Roundtable: Favorite B1G moment

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
2:30
PM ET
Every day this week, before the bowl season kicks off, our Big Ten panel of experts weighed in on different topics related to the regular season.

Our final question of the week: What was your favorite Big Ten moment of the season?

Brian Bennett: Take a bow, Melvin

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
AP Photo/Morry GashNeither sleet nor snow could stop Melvin Gordon against Nebraska.
If there's one moment that I'll forever remember from the 2014 Big Ten season, it happened at Camp Randall Stadium on Nov. 15. That was the day Melvin Gordon went off the hinges, running for a then-record 408 yards vs. Nebraska. He averaged a ludicrous 16.3 yards per carry and scored four touchdowns in the most unstoppable individual performance you're ever likely to see. Best of all, Gordon capped his day with a 26-yard touchdown run that gave him the record on the final play of the third quarter. Snow had begun to fall, and Gordon sealed the record with a little bow in the back of the end zone. His record somehow lasted only one week, but the memories will persevere forever.

Josh Moyer: Penn State fans celebrating the end of the postseason ban

It wasn’t the most important Big Ten moment of the 2014 season, but it’s still one I’ve never quite seen before – and probably never will again. After the NCAA announced the elimination of the bowl ban, along with other sanction reductions, PSU fans spilled into the streets of downtown Happy Valley and celebrated as if they just knocked off the top team in the nation. Two years of anger and frustration gave way to unbridled joy. Thousands sprinted to different venues on campus and just chanted, screamed and sang. Some even crowd-surfed on mattresses at the last stop. I’ve seen big fan celebrations before, but never for something that happened off the field. It was quite a sight.

Mitch Sherman: Mark Dantonio's answer to the Michigan disrespect

The seeds were planted long before Oct. 25, but when Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden drove a stake into the turf at Spartan Stadium, Michigan State reached its boiling point. It's rare that we get to see the reserved Dantonio stick out his chest, but the Spartans punctuated a 35-11 win over U-M with a Jeremy Langford touchdown run in the final 30 seconds. That was a message in response not just to the pregame stake-planting but years of disrespect. "I felt like we needed to put a stake in them at that point," Dantonio said after the game, also referencing the "little brother stuff" that has long brewed in this series. It was a great subplot, of which Michigan coach Brady Hoke, fittingly, was "not fully aware."

Austin Ward: Anthony Schlegel's takedown of a fan on the field

Leaving the stands and running on the field is pointless, dumb and dangerous right from the start. In case anybody had overlooked that last part, Ohio State assistant and former linebacker Anthony Schlegel offered a reminder that would have made The Rock proud. After a student had the bright idea to step on the turf at the Horseshoe during a September game against Cincinnati, he compounded it by getting a bit too close to the Ohio State sideline, where Schlegel popped out to plant him in the ground with an unforgettable body slam. The lesson, as always, is to stay in the seats.

Dan Murphy: Michigan-Ohio State moment of sportsmanship

Maybe it's all this Christmas music that has me feeling sappy, but the moment that keeps coming to mind (other than Melvin Gordon's insane performance against Nebraska) was shortly after J.T. Barrett's season-ending injury against the Wolverines. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner made his way on to the field and offered some support to Barrett, who was still laid out on his back as trainers worked on his leg. At that point, it was the fourth quarter of a one-touchdown game between bitter rivals with a lot on the line -- a potential playoff berth for the Buckeyes and a last-ditch effort to save their coaching staff for the Wolverines. One of the worst moments of the year (Barrett's injury) was quickly followed by a great one. The quarterback's show of genuine solidarity was a reminder that these guys are human beings. Gardner fell short of expectations on the field this season, but it's far more appropriate that college football's lasting image of him will be that moment of sympathy.

Adam Rittenberg: Bust a move, Coach Kill

I'm tempted to go with Gordon in the snow against Nebraska, especially since I was there to witness history, but Jerry Kill gets my vote for his "old age" dance moves after Minnesota wins. Minnesota's rise under Kill has been one of the best Big Ten story lines in the past two seasons. Many wondered early in 2013 if Kill's coaching days soon would end because of his struggle with epilepsy, particularly seizures on game day. But the coach has his condition under control and continues to show why he's one of the best at getting the most out of his teams. You couldn't help but smile seeing Kill enjoy the wins by dancing in the locker room, surrounded by his joyous players. Those moments never get old.

Saban vs. Meyer

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
1:18
PM ET


video

Trevor Matich discusses the coaching matchup in the Allstate Sugar Bowl between Alabama's Nick Saban and Ohio State's Urban Meyer.
Stats don't lie, but they can be deceiving. Like the average number of rushing yards to the right side of the defense on night games in the month of October, some pieces of information simply don't matter.

That's why we're here.

In order to help preview the Allstate Sugar Bowl, ESPN's Austin Ward and Alex Scarborough teamed up to bring you three stats that matter most to Alabama and Ohio State as they prepare for their semifinal showdown in New Orleans.

Alabama stats that matter

-1: Of the top 10 teams in the FBS in winning percentage, only three are negative in their turnover margin. One is Marshall, one is Florida State and the other is Alabama. That's what we like to call living on the edge. The last time Alabama finished the season on the wrong side of the turnover battle, Nick Saban wasn't the head coach. Ohio State, meanwhile, is plus-nine in turnovers and has created a whopping 118 points off of turnovers. It goes without saying that giving up free points isn't conducive to winning football games.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAlabama's offense could be in danger of becoming too one-dimensional with Amari Cooper responsible for 42.9 percent of the receptions this season.
42.9: The inequality of Alabama's passing game is dizzying. Amari Cooper not only has 42.9 percent of all catches this season, he has 45.3 percent of all receiving yards. He has 28 total receptions on third- and fourth-down plays that resulted in a first down or touchdown, compared to 14 from the next two closest receivers combined. While spotlighting your best weapon on offense is fine, there's something to be said for being too one-dimensional. Ohio State will have had roughly a month to prepare for Cooper come Jan. 1. If Urban Meyer and his coaching staff are able to divide a plan to slow him down, Alabama needs to have more options in the passing game to turn to.

4: Thanks to Blake Sims' swift feet and the offensive line's stellar blocking, Alabama has allowed only four sacks in its last four games. Against the vaunted pass rush of Missouri, the Crimson Tide more than held their own. But Ohio State is not Missouri, and chances are it won't lose its best defensive end to ejection the way Shane Ray was tossed in Atlanta. No, the Buckeyes have a superb defensive line themselves, led by everyone's All-American, Joey Bosa. In Ohio State's last four games against Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Minnesota, Bosa and the Buckeyes defense have racked up 15 sacks.

-- Scarborough

Ohio State stats that matter

21: Picked on by opposing offenses during games and then ripped apart in press conferences by Urban Meyer a year ago, a rebuilt Ohio State secondary has gone from the team's biggest weakness to one of the most aggressive, successful units in the nation. Only three teams have nabbed more interceptions than the Buckeyes' 21 this season, with co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash having done a remarkable job getting the secondary to challenge receivers, break on balls and play without fear of being beat in the back end. It's hard to argue with the results, particularly since the Buckeyes aren't gambling for turnovers at the expense of yardage, ranking No. 17 in total passing yards allowed this year.

81.2: For a team that didn't have its starter play a single snap this season and had to turn to two different guys without any previous first-team experience at the most important position on the field, Ohio State finishing second in the nation in raw QBR behind only Oregon without Braxton Miller is nothing short of remarkable. J.T. Barrett, of course, did the heavy lifting by starting every game in the regular season before breaking his ankle against Michigan, but Cardale Jones actually boosted the rating in his debut against one of the nation's best defenses in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, posting a sparkling 90.3 to clinch the spot in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. It certainly seems as if Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman know how to develop more that just one passer at a time.

51.5: The Buckeyes can dial up the tempo and push the ball down the field in a hurry if they want to, but what makes them truly dangerous and perhaps unpredictable is their effectiveness at shifting gears and methodically moving the chains if need be. Only three teams in the country were more successful on third downs than Ohio State, which converted 85 of 165 chances -- or 51.5 percent -- to extend drives on those crucial snaps. The Buckeyes only played four games all season where their conversion percentage dropped lower than 50 percent, including the first two of the year with so many inexperienced players getting their feet wet -- and Jones' first start in the Big Ten title game, when it hardly made a difference in a 59-0 blowout.

-- Ward

Big Ten bowl predictions

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
9:00
AM ET
The song is right: Bowl season is the most wonderful time of the year. Bowl season will also determine the overall champion of the season picks. Austin Ward leads the way right now, but it's still a wide-open race.

 

Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl



Why Illinois will win: There has been a noticeable change in the Illini down the stretch, and Tim Beckman’s players appeared to have fully bought in to his message as they fought back to qualify for a bowl game. Across the board, this looks like the most favorable matchup for any Big Ten team, and with a motivated team playing its best football when it mattered most, expect Illinois to come away with a trophy. Illinois 31, Louisiana Tech 24. -- Austin Ward

Why Louisiana Tech will win: I suppose I should believe more in Illinois after it finished the season strong, and Louisiana Tech has some bad losses on its schedule (Northwestern State and Old Dominion … oy). But I still have a wait-and-see attitude with this Illini defense, and the one thing the Bulldogs can do is score points. They averaged 37.5 points per game this season, and I think they'll win a shootout against a group of players not accustomed to the bowl stage. Louisiana Tech 38, Illinois 35. -- Brian Bennett

 

Quick Lane Bowl



Why Rutgers will win: Rutgers has already played four of the nation's top 10 defenses and a half-dozen of the top 25 rushing attacks. So, even with dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams, North Carolina isn'’t going to throw anything at Rutgers it hasn’t already seen. The Tar Heels have one of the worst defenses in the country -- only 10 have allowed more yards -- so Rutgers shouldn’t have a problem scoring. The issue here is Rutgers' defense, but, again, Rutgers has fared OK there against middle-of-the-road teams, and that's exactly what UNC is.
Rutgers 38, North Carolina 31. -- Josh Moyer

 

New Era Pinstripe Bowl



Why Boston College will win: It's fitting this bowl is played in Yankee Stadium because the final score might look like it belongs to a baseball game. Both teams have top-five rushing defenses and middling offensive production. Boston College quarterback Tyler Murphy, a former Florida Gator who transferred before this season, has been the X factor this season that helped BC beat USC and stick within a field goal of Florida State. Murphy does most of his damage on the ground, and that plays in Penn State's favor. But if he can break one or two big plays, that should be enough for a close win. Boston College 10, Penn State 6. -- Dan Murphy

Why Penn State will win: Let’s be honest: The Nittany Lions offense is lousy, and the special teams (outside of Sam Ficken) are almost just as bad. But I'm going with Penn State for the same reason it made a bowl game in the first place: defense. Only four teams in the FBS threw for fewer yards than Boston College, and no team defended the run better than Penn State. That works right into the strengths of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. Plus, the Nittany Lions will be motivated in their first bowl appearance since 2011. Underestimate this team at your own peril; it ended the plast two seasons with even bigger upsets.
Penn State 16, Boston College 13. -- Josh Moyer

 

National University Holiday Bowl



Why USC will win: Because the Trojans have more offensive firepower than any team to face Nebraska this season -- and the Huskers have surrendered 475 yards per game to Miami, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Minnesota. USC, with quarterback Cody Kessler, running back Buck Allen and receiver Nelson Agholor, will torment a Nebraska team that might feel a bit lost without deposed coach Bo Pelini. The Huskers, organizationally, figure to struggle after a tumultuous month. They're stuck in turmoil as USC looks to build off a strong finish to the regular season in a win over Notre Dame. USC 38, Nebraska 24. -- Mitch Sherman

 

Foster Farms Bowl



Why Stanford will win: This is a virtual home game for the Cardinal in nearby Santa Clara, California, while the Terrapins have to travel all the way across the country. Stanford struggled earlier in the season but seemed to find its footing late, beating UCLA by 21 points in the regular-season finale. Maryland has been unpredictable most of the season and has enough big-play ability to pull off an upset. But it's a tall order. Stanford 24, Maryland 17. -- Brian Bennett

 

Outback Bowl



Why Wisconsin will win: It's been a topsy-turvy three weeks for the Badgers, between losing 59-0 in the Big Ten title game and then losing their head coach, but this group isn't one to just lie down, and I can't envision Melvin Gordon taking it easy in the last game of his college career. How you view this game is basically a reflection of how you view that Big Ten championship -- and I see that as an anomaly. It won't happen again against Auburn. I still think Wisconsin has a great defense. I still think this offensive line can overpower Auburn. And I still think these players want to win one for Barry Alvarez. Auburn has an average defense and a great offense, but the Badgers win a close one in the end. Wisconsin 31, Auburn 28. -- Josh Moyer

Why Auburn will win: You can bet Auburn coach Gus Malzahn watched the Big Ten championship game with a big smile on his face. Ohio State had its way with Wisconsin's supposedly elite defense despite using a quarterback making his first career start with only one week to prepare. Auburn has as much, or more, offensive talent and speed as Ohio State, and it has a veteran quarterback in Nick Marshall. The Tigers' shaky defense could struggle with Gordon, Wisconsin's All-America running back, but it should be able to outscore the Badgers. Wisconsin can't match up with Sammie Coates in the back end and could struggle with Marshall and Cameron Artis-Payne on the perimeter. Auburn 35, Wisconsin 24. -- Adam Rittenberg

 

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic



Why Michigan State will win: The fearsome Spartans defense has already allowed more than 40 points twice this season. There's a decent chance it will happen a third time against Baylor, the country's No. 1 offense, but Michigan State is no slouch on offense, either, and should be able to keep pace. While Baylor uses a breakneck tempo to get its advantage, the Spartans rely more on their instinct to grind opponents down. If Michigan State can control the pace of the game and get a couple of stops, it should be able to avoid falling to 0-3 against top-10 opponents this season. Michigan State 45, Baylor 42. -- Dan Murphy

Why Baylor will win: Michigan State faced two ranked teams this season and lost both games in unflattering fashion. Oregon and Ohio State hung 46 and 49 points, respectively, on the Spartans as Michigan State's offense just couldn't keep up. The problem for Mark Dantonio's squad? Baylor’s offense is even better. The Bears are ranked No. 1 in the country in scoring and yards, so the "No-Fly Zone" could have as much a hard time stopping Bryce Petty as it did Marcus Mariota. The Spartans are a good team, but I just don't like this matchup for them. MSU starts off strong but Baylor pulls away in the second half.
Baylor 45, Michigan State 35. -- Josh Moyer

 

Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl



Why Minnesota will win: The SEC East champions were already given fits by a Big Ten team, and Indiana won only a single conference game after knocking off Missouri on the road. Minnesota, with its power rushing attack, aggressive defense and solid leadership from the coaching staff, was better than the Hoosiers in virtually every way this season. Plus, it will be fired up to end the season on a high note with a fan base excited for the destination. The Gophers claim more hardware here. Minnesota 27, Missouri 20. -- Austin Ward

 

Why Missouri will win: All the Gophers have to do is follow Indiana's game plan from the Hoosiers' 31-27 upset in Columbia, Missouri, back in September, right? It might not be that easy. While the Tigers benefited from playing in the terrible SEC East, Missouri did improve as the season went along and has a strong rush defense that allowed just 3.5 yards per carry. That means Mitch Leidner will likely have to make some plays -- and avoid the fierce pass rush of Shane Ray. Minnesota has an excellent shot here, but I like Missouri in a close one.
Missouri 27, Minnesota 24. -- Brian Bennett

 

Taxslayer Bowl



Why Tennessee will win: Bowl games are often about motivation and momentum, and Tennessee trumps Iowa in both areas. The Vols are that incredibly young, talented team that should benefit more than most from bowl practices and the chance to punctuate this season before a 2015 campaign that will carry much higher expectations. Iowa has a good track record in bowls but comes in on a down note after a very disappointing regular season. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs sparked Tennessee down the stretch and should give Iowa's defense trouble. Tennessee's defense should pressure Iowa's quarterbacks into mistakes.
Tennessee 24, Iowa 17. -- Adam Rittenberg

 

Allstate Sugar Bowl



Why Ohio State will win: Urban Meyer doesn't need to call on his psychological tricks for an underdog team all that often, though the Ohio State coach did already have a couple occasions to do so this year. Look at what happened to Michigan State and Wisconsin when the Buckeyes felt slighted and Meyer pushed their buttons to bring out their best. Certainly, No. 1 Alabama is the ultimate test and is favored for a reason, but Ohio State has the personnel to match up with the SEC champions, and the Buckeyes have one more chance to shock everyone in what has been already been a stunning season. Ohio State 31, Alabama 30. -- Austin Ward

Why Alabama will win: Have you watched the Crimson Tide? They have the best talent nationally and possibly the best coaching. Ohio State is not too bad itself, with a young and fast-improving stable under Meyer, but Alabama is several steps ahead and tested against a daunting schedule in the SEC West. If it boils down to playmakers, the Buckeyes will be at a disadvantage for the first time this season -- perhaps a big disadvantage. Ohio State simply can't match Blake Sims, Amari Cooper and the Bama backs with a third-string quarterback in Cardale Jones and weapons elsewhere whose athleticism won't surprise the Alabama defense.
Alabama 31, Ohio State 17. -- Mitch Sherman

Our records:
1. Austin Ward: 88-25 (.779)
T-2. Brian Bennett: 85-28 (.752)
T-2. Mitch Sherman: 85-28 (.752)
4. Dan Murphy: 57-19 (.750)
5. Adam Rittenberg: 83-30 (.735)
6. Josh Moyer: 82-31 (.726)

Big Ten morning links

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
8:00
AM ET
Bowl season is a tricky time for coaches to motivate players.

“You can grind guys up if you occupy them too much mentally,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said this week.

Read more from Fitzgerald and others Friday on ESPN.com about motivation in bowl season. His Wildcats, sitting home this month, would trade places with any of the 10 Big Ten bowl teams. And with that wonderful time of year to start on Saturday -- the first Big Ten bowl game is still a week away -- it makes sense to look at the factors motivating conference teams.

Here’s a ranking of Big Ten teams with the most for which to play in the postseason:

Ohio State (Allstate Sugar Bowl, vs. Alabama, Jan. 1): A clear leader in this category as the Big Ten representative in the College Football Playoff, the Buckeyes carry the weight of the league on their shoulders. What else is new? Ohio State is flagship program of the Big Ten under Urban Meyer, who had a lot to say Thursday about his team's daunting task against the Crimson Tide.

Michigan State (Goodyear Cotton Bowl, vs. Baylor, Jan. 1): The Spartans lost to a pair of playoff teams, yet they're largely forgotten nationally. A business trip to Texas to face Baylor, the next best thing to a playoff opponent, offers a chance for MSU to finish on a high note nearly equal last year's Rose Bowl win.

Minnesota (Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, vs. Missouri, Jan. 1): A victory in Orlando would give the Golden Gophers a nine-win season for the first time since 2003 and the second time in more than a century, and it would represent the school's best two-year run in over 50 years. It won't come easy against the two-time SEC East champ. The Gophers must run the ball effectively, their bread and butter, now and in the future.

Penn State (New Era Pinstripe Bowl, vs. Boston College, Dec. 27): The Nittany Lions, exposed in the second half of this season for a lack of overall talent, can end on a high note in this much-awaited return to the postseason after a two-year bowl ban. A visit to New York against a regional recruiting rival heightens the stakes.

Rutgers (Quick Lane Bowl, vs. North Carolina, Dec. 26): The Scarlet Knights exceeded expectations to make it this far. After an inspiring comeback win over fellow Big Ten newcomer Maryland to close the regular season, confidence is high, though the uncertain injury status of star receiver Leonte Carroo threatens to put a damper on the excitement around this bowl trip.

Wisconsin (Outback Bowl, vs. Auburn, Jan. 1): Motivated by the embarrassment of a 59-point loss in the Big Ten title game, the Badgers got knocked down another step by the surprise departure of Gary Andersen. But the return of Paul Chryst has boosted the spirits of players, who will look to impress their new coach as he observes in Tampa. Against Auburn's multi-faceted offense, Wisconsin must use everything at its disposal, including QB Tanner McEvoy on the defensive side.

Nebraska (National University Holiday Bowl, vs. USC, Dec. 27): The Cornhuskers are also playing to catch the eye of a new coach, as Mike Riley figures to watch closely. Riley's new staff will start fresh though, so what happens in San Diego stays in San Diego. Still, Nebraska players, amid a dramatic exit from their former coach that has sparked more debate, want to provide a fond farewell for their old staff of assistant coaches.

Illinois (Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, vs. Louisiana Tech, Dec. 26): With victories over Penn State and Northwestern to get bowl eligible, Illinois has won simply by making it this far. No marquee opponent awaits, and Dallas isn't exactly a winter paradise, though maybe the man of the hour, QB Reilly O'Toole, can rally the Fighting Illini once again.

Maryland (Foster Farms Bowl, vs. Stanford, Dec. 30): Did the Terrapins run out of gas in the second half against Rutgers? It was a long season, packed with several highlights, in Maryland's first season of Big Ten play. But a visit to face Stanford, which is coming off four consecutive major bowls, near its home turf, looks like another significant challenge for Randy Edsall's team.

Iowa (TaxSlayer Bowl, vs. Tennesssee, Jan. 2): The Hawkeyes need someone to step up, a habitual practice in the postseason, or they face a dull ending to a disappointing season that set up well in Iowa City.

Around the rest of the league:
video

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer called into The Paul Finebaum Show to talk about the Buckeyes' matchup vs. Bama.

Roundtable: Big Ten's biggest surprise

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
3:30
PM ET
Every day this week, before the bowl season kicks off, our Big Ten panel of experts will be weighing in on different topics related to the regular season.

Our fourth question of the week: What was the biggest surprise in the Big Ten this season?

Josh Moyer: We knew this running back class would be good -- but we didn’t know it would be this good. Four Big Ten backs are currently ranked within the top 11 nationally in rushing, the most since 2005, when five ranked within the top 11. The Big Ten also became the first conference since 2007 to feature a pair of 2,000-yard rushers in the same season. And then there’s that whole matter of being the first conference to ever sweep the list of Doak Walker finalists. It’s no surprise this group played well but, before the season, no one was saying how this could be the best group of B1G backs in at least 20 seasons. That’s where this group stands now; it’s exceeded every lofty expectation.

Brian Bennett: Without question, the biggest surprise in the Big Ten in 2014 was J.T. Barrett. After he had a rough game in Week 2 against Virginia Tech, it looked like Ohio State was really going to struggle replacing Braxton Miller at quarterback. Instead, Barrett pretty much turned into Superman after that. He broke all kinds of records, including the Big Ten record for touchdowns accounted for with 45, and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting despite not playing in the Big Ten championship game because of a broken ankle. Nobody knew much about Barrett going into the season. Absolutely no one could have predicted this kind of season for him.

[+] EnlargeCardale Jones
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesCardale Jones, in his first career start, led Ohio State to a stunningly dominant victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.
Mitch Sherman: I see things on Barrett much like Brian. But at least the freshman had time to get acclimated – and he struggled at the outset. Cardale Jones had six days. Jones’ performance in the Big Ten title game rated as more of a shocker, I think, than even the showing of Miller’s replacement during the regular season. The third-stringer didn’t post the flashy number of an average Barrett game in Ohio State’s 59-0 hammering of Wisconsin, but just that Jones avoided mistakes and possessed the presence to lead a dominant victory over a good defense – don’t overlook that aspect – makes it remarkable. Both quarterbacks, of course, benefited from the pieces around them, The smoothness of their transitions into the starting lineup, though, makes you wonder what Urban Meyer and Tom Herman do differently than everyone else.

Austin Ward: Ohio State’s overall development. There is a perfect poster boy in Barrett, but he was far from the only inexperienced player thrown into the fire for a team that still believed it could win the Big Ten even as faith waned in August. Ohio State had to work in four new offensive linemen, and by the end of the year that group was probably the best in the league. The Buckeyes lost top wideout Philly Brown and workhorse tailback Carlos Hyde, and Michael Thomas and Ezekiel Elliott emerged without missing a step. The pass defense was atrocious even with two first-round draft picks on the field at the end of thr 2013 season, and one year later, the Buckeyes led the conference in interceptions. The rapid rise of essentially the entire roster into a contender in the College Football Playoff was stunning.

Dan Murphy: We can't all pick the Buckeyes. Instead, I'm going with Northwestern putting together two of the more improbable wins of the year despite an overall season that didn't meet expectations. The Wildcats were 17.5-point underdogs against the Notre Dame team they beat in overtime. The spread against Wisconsin was only eight points, but probably would've been much higher had those teams met later in the season. The Badgers and the Irish were both teams mentioned in playoff conversations at different points this year, and somehow they both lost to a team that was outgained offensively by the Leathernecks of Western Illinois. Pat Fitzgerald has as much job security as anyone in the Big Ten, but without those two shockers, the conversation would be around a 3-9 Northwestern team and it would have a much different tone.

Adam Rittenberg: In the spirit of variety, I'm going with Wisconsin's defense. Recent impressions resonate and Wisconsin left a very bad one in the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State, but it shouldn't overshadow a remarkable coaching job by both coordinator Dave Aranda and head coach Gary Andersen. Wisconsin's defense went through an extreme makeover after losing its entire front seven from 2013, including linebacker Chris Borland, the Big Ten's defensive player of the year. The Badgers amazingly didn't backslide and progressed, leading the FBS in fewest yards allowed in one stretch, and they currently rank fourth in yards allowed and 13th in points allowed. They received big performances from the "Chevy Bad Boys" at linebacker, Mike Caputo at safety and Warren Herring up front. Aranda and Andersen mixed coverages and effectively put more speed on the field. What looked like a liability in August soon became a team strength.
The Allstate Sugar Bowl featuring No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Ohio State could come down to unexpected players stepping up and making big plays. Earlier we looked at who could be the offensive X factors, and now we look at who could fill that role on defense on Jan. 1.

Alabama CB Tony Brown: Nick Saban and his coaching staff seem to find a way to make the most out of the extended bowl practices. Take last year, for example, when they brought along a true freshman by the name of Derrick Henry, who went on to obliterate Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. This time, don’t be surprised if it’s the rookie cornerback, Brown. He has seen the field his fair share this season, but been kept on a short leash because of his inexperience. Well, now the five-star talent has 13 games under his belt, and he could be the answer to Alabama’s struggles at cornerback.

Ohio State: LB Darron Lee: Considering that he’s only two years removed from playing quarterback and safety in high school, it’s pretty remarkable that the redshirt freshman was able to crack the starting rotation at linebacker so quickly for the Buckeyes. But Lee has done far more than just earn playing time this season, he’s rapidly developed into one of the team’s best playmakers and looks like a perfect fit in the mold left behind by first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier. He may not be a finished product yet, but with the ability to cover the entire field thanks to his elite athleticism, Lee stuffed the stats sheet with 13.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and a pair of touchdowns during his first campaign as a starter. The Buckeyes may have bigger stars on the defense heading into the Sugar Bowl, but they’ll need Lee at his best to leave with a victory.
The Allstate Sugar Bowl featuring No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Ohio State could come down to unexpected players stepping up and making big plays. So who could fill that role on offense on Jan. 1? Alex Scarbrough and Austin Ward take a look:

Alabama: WR Christion Jones: Chances are that Alabama will need a receiver not named Amari Cooper to make plays. With several weeks to prepare, it stands to reason that the Ohio State staff will find a way to bracket Alabama’s Heisman Trophy finalist and force quarterback Blake Sims to look elsewhere. So pay attention to Jones. The senior has the moves to make people miss in the open field and the speed to get behind the defense. At 13.9 yards per catch, he can make Ohio State pay for focusing too much on Cooper. And for good measure, don't miss Jones on kickoffs and punt returns. Though he hasn't struck paydirt with a touchdown on special teams yet this season, someone with his athleticism is due to break free at some point.

Ohio State: WR Devin Smith: A pretty straightforward formula has emerged during the senior wideout’s career, and it hasn’t failed yet. When Smith catches a touchdown, the Buckeyes win. They are 20-0 when Smith has a TD reception. Is that any good? But this season Smith has taken it even further -- when he’s at his best, Ohio State’s already high-powered offense becomes downright unstoppable. In the two biggest matchups of the season, on the road against Michigan State and in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, Smith was a nightmare as a deep threat, unleashing his speed, incredible leaping ability and knack for making tough grabs all at once to kick the Buckeyes into their highest gear. He combined for 10 catches for 266 yards and 4 touchdowns in those wins, and Alabama’s secondary will have to account for him in New Orleans.

Ohio State Buckeyes season review

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
10:00
AM ET
The team-by-team look back at the Big Ten season continues with a recap of the league champions, the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Overview: Maybe Ohio State still isn’t a finished product yet, but that might be a scary thought for the rest of the nation given how frighteningly quick Urban Meyer’s team grew up this season. While losing Braxton Miller during training camp dominated the headlines, the Buckeyes were already facing a daunting task in trying to replace four starters on the offensive line, their leading rusher, their top wide receiver and two first-round draft picks on defense when the season opened. All that inexperience was prominently on display in a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech, but Ohio State wouldn’t drop another game for the rest of the season and only appeared more confident, more dangerous and more mature with each passing week. It all led up to perhaps the most complete performance by any team in the country this season as the Buckeyes shellacked Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten championship game, clinching a spot in the College Football Playoff and arriving as a national contender again arguably one year ahead of schedule.

Offensive MVP: The Buckeyes wound up winning the Big Ten with J.T. Barrett on the sideline with a fractured ankle, but it’s exceedingly unlikely they would have been there in the first place if not for the redshirt freshman’s rapid rise in place of Miller at quarterback. Just a couple days after moving up to No. 2 on the depth chart, Miller was lost for the season and Barrett was thrust into the starting role and expected to just pick up the torch from the two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Barrett did more than that, though, taking the Ohio State attack to an even higher level than his predecessor by accounting for a league record 45 touchdowns and proving to be the perfect fit to expand the passing game thanks to his accuracy and quick decision-making at the most important spot on the field.

Defensive MVP: Even a few of the returning starters fit the bill as works in progress, including a defensive end who would emerge as arguably the most disruptive force up front in the entire country. Joey Bosa had already proven he could rush the passer a year ago during his freshman campaign, and he was continuing to wreak havoc early in the season as he made it look routine to beat blockers with his combination of speed and size on the way to the quarterback. But he was also somewhat undisciplined at times against the rush, something he seemed to grow out of as his sophomore year progressed. He blossomed into a complete defender with 20 tackles for loss, 4 forced fumbles, a recovery for a touchdown -- and, of course, 13.5 sacks. And like the majority of the Ohio State roster, as good as Bosa is now, there’s still room to grow.

Big Ten morning links

December, 18, 2014
Dec 18
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Live football has almost returned. Until it arrives again, take a few spins on the coaching carousel.

The Wisconsin Way: Continuity should be back at Wisconsin, and the program made it clear that it won’t be compromising anything it proudly stands for to keep it. By sticking inside the family on Wednesday and officially bringing Paul Chryst back home, the Badgers have somebody who knows exactly what the job entails and a coach who almost certainly won’t be making a lateral move at any point in the future. Maybe the Badgers will start spending more money on assistants down the road, so there’s some flexibility there in regards to an issue that turned off Bret Bielema. But in terms of knowing the kind of recruits it can expect to land and clearly laying out the academic requirements moving forward, not to mention bringing in an existing relationship with the university and the boss, Chryst couldn’t be any better suited to provide stability for Wisconsin after a rough stretch of losing Bielema and then Gary Andersen after two short years.

Down to one: Wisconsin moving quickly leaves only Michigan active on the job market, and while there’s no telling when that search will end, it is effectively the only one that still has a chance of connecting on a true home-run hire. No offense to Chryst or new Nebraska coach Mike Riley, because those were smart, sensible hires that made perfect sense for each program -- but they certainly don’t qualify as splashy or scream that championships are on the way. If Les Miles is definitively out of the picture, it really seems as though Jim Harbaugh is going to have to come through for the Wolverines once his commitments to San Francisco are over at the end of the NFL season. And it seems like Michigan is fully committed to doing whatever it takes to deliver him. Maybe there’s another huge name secretly looming out there for Michigan, but if there was, wouldn’t there have been some indication of that by now? The Big Ten is down to one job, and there really only seems to be one guy who should claim it.

Coordinator corner: Just below those headline vacancies leading Big Ten programs, the chance to replace Tom Herman as Ohio State’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator will be up there as a highly-coveted position this offseason as the coaching carousel spins. The odds are strong that Ed Warinner will receive something of a promotion from his co-coordinator duties and take on more responsibility as a play-caller, though he was already somewhat active in that regard in his current role. Warinner not only deserves a raise for the incredible job he’s done with the Ohio State offensive line, he has earned more credit than he currently receives for that work, which is perhaps why he hasn’t landed an opportunity to lead his own program yet despite a couple interviews over the last two years. The Buckeyes are actually fortunate that they don’t have to replace both Herman and Warinner simultaneously, but either way there will be no shortage of candidates lining up for the shot to potentially work with J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller at quarterback.

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West Division
Every day this week, before the bowl season kicks off, our Big Ten panel of experts will be weighing in on different topics related to the regular season.

Our third question of the week: What was the Big Ten's biggest disappointment of the season?

Mitch Sherman: Christmas came early for Big Ten detractors. No individual or team performance matched the league-wide flop of Week 2. You remember it as the day Ohio State lost 35-21 at home to Virginia Tech, Notre Dame pounded Michigan 31-0 and Oregon dominated the second half against Michigan State. Moreover, Nebraska barely avoided overtime against McNeese State. Iowa scored two late touchdowns to sneak past Ball State. Maryland, Minnesota, Rutgers and Illinois – all eventual bowl teams -- won close over South Florida, Middle Tennessee and Howard and Western Kentucky. Northwestern lost to Northern Illinois, and Central Michigan routed Purdue. Seriously, The nation laughed at the Big Ten all year because of that day. Want to know why league teams opened as underdogs in all 10 bowl games? Look to Sept. 6.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke, Devin Gardner
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesMichigan's 5-7 season was tough to watch on several fronts.
Josh Moyer: You can’t talk about the biggest disappointment without mentioning Michigan’s 2014 season – especially the first half of it. The Wolverines started just 2-4, with wins over Appalachian State and Miami (Ohio), while making school history with its poor play. First came a 31-0 loss to Notre Dame, which was the most lopsided loss to the Irish in the series’ 127-year history. Then came a lightning-delayed loss to Utah, when the Big House emptied so much that one player called it the “Ute House.” And then Brady Hoke’s squad lost the Little Brown Jug to Minnesota, 30-14, in the Gophers’ largest margin of victory in the series since 1977. Oh, and Michigan helped Rutgers get its first-ever Big Ten win, as longtime starting QB Gary Nova passed for a career-high 404 yards. It was a nightmare first half to the season.

Dan Murphy: The Big Ten championship game. The state of Ohio might disagree, but this year's game in Indianapolis did not live up to its billing. This was supposed to be a showdown between one of the country's best offenses and one of its best defenses. One side of that equation never showed up in Ohio State's 59-0 win over Wisconsin. The lopsided score (and the Buckeyes defense) gave us no chance to marvel at Melvin Gordon. The Heisman Trophy runner-up ran for 76 yards, eliminating whatever small chance he had to win the award. I understand that without an Ohio State blowout, the Big Ten probably would have been the odd man out in this year's College Football Playoff. But from the standpoint of wanting a dramatic, competitive finale to the conference season, man, what a dud.

Adam Rittenberg: I remember talking with MGoBlog's Brian Cook about Michigan in the summer, and Cook described Michigan's schedule as "low-variance," likely to produce eight or nine wins, but probably not 10 or seven. I completely agreed. No one envisioned 5-7 as being remotely possible for a team that, despite underachieving the year before, seemingly had improved depth and leadership. Brady Hoke really liked his team. Opposing coaches told me the talent absolutely was in place for a solid season. Then the bottom fell out against Notre Dame and Michigan never truly recovered. I really thought the offense could at least be respectable under new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, but it never got on track against solid competition. Northwestern and Iowa certainly belong in the biggest-disappointment conversation, but neither team has as much raw talent as Michigan. What a clunker.

Brian Bennett: As disappointing as Michigan and Northwestern were, I never viewed either as a serious league title contender. Many picked Iowa to win the West Division because of its dream schedule. No Ohio State or Michigan State and both Wisconsin and Nebraska at home the final two weeks. Yet the Hawkeyes managed to go just 7-5, losing at home to a terrible Iowa State team, getting blown out at Minnesota and letting Maryland run all over them. This Iowa team never found a real identity and squandered what could have potentially been a special season. That should cause some re-evaluation this offseason in Iowa City.

Austin Ward: The premature end of defensive end Noah Spence’s college career. Ohio State obviously disagreed with the ruling against Spence, and perhaps it had a case that his failed drug test wasn’t for a performance-enhancing substance. But either way, the junior did break the rules when he was suspended for a second time by the Big Ten, bringing a promising college career to a sad end. The league was robbed of a chance to watch his elite talent for another season, Ohio State’s plans for unleashing a completely unstoppable defensive line at every position took a blow and, of course, Spence’s own health was damaged. Hopefully there is a happy ending for him following his time away from the field, but it was certainly a wasted opportunity this season.
Nick Saban, Urban MeyerUSA TODAY Sports, Icon SportswireNick Saban and Urban Meyer agree that players' families should get assistance to offset the cost of attending playoff games.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- On the surface, there may not be all that much in common between the two rivals on top of the coaching game.

Urban Meyer is the offensive guru, a master motivator with a reputation for his relationships with players. Nick Saban is the defensive genius, a notedly strong disciplinarian with an incredible attention to detail.

The lines between them may actually blur at times, with Saban also beloved by his players and Meyer not one to let his organization fall out of order. And the truth is, other than that split between offense and defense, the two might actually be more like-minded than they’re given credit for, a point that was driven home again when they took up yet another issue in lockstep to try to change college football for the better.

“I know we both committed our entirely livelihood to college football and believe in players,” Meyer said. “The players are the most important part of this whole institution of college football.

“So we've had many, many conversations about how to make sure we keep the game or do the best we can to make sure the game stays what it is.”

That previously put agents on campus and the possibility of providing stipends for players in the cross-hairs of arguably the two most famous coaches in America, and now they’re pushing for some help for families ahead of a historic meeting between Alabama and Ohio State in the semifinal of the inaugural College Football Playoff.

With expensive price tags on flights and hotels around the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the possibility of an additional game looming with a victory, families have expressed their concerns both in letters and on social media that they can’t afford to see their sons play in the most important games of their lives. Ohio State was able to offer $800 in reimbursements through the student-assistance fund, but that isn’t likely to come close to covering even one trip on relatively short notice, and Saban and Meyer are once again raising their voices to draw attention to an issue that might otherwise be overlooked.

“I just hope that because it's a first that we do the best job that we possibly can for all teams involved, all players involved, all families involved, assessing how we do this so that we can make it better for the families in the future,” Saban said. “I think that when I say make it better, I think for the travel that's involved with all the families, that maybe we should do something for the family so that they have an opportunity to get to the game so that they can see the players play.

“I think that would be something great, and I think that's something that all the coaches up here really, really support.”

Sitting right next to him at the news conference last week in Orlando, Saban already had an ally who had strongly come out in favor of assisting the extended football family, with Meyer pointing to the huge amounts of money the playoff format is expected to bring in for conferences and universities.

Figuring out exactly how to slice up the pie and make sure moms and dads are in the building moving forward surely won’t be an issue that is resolved in time for the first playoff. But just like they did back in the SEC, a pair of powerful rivals are at least making it a topic of conversation to potentially influence some change down the line.

“That was my first thought,” Meyer said. “I want to see how our families are going to be able to afford two bowl games if we’re fortunate enough to keep going. Universities and conferences are making a lot of money off the TV deals, how are we going to treat the families of the players? I still haven’t heard much about it, but I’m going to keep pushing it because I want to know.

“I’m not sure what the answer is. ... They had a room where all those people sat and selected [the teams], I wonder if they have another room where people decide on how we make sure we treat the players the right way. You talk about stress over the holidays? Watch what happens here over the next month. I’ve spoken to some of my colleagues about it.”

The conversation between long-time rivals was surely a short one this time. Once again, Saban and Meyer were already on the same page.

Players Provide Playoff Picks

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
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video

Some of the top college football players in the country provide their picks on who will win the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Big Ten morning links

December, 17, 2014
Dec 17
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Good morning, sports fans. You've got one week to finish your Christmas shopping, and if you haven't started picking out Hannukah gifts yet you're already behind. Might we suggest some lovely morning links?

1. Today's the day when Wisconsin can make its reunion with Paul Chryst official. Chryst told his players at Pittsburgh that he planned to meet with the Badger brass. His move might leave room for another domino to fall among Big Ten coaches. The chain reaction that started with Bo Pelini's firing at Nebraska could wind up affecting Michigan State as well. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is one of many potential candidates that make sense for the opening at Pitt. Narduzzi danced around questions about his contact with other schools this week. Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio knows it's a matter of time before he loses the talented coordinator, and this might finally be the year.

2. At least Dantonio knows he won't be losing his quarterback this offseason. Redshirt junior Connor Cook said he would return for his final year of eligibility in 2015. Cook said he has “unfinished business” to attend to at the college level. The 6-foot-4 Cook won't have star receiver Tony Lippett to help him fill out his résumé next fall, but he could be helping his draft stock by sticking around. Heisman winners Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston would likely have been selected before Cook in this year's draft. Next year's class is a little less daunting.

3. The Associated Press released its All-America teams Tuesday and 14 Big Ten players were mentioned on the top three units. Four players -- Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman, Brandon Scherff and Joey Bosa -- made the first team. There are always tough calls and offended feelings when trying to narrow down a pool of thousands of players to the very best at each position, but the Big Ten shouldn't feel slighted by any of the picks this season. It would be a tough sell to say any others were undeservedly left off the list.

Now, on to the links…

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West Division

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Saban vs. Meyer
Trevor Matich discusses the coaching matchup in the Allstate Sugar Bowl between Alabama's Nick Saban and Ohio State's Urban Meyer.
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BIG TEN SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
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