NCF Nation: Corey Clement

Breakout players to watch in 2015 

January, 23, 2015
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We're not far removed from the first College Football Playoff, but it's never too early for a look ahead at breakout players for 2015. This initial projection compiles input from coaches, recruiting evaluations and my ESPN.com college football colleagues.

There are five players from each of the Power 5 conferences, and then those players are ranked to create a top 25. I'm sure there will be some surprises -- there always are -- but last year's early breakout outlook included Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott and Florida State defensive back Jalen Ramsey.

Here are the first 10 players to watch for 2015, with 11-25 to follow early next week:


1. Adoree' Jackson, USC DB/WR
You'll notice a running theme in this post of jack-of-all-trades, two-way utility athletes, and Jackson is the best of the bunch.

The tug o' war will continue between the Trojans' offensive and defensive coaches, because he has the ability to change a game whichever side of the ball he is on. He mostly played corner, registering 50 tackles, but a 71-yard touchdown catch in the bowl win against Nebraska served as a reminder of the possibilities on offense.

And he will continue to impact a game in a third way, as he did when he returned a kick 98 yards for a score against the Huskers.

As valuable as he was as a freshman, relying often on instincts, Jackson could easily evolve into a Heisman-type player in the next year or two. This gen's Charles Woodson?

Early 2015 Big Ten Heisman hopefuls

December, 15, 2014
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Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon came up one spot short of snapping the Big Ten’s eight-year streak without a Heisman Trophy winner this weekend. The last Big Ten player to win the award was Ohio State’s Troy Smith in 2006. With all three of this year’s finalists likely shipping off to the NFL, let’s take a look at who could end the Big Ten drought next fall.

[+] EnlargeTevin Coleman
AP Photo/John Sommers IIHeisman pose for 2015? Indiana's Tevin Coleman topped the 2,000-yard mark this season but could leave early for the NFL.
Indiana RB Tevin Coleman: Coleman is expected to make a decision about turning pro this week. If he makes the unlikely choice to return, he will be the Big Ten’s best returning back. The junior ran for 2,036 yards this year while being largely overshadowed by Gordon, who had a better supporting cast.

Ohio State’s starting quarterback: The name might not be filled in until August, but reserve one spot on this list for whoever is leading the Buckeyes’ offense next year. Will it be J.T. Barrett, who might have earned a trip to New York this year if not for a season-ending injury in Ohio State’s final regular-season game? Will it be two-time Big Ten Player of the Year Braxton Miller? Or perhaps current starter Cardale Jones? The winner of that job will get a cache of playmakers and a team that will be favored to repeat as conference champs.

Wisconsin RB Corey Clement: Gordon’s understudy this season ran for 844 yards and nine touchdowns. He has averaged nearly 7 yards per carry in his two seasons with the Badgers. The offensive line that paved the way for Clement and Gordon is losing three starters, which could hurt his chances. Wisconsin, though, has historically had no problem replacing talent in the trenches.

Michigan State QB Connor Cook: He has one more season to lead the Spartans’ evolving offense. Cook loses his top target (Tony Lippett) and top runner (Jeremy Langford) to graduation, but Michigan State is a consistent winner. Leading a team to the playoff with an offense that averages 40-plus points would put Cook in contention for the school’s first Heisman Trophy.
Melvin GordonJeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsBy winning the Paul Bunyan Axe for the 11th straight time, Wisconsin reaches the Big Ten title game for the third time the event's four-year history.

MADISON, Wis. -- The celebrations might have felt a little familiar for Wisconsin, but that didn't take away any of the enthusiasm.

The Badgers beat Minnesota 34-24 on Saturday to win the Paul Bunyan Axe trophy for the 11th straight year. They also clinched the West Division title and a spot in next week's Big Ten championship, which is also a recurring theme. Wisconsin will be playing in that game for the third time in the event's four-year history.

Still, players and coaches giddily ran around Camp Randall Stadium with the axe after grinding out a physical, hard-fought win over the No. 18 Gophers. And they put on hats and T-shirts declaring themselves the West Division champs following an on-field, postgame presentation that seemed more fitting for a postseason game.

"That was a cool feeling for us, a cool experience," quarterback Joel Stave said. "Being under the lights, on the stage, the crowd sticking around -- it was just very cool."

The No. 14 Badgers might not be done hoisting trophies or standing on triumphant platforms, either. Not long ago, they would have been considered significant underdogs against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. But with Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett out for the season after he suffered a broken ankle against Michigan, Wisconsin just might be the favorite in Indianapolis.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Melvin Gordon
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon earned every bit of his 151 yards rushing against Minnesota.
At the very least, Buckeyes backup quarterback Cardale Jones will have his hands full trying to deal with what has statistically been the best defense in the Big Ten, one that offers confusing looks with its aggressive 3-4 scheme.

"If he hasn't played that much, maybe we can get him flustered and get him off balance," Wisconsin linebacker Joe Schobert said. "But we've got to prepare like we're playing J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller. You can't take a guy lightly, because they have a lot of good athletes over there."

Badgers players expressed empathy about Barrett's injury -- "He's such a valuable asset, and you always want to play against the best players," linebacker Marcus Trotter said -- and they can relate to the need to overcome adversity.

This is a team that had to replace eight defensive starters in the offseason and whose starting quarterback battled a case of the yips in August and September. They blew a big lead in a loss to LSU in the opener and dropped a head-scratcher against Northwestern early in conference play.

Yet they won their final seven games of the regular season and might be peaking here at the end.

"It's been a heck of a journey," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "I feel great about taking this team to Indy. They're resilient and tough-minded."

Wisconsin needed that resiliency to clear its final hurdle toward a division title.

For the second time in three weeks, it let a road opponent go ahead 17-3 in the first half. Unlike Nebraska, however, Minnesota was not going to let Melvin Gordon simply run wild all over the place. The Gophers kept their safeties in the box and hit Gordon early and often with sure tackling. The Badgers' Heisman Trophy candidate finished with 151 yards but had to earn every bit of it. He had only two 20-plus-yard runs (none longer than 24) and did his most impressive work turning nothing into 4- or 5-yard gains.

"I knew I was going to have to grind it out today," said Gordon, who pronounced himself healthy despite limping off the field late. "The games that you have to push out and grind out, those are the games you love the best. You get hit, you get knocked down to the ground and you get back up and you keep fighting.

Andersen said offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig knew he'd have to dial up some downfield throws to loosen up the Gophers' defense. That's been a shaky proposition for Wisconsin's offense for a couple of years. But Stave, getting better every week after overcoming those mental issues at the beginning of the season, turned in an efficient performance in going 11-for-18 for 218 yards and 2 touchdowns, with no interceptions.

The Badgers also got a career day from receiver Alex Erickson (5 catches for 160 yards) and clinched the victory on Stave's 17-yard touchdown strike to Robert Wheelwright, who had only two career catches and none this season before Saturday. It was those kinds of unlikely contributions -- plus an 89-yard effort from backup tailback Corey Clement, who was playing with one healthy shoulder -- that Andersen said made him the proudest.

Wisconsin wasn't perfect against Minnesota and committed a lot of mistakes in the first half, allowing the Gophers some short fields and quick scoring drives. Despite dealing with a hamstring injury that made him doubtful for the game, Minnesota's David Cobb ripped off some big runs in the first half. Many more offensive playmakers will confront the defense next week, even with Barrett out.

"To beat Ohio State, we can't miss as many tackles as we did today," Trotter said.

But much the way their season has gone, the Badgers finished out strong, scoring 31 of the game's final 38 points. Now they have a solid chance to derail Ohio State's playoff chase and claim the Big Ten title for themselves.

"We don't want to just go there," Gordon said, "we want to win it."

Don't be surprised if they're celebrating on an even bigger stage next Saturday night.

MADISON, Wis. -- Melvin Gordon didn't see Ron Dayne as he entered Wisconsin's interview room early Saturday evening.

Gordon sidestepped Dayne, just as he did numerous Nebraska defenders during an afternoon that won't soon be forgotten in a place used to seeing extraordinary running backs do extraordinary things.

"I should be kicking you in the legs or something," Dayne joked, which caused Gordon to turn back and grin.

Dayne had just watched those legs break his Wisconsin single-game rushing record (339). Dayne's milestone was just the first Gordon took down in Wisconsin's 59-24 mashing of Nebraska at Camp Randall Stadium. Anthony Thompson's Big Ten single-game record of 377 yards -- set on the same field in 1989 -- fell during the third quarter. Moments later, on a 26-yard touchdown run, Gordon shattered LaDainian Tomlinson's FBS single-game record of 406 yards.

Afterward, Gordon took a small, appropriate bow.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
AP Photo/Morry GashWisconsin's Melvin Gordon was in rarefied air with his record-breaking effort on Saturday.
He finished with 408 yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries for an average of 16.3 yards per carry that is ridiculous for any college running back not named Melvin Gordon. He also didn't play in the fourth quarter.

"You never know when a special day comes," Gordon said. "When it does, it's a special feeling."

Wisconsin running backs now hold the FBS single-season rushing record (Dayne), single-season touchdowns record (Montee Ball) and single-game rushing record (Gordon). But only Dayne has the most coveted individual award in college football, the Heisman Trophy, which he captured in 1999.

When Dayne won, it was common for running backs to hoist the Heisman. Texas' Ricky Williams had won in 1998, and running backs went back-to-back in 1994 (Colorado's Rashaan Salaam) and 1995 (Ohio State's Eddie George). But since Dayne, only two non-quarterbacks have won the Heisman -- USC running back Reggie Bush in 2005 and Alabama running back Mark Ingram in 2009. As Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah, a good friend of Gordon's, told ESPN.com in September, "the Heisman's really become a quarterback's award."

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota entered Saturday as the clear Heisman front-runner. Another quarterback, one-time favorite Mississippi State's Dak Prescott, had an opportunity to gain on Mariota -- or perhaps eclipse him -- with a signature performance at Alabama. Gordon was in the mix, but after putting up big numbers against inferior teams and with an incomplete performance against LSU, he needed to make a convincing case on this day, against the nation's 20th-best rush defense.

Mission accomplished.

"I think he's the best of the best," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "And he proved it on the national stage when he was given the opportunity. There's some great players out there ... and the decision is going to be made by other people. But if I made that decision, it's going to this guy right here.

"A lot of people have God-given ability, and a lot of people don't do anything with that ability. He's taken it to the highest level."

Gordon still has to catch Mariota, a tough task because the Oregon quarterback does so much good and so little bad and leads a team gunning for a College Football Playoff spot. But the gap is narrowing.

On Saturday, Gordon earned more than a courtesy trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony on Dec. 13. He earned the right to be seriously evaluated as a Heisman contender.

"Just show the man respect," Wisconsin second-string running back Corey Clement said. "That's all I ask."

Gordon will forever be respected here. Students chanted his name and "Heisman!" as the snow turned Camp Randall Stadium into a Wisconsin wonderland (at just 26 degrees at kickoff, it was the coldest game at Camp Randall in 50 years).

The tributes flooded in during and after the game, from Tomlinson, Ball and others.

"The best of the best," Andersen said. "Unbelievable."

A fourth-year junior, Gordon could have skipped this season and likely been the first running back selected in the NFL draft. He returned to guide Wisconsin to a national championship, a dream that died in early October with a stunning loss to Northwestern. But a Big Ten title remains possible, individual awards are coming, and Gordon, a Kenosha, Wisconsin, native, will leave as one of Wisconsin's favorite sons.

"There's risks that come with coming back when you have the chance to leave," Clement said. "God willing, he doesn't get injured, so he can do what he needs to do."

What he does is record big runs. Gordon had four runs of 40 yards or more Saturday, which brought his season total to 14, including a 62-yard scoring burst in the second quarter, when he hurdled Nebraska's Corey Cooper.

"It's something special," Badgers guard Dallas Lewallen said. "Once he gets to the open field, you never know if he's going to take it [to the end zone]."

Added quarterback Joel Stave: "He wowed us all again today."

Gordon's first half included 238 rush yards, a touchdown and two lost fumbles, the first time he has lost multiple fumbles in a game. It will be a forgotten footnote to everyone but Gordon, who thanked the coaches "for just sticking with me."

Smart choice.

The snow continued to fall Saturday night and blanketed the field where Gordon made his Heisman move.

"His legacy is going to be left here for a long time," Andersen said. "His footprints are going to be left all over these hallways."

Whether those same footprints are behind a podium in New York in four weeks remains to be seen.

Gordon gained the nation's attention Saturday. Now he needs to keep it.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 10

November, 2, 2014
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Recognizing the best and brightest from Week 10 in the Big Ten:
  • Iowa safety John Lowdermilk: The Hawkeyes had so many candidates for helmet stickers after a mighty impressive 48-7 win over Northwestern, including Jake Rudock, Mark Weisman and Louis Trinca-Pasat. But we'll give it to Lowdermilk who was all over the field dishing out big hits on his way to a team-high 12 tackles. He also forced a fumble and broke up a pass.
  • Wisconsin running backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement: Heisman Trophy candidate Gordon had his usual brilliant day at Rutgers (19 carries, 128 yards, two scores) and this time he had help from his backfield mate. Clement, who's from New Jersey, enjoyed his homecoming with 131 yards and two scores on 14 carries. Together, they combined for 259 of Wisconsin's 385 yards in a 37-0 victory.
  • Michigan wide receiver Amara Darboh: Here's a rare sighting: A Michigan offensive player in the helmet stickers. Playing Indiana's defense always helps, but Darboh had an excellent day in the Wolverines' 34-10 victory. He had nine catches for 107 yards and a touchdown, giving Michigan the kind of downfield threat it has lacked most of the season.
  • Nebraska defensive tackle Maliek Collins: With Ameer Abdullah sidelined by a knee injury, the Huskers needed their defense to step up against Purdue, and Collins helped make sure that happened. While he was only credited with five tackles, he did have a sack and three quarterback hurries while generally making life miserable for the Boilers' offensive line in a 35-14 Nebraska victory. Bo Pelini compared Collins to Glenn Dorsey last week, and Collins lived up to that by being a disruptive force all game.
  • Ohio State DE Joey Bosa: Another week, another huge game for the Buckeyes' sophomore pass-rushing star. Bosa registered two sacks and added another tackle for loss while tormenting Illinois during a 55-14 Ohio State win. He now has a Big Ten-best 10 sacks on the season.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 7

October, 12, 2014
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Five questions about LSU-Wisconsin

August, 28, 2014
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One of college football’s most anticipated openers will kick off Saturday night in Houston, with No. 13 LSU taking on No. 14 Wisconsin -- two programs that might reside in different conferences, but share similar philosophies about playing mean-spirited, physical football.

Both teams have aspirations of competing in the inaugural College Football Playoff, and Saturday’s outcome might eventually rank among the top determining factors in whether they make it into the four-team field.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at five questions facing the two teams as their matchup approaches.

[+] EnlargeTerrence Magee
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsSenior Terrence Magee should be a key piece to LSU's running game this season.
1. Who gets the most carries?

Those around the LSU program say it looks like it’s only a matter of time before freshman running back Leonard Fournette shows why he was the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit. But will Fournette’s time come in this game? LSU coach Les Miles has praised veterans Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard throughout August. The seniors have earned their touches, too, so it will be intriguing to observe how LSU distributes the carries between the vets and the young phenom.

2. How will LSU fare in the passing game?

Wisconsin has plenty of holes to fill on defense, but the one area with a veteran presence is its secondary (and the Badgers were 17th nationally against the pass last season, allowing 202.5 yards per game). That would seem like an advantage against an LSU offense that must replace not only its quarterback, but the only receivers who did much of anything last fall, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry.

The Tigers have some super-talented youngsters like freshmen Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, but many of the team’s wideouts will be playing their first college games. Keep an eye on whether LSU uses its talented group of tight ends and running backs in the passing game. The tight ends will almost certainly get more looks as pass-catchers in 2014 while the young quarterbacks and receivers settle into their roles.

3. Can either team stop the opponent’s run?

Wisconsin obliterated South Carolina’s run defense for 293 yards in its last outing, a 34-24 loss in the Capital One Bowl. Heisman Trophy contender Melvin Gordon ran 25 times for 143 yards in that game. So it would probably be misguided to assume that LSU’s reconstructed front seven is going to completely shut down a Badgers running game that includes Gordon, Corey Clement and four returning starters on the offensive line.

Likewise, Wisconsin lost its entire starting front seven on defense, so the Badgers will probably have some difficulty against an LSU line that also returns four starters -- particularly since backs like Fournette, Magee and Hilliard will be running behind them.

4. How will Wisconsin look up front on D?

Let’s say this one more time: Wisconsin lost every single starter along the defensive line and at linebacker from one of the nation’s best defenses in 2013. We’re talking about standouts like Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Borland and defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer who helped Wisconsin finish as the nation’s No. 7 defense overall (305.1 ypg) and No. 5 against the run (102.5).

It’s not like the cupboard is bare, though. ESPN Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett listed sophomore linebacker Vince Biegel as a potential playmaker, and the Badgers have others back like linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch and defensive linemen Warren Herring and redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih who should keep defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 defense clicking.

Asking that many new players to function adequately against a veteran LSU front will be asking a lot, though. Wisconsin’s production along the defensive front might be the determining factor in this game.

5. Who FINISHES at quarterback?

Never mind who starts, who’s going to finish this game at quarterback for either team? That might have a much greater impact on this season than who takes the first snaps for either Wisconsin or LSU.

Miles and Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen have tiptoed around questions asking whether the starting quarterback will be Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris at LSU or Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy at Wisconsin. But if this is a close game, their choices on who leads their offenses in the fourth quarter -- and how those players perform in such a situation -- might tell us much more about where these competitions are headed.

LSU-Wisconsin primer

August, 27, 2014
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For more than a decade, no FBS programs have experienced more success in out-of-conference games during the regular season than LSU and Wisconsin -- programs that open the season against one another on Saturday in Houston.

LSU has not lost a nonconference game in the regular season since falling to Virginia Tech on Sept. 7, 2002. Since then it has won 45 straight, while Wisconsin’s record in that same time period is 43-3, the nation’s second-best winning percentage (.935).

Obviously one of them is going to lose on Saturday, though, so let’s take a look at some of the key factors in the LSU-Wisconsin game and what a win might mean for their respective conferences.

Key to victory for Wisconsin: Dominate the line of scrimmage. That’s always the motto for the Badgers, who showed they could fare just fine against an SEC defense when they ran for 293 yards against South Carolina (and Jadeveon Clowney) in the Jan. 1 Capital One Bowl. Controlling the game on the ground with Melvin Gordon, Corey Clement and a talented offensive line becomes an even higher priority given Wisconsin’s inexperience at receiver and quarterback, where Tanner McEvoy makes his first FBS start. And the Badgers’ 3-4 defense has to win battles up front and make LSU beat it through the air.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsLSU may need Anthony Jennings (10) and Brandon Harris (6) to have success against Wisconsin.
Key to victory for LSU: With a talented backfield and experienced offensive line, the Tigers figure to run the ball effectively against a retooled Wisconsin defensive front. But it will be up to LSU quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris to do just enough with the pass to prevent the Badgers from crowding the box to defend the run. Regardless of which quarterback is on the field, he will have either little or no college experience. If the Tigers throw the ball as ineffectively as Jennings did in his lone start -- LSU’s 21-14 Outback Bowl win over Iowa, where he was 7-for-19 for 82 yards, no touchdowns and one interception -- it might become difficult to move the ball even against an inexperienced Wisconsin defense.

Keep an eye on: Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound sophomore could give the Badgers the pass-rushing and playmaking presence they desperately need from their completely revamped defensive front seven. Biegel will be critical in both helping against the run and creating havoc in the LSU backfield from his outside linebacker spot. Like many players at his position for Wisconsin, he has been nicked up in fall practice. But after a breakout spring, Biegel could be a guy who announces himself as an up-and-coming star on this national stage.

Keep an eye on: LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander. One of the Tigers’ top playmakers at linebacker last season, Alexander has shifted from strongside linebacker to Lamin Barrow's old spot on the weak side, which should allow him to be even more active on defense. His sideline-to-sideline speed and tackling ability should make him a great fit for the new role. Alexander and the LSU defense will have their hands full with a powerful Wisconsin running game that features Heisman Trophy contender Gordon. But if Alexander lives up to the reputation he’s already started building at his new position, he’s in line for a huge season, starting Saturday.

What win will mean for Big Ten: Marquee nonconference wins have been in short supply for the Big Ten in recent years, and there would be no better way to build instant credibility than by gaining a win over an established SEC power. Wisconsin would become an immediate playoff contender, as the rest of its schedule is extremely favorable. Other league teams would also get a boost in terms of conference perception. The doom-and-gloom outlook for the Big Ten since Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller's season-ending shoulder injury would fade away quickly with a Badgers victory in Houston.

What win will mean for SEC: LSU has been the SEC’s standard bearer in the past decade when it comes to these marquee nonconference openers. LSU's aforementioned 45 straight nonconference wins in the regular season is the nation’s longest streak. That includes wins in 11 straight openers, against such opponents as TCU, Oregon, North Carolina, Washington, Oregon State and Arizona State. LSU beating Wisconsin would be another feather in the SEC’s cap, solidifying its status as the nation’s best conference.

MADISON, Wis. -- Gary Andersen's current job description looks a lot like that of a first-year coach. Here's the thing: Andersen is entering his second season at Wisconsin.

Andersen's inheritance with the Badgers last year, in coaching currency, rivaled that of a Walton, a Bloomberg or Prince George. Most new coaches are saddled with teams plagued by youth, discontent or a culture of losing. Andersen stepped into a locker room filled with 25 seniors, including stars such as Chris Borland and Jared Abbrederis. Wisconsin had won three consecutive Big Ten championships. It had an identity and a proven path to success.

The Badgers needed a leader after Bret Bielema spurned them for Arkansas, but Andersen's primary task could be reduced to four words: Don't screw it up. To his credit, he didn't, guiding Wisconsin to a 9-2 start before the year ended with losses to both Penn State and South Carolina. He also provided a calm, stabilizing presence that resonated both with players and Badgers fans. Wisconsin has recorded better seasons, but Andersen's first made a strong enough impression on the Cleveland Browns, who reached out to him about their coaching vacancy, and on Barry Alvarez, who awarded Andersen a raise and a new contract.

But it's fair to wonder about Andersen. Program maintenance, while challenging, isn't the same as program building. Wisconsin doesn't lack a foundation -- Alvarez provided one and Bielema kept it from cracking -- but there's a lot of hard labor ahead for Andersen and his assistants as their roster turns over significantly.

"We are a very youthful crew," Andersen told ESPN.com. "It's like my second year at Utah State. We were youthful, we were excited, but our coaching was so important to be able to put the kids in the proper positions, which is the ultimate goal. It's not how much offense you have or how much defense you have. It's how well you’re performing the basics: how many missed assignments, how are we tackling, how are our administrative penalties.

"You want to do everything you can to make sure you're teaching them how to play football the right way."

Utah State went 4-7 in Andersen's second year before reaching bowls the next two seasons. Wisconsin's expectations are much higher despite its new-look depth chart.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Keith Gillett/Icon SMIGary Andersen sees the opener against LSU as a factor that should push his team through the summer and fall camp.
The Big Ten West Division is a collection of flawed teams and Wisconsin, with more recent success than the others and a favorable cross-division schedule -- no Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State -- will be a popular pick to reach Indianapolis. Running back Melvin Gordon turned down the NFL draft for a chance to lead the Badgers to the initial College Football Playoff.

Wisconsin is not rebuilding, but it faces an unusually high number of questions on a depth chart that shouldn't be written in anything permanent.

"It's a reset, you're starting at ground zero," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "Even with the veteran O-line, a couple guys are out, you're mixing and matching, so you can't assume or take anything for granted. Even with [quarterback Joel Stave], it's a chance to reteach things that he's had hundreds of reps on, because there's always a new way to look at it."

Stave is part of the mystery at Wisconsin. Despite starting 19 games the past two seasons, he must outshine Tanner McEvoy in camp to keep his job, especially after missing much of the spring with a pesky throwing shoulder injury. McEvoy, a gifted athlete who played both safety and wide receiver last season, could represent a shift in what Wisconsin wants from its quarterbacks.

Andersen's first two quarterback recruits, McEvoy and D.J. Gillins, both are true dual threats.

"He's got a tremendous skill set, obviously," Ludwig said of McEvoy. "An athletic guy, starting as a safety last year. The weapons he brings to the quarterback position, it's a huge asset for us."

The quarterback run threat, when paired with dynamic backs in Gordon and Corey Clement, becomes even more critical if Wisconsin can't bolster the wide receiver spot. The team's leading returning receiver, Jordan Fredrick, had only 10 receptions in 2013. Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright all missed part or all of the spring with injuries.

Wisconsin had only four receivers for most of the 15 practices.

"It's pretty tiring," senior Kenzel Doe said. "You're basically taking every rep."

The Badgers defense had fewer injuries this spring but went through a more substantial facelift. Inside linebacker Derek Landisch is the only returning starter in the front seven.

Most defenders spent spring ball working at multiple positions as the coaches looked for ways to upgrade speed. Michael Caputo, a starting free safety last season, went to linebacker and then back to safety before the spring ended.

"We definitely wanted to see how guys fit in other places," Caputo said. "The goal is to be a mean, aggressive, fast defense. We're slowly getting to that, but it's definitely a transition with a lot of the younger guys and playing different positions."

There have been positive developments already. Andersen points to players such as Chikwe Obasih, a redshirt freshman who ended the spring as a starting defensive end.

Andersen When you've got young kids, you've got to get them reps if you want them to get better.

-- Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen
"You look how far Chikwe has come," Andersen said. "If you put on Day 1 of spring ball and Day 13 of spring ball, it's an unbelievable difference in his pad level, the use of his hands, his understanding and knowledge of the defense.

"When you've got young kids, you've got to get them reps if you want them to get better."

The summer takes on added importance for these Badgers. As Ludwig said, Wisconsin's first workout in August must be Practice 16, not Practice 1.

If all the uncertainty and opportunity in practice doesn't drive players, the season opener against LSU certainly will. Last year, Wisconsin thumped Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech to open the season before its infamous trip to Arizona State. This time, the test comes sooner.

"I really like that opener for this team," Andersen said. "It's got to be a driving force."

Which Badgers team shows up at Houston's NRG Stadium remains to be seen. But it will have more of Andersen's fingerprints on it.

The big reveal at Wisconsin is still to come.
MADISON, Wis. -- Most Wisconsin players had disappeared into the northeast tunnel of Camp Randall Stadium, leaving behind another spring workout. But Melvin Gordon remained, running routes and catching passes from walk-on quarterback Thad Armstrong.

It's the type of image college football fans covet but can't always count on: their team's best player being the last to leave the practice field. In this way, Wisconsin fans are spoiled with their recent running backs. Montee Ball set records on fall Saturdays, but he was even better, teammates and coaches say, during practices. James White forged a 4,015-yard, 48-touchdown Badgers career on production, versatility and unselfishness. Those qualities showed up every time he practiced.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon said he came back this season to lead Wisconsin to a national championship.
Now comes Gordon, the flashiest of the recent Badgers backs. Ball mass-produced touchdowns; Gordon mass-produces highlight-reel runs. Last season he led the FBS in runs of 60 yards or longer (4) and 70 yards or longer (3), while ranking in the top five for rushes of 30 yards or longer (9) and 40 yards or longer (6).

But on this day, as afternoon spills into evening, Gordon works on catching passes. He recorded only one reception in 2013 and has just three in his career.

"I always try to do a little something after practice," Gordon told ESPN.com. "People ask me what specific thing I'm working on, what one thing, but as a back, you have to work on everything, feel like everything is your weakness and make it a strength."

There is a next level for Gordon. He sees it. If there wasn't, he would have gone to the next level. Instead, he's back at Wisconsin, hoping to take the program to the next level.

Gordon finalized his decision in December before receiving a grade from the NFL draft advisory board. He was projected as a second-round pick and could have climbed higher with a strong pre-draft showing.

"It was very clear what Melvin wanted to do," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "He wanted to come back. He never seemed one bit distracted, nor has he seemed one bit distracted since that time. If you ask Melvin right now, it's clear-cut for him: He wants to be in a position to help the team reach a high level of elite football, and be the featured tailback.

"That is his goal."

Gordon specified his objective last week on a conference call with reporters.

"I want to get our team to the playoff," he said. "I have a paper posted on my wall of the College Football Playoff. I didn’t come back to win this or that, to win the Heisman, people talk about that, I don't really feel like that's important. The goal right now is a national championship.

"Wisconsin's never had one before, so that's my goal and that's our team goal."

Gordon undoubtedly will enter the Heisman picture if he builds upon a sophomore season that included 1,609 rush yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. He led the nation and set a team record in yards per rush (7.81). With a career average of 8.1 yards per rush, he needs just 12 attempts to set the Big Ten record held by former Penn State star Ki-Jana Carter (7.27 YPR).

[+] EnlargeGary Anderson
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesWisconsin coach Gary Andersen has no doubt about Melvin Gordon's significance.
The big runs should come, but Gordon wants to be a pass-catching back, a role White held last season (39 receptions). Gordon also knows he must improve his pass-blocking. The spring helped him in these areas, as Andersen held Gordon out of contact this spring and limited his ball-carrying reps, taking no chances with Wisconsin's best weapon or his talented backup, Corey Clement.

"Melvin plays so well with the ball in his hands," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "This spring, he's had great opportunities playing without the ball, and has made the most of those opportunities."

The reduced role posed a challenge at times. Wide receiver Kenzel Doe, one of Gordon's best friends, said Gordon often told him, "Man, I know they don't want me to get the reps, but I want to be out there so bad."

Gordon maximized the reps he received during practice and stayed after to work more.

"Montee always told me, 'Practice is harder than games,'" Gordon said. "Everything you do in practice, you get to the game, you’ll be in the same situation, and you'll be able to make that cut. You practice how you play. I believe in that."

Gordon has known he would be back at Wisconsin for four months. Three of those months have featured incessant NFL draft coverage, from the scouting combine to pro days to individual workouts to daily rumors. A later draft means three more weeks of chatter.

You wouldn't blame a player who easily could be part of the process for completely tuning it out. But Gordon watches "all of it." He loves the NFL Network as much as the next draftnik.

"When they're talking about this running back or that one, you can't help but think about it," Gordon said of his potential pro path. "It's human nature. But you can't dwell on it too much. When you give your commitment, that's what it is. You can't go back, even if you wanted to."

Andersen doesn't undersell what Gordon's return means. "Huge," he said, "is probably not a big enough word." Wisconsin is very thin at wide receiver after losing Jared Abbrederis and remains unsettled at quarterback coming out of the spring.

No matter who lines up under center, the unit will lean on Gordon and Clement, who Andersen calls Wisconsin's two best offensive players. At times, they'll play together. Other times, they'll spell one another. Gordon and White formed the most productive single-season rushing tandem in NCAA history last fall (3,053 yards), and hopes are high that Clement complements Gordon just as well, if not better.

But Gordon returned to be the lead ball carrier, to be more involved in the pass game, to be a complete player and a better leader. He'll reach the next level soon enough.

He wants to get Wisconsin there first.

"His mentality is, 'I came back for a reason,'" Doe said. "He has that eagerness to win, so he's going to do whatever he has to do."
Because Wisconsin doesn't have much depth at running back this spring, coach Gary Andersen is keeping Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement away from almost all contact drills.

That's not sitting too well with Clement, who would be lowering his pads and leg-driving through traffic if he had his way.

"That's what I strive off of," he told ESPN.com. "Contact makes me rage more for yards. That's what brings out the best in me.

"It's very unusual for me not to be in contact with anybody else, but I have to keep fresh because that's what our head coach wants. I know my time will come."

[+] EnlargeCorey Clement
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsDespite being third on the depth chart, Corey Clement ran for 547 yards, 7 TDs and averaged 8.2 yards per carry.
Yes, Clement figures to get plenty of opportunities once the season begins. And there should be no doubt about his impact, both literally and figuratively.

As a true freshman in 2013, he made a lot out of a little. Appearing almost exclusively in mop-up work behind Gordon and senior James White, he still managed to run for 547 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 8.2 yards per carry. He ran for 101 yards in his college debut against UMass in the opener, then followed that up with 149 yards and two touchdowns a week later vs. Tennessee Tech. He also went over 100 yards against Indiana, joining White and Gordon as the triple-headed, triple-digit rushers each time in those blowout wins.

With White gone, Clement is set to take on a much bigger role in the Badgers backfield, potentially forming a dynamic duo with Gordon, just as White did with Montee Ball and then Gordon did with White.

"I believe we can only beat ourselves," he said. "I believe we can be the best tandem if our teammates help us out with that."

The arc sure seems familiar. Clement's numbers as the third wheel in his first season of full action closely resemble those of Gordon's in 2012. Gordon ran for 621 yards and averaged 10 yards per carry as a redshirt sophomore, then blew up for 1,609 rushing yards last season.

Many expect Clement to enjoy the same trajectory, but he's not viewing himself as mirroring his predecessor.

"I've always wanted to create my own path," he said. "I don't want to follow any anybody else. It's all about creating your own legacy and doing what you have to do make a name for yourself."

There are style differences between the two backs, as Gordon is a 6-foot-1 long-strider who is most dangerous when he can get out on the perimeter. The 5-11, 210-pound Clement enjoys pounding the ball up the middle. He's itching to do that right now.

"He's unbelievably competitive and is frustrated," Andersen said with a laugh. "Corey's handling that well, but trust me -- every single day, he wants to get in and get tackled, and he wants to run in between the tackles."

Clement is a gifted runner, but like all young tailbacks, he needs to improve his understanding of pass protection and blocking. Those are things that took Ball time to learn, and even Gordon struggled with it at times last season. Andersen also wants Clement to develop in the screen game, so mental reps and non-tackling drills take priority this spring.

"I'm just trying to get everything down," Clement said. "It's already hard, and trying to accumulate it all in one spring is kind of hard. But I'll get used to it, eventually."

Clement said he learned about the importance of paying attention to detail during his freshman season, and he had to focus on learning to practice right during the middle of the season when his game day opportunities evaporated. There's usually a line of succession for handoffs at Wisconsin, but the player who starred as a running back most of his young life in New Jersey had to adjust to that.

"I wasn't mad about it, but it made me a lot more eager and anxious to get out on field," he said, "because I'd never been a third-stringer."

His time to shine arrives this fall. Don't be surprised if Clement makes a deep impact.
When Ameer Abdullah weighed whether to enter the NFL draft or return to Nebraska for his senior season, he didn't do much external research on comparable players.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsLike his friend Ameer Abdullah, Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon wants to leave his mark on the Badgers.
He looked at his own family and how all eight of his older siblings had earned their college degrees (in some cases, advanced degrees, too). He considered the free education he could complete at Nebraska. He took the realistic and refreshing position that at some point, his body wouldn't allow him to play football, and he needed to fall back on his education.

The other top FBS running backs declaring for the draft early didn't enter Abdullah's mind. There was only one outside resource Abdullah consulted, a friend who played the same position with similar success at another Big Ten school, and who had faced the same decision. Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon already had announced he would return as a fourth-year junior. As Abdullah neared his decision earlier this month, he reached out often to Gordon.

"That's one person I talk to all the time about things like this," Abdullah told ESPN.com. "Melvin, he's one of my best friends. He's a good guy, and he was in a similar situation as me. He's also coming back, and I'm glad he is.

"We get to play them next year, and it's going to be a great matchup."

Abdullah and Gordon, who first met a high school all-star game in South Carolina in 2010 and have been good friends ever since, both are returning to the Big Ten for the 2014 season. A record-setting 98 underclassmen entered the 2014 NFL draft, 25 more than last year, the previous record. The list includes 20 running backs. Although a portion of the early entries either received bad advice or made bad decisions and won't be drafted, running back has long been regarded as the position to make a jump as soon as possible because of the physical toll it takes to play the position and its typically shorter career span.

There's little doubt both Gordon and Abdullah could have turned pro. Gordon led the nation in rushing for a stretch in September and finished with 1,609 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns despite sharing carries with James White. Abdullah led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in rushing yards with 1,690, which included 11 100-yard rushing performances in 13 games.

So why did the two say no to the draft?

"It just shows how much we care about our teams and how much we want to be the guy," Gordon said. "Ameer was the guy, but like I said before, it's about leaving a legacy. I'm sure that's what he wants to do as well. He wants to be considered one of the top backs, along with me, before he leaves, and that's a big thing, leaving something behind."

Gordon sought input from the NFL draft advisory board before announcing his decision to return, and he encouraged Abdullah to do the same. Although Abdullah didn't directly tell Gordon he planned to return before making a formal announcement, Gordon always had the sense Abdullah would be back at Nebraska.

"He's ambitious, just like I am," Abdullah said. "I feel like I have a lot more left in my ceiling that I have to reach. Melvin is the same way. He wants to come back and improve on his game, just like I do."

Pass blocking is undoubtedly the priority for Gordon during the offseason. It was a struggle for him at times last season, and even though he felt he improved, Wisconsin's coaches went with the more reliable White on passing downs.

"If you want to be an all-purpose back, you've got to get adjusted from the start," he said. "It didn't happen that quickly with me and that's why James was there. That's what I have to work on, just getting more comfortable in pass protection."

Gordon also hopes to bulk up a bit to 215 pounds after playing last season at around 205 (he's currently plateauing at 208-209). He wants to be Wisconsin's primary ball-carrier but expects to be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on just 67 carries as a freshman last fall -- similar numbers to Gordon's freshman campaign (62 rushes, 621 yards).

Abdullah logged 281 carries in 2013 and will again be in a featured role as a senior. Although many already consider Abdullah a team leader, he wants to enhance his vocal presence to "set the standards" for younger Huskers players.

Despite 549 career carries at Nebraska, the 5-9, 190-pound Abdullah isn't concerned about the injury risk of another year in college or the chatter from agents and others that running backs often slide in the draft if they return to school.

"It's all about your running style, really," he said. "A lot of guys run a certain way where they're vulnerable to getting hit directly. Other guys maneuver themselves so they won't take direct shots. You look at a guy like Barry Sanders. He was great at that. He never took that direct shot.

"I've always tried to change my ways or look at different technique schemes to prolong my career."

His Nebraska career will culminate with another run at an elusive league title. To do so, Abdullah and his teammates likely will have to get past Gordon and the Badgers on Nov. 15 in Madison, Wis.

Nebraska's last appearance at Camp Randall Stadium, its first league game in the Big Ten, did not go well.

"That's definitely one I circled," Gordon said. "I'm excited for it. I do compete with Ameer a lot. After every game, I'm checking to see what he got. I'm pretty sure he's doing the same thing. He definitely pushes me, and I'll push him to be great as well."

The Big Ten's top two runners are back for 2014, setting up an exciting race for the rushing title.

"The work starts now," Abdullah said, "so he better be working."

Big Ten weekend rewind: Week 12

November, 18, 2013
11/18/13
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Twelve seconds.

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

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

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

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

Take that and rewind it back ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Info):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, for the newest rundown ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 12

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
9:00
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Recognizing the best and the brightest around the Big Ten in week 12 …

Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said that Hyde made the difference for the Buckeyes in a 60-35 win. The senior rushed for four touchdowns and 246 yards on 24 carries and tallied another receiving touchdown (he had two catches totaling 26 yards). It was Hyde’s first 200-yard game of the season and more than double his previous season average of 117 yards per game.

Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons and holder Drew Dileo. Down three points with under 10 seconds remaining in regulation, the Michigan offense was sprinting off the field, the kicking team sprinting on the field and Dileo was sliding in to this holding position for Gibbons (yes, literally, sliding). Gibbons nailed a 44-yard field goal to send the game in to overtime, which the Wolverines eventually won after triple OT.

Wisconsin running backs. The Badgers accounted for 554 rushing yards against Indiana. James White (205 yards, 1 touchdown), Melvin Gordon (146 yards, 1 touchdown) and Corey Clement (108 yards, 2 touchdowns) became Wisconsin's third 100-yard rushing trio this season. Wisconsin tallied seven runs of 30 yards or more and White recorded a 93-yard touchdown run which set a program record for the longest run. The Badgers' 554 rush yards are the most by an FBS team this season.

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah. The Big Ten’s leading rusher had his seventh 100-yard game of the season (bringing his rushing total this season to 1,213) and he became the first running back to rush for more than 100 yards against the Spartans defense. He accounted for 123 yards on 22 carries and his one TD of the day was a 12-yard receiving touchdown (his only catch of the day). MSU came into the match up giving up just 43 rushing yards per game -- which Abdullah tripled.

Illinois DB V'Angelo Bentley. Coming into this weekend the Buckeyes had allowed just 1.5 yards per punt return and haven’t allowed any kind of a return on 92 percent of their punts. But with the Illini down 28-0 on Saturday Bentley managed to get past more than half of Ohio State’s punt coverage team and go 67 yards to the end zone. Not only did he become the first player to have success against this group, he also gave Illinois its first sign of life against the Buckeyes.

Honorable mention: Michigan State kicker Mike Sadler. With a six-point lead in the fourth quarter and the Spartans faced with a fourth-and-1 on the Cornhuskers 27 yard line, Mark Dantonio called for a fake field goal play. Sadler was supposed to go right, but the formation wasn’t quite what MSU expected, so instead of checking out of it and going for a field goal he rushed for three yards up the middle and a first down, setting up an MSU score.

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