NCF Nation: Wisconsin Badgers
It's the type of image college football fans covet but can't always count on: their team's best player being the last to leave the practice field. In this way, Wisconsin fans are spoiled with their recent running backs. Montee Ball set records on fall Saturdays, but he was even better, teammates and coaches say, during practices. James White forged a 4,015-yard, 48-touchdown Badgers career on production, versatility and unselfishness. Those qualities showed up every time he practiced.
But on this day, as afternoon spills into evening, Gordon works on catching passes. He recorded only one reception in 2013 and has just three in his career.
"I always try to do a little something after practice," Gordon told ESPN.com. "People ask me what specific thing I'm working on, what one thing, but as a back, you have to work on everything, feel like everything is your weakness and make it a strength."
There is a next level for Gordon. He sees it. If there wasn't, he would have gone to the next level. Instead, he's back at Wisconsin, hoping to take the program to the next level.
Gordon finalized his decision in December before receiving a grade from the NFL draft advisory board. He was projected as a second-round pick and could have climbed higher with a strong pre-draft showing.
"It was very clear what Melvin wanted to do," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "He wanted to come back. He never seemed one bit distracted, nor has he seemed one bit distracted since that time. If you ask Melvin right now, it's clear-cut for him: He wants to be in a position to help the team reach a high level of elite football, and be the featured tailback.
"That is his goal."
Gordon specified his objective last week on a conference call with reporters.
"I want to get our team to the playoff," he said. "I have a paper posted on my wall of the College Football Playoff. I didn’t come back to win this or that, to win the Heisman, people talk about that, I don't really feel like that's important. The goal right now is a national championship.
"Wisconsin's never had one before, so that's my goal and that's our team goal."
Gordon undoubtedly will enter the Heisman picture if he builds upon a sophomore season that included 1,609 rush yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. He led the nation and set a team record in yards per rush (7.81). With a career average of 8.1 yards per rush, he needs just 12 attempts to set the Big Ten record held by former Penn State star Ki-Jana Carter (7.27 YPR).
"Melvin plays so well with the ball in his hands," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "This spring, he's had great opportunities playing without the ball, and has made the most of those opportunities."
The reduced role posed a challenge at times. Wide receiver Kenzel Doe, one of Gordon's best friends, said Gordon often told him, "Man, I know they don't want me to get the reps, but I want to be out there so bad."
Gordon maximized the reps he received during practice and stayed after to work more.
"Montee always told me, 'Practice is harder than games,'" Gordon said. "Everything you do in practice, you get to the game, you’ll be in the same situation, and you'll be able to make that cut. You practice how you play. I believe in that."
Gordon has known he would be back at Wisconsin for four months. Three of those months have featured incessant NFL draft coverage, from the scouting combine to pro days to individual workouts to daily rumors. A later draft means three more weeks of chatter.
You wouldn't blame a player who easily could be part of the process for completely tuning it out. But Gordon watches "all of it." He loves the NFL Network as much as the next draftnik.
"When they're talking about this running back or that one, you can't help but think about it," Gordon said of his potential pro path. "It's human nature. But you can't dwell on it too much. When you give your commitment, that's what it is. You can't go back, even if you wanted to."
Andersen doesn't undersell what Gordon's return means. "Huge," he said, "is probably not a big enough word." Wisconsin is very thin at wide receiver after losing Jared Abbrederis and remains unsettled at quarterback coming out of the spring.
No matter who lines up under center, the unit will lean on Gordon and Clement, who Andersen calls Wisconsin's two best offensive players. At times, they'll play together. Other times, they'll spell one another. Gordon and White formed the most productive single-season rushing tandem in NCAA history last fall (3,053 yards), and hopes are high that Clement complements Gordon just as well, if not better.
But Gordon returned to be the lead ball carrier, to be more involved in the pass game, to be a complete player and a better leader. He'll reach the next level soon enough.
He wants to get Wisconsin there first.
"His mentality is, 'I came back for a reason,'" Doe said. "He has that eagerness to win, so he's going to do whatever he has to do."
MADISON, Wis. -- Spring practice has provided some answers at quarterback in places like Nebraska, Northwestern, Illinois and Minnesota. Other competitions, while potentially narrowing a bit, remain unresolved as summer approaches.
Wisconsin certainly belongs in the latter category. A program that is no stranger to quarterback races has another that should last well into fall camp.
Junior Joel Stave has started for the better part of the past two seasons. But an AC joint injury to his throwing shoulder sustained in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina has limited him throughout spring and ended his session prematurely following Saturday's scrimmage. Stave won't participate in Saturday's spring game. Although Andersen admits the injury is a concern and further evaluation is needed, Stave should be fine for summer workouts.
"There's definitely a separation between those two and the rest of the pack," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen told ESPN.com. "I see D.J. [Gillins] and Bart [Houston] fighting in different ways and different situations and scenarios."
Stave's injury and a wave of others to an already inexperienced wide receiving corps have made it tough to get an accurate gauge on the passing game this spring. Senior Kenzel Doe is the only wideout with substantial experience who is fully participating in the spring. Alex Erickson is sitting out the spring following a knee injury in the bowl game, Jordan Fredrick suffered an arm injury midway through the session and Robert Wheelwright, pegged by many to emerge as Wisconsin's top wideout, has been slowed by a knee issue.
The Badgers will be healthier at receiver in fall camp, and most likely better as five wide receiver recruits arrive, led by Dareian Watkins.
"We need a couple of them to produce for us," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "To say all five are going to step in and produce right away, that would be a little bit of a stretch. But we're looking for two guys: one that can provide a vertical stretch for us and the next guy to see what his strengths are and design around him.
"We need a player to take the top off the coverage."
Another subplot is where Andersen, Lugwig and the staff truly want to take the offense. In recruiting McEvoy and Gillins, the coaches made it clear they want more athleticism under center. Andersen wants "the threat of the run" at quarterback to complement backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement.
Wisconsin has incorporated more zone-read plays this spring, and McEvoy said the speed option was introduced in Tuesday's practice.
"Me being mobile gives some more elements that hopefully I can use," McEvoy said. "It seems to be working, but it's the same playbook as before. We've just got to execute."
Ludwig considers both Gillins, a freshman early enrollee, and McEvoy, as "brand-new players" this spring. He's pleased with the way both have learned the system but wants to see better execution from all the quarterbacks.
"Recently, I've had happy feet when I'm in the pocket," McEvoy said. "The next couple of days, I'm going to focus on really staying in there, taking my steps and throwing the ball, and running it when I really need to run it."
Gillins is ahead of where the coaches thought he would be and, with a strong summer, could push both Stave and McEvoy when camp begins. Andersen said if it appears Gillins won't contribute much at quarterback this fall, he'll likely redshirt rather than play another position.
Houston has the arm strength but lacks mobility and needs to show greater consistency to factor in the race.
"With Joel not being 100 percent, it's kind of tweaked our thought process a little bit," Ludwig said. "The guys are all competing well and learning. We've got to be a lot more productive at the QB spot. Spring football, it's about being productive and laying a foundation for the summer workouts, and putting yourself in position to come back in fall camp as Practice 16 rather than Practice 1."
That's not sitting too well with Clement, who would be lowering his pads and leg-driving through traffic if he had his way.
"That's what I strive off of," he told ESPN.com. "Contact makes me rage more for yards. That's what brings out the best in me.
"It's very unusual for me not to be in contact with anybody else, but I have to keep fresh because that's what our head coach wants. I know my time will come."
As a true freshman in 2013, he made a lot out of a little. Appearing almost exclusively in mop-up work behind Gordon and senior James White, he still managed to run for 547 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 8.2 yards per carry. He ran for 101 yards in his college debut against UMass in the opener, then followed that up with 149 yards and two touchdowns a week later vs. Tennessee Tech. He also went over 100 yards against Indiana, joining White and Gordon as the triple-headed, triple-digit rushers each time in those blowout wins.
With White gone, Clement is set to take on a much bigger role in the Badgers backfield, potentially forming a dynamic duo with Gordon, just as White did with Montee Ball and then Gordon did with White.
"I believe we can only beat ourselves," he said. "I believe we can be the best tandem if our teammates help us out with that."
The arc sure seems familiar. Clement's numbers as the third wheel in his first season of full action closely resemble those of Gordon's in 2012. Gordon ran for 621 yards and averaged 10 yards per carry as a redshirt sophomore, then blew up for 1,609 rushing yards last season.
Many expect Clement to enjoy the same trajectory, but he's not viewing himself as mirroring his predecessor.
"I've always wanted to create my own path," he said. "I don't want to follow any anybody else. It's all about creating your own legacy and doing what you have to do make a name for yourself."
There are style differences between the two backs, as Gordon is a 6-foot-1 long-strider who is most dangerous when he can get out on the perimeter. The 5-11, 210-pound Clement enjoys pounding the ball up the middle. He's itching to do that right now.
"He's unbelievably competitive and is frustrated," Andersen said with a laugh. "Corey's handling that well, but trust me -- every single day, he wants to get in and get tackled, and he wants to run in between the tackles."
Clement is a gifted runner, but like all young tailbacks, he needs to improve his understanding of pass protection and blocking. Those are things that took Ball time to learn, and even Gordon struggled with it at times last season. Andersen also wants Clement to develop in the screen game, so mental reps and non-tackling drills take priority this spring.
"I'm just trying to get everything down," Clement said. "It's already hard, and trying to accumulate it all in one spring is kind of hard. But I'll get used to it, eventually."
Clement said he learned about the importance of paying attention to detail during his freshman season, and he had to focus on learning to practice right during the middle of the season when his game day opportunities evaporated. There's usually a line of succession for handoffs at Wisconsin, but the player who starred as a running back most of his young life in New Jersey had to adjust to that.
"I wasn't mad about it, but it made me a lot more eager and anxious to get out on field," he said, "because I'd never been a third-stringer."
His time to shine arrives this fall. Don't be surprised if Clement makes a deep impact.
Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
- 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
- Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26
What to watch:
- A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
- Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
- Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
- Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
- Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
- Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
- Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
- Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
- Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
- Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
- Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
- Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
- New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.
The accelerated schedules seem appropriate in a league filled with players, coaches and teams itching for fresh starts.
New assistants get their first chance to repair struggling units, whether it's Doug Nussmeier with Michigan's offense, Brian Knorr with Indiana's defense or Chris Ash and Larry Johnson with a once-feared Ohio State defense. Quarterback competitions begin or resume at nine places, as new faces such as Illinois' Wes Lunt, Nebraska's Johnny Stanton and Minnesota's Chris Streveler enter the mix, while veterans like Wisconsin's Joel Stave and Michigan's Devin Gardner try to retain their starting jobs.
Happy Valley continues to buzz about new Penn State coach James Franklin, who seems to galvanize everyone whom he encounters. But Franklin barely has been around his new players and finally begins the real work with a team facing very real challenges.
"It's big-picture stuff, building relationships with the players and everyone associated with the program," Franklin told ESPN.com. "The other thing is laying a really good foundation with the philosophies and schemes of how we're going to do things. That's going to happen naturally over time, but I'm not the most patient person. I wish it would have happened yesterday."
Franklin doesn't water down his goals for Penn State, especially in recruiting, but he's also realistic about the challenges of a reduced roster. The Nittany Lions return strong pieces such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg and defensive back Adrian Amos, but the two-deep has some holes that Franklin and his assistants must address, while installing new schemes.
"It's one thing when you get put in this situation in the first place with limited scholarships," Franklin said, "but the longer you're in it, the more effect it has. We've got some depth issues, there's no doubt about it, across the board. We're going to have to get creative."
Northwestern also is focused on depth after being hit hard by key injuries in 2013. Pat Fitzgerald blames himself and his staff for failing to get enough second-stringers ready, which proved costly in close Big Ten losses.
After their first bowl-less winter in six years, the Wildcats responded well in the weight room, as more than 50 players recorded personal bests. Although 11 players will miss spring practice, including standout running back/returner Venric Mark, the depth should be better in areas like the secondary.
"We're really emphasizing taking ownership of the finish," Fitzgerald said. "Finishing your technique, finishing the call, finishing the route. There's a lot of disappointment in the way the program didn't take the next step forward."
Michigan coach Brady Hoke restructured the roles of his defensive assistants for 2014, but the Wolverines' offense will be in the spotlight this spring after a wildly inconsistent season. Gardner, who continues to recover from a foot injury and likely won't be 100 percent until midway through the spring, will compete with Shane Morris, Russell Bellomy and midyear enrollee Wilton Speight.
But other positions, such as offensive line, figure to be just as important as Michigan tries to achieve Hoke and Nussmeier's vision.
"We had good intentions as far as what we wanted our identity to be, but obviously I don't think it came out the way we'd like it to," Hoke said. "The quarterback position is as important as any, and we have a guy [Gardner] who is very talented and had some really good games and games where we had to protect him better, have a better run game and take pressure off of him, and I don't think we did."
While Michigan turns the page on offense, Ohio State focuses on a defense that allowed 115 points in its last three games and finished 110th nationally in pass yards allowed (268 YPG). The Buckeyes lost top defenders Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, but they also added two accomplished assistants.
Johnson, who churned out NFL linemen during 18 years at Penn State, chose Ohio State instead of remaining in State College. Ash leaves a sole coordinator role at Arkansas for a co-coordinator role at Ohio State, where he'll work with the embattled Luke Fickell and others to mend the defense through a simplified scheme.
"Back in the day when Ohio State played great defense, you knew what you were going to get," Ash said. "They played with swagger, played with confidence, played with toughness. We have to get back to that. The simplicity of the things we're going to do will lead to faster players, more plays made and a more aggressive defense.
"I wasn't here [in 2013], but I can tell you what Coach Meyer has told me, what Luke Fickell has told me and what I watch on film. I can see there's some hesitation, there's some uncertainty. Why that is, I don't know. But it's my job to get it fixed."
Purdue has plenty to fix after a 1-11 season, and players not surprisingly are wearing T-shirts with the word "FORWARD" on the backs. Maryland and Rutgers move forward to a new conference after an offseason that saw several staff changes, including new coordinators at Rutgers (Ralph Friedgen, Joe Rossi).
There's a fresh start of sorts at Wisconsin, as a large and decorated senior class departs. Coach Gary Andersen's markings will be more obvious with his second team, which begins practice March 7.
Wisconsin is just one of many places where the top quarterback job is at stake. Lunt, who sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, competes with Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey at Illinois.
"Competition's competition, no matter where it's at," said Lunt, who has added about 15 pounds since his arrival and checks in at 225. "It's different because it’s different people, different coaches, but I'm excited for it."
He's not alone in the Big Ten. Spring ball can't start soon enough.
The message back then: We can do this, but we probably won't any time soon.
Last year, Big Ten coaches and administrators expressed greater support for night games, including those in November. League commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com he wouldn't stand in the way of such games.
Will 2014 be the year we see Big Ten football kick off under the lights after Nov. 1?
We won't know for sure until ESPN/ABC and BTN announce their prime-time schedules this spring, but there's momentum for more night games and later night games, and talks are underway.
"We're more amendable to that first November Saturday," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith recently told ESPN.com, "and I think some of us will be willing to look at that second Saturday in November if the contest is right."
Weather is still a potential deterrent for Big Ten schools to schedule night games later in the season, as it creates possible logistical problems for all involved (fans, game operations staff, police/security). But the temperature difference between late October and the first portion of November often is negligible.
The 2014 season includes Saturdays on Nov. 1 and Nov. 8.
Here are the schedules:
Indiana at Michigan
Maryland at Penn State
Illinois at Ohio State
Wisconsin at Rutgers
Northwestern at Iowa
Purdue at Nebraska
Byes: Minnesota, Michigan State
Penn State at Indiana
Michigan at Northwestern
Ohio State at Michigan State
Iowa at Minnesota
Wisconsin at Purdue
Byes: Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois, Nebraska
The bad news: The Nov. 1 schedule doesn't feature too many big-time games, which could decrease the likelihood of a prime-time contest, especially on ESPN/ABC.
Michigan wants its night games to be major events, and facing Indiana doesn't exactly qualify. Iowa hosting Northwestern is a possibility, especially since the Hawkeyes play only one other home game (Oct. 11 against Indiana) between Sept. 15 and Nov. 1.
The Nov. 8 schedule includes arguably the Big Ten's marquee game of the year in Ohio State visiting Michigan State, a rematch of the 2013 league championship. I'd absolutely love to see this at night, and what a way to kick off November prime time in the league. It's definitely a possibility, but the game also could fill the 3:30 p.m. ET window, which many Big Ten athletic directors prefer (Purdue's Morgan Burke recently called it "the sweet spot").
The Penn State-Indiana game is another potential prime-time kickoff, mainly because Indiana has been so open to night games (six in the past two seasons, nine since the 2010 season).
"We've probably had more night games than most of our colleagues in the conference," Indiana athletic director Fred Glass said. "We think it's a good thing for us, it helps our attendance. We're certainly open to that, and my guess is that will be more of a trend."
Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas echoes the support for night games, noting that several Big Ten ADs and coaches previously spent time in the Mid-American Conference, where playing at night and on weekdays, especially late in the season, is common.
"We experienced all of that in our past lives," said Thomas, who served as Akron's athletic director from 2000-05. "We talk about the opportunities for the prime-time windows and where we are as individual schools and as a conference in having that kind of exposure.
"I would certainly support it."
Many of Thomas' colleagues seem to be on board. Smith said the athletic directors last week spoke about moving up the timetable for prime-time selections so they can begin promoting games. Prime-time schedules typically have been announced between April 20 and May 15.
"We're putting in lights because we've realized that we can handle night games," Smith said. "In 2006, we were a little bit skittish about it. We know our fans love it, so we've shared with the conference that we're amenable to having more. There's a novelty to it. That helps us with our atmosphere.
"It makes things really exciting."
That got us thinking about which Big Ten schools have the best student sections for football. Here's our top five:
Ohio State: The Buckeyes have such a wide swath of supporters in Ohio that they can sometimes feel like a pro team, but the large and dedicated student section at the Horseshoe keeps that from being the case. Occupying much of the south end zone, the Block-O often leads the stadium in cheers. Urban Meyer started a new tradition where he and strength coach Mickey Marotti lead the students through a series of "quick cals" before the game. And win or lose, the team sings "Carmen Ohio" in front of the band and student section after games.
Wisconsin: Let's start with the elephant in the room: Badgers students have become notorious for showing up late on game days, especially early afternoon kickoffs. So we have to dock them a few points for that. But once they finally do get there in full, there are few better parties to attend. From nontraditional waves to singing "Build Me Up Buttercup" to "Jump Around," the Wisconsin students know how to have a good time at home games, even if their cheers can sometimes turn a little too profane for those with more delicate sensibilities.
Nebraska: The Huskers love to brag about their NCAA-record sellout streak of 333 games, and rightly so. The dirty little secret, though, is that there are often empty seats at the top of the student section, something that embarrasses proud Cornhuskers fans. Still, the Boneyard -- inspired by the Blackshirts nickname -- is pretty cool, and you might think you've wandered into an Oakland Raiders game based on some of the students' more creative attire. And Nebraska fans in general remain some of the classiest in sports, as evidenced again during last season's UCLA game, when students helped lead a tribute to a Bruins player who had recently passed away.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes took away a section of student seats last year because of decreased demand. So there's that. But the Hawks Nest is usually a well-organized, loyal group that adds to the underrated game-day experience at Kinnick Stadium.
America's two largest football venues -- Michigan Stadium and Beaver Stadium -- sit on Big Ten campuses, and three of the seven football stadiums with six-figure capacities are in the league (Ohio Stadium is the other). Michigan has led the nation in college football attendance for the past 15 years, and the Big Ten occupied three of the top five spots and seven of the top 23 spots in attendance average for the 2013 season.
So what's the B1G deal? Eight of the 12 league programs saw a decline in average attendance last season. Some have seen numbers drop for several years. Student-section attendance is a growing concern, and the Big Ten is tracking the troubling national attendance trends.
"We've been blessed because we haven't been hit with the significant drop-off that many other conferences and schools have experienced," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "However, we've seen it in certain games, or in not necessarily ticket sales but people actually coming to games.
"So we're concerned."
The league is taking a proactive approach, starting last season with the formation of a football game-day experience subcommittee, which Smith chairs. The committee in August announced that Big Ten schools would be allowed to show an unlimited number of replays on video boards at any speed. Schools previously could show one replay at no less than 75 percent of real-time speed.
The move drew positive reviews from fans and no major complaints from game officials.
"If people can see the replay at home on TV, you can't give them a lesser experience in the stands," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said.
A "more robust" replay approach is on the way for 2014, and Big Ten leaders are looking at other ways to bolster the stadium experience, which, as Burke noted, seems to have reached a tipping point with the couch experience.
Here are some areas of focus:
Cellular and Wi-Fi Connections
In August, the subcommittee encouraged each Big Ten school to explore full Wi-Fi in stadiums as well as Distributed Antenna System (DAS) coverage to enhance cell-phone functionality. A fan base immersed in smartphones, social media and staying connected demands it.
"Everybody realizes improvements have to be made," said Kerry Kenny, the Big Ten's liaison to the game-day experience subcommittee. "People want to be updated on other games. They want to go in there and take photos or Instagram videos or tweet. They want to be able to stay in touch with family and friends that aren’t there but are watching."
Penn State installed Wi-Fi throughout Beaver Stadium in 2012 but is the only Big Ten school to have complete access. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said he hopes to have total Wi-Fi in the school's football stadium by the fall, if not the 2015 season. Nebraska's regents last month approved a $12.3 million Wi-Fi project for its stadium, and Wisconsin hopes to have full stadium Wi-Fi this season.
Most schools are focused on boosting cell service, which is more feasible and widespread. Ohio State installed more than 200 antennas in Ohio Stadium to improve cell service. For complete Wi-Fi, it would need about 1,200 antennas.
"We don't know what the cost is, but we know it's somewhere north of seven figures," Smith said. "We're studying it, as are my colleagues in the Big Ten."
Student sections aren't nearly as full as they used to be on Saturdays, both in the Big Ten and in the nation. ADs are well aware of the downturn and have tried different approaches to boost attendance.
Michigan in 2013 implemented a general admission policy, hoping to get more students to show up early, but reviews weren't favorable. Minnesota provided a new student tailgating area and better ticket packages. Illinois held a clinic for international students, who have told Thomas they'd come to games if they knew more about football.
The technology component resonates for students. Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis told CBSsports.com that many students didn't show up for a 2012 game against Iowa because they couldn't send text messages in the rain.
Even if Ohio State doesn't install complete Wi-Fi at The Shoe, it could do so for the student section.
"Our surveys show that less than 25 percent of the crowd actually uses their cellular device [during games]," Smith said, "but of that 25 percent, a supermajority are students. You want to be able to provide that access."
“The days of public-address announcers listing scores from other games during timeouts are over. Schools want to give fans a broader view on Saturdays, whether it's putting live feeds of other games on video boards or replaying highlights shortly after they happen.
Everybody realizes improvements have to be made. People want to be updated on other games. They want to go in there and take photos or Instagram videos or tweet. They want to be able to stay in touch with family and friends that aren't there but are watching.” Kerry Kenny, the Big Ten's liaison to the game-day experience subcommittee, on Wi-Fi in stadiums.
"I was at a game at Purdue this year," Kenny said, "and they showed a highlight of a touchdown in the Wisconsin-Iowa game within a couple minutes of that touchdown being scored."
Added Thomas: "If you're watching ESPN or watching a game at home, those are the kinds of experiences you should give people in your venue."
Big Ten athletic directors and football coaches last week discussed having more locker-room video or behind-the-scenes content that can be shown only within the stadium.
"You're in an era where people want to know what's it like before the game, after the game," Burke said. "It humanizes us if people see that side, the highs and the lows."
Burke likens Purdue's sideline to a "Hollywood production," as the band director, a disc jockey and a show producer coordinate in-game music on headsets. Several schools post tweets from fans at games on video boards to create a more interactive experience.
Ticketing and timing
Last month, Penn State became the latest Big Ten school to adopt variable ticket pricing for single games, acknowledging, "We have been listening to our fans." Attendance has dropped 11.2 percent from 2007 to 2012, while frustration has grown with the Seat Transfer and Equity Plan (STEP) program.
Big Ten schools are getting more creative with ticket plans in response to attendance concerns. Northwestern last season implemented a modified "Dutch auction" system where a portion of tickets were sold based on adjusted price demand rather than set prices.
Purdue last fall introduced mobile ticket delivery, which allows fans to download tickets directly to their devices.
Kickoff times are another attendance indicator, as Big Ten schools located in the central time zone often struggle to fill the stands for 11 a.m. games. The Big Ten gradually has increased its number of prime-time games, and while Burke considers mid-afternoon games ideal, more night kickoffs likely are on the way, including those in early November.
Ohio State is in the process of installing permanent lights at Ohio Stadium.
"I'm a big fan of evening games," Thomas said.
As attendance becomes a bigger issue, the Big Ten and its members have surveyed fans about what they want at games. Wisconsin last fall established a 25-member fan advisory council, with two students. The school has received feedback about concessions, parking and whether fans would prefer digital programs rather than the traditional magazine-style ones.
"So much of it is when somebody comes to your venue," said Justin Doherty, Wisconsin's associate athletic director for external relations, "they have an experience that makes them want to come back."
Luckily, it won't be much longer before teams are back on the field. In fact, Northwestern and Michigan will open their practice sessions in a little more than two weeks. It will be a bit of a longer wait for teams such as Michigan State and Iowa, which won't get started until late March.
But mark your calendars for these spring practice dates, which are subject to change but represent the latest information we have from the schools:
Spring practice starts: March 4
Spring game: April 12
Spring practice starts: March 8
Spring game: TBA
Spring practice starts: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26
Spring practice starts: March 1
Spring game: April 11
Spring practice starts: Feb. 25
Spring game: April 5
Spring practice starts: March 25
Spring game: April 26
Spring practice starts: March 4
Spring game: April 12
Spring practice starts: March 8
Spring game: April 12
Spring practice starts: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12
Spring practice starts: March 4
Spring game: April 12
Spring practice starts: March 17
Spring game: April 12
Spring practice starts: March 6
Spring game: April 12
Spring practice starts: March 25
Spring game: April 26
Spring practice starts: March 7
Spring game: April 12
It's no coincidence that a historic downturn in Big Ten football has coincided with a historic stretch of instability among the league's coaches.
The Big Ten coaches that year had combined for four national championships, five Rose Bowl titles and seven BCS bowl victories.
Since 2005, the Big Ten has gone through 17 coaching changes (not counting Nebraska's after the 2007 season). Seven teams have made multiple changes, including Penn State, which introduced new coaches earlier this month and in January 2011 after not doing so since February 1966. Last season, Indiana's Kevin Wilson was the longest-tenured coach in the Leaders division. He was hired in December 2010.
As the Big Ten invests more in its coaches, it also must ensure it has the right leaders in place for the long haul.
"If you believe strongly in the person you have," Iowa athletic director Gary Barta told ESPN.com, "continuity is invaluable."
Few programs value continuity more than Iowa, which has had two coaches (Kirk Ferentz and Hayden Fry) since the 1978 season. Ferentz, who just completed his 15th year at the school, has been at his post eight years longer than any other Big Ten coach. He's one of only four FBS coaches to start before the 2000 season (Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Troy's Larry Blakeney are the others).
Iowa awarded Ferentz with contract extensions both in 2009 and 2010, the latter a whopping 10-year deal with a salary of $3,675,000. The Big Ten hasn't set the pace nationally in coach compensation, but Iowa's pledge to Ferentz, often the subject of NFL rumors, jumps out. Ferentz's salary is frequently debated and scrutinized, especially when Iowa struggles like it did in 2012, but Barta's loyalty to him hasn't wavered. Iowa rebounded to win eight games last season.
"Because of that commitment, we made our statement," Barta said. "We're going to fight through this with the person in whom we have great confidence and trust. There's no guarantees in life, but because of Kirk's past performance, because of his long-standing approach at Iowa and his proven success, it was a risk I was willing to take. Knock on wood, so far it has worked out terrific."
Barta sees a similar approach from Big Ten schools like Michigan State, which won Big Ten and Rose Bowl titles in Mark Dantonio's seventh season as coach. Dantonio in 2011 received a contract designed to keep him a "Spartan for life," and his newest deal is expected to more than double his salary from $1.9 million in 2013.
"Continuity breeds success," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said, "and that's the hardest part sometimes on the institutional side, to keep that commitment, keep that contract whether it's an assistant or a head coach. … It requires a high level of confidence and a high level of trust."
“There have been similar long-term commitments at other Big Ten schools. Northwestern awarded coach Pat Fitzgerald a 10-year contract in 2011. When Indiana hired Wilson, it gave him a seven-year contract, longer than the initial deals new coaches typically receive. Athletic director Fred Glass links Indiana's lack of continuity -- the school has had five coaches since 1996 -- with its on-field struggles (only one bowl appearance since 1993) and knows the school needs a more patient approach.
The day of playing musical chairs with coaches, of making change just for change's sake, is over because any changes you make are going to be expensive and important. You've got to get them right.” Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon
"Stability is an important thing in our league," said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who applauded recent moves like MSU retaining Dantonio and Penn State hiring James Franklin. "The best example I'll use is men’s basketball where we're having tremendous success, in large part, because of the stability we have in a number of our programs. I think we need to get that in football."
While Big Ten football has struggled in recent years, the league is surging on the hardwood, in large part because of veteran coaches like Michigan State's Tom Izzo (19th year), Wisconsin's Bo Ryan (13th year) and Ohio State's Thad Matta (10th year). Six of the league's 12 basketball coaches have been in their jobs for at least five seasons.
Continuity doesn't guarantee success, but it often correlates. Barta has tried to create "an environment of longevity and long-term commitment" at Iowa, while also recognizing the pressure to win and, in some cases, the need to part ways with a coach.
"The day of playing musical chairs with coaches," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said, "of making change just for change's sake, is over because any changes you make are going to be expensive and important. You've got to get them right."
After several years of transition, the Big Ten hopes it has the right men at the top -- and the ability to keep them there.
When Bret Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas in December 2012, it sent shock waves throughout the Big Ten.
Why would a guy who had led his program to three straight Rose Bowls and Big Ten titles, one who was a Midwesterner through and through, decide to bolt for a mid-level SEC program? And if the Big Ten couldn't keep a guy like that from heading south, did it have any hope of keeping its best coaches around?
Bielema's exit wasn't the only example of coaching talent bred in the Midwest flocking to the SEC, after all. Nick Saban famously left Michigan State for LSU back in the day. Michigan man Les Miles coaches LSU. Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin is a Purdue grad. Tennessee's Butch Jones is a Michigan native, while Georgia's Mark Richt was born in Omaha, Neb.
But offseason hires in the Big Ten this winter should alleviate fears that the league will always suffer from an SEC brain drain. Conference teams looked south to fill several high-profile openings:
- Penn State hired James Franklin (and just about all of his staff) away from Vanderbilt. Sure, Vandy is no powerhouse program, but the Commodores reportedly offered him a 10-year, $50 million contract to stay in Nashville.[+] EnlargeMatthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsLuring "Pennsylvania boy" James Franklin from the SEC to Penn State could be the start of a trend to get coaches with Midwestern roots back home.
- Michigan lured Doug Nussmeier away from Saban and Alabama and hired him as the Wolverines' new offensive coordinator. While there were some rumblings that Saban wasn't exactly sorry to see Nussmeier go, the Tide did average 38.2 points per game last season.
- In a bit of sweet irony, Ohio State swiped Bielema's Arkansas defensive coordinator, Chris Ash, naming him the Buckeyes' new co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach.
It makes sense that Big Ten schools with important vacancies would turn their attention to the SEC. If you can't beat 'em, become 'em, after all. But those in charge of the hiring say that poaching the SEC wasn't really at the forefront of their minds.
"We were trying to get the very best person who fit within how Penn State is and what we do who was available," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. "It just so happens that this great coach had a great experience in the SEC. If you just look at the football piece of it, having the success that he had in the SEC -- obviously the most successful conference over the past eight or nine years perhaps if you look at national championships -- that was a very strong positive."
Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon noted that Nussmeier was born in Oregon and has coached at Washington and Michigan State, while only spending the past two years in the SEC with Saban.
"To me, it’s more coincidental than anything that’s more strategic," Brandon said of the recent Big Ten hires. "You're going to see Big Ten coaches moving around and the same for coaches from other conferences. I don’t think where they're from is as relevant as how we view their talent and experience and how well prepared they are to come in and help us at Michigan."
Still, it's good for the league and its image that high-profile coaches are willing to leave the bright lights of the SEC and take their talents to the Midwest for essentially the same positions. Ash accepted a small pay cut to abandon Bielema's ship, going from a sole coordinator's role to a job where he is officially, at least, sharing coordinator duties. Ash, tellingly, was born in Iowa and spent most of his career coaching in that state and Wisconsin before going to Dixie.
"He's kind of a Midwest guy," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "He has Midwest values. He's coming home, in my opinion."
And maybe that's the best selling point and best hope for the future of the Big Ten. With so many coaches having deep ties to the region, perhaps the league can bring some of them back home. It sure worked for Ohio State when native son Urban Meyer became available. Penn State scooped up self-described "Pennsylvania boy" Franklin. Both were considered stars in the SEC.
"If you’re not competing for great coaching talent, it’s going to be very hard to win the Big Ten title, it’s going to be very hard to appear in Rose Bowls, and it’s going to be very hard to compete for national championships," Brandon said.
Big Ten teams can do all of those things by first making sure they clot the Midwest brain drain.
Northwestern recorded 10 wins in 2012 while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Indiana led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in total offense last fall while alternating between Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld.
Quarterback rotations can be successful in the short term, but they are rarely sustainable or desirable. We saw this at Northwestern last fall, as the Wildcats never established a consistent offensive rhythm and operated with a reduced playbook, in part because of injuries but also because the unit lacked a clear identity. Northwestern finished 10th in the league in scoring.
Minnesota alternated between quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner during several games, including the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Although the Gophers had a nice surge during Big Ten play and recorded eight wins, they also finished 11th in the league in scoring and last in passing.
Nebraska had some success using two quarterbacks (Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III) last season but did so out of necessity following Taylor Martinez's injury. The Huskers also struggled to pass the ball, finishing 11th in the league.
The strongest argument for picking a quarterback and sticking with him comes from the Big Ten's best team in 2013. Michigan State's offense was a train wreck in non-league play as the Spartans used three quarterbacks. After a Week 4 loss to Notre Dame, the coaches decided Connor Cook would be their guy. You all know what happened next, but what struck me was Cook's mindset at the time.
"We went through spring ball competition and fall camp competition, it was the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life just trying to be the quarterback," Cook said last month before the Rose Bowl. "After I got the starting job and started a couple of games, the stress went away and it turned to focus, me being focused and knowing they're not going to use other quarterbacks in the game and not stress too much that go if I make a bad play I'm going to be pulled.
"That's when the stress went out the window."
Players like Northwestern's Siemian and Indiana's Roberson and Sudfeld are more accustomed to sharing time than Cook was, but each of them, like any quarterback, would rather be the clear-cut starter.
Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase is another good example of a player who benefited from an unambiguous role. He struggled from the middle of the 2011 season through all of 2012, raising the possibility of a rotation last season. Instead, Scheelhaase started every game and led the Big Ten in passing (3,272 yards).
I'm also OK with teams employing change-up quarterbacks for a package of plays, be it the Wildcat or something else. Michigan State could be a candidate for this in 2014 with dynamic redshirt freshman Damion Terry possibly spelling Cook from time to time.
The first few games also provide a platform to use multiple quarterbacks in settings that can't be replicated on the practice field. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel often did this with his younger quarterbacks, giving them a first-half series or two. It makes sense. But by Week 4, roles must be identified.
The offseason is full of Big Ten quarterback questions:
- Will Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt take the reins at Illinois?
- How will Gardner and Hackenberg fare with new offensive coordinators?
- After Nelson's transfer, who emerges at Minnesota among Leidner, Chris Streveler and possibly a young quarterback such as Dimonic McKinzy?
- Nebraska's Armstrong went 6-1 as a freshman starter, but can he hold off Johnny Stanton?
- Can Gary Nova retain his job at Rutgers?
- Will Danny Etling keep the top job at Purdue, or will Austin Appleby and possibly early enrollee David Blough enter the mix?
- How does Siemian bounce back at Northwestern, and do the Wildcats look at Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver?
- Will either Roberson or Sudfeld finally separate himself at IU?
Ultimately, these questions must be answered. The teams that avoid prolonged rotations should be better off for it.
The other top FBS running backs declaring for the draft early didn't enter Abdullah's mind. There was only one outside resource Abdullah consulted, a friend who played the same position with similar success at another Big Ten school, and who had faced the same decision. Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon already had announced he would return as a fourth-year junior. As Abdullah neared his decision earlier this month, he reached out often to Gordon.
"That's one person I talk to all the time about things like this," Abdullah told ESPN.com. "Melvin, he's one of my best friends. He's a good guy, and he was in a similar situation as me. He's also coming back, and I'm glad he is.
"We get to play them next year, and it's going to be a great matchup."
Abdullah and Gordon, who first met a high school all-star game in South Carolina in 2010 and have been good friends ever since, both are returning to the Big Ten for the 2014 season. A record-setting 98 underclassmen entered the 2014 NFL draft, 25 more than last year, the previous record. The list includes 20 running backs. Although a portion of the early entries either received bad advice or made bad decisions and won't be drafted, running back has long been regarded as the position to make a jump as soon as possible because of the physical toll it takes to play the position and its typically shorter career span.
There's little doubt both Gordon and Abdullah could have turned pro. Gordon led the nation in rushing for a stretch in September and finished with 1,609 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns despite sharing carries with James White. Abdullah led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in rushing yards with 1,690, which included 11 100-yard rushing performances in 13 games.
So why did the two say no to the draft?
"It just shows how much we care about our teams and how much we want to be the guy," Gordon said. "Ameer was the guy, but like I said before, it's about leaving a legacy. I'm sure that's what he wants to do as well. He wants to be considered one of the top backs, along with me, before he leaves, and that's a big thing, leaving something behind."
Gordon sought input from the NFL draft advisory board before announcing his decision to return, and he encouraged Abdullah to do the same. Although Abdullah didn't directly tell Gordon he planned to return before making a formal announcement, Gordon always had the sense Abdullah would be back at Nebraska.
"He's ambitious, just like I am," Abdullah said. "I feel like I have a lot more left in my ceiling that I have to reach. Melvin is the same way. He wants to come back and improve on his game, just like I do."
Pass blocking is undoubtedly the priority for Gordon during the offseason. It was a struggle for him at times last season, and even though he felt he improved, Wisconsin's coaches went with the more reliable White on passing downs.
"If you want to be an all-purpose back, you've got to get adjusted from the start," he said. "It didn't happen that quickly with me and that's why James was there. That's what I have to work on, just getting more comfortable in pass protection."
Gordon also hopes to bulk up a bit to 215 pounds after playing last season at around 205 (he's currently plateauing at 208-209). He wants to be Wisconsin's primary ball-carrier but expects to be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on just 67 carries as a freshman last fall -- similar numbers to Gordon's freshman campaign (62 rushes, 621 yards).
Abdullah logged 281 carries in 2013 and will again be in a featured role as a senior. Although many already consider Abdullah a team leader, he wants to enhance his vocal presence to "set the standards" for younger Huskers players.
Despite 549 career carries at Nebraska, the 5-9, 190-pound Abdullah isn't concerned about the injury risk of another year in college or the chatter from agents and others that running backs often slide in the draft if they return to school.
"It's all about your running style, really," he said. "A lot of guys run a certain way where they're vulnerable to getting hit directly. Other guys maneuver themselves so they won't take direct shots. You look at a guy like Barry Sanders. He was great at that. He never took that direct shot.
"I've always tried to change my ways or look at different technique schemes to prolong my career."
His Nebraska career will culminate with another run at an elusive league title. To do so, Abdullah and his teammates likely will have to get past Gordon and the Badgers on Nov. 15 in Madison, Wis.
Nebraska's last appearance at Camp Randall Stadium, its first league game in the Big Ten, did not go well.
"That's definitely one I circled," Gordon said. "I'm excited for it. I do compete with Ameer a lot. After every game, I'm checking to see what he got. I'm pretty sure he's doing the same thing. He definitely pushes me, and I'll push him to be great as well."
The Big Ten's top two runners are back for 2014, setting up an exciting race for the rushing title.
"The work starts now," Abdullah said, "so he better be working."
But plenty of candidates are already emerging to snap that skid and become the league's first winner since Troy Smith, starting with another Ohio State quarterback who has already figured prominently in the voting over the past two seasons. Starting with that candidate, we'll take a closer look at five Big Ten players capable of breaking through in 2014.
RB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: For pure explosiveness out of the backfield, few players provide more firepower than Gordon. While he may wind up splitting some of the workload for the Badgers, with James White out of the picture Gordon isn't likely to finish second on the team in carries, which can damage an individual's case for hardware. Gordon rushed for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns while sharing time, and boosting those numbers could make him an appealing option for voters.
QB Connor Cook, Michigan State: The statistical résumé isn't all that impressive, but Cook clearly developed as the season progressed, proving it in two outstanding performances to cap the season in the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl. In both of those big wins for the Spartans, Cook had the numbers of a Heisman-caliber passer, throwing for more than 300 yards in each with five total touchdowns. Plus, he is the leader of a likely top-five team in the preseason polls, which will get him on the radar early.
RB Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: The model of consistency, only two teams kept Abdullah from hitting the 100-yard mark as a junior -- and he came up short by just 17 combined yards. The centerpiece of the Nebraska offense decided to come back for one more season, and if he can match the prolific pace from last season when he finished with 1,690 yards, he could emerge as a legitimate threat for the trophy. The Huskers may need to spend longer in championship contention, but featuring Abdullah is probably the best way to do it.
QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State: The Nittany Lions are still locked out of the postseason, and while that probably shouldn't matter for individual awards, it has seemingly been a voting deterrent in the past. Hackenberg will have that uphill battle to fight as he tries to follow up his fantastic freshman season, but he has already proved he has the talent to insert himself in the national conversation and now has a new coach in James Franklin who surely won't hesitate to campaign for his quarterback. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards in his first season at the college level, and he figures to get better with experience.
Let's get started ...
1. Michigan State (13-1, previously: 1): The Spartans rallied to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO to record their team-record 13th victory. Thanks to stifling defense and improved quarterback play, Michigan State had its best season since the mid-1960s. The Spartans return QB Connor Cook and most of the skill players on offense, but must replace a lot of production on defense.
2. Ohio State (12-2, previously: 2): After winning 24 consecutive games to open the Urban Meyer era, Ohio State dropped consecutive games on big stages. The Buckeyes' defense couldn't slow down Clemson's pass game in the Discover Orange Bowl, and turnovers doomed Ohio State in the second half. Meyer's defensive staff will have a different look with new assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson.
3. Wisconsin (9-4, previously: 3): Like Ohio State, Wisconsin ended its season with a thud and a sloppy bowl performance against South Carolina. The Badgers received big performances from running backs Melvin Gordon and James White but couldn't stop South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw or hang on to the football.
4. Nebraska (9-4, previously: 6): All roads lead to 9-4 for Bo Pelini's team, but the Huskers are much happier to be there after an upset victory over Georgia in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. An improved defense did a nice job of keeping the Bulldogs out of the end zone, and seniors such as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa stepped up in their final college game.
5. Iowa (8-5, previously: 4): A stout Hawkeyes defense kept the team in the Outback Bowl, but the offense never truly got going and lost starting quarterback Jake Rudock to injury. Iowa had its chances for a quality bowl win, but has to settle for a strong regular-season improvement and raised expectations entering the 2014 season.
6. Penn State (7-5, previously: 7): An impressive victory at Wisconsin marked the final game of the Bill O'Brien era. New coach James Franklin has brought a lot of enthusiasm to Happy Valley and should sparkle on the recruiting trail. His management of talented quarterback Christian Hackenberg and an undermanned defense will loom large this fall.
7. Minnesota (8-5, previously: 5): The Gophers had by far the most favorable bowl matchup but didn't reach the end zone for more than three quarters against Syracuse. Although a special-teams play ultimately doomed Minnesota, the Gophers' inability to establish a better passing game was a key element in a very disappointing loss. Minnesota should expect more in 2014.
8. Michigan (7-6, previously: 8): You knew it would be tough for Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl when quarterback Devin Gardner hobbled off of the plane on crutches. But the Wolverines never gave themselves a chance in the game, caving defensively against Kansas State's Jake Waters and Tyler Lockett. A blowout loss ended Michigan's highly disappointing season and marked the end for offensive coordinator Al Borges. Can coach Brady Hoke get things turned around in 2014?
9. Northwestern (5-7, previously: 9): Northwestern is awaiting confirmation that running back Venric Mark can return for a fifth season, and should get it in the next few weeks. Mark will help an offense that never truly got on track last fall and might need to be more of a pass-first unit if Trevor Siemian remains the starting quarterback. The defense returns nine starters.
10. Indiana (5-7, previously: 10): It took a little longer than expected, but coach Kevin Wilson fired defensive coordinator Doug Mallory last week as Indiana again will try to upgrade a perennially porous unit. The Hoosiers will be more experienced throughout the roster this fall, but the defense must change the script under new leadership as they enter the brutal East Division.
11. Illinois (4-8, previously: 11): While Wilson made a change at defensive coordinator, coach Tim Beckman is sticking with Tim Banks and the rest of his staff for a pivotal 2014 season. Like Indiana, Illinois will be more experienced on defense but must replace Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback. A favorable schedule gives Illinois a chance to make a bowl game.
12. Purdue (1-11, previously: 12): No Big Ten team is more excited to start working this offseason than the Boilers, who are rebuilding through the quarterback spot with Danny Etling and early enrollee David Blough, who officially arrived this week. Purdue must improve along both lines and replace veteran defenders such as cornerback Ricardo Allen and tackle Bruce Gaston Jr.