in Urban Meyer's salary, the Buckeyes are paying nearly $7.6 million per year in football salaries. You get what you pay for, I guess, as Ohio State went 12-0.

While the Big Ten's median salary pool for assistants was just over $2 million in 2012, the median in the SEC was around $2.5 million. According to USA Today, the SEC paid its assistants an average of $315,000, the most in the nation. The Big 12 was second at just under $290,000.

LSU is spending more than $4 million on assistants, while Alabama is doling out more than $3.8 million on assistants. Auburn ($3.77 million), Tennessee ($2.98 million), Florida ($2.89 million), Georgia ($2.77 million) and Texas A&M ($2.68 million) also far outspent most Big Ten schools, while Arkansas ($2.56 million in 2012) is making a larger commitment to assistant pay under Bielema.

Finally, here's a look at the top-paid coordinators in the Big Ten among the 10 schools whose information was available via public records:
  • Luke Fickell, co-defensive coordinator, Ohio State: $761,000
  • Greg Mattison, defensive coordinator, Michigan: $758,900
  • Al Borges, offensive coordinator, Michigan: $658,300
  • Pat Narduzzi, defensive coordinator, Michigan State: $501,700
  • Tom Herman, offensive coordinator, Ohio State: $456,000
  • Everett Withers, co-defensive coordinator, Ohio State: $456,000
  • Tim Banks, defensive coordinator, Illinois: $400,000
  • Chris Beatty, co-offensive coordinator, Illinois: $400,000
  • Billy Gonzales, co-offensive coordinator, Illinois: $400,000
  • Tim Beck, offensive coordinator, Nebraska: $372,300
  • Tracy Claeys, defensive coordinator, Minnesota: $340,000
  • Matt Limegrover, offensive coordinator, Minnesota: $335,000
  • Greg Davis, offensive coordinator, Iowa: $325,000
  • Dan Roushar, offensive coordinator, Michigan State: $307,000
  • Mike Ekeler, co-defensive coordinator, Indiana: $306,600
  • Doug Mallory, co-defensive coordinator, Indiana: $306,600
  • Phil Parker, defensive coordinator, Iowa: $301,500
  • John Papuchis, defensive coordinator, Nebraska: $300,000
  • Gary Nord, offensive coordinator, Purdue: $275,000
  • Chris Ash, defensive coordinator, Wisconsin: $267,050
  • Matt Canada, offensive coordinator, Wisconsin: $265,000
  • Seth Littrell, offensive coordinator, Indiana: $255,500
  • Tim Tibesar, defensive coordinator, Purdue: $250,000

Fickell, Borges and Mattison are three of 18 assistants nationwide who earned at least $600,000 in 2012, according to the study. There were 14 assistants paid that much last season and nine in 2010. Ohio State offensive line coach Ed Warinner is the highest paid position coach in the league, at a salary of $357,800.

 

 

Big Ten power rankings: Week 15

December, 5, 2012
12/05/12
9:15
AM CT
Only one Big Ten game took place since the last edition of the power rankings, but the surprising result left quite a conundrum.

How should we rank teams 2 through 6 after Wisconsin smashed Nebraska by 39 points in the Big Ten championship game? Wisconsin had a truly great night in Indy and looked like a different team than we've seen all season, but the Badgers still have more losses than Nebraska, Northwestern, Michigan and Penn State.

Oh, the decisions. In the end, this version of the power rankings takes into account the totality of the season. It's a little different from the weekly ones in that sense. Plus, we want to remain consistent with how we voted in the ESPN.com power rankings. As a result, Wisconsin stays at 6 (commence hate mail).

Let's get to it ...

1. Ohio State (12-0, last week: 1): Get used to the Buckeyes occupying the top spot under coach Urban Meyer, who guided Ohio State to its sixth unbeaten and untied season in team history. The big keys entering the offseason are addressing depth issues on the defensive side, finding more consistent playmakers to surround quarterback Braxton Miller and maintaining the standard set this season on the offensive line.

2. Michigan (8-4, last week: 3): Jadeveon Clowney and the South Carolina Gamecocks await Michigan at the Outback Bowl, giving the Wolverines one final chance at a signature victory. Clowney and Wolverines tackle Taylor Lewan face off in a battle of future NFLers. Michigan should benefit from bowl practices as it continues to adjust to having both Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson in the backfield.

3. Penn State (8-4, last week: 4): Penn State won't soon forget the 2012 season or the 2012 senior class, but it's now time to look ahead to an uncertain future. Bill O'Brien and his assistants must be extremely selective with the 2013 recruiting class and future classes, as they can ill afford to miss on more than a few prospects. Penn State loses a lot of star power on defense but has a nice piece to build around at defensive end in Big Ten Freshman of the Year Deion Barnes.

4. Nebraska (10-3, last week: 2): On the cusp of its first league title since 1999, Nebraska tumbled down the mountain yet again. Saturday's loss was an all-time stinker, the worst in team history, according to veteran columnist Tom Shatel. The defense allowed more rushing yards (539) than it ever has, and the offense turned over the ball and didn't find a rhythm until it was far too late. Nebraska will try to rebound against Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.

5. Northwestern (9-3, last week: 5): Will Northwestern finally get the bowl monkey off of its back this year? Pat Fitzgerald's crew has a potentially favorable matchup against slumping Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl. A young Wildcats squad should benefit from bowl practices, as players such as cornerback Nick VanHoose can fully heal. Northwestern's formidable rushing attack faces a Bulldogs defense ranked 70th nationally against the run.

6. Wisconsin (8-5, last week: 6): Yes, we saw what you saw Saturday night. The Badgers were brilliant. And if they follow it up against Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, they'll make a serious move up the power rankings. Still, this has been an inconsistent team that now must deal with the stunning departure of coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas. After dealing with so much adversity this season, can the Badgers rally again?

7. Michigan State (6-6, last week: 7): The good news for both the Spartans and their Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl opponent, TCU, is that their upcoming matchup is at a neutral site. Both squads failed to win a conference home game this season. Both squads are also very good on defense and inconsistent on offense. It'll be interesting to see Mark Dantonio and Gary Patterson match wits, and how Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell performs against a stout Frogs defense.

8. Purdue (6-6, last week: 8): The Boilers have a new head coach in Darrell Hazell, but his impact won't be felt until 2013. An extremely tough matchup against Oklahoma State awaits Purdue in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Cornerbacks Josh Johnson and Ricardo Allen will be tested early and often, and quarterback Robert Marve and the offense will need to put up big numbers for the Boilers to have a chance against the heavily favored Pokes.

9. Minnesota (6-6, last week: 9): Like Purdue, Minnesota heads to Texas for a bowl matchup in which it is a sizable underdog. And like the Boilers, Minnesota needs its cornerbacks (Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire) to step up against a very good passing offense in Texas Tech (second nationally). The Red Raiders allowed 111 points in their final two games, but Minnesota's offense has been banged up and struggling and must get healthy this month.

10. Indiana (4-8, last week: 10): It's all about improving the defense in Bloomington, and Indiana has upgraded its recruiting, most recently adding a commitment Insider from defensive tackle Darius Latham, an ESPN 300 prospect who had originally pledged to Wisconsin. The Hoosiers need more depth and more talent on defense to complement what will be a very explosive offense in 2013.

11. Iowa (4-8, last week: 11): Offensive coordinator Greg Davis is staying, and he'll be tasked to upgrade an offense that took a significant step back in his first season. Jake Rudock is expected to step in at quarterback, and Iowa should have good depth at running back (famous last words, I know). The defense returns most of its key pieces and showed the ability to take the ball away this season (23).

12. Illinois (2-10, last week: 12): As expected, coach Tim Beckman will get at least another season to get things right after a miserable first go-round. Staff changes probably are coming as Illinois tries to get back on its feet before spring practice. The Illini lose several NFL-caliber defensive players, but the bigger concerns are with an offense that finished 119th nationally this season.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 14

November, 26, 2012
11/26/12
12:47
PM CT
The Ohio State Buckeyes have been atop the Big Ten power rankings most of the season. They'll stay there for a very long time.

Ohio State's win against Michigan secured a 12-0 season, just the sixth undefeated, untied campaign in team history. While the Buckeyes won't be in Indianapolis this week for the league championship game, they have proved to be the class of the conference after beating every top team in the league except Northwestern.

Nebraska retains the No. 2 spot, and most of the rankings remain the same after Week 13. Our toughest decision came at No. 3, between Michigan and Penn State. If only the teams had played each other this season.

To the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten, last week: 1): Sure, the Big Ten is down and Ohio State has its flaws, but any team that runs the table in any season deserves a ton of credit. Urban Meyer took a seven-loss team with significant depth issues and ran the table in his first year. Braxton Miller and the offense carried the Buckeyes early this season, but the defense stepped in the second half of Big Ten play. Ryan Shazier, Johnathan Hankins and others blanked Michigan in the second half to win The Game and ensure perfection.

2. Nebraska (10-2, 7-1, last week: 2): Most of us thought Bo Pelini was crazy when he talked about winning out moments after his team had been beaten 63-38 at Ohio State. Bo might have thought so, too. But his players believed and found a way to claim the Legends Division title and a spot in Indianapolis. Nebraska needed its defense in a big way at Iowa and received huge performances from defensive end Eric Martin and others. And with Rex Burkhead back in the fold at running back, the Huskers will be even better the rest of the way.

3. Michigan (8-4, 6-2, last week: 3): We gave Michigan a slight edge against Penn State because the Wolverines had no bad losses and gave Ohio State a tougher test. The Wolverines' defense did a nice job keeping Ohio State out of the end zone Saturday, but the offense disappeared in the second half, recording just 60 total yards and four first downs. Offensive coordinator Al Borges got predictable and must iron out the game plan before a tough bowl matchup against an SEC opponent.

4. Penn State (8-4, 6-2, last week: 4): Bill O'Brien described his team as resilient all season, and Penn State once again showed why in Saturday's overtime win against Wisconsin. Playing without star linebacker Michael Mauti, the Lions' defense shut down Wisconsin for most of the game, receiving a huge performance from defensive tackle Jordan Hill. Zach Zwinak stepped up at running back and kicker Sam Ficken, who took so much abuse earlier in the season, went 3-for-3 on field goal attempts and hit the game winner in overtime. What a satisfying way to end the season for O'Brien and his crew.

5. Northwestern (9-3, 5-3, last week: 5): If you're searching for good stories amid the Big Ten morass this season, look no further than Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats. A young team exceeded all expectations during the regular season and was a play or two away from going to the Big Ten title game. Northwestern steamrolled Illinois with its dynamic rushing attack led by quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark. Fitzgerald tied Lynn Waldorf for the school's all-time coaching wins list with his 49th. An opportunistic defense stepped up, too, as Northwestern secured a spot in a Florida bowl (most likely Outback).

6. Wisconsin (7-5, 4-4, last week: 6): Another close loss for the Badgers, who had an offensive spark early and late but disappeared in between. Wisconsin's defense has made strides during the Big Ten season, but the offense simply lacks consistency, especially up front. It has proved costly in three overtime defeats this year. The Badgers are the third-best team in the Leaders Division but will go to the Big Ten title game, where they'll try to finish a bit better against Nebraska. Quarterback Curt Phillips has shown poise late in games.

7. Michigan State (6-6, 3-5, last week: 7): The Spartans went to their bread and butter -- defense and Le'Veon Bell -- to get past Minnesota and reach the six-win plateau. Michigan State's defense was simply dominant at TCF Bank Stadium, holding the Gophers to four net rush yards and three points on offense. Bell racked up a career-high 266 rush yards and a touchdown, his third 200-yard effort of the season. Michigan State didn't have the season it envisioned, but at least it has a chance to get better during bowl practices before a potential springboard for 2013.

8. Purdue (6-6, 3-5, last week: 9): Like Michigan State, Purdue underachieved this season but found a way to squeak into a bowl game. Credit quarterback Robert Marve, running back Akeem Shavers and the rest of Purdue's seniors for refusing to let the season go down the drain after an 0-5 start to Big Ten play. Shavers and Marve were brilliant against Indiana, and Frankie Williams and the Purdue secondary stepped up as well. It wasn't enough to save coach Danny Hope, but Purdue can win its second straight bowl and end a turbulent season on a good note.

9. Minnesota (6-6, 2-6, last week: 8): Big Ten play was no picnic for the Gophers, who endured numerous injuries, quarterback changes, the A.J. Barker turmoil this week and back-to-back losses to finish the regular season. Minnesota should get healthier before its bowl game, but it has a long way to go on the offensive side after rushing for four net yards Saturday against Michigan State. The next few weeks are big for freshman quarterback Philip Nelson, who struggled in his last two games.

10. Indiana (4-8, 2-6, last week: 10): The past three weeks showed that Indiana still has a long way to go to legitimize itself in the Big Ten. A defense that has struggled for more than a decade surrendered 163 points in losses to Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue. After taking great care of the ball, quarterback Cameron Coffman had seven interceptions in his final three contests. Indiana made progress in Kevin Wilson's second season, and a big opportunity awaits in 2013 with eight home games. But there's a lot of work ahead in the offseason.

11. Iowa (4-8, 2-6, last week: 11): The defense came to play on Black Friday, but an offense that had sputtered all season went out with a whimper. Iowa failed to convert two more turnovers into points, and coordinator Greg Davis once again left Hawkeye fans pulling out their hair with his perplexing play calls. What looked like an eight- or nine-win season in September turned into a complete mess for Kirk Ferentz's crew. The Legends Division will be loaded again in 2013, so Iowa faces a critical offseason.

12. Illinois (2-10, 0-8, last week: 12): There are really bad teams, and then there's Illinois. Tim Beckman's first season mercifully ended Saturday, but not before another embarrassing road loss, this time at the hands of a rival. The Illini's offense actually showed up early, but eight first-half penalties, four turnovers and a defensive front seven that had no answer for Northwestern's run game ensured the Orange and Blue would end the Big Ten season winless for the fourth time since 1997. Beckman, who earned a penalty by accidentally contacting an official during a Northwestern interception, has a lot to fix.

Wildcats establish identity behind QB Colter

October, 27, 2012
10/27/12
3:36
PM CT

It got interesting in the end because with Northwestern, it always does, but the Wildcats avoided another fourth-quarter collapse and found their identity in the process.

Remember what Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter told me this week?
"That's the problem that we're facing, we don't have an identity," Colter told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "We really need to develop that with the play calling and find out what we're going to do. Once we finally establish that identity, I feel like teams are going to have to start game-planning to stop us, rather than us trying to game plan and change things and do that for them."

Opponents can start game-planning for the Wildcats now. It goes like this: stop Kain Colter.

Iowa had no answers for the Northwestern junior quarterback, who repeatedly gashed the Hawkeyes throughout Saturday's 28-17 victory at Ryan Field. Colter had 26 rushes for 166 yards and three touchdowns, including a 39-yard dash on third-and-5 to seal the win. He also completed 6 of 9 passes for 80 yards, including a 47-yard scoring strike to Christian Jones in the third quarter.

Colter helped Northwestern hold on after building a 28-3 lead.

Northwestern's quarterback rotation had stalled the previous three weeks, as sophomore Trevor Siemian struggled, Colter received surprisingly few snaps, three-and-outs spiked and time of possession plummeted. With Colter at quarterback Saturday, Northwestern (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten) converted 8-of-11 third-down attempts, went three-and-out only once and racked up 20 first downs and 433 yards against an Iowa defense that, until recently, had been very solid.

Siemian likely will be a good Big Ten quarterback some day, but Northwestern's identity on offense is all about Colter, the option game with running back Venric Mark and converting red zone chances into touchdowns. If not for a bad snap inside the Iowa 5-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Northwestern likely would have put this game away long before it did. Mark had another big day, rushing for 162 yards on 16 carries. His 72-yard run from the Northwestern 1-yard line put him past the 1,000-yard mark for the season -- Northwestern's first back to reach that milestone since Tyrell Sutton in 2006.

You have to wonder what Northwestern's record would be if it had stuck with Saturday's offensive approach against both Penn State and Nebraska, teams that erased double-digit fourth-quarter deficits against the Wildcats.

Iowa (4-4, 2-2) had its chances after the bad snap, but the Hawkeyes simply don't have the offensive firepower, imagination or execution to erase big deficits. Watching Iowa try to run the two-minute drill was painful, as the Hawkeyes couldn't attack downfield against a Northwestern defense missing two of its three best cornerbacks. First-year coordinator Greg Davis has had a very rough go this fall.

Senior quarterback James Vandenberg undoubtedly will receive more criticism from Iowa fans, some of which is merited. Although Vandenberg completed eight of his first nine pass attempts and 11 of 16 in the first half, he couldn't hit the big play, took three sacks and, most disappointing, had three delay of game penalties, including one in the closing minutes with Iowa driving deep in Northwestern territory. You just can't have that from a fifth-year senior. In Vandenberg's defense, he once again got no help from his drops-prone receivers.

The Hawkeyes received a nice boost from Damon Bullock, who returned from a concussion to grind out 107 rush yards on 22 carries. Iowa needed Bullock after Mark Weisman left the game with a hip injury.

Iowa hit a low point against Central Michigan in Week 4, rallied back the next two weeks, but has now been thoroughly outplayed in back-to-back weeks. The Hawkeyes' season could come down to next week's game at Indiana.

Northwestern, meanwhile, is still alive in the Legends Division race, and enters a much-needed off week before trips to both Michigan and Michigan State. After nine weeks, Northwestern finally knows what it is on offense.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 5

October, 1, 2012
10/01/12
7:48
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Be kind. Rewind.

Team of the week: Ohio State. While Nebraska, Iowa, Penn State and Northwestern all notched conference victories as well, the Buckeyes were the only team to go on the road in a hostile environment and beat a strong opponent (sorry, Penn Staters, but Illinois doesn't fulfill either of those qualifications right now). The Michigan State game always looked like a crucial date on the Buckeyes' schedule, because they face only two potentially difficult trips the rest of the way (at Penn State and at Wisconsin). Ohio State also proved it could win a Big Ten slugfest under Urban Meyer and was just tougher at the line of scrimmage than the Spartans.

[+] EnlargeSean Fisher
AP Photo/Dave WeaverAfter a sluggish start for the Nebraska defense, Sean Fisher and the Huskers managed to slow Montee Ball and Wisconsin on Saturday night.
Best game: The last game of the day was the best in the Big Ten on Saturday. Nebraska rallied from a 27-10 second-half deficit to nip Wisconsin 30-27 in a comeback reminiscent of last year's win over Ohio State. The game featured all sorts of big plays in all three phases and huge momentum swings. And credit the Sea of Red for creating an amazing atmosphere under the lights at Memorial Stadium.

Biggest play: Braxton Miller's 63-yard touchdown pass down the right sideline to Devin Smith. Michigan State had just seized momentum when Keith Mumphery carried would-be tacklers into the end zone for the Spartans' first lead of the game in the third quarter. But Ohio State, as it did all game, immediately answered with Miller's pass coming just 1:44 later. The Buckeyes caught Michigan State in a blitz, and Smith got a step on cornerback Johnny Adams. Miller placed the ball beautifully, hitting Smith perfectly in stride for what turned out to be the game-winning score.

Best call: New Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis has heard his share of criticism this early season with the Hawkeyes' struggles. But Davis pulled out a brilliant call in the first half of Iowa's 31-13 beatdown of Minnesota. With the Gophers stacked at the line of scrimmage to try to stop the tank that is Mark Weisman, Davis dialed up a flea flicker. Weisman faked a run, tossed the ball back to James Vandenberg, and Vandenberg hit a wide-open Jordan Cotton for a 47-yard touchdown that made the score 17-0. "We've been practicing that since the spring," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Just part of the offensive package that Greg's installed. It's all about the timing. Like every play, it's all about execution. Our guys really did a nice job on it."

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Northwestern's Kain Colter is technically a quarterback, but he's more like a Swiss army knife. He led the Wildcats in receiving in the 44-29 win over Indiana with nine catches for 131 yards and also paced them in rushing with 161 yards on only 14 carries. He also scored four touchdowns to power Northwestern's 704-yard offensive effort.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Penn State's Michael Mauti wasn't happy about Illinois' poaching attempts this summer, and he did something about it Saturday. The senior had two interceptions to go along with six tackles and half a sack. He set a school record with a 99-yard interception return to end the first half, coming up just short of what would have been a highly poetic touchdown.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Nebraska's Brett Maher made three field goals, including the tying and go-ahead kicks, and his only miss against Wisconsin came on a 52-yarder. He also averaged 46.7 yards on three punts. Special teams special shoutout to Indiana freshman Tevin Coleman, who returned a kickoff 96 yards for a third-quarter touchdown to keep his team in the game.

Worst hangover: Lot to choose from here, but how about Minnesota? The Gophers were feeling awfully good about themselves after a 4-0 start and had a chance to deliver a knockout punch to a reeling Iowa team in the Big Ten opener. Instead, the Hawkeyes battered and fried Minnesota in the Floyd of Rosedale game, leading 24-0 at halftime and physically manhandling Jerry Kill's team. If the Gophers can't come close to beating Iowa, how are they going to win many Big Ten games? Get well soon, MarQueis Gray.

Strangest moment: And we thought the NFL replacement refs were painful. Somehow in Purdue's 51-41 win over Marshall, Thundering Herd coach Doc Holliday got knocked down by an official while one of his players, Derek Mitchell, was scoring a touchdown on a blocked punt. Holliday had a big cut on his cheek, was bleeding on the sideline and said after the game he wasn't sure what happened. "I ran into a big official, or he was bigger than I was, anyway," Holliday told reporters. Making matters worse, Marshall got a delay of game penalty on the collision. The original Doc Holliday probably would have challenged someone to a duel over such an indiscretion.

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 2

September, 9, 2012
9/09/12
10:00
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Five lessons from the week that was in Big Ten football.

1. Spartans or bust: With all due respect to Northwestern, Indiana and Minnesota, the Big Ten is down to one legitimate remaining BCS title contender after just two weeks. Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska have already seen their hopes of an undefeated season vanish. Ohio State technically could win The Associated Press national title, but the probation-saddled Buckeyes can't play for the BCS crown. So Michigan State, which looks like the Big Ten's best team right now, is really the only league team that can hoist the crystal trophy. The Spartans own the league's best nonconference win (the opener over Boise State), an elite defense and a strong running game behind Le'Veon Bell. Their passing game needs more work, but quarterback Andrew Maxwell and his young receivers made some strides in a blowout win over Central Michigan. Michigan State still has a demanding schedule, including next week's game against Notre Dame. But as the only Big Ten power still without a blemish, the Spartans represent the conference's last, best hope for a BCS championship this season.

2. The Leaders Division race is wide open: Hold off on Wisconsin's coronation. The Badgers look completely out of sorts after barely holding on against FCS team Northern Iowa in Week 1 and then nearly getting shut out in a loss at Oregon State in Week 2. If Wisconsin's offense is going to be that pedestrian, to put it kindly, then Bret Bielema's team no longer looks scary for the rest of the teams in the division. Purdue, even in a loss to Notre Dame, might have had the best performance by a Leaders team Saturday. Illinois got dusted in the desert against Arizona State as its vaunted defense faltered. Indiana is 2-0 but is most likely not ready to contend in the division, especially with quarterback Tre Roberson now out for the year. Ohio State might end up being the best team in the division, but the Buckeyes can't go to Indianapolis. Right now, it's anybody's guess who will represent the Leaders at Lucas Oil Stadium.

[+] EnlargeCaleb TerBush
Matt Cashore/US PresswireCaleb TerBush pulled Purdue into a late tie at Notre Dame with a 15-yard TD pass.
3. There's fight in these Nittany Lions, but transfers continue to sting: No matter your opinion on Penn State, you had to feel for the Nittany Lions players and particularly sophomore kicker Sam Ficken after their 17-16 loss to Virginia. Penn State thoroughly outplayed Virginia and received gutsy efforts from linebacker Michael Mauti, quarterback Matt McGloin and others. But it repeatedly missed scoring opportunities, setting some type of record for drives started in plus territory that didn't translate to points. Ficken missed field goal attempts from 40, 38, 20 and 42 yards, the last on the final play of the game after McGloin led an impressive drive. Although Ficken is a scholarship player who needs to convert, he was thrust into this role once All-Big Ten specialist Anthony Fera transferred following the NCAA sanctions (though Fera, now at Texas, is currently injured). Some pointed to Fera's departure as the second most significant of the nine -- behind running back Silas Redd. Penn State certainly could have used him Saturday. The Lions deserve credit for moving the ball and for forcing turnovers, but the player departures have and likely will continue to hamper this team. It will be interesting to see how they bounce back from Saturday's heartbreaker.

4. New coordinators struggling at Wisconsin, Iowa: Both Wisconsin and Iowa went through some significant coaching changes during the offseason, including new offensive coordinators in both Madison (Matt Canada) and Iowa City (Greg Davis). So far, any concerns about the new hires are looking justified. After setting offensive records the past two seasons, Wisconsin came 91 seconds away from being shut out against unranked Oregon State. The Badgers finished with 35 net rush yards and couldn't get Heisman Trophy candidate Montee Ball going. While the players bear a lot of responsibility, Canada's play calls seemed questionable at best. Iowa's offense also is spinning its wheels under Davis, who took criticism toward the end of his Texas tenure but was supposed to diversify the Hawkeyes' attack. Like Wisconsin, Iowa didn't come alive offensively until the closing moments, and senior quarterback James Vandenberg struggled again with no touchdown passes and two interceptions. Iowa has scored one touchdown through the first two games. Although both Canada and Davis faced some personnel challenges with their offenses, they didn't walk into dire situations, either, particularly Canada. The results so far are extremely disappointing.

5. Braxton Miller needs some help: Urban Meyer doesn't want to overexpose his sophomore quarterback, but the Ohio State coach doesn't have much choice right now. Miller had a whopping 27 carries in Saturday's 31-16 win over Central Florida, rushing for 141 yards. He also threw the ball 24 times. Jordan Hall remains out with an injured foot, and Carlos Hyde left Saturday's game with a knee injury, leaving the Buckeyes without many options at running back. Miller took a few hard hits against UCF, and it's clear that if he has to miss any significant time, the Ohio State offense will nosedive. The Buckeyes have to find some complementary players so Miller can make it through the year. We could say the same about Michigan's Denard Robinson, who accounted for more than 100 percent of his team's offensive total against Air Force. But we're pretty sure Fitz Toussaint will contribute more than 7 rushing yards in the near future. The Buckeyes need Hyde or Hall to get healthy or for someone else to emerge as a reliable running mate for Miller.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 1

August, 27, 2012
8/27/12
10:00
AM CT
Power Rankings: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

Game week is here, and not a moment too soon.

Preseason camps have wrapped up around the Big Ten, and teams are now locking in for their openers this coming weekend. The power rankings will appear each Monday throughout the season, and we're getting things kicked off today.

There aren't many changes from our last version, although some offseason news has affected the rundown. The top five teams certainly have separated themselves in our eyes, while there's not much separating the next five on the list.

Here we go ...

1. Michigan State: We understand why Michigan is the highest-rated Big Ten team in the polls, but Michigan State gets the top spot in our power rankings because of its defense. A top-10 unit in 2011 could easily become a top-five unit this season, as the Spartans are strong at just about every position. While the concerns at quarterback and receiver are warranted, the offense will be effective enough with the run as Le'Veon Bell and a more seasoned line return.

2. Michigan: The Wolverines endured some injuries and off-field issues this summer and in camp, but they still enter the season with justifiably high hopes. Senior quarterback Denard Robinson has matured during his career and could make a serious push for national awards this fall. Michigan must shore up its lines and hope some young players grow up in a hurry. A relentless schedule is the biggest challenge for Brady Hoke's squad.

3. Wisconsin: The offense might not be as electric as it was the past two seasons and the defense has some question marks (secondary, pass rush), but Wisconsin knows how to win and boasts enough to claim another Big Ten title. Montee Ball is extremely motivated after a rough summer, and while Danny O'Brien isn't Russell Wilson, he gives the offense some stability. A favorable schedule with both Michigan State and Ohio State at home helps the Badgers.

4. Ohio State: It's a close call for the No. 4 spot, but the Buckeyes get the edge based on a defense with the potential to be one of the nation's best. John Simon anchors arguably the league's top defensive line, and almost everyone returns in the secondary. While there will be growing pains on offense, the unit can't possibly be worse than last year's, and Braxton Miller has a chance to make significant strides this season.

5. Nebraska: Fifteen starters return to a Huskers team that should be much more comfortable with the Big Ten in Year 2. But questions remain surrounding quarterback Taylor Martinez, replacing star power on defense and getting over the hump on the road. A signature road victory would go a long way for Bo Pelini's program, which returns 15 starters and has a great chance to climb this list and challenge for the Legends division.

6. Purdue: Danny Hope repeatedly called this his best Boilers team during the offseason, and we can see why. Purdue boasts a formidable defensive front and two bona-fide stars on defense in tackle Kawann Short and cornerback Ricardo Allen. The Boilers also return most of their key weapons on offense. What we still need to see is a team that can avoid the major mistakes and mental lapses that have plagued Purdue throughout Hope's tenure. A challenging start to Big Ten play will tell a lot about the Boilers.

7. Penn State: The Lions will ride emotion and a stout defensive front seven this fall, and they could go further than most think after a brutal offseason. Still, it's hard to figure out how Penn State will score points, and the turmoil is bound to catch up with Bill O'Brien's crew at some point. If O'Brien bolsters an offense featuring mostly unproven personnel, Penn State could make a strong push. The schedule is favorable as the Lions get both Ohio State and Wisconsin at Beaver Stadium.

8. Iowa: Youth will be served this fall in Iowa City as the Hawkeyes turn to unproven players at several spots, namely defensive line and running back. The good news is that Iowa boasts a veteran in senior quarterback James Vandenberg, who could thrive under new coordinator Greg Davis. Iowa must ride Vandenberg's right arm and a talented back seven on defense headlined by cornerback Micah Hyde and linebacker James Morris. Iowa also should benefit from its schedule.

9. Illinois: The Illini and Penn State are nearly mirror images, as both teams have first-year coaches, talented defensive front sevens and question marks on offense. Defense could carry Illinois a long way this fall, as end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Jonathan Brown anchor the unit. A new offensive scheme could spark third-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, although he'll need unproven weapons to emerge. Illinois could be a sleeper team this fall, although its Big Ten road schedule is flat-out brutal (Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern).

10. Northwestern: After a drop in wins the past three seasons, can Northwestern get things turned around? The Wildcats once again should be strong on offense as Kain Colter takes over at quarterback, although there are some questions up front. The defense can't be much worse than it was in 2011, and while there will be more youth throughout the unit, there also should be more talent. Northwestern must capitalize on the first chunk of the schedule, which features several toss-up games but isn't overly taxing.

11. Minnesota: The Gophers will be an improved team in Year 2 under Jerry Kill. The problem is they play in a loaded division and face a tricky schedule with no gimme games. Quarterback MarQueis Gray has a chance to do big things as a senior, although his supporting cast remains a mystery. Troy Stoudermire's return should spark the defense, which played better down the stretch in 2011. Like Northwestern, Minnesota needs to get off to a good start and build confidence.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers won't go 1-11 again, and they could be dangerous on the offensive side as sophomore quarterback Tre Roberson matures and the passing game becomes a bigger part of the plan. Question marks remain throughout the defense, and Indiana hopes an influx of junior-college players helps the situation immediately. Indiana will be older and better than it was in 2011, and the Hoosiers should be more competitive in Big Ten games. But until they prove otherwise, they're at the bottom.
Brady Hoke/Mark DantonioGetty Images, US PresswireBrady Hoke and the Wolverines square off against Mark Dantonio and the Spartans on Oct. 20.
During the course of spring practice, Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett visited 11 of the 12 league schools, getting an up-close look at the players and coaches who will shape the 2012 season.

Now it's time for them to share their thoughts on what they saw and learned this spring, and you can follow along as they exchange emails. Check out the Leaders Division exchange here. They now turn their focus to the Legends Division.

Adam Rittenberg: Let's take a look at what I believe to be the stronger division in 2012. You spent a lot of time in the Mitten State last month, and while you didn't gorge yourself like you did in America's Dairyland, you got the money quote of spring ball from Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who said, "We're laying in the weeds. We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?" How spicy is the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry getting, and how good do you think these two teams will be this season after visiting both campuses?

Brian Bennett: Oh, there was some serious gorging going on at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor and Sparty's in East Lansing. Good thing there's only one spring practice session per year.

Anyway, I went into the spring thinking Michigan and Michigan State were the two strongest teams in the league, and I didn't see anything to change my opinion. While the Wolverines are more focused on Ohio State and even Alabama, they know they have to end their losing streak against Michigan State. And the Spartans take serious pride in that four-game run while bristling at all the offseason accolades thrown toward Brady Hoke's team. Oct. 20 can't come soon enough, as far as I'm concerned.

If the two teams played right now, I'd definitely take Michigan State. Dantonio has done a terrific job of developing depth on both lines and all over the defense. There's not a deeper team in the Big Ten, and the Spartans' physical play has given Michigan fits. The Wolverines still need to figure some things out in the trenches, especially on the defensive line, but that's one area where Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison excel. I believe these two teams will be neck and neck all year for the Legends title.

Of course, there's another team lurking in the division, and that's Nebraska. You went to Lincoln this spring, and it sounded like the Cornhuskers are feeling mighty ambitious this season. Do they have the necessary tools to back up their lofty goals?

Adam Rittenberg: It was interesting to see a team openly discuss the national title, Brian, especially in a league like the Big Ten. Huskers safety P.J. Smith even went so far as to say a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl championship would be "kind of disappointing." That's bold. Nebraska would have to skip a step or two to reach that point, but I can see where the confidence stems from. There's a greater comfort level between players and coaches in Lincoln, and also between the coaches and what they face in the Big Ten. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck was candid about the difficulty of preparing for so many new opponents, particularly since Nebraska's offensive and defensive systems are a little different from what we see in the rest of the league.

Quarterback Taylor Martinez received good marks from the coaches, and his focus on footwork could translate into a more consistent passing attack. Beck certainly wants to be a bit more balanced, and Nebraska returns pretty much everyone at wide receiver and tight end. We often hear the cliche that it's all about the quarterback, but it holds true with Nebraska. If Martinez actually makes strides as a passer -- he'll be operating in the same offense as the starter for the first time in his high school or college career -- the Huskers will put up points this fall. But after watching Martinez last season, it's fair to have some doubts about No. 3.

The defense expects to exploit a schematic advantage we heard a lot about last season but didn't see much on Saturdays. I like coordinator John Papuchis, and Bo Pelini made two good staff additions in D-line coach Rick Kaczenski and secondary coach Terry Joseph. They're all about details and accountability, and they believe they'll be able to replace star power with greater depth in certain areas. Nebraska also should be strong in special teams. Do the Huskers have a unit better than Michigan State's defense? Not right now. But Nebraska could end up being the division's most complete team by season's end.

Getting back to Michigan State and Michigan. Both teams lose tremendous leaders from 2011 (Kirk Cousins, Mike Martin, Jerel Worthy, Joel Foreman, David Molk, Ryan Van Bergen). Who do you see filling those roles this year?

Brian Bennett: That's a good question, and one that will have to be answered this summer. For Michigan State, Andrew Maxwell impressed me as a guy who can lead in a similar way as Cousins did; he'll just have to play well at quarterback and battle through adversity. The Spartans have some seniors on defense who can lead, like Anthony Rashad White and Johnny Adams, but they also have some highly respected juniors in Max Bullough and William Gholston.

But they are replacing some very valuable leaders, just as Michigan is doing. Denard Robinson has worked on becoming more vocal and sounded like a different guy in interviews this spring. There's no question he has the respect of his teammates. Craig Roh and Jordan Kovacs seem like natural leaders on defense, and offensive tackle Taylor Lewan says he wants to take on that role as well. But leadership can't be forced, and it remains to be seen if either team can find such strong captains as guys like Cousins and Martin were.

[+] EnlargeJames Vandenberg
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa quarterback James Vandenberg threw for 3,022 yards and 25 touchdowns last season.
Speaking of question marks, I feel like Iowa and Northwestern are two of the bigger mystery teams in the league. Both have talent and potentially potent offenses, but they'll also need some players on defense to rise up out of the shadows. What did you take out of your visits to Iowa City and Evanston this spring?

Adam Rittenberg: Let's start off with Iowa, which underwent some major changes this spring with a new offensive coordinator (Greg Davis), a position coach promoted to defensive coordinator (Phil Parker) and several more assistants shuffling, arriving or being promoted. The players seemed to embrace the changes, and coach Kirk Ferentz basically said the team needed a fresh start even though he didn't want to lose his previous coordinators. There's a lot of excitement about Davis' offense, which will be more up-tempo than what we've seen in the past from Iowa. Quarterback James Vandenberg really seems to get it, but will he have enough weapons around him to execute? The running back curse struck again this spring with Jordan Canzeri's ACL injury. Iowa needs young and/or unproven players to step up there, and wide receiver isn't a deep group. It'll be a big summer for Keenan Davis.

The feeling I had coming out of Evanston is that Northwestern will be a younger team but potentially a better one. The Wildcats say goodbye to an accomplished senior class that featured some outstanding players like quarterback Dan Persa. But was it the most talented group? I don't think so. Northwestern has improved its recruiting efforts in recent years, and the team could begin seeing the benefits this year. There are a lot of new faces at spots like defensive back and defensive line. I was impressed with cornerback Nick VanHoose and end Deonte Gibson. The wide receiving corps should be one of the Big Ten's best, even if Kyle Prater isn't eligible until 2013. The Wildcats might not have many familiar names at receiver, but they boast incredible depth there. This team still has question marks -- secondary, pass rush, running back, quarterback -- but the talent level is getting a bit better.

Neither of us made it up to Minneapolis this spring, but we both talked with Gophers players and coaches. What was your sense of the second spring under coach Jerry Kill?

Brian Bennett: We swear it's nothing personal, Gophers fans. Both of us would have enjoyed a trip to the Twin Cities, but the schedule just didn't work out.

Anyway, I did sense more confidence from the Minnesota players and coaches we interviewed. That's not surprising, given that it's the second year for Kill's staff and more familiarity almost always brings a better comfort level. MarQueis Gray really started to come on late last season and appears to have made strides as a passer. He could be one of the league's top playmakers this year. Overall, the Gophers look to have a little more talent this year, thanks to some junior college imports, youngsters who got experience last year and Troy Stoudermire coming back at cornerback. The defense should have more speed, though it remains undersized. The big question for me is who will emerge as weapons alongside Gray, especially at receiver.

But I think that, with a manageable nonconference schedule, Minnesota has a chance to win five or more games this year and it will be much more competitive in Big Ten play than it was early last season. The Legends Division looks more balanced top to bottom than the Leaders and should be fun to follow all year.

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