NCF Nation: Dexter Larimore
At 335 pounds, Hankins is one of the biggest men in the Big Ten. He's among the largest defensive players in the nation and easy to spot in the heart of Ohio State's defensive line.
But Hankins spent the offseason focused on a different number: 60.
Ohio State's defense averaged 60.7 plays per game in 2010. Hankins wanted to make he'd be on the field for all of them in 2011.
"Last year he probably averaged 15 snaps a game, maybe a few more later in the season, 20 snaps," Buckeyes coach Luke Fickell said. "The question was, a guy his size, can he play 60, 65 snaps in a game? He's done a very good job of showing us that he can."
Hankins not only has stayed on the field longer but made his presence known. The sophomore leads Ohio State's defensive linemen with 36 tackles, a total that ranks second on the team behind linebacker Andrew Sweat. He also ranks second in tackles for loss (6.5) and tied for second in sacks (2).
The big man also seems to be getting stronger with each game. He opened Big Ten play with six tackles and a sack against Nebraska, and followed it up Oct. 15 with arguably his best performance as a Buckeye, recording a team-high nine tackles, including two for loss, in a defense-driven 17-7 win at Illinois.
"This summer, I worked on my conditioning, eating right and just losing a few pounds," Hankins said. "It's helping me this year. That's been a major part."
Hankins shed about 15 pounds from his frame, which he calls "a good amount." While he remains as big or bigger than most offensive lineman he faces, Hankins feels lighter on his feet and generally more in shape.
"My first year, I would get tired after like one or two series," he said. "Right now, I feel like I can just play the whole game. Most of the time, I'm not really going to come out of the game.
"With my conditioning being where it's at right now, it's taken my game to another level."
Hankins showed some promise as a true freshman, appearing in all 13 games and recording 16 tackles, including a sack. Although he couldn't log many snaps, Ohio State only needed him to spell starters Cameron Heyward, a first-round pick in April's NFL draft, and veteran Dexter Larimore.
But the departures of Heyward and Larimore left Ohio State thin at tackle. The Buckeyes needed contributors to complement veteran John Simon up front.
"Coming into this year, I knew we were going to be pretty young," Hankins said. "I knew there were going to be roles and spots that needed to be filled. The coaches were going to be counting on me. The defense was going to be counting on me."
Hankins and Simon form a terrific defensive tackle tandem, combining for 14 tackles for loss and five sacks. They both stood out against Illinois, ranking as Ohio State's top two tacklers and accounting for six tackles for loss.
Ohio State will lean on the pair this week as it faces the Big Ten's top offense in No. 15 Wisconsin.
"It's awesome when you've got two big guys like that are getting after it and affecting quarterbacks and running backs," Buckeyes offensive tackle Mike Adams said.
Hankins, who hails from Detroit, has enjoyed watching former Nebraska star Ndamukong Suh star for the NFL's Lions. Another pro defensive tackle Hankins likes to scout is Green Bay Packers standout B.J. Raji.
Like Hankins, Raji is a guy who can't avoid references to his size. He's listed at 337 pounds.
"He's kind of a guy like me, a two- or three-down player," Hankins said. "He's a big guy, but good with his feet."
Does Hankins see himself in Raji?
"I don't think I'm as big as him," he said.
Not anymore, at least.
"He didn't want to be as heavy as he was last year," Fickell said of Hankins. "He knew he was going to have to play more, and he was going to have to get his weight down in order to do that.
"He's well-conditioned for his size, and I've been impressed with his ability to play over 60 snaps a game."
Here's a snapshot of what to expect in the Leaders Division this spring.
Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 23
What to watch:
- New look at linebacker: Illinois loses first-team All-Big Ten selection Martez Wilson as well as playmaker Nate Bussey. They combined for 195 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, two interceptions and four fumble recoveries. The Illini need a middle linebacker and could turn to productive senior Ian Thomas or promising sophomore Jonathan Brown. Illinois also is replacing linebackers coach Dan Disch.
- Ford tough: All-American running back Mikel Leshoure departs, turning the spotlight to Jason Ford. At 235 pounds, Ford is a true power back who will give the Illinois offense a slightly different look in 2011. The Illini also want to build depth at running back with players like Troy Pollard.
- Replacing Liuget: Illinois begins the difficult task of replacing the Big Ten's most disruptive interior defensive lineman in Corey Liuget, a likely first-round draft pick in April. Akeem Spence had a very solid redshirt freshman season and will take on a larger role, but Illinois must build around him with Glenn Foster and others. This is a major priority for defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and line coach Keith Gilmore this spring.
Start of spring practice: March 8
Spring game: April 16
End of spring practice: April 19
What to watch:
- Culture change: Kevin Wilson has talked extensively about changing the culture around the Indiana program, and the process begins in full force this spring. Players will have to adjust to the demands of Wilson and his staff, which still isn't in place but soon will be. There will be plenty of teaching and learning, as players must absorb Wilson's offense and a 4-3 defensive scheme (IU operated out of the 3-4 for part of last season).
- Quarterback competition: Three-year starter Ben Chappell departs, and there's no clear-cut successor entering spring practice. Both Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker played sparingly in five games last season, and they bring different skills to the table. It'll be interesting to see who emerges under center this spring before acclaimed recruit Tre Roberson arrives for fall camp.
- Identify defensive contributors: Indiana can't expect to get over the hump until it upgrades the defense, and co-coordinators Mike Ekeler and Doug Mallory begin a crucial evaluation process this spring. The Hoosiers need to build depth and identify Big Ten-ready players throughout the defense, particularly in the back seven after losing standout linebacker Tyler Replogle and others.
Start of spring practice: March 31
Spring game: April 23
- Suspension preparation: Ohio State knows it will be without four offensive starters and a key defensive reserve for the first chunk of the 2011 season. This spring, the Buckeyes start the process of evaluating who will step in, especially at the quarterback spot for Terrelle Pryor. Joe Bauserman holds an edge in experience (though little has come in games), and he'll compete with Kenny Guiton and heralded incoming freshman Braxton Miller.
- Receiving orders for Drayton: Stan Drayton left Florida for Ohio State primarily to expand his coaching repertoire and oversee a new position group. The career running backs coach will work with a mostly unproven group of Ohio State wide receivers this spring. Ohio State must replace All-Big Ten standout Dane Sanzenbacher, and DeVier Posey is among those suspended for the first part of the season. Says Drayton of his receivers, "Personnel wise, they're in competition with the whole offensive unit."
- Up-the-middle defensive replacements: Excuse the baseball reference, but Ohio State loses several standout players in the core of its defense: linemen Cameron Heyward and Dexter Larimore, linebackers Brian Rolle and Ross Homan, and safety Jermale Hines. Although the Buckeyes always find ways to reload on defense, it will be interesting to see who emerges this spring, especially at linebacker.
Start of spring practice: March 18
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- The quarterbacks, especially Rob Bolden: Penn State's quarterback competition should be wide open this spring, and it might be the most fascinating race in the Big Ten. You've got sophomore Rob Bolden, who asked for his release after the Gator Bowl but didn't get it from Joe Paterno, and has returned to compete for a job he thought he never should have lost. Junior Matt McGloin tries to redeem himself after the bowl disaster, and Paul Jones and Kevin Newsome also are in the mix.
- Line play on both sides: The Lions boast enough at the skill positions on both sides of the ball to be a much improved team in 2011. But they have to get better and more consistent on both lines. The offensive line must replace standout Stefen Wisniewski and find the form it displayed in 2008. The defensive line tries to regain its swagger after backsliding in 2010, and identify a pass-rushing threat or two.
- Kicking it: Collin Wagner was Penn State's top offensive weapon for much of the 2010 season, but the standout kicker departs the program, leaving a void. Punter Anthony Fera likely will handle the bulk of the kicking duties this spring until incoming freshman Sam Ficken arrives.
Start of spring practice: March 2
Spring game: April 9
What to watch:
- Replacing Superman: Purdue returns nine defensive starters, but the Boilers lose Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Kerrigan. The Boilers were the league's top pass-rushing team in 2010, but Kerrigan's production and presence played huge roles in the overall sacks and tackles for loss totals. The entire defensive line took a step forward last fall, and will need to do so again without No. 94.
- The quarterbacks: Robert Marve is still recovering from his second ACL tear, so Rob Henry, Caleb TerBush and Sean Robinson will be in the spotlight this spring. Henry showed promise when healthy in 2010, and TerBush had a strong spring a year ago before being ruled academically ineligible for the season. The quarterback race won't be decided until the summer, but all the candidates can help themselves in spring ball.
- The offensive identity: A wave of injuries forced Purdue to overhaul its plan on offense in 2010. Although several key players will be out or limited this spring, the Boilers can start to reshape their plan on offense. Coach Danny Hope is optimistic Marve and the others return at full strength, but he doesn't want to take anything for granted. This is a huge spring for players a notch or two down the depth chart to get noticed.
Start of spring practice: March 22
Spring game: April 23
What to watch:
- Finding Tolzien's successor: After a one-year respite, Wisconsin's annual spring quarterback competition resumes. Sort of. Jon Budmayr will have every opportunity to establish himself as the Badgers' top option before Curt Phillips (knee) returns to full strength. Budmayr turned heads with his performance two springs ago, but played sparingly last season behind Scott Tolzien.
- New leadership on defense: Charlie Partridge and Chris Ash are familiar faces who step into new roles this spring. Partridge and Ash were promoted to co-defensive coordinators following Dave Doeren's departure, and they'll get their first opportunity to shape the defensive vision this spring.
- Reloading on the lines: Wisconsin loses three All-American linemen from 2010: Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt on the offensive side, and J.J. Watt at defensive end. Although the Badgers must replace more bodies on the offensive front, they boast excellent depth there and should be able to fill the gaps. Watt leaves a bigger void, and Wisconsin needs strong springs from players like Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert.
QB: Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State
Pryor won MVP honors in a BCS bowl for the second consecutive season as he led Ohio State to a victory in the Sugar Bowl. The junior maintained his focus after the suspension controversy and recorded 222 pass yards and two touchdowns to go along with 115 rush yards on 15 carries. Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase merits a mention after a strong effort in the Texas Bowl.
RB: Marcus Coker, Iowa
The true freshman rushed for an Iowa bowl record 219 yards and two touchdowns as the Hawkeyes beat Missouri in the Insight Bowl. Coker was the team's only proven option at running back for the bowl, and he stepped up in a big way, averaging 6.6 yards per carry.
The Big Ten's best running back ended his season -- and, as it turned out, his college career -- in typical fashion, rushing for 184 yards and three touchdowns as Illinois blew out Baylor. Leshoure broke five team records and tied a sixth with his bowl performance, most notably breaking Rashard Mendenhall's single-season Illinois rushing record with 1,697 yards.
WR: Dane Sanzenbacher, Ohio State
Sanzenbacher caught three passes for 59 yards and a touchdown in the Sugar Bowl, but his biggest contribution came on the game's opening drive. After Pryor fumbled the ball near the goal line, Sanzenbacher swooped in for the recovery and his first career "rushing" touchdown. The Great Dane showed why he was voted Ohio State's team MVP.
WR: Derek Moye, Penn State
His quarterback threw too many passes to Florida defenders, but Moye did his part for Penn State with five receptions for 79 yards and a touchdown. He nearly had a second touchdown following a 44-yard reception but the ball was placed at the 1-yard line. Penn State scored on the next play to tie the score at 14-14.
TE: Jake Stoneburner, Ohio State
Ohio State featured its tight ends in a 28-point first half at the Sugar Bowl, and Stoneburner benefited with three receptions for 39 yards. Fellow tight end Reid Fragel added a 42-yard reception. Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks, Iowa's Allen Reisner and Michigan's Kevin Koger all merit mentions here.
OL: Josh Koeppel, Iowa
Koeppel and fellow linemen James Ferentz and Markus Zusevics got Coker going early by creating a huge hole for the freshman early in the second quarter. Coker zipped through it for a 62-yard touchdown as Iowa surged out to a 14-3 lead.
OL: Jeff Allen, Illinois
Allen helped the Illini rack up 38 points and 291 offensive yards in the rout of Baylor. He also protected Scheelhaase, who completed his first 13 pass attempts and finished the game 18-for-23 passing.
OL: Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin
The Badgers didn't have the dominant offensive performance they envisioned against TCU, but they still rushed for 226 yards and two touchdowns. Carimi, the 2010 Outland Trophy winner, did his part in his final collegiate game.
OL: Randall Hunt, Illinois
Hunt and Allen earned the highest grades from the Illini coaches after the team dominated Baylor in the Texas Bowl. Illinois mounted seven drives of 53 yards or longer, including two fourth-quarter touchdown drives that overpowered the Bears and put away the game.
C: Mike Brewster, Ohio State
Ohio State physically dominated Arkansas up front in the first half, and Brewster led the way from the center position. He helped clear the way for Herron's walk-in 9-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter. Ohio State racked up 28 points and 338 yards in the first half and finished with 225 rush yards against Arkansas.
DL: Cameron Heyward, Ohio State
Heyward delivered the best performance of his college career in his final game as a Buckeye. The senior racked up 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, two quarterback hurries and a pass breakup. He also caused a critical holding penalty by Arkansas midway through the fourth quarter.
DL: Corey Liuget, Illlinois
Liuget showed Baylor why he was the Big Ten's most disruptive defensive tackle this season. The junior recorded 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack and caused a ton of trouble in the Bears' backfield.
DL: Dexter Larimore, Ohio State
Heyward drew most of the praise in the Sugar Bowl, but Larimore caused almost as many problems for the Arkansas offensive line. The senior recorded six tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble as Ohio State held Arkansas' offense in check for a good portion of the game.
DL: Devon Still, Penn State
Still set a career high with 3.5 tackles for loss in Penn State's Outback Bowl loss to Florida. He tied for second on the team with seven tackles as Penn State prevented Florida from mounting long scoring drives.
LB: James Morris, Iowa
Like Coker, Morris raised hope for the Hawkeyes' future with a strong performance in the Insight Bowl. He recorded seven tackles, including one stop for loss, and showed more aggressiveness than some of his older teammates.
LB: Quentin Davie, Northwestern
The TicketCity Bowl wasn't a banner day for Northwestern's defense, but Davie did his part with 15 tackles, including two tackles for loss. His tackles total marked a career high in his final collegiate game with the Wildcats.
LB: Martez Wilson, Illinois
Wilson was a noticeable presence in what turned out to be his final game in an Illini uniform. Tez recorded seven tackles including one for loss in the win against Baylor.
DB: Micah Hyde, Iowa
Hyde made the biggest play of the Big Ten bowl season, picking off a Blaine Gabbert pass and returning the ball 72 yards for the game-winning touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. Iowa appeared headed toward another second-half collapse before Hyde made Gabbert pay for his only bad decision of the game.
DB: D'Anton Lynn, Penn State
Lynn made a huge impact at the start of the Outback Bowl, recording an interception and recovering a fumble in the Penn State end zone in the first 10 minutes of the game. He finished the season tied with Nick Sukay for the team lead in interceptions with three.
DB: Terry Hawthorne, Illinois
The sophomore cornerback set career highs in both tackles (9) and tackles for loss (1.5) in the win against Baylor. Hawthorne made his first start of the season after battling a foot injury for much of the fall.
DB: Devon Torrence, Ohio State
The Buckeyes' secondary once again needed a boost after losing a standout player to injury, and Torrence provided it. After All-Big Ten corner Chimdi Chekwa went out with a wrist injury, Torrence picked up the slack and recorded eight tackles, a tackle for loss, a forced fumble and a pass breakup.
K: Derek Dimke, Illinois
Dimke showed why he's known as the Big Ten's steadiest kicker in the Texas Bowl, going 3-for-3 on field goal attempts from 28, 38 and 43 yards out. He became the first Illinois player to make more than one field goal in a bowl game and connected on multiple kicks for the ninth time in the 2010 season.
P: Aaron Bates, Michigan State
Bates provided the lone bright spot for the Spartans in the Capital One Bowl, averaging 43.4 yards on seven attempts with a long of 55 yards and two punts placed inside the 20-yard line. Honorable mentions go to Illinois' Anthony Santella, Wisconsin's Brad Nortman and Iowa's Ryan Donahue.
KR: Martavious Odoms, Michigan
The fact that Odoms played in the Gator Bowl following a broken foot was pretty incredible, and unfortunately for Michigan, he got plenty of work on returns. Odoms racked up 163 kick return yards on seven attempts with a long runback of 43 yards. Honorable mentions go to Michigan State's Bennie Fowler, Iowa's Paul Chaney Jr. and Northwestern's Venric Mark.
It's hardly unusual for a defensive lineman to wait a while for his first pick. But Thomas hadn't merely gone through his Ohio State career without an interception. He never had one in high school.
He never had one in junior high school.
"It's what was supposed to happen," a beaming Thomas said.
Most folks think it wasn't supposed to happen.
The fact that Thomas was on the field Tuesday night for the Allstate Sugar Bowl created a cloud of controversy around Ohio State leading into its matchup against Arkansas.
Thomas and four others -- quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Dan Herron, receiver DeVier Posey and left tackle Mike Adams -- had been suspended by the NCAA for selling memorabilia items and receiving improper benefits, but the NCAA decided that their punishment wouldn't go into effect until the 2011 season.
Major distraction? Check. Major detriment? Just the opposite.
The Buckeyes needed significant contributions from all five players to hold off Arkansas 31-26 and record the program's first victory against the hated SEC in a bowl game. Thomas sealed the win by intercepting a Ryan Mallett pass at the Ohio State 17-yard line with 58 seconds left.
Talk about the Irony Bowl.
"It's kind of crazy how it happened," Herron said. "We had the honor of playing in this game, so we really had to come out here and make a statement."
Herron and the offense delivered from the get-go, putting to rest concerns about their mental states and ability to execute. Ohio State surged to a 28-7 lead behind Pryor, Herron's physical running and a powerful offensive line that overwhelmed Arkansas.
For the second straight year Pryor turned in a brilliant performance in a BCS bowl, completing 14 of 25 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns and adding 115 rush yards on 15 carries. Herron added 87 rush yards and a touchdown, and Posey hauled in a 43-yard touchdown strike and led the team with 70 receiving yards.
"We all play a role on this team," Adams said. "I block, that's what I do and that's what I did. DeVier, he catches the ball, that's what he does. TP, what can you say about that guy? He just makes plays."
But the biggest play came from the suspended player no one talked about; the non-starter, the guy who couldn't jump to the NFL draft because, well, he probably wouldn't hear his name called. Thomas entered the bowl with 14 tackles on the season, a solid role player and a guy who blended into the crowd.
He took center stage, though, as Arkansas entered Ohio State's red zone looking to score the game-winning touchdown following a blocked punt. Ohio State installed a new red zone package in its Nov. 20 win against Iowa, and the scheme called for Thomas to replace senior Dexter Larimore at defensive tackle.
"I'm going in for a senior, this is his last game," Thomas said. "I was just so thankful that I didn't let him down, that I'm able to send him out with a victory. [Defensive coordinator Jim Heacock] always stresses to us to send these seniors out the right way, and I was just so thankful that I was able, on this field, to make a play for my seniors."
Thomas took a two-step drop, looked for crossing routes and made the play on the ball.
"That's probably the happiest I've ever seen Sol," Adams said. "That might have been his first pick, and that's a great first pick to have."
The end result certainly could have been different without Thomas and the others on the field.
The plan calls for all five players to return as seniors in 2011. Although Ohio State can't force them to return, Tressel sounds confident the players will keep their word.
"I don't think I'm really ready for the NFL," said Pryor, who earned Sugar Bowl MVP honors. "I've got a lot of learning and better decision-making I have to make on and off the field. Off the field, I need to grow up a little bit more, mature as well. I just have a lot of growing up to do."
Ohio State's senior class grew up the past two seasons, and they cemented their legacy Tuesday night.
Receiver Dane Sanzenbacher scored two touchdowns, including a recovery of a Pryor fumble in the end zone on the game's opening possession. Larimore recorded two sacks, a forced fumble and six tackles from the tackle spot.
Defensive end Cameron Heyward had his best game as a Buckeye in his last game, racking up 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, two quarterback hurries and a pass breakup.
"Cam was a beast," Tressel said. "He was all over the place."
So were the suspended players.
Whether or not they deserved to play is debatable. How they performed after getting the opportunity is not.
"When it all happened, our first concern was, 'Are we going to be able to help this team? Are we going to be able to play?'" Adams said. "You never want to let down your brothers, you never want to let down the guys in this locker room.
"When they gave us that chance, we knew we had to play well."
Injuries in the secondary are nothing new for Ohio State, which has had more than its share this season. The Allstate Sugar Bowl has claimed several more contributors, including first-team All-Big Ten cornerback Chimdi Chekwa.
But Ohio State is surviving against Arkansas by generating consistent pressure on star quarterback Ryan Mallett. Buckeyes defensive lineman Cameron Heyward has been everywhere, turning in quite possibly the best performance of his career in his final collegiate game. Senior defensive tackle Dexter Larimore also has done a great job, and three of Ohio State's four starting linemen have sacked Mallett.
This might not be the stingiest performance from Ohio State's defensive front, but they're making plays.
And they must keep stepping up as the Ohio State offense has gone to sleep in the second half, generating only 50 yards.
The other team subscribes to a philosophy used by the Navy SEALs every time it hits the road for a showdown in hostile territory.
The Badgers are 40-4 on their home field since the start of the 2004 season, the best home mark in the Big Ten during that span (Ohio State is 40-5). Perhaps more impressive, Ohio State is 19-1 in its past 20 Big Ten road games, and the Buckeyes have captured their past eight road contests against ranked Big Ten opponents.
Translation: Both the Badgers and the Buckeyes will be at their best Saturday night when they meet at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis.
But only one team will walk out a winner.
"I'm excited that they have that great road record and we have that great home record because it’s going to be an even playing field," Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt said.
"But on the same note, I know our crowd’s going to come and they’re going to get unbelievably insane."
Watt will never forget the first time he was on the field at Camp Randall at the end of the third quarter. Ever since the 1998 homecoming game at Purdue, Wisconsin has played the House of Pain hit "Jump Around" between the third and fourth quarters of every home game.
Told by rapper Everlast to, "Get out your seats and jump around," more than 80,000 fans follow orders, literally shaking the stadium.
"You look up and see every single person jumping around," Watt said, "goose bumps isn’t even the word to describe it. Electricity isn’t the word to describe it. It’s unbelievable, and the amount of energy that you feel is unlike anything else.
"The play immediately after 'Jump Around' is always my best play of the game because of how much excitement I have."
Wisconsin certainly isn't the only college football team with a huge home-field edge, but "Jump Around" brings a unique twist that can directly affect the outcome of games.
"Every team gets a lift at the beginning of the game when they run out in front of their crowd, but our crowd gives us that added lift with 'Jump Around,'" Watt said. "That fourth quarter is run on pure adrenaline."
Ohio State doesn't tune out the environment; just the opposite, in fact. But whenever the Buckeyes depart Columbus, Ohio for a road game, coach Jim Tressel gets his players to heighten their level of focus.
Before the 2009 season, Tressel had Ohio State's seniors read a best-selling book by a former Navy SEAL about a 2005 mission to Afghanistan. Among other things, players learned about the approach the SEALs took when entering enemy territory.
"There are these cities over there where basically you could turn around and they're going to be shooting at you," Ohio State defensive tackle Dexter Larimore said. "They’re nicknamed blackslide cities. So we take that blackslide mentality of, you're going in and there's hostiles all around. Nobody’s really rooting for you, you only take 70 guys so you close your ranks, you don't have as many fans, people aren’t supporting you and you're going into a hostile environment."
The Buckeyes went on to rally in the fourth quarter to beat Wisconsin 20-17.
"We have this saying, ‘When the crowd gets louder, we play better,'" Larimore said. "When it gets louder, when it gets crazier, play better, play more intense. Act like it's your home."
One of Tressel's talking points to players, even during the recruiting process, is the importance of having fun on the road.
"You’re going to have X number of fun games here at Ohio State, but you’re going to get to go have fun at these other places," Tressel said. "You get to play twice in your career at Penn State or Michigan or Camp Randall or Iowa, and you’re going to remember it. From the time we meet them, we talk about what fun that’s going to be. So they anticipate it."
Ohio State has had plenty of fun in other Big Ten venues, winning 16 consecutive conference road games before stumbling last year at Purdue. Although Watt points out that "Ohio State's road record wasn't playing in Camp Randall Stadium every single week," the Buckeyes have won three of their past four contests in Madison.
Another added element is Saturday's late kickoff time (7 p.m. ET, 6 p.m. local). Wisconsin is 25-3 in its past 28 night games, but one of those losses came against Ohio State in 2008.
"It seems to be very offsetting, which actually excites me," Watt said. "Whichever team wins, I don't want it to be because it was at home or because it was on the road. You want to watch a football game and know that two great football teams are playing against each other, and whichever team plays better on that day is going to come out with the victory."
No intelligent fan base should be celebrating, "We're No. 6!" Truth: your team's unit is probably a lot closer to No. 11 than No. 1. If a certain position group is stacked at the top, I'm open to including multiple teams tied for the No. 5 spot.
The criteria: past performance, 2010 potential, game-changing players and overall depth.
Let's get it started with the defensive line.
1. Iowa: The Hawkeyes' front four is not only the best in the Big Ten, but quite possibly the country (Rivals.com thinks so). Everyone knows about beastly defensive end Adrian Clayborn, but Broderick Binns can be just as effective on the other edge. Veterans Karl Klug and Christian Ballard solidify the middle. This group can flat out dominate games, as it showed last season against Penn State and Georgia Tech, and should be even better in 2010. My lone concern: depth.
2. Ohio State: You know a position group will be fine when three key contributors (Thaddeus Gibson, Doug Worthington, Todd Denlinger) depart and there's talk of even better days ahead. Cameron Heyward could be the Big Ten's most disruptive defensive player, as USC and Penn State learned last season, and there's a lot of optimism about young players like John Simon, Melvin Fellows and Garrett Goebel. Dexter Larimore brings experience to the interior line.
3. Penn State: Like Ohio State, Penn State can lose key players like Jared Odrick up front and not miss a beat. We should know better than to doubt veteran line coach Larry Johnson, who recruits and develops players better than just about anyone. Penn State has high hopes for defensive end Jack Crawford, and veteran tackle Ollie Ogbu also returns. Odrick leaves a major void in the middle, but the Lions expect big things from Devon Still if he can stay healthy.
4. Purdue: I'm taking a little leap of faith here, as Purdue has to get a lot better against the run. But the Boilers have a bona fide star in end Ryan Kerrigan, some experience with Gerald Gooden and Kawann Short, and they should benefit from coach Gary Emanuel's return to West Lafayette. Purdue is thin at defensive tackle after Mike Neal's departure to the NFL, but Kerrigan leads what should be a formidable pass rush after finishing third nationally in sacks in 2009.
5. Wisconsin: Here's a case where I feel great about one line position and nervous about another. Emerging star J.J. Watt leads a talented group of defensive ends -- ends, not tackles!-- that also features Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert. The situation at tackle is a bit shakier because Wisconsin lost both starters from 2009, but Patrick Butrym boasts experience, and hopes are high for Jordan Kohout.
Up next: Linebackers
He might be the first college football star in history to gush about new facilities and not be referring to a weight room, a players' lounge or some other addition to the detached athletic complex.
You mean college football players spend time on campus, at the student union, with other, um, students?
Apparently Heyward does. And he loves it.
"Everybody always tells me you're only in college once," he said. "And I want to make the most out of it."
Of course, his desire carries over to the football field, where he'll lead the Ohio State defense as a senior this fall.
He didn't have to come back and might have been a first-round pick in April's NFL draft had he chosen to declare after the 2009 season. Heyward recorded 6.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks as a junior, playing both defensive line positions, but his dominating performances against two of Ohio State's toughest opponents, USC and Penn State, suggested he was next-level ready.
In the end, another year at Ohio State and another year to sharpen his game brought him back to Columbus.
"Cam can be good," Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel said. "He works so hard. Great person, excellent student. He's what a college player should be all about."
Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh elevated the national profile of defensive linemen last season, earning a trip to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist. Could Heyward follow suit this year?
"I haven't watched much of [Suh], heard great things about him," Tressel said. "I'd like to think Cam can be that national kind of guy."
Heyward has lofty expectations for both himself and a defensive line that loses three starters but boasts plenty of young talent.
His strength and national ability are indisputable, but he wants to improve technically this fall. He played last season at 285 pounds, down from 290, and felt better with his movement. Despite being listed at 288 pounds, he still wants to get bigger and add some muscle mass before the fall.
"You always see these D-linemen, a little bit bigger than me," he said. "I want to try to fit the prototype, except be more."
Heyward attributed his improvement last season to an enhanced preparation routine and an adjusted defensive scheme that allowed him greater flexibility. He began coming to the film room early Monday mornings to study film, and he'd maintain his focus throughout the week. Although Heyward had started his first two seasons, he "wasn't as involved [in preparation] and didn't understand it as well."
By grasping the whole defense, Heyward became more comfortable playing end or tackle. He plans to once again fill in at both spots this fall.
"Inside, you have to be a little more careful of double teams," he said, "as opposed to the outside, it's mostly a pass rush, just squeezing around the block."
No matter where Heyward lines up this fall, double teams almost certainly will greet him.
"You know it's going to happen," he said. "I've just got to be ready for it. I've got to try to fight it, and other guys have got to step up as well. I'm not going to make all the plays, but I'll make as much as I can. That's going to leave a lot of 1-on-1s for [other] guys."
Fellow veteran Dexter Larimore returns at defensive tackle, but Ohio State will lean on less proven linemen like John Simon, Nathan Williams, Garrett Goebel, Solomon Thomas and Melvin Fellows. The Buckeyes need more depth up front, but Tressel knows he has a linchpin in Heyward.
"He's going to be a great leader for this team," Tressel said. "Obviously, we will count on him a lot on the field. He has a good knack of helping bring other people along. He's a real inclusive guy. He knows that we lost a great deal of personnel on that defensive front.
"His performance will be crucial for us, but his leadership will be just as important."
Greetings from The Shoe, where No. 10 Iowa and No. 11 Ohio State meet with the Big Ten's automatic BCS bowl berth, almost certainly the Rose Bowl, at stake.
The Buckeyes come in as heavy favorites following their big win last week against Penn State, while Iowa tries to bounce back without quarterback Ricky Stanzi and win its first game in Columbus since 1991. Ohio State is 31-4-1 against Iowa since 1962. Put simply, this is the prime opportunity for Iowa to quiet its doubters and shock the Big Ten by going 4-0 in conference road games.
The weather is gorgeous with sunny skies, temperatures in the low- to mid-60s and light winds. It's unseasonably warm, and I'll definitely take it.
Injuries: Everyone knows about Stanzi, who will miss today's game and most likely next week's regular-season finale with a severely sprained right ankle. Redshirt freshman James Vandenberg makes his first career start at quarterback. Iowa hopes to get safety Brett Greenwood (neck) and wide receiver Colin Sandeman (head) back for the game, while there's a chance running back Adam Robinson (ankle) could play. Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor is battling an ankle injury and sat out portions of practice this week. Defensive tackle Dexter Larimore should be a bigger factor today as he works back from a sprained knee. Ohio State's offensive line is probably the healthiest it has been all season, as tackles J.B. Shugarts and Mike Adams should be available today.
THREE KEYS FOR IOWA
1. Force turnovers from Pryor -- Iowa leads the Big Ten in takeaways (26) and ties for the national lead in interceptions (19). The Hawkeyes defense must help out Vandenberg by forcing turnovers against Pryor, who has been more turnover prone this season.
2. Put Vandenberg in situations to succeed -- As good as Stanzi was in the fourth quarter, he put the defense in tough situations with interceptions. Iowa shouldn't throw too much at the young quarterback but take a few calculated risks and stretch the field with wide receivers Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos. Vandenberg has the arm strength to make the throws, but he'll need time from the offensive line.
3. Win the battle at the line of scrimmage -- Iowa's defensive line essentially won the Penn State game. It needs a repeat performance against Pryor and the Buckeyes' offense. Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes' offensive line must play its best game of the season against one of the nation's elite defensive fronts, led by Cameron Heyward and Thaddeus Gibson.
THREE KEYS FOR OHIO STATE
1. Turn up the heat on Vandenberg -- The Buckeyes have made life miserable for veteran quarterbacks and should be licking their chops against a guy making his first career start. Iowa's offensive line has underachieved a bit, and the Buckeyes will win this game if they consistently harass Vandenberg.
2. Run Pryor around the edges -- Iowa is the only Big Ten team yet to face Pryor, and the Hawkeyes really haven't seen a comparable quarterback. Pryor has run the ball well since the Purdue game and should test Iowa's speed around the edges. Despite Pryor's bad ankle, Ohio State can't be afraid to turn him loose.
3. Don't get overconfident -- The entire complexion of this game changed last Saturday, and Ohio State comes in as a huge favorite. The Buckeyes usually don't let outside factors affect their play, but they need to respect Iowa and not let the Hawkeyes hang around in this game.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Ohio State lost a few style points down the stretch, but the Buckeyes reaffirmed themselves as the team to beat in the Big Ten on a wild day in the conference.
Terrelle Pryor still does a few things that make you scratch your head, but the sophomore quarterback was mostly good in a 33-14 Buckeyes win over Indiana. He factored into all four Buckeyes touchdowns (3 pass, 1 rush) and distributed the ball extremely well. Junior running back Brandon Saine took advantage of his first start this season with 113 rush yards on 17 carries, and freshman wideout Duron Carter caught his first career touchdown. The offense doesn't always click, but it makes enough plays to win.
Once again, the real story for Ohio State was the defense, which forced three Indiana turnovers. Safety Anderson Russell, who was demoted after the season opener, came up big in place of the suspended Kurt Coleman with an interception and a fumble recovery. It was another big night for the Buckeyes' defensive line, which got an interception from Todd Denlinger and impressive second-half play from Rob Rose. Losing Dexter Larimore hurts, but the Buckeyes are stacked up front.
Indiana once again didn't quit and should have made it more competitive, but mistakes really hurt the Hoosiers after the first quarter. Wide receiver Tandon Doss had a really nice night (6 receptions, 96 yards) and the defense played well at times, but Indiana couldn't generate a rushing attack and Ben Chappell's two interceptions really stung. This is clearly a better IU team than many of us had imagined, but the Hoosiers are 0-2 in league play and need to bounce back soon.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
There are some positions on the depth chart that make Big Ten coaches cringe. There are other spots that make them smile and nod their heads.
Let's take a look at several fully loaded positions in the Big Ten.
Ohio State's defensive line: There is talk the Buckeyes' front four could be the best since the 2002 national championship squad. Ohio State is stacked at defensive end with All-Big Ten candidate Thaddeus Gibson, Cameron Heyward and Lawrence Wilson, who can be effective if healthy. Tackle Doug Worthington brings a ton of experience to the interior line, and Dexter Larimore and Todd Denlinger add depth there.
Iowa's offensive line: This group is well on its way to restoring the tradition established during the early part of coach Kirk Ferentz's tenure. Iowa boasts the league's top tackles tandem in Bryan Bulaga and Kyle Calloway, and there are a host of experienced interior linemen. Julian Vandervelde developed nicely in 2008, and Andy Kuempel, Rafael Eubanks and Dan Doering all are solid options at guard. The emergence of oft-injured Dace Richardson this spring adds another body to the mix. Aside from the center spot, Iowa looks extremely solid up front.
Michigan State's secondary: Despite losing All-Big Ten safety Otis Wiley, Michigan State should be even stronger in the back half. Three starters return in the secondary, including corners Chris L. Rucker and Ross Weaver. Michigan State boasts depth with corners Jeremy Ware and Johnny Adams and safeties Kendell Davis-Clark and Marcus Hyde. And the breakout performance of the spring came from another safety, Trenton Robinson, who certainly will see playing time this season.
Penn State's linebackers: Linebacker U. is back in 2009. Penn State boasts one of the nation's top linebacker tandems in Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman, both of whom will contend for All-America honors. And it doesn't stop there, as sophomore Michael Mauti is poised for a big year on the outside. Penn State also boasts veteran depth with Josh Hull, Chris Colasanti and Bani Gbadyu.
Illinois' wide receivers: Juice Williams will have no shortage of options in the passing game this fall. All-America candidate Arrelious Benn leads the Big Ten's deepest receiving corps, which features Jeff Cumberland, Chris Duvalt, A.J. Jenkins, Cordale Scott and Jack Ramsey. Florida transfer Jarred Fayson worked his way into a starting spot this spring and will draw opposing defenders away from Benn.
Michigan's running backs: Whoever wins the starting quarterback job in Ann Arbor will have plenty of help in the backfield. Hopes are extremely high for senior Brandon Minor, who finished strong last season despite battling several injuries, including one to his right (ball-carrying) wrist. Backing up Minor will be Carlos Brown and Michael Shaw, both of whom will be more accustomed to Rich Rodriguez's offense. Bite-size back Vincent Smith emerged this spring to provide another option with breakaway speed.
Northwestern's secondary: One of the league's weakest units a few years ago has transformed into a major strength for the Wildcats. All four starters return from 2008, and safety Brad Phillips and cornerback Sherrick McManis are strong candidates for All-Big Ten honors. Safety Brendan Smith and cornerback Jordan Mabin both are natural playmakers, and Northwestern boasts depth in players like Brian Peters, Justan Vaughn and David Arnold.
Wisconsin's H-backs/tight ends: Travis Beckum's star-crossed senior season opened opportunities for other players in 2008, and the result is a multitude of options at tight end for 2009. Mackey Award candidate Garrett Graham leads the way at the H-back spot, and senior Mickey Turner and junior Lance Kendricks provide reliable options in the passing game.