NCF Nation: Wisconsin Badgers
But perhaps the most important prediction -- and the one that could cause some more debate -- involves the bowl games. Instead of giving our individual picks for this, we combined our thoughts and butted heads to form a consensus.
We predicted that 10 of the Big Ten's 14 teams will make bowls this season, which isn't too shabby for the conference considering Penn State is still facing a postseason ban. So only Illinois, Purdue and Rutgers were left out in the cold.
Without further ado, here are our Big Ten bowl picks:
College Football Playoff semifinal: Michigan State
Chick-fil-A Peach/Cotton: Ohio State
Capital One: Iowa
National University Holiday Bowl: Wisconsin
TaxSlayer/Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Michigan
San Francisco: Northwestern
New Era Pinstripe: Maryland
Quick Lane: Minnesota
Heart of Dallas: Indiana
While quarterbacks across the nation are putting up crazy numbers like pinball machines and spread offenses are letting wide receivers run wild and rack up yardage, that tradition-loving, old-school Big Ten appears downright antiquated with its continued emphasis on running backs carrying the load.
But look closer.
The evolution of offenses may not have done much to change the face of the most productive players in the conference. But when there are so many game-breakers in Big Ten backfields, there's really not much incentive to shift the focus away from them in the first place.
"This a running back-heavy league, and you need a good running back, an every-down back to get through the Big Ten," Minnesota senior David Cobb said. "And in this league, there's a good running back on every team."
The conference has never really been in short supply of rushers, but the ground game looks particularly fertile this season with so many talented tailbacks returning as the focal point on offense.
The conversation about the league's best typically revolves around Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, the top two returners in the league and the odds-on favorites to claim offensive player of the year honors while leading teams aiming for the conference title. They're also close friends who admit to some good-natured trash talk that comes from paying attention to the league's yardage leader board, but both know it might not be safe to just measure themselves against each other this fall.
Michigan State's Jeremy Langford somehow largely flew under the radar last season despite piling up more than 1,400 yards and leading the Big Ten in rushing touchdowns with 18.
Cobb will be getting no shortage of carries in Minnesota's power rushing attack, and indications out of training camp suggest he's even better than he was while gaining 1,202 yards as a junior.
Despite playing in a spread system, Indiana's Tevin Coleman offered a reminder of the importance of balancing out a passing attack with a productive rusher, with his explosiveness in averaging more than 7 yards per carry driving the point home. Josh Ferguson does the same for Illinois, complementing his 5.5 yards per carry with 50 receptions for 535 yards and 4 touchdowns as a target in the passing game. Iowa's Mark Weisman came up just short of the 1,000-yard milestone last year, but he's playing behind perhaps the best set of blockers in the conference this fall and should be poised to capitalize on those huge holes opened by left tackle Brandon Scherff and his buddies.
Even at schools with unsettled depth charts at the top there's little reason to panic. Carlos Hyde is gone at Ohio State, but it has a stable loaded with both veterans like Rod Smith and youngsters like presumptive starter Ezekiel Elliott poised to take over. Michigan struggled to move the football on the ground a year ago, but Derrick Green looks ready to live up to his billing as one of the top recruits in the 2013 class as he moves into a likely starting role.
And if all that depth makes winning the rushing crown a bit tougher this fall for Gordon or Abdullah, they certainly aren't worried about a little competition. In the Big Ten, that's long been a source of pride.
"Definitely, you can look at every team," Abdullah said. "You just go down the line, and the running back position in this league is really deep. It's going to be good competition for this year statistically. I feel like it gets overshadowed a little bit. You throw in T.J. Yeldon [at Alabama], [Georgia's Todd] Gurley, guys who play for those SEC teams or maybe the Pac-12 guys and we get overshadowed a little bit. But all we can do is show up to work every Saturday and prove our case."
Abdullah and Gordon are expected to build the strongest of them, and they may emerge as the Big Ten's best hopes for a Heisman Trophy now that Braxton Miller is out of the picture with a season-ending shoulder surgery.
But even if the Ohio State senior had been around this season, the quarterback might have had a hard time stealing some attention during what's shaping up as a callback to the league's tradition with one more Year of the Running Back.
"The Big Ten, we're known for running the ball, and when you can take pressure off the quarterback by giving the rock to the running back, that's a good feeling," Gordon said. "And we've got a lot of good running backs in the Big Ten -- it's not just me and Ameer.
"I think there are some other guys that need some praise as well. There are some good backs we have in this conference, and they'll be heard sooner or later."
There's still plenty of opportunities to make a little noise as a tailback in the Big Ten. And the league has a long list of guys ready to make some racket.
Both teams have aspirations of competing in the inaugural College Football Playoff, and Saturday’s outcome might eventually rank among the top determining factors in whether they make it into the four-team field.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at five questions facing the two teams as their matchup approaches.
Those around the LSU program say it looks like it’s only a matter of time before freshman running back Leonard Fournette shows why he was the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit. But will Fournette’s time come in this game? LSU coach Les Miles has praised veterans Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard throughout August. The seniors have earned their touches, too, so it will be intriguing to observe how LSU distributes the carries between the vets and the young phenom.
2. How will LSU fare in the passing game?
Wisconsin has plenty of holes to fill on defense, but the one area with a veteran presence is its secondary (and the Badgers were 17th nationally against the pass last season, allowing 202.5 yards per game). That would seem like an advantage against an LSU offense that must replace not only its quarterback, but the only receivers who did much of anything last fall, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry.
The Tigers have some super-talented youngsters like freshmen Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, but many of the team’s wideouts will be playing their first college games. Keep an eye on whether LSU uses its talented group of tight ends and running backs in the passing game. The tight ends will almost certainly get more looks as pass-catchers in 2014 while the young quarterbacks and receivers settle into their roles.
3. Can either team stop the opponent’s run?
Wisconsin obliterated South Carolina’s run defense for 293 yards in its last outing, a 34-24 loss in the Capital One Bowl. Heisman Trophy contender Melvin Gordon ran 25 times for 143 yards in that game. So it would probably be misguided to assume that LSU’s reconstructed front seven is going to completely shut down a Badgers running game that includes Gordon, Corey Clement and four returning starters on the offensive line.
Likewise, Wisconsin lost its entire starting front seven on defense, so the Badgers will probably have some difficulty against an LSU line that also returns four starters -- particularly since backs like Fournette, Magee and Hilliard will be running behind them.
4. How will Wisconsin look up front on D?
Let’s say this one more time: Wisconsin lost every single starter along the defensive line and at linebacker from one of the nation’s best defenses in 2013. We’re talking about standouts like Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Borland and defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer who helped Wisconsin finish as the nation’s No. 7 defense overall (305.1 ypg) and No. 5 against the run (102.5).
It’s not like the cupboard is bare, though. ESPN Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett listed sophomore linebacker Vince Biegel as a potential playmaker, and the Badgers have others back like linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch and defensive linemen Warren Herring and redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih who should keep defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 defense clicking.
Asking that many new players to function adequately against a veteran LSU front will be asking a lot, though. Wisconsin’s production along the defensive front might be the determining factor in this game.
5. Who FINISHES at quarterback?
Never mind who starts, who’s going to finish this game at quarterback for either team? That might have a much greater impact on this season than who takes the first snaps for either Wisconsin or LSU.
Miles and Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen have tiptoed around questions asking whether the starting quarterback will be Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris at LSU or Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy at Wisconsin. But if this is a close game, their choices on who leads their offenses in the fourth quarter -- and how those players perform in such a situation -- might tell us much more about where these competitions are headed.
Game of the Week: Wisconsin vs. LSU
Our writers all picked LSU to beat Wisconsin, but some had a harder time with the pick than others.
Brian Bennett: Wisconsin has a real chance here at the upset. Week 1 is definitely the time to catch LSU this season, as the Tigers will be breaking in a slew of new players and have some major question marks at quarterback. Of course, you could say those same things about the Badgers, who will be counting on basically a brand-new defensive front seven, several unproven receivers and a new starting QB in Tanner McEvoy. Wisconsin's running game is the great equalizer, especially if that ground attack shortens the game and springs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement for big plays. Asking either side to play mistake-free is a bit much for an opener involving so many fresh faces. In the end, LSU has more explosiveness to overcome its errors and exploit Wisconsin's, so the Tigers win by a touchdown.
Austin Ward: Openers can be sloppy enough on their own, let alone debuts with uncertainty at quarterback and the expectation that two guys will be needed to fill that critical role. Both teams have some questions under center, but it seems much more dangerous to be unsettled and unproven when taking on a loaded defense such as LSU's. Wisconsin has running backs Gordon and Clement lining up behind a veteran offensive line to provide a rushing attack to lean on, but if it becomes a one-dimensional offense against the Tigers, aggressive defensive coordinator John Chavis will turn his athletic, physical unit loose and there will be no escape in Houston.
Majority opinion: Penn State over UCF
This was the only game our writers disagreed on. Austin Ward, Mitch Sherman and Adam Rittenberg liked the Nittany Lions, while Brian Bennett and Josh Moyer took the Knights.
Josh Moyer: The Nittany Lions have too many question marks -– and too much that still needs to improve -– to be favored right now. What’s Penn State’s main weakness? The offensive line. So what’s one thing it's going to count on to offset that? The passing game. Well, Central Florida’s secondary has a chance to be elite. And overall, UCF might boast the best defense in the AAC. On the other side of the ball, the Knights may be without quarterback Blake Bortles this season, but they still have a loaded receiving corps with J.J. Worton, Rannell Hall and Breshad Perriman. Penn State's secondary, especially the corner spot opposite Jordan Lucas, could struggle against this kind of offense. PSU hangs tough but falls in the end 28-20.
Adam Rittenberg: The oddities surrounding this game favor Penn State, which is tougher to prepare for with a new coaching staff. UCF's veteran defensive line and George O'Leary's play-calling prowess worry me, but I see PSU exploiting some matchup advantages (Jesse James vs. anybody) with a superior quarterback and hitting on some big plays. Expect improvement on Penn State's defense, which limits a UCF offense missing Bortles and Storm Johnson.
Our writers agreed on the following:
Minnesota over Eastern Illinois
Washington State over Rutgers
Michigan State over Jacksonville State
Indiana over Indiana State
Iowa over Northern Iowa
Michigan over Appalachian State
Purdue over Western Michigan
Ohio State over Navy
Illinois over Youngstown State
Maryland over James Madison
Northwestern over Cal
Nebraska over FAU
LSU over Wisconsin
Mitch Sherman: Not much else of great intrigue on the opening-week schedule, but Ohio State-Navy is worth a look, with the attention swirling around the debut of Buckeyes freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Midshipmen are no pushover, but the Buckeyes own enough of an edge in athleticism to take care of business. Because of its strange offseason, Northwestern is interesting, even against Cal, which was dismal last season. And for entertainment value, Rutgers’ Big Ten debut Thursday night against Washington State may rank high. The Scarlet Knights need to limit the Cougars' possessions and get off the field on third down -- or watch Wazzu quarterback Connor Halliday light them up with 65 to 70 pass attempts.
LSU has not lost a nonconference game in the regular season since falling to Virginia Tech on Sept. 7, 2002. Since then it has won 45 straight, while Wisconsin’s record in that same time period is 43-3, the nation’s second-best winning percentage (.935).
Obviously one of them is going to lose on Saturday, though, so let’s take a look at some of the key factors in the LSU-Wisconsin game and what a win might mean for their respective conferences.
Key to victory for Wisconsin: Dominate the line of scrimmage. That’s always the motto for the Badgers, who showed they could fare just fine against an SEC defense when they ran for 293 yards against South Carolina (and Jadeveon Clowney) in the Jan. 1 Capital One Bowl. Controlling the game on the ground with Melvin Gordon, Corey Clement and a talented offensive line becomes an even higher priority given Wisconsin’s inexperience at receiver and quarterback, where Tanner McEvoy makes his first FBS start. And the Badgers’ 3-4 defense has to win battles up front and make LSU beat it through the air.
Keep an eye on: Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound sophomore could give the Badgers the pass-rushing and playmaking presence they desperately need from their completely revamped defensive front seven. Biegel will be critical in both helping against the run and creating havoc in the LSU backfield from his outside linebacker spot. Like many players at his position for Wisconsin, he has been nicked up in fall practice. But after a breakout spring, Biegel could be a guy who announces himself as an up-and-coming star on this national stage.
Keep an eye on: LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander. One of the Tigers’ top playmakers at linebacker last season, Alexander has shifted from strongside linebacker to Lamin Barrow's old spot on the weak side, which should allow him to be even more active on defense. His sideline-to-sideline speed and tackling ability should make him a great fit for the new role. Alexander and the LSU defense will have their hands full with a powerful Wisconsin running game that features Heisman Trophy contender Gordon. But if Alexander lives up to the reputation he’s already started building at his new position, he’s in line for a huge season, starting Saturday.
What win will mean for Big Ten: Marquee nonconference wins have been in short supply for the Big Ten in recent years, and there would be no better way to build instant credibility than by gaining a win over an established SEC power. Wisconsin would become an immediate playoff contender, as the rest of its schedule is extremely favorable. Other league teams would also get a boost in terms of conference perception. The doom-and-gloom outlook for the Big Ten since Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller's season-ending shoulder injury would fade away quickly with a Badgers victory in Houston.
What win will mean for SEC: LSU has been the SEC’s standard bearer in the past decade when it comes to these marquee nonconference openers. LSU's aforementioned 45 straight nonconference wins in the regular season is the nation’s longest streak. That includes wins in 11 straight openers, against such opponents as TCU, Oregon, North Carolina, Washington, Oregon State and Arizona State. LSU beating Wisconsin would be another feather in the SEC’s cap, solidifying its status as the nation’s best conference.
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC
Previewing the 2014 season for the Wisconsin Badgers:
2013 overall record: 9-4 (6-2 Big Ten)
Key losses: RB James White, WR Jared Abbrederis, TE Jacob Pedersen, OG Ryan Groy, DE Pat Muldoon, DT Beau Allen, LB Chris Borland, S Dezmen Southward
Key returnees: RB Melvin Gordon, OT Rob Havenstein, OG Kyle Costigan, OT Tyler Marz, CB Sojourn Shelton, S Michael Caputo
Instant impact newcomer: Safety Lubern Figaro. If you're from outside the Badger State, you're probably asking, "Who?" After all, Figaro was just a three-star recruit and enrolled over the summer -- but he's already projected to start in the opener. Part of the reason is reportedly an injury to safety Leo Musso, but Figaro has already done plenty to separate himself. In the first scrimmage this preseason, he returned a pick for a touchdown. DB Sojourn Shelton made an impact last season when he was a true freshman; now it looks as if it's Figaro's turn.
Offense: QB: Joel Stave, RS Jr., 6-5, 220; RB: Melvin Gordon, RS Jr., 6-1, 213; FB: Derek Watt, RS Jr., 6-2, 236; WR: Alex Erickson, RS So., 6-0, 196; WR: Reggie Love, RS So., 6-3, 214; TE: Sam Arneson, Sr., 6-4, 244; OT: Tyler Marz, RS Jr., 6-5, 321; OG: Dallas Lewallen, RS Sr., 6-6, 321: C: Dan Voltz, RS So., 6-3, 311; OG: Kyle Costigan, RS Sr., 6-5, 319; OT: Rob Havenstein, RS Sr., 6-8, 333
Defense: DE: Chikwe Obasih, RS Fr., 6-2, 268; DT: Warren Herring, RS Sr., 6-3, 294; DE: Konrad Zagzebski, RS Sr., 6-3, 277; OLB: Joe Schobert, Jr., 6-2, 240; ILB: Marcus Trotter, RS Sr., 6-0, 226; ILB: Derek Landisch, Sr., 6-0, 231; OLB: Vince Biegel, RS So., 6-4, 244; CB: Darius Hillary, RS Jr., 5-11, 188; CB: Sojourn Shelton, So., 5-9, 178; S: Michael Caputo, RS Jr., 6-1, 212; S: Lubern Figaro, Fr., 6-0, 179
Specialists: P: Drew Meyer, RS Jr., 6-3, 187; PK: Rafael Gaglianone, Fr., 5-11, 231
Biggest question mark: Can this front seven recover from so many key departures? Of the seven players who started in the Badgers' bowl game last season, only one returns. That leaves quite a few holes, especially when considering the departures of Big Ten defensive player of the year Chris Borland and two All-Big Ten honorable mentions (Beau Allen, Pat Muldoon). Wisconsin's front seven dominated in 2013, as they helped the Badgers rank No. 5 nationally in rush defense (102.5 yards per game) and No. 6 in scoring defense (16.3 points per game). Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is solid, but he's not a magician. Those defensive numbers will almost certainly drop from last season -- but just how much?
Most important game: Nov. 15 versus Nebraska. It's basically a three-team race in the West Division, so this is a must-win if Wisconsin wants a spot in the Big Ten championship game. There's no Ohio State or Michigan State on the schedule this season, so the Huskers and Iowa Hawkeyes are the teams to beat. Iowa is just as important, but that contest comes a week later, and that won't mean a thing if Wisconsin first can't get past this contest.
Upset special: Nov. 29 versus Minnesota. A lot could be on the line when the Badgers square off against Minnesota in the final game of the regular season. And, depending how Wisconsin's defense progresses, this could be an interesting one. Wisconsin's run defense is a wild card right now, and the Gophers could boast the second-toughest rushing attack on Wisconsin's schedule (outside of Nebraska). No team held Wisconsin to fewer points (20) last season than Minnesota, so there is some potential here. Plus, one has to think the Gophers will be able to manage better than a seven-point offensive effort this time around.
Key stat: Sure, everyone knows the departure of Jared Abbrederis will hurt Wisconsin. But the Badgers actually lost their top four targets, and only one (Jordan Fredrick) recorded catches in the double-digits. And he had just 10. Overall, Wisconsin lost 81 percent of its receiving production, as this year's returners had just 42 combined receptions last season compared with the 217 total catches.
What they're wearing: Wisconsin has come a long way since 2010, because it basically went from rotating between two uniform combinations to doing photo shoots with more than 20 combinations.
One possible new look includes an all-red, jersey-pant combo (not to be confused with Nebraska's all-red getup):
@UWCoachAndersen) joined Twitter just a few weeks ago, but he pumps out unique tweets and is a great follow. The official Wisconsin football account (@BadgerFootball) tweets like crazy and is always on the ball. As far as players, running back Melvin Gordon (@Melvingordon25) is a no-brainer, while cornerback Sojourn Shelton (@SDS1_) definitely deserves a few more follows. There are quite a few good follows for your coverage needs -- besides us, of course -- including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961) and SB Nation blog Bucky's 5th Quarter (@B5Q).
They said it: "No question there's a temptation to run him every time." – Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen on running back Melvin Gordon
Stats & Info projection: 9.29 wins
Wise guys over/under: 9.5 wins
Big Ten blog projection: Ten wins. Wisconsin has a lot of question marks, but it also has a lot of talent. The rushing offense should be one of the nation's best and, while this defense will undoubtedly take a step back from last season, it shouldn't free-fall with Dave Aranda at the helm. Wisconsin's schedule is pretty favorable, as it doesn't play any of the big names from the East, and it's possible it could be favored in every game from Week 2 on. Wisconsin's getting the benefit of the doubt here, but if it can manage a win against LSU in the opener, that bandwagon is going to get big in a hurry.
And here they are:
QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: Braxton Miller's injury opened up this spot on the first team. Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Indiana's Nate Sudfeld were potential choices here too, but Cook's Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl MVP finish earn him the nod.
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Well, sure. He could lead the nation in rushing, unless ...
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: ... Abdullah, his good friend, beats him to it. In a league blessed with great running backs, these two stand out the most.
WR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland: There is a lot of uncertainty in the Big Ten at receiver heading into 2014. This much is certain: If Diggs can stay healthy, he'll be one of the nation's best.
WR: Shane Wynn, Indiana: Wynn scored more touchdowns than any other Big Ten receiver the past season, and now he steps into a more featured role.
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan: Funchess might play wide receiver almost exclusively, in which case this should be viewed as a third wide receiver spot on the team. The matchup nightmare looks poised for a big season.
OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He might just be the best left tackle in college football in 2014. He's definitely got NFL scouts drooling.
OT: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: An enormous road grader at right tackle. Trying to shed him and catch Melvin Gordon is just not fair.
OG: Kaleb Johnson, Rutgers: He thought about leaving for the NFL after the past season but instead gave the Scarlet Knights a boost by returning. He has started 37 straight games.
OG: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: He could be the next rising star in Wisconsin's offensive lineman factory.
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: A second-team All-Big Ten pick the past season, the former high school wrestling champion has no let up in his game.
DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: He’s the returning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year and could become the conference’s defensive player of the year in 2014, unless ...
DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska: ... Gregory edges him out for the honor. The pass-rush specialist outpaced Calhoun in sacks (10.5) the past season, and Bo Pelini said Gregory has “only scratched the surface of what he’s going to be down the line.”
DT: Michael Bennett, Ohio State: He anchors the best defensive line in the conference and was named to the All-Big Ten’s second team last season.
DT: Carl Davis, Iowa: He still thinks Scherff would get the best of him if they squared off, but Athlon thought highly enough of Davis to make him a fourth-team preseason All-American.
LB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern: The quiet Ariguzo likes to let his play do the talking, and it chatted up a storm this past season -- to the tune of 106 tackles and four interceptions.
LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: He was a coin-flip from transferring to Pittsburgh during the sanctions, but now he’s the leader of this revamped defense.
LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan shocked onlookers last season by taking less than seven months to go from ACL surgery to playing in a Big Ten game. Hopes are higher now for the healthy redshirt senior, as he has registered a stop in the backfield in 25 of his past 30 games.
CB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: He’s taking over at Darqueze Dennard's boundary cornerback position, but he’s up for the challenge. He’s already on the watch lists for the Bednarik and Thorpe awards.
CB: Blake Countess, Michigan: He tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions (6) the past season -- despite battling lower abdominal pain most of the year.
S: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: The blue-collar DB started 21 straight games and was a Sports Illustrated All-American the past season.
S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: A smart and instinctive player, Campbell has been remarkably consistent for the Wildcats. He’s a three-time all-academic B1G player and has eight career interceptions.
K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State: As a freshman in 2013, he made 15 of his 16 field-goal attempts.
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State: An ESPN.com All-American in 2013, Sadler combines with Geiger to give the Spartans the best 1-2 kicking tandem in the league.
KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska: He led the Big Ten in return yardage the past season (averaging 26.5 yards per kick) and took one 99 yards for a touchdown at Penn State.
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa: He averaged 15.7 yards per return in 2013 and scored on two punt returns in the same game.
Selections by school:
Michigan State: 7
Ohio State: 1
Penn State: 1
After spreading through the NFL and much of college football, odd defenses -- with three down linemen instead of four -- will be more visible in the Big Ten this season. Three Big Ten teams -- Wisconsin, Maryland and Indiana -- will operate mainly with three linemen and four linebackers. Although the Terrapins and Hoosiers prefer the hybrid label for their defenses, all three units will show alignments somewhat foreign to the conference.
In 2012, all 12 Big Ten teams used base defenses featuring four down linemen. Defenses with odd fronts had made cameos at places like Michigan and Indiana in the past -- Northwestern considered moving to a 3-4 early in Pat Fitzgerald's tenure but has since elected to remain in a 4-3 -- but unlike the NFL, where about half of the teams use odd fronts, the Big Ten steered clear of the trend.
"[Big Ten teams] don't see an odd front every week," Knorr told ESPN.com. "Being multiple, giving them different looks, something they haven't seen, hopefully that's an advantage for us."
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda always planned to install a 3-4 at Wisconsin. He just wasn't sure the Badgers had the personnel to do it in Year 1. They needed a nose tackle who could occupy two blockers, and outside linebackers with the speed-size mix to do it all. Fortunately, Beau Allen filled the nose position and Ethan Armstrong and Brendan Kelly occupied the outside spots.
Wisconsin finished in the top seven nationally in points allowed (16.3 ppg), rush yards allowed (102.5 ypg), total yards allowed (305.1 ypg) and third-down conversions against (30.6 percent). Aranda likes having an extra linebacker to defend spread offenses, and the 3-4 also has the flexibility to stop the traditional offenses for which the Big Ten is known.
"The power run fits in well with the 3-4," Aranda said.
Indiana will mix three- and four-man fronts, but like Aranda, Knorr inherits players he thinks can fill the critical roles in the 3-4. Nick Mangieri and Zack Shaw, who played defensive end in the previous system, have the ability to blitz from the perimeter or drop back in coverage.
"The offenses are so wide open, and you have to be able to cover the entire field," Knorr said. "Having the ability to drop eight at times, gives you an extra guy in coverage. Having the ability to have five guys in a great position to blitz right away gives you the versatility we're looking for, while being able to keep our disguise."
The disguise, according to Aranda, is what can set 3-4 defenses apart. He wants to keep offenses guessing about the fourth rusher: Will it be the weakside inside linebacker? The strongside outside linebacker? A safety? A cornerback?
As long as the outside linebackers have the ability to both rush and cover, without giving up too much, defensive play-callers can really mix things up.
"I know a lot of teams will be confused and we'll cause a lot of uncertainty and chaos for the offense," Indiana linebacker David Cooper said. "I think we'll do great in the Big Ten."
Maryland typically will use four linebackers, but doesn't feature the massive defensive linemen seen in standard two-gap, 3-4 looks. The Terrapins last season generated pressure both from the linebacker spot (Marcus Whitfield had nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss) and the line (end Andre Monroe had 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss). They return nine defensive starters.
Aranda used to visit Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart when Stewart coached in the NFL under Wade Phillips, a longtime 3-4 defense practitioner. Aranda looks forward to seeing how other odd defenses fare in the Big Ten this season.
"Part of the issue with us last year is we'd go into games not knowing how people would block us," Aranda said. "That works both ways because people don't know how we're going to line up, either, or at least that first year. Now that film's out, but it definitely helps to me when you see someone play Indiana or someone play Maryland, you can see how they're lining up vs. 3-4."
Will the 3-4 keep spreading around the Big Ten? Defensive line has been the league's strongest position in recent years, as players in traditional end or tackle roles have gone on to the NFL in droves.
"There's such a fertile ground for defensive linemen in our area," Aranda admits. "We're trading some of those guys for linebackers and secondary players. Our corners and our safeties are as much our pass-rushers as our D-linemen are.
"There has to be a decision or a philosophy, somewhere along the line, of where you're going with it."
Depending on the results at Wisconsin, Indiana and Maryland, more Big Ten teams could choose to be odd.
To that, I say let's all slow down for just a bit. Some key counterpoints to consider:
2. Ohio State isn't suddenly going to turn into a 6-6 pumpkin. There is still a ton of talent on this team. I watched an entire practice this spring in which Miller did not participate. I was still blown away by the speed and athleticism on the roster. Are the Buckeyes a top 10 team now? Maybe not. But they will still be, at the very least, a top 20 club. They're probably not a playoff team, but beating Ohio State won't be a meaningless win for other Big Ten teams, either.
3. There is more than one team in the Big Ten. Sure, the Buckeyes have been the league's flag-bearer for most of this century and have more national credibility than any other conference program. But don't forget the Buckeyes haven't won an outright Big Ten championship since 2009. There is no guarantee they would have claimed one this year, either, as Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska are all legit title contenders.
4. Let's go back to Michigan State here. The Spartans proved themselves as elite the past year, as they finished No. 3 in the final polls and beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Mark Dantonio's team goes to Oregon in Week 2 in a game that could define their season. If the Spartans win there, assuming Oregon goes on to have a very strong season, they will be formidable playoff contenders no matter what else is going on in the Big Ten. Even if, say, they lost to the Ducks by a field goal, going undefeated the rest of the way should be enough to get Michigan State into the field of four.
5. Let's say another team from the West -- such as Iowa or Wisconsin, should the Badgers beat LSU in the opener -- runs the table. Don't you think a Big Ten championship game featuring the Spartans and an undefeated West team would get the attention of the selection committee? Iowa and Nebraska probably need a zero in the loss column, while Michigan State and Wisconsin could afford a setback, given their marquee nonconference opposition. And, hey, who's to say Ohio State doesn't go 12-0 again, even without Miller? Urban Meyer has yet to lose a regular season game in Columbus, after all.
The bottom line is there are far too many variables -- including what goes on in the other Power 5 conferences -- to count the Big Ten out at this early date. The path to Pasadena (or, less likely, New Orleans) certainly got a lot bumpier with the loss of the league's best player. But the road hasn't been closed yet.
Tuesday's news that Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller will miss the upcoming season with an injury to his right (throwing) shoulder seriously deflates the Buckeyes' hopes of making the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff. Their national championship aspirations seem all but over -- 11 days before they'll open the season against Navy in Baltimore on Aug. 30.
Miller's injury also puts a serious dent in the Big Ten's chances of having a representative in the playoff. Miller, the two-time reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, was a preseason Heisman Trophy favorite and one of the country's top returning quarterbacks.
Without Miller, the Buckeyes will have a difficult time matching their success in coach Urban Meyer's first two seasons, when they won 24 games in a row before losing to Michigan State 34-24 in the 2013 Big Ten championship game and 40-35 to Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.
Miller, who threw for 2,094 yards with 24 touchdowns and ran for 1,068 yards with 12 more scores, was a tailor-made fit for Meyer's spread offense. Without him, the Buckeyes will probably turn to freshman J.T. Barrett, who has never played in a college game. In fact, Barrett played in only five games as a senior at Rider High School in Wichita Falls, Texas, in 2012 before injuring his knee. He redshirted at OSU last season while recovering from knee surgery.
How valuable was Miller to OSU? When news of his season-ending diagnosis broke on Tuesday, oddsmakers at the Las Vegas Hilton Sportsbook dropped the Buckeyes' odds of winning a national championship from 12-to-1 to 50-to-1. Ouch. There's a reason Las Vegas has so many glitzy buildings; the oddsmakers usually know what they're talking about.
Read the rest of Mark Schlabach's column here.
If the College Football Playoff had been in place for the 2006 season, there’s very little doubt that two Big Ten teams -- Ohio State and Michigan -- would have reached the four-team field. The conference, which finished the year with three Top 10 teams, could have called itself the nation’s best league without anyone snickering.
Fast forward eight years, and everything has changed. The SEC reigns supreme. The Big Ten is the butt of many jokes and, in the eyes of many, ranks fifth among the Power 5 conferences.
"People think the Big Ten is kind of weak," Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. "I think we have the whole stigma of, 'The Big Ten can’t win bowl games.'"
Yet the perception of the Big Ten’s downturn appears to paint a worse picture than the reality. Even when league teams ascend, they often get dragged down by the court of public opinion. Take last season's Big Ten champs, for instance. Michigan State won all of its league games by double digits and went on to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl. But the Spartans did not crack the Top 12 in either major poll or the BCS standings until Nov. 24, when they were 10-1.
Last season's Wisconsin Badgers were 9-2 at one point, with their only losses coming on an all-time officiating hose job at eventual Pac-12 division winner Arizona State and at Ohio State. Still, the Badgers had trouble gaining much affection from pollsters. Or how about this season's Iowa club? Despite winning eight games in 2013 and taking LSU to the wire in the Outback Bowl, and despite having what everyone considers a highly advantageous schedule in 2014, the Hawkeyes were ranked No. 33 in the first preseason USA Today coaches’ poll.
"The lack of insight on the Big Ten is an interesting thing," Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell said, "because there are stout players and solid teams in the Big Ten. We beat Georgia [in the Gator Bowl], Iowa had LSU on their skates ... and Sparty went and beat Stanford. We’re steadily coming back into the frame of major college football."
The Big Ten needs to improve both its track record and its perception problem this season, with the first year of the Playoff looming. The nightmare scenario for the league is to see its champion left out of the field because the conference isn’t considered strong enough. There is really only one way to change that.
"You’ve got to win games," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "One of the positive byproducts of the Playoff is that the preseason doesn’t matter. If you want to get yourself in the Playoff and talk about being the best, it’s going to come down to winning football games and playing a competitive schedule. If you want to change perception, you’ve got to win those games. That’s the bottom line."
The Big Ten has plenty of opportunities to help itself this season, beginning in Week 1 when Wisconsin plays LSU in Houston.
"It’s a new year, and the Big Ten as a whole is trying to make a prominent statement," Badgers running back Melvin Gordon said. "It’ll set a big statement for the Big Ten if we come out and win that game."
Michigan State goes to Oregon in Week 2 in another major showcase opportunity. Others include Nebraska hosting Miami, Ohio State taking on Virginia Tech and Michigan and Northwestern playing at Notre Dame. Schedules will continue to get more difficult in the near future, as league commissioner Jim Delany instructed his teams to play top nonconference competition to impress the selection committee.
"What we've tried to do is structure ... our scheduling to deliver an opportunity for our teams if they're successful," Delany said. "We make no predictions. We make no excuses."
There is hope for the future. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Penn State’s James Franklin are former SEC coaches who have brought an aggressive, nationwide approach to recruiting. The Buckeyes are 24-2 the past two seasons yet are just now building the type of roster Meyer envisions. Michigan State joined the elite last season and will try to stay there.
"I see a league that’s improving," Meyer said. "I just see a lot of positive recruiting going on in our conference, a lot of great coaches, and more importantly, a lot of great players. I think people are watching the Big Ten expecting a bunch of improvement going forward."
The conference still must convince others that improvement is for real. The surest sign of that would be to get a team into the inaugural Playoff.
"This is as good a year as any to show the Big Ten is strong and that we’re going to stay strong from here on out," Bennett said. "[But] for us to say that, we have to make it to the Playoff."
So as we wrap up The Season project, we are left with one last and obvious question to debate: What player at a current Big Ten school had the best season of all time?
Brian Bennett: It's so difficult to compare eras. What Minnesota's Bronko Nagurski and Iowa's Nile Kinnick did in playing both ways for their teams will probably never be equaled, and yet their offensive numbers pale in comparison to today's. I frankly don't know how players from the 1920s, '30s and '40s would translate to modern times.
"The Galloping Ghost" -- and really, how can you argue against a name like that? -- changed the game with his offensive prowess. Damon Runyon once wrote that ""He is Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Paavo Nurmi and Man o' War. Put together, they spell Grange." ESPN named him the greatest college football player of all time in 2008, and the Big Ten Network selected him as the league's No. 1 icon in 2011.
Has Grange's legend benefited from nostalgia, grainy film fragments and the hyperbolic sportswriting of his time? Of course. But he is also one of the figures most associated with the Big Ten, and his 1924 season stands alone.
Mitch Sherman: Well, Brian, thanks for stealing my thunder about the old-timers. I'm going with Nagurski. Players at Big Ten schools have enjoyed many great offensive seasons, but when I think of the league in a historical context, defense first comes to mind. For decades, it was the hardest-hitting, most old-school conference.
Dick Butkus and Bubba Smith embody the spirit of the Big Ten. But no player to wear the uniform of a Big Ten team can match the toughness of Nagurski, the robust Canadian who produced one of his most dominant performances in a college game while wearing a corset to protect cracked vertebrae.
Before Nagurski became the first player to earn All-Pro honors in the NFL at three positions, he left a legacy of legendary feats at Minnesota. In 1929, his final season, Nagurski led the nation in rushing as a fullback, earning All-America honors on offense and at defensive tackle.
Nagurski didn't just play both ways; he dominated on offense and defense. Physically, in his era, Nagurski's brute force was unmatched as a runner and a blocker. College competitors were almost no match for him, and the pros weren't much better prepared.
Josh Moyer: Guys, you were both so close to picking the right name here. So close. But the answer has to be the 1939 season from Iowa’s Nile Kinnick. I don’t think anyone else in the annals of college football had a bigger impact on his team, and I think it’s a tragedy his season didn’t merit a mention on ESPN’s top 16.
Here’s what he accomplished during that eight-game season 75 years ago: He played 402 of a possible 420 minutes, scored 107 of Iowa’s 130 points, pulled down eight interceptions, rushed for 374 yards and five TDs and threw for 638 yards and 11 TDs. Oh, and he also punted (39.9-yard average) -- and returned punts (11.9-yard average) and kickoffs (25.1-yard average). He won the Heisman, the Camp, the Maxwell, the Big Ten MVP – and was also named AP Male Athlete of the Year.
That last distinction is especially impressive, considering Kinnick won it over boxer Joe Louis and baseball MVP Joe DiMaggio, who batted a career-high .381 that year. We'll never see a season like that again. It has to be Kinnick.
Austin Ward: Maybe it's a recency bias. Maybe there's a case to be made that it wasn't actually his best individual season, based on the numbers. But I'm dipping into the current era of college football, and I'm also tabbing Ron Dayne's incredible 1999 campaign as the top choice for the Big Ten.
No offense to the superstars of the early years of the game, because their accomplishments relative to contemporaries are worth honoring. But what Dayne did while steamrolling through every defender in is way is burned into my mind, and the statistics are even more impressive now that a little time has passed.
His 2,034 yards and 20 touchdowns are both edged slightly by his breakout freshman campaign in 1996, but the degree of difficulty was evident as defenses devoted their entire game plan to trying to find a way to slow him down, and the attention on his assault on the record books steadily ramped up to put even more pressure on Dayne to deliver. And he did exactly that, sweeping up all the major individual awards, romping to a landslide victory in the Heisman Trophy race while dragging the Badgers on his back to a conference championship and a Rose Bowl victory.
Obviously, comparing players across eras is a challenge. But I'm sticking with the current one, and Dayne's record-setting run in 1999 stands alone.
We voted on several of these, including the best Big Ten seasons. As you can imagine, there were some difficult calls to make, especially at schools stuffed with rich traditions and legendary players. We didn't always agree.
Our Big Ten reporting crew offers thoughts on which decisions were the toughest for league schools.
For me, the hardest decision on an individual season involved Wisconsin. The consensus ended up being Ron Dayne's 1999 season in which he won the Heisman Trophy. But you could make a robust argument that Dayne's own 1996 campaign was better, as he ran for more yards and more touchdowns and had a higher yards-per-carry average as a freshman than he did as a senior. I've always thought the comparisons between Dayne and Montee Ball's 2011 season are fascinating. One day, I believe, people will look back on Ball's '11 season and wonder how a guy who tied the NCAA record with 39 touchdowns -- while running for 1,923 yards and averaging more yards per carry than Dayne did in 1999 -- not only failed to gain traction in the Heisman race but somehow didn't claim the Doak Walker Award (a grievous error that was thankfully remedied in 2012). Throw in Alan Ameche, who won the Heisman in 1954, and Pat Richter's 1962 season, and you have enough material to create decades of debate.
Mitch Sherman: My toughest call involved Nebraska, the school I've watched most closely for the past 20 years. Mike Rozier made the top 16 nationally, as selected by ESPN.com writers and editors, for his 1983 Heisman campaign. Rozier's statistics earn him a clear victory among all-time Huskers in the eyes of most. But not me. I saw in 1995 what stats cannot tell us about Tommie Frazier's senior season. He rushed for 604 yards and threw for 1,362 -- pedestrian numbers compared to many on this list, though he still finished second in the Heisman voting. Sure, he was surrounded by greatness, offensively and defensively, but perhaps only Tim Tebow since that 1995 season has matched Frazier's presence and overall impact on a team. Frazier was a field general in every sense imaginable. He inspired the players alongside him in the huddle. He founds reserves of determination for the biggest games, earning recognition often among the greatest quarterbacks to play the college game. I went with Rozier because his dominance was impossible to ignore, picking against Frazier -- an act that those 13 games in 1995 taught me was most unwise.
Austin Ward: The trump card is almost always up Archie Griffin's sleeve when it comes to debates about the greatest player in Ohio State history, but at least this once it didn't work. In a conversation about the top individual season a program has ever seen, being the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner finally wasn't a deal breaker -- and the Buckeyes have plenty of incredible performances to give Griffin a run for his money. Orlando Pace made people take notice of line play and count up pancakes, and it was tough for him to even crack the honorable-mention list. It's actually Eddie George who holds Ohio State's single-season rushing record with a staggering 1,927-yard campaign that included 24 touchdowns and a stiff-arm trophy of his own. David Boston's breakout seasons in 1997 and '98 are even more remarkable in hindsight, with the wide receiver rewriting the record books with a pair of seasons that are both nearly 300 yards better than anybody else in school history. On top of that, Ohio State has four other Heisman winners to consider along with three-time All-America Chic Harley. In the end, Griffin's seasons can't be fully measured by his statistics alone, since for starters he was sharing time in a loaded backfield. But his talent was undeniable when the football was in his hands, and even without his normal trump card Griffin still walked away a deserving winner.
Josh Moyer: For me, I might have spent the most time waffling back and forth with Michigan. Sure, Charles Woodson’s 1997 campaign was one for the ages. But could we really ignore a rich history that included Fielding Yost’s point-a-minute teams and severely underrated running back Willie Heston (1904)? Or Mr. Do-Everything in Tom Harmon (1940)? Or how about a quarterback (Bennie Friedman, 1925 or 1926) and wide receiver (Bennie Oosterbaan) who helped change the face of the game? Or, if we want to get a bit more recent, how’s Desmond Howard (1991) sound?
You could make a case for any of these players and, really, not be wrong. But I think the two who give Woodson the strongest push are Harmon and Heston. Harmon not only won the Heisman in 1940, but he was also the AP Male Athlete of the Year – meaning he had a better season than the likes of MLB’s Hank Greenberg (41 homers, 150 RBI). It didn’t hurt that Harmon could rush, pass, kick, punt and tackle. But my personal vote as the best Michigan season went to Heston. The NCAA could piece stats together from just 17 of his 36 career games and, just during that 1904 season, Heston averaged 12.7 yards per carry while rushing for 21 TDs. (And he was good at defense.) Knute Rockne once said Heston was a better runner than Red Grange. Plus, Michigan went 10-0 that season and outscored its opponents 567-22. So Michigan has a lot of quality players and great seasons -- which didn’t make this an easy task -- but after a lot of thinking I personally voted for Heston in 1904. Truthfully, though, you could’ve gone with a half-dozen others.
And in the Big Ten, perhaps more so than in any other league, history matters.
My ESPN.com colleagues and I recently embarked on the virtually impossible task of identifying the greatest individual season for each FBS program. The project, appropriately called The Season, debuted today. Be sure and check it out all week.
The selection process involved several factors -- time period, statistical milestones, clutch plays/games and position, to name just a few -- and a heavy dose of subjectivity. But I would add "conference" to the list. Picking a defining season for a Big Ten team is different than one for a Pac-12 or ACC team.
The greatest individual Big Ten seasons, like leather or fine wine, seem to improve with age. In fact, I'd argue that age is a requirement in selecting signature seasons for Big Ten teams.
None of the Big Ten's signature seasons occurred in the past decade. Former Purdue quarterback Drew Brees and former Northwestern running back Damien Anderson provide the most recent selections, both in 2000.
The full list:
Illinois: Red Grange, 1924
Indiana: Anthony Thompson, 1989
Iowa: Nile Kinnick, 1939
Maryland: Randy White, 1974
Michigan: Charles Woodson, 1997
Michigan State: Lorenzo White, 1985
Minnesota: Bronko Nagurski, 1929
Nebraska: Mike Rozier, 1983
Northwestern: Damien Anderson, 2000
Ohio State: Archie Griffin, 1974
Penn State: Lydell Mitchell, 1971
Purdue: Drew Brees, 2000
Rutgers: Paul Robeson, 1917
Wisconsin: Ron Dayne, 1999
The selections from other conferences show a different picture. Five of the SEC's signature seasons occurred between 2007 and '13. The Pac-12 had five selections between 2002 and '12, the Big 12 had four between 2003 and '11, and the ACC had five between 2001 and '09.
Is it just a coincidence that the Big Ten's signature seasons occurred so long ago? Perhaps it's because the league overall has struggled in the past decade and failed to win a national title since 2002. Although we evaluated individual performances, certain players gained credibility for helping their teams win championships.
Nebraska has a limited Big Ten history (three seasons), while Rutgers and Maryland have no history in the league. But I'd argue that Nebraska's storied tradition puts it in the same category as several Big Ten programs when you're trying to identify superlatives. There's just more to consider with programs like Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.
Does a Big Ten season need some age on it to truly represent a program? There is so much history in the league, and to minimize or gloss over the distant past in an exercise like this is wrong.
The longevity factor doesn't seem to be as strong in other leagues. The Big 12 includes only one signature season before 1963 (TCU's Davey O'Brien in 1938). The SEC includes no signature seasons before LSU's Billy Cannon in 1959, and the Pac-12 features none before Oregon State's Terry Baker in 1962.
The Big Ten, meanwhile, has four signature seasons that took place before 1940. Even most of the runner-up seasons in the Big Ten illustrate the historical differences: Only five occurred in the past decade, and two stem from newcomer Rutgers (Ray Rice in 2007, Kenny Britt in 2008).
I'd like to think a great season is a great season, whether it occurred last year or eight decades ago. I feel the same way about Baseball Hall of Fame votes. If a player merits the Hall on the first vote, he should get in. If he doesn't deserve it, why should he get in on the 10th ballot?
The fear here is that we're short-changing certain seasons because they occurred not long ago. Brian Bennett and I have written extensively about how Montee Ball's 2011 season at Wisconsin might not truly be appreciated for many years. Ball led the nation with 1,923 rushing yards, added 306 receiving yards and scored 39 touchdowns, which tied Barry Sanders' single-season NCAA record. Although he had 111 fewer rushing yards than Dayne in 1999, the season we selected, he also had 30 fewer carries and scored 19 more touchdowns.
But Dayne won the Heisman Trophy in 1999, while Ball finished fourth in the voting in 2011.
Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh finished fourth in the Heisman voting in 2009, despite putting together what many consider the most dominant season for a defensive player in recent college football history. Suh's ridiculous statistics -- 24 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, 10 pass breakups, 26 quarterback hurries -- don't fully illustrate how he controlled games.
And yet we went with 1983 Heisman Trophy winner Rozier instead. Nothing against Rozier's season, but would Suh have earned the top spot if his big year occurred in, say, 1969 or 1979? Will we view Suh's 2009 differently in 2024, when more time has passed?
It's hard to argue with our pick for Iowa: Heisman Trophy winner Kinnick in 1939. But quarterback Brad Banks had an unforgettable season in 2002 (AP Player of the Year, second in Heisman voting) and Shonn Greene was the nation's most dominant running back in 2008.
Even our Rutgers pick went way back, nearly a century, to Robeson, a fine player in his time. But Rutgers' renaissance under Greg Schiano (the Scarlet Knights' coach from 2001 to 2011) is much fresher in our minds, and performances from Rice (2,012 rush yards, 25 touchdowns in 2007) and Britt (87 receptions for 1,371 receiving yards in 2008) made it possible.
The Big Ten returns plenty of star power in 2014, and players like Melvin Gordon, Braxton Miller, Ameer Abdullah, Randy Gregory and Shilique Calhoun could produce special seasons this fall.
But to be recognized for signature seasons, the ones that represent historic programs in a historic conference, they will likely have to wait a while.