NCF Nation: Chris Fields

More than once this season I watched a Michigan State receiver make a great catch or a long run and thought: poor Andrew Maxwell.

Although quarterback Connor Cook deserves a lot of credit for MSU's offensive turnaround, he undoubtedly benefited from a wide receiver corps that cleaned up its act. Maxwell consistently fell victim to dropped passes, part of the reason why he completed just 52.5 percent of his attempts in 2012.

Here's a list of the Big Ten's most improved position groups this year:

Michigan State wide receivers: They were hard to watch in 2012, and their repeated drops proved costly for a team that lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points. The overall numbers aren't much different in the two seasons, but Michigan State's wideouts all did a much better job of eliminating drops and making plays. Macgarrett Kings emerged as a threat and is tied with Tony Lippett for the team lead in receptions (39), while Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery emerged as big-play threats, averaging 15.4 and 16.4 yards per reception, respectively.

Minnesota offensive line: After an injury plagued 2012 regular season, the line made strides in the Texas Bowl and continued the momentum this fall. Minnesota improved its rushing average by 49 yards per game and racked up nine more rushing touchdowns. David Cobb eclipsed 100 rushing yards in five of his final six games, putting up 101 yards against Michigan State, the nation's top rush defense. Minnesota also tied for fourth in the league in fewest sacks allowed (21). A program that once churned out great offensive lines each year is getting back to its roots.

Iowa defensive line: Like Minnesota's offensive line, Iowa has a great tradition along the defensive front but endured some down years after an incredible run of NFL draft picks. The Hawkeyes' defensive line got back on track this season, and coach Kirk Ferentz labeled the line as the team's most improved unit. Drew Ott and Carl Davis emerged and Iowa improved to seventh nationally in total defense, 11th in scoring defense and 17th against the run.

Ohio State wide receivers: Urban Meyer blasted the group during spring practice last year and wasn't overly impressed with the results during the 2012 season. Only one receiver (Corey Brown) recorded more than 30 receptions and only two (Brown and Devin Smith) had multiple touchdown catches. Brown and Smith combined for 97 receptions and 18 touchdowns this season, and Chris Fields had six scores. Along with tight end Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State's passing game looked more efficient for much of the fall.

Illinois quarterbacks: I could pick almost every position group on offense for the Illini, who transformed under first-year coordinator Bill Cubit. But Nathan Scheelhaase's development truly stood out, as the senior led the Big Ten in passing by a wide margin with 3,272 yards, more than double his total from 2012. Scheelhaase completed two-thirds of his attempts and consistently stretched the field as Illinois finished 22nd nationally in pass offense.

Indiana running backs: The Hoosiers emphasized the run game during the offseason and saw the desired results during games. After finishing 10th in the league in rushing in 2012, Indiana improved to fourth, averaging more than 200 yards per game. Tevin Coleman emerged as a big-play threat and averaged 106.4 rush yards per game and a whopping 7.3 yards per carry. Teammate Stephen Houston wasn't too shabby, either, averaging 6.7 yards per carry.

Fields becoming familiar name for OSU

September, 3, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The role of unlikely hero certainly has its perks.

There’s the lasting memory of a play that won’t be forgotten, along with the outpouring of admiration from a fan base that makes sure to show its appreciation and the simple fact that few people will ever know the rush of grabbing a game-winning touchdown.

[+] EnlargeFields
Jason Mowry/Icon SMIChris Fields, who had just 15 catches in his Ohio State career before this season, caught two touchdown passes against Buffalo.
But there is one part of the moniker that ensures it’s a bit of a backhanded compliment, since somebody like Ohio State receiver Chris Fields can’t come out of nowhere to save the day and a perfect record against Purdue unless he hasn’t been around to do much before then.

“It’s just a matter of opportunity,” Fields said. “You get an opportunity on the field to make a play, you make a play.

“A lot of people sleep on people sometimes, and it’s OK. You know, they’re going to wake up some day.”

The Buckeyes might still be suffering through nightmares without the late heroics of Fields a year ago against the Boilermakers, with an unbeaten season about to slip away if not for his ability to slide a pair hands just under a throw from Kenny Guiton for a score that set up a game-tying 2-point conversion in the final seconds.

Fields wound up with 3 catches in the overtime win, and his contributions were perhaps even more unexpected than Guiton’s off the bench since he came into the game without a reception and only made one more for the rest of the season. But after largely fading into the shadows after his bright, shining moment a year ago, the fifth-year senior has now put himself right back in the spotlight with a pair of touchdown catches in Saturday’s opening win over Buffalo.

And given the strong debut and his current place in the starting lineup at H-back, Fields is also in position to shed the element of surprise and instead just become a player No. 2 Ohio State can count on in big moments.

“One of the most improved players on the team,” coach Urban Meyer said. “He’s just playing his tail of and doing a lot of things for us, and he’s doing it all right, too.

“ ... I admire Chris Fields -- he wasn’t in the top 50 [on the roster] for playing a game last year, and he’s really the same talent.”

Fields has rarely had many chances to show it since signing with the Buckeyes, heading into his last season with the program with just 15 total receptions to his credit. Regardless of how important his score might have been against Purdue, that was the only touchdown of his career coming into the season.

But even before Fields found the end zone twice over the weekend, Meyer raved about the versatility the veteran provides both as a target in the passing game and potentially as a rusher at the hybrid H-back position all the way back in spring practice. And despite the addition of a handful of talented newcomers capable of filling that role, Fields hasn’t given the Buckeyes any reason to take his expanded role away so far.

“My mindset was, since I’m up there, I want to stay up there,” Fields said. “I mean, I feel like that [Purdue] play really wasn’t the spark. I feel like I’ve always had that confidence in myself, I never lost that confidence in myself throughout the years I’ve been playing this game. It’s just a matter of having the chance to be out there.

“I knew my time would be coming. It was just a matter of time.”

Fields showed up just before it all ran out on the Buckeyes in the bid for perfection a year ago.

Now he’s getting a chance to deliver earlier in the game and potentially much more often, which might require a different label as an unlikely hero transitions to something more permanent.

Like, for instance, “starter.”

“I had to change how I live my life a little bit and how I’ve focused in on a lot of things,” Fields said. “But when [Meyer] said I’d be able to be a starter this year, I’m taking full advantage of it.

“I’m not running, I’m not going anywhere else.”
Jordan Hall watched most of Ohio State's 12-0 season from the sideline with mixed emotions.

"It was tough to watch and miss," Hall told ESPN.com. "I played in two and a half games or something. I was happy for my team, but I just wanted to be out there so bad."

[+] EnlargeJordan Hall
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesHealthy again, RB Jordan Hall is giving Ohio State options within its offense.
The running back figured to be out there a lot for Ohio State after the team completed spring practice last April. New head coach Urban Meyer singled out Hall as one of few bright spots for an offense he called a "clown show." But Hall's fortunes turned in late June, when he cut his foot on a broken glass bottle strewn in the front yard of his residence.

The "freak accident" set off a series of setbacks for Hall, the Buckeyes' likely starting running back before his injury. After undergoing surgery, missing preseason camp and the first two games, Hall returned in Week 3 against Cal but suffered a partial tear of his PCL two weeks later at Michigan State. He sat out the rest of the season and received a medical hardship. This spring, the coaches moved Hall to the slotback role where Percy Harvin had shined in Meyer's spread offense, and Hall had a strong start to the session before being slowed by a hamstring injury.

"I just want to get out there," Hall said. "I had to miss a lot of time."

Hall is back to full strength this summer and looks forward to going through a full preseason in the offense. The slotback role is similar to what Hall played in high school, when he teamed with former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor in Jeannette, Pa.

Hall also has slimmed down 10-12 pounds from his 2012 playing weight and checks in at 191 pounds, the lightest he has been since high school.

"I feel a lot better in and out of my cuts," said Hall, who had 653 rush yards, 197 receiving yards and 1,494 return yards in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. "Top-end and everything, it just feels better. I feel like I'm hitting a gear I never really hit before. I'm 100 percent healthy, so I feel like I’m ready to go."

Ohio State took no chances with Hall after the hamstring injury this spring, and Hall admits he wasn't completely ready when he returned to the field last season.

"I didn’t really get to do the summer conditioning, none of the summer training, none of that," he said. "I was just lifting upper body, running on the underwater treadmill a little bit and then I practiced Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of the Cal week and then I played. I feel my leg just wasn't ready for competition, and that's what made me have my knee [injury]."

Hall looks forward to his first full preseason in the Meyer-led offense and recognizes the competition at his position will heat up. Chris Fields had a strong spring, and incoming freshmen Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall could fill the slotback role.

As a fifth-year senior who served as a co-captain before last season, Hall isn't concerned about re-proving himself to the coaches, especially Meyer.

"He's just always on me, [asking] if I'm catching, am I with the quarterbacks, am I doing my rehab," Hall said. "He's just making sure I’m ready to go. He has seen what I can do, and he says I can be a great player if I can stay healthy and do all the right things.

"Everyone's excited."

Hall's Twitter page contains the following words below his avatar: "This year I said it's all business." He has been through a lot Ohio State -- from off-field issues to moderate success to injuries -- and he wants to complete his comeback and be a part of another special season.

"I've just got tunnel vision," he said. "I'm not going to have any distractions. My only focus is football, really, and school. This is my last go-round, so I'm putting everything into it."
On Wednesday, the head coach and one player from each Big Ten Legends Division team participated in a spring football teleconference with the media. On Thursday, it was the Leaders Division's turn. Here are some notes and updates from the call:

Illinois
  • Head coach Tim Beckman said the junior college players he brought in helped with depth and age issues on his young team. "We have 40 football players that have never been in our spring football until this year," he said. Of the juco imports, Beckman said wide receiver Martize Barr has quick hands and good playmaking skills, both in the passing game and on kick returns; Eric Finney has earned a starting job at the Star linebacker position; Abe Cajuste is adding depth by playing both defensive tackle and defensive end; and Dallas Hinkhouse is making an impact at offensive tackle.
  • Beckman sung the praises of offensive lineman Corey Lewis, a sixth-year senior who has battled back from five knee surgeries and has become a team leader. "Corey Lewis comes to my office probably four or five times a week, just to talk," he said. "To me, he is what college football is all about." Beckman said that Lewis has "had a special spring" and hinted that he has earned a starting job.
  • Quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole will take most of the snaps in Friday's spring game so they can get more experience in the new offense. Beckman said Scheelhaase has "got a step in front" because of his experience, but the competition continues.
  • Scheelhaase on reasons for optimism in 2013: "Establishing an identity. That's something I don't know that we necessarily had last year, on offense or defense or as a team in general.
Indiana
  • Like many of you, head coach Kevin Wilson would like to know the new Big Ten division alignment. The reason? It's harder to recruit without being able to tell a prospect where he'll be playing his freshman season. Wilson added that if the league does indeed go to an East/West split, he'd like to see the Hoosiers placed in the East since they're located in the Eastern Time Zone.
  • Wilson said run defense and takeaways are two huge priorities for the Hoosiers' defense during the offseason. He noted that the Big Ten doesn't boast a large group of elite pass offenses, so IU must prepare better for run-driven attacks. Indiana finished last in the Big Ten in both run defense (231.3 ypg) and takeaways (13). Cornerback Greg Heban said the defense is working on takeaways every day in practice. "Every time the ball touches the ground, the defense is scooping it and scoring it," Heban said, "trying to give us a feel of what it's like."
  • Both Wilson and Heban praised the play of junior cornerback Tim Bennett this spring. Other spring standouts include linebacker T.J. Simmons, a freshman early enrollee, and Steven Funderburk, a junior-college transfer.
  • Heban called this "easily the best spring I've been around." He has seen more physical play and better effort on both sides of the ball, and the team also is having more fun than in past springs.
Ohio State
  • Head coach Urban Meyer said running back Rod Smith won't play in Saturday's spring game because he recently suffered a concussion. Before that, Meyer said Smith was one of the five most improved players on offense this spring. Meyer listed Carlos Hyde and Smith as the team's top two running backs, while Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball are even for the No. 3 spot.
  • Although the receivers have been better this spring -- especially Corey Brown and Chris Fields -- the depth is still nowhere near where it needs to be for Meyer's spread offense. "We’re way behind on quality of depth at that position," Meyer said. "That's a major, major concern." Moving Jordan Hall to H-back should help, and Meyer noted that the Buckeyes boast two good tight ends in Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett.
  • Buckeyes offensive tackle Jack Mewhort paid close attention to the way John Simon and others led in 2012. He's ready to take on a greater load this season. "I welcome that," he said. "I see that as an honor, being compared to a guy like John Simon. I also see it as a challenge. I feel the pressure to step up and get guys going in the right direction." Mewhort also has seen quarterback Braxton Miller recognize his leadership responsibilities more this spring and get after teammates when he needs to.
  • Meyer said he puts more emphasis on spring practice and the spring game than most coaches. He has told his players that there will be a depth chart after spring ends, and while changes are possible in the summer, they're not likely. "In spring ball, you're trying to win a spot," he said. "During the fall, we're trying to win games."
Penn State
  • Quarterbacks Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson are receiving equal reps during practice and, not surprisingly, have endured some ups and downs. Head coach Bill O'Brien praised both players' intelligence, noting that they aren't making mental errors during workouts. "These guys have had productive practices," O'Brien said. "Has every play been great? No. But the word patience is a very important word here. Coming from pro football, I definitely have to learn more patience with all these young players. I think I have, but I can do a lot better." Senior guard John Urschel, who was highly entertaining during the teleconference, said he's the wrong person to ask about quarterbacks but praised Bench and Ferguson for picking up the system and showing leadership.
  • Urschel said the first-team offensive line right now consists of himself and Miles Dieffenbach at guard, Ty Howle at center and Donovan Smith and Adam Gress at the tackle spots. Of Howle, he said, "I could talk about Ty all day. If you ask me, he's one of the most underrated players on our team. ... Honestly, when I got here, I thought Ty was the best offensive linemen in our year, of the seven of us." Urschel also said Dieffenbach "started a lot for us last year but really is starting to take his game to the next level."
  • O'Brien said Zach Zwinak would get the start at running back if the season opened now, but all three backs -- Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch -- have had good springs. Lynch, a redshirt freshman, has "improved every single day of spring practice."
  • O'Brien is excited about Penn State's starting linebackers -- Glenn Carson, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman -- but admits the lack of depth at the position is "something I think about 24-7." He said it's vital to get Carson, Hull and Wartman through the rest of the offseason healthy, and hope for contributions from others like Ben Kline and incoming freshman Brandon Bell. Penn State won't shift players to linebackers because "there’s really nobody to move" and will instead closely monitor reps the rest of the spring and in preseason camp.
Purdue
  • Head coach Darrell Hazell said the Boilermakers have made major improvements in the last three and a half weeks. "Anytime you put in three different schemes, there's a little bit of a learning curve for the first couple weeks," he said. "You could see guys start to really get comfortable the last five or six practices."
  • Hazell said he has "three capable guys" right now at quarterback with Rob Henry, Danny Etling and Austin Appleby. He reiterated that he would keep the competition open until two weeks before the opener at Cincinnati. Of Etling, a freshman early enrollee, Hazell said: "For a young guy, a guy that should be at his prom, I think he's got tremendous poise. He's smart and really studies the game."
  • Hazell said backup tight end Justin Sinz and center Robert Kugler are two guys that have really caught his eye this spring. He called Kugler a "very much a leader on the offensive line."
  • Cornerback Ricardo Allen said Hazell has instilled an "all is one" mentality. "If one person does something, we all have to do it. We all wear black socks. We all wear the same uniform. We all tuck our shirts in. I feel like we're becoming closer as a team, and it's helping us build."
Wisconsin
  • Head coach Gary Andersen confirmed Curt Phillips and Joel Stave have separated themselves in the quarterback competition. It's a "mixed bag" of who takes snaps with the first-team offense, but both will continue to rotate through the rest of the spring and into fall camp. "The way they've separated themselves is simply production," Andersen said. "They know exactly where they sit and so does the rest of the team. … If they put all their friendships aside, their depth chart would look exactly like our depth chart."
  • Andersen praised the offensive line for tackling another transition, as the group works with its fourth position coach (T.J. Woods) since the 2012 Rose Bowl. The line has seen varying looks from the defense in practice and had players move around to different positions, in part because of injuries. Wisconsin had only seven healthy linemen a week ago, but Andersen is hopeful the number will rise to nine or 10 by next week's spring game. "Those kids have grinded through it every single day," Andersen said. "They're a tough-minded group."
  • Badgers senior linebacker Chris Borland said losing defensive end David Gilbert to recurring foot problems is a blow but the team has others to step in like Tyler Dippel, Brendan Kelly and Jesse Hayes, a redshirt sophomore who has stood out this spring.
  • Much like his old boss Urban Meyer, Andersen believes in constant competition and declares winners and losers in each practice. Andersen also mixes in some fun with a dance-off and throwing footballs into trash cans. "Some of them are a little bit quirky, but through the years establish some things we like," he said.
  • Borland said the strength program has brought the biggest changes in the transition to Andersen's staff. Cardiovascular work is stressed more, as is preventative care. Head strength and conditioning coach Evan Simon operates at a faster pace and uses more of an instructional approach than Ben Herbert, who stressed motivation.
Philly BrownJeff HanischThe Buckeyes are counting on WR Philly Brown to make the offense a more dynamic one in 2013.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Last year, Ohio State led the Big Ten in scoring at 37.2 points per game. Great, right?

Not in the minds of the Buckeyes, who thought they could have fielded a much better all-around attack.

"I feel like last year we didn't play a complete game as an offense," running back Carlos Hyde said. "Some games it was all running, while others it was just passing."

Head coach Urban Meyer rarely seemed happy with the offensive production last year, outside of the running skills of Hyde and quarterback Braxton Miller. He often expressed his dissatisfaction over a lack of speedy playmakers and an inconsistent passing game.

"I'd get frustrated," Meyer told ESPN.com. "But the bottom line is, name an offense that doesn't have guys who make people miss and are dynamic with the ball in their hands, and that's not a great offense. We don't have enough."

The names on offense haven't really changed much this spring. But the hope is that with another year of understanding the system, some improved throwing and catching and maybe some reinforcements from the recruiting class, the Buckeyes will come closer to fulfilling Meyer's vision of a truly great offense.

It all starts, of course, with Miller, whose efforts to become a more accurate passer this offseason have been well documented. Ohio State also needs continued development from its receivers, which is not a very deep group right now. Meyer singled out Corey "Philly" Brown, who led the team with 60 catches for 669 yards, as someone who's becoming one of those dynamic playmakers he's seeking.

"I've tried to work on my open-field running and body control so I could cut faster," Brown said. "It's really paying off for me right now."

Brown is the clear No. 1 receiver, but he needs more help. The team has only six scholarship receivers this spring, and offensive coordinator Tom Herman said he'd only feel comfortable playing four of them for a whole game. Devin Smith made some highlight-reel catches on deep balls early last year but was less effective down the stretch, as he had only 13 receptions in the final eight games.

"People, for lack of a better term, figured him out," Herman said. "He wasn't a very versatile guy. He did a couple of things really well, but the other things that he tried to do, he was very below average. He's starting to improve some of his weaknesses to be a more complete receiver, and he has a lot of physical tools and a great attitude."

Herman said Chris Fields has had a really good spring, and Evan Spencer is a reliable target. Sophomore Michael Thomas, the star of last year's spring game, has shown flashes of his talent but needs to progress in a lot of areas. Herman called the receiver depth "a bit scary right now." But the Buckeyes recruited several receivers in this year's class, including Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson, James Clark and Corey Smith. They're hoping at least one or two contributes right away.

"You hate to count on [recruits] because they're usually overrated," Meyer said. "But that's why we went out and recruited them."

"We're not asking them to come in and be Jerry Rice," Herman said. "We just hope they can provide some depth and maybe add some skills that we don't currently have in that room right now."

One area certainly not lacking in depth is at running back, where Hyde returns after rushing for 970 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. Rod Smith is having a good spring, Warren Ball appears to be coming on and if sixth-year senior Jordan Hall can ever stay healthy, he'll provide lots of versatility. There was a buzz last week in practice when the Buckeyes lined up with Hyde, Smith and Ball in the same backfield with Miller in a formation Meyer cribbed from the San Francisco 49ers.

"That can give a bunch of trouble to defenses," Hyde said. "They just see three big backs in the backfield and a quarterback who can also run the ball. They don't know who's getting the ball or who's going where."

Ohio State's offensive players do know where they're going, which is different than last spring. Now in the second year of the system, Herman says he can teach his guys not just what to do but why they're doing it.

"It's not just the memorization of, 'OK, I have to line up on the left here,'" he said. "I could train a monkey to do that. What separates really good offenses from average to below-average offenses is all 11 guys understanding the big picture, the entire concept and scheme we're trying to accomplish. It's been nice to kind of dive into that with all of our players this spring."

Knowing how to change a route against a certain defensive look, for instance, should help the Buckeyes play faster this year. The coaches have challenged the players to be a Top 5 offense in the nation this year. That's a lofty goal, but remember that this team is starting from an already high level despite its flaws.

"I definitely think we can be one of the top offenses in the country if everybody takes care of business and is mistake free," Brown said.

Big Ten's best moments from 2012

January, 14, 2013
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The Big Ten had a mostly forgettable season in 2012, and most are anxious to turn the page to 2013. But the fall did provide some memorable moments around the league.

Here are a few …

Miller's mastery: Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller put himself on the Heisman Trophy radar with dazzling moves and long runs, but his most memorable play covered only a yard. Facing third-and-goal, Miller looked like he would be stopped on a zone-read play, but he executed a video game-like juke, scooted past Penn State All-Big Ten linebacker Gerald Hodges and leaped into the end zone for the touchdown. The score gave Ohio State a 21-10 lead, and the Buckeyes went on to win 35-23.

Barry's back: After Bret Bielema surprisingly left Wisconsin for Arkansas three days after winning the Big Ten championship game, the Badgers needed a coach for the Rose Bowl, and the seniors knew where to turn. They asked former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez to lead the team, and Alvarez quickly agreed. Alvarez provided several great moments during his month as coach, including a ridiculously entertaining news conference in which he delivered the quote of the year in the Big Ten: "I won't use a search committee. Most search committees use me." The return tour culminated with Alvarez strolling the sideline at the Rose Bowl, just like old times.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesLe'Veon Bell's hurdle was one of the few bright spots in Michigan State's season.
Penn State punctuates season: Few expected much from Penn State after a turbulent summer that brought severe NCAA sanctions and a mini exodus that included star running back Silas Redd. But first-year coach Bill O'Brien and a steadfast senior class kept the team on track. Following an 0-2 start, the Lions won eight of their final 10 games to finish in second place in the Leaders division. The season culminated in an emotion-charged senior day in State College, as Penn State honored the seniors on the stadium facade and the Lions outlasted Wisconsin 24-21 in overtime. Fittingly, kicker Sam Ficken, whose struggles led to Penn State's Week 2 loss at Virginia, hit the game-winning field goal from 37 yards out.

Roundtree to the rescue: Michigan found itself in serious danger of dropping its first home game under coach Brady Hoke as it took possession at its own 38-yard line with no timeouts and 18 seconds left. Needing a field goal to tie Northwestern, quarterback Devin Gardner heaved the ball downfield toward senior receiver Roy Roundtree, who amazingly faced only single coverage. The pass appeared to be too far, but Roundtree battled defensive back Daniel Jones, tipped the ball in the air and then made an amazing catch at the Northwestern 9-yard line. Michigan went on to win in overtime and keep alive its hopes for a Legends division title.

Buckeye backups rise: Ohio State recorded the sixth undefeated, untied season in team history, but it wouldn't have happened without some huge performances from little-used players against Purdue. The Buckeyes were on the ropes, trailing Purdue 22-14 with 47 seconds left, no timeouts and the ball at their own 39-yard line. Quarterback Miller was in the hospital getting his neck examined. Backup quarterback Kenny Guiton led the offense downfield and found a diving Chris Fields for a touchdown with three seconds left. Fields' first touchdown grab set up a 2-point conversion, and Ohio State went on to win in overtime.

Ball becomes touchdown king: Montee Ball's senior season didn't start off well, as the Wisconsin star was the victim of an assault this summer and struggled in September. But Ball provided his typical late-season surge and put up excellent numbers in Big Ten play (1,168 rush yards, 16 TDs). He set several records down the stretch, none more significant than the NCAA's all-time touchdowns record, which he secured on a first-quarter scoring run Nov. 24 at Penn State. Although he didn't make it back to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, he won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back.

Osborne leads Nebraska out of tunnel: Tom Osborne announced his retirement as Nebraska's athletic director in September, and the team honored its living legend before its final home game Nov. 17 against Minnesota. Osborne, who coached the Huskers from 1973-97, joined the team for its famous tunnel walk and led the Huskers onto the field before an adoring crowd at Memorial Stadium. Although Osborne certainly isn't going anyway, the emotional tribute allowed Nebraska fans to recognize him one final time.

Northwestern's bowl bonanza: Bowl games are no longer rarities for Northwestern, but the program's inability to win a bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl cast a shadow over its recent accomplishments. The Wildcats finally got the bowl monkey off of their backs by thumping Mississippi State 34-20 on Jan. 1, setting off an emotional celebration for Pat Fitzgerald and his players. In a jubilant locker room the team tore apart the stuffed monkey that had symbolized its postseason futility. The victory gave Northwestern just its third 10-win season in team history, and made Fitzgerald the program's all-time winningest coach (50 victories).

Bo knows: After Ohio State humbled his Nebraska team Oct. 6 in Columbus, coach Bo Pelini calmly delivered a statement that would carry the Huskers to a Legends division title. "We need to win out," Pelini said. "We have six weeks. And we need to win the next six football games. Get to Indianapolis." And indeed they did, as Nebraska shook off the blowout loss and became Team Comeback, rallying to beat Northwestern and Michigan State on the road and Penn State at home. The Huskers embraced the urgency of the situation and made it to Indianapolis for the league title game.

Le'Veon's leap: Michigan State didn't have many memorable moments, and neither did the Big Ten during nonleague play, but Spartans star running back Le'Veon Bell provided one in the season opener against Boise State. The 6-foot-2, 237-pound junior hurdled a Boise State defender on Michigan State's third play from scrimmage, delighting the Spartan Stadium crowd. It became somewhat of a signature move for Bell, who racked up 266 yards on a whopping 44 carries against the Broncos in the first of many workhorse-like performances this season. Michigan State won the game 17-13, giving the Big Ten one of few solid nonleague victories.

Iowa's Weis-man: Like Michigan State, Iowa fell short of expectations this season and struggled to generate offense. And like the Spartans, the Hawkeyes could hang their hat on a big, bruising ball-carrier, although one few anticipated would do much this season. Fullback Mark Weisman, a walk-on who transferred from Air Force, announced himself with a 113-yard, three-touchdown performance in a Week 3 win against Northern Iowa. Weisman racked up 623 rush yards and eight touchdowns during a brilliant four-week stretch before being slowed by injuries.

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer made it clear Monday: he's not going to change Braxton Miller.

"You let him be him," Meyer said.

It could result in more moments like the one late in the third quarter Saturday against Purdue, when Miller writhed in pain on the turf after being slammed on his neck. While no one hopes it results in another trip to the hospital, the quarterback's style of play as a runner keeps the ambulance team on alert.

Miller has taken fans' breath away with his dynamic running skills in Meyer's spread offense this season. He also has had Buckeye Nation holding its breath a few times.

It's hard to have one without the other, especially as Ohio State tries to develop more reliable offensive weapons around its best player. Meyer noted Monday that if other offensive players step up, Miller will have to do less, thereby reducing his injury risk. Interestingly enough, Ohio State got several out-of-nowhere contributions -- notably from wide receiver Chris Fields -- after Miller left Ohio Stadium in an ambulance.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Sam RicheWhile Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is concerned with Braxton Miller taking heavy hits, he said he won't change the QB's aggressive running style.
Fortunately, Miller is OK. Meyer said the sophomore quarterback has a "very, very sore neck," and had a whiplash-like feeling at the time. But after all the tests came back negative, Miller will return to the practice field Tuesday. He's expected to start Saturday night against Penn State.

"We are trying to balance it," Meyer said. "We don't go crazy with him running the ball. At some point, though, you have to try to move the ball a little bit. We're very cognizant of that."

Meyer is still "very concerned" about Miller taking big shots, as the quarterback has in games against Michigan State, Nebraska and Purdue to name a few. Asked if the trend is symptomatic for quarterbacks in his offense, Meyer noted that former Florida star Tim Tebow took some shots, while Chris Leak, Alex Smith and Josh Harris did a better job of staying out of harm's way.

"He doesn't go down very easily, and he's a competitive guy," Meyer said of Miller. "The good thing is, he usually bounces right back up. This one was a tough one. … He just is a dynamic athlete. He's more difficult to bring down."

The Ohio State coaches can tell Miller to keep his well-being in mind -- to run out of bounds after getting a first down, maybe even to slide once in a while. They can limit him to 12-15 carries rather than 18-20. But it's not in Miller's nature to go down easily. Miller's natural ability to break tackles and find running room when none seems to be available also leads to fewer safe plays.

Asked if Miller's injury issues will have any impact on his play calling against Penn State, offensive coordinator Tom Herman said, "None. We've got to win the game. ... That won't factor into any of our decisions."

This is Ohio State's reality in 2012 as it tries to build scoring threats around Miller. For long stretches, he has been the Buckeyes' offense.

If that's the case going forward, there will be more breathtaking runs -- and more breath-holding hits. Bring your oxygen.
The power rankings nearly underwent an extreme makeover in Week 8, as top dogs Ohio State and Michigan had to rally for home wins against heavy underdogs. Nebraska recorded a potential season-saving win against Northwestern, and Penn State made the biggest statement of the day, crushing Iowa at Kinnick Stadium.

Bill O'Brien's team may or may not be the Big Ten's best, but it certainly is playing the best football right now (Wisconsin is a close second). The Lions rise to No. 2 in the power rankings after their destruction of Iowa, and we seriously considered putting them ahead of Ohio State, despite the Buckeyes' perfect record. The good news: We'll find out this week in State College which team is better.

Michigan barely hangs on to the No. 3 spot after beating Michigan State. We considered putting Wisconsin at No. 3 after another dominant win, and the Badgers are looking more and more like their former selves.

Let's get to the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (8-0, 4-0; last week: 1): It looked like the Buckeyes would relinquish the top spot after falling behind Purdue 22-14 in the fourth quarter and losing star quarterback Braxton Miller. But Miller's supporting cast -- namely backup quarterback Kenny Guiton and little-used wide receiver Chris Fields -- came up big in the clutch to keep these very imperfect Buckeyes perfect on the season. The only thing better than the win was the good news about Miller's health after a hospital trip. Urban Meyer's crew now marches on to Penn State.

2. Penn State (5-2, 3-0; last week: 3): Are you a Bill-iever? You should be after Penn State dismantled Iowa at Kinnick Stadium, a place where the Lions hadn't won since 1999. With two weeks to prepare, O'Brien put on a play-calling clinic as Penn State's offense surged behind quarterback Matt McGloin, tight end Kyle Carter, running back Bill Belton and others. The Lions' defense shut down Iowa and seems to be getting better by the week. Penn State has won five straight and returns home to face Ohio State for what should be an incredible setting at Beaver Stadium.

3. Michigan (5-2, 3-0; last week: 2): Like Ohio State, Michigan wasn't sharp on offense for most of Saturday's game, although Michigan State's defense had something to do with it. And like the Buckeyes, the Wolverines rallied late in regulation and survived behind the boot of Brendan Gibbons. Michigan's defense stepped up on third down and in the red zone, as linebacker Jake Ryan continues to play at an elite level. After an emotion-charged, physical game, Michigan will have to reload in a hurry for this week's Legends Division showdown at Nebraska.

4. Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1; last week: 4): One of the nation's best 1-2 punches at running back -- Montee Ball and James White -- propelled the Badgers to another easy win against rival Minnesota, as they retained Paul Bunyan's Axe for the ninth straight year. White carried the offense in the first half, and Ball once again came on strong in the fourth quarter. An underrated defense recorded two interceptions and Wisconsin won its third straight. It's hard not to see Wisconsin playing in Indy on Dec. 1. The Badgers host Michigan State this week in a rematch of the 2011 title game.

5. Nebraska (5-2, 2-1; last week: 6): Nothing comes easy for Bo Pelini's crew on the road, but the Huskers stepped up in the clutch after a flurry of mistakes put them in a 28-16 hole at Northwestern. Following two near interceptions, quarterback Taylor Martinez settled down and led two masterful scoring drives as Nebraska rallied for a win. The Huskers return home for a huge Legends Division showdown against Michigan. With road games left at both Michigan State and Iowa, a win Saturday is critical.

6. Northwestern (6-2, 2-2; last week: 4): For the second time in three weeks, Northwestern held a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter of a game in which it had been dominated on the stat sheet. And once again, the Wildcats couldn't hold on, as they watched a 12-point lead evaporate against Nebraska. Key injuries to star running back Venric Mark and several cornerbacks haunted Northwestern down the stretch, but a head-scratching offensive game plan that barely featured dynamic quarterback Kain Colter was the biggest reason for the loss. The Wildcats try to regroup against Iowa.

7. Michigan State (4-4, 1-3; last week: 7): Mark Dantonio's team came to play in Ann Arbor, and a ferocious defensive performance put the Spartans in position to win their record fifth straight against Michigan. But one-half of a championship formula isn't enough, and the Spartans' pathetic offense once again came up short. The personnel losses from last year's squad have been more dramatic than anyone expected. It has to be frustrating for coordinator Pat Narduzzi and his defense. Another tough road test awaits this week at Wisconsin.

8. Iowa (4-3, 2-1; last week: 7): What a buzz kill. After a gutsy road win at Michigan State, Iowa returned home to a packed house for the lone night game of the year at Kinnick Stadium. And the Hawkeyes laid an egg, never challenging Penn State in a 38-14 loss. Quarterback James Vandenberg and the Hawkeyes' offense sputtered again, and the defense was exposed by McGloin and his weapons. Iowa could still linger in the Legends Division race if it beats Northwestern this week, but the Hawkeyes don't look like they're for real.

9. Purdue (3-4, 0-3; last week: 11): It was right there for Danny Hope's squad -- a breakthrough win against Ohio State, life in the Leaders Division race -- and then it vanished. Credit Purdue for playing with a pulse, particularly on defense, but the mistakes that have cropped up all too often in Hope's tenure surfaced again at Ohio State. A blocked extra point and a blocked field goal attempt loomed large as Purdue should have been up more than eight points in the closing seconds of regulation. The schedule gets a bit easier, but how much do these Boilers have left after Saturday's heartbreaker?

10. Minnesota (4-3, 0-3; last week: 9): The Gophers got a glimpse of their future Saturday as freshman quarterback Philip Nelson made his collegiate debut, starting at Wisconsin. Nelson not surprisingly had mixed results but will continue to be the team's primary quarterback, at least until MarQueis Gray gets a bit healthier. The Gophers need a scoring spark on offense after averaging just 13 points in Big Ten play. Their improved pass rush seems to be offset by spotty rush defense. Their bowl hopes could hinge on this week's home game against Purdue.

11. Indiana (2-5, 0-3; last week: 10): Once again, Indiana found itself in position for a win, and once again, the Hoosiers made just enough mistakes to lose. The defense didn't play great, but this one was on an offense that settled for three short field goals instead of getting the ball in the end zone. Quarterback Cameron Coffman, who entered the game with just one interception for the season, had two picks, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Indiana still can't get over the hump. Maybe it'll happen this week at Illinois.

12. Illinois (2-5, 0-3; last week: 12): At least Tim Beckman's team got through a Saturday without another humbling setback. The week off also should help the Illini get a bit healthier as the injury bug has hit them hard in the first half. If Illinois has any plan to salvage its season, it needs to beat Indiana at home this week. The team's closing stretch isn't that difficult, but Illinois needs a lot of work, especially on offense, to have a chance to win a Big Ten game.
Recognizing the best and the brightest from Week 8 in the Big Ten:
  • Wisconsin RBs James White and Montee Ball: Ball was slowed by an ankle injury early, so the Badgers' "other" star tailback took up the slack. White had a career day, rushing 15 times for 175 yards and three touchdowns and masterminding the Wildcat in Wisconsin's 38-13 win over Minnesota. Then Ball got going late, too, finishing with 24 carries for 166 yards and two scores of his own. Must be nice to have that kind of backfield depth.
  • Ohio State QB Kenny Guiton: When Braxton Miller went down at the end of the third quarter against Purdue, the Buckeyes were in big trouble. They looked like they were toast when they trailed 22-14 with a minute left. But Guiton led the amazing comeback, first with a 39-yard pass to Devin Smith and then with a 2-yard touchdown throw to Chris Fields. Guiton also hit Jeff Heurman for the two point conversion to tie the score with three seconds remaining. The Buckeyes went on to win 29-22 in overtime, and Guiton joined Ohio State lore in the process. He may have to play a lot more going forward, if the Miller injury is as serious as it looked.
  • Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez: Little came easy for Martinez and the Huskers at Northwestern, but the junior stepped up in the clutch, leading two touchdown drives in the final eight minutes as Nebraska rallied for a 29-28 win. Martinez completed 27 of 39 passes for 342 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He added 65 rush yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, recording his second big game against Northwestern (this time, in a win).
  • Michigan kickers Brendan Gibbons and Matt Wile: Remember when Michigan's kicking game was the worst in the Big Ten? Feels like a long time ago. The Wolverines needed their kickers to be perfect in a 12-10 win against rival Michigan State. Wile hit a 48-yarder on his first collegiate attempt in the second quarter, while Gibbons went 3-for-3 on his tries, including the game-winner from 38 yards out with five seconds left. Brunette girls are smiling all over Ann Arbor again.
  • Penn State QB Matt McGloin: McGloin's magical senior season continued with a terrific night in Iowa City. McGloin ran Bill O'Brien's offense crisply and efficiently, finishing 26-of-38 for 289 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions, in the Nittany Lions' 38-14 win.
  • Penn State's defense: A rare sixth sticker goes out to the Nittany Lions' 'D,' which nearly pitched a shutout in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes didn't score an offensive point until the final five minutes and finished with just 191 yards (20 rushing). Jordan Hill, Michael Mauti and others had big games, but the entire defense played great.
The offseason is here, and while teams are focused on recruiting right now, they will soon turn their attention to fixing problem areas and gearing up for 2012.

With that in mind, we present the offseason to-do lists for every Big Ten club, beginning with the Leaders Division. We're not going to talk about recruiting needs here, as we'll focus on that in the very near future. Instead, we're taking a look at a couple of areas each team needs to repair or restock in the coming months.

Illinois

  • Spread it on: An Illini offense that needed a GPS to find the end zone the last half of the season is in for a jarring change. New head coach Tim Beckman will implement the spread offense and demand a higher tempo. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase must regain his freshman-year form if he is to hold off Reilly O'Toole for the starting job, and Illinois must replace its best receiver in A.J. Jenkins. Finding a reliable running back is high on the priority list as well. This offense will get a total makeover and needs to make the most of the spring and summer to get ready.
  • Locate defensive leaders: We wondered this time last year how Illinois would replace Corey Liuget. Then Whitney Mercilus jumped up with an All-American season. Who will be the next big playmaker now that Mercilus is off to the NFL? Can Michael Buchanan replicate Mercilus's production off the edge? Will Jonathan Brown capitalize on his potential? New defensive coordinator Tim Banks needs to keep up the level of performance this defense had in '11.
Indiana

  • Build toughness on defense: This one is obvious, as the Hoosiers ranked 114th in points allowed (37.3) and 109th in total defense in Kevin Wilson's first season and gave up at least 40 points in five of their eight Big Ten games. Wilson played a ton of youngsters in 2011 and has a promising future leader in rising sophomore Mark Murphy. But Indiana simply must get more physical up front and tackle better to have any hope of making significant strides.
  • Develop Tre Roberson: One of the bright spots in IU's 1-11 season was the emergence of freshman Roberson at quarterback. His athleticism allowed him to make plays in and out of the pocket. With Dusty Kiel and Ed Wright-Baker leaving the program, the offense now solely belongs to Roberson, with juco transfer Cameron Coffman his likely backup. Roberson must continue to make progress as a sophomore, or else it could be another long year in Bloomington.
Ohio State

  • Urban renewal: Jim Tressel may have been gone last season, but his influence was still heavily felt as former Tressel assistant Luke Fickell and most of Tressel's staff remained in place. So the Buckeyes players are about to experience a whole new way of doing things under Urban Meyer. Most of the change will come on offense, where there will be a new system and new terminology, and spring practice will prove critical for getting everything installed. Meyer's biggest challenge may be reshaping an offensive line that lost three longtime starters in center Mike Brewster and tackles Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts.
  • Upgrade the passing game: Braxton Miller improved as a passer as the season went on, but the Buckeyes' passing game still left a lot to be desired most of the time. Miller will need to spend as much time as possible with new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Tom Herman to improve his throwing, and a group of young Buckeyes receivers like Devin Smith, Corey "Philly" Brown and Chris Fields needs to come of age and turn into reliable playmakers.
Penn State

  • Come together: New coach Bill O'Brien's most daunting task likely will come off the field, where he'll be responsible for repairing a fractured community. He can begin to do so by embracing former players, building bridges to the alumni on the speaking circuit and being more open than his famous predecessor. O'Brien must show recruits that it's OK to come to State College again. Fans will be hungry for football by the spring, and O'Brien should use that optimism to his advantage.
  • Fix the offense: There's little question that a Stone Age offense was holding Penn State back, and O'Brien seems intent on being his own offensive coordinator. He'll need to settle on a quarterback, whether that's Matt McGloin or Rob Bolden or someone else, and ingrain his NFL concepts to a bunch used to a vanilla scheme. O'Brien has a solid building block in star tailback Silas Redd but must replace top receiver Derek Moye and an offensive line gutted by graduation.
Purdue

  • Establish an identity: The Boilermakers were the epitome of a mediocre team in 2011, going 6-6 and never winning back-to-back games in the regular season before edging out a MAC team in a lower-level bowl. What exactly is the defining trait of Danny Hope's team? It's time to create an identity, especially on defense where Purdue was inconsistent last season. Old defensive coordinator Gary Emanuel is out and Tim Tibesar is in from the CFL to take over. Tibesar needs to maximize the talent of budding stars like Kawann Short and Ricardo Allen and put his stamp on that side of the ball.
  • Create a quarterback pecking order: After dealing with crippling quarterback injuries the past two seasons, Hope must be thrilled by the new-found depth at the position. Robert Marve received a sixth year of eligibility and will be back alongside 2011 starter Caleb TerBush. Meanwhile, projected '11 starter Rob Henry makes his way back from a knee injury. Competition should make the position better, but Purdue must figure out who and how it wants to play at quarterback.
Wisconsin

  • Find a quarterback: Russell Wilson leaves large cleats to fill after just one season in Madison, and there is no obvious heir apparent. Will Jon Budmayr's elbow allow him to compete for the job? Will Joe Brennan take the next step in his development? Will hyped incoming freshman Bart Houston be ready? The Badgers went to the Rose Bowl the past two seasons with seasoned, senior quarterbacks. New offensive coordinator Matt Canada won't have that luxury this year and has some work to do in the offseason. At least he can lean on a stout running game led by Montee Ball while the quarterback situation crystallizes.
  • Build staff chemistry: Canada will be one of six new coaches on Bret Bielema's staff in 2012 and will be part of an almost entirely new offensive brain trust. The Badgers have their style of play on that side of the ball down to a science at this point, but it's not easy to blend that many new coaches and personalities into a program all at once. Bielema has to get them all up to speed and on the same page in a hurry, and the new coaches have to establish rapport with the players right away. That might be one of the Badgers' biggest obstacles on the way to a second straight division title.

Jordan Hall doubtful for Buckeyes

November, 3, 2011
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Ohio State's depth at tailback -- and maybe even more importantly, its kick return game -- has taken another hit. Head coach Luke Fickell said Thursday that Jordan Hall, the team's No. 2 running back, is "probably doubtful" against Indiana because of an ankle injury.

If Hall can't go, that would be two running backs unavailable for the Buckeyes. Jaamal Berry was suspended this week after he was charged with assault.

But tailback depth shouldn't be too much of a problem for Ohio State. Dan Herron has been terrific since returning from his suspension, rushing for 274 yards in two games. Carlos Hyde, who ran for more than 100 yards against Nebraska before Herron came back, will be elevated to the No. 2 back. Hyde voiced his displeasure over his reduced role on Twitter and did not play last week against Wisconsin, but Fickell said Hyde has "kept his mind right."

"This could be a very good opportunity for him," Fickell said.

Rod Smith, who has been working out some with the Buckeyes' linebackers, will also be available at running back.

The bigger issue if Hall can't play might be on special teams. Hall ranks third in the Big Ten in kick returns at 30.2 yards per attempt. Last week, he returned a Wisconsin kick 42 yards to help set up the game-winning score.

Fickell said Corey "Philly" Brown, Chris Fields and Devin Smith could chip in on kick returns in Hall's absence, and Herron might get some work there, too.

The Buckeyes are heavy favorites to beat 1-8 Indiana at home this week, but Hall could be a key player down the stretch as they contend for the Leaders Division title.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- As expected, Ohio State will be without starting defensive end Nathan Williams and starting wide receiver Corey "Philly" Brown for Saturday's game against Michigan State.

Williams (knee) and Brown (ankle) have missed the past two games. Brown is able to run but still has trouble cutting on the ankle he injured against Toledo.

Freshman J.T. Moore will continue to start for Williams, while Chris Fields is listed as the starter for Brown. True freshman receiver Devin Smith will likely continue to get more playing time after catching two touchdowns last week against Colorado.
Joe Bauserman or Braxton Miller? That's been the main question most of the past month for Ohio State.

And the Buckeyes' official depth chart for Saturday's opener against Akron has it listed exactly that way at quarterback: Joe Bauserman or Braxton Miller. Both Bauserman, a senior, and Miller, the true freshman, will play against the Zips, and the Buckeyes traditionally try to play two quarterbacks early in the season. But we still don't know who will start, though the smart money remains on the veteran Bauserman getting the first snap.

That wasn't the only interesting thing about the depth chart.

Jordan Hall is listed as the starting tailback, with Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith sharing backup duties. Conspicuously absent is Jaamal Berry, who was dealing with some hamstring issues in preseason camp.

Redshirt freshman Verlon Reed has claimed a starting spot at the 'X' receiver position ahead of Chris Fields, who is backing up Corey "Philly" Brown at the 'Y' position.

The biggest surprise, if you want to call it that, is redshirt freshman Bradley Roby listed as the starter at right cornerback. Talk about a young two-deep there. His backup is true freshman Doran Grant. If you're Akron, don't you have to test those young guys early?

The depth chart illustrates how young Ohio State is at some key positions. Nine starters are either freshmen or sophomores (10, if you count Miller). Four of the top backups on the offensive line are freshmen, while the other is sophomore guard Ivon Blackman. That's a group that can't afford many injuries. Of the 22 players on the defensive two-deep, only six are seniors, and only three of those (Tyler Moeller, Andrew Sweat and Nathan Williams) are starters.

Chalk up the relative lack of experience as another challenge this season for Luke Fickell.
We've been ranking each position group in the Big Ten, and so far we've looked at running backs and quarterbacks. Today, let's finish off the offensive skill positions with receivers and tight ends.

The Big Ten is blessed with plenty of standout wide receivers, but remember these rankings heavily account for overall depth at the position, not just isolated star power. We're also including the tight ends in this group while acknowledging that the best ones aren't necessarily big-time pass-catchers.

Here's how we rank them:

[+] EnlargeB.J. Cunningham
Andrew Weber/US PresswireB.J. Cunningham had the best numbers last season among a deep group of receivers and tight ends.
1. Michigan State: The Spartans may lack a true superstar, though senior B.J. Cunningham (50 catches for 611 yards and nine touchdowns in 2010) is pretty darn good. What Mark Dantonio can really count on is depth. Cunningham has good size at 6-foot-2, while Keshawn Martin is a speed-burner. Keith Nichol and Bennie Fowler fill out a solid cast of receivers, and when you throw in Brian Linthicum and Dion Sims at tight end, this group deserves the top spot.

2. Michigan: If Darryl Stonum weren't suspended indefinitely, this group might be No. 1. It's still pretty good as things stand now. Roy Roundtree leads the way after catching 72 passes for 935 yards and seven touchdowns last year, and Junior Hemingway is a strong secondary option for Denard Robinson. Tight end Kevin Koger is a third-year starter who can occasionally make big plays in the passing game.

3. Northwestern: Senior Jeremy Ebert (62 catches for 935 yards and eight touchdowns last season) was a first-team All-Big Ten performer as voted by the media. Demetrius Fields had 25 receptions last year, and the Wildcats are counting on big improvements from sophomores Rashad Lawrence, Tony Jones and Venric Mark. Northwestern uses its superback position as a tight end, and Drake Dunsmore had 40 catches from that spot last year.

4. Indiana: The Hoosiers languish at the bottom of many of these rankings, but receiver/tight end is a point of pride. Senior Damarlo Belcher led the Big Ten with 78 catches last year on his way to 832 yards. Even with the loss of Tandon Doss and Terrance Turner, who each had more than 60 catches in '10, new coach Kevin Wilson has a solid corps behind Belcher with Duwyce Wilson and Kofi Hughes, among others. And Ted Bolser is a highly productive tight end who had 27 catches for 407 yards and five scores a year ago.

5. Penn State: Three of the top four receivers from last year return, including No. 1 target Derek Moye (his 16.7 yards per catch average was second in the Big Ten a year ago). Justin Brown and Devon Smith need to continue moving forward. Will the Nittany Lions get anything out of Curtis Drake, who's trying to return from his second broken leg? Penn State hopes to get something out of the tight end position, where Andrew Szczerba and Garry Gilliam dealt with season-ending injuries last year.

6. Wisconsin: Once we reach the middle of these rankings, the units start to become interchangeable and a little indistinguishable. Wisconsin doesn't have to throw it too much because of its stellar running game, but the Badgers have some solid choices when they do go to the air. Senior Nick Toon has the talent to record more than the 36 catches and 459 yards he produced a year ago. Jared Abbrederis should continue to come along after a nice freshman campaign. There's potential but not much experience among the rest of the receivers. Star tight end Lance Kendricks will be tough to replace, but Jake Byrne is an outstanding blocker and Jacob Pedersen caught two touchdowns last year.

7. Nebraska: Brandon Kinnie is the leader here, and the 6-foot-3 senior isn't afraid to make the big catch. Freshmen Jamal Turner and Kenny Bell had nice springs and could add some playmaking skills to a largely unproven crew around Kinnie. Kyler Reed might be the most dangerous pass-catching tight end in the Big Ten, if not the country, after hauling in eight touchdowns and 18 yards per reception a year ago.

[+] EnlargeMarvin McNutt
Scott Boehm/Getty Images Marvin McNutt will be expected to be the No.1 wideout for the Hawkeyes this season.
8. Iowa: Senior Marvin McNutt is the go-to option after recording 861 yards and eight touchdowns last season. The Hawkeyes will look to junior Keenan Davis to improve and become the No. 2 target. Just about everyone else is green. Tight end is usually a strength for Kirk Ferentz and should be again with senior Brad Herman and a group of talented backups behind him.

9. Ohio State: Seems like we write this a lot, but the Buckeyes would be ranked higher if their star player in this group were available an entire season. But DeVier Posey's five-game suspension means this is an awfully young corps, and that inexperience showed with some inconsistent play this spring. Ohio State will need talented sophomore Corey "Philly" Brown to take a big leap forward and youngsters like Chris Fields, T.Y. Williams and James Louis to contribute in Posey's absence. Tight end Jake Stoneburner might have to become a bigger presence in the passing game.

10. Purdue: The Boilermakers have some decent depth but no proven stars. Antavian Edison is the leading returning receiver with just 314 yards last year, though the junior does have good speed. Justin Siller is talented but has had trouble staying healthy. Purdue lost two solid veterans at tight end in Kyle Adams and Jeff Lindsay and added a couple of potential replacements, including former basketball player Patrick Bade, this summer.

11. Minnesota: Da'Jon McKnight tied for second in the Big Ten last year with 10 receiving touchdowns. But the Gophers' second-leading receiver last season was MarQueis Gray, who's now their starting quarterback. Brandon Green could help after an injury-plagued season. Tight end Eric Lair can grab a few passes, as he did 39 times in 2010.

12. Illinois: The good news: A.J. Jenkins is a reliable weapon who had 746 yards and seven touchdowns last season. The bad news: There's not much experience behind him. Perhaps Ryan Lankford, who starred in the spring while Jenkins was out with an injury, will emerge as a star his sophomore year. Evan Wilson is back at tight end after starting 11 games as a freshman.
As you'd expect, Twitter is buzzing with reaction to the resignation of Jim Tressel as Ohio State's coach earlier Monday.

Ohio State held a team meeting Monday morning to announce the change, but several current and former players have tweeted about Tressel's departure. Most of the reaction is very positive.

Here's a look at some of the comments:
There are also these notable tweets:
  • Michigan defensive tackle Mike Martin: The head of the scarlet and grey Demon has been cut off!
  • Michigan cornerback Troy Woolfolk: Tressel resigned, well I guess it got too hot in the kitchen. Lol
  • Former Iowa tackle Bryan Bulaga: @OfficialAJHawk are you going to help select the new coach at OSU. I am sure they will be askig for your professional opinion.
  • Former Michigan running back Mike Hart: Great day for America! Sad day 4 Big 10, Hate OSU but tressel was a great coach! Would rather beat them when he's the coach than some1 else
  • Former Ohio State receiver Ray Small: Lol what y'all gone do 2 me that man resigned his self if u don't like me [bleep] u!!

Again, much more to come on Tressel's resignation.

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