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About a year ago, long before the first game that factored into the College Football Playoff and before his team played a down of Big Ten football, Rutgers coach Kyle Flood began to offer to recruits his vision of the era ahead.

In particular, Flood told them he found it difficult to believe that a one-loss Big Ten champion would miss the four-team playoff.

A month into last season, as the league sat squarely outside playoff speculation, Flood did not waver, bolstered by his confidence in Big Ten coaches and the respect he believed the league had earned.

“Players want to win championships,” Flood said. “They want to know if they’re on the right team and have the right season that they have access to a championship.”

His assertion proved correct, of course, as Ohio State roared to the finish, securing the fourth spot in the semifinals.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer and Ezekiel Elliott
Darren Carroll for ESPNOhio State's national championship capped a strong bowl season for the Big Ten and showed recruits that the league is once again a national player.
What the Buckeyes did next, though, sent ripples through the Big Ten landscape. Ohio State’s national title restored positive energy to the league. Packaged with a strong postseason by other conference teams -- the Big Ten won three of four games on New Year’s Day and finished 6-5 overall -- and the splash of Jim Harbaugh’s hire at Michigan, it shifted perception of the league from a doormat nationally to something of a force again.

In recruiting, dividends pay immediately.

Some Big Ten coaches, back on the recruiting trail for the past two weeks in the push toward signing day a week from Wednesday, have noticed a change in attitude from prospects who had grown accustomed to watching the league struggle on a big stage.

“A part of recruiting is perception,” Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said this week as he drove to recruiting stops in Indianapolis. “The perception of the Big Ten is that it’s on the rise right now. We enjoy that. We embrace that. We’re excited about that.”

So does a rising tide lift all boats in Big Ten recruiting? No consensus exists among league coaches. Wilson, whose program has qualified for one bowl game in the past two decades, and others said they welcome the flood of media exposure around Ohio State and Michigan this month as impactful for the entire conference in attracting prospects.

Minnesota defensive backs and special teams coach Jay Sawvel said he has heard the stereotype that Big Ten programs lag in athleticism.

It was justified at times, Sawvel said.

But the narrative can change. This bowl season helped. The Big Ten and SEC split four postseason meetings.

In four years at Minnesota with Jerry Kill, Sawvel said, he has found the Gophers received well by recruits. That reception has improved as Minnesota notched wins in the past 15 months over Penn State, Nebraska twice and Michigan.

“Our conference is known everywhere,” Sawvel said, “but it needed a step up in legitimacy. I think Ohio State’s run and what happened in other bowl games helped that a little bit. But what has to happen for the conference as a whole is for one through 14 to step up.”

Illinois recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh sees a change, too.

“It’s raised some eyebrows,” said Golesh, an Ohio State graduate who coaches tight ends and running backs for the Illini.

Golesh said he’s happy to use talk of a general upswing among the Big Ten as a selling point for Illinois in recruiting. He won’t go much further, though.

For instance, he has not talked once about Harbaugh with a recruit. How about Ohio State, which plays at Illinois in November?

“You find out what’s going to make the kid tick. You sell your program, your product, your fit and your coaching staff,” Golesh said this week while recruiting in Nashville. “I don’t think we’d bring up the success of another school unless you absolutely have to.”

A lot of times schools from the South that come recruiting in our part of the country, part of their pitch is, 'If you want to play great football, you have to come to the South.' That's a tough sell nowadays. After this bowl season, you'd be hard pressed to make that pitch to a recruit.

- Rutgers coach Kyle Flood
It’s no different at Michigan State, which claims four 11-win seasons in the past five years -- a record matched in the Big Ten only by the Buckeyes.

“We’re selling results,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday. “When we first came here, we were selling hope. We’re not selling hope now. That’s probably as big a difference as anything. The results are there. We’re putting a lot of guys in the NFL. It’s not a myth. These things are happening.”

Hope isn’t always a bad thing to sell, though, especially if it’s justified. Wilson, entering his fifth year at Indiana, said the Hoosiers have upgraded recruiting significantly since 2011.

The former offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, Wilson watched Oklahoma State, Baylor and Texas Tech elevate their programs in recent years. Some of it came through recruiting success aided by competing every year with Texas and Oklahoma.

The Big Ten East necessitates a similar climb as top programs continue to raise the bar. Wilson said his staff doesn’t blink at the rising challenge.

“It enhances recruiting,” Wilson said. “Look at what Michigan State has done. At the end of the day, the power of the Big Ten is a positive. We have sold that in recruiting. Great players want a chance to prove themselves against other great players.”

Harbaugh’s staff, with barely a month to build a recruiting class, fights to finish in this last week as five Big Ten teams rate among the national leaders in ESPN’s class rankings. Ohio State is seventh, followed by Penn State (12th), Michigan State (28th), Wisconsin (29th) and Nebraska (32nd).

For Flood at Rutgers, the selling points of the Big Ten are no different. He believed in the league before its recent turnaround.

When he shared his feelings last year about a one-loss league champion, recruits believed him. Still, Flood said, he knows they heard a different message from coaches outside the conference.

“A lot of times,” Flood said, “schools from the South that come recruiting in our part of the country, part of their pitch is, ‘If you want to play great football, you have to come to the South.’

“That’s a tough sell nowadays. After this bowl season, you’d be hard-pressed to make that pitch to a recruit.”

Big Ten morning links

January, 28, 2015
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National signing day is exactly one week away. For some programs, it will be a sprint between now and next Wednesday. Others have already done most of their heavy lifting and will be focusing on babysitting their committed prospects and laying the groundwork for 2016. One thing's for sure, however: when head coaches talk about their 2015 classes next week, there will be nothing but superlatives.

No one has ever had a bad recruiting class, if you believe what is said at these signing day press conferences. Here are six quotes you are guaranteed not to hear from any Big Ten coach or anywhere in America on Feb. 4:

"This probably ranks as the third- or fourth-best class we've ever signed here."

You'll hear a lot of coaches say their class is "the best" one they've had. Which always makes me wonder what current players recruited by that coach must think.

"With this class, we got a step slower and a little bit smaller."

"Faster, higher, stronger" isn't just the Olympic motto. It's the go-to cliche for coaches on signing day.

"We got some good players, but we didn't really fill our needs."

You'll hear a lot of talk about classes that filled needs. Of course. Why would you recruit players you didn't need?

"We pay very close attention to star rankings and agree with how the experts ranked our class."

Many coaches will say they completely ignore recruiting service rankings ... unless they can use it to brag about how highly-rated their class is or collect a bonus for a high ranking.

"We missed out on a few kids we really wanted."

The signing day spin will be that teams got everybody they wanted. In this era of decommitments and flipping and prospects embracing the drama of their announcements, that's pretty much impossible.

"This class has some great athletes, but their character is questionable."

Every prospect on signing day is "a high-character kid" who fits the team culture. Except coaches don't really get to spend a lot of time with many of the prospects they sign, and they're hoping that 17-year-old doesn't turn out to be a knucklehead once he lives on his own for the first time.

OK, on to the links: West Division

Weekend recruiting wrap: Big Ten 

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

Big Ten morning links

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

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

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

FINISH HIM!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

East Division
West Division
Monday was a busy day on the recruiting trail, as expected with just 10 days left until national signing day Feb. 4. The state of Texas is literally hanging on every word and tweet of a handful of top uncommitted prospects that will provide bragging rights for a fan base that no longer plays each other on the field. This and a number of others topics make up today's Daily Social.

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Big Ten morning links

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere in Big Ten country ...

East Division
West Division

Best of the visits: Big Ten

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

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

PENN STATE:

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


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

MICHIGAN:

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


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

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


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

ILLINOIS:

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

MARYLAND:

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

OHIO STATE:

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

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


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


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

INDIANA:

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

WISCONSIN:

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


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



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

MICHIGAN STATE:

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


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

NEBRASKA:

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


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


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

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

Officials want suit vs. Penn St. tossed

January, 23, 2015
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HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Pennsylvania officials are asking a judge to dismiss a lawsuit against Penn State and the NCAA over the penalties related to the Jerry Sandusky child abuse case.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman and state Treasurer Rob McCord on Thursday asked a Commonwealth Court judge to mark the case as settled.

A letter between Penn State and the treasury department calls for the university to send the state $36 million within 10 days of the dismissal order and another $12 million by July. The money will fund child-abuse prevention efforts.

The parties reached a deal last week to restore 112 wins to Penn State, ending punitive sanctions imposed after Sandusky's 2012 conviction on child molestation charges.

Sandusky was Penn State's assistant football coach. He's serving a lengthy prison sentence but maintains he's innocent.


(Read full post)


Big Ten morning links

January, 23, 2015
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Wrapping up the first full week since August without college football. Just 30 more weeks until the games start again:

Oregon State coach Gary Andersen confirmed, in an interview with Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports, that he left Wisconsin last month in large part over frustration with the school's admission standards.

No surprise there, though it was interesting to read Andersen's explanation and the matter-of-fact nature with which he -- and Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez -- spoke about the situation.

"I don't expect anybody to understand it," Andersen told Dodd in reference to making the move to Oregon State. "I don't expect any one person to look at me and say, 'I get it.' But I get it."

Alvarez offered no apologies or even a suggestion that Wisconsin would relax its standards.

Sounds like Andersen and Alvarez were at odds to stay over admissions. The blowout loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game likely provided the push Andersen needed to act sooner rather than later. And Oregon State, after Mike Riley's move to Nebraska, found itself in the right place at the right time to land the coach.

As a result of Riley's decision to leave Corvallis, Andersen, Paul Chryst at Wisconsin and Pat Narduzzi at Pittsburgh all landed in positions to better succeed on their terms ...

The quarterback situation at Michigan is tenuous, with little experience of note among the four quarterbacks on the roster. In fact, Shane Morris, the most experienced of the bunch, is known best for his place at the center of a controversy last September as he returned to play against Minnesota after suffering a concussion.

It appears that Jim Harbaugh is interested in adding another QB to the mix. The new U-M coach, according to reports, visited 6-foot-7 signal caller Zach Gentry in Albuqerque, New Mexico, this week, and Gentry looks set to set visit Ann Arbor this weekend.

Gentry, rated 118th in the ESPN 300, has been committed to Texas since May. (Texas, for what it's worth, is trying at the same time to flip No. 1-rated QB Kyler Murray from his pledge to Texas A&M.)

As for Gentry, it makes great sense for him to consider Michigan. Harbaugh's work with Andrew Luck at Stanford speaks for itself. The coach, a successful QB at the college and NFL level, will be a recruiting force with the nation's top quarterbacks for as long as he remains at Michigan. Meanwhile, Texas represents much more of a crapshoot for Gentry ...

As you may have heard, this happened over the past couple days at Pitt and Penn State.

Fun stuff. In spite of the prevalence of mediocre teams in the state of Pennsylvania, it's great to see the old rivals sparring on social media. Nothing brings out the feistiness in college coaches quite like recruiting, by the way.

Let's allow this episode to mark the start of an unofficial countdown to the renewal of the PSU-Pitt rivalry. They'll play for the first time in 16 years in September 2016 at Heinz Field, then in 2017 at Beaver Stadium, followed by a repeat of the home-and-home arrangement in 2018 and 2019.

The arrival of Narduzzi at Pitt comes at the right time for this. He is, of course, familiar with the Nittany Lions as former defensive coordinator at Michigan State. And with excitement on the rise at both schools, no better time exists than now for a little stoking of the flames.

And how about Herb Hand, the Penn State offensive line coach, with a barrage of Twitter barbs? We won't make more than a quick reference to the 44 sacks for which his position group was largely responsible in 2014. You can bet Pitt fans will take note -- now and for the next 19 months.

Around the rest of the league:

Big Ten's top recruiting visits 

January, 23, 2015
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This is a crucial visit weekend for many of the teams within the Big Ten conference as we are only a few weeks away from signing day. A ton of big visitors will be on campuses across the Midwest, so here is a look at the most important visits this weekend.

Michigan


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Offseason to-do list: Penn State

January, 22, 2015
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We speed along in our look around the Big Ten at three items each program must address in the months ahead. Up next is the Penn State Nittany Lions:

Get the man some protection: We all know Christian Hackenberg can throw the football. Despite the struggles of the Penn State offense in 2014, he still accumulated 2,977 passing yards, a sophomore record at PSU, and enjoyed several nice late-game moments. But Hackenberg could not operate consistently with defenders in his face. He was sacked 44 times -- more than every FBS quarterback but Wake Forest’s John Wolford. Hackenberg's QBR of 35.4 ranked last in the Big Ten. Penn State loses left tackle Donovan Smith, who declared early for the NFL, and left guard Miles Dieffenbach, not to mention talented tight end Jesse James. Others on the line are back, led by Angelo Mangiro, Brian Gaia, and Andrew Nelson, plus a group of talented redshirts, juco transfer Paris Palmer, and touted early-enrolling, 6-foot-8 freshman Sterling Jenkins. Somewhere in that group, Penn State needs to find a five-man unit to protect Hackenberg. It also must likely refine the offense to help Hackenberg deliver the ball more quickly to his playmakers.

Replace Mike Hull: Hull, who led the Big Ten with 140 tackles, was more than a physical presence on the top-rated defense in the league. He was the emotional leader as a veteran player who endured the worst of the NCAA-imposed sanctions, two coaching changes, and the return to postseason eligibility in 2014. The Nittany Lions must also replace Deion Barnes up front, but Anthony Zettel looks equipped to take on an even larger role after breaking out as a junior on the interior. With seven starters back, including the likes of tackle Austin Johnson, linebacker Brandon Bell, and a secondary that looks like one of the best in the Big Ten, talent on defense is not a problem. Depth is also returning. But the absence of Hull’s leadership cannot be underestimated. The offseason marks an important time to find candidates ready to fill his shoes.

Restore the swagger: The specter of the NCAA is largely gone. The adjustment period for coach James Franklin and his staff is over. Penn State is ready to brush aside distractions and focus on its return to prominence -- and not a moment too soon, as the East Division looks ready to take a major step forward in the wake of Ohio State's national title and the hiring at Michigan of Jim Harbaugh. Franklin is a star in the recruiting arena. His staff, led by defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and his glitzy, new contract, is highly regarded. Young stars like DaeSean Hamilton appear ready to help carry Penn State to the next level. Where that is -- and how soon it gets there -- we will begin to learn in 2015.
We've been counting down our postseason Top 25 player rankings for the Big Ten's 2014 season all week. There's still a ways to go until we get to No. 1, and I won't spoil who topped the list (it's not that hard to figure out).

These postseason rankings are fun because we base them on actual performance in the previous season, not projections or expectations. But let's do a little bit of those latter things here and look ahead to who might top the player rankings in 2015.

It should be an exciting race, full of star power. Let's start with what I'll call the Buckeye 5, a quintuplet of Ohio State stars all returning to Columbus:

Joey Bosa: The league's reigning defensive player of the year is just a true junior, and after leading the Big Ten in sacks and tackles for loss and nearly winning some national awards, he could be ready for another leap forward. Which is truly a scary thought.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesEzekiel Elliott could become the Big Ten's top star in 2015 after shining down the stretch this season.
Ezekiel Elliott: The MVP of both the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, Elliott caught fire down the stretch and finished with more than 1,800 yards. With the Big Ten's plethora of star backs moving on, he could become the new face of the league. Unless it's one of his teammates in the backfield like ...

Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones: Miller finished No. 1 on our player rankings the previous two years, so he'd be an obvious choice ... if we were sure that he'd A) stay at Ohio State, B) resume full health in his throwing shoulder and C) reclaim his old starting job. Barrett was No. 5 in the Heisman Trophy voting this season after a record-breaking campaign, while Jones merely led the team to victory in all three postseason games. No one can say for sure at this point who the Buckeyes' main QB will be in the fall, but whoever it is figures to put up massive numbers for what could be a truly great team.

Ohio State is stuffed full of contenders, and our money is on one of them. But what if they all cancel each other out? Here are a few other candidates:

Michigan State QB Connor Cook: He needs to eliminate some of his careless throws, but no one shakes off a mistake and bounces back with a great play like Cook. Getting him back for his senior season was huge for the Spartans, and he'll have an excellent supporting cast around him.

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: OK, so much of his sophomore season was miserable. But he reminded everyone of his talent with a 371-yard, four-touchdown performance against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. If the Nittany Lions can block for him, watch out.

Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong: Is Armstrong ready to carry the Huskers' offense without Ameer Abdullah? He threw for 381 yards and had four total touchdowns against USC in the Holiday Bowl, and new coach Mike Riley has a reputation as a strong developer of quarterbacks.

Illinois QB Wes Lunt: A bit of a reach, perhaps, but Lunt missed five games because of a broken leg and battled hurt through others while still passing for 1,763 yards and 14 touchdowns. A healthy, second year of starting in Bill Cubit's system, with top-notch receiving target Mikey Dudek, could equal big numbers.

Wisconsin RB Corey Clement: Melvin Gordon is gone, but the Badgers aren't going to stop running the ball at a highly successful rate. Clement, who ran for 949 yards and nine touchdowns as Gordon's understudy, should see a huge spike in carries and is a leading candidate to top the Big Ten in rushing this year.

Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun: His reputation outpaced his 2014 production from a pure statistical stretch (eight sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss), but Calhoun still is one of the most feared pass-rushers around. The 2013 Big Ten defensive lineman of the year surprised many by returning for his senior year, and he could be in line for a monstrous final go-round in East Lansing.
Penn State and Pittsburgh haven't played since the 2000 season, cooling off a spicy in-state rivalry.

Thanks to the (relatively) new coaching staff, namely Penn State assistant Herb Hand -- he of "Chopped" fame -- things are getting stirred up again.

New Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi, never one to back down from a challenge -- just ask Michigan -- started the chirping shortly after his hiring. Asked in late December about the pledge from Penn State coach James Franklin to "dominate the state," Narduzzi told a local radio station, "We had a school like that down the road in Michigan that maybe had the same attitude."

Things are spilling into social media now. Franklin and his staff are extremely active, and Pitt's new staff has joined the fun, as colleague Andrea Adelson writes.

The teams' offensive line coaches -- Penn State's Hand and Pitt's John Peterson -- entered the Twitter ring Wednesday night.

Peterson got things started with this graphic, proclaiming Pitt as the state's premier program. Hand didn't take kindly to it, listing Penn State's accomplishments over Pitt last season, including a bowl win and a better record against common foes (Penn State went 2-0 against Boston College and Akron; Pitt went 1-1). Is mentioning Pitt's bowl collapse a shot below the belt? Ouch. Hand then proceeded to drop the mic, SNL style. A night's rest didn't cool off Hand, who added this picture Thursday morning. Your move, Pitt coaches. By the way, Penn State and Pitt resume their series Sept. 10, 2016 in the Steel City. The game can't get here soon enough.
To quote the band Europe, we're in the final countdown. Our list of the best Big Ten players from the 2014 season has reached the top 10. This next group reflects the league's strongest position (by far): running back.

Let's get to it.

No. 6: Ameer Abdullah, RB Nebraska

Abdullah won't soon be forgotten by Nebraska fans who have seen plenty of elite running backs over the decades. The heart and soul of Huskers football the past few years eclipsed 1,600 rushing yards for the second consecutive season, ranked fourth nationally in all-purpose yards (174.8 ypg) and had 22 total touchdowns, numbers that would have been even greater if not for a late-season knee sprain. Abdullah earned second-team AP All-America honors and was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award.

No. 7: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State

For most of the season, it was the Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman and Ameer Abdullah show, with some cameos from David Cobb. No one mentioned Elliott, mostly because Buckeyes freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett kept stealing the show with his performances. But Elliott took center stage in Ohio State's championship run, earning offensive MVP honors in both the College Football Playoff semifinal and championship game. Cheers of "Zeeke!" echoed in Indianapolis, New Orleans and Arlington, Texas, as Elliott racked up 696 rush yards and eight touchdowns in the Big Ten championship and playoff games. He finished third nationally in rushing yards with 1,878.

No. 8: Anthony Zettel, DT, Penn State

The only non-running back in this portion of the player rankings earned his spot largely by making life miserable for opposing running backs. Zettel moved from end to tackle in the spring and emerged as an interior force, finishing second in the Big Ten in tackles for loss (17) and tied for fourth in sacks (8). He also tied for the team lead in interceptions (3). An exceptional athlete who supplements his football work with mixed martial arts training, Zettel is continuing Penn State's tradition of elite defensive tackles.

No. 9: David Cobb, RB, Minnesota

The 220-pound Texan put Minnesota's offense on his back for much of the season. Cobb set single-season team records for both carries (314) and rush yards (1,626), and logged seven 100-yard rushing performances. The second-team All-Big Ten selection had big performances against both Ohio State (145 yards) and Michigan (183 yards) and reached the end zone in each of his final six Big Ten games. Minnesota's offense lacked balance at times, but Cobb kept the chains moving.

No. 10: Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State

Langford might be the nation's most under-appreciated running back in the past two seasons. Constantly overshadowed by flashier players in the Big Ten and elsewhere, he has been remarkably consistent and productive, recording 10 100-yard rushing performances to give him a team-record 18 for his career. He also tied Michigan State's single-season rushing touchdowns record with 22. Like in 2013, Langford did much of his damage in Big Ten play, averaging 127.5 rush yards per game. In almost any other league, he's a first-team all-conference selection.

Daily Social Roundup: UCLA checks in with Iman Marshall 

January, 22, 2015
Jan 22
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Wednesday marked the two-week point until national signing day and coaches were out in force on the recruiting trail, with UCLA's visit to No. 4 overall prospect Iman Marshall leading the headlines.


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