Chicago Colleges: Tanner McEvoy

Big Ten viewer’s guide: Week 7

October, 10, 2014
Oct 10
10:00
AM CT
Week 7 is here, and let’s not sugarcoat it: Big Ten football has looked more interesting on other weekends. This first Saturday of the season without nonconference action lacks marquee matchups. Still, the division races will continue to take shape.

Here’s a look at the five games (all times Eastern):

Noon

Illinois (3-3) and Wisconsin (3-2), ESPN2: Will Melvin Gordon run for 300 yards? If the Badgers wanted it to happen, Illinois’ 119th-ranked rushing defense would likely comply. More of the intrigue in Madison involves the quarterbacks. For Wisconsin, Joel Stave, who returned last week against Northwestern, will see time, in addition to Tanner McEvoy, who might also take a shot at receiver. And with Illinois’ Wes Lunt out with a fractured leg, senior Reilly O’Toole and sophomore Aaron Bailey, who was set to redshirt, have competed in practice this week.

Indiana (3-2) and Iowa (4-1), ESPNU: Indiana has shown it can win on the road in tough spots, handing Missouri its lone loss on Sept. 20. The Hoosiers are more explosive on offense than any foe Iowa has faced. But Indiana still can’t defend well, in particular against proficient quarterbacks. The Hawkeyes are going back to Jake Rudock at the start, but C.J. Beathard will play. How well can Greg Davis manage this? If it’s a disaster, Indiana might just find itself in the right place at the right time for an upset bid.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cobb
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesDavid Cobb and Minnesota can take a big step in their quest for a Western Division crown by beating Northwestern on Saturday.
Northwestern (3-2) at Minnesota (4-1), BTN: Who would have guessed a month ago, as the Golden Gophers fell flat at TCU and the Wildcats sat winless, that this game would have legitimate implications for the West Division title race? It does, with NU in quest of a third straight unexpected win to open league play. Its defense led the charge against Penn State and Wisconsin. Minnesota is simply solid, led by David Cobb, statistically the league’s most valuable offensive player. Minnesota has defended the pass especially well in recent games and will test Northwestern’s Trevor Siemian, 13th in the Big Ten in QBR.

3:30 p.m.

No. 8 Michigan State (4-1) at Purdue (3-3), ESPN2: At least it’s not the best team in the Big Ten against the worst. Purdue escaped the low spot last week with a win over Illinois. And sophomore quarterback Austin Appleby looked good in the victory. Very good, in fact. Back at home, he figures to find a much more difficult situation against the Spartans, who might come in a bit angry after nearly blowing a 24-point, fourth-quarter lead against Nebraska.

7 p.m.

Penn State (4-1) at Michigan (2-4), ESPN2: The visitors from Happy Valley, after an off week, get an opportunity to show that their anemic performance against Northwestern was just a fluke. With an upcoming stretch of three challenging games, no better time exists for PSU to get healthy than at Michigan, trying to avoid its first 0-3 start in the Big Ten since 1965. Against a good Penn State front, the Wolverines must protect Devin Gardner and throw the football, neither of which they’ve done well in recent weeks.

Required reading

Big Ten morning links

October, 10, 2014
Oct 10
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 6

October, 5, 2014
Oct 5
1:00
AM CT
Five observations from Saturday in the Big Ten:

1. Michigan State and Ohio State are sharpening their teeth. So much for Nebraska as the Big Ten’s lone unbeaten. The Spartans, despite turning the ball over three times in their own territory in the first half, built a 27-3 lead through three quarters and held off a furious late Nebraska rally for a 27-22 victory. The MSU defense looked salty as ever through 45 minutes and neutralized Nebraska I-back Ameer Abdullah. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes continued their offensive resurgence. Since their Sept. 6 loss to Virginia Tech, freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett has led OSU to three straight showings of 50-plus points and more than 500 yards. On Saturday, it was 52-24 at Maryland as Barrett accumulated 338 yards of total offense. Considering the chaos that unfolded elsewhere in college football on Saturday, the Spartans and Buckeyes are moving back toward contention for the College Football Playoff. Their meeting on Nov. 8 in East Lansing is a de facto elimination game.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Alex Goodlett/Getty ImagesWith their loss to Rutgers, Brady Hoke's Wolverines fell to 0-2 in the Big Ten.
 2. Things are getting worse for Michigan coach Brady Hoke. Rutgers and quarterback Gary Nova became the latest to celebrate at the expense of the Wolverines after the Scarlet Knights beat Michigan 26-24 in Piscataway for the school’s first Big Ten win. Kemoko Turay blocked a long field goal with three minutes to play, and Nova threw for 404 yards and three scores. The big story here, though, is Michigan, which dropped to 0-2 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1967. Hoke, after this third straight loss, appears incapable of turning this around.

3. It’s time to take Northwestern seriously. Be honest: Who had given up on the Wildcats after opening losses to Cal and Northern Illinois? Coach Pat Fitzgerald got tough with his team, and it worked. Maybe all NU needed was a taste of Big Ten football. It drilled Penn State last week and capitalized on four interceptions Saturday to beat Wisconsin 20-14. Freshman safety Godwin Igwebuike collected three picks, including two in the end zone. These guys play defense, despite surrendering a career-high 259 yards to Melvin Gordon. At 2-0, Northwestern is alone atop the West Division with opportunities to take control of the division in the next two weeks at Minnesota and against Nebraska in Evanston. After Saturday, it’s as realistic as any other scenario.

4. Wisconsin has a situation at quarterback. It’s not a great one, either. Junior Joel Stave made his return at Northwestern. In difficult circumstances as the Badgers trailed 10-0, Stave competed admirably after overcoming a mental hurdle just to get back on the field. He finished 8-of-19 for 114 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. He was picked off twice late in the fourth quarter. Senior Tanner McEvoy, who did not play in the second half, finished 4-of-10 for 24 yards. So what now? Presumably, if Stave lost the job only because he was incapable of operating -- and now he’s fine -- then perhaps it’s his position. Likely, the decision is more difficult. McEvoy and Stave possess different strengths, so maybe they’ll both fit into the offense. Regardless, the Badgers need better play at QB than they received against Northwestern.

5. Austin Appleby’s time has come. The Purdue sophomore completed 15 of 20 throws for 202 yards and a score in his first career start as the Boilermakers won a Big Ten game for the first time under coach Darrell Hazell, 38-27 at Illinois. Appleby rushed seven times for 76 yards and two scores to lead a big-play attack. Where has this been for the past year and a half? It came against Illinois, yes, but any league win is cause for celebration for Purdue.
video
Northwestern's 20-14 victory continued its midseason revival and denied Wisconsin and the comeback bid of quarterback Joel Stave. Wisconsin's 2013 starting quarterback Stave made his season debut by taking over for struggling Tanner McEvoy late in the second quarter.

Stave could not lead the Badgers back from a 10-0 deficit despite 259 yards on the ground by running back Melvin Gordon.

The Wildcats got 162 rushing yards from Justin Jackson and beat a ranked team at home for the first time since 2010. They moved to 2-0 in the Big Ten after an upset win last week at Penn State.

How the game was won: Northwestern refused to give in. Even as Gordon got loose for long runs, the Wildcats did not break. Northwestern stemmed the Badgers’ best momentum with a Jimmy Hall interception in the third quarter of Stave, tipped at the line by Ifeadi Odenigbo. Miles Shuler ran a reverse for a 16-yard touchdown on the next play.

Game ball goes to: Northwestern freshman safety Godwin Igwebuike for his three interceptions. Igwebuike picked McEvoy in the end zone to end Wisconsin’s opening drive of the game, sending the Badgers into an offensive tailspin that extended for the first 30 minutes of the game. Igwebuike then intercepted Stave in the end zone with less than six minutes to play in the game and got Stave again near midfield to clinch the victory.

What it means: The West Division is even more wide open than it looked. Minnesota emerged as a contender with its win over Michigan last week. Add Northwestern -- who could have predicted its past two victories -- to the mix with Nebraska, Iowa and the Badgers.

Best play Stave pass intercepted by Hall.

video What’s next: The Wildcats (3-2) get a chance to continue their resurgence with a trip to Minnesota before coming home to meet Nebraska. The Badgers (3-2), meanwhile, return home for Illinois, an off week and Maryland, and now they have a quarterback situation. Stick with Stave, who struggled on Saturday, or go back to McEvoy, who was equally ineffective against Northwestern.

Big Ten morning links

October, 2, 2014
Oct 2
8:00
AM CT
Wake up twice more and Big Ten football is back in action. Why isn't it the weekend already?

1. Michigan Meltdown: Now the Wolverines are right back where they started, restoring Devin Gardner as the starter at quarterback and hoping for different results. Based on his disappearance from the depth chart, it's a safe bet that the injuries Shane Morris sustained Saturday forced the swap, but Brady Hoke went right back to highlighting the continued lack of communication both inside and outside Schembechler Hall right now in the press conference announcing the change. Hoke clearly hasn't learned anything from the last few days, falling right back to his policy of not discussion the health of his players at a time when transparency would almost certainly work in his benefit. Pointing out the problems Michigan has had getting players at 100 percent might actually be a useful excuse for some of the on-field issues the program has had during its 2-3 start. Maybe it's too late for that now anyway, but pulling back the curtain and trying to be a bit more open and honest could at least be a start in trying to fight back in the public-relations battle he is badly losing at the moment.

2. Undercard Bout of the Week: All the attention is focused on the prize fight under the lights between Nebraska and Michigan State, and deservedly so given the standing of those marquee teams and how important the matchup will be for the College Football Playoff selection committee. But there's a battle in the afternoon that could be just as entertaining, and what it might lack in implications for the national title, it makes up for it with intrigue in the East Division. Maryland has the athletes at wide receiver to test the Buckeyes and their suspect secondary. Ohio State is rolling offensively with J.T. Barrett at quarterback, and the Terps were gashed in their biggest test of the season against West Virginia. There could be plenty of fireworks, and the winner will establish itself as a contender in the East -- and potentially the favorite depending on what happens with the Spartans.

3. Trophy talk: The votes have been unanimous for a couple weeks now, but Ameer Abdullah's standing as the unquestioned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year at this early stage could be threatened as early as this week given the head-to-head matchup with one of his closest competitors. Obviously the Nebraska tailback isn't directly squaring off with Connor Cook on the field, but if the Michigan State quarterback puts up another impressive statistical outing, knocks off the Huskers and keeps his team in line for a potential playoff berth, Abdullah might find himself lower than the No. 1 spot next week despite his gaudy numbers. On the flip side, a road win that keeps the Huskers unbeaten with Abdullah gouging one of the most feared defenses in the nation would only solidify his push for the Heisman Trophy. Of course, there is plenty on the line for both teams, but individual honors are up for grabs on Saturday evening as well.

East Division
  • Defensive tackle Damon Knox could be returning just in time for Michigan State.
  • Brady Hoke has a "great relationship" with embattled athletic director Dave Brandon.
  • Some key players are taking it easy during Penn State's bye week.
  • Rutgers wide receiver Leonte Carroo is earning just as much praise for his blocking as he does for his catches.
  • Maryland is breaking out some special helmets for its first Big Ten home game.
  • Ohio State is looking forward to welcoming the Terps to the conference.
  • Griffin Oakes has been a threat from long range since high school, and he's already forced Indiana to update its record book.
West Division

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 5

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27
8:00
AM CT
After a banner Saturday a week ago, what does the Big Ten have planned for an encore? It can't win as many games as it did last week since conference play is set to kick off with five matchups inside the league. But there are still a handful of opportunities on the table that can bolster the Big Ten reputation -- and, in one case, a chance to right the ship after a disastrous performance last week.

The fun is set to really begin now. Here's the full rundown of the day (all times Eastern):

Noon games

South Florida (2-2) at No. 19 Wisconsin (2-1), ESPNU: The Badgers and star running back Melvin Gordon roared to life last week, and they've got a chance to continue building momentum heading into Big Ten play. If Gordon keeps up the eye-popping yards per carry he posted in the win over Bowling Green, he could be right back in the Heisman Trophy conversation after a slow start.

Tulane (1-3) at Rutgers (3-1), ESPNEWS: The Scarlet Knights have a chance to run the table outside of the Big Ten, which would be pretty useful in helping them qualify for a bowl game in their first year in the league. The loss of running back Paul James to a season-ending injury is a big blow, but he probably won't be missed against the Green Wave.

Iowa (3-1) at Purdue (2-2), BTN: The Hawkeyes might not technically have a quarterback controversy, but they were clearly energized last week when C.J. Beathard came in to relieve an injured Jake Rudock. If Rudock is healthy, Iowa might play both of them against the Boilermakers, who haven't won a conference game since the last week of the 2012 regular season.

Wyoming (3-1) at No. 9 Michigan State (2-1), ESPN2: The Cowboys have been impressive under new coach Craig Bohl, even trading a few early punches with Oregon before getting blown out. Michigan State stood toe-to-toe into the second half with the Ducks and look like the most talented team in the Big Ten, which is clearly a significant advantage over the Pokes.

Northwestern (1-2) at Penn State (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten), BTN: After struggling in a pair of losses before a bye week, the Wildcats didn't look much better in an ugly win over Western Illinois. That doesn't bode well for a trip to Penn State, which is brimming with confidence and in position to build on its fast start in the East Division.

Maryland (3-1) at Indiana (2-1), 1:30 p.m., BTN: Despite a loss for each team, both the Terrapins and Hoosiers have been pleasant surprises during the season's first month. Indiana bounced back with an impressive defensive outing to upset Missouri on the road, and that unit will be put to the test by a Maryland attack loaded with playmakers.

Mid-afternoon game

Minnesota (3-1) at Michigan (2-2), 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2 mirror: Brady Hoke's seat is warm enough as it is, but it would be scorching if the Gophers come into the Big House and leave with the Little Brown Jug. Minnesota's defense is capable of making Michigan's turnover woes worse, and no matter who plays quarterback for the Gophers, the running game is a handful.

Night games

Cincinnati (2-0) at No. 22 Ohio State (2-1), 6 p.m., BTN: The Buckeyes used their bye week to gear up for Cincinnati quarterback Gunner Kiel and his lethal receiving corps, which will provide the first real test for a revamped secondary. After already dropping one game outside of the Big Ten, Ohio State can't afford to lose a second if it's going to climb back into the playoff picture.

Illinois (3-1) at No. 21 Nebraska (4-0), 9 p.m., BTN: For whatever it's worth, the pollsters still aren't showing much love to the Huskers. But as long as they keep winning, they're going to be tough for the selection committee to ignore. Wes Lunt and a high-flying Illinois offense are entertaining to watch, and with Ameer Abdullah lining up against a suspect defense, this prime-time matchup should feature plenty of fireworks.

Required reading

Week 5 predictions

Tracking our B1G fantasy teams

Take Two: Is Michigan or Florida in better shape for a turnaround?

"Wow moments" arriving for Ohio State's Michael Thomas

Indiana defense more confident than ever

C.J. Beathard ready when the call comes

Uncertainty not an issue for Minnesota QBs

The Miracle at Michigan: 20 years later

Cincinnati knows Ohio State game is huge

Big Ten awards race tracker

B1G 1/4 season review: Bold Predictions | Surprise player | Surprise team

For Tanner McEvoy, actions louder than words

True test coming for revamped Ohio State defense

B1G running backs deserve place in Heisman race

Planning for success: Indiana

No easy fix coming for Michigan offense

Take Two: B1G's best receiving tandem

Penn State, Northwestern very far apart

Big Ten Monday mailbag

June, 23, 2014
Jun 23
5:00
PM CT
Brian's off this week, so I'm attempting three mailbags (today, Wednesday and Friday).

Wish me luck. Better yet, send me questions. And follow us on Twitter.


Aaron from Minneapolis writes: Jerry Kill and his staff have frequently said over the last few years that they want to recruit bigger, taller offensive weapons, and they seem to be following through on that. The past couple recruiting classes have included all of one receiver under 6-foot-2, a handful of 6-3 and 6-4" wideouts, and a huge 6-9" tight end. I know big wide receivers are sort of in style around the country, but Kill seems to be taking it to the extreme. Is this something other Big Ten teams are doing, or is Minnesota's big receiver strategy a bit of an outlier?

Adam Rittenberg: Aaron, the proliferation of spread offenses and their reliance on slot receivers has lowered the demand for the traditionally bigger wideout. It doesn't mean teams don't want those players, especially if they can run. Minnesota's offense has some spread elements, but it's more of a traditional set, based around the power run. The Gophers' last elite receiver, Eric Decker, was a taller guy with excellent hands and athleticism. It certainly helps to have size out wide, and Florida State showed last season how beneficial it can be with players like Kelvin Benjamin (6-foot-5). But teams generally are looking for speed first and aren't locked in to having every receiver stand taller than 6-foot-2.


Angie from Chesapeake, Virginia writes: Will Green or Smith consider transferring due to the USC running back coming on board at Michigan?

Rittenberg: Too soon to tell, Angie. The big question is: When will Ty Isaac be eligible? He wants to play immediately but might have to sit out a season. If he sits, Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith will enter the season most likely as Michigan's top two ball-carrying options. So they can distinguish themselves without any push from Isaac. Ultimately, most teams want to play at least two running backs and sometimes three. While running back transfers aren't uncommon, you don't see them as much as quarterbacks.


Jordan from Katy, Texas, writes: About Indiana, it has one of the best offenses in the Big Ten, but obviously no one outside of the state is going to notice when its defense is so horrid. How are things going under new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr? Are there signs that the defense IS improving, or is that something we just cannot know until the Hoosiers hit the field in August? Frankly, I think they need to be bowl eligible THIS year or Kevin Wilson's stock will plummet.
Rittenberg: Jordan, I'm interested to see how Knorr will fare in Bloomington. He plans to run a 3-4, which is becoming more popular in the Big Ten (Wisconsin, Maryland also use it). Indiana has upgraded its recruiting efforts on defense and needs some of those players to blossom this fall, especially in the front seven. I'm especially interested in defensive tackles Darius Latham and Ralph Green. Ultimately, this unit needs to provide concrete evidence this fall after a quarter-century of futility, but as I've always said, Indiana doesn't need a great defense to make a bowl. An adequate one will do. The offense can take care of the rest.


@BraydenHodges via Twitter: What do you think of the early point spread of the MSU-Oregon game? I understand the Spartans being an underdog but 13 points?

Rittenberg: It seems a little high, although Oregon performs extremely well at home and is capable of putting up a big number on just about anybody. Big Ten teams typically struggle in games at Pac-12 stadiums, and Autzen Stadium is one of the nation's toughest environments for a road team. But I think the oddsmakers are underestimating Michigan State's offense, which returns quarterback Connor Cook and most of its key pieces from a 13-1 team. The Spartans clearly need a big effort from their defense against Marcus Mariota and the Ducks, but Cook and his crew should be able to put up points in this game, if they avoid turnovers. Oregon definitely is the favorite, but 13 points is a lot.


Doug G. from San Antonio writes: Adam-I truly believe Joel Stave should get the nod at QB for UW. I know the accuracy needs to improve, but he certainly has proved he can play well, and I believe that three of the losses last year had nothing to do with him. Penn St. was a defensive debacle (for some reason), and Stave had us looking good against South Carolina before he was injured. I know the WR spot is a question mark, and Coach A likes to have a QB who can run, but I hope we see Stave under center against LSU to open the season. I would not mind a few "packages" per game for Tanner M., but I also thought he was progressing as a safety. What are your thoughts on this?

Rittenberg: You bring up some valid points, Doug, and it's good to see that there are some Stave supporters out there. His experience can't be overlooked, especially given how his primary competitor, Tanner McEvoy, lacks any experience at the quarterback position at the FBS level. I just wonder how much Stave can improve after losing his top wide receiver (Jared Abbrederis) and with so much uncertainty on the perimeter. McEvoy provides the mobility to get out of trouble and create plays when none appear to be there. But it might not be wise to throw him into the fire against LSU's defense in Week 1. That's a tough spot. Ultimately, we need to see Stave back to 100 percent this summer and how he performs in camp when the freshmen wide receivers are there.

Big Ten Friday mailbag

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
4:30
PM CT
I'm taking your questions for a third time this week, filling in the Friday time slot for the vacationing Rittenberg. I'll be gone myself next week, so this will be the last time I talk to you for a bit.

What do you got?

Doc from Scottsdale, Arizona, writes: What is your best case scenario for the Big Ten brand next season in regards to the Playoff? Assuming just one team gets into the Playoff, does it matter which school is there "representing" for the BIG or should just having a presence in the game be considered a victory for the league?

Brian Bennett: Best-case scenario, naturally, is winning a national title. Nothing enhances your brand quite like that. But the second part of your question is the important one, Doc. I think it's vital for the Big Ten to get a team into the Playoff this season. Conferences that don't take part in the four-team event will basically be irrelevant. I don't even think it matters if a Big Ten representative wins its semifinal as long as it is competitive (nightmare scenario: a blowout loss to the No. 2 SEC team in a semi.) Makes no difference which team from the league gets there, but the conference needs to make sure its champion is involved most years.


JR from Winchester, Virginia, writes: What signs or trends from the first few nonconference games will you be looking for that will telegraph what kind of year Nebraska will have? (Turnovers? Ability to pass the ball? Defensive line play?) Thanks.

Brian Bennett: You picked three good ones there, JR. Nebraska should have little to no trouble with its first two opponents, Florida Atlantic and McNeese State. Fresno State on the road in Week 3 could prove a bit dicier, but the Huskers should still win that game if they are a legitimate Big Ten contender. I want to see dominance, especially in the trenches and on that defensive line, in those first three games. I want to see Tommy Armstrong take care of the ball and show that he can make plays down the field. And mostly, I want to see Nebraska avoid some of the extreme mood swings and fluctuations we've witnessed in the past.

A great nonconference performance doesn't guarantee anything, because an injury or other adversity can strike any time. But it would be nice for the Huskers to avoid drama early on.


@TimShay17 via Twitter writes: The Badgers' passing game is their biggest question mark this season. Which is more of a concern: QB race or the unknowns at WR?

Brian Bennett: Good question, and I say it's the wide receivers. Joel Stave, at the very least, is a known quantity. The team won nine games with him as its starter last season, and an extra year of experience can only help him. If Tanner McEvoy beats out Stave, then it's because McEvoy is playing well in practice and offering an improvement. The receivers are still a giant question mark. It's anyone's guess who will lead this team in receiving this year after Wisconsin relied so heavily on Jared Abbrederis the past two seasons.


PurpleCatResurgence from Northbrook, Illinois, writes: Look I get it, Northwestern was sub-.500 last year, and the team still has some holes to fill, but the Cats are getting NO love in the national publications. This is almost the same team that if they get what, 5-6 plays go their way, they are a 9- or maybe even a 10-win team. They have a tough schedule this season, no doubt, but how many wins do you see this team achieving? In your view, what has to break right for this team to play in Indy this fall? Love the blog- Go Cats!

Brian Bennett: It is funny how quickly things can change. Northwestern was 4-0 and rising toward the top 15 heading into October last season. Then came the loss to Ohio State, the first of seven straight defeats, and now the Wildcats are basically off the national radar. Still, this is a team that won 10 games in 2012 and had been to five straight bowl games. As you said, Northwestern dealt with some serious bad luck in 2013, not only late in games but also with a ridiculous rash of injuries.

So Pat Fitzgerald's team could easily be one of the most improved in the Big Ten in 2014. Venric Mark is healthy again, and the offense has a solid identity behind Trevor Siemian. Plenty of talent returns on defense. The schedule is not easy, as the Wildcats drew Michigan and Penn State from the East Division and play at Notre Dame in November. On the other hand, the West does not appear to have any truly dominant teams. I definitely see the 'Cats getting back to a bowl. For them to truly contend for a division title, the offense needs to rediscover its explosiveness, and Fitzgerald will have to figure out how to get over the hump in some of those close games.


@mort_c15 via Twitter asks: Urban Meyer has said repeatedly that this year's freshmen will play will for OSU and few will redshirt. How many will, in your opinion, RS?

Brian Bennett: Meyer told me this spring, as he said often, that he made a mistake by not playing more true freshmen last season. He plans to avoid that in 2014. At the same time, he's not going to play freshmen just to play them. Barring injuries, it's safe to say that Raekwon McMillan, Johnnie Dixon, Curtis Samuel and Jalyn Holmes will play. Erick Smith could get a look at safety. Guys like Marshon Lattimore and Malik Hooker could force their way onto the field on special teams, at the very least. The more likely redshirt candidates are offensive linemen, like Kyle Trout and Brady Taylor, and quarterback Stephen Collier. Expect to see a lot of true freshmen on the field for the Buckeyes, but if a whole bunch of them are in key roles, that's probably not the best sign.


Dave from Columbus, Ohio, writes: There seems to be more time travelers here predicting how their favorite team (who has never shown the ability to win out) is going to just absolutely BEAT everyone, go undefeated and win the national championship. Yet you restrain yourself from laughing at them. Is it ever hard to do so?

Brian Bennett: I may have to hold back a chuckle or two. But that's the beauty of the preseason in college football (or any sport, really). Everybody's undefeated, and optimism abounds. Why punish that? The actual season will do that on its own.
With spring practice now in the rear-view mirror, your faithful Big Ten reporters thought it would be a good time to share some of our thoughts from the spring that was. Between us, we saw 10 of the 14 Big Ten teams in person this spring and we followed all of them as closely as possible.

So this is a chance to share our impressions and observations. We'll start today with the West Division, where Adam got an up-close look at Illinois, Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsIowa coach Kirk Ferentz has a legitimate contender for the Big Ten title.
Brian Bennett: Adam, I'm intrigued by Iowa and you went to see the Hawkeyes -- and even got into practice! Sounds like this team has a little more speed and explosiveness. How does it compare to the Iowa teams we've seen in the past, and is this a legit Big Ten contender?

Adam Rittenberg: Well, it was actually a portion of practice, but I'll take what I can get at Fort Ferentz. This is a legitimate Big Ten contender, in large part because of the schedule but also because of the team it returns. I just didn't get the sense Iowa has many major problems. AIRBHG is off torturing baby seals. The linebacker thing is worth monitoring, but Quinton Alston would have started for most teams last year. Kirk Ferentz's best teams are strong up front, and Iowa looks very solid along both lines with Brandon Scherff, Carl Davis and others.

The young wide receivers really intrigue me, especially Derrick Willies, who blew up in the spring scrimmage. Iowa hasn't had difference-makers at receiver for some time. The offense had a spike in plays last year, and coordinator Greg Davis wants to go faster and be more diverse, even incorporating backup quarterback C.J. Beathard into the mix. That intrigues me. So you've got solid line play, more weapons on offense and a cake schedule. Indianapolis-bound? It's possible.

BB: When it comes to winning Big Ten titles, Wisconsin has been far more successful than its new West brethren in the last five years. Yet the Badgers lost a whole lot of valuable seniors, especially on defense. You went to Madison. How's the revamped defense looking, and is there anyone who can catch the ball from whoever starts at QB?

AR: Fascinating team. Quarterback competitions are nothing new in Mad City, but the sheer number of questions at UW stands out. It feels like coach Gary Andersen should be going into his first year, not his second. Kenzel Doe had a nice spring at slot receiver, but Wisconsin will need help from its five incoming freshmen. The uncertainty at receiver could benefit Tanner McEvoy in the quarterback competition as Andersen wants a second rushing threat on the field (or sometimes a third when Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement play together).

I didn't get a great read on the offensive line because of injuries, but the defensive front seven will be a big story all season. So many position changes. Linebacker Derek Landisch is the leader, but who are the top playmakers? Cornerback Sojourn Shelton could be one, and the coaches really like young defensive ends Chikwe Obasih and Alec James. I really liked linebacker Leon Jacobs last summer and could see him emerging. Like Iowa, Wisconsin has a favorable schedule, but we're going to find out how good Andersen and his staff really are this season.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Siemian
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Trevor Siemian has taken charge at Northwestern.
BB: You also spent some time at Northwestern, whose spring was dominated by the union issue. With all those distractions and the many injuries this spring, did you get any sense whether the Wildcats can bounce back from last year's highly disappointing 5-7 campaign?

AR: If the team stays focused and aligned, not to mention healthy, the answer is yes. Northwestern spun the two-quarterback deal well for a while, but it's always better to have one QB and a clear identity on offense. It has that with Trevor Siemian, who looked good this spring, and a scheme that should rely more on the pass. Wide receiver is a strength as Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler shined at the slot. I'm interested to see how running back Venric Mark's role changes without Kain Colter on the field.

The defense could be the best in Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. Improved recruiting is paying off in the secondary as several redshirt freshmen, including safety Godwin Igwebuike, enter the mix. Defensive tackle is the big concern and overall D-line health, but the defense wasn't the reason Northwestern went 5-7. It should keep the team in most games.

BB: The last West team you saw was Illinois. Did anything you witnessed convince you the Illini can get to a bowl in 2014?

AR: I'm still thawing out from a frigid March night at Chicago's Gately Stadium. Illinois has a chance to sustain its momentum on offense. The line should be solid, quarterback Wes Lunt has a plus arm and Josh Ferguson is a big-time threat. Continued improvement at wide receiver is key as newcomers Geronimo Allison and Mike Dudek impressed. The defense still needs a lot of work, but T.J. Neal has helped fill Jonathan Brown's role, and linemen D.J. Smoot and DeJazz Woods stood out. Illinois needs more numbers in the front seven to firm up a run defense that really struggled last year.

BB: Overall, did anything you saw change your opinion on the West Division race? I'm pretty high on Nebraska and think their defensive front seven could be pretty special. I still think Minnesota will be a factor, but the lack of visible progress in the passing game (granted, the spring game debacle there means little in the big picture) was disappointing. For me, the jury's out on Wisconsin and Iowa is a big-time dark horse. What say you?

AR: Iowa is beyond dark-horse status. A veteran team took a big step last year and is poised to take another with a favorable schedule. Wisconsin likely will be the popular pick to win the division, but I have too many doubts right now. Nebraska is the wild card to me. Can we trust a Huskers team that will be better on defense? Minnesota might be a better team with a worse record because of its schedule. Northwestern could be a factor if it gets past the union distraction.

There's no alpha dog here. Should be a wild ride.

B1G exits spring with lot of work ahead

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
11:30
AM CT


If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.

1. "I like my team."

2. "I'm glad we don't have a game tomorrow."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesPat Fitzgerald's Wildcats had to deal with a lot off the field this spring.
College coaches have recited those phrases in spring ball for decades. The 14 men leading Big Ten programs are no exceptions. But the standard spring sentiments apply to the league more this year than most.

There are reasons to believe the Big Ten will be better this fall, but the work is far from over on most campuses. This isn't a league of finished products, and the coming months take on added importance before the 2014 season kicks off in late August.

"I don't think we're that far behind; it's just painfully obvious that we're not there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "This next phase will be the most important phase of this team's life. It's always important, but with a lot of things we've gone though, we've got to come together."

Northwestern went through a lot in the spring, mostly away from the field, as the campaign for a player union gained national media attention, especially after players were declared employees of the school in March. The team held a historic vote Friday, after Fitzgerald had expressed his opposition to unionizing. Some players expressed concern that the vote could split the team.

It will be months before we know if the union plan goes through, but the Wildcats continue preparing for a pivotal season. They found their quarterback this spring in senior Trevor Siemian and an offensive identity based around the passing game. But questions along both lines remain.

The spring also produced quarterback answers at Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner). Michigan's Devin Gardner had a rough spring game but still seems likely to retain his job. Another senior signal-caller, Rutgers' Gary Nova, is a good bet to remain atop the depth chart. Although Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong lacks Nova's or Gardner's experience, he exited spring just as he entered it: as the Huskers' top quarterback.

Indiana's platoon system of Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson frustrates some, but not coach Kevin Wilson, who has given every indication that he'll continue to use both for another season.

Other quarterback races have been reduced but not resolved. Illinois will pick between Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer who impressed for much of the spring, and veteran backup Reilly O'Toole. Coach Tim Beckman wants a resolution before two-a-day practices in August.

Purdue's Danny Etling, who started the final seven games of his freshman season, appeared to have a slight lead coming out of the spring, but coach Darrell Hazell isn't ready to declare a starter. So Austin Appleby and David Blough remain alive.

Wisconsin reduced its candidate pool from four to two as Joel Stave, who boasts 19 career starts but also a nagging throwing shoulder injury, will compete with dual-threat Tanner McEvoy in camp.

"It will be a fight," coach Gary Andersen said.

Quarterback is just one spot where Wisconsin has questions. The Badgers went through much of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. They've also revamped their defensive front seven, which returns only one starter from 2013.

[+] EnlargeRaekwon McMillan
Miller Safrit/ESPNEarly enrollee Raekwon McMillan could make an immediate impact for Ohio State's defense this fall.
Ohio State didn't have star quarterback Braxton Miller for spring ball because of shoulder surgery, but the Buckeyes focused on bolstering a defense that struggled last fall. Freshman Raekwon McMillan, an early enrollee, is pushing for the starting middle linebacker spot, and competition will continue at the cornerback spot opposite Doran Grant. Chris Ash, the Buckeyes' new co-defensive coordinator, worked to simplify the scheme this spring.

"We only have about six defensive calls," safety Tyvis Powell said after the spring game. "We had too many last year."

Offensive line remains Michigan's focal point coming out of the spring. A sloppy spring game didn't ease fears about the Wolverines' front five, although coach Brady Hoke saw positive signs in earlier practices. A critical summer awaits new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, tasked with resurrecting Michigan's run game.

At Penn State, new coach James Franklin continues to energize both players and fans. But he's also realistic about the depth challenge his team faces, particularly along the offensive line.

"When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues that you're going to have to overcome," Franklin said. "We don't."

Like Rutgers, Maryland began its Big Ten transition this spring and welcomed running back Wes Brown and wideout Marcus Leak after absences from the team. If the Terrapins finally stay healthy, they could be worth watching in a loaded East Division.

Sitting atop the division is defending Big Ten champ Michigan State. The Spartans had a relatively stress-free spring, but they must fill key spots on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where players like Taiwan Jones and Darian Hicks step in.

The returning pieces for teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin fuel optimism around the league. But in spring, optimism is always tempered by what lies ahead.

"We're improving," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday, "but we're hardly ready to play."

They won't have to for 132 days.

Until then, stay classy, Big Ten fans.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
5:00
PM CT
The Big Ten postman always rings twice (a week, at least during the offseason) ...

Rob NitLion from Morristown, N.J. writes: Brian, you made a very good argument in this morning's Take Two -- much better, I feel, than Adam. But you asked a question at the end of your argument, that while rhetorical, I figure I'd provide an answer. "Why not?" Here is why NOT. While some programs like Rutgers and Maryland are used to playing mid-week games, a majority of their fan bases are within a two-hour commuting distance of the stadium (being from Jersey, I have a decent handle on this). It's easy for most fans to leave work and still make an 8 p.m. weekday kickoff. On the other hand, for schools like Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, etc, the fan bases are much more scattered, a large portion of the season-ticket-holder base is not within an easy driving distance of the campus, so for a Thursday night game, essentially you are asking someone like me to take a four-day weekend to see a Thursday night football game. I don't think this is plausible AND considering you guys just ran articles talking about stadium attendance being down, I cannot see some of the larger programs accepting a Thursday night game on their schedule.

Brian Bennett: The arguments from both of us were similar, and you echo many of our points, Rob. The programs with super-sized stadiums really don't ever have to think about hosting a weeknight game. (I shudder at the prospect of trying to get to Pittsburgh or Philadelphia or wherever after a Thursday night game in State College, for example.) But for programs such as Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue, a weeknight game can provide plenty of good exposure. Their fan bases aren't as spread out, and their stadiums aren't nearly as large. And for some of them, filling the stadium isn't easy on a Saturday, anyway, so why not grab the extra eyeballs and attention a Thursday night game could bring?


Trevor K. from Wis., writes: Say Joel Stave or Bart Houston win Wisconsin's QB battle. Could you see the Badgers utilizing D.J. Gillins' athletic ability at wide receiver? There is a HUGE hole there, and it shouldn't be out of the question if he is really that athletic.

Brian Bennett: There is precedent here, as Tanner McEvoy bowed out of the quarterback competition early last year because of an injury and ended up starting at safety. The difference, though, is that McEvoy was a junior college transfer who had already used his redshirt year at South Carolina, so he wanted to get on the field. Gillins is a true freshman, and if he's not ready at quarterback, the coaching staff might want to redshirt him. On the flip side, though, maybe the coaches see him providing value at receiver, especially if the Badgers' young wideouts don't step up this offseason, and maybe Gillins expresses a desire to play early. There are a lot of factors at play here. I'd be really surprised if Gillins makes much of an impact at quarterback this season, simply because he's so young and Wisconsin has other experienced options.

TN Spartan from Jackson, Tenn., writes: I am excited about the new bowl lineup for this next football season. Not sure if you did this anywhere, as I have not seen it, but could you project what the last bowl season would have looked like if it had the new arrangement, and then compare it to how it actually went? Perhaps you could then comment if the W/L record would have improved, or if the matchups would have been better.

Brian Bennett: It's a little tricky to project, not knowing if you want to include the new playoff system as well. Let's just say for now that the playoff wasn't involved but that the 2014 lineup was somehow superimposed on the 2013 season.

In that case, the top of the order wouldn't look much different. Michigan State would still have gone to the Rose Bowl and Ohio State would still have made a BCS game. Then the next tier would involve the Capital One, Outback and Holiday bowls, with the Big Ten having greater input on matchups. I still think Wisconsin goes to the Cap One and Iowa makes the Outback, based on their records and how they finished the season. The debate would then have come down to whether Michigan or Nebraska should go to the Holiday, much as it did with the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Whoever didn't get picked there would fall to either the Music City or Gator Bowls, and you wonder if the league would step in to avoid placing Nebraska in that rematch with Georgia and giving the Huskers another trip to Florida.

Minnesota could then have found itself in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, which is in the third tier of picks along with the Pinstripe Bowl. The opponents wouldn't have been much different for the league at the top, but the Big Ten would have played Pac-12 teams in the Holiday and Hunger bowls. Going by 2013, that would have been Arizona State and Washington, respectively, in what would have been two tough matchups for the league.


James from Akron, Ohio, writes: With the latest position moves on defense (most notably Jake Ryan to MLB) and Greg Mattison's past experience, is there any chance that Michigan switches to a 3-4 defense this year? All of the pieces are in place to make the switch. Desmond Morgan would be the other ILB, James Ross would still be starting on the outside, while one of the current backups (Ben Gedeon/Joe Bolden/Mike McCray) would fill in the other OLB spot. Mix all of that with the fact and Michigan is thin at DT, am I crazy to think the 3-4 will make some sort of appearance this year?

Brian Bennett: It's not a crazy thought, especially because the linebacker group looks like the deepest and most talent-rich position on the Wolverines defense. Michigan hasn't really been dominant at defensive tackle since Mike Martin left town, and Mattison often ran the 3-4 while with the Baltimore Ravens. However, Michigan has run a 4-3 scheme so far under Brady Hoke, and Big Ten teams have been hesitant to go away from four down linemen very often, though Wisconsin used a 3-4 alignment often last season and had success with it. Defensive coordinators often talk about wanting to be multiple and offer different looks to the offense, so Mattison might want to at least explore the idea this spring and see how it goes. That might be the best way to get Michigan's best players on the field.


Kurt from Winter Wonderland, Ill., writes: Can we all finally acknowledge that the NU vs. "NU" rivalry has been one of the conference's best through the first three seasons of its incarnation? An underdog winning against a Top 10 Nebraska team in Lincoln, a comeback Nebraska win by one at a strong Northwestern in Ryan Field, and then a Nebraska victory on a Hail Mary last season! What will the next season bring?!

Brian Bennett: Maybe it's a budding rivalry. I also think Nebraska and Northwestern are the two most unpredictable teams on a week-to-week basis in the Big Ten, with both capable of wild swings of momentum at any time. So no wonder crazy things happen when the two get together.

Spring preview capsules: West Division

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
9:00
AM CT
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Jeff Duckworth, Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 12

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
10:00
AM CT
Lessons learned from the weekend that was in the Big Ten:

[+] EnlargeOhio State Touchdown
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsTailback Carlos Hyde rushed for 246 rushing yards and scored five touchdowns in the Buckeyes' win over Illinois.
1. Michigan State vs. Ohio State is happening, so get ready: The Big Ten championship game is not signed, sealed and delivered yet. But it would take some major chaos for that game not to feature Michigan State and Ohio State. The Spartans clinched at least a tie for the Legends Division title with their 41-28 win at Nebraska. All they need is to win one of their final two games -- at Northwestern and versus Minnesota -- or have Minnesota lose next week against Wisconsin in order to punch their ticket to Indianapolis. Coach Mark Dantonio's team has come too far to slip up two straight weeks. Ohio State needs one more win to clinch the Leaders spot in the title game because of its head-to-head win over Wisconsin, and the Buckeyes will be favored by multiple scores next week at home against Indiana. This is the matchup that the Big Ten should want -- Michigan State will be in the top 15 and possibly the edge of the top 10 if it wins out, and the Spartans' outstanding defense will test Ohio State's high-scoring offense. It hasn't been the most exciting Big Ten regular season, but things are setting up for a fantastic finish at Lucas Oil Stadium.

2. Wisconsin's defense deserves more notice: Indiana came into Saturday's game averaging 43.1 points and 527 yards. Whatever you think of the Hoosiers, their offense is legitimately explosive. Wisconsin completely defused that attack in a 51-3 win, shutting out Indiana in the first half while allowing 224 yards and a lone third-quarter field goal. The Hoosiers had scored in every quarter but three this year and hadn't been blanked in a half since September of last season. The point is that the Badgers' defense is outstanding, yet like the team as a whole, remains underrated. Everyone will notice how Wisconsin ran all over IU for 554 yards, second most in school history, but that pretty much happens every year in the Indiana game. The Badgers D is led by experienced players up front like Chris Borland, Beau Allen and Brendan Kelly and is getting terrific play from less experienced guys like Sojourn Shelton and Tanner McEvoy on the back end. Don't forget that Ohio State turned in its lowest point total of the season (31) against Dave Aranda's defense. This is a complete team, even if the the voters in the major polls still somehow fail to recognize it.

3. Don't tell Michigan this season is over: We could have understood if Michigan would have mailed in the end of Saturday's Northwestern game. The Wolverines have been beaten up by opponents and piled on by fans and critics for their lackluster offensive performances. Their Big Ten title hopes are dead, and in coach Brady Hoke's own view, that means the season is a failure already. In the rain in Evanston, they found themselves down 9-6 in the closing moments of an ugly game. But Michigan pulled off a truly incredible effort to set up Brendan Gibbons' field goal at the very end of regulation, then ground its way through a triple-overtime win. Quarterback Devin Gardner, who has been battered and bruised countless times, appropriately scored the winning touchdown and two-point conversion. The Wolverines looked in serious danger of losing out for a 6-6 campaign before Saturday's gritty comeback. While wins at Iowa and against Ohio State the next two weeks won't be easy to come by, Michigan proved that it will not fold up shop. As for Northwestern, you can't fault the effort. But the Wildcats have now lost in just about every terrible way imaginable, including twice in overtime and on a Hail Mary. It's just one of those years for coach Pat Fitzgerald's crew.

[+] EnlargeGlenn Carson
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsLinebacker Glenn Carson and the Nittany Lions gave up just 264 yards to Purdue in the win.
4. It's wait 'til next year -- again -- for Illinois and Indiana: The best thing you can say about Illinois is that it has shown a lot of fight this year -- even if that sometimes means near fisticuffs between coach Tim Beckman and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. The Illini did not give up after falling behind Ohio State 28-0 and 35-7 on Saturday, battling back to keep it a two-score game throughout most of the second half. But like the games against Penn State and Indiana, the team simply couldn't finish the job. And so any slight bowl hopes were officially extinguished for Illinois, which now owns the nation's longest conference losing streak -- and second-longest in the long history of the Big Ten -- at 20 games. If Beckman can't lead the team to a win over hapless Purdue next week, he might not get a chance to finish his job, either. Indiana entered the year with high hopes for a bowl. The Hoosiers can still technically get to six wins, but that would require a win next week in Columbus over Ohio State. If you believe that will happen, you are either incredibly optimistic or completely untethered from reality. Coach Kevin Wilson's team has made strides this season on offense and in the running game despite Saturday's showing in Madison, but the defense has failed to grow at all and has some historically inept performances this season. The Hoosiers' status won't change until that side of the ball develops any competency. So it's back to the drawing board for both programs, and they'll have all of December to rethink things.

5. Freshmen making strides at Penn State, Purdue: If you didn't watch Penn State's win over Purdue, we don't blame you. Neither team is going anywhere this season. But the game did provide some hope for the future, thanks to the play of true freshmen on both sides. Purdue quarterback Danny Etling took a step forward with the best start of his career, throwing for 223 yards and a touchdown. Both he and Penn State freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg finished with similar stat lines. And their first-year targets fared pretty well, too. DeAngelo Yancey was Purdue's leading receiver, with four catches for 83 yards, and Nittany Lions tight end Adam Breneman caught the first TD pass of his career. Both teams are looking forward for different reasons, and the play of their youngsters gave them some reasons for hope.

Big Ten lunchtime links

October, 16, 2013
10/16/13
11:00
AM CT
One more win, and it's on to the World Series.

Big Ten lunchtime links

September, 26, 2013
9/26/13
11:00
AM CT
Welcome back, Ron Swanson.

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