Weekend recruiting wrap: Big Ten 

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
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We are in the home stretch to signing day with roughly one week to go. This past weekend was a huge part of the Big Ten's recruiting efforts, so here is a look at the most important events of the weekend.

Big Ten morning links

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
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Happy Tuesday, Big Ten fans. We hope all of you in the Northeast are staying safe amid snowmageddon.

1. Well, the Craig Kuligowski to Illinois buzz was nice while it lasted. The Missouri defensive line coach, one of the nation's most underrated assistants, opted to stay with the Tigers rather than join Illinois in what likely would have been a co-defensive coordinator role.

According to longtime Missouri beat writer Dave Matter, Illinois thought it had Coach Kool until Missouri's Gary Pinkel stepped in late and "delivered finishing move."

FINISH HIM!

Kugligowski would have been a nice boost for Illinois, especially with a defensive front that has underperformed during Tim Beckman's tenure. Kugligowski, whose Twitter handle says it all, mass-produces elite linemen, including each of the past two SEC defensive players of the year (Shane Ray and Michael Sam). He would have been a nice upgrade to Illinois' defensive staff. And it would have been nice for the Illini to swipe a top assistant from their braggin' rights rival.

But he's not the only solution for Illinois, as the Chicago Sun-Times' Steve Greenberg points out during this Twitter exchange with yours truly. Greenberg notes that Illinois wants more than a position coach for this role, and there's no guarantee Kugligowski would have succeeded in a broader role.

This remains a critical hire for Beckman, who needs a Bill Cubit-like savior for the defense before a pivotal 2015 season.

2. ACC members North Carolina and Wake Forest took an unusual but necessary step Monday and scheduled a home-and-home nonconference series for 2019 and 2021. As colleague Andrea Adelson writes, the ACC's recent expansions have limited the league's oldest rivals to just four meetings since 2004. These lengthy lulls are a major downside of bloated leagues with divisions. Iowa and Illinois went six seasons without a game until the Hawkeyes visited the Illini this past November.

The schedule-niks among you will recall how Big Ten teams explored the possibility of adding nonleague games against one another not too long ago. The introduction of a nine-game league schedule in 2016, plus divisions aligned with geography in mind, shortens the gaps between certain matchups. Still, there will be certain cross-division matchups we would like to see more often, and divisional games that we could do without every year.

Ultimately, I'd like to see leagues ditch divisions and perhaps championship games altogether (especially if it replaces them with playoff quarterfinal games). But the ACC, which opted to follow big brother SEC and stay with eight-game league schedules, could see more "non-league" matchups like Wake-UNC.

Links from around the league, plus an early Big Ten forecast from Athlon.

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West Division
1. Phil Steele, my Championship Drive podcast colleague and the guru of college football numbers, already has posted on his website the number of returning starters at every FBS school for 2015. The leader is Appalachian State with 20. The leader among Power 5 schools is Notre Dame with 19. The leader among division/conference champions is Baylor with 17. And the leader among the four playoff teams is Ohio State, the national champion, with 15 (that includes only one quarterback). The teams with the fewest returning starters? South Alabama and UTSA, each with five.

2. The Sports Business Journal reported that the NFL is discussing the addition of a wild-card playoff game on the Monday night in January that the College Football Playoff has claimed through the 2025 season. NFL playoff expansion is not a done deal, but the idea that the league would horn in on the college game’s biggest night is appalling. The NBA doesn’t play on Final Four Monday unless forced to. The Portland-Brooklyn game, postponed Monday night because of the blizzard, will be played April 6, Final Four Monday, at 7 p.m. That means it will end as the college championship tips off. Does anyone seriously think the NFL would play a wild-card game at 5 p.m. on a Monday night in January? Me neither.

3. Vince Dooley retired as Georgia head coach in 1988 and as athletic director of the Dawgs in 2004. But that’s not to say that Dooley, 82, has retired. In the Fall 2014 edition of The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Dooley wrote a history of football on the Athens campus during World War II. Not only did the 1942 Bulldogs win a share of the national championship, but they shared the campus with the U.S. Navy Pre-Flight “Skycrackers,” one of five such teams established across the country during the war. The Skycrackers included a few professional players, and an assistant coach, 28-year-old Paul “Bear” Bryant, who would go on to bigger and better things, too.

CFP Firm On Dates

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
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Brett McMurphy discusses the resistance from College Football Playoff officials to alter the dates of future matchups.

More breakout players to watch in 2015 

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
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On Friday, we rolled out the top 10 breakout players to watch in 2015. But we have 15 more, including two more Big 12 quarterbacks (for a total of four), the next great defender at Michigan State and, like our No. 1 breakout choice, USC’s Adoree Jackson, a return game ace.

Check out the first 10 players, then read about the next 15:

11. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma QB
Trevor Knight was a buzzy Heisman candidate last spring, yet rival coaches were talking about whether Mayfield, if he were eligible in 2014, would overtake him. It was made moot because the Texas Tech transfer didn’t get his waiver to play, but Knight’s up-and-down season has certainly opened the door for competition.

With an Air Raid-based offensive coordinator in Lincoln Riley coming in, Mayfield is perfectly suited to take over -- and flourish -- as QB1 in Norman.


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As we inch toward spring practice, we're examining a potential problem position for each Big Ten team and what needs to get fixed in the coming months. These positions could be going through major personnel changes or simply need an upgrade in performance from the existing players or the incoming recruits/transfers.

First up, Ohio State. Believe it or not, the Buckeyes could improve at certain positions despite a national championship and what seems like a stronger roster returning.

Position to improve: Linebacker

Why linebacker was a problem in 2014: Problem is a strong word. Ohio State's linebackers didn't play poorly last season and stepped up during the championship run. But the Buckeyes were loaded up front and much improved in the back end, which made linebacker somewhat of a weak link. The Buckeyes surrendered 170 or more rush yards in five games and endured a three-game stretch in Big Ten play where they allowed 677 rush yards and nine touchdowns.

How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Ohio State returns young talent at linebacker to complement a solid veteran in Joshua Perry. Darron Lee developed into a star toward the end of his redshirt freshman season, finishing second on the team in tackles for loss (16.5) and sacks (7.5) and leading the team in fumbles recovered (3). Raekwon McMillan is an immense talent who should blossom as a true sophomore. The Buckeyes will look for more from Cam Williams and Chris Worley in 2015.

How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): Justin Hilliard is rated as the nation's No. 1 outside linebacker prospect by ESPN RecruitingNation and could make an early impact on the weak side. Jerome Baker, another ESPN 300 prospect and the nation's No. 7 outside linebacker, provides another option. Nick Conner could work his way onto the field at middle linebacker.

Early 2015 outlook: Lee's emergence late in the 2014 season gives Ohio State two solid options on the outside with Perry, who led the team with 124 tackles as a junior. If McMillan solidifies the middle, the Buckeyes should be fine with their starters. The key will be building depth with players like Williams, who can play in the middle or the outside, and possibly incoming freshmen like Hilliard.
In the 100 days leading up to signing day 2015, RecruitingNation will be looking back at our ESPN recruiting rankings from 2006 to the present and counting down the best player of the past 10 years at each ranking position, No. 100 to No. 1.

Golden Tate, No. 11 in 2007 class

Tate came out of John Paul II in Hendersonville, Tennessee, as a gifted athlete who projected to wide receiver, but he didn’t receive the gaudy number of offers as many other Top-10 level prospects. With that said, he committed to Notre Dame over Alabama, South Carolina and Ole Miss in December of 2006 in a recruitment that was expected to go the way of the Fighting Irish as long as he made the SAT/ACT test score needed. Tate was a member of the Notre Dame 2007 class that included Jimmy Clausen, Harrison Smith, Armando Allen, and others.

Tate was a role player as a freshman for the Fighting Irish. He saw action in 12 games, making two starts. He had six receptions for 131 yards, and returned 15 kickoffs for a 21.7-yard average.

As a sophomore in 2008, Tate became one of college football’s most dangerous receivers. In 13 starts for the Fighting Irish, he caught 58 passes for 1,080 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also finished the season with 1,754 all-purpose yards and 11 total touchdowns.

Tate’s junior season would be his best in South Bend. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound playmaker had 93 catches for 1,496 yards and 15 TDs, rushed for 186 yards and two scores, and returned a punt for a TD. He totaled 1,915 all-purpose yards and 18 TDs, earning First-team All-America honors and winning the Biletnikoff Award.

Tate decided to forgo his final year of eligibility and enter the 2010 NFL draft. He was selected in the second round (No. 60 overall) by the Seattle Seahawks. He was selected to the 2015 NFL Pro Bowl.

Honorable mention: Jeff Luc, No. 11 in 2010 class. Luc signed with Florida State and played sparingly for two seasons before transferring to Cincinnati. He had 134 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 2014 as a senior, placing him on the map of NFL teams headed into the 2015 NFL draft. Eli Apple, No. 11 in 2013 class, and Jalen Tabor No. 11 in 2014 class. Both cornerbacks have the look of future NFL draft prospects at Ohio State and Florida, respectively.

Big Ten morning links

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
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Good morning. Only 24 days until pitchers and catchers report. But we get you caught up on Big Ten news reports every day ...

1. It has been the year of the Big Ten running back, so was it any surprise that two of them shined in Saturday's Senior Bowl?

Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah won game MVP honors while leading the North to victory. Abdullah had 73 rushing yards and added another 40 receiving yards while showing NFL teams that the only measurable that matters with him is the size of his heart. I still wish Abdullah would have stayed healthy all season, because I think he could have joined Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman by making a run at 2,000 yards.

Minnesota's David Cobb was another Big Ten back who had a special season, and he produced 69 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries at the Senior Bowl. Cobb may not have the breakaway speed of other NFL running back hopefuls, but he is one tough dude to tackle.

Of course, the Senior Bowl is as much about the practices as it is the game itself. Our Todd McShay says Iowa defensive tackle Carl Davis is among 10 players who helped themselves the most in Mobile. Davis was named the outstanding practice player of the week by Senior Bowl officials. He could have solidified his spot as a first-rounder.

Other Big Ten alumni who gained notice at the Senior Bowl included a pair of tackles in Wisconsin's Rob Havenstein and Penn State's Donovan Smith.

2. How cool was Ohio State's national championship celebration on Saturday morning? I also love that the Buckeyes held the event during a key recruiting weekend. What prospect wouldn't be excited about seeing 45,000 fans turn out to the Horseshoe or be impressed by the national championship trophies on display?

Urban Meyer is already one of the greatest closers ever on the recruiting trail, and now he's got even more to sell. Ohio State picked up two players for their future classes on Sunday, including a blue-chip tight end.

3. Of course, the big "news" from Columbus during the celebration was Braxton Miller telling the fans "we've got another more year to do it [again]." That was hardly a definitive answer on the senior quarterback's future, and he was unlikely to announce a transfer in that atmosphere. But it is the most we've heard yet from Miller himself about his plans.

What Saturday might have shown Miller is that while he could transfer somewhere else and start right away next season, he'll probably never be as loved as he is by his home-state fans. Perhaps all of Meyer's talk about the unselfishness on this year's Buckeyes -- including the great story about walk-on Nik Sarac declining a scholarship so a player more in need could take it -- will convince Miller to come back and sacrifice some playing time or even change positions to make another championship run.

Who knows, really? The tug of home and the Buckeyes will be strong on Miller. But this saga is far from over.

Elsewhere in Big Ten country ...

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If you're looking for the best bet to unseat Alabama’s run of consecutive No. 1-ranked classes, Ohio State's 2016 class could be a strong bet. The Buckeyes already had three ESPN Junior 300 verbals, led by No. 1-ranked running back Kareem Walker, and have now added another in tight end Jake Hausmann.


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Best of the visits: Big Ten

January, 25, 2015
Jan 25
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It was a huge recruiting visit weekend in the Big Ten, as eight commitments had taken place in the conference by Sunday morning. With a little more than a week left until signing day (Feb. 4), programs have put their recruiting efforts into overdrive to try to close out their classes strong.

These visits were crucial to help get some of those big targets to make final decisions, so here's a look at some of the best social posts from those recruiting visits.

PENN STATE:

The Nittany Lions had a ton of visitors on campus, mostly comprised of current commitments. Offensive line commit Steven Gonzalez took a picture with all the visitors and his future offensive line coach, Herb Hand.


The Penn State coaches did land a commitment from one of their visitors in defensive tackle Robert Windsor on Sunday morning. The staff had a few uncommitted prospects on hand, including defensive end Shareef Miller.

MICHIGAN:

The Michigan staff was hoping this weekend would produce a few commitments, and it did just that. The Wolverines had six 2015 commitments prior to the weekend but ended up flipping former Texas quarterback commit Zach Gentry during the Michigan basketball game.


Gentry is an ESPN 300 prospect and the No. 9-ranked pocket passer in the 2015 class. He joins fellow quarterback commit Alex Malzone in Michigan’s class and will help bolster much-needed competition at the position.

Florida defensive end Reuben Jones also committed to the Wolverines on his visit and happens to fill another need on the depth chart.


The Wolverines are still hoping the weekend produces a few more commitments from some of the visitors, including defensive back Chris Williamson.

ILLINOIS:

Illinois had some big visitors on campus, including defensive tackle Jamal Milan and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Both prospects would be huge additions to the class, so it was only the finest ice sculptures and cake that came out for the visitors.

MARYLAND:

The Terps have been on a nice streak of landing commitments, and the coaches continued that this weekend by getting 2016 wide receiver D.J. Turner.

OHIO STATE:

The Buckeyes had an excellent weekend for big visitors, as the visit weekend coincided with the national championship celebration. It gave the recruits a chance to see all the trophies Ohio State won this season while seeing what else the Buckeyes have to offer.

Danny Clark, a 2017 quarterback commit for Ohio State, was on campus doing some recruiting for his future team.


The coaches were doing a ton of recruiting themselves, especially with the 2015 official visitors. Wide receiver K.J. Hill showed off the cookie cake he received on his visit.


Since the 2015 class only has a few pieces left to fill, Ohio State also had a junior day of sorts with some of the top 2016 targets on campus. ESPN Junior 300 receiver Austin Mack stopped to take a selfie with the head man himself on the trip.

INDIANA:

If you haven’t noticed that cookie cakes and desserts are a common theme of recruiting, then here's another reminder. Hoosiers quarterback commit Austin King tweeted a picture of his cookie cake on his visit to Indiana.

WISCONSIN:

The Badgers had a successful weekend of their own by landing two big commitments. The first was defensive tackle Kraig Howe from Ohio, who tweeted his announcement.


The second was 2015 running back Bradrick Shaw, who also took to Twitter to announce his decision.



Howe fills a need for the Badgers and Shaw gives Wisconsin three running back commits ranked as four-star prospects between the 2015 and 2016 classes. The Wisconsin staff is reloading at running back to continue the excellent tradition at the position.

MICHIGAN STATE:

The Spartans didn’t have a ton of big-name visitors on campus this weekend, but the coaches were hosting a very important target for the 2015 class. ESPN 300 linebacker Quart’e Sapp took his visit to Michigan State and took to Twitter to show off his time on the trip.


Sapp would be a huge get for the Spartans, who find themselves in his top four along with Miami, Missouri and Tennessee.

NEBRASKA:

Nebraska’s new staff has hit a groove in recruiting and hosted a big visitor list this weekend, including plenty of the Cornhuskers’ commitments. Offensive lineman Christian Gaylord shared a picture of some of the offensive linemen on the visit in uniform.


Linebacker Tyrin Ferguson also took to Twitter to show his time in Lincoln.


The staff did also have a few targets on campus who were not committed to Nebraska, including Kansas State commit Mohammed Barry.

Nebraska was also hosting a few commitments it is trying to hang onto and convince to stay on board come signing day. That included defensive lineman Daishon Neal, who became that much more important with the decommitment of Reuben Jones.

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More than 40,000 Buckeyes fans gathered inside Ohio Stadium to celebrate Ohio State's national championship.

Buckeyes celebrate at Ohio Stadium

January, 24, 2015
Jan 24
6:17
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- After leading Ohio State to a national championship, Joey Bosa had one question for the 45,000 fans who crowded into Ohio Stadium in late January.

"How are you guys out here right now? It's freezing," he said from a makeshift stage erected on the south end of the field.

Buckeyes fans were on their feet as coach Urban Meyer and the team emerged from the southeast tunnel obscured by fog and flanked by flames. Onstage, local politicians delivered speeches and players danced and joked with each other while chants of "O-H! I-O!" rang out throughout the stadium and several highlight videos from the Buckeyes' 14-1 season played on the scoreboard.

As he took the podium to address the crowd, coach Urban Meyer said he initially wanted to move the event indoors to Value City Area until athletic director Gene Smith challenged him.

"Gene Smith says, 'You don't realize, these Buckeye fans are nuts,'" Meyer said. "You are nuts, and from the bottom of our heart thank you for being here."

The university awarded 2,500 free passes allowing fans to watch from the field. More than an hour before the event got underway, they lined a barrier on the 45-yard line as children did somersaults and threw footballs in the north end zone and Brutus Buckeye high-fived those at the front.

Associated Press regional director Eva Parziale presented the AP national championship trophy to Meyer, who also accepted championship trophies from the College Football Playoff and the American Football Coaches Association. Flames and fireworks went off as Meyer gathered in the first college football playoff trophy.


(Read full post)


We've been counting down the top 25 players from the 2014 Big Ten season all week, and now we have reached the summit.

Like Chris Rock, we're ready to deliver a top 5. These are the best of the best from the year that was.

No. 1: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin

This one was pretty easy. Gordon won the Doak Walker Award, was the Big Ten's offensive player of the year and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. He amassed 2,587 rushing yards -- second most ever by an FBS player, behind only Barry Sanders -- and 32 total touchdowns while picking up 7.5 yards per carry. We'll never forget his epic 408-yard performance in just three quarters on Nov. 15 against Nebraska, even if that single-game record stood for only one week. It was the year of the running back in the Big Ten, and Gordon was the king of the class.

No. 2: Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State

The Big Ten's defensive player of the year, Bosa led the league with 13.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss while also forcing four fumbles. He could change or even win games with his pass-rushing prowess, as he showed in overtime at Penn State. He was a finalist for the Bednarik and Ted Hendricks awards and the Lombardi Trophy, and he's a good bet to win a major award as a junior in 2015. How does he combine so much speed, power and personality in one package?

No. 3: Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana

If the Hoosiers had been a better team, or if Coleman had more help from his passing game, then perhaps his 2014 season would be discussed in the same kinds of hushed tones we reserve for Gordon. Make no mistake, though: Coleman's season was also one for the ages, as he ran for a school-record 2,036 yards (in two fewer games than Gordon) and averaged 7.5 yards per carry (the same as Gordon). He had five games of at least 190 yards rushing, including a 228-yard, three-touchdown tour de force at Ohio State late in the year.

No. 4: J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State

How would Barrett's 2014 campaign have looked if he hadn't broken his ankle against Michigan in the season finale? Would the Buckeyes still have won the national title? It's a great debate. But what can't be argued is how remarkable Barrett's year was. Thrust into the starting job after Braxton Miller's shoulder injury in late August, the redshirt freshman broke just about every school record and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. He accounted for 45 total touchdowns, led the Big Ten in total offense and pass efficiency, and rode the most famous scooter in Ohio State postseason history.

No. 5: Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State

The Cotton Bowl win over Baylor summed up Cook in a nutshell. After a terrible interception and a couple of errant throws through the end zone, he calmly delivered the game-winning, 10-yard strike with 17 seconds left. Cook isn't always perfect, but there are few quarterbacks you'd take ahead of him with the game on the line. He threw for 3,214 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2014, and the Spartans couldn't be happier that he will return as a senior to lead this fall.
They didn't sneak up on us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let's take a quick look back:

Act 1: Fear Ameer

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

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

Act 2: Melvin makes his move

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

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

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

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

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

Act 4: What about the other guys?

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

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

Act 5: Gordon's Heisman move

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

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

Act 6: Riding the E Train to a championship

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

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

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

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