NCF Nation: Danny O\'Brien

C.J. Brown turns 23 on June 27. He's a graduate student preparing for his sixth year at Maryland. He has played for two head coaches and three offensive coordinators and suffered two season-ending injuries. He's the most accomplished rushing quarterback in team history, owning five of the top 10 single-game totals, including the top performance (162 yards against Clemson in 2011).

He has experienced two 10-loss seasons (2009 and 2011) and two postseason games (the 2010 and 2013 Military Bowls).

[+] EnlargeBrown
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyMaryland hopes QB C.J. Brown (1,162 career rushing yards) won't have to carry the ball as much this fall.
Now Brown prepares to play in his second league, the Big Ten, which Maryland joins this fall. The Big Ten move could widen some eyes when the Terrapins enter venues like Michigan Stadium, Beaver Stadium and Camp Randall Stadium.

Brown won't flinch.

"Just thinking about all the things, from defensive schemes to overtimes to weird calls to different situations, the momentum shifts and swings," Brown said. "You've been through it all when you've been around for five, going on six, years now."

Maryland should be optimistic about its offense entering the 2014 season. Explosive receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long return from leg injuries. Wide receiver Marcus Leak and running back Wes Brown both are back after spending a year away from the team. The Terps return five players with at least 450 receiving yards and all of their top ball carriers from 2013.

Perhaps most important is the calming veteran presence Brown provides at the quarterback spot.

"You know he's not going to get rattled," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. "He's going to be the mature guy and go up to guys and talk to them and get them going [to do] the right thing. It's very comforting for me to know we have that kind of guy with that kind of experience and that kind of makeup being the leader of our team."

Brown's extended stay in college football has reached many junctions. He came to Maryland to play for coach Ralph Friedgen and offensive coordinator James Franklin. When a broken collarbone ended his 2010 season in the opener, he watched as Danny O'Brien went on to ACC Rookie of the Year honors.

Then came Friedgen's surprise firing after an 8-4 regular season -- on the heels of Franklin's departure to Vanderbilt. Edsall arrived and Maryland went through a disastrous 2011 season, although Brown replaced the struggling O'Brien toward the end.

With what he's had to go through with all the injuries, that stuff makes you a lot more mature and makes you see and understand the big picture a little bit more.

-- Maryland coach Randy Edsall on C.J. Brown
Brown entered 2012 as the starting quarterback and a co-captain, but an ACL tear in August ended his season before it started. He made it through the 2013 season mostly in one piece -- he missed two games with a concussion suffered on a brutal hit against Florida State -- and recorded 2,242 passing yards, 576 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns (13 pass, 12 rush).

"With what he’s had to go through with all the injuries, that stuff makes you a lot more mature and makes you see and understand the big picture a little bit more," Edsall said.

Added Brown: "It's been good to grow, to be able to put all that in the past and take a step forward."

Brown benefits from a resource few major-college quarterbacks enjoy: a dad who did the exact same thing. Clark Brown played quarterback at Michigan State in 1983-84.

C.J. was born in Michigan, and though the family moved to Cranberry Township, Pa., just north of Pittsburgh, C.J. remembers attending Michigan State games every few years.

"He's been a huge resource," C.J. said of his father. "He understood that I had coaches for a reason, and if they wanted his advice or I wanted his advice, I could go to him. He's been an open book, a great support system I could go to when I had questions or I was having a tough time.

"He's been through it, and he can definitely relate."

The scouting report on most college quarterbacks is set by Year 4 or Year 5, much less Year 6. But Brown could be a different player, leading a different Maryland offense this fall, if the injuries that have haunted the unit simply stay away.

Although Maryland flexed its muscles early last season, eclipsing 30 points in each of its first four games, the offense, in Brown's view, hasn't shown its full potential. Despite 1,162 career rush yards, Brown might not have to carry the ball as much this fall. Edsall, pleased with Brown's understated but effective leadership style, wants his quarterback to simply fine tune his game this spring.

"I see how much he's progressing with each practice we have," Edsall said. "He's doing things so much better now than even what he was doing last fall.

"That natural progression, I think he's going to be an outstanding quarterback in 2014."

Maryland's impending move to the Big Ten in July presents an opportunity for the program to reinvent itself. Some would say it's not a bad idea after a 13-24 start to the Randy Edsall era.

But the Maryland team that makes its Big Ten debut on Sept. 27 at Indiana won't have a dramatically different design from the squad that played in the ACC last season or the season before. The Terrapins don't want to be Big Ten wannabes. They want to be themselves in 2014 -- hopefully a healthier and better version of themselves.

[+] EnlargeRandy Edsall
Doug Kapustin/MCT/Getty ImagesRandy Edsall's Terps will play in the B1G's East Division with Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State.
"We're going to be who we are," Edsall told "We're not going to change and say everybody in the Big Ten does this or that. We're going to try to make people adapt to us. We're not going to adapt to them."

So who are these Terrapins?

They run a no-huddle, spread offense that boasts one of the Big Ten's best returning receiving corps. Maryland returns five players who recorded at least 450 receiving yards in 2013, including Stefon Diggs, the one-time Ohio State recruiting target, and Deon Long. Both Diggs and Long were averaging more than 15 yards per reception before both suffered broken legs in an October loss to Wake Forest.

Injuries wiped out many of Maryland's top contributors in 2013 and played a role in the Terrapins' pedestrian offensive rankings (75th in total yards, 84th in scoring). But they return almost all of their top skill players, including quarterback C.J. Brown, a sixth-year player who missed two seasons (2010 and 2012) because of injury. Four starting offensive linemen also return.

"We've got some playmakers on offense [who] can really make things happen," Edsall said. "We've got some very talented wide receivers, our quarterback is really good, a dual threat. The biggest thing is we've got to stay healthy and continue to get better."

Edsall will lean on offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, who held the same position in the Big Ten at Illinois from 2005 to 2008. The Illini led the Big Ten in rushing in both 2005 and 2007 and in passing in 2008.

Maryland will use a hybrid 3-4 defensive scheme built around pressure. Although the Big Ten long has been dominated by 4-3 defenses, Wisconsin employed the 3-4 last season and had some success. Indiana likely will use an odd-man front under new coordinator Brian Knorr.

A Terrapins defense that, like the offense, suffered more than its share of injuries in 2013 returns a nice core that includes linebackers Cole Farrand (84 tackles) and Matt Robinson (10 tackles for loss) and nose tackle Andre Monroe (9.5 sacks, 17 tackles for loss).

"We've played good defense," Edsall said of a unit that ranked 44th nationally in yards allowed. "We still need to get better."

Edsall and his staff started preparing for the Big Ten move following Maryland's bowl game in December. The Terrapins will play 10 new opponents in 2014 (West Virginia and Syracuse are holdovers from 2013), including three Big Ten teams -- Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin -- that they have never faced.

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AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyMaryland returns almost all of its top skill players in 2014, including quarterback C.J. Brown.
Nebraska faced some challenges when it moved from the Big 12 to the Big Ten in 2011, and Huskers coach Bo Pelini acknowledged last week that the recruiting adjustments are still happening.

"You have to acquire data," Pelini said. "That happens over three years."

How quickly can Maryland settle into its new league?

"Any time you change conferences, it will be different," said Danny O'Brien, who played quarterback at Maryland from 2009 to 2011 before transferring to a Big Ten school in Wisconsin, where he played in 2012. "My experience in the Big Ten, the front sevens are really good. A lot of teams can stop the run. It's a different style, and you get some weather situations that influence things a bit.

"They're playing different teams, so the game plans will change accordingly, and on the other side, teams are playing Maryland for the first time."

O'Brien remembers Maryland being a physical team, and he doesn't think the Terrapins will be intimidated by the new environments. Maryland visits Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan this fall.

"I don't see that being a huge adjustment," O'Brien said. "There are some huge, loud stadiums in the Big Ten, but you have Clemson, Florida State, Virginia Tech [in the ACC]. Football is big everywhere."

How Maryland fans react to their team's new league will be a subplot of the move. Rutgers fans are overjoyed to be escaping the American, and many Nebraska fans had become annoyed with Texas' constant power plays. Terrapins fans, meanwhile, didn't want to leave the ACC, where Maryland is a charter member and has long-term rivalries.

Maryland even launched a public relations campaign that tried to boost perception about the B1G move, as the school anticipated an initial backlash.

"Just like anything, the fans and donors and alumni, any time there's change, it takes a little bit of time," Edsall said. "But since it's been announced, everybody sees the benefits to some of our athletic programs. The first day that they put tickets out, they sold 1,000 new season tickets. So when people see the schedule and the division we're in, that gets you excited."

Edsall echoes the excitement of playing in what appears to be a loaded East Division, which includes Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State.

"When they came out with the divisions, people said, 'Whoa,'" Edsall said. "I looked at it and said, 'That's great.'"

The Big Ten move will have financial benefits for an athletic program that cut seven teams in 2012, and it also should boost football. Maryland will be the only Big Ten program without an indoor practice facility, but initial plans are under way to construct one in the coming years.

"We don't have a 100,000-seat stadium," Edsall said. "We have a 54,000-seat stadium, but it gets really loud. We're never going to be Ohio State or Michigan because we don't have those same resources. But what we can do is be Maryland and do the things we need to do to make us the best we've been."

The best that they can be, in Edsall's mind, is themselves.

3-point stance: O'Brien's hopscotch career

June, 11, 2013
1. Not every quarterback who transfers has the success of a Russell Wilson, who used the graduate transfer rule in 2011 to leave NC State and lead Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl. Last year, Danny O'Brien left Maryland for Madison and tried to repeat Wilson’s feat. Instead, O’Brien lost the starting job and got buried on the depth chart. Now he's leaving Wisconsin, according to media reports, and his high school coach is lamenting that O'Brien has had four college head coaches in four years. Well, whose fault is that?

2. More quarterbacks transfer because of ego than at any other position. Two of the top running backs this season, Lache Seastrunk of Baylor and Silas Redd of USC, transferred to their current schools not because of ego, but indirectly because of the NCAA. Seastrunk started out at Oregon with the help of Willie Lyles, whose recruiting service prompted an NCAA investigation of the Ducks. Redd left Penn State after the NCAA penalized the Nittany Lions so severely last August.

3. According to SEC blogger Chris Low on Monday, Vegas odds have favored Alabama for 41 consecutive games. The streak dates to BCS Championship Game against Texas in 2009. I’m sure Pete Carroll’s USC teams were favored for more consecutive games. Remember, oddsmakers are the original crowdsourcers. They make odds with an eye on getting the public to choose sides evenly. But given the difficulty of the SEC, and given that Crimson Tide was 25-16 against the line in those games, the public’s unwavering faith in Nick Saban’s teams is remarkable.
When Curt Phillips received a sixth season of eligibility at Wisconsin, some viewed him as a nice insurance policy at quarterback.

Make no mistake, Badgers fans appreciated Phillips' contributions last season, when he started the team's final five games, including the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl. Phillips' quest to continue his football career despite three ACL surgeries is admired by all who have followed his Wisconsin career.

[+] EnlargeCurt Phillips
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCurt Phillips threw for 540 yards and five touchdowns last season.
But Phillips was hardly the talk of the offseason among Badgers quarterbacks. When spring practice kicked off last month, most wanted to see Bart Houston, the strong-armed, highly recruited redshirt freshman, or Joel Stave, who seemed to be blossoming last season as the starter before suffering a broken collarbone against Michigan State. Even Tanner McEvoy, a junior-college quarterback Wisconsin signed in February, generated more buzz than Phillips.

The fact that Phillips only entered the starting lineup following Stave's injury and Danny O'Brien's struggles keeps him under the radar.

So where do things stand as Wisconsin enters the final stretch of spring practice? Exactly how they did after the 2012 season. Phillips and Stave have been sharing reps with the first-team unit, but Phillips has consistently received the first set of reps and performed well in Saturday's scrimmage.

"I want the job," Phillips told last month. "I didn't come back for a sixth year and from all these surgeries to sit on the bench. That's far and away my No. 1 goal."

Wisconsin's new coaches know they have a motivated player in Phillips. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig called the sixth-year senior "a grinder" and "ultra competitive."

"Curt is a good athlete, not a great athlete," Ludwig said. "He throws a good ball, not a great ball. But he is doing everything we ask him to do. He can rally the troops."

Winning the locker room won't be a problem for Phillips if he wins the starting job. To do so, he must show he can be an effective pocket passer for a unit that finished last in the Big Ten and 111th nationally in passing a season ago.

Phillips is learning his third offensive system with the Badgers, and while new terminology and new protections prove challenging, there are similarities between Ludwig's West Coast-style scheme and the one he first learned under former coordinator Paul Chryst. He has more confidence after playing in several huge games last season, and after "finding a rhythm toward the end," he's trying to build on it.

"I want to continue to improve my game, becoming more of a pure pocket passer," Phillips said. "And then just developing more of that athleticism. By no means am I anywhere close to how I was pre-injury, but the further I get away from that, it's definitely something that I can get back."

Phillips came to Wisconsin as a true dual-threat quarterback after rushing for 3,788 yards in high school. He had 138 yards on 14 carries as a redshirt freshman in 2009 before the knee injuries started.

The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Phillips sustained another knee injury -- a more minor one -- in the Rose Bowl that has somewhat limited his mobility this spring. But he expects to be moving much better by preseason camp.

"I've heard Coach [Gary] Andersen mention that he wants a mobile quarterback," Phillips said. "With the athletes we have here at Wisconsin, we don't necessarily need the quarterbacks to do anything special, but at the same time, if you are able to extend the play a little bit and get the ball in those guys' hands, it's going to be big for us."

Ludwig and Andersen want to reduce the candidate pool to two by the end of the spring, and Phillips and Stave appear to be closing in on those spots. The competition undoubtedly will continue in fall camp -- McEvoy will have a chance to push the top two when he arrives -- and Andersen doesn't have a firm deadline on when they'll pick a starter.

"If it's a battle that's gone down to the wire, we'll probably let him jog onto the field for the first time and announce himself as the starter," Andersen said.

Don't be surprised if he's wearing No. 10.
Gary AndersenAP Photo/David StlukaGary Andersen has paid close attention to every detail in his transition as Wisconsin's new coach.
MADISON, Wis. -- When Gary Andersen arrived at Utah State in December 2008, he didn't spend much time looking back. Some would say he didn't want to strain his eyes.

At the time, Utah State barely seemed worthy of FBS citizenship. The Aggies had endured 11 consecutive losing seasons, 30 losses in the previous three seasons and eight consecutive seasons of four or fewer victories. Andersen faced a total rebuild, but at least he could wipe the slate clean and look only to the future.

It's not so simple at Wisconsin. Despite the construction going on just north of Camp Randall Stadium, Andersen isn't walking into a mess. Quite the contrary.

He takes over a Badgers team that has won three consecutive Big Ten championships, reached three consecutive Rose Bowls, won 40 games in the past four seasons and hasn't endured a losing campaign since 2001. Andersen's new program has produced 39 NFL draft picks and five consensus first-team All-Americans since 2002. The man who hired him, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, won three conference titles and three Rose Bowls as Badgers coach, resuscitating a downtrodden program and building it into the closest thing we've seen to a third Big Ten power.

"You take a lot longer and harder look at what's made them successful and what's made the kids successful," Andersen told "For me, there were so many familiarities. The types of young men in this program are what I'm used to at Utah State, the emphasis on in-state recruiting, the emphasis they’ve had in the walk-on program. All those things are staples to what I believe in.

"The transition, there's nothing difficult about it, but you’re more open-minded to what's happened in the past."

Andersen and his assistants also are mindful of what Wisconsin players have been through. One of the nation's most successful and stable programs has endured drastic changes in each of the past two winters.

Six assistant coaches departed after the 2011 season, and head coach Bret Bielema made a surprise exit to Arkansas in December, just three days after watching his team upset Nebraska in the Big Ten title game. Andersen brings in seven new assistants, including T.J. Woods, the team's fourth offensive line coach since the 2012 Rose Bowl.

"We've been through a lot of changes," senior defensive tackle Beau Allen said. "Last season we had all these new facilities [being built] and we were in different locker rooms on different days. Sometimes we didn't really know where we were practicing. And then with all the coaching changes. I think we've rolled with it pretty well."

Allen could be right, but Andersen is taking no chances during the transition. He has gone to great lengths to connect with the players during his first three months on the job.

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Adam Rittenberg/ESPN.comWisconsin coaches have incorporated team-building exercises into offseason training with a competition called the Badger Team Accountability Challenge.
It starts with the BTA Challenge (Badger Team Accountability), a competition that includes 10 teams of 10 players, each assigned to two coaches or support staffers. They compete in academics, community service events, weightlifting and even dodgeball. The challenge has carried over to the practice field this spring.

Andersen meets regularly with the 27-player leadership council. He brought the team together to watch the Super Bowl in the players lounge. During practices, he'll snap the ball to the quarterbacks (Andersen played center in college) or press receivers on the line. Players often receive calls from Andersen, just to check in.

"Guys appreciate that," linebacker Chris Borland said. "He's really in tune with the pulse of the team."

Andersen's player-focused approach is a big reason Alvarez hired him.

"A lot of coaches don't feel that’s important," Alvarez said. "You're a dictator and you’re going to do this and this. The good ones still get close to their kids. They’re still demanding, yet they have an empathy.

"The bottom line in everything he talks about is the kids."

When Andersen accepted the Wisconsin job 18 days after announcing he'd stay at Utah State, he called all 106 Aggies to inform them of his move, reaching the final player at 2:30 a.m. Andersen's new players took notice of the gesture. Badgers running back James White said he "knew it was a good fit right away."

Although Bielema was also popular with the players during his time at Wisconsin, Andersen has brought "a different energy" to practices, according to quarterback Curt Phillips. Practices are crisp and upbeat, and music blares throughout the workouts, a change from the past.

"It’s getting there," Andersen said. "They get an idea of who we are, the way we practice. The speed, the pace, everything we do, we want it to be fast and quick. We want to make sure we’re putting the kids first.

"I want them to know I care about them."

Andersen's assistants also are doing their part to ease the burden on players. Woods has kept about 60 percent of the terminology the Badger offensive linemen used last season under Bart Miller. It helps that Woods has a direct connection to Miller -- he coached him at New Mexico -- and an indirect one to former longtime Badgers line coach Bob Bostad. (Woods worked for Jason Lenzmeier, who had played under Bostad at New Mexico.)

"I'm the fourth guy in two years to walk through those doors in that meeting room," Woods said. "I've tried to strain myself more than them just because of the situation they've been in."

There's certainly an if-it-ain't-broke element of Andersen's challenge at Wisconsin.

The offense will remain rooted in the power run, while mixing in some play-action passes. Andersen inherits two backs -- White and sophomore Melvin Gordon -- who would start for almost any FBS team, veteran linemen like Ryan Groy and Rob Havenstein, and good depth at tight end. Although the quarterback competition is crowded, Wisconsin has three options with Big Ten starting experience: Phillips, Joel Stave and Danny O'Brien. He also has bionic-armed redshirt freshman Bart Houston and incoming junior-college transfer Tanner McEvoy.

"It's been easy for the players to adapt because we're doing stuff that they've done," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "There's a little different terminology, but again, we're trying to draw as much as we can from the past."

Andersen's influence will be seen more on defense, where his expertise lies. The Badgers will be the only Big Ten team operating out of a 3-4 set, although their flexibility with the outside linebackers, who previously played defensive end, allows them to show a 5-2 personnel package.

There will be much more variation in coverages and calls for a unit that has been statistically strong in recent years but a notch or two below elite status.

"We've been on the cusp of greatness, but I don't think we've achieved it yet," Borland said. "We've got a lot of seniors, a lot of guys who have experience. We haven't set any concrete goals, but I think we should be one of the best defenses there is."

Expectations are high despite the coaching change, and for good reason. Wisconsin returns 25 seniors and many key underclassmen who have only experienced winning in their careers.

Bielema often pointed to the 2013 Wisconsin team as potentially his best. Although many are already handing the Big Ten title to Ohio State, the Badgers are aiming for a fourth straight Rose Bowl appearance, which would tie the record held by Ohio State (1973-76) and USC (1967-70).

"There is a good core," Andersen said. "As with every program, there are definite questions that need to be answered. But to say we're not excited about next season would be the ultimate understatement."
Way back in the heady days of the 2012 preseason, we ranked every Big Ten position group from No. 1 through 12. We had to base our thoughts on previous performance and a lot of projections in August.

We're going back now and issuing a final, postseason ranking for each position group, and these will be far less subjective now because we have an actual full season's worth of data on hand.

Quarterbacks, naturally, are up first. (Those guys hog all the glory). You can take a look back and see how we ranked this group in the preseason here. Depth is an important factor in these position rankings, but having a standout main guy under center (or in the shotgun) is the most overriding concern with this group.

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AP Photo/Jay LaPreteThanks to consistent play by QB Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes finished the 2012 season unbeaten.
1. Ohio State (Preseason rank: 5): We figured Braxton Miller would improve greatly in his second year of starting and in Urban Meyer's system. We didn't know he'd become the Big Ten offensive player of the year or finish fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. While he didn't always throw the ball with precision, Miller made all the big plays and led his team to a 12-0 record. The biggest preseason worry was what would happen if he got hurt. Kenny Guiton answered that in the Purdue comeback.

2. Penn State (Preseason: 12): The Nittany Lions were dead last in our preseason rankings, and with good reason considering their past performances at the position. But I did write at the time: "Call me an optimist, but I believe Matt McGloin will be more effective at quarterback now that he's got a more modern offensive system and peace of mind that he's the starter." Uh, yeah. McGloin led the Big Ten in passing yards (3,266) and passing touchdowns (24) while throwing only five interceptions. And he stayed healthy, keeping Penn State's youthful backups from getting exposed.

3. Nebraska (Preseason: 3): Taylor Martinez led the Big Ten in total offense and completed a career-best 62 percent of his passes. When he was good, he was as good as there was in the league. But he still struggled with turnovers in key games, including 12 interceptions and numerous fumbles. If he can eliminate the mistakes, the sky's the limit.

4. Michigan (Preseason: 2): The Wolverines are a hard to team to peg in these rankings. Do we rank them based on Denard Robinson's poor showings in big games against Alabama and Notre Dame? Do we rank them based on Devin Gardner's strong finish to the season, when he was as productive as any Big Ten QB? How much do we factor in the team's lack of a solid backup plan in the Nebraska loss when Robinson got hurt early? You have to weigh the good with the bad, which makes this spot feel about right.

5. Northwestern (Preseason: 9): Starting quarterback Kain Colter threw for 872 yards, which was nearly 450 yards less than nominal backup Trevor Siemian. But Colter also rushed for 894 yards and kept defenses off balance with his versatility. Meanwhile, the Wildcats could use Siemian when they needed to stretch the field. The next step for Northwestern is developing a more consistent downfield passing attack.

6. Indiana (Preseason: 11): Who would have guessed in the preseason that the Hoosiers would actually exhibit the best depth at quarterback? After starter Tre Roberson went down in Week 2, Indiana was able to plug in juco transfer Cameron Coffman and true freshman Nate Sudfeld to sustain the league's top passing offense. The three combined to throw for more than 3,700 yards. Coffman got the bulk of the work but needed a better touchdown-to-interception ration than his 15-to-11 mark.

7. Purdue (Preseason: 1): We overrated the Boilermakers' depth in the preseason. It turned out that only one of the trio of former starters performed at a high level, and Robert Marve didn't play enough because of a torn ACL and Danny Hope's misguided insistence on sticking with Caleb TerBush. Purdue actually led the Big Ten in passing touchdowns (30) and finished third in passing yards, but much of that was because the team often had to throw the ball a lot after falling way behind. This ranking could have been higher with a full season of Marve.

8. Wisconsin (Preseason: 8): Danny O'Brien quickly showed that he was not the next Russell Wilson, but luckily the Badgers had some depth. Redshirt freshman Joel Stave showed major promise before his season was derailed by a broken collarbone, and Curt Phillips turned in a nice comeback story by managing the team well down the stretch. Still, Wisconsin ranked last in the Big Ten in passing yards.

9. Michigan State (Preseason: 10): It was not exactly a season to remember for first-year starter Andrew Maxwell, who was benched late in the Spartans' bowl game. But for all his struggles, Maxwell still finished No. 4 in the league in passing and had some nice games in the middle of the year.

10. Minnesota (Preseason: 6): What could MarQueis Gray have done if he hadn't hurt his ankle, prompting an eventual move to receiver? True freshman Philip Nelson took over the reins midseason and broke out with a huge first half against Purdue. However, he failed to throw for more than 80 yards in the team's final three regular season games. Nelson led the team with just 873 passing yards on the season, and the Gophers threw 15 interceptions.

11. Iowa (Preseason: 4): Nobody took a bigger tumble than the Hawkeyes, as James Vandenberg went from a 3,000-yard passer as a junior to often looking lost as a senior. He completed only 57.3 percent of his passes and tossed only seven touchdowns, with eight interceptions, and Iowa showed almost no ability to go vertical. And no other Hawkeye attempted a pass all season.

12. Illinois (Preseason: 7): The Illini had experience at the position with Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole, but they were both part of a wildly dysfunctional offense. Illinois was next-to-last in passing yards in the Big Ten and also had just 11 touchdown passes versus 14 interceptions. In fairness, both QBs were often running for their lives and had very little help.

Badgers land junior college QB

February, 4, 2013
Wisconsin has landed a highly sought after junior college quarterback, making the crowded competition for playing time under center a little more interesting.

Tanner McEvoy, a 6-foot-6, 215-pounder who played last season at Arizona Western College, committed to the Badgers on Monday. His other finalists were Florida, Oregon and West Virginia. McEvoy is a New Jersey native who signed with South Carolina out of high school but transferred after being buried on the depth chart his redshirt freshman season.

He completed 68 percent of his passes for 1,813 yards and 24 touchdowns with five interceptions last year at Arizona Western while also rushing 49 times for 252 yards and three touchdowns.

He gives new coach Gary Andersen and his staff another option in the quarterback race. The Badgers return three players who started at that position last year: Sophomore Joel Stave, sixth-year senior Curt Phillips and senior Danny O'Brien. In addition, Wisconsin has Bart Houston, a well-regarded 2012 signee who redshirted this past season with an injury, and Jon Budmayr, who is trying to overcome multiple arm injuries.

If you're wondering why the team would sign a junior college signal-caller with all those guys in place, consider that McEvoy will have three years of eligibility remaining. And his mobility gives him a weapon that only Phillips really brings to the table, and Phillips has undergone three ACL surgeries.

And take a look again at McEvoy's size. If somehow he didn't work out at quarterback, Wisconsin could find a place for him elsewhere. ESPN Recruiting Nation had this to say in its scouting report on him:

"We said it when McEvoy was coming out of high school and we still feel he is playing the wrong position if he wants to maximize his upside. He is a great athlete with terrific height and a frame that can still be developed. He is reminiscent of former Villanova and Atlanta Falcons WR Brian Finneran, and McEvoy could be a big, long-armed wideout who could make a ton of plays if he were used as a WR/slot/H-back."

That scouting report goes on to compare McEvoy to Kansas State QB and Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein, saying he's a better athlete than he is a passer and that he has a quirky delivery with a low arm angle.

They say you can never have enough quarterbacks, and sometimes you just recruit as many athletes as you can and figure out what to do with them later. If nothing else, McEvoy presents some intriguing options for the Badgers down the road.
When I talked to Curt Phillips in late December for a feature story on his career, the Wisconsin quarterback was optimistic that he would get a sixth year from the NCAA. But you never know for sure with the NCAA, and so he was making sure to savor the Rose Bowl experience just in case.

[+] EnlargeCurt Phillips
AP Photo/David StlukaThe NCAA granted Curt Phillips another shot at guiding the Wisconsin offense.
On Thursday, Phillips found out that he had indeed been granted an extra year of eligibility. That's great news both for he and the Badgers.

The NCAA has been doing a better job of late in granting these waivers, and Phillips had one of the best cases ever for using the rule. He missed the 2010 and 2011 seasons with two ACL tears and a third surgery after his body rejected the second operation. It was inspiring to see him assume the Wisconsin QB position after Joel Stave got hurt, as Phillips started the final five games of the season, including the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl.

Phillips went 10-for-16 for 83 yards and a touchdown in the 20-14 loss against Stanford and threw an interception on the Badgers' final drive. Some fans wanted to see more of Stave in that game as he returned from his broken collarbone to throw two passes in Pasadena. But Phillips also showed some great mobility in the game, running five times for 64 yards, including a 38-yarder. He was originally recruited as a dual-threat quarterback, but the knee injuries never really let him show that in college.

Wisconsin now has much more depth at quarterback than it has seen in a while, and the competition this spring under new head coach Gary Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig will be fun to track. Phillips and Stave will battle it out, along with former starter Danny O'Brien, former hotshot recruit Bart Houston and possibly Jon Budmayr if Budmayr can overcome his arm injury issues. At the very least, the Badgers will have some experienced options behind the starter.

Phillips did not show tremendous arm strength this season, but his father, Dr. Jim Phillips, told me that Curt had to change his throwing mechanics this year to adjust to not having much leg strength. He believes that with another year away from the knee surgeries, Curt will get back to a more natural throwing motion and have much more zip on his passes.

It wasn't guaranteed that Phillips would get a chance to do that again at Wisconsin. Thanks to the right decision by the NCAA, he will.

Wisconsin is making its third straight appearance in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, but it feels like the first time for starting quarterback Curt Phillips.

The fifth-year senior will finally play in Pasadena after battling back from three knee surgeries that derailed his career. What does it mean to Phillips to start this game? His father, Jim, summed it up in one word: "Everything."

"It's extremely gratifying," Curt told "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't frustrated along the way. But it just makes it that much more special when you do have some adversity and it's not just given to you."

Very little has been given to Phillips during his Wisconsin career. He was once seen as a future star with the Badgers. In 2008, he was named the scout team's offensive player of the year, the same year J.J. Watt won the honor for defensive scout team. But Phillips did not make his first collegiate start until the 10th game of this season, at Indiana, and missed two full years because of knee problems.

"He's overcome more than any player I've ever known," said Wisconsin linebacker and former Phillips roommate Chris Borland, who missed a year himself with an injury.

There is some symmetry at play with the Rose Bowl quarterbacks. Both the Badgers and Stanford reached this game the year after the greatest quarterback in their history left campus -- Andrew Luck for the Cardinal, Russell Wilson after his one glorious year in Madison. And neither Phillips nor Stanford's Kevin Hogan started a game before November.

But whereas Hogan is a freshman, Phillips is hoping he won't be playing his final college game on New Year's Day. He has submitted paperwork to the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility. His situation seems like the textbook example of why that waiver should be issued.

[+] EnlargeCurt Phillips
AP Photo/David StlukaCurt Phillips has overcome multiple major knee injuries to become Wisconsin's starting QB in the Rose Bowl.
Phillips tore the ACL in his right knee during the first spring scrimmage of his redshirt sophomore year. Before that, his father said, the 6-foot-3, 214-pounder -- who'd been recruited out of Kingsport, Tenn., for his ability to run and throw -- was in the best shape of his life.

"I worked out with him a week before, and he was a horse," Jim Phillips said. "He was so quick and fast."

Plenty of players have come back from torn ACLs, and Phillips was still early in his career, so he didn't fret too much. But then he tore the same ACL less than a year later in a November practice. The second surgery took place at Dr. James Andrews' famed clinic in Birmingham, Ala. It did not go smoothly.

Phillips didn't know it at the time, but his body was in the process of rejecting the graft when he made the trip with his team to the 2011 Rose Bowl. An infection caused him to lose so much weight that teammates and coaches in California did double takes upon seeing him.

That setback cost him several months. He underwent a third surgery in August 2011 and missed his second straight season. You couldn't blame him for not being too mentally engaged in last year's Rose Bowl as he endured yet another rehab.

"The whole process has been very frustrating," he said.

Phillips took things slowly this past spring, not wanting to risk another injury. He would throw in practice but without moving his lower body, causing a change in his mechanics and less zip on his passes. He was the third-string quarterback when the season began. But Danny O'Brien quickly proved that not every ACC graduate transfer is Russell Wilson, and redshirt freshman Joel Stave broke his collarbone in the Michigan State loss.

Phillips got the call the next week at Indiana with a Big Ten championship game berth potentially on the line. He hadn't thrown a pass in a game since 2009. He admits he felt some jitters before that start in Bloomington.

He completed 4 of 7 passes that game as the running backs did the rest in a 62-14 blowout. After the game, Jim Phillips sought out Brian Bott -- the Wisconsin strength and conditioning coach who'd spent countless hours working with Curt on his rehab -- for a group photo. Not yet, Bott told him. Not until we win the Big Ten title game.

The Badgers lost the next two games in overtime, though Phillips led the team on game-tying touchdown drives at the end of regulation in each one. Then in the Big Ten title game, he threw only eight passes as the Badgers steamrolled Nebraska 70-31. The Phillips family took that picture with Bott. And Curt, who was healthy enough to catch a pass in the game, had finally earned his way to Pasadena.

Though Stave is getting healthy, Barry Alvarez has already said Phillips is his starter.

"I'm gaining more confidence as I'm going," Phillips said. "The biggest thing is, I've been trying to prepare like I've been the starter all along. I knew that if I ever did get in there, I didn't want to hand it back over."

Against Stanford and the nation's No. 3 run defense, Phillips could be asked to do a lot more than just hand off and toss the occasional keep-them-honest pass. If so, he says he's ready.

"One thing that's an advantage for us is that we have a lot of passes in our game plan, but we haven't had to use them," he said. "So there's not that much on film. But throwing the ball is something that we're very comfortable with and we practice it all the time."

Phillips hopes this is just the beginning, that he'll get that sixth year and come back in 2013 with renewed mustard on his throws. But just in case, he's savoring this Rose Bowl trip as if it's his final college moment. Even if it feels like the first time around.

It's game day at IU's Memorial Stadium

November, 10, 2012
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Since its inception in 2008, the Big Ten blog has covered games at 11 of the league's 12 stadiums. Today, we complete the set.

While I couldn't have predicted in August that I'd be here covering a pivotal Leaders division game, nothing has gone according to plan this season in the Big Ten. Wisconsin can clinch a spot in the Big Ten title game Dec. 1 in Indianapolis with a victory today, while a surprising Indiana team can put itself in the driver's seat by beating the Badgers. Indiana hasn't won three consecutive Big Ten games since 1993. Although second-year coach Kevin Wilson wants to keep his players focused on daily improvement, this is the biggest game they've played at IU. Should be fun.

It has been a season of transition for Wisconsin's offense, and there will be more today as Curt Phillips gets the nod at quarterback. Phillips beat out Danny O'Brien for the job after starter Joel Stave suffered a season-ending broken clavicle Oct. 27 against Michigan State. Coach Bret Bielema discussed the Phillips decision Thursday.

Wisconsin hasn't had three different starting quarterbacks in a season since 1987 ((Bud Keyes, Tony Lowery, Otis Flowers). Phillips is a great story, having overcome three ACL tears to keep playing. He competed for the starting job in 2009 before the injuries began. He had good mobility before the injuries, so it will be interesting to see how he moves around today. Phillips hasn't attempted a pass in a game since 2009 and is 7-for-12 passing for 65 yards with no touchdowns and an interception in his career. His teammates will need to pick him up today.

Indiana's quarterback situation also will be worth watching. The Hoosiers have had success rotating Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld. Coffman played well last week against Iowa, while Sudfeld has been the more effective player off of the bench at times. The Hoosiers boast arguably the Big Ten's top wide receiver corps, led by Cody Latimer, so Wisconsin's secondary will be tested.

It's a gorgeous fall day with a bit of a breeze to the north. Great tailgating scene around the stadium, but the crowd size will be something to watch.

Keep it here for much more on Wisconsin-Indiana.
Ten items to track around the Big Ten in Week 11.

1. Leaders of the pack: How nutty is the Leaders Division? There could be only one bowl-eligible team (Wisconsin). Indiana could represent the division at the league title game with a 5-7 record. Oh, yeah, and Wisconsin and Indiana are playing an incredibly significant game on the second Saturday of November. Pretty sure no one predicted that. Wisconsin can secure a spot in the Big Ten title game with a victory in Bloomington, where the Badgers have won six of their past seven games. Indiana, meanwhile, plays arguably its biggest home game in decades. A win puts the Hoosiers in the driver's seat to represent the Leaders Division in Indy with two games to play. But Kevin Wilson and his players aren't getting wrapped up in the hype. "We're 4-5 and 2-3 in the league," Wilson said. "We always play in bad TV slots and we don't get much coverage, so we're going to just keep plugging along and getting better. ... We are a long way from being a good football team."

2. The M&M QBs matchup: Arguably no two Big Ten players have improved more from the 2011 season than Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin and Nebraska signal-caller Taylor Martinez. McGloin leads the Big Ten in passing (270.7 yards per game), while Martinez is second (215.7). They rank second (Martinez, 289.7) and fourth (McGloin, 271.2) in total offense, and they're tied for the Big Ten lead in touchdown passes with 18. The two men share the field Saturday at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium, where Martinez has been very good. Martinez needs just 190 passing yards to become Nebraska's all-time leader, and he just needs four more passing touchdowns to tie Zac Taylor's team mark. McGloin needs four touchdown strikes to pass Daryll Clark for Penn State's career record.

[+] EnlargeMatt McGloin
Evan Habeeb/US PresswireMatt McGloin and Penn State are looking to go 4-0 on the road in Big Ten play this year.
3. Quarterback questions: While both Nebraska and Penn State know who will be leading their offenses Saturday, other Big Ten teams have questions at the most important position on the field. Coach Bret Bielema has made a decision on a starter for the Indiana game, and while he's not revealing it publicly, Curt Phillips reportedly will finally get his shot to lead the offense after years of battling injuries. Michigan coach Brady Hoke also isn't saying much about the availability of top quarterback Denard Robinson (elbow), who sat out last week. Both Robinson and backup Devin Gardner took reps in practice this week. Indiana and Northwestern, meanwhile, have had ups and downs with their respective quarterback rotations this season. Indiana's Cameron Coffman and Northwestern's Kain Colter both stepped up big in their most recent performances. Will the coaches stick with them on Saturday?

4. Gophers' one win away: Minnesota coach Jerry Kill always talks about the time it takes to build a program, and he's right. But the Gophers can take a significant step Saturday when they visit slumping Illinois. A victory makes Minnesota bowl eligible and likely ensures the Gophers go somewhere warm for the holidays for the first time since the 2009 season. After wasting several opportunities last week against Michigan, Minnesota must capitalize in Champaign or run the risk of a late-season slide. The Gophers finish with Nebraska on the road and Michigan State at home, so they really need this one. Minnesota has won its past three road games against Illinois, last falling at Memorial Stadium in 2001. The Gophers are 0-2 on the road this season.

5. Boilers, Hawkeyes on the ropes: Once-promising seasons for both Purdue and Iowa have spiraled out of control in recent weeks. The Boilers have been blown out in four of five Big Ten games and must win their final three contests to go bowling. Fourth-year coach Danny Hope is under fire -- Purdue reportedly is putting feelers out for a new coach -- but maintaining his eternally optimistic view, saying this week, "I'm not going to let a disgruntled fan or any one person take my spirit away or take away from what it is that we're here to do, and that's to coach football and have fun and to win." Purdue needs a win as it travels to Iowa, where head coach Kirk Ferentz is also feeling the heat (although he has no chance of being fired). Iowa hopes to avoid its first four-game losing streak since the 2007 season.

6. November reign: Every Big Ten team is hoping to make it a November to remember, and several Big Ten coaches have done their best work in the season's pivotal month. Wisconsin's Bielema is 17-3 in November games during his six previous seasons as Badgers boss, including a 9-3 mark in November road contests. Nebraska's Bo Pelini boasts a 13-4 mark in November games, although he went 2-2 in his first November in the Big Ten. Pelini has lost to only one unranked team in November at Nebraska (Northwestern last season). Speaking of the Wildcats, they are 10-5 in November in the past four seasons. Pat Fitzgerald is 13-8 overall in November games at Northwestern, which squares off against a Michigan team that went 3-1 in November in Brady Hoke's first season as coach. There's more of this coming next week, as Ohio State's Urban Meyer (33-7 in November) and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio (13-4 in November) return to the field.

7. Road warriors: Missed field goals cost Penn State in its first road game at Virginia, but since then, the Lions have been dominant away from Happy Valley, winning their three Big Ten road games by a combined score of 107-30. Penn State aims to sweep its Big Ten road schedule for just the third time (previously done in 2009, 1994) in its 20-year history as a member of the league. Bill O'Brien is one of only five first-year Big Ten coaches (Meyer being another) to win his first three league road games. Former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce is the only Big Ten coach since 1950 to win his first four conference games on the road, accomplishing the feat in 1979. Nebraska provides by far the toughest road test for Penn State, which makes its first trip to Lincoln since 2003.

8. Stayin' alive in Ann Arbor: Although Michigan is tied with Nebraska atop the Legends Division and Northwestern is just a game back, both the Wolverines and the Wildcats would lose head-to-head tiebreakers with the Huskers, making their margin for error razor-thin. The loser of Saturday's Northwestern-Michigan game at Michigan Stadium could completely drop out of the race, especially if Nebraska defends its home turf against Penn State. Northwestern is 16-9 in true road games since the start of the 2008 season, including a win at the Big House in 2008, but Michigan has been perfect (12-0) at home under Hoke, averaging 37.8 points and 465 yards per game this season.

9. Unlucky 13: The one number Minnesota wants to avoid Saturday -- unless it's signifying a victory -- is 13. The unlucky number has been exactly that for the Gophers this season, as they've scored 13 points in all four of their Big Ten losses (against Iowa, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Michigan). Minnesota has moved the ball decently at times, but has struggled to translate yards into points and has repeatedly stubbed its toe in the red zone. The Gophers have scored touchdowns on only 16 of 30 red zone opportunities this season and on only 6 of 13 opportunities during conference games. Illinois actually ranks in the top half of the Big Ten in red zone defense, so Minnesota will have to be more polished in Saturday's game, especially if top wide receiver A.J. Barker (ankle) can't play. The Gophers likely won't need many points to win -- Illinois has scored 24 or fewer in eight of nine games -- but another 13-point performance could spell trouble.

10. Veterans Day tributes: Several Big Ten teams honor the nation's military veterans Saturday, including Iowa, which will don special uniforms for its game against Purdue. The Hawkeyes are expected to wear silver pants, black shoes and silver helmets, and the nameplates on the backs of their jerseys will list a branch of the armed services -- chosen by each player. Illinois will have several veterans tributes for its game against Minnesota, including the coaching staff wearing camouflage hats and American flags being passed out to the first 10,000 fans at the game.
Wisconsin will turn to Curt Phillips as its new starting quarterback this week at Indiana, according to multiple reports.

The fifth-year senior gets the nod for his first career start after competing with Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien last week in practice to see who would replace the injured Joel Stave. Head coach Bret Bielema said he knew which quarterback would start on Monday, and he informed the team on Tuesday. Bielema does not plan to announce a starter before Saturday, and quarterbacks have been off limits to the media this week.

It's no real surprise that Phillips will start since O'Brien was benched as the starter earlier this season for a lack of production and poor ball security. O'Brien came into the Michigan State game two weeks ago after Stave suffered a broken collarbone and was unable to get much of anything going with the offense as the Badgers lost in overtime.

Phillips hasn't played much since his freshman year as he has dealt with three torn ACLs that kept him out of action in 2010 and 2011. Phillips is known as a good runner for a quarterback, though he does not have the same mobility he once had before all the injuries. He will have to prove that he can make deep throws this week, as Wisconsin's offense is heavily based on using play-action to set up open receivers down the field.

It's also a critical game for the Badgers, who would fall into a tie in the Leaders Division standings with Indiana with a loss in Bloomington. That would mean Wisconsin would need some help from the Hoosiers to avoid losing out in a tiebreaker situation for the right to represent the division in the Big Ten title game. The pressure is on Phillips to perform.

3-point stance: UM-Arkansas a big deal

November, 7, 2012
1. Michigan’s agreement to play a home-and-home series with Arkansas in 2018 and 2019 makes some history. Not because the teams have never played -- they played in the Florida Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 1999. No, the sport’s winningest program has never played in an SEC stadium, not once in 1,250 games played over 133 seasons. Thanks to Michigan for making the deal, and thanks to Notre Dame for making it possible by bailing out of its annual series with the Wolverines.

2. There is no bigger gentleman in head coaching than Georgia’s Mark Richt. You could see it yet again Tuesday in his response to a question about Auburn, Georgia’s second biggest rival, being 2-7. “Obviously I’ve been coaching going into 12 years now, and it is a very fine line,” Richt said. “Even the year we went 6-7, how much of a different team did we have than some of the teams that might have gone 10-2? Probably not a whole lot different.” One thing: Georgia’s bad year was 6-7. Auburn is staring at 3-9.

3. Before September ended, Wisconsin freshman Joel Stave had won the starting quarterback job from junior transfer Danny O'Brien. Now that Stave is injured and unavailable, it’s easier to see why head coach Bret Bielema pursued O’Brien, and why O’Brien has been a disappointment. Going into the Leaders Division showdown (yes, showdown) at Indiana, Bielema has listed O’Brien and fifth-year senior Curt Phillips, who has thrown 12 passes in his career, as co-starters.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 11

November, 5, 2012
Week 10 brought few surprises around the Big Ten. As a result, the power rankings see little shuffling before the second Saturday of November.

Ohio State cruised to a perfect 10-0, while Michigan and Penn State both recorded road wins in impressive fashion. In the two true toss-up games, Indiana outlasted Iowa and Nebraska rallied for a dramatic win against hard-luck Michigan State. Our top five teams from Week 9 remain the same. The toughest call comes at No. 3, as there's very little separating Penn State and Michigan, who unfortunately don't play this season. But both teams recorded decisive road wins, so we're keeping the Lions ahead for now. Both teams face bigger challenges in Week 11 with Nebraska and Northwestern, respectively.

Indiana makes a small move after its win, while the bottom of the league stays intact.

To the rundown:

1. Ohio State (10-0, 5-0, last week: 1): Ten straight weeks of games, 10 straight wins for Urban Meyer's Buckeyes, who get a well-deserved break after thumping Illinois at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State is 10-0 for the first time since 2007 as it chases its first perfect season since 2002, when it captured a national title. Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde form the Big Ten's most dangerous backfield and the defense continues to make big plays, getting another interception from CB Travis Howard. Ohio State has scored 52 points or more in three Big Ten games. It resumes play Nov. 17 at Wisconsin.

2. Nebraska (7-2, 4-1, last week: 2): For the second time in three weeks, Nebraska faced a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter of a Legends Division road game. And once again, the Huskers found a way to win behind QB Taylor Martinez, who overcame three turnovers (nearly four) to fire the game-winning touchdown strike and eclipse 200 rush yards. Nebraska wouldn't announce itself in the Big Ten until it recorded signature road wins, and the Huskers finally have gotten over the hump after the Ohio State debacle Oct. 6. Bo Pelini's team is in control of the Legends Division and might lock it up with a win this week against Penn State.

3. Penn State (6-3, 4-1, last week: 3): Resiliency has been Penn State's calling card under Bill O'Brien, so it wasn't surprising to see the Nittany Lions bounce back well from their first Big Ten loss. The Lions re-established the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, shutting down Purdue's offense and generating a nice power run game behind RB Zach Zwinak. Penn State racked up a season-high 506 yards of offense as QB Matt McGloin had another 300-yard passing performance. Gerald Hodges led the way on defense with three tackles for loss. Penn State has been dominant on the road in Big Ten play but faces its biggest test this week in Lincoln.

4. Michigan (6-3, 4-1, last week: 4): No Denard Robinson? No problem for Michigan despite a potentially tricky game at Minnesota. Devin Gardner moved from wide receiver to quarterback and stepped up in a big way in place of Robinson, while Gardner's fellow wideouts Drew Dileo and Jeremy Gallon picked him up with key catches as Michigan revived its passing attack against one of the nation's top pass defenses. The Wolverines' defense stepped up repeatedly in the red zone as Michigan retained the Little Brown Jug. Michigan must keep pace with Nebraska to stay alive in the division race and needs to beat Northwestern this week.

5. Northwestern (7-2, 3-2, last week: 5): Pat Fitzgerald gave his team a "C" for October, as the Wildcats went 2-2 in a month in which they've historically struggled. Northwestern now enters a month in which it typically thrives under Fitzgerald, and the Wildcats remain alive in the Legends Division chase, although they need Nebraska to start losing. They'll look for some of their road magic the next two weeks against the Michigan schools, and they also hope to regain the services of injured defensive backs Nick VanHoose and Quinn Evans. It'll be interesting to see if QB Kain Colter truly has control of the offense this week at the Big House.

6. Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2, last week: 7): The open week came at a perfect time for the Badgers, who must regroup after losing starting quarterback Joel Stave to a season-ending broken clavicle. Danny O'Brien and Curt Phillips competed for the top job throughout the practice week, as the staff decides who will lead the offense in a now crucial game at Indiana before a tough closing stretch (Ohio State, at Penn State). The Badgers will need a big game from their defense in Bloomington and arguably a bigger game from Montee Ball and the rushing attack against an Indiana team that struggles against the run.

7. Michigan State (5-5, 2-4, last week: 6): Close losses have defined Michigan State's season, and the Spartans suffered another devastating setback Saturday after having Nebraska on the hopes. Controversial calls once again played into the outcome, but the Spartans' defense couldn't get the stops it needed and surrendered 313 rush yards to the Huskers. RB Le'Veon Bell came to play, but QB Andrew Maxwell had another rough day. Michigan State must regroup during an off week before fighting for bowl eligibility the final two weeks. It needs one more win and faces Northwestern (home) and Minnesota (road).

8. Indiana (4-5, 2-3, last week: 9): This isn't a great Indiana team, but it also isn't a typical Indiana team. Typical Hoosiers teams would have folded after falling behind 14-0 on their home field against Iowa. But the 2012 Hoosiers didn't back down, steadied themselves and outlasted Iowa to record back-to-back Big Ten wins for the first time since 2007 and their first Big Ten home win since 2009. Cameron Coffman re-emerged at QB, while WR Cody Latimer had a huge day (7 catches, 113 yards, 3 TDs). The defense allowed only 14 points as IU set up a huge Leaders Division showdown this week against Wisconsin.

9. Minnesota (5-4, 1-4, last week: 8): Missed opportunity was the catchphrase for Minnesota on Saturday after failing to capitalize against a Robinson-less Michigan team. The Gophers couldn't build on a 7-0 lead and repeatedly stubbed their toe in the red zone, despite some decent play from QB Philip Nelson. Jerry Kill has cleansed the program of a lot of problems from the Tim Brewster era, but terrible penalties have remained. The Gophers have scored 13 points in all four of their Big Ten losses. Minnesota's typically stout pass defense also struggled against a backup quarterback. The Gophers try to get bowl-eligible this week when they travel to slumping Illinois.

10. Iowa (4-5, 2-3, last week: 10): The Hawkeyes slipped below .500 for the first time since 2007, and barring a surprising turnaround, they won't get back on the right side of the mark this season. Despite a very strong start at Indiana, the same problems surfaced on both sides of the ball as Iowa couldn't translate yards into points and surrendered way too many yards to their opponent. Senior QB James Vandenberg will get more criticism, and his end zone interception didn't help, but the problems go beyond him on a team that just isn't very good in any area. Iowa could get well against Purdue this week but will be an underdog in its final two games (Michigan, Nebraska).

11. Purdue (3-6, 0-5, last week: 11): We wish we could drop Purdue lower after its fourth Big Ten blowout loss in five games. Alas, there's Illinois. One of those teams amazingly will get a Big Ten win when they meet Nov. 17 in Champaign. Purdue still can get bowl-eligible, but it will need a rapid turnaround in its final three games and show a lot more fight on the defensive side of the ball. The offense once again looked good on the opening drive and then disappeared, as QB Robert Marve couldn't stretch the field. Another poor performance at home before a mostly empty Ross-Ade Stadium turns up the heat even more on embattled coach Danny Hope.

12. Illinois (2-7, 0-5, last week: 12): We knew there would be no bowl for the Illini this year, but Ohio State made it official Saturday, handing Tim Beckman's team its seventh loss. After a decent first quarter, Illinois reverted to form and imploded before halftime. The offense once again couldn't stretch the field, and slumping junior QB Nathan Scheelhaase threw an interception and completed 19 passes for only 96 yards. Illinois is right there with Colorado and Kentucky in the group of the worst major-conference teams in the country. The Illini need to generate something positive down the stretch before the 2013 campaign.

Happy Halloween in the ACC

October, 31, 2012
Happy Halloween, ACC fans! Andrea and I decided to have a little fun today with some spooky stuff in the ACC. We see you guys out there dressed up as officials …

Cursed: Maryland’s quarterbacks. It’s the only way to explain it. Some sort of hex. Following the transfer of Danny O’Brien to Wisconsin, starter C.J. Brown tore his ACL. His backup, Perry Hills, then tore his ACL. Backup Devin Burns also suffered a season-ending injury, and then -- as if all of that weren’t enough of a spell -- true freshman Caleb Rowe also suffered a season-ending ACL injury. Coach Randy Edsall called it unlucky. Spooky if you ask me.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cutcliffe
Peter Casey/US PresswireThis season, coach David Cutcliffe and Duke have been scaring opponents for a change.
Back from the dead: Duke. The Devils have done it. For the first time since 1994, Duke is bowl eligible. Not only have the Blue Devils reached the six-win mark, they also have a chance to win the Coastal Division. With a 6-3 record (.667) Duke is off to its best start in five seasons under head coach David Cutcliffe. The Blue Devils have compiled a 5-0 record at Wallace Wade Stadium this season, matching the school record for home victories in a season. They’re alive.

Graveyard: Virginia. Bury ‘em. The Cavaliers have officially replaced Boston College at the bottom of the ACC power rankings, and have lost six straight heading into Saturday’s road trip to NC State. They have yet to win an ACC game, and haven’t won since Sept. 8. Nobody in the country ranks worse than Virginia in turnover margin. It’s been a hard fall after last season’s success. Odds are the Hoos don’t get back up again this season.

Scary movie: Pitt 35, Virginia Tech 17: Nobody but Pitt wants to watch this horror flick again. The Hokies had four turnovers. Logan Thomas had one touchdown and three interceptions against a defense that managed just one sack and no turnovers through the season's first two weeks. Virginia Tech had just 59 rushing yards. Pitt jumped out to a 21-0 lead. The Hokies were manhandled up front on both sides and allowed the Panthers 537 total yards.

Nightmare in Carter-Finley Stadium: NC State 17, FSU 16. That was not a bad dream, Seminoles fans, that was a national championship dream dying in Raleigh. Nobody expected that to happen, not after FSU jumped to No. 3 in the rankings after its win against Clemson. Not after NC State struggled so badly in losses to Tennessee and Miami. But Tom O'Brien knows how to cast a spell at least once a season. Double Double, toil and trouble ... bring me FSU on the double! His players responded, rallying from a 16-0 halftime deficit to score the game-winning touchdown pass on fourth down with 16 seconds remaining. Poof!

Thriller: Speaking of the Wolfpack, NC State has probably been involved in more thrillers than any team in the country. The Wolfpack have gone down to the wire in four straight games. The thrills began at Miami on Sept. 29, when NC State overcame a 10-point fourth quarter deficit to tie the game with 1:58 to go, only to lose when Miami scored a touchdown with 19 seconds remaining. The following week came the biggest thriller of all, the upset of FSU. Then, they beat Maryland when Terps kicker Brad Craddock missed a 33-yard field goal with 2 seconds left. Last week, they lost to North Carolina when Giovani Bernard returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown with 13 seconds left.

Trick or treat (high stakes game): NC State at Clemson, Nov. 17. For the Tigers to keep their Atlantic Division hopes alive, they must win this game. NC State already took Florida State down this year, but the Wolfpack have had a much harder time beating both teams in the same season. NC State won this matchup last year in decisive fashion, 37-17 so you know Clemson will be looking for revenge.

Jack-o-Lantern: Georgia Tech. Will the light come on for this team in time to make a bowl game? The Jackets have to win three of their final four to keep one of the longest bowl streaks in the nation alive. Georgia Tech has gone bowling 15 straight years, but faces an uphill climb with this remaining schedule: at Maryland, at North Carolina, Duke and at Georgia.