NCF Nation: Minnesota Golden Gophers

In the history of California high school football, no player has ever caught more passes for more yards than current Minnesota sophomore Drew Wolitarsky.

Think about that for a second. These aren't high school records in Alaska or Wyoming. They're from one of the most populous, talent-rich states in the country. Wolitarsky broke the records held by Baltimore Ravens wideout Steve Smith, who could be heading to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

[+] EnlargeDrew Wolitarsky
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWith four catches for 94 yards and a touchdown, Minnesota's Drew Wolitarsky had a breakout game in the Texas Bowl vs. Syracuse.
So ... still think the Gophers lack talent at wide receiver? Of course, high school is high school, and Wolitarsky understands that.

"After high school, those records meant a lot to me," he told ESPN.com. "But once I got to college, it's time to forget about that and make a name for yourself at the next level. No one is really going to remember you from high school. They're going to say, 'Oh, that guy played really well in college and in the NFL.'"

He's working on becoming known for his performance in college, and the passing-game starved Gophers are counting on Wolitarsky taking the next step this season.

They threw him into the fire as a freshman last season, when Wolitarsky made four starts and caught 15 passes for 259 yards. That makes him Minnesota's leading returning wideout, just ahead of Donovahn Jones, another guy who played as a freshman in 2013. The youth at receiver and rotating door under center contributed to the team's passing problems last season, but Wolitarsky has seen improvement this spring with quarterback Mitch Leidner taking charge.

"We have a consistent quarterback now, one who we know is going to be the guy," he said. "So during the offseason, when we got together to throw with him and run all the routes, we didn't have to keep switching, keep wondering who was going to be the guy or who we should get closest with."

Wolitarsky didn't have to worry about those things in at Canyon High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., where he starred for four years and maintained tight relationships with his quarterbacks. He finished with a record 281 catches and 5,148 yards in his career, and his 52 touchdowns are second-most in state history.

Despite those gaudy numbers, Wolitarsky's best in-state offers were from San Jose State and San Diego State. Arizona also recruited him. But few big-name programs came calling.

"It was a rough time at one point," he said. "I was pretty angry, pretty bitter. I don't really care any more because I chose a great school and am really happy with my choice. But it was frustrating."

Recruiting service scouting reports on Wolitarsky knocked him for his lack of top-end speed. Called him a possession receiver. He has heard it all before.

"A lot of people don't understand that being a receiver is not all about speed," he said. "If you can get open, you can play the position."

Minnesota doesn't dip its toes in California recruiting very often, but needed receivers and went hard after Wolitarsky. He said he fell in love with the campus and the city on his visit and that he liked the idea of trying to build something special under Jerry Kill's coaching staff.

A lot of people don't understand that being a receiver is not all about speed. If you can get open, you can play the position.

Minnesota wideout Drew Wolitarsky, who didn't receive many big-time offers out of high school.
Still, though Wolitarsky joked that he has "some Canadian blood" in him, adjusting to the harsh Minneapolis winters hasn't been easy on the Southern California native. He said he never even bothered to check the weather report back home, where it's almost always sunny. Now he does so every day.

"Having to wake up and put on three layers of clothes is a lot different," he said. "I'm used to putting on shorts and a T-shirt and being good for the whole day."

Last season proved to be an adjustment on the field, too, especially when going up against fast, physical cornerbacks such as Michigan State's in the season finale. But Wolitarsky, who at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds isn't easily bumped off his routes, gradually became more and more confident. In the Texas Bowl loss to Syracuse, he set career-bests with four catches for 94 yards and his first touchdown.

Ironically, though, for a guy who caught so many passes in high school, Wolitarsky's best-known play right now is a ball he didn't grab. Leidner threw a Hail Mary to the end zone in the waning seconds, and the potential game-winning touchdown bounced off Wolitarsky's hands.

"I try not to think about that," he said. "But a lot of people ask me about it. I just tell them, I couldn't see it. The DB was right over me. I couldn't see [the ball] coming in, but I just felt it hit my hands. And I was like, 'That's going to look bad on the big screen.' And then I looked and was like, 'Oh, gosh.'"

That's OK. Given his track record and ability, Wolitarsky will likely make many more big catches before his college career is over.
If Minnesota continues to ascend, its coaches will start bringing in more recruits who resemble Ra'Shede Hageman.

Until then, the staff will continue to find prospects who resemble Theiren Cockran -- and then go to work.

"We're in the department of development," Minnesota defensive line coach Jeff Phelps said.

As Minnesota says goodbye to Hageman, a freakish defensive tackle who achieved his prodigious potential in his final college season, it turns to Cockran, the latest developmental discovery for the Gophers' coaches. Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun and Nebraska's Randy Gregory are the launching points for any discussion of Big Ten defensive ends entering the 2014 season. Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Noah Spence inserted themselves into the conversation with impressive sack totals last season.

[+] EnlargeTheiren Cockran
AP Photo/Kevin TanakaDefensive end Theiren Cockran will command a lot more attention from Minnesota's opponents in 2014.
But Cockran belongs as well, even if many around the league haven't heard of the Minnesota junior. He led the Big Ten in forced fumbles per game (four in 13 contests) and finished third in the league in sacks per game (7.5) and 10th in tackles for loss (10). Cockran had three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in league games.

"His development is coming along as we thought it would," Phelps said. "We knew it wasn't going to be in Year 1. Year 2 was a learning experience for him, and he's been able to become a better football player because of that."

Opinions differ on how much Cockran weighed when he made traveled from Homestead, Fla., to Minneapolis. Cockran says he was around 215 pounds, but Phelps admits, "That might be stretching it a little bit."

Minnesota listed the 6-foot-6 Cockran at 210 pounds in its announcement of the 2010 recruiting class. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said Cockran was only about 190 pounds when the staff, then at Northern Illinois, first started recruiting him.

"We thought, hey, that's a kid we might have a chance to [sign]," Claeys recalled, "because he won't have the size that some of the big boys are looking for. Some of those you hit on. Some don't get big enough to help you and some do."

Despite Cockran's size, the Minnesota coaches always pegged him as a defensive end, even in the Big Ten. They rarely shy away from lighter ends, especially if they have superior speed to rush the passer.

Cockran had both speed and length, thanks to a wingspan of 6 feet, 9.5 inches, which helps keep offensive tackles away. But he needed to get bigger.

"I didn't want to rush it because I wanted to be able to keep my speed," Cockran said. "After a while, I just had the weight come to me naturally through the weight training and things like that, eating healthy and trying to stay healthy."

He now weighs about 250 pounds. Phelps would like to see him around 255 when the season kicks off, and Cockran's long-term target weight is between 260-265 pounds.

Cockran knew he didn't come in as a finished product. He also knew what can happen with the right development. Minnesota coaches often talk about Larry English, a defensive end who added about 30 pounds during his time at Northern Illinois, won consecutive MAC defensive player of the year awards and was a first-round pick in the 2009 NFL draft.

"I've definitely watched him on film," said Cockran, who redshirted in 2011 and appeared in all 13 games as a reserve in 2012, recording six tackles and a sack. "He didn't take any plays off. He chased plays down from the back side; he chased plays down on the field. That's what made him a great player."

Cockran also benefited from being around Hageman, a former high school tight end and basketball star who used his length, athleticism and strength at defensive tackle, a spot typically reserved for boxier players. Hageman was one of the first players Cockran met after arriving at Minnesota.

"I was wondering to myself, 'Who is this guy?'" Cockran recalled. "Ever since, I watched him. He plays with aggression. He loves the game. He showed me how to be physical, how to train in the offseason, how to work hard in the weight room.

"I took a lot from him."

[+] EnlargeRa'Shede Hageman
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota defensive standout Ra'Shede Hageman has been a mentor to Theiren Cockran the last three years.
Hageman led off every opponent's scouting report. His size helped him knock down eight passes, second-most on the team, and he led the Gophers with 13 tackles for loss.

Without Hageman commanding double-teams in the middle, Cockran figures to get more attention this fall.

"He opened some people's eyes a little bit around the conference," Phelps said. "With Ra'Shede's departure, who might be the next big threat? T.C. might be that guy, but he's got to continue to be that threat off the edge of a guy who can beat you with speed and power."

Cockran had some contact with the University of South Florida during the recruiting process, but few in-state schools showed much interest. It didn't bother him, as he wanted to leave Florida and experience "something new."

After Jerry Kill moved from Northern Illinois to Minnesota, Cockran visited campus just before signing day.

A late January trip to Minneapolis might not be an ideal recruiting tool, especially for a player from sun-splashed Florida. But for Cockran, it worked.

"It was love at first sight," he said. "Compared to places I've been, people here in Minnesota are very nice, very welcoming. They have great attitudes here. They welcome you with open arms."

Cockran will be a fan favorite this fall if he builds on his strong sophomore season. The skinny recruit from Florida is now a fourth-year junior who boasts a unique mix of height, length, speed and power.

He also knows what it takes to be great after being around Hageman and studying defensive ends such as English and Aldon Smith, the long-armed San Francisco 49ers star who Cockran tries to mimic in games.

"He's really on a true timeline," Claeys said, "in developing as a player."
Tracy Claeys served as acting head coach when Minnesota went on its historic four-game winning streak last season. That brought Claeys plenty of national acclaim and recognition, including some calls for him to win Big Ten Coach of the Year honors.

Mostly, though, it made him squirm.

"I felt very uncomfortable about all that," he told ESPN.com.

[+] EnlargeTracy Claeys
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltTracy Claeys led the Gophers to a 4-3 record last season in Jerry Kill's absence.
That's because Claeys views himself as simply a piece of a larger team effort. When Jerry Kill needed to take some time away from the Gophers to deal with his epilepsy, Claeys did his part by filling in. He didn't think he deserved any more credit than the rest of the staff or the players when the team put together its first four-game Big Ten winning streak in 40 years.

So now Claeys is perfectly happy sliding back into his familiar role as defensive coordinator this spring.

"I'm looking forward to kind of hiding again," he said. "Getting back to working with the kids and just coaching ball."

Claeys could have parlayed his tenure as interim leader -- he was officially 4-3 in place of Kill, who remained very active during much of that time -- into a head-coaching gig elsewhere. A few schools contacted him this offseason to gauge his interest, but Claeys said he declined to even interview for another job.

Instead, he's content to remain with Kill. This will be their 20th season together, beginning in 1995 when Claeys was Kill's defensive line coach at Saginaw State and continuing as he served as defensive coordinator at Emporia State, Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois.

Claeys is one of several assistants who have worked for Kill for at least a decade. Kill made sure they were rewarded when he signed his recent contract extension, and Minnesota guaranteed that its staff salary pool would rank among the top six in the Big Ten. Claeys made just under $350,000 last year in base pay, plus an extra $13,000 per week while he was interim coach. He could soon be earning more than he would have made as a head coach at a MAC-level school.

Money, however, isn't the main consideration for the 45-year-old Kansan. He likes working for Kill and said his goal has never been to become a head coach. A few years ago, Claeys had a conversation about career arcs with Virginia Tech's Bud Foster, who has worked as an assistant under Frank Beamer since 1987.

"When you can go to work every day and like the people you work with and you know what's expected of you, the grass isn't always greener," Claeys said. "There's nothing wrong with staying where you're at and being successful, and Bud reaffirmed some of those things in our conversation."

Any small group of people -- whether it’s a rock band or a married couple -- will have its disagreements and difficulties while working and/or living in close quarters over a long period of time, especially in a high-stress environment like sports. Claeys said that's no different with the tight-knit Gophers staff.

"We have meetings, and some of them get a little heated," he said. "But everybody knows that when the meeting is over, the decision has to be what's best for the football team.

"The bottom line is, coach is a very caring person. We feel like a reason we've been able to build programs and have success is the consistency of our staff."

Claeys said Kill had often consulted with him on the headset about what to do in situations like fourth-down plays. So once he had full play-calling responsibilities last season in Kill's absence, he felt prepared and was confident the entire staff was on the same page.

Claeys is glad that Kill is now back handling media obligations and boosters. He can focus on working with the defense this spring and figuring out ways to replace starters like Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen. Maybe the right head coaching opportunity will come along someday, but Claeys won't be angling for it.

"As long as I'm having fun and am wanted, I'll stick around," he said. "I've told the Kill-er, whenever you want to make a change, come in and tell me, and when that time comes, I'll go back and home and tend bar."

It might be another 20 years before that happens.
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.
Spring football kicks off earlier than normal in the Big Ten, as Michigan takes the field Tuesday, Northwestern follows Wednesday and eight other squads begin their sessions by March 8.

The accelerated schedules seem appropriate in a league filled with players, coaches and teams itching for fresh starts.

New assistants get their first chance to repair struggling units, whether it's Doug Nussmeier with Michigan's offense, Brian Knorr with Indiana's defense or Chris Ash and Larry Johnson with a once-feared Ohio State defense. Quarterback competitions begin or resume at nine places, as new faces such as Illinois' Wes Lunt, Nebraska's Johnny Stanton and Minnesota's Chris Streveler enter the mix, while veterans like Wisconsin's Joel Stave and Michigan's Devin Gardner try to retain their starting jobs.

Happy Valley continues to buzz about new Penn State coach James Franklin, who seems to galvanize everyone whom he encounters. But Franklin barely has been around his new players and finally begins the real work with a team facing very real challenges.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesNorthwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes his team can start a rebound from a disappointing, injury-riddled 2013 season.
Spring also allows teams such as Northwestern, Michigan, Purdue and Indiana to look forward after disappointing seasons. Michigan State, meanwhile, continues to bask in the Rose Bowl glow but looks toward its next goal -- a national championship -- as spring ball kicks off March 25.

"It's big-picture stuff, building relationships with the players and everyone associated with the program," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The other thing is laying a really good foundation with the philosophies and schemes of how we're going to do things. That's going to happen naturally over time, but I'm not the most patient person. I wish it would have happened yesterday."

Franklin doesn't water down his goals for Penn State, especially in recruiting, but he's also realistic about the challenges of a reduced roster. The Nittany Lions return strong pieces such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive back Adrian Amos, but the two-deep has some holes that Franklin and his assistants must address, while installing new schemes.

"It's one thing when you get put in this situation in the first place with limited scholarships," Franklin said, "but the longer you're in it, the more effect it has. We've got some depth issues, there's no doubt about it, across the board. We're going to have to get creative."

Northwestern also is focused on depth after being hit hard by key injuries in 2013. Pat Fitzgerald blames himself and his staff for failing to get enough second-stringers ready, which proved costly in close Big Ten losses.

After their first bowl-less winter in six years, the Wildcats responded well in the weight room, as more than 50 players recorded personal bests. Although 11 players will miss spring practice, including standout running back/returner Venric Mark, the depth should be better in areas like the secondary.

"We're really emphasizing taking ownership of the finish," Fitzgerald said. "Finishing your technique, finishing the call, finishing the route. There's a lot of disappointment in the way the program didn't take the next step forward."

Michigan coach Brady Hoke restructured the roles of his defensive assistants for 2014, but the Wolverines' offense will be in the spotlight this spring after a wildly inconsistent season. Gardner, who continues to recover from a foot injury and likely won't be 100 percent until midway through the spring, will compete with Shane Morris, Russell Bellomy and midyear enrollee Wilton Speight.

But other positions, such as offensive line, figure to be just as important as Michigan tries to achieve Hoke and Nussmeier's vision.

"We had good intentions as far as what we wanted our identity to be, but obviously I don't think it came out the way we'd like it to," Hoke said. "The quarterback position is as important as any, and we have a guy [Gardner] who is very talented and had some really good games and games where we had to protect him better, have a better run game and take pressure off of him, and I don't think we did."

While Michigan turns the page on offense, Ohio State focuses on a defense that allowed 115 points in its last three games and finished 110th nationally in pass yards allowed (268 YPG). The Buckeyes lost top defenders Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, but they also added two accomplished assistants.

Johnson, who churned out NFL linemen during 18 years at Penn State, chose Ohio State instead of remaining in State College. Ash leaves a sole coordinator role at Arkansas for a co-coordinator role at Ohio State, where he'll work with the embattled Luke Fickell and others to mend the defense through a simplified scheme.

"Back in the day when Ohio State played great defense, you knew what you were going to get," Ash said. "They played with swagger, played with confidence, played with toughness. We have to get back to that. The simplicity of the things we're going to do will lead to faster players, more plays made and a more aggressive defense.

"I wasn't here [in 2013], but I can tell you what Coach Meyer has told me, what Luke Fickell has told me and what I watch on film. I can see there's some hesitation, there's some uncertainty. Why that is, I don't know. But it's my job to get it fixed."

Purdue has plenty to fix after a 1-11 season, and players not surprisingly are wearing T-shirts with the word "FORWARD" on the backs. Maryland and Rutgers move forward to a new conference after an offseason that saw several staff changes, including new coordinators at Rutgers (Ralph Friedgen, Joe Rossi).

There's a fresh start of sorts at Wisconsin, as a large and decorated senior class departs. Coach Gary Andersen's markings will be more obvious with his second team, which begins practice March 7.

Wisconsin is just one of many places where the top quarterback job is at stake. Lunt, who sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, competes with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey at Illinois.

"Competition's competition, no matter where it's at," said Lunt, who has added about 15 pounds since his arrival and checks in at 225. "It's different because it’s different people, different coaches, but I'm excited for it."

He's not alone in the Big Ten. Spring ball can't start soon enough.
Four years ago, the Big Ten clarified its November night games policy, saying that while a contractual provision exists between the league and its TV partners about prime-time games after Nov. 1, the games can take place if all parties are on board and planning begins early.

The message back then: We can do this, but we probably won't any time soon.

Last year, Big Ten coaches and administrators expressed greater support for night games, including those in November. League commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com he wouldn't stand in the way of such games.

[+] EnlargeGene Smith
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsIf the matchups are right, Ohio State AD Gene Smith is open to November night games in the Big Ten.
But when the Big Ten prime-time schedule came out for the 2013 season, it included no night games after Nov. 1.

Will 2014 be the year we see Big Ten football kick off under the lights after Nov. 1?

We won't know for sure until ESPN/ABC and BTN announce their prime-time schedules this spring, but there's momentum for more night games and later night games, and talks are underway.

"We're more amendable to that first November Saturday," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith recently told ESPN.com, "and I think some of us will be willing to look at that second Saturday in November if the contest is right."

Weather is still a potential deterrent for Big Ten schools to schedule night games later in the season, as it creates possible logistical problems for all involved (fans, game operations staff, police/security). But the temperature difference between late October and the first portion of November often is negligible.

The 2014 season includes Saturdays on Nov. 1 and Nov. 8.

Here are the schedules:

Nov. 1

Indiana at Michigan
Maryland at Penn State
Illinois at Ohio State
Wisconsin at Rutgers
Northwestern at Iowa
Purdue at Nebraska

Byes: Minnesota, Michigan State

Nov. 8

Penn State at Indiana
Michigan at Northwestern
Ohio State at Michigan State
Iowa at Minnesota
Wisconsin at Purdue

Byes: Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois, Nebraska

The bad news: The Nov. 1 schedule doesn't feature too many big-time games, which could decrease the likelihood of a prime-time contest, especially on ESPN/ABC.

[+] EnlargeMichigan Stadium
AP Photo/The Ann Arbor NewsMichigan likes for its night games to be major events, which could rule the Wolverines out for an early-November game under the lights in 2014.
The good news: Several of the schools hosting games that day are among the most open in the league to hosting night games. Penn State and Nebraska welcome such contests -- in part because of their pre-Big Ten history -- and Ohio State, which is installing permanent lights at Ohio Stadium for the 2014 season, has become increasingly interested. Rutgers comes from a league where you played whenever TV asked you to, and a night game against a good opponent like Wisconsin would bring some nice exposure for one of the new Big Ten additions.

Michigan wants its night games to be major events, and facing Indiana doesn't exactly qualify. Iowa hosting Northwestern is a possibility, especially since the Hawkeyes play only one other home game (Oct. 11 against Indiana) between Sept. 15 and Nov. 1.

The Nov. 8 schedule includes arguably the Big Ten's marquee game of the year in Ohio State visiting Michigan State, a rematch of the 2013 league championship. I'd absolutely love to see this at night, and what a way to kick off November prime time in the league. It's definitely a possibility, but the game also could fill the 3:30 p.m. ET window, which many Big Ten athletic directors prefer (Purdue's Morgan Burke recently called it "the sweet spot").

The Penn State-Indiana game is another potential prime-time kickoff, mainly because Indiana has been so open to night games (six in the past two seasons, nine since the 2010 season).

"We've probably had more night games than most of our colleagues in the conference," Indiana athletic director Fred Glass said. "We think it's a good thing for us, it helps our attendance. We're certainly open to that, and my guess is that will be more of a trend."

Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas echoes the support for night games, noting that several Big Ten ADs and coaches previously spent time in the Mid-American Conference, where playing at night and on weekdays, especially late in the season, is common.

"We experienced all of that in our past lives," said Thomas, who served as Akron's athletic director from 2000-05. "We talk about the opportunities for the prime-time windows and where we are as individual schools and as a conference in having that kind of exposure.

"I would certainly support it."

Many of Thomas' colleagues seem to be on board. Smith said the athletic directors last week spoke about moving up the timetable for prime-time selections so they can begin promoting games. Prime-time schedules typically have been announced between April 20 and May 15.

"We're putting in lights because we've realized that we can handle night games," Smith said. "In 2006, we were a little bit skittish about it. We know our fans love it, so we've shared with the conference that we're amenable to having more. There's a novelty to it. That helps us with our atmosphere.

"It makes things really exciting."
The Big Ten's combination of big stadiums, big fan bases and big tradition has historically made football attendance a rather small issue.

America's two largest football venues -- Michigan Stadium and Beaver Stadium -- sit on Big Ten campuses, and three of the seven football stadiums with six-figure capacities are in the league (Ohio Stadium is the other). Michigan has led the nation in college football attendance for the past 15 years, and the Big Ten occupied three of the top five spots and seven of the top 23 spots in attendance average for the 2013 season.

[+] EnlargeOhio Stadium
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesOhio State averaged 104,933 fans at its seven home games in 2013, which ranked No. 2 in that nation behind Michigan.
The Big Ten in 2013 set records for total attendance (6,127,526) and attendance for league games (3,414,448), and ranked second behind the SEC in average attendance per game (70,431), a slight increase from 2012.

So what's the B1G deal? Eight of the 12 league programs saw a decline in average attendance last season. Some have seen numbers drop for several years. Student-section attendance is a growing concern, and the Big Ten is tracking the troubling national attendance trends.

"We've been blessed because we haven't been hit with the significant drop-off that many other conferences and schools have experienced," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "However, we've seen it in certain games, or in not necessarily ticket sales but people actually coming to games.

"So we're concerned."

The league is taking a proactive approach, starting last season with the formation of a football game-day experience subcommittee, which Smith chairs. The committee in August announced that Big Ten schools would be allowed to show an unlimited number of replays on video boards at any speed. Schools previously could show one replay at no less than 75 percent of real-time speed.

The move drew positive reviews from fans and no major complaints from game officials.

"If people can see the replay at home on TV, you can't give them a lesser experience in the stands," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said.

A "more robust" replay approach is on the way for 2014, and Big Ten leaders are looking at other ways to bolster the stadium experience, which, as Burke noted, seems to have reached a tipping point with the couch experience.

Here are some areas of focus:

Cellular and Wi-Fi Connections

In August, the subcommittee encouraged each Big Ten school to explore full Wi-Fi in stadiums as well as Distributed Antenna System (DAS) coverage to enhance cell-phone functionality. A fan base immersed in smartphones, social media and staying connected demands it.

"Everybody realizes improvements have to be made," said Kerry Kenny, the Big Ten's liaison to the game-day experience subcommittee. "People want to be updated on other games. They want to go in there and take photos or Instagram videos or tweet. They want to be able to stay in touch with family and friends that aren’t there but are watching."

Penn State installed Wi-Fi throughout Beaver Stadium in 2012 but is the only Big Ten school to have complete access. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said he hopes to have total Wi-Fi in the school's football stadium by the fall, if not the 2015 season. Nebraska's regents last month approved a $12.3 million Wi-Fi project for its stadium, and Wisconsin hopes to have full stadium Wi-Fi this season.

Most schools are focused on boosting cell service, which is more feasible and widespread. Ohio State installed more than 200 antennas in Ohio Stadium to improve cell service. For complete Wi-Fi, it would need about 1,200 antennas.

"We don't know what the cost is, but we know it's somewhere north of seven figures," Smith said. "We're studying it, as are my colleagues in the Big Ten."

Student attendance

Student sections aren't nearly as full as they used to be on Saturdays, both in the Big Ten and in the nation. ADs are well aware of the downturn and have tried different approaches to boost attendance.

Michigan in 2013 implemented a general admission policy, hoping to get more students to show up early, but reviews weren't favorable. Minnesota provided a new student tailgating area and better ticket packages. Illinois held a clinic for international students, who have told Thomas they'd come to games if they knew more about football.

The technology component resonates for students. Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis told CBSsports.com that many students didn't show up for a 2012 game against Iowa because they couldn't send text messages in the rain.

Even if Ohio State doesn't install complete Wi-Fi at The Shoe, it could do so for the student section.

"Our surveys show that less than 25 percent of the crowd actually uses their cellular device [during games]," Smith said, "but of that 25 percent, a supermajority are students. You want to be able to provide that access."

In-Game Entertainment

Everybody realizes improvements have to be made. People want to be updated on other games. They want to go in there and take photos or Instagram videos or tweet. They want to be able to stay in touch with family and friends that aren't there but are watching.

Kerry Kenny, the Big Ten's liaison to the game-day experience subcommittee, on Wi-Fi in stadiums.
The days of public-address announcers listing scores from other games during timeouts are over. Schools want to give fans a broader view on Saturdays, whether it's putting live feeds of other games on video boards or replaying highlights shortly after they happen.

"I was at a game at Purdue this year," Kenny said, "and they showed a highlight of a touchdown in the Wisconsin-Iowa game within a couple minutes of that touchdown being scored."

Added Thomas: "If you're watching ESPN or watching a game at home, those are the kinds of experiences you should give people in your venue."

Big Ten athletic directors and football coaches last week discussed having more locker-room video or behind-the-scenes content that can be shown only within the stadium.

"You're in an era where people want to know what's it like before the game, after the game," Burke said. "It humanizes us if people see that side, the highs and the lows."

Burke likens Purdue's sideline to a "Hollywood production," as the band director, a disc jockey and a show producer coordinate in-game music on headsets. Several schools post tweets from fans at games on video boards to create a more interactive experience.

Ticketing and timing

Last month, Penn State became the latest Big Ten school to adopt variable ticket pricing for single games, acknowledging, "We have been listening to our fans." Attendance has dropped 11.2 percent from 2007 to 2012, while frustration has grown with the Seat Transfer and Equity Plan (STEP) program.

Big Ten schools are getting more creative with ticket plans in response to attendance concerns. Northwestern last season implemented a modified "Dutch auction" system where a portion of tickets were sold based on adjusted price demand rather than set prices.

Purdue last fall introduced mobile ticket delivery, which allows fans to download tickets directly to their devices.

Kickoff times are another attendance indicator, as Big Ten schools located in the central time zone often struggle to fill the stands for 11 a.m. games. The Big Ten gradually has increased its number of prime-time games, and while Burke considers mid-afternoon games ideal, more night kickoffs likely are on the way, including those in early November.

Ohio State is in the process of installing permanent lights at Ohio Stadium.

"I'm a big fan of evening games," Thomas said.

As attendance becomes a bigger issue, the Big Ten and its members have surveyed fans about what they want at games. Wisconsin last fall established a 25-member fan advisory council, with two students. The school has received feedback about concessions, parking and whether fans would prefer digital programs rather than the traditional magazine-style ones.

"So much of it is when somebody comes to your venue," said Justin Doherty, Wisconsin's associate athletic director for external relations, "they have an experience that makes them want to come back."

Big Ten spring practice dates

February, 10, 2014
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Now that signing day is in the rear-view mirror, the next major thing to look forward to is spring practice.

Luckily, it won't be much longer before teams are back on the field. In fact, Northwestern and Michigan will open their practice sessions in a little more than two weeks. It will be a bit of a longer wait for teams such as Michigan State and Iowa, which won't get started until late March.

But mark your calendars for these spring practice dates, which are subject to change but represent the latest information we have from the schools:

Illinois

Spring practice starts: March 4
Spring game: April 12

Indiana

Spring practice starts: March 8
Spring game: TBA

Iowa

Spring practice starts: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

Maryland

Spring practice starts: March 1
Spring game: April 11

Michigan

Spring practice starts: Feb. 25
Spring game: April 5

Michigan State

Spring practice starts: March 25
Spring game: April 26

Minnesota

Spring practice starts: March 4
Spring game: April 12

Nebraska

Spring practice starts: March 8
Spring game: April 12

Northwestern

Spring practice starts: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

Ohio State

Spring practice starts: March 4
Spring game: April 12

Penn State

Spring practice starts: March 17
Spring game: April 12

Purdue

Spring practice starts: March 6
Spring game: April 12

Rutgers

Spring practice starts: March 25
Spring game: April 26

Wisconsin

Spring practice starts: March 7
Spring game: April 12
The last two seasons have shown that two-quarterback systems can work in the Big Ten.

Northwestern recorded 10 wins in 2012 while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Indiana led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in total offense last fall while alternating between Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa, Connor Cook
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAfter taking over the quarterback job in Week 5, Connor Cook led the Spartans to 10 consecutive wins.
Given the recent success, my next statement might surprise you: Every Big Ten team would be best served picking one quarterback and sticking with him in 2014. That includes Indiana and Northwestern.

Quarterback rotations can be successful in the short term, but they are rarely sustainable or desirable. We saw this at Northwestern last fall, as the Wildcats never established a consistent offensive rhythm and operated with a reduced playbook, in part because of injuries but also because the unit lacked a clear identity. Northwestern finished 10th in the league in scoring.

Minnesota alternated between quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner during several games, including the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Although the Gophers had a nice surge during Big Ten play and recorded eight wins, they also finished 11th in the league in scoring and last in passing.

Nebraska had some success using two quarterbacks (Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III) last season but did so out of necessity following Taylor Martinez's injury. The Huskers also struggled to pass the ball, finishing 11th in the league.

The strongest argument for picking a quarterback and sticking with him comes from the Big Ten's best team in 2013. Michigan State's offense was a train wreck in non-league play as the Spartans used three quarterbacks. After a Week 4 loss to Notre Dame, the coaches decided Connor Cook would be their guy. You all know what happened next, but what struck me was Cook's mindset at the time.

"We went through spring ball competition and fall camp competition, it was the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life just trying to be the quarterback," Cook said last month before the Rose Bowl. "After I got the starting job and started a couple of games, the stress went away and it turned to focus, me being focused and knowing they're not going to use other quarterbacks in the game and not stress too much that go if I make a bad play I'm going to be pulled.

"That's when the stress went out the window."

Players like Northwestern's Siemian and Indiana's Roberson and Sudfeld are more accustomed to sharing time than Cook was, but each of them, like any quarterback, would rather be the clear-cut starter.

Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase is another good example of a player who benefited from an unambiguous role. He struggled from the middle of the 2011 season through all of 2012, raising the possibility of a rotation last season. Instead, Scheelhaase started every game and led the Big Ten in passing (3,272 yards).

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAfter playing well in place of Taylor Martinez, sophomore signal-caller Tommy Armstrong Jr. is the favorite to start for the Cornhuskers in 2014.
I'm all for competition at quarterback, and the Big Ten will feature plenty of it this spring and summer. Only five quarterbacks -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Michigan State's Cook, Iowa's Jake Rudock and Michigan's Devin Gardner -- can feel pretty secure about their starting roles. Gardner has been mentioned as a possible rotation candidate with Shane Morris -- some Michigan fans wouldn't mind seeing Gardner line up at wide receiver, a position of need -- but I'd be surprised if Morris leapfrogs the senior.

I'm also OK with teams employing change-up quarterbacks for a package of plays, be it the Wildcat or something else. Michigan State could be a candidate for this in 2014 with dynamic redshirt freshman Damion Terry possibly spelling Cook from time to time.

The first few games also provide a platform to use multiple quarterbacks in settings that can't be replicated on the practice field. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel often did this with his younger quarterbacks, giving them a first-half series or two. It makes sense. But by Week 4, roles must be identified.

The offseason is full of Big Ten quarterback questions:

  • Will Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt take the reins at Illinois?
  • How will Gardner and Hackenberg fare with new offensive coordinators?
  • After Nelson's transfer, who emerges at Minnesota among Leidner, Chris Streveler and possibly a young quarterback such as Dimonic McKinzy?
  • Nebraska's Armstrong went 6-1 as a freshman starter, but can he hold off Johnny Stanton?
  • Can Gary Nova retain his job at Rutgers?
  • Will Danny Etling keep the top job at Purdue, or will Austin Appleby and possibly early enrollee David Blough enter the mix?
  • How does Siemian bounce back at Northwestern, and do the Wildcats look at Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver?
  • Will either Roberson or Sudfeld finally separate himself at IU?

Ultimately, these questions must be answered. The teams that avoid prolonged rotations should be better off for it.
1. The new year couldn’t come soon enough for Northwestern, which had the worst run of luck in terms of injuries and tough losses of any FBS team last season (and probably a few seasons before that). I like that Pat Fitzgerald and the program didn’t panic. The calendar turned, and maybe the Wildcats’ fortunes have as well. The news that star back/returner Venric Mark will get a fifth year of eligibility after multiple injuries limited him to three games last season is just the tonic for fans whose high hopes crashed in a 1-7 Big Ten season.

2. As I begin to make my list of teams to watch during this offseason, one of the first to come to mind is TCU. The Horned Frogs went 47-5 from 2008-11, including that 13-0 season in 2010 that finished with a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin. The Horned Frogs have gone 11-14 in their first two seasons in the Big 12, 6-12 in conference play. Injuries played a big role, and four conference losses by a total of 11 points in last year’s 4-8 season indicate TCU isn’t far gone. But consecutive mediocre seasons means half the team doesn’t know how to win. Winning -- and losing -- moves fast these days.

3. The Senior Bowl is an annual convention for the 30 NFL staffs that aren’t in the Super Bowl. But college coaches go as well -- some to see old friends, others to network for jobs, and all because they’re on the Gulf Coast recruiting. Alabama coach Nick Saban didn’t need to publicize it. He drew a covey of reporters. Minnesota assistant Jay Sawvel made his own pub. He tweeted a pic of head coach Jerry Kill with two former players in the game: Golden Gophers defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward. Pretty smart.
Minnesota’s quarterback picture for 2014 gained more clarity on Thursday, but probably not in the way coach Jerry Kill and the Gophers wanted.

Philip Nelson, who started the majority of the 2013 season after taking over the job midway through his freshman campaign of 2012, is transferring. He released a statement to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that said he was “looking to play in a system that centers more around the pass game which utilizes my skill sets.”

[+] EnlargePhilip Nelson
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesMinnesota signal-caller Philip Nelson has decided to leave the team and transfer to a program with an offense more geared toward passing.
Nelson started nine games last season and played in 12. But he was pulled early in the Gophers’ Texas Bowl loss to Syracuse in favor of Mitch Leidner, and Leidner played most of the rest of the way. He and Leidner split time at quarterback early in the season, but Nelson appeared to take control of the position and was under center during Minnesota’s four-game Big Ten winning streak.

Nelson’s father, Pat, told the Star-Tribune that “this whole entire conversation started a long time ago. The bowl game had nothing to do with it.”

The Gophers struggled to throw the ball effectively most of the season and relied heavily on the run game, including ground support from their quarterbacks. Nelson completed just 50.5 percent of his passes in 2013 after connecting on 49.3 percent during seven starts in 2012. He looked like the better passer in the competition with Leidner, though neither guy ever got a lot of help from the receiving corps.

Nelson views himself more as a pro-style pocket passer than a dual-threat guy. For a prime example of what Kill wants in a quarterback, just look to Northern Illinois, his previous coaching stop. He recruited and helped develop Jordan Lynch. Running the ball from the quarterback spot is part of the plan.

This spring likely would have featured an open competition among Nelson, Leidner and redshirt freshman Chris Streveler. With all three bunched so closely together in class -- Leidner will be a redshirt sophomore -- it’s not surprising to see one of them transfer. But it is stunning nevertheless that the guy who has played and started the most at quarterback is leaving, and his parting words about needing to find a better pass offense do not inspire much confidence in Minnesota’s ability to fix that part of its offense.

Nelson was also a very important recruit at one time for Kill, as he was the Minnesota player of the year and a highly decorated prospect who decided to stay home. For a program that has not traditionally had great success in signing the bluest of blue-chip recruits from its own backyard, it’s disappointing to see Nelson leave.

At least the Gophers have options. Leidner is a load running the ball at 6-foot-4 and 233 pounds, though he still needs refinement as a passer. There are some who claim Streveler is the most talented of the three, and now he’ll have a clearer path to playing time.

Minnesota might be better off picking a starter and riding him than having an endless back-and-forth at quarterback, but one player needs to separate himself from the pack. The herd has surprisingly thinned now that Nelson is gone.

Final Big Ten Power Rankings

January, 15, 2014
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Before we close the book on the 2013 season, here's the final version of the Big Ten power rankings. Bowl performances were factored in, as well as how teams finished the season, although there aren't too many changes from the previous version of the power rankings.

Let's get started ...

1. Michigan State (13-1, previously: 1): The Spartans rallied to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO to record their team-record 13th victory. Thanks to stifling defense and improved quarterback play, Michigan State had its best season since the mid-1960s. The Spartans return QB Connor Cook and most of the skill players on offense, but must replace a lot of production on defense.

2. Ohio State (12-2, previously: 2): After winning 24 consecutive games to open the Urban Meyer era, Ohio State dropped consecutive games on big stages. The Buckeyes' defense couldn't slow down Clemson's pass game in the Discover Orange Bowl, and turnovers doomed Ohio State in the second half. Meyer's defensive staff will have a different look with new assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson.

3. Wisconsin (9-4, previously: 3): Like Ohio State, Wisconsin ended its season with a thud and a sloppy bowl performance against South Carolina. The Badgers received big performances from running backs Melvin Gordon and James White but couldn't stop South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw or hang on to the football.

4. Nebraska (9-4, previously: 6): All roads lead to 9-4 for Bo Pelini's team, but the Huskers are much happier to be there after an upset victory over Georgia in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. An improved defense did a nice job of keeping the Bulldogs out of the end zone, and seniors such as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa stepped up in their final college game.

5. Iowa (8-5, previously: 4): A stout Hawkeyes defense kept the team in the Outback Bowl, but the offense never truly got going and lost starting quarterback Jake Rudock to injury. Iowa had its chances for a quality bowl win, but has to settle for a strong regular-season improvement and raised expectations entering the 2014 season.

6. Penn State (7-5, previously: 7): An impressive victory at Wisconsin marked the final game of the Bill O'Brien era. New coach James Franklin has brought a lot of enthusiasm to Happy Valley and should sparkle on the recruiting trail. His management of talented quarterback Christian Hackenberg and an undermanned defense will loom large this fall.

7. Minnesota (8-5, previously: 5): The Gophers had by far the most favorable bowl matchup but didn't reach the end zone for more than three quarters against Syracuse. Although a special-teams play ultimately doomed Minnesota, the Gophers' inability to establish a better passing game was a key element in a very disappointing loss. Minnesota should expect more in 2014.

8. Michigan (7-6, previously: 8): You knew it would be tough for Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl when quarterback Devin Gardner hobbled off of the plane on crutches. But the Wolverines never gave themselves a chance in the game, caving defensively against Kansas State's Jake Waters and Tyler Lockett. A blowout loss ended Michigan's highly disappointing season and marked the end for offensive coordinator Al Borges. Can coach Brady Hoke get things turned around in 2014?

9. Northwestern (5-7, previously: 9): Northwestern is awaiting confirmation that running back Venric Mark can return for a fifth season, and should get it in the next few weeks. Mark will help an offense that never truly got on track last fall and might need to be more of a pass-first unit if Trevor Siemian remains the starting quarterback. The defense returns nine starters.

10. Indiana (5-7, previously: 10): It took a little longer than expected, but coach Kevin Wilson fired defensive coordinator Doug Mallory last week as Indiana again will try to upgrade a perennially porous unit. The Hoosiers will be more experienced throughout the roster this fall, but the defense must change the script under new leadership as they enter the brutal East Division.

11. Illinois (4-8, previously: 11): While Wilson made a change at defensive coordinator, coach Tim Beckman is sticking with Tim Banks and the rest of his staff for a pivotal 2014 season. Like Indiana, Illinois will be more experienced on defense but must replace Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback. A favorable schedule gives Illinois a chance to make a bowl game.

12. Purdue (1-11, previously: 12): No Big Ten team is more excited to start working this offseason than the Boilers, who are rebuilding through the quarterback spot with Danny Etling and early enrollee David Blough, who officially arrived this week. Purdue must improve along both lines and replace veteran defenders such as cornerback Ricardo Allen and tackle Bruce Gaston Jr.

Big Ten all-BCS-era team

January, 13, 2014
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The BCS is dead. RIP. As we memorialize the BCS era throughout ESPN.com today, we're selecting All-BCS teams from each conference. As a reminder, the BCS era lasted from the 1998 season through the recently completed 2013 season. To narrow our selections a bit, players had to play at least two seasons in the BCS era to be eligible. Nebraska players are part of our list even though the Huskers played in the Big 12 until 2011.

Here's our Big Ten All-BCS team.

Coach: Jim Tressel, Ohio State -- Tressel led Ohio State to the 2002 national title, the Big Ten's only championship in the BCS era, as well as seven Big Ten titles (one vacated).

OFFENSE

QB: Drew Brees, Purdue (1997-2000) -- He led Purdue to the 2000 Big Ten championship and finished his career with league records for passing yards (11,792), touchdown passes (90), total offensive yards (12,693), completions (1,026), and attempts (1,678). Brees won the Maxwell Award in 2000.

RB: Ron Dayne, Wisconsin (1996-99) -- The 1999 Heisman Trophy winner set the NCAA's career rushing record with 6,397 yards (not including bowl games). He won all the major national individual awards in 1999 and became the first player to repeat as Rose Bowl MVP.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMontee Ball had 39 TDs for Wisconsin in 2011.
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin (2009-2012) -- The man nicknamed "MoneyBall" tied Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season touchdowns record with 39 in 2011 and set the mark for career touchdowns with 83. He won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back in 2012.

WR: Braylon Edwards, Michigan (2001-04) -- The Big Ten's most recent Biletnikoff Award winner holds the league record for career touchdown receptions (39) and ranks fourth in career receiving yards (3,541). He's the only Big Ten receiver to record 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.

WR: Lee Evans, Wisconsin (2000-03) -- Evans twice led the Big Ten in receiving yards, eclipsing 1,500 yards in 2001 before rebounding from an ACL tear to record 1,213 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2003.

TE: Dallas Clark, Iowa (1999-2002) -- Clark earned the John Mackey Award in 2002 after recording 43 receptions for 742 yards as Iowa went undefeated in the Big Ten.

OL: Greg Eslinger, Minnesota (2002-05) -- One of the more decorated Big Ten linemen in the BCS era, Eslinger won the Outland Trophy in 2005. He was a two-time first-team All-America selection and a three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection for one of the nation's top rushing offenses.

OL: Joe Thomas, Wisconsin (2003-06) -- Another Outland Trophy winner (2006), Thomas earned unanimous consensus All-America honors that year. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in each of his final two seasons and was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft.

OL: Dominic Raiola, Nebraska (1998-2000) -- In 1998, Raiola became the first Nebraska freshman offensive lineman to start a game in seven years. He went on to earn the Rimington Trophy as the nation's top center, first-team All-Big 12 honors in his final two seasons and consensus first-team All-America honors in 2000.

OL: Robert Gallery, Iowa (1999-2003) -- Gallery claimed the Outland Trophy in 2003 as well as first-team All-America honors. He twice earned first-team All-Big Ten honors as the anchor of a nationally elite offensive line.

OL: Jake Long, Michigan (2003-07) -- Although Long didn't win the Outland, he twice earned consensus first-team All-America honors (unanimous selection in 2007) and twice earned Big Ten offensive lineman of the year honors (beating out Thomas in 2006). Long was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft.

DEFENSE

DE: LaMarr Woodley, Michigan (2003-06) -- Woodley claimed the Rotary Lombardi Award in 2006 as the nation's top lineman. A first-team All-American that season, he finished his career with 10 forced fumbles, tied for seventh on the Big Ten's career list.

DE: Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue (2007-10) -- Unlike most of the men on this list, Kerrigan never played for any BCS bowl teams at Purdue but still had a remarkable career that ended with unanimous consensus first-team All-America honors in 2010. The Big Ten defensive player of the year tied the NCAA record for forced fumbles (14) and recorded 33.5 sacks and 57 tackles for loss.

DT: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska (2005-09) -- The most dominant defender in recent years finished fourth in Heisman voting in 2009 (should have been higher) and earned several awards, including the Bednarik, Nagurski and Outland. Suh finished his career with 24 sacks, 57 tackles for loss, four interceptions, three forced fumbles and 41 quarterback hurries.

DT: Devon Still, Penn State (2008-11) -- Penn State produced a string of outstanding defensive tackles including Still, the Big Ten's defensive player of the year in 2011. Still earned consensus first-team All-America honors after recording 17 tackles for loss.

LB: James Laurinaitis, Ohio State (2005-08) -- Laurinaitis won major national awards in each of his final three seasons, including the Nagurski Trophy in 2006. The two-time Big Ten defensive player of the year became just the third Ohio State player to earn consensus All-America honors in three seasons.

LB: Paul Posluszny, Penn State (2003-06) -- Posluszny is one of only two players (Pat Fitzgerald) to twice win the Bednarik Award as the nation's top defender. He became the first Penn State linebacker to twice earn AP All-America honors.

LB: LaVar Arrington, Penn State (1997-99) -- A freakishly athletic linebacker at Linebacker U., Arrington twice earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and won the Bednarik and Butkus Awards as a junior in 1999. He was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft.

CB: Jamar Fletcher, Wisconsin (1998-2000) -- Fletcher claimed the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back in 2000, won Big Ten defensive player of the year honors that year and was a three-time first-team all-conference selection. He's tied for fourth in league history with 21 career interceptions and holds the league record for interception return yards (459).

CB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State (2010-13) -- Dennard also claimed the Thorpe Award as he helped Michigan State to its first outright Big Ten title in 26 years and a Rose Bowl victory against Stanford. The two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection recorded 10 career interceptions and led the "No Fly Zone" Spartans secondary.

S: Tyrone Carter, Minnesota (1996-99) -- The only Big Ten safety to win the Thorpe Award, Carter also twice earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and earned unanimous All-America honors in 1999. He set the FBS record for career tackles by a defensive back with 528.

S: Mike Doss, Ohio State (1999-2002) -- A three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection, Doss earned unanimous consensus All-America honors in 2002 as Ohio State won the national title.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Mike Nugent, Ohio State (2001-04) -- Nugent won the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top kicker in 2004 and claimed consensus All-America honors in both 2002 and 2004. He holds the Big Ten record for consecutive made field goals with 24.

P: Brandon Fields, Michigan State (2003-06) -- His name is on the Big Ten's punter of the year award for a reason. Fields earned consensus All-America honors in 2004, earned first-team All-Big Ten honors three times and twice led the league in punting, tying for third in career average (45 ypp).

Returns: Ted Ginn, Ohio State (2004-06) and Steve Breaston, Michigan (2003-06) -- Ginn holds the Big Ten single-season records for kick return average (25.6 ypr) and career punt return touchdowns (6), while Breaston claims the league mark for career punt return yards (1,599) and is tied for third in punt return touchdowns (4).

It's tough enough putting together these teams for one season, much less 16 seasons. You can't please everyone, and many exceptional players didn't make the cut.

We decided to go with five offensive linemen rather than a center, two guards and two tackles, in order to recognize the best overall players in the trenches.

There was some debate for a second receiver alongside Michigan's Edwards, as the Big Ten hasn't exactly mass-produced superstars at the position. Several players had great seasons like Michigan State's Charles Rogers in 2002, but we put more stock into overall career output and went with Wisconsin's Evans, who led the league in receiving in 2001 and 2003.

Cornerback created some debate among Fletcher, Dennard and Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins, also a Jim Thorpe Award winner. We faced another tough decision at safety between Ohio State's Doss and Iowa's Bob Sanders.

Surprisingly, the defensive tackle spot produced few bona-fide superstars. Nebraska's Suh, who played his entire career in the Big 12, was an obvious choice but a second choice proved to be tough.

Arguably the toughest choice came at kicker between Nugent and Iowa's Nate Kaeding. Both won Lou Groza Awards and set numerous records. We gave the nod to Nugent, but not by much.

Best and worst of the Big Ten bowls

January, 10, 2014
Jan 10
10:00
AM ET
As we continue to wrap up the 2013 bowl season, let's take a look at some of the best and worst of the Big Ten's seven postseason games:

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesThe Buckeyes couldn't slow down Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd in the Discover Orange Bowl.
Best game: Michigan State's 24-20 win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO. The Orange Bowl was a wilder game with more huge momentum swings, but the Spartans won a classic, old-school slugfest. The context also included the 100th edition of the Rose Bowl -- and the last one before the College Football Playoff potentially changes everything -- and Michigan State's first Pasadena appearance since 1988. That adds up to make it the best game of the Big Ten's bunch.

Worst game: You have to wonder if the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl would have picked Michigan ahead of Nebraska had game organizers known that quarterback Devin Gardner wasn't going to play. Probably so, since the attendance was still very good. But the Wolverines were noncompetitive in the desert, needing a touchdown and two-point conversion with 1:15 left just to make the final score 31-14.

Best play: This one's an easy call. On third-and-long from its own 1-yard line, Nebraska opted to throw the ball against Georgia in the third quarter of the Gator Bowl. Tommy Armstrong Jr. found wide receiver Quincy Enunwa, and the result was a 99-yard touchdown pass, the longest play in Cornhuskers and Gator Bowl history.

Best surprise: Minnesota coach Jerry Kill left the press box at halftime of the Texas Bowl against Syracuse and coached the rest of the game from the sideline, something he hadn't done since Sept. 28. Having Kill back on the sidelines gave the Gophers a spark as they erased a halftime deficit, but Syracuse still went on to win the game.

Worst bowl week: Ohio State enjoyed an oceanside hotel at the Discover Orange Bowl, but the buildup to the game was no day at the beach. A stomach bug swirled through the team, leaving several players nauseous and vomiting for about 12 hours each. The school found out that defensive end Noah Spence would be suspended for the game against Clemson and the first two contests of 2014. And cornerback Bradley Roby couldn't recover from his knee injury. It's a wonder Ohio State came so close to winning the game with all that went wrong leading into it.

Worst early celebration: Iowa safety John Lowdermilk intercepted an LSU pass and ran it back 71 yards in the third quarter of the Outback Bowl. But just before he crossed the goal line, Lowdermilk -- who had no defenders around him -- casually dropped the ball out of his right hand. The play was ruled a fumble, and luckily Iowa went on to score the touchdown. But not before some embarrassment for Lowdermilk. “I don’t know what I was doing," he said. "I really regret it and apologize. If I’m lucky enough to get in that situation again, I’ll probably put two hands around the ball and go to the back of the end zone, just to make sure."

Worst late celebration: Michigan State players tried to give coach Mark Dantonio a Gatorade shower near the end of the Rose Bowl. But Dantonio skipped out of the way, and the players' effort was embarrassingly off mark. Dantonio had already shown that he's light on his feet this year with all his dancing to Rich Homie Quan. It's way past time we retire the Gatorade bath, anyway, and come up with something a little more clever.

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Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesRunning back Melvin Gordon had a big day for the Badgers vs. South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl.
Best poetic ending: Kyler Elsworth filled in for the suspended Max Bullough at middle linebacker for Michigan State. On Stanford's final offensive play, a fourth-and-1 run by fullback Ryan Hewitt, Elsworth launched himself over the pile and stuffed Hewitt. That the fifth-year senior and former walk-on earned Rose Bowl defensive MVP honors spoke volumes about the depth and team-first program Mark Dantonio has built.

Best overlooked achievement: Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and James White both ran for more than 100 yards in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina and set a FBS record in the process. They finished the season with a combined 3,053 rushing yards, surpassing the top total for a pair of teammates that Nevada’s Cody Fajardo and Stefphon Jefferson established with 3,004 yards in 2012. Gordon and White also were the first teammates to each rush for more than 1,400 yards in the same season. But the Badgers didn't feel much like celebrating as they dropped their fourth straight bowl game.

Wildest finish: The Orange Bowl had more endings than "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." The game looked like it was over when Braxton Miller fumbled on a big hit by Clemson's Bashaud Breeland with 3:12 left. But then the Tigers threw an interception on a questionable call three plays later. Miller then returned the favor with an interception of his own with 1:18 remaining. It was a fitting conclusion to a game that contained all kinds of wild momentum swings.

Worst clock management: This one goes to LSU, against Iowa. The Tigers took possession with 1:42 left, and even with Iowa holding one timeout, they should have been able to run out the clock. But with confusion on the sideline and at quarterback, LSU called its own timeout with eight seconds left and had to punt. When Les Miles and clocks are involved, things are never boring.
A man wearing a newsboy cap approached Kirk Cousins and offered congratulations to the former Michigan State quarterback, who held court with reporters in the Rose Bowl tunnel moments after the Spartans beat Stanford.

Jim Delany wasn't easy to spot in the headgear, and one could argue that the Big Ten commissioner wisely disguised himself on a day that hasn't been kind to his league in recent years. But for the first time in four years, and for just the second time in 14 years, Delany walked out of the Rose Bowl with a smile on his face.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook and Michigan State gave the Big Ten plenty to celebrate.
For Delany and the Big Ten, the Rose Bowl sits on a pedestal. And after just one Big Ten win in the previous 10 tries, Michigan State's 24-20 triumph in the game's 100th edition was cause for celebration. MSU's victory doesn't dull the pain of the Big Ten's second consecutive 2-5 bowl season, but it certainly helps to prevail in the most important postseason game on the biggest stage against the best opponent.

The Spartans won a team-record 13 games and completed the best season for a Big Ten team in recent memory, finishing No. 3 in the final polls. Nebraska provided the other bright spot, upsetting Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl thanks to a stingy red-zone defense and several standout performances from seniors.

Elsewhere, the Big Ten felt the familiar postseason sting of what might have been. The league easily could have had a better record in the Florida bowls, but Wisconsin and Ohio State had sloppy performances and Iowa's offense never got on track against LSU.

Wisconsin never punted in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina and had two 100-yard rushers in Melvin Gordon and James White, but the Badgers committed four turnovers and scored just 17 offensive points. A team that had been so solid through the first 11 games unraveled in the regular-season finale against Penn State and in the bowl, failing to capitalize on a great chance to build on a 17-13 third-quarter lead. Dave Aranda's defense was shredded for the second straight game as South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw accounted for five touchdowns (3 pass, 1 rush, 1 receiving). A decorated Wisconsin senior classes ended 0-4 in Jan. 1 bowls.

Ohio State also finished the season on a surprising losing streak, squandering two second-half leads in a 40-35 loss to Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. Like Wisconsin, the Buckeyes also were doomed by turnovers, particularly a muffed punt by Corey Brown in the third quarter with a nine-point lead. A depleted Ohio State defense couldn't stop Clemson's big-play receivers, the coaches once again avoided running back Carlos Hyde in crunch time, and a banged-up Braxton Miller committed turnovers on Ohio State's final two possessions.

Injuries and personnel issues were a theme throughout the Big Ten during the bowl season. Wisconsin and Iowa saw their starting quarterbacks hurt during games, while Michigan's top signal-caller, Devin Gardner, showed up in Arizona on crutches and didn't play in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Michigan State overcame the loss of starting middle linebacker and co-captain Max Bullough, as Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris filled in well. Ohio State played without top cornerback Bradley Roby (injury) and top pass-rusher Noah Spence (suspension).

A little more offense could have put Iowa and Minnesota over the top in their bowl games. Minnesota didn't reach the end zone for three quarters in the Texas Bowl, eventually falling 21-17 to a mediocre Syracuse team. Iowa's only touchdowns came on drives of 1 and 4 yards, as the Hawkeyes had just 11 first downs and 233 total yards against LSU.

It wouldn't have taken much for the Big Ten to post a winning record in the bowls. The league had only one non-competitive performance, coming from Michigan in the Wings Bowl, as the Wolverines ended a disappointing season on a down note. The defense never gave first-time starting quarterback Shane Morris much of a chance, allowing touchdowns on Kansas State's first three possessions. Morris held his own but Michigan didn't reach the end zone until the 58th minute in what proved to be the final game for beleaguered offensive coordinator Al Borges.

Nebraska started New Year's Day on a good note as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa triggered the win with a 99-yard touchdown reception, while defensive linemen Jason Ankrah, Randy Gregory and Thad Randle limited Georgia's offense. Michigan State capped the afternoon by rallying past Stanford behind a suffocating defense and quarterback Connor Cook, who collected another postseason MVP honor and his second straight 300-yard passing performance.

The Spartans boost hope for the future after another Big Ten postseason rife with missed opportunities. The league has another team capable of competing for a national championship.

The playoff arrives in 2014, along with a more palatable Big Ten bowl lineup and most likely more bowl-eligible teams. The Big Ten took a small step in the postseason after a historically bad 2012 campaign, but more progress must be made for the rest of college football to start tipping its cap.

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