NCF Nation: Iowa Hawkeyes

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.
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.
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.

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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Tennessee, in its first postseason appearance since 2010, scored on four straight possessions to open the TaxSlayer Bowl en route to a 45-28 thumping of Iowa in Jacksonville, Florida.

The energized Volunteers, behind sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs and freshman running back Jalen Hurd, piled up 461 yards against the Hawkeyes, who dropped to 7-6 and lost a third consecutive bowl game.

The Vols also finished 7-6, but with a much different feel after winning three of four games, sparked by Dobbs, to close the regular season.

The Tennessee victory evened the Big Ten-SEC bowl duel at two wins apiece after New Year’s Day victories by Missouri over Minnesota, Wisconsin over Auburn and Ohio State over Alabama.

With five freshmen and three seniors in its starting lineup, Tennessee can eye a move up the SEC ladder. After the resounding win Friday, it figures to start next season among the favorites in the East.

Game ball goes to: Dobbs, who picked up where he left off in November. He completed his first eight passes as the Vols led 28-0 less three minutes into the second quarter. He finished with 129 yards on 16-of-21 passing with 76 rushing yards, bringing his total-offense figure over five starts to end the season to 1,408 yards. He was responsible for 15 touchdowns in that stretch, including three against Iowa.

How the game was won: The decisive nature of Tennessee’s plan from the start presented a stark contrast to the Hawkeyes, who alternated quarterbacks by series through the first half. Starter Jake Rudock and backup C.J. Beathard, around whom concerns of a transfer exist, both failed to find rhythm in the offense. Rudock, in fact, completed just one pass in the first half, yielding to Beathard in the third quarter. And Iowa’s bread-and-butter running game appeared no more organized. Meanwhile, the Vols simply leaned on Dobbs and Hurd, who rushed for 122 yards and two touchdowns.

Stat of the game: In building its quick, four-touchdown lead, Tennessee averaged 11.2 yards on 23 plays through the first 17:58 of clock time. Of those 23 plays, nine gained more than 10 yards. In that same span, Iowa averaged 4.3 yards per play with three gains of more than 10 yards.

Best play: Leading 14-0 after its defense forced a three-and-out with Rudock at the helm for Iowa late in the first quarter, Tennessee dialed up the trickery. Running back Marlin Lane took a lateral from Dobbs, ran to his right and pulled up, hitting wide-open Vic Wharton for a 49-yard strike.

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Viewer's Guide: TaxSlayer Bowl

January, 1, 2015
Jan 1
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Another Big Ten-SEC matchup arrives Friday (3:20 p.m. ET, ESPN) as Iowa takes on Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida. Iowa (7-5) enters with four losses in its last six games, while the Vols (6-6) won three of their final four to achieve bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010. That same season marks the last time Iowa won a bowl game, while the Volunteers' most recent postseason victory came in 2007. Here’s a look at a few storylines:

Iowa QB drama: Coach Kirk Ferentz on Tuesday named junior Jake Rudock the starter against the Vols, though sophomore C.J. Beathard will play. They've battled much of the season in practice. Rudock started 11 of 12 games, but a team-wide meltdown in the season finale against Nebraska reopened all competitions. Beathard, a third-year sophomore, has indicated that he might consider a transfer this offseason. The opportunity available on Friday figures to loom large in his decision.

Burning question: Will the Hawkeyes get imaginative on offense or simply try to pound away with a stable of backs led by Mark Weisman, who is workmanlike but pedestrian in comparison to running backs Tennessee has faced this year? Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis often prefers to err on the side of conservatism. When the Hawkeyes open it up and things click, they’re dangerous. But it just hasn’t happened enough.

The future is bright: Sophomore QB Joshua Dobbs breathed life into this Tennessee season. After starter Justin Worley was injured on Oct. 18 at Ole Miss, Dobbs took over for Nathan Peterman on Oct. 25 against Alabama. The dual-threat Dobbs held the job as the Vols averaged 35 points in four November games. Against South Carolina, Dobbs became the first Tennessee player to throw for 300 yards and rush for 100 yards in a game. Tennessee struggles to protect its quarterback and Iowa’s front four forges a strong rush. Dobbs’ ability to improvise is key. He'll have to work against Iowa with injured receivers Marquez North and Jason Croom.

In the red zone: Tennessee ranks 104th nationally in red zone efficiency -- an area the Hawkeyes need to exploit. Iowa, as you might expect, is exceptionally average in the red zone, ranking 53rd in offensive efficiency. In this matchup, perhaps that will be good enough.

Sense of direction: Ferentz, in his 16th season, still seeks a formula to break from a five-year stretch in which Iowa has finished higher than fourth in its division just once. Segments of the fan base continue to grow restless. Tennessee coach Butch Jones, meanwhile, inspired hope in his second season that Tennessee has finally found its man after three coaching changes in five years.

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)

ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team

December, 12, 2014
12/12/14
9:00
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The Big Ten unveiled its official all-league teams last week, but we have our own thoughts and choices. Here is the ESPN.com All-Big Ten team for 2014:

Offense

QB: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: Barrett broke the Big Ten single-season record for touchdowns produced with 45. He would have added to that total if not for a broken ankle in the regular-season finale vs. Michigan.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: All he did was lead the FBS in rushing, break the Big Ten single-season rushing record and earn the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year honors.

RB: Tevin Coleman, Indiana: Coleman joined Gordon as the only other player in the country to top 2,000 yards; he would have been a serious Heisman contender in another year or on a more successful team.

WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State: The Big Ten’s receiver of the year led the league with 1,124 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.

WR: Leonte Carroo, Rutgers: Carroo joined Lippett at over 1,000 yards and averaged 19.7 yards per catch.

TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota: A John Mackey Award finalist, Williams was the Golden Gophers’ top receiver and crucial cog in their run game.

OT: Taylor Decker, Ohio State: Anchored a Buckeyes offensive line that developed into one of the league’s best over the course of the season.

OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He was named the Big Ten offensive lineman of the year and is a surefire NFL first-round draft pick.

C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: The Spartans gave up fewer sacks (10) than any Big Ten club and had one of the league’s top offenses with Allen at the point of attack.

G: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: An ESPN All-American, Costigan helped pave the way for Gordon’s record-breaking runs.

G: Pat Elflein, Ohio State: He was a sturdy performer all season on the Buckeyes’ line as the offense scored at a rapid pace.

Defense

DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State: The Big Ten defensive player of the year led the league in sacks (13.5) and tackles for loss (20) and tied for the lead with four forced fumbles.

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: After a quiet start, Calhoun got back to his dominating ways and finished with 6.5 sacks.

DT: Anthony Zettel, Penn State: With eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss from the defensive tackle position, Zettel was the most disruptive interior lineman in the conference.

DT: Louis Trinca-Pasat, Iowa: LTP was a pleasant surprise for the Hawkeyes, leading the team with 11 tackles for loss and adding 6.5 sacks.

LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: Hull was the Big Ten linebacker of the year and led the league with 134 tackles.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan turned in a strong senior season with 112 tackles and 14 tackles for loss.

LB: Derek Landisch, Wisconsin: Any one of the Badgers’ four “Chevy Bad Boys” linebackers could have made the first team, but Landisch led the team with nine sacks and 16 tackles for loss.

DB: William Likely, Maryland: A big-play machine, Likely grabbed six interceptions and scored touchdowns on two of them.

DB: Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Minnesota: Like Likely, he was always in the middle of the action with four picks and a key strip late to seal the Nebraska win.

DB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: Probably the best pure cover guy in the league, Waynes is asked to do a whole lot as the point man in the Spartans' "No Fly Zone."

DB: Michael Caputo, Wisconsin: Caputo was the leader from his safety spot for a defense that was the best in the league during the regular season; he finished with 99 tackles.

Specialists

K: Brad Craddock, Maryland: The Big Ten kicker of the year made his first 18 field goals this season, including a 57-yarder and a game-winner at Penn State.

P: Peter Mortell, Minnesota: Mortell was a field-position weapon for the Gophers, leading the league with a 45.5-yard average per attempt

PR: De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska: The freshman scored three touchdowns on punt returns and had a preposterous 17.8 yard average for the season.

All-purpose: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: We had to find a spot for Abdullah on the team, and since he returned kicks and was extremely versatile as a running back, this seemed like a good spot.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 15

December, 7, 2014
12/07/14
10:00
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Big Ten bowl projections: Week 15

December, 7, 2014
12/07/14
2:43
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Thought bowl projections were over? So did we. But we've got one more edition for you, hours before the selections become official. What fun for all.

As ESPN.com first reported this week, the Big Ten could have a bowl-eligible team miss a bowl. If a Big Ten team goes to the Capital One Orange Bowl, the league won't have a participant in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. And if only one other Big Ten team reaches a New Year's Six bowl, it will leave eight eligible teams for only seven spots. Since there are more bowl-eligible teams than spots, and all spots are contracted, there are no at-large selections this year.

Got all that?

Michigan State is virtually assured of an Orange Bowl berth, following Alabama's win against Missouri in the SEC championship. At No. 8, the Spartans should remain ahead of No. 10 Mississippi State in Sunday's rankings -- neither team played this week -- and therefore be the highest ranked non-champion from the Big Ten or SEC.

Big Ten champion Ohio State is the only other league squad heading for the big bowls -- either a Playoff semifinal or a New Year's Six game. After the Buckeyes' 59-0 spanking of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship, we project Urban Meyer's squad to the Playoff. Boom.

That means one eligible Big Ten team is out of the bowls. Although Penn State and Illinois both are 6-6 and the Fighting Illini beat the Nittany Lions, there's no way PSU misses a bowl after being banned the past two years. Illinois, unfortunately, is the odd team out.

Wisconsin's horrific performance in the Big Ten title game drops the Badgers down to the Holiday Bowl, which really, really wants Gary Andersen's team. Minnesota heads to the Outback Bowl, while Nebraska likely would go to the Music City Bowl to avoid a repeat in Jacksonville.

Penn State in the Pinstripe has been a likelihood for weeks, and we have Rutgers going to Detroit and Maryland to Dallas.

Here are our final, final Big Ten bowl projections for the season:

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual or Allstate Sugar Bowl): Ohio State
Capital One Orange: Michigan State
Outback: Minnesota
National University Holiday: Wisconsin
TaxSlayer Bowl/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Nebraska
Foster Farms: Iowa
New Era Pinstripe: Penn State
Quick Lane: Rutgers
Zaxby's Heart of Dallas: Maryland
Don't make those bowl reservations just yet, Illinois. Rutgers' cool celebration after its comeback against Maryland might not lead to a bowl reward. Maryland's second-half collapse, meanwhile, could keep the Terrapins at home for the holidays.

You're probably wondering, what is this joker talking about?

The Big Ten could have a bowl-eligible team not end up in a bowl game this season. The league outlined the scenario -- and other postseason probables -- in a memo sent to its athletic directors Wednesday and obtained by ESPN.com.

Here's the deal: If Michigan State ends up in the Orange Bowl, a strong possibility, and only one other Big Ten team makes the New Year's six bowls, the Big Ten will be left with eight eligible teams for seven contracted spots. Remember, when the Big Ten sends a team to the Orange Bowl -- the bowl pairs an ACC team with the highest-ranked non-playoff participant from the SEC or Big Ten, or Notre Dame -- it does not fill its spot in the Citrus Bowl.

There are already 80 bowl-eligible teams for 76 available spots, all of which are contracted to certain leagues. So there will be no at-large selections this season.

Michigan State is No. 8 in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings, two spots ahead of Mississippi State, the other likely candidate for the Orange Bowl. If No. 1 Alabama loses to No. 16 Missouri in the SEC championship game, the Tide almost certainly would go to the Orange Bowl ahead of Michigan State. But if Alabama wins, Michigan State is a virtual lock for the Orange unless the selection committee somehow flip-flops the two MSUs on a weekend when neither plays.

If No. 5 Ohio State beats No. 13 Wisconsin, the Big Ten would be limited to two teams in New Year's Six games. If that's the case and Michigan State makes the Orange Bowl, the league would have an eligible team miss out on a bowl. The likely candidates would be Illinois (6-6), Rutgers (7-5) or Maryland (7-5).

Penn State also is 6-6, it's hard to imagine bowls not clamoring for the Nittany Lions, who haven't gone bowling since 2011 because of NCAA sanctions. Iowa is 7-5 and ended the season on a down note, but bowls absolutely love the Hawkeyes and their massive traveling fan base.

Although the Big Ten has more say in preventing repeat matchups, the bowls still have a decent amount of pull.

"The Conference will not interfere or influence our contract bowls' selection rights, nor does it have any control over the CFP," Mark Rudner, the Big Ten's senior associate commissioner for television administration, wrote to the athletic directors Wednesday. "Unless a contract bowl selects a team that is over-exposed because of recent trips to the same bowl or same region, we will not interfere with the bowl’s selection."

Rudner goes on to write: "Our bowls have the choice, other than the repeat criteria, to select the team that fits their bowl need on an annual basis. In other words, the number of wins, number of losses, head to head, and schedule strength are advisory only. These factors guide the bowl's selection, but do not direct it. The selection process is intended to move teams and fan bases around the country over the life of these contracts."

The Big Ten memo encourages its schools to "advocate and communicate on behalf of your institution with the bowls in light of this set of circumstances." Put on those sales caps, Mike Thomas, Kevin Andersen and Julie Hermann. You might need them.

Or just root for Wisconsin to beat Ohio State on Saturday night. Although it would eliminate the Big Ten from the playoff picture, it likely would ensure the Big Ten has three teams in New Year's Six games and all eligible teams in bowls.

The Big Ten has contracts with 12 bowls but shares spots in the Orange-Citrus, Gator-Music City and Heart of Dallas-Armed Forces bowls. If a Big Ten team goes to the Orange Bowl, the remaining non-New Year's Six tie-ins would be: Outback, Holiday, Gator or Music City (not both), San Francisco, Pinstripe, Quick Lane and Heart of Dallas.

This situation is far from ideal, especially for a program like Illinois that hasn't gone bowling since 2011. Imagine if Michigan had become bowl eligible, too. The league would have been guaranteed to have one eligible team staying home for the holidays.

"Given this year's circumstances, and the new processes and procedures in place for the college football playoff, the Orange bowl and our other contract bowl arrangements, the Conference office felt it was necessary to reiterate the operational impact so that any hypothetical outcomes could be planned for and covered in advance so the broadest community of people were alerted," the memo reads.

Consider this your alert.

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 14

December, 2, 2014
12/02/14
8:00
PM ET

The final 2014 edition of bowl projections is here, and we're more confused than ever.

Some questions we pondered this week:

  • If Wisconsin beats Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, how many Big Ten teams appear in New Year's Six bowls? It could be as many as three.
  • Will a Big Ten team play in the Orange Bowl, the Citrus Bowl, the Music City Bowl or the Gator Bowl? We won't know until Sunday.
  • Are both the Music City and Gator bowls possible landing spots for Big Ten teams? Yes but not both.

Our projections originate with the Big Ten title game winner. In a majority decision, not a unanimous one, we're going with Wisconsin over Ohio State in a close game. Wisconsin would earn an automatic berth in a New Year's Six bowl. Also, we believe both Michigan State and Ohio State will qualify for New Year's Six games by finishing in the top 10 of the final College Football Playoff rankings.

While the Big Ten will be the only Power 5 league without a playoff entrant, it will have three teams in the bigger bowls.

That brings us to the Orange Bowl, which will pair an ACC team against the highest-ranked available SEC or Big Ten team. This likely will come down to which MSU -- Michigan State or Mississippi State -- is higher in the final rankings. Michigan State is higher in tonight's rankings (No. 8 vs. No. 10) and both teams are done with the regular season. We don't see things changing so the Spartans are projected for South Florida.

It means no Big Ten team in the Citrus Bowl for the first time since 1992.

Minnesota is the likely choice for the Outback Bowl. Nebraska appeared in Holiday Bowls both in 2009 and 2010, but we have the Huskers heading to San Diego.

We're also going with the Music City over the Gator as the destination for a Big Ten team this year. The Big Ten hasn't played in the Nashville bowl since 2005. We'll send Iowa there.

The bottom of the Big Ten bowl order is in flux and could be arranged just about any way you'd like, although Penn State looks like a lock for the Pinstripe Bowl in New York.

Again, very confusing. About the only thing we know is the number of bowl-eligible Big Ten teams: 10. Welcome to the club, Illinois.

Here are the full projections ...

Chick-fil-A Peach/Goodyear Cotton/VIZIO Fiesta: Wisconsin

Chick-fil-A Peach/Goodyear Cotton/VIZIO Fiesta: Ohio State

Capital One Orange: Michigan State

Outback: Minnesota

National University Holiday: Nebraska

TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Iowa

Foster Farms: Rutgers

New Era Pinstripe: Penn State

Quick Lane: Maryland

Zaxby's Heart of Dallas: Illinois


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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Some 46 hours before Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst stepped out from behind the curtain of silence and explained his decision on Sunday to fire Bo Pelini as coach, the Huskers celebrated an emotional overtime victory at Iowa.

It marked the second-largest comeback in school history. Players and coaches rejoiced.

"We kept fighting and swinging and needed something good to happen," defensive coordinator John Papuchis said in the aftermath on Friday, "and something good did happen."

The athletic director's clear message at the end of this holiday weekend? Not good enough.

Credit Eichorst, in his second year at Nebraska, for removing the emotion of the regular-season-ending victory from his decision on Pelini. Credit him for recognizing that, if Nebraska expects to reach its desired position in the Big Ten and beyond, it's not about beating Iowa.

"In the final analysis," he said, "I had to evaluate where Iowa was."

The truth hurts. It hurts for Nebraska, too. Look, the Big Ten West is a hard place to thrive. It'll lull you to sleep, then punch you in the mouth. Nebraska's next coach will learn that lesson in time, but Eichorst on Sunday sent a strong message about his belief in the Huskers to advance as a program.

To rise above Iowa and Minnesota to the level of Wisconsin. And bid to go higher.

Eichorst ended his epidemic of silence, which -- in the face of uncertainty -- conveyed a vacuum of leadership.

He took a step in the right direction, dragging Nebraska toward a place it has not dared to venture in the past four years as a Big Ten program -- a place in which it thinks strategically about its place in college football.

Sure, Pelini said he wouldn't be satisfied until the Huskers won every game. But how did he plan to get there? And where was the progress?

The coach, in recent weeks, wouldn't discuss the big picture.

Eichorst demanded such talk on Sunday.

"We just, for whatever reason, weren't good enough in the games that mattered against championship-caliber opponents," Eichorst said. "And I didn't see that changing at the end of the day."

A bit shaky at the start on Sunday, Eichorst grew comfortable as he answered questions. He displayed leadership. He showed respect in the right moments. He illustrated that this matters to him, like it does to fans who have contributed to 340 consecutive sellouts.

He showed he has a vision. Some Nebraskans had begun to wonder.

Asked how he plans to unite the fan base in this period of trepidation, Eichorst said he would do it through communication.

It's a vow worth remembering.

"I'm compassionate about that," Eichorst said. "This isn't a day of celebration for me. We've got a lot of good, young people in our program who are hurting. And I get that. My focus needs to be on that."

Pelini's players, former and current, chimed in loudly on Sunday.




Recruits Kendall Bussey, a star running back out of Louisiana, offensive lineman Mirko Jurkovic and receiver Stanley Morgan, reportedly decommitted on Sunday.

The healing process may take a while. Nebraska will likely step back before Pelini's successor creates an opportunity to break through the 10-win ceiling in place since 2001.

More than ever, Nebraska needs strong leadership.

"The people of Nebraska deserve not only high standards and expectations," Eichorst said, "but they deserve seeing our people and our teams reach them."

Pelini's teams won 40 of 42 games since 2008 against opponents that finished at .500 or worse. They lost 25 of 51 games against winning teams, went 4-9 since 2011 against ranked foes, and lost by 20 points or more 10 times.

Not good enough, said Eichorst, who won't hire a search firm to help him find a new coach.

Asked if he was concerned over how coaching candidates might view a program that fired a coach with Pelini's nine- and 10-win history, Eichorst sounded irritated at the suggestion.

"No," he said.

Right answer.

Now is not the time for excuses. Now is not the time to hide among the Big Ten West, where Illinois issued a statement of support on Sunday for coach Tim Beckman after a 6-6 finish in his third year. Now is not the time to gauge your program against Iowa, where the status quo reigns after a 7-5 finish under a coach in his 16th season.

"This is what's best for the university," Eichorst said in a decisive tone to open his remarks Sunday.

He started on a strong note.

For the sake of the program's future, Nebraska needs its athletic director to stay strong and lead.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 14

November, 30, 2014
11/30/14
2:00
PM ET

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