NCF Nation: Devin Smith

Dantonio/MeyerUSA TODAY SportsMark Dantonio, left, and Urban Meyer have their teams on course for another huge B1G showdown.

In case a reminder was needed after another chaotic weekend on the field, rankings, projections, underdogs and favorites don't usually mean a whole lot to college football. The best laid plans typically don't last long.

But there is one from the preseason that suddenly appears to be back on track. Though there is still more than a month to go until what was presumed to be the biggest battle in the Big Ten actually kicks off on Nov. 8 in East Lansing, Michigan, what is the fun in just sitting around and waiting until then to start talking about it. Now that No. 8 Michigan State and No. 15 Ohio State seem to be on a collision course again, who is in better shape for that matchup and to potentially win a Big Ten crown?

We are breaking it down Take Two-style.

Austin Ward: Ohio State

Go back through the checklist of reasons the Buckeyes were picked as the top contender in the conference and a potential factor in the College Football Playoff before the season started. Dynamic quarterback, dangerous defensive line, explosive weapons at the skill positions, and a decorated coaching staff that has proven it can get the most out of the talent on hand.

What exactly has changed since then?

Certainly Braxton Miller's injury was a meaningful loss given his experience and the two Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year trophies. But don't look now, after an early hiccup J.T. Barrett is actually on pace to post better passing numbers across the board and looks every bit as suited to run Urban Meyer's spread offense as his predecessor. And all those same talented players at wide receiver, running back and tight end that were supposed to make Miller's life easier are doing precisely that for Barrett, with the only challenge finding a way to get all of them touches.

The defensive line might not be the best in the nation thanks to the indefinite suspension of Noah Spence. But as long as Joey Bosa is around to wreak havoc on the edge and Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington are still handling their business on the inside, the Buckeyes are still as fearsome up front as anybody in the Big Ten.

And don't forget that Meyer, a two-time national champ, is still on the sideline overseeing the entire operation.

Ohio State has some weaknesses, and anybody who favored the Spartans initially still likely has the same reasons to point to at this stage of the season. The head-to-head meeting is on Michigan State's turf, it won the last matchup on a neutral field and the Buckeyes still look suspect at times in the secondary.

But after putting that early loss to Virginia Tech behind them and moving on from Miller's injury, the Buckeyes are starting to look exactly like a conference contender should. Based on the preseason predictions, nothing has changed.

Josh Moyer: Michigan State

Let’s not overthink this, Austin. The Buckeyes are definitely improving every week, but they have played just two teams with winning records so far -- and they have only won one of those games (Virginia Tech, Maryland). So I think it’s a little premature to start saying Ohio State boasts a better team than the defending Big Ten champion.

I’m not saying the Spartans’ schedule is all that much harder, but they have at least impressed with a good win against Nebraska. Plus, they have played two ranked opponents. No Ohio State opponent is even receiving votes in either poll. And you mentioned Barrett's gaudy numbers, but he has played just one defense -- Virginia Tech -- that is ranked within the top 85. Have the Buckeyes really been tested yet?

Michigan State is the safe pick, the easy choice here. Meyer called his secondary an "Achilles’ Heel"; Michigan State has no glaring weakness. Cincinnati actually posted more passing yards and passing touchdowns against Ohio State than Oregon did against Michigan State.

True, the Spartans’ 2014 defense isn’t as good as 2013. Even head coach Mark Dantonio admitted that. But it’s still forcing turnovers (No. 4 in the country), still limiting yards (No. 11 in the country), still racking up sacks (No. 3 in the country) and still limiting rushing yards (No. 4 in the country.) Ohio State just can’t compare right now.

On top of it all, Michigan State’s offense is clearly better than last season. Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford aren't putting up video game numbers, but they have been solid. And give me Tony Lippett over Devin Smith any day. The Buckeyes are a good team, but the Spartans are the better team right now.

We’ll find out for sure on Nov. 8 but, until then, Michigan State will still remain No. 1 in our Big Ten power rankings, Vegas will still favor MSU over OSU, and voters from Ohio to California will still agree in the polls that the Spartans are the better team. Because they are.
BALTIMORE -- The game wasn’t supposed to go quite like this.

Ohio State was supposed to pummel Navy for four quarters on Saturday. It was supposed to immediately show life could go on without injured quarterback Braxton Miller, that it could look like a Big Ten contender no matter what. It was supposed to resume last season’s dominating red zone offense right off the bat.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyDespite Ezekiel Elliott's touchdown, Ohio State showed its offense has a lot of room for growth.
It wasn’t supposed to show up on ESPN’s “Upset Alert” midway through the fourth quarter.

“Best thing about it,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said, “is it’s in the rear-view mirror.”

Yes, the Buckeyes moved on with the eventual 34-17 win, finishing with a solid fourth quarter. But it was clear from their faces on the sideline that this opener didn’t go quite as expected. Navy led at halftime, 7-6, and trailed by just a field goal early in the fourth.

Defensive lineman Donovan Munger stood off to the side, staring up at the huge video screen while biting his lower lip throughout the fourth quarter. His teammates didn’t crack a smile, even when the Buckeyes broke off a nice run. And there seemed to be no sense of relief, no sense of accomplishment, until that final whistle sounded and bass blared from the locker room.

It’s not quite time to hit that shiny, scarlet panic button. But maybe it’s time to reassess where this team is right now. Neither Meyer nor offensive line coach Ed Warriner was pleased with the line’s performance in the first half -- 19 rushes, 66 yards, 3.5 yards per carry – and it still has a while to go to meet last season’s performance.

With nine new starters on offense, four of whom are on the offensive line, the Buckeyes aren’t quite sure what their identity is yet.

“I think we’re still figuring it out,” running back Ezekiel Elliott acknowledged. “We got a lot of weapons and we spread the ball around. I think we’re going to keep developing.”

That wasn’t supposed to be how Ohio State’s opener transpired. This was supposed to be the easy W, not a dogfight. It was supposed to be a comfortable victory, not one that put the sea of scarlet at M&T Bank Stadium on edge. The good news for Ohio State is that two-touchdown fourth quarter will act as a huge boost to the team’s confidence. And it showed this can turn into a good team. But, on Saturday afternoon, did this really look like a squad that’s anywhere near as good as Big Ten rival Michigan State?

Even the defense, which boasted the nation’s No. 9 run defense last season, showed some cracks. Navy’s triple-option is certainly a unique scheme, but 370 yards and 5.9 yards per carry are also some pretty big numbers. That’s more than Navy averaged last season (325.4 yards per game, 5.5 ypc). Again, that -- allowing more than Navy’s average -- wasn’t entirely expected.

“They gained a lot more yards than what we wanted,“ defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “But, at the end of the day, the best team won.”

There is some good here. J.T. Barrett looked much more comfortable in the second half and went 4-of-4 for 130 yards and two scores. He also added 39 yards rushing. But, after that sluggish first half in a conservative scheme, it’s clear this offense is still a work in progress.

Big offensive plays were difficult to come by in those first two quarters. But, in the end, those plays saved the Buckeyes. Devin Smith took a pass 80 yards for a score in the third to give OSU a lead it wouldn't relinquish. A relieved Ohio State crowd exchanged high-fives, the band played on, and Brutus the Buckeye streaked down the sideline.

Navy’s good, but Ohio State was supposed to better. Much better. If not for those big gains -- or finding a handful of plays that worked to perfection in the fourth -- this outcome could’ve been different.

Without Miller, question marks swirled around this team before the opener. After its performance against Navy, there’s one big question remaining: Is the real Ohio State the one that struggled through two or three quarters -- or shined especially in one?

Washington smiled when posed that question. He leaned against the wall, grinned and simply said: “Definitely that last quarter.”

We’ll see. Win or lose, Week 1 wasn’t supposed to go like this. But, with that victory in the rear-view mirror, maybe the Buckeyes can parlay that success and challenge the cream of the Big Ten. Just like they’re supposed to.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer seemed to be guarding a secret, and it couldn’t be deciphered by reading between the lines.

The Ohio State coach joked about being a little bored by his spring game, expressed some frustration about the lack of offensive execution and stressed that there was plenty of work to do at a few key positions heading into the offseason.

But the truth about how good his third team at Ohio State might be was tucked away on the sidelines, leaving little to truly evaluate between them as the Gray beat the Scarlet 17-7 on Saturday at the Horseshoe. And based on the number of players he held out of the spring-closing scrimmage, it might be a safe bet that Meyer is actually feeling pretty good about what he has returning in the fall.

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Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe spring game didn't say much about Urban Meyer's Buckeyes. And he seems fine with that.
“There were guys out there who will either never play or they’re not ready to play now,” Meyer said. “Like, [Ohio State sports information director] Jerry [Emig] hands me stats, I’m not sure what to do with these. I don’t care.

“... We all know what we saw out there. It’s not the Ohio State Buckeyes.”

Exhibition games rarely provide much of a reliable gauge for how good a team might truly be, and in the case of the Buckeyes, that might have been by design.

Braxton Miller was already on the shelf as he finishes up his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. Having the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year and a three-year starter at quarterback out of the equation obviously changes the complexion of the Ohio State offense. Cardale Jones was productive enough throughout camp to win the backup job, but his 14-of-31 passing performance Saturday was yet another reminder of the importance of having a healthy Miller to lead the attack.

Meyer indicated there was some uncertainty about his receiving corps after the spring game, but he had enough faith in Devin Smith and Dontre Wilson that he didn’t feel the need to press either of them into action over the weekend -- aside from a cameo appearance by the latter in a race against students at halftime.

And after watching what could be one of the most talented defensive lines in the country terrorize a rebuilding offensive line throughout camp over the last month, Meyer certainly didn’t need to see any more from Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett or Adolphus Washington to boost his confidence heading into the summer, adding to the list of starters who effectively were allowed to take the day off.

Cornerback Doran Grant was largely an observer as well, though he did make an appearance to win the halftime derby and became the “fastest student” on campus. Projected first-team guard Pat Elflein was a scratch, and presumptive starting running back Ezekiel Elliott only touched the football three times. Tight end Jeff Heuerman was on crutches after foot surgery, but he’ll be back in time for the conditioning program next month.

So while the game itself left little worth remembering aside from what appeared to be marked improvement and depth in the secondary and another handful of mesmerizing catches from Michael Thomas, there were actually clues littered around Ohio Stadium that Meyer is poised to unleash his most talented team since taking over the program in 2012 and rattling off 24 consecutive wins.

The trick was knowing where to look.

“[The spring game] was a chance to see some young guys [who] really haven’t played, and to be quite honest, I’m not sure how much they will play,” Meyer said. “This is a chance for a lot of guys in our program who work very hard, and to be able to get some guys play or catch a pass in Ohio Stadium or whatever, in the big picture it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s a great thrill for a lot of people.”

The real thrills, of course, don’t come for a few months. And based on the amount of players who didn’t get to actually step between the lines on Saturday, Meyer might not-so-secretly have plenty to be excited about by fall.
More than once this season I watched a Michigan State receiver make a great catch or a long run and thought: poor Andrew Maxwell.

Although quarterback Connor Cook deserves a lot of credit for MSU's offensive turnaround, he undoubtedly benefited from a wide receiver corps that cleaned up its act. Maxwell consistently fell victim to dropped passes, part of the reason why he completed just 52.5 percent of his attempts in 2012.

Here's a list of the Big Ten's most improved position groups this year:

Michigan State wide receivers: They were hard to watch in 2012, and their repeated drops proved costly for a team that lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points. The overall numbers aren't much different in the two seasons, but Michigan State's wideouts all did a much better job of eliminating drops and making plays. Macgarrett Kings emerged as a threat and is tied with Tony Lippett for the team lead in receptions (39), while Bennie Fowler and Keith Mumphery emerged as big-play threats, averaging 15.4 and 16.4 yards per reception, respectively.

Minnesota offensive line: After an injury plagued 2012 regular season, the line made strides in the Texas Bowl and continued the momentum this fall. Minnesota improved its rushing average by 49 yards per game and racked up nine more rushing touchdowns. David Cobb eclipsed 100 rushing yards in five of his final six games, putting up 101 yards against Michigan State, the nation's top rush defense. Minnesota also tied for fourth in the league in fewest sacks allowed (21). A program that once churned out great offensive lines each year is getting back to its roots.

Iowa defensive line: Like Minnesota's offensive line, Iowa has a great tradition along the defensive front but endured some down years after an incredible run of NFL draft picks. The Hawkeyes' defensive line got back on track this season, and coach Kirk Ferentz labeled the line as the team's most improved unit. Drew Ott and Carl Davis emerged and Iowa improved to seventh nationally in total defense, 11th in scoring defense and 17th against the run.

Ohio State wide receivers: Urban Meyer blasted the group during spring practice last year and wasn't overly impressed with the results during the 2012 season. Only one receiver (Corey Brown) recorded more than 30 receptions and only two (Brown and Devin Smith) had multiple touchdown catches. Brown and Smith combined for 97 receptions and 18 touchdowns this season, and Chris Fields had six scores. Along with tight end Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State's passing game looked more efficient for much of the fall.

Illinois quarterbacks: I could pick almost every position group on offense for the Illini, who transformed under first-year coordinator Bill Cubit. But Nathan Scheelhaase's development truly stood out, as the senior led the Big Ten in passing by a wide margin with 3,272 yards, more than double his total from 2012. Scheelhaase completed two-thirds of his attempts and consistently stretched the field as Illinois finished 22nd nationally in pass offense.

Indiana running backs: The Hoosiers emphasized the run game during the offseason and saw the desired results during games. After finishing 10th in the league in rushing in 2012, Indiana improved to fourth, averaging more than 200 yards per game. Tevin Coleman emerged as a big-play threat and averaged 106.4 rush yards per game and a whopping 7.3 yards per carry. Teammate Stephen Houston wasn't too shabby, either, averaging 6.7 yards per carry.
On occasion Saturday night, Ohio State lined up with quarterback Braxton Miller in the shotgun, flanked by running back Carlos Hyde and receiver Dontre Wilson.

If you're a defensive coordinator, that might qualify as a special kind of torture. Think of all the possibilities with that trio. There's Hyde, the 235-pound power back who at times couldn't be tackled by Wisconsin. There's Wilson, still just a freshman but already one of the fastest players in the Big Ten who's fulfilling the Percy Harvin role for Urban Meyer's offense. Then of course there's Miller, who can beat you with his arms or his legs.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsCarlos Hyde's full-time return added another dimension to an already diverse Ohio State offense.
That particular offensive grouping didn't create a ton of damage in the Buckeyes' 31-24 victory. But it showed that, like sideline observer LeBron James, Ohio State now can do a little bit of everything now when it has the ball.

In fact, Meyer's biggest lament about the offense after Saturday's game was that he couldn't find playing time for Jordan Hall and Kenny Guiton. Hall, who leads the team with 427 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, got one carry against the Badgers. Guiton -- who leads the Big Ten in passing touchdowns with 13 -- never saw the field.

Miller quickly showed why the "debate" over whether he or Guiton should start was always silly, because he simply can do so many more things. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman said Monday that Miller still made some mental mistakes and needs to do a better job scrambling straight up the field. But Herman praised Miller's back-shoulder throw to Devin Smith for a touchdown, and Ohio State has now incorporated a vertical passing game to go along with its strong rushing attack. Receivers Smith, Corey "Philly" Brown and Evan Spencer are drawing praise not scorn from Meyer these days, and the trio has combined for 13 touchdown catches.

"They use their weapons well at every position," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said Monday. "They can get the ball to anybody, and they can score on any given play."

Fitzgerald should know exactly what that looks like, because he has built the same thing with his team. In fact, when Northwestern hosts Ohio State on Saturday night in Evanston, we will see arguably the two most versatile offenses in the Big Ten.

The Wildcats, of course, employ a two-quarterback system with Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, the former excelling as a runner and the latter serving as something like a designated passer. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall can use the option game with Colter or spread the field with Siemian and a deep group of wide receivers. The two quarterbacks are completing 69.8 percent of their passes.

In fact, Northwestern is fourth in the Big Ten in both passing and rushing yards, the only team to rank in the top four in each of those categories. The Wildcats have accomplished that almost entirely without star tailback Venric Mark, who has dealt with an unspecified lower body injury all season. But Mark, who ran for 1,371 and was an All-American punt returner last season, is listed as a co-starter on the team's depth chart this week.

Fitzgerald said Monday that if Mark gets through practice without issue, "we will have him in some capacity" on Saturday. Treyvon Green (404 rushing yards, five touchdowns) has filled in nicely for Mark and brings a bit more power, but Northwestern's offense takes on a different dimension with Mark's speed, especially when paired with Colter.

Northwestern will likely need every available weapon against Ohio State, which managed to shut down Wisconsin's running game on Saturday while allowing some big plays through the air.

All coaches talk about being "multiple" on offense, but the Wildcats and Buckeyes truly embody that this season. Nebraska can also do just about everything, though the Huskers' offense sputtered against UCLA, while Penn State can keep defenses guessing with many formations and plays. Just about everybody else in the league is looking for a consistent passing game (Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin), a dependable running attack (Indiana, Illinois) or both (Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue).

Ohio State and Northwestern both have inexhaustible options on offense. The trick will be finding which ones work best on Saturday night.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Contrived or not, there’s officially no controversy now.

The conversation about whether Kenny Guiton had done enough to take over as Ohio State’s starting quarterback had drawn on with Braxton Miller defenseless, unable to make his case while recovering from a sprained knee.

Finally able to play again, Miller made it abundantly clear that he’s not only the best option for the Buckeyes, he’s among the most dangerous players in the entire country.

In case anybody had forgotten how lethal he is with his legs or improved he is with his arm, Miller provided a refresher course in a 31-24 win over No. 23 Wisconsin and its stout defense that should silence any remaining skeptics over who should be taking Ohio State’s snaps.

“I don’t really look into how the media deals with that,” Miller said. “It doesn’t bother me at all.

“I was proud of Kenny and the way he led the team while I was out, and I look at him as a big brother. So, no controversy with that.”

There was never really any to begin with inside the program, and despite the bracketing of his top two quarterbacks on Urban Meyer’s depth chart earlier in the week, the Buckeyes coach made it clear again after knocking off the Badgers that Miller solidly remains his first choice.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller made plays with both his arm and his legs and showed why there is no controversy about who is Ohio State's starting QB.
After missing the past two games and nearly all of another one, Miller wasted little time proving why. He rifled bullets all over the field in one of his most efficient passing performances, steadily took on more of a workload as a rusher and showed few signs of rust after the layoff.

He dropped in a 25-yard strike to Evan Spencer on the opening drive of the game. He delivered a gorgeous, driven, back-shoulder throw to Devin Smith for a 26-yard touchdown. Then, after one of his worst tosses of the night, Miller capped the first half with a 40-yard bomb to Philly Brown that sent the Buckeyes into the locker room with all the momentum before going to work on the clock with his legs down the stretch.

In all, Miller completed 17 of his 25 passes for 198 yards and 4 touchdowns and tacked on 83 more yards on the ground, turning in exactly the kind of versatile performance that made him a preseason favorite for the Heisman Trophy and the Buckeyes a threat in the national title race.

“No [doubt about the starter], not if he’s healthy,” Meyer said of Miller. “When I saw Braxton on Thursday, there was no doubt who was going to be our starter.

“The team we played is very good, should be undefeated except for some ridiculous call. ... I think he played very well. Braxton did have a heck of a day.”

Miller has had more than a few like it before, though the fresher memories for the Buckeyes have been of Guiton after a prolific touchdown binge while filling in over the past three games that rewrote the school record books.

Ohio State has brainstormed for ways to get both quarterbacks involved in the offense, either together in one formation or through some sort of rotation. But that never looked to be a realistic option against the Badgers, particularly when Miller started darting all over the field, using his elusiveness and acceleration to escape pressure in the pocket and pick up yardage in a way that few quarterbacks can.

And as long as a left knee that was covered by a thin brace under his pants and long, black socks can hold up, the stage will continue to belong to Miller.

“I’ve been working really hard these last couple weeks because I’ve been hurt,” Miller said. “I felt good, my legs felt good. Energy-wise, I wasn’t out of shape and felt good.

“I’ve been in there [working] all day. I felt like I had a job without getting paid.”

After all that rehab was done, his real job for the Buckeyes was waiting. There was never any question who it belonged to.

It’s mostly a light week in Big Ten football, and Wisconsin and Ohio State will kick off Saturday night with no other competition from league games.

That’s perfect. You should watch as this matchup takes center stage. Savor it. This is the rarest of rivalries, one that is simultaneously waxing and waning before our eyes.

Though it’s the Big Ten opener for Ohio State and we haven't yet reached October, this game might just decide the Leaders Division race. That should come as no surprise, as these two teams have played several high-stakes showdowns in recent years.

“All my years that I've been here,” Wisconsin senior running back James White said, “this has been a great game. It has always come down to the wire."

The past three meetings have produced instant classics. The Badgers knocked off then-No. 1 Ohio State 31-18 at home in 2010. In 2011, Braxton Miller’s 40-yard touchdown pass to Devin Smith with 20 seconds left lifted the Buckeyes to a 33-29 win at the Horseshoe. Last season, Ohio State won 21-14 in overtime at Camp Randall Stadium.

While Ohio State has won five of the last six against Wisconsin, the Badgers have won or shared the last three Big Ten titles. They’ve also represented the Leaders Division in the first two Big Ten championship games, including last year when Ohio State was ineligible.

That both compete in the same division while Penn State remains on probation has added meaning to this game, which wasn’t always so competitive. The Buckeyes lead the all-time series 55-18-5 and beat Wisconsin every year between 1960 and 1980. The Badgers won twice (with one tie) between 1988 and 2000.

“I was here a long time ago, and it was not a rivalry,” said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who was a Buckeyes assistant from 1986-87. “You have to give credit to Wisconsin. I think it all started with coach [Barry] Alvarez, and then the following coaches have done a great job. They are one of, if not the best, programs in the Big Ten right now, and because of that, it’s become a very good rivalry.”

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesCoach Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes take on Wisconsin on Saturday in a battle of Top 25 teams.
The rivalry intensified when Meyer arrived and then-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema made some disparaging comments about the new Ohio State boss. While both later insisted publicly they had patched up any potential rift, there was little doubt both badly wanted to beat the other last November. After Bielema left for Arkansas, ex-Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee was caught on tape calling Bielema “a thug.” The wife of Buckeyes assistant coach Mike Vrabel took a shot at Bielema and his wife on Twitter on Saturday after Arkansas lost to Rutgers -- ironically winning some favor with Wisconsin fans in the process.

The intrigue between the teams’ head coaches cooled considerably when the Badgers hired Gary Andersen, who served as Meyer’s defensive coordinator at Utah. When the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Doug Lesmerises asked Meyer this week if he missed Bielema, Meyer chuckled and said, “I’m good with Gary.”

"Not to get too much into things, but obviously Coach Andersen and Coach Meyer have a relationship in the past,” Wisconsin defensive tackle Beau Allen said. “There's a mutual respect between Coach Andersen and that staff over there.”

Allen laughed.

“That may be something that might be a little different this year, without getting too detailed or specific."

Friendship between coaches is not the only reason this rivalry may have already peaked. After this season, Ohio State and Wisconsin will play in separate divisions as the Big Ten expands and splits into East and West branches. The two teams are not scheduled to meet in 2014, 2015 or 2017, though they could still face each other in the conference title game.

That’s particularly a shame for the Badgers, because as their historic rivalry with Minnesota has become one-sided and Iowa went missing off the schedule for a few years, Ohio State has loomed as potentially their biggest game.

"You enjoy going up against great teams like Ohio State,” Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon said. “I mean, it's Ohio State. So it's kind of disappointing, but I'm sure if things go how we want, we'll probably see them again."

Things are a little different from the Buckeyes’ perspective. Wisconsin has become a rival because of division alignment and the Badgers’ contention for Big Ten titles. But Ohio State doesn’t view this game as the one it must win.

"When it comes to rivalries, no,” Buckeyes receiver Evan Spencer said. “I mean, just because The Team Up North, it's hard to place words on that one. Wisconsin is a big game, don't get me wrong. It's one of the biggest ones we have on the schedule.”

The schedule brings few guaranteed rematches between these two teams. So make sure to watch Saturday’s game. Savor it.

“We like playing these guys,” Allen said. “We've had great games, and that's why you play college football. You want to play great teams, you want to play great games, and you want to play great players. That's what we've had between the two of us."

Devin Smith gives OSU long-range weapon

September, 25, 2013
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- All of the elements were in place once again, and a familiar scene was playing out along the right sideline.

The route didn’t seem to call for anything all that extraordinary for Devin Smith, who just needed to streak up the sideline, burn a defensive back with his elite speed and then take advantage of all the green grass that was likely to be in front of him on the way to yet another score.

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Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesDevin Smith made Ohio State history with his 90-yard score against Cal.
Just like usual, the play designed behind him was perfect; his quickness was too much for the California secondary. All that was left for the Ohio State receiver to focus on was the simple stuff.

“I just make sure I catch it,” Smith said. “Catch it and then run as fast as I can.”

Few players are ever able to run him down, and Cal had no chance two weeks ago as he turned on the afterburners on a 90-yard play that stands as the longest in school history. And with that recent example now added to an expanding résumé, it’s starting to seem like the further the Buckeyes are from the end zone, the more likely Smith is to find it.

If former Ohio State legend Cris Carter was known for only catching touchdowns, Smith is fast becoming the target who only produces long ones.

“I mean, 41 yards a touchdown catch is kind of astounding,” wide receivers coach Zach Smith said. “But it doesn't really surprise me -- he's a very talented vertical threat.”

Smith is proving that with regularity now, but he only showed glimpses of it early in his career with the program. In fact, the junior is coming up on an anniversary of sorts with Wisconsin coming to Ohio Stadium for a Top 25 showdown on Saturday night. It was two years ago in the meeting of the budding rivals that Smith turned in the first of what has become his trademark receptions.

Sneaking behind the secondary with the game on the line, Braxton Miller rolled to his right, found Smith uncovered deep down the field and hooked up with him for a 40-yard game-winning touchdown. Then a true freshman, Smith only had three scores to his credit at that point, and they had gone for a combined total of 63 yards. Since then, Smith has seven more touchdowns that have covered at least 40 yards, and he’s collectively posted an average score that has gone 41.5 yards on his 14 career trips to the end zone -- a number that only slightly dipped thanks to a measly 5-yard snag last week in a blowout of Florida A&M.

“In the course of the season so far, they’ve hit me on some shorter routes, some intermediate routes and things like that,” Smith said. “And this past Saturday, having a one-on-one matchup and going up and getting the ball, I think that really showed I could be a good asset to this offense in the red zone.

“I wasn’t really aware of [the touchdown average], but that’s a pretty good statistic to know. A lot of it has to do just with speed, but I think the most important component for me is just running good routes, and I’ll do whatever it takes to help this team win.”

The Buckeyes have done that every time he’s caught a touchdown pass in his career, obviously including that notable bomb against the Badgers.

But even his relatively short score last week on an athletic reception in the left corner of the end zone offered more evidence of how difficult it's becoming to defend Smith, since he didn’t have a bunch of space behind a cornerback to threaten to pull away from him with pure speed. With clearly improved reliability with his hands, crisper route-running skills and freakish leaping ability, Smith put the rest of the complete package on display with a grab that showcased some smaller ball to go with all his home runs.

“I think he's become effective in pretty much in any part of the field,” Zach Smith said. “But a guy like that with the vertical threat, where corners really have to honor him vertically, they see that on film. So once he has that threat, there is that fear of getting beat deep and everything else opens up.

“He can run, he has straight-line [speed], and the steps he's made have been more at becoming a receiver as opposed to just a deep-threat guy. So he's improved, but he's been a dynamic vertical threat since I got here.”

If the second-year assistant still needs confirmation of that, the Badgers can surely offer it as one of Smith’s first victims deep down the field. Now that he’s showing signs of working in tighter spaces as well, there might not be anywhere on the field that’s safe.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- At times Ohio State looked like a contender. At others it seemed to be just trying to survive the heat and injuries that made it even more shorthanded than planned.

The Buckeyes were far from perfect as they opened the season on Saturday afternoon at Ohio Stadium, but for starters, they still got the result they needed as they coasted after a big first quarter and worked out some kinks in a 40-20 win over Buffalo.

Braxton Miller again was a handful as a rusher and a passer, Jordan Hall was plugged in to supply the punch on the ground and a rebuilding defense made do with Ryan Shazier fighting cramps and star cornerback Bradley Roby on the sideline because of a suspension.

And while Urban Meyer will have no shortage of teaching points in practice this week, the Ohio State coach stayed undefeated with the program with his 13th consecutive victory since taking over last season.

It was over when: Braxton Miller threw his first pass of the game, sparking an early onslaught and supplying a lead the Buckeyes would never give up.

The junior quarterback showed off his improved mechanics, accuracy and arm on the opening drive of the game for the Buckeyes, hitting Devin Smith on a gorgeous 47-yard strike to get his Heisman Trophy campaign off to a flying start.

The Bulls didn’t back down even after falling behind by 23 points in the first quarter, climbing back within 10 thanks to a couple of careless turnovers by Ohio State. But even shorthanded, the Buckeyes had far too much talent for the Bulls and were never seriously challenged despite some inconsistency and a few scary moments.

Game ball goes to: With both the projected starter and the top backup on the shelf with suspensions, a limited backfield needed somebody to fill the void and become a workhorse to take some pressure off Miller. The Buckeyes didn’t need to look further than Jordan Hall, who turned in the finest rushing performance of a star-crossed career to help the offense survive muggy conditions and early-season rust.

Hall was a handful for the Bulls between the tackles, and twice he burst through holes in the middle untouched for long touchdowns on the way to 159 yards on 21 carries. Rod Smith will be eligible to return next week and Carlos Hyde will be back after the third game, but Hall made his case to stay in the lineup with a performance the Buckeyes needed more than they might have thought.

Stat of the game: The goal was to get closer to an even split, but the run-to-pass ratio still leaned heavily toward the rush as the Buckeyes opened the season. That can be partially attributed to the early lead Ohio State jumped out to, but the Buckeyes still were about twice as likely to keep the ball on the ground in the opener than to air it out and show off Miller’s arm. The final count was almost exactly 2-to-1, with Ohio State carrying 45 times and throwing 23, mirroring the approach of the 2012 season.

What it means: The opener was always going to be a tuneup for the Buckeyes, given the discrepancy in talent, and a few sloppy moments along the way should be expected at this stage of the season. Meyer might actually be thankful for them as a way to stay on his team, picking out the early flaws and ensuring he has the attention of a team with a lot of youth and inexperience on the defensive side of the ball.

In the big picture, the Buckeyes probably didn’t find out all that much they didn’t already know, and with key starters such as C.J. Barnett, Roby and Hyde all on the sideline, they weren’t even at full strength to begin with on Saturday. But a much stiffer test is coming next weekend with San Diego State set to visit, and Ohio State will surely find out more about itself then.
Philly BrownJeff HanischThe Buckeyes are counting on WR Philly Brown to make the offense a more dynamic one in 2013.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Last year, Ohio State led the Big Ten in scoring at 37.2 points per game. Great, right?

Not in the minds of the Buckeyes, who thought they could have fielded a much better all-around attack.

"I feel like last year we didn't play a complete game as an offense," running back Carlos Hyde said. "Some games it was all running, while others it was just passing."

Head coach Urban Meyer rarely seemed happy with the offensive production last year, outside of the running skills of Hyde and quarterback Braxton Miller. He often expressed his dissatisfaction over a lack of speedy playmakers and an inconsistent passing game.

"I'd get frustrated," Meyer told "But the bottom line is, name an offense that doesn't have guys who make people miss and are dynamic with the ball in their hands, and that's not a great offense. We don't have enough."

The names on offense haven't really changed much this spring. But the hope is that with another year of understanding the system, some improved throwing and catching and maybe some reinforcements from the recruiting class, the Buckeyes will come closer to fulfilling Meyer's vision of a truly great offense.

It all starts, of course, with Miller, whose efforts to become a more accurate passer this offseason have been well documented. Ohio State also needs continued development from its receivers, which is not a very deep group right now. Meyer singled out Corey "Philly" Brown, who led the team with 60 catches for 669 yards, as someone who's becoming one of those dynamic playmakers he's seeking.

"I've tried to work on my open-field running and body control so I could cut faster," Brown said. "It's really paying off for me right now."

Brown is the clear No. 1 receiver, but he needs more help. The team has only six scholarship receivers this spring, and offensive coordinator Tom Herman said he'd only feel comfortable playing four of them for a whole game. Devin Smith made some highlight-reel catches on deep balls early last year but was less effective down the stretch, as he had only 13 receptions in the final eight games.

"People, for lack of a better term, figured him out," Herman said. "He wasn't a very versatile guy. He did a couple of things really well, but the other things that he tried to do, he was very below average. He's starting to improve some of his weaknesses to be a more complete receiver, and he has a lot of physical tools and a great attitude."

Herman said Chris Fields has had a really good spring, and Evan Spencer is a reliable target. Sophomore Michael Thomas, the star of last year's spring game, has shown flashes of his talent but needs to progress in a lot of areas. Herman called the receiver depth "a bit scary right now." But the Buckeyes recruited several receivers in this year's class, including Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson, James Clark and Corey Smith. They're hoping at least one or two contributes right away.

"You hate to count on [recruits] because they're usually overrated," Meyer said. "But that's why we went out and recruited them."

"We're not asking them to come in and be Jerry Rice," Herman said. "We just hope they can provide some depth and maybe add some skills that we don't currently have in that room right now."

One area certainly not lacking in depth is at running back, where Hyde returns after rushing for 970 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. Rod Smith is having a good spring, Warren Ball appears to be coming on and if sixth-year senior Jordan Hall can ever stay healthy, he'll provide lots of versatility. There was a buzz last week in practice when the Buckeyes lined up with Hyde, Smith and Ball in the same backfield with Miller in a formation Meyer cribbed from the San Francisco 49ers.

"That can give a bunch of trouble to defenses," Hyde said. "They just see three big backs in the backfield and a quarterback who can also run the ball. They don't know who's getting the ball or who's going where."

Ohio State's offensive players do know where they're going, which is different than last spring. Now in the second year of the system, Herman says he can teach his guys not just what to do but why they're doing it.

"It's not just the memorization of, 'OK, I have to line up on the left here,'" he said. "I could train a monkey to do that. What separates really good offenses from average to below-average offenses is all 11 guys understanding the big picture, the entire concept and scheme we're trying to accomplish. It's been nice to kind of dive into that with all of our players this spring."

Knowing how to change a route against a certain defensive look, for instance, should help the Buckeyes play faster this year. The coaches have challenged the players to be a Top 5 offense in the nation this year. That's a lofty goal, but remember that this team is starting from an already high level despite its flaws.

"I definitely think we can be one of the top offenses in the country if everybody takes care of business and is mistake free," Brown said.
Big Ten officials ejected only one player (Illinois safety Earnest Thomas against Penn State) for a helmet-to-helmet hit during the 2012 season.

If the new NCAA rules for targeting had been in place, that number would have swelled to seven or eight, according to Big Ten coordinator of football officials Bill Carollo. The NCAA's playing rules oversight panel on Thursday approved a new rule that requires the ejection of players flagged for targeting or contacting defenseless opponents above the shoulders. The current targeting penalty includes only a 15-yard penalty. The new policy, which goes into effect for the 2013 season, requires the penalty plus an ejection.

[+] EnlargeEarnest Thomas and Matt Lehman
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY Sports Under new NCAA rules, ejections for targeting a defenseless opponent above the shoulders -- Illinois' Earnest Thomas was the only Big Ten player ejected for that last season -- could become more common.
The ejection for targeting mirrors the one for fighting. Players who commit the foul in the first half miss the remainder of the game, while those who commit the foul in the second half miss the remainder of the game and the first half of the next contest.

"It's a very serious penalty," Carollo told on Thursday. "It's a big change. However, I think it will be a big positive point for the game. When we look back in 3-5 years, I think we're going to say this is a really big moment."

Player safety has become an increasingly bigger point of emphasis for officials in recent years, especially with increased education about the effects of concussions. The Big Ten has led the charge nationally, and while the number of unnecessary roughness penalties in the league has remained about the same, Carollo has seen a slight decrease in helmet-to-helmet targeting fouls.

The hope is that the numbers continue to drop because of the new, stricter policy.

"The impact is not that we're going to throw out a lot of guys," Carollo said. "The impact is we're going to have a lot of coaches and a lot of players adjusting to the rules. It may take a little bit of time, a few months of practice and a few weeks in August, and maybe even a couple games, but I think we'll get some positive results.

"The impact will be positive from the standpoint that players will continue to work hard to lower the target zone and to take the head out of the game."

Carollo and others in his position will spend the coming months working with officials to define targeting as clearly as possible. It can be a tedious process, as there can be helmet-to-helmet contact without obvious targeting, while intent "has nothing to do with it," Carollo said.

Officials will make mistakes -- Carollo has told Big Ten coaches that one out of every 10 high hits called on the field technically was a legal hit -- but their consistency on the field must be as strong as possible. They also have a safety net of sorts in the replay booth. The replay official will review every on-field targeting penalty that carries an ejection and will rule whether the ejection should be upheld.

"Now we're asking replay to get a little bit involved more in the judgment call," Carollo said. "They do [currently] have some judgment, a few rules where they can create penalties, but the replay person in the booth is not the eighth official. The game is being officiated by the seven men or women on the field.

"Now he'll buzz down once it’s targeting, and he'll confirm that hit. ... The targeting calls are going to stand unless there's indisputable video evidence that shows it's nowhere near above the shoulders."

Carollo supports the use of replay in these instances but doesn't want to "make a 5-minute production out of it." The onus remains with the on-field officials.

Carollo also expects to review targeting ejections -- submitted to him by coaches after games -- along with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, and, in some cases, reduce the penalty impacting the following contest.

Not surprisingly, Carollo received some "good rebuttals" from "defensive-minded" Big Ten coaches about the proposed change at their annual meeting last month. He told them the policy change was inevitable and showed them plays that may or may not be targeting, including a block by Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell against Wisconsin cornerback Devin Smith in the 2012 Big Ten championship.

Bell was flagged for a personal foul, negating a touchdown. Carollo thinks the hit merited a penalty, but not an ejection for targeting the head.

The coaches also reviewed the now-famous hit against Michigan's Vincent Smith by South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney in the Outback Bowl, which didn't draw a penalty.

"The tackler had his helmet up," Carollo said. "It was helmet-to-helmet, but it wasn't targeting. The helmets kissed, if you will, with the helmet up like that. The helmet came, the ball popped out, all at the same time. It looked vicious because [Smith's] helmet popped off, but technically, it was probably a legal play. That's in the gray area where it's close."

Carollo doesn't expect football to stop becoming fast and violent and noted that many "really vicious" hits are completely legal. But officials are going to err on the side of player safety whenever a blow to the head is involved.

The it's-just-football excuse no longer flies.

"It may be 'just football' for the last 50 years," Carollo said. "But going forward, we're trying to get that play out of the game."

In addition to another revision of the rules on low blocks, the rules committee also approved a rule requiring at least three seconds to remain on the clock in order to spike the ball to stop the clock at the end of halves. Carollo said the change stems from the 2012 Rose Bowl, where Wisconsin's Russell Wilson attempted to spike the ball for one more play with two seconds left, but the clock ran out.
The postseason top 25 player rankings have reached the summit. Your final reminder: these rankings are based solely on performance during the 2012 season.

Our pick for the Big Ten's top player blossomed at quarterback for the Big Ten's best team last season. His next task is to take Ohio State all the way to ...

No. 1: Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State, sophomore, 6-foot-2, 220 pounds

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller threw 15 touchdown passes last season.
Preseason ranking: No. 19

2012 numbers: 227 rushes for 1,271 yards and 13 touchdowns; completed 148 of 254 pass attempts (58.3 percent) for 2,039 yards with 15 touchdowns and six interceptions; averaged 275.8 yards of total offense per game.

Why he's here: Miller wasn't the only reason Ohio State ran the table in 2012, but he carried the team early and continued to sparkle during Big Ten play as the entire Scarlet and Gray operation came together. The sophomore backed up the big talk from coach Urban Meyer, who in July called Miller "the most dynamic athlete I've ever coached," and continued to make big plays week after week. He seamlessly fit Meyer's offense en route to earning Big Ten Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year honors.

Miller's athleticism certainly jumped out as he recorded six 100-yard rushing performances, including 186 yards against Nebraska, a team single-game record for quarterback rushing. He had 14 runs of 20 yards or more and four runs of 55 yards or more. Miller eclipsed 135 rush yards in five of the first seven games this past fall, putting himself very much in the mix for the Heisman Trophy. His natural playmaking skills jumped out as a freshman, even though he lacked experience and a functional offense, and he took things to the next level.

Ohio State's offensive line came together during Big Ten play, and other weapons like Carlos Hyde emerged around Miller, but the quarterback made the offense go early on, especially when the Buckeyes were struggling defensively. Even later in the season, when Miller's production dropped off, he made impact plays like this that left everyone buzzing. Miller's passing numbers don't jump off of the page and he'll need to improve his accuracy going forward, but he stretched the field well, as receiver Devin Smith averaged 20.8 yards per reception.

The sophomore earned the Chicago Tribune's Silver Football Award as Big Ten MVP and finished fifth in the Heisman voting. He was a finalist for the Davey O'Brien award and claimed the Big Ten's Griese-Brees Quarterback of the Year award. He'll enter 2013 as one of the top candidates for the Heisman as he leads an Ohio State team that many expect to contend for the national championship.

We've never had a player end up No. 1 in the postseason countdown in consecutive seasons, but Miller certainly has a chance.

The countdown

No. 25: Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan
No. 24: Michael Carter, CB, Minnesota
No. 23: Kain Colter, QB, Northwestern
No. 22: Spencer Long, G, Nebraska
No. 21: Carlos Hyde, RB, Ohio State
No. 20: Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska
No. 19: Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
No. 18: Mike Taylor, LB, Wisconsin
No. 17: Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan
No. 16: Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
No. 15: Max Bullough, LB, Michigan State
No. 14: Matt McGloin, QB, Penn State
No. 13: Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin
No. 12: Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State
No. 11: Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State
No. 10: Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
No. 9: Venric Mark, RB, Northwestern
No. 8: Jordan Hill, DT, Penn State
No. 7: Taylor Lewan, LT, Michigan
No. 6: Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State
No. 5: Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska
No. 4: John Simon, DE, Ohio State
No. 3: Michael Mauti, LB, Penn State
No. 2: Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin

Ohio State adds juco wide receiver

January, 29, 2013
Even if you only occasionally heard Ohio State coach Urban Meyer talk about his team last year, you most likely heard him address what he felt was the Buckeyes' biggest weakness: playmaking ability at wide receiver.

Devin Smith made some highlight plays early, and Corey Brown evolved into a very dependable wideout. But Ohio State still lacked speed and depth at the position and had a difficult time stretching the field with its offense.

Which is why Tuesday afternoon's news should be encouraging to Buckeyes fans. Junior-college wide receiver Corey Smith, who had been committed to Mississippi State, switched his pledge to Meyer and Ohio State Insider. The Akron, Ohio, product had 51 catches for 733 yards and nine touchdowns for East Mississippi Community College last season.

Here's a little of the scouting report on the 6-1, 180-pounder from ESPN's Recruiting Nation: "He is still lean and wiry with good height and very good body control. Smith works to get open with precision steps and spacing and has the feet and burst to gain separation out of the break. He is primarily an outside player in this scheme and uses his quick feet to set up defensive backs and runs crisp, short and intermediate routes. He takes little time to reach top speed and has the explosive first step to drive defenders off the ball."

Smith is the third wide receiver in Ohio State's 2013 class, joining Taivon Jacobs and Jalin Marshall. With Devin Smith and Corey Brown back, along with Jordan Hall, the youngsters could give Meyer and quarterback Braxton Miller more options next year. The tough part will be trying not to confuse Corey Smith with the two Corey Browns on the roster, and if the Buckeyes' three starting receivers are ever Corey Brown, Devin Smith and Corey Smith, pity the poor play-by-play man.

And the fact that Meyer swiped this latest commitment from an SEC school has got to bring a few smiles to Buckeye land.
It doesn't take long for new Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to spot a defense that puts takeaways first. Or one that doesn't.

"Say it's an interior run, an A-gap or B-gap run, and that ball carrier is held up at a certain point in that box," Aranda recently told, "the second and third defenders are ripping and attempting to strip the ball out. It's a frenzy. Or a ball carrier is running down the field after a catch and a defender has a non-aggressive angle, meaning the ball carrier doesn't see him, and he makes an attempt to not only secure a tackle but get the ball out with a rip or strip attempt.

"Those are things that show up on film a ton."

[+] EnlargeChris Borland
Brace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireNew Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is looking forward to coaching players like linebacker Chris Borland.
Aranda expects those things to show up on Wisconsin's practice film and game film from this point on. Takeaways are without question Aranda's top priority for a Badgers defense he'll guide after making the transition from Utah State with new head coach Gary Andersen.

Aranda spent only one season as Utah State's defensive coordinator after holding the same post at Hawaii in 2010 and 2011. Utah State tied for 73rd nationally in takeaways last fall with 20 -- the Aggies had much better ratings for scoring defense (7th), total defense (14th), rushing defense (13th) pass efficiency defense (8th) and sacks (6th). But Aranda's Hawaii defense led the FBS in takeaways with 38 in 2010.

When Badgers defenders show up for meetings with Aranda and his staff, they'll see terms like rip, strip, bat and pick displayed prominently throughout the football complex. The coaches will track each attempt and each successful forced fumble, pass deflection and interception, as they try to create a takeaway-first mindset among players.

"The biggest thing is the process," Aranda said, "the day-by-day emphasizing and highlighting of the rips, the strips, the bats and picks and the missed opportunities, putting it on the board, putting it on a PowerPoint [presentation], a highlight video, all those things. ... All that stuff comes in bunches, but the best you can do is emphasize it, make it a part of the daily routine and make it important."

Wisconsin needs to improve its takeaway numbers after finishing 105th nationally with just 15 this past season. It marked the Badgers' lowest takeaways total since at least 2000 after they had finished in the top 50 nationally from 2009-2011.

Although Wisconsin's defense performed well overall, ranking in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense (17th), total defense (15th), pass defense (18th) and rushing defense (24th), the Badgers' lack of takeaways hurt them in a season defined by close losses. They failed to generate a turnover in six games, including overtime losses to Ohio State and Penn State and a 20-14 loss to Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

If Aranda's plan works, the Badgers should be on the right side of more of those nail biters. It shouldn't be a tough sell, especially because Wisconsin's best defender already embraces the philosophy. Linebacker Chris Borland has recorded 13 forced fumbles, six fumbles recovered, three interceptions and 16 pass deflections in a decorated career, to go along with 13 career sacks and 41.5 tackles for loss. Borland has been a playmaker since he set foot on Wisconsin's campus, and he'll lead the defense once again in 2013.

"I'm awfully excited to coach Chris," Aranda said. "I've got all the respect in the world for him and what he's accomplished and what he means to this team and to this defense. He is the consummate teammate and playmaker, all those things. He's going to be a huge, huge part of our defense, like he has been."

The new staff is in the process of assigning recruiting areas, but Aranda's chief objective in wrapping up the 2013 class is the secondary, which loses three starters (cornerbacks Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie, and safety Shelton Johnson). Speed will be a major emphasis for Aranda and his staff on the recruiting trail.

"I was real fortunate to walk into a situation at Utah State where there was a lot of speed," he said. "We were faster than the majority of the teams we played, regardless of whatever conference they were in. So that goes to show that the game is built upon that. It is a foundational element to playing defense, especially the type that we would like to play.

"That is definitely going to be a No. 1 issue in terms of recruiting for defense."

Badgers still see rosy future

January, 2, 2013
PASADENA, Calif. -- After he'd finished all his Rose Bowl postgame media obligations, Barry Alvarez took one last stroll through the Wisconsin locker room to talk to some players. He embraced redshirt freshman Derek Watt and told him, "You're going to be the best fullback in America next year."

Another year, another painful Pasadena memory for the Badgers, who lost 20-14 to Stanford on New Year's Day. But as Alvarez scanned that locker room, he saw enough returning talent to think that Wisconsin can get to a fourth straight Granddaddy.

"We have a very good nucleus coming back next year, a lot of juniors, and they have a chance to be an outstanding squad again next year," he said.

Of course, Alvarez heads back to his athletic director's office today, and it will be up to new coach Gary Andersen to mold that talent for another run. Andersen should have a pretty good idea of the team's strengths and weaknesses after attending some of Wisconsin's bowl practices and then watching Tuesday's game from the sidelines.

Yet transitioning to another new coaching staff might remain the team's biggest challenge for 2013. Andersen has retained running backs coach Thomas Hammock and defensive backs coach Ben Strickland and may keep offensive line coach Bart Miller to oversee tight ends. But other than that, the staff will be entirely new, with two new coordinators. In that regard, it will be like last year's offseason, when Wisconsin lost six assistants, then dumped offensive line coach Mike Markuson for Miller after Week 2.

"Obviously, it's frustrating to lose coaches and have to learn a new offense," quarterback Curt Phillips said. "But I think our guys responded well to that this year. We didn't start off the season like we would like, but I thought rebounded really well and hopefully we can do the same thing next year."

Andersen's job should be made easier by a wealth of experience returning. The Badgers' two-deep against Stanford included nine seniors, but two of them -- Phillips and defensive end Brendan Kelly -- will return for a sixth year next season, assuming the NCAA does the right thing with Phillips' waiver request. Four juniors -- center Travis Frederick, linebacker Chris Borland, receiver Jared Abbrederis and guard Ryan Groy -- submitted paperwork to the NFL draft advisory board, but Borland told after the game that he was definitely returning to school.

Wisconsin returns its top eight players on the defensive line and all but one offensive lineman (Ricky Wagner) if Frederick and Groy stick around. After battling quarterback depth issues for a couple of years, the Badgers should have their fiercest offseason battle there in some time. Phillips, Joel Stave and Danny O'Brien all started games this year and will return, while redshirt freshman Bart Houston should be healthy and thrown into the mix and Jon Budmayr will give it another go.

The team's biggest star, touchdown king Montee Ball, is moving on to collect paychecks. But there's little worry about the running back position, not with James White back as a senior and budding superstar Melvin Gordon should start receiving many more carries.

The two biggest concerns are at wide receiver, where Wisconsin never established a another threat to complement Abbrederis, and in the secondary, which loses three starters. But the Badgers will have a senior-laden team and one that former coach Bret Bielema predicted would be his best before he bolted for Arkansas.

"We're going to have one of the biggest senior classes coming out next year since I've been around," departing senior cornerback Devin Smith said. "A lot of underclassmen were big contributors this year. So I think it's going to be a great team with a chance to get back here next year."

Of course, the Badgers won't benefit from Ohio State being on probation next season, and they'll have to go to Columbus. But they trade Nebraska and Michigan State as crossover division games for Iowa and Northwestern, the latter of which is at Camp Randall Stadium. They will have to solve the riddle of why they lost so many close games in 2012 (six by a combined 25 points).

"We've got to look at it as a learning experience," Frederick said, "and try to figure out what was the same in all those games and what troubled us."

If they can do that, make a successful transition and deal with the monster Urban Meyer is building, then maybe Wisconsin will go for a fourth Rose petal in four years. The Big Ten and the rest of America might not like that, as the Badgers run the risk of becoming college football's version of the 1990 Buffalo Bills.

Ball is the only player to score a touchdown in three straight Rose Bowls, but he understood that his legacy will also include those three straight losses.

"Hopefully, they can come here next year and win it," he said, "which was something I couldn't do."