NCF Nation: Darrell Hazell

CHICAGO -- Purdue tailback Raheem Mostert nodded. He knew the stat.

The Boilermakers averaged just 14.9 points per game last season. Only four teams in the FBS fared worse. But Mostert just smiled Monday when asked about the offense's ceiling this season.

"Thirty-something points a game," Mostert said during Big Ten media days. "We feel really confident that we're going to score a bunch of points on opponents."

Easy follow-up question: Are you crazy?

"No, I'm not crazy at all," Mostert said with a laugh. "Just confident."

Despite a disastrous 2013 season, confidence was the theme of the day for the Boilermakers, as player after player talked about how Purdue was moving forward this season. Defensive end Ryan Russell even made mention of Big Ten title hopes, while linebacker Sean Robinson praised the freshmen along with sophomore quarterback Danny Etling.

That swagger came as a bit of a surprise considering Purdue's lone win last season came against FCS opponent Indiana State. The Boilermakers haven't beaten an FBS squad since Nov. 24, 2012, against Indiana. But players insisted those struggles are in the past.

"Last year, we didn't know what we were doing on offense. We didn't understand what was going on," Mostert said. "Now that we have that year and we've settled on what plays work, that's really going to help us in the long run -- understanding what we have to do and what our jobs have to do for us to score a lot of points."

The offense was admittedly young and inexperienced last season. Etling and his top target, DeAngelo Yancey, were true freshmen. And it didn't help that coach Darrell Hazell was trying to turn around a program in Year 1. But this season Purdue is hoping to take a step forward -- and Mostert isn't shy about aiming a little high.

"The confidence level is through the roof -- we're looking forward to scoring a lot of points," Mostert said. "We didn't have that last year."
Unlike the ACC or SEC, the Big Ten hasn't taken an official position on an early signing period. Many Big Ten coaches see the benefits, but there has been no united front.

Here's a bit of advice: The Big Ten coaches should band together about an urgent recruiting item, but not the early signing period.

The Big Ten must campaign for official visits to be moved up. No other league is affected more by population shifts that have created dense pockets of top recruits located far from its footprint. The Big Ten is expanding its recruiting reach, especially to the Southeast, but its proximity to many talent bases remains a significant obstacle.

If the Big Ten can't get prospects to its campuses before decisions are made, it will continue to fall behind in the recruiting race.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikEarlier official visits would be a boon to Bo Pelini and Nebraska, as the Cornhuskers have to recruit nationally because of a limited local talent base.
"The first thing we have to do is get kids on campus earlier," Michigan coach Brady Hoke told ESPN.com. "I'm sure our friends in the Pac-12 and the SEC would rather not that be the case. They'd rather have kids come in to Ann Arbor if it's winter.

"But I think it would help the guys from distance and the guys from those climates to come on campus to see what it is like."

NCAA rules state that prospects can't begin taking their five official visits -- paid for by the schools -- until the start of their senior year in high school. But many recruits make their college choices much earlier.

The accelerated recruiting cycle has minimized the significance of official visits. Many prospects commit after taking unofficial visits, for which they pay their own way. But the distance between Big Ten schools and the highest concentrations of elite prospects makes it challenging for recruits and their families to fund long, expensive trips.

"Since the trend is for early commitments, it makes sense that it favors schools located in population bases that produce a lot of players," said Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, a former coach at Indiana, LSU and Vanderbilt. "So how do you combat that? How does a kid from Atlanta get to Lincoln, Nebraska, in the summer on their own expense?"

DiNardo views Nebraska as the FBS school most impacted by accelerated recruiting cycle. Nebraska always has recruited nationally because of its small local population base, but former coach Tom Osborne -- "a tireless recruiter," DiNardo said -- capitalized on the fact that recruits made their choices after an official visit to Lincoln.

Huskers coach Bo Pelini acknowledges earlier official visits "would help us."

"When you take official visits away from the equation, it really hurts a place like Nebraska," DiNardo said. "So early signing day has to be partnered up with official visits in a prospect's junior year.

"If just the date moves up without official visits, it sets the Big Ten even further behind."

DiNardo notes that a program such as Ohio State is less affected by the official visits timetable because it has a large local talent base that can easily reach its campus. But other Big Ten programs must cast a wider recruiting net.

It's especially true for programs in the western part of the league: Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"It gives some of the schools that aren't surrounded by a lot of schools or a lot of places, it gives us a chance," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "But I don't know if that's going to happen or not. People in Texas aren't going to vote for that because they never have to leave Texas."

Most Big Ten coaches interviewed by ESPN.com favor earlier official visits but want clear guidelines. One question is timing.

Several coaches mention late May or early June as the ideal time because many recruits already are touring schools unofficially and most staffs are conducting on-campus camps.

"With the way people are traveling around right now, it might be good to afford a prospect to take a couple of visits in June," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Also, I think it'd be great to afford at least a parent the opportunity to join that prospect and make it part of the official trip."

Coaches say the parental component is critical.

"Sometimes kids just don't have the means to be able to get here, and they definitely don't have the means to have their parents come," Pelini said. "Hopefully, they'll change that. It's too big of a decision for a 17-year-old or 18-year-old kid to make without his parents or somebody being there."

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesMark Dantonio wants an early official-visit period, but would prefer for it to be in a limited window instead of spanning the entire spring and summer.
Both Pelini and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio want a limit on the number of official visitors schools could have in the spring. FBS teams can provide up to 56 official visits, but Dantonio rarely uses more than half of the allotment.

"It's not just carte blanche," Dantonio said. "I would make it a two-week window and cap those numbers."

Allowing 10-20 early official visits could work. Dantonio and Pelini also think prospects should be allowed to take multiple official visits to the same school.

Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen favors an earlier signing date in December, but he needs more clarity on official visits -- when they would take place, and for how long.

"I have to look at quality of life for my coaches," Andersen said. "Are we willing to take 4-5 weeks away in the summer? I don’t want to do that."

Added Purdue coach Darrell Hazell: "You lose your life. The month of July, you need a little bit of decompression time."

The first two weeks in June makes the most sense. Create a dead period in July so coaches can take time off.

It also doesn't mean official visits in September and October will stop. Andersen can talk about Wisconsin's "Jump Around" and show videos, but, he said, "there’s nothing like being there."

Big Ten teams still will have the chance to showcase their stadiums, facilities and campuses during football season. But they can't afford to wait that long for far-flung prospects to arrive, especially when they can afford to bring them in sooner.

"It would help everybody," Hoke said. "The other conferences aren’t just staying in their region, either."

That's true, but the Big Ten has the most to gain, and pushing for change won't be easy.

"If that thing ever goes to a vote, everybody is going to say is that the Big Ten is just complaining," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "They'll keep rallying their troops because they want to keep those kids at home."

The Big Ten coaches must rally, too. Otherwise, the recruiting gap will widen.
Who's the fastest man in the Big Ten?

Several players can make that claim, but only one has the gold medals to back it up. Purdue's Raheem Mostert swept the 100- and 200-meter sprints at the Big Ten outdoor track and field championships in West Lafayette last week, adding to the two conference sprint titles he won earlier this year during the indoor season.

[+] EnlargeRaheem Mostert
Zach Bolinger/Icon SMIRaheem Mostert hopes to translate his track success onto the football field.
It doesn't qualify as news that the Boilermakers senior is swift of foot. He led the FBS in kick return yardage as a true freshman in 2011, after all. Other than that, though, Mostert's biggest accomplishments at Purdue happened on the track this year. Football coach Darrell Hazell would like to change that.

"He's an elite, elite track runner, and he's going to be an elite football player for us this fall," Hazell told ESPN.com. "We're crazy if we don't have him touch the ball 20-plus times a game."

You might consider it, then, a brief bout of insanity that Mostert has touched the ball on offense only 44 times in three years, including just 12 times in 2013. That doesn't make much sense on the surface for a team that was starved for playmakers as much as the Boilers were last fall.

But Mostert, Hazell said, was miscast as a slot receiver last offseason and didn't move back to his more natural position of running back until the end of fall camp. He got just 11 carries last season for 37 yards and one catch for six yards. His season highlight came on special teams, where he had a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown against Penn State.

"I was down on myself," Mostert said. "I switched from wide receiver to running back so late that I literally had to work my way up.

"I have a little chip on my shoulder. I want to show my coaches that they missed out on me last season. But they weren't the only ones. Everyone did. I just want to turn it around."

Mostert, who didn't run track a year ago because of a knee injury he suffered in the 2012 football season, went back to work as a sprinter this winter with Hazell's full blessing. The schedule between the two sports works out well, as running track helps Mostert's conditioning for football and football helped keep him in shape all spring. He had to miss a few early-season track meets because of spring practice, and Hazell let him take it easy some days during spring drills when a big weekend meet loomed.

There was also some unexpected overlap. After Mostert tasted victory in the indoor season -- he won the Big Ten 60- and 200-meter titles -- he gained confidence in himself that he carried over into football.

"After winter track season, he looked and walked and talked like a different guy in spring football," Hazell said. "He looked so much more comfortable, and that's because he did experience so much success."

Track is often a solitary sport that requires discipline and focus when you're crouching in the starter's block waiting for the pistol blast. Mostert said honing those skills helped him concentrate more in meeting rooms and before taking carries on the field in football.

He'll join another blazer in the Boilers backfield, as senior Akeem Hunt also has sprinter's speed and comes from a family of track athletes. With those two on the field at the same time, Hazell hopes the offense can create some matchup problems and improve on last season's paltry 2.5-yards-per-carry mark, which ranked second-to-last in the FBS.

Mostert also insists he's not just a fast guy. At 5-foot-11 and 186 pounds, he prides himself on being a physical running back who can pound the ball between the tackles as well.

"He's a football guy running track," Hazell said. "You can see it when he puts his shoulder down and his foot in the ground -- he knocks people backwards. I think he's a little more powerful than people think."

While football remains Mostert's top priority, track season isn't over yet. He'll run in next week's NCAA East Regionals in Jacksonville, Florida, with a goal of making the nationals. His times in the 100 (10.25 seconds) and 200 (20.66) rank among the top 14 of qualified runners in the East Regional.

"Raheem can be as good as anyone in the nation," Purdue men's sprints coach Norbert Elliott said. "He's got a huge upside. He's a little raw in terms of mechanics. But if he were to spend full time doing it, there's nothing that couldn't be improved and sharpened up.

"There's no doubt he's got the strength and all the raw tools to go very far in track. Of course, I'd like to see him playing football on Sundays, because he's got those skills as well."

Mostert said he would like to try and make the U.S. Olympic team one day if football doesn't work out. But his goal is to have a big senior season for the Boilermakers, then hopefully impress speed-obsessed NFL scouts.

"I don't think people realize how fast 10.2, 10.3 (in the 100 meters) is," Hazell said. "That's a different type of fast."

The challenge for Mostert and Purdue is figuring out how to make sure the fastest man in the Big Ten becomes one of the league's best football players, too.
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If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.

1. "I like my team."

2. "I'm glad we don't have a game tomorrow."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesPat Fitzgerald's Wildcats had to deal with a lot off the field this spring.
College coaches have recited those phrases in spring ball for decades. The 14 men leading Big Ten programs are no exceptions. But the standard spring sentiments apply to the league more this year than most.

There are reasons to believe the Big Ten will be better this fall, but the work is far from over on most campuses. This isn't a league of finished products, and the coming months take on added importance before the 2014 season kicks off in late August.

"I don't think we're that far behind; it's just painfully obvious that we're not there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "This next phase will be the most important phase of this team's life. It's always important, but with a lot of things we've gone though, we've got to come together."

Northwestern went through a lot in the spring, mostly away from the field, as the campaign for a player union gained national media attention, especially after players were declared employees of the school in March. The team held a historic vote Friday, after Fitzgerald had expressed his opposition to unionizing. Some players expressed concern that the vote could split the team.

It will be months before we know if the union plan goes through, but the Wildcats continue preparing for a pivotal season. They found their quarterback this spring in senior Trevor Siemian and an offensive identity based around the passing game. But questions along both lines remain.

The spring also produced quarterback answers at Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner). Michigan's Devin Gardner had a rough spring game but still seems likely to retain his job. Another senior signal-caller, Rutgers' Gary Nova, is a good bet to remain atop the depth chart. Although Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong lacks Nova's or Gardner's experience, he exited spring just as he entered it: as the Huskers' top quarterback.

Indiana's platoon system of Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson frustrates some, but not coach Kevin Wilson, who has given every indication that he'll continue to use both for another season.

Other quarterback races have been reduced but not resolved. Illinois will pick between Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer who impressed for much of the spring, and veteran backup Reilly O'Toole. Coach Tim Beckman wants a resolution before two-a-day practices in August.

Purdue's Danny Etling, who started the final seven games of his freshman season, appeared to have a slight lead coming out of the spring, but coach Darrell Hazell isn't ready to declare a starter. So Austin Appleby and David Blough remain alive.

Wisconsin reduced its candidate pool from four to two as Joel Stave, who boasts 19 career starts but also a nagging throwing shoulder injury, will compete with dual-threat Tanner McEvoy in camp.

"It will be a fight," coach Gary Andersen said.

Quarterback is just one spot where Wisconsin has questions. The Badgers went through much of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. They've also revamped their defensive front seven, which returns only one starter from 2013.

[+] EnlargeRaekwon McMillan
Miller Safrit/ESPNEarly enrollee Raekwon McMillan could make an immediate impact for Ohio State's defense this fall.
Ohio State didn't have star quarterback Braxton Miller for spring ball because of shoulder surgery, but the Buckeyes focused on bolstering a defense that struggled last fall. Freshman Raekwon McMillan, an early enrollee, is pushing for the starting middle linebacker spot, and competition will continue at the cornerback spot opposite Doran Grant. Chris Ash, the Buckeyes' new co-defensive coordinator, worked to simplify the scheme this spring.

"We only have about six defensive calls," safety Tyvis Powell said after the spring game. "We had too many last year."

Offensive line remains Michigan's focal point coming out of the spring. A sloppy spring game didn't ease fears about the Wolverines' front five, although coach Brady Hoke saw positive signs in earlier practices. A critical summer awaits new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, tasked with resurrecting Michigan's run game.

At Penn State, new coach James Franklin continues to energize both players and fans. But he's also realistic about the depth challenge his team faces, particularly along the offensive line.

"When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues that you're going to have to overcome," Franklin said. "We don't."

Like Rutgers, Maryland began its Big Ten transition this spring and welcomed running back Wes Brown and wideout Marcus Leak after absences from the team. If the Terrapins finally stay healthy, they could be worth watching in a loaded East Division.

Sitting atop the division is defending Big Ten champ Michigan State. The Spartans had a relatively stress-free spring, but they must fill key spots on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where players like Taiwan Jones and Darian Hicks step in.

The returning pieces for teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin fuel optimism around the league. But in spring, optimism is always tempered by what lies ahead.

"We're improving," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday, "but we're hardly ready to play."

They won't have to for 132 days.

Until then, stay classy, Big Ten fans.
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Purdue quarterback Danny Etling showed up to a recent interview holding a piece of paper marked with X’s, O’s and notations.

It wasn't a play sheet for that afternoon's practice. Etling had created most of the page himself. Boilers offensive coordinator John Shoop provides his quarterbacks with general concepts, and then lets their minds run wild. He encourages Etling, Austin Appleby, 2014 signee David Blough and the other signal-callers to submit plays for review. Some will be used in practice. Some will even be used in games this season.

[+] EnlargeDanny Etling
Adam Rittenberg/ESPNPurdue QB Danny Etling shows off the sheet where he creates plays that could find their way into a game.
"You just throw it on a piece of paper," Etling told ESPN.com "He'll be like, 'Terrible, terrible, terrible ... that one's not bad. Let's talk about it.' That’s how our plays develop, by that thought process. Out of every 10 plays you draw, nine of them suck but one might be good and that's the one you might run on Saturday."

Shoop is the "puppet master," as Etling puts it, and has final say on all play calls, but Purdue's quarterbacks are very involved in the planning process for practices this spring -- and will be for games this fall.

"I value that," Shoop said. "It's our job as a staff to make our team feel empowered, like they're in control. These guys are not robots. Our staff takes a great deal of pride that the men who come and play for us are going to learn the game of football."

After a 1-11 season, where one of Purdue's biggest problems -- not lining up correctly -- occurred before the snap, you would expect the coaches to take even greater control of the learning process. The classic scenes of coaches and players -- red-faced coaches screaming and pounding on tables, players scared out of their cleats -- would seem likely inside the Mollenkopf Center this spring.

But there's a problem with that teaching model.

"They’ll just sit there and nod their heads, say they got it," defensive backs coach Taver Johnson said, "and then we’ll go down to the field and they’ll have absolutely no clue."

Purdue has chosen a different direction this spring. There's plenty of teaching being done, but the Boilers’ coaches are doing all they can to involve players in the process.

"Every time you take over a new program, your staff has to teach everything," coach Darrell Hazell said. "How do you line up, how do you break a huddle, where you are on the field. Now it's becoming fun, because you don’t have to worry about all those little things.

"You can concentrate on ball and getting guys better."

It beats the alternative.

For Shoop, it means having quarterbacks present their own plays at each meeting, and seriously considering them for use. For Johnson, it's having a player stand at the front of the room and teach his teammates press technique. For wide receivers coach Kevin Sherman, it's having each wideout prepare a report on a concept or set of concepts, while encouraging them to get creative.

Sophomore receiver Cameron Posey took it to heart.

It's our job as a staff to make our team feel empowered, like they're in control. These guys are not robots. Our staff takes a great deal of pride that the men who come and play for us are going to learn the game of football.

-- Purdue offensive coordinator John Shoop
"Cameron used little Indians and cowboys on a cardboard," Sherman said. "He used different color lines on his routes. Very creative. I was very proud of them. They were very, very invested in what we're trying to do."

Etling admits the plays he submitted last year were "high school stuff," possibly because he had just come from high school. But he eventually learned all that goes into a play and what Shoop likes. One of his submissions made it into a game against Illinois and went for a completion.

Although the players' submissions still need refining, Shoop never writes them off immediately. He fully expects to use an Etling play or an Appleby play in games this fall.

"These coaches are very unique, especially with Coach Shoop in the way he challenges us mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually," Appleby said. "Coach Shoop says if you never walk into this room comfortable, we're not doing our jobs and we're not getting better.

"The only time I would say I wouldn't be able to develop as a complete quarterback is if there was a ceiling put over my head. There is no ceiling."

Appleby hopes to pursue coaching after his playing career and would like to be an offensive coordinator in college.

"I can't get enough of it," he said. "It's my favorite class. I know we're student-athletes, but my football class is what I look forward to all day. I get a chance to learn from [Shoop], not only as a player, but if I pursue a coaching career, it's going to pay dividends."

The coaches have successfully created more player investment in the learning process. The next step: translating it to the field when it matters.

"Any time you can get the players thinking like the coaches," Hazell said, "you have a chance to move forward."
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

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

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

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

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

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

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

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

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

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

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

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

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

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

Big Ten makes progress in diversity

February, 24, 2014
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The Big Ten likes to consider itself a leader on many fronts in college sports. Several Big Ten schools were among the first to integrate their football programs, and the first two African-American head football coaches in a major conference called the league home.

But for much of this century, when it came to football coaching diversity, the Big Ten lagged behind the rest of the nation.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/Eric Christian SmithPenn State's decision to hire James Franklin as its first African-American head football coach can't be underestimated.
After the third African-American head coach in league history -- Michigan State's Bobby Williams -- was fired late in the 2002 season, the conference went a decade without another black head football coach. The Big Ten was the only one of the six BCS AQ conferences that did not have at least one African-American head coach during that span; the SEC, by contrast, had four in the same time frame.

Thankfully, things have begun to improve. Two of the last three head coaches hired in the Big Ten -- Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Penn State's James Franklin -- are African-American.

"That's great news, to have that diversity," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "Now we just need to give them time and let them be successful where they are and develop their programs. I'm glad there is progress, and we need to continue to do more across the country."

There weren't a lot of opportunities, period, for head coaching jobs in the Big Ten during the recent diversity drought, as schools like Iowa, Northwestern, Penn State and Ohio State remained mostly stable at the top. But coaching turnover has increased in the league in the past few years; Penn State, for instance, just hired its second coach in three years after going nearly a half-century without a transition.

Was improving diversity a league-wide priority? Conference officials say no.

"What our schools try to do is hire the best coaches in their pool," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "We've had plenty of African-American basketball coaches.

"It's more about a commitment to opportunity and a fair process, and as long as our people are hiring the best people in processes that are open, you would hope and think that it would be sort of a broad representation of people. Whether you hire James Franklin or a new coach at any place, I'm not sure race should be the factor. Certainly people wouldn't want it to be a factor. It's really an outcome."

Still, it's hard not to note the importance of Penn State hiring its first African-American head football coach. More so than Dennis Green or Francis Peay at Northwestern or even Williams at Michigan State, Franklin is leading a flagship, blue-blood program. The timing was fortuitous, as the Pennsylvania native was ready for a new challenge after proving himself at Vanderbilt and the Nittany Lions needed a dynamic new leader.

“It’s a lot of significance," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. "We hired James because of the kind of person and coach he is. The fact he’s African American is great. It’s a great testimony to opportunity. A hundred years ago, that wouldn’t have happened in this country."

[+] EnlargeJim Delany
AP Photo/Ting Shen/Triple Play New MediaBig Ten commissioner Jim Delany said the hiring process should be fair and a commitment to opportunity for all coaches.
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports hasn't yet released its annual hiring report card for college football. But Richard Lapchick, the center's director, said the Big Ten's recent moves are "definitely a sign of progress." While there are only 11 FBS black head coaches heading into the 2014 season, it's noteworthy that minorities have gotten opportunities to lead storied programs like Penn State and Texas (Charlie Strong), Lapchick said.

"That's critically important," he said. "Historically, the opportunities in general that have gone to African-American coaches have been at programs that have been really down, and the opportunities to turn them around have been very problematic. Let's hope [Hazell and Franklin] are successful, because they will help create more opportunities for other African-American and Latino coaches in FBS conferences."

The next step for the Big Ten is to continue to develop and identify the next wave of minority head coaching candidates. Both Franklin and Hazell, who led Kent State for two seasons before Purdue hired him, had already established themselves as winning head coaches elsewhere, though Hazell was also a well-regarded assistant at Ohio State. The Big Ten sent several African-American assistant coaches to the annual minority coaches' forum between 2006 and 2010, and some athletic directors see it as their job to mentor young black coaches.

Smith saw Everett Withers leave the Buckeyes staff this winter to land the James Madison head coaching job and said he is spending time this offseason with running backs coach Stan Drayton to get Drayton accustomed to non-football issues like university budgets and policies.

"We want to have guys who are trained to hopefully win in the interview process," Smith said. "Sometimes, those are beauty contests. You've got to be able to answer the questions the right way and demonstrate an ability to lead."

That's the ultimate goal, to have more minority candidates who are ready when those opportunities do arise. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said that wasn't the case a few years ago, but the pool of potential coaches is increasing.

"We’re starting to see more and more diversity among the coaching staffs and up-and-coming diverse candidates in all various positions in the sport," Brandon said. "Now, we're seeing more representation at the head coaching level. That was bound to happen and important to have happen, and I'm glad to see that trend evolve."
Rivalry week in the Big Ten left no doubt: The conference's top two teams will meet in the league championship.

Wisconsin's shocking home loss to Penn State ends the debate over whether the Badgers or Michigan State should be at No. 2 behind front-runner Ohio State. Although the Buckeyes and, to a lesser extent, the Spartans had some struggles Saturday, they found ways to win. The Badgers had their worst performance of the season, and it cost them a potential BCS at-large berth.

That doesn't take away from Penn State, which received big boosts from quarterback Christian Hackenberg and others.

Our big dilemma this week was what to do with the 6-8 spots. Penn State had by far its best showing of the season, and Michigan had its best showing in months, even in defeat, against archrival Ohio State. Nebraska didn't show up at home on Black Friday, however, the Huskers have road wins against both the Lions (six days before the Iowa clunker) and Michigan.

After some spirited debate, we ultimately went with body of work to determine the rundown, especially since these are the final regular-season rankings. We understand it devalues the Week 14 performances a bit.

Here's one last look at the Week 13 rankings.

Now for the new rundown, final regular-season version.

1. Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten: last week: 1): The Buckeyes lost their composure early and nearly lost their perfect season late. They were faced with adversity for the first time in six weeks, but they made enough plays on both sides of the ball to win. Running back Carlos Hyde (226 yards, one TD) and quarterback Braxton Miller (five total TDs) led a virtually unstoppable offense, which helped overcome some shoddy pass defense. The Buckeyes now await Michigan State in the Big Ten title game.

2. Michigan State (11-1, 8-0; last week: 3): There weren't many style points against Minnesota, but the Spartans came away with another double-digit Big Ten win. The defense kept Minnesota out of the end zone, as linebacker Denicos Allen led the way. Running back Jeremy Langford (134 rush yards, TD) had another big day as Michigan State moved closer to a BCS bowl berth, regardless of the result in Indianapolis.

3. Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2; last week: 2): It's only a one-spot drop for Wisconsin, but what a downer in Mad City. A team that had been so dominant since falling at Ohio State never showed up on Senior Day against a plucky Penn State team that took control from the onset. Quarterback Joel Stave threw three interceptions in the loss, and one of the Big Ten's better defenses allowed a slew of big plays as Penn State racked up 465 yards. It led to Wisconsin's most surprising home loss in recent memory.

4. Iowa (8-4, 5-3; last week: 4): Kirk Ferentz's crew entered the regular season as a popular pick to finish last in the Legends Division. The Hawkeyes emerged as one of the better teams not only in the division but the entire Big Ten. They've flipped their 2012 regular-season record behind a salty rush defense, led by an outstanding group of linebackers, and a functional offense. After two lackluster showings in the Heroes Game, Iowa outclassed Nebraska in Lincoln and should move up the bowl pecking order.

5. Minnesota (8-4, 4-4; last week: 5): It doesn't take a doctor at the Mayo Clinic to diagnose what's wrong with Minnesota. The Gophers' defense keeps them in every game, and Saturday's matchup at Michigan State proved to be no exception. But the offense simply can't score or consistently pass the football. Minnesota failed to reach double digits for the third time this season despite multiple opportunities in Spartans territory. It's still a great season for Jerry Kill's team, but there's a lot of work to do on offense before a bowl appearance.

6. Nebraska (8-4, 5-3; last week: 6): No one would dispute Bo Pelini that this has been a difficult season in Husker Country. No one would argue with Nebraska's ability to keep fighting. But when the same problems (namely turnovers) surface year after year, the bigger picture of the program becomes more depressing. The Huskers and their head coach self-destructed for much of the Iowa game and fell for the third time on their home field. Fortunately for Pelini, it didn't cost him his job, and he should get another chance to compete for an elusive league title in 2014.

7. Penn State (7-5, 4-4; last week: 8): The Lions had a better team in Bill O'Brien's first season, but they didn't have a better win than Saturday's stunning upset of Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. After losing their first three road games by a combined score of 131-48, Penn State dominated Wisconsin for much of the afternoon at a place where the Badgers rarely lose. Hackenberg ended his freshman season with a signature performance (339 pass yards, 4 TDs) as the offense repeatedly gashed Wisconsin. A much-maligned defense held the Badgers' run game in check as Penn State ended an up-and-down season on a very good note.

8. Michigan (7-5, 3-5; last week: 7): After plummeting to historic lows earlier in the month, Michigan's offense looked like a completely different unit against Ohio State. Quarterback Devin Gardner played brilliantly, coordinator Al Borges called a good game and several others -- Jeremy Gallon, Jake Butt and De'Veon Smith -- stepped up in a 603-yard effort. It wasn't enough, as Michigan fell by a point and the defense had no answers for Ohio State, but the Wolverines played their best game in months and can feel a bit better entering the postseason.

9. Indiana (5-7, 3-5; last week: 9): Oh, what might have been for Indiana. A team with such an explosive offense and eight home games should have made a bowl game, period, but the Hoosiers couldn't get it done. At least they reclaimed the Old Oaken Bucket as quarterback Tre Roberson (six TD passes, 273 pass yards, 154 rush yards) torched Purdue and received help from Stephen Houston, D'Angelo Roberts, Cody Latimer and others. It's clear the Hoosiers have to make upgrades on defense. They can't keep wasting such explosiveness on offense.

10. Northwestern (5-7, 1-7; last week: 11): A season to forget for Northwestern ended on a positive note, as Pat Fitzgerald's team avoided a winless Big Ten season and recorded another victory against its in-state rival. Quarterback Trevor Siemian enters the offseason with some confidence after passing for a career-high 414 yards and four touchdowns against Illinois. Wide receiver Christian Jones (13 catches, 182 yards, two TDs) also stepped up as Northwestern twice rallied from deficits against Illinois. Fitzgerald said afterward that Northwestern "will be back" in 2014. The work begins now.

11. Illinois (4-8, 1-7; last week 10): The wins total doubled from two to four, which is nothing to celebrate. But Illinois clearly improved in Year 2 under coach Tim Beckman, who should receive another season in Champaign. Illinois has fixed the offense, and while quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will be tough to replace, several playmakers like Josh Ferguson return. A bigger issue is the defense, which had no answer for Northwestern's passing attack on Saturday and surrendered more than 40 points and more than 500 yards per game in Big Ten play.

12. Purdue (1-11, 0-8; last week: 12): The optimist sees a dynamic young quarterback in Danny Etling, who finished his freshman season with 485 pass yards and four touchdowns against Indiana, and a team that can only get better. The pessimist sees a Purdue squad that was the worst in recent Big Ten history and has much work to do on both sides of the ball to become competitive in coach Darrell Hazell's second season. A big offseason awaits Hazell and his staff as they can't go through another season like this one.
There's only one debate in the Power Rankings: Who's No. 2?

All the top teams held serve in Week 13, and the Big Ten championship matchup is set for Ohio State and Michigan State to meet Dec. 7 in Indianapolis. The Buckeyes remain atop the league, but which team comes next: Wisconsin or Michigan State?

Although most polls have Michigan State ahead of Wisconsin, we've been keeping the Badgers at No. 2. It's extremely close between the two, and it's too bad the Spartans and Badgers won't face one another this season, especially given their recent history.

We're actually split on the No. 2 spot. Brian is keeping Wisconsin ahead of MSU on his ESPN.com power rankings ballot, while Adam has flipped the two this week, noting Michigan State's superior quarterback and special-teams play.

A second-place tie doesn't really work in the Big Ten rankings, so Wisconsin remains at No. 2 by the slimmest of margins.

Elsewhere, Iowa and Minnesota trade places, and so do Illinois and Northwestern.

Here's one last look at the Week 12 rankings.

Now, for the newest rundown …

1. Ohio State (11-0, 7-0; last week: 1): Another easy afternoon at The Shoe for Urban Meyer's Buckeyes, who set a program record with their 23rd consecutive victory. Quarterback Braxton Miller (144 rush yards, 160 pass yards, 4 TDs) and running back Carlos Hyde (117 rush yards, two TDs) both hurt Indiana early and often, and linebacker Ryan Shazier (20 tackles) sparked a stout defensive effort. Ohio State is very much in the national-title hunt as it prepares to visit rival Michigan this week.

2. Wisconsin (9-2, 6-1; last week: 2): A BCS at-large appearance looks likelier for the Badgers, who won their fifth consecutive game Saturday and their 10th straight against Minnesota. The running backs might grab the spotlight, but it's time Wisconsin's defense received some credit for an exceptional season. Linebacker Chris Borland led the way Saturday with his NCAA record-tying 14th career forced fumble and two fumble recoveries, as the Badgers shut out Minnesota's offense. Wisconsin finishes the regular season against Penn State at Camp Randall Stadium.

3. Michigan State (10-1, 7-0; last week: 3): Quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford continue to sparkle in Big Ten play, as both men performed well in a win at Northwestern. The defense surrendered 224 yards but shut out Northwestern in the second half and recorded two takeaways. Michigan State is headed back to Indianapolis for the second time in three seasons to face Ohio State on Dec. 7. Can't wait.

4. Iowa (7-4, 4-3; last week: 5): Thanks to linebacker Anthony Hitchens and a much-improved defense, Iowa overcame four turnovers to rally past Michigan. Quarterback Jack Rudock (two TDs, three INTs) had an erratic day, but Iowa dominated the second half, erasing a 21-7 deficit to win 24-21. The Hawkeyes will be going to a decent bowl game, and they have a chance for a very nice finish if they can beat Nebraska on the road this Friday.

5. Minnesota (8-3, 4-3; last week: 4): The Gophers are modeling themselves after Wisconsin, which is good, but they're simply not there yet. Minnesota's flaws on offense, especially at wide receiver, showed up Saturday as the Gophers scored no offensive points on their home field. The defense kept the game relatively close, but Minnesota never seriously challenged Wisconsin in the second half. Things don't get any easier this week, when the Gophers visit Michigan State.

6. Nebraska (8-3, 5-2; last week: 6): A horrendous personal-foul call didn't doom the Huskers, who found a way to beat Penn State in overtime and showed some grit along the way. Running back Ameer Abdullah had his typical brilliant game, and quarterback Ron Kellogg III did a nice job in relief of Tommy Armstrong Jr. Kicker Pat Smith stepped up in the clutch as Nebraska won for the third time in four games. The Huskers host Iowa on Black Friday.

7. Michigan (7-4, 3-4; last week: 7): We'd normally move Michigan lower, but there's no place to put the Wolverines because Penn State and Indiana both lost, too. Linebacker Jake Ryan and the defense came to play at Iowa, forcing four turnovers and converting one into points. But the offense remains embarrassingly bad, especially in the run game. Michigan finished with 10 first downs, 60 rush yards and 158 total yards as the heat continues to rise on coordinator Al Borges. Things will likely get worse this week, when Ohio State storms into the Big House.

8. Penn State (6-5, 3-4; last week: 8): This time, Penn State had no late-game heroics because special-teams miscues and other problems resulted in an overtime loss on senior day. The Lions received a big performance from running back Zach Zwinak (149 rush yards) and quarterback Christian Hackenberg accounted for three touchdowns, but the team's limitations in all three phases showed up in the loss. Penn State ends the season with a trip to Wisconsin, which likely won't be pretty.

9. Indiana (4-7, 2-5; last week 9): The lingering defensive issues are there, but Indiana has a new problem: The offense isn't showing up. IU once again felt the absence of injured running back Tevin Coleman against Ohio State, recording just 122 rushing yards. Indiana actually had more first downs than the Buckeyes (24 to 22) but didn't score for three and a half quarters and couldn't stop Ohio State's big-play offense. Kevin Wilson's team finishes the season against Purdue at home.

10. Illinois (4-7, 1-6; last week: 11): Tim Beckman and his Illini players can finally stop talking about The Streak, as Illinois won a Big Ten game for the first time in 777 days (Oct. 8, 2011). There was some typical sloppiness, and the defense struggled early, but Illinois made enough plays down the stretch to get out of Purdue with a four-point win. The Nathan Scheelhaase-Steve Hull connection produced 169 yards and two touchdowns as the close friends are ending their careers on a good note.

11. Northwestern (4-7, 0-7; last week: 10): The unthinkable has happened, the worst-case scenario amazingly eclipsed: Northwestern's bowl streak is over at five seasons after a 4-0 start and a fourth-quarter lead against Ohio State on Oct. 5. The Wildcats actually moved the ball well against Michigan State but repeatedly stalled in plus territory and took no risks despite a winless mark in Big Ten play. Northwestern has its longest losing streak since 1998, and Pat Fitzgerald has some serious work to do in the offseason, which will begin next week.

12. Purdue (1-10, 0-7; last week: 12): Darrell Hazell is looking for any sign of progress and saw some against Illinois, as the Boilers played their first competitive game in the Big Ten. Purdue finally ran the ball a little, as Akeem Hunt eclipsed 100 yards on the ground, and the defense forced four turnovers. Ultimately, Purdue couldn't do enough offensively or slow down Illinois' pass game. The Boilers wrap up the season this week with the Bucket game in Bloomington, Ind.
The Week 11 power rankings begin with a mea culpa.

Upon further review, we botched last week's rankings, when we had Minnesota behind both Michigan and Nebraska, largely because of the Gophers' loss to Michigan on Oct. 5. We should have had Minnesota in the No. 4 spot and Nebraska at No. 5. That's where we have the Gophers and Huskers after the Week 11 results. Both teams recorded big wins, but Minnesota's head-to-head win against Nebraska on Oct. 26 gives the Gophers the edge.

So, Nebraska fans, don't freak out when you see Big Red one spot below last week's rankings. That's on us. Both teams basically retain their positions.

Michigan, meanwhile, drops down the list, while both Iowa and Indiana move up. Penn State and Indiana trade places after the Hoosiers' come-from-behind win against Illinois.

Here's one final look at the Week 10 rankings.

Now for the new rundown ...

1. Ohio State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): The Buckeyes had the week off and watched their national championship stock improve a bit with Oregon's loss to Stanford. Style points should come into play from here on out, so the Buckeyes need to continue their dominant play this week at Illinois. Quarterback Braxton Miller attempted only four passes in his last game in Champaign. Just a hunch he'll have a few more this time.

2. Wisconsin (7-2, 4-1; last week: 2): Spurred by running back James White and a salty defense, the Badgers continue to impress as they angle for a potential BCS at-large berth. Wisconsin had a surprisingly easy time with BYU to complete non-league play at 3-1*, as White finished with 194 all-purpose yards (147 rush, 47 receiving) and three touchdowns. The defense held Taysom Hill and the Cougars in check for most of the game. Wisconsin remains at home this week as Indiana visits Camp Randall Stadium.

3. Michigan State (8-1, 5-0; last week: 3): Mark Dantonio's squad had an extra week to glow after a dominant performance against rival Michigan. The Spartans remain in the driver's seat in the Legends Division but face a Nebraska team that has beaten them each of the past two seasons. Running back Jeremy Langford, a big part of the Spartans' Big Ten surge, takes aim at a Huskers defense that has tightened up lately. A win in Lincoln moves Michigan State much closer to Indianapolis.

4. Minnesota (8-2, 4-2; last week: 6): What looked like a lost season for Minnesota in early October has turned into a special one. The Gophers have won four consecutive Big Ten games for the first time in 40 years. David Cobb continues to spark the power run game, and the defense limited Penn State to 10 points on Saturday. This isn't just a team using its coach's health situation for motivation. Minnesota is legit and could be a serious factor in the Legends race.

5. Nebraska (7-2, 4-1; last week: 4): Again, we had this wrong in last week's rankings, so we're not trying to punish a Huskers team that has revived its season the past two weeks. Nebraska's young defense is blossoming right now after recording season highs in both sacks (seven) and tackles for loss (15) in Saturday's dramatic win at Michigan. Running back Ameer Abdullah continues to sizzle, and defensive end Randy Gregory is a force. The Legends Division title could come down to this week's game in Lincoln, as Michigan State comes to town.

6. Iowa (6-4, 3-3; last week: 7): After a one-year hiatus, the Hawkeyes will go bowling again this season after a businesslike performance against Purdue in which they racked up 318 rushing yards, including 165 by Jordan Canzeri. Defense linemen Mike Hardy, Drew Ott and Louis Trinca-Pasat triggered a stout defensive effort as Iowa reached the six-win threshold. The Hawkeyes now have an opportunity to turn a decent season into a good one. They're off this week before hosting struggling Michigan on Nov. 23.

7. Michigan (6-3, 2-3; last week: 5): Two weeks ago, Michigan looked like the shakiest 6-1 team in the country. Now the Wolverines simply look shaken. They've endured the worst two-week stretch of rushing offense for any FBS team in the past decade, and quarterback Devin Gardner, who looked so confident after the Notre Dame win, has backslid. Whether it's growing pains with a young offensive line or a group not playing anywhere near its talent level, Michigan has some major issues right now. Fortunately for the Wolverines, their upcoming opponent Northwestern might be more of a mess.

8. Indiana (4-5, 2-3; last week: 9): The formula for success hasn't changed at Indiana, which can strike quickly and often on offense and win shootouts with just about anyone. Wide receiver Cody Latimer (11 receptions, 189 yards, three touchdowns) and running backs Tevin Coleman (215 rushing yards, two TDs) and Stephen Houston (150 rushing yards, two TDs) sparked Indiana to its highest points total (52) against a Big Ten opponent at Memorial Stadium and tying the school record for total yards (650). Who needs defense with an offense like IU's? But the Hoosiers still need a major upset on the road to become bowl-eligible and visit Wisconsin this week.

9. Penn State (5-4, 2-3; last week: 8): The grittiness Bill O'Brien's team has shown on its home field simply isn't there when Penn State leaves the comforts of Happy Valley. Things started poorly in Minneapolis with a Bill Belton fumble and didn't get much better, as Penn State couldn't contain Minnesota's offense or generate much from its own. Christian Hackenberg looked like a freshman at TCF Bank Stadium, completing just 14 of 25 passes with a fumble at the Minnesota 1-yard line. The Lions are fortunate to have any Big Ten wins at this point. They should get another this week as slumping Purdue comes to Beaver Stadium.

10. Northwestern (4-5, 0-5; last week: 10): The off week came at a good time for Northwestern, and not just because of its five-game slide. Coach Pat Fitzgerald listed 13 key players that would have been out if the team played on Saturday. Northwestern should be a little healthier when Michigan comes to town this week. The Wildcats are still trying to get their offense on track, as they must win two of their final three to become bowl-eligible.

11. Illinois (3-6, 0-5; last week: 11): For the second consecutive week, Illinois appeared on the brink of its first Big Ten win since 2011. And once again the Illini fell short, this time in a fourth-quarter collapse as Indiana scored the final 17 points to pull away. Illinois wasted huge performances from wide receiver Steve Hull (224 receiving yards, two touchdowns) and Nathan Scheelhaase (450 pass yards) as the defense couldn't stop Indiana when it counted. The losing streak likely will last another week as Illinois hosts Ohio State on Saturday.

12. Purdue (1-8, 0-5; last week: 12): First, the positives: Purdue scored a touchdown for the first time since Oct. 12 and ended a 200-play drought of no plays in the opposing red zone against Iowa. But the Boilers' offense didn't do much else, as the line continues its season-long struggles and the run game did nothing against a stout Iowa defense. Purdue couldn't stop Iowa's ground game, which piled up 318 yards. Darrell Hazell's crew visits Penn State this week.
Le'Veon Bell, Brennen BeyerLeon Halip/Getty ImagesSaturday's grudge match between No. 21 Michigan and No. 22 Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., kicks off a loaded November schedule in the Big Ten which should provide plenty of excitement.
Halloween is just three days away, and if you're still seeking a costume, don't worry. I have you covered.

Your costume will be scary, especially for any Big Ten football fans you encounter. It doesn't require many materials, and some parts should intentionally look unfinished. If you happen to live in the state of Illinois, the very sight of you will send people screaming (not so much in Ohio, Wisconsin or Minnesota). If you go trick-or-treating, homeowners will want to give you their candy and get you off of their porches as quickly as possible.

You should dress up as the Big Ten's October schedule. Pretty frightening, right?

Frightening is one word to describe the Big Ten slate for the past four weeks. Boring and limited are two others. October typically elevates the excitement and intensity of Big Ten Saturdays, but it's hard to remember a less compelling month of league play than this past one. The double-bye had a lot to do with it, as two weekends featured only four games, and both Wisconsin and Purdue played just twice during the month. The Big Ten's weak crossover schedule also hurt, as previous October matchups such as Nebraska-Wisconsin, Michigan State-Wisconsin and Nebraska-Ohio State didn't take place.

There was a handful of exciting games (Northwestern-Ohio State, Michigan-Penn State, Michigan-Indiana) and some upsets mixed in (Minnesota beating Nebraska, Indiana beating Penn State), but October featured mostly snoozers.

What better way to end this mostly miserable month than by dressing up as a tattered composite schedule, walking around lopsided? Then you can join the rest of us and ring in November, which promises to bring much more excitement around the league.

The Big Ten's schedule is often backloaded, but this year's slate is especially so. Not only will November bring us rivalry weekend, but a plethora of division games and even a sneaky good non-league game Nov. 9, when Wisconsin entertains BYU. It all begins this coming Saturday when all 12 conference members are in action. Imagine that: It's the first time since Sept. 14 that the entire Big Ten will be on the field.

The main event takes place in East Lansing, Mich., where Michigan State hosts Michigan in a rivalry game that means more than just local bragging rights. The Spartans are 4-0 in Big Ten play and can take a major step toward Indianapolis by beating Michigan, which already has a Big Ten loss but hasn't lost a Legends Division game. A Michigan win gives Brady Hoke's crew the all-important tiebreaker with Michigan State. The nation's No. 8 scoring offense in Michigan (42.4 ppg) goes up against the nation's No. 3 scoring defense in Michigan State (12.3 ppg allowed).

This game typically takes place early in Big Ten play, but Michigan and Michigan State will meet in November for the first time since 2007 -- the Mike Hart "little brother" game. Buckle up.

"I've always just believed as a coach that you embrace your rivalries," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio told reporters Sunday night. "You know who your rivals are. I’ve always chosen to embrace it. It's there. Why ignore it? It’s important to your program and everybody surrounding your program."

Week 10 also reunites rivals Wisconsin and Iowa for the first time since the 2010 season. Wisconsin needs some help to win the Leaders Division but could make a run at a BCS at-large berth if it wins out, while an improved Iowa team is a win away from bowl eligibility. No long-term rivalry in college is more evenly matched than this one: the series is deadlocked at 42-42-2.

November finally will provide answers in the Legends division, as all the potential contenders will play one another. There's a lack of quality wins between Michigan State, Michigan and Nebraska -- Michigan's Week 2 win against No. 25 Notre Dame is the only one that stands out, and the Wolverines have been largely unimpressive since Sept. 7. Minnesota suddenly has thrust itself into the mix following upsets of Nebraska and Northwestern and could make things interesting for the stretch run. Iowa needs help from Michigan State's opponents to get back in the division race but has strong potential to be a spoiler team.

After a stomach-churning October, the Big Ten's November menu features many appetizing matchups and story lines, and not just on rivalry weekend (Nov. 29-30). "The Chase" begins in earnest for Ohio State, which has won 20 straight games but needs five more -- plus help elsewhere -- to reach the national title game. There's a good chance Ohio State heads to Michigan at 11-0, giving its archrival a chance to ruin a perfect record -- and possibly set up a rematch the following week in Indianapolis.

Nebraska's season is veering off track after the Minnesota loss, and coach Bo Pelini's future could be determined next month as the Huskers face Northwestern, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Iowa.

Wisconsin is one of the few Big Ten teams with a front-loaded schedule, but the Badgers have November rivalry games against Iowa and Minnesota as they try to end the season with another BCS bowl berth.

Indiana is three wins away from its first bowl appearance since 2007 and might have the schedule to get there.

No team will celebrate the end of October more than Northwestern, which began the month with a top-20 ranking, ESPN's "College GameDay" on campus and a fourth-quarter lead against Ohio State. Things since have completely fallen apart, as bowl eligibility is suddenly in doubt and Pat Fitzgerald's puzzling October struggles continue (he's now 12-21 in the month). The good news: November typically brings better things for the Wildcats, who are 15-9 in the month under Fitzgerald.

Illinois hopes the same holds true after being outscored 137-54 in three October losses, prolonging its lengthy Big Ten slide. The Illini need a late charge to become bowl-eligible.

"The real football teams show up in November," Purdue coach Darrell Hazell said.

So do the real games.

A frighteningly bad October is over in the Big Ten.

Bring on November. It's about to get fun.
Northwestern has made its exit from the Big Ten's top half and shows no signs of returning. Now it's Nebraska's turn to be shown the door. Meanwhile, we welcome an unexpected visitor in Minnesota to the top half of the power rankings.

Minnesota's historic upset of Nebraska provided the major shake-up in this week's rundown. The Gophers, who were No. 11 two weeks ago, have turned around their season with upset wins against both Northwestern and Nebraska. They've guaranteed a second consecutive bowl appearance and can make some noise in the Legends Division down the stretch. Iowa also looks like it will be going back to the postseason after an overtime win against Northwestern.

Michigan State moves up to No. 3 after pulling away from Illinois in Champaign, while Iowa moves up after its overtime win against slumping Northwestern. Penn State's historically bad night at Ohio State bumps the Lions down a few pegs.

Let's take one last look at the Week 8 rankings.

Now, for the fresh rundown:

1. Ohio State (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): There was no need for a second-half surge as Ohio State throttled Penn State from the get-go, picking up an easy win and the style points it has looked for in Big Ten play. After his near benching at Northwestern, quarterback Braxton Miller has performed like a Heisman Trophy candidate, picking apart Penn State's defense for 252 passing yards and three touchdowns. Ohio State racked up its highest-ever yardage total (686) against a Big Ten foe. The Buckeyes' defense recorded three takeaways. Ohio State now visits Purdue, a recent trouble spot.

2. Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1; last week: 2): The nation continues to sleep on the Badgers, but at some point the credit will come if Gary Andersen's crew continues to win. Wisconsin's second open week came at a good time as star linebacker Chris Borland had some extra time to heal from a hamstring injury. Borland should be good to go for this week's trip to Iowa, as Wisconsin reunites with its longtime rival for the first time since 2010. Andersen likes the way quarterback Joel Stave is progressing, and this week's game should provide a nice gauge.

3. Michigan State (7-1, 4-0; last week: 4): After a one-year hiatus, Michigan State is back in the Big Ten title race. The Spartans are the only Legends Division team without a Big Ten defeat and can take a huge step toward Indianapolis by beating rival Michigan this week. Quarterback Connor Cook and the offense got on track against Illinois, racking up 42 points and 477 total yards. When Cook is in rhythm, Jeremy Langford finds running room and the offensive line controls play, Michigan State is tough to beat. But the challenges will get tougher now.

4. Michigan (6-1, 2-1; last week: 5): Who are these Wolverines? The young, talented group that beat Notre Dame in September or the shaky, flawed squad that hasn't looked very impressive since Sept. 7? We'll finally get some real answers as Michigan begins a challenging November stretch this week at Michigan State. Devin Gardner and the offense scored at will against Indiana but face an exponentially tougher challenge against the Spartans' nationally elite defense. A second Big Ten loss would make it tough for Michigan to reach Indianapolis, given the remaining schedule.

5. Iowa (5-3, 2-2; last week: 7): After struggling against Northwestern's Kain Colter last year, Iowa's defense stepped up in a big way, shutting out the Wildcats for a half and recording six sacks, its highest total since the 2008 season. The linebacking corps was terrific, and so was Drew Ott. Quarterback Jake Rudock wasn't great but made the big throw when it counted to C.J. Fiedorowicz in overtime. Iowa is a win away from becoming bowl eligible as rival Wisconsin comes to Kinnick Stadium this week. The Hawkeyes get the edge against Minnesota for the five spot after dominating the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium.

[+] EnlargeNebraska vs Minnesota
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota's upset of Nebraska moved the Gophers up two spots and dropped the Huskers four spots.
6. Minnesota (6-2, 2-2; last week: 8): Two weeks ago, many were wondering if Minnesota would make a bowl game and if head coach Jerry Kill would step down because of his health issues. While Kill's future remains somewhat in doubt, he has been in the coaches' booth to watch his team record upset wins against Northwestern and Nebraska. Saturday's dominant performance against the Huskers marked Minnesota's first win against Big Red since 1960. The Gophers received big performances from running back David Cobb (138 yards), defensive linemen Ra'Shede Hageman and Theiren Cockran and others. Minnesota could be a surprise contender in the Legends Division if it continues to win this week at Indiana.

7. Nebraska (5-2, 2-1; last week: 3): A four-spot drop in the rankings for one loss might seem harsh, but Nebraska invalidated any perceived progress since the UCLA game by struggling in all three phases in a loss at Minnesota. Despite his big-game flaws, Bo Pelini's teams typically had won the games they should win, but the Huskers fell apart after building a 10-0 lead. Quarterback Taylor Martinez looked very rusty and the defense couldn't stop Minnesota's ground game. Nebraska tries to get well against slumping Northwestern this week in Lincoln.

8. Penn State (4-3, 1-2; last week: 6): There will be better nights for quarterback Christian Hackenberg and Penn State, which fell behind quickly at Ohio State and never challenged the Buckeyes in the ugliest loss of the Bill O'Brien era. Penn State's defensive issues are very real, though, as the Lions have allowed more than 40 points in three consecutive games for the first time since 1899 (!). Hackenberg's health will be a storyline this week as Penn State faces Illinois. At least the Lions don't have any more open weeks.

9. Indiana (3-4, 1-2; last week: 9): It's still all about fixing the defense for Indiana, which had no answers for Jeremy Gallon, Gardner and Michigan in Week 8. The IU offense can strike and strike quickly, regardless of whether Tre Roberson or Nate Sudfeld is playing quarterback. Kevin Wilson's crew enters a critical home stretch against Minnesota and Illinois. IU likely needs to win both to have a chance of going bowling this year.

10. Northwestern (4-4, 0-4; last week: 10): Halloween arrives Thursday, but the nightmare has lasted four weeks for the Wildcats, whose October woes have reached a new low under Pat Fitzgerald. All of Northwestern's hallmarks -- great ball security, limited penalties, being great in the clutch -- seem to be going out the window. Fitzgerald has blamed himself and his staff for the recent struggles, and it's hard to disagree after the ultra-conservative decisions late in Saturday's loss to Iowa. Northwestern heads to Nebraska this week, as misery loves company.

11. Illinois (3-4, 0-3; last week: 11): The Illini's fast start seems like a distant memory now as they've been swallowed up in Big Ten play. Illinois' second consecutive home blowout loss makes a bowl game highly unlikely, and there are issues to address on both sides of the ball. A young defense is getting exposed by power running teams, as Michigan State had its way with the Illini. Bill Cubit is a creative play-caller, but Illinois needs something more against Big Ten defenses. Illinois had a meager eight first downs and 128 total yards against Michigan State.

12. Purdue (1-6, 0-3; last week: 12): The Boilers entered their second bye week feeling a bit better than they did entering their first. A stout defensive performance against Michigan State, particularly by Bruce Gaston and his fellow linemen, provides Purdue something to build on before the stretch run. Purdue now needs to get something going on offense. Ohio State comes to town this week, which should be special for Purdue coaches Darrell Hazell and Marcus Freeman.
The top half of the Power Rankings remains virtually unchanged, as Big Ten kingpin Ohio State rallied to beat Iowa, Wisconsin stomped Illinois, and the Michigan schools held serve in vastly different ways (all defense for Michigan State, all offense for Michigan).

The changes come in the league's second tier, as Northwestern continues its shocking tumble after a home loss to Minnesota, which moves up three spots. Iowa actually moves up despite a loss, as we liked the Hawkeyes' game plan and execution against Ohio State. Indiana also holds steady after nearly winning a shootout at the Big House.

Let's take one final look at the Week 7 rankings.

Now for the fresh rundown ...

1. Ohio State (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): Another test passed for Ohio State, which overcame a plucky Iowa team with a stellar second half behind quarterback Braxton Miller (222 pass yards, 2 TDs, 102 rush yards) and running back Carlos Hyde (149 rush yards, 2 TDs). The Buckeyes also survived the ejection of star cornerback Bradley Roby in the first quarter and limited Iowa's offense to one big play in the second half. The defense once again will be challenged this week as Christian Hackenberg, Allen Robinson and Penn State visit Columbus.

2. Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1; last week: 2): Ohio State retains its spot atop the rankings with a perfect record, but Wisconsin has looked like the Big Ten's most dominant team of late. After crushing Northwestern at Camp Randall Stadium, the Badgers went on the road and steamrolled Illinois, as running backs Melvin Gordon (142 rush yards, 3 TDs) and James White (98 rush yards, 2 TDs, 29 receiving yards, 1 TD) did their thing and Joel Stave had an extremely efficient performance (16 of 21 passing, 189 yards, 2 TDs). The second open week comes at a good time as linebacker Chris Borland must get healthy for the stretch run, which features some tricky games.

3. Nebraska (5-1, 2-0; last week: 3): The Huskers might be the Legends Division favorite at this point, as they get Michigan State at home. Quarterback Taylor Martinez should make his return from turf toe this week against Minnesota as Nebraska tries to keep building momentum before the season's defining month. Martinez needs some work before the schedule gets tougher, and the Huskers' offensive line plays its first game without standout guard Spencer Long.

4. Michigan State (6-1, 3-0; last week: 4): A shutout of Purdue wasn't surprising. Neither was another defensive touchdown, Michigan State's fifth of the season, courtesy of linebacker Denicos Allen. But Michigan State's offense took a step backward, as the line struggled to control Purdue's defensive front and Connor Cook completed only 13 passes for 107 yards. The Spartans will need to be sharper this week against Illinois and particularly when the schedule gets tougher in November.

5. Michigan (6-1, 2-1; last week: 5): We think Jeremy Gallon just caught another long pass. Gallon set a Big Ten single-game record with 369 receiving yards (second most in FBS history), while quarterback Devin Gardner set team records for pass yards (503) and total yards (584) and accounted for five total touchdowns. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint added 151 yards and four touchdowns. Michigan needed all the offense to win a shootout with Indiana at the Big House. As for the defense? A problem for another day. Michigan has two weeks to prepare for its Nov. 2 showdown at Michigan State.

6. Penn State (4-2, 1-1; last week: 7): The off week came at a good time for Penn State after a physically and emotionally draining four-overtime win against Michigan. The Lions had more diversity in their passing game against the Wolverines and will need the same -- as well as strong run production -- to keep pace with Ohio State on Saturday in Columbus. Penn State has won two of its past three games at Ohio Stadium and could play spoiler down the stretch in Leaders Division play.

7. Iowa (4-3, 1-2; last week: 8): Credit Iowa for an excellent game plan coming off the open week. The Hawkeyes racked up 17 first-half points against Ohio State and controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Ultimately, better talent won out as Iowa couldn't keep pace with Miller, Hyde and the Buckeyes, but the Hawkeyes certainly could make some noise down the stretch in the wide-open Legends Division. Sophomore tight end Jake Duzey (6 receptions, 138 yards, 1 TD) gives Jake Rudock another weapon in the passing game. Iowa returns home this week to face sputtering Northwestern.

8. Minnesota (5-2, 1-2; last week: 11): The bye week clearly paid off for Minnesota, and so did a halftime pep talk from coach Jerry Kill, who made his presence felt at Ryan Field without being on the sideline. Minnesota dominated the line of scrimmage, as defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, running back David Cobb and quarterback Philip Nelson, who relieved Mitch Leidner, stepped up in the final three quarters. The Gophers took advantage of a short-handed Northwestern team and overcame several bad calls to record a big road win. Up next: Nebraska at home.

9. Indiana (3-4, 1-2; last week: 9): The Hoosiers are high on entertainment value, boasting the Big Ten's best quick-strike offense and quite possibly the league's best group of wide receivers. But all those highlights and points still aren't translating to enough wins. It's the same movie with IU, with an A-plus offense and a D-minus defense, which surrendered an unacceptable 63 points and 751 yards to Michigan on Saturday. Tre Roberson was brilliant at Michigan and seemed to pass by Nate Sudfeld in the quarterback pecking order. But the defense remains the team's top priority entering the open week.

10. Northwestern (4-3, 0-3; last week: 6): The free-fall continues for a Wildcats team that was No. 2 in the power rankings just two weeks ago. Remember when Northwestern held a fourth-quarter lead against Ohio State? Key injuries certainly have played a role in Northwestern's downfall, but quarterback Trevor Siemian seems to be regressing and so is the offensive line. A bowl game suddenly is no guarantee for the Wildcats, who need to get Kain Colter and Venric Mark healthy and refocus for the stretch run. They visit Iowa this week.

11. Illinois (3-3, 0-2; last week: 10): The Illini needed a fast start coming off the open week against Wisconsin but stumbled out of the gate, falling behind 21-0 on their home field before course-correcting in the second quarter. Quarterback play wasn't the issue, as Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole combined to complete 25 of 32 passes for 318 yards, but two fumbles led to Wisconsin touchdowns and Illinois' defense couldn't slow down the Badgers. The Illini need at least one upset down the stretch to have a chance to reach six wins and a bowl.

12. Purdue (1-6, 0-3; last week: 12): Darrell Hazell's squad can build on Saturday's road performance against Michigan State, especially a Boilers defense that allowed just one score and repeatedly penetrated the backfield. The offense had several chances but couldn't finish drives in Spartans territory. Purdue needs to clean up its pass protection after allowing five sacks, but if Bruce Gaston Jr. and the defensive front continues to step up, a win could be coming down the stretch. The Boilers have a week off before hosting Ohio State.

Big Ten midseason report

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
10:00
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Look at the Big Ten standings at the halfway point, and there are not a lot of surprises.

Ohio State stands undefeated, as expected and just like in 2012. Michigan State and Nebraska have glittering records despite some lingering (though perhaps dissipating) questions about one side of the ball. Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin are all still very much in contention but a notch below the Buckeyes. For the most part, these teams are who we thought they were.

But that doesn't mean there haven't been some unforeseen twists and turns along the way during the season's first half.

[+] EnlargeKennt Guiton and Braxton Miller
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsThe play of Kenny Guiton (13) made some wonder if he was a better QB option than Braxton Miller.
Wisconsin lost at Arizona State when some Pac-12 officials turned into the Keystone Cops in the final 15 seconds. Kenny Guiton, not Braxton Miller, looked like a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback for a couple of games while Miller was out, prompting some to actually debate whether Ohio State should play its backup. Indiana beat Penn State for the first time in 17 tries. Michigan very nearly lost to Akron and UConn during a 5-0 start, then lost at Penn State in one of the weirdest four-overtime games you'll ever see. Bo Pelini found himself in a firestorm after a two-year-old, secretly-recorded, profanity-laced audiotape was leaked. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill had two more game-day seizures and took an indefinite leave of absence. Four different teams turned to freshmen starting quarterbacks.

We've also learned that there's not much of a separation between most of the teams in the league. The Buckeyes might be undefeated, but they got pushed to the wire at home versus Wisconsin and on the road against Northwestern. The Legends Division is a five-way scrum -- yes, five, because Iowa has greatly improved from 2012 -- with Minnesota the only real non-contender. (The Gophers could still get to a bowl game if they ever rediscover the forward pass.) The November showdowns involving Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern, in particular, should provide outstanding drama.

The Leaders Division race is far more defined with Ohio State in the pole position and Wisconsin hoping for a 10-car pileup. But that division also has three of the conference's best offenses, in Illinois, Indiana and Penn State, the latter of which proved against Michigan that it is not going to simply succumb to NCAA sanctions as long as Bill O'Brien is the coach. The Illini and Hoosiers still hold out hope for a postseason bid. As for Purdue, well, there's always next year.

And there’s always the second half of the season to give us plenty more unexpected developments.

Offensive MVP: Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon. The Badgers' home-run hitting back ranks third in the FBS with 870 rushing yards through six games, and he's averaging an eye-popping 9.7 yards per carry with eight touchdowns. He has scored on an 80-yard run and a 71-yard dash this year. Others in consideration: Penn State WR Allen Robinson, Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah.

[+] EnlargeChris Borland
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsChris Borland had helped Wisconsin stay among the league's top teams.
Defensive MVP: Wisconsin LB Chris Borland. He is third in the league in tackles and seemingly is involved in every play as the Badgers' defensive leader. Others considered: Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier, Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard.

Biggest Surprise: The revitalization of Illinois' offense. Nearly punchless last season in a 2-10 campaign, the Illini have turned things around under new coordinator Bill Cubit and a healthy Nathan Scheelhaase. They are scoring 36 points per game, while Scheelhaase is averaging nearly 260 passing yards per game. Illinois has already surpassed last year's win total at 3-2.

Biggest Disappointment: A coaching change and a brutal early schedule spelled trouble all along for Purdue. Still, we didn't think the Boilermakers would be this bad. They are 1-5, with the lone win coming in a nail-biter against Indiana State, and the team ranks near the bottom of the FBS in just about every major category. Remember that Purdue went to bowls in each of the past two seasons. First-year coach Darrell Hazell should eventually turn things around, but so far his early tenure has been ugly.

Newcomer Of The Year: Penn State handed the reins of its offense to true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg, and he has rewarded that decision. Hackenberg leads the Big Ten in passing yards (1,672), and while he's had some ups and downs, he has also displayed great poise and a big-time arm. We'd say he's a future star, but he kind of already is one.

Best Coach: Sometimes we make these things too complicated, looking for coaches who have overachieved. No one has achieved more during his time than Ohio State's Urban Meyer. He has guided the Buckeyes to a 6-0 start, including key wins over Wisconsin and Northwestern, and has done so despite a young defense and some crucial injuries. An 18-game streak of perfection isn't too bad, either.

Best Game: Ohio State 40, Northwestern 30, Oct. 5. Joey Bosa's fumble return for a touchdown on the final play made the margin look wider than it actually was. ESPN's "College GameDay" came to Evanston, and these two teams did not disappoint, engaging in a back-and-forth thriller that hinged on a late fourth-and-one play by Northwestern. It was Ohio State's toughest test of the year so far, and it made for great theater.
Five lessons from the four-pack of games on Saturday in the Big Ten.

1. The honeymoon is officially over for Brady Hoke: Michigan fans generally have been very happy with Hoke as their head coach, and rightfully so. He's a "Michigan man" who took the team to the Sugar Bowl his first season, and though last year's 8-5 season was a disappointment, the schedule made it understandable. What's more, Hoke's recruiting successes had fans very optimistic about the future. But even though this year's team started off 5-0, the lack of progress and development was puzzling. Penn State finally handed the Wolverines their first loss, and Hoke's very conservative play calling at the end of regulation and in overtime was a major reason why. On repeated occasions, Hoke played for the safe field goal instead of going for the touchdown in overtime, and it cost Michigan big time. Maize and Blue fans will grumble about the play calling for a long time, just as they did about last year's loss at Ohio State. The sky is not falling in any way shape or form, since the Wolverines are still 5-1 and have loads of talent on the way. But Hoke will need to start delivering on that potential and promise soon.

[+] EnlargeGregory
AP Photo/Nati HarnikRandy Gregory and Nebraska are proving to be a tough matchup for Big Ten opponents.
2. Michigan State and Nebraska need to be taken seriously: With Michigan faltering and Northwestern getting blasted in Madison, suddenly it looks as if Michigan State and Nebraska are no worse than co-favorites to win the Legends Division. Granted, both teams got exactly what they needed Saturday in facing the Indiana defense (for the Spartans) and Purdue (for Nebraska). Still, it's easy to see that both teams are building confidence in their most troubling areas. Michigan State is getting solid quarterback play at long last thanks to Connor Cook, while the receivers and running backs are rounding into form. Nebraska's defense has put together three solid efforts in a row, and though the competition has been weak, the fundamentals have been noticeably better. And defensive end Randy Gregory is a blossoming star. Both teams should enter November undefeated in conference play. Don't be surprised to see one of them in Indianapolis.

3. Ohio State had a very good off week: The Buckeyes might have been idle Saturday, but it was a productive day for their national championship hopes. We know Ohio State will need lots of help even if it goes undefeated this year. It got some assistance in Week 7. Stanford, ranked one spot behind Ohio State in The Associated Press poll and two spots lower in the coaches' poll, lost to Utah. No. 7 Georgia, a threat to win the SEC, fell to Missouri. No. 12/10 Oklahoma, which was undefeated and might have gotten a bump past the Buckeyes if it won the Big 12, went down against Texas. Clemson's struggles against Boston College might even cost it some votes in the polls. It's true that Michigan's loss might end up hurting Ohio State down the road because of strength of schedule ratings. But no Buckeyes fan is going to complain about seeing the Wolverines lose. Urban Meyer's team will still need some help from Alabama, Oregon and the ACC champ, but at least some dominoes started to fall its way.

4. Wisconsin has an outside chance at a BCS bid: The first thing Badgers coach Gary Andersen did after his postgame news conference was go and chat up the representatives from the Fiesta and Capital One bowls. Smart move. Wisconsin is in pretty good shape for the rest of the season after blasting Northwestern and could even sneak its way into a BCS game. If Ohio State gets into the BCS title game, heck, the Badgers could even make a fourth straight appearance in Pasadena. The 4-2 Badgers' remaining schedule looks like this: at Illinois, at Iowa, BYU, Indiana, at Minnesota, Penn State. Not exactly layups, but they will be favored in every single one. If Wisconsin can run the table, that would equal a 10-2 record, with an asterisk by one of the losses. The only team to beat Andersen's team without an officiating crew being disciplined afterward would be Ohio State. Wisconsin was unranked last week, which should be rectified later today. A lot of things would have to go the Badgers' way for them to climb the polls and the BCS standings, and the schedule doesn't provide any more opportunities for marquee wins. But Wisconsin at least could put itself in the discussion.

5. Purdue might be worse than last year's Illinois team: For the second consecutive season, the Big Ten features arguably the worst team among the BCS automatic-qualifying conferences. Illinois struggled through a 2-10 season in which nothing went right in 2012, and Purdue knows the feeling so far this year. An open week and a quarterback switch didn't fix the Boilers' many problems, as they fell 44-7 to Nebraska at Ross-Ade Stadium. Freshman quarterback Danny Etling might have a bright future, but he's going through some growing pains now. He completed just 14 of 35 pass attempts, as Purdue failed to enter Nebraska territory until the fourth quarter. The Boilers' defense isn't faring much better, allowing 140 points in the last three games. It's hard to envision Purdue winning anytime soon, as first-year coach Darrell Hazell is going through some of the same issues Tim Beckman did last year at Illinois.

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