NCF Nation: Northwestern Wildcats

The Big Ten is exploring the idea of a "year of readiness" for freshmen. Perhaps the league should consult with Northwestern's Justin Jackson.

He arrived in Evanston last summer and immediately had to adjust to the school's rigid academics, familiarize himself with a slew of new teammates, and absorb the Wildcats' playbook. Any thoughts he might be eased into a role were dismissed early in preseason camp, when starting running back Venric Mark decided to transfer.

"I do see where they're coming from, because it's really tough [as a true freshman]," Jackson said. "But I also see the downside of it. You have a lot of guys who may be the best at their position, and if they can't play, it would really hurt their football team."

[+] EnlargeJustin Jackson
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesNorthwestern's Justin Jackson had six 100-yard performances as a freshman last season.
Imagine where Northwestern would have been last season without an eligible Jackson. He led the team in rushing in all 12 games and had six 100-yard performances. He was one of seven Big Ten backs to run for at least 1,000 yards, and he begins 2015 as the second-leading returning rusher in the conference, behind only Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott. He was easily the best offensive player on a 5-7 team.

Jackson did all that without a full offseason to train, something he's getting now as the Wildcats opened spring practice on Wednesday.

"I feel so much better," he said. "Some of the guys who were injured last year but are the same year as me had their first practice this week, and I was like, 'That was me last year in the fall.' It was crazy out there. Now I'm much more comfortable, I know the playbook a lot better and I can help the other guys."

Jackson, who was listed at 185 pounds last season, says he's put on about 10 pounds this winter. He hopes that helps him get ready for another potentially heavy workload, after he had 245 carries in 2014.

But rather than hit a freshman wall, he seemed to get stronger as the season went on. He ran for at least 130 yards in each of his final three games, including a memorable 149-yard day in the overtime upset win at Notre Dame.

The great news for Northwestern is that Jackson is not remotely satisfied with his impressive first year. In addition to the extra weight, he's worked hard on his flexibility and explosiveness after ripping off only two 40-plus yard runs last season.

"I had a lot of those runs that were right there, where it would be 15, 17 yards and I was close to breaking them," he said. "I'll never be the best at it, because I'm not Venric Mark. I'm not a 4.3 [40-yard dash]-type dude. But I can try to improve my speed and my strength so I can break out of tackles and be that guy. You don't have to have 4.3, 4.4 speed to break long runs. You just have to be smart about it and use what you have to your advantage."

Jackson's main advantages thus far have included his vision and how hard he runs. Plus his dedication to getting better through study. "Whenever I'm bored," he says, "I just pop on the film."

It's that kind of attitude that ensured Jackson was more than ready as a true freshman.

"I think that would be a tough sell," he said of the freshman ineligibility idea, "because a lot of freshmen right now are coming in more prepared to play. It's tough, but if you have great teammates and a great support system, you can definitely do it."

Not every freshman can be as good as Jackson, of course. But we're very curious to see how good he can be as a sophomore.
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The Big Ten has been kicking around the idea of a "year of readiness," or in more basic parlance, freshman ineligibility. The league's discussion of the idea has generated a lot of national attention in past several days, but in many ways people are missing the forest for the trees here.

First of all, this is not exactly a new idea. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany mentioned a "year of residence" for at-risk students in a four-point reform plan he announced in the summer of 2013. This is also not strictly a Big Ten issue, either, as the Pac-12 and Big 12 commissioners have also talked in depth about making freshmen ineligible.

But the most important point is that the year of readiness idea is just one of multiple possible sea changes that the Big Ten and other conferences are mulling. At the end of the annual Big Ten joint meetings in Chicago on Tuesday -- attended by league athletic directors, senior women's administrators, faculty reps and student leaders -- the sense was that any and all things should be on the table.

"It's really a national conversation that has to take place," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said. "It's the right time. It's time for a recalibration, a re-correction in college athletics."

Phillips, as the newly appointed chairman of the NCAA Division I council, is an important voice in college sports. And he says there's a real desire to change the entire way the entire system is run.

[+] EnlargeJim Phillips
David Banks/USA TODAY Sports"It's time for a recalibration, a re-correction in college athletics," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said.
So, sure, conference leaders have considered freshman ineligibility. But they also want to figure out if the length of a certain sports' seasons is too long, whether players should have fewer practice hours, if initial eligibility standards should be strengthened and what to do about transfers. Phillips even mentioned the recent uptick in the number of early enrollees in football and whether kids should be coming to college campuses that soon.

"There may not be year of readiness," he said. "It's not time to make those decisions without having fundamental conversations that are driven by, what do we want college athletics to be going forward? There are so many important areas for us to discuss. It's really a wonderful opportunity to have these conversations and move it forward."

A confluence of events have made the time right to re-evaluate everything, Phillips said. That includes lawsuits against the NCAA, the new autonomy structure for the Power 5 conferences and student-athlete welfare issues such as cost of attendance, four-year grants and unlimited meals all rising to the surface of late.

"At the heart of this thing is, we don't want to be the minor leagues of professional sports," Phillips said.

Of course, many would argue that college sports already fulfill that role, especially in football and men's basketball. Phillips would concede that point. But he doesn't agree that it's too late to squeeze that genie back into the bottle.

"That to me is a little bit of a defeatist attitude," he said. "I firmly believe that if it's in the best interest of the future of the enterprise, well, why wouldn't we make some serious changes? Why are we being forced into being anything other than what we want to be?"

The Big Ten cannot do it alone, and Phillips said there are many other leagues and leaders across the country taking the same hard look at these issues. The charge given at the end of the joint meetings was for all attendees to go back to their campuses and further these discussions with their school presidents, coaches and every colleague from other conferences they come across for the next year, and that there would at least be a consensus over which issues to tackle at the 2016 NCAA convention.

"It's time for conversation, and it is time for a declaration of where individual schools stand, where conferences stand and where levels within Division I stand," Phillips said. "I'm exceedingly excited about what's in front of us, because I just think there's an opportunity to make college athletics a better place."

There's a whole lot more here than just a discussion about freshman ineligibility. Some of these ideas may sound pie-in-the-sky, but rapid change in the NCAA has happened in the past year (much of it forced upon the schools by outside forces, of course). The Big Ten is serious about trying to put the college back in college sports.

And even if it fails, isn't that a worthwhile thing to consider?

B1G roundtable: Toughest coaching job

February, 23, 2015
Feb 23
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What's the best coaching job in the country? Stay with ESPN.com this week for an answer as the full list of Power 5 coaching seats is unveiled. The countdown began Monday, with Nos. 48-65 Insider.

Here at the Big Ten blog, we got involved by offering a look at coaching in the Big Ten. We'll offer our takes on the league's jobs.

Monday's roundtable topic: What's the toughest coaching job in the Big Ten?

Mitch Sherman: Northwestern

No Big Ten program fights for relevancy in its home market quite like Northwestern, with its long history of struggles in athletics and demands academically unlike even the other elite institutions of the league. Northwestern went 64 years without a bowl win until 2012, when it finished 10-3, just its third season out of 132 with more than nine victories. Coach Pat Fitzgerald, after a breakout season in 2008 and unprecedented success in Evanston, has clouded our minds about the difficulty of sustaining success at Northwestern. The past two 5-7 seasons, though, serve as a reminder. It’s tough. The fan base tends to get disinterested, the margin for error is slim, and the emerging culture in college athletics to empower student-athletes further establishes challenges at the league’s lone private institution that aren't as difficult elsewhere in the Big Ten.

Dan Murphy: Indiana

Expectations aren't particularly high for football among the Hoosiers faithful. A bowl game -- Indiana's first since 2007 -- would keep the masses happy, but making it through the Big Ten's East Division gets more treacherous each year. That side of the league is loaded, with two top-five programs in Ohio State and Michigan State. If Jim Harbaugh's track record follows him to Ann Arbor, Michigan won't be far behind. James Franklin is another proven winner at Penn State, and newcomers Maryland and Rutgers held their own in their first year. That leaves Indiana as a hanger-on in a league full of climbers. Unless the Hoosiers start investing more in the program as a whole, winning in Bloomington will be a tall order for Kevin Wilson or anyone else in his seat.

Brian Bennett: Purdue

In my view, the two toughest jobs in the Big Ten are both in the Hoosier State, and Indiana has struggled the most in the past two decades. But the Hoosiers have made some upgrades in their facilities, and Bloomington is an excellent college town. Purdue has a stronger tradition than IU but is in an even tougher position. It's a great school with rigorous academics, but Ross-Ade Stadium and West Lafayette both lack charm. There isn't much local talent from which to draw. Fan support and revenue are major issues, as the program recently announced it was cutting prices on its season tickets. It's even more remarkable, in retrospect, what Joe Tiller accomplished during his tenure with the Boilers. The team hasn't done much since he left.
There's no doubt that Chicago is ground zero in the Illinois-Northwestern rivalry.

The Wildcats have branded themselves as "Chicago's Big Ten team," while the Illini have counted with the slogan, "Illinois. Our State. Our Team."

Well, now Chicago really will be home to the football rivalry between the schools and a more permanent home base for Illinois, or so the school hopes. That's because on Monday afternoon, the Illini announced that they will be playing their season finales against Northwestern at Soldier Field this year, in 2017 and in 2019. All three games will be played over Thanksgiving weekend.

[+] EnlargeIllinois football
Mike Granse/USA TODAY SportsIllinois played before a disappointing crowd in its home finale versus Penn State in 2014.
The move is an interesting one for a lot of reasons. Illinois is in some ways giving up a home-field advantage for its biggest Big Ten rivalry game -- Northwestern's campus is located just 15 miles from Soldier Field, after all. But the Illini have struggled to draw crowds in late November, especially with students on break for the Thanksgiving holiday. Last year's home finale against Penn State -- played the Saturday before turkey day -- attracted less than 10,000 fans, according to media reports.

The school says it has more than 140,000 alumni in the Chicagoland area and expects about 10,000 students to be in the vicinity during Thanksgiving weekend. It's still up to the football team to get people excited about coming to games, and fans have yet to fully embrace the Tim Beckman era even after last year's squad finished strong to reach a bowl. But the Illini hope to make the Soldier Field game an event with activities planned for fans and alumni around the contest.

To no one's surprise, there's a financial element in play, too. Illinois says it made $946,019 per home game in the 2014 season, a number that was brought down by the Penn State game, which netted just over $812,000. The Illini say they earned more than $1.96 million from its most recent game at Soldier Field, a 2013 loss to Washington.

That's all well and good -- unless you're one of the hardy souls who have faithfully supported Illinois at home games in Champaign and don't live particularly close to Chicago. The move affects this year's season-ticket holders, since their package now includes one fewer home contest. The school says that season tickets will have a lower price tag, reflecting that there are six home games instead of seven, and that season-ticket holders will have a chance to buy seats to the Soldier Field game at an exclusive, discounted rate. (This Q&A provides more insight).

Some fans could be negatively affected. But let's face it: the Illini haven't exactly been turning people away from home games. Their average home attendance in 2014 (53,397) ranked 12th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten, ahead of only Northwestern and Purdue. The program is right to try and do whatever it can to inspire some interest and enthusiasm and to do it in the city that's most vital for its exposure and recruiting.

There are a few other Big Ten teams who could use nearby NFL stadiums on occasion to generate interest, such as Rutgers (MetLife Stadium), Maryland (FedEx Field) and Indiana and Purdue (Lucas Oil Stadium). Heck, the most attention a Northwestern-Illinois football game has probably ever received was the 2010 game at Wrigley Field, even if that turned into something of a farce with the playing conditions.

There's a lot of upside here for Illinois. And if you're Northwestern, you have to be bending over backwards to accommodate this move, as a rivalry road game is now just a short train ride away in three of the next five years. You can bet the Wildcats will try to get their fans to flood Soldier Field and make it no less than a neutral-site atmosphere.

It will be fun to see the purple-clad Northwestern fans jostling it out with the orange-and-blue Illini backers in the stands. With today's announcement, Illinois raised the stakes in the claim to Chicago. It's appropriate that the two schools will vie for on-field supremacy in the city proper this fall and in years to come.
Signing day is less than 48 hours away. While you breathlessly await your team's official unveiling of its class and chew your fingernails over late decisions, a great debate continues over whether recruiting rankings really tell us anything.

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

Here's what we found:

Five-star recruits

None

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

* -- junior college recruits

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

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

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

The lesson here? Nothing is really guaranteed in recruiting rankings. While you may be focusing on the four- and five-star guys on Wednesday with good reason, sometimes the two- and three-star prospects become the ones you really have to watch on Saturdays.
Our week-long examination of positions that need improvement at every Big Ten school focuses next on the Northwestern Wildcats.

Problem position: Wide receiver

Why receiver was a problem: The trouble started in August when Christian Jones, the Wildcats’ 2013 leader in receiving yardage, went down with a knee injury. The Wildcats felt his loss in 2014 as wideouts Kyle Prater and Tony Jones were effective at times but did not account for Christian Jones’ production. Superback Dan Vitale caught 40 passes, while the season of Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler was shortened by a head injury suffered in October against Nebraska. The Wildcats struggled with drops and generally required more from the receivers to operate as needed in the Northwestern spread system.

How it can be fixed: Shuler and Vitale are back as seniors, as is Christian Jones, who took a redshirt in 2014. The Wildcats need leadership from the trio as the quarterback position goes through a transition to Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti or Clayton Thorson. With a veteran corps of receivers that includes several additional upperclassmen -- Northwestern needs more from rising senior Cameron Dickerson -- the inconsistency of 2014 must give way to reliability, starting this spring.

Early 2015 outlook: If the QB job goes to Alviti or Thorson -- both in the dual-threat category -- the job description shifts a bit for the receivers. In a best-case scenario, Northwestern finds a weapon at quarterback and running back Justin Jackson builds on a strong rookie season. Among the Wildcats’ top recruits is receiver Cameron Green, the son of ex-Chicago Bears running back Mark Green. Despite the presence of veterans, the Wildcats would benefit from new blood on the edge. The more bodies, the merrier. With Jones back, though, look for a rebound performance from the receivers.
They didn't sneak up on us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let's take a quick look back:

Act 1: Fear Ameer

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

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

Act 2: Melvin makes his move

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

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

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

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

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

Act 4: What about the other guys?

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

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

Act 5: Gordon's Heisman move

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

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

Act 6: Riding the E Train to a championship

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

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

The final carry for a Big Ten back this season: Elliott's 1-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds to play, providing a fitting exclamation point.
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- When Minnesota's Jerry Kill, Maryland's Randy Edsall, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald and Purdue's Darrell Hazell exited the head coaches' convention meeting Tuesday morning, they didn't spell out O-H-I-O.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian Bennett contributed to this report.

Final 2014 Big Ten Power Rankings

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

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

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

 

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 15

December, 7, 2014
12/07/14
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Big Ten bowl projections: Week 15

December, 7, 2014
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Thought bowl projections were over? So did we. But we've got one more edition for you, hours before the selections become official. What fun for all.

As ESPN.com first reported this week, the Big Ten could have a bowl-eligible team miss a bowl. If a Big Ten team goes to the Capital One Orange Bowl, the league won't have a participant in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. And if only one other Big Ten team reaches a New Year's Six bowl, it will leave eight eligible teams for only seven spots. Since there are more bowl-eligible teams than spots, and all spots are contracted, there are no at-large selections this year.

Got all that?

Michigan State is virtually assured of an Orange Bowl berth, following Alabama's win against Missouri in the SEC championship. At No. 8, the Spartans should remain ahead of No. 10 Mississippi State in Sunday's rankings -- neither team played this week -- and therefore be the highest ranked non-champion from the Big Ten or SEC.

Big Ten champion Ohio State is the only other league squad heading for the big bowls -- either a Playoff semifinal or a New Year's Six game. After the Buckeyes' 59-0 spanking of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship, we project Urban Meyer's squad to the Playoff. Boom.

That means one eligible Big Ten team is out of the bowls. Although Penn State and Illinois both are 6-6 and the Fighting Illini beat the Nittany Lions, there's no way PSU misses a bowl after being banned the past two years. Illinois, unfortunately, is the odd team out.

Wisconsin's horrific performance in the Big Ten title game drops the Badgers down to the Holiday Bowl, which really, really wants Gary Andersen's team. Minnesota heads to the Outback Bowl, while Nebraska likely would go to the Music City Bowl to avoid a repeat in Jacksonville.

Penn State in the Pinstripe has been a likelihood for weeks, and we have Rutgers going to Detroit and Maryland to Dallas.

Here are our final, final Big Ten bowl projections for the season:

College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual or Allstate Sugar Bowl): Ohio State
Capital One Orange: Michigan State
Outback: Minnesota
National University Holiday: Wisconsin
TaxSlayer Bowl/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Nebraska
Foster Farms: Iowa
New Era Pinstripe: Penn State
Quick Lane: Rutgers
Zaxby's Heart of Dallas: Maryland

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 14

November, 30, 2014
11/30/14
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Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 14

November, 28, 2014
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Hopefully you've already recovered from a day's worth of turkey and pumpkin pie because the games start in about two hours.

It’s the final week of the Big Ten’s regular season, and there are still quite a few questions left to be answered: Will Tevin Coleman surpass 2,000 yards on the season? Who will face Ohio State in the Big Ten championship? Will Northwestern or Illinois find its way to bowl eligibility?

There are no night games or byes this week. So shake off that tryptophan, make another turkey sandwich – possibly to go with that bowl of turkey soup – and get that remote ready. Here’s a glance at what you should look forward to (all times ET):

Noon Friday

Nebraska (8-3, 4-3 Big Ten) at Iowa (7-4, 4-3), ABC: Ameer Abdullah admitted he’s been frustrated the past two weeks – because of his injury and back-to-back losses – and even said matter-of-factly, “It sucks. It definitely does suck.” Bo Pelini is on the hot seat again and can’t afford a third straight loss; Kirk Ferentz wants to secure another eight-win season and have some kind of trademark Big Ten victory. (Iowa hasn’t beaten a Big Ten team with a winning record.) Something has to give.

[+] EnlargeBriean Boddy-Calhoun
AP Photo/Nati HarnikMinnesota and defensive back Briean Boddy-Calhoun are playing for a Big Ten division title at Wisconsin.
Noon Saturday

Illinois (5-6, 2-5) at Northwestern (5-6, 3-4), ESPNU: Let the (unlikely) battle for bowl eligibility begin. Northwestern bounced back from a 3-6 record with victories over Notre Dame and Purdue, while Illinois played its best special-teams game of the year last week to beat Penn State. The Wildcats are without senior QB Trevor Siemian, who suffered a torn ACL, so their postseason hopes are pinned to backup Zack Oliver.

Purdue (3-8, 1-6) at Indiana (3-8, 0-7), BTN: Don’t let the records fool you. Sure, these are two of the worst teams – recordwise – in the Big Ten. But this one might be worth watching for no other reason than Tevin Coleman, who could be playing in the final college game of his career. Coleman needs just 94 yards to reach 2,000 on the season and he’s also a finalist for the Doak Walker Award. He might be the best running back in the nation not named Melvin Gordon.

Michigan (5-6, 3-4) at No. 6 Ohio State (10-1, 7-0), ABC: The Ga_e will always _ean so_ething special. Especially as long as Ohio State continues with its tradition of crossing off every “M” on campus. The Buckeyes are the big favorite, while the Wolverines have been a big disappointment. But nothing would make Wolverines fans happier than knocking Ohio State out of the playoff picture. Of course, Ohio State is also currently scoring an average of 24 points more per game than Michigan -- so that’s not going to be easy.

3:30 p.m. Saturday

No. 10 Michigan State (9-2, 6-1) at Penn State (6-5, 2-5), ABC: The Nittany Lions are hoping to experience some déjà vu this season. Last year, they entered their home finale as 24-point underdogs to Wisconsin and some way, somehow, came out on top in an upset. This season, they’re only 13-point underdogs. And while the Penn State defense is historically good this season, the offense is historically bad. Michigan State, on the other hand, is a well-rounded team that’s fighting for a trip to one of the New Year’s Six bowl games.

No. 18 Minnesota (8-3, 5-2) at No. 14 Wisconsin (9-2, 6-1), BTN: It all comes down to this in the West. The winner will advance to the Big Ten title game to face Ohio State; the loser will have to lament watching it from the dorms. Gordon needs just 1 yard to break the Big Ten single-season rushing record, and Minnesota’s David Cobb is “very questionable” for the contest. Jerry Kill is arguably the front-runner for Big Ten Coach of the Year and, if he pulls this out, we can probably take “arguably” away from that sentence. This is a must-watch.

Rutgers (6-5, 2-5) at Maryland (7-4, 4-3), ESPNU: Both teams have met or exceeded expectations this season, but it’s been a difficult second half for Rutgers. After starting 5-1, the Scarlet Knights have won just one of their past five and have looked really overmatched against the B1G’s best. Maryland has looked like the better team – and beat both Iowa and Penn State – but Rutgers would like to change the conversation here. A victory for either team would go a long way; Rutgers could grab some second-half respect or Maryland could climb its way to a better bowl.

Required reading

Big Ten Week 14 predictions

November, 26, 2014
11/26/14
10:30
AM ET


Why Iowa will win: Based on the roller-coaster ride Iowa has been on lately, now is the time to jump back in and hang on tight as the regular season comes to a close. The Hawkeyes actually impressed even in a losing effort last week against Wisconsin, and with Nebraska reeling and having to go on the road, expect Kirk Ferentz to get his team ready to capitalize. The Blackshirts have been a mess down the stretch once again, and Black Friday won’t be any different with Jake Rudock leading an Iowa passing attack that somewhat surprisingly ranks No. 4 in the Big Ten. ... Iowa 31, Nebraska 20. -- Austin Ward

Why Nebraska will win: Are the Huskers trending downward? You bet. But Iowa is not nearly as good as Wisconsin or Minnesota. The Huskers still boast the better total offense here -- they're 34 spots ahead of Iowa in the national rankings at No. 29 -- and the better scoring offense, with 10 points more per game. The defense has been up and down, but Mark Weisman is no Melvin Gordon or David Cobb. And Ameer Abdullah is only getting healthier. Iowa hangs tough but loses in the end. ... Nebraska 28, Iowa 24. -- Josh Moyer



Why Indiana will win: It’s time to cash in the chips on Purdue. I’ve been a believer in the Boilers since they beat Illinois in early October, then hung around with Michigan State and Minnesota. But things have gone downhill. Lately, Purdue can’t run the football, and it can’t stop the run -- a bad combination, especially against Tevin Coleman. The Indiana junior will have a huge day and cruise past 2,000 rushing yards for the season in perhaps his last collegiate game. Defensively, the Hoosiers haven’t stopped a decent offense all year, but they’ve got enough left to avoid a winless Big Ten season. ... Indiana 38, Purdue 24. -- Mitch Sherman

Why Purdue will win: Purdue's production has taken a step backward since scoring 38 against Minnesota and threatening to take down the Gophers. The Boilermakers stumble into the Hoosier State battle, but Indiana is exactly what the doctor ordered in that front. No one on Purdue's roster compares to Tevin Coleman, but speedy senior Raheem Mostert can have a big day against Indiana's run defense. Austin Appleby proves to be the difference to help Darrell Hazell end his second year on a high note. ... Purdue 24, Indiana 20. -- Dan Murphy

Unanimous selections

Ohio State 35, Michigan 14: No, Brady Hoke, there is no Santa Claus. The Wolverines simply do not have enough offensive competence to hang with the Buckeyes on the road, though emotion will help them keep it close into the third quarter.

Wisconsin 24, Minnesota 20: The Gophers have a real chance here, but the potential absence of David Cobb (hamstring) and the road environment will make it tough. Melvin Gordon is held under 200 yards but rips off the game-winning score in the fourth quarter.

Maryland 31, Rutgers 23: The Scarlet Knights' only win since Oct. 4 was at home against Indiana. The Terps have been playing much better than their fellow first-year Big Ten newbie, and they'll protect home field to spoil Ralph Friedgen's homecoming.

Northwestern 28, Illinois 21: It's win or go home for both teams. The Wildcats are surging at the right time, having scored 81 points in back-to-back wins the past two weeks. The loss of quarterback Trevor Siemian (ACL) hurts Northwestern, but picking the Illini to win consecutive Big Ten games strains logic.

Michigan State 19, Penn State 10: Don't underestimate the power of Senior Day in Beaver Stadium, as we've seen the Nittany Lions put up strong performances in their regular-season finales the past two years. Their defense will also cause the Spartans some trouble. But Penn State is going to a bowl regardless, and its offense has few options against Pat Narduzzi's defense.

Our records:
1. Austin Ward: 83-22 (.790)
2. Dan Murphy: 53-15 (.779)
T-3. Brian Bennett: 81-24 (.771)
T-3. Mitch Sherman: 81-24 (.771)
5. Adam Rittenberg: 78-27 (.743)
6. Josh Moyer: 77-28 (.733)

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