NCF Nation: Andrew Gleichert

Michigan State fans would understandably disagree, but the Big Ten overall wasn't hit that hard by early departures to the NFL draft this year. Only six Big Ten underclassmen declared for the draft (Note: Purdue linebacker Dwayne Beckford already had been dismissed from the team).

Let's take a quick look back at the winners and losers of the early entries and how the decisions impact several teams going forward.

1. Biggest winner: Michigan. Almost everyone expected Wolverines left tackle Taylor Lewan to enter the draft after earning Big Ten Offensive Linemen of the Year honors and other accolades as a junior. Lewan had been projected by many as a top-15 pick, if not a top-10 pick, and his departure seemed like a foregone conclusion after he held up well against Jadeveon Clowney in the Outback Bowl. But Lewan delivered the biggest draft decision surprise -- and a delightful one for Michigan fans -- when he announced Jan. 9 that he'd return to Ann Arbor for the 2013 season. He provides a huge boost for a Wolverines offensive line that endured an up-and-down season and loses three starters. Lewan sought advice from former Michigan star tackle Jake Long, who opted to remain in school for his senior season and ended up becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMichigan State will certainly miss the production of running back Le'Veon Bell.
2. Biggest loser: Michigan State. The Big Ten had a smaller than normal group of early NFL departures, but Michigan State accounted for 50 percent (3-of-6) as running back Le'Veon Bell, tight end Dion Sims and defensive end William Gholston all made the jump. None of the early exits comes as a major surprise, as Bell led the nation in carries (382) and ranked third in rushing average (137.9), Sims flashed next-level potential and Gholston clearly has the physical skills to succeed in the NFL. But the departures of both Bell and Sims really sting an offense that lacked consistently productive players. Bell accounted for 92.3 percent of Michigan State's rushing yards and 38.4 percent of MSU's total yards, while Sims had 36 receptions for 475 yards and two touchdowns despite missing time with an ankle injury. A Spartans offense that struggled mightily for most of the season enters the offseason with even more question marks.

3. Head-scratchers: Lewan's decision comes as a major surprise, as few saw him slipping below the middle of the first round in the draft. He could end up leading Michigan to a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl berth as a senior, and improve his draft stock in the process, like Long did in 2007 when he earned unanimous All-America honors. But Lewan certainly is gambling a bit, as an injury or a drop in performance could hurt his future earning potential. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio reportedly was "taken aback" by Bell's decision to leave, and some thought Gholston would have benefited from another season after falling short of preseason expectations. But aside from Lewan, the players who left were mostly expected to leave.

4. The replacements

  • Michigan State likely will look to a combination of backs, including Nick Hill and possibly some incoming recruits, to fill the massive production void left by Bell. Three players backed up Sims this fall -- Paul Lang, Andrew Gleichert and Derek Hoebing -- and recruit Dylan Chmura joins the mix. The Spartans are in better shape at defensive end with returning starter Marcus Rush, veteran reserve Denzel Drone and Shilique Calhoun, who performed well in the bowl win against TCU.
  • The expected departure of defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins means Ohio State must replace all four starting defensive linemen from 2012. The Buckeyes have recruited well up front and must hope young interior linemen like rising sophomore Tommy Schutt and rising junior Michael Bennett can fill the gaps. Adolphus Washington played some tackle as a true freshman but seems to have a future at defensive end, while Joel Hale could help Schutt and Bennett replace both Hankins and Garrett Goebel.
  • Wisconsin loses a standout junior center to the NFL draft for the second straight year as Travis Frederick departs. Redshirt freshman Dan Voltz likely will step in after backing up Frederick, unless Wisconsin decides to move Ryan Groy to center, where he started late in the 2011 season.
  • Illinois must fill both defensive tackle spots after junior Akeem Spence declared for the draft. Austin Teitsma is projected to move into a starting role after recording 15 tackles as a reserve last fall. The Illini also need younger tackles like Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams to emerge as they try to build depth along the line, typically a strong point for the team.

Michigan State overcame four turnovers and rode Le'Veon Bell and a stifling defense to edge a plucky Boise State squad 17-13 in the opener.

Let's take a closer look.

It was over when: Michigan State converted two third downs and received a first-down run from Bell inside the Boise State 5-yard line with 1:37 left. The Spartans then ran out the clock.

Game ball goes to: Bell. Who else? The junior was Michigan State's offense Friday night, recording an insane 50 touches. He had a career-high 44 carries for 210 yards and two touchdowns. He added six receptions for 55 yards and provided a huge help to shaky quarterback Andrew Maxwell in Maxwell's first start. Forget Montee Ball or Denard Robinson. Bell might be the Big Ten's top Heisman Trophy candidate. He helped his cause and earned a long soak in the tub.

Stat of the game: Michigan State outgained Boise State 348-179 in the first three quarters and held the ball for more than 28 of the first 45 minutes but trailed 13-10 entering the fourth quarter thanks to the turnovers, one of which led directly to a Broncos touchdown (Jeremy Ioane interception return).

Best call: Despite Bell's dominance, Michigan State needed to mix in passes down the stretch and featured its tight ends. On third-and-3 from the Michigan State 49-yard line in the closing minutes, offensive coordinator Dan Roushar called a nifty pass to tight end Andrew Gleichert, who recently received a scholarship. Top tight end Dion Sims also had a big performance (7 receptions, 65 yards).

What Michigan State learned: It has a championship-level defense with a ferocious line and two talented cornerbacks in Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard. It also has a championship-level running back in Bell. It doesn't have a championship-level quarterback or offense yet, although Maxwell can build off the opener. But the Spartans can't expect to give Bell 50 touches each game.

What Boise State learned: The rebuilding process isn't easy when you lose a player such as Kellen Moore. The Broncos' defense certainly came to play, but they couldn't run the ball between the tackles and failed to hit on several big-play opportunities against the Spartans. Boise State's Joe Southwick will get better and should take some positives from Friday night's game, but the Broncos have some work to do.

What it means: Boise State showed it still can hang with the big dogs, even after going through a dramatic roster overhaul. But Michigan State is the better team and proved it in the fourth quarter. First-time starting quarterbacks Maxwell and Southwick both looked the part and will need to improve going forward, although there were some bright spots. Michigan State secured a signature victory it absolutely had to have with Rose Bowl aspirations. Boise State's chances to bust the BCS again likely went up in smoke, as it failed to score an offensive touchdown.