NCF Nation: Drew Basil

There's only one game on tap this week, but it's a very big one. Let's take a look at five things to watch in Saturday night's Big Ten championship game between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 10 Michigan State:

1. Something's gotta give: The nation's No. 1 defense in Michigan State goes up against the nation's No. 3 scoring offense in Ohio State. But has either unit really been tested? The Spartan Dawgs have been pretty special, but they've yet to face an offense ranked in the top 50 in yards. Ohio State's attack also looks the part, and the Buckeyes have faced two top-10 defenses (Wisconsin, Iowa), but no others in the top 35. Behind running back Carlos Hyde and quarterback Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes lead the nation in yards per rush (7.1) and runs of 10 yards or longer (130). Michigan State leads the nation in fewest rush yards allowed (64.4 per game), fewest yards per rush (2.2) and fewest rushes of 10 or more yards (19). Who will gain the edge at the line of scrimmage?

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCan Braxton Miller and Ohio State's high-powered offense move the ball against Michigan State's stingy defense?
2. Buckeyes back on the big stage: It has been a while since Ohio State played a game of this significance on a stage as big as Lucas Oil Stadium. Miller has been brilliant the past two seasons, but he has yet to play in the postseason with a spot in the national championship on the line. Nebraska came into last year's title game tight and it showed in a disastrous performance against Wisconsin, which played loose and ran the Huskers up and down the field. Although no one expects Ohio State to lay an egg, Michigan State has been here before, and the Spartans are likely heading to the Rose Bowl no matter what happens in the game. MSU is the first top-15 team Ohio State will play since its win streak began under Meyer. Are Miller and the Buckeyes ready for the challenge?

3. Shutdown showcase: The title game features two of the nation's elite cornerbacks in Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Ohio State's Bradley Roby. Both have the ability to shut down a side of the field and make game-changing plays if quarterbacks dare to throw their way. Dennard, a likely first-round draft pick, will press Ohio State's receivers and try to eliminate the deep passing game. Roby is playing his best football and can be a difference-maker not only on defense but on special teams. Dennard has four interceptions and a forced fumble in an All-American-caliber senior season, while Roby has a pick-six, a fumble return for a touchdown, and a blocked punt and recovery for a touchdown.

4. Cook's big moment: Asked to make a brief opening statement on a media teleconference earlier this week, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said, "Hello, I'm Connor Cook." The Spartans sophomore will introduce himself to the nation Saturday night and can make a strong statement about himself and the MSU offense. No one pegged Cook to be in this position before the season, but he has taken control in Big Ten play, passing for 1,708 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions in eight league contests. Cook said that after Ohio State's defensive struggles, "you're licking your chops" about Saturday's game. He hasn't played in a game this big, but he doesn't lack confidence. It will be interesting to see how he fares.

5. Special attention: Michigan State's first appearance in the Big Ten title game came down to a special-teams play, and it didn't end well for the Spartans as Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman. Don't be surprised if the kicking game once again plays a big role in determining Saturday's winner. Both teams have excellent punters (MSU's Mike Sadler, OSU's Cameron Johnston), and Roby has been a special-teams star with three blocked punts and two recoveries for touchdowns. Kickers Michael Geiger (MSU) and Drew Basil (OSU) both have shown good accuracy on field goals with limited opportunities. Lewis' performance as he returns home to Indianapolis also is worth monitoring.
Our series ranking each position group from the 2011 Big Ten season comes to a close today with the final group, and one that is often overlooked but is always important: special teams.

Special teams is a broad spectrum, so we're combining performances in punting, kickoffs and field goals to come up with each team's position on this list.

And away we go:

1. Nebraska: Boy, did we mess this up in the preseason by ranking the Huskers 11th out of 12. Though we wrote at the time that Nebraska would almost certainly outperform its low rankings, we thought replacing star punter/kicker Alex Henery would be tough. Not really, as Brett Maher was one of the best punters and kickers in the league and the country. Freshman Ameer Abdullah was a star in kick returns, finishing ninth nationally in that category. So just remove one of the ones from that preseason number, and then we've got it right.

[+] EnlargeRaheem Mostert
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesRaheem Mostert took a kickoff return back 99 yards for a score in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
2. Purdue: The Boilermakers were mostly mediocre on offense and defense but did some great work on special teams. Freshman Raheem Mostert led the nation in kickoff returns, while sophomore Cody Webster finished second in punting. The strong-legged Carson Wiggs tied Maher for most field goals made in the league, though he still needs to improve his accuracy. Blocked kicks helped secure wins over Middle Tennessee and Ohio State, but Purdue lost on a blocked field goal try at Rice.

3. Penn State: When Anthony Fera returned from suspension and took over field goal duties, the Nittany Lions' special teams became truly special. Fera hit 14 of 17 field goals after Penn State had looked very shaky in that area early in the year, and he was also one of the league's top punters. Chaz Powell and Justin Brown were dangerous return men.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes ranked among the top third of Big Ten teams in just about every special-teams category. Field goal kicker Drew Basil made a dozen in a row at one point, and Ben Buchanan was solid at punter. Jordan Hall added some big returns.

5. Michigan State: We ranked the Spartans No. 1 in the preseason, and they came up with some game-changing plays, particularly in the first game against Wisconsin and in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia. But statistically speaking, Michigan State was average in most aspects of the kicking game. But Mike Sadler had some big moments punting, and Keshawn Martin did excellent work on punt returns.

6. Wisconsin: A tough team to rank, as there was both good and bad here. Jared Abbrederis led the nation in punt return average at 15.8 yards per attempt. Brad Nortman was a very reliable punter, while Philip Welch made five of his six attempts at field goals, something the Badgers didn't need very much with Montee Ball assaulting the end zone. But we can't ignore the big special-teams breakdowns against Michigan State and Ohio State that had as much as anything to do with ruining a potential undefeated season.

7. Michigan: The Wolverines weren't outstanding at any one area on special teams, but they proved much better than the No. 12 ranking we saddled them with in the preseason. Brendan Gibbons solidified what looked like a scary place-kicker situation and played a large role (along with brunette girls) in the Sugar Bowl victory. Michigan was also strong in punt returns and kick coverage, though its punting and kickoff returns left much to be desired.

8. Iowa: The good news first: Iowa led the league in net punting, thanks to a strong showing by senior Eric Guthrie in his first year starting. Now the bad: The Hawkeyes ranked second-to-last in kickoff coverage, and Mike Meyer missed six of his 20 field goal attempts, including both tries in the humbling loss to Minnesota.

9. Minnesota: Even without premier return man Troy Stoudermire, who missed most of the year with an injury, the Gophers ranked fifth in the league in kickoff returns, and they led the league in kickoff coverage. But a team that punted as much as Minnesota did in 2011 needed to do better than 11th in the conference in that category. Bonus point for the perfectly executed onside kick in the Iowa win.

10. Northwestern: The Wildcats' defense got the brunt of the blame in Northwestern's losses, but special teams didn't hold up its end of the bargain, either. Northwestern made only six field goals all year and ranked near the bottom of the conference in most categories. The bright spot was a league-best punt return unit.

11. Indiana: Mitch Ewald went 13-of-16 on field goals, but the Hoosiers weren't very good in most other areas. They returned more kickoffs than anyone in the Big Ten -- a product of a crummy defense -- but didn't do enough with them in finishing 108th nationally in that stat.

12. Illinois: Ron Zook didn't help his case to be retained as head coach through the performance of his special teams, a part of the game that was supposed to be his field of expertise. Illinois was simply dreadful in creating advantageous field position, finishing last in the nation in kickoff returns and third-to-last in punt returns. The Illini also weren't very good at kickoff coverage, though at least Derek Dimke made 10 of 12 field goals. Even that was marred by his missed 42-yarder at the end of a 10-7 loss at Penn State.
Peel off the back and affix to hat. Time to recognize the stars who shined brightest in the Big Ten on Saturday.
  • Northwestern WR Jeremy Ebert: Ebert had a huge day in the 28-6 win over Rice, recording 7 catches for a career-high 208 yards and two touchdowns. That included a 90-yard strike from Dan Persa that was the second-longest play in school history. Persa had a big game, too, throwing for 372 yards and four touchdowns, with a pair of interceptions.
  • Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell: The Spartans needed a spark after averaging just 67 rushing yards in their first three road games, and Bell provided it with help from his offensive line in a 37-21 victory against Iowa. Bell racked up a season-high 112 rushing yards and a touchdown on 20 carries (5.6 ypc). He also added two receptions for 49 yards, including a 45-yarder on third-and-8 midway through the fourth quarter.
  • Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson: The senior continued his assault on the record book, completing his first 16 pass attempts in Wisconsin's blowout win against Minnesota. Wilson finished the game 16-for-17 passing for 178 yards and four touchdowns. RB Montee Ball (166 rush yards, 2 rushing TDs, 1 receiving TD) and WR Nick Toon (8 receptions, 100 yards, 2 TDs) also merit mentions.
  • Purdue DL Bruce Gaston: He gets a sticker simply for making one play, but it was enormous. Gaston blocked Drew Basil's extra-point attempt after Ohio State had tied the score at 20 with 55 seconds left, keeping the Boilermakers alive and giving them a chance to eventually win the game 26-23 in overtime.
  • Nebraska P/K Brett Maher: A secret weapon for the Huskers, Maher proved to be very important in a 17-14 win at Penn State. He averaged 45 yards on eight punts and put five inside the Nittany Lions' 20, including a 61-yarder late that pinned Penn State deep in its own territory. Maher also made a 41-yard field goal in his only attempt.
  • Michigan RB Fitzgerald Toussaint: The Wolverines offense has some issues right now, but the running back spot isn't one of them. Toussaint has established himself as the team's top back. After recording 170 rush yards two weeks ago against Purdue, Toussaint racked up a career-high 192 rush yards and a touchdowns on 27 carries in Saturday's 31-14 win at Illinois. DT Mike Martin (9 tackles) merits a mention after leading a suffocating effort against the run.
Our preseason position ranking series comes to an end today with everybody's favorite group: special teams.

For this ranking, we're going to consider punters, kickers and returners only. No offense to the long-snappers or the punt-team gunners, but things like kickoff coverage units are hard to forecast. We'll give a little extra weight to teams that have returning and proven players at these spots, because it's difficult to know how new punters and kickers will fare when the pressure of real games begin.

As the guys in these positions would say, let's kick it:

[+] EnlargeDan Conroy
Andrew Weber/US PresswireDan Conroy was nearly perfect on his field goal attempts last season.
1. Michigan State: Kicker Dan Conroy made 14 of his 15 attempts last year, and Keshawn Martin led the league in punt return average. They will miss punter Aaron Bates and will have to improve their kickoff return game. And you know you always have to watch out for the fake when the Spartans line up for a kick.

2. Wisconsin: The Badgers are set at both punter and kicker, with seniors Brad Nortman and Philip Welch, respectively. Both are third-year starters who can be relied upon. Wisconsin will need to find a replacement for primary return man David Gilreath.

3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions bring back punter Anthony Fera and punt returner Devon Smith, who finished just behind Martin in yards per attempt last season. Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green are dangerous kick returners. Fera could move over to handle field goals this season if incoming freshman Sam Ficken doesn't win the job.

4. Ohio State: The Buckeyes have a veteran punter in senior Ben Buchanan and two threats to take a kick to the house in Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry. Sophomore Drew Basil is expected to take over at place-kicker. Special teams are almost always a force in Columbus.

5. Purdue: No one in the league has a bigger leg than Carson Wiggs; the questions is whether he can consistently harness it. Punter Cody Webster averaged 43.3 yards per attempt last season, second best among returning punters. The Boilermakers' return game needs to improve.

6. Illinois: Derek Dimke was a Lou Groza semifinalist last season and broke the school record for points by a kicker. He nailed two 50-plus yarders. Ray Guy semifinalist Anthony Santella is gone, though return man Troy Pollard is back.

7. Northwestern: Brandon Williams improved at punter as his freshman year went along last season. The Wildcats at long last have an elite return option in Venric Mark. But place-kicker was a concern this spring, with Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty competing for the job.

8. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz's teams usually find a way to be good on special teams, so odds are the Hawkeyes will climb these rankings. But they lost a lot from 2010, including Ray Guy finalist and four-year starter Ryan Donahue, plus both primary return men. Eric Guthrie held the edge at punter after the spring. Place-kicker Mike Meyer returns after taking over that role for the final 10 games and doing a solid job.

9. Indiana: Mitch Ewald was named to the Groza watch list after a strong freshman year in which he made 16 of 19 field goals. Chris Hagerup needs to increase his punting average of 39.4 yards. The Hoosiers should have enough athletes to replace Tandon Doss on returns.

10. Minnesota: Dan Orseske's 36.1-yard average was worst among starting Big Ten punters in 2010, so that must get better. Jerry Kill must also find a new place-kicker -- NC State transfer Chris Hawthorne looks like the top option. Troy Stoudermire, one of the league's top return specialists, is back for his senior year.

11. Nebraska: Like Iowa, this is a team that will almost assuredly outperform this ranking. But boy did the Huskers lose a lot of talent and experience. It will be difficult to match the value that punter/kicker Alex Henery brought -- Brett Maher and freshman Mauro Bondi will battle to replace him -- and Adi Kunalic was a secret weapon as kickoff specialist. Top returner Niles Pau is gone, too. The Cornhuskers will likely reload, but nobody has bigger shoes to fill at these positions in the Big Ten.

12. Michigan: The kicking game looked like a disaster this spring, with neither Seth Broekhuizen nor Brendan Gibbons inspiring confidence. Incoming freshman Matt Wile might win the job this summer. This could prove to be an Achilles' heel for the Wolverines, as it was a year ago. On the plus side, Will Hagerup is the leading returning punter in the Big Ten, though he had only 33 attempts last season.

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