NCF Nation: Penn State Nittany Lions

Ranking the Big Ten coaching jobs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14. Purdue
Purdue is Indiana without the added benefit of Bloomington, a great college town. Ross-Ade Stadium could use a face-lift, and West Lafayette lacks the charm of other campuses in the conference.

B1G roundtable: Coaching job with most upside?

February, 24, 2015
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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.

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

Tuesday's roundtable topic: What Big Ten coaching job has the most upside?

Brian Bennett: Maryland

You can look at this question a number of ways. I chose to view it as a program that's not currently viewed in any way, shape or form as one of the nation's top jobs, yet has the potential for serious growth. That's why I picked the Terrapins. Granted, to do so means to ignore much of history, as Maryland's past couple of decades contain a lot of mediocrity (or worse). Ardent fan support isn't really there, either; this is anecdotal, but here at the Big Ten blog, we almost never hear a peep from Terps fans (and the ACC folks will tell you the same was true in their neighborhood).

Even still, this job has a lot of things going for it. The school is located in a fertile, if highly competitive, location for recruits. Under Armour founder Kevin Plank could be Maryland's version of Phil Knight, pouring money into the program and upping the "coolness" factor. Ralph Friedgen showed from 2001 to 2003 -- when the Terrapins went 31-8 and finished first or second in the ACC each season -- that very good things are possible in College Park under the right circumstances. It will be an uphill climb in the East Division, but the upside certainly exists.

Mitch Sherman: Penn State

The Nittany Lions haven’t gone more than five straight years without a 10-win season since the early 1960s -- a streak in jeopardy in 2015 after a tumultuous stretch in the wake of tragedy, scandal and two coaching changes. Are there 10 wins on Penn State's schedule in 2015? If coach James Franklin can fix the offense during the offseason, maybe. Regardless, Penn State is a 10-win program -- and it can reach greater heights in special seasons, which remain within reach amid the rigorous East Division. Its combination of fan support, resources, natural recruiting ground and history match that of the best programs in the Big Ten.

Three years ago, Penn State wasn’t a top-five coaching job in the league. The work of Franklin, predecessor Bill O’Brien and the school administration has repositioned the Nittany Lions to emerge from this dark period and make strides as significant as any Big Ten team during the next two to three years.

Dan Murphy: Michigan

Michigan's program isn't in the top tier of the Big Ten right now, but it offers the biggest reward for the coach who can boost this team up a level. Much like at Penn State, all of the resources (financial and human) that come with a winning tradition are in place in Ann Arbor. It only takes a little bit of momentum for those advantages to start working in Michigan's favor. If and when they do, the infrastructure is in place for the Wolverines to eventually compete for conference titles and playoff spots. The Michigan coach has opportunities to take incremental steps forward (a bowl game one season, a win over a hated rival the next, etc.) to keep that momentum rolling in the right direction. Jim Harbaugh is already considered one of the top coaches in the game, but a speedy turnaround at Michigan would launch him to exalted status in the Mitten State.
The Ultimate ESPN 300 list is loaded with intriguing stories. From unheralded players rising to the top to players not yet reaching their potential, the list has everything. To outline a few of those intriguing players, here is a look at the top five within the Big Ten:

The ceaseless debate over conference strength waged here and in other forums ultimately centers on one question: How many teams in League X are capable of winning a national championship in Season Y?

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

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

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

But how long does it last?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's what we found:

Five-star recruits

None

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

* -- junior college recruits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two things to note:

1. Recruiting rankings are inherently subjective

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

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

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

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

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

How realistic is that goal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Ten changed its fortunes on New Year's Day. National signing day looms, and league should gain a greater share of the spotlight, providing a springboard to the offseason.
This week, we're examining a problematic position for each Big Ten team during the 2014 season and how it can potentially be repaired in 2015.

Penn State takes its turn in the spotlight now.

Problem position: Offensive line

Why the offensive line was a problem in 2014: Everyone who followed the Nittany Lions worried about the O-line going into the season. Miles Dieffenbach suffered an injury in the offseason that would keep him sidelined most of the year, leaving left tackle Donovan Smith as the only experienced player on the unit. Depth was so thin that coach James Franklin and his staff had to flip a couple defensive tackles over to the offensive guard spots. The problems ended up being worse than just about anyone imagined, as Penn State fielded the league's worst rushing attack (101.9 yards per game) and gave up an almost unfathomable 44 sacks, which was more than every Power 5 team except Wake Forest. For comparison's sake, the 44 sacks were more than Michigan State, Wisconsin and Rutgers combined to allow in 2014. The line woes were encapsulated by this unforgettable image.

How it can be fixed (solutions on the roster): Smith played well despite the chaos and chose to enter the NFL draft rather than use his final year of eligibility. Dieffenbach, who missed the first eight games last season, also departs. Andrew Nelson showed promise as a redshirt freshman at right tackle and could move to the left side. Angelo Mangiro and Brian Gaia join him as returning starters. Penn State also redshirted four offensive linemen last season and will hope at least a couple of them are ready to contribute in 2015.

How it can be fixed (potential help from 2015 recruiting class): The Nittany Lions currently have four offensive linemen committed in this year's class, three of whom are in the ESPN 300: tackles Sterling Jenkins and Ryan Bates and guard Steven Gonzalez. The fourth is a junior college transfer: 6-foot-8, 300-pounder Paris Palmer, who could step in and start right away.

Early 2015 outlook: Franklin and position coach Herb Hand know offensive line is a major problem right now, and they have worked to address that in recruiting. Scholarship cuts from NCAA sanctions and injuries hit the unit hard, but help appears to be on the way. The line looks to be incredibly young in 2015, however, so some quick development will be needed to better protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg and establish a more reputable run game.
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It’s not often a recruit commits to the same school twice, but that’s what happened with ESPN 300 receiver John Burt on Monday.


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Penn State and Pittsburgh haven't played since the 2000 season, cooling off a spicy in-state rivalry.

Thanks to the (relatively) new coaching staff, namely Penn State assistant Herb Hand -- he of "Chopped" fame -- things are getting stirred up again.

New Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi, never one to back down from a challenge -- just ask Michigan -- started the chirping shortly after his hiring. Asked in late December about the pledge from Penn State coach James Franklin to "dominate the state," Narduzzi told a local radio station, "We had a school like that down the road in Michigan that maybe had the same attitude."

Things are spilling into social media now. Franklin and his staff are extremely active, and Pitt's new staff has joined the fun, as colleague Andrea Adelson writes.

The teams' offensive line coaches -- Penn State's Hand and Pitt's John Peterson -- entered the Twitter ring Wednesday night.

Peterson got things started with this graphic, proclaiming Pitt as the state's premier program. Hand didn't take kindly to it, listing Penn State's accomplishments over Pitt last season, including a bowl win and a better record against common foes (Penn State went 2-0 against Boston College and Akron; Pitt went 1-1). Is mentioning Pitt's bowl collapse a shot below the belt? Ouch. Hand then proceeded to drop the mic, SNL style. A night's rest didn't cool off Hand, who added this picture Thursday morning. Your move, Pitt coaches. By the way, Penn State and Pitt resume their series Sept. 10, 2016 in the Steel City. The game can't get here soon enough.
To quote the band Europe, we're in the final countdown. Our list of the best Big Ten players from the 2014 season has reached the top 10. This next group reflects the league's strongest position (by far): running back.

Let's get to it.

No. 6: Ameer Abdullah, RB Nebraska

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

No. 7: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State

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

No. 8: Anthony Zettel, DT, Penn State

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

No. 9: David Cobb, RB, Minnesota

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

No. 10: Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State

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

Daily Social Roundup: UCLA checks in with Iman Marshall 

January, 22, 2015
Jan 22
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Wednesday marked the two-week point until national signing day and coaches were out in force on the recruiting trail, with UCLA's visit to No. 4 overall prospect Iman Marshall leading the headlines.


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The weeklong countdown of the best players in the Big Ten from 2014 continues with the next set of five, headlined by a trio of linemen.

No. 11: Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State

The anchor on the interior for an Ohio State defense that grew into a dominant unit as the season progressed, Bennett played his best as his senior season neared an end. He accumulated five of his seven sacks and 9.5 of 14 tackles behind the line of scrimmage in November and the Big Ten championship game. By the time the Buckeyes controlled seemingly unstoppable Alabama and Oregon, Bennett was a force as part of a ferocious front four that made life much easier for the play-making linebackers and defensive backs behind him.

No. 12: Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa

A rock of consistency amid an up-and-down Iowa offense, Scherff did his part to contribute to the Hawkeyes' success. The Outland Trophy winner couldn't score touchdowns, though he would have gladly tried if given the chance. Scherff displayed his legendary strength and quick feet in protecting the blind side of Jake Rudock. When the Iowa offense hummed against Indiana, Northwestern and Illinois, Scherff was at the center of it.

No. 13: Taylor Decker, OT, Ohio State

The lone returning starter on an Ohio State offensive line that developed from a potential liability into a fearsome five-some over 15 games, Decker served as a cornerstone of the Buckeyes' success. Over the final four games, against Michigan, Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon, Ohio State rushed for 15 touchdowns. Credit Ezekiel Elliott -- but also Decker, a 6-foot-7 junior, and the line for punishing opponents as games grew long. And with inexperienced quarterbacks taking snaps all season, it was Decker who provided a security blanket in pass protection.

No. 14: Mike Hull, LB, Penn State

Hull didn't just lead the Nittany Lions in tackles as a senior. He led the Big Ten by a margin of 28 stops. A tackling machine, he served as the “heart and soul,” according to defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, of a group that carried PSU through 2014. Led by Hull and his 140 tackles, the defense led the Big Ten in yards allowed per game and play and in scoring, among numerous other categories. The sure-handed Hull was always in place to clean up. He contributed 10.5 tackles for losses and excelled in a leadership role.

No. 15: Tony Lippett, WR, Michigan State

Voted the team MVP and Big Ten receiver of the year, Lippett leaves MSU after catching 65 passes for a league-best 1,198 yards and 11 touchdowns. Firmly established as Connor Cook's top target, Lippett drew the attention of every MSU foe but often came up big against the best competition; against Oregon, for instance, he caught a career-best 11 passes. And Lippett did more than just catch passes. He started at cornerback on Senior Day against Rutgers and saw extensive time on defense against Penn State.
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A name and a number are grabbing headlines Friday after the NCAA reached a settlement in the lawsuit filed against the association by two Pennsylvania state officials.

The name is Joe Paterno, the late Penn State football coach. The number is 409, the total victories Paterno's record once again displays, making him college football's winningest coach.

But Friday's settlement is really about four letters -- NCAA -- and the four-letter words that should be used to describe its repeatedly shoddy approach to crisis management. Two and a half years after the NCAA stepped into uncharted waters, opting to levy historic penalties against Penn State and its football program in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, the association sunk.

"The NCAA," Pennsylvania state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said, "has surrendered."

Corman and state Treasurer Robert McCord justifiably claimed victory in their lawsuit against the NCAA. Friday's settlement invalidates the consent decree Penn State had agreed to in July 2012, and all the remaining penalties imposed on the university, including the 112 vacated wins in football between 1998 and 2011.

The NCAA's intent in pursuing penalties against Penn State was understandable, perhaps even justified, but its methods were flawed right from the very start: July 23, 2012.

Hours after NCAA president Mark Emmert announced historic sanctions against Penn State, penalties the school had agreed to by signing a consent decree, I spoke via phone with Oregon State president Ed Ray, the chair of the NCAA's executive committee. Ray had attended the NCAA's news conference in Indianapolis that day, before flying back to Oregon.

In the interim, Penn State president Rodney Erickson had told media outlets that if he hadn't signed the consent decree, the NCAA would have imposed the so-called death penalty on Penn State's football program, suspending play for the 2012 season.

So I asked Ray about the possibility of imposing the death penalty:
President Erickson was quoted today as saying that Penn State accepted that deal because if not, you would have decided to suspend play. Can you confirm that?

Ray: I've known Rod for a long time. I didn't hear what he said. I was on a plane flying back to Oregon. But I can tell you categorically, there was never a threat made to anyone about suspension of play if the consent decree was not agreed to.

So it wasn't as though you said, "Take this deal or we're shutting you down"?

Ray: That was never even a point of discussion within either the executive committee or the Division I board.

So right away, there were questions about how the NCAA had gone about obtaining the consent decree. Emmert had made the decision to step into the mud, and he seemed to get dirty right away.

Penn State bought the apparent bluff at the time, but now it's the NCAA that's folding.

The NCAA's news release announcing the settlement begins with the line: "Programs serving child sexual abuse survivors will now receive millions of dollars as part of the NCAA's proposed settlement with Pennsylvania state officials."

University of South Carolina president Harris Pastides, a member of the NCAA's board of governors, added in a statement: "Continuing this litigation would further delay the distribution of funds to child sexual abuse survivors for years, undermining the very intent of the fine. While others will focus on the return of wins, our top priority is on protecting, educating and nurturing young people."

That's true, but it's also well-spun. Make no mistake, this was a huge loss for the NCAA and once again underscored the association's dysfunctional approach to crisis management.

"The agreement we've reached represents a complete victory," Corman said at a news conference in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

He later likened the settlement to achieving the mercy rule.

"They were way behind in the case," he said.

Although Corman's political victory lap and sports-themed statements seemed inappropriate, given the sensitive and tragic nature of what went on at Penn State during Sandusky's tenure, he's right about the NCAA's rush to judgment. It was an incredibly emotional time, days after the university-commissioned Freeh report lambasted top Penn State officials, including Paterno, for their failure to take appropriate action against Sandusky when allegations first surfaced against the assistant coach.

There was unprecedented pressure on the NCAA from both the public and media to act. There also was the fundamental question of whether the NCAA had a role in punishing Penn State. This was new territory, and the NCAA, under Emmert's leadership, had to decide whether to cross into it.

Two and a half years later, it's clear the association veered far off course.

The problems were there from the start in the bumbling way Emmert approached Erickson about the death penalty and consent decree.

In a deposition obtained by USA Today, Erickson said Emmert told him, "Presidents want blood. He said they would like to shut your program down for multiple years; never seen them so angry or upset. He thought the only way to head this off would be to craft a package of what he said would be very, very severe sanctions; that he might -- he emphasized might -- be willing to get the boards to look favorably upon."

The NCAA contends that the presidents discussed the death penalty early in the process but removed the option before voting on sanctions. But according to USA Today, on the same day the sanctions were announced, David Berst, the NCAA's vice president for Division I governance, wrote in an email to the Conference Commissioners Association that many presidents had favored the death penalty.

People lied here, either to Penn State or to one another. The NCAA, known for being slow, finalized the Penn State penalties only 11 days after the Freeh report went public. The climate might have demanded action, but prudence would have been a better approach. Or avoidance, as difficult as that would have been.

Not surprisingly, much of the focus is on the restored wins, Paterno's legacy and what's next. Current and former Penn State players are tweeting #409, a tribute to Paterno's restored wins total. Many want the Paterno statue restored outside Beaver Stadium.

But this is far from over.

The NCAA said it will "aggressively defend" itself in the lawsuit brought by Paterno's family, which in a statement called Friday's proposed settlement "a great victory for everyone who has fought for the truth in the Sandusky tragedy."

The Paterno family statement adds of the sanctions: "It was a grievously wrong action, precipitated by panic, rather than a thoughtful and careful examination of the facts."

After what has surfaced about the NCAA's methods, there's truth to that.

Asked Friday at the NCAA convention whether he had any regrets in pursuing penalties against Penn State, Emmert replied, "We don't ever want to have to repeat this exercise."

It's important to know your limitations.

The NCAA didn't in the summer of 2012, and it paid the price in the winter of 2015.

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A dispiriting drought ended for the Big Ten on Monday night in Arlington, Texas. Another could end in April 2016 at an yet-to-be-determined location.

Ohio State's victory against Oregon gave the the Big Ten its first national championship since the 2002 season. No single accomplishment can help a league's reputation more than winning a national championship.

But there's another distinction the Big Ten would like to ditch. The league hasn't had a quarterback drafted in the first round of the NFL draft since Penn State's Kerry Collins in 1995 (No. 5 overall to Carolina). Collins, now 42, played his final NFL season in 2011.

The first-round quarterback draftee drought isn't nearly as significant as the national championship drought in determining the Big Ten's value. The league has produced several standout pro quarterbacks drafted after the first round, most recently Wisconsin's Russell Wilson, a third-round pick who helped Seattle win the Super Bowl last season.

[+] EnlargeCardale Jones
Darren Carroll for ESPNCardale Jones, if he wins the Ohio State starting job, could also end the Big Ten's first-round quarterback drought in 2016.
Still, two decades without a single first-rounder at quarterback is pretty stunning. It won't end April 30 in Chicago. Although the Big Ten could have its best first-round showing in years, the group won't include a quarterback.

But there's a decent chance, perhaps a good one, that things will change in 2016. Cardale Jones' decision to return to Ohio State gives the league another quarterback with the potential to go high in the draft. ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. projected Jones as a second- or third-round pick in this year's draft if he had elected to leave Ohio State. Kiper's assessment came despite Jones having just three career starts and 94 career pass attempts under his belt with the Buckeyes.

Jones, of course, must first retain the starting job at Ohio State, which will be no easy task when more experienced quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller return from serious injuries. But if "12 Gauge" remains Ohio State's triggerman, grows his game as a redshirt junior and perhaps leads the Buckeyes to a national title, his draft stock surely will climb higher. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Jones checks all the boxes for NFL measurables -- huge arm, powerful runner, good feet -- and he already has proven himself a winner at the highest level of college football.

There's certainly some risk in Jones returning to Ohio State. But to think his draft stock can't get any higher is to doubt his ability to grow. If the last six weeks have taught us anything, it's not to doubt Cardale Jones.

Even if Jones doesn't start or backslides in his play, another Big Ten quarterback could crack the first round in 2016. Michigan State's Connor Cook and Penn State's Christian Hackenberg both have the ingredients to earn high draft grades in 2016 (Hackenberg, who just completed his sophomore year, would be an early draft entrant).



Let's begin with Hackenberg, who flourished in Bill O'Brien's offense in 2013, winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. At this time last year, many viewed the Penn State quarterback as a first-round lock in 2016 and a candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick. But Hackenberg endured a rough sophomore season behind a flimsy line, throwing 15 interceptions against 12 touchdowns and was sacked 44 times. His frustration grew and he had several sideline blow-ups with offensive coordinator John Donovan.

But opposing coaches tell me Hackenberg wasn't the problem with Penn State's offense. If the line is fixed -- the Lions will have more bodies there in 2015 -- Hackenberg's performance should improve. He still projects extremely well to the next level, and his top three receivers are back.

Cook might have earned a first-round grade if he chose to skip his senior year. He could cement himself as a No. 1 pick with a strong senior season. Cook has flourished in Michigan State's pro-style offense, throwing 46 touchdown passes the past two seasons. Like Jones, Cook is a proven winner, having led Michigan State to consecutive top-five finishes, consecutive major bowl victories and a Big Ten championship in 2013. His playmaking ability is obvious, but his ability to rebound from bad plays like this will really stick out to NFL personnel evaluators.

Jones, Hackenberg and Cook all have the potential to end the Big Ten's first-round quarterback famine, and other candidates could emerge. Quarterback might be a strength in the league. (It will be at Ohio State.)

The Big Ten waited a long time to for a team to raise the national championship trophy.

Now it waits for another sign of progress: a quarterback walking across the stage on the first night of the NFL draft.

Big Ten all-bowl team

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

Offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specialists

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

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

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

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