NCF Nation: Donovan Warren

Connecticut at Michigan is one of the more intriguing opening-week matchups. The Wolverines desperately need to get off to a good start, while UConn has drawn a lot of offseason buzz. Plus, the biggest Big House yet makes its debut.

Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg and Big East blogger Brian Bennett break it all down.

BB: All right, Adam. No more talk of the Big Ten raiding the Big East. Just Big Ten and the Big East meeting, thankfully, on the field. How badly does Michigan need this win, and are the Wolverines aware of just how good Connecticut is?

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Icon Sports MediaAfter another rough offseason, coach Rich Rodriguez needs to start the season off with a win.
AR: Michigan needs this game real bad, but not for the obvious reasons. We saw this team start fast last year and fall apart in Big Ten play, so a win against Connecticut might still be greeted with some skepticism. Michigan needs a win because it needs something good to happen after another rough offseason. The Wolverines need to show their fans that progress is being made, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They need to get their renovated stadium fired up again. They need to revive what's left of the Michigan mystique. This gets us to your second question (double-barrel, tsk, tsk). After the last two seasons, the Wolverines shouldn't be taking any team lightly, especially a very solid UConn team that consistently produces NFL talent and has an outstanding head coach in Randy Edsall. Michigan players know many folks are picking them to lose to the Huskies.

Let's look a little deeper at UConn. What are the two or three things Michigan must be most concerned about on Saturday?

BB: I know, it was bad question form but we're trying to save space here. Anyway, Michigan must be most concerned about the UConn running game. The Huskies have a big, physical offensive line that bulldozes people. Jordan Todman went over 1,100 yards last year, and they have a stable of other backs including USC transfer D.J. Shoemate.

Defensively, Connecticut has three standout, senior linebackers in Lawrence Wilson (140 tackles last year), Scott Lutrus and -- surprise! -- Greg Lloyd. They can all run and make plays. And mostly, Randy Edsall's team never beats itself. UConn is always very well coached, fundamentally sound and avoids mistakes.

[+] EnlargeRandy Edsal
Jim Owens/Icon SMIA win for Randy Edsall's Huskies against Michigan would be one of the biggest in Connecticut history.
On the other hand, the Huskies are small up front defensively and will have their hands full with Michigan's offensive line. Speed could be a major issue, as it was whenever Rodriguez played Edsall when the former was at West Virginia. The secondary is also unsettled and was the worst in the Big East against the pass last year.

What other areas should concern UConn?

AR: Michigan certainly can put up a ton of points. Everyone is fussing about the quarterback situation, but I'm not overly concerned. Denard Robinson and Tate Forcier both have experience in Rodriguez's system, and true freshman Devin Gardner might be the most natural fit for the offense. You can't underestimate the importance of Year 3 in the spread. The O-line should be solid, as center David Molk returns to a group that has a good mix of experience and promising young players.

Rodriguez hasn't announced a starter at quarterback, but Robinson seems likely to take the first snap. He's got ridiculous wheels, and he has improved as a passer after completing just 45.2 percent of his throws last year. Forcier also brings some playmaking ability to the backfield, especially when he's on the move. The receiving corps could be a strength for Michigan, as Roy Roundtree leads a group that boasts excellent speed.

The biggest questions for Michigan are on defense, especially after losing Big Ten co-MVP Brandon Graham and corner Donovan Warren. There's not much depth in the secondary, so the Wolverines need a strong performance from hulking nose tackle Mike Martin and the rest of the defensive line. The kicking game also is a concern.

Connecticut had a historic win at Notre Dame last year but fell just short against several good teams on the road. How do the Huskies get over the hump at what should be a fired-up Big House?

BB: This is a veteran, confident UConn team that won't be intimidated by the atmosphere. As long as the Huskies can keep the Michigan quarterbacks from running wild like Pat White used to do against them, I like their chances of pulling this one off. They're going to score points with Zach Frazer running the no-huddle offense and the running game pounding away. I say they get an early lead, causing Michigan and its fans to get nervous and tight. Dave Teggart kicks a winning field goal in the final minute for a 31-28 win.

Your take?

AR: I agree that UConn won't flinch at what's left of the Michigan mystique, but I still expect the Wolverines to make some big plays early and feed off of the atmosphere. Robinson doesn't need much space to take it to the house, and I expect him and some of the backs to break off several big runs behind an improved offensive line. Michigan's defense worries me, especially in the back seven, but Martin leads a strong effort from the front four to contain the Huskies' rushing attack. This one definitely goes down to the wire, but I have the more desperate team winning. Michigan, 28-27.
If you asked me Tuesday morning to form a short list of players Michigan must have on the field this fall, Troy Woolfolk's name would be right at the top.

Woolfolk isn't Michigan's best player, nor is he the team's most talented. By most measures, he was an average Big Ten cornerback for the half season he spent there in 2009.

[+] EnlargeTroy Woolfolk
Eric Bronson/Icon SMITroy Woolfolk, who was in line to be Michigan's No. 1 cornerback, reportedly suffered a dislocated ankle and a broken bone in his leg in practice on Tuesday.
But Woolfolk brought leadership and experience to a secondary that severely lacks both. Plus, he eased some concern (not all) at a position that has gone through a major talent drain in the last 10 months.

That's why the news that Woolfolk reportedly suffered a dislocated ankle and a broken bone in his leg at Tuesday's practice is so painful for Michigan to endure. Head coach Rich Rodriguez hasn't said much about the situation, only that it was a lower body injury and that Woolfolk went to the hospital from practice.

But Woolfolk's high school coach, Jim Creech, told colleague Joe Schad that "it looks like [Woolfolk will] miss the season." Woolfolk was treated and released from University Hospital on Tuesday night, and his father told multiple media outlets that a decision on surgery will be made later.

Woolfolk posted on his Twitter page late Tuesday night: "Even though T-Woolf will be absent, Troy will be on sidelines coaching&cheering for Michigan till all air has vacated my lungs." T-Woolf, for those who don't know, is Woolfolk's alter ego.

Fortunately, Woolfolk has a redshirt season and could return in 2011, but his injury leaves Michigan young and thin at cornerback. Considering how well Michigan has recruited the cornerback spot in recent years, it's amazing to think that the program could get to this point.

Remember these guys?

  • Donovan Warren: First-team All-Big Ten selection in 2009 declared for the NFL as a junior but wasn't drafted in April.
  • Boubacar Cissoko: Blue chip recruit started the first four games in 2009, missed two games because of a suspension, returned for a game and then was dismissed for violating team rules. In a truly sad story, Cissoko is now in jail serving time for his role in multiple robberies.
  • Demar Dorsey: The Big Ten's top-rated recruit signed with Michigan in February but was denied admission in June, a decision that didn't sit well with the coaching staff. Dorsey is still waiting to see whether he gets admitted to Louisville.
  • Adrian Witty: Signed with Michigan in 2009 but never made it to Ann Arbor because of academic issues. He eventually landed at Cincinnati, where he has been impressive in training camp.
  • J.T. Turner: Decorated recruit was granted his release from the team last week and intends to transfer.

It's quite a list, and Michigan certainly could use the help this fall.

I wonder if Pacman Jones has any eligibility left. Or Charles Woodson.

Michigan feels good about J.T. Floyd at one corner spot, but the other spot is a mystery and the overall depth is very shaky. The Wolverines have been fighting a numbers game on defense since Rodriguez's arrival, and the situation at cornerback has exacerbated the problem.

One thing is clear: youth will be served in 2010, and freshmen like Cullen Christian and Courtney Avery had better grow up fast.
Craig Roh's job description actually is more defined than it was a year ago, even though it sounds more ambiguous.

"I’m that hybrid type of position," Roh told me in April. "Half linebacker, half defensive lineman."

[+] EnlargeCraig Roh
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireCraig Roh had two sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss in 2009 as a freshman.
Roh started his first collegiate game for Michigan at the aptly labeled "quick" position, a combination of linebacker and defensive line. His bio on Michigan's official website reads that he started all 12 games at outside linebacker in 2009, but Roh said he only got out of the three-point stance during practice this spring.

As Michigan's defense worked more in the 3-3-5 set during spring ball, Roh divided his time between linebacker and defensive line.

"There’s some changes," he said. "I’ve never been in a linebacker [position], second-level, setting up there. Some guys are playing basically the same position they played last year. For me, this is something new and different.

"[Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson] is helping me a lot with the learning curve."

Roh should be a lot further along when the season kicks off Sept. 4 against Connecticut. Michigan's defense needs him to provide a major boost.

At 6-5 and 251 pounds with excellent speed, Roh boasts the size and skill to excel in the hybrid role. He expects to have more responsibilities in pass coverage but will remain a pass-rushing threat after recording two sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss in 2009.

Although Roh did some good things as a true freshman, he recognized the steps he needed to make during the offseason.

"I saw a guy that definitely did need to gain some size," Roh said. "That was a big factor. And a guy that really needed to learn every facet of the defense so he could play his position."

Roh arrived at Michigan weighing just 238 pounds and lost some of it during the season.

Describing himself as "tiny" among Big Ten defensive linemen, Roh spent the winter, spring and summer bulking up in the weight room. He also followed a diet most people would dream about: six meals and more than 4,000 calories a day.

"I have crazy metabolism, and putting on weight was tough for me," he said. "It's something I've really got to concentrate on. Some meals, you're like, 'I really don't want to eat this right now,' but you have to."

Michigan loses its top two defenders -- end Brandon Graham and cornerback Donovan Warren -- from a unit that struggled for most of 2009, finishing last in the Big Ten in both points allowed (33.2 ypg) and yards allowed (428.5 ypg) in conference games. Although Robinson tried to downplay talk about the 3-3-5 alignment, Michigan undoubtedly will tweak things this fall, and Roh is a big part of the plan.

"I'm a guy that's expected to perform this year," Roh said. "BG [Graham] was just an amazing player, and I feel like in some sense I need to replace what he's done."

Big Ten NFL draft roundup

April, 26, 2010
The 2010 NFL draft is in the books, so let's take a look at the 34 Big Ten players who heard their names called in New York. When the full list of undrafted free agents comes out, I'll post it later in the week.







  • No Big Ten players selected

Here are the selections according to Big Ten team:

Illinois: 3
Indiana: 3
Iowa: 6
Michigan: 3
Michigan State: 1
Minnesota: 2
Northwestern: 3
Ohio State: 4
Penn State: 6
Purdue: 1
Wisconsin: 2

Quick thoughts:

  • Three of the biggest draft steals from the Big Ten were pass-catchers in 2009: Illinois wideout Arrelious Benn, Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker and Iowa tight end Tony Moeaki. Benn had first-round skills but a fourth-round college résumé. Decker most often was compared to former Broncos wideout Ed McCaffrey, and if healthy, he could do big things in Denver. If Moeaki stays healthy, the Chiefs might have found the next Tony Gonzalez. Kirk Ferentz puts Moeaki right up there with Dallas Clark in Iowa's top tight ends.
  • Love the Colts' pick of Angerer, who could be a very good pro in a great situation in Indy. With Angerer and Indiana's Fisher going to Indianapolis, the Colts now have drafted 26 Big Ten players under Bill Polian.
  • Northwestern's Kafka also goes to a very good situation in Philly, as the Eagles love to pass the ball and will run some shotgun.
  • Penn State's Lee, Purdue's Neal, Wisconsin's Schofield and Northwestern's McManis could all be steals for their teams. Health has been an issue for Lee, Schofield and McManis, so they need to find ways to get on the field and stay there.
  • It was interesting how one Big Ten left tackle, Indiana's Saffold, rose up the draft boards late in the process, while another, Iowa's Bulaga, dropped.
  • Ohio State had four players drafted, but this has to be the Buckeyes' weakest draft class in recent memory. I thought Gibson would go in the second or third round, but Worthington, Coleman and Spitler barely made the cut. Did Jim Tressel deserve Big Ten Coach of the Year over Ferentz? The case looks stronger now.
  • Draft snubs included Michigan State wide receiver Blair White, Michigan cornerback Donovan Warren, Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark and Purdue quarterback Joey Elliott. Warren was the only Big Ten junior not to get drafted, though it was tough to fault his decision at the time. All four players have reportedly signed free-agent deals.
There's a different mentality to playing cornerback versus safety, and Troy Woolfolk knows this better than most.

Woolfolk split his time evenly between cornerback and safety in 2009, starting six games at each position. The Michigan senior began the season as a safety, switched to cornerback in Week 6 against Iowa and stayed there until the season finale against Ohio State, when he moved back to safety.

[+] EnlargeTroy Woolfolk
Eric Bronson/Icon SMITroy Woolfolk says he became more of a student of the game while sitting out last season because of an injury.
Hopefully, there will be no such shuffling in 2010, as Woolfolk expects to be Michigan's No. 1 cornerback this fall. This spring, he's embracing the swagger cornerbacks need to succeed.

"It's more confidence versus being physical," Woolfolk said of the difference between cornerback and safety. "For corner, you need to be very confident because when you're out there alone on an island, it's just you and [the wide receiver]. If you have any doubt in your mind that he will beat you, then most likely he will. You have to win before the play starts.

"I feel like I can stop anybody, and hopefully it shows in my play."

The 6-foot, 186-pound Woolfolk gained confidence from his first career start at cornerback, during a nationally televised night game at Iowa on Oct. 10. The Hawkeyes immediately tested Woolfolk, throwing the ball his way, but he responded with a pass breakup and four tackles.

Although Woolfolk and the other Michigan defensive backs endured their struggles last season, he has carried over the boost from the Iowa game into spring practice.

"He's been very good, but that doesn't surprise me," defensive coordinator Greg Robinson said. "He's an experienced football player now, and he looks like it. With Troy, we don't have to worry much about him out there. That's a nice thing."

After being burned multiple times last season, Michigan's secondary will be in the spotlight until the season opener in September. First-team All-Big Ten cornerback Donovan Warren declared early for the NFL draft, and the competition at safety is wide open, as converted wide receiver Cameron Gordon and others are in the mix there.

Michigan coaches expect to play several true freshmen defenders from a talented recruiting class, and the secondary likely will be an area where the newcomers contribute right away. Much of the buzz has centered on defensive back Demar Dorsey, the Big Ten's highest-rated recruit for 2010, according to ESPN recruiting.

Woolfolk welcomes competition and said "nobody really has a [starting] spot," but he clearly isn't too concerned about Dorsey's arrival this summer.

"What's his name again?" Woolfolk deadpanned when asked about Dorsey.

"I'm just joking," he continued, smiling. "To live up to the hype, you've got to show me something. Until he gets here, I won't be excited."

Woolfolk also doesn't back down from his teammates, particularly quarterback Denard Robinson, whose speed and moves frustrate defenders in both practice and games.

"He knows not to come my way," Woolfolk said. "We always talk trash to each other. It creates a rivalry and makes you want to go out there and perform."

Woolfolk attributed the secondary's problems in 2009 to missed assignments, not a lack of speed or physical toughness. This spring, the coaches and players have stressed the need to improve communication, a topic they also pointed to last summer but didn't translate to the field.

Michigan is working more with the 3-3-5 defensive alignment this spring, but Woolfolk downplayed the change, noting that the team still uses four-man fronts in practice.

"We haven't changed that much stuff," he said. "It's not too much to adjust to. Adjusting from safety to corner is what I worry about."

Woolfolk has seen improved competition in the secondary, recognizing players like Gordon and cornerback J.T. Floyd for their play this spring.

As someone who has been around Michigan's program his whole life -- Woolfolk's father, Butch, was an All-American running back for the Wolverines in 1981 -- Woolfolk understands the expectations for the defense and the team in 2010.

"Our fans are pretty smart," he said. "They know we made big progress [from 2008 to 2009]. They're on board, even though they might not say it. They will be able to back us up. And as for the players, I know for a fact we think we're going to be good. We should have won half the games last year.

"This is the year we're going to come back."
Let's take a look at three issues facing each Big Ten team heading into spring practice:


Spring practice starts: March 30

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • The quarterback competition. Four-year starter Juice Williams departs, and a host of young players (and one older one) are in the mix to replace him. New offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wants to shape his system around the starting signal-caller, so he'll be looking for some separation this spring. Jacob Charest got valuable playing time behind Williams in 2009, and Eddie McGee, a part-time wide receiver, has extensive playing experience at quarterback. They'll compete with redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase and true freshman Chandler Whitmer, an early enrollee.
  • Fixing the defense. New defensive coordinator Vic Koenning brings an impressive résumé to Champaign, but he'll be challenged to fix a unit that hasn't been right since J Leman and Co. left following the Rose Bowl run in 2007. Koenning wants to identify leaders on defense this spring and will look to players like end Clay Nurse and linebackers Ian Thomas and Martez Wilson. Illinois' most pressing needs likely come in the secondary after the team finished 100th nationally against the pass in 2009.
  • Line dance. Illinois needs to get tougher and better on both lines to turn things around in 2010. The Illini tied for eighth in the Big Ten in sacks allowed last fall, and while the run game got going late, top lineman Jon Asamoah departs. Perhaps a bigger priority is finding a pass rush on defense after finishing last in the league in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2009.

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • Rebuilding the back seven on D. Indiana loses three starters in the secondary and two linebackers, including blog favorite Matt Mayberry. The Hoosiers brought in three junior college defenders, two of whom, linebacker Jeff Thomas and cornerback Lenyatta Kiles, will participate in spring practice. Needless to say, jobs are open everywhere, and coordinators Brian George and Joe Palcic will be looking for playmakers to step up. Several players are moving from offense to defense, including wideout Mitchell Evans to safety.
  • End game. Indiana loses a lot of pass-rushing production as multiyear starters Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton depart. Both starting jobs at defensive end are open this spring, and IU will look to Darius Johnson, Terrance Thomas and others to step up and make plays.
  • Willis watch. Indiana hopes 2010 is the year when running back Darius Willis becomes a superstar. Getting him through spring practice healthy will be a key first step. Willis has been impressive on the field, but he has struggled with injuries for much of his career. IU's passing attack should be very strong in 2010, and if Willis can elevate the run game, the Hoosiers should put up a ton of points.

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • The offensive line. Rebuilding the offensive line is far and away Iowa's top priority heading into the 2010 season. The Hawkeyes are stacked at running back and boast a strong passing attack, but they'll struggle if things aren't solidified up front. Tackle/guard Riley Reiff blossomed last season and guard Julian Vandervelde also returns, but Iowa will look to fill three starting spots this spring.
  • Refilling at linebacker and cornerback. Iowa's defense has been one of the nation's most opportunistic units the last two seasons, and players like Pat Angerer, A.J. Edds and Amari Spievey were three big reasons why. All three depart, so Iowa needs to reload at linebacker and find a shut-down corner (Shaun Prater?). The spotlight will be on guys like Prater, Tyler Nielsen and Jeff Tarpinian this spring.
  • Sorting out the running back spot. Iowa is absolutely loaded at running back, but there's only one ball to be carried on a given play. The Hawkeyes likely will use a rotation in 2010, but who will be the featured back? Jewel Hampton will try to reclaim the top spot, which he lost because of a knee injury last summer. Adam Robinson filled in extremely well for Hampton in the lead role, and Brandon Wegher was one of the heroes of the Orange Bowl win.

Spring practice starts: March 14

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • Defense, defense, defense. Head coach Rich Rodriguez always will be known for his spread offense, but he won't be around much longer at Michigan if the defense doesn't significantly improve. A unit that ranked 82nd nationally last season loses its two best players (Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren) and must find contributors at linebacker, safety and cornerback. Help is on the way from the 2010 recruiting class, but Michigan can't afford a bad spring on defense.
  • Devin Gardner. The heralded quarterback recruit enrolled early and will enter the mix this spring. Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson are the front-runners at quarterback, but Gardner might be the ultimate answer for the Wolverines. His ability to pick up the system and push Forcier and Robinson this spring will determine whether he sees the field in the fall or takes a redshirt.
  • Running back. Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor depart, but Michigan once again should be good at the running back spot. Vincent Smith will miss spring ball as he recovers from knee surgery, but several others, including Michael Shaw and Fitzgerald Toussaint, will be competing throughout the 15 workouts. Shaw, who scored two touchdowns on 42 carries in 2009, could create a bit of separation with a good spring.

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Team morale. The residence hall incident and the subsequent fallout really rocked the Michigan State program. Head coach Mark Dantonio has yet to address the status of several suspended players, and the final outcome could impact the depth chart, particularly at wide receiver. It's important for Michigan State's team leaders -- Greg Jones, Kirk Cousins and others -- to unite the locker room in the spring and do all they can to prevent further problems.
  • Line dance. Michigan State needs to improve on both the offensive and defensive lines in 2010, and it all starts this spring. The Spartans must replace left tackle Rocco Cironi and center Joel Nitchman, and they also lose top pass-rusher Trevor Anderson at defensive end. As strong as the Spartans should be at the skill positions, they need to start building around linemen like Joel Foreman and Jerel Worthy.
  • Keith Nichol. The versatile junior could be moved to wide receiver, but he'll get a chance to push Cousins at quarterback this spring. Nichol's skills are too valuable to waste on the sideline, particularly if Michigan State has a pressing need at receiver, but he still could be a factor at quarterback if his improves his accuracy. The speedy Nichol could run the Wildcat in addition to serving as a wide receiver, if MSU chooses to go that route.

Spring practice starts: March 23

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • The coordinator and the quarterbacks. Minnesota will welcome its third offensive coordinator in as many seasons, though Jeff Horton doesn't plan to overhaul the system like Jedd Fisch did a year ago. Horton's primary task will be developing quarterbacks Adam Weber and MarQueis Gray, who both struggled last fall in the pro-style system. Weber has the edge in experience, but he needs to regain the form his showed in his first two seasons as the starter. Gray brings tremendous athleticism to the table but must prove he can succeed in a pro-style offense.
  • The offensive line. Head coach Tim Brewster has insisted that when Minnesota gets the offensive line on track, things really will get rolling. The Gophers need better players and arguably tougher players up front, and the line should benefit in Year 2 under assistant Tim Davis. The group should be motivated by finishing last in the Big Ten in rushing in each of the past two seasons.
  • Young defenders. Minnesota loses most of its starting defense from 2009, but fans are more excited about the young talent returning on that side of the ball. Spring ball could be huge for players like Michael Carter, D.L. Wilhite and Keanon Cooper as they transition into leading roles. The Gophers' biggest losses come at linebacker, as all three starters depart.

Spring practice starts: March 29

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Identify a running back. The Wildcats produced an impressive string of standout running backs under former coach Randy Walker and at the beginning of Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure, but they struggled in the backfield in 2009. Northwestern returns the Big Ten’s most experienced offensive line, so identifying a primary ball carrier or two this spring is vital. Arby Fields and Scott Concannon showed a few flashes last year but must get more consistent, while Mike Trumpy will be an interesting addition to the mix.
  • Polishing Persa. Dan Persa steps in at quarterback for second-team All-Big Ten selection Mike Kafka, and he’ll try to walk a similar career path. Kafka transformed himself in the offseason a year ago to become an extremely consistent passer, and Persa will need to do the same. Persa could be the best running quarterback Northwestern has had since Zak Kustok, but his size and the nature of the offense suggests he’ll need to make strides with his arm. NU also needs to see progress from backup Evan Watkins, as it lacks overall depth at quarterback.
  • Reload in the secondary. Northwestern loses three starters in the secondary, including all-conference selections Sherrick McManis and Brad Phillips. Fitzgerald will lean heavily on cornerback Jordan Mabin and safety Brian Peters to lead the group, but he needs a few more players to emerge this spring. Defensive backs like Justan Vaughn have experience and must transition into featured roles.

Spring practice starts: April 1

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Running back competition resumes. Brandon Saine and Dan Herron finished strong in 2009, but they can’t get too comfortable. Several young running backs, including Jordan Hall, Jaamal Berry, Jermil Martin and Carlos Hyde, will be competing for carries this spring. Saine likely has the best chance to lock down a featured role at running back, but if the hype about Berry pans out, it’ll be a dogfight.
  • Pryor’s evolution. After Ohio State’s victory in the Rose Bowl, both Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressel talked about the game being a key juncture in Pryor’s development. The junior quarterback must build on his performance this spring, especially from a passing standpoint. Ohio State can be a more balanced and more effective offense in 2010, but Pryor needs to keep making strides.
  • Safety squeeze. The Buckeyes didn’t lose much from the 2009 team, but the safety spot took a hit as first-team All-Big Ten selection Kurt Coleman as well as key contributor Anderson Russell depart. Jermale Hines looks like the answer at one spot, and he’ll enter the spring with high expectations. Ohio State needs to build around Hines and identify playmakers for an increasingly opportunistic unit.

Spring practice starts: March 26

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

  • Quarterback, quarterback, quarterback. No surprise here, as Penn State’s quarterback competition will be one of the Big Ten’s top storylines until September. Two-year starter Daryll Clark departs, leaving a major void under center. Sophomore Kevin Newsome played a bit last fall and has been in the system for a full season. He’ll enter the spring with a slight edge, but Matt McGloin and early enrollee Paul Jones also will be in the mix before Robert Bolden arrives this summer.
  • Getting better up front. All-America candidate Stefen Wisniewski leads an offensive line that will have more experience and needs to make strides this spring. The line struggled against elite defensive fronts last year (Iowa, Ohio State) but should have more cohesion after another offseason together. The tackle spots will be interesting to watch, as Dennis Landolt departs. Penn State’s defensive line needs to shore up the middle after losing Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year Jared Odrick.
  • Linebacker U. put to the test. Penn State has a proven track record of reloading in the defensive front seven, but it loses a lot of production, especially at linebacker. All three starting spots are open this spring, and the spotlight will turn to players like Nate Stupar, Bani Gbadyu, Chris Colasanti and others to fill the production and leadership gaps left by Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull.

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • Marve watch begins. The starting quarterback job is open, and all eyes will be on Miami transfer Robert Marve. One of the nation's most decorated recruits in 2007, Marve started for the Hurricanes in 2008 but ran into problems and transferred. Slowed by an ACL injury last summer and fall, Marve will have every chance to establish himself this spring as he competes with Caleb TerBush.
  • Wide-open secondary. All four starters depart in the secondary, creating plenty of competition back there this spring. Players like safety Albert Evans and cornerback Charlton Williams will be in the spotlight as they try to nail down jobs. Purdue should be better in the front seven in 2010, but you can bet opposing quarterbacks will attack an unproven secondary.
  • The run defense. It's a huge priority for Purdue to improve against the run after finishing last in the Big Ten in rush defense in each of the past two seasons. Linebacker Jason Werner's return for a sixth year is huge, and Purdue boasts one of the Big Ten's top D-linemen in Ryan Kerrigan. Those two must provide leadership and foster more cohesion from the younger players around them. New D-line coach Gary Emanuel will be instrumental in the process this spring.

Spring practice starts: March 13 (break from March 29-April 2)

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

  • The secondary. Wisconsin looks pretty solid on the defensive line and at linebacker, so getting the secondary up to par will be key this spring. Safety Jay Valai is a vicious hitter, but can he become an All-Big Ten-caliber safety? Aaron Henry joins Valai at safety after struggling at cornerback in 2009. Wisconsin also will look for continued progress from corners Devin Smith and Niles Brinkley.
  • Replacing Schofield. Bret Bielema told me earlier this week that the competition at defensive line is once again heating up this offseason. Wisconsin must replace first-team All-Big Ten end O'Brien Schofield, who ranked second nationally in tackles for loss (24.5) in 2009. J.J. Watt has superstar written all over him, but Wisconsin will look for more pass-rush ability from David Gilbert and Louis Nzegwu.
  • The wide receivers/tight ends. Wisconsin showed at times last fall that its passing attack could be dynamic, and it will look for big things from several players this spring. Wideout Nick Toon certainly has what it takes to be a star in the Big Ten, and Lance Kendricks showed in the Champs Sports Bowl that he's a capable successor for Garrett Graham at tight end. The Badgers will look to David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson and Kyle Jefferson to fill the No. 2 wideout spot.

Big Ten, Jewel Hampton, Jermil Martin, Jerel Worthy, Mitchell Evans, Ryan Kerrigan, Justan Vaughn, Louis Nzegwu, Lance Kendricks, Stefen Wisniewski, Robert Marve, Brian Peters, Brandon Wegher, Devin Smith, Jason Werner, Michael Carter, A.J. Edds, Michael Shaw, Chandler Whitmer, Jermale Hines, Kyle Jefferson, Zak Kustok, Kirk Cousins, Jacob Charest, Dan Herron, Jammie Kirlew, Jim Tressel, Keanon Cooper, Juice Williams, Daryll Clark, Sherrick McManis, Nick Toon, Isaac Anderson, D.L. Wilhite, Bani Gbadyu, Brad Phillips, Kevin Newsome, Mark Dantonio, Adam Weber, Jaamal Berry, Eddie McGee, Dan Persa, Brandon Saine, Donovan Warren, David Gilreath, Carlos Brown, Julian Vandervelde, Keith Nichol, Terrelle Pryor, J.J. Watt, Anderson Russell, Randy Walker, Navorro Bowman, Paul Jones, Jon Asamoah, Joel Nitchman, Chris Colasanti, Garrett Graham, Sean Lee, Martez Wilson, Tim Brewster, Evan Watkins, Rich Rodriguez, Pat Fitzgerald, Robert Bolden, Matt Mayberry, Jordan Mabin, Dennis Landolt, Carlos Hyde, Caleb TerBush, Denard Robinson, Bret Bielema, Rocco Cironi, Pat Angerer, Brandon Graham, Josh Hull, Niles Brinkley, Jared Odrick, Devin Gardner, Nathan Scheelhaase, Matt McGloin, Brandon Minor, Aaron Henry, Darius Willis, Tate Forcier, Jay Valai, Kurt Coleman, Amari Spievey, Brian George, Mike Kafka, J Leman, Greg Jones, Joel Foreman, Greg Middleton, Trevor Anderson, Tim Davis, O'Brien Schofield, Adam Robinson, Arby Fields, Ian Thomas, Nate Stupar, Riley Reiff, Shaun Prater, Clay Nurse, Paul Petrino, Jeff Horton, Jeff Thomas, Lenyatta Kiles, 2010 spring what to watch, Albert Evans, Charlton, Darius Johnson, David Gilbert, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Gary Emanuel, Jeff Tarpinian, Joe Palcic, Jordan Hall, Josh McKinley, Mike Trumpy, Scott Concannon, Terrance Thomas, Tyler Nielsen

Big Ten pre-spring power rankings

February, 10, 2010
It's that time again.

Four weeks have passed since the year-end installment of the power rankings, and while no games were played during the span, there has been some news. We know who's coming back (Greg Jones, Evan Royster, Cameron Heyward) and who's not (Thaddeus Gibson, Navorro Bowman, Amari Spievey). We also can size up the recruiting classes for each Big Ten team.

Spring practice in the Big Ten officially kicks off March 13 at Wisconsin, so let's take a look at how the teams stack up heading into the spring. Please remember that the power rankings can -- and will -- change several times before the season begins Sept. 2.

1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes will be a consensus top 5 team and a legit national title contender entering the fall. Heyward's decision to return is huge for a talented defensive front. If quarterback Terrelle Pryor builds off of his Rose Bowl performance and Ohio State solidifies things at left tackle, safety and possibly running back, this team will be scary good.

2. Iowa: The NFL draft stung the Hawkeyes a bit, as both Spievey and left tackle Bryan Bulaga opted to turn pro. But All-America candidate Adrian Clayborn returns, and Iowa will be stacked at both running back and wide receiver in 2010. Rebuilding the offensive line will be Iowa's top priority as it aims for a Big Ten championship this fall.

3. Wisconsin: The mojo is back in Mad-town as Wisconsin returns the core players from a team that went 10-3 and finished 16th in the final AP Poll. Heisman Trophy candidate John Clay leads a balanced and efficient offense, while the defense boasts a lot of young talent but must replace star pass rusher O'Brien Schofield.

4. Penn State: No Big Ten team lost more standout players than the Nittany Lions, but Penn State has shown an ability to reload, particularly in the defensive front seven. Royster's decision to return is huge for Penn State, which will rely on the rushing attack and an improved offensive line in 2010. A crucial quarterback competition begins this spring, as Kevin Newsome tries to hold off several young challengers.

5. Michigan State: I'm a bit leery to put Michigan State this high after 2009, but Jones' decision to return eased some concerns about the defense. The Spartans must get better on both lines and in the secondary, and quarterback Kirk Cousins needs to rebound after a rough finish to his sophomore season. Recruits William Gholston and Max Bullough should help the defense right away.

6. Northwestern: The Wildcats proved in 2009 that they could overcome the losses of several offensive standouts. They'll need to do it again as All-Big Ten quarterback Mike Kafka departs and junior Dan Persa steps in. Northwestern must revive its rushing attack this spring behind an offensive line that returns fully intact. The secondary also is a concern as three starters graduate.

T-7. Michigan: The offense will put up points again, but Michigan's big concerns rest with a defense that loses standouts Brandon Graham and Donovan Warren. A recruiting class headlined by safety Demar Dorsey certainly should help matters, as Michigan needs immediate contributions from its young players. The Wolverines need a strong spring from their early enrollees as they prepare for a critical 2010 season.

T-7. Purdue: It wouldn't surprise me one bit if Purdue finishes in the top half of the Big Ten in 2010, but a few key questions remain. The biggest one comes at quarterback, where Miami transfer Robert Marve and sophomore Caleb TerBush will compete for the top job. Purdue also must reload in the secondary and improve a run defense that has ranked last in the Big Ten in each of the last two seasons.

9. Minnesota: Spring practice will be critical for a Gophers team trying to establish an identity on offense and reload on defense. The starting quarterback job is up for grabs as incumbent Adam Weber tries to hold off MarQueis Gray and impress new coordinator Jeff Horton. Minnesota must replace all three starting linebackers, both starting defensive tackles and both starting cornerbacks.

10. Indiana: The Hoosiers should be very dynamic on offense in 2010, but they must address their chronic defensive woes as soon as possible to rebound this fall. Head coach Bill Lynch is moving several offensive players to defense this spring, and IU's ability to identify impact players likely will determine whether it can rise up the rankings.

11. Illinois: Things have been anything but quiet around Champaign the last eight weeks, as head coach Ron Zook shuffled his coaching staff, bringing in two new coordinators and four new position coaches. Illinois doesn't have time for growing pains, and the new assistants will need to implement the scheme and get the most out of a roster filled with question marks. One way or another, Illinois will be a fascinating team to watch between now and the season opener.
Demar Dorsey's surprise decision to sign with Michigan has once again put head coach Rich Rodriguez and the "character issue" in the spotlight at Schembechler Hall.

Dorsey is the highest-rated recruit in the Big Ten this year, according to ESPN's Scouts Inc. The safety from Florida fills a vital need for Michigan, which struggled mightily in the secondary last year and loses its top defensive back (Donovan Warren) to the NFL. If the Wolverines turn things around in 2010, many may point to Dorsey's signing as a big reason why.

But it's not Dorsey's talent, but his checkered legal past, that has generated a ton of attention since Wednesday afternoon. Dorsey's legal issues are chronicled here, but basically he confessed to two burglaries and had a connection to a third burglary. He has never been convicted and instead went through a diversion program for juvenile offenders.

Dorsey, in an interview with the Detroit Free Press, acknowledged his past problems and said he plans to "show everybody I'm not that person who I was a couple years back then, hanging with the wrong crowd and stuff like that." He said he picked Michigan in part because it allows him to get away from home and start fresh.

Dorsey deserves a chance to start fresh and play college football. And he had several good options on signing day.

The real question here is: Should Michigan be the team to provide him that chance?

Some say no, citing the risks of Dorsey falling into trouble again. Michigan has had players fall into legal trouble, including former quarterback Justin Feagin, who was dismissed from the team in June. Then again, almost every team in the country has had similar cases, if not worse. Just look around the Big Ten and you'll find several examples. Better yet, look around the SEC. Yikes.

Rodriguez and Michigan are assuming a risk with Dorsey, a larger risk than with most players because of his history. If he gets in trouble in Ann Arbor, the head coach and the university will take heat for it. Heat they'll deserve.

But is that risk large enough to push the Wolverines away when other programs wouldn't think twice about adding Dorsey to their roster? Does Michigan have to hold itself to a perceived higher standard, a standard that might not even exist in college football, much less at U-M? Some will say yes, but these folks need to open their eyes and realize this is big-time college football.

Lloyd Carr gave players second chances, too. He assumed the risk of them messing up again. Every college football coach does. Like it or not, it's part of this sport.

Michigan shouldn't have to stay away from every promising recruit with a checkered past because it's Michigan. Rodriguez has given second chances before, and some have blown up in his face. But he shouldn't stop doing it entirely.

If Rodriguez and his staff are satisfied that Dorsey's troubles are behind him, they have the right to bring him on board. They also have the right to be criticized if he messes up again.

It seems like a pretty fair deal.
The Big Ten is off to a rough start on national signing day.

When it comes to the top uncommitted prospects, the Big Ten is still waiting for a key fax to come through. I'm not saying there aren't some excellent players and classes inked throughout the league, but it'd be nice to see someone win a key recruiting battle.

Safety Sean Parker is the latest player to go elsewhere, as he chose Washington ahead of both Michigan and USC in an announcement on ESPNU. Michigan clearly could have used Parker for its struggling secondary, which loses top corner Donovan Warren to the NFL draft. If there's one position where the Wolverines need immediate contributors, it's defensive back.

Michigan entered the day with a decent shot at Parker, but he'll be heading to play for Steve Sarkisian in Seattle.

Final Big Ten power rankings

January, 13, 2010
The 2009 football season is in the books, so let's take one final look at the Big Ten power rankings. No major surprises here, and there likely won't be a ton of shuffling at the top until the season kicks off in September.

1. Ohio State (11-2): That Purdue loss feels like a long time ago, doesn't it? Ohio State capped an impressive turnaround with a Rose Bowl championship, snapping a three-game slide in BCS bowls. Terrelle Pryor's performance in Pasadena and a productive defense raises the expectations for 2010, when Ohio State could contend for the national title.

2. Iowa (11-2): Everyone outside Iowa seemed to doubt the Hawkeyes all year long, but this team just kept winning. Iowa delivered its best performance of the season against Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl, jumping out to a 14-0 lead and never looking back. The final score didn't show how dominant Iowa was in this game. Ricky Stanzi and Adrian Clayborn will try to lead Iowa to a Big Ten title in 2010.

3. Penn State (11-2): Quarterback Daryll Clark and a valuable group of seniors went out with a big win in the Capital One Bowl against LSU. Penn State notched a signature victory against a talented opponent, completing an excellent two-year run. The Lions now must overcome some key personnel losses to challenge Ohio State for the league title this coming fall.

4. Wisconsin (10-3): A return trip to the Champs Sports Bowl ended up being the perfect opportunity for the Badgers to showcase the progress they made this season. Wisconsin beat Miami by only six points but thoroughly dominated the game on both sides of the ball. The Badgers return a bunch of key players, including running back John Clay, and will enter 2010 ranked in the top 15.

5. Northwestern (8-5): For the second straight year, the Wildcats participated in one of the most exciting bowl games, only to come out on the losing end again. Pat Fitzgerald's team gained some national respect with their comeback against Auburn, but Northwestern eventually needs to get over the hump in a bowl. The Wildcats lose several key pieces, but the program is on the rise and should again contend for a postseason berth in 2010.

T-6. Minnesota (6-7): The Gophers defense definitely came to play against Iowa State, but the offense couldn't translate good drives into points in the Insight Bowl. Getting the offense on track will be the top offseason priority for head coach Tim Brewster and his staff as they enter a pivotal 2010 campaign.

T-6. Michigan State (6-7): Credit the Spartans for performing admirably without 14 of their teammates in the Alamo Bowl, but their season long struggles in the secondary eventually caught up to them against Texas Tech. Despite a disappointing season, the Spartans are a young team that could make a jump next fall. Mark Dantonio must fix a defense that broke down too often this year.

8. Purdue (5-7): It would have been great to see Purdue represent the Big Ten in a bowl this year, but the Boilers' inability to finish games and avoid major mistakes kept them at home. Purdue is my early pick as the sleeper team in the Big Ten next fall, as head coach Danny Hope returns several exciting skill players and an excellent pass rusher in Ryan Kerrigan. I really liked what I saw in Big Ten play from the Boilers.

9. Illinois (3-9): Ron Zook will be back in 2010, but his coaching staff received a major facelift. Illinois will have new coordinators on both sides of the ball this coming season, not to mention several new position coaches. It'll be a make-or-break season for Zook, who needs young players to step up on both sides of the ball.

10. Michigan (5-7): The offense should be potent in 2010, but Rich Rodriguez must repair a defense that really couldn't stop anybody. Michigan loses its two top defenders in end Brandon Graham and cornerback Donovan Warren, so the coaches need to identify and develop talent during the offseason. The Wolverines simply can't afford another bowl-less season.

11. Indiana (4-8): Much like Michigan, Indiana's offense should be very dynamic in 2010, but the defense has major question marks in all three levels. The Hoosiers were close to getting over the hump this fall, but they lose a good senior class and continue to fight a history of defensive futility.'s All-Big Ten team

December, 8, 2009
Loyal blog readers out there know where I'm headed with several of these picks, though I had some tough decisions in the end. It's not easy to condense so many defensive standouts into 11 slots, while there's certainly more wiggle room on the offensive side.

For your reference, my preseason All-Big Ten team and the Big Ten's official all-conference squads.


QB: Daryll Clark, Penn State
RB: John Clay, Wisconsin
RB: Evan Royster, Penn State
WR: Keith Smith, Purdue
WR: Blair White, Michigan State
TE: Garrett Graham, Wisconsin
C: Stefen Wisniewski, Penn State
OL: Justin Boren, Ohio State
OL: Bryan Bulaga, Iowa
OL: Dace Richardson, Iowa
OL: Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin


DL: Brandon Graham, Michigan
DL: Jared Odrick, Penn State
DL: O'Brien Schofield, Wisconsin
DL: Adrian Clayborn, Iowa
LB: Greg Jones, Michigan State
LB: Pat Angerer, Iowa
LB: Navorro Bowman, Penn State
CB: Donovan Warren, Michigan
CB: Sherrick McManis, Northwestern
S: Kurt Coleman, Ohio State
S: Tyler Sash, Iowa


P: Zoltan Mesko, Michigan
K: Brett Swenson, Michigan State
KR: Ray Fisher, Indiana
PR: Ray Small, Ohio State

All-Big Ten selections by team: Penn State (5), Iowa (5), Wisconsin (4), Ohio State (3), Michigan State (3), Michigan (3), Northwestern (1), Purdue (1), Indiana (1)

There were 16 selections who also made the preseason All-Big Ten squad: Clark, Royster, Clay, Bulaga, Wisniewski, Boren, Garrett Graham, Brandon Graham, Odrick, Jones, Bowman, Angerer, Coleman, Mesko, Swenson and Small.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 14

December, 7, 2009
The regular season is complete, so let's take one final look at the league before the bowls begin later this month. Wisconsin kicks off the Big Ten slate against Miami on Dec. 29 in the Champs Sports B0wl.

1. Ohio State (10-2, 7-1): Once again, the Buckeyes are carrying the Big Ten banner, this time to a place (Pasadena) they haven't played since Jan. 1, 1997. A win against Oregon would mark the first big step toward regaining national respectability. A loss would simply continue the Buckeye bashing for another offseason, until Jim Tressel's team enters 2010 ranked in the top 5.

2. Iowa (10-2, 6-2): The Hawkeyes got what they deserved, a BCS at-large berth. Now they need to beat Georgia Tech to truly validate this season in the eyes of the nation. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi returns to the field, but Iowa's stout defense will have to be the difference against Georgia Tech's effective triple-option offense led by Jonathan Dwyer.

3. Penn State (10-2, 6-2): Guys like Daryll Clark and Sean Lee have done a lot to put Penn State back where it belongs among the Big Ten's best. It would be nice to see those guys end their careers with a Jan. 1 bowl victory. Penn State gets its chance against LSU, a fellow national powerhouse that it has faced just once before. Will the Lions' veteran leadership prove to be the difference?

T-4. Northwestern (8-4, 5-3): After years of getting leapfrogged for bowls, Northwestern got the postseason destination it desired and will face Auburn in the Outback Bowl. There are so many similarities between NU's season and Iowa's 2008 season, and the Wildcats hope to end on an equally good note in Tampa.

T-4 Wisconsin (9-3, 5-3): I moved up the Badgers one spot after their dominating performance against Hawaii on Saturday night. Unfortunately for Bret Bielema's team, the game clearly didn't matter to the Outback Bowl selection committee. Still, Wisconsin has a more exciting matchup against Miami and can reach the 10-win plateau.

6. Michigan State (6-6, 4-4): The Spartans will be shorthanded in San Antonio, which could result in disaster or a gutsy victory against a favored Texas Tech squad. Head coach Mark Dantonio needs big performances from quarterback Kirk Cousins, linebacker Greg Jones and a secondary that has struggled for most of the season.

7. Purdue (5-7, 4-4): It must not have been easy for Purdue to watch the bowl selections, as a .500 Big Ten record almost always gets a team into the postseason. The Boilers turn their attention to 2010, as linebacker Jason Werner might return for a sixth season and Miami transfer Robert Marve enters the competition at quarterback.

8. Minnesota (6-6, 3-5): A return trip to the Insight Bowl wasn't ideal for the Gophers, but they received a pretty favorable draw in Iowa State. The Cyclones are a lot like Minnesota, with an up-and-down offense and a defense capable of carrying the team. It's critical for Tim Brewster to win this game and show some progress on offense before a make-or-break 2010 season.

9. Illinois (3-9, 2-6): The Illini endured a heartbreaking end to a miserable season, losing in a manner I never thought was possible. Running back Mikel LeShoure was fabulous and quarterback Juice Williams deserved a win in his final collegiate game, but the defense totally let them down. Changes are coming to Champaign, and the program certainly has reached a crossroads.

10. Michigan (5-7, 1-7): Rich Rodriguez is looking toward 2010, but Michigan's defense could once again be a problem as end Brandon Graham departs and cornerback Donovan Warren likely will declare for the NFL draft. The offense should be pretty solid next fall, but revamping and rebuilding the defense during the offseason should be Rodriguez's top priority.

11. Indiana (4-8, 1-7): Like Michigan, Indiana will lose several key contributors from a defense that wasn't great to begin with. The Hoosiers could be explosive on offense next fall with Ben Chappell, Tandon Doss and Darius Willis, but until the defense gets on track, the program will linger at the bottom of the Big Ten.

Big Ten power rankings: Week 14

November, 30, 2009
After giving it some thought, I decided to make a few tweaks to last week's rankings. These are supposed to reflect how teams are playing right now, and I lost sight of that a bit.

1. Ohio State (10-2, 7-1): The Buckeyes once again played their best football in November, knocking off two ranked teams as well as archrival Michigan for the sixth consecutive time. Now Jim Tressel needs to find the same magic on Jan. 1 at the Rose Bowl.

2. Iowa (10-2, 6-2): A lot of teams talk about a next-man-in philosophy, but Iowa displayed it for much of the season after losing several key performers to injury. The Hawkeyes need quarterback Ricky Stanzi (ankle) to heal before their bowl game, which could be in Glendale, Ariz.

3. Penn State (10-2, 6-2): Some Penn State fans will read my intro and declare the Nittany Lions were playing much better than Iowa down the stretch. In reality, Penn State had one excellent half against Michigan State and a solid second half against Indiana after stumbling out of the gate. But I still wouldn't bet against Joe Paterno in a bowl game.

4. Northwestern (8-4, 5-3): A 3-0 November highlighted by two wins against top 20 programs gives the Wildcats the nod over Wisconsin. Though the Wildcats certainly have some ugly losses, the quality of their wins trumps Wisconsin's.

5. Wisconsin (8-3, 5-3): The Badgers still have a chance to move up by thumping Hawaii this week in Oahu. Wisconsin lacks a true signature win but doesn't have any terrible losses, either. I'm excited about the future for Bret Bielema's team with so many young players.

6. Michigan State (6-6, 4-4): It hasn't been a great stretch for the Spartans, who crumbled against Penn State and then saw the dismissals of running back Glenn Winston and safety Roderick Jenrette. An alleged on-campus fight involving football players could also spell trouble for the program as it tries to finish on a good note in a bowl.

7. Purdue (5-7, 4-4): The Boilers lost to Minnesota back on Oct. 10, but they certainly played better football down the stretch than the Gophers. It's a shame Purdue can't represent the Big Ten in a bowl game because Danny Hope's squad held its own in all but one game this fall.

8. Minnesota (6-6, 3-5): It's imperative that the Gophers show some progress on offense in their bowl appearance, most likely against a Big 12 opponent. Minnesota loses many of its top defenders to graduation and will need to lean on the offense more in 2010. Adam Weber and the Gophers must shake off a second straight shutout against Iowa.

9. Illinois (3-8, 2-6): The Illini didn't get steamrolled against Cincinnati, but they also never really had the fifth-ranked Bearcats worried about an upset. Juice Williams and the offense put up points and moved the ball, but breakdowns on both defense and special teams led to another double-digit defeat. Illinois wraps up a rough season Saturday against Fresno State.

10. Michigan (5-7, 1-7): Embattled head coach Rich Rodriguez needs his young players to grow up fast during the offseason. While Rodriguez's offense showed signs of life this fall, the defense needs major work after losing All-Big Ten end Brandon Graham and possibly All-Big Ten cornerback Donovan Warren.

11. Indiana (4-8, 1-7): Bill Lynch was very disappointed in his team's finish, and he should be. Indiana needs to translate progress into more victories in 2010. The offense should be potent, but an always susceptible defense loses starters in all three areas (line, linebacker, secondary).
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Only a handful of games into his Michigan tenure, Rich Rodriguez knew the program had a steep mountain to climb.

The winged helmet wouldn't equal 10 wins. The Michigan brand, which he acknowledges is one of the greatest in sports, wouldn't equal instant success. Decades of winning wouldn't equal recruiting rewards. As he put it Saturday, "The last three or four Februaries have hurt us a little bit."

AP Photo/Paul SancyaMichigan coach Rich Rodriguez dropped to 3-13 in Big Ten play with a loss to rival Ohio State.
But where is Michigan on its ascent back to past heights? Are the Wolverines making progress, or are they still at the base of the mountain two years into the Rodriguez era?

One thing is certain.

"How much does a man got to get humbled?" Rodriguez said after Saturday's 21-10 loss to No. 10 Ohio State. "Got humbled last year. Been humbled before and will be humbled again. In this profession, there's enough humility to go around for everybody.

"I'm getting tired of being humbled."

It has been a humbling two years for the head coach, who now owns an 8-16 record at Michigan, 3-13 in Big Ten play. He'll spend another winter at home, as Michigan's loss eliminated the team from bowl contention.

Michigan finished last in the Big Ten for the first time since 1962. The Wolverines failed to beat an FBS team in October or November. They'll lose their best defensive player (end Brandon Graham) and possibly their second best (junior cornerback Donovan Warren), and the core of the team remains young. There's an ongoing NCAA investigation into allegations of time-limit violations by Rodriguez's program that could conclude with major violations, a first at Michigan.

But Rodriguez still believes the team's 2009 slogan -- "All In For Michigan" -- holds true.

"Maybe people will try to say, 'Oh, woe is Michigan,'" Rodriguez said. "Michigan's going to be just fine. Our fans are all in, the players are all in, the staff's all in, the university's all in. We're going through a growing process that we're not accustomed to here at the University of Michigan.

"I'm not accustomed to it, either, but I've been through it before, and we'll get it done."

(Read full post)

1. Todd McShay told me that Michigan will have two players drafted in April, same as last April. Among the Wolverine juniors this season, only Donovan Warren has attracted attention vis-à-vis the 2011 draft. That would be five draftees over three seasons. The fewest any Michigan coach(es) has had over a three-year period is nine from 1984-86. The point? Rich Rodriguez’s biggest problem isn’t fitting in at Michigan. It’s talent. All of his is young.

2. Here’s what’s interesting about Florida Gov. Charlie Crist speaking out in defense of Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. Crist is in a tough battle for the 2010 Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate. And he’s in a state with two big state universities that both have big football programs. Crist had every reason to keep his mouth shut. And he didn’t. He illustrated the deep-seated emotion a lot of people in Florida feel about Bowden.

3. TCU coach Gary Patterson is preaching the mantra, “Two more. Gotta finish,” to his players. Are they listening? “Better or Xmas will come earlier than we like,” Patterson texted me Wednesday night. It would seem as if the biggest threat to the No. 4 Horned Frogs is the possibility of capricious weather at Wyoming. TCU’s in luck: forecast is partly cloudy and a high of 44 on Saturday. “I told them [we’re] playing for a championship who cares!” Patterson texted. Exactly.