NCF Nation: Isaac Anderson

We looked at the recruiting needs for the Legends division earlier today. Now let's take a look at what the teams are looking for in the Leaders division.

As a reminder, I tried to look at positions that have depth issues for the 2011 and/or the 2012 seasons.

ILLINOIS

Linebacker: Martez Wilson's early departure to the NFL leaves a void at middle linebacker, and Illinois also says goodbye to playmaker Nate Bussey and reserve Aaron Gress. Ian Thomas comes back and Jonathan Brown showed a spark, but Illinois has to rebuild some depth in its defensive midsection.

Wide receiver: Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino wants to run the ball, but quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase showed in the Insight Bowl that he can be an effective passer. A.J. Jenkins returns to serve as Scheelhaase's No. 1 option in 2011, but Illinois needs other pass-catching options to emerge.

Quarterback: The Illini have lost two scholarship quarterbacks (Jacob Charest and Chandler Whitmer) in each of the past two seasons, creating a depth issue behind Scheelhaase. Given Scheelhaase's style of play, Illinois needs other options under center and must address this position with this class.

INDIANA

Secondary: The Hoosiers simply haven't had enough Big Ten-ready defensive backs in recent seasons. This might be a recruiting need for several years as Indiana has to begin building a talent base in the secondary.

Quarterback: Kevin Wilson has done wonders with quarterbacks at his previous coaching spots, but he needs talented players who can flourish in his system. Ben Chappell's departure leaves Indiana with no proven options at quarterback. Although the Hoosiers bring back all of their reserves, they should keep looking for the right answer under center.

OHIO STATE

Wide receiver: All-Big Ten receiver Dane Sanzenbacher departs, and DeVier Posey is suspended for the first five games of 2011, pending appeal. Ohio State hasn't developed much depth at wideout in recent seasons, and a capable freshman could put himself into the mix.

Quarterback: Ohio State needs someone to take the snaps during Terrelle Pryor's suspension, and it's unknown whether Joe Bauserman or Kenny Guiton will be the answer. The Buckeyes also must address life after Pryor in this recruiting class.

PENN STATE

Offensive line: The Lions began addressing this need with last year's class and will continue to do so with the 2011 crop. Getting the offensive line in order is the biggest key to Penn State reclaiming a place among the Big Ten title contenders. Penn State loses standout guard Stefen Wisniewski and will have more departures after the 2011 season, so building depth is paramount.

Defensive line: Penn State lacked a dynamic pass rusher in 2010 and could bolster the end spot, but it can't neglect the defensive tackle position, either. Ollie Ogbu departs and Devon Still will be gone after the 2011 season. Although Jack Crawford returns at end, the depth there could be enhanced through recruiting.

PURDUE

Running back: The Boilers should avoid a depth disaster like the one they endured in 2010, but they can't take any chances, either. Coach Danny Hope and offensive coordinator Gary Nord want to run the ball a lot and they need more options to emerge around Ralph Bolden and Al-Terek McBurse. There are opportunities for freshmen to emerge here.

Tight end: Purdue should be fine at receiver in 2011, but it loses starting tight end Kyle Adams, the team's top pass catcher, as well as backup Jeff Lindsay. Expect the Boilers to address the tight end position in the 2011 class, as it is a big part of the plan on offense.

WISCONSIN

Secondary: The Badgers lose a multiyear starter at safety in Jay Valai this season, and three more starters (safety Aaron Henry and cornerbacks Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith) will depart after the 2011 season. It's important to start building depth with this class.

Wide receiver: Wisconsin benefits from Nick Toon returning for his senior year, but the overall depth at receiver isn't great. David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson and Kyle Jefferson all depart and with Toon gone after the 2011 season, the Badgers need to find playmakers to complement Jared Abbrederis.

Pass rusher: J.J. Watt's early departure to the NFL draft creates a potential depth issue at defensive end. Returning starter Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert both are good options, but the Badgers are young and unproven after those two. Young players like Beau Allen will take on bigger roles in 2011, and the team could use an incoming player or two to emerge.
Wisconsin's offense isn't new. It's just better. A lot better.

The Badgers have been rooted in the same offensive principles for years: the power run, bruising line play, an effective play-action game, efficient quarterbacking, tight ends and receivers who catch (passes) and throw (blocks).

"When we go recruit these guys, they know who we are," offensive coordinator Paul Chryst told me this week. "We haven't changed."

What has changed this season are the results. Wisconsin's offense has gone from pretty good to virtually unstoppable.

[+] EnlargeScott Tolzien
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThe efficient play of Scott Tolzien is one reason the Wisconsin offense has been on a roll this season.
The numbers don't lie (thanks to the Wisconsin sports info staff for these notes):
  • Wisconsin leads the Big Ten and ranks seventh nationally in scoring at 40.9 points per game. The Badgers will easily eclipse the team single-season scoring record of 34.3 points per game set in 2005.
  • The Badgers are even more potent in Big Ten play, averaging 41.7 points. Since 1936, only four Big Ten teams have averaged at least 40 points per game for an entire conference season. Wisconsin has scored on 45 of 71 possessions (63.4 percent) in league play, not including five possessions on which it ran out the clock to end the half or a game.
  • During its current six-game winning streak, Wisconsin has outscored its opponents by more than 22 points per game (44.7-22). The Badgers have averaged 240.7 yards on the ground, while quarterback Scott Tolzien has completed 78.6 percent of his passes. Wisconsin has converted 54.1 percent of its third downs (33-of-61) and scored touchdowns on 83.9 percent of its red zone opportunities (26-of-31).
  • Wisconsin ranks second nationally in red zone touchdown percentage (79.3 percent). In Big Ten play, the Badgers have converted 28 of their 33 red zone trips into touchdowns (84.8 percent). Wisconsin ranks ninth nationally in red zone scoring (91.4 percent) and has gone 41-for-42 in its last eight games.
  • The Badgers lead the Big Ten and rank 10th nationally in third-down conversion percentage (51.3).
  • Wisconsin already has set a team record with 41 rushing touchdowns

How has this happened? Here are three reasons.

1. Experience and depth


The Badgers aren't lacking in any area of their offense.

They have three senior starters along the offensive line in left tackle Gabe Carimi, left guard John Moffitt and center Bill Nagy. Carimi, an Outland Trophy finalist, and Moffitt have combined to start 87 games in their careers.

The receiving corps also boasts experience with tight end Lance Kendricks, a fifth-year senior, as well as receivers David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson, Kyle Jefferson and Nick Toon, who have combined for 67 starts.

Top running back John Clay has started for two seasons. Same goes for Tolzien.

The Badgers also have had plenty of players step up when others go down, whether it's running back Montee Ball, receiver Jared Abbrederis or tight ends Jake Byrne and Jacob Pedersen.

"The neat thing about it is it takes everyone to be a part of it," Chryst said. "Everyone can really take ownership for what's happening."

2. Running back depth

Most teams would be in trouble if they lost the league's offensive player of the year for a few games. Not Wisconsin.

Clay's knee injury hasn't slowed down the Badgers' run game one bit. In fact, Wisconsin is putting up even better numbers without him -- not a knock against Clay, just a fact -- by rushing for 695 yards and 12 touchdowns in wins against Indiana and Michigan.

Wisconsin is the only FBS team to have three backs with at least 600 rushing yards: Clay (929), freshman James White (895) and Ball (686). All three players have recorded 13 rushing touchdowns this season.

While White has emerged as the Big Ten freshman of the year front-runner, Ball has provided the biggest lift. An afterthought in the first half of the season, Ball stepped in after injuries to both Clay and White and has 467 rush yards and nine touchdowns in his last three games.

"Montee was a big part of what we were doing in the second half of last season, and Montee has continued to improve," Chryst said. "You've got to give him a ton of credit for not getting caught up where he is on the depth chart and keeping his focus."

3. Scott Tolzien

Wisconsin has mass-produced elite offensive linemen, running backs and tight ends in recent years, but the quarterback position has been more of a headache.

Tolzien came out of nowhere to win the starting job in 2009, and he has taken his game to another level this fall. The senior leads the nation in completion percentage (73.9) -- he completed 24 consecutive passes before an interception last Saturday -- and has completed 78.6 percent of his passes during the current win streak.

Tolzien is on pace to set team records for career pass efficiency (151.2 rating) and career completion percentage (68.2). He has done his best work in clutch situations, completing 23 of 27 passes with 12 touchdowns and only one interception in the red zone, and completing 40 of 57 passes for 492 yards on third down (rating of 150.8).

"He's playing his position as good as anybody in college football," head coach Bret Bielema said. "What he's done in the red zone, it's just unbelievable. And ball-security wise, being able to come through in clutch situations, has been really unparalleled by anything I've ever witnessed."

Badgers' giveaways making it a game

November, 20, 2010
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Wisconsin entered Saturday as one of the nation's most disciplined teams with the football, committing only seven turnovers in the first 10 games.

The trend continued until just before halftime, when Scott Tolzien threw an interception, ending a streak of 24 straight completed passes. The pick gave Michigan a bit of life, and the Wolverines have carried over the momentum.

Michigan quickly converted an Isaac Anderson fumble into a touchdown and is right back in this game, down 24-14. Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson has come alive as a passer and receiver Darryl Stonum is making big plays.

Wisconsin has to be a bit concerned, considering what happened the last time it visited the Big House. I still don't think Michigan can stop Wisconsin's offense today, but the Badgers can't keep stopping themselves.
MADISON, Wis. -- Greetings from my favorite Big Ten venue, where No. 11 Wisconsin hosts a talented Arizona State team this afternoon (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

Wisconsin is looking for its first complete performance of the season after two somewhat watered-down wins. The Badgers haven't been as efficient on offense as they'd like, and the defense seemed to let down in the fourth quarter last week against San Jose State. Today also marks an opportunity for Wisconsin running back John Clay to put himself on the Heisman Trophy radar with a big performance against a Pac-10 foe. So far, I'm the only one beating the drum for Clay in the Heisman race.

Arizona State has beaten up on two FCS opponents (Portland State and Northern Arizona) and can make a statement today in a totally wide-open Pac-10 by knocking off a top-15 opponent. It will be interesting to watch Sun Devils quarterback Steven Threet lead the offense after seeing his struggles at Michigan in 2008.

Weather: It has gone from perfect last night to rainy overnight to gray this morning to pleasant right now with just some light clouds overhead. Rain is possible, especially later in the game.

Injuries: Wisconsin will play without starting wide receivers Nick Toon (turf toe) and David Gilreath (concussion). Walk-on Jared Abbrederis will get the start alongside Isaac Anderson. Ricky Wagner will start at right tackle in place of Josh Oglesby (knee), who might play. The Badgers also should have all their top linebackers on the field for the first time this year. Arizona State should get a boost along its defensive line as Toa Tuitea (elbow) and Corey Adams (knee) are expected to return.

I'll have more from Camp Randall throughout the day, so be sure and check back.

Big Ten predictions: Week 2

September, 9, 2010
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Nobody beats Mr. Perfect ... Nobody!

I achieved perfection in Week 1, which can mean only one thing: a rough week ahead. The competition gets tougher around the Big Ten on Saturday, which makes the games tougher to predict.

Let's see if I can keep the streak alive.

Wisconsin 45, San Jose State 10: The Badgers put forth a much cleaner performance in their home opener, as quarterback Scott Tolzien completes 75 percent of his passes and fires touchdowns to Lance Kendricks and Isaac Anderson. Running back John Clay once again eclipses 100 rushing yards as Wisconsin rolls to 2-0.

Michigan State 31, Florida Atlantic 20: Don't be fooled by those white jerseys, as Michigan State will feel right at home in Ford Field despite technically being the road team Saturday (ESPNU, noon ET). I don't see a rout as Florida Atlantic is a decent team that won at UAB last week. The Owls make some noise early before Spartans backs Edwin Baker, Larry Caper and Le'Veon Bell take over in the second half.

Northwestern 35, Illinois State 17: Former Purdue defensive coordinator Brock Spack has his team prepared, and the Redbirds hang around for a half before Northwestern's offense gets going. Quarterback Dan Persa finds Sidney Stewart for two touchdowns and the Wildcats finally have a breakaway run from scrimmage (not sure who carries the ball).

Minnesota 31, South Dakota 13: The Gophers employ a similar plan to Week 1 and control the line of scrimmage and possession time with their offensive line and running back Duane Bennett. A young defense stays off the field and Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber establishes a good rhythm with receiver Da'Jon McKnight.

Purdue 44, Western Illinois 10: Expect a big game from Robert Marve and the Purdue offense, which stretches the field early and often against Western Illinois. Marve tosses three touchdown passes and no interceptions and the Boilers get a boost from Al-Terek McBurse in the run game.

Iowa 24, Iowa State 13: Last year's final score (35-3) was a bit misleading because Iowa State threw five interceptions and Iowa cruised despite admittedly not playing well up front on defense. Star defensive end Adrian Clayborn answers the bell Saturday with 2.5 sacks, and Iowa pulls away a bit in the third quarter behind running backs Jewel Hampton and Adam Robinson. Both teams play conservatively on offense and keep the score down.

Michigan 31, Notre Dame 30: For the second consecutive year, these two teams provide the most exciting game on the Week 2 slate. Notre Dame attacks Michigan's young secondary early and has success with Michael Floyd, but the Wolverines rally in the second half. The Irish have no answer for Denard Robinson's speed, and Vincent Smith breaks away for a long fourth-quarter touchdown run to put Michigan in front.

Ohio State 27, Miami 20: I expect a better Jacory Harris and a better Miami team than the one Wisconsin totally outclassed in the Champs Sports Bowl. But there are too many reasons to like Ohio State in this one. Terrelle Pryor and Brandon Saine combine for three rushing touchdowns as Ohio State wins the game at the line of scrimmage. Jermale Hines comes up with a fourth-quarter interception to seal it for the Scarlet and Gray.

Alabama 26, Penn State 16: This is my Game of the Week. I'll explain my selection in a video post later today.

Illinois 24, Southern Illinois 20: The Illini are on upset alert against one of the nation's better FCS programs. Expect another slow start from the offense, but quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and running back Mikel LeShoure get it together in the second half. The defense holds off the Salukis long enough, and both Scheelhaase and LeShoure reach the end zone in the fourth quarter.

Bye: Indiana

Last week: 11-0

Season record: 11-0 (1.000)

Big Ten position rankings: WR/TE

August, 23, 2010
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The position rankings move on to the wide receivers and tight ends, who will be grouped together. The Big Ten remains a defense-first conference, but I really like the depth at receiver and, to a lesser extent, tight end throughout the league. Although star power was considered, I put a very strong emphasis on overall depth and 2010 potential here.

This was the toughest position to whittle down to five (actually, six), but here goes ...

[+] EnlargeCunningham/Dell
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesMark Dell (left) and B.J. Cunningham headline an experienced group of receivers for Michigan State.
1. Michigan State: Sure, there's a lack of star power entering the season, but trust me, that will change. There's not a deeper group of receivers and tight ends in the Big Ten than this one. Veterans B.J. Cunningham and Mark Dell anchor the receiving corps, and dangerous speedster Keshawn Martin will play a much bigger role in the offense this season. Converted quarterback Keith Nichol also joins the mix there. Michigan State also boasts three talented tight ends, including Mackey Award watch list members Charlie Gantt and Brian Linthicum.

2. Indiana: The Hoosiers return two of the Big Ten's top five receivers in Tandon Doss, a first-team all-conference selection, and Damarlo Belcher. They also add experience with Terrance Turner and exciting young players like Duwyce Wilson and Dre Muhammad. Overall depth is a bit of a question mark, but both Doss and Belcher will get the attention of opposing defensive backs after combining for 1,732 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns last fall. Max Dedmond returns at tight end after recording 18 receptions in 2009.

3. Wisconsin: I'm not completely sold on this entire group, although receiver Nick Toon and tight end Lance Kendricks should contend for All-Big Ten honors this fall. Isaac Anderson and David Gilreath both boast a ton of experience, but must take the next step in their development. Wisconsin could use a rebound season from Kyle Jefferson, and walk-on Jared Abbrederis continues to make plays in practice and should be a contributor this fall.

4. Purdue: Surprised by my choices so far? You won't be when the season starts. Like Michigan State, Purdue's depth will reveal itself this fall. The Boilers are led by Keith Smith, a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2009 and the league's top returning receiver (1,100 yards). He's joined by two veterans in receiver Cortez Smith and tight end Kyle Adams. But the real boost could come from young players like Antavian Edison and Gary Bush, as well as Justin Siller, the team's former starting quarterback who brings size and big-play ability to the perimeter.

T-5: Penn State: I'm tempted to rank the Lions a little higher but want to see how the entire group performs this season, provided they get the ball thrown to them. Derek Moye has all the tools to be an All-Big Ten receiver after recording 48 receptions for 765 yards and six touchdowns last season. Graham Zug is a very solid target who reached the end zone seven times in 2009. Although Chaz Powell moves to defense, Penn State boasts several exciting young wideouts like Devon Smith. Tight end is a big question mark after the departures of Andrew Quarless and Mickey Shuler.

T-5. Iowa: The Hawkeyes boast the league's top big-play tandem at receiver in Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt. DJK is on track to become the team's all-time leading receiver this fall, and McNutt averaged 19.8 yards per catch and scored eight touchdowns in 2009. I like the potential of guys like Keenan Davis and Paul Chaney Jr., who returns from a knee injury. Tony Moeaki is a major loss at tight end, but Allen Reisner returns and talented freshman C.J. Fiedorowicz enters the fold.

Just missed the cut: Ohio State, Michigan

Up next: Quarterbacks

More rankings ...
By almost any measure, the Big Ten has been a defense-oriented league the past few seasons, and the trend likely will continue in 2010.

If I had to list the league's strongest overall position groups, defensive line would be No. 1 and linebacker wouldn't be too far behind. But Big Ten offenses shouldn't be overlooked, and the wide receiver position is the biggest reason.

[+] EnlargeKeith Smith
Sandra Dukes/Icon SMIKeith Smith caught 91 passes for 1,100 yards and six touchdowns last season.
Phil Steele underscored my point earlier this week with his preseason All-Big Ten teams, but the conference appears loaded at wide receiver for 2010. Seven of the league's top 10 receivers return this fall, and most teams should have improved depth at receiver. Teams like Michigan State lost their top receivers from 2009 but should be even stronger as a group this season. Teams like Indiana, Iowa and Ohio State boast receiver tandems that should keep defensive coordinators busy. There's at least one receiver on every team who I really like.

Here's a rundown of the top returning receivers ...

Purdue's Keith Smith: Smith quietly led the Big Ten with 1,100 receiving yards in 2009, continuing Purdue's tradition of producing extremely productive receivers. He'll provide a lot of help to a new starting quarterback -- Robert Marve or Caleb TerBush -- in an offense that has never shied away from passing the ball.

Indiana's Tandon Doss: Never heard of him? Remember the name, folks. Doss has all the skills to become one of the nation's elite wide receivers. He had 77 receptions for 962 receiving yards last fall, and should be a bigger factor near the goal line as Indiana tries to upgrade its red zone offense.

Ohio State's DeVier Posey: Being close friends with the starting quarterback (Terrelle Pryor) helps, but Posey is primed for a big season this fall. He hauled in eight touchdowns and recorded 828 receiving yards in 2009, finishing with a big performance in the Rose Bowl.

Wisconsin's Nick Toon: I've been a Toon fan ever since I saw him in spring ball back in 2008. He established himself as Wisconsin's No. 1 wideout last fall and could be ready to explode in 2010. Wisconsin has other weapons defenses must account for, leaving room for Toon to make plays down the field.

Iowa's Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt: I just couldn't separate these two, especially after they helped Iowa become a more vertical offense last fall. Iowa isn't afraid to throw the ball downfield, and both DJK and McNutt are capable of stretching the field. They combined for 1,424 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns last year.

Derek Moye, Penn State: Moye provides a very big target (6-foot-5, 198) for Penn State's new starting quarterback. He averaged a league-best 16.4 yards a catch last fall and should see his receptions total rise as he moves into a truly featured role.

Damarlo Belcher, Indiana: Like Doss, Belcher flew under the radar last fall but turned in a very impressive sophomore season, recording 61 receptions for 770 yards and five touchdowns. Belcher's 6-5, 215-pound frame really helps him create space to receive passes.

Here are some other names to watch, in no particular order:
As you can see, there's a lot to like.
Let's take a look at three issues facing each Big Ten team heading into spring practice:

ILLINOIS

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.
INDIANA

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.
IOWA

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.
MICHIGAN

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.
MICHIGAN STATE

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.
MINNESOTA

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.
NORTHWESTERN

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.
OHIO STATE

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.
PENN STATE

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.
PURDUE

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.
WISCONSIN

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.
Tags:

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, 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, Isaac Anderson, D.L. Wilhite, Bani Gbadyu, Brad Phillips, Kevin Newsome, Mark Dantonio, Adam Weber, Jaamal Berry, Eddie McGee, Brandon Saine, Donovan Warren, David Gilreath, Carlos Brown, Julian Vandervelde, Keith Nichol, Terrelle Pryor, Anderson Russell, Randy Walker, Navorro Bowman, Paul Jones, Jon Asamoah, Joel Nitchman, Chris Colasanti, Garrett Graham, 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, Niles Brinkley, Jared Odrick, Devin Gardner, Nathan Scheelhaase, Matt McGloin, Brandon Minor, Aaron Henry, Darius Willis, Tate Forcier, Kurt Coleman, Amari Spievey, Brian George, Mike Kafka, Greg Jones, Joel Foreman, Greg Middleton, Trevor Anderson, 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, 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 helmet stickers: Week 11

November, 15, 2009
11/15/09
9:01
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

I'm stuck on these guys.

  • Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien: Tolzien looked like the guy we saw in September, as he torched Michigan's defense for 240 pass yards and a career-high four touchdowns. He spread the ball well to Nick Toon, Garrett Graham and Isaac Anderson, and moved the Badgers closer to the 10-win plateau.
  • Penn State LB Navorro Bowman: In what might be his final game at Beaver Stadium, Bowman turned in a brilliant performance to rescue Penn State against Indiana. He led the Lions with 12 tackles, including a sack, and had a 73-yard interception return for a touchdown to break a 10-10 tie in the third quarter.
  • Ohio State RB Brandon Saine: The Buckeyes junior saved his best performance for the perfect time, rushing for 103 yards and two touchdown on only 11 carries against Iowa. Saine's 49-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter gave the Buckeyes a 24-10 lead.
  • Wisconsin RB John Clay: Clay solidified himself as the frontrunner for Big Ten offensive player of the year honors with another dominant performance on the ground. The sophomore piled up 151 rush yards and a touchdown on only 26 carries. Can someone say Heisman Trophy candidate in 2010?
  • Iowa WR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos: I rarely give these to players from losing teams, but DJK once again showed why he's a game-changer for Iowa. His 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter brought Iowa back after it appeared Ohio State had delivered the knockout blow. Johnson-Koulianos also had three receptions for 71 yards.

Wrapping up the early Big Ten games

November, 14, 2009
11/14/09
3:42
PM ET
We're about to get started here in Columbus. Here's what has happened so far in the Big Ten today.

Penn State 31, Indiana 20: Penn State gave Indiana a great opportunity to take control of this game with four first-half turnovers. When the Hoosiers couldn't capitalize, the Lions didn't give them a second chance. Penn State scored 24 unanswered points as running back Evan Royster got going and the defense held IU quarterback Ben Chappell in check for most of the second half. Daryll Clark didn't have a great game by any means, but he avoided mistakes in the second half and moved Penn State closer to the 10-win plateau. Linebacker Navorro Bowman made the play of the day when he intercepted a Chappell pass and raced 73 yards to the end zone. It has been a season of near misses for Indiana, which can't generate a consistent rushing attack.

Wisconsin 45, Michigan 24: Scott Tolzien became the latest quarterback to completely pick apart Michigan's secondary, as Wisconsin came in with an excellent offensive game plan today. Tolzien fired four touchdown passes as wide receiver Nick Toon and Isaac Anderson and tight end Garrett Graham all had big games. Badgers running back John Clay once again went over the 100-yard rushing mark (151, to be exact) as Wisconsin eclipsed its victories total from last season. Michigan backslid in the second half for the third straight week, as the run game never truly got going. Tate Forcier had arguably his best game at quarterback for the Wolverines, but he can only do so much. Greg Robinson's defense is a disaster, and Michigan's bowl hopes could be finished after a 4-0 start.

Michigan State 40, Purdue 37: The Spartans received big plays in all three phases during a wild second half as they held off Purdue to get bowl eligible. Special teams was huge down the stretch as Michigan State blocked a long field goal attempt, received another huge kickoff return from Keshawn Martin and drilled the game-winning field goal with 1:51 left. Quarterback Kirk Cousins didn't have his typical accuracy, but he hit on several huge pass plays, three for touchdowns. Purdue's desperate run for a bowl game ends despite another huge performance from quarterback Joey Elliott, an All-Big Ten candidate. Wideout Keith Smith and running back Ralph Bolden came up big, but the Boilers defense couldn't stop the big play.

Northwestern 21, Illinois 16: Illinois made this one interesting with a furious fourth-quarter rally behind backup quarterback Jacob Charest, who struggled for the first 50 minutes or so. After a sloppy first half, Northwestern took control with a 7-play, 99-yard scoring drive in the third quarter. Mike Kafka finally hit on a big pass play to Andrew Brewer (52 yards), and the run game started to show up with freshman Arby Fields. Kafka passed for 300 yards and Zeke Markshausen continued his surprise season at wide receiver. The game wasn't without controversy, as replay officials didn't overturn a fourth-down interception that sealed the win for Northwestern, which secures back-to-back bowl berths for the second time in team history. Illinois inexplicably will miss a bowl for the second straight season.

Minnesota 16, South Dakota State 13: The Golden Gophers are bowl eligible, but they didn't make it easy on themselves. Minnesota rode great defense to hold off South Dakota State and notch victory No. 6. Junior quarterback Adam Weber continued to struggle, completing 10 of 21 passes with a pick-six in the second quarter as the Minnesota offense piled up only 231 yards. But the Gophers defense forced four turnovers, including a fumble recovered for a touchdown by D.L. Wilhite. A huge sigh of relief for Tim Brewster, who now tries to win his first trophy game next week at Iowa.

video

Penn State held off Indiana's upset bid, 31-20.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


Two months ago, Scott Tolzien was the forgotten man at Wisconsin. His name barely got mentioned in discussions of the Badgers' quarterback competition, which most viewed as a two-man race between Dustin Sherer and Curt Phillips. Now Tolzien is the starting quarterback of a 4-0 Wisconsin team that hopes to retain Paul Bunyan's Axe on Saturday at Minnesota (ESPN, noon ET). He leads the Big Ten and ranks 13th nationally in pass efficiency (164.3), and he earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors after tossing four touchdown passes in a win against Michigan State.
 
 Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire
 Scott Tolzien has guided the Badgers to a 4-0 start heading into Saturday's game at Minnesota.


Tolzien checked in earlier this week to discuss his success and the challenges ahead.

How has your life changed here the last couple of weeks?

Scott Tolzien: Not too much. It hasn't been too much different. I'm just an Average Joe, I guess.

Have you exceeded your own expectations so far, or has it been what you expected?

ST: I came into the season with a lot of confidence. Every quarterback has to have that level of confidence if they want to be successful. But I don't think I've exceeded my expectations. I've played good football to this point, but there's still a lot of throws on the field that I haven't made that I can improve upon.

Where did that confidence come from? Was it the way you performed in camp?

ST: I'm a veteran. This is my fourth year, so it's not like this was anything I hadn't seen before. But it was also a good summer of work, watching film and throwing with the receivers. I just had a good camp and that boosted my confidence as well.

(Read full post)


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


A full slate of games is on tap Saturday, and the Big Ten has several excellent opportunities to improve its national reputation -- or make things worse.

Here are 10 things you should be watching out for this weekend:

1. Terrelle's time -- He's only a sophomore making his 12th career start, but Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor faces a defining game Saturday against USC (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). The Buckeyes need Pryor to make big plays with his feet and limit mistakes against a USC defense unlikely to miss a beat despite losing several standout players. The time has come for Ohio State to win big nonconference games again, and to do so, it needs excellence from the quarterback position.

2. Michigan's defensive line speed -- Boasting improved speed up front, Michigan generated a strong pass rush with only its down linemen last week against Western Michigan. The Wolverines need to do the same against Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who is hitting his stride and has two of the nation's top wide receivers in Golden Tate and Michael Floyd. I'm not a believer in Notre Dame's offensive line -- more experienced players doesn't automatically mean better ones -- and Michigan can find ways to turn up the heat on Clausen.

3. Outdoor football returns to the Twin Cities -- Big Ten fans are going to love TCF Bank Stadium, which finally opens its doors for a game as Minnesota takes on Air Force. It should be an electric atmosphere in Minneapolis as the football team returns to campus for the first time in 28 years. The Golden Gophers will undoubtedly be amped up, but they'll need a more polished performance than last week to beat the Falcons.

4. Purdue goes Duck hunting -- Oregon could be ripe for an upset after falling apart both during and after a loss to Boise State last week. Many forget that Purdue outplayed the Ducks for much of last year's game in West Lafayette before falling in overtime. Running back Ralph Bolden leads the Boilers after rushing for 234 yards in his first career start last week. Purdue's defense will need to be much sharper against Jeremiah Masoli and the dynamic Ducks offense.

5. Spartans QB race, Take 2 -- As long as Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol both continue to perform well, Michigan State will have a hard time playing only one quarterback. Still, my sense is that the Spartans want a clear field leader when they head to Notre Dame next week. Cousins' and Nichol's performances against Central Michigan (ESPN2, noon ET) could loom large in determining the starter and the backup for the rest of the season.

6. Iowa heads to unfriendly territory -- The Hawkeyes averted disaster last week with two blocked field goals against Northern Iowa. Now they head to Jack Trice Stadium, where they've dropped back-to-back games and four of their last five matchups against Iowa State. Will redshirt freshman Adam Robinson be the answer for Iowa's shaky rushing attack? Iowa is once again the better team in this matchup, but it needs to play like it in a hostile environment.

7. Ohio State's line play -- The Buckeyes' offensive line has underachieved for quite some time, while the defensive front is widely considered the team's strength. Ohio State needs both units to play to their potential against USC. Pryor is the type of quarterback who can hurt the Trojans, but he'll need time to move around in the pocket. On the other side of the ball, Ohio State needs to pressure USC freshman quarterback Matt Barkley and find ways to contain USC's running game.

8. Penn State aims for Paulus -- Joe Paterno sang Greg Paulus' praises all week, but Paterno's defensive linemen are waiting for the former Duke point guard, and things could get ugly Saturday at Beaver Stadium. Penn State's defensive line recorded four sacks against Akron in the opener and will be gunning for Paulus, who exceeded expectations last week for Syracuse in his first football game since high school. Paulus' presence at quarterback adds an intriguing subplot to a game that used to mean something but likely will become another Penn State rout.

9. Michigan's youth movement -- From a younger, faster defensive line to a pair of dual threat quarterbacks, Michigan is truly becoming Rich Rodriguez's team. Rodriguez's recruits are in place to be difference makers, but the youngsters need to take another step forward against Notre Dame. Tate Forcier made very few mistakes in his first career start, and both he and Denard Robinson need to maintain the good tempo they established on offense against a superior Irish defense.

10. Badgers on upset alert -- Pat Hill's Fresno State team isn't afraid of hostile environments like Camp Randall Stadium, and Wisconsin could be a little shorthanded because of a flu bug working its way through the locker room. Quarterback Scott Tolzien and wide receiver Isaac Anderson did a lot of good things in the opener, but Wisconsin must do a better job of finishing the game after letting up late against Northern Illinois.

Big Ten power rankings

September, 8, 2009
9/08/09
9:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


After several installments of power rankings during the offseason (when no games were actually being played), it's time to assess the league with a bit of concrete evidence.

First, a quick power rankings primer. These rankings are meant to be fluid. If a team loses or struggles in a game it should win, it pays the price. If a team looks impressive in victory or pulls an upset, it usually moves up. Try not to throw a tantrum if your team isn't where you think it should be. There are opportunities every week to move up. And move down.

Week 1 wasn't great for the Big Ten, as two ranked teams (Ohio State, Iowa) struggled and a potential sleeper team (Illinois) simply fell asleep. But there was good news in Ann Arbor, as Michigan looks to be respectable again. The top three look very solid to me. After that, it's a bit murky.

1. Penn State (1-0) -- The Nittany Lions handled their business with no drama against Akron, surging to a 31-0 halftime lead. Daryll Clark showed why he's the Big Ten's best quarterback, and for now, Penn State is the league's top team. Joe Paterno wants to see better play from his offensive line, but the wide receivers looked impressive.

2. Ohio State (1-0) -- Sure, Navy is a tricky team with a tricky offense. Tell me something I don't know. Bottom line: Ohio State was bigger and more talented at pretty much every position. The Buckeyes had a chance to put away the game early in the fourth quarter, but head coach Jim Tressel made a poor decision and his players had several breakdowns. It will take a much better performance across the board to simply keep pace with USC.

3. Michigan State (1-0) -- The Spartans hold a firm grip on the No. 3 spot after a stress-free win against Montana State. Quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol continue to pace one another in a good way, and linebacker Greg Jones picked up where he left off in 2008. Michigan State's line play still concerns me a bit, but I like the team's depth at most key positions.

4. Northwestern (1-0) -- Iowa's near disaster allows Northwestern to move up a spot. Towson didn't present much of a challenge for the Wildcats, who could have easily put up 60 points in Saturday's game. They might not get a true test until Week 3 or 4, but they had to be pleased with quarterback Mike Kafka and wide receiver Andrew Brewer in the opener.

5. Iowa (1-0) -- Hawkeye fans are already spreading the Northern Iowa gospel after their team was a 41-yard field goal away from a crushing defeat on Saturday. True, the Panthers are an excellent FCS program, but Iowa should feel free to take care of business and perform like a ranked team. It didn't happen, and the Hawkeyes' run game seems a bit shaky with Jewel Hampton lost for the season. There will be chances to move up, and Iowa needs to look like the team that ended last season on a great run.

6. Michigan (1-0) -- No team in the Big Ten had a more impressive debut, especially considering the circumstances. Rich Rodriguez's team showed unity, toughness and, most important, better execution on both sides of the ball as it totally dismantled Western Michigan. Rodriguez finally has the right quarterbacks in place to run his offense (Tate Forcier, Denard Robinson), and the defense looked extremely well coached and energized as it ruined Tim Hiller's day. A chance to make a national statement and move up the rankings arrives Saturday against Notre Dame (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

7. Wisconsin (1-0) -- Finishing games will continue to be a theme in Madison after Wisconsin allowed two late touchdowns to Northern Illinois. But for the most part, the Badgers had a nice debut as Scott Tolzien performed well at quarterback and Isaac Anderson distinguished himself as a playmaker at wide receiver. Wisconsin will need a more complete performance against Fresno State to move up the rankings.

8. Minnesota (1-0) -- A come-from-behind road win certainly means something, but Minnesota probably shouldn't have been in such a desperate position against Syracuse. The Gophers easily jumped ahead 14-3 but endured an offensive lull similar to the ones that cropped up late last season. Linebacker Lee Campbell led an admirable defensive performance. Air Force provides a good test this week as Minnesota opens TCF Bank Stadium.

9. Purdue (1-0) -- Boilers fans have the right to be a bit ticked off with this placement, but I need to see a little more from Danny Hope's team before buying in. If Purdue heads to Eugene and pulls the upset -- or merely keeps pace with Oregon for the second straight year -- I'll be happy to move the Boilers up the rankings. Ralph Bolden's performance was extremely impressive, though the defense needs to be better against Jeremiah Masoli and the wounded Ducks.

10. Illinois (0-1) -- Granted, Illinois played a tougher opponent (Missouri) than its Big Ten brethren in Week 1, but a complete collapse in St. Louis is simply unacceptable. The Illini were the deeper and more experienced team, but they looked flustered and lifeless at times, delivering the type of performance that kept them out of a bowl game last year. A 1-4 start isn't out of the question for Illinois, which needs to bounce back strong to avoid a trip to the basement.

11. Indiana (1-0) -- A win's a win, but there won't be many more in Bloomington if Indiana doesn't pick up its play on both sides of the ball. The pistol formation was supposed to spark the rushing attack, but the Hoosiers gained just 73 yards on the ground against Eastern Kentucky, an FCS team. Indiana had three turnovers and endured several breakdowns in the secondary. Western Michigan and Hiller provide a bigger test this week, and Indiana needs to meet it.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Every Big Ten team circled and underlined a few questionable positions entering spring practice. Some of those concerns went away as young players blossomed and depth was built. Where did each Big Ten team get better this spring?

Here's a snapshot:

Illinois' running backs -- The development of sophomores Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure this spring gives Illinois plenty of options at running back heading into 2009. Ford and LeShoure both improved physically and mentally and will compete with senior Daniel Dufrene to be the featured runner. Bottom line: Juice Williams' job should be easier.

Indiana's offensive line -- After being decimated by injuries last season, Indiana can feel a bit better about the front five. Tackle James Brewer might finally be reaching his potential, and center Will Matte impressed the coaches in the middle of the line.

Iowa's offensive line -- This group figured to be pretty solid no matter what, but Iowa got some help from a familiar name in the interior line. Dace Richardson might finally be healthy, and he worked with the first-team at left guard as Iowa tries to replace all-conference linemen Seth Olsen and Rob Bruggeman.

Michigan's offensive line -- Not a major surprise here, considering the Wolverines bring back all their starters from last season. But an extra year of experience plus several talented redshirt freshmen (Ricky Barnum, Patrick Omameh) joining the mix should pay off big time this fall.

Michigan State's quarterbacks -- The Spartans felt great about the progress of quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol, who both threw for 357 yards and four touchdowns in the spring game. Head coach Mark Dantonio is in no rush to name a starter, but unlike many men in his position, he really has two viable options here.

Minnesota's wide receivers -- With superstar Eric Decker playing baseball, Minnesota needed to identify other solid options at receiver. Return specialist Troy Stoudermire emerged as a big-play threat, and quarterback Adam Weber liked what he saw from Brandon Green and Da'Jon McKnight.

Northwestern's running backs -- Of the three offensive skill positions where Northwestern loses starters, running back appears to be the most stable. Sophomore Jeravin Matthews emerged this spring and will push Stephen Simmons for the starting job. Northwestern has several options in the backfield after losing four-year starter Tyrell Sutton.

Ohio State's linebackers -- You can't deny all the production Ohio State loses in its defensive midsection, but the spring revealed several solid players who can step in. Austin Spitler and Tyler Moeller have waited their turn for the spotlight, and Brian Rolle had an excellent spring. With returning starter Ross Homan back on the outside, the Buckeyes should once again be solid.

Penn State's defensive line -- Despite losing three defensive ends with starting experience, Penn State should once again boast one of the league's top pass rushes. Sophomore Jack Crawford looks like the Nittany Lions' next superstar pass rusher and should fill the void on the edge with Eric Latimore and Kevion Latham.

Purdue's running backs -- Even with Jaycen Taylor still rehabbing from a torn ACL, Purdue got a lot better at running back this spring. Ralph Bolden came out of nowhere to steal the show in spring scrimmages (420 rush yards, 4 touchdowns), and Dan Dierking also looked impressive. The Boilers will need a viable rushing attack this fall, and they can feel a lot better about this group.

Wisconsin's wide receivers -- Dropped passes dogged the receivers throughout 2008, but the group definitely got better this spring. Nick Toon emerged as a potential No. 1 target with an excellent performance in practice, and Isaac Anderson, Kyle Jefferson and David Gilreath all showed progress at times.

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