NCF Nation: Illinois Fighting Illini

Ranking the Big Ten coaching jobs

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
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ESPN.com this week ranked the Power 5 college football coaching jobs, from No. 1 to 65. While those national takes on the Big Ten hit the mark, we'll offer a few minor changes in our Big Ten rankings, No. 1 through 14, of the league seats.

1. Ohio State
Is there really any doubt? The national championship is difficult to overlook. There’s no better job in the Big Ten -- both historically, though Michigan might argue, and in the current climate.

2. Michigan
The Wolverines deserve real consideration for a spot in the top 10 nationally. With more wins than any program in college football history and the second-highest winning percentage to Notre Dame, this is a truly special job. Just ask Jim Harbaugh.

3. Penn State
Resources galore. PSU may feature the best combination in the league of location, fan support and tradition. And the urgency to win is real, an important factor in comparison to other Big Ten programs striving for the top.

4. Nebraska
Some natural disadvantages exist, yes, but no school in the Big Ten creates unity and provokes passion among its fan base like the Huskers. This is not Tom Osborne’s Nebraska, but it’s still a top job with elite institutional support.

5. Michigan State
Natural competition with Michigan and Ohio State works for the Spartans in setting a high standard -- and works against MSU in that it may never be viewed, by comparison, as a true blue blood in the sport. Still, who cares about that if you’re in the discussion for a national title?

6. Wisconsin
While the Badgers don’t have the history of the Big Ten’s other top programs, and the resources in recruiting don't ever figure to stack up with a few competitors, Wisconsin wins and produces championship-caliber competitors.

7. Maryland
The Terrapins sit a ways back from the top tier of the league in many areas. But few can compare with Maryland’s recruiting ground and built-in support system courtesy of Under Armour.

8. Iowa
The Hawkeyes compensate their coach well: Kirk Ferentz had one of the top 10 salaries in the country in 2014. And they have a strong tradition. They are the biggest show in the state, but convincing talented players to come to Iowa City remains a challenge.

9. Minnesota
Minnesota has made an effort in the past few years to upgrade facilities and invest more in resources like nutrition and player support. The results are starting to show. While the local talent might be lacking, Minneapolis is one of the more attractive cities in the Big Ten.

10. Illinois
The Illini fall slightly behind Minnesota on our list because of location. Illinois coaches have had trouble consistently getting talent from Chicago to join them in the middle of the state. The focus remains more on basketball in Champaign.

11. Rutgers
One of the Big Ten’s newcomers is making strides toward matching some of the bigger schools in the conference, but the Scarlet Knights still have a ways to go before they can get out of catch-up mode.

12. Northwestern
Stringent academic requirements and a small, private campus are obstacles for any coach at Northwestern. A new facility on the edge of Lake Michigan should help the Wildcats when it is eventually completed.

13. Indiana
Football interest wanes quickly for the Hoosiers when basketball gets started in the late fall. The resources aren’t there, which makes it difficult to survive the improving gauntlet of the Big Ten East on a yearly basis.

14. Purdue
Purdue is Indiana without the added benefit of Bloomington, a great college town. Ross-Ade Stadium could use a face-lift, and West Lafayette lacks the charm of other campuses in the conference.
There's no doubt that Chicago is ground zero in the Illinois-Northwestern rivalry.

The Wildcats have branded themselves as "Chicago's Big Ten team," while the Illini have counted with the slogan, "Illinois. Our State. Our Team."

Well, now Chicago really will be home to the football rivalry between the schools and a more permanent home base for Illinois, or so the school hopes. That's because on Monday afternoon, the Illini announced that they will be playing their season finales against Northwestern at Soldier Field this year, in 2017 and in 2019. All three games will be played over Thanksgiving weekend.

[+] EnlargeIllinois football
Mike Granse/USA TODAY SportsIllinois played before a disappointing crowd in its home finale versus Penn State in 2014.
The move is an interesting one for a lot of reasons. Illinois is in some ways giving up a home-field advantage for its biggest Big Ten rivalry game -- Northwestern's campus is located just 15 miles from Soldier Field, after all. But the Illini have struggled to draw crowds in late November, especially with students on break for the Thanksgiving holiday. Last year's home finale against Penn State -- played the Saturday before turkey day -- attracted less than 10,000 fans, according to media reports.

The school says it has more than 140,000 alumni in the Chicagoland area and expects about 10,000 students to be in the vicinity during Thanksgiving weekend. It's still up to the football team to get people excited about coming to games, and fans have yet to fully embrace the Tim Beckman era even after last year's squad finished strong to reach a bowl. But the Illini hope to make the Soldier Field game an event with activities planned for fans and alumni around the contest.

To no one's surprise, there's a financial element in play, too. Illinois says it made $946,019 per home game in the 2014 season, a number that was brought down by the Penn State game, which netted just over $812,000. The Illini say they earned more than $1.96 million from its most recent game at Soldier Field, a 2013 loss to Washington.

That's all well and good -- unless you're one of the hardy souls who have faithfully supported Illinois at home games in Champaign and don't live particularly close to Chicago. The move affects this year's season-ticket holders, since their package now includes one fewer home contest. The school says that season tickets will have a lower price tag, reflecting that there are six home games instead of seven, and that season-ticket holders will have a chance to buy seats to the Soldier Field game at an exclusive, discounted rate. (This Q&A provides more insight).

Some fans could be negatively affected. But let's face it: the Illini haven't exactly been turning people away from home games. Their average home attendance in 2014 (53,397) ranked 12th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten, ahead of only Northwestern and Purdue. The program is right to try and do whatever it can to inspire some interest and enthusiasm and to do it in the city that's most vital for its exposure and recruiting.

There are a few other Big Ten teams who could use nearby NFL stadiums on occasion to generate interest, such as Rutgers (MetLife Stadium), Maryland (FedEx Field) and Indiana and Purdue (Lucas Oil Stadium). Heck, the most attention a Northwestern-Illinois football game has probably ever received was the 2010 game at Wrigley Field, even if that turned into something of a farce with the playing conditions.

There's a lot of upside here for Illinois. And if you're Northwestern, you have to be bending over backwards to accommodate this move, as a rivalry road game is now just a short train ride away in three of the next five years. You can bet the Wildcats will try to get their fans to flood Soldier Field and make it no less than a neutral-site atmosphere.

It will be fun to see the purple-clad Northwestern fans jostling it out with the orange-and-blue Illini backers in the stands. With today's announcement, Illinois raised the stakes in the claim to Chicago. It's appropriate that the two schools will vie for on-field supremacy in the city proper this fall and in years to come.
New Year's Day and national signing day used to be the two most disheartening days on the Big Ten football calendar.

Make no mistake, New Year's Day had been much more of a buzzkill. The Big Ten's poor results on an afternoon where it clustered its top postseason games on big stages damaged the league's reputation and depressed its fans.

National signing day had been a different kind of downer. Unlike New Year's Day, when the Big Ten's collective struggles were front and center, national signing day pushed the league off to the side. The Big Ten went from being embarrassed on Jan. 1 to being largely ignored on the first Wednesday in February.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesOhio State raised a trophy in January and raised expectations for the Big Ten on signing day.
Of course, this was ESPN's fault, as all things were/are. ESPN's in-season obsession with all things SEC spilled into its recruiting coverage, Big Ten fans contended.

Two things to note:

1. Recruiting rankings are inherently subjective

2. The numbers don't lie. Every recruiting list shows more elite prospects in the South -- many of whom choose to play for SEC schools -- than in the Midwest

The bottom line is signing day had become more of an SEC and ACC event than a Big Ten exposition. There's a reason why every year around this time, I snarkily ask our friends in ACC country if they're ready for the biggest day on their football calendar.

But signing day 2015, arriving in just 36 hours, could have a different feel around the Big Ten. For the first time in a while, the Big Ten is the most talked-about league in the sport. Ohio State just won the first College Football Playoff national championship, securing its first title -- and the Big Ten's -- in 12 seasons. The Buckeyes capped a Big Ten bowl season that far surpassed expectations (6-5 overall, 2-0 in New Year's Six games).

Michigan made the top coaching move of the offseason by landing Jim Harbaugh. Two former Big Ten quarterbacks shined Sunday night in Super Bowl XLIX, with former Michigan signal-caller Tom Brady coming away with his fourth ring.

The Big Ten has tangible momentum that it wants to sustain through the offseason, beginning with national signing day.

How realistic is that goal?

Signing day is largely about hype, and the Big Ten undoubtedly will be discussed more this year than in the past.

Ohio State's class, ranked No. 7 nationally by ESPN RecruitingNation, will be examined as the Buckeyes bring in standouts such as Justin Hilliard and Jashon Cornell, and hope to keep Torrance Gibson. Unlike many Big Ten coaches, Ohio State's Urban Meyer eschews redshirting and has quickly turned young players into key contributors. Meyer's first full class in 2013 -- featuring Joey Bosa, J.T. Barrett, Ezekiel Elliott, Vonn Bell, Jalin Marshall and Darron Lee -- played a huge role in this year's title run.

Michigan's first class under Harbaugh also will be in the spotlight. It will be small -- the Wolverines have only nine verbal commitments -- but Harbaugh already has bolstered the quarterback spot with Zach Gentry, who had originally picked Texas. Michigan could finish strong with tight end Chris Clark, linebacker Roquan Smith and cornerback Iman Marshall, all of whom are announcing their decisions on signing day.

James Franklin's first full class at Penn State should get Lions fans excited for the future. Franklin and his staff put much of the group together last spring, landing 13 commitments before the end of May. They've upgraded their top problem unit, offensive line, with recruitsSterling Jenkins and Ryan Bates, to go along with junior college transfer Paris Palmer.

Michigan State is arguably the nation's top player development program. But after consecutive top-5 finishes, the Spartans' recruiting efforts are getting noticed. MSU is poised to sign a top-30 class and might have locked up its future offensive backfield with quarterback Brian Lewerke and running back L.J. Scott. Twin brothers Andrew and David Dowell, one-time Northwestern and Kentucky commits, recently switched their pledge to MSU.

Wisconsin and Nebraska also could end up among ESPN RecruitingNation's top 30 classes. Not surprisingly, the Badgers have seen attrition in their class after the surprising departure of coach Gary Andersen to Oregon State, but they've bolstered their offense with running backs Bradrick Shaw and Jordan Stevenson, tight end Kyle Penniston and quarterback Austin Kafentzis. Nebraska also went through a coaching change but has made a nice push under Mike Riley and his innovative recruiting approach, landing offensive lineman Jalin Barnett and holding onto defensive back Eric Lee and others.

As colleague Mitch Sherman wrote last week, Big Ten coaches had no consensus about whether the league's recent on-field surge would improve recruiting, especially for non-traditional powers. Maryland, despite losing two recruits to Indiana this past weekend, will be a program to watch Wednesday as linemen Austrian Robinson and Isaiah Prince make their decisions. Illinois hopes to upgrade its defensive line with Jamal Milan, who also is considering Minnesota and Indiana. Minnesota, Rutgers, Northwestern, Indiana and others look to lock up solid classes on Wednesday.

There will be Big Ten teams that don't move the needle regionally or nationally, as there are every year. But there's optimism about the league's overall recruiting efforts, fueled by the bowl/playoff momentum.

The Big Ten changed its fortunes on New Year's Day. National signing day looms, and league should gain a greater share of the spotlight, providing a springboard to the offseason.
After winning several high profile recruiting battles under Gary Pinkel, Missouri fans have learned some of the tricks to help an elite prospect like Terry Beckner Jr. feel at home on an official visit.

Every Big Ten team is looking to improve in the coming months. This week, we're examining one position group for each squad that must be upgraded. The Illinois Fighting Illini are up next.

Problem position: Defensive line

Why defensive line was a problem in 2014: The front actually has been a problem throughout coach Tim Beckman's tenure after Illinois produced a nice run of NFL prospects from the defensive line. Illinois finished last in the Big Ten in run defense for the second consecutive season, allowing 239.2 rush yards per game (115th nationally). The Illini also finished near the bottom in the league in sacks (23) and tackles for loss (82). The poor performance cost line coach Greg Colby his job following Illinois' bowl loss to Louisiana Tech.

How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Illinois has loaded up on junior-college transfers and needs several to blossom this season along the defensive line. Jihad Ward is the one to watch after recording three sacks, two forced fumbles and a team-high four fumbles recovered in his first year as an Illini end. Illinois also needs more from Joe Fotu on the inside. Illinois fans are waiting for big things from Paul James III, a decorated high school prospect. Rob Bain, who started about half of last season at tackle, is back alongside Dawuane Smoot, who had 7.5 tackles for loss as a reserve in 2014.

How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): A major problem could get worse if Illinois can't finish strong in recruiting. The Illini finally landed their first defensive line recruit of the 2015 class this past weekend when junior college defensive end Sean Adesanya committed to the school. There's some talent on the current roster, but Illinois really could use another lineman or two in this class.

Early 2015 outlook: Beckman's first step is finding an assistant to coach the line after missing out on Missouri's Craig Kuligowski, who would have been excellent. Whomever Illinois hires must get more out of the talent in the program, starting with Ward, a 6-foot-6, 295-pound potential matchup nightmare for opponents, but also others like James and Smoot. Run defense must be Illinois' single biggest priority heading into another make-or-break season for Beckman.

Final 2014 Big Ten Power Rankings

January, 13, 2015
Jan 13
1:00
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» More Final 2014 Power Rankings: Top 25 | ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

» More 2015 Too-Early Rankings: Top 25 | ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

The 2014 season just ended, but we're already looking ahead to next season. Here are our way-too-early 2015 Big Ten power rankings, which are subject (and guaranteed) to change a lot between now and August.

 
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Illinois couldn't overcome early mistakes -- and it couldn't stop Louisiana Tech and the big play during Friday afternoon's Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl.

The Bulldogs scored three of the first four touchdowns thanks to an 80-yard pass, a 69-yard interception return and a 70-yard pass that set up a short run. And Illinois couldn't keep up with two missed field goals and a missed extra point in just the first half, as Louisiana Tech outmuscled the Illini 35-18.

It was the first bowl win for Louisiana Tech (9-5) since 2008, and the loss cemented the third straight losing season for Illinois (6-7).

Game ball goes to: Louisiana Tech defensive lineman Houston Bates. That's right, the game ball goes to the player who competed for Illinois last season before transferring to be closer to home. He wreaked havoc on the Illinois line all day, and he was a big reason Illini QB Reilly O'Toole wasn't overly comfortable in the pocket. He finished with 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. (Coming into the game, he led the Bulldogs with just 5.5 sacks on the season.) He didn't score two TDs like Kenneth Dixon and he didn't return an interception for a TD like Xavier Woods -- but he was consistent all game. No player deserves this more.

It was over when: Louisiana Tech capitalized on a crucial Illinois mistake midway through the fourth quarter. Illinois forced a fumble on a quarterback hit but then, during the fumble return, fumbled itself -- and Louisiana Tech recovered. The Bulldogs capitalized by completing a 70-yard pass just three plays later, which set up a short TD run. That gave Louisiana Tech a 10-point advantage.

Stat of the game: 0-for-16. Those were the two teams' total third-down conversion numbers into the third quarter; both teams were 0-for-8. Illinois stopped the trend by completing a 19-yard pass on third-and-13 on its second drive of the second half. The teams finished a combined 6-of-28.

Best play: Midway through the second quarter, O’Toole overthrew a pass that landed right in the waiting arms of Louisiana Tech defensive back Xavier Woods. The sophomore took a few steps to his right, then sprinted left and ran 69 yards for the touchdown -- complete with a dive at the end, which barely got him into the end zone.

That interception return changed the face of the game. Illinois trailed 14-9 and was driving downfield; Woods’ play put the score at 21-9.

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Four things to watch in Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, which kicks off at 1 p.m. ET (ESPN) Friday and features Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech:

Big Ten transfers versus Illinois: Two of Louisiana Tech's better players -- quarterback Cody Sokol and defensive end Houston Bates -- both competed in the B1G before transferring earlier this year to the Conference USA school. Bates actually played for Illinois before announcing in February he was moving to Louisiana Tech to be closer to his family. He was an All-B1G honorable mention last season, and he currently leads the Bulldogs with 5.5 sacks this season. Sokol played for Iowa last season but decided to move on after finding himself third on the depth chart, behind Jake Rudock and C.J. Beathard. Iowa confirmed his departure in March, and he didn’t need to sit out a year since he graduated in May. Sokol has thrown for 3,189 yards and passed for 29 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. He was named the Conference USA Newcomer of the Year.

Can Louisiana Tech’s offense be slowed down?: The Bulldogs’ offense didn’t crack the top 40 in rushing or passing, but it is ranked highly where it counts the most -- scoring. Louisiana Tech is No. 12 nationally by averaging 37.5 points per game, nearly twice what it scored last season (19.2 ppg). With an efficient red-zone offense -- Kenneth Dixon has 21 rushing touchdowns -- Louisiana Tech has also been scoring touchdowns at a greater percentage (71.7 percent of trips) than Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State.

That’s not great news for Illinois, which struggles in just about every statistical category on defense. The Illini have the No. 115 red zone defense (89.6 percent), No. 112 total defense (464.3 ypg) and the No. 107 scoring defense (33.9 ppg). Plus, Louisiana Tech hasn’t lost a game all season when it scores 30 points. Its record stands at 7-0 when scoring 30 or more, and 1-5 when scoring less.

Two young, overlooked all-conference wideouts: Louisiana Tech sophomore Trent Taylor and Illinois freshman Mike Dudek each had just one FBS scholarship offer -- and they’re making quite a few teams regret not taking a closer look. (Fortunately for the Bulldogs and Illini, it just so happened that Taylor played high school football in Louisiana, and Dudek was from Illinois.)

Dudek was a first-team All-B1G selection and led the team with 65 catches, 965 yards and six touchdowns. He had 439 more receiving yards than the No. 2 target. Taylor found a spot on the second-team All-Conference USA and had 62 catches, 814 yards and nine touchdowns -- 338 more yards than the No. 2. You’re likely going to hear a lot more from these two receivers over the next few seasons, so it’s worth keeping an eye on them here.

Turnover battle: No team in the nation has forced more turnovers than Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs have caused 25 interceptions and 15 fumble recoveries this season -- more than twice as many forced turnovers as Illinois -- and that opportunistic defense could pose problems for Tim Beckman’s squad.

Two Louisiana Tech defensive backs -- Xavier Woods and Adairius Barnes -- have five interceptions apiece. Illinois has forced just seven interceptions total. And, when it comes to turnover margin, there’s also obviously a big gap between these two teams. The Bulldogs are fifth nationally (plus-1.15 per game); Illinois is 75th (minus-0.17 per game).
The doorways in the Dudek household were never safe.

Every day while growing up, Mikey Dudek would try to jump up and touch the top of every door he passed through. It got to be so frequent that his dad, Rick, had to tell Mikey to cut it out because he was starting to rub the paint off the frames.

As a seventh-grader, Mikey became one of the first and the youngest to join J.R. Niklos' Acceleration training program in Naperville, Illinois. He would eventually spend six hours a week going through strenuous exercises that would lead to feats of physical prowess like he shows off in this video.

[+] EnlargeMike Dudek
AP Photo/Bradley LeebMikey Dudek has 69 catches for 965 yards and six touchdowns, and can become the eighth Illinois player to record 1,000 receiving yards in a season.
Many of the signs were there all along that Dudek would be a precocious performer, even if most college recruiters needed more convincing -- the nonstop motor, the coordination that had him making acrobatic catches as early as six years old. Still, what he did as a true freshman wide receiver this year at Illinois stunned even his most strident believers.

Dudek caught 69 passes for 965 yards and six touchdowns, and became the Illini's go-to weapon down the stretch as they fought their way to six wins. With even a subpar performance against Louisiana Tech in the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl on Friday, he will become just the eighth Illinois player to record 1,000 receiving yards in a season.

"I knew after spring practice that I was going to play this season, but they told me it would probably be like 30 plays," said Dudek, who enrolled in January. "So this season was definitely a shock to me."

The bigger surprise might be that so few other teams hotly pursued him out of high school. As the popular story goes, Dudek's only other scholarship offers were from Illinois State and North Dakota State. In truth, his father said, several other schools likely would have followed if Mikey hadn't committed to Illinois in April of his junior year.

But just about every other recruiter -- Big Ten schools like Wisconsin, Michigan State and Indiana showed interest -- kept saying they wanted to see more from Dudek first. This despite the fact that he produced big numbers in high school and went to countless college camps, where he consistently ran a 4.4 or better in the 40-yard dash.

It's not hard to figure out why teams were skeptical. Dudek is listed, perhaps generously, at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds.

"Everybody probably said the exact same thing: 'His size is going to hinder him, especially in the Big Ten,'" Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. "But the more you spend time around him, the more you say, 'We've got to take a shot on the guy.' With Mikey, you've got to get over the negatives and look at the positives, and when you do that, it's a no-brainer."

Other than his small stature, Dudek's other measurables are off the charts.

In that video linked above, he runs 22 mph on a treadmill and completes a box jump of 64 inches. Niklos, a former NFL player who started his training center in 2008, has worked with thousands of athletes and has trained more than 700 Division I players in various sports. He said only about 5 percent of his athletes can reach 22 mph on the treadmill, and he can count on one hand how many have pulled off the 64-inch jump.

"He's pretty much jumping over his entire body," Niklos said. "It's like he levitates when he jumps. For some reason, he freezes at the top, and just kind of stays there before he drops."

Dudek's speed and body control have helped him make several highlight-reel catches already for the Illini, and he has quickly become a fan favorite (who doesn't love a guy named Mikey, which is what all his family and friends still call him?). What fans don't see is his dedication to his craft. Cubit said Dudek is always working, staying at the football complex many nights past 9 p.m. watching film.

"He's always asking questions, and he very rarely makes the same mistake twice, which is unusual for young players," Cubit said. "He's created this all himself."

Dudek still is motivated by the lack of respect he received in recruiting -- "especially playing all these teams that overlooked you," he says. "You have a little chip on your shoulder preparing for them, and you want to go out and beat them." Even if that edge eventually softens, he will maintain the drive to keep getting better. This is a guy who is humble enough, after all, to help team managers push a cart full of coolers up a ramp after he had 115 receiving yards in a win against Penn State. He was grounded enough to befriend a classmate with special needs in high school.

Dudek has a chance to break every Illinois receiving record there is and perhaps become the face of the program in the next few years. If a few doorways had to lose some paint back home in the process, that's a fair price to pay.

Big Ten bowl predictions

December, 19, 2014
12/19/14
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The song is right: Bowl season is the most wonderful time of the year. Bowl season will also determine the overall champion of the season picks. Austin Ward leads the way right now, but it's still a wide-open race.

 

Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl



Why Illinois will win: There has been a noticeable change in the Illini down the stretch, and Tim Beckman’s players appeared to have fully bought in to his message as they fought back to qualify for a bowl game. Across the board, this looks like the most favorable matchup for any Big Ten team, and with a motivated team playing its best football when it mattered most, expect Illinois to come away with a trophy. Illinois 31, Louisiana Tech 24. -- Austin Ward

Why Louisiana Tech will win: I suppose I should believe more in Illinois after it finished the season strong, and Louisiana Tech has some bad losses on its schedule (Northwestern State and Old Dominion … oy). But I still have a wait-and-see attitude with this Illini defense, and the one thing the Bulldogs can do is score points. They averaged 37.5 points per game this season, and I think they'll win a shootout against a group of players not accustomed to the bowl stage. Louisiana Tech 38, Illinois 35. -- Brian Bennett

 

Quick Lane Bowl



Why Rutgers will win: Rutgers has already played four of the nation's top 10 defenses and a half-dozen of the top 25 rushing attacks. So, even with dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams, North Carolina isn'’t going to throw anything at Rutgers it hasn’t already seen. The Tar Heels have one of the worst defenses in the country -- only 10 have allowed more yards -- so Rutgers shouldn’t have a problem scoring. The issue here is Rutgers' defense, but, again, Rutgers has fared OK there against middle-of-the-road teams, and that's exactly what UNC is.
Rutgers 38, North Carolina 31. -- Josh Moyer

 

New Era Pinstripe Bowl



Why Boston College will win: It's fitting this bowl is played in Yankee Stadium because the final score might look like it belongs to a baseball game. Both teams have top-five rushing defenses and middling offensive production. Boston College quarterback Tyler Murphy, a former Florida Gator who transferred before this season, has been the X factor this season that helped BC beat USC and stick within a field goal of Florida State. Murphy does most of his damage on the ground, and that plays in Penn State's favor. But if he can break one or two big plays, that should be enough for a close win. Boston College 10, Penn State 6. -- Dan Murphy

Why Penn State will win: Let’s be honest: The Nittany Lions offense is lousy, and the special teams (outside of Sam Ficken) are almost just as bad. But I'm going with Penn State for the same reason it made a bowl game in the first place: defense. Only four teams in the FBS threw for fewer yards than Boston College, and no team defended the run better than Penn State. That works right into the strengths of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. Plus, the Nittany Lions will be motivated in their first bowl appearance since 2011. Underestimate this team at your own peril; it ended the plast two seasons with even bigger upsets.
Penn State 16, Boston College 13. -- Josh Moyer

 

National University Holiday Bowl



Why USC will win: Because the Trojans have more offensive firepower than any team to face Nebraska this season -- and the Huskers have surrendered 475 yards per game to Miami, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Minnesota. USC, with quarterback Cody Kessler, running back Buck Allen and receiver Nelson Agholor, will torment a Nebraska team that might feel a bit lost without deposed coach Bo Pelini. The Huskers, organizationally, figure to struggle after a tumultuous month. They're stuck in turmoil as USC looks to build off a strong finish to the regular season in a win over Notre Dame. USC 38, Nebraska 24. -- Mitch Sherman

 

Foster Farms Bowl



Why Stanford will win: This is a virtual home game for the Cardinal in nearby Santa Clara, California, while the Terrapins have to travel all the way across the country. Stanford struggled earlier in the season but seemed to find its footing late, beating UCLA by 21 points in the regular-season finale. Maryland has been unpredictable most of the season and has enough big-play ability to pull off an upset. But it's a tall order. Stanford 24, Maryland 17. -- Brian Bennett

 

Outback Bowl



Why Wisconsin will win: It's been a topsy-turvy three weeks for the Badgers, between losing 59-0 in the Big Ten title game and then losing their head coach, but this group isn't one to just lie down, and I can't envision Melvin Gordon taking it easy in the last game of his college career. How you view this game is basically a reflection of how you view that Big Ten championship -- and I see that as an anomaly. It won't happen again against Auburn. I still think Wisconsin has a great defense. I still think this offensive line can overpower Auburn. And I still think these players want to win one for Barry Alvarez. Auburn has an average defense and a great offense, but the Badgers win a close one in the end. Wisconsin 31, Auburn 28. -- Josh Moyer

Why Auburn will win: You can bet Auburn coach Gus Malzahn watched the Big Ten championship game with a big smile on his face. Ohio State had its way with Wisconsin's supposedly elite defense despite using a quarterback making his first career start with only one week to prepare. Auburn has as much, or more, offensive talent and speed as Ohio State, and it has a veteran quarterback in Nick Marshall. The Tigers' shaky defense could struggle with Gordon, Wisconsin's All-America running back, but it should be able to outscore the Badgers. Wisconsin can't match up with Sammie Coates in the back end and could struggle with Marshall and Cameron Artis-Payne on the perimeter. Auburn 35, Wisconsin 24. -- Adam Rittenberg

 

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic



Why Michigan State will win: The fearsome Spartans defense has already allowed more than 40 points twice this season. There's a decent chance it will happen a third time against Baylor, the country's No. 1 offense, but Michigan State is no slouch on offense, either, and should be able to keep pace. While Baylor uses a breakneck tempo to get its advantage, the Spartans rely more on their instinct to grind opponents down. If Michigan State can control the pace of the game and get a couple of stops, it should be able to avoid falling to 0-3 against top-10 opponents this season. Michigan State 45, Baylor 42. -- Dan Murphy

Why Baylor will win: Michigan State faced two ranked teams this season and lost both games in unflattering fashion. Oregon and Ohio State hung 46 and 49 points, respectively, on the Spartans as Michigan State's offense just couldn't keep up. The problem for Mark Dantonio's squad? Baylor’s offense is even better. The Bears are ranked No. 1 in the country in scoring and yards, so the "No-Fly Zone" could have as much a hard time stopping Bryce Petty as it did Marcus Mariota. The Spartans are a good team, but I just don't like this matchup for them. MSU starts off strong but Baylor pulls away in the second half.
Baylor 45, Michigan State 35. -- Josh Moyer

 

Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl



Why Minnesota will win: The SEC East champions were already given fits by a Big Ten team, and Indiana won only a single conference game after knocking off Missouri on the road. Minnesota, with its power rushing attack, aggressive defense and solid leadership from the coaching staff, was better than the Hoosiers in virtually every way this season. Plus, it will be fired up to end the season on a high note with a fan base excited for the destination. The Gophers claim more hardware here. Minnesota 27, Missouri 20. -- Austin Ward

 

Why Missouri will win: All the Gophers have to do is follow Indiana's game plan from the Hoosiers' 31-27 upset in Columbia, Missouri, back in September, right? It might not be that easy. While the Tigers benefited from playing in the terrible SEC East, Missouri did improve as the season went along and has a strong rush defense that allowed just 3.5 yards per carry. That means Mitch Leidner will likely have to make some plays -- and avoid the fierce pass rush of Shane Ray. Minnesota has an excellent shot here, but I like Missouri in a close one.
Missouri 27, Minnesota 24. -- Brian Bennett

 

Taxslayer Bowl



Why Tennessee will win: Bowl games are often about motivation and momentum, and Tennessee trumps Iowa in both areas. The Vols are that incredibly young, talented team that should benefit more than most from bowl practices and the chance to punctuate this season before a 2015 campaign that will carry much higher expectations. Iowa has a good track record in bowls but comes in on a down note after a very disappointing regular season. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs sparked Tennessee down the stretch and should give Iowa's defense trouble. Tennessee's defense should pressure Iowa's quarterbacks into mistakes.
Tennessee 24, Iowa 17. -- Adam Rittenberg

 

Allstate Sugar Bowl



Why Ohio State will win: Urban Meyer doesn't need to call on his psychological tricks for an underdog team all that often, though the Ohio State coach did already have a couple occasions to do so this year. Look at what happened to Michigan State and Wisconsin when the Buckeyes felt slighted and Meyer pushed their buttons to bring out their best. Certainly, No. 1 Alabama is the ultimate test and is favored for a reason, but Ohio State has the personnel to match up with the SEC champions, and the Buckeyes have one more chance to shock everyone in what has been already been a stunning season. Ohio State 31, Alabama 30. -- Austin Ward

Why Alabama will win: Have you watched the Crimson Tide? They have the best talent nationally and possibly the best coaching. Ohio State is not too bad itself, with a young and fast-improving stable under Meyer, but Alabama is several steps ahead and tested against a daunting schedule in the SEC West. If it boils down to playmakers, the Buckeyes will be at a disadvantage for the first time this season -- perhaps a big disadvantage. Ohio State simply can't match Blake Sims, Amari Cooper and the Bama backs with a third-string quarterback in Cardale Jones and weapons elsewhere whose athleticism won't surprise the Alabama defense.
Alabama 31, Ohio State 17. -- Mitch Sherman

Our records:
1. Austin Ward: 88-25 (.779)
T-2. Brian Bennett: 85-28 (.752)
T-2. Mitch Sherman: 85-28 (.752)
4. Dan Murphy: 57-19 (.750)
5. Adam Rittenberg: 83-30 (.735)
6. Josh Moyer: 82-31 (.726)
Midterm junior college signing day winners are headlined by Ole Miss and Oklahoma, but they weren’t the only programs that improved Wednesday.

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Earlier today, we presented our All-Big Ten team. As you can imagine, there was a lot of debate between the six of us over who should make the team and who should get left off. Let's discuss some of our toughest choices and omissions:

Austin Ward: Thanks in large part to all the dirty work he was doing at the start of the year, Michael Bennett didn’t pile up the type of numbers that build a rock-solid case as an all-conference performer. But when it mattered most over the final month of the season, there probably wasn’t a defensive player in the league having a greater impact than the Ohio State senior as he made life miserable in the trenches in the most important games of the season for the Big Ten champs. Dating back to the road trip to Michigan State on Nov. 8, Bennett closed the season with 5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles down the stretch, looking every bit the All-American he was expected to be in the preseason.

[+] EnlargeKurtis Drummond
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsThree cornerbacks made ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team, which meant a deserving player in Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond didn't make the cut.
Brian Bennett: The toughest single position to choose was at defensive back. You may have noticed our team did not include Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond, who was named the Big Ten defensive back of the year. That's no slight against Drummond, who's an outstanding player, but we felt like we had to go with three cornerbacks, given the play of Maryland's Will Likely, Minnesota's Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Drummond's own teammate, Trae Waynes. In fact, Ohio State's Doran Grant had a strong case for inclusion as well, and we wanted to recognize what Wisconsin's Michael Caputo contributed to the league's best defense, statistically, during the regular season. Defensive back was a loaded position, and there wouldn't be much difference between the first- and second-team selections there.

Adam Rittenberg: I don't have a major beef with our selections this year, although it would have been nice to find a place for Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah on the offense. Melvin Gordon told me Wednesday that if Abdullah hadn't sustained a knee injury in early November, he also would have reached the 2,000-yard plateau. Imagine if the Big Ten had three 2,000-yard rushers in the same season. Safety wasn't the strongest position in the league this year, while cornerback turned out to be surprisingly good.

Dan Murphy: It's too bad we can't field an entire offense out of running backs because the Big Ten had almost enough of them worthy of filling out an all-conference roster. Minnesota teammates and cousins David Cobb (running back) and Damien Wilson (middle linebacker) both were left of the list after great years for a surprising Gophers team. Cobb would have made the team in most other years, and Wilson was a narrow miss. Freshman receiver Mike Dudek also deserves some recognition, but there's a good chance his name will pop up here in the next few years.

Josh Moyer: Cornerback was relatively strong this season, so we decided to go with three corners and one safety on our team. As a result, Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond was the odd man out, and he’s a player who definitely deserves some recognition. He struggled a few times this season -- missing open-field tackles against Purdue and not faring well against Ohio State -- but he was still named the Big Ten defensive back of the year. We thought Wisconsin's Michael Caputo played better, but Drummond was still solid and was a first-team All-Big Ten selection by both the coaches and media. He helped keep Michigan State’s No-Fly Zone together, while leading the team in tackles (65), interceptions (4), pass breakups (11) and pass deflections (15). He just missed the cut.

Mitch Sherman: I'm not sure we picked the right defensive lineman from Iowa. Louis Trinca-Pasat enjoyed an outstanding year, outperforming fellow tackle Carl Davis, who was more highly regarded before the season. But what about Drew Ott, the disruptive end who collected eight sacks, 12 tackles behind the line, scored a touchdown against Nebraska, forced a fumble and picked off a pass? Ott is just as deserving as Michigan State's Calhoun, though I doubt there's room for two linemen from an Iowa defense that ranked firmly in the middle of the Big Ten. So with the variety of defensive looks employed around the league, I'd take three ends and one tackle, like the coaches and media teams, inserting Ott in place of Trinca-Pasat.

B1G bowl season: News, notes & nuggets

December, 9, 2014
12/09/14
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Here's a look at the news and notes surrounding each Big Ten team and its respective bowl:

Ohio State (Allstate Sugar Bowl): Urban Meyer and Nick Saban met three times between 2008 and 2010, with the Tide winning the last two meetings. Meyer’s Florida Gators won, 31-20, in the first meeting. … According to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, Ohio State would be favored over Florida State -- but it would be an underdog against Alabama, Oregon, TCU, Baylor, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Auburn and Oklahoma. … Meyer is one of eight finalists for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award and one of three finalists for the Maxwell Coach of the Year. … Alabama teams that have been ranked in the top 2 of the AP poll are 5-1 in bowl games in New Orleans and boast six national championships. … Ohio State slightly trailed both Baylor and TCU in game control (No. 8) and strength of W-L (No. 6) but had the advantage in strength of schedule (No. 45). Baylor was No. 59 in that category, while TCU was No. 53.

Michigan State (Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic): The Spartans extended a school record this season with their eighth straight bowl appearance. That is the second-longest streak in the Big Ten and the 13th longest in the country. … Michigan State has won its past three bowl games -- against Georgia, TCU and Stanford -- which is also a school record. It’s also the longest active bowl winning streak in the conference. … Michigan State has made 25 bowls in its history, but it’s never been to the Cotton Bowl, which dates back to 1937. … According to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, Michigan State would’ve been favored over Florida State if it had made the playoff.

Minnesota (Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl): The Gophers last played a January bowl game in 1962, when it beat UCLA, 21-3, in the Rose Bowl. … This is Minnesota’s 17th bowl appearance, but it will be just the second time it plays in Florida. … Jerry Kill became just the second coach to guide Minnesota to three straight bowl games. (Glen Mason was the other.) … ESPN.com conducted a September poll by asking coaches: Who would you want your son to play for? Kill tied Stanford’s David Shaw for third with 7 percent of the vote.

Wisconsin (Outback Bowl): Wisconsin has now made 13 straight bowl games -- the seventh-longest streak in the country -- with the past five taking place in January. … The Badgers have played in the Outback Bowl four other times. They’ve lost the past three (to Georgia twice and to Tennessee). … If Melvin Gordon scores one more TD, he would join Barry Sanders and Kevin Smith as the only players with 2,000 yards and 30 TDs in a single season. … Gordon needs just seven rushing yards to surpass USC’s Marcus Allen (2,342 yards) and move into third on the single-season rushing list.

Nebraska (National University Holiday Bowl): This is the Huskers' 51st bowl appearance, the third most in the nation, and their seventh straight appearance. … Mike Riley was named the new head coach Dec. 4 but will not coach in the game. Interim coach Barney Cotton will. … USC and Nebraska have met four other times, including a 2006 and 2007 home-and-home series, and the Trojans hold a 3-0-1 advantage.

Iowa (TaxSlayer Bowl): Since 2001, no Big Ten team has won more bowl games or has a higher bowl winning percentage than Iowa. The Hawkeyes are 6-5 during that time. … Under Kirk Ferentz, Iowa is 4-2 against current SEC teams in bowl games. … Iowa last played in the TaxSlayer Bowl in 1983 (then known as the Gator Bowl), when it lost to Florida by a score of 14-6.

Maryland (Foster Farms Bowl): This will be the first meeting between Maryland and Stanford. … The Terrapins are the biggest underdog in the conference this postseason, as Stanford is a two-touchdown favorite. … Maryland is 11-12-2 all time in bowls but has won five of its past seven. … Maryland last appeared in San Francisco to face Oregon State in the Emerald Bowl in 2007. It lost 21-14.

Penn State (New Era Pinstripe Bowl): This is the first time the Nittany Lions will be playing in the new Yankee Stadium, but they played three times previously in the old stadium. Of course, that last trip was quite a while ago -- Penn State last played there in 1929 when it lost to NYU, 7-0. … This is Penn State’s 45th bowl game, tied for ninth most in the nation. … The Lions’ defense is one of just two that ranked in the top 10 this season in all of the following categories: rushing defense (No. 1), total defense (No. 2), scoring defense (No. 8), pass efficiency defense (No. 2) and defensive third-down conversion percentage (No. 6).

Rutgers (Quick Lane Bowl): This is the ninth bowl appearance in 10 seasons for Rutgers. Prior to the 2005 season, the Knights had played in just one bowl (1978) in school history. … Kyle Flood is the first coach in school history to lead Rutgers to a bowl in his first three seasons. … The Quick Lane is one of five new bowl games in this year’s lineup. … Player gifts for the bowl include a Fathead made in each participant’s likeness; the winner also gets a $25,000 locker room makeover.

Illinois (Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl): This is Illinois’ first bowl appearance since 2011 and the 18th in program history. Illinois’ bowl record is 8-9 overall. … The Illini are one of just two Big Ten teams with a bowl winning streak – the other is Michigan State – as Illinois won the 2010 Texas Bowl (over Baylor) and the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (over UCLA). … Tim Beckman’s squad has posted five comebacks on the year, and four wins came after trailing in the fourth quarter.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 15

December, 7, 2014
12/07/14
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