NCF Nation: Big Ten Conference

It's _ichigan week in Colu_bus

November, 24, 2014
Nov 24
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It's Ichigan week at Ohio State. The students and supporters on the southern end of this heated rivalry started the week with their annual tradition of covering every printed M on ca... , er, school grounds.



No better week on caLpus! #BuckeyeNation

A photo posted by Drew Shipley (@drewship02) on



Each year in the week leading up to The Game, red tape covers Ohio State's campus and redacts all the appearances of the unlucky 13th letter of the alphabet that tape can reach. Gossip on Twitter the first day of this week suggested the school was getting rid of the last two letters -- the "um" -- on a large sign that says "Ohio Stadium" and hangs outside the Buckeyes' field. A photo of a crane lifting the letters away turned out to be a hoax.

The Wolverines travel to Ohio's capital city this weekend with a 5-6 record after losing to the Terrapins last Saturday. Ohio State (10-1) needs to beat its rival in order to keep alive its chance for an invite to the College Football Playoff. No red tape needed here.
Minnesota and Wisconsin will renew their long-running rivalry Saturday in Madison, and with a Big Ten championship game appearance on the line, it's one of the biggest installments ever of this series.

It's just too bad the postgame celebration could well be neutered.

One of the things that made this rivalry special, even in years when it didn't mean all that much in the big picture, is the Paul Bunyan Axe. It's one of the best trophies in sports, a giant axe on a wooden handle that's perfect for swinging around. Winning teams like to pretend to chop the goal posts down after a victory. And when a team won back the trophy, they would sprint over to the sideline to grab it, famously so when the Gophers pulled out a 2003 victory on a last-second field goal.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsThere will be no Paul Bunyan Axe celebration like last year's, thanks to the axe being kept off the sidelines.
But as is often the case in our litigious, overly cautious society, it only took one small controversy to ruin the fun. Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said at his news conference Monday that the axe will not be on the sidelines during the game Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, instead staying in an undisclosed location until it can be delivered to the winning team's locker room.

Why the change? Because the two teams nearly got into a free-for-all brawl last year in Minneapolis, when Minnesota players and coaches decided to "protect" one of their goal posts at TCF Bank Stadium after the loss and not let the Badgers fake chop it down. It was all so silly, not the least because it's not like Wisconsin was actually going to destroy any property. Wisconsin players and officials were baffled by the Gophers' actions, but it was one way for Minnesota coach Jerry Kill to send a message to his team about not backing down.

Kill said after last year's mini-controversy that a new protocol needed to be established for the axe celebration to avoid confusion, which led to this decision. Although, curiously, Andersen said the Badgers hadn't contacted Kill or Minnesota about it. I guess when you win the rivalry 10 years in a row, you can write your own rules.

Andersen said the teams are free to bring the axe back to the field after it has been cleared, but the spontaneity of the celebration will officially be gone. We won't see anything as cool as Rhys Lloyd's mad dash in 2003, which is about all the former Minnesota kicker remembers from that game. If the Gophers were to snap the 10-game losing streak and clinch a Big Ten championship game bid, their celebration could and should be epic. But it won't be as memorable if they have to come back from the locker room with the axe several minutes after the game with the stadium emptying out. (They'll just have to chop up everything in Dinkytown when they get home).

No one wants bench-clearing brawls. But it seems like this could have been solved a little bit easier, perhaps by having the coaches tell their teams this week, "Hey, if we lose, get the heck off the field. And if we win, stay in one end zone until the coast is clear. Whatever happens, save all your fighting for the 60 minutes during the game."

That's not so hard, is it? Instead, a grand tradition could be watered down, just when this rivalry is reaching a crescendo.
Melvin Gordon Zach Bolinger/Icon SportswireWisconsin star Melvin Gordon is one of seven 1,000-yard rushers in the Big Ten this season.
Melvin Gordon can be mesmerizing. He's such a dynamic runner, seemingly always on the verge of another huge play, that it's hard to ever turn away.

The Wisconsin junior is having a Heisman Trophy-caliber season even if he doesn't win the award next month. Although Gordon's FBS single-game rushing record of 408 yards lasted a single week, as Oklahoma's Samaje Perine eclipsed it Saturday, Gordon still became the fastest player in FBS history to reach 2,000 yards in a season (241 carries). He leads the nation with 2,109 yards. According to Wisconsin, his rushing total from the first three quarters alone (1,915 yards) still would lead the nation.

But there are other standout running backs in the Big Ten -- great ones and really good ones. As the season concludes this week for a handful of teams, it's important to acknowledge all of them. Because we might never a group of Big Ten backs like this one in the same season.

"There's a lot of guys in this league that are going to be playing on Sundays from that specific position," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said Sunday.

[+] EnlargeTevin Coleman
AP Photo/Darron CummingsTevin Coleman has been a bright spot for Indiana, setting the school's single-season rushing mark.
Think about what Tevin Coleman felt like the day Gordon went for 408. Playing Rutgers at the same time Gordon gashed Nebraska, Coleman went for 307 yards, the second-highest total in Indiana history (behind Anthony Thompson's 377, the Big Ten record that Gordon smashed). Coleman had déjà vu Saturday against Ohio State, rushing for 228 yards and three touchdowns, breaking the IU single-season rushing record but being overshadowed because he plays on a losing team.

How high would Coleman's stock be if he played for a contender?

At least Coleman's name is known around the Big Ten and, to a degree, around the country. No one is talking about Jeremy Langford. Not even in the Big Ten. OK, maybe in East Lansing. But nowhere else.

Here's what Langford did this past Saturday: rushed for 126 yards and two touchdowns as Michigan State stomped Rutgers. It marked his 15th consecutive 100-yard rushing performance against a Big Ten opponent. Think about that. He has the longest active streak of 100-yard rushing performances against conference opponents since at least 1996.

Langford has 1,242 rush yards and 17 touchdowns, and he's barely a blip on the Big Ten radar. It's a tribute to the league's incredible depth at running back. Langford is quietly having another productive season a year after quietly rushing for 1,422 yards on a team that won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl. But it's time he gets his due as one of the more consistent runners in the country the past two seasons.

"He's one of the reasons we won 13 games last year and won nine this year," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said Sunday night. "Remember, he had 23 yards rushing coming into his junior year. He's put together a string of 14 100-yard games in [regular-season] conference play.

"He's been a tremendous performer for us."

Minnesota's David Cobb has a slightly higher profile than Langford, but he also gets overlooked in a league loaded with star running backs. Cobb is one of the nation's most physical and prolific backs, yet his steak evidently doesn't match Gordon's or Coleman's sizzle. Despite 1,350 rush yards entering play Saturday, Cobb amazingly didn't make the cut for Doak Walker Award semifinalists.

Cobb left Saturday's win against Nebraska with a hamstring injury. He's questionable for this week's showdown against Wisconsin, although he tweeted that he'll be ready to go. If so, the game at Camp Randall Stadium will feature the longest uninterrupted rivalry in the FBS, the Big Ten West Division title at stake, a giant axe and two of the nation's best running backs. Sign me up.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Langford
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State's Jeremy Langford has been the mark of consistency with 15 straight 100-yard rushing games in Big Ten play.
Did you know that two more Big Ten backs joined the 1,000-yard club Saturday? Don't feel bad if you were too busy watching Mesmerizing Melvin rack up 207 rush yards and two touchdowns against Iowa.

Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott and Northwestern's Justin Jackson both eclipsed 1,o00 yards. Elliott recorded his fourth 100-yard rushing performance in Big Ten play and fifth of the season against Indiana. Jackson, a true freshman, boasts five 100-yard rushing performances in the past seven games and consistently produces for a Northwestern offense that has struggled most of the season.

The Big Ten now has seven 1,000-yard rushers with a week to go in the regular season. No other league has more than five. The Big Ten has four players -- Gordon, Coleman, Cobb and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah -- with more than 1,400 rush yards. No other league has more than two.

The surge has taken place without star rushers from Michigan or Penn State, two traditionally elite running programs, and despite the season-ending injury to Rutgers standout Paul James. Dantonio, who has spent much of his career in the Big Ten, recalls the running back depth in the mid-to-late 1990s, when the league had stars like Wisconsin's Ron Dayne, Ohio State's Eddie George, Michigan's Tim Biakabutuka and Penn State's Curtis Enis.

"It seemed like everybody had a guy," Dantonio said. "It's very similar to that [now]. You've got four or five guys who really deserve to be first-team all-conference players. Somebody's going to get left out in the cold a little bit."

That's life in the league of running backs, but this group, not just Gordon, should not soon be forgotten.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 13

November, 23, 2014
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Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 13

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23
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Recognizing the best and brightest from the penultimate week of the Big Ten regular season:
  • Ohio State WR/PR Jalin Marshall: A week after he was nearly the goat at Minnesota, Marshall saved the Buckeyes' bacon in a sluggish 42-27 win over Indiana. Marshall gave Ohio State the lead late in the third quarter with a 54-yard punt return, then added three more touchdowns in the fourth quarter, all on catches from J.T. Barrett. Marshall became the first Power 5 player with at least three receiving touchdowns and a punt return score in the same game since Justin Blackmon in 2010, and he was the first to do all that in the same half in the past 10 seasons.
  • Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: The Hoosiers lost the game, but we just have to single out Coleman for yet another brilliant performance. He ran 27 times for 228 yards and three touchdowns, including a 90-yard score and a 52-yarder, to become Indiana's single-season rushing leader. He deserves to be a Doak Walker Award finalist.
  • Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner: With David Cobb sidelined in the second half with a leg injury, Leidner had to carry the offensive load for the Gophers at Nebraska. And he did just that, rushing for 111 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries in a crucial 28-24 victory that kept the Gophers alive for the West Division title. That included the game-winning 2-yard score with 3:25 left. Leidner also also completed 8-of-17 passes for 135 yards, none bigger than a 38-yard strike to KJ Maye in the fourth quarter.
  • Michigan State WR Tony Lippett and RB Jeremy Langford: These two guys went out in style on Senior Day. Lippett, who played cornerback earlier in his career, played there and at wideout during a 45-3 blasting of Rutgers. Lippett had a pair of pass breakups on defense and caught five passes for 72 yards and a touchdown. Langford, meanwhile, carried the ball 16 times for 126 yards and two scores. He now has rushed for at least 100 yards in his last 15 games against Big Ten opponents, with one more to go.
  • Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon: Iowa did a great job most of the day bottling up the Badgers star. But Gordon is so good that he still finished with 200 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries in the 26-24 road win. With the game in the balance, Gordon showed off his receiving with two big catches (including a 35-yarder on 3rd-and-13, with Kinnick Stadium coming unhinged) and finished it off with the game-winning, 23-yard touchdown run. Even on a day when he somehow lost his FBS single-game rushing record after just a week, Gordon was truly Heisman-worthy.
Lessons learned from the second-to-last week of the Big Ten regular season:

1. Ohio State won but may lose ground: If "game control" is as important as College Football Playoff selection committee chairman Jeff Long said last week, Ohio State should find itself in a spot of bother come Tuesday night. The No. 6 Buckeyes led Indiana just 14-13 at halftime and trailed deep into the third quarter before pulling out a 42-27 win. And remember that these Hoosiers are winless in Big Ten play and now just 3-8 overall. A letdown after winning on the road against Michigan State and Minnesota could have been expected, but Urban Meyer's team needs all the positive impressions it can create. It wouldn't be surprising to see Ohio State slip in next week's poll, just as TCU did after a shaky win over Kansas. On the plus side, the Buckeyes clinched a spot in the Big Ten championship game and will have a chance to add a quality win there. If all else fails, Meyer & Co. should just remind everybody that Indiana did beat Missouri -- or that Florida State barely wins every week.

[+] EnlargeJalin Marshall
Jason Mowry/Icon SportswireOhio State's Jalin Marshall scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to go along with another score late in the third, rallying Ohio State past Indiana.
2. One Axe to rule the West: Minnesota's 28-24 win at Nebraska and Wisconsin's 26-24 road victory over Iowa simplified the West Division race. The Gophers and Badgers are the last two contenders left, and in a stroke of great fortune, they will play for Paul Bunyan's Axe next Saturday in Madison. The longest-played rivalry in the FBS will have its most meaning in years, with the winner advancing to the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State. Wisconsin has won the ax 10 straight years, so Minnesota has its work cut out. But the Gophers have been proving people wrong all season. They will need a healthy David Cobb to have a chance.

3. Land of Lincoln game holds intrigue: If we had told you a few weeks ago that the season finale between Illinois and Northwestern would be really interesting, you probably would have laughed. But the Wildcats have gotten hot at the right time, upsetting Notre Dame in overtime last week and cruising past Purdue 38-14 on Saturday to get to five wins. Illinois, meanwhile, edged Penn State on a late field goal 16-14 for its fifth victory. So the Land of Lincoln Trophy game in Evanston will be a bowl play-in game for both sides. And it might just decide whether Tim Beckman keeps his job for another year in Champaign. Neither team's projected starting quarterback may play a huge role, as Northwestern's Trevor Siemian injured his leg against Purdue and Reilly O'Toole came in for an ineffective and perhaps-still-a-bit-gimpy Wes Lunt in the Illini's win.

4. Michigan State belongs in a major bowl: Instead of sulking after the home loss to Ohio State, the Spartans have taken out their frustrations on the Big Ten's newbies. After a 37-15 win at Maryland last week, Michigan State romped past Rutgers 45-3 on Saturday. Mark Dantonio had some fun on Senior Day, starting Tony Lippett on offense and defense, calling for a fake field goal while ahead 35-0 and giving offensive lineman Connor Kruse a carry. It's clear that the No. 11 Spartans are still one of the top teams in the country, with their only losses coming to potential playoff teams. They deserve to make one of the major bowls outside the playoff -- the Fiesta, perhaps? -- and get a shot against an outstanding opponent from a major conference. If they play like they have the past couple of weeks, they'll have a great chance to win a big bowl, too.

5. Maryland is having a nice first Big Ten season: Winning at Penn State and 23-16 on Saturday at Michigan is a pretty nice way to introduce yourself to the league, even if those two programs are at near historic low points. Randy Edsall's Terrapins can post an 8-4 record by beating Rutgers at home next week. Their only losses would be to three of the league's top teams -- Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State -- and a close call at home against West Virginia. They also beat Iowa and weren't quite as hapless in big games as fellow newcomer Rutgers, which was outscored 180-43 in its four games against ranked Big Ten opponents. Maryland still has to finish it off this week, but a third-place showing in the Big Ten East and an eight-win season would make for a very solid conference debut.
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska lost 28-24 to Minnesota on Saturday, blowing a two-touchdown lead in the Golden Gophers’ first win at Memorial Stadium in eight tries since 1960 and their first win on the road over a ranked team in 21 attempts, dating to 2000.

For Minnesota, it marked a major hurdle cleared and set it up to play in a Big Ten West title game next week in Madison, Wisconsin. Heady stuff for Jerry Kill’s team.

And for Nebraska? It changed nothing.

A victory on Senior Day would have felt nice and looked good. It would have made for a more enjoyable Nebraska Thanksgiving before the regular season ends Friday at Iowa.

Nothing changed here, though. This is the new normal at Nebraska, and even the coach won't argue.

“We don’t play very smart,” Bo Pelini said after the game in matter-of-fact fashion.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsWith Saturday's loss, winning critical games in November continued to be an issue for Bo Pelini.
He criticized the Huskers’ defensive execution and lamented fumbles after the catch by freshman De’Mornay Pierson-El in the closing seconds of the second and fourth quarters, both within grasp of the end zone.

“We had some good things happen,” Nebraska quarterback Tommy Amstrong Jr. said. “We had some bad things happen. Bad things happened at the wrong time.”

This is what you get now with Pelini’s program. There’s no way around it.

As Nebraska stands one defeat from a seventh straight four-loss season -- it merits mention alongside the streak of six consecutive nine-win seasons -- fans and school administration must ask these questions:

Are the Huskers in a good spot? And are they moving in the right direction?

Nebraska has lost three of its past four November home games. Pelini is 10-6 in the money-making month since the Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011, including a 4-0 finish in 2012 before they fell off a cliff on Dec. 1. Remember that 70-31 Big Ten title game whooping by Wisconsin?

I don’t pretend to know what athletic director Shawn Eichorst thinks about this cycle of painful late-season weekends. Many people failed last year to forecast his moves.

When Eichorst, in August, last discussed football in public, he said Pelini’s program was “stable.”

The possibility exists that nothing has changed in Eichorst’s evaluation.

The Huskers lost by five touchdowns a week ago at Wisconsin, their 10th loss by 20 points or more since 2008. Minnesota didn’t break any all-time records in Lincoln, but the Gophers rushed for 281 yards and four touchdowns.

And even if Minnesota hadn’t exposed the Huskers on defense again or if Pierson-El hadn’t lost those fumbles, it wouldn’t have provided any answers about Nebraska’s direction.

Last week was about answering those questions. Not Saturday.

Pelini said he saw signs in practice for weeks of the defensive meltdowns that occurred the past two weeks. Before November, the breakdowns in execution had not hurt the Huskers badly.

“Last two weeks, they hurt us,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Nebraska drilled repeatedly in practice on Minnesota’s zone-heavy rushing attack. The Gophers did not hurt Nebraska with new tricks.

“They were things that we covered, went over, executed, and then [when] we got into the game, it was like we never saw them before,” Pelini said. “It’s a bad recipe.”

According to safety Nate Gerry, the Huskers did not realize Minnesota would rely so much on QB Mitch Leidner in the run game. He carried 22 times for 111 yards.

All of it speaks to a disconnect. Either the Huskers aren’t coaching it right or they’ve got the wrong players in place. Regardless, Pelini is tasked to find the fix.

Will he? Can he?

Nebraska lost starting center Mark Pelini and star receiver Kenny Bell to injury on the first offensive series. For Minnesota, standout tailback David Cobb went down in the second half.

The Gophers simply responded better, getting tough play from backups Rodrick Williams and Donnell Kirkwood.

Williams burned Nebraska with a 19-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, bouncing to the outside on fourth-and-1 as the Huskers sold out to the inside. It was a gutsy call by Kill.

Minutes later as Nebraska led by three points, Pelini told offensive coordinator Tim Beck to look for a big play on second-and-1. A wasted down, Pelini said. Theiren Cockran sacked Armstrong to kill the drive.

“You know what, you live and learn,” Pelini said. “That call isn’t why we lost the game. Trust me on that.”

Trust in Pelini is waning, a reality unchanged by the result on Saturday.

No, this game didn’t change anything for Nebraska, which is perhaps more disturbing than the alternative.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Minnesota stopped a streak of 20 consecutive road losses to ranked foes that dated to 2000, coming from two touchdowns behind to upset Nebraska 28-24 on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

The victory keeps the Gophers in control of their destiny in the Big Ten West and secures a second straight eight-win season for just the second time in 50 years.

Nebraska lost center Mark Pelini and receiver Kenny Bell to injuries on the opening drive. Minnesota tailback David Cobb left with an injury in the fourth quarter, but coach Jerry Kill’s club made plays to win at the end.

How the game was won: Minnesota cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun stripped Nebraska freshman De'Mornay Pierson-El of the ball at the Minnesota 2-yard line after the freshman receiver grabbed a 28-yard third-down pass from Tommy Armstrong Jr. with 1:19 to play. The Gophers ran out the clock to earn their first victory in Lincoln since 1960.

Game ball goes to: Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner, who carried a heavy load before and after Cobb left with an apparent leg injury. The sophomore completed 8 of 17 passes for 135 yards and rushed 22 times for 110 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner from 3 yards out with 3:25 left. Leidner led the decisive 80-yard, 10-play march, highlighted by his 38-yard strike to KJ Maye on third down to the Nebraska 25.

What it means: Another long week ahead for the Cornhuskers, who are mired in a second straight troublesome November. A year ago, Iowa piled on at the end. The mood this time around might grown even more ugly in Nebraska as speculation figures to grow about Bo Pelini’s job security. For the Gophers, it's another landmark moment in Kill's fourth season.

Best play: Nebraska safety Nathan Gerry used a convoy of blockers to go 85 yards after Randy Gregory blocked a Ryan Santoso 30-yard field goal attempt with five minutes to play in the first half. The touchdown put the Huskers ahead 21-7.

video What’s next: It only gets more difficult for the Gophers (8-3, 4-2), who close the regular season next week at Wisconsin. With a win, Minnesota would earn a rematch with Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. Nebraska (8-3, 4-3) visits Iowa on Friday.
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- After flirting with disaster and letting an upset alert pop up at the Horseshoe, No. 6 Ohio State snapped out of a turnover-induced funk to knock off Indiana.

The Buckeyes clinched a division title, earned a berth to the Big Ten title game and kept themselves in the College Football Playoff picture with a 42-27 win Saturday afternoon. But those positives aren’t likely to be mentioned much by coach Urban Meyer moving forward, and he has plenty of teaching points at his disposal heading into the regular-season finale.

How the game was won: Ohio State had turnover problems on offense and was gashed for a long touchdown by Indiana’s Tevin Coleman on defense, but decisively winning the battle on special teams was enough to pull out another win. The Buckeyes flipped field position with more impressive punting from Cameron Johnston, and they took a lead it wouldn’t relinquish thanks to a punt return for a touchdown that saved an otherwise shaky outing overall.

Game ball goes to: Jalin Marshall. Criticized for a pair of costly fumbles a week ago, the redshirt freshman wide receiver offered a strong reminder why Ohio State stood firmly behind him when he busted a 54-yard punt return for a touchdown when the team was trailing, and then extended the lead with three more scores through the air after that during a second-half, one-man blitzkrieg. He is an invaluable weapon for the Buckeyes when he hangs on to the football.

What it means: The Buckeyes have developed a troubling habit of turning the football over on offense, but they are still scoring points in bunches and are officially the East Division champion. They will play again for the Big Ten title in two weeks. There is no question, though, Meyer will be working overtime to fix the ball-security issues that have popped up lately.

Playoff implication: Maybe there weren’t many of those mythical style points to be found, but Ohio State got the only thing that really counts with a victory to keep itself solidly in the mix for one of the four spots in the College Football Playoff. The first and only priority for the Buckeyes at this point is to keep winning -- ugly or not.

What's next: A trip to Indianapolis to play for the Big Ten championship is clinched, but the first order of business for Ohio State is The Game. With Michigan coming to Ohio Stadium next Saturday, there doesn’t seem to be much risk of the Buckeyes looking ahead with bragging rights at stake against their hated rival.
College football’s inaugural four-team playoff is still weeks away, but the FBS head coaches already want an eight-team playoff, according to ESPN’s weekly poll, #1QFor128.

Of the coaches that voted in ESPN’s poll, 44 percent want an eight-team playoff compared to 29 percent for the current four-team model, and 17 percent want a 16-team playoff.

Of the 128 FBS coaches, 102 participated in this week’s poll, conducted by ESPN’s Brett McMurphy.

Most of the coaches who want an eight-team playoff believe it should consist of the conference champions from the Power 5 leagues plus the next three highest-ranked at-large teams or the top-ranked Group of 5 champion and the two highest-ranked at-large teams.

This week, ACC commissioner John Swofford said that in terms of the number of teams, an eight-team playoff “would probably be ideal.”

This is the first year of a 12-year contract with ESPN to have the four-team College Football Playoff. CFB Playoff executive director Bill Hancock said they are committed to only four teams for the next 12 years and “there has been no discussion of expanding.”

Still, the coaches’ voting shows they already want an eight-team playoff – six weeks before the inaugural four-team playoff begins on Jan. 1.

Nearly 20 percent of the coaches favored a 16-team playoff. One Group of 5 conference coach suggested taking the eight highest-ranked conference champions (from the 10 FBS leagues) and the next eight highest-ranked at-large teams.

This coach even went as far to suggest the first-round and second-round games could be played at neutral sites, including cold-weather sites, with cities bidding to host the games like the NCAA basketball tournament regional model.

Four percent of the coaches are not in favor of a playoff, while two percent voted for a six-team and a 12-team playoff. One coach wants a 32-team playoff, another coach a 64-team playoff.

More than half of the coaches (53 percent) from the Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12) that voted chose an eight-team playoff, compared to 33 percent for the four-team model.

The coaches from the Group of 5 conferences (American, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, Sun Belt) that voted also preferred an eight-team playoff (39 percent). However, 25 percent of the Group of 5 coaches want a 16-team playoff, slightly below the 26 percent that voted for a four-team playoff.

One Power 5 conference coach said: “four is good” but “eight would be perfect.”

Swofford said he doesn’t think “all the controversy [of the four-team field] is going to go away.”

“You have four teams that get a chance to play for the national championship, which is twice as many as before,” Swofford said. “But whoever's fifth or sixth is not going to be happy. There will be some [Power 5] conferences that won't have a team in the playoff.”

Swofford is a member of the College Football Playoff management committee.

American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said an eight-team playoff “increasingly will be a topic of conversation. But each FBS conference would want to take the temperature of its membership on something as significant as this.”

Video: 'Sport Science' on Melvin Gordon's Track Influence

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
11:43
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John Brenkus examines how much the Wisconsin running back’s style is heavily influenced by his track background.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A public endorsement as a Heisman Trophy candidate is one thing, and when it’s earned, Urban Meyer has no problem offering it.

But a private conversation about an individual award is something else entirely, and the Ohio State coach doesn’t have plans for one of those with J.T. Barrett any time soon.

The redshirt freshman quarterback and blossoming national star is certainly attracting more attention, and he is steadily shooting up the polls as a candidate for the game’s most prestigious honor. Though Meyer has some experience dealing with the hoopla that accompanies a Heisman campaign and could counsel his young star if need be, at this point there appears be no need for a State of the Stiff-arm the way he might otherwise address his team’s playoff chances.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesJ.T. Barrett is part of the Heisman conversation, but has not changed his work habits or attitude.
"That’s real, you start having that [exposure], but this kid is so grounded," Meyer said. "Once again, that’s a credit to his family.

"But if I saw it [being a distraction], certainly I’d jump in the middle of that. But I haven’t even given it two thoughts."

Barrett seems to be giving it little consideration as well, though he is clearly aware that he is now part of the conversation as the season hits the closing stretch with the No. 6 Buckeyes gaining steam thanks to his 38 total touchdowns.

His emergence has been well-documented since taking over during training camp following an injury to Braxton Miller, who was supposed to be staging his own run for the Heisman as a senior after finishing in the top 10 each of the past two seasons. But Barrett has now gone well beyond being simply a caretaker for the spread attack in Miller’s absence, shattering records on a weekly basis and helping the Buckeyes expand the playbook thanks his accuracy as a passer, underrated athleticism and an uncanny ability to make the right decision -- both through the air and on the ground.

His success has done more than draw the spotlight to him as a potential candidate for individual awards, prompting additional speculation now about whether Barrett has so far exceeded Miller’s decorated tenure that the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year should be his backup next season, or even switch positions once his surgically repaired shoulder heals. But if all that extra attention or scrutiny is changing Barrett, it certainly doesn’t seem to be inflating his ego or impacting his preparation.

"I hope it doesn’t change me," Barrett said. "I hope I stay the same. I try hard to be the same. Working hard, being here on a Wednesday night, I probably won’t leave until like 9 o’clock, you know, grinding, getting right and everything like that.

"I hope it doesn’t change me, I’m going to do my best to make sure it doesn’t. I have people around here to keep me grounded, so it’s really unlikely for that to happen."

Meyer has made it clear he would be among the first to bring Barrett back to earth if necessary, though so far he hasn’t needed to lean on the expertise acquired while guiding Alex Smith or Tim Tebow through the Heisman circus.

Barrett also has the benefit of sharing a locker room with a couple teammates who are dealing with similar attention, albeit on slightly smaller scales. Joey Bosa is a finalist for the Lombardi Award, Michael Bennett was a preseason All-America still pushing for individual honors, and a handful of skill players on both sides of the ball are in the mix for all-conference accolades.

For all of them, starting with Barrett and his high-profile campaign, one thing above all else is driving the conversation. And worrying about individual awards instead of team victories would be getting it all completely backwards.

"I'm having a lot of fun coaching this team," Meyer said. "J.T. is a Heisman candidate that knows that he could have played much better Saturday, and that's the best thing about coaching these guys right now. I hope it doesn't change.

"That's something we're watching very closely with guys that are starting to get some notoriety. You know, [Ezekiel Elliott] has a chance to get 1,000 yards, and the minute he becomes something other than Zeke Elliott, that's a problem, and same with J.T., same with Joey Bosa. I've just got to make sure they don't change."

For now that means it’s fine to publicly talk about awards or tout Buckeyes as candidates. But Meyer doesn’t expect to have any other conversations after that.
This week, Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun will get his first chance to see what all the fuss is about when it comes to playing with hometown bragging rights on the line.

[+] EnlargeShilique Calhoun
Scott Boehm/AP ImagesShilique Calhoun looks forward to facing Rutgers, a campus 30 minutes from where he grew up.
 Sixty-three percent of the players listed on the Spartans’ roster grew up in Michigan or Ohio. Each year, those guys get a chance to take on friends from their old neighborhoods or youth league teams in annual battles against Michigan and Ohio State. The chance to beat your home state is one of the many motivational arrows head coach Mark Dantonio has stashed in the quiver that keeps his team feeling perpetually slighted.

“It's very, very special when you have an opportunity to play against your home state,” Dantonio said. “That’s important this week for Shilique.”

On Saturday, the junior pass-rushing terror from Middletown, New Jersey get his first swing against Rutgers, the Big Ten newcomers with a campus 30 minutes from where Calhoun grew up.

Calhoun passed on a Rutgers scholarship and the chance to play in front of his family on a regular basis when he chose to play for Dantonio in 2011. Rutgers was a Big East school at the time, and Calhoun had no expectations of squaring off with the Jersey-laden Scarlet Knights during his college career.

“It’s going to be a statement game for me on the reason why I chose to come here,” Calhoun said. “It’s one of those games. That state game is where you’re from. The Ohio guys have Ohio State. The Michigan guys have Michigan. Finally, we have our moment too.”

The 6-foot-5, 256-pound Calhoun has had his share of other notable moments in his three seasons on the field in East Lansing. He scored three touchdowns and racked up 7.5 sacks last season en route to being named the Big Ten’s defensive lineman of the year. As a second-team All American, he was expected to be one of the most prolific pass rushers in the country this season and earn himself a big paycheck when he jumped to the NFL the following year.

The 2014 season didn’t start at same breakneck pace for Calhoun. After the buzz around him quieted in late September, he started to find his stride again. Heading into the final home game of the season, he is one sack shy of matching his 2013 total.

Dantonio and Calhoun’s teammates say the added pressure and national spotlight didn’t change the way the defense’s star prepared. The loss of several key starters, though, left Calhoun with the feeling that he needed to do more for his team than he had in the past.

“I was trying to do too much, do above my job,” he said. “I think that’s what really hurt me. Now I understand this is the system. This is why I’ve been successful, because I’m trying to fit into the system. It’s allowing not only myself, but my teammates to make plays. As the season progresses, it starts to get easier and easier for me.”

Michigan State tackle Jack Conklin, who has the pleasure of squaring off with Calhoun on a daily basis, said his practice adversary was trying to add a slew of new weapons to his pass-rushing repertoire at the start of the season. When he pared down the list of new tricks and got back to what he did best, Conklin noticed the difference.

The spotlight on Michigan State's team has faded, too, in the two weeks since their loss to divisional rival Ohio State. The Spartans dropped out of the race for a playoff spot and slipped below college football's national radar. Calhoun and the defense responded in their following game by holding Maryland to six rushing yards during a 37-15 win that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.

The win squashed any theories that Michigan State’s motivation would peter away without the goal of playing for a national title hanging in front of it. Conklin said it took a few days for morale to return to the team after the loss to the Buckeyes. When they started hitting each other again, they decided they had plenty left to achieve.

“After everyone stepped back for a second and reevaluated, we realized, really, we’re not in a bad place,” Conklin said. “We didn’t do what we set out to do, but it’s not like we’re going to the Outback Bowl or the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. We’re still going to a Rose Bowl-type of game, or we can. That’s still a great accomplishment.”

The Spartans(8-2) checked in at No. 11 in the College Football Playoff rankings this week, leaving them in good position to earn a trip to one of the New Years Day bowls from the selection committee if they win their final two games of the season.

That begins Saturday against Rutgers in a big game for Calhoun. He said when he first learned that Rutgers was joining the conference this season, he hoped that the two teams would meet in New Jersey this season.

Michigan State will travel to Rutgers next season, but it isn’t clear if Calhoun will still be around to play in front of a home crowd. He remains one of the top pro prospects in the Big Ten and a potential early pick in this spring’s NFL draft. Many assume that this Saturday will be his final game at Spartan Stadium, but Calhoun cautioned that he hasn’t made a decision yet.

"You know what happens [when] you assume," he said. "I'm just going to leave it at that. We'll see what happens. Right now, I'm just excited about playing Rutgers this year."
Like most people, Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen wasn't sure what to expect from his linebackers coming into this season.

[+] EnlargeVince Biegel
AP Photo/Morry GashWisconsin's Vince Biegel makes up part of a group of linebackers that flew under the radar to lead the nation's top defense.
The Badgers had to replace all four starters from their 3-4 scheme, including Big Ten defensive player of the year Chris Borland. There was good athleticism in the group but precious little experience and no household names.

Well, it's way past time to get to know these Wisconsin linebackers, because they've formed the core of the nation's No. 1 defense and are a major reason why the Badgers could clinch the Big Ten West Division as early as Saturday if they beat Iowa and Minnesota loses to Nebraska.

"They've been over the top, as far as my expectation level," Andersen said this week.

They are inside linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch and outside linebackers Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert. Or you can just call them the "Chevy Bad Boys."

That's the nickname that Trotter bestowed on the group at the beginning of the season as a nod to their rural roots -- all are from smallish towns in Wisconsin -- and their unflashy dependability.

"We have a lot of guys from the country," Trotter said. "We love Chevys and country music and wear only flannel all day long."

It took some time for the nickname to stick, but now the players are embracing it. So much so, in fact, that Biegel got a Chevy logo shaved into the side of his head this week, bookending the motion "W" on the other side of his Mohawk/mullet.

The linebackers are starting to get more national recognition, too, as Wisconsin's defense keeps piling up impressive numbers. But that's not really what this group is about.

"Not a lot of people really looked at us as being a big-time defense going into the season," Biegel said. "Being able to have that chip on our shoulder and approach every game with that chip has been the difference for us this year.

"We're a bunch of smart football guys who weren't necessarily four- and five-star recruits. We're just hard-working Wisconsin dudes."

Biegel, who leads the team with 6.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss, was actually a four-star recruit out of high school. But Trotter and Schobert, the latter of whom was named Big Ten defensive player of the week for his performance against Nebraska, walked on to the Badgers. The 5-foot-11 Landisch was lightly recruited, with interest from MAC schools, and viewed by some as too small to stay at linebacker.

All four bided their time while waiting for the opportunity to become full-time starters, especially seniors Trotter and Landisch.

"We were all very eager for our chance," Trotter said. "We were excited to finally prove people wrong."

Each of the four have different personalities, but that meshes into a cohesive bond. Trotter is the motormouth leader who wears bear-themed shirts and sometimes only answers to the name "Mookie Blaylock."

Biegel is also talkative and energetic. "If you looked inside his mind," Trotter said, "you'd see a hamster spinning on a wheel. He's just all over the place, all the time. He's a goofy guy who likes to mess with people."

Landisch, who has six sacks and 12 tackles for loss, is quiet and often needs his nerves calmed before games. "I feel like I'm his psychiatrist sometimes," Trotter said.

Schobert is also reserved but in a much more relaxed way. Trotter said while the Nebraska game was still close last week, Schobert cracked a joke to him about missing a fumble recovery right before the snap.

"I was like, 'Joe, be quiet, I'm trying to get the call,'" Trotter said. "But he's just very calm and confident in his technique."

What the quartet lacked in starting experience, they have made up for in pass-rushing ability and football savvy. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda uses his linebackers in all sorts of ways, lining them up in different spots and bringing pressure from a variety of angles. As Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said this week, Wisconsin's defense looks pretty normal on first and second downs. On third down, though, "who knows what you're going to get," Ferentz said.

Andersen said he wasn't confident that the group would be able to master the complicated scheme and take the information from the meeting room to the field. But the Chevy Bad Boys have had no trouble doing just that.

"I've played all kinds of positions this year -- with my hand in the dirt, at standup outside linebacker, even inside linebacker in a couple different packages," Biegel said. "Coach Aranda asks a lot of us mentally. It's fun, because you never know what you'll be doing each week, what your technique and assignment will be."

Wisconsin now knows that it will get elite production from its linebackers every week. And it's way past time that everyone else gets to know who these guys are.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Look for the hidden meaning as Minnesota visits Nebraska on Saturday. It’s not hard to find.

The 25th-ranked Golden Gophers come to Memorial Stadium at 7-3 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten after a seven-point home loss to Ohio State last week. The No. 23 Huskers stand at 8-2 and 4-2 on the heels of losing by five touchdowns at Wisconsin.

The 11 a.m. kickoff on ESPN provides a chance for Minnesota and Nebraska to move on from the disappointments of last week. There’s more at work, though. This 55th meeting in the series offers a study in how two programs appear on a similar trajectory, yet, upon close inspection, may represent passing ships in the night.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah and the Cornhuskers are looking ahead to their big game against Minnesota on Saturday.
 Minnesota is trending up. Eight wins over 12 games of Big Ten play marks its best run in 40 years. Nebraska, meanwhile after the debacle in Madison, is struggling to move out of neutral in its seventh season under coach Bo Pelini.

The Huskers have lost seven games by 17 points or more since joining the Big Ten in 2011. And as the careers wind to a close of their most dynamic players over that period -- record-setting Ameer Abdullah at I-back and receiver Kenny Bell -- questions have gone largely unanswered this week about how to fix the big-game problems.

“We need to win this football game,” Bell said. “We have to.”

It’s a sentiment shared by players and coaches on both teams.

The Gophers remain in control of their destiny to win the West Division, though they must win in Lincoln and at Wisconsin next week. Sound farfetched? So did an eight-win season in 2013. Or a chance to repeat it.

With one victory, Minnesota will reach eight wins again -- a feat it has accomplished once in the past 50 years.

Even after last week, the moment of which the Gophers have dreamed is here, said fourth-year coach Jerry Kill.

“I wish close counted,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said, “but it doesn’t.”

Kill said the Gophers are confident about their final stretch. He also recognizes the potential danger in wanting too badly to clear the next hurdle as a program.

“Preparation takes all the pressure out of it,” Kill said. “I think the big challenge for us coaches and players is to make we do a great job of preparation, so we’re confident going in.”

Minnesota beat Nebraska 34-23 last year in Minneapolis, the Gophers’ first win in the series in 17 games. Nebraska has won the past seven meetings in Lincoln, dating to 1960.

“Winning on the road, in the Big Ten or anywhere,” Kill said, “is not easy to do.”

Nebraska was reminded as much last week. The stunning defeat to the Badgers created anxiety in Lincoln. Pelini, 66-26 at Nebraska, defended his program to fans and media.

“I’ve been around coaching and football long enough to know that you stay the course,” Pelini said.

The Huskers face the longest odds of the four teams left in contention to win the West Division. A Wisconsin win Saturday at Iowa or next week over the Gophers or one Nebraska loss -- it closes at Iowa -- would eliminate the Huskers.

Nebraska last won a league title in 1999.

“It’s about having a short memory,” senior offensive guard Mike Moudy said.

The Wisconsin game, Moudy said, “is in the past.”

“You can’t change anything about it,” he said. “All you can do is get better. We are just going to worry about Minnesota.”

As the Huskers picked up the pieces from last week, Brian Saunders, a Nebraska fan and ex-Marine formerly of Laurel, Nebraska, helped arrange an online fund drive to fly a banner near Memorial Stadium on Saturday before kickoff with the message: “Fire Bo Pelini.”

The bid raised less than 25 percent by the deadline of the required $1,500.

Saunders, 25, who lives in Orlando, Florida, said he still hoped to fly the banner next week in Iowa City.

The effort, while perhaps extreme, illustrates the restless state around Nebraska’s program.

Some fans and players, it seems, don’t know what to think. In practice on Tuesday, seven top-unit defenders voluntarily relinquished their traditional Blackshirt jerseys. The other Blackshirts remained.

“All you can do is take the coaching,” senior cornerback Josh Mitchell said. “We have proven that we know how to do things correctly.”

So has Minnesota.

Who moves forward on Saturday? Maybe it's the team that most successfully got past last week.

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