Chicago Colleges: James Franklin

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 11

November, 9, 2014
Nov 9
2:00
PM CT

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 11

November, 9, 2014
Nov 9
12:20
AM CT
Lessons learned after Week 11 in the Big Ten:

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsA clutch performance by J.T. Barrett on Saturday night helped keep Ohio State's playoff hopes alive.
1. Ohio State is king of the East and one of the B1G's two best bets for the playoff: Michigan State linebacker Taiwan Jones said he felt as if the College Football Playoff started Saturday. He was kind of right, but the Spartans are out, and the Buckeyes are in ... the playoff picture. Few people saw the Buckeyes' dominating 49-37 win over Michigan State coming, and that's exactly what they needed to make a statement in this playoff race. J.T. Barrett outplayed Connor Cook, Ohio State scored touchdowns on six straight drives, and there was no sad pizza eating for Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer. Margin of victory can only help the Buckeyes, and they'll need to keep playing like this to show they deserve one of the playoff's four spots. Only two Big Ten teams, one-loss Ohio State and Nebraska, are in contention for the playoff now, and they could face each other in the Big Ten title game. Of course ...

2. ... The Wild West still remains wild: Just when you think you’ve started to figure out the West Division, with Minnesota coming off a puzzling loss to Illinois and Iowa blowing out Northwestern, Jerry Kill’s squad steps up and absolutely dominates the Hawkeyes in a 51-14 thrashing that was over by halftime. Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin all boast just one Big Ten loss now -- so anything can happen in these last three weeks, especially when you consider these three teams will all play one another, with Nebraska taking on Wisconsin next Saturday. (Even Iowa, which still plays Wisconsin and Nebraska, isn’t technically out of the equation.) It’s looking more and more as if we’ll have to wait until the final week of the regular season to get a clear picture of who will move forward. Lessons learned: It was way too premature to write off Minnesota (and Kill’s dancing skills), and it’s still too early to pick a clear favorite.

3. Wisconsin passing game has some potential: Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy appeared doomed early this season, but they might end up just fine if Stave can build off part of Saturday’s performance. The Badgers set a season high with 30 pass attempts, and Stave finished 19-of-29 for 216 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. His QBR of 77.2 was the highest of any Wisconsin starter in the Big Ten season, and he was especially hot in the second quarter of the 34-16 win. This was about as balanced as Wisconsin’s offense has been all season, and if defenses are forced to take some of the focus away from the running game, the Badgers’ offense could become even more dangerous. One game doesn’t make a trend, but it does show Stave is capable of more this season.

4. Several B1G offenses are regressing: If you watched -- and stayed awake through -- Penn State's 13-7 win over Indiana and Michigan's 10-9 win over Northwestern, feel free to pat yourself on the back. Those four teams combined for three offensive touchdowns, 39 points, 33 punts and 10 turnovers. It wasn’t pretty. For Indiana, it’s more understandable because Nate Sudfeld's injury forced this team to become even more one-dimensional. But for the other three, every week seems to lead to fewer answers and more questions. Turnovers continue to be an issue for Devin Gardner and the Wolverines, Trevor Siemian remains incredibly inconsistent … and Penn State? Well, nothing seems to be going well there. Penn State, Michigan and Northwestern are ranked outside the top 100 in scoring offense, and the Hoosiers have averaged 11.3 points per game with Zander Diamont as the starting quarterback. These offenses aren’t showing much progress.

5. Penn State bowl hopes pinned to the defense: As bad as the Nittany Lions’ offense has been, the defense has performed nearly perfectly. Indiana never reached the red zone Saturday, Tevin Coleman didn’t reach 100 rushing yards for the first time all season, and the Lions’ defense didn’t allow a single point. (IU’s only touchdown came on an interception return for a TD.) PSU needs just one more win for bowl eligibility, but even with Illinois and Temple left on the slate, that’s no guarantee. The offense hasn’t once reached 20 points in regulation in a Big Ten game, but on the flip side, the defense has allowed just nine touchdowns in regulation in six B1G games. This is arguably the best defense in the Big Ten, but it’s also arguably the worst offense.

Big Ten morning links

November, 7, 2014
Nov 7
7:00
AM CT
Your attention span is short on the Friday before a huge football weekend, so let’s get in and get out quickly with a final take on the three Big Ten games most likely to impact the league title race.

In East Lansing, Ohio State’s defense is likely the unit most overlooked in the marquee matchup of the Big Ten regular season. Most of the talk in advance of Saturday focuses on the offenses led by Connor Cook and J.T. Barrett. And no one can really look past the Pat Narduzzi-directed Michigan State group. But what about the Buckeyes on defense? It might hold the key to victory for Ohio State, and it’s a revamped bunch under first-year co-coordinator Chris Ash. Cornerback Doran Grant says that the Buckeyes’ defensive showing last year against MSU in a 34-24 loss won’t factor on Saturday. But it should. Ohio State ought to draw energy from it. The best defense is often fueled by emotion. OSU can use recent history to its advantage. Just don't ask Brady Hoke who's got the edge.

Speaking of defense, the group at Wisconsin is better than the sum of its parts. Safety Michael Caputo and linebacker Derek Landisch figure to contend for Big Ten postseason honors, though neither looks like a top candidate for Big Ten defensive player of the year. How, then, to explain the Badgers’ ranking as the No. 1 defense nationally in points and yards allowed? It’s about a selfless approach, epitomized best perhaps by safety Peniel Jean. The Badgers haven’t played a great schedule, but they dismantled decent foes in Maryland and Rutgers the past two weeks. We’ll see this week at Purdue if the Badgers open their critical three-game final stretch with more momentum -- thanks to that defense -- than any other contender in the West.

You want answers? You’ll get answers about Iowa. The Hawkeyes looked downright dangerous last week against Northwestern. And really, it’s been a three-game surge for Iowa on offense, interrupted by an off week and hidden somewhat behind an ugly defensive showing at Maryland on Oct. 18. But last week, wow, it all came together, even the big plays in the passing game. The Hawkeyes have had this in them all season, with receivers Tevaun Smith, Kevonte Martin-Manley and Damond Powell all capable of stretching a defense. But Minnesota leads the Big Ten and ranks fifth nationally in allowing 5.6 yards per pass attempt. If Jake Rudock can throw over the top of the Golden Gophers in the cold, Iowa will roll.

Around the rest of the league:

East Division
West Division

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 10

November, 2, 2014
Nov 2
12:48
AM CT
Lessons learned after Week 10 in the Big Ten:

1. The West Division chase could be special: Four teams in the West -- Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota -- are in a virtual first-place tie with just one loss. What makes that really fun is they will all play each other in the season's final four weeks, beginning with Iowa-Minnesota in Week 11. We weren't sure the Hawkeyes were a serious contender until Saturday, when Kirk Ferentz's team turned in by far its best performance of the season in a 48-7 blowout of Northwestern. Iowa controlled both lines of scrimmage, Jake Rudock made all the right plays at quarterback and Mark Weisman bowled his way to three touchdowns. With Nebraska and Wisconsin still having to go to Iowa City, the Hawkeyes remain a major threat to win the division if they can repeat their level of play in Week 10. But it's still a wide-open race that should be a lot of fun to watch.

2. Wisconsin's defense gives it a chance: Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is a hot coaching commodity and showed why again on Saturday. Wisconsin beat Rutgers 37-0 and registered its first conference road shutout since 1998. That came one week after the defense nearly shut out Maryland. Aranda has put together a dominant unit, despite losing nine defensive starters from the past year's team. The return of nose tackle Warren Herring, who was injured in the opener against LSU, has helped take the defense to another level. The Badgers still struggle to throw the ball, but with Melvin Gordon running wild and Aranda's side of the ball shutting things down, Wisconsin has a chance to finish strong.

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsTommy Armstrong Jr. and Nebraska were able to beat Purdue without Ameer Abdullah, but they'll need their Heisman candidate RB back for Wisconsin in two weeks.
3. Nebraska can win without Abdullah -- for now: Ameer Abdullah has been so great this season, it's almost easy to take it for granted. But Nebraska got an unwanted reminder of just how important he is to the entire team when he left the Purdue game early with a left knee injury. Abdullah only contributed one yard before he exited, which left the offense in the hands of quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. and backup running backs Imani Cross and Terrell Newby. That offense, predictably, wasn't nearly as explosive without its star. The Cornhuskers produced just 299 total yards, but the defense played well in a sloppy 35-14 victory. Abdullah has a mild MCL sprain and could return after next week's bye, for when Nebraska heads to Wisconsin on Nov. 15. The Huskers won't want to try to win that one without him.

4. Hackenberg hanging on by a thread: Penn State sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg is a special talent and the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year, but he's having a nightmare sophomore season. He has taken a ton of hits this season and endured five more sacks in Saturday's 20-19 loss to Maryland. His frustration appears to be boiling over, as Hackenberg was seen yelling and waving his arms at his offensive coordinator, John Donovan, on the sideline. The Nittany Lions' offensive line just can't protect him, and that only got worse with left tackle Donovan Smith out with an injury. Hackenberg isn't making great in-game decisions, either, which is likely a byproduct of all the pressure he's been under. James Franklin and his staff don't have a lot of options, but they've got to find a way to make sure they don't lose Hackenberg -- either to injury or mentally.

5. Battle for bowls heating up: Three Big Ten teams -- Iowa, Maryland and Wisconsin -- clinched postseason eligibility Saturday. That makes seven overall for the league. But where it gets interesting is beyond that group. Technically, the other seven teams are all still alive for a bowl bid, though it's hard to envision Indiana getting off the mat to win three more games or Purdue winning out. Rutgers has been stuck on five wins for a few weeks and finally gets a schedule break in hosting Indiana next time out. Illinois and Penn State both have four wins. Can Michigan, which finally showed a little life Saturday (albeit against those same struggling Hoosiers) find two more wins? Can 3-5 Northwestern rebound after a horrific showing at Iowa? There could be a lot of teams fighting for their bowl lives in the final couple weeks.

Happy Halloween in the Big Ten

October, 31, 2014
Oct 31
10:00
AM CT
Happy Halloween, Big Ten fans! The conference got off to a ghoulish start this season but has since provided enough tricks and treats to set up an entertaining final month of the regular season. In celebration of the undead, let’s take a look at what Halloween staples we think of when talking about the Big Ten.

Jason Voorhees: Have you ever seen Jason run after one of his soon-to-be victims? Nope, but somehow he always catches them with his slow-and-steady gait. Watching Minnesota hasn’t been much different this season. The Golden Gophers are in no hurry, defiantly marching their way toward wins in the age of turbo-speed offenses. Somehow Jerry Kill (a name made for a horror movie villain) and his team, which is now 6-2, usually end up catching their opponent and slashing them to bits.

Zombies: Unless of course, Minnesota is playing the Fighting Illini. Tim Beckman and his coaching staff might be walking dead as his third season in Champaign rolls toward the finish line, but that doesn’t mean they can’t take a few other teams down with them along the way. Can Illinois infect another team with an undefeated conference record when it faces Ohio State this Saturday? Something tells me J.T. Barrett will be going to this weekend’s party dressed as Michonne, katana and all.

Freddy Krueger: You don’t want to sleep on Nebraska this season. The Cornhuskers fell off the radar after a loss at Michigan State in early October. With Ameer Abdullah terrorizing defenses this season, they haven’t played their way out of an unexpected playoff bid just yet. The original playoff rankings put Nebraska at 15th. If Bo Pelini's team can win the West Division and a potential rematch with the Spartans in the Big Ten championship game, it can silently sneak up on a lot of folks in the college football world.

Sidney Prescott: The Ohio State-Penn State referee crew. Sidney is the main character in the Scream series, but this one applies to pretty much any pretty slasher-film target. You know, the ones who always seems to make the wrong decision. The front door is open? It’s time to scramble up the stairs. An incomplete pass bounces on the turf? Let’s rule it an interception. Getaway car is running in the driveway? Time to hide behind the chainsaws. The play clock expired? Let them kick the field goal anyway. These decisions always work out for the killer, and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone outside of Columbus who doesn’t see Urban Meyer as the perfect fit for a Big Ten villain role.

The Headless Horseman: Michigan isn’t headless quite yet, but coach Brady Hoke and athletic director Dave Brandon are both moving in the direction of the guillotine. The Wolverines may be riding through the night searching for a couple new leaders a month from now. While football season has left the people of Ann Arbor feeling hollow, the town has been anything but sleepy this autumn. The Big House feels haunted. Maybe that explains all the boos.

All right, I think we’ve filled our quota for (candy)corny Halloween puns this year. Before we go, a few costume suggestions for coaches and players around the Big Ten…

Michigan LB Jake Ryan: He-Man (Before Ryan cut his hair, of course)

Rutgers DE Kemoko Turay: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (No one has rocked the flat top as well as Turay since Will Smith.)

Michigan WR Dennis Norfleet: Carlton Banks (Will needs his partner in crime, and Norfleet’s dance moves fit the bill.)

Northwestern DC Mike Hankwitz: Walter White (No costume required, maybe just a black hat.)

Penn State coach James Franklin: Gus Fring (Close enough, and Hankwitz's defense did blow up the Nittany Lions this year.)

Purdue coach Darrell Hazell: George Whitfield (No wonder Hazell has Austin Appleby playing so well.)

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini: Voldemort (When Bo is screaming, the resemblance is uncanny.)

Michigan State P Mike Sadler: Bo Pelini (Well, technically Faux Pelini, but his impression was spot-on.)

Indiana QB Zander Diamont: Derek Zoolander (There’s more to life than being ridiculously good looking, and for former model Diamont, that includes playing quarterback for the Hoosiers.)

Big Ten morning links

October, 31, 2014
Oct 31
7:00
AM CT
Happy Halloween. Let’s get your Friday started with three questions that may have slipped through the cracks -- until now -- about Week 10 in the Big Ten.

Can Austin Appleby keep it going this week against Nebraska? Sure. While the Cornhuskers rank third nationally in limiting opponents to a 48.1-percent completion rate, Appleby can look for high percentage throws to speedy backs Akeem Hunt and the do-it-all Raheem Mostert. They've combined to catch 40 passes this year. Miami burned Nebraska in September with a similar style. It’s a good formula for a talented, young quarterback such as Appleby, whose 83.4 QBR index ranks seventh nationally and leads the Big Ten. Since taking over for Danny Etling, the 6-foot-5 sophomore has completed 66.3 percent of his throws and led the Boilermankers to 35.7 points per game. With what we saw from the Nebraska defense last week against Rutgers, reason exists to believe that Appleby can have another good day.

Have we seen the last of Maryland’s feel-good story for this season? The Terps’ fast start took a dramatic turn for the worse last week at Wisconsin. Maryland’s quarterbacks have been beaten up. Its running game was non-existent in Madison. The turnovers are starting to mount -- with nine in the past three games -- and it faces two of the Big Ten’s top defensive units next in Penn State, a familiar foe to coach Randy Edsall, and, after a bye, Michigan State. Maryland looks like it’s a year or two away from a breakthrough. It has recruited athletes such as William Likely and Stefon Diggs, plenty capable of changing games against Big Ten competition, but the infrastructure is not yet strong enough. It’s conceivable, despite five wins in its first seven games, that Maryland will still be in search of a bowl eligibility-clincher in the regular-season finale on Nov. 29 against Rutgers.

Is Illinois on track to salvage its season? The easy answer is no. The Fighting Illini scored a lot of points behind Wes Lunt, now injured, early in the season, and it hasn’t been the same since Reilly O'Toole took over this month. Before its upset win over Minnesota last week, Illinois had lost four of five games, including a clunker at home to Purdue. But suddenly, the Boilermakers look much better. Illinois was competitive in losing at Wisconsin, and it punched Minnesota in the mouth, capitalizing on three turnovers and four sacks. Don't expect Illinois to win Saturday at Ohio State for the first time in seven years, but if it can continue to build on last week, a bowl appearance is not out of the question with a closing stretch at home against Iowa and Penn State and a visit to Northwestern.

East Division
West Division

B1G roundtable: Week 10 bold predictions

October, 30, 2014
Oct 30
3:00
PM CT
When simply picking the games doesn't cut it, the Big Ten blog crew takes it to another level. For some bolder, more specific predictions for the opening weekend of what could be an unforgettable November, we hit the roundtable.

Adam Rittenberg: Purdue will pace Nebraska well into the second half.

This isn't a knock on the Huskers, who are quietly putting together a very solid, and refreshingly drama-free, season. But Purdue's offense is hitting its stride behind quarterback Austin Appleby, speed backs Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert and a much-improved offensive line. The Boilers have had two weeks to prepare and face a Nebraska defense that still has too many technical breakdowns for my liking. This will be a track meet for two, maybe three quarters -- thinking 28-24 Nebraska at halftime -- before Ameer Abdullah and Nebraska pull away in the fourth.

Mitch Sherman: Wisconsin will make its biggest statement yet.

The Badgers served notice to the rest of the West last week with a 52-7 win over Maryland that they’ve turned a corner. Still, it was one game. It was at home, and we’ve seen previous flashes from Wisconsin. But with most of the attention focused on the exploits of Melvin Gordon and uncertainty at QB, the Wisconsin defense has built a résumé as the Big Ten’s best. Now, with Joel Stave back in command, the Badgers will streamroll Rutgers, beat up at QB and elsewhere after trips to Ohio State and Nebraska, and enter the final four weeks as the favorite in the West despite that ugly Northwestern loss.

Brian Bennett: Northwestern and Iowa will head to overtime. Again.

Just like last year in Iowa City, the Wildcats and Hawkeyes will play to a draw in regulation. They're similar teams, with good defenses and running games but who struggle to score at times. Justin Jackson and Mark Weisman will each find the end zone twice as the teams go into overtime tied at 20. Northwestern makes one more play in the second extra period to win it.

Austin Ward: Tevin Coleman will be held in check.

The Indiana tailback wasn’t getting all that much support from the passing game even when Nate Sudfeld was healthy and that didn’t slow him down even against stout rush defenses. But with the attack even more one-dimensional now, his string of 100-yard outings is going to come to an end on the road against Michigan and a defense allowing just 3.1 yards per carry. That’s about the only thing the Wolverines do well at this point, and any chance of salvaging something positive out of this season for Brady Hoke’s club will require coming out inspired to take care of Indiana. That’s yet another sign of how bad things are at Michigan, but there is a talented, proud defense waiting for a chance to do something nobody else has done yet this season.

Dan Murphy: Ohio State hits 60 points for the second time this season.

Any chances of the Buckeyes looking ahead to the Michigan State next weekend were knocked out after the close call in Happy Valley. J.T. Barrett will be back in his comfort zone at home and looking to pick a part the Fighting Illini defense. Ohio State hung 66 points on Kent State earlier this year. While Saturday might not be quite as big of a blowout, the Buckeyes will get to 60 for the second year in a row against Illinois.

Josh Moyer: Penn State hits its highest rushing total of the Big Ten season.

OK, maybe this is a bit of a gamble considering that left tackle Donovan Smith -- the only returning starter on the line this season -- suffered an injury Saturday, and his status is unknown against Maryland. But the Nittany Lions fared better than I expected against Ohio State, and the offensive line has a much easier test against the Terrapins. Only 17 teams in the nation are faring worse in run defense than than the Terps, so we should see a healthy dose of Penn State speedsters Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch. James Franklin has vowed to keep running the ball, and I think that strategy finally pays off this weekend.

Big Ten morning links

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
7:00
AM CT
Three bite-sized opinions, with links below, to start off your morning:

1. Larry Johnson deserves cheers, not jeers from Penn State fans. The longtime Nittany Lions assistant, now an Ohio State coach, is returning to Happy Valley for a Saturday night game. One fan tweeted at me, referring to LJ as “Larry Judas.” He’s not the only PSU fan that still harnesses some bitterness toward Johnson. But that really misses the mark. Johnson knew James Franklin was big on defensive line coach Sean Spencer -- he admitted as much Monday -- so Johnson simply stepped aside. This is the same man who declined a defensive coordinator position with Illinois in 2008 which would’ve reportedly doubled his salary. And who, in 2011, declined to put his name in for Maryland’s next coordinator job because he already promised Penn State’s recruiting class he’d coach them the next season. Just because a coach leaves somewhere doesn’t mean he’s “disloyal.” I’m not 100 percent certain what kind of reception he’ll receive Saturday night, but a standing ovation seems much more appropriate than any boos.

2. Purdue fans have a reason to be excited -- finally. Danny Etling was heralded as Purdue's savior before he ever took a snap last season. And when he did finally step under center for the first time, against Northern Illinois, the crowd offered him a standing ovation. Well, it turns out the quarterback to turn this Boilermakers team around might just be the lesser-known Austin Appleby. At least, he was lesser-known until a few weeks ago. In his last three starts, the Boilermakers are averaging 35.7 points a game. Before Appleby, that number was 23.8. He has some weapons on offense and, if this defense can step up, Purdue could really be a good team. Seriously. Appleby stuck with it after Etling twice beat him out for the starting job, and Appleby still has no shortage of confidence. He said last week that Purdue "could've hung 40" on Michigan State.

3. Illinois’ “Gray Ghost” uniforms deserve a thumbs-up. Maybe it’s just because I’m a sucker for history, but I really dig the uniforms the Fighting Illini plan to wear this weekend for Homecoming. It’s not necessarily how they look -- and they look fine -- but it’s the story behind them that really gets me. Ninety years ago, during Illinois’ Homecoming against Michigan, Red Grange scored four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes of the game. He ended up with six TDs as the Illini became the first team to beat Michigan in two years. After that game, famous sportswriter Grantland Rice referred to Grange as a “gray ghost.” So, that’s the idea behind Illinois’ uniforms. Wish more teams would honor history like that. Seems like fans are embracing the new design, too. The jerseys have already sold out online.

Now, on to the links ...

East Division
West Division

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 7

October, 12, 2014
Oct 12
8:00
PM CT
Michigan is back on the winning track but not quite back in the bowl projections.

Brady Hoke's team ended its three-game slide Saturday night by grinding out an 18-13 win against Penn State at Michigan Stadium. The Wolverines' defense locked down Penn State, but many of Michigan's problems remain, and three more wins still seems like a tall order.

We considered dumping Penn State from the projections as the Nittany Lions' offensive woes up front could be unfixable this season. But James Franklin's team needs only two wins to qualify for postseason play, and with games left against Indiana, Temple and Illinois, the Lions should get there.

The favorites held serve around the Big Ten in Week 7, but we have a bit of shuffling as Minnesota continues to make strides and deserves more love in the projections. It's also important to project non-repeat destinations, so Iowa moves out of the Outback Bowl (for now) and Minnesota moves up.

Melvin Gordon is a stud, but Wisconsin continues to look faulty and falls down a spot.

Big Ten newcomers Rutgers and Maryland have excellent opportunities to rise in the projections this week as they take on Ohio State and Iowa, respectively.

The winner of the Ohio State-Michigan State game on Nov. 8 will be in decent shape for College Football Playoff selection, as long as it runs the table. But for now, we have both the Buckeyes and Spartans in contract bowls.

Enough rambling. Projection time ...

Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/AT&T Cotton/Fiesta/Capital One Orange: Ohio State
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus: Nebraska
Outback: Minnesota
National University Holiday: Iowa
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Wisconsin
San Francisco: Rutgers
New Era Pinstripe: Maryland
Quick Lane: Penn State
Heart of Dallas: Northwestern

Big Ten morning links

October, 7, 2014
Oct 7
8:00
AM CT
Good morning, Big Ten fans. Grab a cup of coffee, and let’s get to Tuesday’ three points -- where we’ll be looking at a few memorable quotes ...

1. Michigan quotables: The Wolverines looked beside themselves Saturday night -- right after Rutgers pulled off the 26-24 win -- and players didn’t seem to have many answers for the media. One loss after another clearly took its toll, and a lot of the player quotes spoke to that. Here’s one of the more memorable ones, from wideout Devin Funchess: “Wins and losses, that’s just a statistic.” And then when asked if U-M needs a win against Penn State: “We’re just going to go out there and do our best. It’s not that we need something; we’re blessed to play.” Michigan is searching for answers right now ... but does that really sound like a player who expects to win on Saturday? It sure sounds as if this team is bracing itself in case another loss is in store.

2. Good in theory, not in practice?: Last March, Penn State coach James Franklin told reporters that recruiting and committing was a lot like an engagement. Here are his exact words: “I would rather a kid not to commit to us if he’s still looking around and waiting to go through the process. I think there is nothing wrong with that. If you’re not sure that’s what you want to do, keep looking around until you figure it out. But once you stand up and shake my hand and look me in the eye and say this is where you want to go, we’re engaged. There is no more dating and there is no more flirting.” Why bring that quote up now? Well, Penn State commit and ESPN 300 QB Brandon Wimbush visited Notre Dame over the weekend -- after flirting with Stanford a few months earlier. And now PSU commit and ESPN 300 DT Adam McLean said he plans to take all five of his official visits. Seems like a rocky start to the engagement ...

3. Calling out the students: It’s not every day an athletic director and head coach point to shared “disappointment and embarrassment” for a waning student section, and it’s certainly not every day those statements come from a team still alive in the national title hunt. But that’s exactly what happened at Michigan State over the weekend. Said Mark Dantonio: “We needed it to be loud there, and it’s a big football game, and it got a little empty there at the end. ... I appreciate the fans that did stay. The fans that left, that’s just not right.” Sure, it was cold and the weather was unpleasant. But this is Michigan State, not Eastern Michigan. And the opponent was Nebraska, not Jacksonville State. Tough it out, students. Personally, I was surprised. Maybe I shouldn’t have been.

Now on to the links ...

East Division
West Division

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
1:00
AM CT
Five lessons from an interesting Saturday in the Big Ten:

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook and Michigan State's offense rolled again in a win over Wyoming on Saturday.
1. Offenses surging in East Lansing and Columbus: OK, so the opposing defenses haven't exactly been stout. Still, it's hard not to notice the huge offensive numbers Michigan State and Ohio State are putting up. The Spartans scored 56 points in a win against Wyoming on Saturday, a week after posting 73 against Eastern Michigan. They're averaging 50.3 points per game for the season, which is ridiculous when you consider the state of the MSU offense a year ago. Connor Cook is in complete command of the game plan, and Jeremy Langford had his first 100-yard day of the season. "We have never exploded like this out of the gate with our offense," head coach Mark Dantonio said. Meanwhile, Ohio State has bounced back nicely after predictably struggling early with a new quarterback and revamped offensive line. The Buckeyes briefly set a school record for total yards against Cincinnati before losing 20 yards on the penultimate play; still, they finished with 710 yards and a school record 45 (!) first downs in a 50-28 victory. Quarterback J.T. Barrett, who threw for 330 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions, is growing up quickly, and Ezekiel Elliott shows signs of becoming a star tailback. That's 116 points in the past two weeks for Urban Meyer's team. The competition will improve very soon, but both teams could pull away from the pack in the East Division if their offenses build off these performances.

2. Defenses carrying Wisconsin, Iowa: Things are going the other way in Madison and Iowa City. Other than the past week's shredding of Bowling Green, Wisconsin has yet to play an impressive, full game offensively. The Badgers had only three points at halftime against South Florida before they finally got on track in the second half of a 27-10 win. But Wisconsin's defense has been stout all season. Gary Andersen's team is the only FBS squad yet to give up a red zone touchdown this season, and the defense forced two turnovers against the Bulls. Iowa fans found out Saturday that C.J. Beathard isn't going to single-handedly transform an at times frustrating offense. But the Hawkeyes' D held Purdue without an offensive touchdown and allowed only 156 total yards -- and only 82 in the final three quarters -- in a 24-10 road win. If the offenses ever get revved up, both Wisconsin and Iowa will be very dangerous. Right now, at least, both are winning with defense.

3. Minnesota and Maryland are stealth contenders: Neither the Gophers nor the Terrapins generated much buzz this preseason as possible division contenders -- understandably so, given their recent histories. But both will at the very least be factors in the race to Indianapolis. Maryland is a play or two against West Virginia from being 5-0 and has shown explosive playmaking ability on both sides of the ball. Even with quarterback C.J. Brown injured in the first half at Indiana, Randy Edsall's team kept rolling behind Caleb Rowe in an easy 37-15 win -- the Terps' second straight, double-digit road victory. Minnesota thoroughly dominated Michigan in the Big House 30-14 and -- in a refreshing change -- displayed at least some competency in the running game. With their defense and the running of David Cobb, the Gophers can make some noise in the West despite a challenging final four games (Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska, at Wisconsin). Meanwhile, Maryland could have a big say in the East as division powers Michigan State and Ohio State (next week) have to go to College Park.

4. Bill comes due for Penn State's issues: It's never been any secret the Nittany Lions had serious deficiencies on their offensive line and, consequently, in the running game. James Franklin and his staff did a great job covering those in the first four games, all Penn State wins. But it's hard to win with those weaknesses in Big Ten play, and Northwestern -- despite its own problems of late -- exploited them in a big way during Saturday's stunning 29-6 win at Beaver Stadium. Penn State ran for only 50 total yards, and Christian Hackenberg was sacked four times while being pressured all game. Hackenberg had one of the worst games of his short career, but it was unreasonable to expect him to carry the entire offense the entire season. The Nittany Lions' problems aren't easy to fix, but at least they have a bye week coming up to search for answers.

5. Ameer Abdullah deserves to be a leading Heisman contender: Nebraska's senior running back is putting together a potential season for the ages. Against Illinois, he ran for 208 yards and three touchdowns while barely playing in the second half of a 45-14 win. That's the third 200-plus yard game for Abdullah this season, and he's on pace for 2,000 yards. The Cornhuskers are the lone remaining unbeaten Big Ten team, and they wouldn't be if not for their leader. Abdullah gets a spotlight opportunity next week at Michigan State, but he deserves all the Heisman love you can throw at him right now.

Big Ten morning links

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
8:00
AM CT
An interesting dynamic has played out at Penn State and Rutgers this week.

The Scarlet Knights have said they’re approaching this as another game -- but they acknowledged it’s not just another game. The Nittany Lions have also said they’re approaching this as another game -- but because it is just another game.

“We are just as motivated in this game as were for Akron,” James Franklin said. “And we are just as motivated for this game as we were for Central Florida.”

Said Kyle Flood, regarding his players: “I want them to be excited about this game. They should be excited about this game. Games like this are the reason you play college football at a place like Rutgers.”

Flood was inundated with questions about the Nittany Lions; Franklin begged for questions about the Scarlet Knights. The only thing fans want to talk about in Piscataway, New Jersey, is Saturday’s game; the only thing fans want to talk about in Happy Valley is reduced sanctions.

Said Franklin: “I know you guys are going to ask me 55 questions that don’t have to do with Rutgers, but I would like to talk about Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers -- and then maybe a little bit more about Rutgers.”

The first question of Franklin’s weekly news conference: Can you describe the atmosphere and emotions after the NCAA’s announcement?

“Were you on the phone when we said we were going to talk about Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers and more Rutgers?” Franklin asked with a laugh.

It's worth noting that Franklin mentioned “Rutgers” so much, because Flood hasn’t said “Penn State” once. He’s decided to refer to PSU as “the team from Pennsylvania” since ... well ... at least this fall.

Even among players, the contrast has been stark.

“Everyone knows it’s a big game. In the back of our minds, it’s a big game -- but we’re going to treat it like it’s any other game on the schedule,” Rutgers wideout Leonte Carroo said. “It would be a great win for the program, a huge win for the program and for recruits and for everything.”

Penn State linebacker Brandon Bell was also asked if, as a New Jersey native, he put any added emphasis on this game -- or if he thought his team at least watched its words this week, so as not to add any bulletin-board material.

“They’re obviously going to be looking for anything to fuel them up, as they’ve been hyping up the game a lot,” Bell said. “It’s their first Big Ten game; they should be excited. But, pretty much, we’re just looking at it as another game this week.”

So, there you have it. Two seemingly different mind-sets going into this game. We’ll see which one wins out Saturday ...

Now on to the links:

East Division
  • Michigan's Brady Hoke on fan angst: "We're not really happy, either."
West Division
  • Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald calls his team's lack of toughness "an embarrassment."

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 1

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
1:00
PM CT
 
Brian Bennett, Josh Moyer, Adam Rittenberg, Mitch Sherman and Austin Ward contributed to these rankings.

Big Ten Friday mailbag

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
5:00
PM CT
Very soon, college football will occupy your weekends. Until then, here's an extra-large mailbag to help you make it through. Continue to submit questions for our team of reporters.

Mitch Sherman: Joe took issue with my analysis of Minnesota, which included some humor, in our Best case/Worst Case series. We traded a few messages on Twitter. I invited him to submit a question for the mailbag, and he did, with a well-constructed email on the Gophers. Now we're buddies, though he's not convinced me that a best-case scenario for Jerry Kill's team equates to more than nine wins. Joe notes that Minnesota, from its eight-win team a year ago, trades Michigan State, Penn State and Indiana for Ohio State, Illinois and Purdue. I see that as a wash -- 2-1 for 2-1. And though Minnesota may not be more than a slight underdog during a four-game, midseason stretch against Northwestern, Purdue, at Illinois and Iowa, I don't see it as a team with enough talent to run the table against that group. As Joe tells me, the Gophers feature veteran lines and a strong defense overall. Best case, QB Mitch Leidner and the receivers make a big jump to support a solid running game. That's a 10-win team, he says. I'm not so sure. I think the cards fell about as perfectly as possible last year. Minnesota won a pair of games by a field goal in 2013, and each of its losses by came by double digits. TCU is an upgrade in the nonconference. The Gophers have to go to Michigan again and also get Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road. Nine wins sounds pretty optimistic. But thanks, Joe, for the conversation.

Mitch Sherman: It's not good. The Wildcats, as expected, are staying optimistic about the loss of arguably their two most potent offensive weapons. Yes, Northwestern can handle this from a personnel standpoint, with capable players set to fill the shoes of Venric Mark and Christian Jones. But this is another blow to the psyche of Pat Fitzgerald's club one year after a season of disappointment followed by a distracting offseason. What happens when more adversity strikes? It threatens to send the Cats more easily into a downward spin. In the end, I think the recent developments could contribute to a season with one or two fewer victories.

Mitch Sherman: In the Big Ten East? Perhaps, though I find it premature to write off Michigan. Despite James Franklin's hot start, the Wolverines will keep up with Penn State and Michigan State in recruiting. And moderate improvement on the field would allow Brady Hoke to beat Ohio State for a fair share of the prospects over which the rival programs go head to head. Penn State needs time to prove that Franklin's early results in recruiting will elevate the program to an elite level. If you're asking about the Big Ten as a whole, the Buckeyes and Spartans stand atop the heap today, but Wisconsin and Nebraska from the West possess the infrastructure to compete long term with any program in the league. Read more from ESPN's Recruiting Nation.

Mitch Sherman: Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst granted a rare interview this week, and while he said nothing of great significance, simple statements from Bo Pelini's boss are enough to make news. I'm not sure stability is the goal of Husker football; if so, things have changed more than I realized. And Nebraska's relevance is debatable. Sure, the Huskers are relevant in Nebraska, as always, and regionally. But on a national level, I don't notice much discussion about the program, unless it involves the coach's cat. Still, it's good for Nebraska when Eichorst offers an occasional comment, if just for the sake of appearance, even if he remains guarded in his opinions.

Mitch Sherman: I sense irritation from Nate and fans of many Big Ten programs over the hype that surrounds Jabrill Peppers, Michigan's freshman defensive back. Hey, Peppers is good, and he's starting to prove it in practice. But no one in an important position at Michigan is set to award him with anything until he does it consistently on Saturdays. Peppers will get his shot first at nickelback in Greg Mattison's system, though the Wolverines are likely to try the talented rookie in many roles. 

Big Ten morning links

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
8:00
AM CT
The hyperbole hits a high point in February on signing day.

For the early enrollees, some over-the-top praise and projections of early impacts might keep going through April. Around July and media days, the optimism from coaches about their talented, athletic, mature-for-their-age freshmen usually gets a second wind.

But then reality hits when training camp arrives, and with just two weeks until the season starts, by now it's pretty easy to tell if the hype was legitimate and time to start picking out a handful of newcomers truly capable of making a splash right away this fall.

At Ohio State, the indicators were there on the opening day of camp when linebacker Raekwon McMillan and versatile offensive weapon Curtis Samuel were thrown in with the veterans instead of the rookies during split-squad workouts. A stronger suggestion arrived when they were the first two players to have their black stripes removed to be considered bonafide Buckeyes.



At Michigan State, the confirmation comes straight from the head man. When the midway point of camp arrives and Mark Dantonio is still willing to include players such as defensive tackle Malik McDowell and linebacker Chris Frey in his two-deep, it's safe to assume those two will be on the field.

The same is true elsewhere around the league, with Minnesota praising its new talent at wide receiver or Maryland tinkering with five-star lineman Damian Prince's position presumably to ease his transition to the lineup at guard. Sometimes it's not quite as obvious, with Michigan coach Brady Hoke trying to temper expectations about defensive back Jabrill Peppers -- although the occasional first-team reps that he's received according to coordinator Greg Mattison might have spilled the secret.

Sure, there's still time for the hype machine to dial back up. There are some overmatched opponents to play during the first month of the season, and more than just the surefire impact freshmen will get to see the field and raise expectations for what they are capable of providing.

But by now, coaches have typically seen enough to get a reasonably good idea of who can help their team right away. And if there are names which haven't been mentioned much lately, it's probably safe to hold off on getting to know them until next season.

East Division
  • Ohio State's planned home-and-home with North Carolina in 2017-18 has been cancelled. No money exchanged hands. Could this be an opening for a neutral-site game Urban Meyer suggested at media days might be in the works?
  • What is James Franklin Time? A look at the new work week for Penn State.
  • The linebacker unit remains unsettled for Michigan State. Details from Mike Griffith after an open practice for the Spartans.
  • A look at the captains for Rutgers this season.
  • Even Maryland's defense had to concede that the offense has been looking good in camp.
  • Indiana safeties coach Noah Joseph is still looking for more consistency from his unit.
  • Ross Douglas is on the move for Michigan again, this time moving to wide receiver.
West Division
  • There is speed to burn in the Minnesota secondary, where a former state-champion sprinter is adding depth in the defensive backfield.
  • Purdue is shaking things up at practice and keeping players on their toes.
  • Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst called the football program "stable" under Bo Pelini and talks about his priorities for the coach.
  • Wisconsin is looking to fill critical leadership roles on defense, and Gary Andersen still feels like the Badgers have something to prove.
  • Iowa safety John Lowdermilk finds himself as one of the most experienced players on the team, now charged with bringing along some younger guys and helping turn them into contributors.
  • An interesting look at potential attendance problems for Northwestern and two possible solutions in the future.
  • Illinois is keeping things light at camp, and cooling coach Tim Beckman down in the process.
And finally ...
  • Check out what Ralph Friedgen had been up to before diving back into coaching. Maybe he made the wrong choice.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

TOP 25 SCOREBOARD

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