NCF Nation: Ciante Evans

Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.

TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl preview

January, 1, 2014
1/01/14
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Nebraska seeks to avenge its loss in the Capital One Bowl from a year ago against No. 22 Georgia on Wednesday at noon ET on ESPN2. Here’s a preview:

Who to watch: The quarterbacks are a good place to start. They won't be Taylor Martinez and Aaron Murray, the record-setting senior duo who led these teams to a combined 76 points last year in Orlando; rather freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. is expected to start for the eighth time this season for Nebraska, and junior Hutson Mason gets the call for the Bulldogs for a second straight game. Also, keep an eye on Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory, an SEC-caliber star with size, speed and strength. If he’s not the best player on the field, it might be Georgia running back Todd Gurley.

What to watch: Statistically, it’s difficult to identify too many spots at which one team might exploit the other. Remember, though, Georgia was challenged by a schedule that featured five teams arguably as good or better than Nebraska’s best foe. So the numbers matter little in gauging matchups. Here’s a hunch that the Huskers, who couldn’t stop Minnesota or, for one quarter, South Dakota State, will struggle to contain Gurley. He was in contention for the title of best SEC back before the midseason injury. And watch the matchup of UGA receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett against Nebraska defensive backs Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste. It should be good.

Why to watch: The trio of Big Ten-SEC clashes on New Year’s Day is always entertaining -- at least, it is for fans of the SEC teams. Seriously, the Big Ten is 0-2 in bowls (0-4 if you count 2014 newcomers Rutgers and Maryland), and the SEC is 3-0. Perhaps this game presents the Big Ten with its best chance to win on Wednesday. If that doesn’t get you, tune in to see if Nebraska's Bo Pelini can join the likes of Mack Brown, Tom Osborne, Steve Spurrier and Barry Switzer as the eighth BCS-conference coach in history to win nine games in each of his first six years at a school.

Prediction: Georgia 34, Nebraska 24. A big day for Gurley and a typical turnover or two will spell doom for the Huskers. Look for Ameer Abdullah to keep the Huskers close for a while, but like last year, the Bulldogs will make plays when necessary late.
Ohio State hasn't been dominant or error-free the past two weeks, but the Buckeyes keep finding ways to win. Urban Meyer remains unbeaten in Columbus after an extremely hard-fought game at Northwestern, as Ohio State had to rally from halftime and fourth-quarter deficits.

Knock the Buckeyes if you'd like, but they've won 18 consecutive games, the longest streak in the nation.

It could turn out that the Buckeyes' past two opponents, Wisconsin and Northwestern, both could make cases for being the league's No. 2 squad. We've been more impressed with the one-loss Wildcats than undefeated Michigan, which gets its own shot at Ohio State on Nov. 30 at the Big House. Not much separates Northwestern, Michigan and Wisconsin right now.

Michigan State and Indiana make positive moves in the rankings, while Iowa, Penn State and Minnesota fall.

Let's take one final look at the Week 5 Power Rankings.

Here's this week's rundown ...

1. Ohio State (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): For a while it looked like Ohio State's run of perfection would come to an end Saturday night. Quarterback Braxton Miller looked rattled, and Northwestern moved the ball well against the Buckeyes' defense. But Ohio State regrouped midway through the third quarter and made enough plays on both sides of the ball to survive another tough test. Meyer stuck with Miller after considering Kenny Guiton, running back Carlos Hyde had a big night and the young Buckeyes defense stopped the run when it needed to in the fourth quarter.

2. Northwestern (4-1, 0-1; last week: 2): The talent differential that plagued Northwestern for years isn't there as much anymore, as the Wildcats can keep pace with any team in the league. The problem: They still struggle to finish big games. They might have been a yard away from upsetting Ohio State but couldn't convert a fourth-and-1 in plus territory. The inability to finish drives cost Pat Fitzgerald's crew, which held Ohio State's offense out of the end zone for nearly three quarters. Venric Mark provided a big boost in his return from injury.

3. Michigan (5-0, 1-0; last week: 4): Michigan needed a clean game and got one against Minnesota, as the Wolverines had zero turnovers in a 42-13 victory. Quarterback Devin Gardner was efficient in the pocket, and tight end Devin Funchess had career highs in both catches (seven) and receiving yards (151). Michigan's defense settled down nicely after allowing an early touchdown, as Minnesota couldn't get the explosion plays it needed to hang around. The Wolverines head back on the road this week in Happy Valley.

4. Wisconsin (3-2, 1-1; last week: 3): The Badgers had an extra week to think about their missed opportunities at Ohio State before resuming play with another big game against Northwestern. Standout running back Melvin Gordon is expected back from a knee injury, and the off week came at a good time to boost the team's overall health. Wisconsin's defense had some struggles against Ohio State's spread offense and faces another spread team this week in Northwestern.

5. Nebraska (4-1, 1-0; last week: 5): Although the Huskers didn't move up in the rankings, we feel better about their ability to rise up after seeing their defense step up against a big-play Illinois offense. Young defenders like Jared Afalava, Michael Rose and Randy Gregory performed well, and veteran nickelback Ciante Evans had two tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Nebraska's biggest issue might be at quarterback, as freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. delivered in place of the hobbled Taylor Martinez. Armstrong received plenty of help from running back Ameer Abdullah (225 rush yards, 2 TDs).

6. Michigan State (4-1, 1-0; last week: 7): We knew the Spartans had a defense, which showed up big in the second half at Iowa, especially against the run. The big news is the Spartans also have a quarterback in Connor Cook, who passed for 277 yards and two touchdowns, finding both Macgarrett Kings Jr. and Bennie Fowler for big plays. Cook was visibly upset at Notre Dame, questioning the coaches' faith in him after being pulled on the final drive. He restored that faith Saturday and put Michigan State in position to challenge for a division title.

7. Iowa (4-2, 1-1; last week: 6): Mark Weisman and the power run game had been Iowa's identity through the first five weeks. But Michigan State stopped Weisman (seven carries, 9 yards) and completely shut down Iowa's offense in the second half. The Hawkeyes once again fell victim to a special-teams fake and couldn't stop big pass plays from Michigan State. Several injuries mounted up for Iowa, and while most don't appear to be serious, the open week comes at a good time before a trip to Ohio State.

8. Indiana (3-2, 1-0; last week: 11): The off week clearly paid off for Kevin Wilson's crew, which breathed life back into its bowl hopes with an excellent performance against Penn State. Quarterback Nate Sudfeld (321 pass yards, 2 TDs) bounced back nicely from his struggles against Missouri, wide receiver Cody Latimer (nine catches, 140 yards, fumble recovery) had a huge day and the defense contained Penn State's run game. Indiana's offense faces a much bigger test this week at Michigan State, but the Hoosiers head to East Lansing with some confidence.

9. Penn State (3-2, 0-1, last week: 8): Bill O'Brien's team has some serious problems after falling to Indiana for the first time in team history. The defense didn't show up against a spread offense for the second time in three games, and Indiana completely dominated the fourth quarter. Penn State has something special with Christian Hackenberg and wide receiver Allen Robinson, but the defense clearly has taken a step back. Things only get tougher with Michigan and Ohio State up next.

10. Illinois (3-2, 0-1; last week: 9): There's no doubt Illinois has improved this season, but by how much? The Illini never mounted a serious challenge against Nebraska, even though the Huskers played without Martinez, as Tim Beckman's crew fell behind 30-5 early in the third quarter. Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has gone from great (Cincinnati) to shaky (Washington) to great (Miami University) to shaky (Nebraska). But the bigger issue is a defense that surrendered 335 rush yards to the Huskers. Illinois is off this week before a critical home stretch against Wisconsin and Michigan State.

11. Minnesota (4-2, 0-2; last week: 10): It has been a rough few weeks both on and off the field for the Gophers, who dropped their second straight game and played without head coach Jerry Kill, who remained in Minneapolis after suffering another seizure Saturday morning. Minnesota enters an off week, which will put more attention on Kill and his health. The Gophers once again lack enough explosiveness on offense to do much damage against Big Ten defenses. Minnesota resumes play Oct. 19 at Northwestern.

12. Purdue (1-4, 0-1; last week: 12): The open week gave Darrell Hazell's crew a chance to regroup. Unfortunately, an off-field issue surfaced involving wide receiver B.J. Knauf, who has been suspended for the next two games. It will be interesting to see how freshman quarterback Danny Etling performs after some time to practice as the starter. Purdue's struggling defense will be tested again as the high-powered Nebraska Cornhuskers visit Ross-Ade Stadium.
The top half of the Power Rankings remains exactly the same, but some interesting story lines are starting to develop.

Is Ohio State or Michigan the Big Ten's best team? Michigan made its case Saturday night against Notre Dame, while Ohio State's bigger tests await in Weeks 5 and 6 (Wisconsin and Northwestern). For now, we're keeping the Buckeyes at No. 1, but we'll need to see a strong performance this week on the road against Cal's high-powered offense.

Northwestern and Wisconsin held steady, and both Nebraska and Penn State looked better in Week 2. Illinois is the big mover after Saturday's dominant win against Cincinnati, while Indiana, Michigan State and Iowa fall. There's some separation after the top six, and Nos. 7-9 really could appear in any order.

These are consistent with our rankings in the ESPN.com power poll.

Here's one last look at the previous Big Ten rankings.

To the rundown …

1. Ohio State (2-0, last week: 1): Braxton Miller's knee injury created some tense moments in Columbus, but Ohio State fans settled down and settled in to the smooth sounds of Kenny G (Guiton, that is). One of the nation's best backup quarterbacks torched San Diego State for three touchdowns as a Buckeyes team that sleepwalked through the second half in Week 1 took charge from the get-go. Ohio State's young defense will be tested much more this week by the "Bear Raid" offense at Cal.

2. Michigan (2-0, last week: 2): Debate the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry all you want, but it mattered a lot for quarterback Devin Gardner and the Wolverines. Gardner proved he's a big-game quarterback and triggered an impressive offensive performance against Notre Dame's physical defense. Although Michigan's defense had some issues, it made timely plays against the Irish. The Wolverines have the look of a BCS bowl team and possibly a Big Ten champion.

3. Northwestern (2-0, last week: 3): Week 1 was all about survival for Northwestern. Saturday night, the Wildcats showed why they should contend for the Legends Division title this season. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian had their way with Syracuse's defense, and wideout Tony Jones had a huge night as Northwestern easily improved to 2-0. The Wildcats should be 4-0 in three weeks when Ohio State visits Evanston, and star running back Venric Mark should be healthy by then.

4. Wisconsin (2-0, last week: 4): The run game has been dominant, the defense suffocating and the competition level horrendous. What do we make of these Badgers after two not surprisingly dominant performances against lowly Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech? Wisconsin deserves credit for handling its business with few if any mistakes, recording back-to-back shutouts to open a season for the first time since 1958. Quarterback Joel Stave looks comfortable. But the competition goes up -- way, way up -- this week at Arizona State.

5. Nebraska (2-0, last week: 5): The Huskers defense doesn't deserve the "Blackshirts" label quite yet, but at least the unit avoided less-flattering terms for a week. Cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans set the tone for a rebound performance with pick-sixes in the first quarter, and junior-college transfer Randy Gregory applied pressure all game. The defense needs a better performance this week against UCLA, potentially the only team that can beat the Huskers during the first two months of the season.

6. Penn State (2-0, last week: 6): After a rough start, freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg settled down in his Beaver Stadium debut. He also got a ton of help from the run game, which had struggled in the opener but broke out for 251 yards and five touchdowns. Tackle DaQuan Jones triggered a suffocating Lions defense, which will be tested much more this week when Blake Bortles and Central Florida visit Happy Valley.

7. Minnesota (2-0, last week: 8): Although Aggie Vision was the real highlight Saturday night, Minnesota provided a few of its own in an easy win against New Mexico State. The Gophers continue to find creative ways to score, adding a special teams touchdown and a defensive touchdown in a 44-21 romp. Despite being short-handed at running back, Minnesota got the ground game going behind Rodrick Williams (148 yards, 1 TD), David Cobb (56 yards, 1 TD) and quarterback Philip Nelson (122 rush yards, 1 TD). The Gophers have another tuneup this week before their first real test Sept. 21 against San Jose State.

8. Michigan State (2-0, last week: 7): Can Shilique Calhoun play quarterback? The sophomore defensive end has been Michigan State's best offensive weapon in the first two games, scoring one more touchdown than the entire Spartans offense. Michigan State's defense has added a dynamic playmaking element early this season. Unfortunately, the problems on offense only seem to be worsening and the quarterback situation is anyone's guess right now.

9. Illinois (2-0, last week: 11): Surprise, surprise, the Illini are unquestionably on the rise. Few saw it coming, but Illinois walloped Cincinnati behind another impressive performance by quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and the offense. One of the nation's worst offenses has surged under coordinator Bill Cubit, scoring 87 points in the first two games. Linebacker Mason Monheim and the defense rebounded nicely after a shaky Week 1 effort. Can the Illini pull off another upset this week against Washington at Chicago's Soldier Field?
10. Indiana (1-1, last week: 9): Kevin Wilson's words last week proved prophetic as Indiana's offense lacked the efficiency it needed early on against Navy's ball-control offense. But eventually a defense has to make some stops and Indiana's once again couldn't, especially in the closing minutes. The Hoosiers surrendered 444 rush yards in a 41-35 loss, once again showing that this program hasn't turned a corner. Things get tougher this week as a very good Bowling Green squad comes to Memorial Stadium.

11. Iowa (1-1, last week: 10): Some Iowa fans undoubtedly felt better about their team after last week's loss to Northern Illinois than Saturday's win against FCS Missouri State. The Hawkeyes had just seven points through the first 37 minutes before Mark Weisman (180 rush yards, 2 TDs) took over down the stretch. Quarterback Jake Rudock showed good mobility but also threw a pick-six. Iowa faces a must-win this week as it hits the road to face rival Iowa State.

12. Purdue (1-1, last week: 12): The Boilers got a win Saturday, but they won't win many more if they don't clean up their problems on offense. If Purdue can't punch the ball into the end zone against Indiana State from inside the 5-yard line, what's going to happen against Big Ten defenses? Defensive tackle Bruce Gaston had a big day, but the Boilers need many others to elevate their play as Notre Dame visits Ross-Ade Stadium this week.
Lessons learned from Week 2 in the Big Ten:

1. Ohio State has company at the top: The widely-accepted thought going into the season was that the Big Ten would be Ohio State and everybody else. Well, after two weeks, it's fair to say the Buckeyes have company from the team they dare not name: Michigan. The Wolverines have looked mighty impressive in their first two games, especially in Saturday's 41-30 win over Notre Dame.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDevin Gardner wore No. 98 to honor Michigan great Tom Harmon, then played great against Notre Dame.
Devin Gardner has made Michigan's offense truly balanced, and he is as dynamic a playmaker as Ohio State's Braxton Miller. Greg Mattison's defense gave up some yards and points to Notre Dame but is always going to be solid, more so if Jake Ryan returns this year.

Ohio State was also very good in a 42-7 win over San Diego State, especially considering Miller got hurt early on and was replaced more than adequately by Kenny Guiton. The Buckeyes have yet to play good competition or reach their peak with their full lineup available. Their ceiling might remain higher than the Wolverines', but Ohio State still has to go to the Big House, where Brady Hoke has never lost as a head coach. Having both of these teams reach superpower status this year ultimately will be good for the league. It's early, but it looks like we're on our way toward that, though those two teams are not the only ones to consider in the conference race. Speaking of which ...

2. Northwestern is a legitimate contender: Ohio State and Michigan are the Big Ten's top two teams, but Northwestern isn't far behind. Pat Fitzgerald's team needed some offense from its defense to survive a tough opener at Cal last week. The offense needed no such help Saturday as top quarterback Kain Colter returned to the field and, along with quarterback Trevor Siemian, wide receiver Tony Jones and others, shredded Syracuse's defense to the tune of 48 points and 581 total yards. Colter and Siemian combined to go 30-of-37 passing for 375 yards with four touchdowns, no interceptions and 91 rush yards.

Northwestern hasn't even been at full strength yet -- star running back/return man Venric Mark continues to nurse an injury -- and still looks like a superior team to the 2012 version, which won 10 games. Although the defense remains vulnerable to the big play, it also generates takeaways, continuing a theme from last season. The tough part of the non-league slate is over, as Northwestern has only Western Michigan and Maine left before two weeks to prepare for an Oct. 5 showdown with Ohio State, which should be the most-anticipated game of Fitzgerald's tenure. Northwestern's league schedule isn't easy, but it should be in the thick of the Legends Division race when November rolls around.

3. Song remains the same for Michigan State, Indiana: What good is it being outstanding on one side of the ball if the other side can't hold its own weight? Michigan State and Indiana have changed a lot of names in an effort to shore up their crummy offense and defense, respectively, but the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Spartans' quarterback picture is becoming an absurd theater; Mark Dantonio gave Connor Cook his first career start and Tyler O'Connor his first collegiate action but had to go back to incumbent starter Andrew Maxwell to start the second half against USF after both struggled. The three quarterbacks combined to go just 12-of-24 for 94 yards and did nothing to clear up the picture, while the offense managed only one score against a Bulls team that gave up 53 to McNeese State a week earlier. Thank goodness for the MSU defense, but it can't carry everything on its back all season again.

It's the opposite story at Indiana, which supposedly practiced all offseason to prepare for the Navy option but then looked as if it had never seen such a thing before in a dispiriting 41-35 loss. The Hoosiers have added some talented freshmen to the defensive mix, but they couldn't prevent the Midshipmen from rolling up 444 rushing yards. Indiana can still throw it and score with anybody and has put up 108 points in two games, but Kevin Wilson's team isn't going bowling unless the defense becomes competent. If only the Spartans and Hoosiers could combine into an all-star team, we'd really have something.

4. Mystery lingers around Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota: We're still waiting to learn something about the Badgers, Huskers and Gophers, who are a combined 6-0 but have yet to face a true test (sorry, Wyoming).

Wisconsin has posted back-to-back shutouts to open a season for the first time since 1958, and the run game looks as strong as ever with James White, Melvin Gordon and even Corey Clement, each of whom has rushed for more than 100 yards in the first two games. But few teams have faced weaker competition (Massachusetts, Tennessee Tech).

Nebraska's defense performed much better in Week 2, as cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans both had pick-sixes. But the Huskers' performance came against a Southern Miss team that now has lost 14 straight.

Minnesota continues to find creative ways to score, adding touchdowns on both defense and special teams in an easy win at New Mexico State. Then again, who have the Gophers faced? Fortunately, we'll find out a lot more next week as Wisconsin travels to Arizona State and Nebraska hosts UCLA. The wait will be a little longer for Minnesota, which hosts high-powered San Jose State in Week 4.

5. Illini are cellar-dwellers no more: Illinois has held pretty steady at or near the bottom of our Big Ten power rankings for about a year. But while the Illini are still far from league contenders, they no longer can be viewed as the conference's worst team after Saturday's stunning 45-17 win over Cincinnati improved their record to 2-0. The Bill Cubit-directed offense looks legit, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is playing as well as he has in his career.

The Big Ten's No. 12 team now has to be Purdue, which lost to that same Cincinnati squad, 42-7, in the opener and needed a pair of late defensive stops to hold off Indiana State 20-14. Yes, the same Indiana State team that Indiana destroyed 73-35 in the Hoosiers' opener. The Boilermakers once again were plagued by communication issues and an ineffective offense that got outgained by nine yards by an FCS opponent. Darrell Hazell's team figures to be a heavy underdog in its next six games, beginning with Notre Dame this weekend.

Iowa also still has a lot to prove after struggling to put away Missouri State at home until the fourth quarter. At least the Hawkeyes finally snapped their seven-game losing streak, though beating an FBS team would be nice.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 2

September, 8, 2013
9/08/13
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Recognizing the best and brightest from the Big Ten in Week 2:
  • Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase: The Illini senior had a big game for the second straight week, this time against strong competition. Scheelhaase completed 26 of 37 attempts for 312 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in his team's surprising 45-17 win over Cincinnati.
  • Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun: The Spartans sophomore has scored three defensive touchdowns in his first two games. Michigan State's offense, meanwhile, has produced only two touchdowns in the same span. Calhoun's incredible start to 2013 continued in a 21-6 win over South Florida, as he recovered a fumble and ran it into the end zone from 4 yards out in the first quarter and added a 56-yard interception return in the third quarter. Can Calhoun play quarterback?
  • Northwestern QBs Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter: No team has a more effective one-two punch at quarterback than the Wildcats. Returning after missing all but two plays of the Cal game with a concussion, Colter jumped right back into the flow of things, and Siemian continued his precision passing. Combined, the two of them completed 30 of 37 passes for 375 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions, in the 48-27 win over Syracuse. Colter added 87 yards rushing and a score on 11 carries.
  • Michigan QB Devin Gardner and WR Jeremy Gallon: The Killer G's had a huge night in a 41-30 win over Notre Dame under the lights at the Big House. Gardner completed 21 of 33 passes for 294 yards and four touchdowns while adding 82 rushing yards and a fifth score. He did make one giant mistake by throwing the ball from his own end zone to Stephon Tuitt to put the Irish back in the game, but for the most part he carved up the vaunted Notre Dame defense. And his favorite target was Gallon, who's only 5-foot-8 but plays so much larger than that on the big stage. Gallon hauled in eight catches for 184 yards and three touchdowns as the Irish secondary just couldn't slow him down.
  • Nebraska's secondary: The Huskers bounced back from Week 1's scary defensive performance with a fine showing on that side of the ball in a 56-13 win over Southern Miss. Give a lot of credit to the Nebraska defensive backs. Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste returned an interception 43 yards for a score less than two minutes into the game. Nickelback Ciante Evans added two interceptions, and safety Corey Cooper grabbed his first career pick. Corner Josh Mitchell chipped in with three tackles for loss. The Huskers will need that kind of effort again next week versus UCLA.

Huskers search for defensive answers

September, 3, 2013
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Of the five touchdowns Wyoming scored on Saturday in Nebraska’s 37-34 escape, none ate even two minutes of clock.

The last two drives, which covered 114 yards, took all of five plays and 53 seconds. When time expired as Brett Smith’s heave from the Cowboys’ 31-yard line falling harmlessly in Nebraska territory, a distinct feeling of relief blanketed Memorial Stadium.

Should it have instead been dread of what’s to come? The Nebraska defense is trending in a dangerous direction.

Wyoming’s 35 first downs are the most ever surrendered by the Huskers. The Cowboys’ 28 plays of 10 yards or more (on 74 offensive snaps) matched UCLA -- which visits Lincoln on Sept. 14 -- as the most recorded by an FBS program in the opening week of college football this year.

Defensive coordinator John Papuchis, in the aftermath on Saturday, described the fourth-quarter feeling as a “nightmare.”

“It’s a win,” Papuchis said, “but it’s not good enough.”

Yet Bo Pelini, the Huskers’ sixth-year coach who cut his teeth as a defensive coordinator in the Big 12 and Southeastern Conference, said he watched film into the early hours of Sunday, then went to bed hours after the game with a “pretty good” feeling about his team.

“There were a lot of positives that came out of it that got masked,” Pelini said.

Admittedly, Pelini is not a stats guy.

So perhaps he’s not concerned that in Nebraska’s past 12 quarters against Wyoming, Georgia and Wisconsin, it has allowed more than 1,800 yards of total offense. Each of those games sit among the nine highest total-yardage outputs ever produced by a Nebraska foe.

Including a loss to UCLA last year in which the Bruins gained 653 yards, the second-highest figure all time against Nebraska, that’s four of the top nine in the past 12 months.

Pelini, who’s not known for his tolerance of poor defensive execution, talked on Monday in positive tones about growth. He used a form of the word “learn” four times in his 2-minute, 15-second opening statement.

Of Saturday’s debacle, Pelini said the Nebraska coaches may have oversimplified matters for their young defenders. Most of the mistakes, he said, were mental.

What gives? Why all the patience and understanding?

“I’ll put it this way,” he said. “It’s very fixable. The things that hurt us the other day are very fixable.”

Meanwhile, the natives are growing restless. They’re waiting for Pelini and his staff to actually fix it.

The coach praised Smith, who accounted for 475 yards, including 383 through the air. Smith consistently avoided the Nebraska pass rush, revamped with new contributors Vincent Valentine, Avery Moss and Randy Gregory.

“I think he has a unique feel for not only scrambling,” Pelini said, “but when to step up in the pocket and when to flush himself.”

Smith nearly flushed the Huskers’ NCAA-record streak of season-opening wins.

Don’t look now, but UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is even better. He showed it against Nevada last week, ranking third nationally in Total Quarterback Rating.

Southern Miss awaits on Saturday. It has lost 13 straight games, including a 49-20 decision in Lincoln a year ago.

It could be a get-well game for the Huskers.

Nebraska needs it after Wyoming.

“Everyone was just over-hyped,” senior cornerback Ciante Evans. “Guys were worried about not making mistakes too much, and they were just over-thinking the game. But that just comes with the season opener.”

Last year, it came with several games. After an offseason to replay in their minds the bludgeonings delivered by Wisconsin and Georgia, the Huskers sought a change of pace to start this year.

They’ll have to wait at least another week.

LINCOLN, Neb. -- When Nebraska returned from a 10-day break in the middle of spring practice earlier this week, head coach Bo Pelini had something waiting for his defensive players.

He gave them a nearly 120-page packet that included photos from every play of a lackluster scrimmage the defense had turned in right before spring break. Mistakes were circled and highlighted on the photos, along with written descriptions of what should have happened on each play.

"It looked like the third Harry Potter book," defensive lineman Jason Ankrah said. "I'm still going through it."

Veteran players couldn't recall receiving such a voluminous breakdown before. Pelini told ESPN.com he spent several hours putting it together while the players were away.

"I did it so they could see the level of detail required and the things we need to do to have great success," Pelini said. "I was saying, 'This is reality. This is where we are, and this is where we have to go.'"

If that last bit sounds familiar, it should. Where the Huskers have been under Pelini -- consistently good, not great -- and where they still need to go -- to a championship level -- has become the inescapable topic of conversation in Big Red country.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsNebraska coach Bo Pelini has a message for those who want to see him make changes to his defense. "That's asinine," he said.
Nebraska has won either nine or 10 games in each of Pelini's first five seasons in Lincoln, and his 49 wins in his first five years rank 15th-best in FBS history, according to the school. Only three other FBS teams -- Alabama, Boise State and Oregon -- have won at least nine games in each of the past five years.

Yet the Cornhuskers have also lost exactly four games in each season under Pelini, and the proud program still hasn't won a conference championship since Bill Clinton was in office -- 1999. Pelini's teams have been close, going to three conference title games and coming within a controversial second of winning the Big 12 in 2009 against Texas. Yet in some ways, Nebraska seems to be getting farther away from reaching the elite level.

The team was thoroughly embarrassed in a 70-31 trouncing by 7-5 Wisconsin in last year's Big Ten championship game. The Huskers suffered massive defensive breakdowns in their four 2012 losses, allowing a staggering 53.5 points per game in those defeats. Since entering the Big Ten in 2011, Nebraska has given up nearly 46 points per game in its losses. Last year's Big Ten title game in particular provided a flashpoint for critics who wonder whether Pelini will ever return the program to glory.

"People were on the ledge about the way that team represented the school and the Blackshirts tradition," said Michael Grey, who hosts an afternoon sports call-in show on Omaha's ESPN radio station. "You can point to the nine or 10 wins [per year], but the losses -- and the way that they've lost -- tend to overshadow the wins, especially last year. It's been a long, long time since they hung a banner in North Stadium, and I know they want one bad."

Pelini built dominant defenses in his first few seasons, led by imposing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, while his offenses struggled at times to find their footing. The reverse has been true the past couple of seasons, as Nebraska has been among the top-scoring teams in the Big Ten but has been gashed defensively in key games.

Despite those recent setbacks, Pelini scoffs at those who suggest he needs to make changes on defense.

"That's asinine," he said. "I don't listen to that. People don't have a clue.

"At the end of the day, we've just got to be more consistent in what we're doing. A lot of times when we got hurt [defensively], it wasn't something the offense did to us; a lot of it was self-imposed, and that's easily fixable."

Pelini said there were "common themes" in the poor defensive performances but doesn't want to identify those publicly. He does second-guess himself on whether he should have played some of his younger, more athletic defenders last year, especially down the stretch when several starters were dealing with injuries. This year, he doesn't have a choice in that regard.

Nebraska is replacing eight defensive starters this spring and has almost no game experience among its front seven. Pelini and defensive coordinator John Papuchis are focused on teaching the younger guys, whom they feel have the potential to make the defense great again. The Huskers clearly lacked some speed on the edge last year, which showed in losses to UCLA and Ohio State, and they've worked to address that in recruiting.

[+] EnlargeNebraska Cornhuskers
Brian BennettNebraska has won its share of conference titles, but none since 1999.
But attention to detail -- not just on defense, but on an offense that has shot itself in the foot too many times with turnovers in big games -- is paramount for success, Pelini says. Hence the packet of mistake highlights.

"We are extremely, extremely close," receiver Jamal Turner said. "It's just the details, the small things."

Some players, including quarterback Taylor Martinez, talked last spring about their aims to play for the national title. Such talk has been conspicuously absent this year.

"Our motto this year is it's time to put up or shut up," defensive back Ciante Evans said. "Fans are expecting [a championship], and honestly I believe one needs to be delivered. But we've been talking about it so long; we need to just go out and do it."

This is a big year for the Huskers, who once again have a prolific offense and have a much more manageable Big Ten schedule. Pelini has won too many games to be considered on the hot seat. But Nebraska has a new athletic director in Shawn Eichorst, who replaced Tom Osborne in January and has no ties to Pelini.

Osborne could relate to Pelini's plight. The Nebraska legend won nine or 10 games in each of his first nine seasons and once faced the criticism that he couldn't win the big one, until he won three national championships in four years at the end of his career.

Will Pelini follow a similar path? Or will the school that fired Frank Solich after 58 wins in six years get fed up with the championship drought?

Pelini, for his part, seems unburdened by the question.

"I'm proud of what we've done up to this point," he said. "Yeah, I want to win a championship, but we've been consistent in winning. Our kids are graduating at maybe the highest rate in the history of the program, and our kids are doing things the right way on and off the field.

"Now we've just got to put it all together and go for it."

Video: Nebraska DB Ciante Evans

March, 28, 2013
3/28/13
1:00
PM ET

 Nebraska defensive back Ciante Evans talks about the Huskers' spring practice and the development of the team's young defense.

ESPN.com's All-Big Ten team

December, 10, 2012
12/10/12
9:00
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As you may have noticed, we weren't exactly big fans of the official All-Big Ten teams that were announced last month.

We don't claim to know more about football than the league's coaches, not for a second. But after watching every Big Ten game all season long, we found ourselves scratching our heads at some choices that didn't seem to jibe with what we were seeing. Well, it's time to put our money where our mouths are and offer our official ESPN.com picks for the 2012 All-Big Ten team. Now you can argue with our choices, which look like this:

Offense

QB: Braxton Miller, Ohio State
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State
WR: Allen Robinson, Penn State
WR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska
TE: Kyle Carter, Penn State
OT: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OG: Spencer Long, Nebraska
C: Matt Stankiewitch, Penn State
OG: Brian Mulroe, Northwestern
OT: Jack Mewhort, Ohio State

Defense

DL: John Simon, Ohio State
DL: Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State
DL: Jordan Hill, Penn State
LB: Michael Mauti, Penn State
LB: Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
DB: Bradley Roby, Ohio State
DB: Ciante Evans, Nebraska
DB: Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State
DB: Daimion Stafford, Nebraska

Special teams

PK: Jeff Budzien, Northwestern
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State
All-purpose: Venric Mark, Northwestern

The first thing you might notice with our team is that we're lining up as a 3-4 defense. We decided to go with only three defensive linemen and four linebackers because linebacker was such a strong position for the league this year. And even with four, we still left off very worthy players such as Wisconsin's Mike Taylor, Penn State's Gerald Hodges and Michigan State's Max Bullough. Going with three down linemen meant we excluded Purdue's Kawann Short, a great player who was slowed by injuries during the heart of the Boilers' schedule. ... One of our toughest calls was at tight end. You can make a great case for either Carter or Michigan State's Dion Sims, and their numbers are incredibly close. ... We chose four defensive backs instead of two corners and two safeties, just as the Big Ten does with its official teams. And we were happy to do so since we thought the safety position was a little lacking this year overall. And since Evans is a nickelback, it kind of works, anyway. ... We went with Michigan State's Bell in a close call over Northwestern's Mark but still got Mark on our team as the all-purpose player, which fits his skills since he is a top-flight punt returner. ... Ohio State leads the way with six selections, followed by Penn State with five and Nebraska with four.
INDIANAPOLIS -- When the Big Ten championship game ended and both teams went to the middle of the field to shake hands, Nebraska safety P.J. Smith stayed back a few yards.

Hands on his hips, Smith simply stared at the Wisconsin players celebrating a 70-31 victory and a league title. It was almost too much for the senior to process.

"Everything, I mean, everything went wrong," he would say a few minutes later in a news conference. "It's just ... I don't know. It's hard to explain."

As a group, the Cornhuskers clearly appeared dumbfounded by this result. They went into Saturday's game having won six straight games to cap a 10-2 regular season. After a humiliating 63-38 loss at Ohio State in early October, the team bonded together and got its defense back to playing at a level worthy of the Blackshirts label.

Then came this nightmare of a performance, as Wisconsin ran for 539 yards, the most rushing yards ever surrendered by a Nebraska defense. The Badgers had 42 points at halftime. When they scored their ninth touchdown early in the fourth quarter, Huskers coach Bo Pelini turned his back to the field and threw his play sheet in the air.

"Shock doesn't even begin to ... shock doesn't even begin to explain it," he said.

[+] EnlargeNebraska's P.J. Smith
AP Photo/Michael Conroy"Everything, I mean, everything went wrong," Nebraska's P.J. Smith said. "It's just ... I don't know. It's hard to explain."
So what in the heck happened? Pelini said the Huskers practiced against "99 percent" of what Wisconsin used on offense. But the Badgers showed several new wrinkles and a handful of trick plays. While Nebraska was worried about the interior of its defensive line because of an injury to starting tackle Baker Steinkuhler, the Badgers spent more time than normal running outside. Their three terrific tailbacks repeatedly beat Nebraska defenders to the edge and then turned the corner for huge gains.

"They were bouncing runs to the outside to get us in space," defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "We've had some struggles with that this year, and they exposed us with that tonight."

Wisconsin dictated play with its offensive line, which has improved immeasurably since the Huskers' 30-27 win against the Badgers in Lincoln on Sept. 29. Nebraska contributed to its own demise by continually missing tackles and losing leverage. The most embarrassing moment in a night full of them for Big Red came when Montee Ball spun out of an arm tackle from Jason Ankrah and raced down the sideline, where cornerback Ciante Evans had the angle on him. But Ball stiff-armed Evans to the turf and scooted in for another touchdown.

"They controlled us up front, and when they do that, you don't have a chance," defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said. "It just got out of hand, and there wasn't a whole lot we could do to help. That's bad when you're a coach, because they're looking toward you. And I didn't have an answer."

The blowout loss was wildly disappointing on so many levels for Nebraska.

The program still hasn't won a conference title since 1999 and likely won't ever have a better opportunity than this championship game presented, against a five-loss team that finished third in the Leaders Division. Ohio State looks like it is building toward dominance and could be a formidable opponent in Indianapolis for years to come.

The defeat also raises familiar, uncomfortable questions about Pelini's ability to get this team over the hump. Pelini is 49-19 in Lincoln and has won at least nine games every season. But the Huskers have had some notable defensive disasters under a coach known for his knowledge of that side of the ball. In their three losses this season, they have allowed 653 yards to UCLA, 498 to Ohio State and now 640 to Wisconsin. They thought they had it fixed after the Ohio State game. They were wrong.

"Hell, we were the No. 15 [total] defense even with the UCLA and Ohio State game on top of us," senior linebacker Will Compton said. "We killed it at practice last week. I'm at a loss for words right now. I'm embarrassed. It's just awful."

These humbling setbacks shouldn't be happening at the end of Year 5 under Pelini. So the Nebraska fan base will debate again whether he can get the program over the hump or whether he's taken the Huskers as far up the mountain as he can. It sounds silly to say Pelini will be on the hot seat, but Huskers fans demand championships.

A bleary-eyed Pelini opened and closed his news conference with an apology to Nebraska fans everywhere. But he bristled when asked whether Saturday's loss showed cracks in his foundation.

"You can try to put a big thing on it," he said. "It's on me. Put it on me."

The Cornhuskers hadn't suffered this type of loss with so much on the line since Colorado beat them 62-36 in the final regular-season game of 2001. That Nebraska team still somehow found its way into the BCS national title game. This one just went from a potential Rose Bowl appearance to a possible spot in the Outback Bowl.

"This was it for us," Compton said. "And we blew it."

All that's left is another painful search for answers.

INDIANAPOLIS -- A five-loss Wisconsin team that didn't win its division and, according to many, didn't belong in the Big Ten championship game dominated No. 12 Nebraska from the onset. The Badgers punched their ticket to the Rose Bowl for the third consecutive year in by far their best performance of the season.

Some quick thoughts from a mostly stunned Lucas Oil Stadium following Wisconsin's 70-31 victory.

It was over when: Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, exploiting Nebraska's game-long inability to defend the edge, scored on a 16-yard touchdown midway through the second quarter to put the Badgers up 35-10. Yes, this game was over that early, if not sooner. The Badgers had weathered a small Nebraska rally after scoring two touchdowns in the first 2:07 and reclaimed a commanding lead on Ball's run. Just in case Nebraska had any notions of another second-half rally, Ball raced 57 yards to the end zone in the third quarter, posterizing Huskers nickelback Ciante Evans along the way.

Game ball goes to: Wisconsin's running backs. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada was masterful in mixing and matching the Badgers' three top backs -- Ball, junior James White and freshman Melvin Gordon -- each of whom eclipsed 100 rushing yards. Ball (202 rushing yards, 3 TDs) stole the show in the third quarter, while Gordon (216 rushing yards, 1 TD) set the tone with a 56-yard touchdown on the fourth play of the game. White had a rushing touchdown and a passing touchdown out of the Barge formation in the first half and added another rushing score as Wisconsin stormed out to a 42-10 halftime lead. He finished with 109 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns along with his passing score.

Stat of the game: There's something about Wisconsin's rushing offense and the state of Indiana this season. Despite an inconsistent rushing attack all season, the Badgers went nuts in their three games in the Hoosier State. They had 467 rushing yards and four touchdowns Oct. 13 at Purdue, a team-record 564 rushing yards and seven touchdowns Nov. 10 at Indiana and 539 rushing yards and eight touchdowns Saturday night.

Best call: There are so many to choose from, as Canada saved all his tricks for Saturday night. We saw the Barge a bunch, including White's pass to Sam Arneson at the end of the first half. But we'll go with a pitch from quarterback Curt Phillips to receiver Jared Abbrederis, a high school signal-caller who threw back to Phillips for a 27-yard gain. White scored from a yard out on the next play.

Second guessing: Down 49-10, the Huskers showed some life when Jamal Turner appeared to score on a 55-yard reception early in the third quarter. But the play was brought back when officials flagged Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell for unnecessary roughness on a block against Wisconsin's Devin Smith. Bell led with his shoulder, and while the play looked ugly, it seemed like a clean hit.

What it means: Wisconsin becomes the first five-loss team to punch its ticket to the Rose Bowl. While the Badgers undoubtedly saved their best for last, their advancement likely will increase criticism and mockery of the Big Ten after a rough season. After a wildly inconsistent season on offense, the Badgers had everything click in their most important game of the season. Nebraska, meanwhile, had its worst performance since an Oct. 6 beating at Ohio State. The game certainly raises questions about the Huskers, which were far from dominant in Legends Division play and overcame sloppiness with second-half fortitude. After so many escapes, the Huskers dug themselves way too deep a hole against Wisconsin. Nebraska is still searching for its first conference title since 1999.
The regular-season predictions race is over, and Brian Bennett is still choking on Adam Rittenberg's dust. Fortunately for Mr. Bennett, the postseason brings new hope for bragging rights.

One final Big Ten game remains on the schedule, and it's for the right to go to the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. Nebraska faces Wisconsin on Saturday night in the Big Ten Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Here's how we see things shaking out:

No. 12 Nebraska versus Wisconsin

Adam Rittenberg: Nebraska is three games better than Wisconsin in the win column, but the teams are fairly evenly matched, as we saw Sept. 29 at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln. Wisconsin has been in every game this season and, with a few bounces here and there, could have the same record as Nebraska. The championship game ultimately will be a microcosm of both teams' seasons. Nebraska starts sloppily and commits two first-quarter turnovers, one of which Wisconsin converts into a Montee Ball touchdown run. The Badgers attack the middle of Nebraska's defensive line effectively in the first half and lead 14-10 at halftime. But Nebraska makes the right personnel adjustments and turns in a big third quarter behind Rex Burkhead (120 rush yards, 2 TDs). Wisconsin's defense stabilizes in the fourth, and Curt Phillips leads a late scoring drive to tie things up and send it to overtime. In the extra session, Nebraska's defense holds Wisconsin to three points, setting up a game-winning touchdown run by Taylor Martinez. Nebraska 27, Wisconsin 24 (OT)

Brian Bennett: Overtime, eh? I see you're predicting a long night for us at Lucas Oil Stadium. Wisconsin wouldn't want to see an extra period, since the Badgers are 0-3 in overtime games this season. Every Badgers game is close, but I don't see a lot of ways that they can upset Nebraska, which has gotten a lot better on defense since Sept. 29. The Huskers fell behind big early in that one primarily because of turnovers, which are always a concern for Bo Pelini's team. I don't think Nebraska will be as sloppy with the ball in this one, but I could see the Huskers coming out a little tight as the favorites with more to lose. A Ball touchdown run puts the Badgers up early as Wisconsin pounds the ball at a defensive line missing Baker Steinkuhler. Ultimately, though, Nebraska's speed and depth wear down a very good Wisconsin defense on the turf with its endless array of sweeps and quick-hit passes. Martinez throws for two touchdowns and runs for another, and Burkhead breaks off a long scoring run against a tiring Badgers D in the second half. Curt Phillips and the Wisconsin passing game struggle against what has become one of the nation's best pass defenses, and Ciante Evans shows All-Big Ten voters what they missed with a key interception. Nebraska pulls away late and celebrates with roses. Nebraska 28, Wisconsin 20

Final regular-season records

Adam Rittenberg: 76-20 (.792)
Brian Bennett: 71-25 (.740)
The 2012 All-Big Ten teams and individual award winners will be revealed at 7 p.m. ET tonight on the Big Ten Network. We'll post the full lists shortly thereafter as well as reaction.

The four major awards -- Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Freshman of the Year -- will be revealed Tuesday night. We will have our official blog endorsements for each of these throughout Tuesday, so be sure to check in.

To clarify, we don't have official votes for All-Big Ten (not like we cover the league closer than anyone year-round or anything, but we're not bitter), but we will reveal our own all-conference team at a later date.

For now, we're going to give our opinions on some of the key debates surrounding this year's all-conference team.

1. The Big Ten has three elite running backs -- Wisconsin's Montee Ball, Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell and Northwestern's Venric Mark -- and only two spots on the first-team All-Big Ten team. Who makes it and who doesn't?

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell, Etienne Sabino
Mike Carter/US PRESSWIRELe'Veon Bell was the workhorse for the Michigan State offense this season.
Brian Bennett: This is an extremely difficult decision. I was prepared to go with Ball and Mark before Bell put up his huge, 266-yard performance against Minnesota last week. Someone very deserving is going to get left off this list, and in my book that is Mark. It's hard to ignore Bell, who's leading the Big Ten and is No. 3 nationally in rushing while carrying it a ridiculous 29 times per game. The Spartans might have only won a couple of games without him. And Ball turned it up big time in conference play, leading his team to the Big Ten title game. So I'll take those two guys, with sincere apologies to Mark, who had a wonderful season in his own right.

Adam Rittenberg: All three of these players were so valuable to their respective offenses. Ball struggled early but came on strong during Big Ten play and set the NCAA's all-time touchdowns mark. Bell is arguably the nation's top workhorse back, racking up an insane 350 carries. And yet neither impacted games quite as much as Mark, who broke off more long runs and also was brilliant on returns. He transformed a Northwestern offense that had been reliant on the pass for years and had no dynamic run threat. It's really a shame the All-Big Ten team doesn't have a return specialist, as that would be a way to get all three men on the first team. I have no issue with Ball and Bell, but it's a little hard to ignore the running back for the best team of the three. While it's tough not to have Bell on the first team, I'm going to go with Ball and Mark here.

2. Arguably no Big Ten position has more elite players than linebacker. The first-team All-Big Ten squad includes only three selections. Who makes the cut?

Adam Rittenberg: While I'd love to officially vote for All-Big Ten, this position group would drive me nuts because there are so many good choices. Penn State's Michael Mauti and Ohio State's Ryan Shazier have to be there. They're the two leading candidates for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Mauti triggered Penn State's effort on defense, while Shazier put up insane numbers in Big Ten games (15 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 1 interception, 8 pass breakups, 2 forced fumbles). The big decision is the third linebacker -- we'll likely have four LBs on our All-Big Ten squad. It's between Michigan's Jake Ryan and Wisconsin's Mike Taylor for me, and I'm going to go with Ryan, who made a few more impact plays during the Big Ten season (5 forced fumbles, 13 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks). Taylor, Michigan State's Max Bullough and Penn State's Gerald Hodges also were terrific, but I'm happy with these three.

Brian Bennett: I'm in agreement here. No two defensive players were more valuable to their teams than Mauti and Shazier. In addition to their great performances, Shazier held a thin linebacking corps together, while Mauti helped an entire program stay together. And Ryan simply made more impact plays at crucial times than the other outstanding linebackers who are All-Big Ten candidates. It seemed like every time you looked up during a Michigan game, the guy with the flowing blond locks was creating havoc. Linebacker was a major strength in the league, and even picking a second team here between Taylor, Bullough, Hodges and Chris Borland is no easy task.

3. Ohio State's Braxton Miller is a likely Heisman Trophy finalist and the leading candidate for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. It would be a surprise if he isn't the first-team All-Big Ten quarterback. Who should be the second-team QB, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez or Penn State's Matt McGloin?

Brian Bennett: Take nothing away from McGloin, who led the Big Ten with 3,271 passing yards and 24 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Just an amazing year for the fifth-year senior, who would win the most improved player award if the league had such a thing. The choice here, though, is Martinez. Yes, he still gets a little careless with the ball sometimes. But he was in complete command of the Big Ten's best offense, carrying it after star running back Rex Burkhead went down. He improved greatly as a passer, completing 63.3 percent of his throws while compiling nearly 2,500 passing yards and 21 touchdowns. He also averaged 5.4 yards per carry in conference play and finished No. 1 in the league in total offense. His ability to lead Nebraska on wild comebacks and get the Cornhuskers into the Big Ten title game can't be overlooked.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesTaylor Martinez led Nebraska to the Big Ten title game.
Adam Rittenberg: Yep, agree with you on this one. Both players are vastly improved from 2011 -- McGloin more so than Martinez -- but Martinez's running ability really sets him apart in my mind. He had 833 rush yards and eight touchdowns, spurring a ground attack that didn't have Burkhead for most of the season. Like his Nebraska team, Martinez got sloppy at times and played really poorly in the loss to Ohio State. But you can't discount what he did in all of those comebacks, which turned out to be Nebraska's hallmark in reaching the Big Ten championship game. I absolutely love what McGloin did this season in Bill O'Brien's NFL-style offense, leading the league in pass yards and pass touchdowns and setting team records in the process. There'd be no major outcry here if he appears on the second-team All-Big Ten squad ahead of Martinez. But if I had to choose, I'd go with Martinez.

4. Cornerback has been a bit of a pleasant surprise this year in the Big Ten. The All-Big Ten team only designates four "defensive backs," so conceivably four corners could make it. Which Big Ten corners deserve to be on the first team this season?

Brian Bennett: Ohio State's Bradley Roby is the no-brainer here. The redshirt sophomore developed into arguably the best cover corner in the league this year and is a lock for one of the first-team All-Big Ten spots. My second choice would be Nebraska's Ciante Evans. Though Evans plays nickel, the Huskers ask a lot out of nickelbacks in their scheme, and Evans was their best coverage guy for the nation's No. 2-ranked pass defense. I'd prefer to have two corners and two safeties on the team, but if we went with three cornerbacks, I'd probably turn next to Purdue's Josh Johnson, who eclipsed Ricardo Allen as his team's best defensive back this year.

Adam Rittenberg: There's no doubt cornerback is a stronger group than safety this season. I'm going to go with three first-team All-Big Ten corners, starting with Ohio State's Roby. The sophomore has been the best defensive back in the league this season, tying for second nationally in passes defended with 19, recording two interceptions and scoring three touchdowns. The play he made at Wisconsin covering two different players in the end zone was one of the best I've seen in recent years. I also like Evans as a first-team selection, as he made a bunch of plays for the league's top pass defense. My third choice comes down to Johnson and Minnesota's Michael Carter. I love what Johnson did, but Carter was more noticeable during Big Ten play and seemed to blossom at the end of his career. I'd go with Johnson and Northwestern's Nick VanHoose on the second team.

5. All of the position awards will be passed out tonight. Let's dissect two of them: the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year and the Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the Year. Who wins?

Adam Rittenberg: Ah, two goodies. The tight end award comes down to two players who missed portions of the season with injuries: Penn State's Kyle Carter and Michigan State's Dion Sims. Both produced at a high rate, with Carter recording 36 receptions for 453 yards and two touchdowns, while Sims, Michigan's only reliable pass-catching threat, recorded 33 receptions for 451 yards and two scores. Man, that's close, but Carter gets the nod from me. He gave Penn State such a boost on offense. The defensive lineman award comes down to Ohio State defensive end John Simon and Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill. Both are sure-fire first-team All-Big Ten selections, but I'm going with Simon, who led the Big Ten in sacks (9) and ranked third in tackles for loss (14.5). He would have had a big final game, like Hill did, had he been healthy.

Brian Bennett: Can I combine all the Penn State tight ends into one? Call them Kyle James Lehman, and then you'd really have something. It is another razor-thin call, but I'll take Michigan State's Sims. He played two fewer games than Carter, but remember that Sims played through injuries at times this year and wasn't always 100 percent. When he was healthy, he was the best big-play threat at tight end in the league and the Spartans' only real go-to guy in the passing game. He's a physical specimen unlike any other Big Ten tight end. As for defensive linemen, you named the probable two leading contenders. I'd also throw Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins in there, as he was a dominant run-stuffer. But I'm with you on Simon. He not only put up some great stats, but he played through a lot of pain this year and was unquestionably the emotional leader for the 12-0 Buckeyes.
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My eyes are burning after watching the Nebraska-Iowa game, but Husker eyes are smiling, and they should be.

Nebraska will represent the Legends Division next week at the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis. The Huskers (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten) earned the right to face Wisconsin after outlasting Iowa 13-7 in a sloppy game in frigid conditions at Kinnick Stadium. Coach Bo Pelini's team fulfilled his "win-out" pledge in Columbus in claiming its final six conference contests.

Everyone expected Nebraska to win Friday, but how it happened came as a surprise. The Big Ten's top offense marched 75 yards on its first possession before settling for a field goal, and then did very little after that point. In between the opening drive and Nebraska's 43-yard touchdown march late in the third quarter, the offense had only 48 total yards.

This win was all about the defense and running back Rex Burkhead, who returned from injury to give the sputtering Huskers attack a boost in the second half. Iowa's inept offense and hyper-conservative coaching staff also deserves an assist in Nebraska's win. Hawkeyes fans deserve better (more on this later).

Nebraska defensive end Eric Martin quietly had put together an all-conference caliber season -- 7.5 sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss -- but most Big Ten fans probably didn't notice him until today. Martin was the single most dominant player on the field at Kinnick Stadium, constantly harassing quarterback James Vandenberg and disrupting pass plays. Martin's stats are impressive (seven tackles, three tackles for loss, one forced fumble, two quarterback hurries) but hardly tell the full story of how much he impacted the game. He's a lock for at least second-team All-Big Ten honors and improved his case to be a first-team selection.

Other members of the Blackshirts stepped up as Nebraska overcame two first-half turnovers and several short fields. Safety Daimion Stafford had a terrific interception after a pass breakup by cornerback Ciante Evans, and linebacker Alonzo Whaley sealed the win by jumping a short pass route -- does Iowa have any other kind? -- in the closing minutes.

Nebraska held Iowa to 200 yards, 13 first downs and just 5-of-15 on third-down conversions.

Quarterback Taylor Martinez had his least effective performance of the season in the poor conditions (63 pass yards, 36 rush yards, one lost fumble), and the Huskers needed something to spark their offense. Enter Superman.

[+] EnlargeRex Burkhead
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallThe Nebraska offense was stuck in neutral much of a the game, but running back Rex Burkhead (22) provided a much-needed spark.
Burkhead, out since Oct. 20 after aggravating a knee injury that has limited him all season, returned to the field with Nebraska trailing 7-3 in the third quarter. Pelini said it was Burkhead's decision to play, and the senior delivered. He had 16 carries for 69 yards and Nebraska's only touchdown, and his biggest play was a 9-yard run for a first down from the Nebraska 2-yard line. I'm still not sure how Burkhead stayed on his feet so long.

The game encapsulated Iowa's miserable 2012 campaign and some of the season-long issues that never got fixed.

Two examples of ineptitude:

  • After dropping an interception, Iowa drove to the Nebraska 19 late in the first half. After Vandenberg was dropped for no gain, Iowa let a bunch of time tick away before calling a timeout. The Hawkeyes then proceeded to earn an illegal substitution penalty (after a timeout, mind you). Moments later, Mike Meyer hooked a field goal and Iowa wasted a perfect opportunity to tack onto a lead in a game where points were at a premium.
  • Facing a third-and-4 near midfield midway through the fourth quarter, Iowa handed the ball to Mark Weisman, who was easily smothered short of the marker. First-year coordinator Greg Davis has had a lot of head-scratching calls this season, but this might have been the worst. The height of conservatism. Pathetic.

I didn't even mention the punt from the Nebraska 31-yard line in the first half.

Iowa's defense deserves better than what it got from the offense this season. The Hawkeyes must have set a record for most takeaways not converted into points. Or third-down pass routes run short of the marker.

Kirk Ferentz won't be fired because he makes too much money. So unless he leaves for the NFL, he'll be tasked to fix this mess. Vandenberg regressed as a senior and Davis left Hawkeyes fans banging their heads against the wall. I've defended Ferentz before, and his overall success at Iowa can't be denied, but the program has completely lost momentum, dropping its final six games. Iowa went 4-8 despite a very easy schedule that didn't include Ohio State or Wisconsin and had Penn State at home.

This is unacceptable for a program that won a BCS bowl game three years ago. It's certainly unacceptable for a coach making what Ferentz makes.

Nebraska, meanwhile, might be the sloppiest good team I've ever seen. The Huskers still make a lot of mistakes, but they've found ways to win since the Ohio State debacle.

And if the Blackshirts play like this and Burkhead continues to get healthy and contribute, Nebraska could win two more times this season, including Jan. 1 in Pasadena.

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