NCF Nation: Jake Ryan

Revised image suits Michigan's Jake Ryan

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
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Jake RyanMatthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsMichigan's Jake Ryan has grown into a leadership role since suffering a torn ACL in his left knee.
Jake Ryan has been looking forward to this weekend for a long time.

Playing his final game at the Big House as a Michigan linebacker will be a moment to remember, as will the pregame curtain call in front of his family and more than 100,000 other onlookers. The chance to clinch bowl eligibility by beating Maryland for the team’s sixth win this season is nice, too. But that is not what Ryan has been waiting for. No, this weekend he’s finally getting a new suit.

Since turning a few heads at Big Ten media days in Chicago this summer, Ryan has been beseeching his father to help him upgrade his wardrobe.

"He’s asked me to call my suit person like six times in the last two months. It’s nonstop," said Tim Ryan, who lent Jake the plaid, maize-ish and blue sport coat and matching gold tie that he wore to represent the Wolverines in Chicago.

Jake stuffed the jacket’s pocket with a silk blue handkerchief, pinned a Block M to his lapel and then canvassed the gathered media to see if he was the sharpest-dressed player in town. He held his own. At the very least, this GQ-styled, well-coiffed version of Ryan was a far cry from the long-haired sophomore who emerged as one of the conference’s most promising young defenders two years earlier.

"I like dressing nice," Ryan said months later. "I do, I’ll admit that. I’ve always thought I’ve gotta have some style."

Ryan’s style took a sharp turn 19 months ago, shortly after the lowest point of his football career. Eight days removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL, Ryan chopped off and donated 10 inches of the shoulder-length blond hair that had been his calling card during the first half of his Michigan career.

This was a fresh start, he told his family, a symbolic reminder that he would have to remake himself to get where he wanted to go. It was the first step in a tumultuous year and a half -- one that included a painful and patience-testing rehab, a position change and a senior season besmirched by disappointing losses and distractions. As it draws to a close, that path has transformed Ryan into a more polished professional, in football and fashion.

A family affair

The Ryans are a football family. Tim played wide receiver at Wake Forest. Jake’s cousin John was a defensive end at Notre Dame, and Jake's older brother, Connor, was a receiver at Ball State. Their younger brother, Zack, is a starting linebacker at Ball State, and the youngest of the four Ryan boys seems destined to follow them when he finishes high school. It’s what the Ryans do. They play for Chuck Kyle’s St. Ignatius football powerhouse in Cleveland and then find a college to continue their career.

In high school, Jake needed to forge an identity he could call his own. He picked a surfer’s wardrobe and adopted the laid-back personality to match. His inspiration was his West Coast cousin Mikey. Ten years older, Mikey was the epitome of cool in the eyes of his younger cousins.

Mikey used product to slick back his hair as a teenager, so 7-year-old Jake slapped globs of gel in his hair until his father nixed that idea. Mikey wore Vans, so Jake searched Cleveland for whatever psychedelic-colored, floral-patterned shoes he could find. Mikey was a surfer. There were no waves anywhere near Ohio, so Jake learned to snowboard.

When Jake injured his hand during a playoff run in his senior year at St. Ignatius, he opted to wrap it in a neon pink cast. He visited Ball State a few weeks later on a recruiting trip, which meant Connor had to explain to his teammates that the goofball prospect with the pink cast was actually his little brother.

"He always wanted to be different," Connor said. "He’s starting to [learn] a little bit more from me I would say. He’s getting a little bit better fashion sense, definitely starting to get the hang of it."

Jake’s style on the football field was equally unique.

"Unorthodox," he said. "That’s what they’re calling it now, I guess."

He finds the ball by instinct, he says, more than following a premeditated path or assignment. His coaches at St. Ignatius stuck him at safety during his first week with the varsity team, but Ryan had trouble understanding why they wanted him to move backward when the ball was in front of him. Midway through double sessions they moved him to linebacker, and his coaches say he "just started wrecking guys."

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
AP Photo/Rich SchultzLinebacker Jake Ryan (90 tackles) has had six games this season with at least 10 stops.
His unorthodox style, combined with a lack of size he wouldn’t overcome until a last growth spurt as a senior, put Ryan behind schedule on the typical recruiting process. Brady Hoke, who had recruited Connor to Ball State before moving on to coach at San Diego State, had one of his Aztecs assistants call the Ryans to say he wasn’t interested in offering Jake a spot on the team.

"I still tell him that when he messes up," Hoke said. "I probably should have done a little more homework on him."

It worked out for Hoke, who inherited Ryan when he took the Michigan job and played him as an outside linebacker and defensive end during their first two years together. As a redshirt sophomore, Ryan led the Wolverines' defense in tackles (88), tackles for loss (16) and sacks (4.5).

The following winter Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison told Ryan they wanted to move him to inside linebacker so opposing offenses couldn’t run away from him. Ryan, a budding star on the edge, was skeptical. Mattison, the former linebackers coach for the Baltimore Ravens, handed him a stack of Ray Lewis film to explain the new role, and Ryan was sold. He would soon be the new centerpiece of the Michigan defense. A few weeks later, he tore his ACL.

Surviving rehab

Rehab was miserable. Patience was a virtue Ryan had not yet acquired. He vowed to get through the process as quickly as possible. If NFL star Adrian Peterson could get back on the field six months after ACL surgery, so could he. Ryan cut every distraction that might slow him down, including his hair.

Ryan became a fixture in the Michigan training room and tried to help his teammates with their assignments during practice. He learned he could never be a coach. It turns out telling someone to do something over and over is a lot more frustrating than trying to do something over and over.

He sought advice from teammates past and present who had gone through a similar injury, including Michigan fullback Joe Kerridge, who tore his ACL as a high school senior. Kerridge told him surgery wasn’t a death sentence. Stay with your recovery program and you’ll be back, he said.

"He attacked everything with the workouts and the rehab," said Kerridge, who has lived with Ryan for the past three years. "I think the knee really tested him. He excelled through it and he really matured. He learned what he had to do to be a great football player."

Teammates recognized Ryan’s diligence and selected him to be a team captain even though he spent all of training camp on the sideline. The new leadership position made Ryan more conscious of all the eyes that were on him and pushed him to continue to evolve into the more professional version of his free-spirited self. He started speaking up more often when needed. He became a regular volunteer at the university’s children’s hospital. And of course, he made sure he looked sharp whenever he knew he would be going in front of a camera.

"He knows that he can be one of the faces of the team," said his brother Connor. "I think he wants to resemble that 'Michigan man.' When you’re asking to grab some nice suits or dress a little nicer or watch your language, whatever it may be, I think that’s him growing up."

Ryan reached his goal of making it back on the field in six months, but the eight games he played during the 2013 season were humbling. He didn’t fully trust his knee yet, and he didn’t have the speed to keep up with his instincts. The coaching staff kept him at outside linebacker for the rest of the season so as not to overload him with adjusting to a new position while trying to get healthy.

The hurdles came in quick succession from there.

When Ryan felt comfortable with his knee, he set about learning to fend off lineman and see the game from a new angle as an inside linebacker. His first game in the middle, a blowout win against Appalachian State to open the 2014 season, allowed him to settle in.

As Ryan got better at his new job, the program around him seemed to get worse. Michigan lost four of its next five, and off-the-field turmoil spiraled out of control. Ryan continued to hone his image while learning how to ignore the negative public feedback.

"You always learn more from losing than winning," he said. "You learn how to stick together. You learn how to mold a team. I think you do need to go through some situations that put you down to learn a lot of things. It prepares you to be a man."

A resilient leader

This is not the senior season Ryan imagined. It has, though, helped him grow into the resilient face of a team that, if nothing else, continues to show up no matter what punches fate throws its way.

Michigan has won three of its past four during a more forgiving stretch in its schedule. A victory on Senior Day would keep the Wolverines from a losing record and salvage a bowl trip.

Ryan is the team’s top defender again. He is 10 tackles shy of reaching 100 on the season. He has had six games this season with at least 10 stops. Only nine players in the history of Michigan football have had more double-digit performances in a single season. He is one of 15 linebackers in the country still in the running for this year’s Butkus Award, and most experts expect Ryan will be picked in the third or fourth round of the NFL draft in the spring.

Before the team’s most recent game, a 10-9 win at Northwestern, Ryan made a deal with his father. If he made 13 tackles and intercepted a pass against the Wildcats, he would earn a trip to the tailor for a new suit. Ryan had never picked off a pass before in his career, but he finished with an interception and 11 tackles. Close enough.

Big Ten helmet stickers: Week 11

November, 9, 2014
Nov 9
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Recognizing the brightest from Week 11 in the Big Ten:
  • Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett: The redshirt freshman didn't just play well against the No. 5 defense in the nation; he absolutely dominated. Barrett threw for 300 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. That alone probably would've earned him a helmet sticker -- but he also added another 86 yards and another two scores on the ground. He led Ohio State to touchdowns on six straight drives and scored four TDs in just the first half, as the Buckeyes posted the surprising 49-37 victory over Michigan State. Barrett played big on the Buckeyes' biggest stage yet this season; this honor was a no-brainer.
  • Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams: When Williams inevitably wins the Big Ten tight end of the year award, how many of his highlights are actually going to come from this game: His first TD? His second? His third? Or about that toe-dragging 25-yard reception? On a day in which the Gophers finished with 51 points in a 51-14 win, the most they’ve scored in the battle for the Floyd of Rosedale since 1949, Williams was the star. He finished with five catches for 46 yards and three touchdowns. All of his scores came on second downs, and he made it all look easy for the Gophers.
  • Michigan defensive end Frank Clark: Good numbers, clutch play, holding the other team to minus-9 rushing yards – that’s a pretty good route to a helmet sticker. Clark finished with seven tackles, two pass breakups, a sack and two stops in the backfield during Michigan's 10-9 victory at Northwestern. He was closing in on Wildcats quarterback Trevor Siemian when Siemian slipped on the potential game-winning two-point conversion. Clark helped ensure the U-M victory and, while linebacker Jake Ryan also turned in a solid performance, Clark’s nose for the ball on the Northwestern’s final play gives him an edge.
  • Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon: Another week, another helmet sticker for MGIII. You can’t really be surprised at this point because the Heisman hopeful tends to dominate every week. In a 34-16 victory over Purdue, he ended up with 25 carries, 205 rushing yards and a touchdown. He also added a highlight or two receiving with three catches for 44 yards and another score. His two touchdowns came when the Badgers needed them most, the first to take the lead and the second to make it a double-digit game. He’s quick, he’s explosive, and his helmet might be running out of room with all these Big Ten helmet stickers.
  • Penn State defense: Indiana never once entered the red zone during Penn State's 13-7 victory, but it’s not fair to single out just one Nittany Lion defender here because, quite frankly, no individual stuck out. Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman paced the unit with seven tackles apiece, but five other players had six tackles. And eight players had at least one stop in the backfield, with no one finishing with more than two. It was a total team effort. And it was the first time all season Indiana tailback Tevin Coleman didn’t reach the 100-yard mark. It was an impressive performance all-around. PSU’s defense finished with 10 stops in the backfield and two interceptions.

Happy Halloween in the Big Ten

October, 31, 2014
Oct 31
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Happy Halloween, Big Ten fans! The conference got off to a ghoulish start this season but has since provided enough tricks and treats to set up an entertaining final month of the regular season. In celebration of the undead, let’s take a look at what Halloween staples we think of when talking about the Big Ten.

Jason Voorhees: Have you ever seen Jason run after one of his soon-to-be victims? Nope, but somehow he always catches them with his slow-and-steady gait. Watching Minnesota hasn’t been much different this season. The Golden Gophers are in no hurry, defiantly marching their way toward wins in the age of turbo-speed offenses. Somehow Jerry Kill (a name made for a horror movie villain) and his team, which is now 6-2, usually end up catching their opponent and slashing them to bits.

Zombies: Unless of course, Minnesota is playing the Fighting Illini. Tim Beckman and his coaching staff might be walking dead as his third season in Champaign rolls toward the finish line, but that doesn’t mean they can’t take a few other teams down with them along the way. Can Illinois infect another team with an undefeated conference record when it faces Ohio State this Saturday? Something tells me J.T. Barrett will be going to this weekend’s party dressed as Michonne, katana and all.

Freddy Krueger: You don’t want to sleep on Nebraska this season. The Cornhuskers fell off the radar after a loss at Michigan State in early October. With Ameer Abdullah terrorizing defenses this season, they haven’t played their way out of an unexpected playoff bid just yet. The original playoff rankings put Nebraska at 15th. If Bo Pelini's team can win the West Division and a potential rematch with the Spartans in the Big Ten championship game, it can silently sneak up on a lot of folks in the college football world.

Sidney Prescott: The Ohio State-Penn State referee crew. Sidney is the main character in the Scream series, but this one applies to pretty much any pretty slasher-film target. You know, the ones who always seems to make the wrong decision. The front door is open? It’s time to scramble up the stairs. An incomplete pass bounces on the turf? Let’s rule it an interception. Getaway car is running in the driveway? Time to hide behind the chainsaws. The play clock expired? Let them kick the field goal anyway. These decisions always work out for the killer, and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone outside of Columbus who doesn’t see Urban Meyer as the perfect fit for a Big Ten villain role.

The Headless Horseman: Michigan isn’t headless quite yet, but coach Brady Hoke and athletic director Dave Brandon are both moving in the direction of the guillotine. The Wolverines may be riding through the night searching for a couple new leaders a month from now. While football season has left the people of Ann Arbor feeling hollow, the town has been anything but sleepy this autumn. The Big House feels haunted. Maybe that explains all the boos.

All right, I think we’ve filled our quota for (candy)corny Halloween puns this year. Before we go, a few costume suggestions for coaches and players around the Big Ten…

Michigan LB Jake Ryan: He-Man (Before Ryan cut his hair, of course)

Rutgers DE Kemoko Turay: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (No one has rocked the flat top as well as Turay since Will Smith.)

Michigan WR Dennis Norfleet: Carlton Banks (Will needs his partner in crime, and Norfleet’s dance moves fit the bill.)

Northwestern DC Mike Hankwitz: Walter White (No costume required, maybe just a black hat.)

Penn State coach James Franklin: Gus Fring (Close enough, and Hankwitz's defense did blow up the Nittany Lions this year.)

Purdue coach Darrell Hazell: George Whitfield (No wonder Hazell has Austin Appleby playing so well.)

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini: Voldemort (When Bo is screaming, the resemblance is uncanny.)

Michigan State P Mike Sadler: Bo Pelini (Well, technically Faux Pelini, but his impression was spot-on.)

Indiana QB Zander Diamont: Derek Zoolander (There’s more to life than being ridiculously good looking, and for former model Diamont, that includes playing quarterback for the Hoosiers.)

Preseason All-Big Ten team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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There is no official preseason all-conference team in the Big Ten (or official predicted order of finish, etc.). But we here at ESPN.com have got you covered with our preseason all-league picks on offense, defense and special teams.

And here they are:

Offense

QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: Braxton Miller's injury opened up this spot on the first team. Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Indiana's Nate Sudfeld were potential choices here too, but Cook's Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl MVP finish earn him the nod.

RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Well, sure. He could lead the nation in rushing, unless ...

RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: ... Abdullah, his good friend, beats him to it. In a league blessed with great running backs, these two stand out the most.

WR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland: There is a lot of uncertainty in the Big Ten at receiver heading into 2014. This much is certain: If Diggs can stay healthy, he'll be one of the nation's best.

WR: Shane Wynn, Indiana: Wynn scored more touchdowns than any other Big Ten receiver the past season, and now he steps into a more featured role.

TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan: Funchess might play wide receiver almost exclusively, in which case this should be viewed as a third wide receiver spot on the team. The matchup nightmare looks poised for a big season.

OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He might just be the best left tackle in college football in 2014. He's definitely got NFL scouts drooling.

OT: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: An enormous road grader at right tackle. Trying to shed him and catch Melvin Gordon is just not fair.

OG: Kaleb Johnson, Rutgers: He thought about leaving for the NFL after the past season but instead gave the Scarlet Knights a boost by returning. He has started 37 straight games.

OG: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: He could be the next rising star in Wisconsin's offensive lineman factory.

C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: A second-team All-Big Ten pick the past season, the former high school wrestling champion has no let up in his game.

Defense

DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: He’s the returning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year and could become the conference’s defensive player of the year in 2014, unless ...

DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska: ... Gregory edges him out for the honor. The pass-rush specialist outpaced Calhoun in sacks (10.5) the past season, and Bo Pelini said Gregory has “only scratched the surface of what he’s going to be down the line.”

DT: Michael Bennett, Ohio State: He anchors the best defensive line in the conference and was named to the All-Big Ten’s second team last season.

DT: Carl Davis, Iowa: He still thinks Scherff would get the best of him if they squared off, but Athlon thought highly enough of Davis to make him a fourth-team preseason All-American.

LB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern: The quiet Ariguzo likes to let his play do the talking, and it chatted up a storm this past season -- to the tune of 106 tackles and four interceptions.

LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: He was a coin-flip from transferring to Pittsburgh during the sanctions, but now he’s the leader of this revamped defense.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan shocked onlookers last season by taking less than seven months to go from ACL surgery to playing in a Big Ten game. Hopes are higher now for the healthy redshirt senior, as he has registered a stop in the backfield in 25 of his past 30 games.

CB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: He’s taking over at Darqueze Dennard's boundary cornerback position, but he’s up for the challenge. He’s already on the watch lists for the Bednarik and Thorpe awards.

CB: Blake Countess, Michigan: He tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions (6) the past season -- despite battling lower abdominal pain most of the year.

S: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: The blue-collar DB started 21 straight games and was a Sports Illustrated All-American the past season.

S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: A smart and instinctive player, Campbell has been remarkably consistent for the Wildcats. He’s a three-time all-academic B1G player and has eight career interceptions.

Special teams

K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State: As a freshman in 2013, he made 15 of his 16 field-goal attempts.

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State: An ESPN.com All-American in 2013, Sadler combines with Geiger to give the Spartans the best 1-2 kicking tandem in the league.

KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska: He led the Big Ten in return yardage the past season (averaging 26.5 yards per kick) and took one 99 yards for a touchdown at Penn State.

PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa: He averaged 15.7 yards per return in 2013 and scored on two punt returns in the same game.

Selections by school:

Michigan State: 7
Iowa: 3
Michigan: 3
Nebraska: 3
Wisconsin: 3
Northwestern: 2
Indiana: 1
Maryland: 1
Ohio State: 1
Penn State: 1
Rutgers: 1
Illinois: 0
Minnesota: 0
Purdue: 0
CHICAGO -- With some of the Big Ten's best all gathered in one place for media days, it seemed only natural to poll the players about the best and brightest athletes in the conference.

So on Tuesday morning, five offensive players and five defensive players offered their takes regarding those top athletes. We ran the offensive player results earlier on Tuesday, and up now are the results from the defense.

The full question: Besides you or players on your team, who's the best -- or most exciting -- defensive player in the Big Ten?

[+] EnlargeShilique Calhoun
AP Photo/Andrew A. NellesShilique Calhoun is one of the most disruptive forces in the Big Ten.
DT Carl Davis, Iowa: "Probably [Shilique] Calhoun from Michigan State. He's a great competitor, and he got the defensive lineman of the year award. I talked to [Iowa OT Brandon] Scherff, and he said that's the best defensive end he went against last year -- and Scherff's a big guy; he can drive guys like 20 yards downfield. And Calhoun is a powerful player; he uses speed and power to his advantage. He's a great player."

S Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: "I like watching Randy Gregory and the way he can tackle people. We got a lot of good players in this conference, so that's kind of tough to say. But I like his motor, I like the way he gets after people, and I like his excitement. I like guys that are out there having fun, and you can tell he has fun the way he plays."

DT Michael Bennett, Ohio State: "A lot of them left last year. Hmm ... I'd have to say Shilique Calhoun because he's the only other name I really know. He makes plays. Other than that, I watched his film and I wasn't really sure what the hype was -- but then, somehow, in our game he comes out with two forced fumbles and three sacks or something like that. So the guy is a playmaker and he gets the job done."

LB Mike Hull, Penn State: "That's tough. There's a lot of good players, but I really follow a lot of the linebackers. So I'd say Jake Ryan. He's a solid linebacker, makes good plays and has really good fundamentals. Just have respect for Michigan."

S Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: "It's tough to say ... but there's some defenses that stand out. Michigan State's defense always stands out. It's more of a concerted effort; their whole unit plays with a good energy that I like. I'll always be watching them during the season, and they'll always stand out to me. If we're watching Illinois' offense and they played Michigan State, they'll just kind of stand out as one of the best teams defensively."
This week, we’re counting down the Top 25 players in the Big Ten. Our reporting crew voted to select the list based on past performance and future potential.

The first five selections were unveiled on Monday. Here’s the next group of five:

20. Jake Ryan, LB, Michigan Wolverines: The play-making fifth year senior returned from a knee-ligament tear to play in eight games and start five last season. Named a team captain despite the abbreviated campaign, Ryan enters his final year at Michigan with the experience of 29 starts. He has made a tackle behind the line of scrimmage in 25 of his past 30 games and should anchor the Wolverines defensively.

19. Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State Spartans: What can the Spartans do to account for the loss of star corner Darqueze Dennard? It helps to have the junior Waynes, who’s set to move from the field corner to the boundary spot manned last year by the All-American Dennard. Waynes, a solid athlete, is up to the challenge.

18. Devin Funchess, WR/TE Michigan: Classify him any way you’d like, Funchess will catch plenty of passes this fall. The 6-foot-5 junior runs like a wideout with the size of a tight end. He has started 15 consecutive games and looks ready to improve his already solid production amid a plentiful mix of young talent for the Wolverines.

17. Kurtis Drummond, S, Michigan State: The fifth-year senior has started a team-high 21 consecutive games, earning preseason inclusion on watch lists for the Bednarik and Thorpe awards, plus the Nagurski Trophy. Drummond has a nose for the football, evidenced by his four interceptions last year, and he supports the run well.

16. Jeremy Langford, RB, Michigan State: In a league of strong backs, Langford often gets overlooked. Not a good idea after he rushed for 1,422 yards a season ago. Now as a fifth-year senior, the former cornerback and wideout has found a home in the backfield. His presence as a leader helps ease pressure on quarterback Connor Cook.

Look for Nos. 15-11 on Wednesday …
We've already covered the conference's potential villains, so it's only natural that we move on to the good guys.

You won't find them in comic books or out in the Big Ten footprint fighting crime. But even opposing fans won't find it all that difficult to root for this cast of characters. Some overcame injuries or other obstacles, some have been wronged, and others just seem like genuinely good people.

There are certainly plenty of other athletes and coaches whom this could apply to, so it wasn't easy just picking a handful. But true heroes don't expect media attention for their good deeds … plus, we had to cut this list off somewhere.

So, in alphabetical order, here are the unmasked Big Ten heroes:

[+] EnlargeNebraska
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAmeer Abdullah, left, decided to put the NFL off for another year and return for his senior season at Nebraska.
Ameer Abdullah, running back, Nebraska: About 100 juniors declared early for this year's NFL draft, and no one would've blamed Abdullah if he decided to join the herd. Instead, he decided to stay -- and he's said all the right things. As the youngest of nine children, the other eight of whom have earned college degrees, Abdullah stressed the importance of his education and finishing that degree. When a lot of other players are chasing dollar signs instead of diplomas, that's a refreshing viewpoint. Added Bo Pelini: “He's an All-American on the field. He's an All-American off the field.”

Adam Breneman, tight end, Penn State: Forget the fact he remained loyal and committed to the university throughout the sanctions, when he could've bolted to the likes of Florida State or Notre Dame. He's also used his football celebrity to champion a few charitable causes, something more common for coaches than players. In high school he started “Catch the Cure,” which helped raise more than $200,000 to fight Lou Gehrig's Disease. During his Under Armour jersey presentation two years ago, he even helped man a booth outside the auditorium to seek donations. Currently, he's the secretary of Penn State's nonprofit chapter of “Uplifting Athletes,” which raises money for the Kidney Cancer Association. You don't have to like the Nittany Lions, but you have to like what Breneman's doing.

Ralph Friedgen, offensive coordinator, Rutgers: Underappreciated. Underestimated. Underdog. That's why Friedgen is under two other heroes on this list. It's easy to root for someone who appeared to be unfairly punished – and is now seeking out justice on the gridiron. Friedgen is just about the only head coach to win conference coach of the year and then be fired that same season. It happened with Maryland in 2010; now, he's helping oversee a Rutgers offense that people aren't expecting a lot from. He's in the same division as the Terps -- heck, they're on the schedule this year -- and Friedgen has a chance to show Maryland it made a mistake. He certainly could've handled the dismissal better, but it's hard to blame him and easy to wish him well. As long as you're not a Terps fan, that is.

Jerry Kill, head coach, Minnesota: Stop me if you've heard this before. “I'm rooting against them when they play us, but I'm wishing all the best to ________ the rest of the season.” Chances are Kill's filled in quite a few of those sentences the past few years. He has refused to let epilepsy get the best of him, and his longevity's been a testament to his toughness. He's been a coach since 1985, and he just led the Gophers to back-to-back bowls. Plus, he recently started a new epilepsy foundation for young patients, and he put $100,000 of his own money toward that. How can you not root for this guy?

Jake Ryan, linebacker, Michigan: Torn anterior cruciate ligaments are usually big setbacks, something that means missed seasons or at least gradual returns. Not for Ryan. The Michigan linebacker, a team captain last season, was on crutches last spring and returned in time for the Oct. 12 game against Penn State. Said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison: “If he ever truly logged the hours of extra treatment and extra rehab that he has done since the day that happened, I think it would floor you.” Nothing has really been handed to Ryan, as he wasn't a highly sought-after recruit. But he's worked hard and now finds himself on the preseason watch lists for the Bednarik and Nagurski awards. It's his final season at Michigan, and big things are expected from him.

Heroes on deck: Tracy Claeys, Stefon Diggs, Herb Hand, Jeremy Langford, Venric Mark
If the preseason All-America teams are any indication, the Big Ten will have a very good year in the offensive backfield -- both carrying the ball out of it and penetrating it.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon has averaged a gaudy 8.1 yards per rushing attempt during his career.
Running back and defensive line appear to be the league's two strongest position groups -- possibly by a wide margin -- entering the 2014 season. Athlon on Monday came out with its preseason All-America teams, following up Phil Steele, who released his last week. Three Big Ten players made Athlon's first team: Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett and Michigan State punter Mike Sadler. Four other defensive linemen -- Nebraska's Randy Gregory (second team), Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun (second team), Ohio State's Joey Bosa (fourth team) and Iowa's Carl Davis (fourth team) -- made one of the remaining three teams, and two other running backs -- Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah (second team) and Michigan State's Jeremy Langford (fourth team) -- also appear.

Steele had Bennett and Calhoun on his first team, Gregory and Bosa on his second team and Davis on his third team. Like Athlon, he lists Gordon as a first-team running back and Abdullah on the second team. It's interesting to see Calhoun getting a bit more love than Gregory, even though Gregory led the Big Ten in sacks and is projected as a higher draft pick.

Not sure about you, but I can't wait for Calhoun and Gregory to share the field Oct. 4 at Spartan Stadium, or for longtime friends Gordon and Abdullah to match up on Nov. 15 at Camp Randall Stadium. Both matchups should be fun to watch all season.

It's not unusual for defensive line and running back to headline the Big Ten. Both positions historically are strong in the league, especially defensive line. A potential concern is that only one quarterback -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller -- and zero wide receivers make any of Athlon's teams. Steele has two Big Ten wideouts, Maryland's Stefon Diggs and Michigan's Devin Funchess (has played tight end but listed as a receiver), on his third team. Still, it's clear these are two positions where the Big Ten continues to need upgrades.

Other Athlon preseason All-America selections include: Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff (second team), Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman (third team), Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond (third team), Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston (third team), Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan (fourth team), Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes (fourth team) and Northwestern punt returner Venric Mark (fourth team).

The Big Ten is tied with the Pac-12 for third among overall Athlon All-America selections with 18, trailing both the ACC (27) and SEC (26).

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- On Friday, Michigan plans to unveil a new museum area inside Schembechler Hall. The centerpiece display is a glass case reaching from floor to ceiling that contains 910 footballs, or one for every Wolverines victory.

There is room in the case for at least a couple hundred more balls. It’s also safe to presume that the all-time winningest program in college football history expects to add more than seven of those per year.

But that’s how many Team 134 contributed in 2013 in a disappointing 7-6 campaign that ended with a thud in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
AP Photo/Tony DingThe 2013 season was a frustrating one for all involved in the Michigan program, as Brady Hoke and the Wolverines stumbled to a 7-6 record.
“That wasn’t a Michigan record,” senior linebacker Jake Ryan said.

It seemed almost quaint two years ago when Brady Hoke labeled the 2011 season -- one that included 11 wins and a Sugar Bowl title -- as “a failure” because the team didn’t capture a Big Ten championship. Since then, Hoke has flirted with actual failure, going just 15-11 in his second and third seasons as head coach.

As a result, Hoke made the first major staff shakeup of his tenure this offseason. He fired offensive coordinator Al Borges -- a move he called difficult because of their personal friendship -- and hired Doug Nussmeier from Alabama. He also switched around several defensive roles and took himself out of the defensive line coaching mix. Those moves signaled what had become obvious: Change was necessary to get Michigan back to being Michigan.

“Our first message to the players this offseason was to learn from going 7-6 on every front you can,” Hoke said. “That’s from how you prepared to how you came in the building every day.

“It’s the same thing with us as coaches. We talked a lot about us doing a better job with the fundamentals of playing the game and holding everybody to those expectations. And I think you always have to check yourself before you go anywhere else with it.”

Hoke hopes Nussmeier can help establish the true pro-style, physical offense that Borges could never quite take from vision to reality. Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison will coach the linebackers this season while Roy Manning and Curt Mallory will both work with the secondary, an idea Hoke said he got from talking to NFL coaches. Mattison wants to bring more pressure on defense this season, something the Wolverines didn’t do well in 2013. But with experience now in the front seven and incoming star recruit Jabrill Peppers potentially adding a lockdown cornerback, Michigan expects to go on the attack.

“In 2011, I think we had a much more aggressive style of defense,” Hoke said. “We probably got away from that a little bit.”

Perhaps the changes can finally answer last season's unsolved mystery: Who exactly are these Wolverines?

They were a wildly inconsistent crew that could set offensive records one week and fail to find the end zone the next. They nearly upset Ohio State in a thriller and lost four Big Ten games by just 11 points. But they also nearly lost to Akron, UConn and Northwestern and surrendered more than 40 points three times.

“Last year, we lacked an identity,” senior defensive end Frank Clark said. “This year, the main talk around here has been to develop an identity, as a defense especially. You look at every other top team across the country, and everybody either has a tough running game or a crazy pass game or a crazy defense. We want to go into a game and have our opponent say ‘Oh, man, it’s going to be a long day.’”

One of the main differences between his first team and the past two, Hoke said, was that the 2011 Sugar Bowl squad had “some fourth- and fifth-year guys who really understood what Michigan meant.” Leadership is a concern for this year’s team, which has only 12 seniors, though guys such as Ryan, Clark and quarterback Devin Gardner provide a great starting point. Hoke has taken his seniors to California for Navy SEALs training in the past and says he has some new ideas in store for this summer which he’s not yet ready to reveal.

The players and coaches are also trying to develop more of a competitive edge this spring.

“There’s definitely a different focus,” linebacker James Ross III said. “A lot of guys getting on each other, but it’s positive. Last year, I don’t think we had that as much. We’re holding each other accountable now, and I think we let a lot of things slide last year.”

Michigan’s success or failure in 2014 will ultimately depend on how quickly its young players, many of whom were decorated recruits, can develop. It says something about the state of the program that two guys who just enrolled in January -- receiver Freddy Canteen and offensive lineman Mason Cole -- have been among the standouts of the spring. The Maize and Blue are extremely green on offense, particularly up front on a line that has been a sore spot for the past two seasons. With tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield graduated, that group is now mostly comprised of freshmen and sophomores.

Hoke said the youth on the O-line is a remaining byproduct of the transition from Rich Rodriguez. You might recall that Rodriguez was fired in 2010 after going 7-6 in his third year. Athletic director Dave Brandon remains in Hoke’s corner, and Hoke says the only pressure he feels is the internal pressure to do right by all of his players.

Still, the message should be loud and clear when Hoke walks into Schembechler Hall every day. They don’t dedicate museum displays to teams that go 7-6.

“The atmosphere around this building now is that we’ve got to win,” defensive lineman Taco Charlton said. “That’s period, point blank, whatever we’ve got to do.”

OSU, Michigan seemingly worlds apart

November, 25, 2013
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The theory was spawned sometime after the 2011 season, as Michigan celebrated Brady Hoke's successful debut and new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer had Columbus buzzing with optimism.

Both programs signed top-10 recruiting classes in February 2012. Both coaches had clear visions and lofty goals and standards. The rest of the Big Ten, the theory held, was in serious trouble.

The Big Ten was headed back to the Big Two and everybody else. Some college football observers said it publicly; many others said it privately. They pointed mainly to recruiting, but also to other factors.

At the very least, the gap separating Ohio State and Michigan from 2008 to 2010 -- and also from 2005 to 2009 -- would narrow as both programs were poised to take up residence in college football's penthouse.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
AP Photo/Tony DingBrady Hoke and the Wolverines have stumbled down the stretch this season, losing three of their last four.
Two years later, Ohio State has renewed its lease. Michigan, meanwhile, has been evicted.

Ohio State and Michigan seemingly are worlds apart as they gather this week for The Game at Michigan Stadium. The Buckeyes, headed for the league championship, lead a group of Big Ten elites that includes No. 11 Michigan State and No. 15 Wisconsin. Michigan is a rung or two below.

The last time the longtime rivals met at the Big House, Michigan ended its seven-game losing streak against Ohio State. The Wolverines went on to win the Sugar Bowl and finish 11-2, but the victory over Ohio State, from an emotional and symbolic standpoint, arguably meant more to Hoke, his players and Michigan fans sick of hearing about The Streak.

Two days after the Michigan loss, Ohio State named Meyer head coach. The Buckeyes went on to lose their bowl game under Luke Fickell before Meyer took full control. They have yet to lose under Meyer, setting a team record Saturday against Indiana with their 23rd consecutive win.

Ohio State is No. 3 in the BCS standings, and with two more wins could make the trip to Pasadena, Calif., for the national championship game on Jan. 6. The Buckeyes rank third nationally in scoring (48.7 ppg) and boast arguably the nation's most dynamic offensive backfield: quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde.

Michigan is fortunate to be bowl-eligible, is unable to run the ball and, barring a major surprise Saturday, is headed for its worst stretch under Hoke (losses in four of its final five games). Hoke, along with his offensive staff, is feeling the heat. While Ohio State has reached historic milestones under Meyer, Michigan has endured historic lows in recent weeks, from the lowest net rushing total in team history (minus-48 against Michigan State) to becoming the only FBS team in the past 10 seasons with consecutive games of minus-20 rush yards or fewer (minus-48 against MSU, minus-21 against Nebraska).

The win over Ohio State in 2011, followed by the Sugar Bowl triumph, have been high points in the Hoke era. Since the bowl win, Michigan is just 15-9, including a 2-5 mark against teams ranked in the AP Top 25.

Even after a 2012 season filled with close losses to good teams, Michigan seemed ready to join Ohio State in the elite when it thumped Notre Dame, the 2012 national runner-up, in Week 2 this season. Quarterback Devin Gardner and the offense were rolling, star linebacker Jake Ryan would soon return from injury, and a favorable schedule put Michigan in great position to meet Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game.

Then the turnovers started. Michigan nearly lost to Akron at home and Connecticut on the road. Defensive woes surfaced in an overtime loss to Penn State and a shootout win against Indiana. The offense then fizzled against Michigan State and Nebraska. Michigan's lone win since Oct. 19 -- an overtime triumph at Northwestern -- wouldn't have happened if officials had called illegal motion on a tying field goal at the end of regulation.

Sure, the Wolverines are young at some spots, namely offensive line, but the clear vision that seemed to be in place two years ago is cloudier now.

"Is the goal always to win the Big Ten championship? No question about it," Hoke said Monday. "We won't make excuses nor back down from it. Have we played and coached as well as we needed to? Obviously not."

Both Meyer and Hoke are taking the correct approach to the week and have put the rivalry on a pedestal. Ohio State began its Michigan prep a day early, while Michigan, typically off on Mondays, went to work today.

There's plenty at stake for both teams, as Ohio State can keep its national title hopes alive and Michigan can lessen the disappointment of the season by beating its rival on senior day and handing the Buckeyes their first loss under Meyer. On paper, The Game looks like a mismatch, but rivalry games can spark surprises, especially when the underdog is playing at home on senior day.

"This game has always been different in some ways," Hoke said. "Are they a good football team? Yeah. They're a very good football team. Do we have to play better than we've played? I don't think there's any doubt about that."

Meyer doesn't put much stock in the Wolverines' record and expects "their best game."

When national signing day rolls around in February, Ohio State and Michigan will be in the same category, both likely signing top-10 recruiting classes (possibly top-five). It might refuel the Big Two theory in the Big Ten. After all, the original argument was heavily rooted in recruiting success.

But the real gauge comes this week on the field. Michigan must close the gap.

Otherwise, it's just another Big Ten program looking up at the Buckeyes.

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 7

October, 10, 2013
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Ten things to keep your eyes on in the four Big Ten games on Saturday:

1. Strength vs. strength for the Spittoon: The Indiana-Michigan State game might not be the most-hyped matchup of the weekend, but if you like irresistible force/immovable object conflicts, this one's for you. The Spartans lead the FBS in total defense, rush defense and passing efficiency defense. The Hoosiers, meanwhile, are ninth nationally in total offense, 10th in passing yards and 11th in scoring. Indiana scored the first 17 points of the game last year in Bloomington before falling 31-27. This year's Old Brass Spittoon winner will go to the team that better parlays its strengths and its corresponding weaknesses (Michigan State's defense, Indiana's offense).

2. Inexperienced travelers: Both Indiana and Nebraska have had comfortable early-season schedules, as each has played its first five games at home. Both teams go on the road for the first time this week, with the Hoosiers in East Lansing and Nebraska visiting Purdue. Bo Pelini said the schedule worked out well for his young defense to gain some less stressful experience, but he still will be leaning on youthful players both on defense and at quarterback with redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said his team uses a lot of hand signals on offense, so he's not too worried about crowd noise. Michigan also gets easily its toughest road test at Penn State, which should be a much more intimidating atmosphere than UConn's Rentschler Field.

3. Heartbreak Hotel, aka Camp Randall Stadium: No team has suffered more gut-wrenching close losses in the past 2½ years than Wisconsin. But at least Northwestern can relate. Both teams might be playing for national titles if the NCAA shortened games to 55 minutes. On Saturday, Team 5:03 travels to the team that has yielded more Hail Marys than the pope's rosary beads. Both the Wildcats and Badgers are also coming off tough losses to Ohio State, with Wisconsin having two weeks to lick its wounds. The winner can still dream about a BCS bowl. The loser will be in serious catch-up mode. Is there any way it can end except on a key play in the final minute?

4. Northwestern's run defense vs. Wisconsin's rushing attack: The Wildcats had trouble stopping Ohio State's offensive line and bulldozing back Carlos Hyde as the Buckeyes racked up 248 rushing yards in last week's 40-30 win. Northwestern players and coaches say it was more a matter of tackling and execution than a size and strength issue. They will have to do a much better job this week against Wisconsin, which is averaging 300 rushing yards per game. By all accounts, star tailback Melvin Gordon's left knee is fine after he injured it against Ohio State two weeks ago, and James White ran for 134 yards the last time these two teams played, in 2010 (yes, he's been around a long time). The Badgers ran for 329 yards in that last meeting three years ago. The teams have changed, but Wisconsin's approach hasn't. Northwestern had better hope its run defense has improved.

[+] EnlargeAllen Robinson
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerPenn State wideout Allen Robinson has 38 catches for 621 yards this season, with five touchdowns.
5. Penn State's response: Bill O'Brien has been jovial in many of his news conferences this year, but he was clearly not a happy man on Tuesday. O'Brien was terse in his answers with the media and basically refused to address anything regarding the Indiana loss or the team's scholarship situation. It's understandable why he wouldn't want to relive the program's first-ever loss to the Hoosiers or dwell on problems, because he needs his team focused on 5-0 Michigan, which comes to Beaver Stadium for a 5 p.m. game. The game is sold out and will be a White Out, though the enthusiasm from the fans might be a little less than before last week's loss. It remains to be seen whether the team will match O'Brien's feistiness and come out with a much better effort this Saturday.

6. Allen Robinson vs. Blake Countess: Penn State's Robinson is the reigning Big Ten receiver of the year and is gunning for another trophy after his 12-catch, 173-yard day against Indiana last week. Michigan's top job on defense is to find a way to stop him, and that's where cornerback Countess should come in. Countess has four interceptions this year, tying him for the national lead. The Wolverines likely will need more than just Countess to slow down Robinson, and Penn State continues to search for a complementary weapon in the passing game for quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

7. Ryan's return? Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan has been itching to return from the torn ACL he suffered in the spring, and he has been medically cleared to play on Saturday in State College. Coach Brady Hoke appears hesitant to put his star back in there, fearing the risk of further injury. Hoke said Wednesday that Ryan has practiced as a backup. The Wolverines' defense has been light on big-play ability, which Ryan brings to the table in spades. Getting him back would provide a physical and emotional boost for Michigan.

8. Etling's big day: In what has been a sorry season so far for Purdue, at least quarterback Danny Etling provides reason for optimism. After making his college debut two weeks ago against Northern Illinois, the freshman gets his first start Saturday vs. Nebraska. Head coach Darrell Hazell says Etling's strong arm opens the whole field for the Boilermakers' passing game, and he hinted at offensive changes made during the bye week to suit Etling's skills. Nebraska's defense did a good job slowing down Illinois' passing attack last week but still has vulnerabilities. Etling had better watch out for cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who -- like Countess -- has four interceptions this season.

9. Two steps forward for Spartans' passing game? Michigan State had its most encouraging offensive performance of the season in last week's 26-14 win at Iowa. Quarterback Connor Cook made good decisions en route to a 277-yard day, and even better for the offense, receivers Bennie Fowler and Macgarrett Kings Jr. showed off excellent playmaking ability. While not exactly an Oregon-esque outburst, last week's offensive showing was the kind the Spartans and their fans had been waiting to see for more than a year. The key will be whether that is a repeatable performance, especially this week against a below-average Indiana defense.

10. Well, hello again (and for the first time): One of the most aggravating byproducts of conference expansion is the gap between games for some high-profile programs. Michigan hasn't played Penn State since 2010, while Northwestern and Wisconsin also haven't met in three years despite the short distance between the two schools. That's why it's good to see those two games on the schedule this weekend. With the new division alignment starting in 2014, the Wolverines and Nittany Lions will be paired in the East, while the Wildcats and Badgers will be in the West. Perhaps this will be the start of some renewed rivalry tensions in both series. Meanwhile, Nebraska plays Purdue for the first time as a Big Ten member. The schools have only played twice before and not since 1958 in West Lafayette. Scouting takes on added importance in all three of those games, as these teams have few players and coaches who have ever faced one another on the field.

Collision course: Big Ten

October, 8, 2013
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The toughest two-week stretch on the schedule is in the rearview mirror, and Ohio State remains unbeaten.

A rocky nonconference slate made the opening month of the season something of an adventure for Michigan, but the Wolverines survived without a blemish on their record as well.

Both programs point toward arguably the most heated rivalry in the country as the most important matchup all season regardless of rankings or what's at stake in the Big Ten or nationally, and that won't change in late November. But so far, everything appears to be lining up for what could be an epic confrontation with far-reaching implications aside from just bragging rights.

And if the Buckeyes and Wolverines stay on track heading into the second half of the season, there might even be an encore to The Game one week later in Indianapolis in the Big Ten championship game.

Game: Ohio State-Michigan

What's at stake: Michigan hasn't done much to put itself in the national title conversation just yet with some unimpressive victories over Akron and Connecticut, but if the Wolverines keep that record unblemished, they ultimately would have to be in the discussion. Ohio State is already a prominent part of the championship picture now that it has knocked off Wisconsin and Northwestern to push its winning streak to 18 games overall, and the Buckeyes have long circled the trip to Ann Arbor, Mich., as one of the biggest hurdles in "The Chase" for a trophy.

But just in terms of the feud between the rivals, Urban Meyer got a leg up on Brady Hoke by winning the first head-to-head matchup between the coaches last year at the Horseshoe. And in the battle for public perception and in the recruiting wars, no victory means more than one against "Ohio" or "That Team Up North."

Roadblocks/derailment opportunities: The Wolverines have made life difficult for themselves with costly turnovers, and they spent their first bye week making sure they weren't tripping over their own feet heading into conference play. Quarterback Devin Gardner showed marked improvement as Michigan opened up Big Ten action with an easy victory over Minnesota, operating the offense with the type of efficiency that was expected during training camp and appearing to right the offensive ship. The Wolverines will have to keep playing with that sharpness during a brutal three-game stretch that starts after its second second bye week, visiting Michigan State on Nov. 2, hosting Nebraska and then going back on the road to take on Northwestern.

Ohio State, though, is mostly playing against itself and Meyer's high standards until it faces Michigan. With a favorable Big Ten draw that didn't include Nebraska or Michigan State this season, the Buckeyes will be heavy favorites in each of their next five games, particularly now that the offense is starting to look more like Meyer envisions thanks to the return of Braxton Miller from injury and Carlos Hyde from suspension. A visit from Indiana's high-powered offense Nov. 23, a week before The Game, might be the toughest remaining test.

How it unfolds: With the spread offense clicking, the front seven developing ahead of schedule and a couple of bye weeks to potentially tweak the retooled secondary following Christian Bryant's injury, everything appears to be in place for Ohio State to hold up its end of the deal to set up a memorable meeting in Michigan. The Wolverines figure to have the tougher time staying unbeaten into late November, and they've also shown more vulnerability, thanks to those narrow wins outside of conference play.

The focus will remain on Gardner and his ability to cut down on mistakes as the race in the Legends Division heats up, though the return of linebacker Jake Ryan could provide a lift on the other side of the ball and maybe offer a bit more breathing room for the offense if he regains his all-conference form after tearing his ACL in the spring. But if the turnover issue pops up again, particularly on the road, knocking their rivals out of the national title race might end up being the biggest motivator for the Wolverines.
Preseason camps are wrapped up, game week is here and the 2013 college football season kicks off Thursday night. We're giving you one final preseason version of the Big Ten power rankings. These will come your way every Monday at 9 a.m. ET during the season, so you should structure your entire week around their release.

The in-season power rankings will have plenty of shuffling, but this version lacks much drama. In fact, today's rundown remains exactly as it was coming out of spring practice. Fortunately, there have been few major injuries/personnel developments to impact the way we see things.

There's no doubt about the top team, while Nos. 2-7 are very close.

In case you need a refresher before the games begin, here it is ...

1. Ohio State: Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller will have more weapons around him, including dynamic freshman Dontre Wilson. We'll learn more about the development of Ohio State's young defensive front seven in back-to-back games against Wisconsin (Sept. 28) and Northwestern (Oct. 5). Although the Buckeyes could miss top running back Carlos Hyde, they'll have no trouble getting through non-league play.

2. Michigan: Is this the year for Michigan, or are the Wolverines still a season away? If Michigan can address the interior of both lines and keep quarterback Devin Gardner healthy, it should have an excellent chance to reach Indianapolis. Standout linebacker Jake Ryan should be back for the Big Ten stretch run.

3. Northwestern: Few are picking the Wildcats to win the Legends Division, but they return the core pieces from a 10-win team and should be even more potent on offense than in 2012. If Northwestern can gain at least a split against Ohio State and Wisconsin, it should make some noise in the division during the month of November.

4. Nebraska: Bo Pelini's team is right there with Michigan and Northwestern and once again could emerge as the Legends Division champion. We expect big things from Taylor Martinez and the offense, but everything hinges on a young defense that got shredded in the final two games of last season. Nebraska should reveal a lot about itself in a Week 3 home showdown against UCLA.

5. Wisconsin: The Badgers are among the nation's most fascinating teams, as a large group of veterans accustomed to winning Big Ten championships adjusts to a new coaching staff led by Gary Andersen. Wisconsin's run game once again should be exceptional, but the secondary and receiving corps look shaky. September road tests against Arizona State and Ohio State will show a lot about this team.

6. Michigan State: Again, we don't see much separating Michigan State from the next four teams ahead of it in the power rankings. The Spartans' defense might be the Big Ten's best unit. But there are still numerous questions on offense, starting with quarterback. Will Michigan State fare better in close games? The Spartans figure to be in plenty of nail-biters.

7. Penn State: The starting 22 is about as good as any in the Big Ten, and if Penn State can remain relatively healthy, it should record another impressive record this season. Depth remains the big question surrounding the sanctions-laden Lions, and the quarterback situation will be fascinating to watch as head coach Bill O'Brien tries to work his magic with an unproven signal-caller.

8. Minnesota: Year 3 has been a good one for Jerry Kill at previous coaching stops, and Minnesota could take another step forward if certain things go its way. The Gophers need better luck on the health front after struggling to keep their offensive line together in 2012. Minnesota should be solid on defense with tackle Ra'Shede Hageman leading the way, but it needs some offensive playmakers to emerge around sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson.

9. Indiana: The Hoosiers have tremendous depth at the offensive skill positions and should hold up on the line despite losing guard Dan Feeney (foot) for the season. The big question in Bloomington hasn't changed: Will the defense hold up enough to let the offense -- regardless of who plays quarterback -- outscore the opposition? IU can build some confidence with five home games to open the season.

10. Purdue: Rob Henry's long road back to the starting quarterback spot is complete, and the senior will lead the Boilers through a treacherous stretch to begin the season. Purdue has some solid pieces on both sides of the ball but must navigate the toughest schedule of any Big Ten team, which includes Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Northern Illinois in non-league play.

11. Iowa: The Hawkeyes certainly have a chance to rise up the rankings and can make a big statement by beating Northern Illinois in the opener on Saturday. They'll lean on a veteran linebacking corps and hope for big things from defensive tackle Carl Davis. Not surprisingly, Jake Rudock will start at quarterback, and he'll need help from a deep group of running backs hoping to steer clear of AIRBHG. Iowa should be better this year, but the division isn't getting any easier.

12. Illinois: No Big Ten team enters the season with more questions than Tim Beckman's Illini, and there are tests early on with Cincinnati and Washington in Weeks 2 and 3. The offense has a clearer vision under coordinator Bill Cubit, but the schedule isn't easy, and Illinois must clean up its play on both sides of the ball to make tangible strides.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Two words attach themselves to Michigan defensive end Frank Clark.

The first is potential. Clark has plenty. Wolverines All-American left tackle Taylor Lewan saw it throughout spring practice, when he faced Clark on a daily basis. Michigan coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison also see what the 6-foot-2, 277-pound Cleveland native could be this season for the Wolverines defense.

"He's so athletic, it's unmatched in my opinion," Lewan told ESPN.com. "He has so much potential to do so many things here, which would be awesome. But a person told me once that potential means you haven’t done anything yet. Frank has the opportunity this year to really come out and blossom."

The value of that opportunity isn't lost on Clark because he nearly threw it away last summer. He pleaded guilty in September to second-degree home invasion after admitting to stealing a laptop computer from a student's room in his dormitory. The offense took place June 14 -- Clark's 19th birthday.

Clark was suspended for Michigan's season-opening loss to Alabama before returning to the field.

"I had to mature after last year," Clark said. "My coaches, as much as they've done for me, giving me another opportunity to play here at this great school, another opportunity to further my education despite everything I went through last year, there's nothing more I could have asked for."

[+] EnlargeFrank Clark
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMichigan's Big Ten foes will be going up against an even stronger Frank Clark in 2013.
The lesson for Clark?

"I’ve got to stay out the way, I can't get into any more trouble, I can't do what I did," he said.

Although Clark missed only one game, he paid "heavy consequences" for his mistake, according to Hoke, inside the walls of Schembechler Hall. Hoke saw changes in Clark, especially after the season and when Michigan got into spring ball.

"Growing up as a young man, you really see an accountability to his teammates from Frank," Hoke said.

There's that second word, accountability. Clark always has had potential to be a star, but only recently has he embraced the need to be accountable and the responsibility he now carries for the Wolverines' defense.

Just a true junior, Clark is one of Michigan's most experienced defensive linemen along with Quinton Washington and Jibreel Black. He has appeared in 23 games, starting four last season, and quietly recorded nine tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and three pass breakups in 2012.

When Michigan lost All-Big Ten linebacker Jake Ryan to a torn ACL in March, the big question around the program was who would step into a featured role for a defense that, aside from Ryan, lacked star power last season. Clark's name came up a lot.

"Playing last year and having a bigger role than my freshman year, it forced me to change my mindset," Clark said. "I've got a new set of goals. I've got things I know I've got to help my team out with a little bit more. I've got to be more of an impact player on the defense. I've got to help bring the defense together in the absence of one of our leaders, Jake Ryan.

"Whether it's working harder in the weight room or working harder on the field, I'm doing whatever I can do to help motivate the guys under me: Mario [Ojemudia], Taco [Charlton], the whole defensive line."

Thanks to Lewan, Clark had no trouble keeping track of his progress this spring. They went at it during team drills in workouts, and challenged each other in the weight room, even if they were in different lifting groups.

They competed to see who could do the heaviest set of squats, the top bench-press total and the most pull-ups. Clark didn't win each time, but his victories boosted his confidence.

"I say it to myself, I say it to my family and my friends back home," Clark said. "When you're going against the best offensive lineman in the nation -- and that's how I feel about Taylor -- there's nothing else in the world that can challenge you more. He's an All-American. He's somewhere I want to be, somewhere all my life that I dream to be.

"If I can put myself in that position, live up to expectations of what many people see me as, I know how much I can help my team out."

Mattison has made the pass rush a major priority after Michigan finished eighth in the Big Ten and 78th nationally in sacks last season with 22. The Wolverines lose end Craig Roh (four sacks) to graduation and Ryan (4.5 sacks) for at least the start of the season.

There's a bigger burden on players like Clark, Black, Ojemudia and Taco Charlton, a 6-6, 265-pound man-child who enrolled early and went through spring drills.

"He's grown up," Mattison said of Clark. "He's understanding that he has a responsibility to this defense because he is a veteran and he's played quite a bit of football, so his best performance is the only thing that's acceptable."

Mattison tells Clark that "potential is nothing." Those who live up to it separate themselves.

After last summer, Clark is ready to take that step.

"You can't make the same mistake twice," he said. "That's in life and on the field."

Video: Michigan LB Cam Gordon

April, 16, 2013
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Michigan linebacker Cam Gordon talks about filling in for the injured Jake Ryan at strongside linebacker and his expectations for the 2013 season.

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