NCF Nation: Michigan State Spartans

Preseason All-Big Ten team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
9:00
AM ET
There is no official preseason all-conference team in the Big Ten (or official predicted order of finish, etc.). But we here at ESPN.com have got you covered with our preseason all-league picks on offense, defense and special teams.

And here they are:

Offense

QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: Braxton Miller's injury opened up this spot on the first team. Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Indiana's Nate Sudfeld were potential choices here too, but Cook's Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl MVP finish earn him the nod.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Well, sure. He could lead the nation in rushing, unless ...

RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: ... Abdullah, his good friend, beats him to it. In a league blessed with great running backs, these two stand out the most.

WR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland: There is a lot of uncertainty in the Big Ten at receiver heading into 2014. This much is certain: If Diggs can stay healthy, he'll be one of the nation's best.

WR: Shane Wynn, Indiana: Wynn scored more touchdowns than any other Big Ten receiver the past season, and now he steps into a more featured role.

TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan: Funchess might play wide receiver almost exclusively, in which case this should be viewed as a third wide receiver spot on the team. The matchup nightmare looks poised for a big season.

OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He might just be the best left tackle in college football in 2014. He's definitely got NFL scouts drooling.

OT: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: An enormous road grader at right tackle. Trying to shed him and catch Melvin Gordon is just not fair.

OG: Kaleb Johnson, Rutgers: He thought about leaving for the NFL after the past season but instead gave the Scarlet Knights a boost by returning. He has started 37 straight games.

OG: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: He could be the next rising star in Wisconsin's offensive lineman factory.

C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: A second-team All-Big Ten pick the past season, the former high school wrestling champion has no let up in his game.

Defense

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: He’s the returning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year and could become the conference’s defensive player of the year in 2014, unless ...

DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska: ... Gregory edges him out for the honor. The pass-rush specialist outpaced Calhoun in sacks (10.5) the past season, and Bo Pelini said Gregory has “only scratched the surface of what he’s going to be down the line.”

DT: Michael Bennett, Ohio State: He anchors the best defensive line in the conference and was named to the All-Big Ten’s second team last season.

DT: Carl Davis, Iowa: He still thinks Scherff would get the best of him if they squared off, but Athlon thought highly enough of Davis to make him a fourth-team preseason All-American.

LB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern: The quiet Ariguzo likes to let his play do the talking, and it chatted up a storm this past season -- to the tune of 106 tackles and four interceptions.

LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: He was a coin-flip from transferring to Pittsburgh during the sanctions, but now he’s the leader of this revamped defense.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan shocked onlookers last season by taking less than seven months to go from ACL surgery to playing in a Big Ten game. Hopes are higher now for the healthy redshirt senior, as he has registered a stop in the backfield in 25 of his past 30 games.

CB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: He’s taking over at Darqueze Dennard's boundary cornerback position, but he’s up for the challenge. He’s already on the watch lists for the Bednarik and Thorpe awards.

CB: Blake Countess, Michigan: He tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions (6) the past season -- despite battling lower abdominal pain most of the year.

S: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: The blue-collar DB started 21 straight games and was a Sports Illustrated All-American the past season.

S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: A smart and instinctive player, Campbell has been remarkably consistent for the Wildcats. He’s a three-time all-academic B1G player and has eight career interceptions.

Special teams

K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State: As a freshman in 2013, he made 15 of his 16 field-goal attempts.

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State: An ESPN.com All-American in 2013, Sadler combines with Geiger to give the Spartans the best 1-2 kicking tandem in the league.

KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska: He led the Big Ten in return yardage the past season (averaging 26.5 yards per kick) and took one 99 yards for a touchdown at Penn State.

PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa: He averaged 15.7 yards per return in 2013 and scored on two punt returns in the same game.

Selections by school:

Michigan State: 7
Iowa: 3
Michigan: 3
Nebraska: 3
Wisconsin: 3
Northwestern: 2
Indiana: 1
Maryland: 1
Ohio State: 1
Penn State: 1
Rutgers: 1
Illinois: 0
Minnesota: 0
Purdue: 0
Some national reaction to the news of Braxton Miller's season-ending shoulder injury is focusing not only on the harsh consequences for Ohio State but also on the impact for the Big Ten as a whole. Mark Schlabach basically says the league's quest for a spot in the College Football Playoff took a huge hit.

To that, I say let's all slow down for just a bit. Some key counterpoints to consider:

[+] EnlargeJosiah Price
AP Photo/Al GoldisTo say the loss of Braxton Miller dooms the Big Ten's College Football Playoff chase is demeaning to the defending Rose Bowl champs.
1. It's Aug. 19. To pretend any of us has any idea what will happen in an upcoming college football season is to ignore history. How many pundits picked Auburn to make the BCS title game last year? I'm guessing most people would have sold their stock on Michigan State's season after the Spartans' lost at Notre Dame on Sept. 21. They turned out all right.

2. Ohio State isn't suddenly going to turn into a 6-6 pumpkin. There is still a ton of talent on this team. I watched an entire practice this spring in which Miller did not participate. I was still blown away by the speed and athleticism on the roster. Are the Buckeyes a top 10 team now? Maybe not. But they will still be, at the very least, a top 20 club. They're probably not a playoff team, but beating Ohio State won't be a meaningless win for other Big Ten teams, either.

3. There is more than one team in the Big Ten. Sure, the Buckeyes have been the league's flag-bearer for most of this century and have more national credibility than any other conference program. But don't forget the Buckeyes haven't won an outright Big Ten championship since 2009. There is no guarantee they would have claimed one this year, either, as Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska are all legit title contenders.

4. Let's go back to Michigan State here. The Spartans proved themselves as elite the past year, as they finished No. 3 in the final polls and beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Mark Dantonio's team goes to Oregon in Week 2 in a game that could define their season. If the Spartans win there, assuming Oregon goes on to have a very strong season, they will be formidable playoff contenders no matter what else is going on in the Big Ten. Even if, say, they lost to the Ducks by a field goal, going undefeated the rest of the way should be enough to get Michigan State into the field of four.

5. Let's say another team from the West -- such as Iowa or Wisconsin, should the Badgers beat LSU in the opener -- runs the table. Don't you think a Big Ten championship game featuring the Spartans and an undefeated West team would get the attention of the selection committee? Iowa and Nebraska probably need a zero in the loss column, while Michigan State and Wisconsin could afford a setback, given their marquee nonconference opposition. And, hey, who's to say Ohio State doesn't go 12-0 again, even without Miller? Urban Meyer has yet to lose a regular season game in Columbus, after all.

The bottom line is there are far too many variables -- including what goes on in the other Power 5 conferences -- to count the Big Ten out at this early date. The path to Pasadena (or, less likely, New Orleans) certainly got a lot bumpier with the loss of the league's best player. But the road hasn't been closed yet.
Boston College coach Steve Addazio remembers an era when players wanted to redshirt as true freshmen to better prepare them for the final four years of their college career.

"Now it's 'I want to play,' " Addazio, 55, said. "If you're talking about not playing them early, the majority are like 'What do you mean?'"

So, the ability to play or possibly even start as a true freshman has become a regular sales pitch for coaches from the Power Five to the Group of Five. It's certainly a tool in the belt for Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. Last week, Fisher alluded to the number of freshmen All-Americans he's coached the last four seasons. Twenty-four hours later, it was on the program's official recruiting Twitter page.

"The last [four] years we've had 14 freshmen All-Americans," said Fisher, condensing multiple outlets' freshmen award teams into one, concise Florida State propaganda poster. "If you come in ready to play, we're willing to put you on the field. It's critical for guys to come in saying 'When I'm the best, I'll play.'"

Fisher has the goods to back up his claims, even if the numbers are obviously skewed to best represent his program. But how does his résumé compare to those coaching some of the country's other top programs?

I tried to come up with a way to accurately discern which schools play the most freshmen and decided true freshmen letterwinners was the simplest and most effective way to crunch the numbers. To earn a letter, a player has to actually play consistently through the season. The disclaimer is each program can use different benchmarks when awarding letters, but there is never going to be a perfect way.

I began with Florida State's, looking back at the 2011-2013 classes. To properly quantify the data from Florida State, I decided I'd look at the five schools ranked highest in the preseason polls that have had its coach in place at least five seasons. Oregon's Mark Helfrich was offered an exemption because he was promoted from within and is in his sixth season with the Ducks. Coaches in place at least five years was the stipulation since an incoming coach might be susceptible to playing the prospects he recruited or having a number of transfers that could open up starting or rotational spots.

The criteria: Each class was looked at and the total number of signees was pared down to just those who enrolled as members of the football team in the fall. Junior college signees were excluded, as were any recruits who were academically or medically disqualified before playing a game. That explains why the total number of freshmen for our purposes might look different than what might be seen on RecruitingNation. Any true freshmen who spent a year at a post-graduate or prep school was also excluded. Redshirt freshmen were disqualified, too.

Bottom line is if the player was not a part of the football team the fall following his high school graduation, he was excluded.

Nearly all of the data was collected after poring through media guides and archives, although the communications departments at some of the schools were also helpful providing numbers and deserve recognition.

So, here is the actual data:

 

It is hardly a coincidence that Fisher and Alabama's Nick Saban, who mentored Fisher at LSU, have identical percentages of true freshmen earning a letter. Fisher and Saban arguably have been the two best recruiters over the last few cycles, and, the data shows those two are not going to keep young talent off the field simply because of age. Nearly half of the true freshmen at Alabama and Florida State lettered over the last three seasons.

Mark Dantonio has built Michigan State into a national title contender in a different manor, relying on experience. Only 12 percent of true freshmen lettered over the last three seasons. Recruiting to Michigan State is not the easy task it is at some other top-10 programs, and the Spartans are not recruiting as many ESPN 300-level players as the likes of Alabama and Florida State.

It should be noted Michigan State, Oklahoma and Oregon don't have quite the recruiting base Alabama and Florida State do.

Inquiring minds want to see how that 45 percent stacks up to some of the other top programs in the country, so even though they did not fit the criteria I looked at a few other schools with coaches in place at least five seasons and lately in the top half of the rankings. LSU was worth a look considering it's Les Miles' 10th season in Baton Rouge and, like Fisher and Saban, has recruited exceptionally well for a long period of time. Mark Richt is in his 14th season at Georgia and, like Miles, usually has a highly-regarded recruiting class. Steve Spurrier is in his 10th season at South Carolina and has steadily improved the Gamecocks' class to the point that the 2015 class is No. 5 nationally. Dabo Swinney has turned Clemson from a perennial disappointment into a two-time BCS bowl participant. And Ohio State and Texas A&M, mainly because it's worth seeing how third-year Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer fares considering he frequently voices his preference to avoid redshirting. Kevin Sumlin is also in the process of trying to build an SEC power that can compete with Alabama and LSU in the SEC West.

 

For the Buckeyes, out of the 69 true freshmen to land in Columbus, Ohio, from 2011-2013, 31 lettered -- the same 45 percent. Looking at just Meyer's two seasons, however, he is decimals ahead of Fisher and Saban at 46 percent (21 out of 46), thanks in large part to 14 freshmen letterwinners in his first season.

Georgia's Mark Richt has a percentage of nearly 50 percent, but the Bulldogs' numbers might be the most skewed. Along with South Carolina, the Bulldogs had several recruits that either did not qualify or spent time at a prep school or junior college. Also, Georgia's long list of dismissals and transfers is well documented, and all of the departures has opened up spots for freshmen to earn immediate playing time.

It is Miles, though, who plays a higher percentage of freshmen than all of the others. Twelve true freshmen lettered for LSU in both 2012 and 2013, and another nine earned a letter in 2011. There were a total of 65 applicable freshmen to enter LSU during that span and 33 of them lettered. That's a percentage of 51 percent.

Certainly the numbers will fluctuate year to year, and coaches at every single program are playing freshmen more frequently than ever before. When taking into account the timeline is over three years, LSU averages just one more freshman letterwinner per season than Alabama and Florida State. For our intents and purposes, though, the data shows which top programs consistently play the most freshmen in this new era of freshmen phenoms.

And, uh, FYI, Alabama has 19 ESPN 300 players prepping for their freshmen season this fall. LSU has 16, and Florida State isn't far off with 13 of their own.
When Michigan State Spartans athletic director Mark Hollis first told football coach Mark Dantonio about his plan to schedule a home-and-home series with the Oregon Ducks, Dantonio did not wrestle his boss to the ground, scream obscenities or start updating his résumé.

As Hollis recalls, Dantonio simply smirked, shrugged his shoulders and said, "Why not?"

The reasons not to schedule Oregon -- especially at eardrum-splitting Autzen Stadium, where the Spartans go in Week 2 -- of course include the Ducks' tornadic offense, their dominance at home (92-17 since 1997) and the Big Ten's historic struggles in Pac-12 country. So why would Michigan State saddle itself with such a challenging matchup so early in the season?

"I've never really said, 'Oh, no, I don’t want to play those guys,'" Dantonio told ESPN.com. "I just feel like, if you're going to be a champion, you have to be willing to take on all comers."

[+] EnlargeMark Hollis
AP Photo/Al GoldisMichigan State athletic director Mark Hollis has upgraded the football schedule with the College Football Playoff in mind, beginning this season with a road game at Oregon.
The Spartans arrived in the ranks of the elite in January by beating Pac-12 champ Stanford in the Rose Bowl, capping a 12-1 season. Now they get a chance to prove they can stay there with another trip to the West Coast on Sept. 6. This early-season showdown of conference heavyweights -- Oregon is ranked No. 4 in the ESPN preseason power rankings; Michigan State is No. 7 -- carries key implications for the inaugural College Football Playoff.

"If we play well in that game, it can definitely bounce us up to the four-team playoff," Spartans defensive end Shilique Calhoun said.

The playoff was exactly what Hollis had in mind when he added Oregon to the schedule in March 2012. He also signed future home-and-home deals around the same time with Miami (Fla.) and Alabama, the latter of which has since been canceled. Hollis said arranging the Oregon series was made easier by his close relationship with Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens; the two became friendly when Mullens was at Kentucky and the Spartans and Wildcats put together a basketball series.

"We don't want to be stupid in our scheduling, but at the same time, we were anticipating the playoff system and anticipating the strength-of-schedule [component]," Hollis told ESPN.com. "As we were having these conversations, it seemed right, it fit right. They're a top-five program, and with us coming off a Rose Bowl championship, kind of by freak of luck this turned into a pretty nice game."

(The fact that both schools are Nike-sponsored and wear green doesn't hurt, either. "It's always nice to see Phil [Knight]," Hollis joked, "even though I'm sure he'll be on the other sideline.")

Michigan State sees little downside to the game. Even if the Spartans lose in Eugene, as long as they are reasonably competitive, they would have plenty of time to rebound and still win a Big Ten title. They recall last year, when they lost at Notre Dame but went on to capture their final 10 games and finish No. 3 in the polls.

"It’s not an end-all either way," Dantonio said. "It’s going to be a measuring stick for us -- where are we at, what do we have to do, who are we? It will give us a little more of a sense of identity early in season."

The on-field matchup itself is incredibly intriguing.

Oregon, with its fast-paced, no-huddle spread offense, leads the nation in scoring the past four seasons combined at 47 points per game. In that same time span, Michigan State's ferocious defense ranks fourth in the FBS in points allowed and third in yards allowed. The Spartans finished No. 2 in total defense in 2013; the Ducks were No. 2 in total offense.

Michigan State has fielded a top-10 defense in each of the past three years, but it is replacing six key starters from last year's unit.

"This should give us an early indication of how things can go for us, if our team is tight-knit or if we have loose ends," Calhoun said. "It will be nice to see how they play and see if we match up with them."

The wise guys say it will be difficult, as Michigan State opened as nearly a two-touchdown underdog in the betting lines. That's not much respect for a defending Rose Bowl champ.

"We’re used to it," Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said. "We were underdogs last year against Ohio State and against Stanford. So we're used to playing with a chip on our shoulders, and we're not going to let that affect us."

Regardless of the outcome, the game should provide significant national buzz for the Spartans, as well as heavy local interest. Hollis said the school received more than 8,000 requests for its 3,000-ticket allotment to the game. Oregon's return visit to East Lansing on Sept. 12, 2015, will be a scalper's dream.

"For the general fan, it's one of those games that, no matter who you cheer for, this is one you want to watch," Hollis said.

Dantonio will make sure his team doesn't put too much focus on this one game, as Michigan State must first deal with its opener on Aug. 29 against Jacksonville State, not to mention the 10 regular-season contests after Oregon. But it's impossible to ignore the magnitude of what awaits in Week 2.

"It's been in the back of our minds all offseason," Cook said. "If we win, it will be a statement game that can turn a lot of heads, and it could put us on the way to a national championship."
video
If the College Football Playoff had been in place for the 2006 season, there’s very little doubt that two Big Ten teams -- Ohio State and Michigan -- would have reached the four-team field. The conference, which finished the year with three Top 10 teams, could have called itself the nation’s best league without anyone snickering.

Fast forward eight years, and everything has changed. The SEC reigns supreme. The Big Ten is the butt of many jokes and, in the eyes of many, ranks fifth among the Power 5 conferences.

"People think the Big Ten is kind of weak," Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. "I think we have the whole stigma of, 'The Big Ten can’t win bowl games.'"

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesTo change the national perception that it is a weak conference, the Big Ten needs more big victories like Michigan State's against Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
To be sure, the league has brought most of this misery upon itself. The Big Ten is 11-21 in bowl games in the past four seasons and has posted a winning postseason record once (in 2010) since 2002. The league has lost 25 of its past 33 games against ranked, power conference competition and Notre Dame. The Big Ten hasn’t played for a national championship since the 2007 season, when Ohio State’s second straight double-digit loss to an SEC team did much to create the SEC-rules, Big-Ten-drools paradigm we’ve been living in ever since.

Yet the perception of the Big Ten’s downturn appears to paint a worse picture than the reality. Even when league teams ascend, they often get dragged down by the court of public opinion. Take last season's Big Ten champs, for instance. Michigan State won all of its league games by double digits and went on to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl. But the Spartans did not crack the Top 12 in either major poll or the BCS standings until Nov. 24, when they were 10-1.

Last season's Wisconsin Badgers were 9-2 at one point, with their only losses coming on an all-time officiating hose job at eventual Pac-12 division winner Arizona State and at Ohio State. Still, the Badgers had trouble gaining much affection from pollsters. Or how about this season's Iowa club? Despite winning eight games in 2013 and taking LSU to the wire in the Outback Bowl, and despite having what everyone considers a highly advantageous schedule in 2014, the Hawkeyes were ranked No. 33 in the first preseason USA Today coaches’ poll.

"The lack of insight on the Big Ten is an interesting thing," Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell said, "because there are stout players and solid teams in the Big Ten. We beat Georgia [in the Gator Bowl], Iowa had LSU on their skates ... and Sparty went and beat Stanford. We’re steadily coming back into the frame of major college football."

The Big Ten needs to improve both its track record and its perception problem this season, with the first year of the Playoff looming. The nightmare scenario for the league is to see its champion left out of the field because the conference isn’t considered strong enough. There is really only one way to change that.

"You’ve got to win games," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "One of the positive byproducts of the Playoff is that the preseason doesn’t matter. If you want to get yourself in the Playoff and talk about being the best, it’s going to come down to winning football games and playing a competitive schedule. If you want to change perception, you’ve got to win those games. That’s the bottom line."

The Big Ten has plenty of opportunities to help itself this season, beginning in Week 1 when Wisconsin plays LSU in Houston.

"It’s a new year, and the Big Ten as a whole is trying to make a prominent statement," Badgers running back Melvin Gordon said. "It’ll set a big statement for the Big Ten if we come out and win that game."

Michigan State goes to Oregon in Week 2 in another major showcase opportunity. Others include Nebraska hosting Miami, Ohio State taking on Virginia Tech and Michigan and Northwestern playing at Notre Dame. Schedules will continue to get more difficult in the near future, as league commissioner Jim Delany instructed his teams to play top nonconference competition to impress the selection committee.

"What we've tried to do is structure ... our scheduling to deliver an opportunity for our teams if they're successful," Delany said. "We make no predictions. We make no excuses."

There is hope for the future. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Penn State’s James Franklin are former SEC coaches who have brought an aggressive, nationwide approach to recruiting. The Buckeyes are 24-2 the past two seasons yet are just now building the type of roster Meyer envisions. Michigan State joined the elite last season and will try to stay there.

"I see a league that’s improving," Meyer said. "I just see a lot of positive recruiting going on in our conference, a lot of great coaches, and more importantly, a lot of great players. I think people are watching the Big Ten expecting a bunch of improvement going forward."

The conference still must convince others that improvement is for real. The surest sign of that would be to get a team into the inaugural Playoff.

"This is as good a year as any to show the Big Ten is strong and that we’re going to stay strong from here on out," Bennett said. "[But] for us to say that, we have to make it to the Playoff."
Football coaches talk all the time about sudden change. The teams that can best handle those moments in games usually come out on the winning end.

Sometimes sudden change occurs during a seemingly straightforward preseason practice. It happened at Michigan State this morning as a construction crew accidentally ruptured a gas line, forcing the Spartans to relocate their workout to nearby Munn Field. The leak forced evacuations at the Skandalaris Football Center and MSU's academic facility.

 

 

It might sound easy to move a practice across the street, but there's a lot involved in these sessions, including the equipment.

 

Fortunately, MSU's support staff came through and practice resumed relatively quickly.

 

UPDATE: The Spartans eventually had to head indoors to practice because of inclement weather.

 

What you need to know about CFB's Top 16

August, 12, 2014
Aug 12
8:30
AM ET
videoHave you watched the video headlining this post? If not, check it out. Because if you weren't ready for college football already, you will be then.

But who are we kidding? Of course you're ready for college football. After seven grueling offseason months, actual games are almost here.

So with just 16 days left until Texas A&M and South Carolina kick things off on the SEC Network, @ESPNStatsInfo has compiled a few things you should know about each of the top 16 teams in ESPN's preseason Power Rankings.

Florida StateESPN Illustration
1. Florida State Seminoles

  • Florida State will almost assuredly be No. 1 when the AP preseason poll is released Sunday. FSU has been ranked preseason No. 1 five times in school history. The last time? The Seminoles won the national championship in 1999.
  • Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston threw 40 touchdown passes last season, most by any freshman in FBS history.
  • The Noles outscored their opponents by 39.5 points per game last season, the best differential for any FBS team since Houston bested opponents by 39.9 in 1989.
AlabamaESPN Illustration
2. Alabama Crimson Tide

  • Since the bowl era began in 1936, Alabama has won 10 national titles, most of any FBS team.
  • The Crimson Tide have been in the preseason top 5 each of the last five years, tying the longest streak in school history (1978-1982). Expect that record to be broken when the AP poll is released this weekend.
  • The Crimson Tide continues to dominate in recruiting, Alabama signed five of the ESPN Recruiting Nation's 15 five-star recruits in the 2014 class, most by any FBS school.
OklahomaESPN Illustration
3. Oklahoma Sooners

  • Oklahoma has gone 14 seasons without losing consecutive regular-season games.
  • Since Bob Stoops took over as head coach in 1999, OU has never gone longer than two years without winning a Big 12 championship. Baylor is the league's defending champ.
  • The Sooners have been ranked in the AP preseason top 10 in 13 of the last 14 seasons -- and are expected to be once again this season.
OregonESPN Illustration
4. Oregon Ducks

  • Oregon joins Alabama, Nebraska and LSU as the only teams to win at least nine games in each of the past five seasons.
  • Ducks' quarterback Marcus Mariota led FBS with an 89.5 Total QBR in 2013. His 88.7 career-QBR is the best of any QB since 2005
  • Mariota has thrown a touchdown in 26 consecutive games. Only Marshall’s Rakeem Cato has a longer active streak (32).
AuburnESPN Illustration
5. Auburn Tigers

  • Auburn, which finished 12-2 in 2013, has won 10-plus games in back-to-back seasons just once in school history (1988-1989).
  • If the Tigers begin the season in the AP top 5, it'll mark the first time that's happened since 2006.
  • No quarterback finished the season hotter than Nick Marshall, whose 88.3 total QBR in the final eight games was the best in FBS during that span.
Ohio StateESPN Illustration
6. Ohio State Buckeyes

  • Quarterback Braxton Miller is 11 wins away from passing Art Schlichter as the winningest quarterback in Buckeyes’ history.
  • The last eight times Ohio State has been ranked in the preseason top 6, the Buckeyes have finished the season somewhere inside the top 12.
  • OSU gained at least five yards on 55 percent of its carries last season, the highest percentage in the nation.
Michigan StateESPN Illustration
7. Michigan State Spartans

  • Last season, Michigan State’s defense allowed opponents to complete a mere 23.4 percent of their passes of 15-plus yards, best in the nation.
  • Running back Jeremy Langford has rushed for more than 100 yards in eight of his last nine games, and averaged 61 rushing yards after contact last season.
  • In the last 14 times the Spartans have been ranked in the preseason, they’ve finished the year unranked 12 times.
UCLAESPN Illustration
8. UCLA Bruins

  • In 2013, Myles Jack became the first player in Pac-12 history to win Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year.
  • Quarterback Brett Hundley completed 67.2 percent of his passes in 2013, the highest percentage of any returning quarterback in the Big 5 conferences.
  • On the flip side, Hundley has been sacked 87 times the last two seasons, 17 more than any other FBS player.
South CarolinaESPN Illustration
9. South Carolina Gamecocks

  • The Gamecocks have started and finished in the AP top 12 in each of the last three years.
  • South Carolina lost Jadeveon Clowney to the NFL, but the Gamecocks had a better defensive rating in the three years prior to Clowney than they had in three years with him.
  • South Carolina finished last season ranked fourth in the AP poll, its best ranking in school history.
StanfordESPN Illustration
10. Stanford Cardinal

  • Stanford will appear in the preseason rankings for the fourth straight year, tying the best streak in school history (1969-1972).
  • Quarterback Kevin Hogan has posted an .842 win percentage as Stanford’s starting quarterback, including a 10-1 mark against AP top-25 opponents.
  • The Cardinal has finished in the Top 11 in each of the last four seasons.
BaylorESPN Illustration
11. Baylor Bears

  • Baylor averaged 52.4 points per game last season, third-most in modern college football history.
  • In 2013, the Bears' offense scored 60 touchdowns in drives lasting less than two minutes -- nine more than any team has over the last 10 seasons.
  • Baylor hasn’t been ranked in the AP preseason poll since 1986. That will change come Sunday.
GeorgiaESPN Illustration
12. Georgia Bulldogs

  • This will be the 12th straight year Georgia is ranked in the AP preseason poll (2002 was the last time the Bulldogs were unranked heading into the season).
  • Todd Gurley set a UGA freshman running back record with 17 rushing touchdowns in 2012 and followed it up with 10 more touchdowns in 2013.
  • Georgia was one of six teams last season to pass for at least 4,000 yards and rush for at least 2,000. Those six teams averaged 10.5 wins. UGA won eight.
LSUESPN Illustration
13. LSU Tigers

  • LSU has had 18 players drafted by the NFL in the last two seasons, including a nation-high nine in 2014.
  • The Tigers have been ranked in the AP preseason poll in each of the last 12 years and are a virtual lock for No. 13.
  • LSU signed running back Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2014 ESPN 300.
USCESPN Illustration
14. USC Trojans

  • USC won four BCS bowls with Steve Sarkisian as an assistant coach. He returns this year as head coach.
  • In 2013, USC’s quarterbacks threw six interceptions in the first five games but finished the year strong, only throwing three picks in the last nine games.
  • The Trojans return Nelson Agholor, who is the nation’s second-leading punt returner and contributed 56 catches and 1,444 all-purpose yards last season.
Notre DameESPN Illustration
15. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

  • Notre Dame welcomes back quarterback Everett Golson, who has been gone for 19 months, but owns a perfect 11-0 regular season record with the Fighting Irish.
  • The Irish have 21 wins in the past two seasons, the most in back-to-back seasons since 1992-93 under Lou Holtz
  • Six of the last nine times Notre Dame has been ranked in the preseason, it has finished the season unranked.
ClemsonESPN Illustration
16. Clemson Tigers

  • Quarterback Cole Stoudt replaces Tajh Boyd, who won 32 games for the Tigers, tying him as the winningest quarterback in school history.
  • Clemson returns all four of its starting defensive linemen, who combined to record 28 sacks in 2013, fifth-most among Power Five conference teams.
  • In each of the last two years, Clemson has begun and finished the season ranked. Prior to 2012, the Tigers hadn’t been ranked to start the year since 2000.
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» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC 

Previewing the 2014 season for the Michigan State Spartans.

2013 overall record: 13-1 (8-0 Big Ten)

Key returnees: Connor Cook, QB; Jeremy Langford, RB; Tony Lippett, WR; Jack Allen, C; Jack Conklin, OT; Shilique Calhoun, DE; Marcus Rush, DE; Taiwan Jones, LB; Trae Waynes, CB; Kurtis Drummond, S; Mike Sadler, P.

Key losses: Darqueze Dennard, CB; Max Bullough, LB; Denicos Allen, LB; Isaiah Lewis, S; Blake Treadwell, G; Fou Fonoti, OT; Bennie Fowler, WR.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesConnor Cook passed for 2,755 yards with 22 touchdowns and just 6 interceptions last season.
Instant impact newcomer: Malik McDowell's bizarre recruitment gained regional and national attention as his parents initially opposed him signing with Michigan State. But there's a reason why the Spartans wanted him so much, and he has the physical tools to contribute right away on the interior line, where MSU is replacing two starters. Along with redshirt freshman defensive end Demetrius Cooper, the 6-6, 286-pound McDowell should enter the rotation up front and occupy a significant role.

Projected starters

Offense: QB: Connor Cook, Jr., 6-4, 218; RB: Jeremy Langford, Sr., 6-1, 208; WR: Tony Lippett, Sr., 6-3, 185; WR: Keith Mumphery, Sr., 6-1, 211; WR: Macgarrett Kings, Jr., 5-10, 186; TE: Josiah Price, So., 6-4, 251; OT: Jack Conklin, So., 6-6, 303; OT: Donavon Clark, Jr., 6-4, 306; G: Travis Jackson, Sr., 6-4, 291; G: Connor Kruse, Sr., 6-5, 325; C: Jack Allen, Jr., 6-2, 299.

Defense: DE: Shilique Calhoun, Jr., 6-5, 256; DE: Marcus Rush, Sr., 6-3, 251; DT: Joel Heath, Jr., 6-6, 285; NT: Damon Knox, Jr., 6-5, 280; LB: Darien Harris, Jr., 6-0, 231; LB: Taiwan Jones, Sr., 6-3, 252; LB: Ed Davis, Jr., 6-3, 242; CB: Trae Waynes, Jr., 6-1, 182; CB: Darian Hicks, So., 5-10, 180; FS: Kurtis Drummond, Sr., 6-1, 202; SS: RJ Williamson, Jr., 6-0, 214.

Specialists: P: Mike Sadler, Sr., 6-0, 175; K: Michael Geiger, So., 5-8, 189.

Biggest question mark: Michigan State has been a national top-six defense in each of the past three years, but many expect the unit to backslide after losing national standouts such as Dennard and Bullough. The Spartan Dawgs are out to prove that they can maintain an elite standard despite filling gaps at several key positions, namely linebacker. The offensive line also will be in the spotlight as three starters depart.

Most important game: Nov. 8 against Ohio State. A lot will happen between now and then, but the Spartans and Buckeyes are the Big Ten frontrunners and their early November clash -- under the lights, by the way -- should be the game of the year in the league. Ohio State prevailed by a point two years ago at Spartan Stadium, but Michigan State rallied for a win in the 2013 Big Ten championship. The matchup features two excellent defensive lines and pits the league's most accomplished quarterback (Braxton Miller) against its hottest signal caller (Cook).

Upset special: Sept. 6 at Oregon. Yes, this would qualify as an upset and a fairly major one, according to the odds makers. But Michigan State showed in the Rose Bowl that it could handle the Pac-12's best. Oregon's offense poses a bigger challenge, and a somewhat new-look Spartans defense must limit big plays. But expect coordinator Pat Narduzzi to have a great plan, and an improved MSU offense could keep pace with the Ducks on the scoreboard.

Key stat: Michigan State is one of two FBS teams (Florida State) to finish in the top three nationally in pass efficiency defense in each of the past two seasons.

What they're wearing: Michigan State displayed several uniform models in its football building this spring, including the all-green look it sported at the Rose Bowl, an all-white look with a sleek chrome helmet and the green-and-black, Baylor-ish getup, similar to the unis worn against Michigan in 2011. The team also featured a green-white combination with green pants and a white jersey.

Take a look at this and this.

Team's top Twitter follows: Coach Mark Dantonio (@DantonioMark) doesn't tweet much but drops a gem from time to time. Several players are excellent tweeters, but none tops the wit of the punter, Mike Sadler (@Sadler_3). Also check out quarterback Connor Cook (@Connor_Cook03), defensive end Shilique Calhoun (@Shilique89) and safety Kurtis Drummond (@K_Drummond27). The team's official handle (@MSU_Football) is a good follow, and everybody loves Sparty (@TheRealSparty).

They said it: "We're going to dream big. What's been established is that we have been to the Rose Bowl and we won the Rose Bowl and we won the Big Ten Championship. What we can do beyond that remains to be seen, and you always want to dream big and you always want to go farther than you did before." -- coach Mark Dantonio

Stats & Information projection: 7.79 wins

Wise guys over/under: 9½ wins

Big Ten blog projection: Ten wins. MSU is no one-year wonder and will contend for another Big Ten championship and possibly a spot in the college football playoff. The losses on defense, while important, are being overblown and the offense should be better, perhaps much better, with Cook at the helm again. It's tough to see the Spartans beating Oregon on the road and the Big Ten schedule isn't easy, although most of their toughest games take place at Spartan Stadium, where MSU is 38-11 under Dantonio.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Preseason

August, 11, 2014
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Brian Bennett, Josh Moyer, Adam Rittenberg, Mitch Sherman and Austin Ward contributed to these rankings.
Grab a pencil and a notepad. There will be a short test.

Five questions. Open answer. And no cheating. Ready? OK, who is the best linebacker in college football history? How about defensive tackle? Defensive end? Cornerback? Safety?

Time’s up. (I told you it was short.) Take a look at your list, and chances are the Big Ten boasts the most selections. Realistically, it’s the only conference that can stake a claim at each position. No other conference can say the same -- especially without repeating teams.

Don't believe me? Let’s take a look through the answer key of the NCAA's best ever, and in honor of The Season -- which looked at the greatest individual season from a player at every FBS school -- we will take a look at the top season by a player at each position:

  • Linebacker: Dick Butkus, Illinois, 1964: Did you really rate another linebacker over Butkus? Because that will cost you a few points. Butkus has become the standard by which to judge all other linebacking greats, and it’s not even close. He finished third in the Heisman voting in 1964, but the AFCA still named him the player of the year. He was one of the most-feared tacklers in the game and carried that reputation over to the NFL. There were other great college 'backers -- Alabama’s Derrick Thomas, Texas’ Tommy Nobis, Penn’s Chuck Bednarik -- but none greater than the man who said his time at Illinois was “eat, sleep and drink football.”
  • [+] EnlargeBronko Nagurski
    AP PhotoFormer Minnesota Golden Gophers great Bronislaw "Bronko" Nagurski.
  • Defensive tackle: Bronko Nagurski, Minnesota, 1929: If you went with someone else -- Nebraska’s Rich Glover? Oklahoma’s Lee Roy Selmon? Penn State’s Mike Reid? -- there is obviously a chance the team is in the Big Ten now. Regardless, there are definitely a lot of good defensive tackles to pick here. But can you really pick against the guy whose trophy now goes to the best defensive player in the NCAA? Is there really anyone tougher? One unsubstantiated legend explains how Minnesota’s head coach stopped near a field to ask a man for directions, when the man -- Nagurski -- lifted up his iron plow with one hand to point. Then there was Nagurski's reaction when he leveled several players and smashed into a brick wall: "That last guy hit me awful hard." Nagurski is a college legend; he led the nation in rushing in 1929 as a fullback. But the lore of his toughness on defense still carries on.
  • Defensive end: Bubba Smith, Michigan State, 1966: You know you’re good when the popular fan chant is, "Kill, Bubba, Kill!" Smith belongs in the top two here, for sure, but you couldn’t be at all blamed for choosing Pitt’s Hugh Green. Smith’s numbers weren’t nearly as impressive as Green’s 53 career sacks, but it is possible nobody affected the flow of a game more than Smith. Teams constantly double- or triple-teamed him, or simply avoided his side altogether when it came to calling run plays. That kind of respect meant the Spartans allowed just 51.4 rushing yards a game when Smith was a senior. He helped them finish undefeated (9-0-1) that season and win part of the national title. He was taken No. 1 overall in the NFL draft a few months later.
  • Cornerback: Charles Woodson, Michigan, 1997: You want to go with Florida State’s Deion Sanders just to be contrary, don’t you? Well, that is not a bad pick. But it’s also hard to go against the only defensive player to win the Heisman -- especially considering he cruised past runner-up Peyton Manning in the vote. He gets definite bonus points for that. Woodson had eight interceptions that season and even grabbed one from Washington State’s Ryan Leaf in the Rose Bowl. Michigan went 12-0 and split the national title with Nebraska that season. There was no more versatile athlete in college football in 1997, and there wasn’t a more dangerous defensive back, either.
  • Safety: Jack Tatum, Ohio State, 1970: Move over, Ronnie Lott. Not only does Tatum belong in the conversation as one of college football’s greatest defensive backs, but he also should get some extra credit for his hard hits and "Assassin" nickname. He finished seventh in the 1970 Heisman voting, and his reputation for vicious hits once caused a writer to liken his bearing down on receivers to "the way a tractor-trailer might bear down on a squirrel on a rural highway." He was named the national defensive player of the year in 1970, and Jim Tressel, when he was the coach, even later termed the Buckeyes' hit of the week the "Jack Tatum Hit of the Week." His College Football Hall of Fame bio also reads "best remembered as one of the hardest hitters in all of football history." You can’t get much more official than that.

The Big Ten hasn’t dominated every decade with the top defensive players. But it does have a richer history and deeper tradition on its side, one that started more than a century ago when Michigan’s Adolph Schulz dropped back from the defensive line and gave birth to the idea of a "roving center," or linebacker. It has continued with countless Hall of Fame nominations, a conference-high four No. 1 overall defensive NFL draft picks and some of the best defensive names to ever play the game.

This isn’t just one man’s opinion. More than half of the starting defense on Sports Illustrated’s All-Century Team -- six of 11 players -- consisted of Big Ten athletes and no, that’s not including Nebraska's Glover. The Walter Camp Foundation’s All-Century Team also featured a Big Ten player at every defensive position. Even ABC’s list of the "25 Greatest Players in College Football" had more defensive players from the Big Ten than any other conference.

When it comes to quantity, maybe other conferences have the Big Ten beat on defense. But when it comes to quality and history? The Big Ten is still tops.
Red GrangeAP PhotoRed Grange (Illinois) had one of the Big Ten's four signature seasons that took place before 1940.
What constitutes a signature season in the Big Ten? We're not talking about good or very good or even great. These are the single best individual seasons in college football history.

And in the Big Ten, perhaps more so than in any other league, history matters.

My ESPN.com colleagues and I recently embarked on the virtually impossible task of identifying the greatest individual season for each FBS program. The project, appropriately called The Season, debuted today. Be sure and check it out all week.

The selection process involved several factors -- time period, statistical milestones, clutch plays/games and position, to name just a few -- and a heavy dose of subjectivity. But I would add "conference" to the list. Picking a defining season for a Big Ten team is different than one for a Pac-12 or ACC team.

The greatest individual Big Ten seasons, like leather or fine wine, seem to improve with age. In fact, I'd argue that age is a requirement in selecting signature seasons for Big Ten teams.

None of the Big Ten's signature seasons occurred in the past decade. Former Purdue quarterback Drew Brees and former Northwestern running back Damien Anderson provide the most recent selections, both in 2000.

The full list:

Illinois: Red Grange, 1924
Indiana: Anthony Thompson, 1989
Iowa: Nile Kinnick, 1939
Maryland: Randy White, 1974
Michigan: Charles Woodson, 1997
Michigan State: Lorenzo White, 1985
Minnesota: Bronko Nagurski, 1929
Nebraska: Mike Rozier, 1983
Northwestern: Damien Anderson, 2000
Ohio State: Archie Griffin, 1974
Penn State: Lydell Mitchell, 1971
Purdue: Drew Brees, 2000
Rutgers: Paul Robeson, 1917
Wisconsin: Ron Dayne, 1999

The selections from other conferences show a different picture. Five of the SEC's signature seasons occurred between 2007 and '13. The Pac-12 had five selections between 2002 and '12, the Big 12 had four between 2003 and '11, and the ACC had five between 2001 and '09.

Is it just a coincidence that the Big Ten's signature seasons occurred so long ago? Perhaps it's because the league overall has struggled in the past decade and failed to win a national title since 2002. Although we evaluated individual performances, certain players gained credibility for helping their teams win championships.

Nebraska has a limited Big Ten history (three seasons), while Rutgers and Maryland have no history in the league. But I'd argue that Nebraska's storied tradition puts it in the same category as several Big Ten programs when you're trying to identify superlatives. There's just more to consider with programs like Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.

Does a Big Ten season need some age on it to truly represent a program? There is so much history in the league, and to minimize or gloss over the distant past in an exercise like this is wrong.

The longevity factor doesn't seem to be as strong in other leagues. The Big 12 includes only one signature season before 1963 (TCU's Davey O'Brien in 1938). The SEC includes no signature seasons before LSU's Billy Cannon in 1959, and the Pac-12 features none before Oregon State's Terry Baker in 1962.

The Big Ten, meanwhile, has four signature seasons that took place before 1940. Even most of the runner-up seasons in the Big Ten illustrate the historical differences: Only five occurred in the past decade, and two stem from newcomer Rutgers (Ray Rice in 2007, Kenny Britt in 2008).

I'd like to think a great season is a great season, whether it occurred last year or eight decades ago. I feel the same way about Baseball Hall of Fame votes. If a player merits the Hall on the first vote, he should get in. If he doesn't deserve it, why should he get in on the 10th ballot?

The fear here is that we're short-changing certain seasons because they occurred not long ago. Brian Bennett and I have written extensively about how Montee Ball's 2011 season at Wisconsin might not truly be appreciated for many years. Ball led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards, added 306 receiving yards and scored 39 touchdowns, which tied Barry Sanders' single-season NCAA record. Although he had 111 fewer rushing yards than Dayne in 1999, the season we selected, he also had 30 fewer carries and scored 19 more touchdowns.

But Dayne won the Heisman Trophy in 1999, while Ball finished fourth in the voting in 2011.

Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh finished fourth in the Heisman voting in 2009, despite putting together what many consider the most dominant season for a defensive player in recent college football history. Suh's ridiculous statistics -- 24 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, 10 pass breakups, 26 quarterback hurries -- don't fully illustrate how he controlled games.

And yet we went with 1983 Heisman Trophy winner Rozier instead. Nothing against Rozier's season, but would Suh have earned the top spot if his big year occurred in, say, 1969 or 1979? Will we view Suh's 2009 differently in 2024, when more time has passed?

It's hard to argue with our pick for Iowa: Heisman Trophy winner Kinnick in 1939. But quarterback Brad Banks had an unforgettable season in 2002 (AP Player of the Year, second in Heisman voting) and Shonn Greene was the nation's most dominant running back in 2008.

Even our Rutgers pick went way back, nearly a century, to Robeson, a fine player in his time. But Rutgers' renaissance under Greg Schiano (the Scarlet Knights' coach from 2001 to 2011) is much fresher in our minds, and performances from Rice (2,012 rush yards, 25 touchdowns in 2007) and Britt (87 receptions for 1,371 receiving yards in 2008) made it possible.

The Big Ten returns plenty of star power in 2014, and players like Melvin Gordon, Braxton Miller, Ameer Abdullah, Randy Gregory and Shilique Calhoun could produce special seasons this fall.

But to be recognized for signature seasons, the ones that represent historic programs in a historic conference, they will likely have to wait a while.

Top Big Ten players: Nos. 10-6

July, 31, 2014
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This week, we're counting down the Top 25 players in the Big Ten. Our reporting crew voted to select the list based on past performance and future potential.

The countdown started on Monday with the first five players, then climbed up to No. 16 on Tuesday before we reached No. 11 Wednesday. Next up is Nos. 6 through 10.

10. Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State Spartans: It took the Spartans a few weeks last season to settle on a starter, but there are certainly no doubts anymore. All Cook did was toss 23 touchdowns to seven interceptions while leading MSU to a conference title and a Rose Bowl victory. The question mark on the Spartans was always the offense, but Cook helped replace that with an exclamation mark and has gained a reputation as one of the Big Ten’s best as a result.

9. Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State Buckeyes: Say hello to a big reason the Buckeyes boasted one of the top 10 run defenses in the country last season. The 288-pound lineman is the anchor and leader of this line, and he should be in for another solid season. He had 11.5 stops in the backfield last season and had his hand in five fumbles (three forced, two recovered). His burst should give opposing interior linemen a lot of problems in 2014.

8. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State: He’s only a sophomore, but he’s already in the preseason conversation as the B1G’s defensive player of the year. He started 10 games last season, played like at a veteran at points and improved as the season wore on. Bosa ended 2013 by recording a tackle for loss in his last six games. It’s scary to think where he might be in another two years.

7. Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State Nittany Lions: NFL Draft: Will Hackenberg go No. 1 in 2016? That was a headline from The Sporting News back in February and for good reason -- Hackenberg appears to be the Nittany Lions’ best pocket passer since Kerry Collins, who was taken in the first round of the 1995 NFL draft. He can make all the throws, upset 25-point favorite Wisconsin last season and should be even better this season. The only question is whether his patchwork offensive line and inexperienced receivers will be able to keep up.

6. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State: He’s the best defensive player on the best defense in the Big Ten, and maybe one of the top defenses in the country. He makes plays at key moments -- his three defensive TDs last season tied a school record that was set 67 years ago -- and his efforts were rewarded by being named Big Ten defensive lineman of the year. He’s an All-American talent and one of the best the B1G has to offer.
There’s more good news for Ohio State and more bad news for Purdue, as Bovada released its newest odds for the Big Ten title race.

Unsurprisingly, the Buckeyes are the favorite as an $11 bet will net you just $10 profit. But for a confident Boilermakers fan? Well, a $1 bet will get you $300 if they come away with the championship. Purdue’s really not getting much respect here, as newcomers Rutgers (200/1) and Maryland (100/1) both boast the better odds to win the conference.

Penn State is sitting out these odds on account of its postseason ban, but there are definitely some interesting numbers here. And, hey, we want to keep those numbers interesting – so we also decided to match up each team’s bookmaker odds for some off-the-wall odds that are relatively similar.

Obviously, sports odds are a little different from regular odds, but we wanted to have some fun comparing and contrasting with this. So, without further ado, here are Bovada’s odds complemented with comparable real-life numbers:

Purdue 300/1 – The odds of dating a millionaire (1 in 225)

Rutgers 200/1 – The odds of being audited by the IRS (1 in 175)

Illinois 200/1 - Sportsbook odds that Uruguay's Luis Suarez would bite someone at the World Cup (175/1 - and it paid out!)

Indiana 100/1 – Odds of being on a plane with a drunken pilot (117 to 1)

Maryland 100/1 – Odds of being a twin in North America (1 in 90)

Minnesota 66/1 – Odds you’re in jail if you’re an American (1 in 50)

Northwestern 40/1 – Odds of rolling “snake eyes” in a game of craps (1 in 36)

Iowa 14/1 –Odds that you’re colorblind if you’re a man (1 in 12)

Michigan 9/1 – Odds that you have a tattoo (1 in 7)

Nebraska 11/2 – Odds that you’re obese if you live in Colorado (1 in 5)

Wisconsin 9/2 – Sportsbook odds that Denver Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno would cry at Super Bowl 48 (8/2)

Michigan State 15/4 – Odds you work at a job where you never get a paid day off (4 in 16)

Ohio State 10/11 – Odds you flip a quarter and it lands on heads (1 in 2)
CHICAGO -- The preseason primping in college football is over. The beauty contest has been canceled. If the playoff selection committee does its job, nothing that is said, written or ranked between now and early October will matter.

And that's a very good thing, according to Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.

"You've got to go win," Fitzgerald said Tuesday. "Finally! You've got to go win. No longer can you have a traditional name behind you and four coaches with statues in front of the stadium and 90,000 people every week and you're automatically going to be ranked ... in the top 20.

"That football side now matters."

Like many college football observers, Fitzgerald is no fan of preseason polls and the influence they had on the national championship race. His favorite part of the playoff setup is that the only rankings that matter will come from the selection committee, which will release its first Top 25 list on Oct. 28.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is looking forward to the new College Football Playoff.
Although some question whether any poll should have bearing on the national title race, at least these rankings will be shaped by what happens on the field in the current season. While the playoff technically broadens the national championship field from two to four teams, in reality, the doors are open to dozens of others.

"If we don't get in there, it's our fault," Fitzgerald said. "We didn't win. [Athletic director] Jim Phillips and I didn't schedule the right games, and myself, the staff and the players, we didn't win. We have nobody else to blame. Because if you win our league and you play a competitive schedule, you're going to be in the final four."

Fitzgerald admits he didn't mention the national championship much in recruiting before this season. Northwestern plays in a major conference but lacks the tradition or name recognition of many frequent preseason poll participants. Fitzgerald even pointed to last year -- Northwestern was ranked before the season based on a 10-3 mark and a bowl win in 2012, but stumbled to a 5-7 season -- as evidence that preseason forecasts are often off base.

"It's no longer about your sex appeal, your preseason hype and how many of your fans click on websites for votes anymore," Fitzgerald said. "It's gone. ... If you haven't played anybody in the nonconference schedule, are you going be that impressive when the [first] vote comes out?"

Michigan State has more tradition than Northwestern, but the Spartans are viewed more as an emerging power than a traditional one, especially after a 13-1 season in 2013. MSU coach Mark Dantonio, who thinks his team would have won the national title if a playoff system had been in place last season, saw the BCS model as one that rewarded teams too much for who they were, not what they were.

"A lot of it was, early in the season, they started their polls quite early, and I think some of the points you were given were based on your past," Dantonio said. "... You were still getting points from being ranked No. 1 at the beginning of the season."

The coaches were part of the problem, too, at least those who voted in a poll that was part of the BCS selection process.

"People would favor their own conference, so they'd get voted in whether it was right, wrong or indifferent," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. "It's a little more transparent now than what it was before, which is good."

Another good thing for the lower-profile Big Ten programs is the emphasis the committee will have on selecting league champions. Like their colleagues from other leagues, the Big Ten coaches expect their league champion to qualify for the playoff.

So if Maryland can navigate a division featuring Ohio State and Michigan State, among others, and win the league title, why shouldn't it make the playoff? Just because of its name?

"You're going to have a chance to be in the national championship," Edsall said. "Before, that might not be the case. At least now, people are going to see how teams are playing."
CHICAGO -- With some of the Big Ten's best all gathered in one place for media days, it seemed only natural to poll the players about the best and brightest athletes in the conference.

So on Tuesday morning, five offensive players and five defensive players offered their takes regarding those top athletes. We ran the offensive player results earlier on Tuesday, and up now are the results from the defense.

The full question: Besides you or players on your team, who's the best -- or most exciting -- defensive player in the Big Ten?

[+] EnlargeShilique Calhoun
AP Photo/Andrew A. NellesShilique Calhoun is one of the most disruptive forces in the Big Ten.
DT Carl Davis, Iowa: "Probably [Shilique] Calhoun from Michigan State. He's a great competitor, and he got the defensive lineman of the year award. I talked to [Iowa OT Brandon] Scherff, and he said that's the best defensive end he went against last year -- and Scherff's a big guy; he can drive guys like 20 yards downfield. And Calhoun is a powerful player; he uses speed and power to his advantage. He's a great player."

S Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: "I like watching Randy Gregory and the way he can tackle people. We got a lot of good players in this conference, so that's kind of tough to say. But I like his motor, I like the way he gets after people, and I like his excitement. I like guys that are out there having fun, and you can tell he has fun the way he plays."

DT Michael Bennett, Ohio State: "A lot of them left last year. Hmm ... I'd have to say Shilique Calhoun because he's the only other name I really know. He makes plays. Other than that, I watched his film and I wasn't really sure what the hype was -- but then, somehow, in our game he comes out with two forced fumbles and three sacks or something like that. So the guy is a playmaker and he gets the job done."

LB Mike Hull, Penn State: "That's tough. There's a lot of good players, but I really follow a lot of the linebackers. So I'd say Jake Ryan. He's a solid linebacker, makes good plays and has really good fundamentals. Just have respect for Michigan."

S Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: "It's tough to say ... but there's some defenses that stand out. Michigan State's defense always stands out. It's more of a concerted effort; their whole unit plays with a good energy that I like. I'll always be watching them during the season, and they'll always stand out to me. If we're watching Illinois' offense and they played Michigan State, they'll just kind of stand out as one of the best teams defensively."

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