NCF Nation: Derrick Green

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
9:00
AM ET
Recognizing the best and brightest from Week 3 in the Big Ten:
  • Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: A week after Barrett's tough night against Virginia Tech, the redshirt freshman bounced back in a big way. He completed 23 of 30 passes for 312 yards and a school-record tying six touchdowns (with one interception, off a tipped ball) in the Buckeyes' 66-0 laugher over Kent State.
  • Michigan RB Derrick Green: The Wolverines struggled with Miami (Ohio) for more than two quarters, but Green's hard running helped salt the game away. The sophomore finished with 22 carries for 137 yards and two touchdowns in Michigan's 34-10 victory.
  • Penn State DT Anthony Zettel: Perhaps the early frontrunner for Big Ten defensive player of the year, Zettel was terrific yet again in the Nittany Lions' 13-10 win over Rutgers. He led the defensive charge with three tackles for loss and a sack while helping control the line of scrimmage. "We couldn't handle him in the second half," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said.
  • Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: It wasn't easy most of the night for the Nittany Lions' sophomore signal caller. He was harassed under a heavy pass rush, and Penn State didn't score a touchdown for the first 58:47. But Hackenberg proved he's the king of clutch among current Big Ten quarterbacks by leading a two-minute drill that led to Bill Belton's game-winning touchdown. Hackenberg finished 25-of-44 for 309 yards and an interception.
  • Nebraska WR De'Mornay Pierson-El: The true freshman accumulated 136 yards on a pair of punt returns in the first half of the Huskers' 55-19 road win over Fresno State. Included was an 86-yarder for a touchdown, the longest ever by a Nebraska freshman. Pierson-El fills a key area of need for Nebraska, which amassed 70 yards all of last season on punt returns, averaging 3.04 yards on 23 returns to rank 121st nationally.
Five lessons from the opening week of Big Ten play.

1. Familiar issues preventing Wisconsin from next step: The Badgers had a wonderful chance to springboard themselves into the playoff conversation, as they had a young LSU team down 24-7 in the third quarter. But it unraveled in a hurry as several familiar problems -- and some bad luck on the injury front -- doomed Wisconsin in a 28-24 loss. Wisconsin won't become an elite program until it has more dynamic quarterback and receiver play to complement its bread-and-butter run, can avoid blunders in the kicking game and shores up the secondary. Injuries to two starting defensive linemen certainly hurt, and star running back Melvin Gordon wasn't right after a long run in the third quarter. But the same limitations we've seen before with the Badgers surfaced again in a painful season-opening loss. There's still a lot to play for, but a win would have been huge for Wisconsin and the Big Ten.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Melvin Gordon
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin's Melvin Gordon rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown but never seemed right again after a long run in the third quarter.
2. Quarterback play is on the uptick: To take a step forward as a league, the Big Ten must make strides at the most important position on the field. Week 1 was a promising start. Michigan State's Connor Cook picked up where he left off last year and played almost flawlessly (12-of-13 passing, 285 yards, three touchdowns) against Jacksonville State. Other veterans such as Michigan's Devin Gardner (13-of-14 passing, three touchdowns), Iowa's Jake Rudock and Rutgers' Gary Nova started off strong. Second-year players such as Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong and Purdue's Danny Etling made big-time throws in victories, and Ohio State freshman J.T. Barrett delivered in his debut as the starter. Illinois' offense had some hiccups but new starting quarterback Wes Lunt finished with four touchdown passes. No one will confuse the Big Ten's quarterback contingent with the Pac-12's, but there are some good signs heading into some bigger games.

3. PSU, OSU lines are works in progress: A Penn State offensive line with just one returning starter and two converted defensive tackles starting at the guard spots topped any fan's list of concerns entering the season. Ohio State's offensive line might not have been the biggest red flag following Braxton Miller's injury, but there was some curiosity with four new starters. Both units did some good things Saturday, especially down the stretch in wins against UCF and Navy, respectively. But Penn State struggled to get its power run going and endured two holding penalties and two false starts. Ohio State had just 71 rush yards on 24 attempts through the first three quarters against an undersized Navy defense. The Buckeyes finished strong (122 fourth-quarter rush yards) but need to make strides, beginning this week against Virginia Tech. Michigan also entered its opener with the offensive line in the spotlight. Although Appalachian State isn't a great gauge, Michigan got its ground game going with 350 yards and two 100-yard rushers (Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith).

4. Rutgers could be a surprise team: Few expected much from the Scarlet Knights, including the Big Ten reporter crew, but Kyle Flood's team began the season on an impressive note. It's never easy to travel to the West Coast, and Rutgers opened with a Washington State team poised to expose its shaky pass defense. Although Washington State racked up 532 pass yards, Rutgers controlled the line of scrimmage and much of the game in a 41-38 win. New offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen has made an immediate impact, and Rutgers showcased a powerful run game led by Paul James and a big-play pass attack. The defense still needs work, and the competition level will improve, but Rutgers should be 2-0 before its highly anticipated Big Ten debut Sept. 13 against Penn State at High Points Solutions Stadium.

5. Northwestern is reeling: Few FBS teams had a rockier offseason than Northwestern, which endured the union debate, Venric Mark's stunning departure and several key injuries in the preseason. Pat Fitzgerald always had found ways to get his teams ready for the season and entered Saturday with an 8-0 mark in openers. But Northwestern didn't look ready against Cal and was outplayed in all three phases during the first 42 minutes. The Wildcats made a nice run at the end of the third quarter and had chances to complete a comeback but went conservative at the wrong times and made too many errors in a 31-24 home loss, its fifth consecutive setback at Ryan Field. You wonder if this team has reached a breaking point after all the setbacks since the past October. A Week 2 win against Northern Illinois is critical.
Focus only on the position of choice and the conference looks the same as it ever did.

While quarterbacks across the nation are putting up crazy numbers like pinball machines and spread offenses are letting wide receivers run wild and rack up yardage, that tradition-loving, old-school Big Ten appears downright antiquated with its continued emphasis on running backs carrying the load.

But look closer.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cobb
AP Photo/Andy Clayton-KingMinnesota's David Cobb says every team in the Big Ten needs a good running back to win league games.
Sure, the league remains plenty happy to hand the football off and wait for the dirt to start flying. But the days of expecting 3 yards a pop are long gone, replaced with an expectation now that a featured rusher better be close to doubling that. And instead of a cloud of dust, there had better be a trail of it if a Big Ten tailback is going to keep his job for long.

The evolution of offenses may not have done much to change the face of the most productive players in the conference. But when there are so many game-breakers in Big Ten backfields, there's really not much incentive to shift the focus away from them in the first place.

"This a running back-heavy league, and you need a good running back, an every-down back to get through the Big Ten," Minnesota senior David Cobb said. "And in this league, there's a good running back on every team."

The conference has never really been in short supply of rushers, but the ground game looks particularly fertile this season with so many talented tailbacks returning as the focal point on offense.

The conversation about the league's best typically revolves around Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, the top two returners in the league and the odds-on favorites to claim offensive player of the year honors while leading teams aiming for the conference title. They're also close friends who admit to some good-natured trash talk that comes from paying attention to the league's yardage leader board, but both know it might not be safe to just measure themselves against each other this fall.

Michigan State's Jeremy Langford somehow largely flew under the radar last season despite piling up more than 1,400 yards and leading the Big Ten in rushing touchdowns with 18.

Cobb will be getting no shortage of carries in Minnesota's power rushing attack, and indications out of training camp suggest he's even better than he was while gaining 1,202 yards as a junior.

Despite playing in a spread system, Indiana's Tevin Coleman offered a reminder of the importance of balancing out a passing attack with a productive rusher, with his explosiveness in averaging more than 7 yards per carry driving the point home. Josh Ferguson does the same for Illinois, complementing his 5.5 yards per carry with 50 receptions for 535 yards and 4 touchdowns as a target in the passing game. Iowa's Mark Weisman came up just short of the 1,000-yard milestone last year, but he's playing behind perhaps the best set of blockers in the conference this fall and should be poised to capitalize on those huge holes opened by left tackle Brandon Scherff and his buddies.

Even at schools with unsettled depth charts at the top there's little reason to panic. Carlos Hyde is gone at Ohio State, but it has a stable loaded with both veterans like Rod Smith and youngsters like presumptive starter Ezekiel Elliott poised to take over. Michigan struggled to move the football on the ground a year ago, but Derrick Green looks ready to live up to his billing as one of the top recruits in the 2013 class as he moves into a likely starting role.

And if all that depth makes winning the rushing crown a bit tougher this fall for Gordon or Abdullah, they certainly aren't worried about a little competition. In the Big Ten, that's long been a source of pride.

"Definitely, you can look at every team," Abdullah said. "You just go down the line, and the running back position in this league is really deep. It's going to be good competition for this year statistically. I feel like it gets overshadowed a little bit. You throw in T.J. Yeldon [at Alabama], [Georgia's Todd] Gurley, guys who play for those SEC teams or maybe the Pac-12 guys and we get overshadowed a little bit. But all we can do is show up to work every Saturday and prove our case."

Abdullah and Gordon are expected to build the strongest of them, and they may emerge as the Big Ten's best hopes for a Heisman Trophy now that Braxton Miller is out of the picture with a season-ending shoulder surgery.

But even if the Ohio State senior had been around this season, the quarterback might have had a hard time stealing some attention during what's shaping up as a callback to the league's tradition with one more Year of the Running Back.

"The Big Ten, we're known for running the ball, and when you can take pressure off the quarterback by giving the rock to the running back, that's a good feeling," Gordon said. "And we've got a lot of good running backs in the Big Ten -- it's not just me and Ameer.

"I think there are some other guys that need some praise as well. There are some good backs we have in this conference, and they'll be heard sooner or later."

There's still plenty of opportunities to make a little noise as a tailback in the Big Ten. And the league has a long list of guys ready to make some racket.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan was referring to the Wolverines’ recently criticized quarterback, but it might as well have been a statement about the team in its entirety following Saturday’s 42-13 home win against Minnesota.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Devin Gardner was 13-of-17 for 235 yards and no turnovers in Michigan's win over Minnesota.
“He wasn’t playing like himself,” Lewan said of Devin Gardner, whose carelessness with the ball played large roles in close victories against supposed also-rans Akron and UConn. “It was a good off week, and things settled down for him.”

Lewan admitted that he was downright irritable after the nerve-fraying win at UConn, saying he would not apologize for a 4-0 team.

“I’m not going to apologize for 5-0 either,” the All-American lineman said.

This time he was smiling.

That grin as an indication, the postgame had a different tone than wins that required late defensive stops to secure victories against one team that lost 43-3 Saturday to Ohio (Akron) and one team that now has an interim coach (UConn).

The Wolverines, who got their first Big Ten win and held on to the Little Brown Jug, outscored Minnesota 35-6 starting with a score late in the second quarter.

“Things we’d been good at in the past we had slipped on,” Gardner said. “It felt good to get rolling again.”

There might have been little drama for the Wolverines, which was welcome, but there was one potential discovery.

Hoke told ESPN.com on Friday that tight end Devin Funchess would see some time on the outside, at receiver, to create mismatches for the 6-foot-4, 235-pound sophomore.

Funchess did play mostly outside, and the mismatches were prevalent all day. Michigan didn’t even try a pass in the first quarter, but Funchess still had four catches for 62 yards -- including a 24-yard touchdown -- in the first half.

“We want to take advantage of his assets,” Hoke said.

Funchess finished the day with seven receptions for 151 yards and that score. His 46-yard catch down the sideline, illustrating his potential as a vertical threat, set up the team’s final offensive touchdown.

Blake Countess’ 72-yard pick-six punctuated the rout, sending 111,079 fans spilling out into Main Street. Most of them were pleased, as opposed to the past two wins that had fans on edge and analysts picking apart the Wolverines and their quarterback.

Gardner had turned the ball over seven times (five interceptions, two fumbles) versus Akron and UConn.

Michigan, and Gardner, had no giveaways Saturday. That ended an unfortunate streak of 25 consecutive games with at least one turnover.

“When you don’t turn the ball over, it’s a good day,” said Gardner, who completed 13 of 17 passes for 235 yards and one score -- all in the final three quarters. “We responded. That’s the best way I can describe it.”

There was a message in Michigan’s approach to the game too. It came out with runs on its first 10 offensive plays, including a six-play touchdown drive on its initial possession.

In addition to the questions about Gardner, the offensive line had likewise been scrutinized. The Wolverines had new starters at center and left guard, trying to shake things up.

Hoke talked Friday about intentionally physical practices during the bye week. The Wolverines even had one 6 a.m. practice.

The team wound up rushing Saturday for just 113 yards on 35 carries (3.2 yards per carry), but it had four rushing scores -- including two by starter Fitzgerald Toussaint. Freshman Derrick Green added a rushing touchdown, the second of his rookie season.

Lewan might have been smiling, but he wasn’t leaving the stadium completely satisfied.

“We should have gotten Fitz 100 yards,” he said early in his visit with reporters. “[Our push] was better than it has been, but not up to our potential.

“That’s a hard word, potential -- because it means you haven’t done it yet.”

Hoke said Friday that the team would approach this stretch, between open dates, as a three-game schedule. A trip to Penn State is next, followed by a visit from Indiana. The Hoosiers upset the Lions on Saturday, winning in that series for the first time ever.

“I think we’re improving,” Hoke said. “I think we’ve got a long way to go.”
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- No. 17 Michigan had a shaky start with an interception from quarterback Devin Gardner on the Wolverines’ first offensive drive, but came back and rolled to a 59-9 season-opening win over Central Michigan. It wasn't all pretty and the Wolverines will definitely have some game film to study, but it seems as though they've found some kind of an identity as an offense as they head into their big matchup with Notre Dame next weekend.

It was over when: it started. Yes, Gardner threw an interception, but even when the Wolverines weren’t looking spectacular, there was never really any serious worry that this would be anything other than a blowout. Central Michigan running back Zurlon Tipton (who was held to just four carries for 10 yards) exited the game during the first quarter and QB Cody Kater followed his running back to the sideline not long after. With their biggest offensive threat and their first-string quarterback on the sideline, the Chippewas really didn’t stand much of a chance.

Game ball goes to: Wide receiver Jeremy Gallon. The senior had only four catches, but this game proved his prowess in this Michigan offense. While he’s not exactly the fit the Wolverines want at WR (he’s only 5-foot-8 … on a good day), he proved to be Gardner’s security blanket with glue for hands and a vertical that few defensive backs can match. He accounted for one 16-yard touchdown reception before exiting the game with a big Michigan lead.

Stat of the game: 35-point run. From the beginning of the second quarter until the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Wolverines went on a 35-0 scoring run. The Chippewas’ scoring drought lasted 27:24 and was a combination of Michigan’s defense (the Wolverines accounted for three sacks, one interception and one QB hurry during that drought) and a struggling CMU offense, devoid of its starting quarterback and running back (backup QB Alex Niznak was 5-of-8 during that time but CMU only accounted for 10 rushing yards).

Unsung hero: Kyle Kalis. In his first start at right guard for the Wolverines, the redshirt freshman excelled. Michigan accounted for 242 rushing yards -- much of which was behind the 302-pound guard while he was in.

What Michigan learned: It’s hard to really say too much considering one of the biggest takeaways from this game is that the Wolverines were able to beat a team they should beat. But in a game that gave the Wolverines the ability to get younger, inexperienced guys on the field, they were able to figure out that some of those guys might be able to be contributors this year. Shane Morris looked serviceable as a backup QB. Dymonte Thomas blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown on the opening series. Derrick Green looked solid in the run game. Channing Stribling appeared stout in the secondary. These are all guys who can use this kind of experience to build on as the season goes on.

What Central Michigan learned: Life’s hard without Eric Fisher. The No. 1 overall pick in last year’s NFL draft gave the Chippewas a continuity and strength on the offensive line that just isn’t there this season. Central Michigan only accounted for 144 passing yards and 66 rushing yards and much of that came after the Wolverines began to call up their second- and third-string guys.
Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.

In the coming days, we'll make our predictions on the Big Ten's statistical leaders in 2013. Today's Take Two topic is: Who will lead the Big Ten in rushing this season?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten loses its top three rushers from 2012 -- Montee Ball, Le'Veon Bell and Denard Robinson -- but returns the next seven best ground gainers. That group of seven includes two pairs of teammates in Ohio State's Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah. Although any of the four could lead the league in rushing, it's possible that they'll cancel each other out and take away the carries needed to top the chart. Northwestern's Venric Mark also is in the mix, but like the others, he shares carries with a quarterback (Kain Colter) and should have a deeper group of running backs around him this fall. Penn State's Zach Zwinak hit the 1,000-yard mark in 2012, but he'll be pushed for carries by Bill Belton and dynamic redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe power of RB Carlos Hyde is expected to be put to the test often for Ohio State in 2013.
Wisconsin has a similar situation with its run game as James White and Melvin Gordon will enter the season as 1a and 1b. Of the two, Gordon projects a little bit better as a true featured back, but White is a talented senior who should be a big part of the mix as well. Iowa's Mark Weisman is part of the discussion, too, as he showed the ability to put up monster numbers when healthy in 2012, even for a bad offense. Michigan is on the lookout for a featured back, and while the Wolverines have some question marks along the offensive line, Fitzgerald Toussaint or Derrick Green could be a good wild-card pick.

Bottom line: this isn't an easy decision. Ultimately, I'm going with the guy running behind the league's best offensive line at Ohio State. Hyde will emerge as the Big Ten's leading rusher, edging out Mark, Gordon and Weisman for the title. Ohio State will rely less on Miller to carry the rushing load and use a more traditional power attack behind Hyde, who averaged 5.2 yards per carry and scored 16 touchdowns in only 10 games last fall. Hyde has the power-size combination to thrive as a featured back, and he should get a bigger carries load as a senior, not just in the red zone but everywhere on the field.

Take 2: Brian Bennett

The race for the rushing title should shape up as the most exciting individual battle in the Big Ten this season. The league always produces great runners, and as Adam noted, many of the top ball carriers are back in 2013. In fact, some of the best competitions for rushing yards will happen in the same backfields, as several teams are capable of fielding two 1,000-yard rushers this season.

Hyde is a good choice, especially if he can replicate what he did down the stretch last year for a full season. But Braxton Miller will still run the ball a lot, too, and Ohio State also has the improving Rod Smith, youngsters Warren Ball and Bri'onte Dunn, plus Jordan Hall and possibly Dontre Wilson. That's a lot of studs who need to be fed.

I'm tempted to take one of the Wisconsin backs, because you can never really go wrong there. But I can envision a scenario where both White and Gordon both put up over 1,000 yards but neither leads the league. Instead, I'm going to go out on an ever-so-slight limb and predict that Nebraska's Abdullah finishes as the Big Ten rushing champ.

Abdullah ran for 1,137 yards last year, and he began the season as Rex Burkhead's backup. He also split carries when Burkhead returned from a knee injury late in the season. Abdullah improved greatly from his freshman to his sophomore year and should be even better as a junior. Though Martinez will take his share of carries, Abdullah really only has one other player -- Imani Cross -- to split time with. The Huskers' offense plays at a fast pace and should get lots of snaps, especially against a pretty soft early schedule. Defenses also can't key on Abdullah because of the presence of Martinez and a talented receiving corps.

Abdullah received 226 carries in 14 games last year, an average of just 16 per game. Assuming he's fully healed from a minor spring knee injury, I could easily see him averaging more like 20-to-22 carries per contest in 2013. If he can improve his five yards per carry average from 2012, Abdullah should make a run at over 1,500 yards and possibly bring the rushing title home to Lincoln.
The 2013 season is less than three months away, and few things generate more excitement among fans than the first chance to see certain players compete in games. Every year, the Big Ten produces a handful of first-year stars, whether they're true freshmen, redshirt freshmen or transfers.

Who are the first-year Big Ten players to watch in 2013? Here are five of them.

[+] EnlargeDanny Etling
AP Photo/Daryl Quitalig via Triple Play New MediaFreshman Danny Etling will battle senior Rob Henry for the Boilers' starting quarterback job.
Purdue QB Danny Etling, freshman: It didn't take long for Etling to impress Darrell Hazell, John Shoop and the rest of Purdue's new coaching staff. A decorated recruit and an Elite 11 finalist, Etling enrolled early and went through spring practice. He made a strong push late in the session and leapfrogged Austin Appleby to join senior Rob Henry in the top group entering fall camp. Although Henry is an excellent leader who has waited a long time to be the starter, don't be surprised if Hazell and the staff decide that the future is now and go with Etling, despite his youth. "Danny's work ethic puts him in a position," Hazell told ESPN.com. "He's a smart guy, gets himself out of trouble and is accurate when he's moving around in the pocket."

Michigan RB Derrick Green, freshman: Until Jabrill Peppers' commitment last month, no Michigan recruit in the Brady Hoke era has generated more excitement than Green, a late pickup in the 2013 class. The Wolverines are looking for a feature running back in their pro-set offense and struggled to find one last season, when quarterback Denard Robinson had more than twice as many rush yards (1,266) as any other player. Green plays a position where true freshmen can make an immediate impact, and he has a sturdy frame at 6-foot, 215 pounds. Michigan has been waiting for a power back like Green, and if he can grasp the protection schemes and outperform Fitzgerald Toussaint in camp, he'll likely play a lot this season.

Nebraska DE Randy Gregory, junior: It's no secret Nebraska needs help on defense, especially up front, where the Huskers lose three starters from 2012 and need a difference-maker to emerge. Gregory comes in from the junior-college ranks with an excellent chance to start or at least log significant playing time. The 6-foot-6, 230-pound junior from Arizona Western Community College missed last season with a broken leg but recorded 21 tackles for loss, including nine sacks, in 2011 as he helped Arizona Western to the NJCAA title game. The one-time Purdue recruit could fill the pass-rushing void left by Eric Martin.

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg, freshman: Although Hackenberg didn't enroll early like Purdue's Etling, he also enters preseason camp with an excellent chance to become a Big Ten starting quarterback as a true freshman. After Steven Bench's transfer, Penn State's quarterback race is down to Hackenberg and junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson, who went through the spring and slightly outperformed Bench. RecruitingNation rated Hackenberg as the No. 1 quarterback in the 2013 recruiting class, and he has all the mental and physical skills to play early in his career. He'll be challenged to grasp O'Brien's complex, NFL-style offense in several weeks this summer, but unless Ferguson creates significant separation, expect to see plenty of Hackenberg during the season.

Minnesota LB Damien Wilson, junior: The Gophers need immediate help at linebacker after losing Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper, and they expect to get it from Wilson, a junior-college transfer from Mississippi. Head coach Jerry Kill was excited about Wilson's addition on signing day, and Wilson showed some promising signs during his first spring session with the Gophers. The 6-foot-2, 254-pound Wilson ranked fourth nationally in the juco ranks with 122 tackles last season and recorded six tackles for loss, two sacks and two pass breakups. Barring a preseason surprise, he'll play a significant role for Minnesota's defense this fall.
Every Big Ten team will rely on a handful of freshmen (sometimes more than a handful) to fill key roles when the 2013 season rolls around. Which newcomers will make the biggest impact in the league?

Tom Luginbill, RecruitingNation's senior national recruiting analyst, has identified five names to remember among incoming freshmenInsider who will enroll this summer. Luginbill already singled out Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple as an early enrollee who could make a difference this fallInsider.

Two Big Ten freshmen make Luginbill's new list. Neither needs much of an introduction.

Michigan running back Derrick Green is expected to compete right away for a starting job. Ranked by RecruitingNation as the No. 5 running back (No. 38 overall player) in the 2013 class, Green will be Michigan's best option in the backfield as the Wolverines go back to a more traditional pro-set scheme that will emphasize power running. No Michigan back distinguished himself this spring, and Green likely will face the most competition from Fitzgerald Toussaint, who comes off of leg surgery.

Luginbill also likes the impact potential of Ohio State incoming freshman Dontre Wilson, who could be fill the so-called "Percy position" in Urban Meyer's spread offense in Columbus. Wilson, a speedster from Texas who picked Ohio State ahead of Oregon and Texas, brings playmaking ability to an offense that needs more of it other than star quarterback Braxton Miller. Although Jordan Hall returns to the mix after battling injuries throughout 2012, Wilson could have a significant role in the offensive vision with a strong preseason showing.

What other incoming freshmen (non-early enrollees) could make an impact in the Big Ten this season?

Here are a few:

Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: It'll be Hackenberg or junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson starting for the Lions in their season opener against Syracuse. Unless Ferguson creates significant separation in camp, Hackenberg likely will be a factor this season.

Indiana DT Darius Latham: The Hoosiers need help along their defensive line, and could turn to Latham right away. A four-star prospect with good size and athleticism (played basketball in high school), Latham should be part of the mix up front at IU.

Michigan State RB Delton Williams: The Spartans need help in the backfield after no one really emerged this spring, and the coaches moved backup middle linebacker Riley Bullough to offense for help. There's a good chance Michigan State turns to an incoming freshman and Williams, the team's highest-rated recruit in the 2013 class according to RecruitingNation, will have a golden opportunity in camp.

Ohio State S Vonn Bell: Unlike the other freshmen listed here, Bell doesn't play a position where Ohio State has an overly pressing need. But he might be too talented to keep off of the field, especially when the Buckeyes go to their nickel and dime packages.

100-days checklist: Big Ten

May, 21, 2013
5/21/13
12:00
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Good news: We are just 100 days away from the start of college football.

To mark the occasion, we're pulling out a checklist today of things that Big Ten teams need to accomplish between now and the start of the season. It's not quite "The Final Countdown" (cue GOB Bluth), but we are inching ever so close to kickoff. Here's what needs to happen in the next 100 days:

1. Identify a starting quarterback at Iowa, Indiana, Michigan State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin: It seems as if there are an unusually high number of Big Ten teams who don't know for sure who their starting quarterbacks will be in the fall. (You could also add Illinois and Minnesota to this list, though it appears likely that Nathan Scheelhaase and Philip Nelson, respectively, would have to lose the job in the summer.) Iowa had a three-man race this spring that will probably come down to Jake Rudock and Cody Sokol in training camp. There's very little separation between Cameron Coffman, Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson at Indiana. Connor Cook continues to breathe down the neck of incumbent Andrew Maxwell at Michigan State. Tyler Ferguson claimed the starting job at Penn State during the spring, prompting Steven Bench to transfer, but highly touted recruit Christian Hackenberg will push for immediate time. Purdue will likely decide between senior Rob Henry and true freshman Danny Etling. Joel Stave and Curt Phillips separated themselves from the Wisconsin QB derby this spring, while incoming junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy could expand the race this summer. All these situations should work themselves out in August, but no team wants to be dealing with an unsettled quarterback competition once the season starts.

2. Solidify the defensive front sevens at Nebraska and Ohio State: The Huskers and Buckeyes stand out as two of the top Big Ten contenders in 2013, but both have serious questions at defensive line and linebacker. The issue is more dire at Nebraska, which struggled there last year and is replacing all but one starter from 2012. Summer arrivals, including junior college star Randy Gregory, could make an immediate impact, and players coming back from injury such as linebacker Zaire Anderson and defensive tackle Thad Randle will need to play up to potential. Ohio State is less concerned about its defense after the spring performance of defensive ends Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, but linebacker Ryan Shazier is still the only returning starter in the front seven. Curtis Grant must finally live up to his talent to provide help to Shazier, and someone must assume John Simon's leadership role.

3. Locate the next great receivers: A few Big Ten teams, such as Nebraska, Penn State and Indiana, don't have to worry too much about who will catch the ball this year. But just about everybody else needs to find playmakers in the passing game. The top of that list includes Iowa, which couldn't generate a downfield passing attack last year; Illinois, which needs receivers to make new coordinator Bill Cubit's spread system work; Michigan State, whose young wideouts must improve on last year's shaky performance; Minnesota, which doesn't have many proven weapons to surround Nelson; and Wisconsin, which still must find a complement to Jared Abbrederis. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is hoping some incoming freshmen augment a very thin receiver group, while Michigan needs to replace the production of Roy Roundtree. Purdue and Northwestern have lots of speedy options but could use the emergence of a true No. 1 target. Receiver was a weak spot as a whole in the Big Ten in 2012, and hopefully some players will improve through offseason voluntary passing drills.

4. Strengthen the running game at Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and elsewhere: It's a cliché to say that you have to run the ball to win, but in the case of the Big Ten, that's always been true. That's why it's so vital for the Wolverines and Spartans -- who both expect to contend in the Legends Division -- to find answers in their rushing attacks. Michigan is replacing its entire starting interior offensive line after struggling to get a running game going outside of Denard Robinson last year. Fitz Toussaint is hoping to bounce back from a disappointing season and a leg injury, while hotshot freshman Derrick Green could get lots of carries right away. Michigan State's efforts to replace workhorse extraordinaire Le'Veon Bell this spring ended up with converted linebacker Riley Bullough emerging as the top back in a mediocre field. Three incoming freshmen will compete for time right away this summer. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson put a heavy emphasis on the running game this spring, hoping for more balance after his team led the league in passing and finished last in rushing last season. Iowa has depth for once at running back but needs to stay healthy there, as the ground game is the key to the Hawkeyes' entire offensive philosophy. Nebraska also can't afford injuries, as Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross are the lone backs with any experience. Illinois averaged just 3.5 yards per carry as a team last year, a number that must improve. And while Purdue loved what it saw from Akeem Hunt this spring, he still must prove he can be an every-down back after attempting only 42 carries last season.

5. Mesh with new coaches: Wisconsin's Gary Andersen and Purdue's Darrell Hazell are the fresh faces among head coaches in the league, and while they did a great job of connecting with their players this spring, they still need to get their new systems fully in place. The Badgers will be using some new, 3-4 looks on defense, while Hazell wants a more physical and disciplined team than we've seen from the Boilermakers of late. Michigan State has a new offensive playcaller in Dave Warner, while Cubit was one of many staff changes at Illinois. Penn State's John Butler takes over from Ted Roof as the Lions' defensive coordinator. With only 15 spring practices so far to implement their styles, those new coaches have had to rely on a lot of classroom time and players learning on their own. That will have to continue this summer during voluntary workouts and then will intensify when preseason practice begins. For new coaches, it's a race against the calendar -- and the calendar says there are only 100 days until kickoff.
Michigan begins spring practice on Saturday with both some question marks and some major returning talent. Brady Hoke says of his team: "We're very young. But these guys have a lot of fight to them." There will also be a lot of fighting for starting jobs, beginning in a few days. I recently caught up with the third-year Wolverines coach for his thoughts on the approach of spring ball:

What are the main things you're looking for this spring?

Brady Hoke: Well, you know, we've got a lot of open spaces. Some guys graduated, some guys aren't with the program anymore and we've got a lot of young guys. I think we only have 11 starters back on both sides of the ball, so there's going to be a lot of great competition, which is exciting. I think the leadership of our seniors, they've done a nice job of holding everybody accountable. But when you get out there with the pads on, it's a little different than just running around in shorts.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsWith only 11 returning starters, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he's excited about the competition this spring.
Some of that competition will be on the offensive line, where you've got three open jobs on the interior. How do you see those battles right now?


BH: Well, I think the interior of both lines, there's going to be a lot of competition. We've got to find a center, and that's between [Jack] Miller and [Graham] Glasgow, and Joey Burzynski will try to figure that out a little bit, too. At the guard positions, Ben Braden is going to move down inside and start out at the left guard, but he'll have a lot of competition because Burzynski is back and so is Blake Bars. Kyle Kalis will move into the right side, and it will be interesting again with [Kyle] Bosch and some of the guys who have been here a little bit. I think it will be a really good competition at all three of those inside positions.

Having Taylor [Lewan] back is huge. I think it's great for him and great for Michigan. Mike Schofield has had a really good winter. He had some real bright spots during the course of last season, and I think his development is going to be something special.

You mentioned the defensive line, where you also lost a couple of veterans. How does that shape up?

BH: I think inside, we get Jibreel Black for another year and Quinton Washington. But once you get through that, there are a lot of young guys ... Willie Henry, Ondre Pipkins, Ryan Glasgow, Richard Ash and Chris Wormley are all guys who can either play the inside tackle or the strongside end. We'll find out the guys who are competitive. Tommy Strobel is another guy we think had a real good winter, and Keith Heitzman. So it's going to be fun to see them compete.

Does having so many young guys in key spots on the line make you nervous? Or do you have a lot of confidence in them because you recruited most of them?

BH: I think it makes you nervous if you think you may have recruited the wrong guys. But we like the work ethic. We like how they've come in to learn and with a lot of enthusiasm. I think there's some competitiveness that we need to keep pushing as a program. You know, we lost five games on the road. We've played pretty well at home but we've got to do better on the road and that's a mindset, a mentality that you have to compete through everything, on every down.

Devin Gardner goes into spring practice as your starting quarterback. How has he developed as a leader?

BH: I have been really excited about the progress he's made. I'm seeing that maturity that it takes and the leadership it takes and the competitiveness it takes to be the quarterback at Michigan. I think that's a real big part of how he's grown, and I think he's done a nice job with it. I'm liking the direction he's going, and hopefully he can just keep going and keep growing.

What about your running back position this spring, with Fitz Toussaint hurt and Derrick Green not there yet?

BH: You know, Fitz has come along pretty well. I don't think he'll do a lot of contact or anything like that, but I think he'll be cleared for a lot more drill work. That's gone real well. We've moved [Dennis] Norfleet back to running back and we're going to give him an opportunity. Dennis, he's a smaller guy, but he's a very competitive, very tough young man. Drake Johnson is a guy we redshirted a year ago, and we really liked the way he competed in scout situations. In the bowl practices, we did some scrimmages and gave him a lot of carries, and we're very excited about what he has to offer.

Thomas Rawls is coming back, and I think he learned a lot last year about the vision he needs to play with, and I like how he's competed through the [winter]. And Justice Hayes is a guy who gives you a little bit different look because of how he can get on the perimeter. He did some things in a couple of games last year, but now I think he'll have a big stage to prove himself more this spring. And he's a bigger guy now, he's 190-something pounds, so he's a little bigger.

[+] EnlargeDrew Dileo
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsMichigan coach Brady Hoke said that he's pleased by more than just the on-field success of WRs Drew Dileo and Jeremy Gallon.
You have Jeremy Gallon back at receiver, but you lost Roy Roundtree. You sounded excited about some of the younger guys there during bowl prep. Is spring their time to step up now?

BH: Yeah, I think so. First of all, I think the leadership with Gallon and Drew Dileo, they've done a really nice job being leaders at that position. They're not big guys, but they have a real spirit for the game and really do a nice job of working and leading. We have Amara Darboh, who played a little last year, and Jehu Chesson, who we redshirted a year ago. And I think Jeremy Jackson has had a very good winter; we're very excited about some of the progress he's made. Joe Reynolds is a guy who walked on here, and he's done a very nice job. And Bo Dever, his dad played here and he walked on. I think that during the course of the spring, we'll be in pretty good shape there. I think as we keep going, we'll keep improving at that position.

Linebacker was a strength for you last year and looks to be so again. Do you see some good competition there this spring, particularly at the weakside spot?

BH: Yeah, I think with Desmond Morgan and James Ross, there's going to be great competition. Joe Bolden and Royce Jenkins-Stone and Mike Jones are all guys who are very competitive, and I think the three young guys coming in are going to be guys who will give us a lot of good competition and a lot of good depth. Kaleb Ringer is coming back from injury, so we'll see what he can give us. At the sam linebacker, Jake [Ryan] is coming back, and we really like what Cam Gordon has done during the winter. So I think we feel a little stronger at that position.

How do you replace what Jordan Kovacs gave you in the secondary?

BH: I don't know if you ever replace that kind of leadership, but I really think Thomas Gordon, he's played a lot of football here, and it's time for him to demonstrate the leadership. And he's doing that. Because of the number of snaps and everything he's done, he's really fallen into his own a little bit. Courtney Avery has played a lot of football, and whether he's a corner a nickel or wherever, he's got to give us great leadership and great reps. Blake Countess is getting healthier; he'll do some things during the spring. Josh Furman, I think, has come on.

We've got to see where Terry Richardson is and where Marvin Robinson is. Both those guys have played a number of snaps. We've got Raymon Taylor back, who I think started every game for us last year, we're excited about his development. Dymonte Thomas is a guy who's going to compete, and he'll pressure some guys. Jarrod Wilson is another guy who played some last year for us. Ross Douglas is here early. Jeremy Clark is a 6-foot-4, 210-pound safety we redshirted a year ago, and it's going to be a big spring for him to make some moves.

So I think we may have more personnel back there. And even more in the fall when Channing Stribling gets in, and Reon Dawson gets in and Jourdan Lewis. I think it's going to add something to our secondary.

Finally, what has your message been to the team this offseason after last year's 8-5 season?

BH: Well, our message has been, we haven't met the expectations at Michigan. That's something that as a football community… that we really feel that we have to do a much better job in all areas, from the coaching aspect of it, from learning and playing with the competitiveness we want to have, from every player at every position playing with the intensity we want to play with. It's about having a mindset and a mentality of how we want to play the game. We make no excuses, but at the same time, we know we have a lot we can do to play better football.
Both Ohio State (No. 3) and Michigan (No. 6) finished in the top 10 of ESPN Recruiting's overall class rankingsInsider for 2013. When it comes to specific position groups, however, both the Buckeyes and Wolverines top the chart.

ESPN Recruiting recently completed its team rankings for position groups in the 2013 class.

Not surprisingly, Ohio State finished No. 1 in the defensive back category. The Buckeyes signed five defensive backs ranked in the ESPN 300, including cornerback Eli Apple -- the Big Ten's highest-rated recruit overall at No. 11 -- and safety Vonn Bell. Ohio State's secondary haul is even more important as the Big Ten recently has slipped a bit in recruiting elite defensive backs.

In another clear choice, Michigan finished No. 1 in offensive line recruiting for 2013. Four of the six offensive linemen Michigan signed rank in the ESPN 150, including guards David Dawson and Patrick Kugler. This could be the class that solidifies Michigan's offensive line depth for years to come.

Ohio State also finished No. 1 in the wide receiver/athlete category. The late addition of Dontre Wilson, who originally committed to Oregon, along with wideout Jalin Marshall and junior college receiver Corey Smith put Ohio State over the top. This is another critical area to upgrade as the Big Ten has seen a significant drop-off in elite receivers the past year or so. Ohio State is positioning itself to have a major edge on the perimeter.

Michigan received honorable mention for its running back haul, headlined by Derrick Green. Ohio State earned honorable mention for its defensive line class.

No other Big Ten teams were recognized in the position group rankings.

Seven signings that will impact 2013 season

February, 8, 2013
2/08/13
9:34
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Zuma Press/Icon SMNotre Dame's Greg Bryant (with ball) is a 2013 signee than can make an immediate impact this fall.
Signing day has come and gone and with much of the ESPN 300 having made their college decisions, we look at seven signees from the 2013 class that can make an immediate impact next fall:

RB Greg Bryant, Notre Dame
Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick are gone, leaving a vacancy in the backfield and over 300 carries to go around. Bryant is the first top-10 running back the Irish have signed since James Aldridge in 2006. Notre Dame posted a respectable 4.9 yards per carry as a team last season and will return three starters on the offensive line. With returning dual-threat quarterback Everett Golson, Bryant should have plenty of room to work.

QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State
Matt McGloin threw for eight touchdowns and 5 interceptions in 2011. He had the same amount of picks last season, but led the Big Ten in both yards (3,271) and touchdowns (24) through the air. The difference? Coach Bill O’Brien, who tailored his offense to McGloin’s skills. Hackenberg's No. 1 ranking and physical tools indicates he'll, with O’Brien’s help, likely be put in a position to succeed.

ILB Reuben Foster, Alabama
Is Alabama the new hotbed for talented linebackers? Nick Saban is certainly making a case for it. Under Saban, the Tide’s marquee linebackers have all been in the running for the Butkus Award (nation’s top linebacker). With Nico Johnson heading for the draft, Foster could very well step in next to C.J. Mosley to solidify the front seven on one of the most dominant defensive units in the FBS.

WR Robbie Rhodes, Baylor
Terrance Williams and Lanear Sampson are leaving Waco, but the Bears will still be running their wide-open offensive scheme and need playmakers on the outside. Losing Williams is huge, as no player in FBS had more receiving yards than he did last season. But Rhodes is the highest-rated player the Bears have signed since the ESPN 150 began in 2006, and he is the first top-10 receiver they have signed as well.

RB Derrick Green, Michigan
Fitz Toussaint’s status for 2013 is unknown following ankle surgery and by the end of last season, Denard Robinson was getting a majority of the carries at running back with Devin Gardner at quarterback. Green is the highest-ranked running back prospect to head to Ann Arbor in the history of the ESPN 150, and without Robinson or a healthy Toussaint, the Wolverines backfield should have plenty of carries up for grabs.

ATH Greg Taboada and TE Eric Cotton Jr., Stanford
There is not a school in the country which has relied on its tight ends more than Stanford in recent seasons. Like Coby Fleener before them, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo are headed for the NFL draft and the Cardinal are looking for help at a vital position in their offense. The last top-20 tight end that signed with Stanford was Davis Dudchock in 2010, but he has yet to catch a pass in his collegiate career. Cotton is a pure tight end, while Taboada projects at either tight end or as a pass-rusher -- which is another position the Cardinal value, as Stanford was the FBS leader in sacks last season.
Brady Hoke's recruiting has followed a pattern at Michigan. The Wolverines start extremely fast, pile up elite prospects, sprinkle in a few later in the cycle and finish with a nationally decorated class. This year's crop seems to be no different as Michigan, along with archrival Ohio State, has secured a spot among the nation's top classes. Hoke and his staff targeted both lines, especially the offensive line, and signed five offensive linemen ranked in the ESPN 300. Michigan made arguably its biggest splash in late January by adding standout Derrick Green, rated as the nation's No. 5 running back by ESPN Recruiting.

ESPN.com caught up with Hoke to discuss Michigan's 27-man 2013 class.

What were your primary objectives with this class and the top needs for Michigan, and how did you do in terms of meeting them?

Brady Hoke: Well, No. 1, both of our fronts, offensively and defensively, when we came in a couple years ago, we only had eight scholarship offensive linemen. So the last two years, we've been trying to built that. I think the coaches did a tremendous job. And then that was the same way on defense. We needed to make sure we were doing our job. A year ago, we took six defensive linemen, and this year, we took three. We really wanted to help ourselves up front. We had to find some tight ends in both years [2012 and 2013], because this [had been] a spread team that had only played minimally with a tight end. We were fortunate enough to have Kevin Koger our first year, who did a tremendous job. So those really were what the needs were. We wanted to get a quarterback, big running backs in this class, that was very important, and try to get some more length at the corner position, guys with a lot of range to them.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsWith only 11 returning starters, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he's excited about the competition this spring.
You mentioned the offensive line and it seems like you really loaded up in the interior. What stood out to you about that group?

BH: The biggest thing is we wanted guys who could really control the line of scrimmage from a run-blocking standpoint. Those guys who could really dominate at the point of attack, the guys who would really finish well on their blocks. Having Taylor [Lewan] around with this group and the group from last year for another year, it's a big part of it.

What's the significance of Derrick Green's signing at running back?

BH: The significance will be that it's a big back. He was a nationally rated guy, obviously, which is always exciting. But we needed some big backs, and Derrick is a guy who fits that mold. He can break tackles, he runs hard, he's a downhill runner and with what we want to do in the two-back sets, it's something that we thought him and Deveon Smith and Wyatt Shallman could bring to us.

What was your reaction when you found out Derrick had committed?

BH: We were excited, obviously. That's always exciting when you compete for a young man who you really believe in your heart that this is the best place for him. And then he decides that's where he needs to go.

You've mentioned the linemen, but who are some of the guys who can help you out on the perimeter?

BH: When you look at the secondary, Ross Douglas and Dymonte Thomas both being in school now, that helps them with their development. Jourdan Lewis is an exceptional athlete that we've been able to see do a lot of things. Delano Hill will be one of those safeties who will shock you when he tackles you. And Channing Stribling and Reon Dawson are both big corners. So I think we'll have great competition, and that always makes you better.

You haven't been afraid to play young players on defense at Michigan. Do you see some of these defenders you signed today helping you as freshmen?

BH: I think that's to be seen, but there's no doubt that those guys who have that innate ability from an athleticism point of view, the mental makeup and so forth, they can possibly do that.

What type of quarterback is Shane Morris and what are you getting from a leadership standpoint?

BH: We're getting a lot as a leader. He was our first [verbal] commitment of this class. He did a tremendous job of recruiting guys and really trying to get close to potential classmates and guys who did come within the class. From a football standpoint, his demeanor on the field, his arm strength, his intelligence, his vision, we all think is very good.

You've done well in Michigan and in the Midwest. Are you looking to expand the recruiting reach more in the future?

BH: We're always going to take that 300-mile, 400-mile radius and try to do the best possible job there, but being the national brand Michigan is, when you look at it from the standpoint of the academic reputation and the history and the tradition of the football here, we're real excited about going wherever we need to and find those guys that fit the mold of what we're looking for at Michigan.

Defensive line is always top of mind for you. What do you think about the guys you brought in there?

BH: Henry Poggi is going to be a very good player here. He's got that ability, that quickness, loose in the hips. Maurice Hurst is a very powerful, great-first-step inside player. When you look at Taco Charlton, he's a 6-6 defensive end, he's got a lot of range and can create a lot of havoc. He's a very good athlete, good basketball player. We have three guys I think will be pretty good players for us.

You and Ohio State are big rivals on the field. How intense is the rivalry between you two in recruiting?

BH: You're recruiting and you're competitive, which you have to be in this business. It's always a competitive situation. Do you want to win? Yeah. We've taken nine guys out of the state [of Ohio] who we feel very good about.

What stands out to you most about this recruiting cycle at Michigan?

BH: It was a different year to some degree. Possibly having a lot of commitments early was part of it. When Shane committed early, it kind of snowballed. When Taco Charlton was here on an unofficial [visit], he committed after a basketball game. Some of it's shocking, as quickly as things went, but it was a very good year for us.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

January, 11, 2013
1/11/13
4:30
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Weekend's here! Forgot how much I liked these.

Daniel from Ypsilanti, Mich., writes: Hey Adam, I think Lewans recent decision to continue at Michigan might have implications in Derrick Green's future commitment decision. You guys even stated that it makes a big difference in the Oline for next year. Do you think a five star RB might keep in mind the presence of a lineman like Lewan when deciding where to go? An All American lineman on an offense that would have an opening for early playing time sounds quite enticing for an RB does it not? Add to that Morris , who should be starting in the next couple years barring anything unforeseen, and it seems like the perfect fit for Green. What do you think?

Adam Rittenberg: Daniel, I think the Shane Morris factor would be a lot bigger than the Taylor Lewan factor for a player like Green, and the biggest factor is how well Michigan is recruiting at offensive line for the coming years. You don't make a decision like this based on one lineman who will only be there for your true freshman season. Morris, meanwhile, could be Green's quarterback for multiple years, and Michigan's offensive line recruiting efforts for 2013 are among the best in the nation. Michigan has five offensive line recruits in the ESPN 300 (all among the nation's top 160), including three of the nation's top seven guards. The future of Michigan's offensive line is a greater selling point to a running back like Green than the Lewan-led line in 2013.

Matt from Omaha writes: Adam,I have to say your final rankings for the B1G, while meaningless, struck a chord with me. All season you preached it's not about who you lost to, but who you beat. So how in the world, three teams that we beat are ranked in front of us-with virtually the same record (in Michigan's case worse), makes no sense. True, Nebraska did not acquit themselves well in the B1G title game. However, they played toe to toe with Georgia for 3 and 1/2 quarters before falling short. There is no shame in that for a team that nearly beat Alabama.

Adam Rittenberg: Matt, you correctly acknowledge the power rankings are meaningless because they are -- especially the Jan. 8 version -- despite all the ire they generate. Now refresh my memory: when did I say the power rankings were all about who you beat and not about who you lost to? The line I've reiterated time and again about the rankings is that they're a snapshot of how a team is performing right now. It's the ultimate what-have-you-done-for-me-lately thing. That's why Nebraska sits at No. 5. The Huskers ended the season poorly. I simply can't look past the Big Ten title game flop. To me, it really invalidated a lot of what Nebraska did in the regular season. Harsh? Maybe. But Nebraska lived a fairly charmed life down the stretch in Legends Division play, surviving turnovers and benefiting from calls and injuries. It received a seemingly favorable matchup in Indy (5-loss Wisconsin) and proceeded to lay a giant egg on the big stage. While Michigan also lost its final two games, it competed a lot better against Ohio State than Nebraska did and competed better in its bowl game than Nebraska did. Nebraska's head-to-head win on Oct. 27 might as well have happened decades ago, for power rankings purposes.

Yooper from Minneapolis writes: Hey Adam ... humor me with a way-too-early bold prediction for next year for the league's bowl record. It sure seems like most B1G teams outta see improvement next year, and even without OSU & PSU playing this year it could've easily been 4-3 had the UMs not blown games in the last minute. I'm gonna say 5-3 in bowls, and 3-1 on NYD, including a RB win...all of which sets the league up nicely to place someone in the first playoff the following year...what you got?

Adam Rittenberg: Yooper, you're a braver man than I am, as I can't offer a sensible prediction without knowing the bowl matchups. What if the Big Ten faces a 1-loss Oregon team in the Rose Bowl? Won't be easy to win it. I do think the Big Ten has a stronger chance of sending two teams to BCS bowls next season as Ohio State once again becomes eligible. Will that hurt the league's overall bowl matchups like it has in years past? Perhaps. But if teams like Michigan State, Michigan and Nebraska make strides in 2013, the league will be set up to post a better bowl mark. It's important to remember that that Big Ten's bowl lineup is never easy, and a .500 record is a pretty good performance in most seasons. I think there's a decent chance the Big Ten improves on this year's record. How much? Without seeing the matchups, I can't go there.

Derek from Chicago writes: I think everyone needs to chill out about how down the B1G actually is. As much as everyone likes to point at certain losses and say the B1G just can't compete on a national level, that simply isn't the case. A few consecutive years of some marquee losses is embarrassing, but the B1G isn't as far behind as people like to think in terms of competition. I am not a Wisconsin fan, but let's look at the Badgers here for a little perspective. The teams that went to the 2011 and 2012 Rose Bowls were without a doubt national championship-level teams, loaded with NFL talent, that would have competed with any team from the all-powerful SEC. This year's Rose Bowl team was mediocre at best, and only lost to a top-10 Stanford team by a touchdown. Not bad for a team that had no business being in the Rose Bowl. It's unfortunate that the B1G keeps losing these marquee national matchups, but the reality is that the B1G isn't actually down, it more just a string of bad luck that is easy to criticize. It's silly to say "the B1G just doesn't have the speed on the edges to compete Oregon," when we're just one score away from "Oregon just doesn't have the strength to compete with the B1G". (I use Oregon as an example, but feel free to insert SEC, Big 12, etc).

Adam Rittenberg: Derek, you make some good points here, and you challenge people to put the Big Ten's bowl performance into context. It's true that the Big Ten hasn't been that far away and has been hurt by unfavorable matchups and unfortunate circumstances (Ohio State/Penn State being ineligible this year). Ultimately, a league like the Big Ten needs to win more games -- Rose Bowls, other BCS bowls and the national title game. Wins like those have a way of making criticism go away. Wisconsin should have won the Rose Bowl after the 2010 season. It had a better team than TCU but didn't play better on that day. Wisconsin had no business losing three games with last year's team, led by Russell Wilson. That's not just bad luck or bad circumstances. You don't get credit for competing well year after year if the marquee wins don't start coming. The Big Ten needs to start winning some of these big games again if it wants any credit nationally.

Bill from Michigan writes: Adam - Spartan fan here. You guys do a great job but on your 5 defensive players to watch - trade S. Calhoun for Taiwan Jones. Nothing against Calhoun who does have a lot of potential, but Jones beat out a solid 3 yr starter (C. Norman) this year and just keeps getting better. He is my pick as a breakout performer. Will be interesting to see if either of us is right. Take care.

Adam Rittenberg: Bill, we probably should have explained it better, but those lists are meant to recognize players who aren't starters but will be soon and could make a big impact in 2012. We could have included Jones, and I came away impressed with what he did this season, but he already took a big step in moving into the starting lineup. He definitely could take things to another level next season, but it might be tough because Max Bullough and Denicos Allen both are back, and both are very productive as well. Shilique Calhoun, meanwhile, could take a spot where there's a need after Will Gholston's departure. I think we might both be right about these two, but Jones' accomplishments certainly should be recognized this year.

Sam from Fairfax, Va., writes: Adam, I think you missed the mark with which Michigan linebacker you chose in your "5 Defensive Players to Watch" column. Yes, Bolden should be good next year and play a decent amount of snaps, but there's a good chance that Desmond Morgan slides over from weak to middle linebacker this offseason. The two positions are similar enough in Michigan's defense that he should be able to pick it up fairly quickly, but he's never had good enough athleticism to really stand out at weakside linebacker. James Ross on the other hand does and is a much more natural fit for the position. I think Ross is your next star on the linebacking corps at Michigan, with Bolden needing more time to grow and getting fewer opportunities to shine.

Adam Rittenberg: Sam, thanks for the note. You're not the only Michigan fan I've heard from who is vouching for Ross ahead of Joe Bolden. The Morgan move would make sense for Ross to slide in at weakside linebacker, while Bolden could be used more as a fourth 'backer. Both players are talented and Michigan looks absolutely loaded at linebacker for years to come. It'll be interesting to see whether the Wolverines identify a difference-making defensive lineman to complement their strength at linebacker.

Bob from Crown Point, Ind., writes: Purdues of the world? That's your answer to Gino in Columbus?...c'mon Adam. Purdue is not that far removed from the strong football years under Tiller. Add in the history of Purdue basketball...both men and women's...and I think Purdue's athletic contributions to the Big Ten Conference should have been defended a bit stronger.

Adam Rittenberg: Bob, you have to put the reference in the proper context. I was explaining to Giro that the Big Ten's revenue sharing model allows programs with fewer resources, like Purdue, to have the same cut as programs with many more resources, like Ohio State. It had nothing to do with how many championships won or athletic contributions. From a pure revenue/resource standpoint, Purdue is near the bottom of the Big Ten. Purdue sponsors the fewest number of varsity sports (18) of any Big Ten institution. Not a knock, just a fact. Purdue has tradition in both football and men's basketball, and the Big Ten's revenue sharing model allows programs like Purdue, Minnesota, Northwestern and Indiana to receive the revenue to compete with some of the larger athletic programs in the conference.

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