NCF Nation: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Ranking the Big Ten coaching jobs

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
11:48
AM ET
ESPN.com this week ranked the Power 5 college football coaching jobs, from No. 1 to 65. While those national takes on the Big Ten hit the mark, we'll offer a few minor changes in our Big Ten rankings, No. 1 through 14, of the league seats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14. Purdue
Purdue is Indiana without the added benefit of Bloomington, a great college town. Ross-Ade Stadium could use a face-lift, and West Lafayette lacks the charm of other campuses in the conference.
The ceaseless debate over conference strength waged here and in other forums ultimately centers on one question: How many teams in League X are capable of winning a national championship in Season Y?

The Big Ten entered the 2014 season with what many believed were two capable candidates: Michigan State and Ohio State. Although Wisconsin and Nebraska also appeared in the preseason Top 25 polls, the Badgers and Huskers were fringe contenders to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff.

It turned out both Michigan State and Ohio State were worthy of contender status. Ohio State won the national title; Michigan State won the Cotton Bowl and recorded its second consecutive top-5 finish.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer and Ezekiel Elliott
Darren Carroll for ESPNBig seasons by Ohio State and Michigan State brought respect to the Big Ten, but the conference needs more than two teams capable of winning the national championship.
No single accomplishment helps conference perception like a national title. After all the mud slung the Big Ten's way for the better part of a decade, Ohio State showed that the laughed-at league was, in fact, capable of having the last laugh. There is a residual from ending the season with the shiny trophy, and the Big Ten is enjoying one right now.

But how long does it last?

Some will say the good vibes ended today as colleague Mark Schlabach produced his latest way-too-early Top 25 for the 2015 season. Ohio State leads off at No. 1, and Michigan State appears at No. 7. Only one other Big Ten team makes the rundown: Wisconsin at No. 17.

Schlabach's Top 25 includes four SEC teams in the top-14 and eight overall. The Pac-12 has three teams in the top nine and five in the top 20. Even the ACC has more Top 25 teams (four) than the Big Ten.

Longtime Big Ten blog readers know how much I love to needle Schlabach for his regional, uh, preferences. The memory of him shivering outside Spartan Stadium on a balmy 42-degree October day a few years back warms my heart. Thin Southern blood, y'all.

But I have no problem with his rankings. The Big Ten remains a top-heavy league looking to build sustained depth. Schlabach's list isn't dramatically different from where the preseason polls had the Big Ten in August.

Ohio State should be No. 1 after its dominant Playoff performance and with possibly an even better team coming back. Michigan State's march into the national elite, along with the return of quarterback Connor Cook, merits a place in the top-8. Wisconsin's run of very good, not quite great, has withstood one shocking coaching change. It can withstand another, especially with a coach (Paul Chryst) who knows the landscape and can fix the program's primary hindrance (the passing game).

After those three teams, though, I can't make a strong case for more Big Ten Top 25 representation.

Minnesota is on the borderline. The defense once again should be solid, possibly more than solid. But the passing game remains a huge unknown, especially with tight end Maxx Williams gone. The Gophers have taken significant steps under Jerry Kill, but of their 16 wins the past two seasons, only five came against teams that finished with winning records. They also have yet to win a bowl game under Kill. There is more to prove.

This is the point where Nebraska fans have to catch their breath after screaming, "What about us?!" There are things to like about the Huskers' roster, as well as Mike Riley's ability to develop quarterbacks and wide receivers. But Nebraska lost its best offensive player (Ameer Abdullah) and best defender (Randy Gregory). Add in a coaching change and this isn't a Top 25 team -- yet.

Neither is Penn State, although if the Lions can figure out how to keep quarterback Christian Hackenberg upright, they could soon enter the national rankings.

So what does this mean for the Big Ten? The league is no longer the scourge of college football. Ohio State and Michigan State are considered elite programs by anyone who matters. But league-wide respect likely remains in short supply.

It goes back to the central question: How many Big Ten teams are capable of winning it all in a given season?

Ohio State should be capable every year under Urban Meyer. Michigan State should be in most years under Mark Dantonio. Wisconsin could rise to that level, but hasn't quite gotten there in recent years. Penn State and Nebraska? History is on their side and both programs are recruiting well, but both must clear some hurdles. Kirk Ferentz's Iowa teams have shown elite-level capability at times, but the program needs to regain momentum.

Few doubt Michigan's capability as a championship contender. The history and resources are there, and Michigan seemingly has the the coach in Jim Harbaugh to facilitate a rise. But the Wolverines haven't been a national player since the 2006 season. Opposing coaches are conflicted about how much talent is in the program right now. Is Michigan fast-track-able? We'll soon find out.

TCU showed last season that a team nowhere near the Playoff radar in August can be in the mix for a spot in early December. Does the Big Ten have such a team in 2015?

Winning a national title was huge for this league, but the macro challenge hasn't changed. The Big Ten needs more Playoff-worthy depth so the league isn't pinning its hopes on one or two teams every year. The SEC pulled off its historic run with four different championship teams, and several others with win-it-all capability.

An Ohio State title defense in 2015 will resonate much more for the Buckeyes than the Big Ten. Ohio State fans might disagree, but the Big Ten's path to national respect isn't simply the I-270 "Outerbelt" that circles Columbus.

The route must include other cities in other states and ultimately lead back to Glendale, Arizona, where college football's next national champion will be crowned.
Signing day is less than 48 hours away. While you breathlessly await your team's official unveiling of its class and chew your fingernails over late decisions, a great debate continues over whether recruiting rankings really tell us anything.

For a little more enlightenment, we decided to look at this year's first-team All-Big Ten honorees to see where each player ranked as a prospect. Any player on offense or defense who made either the coaches' first team or was a first-team pick by the media was categorized through their ESPN Recruiting rankings (we'll save kicker prospect rankings for another conversation).

Here's what we found:

Five-star recruits

None

Four-star recruits (7)
Three-star recruits (14)
Two-star recruits (2)
Not ranked (3)

* -- junior college recruits

Three-star recruits typically don't generate a lot of hype on signing day, but that's where the bulk of the Big Ten's top performers checked in out of high school. That includes 2014 Big Ten offensive player of the year and Doak Walker Award winner Gordon; Big Ten offensive lineman of the year and Outland Trophy winner Scherff; Coleman, who also rushed for 2,000 yards; Big Ten receiver of the year Lippett; Big Ten linebacker of the year Hull; Big Ten defensive back of the year Drummond; a possible first-round pick in Waynes; 2013 Big Ten defensive lineman of the year Calhoun.

Seven four-star prospects more than lived up to their rankings, especially Barrett, Bosa and Zettel in the 2014 season. But there were almost as many two-star and not-ranked prospects as there were four-star recruits on the All-Big Ten first team. Not surprisingly, Wisconsin and Minnesota were able to unearth those diamonds in the rough.

The All-Big Ten second teams are another eclectic mix. They include four-star prospects who fulfilled their promise such as Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett, Maryland receiver Stefon Diggs and Wisconsin center Dan Voltz. There are also a whole bunch of three-star guys who more than reached their potential, like Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, Minnesota running back David Cobb, Ohio State offensive tackle Taylor Decker. Then there are the true overachievers, with two-star prospects like Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Northwestern's Nick VanHoose, and guys who were almost completely overlooked in Michigan State left tackle Jack Conklin and Minnesota defensive back Eric Murray.

The lesson here? Nothing is really guaranteed in recruiting rankings. While you may be focusing on the four- and five-star guys on Wednesday with good reason, sometimes the two- and three-star prospects become the ones you really have to watch on Saturdays.
New Year's Day and national signing day used to be the two most disheartening days on the Big Ten football calendar.

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

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

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

Two things to note:

1. Recruiting rankings are inherently subjective

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

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

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

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

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

How realistic is that goal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Ten changed its fortunes on New Year's Day. National signing day looms, and league should gain a greater share of the spotlight, providing a springboard to the offseason.
This week, we're examining a potential problem position for each Big Ten team, and what needs to get fixed in the coming months. These positions could be going through major personnel changes or simply in need of a performance upgrade from the existing players or the incoming recruits/transfers.

Up next, Minnesota.

Problem position: Wide receivers

Why wide receiver was a problem in 2014: The Gophers rarely passed the football -- remember the seven attempts against San Jose State in Week 4? -- and when they did, quarterback Mitch Leidner looked for tight end Maxx Williams. Mad Maxx had twice as many receptions (36) as any wide receiver. Minnesota had high hopes for young wideouts Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones entering the season, but injury and other factors limited them to a combined 19 catches for 359 yards.

How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Wolitarsky showed promise as a freshman in 2013 and, if healthy, should take on a much bigger role in 2015. He missed the stretch run with a high ankle sprain. KJ Maye brings speed and experience to the field. Beyond those two, things are slim as Jones was dismissed from the team in December and Isaac Fruechte completed his eligibility. The coaches like Isaiah Gentry, whose 6-foot-4 frame could help on the perimeter. Minnesota needs Gentry and other young wideouts -- Eric Carter, Desmond Gant, Melvin Holland Jr. -- to grow up fast.

How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): The Gophers recently added two receivers from far-flung locations in Hunter Register (Louisiana) and Rashad Still (Texas). Minnesota went heavier on wide receivers in the 2014 class and will lean more on those recruits, especially after Jones' unexpected departure.

Early 2015 outlook: The good news: Minnesota doesn't use many wide receivers on offense. The bad news: finding more than two capable options could be a challenge. Minnesota simply lacks depth here, and with Williams leaving early for the NFL, the pass-catching void is even bigger. Wolitarsky must get healthy and emerge as a top option alongside Maye. But the development of other players will be critical to balance out a strong run game. This isn't a new problem for Minnesota, but it must be solved.
They didn't sneak up on us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let's take a quick look back:

Act 1: Fear Ameer

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

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

Act 2: Melvin makes his move

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

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

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

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

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

Act 4: What about the other guys?

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

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

Act 5: Gordon's Heisman move

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

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

Act 6: Riding the E Train to a championship

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

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

The final carry for a Big Ten back this season: Elliott's 1-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds to play, providing a fitting exclamation point.
To quote the band Europe, we're in the final countdown. Our list of the best Big Ten players from the 2014 season has reached the top 10. This next group reflects the league's strongest position (by far): running back.

Let's get to it.

No. 6: Ameer Abdullah, RB Nebraska

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

No. 7: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State

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

No. 8: Anthony Zettel, DT, Penn State

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

No. 9: David Cobb, RB, Minnesota

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

No. 10: Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State

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

Big Ten all-bowl team

January, 16, 2015
Jan 16
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The Big Ten played in 10 bowl games -- 11 if you count the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T. We've come up with our list of the league's best postseason performers. The strategy here was as follows: When in doubt, choose a Buckeye. There is lots of scarlet and gray on our Big Ten all-bowl team, as you'd expect. Here it is:

Offense

QB: Christian Hackenberg, Penn State: Bouncing back from an at times rough sophomore season, Hackenberg reminded everyone of his talent in his team's 31-30 New Era Pinstripe Bowl win over Boston College. He threw for 371 yards and a season-high four touchdowns with no interceptions.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesOhio State running back Ezekiel Elliott left defenders grasping at air this postseason.
RB: Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State: The offensive MVP of both the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the national championship game, Elliott blossomed into a superstar this postseason. He ran for 476 yards and six touchdowns in the two playoff wins, including a four-touchdown night against Oregon.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: The Badgers star capped his career in style, by running for 251 yards and three touchdowns in Wisconsin's Outback Bowl win over Auburn. Gordon finished the season with 2,587 rushing yards, the second most in FBS history.

WR: Devin Smith, Ohio State: The Buckeyes' big-play threat became even more dangerous with Cardale Jones slinging it to him in the postseason. He had two catches for 87 yards and a score against Alabama and one for 45 yards against Oregon, but defenses always had to account for Smith.

WR: Chris Godwin, Penn State: The Nittany Lions freshman had 198 total receiving yards on the season before he caught seven balls for 140 yards and a touchdown in the win over Boston College.

TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota: Williams had seven receptions for 98 yards and a score in his team's Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl loss to Missouri. His hurdle over a Tigers defensive back en route to a 54-yard score was one of the best plays of bowl season.

OL: Taylor Decker, Ohio State: The Buckeyes dominated the line of scrimmage against Alabama and Oregon, and their junior left tackle was a huge reason for that.

OL: Pat Elflein, Ohio State: Elflein was terrific from his guard position, as the Buckeyes were able to run the ball extremely well in both playoff games.

OL: Kodi Kieler, Michigan State: Thrust into the starting lineup at right tackle due to an injury, Kieler graded out as the Spartans' top offensive linemen in their 42-41 Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic win over Baylor. His hustle on a Baylor interception drew a penalty that might have saved the game.

OL: Jack Allen, Michigan State: The center and leader of the Spartans' line helped pave room for 552 yards and 29 first downs against Baylor.

OL: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: The Badgers ran for 400 yards against Auburn, and Costigan helped lead the way.

Defense

DL: Joey Bosa, Ohio State
DL: Michael Bennett, Ohio State
DL: Adolphus Washington, Ohio State

Yep, we've got three Buckeyes here (and you could make a case for Steve Miller, who had a pick-six versus Alabama). The Ohio State defensive line was great in both playoff games at both holding up against the run and generating pressure on the quarterback, and the starters proved to be iron men in both games.

DL: Anthony Zettel, Penn State: Zettel had a pair of tackles for loss against Boston College to finish his spectacular season at defensive tackle for the Nittany Lions.

LB: Darron Lee, Ohio State: The defensive MVP of the Sugar Bowl became a household name this January. Only a redshirt freshman, Lee could terrorize Big Ten offenses for a long time.

LB: Curtis Grant, Ohio State: Yet another Buckeyes defender. Grant led the team in tackles in the Sugar Bowl and was strong from his middle linebacker position when it mattered most.

LB: Joe Schobert, Wisconsin: Schobert collected three tackles for loss in Wisconsin's win over Auburn.

CB: Doran Grant, Ohio State: He corralled Alabama stud receiver Amari Cooper in the Sugar Bowl and held Cooper to his second-lowest yardage total against an FBS team this season.

CB: Jordan Lucas, Penn State: Boston College passed for only 97 yards on 20 attempts versus the Nittany Lions. Lucas also added seven tackles and a sack in the victory.

S: Vonn Bell, Ohio State: Hey, look, another Buckeye. Bell added to Ohio State's outstanding defensive effort from his safety position by grabbing an interception against Alabama and collecting 14 tackles in the two playoff games.

S: Lorenzo Waters, Rutgers: He was a busy man in his team's 40-21 Quick Lane Bowl win over North Carolina, with 14 tackles, two fumble recoveries and a blocked field goal.

Specialists

K: Rafael Gaglianone, Wisconsin: The Brazilian freshman kicked a 29-yard field goal with seven seconds left to send the game against Auburn into overtime, and he won it with a 25-yarder in the first extra period.

P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State: He averaged 46.5 yards on six punts against Alabama and 42 yards on three attempts against Oregon.

KR: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: In his final game with the Huskers, Abdullah returned three kicks for 120 yards, including a 49-yarder, in Nebraska's 45-42 National University Holiday Bowl loss to USC.

Overreacting in the Big Ten

January, 15, 2015
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We live in an instant reaction society, in which every development is immediately dissected and analyzed for all it's worth. Often, in this hyperbolic chamber, our first reactions turn out to be overreactions.

That's especially true in football, where a small number of games combines with outsized interest to make everything seem a little more monumental than it probably is. Here are some of the top overreactions from the Big Ten in the 2014 season:

Aug. 19: Ohio State is doomed without Braxton Miller!

What happened: Two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year Miller was ruled out for the season due to a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.

Overreaction: People began heaping dirt on the Buckeyes' season. Overnight, Ohio State went from league favorite to giant question mark, especially as it turned to a virtually unknown redshirt freshman quarterback with no experience. The entire Big Ten would suffer as a result too.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Barrett
Khris Hale/Icon SportswireAs with Braxton Miller before him, Ohio State's demise was predicted following an injury to J.T. Barrett.
Reality: J.T. Barrett finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting and won the league's Big Ten quarterback of the year award while breaking a pile of school records. The Buckeyes did not lose a Big Ten game and merely won the national title.

Sept. 6: The Big Ten's playoff hopes are dead!

What happened: Michigan State lost by 19 points at Oregon. Ohio State lost at home by two touchdowns to Virginia Tech. Michigan got embarrassed at Notre Dame.

Overreaction: The Week 2 primetime meltdown ended the playoff possibilities for the Big Ten. The league wouldn't have enough opportunities to change public perception, and even with 10 games left in the regular season, the chance of a Big Ten team in the four-team field was slim.

Reality: The negativity was understandable, given the blowout nature of the losses and the conference's recent history in big games. Heck, many of us here in this blog thought the Big Ten was toast, save for lone optimist Austin Ward. But the losses came early enough in the season for the league to bounce back, and things happened elsewhere to help out the Big Ten's cause. Except for Michigan. That was a lost cause.

Nov. 8: Michigan State's time is over!

What happened: Ohio State ran all over the Spartans 49-37 in a showdown in East Lansing and handed Michigan State its second double-digit loss of the year.

Overreaction: The Spartans' Rose Bowl championship and Big Ten title from the season before were a one-year wonder. The downturn was beginning for Mark Dantonio's program.

Reality: Those two losses don't look so bad in retrospect, as they came to the two teams that played for the national title. The Spartans didn't lose to anyone else and beat Baylor in the Cotton Bowl to cement a top-5 finish in back-to-back years for the first time since the mid-1960s. Only a handful of teams have had as much success the past five years as Michigan State, which is in great shape to maintain its newfound elite status.

Nov. 29: Ohio State is doomed without J.T. Barrett!

What happened: Barrett fractured his ankle in the season finale against Michigan, which left him unavailable for the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin or any postseason game.

Overreaction: If the Miller injury didn't kill Ohio State's chances, then surely this one did. There was no way the Buckeyes could turn to third-string quarterback Cardale Jones and get him ready in one week for Wisconsin's fearsome defense. The Buckeyes were made an underdog in the Big Ten championship game.

Reality: Jones threw for 257 yards and three touchdowns in a 59-0 stomping of the Badgers. He'd go on to defeat Alabama and Oregon in his next two starts.

By now, you'd think we'd know not to doubt Meyer's ability to develop quarterbacks. And given those silly jumps to conclusions, we'll all have learned our lessons about overreacting to news in 2015, right?

Highly doubtful. Here are a a few likely overreactions you'll see this season:

Ohio State's quarterback logjam will be a distraction! Sure, if everybody stays in place, the Buckeyes will have a stuffed stable of quarterbacks, with Miller, Barrett and Jones. But remember that two of them are currently injured, they all love the school, and nothing is guaranteed. Plus, Meyer and his staff are smart enough to figure it out.

Jim Harbaugh's arrival means the return of the Big 2 with Michigan and Ohio State! Yeah, remember when Brady Hoke's early success portended an era in which Michigan and Ohio State would leave the rest of the league behind? Harbaugh will be great, but he's going to need some time to get the Wolverines fixed. Although the Buckeyes are zooming onward and upward, Michigan State and Wisconsin are established, excellent programs, and others such as Nebraska, Penn State and Minnesota aren't far behind. Speaking of the Gophers ...

Minnesota was a fluke! Jerry Kill's team didn't get much credit at all for its eight-win season in 2013 and probably won't be valued highly after an even more impressive eight-win team in 2014. People who just look at stats and returning starters might not be impressed by the Gophers and their sometimes low-wattage offense. But this team is legit and only going to get better under Kill and his staff.

Top early enrollees: Big Ten 

January, 14, 2015
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The Big Ten has quite a few prospects enrolling in January, which means there is potential for those prospects to get a head start on their college careers. With every team looking to fill holes and add depth, here is a look at the five most important early enrollees within the conference.

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- When Minnesota's Jerry Kill, Maryland's Randy Edsall, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald and Purdue's Darrell Hazell exited the head coaches' convention meeting Tuesday morning, they didn't spell out O-H-I-O.

But all four Big Ten coaches were pleased that Ohio State won the national championship on Monday night, ending the league's 12-year drought since last reaching college football's pinnacle. Unlike many fans, the coaches don't get wrapped up in the endless debate about conference strength, but they don't tune it out, either. They can't.

"It's great for the Big Ten," Kill told ESPN.com. "There's no question about that."

Added Edsall: "It probably eliminates that negative talk about the Big Ten and all those things. It's nice to have one of your conference members win the national championship."

The Big Ten's hubris will never match that of the SEC, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. As one Big Ten assistant joked Monday afternoon about the title game, "You hold your nose and root for Ohio State."

But conference pride exists, and to have the nation's best team shines a positive light on the Big Ten, which has been bashed for the better part of the past decade.

"To play 15 games and to be an on-the-field champion, just ecstatic for those guys, first and foremost," Fitzgerald said of Ohio State. "It also shows that anybody can win, to go play it on the field. You have to go play a competitive schedule but most importantly, you have to win. Everybody's in control of that."

Ohio State's championship isn't just a point of pride for other Big Ten teams, but an inspiration. An Indiana assistant told ESPN.com on Monday that he couldn't believe how much Ohio State had improved late in the season. (Indiana held a third-quarter lead in Ohio Stadium on Nov. 22.)

As Hazell watched the championship game in his hotel room, his thoughts turned to his own team, which was coming off another subpar season.

"It makes you hungry," said Hazell, an Ohio State assistant from 2004-10. "I took it all in. It was a quiet moment, but I sat up in the bed and I watched it by myself and thought, 'These are the things we have to do to move our program forward.'"

Northwestern has endured consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 2001-02, and Fitzgerald hoped that Wildcats players watched the title game and saw how Ohio State, written off in the playoff race early this season, had earned its way onto the sport's biggest stage.

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has made "The Chase" a theme for his players as they pursue goals. But after Monday night, the Buckeyes have become the hunted.

"Obviously, they're the team to chase," Hazell said. "It's a credit to their staff, their recruiting department. They're out there now. They are really out there."

The rest of the Big Ten is trying to catch Ohio State. And for the first time since 2003, so is the rest of the country.

Brian Bennett contributed to this report.

Final 2014 Big Ten Power Rankings

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

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

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

 
Underclassmen still have until Jan. 15 to decide whether to declare for the NFL draft. But, in the meantime, we decided to take a look at those who already made their decisions public.

Here are the 11 Big Ten players (listed alphabetically) leaving early, their draft rankings and who's in line to replace them:

Penn State DE Deion Barnes, 6-foot-4, 255 pounds

2014 stats: 44 tackles, 12.5 tackles-for-loss, 6 sacks, 3 QB hurries

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: N/A

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: N/A. There are not yet any ESPN grades on him, but he’s not believed to be a top-10 defensive end. One NFL.com contributor said he could go “as early as the second day of the draft” – if he impresses at pro day or the combine.

Who’s taking over: With DE C.J. Olaniyan also entering the draft, Penn State will likely fill one spot with Garrett Sickels. The other? Former walk-on Carl Nassib and freshman Torrence Brown are the most likely candidates at this point.




Indiana RB Tevin Coleman, 6-foot, 210 pounds

2014 stats: 270 carries, 2,036 rushing yards, 7.5 ypc, 15 TDs; 25 catches, 141 yards

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 36. “Runs hard and doesn’t shy away from contact along sidelines. … Rarely tackled for loss thanks in large part to burst.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 3.

Who’s taking over: Former UAB running back Jordan Howard recently decided to transfer to Indiana, in part because of Coleman’s decision to declare early. He’ll likely be the starter. He rushed for 1,587 yards as a sophomore in 2014.




Maryland WR Stefon Diggs, 6-foot, 195 pounds

2014 stats: 62 catches, 792 yards, 5 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 78. “Zone buster that locates pockets underneath and uses speed to attack seams downfield. … Good focus and catches ball in stride.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 15.

Who’s taking over: With the graduation of Deon Long, Marcus Leak and Jacquille Veii are in line to be the top-two wideouts. The pair also could be challenged by younger players such as Levern Jacobs, Taivon Jacobs and Juwann Winfree.




Michigan WR Devin Funchess, 6-5, 235 pounds

2014 stats: 62 catches, 733 yards, 4 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 20. “Quick enough to separate from most linebackers and some safeties. ... Can extend and catch away from frame.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 4.

Who’s taking over: Amara Darboh is the obvious candidate here, since his number was most often called in Funchess’ absence. He was second in both catches (36) and yards (473).




Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon, 6-1, 207 pounds

2014 stats: 343 carries, 2,587 yards, 29 TDs, 7.5 ypc; 19 catches, 153 yards, 3 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 16. “Fearless runner that doesn’t gear down or brace for contact. … Anticipation isn’t outstanding and misses occasional seam, but that is an exception … Violent jump cuts.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 1.

Who’s taking over: Corey Clement saw considerable time the past two seasons, so he’ll be taking over as the main ball-carrier. He finished 2014 with 949 yards and 9 TDs.




Nebraska DE Randy Gregory, 6-6, 245 pounds

2014 stats: 54 tackles, 10 tackles-for-loss, 7 sacks, 16 QB hurries, 2 blocked kicks

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 5. “Above average first-step quickness, adequate bend and above average closing speed. … Best fit is 3-4 OLB … Can line up at 4-3 RDE but ideally he would add weight and get stronger first.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 3.

Who’s taking over: Former walk-on Jack Gangwish started when Gregory was injured this season, and he’ll be a senior next year. Gangwish finished with 19 tackles and four tackles-for-loss in 2014.




Rutgers TE Tyler Kroft, 6-6, 240 pounds

2014 stats: 24 catches, 269 yards, 0 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: N/A

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: N/A. Mel Kiper listed him as the fifth-best tight end prospect in October, but Kroft does not yet have a new draft grade/ranking.

Who’s taking over: Nick Arcidiacono and Matt Flanagan both played behind Kroft in 2014, so they’re next in line. Flanagan played in nine games; Arcidiacono played in 10 (and started one). They finished with just one catch apiece.




Penn State OT Donovan Smith, 6-5, 340 pounds

2014 stats: 11 starts at left tackle

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: N/A. No ESPN grades/ranks yet on Smith here, but OurLads.com’s Dan Shonka recently told us Smith would likely be a late third- or fourth-rounder.

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: N/A.

Who’s taking over: Right tackle Andrew Nelson could move over to left, meaning that junior-college signee Paris Palmer – the nation’s No. 25 overall juco player – would become the new starter on the line.




Ohio State DE Noah Spence, 6-3, 250 pounds

2014 stats: Did not play. He was suspended indefinitely after failing another drug test in September; his appeal was denied in November.

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 92. No scouting report is available, but he’s listed as an outside linebacker for the NFL draft.

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 6 (at outside linebacker).

Who’s taking over: Well, in this case, someone already took over – and that’s senior Steve Miller. So far, he has 33 tackles and 6.5 tackles-for-loss this season. But he’ll be most remembered for a pick-6 against Alabama.




Michigan State CB Trae Waynes, 6-1, 182 pounds

2014 stats: 46 tackles, 2 tackles-for-loss, 3 interceptions, 8 pass breakups, 11 deflections

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: No. 22. “Above average field awareness. Shows strong eyes in zone coverage. … Above-average fluidity and balance with movement skills.”

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: No. 1.

Who’s taking over: Safety Demetrious Cox could move to cornerback, or the position could be filled by Jermaine Edmondson, who backed up Waynes this past season. (Darian Hicks will likely reclaim his old spot at field corner.)




Minnesota TE Maxx Williams, 6-4, 250 pounds

2014 stats: 36 catches, 569 yards, 8 TDs

ESPN.com Draft Overall Rank: N/A. As a redshirt sophomore who recently declared, there are not yet any ESPN grades/rankings on him – but he’s right outside the top-32 overall players on at least one other analyst’s big board.

ESPN.com Draft Position Rank: N/A.

Who’s taking over: With the departure of fellow TE Drew Goodger, mostly a blocker, there’ll be several new faces vying for time. Lincoln Plsek played in every game and saw the most time this season while Duke Anyanwu, who missed the year with a torn ACL, could challenge for a spot. Brandon Lingen, Nick Hart and Nate Wozniak also could factor in.
Most see New Year's Day as a new beginning, a clean slate, a time where the present decleats the past like Tony Lippett decleated poor Chris Callahan in the Cotton Bowl (it's OK, the Baylor kicker is alive). Big Ten fans are no different, but for them, New Year's Day had become Groundhog Day -- and not in a good way.

Remember when Bill Murray, in the 1993 movie "Groundhog Day," kept finding creative ways to kill himself because he knew he'd have another chance in the morning? My favorite: when Phil (the man) kidnaps Phil (the groundhog) in a pickup truck and drives into a quarry. The day's master of ceremonies, Buster, tells the cop who's trying to stop him: "If you gotta shoot, aim high. I don't wanna hit the groundhog."

Words to live by.

[+] EnlargeOhio State celebration
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesOhio State's victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl capped a banner New Year's Day for the Big Ten.
As Phil (the man) said: "I've killed myself so many times, I don't even exist anymore."

That had been the Big Ten on New Year's Day -- different and occasionally entertaining methods of failure ending with the same morbid result, followed by the familiar onslaught of national criticism. If Big Ten fans wanted to spend Jan. 1 away from televisions, computers, cell phones and stadiums just to escape the inevitable, who could blame them?

New Year's Day 2011 is one that will live in Big Ten infamy, as the league went 0-5 in bowls. Things didn't improve much, as the Big Ten went 4-10 on the next three New Year's days. (The 2012 games were played on Jan. 2 because of the NFL playoffs.)

Most Big Ten fans can't stand the way the league clusters most of its major bowl games on New Year's Day -- except for the Rose Bowl, of course. Their complaint makes sense, as it's hard to track all of the teams at once. The method becomes more maddening when every Big Ten team loses, turning New Year's Day into a national showcase of Big Ten ineptitude.

The conference appeared headed toward another New Year's downer last week. Wisconsin saw a late lead disappear against Auburn, Michigan State was getting pummeled by Baylor and Minnesota couldn't get out of its own way against Missouri. Ohio State was playing Alabama in a College Football Playoff semifinal that night at the Allstate Sugar Bowl, but the Buckeyes, starting a third-string quarterback against the mighty Tide defense, were a long shot to advance.

Another Big Ten New Year's oh-fer seemed imminent, complete with another reminder from the SEC that the Big Ten wasn't up to snuff with the top conferences. It's OK if you stopped watching.

But then quarterback Joel Stave got hot and Wisconsin sent the Outback Bowl to overtime, where it prevailed 34-31. Michigan State mounted one of the wildest comebacks in bowl history, erasing a 20-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 42-41.

Hours later, Ohio State beat Bama, piling up 42 points and 537 yards in a definitive victory that, despite ending just after midnight ET, still counts as part of the Big Ten's New Year's haul.

And what a haul it was. New Year's Day 2015 marked the Big Ten's best day in 4,382 days -- specifically, since Jan. 3, 2003, when Ohio State beat Miami to win the league's most recent national championship and its only title in the BCS era. The logjam of games fans gripe about suddenly wasn't so annoying.

Ohio State's victory carried the day because of who it came against and where it took place. Ultimately, the Big Ten needs a team to win a national title, but the Buckeyes' win against what most consider the nation's premier program in SEC territory will reverberate, regardless of what they do against Oregon a week from now.

Fairly or not, Wisconsin had become the epitome of Big Ten big-game futility in recent years. The Badgers dropped three straight Rose Bowls and last year's Capital One Bowl. They blew a big lead against LSU in this season's opener, and with an assist from Pac-12 officials, stumbled last fall at Arizona State. Badgers fans had seen the movie before, the one with underwhelming quarterback play and not quite enough speed, and braced for the familiar ending. But this time, Wisconsin came through to beat a talented Auburn squad.

A 10-win season -- Michigan State's fourth in the past five seasons -- is nothing to sneeze at, but the Spartans needed a signature victory to stamp the 2014 campaign as another success. They fell short of their preseason goals but recorded their team-record fourth consecutive bowl win. Now that Jim Harbaugh is at Michigan, you'll hear a lot about how the Big Two -- Michigan and Ohio State -- will lord over the league again. It's a lazy theory. Mark Dantonio and his Spartans aren't going anywhere, as the bowl win reminded everyone.

New Year's Day gave the league something it rarely has this time of year: momentum. The national media will never toast the Big Ten the way it does the SEC, but credit is being doled out, even from some reluctant sources.

There's also talk about the Big Ten's bright future, and rightfully so.

Regardless of what happens Jan. 12 at Jerry World, Ohio State should have a better team this coming season. Love him or hate him, Urban Meyer is the best thing that happened to the Big Ten.

Michigan State returns quarterback Connor Cook, a proven winner, and several other key pieces. Wisconsin rolls on with a new coach (Paul Chryst) who can fix an old problem (inconsistent quarterback play). Michigan hired the perfect coach to fast-track its comeback. Penn State, another Big Ten bowl winner, will improve as James Franklin injects more talent and depth into the roster.

Despite its bowl loss, Minnesota is ascending under Jerry Kill. If new Nebraska coach Mike Riley maximizes the talent on his roster, the Big Ten will have another team in the national discussion. The Big Ten's much-panned new additions, Rutgers and Maryland, don't look so bad after Year 1. Even Indiana got some good news on New Year's Day, as UAB standout running back Jordan Howard announced he would transfer to IU.

Groundhog Day is over for the Big Ten and its fans.

After seemingly a decade of cold, harsh, unrelenting winter, the sun is out in the heartland.

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