B1G Roundtable: Week 13 bold predictions

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
The Big Ten blog resident psychics are back this afternoon with bigger, better and more specific crystal balls and tarot cards. You have our picks for this Saturday's winners, and now a roundtable of our bold predictions.

Mitch Sherman: Melvin Gordon goes over 2,000 yards for the season during the second quarter against Iowa.

I learned from the prediction last week of colleague Adam Rittenberg that it’s not a good idea to underestimate Wisconsin’s superstar back. Gordon needs 91 yards to get to 2,000 and likely secure success for the #GordontoGotham campaign. He could reach 2,500 by the end of the season. But against the Hawkeyes, the milestone carry will arrive before halftime. (ESPN Stats & Information projects it to happen on his 11th carry, based on Gordon’s 8.6-yard average.) Iowa’s rush defense ranks 46th nationally, and it held Gordon to 62 yards last year. But as Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said of Gordon – the Gophers get him next week -- he’s “on a different planet right now.”

Austin Ward: Ohio State's defensive line pins down Tevin Coleman.

[+] EnlargeTevin Coleman
AP Photo/Darron CummingsTevin Coleman is on pace to become Indiana's all-time single-season rushing leader, but it could be tough to make it over the top on Saturday at Ohio State.
At the rate they’re going, Joey Bosa is going to have to establish some new personal goals and Michael Bennett will wind up as an all-conference performer even after a somewhat modest statistical start to the season. The two terrors up front for Ohio State have made life miserable for blockers recently, combining for 8.5 tackles for loss in the last three games to help the unit live up to some of its preseason billing as one of the nation’s best defensive lines. The Buckeyes haven’t been perfect against the rush, and Coleman has routinely made teams pay this season on the ground. But the explosive Indiana tailback is going to struggle to find room to operate on Saturday, and he will be stopped in the backfield multiple times by Bosa and Bennett.

Brian Bennett: Ohio State cracks the 60-point barrier.

Maybe this isn't that bold, as the Buckeyes are playing Indiana. But Urban Meyer's team has been ridiculously explosive at home, scoring 55 against Illinois, 56 against Rutgers, 50 vs. Cincinnati and 66 against Kent State. After two straight road games, Ohio State will enjoy its return to the Horseshoe -- and a few style points certainly can't hurt the cause. J.T. Barrett will account for five total touchdowns, break Troy Smith's passing touchdown record and enjoy the final quarter-and-a-half from the bench in this romp.

Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern wins another shootout in the Hoosier State.

My bold predictions generally have been terrible, so keep that in mind. Also, the weather in West Lafayette is supposed to be nasty. But I think Northwestern found something on offense last week at Notre Dame and could have put up way more than 40 points if its receivers could hang on to the ball. Purdue is much improved on offense and has big-play threats in the backfield with Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert. I see both teams making plays on offense and eclipsing 35 points despite the weather, but Northwestern will score a late touchdown to prevail at Ross-Ade Stadium.

Josh Moyer: Three Big Ten running backs set single-season school records.

It's been the Year of the Running Back so far this season, and this Saturday should make it a bit more memorable. David Cobb needs just 115 yards to break Minnesota's single-season record for rushing yards set by Laurence Maroney in 2005 (1,464 yards). Indiana's Coleman needs 128 yards to break Vaughn Dunbar's 1991 mark of 1,805 yards. And Wisconsin's Gordon is 201 yards shy of surpassing Ron Dayne's 2,109-yard record from 1996. At least two of those records should easily be broken Saturday, and I'm predicting that all three will go down within hours of one another. The only real reach is Gordon, who's averaging fewer than 201 yards a game -- but it's difficult to bet against a guy who just set an NCAA record with 408 rushing yards in a game.

Dan Murphy: No Big Ten back will set his school's single-season rushing record Saturday.

Josh and I are on opposite sides of the fence on this one. All three -- Cobb, Coleman and Gordon -- will almost certainly get to the top of their school's record books before the season is over, but I'm guessing the celebration will have to wait until the final week of the regular season. Cobb faces a Nebraska defense eager to redeem itself and he'll come up just shy of the 115 yards he needs. Ohio State can key on Coleman and keep him from the 128 yards he needs. And Gordon might have another big day against Iowa, but not quite 201 yards big.

Lombardi Award finalists announced

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20

HOUSTON -- Clemson's Vic Beasley, Ohio State's Joey Bosa, Washington's Hau'oli Kikaha and Arizona's Scooby Wright are finalists for the Lombardi Award for college football's best lineman or linebacker.

Beasley, a defensive end, leads the Tigers with eight sacks and 14½ tackles for losses. Also a defensive end, Bosa is fifth in the nation with 11½ sacks and has 17 tackles for losses.

Kikaha, who is a linebacker, is tied for first in the country with 16½ sacks and his 22½ tackles for losses leads the nation. Wright, who is also a linebacker, has 12 sacks and is second to Kikaha with 21 tackles for losses.

The award will be given Dec. 10 in Houston.

(Read full post)

Big Ten Show: Week 13 (2 p.m. ET)

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
Join ESPN.com Big Ten reporters Brian Bennett, Josh Moyer, Mitch Sherman and Austin Ward as they discuss the biggest matchups on the weekend slate and answer your questions.

Big Ten Week 13 predictions

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20

Why Minnesota will win: There’s no letup coming for the Blackshirts, who were historically carved up by Melvin Gordon last week and must turn right around and face the Gophers' David Cobb and another productive rushing attack, with flickering hopes of winning the West Division hanging in the balance for both teams. Ameer Abdullah doesn’t look quite back to full speed on his injured knee, and the Gophers are perhaps underrated for their defensive ability when they’re dialed in and aggressive, which could make it tough for the Huskers if the star rusher is limited again. Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner has been inconsistent this season, but this seems like a good opportunity for him to bounce back in the play-action passing game with the Huskers trying to avoid another soft performance on the ground. ... Minnesota 27, Nebraska 24 -- Austin Ward

Why Nebraska will win: Melvin Gordon had his way with the Huskers last week, but Minnesota’s David Cobb -- who’s accounted for more than 40 percent of the offense -- is a different kind of runner. Most of Gordon’s yards came with speed outside the tackles; most of Cobb’s will come from power between the tackles. Nebraska shouldn’t allow half as many big offensive plays this weekend, and the Huskers’ offense clearly has the edge here. Bo Pelini’s squad averages 8.8 more points per game, the offense gains an average of 100 more yards a game, and Ameer Abdullah is one week healthier. Minnesota won’t be able to keep up. ... Nebraska 34, Minnesota 24 -- Josh Moyer

Why Michigan wins: It's the last home game for Michigan seniors such as linebacker Jake Ryan and quarterback Devin Gardner and possibly the last for coach Brady Hoke. The Wolverines will ride their defense and limit mistakes on offense to outlast a Maryland team that has been tough to figure out week-to-week. It's a field-goal fest early on, but Michigan records a defensive touchdown in the third quarter and holds off a Terrapins rally to get bowl-eligible. ... Michigan 19, Maryland 16 -- Adam Rittenberg

Why Maryland wins: Maryland has been a puzzle this season, but my bet is Randy Edsall fits the right pieces together Saturday at Michigan. The Terps are at their best when airing out the deep ball on offense (even without Stefon Diggs). If Michigan can't get a decent pass rush in the absence of Frank Clark, C.J. Brown should have enough time to connect with his receivers on a couple bombs. Michigan's seniors will pour their hearts onto the field for a final time at the Big House, but in close games, Maryland kicker Brad Craddock has been a difference-maker for the Terps. He plays the heartbreaker role again in Ann Arbor. ... Maryland 24, Michigan 21 -- Dan Murphy

Why Northwestern will win: It's a risk picking the Wildcats here because they only seem to play well against top-20 teams. But I've got to believe Pat Fitzgerald's team built some confidence in that upset at Notre Dame, and certainly that was the best Trevor Siemian has looked all year. Purdue has some big-play ability that will give Northwestern trouble, but the Wildcats now have a realistic shot at a bowl and should play with all-out effort with that in mind. ... Northwestern 24, Purdue 21 -- Brian Bennett

Why Purdue wins: Northwestern has shown great fight in coming back from the dead twice this year. Its most remarkable achievement -- slightly ahead of the home victory over Wisconsin last month -- came Saturday with a road win at Notre Dame. But I just don’t trust the Wildcats, who are dreaming of a bowl game. Remember, this is a team that lost by 41 at Iowa three weeks ago. Purdue is playing without pressure. Sure, it has struggled down the stretch, but Austin Appleby is capable of a strong performance against a mediocre defense. If you want my real strategy in pick the Boilermakers, look no further than the calendar. Since 1947, Purdue is unbeaten in nine games on Nov. 22. ... Purdue 35, Northwestern 31 -- Josh Moyer

Unanimous decisions

Ohio State 59, Indiana 10: Shield your eyes from this one, folks. The league's best team and top offense take aim at the winless-in-conference Hoosiers at home and with a need to impress. It's going to get ugly early and stay that way.

Michigan State 42, Rutgers 21: The Scarlet Knights got bowl eligible last week but weren't terribly impressive against Indiana. Meanwhile, the Spartans regained their mojo at Maryland and should have an easy time dissecting a very leaky Scarlet Knights defense. Jeremy Langford will close out his home career in style on senior day with 175 rushing yards.

Penn State 17, Illinois 13: Odds are the Nittany Lions aren't going to blow any Big Ten opponents away because of their limited offense. But their defense has been one of the best in college football, and Anthony Zettel and Mike Hull will consume the Illini offensive line. A pick-six helps Penn State escape Champaign with win No. 7.

Wisconsin 31, Iowa 24: The Badgers won't have as easy a time running the ball as they did against Nebraska last week (historically speaking, that would be almost impossible). But Melvin Gordon isn't going to slow down now that he has a Heisman Trophy in his sights. Iowa will hang around all day, but Wisconsin's defense will make the necessary stops to pull another step closer to the West Division title.

Our records:
T-1. Mitch Sherman: 78-20 (.796)
T-1. Austin Ward: 78-20 (.796)
3. Dan Murphy: 47-14 (.787)
4. Brian Bennett: 77-21 (.786)
T-5. Adam Rittenberg: 73-25 (.745)
T-5. Josh Moyer: 73-25 (.745)

National links: Expand the playoff? 

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
The first four teams to ever make the College Football Playoff have yet to be determined. But the backlash against the committee has been so intense, people already are suggesting ways to fix the system.

ACC commissioner John Swofford spoke Wednesday at a weekly Durham (N.C.) Sports Club meeting and said eight teams would be "ideal" in a playoff format.

Big Ten morning links

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
November upside: Competitive games, division races. Downside: Dropping temperatures, snow flurries.

The Big Ten is definitely making the trade worth it.

1. Boiling down the Broyles: The guys on the field jockeying for individual awards deserve the attention, and their coaches are always quick to deflect any praise back to the players doing the work in pads. But it's time to take a minute and give a little credit to the assistants in headsets, either on the sidelines or in the booth, because the Big Ten might have the deepest pool of candidate for the coveted but often overlooked Broyles Award for the country's top assistant. The list is longer than three names in the league, of course, but Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop would all be deserving winners for the incredible work they've done this season. The guys on the defensive side of the ball have put together units that both rank in the top three in the nation in total defense, with the Badgers currently No. 1. That gives Aranda a slight edge over Shoop, but it's a tougher call against Herman, who not only has Ohio State leading the Big Ten in scoring again, but as the quarterbacks coach, is also responsible for the rapid rise of redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett. If both teams stay on track for a collision in the Big Ten title game, maybe they can settle the matter once and for all in Indianapolis.

2. B1G love: The first time could have been written off as a fluke, but the College Football Playoff selection committee proved it truly respects the depth at the top of the Big Ten this week with five teams ranked among its Top 25. It would have been easy to write off No. 25 Minnesota following a home loss or to drop Nebraska out entirely after getting crushed by Wisconsin. But just like Michigan State last week, the way the committee has reacted to losses in the conference reflects how highly it thinks of the Big Ten despite those early missteps to start the year. The Huskers and Gophers square off Saturday in what will definitely serve as an elimination game in the West Division and will probably wind up being a loser-leaves-town matchup for the committee, which would drop the Big Ten down to four teams in its poll. But considering how that compares with the ACC or Big 12, the committee still clearly isn't buying the supposed demise of the Big Ten.

3. Under-the-radar matchup: Michigan has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons essentially all season long, and this week has been no exception with the troubling off-the-field issues with defensive lineman Frank Clark and his subsequent dismissal. The Wolverines may even be in a hurry to get the year over with and move on. Even with all their problems on the field, they are in position to qualify for the postseason and go out on a high note as Brady Hoke's tenure likely draws to a close. The odds are going to be stacked against them in a major way next week against Ohio State, but the Wolverines have home-field advantage, an underrated defense and potentially no shortage of motivation with Maryland coming to the Big House -- and if the chance to earn a trip to a bowl game doesn't bring out the best in Hoke's club, there's really no reason to even consider it a possibility he could return for another year.

East Division
West Division

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

November, 19, 2014
Nov 19
It's been a little while since I dipped into the old mailbag (or more like it these days, the tweet-tote). Glad to be back. Let's see what's on your mind:
Brian Bennett: The closer you are to the fire, the hotter the flames. No doubt, in Lincoln and throughout the state of Nebraska, the reaction is louder and more over the top whenever the Huskers suffer a loss, especially one as ugly as last week's at Wisconsin. This is true anywhere, but even more so for such a passionate fan base. It's no wonder many Nebraska fans feel like the sky is falling after repeated blowout losses in the Bo Pelini.

But is the program's reputation really much better nationally? I think most observers outside the fan inner circle view the Huskers as a team that continually wins nine or 10 games under Pelini yet cannot get over the hump toward true greatness. It's a program that has plateaued at very good, and there are a lot worse places to be, for sure. Yet the championships just aren't there and don't seem to be coming soon.

I think most reasonable Huskers fans would agree with that assessment. Brian Bennett: It's a great question, and it's one we might not know the answer to until Dec. 7. A lot will come down to just how much the committee values conference championships. All along, that has been touted as an important factor, and it's one that Mississippi State will not be able to procure. TCU could be looking at a split conference title with Baylor, a team it lost to, and will not have a conference title game to improve its resume.

Meanwhile, Ohio State should glide into the Big Ten title game and could potentially play a top-10 Wisconsin team in Indianapolis. So I'm starting to feel a lot better about the Buckeyes' chances. And remember that TCU still has to go to Texas, which is starting to figure things out under Charlie Strong, and Mississippi State has to win the Egg Bowl on the road at Ole Miss. Things might just sort themselves out. Brian Bennett: If Iowa can make those two things happen, it will have a great shot at upsetting Wisconsin and keeping its Big Ten West Division title hopes alive. But can the Hawkeyes get it done?

Remember that only one team has slowed down Melvin Gordon all year long: Western Illinois, which obviously must have the best rush defense ever invented. Every Wisconsin opponent has made Gordon the focus of its game plan, yet he keeps leaving them choking on his chem trails.

I doubt Iowa will break down in its fundamentals as much as Nebraska did last week, and its two big defensive tackles -- Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat -- can help gum things up inside. But that only means it's more likely Gordon will bounce it to the outside, where he's at his most dangerous.

Some reason for hope: Gordon had only 62 yards on 17 carries last year in Iowa City, though James White did run for 132 and two scores. Of course, Iowa also has given up 219 yards to Indiana's Tevin Coleman and 155 to Pitt's James Conner this year. I don't think you stop Gordon right now so much as you try to limit his ridiculousness. Like maybe under 400 yards this time.

Alien Spartan from Novi, Michigan, writes: Brian, I can't help thinking we have the best coach in the B1G. I mean that sincerely. It doesn't matter who wins it this year. Mark Dantonio embodies the best of the best and I'm sure his legacy will speak to that. You have been closer to him than I may ever hope to be. So here's my question. How long do you think he remains head coach? Does he hang on to make the playoff? What are his goals?

Brian Bennett: I don't see Dantonio leaving East Lansing anytime soon. Athletic director Mark Hollis has done a phenomenal job of making the Spartans a family-like atmosphere where coaches like Dantonio and Tom Izzo want to be lifers. Dantonio will turn 59 next March and -- despite some earlier health issues -- appears to be in great shape. Who knows exactly how long he'll want to coach, but I get the feeling the Rose Bowl title has made him hungry for more and to get the program to the final level where it's a national title contender. His consistency has been amazing, and Michigan State fans are lucky to have him around. Brian Bennett: Northwestern would have the "hot team" thing going, as it would have won its final three games if it gets to six wins. The Wildcats would no doubt be one of the weirder bowl teams in recent memory but would have those two marquee wins you mentioned. Pat Fitzgerald's team probably wouldn't be in line for one of the top-tier bowls -- its lack of a huge fan base will always be an albatross in such things -- but would be intriguing for the lower-tier ones. And the Cats would have to hope to face a very good opponent, because that's when they somehow seems to play their best this season.
In just a couple of weeks, the Big Ten will announce its individual award winners for 2014. We've been giving you the scoop on those races all season long, and it's time again to see who leads for the top offensive and defensive honors. Plus, this week we look at the chase for the punter of the year award. Hey, punters need love, too!

Here we go:

Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year

1. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon (six first-place votes): Well, yeah. After his 408-yard performance last week, Gordon has solidified his grip here. He's on pace to do things that only one or two FBS running backs have ever done, like finish with 2,000 yards and 30 TDs.

2. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: He's coming on strong and is a bona fide Heisman contender now. In another year, Barrett would be running away with this award. If Gordon falters in the next two weeks, maybe he can sneak in.

3. Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: Speaking of "in any other year ..." Coleman is No. 2 nationally in rushing yards (1,678) and put up 307 at nearly the same time Gordon was doing his thing. Phenomenal player on a crummy team.

4. Minnesota RB David Cobb: If you still had any doubts about Cobb, he answered them with a 145-yard, three-touchdown performance against Ohio State. He should break Minnesota's single-season rushing record.

5. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: We hate to see Abdullah finish this way. He clearly wasn't himself against Wisconsin, running for just 69 yards on 18 carries. Hopefully he'll get healthier and end his illustrious career on a high note.

Also receiving votes: Michigan State WR Tony Lippett

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa (six first-place votes): Ho hum, just 1.5 sacks against Minnesota. He's got 11.5 sacks in 10 games, or more than any Big Ten player managed in either of the past two full seasons.

2. Penn State LB Mike Hull: The Nittany Lions rank third nationally in total defense, and Hull -- the Big Ten's top tackler -- is a big reason why.

3. Penn State DT Anthony Zettel: Did we mention how good Penn State's D has been? Zettel has been the anchor up front all year long. He's got 11 tackles for loss, which is a big number for an interior lineman.

T-4: Michigan LB Jake Ryan: There haven't been many bright spots for Michigan all season, but Ryan (90 tackles, 13 for loss) has been a beacon of hope.

T-4: Wisconsin LB Vince Biegel: It's hard to pick just one of the Badgers' outstanding quartet of linebackers. But Biegel might be the most versatile, and he's second in the league in TFLs with 14.

Also receiving votes: Iowa DE Drew Ott

Eddleman-Fields Punter of the Year

1. Minnesota's Peter Mortell (six first-place votes): Mortell was brilliant against Ohio State, consistently flipping field position. He leads the league with a 45.4-yard average.

2. Illinois' Justin DuVernois: He's right behind Mortell with a 44.9-yard average, including a league-best 74-yarder. Illinois also leads the Big Ten in net punting

Also receiving votes: Ohio State's Cam Johnston
You can question whether the Big Ten always competes at the same elite level as some other leagues. You can question, at times, some conference teams' all-out commitment to winning national championships in football.

But you can't question whether Big Ten head coaches are paid like the best of the best, at least at the top of the heap. USA Today has again done yeoman's work in compiling the salaries and compensation for every FBS head coach, and several Big Ten bosses remain among the most richly rewarded.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
AJ Mast/Icon SportswireMark Dantonio is the Big Ten's highest-paid coach at $5.6 million in total pay.
According to the database, the league has four of the top 10 highest-paid coaches in the FBS, though the names and rankings may surprise you a bit. Michigan State's Mark Dantonio surprisingly, checks in at No. 2 at more than $5.6 million in compensation, behind only his former boss, Alabama's Nick Saban.

It's important to note here that USA Today's methodology includes bonuses and other pay besides just salary. Dantonio received a $2 million longevity bonus that is being calculated into this list; his salary, which was bumped up after the Spartans won the Rose Bowl, is $3.64 million.

Ohio State's Urban Meyer checks in at No. 6 at just over $4.5 million, followed by Penn State's James Franklin (No. 8 overall at $4.3 million) and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz (No. 9, $4.075 million). Note that the figure for Franklin is based on a proposed financial term sheet released by the school, which declined to make Franklin's actual contract public.

Surprised not to see Michigan in the Top 10? Brady Hoke checks in at a relatively (key word) modest $2.85 million, good for only No. 30 in the FBS. Hoke ranked in the top 10 last year because of a large retention bonus he received. If the Wolverines make a coaching change and decide to land an established head coach, they could easily pay in the $3 million to $4 million range. Maybe more, if they could reel in a truly big fish like Les Miles or one of the Harbaughs.

The difference between the Big Ten and the SEC in salaries is much like the on-field rankings: depth. Twelve of the 14 SEC coaches are ranked in the Top 30 in salary and all 14 are ranked in the Top 34. Just six of the Big Ten coaches are in the top 30, which is one less than the Big 12 has. The SEC also boasts eight of the top 20 highest-paid coaches in the FBS, while half of the Big Ten's 14 coaches are ranked No. 41 or lower.

Here's how the rest of the Big Ten coaches stack up:

No. 24: Nebraska's Bo Pelini: $3.08 million
No. 39: Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald: $2.48 million
No. 41: Wisconsin's Gary Andersen: $2.29 million
No. 45: Minnesota's Jerry Kill: $2.1 million
No. 46: Purdue's Darrell Hazell: $2.09 million
No. 47: Maryland's Randy Edsall: $2.03 million
No. 52: Illinois' Tim Beckman: $1.95 million
No. 66: Indiana's Kevin Wilson: $1.3 million
No. 73: Rutgers' Kyle Flood: $987,000
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Maybe someday Ed Warinner will turn to a first-time starter on the offensive line who is so talented, prepared and unfazed by the moment that he never has to worry about going through a rough patch.

Of course, then there might be no reason for Ohio State to employ a coach for that position at all.

So instead, it will have to live with rocky debuts like the one Taylor Decker suffered through a year ago against future NFL star Khalil Mack when he was at Buffalo. He’ll have to watch three other new regulars get overwhelmed in a prime-time matchup against a unique, aggressive defensive line in a loss to Virginia Tech.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Decker
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsBehind Taylor Decker and an improving offensive line, Ohio State is leading the Big Ten in scoring.
When those games are over, though, Warinner gets to go to work and prove why he’s such a valued commodity on the No. 6 Ohio State coaching staff. And based on how far Decker came last season and the development the Buckeyes have shown again this season up front from September to November, maybe those early struggles are just simply a rite of passage young players have to endure before Warinner unlocks all their potential.

“The biggest thing is you can’t blame the players,” Warinner said. “The first thing you do is say, ‘We’re going to help you in these scenarios.’ Then secondly, any fundamental mistakes they make, you have to make sure they understand that poor fundamentals against a strong defense won’t play out very well.

“You can get their attention, because players want to be successful, they want to look good. Players are more receptive to listening and being coached and details after a loss. You tell them, ‘I’ll do a better job coaching, you do a better job playing and we’ll get through this and grow from it.’”

It’s hard to ignore how much Ohio State has grown on the offensive line since the debacle against Virginia Tech on Sept. 6, a disaster for the entire unit that can’t be blamed solely on three new first-team blockers making just the second starts of their careers against a talented, unique defense. The Hokies relentlessly dialed up pressure and seemingly met little resistance on the way to seven sacks while holding Ohio State to just 108 rushing yards.

Certainly it was asking a lot to expect the Buckeyes to instantly and seamlessly replace four seniors on the line from a year ago, including three who have started games in the NFL this season. Just in case there was any doubt about the difficulty of breaking into the rotation and succeeding right away, the only returning starter on the line could have shared his own experience about his trial-by-fire debut a year ago.

But like Decker, the Buckeyes learned from their youthful mistakes instead of continuing to make them. And once again they’ve got the highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten and have only allowed 12 sacks over the past eight games as part of a resurgence back into contention for the College Football Playoff.

“Especially on the offensive line, you’re going to have struggles before you’re a consistent player, even if you’re really talented,” Decker said. “There were guys that struggled at times in the year and kind of got down on themselves, and I know exactly what that feels like. You just have to be in their corner, but also you have to make sure they realize there is a standard around here that must be upheld.

“It’s not going to be a finished product from the start. Everything takes work, and for guys starting in their first year, they’re going to need more work to get to that finished product.”

There may still be more room to grow, and Warinner obviously isn’t backing off now just because he’s getting positive results lately and he suddenly finds himself leading a group stocked with both playing experience and confidence.

After all, until the Buckeyes can find that perfect first-time starter who only continues to play perfectly after that, he’s still got a job to do.

“I didn’t have doubts we’d improve because we have good guys who are talented and coachable,” Warinner said. “I didn’t know when it would happen, but it has started to happen here through the last three or four games. You could start to see it coming along, and we just have to keep improving. We still have areas we can improve at, but the biggest thing is consistency and confidence and the physicality.

“We want that, and it's important to us. And we’re getting that out of them.”

Perhaps it will never be something that can be tapped into right away on the offensive line. But with Warinner around, it clearly isn’t taking Ohio State long to get what it wants.

Brad Edwards and Heather Dinich look at whether or not Mississippi State will be able to hold on to the No. 4 slot in the College Football Playoffs.

National recruiting analyst Craig Haubert joins ESPN's Phil Murphy to break down updates to the ESPN class rankings for 2015 football recruiting, including top-100 commits in Columbus and Chapel Hill.

Trevor Matich explains that the core of Ohio State's success this season is its fight and ability to win the ugly and dirty battles in the trenches.

ESPN Jr. 300: What to know in the Big Ten 

November, 19, 2014
Nov 19
The ESPN Jr. 300 has been updated with new rankings, and there are a ton of Big Ten commits and targets on the list. To help break down the movement and implications, here is all you need to know about the top list and the Big Ten conference.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

It’s certainly not going to make every college football fan happy, but the CFP selection committee’s decision to rank Alabama and Oregon -- both with a loss on their résumés -- ahead of Florida State shows it's willing to consider context that was often lacking in the polls used to compute the BCS.

Based solely on record, Florida State is the obvious No. 1 team in the nation by virtue of being the last undefeated Power 5 conference team. But the committee is considering the quality of wins, the toughness of schedule, the circumstances involved in each game and a host of other metrics when parsing the cases for each team. That’s progress.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesJ.T. Barrett's transformation has sparked Ohio State's late-season run.
The committee is willing to overlook Oregon’s home loss to Arizona in a game it was favored to win by three touchdowns in part because the Ducks have surrounded that loss with quality wins over Michigan State, Stanford, UCLA and Utah, but also because of context. A host of injuries on the offensive line hurt Oregon, but the Ducks have gotten healthier, and in the five games since that loss, they've averaged 48.4 points and surrendered just eight sacks.

Essentially the committee’s ranking boils down to a simple premise that should be applauded in this new age of college football: Oregon is a better team today than it was six weeks ago, and the best teams should be the ones playing for a championship.

Where the committee’s critics have a valid point, however, is whether that same context is applied evenly.

Florida State fans wonder why Oregon gets a pass for its short-handed loss when the Seminoles don’t appear to earn many bonus points for beating Clemson without Jameis Winston or thwarting Louisville’s staunch defense without starting center Austin Barron.

It’s a reasonable point, but if the Seminoles keep winning, they’ll be in the playoff anyway. For the folks in Columbus, Ohio, however, the future isn't nearly so certain.

The cases for both Oregon and Ohio State are similar. Both teams have Heisman candidates at quarterback. Both have prolific offenses. Both are en route to a conference title. The signature win for both teams came against Michigan State. And both have a glaring loss on their record that came, in large part, because of injuries.

The difference is that Ohio State’s stumble at home to Virginia Tech in Week 2 looms large, and is the biggest reason the Buckeyes are No. 6 in the poll.

Let’s first look at those losses. Is Arizona a better loss than Virginia Tech?

Arizona is 8-2 and ranked 15th in the committee’s latest poll. Virginia Tech is 5-5 and narrowly kept its bowl chances alive with a win over Duke last week.

Look a little deeper, though, and the differences aren't nearly so stark. Aside from the win over Oregon, Arizona hasn't beaten a Power 5 team with a winning record. Its two remaining games (at Utah and vs. Arizona State) will tell us more about the Wildcats’ true worth, but they needed a late turnover from Texas-San Antonio to win on Sept. 4, escaped Nevada by just a touchdown a week later, and toppled Cal a week after that thanks to a last-second Hail Mary. Virginia Tech has played essentially as well as Arizona, but while the Wildcats have four one-score wins, the Hokies have four one-score losses.

Again, context means a lot, and in this case, the committee doesn’t seem to be applying it evenly.

But let’s look, too, at how Ohio State lost that game. J.T. Barrett was making just his second start, stepping in for injured star Braxton Miller. The offensive line was in shambles, too, and it surrendered seven sacks. Ohio State still fought back and had a chance to win, but two late turnovers swung the game.

If anything, injuries had a bigger impact on the Buckeyes’ loss than Oregon’s.

And since that loss to Virginia Tech, Ohio State has been nearly flawless. The Buckeyes are 8-0 and have won by an average of 28 points -- the top scoring margin for any Power 5 team during that span. Its opponents’ winning percentage during that time is better than that of Oregon, Florida State, Mississippi State and TCU -- teams all ranked ahead of Ohio State. It has toppled two ranked teams in Michigan State and Minnesota. It has scored 49 points or more six times.

If the goal is to put the best teams into the playoff, Ohio State’s case is sound. In fact, there may not be a team in the country playing better football right now than the Buckeyes. Barrett has gone from a deer in headlights to a Heisman candidate. The offensive line has allowed just 10 sacks in the last eight games. The defense is light-years ahead of Oregon by virtually every metric.

But if the playoffs started tomorrow, Ohio State wouldn’t even be the first team left out, and the lackluster schedule in the Big Ten -- something completely out of the Buckeyes’ control -- won't offer many opportunities to change that perception.

Instead, it will be up to the committee to continue to re-evaluate things, to keep adding context -- because if it’s good enough for Oregon, then a few other teams surely deserve a second look, too.


Can Mississippi State Hold On?
Brad Edwards and Heather Dinich look at whether or not Mississippi State will be able to hold on to the No. 4 slot in the College Football Playoffs.