NCF Nation: Dion Sims

Travis FrederickMike McGinnis/Getty ImagesAs the 31st pick, Travis Frederick was the first Big Ten player to be drafted.
The gap between the Big Ten and the SEC not only is widening on the field, but on the NFL draft boards.

While the SEC produced a record 63 picks in the 2013 NFL draft -- eight more than any conference in any draft in the modern era and 32 more than the next-best conference (ACC) in this year's draft -- the Big Ten endured a mostly forgettable three days at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Before going any further, this post isn't meant to knock the Big Ten players who heard their names called Thursday, Friday and Saturday. They worked years for this moment and deserve to celebrate their accomplishments. Congrats to all.

But for the Big Ten as a whole, this draft was a total dud. Was it the league's worst draft ever? If it isn't, it's certainly in the conversation.

The Big Ten produced only 22 draft picks, its lowest total since 1994, when it had 21 (and 11 teams, not 12). In 1994, the Big Ten had the No. 1 overall pick (Ohio State DT Dan Wilkinson), four first-round selections and eight selections in the first three rounds.

You have to wonder how much the Big Ten's damaged national reputation is impacting its draft hopefuls. The SEC's rise has made that conference the first place NFL general managers and player personnel directors look for talent. Although Big Ten players might be comparable to their SEC counterparts in many ways, their competition level might be looked at as a drawback in the final evaluations.

This year, the Big Ten tied with the Big 12 for fourth among leagues in producing picks, but the Big Ten produced fewer selections in the first three rounds (7) than any of the power conferences. Last year, the Big Ten finished with 41 draft picks, just one behind the SEC for the top spot.

Other items of note (tip of the cap to ESPN Stats & Information and the Plain Dealer's Doug Lesmerises for several of these):

  • [+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
    Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMichigan State's Le'Veon Bell was the second running back taken in the draft.
    Although the Big Ten's national reputation has been an issue for some time, it didn't dramatically impact the draft until this year. The Big Ten has produced at least 27 draft picks every year since the 21-player output in 1994.
  • The Big Ten's four biggest brand-name programs -- Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska -- combined to produce just two picks in the first three rounds (Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Penn State DT Jordan Hill).
  • Nebraska endured its longest drought without a selection since 1970, as running back Rex Burkhead waited until the sixth round to hear Cincinnati call his name with the 190th overall pick. The Huskers didn't have a selection in the first four rounds for the third time in the past six seasons. With just two draftees -- Burkhead and safety Daimion Stafford, who went in the seventh round -- Nebraska had its weakest output since 1969.
  • Michigan went without a draftee in the first four rounds for the first time since 1968 and without one in the first three rounds for just the fifth time since 1970 (1976, 1989, 2006 and 2009 were the others). The Wolverines have had just five players drafted in the past two seasons.
  • Ohio State had just three players -- Hankins, defensive lineman John Simon and offensive tackle Reid Fragel -- drafted from a team that went 12-0 in 2012. Fragel's selection in the seventh round helped Ohio State avoid its smallest draft class since 1968.
  • An Illinois team that went 2-10 last season and 0-8 in Big Ten play led the league with four players drafted. It continues a mystifying trend for the Illini, who have had four players selected in each of the past four NFL drafts, even though the team has endured losing seasons in three of the past five years. Illinois has produced 10 players selected in the first three rounds since 2010, the most of any Big Ten team.
  • As expected, three Big Ten teams -- Northwestern, Minnesota and Indiana -- had no players drafted. Northwestern went 10-3 last season.

Perhaps the best draft news for the Big Ten is that future member Rutgers had seven players selected, tied for the sixth highest total.

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Unless you've been living in a world without ESPN, the Internet or sports talk radio, you're well aware that the NFL draft begins Thursday night.

What will the weekend hold for Big Ten products? Who will be the top pick from the league? Which players should be garnering more buzz? Big Ten bloggers Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett try to answer those questions and more in this blog debate:

Brian Bennett: Adam, another NFL draft is nearly upon us. What better way to spend 96 hours of a spring weekend than listening to analysts describe a player's upside? At least we won't have to read any more 2013 mock drafts after Thursday afternoon.

But let's get down to Big Ten business. According to our colleagues with the good hair -- Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay -- the league very well might not produce a first-round pick for the first time since the AFL-NFL merger. Last year, the first Big Ten player taken was all the way down at No. 23. What's going on here? Is there that big of a talent shortage in the conference, or is this just a blip? And do you think any Big Ten players hear their names called on Thursday night?

[+] EnlargeKawann Short
AP Photo/Michael ConroyKawann Short's versatility could make him too attractive for NFL teams to pass up in the draft's first round.
Adam Rittenberg: I think we can match them follicle for follicle, don't you? The Big Ten's draft downturn has been a trend for a number of years. First, the league was falling out of the top 10 consistently. Then, it started to only see selections in the final 10-12 picks. Now it might fall out of the first round entirely. So, yes, there is a talent shortage at the very highest levels and especially at certain positions. The three we've written about most often are quarterback (last first round pick: Kerry Collins), cornerback and wide receiver. I still think the Big Ten produces a wealth of great linemen on both sides of the ball, as well as its share of quality running backs. But the running back position isn't valued nearly as high in the first round as cornerback and quarterback.

I thought the Big Ten still would have a first-round pick even after Michigan LT Taylor Lewan announced he would return in 2012. But now I'm not so sure. Ohio State DT Johnathan Hankins and Purdue DT Kawann Short both could hear their names called, but it's far from a guarantee.

What do you think this year's draft says about the state of the Big Ten?

Brian Bennett: I think you hit on several of the reasons, and I'd add in the population and demographic shifts as another. Of course, if Lewan came out as expected, he'd probably be a top-15 pick. And if the NFL were to do last year's draft over, I'm pretty sure Russell Wilson would go in the first round, right?

Still, the downturn in top-level NFL talent, at least from a draft perspective, has to trouble the conference and offers a possible explanation as to why the Big Ten has struggled on the big stage of late. I believe that the way Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke are recruiting will mean more elite players will be entering the pros in the near future, but we shall see.

Let's talk about this year's prospects. Who do you think will be the first Big Ten player selected this weekend? And which Big Ten product do you think should be the first one taken?

Adam Rittenberg: As much as I'd love to see Wisconsin RB Montee Ball work his way into the first round, I think the first pick will be either Short or Hankins. Both are potentially great NFL defensive linemen, but I think Short has a little more versatility to his game and can be an effective pass-rusher in addition to his run-stuffing duties. Short wasn't healthy for a chunk of last season, which led to some erratic play, but he has the ability to dominate inside. So does Hankins, but he's more of a space-eater than a difference-maker on the pass rush. I think Short should be the first Big Ten player taken, and I think he will be.

You mention Wilson, who was arguably the biggest steal of the 2012 draft. Which Big Ten player will fill that role this year? Who are the value picks out there from the league?

Brian Bennett: Wilson slipped in last year's draft because of concerns over his height. And I think there may be a similar thing going on with Ohio State's John Simon. He's viewed as a tweener because he's only 6-foot-1, but there's no questioning Simon's motor, heart or leadership. As long as he can stay healthy, he'll be a productive player for a long time in the NFL.

Penn State's Jordan Hill is another guy who's shorter than the prototype for a defensive lineman but who also makes up for it with his performance and drive. I also believe Nebraska's Rex Burkhead is being undervalued, though running backs aren't the commodities they once were at the next level. A knee injury hurt Burkhead's stock, but he showed at the combine what kind of athlete he is. And I think Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams, who was looked at as a first-round draft pick not that long ago, could be had at a good price this weekend.

Which players do you think are being undervalued? And what do you see as the draft fate for Michigan's Denard Robinson?

[+] EnlargeBurkhead
Andrew Weber/US PresswireRex Burkhead showed during pre-draft workouts that he's recovered from a 2012 knee injury.
Adam Rittenberg: You bring up some really interesting names, BB, especially Burkhead, who, if healthy and in the right system, could be a very valuable NFL player. Simon is another guy who needs to be in the right system and must overcome measurables that aren't ideal for the NFL at defensive end or outside linebacker. I wouldn't forget the group of Illinois defensive linemen -- Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster, who wowed the scouts during pro day in Champaign. It's easy to dismiss them because they played on a terrible team, but all three have been on the NFL radar for some time -- especially Spence and Buchanan -- and have the talent to succeed at the pro level.

Ohio State tackle Reid Fragel is another guy who could be a great value, although his stock seems to be rising quickly. He started his career as a tight end but really thrived last year at the tackle spot.

Robinson will be one of the weekend's top story lines. He's clearly a work in progress as a receiver, but you can't teach that speed and explosiveness. Robinson is a risk-reward guy, but I'd be surprised if he's still on the board midway through the third round.

The Big Ten sends a fairly small contingent of underclassmen to this year's draft. How do you think those players pan out?

Brian Bennett: Michigan State has three of 'em in Le'Veon Bell, Dion Sims and William Gholston. I think there's a chance that some team reaches for Bell in the first round, and he's got the body to be a very good NFL running back for a long time. Sims also presents an intriguing option for teams, especially with the increased use of tight ends in the pro passing game. Despite Gholston's impressive physical traits, he didn't test that well in Indianapolis and had a questionable motor in college. Teams could shy away from him.

You mentioned Spence from Illinois, a guy whose stock seemed to climb as he showed some great strength in workouts. Hankins will be a second-rounder at worst. Then there's Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, who posted a slow sprint time at the combine. But how many times do centers need to sprint? I still think he'll be a good player, and one who shouldn't fall past the second round.

This is getting to be as long as the draft itself, so we should probably start wrapping things up. Any final thoughts on the Big Ten's outlook this weekend?

Adam Rittenberg: The big story lines for me, other than whether the Big Ten has a player drafted in the first round, are where running backs like Ball, Bell and Burkhead land, the Denard Watch, how the underclassmen fare and where the potential sleepers we outlined above end up. This won't be a transformative draft for the Big Ten because it lacks elite prospects at the positions we mentioned earlier, especially cornerback and quarterback. But there are always a few surprises along the way. As a Chicago Bears fan, I'm always interested to see if a Big Ten player ends up at Halas Hall.

What Big Ten story lines intrigue you heading into the draft?

Brian Bennett: You mentioned most of the big ones. I'll also be interested to see if any team takes a chance on Penn State's Michael Mauti and whether Iowa's James Vandenberg gets drafted after a disappointing senior year. I predict the Big Ten keeps its first-round streak alive -- barely -- and that Robinson stays in Michigan when the Detroit Lions draft him in the fourth round.

And then we can all put the 2013 NFL draft to bed -- and start studying those 2014 mock drafts.
Former Michigan State offensive coordinator Dan Roushar undoubtedly absorbed the brunt of the criticism for the unit's struggles in 2012.

But starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell wasn't far behind.

Seemingly the perfect successor to Kirk Cousins, both in skill set and personality, Maxwell traveled a bumpy road in his first season at the controls. He finished fourth in the Big Ten in passing (200.5 yards per game) but completed just 52.5 percent of his passes with 13 touchdown strikes and nine interceptions. His quarterback rating of 107.1 didn't rank among the top 100 passers nationally.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Andrew Maxwell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireDespite coming off an underwhelming season, Andrew Maxwell enters spring practice as the Spartans' starter.
Although the junior started all 13 games for the Spartans, he was replaced by Connor Cook in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win against TCU. When Michigan State revamped the offensive staff following Roushar's departure to the New Orleans Saints, a quarterback competition this spring would seem to be a logical step as the unit tries to get back on track.

There will be competition, head coach Mark Dantonio told ESPN.com on Thursday, but Maxwell will enter spring practice, which kicks off Tuesday, as the starter. One other thing: Dantonio remains very much in Maxwell's corner.

"He's our No. 1 quarterback based on his leadership, based on his experience," Dantonio said. "He's a proven commodity in terms of his value as a person. His leadership value, getting us into the right play, knowledge of the system. He needs to just create more when things break down. That's the next step. But he's a great person.

"We're all going to have some storms we've got to beat and work through."

Maxwell will compete with Cook and Tyler O'Connor this spring. Highly touted incoming freshman Damion Terry arrives this summer for preseason camp.

Getting the quarterbacks more help is a priority this spring as Michigan State loses its top two offensive weapons -- running back Le'Veon Bell and tight end Dion Sims -- to the NFL draft. Three players will compete this spring at running back -- Nick Hill, Jeremy Langford and Nick Tompkins -- and Michigan State returns its entire receiving corps, an oft-criticized group in 2012. Dantonio also is excited about the potential of the offensive line, calling it "one of the strengths of our team."

The coach reiterated that while quarterbacks take the brunt of the blame when things don't go well, there are other factors involved.

"Obviously, we need to get better," he said. "But I'll stand beside [Maxwell]."
Denard RobinsonAP Photo/Dave MartinMichigan's Denard Robinson impressed with his speed at the combine.

Michigan's Denard Robinson boasted last year that he could beat Usain Bolt in the 40-yard dash.

If that's true, than the Olympic sprint champion wouldn't be one of the fastest 10 men in this year's NFL draft. While Robinson's claim might have been too bold, he still put up a predictably fast time in the 40 during NFL combine workouts on Sunday. The former Wolverine ran an official 4.43-second 40 in Indianapolis, tying him for ninth among all players who have worked out so far. Bolt might need to worry more about Texas receiver Marquise Goodwin, who ran a 4.27.

There are always some interesting finds in the combine numbers. Who would have guessed, for instance, that the creator of the Le'Veon Leap, Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell, would record the same number on the vertical jump (31.5 inches) as Wisconsin offensive tackle Ricky Wagner? The same Wagner who was listed at 317 pounds this season for the Badgers. Strange but true.

The quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs, tight ends, offensive linemen and specialists have all had their turn under the microscope at the combine. Defensive linemen and linebackers will work out today, with defensive backs wrapping things up on Tuesday.

Let's take a look at how Big Ten players rank among the top overall performers so far:

  • Nebraska's Rex Burkhead, not surprisingly, tested well in several areas. The Huskers running back was fifth overall in the vertical leap at 39 inches, tied for 8th in the broad jump at 10 feet, five inches, was 10th in the 20-yard shuttle at 4.09 seconds, 14th in the three-cone drill at 6.85 seconds and 14th in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.51 seconds.
  • In addition to his 40 time, Robinson tied for 13th in vertical jump at 36.5 inches.
  • Illinois defensive tackle Akeem Spence is third in the bench press so far at 37 reps at 225 pounds.
  • Ohio State offensive lineman Reid Fragel is ninth in the bench press with 33 reps.
  • Michigan State's Bell is ninth in the three-cone drill at 6.75 seconds. Bell, by the way, weighed in at 230 pounds.
  • Ohio State tight end Jake Stoneburner tied for 12th in the 60-yard shuttle at 11.5 seconds.

Now let's examine the position groups and see how Big Ten players stacked among their peers at their positions:

Quarterbacks

  • Iowa's James Vandenberg was third among quarterbacks in the vertical jump at 32 inches, second in the three-cone drill, fourth in the broad jump at 116 inches, seventh with a 4.92 in the 40-yard dash, and tied for 10th in the 20-yard shuttle.
  • Minnesota's MarQueis Gray was fourth with a 4.73-second 40-yard dash, seventh in vertical jump at 30 inches, tied for in the ninth broad jump (111 inches ), 10th in three-cone drill and tied for fourth in the 20-yard shuttle.
Running backs

  • Who was the fastest among big-time Big Ten backs? Bell ran a 4.60, just ahead of Wisconsin's Montee Ball at 4.66, while Burkhead posted a 4.73.
  • Bell was also ninth in the 225-pound bench press at 24 reps, third in the three-cone drill and 10th in the 20-yard shuttle.
  • Burkhead was behind only Texas A&M's Christine Michael in vertical jump, tied for second in broad jump, placed fourth in the three-cone drill, second in the 20-yard shuttle and fifth in the 60-yard shuttle. He tied for 13th with 22 reps on the bench press.
  • Ball talked last week about not being known for doing any one thing great. His combine numbers were a reflection of that. His 40 time was 19th among running backs, and his only Top 15 finish in any workout was his seventh-place showing in the three-cone drill.
  • Ohio State fullback Zach Boren tied for seventh in bench press at 25 reps.
Receivers

  • Robinson was the only Big Ten player to be invited as a receiver. In addition to his numbers mentioned earlier, Robinson tied for 10th among wideouts in the broad jump at 123 inches and tied for 12th in the 20-yard shuttle.
Tight ends

  • Michigan State's Dion Sims tied for third among tight ends in the bench press at 22 reps, was third in the vertical leap (35 inches) and finished second in both the three-cone and 60-yard shuttle drills. He was 12th in the 40-yard dash at 4.75 seconds and 12th in broad jump at 112 inches.
  • Ohio State's Stoneburner was third among tight ends in the 40-yard dash at 4.6 seconds. He was fifth in vertical leap (34.5 inches), tied for fourth in the broad jump (116 inches) and sixth in the three-cone drill. He placed ninth in bench at 18 reps.
Offensive line

  • Ohio State's Fragel was fourth among offensive linemen with 33 reps on the 225-pound bench press. He was fifth in vertical leap at 30 inches and third in the broad jump at 113 inches.
  • Wisconsin tackle Ricky Wagner was third in the vertical jump at 31.5 inches. He did 20 reps on the bench press and ran a 5.17 40-yard time.
  • Badgers center Travis Frederick ran a 5.58 40-yard time and did 21 reps on the bench press.
  • Illinois' Hugh Thornton was 10th in the 20-yard shuttle drill. His 40 time was 5.11 seconds, and he did 27 reps on the bench.
  • Penn State center Matt Stankiewitch did 27 reps on the bench and ran a ran a 5.43 in the 40.
Michigan State fans would understandably disagree, but the Big Ten overall wasn't hit that hard by early departures to the NFL draft this year. Only six Big Ten underclassmen declared for the draft (Note: Purdue linebacker Dwayne Beckford already had been dismissed from the team).

Let's take a quick look back at the winners and losers of the early entries and how the decisions impact several teams going forward.

1. Biggest winner: Michigan. Almost everyone expected Wolverines left tackle Taylor Lewan to enter the draft after earning Big Ten Offensive Linemen of the Year honors and other accolades as a junior. Lewan had been projected by many as a top-15 pick, if not a top-10 pick, and his departure seemed like a foregone conclusion after he held up well against Jadeveon Clowney in the Outback Bowl. But Lewan delivered the biggest draft decision surprise -- and a delightful one for Michigan fans -- when he announced Jan. 9 that he'd return to Ann Arbor for the 2013 season. He provides a huge boost for a Wolverines offensive line that endured an up-and-down season and loses three starters. Lewan sought advice from former Michigan star tackle Jake Long, who opted to remain in school for his senior season and ended up becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMichigan State will certainly miss the production of running back Le'Veon Bell.
2. Biggest loser: Michigan State. The Big Ten had a smaller than normal group of early NFL departures, but Michigan State accounted for 50 percent (3-of-6) as running back Le'Veon Bell, tight end Dion Sims and defensive end William Gholston all made the jump. None of the early exits comes as a major surprise, as Bell led the nation in carries (382) and ranked third in rushing average (137.9), Sims flashed next-level potential and Gholston clearly has the physical skills to succeed in the NFL. But the departures of both Bell and Sims really sting an offense that lacked consistently productive players. Bell accounted for 92.3 percent of Michigan State's rushing yards and 38.4 percent of MSU's total yards, while Sims had 36 receptions for 475 yards and two touchdowns despite missing time with an ankle injury. A Spartans offense that struggled mightily for most of the season enters the offseason with even more question marks.

3. Head-scratchers: Lewan's decision comes as a major surprise, as few saw him slipping below the middle of the first round in the draft. He could end up leading Michigan to a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl berth as a senior, and improve his draft stock in the process, like Long did in 2007 when he earned unanimous All-America honors. But Lewan certainly is gambling a bit, as an injury or a drop in performance could hurt his future earning potential. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio reportedly was "taken aback" by Bell's decision to leave, and some thought Gholston would have benefited from another season after falling short of preseason expectations. But aside from Lewan, the players who left were mostly expected to leave.

4. The replacements

  • Michigan State likely will look to a combination of backs, including Nick Hill and possibly some incoming recruits, to fill the massive production void left by Bell. Three players backed up Sims this fall -- Paul Lang, Andrew Gleichert and Derek Hoebing -- and recruit Dylan Chmura joins the mix. The Spartans are in better shape at defensive end with returning starter Marcus Rush, veteran reserve Denzel Drone and Shilique Calhoun, who performed well in the bowl win against TCU.
  • The expected departure of defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins means Ohio State must replace all four starting defensive linemen from 2012. The Buckeyes have recruited well up front and must hope young interior linemen like rising sophomore Tommy Schutt and rising junior Michael Bennett can fill the gaps. Adolphus Washington played some tackle as a true freshman but seems to have a future at defensive end, while Joel Hale could help Schutt and Bennett replace both Hankins and Garrett Goebel.
  • Wisconsin loses a standout junior center to the NFL draft for the second straight year as Travis Frederick departs. Redshirt freshman Dan Voltz likely will step in after backing up Frederick, unless Wisconsin decides to move Ryan Groy to center, where he started late in the 2011 season.
  • Illinois must fill both defensive tackle spots after junior Akeem Spence declared for the draft. Austin Teitsma is projected to move into a starting role after recording 15 tackles as a reserve last fall. The Illini also need younger tackles like Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams to emerge as they try to build depth along the line, typically a strong point for the team.
Montee Ball's decision to return to Wisconsin for his senior season raised an eyebrow or two after the running back turned in a record-setting junior season in 2011. Ball returned in large part because he received a third-round grade from the NFL draft advisory committee.

If ESPN's Mel Kiper turns out to be right, Ball's decision will be labeled a wise one.

Kiper came out with his first mock draft for 2013 Insider on Wednesday, and Ball is listed as a first-round pick, going No. 21 overall to the Cincinnati Bengals. Ball didn't appear on Kiper's Big Board this season, but made a strong push late in Big Ten play. Kiper writes that Ball would be an excellent fit for the Bengals' system.

Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins is the only other Big Ten player in the mock draft, going at No. 15 to the New Orleans Saints. Kiper likes Hankins' ability to beat interior blockers to the backfield and eat up double teams.

It would have been interesting to see where Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan would have ended up on Kiper's list if he decided to skip his final season with the Wolverines. Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short, a projected first-rounder for much of the season, reportedly just missed the cut.

The deadline for early entries to the NFL draft has come and gone, and Kiper has issued his top 5 prospects at each position Insider.

Here's who made it from the Big Ten:
  • Wisconsin's Ball is the No. 2 running back
  • Ohio State's Zach Boren is the No. 3 fullback
  • Michigan State's Dion Sims, who will skip his senior season, is the No. 4 tight end
  • Wisconsin's Travis Frederick, who will skip his senior season, is the No. 1 center
  • Hankins is the No. 3 defensive tackle
  • Nebraska's Brett Maher is the No. 4 kicker
The 2012 college football season is barely on ice and we're already heating up for the 2013 campaign with a way-too-early version of the Big Ten power rankings. This is a snapshot of how the league looks at this point in time, not knowing all the personnel/coaching changes that will be in place for next season. As a reminder, these can and will change during the next eight months.

Ohio State is on top, and quite frankly, the Buckeyes are head and shoulders above the rest of the league. Other teams such as Northwestern, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan certainly belong in the league's lead pack, while Michigan State and Penn State both have talent as well as question marks. We don't see a whole lot separating Nos. 2-6.

Here we go ...

1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes made the most of their sanctioned season, running the table to post just the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history. Urban Meyer's crew now takes aim at a Big Ten title and perhaps even a national title, its first since 2002. Junior quarterback Braxton Miller leads a potentially explosive offense, but Ohio State needs its young defenders to grow up in a hurry as there are depth and experience questions on that side of the ball.

2. Northwestern: The Wildcats won 10 games in 2012 with a young team most projected to win no more than seven. Northwestern returns a very strong nucleus, led by running back Venric Mark and quarterback Kain Colter, and loses only a few key seniors. Most of the Wildcats' talent can be found in their younger classes. The schedule gets tougher in 2013 -- Northwestern opens Big Ten play with Ohio State and Wisconsin -- but the Wildcats should be a major factor in the Legends Division if they can shore up their offensive line and continue to make strides on defense.

3. Nebraska: There's no doubt Nebraska will have one of the nation’s top offenses in 2013. Fourth-year starter Taylor Martinez returns at quarterback and has the Big Ten's largest arsenal of weapons at his disposal. The big concerns are on defense after Nebraska hemorrhaged points and yards in its four losses this past season and loses a group of seniors. Bo Pelini needs to get his defense back on track and hope the offense can limit turnovers, a huge problem throughout this season.

4. Wisconsin: Gary Andersen hardly inherits a bare cupboard in Madison. His predecessor, Bret Bielema, actually pointed to the 2013 team as potentially his best with the Badgers. The coaching transition could create some speed bumps, but Wisconsin returns two dynamic running backs in James White and Melvin Gordon, multiple quarterbacks with experience and a good defensive front seven led by Chris Borland. There are concerns in the secondary (three starters gone) and at wide receiver (not enough playmakers), but Wisconsin should push Ohio State in the Leaders Division.

5. Michigan: The Denard Robinson era is over and Michigan needs offensive playmakers to replace its record-setting quarterback and surround new signal-caller Devin Gardner. A bigger concern, though, is an offensive line that struggled at times in 2012 and must replace most of its starting lineup. Coach Brady Hoke should see some of his strong early recruiting efforts pay off in Year 3, although Michigan might not have the depth to challenge for a league title until 2014. Linebacker Jake Ryan leads a defense that has improved the past two seasons but must measure up to elite competition.

6. Michigan State: Pat Narduzzi's defense should once again be one of the nation's best, especially with All-Big Ten standout Max Bullough once again leading the unit at middle linebacker. But the NFL departures of Le'Veon Bell and Dion Sims could hamper an offense that had no other consistent weapons in 2012. The schedule definitely favors MSU, but how will the Spartans score points? MSU's quarterback competition between Connor Cook and Andrew Maxwell will be one of the top storylines of spring practice.

7. Penn State: Bill O'Brien had a lot to do with Penn State's success in 2012, but so did a senior class featuring several NFL players on defense who certainly will be missed. O'Brien's next challenge is developing a capable quarterback, whether it's Steven Bench, junior college arrival Tyler Ferguson or, just maybe, heralded incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg. Penn State could feel the sting of the sanctions more from a depth standpoint in 2013, but O'Brien's Lions have defied the odds so far.

8. Minnesota: The Gophers doubled their win total in Jerry Kill’s second season, and Kill's track record at previous stops suggests another boost could be on the way in Year 3. Quarterback Philip Nelson looked good in the bowl game after some late-season struggles, but Minnesota still needs more weapons to develop around him as well as continued progress from the offensive line. Senior defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman leads a unit looking to fill gaps at linebacker and cornerback.

9. Indiana: The arrow is pointed up in Bloomington despite a poor finish to the regular season, and with eight home games on the slate in 2013, Indiana should expect to go bowling. Third-year coach Kevin Wilson has three quarterbacks with experience -- Tre Roberson, Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld -- at his disposal, as well as other weapons such as running back Stephen Houston and receiver Cody Latimer. IU's defense once again is a major question mark, but recruiting efforts have picked up on that side of the ball.

10. Purdue: If the Heart of Dallas Bowl was any indication, new Boilers coach Darrell Hazell has a lot of work ahead in Year 1. Purdue loses its top two quarterbacks (Robert Marve and Caleb TerBush), its top defender in Kawann Short and other key contributors on both sides of the ball. Hazell's predecessor, Danny Hope, signed a bunch of quarterbacks in his recent recruiting classes, and it will be interesting to see who rises to the top. Hazell should be able to clean up some of Purdue's sloppy play, but the Boilers have quite a few question marks after a disappointing 2012 campaign.

11. Iowa: After taking a significant step back in 2012, Iowa might have a tough time turning things around in a loaded Legends Division in 2013. The Hawkeyes welcome in a new quarterback (Jake Rudock) and need playmakers to emerge around him to generate much better results in Year 2 under coordinator Greg Davis. The defensive front seven could be solid as Iowa boasts a strong linebacking corps, but the Hawkeyes must plug a few holes in the secondary and get back to their traditionally stout play on D.

12. Illinois: Coach Tim Beckman needs to show significant signs of progress in Year 2 after a disastrous first season, and he might not have the personnel to do so. The Illini once again lose several defenders to the NFL draft and need to fill holes along the defensive line and in the secondary. Their bigger concerns are on the offensive side, as they had fewer playmakers than any Big Ten team in 2012. Veteran quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase returns, but Illinois needs a much better plan on offense and the personnel to get things done. An influx of junior college players must step up in a make-or-break year for Beckman.
Alabama and Notre Dame put a bow on the 2012 college football season Monday night. Most of the Big Ten would just as soon douse it with gasoline and light a match.

But before a largely forgettable 2012 Big Ten season goes up in flames, let's take one final look at the power rankings following the bowls. Ohio State not surprisingly remains on top, and the bottom three teams stay the same as well. There's a bit of shuffling among the seven bowl teams after varying performances. As has been the case most of the season, very little separates Nos. 2-6.

Here's a look at the pre-bowl power rankings.

Let's get to it ...

1. Ohio State (12-0; previously: 1): The Buckeyes will occupy this spot until they lose a game, which might be a while under coach Urban Meyer. After recording just the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history, Ohio State sets its sights on even bigger goals as it emerges from NCAA sanctions. The Buckeyes showed major strides on offense behind sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller and improved on both lines as the season went on. Meyer exceeded most expectations in Year 1, but they'll be much higher in 2013.

2. Northwestern (10-3; previously: 5): Pat Fitzgerald's team moves up three spots after claiming its first bowl victory in 64 years. There was surprisingly little drama as Northwestern capitalized on Mississippi State's errors and won the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl by two touchdowns. The Wildcats recorded just the third 10-win season in team history and easily could have won another game or two despite a young roster. Things are headed in the right direction in Evanston.

3. Michigan (8-5; previously: 2): The Wolverines were one defensive stop away from recording the most impressive win in the Big Ten's bowl season and in the Brady Hoke era. They paced a very talented South Carolina team in the Outback Bowl and received big performances from wideout Jeremy Gallon, running back Denard Robinson and quarterback Devin Gardner. Unfortunately for Michigan, an elite pass defense couldn't get it done in the end. Four of Michigan's five losses came against top-10 teams, but an 8-5 record isn't what Hoke or his players had in mind this fall.

4. Penn State (8-4; previously: 3): Penn State and Michigan are similar in that both teams have "good" losses on their résumés (Michigan a few more than Penn State). Both teams rallied to beat Northwestern at home, while Penn State has another quality win against Wisconsin. The Lions and Wolverines didn't play one another, and we'll never know how Penn State would have fared against a team like South Carolina. Michigan gets the slight edge here, but Penn State had a terrific season behind a dramatically improved offense and a defense led by senior stars Michael Mauti, Jordan Hill and Gerald Hodges.

5. Nebraska (10-4; previously: 4): The Huskers beat the three teams ahead of them in the rankings, but the power rankings place more weight on recent results, and Nebraska finished the season with a thud. Bo Pelini's team surrendered 105 points in its last two games -- losses to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game and to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. Nebraska showed it could move the ball and score against anyone, despite being turnover-prone. But the defense was abysmal in the four losses and raises serious concerns for Pelini's program going forward.

6. Wisconsin (8-6; previously: 6): The Barry Alvarez-led Badgers showed they could hang with Stanford, but they couldn't take advantage of the unique opportunity to play in the Rose Bowl Presented by Vizio despite finishing third in the Leaders Division. The inconsistent offensive execution that plagued Wisconsin throughout the season surfaced once again against a tough and talented Stanford defense. Wisconsin just didn't have enough firepower to get over the hump, which was really the story of its season.

7. Michigan State (7-6; previously: 7): A come-from-behind win against TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl takes the sting off of a season that didn't go according to plan for Michigan State. The Spartans leaned on their defense and received just enough offense from backup quarterback Connor Cook and Co. to get past a young Horned Frogs team in Tempe, Ariz. Michigan State posted its second straight bowl win under coach Mark Dantonio and said goodbye to three juniors -- running back Le'Veon Bell, tight end Dion Sims and defensive end William Gholston -- in the days following the game.

8. Minnesota (6-7; previously: 9): Minnesota appeared poised to give the Big Ten a surprising 1-0 start to the bowl season. The Gophers made strides on offense between the end of the regular season and the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, as young quarterback Philip Nelson and the offensive line looked a lot better against Texas Tech. But Minnesota still doesn't know how to finish and suffered breakdowns down the stretch in a tough loss to the Red Raiders. The team still doubled its win total in Jerry Kill's second season and could make some noise in a tough Legends Division next fall.

9. Purdue (6-7; previously: 8): The Boilermakers and Minnesota swap places after Minnesota performed much better in its bowl game than Purdue did. A mismatch on paper turned into a total whitewash on the field as Oklahoma State, which had no business being in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, outclassed Purdue from the get-go. Purdue's once-promising season ended with a thud as a veteran-laden Boilers team that kept pace with both Notre Dame and Ohio State struggled mightily against most of the good-to-great teams it faced this season.

10. Indiana (4-8; previously: 10): After going 1-11 in Kevin Wilson's first year, Indiana could only get better, and took some important steps this season. The Hoosiers showed they can score points on just about every defense in the Big Ten, and their group of skill players is among the league's best. IU's defense still isn't at a Big Ten level, and improving the talent and depth on that side of the ball is the chief challenge for Wilson and his staff entering the 2013 season.

11. Iowa (4-8; previously: 11): A bowl appearance looked like a guarantee before the season as the schedule set up favorably for eight or more wins. But the offense took a giant step backward, and injuries hurt the unit throughout the season. Iowa's defense kept it in quite a few games but also let down against better offenses like Northwestern and Michigan. The Hawkeyes will look for more cohesion on offense and more playmakers to emerge. The Legends Division seems to be getting only tougher.

12. Illinois (2-10; previously: 12): No team and no coach wants to turn the page on 2012 more than Illinois and Tim Beckman. Almost nothing went right in Beckman's first season, as the offense stalled and the defense struggled against spread offenses. The Illini dropped all eight of their Big Ten contests and lost by fewer than 14 points just once. Perhaps new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit can get the offense on track. The defense, meanwhile, must fill holes up front and in the secondary. At least Illinois gets a fresh start in 2013.
First, Dion Sims, then Le'Veon Bell and now William Gholston.

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gholston
Mike Carter/US PresswireDefensive end William Gholston made things official Saturday with a letter to Michigan State fans.
Michigan State went 3-for-3 with its juniors considering a jump to the NFL draft. All three men have decided to skip their senior seasons and turn pro.

Gholston, a defensive end, will join Bell and Sims in the 2013 NFL draft. He made things official Saturday with a letter to Michigan State fans which reads in part: "In the days since our Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl victory, I have decided to forgo my senior year at Michigan State and declare for the 2013 NFL Draft. While I know I still have a great deal to accomplish, I am very excited about the challenges that the future holds and I promise to always represent the University with class, dignity, and professionalism. From Coach [Mark] Dantonio, to our entire staff, to my incredible teammates, to each of you unbelievable fans that back us each and every day, I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart."

The 6-7, 285-pound Gholston will try to impress NFL talent evaluators with his physical freakishness and next-level potential after a somewhat disappointing 2012 season. Gholston recorded 59 tackles, including 13 for loss and 4.5 sacks, and added 10 pass breakups, five quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and a safety. A decent season for sure, and Gholston earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the media, but he didn't match the lofty expectations placed on him after his dominating performance against Georgia in the 2012 Outback Bowl.

He'll need a good predraft performance to help his stock, but he certainly has the physical tools to do so.

His departure shouldn't hurt Michigan State as much as Bell's or Sims', as the Spartans boast much more depth on the defensive side of the ball. MSU has an experienced defensive end in Marcus Rush and other options like Denzel Drone and Shilique Calhoun.
In probably the least surprising move by a Big Ten underclassmen, Michigan State junior running back Le'Veon Bell has decided to enter the NFL draft.

Not doing so would have been an insult to Bell's own body. He carried the ball 382 times this year, more than any other player in the country. And he did it well, producing 1,793 yards -- third best in the FBS -- and four games of at least 188 yards. His highlights included a 210-yard rushing game in the opener against Boise State, 253 yards versus Michigan State and 266 vs. Nebraska.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Andrew Weber/US PresswireLe'Veon Bell piled up 1,793 rushing yards while leading the nation in carries (382) this season.
In the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win over TCU, Bell showed just how much he meant to the Spartans offense, running for 145 yards and a touchdown and throwing a pass for 29 yards. Michigan State had only 227 yards as a team that game.

With the short shelf life for NFL running backs, Bell needed to go pro now instead of coming back and taking a whole bunch more hits at the college level. His stock likely will never be higher. And at 6-foot-2 and 240 or so pounds, Bell has the size and strength to take on NFL defenders, though he'll have to prove his speed at the NFL combine.

This, plus tight end Dion Sims' decision to skip his senior year, leaves Michigan State without its top two playmakers on offense from 2012, and in case you didn't notice, there weren't many other playmakers on that offense. The Spartans should still have an excellent defense, but its offense has a ton of question marks.

One major question: Who will run the ball? Can Nick Hill, who's at 5-foot-8, 190 pounds, step up and become an every-down running back? He averaged only 2.3 yards per carry this year. Jeremy Langford, who was tried at receiver this year but didn't make much of an impact there, likely will move back to the backfield and is one of the fastest players on the team. Redshirt freshman Nick Tompkins will get a chance to prove himself this spring. Michigan State also has two commitments from running backs, the highest rated being R.J. Shelton.

All the possible successors to Bell are wildly unproven. The battles for both running back and quarterback will be important ones to watch for Michigan State this offseason.
Apologies for not posting this sooner, but Michigan State junior tight end Dion Sims will forgo his final season and enter the NFL draft, a source tells ESPN colleague Joe Schad.

Sims was Michigan State's only consistent pass-catching threat this season, recording 36 catches for 475 and two touchdowns despite missing three games with an ankle injury. The 6-foot-5, 285-pound Sims is rated as the nation's No. 4 tight end, according to ESPN's Scouts Inc.

Sims' departure means Michigan State likely will lose its two best offensive players from a unit that struggled for most of the 2012 season. Junior running back Le'Veon Bell hasn't announced his future plans, but it would be a significant surprise if he doesn't join Sims in the 2013 NFL draft. Bell leads the nation in carries (382) and ranks third nationally in rushing average (137.9 ypg).

Michigan State's defense once again will be very good, even if junior end William Gholston decides to enter the draft. But the offense has significant questions if both Sims and Bell both are gone. The line must play a lot better than it did this season, and Michigan State needs much more from its receivers and quarterbacks.

Big Ten predictions: Bowl picks

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
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Big Ten bowl season officially arrives tomorrow night when Minnesota kicks off the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas against Texas Tech.

Heavens knows I need a new season to begin after a horrible showing in the regular season, when I finished a full five games behind Rittenberg. My pride suffered, and so did my bank account when I was forced to pick up his steak at St. Elmo's in Indy.

But bowl season offers a chance at redemption, not just for me but for the Big Ten as a whole after the league took some beatings in the fall. Here are our picks for the seven bowl games involving conference teams:

Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas

MINNESOTA vs. TEXAS TECH (Dec. 28)

Brian Bennett: The Red Raiders have an interim coach, and Minnesota has had a month to heal the many injuries that ravaged its offense late in the season, both of which are positives for the Gophers. I think Matt Limegrover will find some creative ways to use MarQueis Gray. Still, Minnesota lacks the weapons to go up and down the field against a high-scoring Big 12 team. Michael Carter and the Gophers secondary will make some plays but not enough to stop Texas Tech, which pulls away after a close first two-and-half quarters. ... Texas Tech 31, Minnesota 17.

Adam Rittenberg: The Gophers' defense is much improved in Year 2 under Tracy Claeys, but you need a decent amount of offensive firepower to keep pace with Texas Tech. Like you, my concern is the lack of playmakers surrounding Philip Nelson and Gray. Both men will see time at quarterback and help the Gophers take a first-half lead, but a Minnesota turnover changes the game and Texas Tech strikes for two fourth-quarter passing touchdowns to win. ... Texas Tech 34, Minnesota 21

Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl

TCU vs. MICHIGAN STATE

Adam Rittenberg: This figures to be a close, low-scoring game that likely comes down to how much progress Michigan State's offense has made in the past month or so. TCU is loaded with young talent and could contend for the Big 12 title next year, but I saw the Frogs' regular-season finale against Oklahoma and wasn't overly impressed. A heavy dose of Le'Veon Bell combined with a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Andrew Maxwell to Dion Sims gives Michigan State just enough, as the Spartans' defense rises to the occasion once more. ... Michigan State 21, TCU 17


Brian Bennett: I've been wrong about Michigan State most of the year, so what's one more? The extra 15 practices must have helped the Spartans' sluggish passing game at least a little bit, and TCU will have to adapt to a more physical style of play than it saw in the Big 12. Johnny Adams' turf toe injury worries me, but I like Bell to rush for 150 yards in probably his final college game, while Maxwell provides optimism for 2013 with 200 yards passing. Max Bullough makes a defensive stop at the end of the game to seal it. ... Michigan State 20, TCU 16


Heart of Dallas Bowl

PURDUE vs. OKLAHOMA STATE (Jan. 1)

Brian Bennett: There's a reason why the Boilers were the biggest underdog on the board in bowl season. They've got an interim coach in Patrick Higgins and have been exposed by some of the better offenses on their schedule, which is a frightening prospect against the high-flying Cowboys. I believe a healthier defensive line will give Purdue a chance in this one, and Oklahoma State is not going to be really pumped up to be in this game a year after playing in a BCS bowl. Robert Marve tosses a couple of scores and Akeem Shavers runs for 135 yards. But in the end, the Pokes -- led by 175 receiving yards from Josh Stewart -- have a little too much for Purdue in a wild one. ... Oklahoma State 31, Purdue 27


Adam Rittenberg: Again, the Big Ten team might be more motivated than the Big 12 squad, but can Purdue keep up on the scoreboard? I don't think so. Although cornerbacks Josh Johnson and Ricardo Allen give the Boilers' a chance against the pass-happy Pokes, Purdue isn't consistent enough or dangerous enough on offense to pace Oklahoma State. I agree Marve has a nice performance in his final college game and Antavian Edison scores twice, but Purdue will be playing catch up after a rough first half and falls short. ... Oklahoma State 38, Purdue 28


TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl

MISSISSIPPI STATE vs. No. 20 NORTHWESTERN (Jan. 1)

Adam Rittenberg: Is this the year Northwestern ends the bowl losing streak? I think it is for several reasons. Northwestern has its most complete team under coach Pat Fitzgerald. The Wildcats can run the ball effectively and perform well for the most part on special teams. Plus, they ended the season playing better than Mississippi State. Northwestern never makes it easy and will have some tense moments in this one, but Venric Mark and Kain Colter will find room, combining for 175 rush yards and two scores. Backup quarterback Trevor Siemian comes in to throw a third-quarter touchdown and linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo seals the win with an interception. ... Northwestern 27, Mississippi State 24


Brian Bennett: No more monkeying around. Northwestern finally has a more manageable bowl matchup, though it's certainly still not an easy assignment. The month off should help refresh the legs of Colter and Mark, who work their option magic against a mediocre Mississippi State run defense. Mark scores twice on the ground and also returns a punt for a touchdown. The Bulldogs' Tyler Russell shreds the Northwestern defense for 300 passing yards, but Jeff Budzien hits a game-winning field goal with no time left. Fitzgerald and his players party like it's 1949. ... Northwestern 28, Mississippi State 27


Outback Bowl

No. 10 SOUTH CAROLINA vs. No. 18 MICHIGAN (Jan. 1)

Brian Bennett: I like this matchup a lot and think Michigan can get some things done on offense with a month to prep the Devin Gardner/Denard Robinson combo. But South Carolina's fearsome defense has shut down better attacks in wins against Clemson and Georgia this season and will soon enough figure out Al Borges' bag of tricks. Michigan jumps ahead early on a long Robinson run and a Gardner touchdown pass. Jadeveon Clowney & Co. lock things down in the second half, and Connor Shaw runs for a pair of scores for the Gamecocks. ... South Carolina 24, Michigan 17


Adam Rittenberg: It'll be a lot of fun to watch Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan match up against Clowney. Two potential first-round draft picks going at it. I agree Borges will get really creative in this one, but Michigan's offensive line won't be able to stop the Gamecocks for four quarters. The Wolverines make a nice rally in the third quarter as Gardner finds Robinson on a touchdown strike, but South Carolina controls the ball and the clock in the fourth. ... South Carolina 21, Michigan 16


Capital One Bowl

No. 7 GEORGIA vs. No. 16 NEBRASKA (Jan. 1)

Adam Rittenberg: It's hard to have much faith in Nebraska after what we witnessed in Indianapolis. Great teams don't let down on defense like the Huskers did. Great teams don't play such a chaotic brand of football with so many turnovers. Maybe the Huskers face a napping Bulldogs team, jump ahead behind their dynamic offense and hold on for the win. But I don't see it. Georgia will be sluggish early, but I get the sense Aaron Murray wants to make a statement after the way the SEC championship game ended. Murray and the Bulldogs light up the Huskers in the second half, while Taylor Martinez commits two costly turnovers. ... Georgia 38, Nebraska 23

Brian Bennett: Does either team want to be here? Can either defense stop the other? Those are the main questions leading into this game. I'm not too worried about the disappointment angle but am concerned about Nebraska's ability to slow down Murray, Todd Gurley and a well-balanced Bulldogs offense. The Huskers and Taylor Martinez absolutely must hang onto the football in this one, but I see Jarvis Jones forcing a couple of costly turnovers. Nebraska will do a good job against the pass but will give up too much in the running game, as Gurley goes for 150 and a pair of scores. Martinez compiles 300 total yards but is pressured more often than he's used to and forces a couple of bad throws. Georgia owns the fourth quarter. ... Georgia 35, Nebraska 24.


Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO

WISCONSIN vs. No. 6 STANFORD (Jan. 1)

Brian Bennett: These two teams share a lot of similar traits, as Stanford is the most Big Ten-like Pac-12 team imaginable. The line of scrimmage will be for grown men only. I'd like Wisconsin's chances a lot better if the team didn't have to deal with the distraction of the coaching turmoil. No matter what the Badgers say, that had to hurt their preparation at least a little bit. Plus, the Cardinal seem a little better equipped to throw the ball if the rushing game gets stuffed, while Wisconsin is a little more one-dimensional and will face one of the best run defenses in America. Never count out Barry Alvarez in Pasadena, but I think Montee Ball will have to work a little too hard for his yards in this one. Stanford beats the Badgers at their own game, running the clock out late with a physical rushing attack as Wisconsin goes 0-for-Pasathreena. ... Stanford 24, Wisconsin 21.


Adam Rittenberg: We can't agree on every pick, can we? Nah. Barry's back and I'm a believer. Stanford's defense is as good as advertised, but the Badgers' offense is confident after the Big Ten title game and once again will empty the playbook. The Badgers score early on some razzle-dazzle, and receive a strong performance from Ball (150 rush yards, 2 TDs) in his final collegiate game. Stanford's pressure forces a turnover in the third quarter that changes momentum, but Wisconsin's underrated defense will be the difference, as Chris Borland forces a Stepfan Taylor fumble in crunch time. Alvarez improves to 4-0 in the Rose. ... Wisconsin 24, Stanford 23


Season records

Adam Rittenberg: 76-21 (.784)
Brian Bennett: 71-26 (.732)

Best case/worst case: Big Ten bowls

December, 13, 2012
12/13/12
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If you recall, we presented our best-case/worst-case scenario for each Big Ten team's 2012 campaign during the preseason.

We'll leave it to you to decide which teams came closest to the best- or worst-case outlook this season. We're turning our attention to bowl season and offering a best-case/worst-case scenario for each league team in the postseason.

True, the best case for any team includes a bowl victory, while the worst case includes a loss. But there are different ways to win and lose, some better -- or worse -- than others.

So here's the potential zenith and nadir for each Big Ten bowl team:

Minnesota

Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas vs. Texas Tech, Dec. 28, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best Case: The month off works wonders for the Gophers' injury-plagued offense, as true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson gets fans daydreaming about the future by throwing for 350 yards and three touchdowns, two of them to newlywed MarQueis Gray. Minnesota's highly rated pass defense shines against a Texas Tech team thrown into turmoil by coaching changes, and Jerry Kill leads one of the big upsets of bowl season.

Worst Case: Playing a high-scoring Big 12 opponent in Texas is not a good matchup for a Minnesota team that struggled to put up points late in the season. Tommy Tuberville may be gone, but the Red Raiders have a system that works and it's much too powerful for the Gophers in a three-touchdown rout.

Purdue

Heart of Dallas Bowl vs. Oklahoma State, Jan. 1, Noon, ESPNU

Best Case: The Boilers have some positive mojo after winning their final three games. With nothing to lose, they turn in a big bowl performance. Interim coach Patrick Higgins empties the playbook, making Oklahoma State attack look old-fashioned by comparison. Kawann Short and the rest of Purdue's healthy defensive line dominate the line of scrimmage and push around the Cowboys, which are disappointed to be here a year after going to a BCS game.

Worst Case: There's a reason Purdue fired Danny Hope, which included the team's inability to win big games this season. Oklahoma State manhandles the Boilers much as Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State did in Big Ten play. Mike Gundy yells, "I'm a man. I win by 40," and his team follows suit.

Michigan State

Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl vs. TCU, Dec. 29, 10:15 p.m., ESPN

Best Case: Being away from home does wonders for the Spartans, as does an extra month of practice for Andrew Maxwell and the team's young receivers. Michigan State comes out looking like a new team in the desert, flinging the ball around with ease while Le'Veon Bell runs for 175 yards. The defense locks down TCU, and after the big victory, Bell, tight end Dion Sims and the other draft-eligible underclassmen all say they're coming back in 2013.

Worst Case: Michigan State fans suffer through yet another abysmal offensive showing by their team, as the Spartans struggle to generate anything in the passing game and continually punt. The defense is unable to close the game out in a repeat of many of this season's losses. The Spartans lose a low-scoring game on the final play of regulation. Worse, the stadium runs out of wings in the first quarter.

Northwestern

TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl vs. Mississippi State, Jan. 1, Noon, ESPN2

Best Case: Shock the monkey. Northwestern finally gets a favorable postseason matchup and knocks off the Bulldogs for its first bowl win since 1949. Venric Mark and Kain Colter, healed from bumps and bruises, lead a powerful rushing attack that wears down the SEC defense. Cornerback Nick VanHoose records two interceptions as the Wildcats finish 10-3 and set themselves up as a top-20 team for 2013.

Worst Case: More monkey business. Mississippi State's SEC athletes are too much for Northwestern and overwhelm the smallish duo of Mark and Colter. The Wildcats' suspect passing game becomes a liability, and their secondary is exposed time and again. The Bulldogs win the game on a last-second long touchdown pass, giving Pat Fitzgerald's team another heartbreak.

Michigan

Outback Bowl vs. South Carolina, Jan. 1, 1 p.m., ESPN

Best Case: The Devin and Denard Show takes over Tampa, Fla., as a month of practice allows Michigan the time to figure out how to best use the talents of Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson. With both guys running and throwing out of the backfield, South Carolina's defense is hopelessly lost, especially after Taylor Lewan holds Jadeveon Clowney in check. The Wolverines began the year with a blowout loss to the SEC (Alabama). They end it with a blowout win against the SEC.

Worst Case: Clowney's 2013 Heisman Trophy bid begins in earnest here. He wrecks Lewan's draft status and blows up every cute Al Borges play call, as the Gamecocks -- much like Ohio State in the second half -- figure out pretty easily what Michigan is doing with Robinson and Gardner. The season ends much as it was characterized throughout: with a disappointing loss in a big game.

Nebraska

Capital One Bowl vs. Georgia, Jan. 1, 1 p.m., ABC

Best Case: Just as it did in the regular season, Nebraska shows its resiliency by bouncing back from a bad performance in the Big Ten title game. The defense buckles up against a Georgia team disappointed not to be in the national title game, while Taylor Martinez holds onto the ball and befuddles the Dawgs defense. Rex Burkhead rushes for three touchdowns in his final college game as the Huskers finish a highly respectable 11-3 and in the top 15.

Worst Case: The Bulldogs study that Big Ten title game film closely and unleash their own hell on the Blackshirts. Aaron Murray & Co. pile up another 70 points on a Nebraska team not wanting to be in Orlando, Fla., for the second straight year. Martinez turns it over three times, and the game isn't close. The grumbling about Bo Pelini builds into an offseason roar, making 2013 a critical year for the Cornhuskers.

Wisconsin

Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio vs. Stanford, Jan. 1, 5 p.m., ESPN

Best Case: Barry's back, and all he does is win Rose Bowls. Inspired by their coaching legend's return, the Badgers build off their monstrous Big Ten title game performance and break their two-year losing streak in Pasadena, Calif. Montee Ball caps a spectacular career with 200 yards rushing and three touchdowns, while the underrated Wisconsin defense holds down Stanford. Alvarez is so energized by the victory that he names himself permanent coach.

Worst Case: Barry's back, but the game has changed. The turmoil of Bret Bielema's departure and assistants' uncertain futures creates too many distractions. Stanford's terrific run defense takes care of the rest, shutting down Ball and the running game and making the Badgers reluctantly turn to a shaky passing attack. The Cardinal are simply too physical for Wisconsin, and "Pasathreena" becomes a third-straight loss for Wisconsin, which faces an uncertain future after an 8-6 season.
Ohio State junior defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins announced on Monday that he would skip his senior season and enter the NFL draft, where he is expected to be a first-round pick.

Several other draft-eligible underclassmen from the Big Ten will have to weigh their options in the coming days and weeks, though not all have as clear-cut a call as Hankins did. We'll never begrudge a player for wanting to make a living and support his family. But we're offering our unsolicited advice from a pure football perspective on which players should stay in school and which ones should start collecting paychecks.

Here are the underclassmen we see as most likely to wrestle with their NFL decisions:

Illinois DT Akeem Spence
Michigan OT Taylor Lewan
Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell
Michigan State TE Dion Sims
Michigan State LB Max Bullough
Michigan State DE William Gholston
Michigan State DB Darqueze Dennard
Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman
Ohio State CB Bradley Roby
Wisconsin C Travis Frederick

And what we think they should do:

Go pro: Spence, Lewan, Bell

Lewan is a likely first-round pick -- possibly the second tackle off of the board -- and Michigan's offensive line around him would be very young next year. He should bolt. Bell has 350 carries this year before the bowl game; running backs have short shelf lives, so he needs to get to the NFL before his body shows too much wear and tear. Spence is much less of a sure thing, but he's got an NFL build, has been on scouts' radar for a long time and probably doesn't want to suffer through what could be another long Illini season in 2013.

Go pro if ... : Sims, Gholston, Roby

All three could benefit from another year in college. Yet if they are projected in the top two rounds of the draft, they would probably be wise to strike while the iron is hot. Sims is an impressive physical specimen, but he's really only had one productive year and was hurt for large parts of it. Gholston has as much physical potential as anyone in the league but lacks consistency and could use some more seasoning and maturity. Roby, a redshirt sophomore, had a terrific season but still lacks much game experience. He may want to come back and help lead Ohio State on a potential BCS title run.

Stay in school: Bullough, Dennard, Hageman, Frederick

While all four of these guys would certainly draw some major NFL interest, each probably should spend another year on campus for various reasons. Bullough would have the chance to play alongside his younger brother, Riley, who could push for a starting job in '13. Dennard emerged from the shadow of teammate Johnny Adams this year and doesn't want to see his stock fall like Adams' might have. But he could probably also use a year as Michigan State's true No. 1 corner. Hageman finally lived up to his potential this season and has an NFL body, but the draft is loaded with defensive linemen, and he could use another year of seasoning. Frederick is an outstanding student who only has one full year at center under his belt.
The 2012 All-Big Ten teams and individual award winners will be revealed at 7 p.m. ET tonight on the Big Ten Network. We'll post the full lists shortly thereafter as well as reaction.

The four major awards -- Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Freshman of the Year -- will be revealed Tuesday night. We will have our official blog endorsements for each of these throughout Tuesday, so be sure to check in.

To clarify, we don't have official votes for All-Big Ten (not like we cover the league closer than anyone year-round or anything, but we're not bitter), but we will reveal our own all-conference team at a later date.

For now, we're going to give our opinions on some of the key debates surrounding this year's all-conference team.

1. The Big Ten has three elite running backs -- Wisconsin's Montee Ball, Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell and Northwestern's Venric Mark -- and only two spots on the first-team All-Big Ten team. Who makes it and who doesn't?

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell, Etienne Sabino
Mike Carter/US PRESSWIRELe'Veon Bell was the workhorse for the Michigan State offense this season.
Brian Bennett: This is an extremely difficult decision. I was prepared to go with Ball and Mark before Bell put up his huge, 266-yard performance against Minnesota last week. Someone very deserving is going to get left off this list, and in my book that is Mark. It's hard to ignore Bell, who's leading the Big Ten and is No. 3 nationally in rushing while carrying it a ridiculous 29 times per game. The Spartans might have only won a couple of games without him. And Ball turned it up big time in conference play, leading his team to the Big Ten title game. So I'll take those two guys, with sincere apologies to Mark, who had a wonderful season in his own right.

Adam Rittenberg: All three of these players were so valuable to their respective offenses. Ball struggled early but came on strong during Big Ten play and set the NCAA's all-time touchdowns mark. Bell is arguably the nation's top workhorse back, racking up an insane 350 carries. And yet neither impacted games quite as much as Mark, who broke off more long runs and also was brilliant on returns. He transformed a Northwestern offense that had been reliant on the pass for years and had no dynamic run threat. It's really a shame the All-Big Ten team doesn't have a return specialist, as that would be a way to get all three men on the first team. I have no issue with Ball and Bell, but it's a little hard to ignore the running back for the best team of the three. While it's tough not to have Bell on the first team, I'm going to go with Ball and Mark here.

2. Arguably no Big Ten position has more elite players than linebacker. The first-team All-Big Ten squad includes only three selections. Who makes the cut?

Adam Rittenberg: While I'd love to officially vote for All-Big Ten, this position group would drive me nuts because there are so many good choices. Penn State's Michael Mauti and Ohio State's Ryan Shazier have to be there. They're the two leading candidates for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Mauti triggered Penn State's effort on defense, while Shazier put up insane numbers in Big Ten games (15 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 1 interception, 8 pass breakups, 2 forced fumbles). The big decision is the third linebacker -- we'll likely have four LBs on our All-Big Ten squad. It's between Michigan's Jake Ryan and Wisconsin's Mike Taylor for me, and I'm going to go with Ryan, who made a few more impact plays during the Big Ten season (5 forced fumbles, 13 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks). Taylor, Michigan State's Max Bullough and Penn State's Gerald Hodges also were terrific, but I'm happy with these three.

Brian Bennett: I'm in agreement here. No two defensive players were more valuable to their teams than Mauti and Shazier. In addition to their great performances, Shazier held a thin linebacking corps together, while Mauti helped an entire program stay together. And Ryan simply made more impact plays at crucial times than the other outstanding linebackers who are All-Big Ten candidates. It seemed like every time you looked up during a Michigan game, the guy with the flowing blond locks was creating havoc. Linebacker was a major strength in the league, and even picking a second team here between Taylor, Bullough, Hodges and Chris Borland is no easy task.

3. Ohio State's Braxton Miller is a likely Heisman Trophy finalist and the leading candidate for Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. It would be a surprise if he isn't the first-team All-Big Ten quarterback. Who should be the second-team QB, Nebraska's Taylor Martinez or Penn State's Matt McGloin?

Brian Bennett: Take nothing away from McGloin, who led the Big Ten with 3,271 passing yards and 24 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Just an amazing year for the fifth-year senior, who would win the most improved player award if the league had such a thing. The choice here, though, is Martinez. Yes, he still gets a little careless with the ball sometimes. But he was in complete command of the Big Ten's best offense, carrying it after star running back Rex Burkhead went down. He improved greatly as a passer, completing 63.3 percent of his throws while compiling nearly 2,500 passing yards and 21 touchdowns. He also averaged 5.4 yards per carry in conference play and finished No. 1 in the league in total offense. His ability to lead Nebraska on wild comebacks and get the Cornhuskers into the Big Ten title game can't be overlooked.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Martinez
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesTaylor Martinez led Nebraska to the Big Ten title game.
Adam Rittenberg: Yep, agree with you on this one. Both players are vastly improved from 2011 -- McGloin more so than Martinez -- but Martinez's running ability really sets him apart in my mind. He had 833 rush yards and eight touchdowns, spurring a ground attack that didn't have Burkhead for most of the season. Like his Nebraska team, Martinez got sloppy at times and played really poorly in the loss to Ohio State. But you can't discount what he did in all of those comebacks, which turned out to be Nebraska's hallmark in reaching the Big Ten championship game. I absolutely love what McGloin did this season in Bill O'Brien's NFL-style offense, leading the league in pass yards and pass touchdowns and setting team records in the process. There'd be no major outcry here if he appears on the second-team All-Big Ten squad ahead of Martinez. But if I had to choose, I'd go with Martinez.

4. Cornerback has been a bit of a pleasant surprise this year in the Big Ten. The All-Big Ten team only designates four "defensive backs," so conceivably four corners could make it. Which Big Ten corners deserve to be on the first team this season?

Brian Bennett: Ohio State's Bradley Roby is the no-brainer here. The redshirt sophomore developed into arguably the best cover corner in the league this year and is a lock for one of the first-team All-Big Ten spots. My second choice would be Nebraska's Ciante Evans. Though Evans plays nickel, the Huskers ask a lot out of nickelbacks in their scheme, and Evans was their best coverage guy for the nation's No. 2-ranked pass defense. I'd prefer to have two corners and two safeties on the team, but if we went with three cornerbacks, I'd probably turn next to Purdue's Josh Johnson, who eclipsed Ricardo Allen as his team's best defensive back this year.

Adam Rittenberg: There's no doubt cornerback is a stronger group than safety this season. I'm going to go with three first-team All-Big Ten corners, starting with Ohio State's Roby. The sophomore has been the best defensive back in the league this season, tying for second nationally in passes defended with 19, recording two interceptions and scoring three touchdowns. The play he made at Wisconsin covering two different players in the end zone was one of the best I've seen in recent years. I also like Evans as a first-team selection, as he made a bunch of plays for the league's top pass defense. My third choice comes down to Johnson and Minnesota's Michael Carter. I love what Johnson did, but Carter was more noticeable during Big Ten play and seemed to blossom at the end of his career. I'd go with Johnson and Northwestern's Nick VanHoose on the second team.

5. All of the position awards will be passed out tonight. Let's dissect two of them: the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year and the Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the Year. Who wins?

Adam Rittenberg: Ah, two goodies. The tight end award comes down to two players who missed portions of the season with injuries: Penn State's Kyle Carter and Michigan State's Dion Sims. Both produced at a high rate, with Carter recording 36 receptions for 453 yards and two touchdowns, while Sims, Michigan's only reliable pass-catching threat, recorded 33 receptions for 451 yards and two scores. Man, that's close, but Carter gets the nod from me. He gave Penn State such a boost on offense. The defensive lineman award comes down to Ohio State defensive end John Simon and Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill. Both are sure-fire first-team All-Big Ten selections, but I'm going with Simon, who led the Big Ten in sacks (9) and ranked third in tackles for loss (14.5). He would have had a big final game, like Hill did, had he been healthy.

Brian Bennett: Can I combine all the Penn State tight ends into one? Call them Kyle James Lehman, and then you'd really have something. It is another razor-thin call, but I'll take Michigan State's Sims. He played two fewer games than Carter, but remember that Sims played through injuries at times this year and wasn't always 100 percent. When he was healthy, he was the best big-play threat at tight end in the league and the Spartans' only real go-to guy in the passing game. He's a physical specimen unlike any other Big Ten tight end. As for defensive linemen, you named the probable two leading contenders. I'd also throw Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins in there, as he was a dominant run-stuffer. But I'm with you on Simon. He not only put up some great stats, but he played through a lot of pain this year and was unquestionably the emotional leader for the 12-0 Buckeyes.

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