With spring in the air, we've got some burning questions about the league during this season of practice and hope:
1. Who's going to win the Ohio State quarterback race? This is a question destined to not return an answer this spring. That's because only Cardale Jones will be healthy enough to go through full spring drills. J.T. Barrett will do some light seven-on-seven stuff as he recovers from a broken ankle, while Braxton Miller won't be cleared to throw with his medically repaired shoulder until at least May. So Jones has a chance to gain an early edge in perhaps the most interesting quarterback battle of all time. Can he seize it?
2. How quickly does Jim Harbaugh remake Michigan's culture? Expecting an overnight turnaround in Ann Arbor is unfair and unrealistic, even with Harbaugh's sterling track record. The Wolverines need to find answers at quarterback, running back and receiver, but the more pressing issue is simply developing more toughness than they showed throughout much of the Brady Hoke era. How quickly Michigan adapts to Harbaugh's ways will determine how fast this rebuilding effort will go, and Harbaugh let the message be known last week.
3. What will Nebraska look like under Mike Riley? Huskers athletic director Shawn Eichorst surprised the college football world by hiring Riley away from Oregon State. Riley couldn't possibly be more different, personality-wise, from previous Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. But what does that mean in how Big Red looks on the field? Riley has been known for running a pro-style offense, though he says he'll design the offense around the strength of his players. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. will need to fend off challenges to his job this spring. The Huskers seemed to take on the volatile traits of Pelini during his tenure; can they now mirror Riley's straight-forward, low-key approach?
Embracing the art of Hard Work is to disappearing from society. Therefore, we at Michigan Football designate 2015 as the year of Hard Work— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) February 27, 2015
4. Who'll win the quarterback job at Iowa, Northwestern, Rutgers and Purdue? Who starts under center will be the dominant story line at all four places this spring. At Iowa, head coach Kirk Ferentz will let C.J. Beathard battle incumbent two-year starter Jake Rudock. Northwestern has a three-man scrum, with Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson fighting to replace Trevor Siemien. Chris Laviano and LSU transfer Hayden Rettig are the main candidates to succeed Gary Nova at Rutgers. And Purdue will open things up once again between Austin Appleby, Danny Etling and David Blough. These competitions could all last until fall camp but will be heavily scrutinized in March and April.
5. How does Michigan State replace its stars? Under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have usually just moved on to the next guy when a star leaves. But Michigan State, which could be ranked in the top 10 in the preseason, still has to replace some of the most productive players in recent program history, including running back Jeremy Langford, receiver Tony Lippett, cornerback Trae Waynes, defensive end Marcus Rush and safety Kurtis Drummond. We'll get to see this spring just how well those holes can be filled.
6. Can Penn State fix its offensive line? Christian Hackenberg's bruises from last year might just now be healing, as the Nittany Lions' offensive line was one of the worst in the country in 2014. The best player on that line, left tackle Donovan Smith, left for the NFL, and starting guard Miles Dieffenbach also is gone. Yet there's hope for improvement, thanks to incoming juice transfer Paris Palmer, true freshman Sterling Jenkins and some young players who redshirted. Penn State must begin to find the right mix and build cohesion there this spring.
8. Does Minnesota have any receivers? Jerry Kill and his staff think they can improve one of the biggest problem positions in recent years for the Gophers. Redshirt freshmen Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland Jr. and Desmond Gant are full of promise. They need to start fulfilling it this spring, because the security blanket of tight end Maxx Williams is gone.
9. Can changes help the defenses at Illinois and Maryland? If the Illini are going to build some momentum after last season's bowl appearance, their leaky defense must improve. Tim Beckman hired former NFL assistant Mike Phair as co-defensive coordinator this offseason, and job No. 1 is figuring out a way to stop the run, which Illinois hasn't been able to do for a few years. Maryland parted ways with defensive coordinator Brian Stewart a little more than a year after giving him a contract extension and elevated inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski to the role. The Terps will also switch to a 4-3 base and hope to right a defense that rarely dominated in 2014.
10. Where's the next wave of running back stars? Last season saw an unprecedented amount of production from elite running backs, including Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb and Langford. All of those guys are gone, but budding superstars such as Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Wisconsin's Corey Clement and Northwestern's Justin Jackson remain. In a league that churns out tailback talent, plenty of new names are sure to emerge as well.
1. Ohio State junior Armani Reeves is cutting his football career short due to concussions. The Buckeyes said Reeves would probably stop playing in early February. This weekend he told the Columbus Dispatch that head injuries started to affect his schoolwork and his personality during Ohio State’s run to national title last fall.
Reeves was the team’s top nickel back. Stepping away from football could not have been easy, but it’s a decision that is becoming more common for college athletes. Two Northwestern players, sophomore Dwight White and senior Collin Ellis, elected to end their playing careers early during the 2014 season. Their decisions are a good sign that better education about concussions is making players aware of the danger of trying to “tough it out.” It also speaks well for the universities that these players feel they have other options.
As more student-athletes start to carefully weigh the value of continuing their careers against potential long-term harm after an injury, it’s important that schools find ways to help their players understand options and have a plan in place to help those that decide to transition away from football. Reeves, for example, will keep his connection to the team by helping out as a student assistant coach.
2. Nebraska coach Mike Riley has one more spot to fill on his staff. It’s a position that the new coach says is crucial for him.
Riley is hunting for a member of the support staff who can help the Cornhuskers find walk-on talent from the state of Nebraska and foster relationships with local coaches. The Oregon State transplant doesn’t want to waste time waiting for his West Coast staff to develop those ties themselves. When instant success is expected, instinct credibility in the backyard is a must.
"We want this guy to be the expert. So when we have that meeting about local recruits, he knows the top-20 guys in Nebraska,” Riley told the Lincoln Journal Star. “I don't want guys leaving here and going to Iowa and being a good player. That might happen, but it won't happen without a fight."
That sounds like a less-than-subtle reference to Hawkeye defensive lineman Drew Ott, a Nebraska native who starred in Iowa’s front seven last fall.
The job opening isn’t a new idea. Most Big Ten programs have at least one member of its staff in charge of running camps and clinics, creating a connection to make sure their home field advantage extends to recruiting wars. The difference with Riley’s approach is, again, his transparency. Most schools hire their player personnel director without much public acknowledgement of who he is or what he’ll be doing. Riley and his staff have been refreshingly open when discussing their recruiting operations since landing in the Midwest in December. So far, it has served as good advertising for the new regime.
And now, onto the links...
- Penn State sent five former players to the NFL combine. Here's a look at some current Nittany Lions that could take their place next year.
- Spartan defensive back Montae Nicholson can cover a lot of ground in a hurry. The freshman leaped nearly eight yards in a sixth-place finish at the Big Ten indoor track championships this weekend.
- Former assistant John Settle is expected to return to Wisconsin to coach the Badgers' running backs.
- The intensity level at Michigan's first spring practices is noticeably higher than in the past, says linebacker Joe Bolden.
- Illinois staffer Ryan Cubit gets two years of probation for driving drunk in October.
- Purdue’s athletic budget got a nice boost over the weekend, which should lead to cheaper tickets for students.
- Maryland plans to switch to a 4-3 defensive front moving forward.
- Former Rutgers starter Raymond Pilch, now a police officer, helped save an infant's life last week.
- Minnesota holds it pro day Monday, a chance for several Gophers to separate themselves from draft competition.
- Hayden Fry, on the eve of his 86th birthday, told Iowa fans he’s still thawing from his many winters in Iowa City.
Defending national champion Ohio State might have too many quarterbacks.
As spring football practice opens around the country, many of the sport's best teams will start to sort out quarterback questions. Six of the teams that finished in the top 10 of the final Associated Press top 25 poll in 2014 -- Oregon, Alabama, Florida State, Baylor, Georgia and UCLA -- will have new quarterbacks this coming season.
The impressive list of prospects in attendance was led by the 30th-ranked player in the ESPN Junior 300, No. 30 Isaac Nauta, No. 32 Feliepe Franks, No. 42 Demetris Robertson, No. 66 Rahshaun Smith and No. 92 Shaq Quarterman. The 10th-ranked player in the country, Nate Craig-Myers, was also in attendance but did not participate due to an injury.
While Saturday’s camp in Miami showcased many defensive top defensive back prospects, the offensive line was dominant on Sunday in Orlando.
Here are some of the best sights and sounds from the talent-laden Miami Regional.
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Of course, it was about Harbaugh.
“He’s the smartest man I’ve ever been around,” U-M offensive coordinator Tim Drevo told reporters Thursday night after the Wolverines’ second practice of the spring.
What, not the smartest man in the world?
It should be noted that Drevno, 45, worked with Harbaugh at Stanford from 2007 to 2010. If you take him at his word on Harbaugh, it’s safe to assume Drevno didn’t get out and about much on the Stanford campus, which is full of its share of smart people.
Otherwise, in this opening week, Drevo said he likes what he’s seen from Michigan, which returns its entire offensive line.
Drevno, who will call plays next season and coaches the line, told the Detroit News:
“There’s something special in there. Are we there yet? No. It’s Day 2, but there’s something special in there, and I’m excited about it.”
Ah, the optimism of spring.
Some intriguing data and excellent analysis here by Joseph Juan of numberFire on the NFL combine results of Melvin Gordon.
According to the numbers, the former Wisconsin All-American compares favorably to many of the great running backs of this generation.
Gordon seems to possess a rare combination of size, speed and power that combined with his instincts and vision could make him a very formidable NFL running back. ... As a testament to the rarity of Gordon’s collection of skills, no other NFL running back for which we have combine data from the past 15 years falls within the ranges I set forth for (build, speed, power and explosiveness.)
The writer finds, in conclusion, that Gordon “appears that he’s primed for a breakout rookie season.”
Full disclaimer: While I enjoy the NFL draft, I’m not sold on the predictive ability of the combine, pro days or individual workouts. I think a player’s body of work in college serves as the best indicator of his NFL potential -- and Gordon couldn’t have done much better in that category.
Stats and measurements can be interpreted to make just about any argument. Nevertheless, the numberFire breakdown of Gordon is solid.
I agree that he’s got a chance to join the backs to whom he’s compared in this article. But the organization that drafts him in May likely ranks as the top factor in determining his shot to make a rookie splash.
A Friday trip around the rest of the Big Ten:
- The quarterback competition is just getting started at Northwestern.
- Mark Dantonio is understandably bullish on Michigan State's chances to maintain its top-five status from the past two seasons.
- Indiana's cornerbacks under the spring spotlight.
- Doran Grant will be difficult to replace for an Ohio State secondary that made huge strides in 2014.
- Nebraska's 2015 roster is the best in the Big Ten West, according to this analysis.
- Penn State running back commitment Miles Sanders added a scholarship offer from Alabama.
- A spring preview of Rutgers from the Big Ten Network.
- Lou Groza Award-winning kicker Brad Craddock is the only repeat member of Maryland's leadership council, the Terps' version of captains.
- Social media can be a friend or enemy to college athletes.
And finally, from Wisconsin, this is, well, it's something. Have a good weekend.
If you asked Mike Leach, odds are he'd probably tell you his job at Washington State is a wee bit more difficult than he might have expected when he was first hired. And it won't be long before Wake Forest fans start to realize just how remarkable Jim Grobe's tenure was in Winston-Salem.
For a variety of reasons -- namely money, scheduling, academics, facilities and recruiting -- the path to the College Football Playoff is simply easier for some Power 5 coaches and nearly impossible for others. Here's a look at the top-10 easiest coaching paths to the playoff, starting with the easiest, and the 10 most difficult coaching jobs:
EASIEST COACHING PATHS TO THE PLAYOFF
One of the wealthiest, most visible brand-name programs in the country wants for nothing -- and unlike Florida State, it doesn't have to navigate through a conference title game. Right now it's in a catch-22 situation. Texas has to win to own the state in recruiting again, but it has to get the recruits to win.
2. Florida State
The Noles can own and have owned the ACC, with Clemson being their most difficult hurdle. The combination of first-class facilities, in-state recruiting and available salary money makes this one of the most desirable jobs for a coach aspiring to reach the playoff.
3. Ohio State
The East Division isn't easy, but it's manageable, and the Big 33 recruiting turf and financial security -- along with the incredible support and facilities -- puts this brand-name program on the fast track to the playoff. It's easy to sell the program that has been the flagship of the conference for more than a decade.
With no conference title game to trip over, the Sooners have one of the easiest paths to the playoff, not to mention the facilities and financial resources to recruit players and pay coaches.
It's on par with the SEC as far as recruiting and facilities, but has an easier league to navigate. The program has the resources and salaries needed to recruit and coach a top-four team.
When this storied program is at full strength -- without scholarship limitations and postseason penalties -- there's nothing in the way of a top-four ranking. Its pipeline of players to the NFL is proof.
7. Notre Dame
The Irish control their strength of schedule and can now sell an ACC bowl lineup to recruits.
The Bulldogs have owned the state, and while Florida has to contend with FSU (and dreadful facilities), Georgia has had the upper hand in the series against Georgia Tech. Everything is in place for a title run.
The program oozes money and tradition, luring the best players in the country. It's ranked low because of a grueling SEC West schedule and conference title game to navigate through.
Much like Alabama, the Tigers are the epitome of SEC success, able to cherry-pick recruits and pay for the best coaches in the country. The biggest obstacle is LSU's own conference schedule.
MOST DIFFICULT COACHING PATHS TO THE PLAYOFF
There's no school in the country with more of an uphill battle to the playoff than Vandy. The stringent academic requirements are a big reason the program can't recruit the elite athletes necessary to compete with the top teams in the league -- which is why it never will.
2. Wake Forest
The smallest school in the BCS had one historic Orange Bowl run, but that was an anomaly, not the trend. It's not the best program in the state, let alone the Atlantic Division.
3. Washington State
The Cougs are the Pac-12's most isolated, rural program, making recruiting difficult -- the heart of Wazzu's troubles over the past 11 straight losing seasons. It also doesn't help to be looking up at Oregon in the North Division.
After nine straight losing seasons, the Buffs have faded into irrelevance, and they're competing in a South Division that's on the upswing, led by USC and Arizona. The coaching turnover, subpar recruiting and lack of investment in facilities have made the past decade a disaster.
The Hoosiers have been stuck in a rut of mediocrity and are outpaced when it comes to facilities and coaching hires. Equally as problematic is IU's place in the East Division, alongside heavyweights Ohio State and Michigan State.
The program has always been overshadowed by its hoops counterpart and hasn't been relevant in football since its 2007 Orange Bowl appearance.
The fans have lost interest -- and apparently so have the recruits -- but the program also hasn't had the financial backing it needs to stay on pace with the rest of the conference.
8. Iowa State
Not only is there not much in-state talent, but the Cyclones have to share it with rival Iowa.
The program has made a renewed financial commitment recently and has demonstrated that bowl eligibility is a reality, but Kentucky has to win the SEC East before it can be taken seriously as a playoff contender.
There's a sense of apathy surrounding the program, which is stuck in the ACC's stronger Atlantic Division with FSU, Clemson and Louisville. There's not enough depth on Syracuse's roster to overcome injuries -- or the schedule.
We come now to the end, with special teams. Since it's virtually impossible to predict what kick coverage units will look like several months from now or project how new starters will fare on field goals and such, we're basing these rankings mostly on who's coming back at place-kicker, punter and returner.
Here we go:
Best of the best: Maryland
The Terrapins return the 2014 Lou Groza Award winner in Brad Craddock, who missed only one field goal all of last season. They also bring back an elite return man in Will Likely, who led the Big Ten in kickoff return average and was third on punt return average last year. Punter Nate Renfro is also back, giving Randy Edsall both experience and trust at the key specialist spots.
Next up: Ohio State
It's entirely possible that Cam Johnston is a wizard, as his rugby-style punts somehow both cover a ton of distance yet seem to stop at the right places. He was brilliant in the Sugar Bowl. The Buckeyes also have a boatload of speed they can use in the return game, including Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson. Place-kicker Sean Nuernberger is back after a respectable freshman campaign, but it's not like Urban Meyer really wants to kick field goals, anyway.
Sleepers: Nebraska and Minnesota
"Sleeper" isn't really the right word here, but we wanted to give a shout out to both of these special-teams units.
The Huskers have one of the nation's most electrifying punt return men in De'Mornay Pierson-El, who averaged 17.5 yards per attempt and scored three touchdowns last year. Punter Sam Foltz and kicker Drew Brown also return and could improve with experience.
Minnesota has the reigning Big Ten punter of the year in Peter Mortell, plus highly productive returners Jalen Myrick and Craig James. More accuracy from kicker Ryan Santoso (12-of-18 as a freshman) would solidify the Gophers as one of the best special-teams groups around.
Problem for contenders: Penn State and Michigan
Again, it's nearly impossible to predict how new kickers will fare, as you don't really get to see how they will fare in pressure situations until the games begin. Both the Nittany Lions and Wolverines have some big shoes to fill.
Place-kicker Sam Ficken was far and away the best thing about Penn State's otherwise highly shaky special teams in 2014, and now he's graduated. The team doesn't have a scholarship kicker on the roster and may turn to walk-on Joe Julius. Punt and return teams must make major strides as well.
Michigan lost both its place-kicker (Matt Wile) and punter (Will Hagerup) to graduation, and its return game was no better than average last season. New special-teams coach John Baxter will have his work cut out for him this spring in bringing some new names -- like freshman kicker Andrew Davis -- along.
Best of the best: Wisconsin
The Badgers lose only safety Peniel Jean from a group that held opponents to a 49 percent completion rate, fourth nationally, and led the league at 28.4 percent on an opponent's third-down conversion rate. Back are Michael Caputo as a senior, the expected defensive leader, and Lubern Figaro, who started five games as a true freshman at safety, cornerbacks Darius Hillary, a second-team All-Big Ten choice, and Sojourn Shelton. A bit undersized at 5-foot-9, Shelton took a step back after a breakout freshman season with four interceptions in 2013. If he regains form, the Badgers can field a secondary without a weakness. And they may need it after key losing contributors among a front seven that helped bolster the pass-defense numbers last season with 37 sacks and the Big Ten’s highest sack rate at 9.7 percent.
Next up: Ohio State and Minnesota
The OSU secondary played a huge role in the Buckeyes’ January success, helping hold the likes of Amari Cooper and Marcus Mariota well under their respective averages. Cornerback Doran Grant is a big loss, but Eli Apple, after a solid true freshman season, should fill his spot, while sophomores Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell emerged as reliable figures at the safety positions. Gareon Conley and Damon Webb will battle in the spring to start at corner opposite Apple.
Meanwhile, at Minnesota, the secondary featured a foursome as strong as any group in the league last year. And all return but safety Cedric Thompson. Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun form arguably the best pair of corners in the Big Ten. Safety Damarius Travis is back to start, likely to be joined by Antonio Johnson. Again, the backfield figures to rank as the Gophers’ defensive strength.
The Huskers ranked No. 2 nationally in opponent completion percentage and second in the Big Ten to Penn State in allowing 6.07 yards per passing attempt. Defensive co-captains Corey Cooper at safety and cornerback Josh Mitchell are gone, along with the whole coaching staff. New secondary coach Brian Stewart, formerly the defensive coordinator at Maryland, inherits a group that returns safety Nate Gerry as a junior after he led the Big Ten with five interceptions in league play, and corner Daniel Davie. Just as important, the Huskers get versatile defender Charles Jackson back from injury and safety LeRoy Jackson, slated to start last year, back from a suspension. Nickel Byerson Cockrell also returns, giving the Huskers an experienced group.
Problem for a contender: Michigan State
Dare we say that the Spartans’ pass defense could be a weakness in 2015? Several MSU foes, in fact, penetrated the “No Fly Zone” last year, though MSU opponents threw on 60.2 percent of their plays, the highest figure nationally. The Spartans lose All-Big Ten cornerback Trae Waynes and star safety Kurtis Drummond. Receiver Tony Lippett, who doubled as a corner late in the season, is gone, too, leaving safety RJ Williamson and cornerback Darian Hicks, who lost his job in November, with experience. Montae Nicholson and Demetrious Cox appear to own the inside track to start in 2015. There’s plenty of youth on hand also through which Harlon Barnett, promoted to co-defensive coordinator, can search this spring.
The conference’s plan to circulate a white paper regarding keeping football and basketball players off the field for their first year on campus has become a hot topic for anyone involved with college sports this week. Reactions have ranged from cautious support to complete dismissal to “I don’t want to touch that with a 10-foot pole.”
The Big Ten’s release was flushed out with a handful of ideas that Delaney and his athletic directors would like NCAA members to mull over in the next year leading up to the organization’s national convention. Of the brainstorming icebreakers -- which included time commitments, length of season and academic requirements – the only one to gain much attention was the most outlandish and improbable: freshman ineligibility. Maybe that was the point.
Several theories about the proposal’s actual intent have been floated in the past few days: Maybe this week’s meeting was purely a public relations stunt so Delaney and other could proudly tout the Big Ten’s commitment to academics. Maybe it was to try to nudge the NBA toward raising its minimum age requirement. Or maybe it was an attention-grabbing idea designed to stir up enough interest that smart minds started thinking about more logical solutions.
The possibility of the idea actually becoming an NCAA rule seems both unrealistic and counterintuitive. This is an all-or-nothing deal, and the vast majority of Div. I universities that don’t deal with one-and-done players don’t have the resources (or the motivation) to give all their student-athletes an extra year of scholarship money. The NCAA already created a rule that will keep academically at risk athletes off the field as freshmen. It goes into effect in 2016. Does it make sense to punish the freshmen that are ready to handle school and sport by making them sit out a year too?
If the schools are genuine in their academic-first approach, shouldn’t they focus on the other ideas that create an environment where the workload for athletics is manageable for all student-athletes regardless of their year? Doesn’t the “Year of Readiness” discourage student-athletes from finishing their degrees in four years? Why rush when you know you’ve got five years on campus? And doesn’t that set student-athletes apart from all of their other peers? Isn’t that the perception the NCAA is trying to avoid in the first place?
The Big Ten’s idea, which has been endorsed by commissioners from the Big 12 and the Pac-12 as well, raises plenty of questions. If that was the point, then kudos, mission accomplished. Otherwise, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
And now, onto your links…
- The quarterbacks and offensive linemen are players to watch as Northwestern gets spring practice started this week.
- A film room-style breakdown of how Ohio State’s offense got better during the 2014 season.
- Penn State ticket prices for 2015 are out. Michigan and Rutgers will be the most expensive games of the year for fans.
- A good week at the NFL combine reflects well on Michigan State’s program, says Mark Dantonio.
- It’s the more, the merrier at quarterback for Jim Harbaugh and Michigan this spring.
- The majority of Rutgers’ fans are ready to forgive Ray Rice and welcome him back to campus.
- Maryland’s football team is warming up for spring practice with a little dunk contest.
- The assistant coaches at Wisconsin are getting a small bump in salary under new coach Paul Chryst.
- Brian Stewart brings college and professional experience to his new role with the Cornhuskers.
- Could Iowa’s Brandon Scherff follow in the footsteps of former college tackle and current All-Pro guard Zack Martin?
But maybe there was a little more to it than just the fog.
Thanks BuckeyeNation for supporting the Cruise to beat cancer raising over $2 million!! Back on land-on way home.— Urban Meyer (@OSUCoachMeyer) February 25, 2015
The exodus of high-profile run-stuffers leaves a large group of programs bunched together in the middle of the pack when evaluating the conference's linebacker units at the start of 2015. Most of those teams losing big-name players have good depth and a supporting cast to help fill the gaps. It may take time next fall to sort through which groups have weathered losses the best and which young players will rise to the occasion.
Best of the Best: Ohio State
No surprise here. The Buckeyes will be at the top of many of these position breakdown lists. Senior Joshua Perry returns to lead this athletic group. He finished a breakout 2014 season with a team-leading 124 tackles. Freshman Darron Lee started to emerge as a future star with the ability to make big plays late in the season, especially during an MVP performance at the Sugar Bowl. Raekwon McMillan and incoming freshman Justin Hilliard provide more young talent for a group that is still improving after a national championship this past fall.
Next up: Michigan State, Penn State
The Spartans, who had the country's stingiest rushing defense last year, will have at least one player named Bullough (junior Riley) in the second level of its defense next fall. That is historically a good sign for Michigan State. He joins senior Ed Davis, who won honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2014, to give the linebacker unit a sleeker, speedier look than on previous Mark Dantonio defenses. The departure of defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi leaves a little bit of uncertainty, but new coach Mark Snyder should help this unit remain a feared entity.
Penn State finished only a couple spots behind Michigan State in stopping the run. Hull is gone, but the majority of a deep unit returns. Starters Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman return for their second season in the lineup. Wartman finished second on the team last year with 75 tackles. The return of Ben Kline, who missed all of 2014 as part of an injury-riddled career so far, should also help the unit.
The Wolverines lose a natural ballhawk in Jake Ryan but shouldn't take a major step back after quietly having one of the better linebacker groups in the conference last year. Senior Joe Bolden is ready to take over for Ryan after making 102 tackles last year. Fifth-year senior Desmond Morgan missed almost all of 2014 with a hand injury, but he returns for his fourth season as a starter. Two defensive assistants with great track records coaching linebackers, D.J. Durkin and Greg Mattison, should help solve any issues Michigan has at the position.
Problem for a contender: Nebraska
The Cornhuskers are still struggling to get up to speed at linebacker in the Big Ten. Michael Rose-Ivey missed a full year after setting a Nebraska freshman record with 66 tackles in 2013. He will be back on the field, but the loss of two starters (Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach) means that there is still work to be done in filling out the two-deep. Nebraska missed out on a good chance to add experience when South Carolina transfer Kaiwan Lewis chose Rutgers over the Cornhuskers in early February.
Best of the best: Michigan State
Shilique Calhoun's return guarantees the Spartan Dawgs will retain their bite up front. Starting defensive tackles Lawrence Thomas and Joel Heath also will be back, and Malik McDowell could be ready to take a leap forward after getting his feet wet as a true freshman. Michigan State does have to replace four-year starter Marcus Rush, but it has Demetrius Cooper groomed to take on a much larger role. This is a deep and talented bunch anchored by a potential NFL first-rounder in Calhoun.
Next up: Ohio State
You could consider the Spartans and Buckeyes Nos. 1 and 1A here. Ohio State still has reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year Joey Bosa at defensive end, along with Adolphus Washington at defensive tackle. But the Buckeyes did lose All-America defensive tackle Michael Bennett and defensive end Steve Miller, and they weren't very deep at the position last season. Incoming true freshmen Dre'Mont Jones and Jashon Cornell could be asked to contribute right away at end, and the hope is someone from a group of redshirt sophomores -- Donovan Munger, Michael Hill and Tracy Sprinkle -- can move in next to Washington.
Sleepers: Michigan and Minnesota
The Wolverines replace both of their starting defensive ends from last season in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer, though Clark was dismissed from the team before the season ended. Michigan should be in very good shape at defensive tackle with Willie Henry, Bryan Mone, Ryan Glasgow and Chris Wormley, and it could be Taco Charlton's time to shine at defensive end. New defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin had players on the front four gain weight this offseason in anticipation of possibly some more 3-4 looks this fall.
Minnesota lost two starters in tackle Cam Botticelli and Michael Amaefula, but remember the line dealt with some early injuries last season and still excelled. Defensive end Theiren Cockran returns, along with promising rising sophomore Steven Richardson at tackle, while Scott Ekpe and Alex Keith are back from their injuries. The Gophers like their depth here, too.
Problem for contenders: Nebraska and Wisconsin
These may not be problems as much as question marks, but both the Huskers and Badgers need some new players to step up this spring.
Nebraska looks all set in the middle with Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine, but Randy Gregory's departure leaves a huge hole at defensive end. Greg McMullen and Jack Gangwish return starting experience there, but they won't remind anyone of Gregory nor scare many opposing offensive tackles the same way he did.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, must replace two members of its three-man starting front in departing seniors Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski. Chikwe Obasih and Arthur Goldberg gained a lot of experience, but the Badgers will probably need a young guy like Alec James to improve this spring to solidify the entire unit.
1. Ohio State
Is there really any doubt? The national championship is difficult to overlook. There’s no better job in the Big Ten -- both historically, though Michigan might argue, and in the current climate.
The Wolverines deserve real consideration for a spot in the top 10 nationally. With more wins than any program in college football history and the second-highest winning percentage to Notre Dame, this is a truly special job. Just ask Jim Harbaugh.
3. Penn State
Resources galore. PSU may feature the best combination in the league of location, fan support and tradition. And the urgency to win is real, an important factor in comparison to other Big Ten programs striving for the top.
Some natural disadvantages exist, yes, but no school in the Big Ten creates unity and provokes passion among its fan base like the Huskers. This is not Tom Osborne’s Nebraska, but it’s still a top job with elite institutional support.
5. Michigan State
Natural competition with Michigan and Ohio State works for the Spartans in setting a high standard -- and works against MSU in that it may never be viewed, by comparison, as a true blue blood in the sport. Still, who cares about that if you’re in the discussion for a national title?
While the Badgers don’t have the history of the Big Ten’s other top programs, and the resources in recruiting don't ever figure to stack up with a few competitors, Wisconsin wins and produces championship-caliber competitors.
The Terrapins sit a ways back from the top tier of the league in many areas. But few can compare with Maryland’s recruiting ground and built-in support system courtesy of Under Armour.
The Hawkeyes compensate their coach well: Kirk Ferentz had one of the top 10 salaries in the country in 2014. And they have a strong tradition. They are the biggest show in the state, but convincing talented players to come to Iowa City remains a challenge.
Minnesota has made an effort in the past few years to upgrade facilities and invest more in resources like nutrition and player support. The results are starting to show. While the local talent might be lacking, Minneapolis is one of the more attractive cities in the Big Ten.
The Illini fall slightly behind Minnesota on our list because of location. Illinois coaches have had trouble consistently getting talent from Chicago to join them in the middle of the state. The focus remains more on basketball in Champaign.
One of the Big Ten’s newcomers is making strides toward matching some of the bigger schools in the conference, but the Scarlet Knights still have a ways to go before they can get out of catch-up mode.
Stringent academic requirements and a small, private campus are obstacles for any coach at Northwestern. A new facility on the edge of Lake Michigan should help the Wildcats when it is eventually completed.
Football interest wanes quickly for the Hoosiers when basketball gets started in the late fall. The resources aren’t there, which makes it difficult to survive the improving gauntlet of the Big Ten East on a yearly basis.
Purdue is Indiana without the added benefit of Bloomington, a great college town. Ross-Ade Stadium could use a face-lift, and West Lafayette lacks the charm of other campuses in the conference.
Easiest Path To The 2015 College Football Playoff
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
TBD Kent State Illinois TBD Southern Illinois Indiana TBD Illinois State Iowa TBD Richmond Maryland TBD BYU Nebraska TBD Norfolk State Rutgers TBD Penn State Temple TBD Stanford Northwestern TBD Wisconsin Alabama