Michigan Wolverines: Derrick Green
Josh Moyer: Hmmm ... it's a bit tricky this week since only three of 14 games don't feature huge double-digit favorites (Rutgers-Washington State, UCF-Penn State, Wisconsin-LSU). Out of those three, though, I like Wisconsin the most as an upset pick. LSU has a new quarterback and running back and its run defense shows a few cracks. The Tigers ranked 94th in the nation last season in stopping ball carriers behind the line and were No. 35 in run defense. And you know what happens when Melvin Gordon finds room on the outside (hint: touchdown). Wisconsin has fared well against better run defenses, so they should be able to keep the ball moving Saturday. We'll see if that's enough.
@ESPNJoshMoyer upset alert week 1 in the big ten?— Matt Finnigan (@Finnarious) August 26, 2014
Josh Moyer: After a sub-par freshman campaign, it sure looks as if Derrick Green is on pace to be Michigan's feature back. Brady Hoke named him the starter, although he added that De'Veon Smith will be "1A." But if you look at how Doug Nussmeier and Brady Hoke have approached running backs since 2010, the top guy has always received at least twice as many carries as the backup. (One exception: Alabama's Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon split carries in 2012 but combined for 66.5 percent of team carries.) Green had 27 percent body fat last year and naturally looked sluggish; he's at 9 percent right now. He'll be better. As for Jabrill Peppers, count me among the believers. Devin Gardner said recently that Peppers and Devin Funchess are the best athletes on the team. That's big praise. So sure, Peppers has generated a lot of hype -- but I think he'll live up to it.
Josh Moyer: In our season predictions this morning, I was the only Big Ten reporter to pick Minnesota to win fewer than six games. Everyone else said six or seven. I'll admit I waffled slightly between choosing five and six wins, but the Minnesota passing game -- or lack thereof -- really concerns me. The Gophers ranked No. 105 in the nation last season in total offense and, without a playmaker like Ra'Shede Hageman on defense, I'm not yet sold on the defense being as good as last year. In some ways, last season's 8-5 record was a best-case scenario -- especially with surprising wins against Penn State and Nebraska, and close wins against Norhtwestern and Indiana. When I look at this season's schedule, I see seven losses: at TCU, at Michigan, Northwestern, Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska, and at Wisconsin. Northwestern was the toss-up for me but, as it stands, I see the Wildcats winning a close one.
@ESPNJoshMoyer why so down on the Gophers? 5-7 (2-6) seems low. Not saying they are winning 9+, but no bowl? Really?— Darren Michael (@HaloKitty343) August 27, 2014
Josh Moyer: It's the biggest question mark on the team, and I think it's going to be the determining factor in whether Penn State finds success. I picked the Nittany Lions to win seven games and, honestly, I think that's even slightly optimistic with this line. (Two players who were defensive tackles in February are now starting inside as offensive guards, and absent is basically any quality depth.) This offense has for which to be excited: Christian Hackenberg, two terrific running backs, my pick for B1G tight end of the year and a plethora of talented young wideouts. The only thing that's missing is a solid O-line -- and all the talent in the world doesn't mean anything if Hackenberg and Co. can't find time. If last season's O-line returned, I might even pick Penn State to win 10 games. The potential is there, but the offensive line is going to act as the cap.
@ESPNJoshMoyer How big of a concern is the Penn State O-line?— Sean Banks (@seanbanks3) August 27, 2014
Wish me luck. Better yet, send me questions. And follow us on Twitter.
Adam Rittenberg: Aaron, the proliferation of spread offenses and their reliance on slot receivers has lowered the demand for the traditionally bigger wideout. It doesn't mean teams don't want those players, especially if they can run. Minnesota's offense has some spread elements, but it's more of a traditional set, based around the power run. The Gophers' last elite receiver, Eric Decker, was a taller guy with excellent hands and athleticism. It certainly helps to have size out wide, and Florida State showed last season how beneficial it can be with players like Kelvin Benjamin (6-foot-5). But teams generally are looking for speed first and aren't locked in to having every receiver stand taller than 6-foot-2.
Rittenberg: Too soon to tell, Angie. The big question is: When will Ty Isaac be eligible? He wants to play immediately but might have to sit out a season. If he sits, Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith will enter the season most likely as Michigan's top two ball-carrying options. So they can distinguish themselves without any push from Isaac. Ultimately, most teams want to play at least two running backs and sometimes three. While running back transfers aren't uncommon, you don't see them as much as quarterbacks.
Rittenberg: It seems a little high, although Oregon performs extremely well at home and is capable of putting up a big number on just about anybody. Big Ten teams typically struggle in games at Pac-12 stadiums, and Autzen Stadium is one of the nation's toughest environments for a road team. But I think the oddsmakers are underestimating Michigan State's offense, which returns quarterback Connor Cook and most of its key pieces from a 13-1 team. The Spartans clearly need a big effort from their defense against Marcus Mariota and the Ducks, but Cook and his crew should be able to put up points in this game, if they avoid turnovers. Oregon definitely is the favorite, but 13 points is a lot.
Rittenberg: You bring up some valid points, Doug, and it's good to see that there are some Stave supporters out there. His experience can't be overlooked, especially given how his primary competitor, Tanner McEvoy, lacks any experience at the quarterback position at the FBS level. I just wonder how much Stave can improve after losing his top wide receiver (Jared Abbrederis) and with so much uncertainty on the perimeter. McEvoy provides the mobility to get out of trouble and create plays when none appear to be there. But it might not be wise to throw him into the fire against LSU's defense in Week 1. That's a tough spot. Ultimately, we need to see Stave back to 100 percent this summer and how he performs in camp when the freshmen wide receivers are there.
To your queries ...
Aaron from Washington, Iowa, writes: I feel like Ty Issac signing at Michigan hasn't gotten as much attention as it should have. I feel like Michigan's RBs could have a huge year if the pieces fall into place. Your thoughts?
Brian Bennett: Isaac, who transferred from USC, is potentially a big boost for the Wolverines. But it remains to be seen whether Isaac will receive a waiver from the NCAA to become immediately eligible. He's from Shorewood, Illinois, which isn't exactly next door to Ann Arbor. The NCAA, though, has been pretty lenient on waiver cases of late, so we'll see. We should also have learned by now to exercise caution with hyped transfers. Remember all the hoopla about Kyle Prater transferring from USC to Northwestern, or DeAnthony Arnett going to Michigan State from Tennessee? Neither has had much of an impact yet in the Big Ten, though there's still time.
There is absolutely no doubt that Michigan has to improve its rushing attack after averaging just 3.3 yards per carry last season. Derrick Green should be better as a sophomore, especially with a more streamlined body. De'Veon Smith is pushing him. New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is emphasizing the north-south running game, and the Wolverines simply can't win at a high level without it. The question, of course, is whether the offensive line can coalesce and create enough holes for the back to plow through. If not, it won't matter who is carrying the ball.
My question is: I know you guys (and most college football analysts) think Ohio State's D-line is the best unit in the Big Ten. But how do you think they measure up nationally? I think Clemson's line is head and shoulders better, considering that this Tigers front blew up Ohio State's allegedly great offensive line for five sacks and 10 (10!!) tackles for loss in the Orange Bowl. Is Ohio State's D-line even in the nation's top 20?
Brian Bennett: It's always going to be tough to compare college football teams directly against one another statistically across conferences because they all play such different schedules. Also remember that no team plays elite competition every week; statistical measures like yards per carry allowed are always going to be boosted by games against weak nonconference opponents, league bottom-feeders, heavy passing teams, etc. It would be surprising if a team like Michigan State didn't give up more rushing yards than its season average against a team like Stanford, which had one of the nation's better ground games last year and features a powerful attack that is unlike most FBS teams.
It also works in reverse. You mentioned, for example, Wisconsin's game against South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. The Badgers rushed for 293 yards and for 6.8 yards per carry in that game, numbers that were way above the Gamecocks' season defensive averages. Does that mean that South Carolina's defense was overrated? What about the impact on Big Ten defenses that had to face Wisconsin?
There's very little question about the talent on Ohio State's defensive line. You've got two of the top returning defensive ends in the league in Joey Bosa and Noah Spence (when he returns from suspension). Defensive tackle Michael Bennett is being projected as a first-round NFL draft pick. Adolphus Washington is also extremely skilled, and there is promising depth behind the starters. The Buckeyes could have three or four first-round picks on that unit this fall. That's why everyone is so high on that defensive line, though, of course, the group still needs to prove it on the field against the best of the best.
Brian Bennett: Love your optimism, Jerry. A couple of things -- for one, it's the summer time, and things are pretty slow everywhere. There hasn't been a lot of news out of College Park in a while. Maryland doesn't officially even join the Big Ten (along with Rutgers) until July 1, at which time we hope to have some more coverage of the Terps. Maryland fans have also been very quiet -- we haven't heard much from you guys on Twitter on in the mailbags. I think Randy Edsall has an interesting team on his hands and one that can make some noise if it can stay healthy. It's a pretty simple equation around here: The more you win and have an impact on the league, the more we're going to talk about you.
Brian Bennett: We're well aware of Indiana's offensive prowess, Xavier, and we mention those guys a lot around here. We're doing some statistical projections in the next few days, and the Hoosiers will be well represented. If you're talking about national respect, it's all about winning games. When a team has been out of the postseason since 2007, like IU, it becomes pretty irrelevant nationally. Its games don't receive spotlight broadcast times, and individual accomplishments get overlooked. Indiana needs to pull off a couple of Big Ten upsets for its players to get noticed nationally. Sudfeld and Coleman need to deliver in games against Ohio State, Michigan State and other top contenders.
Brian Bennett: Fun idea, Cameron. The Ivy League has steered clear of playing FBS teams in recent years. But this is one FBS-FCS matchup I could support, if only for the historical celebrations and ceremonies that could come with it.
Let's get going ...
Glenn from Vancouver writes: What the heck happened to Max Bullough? Four on the draft depth chart and eight ILBs taken in the draft. Presumably everyone interested in him asked what happened with the Rose Bowl suspension so either he refused to answer the question or the answer was unacceptable. Thoughts?
Adam Rittenberg: Always great to hear from one of my favorite North American cities, Glenn. The Rose Bowl suspension undoubtedly hurt Bullough, but he also showed up to the East-West Shrine Game much heavier than he played during the season. It seems like NFL teams went for speed and versatility at linebacker more than college production. Wisconsin's Chris Borland also went later than expected, and Iowa's James Morris, like Bullough, wasn't drafted. But not to see Bullough anywhere in seven rounds of the draft was a shock.
Adam Rittenberg: Jim, university presidents obviously do much more than fundraising, but to think fundraising isn't the main thrust of their jobs is naive. That's how schools grow and, in some cases, how they survive. You say Tressel has no professional fundraising experience. You think football coaches don't schmooze university donors? C'mon, Jim. Tressel is an instantly recognizable figure, especially in northeast Ohio. He knows how to connect with large groups and, in my opinion, will be able to reach out to more potential donors than a standard university president whom many don't know.
Also, Tressel gained important experience in the university setting the past two years at Akron. From my story on him in November:
Tressel oversees areas like admissions and recruitment, academic support, retention, financial aid and the career center.
He made major changes to the way Akron attracts, admits, educates and advises students. As of last week, Akron had received about 3,000 more freshman applications than it had the previous year, an increase of 52 percent. Tressel moved the career center from a far-flung location to the middle of the student union. He set up the Roo Crew, which connects alumni and others around the university community with current students to assist with job placement. More than 700 alumni are part of the group.
Tressel isn't a traditional hire, but he can succeed in this role, whether folks want to admit it or not.
Adam Rittenberg: Matt, both games will be tough for Iowa, but I'm going to go with Nebraska because there are more certainties about the Huskers than the Badgers at this point. Nebraska will be out to avenge last year's blowout home loss to Iowa, and the Huskers should be able to match up better with Iowa at the line of scrimmage. I'm not knocking Wisconsin, but I just have a lot of questions about the Badgers right now. They should figure things out by the Nov. 22 trip to Kinnick, but we'll see. Pitt could be a tough early season trip for Iowa, as the Panthers are on the rise. Northwestern always plays Iowa tough and easily could have won last year's game. The Minnesota trip is another tricky game, although Iowa dominated at TCF Bank Stadium last year.
Adam Rittenberg: It feels odd that wide receiver/tight end will be a question mark for the Hoosiers, as the program has been good at both spots, but there are some major voids right now. IU needs a huge year from Shane Wynn, who has explosive ability. The key will be filling spots on the outside, whether it's a veteran like Nick Stoner or Isaiah Roundtree, or a younger player like freshman Dominique Booth. Also, keep an eye on Isaac Griffith, who was impressing people before his swimming accident and could become a great story this season.
Adam Rittenberg: Shelby, none of the current Michigan players or coaches was part of the Appalachian State game in 2007, so I don't know if the revenge factor matters. But the Wolverines absolutely need a strong showing in the opener, especially with the questions about the offense that persisted during spring practice. The offensive line needs to dominate, Derrick Green and others need to run the ball and quarterback Devin Gardner needs to play a smart game. Michigan has a Week 2 trip to Notre Dame and needs to head there with some confidence. Keep in mind, too, that this Appalachian State team isn't nearly as strong as the 2007 version.
Three things we learned in the spring
- Front seven, front and center: The Wolverines didn't stand pat on defense this offseason. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is now coaching the linebackers, while Mark Smith moved down to take over the defensive line. They also shuffled their linebackers, switching Jake Ryan to the middle and emerging star James Ross III to the strong side. The moves seemed to work out well this spring, with Ryan looking like his old playmaking self a year removed from ACL surgery. The defensive line could be one of the team's strengths, led by senior defensive ends Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer and improving youngsters Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley and Willie Henry. Mattison wants to blitz more this season and hopes the defensive line can get more pressure on its own.
- Early enrollees, immediate impact: When players skip the final half of their high school senior years to enroll in college in January, the hope is that they will be more advanced than most freshmen. Wide receiver Freddy Canteen and offensive lineman Mason Cole exceeded those expectations. Both impressed the coaching staff right away, with Canteen drawing raves and Cole getting a lot of first-team reps at left tackle. Both were with the starting unit during the spring game and figure to have roles on the team this fall.
- More QB clarity: Brady Hoke talked of a quarterback competition this spring, and Devin Gardner wasn't originally expected to do a whole lot while recovering from a broken foot. But Gardner surprised the coaches by fulling participating in all 15 spring practices and asserting his hold on the position. Hoke said Shane Morris closed the gap a bit on Gardner and that the competition would continue. But even though Gardner didn't play well in the spring game, it's pretty clear that this remains his team.
- Can O-line be less offensive?: New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has brought a simplified blocking scheme and a focus on running downhill. Players said there were times this spring when that was effective. But concerns about the youth and chemistry on the line remain, and not just because of another shaky performance in the spring game. When a mid-year enrollee (Cole) is starting at left tackle, that raises serious red flags. The return of Erik Magnuson and Joey Burzynski from injury and Graham Glasgow from his one-game suspension will help the experience and talent level. But for now, the line is full of young, unproven players who must find a way to raise their games between now and late August.
- Skill position suspense: With Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo graduated, Devin Funchess is the only returning receiver with more than 15 career catches. Canteen's emergence provided another option at the position, but a lot of question marks remain at wideout. Michigan is hoping Jehu Chesson, Csont'e York, Da'Mario Jones and Dennis Norfleet step forward, Amara Darboh successfully returns from injury and freshman Drake Harris can contribute. But there are few sure things. At running back, the team is hopeful that Derrick Green breaks out as a sophomore and De'Veon Smith joins him for a powerful duo. Again, though, it's mostly optimism and little track record at this point.
- Enough leadership? Hoke has suggested that he wasn't thrilled with the leadership during last season's 7-5 team. He and the players have said that the chemistry and accountability have been good this spring. The fact remains, however, that this team has only 12 seniors, and only seven of them are position players who see the field a lot. Leadership will also have to come from the junior class and elsewhere if Michigan wants to get over the hump of mediocrity.
Jabrill Peppers immediately becomes the team's best defensive back. That's a bold call, as Peppers isn't even on campus yet. But he was the No. 2 player in the 2014 ESPN 300 for a reason, and he should be the kind of physical, cover corner that Michigan has lacked. The Wolverines could try him in several different positions, but if he's the real deal, he can start quickly at cornerback. Program insiders believe his ceiling could be in the Charles Woodson neighborhood. No pressure, kid.
An estimated crowd of 15,000 took in the festivities, which included a non-scoring scrimmage. You can find coverage of the game here, here and here. And here's a brief recap:
How it went down: It was just a spring game, and as most teams are wont to do, the Wolverines kept things very vanilla for their first public practice session of the year.
Still, fans had hoped to see some inklings of progress, especially from the new offense led by coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who was hired away from Alabama in the winter. Players had talked about making more big plays in practice in Nussmeier's scheme.
There wasn't much evidence of that on Saturday. On the very first snap of the scrimmage, Devin Gardner was intercepted by Lewis in his own territory. Gardner -- still not 100 percent on his healing foot -- would finish just 2-for-10 for 53 yards, though he's in no danger of losing the job. Backup Shane Morris went 5-for-11 for 73 yards, and his final throw was also picked off by Lewis, who started at corner and made a nice impression in that competition. (He'll need to keep doing that this summer, since Jabrill Peppers is on the way).
"I definitely think we're going to be tighter on offenses this year," Lewis said afterward. "We are playing more man-to-man and we'll be closer to those guys to break it up or intercept it."
The one big play was a 44-yard strike from Gardner to Freddy Canteen, the early enrollee who has been the talk of the spring in Ann Arbor. He looks like the real deal and will likely earn a starting job at receiver.
The running game produced mixed results. De'Veon Smith got the most reps with the first unit, running nine times for 21 yards. Derrick Green added 16 yards on six carries, while Justice Hayes had six attempts for 33 yards. The offensive line, which included early enrollee Mason Cole as the first-team left tackle, struggled to open up holes and get a push up front. The defense registered five sacks, including one each from defensive linemen Frank Clark, Brennen Beyer and Willie Henry.
"Inconsistent" is how coach Brady Hoke described the offensive performance.
"I think there were a couple good runs in there that they did a pretty good job with," he said. "We needed to be a little more consistent in the protection game. Through the course of the 15 practices, I think there has been some real improvements made."
Hoke has maintained all along that a team depending on many freshmen and sophomores will need some time to come together. On Saturday, they showed that in several key areas.
"There's no question," Hoke said, "we need a lot of improvement."
When: Saturday, 2 p.m. ET
Where: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich.
Admission: Free, though fans are encouraged to make donations to Mott Children's Hospital. Michigan Stadium gates open at 11 a.m., with an alumni flag football game scheduled to begin at noon. The men's lacrosse team will play Fairfield at 5 p.m.
TV: Big Ten Network (live)
Weather forecast: Partly sunny, with a high near 47. Winds 13 to 17 mph, with gusts as high as 28 mph.
What to watch for: Coach Brady Hoke said the Wolverines will hold about a 45- to 50-minute scrimmage after "a lot of individual grind work." Hoke said his team, which has only 12 seniors, still needs to work on its fundamentals in its 15th and final practice.
One position full of youth that will have a lot of eyeballs on it Saturday is the offensive line. It's a group full of freshmen and sophomores, but Hoke said he has seen improvement there. An encouraging performance by that unit in the spring game, even with as little as that means, could scale back some of the intense scrutiny and criticism.
Receiver is another spot with a lot of new faces, as Devin Funchess is the only proven returning player. True freshman Freddy Canteen has turned a lot of heads this spring in the slot, and fans will get their first look at him in a Michigan uniform. Fans will be curious to see the offense in general under new coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Hoke said about 80 to 85 percent of Nussmeier's offense has been installed this spring, and he said there were a lot of explosive plays in last weekend's scrimmage. The offense should include much more north-south running, and a slimmed-down Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith should lead the way.
On defense, the public gets its first view of the new linebacker arrangement, with Jake Ryan moving into the middle and James Ross III at the strongside spot. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has talked about a more aggressive approach that will feature more blitzing, but don't expect to see much more than the usual vanilla spring schemes.
Devin Gardner seems to have answered any questions about whether he'd retain the starting quarterback job by going through the spring on a foot that isn't 100 percent healed from the Ohio State game. Shane Morris and Wilton Speight should get plenty of reps on Saturday as well.
Marty from Orland Park, Ill., writes: My question is regarding the news that Northwestern players won their petition to unionize. I have read that this ruling would only have an impact on private colleges and universities if it is upheld. Does it also only relate to football players and not any other sport? Also, does it only apply to scholarship athletes, not walk-on athletes?
Adam Rittenberg: Marty, the specific ruling impacts only Northwestern players but could be used for groups from other private institutions. It applies only to Northwestern scholarship football players, as NLRB regional office director Peter Sung Ohr ruled that walk-ons constitute a separate category and wouldn't be part of a union. But if other Northwestern scholarship athletes sought to unionize, they could use this case in their favor.
Adam Rittenberg: Why should I buy in, M.A.? What has Michigan shown to make me believe it will have a top offense? It could happen. I like Devin Gardner more than most, Derrick Green is in his second year, and the offensive line should -- should, not will -- be improved. But Ohio State is simply a safer bet right now, even with a new-look offensive line. Urban Meyer is one of the best offensive coaches in the country and it's hard not to give Ohio State's staff an edge, especially with Ed Warinner coaching the line. Braxton Miller is a proven playmaker. Devin Smith and Jeff Heuerman provide some threats in the passing game. Michigan has big question marks at receiver aside from Devin Funchess. We see units improve all the time, and Michigan could make big strides this fall. But on paper, Ohio State is better.
Adam Rittenberg: Kenny, I wouldn't write off the 2014 season before it starts, even though Penn State faces some obstacles. If the Lions can keep their starting 22 relatively healthy, they'll have a chance to do some damage. But it's important to be realistic about all the changes that the players have gone through, as well as the depth challenges that remain in key spots such as the offensive line. Penn State will be an underdog in several games, but it gets both MSU and OSU at home. You can do a lot with a good quarterback and a good coaching staff, and Penn State appears to have both.
Adam Rittenberg: Mike, while I can see why you would make that connection, that's not the intent. The two state senators want to upgrade another state school to provide a second landing spot for strong Illinois high school students who don't get into the University of Illinois. They want a model like Michigan, Indiana and Iowa, which have two options with strong academics and big-time sports. What the senators and many others don't fully grasp is how difficult it would be to place another team in the Big Ten. The league has to want to expand, and most of its presidents and chancellors would have to approve a school like Northern Illinois. It's highly unlikely. Northwestern is a founding member of the league, and I don't anticipate the school's Big Ten status changing.
Adam Rittenberg: I definitely do, Bob. Purdue had to start from scratch last season and spent so much time on simple things, such as how to line up. The teaching process, which I wrote about earlier today, is much more evolved and interactive this spring. There has been improvement in areas such as the offensive line, and more leaders are emerging. Will it translate to a winning season? The nonleague schedule is much easier, but the West Division looks solid and Purdue has crossovers against Michigan State (home) and Indiana (road). But progress is being made in West Lafayette.
SJL from State of Rutgers writes: You are right in labeling Tyler Kroft a "solid option at tight end". I expect big things from him this year. However, in your "Triple Threat Combinations" post you list Nova-James-Kroft as Rutgers' triple threat combination. I'm surprised you overlooked Leonte Carroo. I have to assume the only reason he isn't listed is the uncertainty at quarterback. I guess he won't be much of a threat if the QB play is as poor as it was last year.
Adam Rittenberg: Glad you brought up Carroo, who I could have and probably should have included on the list. If he stays healthy, he'll do some damage for Rutgers this fall. He averaged 17.1 yards per catch and had more than twice as many touchdown catches (nine) as any other Scarlet Knight. I'm interested to see how new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen uses Carroo this fall.
Now let's turn our attention to the East Division and rank the triple-threat combinations. The division is strong at quarterback but lacking elite wide receivers.
QB Nate Sudfeld, RB Tevin Coleman, WR Shane Wynn
The Hoosiers featured the league's No. 2 offense in 2013 and top this list even though top receiver Cody Latimer bolted for the NFL draft. They have two options at quarterback, but Sudfeld, who had nearly 1,400 more passing yards than teammate Tre Roberson, gets the nod here. Coleman brings explosiveness to the backfield after rushing for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns in only nine games. Wynn finished near the top of the league in receiving touchdowns (11) and had 46 receptions for 633 yards.
2. Ohio State
QB Braxton Miller, RB Ezekiel Elliott, WR Devin Smith
You would think a team with the back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year at quarterback would be rated higher, but the Buckeyes lose a huge piece at running back in Carlos Hyde, as well as top receiver Corey Brown. Elliott, who had 262 rushing yards last season, is competing for the starting position this spring. Smith has been Miller's big-play target throughout his career and had eight touchdown catches and averaged 15 yards per reception last fall. Tight end Jeff Heuerman provides another weapon in the pass game.
3. Michigan State
QB Connor Cook, RB Jeremy Langford, WR Tony Lippett
The skinny: A year ago, Michigan State's offense looked like a mess. Cook began the season as the backup but emerged to lead the Spartans to nine Big Ten wins, all by double digits, and a Rose Bowl championship. Langford answered Michigan State's running back questions with 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. There's no true No. 1 receiver on the roster, and while Macgarrett Kings (513 receiving yards in 2013) could claim the role, Lippett gets the nod after leading the team in receptions (44) and finishing second in receiving yards (613) last year.
QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Zach Zwinak, TE Jesse James
The Lions have the Big Ten's top pocket passer in Hackenberg, the league's freshman of the year in 2013. But Hackenberg loses his favorite target in Allen Robinson, and wide receiver is a major question entering the fall. The tight end position looks much stronger with James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman. Penn State also has options at running back, but Zwinak has led the team in rushing in each of the past two years, finishing with 989 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall.
QB C.J. Brown, RB Brandon Ross, WR Stefon Diggs
Don't be surprised if Maryland finishes higher on the postseason triple-threats list as long as their top players stay healthy, which is hardly a guarantee after the past two seasons. Brown is a veteran dual-threat player who had 2,242 passing yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Ross leads a potentially deep group of running backs after leading the team with 776 rushing yards. Although Levern Jacobs led Maryland in receiving last year and returns, Diggs is the team's top threat after averaging 17.3 yards per catch before a season-ending injury in October.
QB Devin Gardner, RB Derrick Green, TE/WR Devin Funchess
Gardner is capable of putting up some big numbers, as he showed last year, but he loses top target Jeremy Gallon. The run game is a major question mark for new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, although hopes are high for Green, a heralded recruit who had 270 rushing yards as a freshman. At 6-5 and 230 pounds, Funchess is a tight end who plays like a wide receiver. He finished second on the team in receptions (49), receiving yards (748) and touchdowns (6).
QB Gary Nova, RB Paul James, TE Tyler Kroft
New coordinator Ralph Friedgen tries to spark an offense that finished 77th nationally in scoring and 95th in yards last season. Nova is competing this spring to retain the starting job, which he has held since the middle of the 2011 season. James averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season and can be very effective when healthy. Rutgers is scrambling at bit at the wide receiver position but returns a solid option at tight end in Kroft, who led the team in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last fall.
No. 1: Michigan will win handily at Notre Dame.
That kind of emotion would be huge for a team that will have a lot of veterans (who have experienced a lot of ups and downs) in 2014. Quarterback Devin Gardner will be leading the way and, as he showed last season, you can expect him to put up a good performance in a rivalry game. For the most part, with the exception of the Michigan State game in 2013, he has exceeded expectations in rivalry games.
Stats to know: This could be all about the matchups. This early in the season, the offenses should be further along than the defenses, and when you look at the areas in which Michigan is replacing players and the areas in which Notre Dame is replacing players, that’s a very good thing for the Wolverines.
To start, Notre Dame's weaknesses are aligned pretty closely with Michigan’s strengths. The Fighting Irish are thin on the defensive line and at linebacker. With the Wolverines returning running backs Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith, the young duo should be able to find holes in a struggling Notre Dame defense and Gardner, who passed for 294 yards and rushed for 82 yards in 2013, can be expected to be even better prepared for the matchup this season. And considering he won’t be running at Stephon Tuitt, this could be a 100-yard rushing game for Gardner.
The Fighting Irish allowed 168 rushing yards per game and 4.2 yards per rush last season. Between Green, Smith and Gardner returning and the Fighting Irish losing talent on the first two levels of their defense, Michigan should be able to account for more than 200 rushing yards and at least 4.5 yards per rush.
Another weakness in Notre Dame -- and it’s a weakness in experience, not talent -- is at wide receiver. The Michigan secondary certainly isn’t a brick wall of any sorts, but against young talent early in the season, the scale will tip toward a Blake Countess-led secondary.
Then, looking at the Fighting Irish’s strengths, they also happen to line up well with Michigan strengths. Notre Dame should be good at quarterback with Everett Golson, and look for sophomore running backs Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant to break out, but unlike Michigan’s young running backs and talented quarterback, Notre Dame’s group will have to run against one of the stoutest linebacker groups in the conference, as well as Frank Clark on the defensive line.
The Wolverines allowed 140.2 rushing yards per game as well as 3.8 yards per rush, but with much of the front seven returning and the shift in defensive coaching, those numbers are expected to improve.
One place to watch will be the secondary, where Notre Dame returns talent. Michigan lost its top receiver in Jeremy Gallon, and though Devin Funchess should be able to create some mismatches against Irish linebackers or smaller defensive backs, he won’t be able to do it alone. However, if Smith, Gardner and Green can open up the passing lanes by stuffing the ball down Notre Dame’s throat, some good things could happen and Notre Dame secondary’s advantage might not be quite as obvious.
Other fall predictions:
No. 4: Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith will account for at least 150 yards in eight games in 2014.
Why: Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier believes in a running back by committee game plan, which was a huge change from the featured back days of Al Borges.
Nussmeier said that he likes to spread the carries around so that it’s not just one guy taking the pounding on every down, which means he intends for his running backs to run. That wasn’t always the case last season. Likely, the two backs carrying the most load will be Green and Smith.
What’s impressive about those numbers is how little negative yardage the two had as freshmen. Green accounted for a loss of 20 yards, which means he accounted for one loss of a yard for every 13.5 yards he gained. Smith accounted for a loss of 2 yards, which means he accounted for a loss for every 58.5 yards gained. Fitzgerald Toussaint, the Wolverines’ featured back last season, accounted for a loss of 78 yards while gaining just 648 yards meaning he accounted for one yard of loss for every 8.3 yards he gained.
Toussaint carried the ball so much more frequently than either Green or Smith. But it does show that when given the opportunity, both Green and Smith were more productive -- in limited action -- than Toussaint.
But, like last season, that won’t matter quite as much as the offensive line. If 2013 taught Michigan fans anything it was that a subpar O-line can railroad a team that has weapons. The Wolverines had two great tackles, but the interior of the line was in constant state of change and because of that the offensive didn’t really get going until November.
Because of injuries, there’s a decent chance the Wolverines won’t actually be able to put their best five offensive linemen on the field together until fall camp. But even if they manage to do that, they’ll be ahead of where they were last year. If and when the O-line pulls it together, Green and Smith can get to work.
Stats to know: Looking at how many rushing yards opponents allowed is a good gauge, but it’s all on a sliding scale. If a team allowed 250 passing yards a game then teams might not have rushed against them as much because there was little reason. However, a team might’ve been stout in the secondary and porous on the defensive line.
So with that in mind, here are the rushing yards per game as well as the yards per rush (which give a better idea of exactly how well teams defended the run). But again, since opponents differ, Miami (Ohio) giving up 5.1 yards per rush last year -- mostly to MAC teams -- is quite different that Indiana giving up 5.4 yards per rush mostly in the Big Ten.
- Appalachian State: 220 rushing yards per game | 4.9 yards per rush
- Notre Dame: 168 rushing yards per game | 4.2 yards per rush
- Miami (Ohio): 223 rushing yards per game | 5.1 yards per rush
- Utah: 130 rushing yards per game | 3.5 yards per rush
- Minnesota: 158 rushing yards per game | 4.5 yards per rush
- Rutgers: 101 rushing yards per game | 3.1 yards per rush
- Penn State: 144 rushing yards per game | 3.9 yards per rush
- Michigan State: 86 rushing yards per game | 2.8 yards per rush
- Indiana: 238 rushing yards per game | 5.4 yards per rush
- Northwestern: 167 rushing yards per game | 4.2 yards per rush
- Maryland: 149 rushing yards per game | 3.7 yards per rush
- Ohio State: 109 rushing yards per game | 3.3 yards per rush
Another important number to consider when looking at rushing stats is how many times defenses held offenses to no gain or negative rushes. Again, no surprise here that Michigan State leads the Wolverines’ 2014 opponents in that category.
In 2013, the Spartans stopped opposing offenses at the line of scrimmage, or behind it, 131 times. What some people might find surprising is that Maryland did the same. The Terrapin defense accounted for 131 stops like that. Teams like Indiana (101), Northwestern (106) and Notre Dame (107) weren’t as strong in that category.
By looking at yards per rush as well as how often defenses stopped offenses at the line of scrimmage, there’s a pretty good indicator of the games when Smith and Green could go off for major yardage -- Indiana, Miami (Ohio), Northwestern.
Even during spring break.
College students do a lot of things on spring break. Losing weight, at least voluntarily, isn't one of them. But Green went home to Virginia and shed seven pounds before returning to Michigan for practice this week.
"I have a personal trainer at home, so I was working out twice a day," Green told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "Obviously [I was] on a strict diet and watching what I ate. I feel great at this weight, better than I ever felt before."
It's a good sign for Green, who headlined Michigan's decorated 2013 recruiting class but never fully got on track last season. He showed up significantly overweight and then suffered an ankle injury in camp that slowed his development. Green, who ranked as the nation's No. 5 running back in the 2013 class, recorded 270 yards and two touchdowns on 83 carries for the Wolverines.
Michigan's run game fell well short of expectations, finishing 102nd nationally (125.7 ypg). The Wolverines averaged less than 100 rush yards in Big Ten games (only Purdue produced less).
Green had some moments later in the season, including a 79-yard performance in an overtime win at Northwestern, and made his first start in The Game, rushing for 47 yards on 12 carries. But his impact was marginal.
"It was an OK season," Green said. "I could have done a lot better."
Michigan hired offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to, among other things, shape up a rushing attack that hasn't consistently met coach Brady Hoke's vision. Hoke wants Michigan to overpower teams between the tackles, like it used to, but the Wolverines' rushing production has dropped in each of the past two seasons.
This spring, Green and the other backs are learning Nussmeier's system, which thus far has them focusing less on carrying the ball.
"With this offense, it's real fundamental with the pass protection," Green said. "Last year, it wasn't as strict. They're trying to have pass protection first and run the ball second."
It makes sense after Michigan allowed 36 sacks in 13 games, tying for 105th nationally. The Wolverines recorded the worst net rush total in team history (minus-48) in a loss at Michigan State, and the following week at minus-21 against Nebraska. The offensive line received most of the blame, but the coaches are demanding more from the running backs to keep Devin Gardner, Shane Morris and the other quarterbacks upright this fall.
Green also noted that Nussmeier wants a "1-2 punch" at running back, a departure from his predecessor, Al Borges, who preferred one featured back. After Michigan's poor showing in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Kansas State, Green said that he and fellow back De'Veon Smith would return this year and "get it done."
Before the spring, Hoke called Smith and Green, who had 26 carries last season, "two guys we're excited about." Although several other backs are competing, the two sophomores with similar builds and running styles could have the inside track to top the depth chart this fall.
"On and off the field, we're brothers," Green said.
Green might be a leaner runner these days, but his objective hasn't changed. He still wants to be the guy who bulldozed his way to 41 touchdowns during his final two high school seasons.
"The power ain't going nowhere," he said with a laugh. "I definitely have a lot more energy and stamina. Faster, stronger, more explosive, I just feel great."
For those just joining in, we're each selecting one Big Ten game to attend each week during the 2014 season. We aren't tied down by a travel budget or nagging editors. If we want to attend a game -- depending on matchup, location, culinary offerings or any other factors -- we can go.
Here are the Week 5 offerings around the league, as all 14 teams are in action:
Maryland at Indiana
Minnesota at Michigan
Wyoming at Michigan State
Cincinnati at Ohio State
Northwestern at Penn State
Tulane at Rutgers
Illinois at Nebraska
Iowa at Purdue
South Florida at Wisconsin
Adam Rittenberg's pick: Minnesota at Michigan
For a week where every team is in action, Week 5 is a bit underwhelming. Of the five league games, I'm choosing between Minnesota-Michigan and Northwestern-Penn State, but the Jug game gets my vote. Sure, this series hasn't been very competitive, as Michigan has won six straight against Minnesota and 22 of the past 23 meetings. Michigan has been particularly dominant at the Big House. After Minnesota pulled off an upset in 2005, Michigan has claimed the past three meetings in Ann Arbor by a combined score of 134-23.
So why head to Michigan? Minnesota is an improving program under Jerry Kill that made significant strides after last season's loss at Michigan, winning four of its final six league contests. The next step for the Gophers is to perform better in rivalry games like this one. I'm interested to see if Mitch Leidner is a different quarterback, if he's getting more help from his receivers and if incoming freshman Jeff Jones is contributing at running back alongside David Cobb. Speaking of young running backs, will this be a breakout year for Michigan's Derrick Green? The sophomore will need help from a besieged offensive line that must develop during the spring and summer.
Both defenses are going through a bit of a makeover. Michigan has much of the same personnel but shuffled its linebacker responsibilities, as senior Jake Ryan moves to the middle. Minnesota has been a very solid defense under Tracy Claeys but must replace its biggest piece up front (Ra'Shede Hageman) and in the secondary (Brock Vereen). Perhaps this turns into another easy win for Michigan, which needs a good start to Big Ten play, but I'm interested to see if Minnesota will keep moving in the right direction under Kill. Plus, I haven't seen the Gophers in person since the 2009 season.
Brian Bennett's pick: Cincinnati at Ohio State
It seems odd in a week with several Big Ten games to pick a nonconference matchup. But after logging a whole lot of mileage in the first four weeks, I'm happy to stay a bit closer to home. And this is also a good time to get a look at the Buckeyes, whom I've passed over so far despite a couple of interesting early tilts (Navy in Baltimore in Week 1, Virginia Tech in Week 2).
Also, I'm a sucker for these kinds of in-state games. Cincinnati has always lived in Ohio State's shadow, and Urban Meyer's alma mater would love nothing more than to pull off its first win over the Buckeyes since 1897. The Bearcats' program has been very solid for several years now, and it returns most of the production from a nine-win season in 2013. The offseason focus will be at quarterback, where Notre Dame transfer and one-time Indiana commit Gunner Kiel could start. (And choosing this game gives me an excuse to mention Munchie Legaux, who is battling back from a gruesome leg injury.)
But mostly, this game is about taking the temperature of the Buckeyes, who will be challenged much more in the nonconference schedule this fall than they were in the past two seasons combined. We should learn a lot from the Virginia Tech game, and I'm curious to see how the defense bounces back from a rough finish to '13 without stars Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby. How will the revamped offensive line perform, and can anyone match Carlos Hyde's impact in the running game? Plus, if I get a chance to watch Braxton Miller play, I'm usually going to take it. Ohio State could be hovering in or near the top five if it is undefeated going into this game, and that demands an in-person visit.
Road trip itinerary
Week 1: Brian at Penn State-UCF (in Dublin, Ireland); Adam at Wisconsin-LSU (in Houston)
Week 2: Adam at Michigan-Notre Dame; Brian at Michigan State-Oregon
Week 3: Brian at Minnesota-TCU; Adam at Penn State-Rutgers
Week 4: Adam at Miami-Nebraska; Brian at Miami-Nebraska
We've already discussed the quarterbacks -- and will have much more on the way -- so the series begins with the running backs.
Illinois: The Illini are in a bit better shape here than they were the past two springs, as veterans Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young both return. Ferguson averaged 5.5 yards per carry and added 50 receptions for 535 yards as the primary playmaker for Illinois' revamped offense. Young added 376 yards on 93 carries. The Illini are looking for others behind the top two, and Dami Ayoola is back with the team after being dismissed in September for a rules violation.
Indiana: Tevin Coleman quietly put together a superb sophomore season and leads the Hoosiers' running backs in 2014. Coleman provides big-play ability after averaging 7.3 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns on only 131 attempts in 2013. Indiana loses Stephen Houston but brings back veteran D'Angelo Roberts, who will play behind Coleman. Younger players such as sophomore Laray Smith could get a look here.
Iowa: Not only did the Hawkeyes toss AIRBHG to the side and get through the season without any major injurie, but they bring back everyone for 2014. Senior Mark Weisman leads the contingent after rushing for 975 yards and eight touchdowns last fall. Jordan Canzeri came on strong late in the season and is showing no effects from his ACL tear in 2012. Veteran Damon Bullock also returns to the mix, and Iowa has talented younger backs such as LeShun Daniels Jr. at its disposal. Good situation here.
Maryland: The Terrapins wide receivers tend to get more attention, but the team also returns its top three running backs from 2013 in Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Jacquille Veii. Maryland also regains the services of Wes Brown, who finished second on the team in rushing as a freshman in 2012 before being suspended for all of last season. Joe Riddle is back in the fold as well. The group brings different strengths, from power (Brown) to speed (Veii) to a mixture of both (Ross, Reid).
Michigan: Sophomore Derrick Green enters the spring as the frontrunner to be Michigan's lead back, although coach Brady Hoke wants to ramp up competition everywhere. The Wolverines struggled to consistently run between the tackles, but the 240-pound Green could change things. Hoke also is excited about another sophomore, De'Veon Smith. Michigan moved Ross Douglas from cornerback to running back, and Justice Hayes and Wyatt Shallman also are in the mix. "We've got more depth," Hoke said.
Michigan State: Things look much more promising than they did last spring, when the Spartans ended the session with a linebacker (Riley Bullough) as their top back. Jeremy Langford emerged as a very solid option during the season, rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. He's back as the clear-cut starter, and Nick Hill also returns. It will be interesting to see if Gerald Holmes makes a push, or whether Delton Williams remains on offense.
Minnesota: Here's another team that finds itself in very good shape at running back entering the spring. David Cobb leads the group after rushing for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. Veterans Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr. are still around, and highly touted redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards will take the field after missing last fall because of knee and ankle injuries. Perhaps the best news will come in the summer as decorated recruit Jeff Jones arrives.
Nebraska: Notice a theme here? Nebraska is yet another Big Ten squad that can feel very good about its running backs entering the spring. Ameer Abdullah elected to bypass the NFL draft for one final season at Nebraska, where he led the Big Ten with 1,690 yards on 281 carries as a junior. Abdullah will contend for national awards in the fall. Imani Cross, who rushed for 10 touchdowns last year, is one of the nation's top backups. Terrell Newby and others add depth behind the top two.
Northwestern: Top back Venric Mark (ankle) will miss spring practice following surgery, and reserve Stephen Buckley (knee) also is rehabbing, but Northwestern has no reason to panic. Treyvon Green, who filled in well for Mark last season with 736 rushing yards, will get much of the work. Warren Long also is in the mix after appearing in seven games as a true freshman. Northwestern also loaded up at running back in recruiting to solidify the position for years to come.
Ohio State: This will be a position to watch in the spring as Ohio State must replace Carlos Hyde, who was nearly unstoppable during Big Ten play last fall. Veteran Jordan Hall also departs, and Rod Smith will be the veteran of the group despite only 83 career carries. The Buckeyes have some talented young backs, from Dontre Wilson, who saw significant playing time last fall, to Bri'onte Dunn, Ezekiel Elliott and Warren Ball. Keep an eye on Elliott, who averaged 8.7 yards per carry in limited work last season but could emerge this spring.
Penn State: If it feels like Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton have been competing for carries forever at Penn State, it's because they have. Zwinak and Belton have been part of Penn State's running back rotation for the past two seasons and enter another competition this spring with talented sophomore Akeel Lynch, who rushed for 358 yards on only 60 carries last season. It will be interesting to see how much Lynch can push Zwinak and Belton in the team's first spring under a new coaching staff. Penn State has depth issues at several positions, but running back isn't one of them.
Purdue: The Boilers finished 122nd nationally in rushing offense last season, so the fact all of their running backs return might not spark mass celebration. Senior Akeem Hunt leads the group after recording 123 of the team's 319 rushing attempts in 2013. Other veteransBrandon Cottom and Raheem Mostert also are back, along with younger ball-carries such as Dayln Dawkins and three backs -- Keyante Green, David Yancey and Keith Byars II -- who redshirted last fall and could have much bigger roles.
Rutgers: Here's yet another team that returns basically its entire stable of running backs for spring ball. Paul James is the name to watch, as he rushed for 573 yards in the first four games last season before suffering a leg injury. James' health is a concern for Rutgers, which could also turn to Justin Goodwin, who showed some flashes following James' injury. Savon Huggins, who entered last season as the starter before losing ground, is in the mix as he looks to re-establish himself on the depth chart.
Wisconsin: How many teams can lose a 1,400-yard rusher and still claim to have the best running back group in the Big Ten? James White is gone, but Wisconsin remains in very good shape in the backfield. Melvin Gordon bypassed the NFL draft for another year in Madison after rushing for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. Gordon should move into more of a featured role beginning this spring, although he'll be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 yards and seven touchdowns on only 67 carries. Jeff Lewis provides another option behind the top two.
No. 4: Running back
Who’s in the mix: Derrick Green, De'Veon Smith
Obviously, last season is only going to play into this spring so much. The offensive line should start to jell this spring as it finds its starting five (which the Wolverines didn’t do last season until November), and the faster the offensive line is figured out, the faster the Michigan run game can get going. Smith showed bursts and Green displayed the ability to barrel over people and fall forward on nearly every carry (something Toussaint was just never able to do because of his size). With Green and Smith, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier will really have a chance to decide who will be the better featured back in the Michigan offense. And even though Green was the front-runner early, Smith definitely has played himself into the equation.
- No. 5: Quarterback
Week 1: Take Your Pick
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
Final Eastern Illinois 20 Minnesota 42 Final Rutgers 41 Washington State 38
8:30 AM ET Penn State UCF 12:00 PM ET Indiana State Indiana 12:00 PM ET Northern Iowa Iowa 12:00 PM ET Appalachian State Michigan 12:00 PM ET 5 Ohio State Navy 12:00 PM ET Western Michigan Purdue 12:05 PM ET Youngstown State Illinois 3:30 PM ET James Madison Maryland 3:30 PM ET Florida Atlantic 22 Nebraska 3:30 PM ET California Northwestern 9:00 PM ET 14 Wisconsin 13 LSU