NCF Nation: Al Borges

Final Big Ten Power Rankings

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
1:00
PM ET
Before we close the book on the 2013 season, here's the final version of the Big Ten power rankings. Bowl performances were factored in, as well as how teams finished the season, although there aren't too many changes from the previous version of the power rankings.

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.
A man wearing a newsboy cap approached Kirk Cousins and offered congratulations to the former Michigan State quarterback, who held court with reporters in the Rose Bowl tunnel moments after the Spartans beat Stanford.

Jim Delany wasn't easy to spot in the headgear, and one could argue that the Big Ten commissioner wisely disguised himself on a day that hasn't been kind to his league in recent years. But for the first time in four years, and for just the second time in 14 years, Delany walked out of the Rose Bowl with a smile on his face.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook and Michigan State gave the Big Ten plenty to celebrate.
For Delany and the Big Ten, the Rose Bowl sits on a pedestal. And after just one Big Ten win in the previous 10 tries, Michigan State's 24-20 triumph in the game's 100th edition was cause for celebration. MSU's victory doesn't dull the pain of the Big Ten's second consecutive 2-5 bowl season, but it certainly helps to prevail in the most important postseason game on the biggest stage against the best opponent.

The Spartans won a team-record 13 games and completed the best season for a Big Ten team in recent memory, finishing No. 3 in the final polls. Nebraska provided the other bright spot, upsetting Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl thanks to a stingy red-zone defense and several standout performances from seniors.

Elsewhere, the Big Ten felt the familiar postseason sting of what might have been. The league easily could have had a better record in the Florida bowls, but Wisconsin and Ohio State had sloppy performances and Iowa's offense never got on track against LSU.

Wisconsin never punted in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina and had two 100-yard rushers in Melvin Gordon and James White, but the Badgers committed four turnovers and scored just 17 offensive points. A team that had been so solid through the first 11 games unraveled in the regular-season finale against Penn State and in the bowl, failing to capitalize on a great chance to build on a 17-13 third-quarter lead. Dave Aranda's defense was shredded for the second straight game as South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw accounted for five touchdowns (3 pass, 1 rush, 1 receiving). A decorated Wisconsin senior classes ended 0-4 in Jan. 1 bowls.

Ohio State also finished the season on a surprising losing streak, squandering two second-half leads in a 40-35 loss to Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. Like Wisconsin, the Buckeyes also were doomed by turnovers, particularly a muffed punt by Corey Brown in the third quarter with a nine-point lead. A depleted Ohio State defense couldn't stop Clemson's big-play receivers, the coaches once again avoided running back Carlos Hyde in crunch time, and a banged-up Braxton Miller committed turnovers on Ohio State's final two possessions.

Injuries and personnel issues were a theme throughout the Big Ten during the bowl season. Wisconsin and Iowa saw their starting quarterbacks hurt during games, while Michigan's top signal-caller, Devin Gardner, showed up in Arizona on crutches and didn't play in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Michigan State overcame the loss of starting middle linebacker and co-captain Max Bullough, as Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris filled in well. Ohio State played without top cornerback Bradley Roby (injury) and top pass-rusher Noah Spence (suspension).

A little more offense could have put Iowa and Minnesota over the top in their bowl games. Minnesota didn't reach the end zone for three quarters in the Texas Bowl, eventually falling 21-17 to a mediocre Syracuse team. Iowa's only touchdowns came on drives of 1 and 4 yards, as the Hawkeyes had just 11 first downs and 233 total yards against LSU.

It wouldn't have taken much for the Big Ten to post a winning record in the bowls. The league had only one non-competitive performance, coming from Michigan in the Wings Bowl, as the Wolverines ended a disappointing season on a down note. The defense never gave first-time starting quarterback Shane Morris much of a chance, allowing touchdowns on Kansas State's first three possessions. Morris held his own but Michigan didn't reach the end zone until the 58th minute in what proved to be the final game for beleaguered offensive coordinator Al Borges.

Nebraska started New Year's Day on a good note as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa triggered the win with a 99-yard touchdown reception, while defensive linemen Jason Ankrah, Randy Gregory and Thad Randle limited Georgia's offense. Michigan State capped the afternoon by rallying past Stanford behind a suffocating defense and quarterback Connor Cook, who collected another postseason MVP honor and his second straight 300-yard passing performance.

The Spartans boost hope for the future after another Big Ten postseason rife with missed opportunities. The league has another team capable of competing for a national championship.

The playoff arrives in 2014, along with a more palatable Big Ten bowl lineup and most likely more bowl-eligible teams. The Big Ten took a small step in the postseason after a historically bad 2012 campaign, but more progress must be made for the rest of college football to start tipping its cap.

Michigan's offense has hopscotched under Brady Hoke, never establishing an identity despite repeated claims about a clear philosophy. We always hear about who the Wolverines want to be, but because of personnel, youth or fickle schematic decisions, we rarely see who they are.

Perhaps the best thing about Michigan's offensive coordinator transition was the lack of indecision. Hours after Michigan announced Al Borges had been fired, reports surfaced that Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier would be his replacement. Hoke knew who he wanted, targeted him and got the deal done (the team has yet to officially confirm Nussmeier's hiring).

It's up to Nussmeier to refine Michigan's offense for the 2014 season. Otherwise, both he and Hoke could be looking for jobs in December. It's that simple.

[+] EnlargeNussmeier
AP Photo/Butch DillHiring former Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is a step in the right direction for a Michigan offense that has sputtered lately and struggled to find an identity.
Nussmeier is a proven coach with an impressive track record, most recently at Alabama, which defended its national title in his first year as coordinator and put up solid offensive numbers this past season as well (38.2 points per game, 454.1 yards per game). Regardless of whether Alabama coach Nick Saban let Nussmeier walk to pave the way for Lane Kiffin, Michigan seems to be getting a high-quality coach. CBSsports.com's Bruce Feldman reports that Nussmeier, who earned $680,000 in 2013, will become one of the five highest-paid coordinators in college football. That's fine, too, as Michigan makes more than any Big Ten team and has yet to translate all that dough to championships on the field.

Hoke's rhetoric about Big Ten-title-or-bust and Team OneThirtySomething rings hollow until his teams start showing they can live up to Michigan's storied past. Rivals Ohio State and Michigan State have bypassed Michigan, and 2014 is pivotal for Hoke and the Wolverines, who enter the same division as the Buckeyes. They need to go for it now, and the Nussmeier hire is a good sign that they are.

Nussmeier must take a group of players, some recruited by Rich Rodriguez's staff and some by Hoke's staff, and mold them into a unit that's easy to identify. Quarterbacks such as Alabama's AJ McCarron, Washington's Keith Price and Michigan State's Drew Stanton and Jeff Smoker have improved under his tutelage. He must facilitate similar upgrades with Michigan's Devin Gardner and/or Shane Morris.

A record-setting signal-caller at Idaho who played in both the NFL and CFL, Nussmeier knows quarterbacks, but his first priority at Michigan will be resurrecting a run game that went dormant the past two seasons. Michigan's young offensive line needs to grow up in a hurry, especially after losing left tackle Taylor Lewan, a first-round draft pick in April, as well as right tackle Michael Schofield, a three-year starter. Nussmeier isn't exactly inheriting the Alabama offensive line in Ann Arbor. Or Alabama's running backs, for that matter. There's some young talent at Michigan, but it needs to be coached up.

As much criticism as Borges received, some of it deserved, coordinators can't do much when their offenses are incapable of generating moderate rushing gains between the tackles. Michigan set historic lows on offense this year, becoming the first FBS team in the past 10 seasons to record net rush totals of minus-20 or worse in consecutive games (losses to Michigan State and Nebraska).

Nussmeier has worked in different conferences as well as in the NFL (St. Louis Rams), but his stint in the Big Ten at Michigan State should help him in his new gig. His basic philosophy as a pro-style coach doesn't differ dramatically from Borges -- or what Hoke wants -- and shouldn't turn off Michigan's 2014 recruits.

But his ability to evaluate the strengths of Michigan's players and tailor his scheme around them will determine his success or failure. When Borges built a game plan around what Gardner does best, as we saw against both Notre Dame and Ohio State, the results proved positive. But we saw too much tweaking, too many versions of the Michigan offense, too many attempts to show who is the smartest coach in the building.

Nussmeier is a future head coach and entered the mix for recent vacancies at both Washington and Southern Miss. It might be hard for Michigan to keep him, but the future beyond the 2014 season isn't really important.

Michigan acted quickly and decisively Wednesday night. Nussmeier must do the same in refining the identity of an offense that will determine a lot about where Michigan is headed under Hoke.
In his very brief official statement about the firing of offensive coordinator Al Borges on Wednesday afternoon, Michigan coach Brady Hoke first mentioned that decisions like that "are never easy."

[+] EnlargeAl Borges
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIOffensive coordinator Al Borges has been on Brady Hoke's staff since 2009 when the two coached at San Diego State.
This must have been a particularly gut-wrenching call for Hoke, a loyal guy who has had Borges by his side since 2009 when the two were at San Diego State. But this is a decision Hoke simply had to make, both for the future of the Wolverines and for himself.

Borges is a very likable guy who has had success at many stops in his long career. But Michigan's offense was trending in the wrong direction under his watch. In 2011, with Denard Robinson running the show, the Wolverines finished third in the Big Ten in total offense and second in rushing as they won the Sugar Bowl. In 2012, Michigan finished eighth in total offense and fifth in rushing in the conference. This past season, the rankings were 10th in total offense and 11th in rushing. The 2013 offense was mostly a train wreck, except for a few notable exceptions (the Notre Dame, Indiana and Ohio State games).

What is truly odd about Borges' tenure is that his results got worse the closer he got to running the type of offense he and Hoke truly wanted. They inherited Robinson and so reluctantly went with the spread attack early on while saying their goal was to field more of a true pro-style offense. But Michigan could not run the ball between the tackles with any authority the past two seasons, which greatly limited its options. The offense was at its best this season when Devin Gardner was allowed to make plays on the move.

There's no reason that a program with the Wolverines' talent should finish 97th nationally in total offense, as the team did this season (and that was inflated by three great performances). Even with a month of bowl practices, Michigan showed very little improvement on offense in the 31-14 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl loss to Kansas State, though Borges did have to make due with first-time starting quarterback Shane Morris.

Hoke has to demand more from his offense, and Borges wasn't cutting it. Hoke himself is on a much shorter lease now after going just 15-11 the past two seasons. The easiest way to placate a grumbling fan base was to get rid of his increasingly unpopular playcaller and go in a new direction on offense.

It will now be fascinating to see where Hoke turns for his next offensive coordinator. Borges was one of the nation's highest-paid coordinators at $709,000 per year, and Michigan pays defensive coordinator Greg Mattison $851,000. The resources are there. Could the Wolverines become the first Big Ten school to employ a $1 million per year coordinator, a la Clemson's Chad Morris or Alabama's Kirby Smart? How eager will a big-name assistant be to come to Ann Arbor with Hoke on potentially shaky ground going forward?

This is a hire Michigan can't afford to mess up. Just as Hoke couldn't afford to keep Borges.
Last week, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon wrote a 1,059-word blog post affirming his support for head coach Brady Hoke.

[+] Enlarge Brady Hoke, Al Borges
AP Photo/Tony DingAfter a down 2013, Al Borges (left) and Brady Hoke might not have the luxury of another season for their offense to grow.
Hoke's job status at Michigan, at least for a fourth season, never seemed to be in doubt. If Jabrill Peppers, Michigan's top 2014 recruit, hadn't expressed concern about Hoke's future, Brandon could have saved himself some time at the keyboard.

Brandon urged patience with the program, mentioned coaches like Jim Harbaugh and Nick Saban in his post and praised defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, whose job, at least to the outside, always appeared safe. Noticeably absent from the post was offensive coordinator Al Borges, who, along with offensive line coach Darrell Funk, has been the subject of increasing criticism as Michigan's offense sunk to historic lows in early November before reviving itself last Saturday against archrival Ohio State.

Hoke doesn't have a blog (am I the only one who wished he did) and isn't nearly as verbose as his boss, but he also expressed some public support for his staff Monday during an appearance at Detroit's Ford Field.

From The Detroit News:
Hoke was asked if he's happy with the staff and anticipates having this staff in 2014.

"Yeah, I anticipate the staff [returning]," he said.

When pressed and asked if he does not expect any changes, he responded simply.

"Correct," Hoke said.

He was asked again if this is a "we'll-see situation."

"No," he said.

Like every coach, Hoke will conduct evaluations with his staff following the season. Not surprisingly, Brandon will be a part of those. So it's possible changes could come following Michigan's bowl appearance, but don't hold your breath.

There's no doubt Hoke is loyal, and loyalty is a fleeting quality in today's pressurized world of college coaching. Florida on Monday fired offensive coordinator Brent Pease and offensive line coach Tim Davis, and other programs either have made or will make significant staff changes.

Michigan's offensive woes and season record aren't nearly as bad as Florida's, but both programs are supposedly big time and face pressure to win championships. Brandon's counterpart at Florida, Jeremy Foley, also had to give his head coach a vote of confidence in recent days. What do the two approaches say about the culture of the programs, the leagues they play in and the standards they set for performance?

Hoke and Borges were united in their offensive vision at San Diego State, and nothing has changed at Michigan. They want to restore a pro-style offense built around the power run. But for various reasons -- personnel types, youth, lack of development -- it hasn't happened yet. Michigan's offense had negative net rushing totals in its first two November games, couldn't score a touchdown in regulation at Northwestern and racked up just 158 yards at Iowa before exploding for 41 points, 31 first downs and 603 yards against Ohio State.

The Wolverines seem to be at their best with quarterback Devin Gardner moving around and ball-carriers attacking the perimeter, rather than between the tackles. That hasn't been the long-term vision, but the plan could come into focus next season as young linemen and young running backs mature.

Borges is a smart coach, but he's also a journeyman coordinator. He had different jobs each season from 2000-04 and hasn't been at one stop for longer than five years since a seven-year stint at Portland State from 1986-92.

Like many coaches, Hoke believes in staff continuity, which is often a top indicator of success. We've seen plenty of examples in the Big Ten, including the long-tenured staffs at Michigan State and Minnesota picking up the slack when head coaches Mark Dantonio and Jerry Kill stepped away because of health reasons.

Northwestern attributes much of its recent success, at least until this year, to the staff remaining fully intact. Coach Pat Fitzgerald plans to keep it that way despite a highly disappointing 5-7 record. But Fitzgerald isn't at Michigan. He doesn't have the same external and historic demands as Hoke does, or should.

Does the patience/loyalty shown by Brandon and Hoke show that Michigan is different (in a good way), avoids knee-jerk reactions and wisely plans for long-term success? Or does it show Michigan talks like a big-time program but struggles to make the hard choices needed to compete at the highest level?

I'll admit it's a tough one. We'll probably get our answer in 2014.
Rivalry week in the Big Ten left no doubt: The conference's top two teams will meet in the league championship.

Wisconsin's shocking home loss to Penn State ends the debate over whether the Badgers or Michigan State should be at No. 2 behind front-runner Ohio State. Although the Buckeyes and, to a lesser extent, the Spartans had some struggles Saturday, they found ways to win. The Badgers had their worst performance of the season, and it cost them a potential BCS at-large berth.

That doesn't take away from Penn State, which received big boosts from quarterback Christian Hackenberg and others.

Our big dilemma this week was what to do with the 6-8 spots. Penn State had by far its best showing of the season, and Michigan had its best showing in months, even in defeat, against archrival Ohio State. Nebraska didn't show up at home on Black Friday, however, the Huskers have road wins against both the Lions (six days before the Iowa clunker) and Michigan.

After some spirited debate, we ultimately went with body of work to determine the rundown, especially since these are the final regular-season rankings. We understand it devalues the Week 14 performances a bit.

Here's one last look at the Week 13 rankings.

Now for the new rundown, final regular-season version.

1. Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten: last week: 1): The Buckeyes lost their composure early and nearly lost their perfect season late. They were faced with adversity for the first time in six weeks, but they made enough plays on both sides of the ball to win. Running back Carlos Hyde (226 yards, one TD) and quarterback Braxton Miller (five total TDs) led a virtually unstoppable offense, which helped overcome some shoddy pass defense. The Buckeyes now await Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.

2. Michigan State (11-1, 8-0; last week: 3): There weren't many style points against Minnesota, but the Spartans came away with another double-digit Big Ten win. The defense kept Minnesota out of the end zone, as linebacker Denicos Allen led the way. Running back Jeremy Langford (134 rush yards, TD) had another big day as Michigan State moved closer to a BCS bowl berth, regardless of the result in Indianapolis.

3. Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2; last week: 2): It's only a one-spot drop for Wisconsin, but what a downer in Mad City. A team that had been so dominant since falling at Ohio State never showed up on Senior Day against a plucky Penn State team that took control from the onset. Quarterback Joel Stave threw three interceptions in the loss, and one of the Big Ten's better defenses allowed a slew of big plays as Penn State racked up 465 yards. It led to Wisconsin's most surprising home loss in recent memory.

4. Iowa (8-4, 5-3; last week: 4): Kirk Ferentz's crew entered the regular season as a popular pick to finish last in the Legends Division. The Hawkeyes emerged as one of the better teams not only in the division but the entire Big Ten. They've flipped their 2012 regular-season record behind a salty rush defense, led by an outstanding group of linebackers, and a functional offense. After two lackluster showings in the Heroes Game, Iowa outclassed Nebraska in Lincoln and should move up the bowl pecking order.

5. Minnesota (8-4, 4-4; last week: 5): It doesn't take a doctor at the Mayo Clinic to diagnose what's wrong with Minnesota. The Gophers' defense keeps them in every game, and Saturday's matchup at Michigan State proved to be no exception. But the offense simply can't score or consistently pass the football. Minnesota failed to reach double digits for the third time this season despite multiple opportunities in Spartans territory. It's still a great season for Jerry Kill's team, but there's a lot of work to do on offense before a bowl appearance.

6. Nebraska (8-4, 5-3; last week: 6): No one would dispute Bo Pelini that this has been a difficult season in Husker Country. No one would argue with Nebraska's ability to keep fighting. But when the same problems (namely turnovers) surface year after year, the bigger picture of the program becomes more depressing. The Huskers and their head coach self-destructed for much of the Iowa game and fell for the third time on their home field. Fortunately for Pelini, it didn't cost him his job, and he should get another chance to compete for an elusive league title in 2014.

7. Penn State (7-5, 4-4; last week: 8): The Lions had a better team in Bill O'Brien's first season, but they didn't have a better win than Saturday's stunning upset of Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. After losing their first three road games by a combined score of 131-48, Penn State dominated Wisconsin for much of the afternoon at a place where the Badgers rarely lose. Hackenberg ended his freshman season with a signature performance (339 pass yards, 4 TDs) as the offense repeatedly gashed Wisconsin. A much-maligned defense held the Badgers' run game in check as Penn State ended an up-and-down season on a very good note.

8. Michigan (7-5, 3-5; last week: 7): After plummeting to historic lows earlier in the month, Michigan's offense looked like a completely different unit against Ohio State. Quarterback Devin Gardner played brilliantly, coordinator Al Borges called a good game and several others -- Jeremy Gallon, Jake Butt and De'Veon Smith -- stepped up in a 603-yard effort. It wasn't enough, as Michigan fell by a point and the defense had no answers for Ohio State, but the Wolverines played their best game in months and can feel a bit better entering the postseason.

9. Indiana (5-7, 3-5; last week: 9): Oh, what might have been for Indiana. A team with such an explosive offense and eight home games should have made a bowl game, period, but the Hoosiers couldn't get it done. At least they reclaimed the Old Oaken Bucket as quarterback Tre Roberson (six TD passes, 273 pass yards, 154 rush yards) torched Purdue and received help from Stephen Houston, D'Angelo Roberts, Cody Latimer and others. It's clear the Hoosiers have to make upgrades on defense. They can't keep wasting such explosiveness on offense.

10. Northwestern (5-7, 1-7; last week: 11): A season to forget for Northwestern ended on a positive note, as Pat Fitzgerald's team avoided a winless Big Ten season and recorded another victory against its in-state rival. Quarterback Trevor Siemian enters the offseason with some confidence after passing for a career-high 414 yards and four touchdowns against Illinois. Wide receiver Christian Jones (13 catches, 182 yards, two TDs) also stepped up as Northwestern twice rallied from deficits against Illinois. Fitzgerald said afterward that Northwestern "will be back" in 2014. The work begins now.

11. Illinois (4-8, 1-7; last week 10): The wins total doubled from two to four, which is nothing to celebrate. But Illinois clearly improved in Year 2 under coach Tim Beckman, who should receive another season in Champaign. Illinois has fixed the offense, and while quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will be tough to replace, several playmakers like Josh Ferguson return. A bigger issue is the defense, which had no answer for Northwestern's passing attack on Saturday and surrendered more than 40 points and more than 500 yards per game in Big Ten play.

12. Purdue (1-11, 0-8; last week: 12): The optimist sees a dynamic young quarterback in Danny Etling, who finished his freshman season with 485 pass yards and four touchdowns against Indiana, and a team that can only get better. The pessimist sees a Purdue squad that was the worst in recent Big Ten history and has much work to do on both sides of the ball to become competitive in coach Darrell Hazell's second season. A big offseason awaits Hazell and his staff as they can't go through another season like this one.
There's only one debate in the Power Rankings: Who's No. 2?

All the top teams held serve in Week 13, and the Big Ten championship matchup is set for Ohio State and Michigan State to meet Dec. 7 in Indianapolis. The Buckeyes remain atop the league, but which team comes next: Wisconsin or Michigan State?

Although most polls have Michigan State ahead of Wisconsin, we've been keeping the Badgers at No. 2. It's extremely close between the two, and it's too bad the Spartans and Badgers won't face one another this season, especially given their recent history.

We're actually split on the No. 2 spot. Brian is keeping Wisconsin ahead of MSU on his ESPN.com power rankings ballot, while Adam has flipped the two this week, noting Michigan State's superior quarterback and special-teams play.

A second-place tie doesn't really work in the Big Ten rankings, so Wisconsin remains at No. 2 by the slimmest of margins.

Elsewhere, Iowa and Minnesota trade places, and so do Illinois and Northwestern.

Here's one last look at the Week 12 rankings.

Now, for the newest rundown …

1. Ohio State (11-0, 7-0; last week: 1): Another easy afternoon at The Shoe for Urban Meyer's Buckeyes, who set a program record with their 23rd consecutive victory. Quarterback Braxton Miller (144 rush yards, 160 pass yards, 4 TDs) and running back Carlos Hyde (117 rush yards, two TDs) both hurt Indiana early and often, and linebacker Ryan Shazier (20 tackles) sparked a stout defensive effort. Ohio State is very much in the national-title hunt as it prepares to visit rival Michigan this week.

2. Wisconsin (9-2, 6-1; last week: 2): A BCS at-large appearance looks likelier for the Badgers, who won their fifth consecutive game Saturday and their 10th straight against Minnesota. The running backs might grab the spotlight, but it's time Wisconsin's defense received some credit for an exceptional season. Linebacker Chris Borland led the way Saturday with his NCAA record-tying 14th career forced fumble and two fumble recoveries, as the Badgers shut out Minnesota's offense. Wisconsin finishes the regular season against Penn State at Camp Randall Stadium.

3. Michigan State (10-1, 7-0; last week: 3): Quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford continue to sparkle in Big Ten play, as both men performed well in a win at Northwestern. The defense surrendered 224 yards but shut out Northwestern in the second half and recorded two takeaways. Michigan State is headed back to Indianapolis for the second time in three seasons to face Ohio State on Dec. 7. Can't wait.

4. Iowa (7-4, 4-3; last week: 5): Thanks to linebacker Anthony Hitchens and a much-improved defense, Iowa overcame four turnovers to rally past Michigan. Quarterback Jack Rudock (two TDs, three INTs) had an erratic day, but Iowa dominated the second half, erasing a 21-7 deficit to win 24-21. The Hawkeyes will be going to a decent bowl game, and they have a chance for a very nice finish if they can beat Nebraska on the road this Friday.

5. Minnesota (8-3, 4-3; last week: 4): The Gophers are modeling themselves after Wisconsin, which is good, but they're simply not there yet. Minnesota's flaws on offense, especially at wide receiver, showed up Saturday as the Gophers scored no offensive points on their home field. The defense kept the game relatively close, but Minnesota never seriously challenged Wisconsin in the second half. Things don't get any easier this week, when the Gophers visit Michigan State.

6. Nebraska (8-3, 5-2; last week: 6): A horrendous personal-foul call didn't doom the Huskers, who found a way to beat Penn State in overtime and showed some grit along the way. Running back Ameer Abdullah had his typical brilliant game, and quarterback Ron Kellogg III did a nice job in relief of Tommy Armstrong Jr. Kicker Pat Smith stepped up in the clutch as Nebraska won for the third time in four games. The Huskers host Iowa on Black Friday.

7. Michigan (7-4, 3-4; last week: 7): We'd normally move Michigan lower, but there's no place to put the Wolverines because Penn State and Indiana both lost, too. Linebacker Jake Ryan and the defense came to play at Iowa, forcing four turnovers and converting one into points. But the offense remains embarrassingly bad, especially in the run game. Michigan finished with 10 first downs, 60 rush yards and 158 total yards as the heat continues to rise on coordinator Al Borges. Things will likely get worse this week, when Ohio State storms into the Big House.

8. Penn State (6-5, 3-4; last week: 8): This time, Penn State had no late-game heroics because special-teams miscues and other problems resulted in an overtime loss on senior day. The Lions received a big performance from running back Zach Zwinak (149 rush yards) and quarterback Christian Hackenberg accounted for three touchdowns, but the team's limitations in all three phases showed up in the loss. Penn State ends the season with a trip to Wisconsin, which likely won't be pretty.

9. Indiana (4-7, 2-5; last week 9): The lingering defensive issues are there, but Indiana has a new problem: The offense isn't showing up. IU once again felt the absence of injured running back Tevin Coleman against Ohio State, recording just 122 rushing yards. Indiana actually had more first downs than the Buckeyes (24 to 22) but didn't score for three and a half quarters and couldn't stop Ohio State's big-play offense. Kevin Wilson's team finishes the season against Purdue at home.

10. Illinois (4-7, 1-6; last week: 11): Tim Beckman and his Illini players can finally stop talking about The Streak, as Illinois won a Big Ten game for the first time in 777 days (Oct. 8, 2011). There was some typical sloppiness, and the defense struggled early, but Illinois made enough plays down the stretch to get out of Purdue with a four-point win. The Nathan Scheelhaase-Steve Hull connection produced 169 yards and two touchdowns as the close friends are ending their careers on a good note.

11. Northwestern (4-7, 0-7; last week: 10): The unthinkable has happened, the worst-case scenario amazingly eclipsed: Northwestern's bowl streak is over at five seasons after a 4-0 start and a fourth-quarter lead against Ohio State on Oct. 5. The Wildcats actually moved the ball well against Michigan State but repeatedly stalled in plus territory and took no risks despite a winless mark in Big Ten play. Northwestern has its longest losing streak since 1998, and Pat Fitzgerald has some serious work to do in the offseason, which will begin next week.

12. Purdue (1-10, 0-7; last week: 12): Darrell Hazell is looking for any sign of progress and saw some against Illinois, as the Boilers played their first competitive game in the Big Ten. Purdue finally ran the ball a little, as Akeem Hunt eclipsed 100 yards on the ground, and the defense forced four turnovers. Ultimately, Purdue couldn't do enough offensively or slow down Illinois' pass game. The Boilers wrap up the season this week with the Bucket game in Bloomington, Ind.
After two games this season, Michigan fans were ready to name Devin Gardner the Heisman favorite and redeemer of Michigan quarterbacking.

But after four? They wanted him on the bench.

Now -- given the down or the series -- he's somewhere in between.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarDevin Gardner led Michigan in rushing against Penn State, but he threw two interceptions.
Gardner is a hazard and an interception waiting to happen, some said. He wasn’t the right fit at quarterback, others replied. Give youth a chance and build the offense around true freshman backup Shane Morris, they proclaimed.

In his 26 years in the game, offensive coordinator Al Borges has heard it all.

“The backup’s the best player until the backup plays,” Borges said, “and then they don’t want him to play anymore.”

What most people don’t remember is that Gardner is still young by quarterback standards. Yes, he’s a redshirt junior, but he is just 10 starts into his career. He spent most of last year studying as a wide receiver. He was recruited into a spread offense by Rich Rodriguez, one that most likely better suits his talents.

That amount of transition that Gardner has gone through in his Michigan career reminded Borges a bit of 2004, when he became the Auburn offensive coordinator and quarterback coach for Jason Campbell.

Campbell had been through three coordinators in three years, and the fan base had turned against him.

“Everybody wanted to replace him -- they said, ‘This kid, he’s not confident, he makes bad decisions, let the other kid play,’ ” Borges said. “Same old deal.”

So Borges did with Campbell in 2004 what he’s doing with Gardner now. From a mechanical and technical standpoint, he returned to the basics -- the footwork, the nuance, the angles, the inches.

From a mental standpoint -- which in both Campbell’s and Gardner’s cases might be the more important element -- Borges simply told them he believed they could be the quarterbacks of their respective offenses.

“I don’t think it was any earth-shattering coaching deal,” Borges said. “It was just making the kid believe that he was still the answer when a lot of people didn’t think that.”

For Campbell, it worked. That season he was named the SEC Player of the Year, MVP of the SEC Championship Game and MVP of the 2005 Sugar Bowl. He threw for 2,700 yards and 20 touchdowns and completed 69.6 percent of his passes, good enough for second-best on the all-time Auburn completion list (just barely behind Ben Leard’s 70.7 percent).

It wasn’t that Borges came in and changed how Campbell played the game. He just instilled a mental framework that helped him to be at ease on the field.

“He’s a confidence builder,” Campbell said. “From the day he walked in he said, ‘You already have the ability to do anything you want to do as a quarterback.’ ”

And that’s what Borges did after Gardner struggled against Akron and UConn. He spent the bye week returning to fundamentals, but also reminding Gardner that he was in fact the answer for the Michigan offense.

“The worst thing for a quarterback is to be looking over his shoulder and things like that,” Gardner said during the bye week. “For [Borges] to have that kind of confidence in me after I played so bad was pretty refreshing for me.”

Against Minnesota, Gardner’s confidence shone. He didn’t turn the ball over at all, and he threw for 235 yards and one touchdown. He looked solid. He smiled. He was loved by the fan base once more.

Then the first half against Penn State struck, and Gardner, once again, looked out of place. And again, fans wanted to know why Morris wouldn’t be given a chance.

Even though he hadn’t played since the Central Michigan blowout. Even though the Wolverines were playing in front of a raucous crowd. Even though Michigan’s best offensive lineman was out of the game.

[+] EnlargeShane Morris
AP Photo/Tony DingThough freshman Shane Morris has thrown only six collegiate passes, some fans think he's the answer.
“People always say the guy behind should be the starting quarterback, no matter what level it is,” Campbell said. “Doesn’t matter if you’re playing in college or in the pros. The guy that’s playing behind the starter is always going to be the most popular guy in town.”

But Gardner calmed down and managed to put together a solid game overall. He even gave the Wolverines a chance to win. If Michigan had been able to produce a run game outside of Gardner, maybe that would’ve happened.

And by some standards, what showed real growth was that when he struggled on the field against Penn State, he still seemed relaxed on the sideline.

During the Akron and Connecticut games, Gardner spent time by himself in silence or speaking with Borges on the headset while his defense was on the field. He said he wanted to be inside his own head and try to block everything else out.

But during the Penn State game he spoke with teammates. It was a suggestion by Michigan’s director of athletic counseling Greg Harden, a man who helped Tom Brady and Desmond Howard, among others during their Michigan tenures.

In reality though, it seems as if Gardner has little to worry about. His offensive coordinator and head coach are confident in him, and on Monday Hoke said “there is no short leash” when it comes to Gardner.

But the fear is always there, and Gardner is a perfectionist.

There is no such thing as a perfect game, Campbell explained. But playing with confidence rather than fear will help a quarterback get closer to that standard. And knowing that Borges and Hoke are in his corner will only help as the season goes on.

“It gives you free reign to go out and play, because you know you have someone who has your back, and you know there’s someone who believes in you and that helps you to believe in yourself and believe in what you can do and your ability,” Campbell said. “For Gardner, that’s the thing he needs to know. He just needs to go out there and play, cut it loose.”

MSU needs to stop beating itself

September, 21, 2013
9/21/13
10:16
PM ET
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The end result, which is all that matters, looked dishearteningly similar for Michigan State.

Stop me if you'd heard it before: an impressive (yet takeaway-less) defensive performance wasted, a smattering of special-teams shortcomings, an offense unable to finish drives, catch enough passes or make enough clutch plays ... and a few points shy of a momentum-building win. Michigan State lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points last season, failing to make up the inches coach Mark Dantonio often talks about, the ones separating wins and losses.

It would be easy to file Saturday's 17-13 loss to No. 22 Notre Dame with last year's near misses. The Spartans couldn't quite overcome the Irish, some trigger-happy officials (more on them later) and, ultimately, themselves.

The outcome looked familiar, but it didn't feel that way.

"It does not feel the same," Dantonio said. "I don't know how it feels. You lose a close game, it's tough. Last year against Notre Dame, I felt like we were completely outplayed [in a 20-3 loss]. ... I felt like this time, we were [in the game] right down to the end."

The Spartans were more than in the game. They outperformed Notre Dame in several areas, finishing with more first downs (19-14) and more yards (254-224). A one-dimensional Notre Dame offense entered the red zone just once in the second half.

But the Fighting Irish held the edge in the only category that matters.

"Obviously Notre Dame won the game," Dantonio said, "so you have to say they outplayed us."

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsMichigan State's DBs played tough in coverage, but that toughness too often resulted in pass interference penalties.
Michigan State's toughest opponent Saturday, other than the Big Ten officiating crew, was itself. The Spartans had four possessions reach the red zone but emerged with only 13 points. Kevin Muma hooked a 30-yard field-goal attempt on MSU's first series. After reaching the Irish 14-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Michigan State went backwards, losing five yards on a rush and another five on a false start penalty.

MSU's most painful SIW -- that's self-inflicted wound, for the coaching cliche-challenged -- came late in the third quarter, at a time when the offense seemed to have a rhythm, especially on the ground. Facing first-and-10 from its own 47-yard line with the game tied at 10-10, Michigan State went razzle dazzle, putting the ball in the hands of true freshman receiver R.J. Shelton, who threw deep downfield into double coverage. Irish safety Matthias Farley made the easy interception.

The Spartans lost possession -- and momentum.

No, Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges didn't hack into Michigan State's playbook. The call actually came from Dantonio, who has a defensive background but has summoned some memorable trick plays in the past, including the "Little Giants" fake field goal to beat Notre Dame in 2010.

"We had a little bit of rhythm, but I also thought we needed a big play," Dantonio told ESPN.com. "We needed to be able to go down the field, which we had not been able to do. They were overplaying RJ because he's run some jet sweeps in the first three games. I thought it was the right time."

Michigan State fans will question the decision, but they have far more questions for the officials, who called 10 penalties on the Spartans, including four pass interference penalties and defensive holding.

Three of the fouls extended drives that led to Notre Dame touchdowns. One nullified a Darqueze Dennard interception. None of the P.I. penalties was an obvious mauling. Spartans defenders weren't out of position.

Dantonio didn't directly criticize the officials but defended the defensive backs' technique -- "We played the ball the way we teach them to play the ball," he said -- and their right to go after the ball.

Asked if he had ever seen so many P.I. calls, Dantonio said. "No, never. I guess that's why we should stop talking about it right there."

Notre Dame repeatedly challenged Michigan State with back-shoulder throws. Irish coach Brian Kelly felt if they weren't completed, a flag likely would fly.

"We'll continue to do what we do," Dennard said, "basically press, man up, and we do what we do."

Spartans defensive tackle Tyler Hoover admitted the penalties were tough to handle, but maintained that, "You've got to make plays. It's not the refs. It's going to be us, all the time."

Other than forcing turnovers, Michigan State's nationally ranked defense did enough. Three times, it forced Notre Dame punts in the fourth quarter, giving the offense a chance to drive for the game-winning touchdown.

The offense had a total of one first down and 20 net yards on those possessions. But the earlier drives, the ones that went deep into Notre Dame territory, stung more.

"We've got to score touchdowns," quarterback Connor Cook said. "It's the name of the game."

Cook was pulled for the game's final possession in favor of senior Andrew Maxwell, who threw three incomplete passes before trying to scramble on fourth-and-20. Although Cook had taken a hit to his shoulder, the injury didn't play a role in the decision.

"I was a little disappointed," Cook said. "They said I was a little inaccurate, but I would have wished that the coaches had faith in me to keep me in there in a critical situation like that."

Quarterbacks coach Brad Salem told Cook afterward that Cook remains the No. 1 signal caller. Dantonio was noncommittal.

"That's something we'll have to answer at a later date," he told ESPN.com. "The only thing I can tell you is you better do something with the football. At some point in time, 13's not enough."

Michigan State has two weeks to sort out its quarterback situation, two weeks to build on a surprisingly solid rushing performance, two weeks to clean up the kicking game and find ways to complement suffocating defense with takeaways after recording eight in the first three games. The Spartans can be a dangerous team in a wide-open Big Ten, especially without Ohio State or Wisconsin on their schedule.

Dantonio and his players were proud of Saturday's performance, despite the result. And it could be a springboard.

"All our goals are still in front of us," Dennard said. "We still can go to Indy for the Big Ten championship game."

Michigan State will have to get past Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern and the rest of a formidable Legends division to reach Naptown.

Its biggest obstacle is still itself.
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

We're in the process of projecting the Big Ten's statistical leaders for the 2013 season. After forecasting the league's top rusher, today's Take Two topic is: Who will lead the Big Ten in passing this year?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten hasn't been loaded with premier passers and loses its only 3,000-yard performer from 2012 in Penn State's Matt McGloin. Although the league's next three top passers return, two of them, Indiana's Cameron Coffman and Michigan State's Andrew Maxwell, are fighting to retain their starting jobs for the season. Although there's no shortage of quarterbacks with starting experience or significant playing time around the league, few have shown the ability to consistently put up big passing totals.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
AP Photo/Nati HarnikNebraska's Taylor Martinez passed for 2,871 yards and 23 touchdowns last season.
My pick comes down to three quarterbacks: Michigan's Devin Gardner, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Ohio State's Braxton Miller. If I knew Indiana's or Penn State's starting quarterback, I might include them in the race because of those teams' strength at wide receiver and tight end. But that's too risky right now. Gardner started just five games for Michigan, but averaged 243.8 pass yards in those contests. His numbers could go up as Michigan moves away from the spread and into a pro-style system. Gardner had a strong spring, and Michigan wants to keep him in the pocket more often than not. Miller also should up bigger passing totals as he enters his second year in Ohio State's offense and should have more help at the wide receiver spot. He's such a talented runner, but the Buckeyes don't want to take too many chances with his health, and the coaches see good potential for his growth as a passer.

Gardner and Miller are solid choices, but I'm going with Martinez here. His passing numbers soared from 2011 to 2012, as he completed nearly 6 percent more passes, nearly 800 more yards and threw 10 more touchdowns. He's fully comfortable with the offense under coordinator Tim Beck and should enter the season at 100 percent, health-wise. Nebraska also returns top wide receivers Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner. The Huskers need some help at tight end but have recruited well at tight end and have warmed up more and more to the pass under Beck. Martinez will finish his career with every significant Nebraska passing record, and he'll also top the Big Ten's passing yards chart as a senior.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

If I were confident Indiana would go with one quarterback all season, my pick would be the Hoosiers' starter. Don't forget that Coffman is the leading returning passer in the league (in terms of yards per game), or that IU led the conference in passing yards this season. But I suspect Kevin Wilson will end up juggling quarterbacks and using some combination of Coffman, Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson. Can I say my choice is Cam Roberfeld?

I guess not. So I'll go with the next best option: Michigan's Devin Gardner. As Adam mentioned, Gardner posted big passing numbers last year after taking over for Denard Robinson down the stretch, and that was without a lot of practice during the year at quarterback (he split time there and at receiver). By all accounts, Gardner has had a fantastic offseason, and Al Borges must be foaming at the mouth at the prospect of finally unleashing a true pro-style offense.

Gardner's five-game numbers last year project to more than 3,000 yards passing over a full 13-game season. I don't know if he'll get all the way there, and losing veteran receiver Roy Roundtree doesn't help. But he's still got big-play man Jeremy Gallon to target, as well as promising young receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson, plus talented tight end Devin Funchess. Gardner completed 59.5 percent of his passes last year, a rate I expect to go way up with a full offseason as the starting quarterback under his belt. Michigan will look to run the ball a lot as well. But the Wolverines won't have to accommodate the talents of Robinson, and Gardner won't run as much as Nebraska's Martinez.

Plus, Michigan doesn't have any other experienced options, so Gardner will likely take just about every snap. That makes him a safe pick to lead the league in passing yards.
Ohio State already had started paying more competitive salaries for assistant coaches before Urban Meyer arrived in November 2011.

But when Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith sat down to discuss staff pay, Smith soon realized he needed to do more.

"I think Michigan had stepped up with their coordinators," Smith recalled last week during Big Ten spring meetings in Chicago. "So we were already going to that before Urban Meyer came, but we bumped it up a little more. Any time there's change, you have that opportunity."

[+] EnlargeGreg Mattison
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIMichigan DC Greg Mattison ranks as the highest-paid assistant coach in the Big Ten for the 2013 season.
"Everyone's always focused on head coaches' salaries," Smith continued. "That's always the thing. But really when you look at the changes, it's really been assistants' salaries across the country -- not just in the SEC, but the Big 12, Pac-12, all across the country."

The Big Ten is part of the change, too, as the league is allocating more money toward football assistants than ever before. The Detroit Free Press has an excellent look at Big Ten assistants' salaries, complete with a database that includes 10 of the 12 current members (Northwestern doesn't submit salaries as a private institution, and Penn State doesn't have to because of state laws).

The Free Press found that eight of the 10 schools are paying more for assistants in 2013 than they did in 2012 (only Indiana and Illinois are not). There are some significant total increases, such as Wisconsin (up $558,000), Nebraska (up $518,500), Purdue ($400,000) and Minnesota ($355,000). Staff pay had been an issue at Wisconsin, which lost six assistant coaches following the 2012 Rose Bowl, and at Purdue, which paid less for its staff during the Danny Hope era than any Big Ten school.

The total trend among the 10 schools is an increase of $1,720,852.24 for 2013.

Ohio State and Michigan remain No. 1 and No. 2 in Big Ten staff salary, as the Buckeyes allocate $3.416 million and the Wolverines allocate $2.805 million. Nebraska and Wisconsin make the biggest moves in the league for 2013, as the Huskers rise from sixth to third and the Badgers rise from seventh to fourth.

Illinois, which replaced five assistants from the 2012 team, including co-offensive coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales, dropped from third in staff pay ($2.314 million) to eighth ($2.065 million).

The database shows that nearly every Big Ten assistant with "coordinator" in his title -- whether he's the sole coordinator or a co-coordinator -- will earn north of $300,000 for 2013. Only 18 assistants listed will make less than $200,000 in 2013 -- 15 work for Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana.


Some notes:

  • Although Wisconsin paid former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst good coin, the school has increased its commitment for Gary Andersen's staff, not only with the coordinators but with some coveted position coaches like running backs coach Thomas Hammock ($300,000).
  • All of Nebraska's assistants are earning $200,000 or more for 2013, but there's a huge drop-off between Beck and the next highest-paid assistant (defensive coordinator John Papuchis at $310,000).
  • Michigan State has a similar drop off between Narduzzi and co-offensive coordinators Dave Warner ($270,000) and Jim Bollman ($260,000). Warner will be the primary offensive play-caller and has been on Mark Dantonio's staff since 2006, while Bollman is a newcomer.
  • Although Michigan is paying top dollar for its coordinators, the school gets its assistants for a relative bargain. Receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Jeff Hecklinski will earn $225,000 in 2013, while the others all will earn $205,000. Ohio State, meanwhile, pays all but one of its assistants $286,000 or more.
  • The Big Ten's three lowest-paid assistants all are in their first years: Illinois wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy ($125,000) and Purdue linebackers coach Marcus Freeman and running backs coach Jafar Williams (both at $120,000).
  • Although schools like Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa ($325,000) pay their coordinators the exact same amount, others have slight differences in salary. Purdue's Shoop makes $5,000 more than defensive coordinator Greg Hudson. Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys ($340,000) makes $5,000 more than offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. Wonder if that leads to any underlying jealousy?
  • Most Big Ten schools have assistant salaries in round numbers, but there are some interesting totals from Indiana, which pays co-offensive coordinators Seth Littrell and Kevin Johns $255,500.04 and new recruiting coordinator/assistant defensive line coach James Patton $173,740.08. Never know when that change can come in handy.

The Big Ten still lacks some of the OMG totals seen in the SEC -- LSU is paying new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron $3.4 million in the next three years -- but the overall trend puts the league more on par with what we're seeing nationally.
After going 12-0 last season, Ohio State knew the target on its back was only going to grow for 2013.

And right now, the Buckeyes are ranked No. 1 in at least one preseason poll: ESPN.com's Way-Too-Early-Preseason Top 25. Colleague Mark Schlabach moved the Buckeyes from No. 3 in his pre-spring practice poll to No. 1 now, jumping defending champion Alabama.

"I'm not saying the Buckeyes are a better football team than the Crimson Tide; I'm saying Ohio State has an easier path to an undefeated record this coming season," Schlabach writes.

"Another perfect season isn't out of the question for OSU in 2013. It doesn't play Nebraska or Michigan State during the regular season and gets Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State at home. Sure, the Buckeyes might have to defeat an SEC opponent to win a BCS National Championship, but Meyer already has proved he's capable of doing it."

No pressure, guys. Schlabach has given the Big Ten a fair share of grief in recent years, so he must really like the Buckeyes to rank them over an SEC team.

The next Big Ten team in Schlabach's rankings is Michigan at No. 9. The Wolverines moved up from No. 12 in his previous poll.

"The Wolverines' offense will look a lot different with quarterback Devin Gardner under center this coming season," Schlabach writes. "Michigan fans caught a glimpse of the pro-style offense coordinator Al Borges wants to run in the final five games of 2012, when Gardner replaced injured starting quarterback Denard Robinson."

Nebraska checks in at No. 22, moving up one spot from Schlabach's previous installment. Northwestern stays steady at No. 24, and Wisconsin moves into the rankings at No. 25.

Those seem like the five Big Ten teams that ought to be ranked in the preseason. What do you think of Schlabach's rankings? Does Ohio State has a case for No. 1? Will the Big Ten actually have two top 10 teams this year? Anybody from the league missing from the top 25?

We'll have our latest Big Ten rankings out this Friday, so stay tuned.
Remember two years ago, when Michigan created a lot of big plays by having Denard Robinson basically throw a jump ball that his receivers would somehow go up and grab? Well, by the looks of things, that might become a staple of the offense in the future. Only those receivers won't have to jump too high.

The Wolverines' strategy when it comes to recruiting receivers these days could be summed up in three words: super size me. On Thursday, Detroit wideout Maurice Ways became the latest player to commit to Brady Hoke. Ways is 6-foot-3.

He joins current Class of 2014 commits Drake Harris, a 6-foot-4 receiver, and Ian Bunting, a tight end who's been listed as tall as 6-foot-7. Meanwhile, Michigan's celebrated 2013 class included three skyscraper receivers: 6-foot-4 Jaron Dukes, 6-foot-3 Csont'e York and 6-foot-2 Da'Mario Jones. They'll join current redshirt freshman Jehu Chesson (6-foot-3) and sophomore Amara Darboh (6-2) in Ann Arbor.

There's no secret to what's going on here. Michigan is moving on from its spread offense days and diving full bore back into the pro style system. Offensive coordinator Al Borges wants rangy, lanky athletes on the outside, both for the mismatches they create and their ability to block for the running game.

The Wolverines got great production out of the 6-2 Junior Hemingway the last two years, but their top returning receiver this year is Jeremy Gallon, who's only 5-foot-8. Gallon is an excellent player, but future Michigan receivers will likely look less like him and more like former great Braylon Edwards (6-3). Unlike the days of Rich Rodriguez's spread, the Wolverines appear to be valuing size over speed.

"Speed is overrated," receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski told reporters in February. “All of our guys, if you watch them on high-school film, they have great hands, they adjust to the ball, they track the ball very well in the air and they go up and they catch it. We can judge that on film, so let’s get the best hand-eye coordination guys, guys that can catch the football, let’s bring them in here and let’s develop them in other areas.”

Michigan's chief rival, and the other Big Ten team that's been cleaning up on the recruiting trail of late, is taking a different approach. Sure, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer wants guys with great hand-eye coordinator and catching ability, too. But he really wants blazing speed for his system. Just look at the receivers the Buckeyes landed in the 2013 class: Jalin Marshall (5-11), Dontre Wilson (5-10), James Clark (5-11) and Corey Smith (6-1). Receiver seems to be one position where Michigan and Ohio State are not in direct competition for the same players.

It will be interesting to see what kind of matchup problems the Wolverines' height at receiver poses for Big Ten defenses. Just take a look at the listed sizes of some of the top cornerbacks in the league the past two seasons:

Michigan State's Johnny Adams: 5-11
Purdue's Ricardo Allen: 5-9
Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard: 5-11
Ohio State's Bradley Roby: 5-11
Iowa's Micah Hyde: 6-1
Nebraska's Alfonzo Dennard: 5-10
Iowa's Shaun Prater: 5-11

Size, of course, doesn't always matter. There's also leverage, separation, route running, catching ability and several other factors that go into being great receivers. Former Michigan stars Desmond Howard (5-10) and Anthony Carter (5-11) did just fine without towering over people.

But Michigan is clearly taking its receiver position to new, um, heights. It will be fun to see how the strategy pays off in the near future.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- When Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner compiled his goals card for spring practice, he wrote down two words: no limitations.

After a winter to prepare as the Wolverines' starter, Gardner wanted offensive coordinator Al Borges to operate without restrictions. Whatever Borges intended to throw his way, Gardner would be ready.

"Coach Borges can call anything he wants, from any formation, set or anything," Gardner told ESPN.com. "I talked to him about it, and he said he's very comfortable with me, calling anything at any time."

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Lon Horwedel/Icon SMIMichigan offensive coordinator Al Borges said he wants to limit the rushing attempts of QB Devin Gardner in 2013.
Gardner always has had a good grasp on Michigan's playbook, and even though he played wide receiver for the first eight games last season, he continued to think like a quarterback. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior always knew he'd return to the signal-caller spot this spring, but an elbow injury to starter Denard Robinson forced Gardner into action.

He exceeded most expectations in Michigan's final five games, accounting for multiple touchdowns in all five contests and at least three scores in four. But not surprisingly, there were some limitations to his game, like with audibles at the line.

"I definitely understood when I needed to get out of a play, but I didn't ever really change plays to a better play last year," he said.

Gardner now has the luxury of advantage audibles, as Borges calls them, which are based more on wants than needs.

"If I see they're in a defense where the play we have called, it'll be fine, but there's a much better play that will give us a better play, he's let me do that," Gardner said.

No limitations?

"Any play in the playbook," he said.

It took some time this spring for Gardner to get comfortable with his new freedom/responsibility, but he said every check he has made at the line has turned into a "plus play" for the offense. Borges is willing to loosen the reins for his top quarterback as long as there's "good rationale" for making changes.

But don't expect Gardner to operate like Peyton Manning does this season.

"We don't want him calling the whole game," Borges said, "but there are instances where there are things he can take advantage of. There are situations where I don't call the right play, and he's got to get us out of that."

Gardner devoted three weeks of the offseason exclusively to studying defensive fronts. The junior felt he had a good grasp on identifying pass coverages, but seeing where pressure would come from required more work.

It has helped him with his audibles during scrimmages this spring.

"Devin is really smart with numbers," Wolverines left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "He understands the concepts of football, the concepts of our schemes. The zone power, the downhill run stuff, the zone-power combos, the isos, Cover 1, Cover 2, and how to change the play to put us in the best situation to be successful."

According to Gardner, the offense Michigan ran at the end of the 2012 season has remained practically the same. The spread isn't totally dead -- "We're almost no spread offense now, with a few spread principles," Borges said -- but the Wolverines will primarily operate from a pro-set. Gardner said he's taking 70 percent of snaps from under center, and Borges doesn't want Gardner carrying the ball more than 10 times a game.

It doesn't mean Michigan won't use Gardner's athleticism. Borges has studied what NFL teams like the Seattle Seahawks (Russell Wilson), the San Francisco 49ers (Colin Kaepernick) and the Washington Redskins (Robert Griffin III) are doing with dual-threat quarterbacks like Gardner.

"Any pieces that look like they might fit with what we do," Borges said. "College football isn't pro football. It's different, but you can implement a lot of the same things they do because they do so many things well."

Could Gardner be one of the next dual threats to reach the NFL? Like his goals card, Gardner's potential seems to have no limitations.

"The kid has really worked hard," Borges said. "The game's important to him, and now he gets an opportunity he's been waiting for."
Spring practice has begun in the Big Ten, so let's take a look at what to expect from each Legends Division team this spring.

IOWA

Spring start: March 27

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Questions at quarterback: The Hawkeyes played James Vandenberg for every snap last season, and now that he's gone, they have no quarterbacks on the roster with any game experience. Sophomore Jake Rudock has been viewed as Vandenberg's successor, but he's still a mostly unknown quantity who should get pushed in the spring by former junior college transfer Cody Sokol and redshirt freshman C.J. Beathard. Whoever wins the job will be tasked with improving an Iowa passing game that finished with a Big Ten-worst seven touchdown passes in 2012.

2. Skills competition: While the quarterback race is vital, Iowa also needs standouts to emerge at the other skill positions to fix an offense that sputtered under first-year coordinator Greg Davis. The wideout corps, which struggled to get separation or make big plays, now is without departed senior Keenan Davis, who tied for the team lead with 571 receiving yards. There's a reason why Iowa signed five receivers in the 2013 class. The running back position has strength in numbers, with Damon Bullock, Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri and Barkley Hill all competing for carries this spring. The Hawkeyes just need to finally get some luck in the health and off-field departments at that position while hoping one player emerges as the go-to back.

3. Transition game: Iowa long had one of the most stable staffs in the country. But coach Kirk Ferentz added three new assistants this offseason for the second straight year, giving the program some fresh voices but also causing some potential bumps in transition. The offense in particular didn't mesh well last season under Davis, who'll look for solutions this spring. Ferentz has new coaches overseeing the running backs (Chris White) and receivers (Bobby Kennedy) and a new defensive assistant who'll work with the linebackers (Jim Reid). The Hawkeyes hope they can inject some life into a program that has seen its fortunes dip the past couple of seasons, including last year's 4-8 disaster.

MICHIGAN

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Devin Gardner as starter: Denard Robinson is gone and Gardner is the presumed Michigan starter for the first time. How he adjusts to that -- and how Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges develops more of a pro-style offense around him -- are a major launching point for the Wolverines next season.

2. Offensive line play: Michigan is replacing the entire interior of its offensive line and while there is a lot of young talent there, none of the potential candidates have any experience. Michigan offensive line coach Darrell Funk said he would like to have at least one of the three slots, if not two, settled by the end of spring.

3. Linebacker competition: The deepest position on Michigan’s roster also has the most competition. Jake Ryan at strongside linebacker is almost a given, but the middle and weak side slots are wide open. A bevy of freshmen and sophomores, along with returning starter Desmond Morgan, will vie for playing time in what will be a likely increased rotation in the fall.

-- Michael Rothstein, WolverineNation

MICHIGAN STATE

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. Still Maxwell's house?: Senior Andrew Maxwell started all 13 games last season at quarterback but was pulled in favor of freshman Connor Cook for the deciding drive of the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. The Spartans will open up the competition under center, with Tyler O'Connor and eventually incoming freshman Damion Terry joining the fray. Though he has a big edge in experience, Maxwell will have to prove that he can greatly increase last season's 52.5 completion percentage to hold onto the job through the spring.

2. Replacing Bell: Saying running back Le'Veon Bell was a big part of the 2012 offense is like saying Tom Hanks had substantial role in "Cast Away." Bell carried the ball 382 times last year, more than any back in the country, and gained 1,793 yards. There is no ready-made in-house replacement, as leading returning rusher Nick Hill had just 21 rushing attempts last year and may be too slight (5-foot-8, 190 pounds) to be an every-down back. Junior Jeremy Langford will move back to the backfield after seeing time at receiver. Signees Delton Williams, Gerald Holmes and R.J. Shelton might wind up with the job.

3. New playcaller in town: Mark Dantonio has yet to officially announce a replacement for former offensive coordinator Dan Roushar, who recently left for an assistant's post with the NFL's New Orleans Saints. But reports are that former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman has been tapped to lead the Spartans' offense. Can Bollman, whom Buckeyes fans criticized as being too conservative, find the solutions for what was a dreadful attack in 2012? The Spartans' defense once again enters spring ball with very few question marks. Michigan State's hopes rely heavily on how much progress it can make on the offensive side.

MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 26

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:

1. Defensive back end: The Gophers lost two outstanding cornerbacks in Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, as well as starting linebackers Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper. Jerry Kill has tried to address this during recruiting, adding a pair of well-regarded junior college linebackers (De'Vondre Campbell and Damien Wilson) as well as touted high school corner Jalen Myrick. But some holdovers from last season's roster will have to step into bigger roles this spring.

2. The full Nelson: True freshman Philip Nelson took over the quarterback job midseason and now will enter practice as the starter. He showed flashes of immense potential but still has a lot of things to learn. Kill has said Nelson is no lock to start in 2013 and that he'll face legitimate competition from redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner and incoming freshman Chris Streveler. Nelson has the inside track for now but must hold onto it.

3. Receiving line: The Gophers don't have a returning wideout who had more than 375 receiving yards last year, though Derrick Engel showed promise with a 100-yard day in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. You can blame some of that on the turnover and youth at quarterback. But Minnesota needs much better play at receiver to become a more balanced offense. Improvement by guys like Devin Crawford-Tufts and Isaac Fruechte this spring will help, as would some immediate contributions from recruits Eric Carter and Drew Wolitarsky.

NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:

1. Youth movement on defense: The Cornhuskers lost eight starters from last season's defense and will hope that some athletic young players are ready to step in. Guys like Charles Jackson, Jonathan Rose and Thomas Brown will be given long looks this spring. Nebraska coaches are hopeful that what they lack in experience, they'll make up for in speed. There's no bigger key for Big Red than having its young defenders make great strides in the spring.

2. Safety issues: The safety spot is an important one in Bo Pelini's scheme, and the Huskers lose both starters and a couple of top reserves from that position. Jackson will be given a look there, and the staff is high on Corey Cooper. But no starting jobs are locked down.

3. Martinez's progression: Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez won't be involved in a lot of live drills, and the spring will be a time to get freshman Tommy Armstrong some reps. But Martinez still needs to fine-tune a few parts of his game, most notably his tendency to force throws in key spots. He made great progress last offseason through extra hours of hard work; a similar leap this spring would make Martinez one of the very best players in the country.

NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 27

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. The quarterback duo: The Wildcats spent large parts of last season rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, using Siemian for more obvious passing situations. Will that continue this season? Colter needs to improve as a passer to become a better option as an every-down quarterback, and Northwestern's downfield passing game must get better. You can bet there will be a lot of eyes on Colter and Siemian this spring to see what offensive coordinator Mick McCall has planned.

2. Secondary concerns: The news that cornerback Nick VanHoose won't practice this spring because of injury could be a blessing in disguise. The Wildcats' secondary struggled when he was hurt last season, so this may provide an opportunity for others to get better without him. Jimmy Hall and Traveon Henry are youngsters who should see plenty of reps this spring in the defensive backfield.

3. Offensive line makeover: Three starters are gone from last season's offensive line, including both guards and left tackle Patrick Ward. Jack Konopka is the favorite to succeed Ward but will miss the spring with injuries, while 2012 signee Adam DePietro is among those who could step in at guard. Northwestern should have one of the best running games in the Big Ten in 2013 but will need its line to begin to take shape this spring.

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