NCF Nation: Bill Cubit

Illinois offensive lineman Teddy Karras looked at schools like UCLA, Boston College and Ball State during his recruitment process. But one destination's siren song proved too strong.

"The Big Ten was always in my mind," he said.

[+] EnlargeTed Karras
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsTeddy Karras, who followed his family footsteps to a Big Ten school, is entering his third season as Illinois' starting right guard.
Not just in his mind. Practically in his genes.

Karras is the seventh member of his family to suit up for a Big Ten football team. Grandfather Ted Sr. spent four years at Indiana and later went on to play for the Chicago Bears. Great uncle Alex is the most famous Karras, as he won the Outland Trophy at Iowa and gained fame both as a Detroit Lion and as a TV actor. Great uncles Paul (Iowa) and Lou (Purdue) are also Big Ten alums, while his father, Ted Jr., and uncle, Tony, both played for Northwestern.

So Teddy seemed destined to wind up in the conference, too, playing on the line just as all his relatives had before him. All of whom like to give their input on the youngest one's career.

"Everyone chimes in from my family, football-wise," father Ted Jr. said with a laugh. "Everyone really enjoys watching him on Saturdays. Right on down from my dad to his brothers, everybody puts in their two cents."

Maybe it's all that advice, or maybe it's just Teddy's lifelong immersion in football, but there is less and less that his relatives need to help him with these days.

The redshirt junior is entering his third year as the starting right guard for the Illini. That makes him a rare veteran on what is still mostly a young team, and he's taking that standing seriously by becoming one of the anchors for head coach Tim Beckman.

"He's one of those proven guys," Beckman said. "The thing I'm asking Teddy to do is to be one of the top leaders on this football team. Even though he's not a senior, he needs to become a vocal leader of this football team.

"He loves the game. He's been involved in the game since he was born with the family background and the Karras name itself. It shows."

Illinois will have a new starter at quarterback this season and needs new faces to emerge at receiver. But the offensive line should provide a solid building block for offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's attack. A unit that made great strides last season after a miserable 2012 returns four starters including Karras, who has worked this offseason to bolster his hand strength and made adjustments to his stance.

He loves the game. He's been involved in the game since he was born with the family background and the Karras name itself. It shows.

-- Illinois coach Tim Beckman on Teddy Karras
The line did a decent job of allowing quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to get rid of the ball last season. Now, the goal is to get more physical and improve a running game that finished 10th in the Big Ten in 2013. (That would please his grandfather, who only knew the north-south running game when he was with the Bears and who finds the modern spread offenses annoying).

"It's all about getting people on the ground, whether that be cutting or just being physical and attacking," Karras said. "Really knocking people around and springing big runs. We need a better run game this fall."

Karras is familiar with contact. When he was in the eighth grade, his father -- who has coached at St. Xavier, Rose-Hulman, Marian and now Walsh University -- put Teddy in as the live quarterback for one-on-one passing drills.

"He got hammered a couple of times, and then I took him out," Ted Jr. recalls.

Teddy grew up attending his father's practices and fondly remembers watching game film on Sundays at the house with his dad's entire coaching staff. He used to draw offensive plays up on the whiteboard in his dad's office. The family tried not to push him into playing football, but once he started in third grade, he was hooked.

"I was around it 24/7," he said. "Football shaped my whole life up until this point. I hope it continues to shape it."

Other Big Ten schools like Iowa and Northwestern showed interest in Karras out of Indianapolis' Cathedral High School, but many of the premier schools thought he lacked elite length on his 6-foot-4, 300-pound frame. But he has slotted in well at guard for Illinois, and going there made his mom, Jennifer, happy. That's her alma mater, adding another Big Ten tie to the clan.

"There are divided loyalties in our family, but everyone roots for a Karras," Teddy said.

Teddy, in fact, is bigger physically than all the other Karrases that came before him, even the legendary Alex, who passed away two years ago. He's hoping to carve out his own legacy in the impressive family tree.

"I need to keep performing the way I've been doing and be even better," he said. "I don't think my family would be mad at me at all, but I feel like I need to keep proving it to myself and everyone else."

Big Ten's best of 2013

January, 14, 2014
Jan 14
10:00
AM ET
We're starting to wrap up the 2013 Big Ten season, which included the rise of Michigan State to elite status, more accolades for Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, Iowa's mini-renaissance, Northwestern's backslide, Jerry Kill's health-related absence and Minnesota's impressive response, up-and-down seasons from Michigan and Nebraska and much more. The league's national title drought reached its 11th year, but Michigan State brought home a Rose Bowl championship to the frosty Midwest.

To put a bow on the season, here are some Big Ten superlatives:

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio and Connor Cook
Harry How/Getty ImagesMark Dantonio made seemingly all of the right moves in 2013, including sticking with Connor Cook at QB.
Best coach: Mark Dantonio, Michigan State. Dantonio helped the Spartans find the inches that separated them in 2012, when they lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points. He made the right calls on offense after a shaky start, and the Spartans ended up winning their final nine games, including their first outright Big Ten title and first Rose Bowl championship in 26 years.

Best player, offense: Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller. No player dominates the scouting report for opposing defenses like the Buckeyes signal-caller, who complemented premier rushing skills with a more accurate arm, despite some late struggles. He won Big Ten MVP honors and league offensive player of the year honors for the second consecutive season, had 3,162 yards of offense and 36 touchdowns (24 pass, 12 rush). Miller led Ohio State to a second straight undefeated regular season and will be back as a senior in 2014.

Best player, defense: Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. The nation's No. 1 defense had several standouts, but Dennard tops the list after leading the "No Fly Zone" secondary and earning the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. A first-team All-American, Dennard recorded four interceptions and 10 pass deflections, and repeatedly shut down opposing wide receivers. He was a finalist for the Nagurski Trophy.

Best moment: Many wondered how Michigan State would fare in the Rose Bowl without star middle linebacker and co-captain Max Bullough, suspended a week before the game. Turns out the Spartans were just fine as Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris filled in well. Fittingly, MSU sealed its victory on a fourth-down stop of Stanford, where Elsworth leaped over the pile to stuff Ryan Hewitt. The play epitomized a team that overcame every obstacle and a defense that slammed the door on the opposition all year long. Elsworth was named Rose Bowl defensive player of the game.

Best rivalry game: Ohio State at Michigan. We haven't been able to say this very often about The Game in recent years, but the Wolverines and Buckeyes provided plenty of drama on Nov. 30 at the Big House. Neither defense had answers for the opposing offense and the teams combined for 83 points, 74 first downs and 1,129 total yards. Michigan went for the win with 32 seconds left, but its 2-point conversion attempt failed and Ohio State survived.

Best play: Nebraska's season hung in the balance Nov. 2 as the Huskers, coming off of a road loss to Minnesota, trailed Northwestern 24-21 with four seconds left at the Wildcats' 49-yard line. Huskers quarterback Ron Kellogg III, the team's third-stringer entering the season, evaded the rush and launched a Hail Mary to the end zone, which freshman wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp caught following a deflection for the winning touchdown. It saved Nebraska's season and possibly coach Bo Pelini's job.

Best coaching decision: Connor Cook didn't do much in a loss to Notre Dame to separate himself from the other Spartans quarterbacks. But after going to Andrew Maxwell for the final drive against the Irish, Dantonio and the staff decided to stick with Cook for the Big Ten season. It gave Cook the confidence he needed to lead MSU's offense to a Big Ten title.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
AP Photo/Lon HorwedelMichigan WR Jeremy Gallon had a game for the ages against Indiana.
Best individual performance: Michigan wide receiver Jeremy Gallon against Indiana. Sure, the Hoosiers' defense has been abysmal forever, but you just don't see too many wide receivers rack up 369 receiving yards, much less in a league game. Gallon set a Big Ten record for receiving yards and recorded the second-highest total for a receiver in FBS history. He had 14 receptions, two for touchdowns. Quarterback Devin Gardner had a team-record 503 passing yards. Ohio State's Miller had big performances against both Penn State and Iowa, Christian Hackenberg lit up Wisconsin's defense, and Cook recorded his first two career 300-yard passing performances in the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl.

Best freshman: Penn State's Hackenberg. New Lions coach James Franklin inherits a future superstar under center, as Hackenberg backed up his recruiting hype in his first season. Hackenberg finished third in the Big Ten in passing (246.2 YPG) and threw 20 touchdown passes against 10 interceptions. He completed the season by connecting on 70 percent of his passes for 339 yards and four touchdowns against Wisconsin.

Best newcomer: Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory. The junior-college transfer excited Nebraska fans when he came to Lincoln and left them even happier after his first season. Gregory led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks and tied for second in tackles for loss with 17. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and triggered Nebraska's improvement on defense down the stretch.

Best new coaching hire: Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. The Illini improved their win total from two to four this season, but things would have been worse if not for Cubit, who helped Illinois improve from 119th in 2012 to 46th this year. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was the Big Ten's only 3,000-yard passer. Cubit might have saved head coach Tim Beckman's job for another year, as the Illini now look for a similar jump on defense.
The Big Ten's best two teams played Saturday night in Indianapolis, and Michigan State proved that it belongs on top. Ohio State had occupied the No. 1 spot throughout the season, but Mark Dantonio's team outclassed the Buckeyes, scoring the game's first 17 points and its final 17 points after Ohio State surged midway through the contest.

Both teams are headed to BCS bowls, but the Spartans earned their way to Pasadena for the first time since the 1987 season.

There are no changes in the final 10 spots.

Here's one final look at the Week 14 rankings.

Now, for the fresh rundown …

1. Michigan State (12-1, last week: 2): We knew the Spartans had a nationally elite defense and a much-improved offense, but we didn't know whether they could put it all together against a team that hadn't lost a game in two seasons. Quarterback Connor Cook, linebacker Denicos Allen and others provided the answers against Ohio State. Cook passed for a career-high 304 yards and three touchdowns, while Allen and the Spartan Dawgs limited Ohio State to 25 yards in the fourth quarter. Next stop: the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio.

2. Ohio State (12-1, last week: 1): It's odd to see a "1" in the loss column, but Meyer's Buckeyes looked shaky both early and late in their biggest test since the 2011 Sugar Bowl. Penalties and poor pass defense, as well as a one-dimensional offense that didn't sustain a rhythm, doomed Ohio State against Michigan State. Quarterback Braxton Miller and his teammates squandered a chance to play for a national title. They'll try to finish the season strong with a win against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

3. Wisconsin (9-3, last week: 3): No Big Ten team wants to get on the field more than the Badgers, who delivered their worst performance of the season at the worst time against Penn State. Linebacker Chris Borland and a proud and decorated group of seniors should be much better in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina. Quarterback Joel Stave tries to bounce back after throwing a career-high three interceptions against PSU.

4. Iowa (8-4, last week: 4): Coach Kirk Ferentz sees similarities between his current team and the 2008 version, which also finished strong after a so-so start. The 2008 squad finished with an Outback Bowl victory, and the Hawkeyes will try to do the same when they face LSU in a rematch of the 2005 Capital One Bowl. Linebacker James Morris and an improved defense will be tested, and Iowa will try to control the clock with its power run game.

5. Minnesota (8-4, last week: 5): The season will be a success no matter what, but Minnesota would like to end on a positive note after dropping its final two regular-season games to ranked opponents. The Gophers return to the Texas Bowl, where coach Jerry Kill thinks they set the foundation for this year with a good effort last December against Texas Tech. Minnesota's defense will show up against Syracuse, but can the offense find a passing game?

6. Nebraska (8-4, last week: 6): Barring a surprise, Bo Pelini will get another chance to bring a championship to Lincoln next season. It would be nice to end this year on a positive note, however, especially after a blowout home loss to Iowa on Black Friday. Nebraska's young team has a chance to grow up the next few weeks before a matchup against Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, a rematch of last year's Capital One Bowl.

7. Penn State (7-5; last week: 7): The season is over but Penn State can feel optimistic about the future, particularly on offense with Big Ten Freshman of the Year Christian Hackenberg at quarterback. Hackenberg completed a strong debut with 2,955 passing yards and 20 touchdowns, and he'll have most of his weapons back for 2013. Last week brought the somewhat surprising departures of two assistants, including longtime linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden. It will be interesting to see where Bill O'Brien goes with his replacements.

8. Michigan (7-5, last week: 8): Michigan's performance in The Game left many wondering where that team was all season. The Wolverines hope to follow up with another strong effort -- and a win -- as they take on Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. It's important for Michigan to end a disappointing season on a positive note, especially for the offense, which surged behind Devin Gardner, Jeremy Gallon, Jake Butt and others against Ohio State.

9. Indiana (5-7, last week: 9): It's a pivotal offseason for the Hoosiers, who should in no way be satisfied with a five-win season that includes three Big Ten victories. Indiana should have made a bowl this season with such an explosive offense and must make the necessary upgrades -- coaching, talent and elsewhere -- to get to the postseason in 2014. Kevin Wilson has some work ahead to ensure he's not the latest offensive-minded coach to flame out in Bloomington.

10. Northwestern (5-7, last week: 10): Here's another team bitterly disappointed with its 2013 season that has some work to do this winter. Coach Pat Fitzgerald's first priority is keeping together or perhaps enhancing the strongest recruiting class in his tenure. Northwestern also must evaluate its offensive vision after enduring quarterback injuries in three of the past four seasons. The Wildcats should get a big boost at running back if Venric Mark is granted a fifth year, as expected.

11. Illinois (4-8, last week: 11): Tim Beckman will lead the Illini for a third season, athletic director Mike Thomas confirmed earlier this week. Like Indiana's Wilson, Beckman will focus on improving a defense that slipped to 110th nationally in total defense and 104th in scoring defense. He fixed the offense after the 2012 season by bringing in coordinator Bill Cubit. If he can do the same on defense, Illinois should go bowling next fall. If not, it could be the end for Beckman in Champaign.

12. Purdue (1-11, last week: 12): After a historically poor season, Purdue begins the rebuilding process on the recruiting trail, where it must get better in a lot of areas. The Boilers lose some of their top defenders like Bruce Gaston Jr. and Ricardo Allen, and must build a lot more depth on that side of the ball. Offensive line also is a target area as the Boilers allowed a league-worst 38 sacks this fall.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 12

November, 18, 2013
11/18/13
11:00
AM ET
Twelve seconds.

That's how much time remained in regulation at Northwestern after Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner hit Jeremy Gallon on a 16-yard pass. The clock was running. What happened next was what Wolverines coach Brady Hoke said "might be the best single play I've ever seen."

The Michigan field goal unit sprinted onto the field. Holder Drew Dileo, who had run a pattern as a wide receiver, ran in from the other side of the field and slid into position. The snap came with one second to go, and kicker Brendan Gibbons made a 44-yarder to send the game into overtime, where the Wolverines eventually won.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was upset that his team didn't get a chance to substitute its block team in. The Wildcats were in disarray as the field goal try went up. Referee Bill LeMonnier explained to a pool reporter afterward that on the final play of the half, teams aren't automatically given the right to substitute on field goal defense.

That play goes down as the second-craziest finish to regulation of a Big Ten game this year. In the Wisconsin-Arizona State game, there were 18 seconds left when Joel Stave downed the ball. The Badgers never got to run another play.

Take that and rewind it back ...

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsMark Dantonio and the Spartans control their own destiny to reach the Big Ten title game.
Team of the week: Michigan State. It was not a vintage defensive performance for the Spartans, who allowed 28 points to a Nebraska offense that turned the ball over five times and played with a stitched-together line. But Mark Dantonio's team still won by double digits on the road in Lincoln for its first win over the Huskers while clinching at least a share of the Legends Division title. Then there's this: Through 10 games, the Spartans are averaging 30.9 points per contest.

Worst hangover: Northwestern finds more ways to lose than anybody. The Wildcats had a dominant defensive effort against Michigan in allowing no touchdowns in regulation. But they had a 7-yard shank punt that set up a Michigan first-and-goal, Ibraheim Campbell dropped an easy interception on the Wolverines' final drive, and they couldn't pounce on a fumble in overtime. Northwestern has lost twice in overtime, once on a Hail Mary and in games that went down to the final drives against Minnesota and Ohio State. Sheesh.

Best call: Nebraska had to be ready for some Michigan State tomfoolery, right? We've seen it so many times from Dantonio in a big game.

And it worked again on Saturday. The Spartans lined up for a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Nebraska 27, leading 27-21 in the fourth quarter. Punter Mike Sadler, who serves as the holder on field goals, took the snap and pushed his way forward for 3 yards. The play was called "Charlie Brown," evoking memories of Lucy snatching the ball away in "Peanuts." But Sadler was actually supposed to check out of the play because of the way Nebraska was set up, and the play was never designed to go up the middle where he ran.

"That was the last thing going through my mind," said Sadler, who went up the middle on a successful punt fake at Iowa last month. "I was just trying to think of my touchdown dance."

He didn't score, but Connor Cook delivered a touchdown pass three plays later to all but seal the victory.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde piled up five total touchdowns while rushing for 246 yards on just 24 carries versus Illinois. He had touchdown runs of 51 and 55 yards in the final four minutes to put the game on ice.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): In a game that didn't feature a whole lot of defense, Ohio State's Ryan Shazier still managed an impressive stat line at Illinois: 16 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. He had the safety on Reilly O'Toole that gave the Buckeyes some breathing room. And while he had a chance to turn that into a touchdown had he not celebrated a bit too soon, Shazier still had an outstanding performance considering Ohio State's other two starting linebackers were out with injuries.

[+] EnlargeBrendan Gibbons
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhBrendan Gibbons hit a 44-yard field goal as time expired to put Michigan into overtime at Northwestern.
Big Men on Campus (Special teams): This goes to the entire Michigan field goal unit, including Gibbons, Dileo, snapper Jareth Glanda, special-teams coordinator Dan Ferrigno and everyone else involved in that unbelievable play at the end of regulation at Northwestern. That was a team effort, and if one guy was a half-second late, the Wolverines lose. (Tips of the cap also go out to Purdue's Raheem Mostert and Illinois' V'Angelo Bentley, who both scored on returns).

Sideline interference: Illinois coach Tim Beckman had to be separated from offensive coordinator Bill Cubit on the sidelines after quarterback Reilly O'Toole was sacked in the end zone. Both coaches later said it was just a heat-of-the-moment thing, and Cubit added, "You'd be shocked at how many times" that happens during games. But it's still not a good look for Beckman, whose sideline mishaps the past two years include getting called for interference penalties and getting caught using chewing tobacco.

Who needs tickets?: Want to see a Big Ten game, but you don't have more than 50 cents in your pocket? Then this week's Illinois-Purdue Basement Bowl is for you. On StubHub this morning, several tickets to Saturday's game at Ross-Ade Stadium could be had for as little as 39 cents. Get 'em while they're hot!

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Info):

  • Wisconsin ran for 554 yards Saturday versus Indiana. It was the second most in school history, behind the 564 the Badgers compiled against the Hoosiers last year. So in the past two games against IU, Wisconsin has rushed for 1,118 yards and 13 touchdowns; on Saturday the Badgers had three 100-yard rushers (James White, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement) and an 86-yard rusher (Jared Abbrederis, on reverses). The Badgers' running game added 35.8 expected points to their net scoring margin; two of the top 10 rushing EPA games in the FBS the past 10 years were posted by Wisconsin against Indiana. The Badgers still fell far short of the Big Ten rushing record of 832 yards, set by Minnesota in 1905. But they do get Indiana again next year, so you never know.

  • ESPN's strength of schedule rankings (out of 126 FBS teams):
Alabama: 48th
Florida State: 60th
Ohio State: 88th
Baylor: 95th
There's minimal movement in the Power Rankings as the top teams took care of business and both Minnesota and Iowa spent Saturday on the couch.

Our big debate continues to be whether to put Wisconsin or Michigan State at No. 2 behind front-runner Ohio State. The Spartans are getting more love nationally and deservedly so after starting Big Ten play at 6-0. They found some different ways to win against Nebraska, including the "Charlie Brown" fake field goal attempt.

But we've been bullish on Wisconsin for a while now, and the Badgers have done nothing to change our minds. Wisconsin's defensive performance against an Indiana team that has given defenses fits all seasons makes it tough to drop the Badgers. So we're not.

The margin is very thin between Wisconsin and Michigan State, and Wisconsin will be tested more this week as it visits rival Minnesota.

Penn State and Indiana trade places this week, and Nebraska moves down a spot.

Here's one final look at the Week 11 rankings.

Now, for the newest rundown ...

1. Ohio State (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): Urban Meyer's crew had another fast start, jumping ahead of Illinois 21-0 in the first 11 minutes, 30 seconds. Ohio State received big performances from running back Carlos Hyde (246 rush yards, 4 TDs), quarterback Braxton Miller (184 rush yards, TD, 2 pass TDs), and cornerback Bradley Roby (INT return for TD). But the defense surrendered 420 yards and 35 points, which isn't good. Ohio State can clinch the Leaders division title this week against Indiana.

2. Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1; last week: 2): Much of the focus is on Wisconsin's historic rushing performance: 554 yards, the second-highest total in team history, and three 100-yard rushers in James White, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement. But the Badgers' defense deserves a lot of credit for bottling up Indiana's quick-strike offense, holding the Hoosiers to just three points, 14 first downs and 224 total yards. Wisconsin continues to get zero respect nationally but could gain a little with a strong performance at Minnesota this week.

3. Michigan State (9-1, 6-0; last week: 3): The Spartans are a win -- or a Minnesota loss -- from punching their ticket to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game. They found themselves in a surprisingly high-scoring game Saturday against Nebraska but controlled the clock and made big plays in all three phases. Running back Jeremy Langford (151 rush yards, 3 TDs) and safety Kurtis Drummond (forced fumble, interception) were among the standouts. MSU visits Northwestern this week.

4. Minnesota (8-2, 4-2; last week: 4): Get ready for the biggest Gophers home game in recent memory as rival Wisconsin comes to town with the Axe on the line. Minnesota needs a win and a Michigan State loss to woeful Northwestern to remain in the Legends division race. David Cobb and the Gophers' power run offense faces a Wisconsin defense playing at a very high level these days. Minnesota will need a stout effort from Ra'Shede Hageman and the defensive line against Wisconsin's ground attack.

5. Iowa (6-4, 3-3; last week: 6): How much of a step forward will Iowa take this season? We'll find out the next two weeks as the Hawkeyes close the regular season against Michigan and Nebraska. Both games are quite winnable, and Iowa's four losses all have come against ranked opponents. Iowa has won three of its past four home contests against Michigan and boasts a defensive front seven that could give the Wolverines fits.

6. Nebraska (7-3, 4-2; last week: 5): Credit Bo Pelini's team for rallying in the second half and moving the ball surprisingly well against the nation's No. 1 defense. But Nebraska made far too many mistakes to beat the Legends division front-runner, committing five turnovers in the game. Junior Ameer Abdullah (123 rush yards) continues to look like one of the nation's best running backs, but he needed more help around him Saturday. The Huskers now visit Penn State.

7. Michigan (7-3, 3-3; last week: 7): It's not pretty for the Wolverines right now, although their ability to get off a last-second field goal to tie the game at Northwestern was a thing of beauty. Michigan's offense struggled until overtime, but a stout defense kept the team in the game, and quarterback Devin Gardner continues to display his toughness. Brady Hoke's crew finally won a league road game and looks to do the same this week at Kinnick Stadium, where it has struggled in recent years.

8. Penn State (6-4, 3-3; last week: 9): Home cookin' once again proved to be exactly what Penn State needed, as the Nittany Lions rebounded from a road loss at Minnesota by beating Purdue rather easily. Zach Zwinak made his case to be the team's top running back with 149 rush yards and three touchdowns, and quarterback Christian Hackenberg completed 16 of 23 pass attempts as the Lions converted 10 of 12 third downs. Penn State remains in Happy Valley this week for its final home contest against Nebraska.

9. Indiana (4-6, 2-4; last week: 8): Wisconsin once again brought out the worst in Indiana, which had its weakest effort of the season. The defense remains a mess, as Indiana surrendered a record 554 rush yards, including seven gains of 30 yards or more. Perhaps more surprising, a high-powered offense did next to nothing, held more than 300 yards below its average. Barring a miracle this week at Ohio State, Indiana will miss a bowl for the fifth straight season, a major disappointment given a schedule with eight home games.

10. Northwestern (4-6, 0-6; last week: 10): Kicker Jeff Budzien said after Northwestern's latest setback that if he had been told the team would be 4-6 he "would have laughed at you." The Wildcats' utter inability to close out games is no laughing matter. How does a team that used to be so good in the clutch now find every imaginable way to lose games? Northwestern is almost certainly home for the holidays. Then again, this dumpster fire of a season can't end soon enough.

11. Illinois (3-7, 0-6; last week: 11): There's certainly some fight in these Illini, even on the sideline, as head coach Tim Beckman and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit had to be separated following a safety in the third quarter. Beckman can't be too upset at Cubit, the biggest reason for Illinois' improvement this season. It's too bad the Illini haven't seen similar strides from a defense that can't stop anybody right now. Beckman really needs a win this week at Purdue as Illinois tries to snap its 20-game league road losing streak.

12. Purdue (1-9, 0-6; last week: 12): Baby steps. Purdue's offense is making them after a historically poor start to Big Ten play. The Boilers scored 21 points at Penn State, and quarterback Danny Etling (223 pass yards) had a decent day throwing the ball. The run game remains invisible and the defense couldn't get off the field or slow down Penn State's run or pass game. If Purdue is going to show some real progress before ending this miserable season, the time is now as Illinois visits Ross-Ade Stadium.

What we learned in the Big Ten: Week 12

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
10:00
AM ET
Lessons learned from the weekend that was in the Big Ten:

[+] EnlargeOhio State Touchdown
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsTailback Carlos Hyde rushed for 246 rushing yards and scored five touchdowns in the Buckeyes' win over Illinois.
1. Michigan State vs. Ohio State is happening, so get ready: The Big Ten championship game is not signed, sealed and delivered yet. But it would take some major chaos for that game not to feature Michigan State and Ohio State. The Spartans clinched at least a tie for the Legends Division title with their 41-28 win at Nebraska. All they need is to win one of their final two games -- at Northwestern and versus Minnesota -- or have Minnesota lose next week against Wisconsin in order to punch their ticket to Indianapolis. Coach Mark Dantonio's team has come too far to slip up two straight weeks. Ohio State needs one more win to clinch the Leaders spot in the title game because of its head-to-head win over Wisconsin, and the Buckeyes will be favored by multiple scores next week at home against Indiana. This is the matchup that the Big Ten should want -- Michigan State will be in the top 15 and possibly the edge of the top 10 if it wins out, and the Spartans' outstanding defense will test Ohio State's high-scoring offense. It hasn't been the most exciting Big Ten regular season, but things are setting up for a fantastic finish at Lucas Oil Stadium.

2. Wisconsin's defense deserves more notice: Indiana came into Saturday's game averaging 43.1 points and 527 yards. Whatever you think of the Hoosiers, their offense is legitimately explosive. Wisconsin completely defused that attack in a 51-3 win, shutting out Indiana in the first half while allowing 224 yards and a lone third-quarter field goal. The Hoosiers had scored in every quarter but three this year and hadn't been blanked in a half since September of last season. The point is that the Badgers' defense is outstanding, yet like the team as a whole, remains underrated. Everyone will notice how Wisconsin ran all over IU for 554 yards, second most in school history, but that pretty much happens every year in the Indiana game. The Badgers D is led by experienced players up front like Chris Borland, Beau Allen and Brendan Kelly and is getting terrific play from less experienced guys like Sojourn Shelton and Tanner McEvoy on the back end. Don't forget that Ohio State turned in its lowest point total of the season (31) against Dave Aranda's defense. This is a complete team, even if the the voters in the major polls still somehow fail to recognize it.

3. Don't tell Michigan this season is over: We could have understood if Michigan would have mailed in the end of Saturday's Northwestern game. The Wolverines have been beaten up by opponents and piled on by fans and critics for their lackluster offensive performances. Their Big Ten title hopes are dead, and in coach Brady Hoke's own view, that means the season is a failure already. In the rain in Evanston, they found themselves down 9-6 in the closing moments of an ugly game. But Michigan pulled off a truly incredible effort to set up Brendan Gibbons' field goal at the very end of regulation, then ground its way through a triple-overtime win. Quarterback Devin Gardner, who has been battered and bruised countless times, appropriately scored the winning touchdown and two-point conversion. The Wolverines looked in serious danger of losing out for a 6-6 campaign before Saturday's gritty comeback. While wins at Iowa and against Ohio State the next two weeks won't be easy to come by, Michigan proved that it will not fold up shop. As for Northwestern, you can't fault the effort. But the Wildcats have now lost in just about every terrible way imaginable, including twice in overtime and on a Hail Mary. It's just one of those years for coach Pat Fitzgerald's crew.

[+] EnlargeGlenn Carson
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsLinebacker Glenn Carson and the Nittany Lions gave up just 264 yards to Purdue in the win.
4. It's wait 'til next year -- again -- for Illinois and Indiana: The best thing you can say about Illinois is that it has shown a lot of fight this year -- even if that sometimes means near fisticuffs between coach Tim Beckman and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. The Illini did not give up after falling behind Ohio State 28-0 and 35-7 on Saturday, battling back to keep it a two-score game throughout most of the second half. But like the games against Penn State and Indiana, the team simply couldn't finish the job. And so any slight bowl hopes were officially extinguished for Illinois, which now owns the nation's longest conference losing streak -- and second-longest in the long history of the Big Ten -- at 20 games. If Beckman can't lead the team to a win over hapless Purdue next week, he might not get a chance to finish his job, either. Indiana entered the year with high hopes for a bowl. The Hoosiers can still technically get to six wins, but that would require a win next week in Columbus over Ohio State. If you believe that will happen, you are either incredibly optimistic or completely untethered from reality. Coach Kevin Wilson's team has made strides this season on offense and in the running game despite Saturday's showing in Madison, but the defense has failed to grow at all and has some historically inept performances this season. The Hoosiers' status won't change until that side of the ball develops any competency. So it's back to the drawing board for both programs, and they'll have all of December to rethink things.

5. Freshmen making strides at Penn State, Purdue: If you didn't watch Penn State's win over Purdue, we don't blame you. Neither team is going anywhere this season. But the game did provide some hope for the future, thanks to the play of true freshmen on both sides. Purdue quarterback Danny Etling took a step forward with the best start of his career, throwing for 223 yards and a touchdown. Both he and Penn State freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg finished with similar stat lines. And their first-year targets fared pretty well, too. DeAngelo Yancey was Purdue's leading receiver, with four catches for 83 yards, and Nittany Lions tight end Adam Breneman caught the first TD pass of his career. Both teams are looking forward for different reasons, and the play of their youngsters gave them some reasons for hope.
Northwestern has made its exit from the Big Ten's top half and shows no signs of returning. Now it's Nebraska's turn to be shown the door. Meanwhile, we welcome an unexpected visitor in Minnesota to the top half of the power rankings.

Minnesota's historic upset of Nebraska provided the major shake-up in this week's rundown. The Gophers, who were No. 11 two weeks ago, have turned around their season with upset wins against both Northwestern and Nebraska. They've guaranteed a second consecutive bowl appearance and can make some noise in the Legends Division down the stretch. Iowa also looks like it will be going back to the postseason after an overtime win against Northwestern.

Michigan State moves up to No. 3 after pulling away from Illinois in Champaign, while Iowa moves up after its overtime win against slumping Northwestern. Penn State's historically bad night at Ohio State bumps the Lions down a few pegs.

Let's take one last look at the Week 8 rankings.

Now, for the fresh rundown:

1. Ohio State (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): There was no need for a second-half surge as Ohio State throttled Penn State from the get-go, picking up an easy win and the style points it has looked for in Big Ten play. After his near benching at Northwestern, quarterback Braxton Miller has performed like a Heisman Trophy candidate, picking apart Penn State's defense for 252 passing yards and three touchdowns. Ohio State racked up its highest-ever yardage total (686) against a Big Ten foe. The Buckeyes' defense recorded three takeaways. Ohio State now visits Purdue, a recent trouble spot.

2. Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1; last week: 2): The nation continues to sleep on the Badgers, but at some point the credit will come if Gary Andersen's crew continues to win. Wisconsin's second open week came at a good time as star linebacker Chris Borland had some extra time to heal from a hamstring injury. Borland should be good to go for this week's trip to Iowa, as Wisconsin reunites with its longtime rival for the first time since 2010. Andersen likes the way quarterback Joel Stave is progressing, and this week's game should provide a nice gauge.

3. Michigan State (7-1, 4-0; last week: 4): After a one-year hiatus, Michigan State is back in the Big Ten title race. The Spartans are the only Legends Division team without a Big Ten defeat and can take a huge step toward Indianapolis by beating rival Michigan this week. Quarterback Connor Cook and the offense got on track against Illinois, racking up 42 points and 477 total yards. When Cook is in rhythm, Jeremy Langford finds running room and the offensive line controls play, Michigan State is tough to beat. But the challenges will get tougher now.

4. Michigan (6-1, 2-1; last week: 5): Who are these Wolverines? The young, talented group that beat Notre Dame in September or the shaky, flawed squad that hasn't looked very impressive since Sept. 7? We'll finally get some real answers as Michigan begins a challenging November stretch this week at Michigan State. Devin Gardner and the offense scored at will against Indiana but face an exponentially tougher challenge against the Spartans' nationally elite defense. A second Big Ten loss would make it tough for Michigan to reach Indianapolis, given the remaining schedule.

5. Iowa (5-3, 2-2; last week: 7): After struggling against Northwestern's Kain Colter last year, Iowa's defense stepped up in a big way, shutting out the Wildcats for a half and recording six sacks, its highest total since the 2008 season. The linebacking corps was terrific, and so was Drew Ott. Quarterback Jake Rudock wasn't great but made the big throw when it counted to C.J. Fiedorowicz in overtime. Iowa is a win away from becoming bowl eligible as rival Wisconsin comes to Kinnick Stadium this week. The Hawkeyes get the edge against Minnesota for the five spot after dominating the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium.

[+] EnlargeNebraska vs Minnesota
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota's upset of Nebraska moved the Gophers up two spots and dropped the Huskers four spots.
6. Minnesota (6-2, 2-2; last week: 8): Two weeks ago, many were wondering if Minnesota would make a bowl game and if head coach Jerry Kill would step down because of his health issues. While Kill's future remains somewhat in doubt, he has been in the coaches' booth to watch his team record upset wins against Northwestern and Nebraska. Saturday's dominant performance against the Huskers marked Minnesota's first win against Big Red since 1960. The Gophers received big performances from running back David Cobb (138 yards), defensive linemen Ra'Shede Hageman and Theiren Cockran and others. Minnesota could be a surprise contender in the Legends Division if it continues to win this week at Indiana.

7. Nebraska (5-2, 2-1; last week: 3): A four-spot drop in the rankings for one loss might seem harsh, but Nebraska invalidated any perceived progress since the UCLA game by struggling in all three phases in a loss at Minnesota. Despite his big-game flaws, Bo Pelini's teams typically had won the games they should win, but the Huskers fell apart after building a 10-0 lead. Quarterback Taylor Martinez looked very rusty and the defense couldn't stop Minnesota's ground game. Nebraska tries to get well against slumping Northwestern this week in Lincoln.

8. Penn State (4-3, 1-2; last week: 6): There will be better nights for quarterback Christian Hackenberg and Penn State, which fell behind quickly at Ohio State and never challenged the Buckeyes in the ugliest loss of the Bill O'Brien era. Penn State's defensive issues are very real, though, as the Lions have allowed more than 40 points in three consecutive games for the first time since 1899 (!). Hackenberg's health will be a storyline this week as Penn State faces Illinois. At least the Lions don't have any more open weeks.

9. Indiana (3-4, 1-2; last week: 9): It's still all about fixing the defense for Indiana, which had no answers for Jeremy Gallon, Gardner and Michigan in Week 8. The IU offense can strike and strike quickly, regardless of whether Tre Roberson or Nate Sudfeld is playing quarterback. Kevin Wilson's crew enters a critical home stretch against Minnesota and Illinois. IU likely needs to win both to have a chance of going bowling this year.

10. Northwestern (4-4, 0-4; last week: 10): Halloween arrives Thursday, but the nightmare has lasted four weeks for the Wildcats, whose October woes have reached a new low under Pat Fitzgerald. All of Northwestern's hallmarks -- great ball security, limited penalties, being great in the clutch -- seem to be going out the window. Fitzgerald has blamed himself and his staff for the recent struggles, and it's hard to disagree after the ultra-conservative decisions late in Saturday's loss to Iowa. Northwestern heads to Nebraska this week, as misery loves company.

11. Illinois (3-4, 0-3; last week: 11): The Illini's fast start seems like a distant memory now as they've been swallowed up in Big Ten play. Illinois' second consecutive home blowout loss makes a bowl game highly unlikely, and there are issues to address on both sides of the ball. A young defense is getting exposed by power running teams, as Michigan State had its way with the Illini. Bill Cubit is a creative play-caller, but Illinois needs something more against Big Ten defenses. Illinois had a meager eight first downs and 128 total yards against Michigan State.

12. Purdue (1-6, 0-3; last week: 12): The Boilers entered their second bye week feeling a bit better than they did entering their first. A stout defensive performance against Michigan State, particularly by Bruce Gaston and his fellow linemen, provides Purdue something to build on before the stretch run. Purdue now needs to get something going on offense. Ohio State comes to town this week, which should be special for Purdue coaches Darrell Hazell and Marcus Freeman.

Big Ten midseason report

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
10:00
AM ET
Look at the Big Ten standings at the halfway point, and there are not a lot of surprises.

Ohio State stands undefeated, as expected and just like in 2012. Michigan State and Nebraska have glittering records despite some lingering (though perhaps dissipating) questions about one side of the ball. Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin are all still very much in contention but a notch below the Buckeyes. For the most part, these teams are who we thought they were.

But that doesn't mean there haven't been some unforeseen twists and turns along the way during the season's first half.

[+] EnlargeKennt Guiton and Braxton Miller
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsThe play of Kenny Guiton (13) made some wonder if he was a better QB option than Braxton Miller.
Wisconsin lost at Arizona State when some Pac-12 officials turned into the Keystone Cops in the final 15 seconds. Kenny Guiton, not Braxton Miller, looked like a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback for a couple of games while Miller was out, prompting some to actually debate whether Ohio State should play its backup. Indiana beat Penn State for the first time in 17 tries. Michigan very nearly lost to Akron and UConn during a 5-0 start, then lost at Penn State in one of the weirdest four-overtime games you'll ever see. Bo Pelini found himself in a firestorm after a two-year-old, secretly-recorded, profanity-laced audiotape was leaked. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill had two more game-day seizures and took an indefinite leave of absence. Four different teams turned to freshmen starting quarterbacks.

We've also learned that there's not much of a separation between most of the teams in the league. The Buckeyes might be undefeated, but they got pushed to the wire at home versus Wisconsin and on the road against Northwestern. The Legends Division is a five-way scrum -- yes, five, because Iowa has greatly improved from 2012 -- with Minnesota the only real non-contender. (The Gophers could still get to a bowl game if they ever rediscover the forward pass.) The November showdowns involving Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern, in particular, should provide outstanding drama.

The Leaders Division race is far more defined with Ohio State in the pole position and Wisconsin hoping for a 10-car pileup. But that division also has three of the conference's best offenses, in Illinois, Indiana and Penn State, the latter of which proved against Michigan that it is not going to simply succumb to NCAA sanctions as long as Bill O'Brien is the coach. The Illini and Hoosiers still hold out hope for a postseason bid. As for Purdue, well, there's always next year.

And there’s always the second half of the season to give us plenty more unexpected developments.

Offensive MVP: Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon. The Badgers' home-run hitting back ranks third in the FBS with 870 rushing yards through six games, and he's averaging an eye-popping 9.7 yards per carry with eight touchdowns. He has scored on an 80-yard run and a 71-yard dash this year. Others in consideration: Penn State WR Allen Robinson, Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah.

[+] EnlargeChris Borland
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsChris Borland had helped Wisconsin stay among the league's top teams.
Defensive MVP: Wisconsin LB Chris Borland. He is third in the league in tackles and seemingly is involved in every play as the Badgers' defensive leader. Others considered: Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier, Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard.

Biggest Surprise: The revitalization of Illinois' offense. Nearly punchless last season in a 2-10 campaign, the Illini have turned things around under new coordinator Bill Cubit and a healthy Nathan Scheelhaase. They are scoring 36 points per game, while Scheelhaase is averaging nearly 260 passing yards per game. Illinois has already surpassed last year's win total at 3-2.

Biggest Disappointment: A coaching change and a brutal early schedule spelled trouble all along for Purdue. Still, we didn't think the Boilermakers would be this bad. They are 1-5, with the lone win coming in a nail-biter against Indiana State, and the team ranks near the bottom of the FBS in just about every major category. Remember that Purdue went to bowls in each of the past two seasons. First-year coach Darrell Hazell should eventually turn things around, but so far his early tenure has been ugly.

Newcomer Of The Year: Penn State handed the reins of its offense to true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg, and he has rewarded that decision. Hackenberg leads the Big Ten in passing yards (1,672), and while he's had some ups and downs, he has also displayed great poise and a big-time arm. We'd say he's a future star, but he kind of already is one.

Best Coach: Sometimes we make these things too complicated, looking for coaches who have overachieved. No one has achieved more during his time than Ohio State's Urban Meyer. He has guided the Buckeyes to a 6-0 start, including key wins over Wisconsin and Northwestern, and has done so despite a young defense and some crucial injuries. An 18-game streak of perfection isn't too bad, either.

Best Game: Ohio State 40, Northwestern 30, Oct. 5. Joey Bosa's fumble return for a touchdown on the final play made the margin look wider than it actually was. ESPN's "College GameDay" came to Evanston, and these two teams did not disappoint, engaging in a back-and-forth thriller that hinged on a late fourth-and-one play by Northwestern. It was Ohio State's toughest test of the year so far, and it made for great theater.
Five lessons from four games in Week 5. Got that?

Let's go ...

1. Ohio State's young defense is growing up: Lost amid the Braxton Miller-Kenny Guiton debate this week was the fact a mostly young Ohio State defense with only one returning starter in the front seven would be put to the test by Melvin Gordon, James White and the formidable Wisconsin run game. The young Bucks certainly earned a passing grade after holding Wisconsin to just 104 yards on 27 carries. Gordon's knee injury limited the Badgers, but Ohio State prevented big runs and forced Wisconsin to win the game through the air. Linebacker Ryan Shazier shined, while linebacker Curtis Grant and lineman Michael Bennett both recorded sacks. The loss of safety Christian Bryant to a season-ending ankle injury is a big blow, but Ohio State has enough talent in the secondary to make up for it, as long as they don't run into Jared Abbrederis again soon. Ohio State's offense will win plenty of games, but you know what they say about defenses and championship. These might not be the typical Silver Bullets, but they're developing and can build on Saturday's performance as they face an even another formidable offense in Northwestern next week.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bennett
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJoel Stave and the Badgers hung around, but they were eventually tamed by Michael Bennett and the Buckeyes.
2. Wisconsin is an excellent 56-minute team: Gary Andersen's crew showed plenty of grit Saturday night in Columbus. Quarterback Joel Stave quieted some of his critics -- thanks in large part to a career performance from Abbrederis (10 catches, 207 yards, 1 TD) -- and linebacker Chris Borland was brilliant, as usual. But Wisconsin's inability to finish off halves remains a troubling trend, and it surfaced in the loss to Ohio State. The Badgers trailed by only three points when freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton dropped an easy interception near the goal line. Miller found Philly Brown for a 40-yard touchdown on the next play, giving Ohio State a huge boost with one second left in the half. Wisconsin struggled to manage the clock down the stretch as its comeback attempt fell short. This isn't a team built to come back in games based on the pass game, and it showed. Coupled with the Arizona State debacle (granted, more officiating than execution), Wisconsin has had a lot of bad things happen at critical moments. That's what could separate the Badgers from a fourth consecutive Big Ten title.

3. Iowa will be a factor in the Legends Division: The Hawkeyes might not be a great team yet, but it's clear they are vastly improved from last season. On Saturday, Iowa went into Minnesota and pushed the Gophers around on their home turf, piling up 464 total yards and allowing only 30 rushing yards in a 23-7 win. The pig will return to Iowa City, but even more importantly, the hogs up front are getting it done in classic Kirk Ferentz fashion. Iowa has rushed for at least 200 yards in every game this season and went for 246 against a Minnesota defense that thought it had made strides in that area. This team has an identity, and it starts with the power running game led by Mark Weisman and a solid offensive line. Quarterback Jake Rudock has shown an ability to extend plays, and Iowa even got an explosive play in the passing game when Damond Powell took a short pass 74 yards to paydirt. The defense is also playing well right now; the Gophers' only score came after a long kickoff return. The Hawkeyes are 4-1 and gets Michigan State at home next week, while Northwestern and Michigan still must come to Kinnick Stadium. The schedule is difficult the rest of the way, but Iowa will have a big say in who wins the Legends.

4. Nathan Scheelhaase is the Big Ten's most improved player: A year ago, Scheelhaase was sputtering at the helm of one of the nation's worst offenses, hardly resembling the player who had shown promise as a freshman and during the first part of his sophomore season. No Big Ten player has made bigger strides in the past season than the Illinois senior quarterback, who threw five first-half touchdown passes Saturday against Miami (Ohio) and finished with 278 pass yards on 19 of 24 attempts. Scheelhaase leads the Big Ten in passing yards and is second in touchdowns (12), tripling his total from last season. He's just five touchdown passes shy of his single-season best and 15 shy of Kurt Kittner's single-season team record. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit deserves a lot of credit for Scheelhaase's surge -- and that of the entire Illini offense -- but Scheelhaase clearly is back on track after a year and a half in the dark. It will be interesting to see what he does this week against Nebraska's shaky defense.

5. Future starts now for Etling, Purdue: Darrell Hazell stuck with senior quarterback Rob Henry through this season's early offensive struggles, but the Purdue coach realized it was time for a change Saturday against Northern Illinois. The last straw was Henry's second interception of the first half, a terribly thrown floater into the Huskies' end zone. That prompted Hazell to give the reins over to true freshman Danny Etling, the prized former recruit who made his collegiate debut. This was no fairy tale, so Etling didn't lead the Boilermakers to a comeback victory. He threw two interceptions, including a pick-six, and narrowly avoided another one. But Etling (19-for-39, 241 yards) did show good mobility and flashed his strong arm, especially on his first career touchdown pass, a 16-yarder to Cameron Posey. The offense will have more of a chance to stretch the field with him under center. Quarterback is hardly the only problem for Purdue, which got housed 55-24 at home by a MAC team and might have a hard time finding another win this season. But while Boilers fans don't like to see the words "Danny" and "hope" in the same sentence, Etling at least gives them something to look forward to as Hazell tries to work the program out of this mess.

Big Ten assessments at the quarter pole

September, 24, 2013
9/24/13
10:30
AM ET
We've completed four weeks of the college football season, which runs 16 weeks if you count byes, conference championship games and bowls (and if you consider the long bowl season as one "week"). In horse racing parlance, we've completed the first two furlongs of a mile race.

Here's a few assessments of the Big Ten at the quarter pole:

Best game: Arizona State 32, Wisconsin 30, Sept. 14. There were lots of big plays and both offenses moved the ball up and down the field. It all set up what should have been a fantastic finish that was instead ruined by officiating ineptitude. But that controversial ending means this is the one game from the Big Ten nonconference season that people are still talking about.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin running back Melvin Gordon leads the nation in rushing yards.
Best player: Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon. He's no longer just the change-of-pace, jet-sweep option for the Badgers. But he's still a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball. Gordon leads the nation in rushing yards with 624 and is averaging a mind-boggling 11.8 yards per carry. Imagine what he could do with 20-plus carries per game. Honorable mention to Ohio State's Kenny Guiton, who has thrown 13 touchdown passes while filling in more than admirably for injured Braxton Miller.

Best performance: Michigan's Devin Gardner and Jeremy Gallon put on a show in the victory over Notre Dame, the Big Ten's only victory over a ranked team. Gardner threw for 294 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 82 yards and a score. His favorite target in the passing game was Gallon, who burned the Irish for eight catches, 184 yards and three touchdowns. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, their offense -- and ball security skills -- haven't been nearly as good since that night game at the Big House.

Best surprise: Illinois has already matched last year's victory total with a 2-1 record. The Illini's offense is immeasurably better under new coordinator Bill Cubit and a healthy and re-energized Nathan Scheelhaase, as the unit is averaging 37 points and 306 passing yards per game. Illinois blew out Cincinnati at home and hung tough in a loss to Washington at Soldier Field, showing that the Fighting Illini should be much more competitive in this year's Big Ten race. Honorable mention to Iowa, which is 3-1 and starting to erase memories of last year's 4-8 season.

Biggest disappointment: Everyone expected that Nebraska's defense would suffer through some growing pains. But the struggles to contain Wyoming and South Dakota State were even worse than predicted, and the offense sputtered through a collapse at home vs. UCLA. Throw in the Bo Pelini audio recording controversy and the Huskers might be one of the least-happy 3-1 teams in the nation. Dishonorable mention to Purdue, which is 1-3 and has looked bad in every game except a close loss to Notre Dame.

Mature Huskies head to Illinois

September, 11, 2013
9/11/13
12:04
PM ET
Washington made a strong statement with its season-opening win over Boise State. The Huskies dominated a ranked team on both sides of the ball in a 38-6 victory, and that's why they vaulted to No. 19 in the AP poll.

Steve Sarkisian
AP Photo/Tom HauckAfter an impressive win against Boise State, Steve Sarkisian's Huskies can take another step forward with a victory against Illinois in Chicago on Saturday.
Yet, one game does not make a season, and a faceplant against Illinois on Saturday at Solider Field could be all the more damning. Everyone saw what the Huskies can do when they play well, so a bar of high expectations has been set. Crashing into that bar now would feel like a major underachievement, a failure of focus and mental toughness.

And Huskies coaches, players and fans are well-aware of their team's struggles on the road. They are 3-10 away from Seattle over the past two seasons so a visit to a Central Time Zone to take on a better-than-expected Illini team, which is 2-0 after whipping Cincinnati, presents another test for a program trying to take a step forward after three consecutive 7-6 seasons.

Coach Steve Sarkisian thinks he's found a cure for the road woes and inconsistency of his program: Maturity. He's repeatedly said he believes this is his best team since he took over the Huskies in 2009. That's based on talent, but growing up is also a part of it.

"As much or more than anything, our football team has really matured over the last few years," Sarkisian said. "This is as mature as we’ve been since I’ve been here."

That maturity revealed itself against Boise State, but it also is about the practice and preparation. That needs to be consistent with every opponent, and the Illini will present challenges, particularly to the Huskies' defense.

Illinois senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has been lights out thus far working under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who was fired last year after coaching at Western Michigan for eight seasons. Scheelhaase has passed for 728 yards in two games, with six touchdowns and just one interception. He's completing 74 percent of his throws with a sturdy 10.6 yards per attempt.

Sarkisian called the Illini offense "dynamic," and noted that six different players have produced plays of 30 or more yards.

"We have to try to find a way to affect the quarterback, whether it’s via pass rush or disguising our coverages," Sarkisian said. "Because when he gets comfortable, they’re really hard to stop."

As for the Huskies' offense, it's hoping to get the same results from quarterback Keith Price, who was dynamic himself against Boise State, overcoming an early interception to throw for 324 yards and two touchdowns. Price also gets a key weapon back as All-American tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins will play at Illinois after being suspended from the Boise State game due to a spring DUI.

The Huskies looked deep at receiver against the Broncos, but Seferian-Jenkins offers a big target who should be particularly valuable in the red zone.

“Austin’s obviously a very talented player," Sarkisian said. "He’s a weapon for us in the passing game and the running game. He’ll have a significant role in the game plan to catch the ball, whether it’s short, intermediate or long."

While the Illinois offense has put up impressive big numbers, its defense also has, but not in a good way. It's yielded 431 yards per game. Southern Illinois scored 34 points against the Illini in the season-opener.

A mature, nationally-ranked team goes into Chicago and takes care of business decisively. That's the next test for the Huskies as they try to take another step forward in the Pac-12 and national pecking order.

3-point stance: Changing direction

September, 11, 2013
9/11/13
5:00
AM ET
Three turnarounds in progress:

1. The third coordinator in three seasons has been the charm for Illinois senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Illini head coach Tim Beckman snapped up Bill Cubit, fired after eight seasons (51-47) by Western Michigan, and the difference in Scheelhaase has been huge. He is completing 74 percent of his passes this season as opposed to 60 percent last year, and 10.6 yards per attempt, nearly double last year’s 5.6 yards per attempt. Illinois is 2-0 and making the Big Ten Leaders look a lot tougher.

2. Boston College head coach Steve Addazio, who always acts as if he takes his Red Bull intravenously, has injected life into the Eagles, who seemed like a team more talented than the 2-10 record that got Frank Spaziani fired a year ago. BC has matched its win total of last season thanks to a newly aggressive defense under coordinator Don Brown. The Eagles have eight sacks in two games. Last season, they had eight sacks.

3. Utah is 2-0 for the first time in three seasons thanks to an offensive explosion (100 points in two games) that reflects the touch of new co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson, the longtime passing guru who won two national championships at Miami. Sophomore quarterback Travis Wilson has more than doubled his 2012 QBR (92.0/41/7) with five touchdowns and no picks this season, as opposed to seven and six, respectively, a year ago.
Sixteen years after Joe Tiller introduced the spread offense to the Big Ten at Purdue, the system still looks out of place on the hallowed grounds of historic stadiums throughout the league.

The spread remains, at its core, quite un-Big Ten. The Big Ten's image is still power football, 22 personnel, large groups of large men lined up close together, creating dust clouds after relatively short gains. It's not about five-wide sets and first-to-40 games.

In the celebrated "Ten-Year War" featuring Big Ten icons Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, neither Ohio State nor Michigan eclipsed 24 points. Michigan averaged 13.8 points, while Ohio State averaged a scant 10.5, scoring nine total points in the final three contests. Those games are part of Big Ten lore.

I value Big Ten history as much as anyone, but I also realize the glory days have long since passed. College football has changed. The game is played in space, especially by teams hoping to offset a talent gap.

[+] EnlargeBill Cubit
AP Photo/Al GoldisIllinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit believes the spread is an equalizer in the Big Ten.
The talent gap remains for Big Ten offenses. There's a shortage of dynamic skill players and even elite linemen throughout much of the league. We've detailed the Big Ten's dearth of star wide receivers, but there are other positions that lack difference-makers.

The Big Ten needs to catch up. It needs to become, with a few exceptions, a spread league.

"It's a bit of an equalizer," Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said of the spread, which he ran at Western Michigan and now with the Illini. "It’s just hard to drive the ball 80 yards. You better have some big plays. Well, where do you get those big plays? There's some teams that say, 'OK, we'll run the power for three-and-a-half [yards], three-and-a-half, three-and-a-half.' But eventually, you're going to break down.

"You've got to get the ball out in space, and the simplest thing is to spread your guys out, too, unless you're Alabama or Stanford."

Here's the thing people need to realize about the pro-style offense. It demands nationally elite recruits to excel. Teams such as Alabama, Stanford, LSU and, even now, USC can run the system because of their recruiting clout.

Most Big Ten teams don't recruit at a nationally elite level. Ohio State and Michigan do, and Penn State, despite its postseason sanctions and scholarship restrictions, has managed to bring in top prospects suited to Bill O'Brien's offense. But the majority of the league simply isn't there, especially on offense, and can even the playing field by injecting spread elements.

Some Big Ten teams -- Northwestern, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska -- already do it. But there are others -- Michigan State, Iowa and Purdue -- that continue to run pro-style offenses without elite talent.

In an opening weekend when Big Ten teams averaged 39.5 points, three of the four lowest-scoring totals came from Iowa (27), Michigan State (26) and Purdue (7). When you factor in that Michigan State had two defensive touchdowns and Iowa had one, the offensive numbers are worse.

Coaches Kirk Ferentz (Iowa), Mark Dantonio (Michigan State) and Darrell Hazell (Purdue) all believe in pro-style offense. Ferentz, the dean of Big Ten coaches, has remained steadfast even as the spread popularized around college football.

"We've had two Big Ten championship games, and an anti-spread team [Wisconsin] has come out victorious in both of those," Ferentz said. "Any coach is trying to do what they do best with their personnel. The teams that are successful are the teams that execute the best, whether it's spread or conventional."

Ferentz's personnel at Iowa is geared toward a pro-style offense. But is the talent level good enough to execute at the highest levels? Not lately.

Would Iowa's offense be much better with spread elements? It could attract different types of players and stress defenses in different ways. Then again, a bubble screen on third-and-9 stresses defenses, too.

If you watch the Big Ten Network, you've probably heard analyst Gerry DiNardo say that he doesn't think a team can win the national title running the spread. But DiNardo notes that the spread can help teams with less talent compete consistently with tougher competition.

"Iowa and Purdue could continue on the offensive path they're on because I think they can meet expectations," DiNardo told me. "They can be competitive in 2014 and beyond in the West with that offense. Michigan State, because they have [freshman quarterback] Damion Terry on their roster, because they've struggled offensively since Kirk Cousins left, and because they're going to be in the much more difficult division in the East, I could very well see them making a shift to a spread offense."

[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Mark Dantonio
Mike Carter/US PRESSWIREAs they enter the new, rugged East Division of the Big Ten, Mark Dantonio might want to think about incorporating spread elements in the Michigan State offense.
Throughout the offseason, Dantonio talked about the need for quarterbacks to make plays.

"You have a better chance of doing that in the spread than you do in the pro formation," DiNardo said.

When Kevin Wilson followed Randy Walker from Miami (Ohio) to Northwestern in 1999, he installed the same I-formation, power run-based offense they had run at Miami. Northwestern ran more plays and had the ball more than its opponents ... and averaged a meager 12.8 points a game.

"We didn't have any playmakers," said Wilson, now Indiana's head coach, who has run different versions of the spread since 2000. "We died a slow death. We needed to make some changes."

Northwestern went to the Rich Rodriguez-style spread the following year and finished third nationally in total offense and ninth in scoring.

Some Big Ten teams can survive outside of the spread. DiNardo sees Michigan forming a similar offensive blueprint to Alabama and Stanford, largely because of its recruiting success. O'Brien's offense originates from a pro formation but incorporates an explosive, NFL-style passing attack and an efficient run game -- "Very unique," DiNardo said.

Wisconsin provides hope for teams like Michigan State and Iowa. The Badgers aren't a recruiting force, but they've built their program around the power run, elite backs and massive linemen for more than two decades.

At Wisconsin's level, a system change isn't in order.

"They never wanted to get into the elite recruiting battles, and they have to," DiNardo said. "Schematically, they're fine. They're not much different than Michigan, but Michigan recruits the elite athletes."

Not enough Big Ten teams are in Michigan's position. More teams should incorporate spread elements to start evening things out.

Hazell is on board, noting that Purdue's offensive struggles at Cincinnati -- the Boilers ran only 29 first-half plays -- reduced the playbook.

"Whether you're doing spread, a little bit of zone read, option, quick game, play-action pass, you have to have the whole package," Hazell said. "You probably would have seen more of that had we been able to run more plays."

Here's hoping Purdue and other teams showcase spread elements more in the coming weeks.

Otherwise, they'll be headed for a slow death.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 1

September, 2, 2013
9/02/13
11:00
AM ET
Exhale.

You wait nearly nine months for the return of college football, to see players and coaches that have been endlessly analyzed all offseason, and then it all spills out on opening weekend. So of course the natural inclination is to make immediate judgments on what you’ve seen, and to find instant reasons to panic.

Nebraska’s defense is going to be historically bad! Michigan State’s offense is somehow worse than last year's! Ohio State is wildly overrated! Purdue and Iowa might not win a game in the conference besides the one against each other!

Some concerns obviously are valid. But remember that it was just opening week. Teams and players are still figuring things out, learning who and what they are. In Week 1 last year, for example, Michigan State beat a ranked Boise State team, Michigan got destroyed by Alabama, Minnesota needed triple-overtime to put away a bad UNLV team, Penn State lost at home to Ohio and Illinois rolled over Western Michigan. Those outcomes hardly defined the season for those teams.

Or better yet, look back to Iowa’s win over Northern Illinois in the first game of the 2012 season. Who would have guessed then that the victorious team would wind up 4-8 and that the loser would go to the Orange Bowl?

Many of Saturday’s games were also played in extreme heat, a stark contrast to the unseasonably cool August temperatures most teams trained in during the preseason. That’s not an excuse, because Big Ten opponents had to deal with the same conditions. But the league race will be decided in October and November in much different weather, and probably by teams that will look a whole lot different.

It’s a coach’s cliché that teams make their biggest improvements from Week 1 to Week 2. So it’s not time to panic yet. At least not for another Saturday.

Take that and rewind it back:

[+] EnlargeTreyvon Green
AP Photo/Ben MargotTreyvon Green rushed for 129 yards and two touchdowns in the victory over Cal.
Team of the week: Northwestern. The Wildcats went to Pac-12 country, where Big Ten teams have had little success in recent years. They lost starting quarterback Kain Colter to injury on the second play against Cal, star tailback/returner Venric Mark spent more time on the exercise bike than the field, and cornerback Daniel Jones went down with a knee injury right before halftime. Meanwhile, Cal threw some haymakers and seemed to seize the momentum in the third quarter. Yet Northwestern -- which had some trouble holding onto late leads last year -- prevailed 44-30.

The win didn't come without controversy, as Cal fans and coaches thought Wildcats players were faking injuries in the second half to slow down the Bears' high-tempo offense. During one Cal drive, Northwestern players went down to the turf after three consecutive plays. Some players, such as linebacker Damien Proby, went down more than once. Cal coach Sonny Dykes threw up his hands in frustration at one point, while Bears fans booed, which was pretty funny, given Cal’s own history with faking injuries against a high-tempo offense.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said his team wasn't up to any hijinks.

“If anybody were to question the integrity of myself, our program or our players, I question theirs,” he said in the postgame news conference. “When our guys get dinged up, they are instructed to go down, not hobble off to the sideline.”

Worst hangover: The Boilermakers got outscored 35-0 in the second half of their 42-7 loss at Cincinnati and might have gotten shut out if not for a botched Bearcats punt return late in the first half. Purdue was a mess in just about every area and was neither physical nor disciplined, two traits that Darrell Hazell has made priorities.

We’re going streaking: Thanks to Iowa’s loss and Illinois’ escape against Southern Illinois, the Hawkeyes now have the Big Ten’s longest current losing streak, at seven games. That’s tied for the fifth-longest losing streak in the FBS and second-worst among AQ teams, behind only Kansas, which was idle last week. The good news is that Iowa should finally get back in the win column this week versus Missouri State, and its Week 3 opponent, Iowa State, lost to Northern Iowa on Saturday.

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Information): Yes, the Michigan State passing attack was as bad as it looked against Western Michigan. Through Sunday's games, the Spartans rank second-to-last among all FBS teams in yards per pass attempt (3.14) and percentage of completions that went for at least 10 yards (17.6). ... No team gave up more first downs in Week 1 than Nebraska, which allowed Wyoming to move the chains 35 times. The Huskers were also one of only two AQ teams that gave up more than 500 yards of offense to a non-AQ team in regulation. Oregon State was the other. ... Michigan’s Devin Gardner threw two interceptions, but he had the Big Ten’s top QBR score and was No. 15 nationally in Week 1. ... Wisconsin averaged 8.9 yards per rush against UMass and ranks third nationally in that stat. ... Penn State is last in the FBS in third-down conversions after going 1-for-16 against Syracuse. Of course, third down is often only a prelude to the next play for Bill O’Brien.

Point-ing up: Indiana leads the nation in scoring after putting up 73 against Indiana State on Thursday. The schedule really helped, but offense was up throughout the Big Ten. Eight of the 12 league teams scored at least 37 points and the conference scoring average after one week is 39.5 points per game. Compare that to last year, when the league averaged 26.7 points per game in Week 1. Again, many of the opponents weren't great last week, but the simple eyeball test tells you that several Big Ten teams look more comfortable and have more playmakers on offense. With a couple of notable exceptions.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Sure, it was against an FCS team, which is why we excluded him from our helmet stickers. But let's recognize Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who threw for a carer-high 416 yards and two touchdowns in Bill Cubit's new offense. In one game, Scheelhaase accounted for more than 30 percent of his entire passing yardage in the 2012 season.

Big Man on Campus (defense): Northwestern linebacker Collin Ellis helped save the day, er, night at Cal with a pair of pick-sixes.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): Tons of big special teams plays this weekend, including kickoff returns for scores by Minnesota's Marcus Jones and Illinois' V'Angelo Bentley and a punt return TD from Indiana's Shane Wynn. Michigan's Joe Reynolds scored on a blocked punt by teammate Dymonte Thomas. But how about Penn State's Sam Ficken? The kicker who was such a liability early last season has turned into a strength, and he made all three of his field goals -- including a career-best 46-yarder -- in the Nittany Lions' 23-17 win over Syracuse.

Best play: Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond's one-handed interception against Western Michigan. Now, can he play receiver?

Looking ahead: The “GameDay” crew will be at Notre Dame-Michigan, and the Big Ten had better hope for a good showing in this spotlight game. That’s because there’s nothing much else of interest going on in Week 2. Two Big Ten opponents -- South Florida (at Michigan State) and San Diego State (at Ohio State) -- were blown out by FCS squads in their openers, while another, Southern Miss (versus Nebraska) lost to Texas State. Northwestern-Syracuse is probably the week’s second-best game, and the Orange are 0-1 after losing to Penn State.
Preseason camps are wrapped up, game week is here and the 2013 college football season kicks off Thursday night. We're giving you one final preseason version of the Big Ten power rankings. These will come your way every Monday at 9 a.m. ET during the season, so you should structure your entire week around their release.

The in-season power rankings will have plenty of shuffling, but this version lacks much drama. In fact, today's rundown remains exactly as it was coming out of spring practice. Fortunately, there have been few major injuries/personnel developments to impact the way we see things.

There's no doubt about the top team, while Nos. 2-7 are very close.

In case you need a refresher before the games begin, here it is ...

1. Ohio State: Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller will have more weapons around him, including dynamic freshman Dontre Wilson. We'll learn more about the development of Ohio State's young defensive front seven in back-to-back games against Wisconsin (Sept. 28) and Northwestern (Oct. 5). Although the Buckeyes could miss top running back Carlos Hyde, they'll have no trouble getting through non-league play.

2. Michigan: Is this the year for Michigan, or are the Wolverines still a season away? If Michigan can address the interior of both lines and keep quarterback Devin Gardner healthy, it should have an excellent chance to reach Indianapolis. Standout linebacker Jake Ryan should be back for the Big Ten stretch run.

3. Northwestern: Few are picking the Wildcats to win the Legends Division, but they return the core pieces from a 10-win team and should be even more potent on offense than in 2012. If Northwestern can gain at least a split against Ohio State and Wisconsin, it should make some noise in the division during the month of November.

4. Nebraska: Bo Pelini's team is right there with Michigan and Northwestern and once again could emerge as the Legends Division champion. We expect big things from Taylor Martinez and the offense, but everything hinges on a young defense that got shredded in the final two games of last season. Nebraska should reveal a lot about itself in a Week 3 home showdown against UCLA.

5. Wisconsin: The Badgers are among the nation's most fascinating teams, as a large group of veterans accustomed to winning Big Ten championships adjusts to a new coaching staff led by Gary Andersen. Wisconsin's run game once again should be exceptional, but the secondary and receiving corps look shaky. September road tests against Arizona State and Ohio State will show a lot about this team.

6. Michigan State: Again, we don't see much separating Michigan State from the next four teams ahead of it in the power rankings. The Spartans' defense might be the Big Ten's best unit. But there are still numerous questions on offense, starting with quarterback. Will Michigan State fare better in close games? The Spartans figure to be in plenty of nail-biters.

7. Penn State: The starting 22 is about as good as any in the Big Ten, and if Penn State can remain relatively healthy, it should record another impressive record this season. Depth remains the big question surrounding the sanctions-laden Lions, and the quarterback situation will be fascinating to watch as head coach Bill O'Brien tries to work his magic with an unproven signal-caller.

8. Minnesota: Year 3 has been a good one for Jerry Kill at previous coaching stops, and Minnesota could take another step forward if certain things go its way. The Gophers need better luck on the health front after struggling to keep their offensive line together in 2012. Minnesota should be solid on defense with tackle Ra'Shede Hageman leading the way, but it needs some offensive playmakers to emerge around sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson.

9. Indiana: The Hoosiers have tremendous depth at the offensive skill positions and should hold up on the line despite losing guard Dan Feeney (foot) for the season. The big question in Bloomington hasn't changed: Will the defense hold up enough to let the offense -- regardless of who plays quarterback -- outscore the opposition? IU can build some confidence with five home games to open the season.

10. Purdue: Rob Henry's long road back to the starting quarterback spot is complete, and the senior will lead the Boilers through a treacherous stretch to begin the season. Purdue has some solid pieces on both sides of the ball but must navigate the toughest schedule of any Big Ten team, which includes Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Northern Illinois in non-league play.

11. Iowa: The Hawkeyes certainly have a chance to rise up the rankings and can make a big statement by beating Northern Illinois in the opener on Saturday. They'll lean on a veteran linebacking corps and hope for big things from defensive tackle Carl Davis. Not surprisingly, Jake Rudock will start at quarterback, and he'll need help from a deep group of running backs hoping to steer clear of AIRBHG. Iowa should be better this year, but the division isn't getting any easier.

12. Illinois: No Big Ten team enters the season with more questions than Tim Beckman's Illini, and there are tests early on with Cincinnati and Washington in Weeks 2 and 3. The offense has a clearer vision under coordinator Bill Cubit, but the schedule isn't easy, and Illinois must clean up its play on both sides of the ball to make tangible strides.

SPONSORED HEADLINES