NCF Nation: Big Ten Conference

We are looking around the league this week at one position for each Big Ten team that needs improvement, either because of poor production in 2014 or a loss of important personnel. Iowa is up next.

Problem position: Offensive tackle

Why offensive tackle is a problem: Tackle was the least of Iowa’s problems in 2014. In fact, it was the Hawkeyes' clear strength, with Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff on the left side and fellow senior Andrew Donnal opposite Scherff. As Iowa struggled to find consistency elsewhere, Scherff and Donnal remained solid. But there is no heir apparent. See the problem?

How it can be fixed: By doing what Iowa does better than anything else -- develop linemen. Say what you want about the lack of recent forward movement in Kirk Ferentz’s program, the Hawkeyes have continued to produce quality linemen. The head coach’s son deserves credit for the work done with Scherff over the past three years, but Donnal and center Austin Blythe are perhaps better examples of his good work.

Early 2015 outlook: The postseason depth chart lists Boone Myers, a rising sophomore, ahead of junior Cole Croston, the backup in 2014, at left tackle. Both came to Iowa City as walk-ons, though Myers, a backup guard last season, has earned a scholarship. Former tight end Ike Boettger, a sophomore still in need of more weight, started the offseason ahead of freshman Keegan Render on the right side. No matter the personnel, Iowa must find solid replacements. The Hawkeyes don't have the flexibility or athleticism on offense to account for an unreliable pair of bookends. Expect plenty of attention from the coaches paid to the tackles this spring.
This week, we're examining a problematic position for each Big Ten team during the 2014 season and how it can potentially be repaired in 2015.

Your turn, Nebraska.

Problem position: Linebacker

Why linebacker was a problem in 2014: Nebraska has been playing catch-up at the linebacker spot since it moved from the Big 12 -- where it needed more defensive backs and swift linebackers against all those pass-happy offenses -- to the more rugged, physical style of the Big Ten. The Huskers thought 2014 would bring improvement to the position, but a preseason knee injury to starter Michael Rose-Ivey proved a big setback. Once again, Big Red mostly failed to get elite production out of its linebackers, and the lack of size and skill there was evident in losses to Wisconsin, Minnesota and USC. With the graduation of Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach and the transfer of Courtney Love to Kentucky, the position is perilously thin heading into 2015. New coach Mike Riley and his staff have made recruiting linebackers an immediate priority.

How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Rose-Ivey's return from injury should be a big boost, as he was drawing rave reviews before he went down. David Santos and Josh Banderas return a lot of experience, though Banderas saw his playing time dwindle in 2014. Backups Marcus Newby, Austin Williams and Chris Weber also are back but need to take major steps forward.

How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): The Huskers have only one linebacker currently committed in three-star prospect Tyrin Ferguson. They are still hot on the trail of other linebacker prospects and will continue to hunt for more until signing day. Nebraska is also in the mix for former South Carolina linebacker Kaiwan Lewis, who could provide some immediate assistance as a graduate transfer.

Early 2015 outlook: The Huskers were barely holding it together at linebacker by the time the Holiday Bowl rolled around because of injuries and other issues. Riley understands that the position needs to be restocked and rebuilt. Rose-Ivey is a crucial part of that process if he bounces back fully healthy. Reinforcements are still needed in recruiting, and landing Lewis would be big. Nebraska is unlikely to have one of the top linebacker units in the Big Ten in 2015, but it can hope for a little bit better performance.
Nebraska and Michigan are next scheduled to play in 2018. If the past few days in recruiting serve as an indication, the game can't get here soon enough.

After a weekend in Ann Arbor in which Jim Harbaugh's staff flipped the commitment of Florida defensive end Reuben Jones from Nebraska to Michigan, Daishon Neal on Tuesday poured fuel on the warm embers of a budding Big Ten rivalry.

Neal, a defensive end out of Omaha (Neb.) Central, accepted a visit Monday from Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison. Committed to Nebraska since April, Neal wavered in his pledged after Bo Pelini was fired in November. As Neal worked to establish a relationship with Mike Riley's new staff in Lincoln, he flirted with Oklahoma and Oregon in recruiting, ultimately eliminating both.

This week, on the heels of his official visit to Nebraska, Neal received an offer from Michigan.

Then on Tuesday, he reaffirmed his commitment to the Huskers in a radio interview with Sharp & Benning in the Morning on Omaha's KOZN 1620-AM.

In the process, Neal and his father, Abraham Hoskins Jr., ripped the Wolverines.

"They made one bad statement," Hoskins said of the Monday visit with Mattison, "and it ruined them. They said without football, Daishon wouldn't be able to go to Michigan -- like we couldn't afford to send him there or we couldn't get him [academically eligible].

"Once he said that, we pretty much escorted him out of the house."

Neal said Mattison "basically tried to call me stupid in front of my face."

Listen to the full audio here.

A few things strike me:
  • Mattison and the Michigan coaches cannot respond until next week, when Neal signs with Nebraska. And by then, the Wolverines will have more important topics to address -- like their own class.
  • Interpret Mattison's purported comments as you wish. He wasn't necessarily insulting Neal. It's a fact Michigan is selective in the admission process and it helps a student's cause to receive a football scholarship. I doubt his statement was related to finances.
  • This feels a bit like Mattison walked into a trap in Omaha. Did Michigan really stand a chance here? Neal had an excellent visit to Nebraska over the weekend, by his own account, and the Huskers benefit from a victory -- perceived or real -- over Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines in recruiting.

Most notably, less than a month into the Harbaugh era, things are going just as well as hoped.

We all know Harbaugh is going to make a run at Urban Meyer and Ohio State in the way he targeted USC's Pete Carroll while at Stanford.

Of course, Harbaugh will get under the skin of Michigan State fans.

A little bad blood with Nebraska is an excellent side story. It makes sense, too.

Nebraska running backs coach Reggie Davis coached for Harbaugh with the 49ers for the past four years. Harbaugh's son, Michigan tight ends coach Jay, worked as an undergraduate assistant for Nebraska's Riley at Oregon State.

Harbaugh, in fact, played late in his NFL career for Riley with the Chargers.

The Huskers and Wolverines figure to coach with similar philosophies and covet many of the same recruits.

In fact, they're battling for another. Tight end Matt Snyder of San Ramon, California, a Nebraska pledge, visited Michigan last weekend.

Home visits from both schools to Snyder are scheduled for this week. Expect a little more sparring.

Now, if only the Big Ten could do something about that four-year wait until they play again.
We're examining one position that needs improvement this offseason for every Big Ten team. These areas may require an upgrade in talent or simply face a drop-off as a result of departing contributors.

Next on the list is the only team nationally to face both participants in the inaugural College Football Playoff national championship. Of course, we’re talking about the Michigan State Spartans.

Position to improve: Running back

Why running back could be a problem: Pretty obvious, isn’t it? The Spartans lose workhorse Jeremy Langford, who rushed for 40 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards over the past two seasons. Gone also is top backup Nick Hill, who gained 622 yards as a senior. Even with star QB Connor Cook and an experienced group of receivers -- minus Tony Lippett -- MSU values a strong running game. Experience is lacking.

How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): The Spartans have traditionally featured big-bodied backs. Next year looks no different. Delton Williams (6-foot-1, 228 pounds) returns as a junior after rushing for 316 yards and five scores. Gerald Holmes (6-0, 221) carried the football 15 times in his first year of action, and Madre London (6-1, 213) redshirted as a freshman out of Florida.

How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): The name to know is L.J. Scott, a 6-1, 217-pound prospect from Hubbard, Ohio, who committed to the Spartans in July over offers from Ohio State, Alabama and others. He ranks 93rd in the ESPN 300, seventh among running backs, and was named one of 10 instant-impact recruits for 2015 by ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill.

Early 2015 outlook: The spring will provide an important chance to impress for Williams, Holmes and London, all of whom were well regarded as recruits, though none on the level of Scott. The Spartans redshirt most freshmen, though Williams played in 2013. Can Scott see the field? Probably, but MSU would be well served to find a solid option as Langford’s replacement before August. The best guess to open the season in the backfield is Williams.
This week, we're taking a look at one position that was a problem for each Big Ten team in 2014 and how they might fix it in 2015. Next up is Wisconsin.

Problem position: Wide receiver

Why wide receiver was a problem in 2014: We all know that Wisconsin's passing game wasn't very good in 2014, and the quarterback position was an area of trouble at times. But the lack of upper-echelon talent at wide receiver was even more glaring the season after Jared Abbrederis departed. The Badgers ranked just 12th in the Big Ten in passing offense, and averaged a pedestrian 11.6 yards per reception. Former walk-on Alex Erickson led the team with 55 catches for 772 yards, and the next most productive receiver was senior slot man Kenzel Doe, who had 17 catches for 197 yards. Tight end Sam Arneson, who was a big pass-catching weapon, has graduated.

How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Erickson will be back, and should remain the No. 1 option. Wisconsin will hope to get more out of Jordan Fredrick, who had 13 catches last season, and the disappointing duo of Reggie Love and Robert Wheelwright. Love scored on a 45-yard end around in the opener against LSU, then did almost nothing the rest of the season. Wheelwright's touchdown catch in the season finale against Minnesota was somehow his only reception of the year. A trio of rising sophomores -- George Rushing, Natrell Jamerson and Krenwick Sanders -- will be asked to contribute more, with Rushing looking like the most promising of the group.

How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): Not much, at least so far. Wisconsin has only one receiver committed in this year's class, and that's Andrew James from Fort Lauderdale, Florid. He's a three-star prospect, according to ESPN Recruiting.

Early 2015 outlook: One of the main priorities for new head coach Paul Chryst is developing the passing game, including the quarterbacks and receivers. Still, Wisconsin is unlikely to become Wide Receiver U any time soon. This is still an offense that will rely heavily on the run game and use its tight ends (Troy Fumagalli should step in for Arneson in '15) and tailbacks as receiving options. Yet the Badgers receivers are often open because opposing defenses pay so much attention to the run game, so they need to be much better than they were last season. If even one or two wideouts can step up to help Erickson, that would go a long way toward improving the entire offense.
Jim Harbaugh landed his first commitment as Michigan head coach on Saturday when 2015 defensive end Reuben Jones tweeted his decision for the Wolverines. Jones had decommitted from Nebraska prior to his visit and is now on board for Michigan.



New defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin used his ties to the state of Florida to go and get Jones, who is only commit No. 7 for the Wolverines in the 2015 class. Michigan has room for roughly nine more prospects and still has plenty of needs to fill, so there is still plenty of work ahead.

Jim Harbaugh’s seven-year contract at Michigan ensures him a raise to more than $6 million annually after his fifth season and an evaluation by school officials to keep his pay in line with market value, according to the document released by the school to ESPN’s Darren Rovell and other media.

Harbaugh is to earn $5 million in each of the first three years of his deal -- a $500,000 base salary and $4.5 million in additional compensation for contracted TV and radio appearances and an apparel agreement, among other items.

The contract calls for a 10 percent raise to $5.5 million in January 2018 and another 10 percent raise to $6.04 million in January 2020, pending the market-value review.

The total value of the deal is $38,069,000.

If Harbaugh leaves Michigan for other employment, he must pay the university the remaining pro-rated amount of his $2 million signing bonus. For instance, if he takes an NFL job after four years, he will owe the school $857,142.

Other terms of the contract provide Harbaugh with:
  • The joint responsibility with the athletic director to schedule games. The final decision rests with the AD.
  • The use of two automobiles.
  • $4,000 of apparel annually from Michigan’s official outfitter (currently adidas).
  • Use of a private viewing box for his family and guests at Michigan Stadium and 16 additional tickets to home games.
  • Private air travel for all recruiting purposes and up to 25 hours of additional flight time for personal travel. First-class commercial airfare for all other football-related travel.

The contract allows for a salary pool of $4-5 million for his assistant coaches, with 10 percent raises after the third and fifth years of Harbaugh’s deal.

Harbaugh’s incentives include payment of $125,000 for winning the Big Ten East Division, $250,000 for a conference title, $200,000 for a New Year’s Six bowl appearance, $300,000 for a berth in the College Football Playoff and $500,000 for a national championship.

Additionally, he will receive $50,000 if named Big Ten coach of the year, $75,000 as national coach of the year and up to $150,000 for the academic performance of his players.

The contract was dated Dec. 28, 2014, and signed by Michigan athletic director Jim Hackett and president Mark Schlissel. Harbaugh was introduced in Ann Arbor on Dec. 30.
We've been counting down the top 25 players from the 2014 Big Ten season all week, and now we have reached the summit.

Like Chris Rock, we're ready to deliver a top 5. These are the best of the best from the year that was.

No. 1: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin

This one was pretty easy. Gordon won the Doak Walker Award, was the Big Ten's offensive player of the year and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. He amassed 2,587 rushing yards -- second most ever by an FBS player, behind only Barry Sanders -- and 32 total touchdowns while picking up 7.5 yards per carry. We'll never forget his epic 408-yard performance in just three quarters on Nov. 15 against Nebraska, even if that single-game record stood for only one week. It was the year of the running back in the Big Ten, and Gordon was the king of the class.

No. 2: Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State

The Big Ten's defensive player of the year, Bosa led the league with 13.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss while also forcing four fumbles. He could change or even win games with his pass-rushing prowess, as he showed in overtime at Penn State. He was a finalist for the Bednarik and Ted Hendricks awards and the Lombardi Trophy, and he's a good bet to win a major award as a junior in 2015. How does he combine so much speed, power and personality in one package?

No. 3: Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana

If the Hoosiers had been a better team, or if Coleman had more help from his passing game, then perhaps his 2014 season would be discussed in the same kinds of hushed tones we reserve for Gordon. Make no mistake, though: Coleman's season was also one for the ages, as he ran for a school-record 2,036 yards (in two fewer games than Gordon) and averaged 7.5 yards per carry (the same as Gordon). He had five games of at least 190 yards rushing, including a 228-yard, three-touchdown tour de force at Ohio State late in the year.

No. 4: J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State

How would Barrett's 2014 campaign have looked if he hadn't broken his ankle against Michigan in the season finale? Would the Buckeyes still have won the national title? It's a great debate. But what can't be argued is how remarkable Barrett's year was. Thrust into the starting job after Braxton Miller's shoulder injury in late August, the redshirt freshman broke just about every school record and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. He accounted for 45 total touchdowns, led the Big Ten in total offense and pass efficiency, and rode the most famous scooter in Ohio State postseason history.

No. 5: Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State

The Cotton Bowl win over Baylor summed up Cook in a nutshell. After a terrible interception and a couple of errant throws through the end zone, he calmly delivered the game-winning, 10-yard strike with 17 seconds left. Cook isn't always perfect, but there are few quarterbacks you'd take ahead of him with the game on the line. He threw for 3,214 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2014, and the Spartans couldn't be happier that he will return as a senior to lead this fall.
They didn't sneak up on us.

Anyone who tracked the Big Ten's summer buzz -- or reviewed the list of players attending preseason media days in Chicago -- noticed the league's surplus of standout running backs.

Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon had spurned the NFL, and a potential first-round draft selection, for a run at the Heisman Trophy and a national championship. Gordon's good friend Ameer Abdullah also was back for one final season at Nebraska, where he had been among the nation's most productive players. Indiana football might not have held your attention, but Tevin Coleman's 7.3 yards-per-carry average certainly did.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsIn many years, Doak Walker Award winner Melvin Gordon would have taken home the Heisman Trophy.
Michigan State's Jeremy Langford and Minnesota's David Cobb had been workhorses in 2013 -- combining for 529 carries -- and were back for more. Almost every team had a player capable of logging 1,000 rush yards.

"In this league," Cobb told ESPN.com's Austin Ward in August, "there's a good running back on every team."

Turned out, Cobb was underselling himself and his fellow backs. Most Big Ten teams had great, if not elite, running backs.

The numbers back it up: 2014 was easily the best season for running backs in Big Ten history.

The league produced six 1,500-yard rushers -- no other conference had more than three (no other Power 5 league had more than two). According to research from the Big Ten office, until 2014 the league never had more than three 1,500-yard rushers in the same season. Although a 12-game regular season, a championship game and the College Football Playoff provide more opportunities, Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott was the only back who needed the extra contests to reach -- and ultimately far eclipse -- 1,500 yards.

According to ESPN Stats and Info, no FBS conference has had even five 1,500-yard rushers since at least 1996.

The Big Ten produced the nation's top three rushers in Gordon, Coleman and Elliott. It had all three finalists for the Doak Walker Award in Gordon (who won), Coleman and Abdullah. Gordon was a Heisman finalist and likely would have won the award in any other year, as Marcus Mariota's numbers were overwhelming. Coleman and Gordon were consensus All-Americans, and Elliott earned offensive MVP honors in both the Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl, and in the national championship game.

So much star power eclipsed the consistency of players such as Cobb and Langford, the emergence of Northwestern freshman Justin Jackson, the speed threat of Purdue's Akeem Hunt, or the versatility of Illinois' Josh Ferguson.

Go ahead. Try to find a more productive season at running back -- for any league -- in college football history.

But what stands out about the Year of the Big Ten Running Back was that it occurred in stanzas. Just when one star back broke from the pack, another would seize the spotlight.

Let's take a quick look back:

Act 1: Fear Ameer

Abdullah and Georgia's Todd Gurley were the nation's best backs in the first month of the season. The Nebraska senior opened with a 232-yard performance against Florida Atlantic, and finished September with consecutive 200-yard efforts against Miami and Illinois. Abdullah finished with just 54 rush yards against FCS McNeese State but delivered one of the season's most memorable plays -- a 58-yard run after catch through McNeese State defenders with 20 seconds left that secured a Cornhuskers win.

Although Coleman also had a strong start and other Big Ten backs had their moments, Abdullah put himself in the Heisman talk with 833 rush yards and eight touchdowns by the end of September.

Act 2: Melvin makes his move

It was a bizarre start for Gordon: a huge first half (plus one play) against LSU, followed by a mysterious absence, followed by a 17-carry, 38-yard clunker against Western Illinois. Goodbye, Heisman? Hardly.

Beginning with a 253-yard performance against Bowling Green, Gordon posted 10 consecutive games of 100 or more rush yards, five 200-yard performances and seven games with multiple rushing touchdowns. By the end of October, he had returned to the national awards races.

[+] EnlargeTevin Coleman
AP Photo/Darron CummingsTevin Coleman's monster performances were hard to miss, even if Indiana was otherwise struggling.
Act 3: Coleman gets his due

It's always hard to get noticed on a struggling team, but when a player consistently puts up numbers like Coleman, he commands attention. Coleman averaged at least 6.9 yards per carry in six of his first seven games, including 14.5 yards per rush in a 219-yard effort at Iowa. Although his 307-yard explosion at Rutgers was overshadowed by Gordon's record-setting day against Nebraska, he earned national respect by running for 228 yards and three touchdowns at Ohio State in a game that Indiana led in the third quarter.

Coleman averaged 197.3 rush yards in road games, barely trailing Gordon (198 ypg) for the national lead.

Act 4: What about the other guys?

Cobb and Langford lacked the flash of Gordon, Coleman or Abdullah, but their consistency, durability and production eventually became impossible to ignore. Cobb logged five performances of 145 rush yards or more and recorded 30 or more carries in four consecutive games. Langford started slowly but ended the season with 10 consecutive 100-yard rushing performances, a team record. He ended his career with 15 consecutive 100-yard performances in Big Ten games, the longest such streak for any FBS player in regular-season conference games since at least 1996.

Elliott also surfaced with 154 yards at Michigan State, the first of many big-stage performances he would deliver down the stretch.

Act 5: Gordon's Heisman move

Some felt Mariota had the Heisman locked up by early November. Gordon made them reconsider. After a ho-hum 205-yard effort at Purdue, Gordon gashed Nebraska for an NCAA-record 408 rush yards as snow fell at Camp Randall Stadium. His milestone, compiled in just three quarters, lasted just one week as Oklahoma's Samaje Perine broke the record, but Gordon made the Heisman a two-man race again. He followed up with 200 yards at Iowa and a workmanlike 151 against Minnesota as Wisconsin won the Big Ten West Division.

Gordon fell shy of the Heisman but won the Doak Walker Award and secured a place as one of the great -- and perhaps the greatest -- Wisconsin back.

Act 6: Riding the E Train to a championship

The Year of the Big Ten Back was supposed to end with Gordon, but Elliott provided a surprise addendum. It started with 220 rush yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries in Ohio State's 59-0 stomping of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Elliott then followed with 230 yards and two scores on 20 carries in the Playoff semifinal against Alabama at the Sugar Bowl, including a Crimson Tide-taming 85-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

He ended with an even better performance -- 246 rush yards and four touchdowns -- as "ZEEEEEKE!" cheers reverberated throughout AT&T Stadium in Ohio State's national title win against Oregon.

The final carry for a Big Ten back this season: Elliott's 1-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds to play, providing a fitting exclamation point.

Ohio State teammates troll Heisman finalists

January, 22, 2015
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Three players made it to New York for the 2014 Heisman Trophy ceremony: Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Alabama's Amari Cooper, and the winner, Oregon's Marcus Mariota.

All three had historic seasons. All three were unquestionably deserving.

All three lost to Ohio State.

And you better believe the Buckeyes aren't going to let anyone forget it either. Enter freshman linebacker Darron Lee and sophomore defensive back Tyvis Powell, a pair of Bucks who clearly love them some social media.

Remember when Cardale Jones caught all of that grief from his teammates for the televised news conference announcing his return to Ohio State? Well, it was Lee and Powell who led the charge.

And Thursday afternoon, they were back at it again. The target this time? Their vanquished postseason opponents.

To quote the band Europe, we're in the final countdown. Our list of the best Big Ten players from the 2014 season has reached the top 10. This next group reflects the league's strongest position (by far): running back.

Let's get to it.

No. 6: Ameer Abdullah, RB Nebraska

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

No. 7: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State

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

No. 8: Anthony Zettel, DT, Penn State

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

No. 9: David Cobb, RB, Minnesota

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

No. 10: Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State

Langford might be the nation's most under-appreciated running back in the past two seasons. Constantly overshadowed by flashier players in the Big Ten and elsewhere, he has been remarkably consistent and productive, recording 10 100-yard rushing performances to give him a team-record 18 for his career. He also tied Michigan State's single-season rushing touchdowns record with 22. Like in 2013, Langford did much of his damage in Big Ten play, averaging 127.5 rush yards per game. In almost any other league, he's a first-team all-conference selection.
The weeklong countdown of the best players in the Big Ten from 2014 continues with the next set of five, headlined by a trio of linemen.

No. 11: Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State

The anchor on the interior for an Ohio State defense that grew into a dominant unit as the season progressed, Bennett played his best as his senior season neared an end. He accumulated five of his seven sacks and 9.5 of 14 tackles behind the line of scrimmage in November and the Big Ten championship game. By the time the Buckeyes controlled seemingly unstoppable Alabama and Oregon, Bennett was a force as part of a ferocious front four that made life much easier for the play-making linebackers and defensive backs behind him.

No. 12: Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa

A rock of consistency amid an up-and-down Iowa offense, Scherff did his part to contribute to the Hawkeyes' success. The Outland Trophy winner couldn't score touchdowns, though he would have gladly tried if given the chance. Scherff displayed his legendary strength and quick feet in protecting the blind side of Jake Rudock. When the Iowa offense hummed against Indiana, Northwestern and Illinois, Scherff was at the center of it.

No. 13: Taylor Decker, OT, Ohio State

The lone returning starter on an Ohio State offensive line that developed from a potential liability into a fearsome five-some over 15 games, Decker served as a cornerstone of the Buckeyes' success. Over the final four games, against Michigan, Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon, Ohio State rushed for 15 touchdowns. Credit Ezekiel Elliott -- but also Decker, a 6-foot-7 junior, and the line for punishing opponents as games grew long. And with inexperienced quarterbacks taking snaps all season, it was Decker who provided a security blanket in pass protection.

No. 14: Mike Hull, LB, Penn State

Hull didn't just lead the Nittany Lions in tackles as a senior. He led the Big Ten by a margin of 28 stops. A tackling machine, he served as the “heart and soul,” according to defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, of a group that carried PSU through 2014. Led by Hull and his 140 tackles, the defense led the Big Ten in yards allowed per game and play and in scoring, among numerous other categories. The sure-handed Hull was always in place to clean up. He contributed 10.5 tackles for losses and excelled in a leadership role.

No. 15: Tony Lippett, WR, Michigan State

Voted the team MVP and Big Ten receiver of the year, Lippett leaves MSU after catching 65 passes for a league-best 1,198 yards and 11 touchdowns. Firmly established as Connor Cook's top target, Lippett drew the attention of every MSU foe but often came up big against the best competition; against Oregon, for instance, he caught a career-best 11 passes. And Lippett did more than just catch passes. He started at cornerback on Senior Day against Rutgers and saw extensive time on defense against Penn State.
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ESPN 300 tight end Chris Clark is down to Michigan and UCLA as his final two schools, and plans to announce his decision on signing day. The No. 4 ranked tight end only has a few weeks to make up his mind and weigh out the positives and negatives for each school.

There are similarities and differences, pros and cons of each school that stick out to Clark. To help wade through what he could be looking for, here are some of those aspects Clark will consider when making his choice.


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The Big Ten season featured its share of breakout stars and memorable performances. Throughout the week, we'll be counting down the top 25 players in the conference this season. Our second group revealed comes from the states of Michigan and Minnesota.

No. 16: Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State

Continuing Michigan State's strong recent history at the cornerback position, Waynes regularly took away his opponent's top receiving threat. He intercepted three passes, broke up eight more and finished sixth on the team with 46 tackles as a junior. The Spartans, who often leave their corners to fend for themselves while stacking the box, were more susceptible to the big play this year without Darqueze Dennard, but Waynes did his part in patrolling the No Fly Zone.

No. 17: Maxx Williams, TE, Minnesota

The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Williams used his big frame to provide Minnesota with a reliable option in an otherwise limited passing attack this season. He declared for the draft after leading the Gophers with 36 catches (twice as many as anyone else on the roster) for 569 yards and eight touchdowns. His last score, a hurdling 54-yard run against Mizzou, showed the athleticism that made him the league's top tight end.

No. 18: Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan

The team captain and fifth-year senior was a bright spot in a disappointing year for the Wolverines. Ryan, in his first season as an inside linebacker, made 112 tackles to lead the Michigan defense. His nose for the ball and his speed helped him finish the year among the top five Big Ten players in tackles for loss (14). He won the Tillman Award at last week's East-West Shrine Game for his "intelligence, sportsmanship and service."

No. 19: Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State

Last season's Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year got off to a slow start in 2014, but found his stride and did just enough to edge himself past fellow end Marcus Rush on the stat sheet. Calhoun had eight sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss while providing a steady dose of pressure in the backfield for Michigan State this season. He returns to anchor the Spartans' front seven again in 2015.

No. 20: Briean Boddy-Calhoun, CB, Minnesota

Whenever Minnesota needed a big play on defense, Boddy-Calhoun seemed to find himself near the ball. He forced seven turnovers, including a long interception return in a close game against Ohio State and a win-clinching fumble near the goal line against Nebraska late in the season. Boddy-Calhoun started the season second on the Gophers' depth chart at cornerback, but ended as a first-team all-conference pick.
The 2014 season is in the books, and it's time to reflect back on the best players in the Big Ten before moving on to next year.

The countdown will roll along all week, and it starts right here with a heavy dose of defense.

No. 21: Louis Trinca-Pasat, DT, Iowa

The senior was a force in the trenches for the Hawkeyes, and he consistently found ways to disrupt opposing offenses, often by slicing into the backfield and stuffing rushers before they could get back to the line of scrimmage. Trinca-Pasat finished the season with 11.5 tackles for loss among his 69 total hits, impressive totals considering all the dirty work he had to do as well that doesn’t show up on the stats sheet.

No. 22: Leonte Carroo, WR, Rutgers

The Scarlet Knights were perhaps the most pleasant surprise in the Big Ten, and the junior wideout’s big-play ability unexpectedly made him one of the most productive players in the league. Carroo averaged nearly 20 yards per reception and found the end zone 10 times, but maybe the most shocking part of his season came when it was over and he announced his intention to return to Rutgers for one more year. The expectations for him will be much higher in 2015.

No. 23: Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska

The junior might not have lived up to the hype that swirled around him in the offseason, but there certainly wasn’t much for Gregory to be embarrassed about during a campaign that still included seven sacks and 10 tackles for loss. He’s still expected to be one of the first players off the board in the upcoming NFL draft. Even without posting the kind of numbers he might have hoped for during his final season with the Huskers, he still rated among the best defenders in the Big Ten.

No. 24: Derek Landisch, LB, Wisconsin

Few defenses in the country were more stout than the unit the Badgers rolled out this season, and their senior linebacker was seemingly always in the middle of locking down an opponent. Plenty of defenders made more tackles than Landisch, but he had a knack for making his plays count, racking up 16 tackles for loss and finishing third in the league with nine sacks. Wisconsin is certainly going to miss his presence in the lineup.

No. 25: Vonn Bell, SAF, Ohio State

The turnaround the Buckeyes made defensively in 2014, particularly against the pass, was nothing short of remarkable, and it was obviously invaluable on the run to a national title. The emergence of the dynamic sophomore patrolling the secondary for Ohio State was critical in the rise of that unit, and Bell left no doubt about why he was such a coveted recruit for the program as he thrived in his first season as a starter. Nobody in the league had more interceptions than the Bell’s six picks for the Buckeyes. Couple that with his 92 tackles and his performances raises the bar for his junior campaign.

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