NCF Nation: Nebraska Cornhuskers

Preseason All-Big Ten team

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

And here they are:

Offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special teams

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

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

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

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

Selections by school:

Michigan State: 7
Iowa: 3
Michigan: 3
Nebraska: 3
Wisconsin: 3
Northwestern: 2
Indiana: 1
Maryland: 1
Ohio State: 1
Penn State: 1
Rutgers: 1
Illinois: 0
Minnesota: 0
Purdue: 0
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Nebraska Cornhuskers:

2013 overall record: 9-4 (5-3 Big Ten)

Key returnees: Ameer Abdullah, RB; Randy Gregory, DE; Kenny Bell, WR; Corey Cooper, S; Tommy Armstrong Jr., QB.

Key losses: Quincy Enunwa, WR; Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB; Ciante Evans, DB; Spencer Long, OG; Jeremiah Sirles, OT

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah and Nebraska will face a Big Ten road schedule that includes games at Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State.
Instant impact newcomer: Colorado transfer Alex Lewis could start at left tackle. The 6-foot-6, 290-pounder started all 12 games at guard for the Buffaloes in 2012 before transferring and running into legal problems.

Projected starters

Offense: QB: Tommy Armstrong Jr., Soph., 6-1, 220; RB: Ameer Abdullah, Sr., 5-9, 195; WR: Kenny Bell, Sr., 6-1, 185,; WR: Jamal Turner, Sr., 6-1, 190; WR: Alonzo Moore, Soph, 6-2, 195; OT: Alex Lewis, Jr., 6-6, 290; OT: Zach Sterup, Jr., 6-8, 320; G: Jake Cotton, Sr., 6-6, 305; G: Mike Moudy, Sr., 6-5, 305; C: Mark Pelini, Sr., 6-0, 290; TE: Cethan Carter, Soph., 6-4, 240.

Defense: DE: Randy Gregory, Jr., 6-6, 240; DE: Greg McMullen, Soph., 6-3, 280; DT: Vincent Valentine, Soph., 6-3, 320; DT: Maliek Collins, So., 6-2, 300; LB: David Santos, Jr., 6-0, 225; LB: Josh Banderas, Soph., 6-2, 235; LB: Zaire Anderson, Sr., 5-11, 220; CB: Josh Mitchell, Sr., 5-11, 160; CB: Jonathan Rose, Jr., 6-1, 195; S Nathan Gerry, Soph., 6-2, 205; S: Corey Cooper, Sr., 6-1, 215.

Specialists: K: Drew Brown, Fr.; P: Sam Foltz, Soph.

Biggest question mark: Can Armstrong develop into a top-rate quarterback? He showed flashes of potential after being thrust into the role in 2013 following the loss of Taylor Martinez, including a strong performance in the Gator Bowl win over Georgia. But he also struggled at times with his accuracy. The Huskers appear to be well stocked at most other positions but need consistent play from under center.

Most important game: Nov. 15 at Wisconsin. Nebraska is behind the eight ball when it comes to the schedule, compared to the other West Division contenders. Not only did the Huskers draw a road game at Michigan State as a crossover, they also have to go to Wisconsin and Iowa. There's a good chance Nebraska will have to win this game in Madison to stay in contention for the West title. They didn't fare well the last time they played in Camp Randall, and they gave up 70 points the last time they faced Wisconsin (in the 2012 Big Ten title game).

Upset special: Week 3 at Fresno State. The Bulldogs are a dangerous team and the atmosphere should be wild. Going to Fresno a week before hosting Miami seems to spell trouble.

Key stat: Nebraska is minus-23 in turnover margin the past two seasons combined. Until the Huskers get their turnover problems solved, they're going to have a tough time taking that next step to being a championship team.

What they're wearing: Pelini himself modeled the new Nebraska alternate duds by showing up in full uniform at a team meeting. The Huskers will wear the all-red look on Sept. 27 against Illinois.



Team's top Twitter follows: Coach Bo Pelini (@BoPelini) can surprise you with some interesting tweets, including his stunning response to Faux Pelini in January and his uniform stunt earlier this month. But don't expect a lot of in-season tweets from the head man. Players to follow include the always fascinating Bell (@AFRO_THUNDER80), Abdullah (@Ameerguapo) and Armstrong (@Tommy_Gun4). There's no better sports parody account than the aforementioned Faux Pelini (@FauxPelini), though his tweets are not always family-friendly. And don't forget the team's official account.

They said it: "I think we have depth in areas that is really going to help us be a good football team, and also we saw a lot of young guys last year kind of come of age as the season went on. I'm looking forward to seeing those young men continue to develop into the type of players we feel can win championships at our school. That's what we're after. We're looking for a championship. I think we have the pieces." -- Bo Pelini.

ESPN Stats & Information projections: 7.61 wins

Wise guys over/under: 8 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Nine wins. Rust Cohle would tell you that time is a flat circle and we keep repeating our lives over and over again. It sure feels that way in Lincoln, as Nebraska has gone either 9-4 or 10-4 in all six seasons under Pelini. We're sure as heck not going to bet against the trend.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Preseason

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
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Brian Bennett, Josh Moyer, Adam Rittenberg, Mitch Sherman and Austin Ward contributed to these rankings.
The hits keep on coming for the Nebraska defense.

Sophomore Michael Rose, the returning seven-game starter at middle linebacker, announced over social media on Friday night that he had suffered a serious knee injury and would miss the 2014 season.

Rose posted a photo to his Instagram account, writing in a response that he had torn an ACL, possibly an MCL and cartilage.

“I’m hurting… I’m not gonna lie. I’m hurting bad,” Rose wrote in the photo caption. “So much work out in this offseason to get my weight down and body fat to prove to people I can be an every down linebacker.

“It’s hard right now for me. I can barely express how I feel right cause I’m numb to it.”

He also made several comments about the injury on Twitter.

The 5-foot-11, 240-pound Rose set the Nebraska freshman record last season with 66 tackles, including 17 against Iowa. He was battling classmate Josh Banderas for the starting role in preseason practice this month.

The loss of Rose comes after a season-ending knee injury suffered by junior Charles Jackson, who was scheduled to start at nickel back, and a season-long suspension, announced on Friday, for safety LeRoy Alexander, also a projected starter.

Rose is a former Under Armour All-American out of Kansas City, Missouri. He earned Academic All-Big Ten honors in 2013.
The sad news Thursday at Nebraska of a season-ending injury to defensive back Charles Jackson was followed Friday with a shocker: Sophomore safety LeRoy Alexander, the top candidate to start alongside Corey Cooper, has been suspended for the 2014 season.

Coach Bo Pelini made the announcement in a press release, saying that Alexander would remain on scholarship and practice with the team. The coach plans to make no additional comment.

Alexander’s absence further damages the prospects for a secondary that already featured some of the most pressing questions on a defense expected to serve as the strength of Pelini’s seventh team in Lincoln. The Huskers were faced with replacing three starters in the five-man defensive backfield from a year ago, and now, two of those replacements are lost.

Alexander started one game last year as a redshirt freshman out of Toledo, Ohio, and collected 34 tackles with one interception.

He performed well in spring practice alongside converted linebacker Nathan Gerry at safety as the senior Cooper sat out with an injury.

With Cooper back, Gerry, who played safety in high school, likely slides into a starting role.

Depth is a concern. Redshirt freshman D.J. Singleton and true freshman Kieron Williams, solid in the opening week of preseason practice, appear to fit as the top backups at safety. Drake Martinez left the program in the offseason after a redshirt season last fall.

The losses of Jackson and Alexander remove two of the top athletes from this Nebraska defense. Still three weeks from the Aug. 30 opener against Florida Atlantic, the Huskers can ill afford more bad news in the secondary.
The loss of junior defensive back Charles Jackson in the opening week of practice at Nebraska represents a major setback for the Huskers.

[+] EnlargeCharles Jackson
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCharles Jackson was expected to boost Nebraska's secondary before his season-ending knee injury.
Coach Bo Pelini announced Thursday night that Jackson would require season-ending surgery to repair a knee injury. After a breakout spring, Jackson started camp well Monday with several head-turning plays from the nickel position.

His progress ended abruptly.

One of Nebraska's top athletes, Jackson factored heavily on special teams in 2012 and 2013 but failed to earn significant time in the secondary as he struggled with defensive concepts. He turned a corner in March and April.

The nickel spot in Pelini's scheme has long served as a key spot to earn mismatches and create big plays. Ciante Evans performed well in the spot last year.

Jackson, because of his athleticism, promised to add an important spark to a secondary faced with the loss of cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste and safety Andrew Green in addition to Evans.

The Huskers must now incorporate another newcomer. Junior-college transfer Byerson Cockrell, who played nickel and cornerback in the spring after joining the Huskers in January, is the favorite to fill Jackson's role.

"I love Byerson Cockrell," Pelini said Thursday. "He is a really good player. He is a very smart and very intelligent player."

Cockrell likely must focus full time on nickel, leaving the cornerback spot opposite returning starter Josh Mitchell to junior Jonathan Rose, redshirt freshman Boaz Joseph or junior Daniel Davie. None have notable experience.

True freshman Joshua Kalu will also get a look this month at nickel, Pelini said.

Kalu starred at Houston's Alief Taylor High School, a Texas 5A power. Regardless, the thought of a starting nickel with no experience at the FBS level may lead to a restless month for first-year secondary coach Charlton Warren.

For Jackson, the excruciating wait continues. He hasn't played a full game since his senior year of high school at Spring (Texas) Klein Collins in 2010.

This was supposed to the year. It came to a cruel end in the first week of practice. And the most inexperienced area of the Nebraska defense just grew a little more green.
On Thursday, the NCAA Division I board of directors is expected to pass legislation that will allow schools in the Power 5 conferences to set many of their own rules.

Autonomy, as it's being called, could bring a seismic shift in the landscape in college sports. Many Big Ten coaches are hoping it leads to changes in recruiting, as colleague Mitch Sherman details in this piece. It might or might not. But many league coaches told ESPN.com that a more streamlined governing process is what is ultimately needed.

"This gives you a lot better chance of getting things done," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "[What we have now] would be like if Microsoft had to operate under the same restrictions as the mom-and-pop store down the street. It's ridiculous, and it doesn't work."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Byron Hetzler/USA TODAY SportsNorthwestern's Pat Fitzgerald on college football's need for a streamlined governing process: "Right now, when we want something changed, we have to wait for a vote nine months from now because that's when the cycle says it should happen."
Here is one example: Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany was one of the first to propose offering players full cost-of-attendance stipends way back in the spring of 2011. All other power conferences were on board with the idea, and NCAA president Mark Emmert championed it. Yet autonomy is now needed to actually allow schools to offer those stipends, as smaller programs eventually balked at the cost and killed it.

Pelini has proposed eliminating signing day, and says he's heard from many coaches who agree with him. He said it should be easy to just get everyone in the same room and decide on what is right. But that is not how it works.

"You have all these committees made up of people with different agendas that meet like twice a year," Pelini said. "It was broken before it ever got started."

Under the new legislation, an 80-member panel would be set up to vote on issues, with a 60-percent majority and three of the Power 5 leagues needing to agree to make changes on autonomous issues. Power leagues would also have a bigger weight in the vote on general matters.

"It's tough for an organization as large as ours to keep up with everything," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "My hopes are that maybe we can streamline some policies, re-evaulate some things and come up with a little more efficient way of operating."

Maryland coach Randy Edsall, who has proposed his own radical changes to recruiting, wants more than just a bigger say in voting. He says that for college football to really make necessary improvements, it needs true, dedicated leadership for the sport. Athletic directors and conference commissioners are pulled in too many directions, Edsall said.

"We don’t have anybody working on college football 365 days a year, seven days a week," he said. "We need a structure where people are sitting down going, 'Here’s our game, how do we make it the best?' Those people have to be working on that every day. Because if not, we get what we’ve got."

Several Big Ten coaches said they would favor a college football czar or commissioner to look out for the best interests of the game. Or at least a small group of people who would do that.

"If not [a czar], then there should be an assistant commissioner in each conference where all they do is work on football, period," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "However you want to structure it, when they wake up, all they do is work on football and when they go to bed, they dream about it.

"Right now, when we want something changed, we have to wait for a vote nine months from now because that’s when the cycle says it should happen. These people should have a much better pulse on the reality of what day-to-day life is like in college football."

Ferentz said the makeup of the College Football Playoff selection committee, which includes former coaches, athletic directors and others, could be a usable model for a leadership group.

Having a commissioner or a leadership committee would set college football apart from other sports, which is why the NCAA probably wouldn't go for the idea. But as Fitzgerald noted, "we’re not talking about this autonomy because of any other sport. We're talking about it because of football."

And autonomy gives the coaches hope that maybe things are about to change for the better.

"We've got to try to get rid of the aircraft carrier and get to a speedboat," Fitzgerald said. "Get to where we can get some real things solved, quit looking at one variable at a time and look at the big picture. Through this, hopefully we can find some solutions to make our sport the best we possibly can."
Offensive players dominated the list of top individual seasons at Big 12 schools in ESPN.com’s The Season, with Texas’ Vince Young and Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders advancing to Wednesday's semifinal round.

Kansas cornerback Aqib Talib is the lone Big 12-era defender who landed on the list as an honorable mention for the Jayhawks. Talib earned consensus All-American honors while helping the Jayhawks go 11-1, including a 24-21 win over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl in 2007.

Several Big 12 defenders have had stellar seasons since the conference was born in 1996. Here’s a look at other exceptional individual seasons for defenders during the Big 12 era.

[+] EnlargeVon Miller
Patrick Green/Icon SMIVon Miller was too much to handle in 2009, posting 17 sacks.
Lawrence Flugence, Texas Tech linebacker, 2002: The sheer numbers land Flugence a spot on this list. He had 193 total tackles, including 124 solo stops in 14 games during the 2002 season. The Mike Leach-led Red Raiders finished 9-5 with Flugence anchoring the defense and Kliff Kingsbury triggering the offense.

Derrick Johnson, Texas linebacker, 2004: The Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and Butkus Award winner, Johnson made plays from sideline to sideline for the Longhorns during the 2004 season. He finished with 130 tackles (70 solo stops), including 19 tackles for loss, eight pass breakups, nine forced fumbles and two sacks.

Curtis Lofton, Oklahoma linebacker, 2007: Lofton was exceptional during the 2007 season, earning All-American and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. He had 157 tackles including 10.5 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles and three interceptions in 14 games for the Sooners. He was the anchor of a defense that allowed 20.3 points per game and 4.98 yards per play as OU finished 11-2 with a Big 12 championship.

Von Miller, Texas A&M defensive end, 2009: The future NFL Pro Bowler was relentless and dominant during the 2007 season. He finished with 17 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles in 13 games. He accounted for 47.2 percent of the Aggies’ sack total (36) during a 6-7 season. His 17 sacks remain the highest single season total in the Big 12 era.

Terence Newman, Kansas State cornerback, 2002: Newman was a nightmare for opponents during the 2002 season, locking down receivers on defense and putting fear into the hearts of defenders on special teams and offense. He won the Thorpe Award and was named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Even as offenses avoided him, Newman finished with 44 tackles, 14 pass breakups and five interceptions.

Shaun Rogers, Texas defensive tackle, 1999: The junior was a disruptive force in the middle for the Longhorns, finishing with 27 tackles for loss, the highest total from any Big 12 defender since the conference was born in 1996. He joined teammate Casey Hampton to give UT the Big 12’s top defensive tackle duo that season.

Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska defensive tackle, 2009: The Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Suh’s 2009 season was second to none during the Big 12 era. Offenses focused on keeping Suh from dominating games yet he still dominated on his way to becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist, Lombardi Award and a lengthy list of individual accolades. He finished with 85 tackles including 24 for loss and 12 sacks.

Earl Thomas, Texas safety, 2009: Thomas proved he was NFL ready with a incredible redshirt sophomore campaign. He was a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award while earning all-american honors with 77 tackles, five tackles for loss, 16 pass breakups and eight interceptions. He helped UT finish No. 1 nationally in interceptions (35) and forced turnovers (37).

Roy Williams, Oklahoma defensive back, 2001: The Jim Thorpe Award winner, Williams left a lasting legacy with his “Superman” play against Texas in the Red River Rivalry, forcing a Chris Simms’ fumble that sealed an OU win. He finished with 107 tackles including 14 tackles for loss, 22 pass breakups and five interceptions.

Grant Wistrom, Nebraska defensive end, 1997: He had a stellar 1996 season but his 1997 campaign should be considered even better. As the returning Big 12 defensive player of the year, Wistrom had 8.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss and 25 quarterback hurries on his way to Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors for the second straight season. He also earned the Lombardi Trophy in 1997.
On Monday, ESPN revealed its choices for the greatest individual seasons in college football history.

We voted on several of these, including the best Big Ten seasons. As you can imagine, there were some difficult calls to make, especially at schools stuffed with rich traditions and legendary players. We didn't always agree.

Our Big Ten reporting crew offers thoughts on which decisions were the toughest for league schools.

SportsNation

Which school presents the toughest call on best individual seasons?

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    30%
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    34%
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    22%
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    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,151)

Brian Bennett: There were lots of tricky calls once you narrowed it down to two candidates for a certain school. For example, does the best season at Illinois belong to Red Grange or Dick Butkus? (You try telling Butkus it was Grange). Lorenzo White or Bubba Smith at Michigan State? Archie Griffin or Eddie George at Ohio State? We had to not only compare the numbers but also take into account the different eras.

For me, the hardest decision on an individual season involved Wisconsin. The consensus ended up being Ron Dayne's 1999 season in which he won the Heisman Trophy. But you could make a robust argument that Dayne's own 1996 campaign was better, as he ran for more yards and more touchdowns and had a higher yards-per-carry average as a freshman than he did as a senior. I've always thought the comparisons between Dayne and Montee Ball's 2011 season are fascinating. One day, I believe, people will look back on Ball's '11 season and wonder how a guy who tied the NCAA record with 39 touchdowns -- while running for 1,923 yards and averaging more yards per carry than Dayne did in 1999 -- not only failed to gain traction in the Heisman race but somehow didn't claim the Doak Walker Award (a grievous error that was thankfully remedied in 2012). Throw in Alan Ameche, who won the Heisman in 1954, and Pat Richter's 1962 season, and you have enough material to create decades of debate.

Mitch Sherman: My toughest call involved Nebraska, the school I've watched most closely for the past 20 years. Mike Rozier made the top 16 nationally, as selected by ESPN.com writers and editors, for his 1983 Heisman campaign. Rozier's statistics earn him a clear victory among all-time Huskers in the eyes of most. But not me. I saw in 1995 what stats cannot tell us about Tommie Frazier's senior season. He rushed for 604 yards and threw for 1,362 -- pedestrian numbers compared to many on this list, though he still finished second in the Heisman voting. Sure, he was surrounded by greatness, offensively and defensively, but perhaps only Tim Tebow since that 1995 season has matched Frazier's presence and overall impact on a team. Frazier was a field general in every sense imaginable. He inspired the players alongside him in the huddle. He founds reserves of determination for the biggest games, earning recognition often among the greatest quarterbacks to play the college game. I went with Rozier because his dominance was impossible to ignore, picking against Frazier -- an act that those 13 games in 1995 taught me was most unwise.

Austin Ward: The trump card is almost always up Archie Griffin's sleeve when it comes to debates about the greatest player in Ohio State history, but at least this once it didn't work. In a conversation about the top individual season a program has ever seen, being the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner finally wasn't a deal breaker -- and the Buckeyes have plenty of incredible performances to give Griffin a run for his money. Orlando Pace made people take notice of line play and count up pancakes, and it was tough for him to even crack the honorable-mention list. It's actually Eddie George who holds Ohio State's single-season rushing record with a staggering 1,927-yard campaign that included 24 touchdowns and a stiff-arm trophy of his own. David Boston's breakout seasons in 1997 and '98 are even more remarkable in hindsight, with the wide receiver rewriting the record books with a pair of seasons that are both nearly 300 yards better than anybody else in school history. On top of that, Ohio State has four other Heisman winners to consider along with three-time All-America Chic Harley. In the end, Griffin's seasons can't be fully measured by his statistics alone, since for starters he was sharing time in a loaded backfield. But his talent was undeniable when the football was in his hands, and even without his normal trump card Griffin still walked away a deserving winner.

Josh Moyer: For me, I might have spent the most time waffling back and forth with Michigan. Sure, Charles Woodson’s 1997 campaign was one for the ages. But could we really ignore a rich history that included Fielding Yost’s point-a-minute teams and severely underrated running back Willie Heston (1904)? Or Mr. Do-Everything in Tom Harmon (1940)? Or how about a quarterback (Bennie Friedman, 1925 or 1926) and wide receiver (Bennie Oosterbaan) who helped change the face of the game? Or, if we want to get a bit more recent, how’s Desmond Howard (1991) sound?

You could make a case for any of these players and, really, not be wrong. But I think the two who give Woodson the strongest push are Harmon and Heston. Harmon not only won the Heisman in 1940, but he was also the AP Male Athlete of the Year – meaning he had a better season than the likes of MLB’s Hank Greenberg (41 homers, 150 RBI). It didn’t hurt that Harmon could rush, pass, kick, punt and tackle. But my personal vote as the best Michigan season went to Heston. The NCAA could piece stats together from just 17 of his 36 career games and, just during that 1904 season, Heston averaged 12.7 yards per carry while rushing for 21 TDs. (And he was good at defense.) Knute Rockne once said Heston was a better runner than Red Grange. Plus, Michigan went 10-0 that season and outscored its opponents 567-22. So Michigan has a lot of quality players and great seasons -- which didn’t make this an easy task -- but after a lot of thinking I personally voted for Heston in 1904. Truthfully, though, you could’ve gone with a half-dozen others.
Red GrangeAP PhotoRed Grange (Illinois) had one of the Big Ten's four signature seasons that took place before 1940.
What constitutes a signature season in the Big Ten? We're not talking about good or very good or even great. These are the single best individual seasons in college football history.

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

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

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

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

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

The full list:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Big Ten players: Nos. 5-1

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
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All week, we've been revealing our rankings of the Top 25 players in the Big Ten for 2014.

Now comes the moment you've been waiting for: the best of the best. Here are the top five players as we see them, based on past performance and potential for this season and as voted on by our crew of Big Ten reporters:

5. Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska Cornhuskers
Beast. That's the first word that comes to mind when you watch Gregory. He can match anyone in the country athletically, and he's got a motor that runs all day. Gregory led the Big Ten in sacks with 10.5 last season, and what's most impressive about that is that it was his first season of major college football. The potential for even greater things is there in 2014.

No. 4: Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin Badgers
Few players cause you to hold your breath when they touch the ball more than the Badgers' junior tailback. He gobbles up turf with his long strides, and when he turns the corner on a defense, he's gone in a flash. Gordon averaged a ridiculous 7.8 yards per carry last season, and he could easily lead the nation in rushing in 2014.

No. 3: Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa Hawkeyes
Is there a stronger player in the Big Ten, or college football? After watching this, that seems doubtful. But Scherff, who played quarterback in high school, is more than just a hulk of muscles. He's nimble and physical, making him one of the best offensive tackles anywhere and the anchor of Iowa's plan of attack.

No. 2: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska Cornhuskers
Abdullah led the Big Ten in total rushing yards last season and has the most career 100-yard games among FBS players with 17. His 5-foot-9, 195-pound frame belies the toughness with which he runs, and he's also got the speed to blow by people. He's the heart and soul of Nebraska and one of the fiercest competitors around.

No. 1: Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State Buckeyes
Who else? Miller is the back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year who will try to make it three straight as a senior. There are holes to pick in his game -- he's not a pinpoint passer, he gets banged up a bit too much -- but he almost always finds a way to get the job done, especially in the clutch. The belt belongs to him until someone else snatches it.
For all those people fretting that a playoff in college football would somehow water down the regular season, I offer up the blockbuster weekend of Sept. 3. 2016.

Yes, it’s still a couple of years away and we’re supposed to be focusing on what’s right in front of us. But, geez, that Saturday to open the 2016 season could very well provide the most attractive lineup of nonconference games on one day that we’ve ever seen.

For that, at least in large part, we all have the College Football Playoff to thank.

Some of the matchups were already set or in the process of being set. But the real impetus in beefing up all these nonconference schedules was that a playoff was coming.

And, now, with a selection committee holding the keys to those coveted four playoff spots, we’re going to be in store for some terrific nonconference showdowns in the regular season for years to come. Simply, teams that don’t play and win those types of games are going to be on the outside looking in, which makes the regular season as important as ever.

My only knock on that weekend to kick off the 2016 season is that there are too many good games. I want to watch them all.

We’ve all been clamoring for an Alabama-USCmatchup. Well, we’re finally going to get it in Arlington, Texas to open that season.

And if you like your football Southern style, Clemson at Auburn has a nice ring to it. Lewis Grizzard, the late Southern humorist, once said that Clemson was Auburn with a lake. In a lot of ways, they’re virtual clones of each other right down to their break-neck style of offense. Even more enticing, this is a home-and-home series with Auburn traveling to Clemson the next year.

There won’t be a more unique game that weekend than LSU facing Wisconsin in historic Lambeau Field. Perhaps we’ll get to see Les Miles perform the “Lambeau Leap” if the Tigers win.

Have the remote control ready because we also get UCLA at Texas A&M, Notre Dame at Texas and BYU Cougars at Arizona (in Glendale, Ariz.).

That’s just the first weekend, too.

A week later, Tennessee and Virginia Tech will “trade paint” at Bristol Motor Speedway. And two weeks later, Ohio State travels to Oklahoma and Oregon visits Nebraska.

So much for opening the college football season with a tune-up … or two.
There’s more good news for Ohio State and more bad news for Purdue, as Bovada released its newest odds for the Big Ten title race.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ohio State 10/11 – Odds you flip a quarter and it lands on heads (1 in 2)
CHICAGO -- Ameer Abdullah recounted a story of how he returned home to Alabama this summer, stunned to learn that a friend since childhood had flunked out of college, addicted to drugs, and another had been sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The top returning rusher in college football, Abdullah said he questioned how his friends could meet such fates.

“If it could happen to them,” he said, “it could happen to any student-athlete in this room today.”

 
On Tuesday, at the conclusion of the Big Ten media days, the senior running back from Nebraska addressed his peers and an audience of several hundred as the student-athlete speaker at the league’s 43rd annual Kickoff Luncheon.

His message?

“Nothing is guaranteed, but if we continue to strive to educate ourselves athletically, academically and personally, then maybe, just maybe, one day we can reach our full potential,” he said.

Abdullah turned down an opportunity to leave for the NFL after he rushed for 1,690 yards last season. In his 10-minute speech, he talked of the importance of an education, the value of personal sacrifice and the essence of the student-athlete.

He said he learned a great deal from his beginnings at Nebraska in 2011.

Abdullah started school in Lincoln as one of three true freshmen at his position. In his first opportunity to carry the football in practice before that season, he took a toss and saw open field ahead.

He said he thought it was his moment to shine until he was “completely destroyed" by star linebacker Lavonte David.

“As I sat there, humiliated and embarrassed,” Abdullah said, “in that moment I learned a very valuable lesson: that in life, there’s always going to be somebody stronger than you; there’s always going to be someone faster than you; and oftentimes there’s going to be somebody smarter than you.

“But you cannot let that deter you from your goals.”

Abdullah played sparingly as a freshman but has since developed into a team leader and has accumulated nearly 3,000 yards in his career. He enters this fall with the chance to leave Nebraska as its first three-time 1,000-yard rusher.

The other two running backs in his freshman class transferred.

Abdullah has pushed forward, clearing new hurdles regularly. On Tuesday, he conquered a fear of speaking in front of a large crowd and earned a standing ovation at the end of his speech.

Early in his message, he described himself as a true “Big Ten guy.” His freshman year at Nebraska marked the school’s first year in the league.

“I’m proud to be able to say the Big Ten is the only conference I’ve ever known,” Abdullah said. “And for the universities of Rutgers and Maryland, who are entering the Big Ten this year, you, too, will soon realize that the academic and athletic prestige of the Big Ten is second to none.”
CHICAGO -- With some of the Big Ten's best all gathered in one place for media days, it seemed only natural to poll the players about the best and brightest athletes in the conference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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