NCF Nation: Wisconsin Badgers
Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl
Why Illinois will win: There has been a noticeable change in the Illini down the stretch, and Tim Beckman’s players appeared to have fully bought in to his message as they fought back to qualify for a bowl game. Across the board, this looks like the most favorable matchup for any Big Ten team, and with a motivated team playing its best football when it mattered most, expect Illinois to come away with a trophy. Illinois 31, Louisiana Tech 24. -- Austin Ward
Why Louisiana Tech will win: I suppose I should believe more in Illinois after it finished the season strong, and Louisiana Tech has some bad losses on its schedule (Northwestern State and Old Dominion … oy). But I still have a wait-and-see attitude with this Illini defense, and the one thing the Bulldogs can do is score points. They averaged 37.5 points per game this season, and I think they'll win a shootout against a group of players not accustomed to the bowl stage. Louisiana Tech 38, Illinois 35. -- Brian Bennett
Quick Lane Bowl
Why Rutgers will win: Rutgers has already played four of the nation's top 10 defenses and a half-dozen of the top 25 rushing attacks. So, even with dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams, North Carolina isn'’t going to throw anything at Rutgers it hasn’t already seen. The Tar Heels have one of the worst defenses in the country -- only 10 have allowed more yards -- so Rutgers shouldn’t have a problem scoring. The issue here is Rutgers' defense, but, again, Rutgers has fared OK there against middle-of-the-road teams, and that's exactly what UNC is.
Rutgers 38, North Carolina 31. -- Josh Moyer
New Era Pinstripe Bowl
Why Boston College will win: It's fitting this bowl is played in Yankee Stadium because the final score might look like it belongs to a baseball game. Both teams have top-five rushing defenses and middling offensive production. Boston College quarterback Tyler Murphy, a former Florida Gator who transferred before this season, has been the X factor this season that helped BC beat USC and stick within a field goal of Florida State. Murphy does most of his damage on the ground, and that plays in Penn State's favor. But if he can break one or two big plays, that should be enough for a close win. Boston College 10, Penn State 6. -- Dan Murphy
Why Penn State will win: Let’s be honest: The Nittany Lions offense is lousy, and the special teams (outside of Sam Ficken) are almost just as bad. But I'm going with Penn State for the same reason it made a bowl game in the first place: defense. Only four teams in the FBS threw for fewer yards than Boston College, and no team defended the run better than Penn State. That works right into the strengths of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. Plus, the Nittany Lions will be motivated in their first bowl appearance since 2011. Underestimate this team at your own peril; it ended the plast two seasons with even bigger upsets.
Penn State 16, Boston College 13. -- Josh Moyer
National University Holiday Bowl
Why USC will win: Because the Trojans have more offensive firepower than any team to face Nebraska this season -- and the Huskers have surrendered 475 yards per game to Miami, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Minnesota. USC, with quarterback Cody Kessler, running back Buck Allen and receiver Nelson Agholor, will torment a Nebraska team that might feel a bit lost without deposed coach Bo Pelini. The Huskers, organizationally, figure to struggle after a tumultuous month. They're stuck in turmoil as USC looks to build off a strong finish to the regular season in a win over Notre Dame. USC 38, Nebraska 24. -- Mitch Sherman
Foster Farms Bowl
Why Stanford will win: This is a virtual home game for the Cardinal in nearby Santa Clara, California, while the Terrapins have to travel all the way across the country. Stanford struggled earlier in the season but seemed to find its footing late, beating UCLA by 21 points in the regular-season finale. Maryland has been unpredictable most of the season and has enough big-play ability to pull off an upset. But it's a tall order. Stanford 24, Maryland 17. -- Brian Bennett
Why Wisconsin will win: It's been a topsy-turvy three weeks for the Badgers, between losing 59-0 in the Big Ten title game and then losing their head coach, but this group isn't one to just lie down, and I can't envision Melvin Gordon taking it easy in the last game of his college career. How you view this game is basically a reflection of how you view that Big Ten championship -- and I see that as an anomaly. It won't happen again against Auburn. I still think Wisconsin has a great defense. I still think this offensive line can overpower Auburn. And I still think these players want to win one for Barry Alvarez. Auburn has an average defense and a great offense, but the Badgers win a close one in the end. Wisconsin 31, Auburn 28. -- Josh Moyer
Why Auburn will win: You can bet Auburn coach Gus Malzahn watched the Big Ten championship game with a big smile on his face. Ohio State had its way with Wisconsin's supposedly elite defense despite using a quarterback making his first career start with only one week to prepare. Auburn has as much, or more, offensive talent and speed as Ohio State, and it has a veteran quarterback in Nick Marshall. The Tigers' shaky defense could struggle with Gordon, Wisconsin's All-America running back, but it should be able to outscore the Badgers. Wisconsin can't match up with Sammie Coates in the back end and could struggle with Marshall and Cameron Artis-Payne on the perimeter. Auburn 35, Wisconsin 24. -- Adam Rittenberg
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
Why Michigan State will win: The fearsome Spartans defense has already allowed more than 40 points twice this season. There's a decent chance it will happen a third time against Baylor, the country's No. 1 offense, but Michigan State is no slouch on offense, either, and should be able to keep pace. While Baylor uses a breakneck tempo to get its advantage, the Spartans rely more on their instinct to grind opponents down. If Michigan State can control the pace of the game and get a couple of stops, it should be able to avoid falling to 0-3 against top-10 opponents this season. Michigan State 45, Baylor 42. -- Dan Murphy
Why Baylor will win: Michigan State faced two ranked teams this season and lost both games in unflattering fashion. Oregon and Ohio State hung 46 and 49 points, respectively, on the Spartans as Michigan State's offense just couldn't keep up. The problem for Mark Dantonio's squad? Baylor’s offense is even better. The Bears are ranked No. 1 in the country in scoring and yards, so the "No-Fly Zone" could have as much a hard time stopping Bryce Petty as it did Marcus Mariota. The Spartans are a good team, but I just don't like this matchup for them. MSU starts off strong but Baylor pulls away in the second half.
Baylor 45, Michigan State 35. -- Josh Moyer
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl
Why Minnesota will win: The SEC East champions were already given fits by a Big Ten team, and Indiana won only a single conference game after knocking off Missouri on the road. Minnesota, with its power rushing attack, aggressive defense and solid leadership from the coaching staff, was better than the Hoosiers in virtually every way this season. Plus, it will be fired up to end the season on a high note with a fan base excited for the destination. The Gophers claim more hardware here. Minnesota 27, Missouri 20. -- Austin Ward
Why Missouri will win: All the Gophers have to do is follow Indiana's game plan from the Hoosiers' 31-27 upset in Columbia, Missouri, back in September, right? It might not be that easy. While the Tigers benefited from playing in the terrible SEC East, Missouri did improve as the season went along and has a strong rush defense that allowed just 3.5 yards per carry. That means Mitch Leidner will likely have to make some plays -- and avoid the fierce pass rush of Shane Ray. Minnesota has an excellent shot here, but I like Missouri in a close one.
Missouri 27, Minnesota 24. -- Brian Bennett
Why Tennessee will win: Bowl games are often about motivation and momentum, and Tennessee trumps Iowa in both areas. The Vols are that incredibly young, talented team that should benefit more than most from bowl practices and the chance to punctuate this season before a 2015 campaign that will carry much higher expectations. Iowa has a good track record in bowls but comes in on a down note after a very disappointing regular season. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs sparked Tennessee down the stretch and should give Iowa's defense trouble. Tennessee's defense should pressure Iowa's quarterbacks into mistakes.
Tennessee 24, Iowa 17. -- Adam Rittenberg
Allstate Sugar Bowl
Why Ohio State will win: Urban Meyer doesn't need to call on his psychological tricks for an underdog team all that often, though the Ohio State coach did already have a couple occasions to do so this year. Look at what happened to Michigan State and Wisconsin when the Buckeyes felt slighted and Meyer pushed their buttons to bring out their best. Certainly, No. 1 Alabama is the ultimate test and is favored for a reason, but Ohio State has the personnel to match up with the SEC champions, and the Buckeyes have one more chance to shock everyone in what has been already been a stunning season. Ohio State 31, Alabama 30. -- Austin Ward
Why Alabama will win: Have you watched the Crimson Tide? They have the best talent nationally and possibly the best coaching. Ohio State is not too bad itself, with a young and fast-improving stable under Meyer, but Alabama is several steps ahead and tested against a daunting schedule in the SEC West. If it boils down to playmakers, the Buckeyes will be at a disadvantage for the first time this season -- perhaps a big disadvantage. Ohio State simply can't match Blake Sims, Amari Cooper and the Bama backs with a third-string quarterback in Cardale Jones and weapons elsewhere whose athleticism won't surprise the Alabama defense.
Alabama 31, Ohio State 17. -- Mitch Sherman
1. Austin Ward: 88-25 (.779)
T-2. Brian Bennett: 85-28 (.752)
T-2. Mitch Sherman: 85-28 (.752)
4. Dan Murphy: 57-19 (.750)
5. Adam Rittenberg: 83-30 (.735)
6. Josh Moyer: 82-31 (.726)
Wisconsin knows exactly what it's getting in new head coach Paul Chryst, who played for the Badgers and served as an assistant for two different stints. And maybe more importantly, Chryst knows exactly what he's walking into with Wisconsin.
This is a guy who, as he told it in his news conference on Wednesday night, delivered newspapers as a kid to Camp Randall Stadium. If anyone understands the culture of Madison and the Badgers athletic program, it's Chryst. That should help him hit the ground running faster than many new coaches.
"You don't feel like you have to understand or learn the whole lay of the land," Chryst told ESPN.com in a phone interview. "We have our work cut out for us, and we look forward to rolling up the sleeves and getting to work.
"But you should be able to draw on some of the experiences we've had. I know a lot of the high school coaches and a lot of the people on campus, so hopefully that can kind of shorten the learning curve a little bit."
And it means that Chryst shouldn't be blindsided by some of the issues that have been blamed for Wisconsin unexpectedly losing its last two coaches -- Bret Bielema to Arkansas in 2012 and Gary Andersen to Oregon State earlier this month.
One of Bielema's chief complaints was the lack of competitive salaries for his assistants. Chryst was making a little more than $400,000 as offensive coordinator at Wisconsin in 2011 when he was hired as the head coach at Pitt. He hasn't officially hired any assistants yet with the Badgers but said he will meet with coaches on Thursday. Retaining current defensive coordinator Dave Aranda remains a distinct possibility.
"I'm really confident that we can put together a heck of a staff," he said. "There's no question in my mind that there is a commitment here, not just with the football improvements but throughout the whole athletic program. There's a true commitment.
"I don't know honestly if [the salary structure] has changed since I've been here. I just feel real confident about the support we have had and will have here."
Andersen was reportedly frustrated with Wisconsin's academic admissions standards that prevented him from bringing in certain recruits. Chryst said he's proud of his degree from the school and thinks the high standards should be viewed as an advantage.
"I think every place has its uniquenesses," he said. "I've got to learn and see what are the differences from when I was last back here. But there's been a history here for a long time that academics are important. I think recruiting is all about finding a fit, and I feel real confident that we're going to find guys that are great fits with this university."
And what of the rumors that athletic director and Hall of Fame coach Barry Alvarez casts too long of a shadow? Chryst coached under Alvarez once and then came back to join him for his final season. He views him as a mentor and vital sounding board.
"I learned a lot from Coach Alvarez," Chryst said. "One of the big reasons I came back in 2005 was him.
"He's a tremendous resource. He always shoots you straight and has had a lot of experiences you can draw on. And he also understands and knows who I am."
Chryst stopped short of calling Wisconsin his dream job or that it was even a destination job. "I think you've got to earn the right to stay that long," he said. But it was clear from his memories of Madison that the city and the school have a strong tug on him, and he said even many of his Pitt players understood why he had to make the move.
It remains to be seen whether Chryst's homecoming will turn out to be the fairy tale story it looks like. But one thing's clear: Both sides know exactly what they're getting.
The familiar story line will be trotted out again, one that has trailed Pitt for four years now through a series of botched coaching moves.
People will take one glance and declare, “Oh, would you look at that? Pitt is hiring another coach again!”
It is unavoidable to look at the messy track record since Dave Wannstedt was fired at the end of the 2010 season. Athletic director Steve Pederson fell victim to that, losing his job Wednesday night in a clear indication the administration had lost faith in his ability to hire a head coach.
But losing Paul Chryst does not fit the narrative hoisted onto the Panthers since they made the mistake of hiring Mike Haywood, then Todd Graham, over a one-month span bridging 2010 and 2011.
Truthfully, Chryst leaving for Wisconsin should just be chalked up to bad luck.
He was not a coach looking to take the next train out.
Then the Wisconsin job unexpectedly came open when Gary Andersen bolted for Oregon State after two years with the Badgers. And well, you got the feeling Chryst would be the only call athletic director Barry Alvarez would make. When Bret Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas in 2012, Chryst -- a Madison, Wisconsin, native and former Badgers quarterback -- looked like the top candidate, too. But the timing was bad.
Chryst was not about to pull a Graham and leave Pitt after one season.
Now, the timing is just about perfect. While Pitt has not been much better than average in the three seasons he has coached the Panthers, perspective is in order -- and a big reason why his overall record should be ignored.
Pitt was an absolute disaster when Chryst was hired to replace Graham, who left for Arizona State after one year on the job. There was an absence of leadership and loyalty, not to mention a hodge-podge locker room filled with players who had committed to various coaches no longer there.
Players needed somebody they could trust. Chryst, with his guy-next-door demeanor and low-key attitude, proved to be the right man to steady the program. He knew Pitt was not going to be an easy fix. So did athletic director Steve Pederson.
So Chryst got to work, slowly reshaping the program in his image. He took no shortcuts, making tough decisions when they were needed, like parting ways with talented players like Rushel Shell, Tra'Von Chapman and Drew Carswell.
It has taken three years to get the locker room in order and get the players to believe and get everybody pulling in the same direction. Had any other program come calling, Chryst may have very well said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
But Wisconsin has a pull nobody else does. Simply put, Wisconsin is home.
So his decision to leave is understandable and should not be seen as a reflection on the Pitt job itself. Chryst is not a career opportunist like Graham, who trotted out one excuse after another when he hightailed it to Tempe.
If there is one silver lining here, it is that Pitt is no longer a toxic mess. Chryst has left the program in much better shape than he found it. In back-to-back years, Pitt has had the ACC Defensive Player of the Year (Aaron Donald) and ACC Player of the Year (Conner). Pitt fans will tell you there are actually two silver linings: getting rid of Pederson means somebody who has not swung and missed multiple times will have the opportunity to hire a coach who should be able to win immediately.
After racking up 1,675 yards rushing, Conner returns. So does All-ACC receiver Tyler Boyd, who has posted consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Quarterback Chad Voytik also will be back, having shown growth in the latter half of the season. In all, 15 starters are expected to return to a team that will be older and much more experienced.
After all, Pitt went through training camp with 81 underclassmen (53 freshmen and 28 sophomores), the highest total of any FBS team in the country.
It is undeniable that losing Chryst is a blow to the players and the program. It is hard to find a more likeable guy. Though his time at Pitt was brief, he made this a much more attractive job.
For that, he deserves a hearty pat on the back. Chryst may not have finished the job, but it was a job well done nonetheless.
It used to be that Wisconsin was the picture of stability.
Barry Alvarez coached the Badgers from 1990 until 2005, and then the Hall of Famer's handpicked successor, Bret Bielema, kept the operation running smoothly while preserving the same style of play. But lately, change has become almost a constant in Madison, Wisconsin.
A fifth-year senior on next season's team will be playing for his third head coach (or fourth, if you count Alvarez stepping in to coach a bowl game -- twice). If that player is on the offensive side of the ball, he'll be working under his third different offensive coordinator. And if he's an offensive lineman, his head is probably spinning from all the turnover there.
That's a huge reason why bringing back Paul Chryst to succeed the shockingly departed Gary Andersen carries so much appeal for the Badgers. The belief is that Chryst -- who was born and raised in Madison, played quarterback for Wisconsin in the 1980s and was an assistant coach under both Alvarez and Bielema -- isn't just some short-timer like Andersen. He wouldn't jump at a midlevel SEC job like Bielema. He could be, if all goes well, a lifer.
The hiring of Chryst also indicates that Wisconsin itself isn't likely to change.
Thanks to his history in and around the program, Chryst is likely to know all of these things when he walks in the door. And he'll understand what it takes to work around some of those restrictions. There should be zero buyer's remorse, as seemed to be the case with Andersen when he bolted after just two seasons.
Just hiring a guy because he knows the place and isn't likely to leave right away, however, is rarely a good idea. If that's all this were, then Wisconsin could be trading one problem for another. But Chryst could also be the right guy at the right time for this job.
Forget his pedestrian 19-19 record at Pitt. He inherited a program whose revolving coaching door makes the Badgers' recent problems pale in comparison. Focus instead on his work from his previous stint in Madison, and how much Wisconsin could use that again.
In Chryst's final season as offensive coordinator, 2011, the Badgers set a dozen school records, including points per game (44.1) and total offense. The team averaged 39.2 points per game from 2009 to 2011. Chryst, who was also the quarterbacks coach, turned Scott Tolzien into a reliable starter and future pro and of course experienced his greatest success with Russell Wilson at the helm.
It's no coincidence that Wisconsin has struggled to find consistent play from its quarterbacks since Chryst left for Pitt, and that's one of the biggest areas that has held the team back from winning its most challenging games. The running attack and powerful offensive line should remain a constant going forward, but better performances under center could lift the program toward being more than just a Big Ten West Division power. Another Russell Wilson isn't likely to fall out of the sky, but it's way past time for Wisconsin -- which just got destroyed by a third-string quarterback in the Big Ten championship game -- to develop a respectable passing game.
If Chryst can convince current defensive coordinator Dave Aranda -- one of the brightest defensive young minds in football -- to stick around, along with bringing popular former Wisconsin assistant Joe Rudolph back with him from Pitt, then he would have the makings of an excellent coaching staff (and one that will need to be paid accordingly, by the way). Chryst is not a rah-rah guy who's going to light up the room in a news conference, but then neither was Andersen. His personality should mesh well with Alvarez and the long shadow he still casts from the athletic director's office.
Alvarez might have hired Chryst after Bielema left in December 2012 if Chryst had coached more than one season at Pitt by that point. Now he's handing the keys over to a guy he's liked and admired for years.
Wisconsin has averaged 9.7 wins per season over the past 10 years. It has won three Big Ten titles plus this year's West Division crown in the past five years. There aren't many reasons to overhaul the way things have been done in Madison. And maybe, just maybe, there won't be a need for more coaching changes again in the near future.
It's humbling for a fan base to see a coach voluntarily leave its program. It's especially humbling to see it happen twice in the past three years. It's especially, especially humbling when coaches leave a winning, established program that is coming off appearances in the Big Ten championship game.
Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen clearly didn't see Wisconsin as a destination job. Bielema wanted to chase a championship in the nation's toughest conference at a program flush with resources. Andersen became fed up with Wisconsin's admissions office and the difficulty of getting his targeted players into school. Their eyes wandered and they left town.
Chryst is coming home to Madison, where he spent most of his childhood, his college years and part of his adult life as a Badgers assistant in 2002 and again from 2005-11. He intends to stay for a while. Those close to him say Wisconsin is his dream college job and that he would only leave to lead an NFL team. Coincidentally, Chryst did the reverse Gary Andersen, leaving Oregon State's offensive coordinator post for Wisconsin's after the 2004 season.
Let's not be delusional about the Big Ten or modern-day coaches. The days of Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Barry Alvarez, Hayden Fry, Joe Paterno and others who saw Big Ten programs as career endpoints likely are over. Kirk Ferentz is completing his 16th season at Iowa, while Pat Fitzgerald just finished his ninth at Northwestern and Mark Dantonio wraps up his eighth at Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. None seems to be in a hurry to leave on their own accord, but they're more the exceptions in today's game.
Expecting any coach to spend 15-20 years in one place isn't realistic. But the Big Ten also can't have coaches voluntarily leaving every season. A Big Ten coach has chosen to depart in each of the past three seasons: Bielema (2012), Penn State's Bill O'Brien (2013) and now Andersen. Of the three, only O'Brien left for a definitive step up, the NFL's Houston Texans.
Look at Big Ten basketball, which boasts elite coaches -- Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, Ohio State's Thad Matta and Michigan's John Beilein -- who view their jobs as destinations. That's what Big Ten football needs.
Chryst puts a stop in the revolving door at Wisconsin, and several of the Big Ten's top programs could be entering a period of coaching stability:
Nebraska: Whether Cornhuskers fans like the Mike Riley hire or not, Riley isn't going anywhere. He sees Nebraska as a last stop, and despite his age (61), he still has great energy for the job. His predecessor, Bo Pelini, didn't voluntarily leave Nebraska, but there were incessant rumors during his tenure about him looking at other jobs. Some think if Nebraska had won the 2012 Big Ten title game instead of Wisconsin, Pelini would have landed at Arkansas instead of Bielema.
Ohio State: Urban Meyer quickly has rebuilt Ohio State into a national power and a playoff contender for years to come. There's always some concern about Meyer's longevity at a job, but he's not mentioned for NFL positions and seems completely settled in Columbus. He might not coach the Buckeyes for 10-15 years, but he's seemingly not on the verge of an exit, either.
Penn State: Amid the excitement of his arrival, James Franklin repeatedly noted that Penn State had work to do with its roster deficiencies, which showed up throughout the fall. Franklin likely will see this process through, and, like Meyer in Ohio, he has roots in Pennsylvania. He has plenty of job security, and unless he becomes frustrated with the post-sanctions effects, won't be looking to leave.
Michigan is the wild card here, but the Wolverines should be seeking some stability in its next coach. After having just three coaches between 1969 and 2007, Michigan will have its third in eight seasons next fall. Jim Harbaugh is the home run hire for the Wolverines, but not if he returns to the NFL in two or three years. Michigan needs an elite coach who wants to stick around, and it shouldn't compromise either criteria. Brady Hoke would have stayed in Ann Arbor forever, but he wasn't getting it done on the field.
Stability doesn't automatically equal success. After a very disappointing regular season, Iowa's Ferentz finds himself in a category of long-tenured, mostly successful coaches -- Georgia's Mark Richt, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy -- who some want to see move on. Stability can become stale, but cycling through coaches every few years almost guarantees struggle.
Amazingly, Wisconsin has avoided a downturn despite its coaching turnover. Now it has a coach who can keep things rolling without constantly looking for the next best thing.
Michigan's impending hire should calm the Big Ten coaching carousel for a while. And with relative stability at the top programs, the league could be on the verge of a step forward.
Austin Ward: Thanks in large part to all the dirty work he was doing at the start of the year, Michael Bennett didn’t pile up the type of numbers that build a rock-solid case as an all-conference performer. But when it mattered most over the final month of the season, there probably wasn’t a defensive player in the league having a greater impact than the Ohio State senior as he made life miserable in the trenches in the most important games of the season for the Big Ten champs. Dating back to the road trip to Michigan State on Nov. 8, Bennett closed the season with 5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles down the stretch, looking every bit the All-American he was expected to be in the preseason.
Adam Rittenberg: I don't have a major beef with our selections this year, although it would have been nice to find a place for Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah on the offense. Melvin Gordon told me Wednesday that if Abdullah hadn't sustained a knee injury in early November, he also would have reached the 2,000-yard plateau. Imagine if the Big Ten had three 2,000-yard rushers in the same season. Safety wasn't the strongest position in the league this year, while cornerback turned out to be surprisingly good.
Dan Murphy: It's too bad we can't field an entire offense out of running backs because the Big Ten had almost enough of them worthy of filling out an all-conference roster. Minnesota teammates and cousins David Cobb (running back) and Damien Wilson (middle linebacker) both were left of the list after great years for a surprising Gophers team. Cobb would have made the team in most other years, and Wilson was a narrow miss. Freshman receiver Mike Dudek also deserves some recognition, but there's a good chance his name will pop up here in the next few years.
Josh Moyer: Cornerback was relatively strong this season, so we decided to go with three corners and one safety on our team. As a result, Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond was the odd man out, and he’s a player who definitely deserves some recognition. He struggled a few times this season -- missing open-field tackles against Purdue and not faring well against Ohio State -- but he was still named the Big Ten defensive back of the year. We thought Wisconsin's Michael Caputo played better, but Drummond was still solid and was a first-team All-Big Ten selection by both the coaches and media. He helped keep Michigan State’s No-Fly Zone together, while leading the team in tackles (65), interceptions (4), pass breakups (11) and pass deflections (15). He just missed the cut.
Mitch Sherman: I'm not sure we picked the right defensive lineman from Iowa. Louis Trinca-Pasat enjoyed an outstanding year, outperforming fellow tackle Carl Davis, who was more highly regarded before the season. But what about Drew Ott, the disruptive end who collected eight sacks, 12 tackles behind the line, scored a touchdown against Nebraska, forced a fumble and picked off a pass? Ott is just as deserving as Michigan State's Calhoun, though I doubt there's room for two linemen from an Iowa defense that ranked firmly in the middle of the Big Ten. So with the variety of defensive looks employed around the league, I'd take three ends and one tackle, like the coaches and media teams, inserting Ott in place of Trinca-Pasat.
QB: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: Barrett broke the Big Ten single-season record for touchdowns produced with 45. He would have added to that total if not for a broken ankle in the regular-season finale vs. Michigan.
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: All he did was lead the FBS in rushing, break the Big Ten single-season rushing record and earn the Big Ten’s offensive player of the year honors.
RB: Tevin Coleman, Indiana: Coleman joined Gordon as the only other player in the country to top 2,000 yards; he would have been a serious Heisman contender in another year or on a more successful team.
WR: Tony Lippett, Michigan State: The Big Ten’s receiver of the year led the league with 1,124 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.
WR: Leonte Carroo, Rutgers: Carroo joined Lippett at over 1,000 yards and averaged 19.7 yards per catch.
TE: Maxx Williams, Minnesota: A John Mackey Award finalist, Williams was the Golden Gophers’ top receiver and crucial cog in their run game.
OT: Taylor Decker, Ohio State: Anchored a Buckeyes offensive line that developed into one of the league’s best over the course of the season.
OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He was named the Big Ten offensive lineman of the year and is a surefire NFL first-round draft pick.
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: The Spartans gave up fewer sacks (10) than any Big Ten club and had one of the league’s top offenses with Allen at the point of attack.
G: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: An ESPN All-American, Costigan helped pave the way for Gordon’s record-breaking runs.
G: Pat Elflein, Ohio State: He was a sturdy performer all season on the Buckeyes’ line as the offense scored at a rapid pace.
DE: Joey Bosa, Ohio State: The Big Ten defensive player of the year led the league in sacks (13.5) and tackles for loss (20) and tied for the lead with four forced fumbles.
DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: After a quiet start, Calhoun got back to his dominating ways and finished with 6.5 sacks.
DT: Anthony Zettel, Penn State: With eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss from the defensive tackle position, Zettel was the most disruptive interior lineman in the conference.
DT: Louis Trinca-Pasat, Iowa: LTP was a pleasant surprise for the Hawkeyes, leading the team with 11 tackles for loss and adding 6.5 sacks.
LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: Hull was the Big Ten linebacker of the year and led the league with 134 tackles.
LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan turned in a strong senior season with 112 tackles and 14 tackles for loss.
LB: Derek Landisch, Wisconsin: Any one of the Badgers’ four “Chevy Bad Boys” linebackers could have made the first team, but Landisch led the team with nine sacks and 16 tackles for loss.
DB: William Likely, Maryland: A big-play machine, Likely grabbed six interceptions and scored touchdowns on two of them.
DB: Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Minnesota: Like Likely, he was always in the middle of the action with four picks and a key strip late to seal the Nebraska win.
DB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: Probably the best pure cover guy in the league, Waynes is asked to do a whole lot as the point man in the Spartans' "No Fly Zone."
DB: Michael Caputo, Wisconsin: Caputo was the leader from his safety spot for a defense that was the best in the league during the regular season; he finished with 99 tackles.
K: Brad Craddock, Maryland: The Big Ten kicker of the year made his first 18 field goals this season, including a 57-yarder and a game-winner at Penn State.
P: Peter Mortell, Minnesota: Mortell was a field-position weapon for the Gophers, leading the league with a 45.5-yard average per attempt
PR: De'Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska: The freshman scored three touchdowns on punt returns and had a preposterous 17.8 yard average for the season.
All-purpose: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: We had to find a spot for Abdullah on the team, and since he returned kicks and was extremely versatile as a running back, this seemed like a good spot.
Suspense should be in short supply Saturday night in New York during the Heisman Trophy ceremony. Mariota and fellow Heisman finalists Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin and Amari Cooper of Alabama will sit nervously next to each other as the winner is announced. But deep down, all three know it will be Mariota, who picked up two more honors -- the Maxwell Award and the Davey O'Brien Award -- Thursday at the Home Depot College Football Awards at Disney World.
As a Heisman voter, I'm not allowed to reveal my vote until after the ceremony. But I can make predictions about the voting: it'll be Mariota in a landslide.
The Heisman was a legitimate two-man race entering championship weekend, as Mariota and Gordon both had strong cases. Then Mariota had his typical performance in the Pac-12 championship (313 pass yards, five total touchdowns), while Gordon was bottled up in the Big Ten title game (76 rush yards, no touchdowns).
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Or, if you're not convinced by numbers, give this stiff arm and 50-yard TD run up the middle a watch. Or this patient 40-yard run. Or this speedy 69-yard run outside the tackles. You only need one of his games to fill up a highlight reel -- and, as a matter of fact, those three clips all came from the same contest. (And, no, not Nebraska either. That’s too easy.)
Don’t believe your own eyes? OK, then listen to the coaches:
Minnesota’s Jerry Kill: “That guy on Wisconsin’s on a different planet right now.”
Bowling Green’s Dino Babers: “There is no doubt about it, that’s the best tailback I’ve seen in a long time. … He’s stiff-arming kids like he’s grown and playing in a Pop Warner game.”
Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz: “They’ve had a tradition of great backs. I’m not sure I’ve seen a better one than the one we’re going to see this Saturday.”
It’s not even fair to compare Gordon to other running backs this season. You’re better off comparing him to other teams. He has more 20 yards-and-longer runs (31) than 117 FBS teams, and he has single-handedly out-rushed 85 FBS teams. Actually, forget about comparing him to teams that maybe don't depend on the run. Let’s compare him to the Heisman-winning running backs of the past 25 years.
Of the five -- from Colorado’s Rashaan Salaam to Alabama’s Mark Ingram -- none have rushed for more yards, only Texas’ Ricky Williams has rushed for more touchdowns (Williams has 27 to Gordon’s 26, but Gordon has one game left), and none have boasted a better rushing average. Actually, to build off that last point: Gordon is averaging at least 1.5 yards a carry more than four of those five Heisman winners. (He’s averaging a “measly” 0.7 yards per carry more compared to Salaam’s 6.9 ypc.)
Gordon’s 2014 performance isn’t just the best in the Big Ten or the nation. Any way you want to judge this, it's still one of the best all-time seasons in college football history. Throw in the fact that Gordon didn’t have a passing offense to take off the pressure -- and that he had just 48 fourth-quarter carries all season -- and it’s even more impressive.
There’s a chance we won’t live to see a better rushing season than this one, especially with the evolution of the passing game.
So throw Gordon a bone here. The tagline “best since Barry Sanders” should mean something. Give him the Maxwell.
The embarrassment on the field was surely enough, but it's yet another blow-off that has Wisconsin reeling.
Losing 59-0 in the Big Ten title game is one thing. That was a short-term setback, and it didn't change the fact that Gary Andersen had just won the West Division and was starting to load up his roster with talented, athletic players who could continue to make his program an annual contender.
Losing another coach to what the Badgers would almost certainly view as a less-prestigious program is the bigger shot to the ego, though, and it will be the cause of some seriously difficult looks in the mirror for Barry Alvarez and his athletic department. This might well be another hurdle that can be cleared in a small time frame, but it suggests there might be more long-term issues for Wisconsin if it can't keep its successful coaches around in a conference that appears to be back on the upswing.
"The last two coaches have proven that," Alvarez said. "It wasn’t a destination job for them, but it was for me and it is for [basketball coach] Bo Ryan. Everybody is a little bit different. I don’t worry about that.
"We’ve got a good job, we’ve got a good place, we’ve got a consistent program. We’ve got a lot to sell. I’m not trying to paint any other picture other than a very positive picture, because it is positive."
The list of pros is indeed long for anybody who would like to come take over for Andersen, and Alvarez was expecting a long night on Wednesday with his "phone ringing off the hook" with candidates interested in leading a program that has played in five consecutive New Year's Day bowls. There are upgraded facilities on hand, including a new weight room and an academic center. And the path to the College Football Playoff currently isn't the most arduous around, though winning the Big Ten West isn't exactly a cakewalk with Nebraska, Minnesota and occasionally Iowa on hand in a division that can hand out a few bruises.
But there are certainly cons that come with the Wisconsin job, from a shallower recruiting pool in its backyard to high academic standards that can potentially trim its options to fill out the roster. But those didn't stop Andersen or Bielema from winning games, competing for championships or heading to prestigious postseason bowls. The issues in retaining those two coaches appear to be things Wisconsin actually has some control over and could change.
Is there really no room for flexibility in terms of getting in a few more recruits who might not have traditionally qualified? There's nothing wrong with a program rigorously holding itself to tough academic standards, but that makes it tougher to put together the best possible team and to possibly keep coaches who could more easily craft a squad in their image elsewhere.
Why doesn't Wisconsin have an assistant ranked higher than No. 77 in the nation in annual salary, according to the most recent USA Today database? There's no cap on spending for coaches, which makes it the one commodity in which schools with title aspirations should never get thrifty.
The possible academic hurdle can't be cleared with a checkbook, but certainly the other problem can be addressed simply by spending more money, and no school in the Big Ten can make any sort of legitimate claim that it doesn't have cash rolling in, thanks to its television contracts. With Wisconsin's passionate fan base filling Camp Randall Stadium, it's also unlikely that its revenue stream is going to dry up any time soon.
With Andersen, though, dollar signs probably weren't the tipping point; Oregon State actually checked in one spot behind Wisconsin nationally at No. 41 in payroll for assistants.
So what else is there? Perhaps the problem is with the boss, with Alvarez looming over a program he led for so many years. Given that he was able to win at a high level despite some of those limitations, might he or the athletic department be unwilling to make concessions that the game has truly changed since Alvarez was on the sideline? That question might be more difficult to answer and even more challenging to fix, given Alvarez's iconic stature with Wisconsin.
Either way, Alvarez is the guy looking for a new coach again. He joked that it would be the last time he would hire a football coach, but then he obviously wasn't ever anticipating the need to do make one after just two seasons with Andersen.
"I’m a big boy," he said. "I understand this business; just take a look around the country. People move for different reasons. That’s why I’m always prepared; that’s why I have a short list. I feel very confident we’ll put a good coach in place, and I promised the kids that. ... I know one thing, I won’t flinch.
"Our program will not take a step backward. We will replace Coach Andersen with another excellent coach and staff."
The trick this time is to make sure there's absolutely no reason to leave.
Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon talks about the impact of head coach Gary Andersen leaving Wisconsin for Oregon State.
Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said he was shocked. Badgers fans were shocked. And the players were no different.
Here's a look at their tweets:
@ballrb28 smh bro ....— Gordon | 25" | A01 (@Melvingordon25) December 10, 2014
It's a business.— TJ Watt (@_TJWatt) December 10, 2014
This hurt cause it's about more than Football man. Coach Anderson gave me a chance and believed in us before anyone else did. New start...— Lubern Figaro (@Lubern5) December 10, 2014
Can't even lie this =© HURT ....— Sojourn Shelton II (@SDS1_) December 10, 2014
Wow. Great timing— Chikwe Obasih (@Big_Cheeks34) December 10, 2014
Not again man!— Reggie Love II" (@reggielove16) December 10, 2014
.... Shocked.— Corey Clement (@CoreyClement_6) December 10, 2014
And the reaction from Wisconsin's top two commits in its 2015 recruiting class:
Damn...didn't see this coming.— KP (@kyle_penniston) December 10, 2014
On Thursday night, the Big Ten’s top three running backs will throw on their best suits and stroll down the red carpet for the Home Depot College Football Awards.
There, they’ll sit patiently and await a single line for the entire night: “I am proud to announce the recipient of the 2014 Doak Walker Award ...” No matter who wins -- Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah or Tevin Coleman -- this trio has already made history. Never before have the finalists for the award all come from the same conference.
And, truthfully, no one really expected these three to be standing on this stage back in high school.
These three weren’t blue-chip, can’t-miss prospects from the ESPN 300. These were the blue-collar players, the underdogs who overcame countless doubts and questions to establish themselves among the nation’s elite. One scouting service wrote that Gordon would have to switch positions to find success. Some scouts believed Indiana’s Coleman was better-suited for defense. And a popular opinion on Abdullah was that he’d never amount to more than a change-of-pace back.
But this trio either ignored those doubts or used them as fuel. It became a special group. And, like any group of players, their stories had to start somewhere.
Here’s a look at those beginnings:
Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon
Even Melvin Gordon never dreamed this big.
Back in Bradford (Wis.) High School, where students painted their faces red every Friday night, Gordon thought about the future like any other student-athlete. He daydreamed about big crowds and bigger stadiums, about starts and touchdowns. But 2,000-yard seasons? Heisman campaigns? National interviews?
As a high school underclassman, it was difficult to look at Gordon and think “Heisman.” He stood at 150 pounds; he didn’t even make the varsity squad until his junior season. But high school coach Jed Kennedy told all his assistants that Gordon wouldn’t have to pay college tuition -- it was just a matter of whether that would be at the FBS or FCS level.
And, when he hit a growth spurt and showed up as a 175-pound junior, all bets were off.
“The thing that really started sticking out was the weight room,” Kennedy said. “We’d get done with our team workouts that last an hour and 15 minutes, and him and a group of seniors would work another 45 minutes. He was just a junior, but he was the first one in and the last one out. He was the leader.”
But not every college coach or scouting service was sold. ESPN questioned the level of competition in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a place better known for its Interstate 94 cheese shop. A Rivals recruiting analyst wrote, “I believe he will have to make a major position change in order to become a starter for a major BCS level school.” And, outside of Tennessee, the SEC ignored the player with the long strides and video game-esque stats altogether. (Junior: 98 carries, 1,061 yards; Senior: 158 carries, 2,009 yards, 38 TDs.)
There was plenty of interest -- especially among Big Ten schools -- but most recruiting services still didn’t consider him elite. ESPN ranked him as No. the 39 running back in the country (and said he was built like a receiver), Rivals projected him at No. 24 (and said he could project as a safety or linebacker), and Scout said No. 38.
Kennedy just didn’t understand it. They traveled to Alabama for a camp, and the staff there didn’t even pull him aside. As a junior, coming off a knee injury, he carried the ball 16 times in one game and wound up with 265 yards -- during a muddy contest the local paper coined “The Swamp.” But universities from the South seemed allergic to the cold.
“I just think a lot of times they look at it like, ‘Hey, we don’t have to go to Wisconsin to get a running back because we got six or seven kids down here,’” Kennedy said. “They come up here for linemen, but they don’t look at the skill kids. I don’t know why.”
Those teams that failed to jump on Gordon are likely regretting it now. In Madison, he played two hours away from his old high school field in Kenosha -- but he still continued to post those same crazy numbers. As a high school junior, he averaged 16.5 yards a carry in a memorable game against Franklin. As a college redshirt junior, he averaged 19.5 yards a carry against Bowling Green and 16.3 yards a carry against Nebraska.
Kennedy stood on the sideline years ago when small, high school crowds chanted Gordon’s name. And he sat in Camp Randall earlier this season for Gordon’s 408-yard performance, when Kennedy’s hair stood on end once the crowd took to chanting “MEL-VIN GOR-DON!”
Gordon has come full-circle in the football world. And, even if he never dreamed this big, Kennedy swears none of this is surprising.
“Honestly, nothing surprises me with this kid,” he said. “He’s got unbelievable God-given talent, and he has an unbelievable work ethic. And when you combine that, well, that’s one hell of a combination.”
Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah
Dickey Wright can still remember sitting in the bleachers in the fall of 2006, watching as a small running back -- about a head shorter than his teammates -- weaved through defenders, bounced to the outside, and outran everyone to the end zone.
The high school coach at Homewood (Ala.) had just one thought: “I hope he grows.”
“He wasn’t going to give you that ‘Wow’ effect,” Wright said. “But once he got out in the practice field, you could tell he had the ability. Some kids walk out on that field and have it; some don’t. Once he put the pads on, you could tell he was a different-type kid than what you would see walking through the halls.”
The issue was convincing everyone else. He rushed for 1,045 yards as a junior for a respectable 4.95 yards a carry and fared well at a handful of camps, but a lot of schools thought he’d fare better at cornerback. Scholarships came, a few even from the SEC, but Abdullah wasn’t satisfied.
He wanted to play offense.
The scouting services weren’t at all kind to Abdullah. None rated him above three stars, and ESPN offered him just a two-star evaluation. The evaluation said, “Durability is a concern when projecting for the college level. Not a full-time back.” Most schools shared ESPN’s concern. He didn’t look like an every-down back, he wasn’t built like an every-down back so, surely, he wouldn’t be an every-down back.
Abdullah wouldn’t be underestimated for much longer. His numbers, his speed and his cutting ability couldn’t be ignored. As a senior, he more than doubled his average -- from 4.95 yards a carry to 11.4. He rushed for 1,795 yards and 25 touchdowns. Size issues or not, he was worth the risk.
He committed to Nebraska a month before signing day. And Wright still remembers calling up his close friend, Nebraska wrestling coach Mark Manning, to tell him just what they were getting.
“I just told Mark, ‘He’s going to be a diamond in the rough for you all. He’s going to do some great things for you all,’” Wright said. “I think size was probably a concern at first. But people never got to see he was a tremendous worker in the weight room.
“They never got to see the real Ameer Abdullah.”
Indiana's Tevin Coleman
Brian McDonough didn’t need to consult scouts or colleagues about his quiet high school freshman who never cursed. He knew Tevin Coleman was destined for greatness.
He just assumed it would be at cornerback. So did a lot of college coaches.
“Yeah, interceptions on all but five plays. He was a great running back, don’t get me wrong,” McDonough said. “But he was incredible as a defensive back. We’d put him in and he’d just go get the ball wherever it was. He was phenomenal; he was unbelievable.”
McDonough can remember staring in the sky when a quarterback would hurl a ball toward the left hash, and Coleman would sprint from the right like a hawk flying to its prey. Time after time, he’d come away with the turnover. But in the game of high school football, where the running game is king, Coleman was more valuable on the varsity offense. So he played both ways in the big games -- but mostly wingback in the unorthodox offense, similar to Navy’s triple option.
That speed and athleticism is what made him a can’t-miss prospect in the eyes of many college coaches, despite his three-star ratings by the media. (He boasted more than a dozen offers, although none came from the SEC.) But that, and his scheme, also created another problem: Where did he belong?
He carried the ball just 83 times as a senior -- for a total of 949 yards -- and finished with 16 catches for 345 yards. He also had 44 tackles and two picks in limited defensive action. ESPN listed him as a receiver, numerous schools preferred him on defense, and Coleman wanted to be a tailback.
“A lot of the big schools wanted him at defensive back,” McDonough said. “But he just played better and better, and people realized he wanted to play running back. So some schools changed their tunes.”
Michigan State and Oklahoma both wanted Coleman, but the Spartans wouldn’t commit to the running back part of it. The Indiana Hoosiers were just fine with it, though -- and McDonough assumed Coleman could always play defense if running back didn’t pan out.
Turns out that was never an issue.
“I knew he had the explosiveness, I knew he had the big runs, but I just didn’t think he’d be an every-down back,” McDonough acknowledged. “I thought he’d be an all-pro defensive back.”