While quarterbacks across the nation are putting up crazy numbers like pinball machines and spread offenses are letting wide receivers run wild and rack up yardage, that tradition-loving, old-school Big Ten appears downright antiquated with its continued emphasis on running backs carrying the load.
But look closer.
The evolution of offenses may not have done much to change the face of the most productive players in the conference. But when there are so many game-breakers in Big Ten backfields, there's really not much incentive to shift the focus away from them in the first place.
"This a running back-heavy league, and you need a good running back, an every-down back to get through the Big Ten," Minnesota senior David Cobb said. "And in this league, there's a good running back on every team."
The conference has never really been in short supply of rushers, but the ground game looks particularly fertile this season with so many talented tailbacks returning as the focal point on offense.
The conversation about the league's best typically revolves around Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, the top two returners in the league and the odds-on favorites to claim offensive player of the year honors while leading teams aiming for the conference title. They're also close friends who admit to some good-natured trash talk that comes from paying attention to the league's yardage leader board, but both know it might not be safe to just measure themselves against each other this fall.
Michigan State's Jeremy Langford somehow largely flew under the radar last season despite piling up more than 1,400 yards and leading the Big Ten in rushing touchdowns with 18.
Cobb will be getting no shortage of carries in Minnesota's power rushing attack, and indications out of training camp suggest he's even better than he was while gaining 1,202 yards as a junior.
Despite playing in a spread system, Indiana's Tevin Coleman offered a reminder of the importance of balancing out a passing attack with a productive rusher, with his explosiveness in averaging more than 7 yards per carry driving the point home. Josh Ferguson does the same for Illinois, complementing his 5.5 yards per carry with 50 receptions for 535 yards and 4 touchdowns as a target in the passing game. Iowa's Mark Weisman came up just short of the 1,000-yard milestone last year, but he's playing behind perhaps the best set of blockers in the conference this fall and should be poised to capitalize on those huge holes opened by left tackle Brandon Scherff and his buddies.
Even at schools with unsettled depth charts at the top there's little reason to panic. Carlos Hyde is gone at Ohio State, but it has a stable loaded with both veterans like Rod Smith and youngsters like presumptive starter Ezekiel Elliott poised to take over. Michigan struggled to move the football on the ground a year ago, but Derrick Green looks ready to live up to his billing as one of the top recruits in the 2013 class as he moves into a likely starting role.
And if all that depth makes winning the rushing crown a bit tougher this fall for Gordon or Abdullah, they certainly aren't worried about a little competition. In the Big Ten, that's long been a source of pride.
"Definitely, you can look at every team," Abdullah said. "You just go down the line, and the running back position in this league is really deep. It's going to be good competition for this year statistically. I feel like it gets overshadowed a little bit. You throw in T.J. Yeldon [at Alabama], [Georgia's Todd] Gurley, guys who play for those SEC teams or maybe the Pac-12 guys and we get overshadowed a little bit. But all we can do is show up to work every Saturday and prove our case."
Abdullah and Gordon are expected to build the strongest of them, and they may emerge as the Big Ten's best hopes for a Heisman Trophy now that Braxton Miller is out of the picture with a season-ending shoulder surgery.
But even if the Ohio State senior had been around this season, the quarterback might have had a hard time stealing some attention during what's shaping up as a callback to the league's tradition with one more Year of the Running Back.
"The Big Ten, we're known for running the ball, and when you can take pressure off the quarterback by giving the rock to the running back, that's a good feeling," Gordon said. "And we've got a lot of good running backs in the Big Ten -- it's not just me and Ameer.
"I think there are some other guys that need some praise as well. There are some good backs we have in this conference, and they'll be heard sooner or later."
There's still plenty of opportunities to make a little noise as a tailback in the Big Ten. And the league has a long list of guys ready to make some racket.
Game of the Week: Wisconsin vs. LSU
Our writers all picked LSU to beat Wisconsin, but some had a harder time with the pick than others.
Brian Bennett: Wisconsin has a real chance here at the upset. Week 1 is definitely the time to catch LSU this season, as the Tigers will be breaking in a slew of new players and have some major question marks at quarterback. Of course, you could say those same things about the Badgers, who will be counting on basically a brand-new defensive front seven, several unproven receivers and a new starting QB in Tanner McEvoy. Wisconsin's running game is the great equalizer, especially if that ground attack shortens the game and springs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement for big plays. Asking either side to play mistake free is a bit much for an opener involving so many fresh faces. In the end, LSU has more explosiveness to overcome its errors and exploit Wisconsin's, so the Tigers win by a touchdown.
Austin Ward: Openers can be sloppy enough on their own, let alone debuts with uncertainty at quarterback and the expectation that two guys will be needed to fill that critical role. Both teams have some questions under center, but it seems much more dangerous to be unsettled and unproven when taking on a loaded defense such as LSU's. Wisconsin has running backs Gordon and Clement lining up behind a veteran offensive line to provide a rushing attack to lean on, but if it becomes a one-dimensional offense against the Tigers, aggressive defensive coordinator John Chavis will turn his athletic, physical unit loose and there will be no escape in Houston.
Majority opinion: Penn State over UCF
This was the only game our writers disagreed on. Austin Ward, Mitch Sherman and Adam Rittenberg liked the Nittany Lions, while Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer took the Knights.
Josh Moyer: The Nittany Lions have too many question marks -– and too much that still needs to improve -– to be favored right now. What’s Penn State’s main weakness? The offensive line. So what’s one thing it's going to count on to offset that? The passing game. Well, Central Florida’s secondary has a chance to be elite. And overall, UCF might boast the best defense in the AAC. On the other side of the ball, the Knights may be without quarterback Blake Bortles this season, but they still have a loaded receiving corps with J.J. Worton, Rannell Hall and Breshad Perriman. Penn State's secondary, especially the corner spot opposite Jordan Lucas, could struggle against this kind of offense. PSU hangs tough but falls in the end, 28-20.
Adam Rittenberg: The oddities surrounding this game favor Penn State, which is tougher to prepare for with a new coaching staff. UCF's veteran defensive line and George O'Leary's play-calling prowess worry me, but I see PSU exploiting some matchup advantages (Jesse James vs. anybody) with a superior quarterback and hitting on some big plays. Expect improvement on Penn State's defense, which limits a UCF offense missing Bortles and Storm Johnson.
Our writers agreed on the following:
Minnesota over Eastern Illinois
Washington State over Rutgers
Michigan State over Jacksonville State
Indiana over Indiana State
Iowa over Northern Iowa
Michigan over Appalachian State
Purdue over Western Michigan
Ohio State over Navy
Illinois over Youngstown State
Maryland over James Madison
Northwestern over Cal
Nebraska over FAU
LSU over Wisconsin
Mitch Sherman: Not much else of great intrigue on the opening-week schedule, but Ohio State-Navy is worth a look, with the attention swirling around the debut of freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Midshipmen are no pushover, but the Buckeyes own enough an edge in athleticism to take care of business. Because of its strange offseason, Northwestern is interesting, even against Cal, which was dismal last year. And for entertainment value, Rutgers’ Big Ten debut Thursday night against Washington State may rank high. The Scarlet Knights need to limit the Cougars' possessions and get off the field on third down -- or watch Wazzu quarterback Connor Halliday light them up with 65 to 70 pass attempts.
That generosity is greatly appreciated, and tearing into a pair of games tonight with Minnesota and Rutgers both opening the season two days before the weekend is a gift worth treasuring.
But what about during the season? Once football is finally back and the season is in full swing, suddenly making it through just one week without any action starts to feel like an interminable wait. Would it be so bad to mix in a few Thursday nights once league play starts?
“Our program, a lot of the notoriety we’ve achieved over the last decade has been on Thursday night,” Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood said. “We’ve had some really special evenings on Thursday nights here in Piscataway, and we’ve played some great games on the road.
“You know, I try not to get involved in decisions that really are going to be the same for everybody. I think for our program here at Rutgers, Thursday night has been a really good night. But going into the future here in the Big Ten, we’re looking forward to it and playing games on Saturday afternoons. I think there’s a lot of plusses to that as well.”
The broadcast exposure on an evening with less competition can be an invaluable plus, though, and Rutgers might know that better than anybody else given their experiences before moving into the Big Ten this season. Now even in a league with a much higher profile, the program might find that kind of spotlight much harder to come by on Saturday afternoons.
The Scarlet Knights aren’t alone in that regard. Indiana might not be a huge national draw on Saturdays, but its high-scoring offense could draw a few more viewers for a Thursday night matchup with say, Maryland, which may enjoy the chance to showcase its program in front of a broader audience dying to watch a game.
There are hurdles to be sure, starting with the Big Ten’s fondness for tradition and the resistance it would surely meet from powerhouse programs like Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State who have established brands and large stadiums that don’t need unique kickoff times to help draw a crowd. But aside from exceptions early in the year like tonight for the Big Ten, in some ways it seems like the league has simply conceded a potentially marquee marketing opportunity among the power conferences to the Pac-12 (Arizona at Oregon, UCLA at Arizona State), Big 12 (Texas Tech at Oklahoma State) and ACC (Florida State at Louisville).
Maybe the Big Ten simply doesn’t need it. Truthfully, as a league it probably doesn’t since it obviously isn’t hurting financially, there haven’t been any complaints about the television ratings and it’s already adjusted for a busier Saturday schedule that now includes two extra teams by allowing for more flexibility with night kickoffs.
But for individual programs, there’s almost certainly a benefit to scheduling on an off night every once in a while. Sometimes waiting a whole week is just too much time without football, and by Thursday night, fans are ready to watch just about anybody put on the pads.
Odds are, there are a few teams in the league that would be willing to sign up for that spot.
- The battle for field position will be critical for Rutgers when it opens tonight against Washington State. Quarterback Gary Nova will have more responsibilities at the line of scrimmage under offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen.
- Mitch Leidner wants to "win for the state of Minnesota," and the quarterback's first shot at it this season comes tonight against Eastern Illinois. The Gophers are trying to find ways to fill up the student section again.
- After four long years in reserve, linebacker Mylan Hicks finally finds himself in position to contribute for Michigan State and sits atop the depth chart, bracketed with Darien Harris.
- USC transfer Ty Isaac had his medical hardship waiver denied, but that decision will be appealed by Michigan, which is still trying to get him on the field this fall.
- Penn State was greeted with a little Irish weather on the practice field, but James Franklin had no complaints.
- Maryland has depth at nose tackle, and it will play both Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo against James Madison.
- The Ohio State depth chart has "or" all over it, but Steve Miller will definitely be starting in place of the suspended Noah Spence on Saturday.
- What kind of numbers is Shane Wynn capable of posting this season as he becomes the focal point of the Indiana offense?
- Derek Landisch returned to practice for Wisconsin on Wednesday, and the senior linebacker expects to be ready for the clash with LSU this weekend.
- Iowa has a loaded stable of tailbacks at its disposal, but that still doesn't mean Kirk Ferentz is comfortable with his running game.
- Junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell is helping to ease some of the minds that were worried when Nebraska lost nickelback Charles Jackson for the season during training camp.
- Should Northwestern be worried about Cal's offense? These numbers suggest the Wildcats should be fine.
- As the opener ahead of a season that could make or break Tim Beckman's career with Illinois draws near, the coach is exuding confidence his team can "take the next stride."
- Purdue is offering free tickets to students for the opener.
- Can't wait to get to Byrd Stadium and try this bad boy. Who's hungry?
There's so much to look forward to, including the return of stars like Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun and Penn State's Christian Hackenberg. Then again, we already know what those guys can do. I'm really curious to watch some players perform either for the first time or in new roles. Here are nine players I'll really be paying close attention to in Week 1:
Tanner McEvoy, QB, Wisconsin: We saw McEvoy make a switch to safety last year and end up doing very well then, so we know he's athletic with good instincts for the game. But we've never seen him at quarterback at this level. Will the 6-foot-6 signal-caller's quickness and mobility bring a new dimension to the Badgers' offense? And can he handle LSU's defense? Will we see some option? Can't wait to find out.
J.T. Barrett, QB, and Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State: Barrett will naturally be in a white-hot spotlight as he makes his first career start in place of the injured Braxton Miller. But don't forget the Buckeyes also have to replace the ultra-productive Carlos Hyde, and Elliott gets first crack at it. He broke his wrist during fall practice but is expected to be ready against Navy.
Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland: Diggs is not a new player by any means, but he's new to the Big Ten. And he hasn't seen the field since the middle of last year, when he broke his leg. By reputation and talent, he could be the league's best receiver.
Paul James, RB, Rutgers: Another new-to-you guy here, James led the nation in rushing after a month last season before getting hurt. He's back and could see a heavy workload Thursday night against Washington State.
Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State: The subject of one of the oddest recruiting sagas you'll ever see, McDowell could prove to be well worth the headache. He won't start Friday against Jacksonville State but figures to see a lot of playing time. "Malik's had a very good camp for a freshman," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday. "He's firm inside, he doesn't get knocked off the ball ... and uses his hands really well. I think he'll be an outstanding player for us."
Wes Lunt, QB, Illinois: Can Lunt be the savior not only for Illini football but also for coach Tim Beckman's job security? That's a lot to put on a player, particularly one who hasn't seen much meaningful action since the middle of 2012. But he has the talent to be a perfect fit in Illinois' spread offense. "Just being around Wes, he's calm and collected," Beckman said. "He's been there and had an opportunity to play as a freshman at Oklahoma State. You can see an air of confidence in him."
“[Competition] is great,” Meyer said on Monday. “If you have bad players, then it’s a problem. If you have really good players and they’re just battling, battling, battling, that’s kind of normal at this time of year.”
Those battles started in March, and now they’re on the brink of spilling over into September with neither Billy Price nor Joel Hale pulling ahead at left guard or Jacoby Boren or Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay solidifying themselves as the anchor in the middle.
The Buckeyes only have one full-time starter returning on the line in the first place, and even with Taylor Decker back at tackle, he’ll be playing in a different spot after lining up on the right side last year. But there continues to be no panic from within the Ohio State camp heading into the opener despite trotting out so many new faces who will be entrusted with keeping a redshirt freshman quarterback protected as well as opening holes for a new starting running back.
“I’m not at all concerned with it because I’ve seen how everybody who has been in there has performed through practice,” Decker said. “When coach knows, he’ll know and he’ll put forth who is going to be the starters. I have no concern at all, because I know whoever is going to be in there is going to get it done.
“There’s one thing, we’re going to have to develop some cohesiveness once we know who is where. But there’s just been high energy [in practice] because there are guys competing for spots. High energy, up tempo, everybody is going hard. That’s going to help prepare us well for games.”
The first of them is finally here, but it’s still hard to tell exactly who is going to be where in front of Barrett. But no matter who winds up on the field for the Buckeyes, there’s no uncertainty about the top responsibility for staying there.
“Braxton made a lot of bad plays right with his athleticism,” Meyer said. “J.T. certainly has the ability to do that as well, maybe not as dynamic as Braxton, but everybody just has to go a little bit harder, be that much more sound and step up and protect our guy.
“They’ve stepped up very well. It’s a very good group of players, very good group of people.”
The issue for Ohio State continues to be figuring out the best way to arrange them.
"The farther from the ball you are, the better chance you have to get on the field early," Franklin said Tuesday. "That's where it really comes down to skill, speed and quickness."
Franklin is one of several Big Ten coaches who are banking on that adage being true right now. Because as Week 1 rapidly approaches, many league teams are hoping that some true freshmen and other very inexperienced players can make a major impact on their offenses.
That's a byproduct of the Big Ten losing its top seven and nine of its top 10 receivers from 2013. The youth movement is on at that position, and it's happening in earnest at some places.
Penn State is replacing record-breaking receiver Allen Robinson, who left for the NFL after his junior year. Franklin said true freshmen Saeed Blacknall and Chris Godwin will play this weekend against UCF in Ireland.
"They've done well," Franklin said. "We need those guys to have roles for us, and hopefully that grows as the season goes on. Both of them are big, physical guys, they're mature and they've handled it extremely well. And with our lack of depth at that position, we needed that."
The Nittany Lions are also hoping for contributions down the road from first-year players Daesean Hamilton and De'Andre Thompkins.
Few teams are as green at wideout as Illinois, which will break in several new receivers this weekend against Youngstown State. They include true freshmen Mike Dudek and Malik Turner and junior-college transfers Geronimo Allison and Tyrin Stone-Davis.
"I'm really happy with the guys we have now," head coach Tim Beckman said. "The game experience isn't there for them yet, but I'm really happy with the athleticism, and I'm happy with the way they have learned the game and the offensive system."
Beckman said Martize Barr, who was a junior-college transfer last season, and junior Justin Hardee have done "an outstanding job teaching [the newcomers] how to practice and play. Now, we'll see how that works on Saturday."
Wisconsin's receivers could get the biggest baptism by fire, as they take on LSU on Saturday. True freshman George Rushing will be in the mix, and head coach Gary Andersen said he "has picked up the scheme and consistently made big plays." Freshmen Krenwick Sanders and Natrell Jamerson are vying for playing time as well.
"We're going to be receiver-by-committee," Andersen said. "We're not going to be receiver-by-Jared-Abbrederis."
Hopes are high for the talent on the perimeter at Ohio State. Still, three guys who are expected to play a lot -- Jalin Marshall, Corey Smith and Michael Thomas -- have yet to see a down in the FBS. True freshman Freddy Canteen will play early and often for Michigan. Redshirt freshman Derrick Willies turned heads this spring at Iowa.
Indiana has one proven commodity in senior Shane Wynn. True freshmen Dominique Booth, J-Shun Harris and Simmie Cobbs have all worked their way into the rotation for Kevin Wilson, who's always been willing to play newbies. Ricky Jones, who barely played as a redshirt freshman last year, and former walk-on Damon Graham should also be in the Hoosiers' two deep vs. Indiana State.
"Oh, there's going to be some [mistakes]," Wilson said. "You're always concerned about it."
The time to find out if all these young receivers in the league are ready is almost here.
A quick sample and a few highlights can be found right here, and as always, there's much more coverage to follow as we hit the homestretch before the season kicks off.
Brady Hoke on starting freshman LT Mason Cole: "The one thing with Mason is that you don't notice him -- so he's not making those mistakes."— ESPN Big Ten (@ESPN_BigTen) August 26, 2014
Kyle Flood on playing WSU in Seattle: "I don't know that I could consider a West Coast trip a neutral-site game."— ESPN Big Ten (@ESPN_BigTen) August 26, 2014
Urban Meyer: "All those positives" Buckeyes saw in J.T. Barrett during his recruitment are "coming out now."— ESPN Big Ten (@ESPN_BigTen) August 26, 2014
James Franklin's first-ever word on a regular-season Big Ten teleconference: "Awesome."— ESPN Big Ten (@ESPN_BigTen) August 26, 2014
Kill on Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner: "We're going to run the football, but to get those key wins, you've gotta be able to throw it."— ESPN Big Ten (@ESPN_BigTen) August 26, 2014
Wiscy HC Gary Andersen: "We're going to be receiver-by-committee. We're not going to be receiver-by-Jared-Abbrederis."— ESPN Big Ten (@ESPN_BigTen) August 26, 2014
Miller talked with coach Urban Meyer and verified that everything went according to plan during the operation, which was performed by noted surgeon Dr. James Andrews. The senior is expected to return home Wednesday morning.
"Braxton and I talked this morning before he went in, then he had surgery, everything was good," Meyer said during the Big Ten teleconference. "They just sent me a picture of him and the doctor and his dad, and so it's very positive. All reports are there were no surprises and everything went well."
Now Miller will begin his second rehabilitation process on his throwing shoulder this year, with the latest injury suffered last week in practice officially ending his season and limiting him to a supporting role on the sideline for a team that still has playoff aspirations.
Meyer announced that Miller was voted a team captain and was the "high vote-getter" on Monday, even though he was miles away meeting with Andrews and won't be allowed to travel with the team when it takes on Navy in Baltimore on Saturday.
The coach, however, isn't ruling out the possibility of having Miller along on road trips later this season to provide leadership in the locker room as he redshirts with an eye on returning in 2015.
"He'll be one of the 70 [on the travel roster this season] if he can go," Meyer said Monday. "He won't be able to go this time, but there will be times where we'll have to make that decision."
He put this on Instagram: "Me & the best to do it , Dr. Andrews after surgery today! So happy this man said everything went well!"
Recruiting Effect of Marquee Matchups
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
7:00 PM ET Eastern Illinois Minnesota 10:00 PM ET Rutgers Washington State
8:30 AM ET Penn State UCF 12:00 PM ET Indiana State Indiana 12:00 PM ET Northern Iowa Iowa 12:00 PM ET Appalachian State Michigan 12:00 PM ET 5 Ohio State Navy 12:00 PM ET Western Michigan Purdue 12:05 PM ET Youngstown State Illinois 3:30 PM ET James Madison Maryland 3:30 PM ET Florida Atlantic 22 Nebraska 3:30 PM ET California Northwestern 9:00 PM ET 14 Wisconsin 13 LSU