NCF Nation: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Big Ten bowl projections: Preseason

August, 28, 2014
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You saw our predictions on the conference standings. And our picks for Big Ten defensive player of the year, offensive player of the year, freshman of the year and coach of the year.

But perhaps the most important prediction -- and the one that could cause some more debate -- involves the bowl games. Instead of giving our individual picks for this, we combined our thoughts and butted heads to form a consensus.

We predicted that 10 of the Big Ten's 14 teams will make bowls this season, which isn't too shabby for the conference considering Penn State is still facing a postseason ban. So only Illinois, Purdue and Rutgers were left out in the cold.

Without further ado, here are our Big Ten bowl picks:

College Football Playoff semifinal: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton: Ohio State
Capital One: Iowa
Outback: Nebraska
National University Holiday Bowl: Wisconsin
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Michigan
San Francisco: Northwestern
New Era Pinstripe: Maryland
Quick Lane: Minnesota
Heart of Dallas: Indiana
Focus only on the position of choice and the conference looks the same as it ever did.

While quarterbacks across the nation are putting up crazy numbers like pinball machines and spread offenses are letting wide receivers run wild and rack up yardage, that tradition-loving, old-school Big Ten appears downright antiquated with its continued emphasis on running backs carrying the load.

But look closer.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cobb
AP Photo/Andy Clayton-KingMinnesota's David Cobb says every team in the Big Ten needs a good running back to win league games.
Sure, the league remains plenty happy to hand the football off and wait for the dirt to start flying. But the days of expecting 3 yards a pop are long gone, replaced with an expectation now that a featured rusher better be close to doubling that. And instead of a cloud of dust, there had better be a trail of it if a Big Ten tailback is going to keep his job for long.

The evolution of offenses may not have done much to change the face of the most productive players in the conference. But when there are so many game-breakers in Big Ten backfields, there's really not much incentive to shift the focus away from them in the first place.

"This a running back-heavy league, and you need a good running back, an every-down back to get through the Big Ten," Minnesota senior David Cobb said. "And in this league, there's a good running back on every team."

The conference has never really been in short supply of rushers, but the ground game looks particularly fertile this season with so many talented tailbacks returning as the focal point on offense.

The conversation about the league's best typically revolves around Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, the top two returners in the league and the odds-on favorites to claim offensive player of the year honors while leading teams aiming for the conference title. They're also close friends who admit to some good-natured trash talk that comes from paying attention to the league's yardage leader board, but both know it might not be safe to just measure themselves against each other this fall.

Michigan State's Jeremy Langford somehow largely flew under the radar last season despite piling up more than 1,400 yards and leading the Big Ten in rushing touchdowns with 18.

Cobb will be getting no shortage of carries in Minnesota's power rushing attack, and indications out of training camp suggest he's even better than he was while gaining 1,202 yards as a junior.

Despite playing in a spread system, Indiana's Tevin Coleman offered a reminder of the importance of balancing out a passing attack with a productive rusher, with his explosiveness in averaging more than 7 yards per carry driving the point home. Josh Ferguson does the same for Illinois, complementing his 5.5 yards per carry with 50 receptions for 535 yards and 4 touchdowns as a target in the passing game. Iowa's Mark Weisman came up just short of the 1,000-yard milestone last year, but he's playing behind perhaps the best set of blockers in the conference this fall and should be poised to capitalize on those huge holes opened by left tackle Brandon Scherff and his buddies.

Even at schools with unsettled depth charts at the top there's little reason to panic. Carlos Hyde is gone at Ohio State, but it has a stable loaded with both veterans like Rod Smith and youngsters like presumptive starter Ezekiel Elliott poised to take over. Michigan struggled to move the football on the ground a year ago, but Derrick Green looks ready to live up to his billing as one of the top recruits in the 2013 class as he moves into a likely starting role.

And if all that depth makes winning the rushing crown a bit tougher this fall for Gordon or Abdullah, they certainly aren't worried about a little competition. In the Big Ten, that's long been a source of pride.

"Definitely, you can look at every team," Abdullah said. "You just go down the line, and the running back position in this league is really deep. It's going to be good competition for this year statistically. I feel like it gets overshadowed a little bit. You throw in T.J. Yeldon [at Alabama], [Georgia's Todd] Gurley, guys who play for those SEC teams or maybe the Pac-12 guys and we get overshadowed a little bit. But all we can do is show up to work every Saturday and prove our case."

Abdullah and Gordon are expected to build the strongest of them, and they may emerge as the Big Ten's best hopes for a Heisman Trophy now that Braxton Miller is out of the picture with a season-ending shoulder surgery.

But even if the Ohio State senior had been around this season, the quarterback might have had a hard time stealing some attention during what's shaping up as a callback to the league's tradition with one more Year of the Running Back.

"The Big Ten, we're known for running the ball, and when you can take pressure off the quarterback by giving the rock to the running back, that's a good feeling," Gordon said. "And we've got a lot of good running backs in the Big Ten -- it's not just me and Ameer.

"I think there are some other guys that need some praise as well. There are some good backs we have in this conference, and they'll be heard sooner or later."

There's still plenty of opportunities to make a little noise as a tailback in the Big Ten. And the league has a long list of guys ready to make some racket.

Big Ten Week 1 predictions

August, 28, 2014
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Week 1 is finally here. While there aren't many marquee matchups in the opening weekend, there are a few that have our writers talking.

Game of the Week: Wisconsin vs. LSU

Our writers all picked LSU to beat Wisconsin, but some had a harder time with the pick than others.

Brian Bennett: Wisconsin has a real chance here at the upset. Week 1 is definitely the time to catch LSU this season, as the Tigers will be breaking in a slew of new players and have some major question marks at quarterback. Of course, you could say those same things about the Badgers, who will be counting on basically a brand-new defensive front seven, several unproven receivers and a new starting QB in Tanner McEvoy. Wisconsin's running game is the great equalizer, especially if that ground attack shortens the game and springs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement for big plays. Asking either side to play mistake-free is a bit much for an opener involving so many fresh faces. In the end, LSU has more explosiveness to overcome its errors and exploit Wisconsin's, so the Tigers win by a touchdown.

Austin Ward: Openers can be sloppy enough on their own, let alone debuts with uncertainty at quarterback and the expectation that two guys will be needed to fill that critical role. Both teams have some questions under center, but it seems much more dangerous to be unsettled and unproven when taking on a loaded defense such as LSU's. Wisconsin has running backs Gordon and Clement lining up behind a veteran offensive line to provide a rushing attack to lean on, but if it becomes a one-dimensional offense against the Tigers, aggressive defensive coordinator John Chavis will turn his athletic, physical unit loose and there will be no escape in Houston.

Majority opinion: Penn State over UCF
This was the only game our writers disagreed on. Austin Ward, Mitch Sherman and Adam Rittenberg liked the Nittany Lions, while Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer took the Knights.

Josh Moyer: The Nittany Lions have too many question marks -– and too much that still needs to improve -– to be favored right now. What’s Penn State’s main weakness? The offensive line. So what’s one thing it's going to count on to offset that? The passing game. Well, Central Florida’s secondary has a chance to be elite. And overall, UCF might boast the best defense in the AAC. On the other side of the ball, the Knights may be without quarterback Blake Bortles this season, but they still have a loaded receiving corps with J.J. Worton, Rannell Hall and Breshad Perriman. Penn State's secondary, especially the corner spot opposite Jordan Lucas, could struggle against this kind of offense. PSU hangs tough but falls in the end 28-20.

Adam Rittenberg: The oddities surrounding this game favor Penn State, which is tougher to prepare for with a new coaching staff. UCF's veteran defensive line and George O'Leary's play-calling prowess worry me, but I see PSU exploiting some matchup advantages (Jesse James vs. anybody) with a superior quarterback and hitting on some big plays. Expect improvement on Penn State's defense, which limits a UCF offense missing Bortles and Storm Johnson.

It's unanimous
Our writers agreed on the following:

Minnesota over Eastern Illinois
Washington State over Rutgers
Michigan State over Jacksonville State
Indiana over Indiana State
Iowa over Northern Iowa
Michigan over Appalachian State
Purdue over Western Michigan
Ohio State over Navy
Illinois over Youngstown State
Maryland over James Madison
Northwestern over Cal
Nebraska over FAU
LSU over Wisconsin

Mitch Sherman: Not much else of great intrigue on the opening-week schedule, but Ohio State-Navy is worth a look, with the attention swirling around the debut of Buckeyes freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Midshipmen are no pushover, but the Buckeyes own enough of an edge in athleticism to take care of business. Because of its strange offseason, Northwestern is interesting, even against Cal, which was dismal last season. And for entertainment value, Rutgers’ Big Ten debut Thursday night against Washington State may rank high. The Scarlet Knights need to limit the Cougars' possessions and get off the field on third down -- or watch Wazzu quarterback Connor Halliday light them up with 65 to 70 pass attempts.

Big Ten fearless predictions

August, 26, 2014
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With the season just days away, our Big Ten reporters offer up their bold predictions for the 2014 season:

Brian Bennett: Minnesota wins back a long-lost trophy
The Gophers have won the Little Brown Jug game against Michigan only once (2005) since 1986 and have lost 10 straight Paul Bunyan's Axe games to Wisconsin. Jerry Kill's team reverses one of those trends this season, even though both games are on the road. Watch out for the Sept. 27 game at the Big House in particular.

[+] EnlargeJesse James
MCT via Getty ImagesThanks to his freakish athletic ability and excellent opportunity, Penn State's Jesse James could be the Big Ten's best tight end this season.
Josh Moyer: Penn State's Jesse James earns All-B1G honors and is named conference tight end of the year
This is predicated on equal parts opportunity and ability. Michigan's Devin Funchess appears to be sticking outside, so that means the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year Award will be heading elsewhere this season. Tyler Kroft (Rutgers) has tougher defenses to deal with this season, Maxx Williams (Minnesota) has a quarterback more geared toward the run and Jeff Heuerman (Ohio State) is dealing with a rookie signal-caller. But James? Well, he has one of the Big Ten's best in Christian Hackenberg, who just so happens to be looking to replace the 97 catches from Allen Robinson, who was last year's Big Ten receiver of the year before heading to the NFL. James stands 6-foot-7, runs in the 4.6s and has been lauded for his hands. Put simply, he's a freak.

Adam Rittenberg: Tevin Coleman leads the Big Ten in rushing
Coleman isn’t part of the national discussion like fellow Big Ten backs Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah, but people will know his name come November. The Indiana junior is explosive like Gordon, averaging 7.3 yards per carry last season and tying for the national lead with eight rushes of 40 yards or more, while playing in only nine games. If Coleman can stay healthy, he will put up monster numbers playing behind of the nation’s most underrated lines. He might not win Big Ten offensive player of the year honors, but he’ll be the first IU player to lead the league in rushing since Vaughn Dunbar in 1991.

Mitch Sherman: Indiana is going to make it back to a bowl game
It’s been too rare an occasion in Bloomington for football season to extend into December. The Hoosiers’ 2007 visit to the Insight Bowl marks the program’s lone postseason appearance in the past two decades. Kevin Wilson’s club possesses plenty of firepower -- led by the dynamic trio of Coleman, Nate Sudfeld and Shane Wynn -- and just enough defense to forge a .500 record. It’s no simple task to find six wins on this schedule, but Indiana will sweep the Big Ten’s new duo and beat Purdue on Nov. 29 to secure that elusive bowl bid.

Austin Ward: Half the league will have a 3,000-yard quarterback
The Big Ten might be better known for its running backs, and it certainly has had some well-documented issues recently at the game’s most important position. Even a year ago only one passer in the conference topped 3,000 yards, and Nathan Scheelhaase isn't even in the Big Ten anymore. But passing games leaguewide are poised to make a big jump, starting with Scheelhaase’s replacement at Illinois, Wes Lunt, and including Penn State’s Hackenberg, Michigan’s Devin Gardner, Indiana’s Sudfeld and Michigan State’s Connor Cook. If Iowa’s Jake Rudock continues his improvement and J.T. Barrett keeps the Ohio State attack rolling in place of Braxton Miller, at least half the Big Ten could have passers hitting that yardage milestone.
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It's well known that Minnesota needs to make major improvements in its passing game this fall and that the Gophers' young receivers need to develop. Luckily, they had a chance to learn from one of the best in the business this summer.

NFL star wideout Larry Fitzgerald used Minnesota's facilities to train this offseason, as he has done for the past several years. The Arizona Cardinals' Pro Bowler was born and raised in Minneapolis and continues to call the area home.

Though he played at Pitt and not his home-state school, Fitzgerald has become an honorary Gopher. He first approached former Minnesota coach Tim Brewster about working out on campus about seven years ago.

"It's been a dream come true for me," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com.

Fitzgerald began working out with other Minnesota natives in the NFL, like tight end John Carlson and receiver Eric Decker. Over the years, he has expanded his crew by inviting more players to join him. Among the pro receivers who showed up in Minneapolis this summer were the Kansas City Chiefs' Dwayne Bowe, the Washington Redskins' Andre Roberts and Tiquan Underwood of the Carolina Panthers. Fitzgerald decided they needed an NFL quarterback to throw to them, so he called up Ryan Mallett of the New England Patriots.

"He’s created his own team," Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. "It’s kind of like the Larry Fitzgerald school. I think it’s neat that he does that, and that he happens to do it at our school."

Opening up their facilities to Fitzgerald and friends also brings benefits to the Gophers.

Sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner spent time this summer throwing alongside Mallett. Like the one-time Michigan Wolverines and current Tom Brady backup, Leidner is a tall quarterback with a big arm, but he needs work on the finer points of the position. Leidner said he learned a lot from Mallett and that the two watched film together deep into the night this summer.

"We hung out a lot and went and watched film. Everything," Mallett told ESPN.com. "[Leidner] has a live arm. He's one to look out for.

"He's still young, but he's smart, he studies the game and he loves the game."

 
Leidner also got to throw to Fitzgerald and the other NFL receivers, which he called an invaluable experience. Young Gophers wideouts like sophomore Donovahn Jones also rushed out to the practice fields to catch balls next to the stars.

"It was just a good experience to see how NFL receivers work and see how they run their routes," Jones said. "Larry taught me a few key pointers to help me get more separation in my routes. That will help me."

Minnesota defensive backs Cedric Thompson, Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray got to try to cover Fitzgerald & Co. a couple of times this summer.

"You could tell they’re professionals," Thompson said. "They’re running 18-yard digs, and in college, you usually only run 12-yard digs. But their 18-yard digs look like 12-yard digs because they’re so fast. It’s amazing. It’s another level.

Fitzgerald is there to get himself ready for the grind of an NFL season. But the potential future Hall of Famer, who turns 31 at the end of this month, also takes time to mentor the college guys.

"I like to think I have a positive influence," he said. "I remember when I was 18, 19, 20 years old, and my thought process was completely different than it is now.

"If they have questions for me, I try to answer them honestly. And they’ve all got my number if they want to talk to me during the season."

Though Fitzgerald didn't attend Minnesota, he has built close relationships with the program and follows the progress of the football team. He said he has great respect for Kill, whom he called "a tremendous man." He played golf with Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino this summer. He says he calls strength coach Eric Klein and assistant Chad Pearson throughout the year to catch up.

The Cardinals play an exhibition game against the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, and Fitzgerald said he's looking forward to reconnecting with everyone from the school.

The Gophers will welcome him back every summer for more training that benefits both him and their players.

"It certainly ain’t hurting any when people know Larry is doing his thing on our campus," Kill said.
 

» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC 

Previewing the 2014 season for the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

2013 overall record: 8-5 (4-4 Big Ten)

Key returnees: David Cobb, RB; Maxx Williams, TE; Theiren Cockran, DE; Mitch Leidner, QB; Josh Campion OT.

Key losses: Phillip Nelson, QB; Ra'Shede Hageman, DT; Brock Vereen, CB; Ed Olson, LT; Aaron Hill, LB.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cobb
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhDavid Cobb, who rushed for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns last season, returns to lead an improved Gophers' offense out of the backfield.
Instant impact newcomer: Melvin Holland Jr. wasn't technically the highest-rated recruit in Minnesota's 2014 signing class, but the four-star receiver looks like a smart bet to make his mark the quickest for the program this fall. The Gophers are still trying to build their passing attack and add weapons around Leidner, and Holland has already made a strong impression on teammates and coaches with his quick adjustment to the college game and a 6-foot-3 frame that could make him an intriguing target.

Projected starters

Offense: QB: Mitch Leidner, So., 6-4, 237; RB: David Cobb, Sr., 5-11, 229; WR: Donovahn Jones, So., 6-3, 200 ; WR: Drew Wolitarsky, So., 6-3, 226; WR: KJ Maye, Jr., 5-10, 195; TE: Maxx Williams, So., 6-4, 250; LT: Ben Lauer, So., 6-7, 315; LG: Zac Epping, Sr., 6-2, 318; C: Tommy Olson, Sr., 6-4, 306; RG: Foster Bush, Jr., 6-5, 304; RT: Josh Campion, Jr., 6-5, 317.

Defense: DE: Theiren Cockran, Jr., 6-6, 255, ; DT: Scott Ekpe, Jr., 6-4, 293; DT: Cameron Botticelli, Sr., 6-5, 281, ; DE: Michael Amaefula, Sr., 6-2, 249 ; LB: De'Vondre Campbell, Jr., 6-5, 226; LB: Damien Wilson, Sr., 6-2, 249; LB: Jack Lynn, So., 6-3, 238; CB: Derrick Wells, Sr., 6-0, 201; CB: Eric Murray, Jr., 6-0, 195; S: Cedric Thompson, Sr., 6-0, 208; S: Damarius Travis, Jr., 6-2, 211.

Specialists: K: Ryan Santoso, Fr., 6-6, 245; P: Peter Mortell, Jr., 6-2, 192.

Biggest question mark: The offense is his alone to run, and, fair or not, how successful this season turns out for the Gophers will be tied to the development of their sophomore quarterback. Minnesota didn't ask Leidner to do all that much as a passer when he was on the field last season, but he was generally efficient and avoided many major mistakes while throwing just one interception in 78 attempts. That workload figures to increase dramatically, and the Gophers are going to need him to keep defenses honest by bumping up his completion percentage from 55 and stretching the field with some deep shots to prevent opponents from loading up the box to stop Cobb and the rushing attack.

Most important game: Nov. 8 at home against Iowa. If the Gophers are going to go from preseason dark horse to actual contender in the West division, taking care of the Hawkeyes entering the stretch run in November will be absolutely critical. Minnesota has to play all three of its divisional foes, which are currently tabbed as the favorites in the West in the final month of the season, but it gets Iowa at home only before playing Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road. If the Gophers can't defend TCF Bank Stadium against the Hawkeyes, the brutal back-to-back trips to take on the Huskers and Badgers might not mean much for them in the standings.

Upset special: Sept. 13 at TCU. The Horned Frogs have no shortage of defensive talent and will be much more comfortable in the September conditions in Texas. But Minnesota's rushing attack combined with a TCU offense undergoing a bit of transition could allow the Gophers to shorten the game and keep the score down, which might allow them to sneak out with a nonconference victory that would be meaningful for both them and the rest of the Big Ten.

Key stat: Only eight teams in the nation threw for fewer yards per game than Minnesota did a year ago, when the Gophers averaged 148.1 per game through the air. They averaged just more than 10 completions per game, dragging down an offense that collectively finished No. 11 in the Big Ten and put a ton of pressure on the defense on a weekly basis.

What they're wearing: The Gophers haven't gone overboard with multiple sets of uniforms since the redesign in 2012, but they have on occasion switched up their helmets. The school reached a new deal over the summer that will keep the team in Nike gear, and the lucrative contract will if nothing else allow the Gophers to still have plenty of options presented to them when they want to switch up the style.

Team's top Twitter follows: The face of the program has an account, and Leidner (@MitchLeidner7) has recently been helpful in providing some behind-the-scenes looks at the team as it goes through training camp. Thompson (@cedjunior2) is a humorous follow and could become a friend if you have a drill he can borrow. Cockran (@TCockran55) is worth an add as well, although it might be best to wait since he vowed not to use any social media until the end of August. The team account (@GopherFootball) does a fantastic job providing video and audio updates.

They said it: "I think there's no question we want to continue to improve on what we did last year. We won eight games, and I think anytime you go into the Big Ten and if you don't have a mission to win the Big Ten, then why play?" -- Gophers coach Jerry Kill.

Stats & Information projection: 5.48 wins.

Wise guys over/under: 6.5 wins.

Big Ten blog projection: Six wins. The Gophers were one of the most surprising teams in the league a year ago thanks in large part to a defense that was capable of handling such a heavy load all season long. And while there are seven starters back for that unit, and the offense should take a step forward with eight first-team returners back this fall, the schedule might hide the improvements Minnesota figures to make this season. The Gophers are going to be a tough out for every opponent, but getting back to another bowl game should be considered a success against this slate.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Preseason

August, 11, 2014
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Brian Bennett, Josh Moyer, Adam Rittenberg, Mitch Sherman and Austin Ward contributed to these rankings.

Roundtable: Best B1G season ever

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
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All this week, ESPN has been looking at the best individual seasons of all time, in the entirety of college football and at every FBS school, including the Big Ten.

So as we wrap up The Season project, we are left with one last and obvious question to debate: What player at a current Big Ten school had the best season of all time?

Brian Bennett: It's so difficult to compare eras. What Minnesota's Bronko Nagurski and Iowa's Nile Kinnick did in playing both ways for their teams will probably never be equaled, and yet their offensive numbers pale in comparison to today's. I frankly don't know how players from the 1920s, '30s and '40s would translate to modern times.

[+] EnlargeRed Grange
New York Times Co./Getty ImagesRed Grange's season 90 years ago at Illinois was nothing short of monumental.
But we're talking about best seasons here, and those need to be judged in context of their day. That's why my pick for the best Big Ten season is probably its most legendary one: Illinois' Red Grange in 1924. Grange was one of football's first true superstars, and some of his exploits -- like his four touchdowns of at least 44 yards in 12 minutes against a feared Michigan defense -- would make the Twitterverse explode if they happened right now.

"The Galloping Ghost" -- and really, how can you argue against a name like that? -- changed the game with his offensive prowess. Damon Runyon once wrote that ""He is Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Paavo Nurmi and Man o' War. Put together, they spell Grange." ESPN named him the greatest college football player of all time in 2008, and the Big Ten Network selected him as the league's No. 1 icon in 2011.

Has Grange's legend benefited from nostalgia, grainy film fragments and the hyperbolic sportswriting of his time? Of course. But he is also one of the figures most associated with the Big Ten, and his 1924 season stands alone.

Mitch Sherman: Well, Brian, thanks for stealing my thunder about the old-timers. I'm going with Nagurski. Players at Big Ten schools have enjoyed many great offensive seasons, but when I think of the league in a historical context, defense first comes to mind. For decades, it was the hardest-hitting, most old-school conference.

Dick Butkus and Bubba Smith embody the spirit of the Big Ten. But no player to wear the uniform of a Big Ten team can match the toughness of Nagurski, the robust Canadian who produced one of his most dominant performances in a college game while wearing a corset to protect cracked vertebrae.

Before Nagurski became the first player to earn All-Pro honors in the NFL at three positions, he left a legacy of legendary feats at Minnesota. In 1929, his final season, Nagurski led the nation in rushing as a fullback, earning All-America honors on offense and at defensive tackle.

Nagurski didn't just play both ways; he dominated on offense and defense. Physically, in his era, Nagurski's brute force was unmatched as a runner and a blocker. College competitors were almost no match for him, and the pros weren't much better prepared.

Josh Moyer: Guys, you were both so close to picking the right name here. So close. But the answer has to be the 1939 season from Iowa’s Nile Kinnick. I don’t think anyone else in the annals of college football had a bigger impact on his team, and I think it’s a tragedy his season didn’t merit a mention on ESPN’s top 16.

[+] EnlargeNile Kinnick
AP PhotoIowa legend Nile Kinnick died in a plane crash during World War II at age 24.
Kinnick was simply a one-man wrecking crew. No, he couldn’t run better than Grange. He couldn’t pass better than Drew Brees. He couldn’t kick better than Morten Andersen. Or, maybe, defend better than Charles Woodson (although that’s up for debate, as Sports Illustrated did start Kinnick at corner over Woodson on its all-century team.) But when you take everything he was able to do exceedingly well and add it all together, there might not have been a more impressive season or a more versatile athlete.

Here’s what he accomplished during that eight-game season 75 years ago: He played 402 of a possible 420 minutes, scored 107 of Iowa’s 130 points, pulled down eight interceptions, rushed for 374 yards and five TDs and threw for 638 yards and 11 TDs. Oh, and he also punted (39.9-yard average) -- and returned punts (11.9-yard average) and kickoffs (25.1-yard average). He won the Heisman, the Camp, the Maxwell, the Big Ten MVP – and was also named AP Male Athlete of the Year.

That last distinction is especially impressive, considering Kinnick won it over boxer Joe Louis and baseball MVP Joe DiMaggio, who batted a career-high .381 that year. We'll never see a season like that again. It has to be Kinnick.

Austin Ward: Maybe it's a recency bias. Maybe there's a case to be made that it wasn't actually his best individual season, based on the numbers. But I'm dipping into the current era of college football, and I'm also tabbing Ron Dayne's incredible 1999 campaign as the top choice for the Big Ten.

No offense to the superstars of the early years of the game, because their accomplishments relative to contemporaries are worth honoring. But what Dayne did while steamrolling through every defender in is way is burned into my mind, and the statistics are even more impressive now that a little time has passed.

His 2,034 yards and 20 touchdowns are both edged slightly by his breakout freshman campaign in 1996, but the degree of difficulty was evident as defenses devoted their entire game plan to trying to find a way to slow him down, and the attention on his assault on the record books steadily ramped up to put even more pressure on Dayne to deliver. And he did exactly that, sweeping up all the major individual awards, romping to a landslide victory in the Heisman Trophy race while dragging the Badgers on his back to a conference championship and a Rose Bowl victory.

Obviously, comparing players across eras is a challenge. But I'm sticking with the current one, and Dayne's record-setting run in 1999 stands alone.
Grab a pencil and a notepad. There will be a short test.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The full list:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But to be recognized for signature seasons, the ones that represent historic programs in a historic conference, they will likely have to wait a while.
There’s more good news for Ohio State and more bad news for Purdue, as Bovada released its newest odds for the Big Ten title race.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ohio State 10/11 – Odds you flip a quarter and it lands on heads (1 in 2)
As the 2014 season creeps closer, we're breaking down the Top 25 players in the Big Ten. All five Big Ten reporters voted, ranking players based on both past performance and future potential at the college level.

Unlike in past years, we'll be releasing these in groups of five, not individually. So, without further ado, the first five names in the countdown ...

25. Blake Countess, CB, Michigan: Countess kicks off our top 25 but easily could move up the list if he builds on a good sophomore season. He led the Big Ten with six interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, and earned first-team all-conference honors from the media. If he continues his playmaking ways, he should contend for the Big Ten's Tatum–Woodson Defensive Back of the Year award.

24. Andre Monroe, DE, Maryland: The Terrapins need a solid defensive front to compete in their new league, and Monroe plays a big role following a breakout 2013 season. He led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17), as he rebounded extremely well from a knee injury that cost him the 2012 season. A shorter, stouter defensive end at 5-foot-11 and 282 pounds, Monroe is a great fit in Maryland's 3-4 defense.

23. Nate Sudfeld, QB, Indiana: Tre Roberson's transfer earlier this summer clears the way for Sudfeld to take total control on offense. Sudfeld has 28 touchdown passes in his first two seasons despite sharing time and could put up huge numbers in Kevin Wilson's quarterback-friendly offense. He has a mostly new-look receiving corps but plays behind one of the league's best offensive lines.

22. Devin Gardner, QB, Michigan: We had some debate about Gardner, who, like his team, had both brilliant and bad moments throughout the 2013 season. He's still the Big Ten's leading returning passer (2,960 yards) and accounted for 32 touchdowns (21 pass, 11 rush) last season. If he clicks with new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and gets help from a besieged line, he could finish a truly unique career on a high note.

21. Theiren Cockran, DE, Minnesota: Overshadowed by linemate Ra'Shede Hageman in 2013, Cockran's big season (7.5 sacks, a league-high four forced fumbles) went largely unnoticed outside Minneapolis. He figures to get much more attention this season and has worked hard to put himself among the Big Ten's top pass-rushers. At 6-foot-6, 255 pounds and athletic, Cockran could be a nightmare for offensive tackles.

Coming Tuesday: Nos. 20-16 ...
You may have heard, Big Ten media days is right around the corner. The event runs Monday and Tuesday at the Hilton Chicago, with all 14 league coaches and 42 players set to attend.

Here are 10 storylines to watch next week:
  • Jim Delany on the state of college football. Don’t expect the Big Ten boss to drop any bombs in line with the comments made by Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby this week in Dallas. But Delany speaks his mind, and he feels strongly about the need for fixes in college athletics. With the NCAA Division I Board of Directors’ vote on power-conference autonomy set for next month and the verdict due soon in the Ed O'Bannon antitrust lawsuit -- Delany was a key NCAA witness -- the commish will no doubt make news with his comments.
  • Rutgers and Maryland, you’re up. Let’s see what these Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Maryland Terrapins look like as their long wait to play Big Ten football is nearly over. It’s been nearly two years since these schools made plans to join the league. And they enter the Big Ten in different places than what may have been expected back in 2012. Maryland is trending up and Rutgers down, but things can change in a hurry. For now, it’ll be nice to hear from the Terps’ sixth-year senior QB C.J. Brown and dynamic receiver Stefon Diggs. Rutgers defensive tackle Darius Hamilton looks like one of the league’s best.
  • The Big Ten goes back on the big stage in September. Who remembers Week 3 last season? It was the Saturday that the UCLA Bruins, Arizona State Sun Devils and Washington Huskies beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Wisconsin Badgers and Illinois Fighting Illini, respectively. And for good measure, Central Florida won at the Penn State Nittany Lions. The poor Big Ten showing drew a collective eye roll from fans and media nationally and stomped out any early-season momentum for the league. Well, it’s a new year, and Michigan State’s Sept. 6 visit to Oregon might rank as the No. 1 intersectional matchup nationally. Wisconsin-LSU in Houston on Aug. 30 is almost as intriguing. Other important games for the league include Ohio State-Virginia Tech, Nebraska-Miami and the last scheduled installment of Michigan-Notre Dame.
  • Ameer Abdullah shares his message. Nebraska’s senior I-back will speak from the heart, for sure, on Tuesday at the league’s annual kickoff luncheon. Abdullah has a great story to share as the youngest of nine siblings raised as a devout Muslim in Alabama. Under-recruited out of high school, he chose Nebraska as the least heralded of three backs in his signing class. This year, he’s got the chance to become the first three-time 1,000-yard rusher at Nebraska, a program filled with tradition at his spot in the backfield.
  • Braxton Miller, the best player without any titles to show for it. Miller is 22-2 in his past 24 starts. Sure, the losses came to end last season in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State and the Orange Bowl to Clemson, but his record speaks for itself. He’s the two-time reigning offensive player of the year in the Big Ten, and with another season like the past two, he’ll race past the statistical marks of nearly every player to precede him in Columbus. But what is Miller’s legacy without a championship? He’d rather face that question in December.
  • James Franklin talks and people listen. The first-year Penn State coach ranks atop the list of must-see speakers in Chicago. Since taking the Penn State job on Jan. 11, Franklin has wowed crowds with his energy, and he’s revitalized the Nittany Lions’ profile as a recruiting power in spite of lingering NCAA sanctions. As the lone new head coach in the league -- not counting Kyle Flood and Randy Edsall -- Franklin offers a breath of fresh air. And because of his SEC background, observers outside of the conference will take note of his comments.
  • The dawn of the playoff era. Ready or not, the Big Ten is set to enter the first year of the College Football Playoff. A year ago, Michigan State likely would have earned a spot in the semifinal round. But can the Big Ten produce another team worthy of football’s final four? The Spartans remain a contender, though that trip to Oregon in Week 2 looms large. Ohio State is another team to watch and probably the most popular pick from the Big Ten to make it to a New Year’s Day semifinal in Pasadena or New Orleans. It'll be a topic at media days.
  • Michigan, now is the time to look like Michigan. The honeymoon is over for coach Brady Hoke, entering his fourth year as he tries to avoid a third consecutive season of declining win totals. The Wolverines slipped to 7-6 a year ago amid major offensive woes after a 5-0 start. Hoke’s offensive line still looks ill prepared to stop the Big Ten's top defensive fronts. The schedule is again somewhat backloaded, with Michigan State and Ohio State among the final five games, so Hoke’s hot-shot recruits may get a few more weeks to mature.
  • Jerry Kill’s health. Minnesota’s fourth-year coach, as much as he’d like to avoid the topic, will face more questions in Chicago about the epileptic seizures that forced him to coach from the press box for much of last season. The Gophers rallied behind their ailing coach. It was a feel-good story, though one that no one in the Twin Cities or elsewhere would like to relive. Kill has made excellent progress in the past several months. The coach and his players are anxious to put this issue to rest.
  • The quarterbacks. Don’t look now, but the Big Ten is turning into a league of quarterbacks. If nothing else, it appears better, for the time being, than the SEC in this category. Seven of the league’s signal-callers are scheduled to appear in Chicago, including Miller, MSU’s Connor Cook, Michigan’s Devin Gardner and Northwestern's Trevor Siemian. It would be nice, of course, to hear from Penn State sophomore Christian Hackenberg at this event and other rising field generals like Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Iowa's Jake Rudock. But hey, we’ll take what we can get.
The move toward stronger nonconference schedules by the Big Ten and other leagues is already yielding benefits for fans. As teams gear up to impress the College Football Playoff selection committee, several high-profile intersectional future matchups have emerged, the latest of them including Michigan-Oklahoma in 2025-26 and USC-Alabama in 2016.

That's good news for the sport, as more behemoth programs will crash into one another instead of playing chicken. But will it result in anything more than wreckage for the so-called lower-tier Big Ten programs?

The league has strongly encouraged all of its teams to take on at least one Power Five conference opponent per year and to avoid FCS teams, all while beginning a nine-game conference schedule in 2016. For teams like Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue -- for whom just getting to six wins and a bowl game has been considered a success in recent years -- that only serves to make life tougher.

"I think you need to grow as a football program," said Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas, whose team has won just one Big Ten game the past two seasons. "You look across the country, and many of us are in different places competitively. And many of us are in different places even in the Big Ten."

It's a tightrope that some Big Ten programs now have to walk. They want to abide by the league policies and create interesting, even challenging, schedules. Lacking the supersize stadiums and fan bases of the conference heavyweights, they need home games to hit their budget.

They don't also need a schedule that puts them in a more difficult position to win. Yet trying to attract fans with a bunch of cream-puffs is becoming harder to pull off, too.

"Everybody for the longest time was trying to schedule just to be bowl eligible," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said. "I think that waters the schedule down, and it hurts attendance. At the end of the day, our kids get more excited about playing games against teams that may have recruited them -- or didn’t recruit them. And our fans are more excited."

For years, Burke didn't have to worry about scheduling a marquee nonconference opponent, because he could count on Notre Dame being on the slate every season. Now that the Irish have formed an alliance with the ACC, they're cutting down their games against the Big Ten and will take a five-year break from the Boilermakers after this season. Burke responded by adding series against Virginia Tech (2015 and 2023) and Missouri (2017-18) and said he has another one in the works.

"I think it's the right thing to do," he said. "It's hard to get the players up for games they're supposed to win."

Northwestern has been one of the few programs willing to face two Power Five teams in the same year and will do so again this season against Cal and Notre Dame. Even with a nine-game Big Ten schedule looming, Wildcats athletic director Jim Phillips said "I'd be disappointed" if the program didn't continue to play two such games per season. Northwestern tries to line up schools with similar academic missions, and thus it has series with Stanford and Duke on tap in future years.

While it may seem like a long shot that Northwestern could make the four-team playoff field, Phillips said he still keeps that goal in mind while crafting future schedules. After all, the Wildcats did win 10 games just two years ago and played in the Rose Bowl in 1996.

"That’s the goal every year: to challenge yourself and compete for championships," he said. "If we didn't do that, it would be a disservice to our student-athletes and everybody else associated with Northwestern -- our fans, our coaches, and our students.

"It certainly takes a special year for the stars to align. But why wouldn’t you challenge yourself and use that as part of your criteria for developing your schedule? If you go undefeated in your league, you have a chance."

There's no darker playoff dark horse than Indiana, which has been to just one bowl game (in 2007) since 1993. Athletic director Fred Glass blames himself for overtaxing the Hoosiers with last year's schedule, which included losses to Missouri and Navy as the team finished 5-7. As a result, he has modified future schedules for a less-resistant path; for example, IU's big nonconference opponent in 2015 and 2016 is Wake Forest.

Still, Glass said Indiana will continue to face one Power Five team per year and challenge itself.

"We’re a building program, but we're a program with high ambitions and high aspirations," he said. "We're looking to play in Indianapolis and Pasadena. That's where we want to go with this program, and we make no bones about that. I think, with playing in the East Division of the Big Ten and a Power Five nonconference opponent, the strength of schedule will take care of itself."

The mid- to lower-tier Big Ten schools also make an attractive potential target for teams from other leagues. Think about it. If you're an SEC or ACC school looking to fulfill your one Power Five opponent mandate, do you want that to be Wisconsin or Purdue?

While most teams schedule spots for the next few years are filled, Northwestern's Phillips said "there's been more dialogue than I can ever remember with other [Power Five] schools" about future matchups. Illinois' Thomas said his phone has been ringing more about scheduling, and that he's even heard from a few SEC teams.

But the Illini, who wrap up a home-and-home series with Washington this season, will dumb things down a bit in the future. They are scheduled to play no current Power Five programs in 2017 or '18, and the next such series on the books is Virginia in 2021-22.

"For us, right now, I think it is is important to schedule appropriately, because in our conference we are playing a lot of those teams that really are in a different place," Thomas said. "For now, the next step is having a steady diet of bowl games and being competitive in our league. If that happens, these other things will follow."

It's not necessarily in the best interest of every Big Ten program to take on a challenging schedule every year. Still, each school realizes it has a role to play for the overall good of the league. If, say, a one-loss Big Ten champion is seeking inclusion into the playoff, its argument would be bolstered if its league brethren have secured impressive out-of-conference wins.

"We have an obligation to ourselves and to our colleagues in conference to have a strong schedule, because our schedule impacts those who hopefully are going to be vying for championships," Glass said. "That's what we ultimately want to do, and we want to make sure we're carrying our weight."
We've already covered the conference's potential villains, so it's only natural that we move on to the good guys.

You won't find them in comic books or out in the Big Ten footprint fighting crime. But even opposing fans won't find it all that difficult to root for this cast of characters. Some overcame injuries or other obstacles, some have been wronged, and others just seem like genuinely good people.

There are certainly plenty of other athletes and coaches whom this could apply to, so it wasn't easy just picking a handful. But true heroes don't expect media attention for their good deeds … plus, we had to cut this list off somewhere.

So, in alphabetical order, here are the unmasked Big Ten heroes:

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah, left, decided to put the NFL off for another year and return for his senior season at Nebraska.
Ameer Abdullah, running back, Nebraska: About 100 juniors declared early for this year's NFL draft, and no one would've blamed Abdullah if he decided to join the herd. Instead, he decided to stay -- and he's said all the right things. As the youngest of nine children, the other eight of whom have earned college degrees, Abdullah stressed the importance of his education and finishing that degree. When a lot of other players are chasing dollar signs instead of diplomas, that's a refreshing viewpoint. Added Bo Pelini: “He's an All-American on the field. He's an All-American off the field.”

Adam Breneman, tight end, Penn State: Forget the fact he remained loyal and committed to the university throughout the sanctions, when he could've bolted to the likes of Florida State or Notre Dame. He's also used his football celebrity to champion a few charitable causes, something more common for coaches than players. In high school he started “Catch the Cure,” which helped raise more than $200,000 to fight Lou Gehrig's Disease. During his Under Armour jersey presentation two years ago, he even helped man a booth outside the auditorium to seek donations. Currently, he's the secretary of Penn State's nonprofit chapter of “Uplifting Athletes,” which raises money for the Kidney Cancer Association. You don't have to like the Nittany Lions, but you have to like what Breneman's doing.

Ralph Friedgen, offensive coordinator, Rutgers: Underappreciated. Underestimated. Underdog. That's why Friedgen is under two other heroes on this list. It's easy to root for someone who appeared to be unfairly punished – and is now seeking out justice on the gridiron. Friedgen is just about the only head coach to win conference coach of the year and then be fired that same season. It happened with Maryland in 2010; now, he's helping oversee a Rutgers offense that people aren't expecting a lot from. He's in the same division as the Terps -- heck, they're on the schedule this year -- and Friedgen has a chance to show Maryland it made a mistake. He certainly could've handled the dismissal better, but it's hard to blame him and easy to wish him well. As long as you're not a Terps fan, that is.

Jerry Kill, head coach, Minnesota: Stop me if you've heard this before. “I'm rooting against them when they play us, but I'm wishing all the best to ________ the rest of the season.” Chances are Kill's filled in quite a few of those sentences the past few years. He has refused to let epilepsy get the best of him, and his longevity's been a testament to his toughness. He's been a coach since 1985, and he just led the Gophers to back-to-back bowls. Plus, he recently started a new epilepsy foundation for young patients, and he put $100,000 of his own money toward that. How can you not root for this guy?

Jake Ryan, linebacker, Michigan: Torn anterior cruciate ligaments are usually big setbacks, something that means missed seasons or at least gradual returns. Not for Ryan. The Michigan linebacker, a team captain last season, was on crutches last spring and returned in time for the Oct. 12 game against Penn State. Said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison: “If he ever truly logged the hours of extra treatment and extra rehab that he has done since the day that happened, I think it would floor you.” Nothing has really been handed to Ryan, as he wasn't a highly sought-after recruit. But he's worked hard and now finds himself on the preseason watch lists for the Bednarik and Nagurski awards. It's his final season at Michigan, and big things are expected from him.

Heroes on deck: Tracy Claeys, Stefon Diggs, Herb Hand, Jeremy Langford, Venric Mark

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