NCF Nation: Ohio State Buckeyes

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The physical difference is plain to see.

The height is the same, but Ezekiel Elliott is about 20 pounds lighter than the guy who came before him.

The unique mentality requires a bit more of an explanation.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsEzekiel Elliott has proven to be a worthy heir to Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde.
Ohio State's current starting running back is the first to admit he'd prefer to make tacklers miss and get to the perimeter, while his predecessor thrived on contact and seemed to go out of his way to bowl over defenders.

The offensive system isn't even exactly the same now, either, with the Buckeyes dialing up the tempo to unprecedented levels and rotating through their personnel at the skill positions instead of largely relying on two main guys to carry the load.

But for all the ways he might not fit the mold Carlos Hyde left behind, it looks clear that the two share at least one key trait after Elliott tallied 112 yards after contact last week in a performance that would have made his old mentor proud.

"Well, yeah, I'm not as big of a back as Carlos," Elliott said. "I can't take as many hits as him. He's more of a bruiser-type back, and I have a little more finesse to me.

"But just being a running back, you've got to be tough. You have to have some bruise to you."

Elliott might not pack quite the same punch, but Cincinnati certainly left Ohio Stadium black and blue last weekend after the sophomore relentlessly pounded away at its defense. He unofficially announced himself as a worthy heir to Hyde in the backfield.

He also showed the same ability to handle a healthy workload while appearing to gain strength as a game goes on. Elliott wore down the Bearcats with his 28 carries for 182 yards while adding 51 more on 5 catches. The record-setting outing with 45 first downs and 710 yards was sparked largely by Elliott and the rushing attack, a throwback to last season ago when Braxton Miller was teaming with Hyde and posting eye-popping statistics at nearly every turn.

That explosive dynamic was notably absent during the Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech, with redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett and Elliott struggling to make an impact. The defeat put Ohio State's playoff candidacy on the ropes quickly. Elliott finished with just 32 yards on 8 carries against the Hokies, and there certainly wasn't much happening after contact in that game.

But like seemingly everybody else on an inexperienced offense, the improvement every week has been pretty evident as Elliott grows more comfortable with his role and responsibilities. The Buckeyes figure to only grow more dangerous as a result.

"On Saturday, he did the job you would want a Carlos Hyde to do," co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said. "But he's a different runner than Carlos. He's playing with very low pad level, he plays with great energy, he's explosive and he finishes runs with great pad level. He doesn't want to make direct contact. He wants to edge defenders, which always allows you to finish runs and come out the other end.

"He's developed, and here we go starting to show that on the field."

Against the Bearcats, Elliot left a lot of defenders having to pick themselves back up while he kept moving down the field.

That's been a familiar sight for Ohio State opponents over the last few seasons. While the guy doing it now has a different method, it's already shaping up to be just as effective.

"That's definitely one of our core values in the running back room," Elliott said. "Get those yards after contact, fight with that extra effort.

"You can't just be all outside, you know? You've got to have a downhill aspect to you."

After a bit of a slow start, Elliott has the ball rolling that way now and Ohio State is building momentum again in the process.

Commitment to Braxton Miller no surprise

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
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There’ll be no quarterback controversy in Columbus next season.

 Ohio State coach Urban Meyer addressed reporters Monday and expressed his commitment to Braxton Miller, who still plans to return for a final season. So, no matter how well J.T. Barrett performs, Miller is the clear starter in 2015.

Is that a surprise? Not at all. It’s a no-brainer. Miller was on pace for an unprecedented third Big Ten offensive-player-of-the-year award. And, while Barrett has shown flashes this season, he still has a long way to go before fans start forgetting about the quarterback who twice finished within the top-10 of the Heisman voting.

If anything, it’s a smart move by Meyer to get out ahead of any foreseeable controversy. Barrett is progressing every week, and this pre-emptive statement should put to rest any future murmurs on the subject. The fact is, even at Barrett’s best, he’s still no Braxton Miller. And even he knows that.

“I’m not Braxton,” Barrett said matter-of-factly back in August. “I’m J.T.”

That being said, the redshirt freshman is still on pace for a solid season. He’s thrown for 1,087 yards -- along with 13 TDs to five INTs -- and only Illinois’ Wes Lunt and Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg have passed for more. Sure, he’s padded his stats against some suspect defenses like Kent State. But he’s only going to get better.

As long as Miller remains a part of the Buckeyes, this will always will be his team. Meyer’s statement just reinforced that. Miller was always expected to be the starter next season. But, on the bright side, Barrett has shown he’ll make for one capable backup in 2015.
Welcome to the Big Ten time machine. Watch your step and hop aboard. Sorry, Mr. Slive, no standby today. Every seat is taken.

Passenger Delany in seat 1A, please stop ringing your call button. I told you we can't go back to Nov. 18, 2006. Yes, yes, I realize that is when the Big Ten sat atop the college football world with its two most recognizable programs ranked 1 and 2. I know you would give it all up -- the money, BTN's success, the expansion moves -- to relive that magical day in Columbus. Not happening, pal. Here is another bag of peanuts.

Our destination is the more recent past, although for some it feels like a long time ago. We are rewinding exactly one year to Sept. 29, 2013. Here we go!

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke, Mark Dantonio
AP Photo/Paul SancyaMichigan coach Brady Hoke, left, and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio have seen their programs head in different directions since last September.
Meet the Michigan State Spartans. They are 3-1 and unranked after a 17-13 loss to Notre Dame. The defeat reaffirmed that the offense, which sputtered throughout 2012, isn't getting better. Quarterback Connor Cook, replaced late in the Notre Dame game, tells reporters, "I would have wished that the coaches had faith in me to keep me in there." The Spartans are preparing for their Big Ten opener at Iowa, and few expect much to change with the quarterback situation or the passing game.

Now meet the Michigan Wolverines. They are 4-0 and ranked No. 19. They have just had two shaky wins against inferior opponents (Akron and Connecticut), but they previously beat Notre Dame 41-30 behind quarterback Devin Gardner, who put up the ninth-best single-game yards total (376) in team history. They are a rising program under third-year coach Brady Hoke with tremendous momentum on the recruiting trail. The growing feeling is that the Big Ten soon will revert to the Big Two (Ohio State and Michigan) and everyone else.

Speaking of those Buckeyes, they have yet to lose a game under second-year coach Urban Meyer. Yesterday, quarterback Braxton Miller returned from injury to spark Ohio State to a 31-24 win against Wisconsin. The fourth-ranked Buckeyes are loaded at quarterback with Miller and beloved backup Kenny Guiton. Their first Big Ten title since 2009 seems likely, and they could be headed for the BCS title game.

And here we have Maryland and Rutgers. They are still nine months away from becoming official Big Ten members, but most Big Ten fans wish their arrival date could be pushed to, you know, never. Maryland is 4-0 and ranked No. 25 and Rutgers is 3-1 after a win against Bret Bielema's Arkansas Razorbacks, but few expect either team to truly boost the Big Ten. Legends and Leaders had a stronger approval rating than these two.

OK, now we're heading back to the present. Aaaand ... we're back.

It's only been a year, but the Big Ten landscape has dramatically shifted, particularly in the state of Michigan.

Since Sept. 29, 2013, Michigan State is 13-1 with a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl championship. The Spartans have outscored their opponents 497-223. Cook has thrown 26 touchdowns against eight interceptions. MSU's lone loss came in a place (Oregon's Autzen Stadium) where most suffer the same fate. Mark Dantonio is considered one of the nation's premier coaches, and his team remains alive for the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Fifty miles away, the Michigan program is in utter disarray. The Wolverines are 2-3. They ended the Notre Dame series by suffering their first shutout since 1984. They failed to score an offensive touchdown against Utah. They suffered their largest home loss to Minnesota (30-14) since 1962. Hoke has lost eight of his past 11 games but said after the Minnesota game that he still thinks Michigan can win the Big Ten. Um ...

(Just a reminder: there's no smoking of anything in the Big Ten time machine.)

If losing isn't bad enough, Hoke faces more heat for leaving quarterback Shane Morris in the game despite Morris wobbling after absorbing a helmet-to-helmet hit. Perhaps the only Michigan employee less popular than Hoke right now is his boss, athletic director Dave Brandon, whose department was mocked following last week's Coca-Cola/free tickets fiasco.

Things aren't nearly as bleak in Columbus, but Ohio State isn't the juggernaut it was a year ago. The Buckeyes haven't beaten a Power 5 team since Michigan in The Game last November. Miller is out for the season with a shoulder injury. The secondary remains vulnerable. Young quarterback J.T. Barrett is improving, but struggled against the only top-90 defense he has faced so far (Virginia Tech).

Maryland and Rutgers, meanwhile, are a combined 8-2, each with a 3-point loss as the lone setback. The Terrapins lead the East Division, and Rutgers looks much improved on both sides of the ball. The Big Ten hasn't had many bright spots this season, but Maryland and Rutgers are two of them.

"College football," Dantonio said, "is such a changing landscape."

Expect the unexpected, especially in the Big Ten. The past year in this league shows that the only guarantee is that the future won't resemble the present.

Perhaps there is hope for Michigan. Michigan State, meanwhile, can't get complacent. No one knows what the coming weeks will bring.

"We still have things to prove," Dantonio said. "Our reputation right now is built off of last year's success. It starts here.

"We have to play in the present."

Weekend Rewind: Big Ten

September, 29, 2014
Sep 29
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Time for some clarity in the Big Ten.

Pretenders and contenders will be more easily defined at the open of October than during the mayhem of the early weeks, when next to nothing went right for the Big Ten. Even just last week, confusion reigned after the league went 12-1 with four wins over Power 5 foes.

Well, Saturday was more down to Earth. Week 5 offered a better look at the Big Ten’s true colors than we’ve seen at any time this season.

The verdict: The talent on display in offensive outbursts on Saturday can take Michigan State and Ohio State far in this league. Wisconsin and Iowa might have to win ugly all year. Penn State is not as good as it looked through four games; Northwestern is better than it appeared through three.

Indiana still isn’t consistent enough to pencil into a bowl game. Minnesota and Maryland should not be overlooked.

And Nebraska, the league’s lone unbeaten, gets its chance this week to prove it belongs in the national conversation with MSU and OSU. The Huskers visit Spartan Stadium on Saturday.

We’ll get to that soon enough. First, let’s rewind.

[+] EnlargeLittle Brown Jug
Leon Halip/Getty ImaesMinnesota throttled Michigan in the Big House to claim the Little Brown Jug for just the second time since 1987.
Team of the week: How can it be any group other than Minnesota? As I was reminded in the wake of the Gophers’ 30-14 throttling of Michigan at the Big House, even my preseason best-case scenario for Minnesota did not include a win over the Wolverines. Clearly, I forgot to account for the possibility of a full-blown Michigan meltdown. But that’s not what led to the Gophers’ second win in the past 24 years of this series; Minnesota earned this. David Cobb rushed for 183 yards against a defense that entered the game ninth nationally against the run. Minnesota held Michigan to 171 yards. Fans greeted the Gophers upon their return to the Twin Cities. Apparently, they all wanted a look at the Little Brown Jug. Enjoy it, Minnesota.

Biggest play: Down 20-10 to Wisconsin, South Florida QB Mike White hit Kennard Swanson for a 52-yard gain that looked set to get the Bulls in position for a touchdown that could cut the Badgers’ lead to three points. But a lunging hit by Wisconsin freshman Lubern Figaro jarred the football loose from Swanson. Linebacker Vince Biegel recovered at the 10-yard line, and Wisconsin drove 90 yards in 18 plays for the backbreaking score. Without that turnover, it might have ended differently.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova fired four touchdowns in the Scarlet Knights’ 31-6 win over Tulane. Nova was notably efficient in the first half, hitting 9 of 9 throws for 195 yards and three scores. In the process, he moved his career total to 61 touchdown passes, passing Mike Teel for the school record.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory is officially back. The intimidating junior, who missed the Huskers’ first two games with a knee injury, recorded 2.5 sacks among his seven tackles and three quarterback hurries in a 45-14 Nebraska thumping of Illinois. Gregory looks more dangerous than ever, often lining up at the second level as a linebacker hybrid. He even delivered a devastating block on Nate Gerry’s 53-yard interception return.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Maryland place-kicker Brad Craddock connected on three field goals, including two from 48 yards in the Terrapins’ 37-15 win over Indiana, to stay perfect for the season on 10 attempts.

Biggest faceplant: Aside from Michigan -- no repeat winners -- it’s Indiana. What happened to the Hoosiers? They followed the groundbreaking win at Mizzou by failing to show at home as Maryland looked solid in its inaugural league game. So much for the Hoosiers' triple threat on offense. The Terps’ quarterback duo of C.J. Brown and Caleb Rowe teamed with receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long to steal the show.

Facts and numbers to know: Michigan ranks last nationally in turnover margin at minus-12 and 90th in offensive efficiency, according to ESPN Stats and Info. ... Nebraska I-back Ameer Abdullah rushed for 208 yards, moving his nation-leading season total to 833 yards. The Huskers, as a team, rushed for 458 yards against Illinois, totaling 190 on the ground, with no passing yards, in the first quarter. ... Rutgers has recorded 21 sacks in five games. ... Wisconsin remains the only team nationally not to surrender a red-zone touchdown. ... Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz earned his 65th conference victory to tie former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez for 10th all time. ... Ohio State’s 710 yards of offense against Cincinnati came within 8 yards of the school record and marked its highest output since totaling 715 against Utah in 1986. ... Michigan State has scored 174 points in three home games and 50 in back-to-back games for the first time since 1978. ... Northwestern held Penn State to 18 rushing yards in the first three quarters of its 29-6 win.

Big Ten bowl projections: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
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How far will Michigan fall?

We'll find out during the next two months, but for now, the Wolverines have fallen out of the bowl projections. Brady Hoke's team sits at 2-3, and the offense has shown no signs of a turnaround. It's hard to envision Michigan winning one Big Ten game right now, much less the four it will need in its final seven to qualify for a bowl berth.

Indiana also falls out of the projections after a 37-15 home loss to Maryland. After seemingly turning a corner the week before at Missouri, the Hoosiers struggled to build on the victory as a normally potent offense did next to nothing against the Terrapins. Kevin Wilson's team has the talent to go bowling but must show it can handle success better going forward.

Penn State tumbles a bit in the projections after being exposed in a 29-6 home loss to Northwestern. We're not quite ready to put Northwestern back in the projections, but another big win would change that.

Nebraska and Maryland are among this week's risers. We still have both Michigan State and Ohio State heading to top bowls. Minnesota is another team to watch as the Gophers try to build on a strong performance at the Big House.

Without further ado ...

Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton/Fiesta/Orange: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton/Fiesta/Orange: Ohio State
Capital One: Nebraska
Outback: Wisconsin
National University Holiday: Iowa
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Maryland
San Francisco: Penn State
New Era Pinstripe: Rutgers
Quick Lane: Minnesota
Heart of Dallas: Indiana

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
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Five lessons from an interesting Saturday in the Big Ten:

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook and Michigan State's offense rolled again in a win over Wyoming on Saturday.
1. Offenses surging in East Lansing and Columbus: OK, so the opposing defenses haven't exactly been stout. Still, it's hard not to notice the huge offensive numbers Michigan State and Ohio State are putting up. The Spartans scored 56 points in a win against Wyoming on Saturday, a week after posting 73 against Eastern Michigan. They're averaging 50.3 points per game for the season, which is ridiculous when you consider the state of the MSU offense a year ago. Connor Cook is in complete command of the game plan, and Jeremy Langford had his first 100-yard day of the season. "We have never exploded like this out of the gate with our offense," head coach Mark Dantonio said. Meanwhile, Ohio State has bounced back nicely after predictably struggling early with a new quarterback and revamped offensive line. The Buckeyes briefly set a school record for total yards against Cincinnati before losing 20 yards on the penultimate play; still, they finished with 710 yards and a school record 45 (!) first downs in a 50-28 victory. Quarterback J.T. Barrett, who threw for 330 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions, is growing up quickly, and Ezekiel Elliott shows signs of becoming a star tailback. That's 116 points in the past two weeks for Urban Meyer's team. The competition will improve very soon, but both teams could pull away from the pack in the East Division if their offenses build off these performances.

2. Defenses carrying Wisconsin, Iowa: Things are going the other way in Madison and Iowa City. Other than the past week's shredding of Bowling Green, Wisconsin has yet to play an impressive, full game offensively. The Badgers had only three points at halftime against South Florida before they finally got on track in the second half of a 27-10 win. But Wisconsin's defense has been stout all season. Gary Andersen's team is the only FBS squad yet to give up a red zone touchdown this season, and the defense forced two turnovers against the Bulls. Iowa fans found out Saturday that C.J. Beathard isn't going to single-handedly transform an at times frustrating offense. But the Hawkeyes' D held Purdue without an offensive touchdown and allowed only 156 total yards -- and only 82 in the final three quarters -- in a 24-10 road win. If the offenses ever get revved up, both Wisconsin and Iowa will be very dangerous. Right now, at least, both are winning with defense.

3. Minnesota and Maryland are stealth contenders: Neither the Gophers nor the Terrapins generated much buzz this preseason as possible division contenders -- understandably so, given their recent histories. But both will at the very least be factors in the race to Indianapolis. Maryland is a play or two against West Virginia from being 5-0 and has shown explosive playmaking ability on both sides of the ball. Even with quarterback C.J. Brown injured in the first half at Indiana, Randy Edsall's team kept rolling behind Caleb Rowe in an easy 37-15 win -- the Terps' second straight, double-digit road victory. Minnesota thoroughly dominated Michigan in the Big House 30-14 and -- in a refreshing change -- displayed at least some competency in the running game. With their defense and the running of David Cobb, the Gophers can make some noise in the West despite a challenging final four games (Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska, at Wisconsin). Meanwhile, Maryland could have a big say in the East as division powers Michigan State and Ohio State (next week) have to go to College Park.

4. Bill comes due for Penn State's issues: It's never been any secret the Nittany Lions had serious deficiencies on their offensive line and, consequently, in the running game. James Franklin and his staff did a great job covering those in the first four games, all Penn State wins. But it's hard to win with those weaknesses in Big Ten play, and Northwestern -- despite its own problems of late -- exploited them in a big way during Saturday's stunning 29-6 win at Beaver Stadium. Penn State ran for only 50 total yards, and Christian Hackenberg was sacked four times while being pressured all game. Hackenberg had one of the worst games of his short career, but it was unreasonable to expect him to carry the entire offense the entire season. The Nittany Lions' problems aren't easy to fix, but at least they have a bye week coming up to search for answers.

5. Ameer Abdullah deserves to be a leading Heisman contender: Nebraska's senior running back is putting together a potential season for the ages. Against Illinois, he ran for 208 yards and three touchdowns while barely playing in the second half of a 45-14 win. That's the third 200-plus yard game for Abdullah this season, and he's on pace for 2,000 yards. The Cornhuskers are the lone remaining unbeaten Big Ten team, and they wouldn't be if not for their leader. Abdullah gets a spotlight opportunity next week at Michigan State, but he deserves all the Heisman love you can throw at him right now.
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- An entertaining matchup at Ohio Stadium featured some of everything, but not all that much defense. Ohio State was able to weather all the punches Cincinnati threw its way in a high-scoring affair on Saturday night, eventually pulling away for a 50-28 win to close out its nonconference schedule.

How the game was won: As long as the Buckeyes didn’t hurt themselves with penalties, dropped passes or a fumble, there wasn’t anything that could slow down their offense. Cincinnati didn’t see much resistance when it had the ball, either, but it really had no answer for an Ohio State spread attack that is starting to look exactly like Urban Meyer envisioned by blending a powerful rushing game with dangerous play-action passes.

Game ball goes to: J.T. Barrett. The redshirt freshman is developing quickly for the Buckeyes, and he’s doing a pretty impressive Braxton Miller impression in the process. With Ohio State’s defense struggling to offer much support, Barrett proved more than capable of winning a shootout by throwing for 330 yards and four touchdowns and complementing that with 79 rushing yards.

What it means: The fatal flaw that ruined Ohio State’s bid for a national title last season doesn’t appear to have been fixed quite yet. The Bearcats picked apart the Buckeyes through the air with Gunner Kiel making them pay for every defensive breakdown with 352 yards and four touchdowns. That’s a troubling sign for Meyer, who brought in co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash in the offseason solely to address that issue.

Playoff implications: The suspect secondary probably didn’t inspire much confidence around the country about Ohio State’s chances of climbing back in the race. But the Buckeyes survived a tough test from a motivated Cincinnati squad to at least keep hope alive if they can navigate the conference slate without a loss. For the Bearcats, any long-shot chance of crashing the party is gone.

What’s next: The Buckeyes wrapped up an interesting month outside of the Big Ten, a trying stretch that started during training camp with Miller’s injury, included the loss to Virginia Tech and then the indefinite suspension of defensive end Noah Spence. At least in the conference race, a new season starts next week with what should be a tough matchup at Maryland.

Big Ten viewer's guide: Week 5

September, 27, 2014
Sep 27
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After a banner Saturday a week ago, what does the Big Ten have planned for an encore? It can't win as many games as it did last week since conference play is set to kick off with five matchups inside the league. But there are still a handful of opportunities on the table that can bolster the Big Ten reputation -- and, in one case, a chance to right the ship after a disastrous performance last week.

The fun is set to really begin now. Here's the full rundown of the day (all times Eastern):

Noon games

South Florida (2-2) at No. 19 Wisconsin (2-1), ESPNU: The Badgers and star running back Melvin Gordon roared to life last week, and they've got a chance to continue building momentum heading into Big Ten play. If Gordon keeps up the eye-popping yards per carry he posted in the win over Bowling Green, he could be right back in the Heisman Trophy conversation after a slow start.

Tulane (1-3) at Rutgers (3-1), ESPNEWS: The Scarlet Knights have a chance to run the table outside of the Big Ten, which would be pretty useful in helping them qualify for a bowl game in their first year in the league. The loss of running back Paul James to a season-ending injury is a big blow, but he probably won't be missed against the Green Wave.

Iowa (3-1) at Purdue (2-2), BTN: The Hawkeyes might not technically have a quarterback controversy, but they were clearly energized last week when C.J. Beathard came in to relieve an injured Jake Rudock. If Rudock is healthy, Iowa might play both of them against the Boilermakers, who haven't won a conference game since the last week of the 2012 regular season.

Wyoming (3-1) at No. 9 Michigan State (2-1), ESPN2: The Cowboys have been impressive under new coach Craig Bohl, even trading a few early punches with Oregon before getting blown out. Michigan State stood toe-to-toe into the second half with the Ducks and look like the most talented team in the Big Ten, which is clearly a significant advantage over the Pokes.

Northwestern (1-2) at Penn State (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten), BTN: After struggling in a pair of losses before a bye week, the Wildcats didn't look much better in an ugly win over Western Illinois. That doesn't bode well for a trip to Penn State, which is brimming with confidence and in position to build on its fast start in the East Division.

Maryland (3-1) at Indiana (2-1), 1:30 p.m., BTN: Despite a loss for each team, both the Terrapins and Hoosiers have been pleasant surprises during the season's first month. Indiana bounced back with an impressive defensive outing to upset Missouri on the road, and that unit will be put to the test by a Maryland attack loaded with playmakers.

Mid-afternoon game

Minnesota (3-1) at Michigan (2-2), 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2 mirror: Brady Hoke's seat is warm enough as it is, but it would be scorching if the Gophers come into the Big House and leave with the Little Brown Jug. Minnesota's defense is capable of making Michigan's turnover woes worse, and no matter who plays quarterback for the Gophers, the running game is a handful.

Night games

Cincinnati (2-0) at No. 22 Ohio State (2-1), 6 p.m., BTN: The Buckeyes used their bye week to gear up for Cincinnati quarterback Gunner Kiel and his lethal receiving corps, which will provide the first real test for a revamped secondary. After already dropping one game outside of the Big Ten, Ohio State can't afford to lose a second if it's going to climb back into the playoff picture.

Illinois (3-1) at No. 21 Nebraska (4-0), 9 p.m., BTN: For whatever it's worth, the pollsters still aren't showing much love to the Huskers. But as long as they keep winning, they're going to be tough for the selection committee to ignore. Wes Lunt and a high-flying Illinois offense are entertaining to watch, and with Ameer Abdullah lining up against a suspect defense, this prime-time matchup should feature plenty of fireworks.

Required reading

Week 5 predictions

Tracking our B1G fantasy teams

Take Two: Is Michigan or Florida in better shape for a turnaround?

"Wow moments" arriving for Ohio State's Michael Thomas

Indiana defense more confident than ever

C.J. Beathard ready when the call comes

Uncertainty not an issue for Minnesota QBs

The Miracle at Michigan: 20 years later

Cincinnati knows Ohio State game is huge

Big Ten awards race tracker

B1G 1/4 season review: Bold Predictions | Surprise player | Surprise team

For Tanner McEvoy, actions louder than words

True test coming for revamped Ohio State defense

B1G running backs deserve place in Heisman race

Planning for success: Indiana

No easy fix coming for Michigan offense

Take Two: B1G's best receiving tandem

Penn State, Northwestern very far apart

Big Ten Week 5 predictions

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
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Can Michigan bounce back? Can Indiana build off last week's big upset win over Missouri? Our experts make their Week 5 picks.

 

Why Maryland will win: Our best chance for an offensive shootout in the conference this weekend will be in Bloomington. Indiana's up-tempo offense took down reigning SEC East champ Missouri last weekend. Maryland has the firepower to keep pace. Quarterback C.J. Brown has gotten consistently stronger in the passing game over the past few weeks and has a handful of big-play targets surrounding him. The Terps sounded geeked to make their Big Ten debut during the week of preparation, which should help them outlast Indiana in a close one. Maryland 38, Indiana 33 -- Dan Murphy

Why Indiana will win: Because these Hoosiers are different. They're not going to disappoint their fans, as is customary for IU football. They're not going to follow a big win with a deflating loss before a home crowd itching for something about which to get excited. These Hoosiers are different because of running back Tevin Coleman, the do-it-all junior who might rank as the most underrated player in college football. Indiana has momentum after its road upset at Missouri and motivation to continue to prove that a loss two weeks ago at Bowling Green was an aberration -- that this is a team ready to play in the postseason. And if all that isn't enough, the Hoosiers aren't playing Michigan State; they're simply good enough to outscore Maryland. Indiana 35, Maryland 27 -- Mitch Sherman

 

Why Minnesota will win: Michigan's generosity with the football has been well documented, and it doesn't even seem to matter who plays quarterback as those woes continued even after Devin Gardner was removed from last week's loss to Utah. On the flip side, only one team in the nation has more takeaways than Minnesota's defense, and that combination doesn't seem like a great recipe for the Wolverines to hold on to the Little Brown Jug. The Gophers have had their own problems protecting the football, but a powerful rushing attack and stout defense should put them in position to make Brady Hoke's life even more difficult. Minnesota 20, Michigan 13 -- Austin Ward

Why Michigan will win: The season is really on the line for the Wolverines and coach Brady Hoke. If U-M loses, a bowl berth suddenly seems unlikely and Hoke's seat would be hotter than ever with some tough games remaining in a competitive East Division (Penn State, Michigan State, Ohio State). I don't think Michigan is done yet, and the Wolverines seem to always find a way to beat Minnesota, even with their weaker teams (see: 2008). Michigan's defense matches up well against a one-dimensional Gophers offense. Minnesota's ability to take the ball away scares me, but I think Michigan grinds out a win in a low-scoring game to keep Hoke alive. Michigan 13, Minnesota 10 -- Adam Rittenberg

Unanimous selections

Michigan State over Wyoming 42-6: A tuneup for the Spartans, who host Nebraska next week. The Cowboys have fared well this year without scoring many points. They won't score many in East Lansing, either, though it comes with a less favorable outcome.

Ohio State over Cincinnati 45-17: The Buckeyes, off a bye week, continue to take steps forward by stopping Cincinnati QB Gunner Kiel, who has thrown 10 touchdowns in two games. Ohio State puts up a big rushing number.

Penn State over Northwestern 24-10: The Nittany Lions continue to get it done with defense -- especially up front, where breakout senior tackle Anthony Zettel makes life miserable for the punchless Wildcats, who average 4.54 yards per play, 116th nationally.

Nebraska over Illinois 48-24: The Huskers avoid a letdown, between big games against Miami and Michigan State, behind strong performances again from running back Ameer Abdullah and QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. as another slow start dooms the Illini.

Iowa over Purdue 28-20: More signs of improvement from the Boilermakers, but for a second straight week, QB C.J. Beathard rallies the Hawkeyes in the second half as Iowa starts to find an identity by getting its talented cast of receivers more involved.

Wisconsin over USF 56-14: That big soft spot in the schedule allows for another easy win as the Badgers run wild again. More important, QB Tanner McEvoy enjoys a solid game, and the Wisconsin defense surges forward, hinting at the capabilities of this team in a few weeks.

Rutgers over Tulane 37-17: The Scarlet Knights get a week before Big Ten play resumes to devise a way to replace injured running back Paul James. Against the Green Wave, who struggle to stop the run, Justin Goodwin and Desmon Peoples fill in nicely.

Our records:

Adam Rittenberg: 40-10 (80 percent)
Mitch Sherman: 40-10 (80)
Brian Bennett: 39-11 (78)
Austin Ward: 39-11 (78)
Josh Moyer: 36-14 (72)
Dan Murphy: 9-4 (69)
A rival recruiter believes Kevin Sumlin’s not-so-subtle message to former Texas A&M pledge DaMarkus Lodge could come back to haunt the Aggies. Plus, one of Florida’s top defensive commitments appears to be looking around.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- If all Urban Meyer wanted was something to feel good about and reassure him progress on defense was being made, the Ohio State coach has plenty of numbers he can pull to set his mind at ease.

The Buckeyes just pitched a shutout before their bye week. They’ve already intercepted five passes. Only two teams in the nation are allowing fewer yards per game through the air.

Those things may be encouraging, and Meyer certainly isn’t complaining considering Ohio State’s horrendous pass coverage a year ago effectively cost them a Big Ten title and a shot at a national championship. But those statistics provide something of a false positive, because the reworked secondary of the No. 22 Buckeyes hasn't really been tested yet.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPrete"This is the test," Urban Meyer said of Cincinnati. "This is the one that we're all shooting for."
But Cincinnati figures to give them that test on Saturday night at Ohio Stadium.

“Here we go,” Meyer said. “This is the test. This is the one that we’re all shooting for.

“They’re really good at throwing the ball, and it will be a challenge for us. But I really can't make an evaluation yet after the first three games.”

The signs appear to be pointing in the right direction under new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who was brought in to lead the overhaul of a coverage unit that finished No. 110 in the nation last season against the pass.

Ohio State was routinely torched down the stretch a year ago, barely surviving a shootout against Michigan before falling to both Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl thanks largely to breakdowns in the secondary. Meyer didn’t hesitate in the aftermath of the losses that snapped a 24-game winning streak to express his frustration with a defense that wasn’t playing as aggressively as he wanted, and after Everett Withers left following the season to take over at James Madison, it was up to Ash to dial up the intensity and deliver what his new boss wanted in the secondary.

So far, he appears to be delivering that with a system that relies on simpler schemes, man coverage and players with fearless mentalities who don’t back down from the challenge of intense competition on every snap.

“We did make improvement, but again, we’ve got a long way to go in a lot of areas,” Ash said. “It’s hard to answer [how much improvement there is], because I don’t really know. I was hoping that we would be good, but I was hoping that we would be undefeated at this point and we’re not.

“Where are we at right now? We won [against Kent State], we made improvement and that’s all we can ask for.”

Kent State is a far cry offensively from Cincinnati, and the Buckeyes haven’t pretended otherwise since pitching a shutout ahead of their off date and turning the focus to one of the nation’s most dangerous quarterbacks and a talented receiving corps.

Ohio State had already snuck a peek at Gunner Kiel and the explosive Bearcats before taking on Kent State, watching the redshirt sophomore’s debut in a Friday-night game in which he carved up Toledo for six touchdowns. He was impressive again in another win last weekend against Miami (Ohio), and his hot start and the strength of the Cincinnati offense is clearly not a secret to the Buckeyes.

But with just three weeks of somewhat worthless data on hand, Ohio State is actually welcoming a measuring stick for the revamped secondary. That way Meyer might finally have something worth evaluating to put his mind at ease -- or maybe some evidence that last year’s problems haven’t yet been solved.

“We’ve got some things to work out, but we’re getting there, real close,” safety Tyvis Powell said. “I’m just excited about playing the game, and we’re ready to just display to the world that the pass defense has improved.”

Early Offer: What a win for Wilson 

September, 22, 2014
Sep 22
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Missouri and Indiana often tangle on the recruiting trail, but now Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson has a big victory to recruit against the Tigers with. Plus, UCLA and Notre Dame are locked in a battle for the nation's top tight end prospect.

[+] EnlargeKevin Wilson
AJ Mast/Icon SportswireKevin Wilson and Indiana hope to get a recruiting boost from Saturday's 31-27 win against Missouri.
1. Indiana's 31-27 victory against No. 18 Missouri this past Saturday is the type of win that can go a long way on the recruiting trail. Because of its location, Missouri is one of the few SEC schools that actively targets players in the Midwest, and it is quite common for the Hoosiers and Tigers to tangle over players in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and even in St. Louis. For the most part, Mizzou has had its way with IU, but now Hoosier coach Kevin Wilson has a breakthrough win to recruit with. As one Big Ten recruiter told me on Monday, "that's the type of win that can change recruits' minds."

2. On Monday RecruitingNation released the latest edition of the Recruiter Power rankings and UCLA’s Adrian Klemm came in at No. 2 on the list. A big reason why Klemm is ranked so high is because he was able to land ESPN 300 tight end Alize Jones, the No. 1 tight end in the country. However, there’s some legitimate concern in Westwood that Jones could end up at Notre Dame. A source indicated the Bruins are doing everything they can to "fight off Notre Dame's advances." Jones continues to say he’s still with the Bruins and is only looking around at the Irish as a security blanket, but insiders believe the interest is much more than just that.

3. What an interesting few days it’s been for Draper (Utah) Corner Canyon offensive tackle Branden Bowen. On Saturday, Bowen, the No. 5 player in Utah, committed to the Utes to give Kyle Whittingham a nice in-state recruiting victory. Then hours later on Sunday, he tweeted he had picked up an offer from Ohio State, a school he admitted he was hoping to receive an offer from earlier in the process. It will be interesting to see if the Utes can keep Bowen on board, or if the Buckeyes' offer is too tempting to pass up.

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Social Studies

Often players link their highlight videos on their social media accounts, but you almost never see them posting their grades or test scores. So give Alabama commit Christian Bell a whole lot of credit for posting his ACT score for everybody to see. It's the type of highlight that also should be cheered.

Early Offer: Tough times ahead for UF? 

September, 21, 2014
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Recruiting in the SEC is already difficult, but the difficulty in Gainesville is about to be ratcheted up even more as rival recruiters are already pressuring Florida recruits to reconsider. Plus, it was clear Saturday night that Oregon needs help on the offensive line, but the good news is that help is on the way.

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Big Ten bowl projections: Week 4

September, 21, 2014
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Those in Ann Arbor will understandably disagree, but Week 4 was a very good one for the Big Ten. The league went 12-1 and won several games in impressive fashion. When almost every team handles its bid-ness, there's not much shuffling in the bowl projections.

The big development this week is Indiana's return. Seven days after an all-too-typical, potentially bowl-crushing loss at Bowling Green, Indiana recorded its biggest win in years, shocking No. 18 Missouri on the road. The Hoosiers are back in the projections and could rise higher in the coming weeks if they can build on the Missouri win. For now, we have them receiving an at-large bowl invitation.

Michigan moves down after its loss to Utah. The Michigan brand still carries weight in the bowl pecking order, but this Wolverines team could have a tough time reaching the six-win mark if its offense doesn't dramatically improve. The Wolverines are last nationally in turnover margin at minus-10 through four games. Yuck.

For now, we have Michigan essentially staying home for bowl season in Detroit.

New Big Tenners Maryland and Rutgers, meanwhile, move up after impressive starts.

Expect more shuffling next week as Big Ten play begins in full force. Several matchups could affect the order, namely Minnesota visiting Michigan and Indiana visiting Maryland.

To the projections ...

Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton/Fiesta/Orange: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton/Fiesta/Orange: Ohio State
Capital One: Penn State
Outback: Nebraska
National University Holiday: Wisconsin
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City: Iowa
San Francisco: Maryland
New Era Pinstripe: Rutgers
Quick Lane: Michigan
Heart of Dallas: Minnesota
At-large: Indiana

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