NCF Nation: C.J. Fiedorowicz

C.J. Fiedorowicz was named to the All-Big Ten first team by the league coaches last season and was drafted at the start of the third round by Houston last month.

Most teams might struggle to replace a three-year starting tight end with Fiedorowicz's talent. Then again, most teams don't have Iowa's tight end tradition.

[+] EnlargeRay Hamilton
Stephen Mally/Icon SMIRay Hamilton will get his chance in the tight end spotlight for Iowa this fall.
From the just-retired Dallas Clark to Tony Moeaki to Scott Chandler and others, the Hawkeyes have thrived at producing top-flight tight ends under Kirk Ferentz. ESPN.com's recent Position U series ranked Iowa No. 2 among all programs for the title of Tight End U, and the school has had much more recent success at that spot than the No. 1 team on the list, Miami.

So it shouldn't come as a big surprise that Iowa isn't sweating the loss of Fiedorowicz too much. Plenty of others are ready to carry on the tradition.

"We're going to miss him," senior Ray Hamilton told ESPN.com. "But that just means more opportunities for the rest of us. And we've got the talent, from top to bottom."

Ferentz can still call on a deep stable of capable tight ends, beginning with Hamilton. He mostly sat behind his close friend Fiedorowicz the past three seasons, yet Hamilton was a highly-ranked recruit himself with offers from several marquee programs coming out of Strongsville, Ohio. He has 11 catches for 130 yard in his career, but often he has been asked to come in as a blocking tight end.

"The coaches had a role for me every game, each year, and I came in to do my job, which was to raise hell every play I was in there," he said. "I did a lot of run blocking, which was all right because I love blocking. There's no better feeling than moving a grown man off the ball against his will. That's all that matters."

That role doesn't come with as much glory as, say, catching six touchdown passes, as Fiedorowicz did a year ago. But the 6-foot-5, 252-pound Hamilton has performed his job well.

"Ray’s always been one of those underappreciated guys in some ways at times, even by us," Ferentz told reporters this spring. “He made a lot of clutch plays during the season. He makes them during practice. He’s a pretty good all-around tight end, in our opinion.

"We’re losing a pro guy, and when you lose a pro guy, it’s not fair to measure it ... to a guy who hasn’t played. The good news is, I think, that Ray has improved his game, and I thought he was pretty good last year.”

With Fiedorowicz gone, Hamilton could be looking at a starting role, along with more targets from quarterback Jake Rudock.

"I haven't really proven too many times that I can catch a pass and then do something with it," he said. "So I'm anxious to go out there and catch some balls, try and break some tackles and make some plays for this team."

He's not the only tight end capable of those things. Junior Jake Duzey is the leading returning pass-catcher in the group and had the memorable 85-yard touchdown reception at Ohio State last season. Sophomore George Kittle, Hamilton said, "may be even faster than Duzey," while junior Henry Krieger-Coble "has some of the best ball skills and hands you're going to find."

That depth gives Ferentz and offensive coordinator Greg Davis options. They used those to their advantage in the second half of last season while breaking out a three-tight end look, starting with the Ohio State game.

"That's a blast for us," Hamilton said. "There's no better feeling than having three guys from your own position group on the field at the same time and moving the ball down teams' throats."

Hamilton is embracing the leadership role with the group as its only senior. The tight end tradition at Iowa is one reason he chose to go there, and he's mindful of keeping that torch lit. Maybe he'll be the next guy to enter the spotlight. If not, he'll continue to play his role.

"I just love blocking, period," he said. "I love getting down and nasty with it. That's just the kind of player I am."

There will always be room on the Hawkeyes for a guy like that.
The biggest non-game on the American sporting calendar is all done, as the 2014 NFL draft wrapped up Saturday afternoon in New York. After arguably its worst draft in the modern era in 2013, the Big Ten performed better this year with 30 picks. Still, the league finished fourth among conferences in selections, trailing the SEC (49), ACC (42) and Pac-12 (34).

After a big Friday night with six second-round selections -- including four in a row -- and six third-round selections, the Big Ten's momentum slowed a bit Saturday in the final four rounds. The league had only one sixth-round pick and only four in the seventh round.

Let's start the breakdown by listing Big Ten draftees by round (with comments below). Maryland and Rutgers players aren't included here because neither group competed in the Big Ten (Terrapins CB Dexter McDougle went in the third round; Rutgers had no players drafted).

FIRST ROUND (4)
[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyTaylor Lewan was the first Big Ten player selected, going 11th overall to the Tennessee Titans.
Analysis: Click here for my first-round thoughts

SECOND ROUND (6)
Analysis: Hageman ends up in a really good spot with the Falcons. Although Latimer had an excellent pre-draft performance, it wasn't surprising to see him end up in the middle of the second round. Hyde waited longer than many anticipated, but he enters a great situation with a team that loves to play power football. Robinson joins a new-look Jaguars passing attack featuring quarterback Blake Bortles and wideout Marqise Lee.

THIRD ROUND (6)
Analysis: Everyone had Southward going before Borland, right? Borland, the 2013 Big Ten defensive player of the year, had an exceptional college career, but concerns about his height and perhaps his injury history moved him down the draft boards. The Iowa Effect shows up here as both Fiedorowicz and Kirksey were swept up by teams that respect what the Hawkeyes do. What does it say that Michigan's offensive line struggled mightily in 2013 but had two tackles drafted in the first three rounds? Those young Wolverines linemen had better step up this fall.

FOURTH ROUND (4)
Analysis: Some really good pickups in this round, especially White, who will fit in very well with New England's offense. Although James Morris received the most accolades among Iowa's linebackers at the college level, both Kirksey and Hitchens were mid-round selections, while Morris went undrafted and signed with New England as a free agent. As a Chicago Bears fan, I love the Vereen pick. He's a smart, athletic versatile player who knows from his older brother what it takes to succeed in the NFL.

FIFTH ROUND (5)
[+] EnlargeJared Abbrederis
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsJared Abbrederis isn't venturing far from Madison as he was drafted by the Green Bay Packers.
Analysis: Like his teammate Borland, Abbrederis had a much longer wait than expected but lands in a very familiar spot with Green Bay. I think he's a steal and will surprise people with his ability to make plays despite less-than-ideal measurables. Pamphile had a fairly quiet college career but is seen as a project and could develop into a better pro. Urschel is another player who lacks the ideal physical traits sought in the NFL, but could make up for it with exceptional intelligence.

SIXTH ROUND (1)
Analysis: Enunwa complemented his superb blocking skills with big-play ability in the pass game as a senior. He's a good value for a Jets team that needs to boost the league's 31st-ranked pass offense.

SEVENTH ROUND (4)
Analysis: All four players could be very good values. Bolser is an athletic tight end who had 15 career touchdown catches. Allen showed versatility as a senior, transitioning to a 3-4 scheme. Gallon heads to a Patriots team that has had success with smaller, productive receivers. Bryant likely would have been selected higher if not for major leg and ankle injuries last season.

Here are the draft picks per B1G team:

Ohio State: 6
Wisconsin: 5
Michigan: 3
Penn State: 3
Nebraska: 3
Iowa: 3
Purdue: 2
Minnesota: 2
Indiana: 2
Michigan State: 1

The big surprise is a Michigan State team that dominated Big Ten play and won the Rose Bowl had just one player selected, as standout linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen didn't have their names called. Only four teams -- LSU, Alabama, Notre Dame and Florida State -- had more selections than Ohio State. Illinois, which led the Big Ten in draft picks last season (4) and had 18 picks between 2009-13, had no selections. Northwestern also went without a draft pick for the second straight year.

Curious about the Big Ten's undrafted free-agent signings? Check back in a bit as we take a look.

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 13

November, 25, 2013
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Let’s begin the rewind with a little chop talk.

Players and coaches from Wisconsin and Minnesota nearly brawled following the Badgers’ 20-7 win at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. The brief altercation happened when Wisconsin brought Paul Bunyan’s Axe to the Gophers’ home end zone for the traditional “chopping” of the opponent's goal post. But Minnesota guarded the post and wouldn’t let the Badgers through.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota didn't like Wisconsin celebrating after winning their rivalry game.
The Wisconsin side claims that the Gophers were being sore losers by not allowing the annual tradition to continue. Minnesota would counter by saying it gathers in that end zone after every game to sing the alma mater in front of its student section, and the Badgers were rude to invade that area (politely asking, “Pardon me, would you mind if we took this giant axe to your uprights?" might not work, either).

“It’s just a pride thing,” Minnesota defensive back Brock Vereen told reporters. “This is our stadium, and even after the clock hits zero, we still feel the need to protect it. So I don’t think there’s any love lost or anything like that. I think they’d do the same thing.”

A small skirmish broke out in the same spot in 2011, when Wisconsin interrupted the singing of the alma mater. The Badgers tried to wait until the song ended on Saturday, but the Gophers still formed a resistance.

Wisconsin defensive tackle Beau Allen told reporters, I think jokingly, that teams have chopped both goal posts in all 123 years of the rivalry. (Which, of course, is impossible, since the Axe didn’t arrive on the scene until 1948). But Allen was right that the chopping is an annual tradition, so the Gophers can’t feign surprise that the axe came their way.

At the same time, if Minnesota wants to make such a stand on its home field, so be it. While Saturday’s game showed they’re getting a little closer to Wisconsin’s level, the Gophers have lost 10 straight in this series. Guarding the post could just have been their way of saying they’re tired of being pushed around.

With players and coaches exchanging curse words and shoves and Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen getting upset about a security officer he said put a finger in his face, the good news is both teams showed restraint in not letting things escalate. The axe celebration is one of the best in sports, but with so many people on the field, these postgame displays are axing -- I mean, asking -- for trouble. Something to keep in mind when this weekend’s rivalry games roll around.

Saturday's altercation just added a little more spice to the series. And maybe a new set of rules for the axe tradition.

Take that and rewind it back …

Team of the week: Iowa. The Hawkeyes did everything they could to let Michigan win the game in the first half, throwing a pick-six and falling behind 21-7 at intermission. But this team has shown resiliency in bouncing back from last year's failures, and it owned the second half for a 24-21 win. Beating Nebraska this week would complete the symbolic turnaround from 4-8 to 8-4.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallThings haven't gone as planned for Devin Gardner and Michigan.
Worst hangover: Michigan. You had to feel bad for Devin Gardner, who was near tears after the game while regretting his late fumble. He's giving it everything he has got, but the Wolverines just don't have much right now. They've gone from 5-0 to 7-4, with an almost certain fifth loss coming next week against Ohio State.

Best call: Loved Iowa's decision to have Jake Rudock roll out with a run/pass option on third-and-10 late in that game. It was far bolder than just running the ball and punting or throwing a screen, yet it didn't carry a lot of risk. It also showed a lot of confidence in Rudock who had thrown three interceptions. He completed a 12-yard pass to C.J. Fiedorowicz for the first down, allowing the Hawkeyes to go into victory formation.

Weirdest call: Wisconsin's Andersen called for a bizarre-looking fake field goal in the fourth quarter at Minnesota. Holder Drew Meyer lined up behind the center in the middle of the field while everyone else split out wide. Meyer threw a lateral to tight end Sam Arneson, who had several blockers in front of him but nowhere to go. Arneson was supposed to pass the ball but never had time and wound up losing seven yards. "That one will be scratched off the play list for quite a while," Andersen said.

Best play: Michigan State receiver Bennie Fowler, who has had a great bounce-back season, summed up the season for his team and Northwestern on an 87-yard touchdown catch. Why are Northwestern defensive backs always involved in such wild plays?

Big Man on Campus (offense): Raise your arms and yell, "Steve Hull!" His late-career receiving renaissance continued with 10 catches for 169 yards and two scores as Illinois finally broke its Big Ten losing streak.

Big Men on Campus (defense): It's a tie between Ohio State's Ryan Shazier, who had a ridiculous 20 tackles and five tackles for loss against Indiana, and Wisconsin's Chris Borland, who made 12 stops with two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. Do we really have to choose between these two for Big Ten defensive player of the year and linebacker of the year?

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Nebraska's Pat Smith went 3-for-3 on field goals and drilled the 42-yard game-winner in overtime at Penn State.

Best failed effort: Penn State kicker Sam Ficken tried his best to stop Nebraska's Kenny Bell on Bell's 99-yard touchdown return. But Bell treated Ficken like a kicker while leaping over him at the 30-yard line on his way toward the end zone. The photo of that is delightful. “You will never live it down if you get tackled by the kicker," Bell said.

Best quote: From Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, whose nightmare season can't end soon enough: "The year '13 -- good riddance. Something about that number I don't like a whole lot. I like those hotels who don't put it on their floors."

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 9

October, 28, 2013
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You know the old adage about offense selling tickets and defense winning championships? Forget about it.

If that were true, how could you explain that four of the top five scoring teams in the country are Baylor, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State? And that all four are undefeated, ranked in the top five in the major polls and in the BCS title chase? (No. 4 on that list, by the way, is Texas A&M, which has a reigning Heisman Trophy winner and is 12th in the BCS standings). Even Alabama is averaging 41.2 points per game, 13th best in FBS.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsUrban Meyer and Ohio State were on the offensive against Penn State.
The only team in the Top 25 nationally in points per game that doesn't have a winning record? Indiana, which is tied for eighth at 42.4 PPG -- but also is No. 119 in total defense.

You've got to score a lot to win big in college football these days, and you've got to do the same to stand out in the BCS crowd. So no wonder Urban Meyer and Ohio State put their foot on the gas pedal Saturday against Penn State, scoring 42 points in the first half en route to a 63-14 rout.

The Buckeyes' 686 total yards were their most ever against a Big Ten opponent. Meyer, in classic step-on-your-neck fashion, challenged a spot on a Penn State fourth-down play late in the third quarter. Ohio State led 56-7 at the time -- and got the call reversal to go its way. Nittany Lions coach Bill O'Brien just stared ahead for several seconds when a a reporter later asked about that challenge, then declined to comment. But O'Brien did say of the game, "We'll remember some things."

Still, it's hard to blame the Buckeyes for doing everything they could to put up an impressive score after they've heard about their lack of style points all year long. The scary thing for the rest of the Big Ten is that Ohio State and Braxton Miller appear to be just now finding their stride on offense. Yes, that's a funny thing to say for a team scoring 47.2 points per contest and that has seven 50-point games since 2012, or one more than the program managed in the entire Jim Tressel era. But it's true.

This is an offense that appears to be steamrolling toward a championship. Wouldn't it be fun if Michigan State's equally dominating defense got a chance to test that old adage in Indianapolis?

Take that and rewind it back:

Team of the week: For the second straight week, it's Minnesota. Of course it is, after the Gophers knocked off Nebraska for the first time since 1960, got their signature Big Ten win and clinched bowl eligibility. What the team has been doing while head coach Jerry Kill is on a leave of absence is incredible.

Worst hangover: There have been some ugly losses in the Bo Pelini era at Nebraska, but maybe none as dispiriting as Saturday's defeat at Minnesota. The 9-7 home loss to Iowa State might be the only one to trump it. Tommie Frazier, who publicly criticized Pelini and his staff after the UCLA debacle, tweeted out "Do I need to say anymore?" right after the game ended. It will be another uncomfortable week in Lincoln.

Best play: Facing third-and-7 from the Northwestern 8-yard line in overtime, Iowa's Jake Rudock dropped back to pass and almost immediately had blitzing safety Ibraheim Campbell in his grille. When Rudock released the ball, it looked in live action as though he was merely throwing it away. Instead, the ball sailed perfectly to tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz for the touchdown that proved to be the game winner.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Pat Lovell/USA TODAY SportsConnor Cook won't soon forget Saturday's win.
Craziest play: Speaking of surprising touchdown passes, Connor Cook must be living right. The Michigan State quarterback scrambled to his right late in the first half on a third-and-25 from the Illinois 29-yard line. He then threw toward the end zone into double coverage, and a pair of Illini defensive backs, Jaylen Dunlap and Eaton Spence, were in front of Bennie Fowler for the underthrown pass, and Dunlap tipped it twice before it fell in the hands of Fowler for a TD. The score was 7-3 before that play, and it was the start of 35 unanswered points for Michigan State. “I was a little afraid," Cook said of his throw. But he finished with just one incompletion in 16 attempts.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Braxton Miller is getting hot. Scorching hot, in fact. He went 18-of-24 for 252 yards and three touchdowns through the air while rushing for 68 yards and two scores in the 63-14 trouncing of Penn State. If he plays like that, nobody in this league is beating the Buckeyes.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Iowa linebacker Anthony Hitchens had nine tackles, a sack and a key forced fumble in the win over Northwestern.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): His team lost, but Pat Smith did all he could for Nebraska. Smith went 3-for-3 on field goals, connecting from 37, 42 and 45 yards on a windy day. Say this for the Huskers: They keep churning out excellent kickers.

Got a plane to catch? This might be the craziest number of the week: 2:50. That's how long the Northwestern-Iowa game lasted. Yes, the two teams somehow managed to play an overtime game in less than three hours, or about the time it takes for two David Ortiz at-bats. Of course, it might have taken a bit longer had Pat Fitzgerald elected to use his timeouts at the end of the game.

After a Mike Trumpy fumble, Iowa took over at midfield with 3:14 remaining. The Hawkeyes struck on an 18-yard Fiedorowicz pass reception to get near field goal range and then started going conservative as the clock drained. Fitzgerald, who had two timeouts in his pocket, did not call either of them to save some potential time for the Northwestern offense. He finally called one after Iowa had used its own timeout on fourth-and-11 with 15 seconds left. The Wildcats then intercepted the pass but had no time to do anything but take a knee.

Fitzgerald said later that he thought the wind would make it tough on Iowa to kick a field goal and that "we were playing to win the game." It sure seemed instead that he was playing for overtime, and we saw in the Michigan game that playing not to lose often leads to exactly the thing you're trying to avoid.
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 weekend rewind: Week 8

October, 21, 2013
10/21/13
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Old-school and new-school Big Ten football were on display in Week 8.

The two early Saturday games epitomized traditional Big Ten-style football, as Michigan State slogged through a 14-0 win over Purdue while Minnesota and Northwestern played a 7-7 first half before the Gophers eventually won 20-17. But just when the "Big Ten is boring" rants threatened to take over Twitter, Michigan 63, Indiana 47 happened.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
AP Photo/Lon HorwedelJeremy Gallon will be one of the keys to Michigan finding the end zone against Michigan State on Nov. 2.
Some of the crazier numbers from that game:

  • Michigan receiver Jeremy Gallon's record-setting 369 yards receiving were more than the leading receivers for Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Purdue currently have for the entire season.
  • Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner put up a school-record 584 yards, the highest total by an FBS player this year (yes, including Johnny Football). Gardner came up 1 yard short of the Big Ten single-game record for total offense, set by Illinois' Dave Wilson in 1980. Gardner has had his problems this year, but he leads the Big Ten in total offense by a mile, and at his current pace (including a bowl game), he would finish with 4,271 total yards. Former teammate Denard Robinson set the Big Ten single-season record in 2010 with 4,272.
  • The Wolverines' 751 total yards were the second-most in Big Ten history, trailing only the 763 Purdue put up against Indiana in 2004. The 751 yards were also the sixth-highest total by an FBS team this year, with the top five spots all belonging to Baylor and Oregon. Michigan and Indiana combined for the third-highest point total (110) ever for a Big Ten conference game. Michigan's 67-65 win over Illinois in 2010 still ranks No. 1.

Is this the wave of the future in the league? On Saturday night, Wisconsin and Illinois combined for 88 points. Scoring remains up in the conference this season, as eight of the 12 teams are averaging at least 30 points, compared to just four teams that did so in 2012. Even teams that we don't think of as offensive juggernauts like Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan State are all scoring at least 28 points per game. The Big Ten -- yes, the Big Ten -- has five teams ranked in the top 18 of the FBS in scoring this year, led by Ohio State at 45 points per game.

Those numbers will surely go down as we get into the heart of conference play and the weather turns colder in November. But don't be surprised if new-school Big Ten football soon becomes the norm.

Take that and rewind it back ...

Team of the week: Minnesota. The Gophers were the lone team to score an upset in Week 8, beating Northwestern on the road. They did it with coach Jerry Kill making a surprise appearance. "That gave us the little edge we needed,” quarterback Philip Nelson said. Minnesota has been through a lot already this season and has some major flaws. But the team is 5-2, and a second straight bowl appearance is just one win away.

Worst hangover: Northwestern enjoyed all kinds of glowing coverage in the lead-up to the Ohio State game and showed the country what kind of team it was that night in a close loss. Or so we thought. Injuries to Kain Colter and Venric Mark have been a killer, and losing at home to Minnesota after getting blown out at Wisconsin left the Wildcats at 0-3 in the league. A bowl is no sure thing, which would have been a crazy thing to say a little more than two weeks ago. "I see a team that’s not executing very well right now," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "We have to look at that." And fast.

Big Man on Campus (offense): Michigan's Gallon and Gardner share the honor. But should we put an asterisk next to any records set against Indiana's defense?

Big Man on Campus (defense): Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman knocked down three Northwestern passes and intercepted a fourth in the Gophers' big road upset.

Big Man on Campus (special teams): After missing one in the first half, Minnesota's Chris Hawthorne drilled two field goals in the fourth quarter, and the last one from 38 yards out ended up as the game winner.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsCarlos Hyde's fourth-quarter TD run against Iowa displayed what makes Hyde such a talented running back.
Best play: Carlos Hyde's fourth-quarter, 19-yard touchdown against Iowa was just ridiculous. He looked to be stopped just inside the 10-yard line, went backward after breaking a tackle and then dived into the end zone. It was incredibly nimble for a guy his size, and it also gave the Buckeyes the lead for good. "I've never had a run like that," Hyde said. We haven't seen too many like it, either.

Stay on target: Ohio State's Bradley Roby became the second Big Ten player this season to be ejected under the new targeting rules after his first-quarter hit on Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. The Buckeyes didn't like the call, but it looked like a textbook example of the kind of hit the rule is designed to prevent since Roby made helmet-to-helmet contact. Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste was ejected two weeks ago against Purdue. The Huskers didn't agree with that one, either. For what it's worth, the 6-foot-3 Jean-Baptiste had to duck down to tackle 5-9 Purdue running back Dalyn Dawkins. Roby, at 5-11, is eight inches shorter than Fiedorowicz.

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Info):

  • A reminder that the Big Ten needs better quarterback play: The league does not have a player in the top 25 of ESPN's opponent-adjusted QBR rating. Ohio State's Braxton Miller leads the conference and is 29th nationally with a rating of 74.6. The SEC has five QBs in the top 20, while the Pac-12 has four.
  • One thing the Big Ten can do is stop the run. Four league teams rank in the top 10 nationally in rushing yards allowed per game, topped by Michigan State at No. 1 with 58.6 yards per game. Wisconsin is No. 4, Ohio State is No. 7 and Michigan is No. 10. In addition, Iowa is No. 16.
  • Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon became one of two players to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards for the season in Week 8. He is one spot behind FBS rushing leader Antonio Andrews from Western Kentucky, but Andrews has only 24 more yards on 45 more carries than Gordon. The Badgers star is also tied for third nationally in rushing touchdowns (11) and trails only Oregon's Marcus Mariota in yards per carry (9.46) among qualified ball carriers. Gordon has yet to fumble this year, either.
  • Ohio State's Hyde and Minnesota's Rodrick Williams Jr. are hard to bring down behind the line of scrimmage. Each has only four rushes for zero or negative yards this season, tied for sixth-lowest in the FBS among qualified rushers.
  • Nebraska has allowed just three sacks all season, tied with Fresno State for the fewest in the FBS. Northwestern has given up 22 sacks, most in the Big Ten and more than all but six teams in the country.
  • Ohio State has gone three-and-out only 11 times all season; only Baylor has fewer, with nine. By contrast, Purdue has gone three-and-out 32 times this year.

Big Ten predictions: Week 8

October, 17, 2013
10/17/13
9:00
AM ET
The second half begins this week, and it should be a very close race -- in our predictions contest, that is.

Adam leads by one game, thanks to his correct pick of Penn State in a quadruple-overtime thriller. Yep, it's that close. Let's kick off the second-half picks now:

MINNESOTA at NORTHWESTERN

Brian Bennett: Last week's loss at Wisconsin was one of the worst performances in a long time for Northwestern. Pat Fitzgerald promised this week that his team would bounce back and play well, and I believe him. The Wildcats ought to be mad for this one, and though Mitch Leidner will lead Minnesota to a couple of scores, Northwestern will seize control in the second quarter. ... Northwestern 35, Minnesota 20

Adam Rittenberg: Will this be The Hangover Part II? I think Northwestern gets it together behind quarterback Kain Colter, who records a rushing touchdown, a passing touchdown and a receiving touchdown. Minnesota finds some gaps in Northwestern's defense early on, but the Gophers' one-dimensional offense dooms them in the second half. Tony Jones gets back on the touchdown train as Northwestern records its first Big Ten win. ... Northwestern 34, Minnesota 21

PURDUE at MICHIGAN STATE

Rittenberg: This isn't the type of matchup Purdue needs with all of its issues right now. Michigan State records two first-half takeaways, one for a touchdown, and rides Jeremy Langford and Delton Williams on the ground for three more touchdowns. The Spartans continue to take care of business against weak competition and improve to 3-0 in Big Ten play. ... Michigan State 31, Purdue 7

Bennett: The Spartans, who rolled up 42 points on Indiana last week, will continue to enjoy the Hoosier State this week. Purdue isn't doing much of anything right and didn't score until the final minute last week versus Nebraska. Good luck against the Spartans defense. Connor Cook throws for three TDs in an easy win. ... Michigan State 34, Purdue 6


INDIANA at MICHIGAN

Bennett: Do the Hoosiers have a shot? Their run defense is awful, but so is Michigan's rushing attack. I foresee a hot start by Indiana as Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson each lead first-quarter scoring drives. IU leads at halftime as Ann Arbor starts to panic. But Michigan takes over in the second half, and Devin Gardner puts up 350 total yards (250 passing, 100 rushing). ... Michigan 38, Indiana 28


Rittenberg: I might pick Indiana if the game was in Bloomington, but Michigan has been perfect at home under Brady Hoke and won't stop now. The Wolverines finally have some success in the run game as Fitzgerald Toussaint scores two first-half touchdowns. Indiana mounts a third-quarter comeback behind Roberson and wideout Cody Latimer (120 receiving yards, 2 TDs), but Michigan responds in the fourth quarter with two Gardner touchdown passes. ... Michigan 35, Indiana 27

IOWA at OHIO STATE

Rittenberg: Iowa is an improved team on both sides of the ball, but the Hawkeyes haven't seen an offense like Ohio State's. Carlos Hyde becomes the first player to rush for a touchdown against Iowa this season, and finishes with 125 yards on the ground. Iowa gets a boost from tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, but the Buckeyes pull away late in the second quarter and cruise to 7-0. ... Ohio State 42, Iowa 20

Bennett: This is a tough matchup for Iowa, as Ohio State has the second-best rush defense in the Big Ten and the Buckeyes can exploit some speed advantages. It's a big week for Braxton Miller, as he throws three touchdown passes and breaks Iowa's streak by running for another. ... Ohio State 37, Iowa 17

WISCONSIN at ILLINOIS

Bennett: The Illini will come out firing after the bye week and burn the Badgers for a couple of early scores. But then the Wisconsin defense shuts things down, and the running game grinds out 290 yards against the Illinois defense, led by Melvin Gordon's 160. ... Wisconsin 31, Illinois 14


Rittenberg: I agree that Illinois takes the early lead as Nathan Scheelhaase connects with Josh Ferguson and Ryan Lankford for touchdowns. But Wisconsin will crank up the run game as Gordon and James White both eclipse 100 yards. Tight end Jacob Pedersen hauls in a touchdown from Joel Stave as the Badgers march on. ... Wisconsin 34, Illinois 20

Now it's time to hear from our guest picker. As a reminder, throughout the season we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please), hometown and a brief description of why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.

This week's guest picker is Micah Tweeten from St. Paul, Minn. Take it away, Micah.
"I would love to be your guest picker of the week. I grew up in Nebraska, now live in Minnesota, and have been a Hawkeyes fan all my life (don't get me wrong though, Husker Nation is great too, it's definitely crazy at the games). I've been reading your (and Adam's) predictions and posts for a while now. Now let's see. Why should I be the guest picker of the week? Well it's simple. Iowa plays Ohio State this week, and being that they have only won two games against OSU since 1988 and this year isn't looking to promising for a win for the Hawkeyes either, I don't have much hope for this Saturday. I would love to have at least something to look forward to for this upcoming weekend. Thanks!"

Here are Micah's Week 8 picks …

Northwestern 31, Minnesota 17
Michigan State 34, Purdue 10
Ohio State 38, Iowa 24
Michigan 31, Indiana 21
Wisconsin 35, Illinois 18

SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 51-8
Brian Bennett:
50-9
Guest pickers:
45-14

Big Ten predictions: Week 5

September, 26, 2013
9/26/13
9:00
AM ET
We're past the quarter pole of the Big Ten season, and the predictions race is all even at 40-6. It's Week 5 on the schedule, but there are only four games involving Big Ten teams, as half of the league is off.

Let's get started ...

MIAMI (OH) at ILLINOIS

Brian Bennett: Miami is 0-3 and has been outscored 107-21. Have fun, Nathan Scheelhaase. I see a 350-yard passing day in your future. ... Illinois 38, Miami 10


Adam Rittenberg: The first open week fell at a good time for Illinois, which had a chance to regroup on both sides of the ball. This might feel like another Saturday off as Miami is truly awful. The Illini's defense rebounds and Josh Ferguson reaches the end zone twice as Tim Beckman's squad exceeds last year's wins total. ... Illinois 31, Miami 13

NORTHERN ILLINOIS at PURDUE

Adam Rittenberg: Northern Illinois hasn't been overly impressive so far and could easily be 1-2. Purdue is a desperate team doing some "soul searching," according to coach Darrell Hazell, after a 1-3 start. The Boilers take an early lead but Northern Illinois' run game, led by quarterback Jordan Lynch, proves to be too much in the second half. Lynch scores two fourth-quarter touchdowns as NIU prevails. ... Northern Illinois 38, Purdue 27

Brian Bennett: It would be hard to pick Purdue against any half-decent FBS team right now with the way the Boilermakers' offense is sputtering. Defensive coordinator Greg Hudson helped slow down the Huskies in last year's Orange Bowl as a Florida State assistant, and Hazell knows Northern Illinois very well from his MAC days. That should help a little, but Purdue has a hard enough time staying out of its own way right now. ... Northern Illinois 28, Purdue 20.


IOWA at MINNESOTA

Brian Bennett: Very difficult call, as both teams are similar in their approach. I think Iowa has a better chance of moving the ball through the air than Minnesota, though Jerry Kill might surprise us. I'd pick Iowa if the game were in Iowa City, but I think the home field may be just enough to get Minnesota over the top. The Gophers pick up a defensive score, and the legend of Mitch Leidner grows as he runs for 125 and two scores. ... Minnesota 23, Iowa 21


Adam Rittenberg: Toughest pick of the week, for sure. I really liked what I saw from Minnesota against San Jose State, but sooner or later, the lack of a passing game will catch up with the Gophers. Iowa is showing better balance on offense and should do just enough to contain Minnesota's ground game. Jake Rudock finds C.J. Fiedorowicz for the winning touchdown pass in the final minute as Iowa keeps the bacon. ... Iowa 28, Minnesota 24

WISCONSIN at OHIO STATE

Adam Rittenberg: It wouldn't shock me if Wisconsin records the upset, but Ohio State has too much firepower, and the Badgers remain one-dimensional on offense. Melvin Gordon shows why he's arguably the nation's top running back with 180 yards and two touchdowns, but Ohio State rallies in the second half behind Braxton Miller, who accounts for three touchdowns in his return. This will be a fun one in Columbus ... Ohio State 37, Wisconsin 30

Brian Bennett: Fun one is right. Wisconsin never gets blown out anymore, and the Badgers have the run game to give Ohio State's young defense fits. But I agree that the Buckeyes have a few too many weapons on offense, particularly with Miller's return, while the Badgers' passing game is too shaky. Miller leads the Buckeyes out to a big early lead before Wisconsin makes a late comeback behind scores from James White and Gordon. Bradley Roby intercepts Joel Stave to seal it. ... Ohio State 34, Wisconsin 28


There's our forecast. Now it's time to reach out to our adoring public. As a reminder, throughout the season we'll choose one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please) and hometown and a brief description why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find it easily.

This week's guest picker has been all over the Big Ten map. Phillip Mykleby from Minneapolis, the floor is yours.
I'd like to be a guest picker for this weeks games if you don't mind. I guess you can say I've been all around the Big Ten in my lifetime. I'm a lifelong Iowa Hawkeye fan growing up and undergrad (I actually met you once in Iowa City for Iowa-Michigan in 2009), then off to Nebraska for grad school, and now I work for the U of Minn. This weekend's game for the Floyd of Rosedale has some added meaning for me. And my entire family will be coming up from Iowa and cheering for the Hawkeyes in the Gopher student section!

Here are Phillip's Week 4 picks:

Illinois 45, Miami (Ohio) 10
Northern Illinois 41, Purdue 28
Iowa 28, Minnesota 24
Ohio State 42, Wisconsin 24

SEASON RECORDS

Adam Rittenberg: 40-6
Brian Bennett: 40-6
Guest pickers: 36-10

Big Ten predictions: Week 2

September, 5, 2013
9/05/13
8:02
AM ET
We went a combined 23-1 in our first week of predictions, so let's see if we can keep that robust pace going. And how will our Week 2 guest picker fare?

Let's get to it:

Eastern Michigan at Penn State

Brian Bennett: Not much to see here, as Eastern Michigan has long been a Big Ten sacrificial lamb. This is a good opportunity for Christian Hackenberg to work out some kinks, and the kid throws three TD passes. ... Penn State 35, Eastern Michigan 9.

Adam Rittenberg: The Hackenberg-Allen Robinson connection will link up for two touchdowns, and Penn State coach Bill O'Brien will keep to his word and call better plays, sparking the run game to 175 yards and two scores. Lions roll. ... Penn State 31, Eastern Michigan 10

Indiana State at Purdue

Adam Rittenberg: Rob Henry gets the confidence boost he needs and Purdue fixes its communication issues on offense as running back Akeem Hunt goes for 135 yards and two touchdowns. The Boilers come out fast and get a first-quarter forced fumble from big Bruce Gaston. ... Purdue 38, Indiana State 14

Brian Bennett: The FCS just had a great weekend, so maybe we should take the three Big Ten games against FCS opponents seriously on Saturday. Nah. A team that just got done giving up 73 points to Indiana is just what the sputtering Purdue offense needs. ... Purdue 45, Indiana State 17.

Missouri State at Iowa

Brian Bennett: Iowa finally snaps its seven-game losing streak, using its superior beef to run for 200 yards, and getting a special-teams score. ... Iowa 31, Missouri State 13.

Adam Rittenberg: Yeah, this game has Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock written all over it. The tandem combines for three rushing touchdowns and Jake Rudock adds two more through the air to C.J. Fiedorowicz and Kevonte Martin-Manley. ... Iowa 38, Missouri State 10

Tennessee Tech at Wisconsin

Adam Rittenberg: James White rushing touchdown, Melvin Gordon rushing touchdown, Corey Clement rushing touchdown. Rinse and repeat. ... Wisconsin 63, Tennessee Tech 3

Brian Bennett: Yawn. Are we done with the FCS games yet? ... Wisconsin 56, Tennessee Tech 7.

South Florida at Michigan State

Brian Bennett: If the Spartans can't move the ball against a Bulls team that gave up 53 points to McNeese State last week, they've got even bigger problems than we realized. Three different QBs play for MSU, and two of them throw for TDs. ... Michigan State 30, South Florida 10.

Adam Rittenberg: I agree that Michigan State can't be much worse on offense than it was in the opener and will move the ball better, especially on the ground. Jeremy Langford and Riley Bullough both reach the end zone, and Tyler O'Connor makes the quarterback race a little more interesting. ... Michigan State 34, South Florida 3

Cincinnati at Illinois

Adam Rittenberg: The Illini start quickly and jump ahead on a Nathan Scheelhaase touchdown pass to Josh Ferguson. But reality begins to set in as a superior Cincinnati team takes charge behind its athletic defense. ... Cincinnati 28, Illinois 17

Brian Bennett: Illinois will put up a more respectable showing against the Bearcats than Purdue did. Scheelhaase throws for 300 yards and the game is close until midway through the third quarter. But there's just too much Munchie Legaux (I can't help myself). ... Cincinnati 42, Illinois 27.

San Diego State at Ohio State

Brian Bennett: I was interested in this game until San Diego State gagged against Eastern Illinois. The Buckeyes turn in a better overall effort than in Week 1, and Bradley Roby has a pick in his first game back. ... Ohio State 45, San Diego State 20.

Adam Rittenberg: My concern is Ohio State might be less interested than you are, BB. The Buckeyes overcome a sluggish start as Braxton Miller fires two second-quarter touchdown passes. Freshman Dontre Wilson scores his first touchdown for the Scarlet and Gray. ... Ohio State 41, San Diego State 13

Southern Miss at Nebraska

Adam Rittenberg: After a passionate postgame speech last week, emerging leader Ameer Abdullah takes matters into his own hands. The Huskers running back piles up 200 yards and three touchdowns. The defense has its typical hiccups early before settling down. ... Nebraska 42, Southern Miss 17

Brian Bennett: I expect -- and would hope -- that the Nebraska offense comes out mad after not finishing key drives last week. The Huskers go for the jugular this week behind Taylor Martinez's five total TDs, and the defense makes slight improvements. ... Nebraska 49, Southern Miss 24.

Navy at Indiana

Brian Bennett: It's never easy or fun to play Navy, but the Hoosiers got some experience against the option last year. The Midshipmen will shorten the game and frustrate the IU offense some, but Nate Sudfeld throws a fourth-quarter TD pass to Kofi Hughes to seal it. ... Indiana 28, Navy 20.


Adam Rittenberg: Sudfeld and the Hoosiers will finish drives better than they did last year against Navy, as Tevin Coleman twice reaches the end zone. IU forces a key third-quarter fumble and pulls away midway through the fourth quarter. Tre Roberson sees more field time in this one. ... Indiana 34, Navy 23

Syracuse at Northwestern

Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern's injury issues are worth monitoring, but the Wildcats have enough weapons on offense to outscore a Syracuse team that didn't impress me much last week against Penn State. Trevor Siemian connects with Dan Vitale on two touchdowns, and the defense comes up big again with a fourth-quarter takeaway. ... Northwestern 28, Syracuse 20

Brian Bennett: Hard to know what to expect from Northwestern because of the iffy status of both Venric Mark and Kain Colter. But Syracuse looked limited offensively last week, and I think Siemian rescues the 'Cats once again. ... Northwestern 31, Syracuse 24.

Minnesota at New Mexico State

Brian Bennett: It was a tough call between Ann Arbor and Las Cruces for the "GameDay" crew this week -- seriously, what is Minnesota doing here? Are the Gophers just big "Breaking Bad" fans who are planning a side trip to Albuquerque? Anyway, it's close for a half but the defense comes up with another score to send the Aggies to Belize. ... Minnesota 37, New Mexico State 20.

Adam Rittenberg: Maybe the Gophers can take a side trip to Roswell and check out the UFOs. Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson will provide a few identified flying objects in this one, firing two touchdown passes in the second half. It's not a pretty game, but it's a win as Minnesota improves to 2-0. ... Minnesota 34, New Mexico State 21

Notre Dame at Michigan

Adam Rittenberg: Can't wait to witness this one under the lights at the Grande Casa. Although Michigan struggles early with Notre Dame's fearsome defensive front, the offense settles down late as Devin Gardner and Jeremy Gallon connect for two second-half touchdowns, including the game-winner in the final minutes. Tommy Rees' mastery of Michigan ends with two second-half interceptions. ... Michigan 24, Notre Dame 21

Brian Bennett: I just keep remembering how Michigan mostly outplayed Notre Dame last year except for all those picks, and I don't think Gardner will make the same mistakes. Gardner finds Gallon for a pair of scores, and Blake Countess intercepts Tommy Rees on Notre Dame's final series to turn the lights out on the Irish. ...Michigan 27, Notre Dame 24.

Now it's time to hear from our guest picker. As we announced last week, we'll be choosing one fan/loyal blog reader each week to try his or her hand at outsmarting us. There's nothing but pride and some extremely limited fame at stake. If you're interested in participating, contact us here and here. Include your full name (real names, please) and hometown and a brief description why you should be that week's guest picker. Please also include "GUEST PICKS" in all caps somewhere in your email so we can find them easily.

The response so far has been overwhelming. This week's guest picker is Nick Schmit from West Des Moines, Iowa. The floor is yours, Nick:
"As a graduate of the University of Iowa, I have been following the conference and teams for as long as I can remember. I have plenty of insight and knowledge to offer. Besides, my wife is due with our first daughter on 10/19 (Iowa vs. OSU). Other than her birth, I need something to be excited about in what looks to be another long, depressing, mediocre (or worse) season for the Hawks."

Nick's picks:


Penn State 28, Eastern Michigan 13
Purdue 28, Indiana State 21
Iowa 34, Missouri State 10
Wisconsin 70, Tennessee Tech 3
Michigan State 35, South Florida 10
Cincinnati 31, Illinois 21
Ohio State 42, San Diego State 6
Nebraska 51, Southern Miss 17
Indiana 41, Navy 31
Northwestern 42, Syracuse 20
Minnesota 33, New Mexico State 21
Notre Dame 27, Michigan 24


SEASON RECORDS

Brian Bennett: 12-0
Adam Rittenberg: 11-1
Guest picker: 9-3
Big Ten spring football is finally in full swing as Iowa on Wednesday became the 12th and final league team to hit the practice field. The return to the gridiron can't come a moment too soon for the Hawkeyes, who went 4-8 in 2012, their worst record since coach Kirk Ferentz's second season at the helm (2000). It has been another offseason of transition for Iowa as Ferentz welcomes three new full-time assistants (Chris White, Bobby Kennedy and Jim Reid) for a second consecutive year. Finding a quarterback tops Iowa's spring agenda, and the team also needs to identify a center and more playmakers on both sides of the ball.

ESPN.com caught up with Ferentz on Wednesday to discuss the spring.

What are the main objectives for you guys this spring?

Kirk Ferentz: Like any spring, you've got a lot of players on a lot of different levels. You've got experienced players, and we're certainly counting on them improving and developing into leaders. You've got younger guys who have played, and you're hoping they're ready to play more proficiently. And then you've got other guys who, in some cases, are special-teams guys who have a chance to become offensive and defensive role players, or guys who haven't been on the field yet. So you have a lot of layers of players at different levels. The biggest thing is trying to gauge where they're at, and at the same time, you're trying to find out what they can do and pull a team together. It's always a fun period and a really interesting period.

How has the transition on the staff this year gone so far, especially in relation to last year? You had quite a long period without any changes on your staff.

KF: Last year was probably a little more dramatic with two new coordinators. Norm [Parker] and Ken [O'Keefe] were here 13 years, so they were big departures. We've got Phil [Parker] and Greg [Davis] both in their second years, and they're both tremendous coaches. What's unusual is how long we were all together at one time. Usually staffs don't stay in one place for 13, 14 years. Normally they move to the next channel and you have a new group of folks coming in. So it's a natural series of transitions. The way I look at it, we've had six new members join the staff in the last two years, and it's a matter of pulling everything together. But I'm really excited about all the guys who have joined. They're outstanding coaches, and it looks like they're all going to be great fits here at Iowa. At the same time, I'm very appreciative of the guys who had been here and helped us move things.

Is the transition harder for the players or the new coaches?

KF: There's learning on both sides. The players to have learn their coaches, certainly, and the coaches have a lot to learn about the players. That can be a healthy thing, too. It's a clean slate and a fresh beginning for everybody. For players, it's a whole new opportunity.

Offensively, it wasn't what you were hoping for last year. Is it a total reset this year with some new faces, or are there some things you can continue from last year?

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Byron Hetzler/USA TODAY SportsThough Kirk Ferentz lost his starting quarterback and center, he said he's more optimistic about Iowa's offense than he was a year ago.
KF: It may be ironic. We feel more comfortable and more optimistic right now than we did a year ago about the offense. The part that's ironic is we lost a two-year starter at quarterback [James Vandenberg]. We had James play a lot at quarterback and James Ferentz played like 38 games at center, so you have two guys right in the middle of things who aren't going to be there. But I look around at other positions and we've got a lot of guys coming back who have played in the system and who I think are more capable now of playing at a higher level than they were a year ago. That's got us excited. That being said, we've got to find replacements for both Jameses. We've got to find a replacement for Keenan Davis and Matt Tobin, to start with. But I look at the group coming back and as recent as late last August, we didn't know if Damon Bullock could play in this conference successfully, and we had no idea Mark Weisman could run the ball. So I think we're a lot further down the road than we were even eight months ago, 10 months ago.

When you and Greg looked at things, did you identify areas to target for the spring?

KF: Greg came in, this was all new to him, the players were all new to him. His knowledge of our personnel is a lot more extensive than it was a year ago at this time. And that was one of the reasons I was so attracted to Greg in the hiring process, his ability historically to work with a lot of different types of players and different types of offenses. He wasn't married to one system. There's nothing like experience, and he's got a real good grip on who our players are, what they can do and what we can do to help them be more productive.

(Read full post)

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

It's been a rough start to 2012 for most of the Big Ten, but there's still plenty of time to turn things around as league play kicks off next week. Today's Take Two topic is this: Which Big Ten team has the best chance to rebound this season?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

Unfortunately for the Big Ten, there are quite a few options here. I'm tempted to go with Penn State, but the Lions' overall lack of depth at certain skill positions (running back, cornerback, quarterback) scares me. Wisconsin could get its act together, but I just don't like the karma around the UW program right now. I'm going with Iowa. Yes, the same team I picked to lose to Northern Iowa last week. The same team dealing with its own depth problems at running back and that is leaning on a walk-on fullback no one heard of until last Saturday (Mark Weisman) to carry the load. Why do I like Iowa? Let's start with the defense, which is allowing just 14 points per game and keeping teams out of the end zone. The Hawkeyes have looked good against the pass, and their inexperienced line looks better than expected. I also anticipate senior quarterback James Vandenberg to soon start playing like the guy we saw for most of last season. He's still getting comfortable with the offense, and he has three potentially good targets in Keenan Davis, Kevonte Martin-Manley and C.J. Fiedorowicz. Finally, Iowa's schedule remains beneficial for the team to gain some confidence. The Hawkeyes have recent nemesis Minnesota at home and also get Penn State at Kinnick Stadium, where the Lions have struggled for years. Nebraska and Purdue also are much more winnable games for Iowa at home this year. There are some tough road trips -- Michigan State, Michigan, Northwestern -- but without Ohio State, Wisconsin or Illinois on the slate, Iowa still has a chance to win eight games or so.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

I'm probably relying too much on recent history here and not enough on the current evidence before my eyes. Still, I just can't believe Wisconsin is actually this bad. This team still has a whole bunch of talent on offense, with guys such as Montee Ball, Jared Abbrederis, Ricky Wagner, Travis Frederick, Jacob Pedersen and James White. Maybe new offensive line coach Bart Miller will get the Thick Red Line back in order, or a quarterback shake-up will change things up. Sooner or later, the Badgers have to start scoring more points. Their defense has been overlooked through the offensive struggles but actually has played quite well most of the season. This is no longer a team that's going to roll over people by lighting up the scoreboard, but it is much better than it has shown so far. I could easily see Wisconsin getting blown out at Nebraska at the end of this month, but after that the schedule is far more manageable with games against Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota before the showdown with Michigan State. Even if this ends up being just an 8-4 type of team, the Badgers could still make it to Indianapolis out of a weakened and probation-riddled Leaders Division. Right now, they don't look anything like a division winner. But I'm relying on recent history to say they will snap out of it soon.

Big Ten Thursday mailbag

September, 13, 2012
9/13/12
5:00
PM ET
Is it time to tailgate yet? Well, let's answer some mail until the meats hit the grill.

Nick from GoBlueBABY writes: Unlike most of the Michigan faithful I'm not going to be naive and think Michigan is positioned for a repeat of last year. Obviously there are some big question marks about the strength and depth of the O and D line, but I think people are hitting the panic button a little early for Big Blue. I'm a numbers guy and if you look at Michigan's first two games this year compared to last year it's not that different. They allowed 848 yards and 66 points so far this year compared to 792 yards and 41 points last year. However if you look at the turnover margin they were +5 last year compared to -3 this year so there is a need for the defense to step it up and create turnovers and take some pressure off the offense. At this point last year Michigan was unranked and nobody expected them to beat Ohio, get a BCS bowl bid and win, make it to 11 wins, and finish as a top 10 team. Last year's start wasn't pretty but it turned out pretty darn good so isn't it a little early for everyone to be jumping ship?

Brian Bennett: You make some solid points. Michigan's defense was not nearly as good in the first two weeks last year as it would become. Anyone remember the Notre Dame game last year? It really seemed like things started to click last year in the fourth game against San Diego State. I guess the big difference, besides the competition level this year, is that last season was the first under a new coaching staff. Even with new starters, there was an assumption that the Wolverines would be able to pick up where they left off. It's far too soon to write off Michigan, however. This team should be in the thick of the Big Ten race all year long.

The thing that has concerned me ever since the spring is the lack of depth on the lines and what would happen if there were injuries. The Wolverines already appear to be hit harder by injuries this year than they were last season. A lot of freshmen are playing, and it's tough to win the Big Ten with so much youth in key spots.


Adam from Ann Arbor writes: I hate to remind people of last weekend, but I have a question about the B1G playing on the West Coast. I saw an article on NPR today about NFL teams from the East playing on the West coast at night - - turns out over the past 25 years West Coast teams that play east coast teams at night win 70% of the time due, in part, to our natural body clocks. I know this is starting to sound like another excuse, and I'm not excusing the B1G's horrific play, but I was curious if anyone has bothered to conduct a similar study in college sports. College kids keep strange schedules and the effect might be better or worse on them. If there is a similar effect, shouldn't the B1G at least try to schedule day (3:30) games when they go out West (not that it would have helped Wisconsin)?

Brian Bennett: Anyone who has traveled across several time zones can tell you that it takes a while for your body to adjust. It would be naive to think the time change plays no role. But Big Ten teams played at several different times last week out West -- Wisconsin played at 3 p.m. Central time, Nebraska at 6:30 and Illinois at 9:30. And of course all three lost, with the Illini looking the most listless. College students should have more energy than pro players in their 30s, and charter flights make the trips more manageable. I'm not sure how much of an excuse the Big Ten can make for that showing last week. Oh, and Cal will be at a potentially bigger disadvantage this week at Ohio State, playing at 9 a.m. Pacific time.


Nathan from Denver writes: I can understand the reactions to the B1G losses this weekend. And maybe this is the weakest the conference has been in several years. My concern is for the Spartans, who no one seems to be taking very seriously. Will the bad view of the B1G, in general, effect MSUs chances of playing the title game if they end the year undeafeated? I truly believe if Maxwell can line things up with the unproven WRs on this team, they will be nearly impossible to beat.

Brian Bennett: While it's too early to be thinking about undefeated seasons, that's an interesting question to ponder. A 13-0 Michigan State team might well suffer from the Big Ten reputation if there are more than two undefeated, major conference contenders out there. If it's a choice between, say, Michigan State, a 13-0 Alabama and a 13-0 USC, then the Spartans wouldn't get the benefit of the doubt (and they started way behind both in the polls). If there is only one undefeated team, a 13-0 Michigan State team would likely make the title game, though you can already imagine the howling and crying if there's a 12-1 SEC champion out there. The Spartans need to root for Boise State and Notre Dame to have strong seasons to bolster their reputation.

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The Big Ten doesn't announce an official preseason all-conference team. But that doesn't mean we can't.

Here are our picks for the 2012 preseason All-Big Ten team:

Offense

QB: Denard Robinson, Michigan
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska
RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
OT: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OT: Ricky Wagner, Wisconsin
OG: Spencer Long, Nebraska
OG: Chris McDonald, Michigan State
C: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin

Defense

DE: John Simon, Ohio State
DE: William Gholston, Michigan State
DT: Kawann Short, Purdue
DT: Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State
LB: Gerald Hodges, Penn State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Jonathan Brown, Illinois
CB: Johnny Adams, Michigan State
CB: Ricardo Allen, Purdue
S: Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State
S: Jordan Kovacs, Michigan

Specialists

K/P: Brett Maher, Nebraska
KR: Raheem Mostert, Purdue
PR: Abbrederis

Thoughts: The first thing that likely jumps out at you is that we have three running backs and just one receiver on our first-team offense. No, we haven't forgotten the rules of football. It's just that we continue to feel the wide receiver crop is weak this season, and no great candidates for the second spot leap out at us. Perhaps Keenan Davis of Iowa or one of Northwestern's many receivers will have a great season, but no one has proved anything on a consistent basis. We'd rather have Bell -- who we believe is primed for a huge year -- on the team than any of the receiver candidates. Plus, isn't running the ball what Big Ten football is all about? ... Some of the toughest omissions came at linebacker, where Michigan State's duo of Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and Wisconsin's Mike Taylor were among those left out. At least we know we'd have an outstanding second-team unit at that position. ... Fiedorowicz is a bit of a projection pick, but we love the way he finished last season and how he fits into Greg Davis' new scheme. You certainly could make a strong case for Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen or Ohio State's Jake Stoneburner there as well. ... Some of these players won't live up to expectations, and others will explode on the scene this fall. But for now, we'd feel pretty good about throwing this team on the field.
Iowa fans have to come to rely on consistently excellent play from the tight end position. The Hawkeyes have produced a strong line of All-Big Ten performers and NFL draft picks, including guys like Dallas Clark, Tony Moeaki, Brandon Myers, Erik Jensen and Scott Chandler.

Last season was a down year for tight end production in Iowa City, at least until C.J. Fiedorowicz started getting revved up late in the fall. Perhaps it was merely a prelude to a breakout campaign for the former stud recruit who looks poised for a big junior year.

"I've been working the last two years to be at this point," he told ESPN.com. "I've got a lot of confidence, but I guess I'll have to wait until the season comes around to really prove myself."

[+] EnlargeC.J. Fiedorowicz
Matt Kartozian/US PresswireC.J. Fiedorowicz picked Iowa in part because of its history of producing NFL-caliber tight ends.
Fiedorowicz stood out this spring for the Hawkeyes, as head coach Kirk Ferentz said he was "clearly at a different level." The combination of feeling comfortable with the staff's expectations for him and a new offense that should feature the tight end had Fiedorowicz excited about the possibilities. New offensive coordinator Greg Davis, who coached Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley at Texas, raved about Fiedorowicz's skills this spring while promising to use him in the passing game.

"I love his new style of offense," Fiedorowicz said. "It's easy to listen to him, with where he came from and having all that success. Tight ends are in every play, and we caught hundreds of balls this spring. We have deeper routes, more detailed routes, and I love it. I think we'll definitely be throwing more than we have in the past."

Catching the ball has always been a strong skill for the 6-foot-7, 265-pounder. But performing the other tight end roles like blocking and giving consistent effort in practice were things he had to learn. A blue-chip recruit out of Johnsburg, Ill., Fiedorowicz played mostly on special teams as a freshman and did not catch a pass. Last season, he had only two catches in the Hawkeyes' first seven games.

But he finally began to turn things around in practice and earned his first career starting nod in the ninth game against Michigan. In Iowa's final four contests, he caught 12 balls for 105 yards, including touchdown grabs against Michigan State, Purdue and Oklahoma.

"It was a mental thing for me," he said. "I'd go out every day in practice and think, 'I don't want to have another repeat of my freshman year.' I really started applying myself."

A fully focused Fiedorowicz has seemingly unlimited potential. He was a star basketball player in high school who had scholarship offers from Indiana and Wisconsin (and once made a miraculous buzzer-beating shot from the opposite free-throw lane). His high school football team moved him to safety because no teams would run to his side when he played defensive end, making him perhaps the world's tallest defensive back.

"I didn't really have any pass responsibility, because none of the teams threw the ball," he said. "I was more like a deep linebacker. I'd give anything to do that again."

His father was a power lifter who got him interested in weight training in eighth grade. Good luck to any linebacker or safety trying to match up one-on-one with Fiedorowicz on a passing route.

"He's a real weapon because of his size and ability," Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg said. "He can use his body to get open when maybe he's not really that open. We expect for him to make a lot of plays for us this fall."

Fiedorowicz was one of the top tight-end prospects in the country in high school and had his choice of schools. He opted for Iowa in large part because of the strong tradition of NFL tight ends the school has produced. Now he might be the next in line.

"I'm working hard to keep that streak going," he said.
Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg will get chased by a lot of 300-pounders this season, but it's doubtful any of them will cause his heart to flutter like the black bear he shot with a bow and arrow last month. And they don't make for nearly as good a rug.

A photo of Vandenberg with his kill made the rounds a couple of weeks ago, and the Hawkeyes senior talked about his unique hunting trip with reporters on Wednesday. That seemed to be about all anyone has wanted to talk about with him.

"I've taken a lot of jokes, and coaches and teammates have done a lot of imitations," Vandenberg told ESPN.com. "We've all had fun with it."

[+] EnlargeIowa's James Vandenberg
Courtesy of James VandenbergIowa quarterback James Vandenberg and the black bear he hunted down.
Bow hunting is the Vandenberg family's idea of fun. His great grandfather earned the nickname "Bear" in the 1940s for killing one of the animals. James grew up hunting with bows, killing 10-12 deer with arrows by his estimation. His father, Toby, and younger brother, Elliott, are the most adventurous hunters in the family, shooting moose, caribou, elk and even a few bears over the years.

Toby decided to take James and his sister, Olivia, along with Iowa receiver Nick Nielsen, on a guided bear hunt to Saskatchewan last month as a graduation present (Olivia graduated in May, while James will get his degree in December). They went to a remote area -- "a long, long way from phone service," Vandenberg says -- and stayed in a cabin with only a small generator for power.

They would fish for walleye and pike in the morning, and then get picked up by a boat in the early afternoon to go to their tree stands. They'd stay there, about 14 feet off the ground, for five or six hours until the guides retrieved them.

"A lot of times, you'd see three, four, five bears a night," Vandenberg said. "There were a lot in the area."

While the rest of his hunting mates reported seeing more than 10 bears during their trip, Vandenberg shot the third one he saw, on his third and final night in a stand. He'd been watching a small, baby bear in front of him for a couple of hours when all of a sudden a fully grown one appeared.

"It came from behind me," Vandenberg said. "It kind of smelled me, smelled where I went up the tree. It walked right up to the tree and reared up. I almost got to the point where I had to poke it on the head to get it to turn around."

Bears can smell but can't see very well, so the bear eventually got back down and walked out toward the smaller one. "That's when my heart went back into my chest," Vandenberg said.

It's also when he got his best shot at the animal. He aimed his bow toward the bear's front legs and shot it near the heart and lungs. The beast was eventually weighed and checked in at more than 300 pounds.

[+] EnlargeJames Vandenberg
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallJames Vandenberg passed for 3,022 yards and 25 touchdowns last season.
"It was such a neat experience because of how far you are away from everything," Vandenberg said. "The wilderness there is like nothing you've ever seen. It's a little scary, but I think more than anything it's kind of an adrenaline rush seeing bears walking around in their environment not knowing you're even there. It was kind of neat, and the fact that I got a pretty big one made it even better."

All five people in Vandenberg's party shot a bear, the four guys using bows and his sister killing one with a muzzleloader rifle. The native Americans in the area cooked the meat over an open flame, and Vandenberg and his friends ate some of it before donating the rest to the village.

"It's a little darker than deer meat," he said. "That was a real outdoor experience."

They each brought back their bears' skulls and fur. All five are getting their furs made into a big bear rug.

"Bears have good fur in the spring," Vandenberg said. "It's going to be a really good rug."

And he already has a great story from his trip, one that teammates are still talking about.

"If I wanted to go hunting, I'd think about shooting deer," said tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, who's no shrinking violet at 6-foot-7 and 270 pounds. "I don't think I'd attempt to shoot a 350-pound bear. I'd be too afraid that thing would chase after me. It earns him a little more respect. That's a cool thing to do."

Vandenberg said head coach Kirk Ferentz was aware of and approved his hunting trip and insists that black bears "really aren't that dangerous." That kind of fearlessness could serve him well in the pocket on Saturdays this fall.

"It's always going to be a little nerve-wracking with a bear, and it's always going to be a little nerve-wracking with a linebacker running up the middle at you," he said. "I think that's why I play football. Being able to handle that rush is what keeps you here."

Vandenberg says he's hanging up his hunting gear for awhile and is focusing solely on football. He's the leading returning passer in the Big Ten and figures to throw the ball more this season in a new offensive system led by former Texas coordinator Greg Davis.

Hawkeyes fans will hope he's as cool under pressure throwing the football as he is shooting his bow and arrow from a tree.

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